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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yes, but what does it MEAN?

I'm taking the occasion of Pope Francis' birthday--which he's celebrating by inviting some homeless people to breakfast--to talk about the hermeneutical challenge he seems to pose to so many traditionalist and conservative Catholics. Lapsed Catholics and standard-issue worldlings seem to love him, as if they just knew that his gestures and words are those of the kindly, sprightly grandpa they want in a pope. For such people, this pope is less about ideas than about their feeling understood and sought out. And they're correct to feel that way. But the very things causing the prodigal children to feel that way leave many of us older brothers and sisters in the house feeling suspicious. That's inevitable, and I'm not judging anybody in particular. But I do want to focus on what seems to have upset traditionalist and conservative Catholics the most in the new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

EG seems addressed primarily to Catholic "intentional disciples" and pastoral workers. It explains why evangelization is and ought to be a joy; yet it spends at least as much time explaining various ways in which the joy gets killed, or is never even allowed to arise. To me, it seems that the chief of those is what Francis calls "spiritual worldliness" in §93-4. Before we get to that, note how he describes, in §82-3, its manifestation in the main audience he's addressing:

The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable.  As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue. This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of  things.  Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can.  Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven. Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of  success. Others, because they have lost real contract with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself. Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of  disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.
And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of  the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.  Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.  For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization! [Footnotes omitted; emphasis added.]
None of that is hard to understand for anybody who's been active in ecclesial ministry for any length of time. In fact, the bolded passage describes many of the educated Catholics I know, including myself. What does seem hard for some to understand, though, is how the Pope describes the underlying problem.

He calls that problem "spiritual worldliness." Thus:

93.   Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of  piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but  human  glory and  personal  well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s “own interests, not those of  Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21).   It takes on many forms, depending on the kinds of persons and groups into which it seeps.  Since it is based on carefully cultivated appearances, it is not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be.  But if it were to seep into the Church, “it would be infinitely more disastrous than any other worldliness which is simply moral”.  
94.   This  worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of  those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of  opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism.  It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. 
95.    This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of  “taking over the space of the Church”.  In some people we see an  ostentatious  preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.  In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of  self-help and self-realization.  It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution.  The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ. Evangelical fervour is replaced by the empty pleasure of  complacency and self-indulgence.
I've noticed a curious contrast in the reactions to that account of spiritual worldliness among intentional disciples and pastoral workers: "progressive" Catholics don't seem to feel targeted in those passages, but conservative and traditionalist Catholics do.  Why is that?

Clearly, as many "progressives" are being criticized as their opposites.  It's not as though the Pope isn't even-handed. There is, for instance, a certain faith-style that is indeed "gnostic" in a "subjective" sense: people believing what makes them feel good and smart, but which doesn't really change anything, least of all themselves. I know many baptized Catholics like that, especially ones who are into this-or-that "self-help" or "self-realization" program; and many of them are proggies. Some proggies are also being criticized implicitly when the Pope talks about "fascination with social or political gain." For instance, many proggie-Catholic academics are far more concerned about being considered respectable among their secular peers and friends than about witnessing to Truth. And last year, many Catholics bought the absurd argument that voting for Obama was being more effectively "pro-life" than voting for a candidate who, if elected, might reduce the rate of growth in spending on various social programs. Of course, it's also quite possible to be theologically and/or politically to the "right" and be guilty of "gnosticism" and/or of politicizing the Faith too. But that's the point. The Pope is less interested in singling out one "wing" as more guilty of spiritual worldliness than another than in warning us of a spiritual danger which is no respecter of ideology.

Yet for some reason, Catholics more toward the rightward end of the spectrum are in conniptions about EG. That's due mainly to two things. One is what it says about economics, the reaction to which strikes me as overblown, based in part on mistranslation. The other is this sizzler: "
the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of  opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying." I've encountered a lot of grumbling about that from "right-thinking" Catholics. Fr. Z has even made a bitter joke-mug out of it (depicted above).

