"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, December 31, 2005

What matters, period?

On this the last day of the calendar year, I cannot help wondering what mattered in my life during the past year. Not what mattered to me, or to this-or-that person who knows me; but what mattered period. The same question can be raised about every individual life. And that points up a real dilemma, at least to my mind.

Only a kind of childish narcissism permits the sincere belief that what matters to oneself just does, as such, matter-period. I have found that a very good measure of somebody's spiritual as well as emotional maturity is their ability to make that distinction and take it seriously. It is the capacity for that humility which expresses itself as critical distance—objectivity, if you like—and that in turn is prerequisite for all other spiritual growth. Even so, it would also be narcissistic to fashion an answer in the place where that fact seems to lead.

For what matters-period is what matters to God; so of course the question is answerable only from the God's-eye point of view. Most of us don't have that point of view even though some think we do, or at least think we ought to. The ethic of utilitarianism, for example, (which is nowadays more often called 'consequentialism' by philosophers, thanks to the late G.E.M. Anscombe) tells us that there are no actions which are absolutely forbidden or required; our moral duty is to do either that thing, or that sort of thing, whose overall consequences would in fact constitute a more optimal combination of good and bad than those of the alternatives would. Such a moral philosophy requires the agent, for all practical purposes, to strive to adopt the God's-eye point of view: a global, impersonal perspective from which one can make the necessary calculations. Now when the issue is purely practical—e.g., should a bridge be built over such-and-such river—we must strive to think in that fashion. When little of great moral or spiritual significance is at stake, we must make decisions in terms of the consequences we can envision for the various alternatives before us. But when the issue is one of bedrock moral principle, I think it should go without saying that such a perspective is impossible to attain by human power and that trying to attain it is not only delusory but destructive. To the extent it's taken seriously—and under various names or none at all, it is taken far more seriously by far more people than many seem imagine—such supposed pragmatism is absurdly narcissistic. It is the kind of narcissism that Satan showed in the guise of the serpent during the pre-history of the human race; it is the kind into which he seduced our first parents. Hence "the Fall." Evil is the price we pay for such pretense.

Yet I am inclined, by my reading and experience, to believe that some especially holy people are occasionally vouchsafed glimpses of spiritual reality from the God's-eye point of view. Even there, however, a distinction must be made to forestall confusion. Divine revelation gives us a general answer to the question what matters to God: what matters to God, vis-à-vis humans at least, is how well we love, which is to say how much we allow ourselves to be moved by his grace. So, in the individual life of the Christian, what "matters, period" is how well they love in the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves. Sometimes it is fairly clear, if not morally certain, that one has done so or failed to do so. So in that respect, it is sometimes clear what matters-period; indeed, one's efforts through prayer, self-denial, and study to become a person more likely to love God and other people as God wills also matter-period. But even granted that, much remains far from clear.

For if we leave things at that, a great deal of what we do seems to serve at best only as raw material for what matters-period. It does not matter-period in itself and doesn't even seem meant to be. Most people, for instance, spend most of their time earning a living, eating, sleeping, and in general attending to the myriad, often-boring tasks of maintaining physical existence and health. Aside from that, much time seems to be spent on entertainment when we're too tired, disgusted, or ill-disciplined to do much of anything else. Only a fortunate minority get to earn a living by doing something they truly care about; much of what the majority, to which I belong, does seems to matter only as a means to other things, about which one can then raise the same questions. Yet treating such instrumental actions and goods merely as a means to other ends undermines one's capacity to do them well, as they must be done if our existence is not to descend into chaos, sickness, and poverty. I know for my own part that I do much of what I do not for its own sake, or even because I believe it will lead to something that "matters-period," but simply so as to avoid the unpleasant consequences of not doing it. And much the same could be said of countless other people. What "matters-period" about that? Clearly, the motivation for doing them comes from the fact that, for obvious reasons, they matter to us as kinds of negative means to ends we cannot help caring about. But that doesn't answer the question whether, or even how, they matter-period.

I think there should be an answer to that question. I do not believe that God made some things purely as means, whether constitutive or instrumental, positive or negative, to other things. And I believe there is an answer to that question. It's not simple or obvious and certainly can't be developed cogently in a blog post. That's one reason why I invite readers to offer their suggestions. But I can close with this much: if we offer such raw material to God to do with as he wills, he will do something with it that matters-period just because he's doing it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

The story behind today's feast is well-known: see Matthew 2: 13-18. The feast itself is becoming well-known as the Pro-Life Feast, second in the U.S. only to the anniversary of Roe v Wade (January 23, which will be upon us all too soon, alas). The theme of the slaughter of innocents connects today's holocaust with the Gospel story so obviously that thought ends easily enough for emotion to take over at once. But if we meditate further on the connection, Herod's motives for killing the newborn boys of Bethlehem also seem chillingly apposite to the motives for practicing and advocating abortion.

