Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesday Homily - 4 December 2013, Memorial of St. John of Damascus

Today I felt called to preach about St. John of Damascus and the issue of Iconoclasm, as well as its modern variations (today's readings).

Most joyful Advent to you!  Today is the memorial of St. John of Damascus, who was a priest in Damascus and a monk near Jerusalem for the last 40 or so years of his life.*  He died about 760.  He is most remembered for his development of the theology of the Incarnation, against Iconoclasm.  Iconoclasm was a movement in the Greek Church in the 8th and 9th centuries, which took too literally the prohibition against images in the Old Testament.  They literally "broke the icons," removing and destroying images from churches - icons, statues, crucifixes, and so on.

St. John recognized that this movement had some serious theological difficulties.  He exposed these difficulties in relation to the Incarnation.  He showed that, since Christ's human nature was real, and was the same as ours - "alike in all things but sin" - it was possible to depict the human nature in religious art.  In other words, we not only can but should use the things God has given us to worship Him, from wood and stone up to Christ's own humanity.  His deep arguments convinced people, and eventually overcame Iconoclasm.  So it's in large part thanks to St. John of Damascus that our beautiful Cathedral here is full of such inspiring windows and statues.

But we should not think that Iconoclasm was only a problem in the Church a thousand years ago.  It has continually popped up in history.  For example, it surfaced again in the Reformation, especially in the denominations influenced by John Calvin, which even now tend to have little or no religious art [and for the same reason, a very shallow understanding of the sacraments - not said but relevant].  It's also one of the sources of our culture's willingness to disregard some people's full humanity.  The Culture of Death is a form of iconoclasm, and the homosexual lobby is influenced in a similar way. 
As Catholics, our responses to these issues are still informed by the work of St. John of Damascus.  We can oppose these issues, too, by arguing from the Incarnation.  Because we believe that Christ's human nature really is the same as ours - again, "alike in all things but sin" - we cannot accept as "just" that any person be denied the full protection of their humanity.  Because we believe in the Incarnation, we will never find anything good in abortion or euthanasia or embryonic stem-cell research.  These evils cannot go together with our Catholic faith, logically or theologically.  In the same way, because we believe in the Incarnation, we cannot accept the various arguments that it does not matter how we use our bodies.  It has to matter, if our bodies are related to Christ's body, and to our salvation.

As we continue with this Holy Mass and into this season of Advent, there are two things we can do.  First, we can deepen our faith, as we are always called to do, using the ways the Church offers us: for example, studying and praying with the Scriptures, reading the Catechism, listening to Catholic radio and reading the Fathers, all so readily available to us in this digital age.  The more we know our faith, the closer we can be to Jesus Christ, and the more open to all of His gifts of grace and mercy.  This is how we learn to love both God and neighbor, just as Pope Francis is constantly calling us to do.

Second, we can imitate St. John of Damascus in his witness and charity.  We can show the world the quality of our love and faith by how we live.  What we say and what we do each day conveys to everyone around us what we really value.  Let us display the grace and mercy of Christ we have received, especially in what we are willing to tolerate - namely, the human weaknesses of our brothers and sisters, which is always redeemable - and in what we refuse to accept and condone - namely, the evils that are contrary to our faith.  We can always make the distinction for our neighbor between weakness and evil, and be merciful without being indifferent, just as we pray God always is with us.

By growing in our faith and by the witness of our lives, we receive and share the coming salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

* Actually, I misspoke; he was a city counselor in Damascus, and left there about 730 to become a monk at St. Sabas's monastery near Jerusalem, and was ordained there.
** Icon from Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, DC:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Evangelii Gaudium," "The Joy of the Gospel" - Post-Synodal Exhortation from Pope Francis

Pope Francis's post-synodal exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium," was released today.  It's rather long, and I've read quickly through the whole thing once, but it deserves a more careful read than that.  There is a great deal worth thinking about.

My initial conclusions can be summed up pretty quickly:

     1. Pope Francis is calling us to conversion and mission, very strongly and urgently (#3, 5, etc).  In this sense he is, once again and like his namesake, both perfectly radical, and perfectly traditional.  I think this is very important to keep firmly in mind, because (a) his pastoral experience and referents are different than ours here in Iowa, and (b) sometimes he writes with less than perfect clarity, with round-about references to things that aren't obvious to all; and therefore if we're not focused on his meaning-with-the-Church, we might mistake it for something else.

     2. Pope Francis is stressing once again, just as his predecessors did, the personal quality of encounter with Christ, through the Gospel and the Church's ministry of the Gospel (#20, 27, etc).  Christ changes us, he insists.  Two of the aspects of that conversion, which he wants to stress here, are joy (even in the face of difficulties, as he says several times), and the desire for others' encounter with Christ also, which is "evangelization."  Hence the title.

     3. Pope Francis seems to have an excellent read on the modern world.  He expresses clearly the seductive but disheartening qualities of modern life (#52ff) - individualism (and its isolation), materialism (and its exploitation), secularism (and its persecution), freedom (and its stagnation), and so on.  He also sees all of these, not just in their guises outside the Church, which we oppose with the Gospel, but also their insidious corruption inside the Church, sapping the joy of believers.  This is a nuance too little talked about; I am pleased he's not afraid to point clearly to it.

     4. One could quibble with a few things he says, and a few things he doesn't say, even in a document as long as this.  For example, he points out the flaws and abuses to which capitalism is prone (e.g. #54), without (here) noting the (even greater) problems with statism/socialism (e.g. in #240, 241); his discussion of Islam is idealistic, and doesn't consider the absence of "magisterial" unity in that religion (#252, 253); except for two brief sections on popular piety (#122ff) and the homily (#135-159), he mostly waits till near the very end to point to the defining importance of the Church's liturgical life for both the initial and ongoing encounter with Christ, and the particular and necessary shape it gives our efforts at evangelizing.  These minor issues won't, in the end, take away from the significance and depth of the exhortation as a whole.

     5. His Marian conclusion is excellent (#284-288).  He calls Mary the "star of the new evangelization," and almost every sentence here has something powerful packed into it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Homily for Wednesday of 33rd Week, 11/20/13

Today I preached from the first reading, 2 Mac 7:1, 20-31.

