instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, May 30, 2003

On a related note

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

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

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


Boxing day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Can you feel the groundswell?

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 29, 2003

Reverent agnosticism?

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

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


Out of limbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Not sympathetic to magic

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

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

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

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

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

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


An idea in limbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Speaking of which

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

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

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


Thank you for patronizing our sponsors

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

Okay, an extra donut.

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, May 27, 2003

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

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

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

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

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

| |

The human view

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

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

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

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

But all that's largely a question of semantics.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, May 24, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 23, 2003

Forward from Big Sky Country

After rooting through the Diocese of Helena's website, I decided Bishop Robert Morlino was the kind of bishop I'd like to have: honest, plain speaking, and centered in Christ. Now I see he's headed for the See of Madison, which is good for Madison but kind of tough on Helena, where he's been less than four years.

On the whole, I'm against moving bishops like this. Or at all. In fact, I'm not even keen on "assistant bishops." Retirement? Modernist rubbish! I don't recall St. Charles Borromeo retiring.

Anyway, in a brief letter to the Helena diocese, Bishop Morlino gives a good description of the nature of the Church:
Cardinal Avery Dulles has written: "in our time Christians, and perhaps Catholics more than others, are haunted by the fear of loving the Church too much. They find it hard to share Christ’s own love for the Church (Eph 5: 25) and to accept the maxim of St. Augustine, quoted by Vatican II, that 'one possesses the Holy Spirit in the measure that one loves the Church of Christ'" (Avery Dulles, The Shaping of Catholicism, pg. 152).... The Church of Christ, whom we are called to love, is of course that mystical communion, the Body of Christ which is the Church Universal. The Church Universal is very visible in terms of her teaching, her sacramental celebrations, and her governance through our Holy Father and the bishops with him. The Church of Christ that we are called to love is not some church that we might imagine, but the concrete Universal Body of Christ which is a mystical communion in the world. That Universal Church is at the very core of the life of all particular churches, of all dioceses, including the Diocese of Helena. It is our loving communion with the Church Universal that makes us truly to be a local Church. Thus our experiences as Church in Montana should in no way contradict or take exception to what is of the Universal Church, the source from which our life as local church emanates.
He went on to write that he is "surprised and stunned" at his new appointment, in a diocese he has only visited once in his life.

(For those keeping score, Bishop Morlino was educated by the Jesuits. In fact, he was a Jesuit until 1981, when he became a diocesan priest in Kalamazoo.)


Moral idiocy at Kairos

Permalinks aren't working, so you'll just have to go there to see what I'm talking about.

Personally, I try to use the word "idiot" to refer to a person who is talking about something he doesn't understand without realizing he doesn't understand it. That makes many of us idiots, at least some of the time, but very few of us idiots all of the time. Which sounds about right.

Now, calling someone an idiot is not necessarily pastorally prudent; you can win an argument and lose a soul, as they say. But not calling someone an idiot doesn't mean he isn't an idiot. The emperor would have been just as naked if the little boy hadn't said a word.

I believe circumstances do arise in which it is prudent to say, "This is idiotic." The shock (assuming there is a shock, which of course there won't be if the person speaking always calls everything idiotic) might be enough to startle others -- perhaps even the idiot himself -- into thinking and judging, a risk sometimes worth taking.

One of my favorite online resources is Luiz Jean Lauand's article "Fools in Aquinas's Analysis," which looks at the "catalogue of all types of fools" found in the writings of St. Thomas:
Asyneti, cataplex, credulus, fatuus, grossus, hebes, idiota, imbecillis, inanis, incrassatus, inexpertus, insensatus, insipiens, nescius, rusticus, stolidus, stultus, stupidus, tardus, turpis, vacuus and vecors.
There is no "Whether fools are legion" article in the Summa, alas, but St. Thomas seasoned his works with observations of the many ways men fall short of wisdom. For him, the idiota (literally, someone who only knows his native language) is the one who fails to cultivate his intelligence, and who assumes anything he doesn't understand isn't true.


Each follows the other

Minute Particulars puts the historical fact of the Resurrection in context:
That God would become fully human and dwell among us, that He would enter into personal relationship with us, that He would suffer at our hands, die, and overcome death is a far more profound set of facts than anything suggested by creation ex nihilo, apart from the obvious fact that none of these could have taken place outside of God's act of creation. In this sense, then, the question of the fact of the Resurrection, while temporally preceding its implications for us, is trivial when set down beside the question of the effect of the Resurrection on each of us personally.
For the Apostles, the fact of the Resurrection established its implications. For Christians today, the implications of the Resurrection establishes its fact.

As a truly dreadful analogy, if a baseball player hits a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to break a tie, the game is won at the moment he touches home plate (if I've got my baseball rules correct). A fan reading about the game in the newspaper the next day will hear about the game-winning run, and be able to infer that the hitter must have touched home plate, but the fact of touching home plate is, so to speak, of accidental interest compared to the fact the game was won in such a dramatic fashion.


Too late

Sparki, new to the whole "praying to the saints" wheeze, finds out that there's something to it after all:
And then, last night I had this sense of...well, it's kind of hard to describe. It was almost like somewhere in my peripheral vision I could sort of see a door to Heaven open, and the Glory streaming out. And there in the doorway was Mary and Joseph and two of the other Saints I was praying to, and I knew that they were praying for me, but exactly me, not just me in a category with a whole bunch of other people who are facing the same sort of thing.

Please don’t think I'm a nutcase or some freak who has illusions of becoming some sort of mystic.
Who wants to tell her she's already a mystic, and that it's neither nutty nor freakish, but rather common?


Strawman arguments

Flos Carmeli ponders the meaning of St. Thomas's famous declaration, "All my words are straw."

Josef Pieper expresses himself well on this (even in translation):
The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.
If we're led to wonder about this, imagine how St. Thomas's friend Brother Reginald of Piperno felt when, one day, he simply stopped writing. "I can write no more," was all the explanation given.

