instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A thought of wealth

It occurs to me that discussions on the role of wealth in Christian discipleship move too quickly to Matthew 19:24 --
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." --
without paying enough, or any, attention to the preceding verses:
"If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments."

... The young man said to him, "All of these I have observed."
Speaking for myself, I haven't done such a good job at keeping the commandments. Which means that, if I went and sold what I have and gave to the poor, I still wouldn't be perfect.

And that means, for me, worrying about whether I am properly keeping the spirit of Matthew 19:24 is decidedly premature. It's like worrying about what the Gospel reading of my festal Mass will be. [Note to future postulator: I've jotted down some suggestions in the back of my Knox Study Bible.]

Which leads to this final idea: If I keep asking myself whether I am sufficiently poor in spirit, I am not sufficiently poor in spirit. Scruples are a sign of someone who isn't yet serious about sanctity.


One more look

What if we get rid of conjunctions and definite articles?

"Love sinner, hate sin."

Everyone is a sinner, and "hate sin" is, so to speak, the imprint of "Love God" on a fallen world.

So we can translate the disputed saying to, "Love God. Love everyone."

If that's what we mean, fundamentally, when we say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," then I think we're on the right track, even if we fall short of perfection.


Still more on that old saw

Those who regard the saying, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," with distaste often do so because of the behavior of the people they hear invoking the saying.

But is there anything wrong with the saying itself? That is, is there better advice for how one should relate to the sinner and the sin?

Some alternate possibilities:
  • Love the sinner and love the sin.
  • Hate the sinner and hate the sin.
  • Hate the sinner but love the sin.
I want to believe no one thinks these are improvements over the original. For that matter, I suspect pretty much everyone agrees "Love the sinner" is the right way to begin the saying.

So what about this:
Love the sinner and ignore the sin.
This, I think, is closer to what people who don't like the original saying are after. I'd also guess lots of social conservatives would say this is one of the principles by which modern society, to its detriment, is organized.

But is this really an argument for relativism? "Ignore the sins of others" is a piece of advice given throughout the life of the Church, by the great spiritual advisors after the Counter-Reformation, by the monks of the Middle Ages, by the Desert Fathers, even in a way by Christ Himself. When does the speck in your brother's eye become an object of concern for you?

Well, when you love your brother, of course. It's no sign of love to leave your brother in sin that could lead to his damnation.

But remember, love seeks the good of another, and so must take a path that leads to that good.
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
Just so, if a brother or sister has no salvific grace, and one of you says to them, "Go stop sinning, be reconciled to God, and live forever," but you do not give them the necessities of the soul, what good is it? The purpose of admonishment isn't admonishment, but the perfection of the one admonished.

So what is the appropriate relation to the sins of others? I think it can only be based on the appropriate relation to others. There are some people whom we must admonish, and some we must counsel, and we must pray for all. I suspect, too, that there are far fewer people whose sins we should even notice than whose sins we do notice.


Love and sin

The suggestion has been made that people who say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," are generally hypocrites who don't, in fact, love the sinner.

That may well be true. Loving the saint is hard enough -- at least if the saint is still alive, and especially if he lives with you -- that I'd expect many people to fall short of loving the sinner. And hypocrisy isn't a strange and unusual occurrence among humans. If the suggestion were that people who say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," are generally cannibals, I'd be less open-minded about it.

But the further suggestion is also made that loving the sinner while hating the sin is impossible. After quoting 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Kynn Bartlett writes:
How can you love the sinner and hate the wrong they do, if love keeps no record of wrongs? How can you love, without self-seeking, if you seek those whose beliefs differ to become just like you? How can you love, without being rude, if you declare the second-largest faith in the world to be the enemy of America? How can you love if you are angry, if you are proud, if you boast in having found the only true path to God? How can you love if you hate?
I think Kynn's difficulty comes from trying to use a description of love to look at the issue rather than a definition of love.

To love someone is to desire good for them. If you believe that being just like you is good for another person, then seeking to make them become just like you can be an act of love. If you believe that a certain habitual act will cause someone to be damned, then counseling them against that act can be an act of love.

Humans being as they are, an act motivated by love is often motivated by other, less lofty things as well. I teach my children honesty because being honest is good for them, but having honest children also makes my life easier. I desire the good of accepting the Catholic Faith for all my non-Catholic neighbors, but I don't dwell on the fact that if everyone in my neighborhood were Catholic we could have some really great block parties on major feasts.

But the presence of selfish motives does not imply the absence of love. In fallen man, an imperfect love is generally as good as you're going to find.


Monday, September 22, 2003

Another principle:

Beware of making things too easy for yourself.

When I get into discussions about what God really expects of me, or of each of us, I try to be suspicious of answers like, "Why, He expects exactly what I'm already doing, and not a thing more!"

So I'm prepared to agree with anyone who suggests that, historically and right now, Christians as a class haven't overburdened themselves with attempts to give of their want.

As I implied below, I don't believe all Christians are obligated to sell all that they have and give the money to the poor. Even at a time when all Christians were doing it, St. Peter seemed to suggest it wasn't necessary when he told Ananias that the land he sold, and the money he was paid, was his to control.

But of course, it's not enough to say my money is mine to control. It isn't even enough to say my money is mine to give in charity. Paragraph 2246 of the Catechism is a sequence of three astonishing quotations, all of which say the same thing:
  • "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." -- St. John Chrysostom
  • "The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity." -- Apostolicam Actuositatem
  • "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice." -- St. Gregory the Great
So before I get around to asking whether I am sufficiently charitable with my excess, I must ask whether I even manage to be just.


Silence equals what?

A comment-box discussion below turned to the subject of what the Gospels and the Church teach about material wealth -- with, of course, the immediate follow-up question of whether the Church teaches what the Gospels teach.

One part of the exchange went like this (my comments are in italics):
Where does Jesus ever refer to money in a positive way, other than in a couple of parables in which money is used as a metaphor for spirituality?

I don't know that the absence of positive references implies too much. I assume you're going for something like having lots of money is in itself incompatible with being a Christian. Suppose, though, that it weren't incompatible; what would Jesus have to say about having lots of money in that case?

I'd like to suppose that it weren't incompatible. But I thought that I wasn't to "suppose", but to take the words of the gospel, plus the specific instruction of the Church as my infallible guide to conduct?
Let me try to clarify what I was trying to point out with my "Suppose it weren't incompatible" line.

An argument from silence can be expressed as a syllogism:
  1. If X, then Y.
  2. ~Y.
  3. Therefore ~X.
Here X is something like "P believes W" and Y something like "P says Z." An argument from silence is a valid argument, but it's only as sound as its premise, "If P believes W, then P says Z."

In the discussion on Christianity and wealth, an argument from silence is used to support the conclusion that "Jesus had a particular disdain for money and material possessions." This is the ~X of the above syllogism. The ~Y is "Jesus never refers to money in a positive way." So the first premise works out to be something like, "If Jesus didn't have a particular disdain for money and material possessions, then He would have referred to money in a positive way."

Of course, we're at a disadvantage with Jesus, because we only have those words and actions of His recorded in the New Testament for the benefit of our salvation. The premise should really be more like, "If Jesus didn't have a particular disdain for money and material possessions, then the Gospels would have recorded Him referring to money in a positive way."

The truth of this premise is not immediately apparent. The Gospels are not complete records of everything anyone could remember Jesus ever saying; on a natural level, it's possible that Jesus said positive things about money that never got written down.

But without even moving to the supernatural level, I invite you to think about what positive things Jesus might have said about money if He didn't have a particular disdain for it. "I like money"? "Being rich is good, as long as you're good to your neighbor"?

And to whom would He have said such things? To the poor, who weren't much troubled by the moral issues of wealth? To the rich, taught from infancy that wealth itself was a sign of God's favor? To us (we're now at the supernatural level), by nature an avaricious and self-justifying species?

My point is that it doesn't do to point to Matthew 19:21 and say, "If Jesus hadn't meant that all Christians must sell all they have and give it to the poor, He would have said so." There's no hint that anyone thought He did mean everyone had to sell everything, and He seems not to have been in the habit of warning people against errors no one was making.

The underlying principle here is something like this: If your argument is that thing one is true because thing two never happened, make sure it makes sense for thing two to happen if thing one is false.


Friday, September 19, 2003

And you thought the Pope was Catholic!

There is a lively discussion at Church of the Masses on the question of whether God is Catholic. Most of the people who say He is argue on the basis of the truth of the Catholic Faith. Most of the people who say He isn't are upset at the perceived triumphalism of those who say He is.

Lane Core reduces his answer to a kind of syllogism:
God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Head of the Catholic Church. Therefore, God is Catholic.
This argument uses something like the "communication of idioms" principle by which we say things like, "God died on a cross."