Almost every religion of the world believes in some sort of afterlife.  Most people are willing to believe in the possibility that the soul survives the death of the body.  But what makes Judaism and Christianity unique on this point is that we believe, not just in a life for the soul after our death, but that the body also has an eternal destiny. 

In this first reading, we see the core of the Jewish belief.  This is one of the key places in the Old Testament, where the idea of a bodily resurrection is revealed, especially in the words of the devout mother, "Therefore... the Creator of the universe ... in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life..."  The breath is the soul, and the life is the body, which in some mysterious way not yet understood, also continues after death.  Both are raised and saved by God.  This belief prepared for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in His divinity and His human soul, but also in His human body - as we see, for example, when He shows Himself to the Apostle Thomas, with the wounds of the Passion still marked in His flesh.  It is the same body!  The same flesh that He carried in His earthly life was the flesh of His Resurrection.  This is not without change - as St. Paul says, our flesh will be changed "from corruption to incorruption," so that in Heaven our bodies, like Christ's, will no longer be subject to weakness, injury, age, and so on.  But it remains the same body.

This is part of the promise of our faith in Jesus Christ, in His Resurrection.  Mary is one of the very few for whom this has already been fulfilled.  Before Mass, we prayed the Glorious Mysteries, including the mystery of the Assumption: Mary is already taken up into Heaven in her body, and glorified in her body.  This is by way of promise to all of us, that God wants this as part of His eternal gift to us.  And so we say this in the Creed: "I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting." 

[For the sake of time, I skipped this transition, which I hope was understood: namely, that this belief in the resurrection of the body necessitates the understanding that the person is not the soul, wearing the body in some temporary fashion, and discarding it at death, but rather the person is the union of soul and body.  This also means, of course, certain things about life beginning at conception, and the redemptive possibilities in suffering, and so on.]  There are a number of things that flow from this belief, but here let me just mention two.

First, since the body is destined for its resurrection, what we do to or with the body in this life really does matter.  Most especially, there is no way to reconcile this belief with abortion or euthanasia.  It is simply a contradiction to say on the one hand that the body is meant for Heaven, and that the person is the union of the body and the soul; and to say on the other hand that we can treat people or their bodies as disposable.  There simply is no way that these evil practices can be made compatible with our Catholic faith.  [One could obviously say much more here about pro-abortion politicians trying to claim the pro-life label, or about how the "personally opposed, but..." arguments all fail, and so on; but, desiring a shorter homily, I demurred.]

Second, we are invited to pray for the dead.  The general resurrection hasn't happened yet.  Apart from Jesus and Mary [and Elijah], all the dead are still waiting to be reunited with their restored bodies.  And so our prayers for them now can still be effective.  We can and do hope and pray that our own beloved dead, and all the dead, when they are reunited with the flesh, will also be glorified with Jesus Christ, and be eternally saved.  Especially in this month of November, we are reminded in a special way to pray for the dead, for forgiveness of sins and their eternal blessedness, body and soul in Heaven.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pope Francis addresses Pontifical Council for New Evangelization: "Strip ourselves of all that is useless or harmful..."

On October 14, Pope Francis held an audience with the assembled Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, and gave an excellent short address. He's pushing hard on the need to evangelize with a more pure and less compromised commitment to the Gospel, whole and true; and he's right to do so!  Zenit has the whole address in English translation.  Here are a few thoughts.

He begins with the importance of consistently living as followers of Christ:

Faith is a gift of God, but it is important that we Christians show that we live the faith in a concrete
image by Andrew Brown,
way, through love, concord, joy, suffering, because this elicits questions, as at the beginning of the journey of the Church: Why do they live like this? What drives them? These are questions that go to the heart of evangelization, which is the witness of faith and charity. What we need especially in these times are credible witnesses who with their life and also with the word render the Gospel visible, reawaken attraction for Jesus Christ, for God’s beauty.

Consistent witness is our best "credential," our most credible invitation to those in greatest need of Christ's mercy.  Here he mentions faith and charity, joy and suffering, as the essential marks of that invitation.  We can't follow Christ "part-time."  Our faith is obviously not real faith if it doesn't inform every aspect of our lives; our charity is just do-good-ism if it's not at the root of everything we do; and our joy isn't worth sharing if it disappears when our cross gets too heavy.  Other people clearly see this, if that's the face we present to them.  The reverse is also true: real faith, unvarying charity, true joy even in suffering, are seen to be very valuable when we hold them as such.  These are our treasures, the real gifts we have from Christ.  We have to act, then, in the same manner, holding other things to be less valuable:

As children of the Church we must continue on the path of Vatican Council II, stripping ourselves of useless and harmful things, of false worldly securities which weigh down the Church and damage her true face. There is need of Christians who render the mercy of God visible to the men of today, His tenderness for every creature. We all know that the crisis of contemporary humanity is not superficial but profound. Because of this the New Evangelization -- while calling to have the courage to go against the current, to be converted from idols to the only true God --, cannot but use the language of mercy...

AP photo, Domenico Stinellis,
What does he mean by "useless and harmful things" and "false worldly securities?"  He said the same thing in more detail in his address to the bishops of Brazil in July, when he was there for World Youth Day. In that address, he talked about things essential to the Church: humility, beauty, simplicity, openness to mystery (especially in the liturgy), and missionThe Church needs constantly to relearn the lesson of Aparecida; she must not lose sight of it... God wants to be seen precisely through our resources, scanty resources, because he is always the one who acts.  He also talked a lot about what is central to pastoral care - Scripture, catechesis, the sacraments, community, and friendship with the Lord Jesus and with Mary and the saints:

Many people think: “the Church’s idea of man is too lofty for me, the ideal of life which she proposes is beyond my abilities, the goal she sets is unattainable, beyond my reach. Nonetheless – they continue – I cannot live without having at least something, even a poor imitation... The great sense of abandonment and solitude, of not even belonging to oneself, which often results from this situation, is too painful to hide.  Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.  I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles…

So I think what he means by "useless and harmful things" are the things that intrude in the life of the Church, separating faith from everyday life, things that are in some sense opposed to these two little lists; things that obscure rather than simplify the life of faith, or that render the mystery of Christ banal, or that marginalize or contradict the Scriptures and the sacraments, and so on.  That list is obviously very long, and indeed, very well known in the life of the Church, since every age has its particular challenges to the purity of the Good News the Church is preaching.  And it is always a struggle, in the human sense, to fight against those intrusions for the pure teaching of Christ.

