Western culture, literature and art is rampant with the trope of selling one’s soul. Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century and Goethe’s 19th century “Faustus” comes to mind. And then there’s Bart selling his soul to Millhouse for $5 in “The Simpsons.”
I like Bart’s narrative. He uses the $5 he got for his soul to buy sponges shaped like dinosaurs, which he promptly washes down the sewer.
The Church in the United States finds itself in a modern twist on this trope lately. Bart — and Faustus — were willing and eager to sell their souls. For the Church, it’s the not-so-subtle pressure of being told that to sell her soul is no big thing. So get on with it.
Even the courts have jumped in. On Feb. 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling in cases that involved the dioceses of Erie and Pittsburgh. The dioceses had filed suit against the federal government’s mandating that Church-related agencies facilitate providing abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization services to its employees or face crippling fines.
The dioceses argued that this was a violation of their right to the free exercise of their religion in Church-related facilities. The court, in response, effectively said it wasn’t that big a deal. Just sign a form saying you object to the coverage and pass the expense on to your insurance provider. You won’t have to pay a cent. So what if the Church thinks it immoral, the court ruled. She can turn a blind eye. Just like the government calls it — it’s a “work around.” In other words, it’s a court mandate to the Church to sell her soul. Why should it bother the Church as long as she can “work around” it?
The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore J. Cordileone, is also under attack. Five California state assembly members and three state senators signed a letter publicly urging the archbishop to remove clauses involving Catholic moral teachings to next year’s handbooks for teachers in four archdiocesan high schools.
The clauses, taken from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” affirm Catholic teaching on artificial contraception, abortion and marriage. The clauses “foment a discriminatory environment” the officials complained, and “send an alarming message to youth.”
Read those last paragraphs again. See if you have as much trouble believing them as I did. Elected representatives in California are mandating — there’s that word again — to the archbishop of San Francisco what can and cannot appear concerning Catholic moral beliefs in teacher handbooks for Catholic schools.
It’s created quite the firestorm in San Francisco. But the archbishop has staunchly responded that Catholic high schools “exist to affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as held and taught by the Church.”
But the politicians are inviting a different response. Remove the clauses. In other words, archbishop, all you have to do is sell your soul and the soul of your schools for a little public peace. The archbishop, bless his heart, has refused.
Bart discovered that selling his soul had ramifications. His dog ran away from him and his favorite cartoons just weren’t funny anymore. Finally, he saw himself all alone in a dream while his friends had their souls to play with and keep them company. It was a happy ending when his sister, Lisa, bought back his soul and returned it to him.
“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live,” Goethe wrote in “Faust: First Part.”
There’s no price that’s worth a soul. Faust found that out; Bart Simpson found that out. And the Church has known it for two millennia.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.