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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Please bear with me...

My blogging will be probably be sporadic for the next several weeks as I search for a new place to live. My month-to-month lease ran out at my current place and I don't have quite enough saved yet for a new one. Still, while my computer is in storage I will have Internet access at the Belmont Abbey library, when they're open and I'm free.

Please pray that I get my situation regularized.

The Indian of the Gaps?

Over at Uncommon Descent, an "intelligent-design" blog, Barry Arrington has posted a perfectly silly reaction to my review, in the current issue of First Things, of John Haught's book Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science. Lest I gain a reputation for saying perfectly silly things I didn't say, I believe I should respond.

According to Arrington, I wrote that "agency cannot show up within the layers of scientific explanation, for to do so would invoke the rightly dreaded God of the gaps" (I have added the emphasis). Now if that is what I had actually written, I would deserve the ridicule and other pummelling that Arrington and his combox contributors give me. I would be the worst sort of eliminative materialist, a là Daniel Dennett or Patricia Churchland. But that isn't what I wrote, and even a cursory reading of my review would show that I believe science and belief in "agency," not only human agency but divine, are perfectly compatible.

Here's what I actually wrote (again, I'm adding the emphasis): "God as final cause cannot show up within the layers of scientific explanation, for to do so would invoke the rightly dreaded God of the gaps." Of course I admit that "agency" in some generic sense, and in some cases in the sense of design, can and must show up in scientific explanation. Indeed, scientific explanation is itself an instance of agency with design. What I wrote is perfectly compatible with that. All I'm suggesting, unoriginally, is that God as designer of the universe as a whole does not and should not figure in scientific explanations—for God is not an object of scientific knowledge. As a theist, of course, I firmly believe that God as primary efficient cause is what ultimately accounts for the existence of the universe, and God as final cause is what ultimately accounts for why the universe observable by natural science is structured as it is. But that is a metaphysical position, not a scientific one. It is a position compatible with natural science, and thus not excluded by natural science; but neither is it dictated by natural science.

I must say that I have a hard time understand the hostility of ID advocates to such a position. I believe that science alone cannot answer the sorts of questions that theism does. I just don't think that the true answers are scientific. They can and should make use of scientific results, but in so doing they pick up where science leaves off. Obviously, some scientific advocates of ID demur. But their disagreement with me is philosophical, not scientific.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The (belated) feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

I overlooked this feast on its correct day, the 28th, because that was a Sunday this year and I was quite taken with the Liturgy of the Word for Sunday. But I think it especially appropriate to honor my greatest intellectual mentor with the following words from Pope Benedict XVI, who did not forget the feast on its correct day. (Emphasis added.)

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

The liturgical calendar remembers today St. Thomas Aquinas, great doctor of the Church. With his charism of philosopher and theologian, he offers a valid model of harmony between reason and faith, dimensions of the human spirit, which are fully realized when they meet and dialogue.

According to the thought of St. Thomas, human reason, to say it as such, "breathes," that is, it moves on a wide, open horizon in which it can experience the best of itself. Nonetheless, when man limits himself to think only of material and experimental objects, he closes himself to the questions of life, about himself and about God, impoverishing himself.

The relationship between faith and reason is a serious challenge for the present prevailing culture in the Western world, and it is precisely for this reason that our beloved John Paul II wrote an encyclical, which was entitled precisely "Fides et Ratio" -- "Faith and Reason." I also took up this argument recently, in the address to the University of Regensburg.

In reality, the modern development of the sciences brings countless positive effects, which must always be acknowledged. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that the tendency to consider true only that which can be experienced constitutes a limitation for human reason and produces a terrible schizophrenia, evident to all, because of which rationalism and materialism, and hypertechnology and unbridled instincts, coexist.

It is urgent, therefore, to rediscover in a new way human rationality open to the light of the divine 'Logos' and to its perfect revelation that is Jesus Christ, Son of God made man. When Christian faith is authentic it does not mortify freedom or human reason; then, why should faith and reason be afraid of one another, if on meeting one another and dialoguing they can express themselves in the best way?

Faith implies reason and perfects it, and reason, illuminated by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and of spiritual realities. Human reason loses nothing when it is open to the contents of faith; what is more, the latter calls for its free and conscious adherence.

With an amply extended wisdom, St. Thomas Aquinas established a prolific confrontation with the Arabic and Jewish thought of his time, in such a way that he is considered as an always-present teacher of dialogue with other cultures and religious. He knew to introduce this Christian synthesis between reason and faith that represents a precious patrimony for Western civilization, to which recourse can be taken also today to dialogue effectively with the great cultural and religious traditions of the East and South of the world.

Let us pray so that Christians, especially those in the academic and cultural realm, are more able to express the reasonable character of their faith and to witness to it with a dialogue inspired by love. We ask this gift of our Lord through the intercession of St. Thomas Aquinas, and above all Mary, Seat of Wisdom.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Gospel according to St. Narcissus

From Fr. Philip Powell, OP's homily for today:

Praise be to me and me alone!

My wretched Slaves and convenient Tools, you have heard that love is patient and kind, forgiving and humble; that those who love seek the good for the Other and rejoice in the truth. You have heard many things about the world that will not serve you well. And among these is the foolish sentiment that love is anything but Selfishness writ large across the Ego—a passion that will not be saddled and ridden like a domesticated tiger but loosely bridled and allowed its furious run. Love is impatient for love in return. Love is cruel because it must end. Love cannot be generous or polite. It is a passion, obsessive, possessive, and rude. Love is a grandiose tale, a violent power, a torrent of abusive lies aimed at your tender heart.Love has a temper and most certainly nurses hurt. Love will bear nothing, believe nothing, hope nothing, and endure even less. Love fails. My face in a gilded mirror tells the truth of love: distrust, despair, delusion. Love is vengeance on the weak for being vulnerable to need.Need nothing, want nothing. Be strong! And heal yourself. Enlighten yourself. Give yourself peace. Save yourself. Build idols to your silenced need and keep control. Finally, Slaves and Tools, remember and act: love is a desperate ruse, a way to see you bowed. If you must love, love my god…love Me.

That reflects not what many people say, but which many people, including many ostensible Christians, really believe. Read the whole homily, and believe the opposite of the above. It's not as easy as you may think. But it can be done.


I have called Alexandra Pelosi "the perfect living synecdoche of AmChurch." But if she is that, it is only as an individual. If one is looking for an event that serves as well, indeed better, one need look no further that what happened at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Buffalo, NY on Sunday the 21st. You can read the details for yourself. Whether you're Catholic or not, the event perfectly encapsulates what's wrong with the Church in the U.S., of which the sex-abuse scandal and its devastating aftermath are but one symptom, albeit a major one.

I'm tempted to say we need to get matters of etiquette out of the way first. Yes, Deacon Tom McDonnell was wrong to confront a particular individual present at Mass, in this case Congressman Brian Higgins, in a homily. There are good reasons why that sort of thing just isn't done, and I do not gainsay them. Yes, Higgins was wrong to walk out of Mass in protest, and wrong for the reasons he himself gave. Higgins apologized and McDonnell will doubtless be disciplined. It was bad form all around. But much more significant is the fact most of the attention, including that of the local bishop, seemed to center more on how the event made everybody feel—i.e., bad—than on the content of the deacon's message. The applicable etiquette is designed, among other things, to protect people's feelings, which it should; but to carry on as though the event's emotional fallout is its most important aspect is itself wrong.

The most important aspect is whether what the deacon said is true. Unassailably, it is. But that does not seem to be uppermost in the minds of those directly involved, including Bishop Kmiec's. That's the symptom of what's wrong.

A faith community in which feelings trump truths is sick. We should look to bishops to help cure that disease. But in this case the bishop is part of the problem. He has said: "It is my belief that in situations like this, we are more effective when we have substantive, one-on-one conversations with individuals outside the context of the Mass." While true, that is also irrelevant. If Bishop Kmiec has indeed had such a conversation with Congressman Higgins, which we don't know because nobody is saying, what has it accomplished? It has had no visible result; if it's had any result at all, it's been to make Higgins all the less excusable for seeking to fund something, i.e. embryonic stem-cell research, the Church says is intrinsically evil. His culpability is thus increased. I don't think it can seriously be maintained that his salvation aided by that. So, who loves the man more: the one interested in protecting his feelings to the point of being unwilling to call him, concretely, to account? Or the one who calls him publicly and specifically to account?

