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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The good old days are back...sort of

The blogger "I'd Rather Not Say," a conservative Episcopalian and now a history professor, has offered a superb critique of the new resolution passed by the Episcopal House of Bishops in response to the challenge issued some months ago in Dar es Salaam by their peers. In response to that same resolution, one prominent blogger of views similar to IRNS' has decided to swim the Tiber—a move I was subtly and not-so-subtly urging on IRNS almost thirty-five years ago, when we were roommates at Columbia and the issue for Episcopalians was whether or not to ordain women. And yet, aside from the bad liturgy still characteristic of many Catholic dioceses, I have noticed that what prevents many disaffected Episcopalians from swimming the Tiber is that the Catholic Church just isn't as tough on heretics as she was before Vatican II. So much internal infidelity is permitted de facto that the Barque of Peter seems too leaky to risk leaping aboard. Well, I have good news and bad news for such people.

The good news is that Catholic bishops are still capable of excommunicating people for heresy. This past week, one of them did just that; the good old days are sort of back. Apparently, a half-dozen nuns in Arkansas had got the idea that another nun was, if not the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, at least the mouthpiece of God. Whatever. I haven't analyzed their beliefs further and am not terribly interested in doing so. The point is that, in an act unprecedented for the Diocese of Little Rock, the bishop excommunicated the nuns who believed such nonsense. I'm delighted to hear that people can still be excommunicated for heresy—if indeed heresy, as opposed to mere lunacy, is really the problem in this case. That should be good news to prospective converts who fear that what the world regards as the bad old days weren't quite as bad as the present. There's not only precedent but hope for disciplining many of those Catholics who will not listen to the Church about matters very much within her purview.

But the bad news is the disproportion between the official reaction to this minor, tightly confined heresy and the persistence of inaction on the far more serious and pervasive heresies which afflict, even define, AmChurch. The way the Church in this country operates today, almost any adult Catholic can disbelieve this or that irreformable doctrine of the Church and not be called on it. For instance, the majority of Catholic couples of childbearing age contracept and are not questioned about it, even in the confessional—if they bother to show up there. They neither believe nor care about the Church's teaching that contraception is "intrinsically evil," which is right there in the CCC and has remained constant, in substance, for as long as there have been records on the subject. But in most cases, their pastors will not take them to task for that. If they themselves believe the relevant teaching at all, the poor fellows are too cowed to make an issue of it. The same goes for many other issues. I've met many Catholics who do not believe this-or-that defined dogma, either because nobody has ever taught it to them or, just as often, because their pastors don't think it really matters what any given parishioner actually believes, so long as they're a decent sort who goes to church and contributes. Most Catholics think similarly. But that is a grave error.

For one thing, it was one factor facilitating the sex-abuse scandal in the clergy. Ever since I was old enough to understand the word 'celibacy', I've learned over and over that most Catholics have absolutely no idea what the spiritual rationale for the celibacy of priests and religous is. Needless to say, few priests bother explaining it to them. To many laity, celibacy is a cruel, unnatural requirement imposed on the Church's lifers for essentially financial and political reasons. My own mother's view of the matter was, I came to learn, quite common: they cannot see how a man with a healthy masculine sexuality, who is not quite ready for Social Security, would willingly embrace celibacy for the love of Christ; conversely, it is thought that if a man does embrace celibacy so as to become a priest or religious, there must be something wrong with him. Is it then any surprise that, for decades, the proportion of men entering the seminary with some-or-other serious psychosexual issue was so disturbingly high? If the general expectation is that psychosexually normal and healthy men shouldn't and won't be priests, then what we'll get are a lot of priests who aren't psychosexually normal and healthy. It only makes sense. And we've seen one of the results.

But that is only a temporary problem; the trends I've been seeing are quite positive. The bigger and longer-term problem is that Catholics are no longer required, de facto, to believe like Catholics. If you're an adult who wants to become a Catholic, you have to go through a process culminating in a profession of faith in all that the Catholic Church "professes and teaches." And rightly so. But if you're a cradle Catholic, confirmed as a child or adolescent, it is presumed that you've already gone through such a process successfully; from that, it is concluded that people don't need an orthodoxy check beyond recitation of the Creed at Sunday Mass. And so the clergy don't, generally speaking, ask adult "cradles" what they believe. But far too often, the presumption is patently false. Most adult cradles were never formed in adult faith; they did and said what they had to so as to get confirmed, and that was it; anything beyond that is, or would be, strictly self-motivated. The result, for the most part, is either that nothing much is done or that what is done is bad. I think the clergy know that—the way one knows that what's likely to turn up if one hoists a boulder in the forest will not be altogether pleasant. And so, with a few worthy exceptions, the boulder is left alone.

