Changing the Cultural Smell

Long before it was fashionable to write books whose titles include profanity, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an extended essay On Bullsh*t.  Written in 1986, it is as current as ever, explaining why male cow excrement is a fitting metaphor for how Political Correctness spreads like manure, fertilizing our social landscape while carrying with it a noxious stench.  Thanks to its ubiquitous nature, we grow wearing of pinching our noses and eventually let go allowing it to saturate our minds.  Case in point—the recent scandal of sexual impropriety has shown not only that we have been holding our noses to it, but that we may in fact have forgotten how to breathe properly.  It is in that spirit, that I hope to end the bullsh*t by offering an introduction and application of Frankfurt’s work.

When I was in college, we used to play a card game called BS.  It was like Uno, except, rather than picking up cards when you did not have anything to put down, you would attempt to bluff your way out of it.  If another player thought you were bluffing then he would call BS and whoever was right became the owner of the pile.  The really good players were skilled at bluffing that they were bluffing, calling out the wrong number (which was really the right number), thus making it really hard to know what the player actually believed.

BS and Indifference

Nostalgic as I am for that game, it is relevant because it is illustrative of what real BS is like.  It is not really lying, but a form of bluffing.  It is merely an attempt to represent yourself as a certain kind of person.  Whether you are really that way is secondary at best, really inconsequential—it is only the appearance that matters.  As Frankfurt says, BS is really short of lying because it doesn’t really care what the truth is only how what you say makes you appear to be.  Its indifference to the truth makes it, in a certain sense, worse than lying because at least a lie pays a certain deference to the truth, even if it is still trying to deny it.

BS is not so much that someone gets things wrong, but that they are not really even trying to get things right.  The feigned conviction is not grounded in either a belief that what you are saying is true nor, as with a lie, in the belief that it is not true.  This indifference to the truth is really the essence of BS.  In fact we even have a special word for it—Political Correctness.  BS is at the heart of Political Correctness.  Whether or not I actually believe X is wrong or not is inconsequential—only that I say the things that make me appear to think it is wrong.  If tomorrow the court of public opinion changes then I will spout my BS to the contrary.

Frankfurt uses the example of the man leading a July 4th celebration standing up and giving a patriotic speech.  Whether the man is a patriot or not does not matter, his only goal is to appear patriotic because the setting demands it.  The man may be, and probably is, indifferent.  As the BS spreads so does the indifference.  All of the mouth breathing leads to brains that have been deprived of oxygen and no longer know what or why they believe certain things.  They simply become parrots repeating what someone else has said and keeping up appearances.

The BS Meter

The BS meter is maxed out with the latest sexual impropriety scandal.  For years Hollywood and Washington, as hubs of US power, were also seedbeds of exploitation.  Once a few women had the courage to speak up, the BS starting flowing.  Now to be clear, I am not saying they aren’t telling the truth.  I am sure the overwhelming majority of them are and that there are any number of victims who won’t speak up.  What I am saying is the “outraged” response.  One day Actor X is hitting Twitter saying all the PC things.  He doesn’t believe a word of it because the next day we find out he is just as guilty.  Next day Senator Y is condemning Actor X and it turns out there are pictures of him exploiting another woman.  Just as sure as tomorrow will bring another outing, there will be the accompanying BS.  BS kills conviction and once the next scandal hits, the problem creeps back into the shadows.

How do I know this?  Because it isn’t just Actor X and Senator Y that are guilty of it.  We are all complicit.  We may talk about how horrible sexual exploitation is, but it is all BS.  Take a look at your favorite news web site today and glance at the stories.  You will see a story about Al Franken, Roy Moore, and will also find one about some young female teacher arrested for sexual encounters with a teen boy.  Franken and Moore will pass but each day brings another story of a woman (usually a teacher) being arrested for a rendezvous with a male (underage) student.  The numbers are increasing (latest available data, collected in 2014, showed that a third of nearly 800 student-teacher sex prosecutions involved women) and we pretend it is not a problem.  But rather than outrage at this blatant abuse we click on each story to see the mug shot of the latest Mrs. Robinson with the accompanying Facebook or Instagram “sexy” photo.  Barstool Sports (BS), who just got their own SiriusXM radio station, even came out with a Sex Scandal Starting Lineup of the hottest teachers in 2016.  BS needs to keep the cycle of BS going by appealing to “guys.”  After all, what guy didn’t fantasize being with some hot teacher at some point?  Somehow without any basis in truth, these same guys who have bought BS’s BS are supposed to turn around and not sexually exploit women.  BS is dizzying if nothing else.

The examples grow exponentially.  What about the BS of equality?  Or the BS of freedom?  Or the BS of tolerance?  Even the Church is not immune with the BS masquerading as ecumenism.  BS has a funny way of infecting an entire culture.

In our collegiate game of BS there was only one way to win.  Once you got down to one card the other players would always call BS to keep you from winning.  The only way you could win is if you told the truth—that is you actually had the next card in the sequence.  It is only the truth that can set us free from cloud of BS and in the midst of a cultural crisis we as Catholics have a unique gift to offer the world.  We must preach the Good News of who we are as men and women, equal and not, and who we are in light of Christ.  Christ came so we would not have to deal with BS any longer.

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The Terror of Demons

When St. Pius X officially sanctioned the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909, he acknowledged him to be both the Patron of the Dying and the Protector of Holy Church.  It was Pope Pius IX who first invoked him under the title of Patron of the Universal Church and he did so because dedicated his life to safeguarding the two most important members of the Church, Our Lord and Our Lady.  Tradition also names him Patron of the Dying because he died the most blessed of all deaths in the presence of the same two whom he had so vigilantly protected during his earthly sojourn.  But it is the title that bridges St. Joseph’s dual patronage, Terror of Demons, which constitutes his most active roles in the lives of individual Christians.  There is a danger of seeing the litany as merely a catalogue of things that St. Joseph can do; the carpenter who is the jack of all trades.  These last three titles have an interconnectedness that stocks our personal arsenal in times of great trial.  In truth, they arm us for the greatest of trial each of us will face, death.

All of the spiritual masters of old suggest that we reflect upon death regularly, not just to know about it, but to remember it.  They do so not just because it helps keep things in their proper perspective, but because it is the moment when our souls are in the greatest peril of being lost.  During our lives, the great majority of us see the devil as the Cheshire Cat but for all of us he will reveal himself fully  as the prowling lion intent on the ruin of our soul (1 Pt 5:8).  When his time is short, his wrath is greatest (Rev 12:12).

Why the Battle is So Fierce

Why this time of trial is so severe may not be entirely clear so that by adding some clarity we can steel ourselves for those inevitable moments.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  But He did not take away death, but instead freed us from “the fear of death” (Heb 2:15).  Death itself is the last enemy to be destroyed (c.f. 1Cor 15:26) and still remains the playground of the Devil.  Just as in the rest of life, the devil is given power because it provides matter for our growth in the theological virtues.  On the cusp of death our faith and hope are sorely tried and through their fervent exercise provide a growth in our desire for God, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, which is much better” (Phil 1:23).

By freeing us from the fear of death Our Lord not only gives us a share in His victory but empowers us to make the victory our own.  Thrust into spiritual combat with the devil, the faithful are enabled to defeat the “strong man.”  Our Lord’s victory on the Cross does not merely defeat the devil, but destroys him (c.f. Heb 2:14).  That is, He renders Satan’s power at the time of death ultimately ineffective.  To be defeated by the Word made flesh is one thing, but to be defeated by hairless bipeds is quite another.  Satan’s destruction comes about because he can no longer bind severely handicapped human creatures.  Through the mysterious action of grace each of us can truly say that the victory is mine.

Armed for the Final Battle

The Church was given the power to arm the faithful for this final battle through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Council of Trent says that among the effects of the Sacrament is the power to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Session 14).  While the Sacrament bestows this power ex opere operato, the effect within the individual believer depends upon his subjective disposition to receive the grace.

By anticipating the fronts on which the attacks are likely to occur, we can be better prepared for the ensuing battle.  It is our faith and hope that are put to the test during this final battle and so we need to examine how these two virtues are tried—faith through doubt and credulity and hope through despair and presumption.  In his book, Spiritual Combat, the 16th Century author Dom Lorenzo Scupoli examines these four areas and gives some tips to make us battle ready.

In his attacks against faith he will attempt to stir up anxiety about what is to come by planting the seeds of doubt about the faith of the Church in our minds.  The battle is not however to have a ready defense so as to argue.  Our Lord’s temptation in the desert reveals the Devil to be a liar and a sophist and able to twist and distort even the most blatant of lies.  Instead we must have the interior habit of faith—a firm clinging to the truth of all that the Church teaches.  The more ingrained that habit is, the stronger will be our defense.  In any regard we are to offer no pearls to the demonic swine.  As Scupoli says, “if the subtle serpent demands of you what the Catholic Church believes, do not answer him, but seeing his device, and that he only wants to catch you in your words, make an inward act of more lively faith.  Or else, to make him burst with indignation, reply that the holy Catholic Church believes the truth; and if the evil one should ask in return, ‘What is truth?’ you reply, ‘That which she believes.’”

The devil will also tempt us towards credulity through false visions.  Knowing the likelihood of an attack on this front, we should turn away from any visions in humility by seeing ourselves as unworthy of visions.  Even if they turn out to be true, God ultimately is pleased with our humility and therefore will not hold it against us.  Instead acts of trust are to be made in the mercy of Jesus and the prayers of Our Lady and St. Joseph.

 

The second front by which the demonic sortie is likely to come is by attacking hope.  Our past sins will be thrown at us all with the goal of despairing for our salvation.  Humility and trust in the blood of Christ are the weapons of choice.  Remembrance of past sins is a grace when it is accompanied by sorrow for having offended God and humility.  But when these thoughts unsettle you, they come from the Wicked One.  True sorrow is a gift of the Sacrament of Confession and will bear great fruit in this time of trial.  Genuine humility, borne out in the crucible of the humiliations of life is a steady shield.  To the extent that we develop these virtues now, they will be ready at hand in the time of trial.

Scupoli says that presumption is the final battle arena.  In the face of despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits.  In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “base yourself ever more and more in your own eyes, even to your last breath; and of every good deed done by you, which may come before you, recognize God Alone for its Author. Have recourse to Him for help, but do not expect it on account of your own merits, however many and great be the battles in which you have been victorious. Ever preserve a spirit of holy fear, acknowledging sincerely that all your precautions would be in vain, if God did not gather you under the shadow of His wings, in Whose protection alone you will confide.”

The logic of the Litany of St. Joseph now comes into view.  If he is to be the Patron of a Happy Death, he necessarily must be a Terror of Demons.  It is his prayers specifically during our battle that make him the Terror of Demons, chasing them from us by the power of his mere presence.  By captaining the final battle of the members of the Church Militant, he is there to usher them into the Church Triumphant making the Church truly universal.  By fostering our own personal devotion to St. Joseph, we too may come to share in his inheritance.

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The Heart of Sacrifice

It is part of the canon of frenzied modern man—“showing up is 80 percent of life.”   Whether the percentage is correct or not, rarely do we hear the proverb’s obverse that “20 percent of life requires more than just showing up.”  The challenge, and it is a challenge whose success determines a life well-lived, is to know which arenas to apply the 80/20 rule to.  Unfortunately, for many Catholics, the Mass falls into the 80 percent category.  But the Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council, thinks it is in the 20 percent exhorting that “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concillium, 14).  In short, we must do more than just show up.

One could wallpaper the entire Vatican several times over (or, if you prefer, fully clog their sewer system) with all that has been written about the meaning of the phrase “fully conscious and active participation” so I will not add to the growing detritus.  Regardless of how you interpret that phrase, we can all agree that little, if any, headway has been made towards this “aim [that is] to be considered before all else” (SC, 14). Why is this?  Because the Mass, like many parts of our divine faith, has become an ideological battleground whose smoke has obscured the reason that the Mass exists in the first place.

The Sacrament of the Body and Blood

Each of the Sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to a person.  We all remember this definition from our early Catechism lessons.  But what we may not have grasped is the uniqueness of the Eucharist and the grounds for the assertion that it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (SC, 10).  Like the other six Sacraments the Eucharist bestows grace, but it also contains the very Author of grace, Jesus Himself.  The Son is really and truly present upon the altar after the words of consecration.  The truth of the Real Presence is overwhelming, but we must take care to not allow its brightness to blind us to the fact that the Eucharist is also a sign.  It is a sign that points to the reality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  It is the Divinely instituted sign that invokes His power and makes that same sacrifice present under the form of bread and wine.  It is the Sacrament of His Body and Blood first, Real Presence second—not in the chronological sense but in the order of the Divine intention.  Christ says not, “this is Me” but “this is My Body…this is My Blood.”  This is not to deny the Real Presence, only to frame it within the context of what happens in the Mass.

By turning our gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ we see the Mass rightly as a sacrifice.  In an age of exaggerated ecumenism it is vital for us to grasp that the “Mystery of Faith” is the sacrifice that occurs on the altar.  It is not the same sacrifice as the one on Calvary; Christ was sacrificed once for all.  Yet this sacrifice is one with that sacrifice in that it is the perfect re-presentation of the same Victim and the same Priest.  The only difference between the two sacrifices are the mode in which they are offered.  The natural mode saw the separation of His physical Body and Blood on the Cross, while the Sacramental mode sees the separation of His Body and Blood Sacramentally—an unbloody offering of the one Sacrifice of Calvary.  As the Council of Trent puts it “[I]n the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode” (Council of Trent, Disp 13, q. 3, nos 48,50).

This distinction enables us to see a deeper aspect of the Sacred Mystery.  Just as her Divine Head had His natural sacrifice, the Church has her own sacrifice in the Eucharist.  The Sacrifice of the Cross belongs to the world, while the Sacrifice of the Mass belongs only to the Church.  It was instituted by Christ specifically for the members of His Mystical Body.  The Church as the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but a profound truth that we are comprised of members who have been bodily united to the Lord in the Eucharist (c.f. 1Cor 6:12-19).  Likewise, Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice becomes a necessary, and uniquely privileged, element of the sacrificial act.

“Pray Brethren that My Sacrifice and Yours…”

Taking ownership of the sacrifice means not only that we receive sacred benefits from it, but that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is put into our hands to use.  The Mass is not just about receiving forgiveness and grace but also about exercising our share of the Priesthood of Christ.  Calvary comes to us so that we might participate in it and have a share in distributing its fruit.  This is why simply mailing it in deprives each of us and the Church as a whole of a great spiritual benefit.  “Fully conscious participation” consists in recognizing “my sacrifice and yours” as an exercise of our own priesthood.  Mary was mankind’s representative at the foot of the altar of Calvary and in that way participated in the sacrifice so that its benefits my spread to her spiritual children.  We ought to have her as our model in participating in the unbloody Calvary of the Mass.  The point is that we must be fully present in order to not only receive its benefits but also to apply them.  As co-sacrificing priests, we ought to have specific intentions for which we offer the Mass—intentions that are distinct from the general intercessions and the special intention of the Priest for the Mass.

Although in some circles the idea of Christians presenting sacrifices to God has the odor of “the Law,” it is something that we are commanded to do.  After preaching the essence of the gospel to the Romans for 11 chapters, St. Paul begins the 12th by exhorting them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).  According to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the essence of the Christian life is to offer sacrifice.  But it is a sacrifice that on our own we can never offer—this sacrifice must be visible (your bodies), living, holy and pleasing to God.  It is God who supplies the Lamb.  The Eucharist is the only living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.  By its reception we become one flesh with its Victim thus His Body becomes ours.  The Eucharist becomes the source and summit of all Christian sacrifice.  All our sacrifices—big and small even when mixed with impure motives—are offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood and thus become holy and pleasing to God.  All of life finds its meaning and fulfilment in the Mass.  The great challenge of the Christian life—pleasing God—becomes conceivable.  Eighty percent of life may be showing up, but Life itself requires much more.

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Spreading Hope

 

During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field.  The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly.  There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field.  Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.

The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition.  Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.

Spreading Faith

Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning.  By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection.  Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection.  Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).

This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial.  If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this.  Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth.   Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.

Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body.  Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection.  It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.

Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983.  Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3).  Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).

The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016).  This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry.   To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.

Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians?  In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body?  How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?

Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true.  It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth.  Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well.  For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased.  It assures that they will not be forgotten.  One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out.  By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.

Spreading Charity

This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead.  This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected.  To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it.  Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him.  We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins.  And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory.  Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them.  Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year.  By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily).  One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.

A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

 

 

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Why God Loves Baseball

The ghostly baseball announcer commands the farmer “if you build it, he will come.”  So the man tears up part of his farm and builds a baseball field and is visited immediately by members of the shamed 1919 White Sox.  So begins W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe that was later made into the American classic movie Field of Dreams.  When the farmer, Ray Kinsella, meets one of his heroes Joe Jackson, Shoeless Joe says “This must be heaven.”  Ray replies “No, it’s Iowa.”  The famously slow outfielder from South Carolina may be excused for his confusion, for a baseball field can very easily be confused with heaven for those who have eyes to see.  It is quite literally the perfect game.

First there is the fact that the game is deeply Trinitarian.  The number three and its multiples are found everywhere.  There are 3 outs, 9 innings and the game is complete once 27 outs, that is  outs, are recorded.  There are 9 players on the field, a field in which the pitcher’s mound whose diameter is 18 feet and is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.  The bases, of which you must touch all 3 before advancing home, are each 90 feet apart.  It is played on a diamond, the symbol of purity and one of the 12 gemstones of the New Jerusalem.  We can’t help but love it because it is played on a diamond, the same precious stone that God uses to write on man’s heart (c.f. Jer 17:1).

The most exciting (and rarest) of plays are the triple, the triple play and striking out the side on 9 pitches.  Only the truly excellent players can achieve a 30-30 season (that is 30 HR and 30 SB) or strike out 300 batters.  Canonization is guaranteed by 3000 hits or 300 wins.  The game is played without a clock and thus foreshadows the timelessness of heaven (it is a great sacrilege when kids have to play the game under a time limit).  In fact when both teams play it perfectly, that is when there is a double perfect game, it could go on forever.  There is also the goal, beginning at home and striving to return there, as an apt parallel for life as proceeding from that same Trinity and our hustling to return to God.  Baseball is then a parallel for the Divine Romance between man and God.


Field of Dreams By JoeyBLS

Baseball’s historical roots are clouded in darkness with nothing like it found anywhere, making us think it was created ex nihilo. On the Seventh Day, God rested and watched the Seventh Game of the World Series, the perfect ending to His perfect creation.  Sin, PEDs and instant replay may have tainted that creation, but baseball still gives us a glimpse of paradise restored.  That ultimately is why sports, and baseball in particular remain compelling to us—America’s pastime.  Baseball is not a necessary thing or even a really important thing, but in the strict sense neither is creation.  Baseball, like all of creation, exists out of the superabundance of God’s goodness.  He created it in order to bring us joy; enabling us to grasp at the seeds of hope found within His creation.  For a small window of time we are brought into a well-ordered world where human perfection is on display and only fair play allowed.  It is, as Aristotle thought, a foretaste of true contemplation.

