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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The chocolate Jesus: a profile in cowardice

For some reason, Canadian-Italian artist Cosimo Cavallaro has decided to generate publicity with blasphemy according to formula: a chocolate sculpture of a naked Jesus. As in chocolate Easter eggs. Get it?

This sort of thing has been done more than once before, albeit less wittily. Remember Piss Christ? Creative people with flagging careers often set out to shock sensibilities in the belief that all publicity is good publicity. Sometimes that is true; if you define 'good' in a certain way, it's trivially true. But Cavallaro has miscalculated. In the art world, shock value is shopworn, like a five-dollar bill that, long in circulation, has grown almost too ragged to be usable; the brave artist defying convention is now a convention that the art world doesn't yet know how to mock. That is one reason why, in this case, the artist can't even define good publicity into existence.

As you can read, Bill Donohue has issued the usual statements of outrage. To that, the gallery's "creative director" Matt Semier has attached the predictable label: "a Catholic fatwa." Only the most deluded leftie could take that label at face value. Sure, there have been angry statements and calls for boycotts; what would be shocking would be the absence of such calls. But if Cavallaro and his facilitators really want to know what a fatwa is, they should display a naked, chocolate Muhammad at the gallery. Of course, the gallery and the artist would have to last long enough for them to learn. They probably would not. And they know it. Which is why they don't do a naked, chocolate Muhammad. At least not for public display.

For what they have done, Cavallaro and friends know that they will suffer no consequences worse than the perfectly legal, and moral, ones that Donohue has already called for. They imagine what Donohue has called for to be the sort of bad publicity that is good publicity. But what their exercise in cynicism really shows is that they are cowards. They don't recognize that as bad publicity. Which is the best possible reason I can think of to treat them as beneath contempt.

An excuse followed by a provocation

I'm quite grateful to the heavy hitters for the combox discussion on my latest post about the essence/energies distinction. They've maintained a level of sophistication and civility one cannot count on the blogosphere, even here. One theme that's risen to prominence in the discussion is the incommunicability of the distinctively personal. I have some thoughts about that and want to write a post about it ASAP. Alas, I can't get a day off from work—and I mean any day, including Sunday—to rest and write unless I holler and threaten to quit on the spot; and until my hefty tax refund comes in during the next six weeks or so, I can't afford to risk having my bluff called. With tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I've also got a heavy church day ahead of me, including what will doubtless be my blog homilette for the occasion. (To avoid offending the liturgical purists, I won't call it a 'homily'.) So the latest EED post will have to wait until Monday, the day I've been "promised" off. If they yank that one from me, I might get cheesed off enough to risk having my bluff called.

In the meantime, for those few of my readers who don't already subscribe to the hard copy of First Things, I present my most recent publication, a book review which for some reason they assigned the title "Natural Religion." I expect it will provoke some people, and I welcome comments here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I'm hanging in there, so please hang in with me

As I prepare to hit the hay before working third shift tonight, I ought to explain my relative silence to my vast and loyal readership. I've been working like a packhorse the last three days on decidedly non-intellectual things: my job as a courier for sensitive stuff, where the company's chronic shortage of personnel has grown worse than usual; and my tax problems new and old. But thanks to many prayers, especially those of the Virgin, things are looking good.

My tax preparer, a 30-year IRS veteran before his retirement to private practice helping screwups like me, says I'm going to come out well in the black once all the paperwork is duly delivered, stamped and massaged at the nearest IRS office. My pulse rate went up dangerously on hearing that: good financial news is so rare for me that I worried I was hallucinating. Indeed, the problem I had initially consulted him about seemed hopeless to me. But I've seen the results of his work; my only concern now is how much of my refund he's going to get. At this point I'll be grateful if he doesn't take all of it.

As for my job, it's become apparent that I'm going to have choose between having it and having a life. Now that my tax issues are receding into the blissfully dark horizon, I am free to choose a life. I've applied at Belmont Abbey College to teach a few courses in the summer Adult Degree Program. The signs have been good from the start. The chair of the philosophy department greeted my vita enthusiastically and immediately sent me over to the program director, a thirtyish Italian-American woman from the Northeast. Speaking with her felt like touching base with a schoolmate from the old neighborhood. And as it turned out, the only remaining openings for summer ADP were in...philosophy and theology! She told me that most of the CVs they get are from people wanting to teach business or language courses, and that they always had trouble getting humanities people. It was only at that moment that I could finally revel in the fact that I live in a metro area where, it seems, nobody who is under 70 and not affiliated with a university cares about the things I care about. But I still need those prayers as they await an official copy of my transcript from Penn.

Assuming I can get enough enough sleep tomorrow, which I should do now that I no longer feel the hot breath of the IRS on my neck, I shall post on something intellectually substantive then. In the meantime, thanks for being part of my life, and hang in there with me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What I failed to mention in my last confession

Monday, March 26, 2007

Essence/energies: a reply to Benedict Seraphim

Having just lamented, in the combox to my previous EED post, that I had not got "a peep from the Orthodox" about my irenic proposal, I was putting the blog to bed for the night. Then a friend informed me by e-mail of this peep at This is Life!: Revolutions around the Cruciform Axis. I want to get in my reply before the debate gets ahead of me.

Benedict's reaction is predictably negative, though not—to give him credit—nasty, which is what I've become accustomed to from certain other quarters. His critique is two-pronged: ecclesiological and theological (where 'theological' means 'pertaining to the doctrine about God' as distinct from about the Church). Unfortunately, neither prong engages my actual argument.

The ecclesiological critique is no more enlightening than pertinent. Like my fellow Catholic philosophers who blog, and many who don't, I am keenly aware that Catholics and Orthodox approach each other with different ecclesiological premises. The Catholic Church teaches that the Catholic Church is the Church; the Orthodox Church teaches that the Orthodox Church is the Church. Catholics view Orthodox as "separated brethren" belonging to a communion of true, particular churches that are properly part of the Catholic Church, lacking for full communion with said Church only...well, full communion with the See of Peter. You can read all about that in the documents of Vatican II and the CCC; it's the ecclesiological basis for Catholic ecumenism with the Orthodox. On the other hand, and despite what Benedict asserts, Orthodoxy does not have as clear an official "line" about Catholicism. While most Orthodox view the Catholic Church as heretical on this or that point, by no means would all maintain that the Catholic Church is, in no sense, part of the Church. The more moderate view espoused by the Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman of Glory to God for All Things is hardly unknown or condemned in Orthodoxy: "We know where the Church is; we don't know where she isn't." Now if we don't know where the Church isn't, then we don't know that the Catholic Church is not part of the Church. Hence it's a bit much for Benedict to rebuff my ecumenical gestures on the grounds that I'm begging the question against "Orthodox" ecclesiology. To be sure, my frustration at seeing my ecumenical gestures rebuffed does beg the question against his ecclesiology and that of a fair number of other Orthodox, such as the monks of Mt. Athos. But then, their ecclesiological rejectionism begs the question against their more moderate co-religionists. It's pretty rich to be accused of begging the question against Orthodoxy when the Orthodox themselves haven't yet adopted an ecclesiology definitive enough to beg the question against.