Of course they claim it's unclear: "What does he mean by 'self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'? That's just nasty rhetoric with no clear thought behind it." But the rest of the quoted description is not nearly so unclear about whom the Pope has in mind when using that phrase. I know such people; one finds them on the Catholic "right," especially among self-described "traditionalists." And when such a person reads the above description, they know they are the target of the criticism, even if they protest that the criticism is unjustified. I don't need to name anybody. Still, there's deep content worth pondering in the phrase '
self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'.

According to Ben Mann, the notion of "Promethean" theology comes from Thomas Merton, in his book New Man. I've read the relevant chapter and have no doubt that Jorge Mario Bergoglio once did too. With that in mind, I think we can understand 'self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'
to mean an attitude which inclines certain people to earn their salvation by being rigorously right-thinking and virtuous in spite of God's mean-spirited reluctance to save them or even make life pleasant for them. One finds such an attitude more often on the Catholic "Right" than on the Catholic "Left", because viewing God chiefly as Judge and Taskmaster, from whom the fire of grace and the bliss of salvation must be wrested by force, is much more common on the Right than on the Left. In short, what the Pope is describing is a latter-day Pharisaism.

One does of course find Pharisees on the Catholic Left, not just the Catholic Right. If one is not politically correct enough, or is not reliably Democrat, or even if one prefers more traditional forms of liturgy, one can find oneself the target of much scorn from professional "progressive" Catholics. But I find it most interesting that hardly any proggies seem to feel themselves targeted by any of the Pope's criticisms. Only traddies and conservatives feel hard done by.

I believe that's the work of a high-up (better: low-down) spirit of division. Because proggies and worldlings seem so happy with the Pope--so rightist "thinking" goes--his message must be as much designed to diss us as to please them. And so many of the Pope's ambiguities and infelicities of expression, both formal and informal, are interpreted by some traddie and conservative critics in the worst possible light.

My advice to such people, many of whom are my friends, is this: Calm down. Pray. Stop being so querulous and defensive. Be determined not to become a pawn of the spirit of division. The Pope knows he's not above criticism, and he doesn't hate or disrespect you. In fact, he agrees with you more often than you've been led to think.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium: something to offend just about everybody...

...thank God. Damian Thompson has summed up Evangelii Gaudium well enough as the outline of the Pope Francis "radical" agenda for his papacy. In our politically-obsessed media world, most of the attention has gone to what the new "apostolic exhortation" says about economics. But there's really nothing new there: Paul VI was saying much the same in the 1960s and 70s, and it's fully in keeping with how the "social doctrine of the Church" has developed before and since. Its empirical premises may not all be correct, but that's not a new issue either. What is new, at least to me, is how the Pope rips into what he calls the "spiritual worldliness" of so many Catholics active in the Church.

That must be cauterized so that we can get out of ourselves, encounter Christ afresh, and evangelize with joy. That's what's important here, and radical. Few, be they right, left, or middling, escape the critique. Here's the part that hit me hardest:
93.  Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of  piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory  but  human  glory  and  personal  well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s “own interests, not those of  Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21).  It takes on many forms, depending on the kinds of persons and groups into which it seeps. Since it is based on carefully cultivated appearances, it is not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be.  But if it were to seep into the Church, “it would be infinitely more disastrous than any other worldliness which is simply moral”.
94.    This worldliness can  be  fuelled  in  two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of  those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of  opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism.  It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.
95.   This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of  “taking over the space of the Church”.  In some people we see an ostentatious  preoccupation  for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.  In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of  self-help and self-realization.  It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions.  It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution.   The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ.  Evangelical fervour is re- placed by the empty pleasure of complacency and self-indulgence.
96.    This way of  thinking also feeds the vainglory of those who are content to have a modicum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight.  How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals! But this is to deny our history as a Church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifice, of hopes and daily struggles, of lives spent in service and fidelity to work, tiring as it may be, for all work is “the sweat of our brow”. Instead, we waste time talking about “what needs to be done” – in Span- ish we call this the sin of “habriaqueísmo” – like spiritual masters and pastoral experts who give instructions from on high. We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people.
97.    Those  who  have  fallen  into  this  worldliness look on from above and afar, they reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters, they discredit those who raise questions, they constantly point out the mistakes of others and they are obsessed by appearances.   Their hearts are open only to the limited horizon of  their own immanence and interests, and as a consequence they neither learn from their sins nor are they genuinely open to forgiveness.  This is a tremendous corruption disguised as a good.  We need to avoid it by making the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor.