In both cases, the motive for killing the defenseless is to protect people's position. Abortion has become a secular sacrament in which the innocent are ritually sacrificed to preserve the personal "autonomy" of women who have had sex without desiring its natural consequences. The term autonomy is most apt: its Greek roots essentially mean "being a law unto oneself." With the full acquiescence of male legislators— however variously motivated that may be—women in the "developed" world now have the absolute right to decide who, upon conception, will be allowed to live and who will not. If a woman wants her conceived child, then that child is a "baby" and thus a person with a right to live; under the laws of most American states, anybody who kills a baby in the womb, either directly or in the course of an assault on the mother alone, is liable for murder. If, that is, the mother has indeed regarded the life within her as something sacred and inviolable. If she doesn't, however, and instead regards the life within her as an unwonted intrusion on her personal autonomy, something that would "ruin" her life unless eliminated, then she is free to define that life as a non-person and kill it with medical help. No questions asked. You have indeed come a long way, baby.

Of course there is some difference. Herod was protecting a throne; women who abort are protecting themselves from suffering. But in either case, lawlessness is cloaked in the guise of practical necessity. It was indeed the same sort of reasoning that caused the high priest Caiaphas to advocate turning Jesus over to the Romans for execution. So today, instead of dying to self so as to live for God and his will, we kill the innocent so as to live life on the terms we define for ourselves and thus find worth protecting. Abortion, like the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, is the refusal of the kingship of Christ. That is why Catholics who procure abortions, for themselves or others, are automatically excommunicated. Nancy Keenan, take note.

Holy Innocents, pray for us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Prepare to be burned

Several years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave the third of his extended interviews to his compatriot, journalist Peter Seewald: God and the World, in which he reminded us, among other things, of the following:

"Whoever comes close to [Christ] . . . must be prepared to be burned. Christianity is great because love is great. It burns, yet this is not the destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.”

My reading of the book a few years ago had such a great impact on me that the above-quoted passage flowed back into my mind as I pondered yesterday's theme of "the power of vulnerability." I wanted to discuss God's truly burnin' love yesterday, which was the feast of the first martyr for the Faith, St. Stephen, but decided on a shorter post connecting the basic theme with Christmas. But now I have it: if we accept God's vulnerability to us, we must also accept our vulnerability to him. Whoever comes close to Christ must prepare to be burned, because being his disciple means surrendering to and emulating, in our often-pathetic little ways, the One who saved us by letting himself be totally vulnerable to us and suffering accordingly.

But why, as the Pope says in the book, must we "think of love as suffering”? Is that idea what Nietzsche thought: the perverted, resentful rationalization of the weak who can do no better?

Actually, it's an ineluctable law of spiritual nature. Only people who are unusually fortunate in a temporal sense, and therefore in more-than-average spiritual peril, can fail to see it. Whether we reject or accept God's love, it burns. For one thing, says the Pope in the book, “punishment is the situation in which man finds himself if he has alienated himself from his own essential being." Our essential being is to be united to God, eternally, in that love which is his being. Accordingly, the phrase the wrath of God "is a way of saying that I have been living in a way that is contrary to the love that is God. Anyone who begins to live and grow away from God, who lives away from what is good, is turning his life toward wrath.” So God's love burns when it is rejected. Whether the fire of his wrath purifies or not is up to the individual—while, that is, one is still on earth and thus still has a chance to change.

But more importantly, God's love burns even when it is sincerely accepted and taken seriously as such. Why? "Because God loves us, he wants us to grow into truth, he must necessarily make demands on us and also correct us." As the late M. Scott Peck said to those who had forgotten: "life is difficult." Suffering, if only as diminishment, is inevitable: through it, we can grow into people who know how to love, or we can let it embitter us, enclosing us in ourselves and turning God's love into wrath. God asks of us no more than he asked of himself: he did not spare his own Son from that horrible suffering which was made inevitable by his love's compulsion to be with us intimately in every aspect of our existence. As the divine example of the Cross shows, we must die, spiritually as well as physically, in order to live with God's own life; when we imitate him thus, we have his eternal life, which is bliss.

In the meantime, however, the fire of his love burns. So I now think of purgatory not as a special intermediate place that Rome only thought of several centuries after Christ, but as the needed completion of our spiritual growth after we are saved but before we can be glorified. It may seem weird to speak of purgatory during the Christmas season; but the thought of my own sloth and incomplete spiritual growth made me think of it anyhow. Given the reality of sin, the Cross is latent in the Incarnation, and the pain of our purification is correspondingly latent in our rebirth through baptism. I pray that I, and those whom God sends into my life, will keep that in mind and be kindled accordingly.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The power of vulnerability

As per my theme of yesterday, I want to focus on something the Pope said during his Midnight Mass homily. Like all great and abiding truths, they seem obvious once clearly stated, as below. But even as such, they are not generally appreciated even by those who would profess their "obviousness."

In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God himself became man. To him the Father says: "You are my son." God's everlasting "today" has come down into the fleeting today of the world and lifted our momentary today into God's eternal today. God is so great that he can become small. God is so powerful that he can make himself vulnerable and come to us as a defenseless child, so that we can love him. God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us and continue to work through us. This is Christmas: "You are my son, this day I have begotten you."