The theological critique is that my argument's method—or, in more precise neoscholastic terms, my ordo theologiae—is incompatible with Orthodoxy's. Thus:

Dr. Liccione asserts his both/and scenario from a particular vantage point: that of natural theology. This may not be quite so clear from the post itself, but in the related links and the comboxes it’s clear that two things are going on: a) if Orthodox would only understand the doctrinal issues from the standpoint of natural theology, as the Roman Catholics do, all would be well, and b) Orthodox theology itself doesn’t stand up, so the Roman Catholic commenters claim, to natural theological critiques, and therefore is itself problematic (and thus a good reason to jettison it).

In other words, what Dr. L is implicitly asking, even if this is not his intention, is for Orthodox to cease doing theology in the way Orthodox do theology and to start doing theology the way Roman Catholics do theology. Or, to say it another way, what we have is a tautology: since Rome is right, Rome must therefore be right. Now commenters like Dr. L, Jonathon Prejean and others will object to this accusation of such a vicious circle. After all, they claim, what we have made are substantive arguments. And I agree, they have.

What they have not done, however, is justify their starting presuppositions. And that’s where the trouble begins. Orthodox begin with different theological first principles than do the Roman Catholic commenters here referenced. And to object that Orthodox do not make cogent arguments is primarily to say that Orthodox do not make arguments that start from the same point.

Alas, that is no more more pertinent than the ecclesiological critique. I don't need to "justify" the "starting presuppositions" Benedict is talking about. That's because I don't make them.

I was quite explicit that I was speaking about dogmas: Orthodox and Catholic dogmas. The notion of absolute divine simplicity (ADS) has been dogmatized by the Catholic Church; the essence/energies distinction, as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas, has been dogmatized by the Orthodox Church. St. Gregory also argued that God is simple. His considered position is not quite the same as that of, say, St. Thomas Aquinas; but his conclusion is quite similar to the dogma formally defined by the Catholic Church. Therefore, my attempt to harmonize the dogmas of EED and ADS in no way depends, as Benedict would have it, on any "presupposition" that natural theology has "authority over revealed theology," a presupposition that no orthodox Catholic would dare make. It depends on analysis of the meaning and purport of the two dogmas in question. My argument was that the two are logically compatible, true, and instances of authentic DD. Benedict has said absolutely nothing to show otherwise.

Of course, he can't quite make up his mind what my presuppositions are. For he also rejects what he thinks might my idea that "revealed theology must be consonant with natural theology." But he's still just jerking his knee.

Natural theology is a branch of metaphysics, which is a branch of philosophy, which is an exercise of human reason. Like other products of human reason, some things that some natural theologians have said are both true and well argued; others are false or otherwise not worth crediting. Done well, natural theology can attain enough truth to function as what Aquinas called a "preamble" to faith; done poorly, it can be an obstacle to faith. There's nothing particularly controversial about any of that—unless you begin with the premise that human reason can learn nothing of God without starting from the assent of faith as understood by traditional Christianity. That position is known as "fideism." But last time I checked, fideism is not a dogma of Orthodoxy.

Moreover, I strain to locate an argument that somebody like Benedict might have against what Vatican I said about the relationship between faith and reason (emphasis added):

Now reason does indeed, when it seeks persistently, piously and soberly, achieve by God's gift some understanding, and that most profitable, of the mysteries, whether by analogy from what it knows naturally, or from the connexion of these mysteries with one another and with the final end of humanity; but reason is never rendered capable of penetrating these mysteries in the way in which it penetrates those truths which form its proper object. For the divine mysteries, by their very nature, so far surpass the created understanding that, even when a revelation has been given and accepted by faith, they remain covered by the veil of that same faith and wrapped, as it were, in a certain obscurity, as long as in this mortal life we are away from the Lord; for we walk by faith, and not by sight.

Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false.

As a Catholic, I believe that. And of course Aquinas affirmed the same in substance, especially in the "double-truth" controversy with Siger of Brabant and the "Latin Averroists." So, the "presuppositions" that Benedict says we're starting with, or at least that I'm starting with, are no such thing. The conclusions of human reason must always be consistent with revealed truth; when those conclusions are true, revealed truth is necessarily consistent with them. But that doesn't tell us which conclusions of reason are true. All it does it set out boundary conditions.

The aim of my post was modest: to sketch a way of removing an intellectual obstacle to ecclesial unity. But rather than critique the structure of my argument, or even reject one of the premises doing logical work in the argument, Benedict rejects what he mistakenly takes to be my methodological presuppositions. I can't help getting the impression that even such relatively well-mannered Orthodox as he are determined to cast about for reasons to rebuff Catholic gestures. Benedict's reasons will impress only those who are equally determined.

The utility of philosophy

One of my life's many ironies is that this blog is hosted by Google, the Microsoft of the Internet. Its founders seem to have no use for religion, and the company's culture doesn't seem hospitable even to philosophizing. But they get their comeuppances too.

Thus Brandon of Siris, whom I read regularly, has called our attention to "a lovely take-down" of an ignorant dismissal of philosophy by a Google employee, who wrote at his blog:

Science is of far greater use than philosophy, unless of course you’re looking to party through 4 years of college - only then does philosophy have a legitimate purpose.

As a philosophy major, I used to hear that sort of thing from engineering and pre-med types, as well as from the ordinary West Indians with whom I labored at a Jewish deli for years. My co-workers were philosophical enough in their own way: whenever I'd fulminate against some unjustice at the hands of our employer, they'd reply: "You t'ink they give a f___, mahn?" But I tried in vain to persuade my fellow students that they were philosophizing just by adducing thoughts about the utility of philosophy. As always, l'esprit d'escalier is sweeter. Here's the takedown, of the sort I wish I had had the wit to issue:

Of course, if one were to engage in ad hominem reasoning, one might wonder what arcane knowledge it is that philosophers acquire that leads them, in the writer's opinion, to gain a reputation for partying, whereas computer scientists, more or less universally, have a reputation for generally being amongst the dullest people in the world. Relatedly, although more to the point, we might ask to what end science and philosophy, respectively, might be useful, and how we might judge the character of that end, as well as their efficacy at achieving it.

Further, even if we were to establish that philosophy is less useful than science, we might wonder how that would legitimate the judgment that it is of no use, unless you want to 'party through 4 years of college'. However, one might have to know that the conclusion 'x is of no use, unless you want to party through 4 years of college' does not follow from the premise 'y is of greater use than x' in order to wonder that, and that might require exposure to philosophy, which, ex hypothesi, is of no use at all, unless, of course, you want to party through 4 years of college. We might also want to note that the claim(s) that this claim is offered in support of is a distinctively philosophical claim, that

There is a clear line of demarcation between machine learning and artificial intelligence...
[t]he question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim...

Conceptual distinctions between learning and the property of having a mind? Claims about what it is interesting, presumably in a prescriptive sense, to study? The normative questions are, it would seem, inescapable, but if you haven't partied your way through four years, or in my case, a third of three years and then most of another two, of college, I guess that just wouldn't occur to you. Finally, note that those years of partying seem to have given me a sense of propriety - I wouldn't dream of saying that struggling and failing to teach computers to be able to sort text by crude semantic content was a worthless enterprise.

