instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

"It is better to be doing God’s Will than to be looking at it"

I learn from Gerard Serafin that today is the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP. I learn from someone commenting at Gerard's site that there is (there would be, wouldn't there?) a Vincent McNabb Society, comprising at least a website.

Fr. McNabb inspired Chesterton, Belloc, and other Distributists with his concern for justice, but perhaps as much by his personal, uncompromising holiness.

Some of his works are on the web, including a collection of talks on the craft of prayer. In one brief article on distractions, Fr. McNabb wrote:
It is not very good for people to know how well they pray! To try to find out whether we are standing well with God is rather a perilous thing. It is not a good thing for us to be taking our spiritual temperature. But experts seem to say that prayer is a sort of spiritual thermometer. The state of our prayer would be an index of our perfection and our love of God....

It is very important to have such simple things as morning and right prayers. That was dinned into my ears by an old theologian. He said, ` If penitents say to you that they have committed grievous bodily sins, and are very sorry, that is enough. But if they say they have habitually omitted their morning and night prayers, have a row with them.’...

It is very important to have even a minimum of deliberate prayer. There are many ways in which the Church prays. She is a dear old model. She uses all kinds of gestures, dispositions of the body. It is not all kneeling. Sometimes she is lying on her face. Please do not think it is necessary to be on one’s knees for prayer. At Holy Mass the priest kneels very rarely. But going down on one’s knees is a part of prayer, and at least twice a day we should be on our knees. In the Garden of Gethsemane our Blessed Lord was on His knees....

People think they are not very good hands at prayer, yet in their heart at least they may be praying all day long, --by doing God’s Holy Will in all the departments of their life. A good husband and father, who is working because it is his duty to work for his family and because it is God’s Will, is really praying all the time....

It is very difficult to think and to keep our attention fixed. St. Francis de Sales said we could only keep our attention for a quarter of an hour. St. Thomas Aquinas, who knew much more about prayer, said we could only keep it during one Credo....

I find it very hard not to be impatient with books on Meditation and Contemplation which seem to belittle or overlook the Rosary. By saying the Rosary, countless numbers of people are practising contemplative prayer. At Holy Mass, it is almost impossible not to be contemplating Jesus Christ. And, almost unconsciously, we take up the attitude of sinners, unworthy to approach Him. We could not approach with a better prayer than this, - LORD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME, A SINNER.


A few days late

But maybe I'm in time for the Orthodox Father's Day?

I recently came across an interesting essay by Fr. Edmund Hill, O.P., called "Concept of the Father God." The essay begins with these challenging words:
Despite the title (given by the organisers of the talk), this is not really going to be directly about “The Concept of the Father God”, but about the divine names: Adonai, Elohim and Abba. The concept of the ‘Father God’ is a purely contemporary one, brought in to prominence by the current feminist movement – it is to be found nowhere in the Bible.
Some very ripe stuff on the Divine Names of the Old Testament follows, and then this claim (Fr. Hill's italics, my emboldening):
... for much if not most of their history, YHWH’s relationship with Israel was rather that of lover, of betrothed, of husband, than of father.... But the bride, as we have already noticed, proved continuously unfaithful – so much so that even her ancestors, her fathers, would be tempted to repudiate her. And that is when YHWH steps in to take their place.
In the Old Testament, then, God is not Father-as-Creator, He is Father-in-place-of-human-ancestor. And not just human father:
“Though father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me”. Father and mother, Sarah as well as Abraham; it is surely by the parent God that they are replaced, not just by the father God.
As for the New Testament, Fr. Hill sees the three uses of the word Abba -- and forget what your CCD teacher told you, it means "Father," not "Daddy" -- in a strictly Trinitarian sense; the way St. Paul uses it
makes it clear ... that the name is a definitely trinitarian one, the name of God the Father, Father of God the Son, so addressed by his Son, and hence by us, in the Holy Spirit. If we have here a “Father God”, he is not one as a ‘father figure’ but one in inseparable relationship with a “Son God”, and indeed a “Spirit God”. And when we take over the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, the eternal Son of the Father, we are addressing with him God the Father, his and our Father, expressing surely, not so much the ‘lordship’ and the ‘patriarchy’ as our brother/sister relationship – our being co-heirs – with Christ.
I've quoted too much, but you should still read the whole essay.

When you're done reading it, you can go on to browse the rest of the Blackfriars' electronic library, to see what else they're thinking about in the English Dominican Province.


Learned helplessness

I don't like the Cantor Wave.

On the face of it, it seems like a good, or at least neutral, thing. The cantor raises an arm to cue the congregation so we know when to sing the responsorial psalm's antiphon. That should help the congregation sing at the right time, which should make for a better liturgy.

Some cantors gesture with both arms like a scenery-chewing Pantaloon in a seaside pantomime. This doesn't endear the practice to me, but I think it primarily raises only an aesthetic objection.

As I see it, the bigger problem with the Cantor Wave is that it trains the congregation to do nothing until we are cued. We sit there and wait until someone says, "Speak, Ginger!," then we do our little trick.

Now, I don't have a very sophisticated grasp of music theory, but I am able to recognize -- based on how loud the musical accompaniment is -- when the congregation is supposed to be singing and when we are not.

Or at least, I usually am. Once a congregation is trained to be quiet until waved at, the musicians are free to do whatever they like. If a refrain consists of the same line sung twice, the cantor can have the congregation begin singing whenever he wants: after the cantor or choir has sung it once, twice, or even not at all. The pre-Gospel "Alleluia" can be sung a different way at each Mass, using the same arrangement. The congregation will pipe up on cue.

I suppose an argument could be made that having to pay close attention to the cantor makes the congregation's participation in the liturgy more active, but I think the much stronger argument is that it is distractive. The only time I should be on the edge of my seat, wondering what's going to happen next, is while listening to the homily. (Well, and during the first two readings, if I haven't read them ahead of time.)

I think we can trust the congregation to figure out when we should sing. Not right away; we've been trained to be passive. But after a while, we can probably learn what that loud chord from the organ right after the cantor finishes singing a strophe means. If we still don't sing -- and I've been to Christmas Eve Masses where the congregation didn't sing -- it may not be because we don't know when.


Friday, June 13, 2003

Okay, maybe he ain't exactly light, but still

I have to say that, for all the profound and [in this life] irreconcilable differences I have with numerous members of St. Blog's, they are as my own soul compared to the "Catholicism is idol-worshipping paganism" crowd whose posts are regularly and approvingly featured at blogs4God.


That's the way to do it

You just gotta love a commencement speech that begins by quoting these words:
[T]he proper satisfaction of wonder is knowledge of causes. But causes are of two sorts: a cause may simply be primary within some particular order, or it may be primary without qualification, a cause of causes. Knowledge of the latter is called wisdom; the science which treats of first causes in the light of the natural capacity of human reason is metaphysics, which may be called wisdom only with the qualification "human"; the science which studies God in the light of what He has revealed about Himself is wisdom without qualification.
Not the thing to spring on a chap with a bit of a morning head, perhaps, but sound and true stuff nonetheless.

Okay, it's not a speech, exactly, but the homily delivered by Francis Cardinal Stafford at the commencement Mass of Thomas Aquinas College last month. It's both a commentary on life at that college and, less directly, a challenge to all of us to see our parishes as Eucharistic communities.
The Spirit of the Risen Lord has made known to you a wondrous sense that, even though the blunders, hypocrisies, jealousies and even malice of your personal and collective histories have scattered and divided at times the children of Adam here, Christ's mercy has "gathered up the fragments from every side, forged them into the fire of love and welded into one what had been broken" (St. Augustine).

During your years here, you have seen the face of Christ in one another.... The Eucharist has revealed Christ's face in their faces. For, as St. John Chrysostom teaches: In the Eucharist "we are mutually joined to one another and together united with Christ."

The eucharistic face of Christ has taught you that the problem of life is not simply the problem of suffering. It is that, but it is more. The whole of the problem of life and its violence and its sinfulness finds ample leg-room within the revelation of redemptive pardon and forgiveness.

The eucharistic community is the Holy Spirit's greatest pedagogue. These eucharistic years here have shown that, despite all human sinfulness and perverse cunning, you can still believe that human nature is one and good and overflowing with possibilities. God's love has revealed to you that human existence is unified and comprehensive. For much can be forgiven among those who have "loved much" (Luke 7:47).


Is ageism the last acceptable prejudice...

...of conservative American Catholics?

Strictly speaking, the answer is: Of course not. Anti-semitism is not hard to find, and there's plenty of racism, sexism, and all the other prejudices, too. But you recognize the rhetoric.

Even if "ageism" is too strong a word, I think there is an identifiable phenomenon of younger conservative Catholics mocking older liberal Catholics for being old. It is evident in references to "geezers" and "ageing hippies," in calling someone more than twice your age an "old bat," in the refrain, "Some day they'll all be dead."