The second point in yesterday's address moves directly from witness to evangelization:

The New Evangelization is a renewed movement towards him who has lost the faith and the profound meaning of life. This dynamism is part of the great mission of Christ to bring life to the world, the Father’s love to humanity.

Again, this is a clear recognition of the need of people for Christ's great mercy, and therefore the urgency Christians ought to have to offer Christ's life, the Father's love, to the darkened world.  This mission is Christ's, and therefore ours in the Church.  It's ours both because Every baptized person is a “cristoforo,” a bearer of Christ, and because No one is excluded from the hope of life, from the love of God. The Church is sent to reawaken this hope everywhere.

He goes on to say that this urgent evangelizing mission has a distinct shape or character, which is (to use a different vocabulary than this address, but to which he also refers) the "apostolic" and "ecclesial" one:

In the Church all this, however, is not left to chance or improvisation. It calls for a common commitment to a pastoral plan that recalls the essential and that is “well centered on the essential, namely on Jesus Christ." It is no use to be scattered in so many secondary or superfluous things, but to be concentrated on the fundamental reality, which is the encounter with Christ, with his mercy, with his love, and to love brothers as He loved us. A project animated by the creativity and imagination of the Holy Spirit, who drives us also to follow new ways, with courage and without becoming fossilized! 

by David Willey,
This "pastoral plan centered on Christ," then, is not something new.  It's what the Church has alwaysreverent worship in the liturgy, touching people deeply with the profound mystery of Christ at the intimate moments of their lives, as well as all through the year; sound Gospel preaching, including the denunciation of the evils of the day, and the call to conversion; moral clarity and leadership; taking care of the "orphans and widows," those who are least able to care for themselves - especially today in the face of the culture of death, the unborn and the elderly and very sick; radical hospitality, and the "preferential option for the poor;" and so forth.  It is the three-fold work of the Church for liturgy, proclamation, and ministry, which we see in the Book of Acts and always and everywhere in the Church since, but, as he began this address, unencumbered by the cultural dross of particular times and places.
done (not equally well at every time and place, to be sure):

His third point turns to that necessary separating of Truth from worldly accretions: 
In this context I would like to stress the importance of catechesis, as an instance of evangelization. Pope Paul VI already did so in the encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi (cf. n. 44). From there the great catechetical movement has carried forward a renewal to surmount the break between the Gospel and the culture and illiteracy of our days in the matter of faith. I have recalled several times a fact that has struck me in my ministry: to meet children who cannot even do the Sign of the Cross! Precious is the service carried out by the catechists for the New Evangelization, and it is important that parents be the first catechists, the first educators of the faith in their own family with their witness and with the word.

We can't offer people a pure and vibrant faith unless we ourselves are well catechized.  It's too easy, especially in this world described as "post-Christian," unwittingly to mix faith with not-faith, with moral platitudes (which may perhaps be true in themselves, but which don't lead to Christ), or with political agenda or social activism (which, again, may be either true or false, good or harmful, but which cannot lead to Christ). 

I'm really impressed with the clarity and consistency of Pope Francis's direction, in this address.  He sounds "papal," even as he gives his words a personal urgency, an authenticity from his own pastoral zeal and experience. What he seems to be urging us to consider is that we are not nearly radically enough "for the Gospel."  We make so many little compromises with the world.  Many are necessary, most are not bad or evil in any sense.  But all of them dull the brightness of the pure Gospel.  They cause us, for example, to think twice before speaking out against some moral evil or injustice, or to make subtle shifts in our priorities among transient goods that obscure in some degree our commitment to spiritual and heavenly goods.  These little compromises "domesticate" Christ.  They make Him fit into our existing lives, rather than making us change our lives to fit into His.  That's where we need a visibly greater degree of "purity," like St. John the Baptist - of prophetic stance outside the world and its systems of compromises to preserve whatever goods are valued at the time, and radical commitment to the only lasting good, salvation in Christ. 
St. Francis in his day retrieved for the Church the apostolicity of poverty, from those who were using poverty as a weapon against the Church ("bishops are wrong because rich," "sacramental records are a tool of the government to tax the poor," etc.).  What we need today is to retrieve the apostolicity of charity, from those who are using charity as a weapon against the Church (i.e., "caring for women means supporting abortion," "caring for the poor means supporting such-or-other government program or ideology," "caring for children means unraveling real marriage," etc.).  This is why we need a more radically "evangelical" Church, one which can oppose those dark powers, not just with some alternative-but-still-essentially-worldly program, but with a recognizably spiritual program: the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Jesuit" Interview with Pope Francis

Yesterday, America magazine released the English-language translation of the "official" interview with Pope Francis by Jesuit priest Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ.  The original Italian (which I have not looked at) was published in La Civilta Catholica.

Just two thoughts on this interview for now.  One, the main-stream press is trying very hard to use anything possible which they can glean from this interview to drive wedges into the Church.  Fr. Z, among others, makes this point most ably.  Just one example: Here's the AP report on the publication of the interview, copied in a great many places.  Notice how they lead with what they imagine will be the most provocative part, even though it's clearly not the most important part, and even then, they have to misconstrue by taking significantly out of context, to make it seem to say what they want it to say.  The caption under the photo takes it thusly:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis is warning that the Catholic Church's moral edifice might "fall like a house of cards" if it doesn't balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make the church a merciful, more welcoming place for all.

The article's lead point (second-to-fourth third paragraphs) makes the same maneuver:

In the 12,000-word article, Francis expands on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledges some of his own faults...

But his vision of what the church should be stands out, primarily because it contrasts so sharply with many of the priorities of his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of generations of bishops and cardinals around the globe.

Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were not all equivalent.

Compare that with what Francis actually said about these topics, in the section labelled "The Church as Field Hospital:"

Pope Francis begins by showing great affection and immense respect for his predecessor: “Pope Benedict has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle...

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin...

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent...

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person...

“This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace...

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

This is very nearly the opposite of what the AP article attempts to portray.  Nothing in all this can reasonably be construed as any sort of novelty, or break with the priorities of Pope Benedict, or change in what the Church is teaching or trying to do.  Pope Francis wants the Church to be successful at getting people to love God, go to Mass and Confession, and live the content of the faith.  Whudathunkit??