Ah, charity. But here's charity's reward, in the form of a remark by philosopher Kit Fine:

Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: it aims at rigour and yet is unable to establish any results; it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language; and it claims to be of great relevance to rational enquiry and the conduct of our life and yet is almost completely ignored. But perhaps what is strangest of all is the passion and intensity with which it is pursued by those who have fallen in its grip.

I know what you mean, Kit. But I suggest that the passion comes from what philosophy can be said, etymologically, to be: "love of wisdom." The subject's apparently issueless rigor and pedantry stems from the desire to get arguments, in the logical sense of the term, right. When healthy, that desire is but a technical specification of a passion for inquiry into and truth about the largest matters of human concern. When such a thing as wisdom is recognized, that passion just is the love of wisdom.

But as Fine says, philosophy is almost completely ignored in the culture at large. That, I believe, is only partly because most people find neither material benefit nor sensible pleasure in philosophy; people behave all the time in ways that bring them neither, yet see nothing untoward about that. The real reason, in most cases, is that they are not educated enough to know they need education, or even to see it when exposed to it. Once again, Brandon has dug up just the quote, this time from Chesterton:

Now what we observe about the whole current culture of journalism and general discussion is that people do not know how to begin to think. Not only is their thinking at third and fourth hand, but it always starts about three-quarters of the way through the process. Men do not know where their own thoughts came from. They do not know what their own words imply. They come in at the end of every controversy and know nothing of where it began or what it is all about. They are constantly assuming certain absolutes, which, if correctly defined, would strike even themselves as being not absolutes but absurdities. To think thus is to be in a tangle; to go on thinking is to be in more and more of a tangle. And at the back of all there is always something understood; which is really something misunderstood.

That is why I do not discuss philosophy, or for that matter theology, with most people I spend time with. Unless they ask me, and manifest their sincerity by, e.g., paying me tuition, it's just too much thankless work to get at—never mind clear up—the misunderstanding "at the back of it all." Heck, it's often thankless work in the case of sincere inquirers!

Of course there's always that blessed minority who "get it" when it comes to philosophy. A few even visit this blog, and I thank them. But there are limits to what we can do. Apropos of Lourdes and other miracle sites, it was once said: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible." I'm not sure that's true about miracles; but substitute "love wisdom" for "believe," and it's true of philosophy.

The Pope's audience with Communion & Liberation

Last Saturday the 24th, Pope Benedict held an open audience in St. Peter's Square with scores of thousands of Communion and Liberation members. Along with faithful members from North Carolina, Virginia, and DC, I watched the recording of the satellite feed and simultaneous translation that afternoon at St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill, SC. We thank Fr. John Giuliani and the Oratorians for their hospitality and availability.

The camera work was expert; I felt as if I were there right next to the Holy Father; I found myself wanting to reach out, kiss his ring, and talk to him. But this was a significant event for more objective reasons.

What have come to be called "ecclesial movements" in the Church, which are operated primarily by the laity, are often greeted with suspicion by conventional clergy and religious. While criticism is sometimes justified, as with anything human, the present and the previous pope have not exhibited similar reserve. To us in CL, Benedict said:

Communion and Liberation is a communitarian experience of faith, born in the Church not from a will to organize of the hierarchy, but originated from a renewed encounter with Christ and thus, we can say, from an impulse that derives ultimately from the Holy Spirit. Still today, this offers itself as an opportunity to live the Christian faith in a deep and up-to-date way, on one hand with a total fidelity and communion with the Successor of Peter and with the pastors who ensure the government of the Church, and on the other hand with a spontaneity and a freedom that permit new and prophetic apostolic and missionary realizations.

Dear friends, your movement thus inserts itself in that vast flourishing of associations and movements and new ecclesial realities providentially aroused in the Church by the Holy Spirit after the Second Vatican Council. Every gift of the Spirit finds itself in its origin and necessarily at the service of the building up of the Body of Christ, offering a witness of the immense charity of God for the life of all men. The reality of the ecclesial movements is therefore a sign of the fecundity of the Spirit of the Lord, so that the victory of the risen Christ be manifested in the world, and the missionary task entrusted to the whole Church be realized.

In the message to the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, May 27, 1998, John Paul II repeated, that in the Church there is no contrast or contraposition between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension, of which the movements are a meaningful expression, because both are co-essential to the divine constitution of the People of God, and in the Church even the essential institutions are charismatic, and, in any case, the charisms, in one way or another, have to institutionalise themselves in order to have cohesion and continuity.

Note well: there is no "contrast or contraposition between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension." This is not a pope who is captive to false dichotomies. That is why he can pursue ecumenical initiatives tirelessly, especially with the Orthodox, while upholding the undiluted truth.

Long live Papa Benedetto, and the charism of Don Giussani!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Counting all as rubbish

Today's readings from Cycle C for the Fifth Sunday of Lent have me meditating even beyond the solid homily I heard at a vigil Mass last night. Given by an Italian-Argentinian Oratorian, the homily's theme was the significance of baptism because it preceded the baptism of a (particularly beautiful and alert) baby. And today's first reading, whose theme is water in the desert, is certainly apt for the purpose, as well as for the baptism of catechumens that will occur, in most parishes, at the Easter Vigil. What struck me more, however, was the question what the "woman caught in adultery," the forlorn figure in today's Gospel, resolved to do after she left Jesus in what must have been a flood of relief and gratitude.

Clearly she is a figure for us all, not just for that ample number of women and men who have committed literal adultery. In the Old Testament, adultery is the primary metaphor used for Israel's unfaithfulness to her covenant with God; he, the ever-faithful husband, remains soliticious for his unfaithful bride. In turn, the unfaithfulness of Israel is a real, outward metaphor for every person's sinfulness before God. We are sinful not so much because of particular acts, though there is that of course. We are sinful because even when we are redeemed by Christ's blood and justified by incorporation into him through faith and baptism, the effects of original sin remain and incline us to commit sin. The first human couple, whom God had created in "original justice"—i.e., in the closest fellowship with himself possible for them—chose to be "like God, knowing good and evil" by disobeying God, and thus lost their share in God's very life. The effects of that first sin were mortality, blindness, and weakness of will. Even after baptism, which restores us to God in Christ, they remain as effects and signs of that alienation from God which we each have inherited just by being children of Adam and Eve. They make some-or-other actual sins inevitable, though our free will is preserved inasmuch as no particular actual sin is inevitable. Such is the tragedy of the human condition: no matter how much goodness, beauty, and truth we may discover, enjoy, and exhibit in life, without a deep and voluntary adherence to Christ our lives are destined to nothing but ruin, both spiritually and physically.

But like the woman caught in adultery, we can always turn to Christ for mercy even when it seems we cannot escape judgment. Such mercy is not mere indulgence and not merely a forensic pronouncement. It is transformative. It is what empowers us to "go and sin no more." But to be thus empowered, we must live our lives as ones in which it is Christ, and only Christ, who lives in us. That means leaving behind much that seems good. And that's a Lenten message we can barely hear. Usually, it is forced upon us.

