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

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Here I am: send me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 08, 2013

Beyond 4th-century trinitarianism

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

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

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Super Bowl: a pre-game Thomistic meditation

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

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

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

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

That suffices in reply to Objection 1 and the contrary.

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

Cross-posted at First Thoughts.