It also shows very clearly my second point in this post: Pope Francis, like his predecessors, and with a deep personal urgency and simplicity, really emphasizes the proclamation of the Gospel.  That's what this interview is mostly about; he comes back to it again and again in different contexts.  In this section, he's talking especially about the initial proclamation, the invitation to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI also said, our world is increasingly in need of this initial proclamation.  Actions speak louder than words, and the most fundamental kind of invitation to the Gospel, both in actions and words, is to demonstrate to someone that they are worthy of love, by actually loving them.  This is the grace that heals, and from that being loved comes the desire to love, to experience conversion and growth in faith.  That's the only real basis for living up to God's standards of freedom and dignity, the revealed moral law.  

 Pope Francis said essentially the same things in his address to the bishops of Brazil, back in July.  The talk and the interview are both worth a good read and reflection, if nothing else just to be able to refute the even more intense barrage of false claims about his vision and goals that we're going to face now.

PS - Today, Pope Francis addressed a meeting of medical professionals and preached about the evil of abortion, against "throwing away" the lives of children.  He made the explicit point that this is not only a religious idea, but also the clear conclusion of both reason and science.  After trying to suggest yesterday in their depiction of the contents of the interview that Pope Francis doesn't really think that's very important, the main-stream media are beside themselves today.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Homily, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 11 August 2013

This is, as best I recall, what I preached on Sunday on these readings.

There are a great many ideas of faith in the world, that are inaccurate, or misleading, or just wrong.  Let me note briefly just two of them.  The first is the idea of faith as sentimentality.  This shows up, for example, in false moral ideas that reduce right and wrong to feelings, and that therefore end up trying to justify grave moral evils based on how it makes them feel, or makes someone else feel.  The second is the idea of faith in what has been called "the god of the gaps;" that is, that what science can know about how the universe is, really is certain knowledge; and that faith, then, is a way of knowing, without great certainty, what lies outside the boundaries of scientific knowledge.  But since scientific knowledge is always growing, eventually what is known by faith is replaced by something else, known by science.  So, this kind of faith always leads to scepticism.

Neither of these ideas is real faith.  The problem with both of these ideas is that they do not give us a relationship with God, but only with ourselves, with human sentiment, knowledge, or opinion.  In contrast, all of our readings today show what a real idea of faith looks like.  And in this sense, the most important line in this set of readings is right at the beginning of the Gospel: "Do not be afraid," Jesus tells his disciples, "for it pleases my Father to give you the kingdom" of Heaven.  It pleases God our Father to give us salvation.  God wants us to be with Him in Heaven!  This is what real faith looks like: the idea that it pleases God to save us.

In the second reading, we have the example of Abraham, the "father of faith."  He is called the father of our faith because he offered to God total trust, that what God was promising would indeed be done.  Because of his great trust in the goodness of what God wanted for him, he was willing to leave his home and take his family into a foreign and unknown land, without protection - something that, at that time, was about as risky a thing as could be imagined.  Because of his great trust in God, he was able to flourish there, and even, as we know from Scripture, to offer extravagant hospitality to strangers.  And we know all the things that he was able to accept from God, including the sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, by which God tested his faith, not so that Isaac would die, but so that He should make the great promise to provide the lamb for the sacrifice.

And the first reading evokes the faith of Moses leading Israel out from their slavery - their physical
slavery to Egypt and their moral slavery to sin.  This faith is expressed in "oaths," in the great Covenant which God makes with Israel.  God binds Himself to do certain things, in order to save His people, and in return, God's people also bind themselves to do certain other things, ritually and morally.  This is what the ritual of the Passover constantly expressed.  But this binding, this commitment, is not about force or threats or coercion by God.  It's about love: God wants us to be saved, and in order to be saved, He must do things so that we can also do things.  God gives Israel the Law, although the Law is not itself salvation; and God gives them the land, although this is but the promise of our true home in Heaven; and God gives them the Temple, again, so that He could also give us the true Lamb of the sacrifice.

Abraham and Moses had great faith, faith that expressed itself in total trust in His goodness, and in great obedience to the terms of the Covenant, and in the waiting for the coming of the Lamb.  We, too, are invited to have faith that looks like this: trust, and obedience, and adoration of the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.  We know that He is the true Lamb of God, and that He alone sets us free from sin and brings us to Heaven, where the Father wants us to be.

In the Gospel, Jesus points to Himself as the perfect example of trusting, obedient faith.  "Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them."  When does Jesus do this for His disciples?  He does it at the Last Supper, at the Passover when He truly becomes the sacrificial Lamb for us.  The Last Supper is also the first Holy Mass.  And still today, in every Holy Mass, Jesus Himself puts on the servant's apron, and gets down on His knees for us, in order to give us Himself, the Lamb, in the Holy Eucharist.

Our faith needs to have the same shape as this.  Because of our faith, we must have such trust in God, such trust that what He wants for us is really what is good for us, because whatever He wants for us in this life is meant to get us to be with Him in Heaven.  And because of our faith, we must live according to the oaths of the Covenant, sealed in the blood of the Lamb.  We must live by the moral law and the Gospel, and come to the sacraments of the Church, and pray and give alms, reaching out to the poor and needy as their servants.  I say "must," again, not in the way of threat or force, but of love: God loves us so much that He wants us to be with Him in Heaven, and He gives us the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus our Lamb, so that we can get there; and if we love Him even a little in return, we will want for ourselves what He wants for us.  This love, this desire, is what real faith always looks like.

And if we have even a taste of this real faith, we want it, not only for ourselves, but also for others.  God wants them to get to Heaven too!  Therefore we constantly offer them the example of our faith - of our trust in God, like Abraham's trust, that gives us life and joy; our faithful obedience, like that of Moses, that brings us back to the Church again and again, and lifts us up with hope; our compassion and hospitality to the needs of others, like Christ washing the feet of His disciples, that puts our love into action every day.  In the face of a world that has no faith, we offer this faith, this real faith in Jesus Christ, in these ways.