In today's second reading, St. Paul says: "For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things
and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ,
the righteousness from God..." In his case, the loss of all things consisted most obviously in the loss of that security and comfort which most people long and work for. Once he accepted Christ and his mission from Christ, he would have no permanent home and no financial security. He would not marry or have children. He would suffer persecution from Jews and pagans alike, and much misunderstanding even from believers themselves. In the end, he was killed for Christ. And he went through it all gladly. Why? Because, in comparison with the self-immolating Christ who lived in him, all other good things might as well be rubbish. To be conformed to the self-immolating Christ is to be willing to give up all other goods for his sake, as he emptied himself for us. One must be willing to count all besides Christ as rubbish.

Few of us are prepared to do that. Indeed our materialistic, pansexualist society makes its necessity almost inconceivable to us. In the developed world, many Christians are willing to go to church and do good things for the less fortunate; but it does not even occur to most of us to abandon the houses, the cars, and all the accoutrements of middle-class life for the sake of Christ. Even many clergy and religious have a very comfortable lifestyle they have no intention of giving up: generous vacations; paid-for conferences and retreats; humane and secure living arrangements. I would probably do the same if I could.

But fortunately for me, I have been gradually forced to accept "the loss of all things." I have experienced depression so severe as to require hospitalization, which resulted in further severe losses: of family, home, work, and even at times of my self-respect. I have been forced to learn detachment from all things in this world so that I may attach myself to God alone. What has kept me going is accepting all such losses as part of my walk with the Lord, who sustains me even he purifies me, so that I may learn anew to love amidst the ruins. My prayer this Lent is that I, and each of us in our own way, may continue to do so without bitterness, so that it is not we who live but Christ who can live in us.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Benedict's theology of charity

Less than 24 hours before Pope John Paul II died, then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address to the Benedictine nuns at Subiaco that would, in effect, lay out an essential element of his papacy: the Church's answer to secularism. Thus, e.g.:

...at this point, in my capacity as believer, I would like to make a proposal to the secularists. At the time of the Enlightenment there was an attempt to understand and define the essential moral norms, saying that they would be valid "etsi Deus non daretur," even in the case that God did not exist. In the opposition of the confessions and in the pending crisis of the image of God, an attempt was made to keep the essential values of morality outside the contradictions and to seek for them an evidence that would render them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the different philosophies and confessions. In this way, they wanted to ensure the basis of coexistence and, in general, the foundations of humanity. At that time, it was thought to be possible, as the great deep convictions created by Christianity to a large extent remained. But this is no longer the case.

The search for such a reassuring certainty, which could remain uncontested beyond all differences, failed. Not even the truly grandiose effort of Kant was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God could be known in the realm of pure reason, but at the same time he had represented God, freedom and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which, coherently, for him no moral behavior was possible.

Does not today's situation of the world make us think perhaps that he might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man's ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life "veluti si Deus daretur," as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.

Above all, that of which we are in need at this moment in history are men who, through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world.

A few months after the Pope's election, I posted a short essay on The Program of Benedict XVI, which was focused on that address. My conclusion was that, for him, the way to restore the Church's credibility today among believers and unbelievers alike is for Catholics to become genuine Catholics again: to form a more intentional community by anchoring life and history in "solid spiritual references." That is one reason why I joined Communion and Liberation, whose members Benedict will be addressing on March 24 both in audience at St. Peter's Square and by live satellite television. Beyond such particulars, however, the most basic among such references is caritas, i.e. divine love.

Hence the Pope's first encyclical proclaimed, with his usual sophistication, that God is love: Deus Est Caritas ('DCE' for short); and now we have the Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis ('SC' for short). In this post I want to bring out the key connection between them.

In DCE, after discussing various ways of conceiving the difference and relationship between eros and agape, the Pope explained what was new in the revelation of God that began in the Old-Testament era:

God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape. We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one. As Saint Paul says: “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17).

That becomes fully manifest in the New Testament:

The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism. In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.

And that is immediately applied to the Eucharist:

13. Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn 6:31-33). The ancient world had dimly perceived that man's real food—what truly nourishes him as man—is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us—as love. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his body and blood. The sacramental “mysticism”, grounded in God's condescension towards us, operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.

Quoting DCE in SC, the Pope now says:

"The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving." (21) Jesus "draws us into himself." (22) The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of "nuclear fission," to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).

This is a very high Eucharistic theology indeed, though it is no novelty. It is simply ignored in a great many Catholic liturgies today, in which the idea of self-oblative love is obscured as people celebrate themselves, if anything at all. The purpose of all the Pope's specifics in SC is to heighten Catholics' awareness of the unfathomable and transformative majesty of the sacrament of divine love. That is the most pertinent sense in which "the Eucharist makes the Church." Only when rooted in that vital center shall we become what would be credible to the world today.

Such is that aspect of the Pope's program which I missed in my first post on the subject. The program begins with liturgy. Thus, SC is not only a summary of and theological reflection on last year's Synod on the Eucharist; it is a prelude to more specific liturgical directives, the first of which will apparently be a "universal indult" for Mass celebrated according to the last iteration of the old Missal, the 1962 edition. Benedict wants the broader program to be based firmly on a liturgical reform of the reform.

He seems to be taking his time about it. But he's almost 80. I pray for many more years.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The new look

Kudos to Joshua Goforth for the new look of this blog. We had been planning the rollout for quite some time, but I didn't understand the glitches and he didn't have time to deal with them—until now.

Having credited me for helping him along on his spiritual journey, Josh considers this effort his way of thanking me. I like such exchanges of gifts. We hope you like the results.

BTW Josh, the Goforth family is gorgeous. Don't let people assume that makes you trouble-free!

I shall pray for you and yours.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Same-sex marriage: back to square one

The fairly detailed debate between Brandon of Siris and Todd Bates, the Anglican Scotist, about the latter's theological argument for gay marriage seems to have petered out into a side debate about just how sexist Aquinas was. See Bates's latest here and Brandon's able reply here. That issue is probably more interesting to many readers than the logical intricacies of the main debate; the latter would interest only professionals and are scattered around half-a-dozen posts on each side. I shall not rehearse them here and shall instead confine myself to an observation on the heart of the matter.

As I indicated back in August 2005, when Bates first propounded his argument, the logically pivotal issue is whether the eschatological union between Christ and the Church as a whole is transferable to that between Christ and individuals, in such a way that homosexual marriage between Christians would be just as effectual a sacrament of it as heterosexual marriage between Christians. That's the core of Bates' argument, which is really a summary of what he calls The Episcopal Church's argument. Having followed the Bates-Brandon debate about it, I am confirmed in my original intuition that the only way to block the inference Bates wants to make is to invoke, on independent grounds, an understanding of human sexuality on which homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral and thus homosexuality, defined as the inclination to perform such acts, is objectively disordered. Bates himself suggests two readings that present a decent case for that: Cardinal Angelo Scola's The Nuptial Mystery and Pope John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them. For those lacking either the time or the money for such books, I also suggest William May's article "On The Impossibility of Same-Sex Marriage."