Personally, I think the question, "Is God Catholic?" is extremely ill-formed, so much so that the unhesitating Yes!es I've seen make me suspect they're answers to a different question. Something like, "Is what the Catholic Church teaches about herself and her relationship to God true?"

And I would unhesitatingly answer that question, "Yes." But as far as I know -- and setting aside the communication of idioms for a moment -- in teaching about herself and her relationship to God, the Church doesn't teach that God is Catholic.

I'm not even sure what such a doctrine would mean. Does God have faith that what the Church teaches is true? Does God have hope in His salvation? Has God even been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?

Some of the difficulties with this question can be resolved by answering the related question, "Is my guardian angel Catholic?" You can shake out what it means for a spiritual being to "be Catholic" without getting into issues of what it means to say "God is" something.

But the certainty with which many Catholics assert that God is Catholic makes me wonder about how clearly Catholics think about God. If God is Catholic because Jesus founded the Catholic Church, isn't God also Jewish? In fact, wouldn't God have become Jewish at one point in time, and at a later time become Catholic (or Christian, for Protestants who don't care for Catholic triumphalism)? And wouldn't that mean, contrary to Catholic dogma, that God changes?

Any time you say "God is [something]," you're saying something pretty outrageous, even -- especially! -- if it's true, and you need to be very careful about it.

My biggest objection to saying, "God is Catholic," though, is that it betrays a perception of a limited God. The Church, that statement tells me, is a container in which can be found you, me, God, and a bunch of other people. I don't think Catholics really appreciate how utterly not-like-us God really is. There are no categories that contain both us and God. God is, God is Being, and not just the Supreme Being imagined as the top of a pyramid of beings or the far endpoint of a line of beings.

God's Being is not somehow more than ours; it is other than ours. When God told St. Catherine of Siena, "I am He Who Is, and you are she who is not," He wasn't saying he was 100% on the Being Scale, while she was 0%. He was saying she couldn't even be placed on the scale.

We speak of an infinite God, as though "infinite" were a positive attribute: just keep adding one and you'll reach infinity; just keep moving in this direction and you'll reach God. What it really means, though, is God has no limits. The mathematical concept of infinity is as a limit, almost the opposite of Divine infinity. And God not only isn't at the end of the number line, He's not above or beyond it either. Creation, and all the number lines it contains, doesn't exist in the same space as God, because God doesn't exist in a space.

Okay, divide the number of words used with the number of points made to get an idea of how well I can express myself on this. But there's one further thing to notice about all this: To the extent we fail to appreciate how unlike us God is, we fail to appreciate the magnitude of His free offer to join in His Triune life.


Thursday, September 18, 2003

In case you were wondering about that "minor orders" crack...

... Disputations was mentioned in the latest issue of the Eastern Province Lay Dominican magazine, The Dominican Torch, which came out this week.

I'm just tossing my first-time-visiting brethren some red meat.

Nothing on this site should be taken as representing the official position of the Dominican Order or of the Promoter for the Laity of the Province of St. Joseph, who is known to all as a holy, wise, prudent, just, temperate, fortitudinous, charming, and comely man indeed.


Another childhood lie exposed

Where I live, they're predicting 30-45 mph winds and 4 inches of rain overnight.

We had a red sky last night.

Maybe nowadays sailors delight in taking a few days off to visit their brothers-in-law inland.


Brother Know-it-all Answers Your Questions

Q: I've heard that, before Vatican II, there were things called "minor orders," which the reforms following the Council did away with. What were they, and why were they suppressed?

A: The four "minor orders" were the Jesuits, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Benedictines.

Ha! No, I jest.

The "minor orders" were non-sacramental orders, or formal roles in the Church, most commonly given to men preparing for the Holy Orders of deacon and priest.

It's a common misconception that these orders were suppressed by the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. In fact, they were merely adapted to the needs of the Church in the modern world.

Here is a table showing the old and the new versions of the minor orders:

Pre-Vatican IIPost-Vatican II
PorterDiocesan Spokesman
ReaderLay Theology Professor at a
University in the Jesuit Tradition
ExorcistFormer Priest/Nun
AcolyteParish Liturgist

The "old-style" minor orders, beyond certain minor liturgical roles conferred, served as a path to sacramental ordination. It is not entirely clear just what purpose the "new-style" minor orders serve.


Up the Bollandists!

Tomorrow is Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Coincidentally, yesterday was the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, whose life was not boring.

Have you heard that, as a young man, St. Robert was a pirate, and was even the model for The Princess Bride's Dread Pirate Roberts?

Well, now you have.


Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Mansions and big black cars

As everyone who cares already knows, Peggy Noonan wrote that, at Deal Hudson's meeting last week, she
said the leaders of the church should now--"tomorrow, first thing"--take the mansions they live in and turn them into schools for children who have nothing, and take the big black cars they ride in and turn them into school buses. I noted that we were meeting across the street from the Hilton, and that it would be good for them to find out where the cleaning women at the Hilton live and go live there, in a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town or in its suburbs. And take the subway to work like the other Americans, and talk to the people there.

... [T]he princes of our church no longer need to live in mansions in the center of town. Those grand homes were bought and erected in part so the political leaders of our democracy would understand the Catholics have arrived. But they know it now. The point has been made.
Now, St. Dominic got his start as an itinerant preacher by agreeing with his biship, Diego of Osma (who, I think, gets short shrift in Dominican history), that luxuriantly accoutremented papal delegates made a poor (ha!) showing compared to the austere heretics they were sent to overcome. I recognize the value of divesting oneself of pomp.

But I can't help but point out there was only one prince of the Church in the room where Peggy Noonan was speaking, and Cardinal McCarrick lives on the top floor of an old high school that's been converted to the church of a Hispanic parish in downtown D.C. In fact, he moved there from a suburb (okay, it was literally across the street from D.C., but it was in Maryland) because he believes the Archbishop of Washington should live in Washington.

To get to his office by public transportation would require walking half a mile to the subway station and waiting five to thirty minutes for a bus. No great hardship for him, of course, and I'm sure thousands of his flock have much worse commutes, but it raises a few questions: What does he do when he wants to visit three parishes in Southern Maryland that day? When does he do the work he currently does while being driven around in his big black car? And most importantly, what problem, exactly, does this solve?

See, I'm not sure what Peggy Noonan meant. Was she offering advice to the cardinal who was there listening to her, or was she telling the people in the room what she thought American cardinals as an abstract class ought to do? If the former, she didn't do a particularly good job tailoring her advice to his situation. If the latter, then it really was just a gripe session for her, however passionately she felt about it.
"You know, your Eminence, Peggy Noonan says you should sell your residence tomorrow, first thing, and move into a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town or its suburbs."

"Does she, your Excellency? I'll get right on it."
Not to say I don't love telling other people how they should live, too ... until they return the favor.


A bit of precision

Kathy Shaidle quotes an article about foolishness in the Canadian parliament:
Many are still uncomfortable with a bill that would change the traditional definition of marriage.
See, the thing is, you can't change the traditional definition of marriage. Because if you did, it wouldn't be the traditional definition of marriage any more. That's why they call it "traditional."

What the bill really does (I assume; I haven't actually read the thing) is change the legal definition of marriage from the traditional definition to the hep definition.

A proposed rule of thumb: If people can't properly describe a change they want to make to the law, they shouldn't make the change.


Helpful hints on prayer

Gerard Serafin posts on one of my favorite topics: talking about prayer.

Talking about prayer is great. I love talking about prayer. I can always find time, no matter how busy my day is, to talk about prayer. I'll get up early, stay up late, whatever it takes, to talk about prayer.


Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Insert pun on "Mark" here

Like any good Catholic, Camassia is going through the Gospel According to Mark to see what she can find. Maybe a bunch of us can come along and point out to each other what we notice. (We can even backtrack, if we must.)

Unlike Camassia, Catholics have the paradoxical freedom of reading the Gospels in accord with Tradition -- and tradition, too. We know the Faith, so for us the question isn't, "What's this all about?" but, "What and how is Mark trying to tell us about Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of Mary?"

A commentary I've read suggests the following are the two key questions Mark answers:
  • Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
  • How am I to be Jesus' disciple?
Mark, of course, knows what his answers to these questions are. His Gospel is a very carefully crafted piece of literature, so some care has to be taken in reading it. (In fact, if Mark really was the earliest Evangelist, then he was the creator of a completely new type of literature, a type that can't be read as though it were just like anything else. The Bible, as a wise man once said, is not like other books, and the Gospels are not like other books of the Bible.)