God has become one of us, so that we can be with him and become like him. As a sign, he chose the Child lying in the manger. This is how God is. This is how we come to know him. And on every child shines something of the splendor of that "today," of that closeness of God which we ought to love and to which we must yield -- it shines on every child, even on those still unborn.
I can think of no pithier way to explain why we ought to marvel, during this Christmas season, at the reality of the Incarnation of God and of the gift of life—even in the unborn, even in those too disabled or otherwise "useless" to do much that seems beneficial to society. But one cannot marvel simply because one "ought" to: such attitudes come spontaneously or not at all. One can only marvel if one really believes, accepts, and ponders the mystery. Since so few believers marvel at all, and even those who do marvel do it so rarely, I can only conclude that it is all of us whom Jesus addressed when he said to his disciples: "O ye of little faith!"

Sometimes poems help: by memorization, they burrow into our subsconcious and shape our conscious life. Thus I offer what Madeleine L'Engle once wrote in a Christmas poem: (hat tip to the Pontificator):

Like every newborn, he has come from very far.
His eyes are closed against the brilliance of the star.
So glorious is he, he goes to this immoderate length
To show his love for us, discarding power and strength.
Girded for war, humility his mighty dress,
He moves into the battle wholly weaponless.

The message in that is the same as the Pope's. Let us ponder it and marvel accordingly. We might even be moved to emulate it.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christ's Mass

By way of indirect response to being greeted by some (presumably nominal) Catholics with "Happy Holidays," I have taken to emulating some of my fellow Catholic bloggers and media types by referring to today's feast as "Christ's Mass." Since the very term Christmas is short for that, I make no apologies for it. Thus: Merry Christ's Mass to all, and to all a good night!

In the meantime, of course, I have a thought to offer about it— the feast, not the night; eminently forgettable, the evening of Christmas Day is almost always forgotten. Be assured, however, that some of my thoughts remained unpublished. Even I permit myself to be an occasional instrument of divine mercy.

The thought in question is that most people in our culture do not know, because they do not care, what Christmas is about. Most, to be sure, will concede that Jesus is the reason for the season. That is just to acknowledge historical fact if nothing else. Going further, devout women used to wax sentimental about the Baby Jesus, and the clergy still explain that the Incarnation of God as a helpless infant tells us something we need to know about how God works among us. And then there are the blessed few who still go caroling and really mean it. But for the most part, even believers experience Christmas, and the seemingly endless buildup to it, as obligatory social and commercial overload. Beyond the absurd, tedious challenges to public displays of Christmas piety, the best evidence that it's getting worse is how, every year, holiday music seems to take over the airwaves a bit earlier. We are reminded that we must party, if anyone cares to party with us; that we must buy gifts, if anyone really cares about getting them from us; that we must at least try put on our best faces, especially with family, no matter how we may feel. It's all like nothing so much a temp job we had better do right lest we lose face. Thus, what began as a celebration of divine humility, and joy amid darkness, is becoming more and more part of the pretentious striving that marks so much of the secular world.

Let it not be said that I am a Scrooge without money. When it's done even halfway close to how it should be, I love Midnight Mass because we therein offer our best to God. I love crèches when they're understated not kitschy. And I heartily approve of food and gift baskets for poor families. Such things remind us of the reason for the season. They do not, as so much of the secular "holiday season" does, work against it. Some people manage not to confuse the former with the latter, but it's getting harder and harder to make the difference clear to the young. The joyful reception of divine grace is being steadily obscured, in our cultural memory, by tendencies that grace is meant to liberate us from. Humbug, I say.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The New Faithful

Since the book this post is about has been in print for three years and in my "been there, read that" pile for two, I've been meaning to discuss it for quite some time. What has prompted me to do so now is that I encountered a picture of its author, Colleen Carroll Campbell, during a Google search for something else. Wow. Too bad she's married!

Campbell's thesis is clear and should already be known to anybody who cares about this sort of thing. But I have found that, in this world, 'should' is a pretty abstract word bearing only a tangential relationship to reality. So I'll keep trying to spread the word.

The essence of The New Faithful is succinctly stated at the review site Powells.com: "Blending investigative journalism with in-depth analysis, the author seeks the reason why Generation X'ers are seeking religious orthodoxy in an American society steeped in moral relativism and secularism." Campbell marshals overwhelming evidence both for the phenomenon of youthful religious orthodoxy and for her explanation of its spread, especially in Catholicism but also in evangelical Protestantism and Judaism. As her boss, George Weigel, pointed out, the "book is replete with wonderful human stories of spiritual struggle followed by conversion." What's going on is genuine, and since the book was written it has only accelerated and deepened—especially at the better universities. What my generation, the baby boomers, rebelled against as the dead faith of the living has returned among our children as the living faith of the dead.

I'm all the more delighted that Catholic progs are contemptuous of the faith-style among these young folks but fearful about the future they represent. See, e.g., the review in America magazine. (Readers who want to discuss the issues raised by the reviewer are more than welcome to do so by way of comment here.) One of the many differences between orthodox and "progressive" Catholicism is that the former is generative and the latter is not. The reviewer hopes that is remediable from his prog standpoint. It isn't. For one thing, progressive Catholicism defines itself largely in terms of what it's against—i.e., orthodox Catholicism, the only brand of religiosity that doesn't earn respect in the prog pantheon of "diversity." Beyond such rather diffuse negativity, what particularly animates progs is the conviction that the Church ought to accept modern, Western values about sex and gender. But to the extent people accept and live by those values, their birth rate goes down. That is why the birth rate in most developed countries, including the United States, is now below replacement level. The people who reproduce and grow are, by and large, adherents of traditional religion. Accordingly, the future holds far more orthodox Catholics than progressive Catholics. That is as inevitable as it is welcome.

