Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Our Heroine Grows Wary of Jesuits in Outerspace

Hmmm...how to talk fairly about The Sparrow, the Jesuits-in-space book I have been reading for the last three days? My first response, after finishing the last page, was to fling the book disgustedly away from me spitting, "That was an atrocious mess!" But then I read comments by the authoress and I calmed down a little. Not enough to like or recommend the book, but I'm not spittin' any longer.

Here's the story: a radio telescope in Puerto Rico picks up a signal from a nearby planet which is clearly choral. Aliens are singing somewhere! The world erupts at the news, but in typical U.N. fashion, no one can decide if we should try to contact or visit the planet, who should go if we do, who should pay for it, etc. etc. etc. Meanwhile, the Jesuits, true to their long history as missionaries, secretly arrange a spaceflight of eight people (4 priests, 4 secular scientists) to the source of the music. Communications are lost after landing. Many years later, a sole surviving priest returns from the mission. What happened to him? To the rest of the team?

Again, and I know I've said this about other books - I love the idea. Love it. I am fascinated by the concept that if we ever did make contact with aliens (we won't), (but if we did) would the Church evangelize them? How would it be done? What would happen? I could read about stuff like that for years (Eifelheim, I love you!). And I think it's because I love the idea so much that this book was such a disappointment.

There were several things that annoyed me, but the biggest thing was the Jesuits themselves. They were basically Protestants, if not actually Pagans. Our hero, Fr. Emilio Sandoz, the lead Jesuit, has the worst conception of God a Catholic priest could have [emphasis mine]:

He found the life of Jesus profoundly moving; the miracles, on the other hand, seemed a barrier to faith, and he tended to explain them to himself in rational terms. It was as though there were only seven loaves and seven fishes. Maybe the miracle was that people shared what they had with strangers, he thought in the darkness.

He was aware of his agnosticism, and patient with it. Rather than deny the existence of something he couldn't perceive himself, he acknowledged the authenticity of his uncertainty and carried on, praying in the face of doubt. [snip] As D.W. Yarbrough once told him, "Son, sometimes it's enough to just act less like a sh*thead." And by that inelegant standard, Emilio Sandoz could believe himself to be a man of God.

So while he hoped someday to find his way to a place in his soul that was closed to him now, he was content to be where he was. [snip] What he'd been given was more than enough to be grateful for, whether or not God was there to receive or care about his prayers.

Er...I don't mean to mock religious doubt, but this man is a priest! He presumably went through 10 years of Jesuit training before ordination, and no one thought it troubling that he was an agnostic? What is he doing saying Mass if he doesn't believe in the miraculous?

It just got worse from there. I couldn't enjoy the story because the theology was so glaringly awful. The doctor at the Jesuit clinic in Puerto Rico is described as being a tremendous success, in part because she liberally distributes condoms and birth control; it felt like every third page was dedicated to ill-formed opinions about priestly celibacy being trotted out by various characters, including the priests themselves; and finally, MOST ANNOYINGLY, the Jesuits get to the planet, live there for years, and never once talk to the native inhabitants about God, Christ, salvation, or anything sacred. They went as missionaries, so WTF?

I can handle it if you think evangelizing is in bad taste. Or if you disagree with tenets of the Catholic Faith. Fine. But then why make the focus of the story the Jesuits? The group could have been entirely secular. Events on the planet would have unfolded in exactly the same way without the protagonists being priests.

The author, Maria Doria Russell, is a Catholic convert to Judaism, and she writes that the book's message is, "You can't know the answer to questions about faith, but the questions are worth asking and worth thinking about." Now, that is a fine statement in and of itself, it may be a statement compatible with Judaism (I don't know), but it's not compatible with Catholicism, so you can't use Catholicism to illustrate it without beating the Faith into an unrecognizable shape. In Catholicism, you absolutely can know the answer to questions about faith. You can know whether God exists. You can know that He loves you. You can't know everything, but you don't shrug your shoulders and accept doubt, either. So to hear this theme exposited via countless Jesuits really peeved me.*

My only consolation was that I don't think she meant to misrepresent the Catholic Faith. She admits in an interview that she knew no Jesuits, so she read biographies of priests who left the Church post-Vatican II (I'm sure she thought those were good sources, but, no.) and she sent her manuscript to a Jesuit-I-shall-not-name for review, and apparently he did not pass out from apoplexy but gave her a big thumbs up. My point is I believe she wrote in good faith. Nevertheless, while I think civilians may like the book just fine, practicing Catholics may experience blood-pressure issues. But I am also Neapolitan, so it could just be me.

* I don't mind stories about priests grappling with doubt (like Father Damien). What I mind is when it is made to appear that the Catholic Faith accepts doubt as the place where any thinking person would permanently land after considering all the evidence.

Father Marquette preaching to American Indians (now that's a missionary!)


Julie D. said...

I have tried to read this book several times and never been able to get into it. You now make me very happy that I quit it time after time. :-)

Our Heroine said...

I'm glad to be the parakeet in the tunnel. It had other problems too, I just wrote about what annoyed me the MOST.

Julie D. said...

Ok, that sealed the deal. I now will feel no guilt at all in crossing that darned book off my To Read list. Thanks!