That the Seventh Game of the World Series will be played on All Saints Day is providential.  For those who watch the Astros and Dodgers tonight will become as the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering the players on and winning and losing with them.  They become the 10th man on the field.  The game binds a community together, that is why we name them after cities instead of giving the naming rights to companies.  And now that the Suffering Servant (the Cubs) has prospered, the game can work its healing power on devastated city like Houston the same way it did Boston in 2013.

Walt Whitman, when he first encountered children playing ‘base’ in Brooklyn declared “the game of ball is glorious.”  Is it heaven? No, but it isn’t Iowa either.  Baseball brings us to some place on the road between the two.

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Making Supermen

A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt.  It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.”  This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think.  For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind.  What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men.  It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications.  It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.

The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption.  He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense.  But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us.  This is how He saved the world.  But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient.  There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed.  In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?

How You and I Are Saved

The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith.  Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means.  Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe.  According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth.  That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will.  One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.

Faith is not complete until it has an object.  It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in.  To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.

So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree.  Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient.  Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance.  This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).  Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se.  In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.

To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further.  As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6).  The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.

Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own.  That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it.  Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons.  First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite.  Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body.  Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal.  Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).

The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation

These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men.  As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs.  The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation.  Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given.  They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace.   A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.

This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth.  Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen.  Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.

 

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The Power of Confession

In recent months the world has had numerous opportunities to be left in awe at the destructive force of nature.  But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires are nothing compared to the most powerful force at work in the world—the Sacraments.  These seemingly benign ceremonial rituals have the power to render Almighty God Himself captive in what looks like bread and wine, infect the omniscient Deity with amnesia of evil committed, and make mere mortal men into something akin to gods.   And it is the Catholic Church that has been given the ability to harness this power, unleashing it upon her faithful children whenever they desire it.

Yet, if we the Faithful are honest, we mostly go through the motions when it comes to the Sacraments.  Surely something so powerful does something to us we reason.  Sure, we would like it to do more, but truth be told, our hearts are not in it.  We all want to approach Our Lord in the Eucharist with our hearts hurting because we love so deeply, but we easily succumb to distraction and our desire deflates.  We all want to enter the confessional with the tears of sorrow, but no matter how hard we try, they never come.  It is not that we don’t care, it’s just that we have not a clue as to how to engage our hearts.  How can we form hearts ready to be overpowered by Christ in His Sacraments?

What is Love?

Many well-meaning apologists have said something like “love is not a feeling.  Love is an act of the will.”  Many of us have swallowed this whole and are very suspicious of our feelings.  Subsequently, our hearts atrophy.  Even if there is a certain primacy of the will, any love that lacks feeling is somehow incomplete and its coldness can, quite frankly, be pretty scary.  What our friends really should say is “love is not only a feeling.”   For a person to fully love, they must love fully, that is, with a love that flows from both soul and body.

When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and revealed His burning heart to her, He complained of receiving only “coldness…in this Sacrament of Love.”  In other words, what love He did receive in the Eucharist was love that was heartless.  This was not a concern of just the 17th Century, but one that was on Our Lord radar all along.  In fact when Our Lord was asked what the greatest commandment was He replied that it was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Mt 22:37).  It is the heart that is primary.

You might object and say that I am misinterpreting what He said.  God does not command a feeling of us that we are incapable of producing.  First we must clarify what we mean when we speak of the heart.  It is not just our physical heart nor is it just a collection of bodily emotions.  When Sacred Scripture refers to the heart it locates it as the seat of joy and deep love.  That is, it is viewed as the “place” where our emotions are elevated or spiritualized by our intellect and will.  The Fall crushed our hearts.  Christ came to restore them to their rightful place under the dominion of intellect and will enabling us to do everything with a bodily intensity.

Second, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, Christ never commands something of us without in turn also empowering us to do it.  In other words, Christ is commanding us to have a feeling we are incapable of producing because He is determined to give us the power to produce those feelings.  The biggest obstacle to pure love is, according to Scripture, a hardened heart and Christ wants to make them come alive again.  It should not surprise us then that if He is going to heal that hidden place in us where body and soul meet that He would create material things that have a hidden spiritual power in them.  In other words the Sacraments, especially Confession, not only heal our souls but our hearts as well.

While the Sacraments contain grace ex opere operato, the amount of grace we receive depends upon our readiness.  One Confession contains enough grace to heal us completely.  All that stands in the way is our own subjective disposition.  Therefore, if we are to maximize our yield, it is instructive to look at the Sacrament itself.

The Sacrament of Confession

For the Sacrament of Confession to be valid three things are required of the penitent—sorrow, confession and amendment.  All three being necessary it is hard to rank them in importance, but for most of us there is an over-emphasis on the confession aspect.  The other two are equally important, especially because they directly involve our hearts.  Having sorrow, or to use the classic term contrition, is first and foremost an act of understanding and will.  We understand that what we did was wrong either because we have offended Our Beloved (perfect contrition) or because we fear punishment (imperfect contrition).  To feel sorry is not necessary.  But truth be told even though we may not feel sorry, we should.  In other words true sorrow of soul should be accompanied by tears of sorrow, especially if we are conscious that we have offended One Who is worthy of all my love.

Likewise with our amendment or penance.  The priest assigns a penance to us to provide suitable satisfaction for the sins we have confessed and through our the grace of the Sacrament there is a certain remission of the temporal punishment of sin and the curing of evil inclinations.  The actual amount is proportional to both the measure of the penance imposed (an argument for asking for giving/asking for harder penance) and the disposition of the person making satisfaction.  That disposition of course has to do with having a firm intention to repair the harm done by the sin, but again it would be more complete if we did so accompanied by sorrow and determination exhibited through our bodies.

There seems to be a Catch-22 of sorts in that for the Sacrament to have a greater effect on our hearts, we have to awaken our hearts, which we already said we can’t do.  That is why we also believe that the Sacrament itself entitles the penitent to all the actual graces needed to deepen our sorrow, increase self-knowledge, and make firmer our purpose of amendment (c.f. Pius XII, Mystici Coroporis Christi, 88).  Obviously the more deeply you experience sorrow, the more intensely you will make satisfaction for your sins.  In short, our hearts come into the orbit of the Sacred Heart and we begin to experience an acceleration due to gravity with each Confession made from the heart.  Confession absolutely forgives our sins and removes the eternal punishment for them, but it is only through frequent reception of the Sacrament that we can hope to win healing for our hearts.  Through frequent Confession, our will becomes stronger not only in resisting sin but also in stirring up our bodily passions to more fully participate in our sorrow and penance.

When Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins he literally dazzled the crowds because of His Supreme Power.  Matthew says that the “crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such power to men” (Mt 9:8).  We too should marvel at this tremendous power and make Confession a regular habit.

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On True Friendships

For those who approach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time, they are often surprised by the fact that he devotes more pages, two whole books in fact, to the topic of friendship than to any other.  From the modern viewpoint, this seems to be an unnecessary tangent that has little to do with ethics.  That is, until we realize that for Aristotle and most Christian Philosophers up until the Middle Ages, ethics was not an abstract set of rules, but practical principles for living a full and happy life.  So when Aristotle apportions such a large percentage of his book on ethics to friendship we realize that he sees it as one of the most important components of a life well lived.  In fact he ranks it among one of the greatest of life’s goods saying that “friendship is especially necessary for living, to the extent that no one, even though he had all other goods would choose to live without friends.”

First, a disclaimer of sorts.  Because Aristotle struck out in his physics and his views on women and slaves, he has fallen out of favor in modern times.  But there is a certain timelessness to his writings, especially in his ethics, because he roots them in unchanging human nature.  Therefore we ought to take what he says seriously, even if we find good reasons to disagree with him.  In a culture undergoing a crisis in friendship his writings on the topic are like a hidden treasure whose mining promises to enrich our lives greatly.

Because everyone needs friends, everyone wants friends.  This natural desire for friendship can lead us into unhealthy friendships.  This is what makes his study of friendship so important—it enables us to see our relationships more clearly and to have the right expectations.  There is not a single person among us who has not at some point experienced betrayal in one of their friendships.  Like all the loves, friendship requires a certain level of vulnerability, but much pain can be avoided through a proper understanding of friendship in general and Aristotle’s three levels of friendship in particular.

For Aristotle, there are two factors of friendship.  There is the good will that the two friends bear towards each other and there is the common good that brings them together.  As a form of love, friendship is first and foremost about willing the good for another person.  Friendship is not just a relationship, but a mutual relationship in which both parties actively will some good for the other person.  Without this, no real friendship can be found.

CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves captures the second aspect well when he compares friendship with erotic love.  He says that erotic lovers stand face to face while friends stand side by side looking at the thing that brings them together.  He says that “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”  This is what Aristotle means by the common good that brings them together.  Friendships are always based upon not just willing the good but willing a particular good.  These goods fall into three broad categories, each one corresponding to the different levels of friendship.

The Categories of Friendship

His first category is friendship of pleasure.  Because it is the lowest level of friendship, it is the most common, especially among younger people.  This is based upon two people “having a good time together.”  It might two “golfing buddies” who enjoy playing golf together simply for the pleasure of the game itself.  What makes this friendship rather than simply mutual use is that they each will that the other plays well and has a good time, not so they will have someone to play with again, but because they truly desire that pleasure for them.  They desire the particular good of pleasure for them, although not at the expense of their own pleasure.  These types of friendships tend to dissolve when the pleasure that united the parties ceases.  One of the golfers might stop playing golf for whatever reason and the two eventually lose touch with each other.

Aristotle’s second category is a friendship of utility.  In these types of friendships there is a certain tradeoff between the two parties in which they somehow supply each other’s needs.  They are brought together primarily for the love of the good they get from the other person.  This type of friendship is most common in the adult years when “working your contacts” has become an art form.  It is a mutual coincidence of wants that brings the two parties together, a transaction of sorts.  The notion of mutual service or sacrifice is likely not a part of this type of this friendship.  Once they cease being useful to each other, the friendship usually dies.

There is always a certain amount of use in these two types of friendships because the parties love the thing that unites them more than they love the person.  This does not make them wrong per se, just incomplete.  St. Thomas says they are not friendships essentially but incidentally because the person is loved more for what they can give than in themselves.  This is why Aristotle thought only the third category of friendship, that is a friendship of virtue, was the only true friendship.

A virtuous friendship is one in which, to borrow from CS Lewis’ definition, the two parties are both looking at virtue.  They desire true happiness for each other.  Aristotle thought this the only true friendship because only a virtuous person is capable of loving the other for their own sake and because only a virtuous person can actually help another person be happy.  It is not so much that the two people are perfect, but that they are both striving for perfection.

As a true friendship, it includes the other two friendships but in an authentic way.  Rather than a friendship of pleasure, one derives pleasure simply from pleasure his friend receives in doing something.  Rather than a friendship of utility, one receives payment simply by serving the other person.  True friends look upon each other as an “other self.”

The Work of Friendship

These categories are important for two reasons.  First because many of us lack true friendships.  This lack may be simply because we lack the capacity, that is virtue, for true friendships.  We prefer the superficial to the hard work of growing in virtue.  It may also be that we are trying to form authentic friendships with people who are not capable of it because they lack the virtue or, at least, the desire for virtue that is always necessary. Remember Lewis’ definition—we will not find true friends until we decide virtue is important.

The second reason is that we often fail to properly “categorize” our friends, leaving us with unreal expectations.   A person whom we only have a friendship of pleasure with is not someone we should be going to for personal advice in a time of crisis.  We may develop a friendship of utility with our mailman, but this does not mean we should have him sit down with us to open our mail.  Those types of friendship cannot bear the weight—either because one of the parties lacks the necessary virtue to truly will the good for the other person or because there is a lack of intimacy.  True friendships are rare not only because virtue is rare, but because we simply do not have the time and emotional energy to maintain authentic friendships with that may people.  Overcommitting ourselves to too many true friendships can be a mortal pitfall for our overall well-being.

Many people in today’s culture view friendship as an unnecessary luxury rather than an integral part of a truly happy life.  By reflecting on friendship in the works of Aristotle, we can come to enjoy what the book of Sirach calls “the elixir of life” (Sir 6:16).

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The Christ-Bearer

There once was a society that fell in love with the equality of its citizens.  They saw it everywhere and in everything so much so that fought to remove its enemy, excellence.  They did not lift up the lowly, but lowered the mighty.  Heroes became a thing of the past and then past heroes were erased because they might inspire noble acts among the citizenry.  Heroes simply never existed.  Then one day a great crisis came upon that society and for want of enough heroes, they perished.  They were all equally dead.

Is this just a story, or is this a glimpse of what the future will say about us?  We might gauge by asking, which is easier, to name three modern day heroes or three celebrities?  Most certainly the latter.  Heck, even most our fictional super-heroes are deeply flawed bullies lacking nobility.  For want of heroes, the people perished.

We look down on Achilles because we can’t take our eyes off his heel.  Paradoxically we abhor excellence while at the same time demanding perfection.  That is because we have forgotten what a hero is.  The heroes of the past and the present are all fallen men and women.  They are not heroes because they are perfect, they are heroes because they are magnanimous and courageous.  They do great and noble things, even if not all the things they do are great and noble.  All saints are heroes, but not all heroes are saints.  I can think of no better example of this principle than the former hero Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus may not have been a Catholic saint, but he is a great Catholic hero.  As Leo XII said of the great explorer “[F]or the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity” (Quarto Abeunto Saeculo [QAE]).  His unflappable courage in literally “setting out into the deep” and his noble intention of winning souls to Christ, that set the course of history off in an entirely new direction.  For generations, his life was a model and inspiration.  For our generation he is a scoundrel.

Why He Went

There are those who would challenge the contention that he set off from Spain in August of 1492 with anything more than a desire for fame and riches.  They allow the men holding the eraser to tell the whole story rather than letting the man himself tell it.  Leo XIII summarized it best when he said that  it is “indubitable” that the Catholic faith was the strongest motivation for Columbus and for this reason the whole human race owes “not a little to the Church.”  After 30 plus days without the sight of land mutiny threatened and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea reminded his crew of their mission.  His log for October 10, 1492 records:

They could stand it no longer. They grumbled and complained of the long voyage, and I reproached them for their lack of spirit, telling them that, for better or worse, they had to complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns had sent them. I cheered them on as best I could, telling them of all the honors and rewards they were about to receive. I also told the men that it was useless to complain, for I had started out to find the Indies and would continue until I had accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord (The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 72).

After discovering Hispaniola, he wrote (again in his log) to Isabel and Fernando:

I have to say, Most Serene Princes, that if devout religious persons know the Indian language well, all these people would soon become Christians. Thus I pray to Our Lord that Your Highnesses will appoint persons of great diligence in order to bring to the Church such great numbers of peoples, and that they will convert these peoples. . . . And after your days, for we are all mortal, you will leave your realms in a very tranquil state, free from heresy and wickedness, and you will be well received before the Eternal Creator (Nov. 6 entry).

Even one of his contemporary critics, Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, the great champion of the rights of the Native Americans, labeled him “extraordinarily zealous for the divine service; he desired and was eager for the conversion of these people…And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulchre” (quoted by Samuel Eliot Morison in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea pp.45-46).

This quote is particularly appropriate because it helps to explain one reason why Columbus has become an object of scorn in recent times.  His name, Christopher, or “Christ-bearer”, was his mission.  In an age of religious subjectivism anyone who acts must be acting for some other motive.  To act for the glory of God is deemed to be absurd and bears the label fundamentalist or extremist.  Not only that, but his motive was also politically incorrect.  Columbus saw his mission as an extension of the Crusade to capture the Holy Land.

The tellers of history often speak of the reason why explorers set out to find water routes to the Orient based on strictly on economics, but do not explain why the land route was so costly and dangerous.  The reason is simple—the lands that needed to be crossed were controlled by Muslims who heavily “taxed”, robbed, enslaved and killed merchants from the West.  Columbus and his generation thought this could be avoided by finding a water route.  What set Columbus apart however was that he thought he could convert the East and then squeeze the Islamic lands between East and West and recapture the Holy Land for good.

Although these were Columbus’ primary motivations, they were not his only.  He did also seek riches.  Riches are a “second thing” and provided that the First Thing remain first there is nothing wrong with that.  He wanted to fund the Crusade to recapture the Holy Sepulcher, but he also had investors that he had to satisfy.  He also sought to increase his own wealth and like the rest of fallen mankind these secondary goals were wont to make him forget the primary goal at times.

A Great Hero, but a Fallen Man

There is no need to whitewash all that Columbus did.  He failed to live up to his noble mission at times, especially in his inability to transcend his own circumstances.  When he arrived in Hispaniola he found two peoples, the peaceful Arawaks and the brutal Caribs.  The Caribs committed all kinds of atrocities including human sacrifice and cannibalism, mostly directed at the Arawaks.  Columbus viewed the peaceful Arawaks as Spanish citizens and thus worthy of protection.  When he conquered the Caribs, he, as was the accepted custom of the time, enslaved the conquered peoples.  He was gravely wrong in doing so, although he may not have realized the full import of what he had done at the time by blindly accepting the cultural norm.  It is easy to condemn him thinking we are more enlightened now about slavery, except we are far less enlightened about the barbarity of human sacrifice to our own gods.

He also was a much better explorer than an administrator.  Despite objections to the contrary—he told the King and Queen that only “good Christian men should be sent”—the Spanish sovereigns sent him back to govern Hispaniola with 1200 colonists.  These men were included corrupt nobility and convicts whose death sentences were commuted for going.  Rather than accept this role wholeheartedly, he often left the island for long periods of time to continue exploring.  While the cat was away the mice played and he returned to find the peaceful Arawaks enslaved to the Spanish men there.  Rather than putting an end to it, he allowed it to continue and eventually ended up returning to Spain in chains  This ultimately cost his governorship, but he was allowed to return a fourth time strictly as an explorer.

Before closing, it is also worth addressing the other common accusation lobbed at Columbus, namely that he stole the land.  The fact that this is an accusation at all shows how chronologically bias we are.  There is no evidence that the natives themselves viewed the land as their own.  They were for the most part nomadic peoples among nomadic peoples so that even if there were stationary groups you have to ask whether the land they occupied was rightfully theirs.  How did these primitive peoples make land claims and how were the recognized?  Did they merely use the land for a certain amount of time and move on, or did they actually own it?  What is sure is that they did not have any understanding of property the way the Western Europeans did or we do today.  So, even if the Spanish were guilty of exploiting them in many ways, the accusation that they had their land stolen from them is really meant to excite modern prejudice.  In any regard this is not as cut and dry an issue as it is often presented to be.