Part of this, I suppose, is symptomatic of the infantilism public (and private) discourse wallows in, of thinking that saying, "Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, you're so !" is a clever or amusing thing for a grownup to say.

But I think there's also a certain viciousness involved, a message like, "You are old, and therefore impotent. You are bound for oblivion." It's not just that the thirty-year-old "progressive" ideas are sterile and will soon pass from the earth without a trace, but that the people who hold the ideas are as well. This thought seems to be relished. "I am dancing on the grave of my enemy, who doesn't even realize he is already dead."

None of this is particularly remarkable. Few Catholics of any kind have made a personal fetish out of loving their enemies, and arrested intellectual and emotional development seems to be the norm rather than the exception in these parts.

But I see something more in this than blatant disregard for the commandments given us by Jesus. I think there's a certain evasion of responsibility at work here, too.

If a particular idea I oppose is sterile, a dead end destined to lose all adherents within five or ten years, then I don't have a strong need to actively oppose it. I can focus my attention elsewhere, since at best my efforts would only hasten the inevitable by a small amount. A bad but sterile idea is a problem solved.

So if we convince ourselves that a certain bad idea (choose your own) is only held by ageing hippies (or, for that matter, ageing reactionaries; it works any way you set it) who will be dead or in dotage in a few years, we can convince ourselves that we have triumphed over that bad idea. We borrow that triumph from the future, rub it in the noses of those who held that idea, then congratulate ourselves on a successful battle.

There is a downside to this process.

First, what if the idea isn't held only by impotent geezers? What if we've only talked ourselves into believing this, when in fact the idea is widely held by people our own age (or even, though we don't like to think of them, by people younger than us)? The effortlessness of letting a sterile idea die off may be too appealing for us to accurately judge the idea itself.

The lack of charity shown to the impotent geezers also takes a darker form than common or garden hatred. Not only do we in effect say, "It is good to hate these old bats. May their blindness destroy them." We actually depend on their blindness and failings to get what we want. It's a sort of perverse and passive use of others as objects, as means to our desired end.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the occasional insult, taunt, or mock. But evil has a way of making itself at home in the human heart, even if you try to keep it to one small closet.


Thursday, June 12, 2003

Harry Potter and the Thunderous Din

What can I say? I think the fuss is more interesting than the books.

I also think Kathy Shaidle has the right take (if too bluntly stated) on the question of whether Harry Potter encourages witchcraft among children:
Some Wiccans say yes, but then, Wiccans are morons.
The Mighty Barrister, reacting to the same article, disagrees:
I haven't read the Harry Potter books. I don't intend to read them....
[Fair enough. I don't believe it's always necessary to have read a book to have an opinion of its worth.]
With all the really good books out there, why bother with Potter? For all the defenders of the Potter books, it seems to me that you are putting on Christian goggles when you read these books. "Oh, but look at the Christian imagery!" How could it not have Christian imagery? First, Christianity has defined who we are for 2000 years. Second, if de debbil wants to tempt you, you think he'll do it with something spectacularly evil-looking, like bizarre pr0n or human sacrifice? No, he'll create a world you know, one in which you will feel comfortable enough to drop your guard.
This whole paragraph strikes me as doubtful.

First, I don't think there are that many "really good books" out there in the children's fantasy genre. I'm also relatively sympathetic to the benefits of knowing popular culture, particularly for children.

And I would hope that Christians don't have "Christian goggles," but look at everything with an interiorized Christian worldview.

The second non-Christian explanation of the Christian imagery of the books seems to suggest that whatever is comfortable and not spectacularly evil-looking should be suspected of having been created under devilish influence. I hope that isn't the Barrister's intent, because it's a daft notion.

Mostly, though, isn't the fact the writer is a Christian sufficient to explain any non-accidental Christian imagery? Is there really anything in the books that hints at any sort of veiled plot at all? Heck, the literal plots aren't exactly shocking revelation piled upon unexpected twist.


Don't tell the moral theologians, but...

Minute Particulars features yet another post marveling at the human ability to tell yourself that the ends justify the means.

I'm with Mark on this. In fact, Disputations may well be the only member of St. Blog's so far this month to feature a picture of a carnivorous marsupial saying, "The ends don't justify the means." The epigraph on my tombstone will probably read something like
You read it right: I died, my friend;
I hope I caused no scenes.
But when my life came to its end,
It justified no means.
Still, I wonder if part of the reason people find it so easy to say ends justify means is that, in a sense, they do.

For example, the end of getting to work on time justifies the means of setting my alarm clock. True, most people don't really see any moral issues involved in setting an alarm clock (although, from my perspective, it's a cruel thing to do to Brother Ass). But most people would say that forcibly taking goods or money from a man against his will is wrong; they would also say the end of righting the injustice of a theft justifies it when the man stole the goods or money.

There's an equivocation at work here. Let me see if I can describe it (and then please correct me).

A particular type of human action is always just, or it is sometimes just, or it is never just. This is true of the action per se, regardless of any end for which it might be taken.

The problem is that the justice of performing an action that is "per se sometimes just" depends on the circumstances of the act -- and the end for which the act is a means is one of those circumstances. As a result, the ends can "justify" the means in the sense of providing a necessary or sufficient circumstance for an inherently justifiable act. Obviously, no end is a circumstance justifying a per se unjustifiable act.

But once we've allowed that an end exists which makes an act just, it becomes difficult to know which ends make it just. It also becomes difficult to care. Sure, shooting my neighbor might be wrong, technically, but the neighborhood's better off without him -- and besides, if he'd pulled a gun on me first, it would have been fine.

What Mark is looking at is a somewhat different aspect: Supposing that the invasion of Iraq was justified by national security concerns, it follows that invasion is per se sometimes just. If national security concerns is a justifying end, and ending the evils of the Baathist regime is a higher end than national security concerns -- the reasoning goes -- it follows that ending the evils of the Baathist regime justifies invasion. The evils of the Baathist regime have ended; therefore the invasion is justified.

Mark points out why this is lousy reasoning, but I think the impulse will remain. Who wants to throw away justified means, epsecially when the justification was hard-bought?


There's local and there's local

Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend's speech went as planned, with a reported fifteen protestors holding signs outside the school. Pretty much a yawner story -- although the Post article adds the detail that the students were offered the chance to change speakers but stuck with Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend, who thanked them for doing so.

(One might also wonder, if one were prone to cattiness, what sort of Catholic high school Ethel Kennedy went to that she didn't learn the Magnificat until her graduation ceremony.)


Wednesday, June 11, 2003

All politics is local

The Mighty Barrister mentions with approval a planned protest at this evening's commencement ceremony at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, a posh Catholic girl's school in Bethesda, MD. (How posh? The half-day Pre-K program costs $8,800.) The reason for the protest is the commencement speaker, Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend, a pro-abortion rights Catholic politician.

I dunno.

On the one hand, I don't see why anyone would ever want to listen to anything Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend might have to say about anything.

On the other hand, the ceremony isn't about Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend (who attended Stone Ridge for several years), it's about the graduates. Protesting Kathleen KENNEDY Townsend makes the protestors feel better at the expense of the graduates and their parents in order to accomplish ... what?

I happen to know someone who teaches at Stone Ridge. Due to the protests -- do I read the newspaper article correctly, that the organizer isn't affiliated with the school? -- attendance at the ceremony may be strictly limited, to keep protestors from interfering. "Sorry, Grandma, but since one group of adults over whom I have no control is upset with another group of adults over whom I have no control, you'll have to wait in the car while I receive my diploma."

I just don't see that winning over many hearts and minds among Montgomery County Catholics.


The meaning of The Meaning of Jesus

I seem to have given Telford Work the impression I think his project of commenting on [at least Marcus Borg's chapters in] The Meaning of Jesus is a waste of time.

Actually, I think it's a terrific project, largely because it's a cheap and easy way for me to learn about both Borg and Wright, who for worse or better are significant figures in English-speaking Christianity these days. I did suggest "the only reason to take Borg seriously is that a tremendous number of Catholics ... agree with what he writes," but even if it be the only reason, it's still a very good reason.

And yes, Borg knows a lot of things I don't that are worth knowing, so I'm sure I could learn a lot from him if I could get past [what I contend are] his errors.

But I think Telford Work misunderstands at least one thing I wrote:
In Wright's case, he rejects a lot of the sophomoric notions Borg ... for ... well, I'm not sure for what, exactly, but from what I've read it's a lot closer to orthodox Christianity than many Biblical scholars embrace.
Here I think I detect an argument from irreformable Holy Tradition: Why bother revisiting issues that have already been settled? We should just stay with "what has been given" us.
That's not what I meant. I understand Wright to have attempted to search out for himself the truths behind the New Testament, paying respectful attention to but not uncritically accepting of Holy Tradition. From the scraps I've read of and by him, I think Wright wound up accepting much more of Holy Tradition than -- well, certainly more than Borg, and possibly more than a plurality or even majority of active Biblical academics. As one example, Wright has concluded Jesus rose physically and bodily from the grave because he has concluded that's what Scripture teaches, not because that's what Holy Tradition teaches.