Beyond lay ignorance, there's the problem of well-educated priests, nuns, and theologians who quite openly reject Church teaching on key points but are not disciplined for it. Sure, a few are; on occasion, a theologian will lose his mandatum to teach in a Catholic institution. Perhaps many pay a price in less public ways. But excommunications are rare, and open heretics are still allowed to speak and teach heresy freely in Catholic settings. That allows, even encourages, the laity to think that doctrine, not just theology, is a matter of opinion. And—so the thinking goes—since everybody is allowed an opinion, what does it matter what one's opinion is?

As I've implied in the past, I believe this phenomenon to be single worst avoidable problem facing the Church in the Western world today. But again, there is hope. If a bishop can excommunicate a handful of fruitcakes and avoid the pillory, then perhaps the bishops can steel themselves to pick up the much bigger boulder and do something with what they find underneath. They might begin by wiping the dust off their own plan.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Providence, Columbia, and the Thug-in-Chief

At first I was annoyed that my alma mater, Columbia University, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (henceforth referred to only as 'TIC'), to speak on campus. In the past, there have been instances when almost-as-famous people of decidedly un-PC views had been disinvited to speak at Columbia; so, why give the podium to a Holocaust denier and killer of American soldiers? Knowing academia in general and Columbia in particular as I do, it probably had to do with internal academic politics—at least consciously. But think I got the real answer yesterday: "It wasn't a setup, but it looks like that." For media purposes, looking like that is as good as being that. And God knows that.

President Lee Bollinger used his introductory remarks to trash the TIC, calling him "ridiculous" and "a cruel, petty dictator." When, in response to a question why Iran "executes" homosexuals (I think the questioner meant sodomites—or should have if he didn't), the TIC denied there are homosexuals in Iran, the student crowd erupted in laughter. One may safely say that the occasion was not a propaganda gain for the Iranian regime. The TIC could not have come off looking worse if the thing had been planned as a setup.

Which leads me to believe that higher powers planned it as a setup. The thing was providential. What motivated Bollinger's (deserved) insults was doubtless the need for damage control: he had taken a lot of heat for the invite and had to show some cojones, which he did. But all that political maneuvering had the salutary effect of showing off the TIC for what he is. As a rare and miraculous bonus, the students apparently agreed. That alone is proof of supernatural intervention.

Monday, September 24, 2007

If only...

Well, the good ol' Dutch are at it again. This time it's Dutch who happen to be Dominican priests, no less. They have proposed to address the shortage of priests as follows:

In late August, the Dominicans in the Netherlands distributed a 38-page booklet, Church and Ministry, that proposed parishes in need of an ordained priest choose their own person to become the Mass presider. The parish could then present such candidates -- "women or men, homo- or heterosexual, married or single" -- to the local bishop to ask that they be ordained, according to the booklet.

However, basing its recommendation on practices within the early church, the booklet said if the bishop chooses not to ordain the candidate -- for example, because the person cannot meet the requirements of celibacy -- then the elected candidate and the congregation could still feel assured that when they come together to "share bread and wine in prayer," they are still receiving a real and valid Eucharist, the Dutch Dominicans' website said.

"What is important is an infectious attitude of faith," the booklet said.

Needless to say, the Order's general curia in Rome did not approve, and said so. They wisely decided not to wait for the Pope to say it.

To me, this is a particularly ironic item. I am just the sort of person who would love to do what the DDs proposed, and in their sort of environment I would probably be marked for it. I have all the necessary credentials and experience—and just as importantly, I'm divorced. But I cannot agree with those guys. The very faith which so attracts me to the priestly role tells me that, unordained, I cannot exercise it. Once again, my beliefs run counter to my interests. And for their part: why did they go to the trouble of being ordained, with all the training and restrictions that entails, when by their own theology they need not have and possibly even should not have?

For reasons I shall recount if anybody's interested, I have never understood progressive Catholicism. But then again, if only....

