instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Passion pro-gnosis?

I'm thinking Bill Cork has a serious case of ill-wishing for Mel Gibson's current film:
The way the secular critics are talking, though, if it is worse that "Braveheart," it could even come out with the dreaded "NR." Will all those gushing about its "accuracy" and "power" and "faithfulness" take their children to see it? I don't think so.
Since Mel Gibson has been quoted in interviews as saying it's unsuitable for most 12-year-olds, the relish with which Bill writes this tastes a little off.

But, as always, let's make a distinction. This time, it's between The Passion being what many are hoping it will be ("A stunning work of art! A devout act of worship! A miracle!," in Barbara Nicolosi's words) and it being a commercial success. Stunning works of art and commercial successes are not highly correlated phenomena.

Still, Bill has invested a fair amount of time in attacking The Passion, so his ill grace over its commercial prospects aren't as surprising to me as Mark of Minute Particular's take on those gushing about the trailer:
In fact, I wonder if there's something a little Gnostic, to use a worn out term that barely supports any meaning anymore, in all of this speculation about the film's impact. I say "Gnostic" because there's either a desire for (for those who think the film will work wonders) or a fear of (for those who think it should stay in the can) some esoteric sliver of insight, some depiction or vantage point, some "experience" of substance that could only come from viewing the film.
Of course, I read everything from my own perspective, but nothing I've read about The Passion has suggested anything esoteric to me. I don't think anyone expects to learn anything from the movie -- at least, nothing he shouldn't already know.

But consider Matthew 27:26:
Then he [Pilate] released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Good daily Rosarians that we are, we all know Jesus was scourged. Many of us have read about what a Roman scourging was like, and understand it to be quite nasty. But this is, for many, an undeveloped knowledge and understanding. "Yes, Jesus suffered and died for our sins. Must have been horrible. Doubt I'd have done it in His place. Ooh, what's that shiny thing on the ground?"

It's the development of this sort of knowledge that I think its boosters are hoping The Passion will offer viewers. Possibly a distortion, of course, but I doubt it will be more of a distortion than what is currently in the minds of a lot of potential viewers.

So it's not that this movie will teach us something nothing else could, but that it might show us something we've never bothered to look at before.

Oh, and if you've missed it, there's a great discussion in the comments on the post below. I think there's a lot more to be said, pro and con, about the idea of a devotional movie, as distinguished from a religious movie, which itself can mean either "a movie about a religious theme" or "a movie with a religious sensibility" (respecting, as Neil Dhingra suggests, the "absence at the centre of the Christian imagination").


Thursday, July 17, 2003

"Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah..."

It's kind of interesting that, during Jesus' earthly ministry, people who saw Him understood Him in such different ways, and that the same thing is happening now with The Passion.

After several days of raves about the trailer, there finally comes a pan. Bill Cork writes:
Get a grip, folks. It is a movie. It is subject to criticism. It is properly the subject of questioning of its script, its vision, its interpretation, and the intent of its director.

As for me, from what I saw in the trailer, I don't think Mel Gibson has approached the vision and reverence of Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth." Gibson seems interested in "shock and awe," with his exaggerated graphic violence and gore.
Bill has already made several negative posts concerning The Passion and its alleged anti-Semitism, so it's not surprising that he is underimpressed by the trailer, just as it's not surprising that people who have been looking forward to seeing the movie since they first heard of it seven months ago were blown away.

I suspect the same thing will happen when the movie is released. People who expect to see anti-Semitism will see it, people who don't won't.

Bill does make an important point, that "the Gospel is not reducible to the last twelve hours" before Jesus' death. There's a tendency to separate Jesus' life from His death and focus on one while ignoring the other. (Which one a person ignores says a lot about him.) But then, the movie is called The Passion, not The Gospel.


Monday, July 14, 2003

A debatable value

St. Stephen's Musings links to several posts on the value of on-line Christian debate.

Considering the title of this blog, it shouldn't be surprising that I think valuable on-line Christian debate is possible and worth pursuing. But one thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that, to succeed, all parties involved in the discussion must want to uncover the truth. Not to win the debate, not even to convince those who begin by disagreeing with you, but to reach the truth.

If everyone does want to uncover the truth, the debate will be successful, even if at the end contradictory opinions about what the truth is are still held. It will be successful because bonds of charity will have been forged or strengthened, and at least one party will possess more of the truth than he began with.

If, however, one party's primary interest is not to uncover the truth -- showing off, scoring points, annoying others, and feeling like a proud witness of Christ are some other interests that might take precedence -- the debate will be a failure, both for the people directly involved who were seeking the truth and for all those observing the debate.


From your friendly neighborhood Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

The Social Agenda, a collection of magisterial documents on the Church's social teaching, was published in 2000 and has now been made available to us cheapskates on-line.

Now that we've got this, what are we going to do with it?


Friday, July 11, 2003

"I am sure I could feel any lump/Even if it were under the mattress...."

In a comment below, Joseph D'Hippolito suggests the following enhancement to my critique of the charges that Fr. Thomas Doyle, OP, has become a Protestant:
The reason such men call Fr. Doyle a "Protestant" is because he says things that threaten their sentimental, lackey-like adherence to theological correctness, Catholic-style.
I suspect the reason is something else.

First, I think Kevin Miller simply used what Mark Shea and Leon Podles wrote as an illustration to his main point, that past results as a "conservative" is not a guarantee of future performance as orthodox.

But Mark writes of his interpretation of Fr. Doyle's comments:
Perhaps I misread him due to my own years long experience as a Protestant being taught *precisely* this doctrine (to the degree that my old church group practiced no sacraments whatever) and therefore was over-sensitive to the danger.
I've noticed this sort of hyper-sensitivity before, when a Catholic strenuously resists all suggestion of a non-Catholic doctrine he once held but later rejected on his way into the Church. Catholics who were once deep into New Age spirituality might dislike perfectly orthodox mystical writing on the grounds that it affords a New Age interpretation; objections to Harry Potter come particularly from Catholics who got wrapped up in the occult in the past.