It is Leo XIII that seems to best summarize why we as Christians should redeem the history of Christopher Columbus and rank him among the great American heroes of the past: —“ He was distinguished by this unique note, that in his work of traversing and retraversing immense tracts of ocean, he looked for a something greater and higher than did these others. We say not that he was unmoved by perfectly honorable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith, which questionless dowered him with strength of mind and will, and often strengthened and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties. This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas” (QAE).  This Columbus Day let us come to his defense.  For want of heroes, the people will perish.

 

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The Great Sin

There is an unwritten rule in the Catholic blogosphere that if you want people to read your stuff, don’t include the word sin in the first twenty-two words.  There is also a written rule that you should not lie, so I will admit that I made that up in order to avoid jumping right into the topic of which few of us like to speak: sin.  More specifically, it has to do with what the Book of Sirach calls “the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:13) or, what CS Lewis called the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.  The more we have of it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others” (Mere Christianity).  He, of course, is referring to the most destructive of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride.

The fact that we can easily perceive pride in others and not in ourselves is because we only, as Lewis says, “imagine” we are guilty of it ourselves.  We usually only have a vague sense we are plagued by it, but cannot see it clearly because we only know what it looks like exteriorly.  So we shun compliments and avoid things like bragging, but make little headway in actually overcoming it.  What we really need is a sketch of what it looks like interiorly; how it animates much of what we do.  For help on this we can turn to one of the oldest Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory the Great.  In his long book called The Morals of Job, he provides the blueprints of pride by separating it into four specific kinds.

The Four Species of Pride

Because of its clandestine character, it is first necessary to understand what pride is.  Pride is, according to St. Thomas, a disordered desire for excellence.  Notice that he doesn’t say it is the disorder of desiring excellence, but a disordered desire for excellence.  That means that there is an ordered desire for excellence meaning that in the human constitution there is a natural desire for excellence (c.f. 2Cor 10:13-17).  We are made with a desire for goodness, both material and spiritual, and therefore excellence is simply a measure of the amount of goods one possesses.  This awareness that we have a natural desire for excellence helps us to better understand why denying compliments or boasting is little more than a doggy paddle amidst the torrent of pride in our hearts.

This also helps to elucidate why it is so difficult to escape pride’s clutches.  Pride is a constitutive element of man’s fallen nature because it is the first sin.  In the case of both Lucifer and then Adam and Eve, their fall was because they sought an excellence that was disordered.  Both the fallen angels and fallen men sought to “be like God” even if their manner of approach was different.  “Pride goes before the fall” (Prov 16:18) is not just a psychological fact but also a historical one.  In trying to become “self-made” men raising ourselves from the pit in which we fell, pride is always looming.

What is Pride?

Returning to the teachings of Pope St. Gregory, we find that he assigns the four species of pride accordingly, “…either when they judge that they have their goodness from themselves, or when if they believe that their goodness has been given to them from above, they think that they have received it because of their merits, or surely when they boast that they have what they do not have, or when, despising others, they desire to appear to have in a singular way what they have” (Morals of Job XXIII, 13).

The first species has to do with the source of our personal excellence, that is, we can judge that it comes from ourselves.  It is always true that excellence achieved without outside help is better than that which is received with help.  Thus the myth of the self-made man.  As Christians we acknowledge that “every good thing comes from above,” (James 1:17) and yet this species of pride has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our heart through what I would call “Christian pride.” So common is this Christian pride that it bears some unpacking to make it clearer.  I am not saying that being a Christian is not an excellence in which we should derive a form of healthy pride.  The snare comes when we see ourselves as better than others, rather than simply better off.

Can we honestly think that when so many of our contemporaries are blind to the truth that we somehow figured it because of our own sagacity?  The conflict with the culture can lead us to look down upon others seeing them as non-Christians rather than Christians to be.  It is hubris of this sort that turns many people away from Christianity.  “But for the grace of God go I” is more than a cute saying.  It is a foundational truth upon which humility is built.  Faith is a completely unmerited gift.  The teachings of the Church, especially in a time of moral turmoil are a gift.  The wisdom that enables us to see them as true is a gift.  The perseverance to remain steadfast too is a gift.

Closely related to this is the second species of pride by which we acknowledge the excellence as coming from above, but somehow see ourselves as meriting it.  In examining our hearts we can find this form in our attitude towards other people, especially in their sins.  All too often we demand justice for others and mercy for ourselves.  We look for ways to accuse others while excusing ourselves.  This is the competitive nature of pride, thinking excellence comes by knocking other people down a rung or two.  How often when someone suffers, even if it is self-imposed, do we think “they got what they deserved”?  But when we suffer, that thought never crosses our minds.

Pride also causes us to play a game of pretend by “boasting of what he has not.”  This is where we have developed a persona and thus do everything we can to keep that image up, usually causing great suffering while doing so.  This is a favorite one of Social Media users but also a particular problem in certain Catholic circles.  In attempting to present to the world an image of what they think a perfect Catholic should be like, they are ascribing to themselves an excellence they have not.  Truth be told, it is usually not even a true excellence.  The “perfect” Catholic family looks like a small army that is at war, each one conformed to Christ crucified.  That is usually not a pretty picture according to the standards of the world.

The competitive nature of pride also is the genesis of the fourth species of pride —“when a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous.”  This is the pride of the “most interesting man in the world,” or if you prefer a more biblical example, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the rest of humanity (Lk 18:9-14).  He had true excellences, fasting and tithing, but he was riddled by pride because he thought this made him “singularly conspicuous.”  This is the worst form of pride and is actually the sin of Lucifer himself.  This form of pride causes us to constantly need to put others down in order to make ourselves look better.  As the worst of the four types, it also results in the most serious myopathy.  The only barometer for how bad we have it is to ask how much we hate it when people snub us, don’t “respect” us, show off or patronize us.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Cardinal Merry del Val composed what is now called the The Litany of Humility.  Praying this regularly helps us not only to obtain the grace to overcome pride, but helps motivate us by enabling us to see how deeply entrenched pride is in our hearts.  There is an inverse proportionality of sorts in the zeal in which we make this prayer and the amount of pride we have.  It is also great material for our personal examen.  “Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it…”

 

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A Necessary Habit?

In an age of exaggerated ecumenism that is further fueled by a scientific witch hunt to burn all religious superstition, the Brown Scapular has lost much of its popularity.  With its innate connection to Marian devotion it remains one of the most powerful Catholic sacramentals even as it slides into disuse.  As a particular expression of Marian devotion, the Brown Scapular may have slid into disuse, but it remains a particularly powerful sacramental of the Church; one that is particularly needed in our time.  To place the Brown Scapular within the context of a healthy spirituality, we must first speak briefly about sacramentals in general.  It is not just the Brown Scapular that carries an air of superstition, but all sacramentals.  These sentiments are not unfounded as their patrons often treat them as such.  For many people, both Catholic and not, there seems to be little difference between sacramentals and something like a dream catcher.  Therefore it is fitting to lay the authentically Catholic foundation in hopes of returning the Brown Scapular to its primacy of place among these gifts of the Church.

The Church and Sacramentals

Each of the Seven Sacraments are an objective source of grace, even if the amount of grace a given individual receives is dependent upon their personal readiness.  Sacramentals, on the other hand, do not bestow grace, but rather aid those who are using them to receive grace.  The Sacraments have been instituted by Christ and the Church is merely the custodian of them while sacramentals are instituted by the Church as part of her binding and loosing authority.  In making the distinction between sacramentals and the Church’s Seven Sacraments, the Catechism summarizes, saying, “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC 1671).

If they don’t bestow grace, then why should we use them, especially since, as can often happen, they appear to be tools of superstition?  It is because in establishing (or blessing) a sacramental, the Church acts as an underwriter by attaching the prayer of the entire Church to that of the individual.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful indeed (James 5:16), but the prayer of a righteous man joined to the prayer of Christ’s Mystical Body carries with it divine assurance to be heard (c.f. Mt 18:19).  This makes each of the sacramentals a powerful aid in the pursuit of holiness, even if they do not bestow it directly.  At that, they always require certain conditions on the part of the patron in order to be effective helps.   This awareness must always be at the forefront of our use of sacramentals to keep from plunging into superstition.

In this regard the Brown Scapular is particularly conspicuous because it carries with it a promise from Our Lady that “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”  Properly situated within the Church’s understanding of sacramentals, we can see why this particular sacramental might be especially popular and in a certain sense necessary.  Like all sacramentals, the physical Scapular is a sign pointing towards a deeper reality.   It acts as a sign sealing the covenant instituted by Christ on the Cross of the mutual entrustment of the Blessed Mother and each of the Faithful (c.f. John 19:26).  In that way it is like a wedding ring (another Catholic sacramental) that both signifies and, in a certain sense, seals the covenantal commitment of spouses.

Backed by the commitment of the Church, the Brown Scapular guarantees her constant Maternal protection and the wearer has a growing confidence in her most powerful intercession.  Just as the wedding ring increases the sensitivity of the spouses to the presence of the beloved, especially when they are not seen or felt, the Brown Scapular makes the “wearer more sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence in their lives” Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to the Carmelites on 750th Anniversary of the Bestowal of the Scapular).  It is worn as a “habit” suggesting that it is meant to represent the habit of committing oneself to the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary both “now and at the hour of our death.”  Thus it also becomes a sign of the grace of final perseverance.

Just as it takes more than simply putting on a wedding ring to be married, so too with the Brown Scapular.  As Pius XII says, “For the Holy Scapular, which may be called the Habit or Garment of Mary, is a Sign and a Pledge of the protection of the Mother of God. But not for this reason, however, may they who wear the Scapular think that they can gain eternal salvation while remaining slothful and negligent of spirit, for the Apostle warns us: ‘In fear and trembling shall you work out your salvation.’” (Pius XII, Letter to the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel).  To guard against becoming “slothful and negligent of spirit” we should seek to bring about the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart by adopting her spirit of fiat as our own.

Why We Need the Brown Scapular Now

Given ratification by the Holy See in 1908, the so-called Sabbatine privilege can be invoked for those who in addition to being vested in and wearing the Brown Scapular like a habit, also practice chastity according to their state in life and daily recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.  Pope Leo XIII also gave permission for priests to commute the third condition and substitute a similar good work like a Daily Rosary to meet the conditions of modern life.  The promise, directly from the lips of Our Lady is that “as a tender Mother, I will descend into purgatory on the Saturday after their death, and will deliver them into the heavenly mansions of life everlasting.”

The point though is that the promise carries with it additional duties.  There is nothing superstitious about it, but both natural and supernatural encouragement to do those things that we know will lead to sanctity.  This is why one can’t help but see the coincidence in the timing of the ratification and Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries at Fatima less than a decade later.  One of her great concerns that she expressed to the children was the number of souls who were going to hell because of lust—more than any other sin as a matter of fact.  Given the emergence of a hyper-sexualized culture, the problem has only become more acute in the century since.  So vicious has this attack become that it is only with help from above that we can even hope to achieve chastity.  The Brown Scapular becomes a pledge from Our Lady to jump in the foxhole with us and fight.  With close proximity to the heart, the habit will act as a protecting shield for those who wear it.

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On the End of the World

Having put off yard work all week, I was disappointed when I heard a Christian numerologist backed off his claims that the world would end today.  Hedging his bets however he still claims that some cataclysmic event will occur that will usher in the end of the world.   Whatever date he actually decides upon, Mr. Meade will have the rather dubious distinction of joining the illustrious ranks of Pat Robertson, Edgar Cayce, Jeane Dixon, Grigori Rasputin, Tim LaHaye, Nostradamus, and Isaac Newton as failed Doomsday prophets.  Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of famous apocalyptic forecasts, each new prediction ignites the interest of the Christian and non-Christian alike.  The question as to when the world will end is an important one, but one that Christian would be better served setting aside.  While the reasoning employed by these would be soothsayers is often entertaining, we should resist paying giving them any attention.

To be fair, this is a question that drew great interest even among the disciples of Our Lord.  When preaching about the End Times, Our Lord told them “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt24:36).  When He says “no one” He really means it and wants this question to be one that is off the table, so to speak.  Any investigation into the question will prove fruitless and so any answers that we give will surely be wrong.  Instead Our Lord wants His disciples to be vigilant, treating each day as if it were the Day of Visitation.  Given that every Christian will have a last day and for only a tiny proportion of them it will be the Last Day, this is sage advice indeed, especially considering for most of us the end is no longer than 80 years or so away.

What Our Lord Knew

It is worth discussing the meaning of Our Lord’s words in detail because there have been and still are many heterodox theologians and priests who have twisted them.  Christ, because He has two natures has two ways of knowing—divine and human.  As God, He of course knows when the end of the world is.  It is not as if the Father somehow has kept it as a secret from Him.  As man He was limited to true ways of human knowing.  But still as a Divine Person He knew all things.  What He meant in this situation is that this is knowledge that only God could know, that is, it is knowledge that must remain within the divine realm.  This is not a recent opinion but belongs to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, going back to the 6th Century: “If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ who is both true Son of God and true Son of man did not know the future or the day of the Last Judgment and that he could know only as much as the divinity, dwelling in him as in another, revealed to him, anathema sit.” (Pope Vigilius, Constitutum I of 14 May 553).   Augustine said that although Christ had full knowledge of all things, there were two types: communicable knowledge which is related to His mission as Redeemer and noncommunicable.  The question as to the end, because it is not tied to His mission as Redeemer is noncommunicable.

Despite not be able to predict the hour, Our Lord still provides a list of signs to watch out for.  These signs are useful for putting down the false prophets but they also are meant to encourage our vigilance and, for those who are facing the trials of the last days, perseverance. The signs can be broadly grouped into five categories:

  • Preaching of the Gospel to the Whole World
  • The Conversion of the Jews
  • The Great Apostasy
  • The Appearance of the Antichrist
  • Meteorological Phenomenon

Before the end of the world, the Gospel will have been preached to the entire world (c.f. Mk 13:10).  The Gospel will first have to spread, that is, all the peoples of the world will have had heard the true Gospel and had an opportunity to respond.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of the conversion of the Jews saying that only after the Gospel has spread will tall Israel come to Christ, saying “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers, so that you will not become wise [in] your own estimation: a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved…”(Rom 11:25-28).  Most of the Church Fathers teach that the Jews will first think the Antichrist the true Messiah, but through the preaching of the two witnesses (c.f. Rev 11:3-12—which points possibly to Elijah and Enoch) they will come to the fullness of the truth.  This obviously does not mean that every single Jewish person will come to Christ, but means all in the moral sense.

The third event to watch for is what is called the Great Apostasy (c.f Mt 24:9-12).  Apostasy is “the total rejection by a baptized person of the Christian faith he once professed” and is present in the Church in every age.  The Great Apostasy will be a time in which entire Christian nations will apostasize and it will spread throughout the universal Church, perhaps even reaching the hierarchy.

The fourth event is the appearance of the Antichrist.  While we do not know a lot of specifics, Scripture and Tradition does give us enough to form a vague outline of the man.  First, he is just a man and not the Devil incarnate.  Still he will be under the control of the devil to such a degree that he will perform many signs and wonders.  His reign will last for 42 months (Rev 11:2), coming to power with a show of mildness, soberness and benevolence.  This will beguile many (especially the Jews who will think he is the expected Christ) by his lying signs and wonders of his “magical deceit,” but afterwards he will be characterized by all kinds of crimes of inhumanity and cruelty, especially towards the elect, that will make the worst tyrants of history look mild.  He will eventually be killed by Christ, the earth swallowing him whole.

Where the false prophets go wrong is usually because they misunderstand the last one.  Christ says the meteorological signs will occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Mt 24:29).  Most place these phenomena at the beginning of the process or skip the other signs.  Wars, earthquakes, famines and the like “must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mk 13:7-8).

Is the End Near?

No matter what astronomical events occur today or in the coming days, we can say that it is not the end of the world because all the other four things have not yet occurred.  There are two that we might wonder about.  We are living in a time of mass apostasy, but it is not clear that this is the Great Apostasy that Our Lord prophesized.  Likewise with the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world; St. John Paul II thought not—“…there remain vast regions still to be evangelized. In many nations entire peoples and cultural areas of great importance have not yet been reached by the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the local church.  Even in traditionally Christian countries there are regions that are under the special structures of the mission ad gentes, with groups and areas not yet evangelized” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio,37).  Either way we can say with certainty that neither the conversion of the Jews nor the rise of the Antichrist has occurred.  Best we can say at this point is that we are at least 42 months from the end of the world.

The fact that the predictions are obviously false is good enough reason to ignore them, but there are two additional reasons as well.  First, it only encourages others to join in the prognostication party.  Thanks to viral quality of Social Media, everyone’s 15 minutes of fame has been extended to 30 minutes.  If it is sure to garner attention and “likes” then people will throw it out there, even if it is just a picture of it spelled out in their Chef Boyardee Numbers and Letters Pasta.

The second reason is related to this and that is that it only further serves to make Christians look ridiculous.  The world may not recognize that we are trying to predict something we were explicitly told not to waste our time on, but they will know and remember when we are wrong.  Christians are supposed to be a prophetic voice to the world, but when they make more noise being false prophets then it muffles the true prophetic voice we are given at Baptism.  We need to quickly call out these false prophets for what they are; ignoring them when the world is not does us no good.

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Beauty Will Save the World

The mark of a truly wise man is that he is able to gather the seeds of wisdom in his midst and fears not to adopt them as his own.  Sometimes the wisdom is even snatched from the lips of an idiot.  Case in point: one of the wisest men of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II, was unafraid to adopt as his own the thesis of Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myskin in his novel The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.”   In his 1999 Letter to Artists, the Pope said

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm[sparked by wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (Letter to Artists, 16).

Fast–forward to our day, seventeen years after the Pope put ink to paper and we, the “people of tomorrow,” are collectively more boring and duller than the simplest peasant from the so-called Dark Ages.  Our minds, thanks to their reduction to nothing but firing synapses, have atrophied paralyzing our capacity to wonder.  There is nothing new under the sun.  While the circumstances may have changed, the prescription is perennial—“every time humanity loses its way” it is the encounter with beauty that will set us “out again on the right path.”  What makes our circumstances rather unique is that in order for “beauty to save the world” it must first be rescued from the poison of subjectivism.

Most of us are quick to denounce relativism in both its axiomatic and moral forms.  But when it comes to its aesthetical claims, we find ourselves all too ready to concede that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  If beauty is entirely subjective, that is a matter strictly of personal taste, then how can we join the Pope’s aesthetical revolution, a revolution that always “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (LA, 16)?

