#Catholic Church

The Reproach of a Box of Treasure – Lifeboat and the Treasures of the Church

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh … It will be hard going for the Church, for the process … will make her poor.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1969

It is the reproach of a box of treasure, that once overboard it must drown.

-Herman Melville

 

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Ever since God flooded the world and used a salvific watercraft to protect the few survivors, the application of nautical analogies to the Church has seemed perfectly natural. Sometimes the formula works in reverse, too—one can analyze stories with a nautical motif through a Catholic lens and derive cogent meaning therefrom.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is one example. Set during World War II, the film opens with a battle between a Merchant Marine freighter and a Nazi U-boat. Both vessels are sunk. Eight passengers from the freighter manage to find their way onto a battered lifeboat; one German winds up aboard with them.

The film follows this group until the brink of their rescue. Over the course of the time they are adrift at sea, they battle storms, disease, hunger, thirst, and one another. The entirety of the film’s action occurs upon the tiny boat.

But the film is not action-driven; rather, the drama transpires in the cramped spaces between the inadvertent vagabonds. Therein, life stories are swapped, survival staples are shared, punches are thrown, and words are bandied about—which occasionally catalyze the transformation of the interpersonal into the internecine. Read as a quasi-allegory for the Church, this film yields countless meaningful nuggets. But I shall focus on one thread, that of Lifeboat as a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning time-tested treasures.

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Freelance journalist and writer Connie Porter is the first passenger aboard the lifeboat. With the help of Joe “Charcoal” Spencer—the ship’s steward, and a deeply spiritual man—she has salvaged several valuables from the shipwreck, including a camera, a typewriter, a fur coat, a suitcase, and a diamond bracelet—“the bare necessities,” according to her.

Next to arrive is John Kovac. The pair begins to disagree immediately.

 

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“Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked,” pants the out-of-breath Kovac.

“Man, I certainly feel like it.” Connie responds.

“I thought this lifeboat was abandoned,” says Kovac.

“Not by me, it wasn’t,” says Connie. “It looked pretty good to me.”

Thus is the stage set for the great love/hate saga of the picture.

Kovac is full of passion, conviction, and fiery opinions, many of which betray Communist sympathies—as Connie is quick to note—and each of which he is fully convinced is completely correct. The acting upon these convictions leads directly—whether intentionally or not—to the tossing overboard of Connie’s possessions, one after another.

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Interpretation of this film as a Catholic allegory requires the acceptance of a few fundamental premises, all of which are beautifully stated in the quote from Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) cited at the outset. Firstly, one must agree that the Church was in crisis at the time that statement was made. One must also agree that we are currently a Church that has lost much.

Building upon these foundational theses, one can interpret the Merchant Marine freighter as the Church in better times—when its Sunday pews were full, its socio-political influence was strong, its laity was well-catechized, and its teachings were more consistently and clearly disseminated by its priests and bishops. The torpedoes represent the forces of secularism, modernism, relativism, and other such deleterious forces. And the battered lifeboat symbolizes the Church of today—one which has lost scores of adherents, has had its reputation tarnished by scandal, and has gutted its own storehouses.

Viewed through this lens, Connie’s possessions assume meaningful significance—they can be interpreted as various treasures of the Church. And just like Connie’s possessions, many of these treasures have been abandoned or destroyed over recent decades.

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The first item to hit the waves is Connie’s camera. It contains film with powerful images documenting her war-related experiences, which Connie describes as “irreplaceable.” Similarly, the majority of our churches were once filled with timeless art depicting the history and heroes of the Church. But pastors and church architects dispensed with traditional imagery and architectural styles in the late 20th century, exchanging exquisitely ornate high altars for non-descript rectangular boxes on wheels, and trading stained glass for minimalist woodcuts and blank, whitewashed walls.

 

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In the end, beauty that transcends trends, sparks the imagination, and hints at the splendor of heaven was traded for a now-outdated aesthetic almost as close to the sublime as the waiting rooms in dental offices.

 

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The next item lost is Connie’s fur coat. It can be interpreted to represent clerical vestments. Before the reforms beginning in the 1960’s, vestments were made exclusively from high-quality natural fibers like silk and linen, and were heavily embellished and embroidered, often with thread made of real gold.

 

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These days, most vestments are made of polyester, with low-quality embellishments that more readily evoke the cheap flashiness of cellophane tinsel than the opulent grandeur befitting priests, prophets, and kings.

 

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Let’s not forget the abandonment of the cassock as the priestly “uniform.” It is not unusual for modern priests to wear the same leisure clothes a doctor, banker, or basketball player might wear. In so doing, they have become, in outward essence, just like everybody else. A friend recently related an anecdote about having met a priest without having realized that is what she had done—after all, there was nothing about his attire that suggested his vocation. When the person who introduced her later referred to the man she’d met as “Father So-And-So,” my friend became angry. She felt she had been tricked in some way—betrayed, even—and would have shown more deference and respect, had she known she had been speaking to someone who regularly acts in the person of Christ.