Kmiec's attitude is the usual one among American bishops. Not even Archbishop Wuerl of Washington will withhold the Eucharist from anti-life CINO politicians; no, he prefers the way of "teaching," as does Kmiec. But for the reason I've suggested, that is not, objectively, the loving path. So I can explain it only as a desire not to rock the boat. That's the problem across the board. It is the problem which explains why all the sex abuse scandal was covered up for so long. It is the problem which explains why the Church evangelizes adults so little in comparison with the evangelical and pentecostal churches, many of whose adherents are former Catholics. It is the problem which explains a great many things. Until it is effectively addressed, the Church in this country will not regain her moral credibility with the public at large.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The tightrope of evangelism

Some neocon wag once said of the first President Bush: "He manages to steer a middle course between the Scyllla of principle and the Charybdis of pragmatism." Sometimes it seems that many informed Catholics, especially the clergy, are into doing just that. The way many American bishops try to justify giving communion to politicians who formally cooperate in abortion is a good example. But there's a still more basic challenge here.

Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations has been musing of late about an apparent dilemma that I've been confronted with periodically in my catechetical and apologetic work. In one post he observes:

It's as though we can't find any ground between, "Non-Roman Catholics are damned, so we need to convert everyone," and, "Non-Roman Catholics aren't necessarily damned, so we don't need to convert anyone."

In another post soon after, he calls our attention to a 1964 sermon given by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, in which the latter said: "
Anyone who looks on the loss of salvation for others as the condition, as it were, on which he serves Christ will in the end only be able to turn away grumbling, because that kind of reward is contrary to the loving-kindness of God." Tom responds:

Fr. Ratzinger had in mind the grumblers who resent sharing salvation with non-Catholics. But what about the sluggards who are delighted by the thought, because of all that evangelization work it saves them?

Here I want to share my response to the problem.

The key is to recognize, with Vatican II, that the Catholic Church is the "sacrament" of unity with God for all humanity. The Church as Mystical Body of Christ is thus the ordinary sign and instrument of salvation, so that being in full communion with her puts one in a better position to belong to Christ than one would be otherwise, ceteris paribus. But as Vatican II also taught, the salvific work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. All the baptized are in some degree of communion with her; those brought up as non-Catholics cannot be held responsible for not being in full communion; and it would be unwise to assume that most people who voluntarily leave the Church know just what it is they're leaving, so that they too could be held culpable. Moreover, since the Passover of Christ offers to all people grace enough for salvation, the unbaptized can belong to him, and therefore to his Mystical Body the Church, if their responses to grace are such that they would seek baptism if all involuntary obstacles to their knowledge of its necessity were removed. Yet the grace to which the unbaptized can respond so salubriously is only offered to people through said Mystical Body, which is precisely why she is the "ordinary" sign and instrument of salvation. Hence, people who live without being in some recognizable form of communion with her are only saved by extraordinary means; by the very nature of the extraordinary, that puts them, in the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in a "gravely deficient" position.

Accordingly, while we may and should hope for the final salvation of non-Christians, we cannot responsibly presume that it will often occur. It is a work of charity to evangelize so as to try to remedy their situation. But it would also be contrary to charity simply to write them all off if or when evangelization is not done or doesn't seem to bear visible fruit; and of course it would be prideful for Catholics to assume they've got final salvation locked up unless they do something particularly ugly. "Many of the last shall be first, and many of the first shall be last." We must always evangelize, beginning and ending with ourselves; but we must not presume that those who haven't heard the Word at all, or can't hear it because of our sins, have no salvific relationship with the Logos. All we must presume is that they don't have the advantages that make us all the more accountable.

I don't think that walking such a tightrope makes the mistake that Bush I did, or was said to do. I think it's the only logical conclusion to draw from what the Church teaches.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Feminism and abortion: a vignette from the March

Two Washington Post reporters noticed this awkward moment at the rally for January 23's March for Life in Washington, D.C.:

As the sun set in front of the Supreme Court at the end of the march, a group of women took to the microphone, one after another, holding black signs that said: "I regret my abortion." . . . As the women spoke, some in English and some in Spanish, their words were interrupted by about 100 abortion rights advocates linking arms and holding signs saying: "Trust women."

Teresa of Blog by the Sea asks: Which women?


I suppose feminists would reply that we should trust women to make the best "choices" regarding abortion, whichever choices those turn out to be. One celebrates her abortion? Fine. Another regrets it? That's fine too. But such putative moral equivalency is sustainable only if what is chosen matters far less than the freedom to make the choice; and that's precisely what's at issue, is it not? So, once again, which women do we trust? The ones who think their own freedom is what ultimately matters most, and is thus more important than the life they've helped to create? Or the ones who have come to believe that what they chose, namely death for their children, does not begin to be justified by their having chosen it?

There's another problem here too, and it's almost as big. How many feminists have you heard say "trust men" about choices which have, traditionally, been made mostly by men? You don't have to answer that; the question answers itself. And are these women prepared to allow men, who have a lot to do with begetting children, any veto about abortion if they don't want their children aborted? For that matter, are they willing to allow men to choose to escape child support for born children they wanted aborted? If you say yes to either, I've got a fertile patch of Sahara sand to sell you.

You catch my drift. Feminist support for abortion, and for most of its other goals these days, is becoming more and more openly based on the premise that women are more trustworthy than men, at least about the matters that matter most. As in Victorian times, it's all about the moral superiority of women, which of course entitles them to greater rights and privileges than men. Don't let feminists tell you they've been liberated from Victorian mores. They just want to bring back, and back with the power of the state, a Victorian more we really should be liberated from.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Looking for a good synecdoche?

Thanks to Mark Shea, I just read a news story about Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of that
Pelosi. Here are a few tidbits, which only professional Catholics (as distinct from Catholics who are also professionals) would find juicy:

Pelosi was already in an introspective mood, re-examining her own spirituality as she approached parenthood. When she completed the documentary less than two weeks before giving birth, Pelosi says she had a "personal revelation: I have to take my son to church." A baptism is planned. "Because if I don't, he will be called 'unchurched' and (those are the people) most susceptible to some of the more extreme religions later in the life," Pelosi says. "You have to give your children something that they can reject if they want to."


"I was not trying to get into a political debate with the evangelicals about their belief," Pelosi says. "They interpret the Bible the way they want to." But Pelosi was quick to add, "I don't interpret it to say the things that they're saying it says. I don't believe that the Bible says we shall be gay-bashers."

Learning about that divide was a shock to the woman who spent her childhood in progressive Catholic schools. "We were taught just to accept people, that was just a given," Pelosi says. "I don't ever remember being told at Convent of the Sacred Heart that gay was wrong. They never even told us there was anything wrong with abortion. They were just choices.

So there we have it. Alexandra wants her son baptized so that there will be something for him to reject when he's old enough. And she was never taught that "gay" was wrong or even that "abortion" is wrong. They're just "choices." Her mother must be proud.

Alexandra Pelosi affords the perfect living synecdoche of AmChurch. If you didn't grow up Catholic during the last half of the twentieth century, all you have to do to know the nature, and the fruits, of "progressive Catholicism" is listen to her and her story. Are you evangelized by such an example? Of course you're not. If you're impressed all the same, is that because you care passionately about the truth?

This is not a religion anybody would die for. It is a religion destined to die. Its dilution of truth in a soup of relativism and individualism proceeds apace by the generation. For the most part, the Nancy Pelosis produce only the Alexandra Pelosis. Still, I am comforted by the fact that progs, be they lay people or clerics, are not good at reproducing themselves. Alexandra had her first child at 36; he may well end up being her only child. And he will not be evangelized by his parents' example or beliefs. As of now her name is legion, but it will cease to be within her son's lifetime. The Catholics left will be those who, unlike her, know and care about what it means to be Catholic.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Iran and spiritual warfare

I know, I just got through posting about Iraq and spiritual warfare. These two posts should really have been one, but I didn't think of Iran until I saw this.