Now, what do I think of a project like Wright's? I think it's an excellent idea, if done as honestly as possible. Since I believe Holy Tradition is true, I don't think it is placed at risk whenever and however truth is genuinely sought. Nor do I think we should be afraid to test our own understanding of Holy Tradition against this sort of scientific investigation.

For example, I think Fr. Raymond Brown's work is extremely valuable, even as I deny that the various sorts of criticisms being applied to Scripture -- which, after a point, amount to the personal opinions of a small number of scholars -- trump Tradition. I get the sense that, if a particular Gospel passage serves a clear literary purpose, scholars will deny its historicity. This sort of "minimal necessary explanation" approach doesn't fit with the Incarnation, in my personal opinion, which was neither minimal nor necessary and which, in the end, defies sufficient explanation.


No, actually it is the better part

Hernan Gonzalez and T.S. O'Rama have both pointed out a reasonable but improper inference from my post below: that I think the secular and the religious lives are equivalent.

I should have been clearer. Objectively, following the evangelical counsels is a higher state in life than not following them.

I wrote the post primarily to counter the reasonable but no doubt improper inference from Christine's post that secular laity shouldn't really be expected to be holy. As Steven Riddle points out in a comment, we have our own unique means of holiness -- and too, there are means of holiness that cross all states in life.

(Strictly speaking, the only means of holiness is God's grace. There are, however, different ways in which God sends his grace -- through a marriage, for example, or through ordination -- and different paths of perfection.)

I did take Christine's post to be praise of the religious life rather than deprecation of the secular life, but it is difficult to do the one without sounding like you're doing the other (as St. Jerome noticed when he wrote about the subject).

Another point is that, while one state may be objectively higher, following it may be subjectively worse. It is better for me to respond to God's grace as best I can as a married man than to presume graces God doesn't intend for me as a friar.

Finally, there's the question of recognizing the benefits of a state from the percentage of canonizations that state has produced. It seems to me there are enough social, psychological, and political factors affecting who is canonized that evidence for spiritual factors can only be weakly inferred, if at all. Of the three principal ways people have been declared saints -- martyrdom, local acclamation confirmed by a bishop, and papal confirmation following a formal investigation -- the latter two have, I think, a clear bias in favor of religious and clerical candidates. I suspect most lay saints were martyrs.

(Then too, it's not as easy as it should be to figure out how to classify everyone. A layperson who achieved great sanctity in the world was once likely, once worldly demands were met, to retire to a convent or monastery (or hermitage!) to prepare for death. Is a saint holy because of his religious state, or does he enter the religious state because he is holy?)


Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Choosing the better part

Christine of Christus Victor writes, of those in vowed religious life:
The religious life is the training towards self-mastery, and thus, true freedom. In a world filled with the violence and cruelty of unrestrained passions, the religious life offers the way of peace, joy, fulfillment through the continual exercise of restraint. Such lives of simplicity and poverty are truly the most profound, the most beautiful, and the most to be envied. While the rest of us remain in the world, pulled by competing interests, constantly under the subjugation of our passions and jealousies and fears, concerned with the opinions of the world and of man, these others who have forsaken all to live for God alone draw from the depths of His peace and His joy--depths that are barred to us who cling to our reputations, to our own glory, and refuse to forsake all for Him.
To me, this sounds too romanticized, like copy for a pre-conciliar vocations advertisement.

Self-mastery, true freedom, peace, joy, continual exercise of restraint, simplicity, poverty: are these denied to those living secular lives? Competing interests, passions, jealousies, fears, clinging to reputation and glory: are these absent in religious lives?

Her post concludes:
... it is no accident that the vast majority of the canonized have been those who have abandoned everything--including the solace of marriage and children, of money and property--to cling wholeheartedly to Him.
Here I think Christine certainly overstates her point. Canonization implies holiness, but holiness doesn't imply canonization. It is no accident that the vast majority of the canonized have been those who belonged to enduring organizations with vested interests in obtaining their canonization. Lay heroic virtue tends to be less evident, and its evidence less historically durable, than religious or clerical heroic virtue.

Is it, though, in some sense "easier" to be holy as a vowed religious than as a secular layperson? I think that might be an ill-formed question. Holiness isn't a quality amenable to statistical analysis. We become holy only be responding to God's grace, which is as present on a city street as in a rural cloister. Personally, I think I have a much better chance of becoming a saint -- and, for that matter, of helping others to become saints -- living in the world than in a monastery. And "personally" is the only real way to speak of holiness.


A fist or an open hand?

Neil Dhingra wrote a comment to the post below that I think is too interesting not to promote to its own post:
I have heard two 'conservative' explanations for the decline in episcopal authority in present day American Catholicism:

1) American Catholics, by virtue of living in a democratic and largely Protestant country, are anti-hierarchical and will always tend to have too much respect for private judgment and too little respect for authority. Catholic bishops in the United States must be self-consciously countercultural and should focus on inculcating discipline rather than working for consensus and cooperation.

2) American Catholics have been misled by a 'new class' of catechists and theologians into being suspicious of hierarchy and authority. Catholics in the 1950's had a high degree of coherence with little dissent, a rich devotional culture, and the ability to convert Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. American Catholics will naturally gravitate towards this if bishops simply free them from the liberal interlopers. Catholics bishops in the United States can trust their flocks and work for consensus and cooperation with them, as well as with the positive aspects of American culture (political conservatism and evangelicalism, for instance).

Are these two analyses mutually exclusive? And, if so, is it disingenuous for 'conservatives' to move back and forth between them?
My answer: I think there's some truth to both analyses. As for what the bishops should do, I'll cop out with an appeal to that fine Dominican custom of "balance": a true disciple of Christ is disciplined; a true brother in Christ is trustworthy.

More generally, though, I don't think a bishop should trust his flock, or his own iron fist, so much as trust Christ. In practice, that means to trust the Gospel. It has the advantage of being true, and therefore naturally attractive. It is also difficult, and therefore naturally both repulsive and attractive (people don't like to change, but they like to be challenged). If a bishop gives his flock the Gospel, and they accept it, they become true brothers and sisters in Christ, and can be trusted, liberal interlopers notwithstanding.


Papa don't teach

Lately, Mark Shea has been arguing that American Catholics have the kind of bishops they desire -- viz., "bishops who will leave them alone and not bother them about their sex lives."

It seems to me, though, that American Catholics don't want bishops who will teach them anything. Not just not sexual morality, but also not social morality, political morality -- nor, God help their excellencies, economic morality.

And I think this desire to be left untaught covers everything the bishops might teach. It isn't that "progressive Catholics" don't want to be taught sexual morality, while "conservative Catholics" don't want to be taught economic morality. When we agree with the bishops, it is just that: agreement. Just as we might agree with our neighbor that Barry Sanders was the best pure running back in the NFL but disagree with him about Joe Montana, so we might agree with our bishops about sexuality (or church-and-state matters), but disagree with them about economics (or the death penalty).

When we want the bishops to teach, it seems, we want them to teach other people things we already know or accept.

I suppose you could say American Catholics, by and large, want their bishops to confirm them, then go.


Monday, June 09, 2003

And you welcomed me

I've noticed a lot of Catholics, and more than one blogging Catholic, seem to treat U.S. immigration law as sacrosanct: an illegal immigrant is by definition a criminal and therefore deserves whatever punishment the law imposes.

While remaining comfortably ignorant of the specifics of U.S. immigration law, I don't think uncritical reverence is prudent. I would point out that the American bishops seem to agree with me, but among Catholics who treat U.S. immigration law as sacrosanct, episcopal endorsement counts as a strike against you.


The satisfying discomfort of trust

Camassia and Telford Work move on to the second chapter of The Meaning of Jesus, written by N.T. Wright. From the selections they quote, I approve of their approval.

They both quote this passage, which confirms my extremely limited experience with contemporary Biblical scholars:
If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. I fthey seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflate. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text.
I think it's worth noting that both Borg and Wright begin by pointing out that they are, essentially, rejecting what has been given them for what they can make sense of on their own. In Borg's case, it seems to me, he rejects childish notions for sophomoric notions. In Wright's case, he rejects a lot of the sophomoric notions Borg endorses -- principally, the up-front assumption of a radical distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" -- for ... well, I'm not sure for what, exactly, but from what I've read it's a lot closer to orthodox Christianity than many Biblical scholars embrace.

I get the sense that a major difference between the two men is intellectual honesty. Borg thinks he's being honest by throwing away tradition, when he's actually swapping one for another. Wright, at least in principle, seems to have been prepared to wind up wherever his studies led him, while at the same time recognizing that his faith was affecting his studies, just as his studies affected his faith. Telford Work writes that Wright is on "a quest that trades the empty comfort of convention for the satisfying discomfort of trust," which strikes me as the sort of journey everyone has to make when it's time to grow up.