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Between fundamentalism and modernism

In the popular media, the intellectual alternatives for religion are fundamentalism and modernism. Both, in the end, are untenable: the former because it ignores some undeniable historical and scientific truths, the latter because it has God saying and doing nothing that the world does not already say and do of its own accord. What makes authentic Catholicism defensible is that, being neither, it is far more vital than either. Of course the term 'fundamentalism' is overused, and the term 'modernism' is too seemingly quaint to be used often; but an understanding of their historical provenance will help clarify their true usefulness as names for the poles of a dichotomy that can and must be transcended.

The original use of the term 'fundamentalist' arose early in the 20th century among Protestant theologians reacting against liberal, social-gospel Protestantism. The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, an anthology of essays published in 1915, reasserted certain doctrinal tenets, "fundamentals," that many theologians increasingly felt a need to defend. The most widely stressed were: the inerrancy of Scripture, sola Scriptura, subsitutionary atonement by means of Jesus' crucifixion, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Under the influence of John Nelson Darby, whose dispensationalism remains quite influential today even outside fundamentalist circles, belief in the imminence of the Second Coming was also given renewed importance. It wasn't long before the term 'fundamentalism', in the sense just described, got to name the faith of a great many American Protestants and some British Protestants; the crucible was William Jennings Bryan's attack on the theory of evolution at the Scopes trial in 1925. Even today, the term retains some clarity when used in roughly that way. But nowadays it is typically used a synonym for religious extremism of almost any variety; thus are al-Qaeda and Pat Robertson, the Taliban and the evangelicals, tarred with the same brush. And the "new atheists" aren't the only ones who do that. In the mainstream media, it seems to be taken for granted that the only respectable, Western religious alternative to "fundamentalism," understood as religious extremism, is the sort of approach that the original Protestant fundamentalists were reacting against a century ago.

I call that approach 'modernism' in keeping with the strain of Catholic thought that Pope Pius X and his conservative allies were rejecting at roughly the same time as the "fundamentalists" were rejecting liberal Protestantism. In his notorious encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), the Pope termed Modernism "the synthesis of all heresies," insisted on a neo-scholastic intellectual formation for seminarians, and launched what was to become a virtual witch-hunt against Catholic clergy and intellectuals suspected of Modernism. When I first read Pascendi as a college student, I remember agreeing with much of it. Many of the ideas it denounced had resurfaced, in slightly different forms, among my half-Catholic contemporaries, and they seemed to me pretty much as destructive as the Pope had said. But as things turned out, one of the problems with Pius X's approach was that it merely buried, for a time, intellectual problems that needed to be tackled head-on, as John Henry Newman had done by how he mounted his case against "liberalism" in religion. Almost as bad, Pius X's approach mistakenly identified a particular kind of liberal thinking as the problem, when the real problem was much broader and remains very much with us today.

The problem is one that modernism, of whatever variety, actually shares with Protestant fundamentalism (and, I suspect, with Muslim fundamentalism too; but that's another discussion). By rejecting the idea of an infallible teaching authority within the Church—i.e. a Magisterium, as understood by the Catholic Church—both render the distinction between divine revelation and human ideas effectively nugatory.

Notice I do not say that they deny the distinction; most accept it in principle, and the fundamentalists insist on it. Indeed many Protestants, especially fundamentalists, object that they consider "Scripture alone" to be the "infallible" authority within the Church. And Catholics are obliged to agree that Scripture contains, at least materially, all the truth God willed to reveal to us. But both history and logic confirm Pontificator's Second Law: "When the Bible alone is our authority, the Bible ceases to be our authority." That is why Protestant modernism arose; Protestant fundamentalism was merely the reaction of those with residual faith against that consequence. But such fundamentalism remains intellectually powerless against it.

