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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Life is war

This morning and willy-nilly, I have had that truth brought home to me in several ways.

One was by a homily of the young-and-upcoming Fr. Philip Powell, OP, posted in full at his blog, which he uses primarily to do just that. It is entitled "The Devil's Poisoned Bumperstickers." Now, whenever I'm alerted to a cleric who's going to admit that the Devil actually does something interesting, I listen; such perspicacious priests cannot be taken for granted in the Church today. In this case I was not disappointed. Fr. Powell begins by quoting Christ's words in the gospel reading for today:

"Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts?" What do you fear? What worry eats at your spirit, chewing your joy? Who took your peace?

I am convinced that for a whole lot of us it is the Devil who teaches us our theology, the Devil who instructs us in the faith. He uses half-truths, whispered hints at beauty, mumbled tries at goodness. He hands you a penny and calls you rich; he burps in your face and calls it a gentle summer breeze. And you buy it. We all do at one time or another. He tells us what we think we need to hear. What we wish were true. He lies and we believe it and we take notes and we repeat to him what he taught us because he fears the truth all the time as much as we do only some of the time.
Read it all through the link provided. The two bumper-stickers Fr. Powell discusses are God loves us unconditionally; God accepts us just as we are and (here's the really subtle one) I have an adult faith; I’m into spirituality not religion. The Devil uses such half-truths as a way of blocking our assent to the real truth. The real truth blocked by the former is that God loves us in order to change us, so that repentance is a precondition of receiving his love to good effect. The real truth blocked by the latter is that spirituality is meant to be incarnate in religion, so that each is misleading when divorced from the other.

Once I pondered that, I knew that by the grace of God, I have not been personally taken in by either of those bumper-stickers. But I was also shown at once what my bumper sticker is. I realize that, in order to rise to eternal life in Christ, we must die with him in our daily lives. Wracked by sin and destined for death, the old self must be broken and remade so that we can become what we are re-created to be. That entails repentance and suffering as features of ongoing conversion and sanctification. All true, and all too true. But I find it too easy, almost natural, to become so immersed in that reality that I lose sight of the small consolations and foretastes of glory that ordinary life also offers. As a result, I am subject to discouragement and cynicism, which in turn lead to depression and sloth. The suffering and struggle seems so much more real, more persistent, than the beauties and consolations that I am tempted to experience this life as a bad joke that God enjoys playing on me. That temptation comes straight from hell. But resisting it is ongoing spiritual combat, and I must admit that I don't win every skirmish.

Day after day, my nose is rubbed in the raw facticity of this fallen world, of which I am very much a part. For example, I love the theology of the body—as a set of ideas that I understand a lot better than your average Catholic. Accordingly, I venerate marriage and family as the Church understands them—as ideals I have failed even to approach. In reality, I'm twice-divorced-and-annulled, and can't even afford to have a regular, face-to-face relationship with my children. Why the latter? See the previous post. It's rather depressing, and gets steadily more so if I neglect my spiritual exercises. Dating, which is the worldly answer, is also a non-starter. Because I pay my child support I cannot afford to pay for dates, which puts me at a huge disadvantage with single women—save for rich widows, of whom I know none. And even if I did have the cash, all the women I like are married! Of course they are: what else would they be? I have got the message that the Lord wants me to focus on his love and the mission he has for me. But then there's that job-and-career issue again. I must walk, nay run, by faith and trust—not by sight.

Many people have their own, relevantly similar stories to tell. But where and how are we going to experience the joy and consolation that help keep us moving toward the light at the end of our tunnels? The beauties and pleasures of this world are ephemeral; sooner or later, they will dissipate and let us down. We must seek to fulfill the purpose of life: union with God. The rock-bottom prerequisite for that is real humility, which in turn entails being broken. And given human weakness, we need spiritual discipline to stay broken, contrite, and humble. The life of spiritual discipline designed for the purpose—prayer, liturgy, sacrifice, devotions—is called ascesis, and the monastic tradition, especially of Eastern Christianity, exists to enable some people to devote their lives to it, both for their own salvation and as a sign to the rest of us of what we must make out of our own lives in the world. When we have an ascetical regime and stay faithful to it, we are given the consolations we need.

Most of us laity, however, don't have the luxury of performing explicitly religious acts most of the time. Aside from the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, our most important ascesis is daily life—its challenges, struggles, and sufferings. But the Church these days seems to be doing little to facilitate what I shall call an ascetical awareness that would equip laity to cultivate their daily lives as spiritual sacrifices. As usual, Phil Blosser puts the point well:

It used to be that Catholics had to fast from midnight Saturday until they received Communion at Mass Sunday morning. That fast has now been reduced to one hour before Communion. There is little guilt in Catholicism and virtually no fear of punishment, and everyone is virtually assured of going to heaven. What's to fear? Who goes to confession anymore? Whatever became of sin? If none of these things matter, furthermore, why trouble oneself to go to Mass at all? The music and homilies are pretty bad anyway.

Thus the few things that remain, as residual reminders of a former Catholic world strike us as rather quaint or strange, if not troubling. Fasting? Abstinence? But why? As if it's not bad enough that the Church should intrude into our bedrooms, why should the Church intrude into our dietary lives? What business is it of the Church's what I eat or how much? Days of both fasting and abstinence have been reduced to two -- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, whereas there were numerous days in the ancient Church calendar when fasts and abstinences were imposed. Why have we reduced their number? Couldn't we just do away them altogether? Isn't this the 21st century??? Haven't we matured, become more knowledgeable, more educated, smarter? Or perhaps we're forgetting something -- something of which the Bible and writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and St. Josemaria Escriva ceaselessly remind us -- that life is war, or, as they were more apt to put it, a ceaseless spiritual battle. One's life is never a plateau. Perhaps even Bob Dylan glimpsed a dimension of this when he wrote, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Again: all too true. Phil's discussion is about all the negative reaction to Opus Dei, but his explanation is on target and must be generalized. The trouble with American Catholicism today is that it's too darn comfortable. It positively encourages people to forget that "life is war," a spiritual combat in which we are urged and equipped to overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Once we forget that, we forget that we belong to the Church Militant, which make us incapable of appreciating what it means to belong to the Church Triumphant. We cannot bear what C.S. Lewis called "the weight of glory." Thus we deprive ourselves of the only consolations that won't let us down. Is it any wonder why more Catholics have recourse to booze and anti-depressants than to confession?

The final little thing reminding me that "life is war" is that it's the end of the month, so that tomorrow I must render both my rent and my car payment. That reminds me of what I have against my landlord and my insurance company. But in their case, the more interesting combat is with myself.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Well, what of it?

I just took an often-used, online job-satisfaction survey. Here's the result:

Your Job Dissatisfaction Level is 64%

Your job is a total bummer, and probably the worst job you've ever had.
Your co-workers stink. Your boss is a jerk. And your company is probably in trouble.
Think about finding a new job quickly, even if it's just a not-so-great transition job.
You've got to get out of there as quickly as you can!

Do you know anybody wanting to hire a middle-aged Catholic philosopher/theologian who's been out of academia for a decade and is struggling to land a book contract?

I don't blame you: neither do I.
God's sense of humor is an acquired taste. But you who feed on spiritual meat, not milk, knew that already.

Quotation of the year, and then some

I know, it's still spring. But can you top this?

We need to remember the political version of Occam’s razor: Never imagine conspiracy where incompetence is a sufficient explanation. —Jody Bottum, First Things

Hat tip to Mine Iron Heart.

The doubly sweet thing about that is how well it can be generalized. For 'political' one can just as well substitute 'ecclesiastical', 'business', or even 'family'. How delicious to come up with an explanatory law that everybody can instantly recognize as both prudent and charitable.

Vocations: stop the insanity!

A popular definition of insanity is: "doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result." People who want to remarry after they've been divorced, or who divorce their spouses with a view to remarrying, should keep that in mind. I once dated somebody who only came to grips with her issues later on when her fourth marriage bit the dust. (I had dated her between her second and third marriages.) What goes for marriage also goes for the priesthood.