Metametablogging: Guess who's been playing with Adobe Photo Deluxe

I try to avoid blogging about blogging. Disputations is basically a what you read is what you get site. I think the behind-the-curtain stuff should, for the most part, stay behind the curtain, so I don't bother pointing out when Blogger was down, or I made changes to the junk in the left-hand column, or I was thinking about upgrading the comments server, or whatever.

Still, I want Disputations to be an enjoyable and distinctive reading experience. Two of my concerns about it is that it isn't particularly attractive visually, and that it has occasional runs of wordy, abstract posts on theological minutiae that a reader might find wearisome.

To address both of these concerns, I decided that what Disputations needs is a mascot. A mascot will add visual appeal to an all-but-completely text-based blog, and I may also be able to use it to help make some of my convoluted arguments more accessible to people who don't want to spend the time and energy to figure out what I'm rambling on about.

And so, allow me to introduce Disputations's new mascot, Reginald the Tiger Quoll:


Friday, June 06, 2003

That's what I'm talking about

Unless I missed something, I can endorse pretty much all of Telford Work's commentary on the first chapter (written by Marcus Borg) of The Meaning of Jesus:
Borg is constructing a public Jesus and a private Christ. How convenient for a liberal Protestant living in pluralist America! We can talk to each other about the crucified Jesus of history, then if we like withdraw to pray to the risen Jesus of personal faith. How polite of Jesus to bifurcate himself so that we can remain in conversation but stay out of each other's way. Now that's class.
I'm not sure I'd call the commentary, critical as it is -- when Borg is quoted, "[!]" and "[!!]" are inserted to show where Work's jaw hit the floor -- an example of applying the Parvus Error In Principio method. (Actually, I'm sure I wouldn't, because I'd never heard of it before yesterday.) The error Borg begins with isn't a small one that will be magnified by the end, but a large one that will (presumably) be carried throughout the book.

Frankly, there's not much I find interesting about Borg or what he apparently has to say. I knew him only as a named benchmark for bad theology, only spending a little while looking into exactly what his theology was after I overheard a Catholic priest reverently mention his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. I suspect the only reason to take Borg seriously is that a tremendous number of Catholics, not all of them priests, agree with what he writes.


Further on today's liturgy

The following is one of this morning's intercessions:
Help us to show reverence for those who are weak in faith,
-- may we never be hard or impatient with them, but always treat them with love.


Novena of the Ascension, Day 8

Hernán González goes to the trouble of looking up what St. Thomas wrote about the advantage of Christ's ascending rather than remaining on earth.

Much of St. Thomas's lengthy reply to objection 3 ("it would have been more beneficial for men if He had tarried always with us upon earth") was scratched out in the discussions on this over the past week. St. Thomas, though, elegantly frames the benefits of the Ascension according to how they serve the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

As I write, Easter was almost two months ago; the Ascension is behind us, and Pentecost is upon us. Yet the prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours for today reach back before Easter, to Good Friday, and the reason I'm writing this today. We have received the Holy Spirit because Jesus has sent Him to us from Heaven; Jesus is there, exalted at God's right hand, because He is risen; He is risen because He hung upon the cross for us. (See Acts 5:30-32, the reading for Morning Prayer.)

Our faith includes the whole sequence; we can't be "a Resurrection people" or "a Spirit-filled people" if we aren't also a crucified people. We can turn a jewel to study its different faces, but it's all a single jewel. If you try to remove one of its faces, you will destroy the jewel.


The Baltigrondomena Catechism

Mark at Minute Particulars suggests an answer to the question, "Yeah, but why did God make me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven?":
God made us because He wanted to zorbidoo the fragligs and hargmarglin the rostulations while keeping the gimblonies in weltonsingflees....
Who can dispute that?

I think the idea that there's some purpose behind creation is somewhat misguided. Certainly God has a plan for creation, but I don't think His intention is to accomplish anything with it. Jesus' many parables of banquets seem to me to capture the idea of, not just the Kingdom of God, but all of creation: Creation is the party God throws to celebrate Himself.

This doesn't sound quite right to a lot of people, because it's hard for us to think of doing something for the sheer joy of doing it. Who hasn't heard the complaint that God must be awfully petty if He wants us to worship Him? The reality, though, is that in worshipping Him, we are filled with His joy. We don't -- we can't -- make God any happier by serving Him in this world and being happy with Him for ever in heaven.

I've read that St. Thomas explains creation this way: goodness is fecund by its very nature. Goodness begets goodness; goodness creates goodness. As infinite Goodness, God overflows heaven, so to speak, into creation, as a spring pours water down a hillside. Creation is the smile on God's face, the song of joy sung as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other.

Sometimes the idea of however many billions of galaxies there are makes us seem awfully small and awfully unlikely candidates for God's Son to be born among. But apart from whatever personal contacts God may have elsewhere in creation, it only makes sense that God's love would be manifested in a very big way.


Thursday, June 05, 2003

Not quite contrary

I recently finished Mary, Called Magdalene, a historical novel by Margaret George that was enthusiastically recommended to me.

Alas, I can't enthusiastically recommend it. At just over 600 pages, it's one of those long novels that goes down easily but doesn't really satisfy, particularly the more you think about it too much. Like a slice of cream pie at a chain family restaurant.

There are instances of poor writing and discontinuity -- something Mary learns when she is 90 we later find she was told when she was 60, for example -- and George seems to go out of her way to rebut several Catholic doctrines (the primacy of Peter, Mamma Mary's perpetual virginity and assumption, probably the Virgin Birth). More positively, she implies some form of Real Presence and treats Jesus' mother with great reverence (by Protestant standards).

In a reader's guide printed at the back of the book, the author answers a question on her "own spiritual background":
A long pilgrimage that has led me from my family backgrounds of Quaker and Baptist, to the traditions of the Episcopal and Catholic churches. I am married to a Jewish man, and now am discovering New Age spirituality.
The pilgrimage to the Catholic Church seems to have been brief; elsewhere in the interview she refers to the sixty-six books of the Bible. So going in, it's safe to say she wouldn't write a book that would please me in all particulars.

Mostly, though, I think the problem with the book is that it attempts to novelize the Gospels, and the Gospels are not really novelable. Not that it's blasphemous or sacriligious, but that (as I've been suggesting this week) they are purposefully terse and episodic, and that each Gospel is intentionally distinct from the others.

The novelist, then, attempts to write or rewrite various scenes from the Gospels into a coherent story that presents Jesus as a psychologically believable character. Her job is to make the reader believe that the events she describes could have happened, and if they did they could have led to the written Gospels as we have them.

That's a chore.

In Mary, Called Magdalene, the result is a Jesus who is just making it up as he goes along (or rather, as the Father reveals it to Him, sometimes with the assistance of Mary Magdalene). He's charismatic, easygoing, and deeply mysterious. As he talks with his disciples, he'll suddenly let loose with a whopping mouthful from a modern Bible translation. The effect is almost like a Regency romance hero suffering from Heavenly Tourette Syndrome.

It's not impossible to do a good job adapting the Gospels (or at least a Gospel) to other art forms. Jesus of Nazareth was pretty good, and I thought the script for Dorothy L. Sayers' The Man Born to be King was excellent.

But when an adaptation tries to fill in the intentionally parabolic nature of the Gospels with psychological, social, or even religious explanations -- to, as it were bend the parabola into a circle -- then I think it will fail. The reader or viewer won't only say, "This is not Jesus as I know Him," but, "This is not a Jesus interesting enough to die for."


The fully human person is divine

Camassia and Telford Work are biblogging their way through The Meaning of Jesus, written (in alternating chapters) by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. I know almost nothing about Borg, and none of it I find favorable. I know very little about Wright, and most of it I find favorable.

In the very first paragraph by Borg (who wrote the first chapter of the book) Camassia quotes, he loses me. His intent is to draw the already shopworn distinction between the "protoplasmic [historical] Jesus" and the "living [post-Resurrection] Jesus." Borg thinks this distinction is necessary for the historical Jesus to be human:
A person who knows himself to be the divinely begotten Son of God (and even the second person of the Trinity) and who has divine knowledge and power is not a real human being. Because he is more than human, he is not fully human ...
Borg's assertion of this last idea -- that he who is more than human is not fully human -- tells me two things. First, little or none of his Christology will be consistent with the Christian faith of the first nineteen centuries after Christ's death. Second, little or none of his Christology will be correct -- not just because it is contradicted by Christian faith, but because it is based on a falsehood.

To be human is to possess human nature, to have a human soul. In one sense, to be "fully human" is redundant; you either are human, or you aren't. In this sense, clearly, having a divine nature as well as a human nature does not make a person less than fully human, any more than a clock radio isn't a radio (if I'm allowed such a humble analogy).

In another sense, though, a person becomes "more fully" human the more his life expresses the fullness of human nature. A person incapable of thought is said to be in a "vegetative" state. A person incapable of love is said to be "inhuman." Such people aren't, of course, non-humans, but I think the language does indicate a true notion that incapacities like these mark people who do not live "full human lives," which is to say lives that fulfill all aspects of human nature.