After a time, and more prompting, St. Thomas added, "All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw."

It wasn't until a subsequent visit to his sister, who couldn't help but notice the change in him, that St. Thomas finally completed his thought, "All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw... compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

As Steven points out, it's not that all he wrote was straw; another friar reported that Jesus told St. Thomas he had written well of Him. Rather, it was wholly inadequate compared to the reality it was trying to describe.

But we should keep in mind that what was revealed to St. Thomas was precisely what St. Thomas was writing about. The Summa Theologica is not an encyclopedia or a collection of doctrines or arguments about Catholicism. It's a description of what is, and what is is God, man, and the Christ who brings man into the life of God.

They say that, with An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman wrote himself into the Catholic Church. Maybe we can say that, with the Summa, St. Thomas wrote himself into glory.


A cry for help

Prayers -- for what, exactly, I'm not sure -- are clearly needed, not just for Victor Lams, but for his enablers as well.


Thursday, May 22, 2003

Meet the new priests

Not entirely the same as the old priests.

Draw your own conclusions, but I expect in the years to come the country will hear more homilies involving movies than woodworking.

I see priests still do the bulk of the work of inviting young (or not so young) men to consider the priesthood. Parents -- fathers especially -- don't seem as likely to think of their sons as potential priests. (Of course, the pastor doesn't hear what the kid says at home when it's time to go to Mass.)


An unsolicited testimonial

One of the ways my enthusiasm for St. Thomas (which far outstrips my knowledge of his thought, and let's not even bring up my comprehension) expresses itself is by making me subscribe to The Thomist.

The Thomist describes itself as "a speculative quarterly review" of philosophy and theology in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. It runs articles with blocks of untranslated Latin in the main text and untranslated Greek in the footnotes. It reviews books written in German and French. Heck, it reviews books written in Latin... by St. Thomas Aquinas!

As someone whose complete academic exposure to philosophy and theology in the tradition of anybody consisted of a ten-week elective "Introduction to Philosophy," I should not be reading The Thomist. I am largely unprepared to understand the arguments I read, much less critique them. A few months ago, I blogged something based on an idea I got from reading a Thomist article. Someone made a polite suggestion of where I should look if I wanted to correct my fatheaded thinking; it was the same article.

Despite all that, though, I really enjoy the journal. The current issue is particularly wonderful:
  • "Theological Principles That Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal (1970)," by Lauren Pristas, which compares, with unencouraging results, the Latin of several prayers from the new Missal and the Latin of the sources the redactors used.
  • "Christ in Aquinas's Summa Theologiae: Peripheral or Pervasive?," by Jean-Marc LaPorte, S.J. It sounds like a yawner, but it's a wonderful look at the many organizational principles that can be found in the Summa. Contrary to one popular impression, the discussion on Christ is not tacked on like an extra car at the end of a train, but exactly where it belongs as the center or culmination of all that precedes it. The table of contents of the Summa becomes a spiritual lesson in union with the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit.
  • "Applying Aristotle in Contemporary Embryology," by Kevin L. Flannery, S.J. This is a response to a response to an article arguing that, applying Aristotle's philosophy (rather than his biology), an embryo cannot become human until after a finite period (at least until after the twinning window closes). Of course, I've never heard of any of the writers involved, nor of the earlier articles, but I have heard people use St. Thomas's Aristotelian embryology in support of at least first term abortions, so it's not a completely academic question. And while all the Greek words slid past me like so many patronymics in a Russian novel, I did get the gist of the argument that reconciling Aristotle's philosophy with the claim that we are human from the moment of conception is entirely possible.
  • "Truth or Transcendentals: What Was St. Thomas's Intention at De Veritate 1.1?," by Michael M. Waddell and "The Augustinianism of Thomas Aquinas's Moral Theory," by Thomas J. Osbourne. I haven't read either of these yet, and I couldn't tell De Veritate 1.1 from Decameron Day 1, Story 1, but I'm unduly interested in truth, transcendentals, Augustine, and moral theory.
Even the book reviews are great, with insights into understanding St. Thomas, Meister Eckhart, and Heidegger (who, apparently, was not just a boozy beggar).

The best part of subscribing, though, is that, for an extra five dollars (or five dollars less, if you don't want print copies), you get web access to all of the issues of The Thomist from 1979 through the present (starting with the January 1979 issue dedicated to a study of Karl Rahner). But wait, that's not all! They've also put the archives from the first two years, 1939-1940 online (with articles by Garrigou-Lagrange, Adler, Congar, and Farrell, among others). They have teasers for the years 1941-1953, too. As far as I can tell, they're going to continue to add back issues to the web service as time and tide permit.

By the way, many of the book reviews are available to everyone, subscriber or not.

If you're the kind of person who would subscribe to The Thomist, you probably already do. But if you are and you don't, I think you should.


You can't kill what isn't alive

From the very beginning, the Church has had to face slanderous and false attacks. I mean, literally from the very beginning; before 9 a.m. on the day the Church first publically preached Jesus as the Crucified Messiah, the Apostles were called public drunkards.

The particular falsehoods told and retold ebb in and out of fashion, but I suspect many of the lies generated during the Protestantization of England will always have currency, at least in the English Protestantized United States. Killing any untruth is hard enough, but killing these is even harder, because they were never alive to begin with.

One old canard being revisited here and there is that the Roman Catholic Church fought like mad to keep the Bible from being translated into the vernacular before the Reformation. It's a simple matter (okay, maybe not that simple for Blogger) to construct a chart like this to refute the charge:

Dates Bible (or Significant Portion of it) First Printed in Various Languages

Catholic1471by 14771478147814751582

You can note that Italy, Germany, France, and Spain all had vernacular Bibles before Luther or Tyndale was born. You can estimate the fraction of a population that could read in the vernacular but not in Latin, and the fraction of that fraction with the money to buy a vernacular Bible, and question how realistic [the Catholic priest] Erasmus's longing "for the plowboy to sing [the Gospels] as he follows his plow" really was in the Sixteenth Century.