A cradle Catholic who's never yet had to reject a closely-held doctrine, I may be the most insensitive Catholic alive. But I think those who are sensitive to a particular doctrine and those who aren't can learn from each other. Those who aren't sensitive can show the truth in a contentious idea, while those who are can show the risk of not purging falsehood from it. That will both broaden the truth and make it stronger.


Thursday, July 10, 2003

A very thoughtful prayer

On Santificarnos, a new blog "for helping Catholics who bear the Cross of Divorce," Jesus Gil shares his method of praying the Rosary:
In a nutshell, I try to make each mystery relate to some personal attribute or quality that I can work on....

Before saying each mystery, I brainstorm a bit on what are some attributes of that particular mystery....

So here's how I put this into practice: I start each mystery by thinking on the attribute being taught, and that I want to live, and I come up with a phrase that sums up that attribute, and which I will repeat during the recitation of that decade. Here's how it works:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Here I say the attribute upon which I'm meditating. And then continue reciting the Hail Mary...
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
At least in my mind, I find special significance that I'm asking for that attribute right after Jesus' name, and the last half of the prayer then becomes a plea for Mary to also pray that I may be granted that attribute.
If you have any thought on the role the Rosary can play in helping people through divorce, annulment, or marriage, please stop by Santificarnos and share them.



Take scandal. Please.

St. Thomas's consideration of the sin of scandal is characteristically clear-headed and helpful.

Following St. Jerome, he defines scandal as "something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall." This involves two sins, in the person who says or does something less rightly that occasions a downfall, and in the person who responds with a spiritual downfall. These are called active scandal and passive scandal, respectively.

St. Thomas points out that active and passive scandal are distinct acts, and one can occur without the other. If I do something to try to get you to sin, but you don't, that's active scandal without passive scandal. If I do something blameless that provides an occasion for you to sin (like say "Good morning!" when you're in a fell mood), that's passive scandal without active scandal.

But wait! There's more!

Active scandal may or may not be intentional. If I do something with the intention of getting you to sin, that's direct active scandal. If I do something inordinate without intending to cause you to sin, that's accidental active scandal. St. Thomas says direct active scandal is "directly opposed to fraternal correction, whereby a man intends the removal of a special kind of harm." (Formally speaking, only this direct active scandal is a special kind of sin.)

Two types of passive scandal can also be identified. There's a malicious passive scandal, the "scandal of the Pharisees," where someone takes advantage of another's action to sin out of malice for the other. St. Thomas refers to Matthew 15:14, saying Jesus teaches us "we ought to treat such like scandal with contempt." There's also an innocent passive scandal, the "scandal of little ones" proceding from weakness or ignorance.

On the question of whether spiritual goods need to be given up to avoid giving scandal, St. Thomas writes:
In order to avoid [innocent passive] scandal, spiritual goods ought to be either concealed, or sometimes even deferred (if this can be done without incurring immediate danger), until the matter being explained the scandal cease. If, however, the scandal continue after the matter has been explained, it would seem to be due to malice, and then it would no longer be right to forego that spiritual good in order to avoid such like scandal.

The stock-in-trade of large portions of American Catholic journalism and commentary is scandal. More specifically, of publicizing the sins of others as "scandalous."

St. Thomas, however, answers the objection that all sin is scandal by writing, "Any sin may be the matter of active scandal," but if it's an accidental active scandal -- if the sinner didn't intend to cause others to sin -- then formally it's not scandal. If by going to the sorority party Fr. Dipsomanian didn't intend to cause anyone else to sin, his action, formally speaking, is not scandalous.

And yet people say they are scandalized. That seems to mean they are tempted to sin, and I suspect many do in fact sin, committing passive scandal.

Doesn't there come a point, though, when such passive scandal passes from innocence to malice? After two months, or two years, or some finite period, of a steady or expanding diet of the publically revealed sins of others, doesn't a person's taste for scandal become a thing worthy of contempt?


Scripture Knowledge Quiz

This month's Wodehouse Logic Challenge is "The Scripture Knowledge Logic Challenge!" Did Blinky outscore Deadeye? Did The Blob carry home the prize? Figure it out!


The evolution of language

A Religion of Sanity is being updated again, and Maureen links to an article about a medical report that claims, essentially, women might ovulate at any time. (Yes, yes, a newspaper report on a medical study; standard caveats apply.)

Still, consider this sentence:
The results help explain for the first time why some women get pregnant while on birth control pills, and why the window for safe sex may not exist at all for many women -- because there may always be an egg sac waiting to release an egg.
There was a time when "safe sex" meant, to me at least, "sex without transmission of a potentially fatal disease." Evidently pregnancy, for the Ottawa Citizen, is a potentially fatal disease.


Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Whisper down the line

It started with an extended interview with Fr. Thomas Doyle, OP. It continued, via an excerpt and brief comment at Touchstone, through a couple of glosses at Catholic and Loving It!, to an I-told-you-so at Heart, Mind, and Strength, in which Kevin Miller says "Doyle may have intended orthodoxy in the past" and implies that Doyle is no longer orthodox.

Having gone from Kevin's note to Mark Shea's gloss to Leon Podle's comments to Fr. Doyle's original interview, I think it's fair to say both glosser and commenter mischaracterize the interviewee's statements, while noter seems to accept glosser's take as accurate.

But are Fr. Doyle's comments those of "a good Protestant," are they the "rejection of the priesthood and authority of the Roman Catholic Church," as Podles claims? That's a strong charge, and I don't think it has a reasonable basis in fact, much less that it holds.

Keep in mind the facts that Fr. Doyle is: a Dominican; a canon lawyer; angry; giving a spoken interview. The first two facts mean that he is likely to think with a certain uncommon precision; the second two that he is likely to speak with a certain common vagueness.

