From Rorate Cæli
By Fr Richard Gennaro Cipolla
Just when one thinks that one has read or heard all of the mindless and harmful stuff that Catholic clergy have written or spoken, that assumption is shattered, this time by a truly offensive homily given by Father Michael Mullaney, the President of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, a section of which homily was published on Rorate Caeli a short while ago.
The homily was preached at the annual Christmas Carol Service at Maynooth in the presence, we may suppose, of other clergy, seminarians and laity. The topic of the homily is the sin of racism in contemporary Western society. That racism is a sin according to Catholic teaching there is no doubt. The Catholic Catechism is quite clear on this:
The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it. “Every from of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights of the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”(CCC no. 1935)
There are many statements in Church documents of all types that confirm the sinfulness of racism. Would that Father Mullaney used one of these texts as the foundation for his homily. Instead he used the story in the Gospel of St. Mark about Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman who wanted him to cure her daughter who was very sick. The following is Father Mullaney’s use of this encounter as an example of how everyone can commit the sin of racism.
The whole passage is so wrong-headed that one hardly knows where to begin to react to these words in a homily delivered by a priest who is helping to train seminarians to become good priests. Let us begin with the observation that Father Mullaney believes that in this encounter between Jesus and the woman that Jesus is acting like a racist, that is, his comments to her are racist. If this be true, then Jesus is sinning against this woman. It is obvious that this contradicts the dogma of the sinlessness of Jesus, “he who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), which is an integral part of the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation itself. But Father Mullaney has his own understanding of the Incarnation: “if we truly celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, of God who takes human flesh, it should not surprise us that Jesus could not have avoided the effects of the prejudices that had shaped his human an cultural identity from childhood.” Does this imply that he learned these prejudices that are racist from his mother and father? Did his mother, the Virgin Mary, gratia plena, whose sinlessness is also a part of Church teaching, teach him to be a racist and consider people other than Jews “dogs”? If Father Mullaney believes this, he should read up on the heretical kenotic doctrines of liberal Protestantism that have been condemned many times by the Church. More fundamentally, he should also read up on the context of this passage in the Gospel of St. Mark.Even Jesus had to confront his ingrained prejudices; indeed, even racism. The Gospels recount his stunning and unique encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman desperately seeking a cure for her sick daughter. The disciples dismiss her as she was considered racially inferior. Surprisingly, Jesus sharply rejects her appeal. His mission is to the Jews only; his tribe; the children of God. When the woman insists, Jesus dismisses her again– calling her shockingly a ‘dog’ – a racial slur. The woman doesn’t challenge his insult. Like so many victims in history, she has internalized her inferiority. But her repartee: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” is the only recorded encounter that left Jesus speechless. If we truly celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, of God who takes human flesh, it should not surprise us that Jesus could not have avoided the effects of the prejudices that had shaped his human and cultural identity from childhood.
We do not know what Jesus thought in that moment. But the Syro-Phoenician woman dislocates Jesus from his narrow tribal suppositions and prejudices about the ‘other’ represented by her. She ceases to be an ‘outsider’. God’s heart could not be closed to her. She too is one of the children of God. Physical healing is given not only to her daughter but ultimately the deeper wounds of isolation, marginalization and discrimination become central to Jesus’ healing and liberating ministry in the Gospel. In this transformative encounter Jesus demonstrates that regardless of how unwittingly and unknowingly we are part of the problem, we can choose to reject racism and hostility to the ‘other’, the stranger, in ourselves and in our world, committing ourselves to the slow, hard work of transformation.
Father Mullaney begins the next paragraph of the sermon with this statement:
“We do not know what Jesus thought in that moment” Thanks be to God for the preacher’s admission that he could not see into the mind of Jesus at the moment! But he has already claimed to know that Jesus harbored racist attitudes towards this woman. And in the next sentences he credits the woman with “dislocating Jesus from his narrow tribal suppositions and prejudices about the ‘other’ represented by her.” In this way, by her persistence the woman pricks Jesus conscience, and he feels guilty, and from that feeling of guilt is converted from his racist attitudes to a more enlightened moral state. This event marks a “conversion experience” for the man Jesus.
Is this the same Jesus who recounted the parable of the Good Samaritan? Is this the Jesus who reprimands Peter for cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear, this man the symbol of Roman oppression of the Jews? Is this the Jesus who speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well and brings her to faith? Is this the Jesus who said: “The Second (Commandment) is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”? Is this the Jesus who gave the Great Commission to the Apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations”? And finally: Is this the Jesus who died on the Cross not only for his own people, the Jews, but for the whole world?
I have long thought that most heresies are attempts to make the Incarnation easier to understand and accept, to make the inherent contradiction that is at the heart of the person of Jesus Christ as true God and true man, two natures in one person—to make this contradiction go away. This was at the heart of Arianism, of Nestorianism, of the complex Gnostic systems, of those Protestant sects who at the Reformation and beyond rejected the divinity of Christ, of those in our own time who in their own way deny the radical nature of the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation, including the many Catholics who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I wish I could take Father Mullaney’s homily with a sense of irony that he would preach this in preparation for the feast of Christmas. For irony allows us to distance ourselves from things that are truly bad. Irony allows us to refuse to engage with the distortion of truth when we see it or hear it or read it. I wish I could distance myself from what this priest said in this homily and say with a wry and knowing sardonic smile: “And this guy is preparing priests!”. But I cannot. The only thing I can do is to be sad, pray for him, and hope that his bishop will chastise him and correct him, and that he will never again shamelessly disfigure a Carol Service celebrating the birth of the God-man who alone can be the Savior of the whole world.