But all that's beside the point. The charge was originally created to be used as a club against Catholicism, and it's no less effective for being false. It's a zombie canard, a corpse intentionally animated for one purpose, and it can't be stopped.

The other day, I found out the primary meaning of "zombie" isn't the corpse, but the spirit animating it. Looked at that way, it's easy to see fact and argument will never destroy the spirit of hatred animating even the dumbest of anti-Catholic lies.


Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Can anyone tell me...

...when the feast of St. Philip Neri is? I've been wondering whether it's coming up soon.


Does it matter?

Jeffrey Collins of of U. Blog's theology department has some questions about David Heddle's Reformed beliefs on predestination:
Last week, David Heddle again addressed the issue of predestination. I was laying in bed tonight and was struck by a thought, (one that I occasionally find myself asking about doctrinal issues); suppose David is 100% correct about predestination? So what? To put it another way, what are the ramifications of the doctrine itself? What are the ramifications of accepting or rejecting the doctrine? In the long run, does it really matter?
Once you get past the "There's not Dogmatic Theology entrance exam in heaven" arguments, you're still left with the question of whether there's any intrinsic value in being "theologically correct."

The answer to that question, and to Jeffrey's last question above, is yes.

We become what we love. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination says something about God. If we accept the doctrine and we love God, we will become like God as described by the doctrine -- in a word, Calvinists. Here, "Calvinist" doesn't refer to something we believe, but to something we are, something that informs the way we act and think. Similarly, accepting a Pelagian doctrine of salvation will make us Pelagians -- not people who believe thus and so about human free will, but people who live as though it were true. Accepting the Catholic doctrines makes us Catholics -- not because we confess the same faith as the Pope, but because we live it.

Now, does living one of these versus living another make any measurable difference? I think it does, once we get past the mistaken notion that the only measurable difference is whether you are saved. God, and therefore creation, has a subtly different quality for a Calvinist than for a Catholic. Habits of thought and action will develop and evolve, and in moments of weakness or fatigue or passion, these differences will show up sharply.

Since vices are bad habits and virtues good habits, the wrong belief leads to vice where the right belief leads to virtue. That's enough of a difference to make it matter.

(Link via blogs4God.)


So a Pharisee and a publican walk into the Temple....

And Then? has posted a very useful letter to the Dallas Morning News's least favorite bishop. I say "useful," because (pending Michelle's permission) it can be reused again and again, changing only the names of the bishop, the diocese, and the investigative blogger.

I think a lot of the criticism by Crabby Catholics is paradoxical. On the one hand, the Church in the United States is about three months and one more bad episcopal appointment away from utter apostasy. On the other hand, the Crabby Catholics themselves are so radiantly holy -- judging by their towering rage against the imperfecti around them, even unto the ends of the USCCB -- they ought to be able to suck the rest of us along into heaven in their wake.

The truth within the paradox is, I think, a sort of Donatism that invigorates a lot of Cranky Catholicism. When you hear people talking about how others "aren't real Catholics," or egging them to "go ahead and become an Episcopalian," or bemoaning the "AmChurch" stranglehold on chanceries, you may well be hearing the voice of a post-conciliar Donatism, one less concerned with its own spiritual worthiness than with the unworthiness of others. Some seem genuinely excited by the thought of an apocalyptic remnant (of which, obviously, they're members), finally free of all that deadwood of damned souls. That's why their personal holiness can coexist with the general vitiation in the Church in America: they're preparing to jettison the Church in America from the Catholic Church, if they haven't already done so, and let it go its own unholy way.


Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Parochial thinking

Kathy the Carmelite points out an important difference in how Catholic churches and many Protestant churches are organized:
...unlike many Evangelical protestant churches, which are congregational in nature, the Catholic Church is parochial; that is, it is accessible to all baptized believers in a given geographical area. Most evangelical churches have little patience with what they call "carnal Christians"; instead of making allowance for them to come along at their own pace, evangelicals tend to throw down the gauntlet from the pulpit....

Groups of believers who hear Biblical exhortation publicly in this way tend to want to conform.... Furthermore, congregational-type churches tend to attract like-minded groups; people who cannot or will not conform (like the Christmas-and-Easter "Carnal Christians") are soon winnowed out.

The parochial Catholic Church, however, follows the Biblical model of the wheat and the tares. Knowing that the Holy Spirit chooses a different timetable for each individual, the Church offers The Mass and the Sacraments for all the baptized.
The wheat and the tares: that's a phenomenon encountered at every scale in the Church Militant, from my own heart up through the worldwide communion. A Catholic Church with no patience for tares is unthinkable, at least outside the fevered atmosphere of St. Blog's comment boxes.

The way I see it, any religious confession that admits members in infancy is not likely to be a spotless image of its founder.


A cheap dig at a holy man

Some people think
Peter Maurin's "Easy Essays"
are works of genius.

He takes a simple idea
which others make complicated
and makes it simple again.

I find it irritating,
and maybe a little patronizing,
to be told when to breathe.

That probably says more
about me
than about Peter Maurin.


Evangelical counselors

In a comment on my Catholic Worker post below, Kat writes, "I've heard the focus of the organization has changed quite a bit since Day and Maurin ran the show."

"Organization" may not be the mot juste for the Catholic Worker movement, from what I understand.

One of Peter Maurin's easy essays is called "What the Catholic Worker Believes":
1. The Catholic Worker believes
in the gentle personalism
of traditional Catholicism.

