On Religion

Satirical author Father Paul Mankowski dies at 66

For millions of Americans, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is as familiar as the national anthem and much easier to sing.

Few would need help with: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on! Glory, glory, Hallelujah! ... His truth is marching on!"

During 1990s fights over updated Catholic liturgies, a Semitic languages professor at Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute wrote a "Battle Hymn" for modernists.

This "sanitized" text -- "chanted to no tune in particular" -- declared: "I see God's approach; it is good. God makes wine with God's feet. ... Brightness flashes from the decision-making apparatus. God's worldview is currently earning widespread respect. Give honor repeatedly to the god of our tradition. We have owned our values."

Father Paul Mankowski put his own name on that piece for First Things (the journal of the Institute on Religion and Public Life), since it didn't lance specific institutions or leaders. For decades, Catholics seeking his satirical work learned to look for "Diogenes" at CatholicCulture.org or "Father X" elsewhere.

Mankowski died on Sept. 3 at age 66, felled by a ruptured brain aneurysm. Raised in a middle-class Rust Belt family, he worked in steel mills to pay tuition at the University of Chicago. His advanced degrees included a master's from Oxford and a doctorate from Harvard.

Many researchers, politicos and journalists (like me) knew him through telephone calls and emails, usually seeking documents and statements from nearby Catholic leaders. He was a rarity in the modern age -- a Jesuit conservative -- and his superiors eventually ordered him not to address church controversies. Much of his work was published anonymously or using pen names.

Princeton University's Robert George blitzed through years of emails after hearing about Mankowski's sudden death.

"There are some doozies -- especially the spoofs, send-ups and parodies," said George, on Facebook. "His wit was a massive quiver full of poison-dipped arrows, and he was a master archer. ... He would not give a pass to fools, frauds, charlatans, hypocrites, rent-seekers, time servers, racketeers, manipulators, corrupt scholars, false teachers or weak or craven leaders, especially in the Church."

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott added, at First Things: "The hardest battles are with the people who are supposed to be on the same side. There are no medals for internal fights, however necessary. The strength of character and the moral courage required is all the more heroic because it's invariably only recognized posthumously."

In his tribute, Catholic World News editor Phil Lawler quoted an entire Diogenes piece -- written late in the papacy of St. John Paul II -- contrasting the work of Catholic reformers dedicated to "nutrition" and those who preferred "surgery."

"Nutritionists believe that the Church's ills can be cured by fresh air, moderate exercise and green leafy vegetables," wrote Mankowski. "Surgeons believe the patient has an aggressive cancer that demands cutting and cautery -- the sooner, the better. ... Nutritionists point to signs of vitality found in thriving new congregations, excellent papal catechesis, the comparative orthodoxy of younger priests. ... Surgeons are more impressed by the nature and scale of clerical depravity, the incapacity of bishops to remove heretics and criminals from their own number (plus their apparent unwillingness to deal with any corruption except under pressures of public scandal), and the widening gap between the Holy See's instruction on doctrine, morals and liturgy and the actual efforts of bishops and priests."

Speaking for himself, Mankowski noted that many of his "more tolerant friends" had urged him to make "a bad faith effort at good faith." He stressed -- in a lecture posted earlier this year by Catholic Citizens TV -- that he was not optimistic about current Catholic trends, but truly hopeful about the future.

"I believe the visible and doctrinal unity of the church will diminish and will be subject to new loyalties and alignments," he said. "I believe that organized hostility to the church will increase to the point that there is no reason at all to be a Catholic, no reason at all to be a nun, no reason at all to be a priest -- apart from the unshakeable personal conviction that the Church is the supreme dispenser of truth and of spiritual goods."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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