Among the mistakes I think are often made in reading the Gospels are these:
  1. Arguments from silence. Mark's Gospel begins with John's preaching and Jesus' baptism. Does this mean that Jesus "became" the Son of God at His baptism? No. It doesn't even mean Mark thought Jesus became the Son of God at His baptism. The question to ask isn't, "How does this challenge the other Gospels or undermine the patriarchal hegemony of blind tradition?" but, "What does Mark want to tell us by beginning with John's preaching and Jesus' baptism?"
  2. Excessive psychoanalysis. Trying to understand the motivations that drive the people whose actions are described in the Gospels is good to a point, but I suspect many people go far beyond that point. When you start saying things like, "When that happened, Jesus must have felt...," you need to check to see whether you're seeing the reason the Evangelist wrote that passage.
  3. Neglecting the literary structure. Jesus' ministry seems to have provided plenty of material for the Evangelists, but they were (by our standards, at least) very sparing in their use, and very particular about the arrangement, of stories from His ministry. A healing story is never just a report of another healing; each story relates to the stories that come before and after. If you don't see how it fits into the Gospel as a whole, you're going to miss much of the point of a passage.
I should say I'm thinking in terms of Bible study here, rather than lectio divina or other forms of prayerful reflection on Scripture for which different approaches to the Gospels are suitable.


Monday, September 15, 2003

Another thought on incapacitated popes

There's a current of thought that Catholic teaching is arbitrarily malleable, that it is in effect whatever the Pope says it is at any given moment.

This current feeds and is fed on many different (and mutually incompatible) hopes for the future, various changes or corrections or repudiations a future pope will (it is hoped) make.

Now, if the Church is as the Pope does, if the Faith is whatever happens to be in the mind of the current pope today, then what happens if there isn't anything in the mind of the current pope today? The Faith falls into limbo; teachings become neither true nor false-- and not just the controversial teachings, because who can say what will be controversial tomorrow?

So if you regard the Church as some sort of absolute dictatorship, then of course you'll see the situation of an incapacitated dictator-pope as something of grave concern. The metaphysical error you've made in understanding what the Church is shows up in thinking (though probably not explicitly) that the Faith would face a metaphysical crisis given a helpless pope.


Closely related to Curiaeocentrism

Mark of Minute Particulars wonders who is supposed to care that, in the words of a New York Times journalist,
The Roman Catholic Church ... has virtually no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes.
Mark responds:
Now then, to whom is the above article about "no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes" supposed to appeal? To non-Catholics? But why would they care? It assumes claptrap that they would dismiss in a heartbeat. To Catholics? But how could it get any traction to be of interest in the context of the Faith?
Mark is forgetting the very modern problem of papocentrism.

Papocentrism is the belief that everything in the Catholic Church revolves around the pope. Does your pastor give poor homilies? The Pope should institute on-going homiletics training for all priests. Don't like that recessional hymn they always use at the 9:30 Mass? The Pope should review the hymnals used in the United States. What's the name of your diocesan chancellor? Um, well, I'm not sure, but I do know the name of the Under-Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Given the current Pope, and given the current communication technologies, it's easy to understand the temptations of papocentrism. But it's a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Church, that feeds and is fed by larger false ecclesiologies very popular within and outside the Church.

If you imagine that Christ's Church is like a machine that runs only when the pope turns the crank, then the problem of a pope who cannot turn the crank will interest you strangely.


Friday, September 12, 2003

O the progress we've made

Replying to a comment below put me in mind of a post I wrote nearly a year ago, which shows just how far I've come on some issues since then.


Following up

Dom Bettinelli and Dale Price both bring up the important point that Catholicism is a corporate adventure, not a collection of me-&-Jesuses who get together for an hour every Sunday. In Dom's words:
We are not a bunch of individuals only responsible for ourselves and no others. We are a Church, the body of Christ, responsible for one another.
Very true.

But if "Catholic quietism" is anything close to an accurate characterization of what I wrote, I didn't do a very good job of putting into words what I had in mind. I suppose it could be distilled to these two points:
  1. Pointing out the faults of others is an extremely risky, and far too popular, avocation.
  2. The only sure means by which I contribute to my neighbor's sanctity is my own sanctity.
In a comment below, Kevin Miller points out that the Catechism refers to "the right and even at times a duty" lay people have "to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church." I deny neither the right nor the occasional duty. But that sentence begins with the words, "In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess," and I suspect I am not the only lay person who overestimates the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which he possesses.


Imbued with the spirit

The question has been asked, what's a faithful Catholic to do if not tell other people what to do?

Well, I'll tell you: Meet the enemy where he is. Do not shrink from taking all he throws at you. Keep what is good and true.

For example, the Presbyterianism of John Knox has a virulently anti-Catholic strain. When Scotchmen come to the U.S. to peddle their wares, we should be prepared to face them in charity.

Now, as a practical matter not everyone is able to meet such threats in person. But if a group of people got together and pledged money -- and prayers too, I suppose, what could it hurt? -- they could send a single representative to answer all anti-Catholic charges that might be raised in such a venue.

In the past, I've thought of myself as an idea man, someone who counsels rather than acts, but now it seems to me that, if I am unwilling to act, perhaps I am unfit to counsel. Therefore, I am prepared to go, if you are prepared to send me.

[Lest I be accused of pride in my own apologetical abilities, let me assure you it is not pride that causes me to volunteer. Attending will not be without personal cost; the event is, after all, on my wife's birthday.]


Thursday, September 11, 2003

Problems you know how to solve

There's an old joke about a mathematician who was interviewing for a job. First, he was shown a pot of water on a counter, sitting next to a hot plate, and told to bring the water to a boil. He put the pot on the hot plate, turned the hot plate on, and soon the water boiled.

Next, he was shown a pot of water on the floor, near the counter with a hot plate, and told to bring the water to a boil. He first set the pot on the counter, then put it on the hot plate, and then turned the hot plate on.

He got the job, because in the second test he reduced the problem to one he had already solved.

It occurs to me that one of the effects of original sin is a tendency to solve material problems by converting them to spiritual problems. We know how to solve spiritual problems:
  1. Convince ourselves they aren't problems.
  2. Repeat step 1 as necessary.
The obvious example is abortion, which converts the very physical problem of an unwanted pregnancy to the very moral problem of the unjust taking of an innocent life.

More generally, though, problems are often addressed by removing them from sight. If I don't see the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, then poverty, hunger, sickness, and death become relatively abstract mental conundrums, which I may choose to think about or not. And if the problem is whether I love my neighbor enough ... well, show me the instrument that measures my love, or stop bugging me if I say I obviously love my neighbor enough because I'm a nice person with an untroubled conscience.

The advantage to converting problems from material to spiritual, from seen to unseen, lies in the fact that human reasoning has been weakened by sin. It is much easier to reason weakly about spiritual matters than about material matters, to come to a personally satisfying answer to the question, "Am I good?" than to the question, "Does this person eat enough to survive?" Spiritual truth is as absolute as material truth, but it's far easier to lie to yourself about the spiritual than about the material. (Not that it takes much effort to lie to yourself about the material.)


Undiscerning a vocation

I don't think I'm destined to play much of a role in Church polity in the U.S. I am too easily, and too thoroughly, disgusted by the ubiquitous and unthinking arrogance with which pronouncements like this are made:
There really is no satisfactory solution to this other than the conversion of bishops (to Catholicism, of course).
This would probably strike many as an unremarkable, and undeniable, statement. I can't but take it as symptomatic of two very serious problems facing the Church.

The first is a kind of watery hyperCatholicism by which individuals on their own authority and as a matter of routine busy themselves excommunicating others. It's most explicit among self-styled traditionalists, and I've already brought up the matter of self-styled conservatives using the term "so-called Catholic," but there is no shortage of self-styled progressives who claim the Church is in one way or another refusing the clear demands of the Holy Spirit.

The other problem is the habit of locating the source of all problems in THEM! It's the Vatican's fault, it's the bishops' fault, it's the dissenters' fault! They have to change!

To make it worse, this habit isn't even recognized as a habit. It's seen as impartial analysis, or even simple observation, and passed off as evident truth. We're at the point where a Catholic journalist can say on a Monday "that dissent is the major cause of the sexual abuse crisis," and it strikes others as so natural and obvious that, by that Thursday, he still won't have been laughed out of Catholic journalism. A man who intends to join the Church, but who has not yet attended a single RCIA class, can muse about what the bishops would have to do to convince him they're Catholic, and the Catholics to whom he addresses his thoughts will see nothing worth challenging in them. A handful of people invent a handful of software programs, and suddenly everyone with a home computer and some free time has been divinely anointed a Hammer of Heretics and Scourge of Dissent and is taking detraction, gossip, and busybodiness for prophesy and bold defense of the One True Faith.

When the problem is always them, though, the problem is never me. And the problem that is me is the one problem we have each been commanded to resolve. My job is not to impose a plan of action that will guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States. My job is to guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States by seeing that it survives in me. That, ultimately, is the one thing I have control over -- and, it seems to me, it's also ultimately the only way of reforming and purifying the Church. I can't reform and purify you, I can't reform and purify them, and I certainly can't make you reform and purify them.