2. The Catholic Worker believes
in the personal obligation
of looking after
the needs of our brother.

3. The Catholic Worker believes
in the daily practice
of the Works of Mercy.

4. The Catholic Worker believes
in Houses of Hospitality
for the immediate relief
of those who are in need.

5. The Catholic Worker believes
in the establishment
of Farming Communes
where each one works
according to his ability
and gets according to his need.

6. The Catholic Worker believes
in creating a new society
within the shell of the old
with the philosophy of the new,
which is not a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy,
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new.
I don't see much there to dispute. By itself, this might lead some into romanticism, but I think Dorothy Day was effective at correcting excess romanticism in the movement.

A more modern and extensive statement, "The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker," was published a year ago. The criticism of American society is, in my judgment, an exaggeration, but it's neither entirely wrong-headed nor based on bad anthropology.

There's a sense of hysteria in some of what I've read from Catholic Workers about the American Empire and the ravenous maw of technology, but I don't really look to Catholic Workers for political governance. I see the movement, not as an invitation to join in establishing a nonviolent distributist utopia, but as an evangelical sign of contradiction to cause me to check my capitalist bourgeois inclinations against the common good of a society ordered to the life of glory.


Nicely said, Professor

Zenit has interviewed Ralph McInerney, who these days is Eugene McCarthy Lecturer at the Gregorian University, on the Church's views of natural theology (i.e., what can be known about God from human reason alone). McInerney has a nice way of phrasing one key distinction:
Natural theology is an achievement; faith is a gift.
If we can keep this difference in mind, maybe we won't demand too much of natural theology or think too little of faith.

It's curious that both atheists and fideists reject natural theology -- just yesterday, I came across a delightfully foolish claim that "logic can be effectively employed to disprove the existence of God" -- while modern philosophers have all but given up on human reason itself. But joining the Catholic Church means checking your mind at the door; just ask the atheists, fideists, and modern philosophers.

(I wonder, by the way, how McInerney's reference to the Great Pumpkin will play in Rome. As yet, as far as I can tell, the interview has only been published in English.)


Monday, May 19, 2003

Catholic Workerism for Dummies

Karen Marie Knapp links to an article by Robert Waldrop of -- well, of a great many things, including the Archbishop Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The article is titled, "How to start a Catholic Worker House and why you should contemplate doing so"; it's a sprawling and anti-status quo piece that fits right in with the rest of his sprawling and anti-status quo website.

I don't possess the Catholic Worker charism. While I admire the good work they do and their dedication to the poor, I don't think much of Catholic Workers' politics (to the extent that there is such a thing). I would hate to have Robert Waldrop running my city's government -- but I would love to have him praying by my deathbed.

So I invite you to set aside the specific Catholic Workerness of this excerpt, and consider it as a general invitation to act:
If you don't know what work you should do, then open your eyes, ears, and heart and see what needs to be done that is at hand, and then begin to do it, whatever it may be. Invite others to help. Feed the hungry, visit the sick, start a Catholic Worker house, plant a garden, pick up trash in a public place, just get up out of your comfort and do something beautiful for God wherever it is you are. Often. As in habitually....

Keep doing goodness, beauty, wisdom, joy, justice and love, and eventually you will get good at all of them, and in the meantime you'll be getting better all the time and that helps. And every time you do goodness, beauty, wisdom, joy, justice, and love, you plant, nurture, cultivate, and propagate the just and sustainable civilization of love with which we shall replace this imperial culture of death that afflicts the world so sorrowfully and is creating so many tragedies and so much evil....

Take no thought about how much money it is going to cost, and where the money and other resources will come from, or how much hassle it will be (the answer to that last is: "a lot" so just expect that from the beginning and you'll do fine.). It doesn't cost anything to begin doing good, and you should never hesitate from doing something good like opening a Catholic Worker house because you think you don't or won't have enough money....

Don't think you have to do everything, and don't try. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are....

Be opportunists for God. Don't go around with blinders and earphones, be spiritually open to and aware of what is going on around you and willing to accept responsibility in the situations that God will certainly send your way. But don't spread yourself so thin that you aren't doing anybody any good. You can't do everything and you shouldn't try, but everybody can do something.

Start small or you won't start at all. By yourself, your household and family, or in community with several others in your area, whatever your situation is, select a name for your house and begin to pray and work and discern the path you should follow. If you don't have a plan other than, "We are the St. Augustine of God Catholic Worker House," that's a fine plan. Make a sign with your computer printer and put it on your front door, send a letter to your pastor and tell him that on such and such a day you opened the St. Augustine of God Catholic Worker House and see what happens....

Study the social justice teachings of the church, in particular the encyclicals of our John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and the writings of the Second Vatican Council. Preach the gospel by deed and by word. Pray without ceasing....

No, you don't have to ask anybody's permission to start a Catholic Worker house, and I think that's the way it has been from the beginning. Dorothy [Day] and Peter [Maurin] didn't ask anybody, they just started. Discern God's will, and if this is your vocation, then don't be afraid to do what needs to be done. Accept personal responsibility for it, it is an unbelievably liberating experience. You don't have to ask anybody's permission to stop either, if circumstances change, you decide you made a mistake, whatever the case may be.
If you do possess the Catholic Worker charism, you should read the whole article.


Atoning for the theories

Mark R. thinks Old Doc Nazianzen had the right prescription for the Atonement Blues (emphases added):
To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High Priest and Sacrifice.

We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause?

If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether.

But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim?

Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?

So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence. But that brazen serpent [Num. 21:9] was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" Thou art overthrown by the Cross; thou art slain by Him who is the Giver of life; thou art without breath, dead, without motion, even though thou keepest the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.
"Reverencing with silence" is not the special genius of the Latin Church.



Camassia's thoughts have inspired an excellent post at Noli Irritare Leones (motto: "Breaking the If It's Latin It Must Be Catholic Rule Since 2002"), which also mentions the multiple theories of the Atonement:
And I prayed.