You got it, folks. The Thug-in-Chief, pictured left, predicts that the United States as well as Israel will "soon" be "destroyed." It is known of course that Ahmadi Nezhad subscribes to a Shi'ite form of millenarianism according to which the return of the Mahdi is now imminent. He also seems determined to stir up enough trouble to create what he takes to be the conditions for that. He probably thinks the Mahdi will destroy the U.S. after Israel is destroyed by its neighbors as a warmup. I'm not familiar enough with the bizarre theology of all this to know why the TIC thinks the Mahdi needs a little preliminary help from his friends, and I'm not disposed to acquire the necessary expertise. But in the final analysis, the TIC's intellectual development hardly matters. What matters is what spirit animates him and what he proposes to do.

It gets ugly indeed: the rush to nuclear armament, the concrete as well as rhetorical support of Hezbollah and Hamas, the funding and inflitration of Iraqi Shi'ite militias, the hosting of a Holocaust-denial conference, and other actions doubtless confined to the shadowy world of covert warfare. When he says he wants to see Israel "wiped off the map," we should not only take him at his word but expect him to do something about it. Most of the facts I just cited are what he's doing about it. He's got plenty of oil money for such mischief, and our adventure in Iraq has actually made things easier for him. Moreover, I have read stories, purportedly based on sources in U.S. and Israeli intelligence, saying that this man was a major torturer, executioner, and terrorist during the Khomeni days. I don't know that that's true, but I'm inclined to believe it. If the TIC were just a psycho, the Iranian clergy under the current Supreme Leader would not have pulled out all the stops to put him into the presidency. He's not just a psycho we must tolerate until he does something crazy enough to get himself removed by his associates. He represents the thinking and values of the ayatollahs who ultimately rule Iran. He's a religious fanatic with real and growing power.

If this situation were an isolated deviation in an otherwise stable region, there would be no cause for great concern. We could just wait it out. But it's not.
  • Iraq is a theater of spiritual warfare that explains the nature of the physical war.
  • Israel blew it in the brief Lebanon war last summer, when the hesitancy and ineptitude of its leadership ended up leaving Hezbollah, also pledged to Israel's destruction, stronger than it was before. That is why Hezbollah now leads a determined effort in the streets to force out Lebanon's democratic, pro-Western government.
  • Despite the growing poverty and chaos in the Palestinian territories, Hamas continues to attack not only Israelis but Fatah, which I doubt they would have the confidence to do without Iranian support.
  • Using Iranian money, Syria is buying the most sophisticated conventional weapons in the world from the Russians, who will sell almost anything to almost anybody for a high enough price. And this after it's become clear to all the world that Assad murders his opponents in Lebanon.
  • Despite its reverse in Somalia several weeks ago, Al Qaeda remains active throughout the Middle East; its goals and Iran's often converge.
  • Pakistan has given up trying to root the Taliban out from its mountainous border with Afghanistan, thus allowing the insurgency to reheat.
No, the TIC is not just a solitary irritant. He's at the head of a large and growing boil hatched in hell.

It astounds me that more Christians don't see that. A lot more energy is devoted to excoriating President Bush for seeking victory of sorts in Iraq, and to blaming him for the sad plight of Iraqi Christians, than in discerning the true spiritual contours of what's going on in the Middle East. I'm certain that one of Satan's top lieutenants is encouraging and coordinating all of it. We're not going to protect ourselves from it by just pulling out of Iraq, as if doing that would merely leave that wretched country to its own devices. Those capable of discernment need to discern with prayer and act with prophetic courage.

Iraq and spiritual warfare

Like just about everybody else, I greatly admire the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. He represents the best of America. Whatever hope there is of suppressing the wanton killing in that tortured country now rests on his shoulders, along with the uncertain ones of the Iraqi Government. But I get a deep feeling of sadness for him. He's walking into an outpost of hell; given as much, the weapon needed is prayer even more than counterinsurgency tactics and political realignments. That may sound trite, but I speak literally when I speak of prayer as a weapon.

To be sure, the terrorism and sectarian violence we see in Iraq is murder on a significantly smaller scale, even per capita, than what we saw in many conflicts during the twentieth century. But the nature of it is about as openly demonic as Satan's tactical judgment is likely to permit. Regardless of target, suicide bombing is a directive of hell; car bombs that randomly kill the innocent are directives of hell. Torture and murder by death squads, with the aim of sectarian as distinct from ethnic cleansing, are old hat in human history and thus not so quite obviously from hell. But the provenance is obvious enough all the same in the context of what else is going on. And the criss-crossing lines of division are so irrational that neither mental illness nor lack of conscience are nearly enough to explain them.

For example, the Sunnis don't trust the Shi'ites, who as the majority sect in Iraq happen to control the government. Sunnis want protection from Shi'ite death squads and a fair share of resources and influence in a federal Iraq. And they have every reason to know that American political and military pressure on Shi'ite factions is necessary for reaching those goals. But it is Sunnis, in Baghdad and Anbar Province, who inflict most of the casualties suffered by American troops. Do Sunni insurgents seriously believe that, by causing the Americans enough pain to get them to withdraw, they will end up in a better position to protect themselves from the Shi'ites? Their behavior makes no sense unless what we're dealing with is pure, demonic lust for blood. And similarly with the Shi'ites. It has become obvious that, so long as they use their new power to kill and oppress Sunnis, Iraq will not be at peace. Some Shi'ites, both in and out of government, seem to realize that. But the sectarian cleansing goes on, and the Sadrists want the Americans out. What do they imagine themselves to be accomplishing? Do they really think they can maintain as well as create a regime that oppresses Sunnis as much as the Sunnis once oppressed them? They probably don't know it, but all they're accomplishing is the will of their unseen master: death and hatred for its own sake.

And then there's the Christian flight from Iraq. A disproportionate number of refugees are Christians, who comprised much of the middle and upper classes in Iraq and actually enjoyed more protection under Saddam than they do now. That's one of Satan's jokes. What's happening to them now, i.e., the destruction of a very ancient Christian community, is just what he wants.

What the good guys in Iraq, from Petraeus and al-Maliki on down (assuming the latter is a good guy, which is not yet proven), need most of all in this fight is prayer and fasting from everybody, Muslim as well as Christian. That's what all the debate about military and political tactics ignores. The warfare, at bottom, is spiritual, and only spiritual weapons will suffice.

Monday, January 22, 2007

More Chick fodder

Here's a factoid the Jack-Chick crowd will have a field day with: there is more crime per capita in Vatican City than in any other place on earth. Of course, most of that consists in pickpocketing and purse-snatching by Roman hoodlums, the victims being tourists, who themselves always outnumber the Vatican's resident population. Being designed for a purpose other than law enforcement, the Swiss Guard is ill-equipped to deal with the problem. Nor are the Italian authorities much interested in prosecuting petty crimes committed in another sovereign jurisdiction. They've never dealt all that well with petty crimes within their jurisdiction.

But you won't hear about such subtleties from the Pope-is-Antichristers. They'll just seize on the headline as yet another example of the Vatican's satanic perfidy. The apologist's work, like a mother's, is never done. And it doesn't pay much as Jack Chick has got, I'll wager.

The divide over the divide

I'm starting to enjoy God's sense of humor, tinged as it is with an irony too deep and subtle for most of us to bear. (If you don't believe the point about irony, contemplate this: the Almighty Creator saved us by letting us torture and execute his divine Son, who is equally almighty and through whom he created all things, as a threat to public order. That's what enables me to thank him for the joke that is my life. For some reason, Jews tend to get that better than most Christians.) An Orthodox blogger who calls himself The Ochlophobist, with whom I have had some friendly and fruitful interaction over the past year at various blogs including this one, has graciously and generously taken up, in a new post, some comments I made on an earlier post of his about the issues at stake in conversions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Apparently, he found the trouble worth taking because, in his words, I am "the most formidable and clear expositor of neoCath thought in blogdom." Well. I've never received a compliment like that from a Catholic; apparently it takes an ex-Catholic like Och to come up with it. I like such irony. It makes other ironies easier to bear.

Before I get to the substance of the matter at issue, allow me to explain the term 'neoCath'. Och is also unlike Catholic bloggers in that he has adopted the vocabulary I use to broadly categorize the divisions in contemporary Catholicism: those between progressives or "progs," traditionalists or "trads," and neoCaths. Progs and trads both believe that the post-Vatican-II Catholic Church is theologically discontinuous with the Church as she existed before. The former group celebrates such imagined discontinuity and wants it further entrenched; the latter laments it and wants it reversed. The "neoCaths," on the other hand, are those who fully embrace Vatican II (hence the 'neo' part) but find no such discontinuity. So, the neoCaths are those who adopt the "hermeneutic of continuity" also adopted by the present and previous popes, both of whom were present and active at Vatican II. We are neither more nor less Catholic than the Pope, and don't think we need to be. In other words, we are Catholic in the only sense that really matters.