Is there Such Thing as Objective Beauty?

The linking of beauty with truth and goodness was deliberate.  The truth ignites the intellect, the good moves the will, but the beautiful strikes the heart.  Beauty’s grip on the heart gives it an indomitable power to move us.  It is found in many disparate types of things—there are beautiful beaches, beautiful people, beautiful art, and beautiful music—so that it transcends all categories.  In this way it is the third wheel of the other two transcendentals.  Unlike its transcendental counterparts, goodness and truth, it can only be known when it is experienced.  Someone may tell you something is beautiful, but you are merely repeating what they have said until you experience it for yourself.  Beauty, therefore, because it is completely practical, is always threatened by a subjective interpretation.

When asked to define Time, St. Augustine says he could define it if you didn’t ask him to.  Beauty is like that in that we know what it is, but it is difficult to define.  The most succinct definition is that beauty is the material expression of the inner most identity of a thing.  Beauty reveals what a thing is and leads to knowledge of that thing.  This is why St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases” (more on this definition in a moment).

When we attach the adjective beautiful to each of the things mentioned above, we are saying that there is some quality in that particular object that sets it apart from other objects of its kind.  A moment’s reflection and we realize that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object itself.  Before beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, it must first be in the object eyed.  Because beauty is objective, St. Thomas sought to articulate some principles by which the beauty in the object could be moved to the eye of the beholder.

In a paragraph on the Trinity (for what could be more beautiful than God Himself?) in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas assigns three conditions:

“For beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q.39, art.8).

  • A beautiful object has integrity meaning it reflect the fullness of the object’s being.  It lacks nothing that it ought to have.  A male peacock may have beautiful feathers, but if it is missing a leg then it tends towards ugliness.
  • A beautiful object has due proportion in that there is an order and unity to it.  Everything is in the right place and in the right amount.
  • A beautiful object has clarity in that what the object is, its ontological reality, shines forth.  Clarity means that the appearance (or sound in the case of music) of the object makes it clear what it is.

 These three conditions can be thought of as the objective components of beauty and give us a basis upon which to talk about and evaluate beauty.  We may call a church building that looks like an auditorium ugly not because we don’t like it, but because it lacks clarity and does not reveal what it is.  We may call DaVinci’s Mona Lisa beautiful because it has integrity, due proportion (it is filled with examples of the divine ratio) and clarity, even if the subject is a rather plain woman.

Why It All Matters

Once we recognize the objectivity of beauty we can return to St. Thomas’ definition of beauty as “that which, when seen, pleases.”  When St. Thomas refers to the beautiful as that which when seen delights he is referring to an intuitive seeing (knowledge) and not merely seeing with the eyes.  He is speaking of a delight of the intellect and not just the senses.  More accurately, the beautiful creates a delight in the mind that spills over into the senses, that is it strikes the heart.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not proof of subjectivity but proof that there is a need to cultivate taste.  Mozart’s Requiem is objectively beautiful, but the fact that I may not like it, is because I have deadened my taste buds from consuming so much ugliness.  The beautiful must be slowly reintroduced to my system before I can fully enjoy its richness.

Why this discussion needs to happen is because Christians have abdicated their role as peddlers of the beautiful.  There is little beautiful Christian art.  There is little beautiful Christian music.  Even Christian movies are mostly ugly.  Rather than attempting to make something beautiful, using Aquinas’ criteria, they have tried to adopt the ugly forms the world uses and smuggle Christianity into them.  What comes out is something ugly and uninspiring.

A friend of mine and I were teaching a class together.  Before going to teach, we went to Mass.  As we were climbing the steps to go to the classroom, he said to me “that was a beautiful Mass.”  I agreed with him, but admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I came out of Mass.  Those words left a lasting impression on me however because they were the last words he ever spoke.  A couple of minutes later he was on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack.  This was a holy man who had cultivated the habit of capturing the beautiful and allowing it to move him.  So moved that day that the Mass was like a springboard launching him from the sign to the full reality.  Please God he is seeing the full Beauty right now.  Ultimately this shows that beauty matters because Heaven is Beautiful and each encounter we have with it, only increases our longing for its fullness.

In an age in which all truth and goodness are thought to be relative, the power of beauty to move even the most hardened of hearts cannot be overlooked.  This of course assumes that we can present and point out those things that really are true, good and beautiful.  It just might be that beauty really will save the world!

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On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

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On Nude Art

On May 13, 1981, a day marking the 64th anniversary of Our Lady’s first visit to Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot by a would be assassin just prior to giving his Wednesday Audience address.  The attempt on his life, its connection to Fatima and Our Lady’s intercession has been well documented.  What has often been overlooked however is the fact that he was in the midst of giving a series of catecheses that was to become the Theology of the Body.  Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark, the Church would have been all the poorer without this great corpus on our the meaning of corporeal existence.  It was more than just a great personal love for the man Karol Wojtyla that spurred Our Lady to guide the bullet away from every major organ in the Pope’s body that day.  It was also motivated by her great love for all her children, especially those challenged by lust.  For she had told the visionaries during their “visit” to hell that “more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” She knew of the Pope’s plan for “creating a climate favorable to the education of chastity” (TOB May 6, 1981) and that by embracing that education many souls would be saved.  It is no mere coincidence that the Pope had just completed an extended analysis of what is perhaps the greatest modern day challenge, pornography.  It is as if the Pope’s near death was Our Lady’s exclamation point on the previous week’s teaching.

The Pope began his discussion of pornography by pointing out that the human body is a perennial object of culture.  Because sexuality and the experience of love between man and woman is so deeply imbedded in what it means to be human, art and literature always find fertile ground in those two arenas.  But the Holy Father was also aware that the world, especially in the West, was rapidly being (re)transformed form a culture of the word into a culture of the image.  This resulted in a culture in which everything—from photoshoots to movies to reality TV shows to viral videos to hacked personal sex videos— finds its way to an audience.  With virtually unlimited access, the idea that certain things should be surrounded by discretion is anathema.  The Pope commented that even the use of the term “pornography” is a linguistic addition that represents a softening for what had previously been called obscaena, from which we get the word obscene.

The Puritanical Backfire

In many ways this represents a backfire of the puritanical approach that sought to keep even artistic representations of the naked human body hidden from sight.  The Church had forgotten some of what it meant to be Catholic—embracing all that is good, true and beautiful in the world—and adopted this priggish approach instead.  Men of the Church had even gone so far as to cover over nudes in Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel with unsightly loincloths.  But John Paul II was proposing a different approach, namely learning to distinguish between the obscene and the aesthetic through the development of  the ethos of the image.  So committed to this approach was he that he would later remove those same awkward loincloths in Michelangelo’s masterpiece in order to show “the splendor and dignity” of the naked human body (Homily at the Mass celebrating the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, 1994).

At either extreme the problem remains the same.  Without a guiding ethos, erotic art and pornography remain indistinguishable and we swing from license to prohibition and back again.  The ethos of the image provides an escape from this merry-go-round, but only if we are able to grasp two important points.

True art consists in taking ideas and imprinting them in matter.  It is the idea and the beauty with which it is presented that moves us.  This excitement of our aesthetic sensibilities then moves us to further contemplate the idea.  There is a certain universality of beautiful art as the particular is abstracted away.  This power to move however can be abused when the artist attempts to move the viewer or the listener merely by exciting their aesthetic sensibilities.  Now it is no longer the idea and the clarity in which it is presented that moves us, but the direct appeal to emotions.

The second point is related to the first.  Unlike all other objects that appear as the matter of art, a person is an object that is also a subject.  This means there is always a certain dignity attached to the human body as the subject of art which can never be lost, even if it is abused.  Instead, according to the Saint, the offense comes in the intention of the artist. If the artist intends to present a nude body so as to convey some truth about masculinity and femininity then one should consider it erotic art.  If, however, their intention is to present a body so as to excite sexual desire in the viewer then this would be considered pornographic.  This may even include someone who is not fully naked.  This is a favorite trick of Social Media and sites like FoxNews.com who like to present soft pornography in the form of “See such and such’s Beach Bod” or “Watch such and such’s Wardrobe failure” as click bait.

The Spousal Meaning

While there is a certain grey area between erotic art and pornography, there are far less than 50 shades.  In fact John Paul II thought it rather easy to discern the intention of the artist—whether or not the spousal meaning of the body is violated.  What this means practically is whether the work of art enables the viewer to more deeply understand the meaning of masculinity and femininity—of what it means to be a person.  Just as the body reveals the person in the real world, so too should the nude body reveal that there is a person (even if the model is anonymous) there.  As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it “The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects…It causes people to hide behind their bodies.”  They become simply objects of desire and nothing more.

Regardless of the intent of the artist however, the Pope was realistic in that we are fallen and prone to what he calls the “look of concupiscense” in which we may look at a beautiful nude and still be moved to desire.  For that we must begin to develop what I will call a “spiritual aestheticism” as a corrective.  This means that we develop a taste for objective beauty in all arenas of our lives.  Only then will we see beauty in the human body and be moved to contemplation.  Returning to Scruton he gives what I think is an excellent tool for self-examination.  He mentions that the truly beautiful should stir our imagination (our bodily step towards wonder in our minds) and not fantasy.  The moment we find fantasy rising in our minds we know we have crossed over.

George Weigel once called the Theology of the Body a “theological time bomb” that was set to go off some time in our century.  Thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary on that fateful May day in 1981, the fuse has already been lit.  Please God that the first target will be the scourge of pornography—not just to remove it from the moral landscape but to free all of us to see the beauty of the human person in and through the body.

 

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The Boredom of Heaven

Perhaps it is because I am bald, but I cringe at the theological hair splitting that often goes on in the Church.  It is not just “professional” theologians that are guilty of this, but priests and ordinary lay folks as well.  Don’t get me wrong— I think making distinctions, defining your terms and the like are very important to coming to understand the truth.  But it is when the split hair itself becomes the answer that I feel the shiver in my spine.  There are two questions that immediately come to mind.  I will save the second for another time, but in today’s post I would like to look at the first—“how can a loving God send people to hell?”

To ask it is almost to reflexively answer it—“God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose hell.”  In most cases that is sufficient for the prosecution to rest.  But the better prepared interlocutor will demand a cross-examination.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats it certainly seems as if the wicked are being sent by God to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).  Even though it may not fit with the image of God we are trying to portray, the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many references to divine judgment to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell.  There must be a more tactful answer.

Now, I have made the reader cringe.  God becomes not Father but harsh Judge, the exact image you are trying to overcome with your hair splitting answer.  The reflexive answer to the question really only serves to perpetuate two common misconceptions about heaven; misconceptions that are often stumbling blocks to our desire for Heaven.

Heaven May Not Be What You Think It Is

The first delusion embedded in both the question and the answer is that Heaven is a reward for being good and hell a punishment for being bad.  But that is not true.  Heaven is the (super)natural consequence of being holy.  Sure, everyone in Heaven is good, but only because they are holy.  No amount of goodness can make us holy, even though holiness makes us good.  The author to the Letter to the Hebrews says “without holiness no one will see God” (Heb 12:14).

One of the reasons why someone like Aristotle could only get so far in his thinking about God was that he could not conceive of a way for the gods and men to be friends.  Friendship can only occur between equals and since there was a great chasm between the two, while men might placate the gods, they could never enjoy their friendship.  What Aristotle didn’t consider is that the real God was Love and desired nothing more than to be friends with each man.  To make that happen, He would first become equals with us so that we might become equals with Him.

God makes us equals with Himself by filling us with the Divine life, what St. Peter calls becoming “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).  Catholics call it sanctifying grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you call it, it is the only thing which makes friendship with God possible.  We really must be “like God,” but only on His terms and not our own.

The problem with the answer is that it only feeds the “faith vs works” controversy.  Holiness is bigger than either faith or works.  It is accepting the invitation of friendship with God and then having that friendship grow.  This is why the authors of the New Testament repeatedly stress the necessity of Baptism and all the great missionary saints like St. Peter Claver saw it as their mission to enflame a desire for baptism in the natives (or in the case of St. Peter Claver, slaves) and then baptize them.  Baptism is the only sure way we know of to become friends with God.

Heaven, then properly understood, is the culmination of a lifetime friendship with God.  This leads us to the second delusion veiled in the question and answer and that is the tendency to see Heaven as the place where you finally get everything you ever wanted.  But Heaven is the place where you get the One Thing you really wanted—God.  Heaven is only heaven because God is there.  It is not a collection of the best things of earth.  There may be many other things there, but it is only God that matters.  All of the other things that are there are there simply to increase the enjoyment of Him.

Hell is hell because God is not there.  It may have many other things, but once God is removed their emptiness becomes apparent.  That is why the pain of loss, that is rejection of the free invitation to friendship, is considered to be the greatest pain of hell.  There is a diabolical corollary to the divine maxim “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you”—“seek ye first all these things and the Kingdom of God will be forfeit unto  you.”

Medieval art often presented Heaven with cherubs playing harps on clouds.  For those operating under our two embedded assumptions this image of Heaven is not awe-full, but awfully boring.  While it remains just an artistic representation, these images contain a truth that Heaven is about being with God and nothing else.  For those who are interested in that sort of thing then the experience will be far beyond what we could possibly image (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9).  But for the worldly man it would seem boring.  He would soon get weary of heaven because he would continue to hear only about one subject which he has no real interest in hearing about.

Increasing the Desire for Heaven

This is one of the reasons Catholics have a decided advantage thanks to the Mass.  Mass really is training for Heaven.  It is Heaven with a Sacramental veil over it.  If you love the Mass then you will love heaven.  If you don’t love the Mass, then get to work on growing in love with it.  Pray for this singular grace and persevere in that prayer.  As Blessed John Henry Newman says, “‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’ will sit with us the same way ‘Let us pray’ does now.”

Although the conclusion might not seem obvious at first based on what we have said, it is most certain that God “sends” people to hell because hell is not really the worst thing that can happen to someone.  The worst thing that can happen to a man who is not holy is to go to heaven.  Newman said, “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”  Heaven is a place of happiness only for someone who is holy.  Otherwise it would be a place of eternal torment.  God is “a consuming fire” that burns hotter than the fires of hell.  Only those who have been clothed with grace can withstand and enjoy the heat of His Presence.  The thicker the cloak, the closer one gets.  That is why God does not cease to be merciful even to those in hell.  Returning to Newman once more: “even supposing a man of unholy life were allowed to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”

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Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday.  While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation.  One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.

The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:

  • Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  • However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.  The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.

Plummeting Mass Attendance

When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.”  Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin.  Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.

That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016.  Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it.  Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained.  Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either.  After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.

The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose.  While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture.  There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage.  Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored.  The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.

The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold.  It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.”  It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion.  The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus.  The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another.  The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world.  The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.

When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them.  Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young.  I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays.  Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?”  Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation.  That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.

The Fullness of Time

This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences.  One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life.  God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine.  The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days.  The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled.  This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.

If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization.  The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary.  They not only mark them, but make them present.  It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum.  It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past.  Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery.  Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost.  Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday.  The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer.  Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done.  It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).

Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas.  Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.

Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!

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Theology of the Body and Fat Shaming

Long before Freud and Jung, there was Moses.  The account of the Fall not only reveals theological truths, but anthropological truths as well.  If we are not careful, we can over-spiritualize it and miss the deep psychological truths that would otherwise be difficult for us to discover.  The velocity at which our first parents hit the ground from their lofty fall left them and all of their progeny with a form of altitude sickness we call Original Sin.  While shaking the proverbial cobwebs from their heads, Adam and Eve instantaneously became aware of the fact that they were naked and felt afraid (Gn 3:7-10).  In short, they experienced shame and no longer comfortable in their own skin.  Photoshop and makeup cannot cover over the fact that our flesh and our spirit are at war with each other and all of us experience this conflict to varying degrees.  There is a universality to our discomfort that we label generically as “shame.”  Only at the General Resurrection will the fa…, err, big boned lady sing her song of conquest.  Still, freedom in Christ can be found in what we do here and now.  It is in this spirit that I would like to examine our latest cultural crusade—the elimination of  fat-shaming.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, fat shaming is “the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size.”  Our crusaders have even given it a label—Sizeism.  As a partial diagnosis, eliminating cruelty towards those who are deemed overweight is a battle worth fighting.  While on the surface the obese person appears to be lacking in self-control, the reasons for an individual person being overweight are usually more physically and psychologically complicated than that.  Rash judgments and cruelty often serve only to pull the scabs off of an already wounded person.

Notice however that in the definition, “critical comments” are included in the list of offenses.  Even doctors, whose job it is to make critical comments about one’s physical health, are lumped in with the offenders.  What this reveals is that while the diagnosis may be accurate, the cure is not.  Our cultural crusaders always rely on their lone panacea—“embracing your brokenness”—critical comments even when done in the spirit of fraternal charity have no place in their medicine cabinet. The solution they propose is to affirm our coping mechanisms and rationalizations with the hopes that we will all become shameless.  As Catholics, especially those who have been schooled in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we can offer a  more effective antidote to shame.

The Experience of Shame

During his Catechesis that became the Theology of the Body, the saintly Pontiff offered an extended discussion on the experience of shame.  He starts, naturally enough, at the beginning with the first man and woman prior to the Fall.  They are described as being “naked without shame.”  In order to understand this primordial experience, we must first grasp that shame is a relational reality.  A person has no reason to be ashamed of his nakedness when he is alone in the shower.  Instead shame occurs in relation to another person.  Our first parents felt no shame, not because they had no flaws in their bodies (even though this is true), but because their bodies fully revealed who they were to one another.  Eve had no worry that Adam would see her as an object of pleasure, but instead as a subject to be loved.  In short she had no reason to cover up.  Likewise with Adam.

With the Fall came a change both within the man and woman and between them.  This led to two different experiences of shame.  No longer gifted with self-mastery, the body and spirit are at odds which JPII calls this immanent shame.  It is best described, as we said at the beginning, as a constant awareness of discomfort in our skin.  No matter how much we devote ourselves to beautifying our bodies, we never can quite be satisfied.  The second dimension of shame is what the Pope calls relative shame.  This sense of shame is essentially a fear that the other person will not recognize and affirm the truth of the person revealed in our bodies.

While shame is experienced as a negatively, it should not be viewed wholly as such.  Even though it was an effect of the Fall, God left it there for our benefit.  Immanent shame is a constant reminder that all is not yet right within us.  Likewise relative shame is a form of protection against being used as an object for enjoyment.  This is the most obvious in relation to sexual values, but it has bearing on the topic at hand.  A person who is overweight may, because of shame, be driven towards dressing modestly, so that they do not get made fun of (i.e become an object of another person’s self-entertainment).  Because of the negative experience of shame, they are driven towards a good thing which will in the long run help to restore them to genuine freedom.  The modest person is always more free than the immodest, regardless of whether they are thin or fat.