The one thing that reforms and purifies is God's grace. But His grace isn't sitting around in a pile such that I can get a shovelfull of it and toss it on you. The only way I can have any grace to pass to you is by first accepting it into myself. We are all moonlets, so to speak, reflecting God's light onto each other, and it does me no good to order someone else to move so that more of God's light falls on him.

If instead of worrying about them, I follow the command of Scripture and the counsel of saints and worry about me, something wholly unexpected will happen. I can't say what precisely will happen -- it is, after all, wholly unexpected -- because it's not by my will or intent that it will happen. It will be by God's will. And even if by worrying about them I could get them to do what I want them to do, that is still an obviously poor choice compared to them doing what God wants them to do by me worrying about me.


Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Whatever happens next...

Greg Popcak ponders the creation of a batallion of exhortationists, trained to lay seige to chanceries at the press of a button should anything the batallion commander deems inappropriate occur within the dioceses at issue. The suggested name for the organization is the Catholic League for Catherine of Siena Project; the suggested motto is Luke 18:2-5.

Nothing says "observant Catholic" like identifying bishops with dishonest judges who neither fear God nor respect any human being.

But just as when someone suggests the power of the blog be unleashed in the form of my sending strident emails regarding things I know almost nothing about to bishops I've never heard of in dioceses I've never been to, I will sit this one out. I wouldn't be surprised if, once constructed, such a machine were efficient and even effective, but it just doesn't strike me as very ... Catholic.


"Shut up," the orthodox Catholic faithful explained

Alan Phipps of Ad Altare Dei offers an antidote to a certain type of poison:
I can tell you that if *I* were a Bishop, people would be calling for my head by now! So instead of berating our Bishops, support them with powerful, prayerful intercession. Pray for your Bishop daily. Do it! It is our duty.
In my case, it's not just a question of not being bishop material. My bishop is a better bishop than I am a layman.

The reports I've seen so far on Monday's meeting forgot to include the part when the orthodox Catholic faithful said to the bishops, "What can we, as orthodox Catholic faithful, do to further the mission of the Church that you, as bishops, cannot do?" That's a question I think is worth a task force or two.


Open to a new idea

Hernan Gonzalez asks a question that hadn't occurred to me: Why did Mark write that Jesus said to the deaf man
"Ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!")
instead of simply
"Be opened!"
A suggestion Hernan came across: The Roman readers or listeners of Mark's Gospel would at first think Ephphatha was some sort of magical incantation, and maybe be excited by this glimpse into the hermetical arts, only to be rudely struck by the translation into the unremarkable, "Be opened!"

It's an idea that to me much likes, as Babelfish might say.

To develop it a little further: By providing the exact word (as he also does when Jesus tells the little girl, "Talitha koum!"), Mark tells his readers Jesus used no magical incantations to perform His miracles, and so His power did not come from magic.

Also (and I'm probably well into accomodation rather than exegesis here), notice the theme of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. Words that might be said every day change the world of those to whom they are spoken. Just so, those who are accounted as nothing in the world can become the adopted children of God, and bread can become God Himself.


Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Ask five witnesses, get five stories

Carol McKinley offers another take on the "Meeting in Support of the Church" yesterday:
The days are over when the Bishops and dissidents sit and and consult about the direction of the Church and somebody doesn't bang the door down to say enough....

Pulling together a group of powerful and influencial individuals who can network to defend our priests and Bishops when they are being attacked - and who will work together to prohibit silence from hijacking truth is off and running.

A task force networking both covertly and overtly.

The Bishops got the clear message that we are on top of who the dissidents are - and where they are...and we are going to be vigilant about what and who is being presented as authentic. Meet with them, listen to them - but set the record straight publicly or we will.

We love them and support them - - but Christ's Church and His Truth is on the line - you are either with us or against us.
I have to say the idea of a task force networking both covertly and overtly sounds like fun.
As always, should you or any member of your task force be caught or killed, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith will disavow any knowledge of your actions....
But that "you are either with us or against us" ... that way lies madness.

Oh, and in the Washington Post article, Deal Hudson is quoted as saying:
I think that dissent is the major cause of the sexual abuse crisis because it has loosened priests and laity alike from their core beliefs, and particularly the core beliefs about sexual morality.
I hope he was more nuanced in person, because as it stands that statement sounds to me like the equally foolish dual of the "it's because we don't have married and women priests" claims of the dissidents.


"It's the Way. There is no other."

Mark Shea writes movingly on what the Catholic faithful can do in these days: "So take up the Cross."

Here's a simple and timely extension to his idea:

Sunday is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Why not treat Saturday as a day of preparation and fast?

Instead of breakfast, try a few minutes of lectio divina using John 3:13-17 as the text. At lunchtime, find someplace quiet (maybe the inside of a church) to walk (at least mentally) the Way of the Cross.

Or whatever makes sense to you.


(But aren't all pictures graphic?)

Bill White asks, "What's your take on anti-abortion folks using pictures of dead mutilated babies as pro-life propaganda?"

I've thought about this before, of course, but it wasn't until this time that it occurred to me that of course graphic pictures should be used.

Something like this, maybe:

Hi, Mom!

Or this:

Baby On Board

When the GE ultrasound commercial came out, many people realized it was idea pro-life propaganda. I wonder if the dead mutilated baby photo wavers realized it too.


Pollyanna prophets

Gerard Serafin sees prophets of doom and gloom abounding. But there's another way to look at things.

In Leon Podles' mid-afternoon report on yesterday's meeting with three bishops, he writes:
The bishops were told 1. that they had to be more direct in dealing with dissenting Catholics, and 2. that they should at the least stop appointing notorious pro-abortion politicians to prominent committees (Leon Panetta at the national Review Board).
Pause for a moment and think about that. A special "Meeting in Support of the Church" is called to bring to the bishops' attention the grave problems facing the Church in the United States in 2003. The biggest problem:

Leon Panetta.

Can you imagine a happier, less troubled time for Christ's Bride in the world than one in which Leon Panetta is the worst thing in it? This isn't doom and gloom, this is very heaven!

I don't know if Leon Podles gives an adequate summary of what was said yesterday, but note what he does mention. What's wrong with the Church today? THEM! How can this problem be solved? YOU do what I tell you to do.

The analogy that comes to mind is sports-talk radio:
- We're back at WMAH, SportsTalk 1545, talking about what our beloved Bishops can do to salvage the season. Ken from Flatbush, you're on.
- Yeah, guys, the Bishies aren't going anywhere this year with the bums they've got on that roster. They're too old, too slow, and not strong enough up front. What we need is to cut half of 'em, and bring in some young guys with quickness, speed, and strength.
- Good point, Ken. There are times when I watch these guys and I think, they're comfortable losing. They're perfectly happy losing as long as that paycheck comes every week, and we're never going to win with an attitude like that.
Look again at the two points Podles mentions: be more direct in dealing with dissenting Catholics; stop appointing notorious pro-abortion politicians to prominent committees. Are these the two most important things for the bishops to do? Or are they merely the two things that, if the bishops did, would make Podles and others most happy?

The answer the bishops gave -- according to Podles:
The response to 1 : we are family, doing anything might make matters worse and only help pro-abortion politicians

The response to 2 : if his bishop vouches for the orthodoxy of any member of his flock, no other bishop will ever question that decision.
-- are dismissed as "episcopal gutlessness." Maybe they are gutless. But maybe they are the fruit of prudential reasoning that few who aren't bishops are in any position to judge. Seriously, how many of us have ever given a single thought to what effect it would have -- beyond immediate visceral satisfaction -- for one bishop to question the orthodoxy of someone whose bishop vouches for his orthodoxy?

The great thing about giving advice is that you don't have to worry about what happens next; that will be a different problem, which you may not find nearly as interesting.


Lost in the super-power-market

If you could have any superpower -- flying, X-Ray vision, that sort of thing -- what would it be?

I'm not sure myself. Sometimes I think I would want to be able to read any newspaper article, however brief, biased, and foreign to my own experience, and be able to instantly know all the motivations and psychological weaknesses of everyone mentioned in it.

Other times, I think I would want to have the ability to know exactly what everyone in the world ought to do in every circumstance -- and also have the satisfaction of predicting that they won't do it.

Still other times, I wish I had the archive and retrieval ability of Neil Dhingra. But that's a bit too fantastic.


Monday, September 08, 2003

The other side's turn

Today's the day when the American episcopacy is called back to the fullness of truth by the voice of the faithful.

Or at least when a few bishops meet with Deal Hudson & Friends.