Now that I've dissed a goodly segment of the Catholic world, I proceed to Och's main point. It seems to be that neoCaths just don't understand how deep the chasm between Catholicism and Orthodoxy really is. If he's right, then ecumenism with a view to reunion rather than mere friendly co-existence is illusory. I do not agree with that conclusion. Since you can follow his arguments for yourself, I shall confine myself to quoting only his last few paragraphs, drawing a few fairly obvious sub-conclusions that are needed to support the main one, and then criticizing them.

He writes:

While the Catholics are seen as nice with regard to their generous definition of Orthodoxy's relationship to the RCC, it is important to remember that Catholics, especially neo-Caths, believe that what Orthodox truly affirm dogmatically can only be determined as true through the office of the papacy. Thus while we Orthodox are told that we would have to relinquish no belief or practice essential to authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in order to be brought into communion with Rome, we must remember that according to RC belief this is because, finally, only the papal office has the final authority to determine what is authentic and true Eastern Orthodox dogma and praxis. When an Orthodox states that such and such theological point amounts to a dogmatic difference while the Catholic maintains that very point is only a rhetorical difference the final authority on the matter is the Pope. If the Pope says authoritatively that it is only a rhetorical difference then it is only a rhetorical difference, and the Orthodox must therefore be an incorrigible person, or ignorant, as the Catholic mind would have it. Thus when Orthodox are in agreement with Rome or in keeping with what Rome allows on any given theological issue, it is almost historically accidental, because they have not looked to the modern papacy to find that truth. And when Orthodox (truly) disagree with Rome on a substantial theological issue, they must then be held to be using some form of private judgment because such a determination cannot finally be held to be ecclesially grounded, according to the Roman schema. Thus there are entire synods, Patriarchates, and national Churches which are then guilty of private judgment. Those who are prone to wax reverently on the great lengths to which Rome goes to accept Orthodoxy into her arms would do well to remember that it is always on Rome's terms, as Rome acknowledges no terms other than her own. Rome will accept authentic Orthodoxy because only Rome can define authentic Orthodoxy, from a Roman point of view. I say the Orthodox way is better. We have no right to determine who Rome is, such is Rome's free determination, but so long as she is who she is, there will be no reunion or conversion. In the Orthodox schema it is the Holy Spirit who directs ecclesial consensus on what is true (which for us revolves around the question, Who is Jesus Christ?), and the Holy Spirit does not determine that our relationship to truth be limited or isolated to the determinations of the office of one bishopric which acts as the final and singular arbiter of theological truth and ecclesial order. Even if, as some suggest she should, Rome were to agree to suspend such a role for the sake of reunion, virtually all Orthodox would still have a problem with Rome viewing such a role as integral to herself, as it offends Orthodox belief regarding the manner in which the Holy Trinity's uncreated energies work in this world. But alas, RCs, especially neo-Caths, tell us that Orthodox Trinitarian thought is not really offended by the papacy, because only the Pope can determine what is really Orthodox Trinitarian thought. How nice.

Things are not always as they seem my friends. There are no irreconcilable differences when people are willing to change their minds. Ah, but we are told that we don't really have to change our minds (at the very least only a tittle) as the Pope has already made up our minds for us, really. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Quite like someOne else, I'd say. Yes, the Catholics have the ecumenical documents of VatII and Dominus Iesus and some nice papal encyclicals on things Eastern Christian. But VatI is not going away. Nor is Trent; nor Florence. And in a certain sense VatI was slightly less dubious a bitter pill before it was so suger coated. Niceties do not a dogmatic change make.

Now Och is right about one thing he said prior to that: for reunion to take place, one or the other side is going to have to admit that it lacks something essential to being, fully, the Church of Christ. That is because each communion clearly believes itself to be nothing less than the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church Christ founded. If Catholicism is true, then Orthodoxy, even as a communion of "true, particular churches," is not the Church but only a part of the Church that lacks the necessary communion with her visible head as willed by her Divine Head. If Orthodoxy is true, then Catholicism, whether or not Rome remains truly "a" church and the Roman communion truly one of true, particular churches, has long since departed from the Church. There is no getting around that. Hence, for reunion to take place, one or the other communion is going to have to give up its belief that it is the Church.

As a Catholic, I believe that the Catholic Church will never give up her claim to be the Church. It makes no difference that Vatican II said the Church of Christ only "subsists" in the Catholic Church; as used by the Council Fathers, that verb is a technical, scholastic one meaning that the Church of Christ continues to exist as an integral whole in the Catholic Church, even though some parts belonging properly to that whole are, sadly, in schism with her. That verb was chosen in order to accommodate what the Catholic Church has also and always acknowledged as the reality that the Orthodox churches, unlike Protestant ones, are true apostolic churches even though not in full communion with Rome. Given that belief, which no Catholic as such can consistently reject, what about the Orthodox? Could they ever give up their belief that the Orthodox Church is the Church?

As of now, that seems highly unlikely. I say "highly unlikely" rather than "inconceivable" partly because no council recognized as ecumenical by Orthodoxy states that the Orthodox Church just is the Church, even as more than one council recognized as ecumenical by Catholicism has indicated that the Catholic Church is the Church. Of course Orthodox usually insist that their traditional, internal consensus, as expressed in both liturgy and theology, makes their belief that the Orthodox Church is the Church just as "irreformable" for Orthodoxy as the corresponding belief is for Catholicism. Not being Orthodox, I can't say whether that insistence is justified or not. What would clinch the matter for me is a pan-Orthodox synod which defined the point as dogma. Of course, no such synod has taken place for over 1,200 years; and despite some calls within contemporary Orthodoxy for such a synod, it isn't likely to take place anytime soon. That's partly because there is no agreement in Orthodoxy on who has the authority to convoke such a synod and make its decisions anything more than a mere proposal to the Church at large. Which, from the Catholic standpoint, is part of the problem. There having been no Byzantine emperor for over five centuries, there is only one remotely realistic candidate for the needed authority; we know which one that is, and it's exactly the one whose claims to authority are now rejected by Orthodoxy.

Och opines, in effect, that Catholic hopes for reunion rest on an assumption that is at best question-begging and arguably insulting:
according to RC belief this is because, finally, only the papal office has the final authority to determine what is authentic and true Eastern Orthodox dogma and praxis. Now I agree that if reunion is to occur even on the ostensibly generous terms that then-Cardinal Ratzinger proposed, that is where the final authority resides. And I happily concede that the reunion of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is not going to take place on any more generous terms. But it follows that reunion will not take place at all only if Orthodoxy proves permanently unable to overcome the sort of thinking that the larger passage I quoted from Och evinces.

He says:
In the Orthodox schema it is the Holy Spirit who directs ecclesial consensus on what is true (which for us revolves around the question, Who is Jesus Christ?), and the Holy Spirit does not determine that our relationship to truth be limited or isolated to the determinations of the office of one bishopric which acts as the final and singular arbiter of theological truth and ecclesial order. That, I'm afraid, poses a false dichotomy. In the Catholic schema too, "the Holy Spirit directs ecclesial consensus," and the "relationship" of believers to the truth is not "limited or isolated to the determinations of...one bishopric." The papacy is only one instrument—albeit one that has had to become increasingly important in modernity—of the Holy Spirit in securing said relationship. The papacy does not and should not purport to invent any aspect of the deposit of faith, which itself both predates and is far wider than any ecclesiastical formulations of it; even when the papacy has unilaterally defined dogma, which is more the exception than the rule, that has only been on matters where there's been an already existing consensus in the Catholic Church. It is idle, therefore, to object that Rome arrogates to itself the authority to define Orthodoxy when one can't even get right what Rome considers its authority to define Catholicism. But I don't believe that such an error is inherent in Orthodoxy. It is merely the most troublesome instance of a habit of thought explaining why, despite serious investigation as a college student, I decided not to become Orthodox.