People like Colleen Carroll Campbell are the heralds of that future. That thought puts me in a better mood as I now turn to readying myself for work.

For parents: the real St. Nick

I should have done this on December 6, the feast of the real St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. But I was too tired, and in any case I feared preaching to the choir. This is one of those topics about which catechesis, like that about the sacrament of reconciliation, tends to reach only the people who need it the least. But who knows? And on Sundays, I have the benefit of having got out of bed after only a half-day's work. So now that I've returned from Mass, here's the skinny.

When raising my older daughter, I loved being able to tell her, without lying, that Santa Claus was real. He just wasn't like the Macy's version: he belongs to "the communion of saints," on "whose constant intercession we rely for help." I told her that St. Nicholas continues to do for children what he once did while on earth; only he does it with prayer, not a reindeer-drawn sleigh from the North Pole. I hope I thereby planted a conviction of the value of prayer.

Perhaps somebody out there can do the same for their children. At least, so I pray.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The slip..er, the condom shows

Fortunately, I am spared the temptation to sensationalize by depicting what I shall write about because, as a matter of principle, I do not subscribe to the periodical in which it appears. I refer to the Jesuits' America, "the magazine for thinking Catholics," which I gave up reading when, in college, I learned how to think and thereby saved my faith from the Jesuits. But Jody Bottum of First Things has at least described for us what the editors of America seem to regard as an ad that will appeal to their residuum of thoughtful readers.

I quote (Bottum, not the ad):
The one...that shows a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, eight and a half inches high, wrapped in a condom.

At least I think what the ad describes delicately as “a delicate veil of latex” is a condom. It covers the statue from head to foot, with a little reservoir knob on top, all forming a “unique contemporary religious art work for sale,” which “Chelsea College of Art London Sculptural Artist Steve Rosenthal” has named “Extra Virgin.” It can be yours for “$300 (plus shipping from UK).” America is “published by Jesuits of the United States,” as it says on the magazine’s masthead, and the issue appeared just in time for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Of course it's now time for another ritual disclaimer: I do not for a moment think that the editors deliberately planned the ad's appearance for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But such things just do have a way of working out like that, don't they? Immaculate timing. No taint of original fertility will be allowed to sully this feast. Extra virgin, indeed.

My considerable firsthand experience with the Society of Jesus in the United States prevented me from being in the least surprised by this. Nothing from these guys shocks me—at least when it comes to anything remotely related to sex. There are a few good Jebs, such as Cardinal Dulles, Joseph Fessio, Mitch Pacwa, and others whose names wouldn't be of interest to most readers. But they don't control the Society; the Society marginalizes them. Because they are talented men filled by the Holy Spirit with zeal for Christ, they succeed in spite of how their confrères treat them. Thank God for the faithful remnant.

God the Killer

See my post at Pontifications. I welcome comments either there or here.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Holy capitalism, Batman!

In my previous life as an academic, I was given to lamenting pendulum swings in scholarship as well as politics. A mythic narrative or theory will linger for years, decades, even centuries, only to be overthrown by another, equally distorted view. It gets old, but it seems ever new. And so I'm a bit embarassed to welcome the latest instance.

Those who followed a good core curriculum in college will be familiar with the thesis propounded by Max Weber in his 19th-century The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, according to which the virtues of Protestantism made economic progress possible in those countries which embraced that version of Christianity. Needless to say, Catholic countries were depicted as weak sisters shackled by prejudice, profligacy, agrarianism, and authoritarianism; the benighted Catholic Church allied with the venal aristocracy to keep down the peasants and marginalize the burghers. Never mind that crediting Protestantism for scientific and economic progress now seems just as overblown to secular-minded historians as to Catholic intellectuals. Inevitably, it seems, we now hear that it was actually the Catholic Church which made all that good stuff possible.

Thus David Brooks points out, in an article on today's New York Times Op-Ed page (accessible by subscription only, alas):
In his new book, “The Victory of Reason,” the Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the West grew rich because it invented capitalism. That’s not new. What’s unusual is his description of how capitalism developed.

The conventional view, embraced by most of his fellow cultural determinists, is that during the Renaissance and Reformation, Europeans shook off the authority of the Catholic Church. When a secular world was created alongside the sacred one, when intellectual freedom replaced obedience to authority, capitalism and scientific advances were the result. That theory, Stark says, doesn’t fit the facts. In reality, capitalism developed in the Middle Ages, and the important innovations were made by people in the belly of the faith. Religion didn’t stifle economic and scientific ideas - it nurtured them.

Stark is building upon the recent research that has reversed earlier prejudices about the so-called Dark Ages. As late as 1983, the esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin could write a chapter on the Middle Ages entitled “The Prison of Christian Dogma.” But the more we learn, the more we realize that most of the progress we link to the Renaissance or later years actually happened during the Middle Ages.
Since I haven't read the book yet, I can't analyze the argument or the scholarship. Nor, for reasons that will be obvious to my vast readership, am I eager to criticize of Stark's thesis. But let's be careful here. What the Catholic Church, especially in monasticism, did for Europe during the "Dark" and Middle Ages was certainly indispensable to the progress that flowered afterwards. But can it truly be said that most of the progress that is commonly thought to have occurred later actually occurred during that period? That's the sort of exaggeration that invites as well as deserves rebuttal. And such rebuttals often have the effect—at least outside the circle of academic pros—of burying the welcome truths in the new viewpoint.

