instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The marginal case is not the mean

This week's verisimilitudinous theory:

Catholic doctrine is that we retain our free wills -- in particular, our ability to confess or deny Jesus -- throughout our lives, up until the moment of death.

This doctrine has had a striking impact on the Catholic imagination. "You can be good and holy your whole life," we tell each other in the playground the day after we're taught this doctrine, "and if you have a bad thought just before you die, you'll go to hell." Any question as to why someone who is good and holy their whole life would have a bad thought just before they die is explained away by diabolical temptation.

The result of the way this Catholic doctrine is taught is to focus the attention on the thought you have just before you die, rather than on being good and holy your whole life. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, if you get a chance, but by all means be sure to pray for us at the hour of our death, when it really matters!

As time rolls along, the faithful start to think about the other side of the free-will-till-death coin. Sure, good and holy people can go to hell for a bad thought just as they die, but also evil and wicked people can go to heaven for a good thought just as they die. Any question as to why someone who is evil and wicked their whole life would have a good thought just before they die is explained away by Divine mercy.

The moment of death, in the Catholic imagination, has become radically discontinuous from every moment of life that leads up to it. The doctrine of free will has collapsed to a single, discrete, imperceptible choice, unrelated to the whole chain of choices the person makes while living. What grew into scrupulous concern over choosing death has degenerated into lax presumption of an effectively universal choice of life.

The morbid concentration on deathbed damnation as something a disciple of Jesus Christ, a true child of the Eternal Father, needs to live in fear of has transformed in the last generation or so into a "Get Out Of Hell Free" card. A story told to illuminate the far corners of a Catholic doctrine has become the ordinary, presumed way things happen. God's mercy is not so much infinite in such thinking, but guaranteed. The grace of salvation is an offer you can't refuse.

Whenever the outlier is taken for the average, conclusions are off-balance. In this case, they amount to indifferentism. Keeners and saints might still want to be good and holy prior to their moment of death, the thinking goes, but that sort of extra credit isn't really necessary. Normal people are good, but not holy -- and at they, they're sure to be good in a way that doesn't make other people uncomfortable. Such good people have nothing to fear judgment-wise from the moment of death: they aren't presuming their holiness to date will save them, so what's one more bad thought; and if God generally saves generally evil people, He will all the more surely make up whatever's lacking in generally good people.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

To grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery

In case you were wondering, "mystagogy" is the period of formal instruction of the newly baptized Christians -- or, as likely these days, of the newly received-and-confirmed Catholics. It would be cruel toward those who, after months or more of RCIA, receive all the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, to simply say, "Congratulations! Now you're Catholic! Go do good!," and shoo them out of the classroom.

Mystagogy, then, ensures that the neophytes (the "newly planted") have time to learn how to live as Catholics. It's not until their first Pentecost that they hear, "Congratulations! Go do good!," and are shooed out of the classroom.

And even though you most certainly weren't wondering, here's the outline (lightly edited) I used to blather at my poor, helpless, but polite brothers and sisters in Christ this morning:

An Introduction to Mystagogia

1. Why we are here
  • Why are you here? (After receiving all the Sacraments of Initiation)
  • “This is a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and in doing works of charity.” RCIA n. 244
2. Memories and experiences of the Sacraments of Initiation
  • “Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.”
  • “For the one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit.” John 3:34
    • Drive your invisible car!
  •  “Welcome aboard. Start bailing.”
  • “Missionary disciples in communion.” (2007 Aparecida Document)
3. The Mountaintop: Go up, encounter God, return
  • Scriptural movement
    • Moses receiving the Law 
    • The Transfiguration 
    • The Crucifixion (St. John’s Gospel) 
  • Christian life
    • The Mass 
    • Confession
    • Daily life (prayer and action), recapitulated daily
  • The RETURN part is critical!
    • “We priests tend to clericalize the laity…. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path.” Cdl Bergoglio, 2011 interview
    • GO! (last words of Mass)
4. Eucharistic Mystagogy (Dr. Gerard F. Baumbach, Notre Dame, Catechetical Sunday 2011)
  1. Accept Jesus’ invitation to love as He loves (GO UP)
    • We are “stewards of God’s love”; let us be wise stewards
    • “Imitate [St. Paul], I beg you, and you will be able to be called newly baptized not only for two, three, ten, or twenty days, but you will be able to deserve this greeting after ten, twenty, or thirty years have passed and, to tell the truth, through your whole life. If we shall be eager to make brighter by good deeds the light within us – I mean the grace of the Spirit – so that it is never quenched, we shall enjoy the title of newly baptized for all time. But just as the sober and vigilant man whose conduct is worthy can continue to be a neophyte, so it is possible after a single day for a man to relax his vigilance and become unworthy of that title.” – St. John Chrysostom, Fifth Baptismal Instruction 
  2. The Paschal Mystery is the center of the sacramental experience (ENCOUNTER GOD)
      “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” 1 Cor. 11:26
  3. Learn the language of the Liturgy (ENCOUNTER GOD) (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis)
    • “Interpret the rites in the light of the events of our salvation”
      • Personal and historical
    • Understand that “signs and gestures…together with the word, make up the rite”
      • “Do the red, say the black”
      • What are the signs and gestures used?
    • See the significance of the rites for the Christian life (ENCOUNTER GOD influencing RETURN)
      • Progressive transformation of your whole life
        • Includes “the missionary responsibility of the faithful”
        • Necessarily so, because Divine love is fecund
  4. The Great “Amen” (RETURN)
    • ‘If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond "Amen" ("yes, it is true!") and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words, "the Body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true.’ St. Augustine (quoted in CCC 1396)
    • Body of Christ for others – service (what people like about Catholics)
    • Body of Christ to others – teaching (what people don't like about Catholics)
    • Service and teaching become one in love
5. Outside of the Sacraments
  • “Christians pray.” (Best 2 word sermon I've ever heard.)
  • Scripture: read, study, pray 
  • Virtue: 30 days to a holier thou
6. “Do not be afraid.”
  • “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Hint: everyone who is against God, so be prepared.)



Thirty Days to a Holier Thou

I had the phrase "Thirty Days to a Holier Thou" in my notes for today's RCIA class -- which, of course, has become a mystagogy class now that all the confirmandi have become neophytes. I wish I had spoken the phrase out loud; it's the sort of thing someone might remember an hour later, and it certainly couldn't have gone over any worse than the "invisible car" metaphor for the gifts of the Holy Spirit ("if you use it, you'll see that you're getting where you want to go, but you won't really be sure how"). (And let us not mention the traditional Catholic greeting to the newly received, "Welcome aboard, now start bailing," complete with visual aid of a milk jug cut out for use as a bailer.)

In any case, the purpose of this post is just to get "Thirty Days to a Holier Thou" into Internet search engines, so I can feel like I've contributed something to the world (if not to my parish's mystagogia class). I suppose I should explain the phrase, which may not be self-explanatory for those who aren't regular readers of Disputations (I believe we're down to about three now):
  • A virtue is a good habit.
  • A habit is a disposition to act in a certain way. Being disposed to act in a certain way makes it easier for you to choose to act that way.
  • You acquire a habit by repeatedly choosing to act in the way the habit disposes you to act.
  • Roughly speaking, if you repeatedly choose to act in the way a habit disposes you to act for thirty straight days, you will have acquired the habit.
  • Therefore, you are, today -- and for any value of "today" -- only thirty days away from acquiring most any habit.
  • Therefore, you are, at any time, thirty days away from acquiring most any virtue.
  • If you do want to acquire a virtue, a good habit, don't neglect daily prayer to God to strengthen both the daily choosing of the acts and the growth of the virtue in you.



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Every little thing he does is magic

I used to call myself a boot-licking Vatican toady, referencing my docility toward papal teaching and curial decisions.

I'm as docile as ever, I suppose, but I haven't called myself a boot-licking Vatican toady in years, because I've come to see that I'm really just a rank amateur. For real boot-licking Vatican toadies, docility is not enough. You. Must. Enthuse.

And while I can and do enthuse over things popes do, I do not enthuse over everything they do. It was noticing how people who had once enthused over everything Bl. John Paul II did were now enthusing over everything Benedict XVI did (while expressing more sorrow than anger that Bl. John Paul II hadn't done them) that showed me what a duffer I was at boot-licking.

Now, of course, it's Pope Francis who -- forget "can do no wrong," he can do no un-fabulous. He talks to people, he kisses babies, he sits in the back row at Mass (who can doubt his Catholic bona fides now?). He is (as someone else has said) the Honeybadger Pope. Francis don't care, he does what he wants... and people love him for it!