If sola Scriptura is our de jure authority, then there are as many de facto authorities as there are ecclesial bodies adhering to different interpretations of Scripture. By hypothesis, no such body can even claim the authority to adjudicate definitively for all the other bodies among the circulating interpretations. Often rejected as a tired staple of Catholic apologetics, that assertion is typically countered by the claim that Scripture is self-interpreting. It is true that any given passage of Scripture can and must be interpreted in light of the canon as a whole; in that sense, Scripture is unavoidably self-interpreting. But if the claim that Scripture is self-interpreting be taken to mean that there is some compendious "plain sense" of Scripture that every believer can and must take as the content of divine revelation, without reference to some further authority, then that claim is false simply as a matter of historical fact. For Tradition predated Scripture as a rule of faith; it was the official custodians of the Church, the bishops, who consulted their understanding of the former so as to gradually determine what belonged in the latter; and as conflicting interpretations of both arose over time, it was the same authorities as a body who settled conflicts that became church-dividing. Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium stand or fall together. Without all three, the most we can assimilate is a cross-spectrum of human opinion about divine revelation—not Revelation itself. And that is why there are almost as many Protesant denominations as opinions.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. Protestantism originally arose as a reform movement within the Catholic Church. That is why Ben Myers, a fairly liberal Protestant theologian, recently quoted the following with approval:

...protestantism is always the question, the objection, the provisional mode of protest that takes place within the wider presupposition of the givenness of the Catholic church. It is always protestants who must justify their identity as non-Catholics rather than the other way round...we cannot assume the perpetual existence of protestantism. We must be open to the possibility of the end of protestantism if we are to be true to the aims of the Reformers themselves.

That post provoked a rather interesting discussion that I would have liked to see continued. One thing I noticed about the discussion that did occur, however, was that none of the objectors to the post got to the heart of the matter. Defending the post, the Pontificator wrote in its combox:

What perhaps is most lacking in this thread on catholicity is the spirit of catholicity. To be catholic, I propose, is to trust in the Church and thus be willing to subject one's opinions to the judgment of the Church.

Thus Kim writes:

"My problem is not that the Roman model of unity is institutional, it is that it institutionally enshrines disunity (de jure I mean, we all express disunity de facto), e.g. Michael's examples of the exclusion of women from the ministry of word and sacrament and the theological pathologising of homosexuals (and this, of course, goes for many Protestant churches too)."

This is a remarkable claim; indeed, it is a Protestant claim. Kim would have us believe that those Churches...that adhere to the traditional teaching of the Church on the the ordination of women to the priesthood/episcopate and the restriction of sexual intercourse to the bonds of Holy Matrimony are guilty of instutionalizing ecclesial disunity. I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. This is nothing but private judgment run amok.

If catholicity means anything it means that at some point we finally must trust in the judgment of the Church. Without such submission, ecclesial unity is impossible. Newman saw this clearly.

I agree, and the two responses to that comment did not come to grips with it. Thus the first response said that it is sin which hampers Church unity, which nobody disputes; the second pointed out that many opinions are allowed even in the Catholic Church, which again nobody disputes. Citing such facts does not constitute an argument against the Pontificator's point, which has been missed altogether. The point is that, in order to recognize and assimilate the revelation in Jesus Christ, we need a visible authority to speak in his name, and we need to submit to that authority when it claims to speak in his name. Otherwise we are left only with opinions—and, inevitably, institutionalized disunity.

In media parlance, fundamentalists are people who adhere to certain ancient tenets in reaction against "liberalism" in religion, or what was once called "modernism." But the modernists are simply those who take the Protestant principle to its natural conclusion. If, in the final analysis, we need not submit our judgment to that of the Church when she speaks with her full authority, then religion is ultimately a matter of human opinion. Opinions can and do change, which is precisely what the phenonomenon of modernism represents; observe what's been happening in the Episcopal Church. One can indeed move from modernism to fundamentalism, thus aligning one's religious opinions somewhat more closely with the content of divine revelation; that in fact what the Anglican "reasserters" have been doing. But there's nothing in Protestantism, even in principle, to rule out going the opposite way. The reasserters, of whatever denomination, happen to be right in certain instances; but they do not, because they cannot, claim to speak with the infallibility of Christ himself.

Because of the Magisterium, the Catholic Church steers between the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of modernism. By rejecting the former, she acknowledges the facts of history and remains open to the future, as the modernists try to do; by rejecting the latter, she preserves in its fullness the "faith once delivered," as the fundamentalists try to do. Only that stance is defensible; only that stance is worth defending.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On being the foremost of sinners

The second reading from today's Mass in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is from St. Paul: 1 Timothy 1:12-17. I have always found it fascinating. Its core reads (emphasis added):

I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.