The Benefit of Shame

Fat-shaming is so psychologically damaging because it fails to recognize the person as a subject that craves love and sets them up merely as an object to be used.  This is why it must be seen for what it is—an attempt to exploit the universal experience of shame to somehow reduce its effects in the abuser.  But the shame that the person experiences, even if it is agitated, is not caused by the abuser but part of his fallen experience.  So even if it were eliminated completely within society, the shame would still be there.  There can be no return to Eden to a shame-free life.  The only remedy is found in mitigating the twofold effects of shame.  To grow more comfortable in our own skin, we must cultivate virtue, especially temperance and its daughter, modesty.  Self-mastery neutralizes many of the effects of shame.  Modesty, especially in an immodest culture, empowers many of those who are held in the grips of shame.  Plus-sized models who model immodest clothing like the petite ones only promote shamelessness and leave many women feeling trapped.  One cannot both say that the beauty is more than skin deep while simultaneously bearing more skin.

In his book Love and Responsibility, then Fr. Wojtyla said that “shame is swallowed up by love, dissolved in it…” Only genuine love can alleviate the effects of relative shame.  Genuine love sees the body as a person and thus has no desire to use that person.  But only the person who has cultivated the virtue of purity has the capacity to receive that love.  Purity not only protects us from experiencing lust, but also prepares us to receive true love.  This message of purity is drowned out in a culture dedicated to shamelessness only making it all the more vital to living a life marked by true freedom.  Fat-shaming is a real problem, but only by “looking through the veil of shame” can we hope to offer a real solution to those who are crippled by fear and shame.

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Old Men and the Bible

“You don’t actually believe,” my Christian friend asked, “that Methuselah lived to be almost 970 years old, do you?  It’s been pretty much proven by biblical scholars in the last century that the ages shouldn’t be taken literally.  I had no idea you were a biblical literalist.”  Intrigued by the fact that it was “proven,” I asked what the proofs were.  He said there were two—those such that hold it to be a myth or literary device to speed up the story from Adam to the Flood and those who say the ancients reckoned the years differently, something akin to what we do with “dog years.”

These are not new questions to be sure.  In City of God, St. Augustine set out to defend the truth that we should interpret the ages of the Biblical Fathers literally.  Even in Augustine’s day there were those who tried the “dog-years” interpretation saying that the authors of Sacred Scripture reckoned years differently, 10 years for every actual year.  He refutes it by pointing out that if the calendar was “sped-up” then a year would last 36 days, with each month lasting 3 days.  The problem with this however is that there are very specific references to months and days in the text.  We are told that the waters began to recede “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month” (Gn 8:4).  Later we learn that Noah left the ark on the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Gn 8:14).  Between the two months there were at least 44 days, making the “dog-years” hypothesis untenable.  We can conclude with Augustine and all those who followed him that “[I]t is plain that the day then was what it now is, a space of four-and-twenty hours, determined by the lapse of day and night; the month then equal to the month now, which is defined by the rise and completion of one moon; the year then equal to the year now, which is completed by twelve lunar months, with the addition of five days and a fourth to adjust it with the course of the sun” (City of God, Book 15, Ch.14).

Likewise the “literary device” hypothesis is difficult to defend.  There is a genealogy that connects each of the persons listed directly.  Anyone who has attempted to trace their own genealogy knows that the two most important things are getting the years of birth and death correct and matching the child with the right parents.  So unless you are willing to concede that the people listed themselves were not real people, then you will have difficulty connecting the men and women listed except by accepting the time frame as well.  There is no reason that the Sacred Author would need to employ this as a literary device when it would be just as effective to summarize across generation the way it is done at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

The Problem of Methuselah

All that being said, we still have not overcome what I will call the “wink-wink” aspect.  According to the Guinness Book of World records, the “greatest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122.”  That Methuselah lived to be 969 years old flies in the face of both experience, common sense and modern genetics.  Ironically enough, though, if we are willing to accept Divine Revelation as true (i.e. a literal interpretation of the ages) then we can use some of the principles of genetic mutations to offer a reasonable explanation.

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we discussed how faith and reason intersect to offer an explanation of our beginnings from a single man and a single woman whom Tradition calls Adam and Eve.  Being the first of their kind they would necessarily represent humanity in its “purest” form.  That is, as the first human beings, they would be setting the genetic standard for what it means to be human.  Any so-called mutations in a creature that is the first of its kind represents not a mutation but a part of the baseline so to speak.  Mutations could only begin to occur in the second generation.  But these mutations (I am oversimplifying here to make a point) would not begin to express themselves in offspring until there was a “doubling” in that both parents had the mutation and passed it along to their offspring.  Given that the appearance of these mutations occur in random subjects, probability theory would suggest that it would take a long time for this doubling to occur, even if the population size is increasing exponentially.

At a certain point in time, a “shorter life” gene could have entered the gene pool and through a process of micro-evolution (especially if it was selective for another reason) became the more prominent.  Human beings had “evolved” such that they now lived for 80 years instead of 800.  The vegans among us might be quick to point out that everything was fine until they started eating meat (Gn 9:3), but I digress.  The point is that modern science can offer us a possible explanation as to how it happened.  It could have happened another way.  But, happen it did.  This is not a proof, but an explanation.  Revelation is a given.

Why Faith Needs These Questions and Answers

While this may be an interesting intellectual exercise that shows the overlap between faith and reason, that is not the point of this essay.  It is simply an example.  We should not be surprised that we cannot prove many things contained with divine revelation, especially those related to our pre-historic, that is those that happened before historical record, beginnings.  If we could discover them then we would not need revelation.  As Christians, we start with the Bible as a given and then proceed from there.  Like our friend St. Augustine, we believe and then understand.

We might treat these things as “acceptable fictions” that make for a nice story or simply look the other way, feeling a little absurd when they come up.  Both practices are ultimately damaging to our faith.  Which is more unbelievable—that men once lived hundreds of years or that God Himself took flesh, walked the face of the earth as one of us, suffered, died, was buried and on the third day rose again?  By examining revelation using other avenues of truth it not only strengthens our faith, but more importantly, it increases our awe at the most wonder-full truth of the Incarnation.  An incarnational religion ought to be animated by a desire to put flesh on the truths of the faith by scrutinizing them using the tools of reason.  Armed with the maxim that truth cannot contradict truth, the assurance that everything given to us through the fonts of Revelation is true, and a healthy dose of humility, we should not fear to use reason to challenge what we believe.  Questioning the truths of the Faith is not the same thing as questioning whether they are true.  The death of faith can come from at the hands of credulity just as easily as it can in the face of methodical doubt.  The Christian story is quite incredible and we should treat it as such.  Apologetics helps the apologizer just as much as his audience; be not afraid to shine the light of reason onto divine revelation.

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Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.

 

Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

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King Jesus and Queen Mary

Although the Church does not officially celebrate an Octave proceeding from the Solemnity of the Assumption, the timing of the liturgical celebration of the Queenship of Mary eight days later sets up what could still be viewed as an “Octave in spirit.”  The timing is especially apt because her coronation completes the picture first presented to us in the Assumption.  Quite literally, it crowns everything that we know about Mary and, even more importantly, about her Son, Jesus Christ.  It is in the spirit of entering more fully into these two Marian celebration that it is particularly helpful to reflect specifically on her role as Queen.

The Church often finds herself in a defensive stance when it comes to proclaiming the truth about Mary.  This posture mostly follows from a belief, even if only unconscious, that Our Lady’s greatness diminishes Christ’s greatness.  We grow anxious that we might love Mary too much and thus take away from Jesus.  But everything that we believe about Mary flows from the fact that she was predestined to be the Mother of God.  God never calls a person without also giving that person the necessary natural and supernatural endowments to carry out their mission.  Mary’s plentitude of grace comes from God because of her role as the Mother of God.  Her union with her Son was not just mystical but natural and His dependence upon her made her cooperation in His work of redemption wholly unique.

Mary’s Role as Mother of God and Its Consequences

There are consequences that follow from her role as Mother of God.  Related to our particular reflection, she was the mother of the One Whom God would give “the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).  In short, she is the Mother of the King of Kings.

St. Gabriel’s message confirms what we already find in many other places in Scripture, namely that the Davidic kingdom provides a blueprint for the Kingdom of God.  And like the other the other near-East kingdoms of the time, the Mother of the king or the Gebirah in the Davidic kingdom played a pivotal role in the management of that kingdom.

This unique role of the Gebirah has been studied and written about extensively (I especially recommend Dr. Edward Sri’s book called Queen Mother), so I won’t duplicate those efforts here (**see footnote).  Instead, I will point out two passages that are particularly illustrative.  Both involve David’s wife Bathsheba, the mother of future King Solomon.  Early in the First Book of Kings (1:6) when an aging David is coming to the end of his reign, she enters the royal chamber in a posture of obeisance and offered homage to the king.  While acknowledging her, he pays her no particular honor.  Fast forward a chapter (1Kings 2:19ff ) and we find that once Solomon becomes king she enters the royal chamber and the narrative finds him bowing before her, having a throne brought in and placed at his right hand.  She intercedes on behalf of Adonijah and the king says he cannot refuse her.

The juxtaposition of these two passages confirms for us two things and help us to see more clearly what role Queen Mary, as the Gebirah, plays in the fulfilled Davidic Kingdom.  First, Bathsheba has no authority as wife of the king, but once her son becomes king, she is given a throne.  Without her son on the throne, she has no authority so that her authority depends upon his royal authority.  Likewise, all that we say about Mary’s Queenship flows only from Christ’s authority.  She has only a share in His authority.  But as is always the case with the Church’s Marian beliefs, take away from Mary and you diminish Christ.  Mary’s exaltation puts flesh, literally and figuritvely, on what we believe about Christ.  Without those beliefs, the teachings about Christ gravitate towards abstraction.  If  you take away her queenship, you will be saying that Christ is not the true heir to the throne of David.  The throne of David always had a throne at the king’s right hand for the Queen Mother.

Second, the Queen Mother was no mere figurehead but had royal authority.  The king could not refuse her.  This helps us to shed light on what can otherwise seem like a rather odd interaction between Our Lord and Our Lady at Cana.  As Queen Mother, Our Lord could not refuse anything that His Mother asked even though His “hour had not yet come.”  She assumes He will do it, because she had such authority to “command” Him.

Why Mary Should Steal Your Heart

While this biblical proof-texting is necessary, we must always have the same goal in sight that Pope Pius XII had when he instituted the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen in his encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, namely, to “renew the praises of Our Heavenly Mother, and enkindle a more fervent devotion towards her, to the spiritual benefit of all mankind.”  The reasons for our devotion might satisfy our heads, but unless it also engages our hearts it will remain sterile facts.  The aforementioned Pontiff helps us begin the longest 18-inch journey by summarizing what we have already said and pointing out that “…as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity. For from her union with Christ she attains a radiant eminence transcending that of any other creature; from her union with Christ she receives the royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”

Well-schooled in democratic logic, we reflexively dismiss monarchical terms and neglect their import.  We must not forget that we are citizens in the Kingdom of God, not in the Democratic Republic of the United States of Humanity and Divinity.  Christ is the benevolent King and seated at His right hand is the benevolent Queen.  You cannot have Christ as King without Mary as Queen.  You cannot honor Him while neglecting to honor her.  A man who pledged loyalty to the King while disrespecting the Queen would be labeled as a traitor.  Our devotion for Christ should overflow onto His Mother (which will always flow back on Him).  We must see her as both Queen and Mother.

A sure way to increase that devotion is to reflect upon the fact that Our Lady has a “royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”  The role of Advocate and Queen are practically synonymous—the Queen Mother in her royal office in the kingdom of David exercised her role primarily as an advocate, interceding for the people of the Kingdom.  In fact she did not share in any way in the royal judicial power.  Our Lady is never referred to as the Mother of Justice, but Mother of Mercy because her role is to distribute from the treasury of her Son.  When we realize that she has real power and real authority and that she exercises it as a Mother to each one of us, it is hard not to fall more deeply in love with Our Queen.

In a very real way, then, we see why the Queenship of Mary completes the Assumption.  Although her earthly life came to an end at the Assumption, her throne reminds us that her mission was really only just beginning.  She is the Advocate who always makes an offer that can’t be refused and our celebration of her Queenship must be a time of gratitude to God for so solicitous a Queen and to her for her constant intercession before God.

**For those interested in looking up some further passages supporting this see the succession narratives from 1 and 2 Kings, when each of the kings is mentioned, his mother is also mentioned with him emphasizing her important place beside the king.  The Queen Mother is alsodescried as having a crown (Jer 13:18), a throne (1 Kings 2:19) and is a member of the royal court (2 Kings 24:12-15).

 

 

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American Barbarism

Perhaps it is the apocalyptic mood brought on by the impending visual collision of the sun and the moon, but after the events this weekend in Charlottesville, I can’t help but wonder whether we are witnessing the end of civilization.  That is, I am not looking up to the sky for the end of the world, but up north to Charlottesville as the definitive sign that Americans have made the final leap away from civility and into barbarism.  A protest that was met by a counter-protest (was there another protest in there somewhere?) turned deadly and no amount of outrage will stop the barbarian invasion that is already underway.  We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.  As Lincoln once prophetically uttered, “… Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.  At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

While many of those men and women who populated the White Supremacist “protesters” resemble the savage Germanic invaders that sacked Rome, barbarians were found in both camps.  It is not savage behavior that marks the barbarian per se, but the unwillingness to engage the other in a reasonable conversation according to reasonable principles.  In short, the barbarian is the one who kills civility by rejecting the role of human reason in human affairs

We Are All Barbarians Now

It is easy to see how the white supremacists fit the barbarian bill—there is no reasonable argument that can ever justify their position.  It is evil through and through.  But how can we say the other side, in protesting against this evil is also barbaric?

In his book, The American Cause, Russell Kirk says that for any people to remain civilized, they must have a defined body of principles upon which they all agree.  That is, there are always two ways to compel a man—by argument and by force.  Compelling by argument means that there are a set of foundational principles, those that brought the people together, that can be applied to compel another person as to why a thing should be a certain way.  This is why Fr. John Courtney Murray said that “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.”  That is, the disagreement is over the application of the principles.  Once the principles themselves are called into question then there is no way to argue and force must be used.  A nation without principles is one that is uncivilized.

Kirk says that these principles fall into three main bodies, two of which are moral and political.  The moral principles have to do with what they think of God and human nature.  The political have to do with their ideas of justice and injustice.  That is, American civilization has always been bound by “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Take away this self-evident creed and you take away any basis for civilization.

The Roots of American Barbarism

And herein lies the root of American barbarism.  America is a Christian nation and we have rejected that.  The debate over whether the Founders themselves were Christian or not is inconsequential.  The point is that they were so informed by Christian morality, that even if they may have actively undermined it at times, they still framed with a Christian mentality.

“All men created equal.”  Where would such an idea come from except from Christianity?  At no time was this ever believed until Christianity took hold of the world.  Personal sovereignty?  Only because Christianity teaches that authority itself comes from God and man is free so that only with the consent of the governed can one rule over another.  Right to the “pursuit of happiness?”  Human nature is a fixed entity by God such that only certain activities lead to genuine thriving.

What Charlottesville represents is the civilizational suicide that Lincoln warned against.  The irony is not lost on me that his memorial statue is the latest to be defaced. We can reject our slaveholding past without rejecting the Founding altogether.  Instead we have rejected the great principles that this country was founded upon and now find ourselves unable to engage in an argument.  We forget that it was the proper application of the Founding principles that put an end to slavery.  As if this wasn’t destructive enough, we are all barbarians now because we have rejected God and made human nature whatever we want it to be.

The point is that the counter-protesters had no ground to stand upon to say that the White Supremacists were wrong.  If human nature is malleable then we aren’t created equal.  If this is the case, then who is to say that whites aren’t better than African Americans or Jews?  With no Big Daddy in the sky watching over us and judging us, we cry out when Big Brother Donald Trump sits on the fence pointing fingers at both sides. What we saw in Charlottesville is just a harbinger of things to come.  There will be more and more protests and with no other way to engage, more tragic endings like we saw.

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The Spirit of Vatican II?

Shortly after announcing his abdication of the papal throne, Pope Benedict XVI met with the clergy of Rome and spoke (unscripted) to them about the Second Vatican Council.  As a man who was both present at the Council and spent a great deal of his pastoral life energies in implementing it, his comments are particularly relevant as the Church continues to make sense of what St. John Paul II called the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the third millennium.

Volumes could be written on what the Pope Emeritus said that day, there is one point in particular that is worthy of mentioning and that is the struggle within the Church to authentically interpret the Council and to implement it.  This is because there were actually two Councils that “occurred” which Benedict calls the real council and the virtual council.  The latter he saw as a Council of the media in which, led by the press, the teachings of the Council were presented as wholly new.  Thanks to a decided advantage of being able to capture the limited attention span of the priests and laymen in the pew, the “real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.”

Of course, any authentic understanding of the Council must begin by examining its purpose.  In an address that he gave to open the second period of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Paul VI emphasized the pastoral character of the Council and went on to define its four purposes.  They were to come up with a fuller definition of the notion of the Church, to renew the Church, to promote the restoration of unity among all Christians and to initiate a dialogue with the contemporary world.   Perhaps the most overarching theme was the necessity of the Church to be in dialogue with the modern world.  In fact, in the Papal Bull convoking the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, St. John XXIII said that the Council was called “to place the modern world in contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.”   The Pope proposed that this encounter with the world would be carried out through a process of what he called aggiornamento.

As the Church has expanded into different cultures throughout history, she has always done so by a spirit of inculturation.  The Church would look at each new culture and see what elements could be “baptized,” helping to explain the truths of the faith by using something the people were already familiar with.  Think of it as using parables in time.  Parables used some familiar image and make some change to it in order to highlight a truth that had never been seen before (like the farmer who everyone would think “stupid” throwing seed on the walkway to show the “recklessness” of God in giving grace).  So something like local gods were replaced with patron saints—not gods, but powerful intercessors before the One True God but with powers for good similar to their local gods.

Aggiornamento

Although the word Aggiornamento literally means updating, it is more accurately described as being akin to inculturation, except as applied to a specific time rather than a specific culture.  The Church wanted to examine the modern paradigm, especially the prevailing philosophies and see what elements could be “baptized” to better explain the Faith to the modern world.

Why this was even necessary was because the spirit of the world had eclipsed the Christian spirit.  The Church had been true leaven in the world for a number of centuries and that was no longer the case.  Previously Christian societies were becoming non-Christian, or even decidedly anti-Christian.  In other words, the Church and the World had grown such that they were once again at odds with each other.  This led to a prevailing attitude of pessimism about anything “secular” and a rejection of anything that didn’t have its source in the Church.  This pessimism led to the formation of Catholic ghettos and a serious loss of apostolic zeal.