As we continue with this Holy Mass, and especially as we continue in this Year of Faith, let us strive the imitate more fully these great examples of faith: the trust of Abraham, the obedience of Moses, the loving service of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Ask the Holy Spirit to make your faith stronger, to put the fire of His love into your heart, and into your life.  Pray for faith, and then share your faith.  It pleases God our Father to give us faith.  May we follow Him all the way home to Heaven.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Homily - 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 21, 2013

As best I recall, this is what I preached at the 5 pm Mass on Sunday.  I may be condensing a bit from what I actually preached.  Although I didn't mention it in the homily, I chose to preach on this topic because of NFP Awareness Week this week, 7/21-28.

The obvious theme in today's readings is hospitality.  And these readings give us nice and clear examples of what the fruits of hospitality are meant to be. 

In his eagerness to serve the three strangers, Abraham first shows us gratitude.  As St. Paul says, "Name something you have that you have not received."  Everything we have comes to us a gift from God - our very life, our vocations, certainly all of our material possessions.  Abraham understands this.  And he understands that what we have received is meant not only for our own good, but also for the good of others.  And so he is quick to express gratitude to God for his prosperity, by offering food and water and shade to the strangers who come to his tent.

The second fruit of hospitality is fruitfulness.  In receiving the word of the coming birth of his son, NOW, after years of wanting and hoping for the fulfillment of this promise, Abraham receives a fruitful increase to his hospitality.  This is true for us as well, either materially or spiritually.  When we give, we are rewarded even more, in some way.

And Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus shows the third fruit of hospitality, which is contemplation.  Hospitality brings us, like Mary, to His feet, so that we can hear His voice and see His holy face in serving others.

All of us are called by our baptism to practice this kind of hospitality.   God wants us to be grateful for all the gifts He has given us, and to use all them, both for our own good and salvation, and for that of others. God wants us to be materially and spiritually fruitful, in our work and in our prayer, and in every part of our life.  And God really wants us to know Him and to love Him with our whole being. 

Now, contrast this, what the Bible says about hospitality, with what the world says about hospitality.  Everywhere in the world we look, every time we turn on the TV or the internet or the radio or open a magazine, the world tries to tell us how we must be.  And in particular, the world tells us that in place of hospitality, we must have contraception.

Contraception is the opposite of hospitality.  We can see that here, in these readings.  Point by point, contraception contradicts all of the fruits of hospitality.  In place of gratitude, contraception makes us selfish.  Practicing contraception leads us to demand what is meant to be given as the free gift of love.  Of course contraception is the opposite of fruitfulness; and this is just as true of spiritual fruitfulness as of bodily fruitfulness.  And contraception, being a serious sin, never leads us to contemplate the face or the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ in the one we love.

But we know that God is most merciful and forgiving.  He "desires not the death of the sinner."  And He calls us every day to turn away from sin in our life, and seek His forgiveness, and really change and become the holy people He wants us to be.  We know the means of this constant journey of conversion - daily prayer, and the grace of the sacraments, especially of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Every day, every moment, is an opportunity for each of us to hear and respond to His call, to love in a better way, as we follow the example of Jesus Christ and the saints. [I think I had a few more sentences rounding out this exhortation, but I can't remember exactly how I closed.]

Friday, July 5, 2013

New Encyclical, "Lumen Fidei"

Today the new encyclical on faith (completing the set with Pope Benedict's two on charity and one on hope) is released in English.  I'll put a link in the side-bar, as well.  Here's the clear theme:

4. There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. Yet since Christ has risen and draws us beyond death, faith is also a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion. We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom; it is a light for our darkness. Dante, in the Divine Comedy, after professing his faith to Saint Peter, describes that light as a "spark, which then becomes a burning flame and like a heavenly star within me glimmers". It is this light of faith that I would now like to consider, so that it can grow and enlighten the present, becoming a star to brighten the horizon of our journey at a time when mankind is particularly in need of light. 

More on this encyclical when I can.

HHS Mandate news

A not insignificant group of religious leaders offered an "open letter" on Tuesday, on the danger of the HHS Mandate, still violating "free exercise of religion" and liberty of conscience in patently illegal and immoral ways.  For the record, the "Final Final Rule," announced last Friday, remains unchanged from any of its previous iterations.  All differences are cosmetic, merely trying to disguise the violation of law and conscience.

C-SPAN also has a Tuesday 7/2 press conference including comments by Archbishop Lori.

And, rather quietly, it was announced that not only would the deadline for the mandate be pushed back again to Jan 1, 2014, but also, another "grace period" would be offered to Jan 1, 2015.  This avoid a showdown in the 2014 elections, of course, but also tacitly admits that enforcement is problematic at best, impossible at worst. [Correction: the grace period to 1/1/15 is for the employer mandate, not the HHS mandate.]

The Beckett Fund has a good page about the details of the dozens of major lawsuits against the mandate.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Homily for Feast of St. Thomas, 3 July 2013

Today I preached mostly on the Gospel, St. John's account of "doubting Thomas." Here's what I said, as best I recall.  Pope Francis's homily can be found here.

When Pope St. Gregory the Great preached on today's Gospel, he made the distinction between knowledge and faith.  St. Thomas saw Jesus with the eyes of his body, and so he recognized Jesus as Risen and alive.  But in a separate act, he also saw Jesus with the eyes of his soul, and recognized who it was who was really standing before him: God, the Son of God. 

There are a great many people today who are able to see with the eyes of the body, but who refuse to see with the eyes of the soul.  I'm thinking for example of people who support abortion; they can see even with the eyes of the body what harm abortion does - taking the life of an innocent child, morally damaging a mother and often a father as well, and also other people - but yet they don't recognize the moral evil.  I'm also thinking of those who don't support the traditional meaning of marriage.  They can see how important marriage really is to children and to the common good, but yet they are willing to support many things that harm marriage.  And many other examples could be listed.

The evidence of God is there, in front even of the eyes of our bodies, but there are people who refuse to make the move St. Thomas made, to go from seeing physically to seeing with the eyes of the soul, to recognize who it is who confronts us and calls us every day.  They cannot see Jesus Christ with their soul, because they do not have faith, or they do not have hope, or they do not know joy.

This is what we have to offer them.  The responsorial psalm tells us, "Go out to all the world and tell the Good News."  We are called to share the Gospel, to share our faith and hope and joy, with everyone.  We have to give them a reason to believe!  The world can't do this.  The world gives us no reason to hope, or to love or know joy, or to have any kind of faith.  But we have what they truly want, what Jesus Christ has given us, if only they could recognize what they truly need.  We have to offer it to them.