And I got a response. Which was, basically, that I did not need to worry about accepting a particular theory of the Atonement, but that I did need to accept "Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles." And so I did. And in that conviction I have continued ever since.
It occurs to me I don't know what theory of the Atonement I hold. An old and timeworn one, probably, which soft-hearted moderns find distasteful.

But far more important to me than how the Precious Blood obtains the forgiveness of my sins is how the Precious Blood knits me to the Body of Christ, brings forth a new life in me, and causes me to participate in a nascent way in the life of glory to come. There are two ideas here, both true but the one a stronger draw for me: one is the Blood poured out on the Cross, the other the Blood poured into the Chalice.


It's personal

Camassia has been blogging about different ways of thinking about the historicity of the Resurrection. In one post, she writes:
... I think the crux of the problem is that I'm being asked to take an impersonal event (the resurrection) and treat it like a personal event (relationship).
This is a problem because, as she pointed out in an earlier post, she sees impersonal events and personal events as generating different kinds of knowledge:
To me, the factuality of the resurrection is a category of knowledge more akin to the shape of the solar system than to whether I love my friends.
I think she's onto something. The historical fact of the Resurrection can be distinguished from its meaning. Apart from its meaning, I imagine accepting the historical fact is more like hearing of a curiosity, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not entry, than an epochal moment in a till-that-moment non-Christian's life.

For myself, I insist on the historicity of the Resurrection as a corollary to the existence of the Church -- that is, of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, not as a religious and cultural institution. The impersonal follows the personal: "If Christ be not raised," St. Paul wrote, "then our faith is empty." Since I know "personally" our faith is not empty, I know "impersonally" Christ was raised.

(Along the same lines, I consider denying the physical Resurrection to be foolishness for Christians, not apostasy.)


Thursday, May 15, 2003

When St. Blog's gets too big,

and they decide to split off a splinter parish, I know who the new parish's patron should be.


Thoughts on walking the labyrinth

The Acts of the 2001 General Chapter of the Order of Preachers explains the role of Dominicans in the Church in these words:
The charism of Dominic, a gift from God for the benefit of the Church, is one and undivided: the grace of preaching, nourished and increased through contemplation.
For a preacher to be effective, he needs, among other things, to have something to say, to know how to say it, and to stop once it's said. Contemplation -- of truth, and in particular of the Truth Who is Jesus Christ -- gives the preacher something to say. The particular apostolate in which the preacher is involved gives him the circumstances in which and the manner by which to say it. Knowing when to stop is something of a learned skill, often taught by the people preached to. A preacher, Dominican or otherwise, who fails at one or more of these things, fails as a preacher.


Duc in altum!

The Kairos Guy, the product of a fine Jesuit education*, admits he doesn't find the Gospel according to St. John the most perspicuous book he's read:
John's proto- and crypto-gnosticism make him very hard for me to come to terms with. There's a lot going on in John that is just barely this side of things that became heresies, and as much as I love slicing words to an onion-skin-thinness, I am not smart enough in many cases to see the difference between John's non-heresy and the Gnostics' actual heresy.... I'm sure there's value in there for people who have eyes to see, but I am as blind to John as a sightless man is to Monet.
Well, I** certainly find John to be the most baffling of the Gospels. It's not just that there are depths of meaning beyond my ken -- that's true of all of Scripture, in a way that isn't true of a difficult math text -- but that the fact of the depths is much more evident. I can talk about the significance of Jesus healing a blind man in Mark's Gospel, and feel like I've got a good idea; maybe not the most important, certainly not the complete, but at least a good idea of what is going on. When Jesus instructs Nicodemus in John 3, I'm a lot less certain I'm getting the point.

So how do we overcome our blindness? Reading good commentaries will help, whether they're expository or scholarly. (The former explains Jesus' words to us, the latter explains John's purpose for quoting and arranging the Gospel as he did.) But the best way -- beyond a certain point, the only way -- is to read the Gospel slowly and prayerfully. In short, to pray it, in the presence of the One Who wrote it.

* It's a joke! The implied irony, I mean, not Jesuit education.
** I attended an elementary school run by Dominican sisters through sixth grade; from there, my education went downhill.


When you're looking for good news...

Look here.

The Nashville Dominicans are beginning a $35 million expansion project at their motherhouse to make room for an outdoor labyrinth and Zen meditation garden.

No, actually it's because "the St. Cecilia congregation has literally had more new members than it could handle."


Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Retroactive just cause

Tom Fitzpatrick has a straightforward reaction to news of the discovery of a mass grave in Iraq:
This finding in and of itself justifies our ouster of that regime.
Whatever else can be said for this interpretation, it is refreshingly free of any trace of that hoary old just war tradition the discussion of which so bogged down Catholic bloggers this past winter.


A reason for the love that is within you

Minute Particulars draws our attention to a statement in this past Sunday's Gospel those of us who don't read the readings ahead of time might have missed. In John 10:17, Jesus gives a specific reason why He is loved by the Father:
This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
Mark points out that
the reason the Father loves us is probably similar to the reason the Father loves Jesus. The challenge, I suppose, is trying to grasp how the reason the Father loves the Son applies to us.
I think there's an extended transitive relationship at work here. The Father loves the Son. Jesus is the Son Incarnate; His earthly life is the Son's eternal life projected onto humanity. The Father's love for the Son in His Divinity is an exact analog of the Father's love for the Son in His humanity. In this passage, Jesus explains that the Father loves the Son in His humanity because in His Humanity the Son lays down His life in order to take it up again.

Now, we are to join ourselves to Jesus Christ, to let not us but Him live in us. If we lay down our lives in order to take them up again, the Father will love us with a love increasingly similar to His love for His Son in His humanity as we are increasingly similar to His Son in His humanity.