While I would not of course call him insane personally, the director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' Office of Vocations is reliably channeling what I can only call a kind of insanity that is prevalent among relatively "progressive" bishops. Fr. James Forsen has written for that diocese's widely circulated newspaper an article on the shortage of priestly vocations there. His etiology is accurate as far as it goes, as are his prescriptions. But they offer nothing new. That is a problem because it betrays ignorance of the most important cause.

I've written about this topic before, and I stand by what I wrote. But let's look at Fr. Forsen's prescriptions:
  • Talk About It. If vocations are not on your radar, how can we expect that it will be on the radar of young people? Appreciate the priests and religious you have. Work with them so that the attractiveness of Catholic life in general and priestly and religious life in particular, are evident. If the priesthood sounds and looks like a "problem," it's no surprise that potential candidates keep their distance.
  • Make It A Pastoral Priority. Talk to your pastoral council or members of the parish staff about the importance of keeping church vocations in the spotlight in your parish. Vocation work can easily get crowded out if it isn't one of a parish's pastoral priorities. See if the pastor and the pastoral council would consider appointing one person to be responsible to do vocation promotion in your parish in an on-going manner.
  • Play To Our Strength. Nothing is more attractive than a disciple following the example of Jesus in his or her life, and a lot of that example was and remains counter-cultural. We must live by Jesus' different set of values, a life where "It isn't about me, it's about you," a life where there is something greater than the dollar or the status or the attention, a life worth sacrificing for the sake of others. That will foster in some the needed desire to love the people of God—to be with them when they are sick, to comfort the family when someone has died, to courageously champion the rights of those oppressed, to be willing to lay down one's life through care for God's people, even to the point of willingly sacrificing the happiness of being independent or having one's own family.

Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is what it leaves out. That so many bishops and their subordinates keep on leaving it out signifies a kind of insanity.

As one of Fr. Forsen's interviewees put it, the priesthood is "not even on the radar screeen" of most teenage boys and young men. That is true, and he agreed with her. But why is it true? Necessary as it is, will any of the above suffice to put the priesthood on their radar screen? Fr. Forsen seems to think so. Yet, while many priests and pastors, even in LA, do what he suggests, in his and many other dioceses we're not exactly seeing a throng headed for the seminary. What's the problem?

Given my experience as a lifelong active Catholic, a seminary applicant in youth, a seminary teacher in young adulthood, and a friend of several seminarians and young priests now, I see the problem as the culture of progressive Catholicism itself. Dioceses run by frankly orthodox, old-fashioned bishops, such as that of Lincoln, Nebraska, are having no trouble attracting a good and healthy pool of seminarians. Traditionalist movements, such as the FSSP, have no trouble with that either. But dioceses not run by such bishops are having such trouble. Why?

Los Angeles is a good example of what I'm talking about. Cardinal Roger Mahony is counter-cultural about immigration and health care, but not about birth control, homosexuality, liturgy, and ascesis. He is a dedicated priest, but says nothing to explain the spiritual power of consecrated celibacy and exalts lay ministry as vitally important. He urges Catholics to bring their faith to public life, but opposes disciplining Catholic "pro-choice" politicians. Even as he's engaged in a running battle with government to keep the Archdiocese's sex-abuse files confidential, he refuses to acknowledge that homosexuality in the priesthood was the major contributing factor to the original scandal. Most of the altar servers in his and many other dioceses are girls. He welcomes Rainbow Sashers to communion but won't allow easy access in his diocese to the indult Tridentine Mass. Even his $194-million new cathedral has won good reviews mostly from those who haven't outgrown Bauhaus. Accordingly, the vision of Catholicism and of serving Christ presented by Mahony is doctrinally selective, sexually ambiguous, aesthetically impoverished, and not entirely honest. In other words, it well exemplifies the culture of progressive Catholicism. As a result and regardless of intent, the message about priesthood conveyed by Mahony and like-minded bishops is that of an underpaid, sex-starved profession for effeminates, one that affords little opportunity to accomplish something valuable that couldn't just as well be accomplished in other, more gratifying ways. How could that be on young men's radar screens?

Give us more Bruskewitzs (see 'Lincoln' above), Chaputs, and Curtisses instead. Then we'll see a lot more vocations.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

It's about time...

A few weeks ago I commented on the pro-choice vandalism expedition led by Prof. Sally Jacobsen of Northern Kentucky University. Now she and her sheep, I mean students, have been charged by the local county DA with misdemeanor offenses.

Looks like the double standard doesn't apply in Kentucky. I wish I could say the same for New York and Washington.

Doesn't everybody know that women were priests?

My post yesterday about Elaine Pagels reminded me of a particularly silly idea that's been going around lately. It's the idea that women in the early Church were priests not just in pagan religions, not just in heretical sects such as the Gnostics and Collyridians, but in the real, honest-to-goodness, orthodox Catholic Church. Scott Carson of An Examined Life has drawn my attention to an NPR story, reported by Sylvia Poggioli, that seems to take that idea as undisputed fact. Now I listen to NPR daily—either The Morning Edition or All Things Considered, depending on when my boss lets me sleep—but missed that one. I'm glad I did: I didn't have my Alka-Seltzer with me.

Scott understandably asks: "Where do they get the morons who write these things, anyway?" The facts cited by the "pilgrims" of FutureChurch in the story have been known for well over a thousand years yet never, until now, have been taken as evidence that women were priests in the Church. But people will prattle on as if such evidence were obvious all along and just covered up by some Vast, Right-Wing Ecclesiastical Conspiracy. William Tighe, Professor of History at Muhlenberg College, has done yeoman work rebutting the latest allegedly scholarly version of this flapdoodle. But Poggioli and the other snake-oil salespeople don't listen because what they believe is obvious to them; it's obvious to them because that's what want to believe; and they want to believe it because so many people with whom they empathize want so badly to believe it. Consequently, they believe that anybody who disagrees with them must be either benighted or in bad faith.

I think we all know that the same sort of self-deception causes many lives and relationships to founder. For years, decades, I badly wanted to be a priest, but refused to admit to myself that I didn't have the vocation. As a result, much that was good in my life was spoiled. I now have more years behind me than ahead of me to make of my life the sort of offering the Lord desires. Sometimes I'm tempted to bitterness, but in my better moments I pray against that and thank God for the gift of love. Let's hope that more women out there don't end up in the same boat I did.

B16 on the rationality of faith

As Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope wrote several works of theology that addressed, among other things, the relation between faith and reason. Among those, IMHO, the two best are Introduction to Christianity and God and the World. Yet expounding how those books do it would take up the next week's worth of posts. In this setting it's more convienient to discuss his most recent statement on the topic, made in an astonishingly good Q&A session with high-school and college students.

In a post a few weeks ago, I first cited it along with other intriguing statements he made in the same session. Here's the pertinent passage for today:

To come to the definitive question, I would say: either God exists or he doesn't. There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of the creative Reason that stands at the beginning of everything and is the origin of everything—the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom—or one upholds the priority of the irrational, according to which everything in our world and in our lives is only an accident, marginal, an irrational product, and even reason would be a product of irrationality. In the end, one cannot "prove" either of these views, but Christianity's great choice is the choice of reason and the priority of reason. This seems like an excellent choice to me, demonstrating how a great Intelligence, to which we can entrust ourselves, stands behind everything.
That's one of the best ways of putting the question that I've ever seen. Is reason or the irrational more basic?

If one believes, as did Bertrand Russell, that there is no Creator and "the world is just there, that's all," then bedrock reality is just unreasoning, brute fact. Reason in such a world is a natural capacity adaptive for survival and, for those with the time and wit, helps to invest life with values and meanings that we invent. But such things die with us. There is no "purpose," no objective "point" to the whole thing, and the Universe doesn't care what we make of it instead.

The theistic alternative has it that the world makes more sense than that. There is an explanation for the world's existence, and what such an explanation would have to cite—a rational intelligence—would also indicate a purpose, an objective "point" to the whole thing. Surely it is at least as reasonable to believe that the existence of the world is explicable in terms of a reason or reasons than that the world is mere brute fact. Why suspend the search for explanation just when it gets most interesting? Why not ask: "Why does the world exist?" One can of course, as did Russell and as do many atheists, so limit what counts as explanation as to rule out, even in principle, any explanation for the world's existence. But that's the sort of narrow-mindedness of which only those who pride themselves on their broad-mindedness are capable.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Upcoming Vatican videoconference on priestly celibacy

I intend to watch. If you have time, you should too.