The best way to do that is always the way of humility, as St. Gregory also loved to say.  The way of humility is the way of the Cross.  It means following Jesus all the way to the end.  Sometimes, humility can mean giving up a friendship because the price of keeping the friendship is losing the Faith.  Sometimes humility means being willing to be last or less, in our family or at work, because we don't seek the power the world prizes.  Sometimes it means being unpopular, because we don't seek the world's popularity as important.  Very often it means being willing to say No to something evil, even when the whole world, it seems, is trying to say Yes to it.

But always, humility means we don't hold ourselves up with pride about our faith, as if we're special because have something that "those poor slobs" don't have.  Rather, when we share the reasons for our faith, we share something as a gift.  We don't crush people with the Faith, we offer it with gentleness, with joy.  Someone is only going to recognize Jesus Christ in our faith if what we offer is not about us, convincing them or dominating them or "winning them over."

But when we offer faith and hope, with humility and joy, we have a chance of helping people to see with the eyes of the soul: to see good and evil, to see the presence of God, to respond to the love of God.  We have to give people reasons to have hope, to love Jesus Christ.  Only then will they be able to see, and say, "My Lord and my God!"

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts and round-up of thoughts on yesterday's Supreme Court decisions about marriage

No doubt you have already read or heard about the two decisions yesterday, United States V. Windsor (striking down that part of DOMA which defined "marriage" and "spouse" as used in federal statutes), and Hollingsworth v. Perry (dismissing the suit brought by citizens of California to protect their own Constitution from the refusal of elected officials to uphold the law, Proposition 8, as passed).  Bishop Nickless's response is apt, for starters:

The Supreme Court of the United States announced two important decisions about the future of marriage in our country. In a 5-4 decision in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. In a separate 5-4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit.

We are, of course, most disappointed at the failure of the Court to uphold the dignity of marriage in both cases. If not corrected, the Court’s implicit repudiation of the role of both state and federal governments to regulate the institution of marriage for the sake of children’s wellbeing (and eventual moral health as citizens) will have long-lasting deleterious effects on our already tattered social fabric.

Marriage is not just any sexual relationship between consenting adults, nor the bestowal of social recognition and approval on such a relationship by government or society. Marriage has a clear nature, prior to the creation of positive laws to regulate it. Marriage is one specific and unique relationship: namely, the complementary union of the whole life of one man and one woman, for the sake of begetting children, and the good of the husband and wife. It is, of its nature, permanent, exclusive, total, and fruitful. Good laws recognize and defend the unique nature of marriage and the special privileges of parents and children that result from it. Such laws are “good” precisely because they foster what is best for children, and thereby for all of society.

We of the Roman Catholic Church, along with all those of every faith and of no faith who also recognize the unique dignity and purpose of marriage, will continue to pray and work, peacefully but unrelentingly, for the preservation in law and society of what marriage really is, and for the protection of all children unable to protect themselves.

There is a reference here to how abortion and contraception contribute to the destruction of marriage, because they make the activity of marriage only about the spouses - indeed, only about the satisfaction of a very narrow appetite - and not about the end (namely children) to which that activity is ordered, of its nature.  So if that's all that marriage means, it is quite reasonable that two men, or two women, or any number of men and women in any combination, ought to be able to have legal recognition of the manner in which they choose, publicly and formally, to seek satisfaction for the sexual appetite.  This becomes a reductio ad absurdum, but in our already absurd society, no one hears.

But the problems with the two decisions are much deeper than the failure to recognize the innate nature of marriage as such, the failure to protect parents and children, or the rejection of the idea that government has a vested interest in the health of families because healthy families produce healthy children, on the whole, and thus foster the common good.  The worst aspects of these decisions are not problems of fact, but of vision: they are not decisions of law, but of ideology.  Quite apart from the issue of marriage itself - and it's no small thing that the Court has, at every level, refused to recognize that marriage has its own nature, prior to the law - there is another underlying issue of democratic process, and the activism of legislating, indeed of moralizing, from the bench.  Justice Scalia in his dissent in Windsor excoriates the majority for this:

The Court is eager—hungry—to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case. Standing in the way is an obstacle, a technicality of little interest to anyone but the people of We the People, who created it as a barrier against judges’ intrusion into their lives. They gave judges, in Article III, only the “judicial Power,” a power to decide not abstract questions but real, concrete “Cases” and “Controversies.” Yet the plaintiff and the Government agree entirely on what should happen in this lawsuit. They agree that the court below got it right; and they agreed in the court below that the court below that one got it right as well. What, then, are we doing here?

The answer lies at the heart of the jurisdictional portion of today’s opinion, where a single sentence lays bare the majority’s vision of our role. The Court says that we have the power to decide this case because if we did not, then our “primary role in determining the constitutionality of a law” (at least one that “has inflicted real injury on a plaintiff ”) would “become only secondary to the President’s.” Ante, at 12. But wait, the reader wonders—Windsor won below, and so cured her injury, and the President was glad to see it. True, says the majority, but judicial review must march on regardless, lest we “undermine the clear dictate of the separation-of-powers principle that when an Act of Congress is alleged to conflict with the Constitution, it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and every- where “primary” in its role.

Moreover, the decisions themselves appear to be contradictory.  The rules seem to bend in one direction in one case, to allow a third party to have standing (despite the fact, as Scalia points out, that there is no disagreement and no remaining injury, following the original judgment), while bending in the opposite direction to refuse a third party to have standing (despite the fact that the adversarial relationship is clearly present, and the additional fact, on which our whole constitutional theory rests, that the people always retain sovereignty over their elected officials).  One scratches one's head trying to figure out how this is not merely arbitrary interpretation of law and precedents to achieve a predetermined outcome.