Some people love him for it. Other people are mad at the people who love Francis for doing what Benedict had done before him. (These are generally not the same people who are mad at the people who love Francis for doing what Benedict did not do and was -- in the opinion of the people mad at the people who love Francis -- right not to do.)

It gets particularly complicated when the thing Pope Francis has done is preach the Catholic faith. He does this often; it may not be too early in his pontificate to say he's making a habit of it. The Franatics say, "Did you hear him say Jesus is the one Savior? Wow! I love this guy!" The Benedict Brigade sputters, "But...but Pope Benedict said the same thing!"

For my part, I say, "Well, yeah. And also, so?"

Pope Francis isn't a continuation of Pope Benedict in preaching the Name of Jesus. They are both continuations of St. Peter, who kicked off the whole "pope preaching Jesus" thing rather memorably at about nine in the morning on the first Pentecost after Jesus' Resurrection.

I don't understand why people get excited when they read that the Pope is preaching the Catholic faith. Maybe they don't hear the Catholic faith preached very often in their parishes. (I'm fortunate; I've heard good, even challenging homilies far more often than theologically dodgy ones (though neither as often as the harmless but forgettable sort of modest length).)

I have a better idea why some insist that Pope Francis is just saying the same things Pope Benedict said. They're sharpening the knives to be inserted between the fourth and fifth ribs of the people who think -- though I'm not sure "think" is the mot juste -- that, because Pope Francis isn't living in the papal apartments, the Church will permit artificial contraception and priestesses.

But again, if you want to show the incoherence of that line of thought (so to speak), the stronger case is the continuity of papal teaching back to First Century Jerusalem, not back to the first week of March.


Sunday, April 07, 2013

There's work to do

From Book 2, Chapter 1, "Faith in Jesus Christ, Foundation of the Christian Life," Christ, the Life of the Soul, by Bl. Columba Marmion:
Christianity is nothing else than acceptance -- with all its remotest doctrinal and practical consequences -- of the divinity of Christ in the Incarnation.
If you don't believe Bl. Columba, re-read the Gospel According to Saint John -- if you have somewhere to be, then just re-read John 6:29.

Taking this as a sufficient definition of Christianity, it seems to me the following aspects of the definition are challenged today -- either explicitly or implicitly, in dizzyingly complex combinations -- by people who call themselves Christians:
  • "nothing else"
  • "acceptance"
  • "remotest"
  • "doctrinal"
  • "practical"
  • "consequences"
  • "divinity"
  • "Christ"
  • "Incarnation"
There may well even be self-described Christians so clever they reject the very idea of defining Christianity.

Large numbers of Christians are going through life without knowing what Christianity is. Christians who do know what Christianity is have an obligation to help them, beginning with how they witness to the meaning of Christianity in their own lives.



Saturday, April 06, 2013

Tales from the dark side

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, quotes Pope Francis on gossip:
I don't know why, but there is a dark joy in gossiping. Sometimes we begin by saying nice things about another, but then we slip into gossip, making the object of our chatter merchandise to be bartered. Let us ask forgiveness because when we do this to a friend, we do it to Jesus, because Jesus is in this friend.
The Pope's term "merchandise to be bartered" suggests that, even absent the dark part, gossip can be an objectification of another. As humans, we naturally bond over stories, but we must never reduce anyone to a mere character in a story.

As with most vices that don't require much planning, if you become
  • Aware of the circumstances (the "near occasions") in which you are tempted to sin, through for example a nightly examen of conscience; then
  • Forswear falling into that sin in those circumstances (and, as prudence allows, to avoid the circumstances altogether); then
  • Prepare for those occasions with prayer and personal commitment ("Dear Lord, give me the grace to fulfill my firm intention to avoid gossip or injuring speech of any kind at lunch today"); then
  • Compare how you did with how you used to do; and don't
  • Despair when you fall, but return all the more firmly to
  • Prayer -- and don't forget prayers of gratitude when you don't fall --
you should be able to choke gossip out of your life.


Monday, April 01, 2013


The Church doesn't fast during the Octave of Easter, or on any Sunday, out of joy in Jesus' resurrection.

Other than that, though, you're free to continue all the prayers, almsgiving, and good works you adopted for Lent.

See, this is where those who actually fasted during Lent get a little of it back from the pikers who were all, "Oh, I don't think this season is just about giving up, you know. I'm going to be adding to instead." So you're going to stop doing a good thing's Easter?