He shoots: he scores!

Most "professional Catholics" can find something of themselves in that. If Pope John Paul II liked to repeat Duc in altum!--"Go out into the deep"--Francis is reminding us that what we need to go out from is ourselves--especially our churchy selves.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"The End of Protestantism" turns out to be...Protestant

When it came out last week, I had intended to write a lengthy rebuttal of Peter Leithart's First Things piece "The End of Protestantism." But if you know much about church history, reading it for yourself makes that unnecessary. For what Leithart is advocating, which he calls "reformational Catholicism," has been around since the 16th century. It's called "Anglicanism"--or more precisely, what used to be called "broad-church Anglicanism." C.S. Lewis would have been quite comfortable with it. Leithart's brand doesn't require England, but it's just the sort of via media of which traditional Anglicans are so uniquely proud.

The thing is, broad-church Anglicanism, whether English or not, is essentially Protestant--as Queen Elizabeth I rightly insisted. Like confessional Lutheranism and Calvinism, to be sure, it considers itself Catholic in the only sense that matters. In that sense of 'Catholic', Roman and Eastern Catholicism do not together constitute the Catholic Church, but are at most branches thereof, if not sects. But the belief that the communion of churches calling itself "the Catholic Church" is not, in fact, the Catholic Church is what makes Anglicanism in all its forms Protestant. Thus the terminus at which Leithart's "end of Protestantism" arrives is--well, Protestant.

It should be evident that all Protestant attempts to transcend the thing that used to be called Protestantism--such as "non-denominational" Christianity, or pentecostalism--end by coming similarly full circle. That is inevitable so long as those making the attempt fail to see that the Church Christ founded perdures as a visible and unitary whole, from which all other self-described "churches" are in varying degrees of schism--even as those degrees mark, inversely, the degrees of "imperfect communion" with the Church Christ founded.


The American Prospect

Like all things human, the United States will eventually die. Since conquering it by force is not logistically feasible, its death will be de facto suicide. The culprit will be Americans' forgetting the truth that liberty is only sustainable by virtue. And they will have forgotten that truth because we no longer have a collective vision of what "the good" for man is, and hence no vision of what virtue objectively requires.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Accountability and Lust

No corporate honcho went to jail for their admitted part in the massive financial meltdown of 2008, which was due to greed obscured by fraud. No Administration big shot is going to take a fall for the scandals of Benghazi, the IRS, the NSA, or the ACA rollout. The American people don't seem to hold elites accountable for anything more. I believe that's because they are gradually failing to hold even themselves accountable for anything anymore. And the roots of that lie in the "sexual revolution." The inexorable march of the vice of lust tramples not only chastity but all other virtues--especially honesty and prudence.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Here I am: send me

It's too bad that the homily I heard this morning was boring even by the standard of that particular priest, who is a holy man all the same. But that's what's prompted me to write on the theme of today's Bible readings in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

The theme is God's commissioning unworthy men to preach his saving word. In our jaded, increasingly post-Christian culture, the need for that is ever more urgent. It can and should be met by Christians in general and the clergy in particular. In a Catholic context, we need to focus on the particular means by which laity and clergy respectively must do so.