Even if the members of the City of God wanted to be apostolic, they lacked the language to engage those who lived in the City of Man.  Thus a need to examine the world and see which elements could be included in the Church’s explanation of Revelation and herself.

In order to counter this pessimism, the Council Fathers thought it necessary to point out the positive aspects of the elements of the surrounding culture.  And this is where Pope Benedict’s identification of the two councils is particularly apt.  Because many aspects, heretofore only mentioned in a negative way, are now mentioned in a positive way it appears to be a “change” in the Church’s teaching.  Since the council of the media will only report news, i.e. that which is “new,” then most people will only hear about change.  It will appear as if the Church is finally updating the faith and getting with the times.  If those things changed, then why can’t everything change with the world?  And thus we see the invention of the virtual council’s “Spirit of Vatican II.”

In short, there was a widespread tendency to fall into the most fatal of all fallacies, what I call the “either/or” fallacy.  Fatal, because to be Catholic is to see “both/and.”  This should not surprise us since the basis of our faith is that Jesus is not either God or man, but both God and man.  How this applies to the Council is that it was never intended to replace the negative with the positive.  It emphasized the positive so that we could see the wheat amongst the chaff.  It never meant to say that we should swallow the chaff with the wheat or to say that it was all wheat.

The Power of the Footnote

Take for example the Council’s teachings on other religions, a point that Philip Trower makes in his excellent book on the Council called Truth and Turmoil.  There are two ways of looking at other religions.  They can be seen as systems of belief that make a claim on man’s total allegiance and thus as obstacles to the Gospel or they can be viewed as man’s groping for truth without the help of divine revelation and therefore contains seeds of truth even if imbedded in error.  It is in the latter sense that it is a preparation for the Gospel.  The Council’s emphasis on the latter was just that, a point of emphasis, and not a rejection of the first viewpoint.  Both, of course, are (still)true.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly insisted that the “spirit of Vatican II is in the letter.”  What he meant is that you had better read the documents of the real council and not the virtual council before rendering judgement on what actually happened.  Many people are surprised at the contents of the documents when they actually read them.  We all have a tendency to skip over footnotes when reading, but with Church documents it is important to pay attention to them.  They are not merely “prooftexts” but show how the teaching fits within Tradition.  Before you quickly rule something as “new” or “changed” you better make sure the footnotes don’t say something different than your interpretation.  There is great power in the footnotes.

Rather than fall victim an “either/or” mentality, it bears mention that even the “real council” is not without its problems.  But rather than emphasize those problems the question is how to move forward.  It was a valid Council and any Catholic that bears the name must believe that the teaching of any Council ratified by the reigning pope will always be capable of a Catholic interpretation.  That interpretation might not be clear and it may be convoluted because of poor wording.

I don’t think John Paul II was exaggerating or wearing rose colored glasses when he viewed the Council as a gift.  What this means though is that we must look at what the Holy Spirit had in mind when He called (or allowed it to be called) the Council.  That is where the true interpretation lies.  In a time when the Church is greatly divided, it may be the Council and its authentic interpretation that unites us.  This starts with a personal commitment from all the Faithful to read, study and pray through the documents.

 

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Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

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The Hidden Vice

Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that envy was hidden and unconscious for most men.  This might explain why we find the seeds of it scattered throughout our culture.  There is the advertising industry for example which is built entirely on the goal to stir envy for things that we don’t really want except for the fact that other people have them.  So deeply embedded is envy that it is even institutionalized in the pitting of the poor against the rich (or women against men or nearly every other class conflict) in a quasi-communistic class struggle that our liberal democracy has adopted.  Therefore, it is instructive to shine a light on the havoc this vicious habit can create in our lives.

Envy has long been considered to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, or, more aptly named Seven Capital Sins.  These “sins” are called Capital sins not because they are sins per se, but because they act as motivating forces for the actual sins we commit.  In short, one does not commit envy, but instead commit a sin because you are envious.  Envy is like a tree that produces rotten fruit.  Until we expose the roots of the tree, we will never be rid of its fruit.  The tree of envy is known by its tendency to, as St. Thomas says, experience “sorrow in the face of another’s good.”

The Sorrow of Envy

While this definition is correct, it needs to be nuanced a bit so that we do not chop down the wrong tree.  There is a holy envy that St. Thomas calls zeal in which we experience sorrow not because another person has something, but because we don’t.  We look at some good that another person has that we know we do not have and our sorrow moves us to work zealously to obtain that good thing.  In other words we grieve not because the other person has the good, but because we don’t.

Envy, on the other hand, grieves simply because the other person has that good.  It has a competitive quality about it in that the other’s greatness seems to subtract from my own.  This is why envy follows on the heels of pride and is the “second sin.”  Lucifer committed the sin of pride and then begrudged mankind for the good that he had lost.  It is by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24).  The first sin of man was pride, “to be like God.”  The second sin was “crouching at the door” (Gn 4:7) when sadness over God’s favor toward Abel, led Cain not to “do well” but to kill his brother.

It is ultimately envy that led directly to the death of Our Lord.  As Venerable Fulton Sheen articulates, “Annas was envious of His innocence; Caiaphas was envious of His popularity; Herod was envious of His moral superiority; the scribes and Pharisees were envious of His wisdom…And in order that He might no longer be person to be envied, they reputed Him with the wicked.”  Envy was the cause of the death of Peter and Paul and a cause of division in the early Church.  When the Corinthian community begins to form factions, Pope St. Clement sends them a letter reminding them just how deadly envy can be.

There are two reasons why envy is an especially strong temptation for us as 21st Century Americans.  The first is that we are a people that is obsessed with equality.  When everyone is equal in all ways, envy will seem justified and you will hardly recognize it for what it is.  If we are all equal, then we must do all that we can to level the playing field.

I alluded to the second reason earlier when I mentioned about the competitive nature of envy.  In a world that is mostly governed by a philosophical materialism, envy will seem like merely a recognition of the truth.  If life is a zero sum game then what you have actually takes away from what I have.  If I am poor it is because you are rich—you have taken more than your fair share and there is nothing left for me.  But most of life is not a zero sum game, especially when it comes to spiritual goods (which tend to be the things we envy most) related to personal character.

Because envy remains somewhat hidden to us, we may only recognize it by its effects.  When I see another person’s greatness somehow diminishing mine, there will always be the accompanying temptation to detract that person.  Somehow dragging another person down acts as a way of raising ourselves up.  If we step back and see truthfully however we will acknowledge that we can only envy those when we think better than ourselves in some way.  As Pope St. Gregory says, “We witness against ourselves that the other is better” (Moralia of Job, 84).  Knowing this, we should be very slow to make judgments about other people.  Envy causes us to find chinks in the armor of everyone we meet looking for ways in which we are superior to them.  It also explains why we often don’t like someone else, even though we cannot explain why.  “There is just something about them I don’t like” usually means “there is just something about them that makes me envious.”

This tendency to misjudge another person that accompanies envy is also a good reason why we should be very slow to believe things that we hear about other people (Fulton Sheen goes so far as to say we should not believe 99% of what we hear about other people).  Envy is the most common cause of gossiping and one of the reasons why we should avoid entangling ourselves in it.  It is also the reason why you can’t go wrong thinking the best of another person until you have hard evidence to the contrary.

The Antidote to Envy

While the Devil essentially says to mankind, “As I envied you, so now you must envy one another,” Our Lord offers the antidote to envy, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”  Vices can only be overcome by an opposing virtue so that envy is overwhelmed by charity.  When tempted to envy, we should perform some charitable act towards that person.  It can be as simple as saying a prayer for them or offering a kind word to or about them.  Fasting or making some other sacrifice for that person, especially that the gift we envy might flourish, can remove any traces of envy in our hearts.  Once we have skin in the game, that is invest in the person and their gifts by making a sacrifice, we cannot help but to root for them.

Dante, in the Purgatorio, offers us a second virtue to overcome envy.  As he meets the envious in the Second Terrace of Purgatory, he finds them scrambling about, deprived of the gift of sight by having their eyes sewn shut with iron wire.  They become like blind beggars depending upon each other to avoid falling off the Mountain.  In this way they learn to rejoice in other’s goods.  In being forced to depend upon each other they learn magnanimity.  The magnanimous person has a “large soul” in that they can rejoice in the good of another as if it were their own.  The magnanimous person is not offended by natural or even supernatural inequality, but simply rejoices in the good that is to be found.

In each of the terraces of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante also proposes a Marian example of the virtue.  For envy he offers Our Lady’s intercession at the Wedding of Cana as the example.  It is Our Lady’s magnanimity that causes her to see the threat to the joyful celebration and take the concern (“Woman how does your concern affect me?”) on as if it were her own.  This is why the 12th Century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once counseled “If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary the star of the sea.”

Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.

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Inequality and God’s Love

It may be an obsession with equality or the extension of the trophy mentality to eternity, but I am often struck by the vehemence of those who protest that God does not love each of us equally.  On the one hand, we can sympathize with our protester—that God might love some more than others reeks of a superiority complex based on the all-too human tendency to exclude ourselves from the roster of the “others.”  This danger must be confronted head on because this “mere” theological exercise is not an excuse to say that one person is better than another, but a key component of a healthy understanding of God’s love for each one of us individually.  It is, in fact, an indispensable facet of the Good News, enabling us to see how God’s love of all mankind extends to each person individually.

To open our minds to at least the possibility that God may love some more than others, we begin by assuming the egalitarian viewpoint.  That is we must be willing to concede that God loves me just as much He does the Blessed Mother.  Framed within such a stark contrast, we must at least be willing to entertain the possibility; if God were to love one person more than another, it would be here.  If nothing else, this disparity would lead us to admit to the uniqueness of God’s love for each one of us.  God certainly would love the Virgin Mary differently than He would love me even if it does not imply that there is a difference in degree.

Why God’s Unique Love is Not Enough

To say that God loves us uniquely is certainly true, but my contention is that we must also hold onto the more/less distinction as well.  Calling it unique does not quite capture how it is Good News so we must continue on down this road, stopping at one detour along the way.  To say that God loves one person more than another does not preclude Him from loving each of us with the same intensity.  God is love, that is, love is of His essence and so He loves all things with the same vehemence or intensity of will.  He wills the good for all of His creatures and for each man the supreme Good that is a share in His abundant life. This detour also gives us a moment to examine our perspective.  When we do this, we realize we may be looking at the question from a totally human perspective.  Human love is only an analogy for the love of God, only revealing part of it.  It would be repulsive for a parent to love one of their children more than another.  That is because when we love, it is a recognition of the good in the other.  The good, in a certain sense, is the cause of our love.  For God, it is the opposite—it is His love that causes the goodness (for a more thorough treatment of this question see ST I, q.20, art 3).  With this paradigm shift comes a change in our focus to which we must ask, what exactly is it that makes us lovable?

In examining creation, both visible and invisible, we find that God willed a hierarchy in the natural realm.  We find that by nature, angels are above men, men above beasts, beasts above plants, etc.   This hierarchy means that no man, not even the Virgin Mary is above an angel by nature.  There is also an internal hierarchy within the different natures.  Some angels are above other angels and some men above other men.  In short, nature’s hierarchy is based on how much the thing images God.

God is not content with the natural realm, in fact the natural realm was created so that those creatures who most perfectly image Him, may share in the supernatural realm.  This we call the order of grace.  And while grace does not destroy nature, it does disturb the natural hierarchy.  A hierarchy remains but it is based on not so much on what the creature is, or, more accurately, who he or she is, but in how much he or she is “like” God.  God is, from all eternity, not just love, but because He is a Communion of Persons, lovable.  This means that the more “like” God the creature is, the more lovable they are.  The more lovable they are, the more they are loved by God.

The Question Reframed

With proper framing we find that it is almost common sense that God would love more those who are more lovable and that our lovability is based upon the degree of our “God-likeness.”  For sophisticated theologians, this “God-likeness” has a name—sanctifying grace or, as St. Peter puts it, the gift (gratis) by which we become “partakers of the Divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).  We are loved to the degree that we have sanctifying grace in our souls.  This is why we should ever be striving to increase in sanctifying grace (primarily through Prayer, the Sacraments, and acts of love for God), it makes us more lovable and thus more loved.  The difference in love is not so much in the way that God loves us, but in our capacity to receive.  That capacity is determined by one thing only—the amount of grace we have in our souls.  Thus the Virgin Mary is more loved because she who is full of grace is more lovable.  This is why we believe she occupies the highest realms of heaven.  She who is most “like” God, is most near God.

To see why this is Good News look at someone like St. John Vianney.  By all accounts he was not a man of any particular natural endowments and was probably quite simple at best.  He would never achieve any great things in his life and his chances of making any lasting contributions to this world were pretty slim.  Except, that he was inundated with grace and focused solely on growing in holiness (and all that entails including service of neighbor, etc.).  Why it is Good News is because it doesn’t depend on my accomplishments at all.  It doesn’t matter what great things I do, it only matters that “the Almighty does great things for me” only because I say yes, “be it done to me according to your word.”   This is incredibly freeing, especially to someone like me who is plagued by pride.  By humbling accepting this, it can gives us a laser focus realizing the desire each of us has for greatness and the call to holiness are the same thing.

If you are still unconvinced that this really is Good News, then I offer one more example of a Saint who rode this doctrine all the way to Heaven and was declared a Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.  Happy to be the smallest of God’s flowers she knew He would fill her to the brim with grace and could offer herself as a victim to His love without any hesitation.  Her capacity to be loved may have been less than some of the other Saints, but she strove to have her cup filled to the brim.  The Little Flower shows us the other reason why this is also part of the Good News.  In the heavenly realm there is no competition.  Each person is perfectly happy in their place because they are filled and are part of a whole that shows the glory of God.  God is not simply trying to populate heaven, He is building a family, and like in all families, it glory consists in the whole and not the individual parts.  St. Therese, pray for us!

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Misogyny and Misbegotten Males: On the Creation of Woman

The account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis has often been labeled as the genesis of misogyny by feminists.  The opening account in the Bible has become for many the point where they close the book.  Therefore it behooves us to know how to respond to such a charge.  In so doing, we will, like Adam who found an unlikely “helpmate” in Eve, we will turn to what many would consider a more unlikely helpmate—St. Thomas Aquinas.

Using St. Thomas as a helper to dismiss the charge of misogyny require some explaining.  For many people this would be like asking David Duke to help defend proper race relations.  But there is good reason to turn to the Dumb Ox for help on this.  Too often skeptics will dismiss the entire corpus of his teaching because the Angelic Doctor is a “misogynist.”    Following the teachings of Aristotle, St. Thomas saw women as “misbegotten males.”

It bears mentioning however that if he was wrong about women, then this does not mean he was wrong about everything, or even anything else.  All this would prove is that he was not infallible and was capable of making mistakes.  Like all of us, he too was prone to unquestionably accept some of the prevailing views of his day.  To have a blind spot, does not make one blind.  Should the entire economic theory of Adam Smith be thrown out because “woman are emotional and men rational.”?  What about John Locke’s political theory because he justifies slavery?  Living in the glass house of a multitude of errors in our own day, we should be careful to throw stone.

St. Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of Misogyny?

This particular case is worth examining however because St. Thomas does not wholly swallow the prevailing viewpoint.  While he wrote about women (including his great esteem for Our Lady) in numerous places, he is usually, as mentioned above, accused of misogyny because of what he wrote in a single place when called woman a “misbegotten male.”

In seeking to examine the origin of woman, St. Thomas first asks should the woman have been made in that first production of things (ST I, q.92, art.1)?  He answers in the affirmative, but the first objection he mentions is that of the Philosopher, that is Aristotle:

“For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.”

Note first that this he has listed as an objection to his own viewpoint.  Obviously it was not his own.  In his reply to this objection he shows why he does not agree completely with Aristotle.  It is worth citing the entire response in order to put the myth of his woman hating to rest.

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.”

Notice that he agrees with Aristotle about the “misbegotten” part, but only on a biological level.  The prevailing view of reproductive biology was that the sperm produced only male offspring, and that when this did not happen it was because something interfered with it.  But St. Thomas goes to some length to say that woman is not a mistake of any sort, but directly willed by God.  Men and women, in St. Thomas’ view, are equal in dignity, even if there are some accidental inferiorities (such as physical strength) between the two.  We shall return to this idea in a moment when we speak of Eve’s origin.

Eve and Adam’s Rib

In the second chapter of Genesis, speaks of the mysterious origins of man and woman.  The man, Adam, is made from the dust of the ground infused with a spirit.  The woman is “built” from the rib of the man.  (Gn 2:21-22).

Much of the creation account uses metaphorical or mythical language, but that does not mean it is entirely composed of metaphor.  In fact, the Church is quite insistent that we understand Eve being formed from the rib of Adam literally.   This is one of the three truths of man’s origins from revelation that the Church insists must be safeguarded from any encroachment by a Theory of Evolution.  Strictly speaking, if creatures are always evolving, there is always a relationship of inferior to superior.  If woman and man evolved from different individuals, evolution would lead them eventually away from each other.  Survival of the fittest would mean that one would necessarily become superior to the other.  But if they share one common origin, one common nature, then they will necessarily be equals.  By insisting that woman is taken from man, the Church is affirming this essential equality between man and woman; equal dignity such that any differences are not essential but only accidental.

This view is pretty much what we saw in St. Thomas’ explanation of why the understanding of woman as a misbegotten man is inadequate.  He goes on to further say that,

“It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man…to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither “use authority over man,” and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet” (ST I, q.92, a. 3).

By removing the rib from Adam, God also would have exposed Adam’s heart to Eve, a truth that becomes clear when we examine the act of creation of the bride of the First Adam, with the bride of the Second Adam.  Just as Adam fell asleep and the raw material of his bride came from his side, so too when the Second Adam fell asleep that the raw material that God would form into His Bride came forth.

This exposure of Adam’s heart has not just a mystical meaning, but a natural one as well.  It is an expression of the truth that “it is not good that man should be alone.”  Pope St. John Paul II mentions this when he discusses the meaning of Adam’s rib during his catecheses on the Theology of the Body.  In naming the animals, man experiences what the Pope calls Original Solitude, in recognizing he is fundamentally alone among creation.  In the creation of Eve, he ecstatically experiences that he was made for another, that is, he was made to love—“this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!”  In other words, Eve being taken from the rib of Adam reveals that the two ways of being human somehow complete each other.  As John Paul II puts it, the rib reveals  masculinity and femininity as “two complementary dimensions…of self-consciousness and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body” (TOB 11/21/79).  Adam’s recognition of Eve as somehow his equal and yet wholly other is a summons to love.