Of the two partial paragraphs Podles quoted, the first explicitly describes "the way a lot of people are looking at" the Church post-January 2002. The second partial paragraph is largely the same, although Fr. Doyle expresses more support for this way:
But as they grow, as their own spirituality starts to mature, they realize that spiritual strength is something we have with each other. It's among us. I don't need to go into a church building, I don't need to have a priest or bishop tell me I'm okay, I don't need to ask one of them to pray for me. I'll take care of it myself. There's really a maturing; it's a return, I think, in many ways to what primitive early Christianity was all about.
Leon Podles and Mark Shea interpret Fr. Doyle as meaning the ordained priesthood is unnecessary. But that isn't what Fr. Doyle says; he says priests are unnecessary for my spiritual strength. "I don't need to have a priest or bishop tell me I'm okay" in order to be okay; here being okay is, I think, a spiritual state rather than a moral state.

To say, as Mark does, that "I don't need to ask [a priest or bishop] to pray for me" means, "I don't need the Mass," is, in my judgment, an absurd stretch when the context is people who have been brutalized by priests, then brutalized again by bishops. Surely it means, "I am not helpless apart from the arbitrary good graces of those who have harmed me."

We can see that, I think, by what Fr. Doyle said next, which Leon Podles didn't think worth quoting:
If you look at the life of Christ and the way he interacted with people, he didn't treat them like a bunch of dodos. He certainly didn't treat them like dumb sheep; I hate that analogy -- you know, the shepherd and the sheep. The laypeople out there are not dumb sheep waiting to be shorn or fleeced. But that's what happens.
So exactly what is "a return ... in many ways to what primitive early Christianity was all about"? An understanding that the Christian faithful "are not dumb sheep waiting to be shorn or fleeced."

If this constitutes Protestantism, God grant the Church many more Protestants.

But of course it isn't Protestantism, it's not a rejection of the priesthood or of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It's an observation that the life of the faithful comes from God, not from priests and bishops. That's not a rejection, but a restatement, of what the Church has always and everywhere taught, even if it hasn't always and everywhere been lived.


A defining moment

What's wrong with envy?

As a word, I mean. When someone tells a friend about her upcoming weekend in the mountains, the friend replies, "I'm so jealous." But the friend isn't jealous, she's envious. Why do we say "jealous" when we mean "envious"? Because it's shorter?
  • If you have a good and I don't want you to have it, I am envious (of you).
  • If I have a good and I don't want you to have it, I am jealous (of the good I have).
This much we all know, but the possibilities don't end there.
  • If you have a good and I want you to have it, I am benevolent.
  • If I have a good and I want you to have it, I am generous.
  • If I have a good and I want to have it, I am delighted.
  • If I have a good and I don't want to have it, I am slothful.
  • If you have a good and I want to have it, I am covetous.
  • If you have a good and I don't want to have it, I am restful.
The most interesting of these, I think, is sloth, or acedia; the idea that having something good can make us sad sounds counterintuitive, until you think about the last time you sighed when it was time to get up or get ready for Mass.

The least satisfying of these, to me, is "restfulness," but I mean it to oppose the restlessness of coveting another's good.

Then, of course, there are all the cases where something bad happens to one of us. I have a harder time coming to terms with them.
  • If you have an evil and I don't want you to have it, I am pitying.
  • If I have an evil and I don't want to have it, I am distressed.
  • If I have an evil and I want to have it, I am despairing.
  • If you have an evil and I want you to have it, I am hateful.
But what of the remaining four cases?
  • If I have an evil and I want you to have it, I am ... malicious?
  • If I have an evil and I don't want you to have it, I am ... noble?
  • If you have an evil and I want to have it, I am ... perverse?
  • If you have an evil and I don't want to have it, I am ... rational?
Well, okay, precise choice of terms aside, what's the point of all this.

First: Don't use "jealous" if you mean "envious" or "covetous." That just spoils the word "jealous" for the rest of us.

Second: Humans have a lot of weird passions. Desiring evil is an intellectual contradiction, and yet those in despair can somehow enjoy their sorrow. We use the word "schadenfreude" to describe pleasure in another's misfortune, which I think makes that pleasure sound more highfalutin and wry than it really is. Above, I used the term "hateful" where "schadenfreudal" would have gone if "schadenfreudal" were a word. "Hateful" is really a much more general passion, but I think it's worth realizing that "I am happy at your misfortune" necessarily implies "I hate you."

Third: Christianity does weird things to some of humanity's weird passions. I called wanting someone else's evil perverse, but what is the Cross but the desire to take evil away from others and upon oneself? Countless saints and spiritual guides have learned and taught the way of accepting, even rejoicing in, the evils that come our way, and of fleeing and rejecting the good things.


Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Not bad, for a Protestant

Excellent, excellent stuff from the cluttered desk of Telford Work.

First, there's a fascinating essay continuing his look at the book The Meaning of Jesus. It amounts to an overview of ways of understanding Jesus', and the early Church's, understanding of the Crucifixion:
For atonement is the reconciliation not just of God and individual human beings, but the collective restoration of humanity's intended end. It is the reuniting of who we are with who we are meant to be. Exile is estrangement not just from some uncaused cause, but from ourselves. Sin takes us far away from home; and home for God's chosen people is Jerusalem: not Jerusalem as a city ruled by pagan oppressors and a corrupt priesthood, but as a new city that enjoys God's justice and good provision in spirit and in truth, whose temple is the Lamb.
Second is a two-part response to the question of what drives people to believe in religion; he begins with the question of
whether Christian faith is essentially a specific instance of something generic called "religion" or "faith" or "belief," or whether it is something coherent and self-contained that bears only "family resemblances" with other things often called religions or faiths.
And concludes that Christianity isn't like "any religion":
But remember that the multitudes grumbled and pined for Egypt and the crowds thinned away and disappeared when Jesus got challenging. The ones who stayed were more the sought than the seekers. Moses and Peter weren't on vision quests; Moses was looking for sheep and Peter was looking for fish. Abraham wasn't looking for anything, so far as I can tell. They didn't find God; God found them. My experience is much the same. Jesus came to me before I came to him, in ways I don't expect to find reproduced in anyone else, even fellow believers.


Not all labels are created equal

People involved in the current discussion on qualified Catholics have so far avoided (from what I've read) the very great error that, "No qualifiers are needed because I'm the only kind of Catholic there can be."