It's been noted for decades that the ambient culture in the West is no longer Christian, or even all that friendly to Christianity. That problem is not yet as acute in the U.S. as in Western Europe or Canada, but we are headed down the same path. Thus committed Christians, including Catholics, can no longer count on the Faith's being transmitted by osmosis, or even on what theologians call "implicit faith." That is especially evident in the breakdown of the traditional family, which has developed almost as much among believers as unbelievers. The only kind of Christianity that will last will be intentional and missionary. It will be intentional because, when it is not, it will continue dissipating in face of the secular culture's momentum. It will be missionary because Christianity is inherently a missionary religion. When Christians do not act accordingly, their religion becomes a museum piece for the culturally conservative minority and an increasingly inconvenient bit of cultural baggage for everybody else. But even though Catholic laity and clergy must both be intentional and missionary, the ways in which each must be that differ from each other. And those ways can be understood by contrast with how things generally are in the Church.

The laity are supposed to be the Church in and for the world. In fact, about 99% of the Church just is the laity. But most either don't know that or, if they do, don't really get it. For them, as for the rest of the world, "the Church" is really an institution or organization consisting of the clergy and their co-workers, working out of expensive physical plants called "churches" and "chanceries" and sponsoring social services that, while important, could in principle be replaced by government. Incredibly, the notion that the Church is mostly just us, the Body of Christ bringing Christ home to ourselves, our families, friends, co-workers, and wider communities, is still largely foreign to most Catholic laity--even half-a-century after Vatican II, which stressed "the universal call to holiness" and the corresponding importance of the laity. Most still instinctively identify themselves as Americans, or professionals, or spouses or parents, or even as fans of their sports teams, before identifying as Catholics. Religion is just one more compartment of life, one more box to check, whose main purpose is to provide fire insurance for the next life--assuming, of course, that fire insurance is needed, which more and more Catholics seem to disbelieve.

Over the same period of time, the situation hasn't been all that much better among the clergy. Normally the problem is not such ignorance of the Faith as results from and reinforces garden-variety worldliness, but another kind of worldliness. In my fifty-odd years, I have observed thousands of Catholic clergy and religious in many different environments. Aside from a public commitment to celibacy (with some canonical exceptions), the most common feature I've observed among them is not theological orthodoxy or personal holiness, but how comfortable they are. They have no worries about employment: Jobs and people come to them, sometimes in profusion. None have the sort of worry about health care that many laity do: They can expect adequate care paid for by the self-insured churchly entities to which they belong for life. They have no families to struggle to care for; in the majority of cases, even their major personal expenses such as housing and cars are paid for by contributions, not salary. And despite the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal, clergy and religious still command respect and a presumption of good will from those they are meant to serve.

None of those things are bad in themselves; arguably, they facilitate the mission of the professionally religious. But one thing they entail is that the penalties for indifference, incompetence, or malfeasance are usually far less severe for clergy and religious than for laity. If you're a priest or religious, you basically have to be a convicted criminal to lose your employment and health care, because what you have is really an unusual "vocation" rather than a job, and such a vocation can be lived out through many different jobs and relationships. The result is that much indifference, incompetence, and malfeasance go unpunished and sometimes even unnoticed. That has allowed priests and religious to become too comfortable. It promotes the sort of worldliness evinced by the many bishops who covered up sexual abuse, and protected the abusers, so that the boat would not be rocked and the Church's prestige would be maintained. We've seen how that's worked out. And don't even get me started on the failure of so many priests and religious to inspire laity to be Church, as opposed to paying, associate members of the organization. They have not failed because their preaching is bad; sometimes it's good. They have not failed because they don't work hard enough; many work hard indeed. They have failed simply because their comfort is more evident than their holiness. That disparity does not go unnoticed.