What such sources do is present arguments, based on Scripture, Tradition, and natural law, that the "unitive" significance of sexual intercourse cannot be had without procreative significance. If that is so, then there can be no such thing as same-sex marriage, and a fortiori no sacrament thereof. That serves of course as an argument against contraception too, which is no accident. Once the ancient consensus about contraception is abandoned, as the Anglican Communion did in 1930, the jig is up. The same, I would add, goes for the women's-ordination issue. But that's a topic for another post.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Feast of St. Joseph

To the secular mind, the foster father of Jesus is a loser. Thus if, as Christianity asserts, Jesus was conceived only by the Holy Spirit and if, as the Catholic and Orthodox churches teach, Mary remained ever-virgin, then Joseph was a cuckold and probably a rather frustrated one at that. Other than the early death some traditions ascribe to him, his consolation must have been that his rival was God. One isn't quite so much the loser if it's impossible to win. Yet the fact that many Catholics even these days will bury a statue of him in their back yard so that their houses will sell better doesn't exactly enhance the man's stature.

Superstition aside, the Church sees things very much otherwise. When I was a child, I learned that Joseph is patron saint of families, of fathers, and of the universal Church. Why indeed does the Church venerate him so much that he gets a liturgical "solemnity" of his own, or what used to be called a "first-class feast"? I note that there is no record of devotion to him in the early Church. In that period he is completely overshadowed: first by the divine Child who was given into his care for a time, and then by his sinless wife, who is also greater than he though not of course divine. His cult is an almost exclusively Western thing and becomes noticeable only in the Middle Ages. It reached its apogee so far during the 20th century. Yet very few Catholics know what I just learned myself today: that two papal encyclicals have been devoted to St. Joseph: one by Leo XIII and one by John Paul II! I don't know of any member of the communion of saints other than the Virgin herself who has enjoyed such press from the Servi Servorum Dei. What gives?

Well, I have no greater wisdom to add to those of the two aforementioned popes. I am not as great and wise as they and you can read their stuff—which I have thoughtfully linked—for yourself. But I do have an observation that I think timely and necessary.

We live in a time when fatherhood is in eclipse. Indeed it is now socially acceptable to ridicule what is distinctively male, even as it is no longer socially acceptable to ridicule what is distinctively female. Something is terribly wrong and needs to be righted. What St. John called "the world" is not going to do that. It needs to be done by the children of light. St. Joseph points the way.

Unlike English, Latin has two words for 'father': genitor, meaning 'begetter', and pater, meaning 'father' in a spiritually fuller sense. That is well. Begetting a child is easy and fun; any animal can do it, and some do it better than humans do. Actually being a father is hard, but ultimately more rewarding. Nowadays, however, fatherhood in both senses is widely questioned. We have artificial reproduction and someday will be able to have completely fatherless reproduction. There are many, many single-mother households: some by paternal choice, more by maternal. Even as some women ask whether men are necessary at all, the fact is that the social costs of fatherlessness are enormous and well-documented. If our civilization is to survive and thrive, true fatherhood needs to be strengthened. In order to do that, those who have joyfully accepted divine revelation in and through the person of Jesus Christ need to understand the spiritual significance of his maleness. His foster father shows that significance by his example. Men don't need to be Messiahs to be men; they need only recapitulate his love in their own small ways.

Joseph was pater to Jesus, not genitor. He performed that mission in exemplary fashion despite having no natural motive for doing so. He did his duty out of sheer obedience to God—and then he got out of the way. Total selflessness. Such sacrifice is no doubt what made him great among the saints in heaven who help us on earth: when the seed falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit. Ephesians 5 gives us that same model for marriage. The headship of husbands and fathers does not consist in being superior to their wives and children; Joseph was inferior to his wife and child. Indeed he served them—by providing and protecting. Only authority so earned is credible.

That is what so many men fail to understand and so many women despair of finding in men. That's what we so desperately need more of today. Let us men invoke St. Joseph's aid in becoming more like him.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Development of doctrine, essence/energies,and ecumenism

In a previous post I briefly argued that there is hardly any substantive difference between the Catholic understanding of authentic development of doctrine, as expressed by Vatican II, and a fairly typical account of DD given by a mainstream Orthodox author. But for reasons of space, I discussed no specific instances of DD in detail. In this post, I shall take up the specific instance of the distinction between the divine essence and divine energies ('EED' for short) as propounded by St. Gregory Palamas. I shall briefly argue that EED is true, and also an instance of authentic DD.

For convenient reference, one can find in translation certain texts from Palamas on EED posted at the blog Wisdom!: Readings from the Fathers of the Church blog. (Hat tip to Brandon at Siris). But the argument does not depend on a detailed textual analyis. That would be too lengthy to give here and in any case would not be worth attempting without familiarity with the complete text in the original, which I do not yet have. Rather, Brandon has expressed the heart of the matter better than I have before.

EED is true inasmuch as the distinction follows from the fact that, as Brandon puts it:

...the divine names are not synonymous. But denying the distinction between essence and energies in the sense Palamas makes it would commit us to saying that the divine names are, in fact, synonymous. One of Gregory's arguments for the distinction is that regarding 'nature' and 'things pertaining to nature' as the same leads to heretical confusions; we can't conflate nature, intellect, will, compassion, judgment, etc., because we make nonsense of Christian doctrine if we do. And he is exactly right. Nature and will are not logically equivalent, even in the divine case.

If "nature" and "will" are not logically equivalent, then of course what God is, the divine essence, is not logically equivalent to what God does, the divine energies. Given that there is no such equivalence, EED as Palamas explicates it is true: "there is" such a distinction. And since denying that EED obtains would indeed "make nonsense of Christian doctrine," we must also say that EED is an instance of authentic DD. We do not find the distinction in so many words before St. Basil in the fourth century; under the spur of the Barlaamite controversy, it was only dogmatized by the Orthodox Church in the 14th century, and in the more specific sense that St. Gregory gave to the words. But it is inarguably implicit in much that the Church has always believed.

Now as a Catholic I assume that the dogma of absolute divine simplicity ('ADS' for short), as defined by Lateran IV and Vatican I, is also both true and an instance of authentic DD. It follows that I regard EED and ADS as mutually consistent. The most likely objection to my position from partisans on both sides is that EED and ADS are not mutually consistent. For partisans of EED, that will mean that ADS is false; for partisans of ADS, that will mean that EED is false. The objection, I believe, is misplaced.

In my only previous post devoted specifically to EED, I argued that the question of the compatibility of EED and ADS hinges on how the term 'divine essence' is used:

...if we take the term 'divine essence' to mean God as he necessarily is apart from what he does, if follows that the divine essence is incommunicable; for communication would be a complex of "energies," i.e. divine actions, and nothing can communicate that which it is regardless of communication. It also follows that there is a real distinction between the divine essence and the divine "energies," which are God as what he eternally does. (I say "eternally" not "necessarily" in this case because some of God's actions are atemporal and unalterable yet free and thus not necessitated by his essence or nature). But suppose we take the 'divine essence' as Aquinas ordinarily does, to mean God as what he eternally is. Given further Aquinas' doctrine that God is actus purus, and thus has no unrealized potentialities, it follows that there is no "real" distinction between the divine essence and the divine actions or "energies." And that is also a corollary of his doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). So the question whether the essence/energies distinction is compatible with DDS depends on what one takes the term 'divine essence' to signify.

