Apologetics has always been a difficult business, but it has gotten even harder as the very starting points for religious argument have receded from most people’s minds. And to modern ears, apologetics sound too much like an apology—for what the clerics, or the Church, or even God have been up to over the last 20 centuries. Given all the evil in the world, an apologist for the faith is generally in a tougher spot than a public relations director for Bill Clinton. Modern apologetics typically runs two main risks: trying to be too accommodating towards the culture (“There, there. Yes, we understand”) or too confrontational (“Come out from the snares of Satan”).
All of which provides strong reason to celebrate when we come upon someone who can really walk the high wire while juggling the odd-shaped and variously weighted assortment of truths and experiences that go to make up the Catholic faith. Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete is a certified eccentric of proven genius. Yet the very title of his latest, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity (further garlanded with a sub-subtitle “A Priest-Physicist Talks About Science, Sex, Politics, and Religion”), might have given reason for doubt. After all, clever titles that juxtapose terms like “God” and the “Ritz” are a staple of the publishing industry. And almost all the apologetics that try these cultural ploys fail utterly.
One reason Albacete’s effort succeeds is that his apologetics began not in some ill-advised bid for relevance but in concrete circumstances. After serving as an eloquent consultant for a PBS Frontline segment on Pope John Paul II, Albacete was invited to the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena to discuss the project with journalists. The whole experience convinced him that moral and doctrinal points were not the most disturbing thing about Catholicism for many people. Far more troubling to the gathered film critics and panelists was the pope’s fundamental position “on the nature itself of the religious claim to truth.”
Further, Albacete noticed that it was not as if the questioners were simply uneducated or misguided: “The questions asked of me were also my own questions, questions I had to face too if my faith wasn’t going to be an escape from the burden of trying to live my life in the world as it is today.” The method he chose to pursue these questions—a little-used approach that in Albacete’s hands produces remarkable results—was to appeal to “what I had in common with my questioners, a love for life, a desire for happiness, a passion for freedom, and respect for the demands of reasonableness.”
Albacete’s constant theme is not that worldly desires, especially at the Pasadena Ritz, are crowding out religious principles, though that happens in every age. His much more interesting contention is that modern desire is not nearly passionate enough. We are content with a few steps toward hell or toward heaven. Albacete recalls Flannery O’Connor’s description of chickens whose wings have been clipped to make them grow plumper. Normal chickens can at least hop up and down a little, but chickens without wings are, like ourselves, no longer capable of even that. Not for us the deep plunge into the depths or heights of an Augustine or a Dante.
Of course, modern belief is supposed to be impossible because the “masters of suspicion”—Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—have allegedly unmasked the economic, sexual, and power elements that are the reality behind the religious surface. But Albacete makes quick work of these figures. Everything that did not fit into their systems, he argues, was simply excluded from consideration. Contrary to the usual view, they did not open up a horizon restricted by religion but took elements that had long been recognized in religious self-analysis and made them iron cages.
Albacete was a physicist before he became a priest, and he is quite aware that the current view of science poses other difficulties for a potential believer. But in his view, the biggest problem with science is not its supposed proof that God does not exist or that miracles cannot occur. Rather, it is in the reduction of our desires by ruling out religion in advance and secularizing leftover religious emotions. And here he makes a bold personal move: “In other words, we are not allowed to desire that much. But I desire that much.”
Today, the appeal to the desires of our hearts usually results in the substitution of those desires for authentic religiosity. Albacete wants to preserve the truth that real religion is born not of fear—as the old atheists believed—but of desire. At the same time, he shows how that desire anchors us in the fullness of reality and rationality. The world we experience poses questions that science cannot answer: ‘Reason’ or ‘rationality’ understood in this way is a demand of the heart, a primordial or fundamental need for the experience of totality, of ultimate meaning, of sense. This makes reason into a manifestation of the religious sense itself, which is precisely the experience of totality.”
Albacete’s argument really begins to catch fire as he addresses the question of human suffering. There are three typical responses to suffering: We can try to remove the cause of suffering, we can refuse to question it, or we can suppress our experience altogether. Each of these responses is wildly inadequate. Like Ivan Karamazov defying God because he cannot imagine why even one innocent child should suffer, we desire not only to see the wicked punished and the good rewarded after death. We also desire—passionately, and with a passion that almost defines what it means to be fully human—that this world make sense. To stop asking why when we are faced with suffering is to risk spiritual death. Yet much remains a mystery. In the Christian understanding, that mystery is an eternal transcendence that makes itself at least partially available to us through temporal things, eminently in the incarnation of Jesus. Suffering helps us to define our identity as human beings, to put us in touch with things otherwise hidden from our everyday view of the world.
Albacete makes these arguments with a sparkling humor that embodies as much as it describes the spiritual quest. After a brilliant exposition of the insights of Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, for example, the Puerto Rican in Albacete needs to get in a word: “These people all come from cold climates.” Somehow baseball, pizza, the meringue, and salsa also have to find their place in our openness to totality. Amid weighty and judicious arguments about the uses of both faith and doubt, and their inevitable coexistence in us all, Albacete remarks: “Thank God for Aquinas, who was Latin and fat.”
And thank God for Albacete, who is Latin and lighthearted.