The habit in question is what I would call, for want of a snappier term, "treating negatives as positives." Rome insists, rightly, that she affirms everything that Orthodoxy is, formally and as a whole, committed to affirming. The Orthodox object that Rome has unjustifiably added certain affirmations to the faith-once-delivered, including and above all the affirmation of her own authority to add the other ones. And ever since the reunion council of Florence was repudiated by the Orthodox faithful, that objection has hardened: the Orthodox world now takes for granted that its affirmations somehow entail negations of Catholic distinctives. That much is obvious. What is apparently not at all obvious to most Orthodox, including Och, is that it doesn't take a naked appeal to papal authority to reach a different conclusion about the logic of the situation.

Even when I was considering Orthodoxy a serious option for myself, and exploring that option in liturgy and in conversation with a few Orthodox heavyweights, my study of theology and Church history led me to conclude that Orthodoxy's rejection of distinctively Catholic dogmas was not logically necessitated by what it was dogmatically committed to professing. Thus, I agreed with Orthodoxy's confession of "the monarchy of the Father"—i.e., that the Father is the sole source of the being of the Son and the Holy Spirit; but I could not agree that the Western dogma of the filioque—i.e., that the Spirit proceeds from the Father "and the Son"—required interpretation that is incompatible with the monarchy of the Father. Quite arguably, many influential Catholic theologians have interpreted it that way; but the dogma itself does not require such an interpretation and should not admit one. Similarly, I liked the Orthodox model of "synodality" for handling certain issues of supra-diocesan significance in the Church. I have even come to believe that the Catholic social teaching about "subsidiarity" could and should be applied to the Catholic Church's own inner workings, which
would end up looking a lot like Orthodox synodality. But I could find no good reason back then, and can still find no good reason, to believe that Vatican I's understanding of papal authority is logically incompatible with synodality as the normal way of addressing the relevant sorts of difficulites
. Just as the filioque seems to me logically affirmable in addition to, not instead of, the monarchy of the Father, so the doctrine of papal authority defined at Vatican I is logically affirmable in addition to, not instead of, synodality. What finally led me to decline the Orthodox option was the apparent inability of the Orthodox to see things that way. Their attitude struck me as one of giving certain affirmations a negative spin that needn't and shouldn't be there. And I thought so not because of what any pope said, but because that's how the logic of the situation struck me.

In the end, I suppose, the question for me came down to where the fragrance of the Holy Spirit is more likely to be detected. I find it more in the positive than the negative, and I find more of the positive in Catholicism than in Orthodoxy. My saying that is by no means an attempt to attack Orthodoxy or proselytize its members. I am under no illusion that anybody whose mind is made up will find their mind changed by it. I say it because I cannot believe that the habit of thought in question need be permanent in Orthodoxy. I deeply respect Orthodoxy as an authentic manifestation of Christianity and, for that reason, cannot believe that what I consider its logically unwarranted negativity is inherent in it. For that reason in turn, I don't share Och's pessimism about the prospects for reunion. If only by God's miraculous intervention, the divide over the divide will not persist. When it closes, so will the divide itself.

Amy Welborn on Archbishop Wuerl

I was pleased to learn yesterday from my brethren in Communion and Liberation that Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington was an active participant in our national Diakonia in San Diego the weekend before last. All the more reason for me to wish I could have been there. I would have found a way—indirectly and discreetly, of course—to make him aware of what many faithful Catholics think of his handling of the Nancy Pelosi and her ilk. I've made myself clear on that here, as Christopher Blosser notes in his roundup, as well as here. But, as she so often does, Amy Welborn of Open Book says it best:

I think what Archbishop Wuerl and others fail to understand is the impact of things like this on the lay Catholic who is struggling to be a faithful disciple in the world. The message that is sent by silence is strong, in terms of the lay apostolate in the world, in terms of the unity of faith and life.

Nancy Pelosi is not "struggling" with the Church's teaching on abortion, trying to work for the protection of unborn human beings within the constraints of the current U.S. law. As we noted before, she is unapologetically, strongly supportive of abortion-rights and unborn children don't even enter into her radar (publicly, at least) as human beings. . . .

But resting on Archbishop Wuerl's statements alone, which do not indicate that there's anything problematic about Nancy Pelosi's way of living a Catholic life, and which, I admit, simply might be an expression of a reticent style that only answers the questions posed, I'll just say this again.

If this woman, engaged in a public role, very publicly works against the teachings of the Church to which she professes a very public tie isn't publicly challenged by even one of the primary teachers of the Church - the bishops - the rest of us - lay Catholics, living and working in the world, every day facing decisions on how to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the midst of the complexities of our professions, some of us who really suffer because of the things they refuse to do because of their fidelity to Christ - we get a message.

And the message we get is that - it doesn't matter. Do whatever you want.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Rejoicing in the Lord is how we must endure"

Today's readings at Mass—if you haven't heard them, click the box in the right sidebar—communicate the true grounds for authentic self-esteem and joie de vivre. That was clarified for me today both by the homily I heard at a perfectly ordinary Catholic parish and by Fr. Philip Powell, OP's podcast homily for today.

Our value consists not in what we do, what we have, or even on who on earth happens to love us. It consists in being loved by God; and what God loves in each of us is what he creates, irrevocably, in creating us. That is often disbelieved and, even when believed in principle, often obscured by psychological handicaps or chronic misfortune. Thus over the years I have learned that a great many people, including many Christians, think rather little of themselves and even less of life in general. Even among the successful and attractive, one often finds deep insecurity: they fear having nobody and nothing because they believe that, having nobody and nothing, they would be nothing—or at least nothing worth bothering with. As for life in general, not for nothing have I heard it said, more than once, that if this is what the gift of life is, then God would do better to take it back and stick it. And I am certain that such a thought is far more widely harbored than stated. When we are fundamentally insecure or disgusted with life, we tend to either hide that with stratagems that can't be counted on, or settle more or less openly for muddling through until what is hoped will be a merciful end. Little wonder that, when neither works, suicide is not infrequently the final resort. But there is an alternative to all the above: a real encounter with Jesus Christ.

I cannot tell you how to make that happen if you haven't had it. I am not a saint, and I very much doubt that it can be made to happen anyhow. Being sovereign, God cannot be manipulated. But it is always a real possibility because he is always seeking us out. Perhaps the best most of us can do is learn, in prayer and by whatever other means are given us, how to stop running and be found. When we are found, we can and will rejoice. When we rejoice, we neither can nor will settle for just muddling through. We will endure; and we will triumph.

St. Maximus the Confessor

In the Orthodox calendar, today is the feast of one of the greatest and holiest thinkers in Eastern Christianity. The snippets of his work I've read have always benefited me. Go here for a brief but arresting account of his life.

H/T to Ad Orientem.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

It's Roetime: ambivalence and resolve

As "the greatest generation" slowly passes into history, January 23, 1973 is a date that will eventually live, and may already be living, in more infamy even than December 7, 1941. After all, the American casualty rate loosed by Roe v Wade is greater each year, far greater, than for all of World War II. Most Americans know that; some admit it; of those who admit it, most consider it very important.

Still, effective photo ops are hard to come by. The bodies are disposed of privately as garbage, not honored with flag-draped caskets at public funerals. The media like to say "if it bleeds, it leads." In this case, if it isn't seen to bleed, it doesn't lead. Nor, given their general ideological predilections, would the MSM allow it to lead even if the images were readily available. That allows many to remain in denial; but there are other causes.

I was a college freshman when Roe came down. I didn't give the matter much thought then because I was living in a state where abortion, pretty much on demand, was already legal. What I did notice by the end of the 1970s was that American politics, which had been getting over the nastiness of Vietnam and Watergate, got nasty again because of the abortion issue. Many evangelicals, who had initially been quiescent, joined Catholics in denouncing the new regime of death. Conservative Democrats, many of them pro-life, put a pro-lifer, Ronald Reagan, into the White House. I am not alone in believing that the increasingly bitter partisanship that has marked Washington since Reagan's presidency has a lot to do with the abortion issue. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, whose long-contemplated conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism at that time had much to do with the issue, even says that, thirty four years after Roe, "there is no more intensely contested issue in our public life." If that's true—and I believe it is—that's how it should be. I shall return shortly to the article where he says that.

Given the vastness of my readership, chances are some have noticed the "March for Life" logo in the right sidebar. Click it for info on this year's March, which I think more important than most for two reasons.