The question how we ought to use the term 'divine essence' might seem answerable purely by convention, and indeed that's what it is if we leave matters where I've left them thus far. But of course there remains a problem well known to many readers of this blog.

The most common objection to DDS is that it is logically incompatible with a clear tenet of faith, viz., that God's creating and communicating himself ad extra is free not necessitated. The most satisfactory answer to that objection, I have come to believe, is to affirm that the divine essence as Aquinas uses that term includes a kind of contingency. Thus, what-God-is is eternal and unalterable, but also entails that he do something-or-other he might not have done. Given as much, it was not absolutely necessary that he create at all or that he create this world rather than some other he might have created; that is only conditionally necessary given his free choice to create. But it is necessary that God have done something-or-other ad intra that is free. That God is necessarily and essentially personal (or tri-hypostatic, for those who dislike natural theology) entails that he do some-or-other free action, if only in relation to himself. God is what I call positively mysterious: intelligible, but inexhaustible and hence not fully comprehensible. And the self-contingent God is the same God as the divine essence.

This result jibes nicely with Brandon's remarks. Speaking of the divine names (to use the Pseudo-Dionysius' phrase), he says:

...what these terms refer to are not divided from each other in the Godhead. The divine nature is, as a whole, goodness; as a whole, wisdom; as a whole, justice; as a whole, power. And so forth. The terms are distinct, and necessarily so, but that to which they refer in God is one and the same. It's the unity that evades capture by human thought; we can obliquely refer to it, but we cannot understand it in itself, for refracting it into several non-synonymous conceptions, recognized not to be separable in the divine nature itself, is the only means we have of understanding such things. Thus they differ according to their mode of intelligibility; as does that in God which is incommunicable and that in God by which we participate in divinity.

And that, it seems to me, is entirely compatible with what Palamas says, once we take into account the differing but complementary uses of the term 'divine essence' in the thought of Palamas and Aquinas respectively.

Such conceptual subtleties aside, the most important thing Brandon says is this:

Of course, the point I really wish people would take away is that this is not a matter for polemics but for charitable doctrine. Say that I fail in my understanding of the account of the distinction between essence and energies, which is more than possible; it won't be conceded that the true account is less wonderful than the one I've suggested here. But the account I've suggested here, if true, suggests something so worthwhile that everyone ought to be told about it; no one should be attacked simply for not recognizing it as true, because that wastes precious moments that could be sent lovingly teaching them the truth. And if there is a better account, it is more worthy, not less, to be taught in such a way. For example, you can tell those Orthodox who truly believe the Palamite doctrine and those who merely uphold it through a party spirit. Those who truly believe it are excited about it; it charges them with love for their fellow man and an earnest desire that they, too, may know of this great and good truth, that God became man so that man might receive a deifying gift. They seek to convey it a thousand ways in the hope that those who do not understand might come to understand. Those who uphold it only out of party spirit conveniently forget that their acquaintance with it is not something they have due to their own intelligence or purity but simply and solely because God decided to bless them with the grace of being Orthodox. Because of this, they attack those who do not immediately recognize the doctrine as being stupid, or ignorant, or even corrupt. They spend far more time and effort criticizing other people for not believing it than they do teaching it; a sign of dangerous priorities. For the one the very doctrine is almost a prayer, and certainly a joy, itself; for the other, it is merely a line dividing the party of the Wise from that of the Foolish and the party of the Light from the party of the Dark. Here, as elsewhere, the true believers are marked out by a love for others and a concern for truth that the false believers lack. This is true even when the true believers criticize, which they sometimes do, and sometimes even do sharply. The difference from the mere partisans is palpable. Charity should rule all in all matters such as this.

Alas, it rarely does.

I add: it can. Let's start here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day

Since St. Patrick is my confirmation saint, I thought I'd take this opportunity to thank him for who he is for me as well as all he has been for the world.

One of the best treatments of St. Patrick's life, personality, and influence is Thomas Cahill's in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. As Anita McSorley points out,
"Cahill makes the strong case....that it is Patrick's conversion of Ireland that makes possible the preservation of Western thought through the early Dark Ages by the Irish monasteries founded by Patrick's successors. When the lights went out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was lit by Patrick."

I close with a prayer I love and should say more often:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.


Normally I post my meditations on the Mass's Scripture readings on Sunday night, after people have heard their pastors preach. In my experience, that leaves me looking good enough in most cases. But not always. There are enough fine preachers out there, such as Fr. Philip Powell, OP, to put my sermonettes to shame. Today's Gospel, the parable of the prodigal son, brings out the best in many preachers. So I've decided to post my thoughts tonight, before I'm rightly ignored, leaving the Orthodox-Catholic debate over DD for tomorrow. A few, I know, will hear them.

St. Thomas Aquinas crafted his great Summa Theologiae on a theogonic model drawn from the sixth-century Pseudo-Dionysius: that of the going forth from and return of all things to God. Scholars call that "the exitus-reditus model." Now 'theogony' means 'origin of the divine'; and I use the associated adjective because the Pseudo-Dionysius thought of creation as destined to be 'divinized' through our theosis: a gift from the Father given through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Theosis is indeed the purpose of this our life. (I am not now concerned with the sense in which we are to become God; I merely note that, in some sense, that is what life is about.) When Jesus speaks of the return of the prodigal son, he is giving us an extended metaphor for all that. But it works at two levels.

On one level, the exitus is creation itself, and reditus is simply the right ordering of creation to its source. Thus both would obtain even if man had never sinned. But Jesus is speaking more directly of our return to God from lives of sin. "All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God," but none of us baptized can get away with ignoring the call to attain glory anyhow by God's grace. Grace in the primary sense of the term is God himself, communicating his life to us as unmerited gift. Bestowed through baptism, that life changes us forever; we abide in the eternal whether we want to or not; hence, to sin and fall away from God leaves us worse off than we could ever have been had we never been called to be "partakers of the divine nature." So, given that we belong to the eternal anyhow, resuming the process of theosis by repenting and returning to God is elementary good sense.

But it's not just good sense, as if life were just about being a solid citizen. It is an occasion of joy. C.S. Lewis spoke of being "surprised by joy," and anybody who's read that book of his knows what he means. The ineffable joy we can experience even without knowing God explicitly is restored and deepened when we return to God after dissipating our primal joy in the darkness of willful ignorance and sin. I have experienced that. But it cannot be communicated in words, and it cannot be manufactured. It can only be facilitated by how we choose to respond to the father who awaits us in patient love and infinite mercy.

This Lent, let us remember that emptying ourselves through prayer, self-denial, and charity is just we would want to do if we recognized that what we so often feed on is pig fodder far from home. When we so empty ourselves, we are really resuming our walk on the path of theosis because we are removing obstacles to our interior journey back to God. His Spirit will propel us on the way. Soon or eventually, if we persevere, the joy of returning to our true home will be the fruit.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From the CDF: what we, like, really needed to know

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has just issued a notification on the work of liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, who has been at it for quite a long time. The document identifies certain "errors" in Sobrino's writings and warns the faithful against them. I would have preferred the term "heresies"; it's more specific and makes better copy. But that term has, among other senses, a specific canonical sense; Sobrino is not on trial for heresy in the canonical sense; and Vatican dicasteries must observe the legal niceties.