Finally -- and this is the really mind-blowing part of Christianity, the part that sounds just wrong to the functionally monotheistic among us -- if we are joined to Jesus Christ, we will be divinized. We won't become God, but we will be true children of God, by adoption, just as the Son is the true Son of God by nature. The way our filiation parallels the Son's is the way the Father will love us as His true and eternal children parallels the way He loves His Son as His true and eternal Son.

The mystery of the Cross, then, reflects back on the mystery of Trinitarian life, and also forward through the mystery of the Church to the mystery of our participation in Trinitarian life. That explains why the mystery of the Cross is the center and focus of everything that is truly Christian.


New softies

I'm neither a theologian nor a historian, but from a wholly inadequate sampling, I think one thing that has happened in Catholic theology in the last hundred years is a softening of the heart.

I suspect many people, on hearing this, would say, "It's about time." They'd have a good point, too. Being soft-hearted is not necessarily bad for a theologian, the way being soft-headed is. If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart. (And if today you don't hear His voice, do laundry, not theology.)

When soft-heartedness degenerates, though -- when it becomes mushy-heartedness, say -- it's devilishly hard to restore it. Mushy-heartedness, or sentimentalism, is a distortion of compassion and tenderness into false ideals. How do you say, "No, you're being too nice"? For that matter, how do you know someone is being too nice? Maybe you're just not nice enough.

One example of an extreme in soft-heartedness is the idea (more common in Protestant circles, maybe) that God is as helpless and distraught as we are in the face of human suffering. No longer thought of as impassible and remote, God is now seen as suffering right along with us. Some even say our suffering is a reflection of the eternal suffering of the Godhead in a mystery of iniquity.

While this concept might make God seem emotionally closer to us, it does raise the question of what Christian hope is based in. If the Eternal Father is down in the hold trembling next to us, just who's steering this ship anyway?

I think the current popularity of universal or near-universal salvation is also a mark of soft-heartedness. I don't know whether it's excessive, in the sense of being false; no one's ever accused me of being too nice. But I think that, whatever the theological arguments, there is often a parallel and supporting sentiment that it would be easier to love God and explain the suffering in the world if everyone or nearly everyone were saved. We know the present sufferings are as nothing compared to what is to be revealed; our co-worker's cynicism would evaporate instantly if he knew the time would come when everyone was in bliss and perfectly satisfied, in retrospect, with the lot they received on earth.

It seems to be human nature to simplify and exaggerate what you hear from someone else. When theologians say, "Outside the Church there is no salvation," Catholics on the street say, "My Protestant neighbor is going to hell." When theologians say, "Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life," Catholics on the street say, "No one is outside the Church." When theologians are hard-hearted, the rest of us are harder. When theologians are soft-hearted, we're softer.

One test for sentimentalism is to ask whether believing in something benefits you directly. Euthanasia, for example, is argued on the basis of alleviating the dying person's pain. But it also alleviates the pain of those who love the one dying. As a sign of compassion, we do something that ends what makes us feel compassion; we necessarily end up in a less compassionate state than we started in.

Obviously, that something benefits me directly isn't proof it isn't true. But it is a sign that I might be wanting it to be true, and exaggerating the strengths of the arguments for it and the weaknesses of the arguments against it.

One of the principle ways an idea -- theological, moral, social, whatever -- can benefit me is by leaving me unchanged. Given the choice between changing and not changing, I will usually pick not changing. It's easier, and it makes me feel better about the way I am right now.

But of course, the personal mission of each Christian is to change into the image of Christ. For a lot of us, that includes changing our own image of Christ.


Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Guaranteed to corrupt nothing but your taste

In a discussion with her readers on Catholicism and popular media, Amy Welborn quotes Flannery O'Connor:
Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don't have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with the Christian spirit.
This reminds me of a wonderful phrase used by an Italian monsignor in a memo arguing against the 1953 censure of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory by the Holy Office:
To condemn or even to deplore [Greene and Evelyn Waugh] would be looked askance at in England, and would deal a grievous blow to our prestige: it would demonstrate not only that we are behind the times but also that our judgment is lightweight, undermining significantly the authority of the clergy which is regarded -- rightly -- as unlettered bondslaves to puerile literature in bad taste.
You'd think there'd be a broad, green sward along which Catholic art might play, between puerile literature in bad taste and morally corrosive degeneracy. Or at least I'd think. Somewhere between angelism and beastialism, like where you find human nature.


The formation gap

Peter Nixon at Sursum Corda has an eloquent post on his (and my) generation's experience of the Church:
For our generation, the decision for faith was just that: a decision. It was something that had to be justified, both to ourselves and to our peers. Whether it was an adult deepening of a childhood faith, a reversion to a faith thought lost, or a conversion from unbelief or another tradition, the question had to be answered: why? why bother? why does this matter? We had to make a choice to bind ourselves to a particular truth, a particular community, a particular tradition. And once committed, we want to drink deep from that tradition, to savor its richness, to protect it and preserve it....

There is among many of us a sense of the fragility of the Church as a community of discipleship and how little power that community seems to have to shape and mold the lives of believers today.
I think that sense of fragility feeds the ungentle orthodoxy of many Catholics under forty. If your parents have invested their children's inheritance in Ming vases, and you see your brother juggling them, you may well find yourself speaking sharply.

Catholicism isn't a game, to be played with according to the rules of whatever theory is fashionable this year. Things get broken that can never be repaired -- not mere vases, either, but hearts and faiths and possibly eternal souls.

Perhaps before the Council the Church leaned too much on legalism to form her children. But after the Council, with the rejection of legalism, what was left for formation? It seems to me a lot of people who were formed under that legalism think nothing good can come from it and so assume formation just comes with being Roman Catholic, the way Oscar Madison assumed gravy just comes with the meat.