The Pagels Imposture?

If you care enough about the Gospel of Judas, Gnosticism, The DaVinci Code, or any of the recent, widely publicized efforts to establish that early Christianity was very different from what mainstream Christianity has long said it was, you know the name of Elaine Pagels. She is Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of several books in the above vein, of which the first was The Gnostic Gospels (1979; 'TGG' for short), still in print after all these years. By now, Pagels is the media's chief go-to person for this whole nest of topics. As a student at Columbia University back in the disco days—for which I am not nostalgic, lest anybody get the wrong idea—I took an introductory course on the New Testament with her just as she was finishing the aforesaid book. Partly for that reason, I believe I have a better understanding of what she's about than most people do. That's why a new attack on her old scholarship so piques my interest and, I believe, should interest anybody equipped to understand what's at issue.

A few days ago, Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ, of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, published an article for CWN (linked in my title) arguing that in TGG, on an apparently obscure point nonetheless important for her thesis, Pagels has "carpentered a non-existent quotation, putatively from an ancient source, by silent suppression of relevant context, silent omission of troublesome words, and a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text, so as deliberately to pervert the meaning of the original." Her motivation for such a scholarly sin—a sin that would be very serious indeed if Mankowski's analysis is correct—was to help undermine the orthodox theological arguments of St. Irenaeus, the second-century author of Against Heresies, which until now has been our best source of information about Gnosticism and other early-Christian heretical movements. If one can succeed in undermining AH, then the door is wide open for the sort of theology that Pagels has retailed in academia, that Dan Brown has repackaged for the more tabloid-minded, and that heretical pseudo-mystics have preferred since the beginning of Christianity.

Some authors past and present have sought to explain AH's long-unique status by maintaining that the early Church suppressed and destroyed the texts of her opponents, thus forcing us to rely for information about "heresies" on what she says about them. That is nonsense. While we do have very few extant codices of such texts, and many more that are discussed in orthodox works are altogether lost, pretty much the same is true about orthodox Christian literature from the same period. Given that the Church was savagely if intermittently persecuted throughout the Roman Empire until the early fourth century, and given also that much literature of all kinds was totally destroyed with the great library of Alexandria in the fifth century, none of that should surprise. So, somebody who wants to discredit the early Church's criteria for orthodoxy among scholars must take a different tack. That's the tack that Pagels takes.

I find Mankowski's critique all too plausible. And I say so not merely because of its content, which I cannot present any more succinctly than he himself has. I say so because, even as a student in her old class, I found Pagels' whole methodology of argumentation question-begging and overreaching, and I told her so. (Not that she would have any reason to remember me after more than twenty-five years.) Perhaps that's why I only got an A-minus for the course.

Even so, I withhold final judgment until she issues her response. Knowing academics as I do, I doubt she'll deign to issue one unless and until Mankowski presents his argument in a peer-reviewed journal. This is going to be very interesting. If Mankowski is right, we will have taken another important step in discrediting the discreditors of the true Faith.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

You know you're a Catholic nerd when...

You're gonna love this. In case you aren't nerdy enough to know already, there is actually a blog called The Catholic Nerd Blog whose entries consist in filling in the blank after the phrase I've adopted as the title of this post. It's been active for a surprisingly long time, so you're bound to find some that keep you chuckling. One or two even had me belly-laughing—because they applied so well to me. How about you?

Since I don't have posting privileges over there, I e-mailed them a few of my suggestions. Feel free to do the same yourself. Here are a half-dozen others I've made up. The Catholic Nerd Bloggers should feel free to steal them.
  • ....at Mass, you sometimes find yourself mouthing the priest's prayers sotto voce, a sentence ahead of him, only to be horrified by his occasional ad-libbing.
  • ....you don't see any irony in the phrase 'more Catholic than the Pope'
  • ....you bought a satellite dish just to receive EWTN
  • ....you hang out incognito at a new parish in order to determine its orthodoxy before introducing yourself for any of the ministries
  • ....you know that the Rosary has twenty decades, and can recite all of them in a row without falling asleep

And now for my favorite:

You know you're a trad nerd if you think the following is a literal depiction of the Last Supper:

Getting ready for The DaVinci Code: the movie

There's quite a creative and attractive site up which is designed to help people forearm themselves for the questions and discussions inevitably to arise from the film version of the book. Most of the contributing authors are Catholic intellectuals, and quite orthodox ones at that.

Given how long the book's been out and talked about, we've had plenty of time to gather our arsenal. A lot of it can be found at the new site and utilized by anybody zealous enough to care and educated enough to read at the New York Times level. Let's take advantage of it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

"Convert Provocateurs"

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of Catholic-Orthodox polemics. Pontifications has just re-published a wonderful article about its most recent iteration. Read it all.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Why Divine Mercy Sunday?

Mercy is very unpopular in America today. To most people, it seems either naïve or presumptuous. Mercilessness is more respected and practiced than mercy. We are an extremely litigious lot; we set great store by a powerful military and regularly use it; overflowing with drug offenders and petty offenders, prisons can't be built fast enough. In marriages and in the workplace, we are slow to praise and quick to blame—so much so that a staggering amount of behavior can be explained as avoidance of blame—whether not the blame would be deserved. (Not for nothing does everybody with a job know what 'CYA' means.) Talk shows are filled with exposés and condemnations. We tend to think of the world, which means other people, as a very nasty place against which we must defend ourselves. As a result, life seems to get nastier all the time.

The antidote, would we but have it, is to receive and extend divine mercy. Accordingly, today's feast was instituted by Pope John Paul II on the basis of the apparitions of Christ to St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s. The image above is the one she believed herself commissioned to spread. (Its caption means: "Jesus, I trust in you.") As my desktop wallpaper, I use one derived from it. Along with it, I heartily recommend the late, great pope's encyclical Dives in Misericordia.

This whole phenomenon is a revival of old-fashioned Catholic piety at a time when many baby-boom and older Catholics, still contemning "the bad old days" that younger Catholics never knew, find all that sort of thing faintly embarassing. Contrarian that I am, it is partly for that reason that I like and observe it. But what to say to the unconvinced who, alas, include many priests?

More important than what I've opened by saying, here's part of what Jesus is alleged to have said to Sister Faustina:

On one occasion, I heard these words: My daughter, tell the whole world about My inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment.

On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.

[Let] the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My mercy. My daughter, write about My mercy towards tormented souls. Souls that make an appeal to My mercy delight Me. To such souls I grant even more graces than they ask. I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to My compassion, but on the contrary, I justify him in My unfathomable and inscrutable mercy. Write: before I come as a just Judge, I first open wide the door of My mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice.

From all My wounds, like from streams, mercy flows for souls, but the wound in My Heart is the fountain of unfathomable mercy. From this fountain spring all graces for souls. The flames of compassion burn Me. I desire greatly to pour them out upon souls. Speak to the whole world about My mercy.

It's most interesting how such a theme contradicts what so many older Catholics think of as that of the bad old days. Everything that exists has its origin in the divine mercy, and Jesus wants to show us mercy even more, really, than most of us desire it. His justice will be visited in the end only on those who don't want his mercy. Can you find here the familiar image of the avenging God just waiting to zap us when we break the rules, which is usually taken to mean having sex with the wrong people and/or the wrong way, and omitting certain required pious acts? Neither can I.

Even so, one cannot desire mercy if one refuses to acknowledge that one needs it. For many Catholics these days, that is probably the biggest stumbling block to a relationship with God. If one does not agree with the Church about what in one's life is precluding or rupturing one's relationship with God, then one is not going to credit devotion to the Divine Mercy much, save perhaps as a sappily pious acknowledgement that God will bless "me" no matter what "I" choose to do. Notice use of the first person pronoun. Many people who believe they are not such great sinners as to need infinite mercy, who indeed sometimes doubt that any sin is so great as to close their hearts to salvation, also believe that others, such as those who sexually abuse minors, shouldn't get mercy because they don't deserve any. Well, nobody "deserves" mercy and nobody should be exempt from just civil laws. But one cannot appreciate either the virtue or the metaphysical reality of mercy without a humble, honest, well-informed sense of sin that begins with oneself. With that sense, we hate sin all the more yet love all sinners even as we acknowledge ourselves to be loved.