There is certainly a rich symbolism attached to the idea of Eve created from the rib of Adam, but must we really interpret it literally?  Literal interpretation affirms another very important, and very Catholic, principle related to God’s Providence.  God, being totally free, could have fashioned Eve in any manner He wanted.  But He chose this way not because it was a symbol, but because it was a sacrament.  It brought about and revealed the things that it symbolized—the unity, equality and love that each of the symbols we mentioned pointed to. All of creation including the human nature of Christ is meant to reveal God to us.  Therefore nothing that He has made can be taken at face value as “only this” or “only that.”  Everything that is, means something.  God does not need to use symbolic language because everything that He creates is in some sense a symbol.

The accusation of misogyny in the origins of man and woman is really an accusation of Christianity not being Christian.  Prior to the “evolution” of Christian culture, women were always viewed as somehow inferior to men.  It is only when Christianity became the prevailing worldview that the essential equality of men and women became the norm.  Now, revisionists would have us believe that the hand that fed us, actually poisoned us, by feeding us healthy food.  The account of the creation of Eve reveals the dignity of woman and is not misogynistic.

 

 

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Prophecy and the Third Part of the Secret of Fatima

Tomorrow marks the 100th Anniversary of the third appearance by Our Lady to the children in Fatima, Portugal.  It was during this visit that Our Lady disclosed to the children what has become known as the “Three Secrets.”  The first two of these secrets included a vision into hell, a prediction of World War II and the spread of Communism.  The third secret remained hidden and was not disclosed until the year 2000.  At the end of the Mass of Beatification for two of the visionaries, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, Cardinal Angelo Sodano announced its release.  He mentioned that the time was ripe partly because “the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima now seem part of the past.”  This has not stopped many people from claiming otherwise, insisting on all kinds of apocalyptic interpretations and creating much controversy.

Shortly after Cardinal Sodano’s statement, the then Head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Theological Commentary on the Message of Fatima  hoping to shine some light upon the third vision the children saw.  The Cardinal began by affirming Cardinal Sodano’s assertion saying,

“[I]nsofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.”

Despite such a lucid statement, many still insist that the vision is pointing to something yet to happen even going so far as to insist that the Church is hiding something.  There are certainly a number of psychological reasons why a person might do this, but there are those whose insistence comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of prophecy.  Cardinal Ratzinger anticipated this aspect of it and spoke briefly about prophecy in hopes that some of the mistaken views could be put to rest and the focus could be placed on the message itself.  It is in this spirit that we should examine what the future Pope Benedict XVI had to say and supplement it with St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of prophecy.

St. Thomas Aquinas and Prophecy

In addressing the charism of prophecy in the Summa (ST II-II, q.173, art. 2), St. Thomas speaks of three different ways in which a prophetic vision is conveyed.  There is the ordinary vision in which something is presented to the exterior senses.  Second, there is an interior perception.  Finally there is a mystical vision that occurs without images.  Regardless of the means by which the vision is conveyed, there is always a subjective element to it. St. Thomas says that “whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver” (ST IA q.75, a5).  What he means by this is that although a person may receive light from on high, how they receive it and how they explain it is based upon their own capacity and experience.

Applying this to what we know of Fatima we can say that the vision was neither the first (only the children could see it) nor could the third (because Sr. Lucia describes it using images).  Through process of elimination we can conclude that the prophetic vision the children received would have been through an interior perception.  What this means is that the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it, even though it is authentic, uses images drawn from her imagination and memory.  This, by the way, is similar to what we see with St. John in the Book of Revelation.  Many of the images as he describes them are based on images that were familiar to him, especially things he had seen on Patmos (like the sea of glass).  In any regard, Sr. Lucia received an impulse from above that is then translated by her interior senses so that she can receive the message.

A thought experiment will make this more understandable.  When I say to you the word “telephone,” you cannot think of a telephone without drawing up an image in your imagination.  This telephone is likely drawn from something in your own memory.  In that way it is completely unique to you and if you began to describe it, it would like be very different from the image I had in mind when I said the word.   In this way, the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it describes is the product of her own imagination and memory.  Again, this is not to suggest that it is made up, only that the images themselves are drawn from her imagination.

Any interpretation has to factor how the prophetic light is received in because it is not like she has seen something on TV or a picture on a wall.  She has received a light and her imagination has attempted to match the light she received.  Of course, it is a prophetic light that is always beyond our natural capacity to know (St. Thomas says of prophecy that it  “first and chiefly consists in knowledge, because, to wit, prophets know things that are far removed from man’s knowledge” (ST II-II, q.171, a.1)) and thus much more complicated than my simple telephone example.  In other words, it is not the vision that matters so much as the interpretation, that is the explanation of what the actual light that was received consisted in.  This is why when asked by Cardinal Sodano whether the interpretation of the vision was correct, Sr. Lucia said she had been given the vision but not the interpretation.  She said it was up to the Church to interpret it, but once she was shown the interpretation she thought it corresponded with what she had seen.

Not only do we tend to focus too much on the vision itself, but we forget another important aspect of a truly Catholic understanding of prophecy.  Most tend to think of prophecy as a foretelling of future events, but the Catholic understanding of prophecy is broader than this. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in his commentary, “prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future.”  By overly focusing on the “prediction” piece of the vision, we can miss the message.

The Vision

With these principles in mind, we can turn to Sr. Lucia directly in her explanation of what she saw in the vision.  Just after seeing an angel with a flaming sword crying out “Penance, penance, penance!” at which point Sr. Lucia saw

“an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father’. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. ‘Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.’”

 

Cardinal Ratzinger offers the following points of interpretation based on similar Biblical images:

  • The angel with the flaming sword on the left of Mary represents the threat of judgment looming over the world, just as we see in Book of Revelation—a particularly apt image as today man “himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword.” The image shows the power that stands opposed to the force of destruction—the Mother of God and the seriousness with which we ought to respond to the call to penance
  • The mountain and city symbolize the arena of human history and how man is in great peril of bringing about his own destruction—the cross transforms destruction into salvation
  • Time is presented (the entire century is represented) in a compressed form, just as history is directed towards the Cross. It would be a century of a great suffering for Christians. Martyrs and even the Pope himself (“The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.”  It is as Ratzinger says a “Via Crucis of an entire century”

Viewed through a wider-angled lens, prophecy is meant not primarily to clear up the incurable human blindness of the future, but the curable blindness of the present time.  This is why it is so important not to get caught up in controversies surrounding the secrets and lose focus on the prophetic message of Fatima.  While it is clear that the events depicted have come to pass, the prophetic nature of the message has not passed.  The events were signs pointing to both the events themselves, but also, and primarily to the overall message of Fatima which is to become a people of both profound penance and dedication to the will of God through an imitation of Mary’s spirit of fiat (that is the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart).  The events not only add credibility to the authenticity of the message, but also are signs through the suffering of the martyrs (the extreme form of Penance) and the Bishop dressed in white who cheated death through his dedication to the Immaculate Heart—his spirit of fiat exemplified through his episcopal motto, Totus tuus.  As we recall this important Centenary, we can echo the thoughts of Pope Benedict that the events have passed while also saying “we would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete.”   Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

 

 

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The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

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On Social Justice

Over the last couple of years, the protest movement has gathered so much steam that there seems to be an organized protest over nearly everything.  One California company has even gone as far as to offer their employees paid time off to participate in protests as a form of social justice.  The fact that these “social justice” protests result in destruction of property, violence and any number of offenses against justice shows that these protest movements are actually counter-productive at best.  They are based on a cart before the horse principle in which the participants and organizers (assuming at least some good will on their part) assume that once “just” social structures are in place, then the people will act justly.  Until this happens, they may need to “make a mess,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal manifesto Rules for Radicals to grab people’s attention, but that should eventually settle down.  But the cart of social justice can only be pulled by the horses of just individuals.  That the protestors are unjust while screaming for justice shows just how convoluted our thinking about justice has become and how necessary it is to develop a more complete understanding of justice.

Justice is the firm and habitual disposition to give to each person his or her rightful due.  Or, put more succinctly, justice is the habit of giving to each what is owed to them.  In short, to “owe” another person means that we are giving, or more accurately restoring, to them something that they already own.  Those more classically schooled will recognize in the “firm and habitual disposition” the definition of a virtue.  Justice is one of the four virtues (along with prudence, temperance and fortitude) on which all the other virtues depend.

The Interiority of Justice

It merits a reminder as well that because justice is a virtue, this means that it is primarily something interior to the person and not exterior.  Just as the person who habitually lies is a liar, so too the person who habitually acts justly is just.  The “environment” helps us to be more or less just, but it is the individual man who is just.  When a critical mass of individuals are just, a social justice follows.  Men without the virtue of justice, no matter how just the social structure, will always tend to destroy that structure.  That is precisely what we see in the protest movement—injustice committed in the name of justice.  While this might be a glaring example, the same can happen when the leaders are not just men either.

As the definition suggests, justice is meant to govern relationships and so to speak of “social justice” is a bit of a tautology.  This is why it remains a fuzzy concept for many of us and often just ends up being a mask for a political movement.  The Church has always viewed it as the cooperation of just men who form, maintain, or re-form social institutions that serve the common good.  Justice rules (i.e. social justice) a community when three fundamental structures of communal life are in proper order—individuals one to another (commutative), society to individuals (distributive) and individual to society (legal justice).  In his book on Justice, Josef Pieper has a helpful diagram to keep these straight.

 

The first form of justice is called commutative justice.  Commutative justice is usually what we think of when we speak of justice.  It governs the relationship between two people and assumes a certain level of equality between the two.  Being equals, they must equally bear the burden of any social exchange.  A person needs a pair of shoes from a cobbler and exchanges a just price, say $10, for the shoes.  Anything less than that then the buyer would be guilty of an offense against commutative justice.  Anything more and it would be the cobbler who violates commutative justice (As an aside, I will post on the Church’s teaching on just price, so for now just assume that $10 is a just price). It is also commutative justice governs the duty of restitution.   If a person steals from another, then they violate commutative justice and the guilty party must make some restitution to restore to the victim that which is owed.

Because many people think only in terms of commutative justice, many injustices occur because groups of men have obligations towards individuals.  In truth, while commutative justice is based on a principle of equality, men are not equal in all ways.  This is why the Church also speaks of distributive justice.  Distributive justice is not based on equality, but based on proportion, according to need, merit, circumstance, etc.  What properly belongs to man through distributive justice is a proportionate share in what is common to everyone, that is, to each man must be given a proportionate (not equal) share of the common good.

A classic example helps us to see how these first two forms of justice work.  Suppose there are two brothers, ages 2 and 16, and they approach their parents because they want candy.  There is only a single bag of M&Ms left and so the parents must divide the bag between the two.  Rather than counting the M&Ms and splitting them evenly, the parents give the 16 year old  2/3 of the bag and the 2 year old, 1/3.  They give unequal distribution because of their ages and amount of candy they should eat.  This is distributive justice.

Just as in the example the parents, who govern the good of the family, chose the allotment of M&Ms, it is the custodian of the common good in society then that determines the proper proportion.  For society as a whole this would be the State, or more properly understood, an individual that has the power to determine the allotment.  So, it is not the State that is just or unjust, but individuals holding power within the State that act justly or unjustly.  This simply reiterates the point about when the emphasis is on just structures and not just men, justice is almost never achieved.

Social Justice

Social justice is often equated with distributive justice because it is viewed mainly as a problem of distribution and the focus mainly remains on this dimension.  However, those who desire social justice ought to focus more on the relationship between the individual and society that St. Thomas calls legal justice. In short it is the individual, not focusing so much on his rights, but on his duties to society that creates social justice.  It is, to borrow from JFK’s famous speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  If each man were to focus on contributing to the common good and not just his own private goods then social justice would reign.

What all of this brings to the forefront is that the protest movements as they are practiced now are truly protesting against social justice.  In attempting to raise the awareness of injustices, they do harm to the common good.  Anyone who reads Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, can’t help but be struck by his thoughtful reflection upon what is just.  It was only because he had spent time thinking about justice that he was able to envision what it would look like.  He and his fellow co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement refused to counter injustice with more injustice.  Instead they kept their eyes focused on the common good (the focal point of his I Have a Dream speech) and how a more just society could be formed.  Destroying property, trampling on the good of the free speech of others, and destroying public order all creates less social justice not more, no matter how many days of paid leave they are given to protest.

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Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve

In his 1950 Encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII cautioned about a number of ideological trends that undermined the Faith of the Church.  Among these was a certain idea connected with the Theory of Evolution called polygenism.  For the evolutionary idea to be accepted it would require not just two first human parents, but the transition from animal to man would require a multitude of men and women.  In other words, it is a rejection of the belief that Adam and Eve were two real people from which the entire human race descended.  The Pope strongly condemned acceptance of this idea saying, “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis, 37).

On the surface, it appears to make little difference as to whether there was an actual Adam and Eve or whether mankind traces its roots to a multitude of first humans.  Diving beneath the surface, we see that acceptance of polygenism threatens to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith.  If polygenism is true, then the Christian faith is necessarily false.

Evolutionary theory applied to man does not only mean that man was made by blind forces but is ultimately an attempt for men to remake themselves.  The creature becomes his own creator.  No Adam and Eve means no Original Sin.  No Original Sin, no need for Christ.  If we were never “in Adam” then there would be no need to be “in Christ.”  With a multitude of races at our beginning, there would be fallen and unfallen men living together and only those who are direct descendants of Adam need redemption.  Evolution eventually weeds this out through natural selection, removing any distinction and Christ becomes entirely unnecessary.  Even if this is a case of unintended consequences on the part of Darwin and his ideological descendants, we can be sure there is at least one highly intelligent person who revels in this idea.

In the mind of many Christians, this sets up a Catch-22.  If we accept a literal Adam and Eve, then where did their grandchildren come from?  To accept a belief in only first two parents means to accept that their children were incestuous in populating the earth.  With no outsiders to marry, Cain, Abel, Seth and their unnamed sisters would have married each other.  Rejecting a literal Adam and Eve seems to be better than accepting this morally repugnant option.  Or is it?

Why Incest is Wrong

When asked why incest is wrong, most of us would say because the genes of those closely related by blood are so similar that it can result in offspring with serious genetic defects.  Looked at properly however, this is a consequence of the wrong and not necessarily the reason why it is wrong.  Whether we posit that because Eve was taken from the rib of Adam they were nearly genetically identical (making their act of intercourse genetically the same as fraternal twins) or that Eve was fashioned with a different genetic code than Adam, the important point to remember is that their genetic code would have had no mutations in it.  After the Fall, their offspring may have had mutations in their DNA, but, if we accept the modern scientific explanation of these mutations as appearing at random, we should not expect identical mutations to occur in Adam and Eve’s offspring.  Without the necessary doubling of mutations in the parents, we would not see the same effects that we see with inbreeding today.  Once the gene pool has a sufficient number of these mutations present in it and the likelihood of some deleterious effect occurring on the rise, God issues a positive command that a man may not marry someone of close relation like his sister, aunt, or niece (Lev 18-20).

In short, the consequence of serious birth defects is a sign that incest is wrong, but is not what makes it wrong.  In City of God (Book XV, Ch. 16) Augustine visits this question as to why Cain, for example, committed no wrong when he married his sister.  We can borrow from his explanation to help us see past this intellectual obstacle.

The Augustinian Solution

First, he looks at the purpose of marriage and procreation and says something that most of us would not think of as a purpose today.  Augustine see this as one of the goods of marriage—marriage multiplies relationships.  In the past, especially in ruling families, marriage was viewed as a means to bring the families together, making them one.  It brings strangers together and makes them a family.  A woman’s brother becomes the man’s brother-in-law, her father, his father-in-law.  Without the marriage of the man and woman, these men would not have entered into a familial relationship.

When closely related persons married, this good is lost.  When siblings marry, their mother is both mother and mother-in-law.  This was obviously unavoidable in the case of Cain and his sister, but, according to Augustine, is a reason to avoid close marriage.

Obviously, this would not be a precept of the natural law, but Augustine and St. Thomas both say that marriage between a parent and a child was always contrary to the natural law because of the relationship of parent and child could never be placed on the equal footing required for marriage.  A child always owes their parents piety while spouses have no such obligation.  This is why Noah curse Ham when he “saw his nakedness” (Gn 9:20-25), which is a Hebraic euphemism for sleeping with his mother.

While not a precept of the natural law, marriage between siblings and close blood relatives is still wrong because of our fallen human nature.  For men and women to live closely together (like siblings do today or close blood relations such as cousins did in the past) with the potential for the relationship to become sexualized is a great temptation to lust and use.  This is why it would be just as wrong for Greg and Marsha Brady to get married as it would be for two blood siblings.  To make such a union illicit can serve to remove this temptation and makes it taboo.  The fact that we initially recoil at the thought of Cain and his sister means that this taboo has had its intended consequence.

Removing incest as an obstacle to belief in two first parents goes a long way in helping us to see why polygenism must be false and why we should reject any form of it.  Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve, first parents and first grandparents.

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The Triumph of the Immaculate Heart

With the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries in Fatima, there has been a renewed interest in meaning of her visit.  There has been much ink spilled, especially since the release of “Third Secret” in 2000, interpreting all that she did and said.  At the heart of all the visions, miracles and “secrets” is the perennial call to pray and do penance.  But there is one aspect that has, for the most part, remained a mystery.  What did Our Lady mean when she told the visionaries that “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph”?

To understand what Our Lady meant when she told the visionaries of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart we have to examine a most fundamental truth.  It is the Immaculate Heart that paves the way for the Sacred Heart.  This is not based on some pretended religiosity and obscure connection but the most basic truth that in the fullness of time, it was the Immaculate Heart, a heart completely open to God’s will that led to the creation of the Sacred Heart.  Not only does the Immaculate Heart pave the way in the fullness of time, but also at the end of time.  That is it was the Immaculate Heart that brought about the Incarnation and thus we should expect that it would be instrumental in His return.  Just was we know that it is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that is Our Lord both in His Divinity and His humanity that will reign in the end, we can also know that Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart will reign as well.

The Immaculate Heart

In his theological commentary on the Third Secret of Fatima, the future Pope Benedict XVI explained what it meant to have a devotion to the Immaculate Heart.  He said, in “biblical language, the “heart” indicates the center of human life, the point where reason, will, temperament and sensitivity converge, where the person finds his unity and his interior orientation. According to Matthew 5:8, the ‘immaculate heart’ is a heart which, with God’s grace, has come to perfect interior unity and therefore ‘sees God’. To be ‘devoted’ to the Immaculate Heart of Mary means therefore to embrace this attitude of heart, which makes the fiat—‘your will be done’—the defining center of one’s whole life.”  His point is that the Immaculate Heart reigns in our hearts when we allow our own hearts to be cultivated after hers.