I don't think I'm entirely imagining that there are people who in effect believe that Mother Angelica is 100% Catholic and that any deviation from her opinions, tastes, and preferences implies a reduction in how Catholic you are. (There may be more people who feel Pope John Paul II is the standard, but somehow that seems less peculiar to me.)

Now, I will happily grant that Mother Angelica is 100% Catholic. But Catholicism is, so to speak, the domain of Christ the King, not His point. You can score considerably less than 100% on the Mother Angelica scale and still be 100% Catholic.

There are sub-domains of Catholicism that are distinct from each other, just as my hand is distinct from my foot but no less a part of my body. The most obvious sub-domain is "Roman" Catholic, but within that there are such sub-sub-domains as "Dominican," "Carmelite," "Charismatic," and "Neo-Catechumenate." A lot of these terms used to identify ways of being Catholic, or streams of Catholic spirituality or activity, aren't often used as qualifiers to "Catholic." People don't usually say, "I'm a Franciscan Catholic," and when they do it may well be to distinguish them from Franciscan Anglicans rather than from Ignatian Catholics.

This suggests a rule of thumb that has been at least implicit since Amy Welborn began the discussion last week, that qualifiers should never be used to distinguish "real" Catholics from "ersatz" Catholics, or "full" Catholics from "partial" Catholics.

Mark Shea adds another important distinction in a comment on Amy's blog: "the distinction between *who* is/isn't really Catholic and *what* is/isn't really Catholic." If we accept the claim of every baptized Catholic who claims to be Catholic, think of all the time we'll have saved to debate whether what they claim is true about Catholicism is true. Because what we're all interested in is knowing and loving the truth, not defeating our opponents, right?

Finally, it's said that "orthodox Catholic" really does mean something, but I don't see how it passes the rule of thumb above. Besides, everyone who thinks they're Catholic also think they're orthodox. As was pointed out to me long ago, no one believes he's wrong-thinking.


Depressing if true

Hernan Gonzalez makes an interesting suggestion: that, as Christians, we have the atheists we deserve.


Monday, July 07, 2003

"So-called" "'so-called' Catholics"

Amy Welborn has several posts on using the term "Catholic" without qualifiers such as "orthodox," "progressive," and so forth. I generally agree the qualifiers aren't helpful -- although I wonder whether "no one is satisfied to be just Catholic and no one believes the person next to them in the figurative pew is a real Catholic." I want to believe American Catholics on the Internet are not representative of American Catholics.

I am lazy enough to appreciate the benefit of using something like "conservative Catholic" as shorthand in a specific context. But the context is critical; the qualifiers don't really mean anything in themselves.

One qualifier I think we can get rid of instantly and never miss is "so-called." I see it used mostly in reference to public figures, particularly politicians, who make statements contrary to Church teaching.

The problem with this is that the Church's standards are -- by necessity -- very low. Once you're in, you're in, and there aren't too many things you can do to get booted out against your will. (On top of which, technically you can't ever get booted out, once baptized.)

Some might say, "Heretics are automatically excommunicated, and the number of heretics in my 'so-called' Catholic parish is legion." But heresy doesn't seem to be such a casual matter -- again, perhaps, by necessity. Sure, you aren't a Monothelite, but can you be sure about all the knights in your local council? Scratch a member of the ladies' sodality, and who's to say you won't find someone who thinks in order for your sins to be forgiven you have to be certain they're forgiven?

The Church distinguishes between formal and material heresy. I've seen it suggested that, in order to be automatically excommunicated and therefore a real "so-called" Catholic rather than just a real Catholic with dodgy opinions, a person needs to be both diligent and malicious or at least culpable in his obstinate denial of a truth of the Faith. Frankly, I'm not prepared to give a lot of so-called "so-called Catholics" that much credit.


Friday, July 04, 2003

To correct the expectations of new readers

Reginald the Tiger Quoll says:

I'll explain Catholicism as best I can, and try to explain the reason for the hope within me, but I'm not prepared -- literally, I have not made the necessary preparations -- to offer a systematic or complete defense of the truth of the Catholic faith against all comers. You want apologetics, try somewhere else.


Thursday, July 03, 2003

"What makes a good death?"

According to Fr. Myles Sheehan, SJ, a doctor of geriatrics:
A good death is one where you have the comfort of the sacraments, good pain control, your symptoms are adequately controlled, people who love you are nearby, and--this can be the hardest part--you can die in a place of your choosing.
My father managed four out of five, failing only with the hardest part because his family wouldn't have been able to be with him if he had died in the place of his choosing. (Diamond Tooth Gertie's dance hall late on a Saturday night, not that it's any of your business.)

A contributing factor to the peacefulness of his death (complete with wife and parish priest praying at bedside) was the opportunity for preparation. Spiritual preparation, certainly, but also medical, legal, and ethical preparation.

As the interview with Fr. Sheehan points out, you can't always count on the neighborhood priest for proper ethical direction. I wouldn't bet my life on a random doctor at a random Catholic hospital, either.

At the risk of sounding un-American on the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle (a.k.a., Fourth of July Eve), let me recommend spending some time preparing for the medical, legal, and ethical issues surrounding end-of-life care for those you care about. The time and effort required to learn the Catholic positions on these issues, and to make whatever decisions are appropriate now, are quickly repaid.

Spiritual preparation is never wasted, either. What's that saying, "Pray now and avoid the rush."

As someone who insists on the plenitude of non-miraculous miracles, I also liked this passage in Fr. Sheehan's interview (link via Sursum Corda):
I also believe there is an everyday miracle we fail to attend to. We look for the miracle we have decided we want rather than the one God is supplying us. So you see families that have been at each other's throats for years, and here they're all around the bedside praying. You see people reconciled, you see an opportunity for change or forgiveness or laughter. But we say, "Nah, that doesn't count."

Sometimes a family will say, "We're going to pray for a miracle." Now I've learned to say, "So you believe in God's goodness and care for your mother?" They'll say yes.

Then I'll say, "Do you have enough faith to let God bring the miracle God wants rather than the one you're going to dictate to the Lord?"


The scandal of scandal

Camassia points out that "the scandal of particularity" is the theological term for the difficulty in believing God would reveal Himself as a particular man in a particular place at a particular time, rather than in some more universal way.

