No religious divisions in call to serve others


POSTED: Sunday, October 11, 2009

For agnostics, skeptics, atheists or adherents of faiths other than the Roman Catholic Church, the ceremony in the canonization of Father Damien might not be deeply meaningful.

As one largely uninformed about the religion — and perhaps foolishly but firmly grounded in the here and now — I've had some difficulty relating to the excitement.

So much of Catholicism has been off-putting. Its rules seemed magnified and harshly exacting additions to Protestant thou-shalt-nots; the rituals alien; its social agenda often in conflict with secular, progressive acceptances.

It doesn't help that my early consciousness about Catholicism came in grade school when, on certain days, Catholic classmates were allowed to skip out after lunch for something called catechism. Unfair, I remember thinking. How come Protestant and Buddhist kids don't get to escape the tyranny of Mrs. Johnson, too?

It was an intersection of church and state probably unconstitutional, but I had no capacity to challenge it.

The issue has hardly lain dormant. The U.S. Supreme Court tackled the matter this week in a case about whether the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion had been violated by a cross put up on federal land as a memorial for fallen American veterans.

The case has been snared in acts of Congress that transferred the public land to private hands, court rulings and the oddball factor that the 6-foot-high cross sits in a remote part of the Mojave Desert.

Though most of the justices were concerned about the propriety of the land transfer, the court's bulldog, Antonin Scalia, focused on the constitutional question.

Scalia, as most know, is a Catholic. While on the bench, his intelligent devotion is to the law, yet it would be impossible for him to set aside his beliefs and faith. Still, that doesn't excuse what he displayed as an inability to look at the question from a different perspective.

When a lawyer argued that a cross “;is the predominant symbol of Christianity”; and thus might exclude veterans of other faiths, Scalia barked, “;What would you have them erect — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”;

The remark was insensitive at best, narrow-minded at worst. The declaration reflected disrespect for others who do not share Scalia's world ensconced in law books and privilege, a realm where life's grit is sprinkled primarily through words on paper.

Another Catholic man presented a different spectacle of his faith this week. In recognizing Damien de Veuster, Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva set secondary the pomp of canonization, celebrating instead Damien's spirit, “;his dedication to those who are in need.”;

There are many Kalaupapas, Silva said, peninsulas inhabited by modern-day outcasts — the homeless, the poor, the mentally and physical disabled, the marginalized members of the community. It was a message from a Catholic man whose humanity remains grounded in the here and now yet enlightened by the soul of his religion, a meaningful message all can embrace.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)