Feminine Genius

Genevieve Kineke is the sort of Catholic woman we desperately need more of: on fire for God, smoothly articulate, wife and mother of five, creative thinker about femininity and the spiritual life...and attractive to boot! Her public career and blog, linked in my title, are dedicated to the proposition that it is now up to women to rescue civilization by understanding the mystical significance of femininity and living it in the visible world. In an era when equality for women typically means women being more like men—which most women don't really like when they come to it—this is a balmy breeze. This man basks in it. Would that I knew more women like this!

Better than any further introduction on my part are Mark Gordon's two recent podcast interviews with her. Hurry: if you don't get there this week, they will go to archive. And by listening, I mean sitting at her feet and absorbing it all. Kineke is a doyenne of the theology of the body.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Young adult Catholics: which acronyms apply to you?

I just came across this artfully sophomoric lexicon from Thomas of American Papist, who in turn got it from Seize the Dei. I'm amazed that Thomas' reposting garnered no comments given that his blog gets about 20 times as much traffic as mine. So I'm reposting the punch lines here in hopes of engaging the introspection, if not the feedback, of the young.

ACART --- Accepts Church And Republican Teachings (M, F)
CHIM --- Catholic Hyper-Intellectual Male (M)
CINO --- Catholic In Name Only (M, F)
CISTO --- Catholic In Skimpy Tight Outfit (hopefully F)
CLOWSIC ---- Cosmo Lifestyle On Weekdays, Sundays In Church (F)
COGISFAW --- Catholic Old Guy, Is Searching For Adolescent Wife (M)
CONOPE --- Catholic, Orthodox, No Other Personality Evident (M, F)
CHUPAME -- Catholic Having Unhealthy Preoccupation About Middle Earth (mainly M)
FOCID --- Flirts Outrageously, Chastity In Doubt (M, F)
FOYIC --- Flirts Outrageously, Yet Is Chaste (M, F)
FOFEBA --- Full Of Faith, Empty Bank Account
FOTSAV --- Full Of The Spirit, Alcoholic Variety (M, F)
GQC ---- "GQ" Catholic (M,F)
ISOFF --- In Search Of Free Food (M, F)
JLAW / JLAH --- Just Looking to Acquire a Wife / Husband (M, F)
MAWBAN / MAWBAP --- Might As Well Be A Nun / Priest (F, M)
OSCAR ---- Overly Sexual Catholic, Advise Restraint (M, F)
SOFTNOS --- Shares Our Faith Though Not Our Sanity (M, F)
SOTVEM --- Seen Once Then Vanishes Ever-More (mostly F)
WOVUOS --- Woman Of Virtue, Underwear Of Sin (F)
WIRTEP --- Will Inevitably Refuse To Ever Pay (M,F)

Thomas remarks of himself: "This FOFEBA, far from being just a GQC, is probably closer to a CHIM." I am pleased to note that I can say the same for myself, even though I am definitely not young. Of course, were I one of those pathetic COGISFAWs, I would probably be in search of a WOVUOS. Come to think of it, a WOVUOS wouldn't be bad at any age!

I re-extend Thomas' invitation to ask: What are you?

The Great Mutation

"He has risen, he is not here." When Jesus spoke for the first time to the disciples about the Cross and the Resurrection, as they were coming down from the Mount of the Transfiguration, they questioned what "rising from the dead" meant (Mk 9:10). At Easter we rejoice because Christ did not remain in the tomb, his body did not see corruption; he belongs to the world of the living, not to the world of the dead; we rejoice because he is the Alpha and also the Omega, as we proclaim in the rite of the Paschal Candle; he lives not only yesterday, but today and for eternity (cf. Heb 13:8). But somehow the Resurrection is situated so far beyond our horizon, so far outside all our experience that, returning to ourselves, we find ourselves continuing the argument of the disciples: Of what exactly does this "rising" consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history?

A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life - if it really happened, which he did not actually believe - would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest "mutation", absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.

The discussion, that began with the disciples, would therefore include the following questions: What happened there? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and for me personally? Above all: what happened? Jesus is no longer in the tomb. He is in a totally new life. But how could this happen? What forces were in operation? The crucial point is that this man Jesus was not alone, he was not an "I" closed in upon itself. He was one single reality with the living God, so closely united with him as to form one person with him. He found himself, so to speak, in an embrace with him who is life itself, an embrace not just on the emotional level, but one which included and permeated his being. His own life was not just his own, it was an existential communion with God, a "being taken up" into God, and hence it could not in reality be taken away from him. Out of love, he could allow himself to be killed, but precisely by doing so he broke the definitiveness of death, because in him the definitiveness of life was present. He was one single reality with indestructible life, in such a way that it burst forth anew through death.

Let us express the same thing once again from another angle. His death was an act of love. At the Last Supper he anticipated death and transformed it into self-giving. His existential communion with God was concretely an existential communion with God’s love, and this love is the real power against death, it is stronger than death. The Resurrection was like an explosion of light, an explosion of love which dissolved the hitherto indissoluble compenetration of "dying and becoming". It ushered in a new dimension of being, a new dimension of life in which, in a transformed way, matter too was integrated and through which a new world emerges.

It is clear that this event is not just some miracle from the past, the occurrence of which could be ultimately a matter of indifference to us. It is a qualitative leap in the history of "evolution" and of life in general towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself. But how does this happen? How can this event effectively reach me and draw my life upwards towards itself? The answer, perhaps surprising at first but totally real, is: this event comes to me through faith and Baptism. For this reason Baptism is part of the Easter Vigil, as we see clearly in our celebration today, when the sacraments of Christian initiation will be conferred on a group of adults from various countries. Baptism means precisely this, that we are not dealing with an event in the past, but that a qualitative leap in world history comes to me, seizing hold of me in order to draw me on. Baptism is something quite different from an act of ecclesial socialization, from a slightly old-fashioned and complicated rite for receiving people into the Church. It is also more than a simple washing, more than a kind of purification and beautification of the soul. It is truly death and resurrection, rebirth, transformation to a new life.

How can we understand this? I think that what happens in Baptism can be more easily explained for us if we consider the final part of the short spiritual autobiography that Saint Paul gave us in his Letter to the Galatians. Its concluding words contain the heart of this biography: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). I live, but I am no longer I. The "I", the essential identity of man - of this man, Paul - has been changed. He still exists, and he no longer exists. He has passed through a "not" and he now finds himself continually in this "not": I, but no longer I. With these words, Paul is not describing some mystical experience which could perhaps have been granted him, and could be of interest to us from a historical point of view, if at all. No, this phrase is an expression of what happened at Baptism. My "I" is taken away from me and is incorporated into a new and greater subject. This means that my "I" is back again, but now transformed, broken up, opened through incorporation into the other, in whom it acquires its new breadth of existence.

Paul explains the same thing to us once again from another angle when, in Chapter Three of the Letter to the Galatians, he speaks of the "promise", saying that it was given to an individual - to one person: to Christ. He alone carries within himself the whole "promise". But what then happens with us? Paul answers: You have become one in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28). Not just one thing, but one, one only, one single new subject. This liberation of our "I" from its isolation, this finding oneself in a new subject means finding oneself within the vastness of God and being drawn into a life which has now moved out of the context of "dying and becoming". The great explosion of the Resurrection has seized us in Baptism so as to draw us on. Thus we are associated with a new dimension of life into which, amid the tribulations of our day, we are already in some way introduced. To live one’s own life as a continual entry into this open space: this is the meaning of being baptized, of being Christian. This is the joy of the Easter Vigil. The Resurrection is not a thing of the past, the Resurrection has reached us and seized us. We grasp hold of it, we grasp hold of the risen Lord, and we know that he holds us firmly even when our hands grow weak. We grasp hold of his hand, and thus we also hold on to one another’s hands, and we become one single subject, not just one thing. I, but no longer I: this is the formula of Christian life rooted in Baptism, the formula of the Resurrection within time. I, but no longer I: if we live in this way, we transform the world.

Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil homily, 2006

Hurrah! for the new format

At last! This blog's new format is easier for me to work with and, I hope, more attractive for all readers. I've also adopted Haloscan as my comment software because it has trackback capability and is a bit easier for visitors to use.

My apologies to those who have graced me with comments before. Your contributions have been obliterated (along with my scintillating rebuttals of my opponents, of course!)

I hope you enjoy the change as much as I do. Thanks for visiting my blog. And thanks to the doughty Christopher Blosser for his indispensable help and advice!

Cardinal Martini: giving a good name to liberalism

Carlo Cardinal Martini, Archbishop Emeritus of Milan and the favored papabile of liberals at the last conclave, has apparently rattled the Vatican with his latest couple of statements on bioethics. The one of more immediate public interest is his argument that it can be legitimate for married couples in which one spouse has AIDs to use condoms during sexual intercourse in order to prevent its transmission to the other. So I'll start with that before moving on to the other issue, which to my mind is more theologically serious.

As Martini has pointed out, the principle of double effect often employed in Catholic moral theology can plausibly be invoked here. The argument is that, so long as the couples in question do not intend the contraceptive effect of condom use as either a means or an end, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with condom use for the sake of disease prevention. As I understand it, the Vatican's problem with condom use in such circumstances is not that it's intrinsically wrong, but that the unintended, broader effects of promoting a policy of condom use for such a purpose would outweigh its intended, good effect for individual couples. (If I'm wrong about that, somebody please correct me.)

The Vatican has a good point. Given human lust, and the heedlessness often induced by lust, a sexual practice initially adopted for good reason often spawns related practices that make the cure worse than the disease. The fact is that the more sex people think they can have without bad consequences, the more sex they are going to have with more partners, and thus the more bad consequences they are likely to cause. This is why I believe the Vatican is right to oppose throwing condoms at people in areas where AIDS is epidemic. Still, a good case can be made that it would be at best imprudent to insist that the couples in question decline the condom option as due "religious submission" to what amounts to a broad pastoral judgment. So while I unreservedly profess the teaching of the Catholic Church that direct, intended interruption of the generative process is intrinsically evil, I also believe that the issue of condom use to prevent transmission of fatal diseases should be left to the consciences of the couples themselves. And so I agree with Martini on this, at least insofar as I understand his position. In any case, the issue seems to me to be pastoral not doctrinal.

The doctrinal issue arises on the other main point Martini has made: we cannot say with certainty that that each and every human conceptus is a human person from the moment of conception. Let it be granted that every distinct, individual human being is a human person; Martini's claim is that, prior to the developmental stage when a fertilized egg would "twin" if it's going to twin, we cannot say that such a blastocyst is or contains any distinct, individual human being and thus a human person. It follows that, in our present state of scientific knowledge, we cannot say that every blastocyst is a human person. Again, I believe that is correct.

But I would also insist that nothing, as yet, logically follows about how we should behave toward the conceptus. Given that most concepti are not going to twin, most are human persons; and even if the ones that will twin are not or do not contain human persons, there are other reasons why they should not be eliminated or used merely as means to good ends, such as stem-cell research. For one thing, such acts would be contraceptive, which is intrinsically evil; for another, we don't know that such concepti aren't or don't contain human persons. If we err in such a matter, it should be on the side of caution. The Church has always taught as much; moral theologians call it "tutiorism", i.e., the principle that it's best to be on the safer (tutior) side. In this case that seems undeniable. For scientific progress may eventually yield enough knowledge to enable metaphysicians to conclude that every conceptus either is a human person or contains at least one. In the 19th century, genetics and neonatology progressed to the point where the Church became more certain than before that at least most early-stage babies in the womb are human persons. She tightened her pastoral policy about abortion accordingly.

As I understand him, Martini doesn't seem sensitive enough to such concerns. The Vatican is right to dislike that. But he has at least outlined a "progressive" position that is not heretical. For that, the Church owes him a lot.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Feast of St. Anselm

Today is the feast of one of the greatest figures in Catholic history: St. Anselm, an Italian (Piedmontese) who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death in 1109 and previously abbot of the great monastery of Bec in Normandy. What's great about him is not so much his sanctity, which was not as spectacular as that of many other canonized saints. It was his range of gifts. He was an exemplar of monastic, political, and above all intellectual life, and grew to prominence in two countries other than his native one. A more versatile and talented servant of God can hardly be imagined.

While best-known among philosophers for his argument for God's existence—which in my opinion is wrongly considered an "ontological" argument—his treatment of the freedom of the will in De Casu Diaboli and De Libertate Arbitrii is stellar, indeed the most illuminating I have ever read. You can find a good English translation of his extant philosophical works here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Is B16 nasty enough?

I raise that question in an ironic spirit because, after this pontificate's first year, the consensus among aggressively orthodox Catholics—of whom some consider me one—is that Benedict is not kicking enough butt. In his anniversarial summary, NCR's Vatican correspondent John Allen speaks as wisely as usual, and speaks well of the Pope; but he notes that the Right is somewhat uneasy.

Needless to say, the butt that such Catholics want to see kicked is progressive butt, and progs are generally relieved that they have not felt the boot—at least not nearly enough to propel them out the door. But the progs also think the Pope too accommodating toward the traditionalists, who want a "universal indult" for Roman Catholics to worship according to the Tridentine Rite. Though they have not got that—at least not yet—negotiations with the SSPX are earnest and ongoing. And of course he has repudiated none of the moral and ecclesiological teachings that so outraged the progs while he headed the CDF. Clearly this pope is nobody's ideological hatchet man. But neither can he be said to pull punches when punches are called for.

On the question of Islam, for example, he has taken a harder line than his predecessor. While by no means giving up on respect and interreligious dialogue, he insists on "reciprocity." That means that if Muslims expect and enjoy the right to practice their religion freely and openly in non-Muslim lands, then Christians and others should enjoy, even if they do not expect, the same right for themselves in Muslim lands. Needless to say, such reciprocity is not forthcoming in most Muslim lands and probably won't be for a very long time, if ever. That is a clear violation of the UN Charter—not to mention the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to which most such lands ostensibly subscribe. And that very disparity affords the Church and the West a moral high ground that secularist "tolerance" of other cultures does not. A very smart move.

Then there's the question of Western decadence, about which Muslims often have uncomfortably accurate things to say. In his Passion (Palm) Sunday homily, B16 addressed himself especially to young people thus:

The cross speaks of sacrifice, it was said, the cross is a sign of the negation of life. We, however, want a full life, without restrictions and renunciations. We want to live, we just want to live. We do not let ourselves be limited by precepts and prohibitions -- it was said, and continues to be said -- we want wealth and plentitude. All this seems convincing and attractive; it is the language of the serpent that says to us: "Do not be fearful. Eat calmly from all the trees of the garden!"

You just can't get more explicit than that. Then, on Good Friday, there was this meditation on the Seventh Station of the Cross:
Our arrogance, our violence, our injustices all press down upon the body of Christ. They weigh upon him ... and he falls a second time,to show us the unbearable burden of our sins. But what is it that today, in particular, strikes at Christ’s holy body?

Surely God is deeply pained by the attack on the family. Today we seem to be witnessing a kind of anti-Genesis,a counter-plan, a diabolical pride aimed at eliminating the family. There is a move to reinvent mankind, to modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God.

But, to take God’s place, without being God,is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture. May Christ’s fall open our eyesto see once more the beautiful face, the true face, the holy face of the family.The face of the family which all of us need.
I suppose one could get even more explicit than that, but why bother once more? Everybody knows what's being referred to.

The Pope appears unlikely to clean house by showing the door to unruly family members. As I've often suggested before, demographics are at least as likely to winnow the chaff as juridical measures and would be far less costly. Instead, Benedict proposes the true, the good, and the beautiful; he calls the false, the evil, and the ugly by their right names; and he invites all, by example as well as word, to conversion of heart. Unlike some of my fellow conservative Catholics, I've come to believe that, for the moment at least, that's about as nasty as he needs to be.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

B16 on Intelligent Design: mathematics

Yesterday I quoted a bit of the Pope's recent Q&A philosophizing on intelligent design. One commenter noticed that B16 thinks of mathematics—at least at a certain level—as something we invent rather than discover, so that its remarkable fit with the structure of the laws of nature suggests an explanation in terms of a grand designer. Since there is an alternative view of mathematical ontology, I think the commenter was right to be surprised by that.

