God at the Ritz
Attraction to Infinity
by Lorenzo Albacete
Crossroad, 192 pp., $19.95
MAYBE YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF HIM, since he spends most of his considerable talent reaching out to liberals, but Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete is a unique figure in American Catholicism. A big, jowly smoker, a trained physicist and moral theologian, Monty Python aficionado and confidante of Cardinal Ratzinger, Albacete comes across in person and print like Erasmus of Rotterdam, as revised by Rabelais. He appears as a "religion commentator" in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and on television with Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers--venues where one has come to expect dissident theologians, burnt-out nuns, and unfrocked priests who've found peace with Marx or Buddha.
But Albacete is a perfectly orthodox Catholic: He is the theological director of Communion and Liberation, an Italian-founded "lay movement" that appeals to artsy, high-strung Catholics. (Imagine if Woody Allen's movies depicted Irish-Americans struggling with chastity and just-war theory while juggling day jobs and revising their screenplays--such people exist, and C & L helps keep them sane.)
In "God at the Ritz," Albacete has crafted a subtle, wry, and gentle book--a deeply personal investigation of the "ultimate questions" that vex contemporary Westerners, written very much in the spirit of Walker Percy, whom he reveres. In short chapters that read like extended pensées, with disarming titles such as "Of memes and genes" and "The real beer," Albacete tackles the four basic objections he discerns at the heart of contemporary resistance to faith: (1) the perception that science demands a rejection of religious belief; (2) the seeming arbitrariness of traditional sexual ethics; (3) the dangers of fundamentalism; (4) the scandal of suffering.
Beginning with an easy humor and a well-affected worldliness, Albacete swiftly moves into deeper waters, taking seriously the difficulties that postmodern man encounters on the road to Mt. Sinai. As a scientist himself, Albacete starts with a sympathetic look at the attempts of several science theorists to address, dismiss, or explore the ultimate questions raised by religious inquiry. Reading Seymour Jonathan Singer's "The Splendid Feast of Reason," Albacete notes respectfully the scientist's attempt, at age sixty, to move from explanations of human biology to an exploration of the human condition. Singer chooses to follow a "lustrous vein of gold, shining forth from an otherwise dismal human landscape . . . that marvelous and uniquely human virtue, rationality and [its] most significant offspring, modern Western science." Albacete shares Singer's passion for rationality.
Yet when Singer comes across religious questions, Albacete notes, the scientist seems to slam shut his mind and drop the stance of open inquiry that makes knowledge possible--or even attractive. Singer suppresses the questions raised by existential matters, attributing "the origins of religion to ignorance about the relation between particular causes and their effects, which give rise to fear of the unknown," as Albacete recounts with an almost audible sigh. He gently deflates Singer's old-fashioned positivism, responding that "the religious impulse is born not of fear but of desire. For this reason, personal commitments, feelings, passions, emotions, and concerns are components of the religious experience because they are an inescapable and essential part of human desire."
Albacete mourns the easy willingness of so many moderns to reduce their desire, truncating the part of their souls that craves ultimate meaning for the sake of a transitory contentment. In fact, as he demonstrates from Singer's own work and that of several eminent scientific writers, the very motives that drive them to pursue the noble path of science--the love of truth, the desire to share it with others--elude their reductionist theories. It is only by reaching beyond the self-enclosed world of observable, testable phenomena, into the realm of meaning and mystery, that one may begin to understand the human heart, including the scientist's.
By mystery, Albacete does not mean what is not yet known, or simply puzzling, but rather those aspects of life that are impermeable to the discursive reason that is so blazingly useful for the theoretical understanding and technological mastery of the material universe. In the realm of mystery, following Percy, Albacete includes both God and the Self. He contrasts the knowledge a pathologist might have of the human body with the knowledge she has of her husband's body in the act of love. Is one of these types of knowledge false or trivial? To denigrate either mode of knowing, for Albacete, means lapsing into self-willed blindness, a blinkered and incomplete view of life.