Accompanying the notification is an explanatory note anticipating and answering the usual objections. It is noted that, despite the CDF's haved rejected "certain aspects" of liberation theology a generation ago—under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, I note—the Church really is concerned for the poor. The procedures followed in CDF investigations of this kind are briefly summarized so as to make them seem straightforwardly motivated and well established. The main points against Sobrino are also summarized. And the whole thing was done for the good of the faithful. Of course.

A great deal of work obviously went into this. But I don't quite get why. All the theological concerns the notification addresses have been well addressed in the past by the man who now happens to be pope. As in many other such cases, nobody with the education to understand Sobrino and the inclination to like his work is going to have their mind changed by this notification. And those with the requisite education who dislike his work dislike it for essentially the same reasons the CDF gives. So why bother belaboring Sobrino's case?

I can think of only two reasons. With the Chavez era in full swing, Sobrino is as popular as ever in Latin America, where Catholicism is still the majority religion. And merely denouncing errors in general terms allows their proponents to deny that they in particular commit those errors. We learned that during the Modernist controversy of a century ago. Fair enough. But with all due respect to Cardinal Levada, Fr. DiNoia, and the Pope himself, the resources available to orthodox theologians working for the Vatican are limited and could well be put to more pressing uses. (One might even say the resources are more limited than the manpower: when asked how many people work at the Vatican, Pope John XXIII replied: "About half of them.") So, in an era when the Church in the so-called "developed" countries is beset by relativism and hedonism, going after liberation theology yet again seems like a waste of energy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sheen: "The Meaning of Mass"

With hat tip to Dawn Eden, I present in sequence the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen's presentation on The Meaning of Mass as a three-part YouTube series. The series forms part of his larger "Family Retreat." (Caveat: his talks presuppose that one has access to a reverent, rubrical liturgy. What he's talking about will not be clear to people at a typical, schlocky AmChurch liturgy.)

Standing firm in the faith

It's fairly easy to adhere firmly to the tenets of the Faith on the Internet. That's almost fun, save when the ensuing, inevitable polemics get tiresome. It's much harder to do so as a lay person planted firmly in real circumstances where the costs and risks are high. As inspiration, I shall present today two examples of that.

One is that of a gay Christian who calls himself "Episcopalienated." He begins:

Before I became a Christian, I understood perfectly well that there was one Biblical standard for human sexuality: that of lifelong, faithful, heterosexual monogamy. No exceptions! As a sexually active gay male, that was one of the best reasons I had for not wanting to be one (a Christian, that is). The Church was honest with me, and I was more than happy to return the favor.

After my conversion to Christ, my understanding remained fully intact and I knew what was expected of me. In order to be faithful to Our Lord and the demands of the Christian faith, active participation in a gay lifestyle had to go, and so it did. I have been practicing sexual abstinence for fifteen years now and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It may seem strange to many, but I have actually come to find it quite liberating.

He concludes:

As I struggle with temptation, and against any residual tendencies towards despair and resignation (and I do again and again), I am always drawn to the words of St. Peter to Our Lord: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” To whom else, indeed? And so for me, the journey of faith, and the challenge of faithfulness, continues.

Read it all; the parts I have not quoted are even better. Even so, I particularly identify with Episcopalienated's "residual tendencies towards despair and resignation." Although I do not carry his particular cross, I carry enough others to know exactly what he means. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps me going are the words to which he is "always drawn." From them, I conclude there is no rational alternative to carrying on in courage despite how I feel. Only when I make that resolution are consolations sent. I suspect the same is true of him.

The other example I want to present is that of a man who calls himself "Woodrow." I cannot think of a better way to describe him than as a "lay evangelist." I found his story today in the combox of this post at Intentional Disciples.

I live in the archdiocese of Detroit. Some cities in the United States have a larger Arab-Muslim population than Detroit does, but we have the largest concentration of Arab-Muslims in the United States. While still an Evangelical Christian, a few years back I volunteered with a local interdenominational Evangelical organization that helped Middle Eastern immigrants learn English, become citizens, and as we made friendships with individuals, we shared the Gospel with them. Some Muslims did become Christians, albeit secretly. Many of them did eventually go back to Islam, but a few have remained faithful Christians. I was hoping the Archdiocese had some sort of similar outreach. When I contacted the main office, I was directed to the priest in charge of inter-religious dialogue. When I asked him whether or not the archdiocese has a program of service/evangelism for the local Islamic community, he was disturbed that I would even think of inviting a Muslim to become Catholic. He so strongly recommended against my doing such a thing that he nearly forbad me to testify about Christ to a Muslim. I understand that the diocese cannot have a public outreach to Muslims because when word reached the Islamic community, they would no longer have anything to do with the archdiocese or with Catholics. I understand that this priest cannot go around meeting leaders in the Islamic community and inviting them right off the bat to become followers of Jesus. However, it's ludicrous for this priest to tell me, a layman, not to proclaim the Gospel to the average "lay Muslim", and it's ludicrous for this priest to be closed to the possibility of inviting Islamic leaders with whom he's developed a good relationship with to become disciples of Jesus Christ. May the Holy Spirit give us love for the world's Muslims, a concern for their eternal well-being, and the courage to boldly proclaim, with great charity and humility, the Gospel to them.

Although my particular calling is not evangelization of Muslims, I can very much identify with Woodrow's story too. He has preached Christ courageously and creatively in difficult circumstances in spite of, not because of, the clergy. In my student days, that's exactly what I was impelled to do much of the time amid my secular colleagues. The priests around me, in many cases, were only nominally Catholic. Two were gay Jesuits: one spread slander about me before leaving the Church for his "lifestyle"; the other, who had taught me courses in both high school and college, eventually converted to Shi'ite Islam. But they were more honest than some other priests I had to deal with: material or formal heretics who remained priests in ostensibly "good standing," they caused gullible students to believe that their heresies were Catholic. I sure had my work cut out for me, and it did not make me popular. Even the orthodox priests did not openly support the efforts that I and my circle of orthodox lay friends made among our peers—even when those efforts were successful enough to bring people to the doors of those very priests.

The names change, but the stories remain more or less the same. It will only get tougher, people. Seat of wisdom, pray for us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sacramentum Caritatis

As I read it, I'm liking more and more the Pope's new, lengthy, and long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist and the Mass. (For the Vatican's English translation, click the title of this post, which is the title of the document.) Two things I like about SC right off.

The first is what it does not do. It does not widen the indult for Mass in Latin according to the 1962 Missal; it does not even require that the currently normative rite, set forth in Paul VI's Missal of 1970, be offered in Latin in addition to the vernacular. Indeed, it does not impose any new requirements or broaden any old permissions. It expresses some of the Pope's wishes and makes suggestions. Regarding Latin:

62. ... In order to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church, I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, such liturgies could be celebrated in Latin. Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church's tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung.