Read and meditate on today's Bible readings. They apply equally to the professionally religious and to lay people. That they apply to the professionally religious needs no explanation: Such people just are those who have been specially called and commissioned by God to bring his truth and love to the rest of the Church. But laity need to realize that they are that too, for the world as a whole. We are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9). As Pope John Paul II reminded us, we are to "put out into the deep water" in faith, trusting that we will be successful "fishers of men," starting with ourselves. I find that a far more inspiring vision of life than any accomplishments of mine that the world can recognize and approve. The latter are purely contingent matters. The former is what we are called to be in God, for God, so that we can become gods.


Friday, February 08, 2013

Beyond 4th-century trinitarianism


Fr. Al (Aidan) Kimel has a series up at his recently founded blog about St. Gregory of Nazianzen's trinitarian theology. For us theology geeks, it's well worth a read. What follows is a rewrite of a comment I posted on Part Three.

It seems to me that much of the apparent disparity between Eastern and Western trinitarian theology would disappear if we attended more to two points both sides could accept, consistently with Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy..
First, being-three-persons is absolutely necessary to the divine essence, but being-creator is only hypothetically necessary to the divine essence. Both properties are eternal and unalterable, and thus of the divine essence, but the latter is the result of a divine decision that could have been otherwise, given what else belongs to the divine essence; while the former is not, but rather is itself a naturally necessary feature of the divine essence. So the Father is indeed Monarch ad intra and the Godhead monarch ad extra. But the Father is not Monarch ad intra in a sense that would be incompatible with saying that the divine essence is too. That’s because what accounts for the Father’s being Monarch ad intra is, precisely, the divine essence that necessitates his begetting and spirating the other two person respectively.
Of course we must affirm that begetting and spirating are activities personal to the Father. But if the above is correct, they are not personal to the Father rather than being absolutely necessary to, and thus necessitated by, the divine essence. They are both. Otherwise we'd have to say that the Father's origination of the other two persons is only hypothetically necessary to the divine essence, in the sort of way creation is. And I don't believe anybody wants to to say that.
Second and accordingly, we should say that the Father originates each of the other two persons only in relation to the other, even as the other two stand in different relationships to him and to each other. He begets and spirates both persons eternally and necessarily; but he spirates the Holy Spirit only as Father of the Son, and thus does so on account of and for the sake of the Son. He also begets the Son only as the Monarch who also breathes forth the Holy Spirit, for he begets the Son only in relation to the Spirit, inasmuch as the Son is he for the sake of whom the Father necessarily breathes forth the Spirit.
Of course, the implications of the above account for the person/nature distinction in God will put off those for whom only Cappadocian trinitarianism is acceptable. But that would just be to freeze the development of trinitarian doctrine in the 4th century. That is neither necessary nor desirable.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

If grace is resistible, how can the Church be indefectible?

That's a question I was asked a few days ago by a Protestant commenter at Called to Communion. Readers who care to can read my initial reply here. Of course the man complained that my explanation was "much too complex, intricate, and precarious," and indicated that he preferred the clarity of the "Word of God." Well, I know it's hard to argue people out of their comfort zones, but I'm always surprised when I run up against attitudes like his. Quantum physics too is "complex, intricate, and precarious," but that is not by itself a reason to believe it's false. When we're dealing with, like, you know, God, why expect things to be any different? Especially when Catholic theologians have had nearly two millennia to think collegially about the mysteries of faith.

Even so, I admit that my reply was not the easiest to follow. Perhaps that's all the poor man was reacting to. So I want to restate my explanation here, in the hope that reactions will be less dismissive. Please keep in mind that what's at issue is just another instance of the mysterious interaction of grace and human freedom.