One is that the pro-life cause has, temporarily at least, lost political momentum with the Democratic takeover of Congress. During his presidency, George W. Bush has added two more conservative Catholics to the Supreme Court, one of them as Chief Justice. That raised many hopes, including my own, that Roe was skating on thin ice. But there is now zero chance until 2009 at the earliest that a judge even remotely skeptical of Roe can be confirmed for SCOTUS—assuming that at least one justice retires or dies before then, which is likely.

The other reason for the March's importance this year is that Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington in office for only eight months, needs a wakeup call. Although his see has no formally primatial role in the American Church, it is inevitably the most politically visible and influential. And what has one of the most learned, charming, and orthodox bishops in America been doing, as distinct from saying, about the abortion issue? Fr. Neuhaus writes:

When the aforementioned Nancy Pelosi orchestrated a four-day gala in Washington celebrating her familial, ethnic, and—very explicitly—Catholic identity, people were alert to what would be said by the new archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl. He said nothing. Part of the festivities was a Mass at Trinity College, a Catholic institution in Washington. The celebrant of the Mass was Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who, more than any other single figure, has been influential in tutoring Catholic politicians on the acceptability of rejecting the Church’s teaching on the defense of innocent human life. Asked by a reporter, Archbishop Wuerl responded that Fr. Drinan has “faculties” in Washington, meaning he is authorized to celebrate the sacraments. That was it.

And Drinan's faculties were written in stone, when?

A few commenters here have criticized my charge that Wuerl's attitude on the matter of pro-abort CINO pols receiving the Eucharist is "legalistic." By his response quoted above, Wuerl answers my critics for me. A bishop more interested in leading than in avoiding scenes by spouting legalisms would not even let Drinan use diocesan facilities for speaking, much less for celebrating Mass and giving communion to somebody determined to maintain her formal cooperation with our American Holocaust.

Yes, this year's Marchers have much to accomplish. If there were more deeds, not just more words, from our bishops, it would probably cease to be the case that there are more members of the Catholic Church in Congress than of any other church. But it's more likely that the Catholics left would actually be, well, Catholic.

Friday, January 19, 2007

More fire and brimstone, please

Over at Pertinacious Papist, Prof. Phil Blosser has posted with permission a New Oxford Review article by Tom Bethell: "Hell and Other Destinations." Some people hate NOR; I like it because its editor, Dale Vree, knows how to offend everybody wittily as well as equally, not because I always agree with it. But the article is definitely worth a read on its own. Here are my reactions.

Among Catholics, disbelief in hell is heresy. That is a problem today, when the swing of the cultural pendulum has made easy universalism more common than the old rigoristic exclusivism. More common, however, is treating the possibility of hell as unimportant. That is the result of faulty understanding, which often arises from faulty emphases in teaching. As a corrective, I also recommend Cardinal Dulles' "The Population of Hell." (That essay used to be easy to access at the First Things website. But they're revamping as I write; and as we all know, progress entails deterioration.)

Many spiritually immature and/or theologically ill-formed people assumed, and still assume, that hell is a fiery place one gets sent to by God for being bad. Those who believe there really is such a hell accordingly believe in a vengeful God. Others, disbelieving such things, believe there is no hell at all. Both groups are wrong; as a result, many from each lose their faith. Fortunately for the former, they recognize the problem with that more often than the latter.

The fire of hell is best conceived as the suffering of those who, by dint of grace sufficient for the salvation of all, have been given eternal life willy-nilly, but on terms they reject. Hell is what one gets when, starting even in this life, one prefers suffering to accepting life on God's terms as revealed in Jesus Christ. That, and only that, is the attitude of the confirmed reprobate. Such people condemn themselves; for them, the love of God is torture because they cannot reciprocate it, and the pain of loss in the hereafter is the resulting impossibility of union with God.

The words of Jesus make unmistakeably clear that becoming such a person is a real possibility one must work to minimize. (I've never understood people who think Jesus preached a nice religion and St. Paul a nasty one. The former talks about hell much more than the latter.) My own spiritual journey verifies the Lord's message. Sometimes I rage at God for being at least complicit in life as it is for me, and for so many others who have it worse than I. Such resentment should of course lessen over time with faithfulness, objectivity, prayer, and all the usual spiritual tools. But unless one is already a saint, fear of hell is often useful and sometimes necessary for the purpose.

For that reason, I have little use for priests who never mention even the possibility of damnation. They're mostly the same ones who see nothing wrong with cafeteria Catholicism, so long as their flock picks the same items they do from the cafeteria. As a result, I can't even eat in cafeterias anymore. That's at least a step away from hell.

Collars in the Ring

At Open Book (click the title of this post), Amy Welborn has sparked an almost interminable discussion by noting that two prominent Catholic priests have come out and endorsed very different candidates for the Presidency. Fr. Frank Pavone, President of Priests for Life, has endorsed Republican Sam Brownback; Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of the large evangelical-Catholic parish St. Sabina in Chicago, has endorsed Democrat Barack Obama.

I cannot help finding this sort of thing unseemly, even while finding the latter's endorsement more so than the former given the difference in tone. All that's accomplished by Catholic clergy endorsing political candidates is to reinforce ideological syndrome-thinking and thus harden the already grievous polarization in the Church. By 'ideological syndrome-thinking' I mean thinking that assumes, without justification, that certain political positions go with certain theological ones.

Thus, on the Left it is taken for granted that adherence to the social teaching of the Church entails support for increasing the minimum wage, for universal, tax-funded health care, and for lenient treatment of illegal immigrants; support for just-war doctrine is assumed to mean opposition to most if not all military action, at least when undertaken by the United States without permission from that bastion of harmony, virtue, and long-sightedness, the United Nations. At the same time, Church teaching about anything having to do with the pelvis, including abortion, is not supposed to be reflected in legislation or policy; indeed, government policies directly contrary to such teaching are not to be resisted and may even be supported. Thus, to a substantial segment of the Catholic population, being a good Catholic entails, politically, being a Democrat. Similarly, on the Right it is taken for granted that, while dissent from papal and episcopal admonishments about the political status of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research is out of bounds, we are entirely free to exercise our "prudential judgment" about how Church teaching on war, capital punishment, and the economy is to be applied in public policy. Thus, to a substantial segment of the Catholic population, being a good Catholic means going Republican.

Now, for purely theological reasons I am more in sympathy with the Right than with the Left. What the Right tends to consider non-negotiable is indeed non-negotiable, whereas what the Left tends to consider non-negotiable often does have room for negotiation. Nevertheless, the Right only shoots itself in the foot by treating the negotiables as entirely negotiable. The fact is that what America has become is not, in any respect, in keeping with the social doctrine of the Church, and in some cases the Left is more faithful to that teaching. There just isn't enough dispassionate discussion on the Right of where the lines between binding doctrine and prudential judgment need to be drawn. The issues of war and capital punishment, which I have often discussed lately, are classic illustrations of that. All the same, there is even less such discussion on the Left.

When priests start endorsing candidates at opposite ends of the spectrum, all they do is rouse passions and distract attention from the discussions that really need to take place.

You can always count on the Jesuits

In a recent Commonweal article, Fr. Francis X. Clooney criticizes Pope Benedict XVI for being too "brusque" about Islam, to borrow the term the Pope used for the words of the Byzantine emperor he quoted. Naturally, Clooney finds part of the problem in Dominus Iesus, which then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued in 2000, thus dismaying prog ecumenists about as much as Unitatis Redintegratio and Dignitatis Humanae have long dismayed trad triumphalists. Nothing like reliability.

For a more thorough, and delightful, critique of Clooney and defense of the Pope, see Dale of Dyspeptic Mutterings.

Cafeteria Catholicism and the minimum wage

Stephen Bainbridge, Professor of Law at UCLA, has begun a series on how to distinguish the various levels of assent and respect Catholics must give to statements of the Magisterium. Here's how it begins:

When liberal Catholic politicians support abortion rights, conservatives are quick to accuse them of being cafeteria Catholics. When conservative Catholic politicians oppose increasing the minimum wage, liberals are quick to hurl the same accusation.

The metaphor is an apt one. Many Catholics stroll past the array of teachings offered by the Church, choosing to obey those that appeal to them personally and rejecting those that do not. Unfortunately for cafeteria Catholics, however, the Church makes clear that the cafeteria approach is not an authentic form of Catholicism. To the contrary, the faithful "have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church." (Catechism ¶ 2037.)