Mark Shea posts the list of attendees, then adds that his hope for the meeting
is for the *conversion* of our bishops into men who will live the supernatural faith which they are charged with overseeing and that the grace of office will embolden them to become what they are. They've been surrounded (and surrounded themselves) for so long with chancery rats and members of the chattering classes that they've, in many cases, neutered themselves. My hope is that the sight of serious on fire and orthodox laypeople who *want* them to be bishops and not administrators and paper pushers will kindle something in the breast of each of them.
According to the list, there will be three bishops attending: Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the USCCB; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C.; and Bishop William Friend of Shreveport, LA. I'm not sure how many chancery rats are in those three dioceses; Catholic and Enjoying It! tends to use broad brush strokes and leave out such details.

Nor am I sure how a meeting with Deal Hudson, William Donohue, Peggy Noonan, Robert Novak, Kate O’Beirne, Russell Shaw, Patrick Madrid, Kathryn Jean Lopez, and Leon Podles, among others, will help free the bishops from the influence of the chattering classes.

Still, time spent with Mother Assumpta Long is bound to be time well spent. But I don't expect much immediate or visible effect on the bishops. Different people often assign different levels of importance to the same event. The schedule for Cardinal McCarrick printed in his archdiocesan newspaper says that Monday-Thursday will be taken up with USCCB meetings. Today's is just the first.

Personally, I look forward to the bishops meeting with a bunch of people who aren't pundits, presidents, or professors, though I suppose I wouldn't hear about it if it did happen.


For those wondering...

...about the differences between suburban Maryland and suburban Virginia.


Happy Birthday, Mamma Mary!

And many happy returns of the day.


More sinned against or sinning?

The "crux of Christianity" discussion has been a lively and, for me, informative one, even though I sanded the works with some extremely dubious arguments. I need to brush up on my soteriology and reread the comments to figure out what exactly I mean, and whether it's true. (Of particular interest is the relationship between the Resurrection and the Mass.)

There are two distinct streams of understanding the Gospel, both present in Scripture (so both valid) and both going strong today. They might be called "Good News For Sinners" and "Good News For Sinned Against." The former appeals to good people who do bad things, telling them, "God forgives you;" the latter to good people to whom bad things happen, telling them, "God loves you." I think the way people look at the Christian mysteries is informed by how they relate to these streams.


Friday, September 05, 2003

The crux of Christianity

Disputation's second ever post received a comment yesterday, from the host of Jcecil3's Progressive Catholic Reflections. I responded to a couple of his points in the comment box, but there is something I want to yak more about.

I'd written:
The central fact of Christianity is the Cross, has to be the Cross, because of the sinfulness of mankind. The sacrifice was made necessary because we commit sins that separate us from God, and that separation can not be overcome by our own efforts; I am not okay, you are not okay. True self-knowledge leads to humility, not self-esteem.
Jcecil3 replied:
I would say the resurrection is the center. After all, had Christ not risen, the cross would be just another story of a marginalized Jew executed by Rome. A sad story that would stir good people to feel compassion, but not "gospel" or "good news".
I'll start by admitting that it's sort of goofy to debate which of two inseparable things is more central; it's sort of like arguing which of two joined links in a chain should be stronger.

Still, I much prefer my arguments to Jcecil3's. There are many theological reasons why the Resurrection was appropriate, and even in a sense necessary, but it is simply untrue to say that had Christ not risen, His crucifixion would have been unremarkable. He would, after all, have still been the Son of God, His sacrifice the same. The subsequent means by which His disciples would come to understand Him to have been God's Son would obviously be different, but that doesn't mean no such means would have been possible.

(Yes, St. Paul did write that if Christ be not raised, we are the most pitiable of men, but then St. Paul was teaching that Christ was raised. If the Crucifixion had happened but the Resurrection had not, St. Paul might have written something like, "If Christ be not awaiting us in heaven....")

I suppose the question is, just what is the good news? The Catechism states:
This is 'the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God': God has visited his people. He has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his descendants. He acted far beyond all expectation - he has sent his own 'beloved Son'. [CCC 422]
Again, the Resurrection is part and parcel of the Good News; it was foretold of old, not a little flourish tossed off on a whim. But it is, I think, at least in principle possible for God to fulfill the promise He made to Abraham by sending His own beloved Son to die for our sins in a manner that didn't require a subsequent bodily resurrection.

Is the same true of the Crucifixion? Sort of, although I think the theological arguments regarding the "necessity" of the Crucifixion are stronger than those for the Resurrection. At the very least, since the Crucifixion is necessary for the Resurrection, the arguments for the Crucifixion are at least as strong as those for the Resurrection.

But the reason God sent his own beloved Son was to reconcile us to God. This reconciliation occurred through the Crucifixion. It was to be crucified that Christ came into the world. The Resurrection was the culmination (or at least continuation) of His atoning act of sacrifice, but it wasn't the act itself.

Now let me go back to my original words, "The central fact of Christianity is the Cross." May I tease out a very fine distinction between the Crucifixion as historical event and the Cross as theological reality? The Crucifixion was, as they say, Christ's sacrifice "once for all." The Cross, though, is both Christ's expression of submission to the Father and a choice faced by every true disciple.

To be a Christian is to take up one's cross and follow Him. We will rise as He did, yes, but that is a matter of hope. Embracing the Cross as it appears in our lives is a matter of love, and love is greater than hope.


Dominicans preaching to the underemployed

Eve Tushnet posts the schedule for this year's Cardinal Newman Lecture Series. By scheduling the lectures on Fridays at 2 p.m. in downtown Washington, DC, so people who work for a living can't attend, the Cardinal Newman Society continues a venerable Catholic tradition.

I draw attention to the two Dominicans in the series. Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP, who will talk on January 23 on "The Role of the Theater in the Evangelization of Culture," is the artistic director of the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City. I expect he will have some passionate opinions on this topic. (And no, I won't make a joke about how Dominicans are always talking about theatretical matters.)

Fr. Guy Bedouelle, O.P. will talk on "Grace and the Movies: Spirituality in the Cinema" on March 1. The chapter on Beato Angelico (a.k.a. Giovanni da Fiesole) in Fr. Bedouelle's book In the Image of St. Dominic: Nine Portraits of Dominican Life was what led me to choose him as my patron in the Dominican Order. He's a professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and I see he's also written a book on spirituality in the cinema called Du spirituel dans le cinéma. That makes me think he might break with Dominican tradition and give a talk actually based on the title.


Thursday, September 04, 2003

Putting the priest in his place

Fr. Tom Johnston, O.P., sent me the following on the role of place in the rubrics of the Mass:
There are three (3) locations in the Presbyterium/Sanctuary during Mass: the Chair, the Ambo, and the Altar. The Priest presides at each place, but in different ways.

At the Chair, the priest addresses the people; he leads the enitential Act and other introductory rites; he prays the Opening Collect; he listens attentively to the Word of God; he introduces the Profession of Faith; as well as introduces and concludes the General Intercessions; (on some occasions, the gifts are presented to the Pope/Bishop/Priest at the Chair); he usually recites the Prayer after Communion and the blessing from the Chair.

At the Ambo, the Liturgy of the Word holds equal prominence and significance as the Liturgy of the Eucharist holds at the altar. The Liturgy of the Word is the celebration of God among us in the Sacred Scriptures. The ambo is also the place where the Responsorial Psalm (Sacred Scripture) is lead; it is the preferred place for the delivery of the homily (if not, the homily may be given at/in the Chair; or from another suitable place so the Congregation may hear and understand the meaning of the Word of God in their lives today.

The ambo is not a make-shift music stand. It is not the place where announcements are given. And, unless the issues of money and fund-raising are linked to the Gospel/Readings of the day, no appeal for money should be given from the ambo.

At the Altar, we focus on its preparation and the transfer of the elements of bread and wine/water. It is the only place where the Eucharistic Prayer is offered. It is also from this altar/table that we are nourished.

The altar is the prime representation of the crucified and risen Christ in the Church. On the day of its dedication, it was sprinkled with blessed water and it was anointed with Sacred Chrism. [This is exactly what happens at a baptism!] It is then the place upon which incense is burned as a sign of it being a living sacrificial table of praise and prayer.

The rubrics (rules) are very clear: nothing else is to be on the altar except the paten with bread, the chalice with wine, and the Roman Missal. No aspergil (holy water sprinkler), no holy oils used in the celebration of the Anoint of the Sick, no candles (yes, the book says no candles! (They are to be placed to the side of the altar); no flowers; no homily notes; etc. Our focus is to be completely clear and unobstructed by any type of clutter (no matter how much silver and gold is used).

