Big Boy Locomotive
Past. PRESENT. And Future.
Fast forward to the present. And Cheyenne, Wyoming. On the map, the drive from the Adams Bonanza Farm was pretty straight forward. Southwest to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota and where I spent a night at The Hitching Horse Inn B&B, a few blocks from the Missouri River. Then, west to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for a couple of a gray days; I hadn’t seen that country since my mom took my brother and me there as kids.
From there, south to Cheyenne, Wyoming and a night at the Nagle Warren Mansion B&B. It’s part of “Cattle Baron Row” and was a short walk through the drizzle from downtown. A few blocks in the other direction, there’s a park with the Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” locomotive is on display. As a kid, I remember watching it belching black smoke as it thundered across the purple sage of Wyoming and we raced it in our car on the way to summer vacations in Boise.
The Heart of the Matter
But while my drive was linear, the listening wasn’t. It was The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a self described “Catholic agnostic.”
The novel captures the ambiguity of living on the evanescent bubble of the present. Loosely based on Greene’s life, the setting is a west African British colony during World War II. It’s the story of a hapless policeman, Henry Scobie. Tormented rather than comforted by his Catholic faith, he’s a trapped, despairing, and disillusioned man. His career is going nowhere. A loveless marriage is made unbearable by the death of his one daughter. An affair with a younger woman is not just unsatisfactory, the church teaches that it’s a mortal sin. Suicide, the only apparent way out, piles eternal damnation on mortal sin. Not to mention to the human wreckage Scobie believes his death will leave in its wake.
Needless to say, the book didn’t become a near instant best seller on its 1948 publication based on its happy subject matter. My review? It made the nearly featureless miles of the Wyoming outback melt away.
The scandal that keeps on giving. And taking.
On Sunday morning I enjoyed breakfast with several other guests around the large table in the dining room. On line, I’d seen that the main Catholic cathedral for Wyoming was nearby. I asked our host, Jim, to point me in the right direction and I walked to the early service.
The Cathedral of St. Mary is regal. Very different than the evangelical, Protestant sanctuaries I’m used to and which, so often, are only a step or two up from unadorned shoe boxes. The priest was from India and his thick accent rendered the homily largely incomprehensible. (Catholic homilies, even when comprehensible, are usually a step or two down from the Protestant sermons I’m used to. Well, guess you can’t have it all.)
As the homily drifted over my head in Cheyenne, my thoughts wondered back to a Mass I’d gone to at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church several weeks before in Silverthorne, Colorado. I happened to catch Our Lady at the height of the sexual abuse scandal. There, amidst the crying babies and fidgety kids, the minister read a letter of apology from the Archdiocese. The stained glass windows shimmered as I blinked away tears.
But why should I be surprised? I’ve been a Christian nearly 40 years. During that time, I’ve been a member of four Protestant churches. In three of the four, church leadership got tangled up in some kind of sexual misconduct. While not excusing it, I’ve come to believe that it’s nearly an occupational hazard. What are the chances of a pastor effectively counseling parishioners without being open and transparent? About zilch? But those are the very same qualities that can open the door for inappropriate intimacy. Would the anonymity of the confessional booth help? Not sure, but might be worth a try.
An uncivil war
A final Catholic story. For at least 30 years, I’ve made silent retreats at the Sacred Heart Retreat Retreat House just west of Sedalia, Colorado. Wonderful place-they welcome all comers. Need to get away? Forget Southwest Airlines. Head down to the Retreat House.
Last time I was there, I read a few articles from Commonweal magazine, a Left of center Catholic publication. Fits right in with my Jesuit friends at Sacred Heart. But, figuring I could use a bit of leavening from the political Left, I sent away for a subscription. While the relentless Trump thumping has given me serious second thoughts-even up to the point where I may not renew-a recent article on the church’s horrific sex scandal came as a revelation.
The article, entitled Time to Leave?, is largely about how the sex scandal is seen by the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic church. Paul Baumann, the magazine’s senior writer and a card carrying liberal, denounces the card carrying conservative Catholic journalist, Damon Linker, for leaving the church. Baumann contends that the scandal is largely behind the church at this point and that to keep stirring the pot is primarily a symptom of conservative distaste for Pope Francis.
Linker explains his decision to leave the church in an article, The Unbearable Ugliness of the Catholic Church. While the article is worth reading, you can pretty much get the gist of it from the title alone. Linker argues that the scandal is anything but ancient history. And that it’s a cancer continuing to gnaw at the church’s vitals.
So, ancient history? Or torn from today’s headlines? How’s an outsider like me to really judge?
But, to steal a line from those well known observers of all things Catholic, The Grateful Dead, “All a friend can say is, ‘Ain’t it a shame.'”