Finally, one of the best responses I've seen is this one, begging for more consistent teaching and practice of the faith by those most visible as leaders of the Church, namely, bishops and priests.  The same goes for us as deacons, to the extent that we too are visible leaders (albeit in a slightly different sense) and official representatives (in the very same sense) of the Church.  Permanent deacons have a special opportunity as married clergy (as nearly all of us are) to witness to the sanctity of marriage, to preach it in every sense (action, catechesis, and liturgical preaching), and to lead the Church's much-needed revival of the virtues of marriage.  Buckle up, brothers, we are being called to the front lines.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Archbishop Chaput on the New Evangelization

From a conference last week on evangelization and preaching, Archbishop Chaput gave this stirring and sobering reflection (courtesy of

(Picking up with the second third of his talk:) And that requires us to understand the pastoral terrain we face as Christians right now, today.  We should probably start by realizing that some of the same civil authorities that once happily honored Father Serra with statues in Golden Gate Park and the U.S. Capitol building now work even harder to restrict the freedom of American religious communities, force the Church out of public debate, and impose same-sex “marriage” as the law.  Father Serra gave his life to the task of bringing the Gospel to the New World.  But the “new world” we actually have in A.D. 2013 is alien to almost anything Serra could have imagined.

Blessed Pope John Paul II saw the outline of our new “new world” more than 30 years ago.  And following his lead, the Church has been calling Catholics to the work of a “new evangelization” ever since.  But there’s a natural human tendency to attach magic powers to slogans, which then replace serious thought and effort — as if saying the slogan, or talking about it, actually makes mission work happen.  In practice, the words “new evangelization” are overused and underthought.  Unless we reconfigure our lives to understanding and acting on it, the “new evangelization” is just another pious intention – well meaning, but ultimately infertile.

From here he goes to interior conversion, and the possibility of inviting others to conversion when mostly people listen to the world telling them there's no reason to change even our most sinful and destructive behaviors.  He touches on the kind of shallow Christianity which has been called "moralistic therapeutic deism," and how it's so very different from real faith in Jesus Christ; on the narcissistic trap of love of novelty rather than substance; and on the resulting lack of the fundamental virtues that allow self-mastery which afflicts our culture.  He continues:

Here’s what that means for all of us as believers.  A “new” evangelization must start with the sober knowledge that much of the once-Christian developed world, and even many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan.  Christian faith is not a habit.  It’s not a useful moral code.  It’s not an exercise in nostalgia.  It’s a restlessness, a consuming fire in the heart to experience the love of Jesus Christ and then share it with others — or it’s nothing at all.  Mastering the new social and demographic data that describe today’s world, and the new communications tools to reach it, are vitally important for the Church.  But nothing can be accomplished if we lack faith and zeal ourselves.  We – and that means you and I — are the means God uses to change the world.  The material tools are secondary.  People, not things, are decisive.

This is always the basic dynamic of Church reform and flourishing: interior first, exterior second, leading to well-grounding mission.  Nothing surprising here, but his clarity and forthrightness are admirable.  So he goes on to talk about zeal:

The heart of every fresh work of evangelization is this kind of ardor; a passionate faith that can only come from seeking out and giving ourselves entirely to Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost.  Just as Francis was raised up in his time to preach the Gospel with new passion in new kinds of ways, so Junipero Serra followed the same path, with the same unshakeable faith, to preach Jesus Christ to new souls, on a new continent, in a new world.

And thus he concludes:

I began my talk today with a passage from St. Paul because the theme of this conference — “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (9:16) — comes from the same First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.  The irony, the glory and the joy of faith in Jesus Christ is that the more we give it away to others, the stronger it grows, and the more we have for ourselves to feed our own hearts.  George Bernard Shaw once said that “When I was young, I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures, so I did ten times more work.”  Shaw was never a friend of Christianity, but that just makes me happier in borrowing his words.  Young or old, we need to live our faith as Junipero Serra did — all in, 100 percent, holding nothing back, with charity, endurance, passion and hope.  That kind of faith changes lives and remakes the world.

Read the full text of the talk.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, on the foundations of Apologetics for youth and young adults

Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, is a physicist with a clear view of the proper relationship of faith and reason.  He's also a wonderfully engaging and delightful presenter.  This video of his talk at the 2012 Napa Institute (found at the Sacred Page) is an excellent foray into one of the more urgent areas of Apologetics:

Fr. Spitzer is right on the money when he says that we must address the foundational questions first.  He lists three: the existence of God, the problem of suffering, and the historicity of Jesus Christ.  (One could also add to this list the question about what kind of church was/is intended by Christ.)  He really only gets to talk about the first one in this presentation, because of time, but I hope that our formation program has pointed to, if not taught more fully, some of the enduring answers to the others also.  (The classes on the Catechism, Apologetics, Moral Theology, and Christology, and the dash of Philosophy we're able to do, all touch on these three fundamental questions to some degree; and of course our Scripture and Ecclesiology classes address the fourth.)

He's also founded the Magis Center for Reason and Faith to provide resources for parents, catechists, and adult learners.  It looks like there's quite a bit here that would be useful in some homiletical situations, too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Unity, Division, and the Church's Holiness - brief thoughts

A few weeks ago I read this review of a new book on ecclesiology, and was intrigued enough to want to read the book for myself.  May was very busy and I wasn't able to read it as thoroughly or deeply as I hoped, so this post will remain very general.  (I also didn't take notes while reading it, and no longer have it in front of me - ILL is a wonderful thing! - so can't cite examples of my impressions.)

Radner's argument seems to be that division, violence, and sin are inherent in the (life of the) Church.  He dismisses "traditional" ecclesiology(s) that distinguish between the holiness of the Church and the sins of her members.  He simply elides "the sins of Christians" to "Christian sin" to "the Church is violent."  Therefore an "adequate" ecclesiology will account for this, and the way forward, he asserts, is to root ecclesiology more firmly in the Church's imitation of Christ's sacrificial love (although he then avoids the obvious direction of the argument to the Eucharist and to grace).

I was certainly not convinced by most of Radner's argument, on several counts.  But the most important objection is simply this: a church that is not holy in the traditional sense, is not a church that can offer me relief from my own sins.  If I don't want to be free from my sins, I don't want any church, while if I do, I want a church that is holy, with the relevant divine gifts that make not only forgiveness but transformation possible. In any case, the church that he's describing is not one that attracts.