And let it begin with me, me, me

Sparki at Fonticulus Fides has an insightful post on mankind's desire for divine power, which of course goes back to the Fall. I think part of what fuels this -- drawing Catholics to apparition sites, drawing Protestants to blessing sites where charismatic gifts are passed out like sugared candies -- is laziness. Anyone with any knowledge of the Church's history or of her spiritual traditions knows being a Christian is hard work, and that God intends it to be that way for almost everyone. But if Mary tells you exactly what to do, you don't have to spend all that time in discerning prayer. If the pastor zaps you with the gift of tongues because you shoved your way to the front row, you don't have to defeat the flesh, the devil, and the world day by day in private.

A better sense of history, a deeper knowledge of the experiences and traditions of the holy people who have gone before us, will teach us that these short cuts don't work. They don't work because the effort and pains put into working out our salvation aren't just inconveniences along the road, they are the road.


Monday, May 12, 2003

Metablogging: Disputations goes multi-media

Through the genius of Victor Lams, Disputations now has its own BlogTone. Readers are encouraged to click on the image at the top of the page every time they visit, to get the full Disputations experience.

(I mean strongly encouraged. Don't make me make the BlogTone play automatically.)


In their own image they created Him

A common Catholic response to the Calvinist doctrines of election and atonement is, to quote Mark Shea, "That is, to put it bluntly, not a God I can love and indeed a God for which I feel hearty contempt."

Mark immediately concedes this "re-opens the question of whether I really love God." This is not just an anticipation of a likely Calvinist rejoinder, but a critical point to keep in mind in theological and doctrinal debates.

There is an argument for universal salvation that insists no one would reject God if they knew the truth about Him. I think this is an extremely weak argument, because I regularly hear people say things like, "I could never love a God who lets children die of cancer." I believe them. Scripture and history are rich in examples of people who have chosen to blind themselves to God; better to enter Gehenna blind, they seem to believe, than to look on One who permits, or even causes, this or that human tragedy. Universal salvation advocates may be right (I think St. Thomas would agree) that no one can see God and reject Him, but they don't account for the possibility that a person can reject the opportunity to see God.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the tendency to trim God to fit the frame we've built for Him. Sentimental attraction or repulsion is not a good basis for determining truth. It shouldn't be ignored; we are not wholly corrupt creatures, and the ick factor can play the canary in the coalmine of unhealthy doctrine or morals. But as fallen creatures, we can't rely on our sentiments alone, or even principally.

Catholics know how to do this in clear matters. God is love, and children do die of cancer, so the fact that children die of cancer doesn't mean God is a great big brute more deserving of a poke in the eye than praise and obedience. But in more abstract matters? If God didn't love the massa damnata, should we then treat Him with hearty contempt? Or what if -- pardon the impiety -- our beloved pets don't go to heaven?

The point is this: My God is God. Every Christian's God is God. Terms like "my God" and "the Calvinist God" refer to beliefs about He Who Is, not about a god that may or may not exist. To say to a Calvinist, "My God is not cruel the way your God is" is like telling your brother, "My father is not left-handed the way your father is." God either is or is not cruel; your father either is or is not left-handed. In either case, though, the subject is the same. It's wrong to think the subject is different, and that's an error that can have lasting consequences.


Saturday, May 10, 2003

Short questions with long answers

There's a discussion at Catholic and Enjoying It! on the subjective distaste Catholics have with the reported difficulty Calvinists have answering the question, "Does God love me?" (One Calvinist, who runs a very thoughtful blog, conceded, "I believe He does," when Mark Shea asked him that question.) Catholics [should know enough Catholicism to] give a quick and simple, "Yes."

Catholics shouldn't feel too smug about Calvinists' answer to this question, though. Ask a Catholic, "Am I going to heaven?" and you get a similar run-around, since as I understand things, "Am I going to heaven?" is to Catholicism as "Does God love me?" is to Calvinism. The Catholic can take some comfort in the fact that his squirrelly answer deals with the future, and most answers about the future require some bet-hedging. He'll need all the comfort he can get when he's asked, "If God loves everyone, why would He damn anyone?" With this, at least, the Calvinist has a quick and simple, "Exactly!"

The problems with the idea that there are people whom God doesn't love go beyond sentiment and proof-texting. If God doesn't love a person, the person is unlovable. This means there is nothing good about the person: not his reason, not his eyesight, not his existence. But God is the sovereign creator; the unloved person's existence, which is evil, can have no other source than God.

This seems to produce a metaphysical mess. Even if we finesse the matter of God creating an evil existence, we have the question of whether the reprobate's evil existence is the same thing as the predestined's existence. If they aren't the same, then the reprobate and the predestined are essentially different kinds of creatures; if they are the same, then how can the predestined share in God's existence as His child? It would be like drawing a face on a rock with a crayon and saying, "This is my adopted son Theo."


Friday, May 09, 2003


This week, John Allen's "The Word From Rome" column covers a talk by Fr. Augustine DiNoia, OP, Under-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and all-around good egg:
One intriguing moment came when Di Noia suggested that the emphasis on whether or not a doctrine is "infallible" that followed the First Vatican Council has in some ways placed the accent on the authority of a teaching rather than its truth. He said that when the New York Times called him upon the release of the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae to ask if it was infallible, he responded that this was "the least interesting question to ask."

"The better question is, is it true?" he said.
That reminds me of something a lesser Dominican once wrote, "Away from the neighborhoods of unambiguity, the question of whether a proposition is heretical or infallible is of vanishingly small interest to me, compared to the question of whether it is true!"

I suspect, though, that some NCR readers will misunderstand Fr. DiNoia's point.


Certainly there's risk

Therese makes a good point commenting on my "Certitude and risk" post, in which I wrote that for some people "preemption is admittedly a form of risk management":
The same can be said for a "non-interference" attitude. A good number of the peace protestors were more motivated by fear of what might happen if we went to war than concern for true justice and peace.
I agree. Fear of the consequences affected both sides in the debate over invading Iraq. Fear tends to inflate both the estimated probability and the estimated cost of a bad thing happening, which form the basis of risk management -- or, less formally, simple prudence.