It occurs to me that what makes something scandalous in the religious sense -- that is, a stumbling block to faith -- is that it is contrary to our expectations. We know what God would and would not do, or perhaps rather what would and would not do for God. I'd guess almost nobody would, on their own, think it would do for God to become man and to die on a cross ... although the Resurrection sort of fits with a natural image of God, which may explain why it took the disciples so long to recognize Jesus (the scandal of the Gospel witnesses), and even feed the contemporary "Jesus of History" vs. "Christ of Faith" bifurcation.

But stop a moment. I am scandalized by something that is contrary to my expectations. Okay, but since when have my expectations defined reality? I expect amphibians to have legs and to lay eggs; that doesn't mean all amphibians have legs and lay eggs. I expect God to show more decorum than Jesus did; I expect God to arrange the universe to make it dead simple for me to believe whatever I need to believe about Him. Since when did God conform Himself to my expectations?

Isn't it contrary to my expectations to expect nothing God does to be contrary to my expectations? Isn't there a scandal of scandal?

I'll toss this suggestion out without thinking too much about it: Non-Christians are more scandalized by the Incarnation than by the Crucifixion; Christians by the Crucifixion than the Incarnation.

And a related idea I've read somewhere but do not wholly endorse: Where Protestants and Catholics disagree, Protestants are always on the side more scandalized by the Incarnation.


Always distinguish

Google reveals a lot of variants on an old axiom about affirming, denying, and distinguishing. The most popular may be
Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.
Other versions include
Never affirm, seldom deny, always distinguish.
Rarely affirm, seldom deny, always distinguish.
Never affirm, never deny, always distinguish.
Benedict Ashley, OP, offers a distinct version that might imply more affirmation than the others:
Affirm when possible, contradict seldom, but always distinguish.
A lot of people think the Jesuits thought this one up, others think it's an old scholastic maxim, or even a favorite saying of St. Thomas.

Whatever its history, and whatever the best version be (personally, I'd vote against any with "never affirm"), the conclusion is the same: Always distinguish.

I find myself making a lot of distinctions. I don't know whether they're good or significant or germane or critical distinctions, but they seem to be distinctions others aren't making. That takes no great effort of concentrated thought, because (it seems to me) a lot of people carry out a lot of conversations without making any distinctions at all, other than Good and Bad.

Making distinctions isn't important only for pleasant philosophical conversation. A sane person makes decisions based on choices each of which is good considered from some aspect. If your reasoning is unreasonably polarizing, if it fails to distinguish the ways in which Good things are Good and Bad things Bad, you are likely to wind up making effectively insane decisions. Theologically, failure to distinguish can lead to such aberrations as Feeneyism and the Catholicism-as-idolatrous-paganism errors that have been discussed recently.

More topically, there are American Catholics who don't or can't distinguish between an American bishop and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or between the parish priest and the Roman Catholic Church, or between a bishop and the ecclesial office of bishop in the Church founded by Jesus Christ -- or, for that matter, between a monk and a friar. All this leads to a lot of bad reasoning, poor argument, and absurd opinion.

I'm not sure how to correct this cultural habit. News reporting seems to follow a maxim like, "Always affirm, always deny, only distinguish two sides." Opinion pieces seem to prefer, "Never affirm, always deny, never distinguish." But then, news reporting and opinion pieces aren't intended to help us make the best decisions; they're intended to sell newspapers and opinions, respectively. Distinctions make buying something more confusing.


Friday, June 27, 2003

"It's in the Bible"

I did not realize there were "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion", from the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Busy, those bishops' committees.

The 1988 document makes an interesting, and challenging, point:
First, it must be understood that the gospel authors did not intend to write "history" in our modern sense, but rather "sacred history" (i.e., offering "the honest truth about Jesus") ... in light of revelation. To attempt to utilize the four passion narratives literally by picking one passage from one gospel and the next from another gospel, and so forth, is to risk violating the integrity of the texts themselves....

A clear and precise hermeneutic and a guiding artistic vision sensitive to historical fact and to the best biblical scholarship are obviously necessary. Just as obviously, it is not sufficient for the producers of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that "it's in the Bible."
I suspect many Christians don't really appreciate the differences between the Gospels, especially in their passion narratives. An attempt to synthesize a single narrative from all four could well result in a dramatization that lacks any of the Gospels' theological perspectives -- or worse, in muddled storytelling.

I'm giving Mel Gibson's The Passion the benefit of the doubt -- or actually, I love it sight unseen. But the fact remains that any passion dramatization is an interpretation of Scripture, just as each Gospel is an (admittedly inspired) interpretation of history. An event may well be in the Bible, but its dramatic interpretation is not, and Catholics ought to understand the limits and risks of private interpretation of Scripture.


On a lighter note

I maintain the web page for the Sovereign Knight-Almoners of Malta, an organization I invented after reading about self-styled chivalric orders only too happy to sell memberships to foolish middle-aged men who like to play dress-up and call themselves fancy names. (We would call them fake orders, but that wouldn't be chivalric.)

Yesterday, I received the following email from someone replying to the Sovereign Knight-Almoners of Malta page:
Gouvernorat général et Chancellerie internationale


Le Gouverneur général de l’Ordre a l’honneur et le plaisir de vous inviter cordialement à visiter le site Internet de notre Institution chevaleresque, laquelle compte 612 ans d’existence sans solution de continuité.
Voici son adresse :