 

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Connie’s typewriter is the third item lost. This can be interpreted as representing the liturgy, which was radically overhauled in the mid-20th century, particularly after Vatican II. Vatican II’s intended purpose was the spiritual renewal of the Church. However, the radical changes made to the liturgy under the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” prevented this goal from being achieved—indeed, the result was an epic failure. The numbers of priests, parishes, Catholic schools (and students therein), and baptisms, have all dropped dramatically since the close of the Council in 1965; meanwhile, the number of adults who have left the Church has skyrocketed. Furthermore, although the vernacularization of the Mass, disposition shift from ad orientem to versus populum, and other liturgical changes were meant to make the Mass more appealing to the faithful, and thereby to increase attendance, the reforms appear to have accomplished the exact opposite—in 1965, 55% of self-identified Catholics attended Mass every week, whereas by 2015, the number had dropped to a pitiful 24%.

Next to bite the dust is Connie’s suitcase. This can be interpreted to symbolize the tabernacle. While church architects and design professionals were busy transforming the breathtaking into the banal, they often moved the location of the tabernacle from its proper place of prominence to the liturgical equivalent of the kids’ table. Although not dispensed with entirely, it can be difficult to locate the tabernacle in many modern churches. A friend recently visited a church where the tabernacle wasn’t in the sanctuary, or on a separate altar beside the pews, or even in the main part of the church, but was, rather, down a hall, next to the bathroom.

But the last item—Connie’s diamond bracelet—is most important of all. It was a gift that cost her nothing; she describes it as having “worked miracles” for her, and as having gotten her everything she wanted. Kovac describes it as a “handcuff,” and devotes a large portion of the film to trying to convince Connie to abandon it, or sulking when she refuses.

 

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Near the end of the film, when the passengers are starving and dying of thirst, Connie suggests they use this sparkling treasure as fish bait. Indeed, they catch a huge fish in no time flat via this method, but a looming Nazi supply ship on the horizon is sufficient distraction to cause the crew to let go of the line, and, consequently, the bracelet that could have fed them all.

Like the diamonds on the bracelet, the traditions of the Church are flawless, beautiful, and were forged over a long period of time under great stress. They are also capable of keeping countless people well-fed indefinitely.

Let us not allow the looming enemy to distract or distress us into casting them aside.

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So what about that looming Nazi supply ship?

As it nears, the passengers aboard the lifeboat seem resigned to their fate, even relieved to be reaching the end of their tribulation-filled voyage, although they will be in the hands of the enemy and likely bound for a concentration camp. Just as the ship begins to close the distance, an Allied shell falls from the sky. In no time flat, the supply ship is headed down to Davy Jones’s Locker.

A remote Allied ship approaches. The passengers quickly begin to plan what they will do when they return to normal life.

Connie and Kovac look at one another lovingly. “Don’t forget,” says Connie, “you owe me a bracelet.”

“Yows’m,” says Kovac with an agreeable smile.

“And a typewriter.”

“Sure.”

“And a camera.”

“You bet.”

And what about us? We’ve not yet been rescued—we’re still in the lifeboat. So will we go happily into the hands of those who’ll gleefully destroy us? Or will we hold out for final victory, a restoration of our treasures, and the eventual re-establishment of fraternal accord within the Church? It is a decision each of us must make, over and over, every day.

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side … The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again … When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2005

On Cuckoo Captains and Seemingly Sinking Ships: Lessons from The Caine Mutiny

You don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.

– Lt. Barney Greenwald, The Caine Mutiny

Like [Noah’s] Ark, the Catholic Church is not perfect. It’s not tidy, clean, and odor-free. It has plenty of problems and challenges and unruly passengers, but it’s still the ‘ark of salvation’ given to us by God…

– Patrick Madrid, Catholic apologist

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I have a dear friend who recently hop-scotched his way out of the Catholic Church and into Russian Orthodoxy. His stated reason? He has lost faith in the infallibility of the Pope.

I was catechized, baptized, and Confirmed with this friend. I know him pretty well. He has always impressed me, ever since our earliest conversations, in which he – a then-catechumen, mind you – casually and comfortably discussed the works of Church fathers and various Council documents.

I can safely say that this guy is no dope. He put in a lot of intellectual legwork prior to making the decision to become Catholic. And yet, he fell into one of the most unsophisticated traps in the Devil’s bag of tricks.

It makes me want to crack him over the head with a heavy book.

Last night, I re-watched The Caine Mutiny, the classic tale of a mentally ill captain and the men who seize control from him during a vicious typhoon. I couldn’t help but think that Lieutenant Barney Greenwald must have felt exactly the same way about his clients as I feel about my friend when assigned the task of defending them against charges of mutiny. One of the first things he says to the pair is: “I think what you’ve done stinks.” Later, he admits that he would prefer to be prosecuting them.

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To be fair, Lt. Maryk and Ensign Keith – the accused – were clearly dealing with a captain of unsound mind. Immediately upon assuming command of the Caine, Captain Queeg makes a series of mistakes, cowardly decisions, and paranoid outbursts; he is unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of these actions, and shifts the blame onto his underlings in a brusque, bullying manner. We can certainly understand the men’s anxiety at having Cpt. Queeg in command during the typhoon, given his previous track record, and the fact that lives are at stake.