Long have I puzzled over the two points in bold. I shall describe my puzzlements before proposing a resolution.

When Paul says: "I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance," he is aligning himself with those of whom Jesus said, while dying on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Paul believes he was forgiven because he knew not what he did. And no doubt that is true. Yet, to my mind, such sayings pose a severe difficulty.

Notice the assumption that the ignorance involved is inculpable. I do not question that assumption; after all, it was the God-Man who made it in these cases. But it does not follow, as a general matter, that all ignorance of the saving truth is inculpable; nor in fact would that be true. Some people are ignorant because they do not want to know the truth. That holds for many seemingly small matters as well for the largest. And it makes sense: after all, remaining ignorant when one could, as a practical matter, learn the truth is often easier on the conscience as well as on the mind. For that reason, ignorance is sometimes voluntarily self-inflicted; Aquinas termed that "vincible" ignorance, which does not exculpate. Indeed, it is no less culpable for being shrouded with innocent-sounding rationalizations. Regarding our own faults, we all do that. I am ashamed by how much I used to do it, and no doubt I'm doing it even today in ways I prefer not to recognize. From a doctrinal point of view, I have observed such a phenomenon in many cradle-Catholics, who give themselves all sorts of plausible-sounding reasons for not having learned what are, as a matter of fact, the very sound answers to the very serious questions they have about aspects of the Catholic faith—questions that, with depressing regularity, have to do with sex and marriage. And I've already explained, in a previous post, why many clergy are content to let them remain in such ignorance.

Yet divine mercy is not withheld from such people, or indeed from anybody. As today's Gospel reminds us, God comes seeking after us like a shepherd for a lost lamb or a housewife for a lost coin. To our calculating minds, the effort hardly seems worth it: why risk 99 sheep for one lamb, or clean the whole house to find one coin? God is not an obsessive-compulsive; yet he comes running out to meet us insignificant fools, like the prodigal son's father. That makes sense of a sort if we're talking about mercy, which is undeserved, as distinct from mere justice. Yet given that we're talking about infinite Mercy, which is not supposed to be "worth it" in terms of what can be measured, it cannot be said that God limits mercy to the inculpably or invincibly ignorant. So, why speak as today's reading does, as though mercy is extended to people, such Jesus' killers or the pre-conversion Paul, precisely because they're inculpably ignorant? The inculpably ignorant cannot be convicted as a matter of justice; they "know not what they do" and cannot be held to account for not knowing; so, what "mercy" is there in letting them off? Those who really need mercy are the culpable; and they receive mercy when, to their shame, they recognize themselves as culpable.

Then there's Paul labelling himself the "foremost" of sinners. It is true that he once did some objectively very wicked things to the Church; but if, as he was wont to affirm, the grace and mercy of God wash away the guilt of the past, why does he continue to label himself the foremost of sinners? Why not just say "a" sinner and leave the ranking to God? Is it not a form of false humility to cast oneself as the chief of sinners?

I know there is a pious tradition, especially in Eastern Christianity, of Christians each speaking of themselves as the chief of sinners. I doubt that most who speak that way literally believe that they are, each and individually, the chief of sinners; certainly the Church holds no competition for the title and would not look kindly on one. So, what are we to make of Paul's language and the tradition stemming from it? And how does that relate to the first difficulty I described?

My suggestion is that both difficulties point to one sound recommendation: that we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

When Paul says that he was treated mercifully because he acted out of ignorance, he does not mean to imply, as general propositions, that all ignorance is inculpable or that we shall not be treated mercifully if we have sinned while knowing the truth. The former proposition would be too lax, the latter too strict. He is indicating that he could not have presumed on merciful treatment if he had sinned while knowing the truth. As a matter of moral psychology, there's a very good reason for that. If he had sinned while knowing the truth, there's no guarantee that he would not thus have been so confirmed in evil, by choice, as to be incapable of repentance; and if he had been incapable of repentance, he could not have received the mercy that was otherwise and always on offer. There are people who, by choice, are confirmed in evil; if you doubt that, have a look at the late Scott Peck's People of the Lie. It is unsafe to presume that one hasn't been, or cannot be, one of them.