The altar is the place where we gratefully recall the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Jesus Christ in thanksgiving, for this is what Christ gave for our salvation. It is the place from which the merits of Christ are called down upon us. It is the table of grace and mercy from which the Holy Trinity is sacramentally shared with us through the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Eucharistic Celebration, it is the place where we are bold enough to call God our Father. The altar is the place from which we ask of God's Spirit to both 'transubstantiate' our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and by the same Spirit, to transformation us - mortals - to truly be the Body and Blood of Christ in the

After all this, why would anyone want the priest to leave the altar to socialize with any other? Why would the priest want to leave the Eucharistic Lord (just welcomed sacramentally in our midst) alone at this moment? The rubrics/rules are a codification (with exceptions) so that the priest remains at the altar. The priest extends the peace of Christ to all through his words. He gives the peace to the servers and other ministers near him. They in turn bring that peace to others in the Congregation. And, the Congregation. . .is expected to bring that peace to those outside the Church!
Obviously, there's a lot going on during Mass that I've never really noticed, even though I've seen it all my life.


Signs of the Times

I visit a website every day that, more often than not, has the following ad on its front page:
I'm getting kind of tired of this blatantly anti-Christian message.

It's not, "If you wouldn't otherwise go to church, spend Sundays in bed." It's not, "Go to the vigil Mass so you can spend Sundays in bed." It's not, "Spend Sundays in bed if doing so wouldn't contravene a precept of your faith."

It's a commandment. "Spend Sundays in bed." (Other NYT commandments: "Thou shalt have no other newspaper of record before me." "Thou shalt not kill a story on the misdeeds of a Republican." "Thou shalt not steal, and this time we've got appropriate precautions in place." "Thou shalt not swear false witness against thy neighbor for attribution." "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods, unless they're listed in the classifieds.")

I mean, I'm sure the Times has a lot of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Seventh Day Adventist, atheist, non-or-lightly-practicing Christian, and otherwise non-Sunday morning churchgoer readers. And it is an ad for home delivery of its gargantuan Sunday edition, which does take a full twenty-four hours to get through.

But isn't it possible to come up with an ad that doesn't assume there are no Catholics or other Sunday-morning churchgoers in the audience?


Ill-informed political musings

I am to politics as the person who picks the Panthers to win because of their uniforms is to football. My default algorithm: Vote for the non-incumbent with the shortest name.

I wish I could get enthusiastic about -- or even mildly interested in -- politics. But I live in a precinct that all but has voting machines that automatically select the Democratic candidates for you, which sort of takes the edge off what excitement there is in electing my state and local representatives. As for national politics, if God had wanted us to vote....

So I am in a sense envious of people like Ono Ekeh, who got goosebumps listening to John Kerry's campaign announcement Tuesday. Goosebumps. The only times I've been excited by a campaign speech have been during party conventions, when I have listened to an acceptance speech and though, "Hey, okay, this guy has some good ideas." By the next morning, my excitement has always cooled to, "If he does win, at least I won't have to leave the country."

But Ono is passionately sold on Kerry. He's even started a Catholics for Kerry mailing list. In a message there, Ono writes:
The original question was how to organize the Catholic vote for Kerry, not how to present him as a Catholic. The Catholic voting block is 20% of the electorate and is a significant active chunk. My strong interest is to promote John Kerry among Catholics as the right candidate for our country and this has nothing really to do with if he is Catholic....

So Kerry's Catholic status is not the issue. The issue is that we believe that we have a candidate that's right for the country but that he has a particular obstacle to overcome vis-a-vis Catholics and the goal is to help him overcome that obstacle. So Catholics need to promote Senator Kerry's vision as favorable to labor (something that is traditionally important to Catholics), favorable on social justice issues (also important to Catholics), fiscal and economic responsibility and growth, etc.
Of course, the "particular obstacle to overcome vis-a-vis Catholics" is that Kerry is a rabid supporter of the legalized killing of the innocent. Ono addresses this here, suggesting "that John Kerry's vision for America is a Pro-life vision that will ultimately reduce the frequency of and need for abortions." I suppose he at least has a case to be answered.

About the only strong position I have on politics, though, is to prefer the man of virtue to the man of vision. This is not a comforting position, since to the naked eye men of virute are not thick on the political ground. My unsophisticated (and somewhat tautological) reason for this preference is that a virtuous man does good habitually, and so is likely to do good in new or unexpected situations.

What will the man of vision do in a new or unexpected situation? Or more practically, what will the man who licks the boots of the U.S. abortion industry do? Frankly, I don't want to find out.


Mark well

Steven Riddle posts a reflection on a key to the immediacy and urgency of the Gospel according to Mark.

A commentary I read pointed out that, by beginning with these words:
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark suggests that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has not yet ended. There's a certain irony, I suppose, in this book having three "endings" despite it's author's intent to tell a story that will never finish.

Steven's comments pointed out that the second and third verses of Mark quote the prophets, which can be read to suggest the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually begins with the prophecies of ancient Israel. That's always been the Christian understanding, of course, but I hadn't noticed this implication in Mark before.


Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Investing in the future

East. West. South. North (well, Central).

There are 34 men who were received as novices into the four U.S. provinces of the Dominican Order in recent weeks. May God grant they persevere to become the preachers the Church in America needs in these early decades of the new millennium.


Rules rule!

The other day, I had a chat with a friend about the revisions in the GIRM. I learned a bit more about different ways to see the same thing.

My friend encountered the revisions in the form of a list of changes to the Mass. It struck her as a list of dos-and-don'ts, as yet more rules, and, as she admitted, "I don't like rules."

Now, there are any number of rules I don't like, but not liking rules on principle is not part of my personality. In fact, I'm something of a rigorist (in principle) on rules: If a rule is made by someone authorized to make it, and if it is not wrong to follow the rule, it is wrong to not follow the rule. "Wrong" here may mean "sinful," or merely "incorrect," but I think a rule that need not be followed ought not exist.

Anyway, I suggested to my friend that there were several stages between the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments composing a document and her reading a bulleted summary of what now to do at Mass, and that each stage strips out meaning and context. If you're going to resent "the Vatican" for imposing more rules on you, you should probably base your resentment on what the Vatican actually says.

One of the specific changes -- not really a change, I think, but a restatement of an existing rubric -- is that the priest is not to leave the altar during the Sign of Peace. The priest shaking hands with congregants happens to be one of my friend's favorite gestures, a way of showing he is not above or superior to the laity. (I suspect my friend has not resolved all of her issues regarding the operation and staffing of the Church hierarchy.)

It seems to me that what it comes down to is this: There are different, valid theological points that can be made at a certain point in the Liturgy, not all of which can be made at the same moment. A priest remaining before the altar makes certain points; a priest mingling with the congregation makes others. Obviously, the point of remaining cannot be made at the same time as the point of mingling.

The question becomes, which point should be made? In this case, it is the one made by the priest remaining at the altar, and the reason it is this point and not the other is because that's what the rule says.

That's never going to satisfy someone who doesn't like rules, of course, but there's more to it than uncut legalism. Since the rule states the priest must remain at the altar (under ordinary circumstances), for him to leave the altar at the Sign of Peace is to make, not only the theologically valid points about unity, community, and so forth, but also the theologically invalid point that the priest's authority is greater than his bishop's authority (assuming the bishop accepts the GIRM). In making the point of a local community, the mingling priest necessarily (though presumably only secondarily) denies the community of the local Church, and still more the universal community. He makes the Mass his personal liturgy, and to that extent ceases to act in persona Christi, since the Mass is Christ's liturgy, the Son's prayer to the Father, and Christ has given His prayer to the Church through the bishops.

This is not the way most people usually think; it's not the way I usually think. One act can symbolize many things; people like to focus on the symbolisms they like and ignore the symbolisms they don't like. But I don't see any way of getting around the fact that whenever a priest willfully acts against the rubrics of the Mass, he is acting against the unity of the universal Church (and so, necessarily, it is an act contrary to Catholicism). This is true regardless of the specific rubric; should there be a change and the priest be directed to leave the altar during the Sign of Peace, he would be acting against the unity of the universal Church if he refused.

This, it seems to me, is true due to the nature of the authority of the Church and the nature of the Mass. And neither of these can change, however we feel about rules.


The saint, the poet, the genius

The usual intriguing stuff at fotos del apocalypsis.

Last week, Hernan quoted Leopoldo Marechal, "If the poet is an imitator of the Word in the order of Creation, the saint is an imitator of the Word in the order of Redemption." (And again I'm struck by the difference between translating Logos by "Word" and by "Verb.")

This week, Hernan quotes (without wholly endorsing) Leonardo Castellani:
The genius and the saint are two different and incompatible categories. So your calling me a genius denies the possibility to me of becoming a saint.

The genius is born a genius; the saint is not born a saint. The sanctity is an added extra thing. So that in the saint there is a division, a duality (nature and grace), whereas in the genius there is a sovereign unit.

The genius is the highest point in the line of nature. He is the man of Destiny; while the saint is the man of God.

A saint, even with much talent, cannot be called a genius without insulting him.... Saint John of the Cross and Saint Francis of Assisi are not geniuses. Geniuses are Napoleon, Goethe, Shakespeare, Baudelaire.