The concept of human nature itself is debatable, still more the concept of the fullness of human nature. The message of Jesus Christ, though, is that through Him we can become children of God. "Not by nature," as the formula goes, "but by adoption." The Christian faith is that we, who are human if anything is, can become God's sons and daughters.

How do we become this something "more than human"? By the grace of God. Do we cease to be human when we become this something more than human? No: grace perfects nature, it doesn't replace it.

So if our own destiny is to be both fully human and more than human, how can it be that Jesus could not be both?

Some say (and I think Borg is among them) that the weaknesses and limitations of human nature are of such central importance that, if Jesus was able to overcome them in His divine nature, He cannot be said to have been human in a truly meaningful way. I don't see why this is true. I think -- and again, it's a crude simile, but it works -- this is like saying a radio only reports the time when someone announces it on the station to which the radio is tuned, so a clock radio isn't a radio in a meaningful sense.

St. Paul wrote that Jesus was a man like us, not that He was just a man, like us. To insist He was is to insist the hypostasis of His divine and human natures is impossible. And that, obviously, is something that needs to be proved, not simply asserted.


Wednesday, June 04, 2003

You can't tell the players without a program

Robert Gotcher dispels ignorance over what a dogmatic theologian is, quoting the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

I use simpler definitions:
  • Fundamental theology: God is.
  • Dogmatic theology: God was here.
  • Mystical theology: God is here.
  • Moral theology: You are God's.
  • Speculative theology: God is more.


Clubbing it

Bill Cork welcomes me:
Disputations is in trouble now. He's dared to criticize Catholic World News.
For what it's worth, I didn't criticize CWN itself, I criticized its blog. I know essentially nothing about it as a news provider, I only know it sponsors a website that purveys rumor, scandal, and detraction, much of it pseudonymous. I suppose it's possibly they are able to wipe their fingers clean when it's time to type up the news.

I think journalists have a strong personal sense of "what counts," of what needs to meet some standards of journalistic conduct and what doesn't. Blogs, clearly, don't count. I'm not sure, though, that Internet readers make the same distinction.



Karen Marie Knapp informs us that today is Gerard Serafin's birthday.

Coincidentally, Hernán González links to an article about an apparently common error of calling Jorge Luis Borges "José Luis Borges." Borges didn't much mind, since he thought "José Luis Borges" was easier to say.

For reasons unknown to me, people often refer to Gerard as "Gerald." I don't know if "Gerald Serafin" sounds much more euphonious, but at least others aren't claiming he writes poetry as bad as some claim "José Luis Borges" wrote.


Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Deep into Saintly Salmagundi territory

I blame Amy Welborn for this.

Suggested captions:
  • "Okay, now turn left at the second light for the best barbecue this side of heaven."
  • "You know, when you do that I can hear the tree crying. Just kidding."
  • "So this is that important meeting you told your secretary about, huh, Phil?"
  • "Hey, Pastor Chrysostom, Mr. Portefoy in the back row's about to fall asleep. Again."
  • "No, don't tell me. You got your hair cut? New earrings?"
  • "You have no idea what that thing's called, do you?"
  • "Now hit control-alt -- ah, nuts, I can't figure out MS Access, either."
  • "Say, this reminds me of the time Peter and Andrew --" "Quiet. You're scaring the fish."


Like a broken record

A couple of times a week, I wander over to the Catholic World News's blog Off the Record.

"Just to see," I tell myself. Just to see what the professional dung-slingers are up to.

And what do you know, they're slinging dung.

I think Karen Marie Knapp has the right call on this sort of thing. The accuser of the Brethren is having a hell of a good time these days.

At my blog, too? In my heart?

It's time I get serious about maintaining custody of the keyboard.


J'acuse! Mais, qui?

Ron Moffat doesn't think the American laity gets a better grade over recent decades than their bishops:
...I would say that, indeed, the laity bears, by far, the greater portion of guilt for the sorry state of the society we live in....

According to the Catechism, it is the laity that has the vocation to bring the Kingdom of God to the world. We are the ones charged with making the society we live in Christian, not the clergy. The duty of the clergy is in service of the Church -- to support our efforts in bringing Christ to the marketplace. I would also say that, based on this definition, we the laity have failed miserably.
A fair indictment, I'd say.

But it also calls to mind a tangential question: When did the bishops become such a big deal?

No, I don't mean ecclesiologically. I mean practically, in the life of the common or garden Catholic tootling through life in these United States.

My personal experience of bishops is extremely limited. I probably haven't attended a dozen liturgies led by a bishop in my life -- and that's counting a papal Mass and the occasional touring bishop who winds up at the same church at the same time I do. Prior to January 2002, I would have said the direct impact of the bishop on a significant percentage of his flock was limited to irritating them by replacing beloved priests with martinets and promulgating fund-raising-by-guilt-trip programs. He said the right things at Christmas and Easter, posed for pictures at groundbreaking ceremonies, and went about doing Confirmations in the Spring. In terms of lived faith, though, he wasn't much of a figure. If I wanted guidance beyond what my priest could give, it was the Pope or nothing.

Then, when the scandal broke, all of a sudden (from my perspective) bishops were important. And not just my bishop, either. Now I'm supposed to keep abreast of the actions and behaviors of bishops in dioceses I've never heard of before. I'm told which one(s) to praise and which ones (all the rest) to damn.

I have to doubt that we, the American laity, can sustain the interest. When it comes down to it, our experience of our bishops is not, "Here is the Church, spotless yet in need of reform." It's, "Here is the guy who decides whether we can build a parish hall." Whether the fault lies with the bishop, with us, with the ex-nun lesbian cabal running the chancery, with the modernists in the Vatican, with the troglodytes in the Vatican -- or whether no one's to blame, I don't think the relationship between bishop and faithful is very well understood, much less lived out, in this country (although there are exceptions). And I'm not sure the current scandal (or the next one, for that matter) provides an adequate context in which this relationship can become what it is supposed to be.


Continuing the speculative novena

TS O'Rama contributes some more Ascension thoughts:
The Resurrected Jesus in the flesh is very obviously a display of power. Faith, like charity, is a big denomination of currency in the spiritual realm. By being present to us, He would perhaps be obstructing our faith by taking away some of our free will, thus lessening the currency we would have to spend in heaven.
And if faith be that much less meritorious when we see Jesus -- so much so, TS suggests, that "[t]hose visited by supernatural events ... suffer proportionately the greater for it" -- how much more damnable would lack of faith be? Suppose Jesus were alive and well and living in Jerusalem, and you made a pilgrimage to see Him, but when you saw Him all you could say is, "Eh."

Mr. O'Rama also raises a disputed question:
There is speculation that our Blessed Mother didn't receive a post-Resurrection visit from Jesus because she didn't need it. It's certainly possible that He did appear to her and it just isn't recorded, but some say that such appearance would be extraneous given Mary's great faith, and miracles aren't for gratification - they serve a purpose.
I think the most important point to be made on this is that it wasn't recorded. If Jesus did appear to His mother -- which I think is at least moderately probable -- it was to meet no public need of the Church.

I'm beginning to think there's more to the minimalism of the Gospels -- all the elided details! all the unanswered questions! -- than the stock explanation that they were written to fill specific needs in specific communities by men writing in specific literary traditions. Jesus spoke in parables in public, only explaining Himself in private to those who were close to Him. The Gospels, too, are parabolic: they invite us to fill in details, to draw conclusions, to search out connections. They (all Scripture, but the Gospels especially) are no more brute facts we passively accept than is the Resurrection. Just as the Ascension demands that we see the Resurrection through the eyes of faith, so the Gospels demand we see the whole life of Jesus, not just with our eyes as we read, but with our faith as we ask the Holy Spirit to help us.

This is an extraordinarily inefficient way of forming disciples, but it seems to be typical of the way God reaches out to man.


Monday, June 02, 2003

More fun with four-letter words

Jesus went to the Father. Jesus is with His disciples always. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples. Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.

What do all these little words actually mean? What do they tell us about the Trinity? About our relationship with the Persons of the Trinity?

I don't know.

But here's a quick check at the words used by the NAB at the ends of the Gospels.

Matthew ends with Jesus' words:
"And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
Jesus remains with His disciples; the Ascension and the reception of the Holy Spirit go unmentioned.

Luke makes up for this with two versions of the Ascension. In Luke 24:49, He tells His disciples, "And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you." In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." Then follows the dramatic events of (what Catholics somewhat ignorantly refer to as "the first") Pentecost.

According to John, Jesus appeared to His disciples the evening of His Resurrection, "breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit.'" Jesus explicitly gives the Disciples the Holy Spirit, just as He sends them out into the world as the Father sent Him. John records no Ascension; indeed, though His movements are mysterious, Jesus seems in no hurry to leave the Earth.

Mark's Gospel, of course, ends at 16:8.