By the same token, regarding oneself as the foremost of sinners is not a form of disingenuous breast-beating. It is a way of refusing to give oneself the benefit of the doubt. Thus one does well to presume that, if others had been given the divine grace and aid oneself has been given, they would probably have done a better job of being a disciple than oneself has. In that sense, we can and should each regard ourselves as the foremost of sinners: not as an assertion of the literal truth, which we cannot know in this instance, but as a guard against the sin of presumption.

As I've argued before, that sin is pretty common today. I know partly because of the reasons for which I used to commit it myself. It is best to be cured of it the easy way: by recognizing that the mercy which God always extends does not ensure that we will make the choices necessary to receive it. I learned that the hard way. But it is all too likely that some never learn it at all.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Amo ergo odi

Like most American baby-boomers, I instinctively believe that it is possible to "have it all." Not all at once, perhaps; that is for the unusually lucky few, and even then it's ephemeral. But there's so much out there, and so much freedom to pursue it, that it's almost impossible not to believe that anybody with a modicum of talent, luck, and dedication can get as much of it as is worth having. Such is the American dream: a "life" of "liberty" spent in the "pusuit of happiness." Only recently have I come to suspect that it is the opposite of the vision of life Jesus presents to those who would follow him.

That is a suspicion which many American Catholics, especially of the baby-boom generation, would do well to share. But it is so difficult as to be almost inconceivable for AmChurch as a whole to heed such advice. As Fr. Philip Powell, OP, preaches:

This teaching is likely confusing [because] it resembles nothing that we have been taught in the last thirty years or so. How many of us have heard that loving Christ, doing his will, teaching and preaching his gospel will likely get us thrown out of the family, hanged on a cross, and left destitute? Our contemporary Catholic Jesus is a mild-mannered social worker with a tendency to be a bit grandiose. Ultimately, he is harmless and urges us on in our efforts to build a community of spiritual consensus around vague notions like “justice,” “peace,” and “love”—none of which, of course, are very clearly defined in terms of Truth and all of which seem always to end up looking very political with a strangely partisan glow about them. Floaty Platonic Forms circling in the sky like ideological clouds never touch us down here, so Jesus says outrageous things like: “…anyone of you who does not renounce all of this possessions cannot be my disciple.” How strange that our mild-mannered social engineer with a utopian fetish seems so eager to exclude, to divide and conquer, and to set families against their members.

Having fashioned a Jesus who knows his place, how many of us in AmChurch know what to do with a Jesus who wants it all from us as individuals instead of striving to ensure that everybody has it all by means of politically correct arrangements? We're very good at evading the issue by substituting the latter for the former.

Thus, the real Jesus says things like: He who would save his life will lose it; he who loses it for my sake will have life eternal. Very well, we can handle that: a paradox for the curious, a pep talk for the committed. Today he says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Fair enough: we all have crosses to bear, and some of them cannot be shucked without displeasing God. But he goes further: "If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple....everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. Come now: are we really supposed to "hate" everybody we care about, and everything we have, before we can follow this Person? Is that the admonition of a Person who commands us to "love" our enemies? What kind of craziness are we being asked to subscribe to?

The exegetes are right: understanding the culture is indispensable. In Jesus' time and place, the nuclear and extended families were all-important for personal identity. Who one was depended on who one was related to; one's honor and status, and often survival itself, depended on them. But as I heard reiterated by a Benedictine homilist today, Jesus proposed a form of family that would supersede the natural family: namely, the Church, the ecclesia or "assembly" of those who followed him. Thus Matthew 12: 50: ...whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother. Of course such a proposal was worth heeding only if he was indeed the Son of Man, the Holy One of God, or what the Church came to recognize as God himself in the flesh. Since he was, it is. But supersession does not entail "hatred," or at least not what we think of as hatred today. So, what is this "hatred"?

I am told that the Aramaic expression being translated here, via the Greek, as "hate" means something like "to love the less." For instance, in Genesis 29, Jacob is said to prefer Rachel to Leah, who is termed "unloved"; the verb for that is the same as the one being translated as "hate" in today's Gospel; but Jacob then went on to have seven children with Leah, while Rachel remained barren. All that's really meant is what verse 30 says: that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Now in Matthew 10: 37, we read: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. So, to hate our families, indeed our very lives, for Jesus' sake means we are to love Jesus more than anybody or anything else. If and when there's a conflict between following Jesus and anything else, Jesus takes priority. Following him is Job One, even if it means we die. Indeed, dying to self is precisely what it will mean, whether or not that also means being physically killed for his sake. That's what "hating" even one's own life means.