The genius prevails in this world, the saint fails.

To the saint the only thing that interests him is a good death; the genius is interested in living, and he knows how to live.

The genius lives in the immediacy; the saint, in the depth, buried in Christ .

The saint lives in the religious plane and the genius in the aesthetic plane: their aims and ideals are so different that it is not possible to reconcile them; and the aims are what determine the personality.

Clearly, you call me "genius" innocently and with great good will. But not for the world did I want to be it. I wanted to be a good Christian , which is not in the line of the genius.

The Christian is in the line of love. Although he has talent, the talent it is not the apex of his personality, is a secondary and "absorbed" thing. "Charity" is not the ideal of the genius; although he can on the other hand be charitable, with difficulty.


Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Wanted: A clean, well-lighted place to complain about those nuts

There's a meandering conversation on Amy Welborn's blog about the rarity of "*normal* Catholics," getting involved in the parish, the new movements, Catholic gurus, and so forth.

The comment that started it off, that there are very few normal Catholics, reminds me of the old definition that a fanatic is someone who takes religion more seriously than you do. I am a normal Catholic; you use religion to work out various psycho-socical issues.

I continue to think a lot of the problems mentioned are related to the absence of a Catholic culture or sub-culture. When you are only doing Catholic stuff for one hour Sunday morning, you have to do all your Catholic community stuff at the same time you're doing your Catholic worship stuff.

When "the parish" means "the parish center," which means [not, as St. John Neumann might have guessed, the altar and tabernacle, but] a building or part of one where people go to do Catholic stuff, "getting more involved in the parish" means spending more time at the parish center. Some efforts to contrast getting involved in the parish with getting involved in a new (or old) movement fail to see that parish-level organizations can be as cliquish, as self-aggrandizing, as personality-driven and self-righteous as international-level organizations. (Maybe not as cultish; there are advantages when your guru is dead.)

I think one of the things people are looking for is simply a place to rest -- ideally a place to draw energy from, but at least a place that doesn't take energy to simply remain in. It would be great if "the parish" were such a place, largely because the parish is so convenient (especially if the parish center has central air conditioning and a decent kitchen).

But if the parish isn't a place of rest for you, if it's too rigid or too flabby or too loud or too dead, that doesn't make it a place to be avoided; it makes it a place to be avoided when you need to rest or recharge. It may well be the place you're intended to be when you're rested and recharged.

Karen Marie Knapp writes movingly against the ideal of the independent nuclear family. We shouldn't demand too much that is ideal from our parish family, either. (Another of my themes: What do you expect from a faith that practices infant baptism?) An imprudent avoidance of those in our family we don't much care for can cost us many opportunities to grow in holiness. And, indeed, to help those we don't much care for to grow in holiness, especially if we're imperfect ourselves.


Patronize our sponsors

A note from someone who should have her own blog:
Years ago while at a Marian conference, I met a Sr. Rose Marie Tulacz S.N.D. (Sister of Notre Dame). Her apostolate is taking pictures that raise the mind and heart to God and using the proceeds to help her order's work in Africa. She is a talented photographer and God has used her work to help fund some wonderful works in Africa.

She recently published a beautiful (exceptional is an understatement!) book of photography. It sells for 100 dollars but every dollar goes to fund her order's work in Africa (a benefactor paid for the publishing). The 100 dollars is FULLY tax deductible. This is the kind of apostolate that really appeals to me: each photo is a witness to God and all the dollars go to help Christians and evangelization projects in Africa. What makes the book extraordinary is the fusion of her poetry, her photography, the layout and the quality of the printing (even includes printed tissue pages). I have not seen something like this and I have several "photo" books from major photographers. If you could put a small plug for her book on your blog (assuming Reginald approves), I would be most thankful.

Her website address is: and her autobiography is at: Her order's website is at


Today's quote for bloggers
For to teach or write on the assumption that what one puts forth "is of no consequence" is permissible only to insane people.
-- Jacques Maritain, Man and the State


Monday, September 01, 2003

The three sad months

The summer’s o’er, vacation’s done.
Now is the first day of school begun.
Now do all parents let praises be sung:


Friday, August 29, 2003

Pascal's Wager is hopeless

Pascal's Wager is the best known example of applying what I call an "actuarial expectation" to salvation. A standard form of the wager is to generate a table of expected values of believing in God and not believing in God, depending on whether God exists or doesn't:

God existsGod doesn't exist
Believe in GodInfinity-m
Don't Believe in God-Infinityn

Here m and n are, respectively, the cost of believing and the benefit of not believing when you don't need to.

According to this payoff table, believing in God is the rational choice.

There are a whole lot of problems -- philosophical, cultural, theological, anthropological -- with Pascal's Wager, but right now I just want to look at what it does to the virtue of hope.

According to probability theory, if there is a non-zero probability -- and it can be arbitrarily small -- that God exists, then the expected value of believing in God is infinite.

So where does hope fit in? In a sense, it doesn't. You can always hope that God exists, but even without hope, going purely on actuarial expectation, you expect infinite happiness. All that hope does in this case is add m units of happiness to infinite happiness. According to the formulation of Pascal's Wager, hope is optional.

A religion in which hope is optional can be many things, but it can't be Christianity.

To be fair to Pascal, he thought up his wager more or less while inventing probability theory, so he can be excused for not forseeing this kind of expected value analysis. He also intended the Wager for a specific type of skeptic, in a specific type of situation, not for general evangelical or theological purposes.

Today's Christians, though, don't have the same excuses. I've seen Pascal's Wager proposed in several places as though scientific-minded atheists ought to find it an unanswerable argument to hie them to the nearest church. It should probably be stamped with the warning:

For conversational purposes only. No wagering.


Persisting in hope

The old Catholic Encyclopedia begins its article on hope with these words: "Hope, in its widest acceptation, is described as the desire of something together with the expectation of obtaining it."

This despite my having recently written it is "important to distinguish between hope and expectation," and not in the sense that expectation is one aspect of hope.

Just to clear this matter up, let me refer to Fig. 1:

Fig. 1. Expectation vs. Difficulty of Obtaining Desired Future Good

It's basically self-explanatory. The blue line represents the way the "natural" or "actuarial" expectation of obtaining a desired future good moves from certainty of obtaining it to certainty of not obtaining it as the difficulty increases from guaranteed to impossible. Any expectation in the pink region indicates a measure of hope associated with that expectation; the green region is a region of despair. (The vertical distance from the expectation to the blue line is a measure of the hope or despair involved.)

(The theological virtue of hope operates along the right boundary of the square, salvation being impossible for man but nothing being impossible for God. There's a certain breezy confidence in one's fundamental goodness that wraps this chart into a cylinder, with the right and left edges of the square touching. "Well of course God will save me/all my friends/everyone, silly!" But that's not hope. I'm not sure it's even reasoned enough, in many cases, to count as presumption. The curious thing about hope is how it only really shows its true colors when all is hopeless.)


Thursday, August 28, 2003

Reeves in the Summertime, concl.

“I use the word ‘baffling’ advisedly, Reeves. You see, after being distracted by Berggo I gave up the loaves and fishes wheeze as a lost cause and segued as smoothly as possible into an a capella rendition of ‘Come Holy Ghost.’”

“Baffling seems a strong word for that, your excellency. The melody plays to your strengths as a singer.”

“You stray from the tale, Reeves. It was not my a capella rendition of ‘Come Holy Ghost’ that is unaccountable. In fact, I’ve tried the same gambit once or twice in the past when I’ve noticed an audience begin to freeze over in the shallows, and it’s always been a smash. This time, however, just as I was beginning the second verse, a plump fellow in a Roman collar stood up in the back of the room and began singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

“'Kumbaya,' your excellency?”

“’Kumbaya,’ Reeves.”

“A most perplexing action on his part, your excellency.”

“You may well say it was a most perplexing action on his part, Reeves. It threw the whole room into pandemonium.”

“It is not difficult to imagine the confusion, your excellency.”

“There were boos, whistles, and shouts from all corners. A few joined in ‘Come Holy Ghost,’ a few in ‘Kumbaya.’ The meeting dissolved before my eyes. A fellow named Figg was all but ripped in two like a wishbone between two hearty female academics.” As the memories returned, I wished briefly for something stiffer than tea. “Then something warned me as if in a dream to depart for my own country by another route, and I slipped out a service door, through some hidden corridors, onto the street, and into a cab to the airport. It was in the cab that I met Berggo, who had been moved by a similar spirit of discretion.”

“A decision of commendable prudence on your parts, your excellency.”

“Yes, we rather thought so.”

“Your story provides the context for understanding the message I received at five forty-five this evening, your excellency. Mr. O’Brien called at that time, asking me to inform you that the meeting was a disastrous ruin.”