At the same time, however, the Church encourages lay initiative "especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life." (Catechism ¶ 2037.) Clearly, there areas that the Church leaves to the prudential judgment of the faithful.

How do we distinguish between those areas in which faithful Catholics may properly disagree with pronouncements by the Pope or a bishop and those as to which faithful Catholics must give their assent even if their personal judgment is to the contrary?

Read it all. Hat tip to Pontifications.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Institutional vs. Intentional

Keith Strohm of Intentional Disciples (click the title) has responded to my post "What is our problem?". I am grateful for that because, unlike most of the reactions I've gotten, it actually focuses on the main point of my post. Thus Keith says:

Although he doesn't come right out and say it, perhaps the 'something missing' is intentionality--in formation and discipleship. We've talked a little bit about the reasons why Pentecostal Christianity seems to be the fastest growing section of the Church today, but one of things it does seem to have is an emphasis on encounter and relationship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Like Michael, I too don't believe that the Church can survive without its institutional side. Christ embraces the whole of our humanity--"stuff" matters. The reality is that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name both Christ and politics are in their midst. The question is which will we follow?

I wholeheartedly agree that what's often missing is the "intentionality," and that the basis of the needed intentionality is "an emphasis on encounter and relationship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit." That's exactly why, for instance, I've joined Communion and Liberation. There, I find both intentionality and its basis, as one can indeed find them in certain other "ecclesial movements." That is unlike most parishes, which are predicated on providing (a) the sacraments and (b) for want of a better term, pastoral services.

Now both (a) and (b), especially (a), are absolutely necessary. But when there is no community based on experiential encounter with Christ in prayer and in each other, the sacraments and services are experienced primarily as institutional dispensations, and the enterprise starts running more on human than divine energy. The ordinary lay Catholic notices that other institutions provide similar services, most of them more reliably than her local church; she treats the sacraments as goodies you "receive" from the institution, which is located in a building complex at which you pull up and get what you're there for before you pull out, never really forming a community of intentional disciples with your fellow parishioners. The Church thus becomes, experientially speaking, a consumer organization, less exciting if occasionally more necessary than the shopping malls. That is often why people are "bored" by church. Given their experience, who wouldn't be?

Intentionality is not opposed to the Church as institution. The Church has a necessary institutional side that, when healthy, serves as an instrument of intentional discipleship. But intentionality is the opposite of the experience of the Church primarily as institution. That experience is very common and accounts, in large measure, for the fact that many Catholics do not have the necessary encounter with Christ until they leave the Church for this or that Protestant denomination, usually evangelical or pentecostal. And that is why I believe that, in most locales, the Church in this country is missing something she needs that the Pentecostals have. What's missing, in Vatican II's words, "belongs properly" to the Church and can even be found in certain quarters thereof, but is often excluded or driven out by institutionality. Like the original Reformation, the current pentecostal movement is a sign that the true Church needs more of something that human pusillanimity and inertia have too often crowded out.

As the combox on Keith's post indicates, many faithful and informed Catholics don't hear that message because they assume that it's incompatible with affirming the truth of distinctively Catholic doctrine, especially concerning ecclesiology and the sacraments. That assumption is incorrect, and demonstrably so. The demonstrations can be provided by both the working philosophy and the experience of the people who run the Intentional Disciples blog.

More often, however, failure to hear the message results not from such an assumption but from sheer inertia. The combox on the post of mine to which Keith responded is a very good illustration of that.

Most of the discussion has concerned not my main thesis, which is easy to understand, but one of the subsidiary facts I cited to provide evidence for that thesis: the refusal of many bishops to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who formally cooperate with abortion by supporting a permissive legal regime. The concern of certain people seems to be that I'm being too hard on the bishops by not showing due regard for their canonical prerogatives to be flexible in interpreting and applying the relevant guidelines. Now I readily grant they enjoy such prerogatives, and that in some cases I lack the information necessary for knowing whether they are exercising those prerogatives prudently or not. The problem with the concern being raised, however, is that it is legalistic, and thus institutional in the way I've been criticizing.

Laws and guidelines are not, themselves, legalistic. Legalism is an attitude; laws and guidelines are not attitudes and do not have them. What's legalistic about the attitude in question is that it shows less concern for the prophetic message that needs to be sent in the present situation than for the bishops' right to decide on a less challenging course of action. Even granted there can be cases when a bishop is justified in exercising that right, the net effect of how our bishops generally handle this matter is to give institutional self-preservation more importance than what actually needs to be communicated to Catholic politicians and Catholics generally. Given human nature, the sad fact is that unless there's a concrete ecclesial cost for formally cooperating in grave evil, some Catholics will continue to cooperate it and thus give other Catholics the impression that doing so is compatible with being in full communion with the Church. Institutionality then prevails over intentionality; and a legally permissible course of action that, in some cases, can be justified under the rules thus becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is a very common problem in the Catholic Church, and the concern for legalities on the matter in question is very good evidence thereof. Until legalism becomes far less of a problem in the Church, many Catholics will be able to experience Christ only in non-Catholic churches less concerned with institutional self-preservation and more concerned with transformation through encounter with Christ.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fr. Kimel on Romans

The Pontificator has launched his series of "ruminations" on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. He calls his study that, rather than "exegesis," because he claims with due modesty not to be a biblical scholar. But his acquaintance with the necessary scholarship is real; for that and other reasons, he certainly knows enough to have something to teach us.

So far we have Part I and Part II. Stay tuned for more.

Zippy material

Every once in a while, somebody comes up with a line that I just have to incorporate into my material. Zippy Catholic is better than most at producing such lines. Here's the latest, which he offered as a way of distinguishing between what I'd call the questioning Catholic and the doubting Catholic:

"The key difference, it seems to me, is in whether we are trying to make sense of what is being taught or if we are trying to make nonsense of what is being taught."

One approves the former, not the latter. Well done, Zippy.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, R.I.P.

Prof. Robert George of Princeton, one of this country's premier Catholic intellectuals, starts his obit with these words:

After what she described as her “long apprenticeship” in the world of secular liberal intellectuals, it was careful reflection on the central moral questions of our time that led her first to doubt and then to abandon both liberalism and secularism. Needless to say, this did not endear her to her former allies.

Read it all.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What is our problem?

I've often spoken of "the real problem" underlying this or that problematic symptom in the American Catholic Church. Most often, I've suggested, the problem is "lack of faith," as evinced in the army of Catholics lined up at the doctrinal cafeteria and the numerous bishops who choose, when the choice presents itself, to not rock the boat rather than challenge people to follow Christ. Lack of faith is indeed a problem; but it is not one unique to the people in question, and remains a problem in every age and community. The more particular problem is the one that accounts for why the others seem to persist despite all the rhetoric: the Catholic Church, at least in this and other developed countries, is just too bloody institutional. That accounts for a great deal, if not most, of what bothers me.

What got me thinking about this are two facts of which I have lately been reminded: the indulgence of Archbishop Wuerl of DC in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's "celebration" Mass at Trinity College, where of course the pro-abortion pol received the Eucharist, despite USCCB and Vatican guidelines; and the explosive growth of Pentecostal churches throughout the Christian world. The former, discussed in an informative and lively thread at Amy Welborn's Open Book, exemplifies not rocking the boat against powerful cafeteria Catholics; the latter now presents us with what is arguably the numerically largest form of Christianity next to Catholicism itself. The former signifies institutional thinking; the latter signifies that such thinking is missing something.

Mind you, I do not believe the Church can do without an institutional side. She is Christ's visible Body on earth, and thus will seek to incarnate him in every aspect of human life. People being what they are, there must be a measure of "organization"—buildings, offices, procedures, finances, programs, and the like—if the Church is to do her work. But after a certain point, the instinct for institutional self-preservation outweighs the desire for evangelical credibility.