A lot of people claim to believe that, but not many really do. For a long time, I sure didn't. Spiritually I was an AmChurch baby-boomer through and through, even though an orthodox Catholic intellectually and proud of it. I believed I that I could focus on achieving success in a worldly sense, and on having a fruitful, happy family life, while still counting on a secure place as a disciple of Jesus. In other words, I believed that I could have it all. For I observed that some people seemed to have done just that. So, when faced with a crisis and a loss that posed a sharp challenge to discipleship, I made choices based on the premise that I could still have it all; after all, I was an American and an Ivy-Leaguer to boot! Naturally, I ended up losing everything. He who would save his life will lose it.... Since I didn't hate with the right sort of hate, I lost what I loved.

Losing it all has given me the opportunity to love Jesus as he invites us to in today's Gospel. My task now is to take up that opportunity precisely by means of the work I am called to do. I have come to realize that no other sensible choice is possible for me anymore; my goal is to put him, and therefore the path of discipleship, first. That has meant a gradual rediscovery of who I am in Christ: a minister of his truth—and therefore of his Person, for he is the Truth. I sometimes hear voices telling me that the best way for me to bear Christ into the world is to earn a lot more money in whatever way I can, which would involve giving up the adolescent, narcissistic fantasy of ministry and becoming a more solid citizen, the sort prized by Bank of America and family-court judges. That would indeed bring benefits, including some that I actually desire and that it is appropriate for me to desire. It would get me praised as a realistic, mature, adult male in 21st century America. But the Spirit of Christ has assured me that if that is my program, it will fail. I cannot have it all. I am to seek Christ, and Christ alone, so that eventually I can become such a vessel of his that it will no longer be I who live, but he who lives in me (cf. Galatians 2:20). I am called to be a radical, to get at the Root of all things: to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Despite what some others apparently do, I cannot do that by going for the bucks. I cannot even feign interest in Mammon long enough to be rewarded by him. If am going to be rewarded in this life in any terms the world can appreciate, it will be as a unforseeable byproduct of following Christ as part of his family, the Church. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be given you besides...

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor: closing the gap

I don't mean the gap between rich and poor. That should be less than it is, of course; but as socialism keeps on teaching us, most efforts to close that gap are counterproductive. And the ones that clearly aren't are equally clearly not worth debating. Nor do I mean the gap between men's and women's earnings. Even an uncracked bastion of liberalism has admitted that young women earn more than young men in big cities, and that never-married women outearn never-married men generally. That married men tend to outpace all women later in life is due more to lifestyle choices, such as women taking time out for children and men taking on more demanding careers so as to provide for families. No, the gap I want to talk about is between work and fulfillment.

There's a fortunate minority in this world who, if they could afford to, would do their jobs even if they didn't get paid for them. I've known a handful of professionals like that: professors, doctors, lawyers, musicians, a few small-business owners, and so on. We all know people like that. But most people in most places and times in this world do their jobs not because they love the work, but because it happens to be the most readily available alternative to poverty and/or debtor's prison they have for the time being. That's why I do my job. I'd love to think, talk, and write about God and the Church for a living, and once did just that. But now I'm like most of the human race: scrambling to meet hard-and-fast obligations by doing something I would be delighted not to have to do, and not getting paid nearly as much for it as The Man makes off it. This is not what God created work for; that such is what work is all the same for most people, whether they like it or nor, is due to original sin. "By the sweat of your brow..."

Of course I could sum up and propose anew the sort of solution that Pope John Paul II proposed in Laborem Exercens. But others have already done that more thoroughly than I have time for; to learn how, all you have to do is Google that title and follow up. The dicussion is quite an eye-opener. But we all know that progress on the labor front will be at best incremental and fitful. Human nature being what it is, the only thing that is likely to make work more fulfilling for more people more of the time is greater productivity, which leads to more general wealth, which in turn leads to more opportunity for education and interesting work. More people certainly have more such opportunities today than in most times past. To my mind, then, the only realistic answer to the fact that most people care little for their jobs beyond the paycheck is to create the conditions for doing what John Paul said: making work a form of intrinsic human development, not just a instrumental means of survival for the many and profit for the few.