But there is an important distinction. In just war theory, the bad things that might happen if war is started are treated in risk management terms: the probability of success must be estimated. The bad things that might happen absent a war, however, are treated in moral absolute terms: the damage inflicted must be grave, lasting, and certain.

So while fear needs to be resisted to have a clear understanding of the circumstances and a decent idea of what might happen in the future, to go to war and to not go to war are not simply two alternative plans to be proposed for mitigating the risks to a country's security and prosperity.


Great opportunity!

Have you been pulling your hair out over the "Bush = Caligula" moral equivalency coming from the Democratic Party at Prayer? Here's your chance to set things right!


Thursday, May 08, 2003

Certitude and risk

In his "Ends and Means" post on preemptive war, Mark at Minute Particulars writes:
Preemption attempts to anticipate with moral certitude what another person will do before they do it.
For some people, maybe. For others, though, preemption is admittedly a form of risk management.

In a simple version of risk management, you weight a risk by multiplying the probability it will occur by the cost of it occurring. You then think of the best way to mitigate the risk, by reducing its probability or its cost. If the cost of mitigating it is sufficiently less than the weighted cost, and you can afford it, you go ahead and mitigate.

I don't know if anyone who favored attacking Iraq went through any sort of structured analysis, but language like, "What if we do nothing and they blow up Buffalo?" is fundamentally an appeal to risk management, a willingness to act -- in some cases an insistence on the moral necessity to act -- with explicitly less than moral certitude.


Where is my sense of proportionality?

Commenting on my previous post, Patrick Sweeney suggests I'm grousing at the wrong guy: "Of course Donohue's comment was petty, but the real enemy here is Bishop Grahmann."

Actually, the real enemy here is nonsensical reasoning. Donohue was fulminating against a hippie-dippie television character; he did not mention Bishop Grahmann.

Still, it's an accurate criticism of me that I often criticize critics for being critical and say little or nothing critical about those first criticized, whose sins may well be greater. Why do I do this?

If we want to make the right decision in a given set of circumstances, we need to know what the circumstances truly are. A critic presents his view of the circumstances created by the person he criticizes; the criticism is an argument of what the circumstances truly are.

Between evaluating circumstances and evaluating arguments, I am (I think) much better at evaluating arguments. I am also usually in a much better position to evaluate an argument, because there are usually circumstances of which I am not aware. A piece of criticism, though, is more or less self-contained and can be considered on its own merits.

Criticizing criticism is a critical skill. It's also transferrable. If I know how to criticize a letter to the editor on a religious topic, I know how to criticize an opinion piece on economics or a blog posting on the U.N. Too often, I think, people respond to what they read with a simple, "I agree; you're a genius," or, "I disagree; you're an idjit." When thinking like this achieves prominence in the public conversation, grave damage can result. Even when we agree with a conclusion, we should be able to test the soundness of another's argument.

Finally, I've never found there to be a shortage of first-order criticism. If I do go after the wrong guy, there are still plenty of others attacking the real enemy.


Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Covered in glory

The Dallas dust-up has gone national with a letter from William A. Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (or, as I think of it, the Catholic League for Publicizing the Opinions of William A. Donohue).

Set aside the relative merits of Rod Dreher's attack on and Bronson Havard's defense of Bishop Grahmann, and take a look at what William Donohue wrote:
It is not hard to figure out why Mr. Havard is angered by Mr. Dreher. Mr. Havard was a staunch supporter of the failed ABC show Nothing Sacred. His hero was Father Ray, the pro-abortion hippie-dippie priest who exploited the poor and defied the church. Unfortunately, it was precisely those malcontents in the church (exemplified by Father Ray) who created the sex abuse scandal.
The president of an extremely public Catholic organization claims, in a secular forum, that the reason a bishop's longtime employee, supporter, and friend is angry with the bishop's denunciatory critic is clearly seen in the fact that the employee liked the lead character of a TV show that went off the air five years ago. The same president goes on to claim pro-abortion malcontent priests created the sex abuse scandal.

With friends of the Church like this, who needs the Boston Globe?

The Church's spiritual recovery from the scandal may require fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. Recovering the Church's voice in the public square, though, will requirer clearer thinking than Donohue's bizarre hobbyhorseride exhibits, and a heap less of the sort of petty foolishness that's been appearing in the Dallas Morning News.


Revised works of spiritual mercy

Most of us have pet peeves, emotional buttons that, when pressed, engage our irascibility while bypassing our reason. (How else to explain Usenet?)

Some people, though, seem to have their buttons stuck, their PEEVED bit set and never cleared. When this emotional state occurs in a Catholic of a certain liturgically conservative bent, we get the phenomenon of the Crabby Catholic, someone who has a measurable physiological response at the mention of the rumor of a clown Mass that might have occurred in Oakland in 1972.

Crabby Catholics have a reputation for believing that the Church achieved perfection in 1958 and that every change made since then has been a move further downhill into the swamps of relativism and decay. This reputation is undeserved. For example, Crabby Catholics have embraced a revised set of Spiritual Works of Mercy:
  1. Admonish the sinner Ted Kennedy. At least once a month. No need for him to be present at the time.
  2. Instruct the ignorant about how ignorant they are. Stupid, too.
  3. Counsel the doubtful that yes, on your reading of the GIRM, if the sacrament wasn't actually invalid at least the priest ought to be censured. Not that he will be.
  4. Comfort the sorrowful, unless fraternal correction in charity demands the quoting of Canon Law.
  5. Bear wrongs ostentatiously and indefinitely.
  6. Forgive all injuries for which sufficient apologies have been offered. (Of course, no apology is sufficient for guitar Masses.)
  7. Pray for the living modernists to soon be dead.
Who says development of traditions is dead?