No, seriously, Jesus sent the Eleven "into the whole world [to] proclaim the gospel to every creature," then, with typically (if not actually) Markan lack-of-fanfare, He "was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God."

I'm not really going anywhere with all this, beyond noticing that each Gospel ends with an emphasis on a different aspect of the Christian's experience of God's presence. Matthew stresses Jesus' personal presence. Luke insists on the full process of ascent-descent, and (in Acts) on the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christ's faithful. John acknowledges the presence of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, although it is the person of Jesus on Whom his attention is directed. Mark (deutero-Mark?) mentions neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit as personal companion; rather, it is Jesus's power with which the Christian is invested to preach the Gospel.

All of these are valid perspectives, of course. And, importantly, they're all sharp perspectives. When we mash all the Gospels together, the picture we get of Jesus -- and of the relationship He offers us -- gets a little blurry. "Jesus is with the Father and Jesus is with me" sounds like a neat trick, the sort of paradox by which you convince yourself your mind isn't too shrunken to function. "Jesus is with the Father. Jesus is with me." demands, I think, to be taken a little more seriously.


Handling snakes and Scripture

Last week, Video meliora... wondered about these verses from the Gospel of Mark:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
Since these words appear in the Gospel for the Assumption, Fr. Keyes quotes a passage from St. Gaspar, as well as his own homily.

I was going to crib something from a commentary on Mark I picked up, but it's too contemporary to even discuss anything past Mark 16:8. (As a side note, I wonder how modern Scripture scholars can be so certain the Gospel was originally intended to end there. Granting that the rest of the chapter was written by others, how do we know they weren't written to replace an original ending that got lost?)

Anyway, the upshot of this passage, according to St. Gaspar and Fr. Keyes and St. Gregory and others, is that, while these signs were worked literally and materially by the Apostles, they continue to be worked spiritually by Christians today.

I'll buy that, as far as it goes, but it doesn't mean demons aren't still driven out, nor sick people healed. The need for these as public signs is largely past, but they remain, here and there -- in numbers, I bet, that would surprise many faithful Christians -- as personal signs given by the Holy Spirit according to the wisdom and providence of God. Or so it seems to me.


Why ascend?

Chris Burgwald wonders why Jesus ascended to Heaven instead of remaining on Earth:
It seemed to me that this would have solved a lot of problems, like belief in Him, and the governance of His Body, the Church.

There are a number of possible answers to this question, but there is one in particular which I personally find most satisfactory: Jesus ascended and no longer dwells with us as He did 2000 years ago because He wants us to raise our minds to spiritual things. Because Jesus is not visibly present to us as He was to the first disciples, we are forced to ponder the invisible and the eternal; we cannot remain focused solely on the here and now, but must regularly turn our gaze Heavenward, where our Lord and Savior now dwells.
I think we shouldn't overlook to significance of the problems Chris says would have been solved if Jesus had remained on Earth.

As Jesus told St. Thomas, "Blessed are those who do not see, but believe." Faith in Jesus is more of a blessing for those who can't see the wounds in His hands and feet. If He were alive today, who of us wouldn't do all we could to go see Him? As it is, all we need do is go to the nearest Catholic church to see Him with the eyes of faith He so praises in the Gospels.

I take the Ascension to be, among other things, the sign par excellence of how His Body the Church is to be governed: by us. Again, who would dare to ordain a bishop without getting personal approval from Jesus, were He living somewhere today? The Body of Christ would be paralyzed with fear of making a mistake. We still, of course, appeal to Jesus for approval and guidance, but it is up to us vessels of clay to hear His word and apply it.

But Jesus Himself provides the primary answer to the question of why He ascended to Heaven: "But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you."

If Jesus did not return to the Father, the Holy Spirit would not have been sent upon the Church -- the Holy Spirit, by which we are moved to think of the things above, by which we have faith in Jesus, by which the Church is governed.

We can then ask why Jesus had to go to the One Who sent Him in order for the Advocate to be sent to the Church. That's a question for which I have no ready answer, beyond the purely semantic one that you can't "send" someone from a place where you aren't. Only if He is in Heaven can Jesus send the Holy Spirit from Heaven to Earth. Having returned to the Father, Jesus intercedes for us as High Priest from within the Holy of Holies, the very heart of the Triune God. Through such intercession from such a place is the Holy Spirit sent upon the Church.


Friday, May 30, 2003

On a related note

A fondness for Wodehouse is just one of the threads of union that runs through St. Blog's. I now learn I am not the only blogger to have played that most fiberglass of brass instruments, the second alto of the marching band: the Sousaphone.

I played it -- along with the tuba, whichever they had in the closet, no snob I -- off and on from junior high through college. If you want to know what it's like to stare into the abyss, and have it stare back, try oompahing "Pomp And Circumstance" for twenty minutes straight on five hours' sleep while a thousand hungover business majors file into a Brobdingnagian auditorium.

Our college concert band was simply dreadful, possibly because there was usually a higher good to pursue than rehearsal. My girlfriend (now wife) once attended one of our concerts, poor thing. Of the four pieces the conductor had us play, I had never seen the music for two of them before sitting down on stage. Afterward, I asked my girlfriend to guess which pieces I was sight-reading (well, sight-skimming; I never did learn the fingering for some of the lesser-used sharps and flats). She guessed wrong.


Boxing day

In a comment below, the Kairos Guy expresses mystification at what he sees as my "need to draw a box around the Infinite." He responds to the Flos Carmeli Guy's suggestion that my need is rather to try to "clear away a great many theological cobwebs" by saying "the cobwebs are often themselves a result of drawing boxes around things."

My own reply was that "I'm trying to draw a box around the finite -- and to make it the biggest box possible."

Of course, boxing in the finite amounts to boxing out the infinite. That's a difficult thing to do, when the Infinite is the mystery of participation in the life of the Trinity.

But let me redraw the distinction between a problem and a mystery. A problem is a question that, at least in principle, can be answered. A mystery is a question that, by the nature of what it ponders, cannot be answered.

The fact that I can't answer a question doesn't make it a mystery, properly speaking. Even the fact that there is no way anyone can answer a question (short of Divine revelation) doesn't make it a mystery. How many comets are there in the universe? Assuming we can agree on a definition of comet and on the moment relative to which the question is asked, we still can't answer it because obtaining the answer is beyond our human ability. But the answer itself is not beyond the ability of human reason to understand. A number like 14,293,335,493,110,394 may beggar the imagination, but it's still intelligible to us.

Similarly, a question like, "Do all who die unbaptized but without personal sin experience the Beatific Vision?" is a problem, not a mystery. The Beatific Vision itself is a mystery, in a sense the mystery, and not even an angel could explain it to us.

An angel could, however, say, "Yes." In principle, so could an ecumenical council. While we still wouldn't really comprehend what the unbaptized were experiencing, we would at least know they were in a similar relationship with God as the Christian saints. Knowing that, we would be in a position to revisit what Scripture and Tradition say about relationships with God, which in turn would not only help to focus the Church's evangelical message but also help sharpen our own relationships with God and each other.

I'll also note that the Kairos Guy himself gave an unqualified answer of "Yes" to this very question a couple of weeks ago. (Literally, it was, "Most of the people God has invested with life have taken the express lane to the Beatific Vision.") I don't see why my answer of, "Well, let's think about this," is any more of a box around the Infinite.

Finally, this discussion has brought some mirth to at least two others (and counting). If that doesn't make something worthwhile, I don't know what does.


Can you feel the groundswell?

Yes, it's the first day of the Novena to the Holy Spirit, and the vigil of the Visitation, and (in the Czech Republic, at least) the Memorial of St. Zdislava, but it's also the day when P. G. Wodehouse finally takes his place in the pantheon of people who unite us even apart from religion. (Come to think of it, it's also the day the pantheon of people who unite us even apart from religion gets established, but someone else will have to blog about that.)

Mark Shea calls him, "Hands down the funniest writer of English prose ever." Hernan Gonzales has a gallery of Jeeveses & Woosters through the years. Kathy the Carmelite was enthusing over Wodehouse some weeks back, drawing dylan to add something fresh as well.

There is, of course, a Wodehouse Society -- or rather, a whole lot of Wodehouse Societies. There is also a group called The Clients of Adrian Mulliner, comprising the intersection of Wodehouse Society types and Baker Street Irregular types. (Adrian Mulliner is a private detective appearing in a few of Wodehouse's short stories.)

It seems to me St. Blog's should have something like a Sodality of St. Valentine (Wodehouse's great theme was star-crossed romance, and he died on February 14), or the Great Sermon Handicappers (after a story about a betting ring on which church would feature the longest sermon; "The Great Sermon Handicap" has, out of pure whimsy, been translated into more than a dozen languages). Then we could ... well, I suppose we wouldn't actually do anything, except maybe slap an icon on our blogs someplace. Can anyone gen up an image of a black pig on a red heart? Like this, only better:

Ah, a touch of style, courtesy of the Video Meliora, Proboque; Deteriora Sequor Guy:


Thursday, May 29, 2003

Reverent agnosticism?