Ce domaine Internet est consacré à l’Ordre équestre apostolique de Saint-Georges de Bourgogne, qu’un gentilhomme franc-comtois – Philibert de Mollans – créa en 1390 pour honorer les reliques du Mégalomartyr, rapportées de Terre sainte. Les fondateurs ne formèrent à l’origine qu’une pie union; mais, dès 1485, de nouveaux statuts l’instituèrent en Ordre équestre, tout aussitôt reconnu par le pape Innocent VIII.
Déjà enrichi de privilèges par Philippe le Bon, puis par tous les rois de France de Louis XIV à Charles X, la Sodalité bénéficia de spéciales faveurs spirituelles concédées tant par les pontifes romains que par les hiérarques orientaux. Elles furent toutes confirmées par Sa Béatitude ?minentissime le cardinal Ignace Gabriel Ier Tappouni, patriarche d’Antioche et de tout l’Orient, qui, le 11 octobre 1929, l’érigea canoniquement, lui accorda la qualification d’Ordre apostolique et le plaça sous la protection perpétuelle de ce très saint Trône patriarcal.
En notre époque où les traditions et les valeurs se perdent et où le matérialisme asservit le monde, l’Ordre lutte avec la dernière énergie pour développer sa spiritualité irénique et engager ses membres dans la voie de l’altruisme, au sein d’œuvres d’intérêt public.
La conclusion de notre site souligne l’orientation monarchiste de l’Ordre, en parfaite symbiose avec tous les mouvements royalistes, légitimistes et traditionnels.
Si cette suggestion vous agrée, nous serions heureux d’établir entre votre site et le nôtre un lien mutuel et réciproque. Nous espérons votre aimable réponse à ce sujet et, dans l’affirmative, nous vous saurions gré de rappeler votre adresse URL et/ou de nous envoyer votre bannière.
En vous remerciant de l’intérêt que vous voudrez bien porter à ce message, le Gouverneur général, les dignitaires du Conseil et tous les membres de l’Ordre saisissent cette occasion de vous assurer de leurs sentiments très attentifs et tout dévoués.

Par mandement de S.A.S.,
le Secrétaire de commandements.

Chef de l’Ordre :
S.A.S. Mgr Pierre de CHARNAY de SURMONT
XXIIIe Gouverneur général «ad vitam» de l’Ordre
Equestre Apostolique de Saint-Georges de Bourgogne
rue de la Reine, 19
B-4500 HUY (Belgique)
Téléphone : +32-85/21.26.71 - télécopie : +32-85/21.10.71
E-mail de l’Ordre :
E-mail personnel :

For my American readers, this note basically asks the Sovereign Knight-Almoners of Malta to exchange links with the Apostolic Equestrian Order of Saint George of Burgundy, which was founded in 1390 to honor the relics of Saint George that were rescued from the Holy Land. In its fight against materialism and the loss of tradition and values, the Order of St. George is reaching out to all the other royalist, legitimate, and traditional movements. Such as, the context implies, the Sovereign Knight-Almoners of Malta.

Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on the Apostolic Equestrian Order of Saint George of Burgundy; I'll leave that to the Vatican Secretariat of State. So if you want to play dress-up and call yourself a fancy name -- and if you want the monarchy restored (it's not entirely clear to me which monarchy, but I'm sure it's a noble and storied one) -- by all means look into admission into the Order of Saint George of Burgundy.


Which I have loved long since and lost awhile

Many thanks for your prayers and condolences. On the whole, I'd as soon keep this sort of thing private, but I think that desire is based on a false sense of independence, self-sufficiency, and pride. It's probably uncharitable, even, to keep from others a charitable opportunity like praying for another.

Then too, death is not really a private thing. It is an inheritance shared by all the children of Adam. The death of a Christian affects the whole Body of Christ.

Finally, although I am sanguine about my father's eternal destiny, it would mar our meeting merrily in Heaven if he were to greet me with the words, "So, you thought I liked being in purgatory?"

Thomas the Misplaced Protestant quoted a traditional Lutheran prayer:
Amid our tears, O Lord, we praise Thee as Thou hast received our loved one to Thyself in glory for all eternity. We thank Thee that Thou has brought him to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Comfort us with the glorious hope of the resurrection and the life eternal. Grant us grace to say with a believing heart, 'Thy will be done,' and to know that Thy will is a good and gracious will even in the present hour. Comfort us through Thy Gospel, which promises strength and help to the troubled and weary. O Lord, forsake us not in this hour; for Jesus' sake we ask it. Amen.
That's a fine prayer. I particularly like how by praying it you continue to preach the Gospel to yourself, rather than indulging in sentimental celebration of the deceased, sentimental admiration of God's condescending mercy, or sentimental grief of the survivors.

I can also see the psychological and practical advantages at times like this of rejecting the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory. Nevertheless, let me remind my fellow Catholics that partial as well as plenary indulgences can always be applied to the departed by way of suffrage.

Camassia commented:
I'm not terribly good at praying, but I will include him in my attempts.
I am terrible at praying, particularly prayers of supplication and intercession. If I were a widow pleading with a crooked judge, I'd never get a just decision. No neighbor of mine will ever get up in the middle of the night and give me a loaf of bread because of my persistence. That's why I depend so much on the prayers of the saints. I figure they're a lot more conscientious than I am.


Thursday, June 26, 2003

And with the morn those Angel faces smile

Suffrages are welcome for the happy repose of the soul of my father Carl, whose death this morning was not unexpected. But too soon, too soon.


Do the poor deserve it?

I hate it when people call my rhetorical bluffs.

The world-weary tone in which I wrote of "documents, encyclicals, even Scripture I could quote in reply" to the claim that poverty in America is the fault of the poor didn't deter a couple of people from inviting me to go ahead and quote them.

Scripture, obviously, doesn't speak explicitly of American poverty in 2003, but it does speak quite a bit about poverty itself, and of our responsibility to the poor. It may be residual cynicism, but I have a hard time believing a person can be the "cheerful giver" loved by God if he thinks it's their fault the poor he gives to are poor. Jesus' clarification of the meaning of poverty and riches -- that the former is not necessarily a curse from God nor the latter a blessing -- doesn't seem to me to leave room for the resentment I sense behind the idea that, if they'd only get off their duffs and apply themselves, the poor would soon be doing fine.

For encyclicals, I had in mind Rerum Novarum and its children. In 1931, for example, Pope Piux XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno:
Yet while it is true that the status of non owning worker is to be carefully distinguished from pauperism, nevertheless the immense multitude of the non-owning workers on the one hand and the enormous riches of certain very wealthy men on the other establish an unanswerable argument that the riches which are so abundantly produced in our age of "industrialism," as it is called, are not rightly distributed and equitably made available to the various classes of the people.
Now, the world in 1931 is not America in 2003, but I must ask what has happened in America since 1931 that makes this no longer true.