In a better world, distorted old ideas would not have to be corrected by distorted new ones. But of course, in a better world there would be no such distortions to begin with. As I get older, I grow more and more to accept that we do not, and until the Parousia will not, live in a better world.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Empress of the Americas

Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to the peasant (officially "Saint" since 2002) Juan Diego in 1531, was given the above title by Pope Pius XII in 1945. Today is (or was, by the time you read this) her feastday.

The apparition and resultant image (tilma) of the pregnant Virgin—which latter has remained intact to this day, and thus far, far longer than its materials would naturally warrant—were the most powerful of instruments in the conversion of the Aztecs to Catholicism. Indeed I should say that the spirituality of which the tilma was the focus grew as much in spite of as because of the rapacious, often brutal Spanish conquest and colonization. Nor do I think it accidental that the site, near what is now Mexico City, is close to the geographic center of the Western hemispheric land mass. I believe the whole phenomenon was God's instrument for spreading the true Faith to the Americas as the Protestant Reformation was getting underway in Europe. It is of enormous historical importance if nothing else.

Of course it has drawn its share of critics and scoffers, like all similar phenomena, such as the Shroud of Turin. But in convergence not only with other Church-endorsed Marian phenomena but also with the history of the Mexican people themselves, the authenticity of Our Lady of Guadalupe seems overwhelming. North-American Catholics should take more note.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The hardest part

The second reading for Mass today (click on the box in the sidebar) contains the following exhortation from St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

I don't know about you; but of all Christian norms, I have found the above to be the absolute hardest to follow. I do not, and feel I cannot, "rejoice always." Much of what I must deal with, including some things about myself, doesn't seem worth rejoicing about. I do not, and feel I cannot, "pray without ceasing," even when I make an offering to the Lord of all that I do and undergo. And I most certainly do not give thanks "in all circumstances." I do thank God for dying to save us from the grip of Satan; I have no trouble doing so; indeed it would be crazy not to. I even thank him for letting me share, through baptism, in the Son's death so that I can, conceivably, rise with him in glory. But I have a very hard time being grateful to God for life just as it is. (Hence one of my favorite toasts is "to life as I wish it were.") When I'm feeling particularly frustrated or desperate, I am more inclined to criticize God than to thank him. At any rate, the attitude of gratitude is not easy for me to sustain. I suspect the same is true of many devout Christians who, understandably, would rather not admit it.

That, of course, is precisely why Paul's advice is so important. What he's doing, as much as exhorting, is describing life as filled with the Holy Spirit. For it is only in and by the Spirit that his advice can be followed. In a sense, I suspect, it is the Holy Spirit in us who does such things through us. All we need to be is willing instruments.

In my experience, the key to becoming a willing instrument is to strive always for objectivity. One's own little place in the divine tapestry of life is not all that clear from one's own point of view. Often, it is quite hidden. What matters to us as individuals, though it often overlaps with what matters period and thus matters to God, necessarily differs from it too. God has given us a general sense of what life is about, but how our own lives fit in is partially and necessarily mysterious. So, I can thank God for how my life fits in from his point of view, even though I am not vouchsafed that viewpoint and get only fleeting shadows of what he sees when I see at all. I can pray ceaselessly by striving to make my life revolve around him, his Mystical Body the Church, and her members—not around myself. I can rejoice always by remembering that, even though I'm just a soldier in the trenches who sees mostly mud, darkness, and the occasional shelling, I obey a General whose victory is assured and will bring me far better than I can even imagine.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Getting pastorally hip to mental illness

A great lacuna in pastoral care is that of the mentally ill. There's long been a well-developed system of care for the physically ill; many families, parishes, and religious orders are exemplary in that regard. And the sorts of miracles that count in the canonization process are almost always ones of physical healing. Physical sickness is something that everybody can understand and sympathize with the victim about. But mental illness is quite a different matter.

It is always intangible, often frightening, and until the last 100 years or so was almost totally incomprehensible on its own terms. Before the biochemical basis of much mental illness was understood, the default reaction to "crazy" people was akin that of the ancient Jews about leprosy: take it as a sign of some sort of evil and marginalize the victim as a threat. Given human ignorance and nature, there really wasn't much else to be done. Only in the last fifty years or so has society begun to take a more therapeutic approach. Now we diagnose, medicate, and where possible, put people in talk therapy. Sometimes treatment works, more or less; sometimes it doesn't. But it is still very hard for most people to distinguish between mental illness and moral or spiritual evil. We see nothing untoward about the fact that those known to be mentally ill are disproportionately represented among prisoners, among the homeless on the streets, and among those who live alone under a roof but without love. The mentally ill are among the "poor"—whether economically, spiritually, or both—whom we often view as somehow deserving of their fate.