Philosophers of mathematics divide roughly into "platonists" or "realists" and "nominalists" or "anti-realists." (If you have studied some philosophy, go here for background.) The realists are those who take the indispensability of mathematics for science as evidence that mathematical entities (which I shall call "M's" for short) belong in our ontology, our inventory of what-there-is, so that M's can be said to "exist." But we need to be clear about what that means. There's a sense in which M's exist whether we've discovered them or merely thought them up. If the former, they exist "objectively" like natural objects such as water and the Sun; if the latter, they are only mental entities, objects of thought, i.e., what the scholastics called entia rationis. So, M's clearly exist; the question is what sort of existence they have.

Given that question, mathematical realists face a further one: if M's exist objectively, so that we discover rather than invent them, how do they exist other than as mere objects of thought? They aren't material objects; they aren't spirits, like God or angels; indeed, they neither act nor change. If one grants that there are different kinds of existence, there doesn't seem to be any good answer to that question. Yet some realists, such as the late W.V.O. Quine, field the difficulty by saying that existence is univocal, so that it's not something you get in different sorts at all. Thus, to say of such-and-such that it "exists" is simply to say that it is the value of the variable in a true statement of the form: "For some x, x is F" or "There is an x such that x is F', where 'F' stands for a predicate. Such-and-such exists, therefore, just in case we can say something true about it; in the strict sense, that's what it means to say that such-and-such exists. If that's so, then it doesn't matter whether M's are invented or discovered. Even if M's are invented by human thought, they exist objectively just like artifacts such as chairs and computers.

But that solution comes at a price: existence itself is taken as a logical rather than a metaphysical notion. Thus, to exist is to belong to a universe of discourse in an n-order predicate calculus. While some 20th-century and contemporary philosophers in the tradition broadly called "analytic" don't have a problem with that, others do, and it certainly does seem counterintuitive. Rather than commit to defending mathematical realism by means of ontological univocity, then, some philosophers would rather be mathematical anti-realists and leave the broader ontological issue open.

The problem faced by anti-realists is to explain how it is that a mere human invention works so well in the discovery and expression of the way the world works, sometimes called "the laws of nature." Some try to do it by appealing to those laws themselves. Given the mathematical structure of the laws of nature, it would be surprising if evolved beings intelligent enough to understand those laws did not think up M's. But it's hard to see how that appeal is any different, in the final analysis, from realism. If the laws of nature are mathematical, then M's are there to be discovered, and what we think we think up are really just the formal features of what's already there. Our intelligence does not invent M's but merely abstracts them from natural objects. That's pretty close to the view of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Now if, in face of that, we persist in being mathematical anti-realists, then the only explanation on offer for the fit of mathematics with nature is the kind the Pope suggests. But of course one would then have to have very good reason to be an anti-realist about M's to start with. I can't think of any.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Judas: a fitting secular saint

Several Catholic bloggers have noted and praised a trenchant article posted at American Digest entitled "Judas: A Saint for Our Seasons." I share most of their enthusiasm. While overheated in spots, the author's main point cuts right to the quick of our society: the point of publishing the Gospel of Judas is to "sanctify treason." The editors of National Geographic would scoff at that, of course. But their hearts have reasons that their reason does not know.

The educated élite of our society, for the most part, worships Self and hates God. That's why we have rampant materialism, no-fault divorce, legal abortion, hatred of country, and do-it-yourself religion. It's all about "my needs" and my ideas; the result is betrayal of loved ones, of our cultural patrimony, of God, and ultimately of our very nature. Betrayal is our meme under various names. That's why, over the last several years, very old heresies are regularly resurrected by the media around Christmas and Easter time. Something similar was operative with Judas. He betrayed the Son of God because the latter didn't present the divine as the former thought he should. A Messiah who wouldn't tackle the Romans was a deluded disappointment that had to be put paid so that we could "get on with our lives."

In the end, of course, the treason served God's purpose. Jesus saved us by being killed and rising from the dead, even as Judas killed himself by losing his soul and lost his soul by killing himself. Demographics suggest that the same is happening to the West. Only a saving remnant will know and care in time. The cultured despisers won't be around.

B16 on Intelligent Design

Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that the Pope has said something intelligent about ID. It is not terribly original but it does cast a more interesting light on the topic than one usually finds. I quote in full before commenting further.

The great Galileo said that God wrote the book of nature in the form of mathematical language. He was convinced that God gave us two books: that of Sacred Scripture, and that of nature. And the language of nature – this was his conviction – is mathematics, which is therefore a language of God, of the Creator.

Let us reflect now on what mathematics is. In itself it is an abstract system, an invention of the human spirit, and as such in its purity it does not really exist. It is always realized approximately, but – as such – it is an intellectual system, a great, brilliant invention of the human spirit. The surprising thing is that this invention of our human mind is truly the key for understanding nature, that nature is really structured in a mathematical way, and that our mathematics, which our spirit invented, really is the instrument for being able to work with nature, to put it at our service through technology. It seems an almost incredible thing to me that an invention of the human intellect and the structure of the universe coincide: the mathematics we invented really gives us access to the nature of the universe and permits us to use it.

[...] I think that this intersection between what we have thought up and how nature unfolds and behaves is an enigma and a great challenge, because we see that, in the end, there is one logic that links these two: our reason could not discover the other if there were not an identical logic at the source of both. In this sense, it seems to me that mathematics – in which God as such does not appear – shows us the intelligent structure of the of the universe. Now there are also theories of chaos, but these are limited, because if chaos had the upper hand, all technology would become impossible. Technology is trustworthy only because our mathematics is trustworthy. Our science, which ultimately makes it possible to work with the energies of nature, presupposes the trustworthy, intelligent structure of matter, [...] the “design” of creation.

To come to the definitive question, I would say: either God exists or he doesn’t. There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of the creative Reason that stands at the beginning of everything and is the origin of everything – the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom – or one upholds the priority of the irrational, according to which everything in our world and in our lives is only an accident, marginal, an irrational product, and even reason would be a product of irrationality. In the end, one cannot “prove” either of these views, but Christianity’s great choice is the choice of reason and the priority of reason. This seems like an excellent choice to me, demonstrating how a great Intelligence, to which we can entrust ourselves, stands behind everything.

But to me, it seems that the real problem for the faith today is the evil in the world: one asks oneself how this is compatible with this rationality of the Creator. And here we really need that God who became flesh and who shows us how he is not only a mathematical logic, but that this primordial reason is also love. If we look at the great options, the Christian option is the more rational and human one even today. For this reason, we can confidently elaborate a philosophy, a vision of the world that is based on this priority of reason, on this trust that the creative Reason is love, and that this love is God.
Wow. These were off-the-cuff remarks at a Q&A session! An enormous amount of ground is covered here with the sure-footedness of an old professor who hasn't lost his edge. The reference to "the great Galileo" should tip one off that one is not dealing with a dogmatist, only with a defender of dogma. I don't have time to discuss particulars right now, but I do invite comment and will say more in subsequent posts.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Is Cardinal Mahony a criminal?

Anybody who knows me, either personally or by my writings, knows that I do not raise such a question lightly or out of any deep-seated hostility to the Church. When I remember that Jesus Christ himself was condemned and crucified as a criminal, I do not want to use such a term for a successor of the Apostles, the majority of whom were martyred as criminals. But I can think of no way to avoid raising the question in the case of the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Cardinal Mahony.

Leave aside my problems with his theological and liturgical predilections, which fall on what one might call the moderate left of the spectrum. I am thinking simply of his confrontations with the secular authorities about clerical sexual abuse and immigration. On the former, his record has not been encouraging. Until forced to do more, he arguably did almost as little as Cardinal Bernard Law did in Boston. Law was eventually forced by pressure from below and above to resign; yet Mahony has repeatedly stonewalled the efforts of local courts and prosecutors to gain access to diocesan records about such goings-on. The U.S. Supreme Court has just refused to let him continue to do that. We'll see what happens next. On immigration, he has effectively taken the line that current Congressional efforts to regain control of our borders are immoral and that, in effect, any broad-based restrictions on immigration are immoral. That encourages parishes and church agencies to disobey even current laws. That the Church of Los Angeles is not prosecuted for that is testimony only to the political influence of Hispanics in California and on President Bush.