There is at least one Dominican with the temerity to take the Catechism to task for its [non-]treatment of limbo. In the commentary The Service of Glory: The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" on Worship, Ethics, Spirituality, Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP, writes:
[A] pronounced reverent agnosticism afflicts the Catechism when it comes to speak of the destiny of unbaptized children, for in their case there would seem to be no human act which God could regard as an act of conversion. Rather than speak, in their connection, of a possible limbus puerorum, a kind of happy attic, with restrictive prospect, in the house of heaven whose windows look out on the vision of God (an analogy, fundamentally, with the limbus patrum, the antechamber of that house where the just who lived before Christ awaited the advent of the Redeemer), the Catechism prefers more simply to entrust these babes to the mercy of God.
For a fuller treatment of Fr. Nichols' thoughts about the inhabitants of the house of heaven, see "Catholicism and Other Religions," a chapter from his book Epiphany: A Theological Introduction to Catholicism.

[Full disclosure: I clipped the above paragraph from a book review I was browsing, and found the book chapter via Google. I haven't read any of Fr. Nichols's books, although I keep coming across his name in good contexts.]


Out of limbo

In thinking further on the question of what we can know, guess, hope, or believe about the destinies of the unbaptized who die without personal sin -- which, again, is perhaps more important for how that knowledge, guesswork, hope, and belief affects our other opinions and beliefs -- I am struck by how very little has been said authoritatively about this. Like a wart on your boss's nose, it's a subject people might talk about a lot, but it's rarely mentioned in formal settings.

I suspect this goes back to the admirable practicality of First Century Jews. People didn't come to Jesus with metaphysical questions; they asked, "What must I do to be saved?" When the Sadducees did bring up a speculative situation, involving a woman with seven husbands, His reply didn't encourage further such questions.

My guess is the primary motivation of the first generations of disciples and believers was, "What are the implications of the Gospel for me?," not, "What are the implications for a class of persons to which I do not belong?" This, I think, is the way to understand the literal meaning of Scriptural passages that state or imply some positive act of faith on our part for salvation. They are meant to teach the person who hears them about the choice he faces, not about the complete economy of salvation.

(That doesn't mean such questions never came up. Perhaps they were related to the lost custom of baptism for the dead?)

I think this is shown in the words used in the Catechism (assuming this is a reliable translation; I added the emphasis): we are allowed "to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism." [CCC 1261] Notice our hope isn't simply that these children are saved; we must first hope that a way for them to be saved exists. This tells me that the existence of that way is not explicitly taught by the Church, which suggests it is not explicitly taught in Scripture.

Ah, but is it implicitly taught? Scripture may not directly address a subject yet still not be entirely silent. Steven Riddle (along with the Catechism) finds a basis for hope in the words of Jesus, "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

For me, though, the question isn't whether Jesus loves children. This I know. If I were looking for Scriptural implications of another way of salvation, I would look to passages like these:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. [John 10:16]

In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. [John 14:2a]
The first suggests some will be saved whom Jesus' disciples never considered salvagable; this is a clear reference to Gentile Christians, but not necessarily only them. The second passage could be interpreted, I think, to mean that Heaven will be experienced by different people in different ways -- qualitatively different, not just quantitively.

This is the point I reached before reading Kevin Miller's comment below that de Lubac demonstrated, pace St. Thomas, "purely natural happiness" is metaphysically impossible. Frankly, I'm glad to hear that, for reasons I'll save for another post.


Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Not sympathetic to magic

I'm not too interested in the Great Harry Potter As Gateway to Satanism Debate. On the one hand, the resolution that the books are a gateway to Satanism strikes me as a non-starter. On the other hand, I don't think the books are good enough to warrant a particularly impassioned defense.

John Granger, one of J. K. Rowlings leading hagiographers, has interested me, though, with a suggestion posted on Catholic and Enjoying It:
A helpful distinction that may clear some of the smoke and heat from these exchanges is the one between incantational and invocational magic. Revealed traditions all condemn invocational magic; the Faustian bargain is a bad deal necessarily because the principalities and powers 'called in' (hence 'invocational') always have their own agenda. No one that I know thinks invocational magic a good idea, in real life or in literature - outside of say, Faust, where the consequences are evident.

Incantational magic, however, 'singing along with' or 'harmonizing' contranaturalism, is the foundation of Christian faith. It only appears in literature as abacadabra spells, the Lives of the Saints, and the Book of Acts (the miracles of our Savior cannot be called incantational because He is the music or Word with Whom we strive to sing). Only our ability as images of God for such harmonization (by means of our receptivity to God's graces and the mysteries of the Church) make our hope of Theosis possible.
As I commented there, I doubt his writing "Incantational the foundation of Christian faith" will convince many of Granger's opponents that he knows appropriate use of magic when he sees it. Someone then suggested an exercise for the reader: "explain the difference between an incantation and a valid Eucharistic prayer or Baptism."

It seems to me John Granger's position depends on what is meant by "magic." In the Church, magic is customarily defined to be a means to an end that either ignores God's actions or denies His freedom. By that definition, magic is not the foundation of faith, but its debasement. [Get it? Not de foundation, but de basement. Ha!]

By a broader (sociological?) definition of magic -- as, say, a means to an end for which the physical actions performed are an inadequate cause -- Baptism might be considered magic. Even here, though, the Church's understanding of the operation of Baptism bears no significant similarity to, say, a pantheist's understanding of how a healing chant attunes him to the healing powers of the cosmos. To say gazing into a crystal and baptizing a baby are both instances of magic is to give the term magic a uselessly broad meaning. It's like defining the word "Pennsylvanian" to mean "a resident of either Pennsylvania or Transylvania;" you can do it, but it's not a very useful concept.

Be that as it may, I would have thought Baptism is an example of an invocation, not an incantation: "I baptize you in the Name of the Father...." There is not some cosmic harmony of regeneration to which we attune the baptized through form and matter. There is a Trinity of Persons, Whom we invoke, asking for Their graces based on the promise of the Son. The fundamental difference between Christian prayer and magic is the same as the fundamental difference between Christianity and everything else: a participation in the life of a community of Divine Persons.


An idea in limbo

The question of the destiny of those who die without committing serious sin -- in particular, of infants and young children -- has long been pondered by Christian theologians. It's not a purely academic exercise, either; habits of thought affect habits of act, as I've argued before.

According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, before St. Augustine it was generally agreed that the unbaptized who die without personal sin do not suffer. They simply do not experience the vision of God, which they don't naturally expect anyway.

St. Augustine came to believe that surely even the personally innocent must suffer a little bit. The West followed him up until the time of Abelard, when theologians began rejecting the idea of material suffering for unbaptized children. St. Thomas took it further back to the pre-Augustinian teaching that there was neither material nor spiritual suffering, teaching finally that the unbaptized innocent wouldn't even have knowledge of the supernatural good they were lacking.

Ninety years ago, the no-suffering "limbo" opinion had won the day against the Augustinian position. The Catechism, though, advances the state of the question far beyond what the early Greek Fathers taught:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. [CCC 1261]
We are allowed, not merely to believe these children don't suffer, but to hope they may experience the Beatific Vision.

This hope is, I think, another example of the softening of the heart Catholic theology has undergone in the last century. Eternal natural beatitude is no longer the best we can hope for; it's now nothing less than a participation in the Divine Life.

That's all fine, of course [the writers of the Catechism breathe a sigh of relief]; God is not bound by the Sacraments, so His gift of salvation need not be limited to them. But to the extent this is a new idea, or at least a new way of putting things, there are still a lot of issues to be shaken out. Does hope in the possibility become faith in the necessity? Is limbo -- a state without positive suffering and without supernatural happiness -- still a viable opinion? What exactly are the consequences of Original Sin in the light of Jesus' sacrifice? Is the hoped-for way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism available for adults who have died without Baptism? For adults who have died with Baptism, later repudiated? As a last chance for me?

My concern is not to keep the riff-raff out, to reserve Heaven for those of us who have earned it. It's rather to know the truth, insofar as it's knowable, and to appreciate its implications. Neither to reject an idea because it complicates a pet theory, nor to accept an idea because it has sentimental appeal.

In all of this, too, I try to keep in mind that a hoped-for means of salvation available to others doesn't directly affect me, since the means of my salvation have been openly preached for nearly two thousand years.


Speaking of which

As you are no doubt aware, St. Zdislava of Lemberk's dies natalis (the "day of birth" into eternal life, a saint's natural feastday) is January 1. Since that conflicts with the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, her feast in the Dominican calendar has been moved to January 4. January 4 is also the feastday of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who (for sound if partisan reasons) trumps St. Zdislava in the United States, so Americans have no real opportunity to celebrate St. Zdislava's feast liturgically.

The Czechs, however, honor their patron saint on May 30.