So I'll defend the traditional ecclesiology of the Church's holiness as sharing in the holiness of God, through the Incarnation, Passion, death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, by means of this lecture:

Friday, May 31, 2013

Corpus Christi

Here's a very nice short clip of the Holy Father's Corpus Christi procession on Thursday:

Here's the link.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

May 2, 2013 - St. Athanasius, Evangelization, the Unicity of the Church, and truth and goodness

Today is the feast day of St. Athanasius, whose chops as an opponent of heresy are second to none; and for that reason, and because of some of the reading I've been doing for the conclusion of our Christology class, as well as some recent news stories in which the Church is unnecessarily type-cast as the antagonist, I have been pondering a bit this phenomenon of increasing open, vocal, assertive, brazen anti-Christian rhetoric and posturing.  It certainly verges on discrimination, although it's not yet formally entrenched anywhere in the US, merely materially ascendant in certain places.

Dominus Iesus (2000) hit the nail squarely on the head in listing, in a very general sort of way, the nature of the erroneous thinking involved here:

4. The Church's constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle). As a consequence, it is held that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth, the unity of the economy of the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability "while recognizing the distinction" of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church.

The roots of these problems are to be found in certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth. Some of these can be mentioned: the conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would not be true for others; the radical opposition posited between the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East; the subjectivism which, by regarding reason as the only source of knowledge, becomes incapable of raising its "gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being"; the difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history; the metaphysical emptying of the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced to a mere appearing of God in history; the eclecticism of those who, in theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth; finally, the tendency to read and to interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church.

The question that I think this applies equally to, alongside the theological argument of the document itself, is why does this sort of thinking lead to specifically anti-Christian views, rather than merely to abandonment of Christianity in the cultural mainstream?  

One part of the answer is, as always, merely power.  The Church is pretty much the only coherent, readily articulated, and systematic point of view that stands against all of the "-isms" of the modern world, which are a threat to man or to the dignity of man.  And those various "-isms" would love to be able to defeat the Church in some way, both to be seen as more powerful, and to remove a strong opponent to their untrammelled domination.

But I think we shouldn't underestimate the consequences of muddled thought in and of itself.  Moral relativism is taught daily in our public schools, sometimes overtly, often by default; subjectivism is everywhere, with its stupid but powerful idea that truth is best recognized by an observable emotional response; the problem of "metaphysical emptying" is everywhere, quite apart from its Christological and ecclesiological implications, teaching people to accept lower order goods and to accept division in place of unity; eclecticism makes rational argumentation much harder than it needs to be; and so forth.  The net effect of all of these incomplete or inadequate ways of thinking is that most people are more or less convinced that what's good for them (often in a reductive and/or immediate sense) is the same as the common good; and therefore if others disagree with them, these others must be opposed to them, in the manner of trying to deny them some good.

St. Athanasius, for all his trials and struggles for the apostolic faith of the Church, didn't have this problem to deal with.  His opponents were, by and large, at least rational.  Arius thought he was solving the difficult problem of divine impassibility in the Incarnation.  Constantius thought he was doing what was good and necessary for the unity of the Empire.  That they were mistaken about these things didn't mean they couldn't be reasoned with, and indeed, eventually, the process of rational argument did secure the apostolic teaching and the rejection of Arianism fairly definitively.

In our evangelization today, at the individual level, I think we still need to do this.  How we talk about the faith, about our worldly and spiritual experiences, our consistency of word and action, and so on, constitute a kind of argument about most basic principles which is readily apparent to those around us.  And since people are not usually attracted by philosophy (a systematic presentation of the truth as ideas) but by holiness (a very different but no less systematic presentation of the truth in action), this is the right way to proceed. 

For those who think we are opposed to them personally merely because we disagree with them about ideas, it is the witness of consistent and joyful imitation of Christ by those who are known to them which has a chance to convince of our goodwill, even if conversion never follows. 

But at the wider level, this kind of personal approach doesn't work.  Here the clash of ideas and perceptions happens in a separate way from our personal witness.  Consistency and joy still matter here, but somehow it needs to be translated to that more impersonal level.  Here, martyrial witness is a powerful kind of argument.  Those who are willing to suffer for Christ (in whatever sense; in other words, to carry the Cross in daily life, without complaint, even when it is unjust) are appealing in this sense.  But the appeal rests on the coherence of the tradition or identity - in this case, the apostolic Tradition and the identity of bearing Christ's name as Christians.  If that tradition and identity is not generally perceived as internally coherent - in other words, if Christians are generally perceived to be disloyal to their own tradition, for whatever reason - at one level, it doesn't even matter if it's true or not - then the quality of the witness is badly undermined.

So as St. Athanasius knew so well, a well-formed Church is really necessary for the project of evangelization.  The weakness of our evangelization in the West in the past three-four generations is a symptom of insufficient internal coherence, consistency, joy, and zeal in bearing the Name and the Cross of our Redeemer.  John Paul II wrote the same:

Difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church's missionary thrust toward non-Christians, a fact which must arouse concern among all who believe in Christ. For in the Church's history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith. (Redemptoris Missio, 2)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a major step in the right direction.  So is a coherent anthropology at the root of our formation programs (four pillars of human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation).  So is the plethora of solid and orthodox Bible studies which use well all the tools available to us, without abusing the historical critical method in the manner which leads to supplanting Christian identity with some mere political ideology.  So is the new Missal's use of a consciously sacral language for worship.  So is Friday abstinence and the daily Rosary, as universally shared elements of a clear, Catholic identity.  And so on...  these are the things, when used well and often, that build up our conviction, our faith, our zeal, and therefore our ability to evangelize the increasingly unfamiliar world around us.

Monday, April 1, 2013

He is Risen, Alleluia!

Happy Easter to all readers of this blog!  May the joy of the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ fill your heart and your life, and bring you every grace and blessing!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pope Francis speaks of poverty

From the address to the diplomatic corps on Friday, 3/22:

As you know, there are various reasons why I chose the name of Francis of Assisi, a familiar figure far beyond the borders of Italy and Europe, even among those who do not profess the Catholic faith. One of the first reasons was Francis’ love for the poor. How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

In other words, moral relativism is itself an assault on human dignity (see, e.g. CCC 1716 ff), because it always in practice leads to the conclusion that one's own wants ought to be served in preference to others' needs; and therefore that the dignity of others is always less than one's own.  This is of course the opposite of charity ("the good of the other in preference to one's own good")It is this diminution of the dignity of others that in turn justifies every vicious form of greed, envy, contempt, infidelity, disobedience, and violence.