General documents are a bit trickier to quote; everyone has his own definitions, statistics, and agenda. But for what it's worth I'll provide a link to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development's Poverty USA website. (And yes, I'm aware of the complaints about the CCHD; what does that have to do with the causes of poverty?)

Using the CCHD's statistics, there are 6.8 million American families living in poverty (that's 33 million Americans, 12 million of them children); poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than $18,100 per year. This is a 6% increase since last year. (Oh, and for those who roll their eyes at the USCCB writing papers on American Indians, the poverty rate among them is 24.5%, compared to 11% overall.)

The implication that started all this was that people who, under a Democratic tax plan, would earn a tax credit, demonstrate "little ambition, few skills and poor work habits." Does this mean that the 400,000 heads of households that fell below the poverty level in the last twelve months lost their ambition, skills, and work habits?

None of this is to say that the Democratic tax plan is better than the Republican plan, or even that it's any good at all. But to believe that ambition, skill, and good work habits guarantee success is, in effect, to believe that the American economic system is perfect, or nearly so. And Catholics shouldn't be worshipping the American economic system.


Wednesday, June 25, 2003

What would Jesus tax?

Mark at Minute Particulars notes a peculiar lack of dissonance when reading some blogs that comment on both Church and State:
I doubt many folks, if any, would ever claim that the U.S. is a Catholic country. I doubt as well that many would ever claim that either major political party is Catholic at heart. So why is it often difficult to distinguish the "Catholic theme" from the "political theme" on many blogs that readily delve into both? ...

I would think that blogs that espouse Catholic thought and a pretty clear political leaning would grind a few gears on occasion when trying to get everything to mesh. Does the Republican Party or Bush Administration really jibe so well with Catholic Teaching? Does the Democratic Party really resonate so perfectly with Catholic Teaching? I often come away with that impression. Where's the dissonance?
I was reminded of this when I came across a post at The Blog From The Core titled "Here Is The Tax Cut As 'Explained' By The Democrats." The analogy is a refund scheme for a baseball game that was rained out:
People in the $10 seats will get back $15, because they have less money to spend. Call it an "Earned Income Ticket Credit." Persons "earn" it by demonstrating little ambition, few skills and poor work habits, thus keeping them at entry level wages.
Now, Lane Core was only posting something someone forwarded to him, and his main interest is in ridiculing Democrats, not poor people. Still, the plain meaning of this paragraph is that, in America, you aren't poor unless you have little ambition, few skills, and poor work habits. In short, unless it's your fault.

There are documents, encyclicals, even Scripture I could quote in reply. But whose opinion would that change?


Pancake Tuesday entertainments

Last night at dinner, my children asked me to tell a joke. I have the common inability to remember jokes, and this was a tough crowd. (Five-year-olds favorite joke: Knock knock. Who's there? Boo. Boo who? Aw, don't cry! Seven-year-old's favorite joke: What's a snail? A slug with a crash helmet.)

So I dug deep, and came up with this original (or at least independently derived) riddle, which I will share with you today because I'm giving up boasting of dubious achievements for Lent:
Why didn't the motorcycle go out dancing?

It was too tired.
I hope God isn't giving up humor for Lent, but He had another good one for me at the cafeteria today. Since I plan on very modest lunches for the next six and a half weeks, I figured I'd splurge again today. No sense in being penitent a day early, and nothing says "Mardi Gras!" quite like Maryland-style fajitas.

The total at the cash register was $6.66.


GIRMinating a devotion

You all know to bow profoundly at the words, "By the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man," when the Creed is recited at Mass.

All you Americans know to bow simply before receiving the Blessed Sacrament.

And you all know there was an ancient custom of bowing simply whenever the name of "Jesus" was spoken.

But did you know that the ancient custom is still in force? The General Instruction on the Roman Missal states:
A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.
Since we are, of course, all occupied with these bows, we can't look at others to see whether they too are bowing their heads. No doubt they are.


Cum Deo vel de Deo

It is said of St. Dominic that he always spoke cum Deo vel de Deo, with God or about God. This ideal was enshrined in the primitive constitutions of the Order he founded:
Let them act, with religious decorum, as men of the Gospel following in the footsteps of their Savior and speaking with or about God to themselves and their neighbor, being careful to avoid undue familiarity with others.
At a recent event sponsored by my Lay Dominican chapter, a friar was surprised to learn that another chapter member and I were using a short break to talk about formation in the Order. "You know me, Father," I explained. "I'm always talking to God or about God."

"'To God'?" he replied. "Or 'with God'? 'Cum Deo'?"

"Oh, no, I just talk to God. He doesn't usually answer."

I had, of course, misquoted the expression, but my comeback was basically true.

"Prayer is a conversation with God." You've probably heard that said often enough that you don't expect to hear anything new immediately following. But my short exchange with the friar taught me something I already knew.

Talking to God is not the same as talking with God. There are times when we need to talk to God; these times may come uninvited, and often unwanted.

But we must also talk with God. Not "at times," but "by making time." The events of the day tend to drive me to distraction, the opposite of contemplation. Talking with God, then, isn't a response to life, but a response to God, possible only if I choose to set aside periods of time during which (God willing) I can hear Him.

With practice and grace, of course, conversing with God becomes easier even in the midst of busyness, but when my mind is busy even in the midst of my prayers I shouldn't fool myself into thinking my prayer is conversation.

As always, balance. Talking to God isn't bad; in fact, it's postively good. But though it is necessary, it's not sufficient, and it's not likely to lead to talking with God without a conscious effort of will on my part.


Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The Holy Name of Jesus

All of which reminds me, I've been meaning to fan the flames of devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.

The natural way to do this would seem to be through the Holy Name Society, but the HNS is far from recovered from its collapse. Eighty years ago, it was the largest Catholic men's organization in the country, and in many places the Catholic men's organization. I suspect the time is not ripe for a significant revival of a parish-based men's spiritual organization. (And in any case, the Knights of Columbus is the ascendant Catholic men's group nowadays.)