Thus I've often heard it said, in effect, that if he or she would just take their meds, listen to their betters (therapists or otherwise), and pull up their socks, they would be better "adjusted" and thus would not suffer quite the problems they do. Hearkening to Freud's description of psychoanalysis' purpose, the attitude seems to be that if the mentally ill "would only" do this and that, their artificial problems would dissipate so that they could be freed to deal constructively with the natural problems of life. That is sometimes true; but often it is not. What's really needed is the transformation that only God's love can bring about, which is typically meant to be shown by the members of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. Yet even in the Church there's still blame attached to being mentally ill. It's much like people's attitude toward a smoker who gets cancer; consider the reaction to Andrea Yates, a diagnosed schizophrenic who drowned her five children. All that has a big if subtle effect on the way we treat the mentally ill. In religious bodies accordingly, there's hardly any system of formal pastoral care for the mentally ill. Nobody quite knows how to deal with it beyond the means I've already indicated. It seems just too much, too intractable.

But it doesn't have to be that way. On December 8, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI as the World Day of the Sick, the pontiff focused on the mentally ill, invoking the conclusions of a Vatican conference last year. Thus in countries of high economic development, "experts recognize that the origin of new forms of mental disturbance" is a consequence of "the negative impact of the crisis of moral values," he writes. "This increases the sense of loneliness, undermining and even breaking down traditional forms of social cohesion, beginning with the institution of the family, and marginalizing the sick, and especially the mentally ill, who are often seen as a burden for their families and the community." It is only natural that, with ever-increasing individualism and consumerism, there will be more mental illness such as depression, the most common form of mental illness, along with less social capacity to deal with it successfully. The very factors that exacerbate the problem tend to preclude the solution. As a result, even many outwardly successful people feel able to get by only with legal psychotropic drugs. In the long run, this is not going to work.

According to the Zenit report, Benedict XVI encourages "the efforts of those who work to ensure that all mentally ill people are given access to necessary forms of care and treatment," and solidarity with families caring for the mentally ill. Addressing the mentally ill themselves, the Pontiff invites them to offer their "condition of suffering, together with Christ, to the Father." Such are necessary and salutary. But they do not attack the root of the problem that the Pope himself identified above. The only way to do so is by the means I implied in my post below on the significance of the Immaculate Conception. That is very much up to the Church, which is us. Already overburdened pastors can't do it themselves.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Catching up

I've had difficulty not writing but posting this week. Something to do with Blogger's image display. So I'm posting today both what I wrote about the President on Monday and what I wrote about the Immaculate Conception on Thursday. More to come this weekend now that the technical glitches seem gone.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The contrarian in me loves writing about this topic. Defined as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was opposed even by St. Thomas Aquinas and is still widely misunderstood and reviled throughout what used to be known as Christendom. Indeed, the only non-Catholic, non-clerical author I've ever read who expressed actual enthusiasm for the Marian dogmas of the Church is Carl Jung, the great 20th-century psychologist who introduced such ideas as "the collective unconscious" and the anima/animus distinction in each human being.

On the Feast of the Assumption I quoted what he had said about that feast, but I can't find right now what he said about this feast. No matter: the themes are rich enough. But rather than try to top the many wonderful things that have been said about this reality by far holier people than I, I shall just present the thoughts that percolated in me soon after the precise, humble, and economical homily given by the pastor of my local parish.

What our world most lacks today—and this includes most who consider themselves some sort of Christian—is the love and joy that spring from the lively sense that God wants to marry us. Most of us feel, deep down, that what we call "reality" is harsh, ugly, and unforgiving; that the next guy, or even those closest to us, would not hesitate to screw us if they believed the benefit would far outweigh the cost; that the taint of evil in the world is so great, and the corresponding injustice and suffering so pervasive, that the best we can hope for in this life is some fleeting moments of pleasure before facing judgment—for good or ill—in the next. (As a Catholic co-worker of mine puts it: "Life is hard; then you die; then it really gets serious.") It's hard to feel one is worth anything in such an environment. Hence the frenetic, enslaving quest for power, prestige, and possessions among those with the talent and good fortune to attain them; and the similarly frenetic, enslaving quest for "a high," be it sexual, narcotic, or whatever, among many who aren't so fortunate. We're always trying either to prove we're worth something or to dull the pain that results from our inability to construct and/or sustain such a proof. And it's all very understandable. Whether we believe in a literal Satan or not, we cannot help often feeling that Satan is, in Jesus' words, "the prince of this world"—the world in which we live whether we like it or not.

In fact, Satan is just that. The Good News, the Gospel, is that God became man with the mission to break that doleful reign. He succeeded by suffering the worst we could do only to rise again in glory. Those of us who believe as much and seek, however haltingly, to respond accordingly are "the Church," whom St. Paul calls his Bride. Thus Paul's advice about marriage:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5: 25-27).

Now the prototype of the Church is the Mother of Christ and thus of God: Mary, in whom the Holy Spirit begat the man Jesus. As the first Christian, and the one who is pre-eminently what each Christian is called to be, Mary is the first person whom God has "married." In light of St. Paul's words, then, it was fitting that she be preserved, by the foreseen merits of her Son, from that state of congenital alienation from God which the Church calls "original sin." (Not from all its effects, of course: I can't help thinking she had foibles and, despite the pious speculations of some traditional Catholics, surely died as the Orthodox believe.) God's wife must be holy and without blemish, as the Church Triumphant, the Bride of Christ, will be on the Last Day. The resulting nuptials will be eternal—and far better than sex.