Notice: "could be celebrated in Latin...", "should be recited in Latin." No orders are given; no penalties are threatened. It's all very collegial and seeks to lead by persuasion. I believe there's a very good reason for that. If orders and penalties had been issued, all the media attention and therefore most of the attention of Catholics would be on them, not on the theology set forth in SC. The theology, and the personal example based on it, need time to sink in first.

It will of course be objected that nothing will broadly improve the currently dreadful state of liturgy "on the ground" until the appropriate orders and penalties are issued. That might or might not be true; I suspect it is true; but even so, the tactical approach being adopted by the Pope is sound for the time being.

The other thing I like about SC is the similarity of its title to that of this blog, and the difference of its title from that of this blog. In adopting my title, I had originally meant to allude to authoritative papal documents about sexuality, reproduction, and other "life" issues published since Vatican II: Humanae Vitae, Donum Vitae, and Evangelium Vitae. That's because I've long thought that the "pelvic issues" are the main spiritual salient in the world today, including and especially among Catholics. The spread of sound doctrine and praxis in that area seems to me to depend on a vision of human sexuality as sacramental in both a broad and a specific sense. And I also count on people getting the pun on "life." But I've come to realize that the cause of truth and righteousness in this area depends, among other things, on a better appreciation of that sacrament which is the "font and summit" of the Church's life. For that and many related reasons, it is the sacrament of charity par excellence. There is never too much of either the sacrament or charity. The more we appreciate the former and are accordingly animated by the latter, the more progress we'll make on the pelvic front.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Something to be grateful for...

Moments of clarity are all too rare and all too necessary. I am grateful for them when I get them. In high school and college, I had a hard time explaining to myself why I found my Jesuit mentors so confusing; but now I've had moment of clarity about that. The confusion is still with us, but temporal distance and a hard-won modicum of maturity enable me to see through it and be grateful.

Diogenes reacts with perfect clarity to an Ash Wednesday Sermon this year by a Jesuit spiritual director:

Thank you, Father. If I've caught your gist, I am to pray to my heavenly Mother—obedient to the voice within—in gratitude for my sins, asking God to help me forgive God for making me the way I am.

Isn't there a technical term for spiritual counsel of this kind?

Read the sermon, if you've got the belly for it. Or should I say the belly-laugh? I can't think of a funny technical term, but maybe you can.

Vertical Memes and Horizontal Genes

One of the blogs I most enjoy reading is One Cosmos by the psychologist, mystic, and emphatically unPC Robert Godwin, author of One Cosmos Under God. I never comment there because, not knowing how to be tomfoolishly serious, I don't quite fit in; rather, in the words of a woman who reads both that blog and this one, I am "echt-serious." Nor would self-denominated "Gagdad Bob" ever be mistaken for an orthodox theologian. Instead, he's the kind of guy I loved hanging around in college: polymathic, passionate, metaphysical, playful, and utterly unable to tolerate what the late philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined as "bullshit." That's why I was delighted to read his post of last Saturday about the meaning and crisis of paternity.

Meditating on Jesus' healing of the royal official's son (John 4: 45-50), Bob writes (emphasis added) that the miracle

...speaks to the restoration of the divine-human hereditary archetype that was forged on the Friday of creation, prior to the Fall, which doesn't happen until the following Sunday evening at the earliest. The distortion introduced by the Fall is restored "by the father bringing his son into a direct relationship to the divine archetype -- through his [the father's] faith in Jesus Christ, the new Adam."

In other words, we mistakenly, if understandably, focus on the healing of the son, when the real action takes place in the father, who quite clearly "believed the word that Jesus had spoke to him" prior to the healing. So the real transformation -- and restoration -- occurs first in the father, but has a "vertical" trickle down effect on the son. After all, Jesus made a pretty brusque statement, "Go your way -- your son lives," but the father didn't doubt it. If he had, the entire meaning of the parable would be different.

This brings out a very important -- and perhaps dangerously politically incorrect -- psychological point, that there is something central to fathers and to fatherhood in arresting the intergenerational transmission of mind parasites. Frankly, this is common sense, but it is certainly confirmed if we examine the anthropological and sociological evidence.

Put it this way: in the absence of a strong, vertically oriented father figure, a boy is very likely to remain a more or less horizontal animal. He will be male -- a biological entity under the influence of his horizontal genetic and cultural programming -- but not a man -- which is the first vertical category introduced into human culture. Indeed, it is the foundation of human culture.

This is not difficult to understand. As I explained in the Coonifesto, the mother-infant dyad is a biologically natural phenomenon. Not until men entered that closed system could humans escape biology by becoming the psychologically trimorphic family: mother-father-baby. Thus, "father" is the pillar, so to speak, of society, a non-biological category that then alters the other two: mother simultaneously becomes wife, and baby simultaneously has a way to escape engulfment in the Great Mother archetype, but not without difficulty.

However, it is almost impossible to bridge this gap and escape the orbit of the primordial mother without a vertical father to model the way. Almost all of the really serious problems in society can be traced to the absence of fathers and of men, either literally or figuratively.

Read it all. The man is brilliant even when he's wrong. This time he's spot on.

His son is a fortunate kid.

Banned in China....not

Like certain others concerned with freedom of speech and religion, I have checked at greatfirewallofchina.org to see if my site is blocked by the government. It is not. But UtterlyBoring.com is.

Oh well. Perhaps I'm not boring or subversive enough. I might need to be less academic to gain the new badge of honor much coveted among conservatives and religious folk.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"This is my name forever..."

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” (Exodus 3: 13-15)

Amid the torrent of human words in which we are ever immersed, it is easy to forget that God is the only true theologian. We are but thick-headed students; and our learning will go on forever even when, if our choices have permitted it, we behold his face in patria and are thus divinized by partaking of the Trinity's life. Our knowledge is and always will be relative and limited; his is absolute and infinite. The Son of God who saved us is the Word of God spoken eternally by the Father, and thus is divine in virtue of being the perfect expression of the primordial, unoriginate divine. The Name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush, known as the Tetragrammaton (Hebrew: אהיה אשר אהיה, pronounced Ehyeh asher ehyeh), is an explosively economical expression of both who God is in himself and his grace toward his people. It means that God is Being Itself, the source of all beings, and that his presence to us abides eternally. Hearing that Name, Moses was luckier than those of us who have studied academic theology. Fortunately, he was also humbler than most who teach it.

Even so, he and his people were not spared tuition. They complained bitterly in the desert despite all that had been revealed to them and done for them. I do that too. I am in the desert and, when I neglect prayer and love, complain bitterly to God. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, it can reach the point of blasphemy. In my better moments I pray, among other things, that such an attitude will not raise my tuition even further. It helps to contemplate the Name that good Jews will not utter, inclining instead to refer to God as Hashem, "the Name". Contemplating that name, I realize that my goal awaits eternally and patiently, drawing me ever to himself despite myself. My prayer this Lent is to be in the right frame of mind when I see him face to face. I'm not holy enough to shine now with the Fire that does not consume; but there's still time to get out of my own way long enough to receive that gift eternally.