I do not want here to debate the wisdom of the aforementioned stances of Mahony or judge him personally. I think it's both a theological and a political mistake to draw the lines in the sand where he has, but that's beside the point. The question at issue is a purely objective one: is he a criminal or not? I wish I felt certain the answer is no.

How much can the smoke of Satan be dispelled?

In 1970, lamenting the many ills that followed upon the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI asserted that "the smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary" of the Church. Apropos of that, the Pertinacious Papist, Dr. Phil Blosser, has posted about a recent interview with that treasure of the Church, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, on the occasion of the publication of her new biography of her late husband, The Soul of a Lion. That's of interest because Pope Pius XII, informally but in my view rightly, called Dietrich von Hildebrand "a 20th-century doctor of the Church," and the latter was the first prominent German intellectual to denounce the Nazis. Of course, the combox discussion following Blosser's post is all too typical, with the prog priest Joseph O'Leary sneering at AVH and her defenders. But the substance of the interview is well worth pondering.

One of the most interesting aspects of AVH's discussion was her account of opposition the beatification of Pope Paul VI. Apparently, she and Dietrich had told him, to his face and as a couple, that his failure to make the teaching of Humanae Vitae explicitly de fide had permitted great harm to come to the Church, especially to the credibility of her teaching authority. I agree. That, combined with his butchering of the Roman Rite, actually visited great harm on the Church. The effects are very much with us. While Montini personally was both orthodox and humble, his policies were generally disastrous.

The disaster consists in what is a de facto, three-way schism in the Church today. On the "Left" we have the progressives, whom I call "progs" for short, and on the "Right" we have the traditionalists, often called "rad-trads." (The political categories of left and right are only an analogy, but often apply literally to individuals; thus the majority of progs are political leftists and the majority of trads political rightists, though there are notable exceptions because the underlying categories of ecclesial politics far transcend those of secular politics.) As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things has pointed out, progs and trads agree that Vatican II represented a decisive break in the story of the Church, so that we may now speak in effect of a new Church discontinuous with the old one. The main difference between them is that the progs think the new Church is a good thing and want her to become newer still; the rad-trads think she's a bad thing and want her to recover her lost virtue. Neuhaus calls progs and trads respectively the left and right "branches of the party of discontinuity." (The article of his I've linked above appears, in slightly revised form, as a chapter in his trenchant new book Catholic Matters, which I highly recommend to everybody for whom the Catholic Church matters.)

In the "Center" are the continuants, called "neocons" by progs and trads. They think the post-Vatican-II Church is the same Church as before, needing today only a "reform of the reform." The best representatives of the Center, the continuant party, are of course popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The truly loyal Catholics are those who follow them. But among active Catholics, it cannot be taken for granted that the Center is the majority. The progs who do not believe what the Church has always taught, and the trads who believe that the Church no longer teaches what the Church had always taught before, are together at least as numerous. The majority are not in formal schism, but refuse to have anything to do with each other and, for good as well as bad reasons, are most dissatisfied with the current hierarchy. While a few trad groups have long been in formal schism with Rome, a small but growing number of prog groups are now too, founding churches presided over by ex-Catholic priests and a few women who have been "ordained" for the purpose. To the trads, the loyalists are the Left; to the progs, the loyalists are the Right. The loyalists caught between such extreme viewpoints considers themselves just—well, Catholics.

This mess has come about because of Paul VI's mistakes. John Paul II tried to deal with the de facto schism in various ways, many of them quite impressive. His encyclicals alone—even aside from his media stardom and evangelizing travels—are sometimes breathtaking. But he failed to impose discipline on many of the clergy and, by extension, imposed almost none on the laity. Perhaps he and the present pope are waiting for demographics to do slowly what confrontation would do quickly. For obvious reasons, the progs don't produce many babies or priests, and the trads only have only so many sympathetic bishops to accommodate them. In the meantime those senior loyalists who, like Alice von Hildebrand, remember the old days as the good old days can only pray for the next generation.

Sleeping and dying

Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations has posted an interesting meditation on those. It seems to be more a product of Good Friday and Holy Saturday; but on second thought, it's appropriate for today.

Tom makes clear that sleeping and dying, when done prayerfully, entail an act of trust in God. Of course it is quite possible, indeed it happens all the time, that people sleep and die as unbelievers. They do both just because they have to, attaching no further significance to them. Even so, sleep as opposed to fitful dozing does entail a kind of trust. One who sleeps well trusts that nobody is going to come and victimize them as they sleep. Perhaps that's a kind of natural catechesis about death. If we trust that reality is ultimately beneficent, we can die well even if we don't know a benevolent source.

The Resurrection enables believers to have that trust. Most unbelievers don't have it, and when they do it's because they know the truth under another description. Maybe that's why so many health-care dollars are spent on people in the last few weeks of life. But it doesn't have to be that way. The late pope showed us the right way.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

An argument for the Shroud's authenticity

This is one I haven't heard before. It seems powerful to me. Comments?

Two good Easter homilies

How much Easter will you have?

Following up on the preaching of an abbess, Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations has made one of those analogies of faith that I so much love.

He points out, correctly, that the joy one can have on Easter Sunday depends on how much one has denied self during Lent. The more genuine the crucificixion, the more genuine the resurrection: a kind of metaphysical chiaroscuro. He then extends that point to one's eternal destiny.

Speaking of death, the good sister said: "The measure in which we are faithful is the measure in which we will be ready to embrace the physical actuality when it comes." Tom adds:
...it is also the measure in which we will be ready to embrace the spiritual actuality when it comes. Good Friday comes once a year, and then comes Easter. Our own deaths will come once, and then comes the Day that has no evening. What it means to you when that Day comes depends very much on what you did on the days given to you in this life.
I can think of no more economical way to sum up the dialectic of Christian life. It enables me to face my sufferings and duties, without despair, as the means of that self-diminishment for others which I need to make room for Christ. How much glory I attain when I die will depend on how well I made myself such a living sacrifice.

If only I could remember that the next time I'm ready to complain about the unfairness of life.

Happy Birthday B16!

Many more years!

Christos Aneste! Alethos Aneste!

Let all pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late, for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first.

He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and is generous to the other; he repays the deed and praises the effort.

Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquest. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh.

When Isaiah foresaw all this, he cried out: "O Hades, you have been angered by encountering Him in the nether world." Hades is angered because frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because it has been destroyed, it is angered because it has been reduced to naught, it is angered because it is now captive. It seized a body, and lo! it discovered God; it seized earth, and, behold! it encountered heaven; it seized the visible, and was overcome by the invisible.

O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and life is freed, Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Shadow and light

The Church's liturgy for the morning of Holy Saturday is called Tenebrae, meaning "shadows." A shadow is a patch of darkness made by a body's blocking of a light that is present and effulgent. That is why this day is my favorite of the liturgical year.

Holy Saturday begins with the apparent defeat of God by the Devil: the burial of Jesus' ravaged, bloody corpse; his rocky tomb guarded by soldiers; the women weeping nearby for him; the utter dismay and despondency of the scattered Apostles; the body of Jesus' well-paid betrayer hanging from a noose made by his own hand. Holy Saturday ends with the bursting forth of a supernal light driving away the darkness, conquering death and fear with eternal life and boundless love. In between are the shadows thrown by our flawed selves in that light, selves destined to be broken and remade in glory. By taking our flesh and letting his body be killed, in the most humiliating way possible, Jesus empowered us to transcend the limits the flesh holds for us under the thralldom of sin. Someday, many of us will have transcended it, thus becoming what we are re-created to be. Some, having apparently fallen asleep, have done so already. Some, preferring the hell made by their own pride to the heaven made by humble submission to God, might never do so. But in the meantime, so many of us stand between light and darkness, throwing shadows we take for reality.