Beneath all the legalistic mumbo-jumbo about bishops' rights to differing "pastoral styles," this is why learned, doctrinally orthodox bishops such as Wuerl allow Catholics in public life who facilitate abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic-stem-cell research to remain in ostensibly "full communion" with the Church. Beneath the facile and fallacious clichés about "conscience," this is why most bishops would discipline a priest under them who started denying the Eucharist to parishioners aware of, but staunchly unwilling to abide by, the Church's teaching on contraception. Some of those bishops are ones who for too long failed to discipline child molesters and remained in denial about that problem; the reasons for each policy are closely related. Beneath the apparently flexibility and sophistication of "the internal forum," this is why many so many priests incorporate, as a matter of course, divorced people who have remarried without annulment into parish life on the same level as other Catholics who have adhered, at great cost to themselves, to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. For the most part, the hierarchy are terrified that schisms, be they de facto or de jure, would reduce the Church to institutional rubble. And let's be clear: such rubble is exactly what would we'd get if they got serious about challenging people to follow Christ in the pelvic area.

Rome is no doubt aware of all that and complicit in it. Every pope since Vatican II has made the pastoral decision to purchase institutional peace and unity at the cost of systemic hypocrisy. The thinking seems to be that more good will be accomplished in the long run by gentle persuasion within the present institutional setup than by mass excommunications that would devastate it. Although I lack the information to be sure that such a policy is mistaken, and sometimes defend it as a legitimate way to exercise authority, I cannot but be troubled by it. No matter what the Church says, no matter how sound her teaching may be in principle, a strong case can be made that the divergence between teaching and practice speaks louder to people, both outside and within the Church, than the teaching itself. To defend that divergence's persistence as the necessary if undesirable result of pastoral prudence sounds uncomfortably like rationalization of worldliness. There has to be a point when what the Orthodox call "economy" loses more souls than it wins.

Since I am not a member of the clergy—and, at this point, almost certainly never will be—I am not in a position to help change the policy that's been in effect for the last forty years. But its undeniable price grieves many of us who love the Church and would never leave her even amidst the rubble, if it ever came to that. Perhaps the best we can do is offer our grief to the Lord, in a spirit of atonement for our own and others' sins, to do with as he wills.

Scott Hahn on the Eucharist

I've heard Hahn speak before, and he kept me riveted. I think this video will keep you that way.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Prudential judgment or doctrinal interpretation?

In a comment on his post "On the Prudential," I asked Paul of 153: Catholic Deep Fishing for a few clarifications. For some reason, he has provided them by e-mail while asking me to respond with a new post. One problem with that is that he did not give me explicit permission to quote his e-mail here; another is that his criticisms of the position I defend are spread over two posts as well as his e-mail. Beyond conceding the legitimacy of a few minor criticisms, then, the most I can do here is reconstruct what I take his main criticism to be, and respond accordingly. I could well be be tasked once again for misrepresentation or misinterpretation; but that, I'm afraid, goes with the territory.

Paul has two minor criticisms, one of Robert Miller and one of me, that are valid but not, to my mind, all that germane. So let's get them out of the way first.

Paul's criticism of Miller is that the latter's point is unacceptably general. Miller had written:

There is a danger...of bishops leveraging their legitimate authority in faith and morals into the political arena by implicitly passing off empirical judgments as if they were teachings on faith and morals commanding the assent of faithful Catholics. We should resist this.

What had occasioned Miller's remarks were those of some Church officials, who opposed Saddam's execution on the ground that it was not absolutely necessary to protect Iraqis and might only fuel a bloody cycle of revenge. Miller rightly considers those judgments "empirical," and argues that as such they do not bind Catholics in the sense of calling for "religious submission of intellect and will." Paul objects, however, that Miller makes no allowance for empirical judgments that Church officials must make all the time, such as about the sinfulness of what is confessed in the sacrament of reconciliaton, or about the validity of sacramental celebrations generally. Since some such judgments do call for religious submission from Catholics, one many not say, without qualification, that no empirical judgments by the Church bind Catholics. Yet Miller offered no such qualifications.

Paul's point is obviously true. It is so obviously true, in fact, that I think charity requires one to admit that Miller knows it. The context of Miller's remarks make clear that he is speaking of empirical judgments in the political arena that can be reasonably disputed. As a law professor, Miller is just not dumb enough to assume that no judgment of fact made by the Church should be treated by Catholics as anything more than mere opinion. There are cases when, even if such a judgment might be wrong, it would not be reasonable to dispute it. The life of the Church requires the submission of the faithful to various judgments of that kind. The only major question here, then, is whether the Vatican's position about certain cases of capital punishment is also of that kind. Paul's uncharitable criticism of Miller does not address that question.

Still, it must be admitted that the Church's teaching about capital punishment has developed in the direction of much greater strictness about it. As Cardinal Dulles makes clear, that development occurred only in the latter half of the 20th century. Aquinas, for instance, wrote that ...if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump" (ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 2). Aquinas took that to apply especially to public and pertinacious heretics; be that as it may, the quoted statement itself remained pretty much the standard view through the 19th century. It was sometimes reiterated by the Magisterium against heretics of the past and "Enlightenment" ideas. Now I had also asserted that Aquinas justified the "torture" as well as the execution of heretics. Paul naturally asked me to document that assertion; and of course I can't, because Aquinas never said anything about it. Yet the torture of heretics was not exactly uncommon in his day and was quite well known to Aquinas. And so my statement is really the conclusion of an argument from silence, whereby I take Aquinas' silence as consent. Admittedly, that kind of argument is pretty weak. But as the matter isn't relevant to that of capital punishment, I turn to the more relevant ones.

The current, developed Church teaching on capital punishment is reflected in an oft-quoted paragraph from the CCC, §2267:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

That last sentence was inserted into the latest (1997) edition of the CCC at Pope John Paul II's behest, in keeping with that pope's statement in Evangelium Vitae §56 (1995). As a result, almost the entire dispute among Catholics these days about particular instances of capital punishment hinge on whether that sentence is (a) true; (b) whether or not true, binding on Catholics in the sense of requiring "religious submission"; and (c) if binding, whether its application to specific cases by Church officials is also binding in that sense. Now I believe (a) and (b) and have made that clear before. So the only point of contention is when an affirmative answer to (c) is warranted.

As best as I can make out, Paul's position is that CCC §2267 is clear enough in itself to render, e.g., the condemnation of Saddam's execution binding, assuming (a) and (b). One might sum that position up by contrast with Aquinas'.

The Common Doctor's position invokes a certain notion of social harm, such that prevention of such harm sometimes suffices to justify the death penalty. One must admit that if, as I concede, the Church's developed teaching today is binding, he went too far with that definition. Without it, he would not have justified the execution of heretics, in an era when heresy was a civil crime, as well as certain other kinds of criminals; yet as Dignitatis Humanae makes clear enough, the Church today clearly rules out the death penalty for heretics even in a Catholic state. But given the present teaching, what sort of serious social harm would be such that one could reasonably view the death penalty as, in certain cases, "absolutely necessary" to prevent it? That is the question that Paul and I answer differently. I hold that it's far more often a matter of opinion than he seems to believe.

I do not wish to assert that Paul is a "progressive" Catholic; he is certainly not a "cafeteria" Catholic. But like many progs, he seems to take for granted that the only sort of social harm that could conceivably suffice, in certain circumstances, to justify capital punishment is lethal, physical aggression by the convict himself. That is the narrowest definition of harm relevant for the purpose at hand; as such, it certainly is an interpretation of the CCC one could adopt, as it seems to have been by, say, Cardinal Martino. But is it the only one consistent with orthodoxy? I don't think so. Given the Church's broader, older tradition on the death penalty as outlined by Cardinal Dulles, I cannot find reason enough to believe that the narrowest possible definition of harm is now the only orthodox one. And once the possible legitimacy of a broader definition of social harm is allowed, the question arises: When is the death penalty "absolutely necessary" to prevent such harm? That, I submit, is a matter of opinion. Cardinal Dulles seems to agree, and I haven't heard that he's been admonished for that.

There are really two questions here. One is a question of doctrinal interpretation: whether interpreting the use of 'harm' in CCC §2267 is itself a matter of opinion or, rather, is such that there is only one legitimate interpretation that itself binds Catholics. The other is whether, even given the narrow interpretation, its application based on empirical judgments is itself only a matter of opinion or is also binding on Catholics when made by their duly constituted leaders. Since I believe the first is a matter of opinion, I believe the second is too. But if one agrees with Paul that only one interpretation is orthodox, then there will be many cases when the empirical judgments made by Church leaders in applying it prudentially cannot be reasonably disputed. And so I believe the more interesting question is the first.

To my knowledge, that question has not been widely or at least cleary debated as yet. In the meantime, my conclusion is the same as Cardinal Dulles':

The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.