Consider sin and freedom first. Original sin, even when washed away by baptism, has lingering effects which make it inevitable that each person who's reached "the age of reason" (i.e., of moral responsibility) actually sins at some-or-other time. That actual sin is inevitable for such people is, at any rate, a fact even non-believers may infer from experience. But given that people with moral responsibility, precisely as such, retain a measure of free will, it cannot be inevitable for them to sin at any particular times--save when some of their actual sins have been made inevitable by their previous, freely committed sins. Thus actual sin is statistically inevitable for the people in question (including anybody who's reading this), but not deterministic in a way that's incompatible with free will. For if it were the latter, we would not be morally accountable for at least some of our actual sins, which would be a conceptual absurdity. That's why the Council of Trent defined original sin with the word reatum, a legal term which means roughly "liability to punishment." Everybody who inherits original sin is liable to punishment because if they live past the age of reason, they will actually sin at some-or-other point--even though original sin itself is not actual sin, but only the inherited absence of that share in his own life for which God created humanity.

Now for the main question at hand. By virtue of the unbreakable promises of Christ, it is inevitable that both the Church as a whole and the Magisterium in particular--at least as long as the latter exists--preserve the apostolic deposit of faith complete and incorrupt. From that, it follows that neither the "ordinary and universal magisterium" nor the "extraordinary" magisterium will ever use its authority in such a way as to bind the Church to a heresy. But it is by no means inevitable that any particular bishop, including the bishop of Rome, will persevere in the Faith at all, never mind teach the Faith in its fullness. For each and every member of the Church, believing and professing the Faith in its fullness is the result of a free choice to accept the divine gift of faith. And just as faith is freely received and manifested, so too is formal heresy (material heresy, when that is the correct term for somebody's belief, is often unchosen, because it is often unreflective and thus unintentional). Hence any bishop, including the pope, can freely become a formal heretic. But the Catholic doctrine of the Church's indefectibility in the Faith entails that even when many bishops, including whoever's pope, fall away from the fullness of Faith, not all will. The Magisterium as a whole will never successfully manage to use his authority in such as way as to bind the Church to a heresy--and on Catholic doctrine, the pope in particular will never manage to do that, even if he chooses and aims to. Consequently, the divinely granted grace of the Church's indefectibility is a grace of providence for the Church as a whole, not for any of her individual members, including the members of the Magisterium. Individual free will is not thereby coerced within the soul, as Protestant monergists imagine by holding that grace is irresistible. For instance, if and when the pope's free will is overridden by such a providential grace, it is overridden only in the sense that his will's intention to bind the Church to his heresy is externally frustrated in its execution. That, I believe, is what actually happened when Pope John XXII tried to teach his heresy about "the beatific vision."

Now I realize that many non-Catholics will be unmoved such an explanation. Since they don't see reason enough to believe that Catholicism is true to begin with, they do not share the suppositions that frame the logical problem I've sought to resolve. But I do believe I've shown that Catholicism is internally consistent in the present respect. And that's the sort of thing that must always be shown, when there's a serious question about self-consistency.


Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Super Bowl: a pre-game Thomistic meditation

Objection 1. God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl. For sporting events are "of the world," and God calls us out of the world to share even now in his divine life.

Objection 2. If God did care who wins the Super Bowl, he would be sucked into the world's rabid competitiveness and greed, which are beneath him.

*Sed contra*: God is perfectly rational, and any agent even minimally rational would care who wins the Super Bowl, because so much ego and money are at stake; and where that much is at stake, so is the good of souls.

*Respondeo*: God does not care who wins the Super Bowl *per se*, but only *per accidens*, insofar as one team's winning the game would help more souls to adhere to him than the other team's winning would.

That suffices in reply to Objection 1 and the contrary.

Reply Objection 2. God saved humanity from itself by letting people torture and execute him as a public threat, before rising from the dead. His involvement in the Super Bowl would serve the same end by less gruesome means.

Cross-posted at First Thoughts.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Divine authority: a backhanded introduction

Today's Gospel reading in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite concludes:
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
If that audience was anything like one that I'm familiar with, somebody would have piped up at once: "Your development of doctrine has no basis in the text." To that, of course, Jesus could have replied: "I AM the text." And in his ministry, that is in effect what he asserted. To any Catholic familiar with conservative Protestantism, though, it should come as no surprise that most first-century Jews didn't see Jesus that way.