The advantage of contemplating all that is that we are reminded how it's already begun: in Mary, in the lives of other, lesser saints, and in each of us to the extent we walk with Jesus. The light thereof is that of love. It is supernal and infinitely powerful: it "shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4). Nonetheless, the darkness often seems on the verge of overcoming it. When I start feeling that way, it helps me to remember the scene from The Lord of the Ring when Samwise, mourning over Frodo's apparently lifeless body, looks up at the stars and realizes that, whatever his and his master's fate, what is good and beautiful will go on, out of evil's reach and never be extinguished. He was, and we should be, content with that knowledge. So long as we're on the right side, what happens to us in this sphere of struggle, pain, and loss—this "vale of tears," as the Salve Regina puts it—doesn't matter much. What matters is that we be one of those points of light. Mary, conceived without sin, is the greatest such point next to the Sun of Justice himself. If we let her be our Mother too, we can become more like her than we can now imagine.

The President down the block

On Monday, December 5, Air Force One landed at the airport where I work part-time, whereupon President Bush was taken down the route I travel daily to my full-time job to speak about the economy at a thriving manufacturing plant a block from where I live.

The speech wasn't bad as political boosterism goes, but I only read it online. The event itself was not open to the general public: the only people who got in were plant employees, local officials, and Republican fatcats. Meanwhile I was finishing up my shift at work about 10 miles away. So who cares? If I mentioned such facts just to bask in the ephemeral glow of celebrity that recently brushed my mundane little sphere of life, nobody would or should care. But I felt there was, there had to be, some sort of message in this episode for me. So I asked the Holy Spirit what it might be.

Surprisingly to me, the answer came at once, without any effort on my part. I was informed that, while the powerful and famous of this world could visit my stomping grounds without knowing or caring who I was, the Almighty, the Creator, is both infinitely closer to me and infinitely more caring than that. No matter how insignificant I might feel, how apparently empty of meaning most of what I do, He is always there knowing everything and seeking, if I would but listen and surrender, to transform it all into an instrument of his great design and a vessel of his glory.

Then I heard tolle, lege. So I did:

O LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.

My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.

Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?

If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too.

If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea,

Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light" --

Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb.

I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works!

My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you;

When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be.

How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!

(Psalm 139: 1-17)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Episcopal spin control

Yep, it's started. It is becoming abundantly clear that the US bishops will each interpret the new Vatican instruction on the admission of homosexuals to the seminary (click here for the official version) as they see fit and implement it (or not) accordingly. See the Washington Post story for what the President of the USCCB, and the Archbishop of Washington, have to say for themselves. Other bishops, of course, disagree and want to follow the Vatican's clear intent. So much for collegiality.

Pope John XXIII's 1961 instruction to the same effect became a dead letter because most bishops did not want to follow it. I'm sure that Benedict XVI knows that. I'd be very interested in seeing what, if anything, will be done to prevent a rerun of that movie.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Usury: the progs are cracking

Over the last several years, it has seemed to me that the Left, ecclesial as well as political, is getting dottier. And I don't think it's just me. As an orthodox Catholic I'm actually encouraged by the public face that theological "progressives" (whom I call 'progs' for short) are presenting. Thus, the political denunciations are actually sane by comparison with the latest example I want to discuss: conflicted, gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan's astonishing rant about Pope Benedict's recent remark about "usury."

During the last presidential election, it was not uncommon to hear some of John Kerry's more avid supporters liken the President to Adolf Hitler; given how FUBAR the situation in Iraq is portrayed by the MSM as being, I have lately heard over and over that Bush is actually "worse than Hitler." (For a more balanced, on-the-ground perspective, try Major K., an articulate Catholic officer serving with valor and distinction in Iraq.) But we cooler heads are inured to that sort of thing. It is the hyperbole of passion, a species of what the late Harry Frankfurt, one of my favorite analytical philosophers, called "bullshit": something one knows deep down is not true, and knows that others will not be deceived by hearing, but which it's useful for one reason or another to say anyhow. Since bullshitting is fun, I am not dismayed by it; most of us, yours truly included, have permitted ourselves the luxury at some time or another. Yet, what I've started having to accommodate in my rhetorical universe is much more disturbing: guilt-by-association conspiracy theories that, when propounded for other purposes by right-wing cranks, were and are rightly dismissed as loony.

Here are Sullivan's ipsissima verba:

Benedict XVI's latest enthusiasm is, apparently, the "infamy of usury". The original formal condemnation of usury - i.e. interest-bearing loans - emerged at roughly the time the Church also created the formal doctrines condemning Jews and "sodomites" in the early medieval era, so it is not surprising Benedict would seek to re-emphasize it. He recently honored the National Anti-Usury Consultancy, and described interest-bearing accounts as a "social plague," and all financial interest as something that "annihilates the life of the poor." If you are versed in the ancient anti-Semitic tropes of the medieval Church, you will be unsurprised by this language. Just so all you Catholics with 401ks and interest-bearing bank accounts: according to this pope, you are enmeshed in evil. Welcome to the club. By the way, does the Vatican earn interest?