“A disastrous ruin?”

“Those were the words Mr. O’Brien used, your excellency.”

“Just as well, wouldn’t you say, Reeves?”

“There appears to be no irrecoverable loss, your excellency.”

“Assuming Figg came through with both shoulders still attached.”

I mused.

“One thing, Reeves. I believe that plump fellow in the Roman collar had been introduced as a sociology teacher in an East Coast seminary.” I paused delicately. “You don’t happen to know any plump sociology teachers in East Coast seminaries, do you, Reeves?”

“There is good reason to believe the priest in question is the Reverend James Farmer, your excellency. I have not seen him in some years, but while we were at seminary together he was known for his fondness for starches.”

I was momentarily stunned by the thought of Reeves in a seminary. It was hard to believe he hadn’t been given purple socks with a silver cup at his christening.

“And what good reason, other than fondness for starches, is there to believe the priest in question is the Rev. Farmer?”

“I had suggested to Fr. Farmer that, should you happen to sing ‘Come Holy Ghost’ at Mr. O’Brien’s meeting, he should begin singing ‘Kumbaya,’ your excellency.”

I set my tea cup down with firmness. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me, Reeves, that you plotted behind my back to turn that meeting into a disastrous ruin?”

“The fundamental charge is supportable, your excellency.”

“We are agreed that it was no great loss. But why suggest me as his cue?”

“That would plant the idea that you were somehow responsible for the collapse of the meeting, your excellency.”

“But why…?” I am not ashamed to admit that at this point I sputtered. Given the hour, the state of my nerves, and the distance to the closest cocktail shaker, you would have sputtered as well.

“I am reminded of a second phone message, your excellency. This was from Cardinal Fratricidelli, who called at six thirty p.m. to congratulate you on diffusing a potentially damaging situation.”

“He did?” I unhunched the shoulders. “Ah." I unclenched the hands. "The scales fall.” I unfurrowed the brow. "Thank you, Reeves."

“It was necessary to correct the cardinal’s impression that I had provided you with some advice, your excellency.”

“Was it? Oh, yes, Berggo had told him my attendance was your idea.” A thought struck me. “But won’t your friend, Fr. Farmer, find himself in the soup when word gets out of his, what did you call it, perplexing action?”

“Fr. Farmer had called me to discuss his dissatisfaction with seminary teaching, your excellency. His bishop has been reluctant to transfer him to a quiet parish. The disruption he caused at the meeting should prove sufficient to prompt his bishop to change his mind.”

“You are a marvel, Reeves.”

“I endeavour to give satisfactory stewardship of my talents, your excellency.”

As I was shaving the following morning, I realized a way in which I could thank Reeves for his help, and I resolved to surprise him with it, as he had surprised me. There was some confusion when I called the photography studio – the young woman who answered seemed to think I was confirming an appointment rather than making one – but I did have my official portrait changed to one with a more spiritual, if less natural, expression. Of course, Berggo thought I looked like a calf startled by a sudden gunshot, but Reeves approved.



But not forgotten

Based on how often the subject comes up, the concept of forgiveness is a tough one for Catholics in the U.S. to get a handle on.

Whom should I forgive?
  • Someone who offends me and asks my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends me and doesn't ask my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends another, asks their forgiveness, and receives it?
  • Someone who offends another, asks their forgiveness, and doesn't receive it?
  • Someone who offends another and asks my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends another and asks no one's forgiveness?
If something should be done, it has to be possible to do it, and to say whether forgiveness is possible in some of these cases you need to know what forgiveness is.

I think of it in the terms of debt (not a wholly original choice). When someone sins against me, I am owed some sort of reparation. If I forgive the person, I am, so to speak, giving them notice that this debt has been cancelled before they have satisfied it.

In these terms, I can't forgive someone a debt he owes to someone else. (Unless, of course, I have some sort of special authority to do so, as e.g. a judge or legal guardian, but even then I can only forgive certain legal debts, not the moral ones.)

But when someone sins against another, particularly if the sin is grievous or the one sinned against close to me, doesn't the sinner sin against me as well? I don't just mean in the "any sin injures everyone" sense. I mean, isn't the sin a scandal to me, a potential source of temptation to such sins as revenge or cruelty?

If this is so, then to say, "I forgive someone for sinning against another," implies, "I forgive someone for tempting me to sin against charity and temperance," which in turn implies, "I forswear the temptation to sin against charity and temperance."

So I can, in fact, forgive some notorious criminal who has committed no crimes against me, albeit the forgiveness isn't directly for the crimes he committed. And it does, in fact, do me good to do so, insofar as doing so is to resist the sins he has tempted me toward.

A final thought: It's often suggested that forgiveness is mercy triumphing over justice, and that's true. But more broadly, forgiveness can be seen as a point at which justice and charity meet (mercy being an act of charity). Put this way, I think it's easier to see that forgiveness always implies love for the one forgiven, and as we know love sometimes requires chastisement; and that the forgiveness demanded of us as Christians is not equivalent to unchecked and unreasoned clemency.



The current Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator fad has not received universal acclaim. As a classic INTP myself, I think the MBTI is largely bunk but not entirely without descriptive power.

Recently, though, I came across the work of Dr. Carl Friekan, who has created what he calls his "Accurate Personality Test" based on the traditional taxonomy of virtues and vices. Here is my result:
You are a Disputer.

You are most comfortable laying down clear, fundamental principles first, then acting in accord with them, and prefer to avoid situations in which no such principles exist. You prefer to think and communicate in verbal or symbolic ways, rather than visual or poetic ways. You often play with ideas to see where they take you. You have dubious time management skills. You avoid speaking about politics with others, because the more you know about their politics the harder you find it to respect them. It is difficult for you to feign interest in most casual conversation; you didn't do anything memorable over the weekend and don't really care what anyone else did either. You are moderately successful in hiding your irritation with all the idiots you run into. Liquor-wise, you prefer dark to light, and can't stand gin at any price. Occasionally, you make things up for your own amusement.


Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Liturgical errancy

(A true story, with errors.)

Child: Who did Jesus marry?

Adult: Jesus didn't marry anyone.

Child: Then why do they say He got married?

Adult: Who says He got married?

Child: At church. Everyone says He "suffered, died, and was married."


A proposal for a new Internet policy

"From this day forward, a Roman Catholic may complain about the artistry or lack thereof of a given crucifix appearing in a public place only if it is worse than this one."


Still hoping

The virtue of hope is, as Hernan pointed out in a comment below, analagous to the passion of hope. It is a habit by which we move toward a future, difficult, but obtainable good.

The "greatest" hope we can have is the hope for the greatest good we can obtain. Through God's charity, this greatest good happens to be God Himself. Since all truly good things are related to God's goodness as reflections to the source, so I think all true hopes are related to this one greatest hope. The hope I have for my children to live long and happy lives -- or, for that matter, that they have a nice day today -- can ultimately be grounded in the hope that they attain salvation.

Hope, of course, is one of the three theological virtues, and it has a close relationship with the other two. By faith, we see God as both lovable and attainable. By hope, we continue to move toward Him. By love, we desire Him more strongly, and so reinforce our faith and hope.

St. Thomas suggests another relationship, by which the theological virtues are distinguished in the way they adhere to, or draw us to, God. Faith draws us to God as the source of truth, hope draws us to Him as the source of perfection, and love draws us to Him for Himself.

Again, hope presupposes that obtaining the good is both difficult and possible. Properly speaking, a good that has no difficulty being obtained can't be hoped for, nor can a good that is impossible to obtain. To regard a good that is difficult to obtain as being of no difficulty is (under appropriate circumstances) the sin of presumption. To regard a good that is obtainable as impossible to obtain is the sin of despair.

(Well, if we really want to be strict, the good the theological virtue of hope regards is eternal happiness, so presumption regards eternal happiness as guaranteed and despair regards it as impossible, but lesser goods have correspondingly lesser hopes, presumptions, and despairs.)

This leads to something of a puzzle. If what we hope for is necessarily difficult yet possible to obtain, and what we hope for is eternal happiness, then eternal happiness must be difficult yet possible to obtain. But since the only possible way to eternal happiness is for God to grant it to us, doesn't this mean that eternal happiness must be difficult for God to grant us?

Obviously, nothing is difficult for God. Granting eternal happiness isn't a strain for Him, nor does He lie awake at night wondering what He ought to do in a particular case.

Maybe the better way of putting it is not that salvation is difficult for God, but that damnation is easy for us. If we keep in mind the idea that what we hope for is difficult to obtain, we will avoid presumption even as we hope in certainty.

(Wait! How is "hope in certainty" different from presumption? Because the certainty is based in trust in God's mercy, not in anything we might do ourselves. Presumption takes the position that God's mercy will see to our salvation regardless of what we do.)