That brings up a point I have long pondered during my obscure career as an online Catholic apologist. Many Christian opponents of Catholicism often argue something like this: "Nowhere in the New Testament do we find your allegedly infallible Magisterium. The Magisterium's arrogant and self-serving claims for itself have no basis in the text." But it should go without saying that such a response proves nothing pertinent. It merely exhibits the fundamental difference between the conservative-Protestant interpretive paradigm (CPIP) and the Catholic interpretive paradigm (CIP).

On the CPIP, it is in and through the Bible alone, not something called "the Church," that we encounter and recognize that divine authority by which the public, once-for-all divine revelation is given to us. When we render the assent of faith in that revelation, we are believing God, the ultimate authority, by means of trusting a book as that secondary authority which embodies God's primary authority and conveys the content of his revelation. Thus, for conservative Protestants, the biblical canon as they acknowledge it is the formal, proximate object of faith (FPOF). As their FPOF, the Bible is the sole "infallible" medium of doctrine. That is the basic meaning of sola scriptura. Individual believers can accept ecclesial authority as such only to the extent that it conforms to "Scripture." In practice, that amounts to judging the orthodoxy of any church by means of one's own interpretation of Scripture. It is the individual believer who judges the conformity of any non-scriptural authority to the FPOF. Of course, many conservative Protestants do not see this, because they assume that their often-divergent interpretations of Scripture are simply "what the Bible says." And they say the Magisterium is arrogant!

On the CIP, however, it is the opposite. It is not the individual believer who gets to judge the Church's orthodoxy, but the Church that is the judge of the believer's orthodoxy. That is because, as the "Body of Christ" and "pillar and bulwark of the truth," the Church is a living embodiment of divine authority through her college of bishops, the successors of the Apostles, in union with the pope, the successor of Peter. On such an account, the FPOF is not the Bible alone, understood as self-attesting, but the triad Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium, understood as mutually attesting and interdependent. The first two together convey to us the content of divine revelation, and the last ensures that we identify and interpret that content reliably. The FPOF, as the Catholic Church understands it, thus bears the same divine authority of Jesus that is described in the New Testament.

The basic dispute between conservative Protestantism and Catholicism, then, is about whether divine teaching authority is limited to its embodiment in a book, or whether the two other authorities in question are also necessary for constituting the FPOF. That dispute is similar to the one most Jewish scholars had with Jesus and the Christians. And the beauty of it is that we can compare, contrast, and evaluate the two IPs in terms of the means they offer for distinguishing between expressions of divine revelation as such and merely human opinions about how to identify and interpret the data in which we are given that revelation. Protestantism invests that means in the individual; Catholicism, in the Church. I know which seems more biblical, as well as more reasonable, to me.


Friday, January 25, 2013



Tonight at St. Matthew's Church in East Syracuse, NY, we celebrated a Novus Ordo High Mass for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The pastor celebrated ad orientem those parts of the Mass addressed to God the Father. Our schola cantorum, in which I sing bass, sang the Ordinary in Latin and Palestrina's "Bonus est Dominus" as a communion motet. Instead of hymns, we chanted the "proper" antiphons in English.

This is is the "Ordinary Form" as it should be.



Monday, January 21, 2013

Sin, wrath, and forgiveness


I recommend this excellent meditation by Fr. Al Kimel.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Better adult catechesis...again


Lately I've been hearing, online and off, still more plaintive calls for "better adult catechesis." I'll say it one mo' time: The problem is not so much that they don't know as that they don't care; they'll only come to know if they care enough to learn. Here I shall add that you can't make anybody care. Some will come to care when the right questions occur to them; some, when they realize they've paid dearly for playing; some, when they finally meet someone truly holy. But all of that is grace. No program can manufacture it.

+Roman Catholics