There we have it: "condemning sodomites" is the same sort of thing as "condemning Jews" (Hitler really did both, BTW), and since Jews were often bankers, that's why the Church condemns and still condemns "all financial interest." Periodic ritual denunciation of usury, far from showing concern for the poor and/or desperate, is really a covert way of being nasty to Jews and homosexuals.

Never mind that the Church never condemned anybody just for being Jewish; she has and does condemn rejecting Jesus Christ as she understands him, but Jews are hardly unique in that regard. Never mind that the condemnation of sodomy does not and could not translate into the canonization of active homosexuals to hell; nobody at all has been or could be so condemned by the Church. Never mind that Sullivan took the Pope's remark about "usury" to mean the condemnation of all interest—which it clearly does not in the text, and could not have unless the Pope were poised to announce the shutdown of the Vatican bank, which he's not about to do. The truly astonishing thing is that the basis of such an imagined condemnation is taken to be covert anti-Semitism. The bit about homophobia, though conceptually irrelevant, is thrown in for good measure as further evidence of Ratzinger's neanderthality; in any event, Sullivan almost always manages to throw in homophobia when discussing Catholic matters, and nobody who knows him needs to hear why.

As I pointed out in a recent Pontifications article, the development of Church teaching about usury since the Middle Ages has been logically consistent but not at all clear to the average Catholic. See, e.g., Fr. Gary Coulter's master's thesis and J. T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA, 1957). It's a topic that could benefit from a clear, nuanced, authoritative statement from the papacy, and this pope has the sort of mind needed. Indeed, this topic is one on which the Church is often but falsely charged with reversing her past solemn teaching. It's a stick that progs love to beat her with (when they're not talking about sex and gender, that is). But the standard critique won't bear scholarly scrutiny. That progs like Sullivan are going over-the-top with dottiness about the topic indicates their increasing desperation.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Well, duh...

In addition to limbo, which will get nearly all the media attention, the current meeting of the International Theological Commission is discussing the natural law. Pope Benedict wants to see Catholic thought about that topic developed further. And for good reason.
Among the topics on the Commission's agenda for discussion this year, the Pope singled out the natural law, saying that the topic is "particularly important for understanding the foundation" of human rights. Without a clear recognition of the natural law-- which is "prior to any positive law emanated by states"--- it is impossible to construct a solid basis for the recognition of human rights, the Pope said. He explained that "human rights cannot be understood without presupposing that man, in his very being, is the bearer of values and norms that must be rediscovered and reaffirmed, not invented and imposed in a subjective and arbitrary manner." When world leaders attempt to justify human rights apart from natural law, they slip into a positivist framework, the Pope warned, "rendering law an instrument of power, rather than subordinating power to the law."
I am reminded of what happened when, as a freshly minted PhD., I was interviewing for a teaching post I coveted. After I gave the expected seven-minute spiel about my dissertation, which had been less a research exercise than a metaphysical treatise, one of the committee members, a prominent Jesuit theologian, piped up: "But that's obvious!" I shot back: "If it's so obvious, Father, why hasn't anybody ever said it?" I didn't get the job. Only later did his remark's germ of truth occur to me: my thesis ought to have been obvious; yet precisely the occasion for it was that it wasn't obvious. The same goes with the Pope's natural-law spiel.

It ought to be obvious that, without acknowledgement of the natural law for the reasons given, human positive law is merely the expression of will-to-power. But alas, that is not obvious to many—even scarier, some of those to whom it is obvious see nothing wrong with law as mere will-to-power. Heck, if you've got the numbers and the guns, you might as well use to them to good effect. And all governments do. But if you think that law is backed just by them, then you have no argument against other governments who do things with them that you don't like. You don't even have arguments, beyond naked appeals to self-interest, against other people who don't acknowledge your moral standards. And even those appeals tend to work only with people who don't need to hear them.

Appeals to natural-law are not very popular in academia today for the same reason they weren't terribly popular in the ancient world either: it is always said that one man's natural law is another's mere custom. It does take some time to sort out the difference, certainly; but humanity has had that time, as the UN's original Universal Declaration on Human Rights makes rather clear. Indeed, it is virtually undeniable that there is a difference, even if some dissent is inevitable about what falls on which side of the line. Undeniable, that is, unless one wants to argue that human nature is much more of a product than a given. There are some who do argue that. But that's because, hating the natural law, they are motivated to deny that its basis is something discoverable in ourselves rather than invented by people we dislike.

In my experience, their deeper motivation is usually about sex. Even when it's more than that, we're dealing with the deliberate dulling of conscience. But conscience, in the end, will have its revenge. It's a law of nature, after all.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Limbo: here we go again

As announced over a year ago, the Vatican's International Theological Commission has been discussing the hoary topic of limbo this week. Older Catholics wonder what happened to that belief; younger Catholics, when they've heard of it at all, wonder what all the fuss was about. Soon we'll get a kind of answer to both. Most likely, nobody will be satisfied.

To me, the main interest of this theological hypothesis is how some people use it to call the teaching authority of the Church into question. I have criticized that practice and proposed a reformulation of limbo here.