If you're looking for a good excuse for an extraliturgical donut this Friday (assuming you don't observe a fast for the Vigil of the Visitation), have one in honor of St. Zdislava, a medieval wife and mother who became a saint without first becoming a nun. (You might want to check out her litany, too.)


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A new Catholic person asks:
Exactly what are one's options regarding one's patron saint's feast day? How are we to honor our patron saints on those particular days?
Generally, I eat a donut.

Okay, an extra donut.

I think it is good and wholesome to celebrate our patron's feast days. And I mean, literally, celebrate with a feast.

The old customs can be found in books, but I don't see anything wrong with starting a new custom. Like a S(t. Thomas )More Pie, or a Fra(A)ngelico Cheesecake, or an Assumption Swizzle, or Archangelfood Cake. (Yes, it might be more appropriate to celebrate the feast of St. Raphael by cooking up fish guts, but what kind of a celebration is that?)

(Which reminds me: look for a recipe for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Cookies at St. Blog's Cookbook in time for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle July 3.)

In terms of religious observance, I do try to go to Mass, although optional memorials generally go unoptioned in the parish churches I can get to. The Liturgy of the Hours provides commons and some propers for most of my patron saints. There are numerous litanies out there, perfectly suitable for private use. A few saints even have their own "little offices," and there are some more or less standard novenas for many saints as well.


Tuesday, May 27, 2003

"Especially do we need her witness of trust in God."

Amy Welborn (among others) has linked to the Boston Globe article about the cause to canonize Servant of God Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P.). I assumed no one would comment on this, since it wasn't scandalous and didn't give anyone a target to sneer at. I was mistaken.

Those who might happen to find news of a possible American saint an occasion for joy can learn a lot more about Rose Hawthorne here.
Lord God, in your special love for the sick, the poor and the lonely, you raised up Rose Hawthorne (Mother Alphonsa) to be the servant of those afflicted with incurable cancer and with no one to care for them. In serving the outcast and the abandoned, she strove to see in them the face of your Son. In her eyes, those in need were always "Christ's Poor."

Grant that her example of selfless charity and her courage in the face of great obstacles will inspire us to be generous in our service of neighbor. We humbly ask that you glorify your servant Rose Hawthorne on earth according to the designs of your holy will. Through her intercession, grant the favor that I now present (here make your request).

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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The human view

Flos Carmeli features "a special pleading based on limited human understanding" for hoping that all men are saved.

I have grave reservations about his statement that the Reformation "represent[s] the maturing of faith through rebellion and reexamination." Lutheranism is not a maturation of Catholicism. Henry VIII was only interested in reexamining the faith if and when the reexamination concluded that he had the right to do whatever he wanted.

But even if we take the broader point that the Counter-Reformation Church fixed a lot that was broken in the Pre-Reformation Church, I remain troubled by the idea that the Church's faith matures. It implies, not only that the faith changes, but that it improves. Faith-wise, the first Christian martyrs were babies, the Desert Fathers little kids, the medieval scholastics precocious pre-teens. Only now are there Christians with a grown-up faith -- and guess who those Christians are! Us! What are the odds?

I'm sure this isn't what Mr. Riddle meant, but there are enough people who do mean this that I think the Church-as-a-growing-human metaphor causes more problems than it solves. Somehow "development" seems like a better term than "maturation" to describe the way the Church today differs from that of the First Century AD.

But all that's largely a question of semantics.

The key to the post is, I think, "the human view--what would it take to alienate us from our own children":
Early on our vision of God was of the Great Just Judge and Father. We love our Father, but we are frightened of the Judge that He is. One slip and we could be plunged into exile into Hell forever. Yes, we could repent and get another chance, but still and all, we constantly walk the precipice of his tolerance. And one could certainly support this view from scripture and from the words of Jesus. However, our human hearts tell us that this cannot be the truth. In our own parents, who are imperfect, justice does not trump love and compassion. They may be combined--but it is a rare parent who will permanently exile his or her child. It may become necessary for one reason or another and may happen--but it seems more likely to be a rare event. To use the tautology Jesus so aptly put--"If we who are corrupt and imperfect know how to do good things, how much more Our Father in Heaven does so."
I have to say that my human heart doesn't tell me it cannot be true that one slip can plunge me into exile into Hell forever. Not that my human heart is a reliable guide of what is true, but I'm pretty sure it's Catholic dogma that one mortal sin can plunge me into eternal exile from God. It may be that the life of grace is more stable than it's often conceived; maybe committing a mortal sin isn't as easy as some say it is. But, once I commit one, I have no life in me.

In this post, Mr. Riddle seems to assume that we are saved unless we do something to mess things up. The doctrine of original sin, though, seems to imply that we are damned unless we do something to clean things up (not, dear non-Catholic readers, that our salvation is due to anything we do). "One wrong move and you're out isn't plausible," Mr. Riddle writes. Which assumes you're in to begin with. I think he's missing a distinction in the ways in which God is, or can be, our Father.

As creator and sustainer, God is our Father in what could be called a natural way, in the same caregiving way He is Father to the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap. Of course, bearing God's image and likeness, we are better than the birds of the air, and God loves us more.

But God is also Father to Jesus Christ, as Begettor to Begotten. Through faith in Jesus, we become adopted children of God -- actual children, not just in some juridicial or metaphorical way.

Humans are capable of a life of nature, a life of grace, and a life of glory. Each of these lives is given us, obviously, by our Heavenly Father, but our relationship with Him is different in each life. We are born into a life of nature; we are given a life of grace through baptism and faith in Jesus (that's the something we have to do to clean things up). The life of glory is simply the fulfillment of the life of grace.

Looking again at Matthew 7:11 -- "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him." -- notice those last words: "to those who ask Him." Those living a natural life may well ask God for a life of grace, but they need not. Those living a life of grace may ask for the things they need to sustain their life of grace, but they may not. In either case, a person can receive from God all he asks for and still not be saved. It's not a question of the lengths God will go to on our behalf -- that was answered on Calvary -- but of our choosing Him instead of something else.


Saturday, May 24, 2003

Speaking of the kind of bishop I'd like to have

Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington has released a pastoral letter called "The Fullness of Hope" (PDF file here), on the Church's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

It's a good letter, I think, presenting the Church's teaching with clarity:
It is because our Church has a total vision of human dignity, which begets a deep love for all people and a respect for their well being in all dimensions -- physical, psychological, moral and spiritual -- that it rejects the false promises of condoms. Instead, we encourage people to embrace chastity, fidelity and sexual abstinence outside of marriage, behaviors that protect the physical and spiritual integrity, preserve their true dignity and promote true responsibility.

Our critics often claim that chastity and sexual abstinence programs cannot work alone or at all. They claim that people cannot change their behavior, while at the same time they call for exactly that -- for people to use condoms consistently and correctly every time they engage in sexual activity. If society is going to seek to modify conduct, then would it not be better and more effective to encourage behaviors such as chastity and abstinence that eliminate the risk of disease while promoting human dignity and a healthy life in all dimensions, rather than behaviors that do not eradicate the risk of disease and lull people into a false sense of security?
There's even something to irritate small government/free market cultists and others who get offended at the thought of a Catholic bishop deigning to speak about government or economic matters:
Even beyond the context of HIV/ AIDS, we affirm the right to healthcare for every person. We recognize that many nations lack basic medicines to fight many diseases, much less the more costly drugs to combat HIV infection and, therefore, we call upon our government and other governments to help ensure that the appropriate medicine is accessible, affordable and available to all. We stand in solidarity with the Holy See as it calls for pharmaceutical companies to work together to overcome the burdens of costly research and development so these urgently needed drugs may be available at affordable prices and to urge nations to build stronger healthcare infrastructures, to provide emergency relief assistance and to work to eliminate poverty and other factors that contribute to HIV infection.
The only questionable parts are when Cardinal McCarrick seems to imply that I, personally, have some sort of duty or responsibility:
...we make this call for a culture of solidarity with people who are living with HIV/ AIDS and with their families....

All of us should be convinced and convincing in this matter. Our lives, our work and our witness must testify to the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

In our own local Church of Washington, let us commit ourselves to providing a more loving and compassionate response to the reality of HIV/ AIDS, not only by caring for those infected and affected by the disease, but also by promoting the truth about human sexuality.
Other than that, though, he quotes Scripture, Pope John Paul, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and for good measure throws in a recommended reading list of nineteen magisterial documents.

The letter leaves me with two questions. First, why a pastoral letter on HIV/AIDS now? It's Cardinal McCarrick's second pastoral letter since coming to Washington, and I'm not sure what prompted him to choose this topic.

Second, why are pastoral letters such a big secret in this archdiocese? I don't pay particularly close attention to the archdiocesan newspaper, but I do try to listen to what is said in church. The letter came out four weeks ago, and the first I heard of it was when the link to it turned up on the archdiocesan home page Friday. If I'm going to be out of the loop, I wish someone would tell me, so I could at least enjoy it.