It's been the Dominicans' job to promote devotion to the Holy Name for more than seven hundred years, but I suppose the friars have been busy lately. So, just to get things moving, here are a few links:


Divine names, cont.

On the meanings and distinctions between the names "Jesus" and "Christ," Hernan Gonzales suggests Pope John Paul's Christological catechesis, as well as the discussion in the Catechism.

It's also been suggested that Catholics are likelier to refer to "Jesus" -- in terms of, e.g., the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Name of Jesus -- while Lutherans are likelier to refer to "Christ." I didn't know this, but it does fit in with Gerard's words about the value of such Catholic devotions:
Devotional Catholicism translates for me, anyway, into a Catholic Faith with the PERSON of Jesus Christ at its core: and thus our relationship with Christ is of the very essence of being a Catholic.
It would have been better if Gerard had written "our relationship with Jesus," but I think the point remains: The Church's public liturgies express the corporate relationship between the Church and the Father, which is mediated by the Son; this is the Son as Christ. The Church's private devotions express the personal relationship between the individual Christian and the Persons of the Trinity; this is the Son as Jesus.

If Lutherans keep the idea of corporate worship but discard private devotions, it would make sense for them to speak of "Christ" more than of "Jesus." If Evangelicals discard the meaning of corporate worship in favor of a personal relationship with their Savior, it would make sense for them to speak of "Jesus" more than of "Christ." To the extent Catholics maintain both perspectives, they should be more balanced in their usage than either of the others.

Of course, Catholics have widely discarded private devotions, and for some "being Catholic" is identical to "attending Mass." So we might expect more references to "Jesus" in the Mass than before, simply because the Mass is the only place for many Catholics to express their personal relationship with the Son of God.


Monday, June 23, 2003

Self-propagating debate

A comment on an Envoy Encore post on Harry Potter reads in part:
Parents who underestimate the effect of bad company deserve what they get.
This, I think, is the perfect illustration of why the debate will not end, despite the poverty of the arguments of those opposed to the books. Fundamentally, the claim is not, "The Harry Potter books are evil," but, "You are a bad parent."

When you tell someone, "You are a bad parent," you will get a reply.


Speaking of good things from Argentina

I picked up a bag of yerba mate at the grocery story yesterday.

For those who don't know, mate (pronounced "mahtay") is a tea made from the leaves of a South American tree. People who aren't from South America will guarantee that mate can Energize The Body, Stimulate Mental Alertness, Aid Weight Loss, Cleanse The Colon, Accelerate Healing Process, Relieve Stress, Calm Allergies, Fortify Immune System, and Increase Longevity. Not bad for two bucks a pound.

Some time ago, Hernan had mentioned that mate is a big part of Argentinian culture. Folks in Argentina carry their mate around in (more or less fancy) carved gourds, and drink from (more or less) fancy straws with filters on the bottom to keep the leaves where they belong.

I'm told it's considered rude to refuse an Argentinian's offer of a sip from his gourd. I'm not sure how that translates to the U.S., where almost nothing is still rude, but I'd guess it would be like saying, "No, thanks," when your neighbor invites you to come over and look at the engine in his new car.

Anyway, I have neither carved gourd nor filtered straw. Until I dig out that tea ball from the junk drawer in the kitchen, I'm stuck with a multi-state process using a coffee maker. (Yeah, yeah, coffee mate. That's hilarious; thanks for your comment.)

What makes it all the more interesting is that I have no idea what mate is supposed to taste like. I've eaten in enough Mexican restaurants to know that the label says to use warm but not too hot water, "a mas de 80" degrees. I can even do the math in my head -- 80 Celsius is 176 real degrees -- which might help if I had any idea how hot my coffee maker gets. Oh, and the nutritional label says one serving is 50 g. of mate leaves per 16.8 fl. oz. of water -- as though someone who can't find a tea ball is going to have a kitchen scale on hand.

In the event, I used yea much mate for so much water, and it turned out to be entirely drinkable. That's more than I can say for dried green grass tea (in Spanish, it's probably called "mat-hay"). The mate even has a flavor, which is more than I can say for white [seriously, this is just hot water, right?] tea. And, having finished it, I'm not overcome by a desire to gargle with mouthwash for half an hour, which distinguishes this experience from the decadennial cigar I smoked the other night.


En modo quejoso

Hernan Gonzalez blogged while cranky, but as usual makes some good points.

One in particular is on the difference between "Jesus" and "Christ," as in "the Body and Blood of Jesus" vs "the Body and Blood of Christ":
It is the same, some will say to me. Then... in that context... I believe it's not. Clearly, in general the names "Jesus" and "Christ" (and "Jesus Christ") are interchangeable. But each name has its own shade. And we see in today's desacralizing atmosphere the first is too much preferred: too much "Jesus" (and also "Jesus of Nazareth") and too little "Christ." Part of that modern tendency to accentuate His human nature, clearly; and perhaps that is not bad. But in this case, it seems to me unacceptable.
I agree. The point is not that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of the man Jesus bar-Joseph of Nazareth, but that It is the Body and Blood of the Christ, God's Anointed One Who hung upon the cross that we may be saved. It's not, of course, an error to say it's the Body of Jesus, but that obscures a point that is extremely important -- and, thanks to centuries of custom, dead easy to make.

I think "Jesus" vs. "Christ" -- again, simply as words used to identify the Person -- is something of a personal vs. communal thing. The Person with whom I have a relationship is Jesus; His place in the Church, and in creation, is as Christ. When we come together to worship, we worship Jesus in His role as mediator and sacrificial victim -- which is to say, in His role as Christ. The less we refer to Him as Christ, the more obscure His mediation and sacrifice become.

This sounds a little counterintuitive, since Evangelicals are more likely to refer to Him as Jesus than are Catholics, and Evangelicals are more likely to emphasize His unique mediation between God and man than are Catholics. But then, Evangelicals emphasize Jesus' personal mediation -- "I know a Man Who saved me" -- over (or perhaps entirely instead of) His mediation between God and the Church as a community.