We are not so enslaved by sin as to believe that the darkness alone is reality. But neither do we love God enough to believe that the shadows are insubstantial, that they would disappear if only we surrendered ourselves enough to become beacons of light ourselves. So much of life consists of sufferings to which we are led by the shadows we remain content to throw. That, one must admit, is inevitable in a world still warped by the Fall. But as the Pope said on Maundy Thursday, evil does not have the last word. The great restoration, the apocatastasis, has begun with what we shall celebrate tonight: Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Let us not be like the Apostles, who had to have the Good News announced to them by a faithful woman not given their office—and even then would not believe until they had seen for themselves what she was talking about. Let us be like that faithful woman, eager to believe what God reveals to us of little faith. In the meantime let us repent of being throwers of shadows.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Pope's Way of the Cross

This stuff certainly does hit modern society hard, as did then-Cardinal Ratzinger's Good Friday meditations last year. I'm sure it would be too sanguine to hope for less Mr. Nice Guy from here on out, but at least it's clear that the Pope will take the occasion of the Lord's crucifixion to note how we crucify him today.

I'm about to use these at my own personal Stations of the Cross at my parish church today. The weekend reaction from the prog media will be quite enough to amuse later.

An American Good Friday

Michelle Malkin today relates and comments on the serious antics of one Sally Jacobsen, a professor of English at Northern Kentucky University. Apparently, Jacobsen was so outraged by a pro-life display of crosses on campus that she took her class to the site and strongly suggested that they trash it. They did. You may find the story here.

We don't even have to wonder what the reaction of somebody like Jacobsen would be if a Christian (as distinct, natch, from a Muslim) group on campus were to destroy advertising for, say, The Vagina Monologues. Only the politically correct may express themselves through destruction of property, you see. Here's how the thought process—not to be dignified by the name of 'reasoning'—goes: "If I, a defender of women's rights, am confronted with a public expression of religiously motivated opposition to abortion, then violence is being done to me and I have the right to defend myself with violence. If, on the other hand, a religiously motivated group is confronted with a public expression of feminism and uses violence to eliminate that expression, then violence is being done to me and to all women, and we have the right to defend ourselves by suppressing it." Conceited though it may be, this sort of thing is no mere academic conceit.

Essentially the same ideological irrationality is played out every day in domestic-violence cases. In most states, a woman can get a DV "protective order" merely by saying that she fears the possibility of violence or has been verbally abused. By such means, and many times per day across this country, husbands and fathers who have committed no crime are ejected from their homes and lose the right to contact their children as well as their wives. Because it gives the mother an overwhelming advantage when custody is considered in the ensuing divorce, the DVPO is becoming a common tactic for ending marriages. Though the laws are written in gender-neutral fashion, men de facto rarely have such recourse—and if they try to have it, they are usually laughed out of court. Similarly, when police get a DV call, the man can be arrested merely on the woman's word that he threatened her, whereas the reverse does not hold. Worse, the man can be and often is arrested for defending himself from physical violence he hasn't initiated, whereas the woman will only be arrested if it is unmistakably clear that she has committed such violence without any being committed against her. I don't need to document such assertions: any police officer would tell you essentially the same thing. I know their truth firsthand. This is not to deny that domestic violence is a serious matter; people who physically harm those they live with should be punished—when there is clear evidence that they have done so. It is simply to criticize the ludicrous double standard beloved of feminism and the courts.

Feminism is crucifying the family in this country: from the most innocent, i.e., unborn children, to the least innocent, i.e., abusive husbands as distinct, of course, from abusive wives. In crucifying the family, it is crucifying the Lord. If we let it continue to crucify reason as well, our society has no future.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Why is this night different from any other night?

That I pick for Holy Thursday the question that Jews pose to their children at the Passover seder should require no explanation. We need not concern ourselves with whether The Last Supper was truly a Passover seder or only a chaburah meal, marking a formal gathering of spiritual friends of a kind well-known in the Judaism of Jesus' time. What makes tonight different is that the institution of the Eucharist on this night marks the Passover of the Lord and equips us for our own.

That is often overlooked on a day when the focus is very often on all the controversies surrounding the ministerial priesthood and the liturgy. Too many of those about the former concern sex and gender; too many of those about the latter are matters of taste. Both tend to distract in the wrong hands, i.e., the usual hands. The real significance of tonight is that the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New with the manna that is the Eucharist. That food is God himself in the flesh, given so that we might each be nourished on our exodus from slavery to sin into the glorious freedom of being his children.

The Gospel reading tonight was John 13: 1-15. Lay people sometimes wonder why St. John, unlike the Synoptics and even St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26), does not mention the actual institution of the Eucharist, and presents instead Jesus' washing of the Apostles' feet and a long "priestly prayer" that almost certainly is a literary interpretation of what was actually said. Scholars who lack faith sometimes argue that this shows how John's community thought the main tradition needed correction. But there is neither a mystery nor a problem with such a substitution. John is presupposing the standard account of the Eucharist's institution and is, rather, offering a more mature theology of it for the instruction of the Church.

It's amazing that, for the most part, Christians still don't take in such instruction. In the way members of the Church interact with each other as such, I rarely see the humility and sacrificial love Jesus modelled on that night. Those virtues are often shown within families and between friends, but not to people merely because they are brothers and sisters in the Lord. That lack must be filled if the Church is to survive as an intentional community. To that end, let us hearken to Jesus' "priestly prayer" (John 17) and become what we receive at the Eucharist.

Holy Thursday: God or the Girl?

Thanks to the good offices of a friend, I've previewed the A & E "reality" miniseries God or the Girl, which premieres this Easter Sunday. While better than most media productions that touch on the topic of priesthood and celibacy, it is all too typical of the world's reaction to the interest of some young men in becoming Catholic priests: Why on earth would you want to be celibate? Have you gone off your meds and out of therapy? As somebody remarked over at Amy Welborn's blog, Barbara Walters and her producers can't quite close their gaping mouths on that subject. Alas, neither can the masses of nominal and not-so-nominal Catholics. It's time for that to change.

The show isn't bad as such things go. It is respectful even if barely comprehending. That is why it provides an ideal opportunity for the hard core of Catholics to explain to young people, women as well as men, why consecrated celibacy's value is as great as its rarity. Toward that end, I have two points to make as a man who wanted to be a priest in youth and has taught as an adjunct in three seminaries—one of which had refused to admit me as a student. (Irony du jour, that.)

First, "the world"—which here includes nominal and not-so-nominal Catholics—doesn't get the celibacy thing for one simple reason: it does not grasp that one can respond to Christ's love with a loving gift of one's whole being, so that the opportunity to serve him by giving oneself to directly to the whole Church turns celibacy into a positive vehicle for precisely such a self-gift. Thus the self-gift entailed by celibacy "consecrates" as a space for grace and service what would otherwise be a mere absence, a hole in one's being. Men with a true vocation involving celibacy experience the sacrificial part of it as a mystical participation in the life of their Lord, and are accordingly nourished by it. Unless one is a well-formed and utterly committed Catholic, one cannot understand this. If one is, then one does—and one laments only its too-great rarity these days.

Second, and as the series' title suggests, it must be admitted that the Church has been doing a lousy job of presenting both consecrated celibacy and marriage as vocations. For devout Latin-Rite Catholic men, the real choice is not "God or the girl" but rather that between "giving oneself completely to God by giving oneself completely to the Bride of Christ, His Mystical Body, the Church" and "giving oneself completely to God by giving oneself completely to a particular woman belonging to that Body." The difference between those two ways of living the baptismal vocation is simply one of scope. But a further distinction is in order.

Priesthood is not, of itself, a spiritually higher state than marriage. Both are ways for men to represent, by living, the headship of Christ. Nevertheless, (consecrated) celibacy is in a sense "better" than marriage even though the latter is one of the "seven" sacraments and the former is not. Thus the Council of Trent defined:

"If anyone says that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or celibacy, and/or (atque) denies that it is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony: let him be anathema" (Session 24, Decree on Matrimony, Canon 10 [1563]).

How can that be, if marriage is a sacrament and celibacy is not? Simple: by affording wider scope in the Church for one's gift of self, consecrated celibacy (assuming one is called to it) is of clearer and greater evangelical signficance than marriage. The latter can and often does makes sense in secular terms; celibacy does not. Its witness to the Kingdom that is already and not yet, if faithfully maintained, is more effective than that of marriage.

Perhaps some adults who watch and discuss the show will get this across to a few young people. God knows the Church needs more of that to happen.