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And, to be fair to my friend, we are currently dealing with a Pope who has the most exasperating habit of making vague, equivocal, and even downright problematic remarks, which have the unfortunate result of misleading the masses into thinking he is radically changing unchangeable fundamentals of Catholic teaching. I suppose this Pope’s behavior could cause well-meaning and intelligent people to doubt his infallibility—assuming these people don’t understand the nuances of that particular dogma, which does not assure that everything the Pope says will be perfectly correct. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that infallibility is gifted to the Pope only when “he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (891 – emphasis added). In other words, off-the-cuff remarks made during interviews and press conferences are not covered under this particular divine insurance policy.

Given that the Caine seemed certain to founder under Cpt. Queeg’s cockeyed command, surely Lt. Maryk was justified in seizing control of the ship? Likewise, given the bewildering behavior of our current Pope, is it not understandable if people – like my friend, for example – throw up their hands in hopeless vexation and go in search of greener pastures?

The answer to both questions is an unqualified No. And here’s why.

Lt. Greenwald makes an astute point when he reminds the officers of the Caine that they had ample opportunity to exert respectful influence over their captain prior to their usurpation of his position; in fact, Cpt. Queeg directly requested their help in his own awkward, socially stunted way after one of his gaffes. However, instead of trying to maneuver the captain onto more sane, stable ground, the officers focused on his flaws, and ruminated on their resentment, so that, when a crisis developed, they were primed to lash out against their lawfully appointed, if imperfect, commander.

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In parallel, as Catholics, if we don’t approve of our Pope’s words or actions, it is our duty to pray for the man, and petition him with our grievances. He cannot do a more satisfactory job if he has no input or prayerful support from his flock. It does no good to endlessly complain about the situation amongst ourselves, fixating on our discontent, without ever trying to proactively improve the situation through the means accorded to us.

Secondly, for both sailors and lay Catholics, it is pure insolence to disdain the chain of command. The Navy and the Church are organizations with complex hierarchies designed to maintain order and streamline operations. The mechanisms in place for the selection and promotion of authority figures are time-worn and battle-tested; they got to be this way for good reasons. That’s not to say mistakes don’t happen, or that once-good apples don’t sometimes turn rotten, but in general, the systems of both institutions deserve our respect.

When Ens. Keith testifies during Lt. Maryk’s trial, he insists that the Caine was “in imminent danger of foundering,” and that it was therefore necessary to take control of the ship. “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” the prosecutor asks. Ens. Keith admits he has not. “Mister Keith, how long have you been in the Navy?” Ens. Keith states that he has been in a little over a year. “Lt. Commander Queeg has served over eight years. I ask you, which of you is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering?”

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Both sailors convinced they can run the Navy better than the Admirals, and lay Catholics who believe they can run the Church better than the Pope, are guilty of grave hubris. From where we’re sitting, with the knowledge available to us, it may seem as though we coulda-shoulda-woulda done things better than the higher-ups in any given situation. But we never have all the facts, and our superiors have, well, a superior level of experience. As the prosecutor suggested to Ens. Keith, doesn’t that alone put them in a better position to make important judgment calls?

In the Church’s case, our superiors have been selected by God, and there is always a reason for everything He does. We may not understand exactly what that reason is, and that might drive us a little bit crazy. But having the humility to silence those “I-have-a-better-plan” voices, relax, and follow God’s plan instead, can work wonders for one’s sanity.

Furthermore, we Catholics have a massive leg up on those poor fellas aboard the Caine; we have God’s promise that He will not allow our ship to sink. Make no mistake—a monstrous typhoon is coming (if it has not already arrived); this world is doomed, and at some point in the not-too-distant future it may well seem to all of us beleaguered crewmen that the ship is about to go down. That’s when we must remind ourselves who built the ship in the first place, and that He didn’t build it just so He could watch it crash into little pieces a couple thousand years down the line.

And besides, look at our alternatives. The waters surrounding us are black, bottomless, and churning violently. If one jumps ship directly into them, one hasn’t got a chance. If one hops onto some stray semblance of a passing vessel, one is taking an equal risk. In all likelihood, given the current socio-political climate, one will be jumping onto some version of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat—it will either be commandeered by an idealistic but inept Marxist type who inadvertently sets a course to nowhere; or handed over to a fascist type who, singing gaily and confidently all the while, pilots his fellow passengers directly into imprisonment and slavery. But that’s fodder for another review.

The fact is, there is only one ship built by Christ and guaranteed to outlast the culture wars of this turbulent world. Everything else on the waters is just so much flotsam and jetsam. And only a fool clings to driftwood when he could be aboard a battleship.

So, even if the waves seem impossibly high, and even if we wind up with a Cpt. Queeg at the helm every now and then, the wise sailor will maintain his post and carry on with his assigned tasks—patiently, prayerfully, and unpretentiously—until we reach the shores of Paradise.

 

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