Mary’s heart is one that is one that does not grow weary because she is always expecting God to act personally in her life.  Evidence her reaction to the appearance of St. Gabriel.  Throughout the Old Testament record, the appearance of an angel always elicits great fear in the visionary.  The first words spoken by the angel is “do not be afraid.”  But Mary seems to expect the angel and is clearly not shaken by his appearance; even if his manner of greeting her is troubling. Most of the artistic renderings of the Annunciation show her at prayer, but there is little proof of this other than pious tradition.  She was just as likely working as sitting in contemplation.  She knew God can and does come in either situation.  She travels to the Hill Country to visit Elizabeth “in haste” because she is excited to see the mighty power of God at work.  She believes and professes that nothing is impossible for God.  Her response to St. Gabriel’s proposal is “let it be done to me according to thy word.”  Later when she arrives at the home of her cousin Elizabeth she proclaims the “great things that God has done for me.”  It is this change in preposition that shows how deep her trust in God truly is.  A living faith like that of Our Lady is one that sees those things that God does to us, ultimately are for us.  But this is a radical trust that must come from the heart and be filled with fiat.

How the Immaculate Heart Triumphs

How is it that the Immaculate Heart will triumph?  Building on Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary we can say that the reign of the Immaculate Heart is not so much about the reign of Mary as Queen per se, but a devotion to her spirit.  It is by the wholesale adoption of this spirit of the Immaculate Heart.  The Kingdom comes when “Thy will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is only this spirit of fiat, that is, the spirit of wanting nothing more than God’s will that will bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

We might see how this is done individually, but how can an entire culture adopt this stance?  This is why Our Lady so vehemently desires the First Saturday devotion.  It is the Communion of Reparation that will bring about this reign.  When all the children begin to act like Mommy and willingly go to the foot of the Cross and stay with Jesus.  This is no symbolic gesture but instead a literal one.  We go to the foot of the Cross each time we go to Mass and on First Saturdays we go with Our Lady in reparation for the offenses against her Immaculate Heart—not because she is overly sensitive, but because without reparation by those children that love her, her spirit of fiat will never spread.  There are two things always at the heart of Christian culture—Mary and the Mass.  Where devotion to Our Lady thrives, so too does the Mass.  Where the Mass is seen as the “source and summit” love for the Immaculate Heart grows.

Ironically there has been so much controversy over whether or not John Paul II consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart or not, that we have neglected the other part of Our Lady’s request of the First Saturday Communion of Reparation.  While we have very little control over whether the Pope performed or has yet to perform the Consecration of Russia, we do have control over the spread of this practice.  The best way to bring about the reign of the Immaculate Heart and hasten the reign of the Sacred Heart is also the best way to heal our culture.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, reign in our hearts and show us the way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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Revealing and Reliving God’s Fatherhood

Each Father’s Day, I begin the day with what has become a personal tradition.  I open my copy of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Famliliaris Consortio, to p.43 and then read the last paragraph of section 25 where the saintly Pontiff says:

“In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

These words, written by a celibate to his spiritual children, perfectly capture the essence of what it means to be a father.  They form, what has become for me, a mission statement and so, every year, I visit them to ask God the Father how I am doing in living out the calling He has given me.  This practice has always been fruitful for me personally not only because it recharges my paternal batteries, but also because it provides clarity where busyness may be obscuring my mission as a father.

St. Thomas lived by the motto that “our calling is to share the fruits of our meditation.”  It is in this spirit, that is in recognition of the gifts God bestows on each of us in prayer are not just our own, and not because I am some exemplary model of fatherhood, that I share some of the lights that have come to me over the years.

Keeping the End in Mind

First, I will mention a most important principle that animates JPII’s mission statement.  We ought to, in everything we do, live with the end in mind.  The more conscious we are of our goal or our purpose, that is the more we call it to mind, the easier it is to achieve.  The truth is that all too often activity causes us to forget where we want to go.  We get easily distracted and need to be reminded it is not about the journey but about the destination.  To the extent that each of us does this, asking constantly if what we are doing or about do will help us reach our goal, the more successful we will be.

This is true not just in the natural realm but the supernatural as well.  The more we remind ourselves that the goal is heaven, that is, the more we live with a heavenly perspective, the less often we will fall off the path.  So often we fall not so much out of malice, but forgetfulness.  Like Peter walking on water, we take our eyes off Christ and we fall.  Once we refocus on Him, He is there to put us back on our feet.  In short, the more we keep our desire to be with Jesus in the front of our minds, the more docile we are to the impulses of grace.

Fatherhood is not just one means among other means for us to get to heaven, but for those who have been called, it is one of the primary ways.  Just as husbands are to be Christ in the flesh to their wives, they are to “reveal and relive the very fatherhood of God” to their children.  The mission is simple, even if it isn’t easy, to show those children “born under the heart of the mother” what God the Father is like.  For good or for bad, nearly all of us see God the Father as something like our fathers on earth.  If you want to know how you are doing as a father, ask your children what God the Father is like.

Revealing and reliving the Fatherhood of God—a daunting task indeed!  In fact anytime I grow overconfident in my fathering and need a dose of humble pie, I remind myself of this calling and abruptly reality sets in.  But reality is not that I can’t live up to this calling.  That much is obvious.  Reality is that God never calls without equipping and He has given me the graces I need to make this happen.  For my part I only need to keep my eyes on the purpose—to show them God the Father.

There have been so many times when the Holy Spirit has whispered those very words in my ear—“relive and reveal the very Fatherhood of God on earth”—before I was about to lose my cool or before I was tempted to insist on my own way God the Father is gentle and bears all things.  God the Father is generous.    Do I always listen, no, but when I do these simple words always keep me on course.

How it’s Done

How is it that John Paul II proposes we as fathers reveal and relive the Fatherhood of God?  It is through what he calls the “the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.”  God is a true Father Who is not far away but at work at every moment forming us into His adopted children.  When fathers take an active role in the development of their children, especially their spiritual and moral development, they image God the Father.

Notice the tone of reverence the Pope displays toward wives and mothers when he speaks of “the life conceived under the heart of the mother.”  That is, husbands are called to love their wives first.  It is because he is a husband that he becomes a father.  One of the best ways a man can love his children is to love his wife and to show reverence for her.  To model true complementarity for your children also shows them that men and women, despite the effects of the Fall, are not in competition with each other, but true partners and made to challenge each other to become more fully human.

Fathers also should make a “more solicitous commitment to education” of their children.  This starts by forming them in the Faith.  All too often men will leave this to their wives or think this means dropping them off at CCD or the Catholic School.  But this is not what John Paul II has in mind.  Study after study has shown that when fathers are committed to the faith, their children follow suit.  Children need to learn the truths of the faith from their fathers but they also need to be schooled in prayer.  There is nothing more manly than to be found on your knees in prayer and children naturally imitate this when their fathers model it for them.  Men should always strive, as JPII says, to introduce “the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

John Paul II also has a broader idea of education of which school is only a small part.  This is especially true today as the contributions to overall education by schools, both public and private, are greatly diminished.  This is why many fathers, following the model of St. John Bosco, develop simple formation plans for each of their children that includes their spiritual, intellectual, social, and human—all with the goal of educating the entire person.

The Pope acknowledges that providing for his family by his work, is fundamental to what it means to be a father.  But he also cautions men to make sure that their work “is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability.”  So many of us, especially in a consumer-driven culture, overly focus on the material aspects of work.  Certainly, earning money is a key aspect of it, but we also must ask the harder questions.  What kind of person does my work turn me into?  Am I absent from family life more than I should be or even pre-occupied or stressed out when I am there?  Our work should support our vocation as fathers but never at the cost of the unity and stability of our family life.

Father’s Day in the United States is a relatively recent addition to our holidays.  But Father’s Day has been celebrated for centuries in some European countries on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph.  St. Joseph, above all the married saints, truly relived and revealed God’s Fatherhood.  He was chosen from all eternity to be the representative of God the Father on earth.  Fathers should regularly turn to him for guidance and strength.  He was also one of the Patron Saints of Pope John Paul II who bore his name as his middle name.  Let us spend this Father’s Day with these two fathers and ask them to guide us as we examine ourselves in light of these challenging words.

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Evolutionary Bait and Switch

A recent Gallup poll found that 38% of Americans hold to the Creationist view of human origins.”  The remaining 62% believe that evolution (either guided or unguided) played a part.  In the court of public opinion, evolutionists appear to have won the day.  The problem however is that the debate suffers from a lack of precision in terms.  “Evolution” means different things to different people.  In general we know that it refers to some transformation of a species of living beings but most discussion occurs without making that definition more specific.  This is why the first (and most important step) in any discussion is to define your terms. Evolution falls into two main categories, microevolution and macroevolution.  As the name suggests, microevolution explains the changes that lead to variation within a given species.  Macroevolution refers to the large-scale changes that lead to increasingly more complex species.  The failure to make a distinction between these two categories is the source of most of the confusion in the current debate between so-called creationists and evolutionists.

Microevoltion and Macroevolution

As the “experts” in the scientific fields, the evolutionary philosophers, that is, those who treat evolution as a philosophy such that it explains all of reality rather than as a scientific theory that explains part of reality, are only too happy to have these two lumped together.  Microevolution seems to be self-evident and it doesn’t take an expert to see this.  Anyone who has had to take multiple antibiotics for an infection knows that bacteria can evolve such that they are resistant to certain antibiotics.  With the self-evident quality of microevolution, the evolutionists can perform a bait and switch of sorts lumping macroevolution in and selling it as “evolution.”  Opposing something that seems so obvious makes one look like an unreasonable religious nut.  We must insist then that swallowing the microevolutionary slice doesn’t mean we must eat the whole evolutionary pie.

Many insist that there ought to be no distinction between micro- and macro-evolution because macroevolution is simply an extrapolation over time of the same processes that drive microevolution.  This viewpoint is scientifically problematic for at least three reasons.

First, there is the problem of the Missing Link in the fossil record.  “The problem is”, as GK Chesterton pointed out nearly a century ago, “that the missing link is still missing.”  The use of the term “missing link” is considered archaic, but the idea I think is still valid even as we find more and more examples of intermediate species  within the fossil record.  These intermediate species are often labeled as “transitional” but the problem is that this implies that the jump from one to the other is very short.  If macroevolution based on microevolution is true, then there ought to be something like a linear or gradual progression between species.    Instead there are still jumps, and even if the jumps are getting smaller, they are still pretty large.

Too often the “missing link” became an argument from silence, but I think it is still valid because the gap of say 400,000 years between two related species is non-trivial.  The fossil record really appears to show something like fits and starts.  A species is stable and then abruptly a new species appears.

If science truly is allowed to go where the data takes it, then it is far from definitive that macroevolution has occurred based on the fossil record.  In fact in a controversial paper in 1972 as Stephen Jay Gould points out the exact opposite,

“The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

(1)Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless.

(2) Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.'”

Second there is the problem of time.  Extrapolation from micro to macro-evolution we are told, happened slowly over time.  If a chasm is so wide that it cannot be crossed without a bridge, no amount of time is going to make it crossable.  The macroevolutionist might say that there were small stepping stones that arose that made the crossingpossible, but that those stepping stones disappeared.  Again one would have to ask where the data is that suggests that such stones actually appeared, especially when there is a simpler and much more reasonable assumption that they were carried across.  That is unreasonable, if you have not already presupposed that no such carrier existed.

The third problem is related to the mechanism by which evolution is said to occur, namely natural selection.  This ought to be obvious from the name, but Natural Selection is selective and not productive.  It does not bring new creatures into being, but instead is a mechanism by which certain individuals are favored because of their adaptations to some environmental condition.  It cannot create those individuals but draws from those who already exist in the population.  Many treat Natural Selection as a creative force; as if it somehow causes the favorable mutation rather than just selecting based on it.

An Edge to Evolution?

As we continue to study the genetic basis of mutation, Natural Selection seems not to be a mechanism by which this jump from microevolution to macroevolution could have occurred.  In his book, The Edge of Evolution, biologist Michael Behe documents a study in which about 30,000 generations, or 1 million years of E. coli have been manufactured and what they have found is “ Mostly devolution.”  It will advance to a certain stage and then throw away chunks of genetic patrimony because it costs too much energy to maintain.  What Behe claims is that this is one example among many of the edge to evolution.  There is a barrier beyond which selective breeding will not pass because either sterility occurs or genetic variability is exhausted.  Although Behe is not popular among some of his colleagues, it is mostly on ideological and not scientific grounds.  Even scientific giants like Richard Dawkins could only resort to ad hominem  arguments to refute Behe.

None of this, of course, proves that macroevolution does not offer a true explanation of the variety of species.  But it does show the need for intellectual honesty that starts by using terms properly.  We should not fall for the evolutionary bait and switch that many neo-Darwinist philosophers try to sell us.  Evolution, especially macroevolution is an open question and ought to be treated as such.

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Believing in Jesus

Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen.  First, there will be beer commercials.  Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16.  It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message.  Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”

As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying.  First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19).  Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities.  They either happened or they didn’t.  Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t.  This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him.  This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.

This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor.  This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity.    This is simply to believe Him.  Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code.  The invitation is for something deeper and more personal.  Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

What Christianity Is

In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to.  We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies.  We believe in another person.  In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair.  It is an invitation to trust.  Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey.  Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.

The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it.  It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me.  It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me.  It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us.  Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.

Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is.  Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough.  “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…”  As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397).  Jesus, I trust in You!

Faith and Works

Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust.  The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics.  It is about trust.  “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved.  Trust not, and you are already condemned.  There is no other way to be saved.

We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith.  That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith.  The act of faith is the trust that we have in God.  The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes.  The content of faith is what we believe.  In both senses we will use the word faith.  We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.

While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable.  The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe.  They are motives of credibility.

In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly.  He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata).  Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being.  He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.  He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse.  He will do these things when he is in love.”

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On Roasting and Empathy

For those of us who are parents, coaches or teachers of teens, we cannot help but be struck by what has become an unparalleled capacity for cruelty that this generation of teens seems to have tapped into.  To be clear from the outset, this is not an essay about bullying, although it is related to this capacity in its truest form.  Our focus on bullying has become merely another way in which we help to create more victims so much so that we have come to label even the smallest amount of confrontation as “bullying.”  This is about a much deeper issue and that is the depths of cruelty that seem to be part and parcel of the life of teens.  Witness the latest teen pastime, Roasting.

Roasting is different from making fun of someone.  A certain amount of that is healthy, and especially in young men it is a sign of affection.  That is mere ribbing.  Even when it is not entirely good-natured, it usually stops when someone gets salty or sensitive.  Roasting on the other hand is something much more than ribbing.  Roasting is, as the Urban Dictionary describes it, the “act of verbally assaulting someone until you hurt their feelings, sometimes to the point of making them cry.”  Victory doesn’t occur with the zinger or burning the other person, it is in roasting them, that is, submitting them to slow and painful abuse.  Its purpose is not simply to embarrass but to keep going until you actually hurt the person or you drive the person to hurt himself.    Roasting is, in essence a Luciferian monologue intended to push a person over the edge.

This phenomena of Roasting leaves Parents, Teachers and Coaches at a loss, especially because even those who we would label as “good kids” engage in it.  It will remain an enigma until we are willing to name it for what it is and confront its chief cause.  Children and teens of this generation have failed almost universally to develop empathy.

When I make fun of someone else, my ultimate reason is because it brings me some pleasure.  That pleasure is reduced to the degree that I realize that it came at the price of causing another person pain.  In short, empathy either stops me from doing it, or at least from taking it so far.  Empathy is a sub-virtue of the virtue of charity by which a person habitually enters into another’s feelings, needs and thoughts. It is the habit of seeing things through the eyes of another person.  Empathy, first and foremost, assumes that one has learned how to “read” another person.  Until that ability matures, the person can only know their own pleasure.

How do we learn to “read” another person?  In normally developing children it is through face to face contact with other people.  They watch the reactions of other people to events and begin to read what they are thinking and feeling through those reactions. They learn that not all communication is verbal and learn how to pick up on these non-verbal cues.  They learn what approval looks like and what disapproval looks like.  They even learn that a person who is crying may be overcome by joy and not sadness.

The seeds of empathy are planted where there is presence.  Remove the presence and the tree of empathy never grows.  It is presence that is in danger in our digital age.  Children spend an inordinate amount of their time looking at screens instead of real live faces.  Even if their parents are “present” their faces are mostly looking down at their screens.  Communication occurs, not through conversation, but through texting and instant messenger.  Emoji are a cheap counterfeit to the real life need for a smile or a frown (did you know there is even a roasting emoji?). Growing up digital may have many advantages, but until we are aware of the pitfalls, we put our humanity in danger.  The digital threat to empathy is perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face.  Empathy is one of the most important social virtues and a loss of empathy leads not just to Roasting but things that are much worse.  We are raising our children to be cold and will only continue to exacerbate the problem as long as we remain addicted to our screens.

This mass deficiency of empathy in the young is a major theme of a book that every parent should read called Reclaiming Conversation.  The author, Clinical Psychologist Sherry Turkle, discusses some of the unintended consequences of going so digital, so fast.  As the name suggests, one of those consequences is a loss in conversation. What makes her book particularly good is the healthy dose of realism.  For most of us, ditching digital is not an option.  But rather than give ourselves over to it completely, we need to be aware of the places where we are particularly vulnerable and do things to protect ourselves.  In practice this means finding ways to unplug for longer periods of time with the express intention of having healthy conversation.  She uses Thoreau as her conversational model; the same Thoreau retreated to Walden and set up three chairs in his house—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  It starts with unplugging long enough to have healthy conversation with God (solitude), with those who are important to (friendship) and then to those outside our inner circle.  Although inefficient, face to face conversation is something that makes us human and is good for us.

It isn’t just Roasting in the young that is a problem.  There are many signs that adults too are losing the ability to empathize.  We say many things over email and text that we would never say in person because we have failed to realize that there is a person on the receiving end.  Rather than using text and emails as a tool to facilitate conversation we have come to use it as a replacement.  It may be easier to “deal” with someone who, but Jesus never said we should “deal with your neighbor” but to “love your neighbor.”  Love requires face to face interaction.  Practically speaking we should never argue or apologize over text or email.  Instead we should make it a policy to have conversations, especially hard ones, face to face.  Our humanity might depend on these simple practices.  We need to put down our phones so that we can take up our conversations.

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The Power of Pentecost

Within the Jewish Liturgical Year, there were seven major feasts, three of which were considered “major feasts” and were commanded as times when the males were to “appear before the Lord God” in Jerusalem (c.f. Exodus 23:14-17).  These three major feasts were the feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year, and the harvest festival.  The Harvest festival, or the Feast of Weeks was to occur on the fiftieth day after Passover (there was some disagreement among the Pharisees and Sadducees as to when the actual feast was to be celebrated).  In later antiquity, it would come to be as Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”) by the Greek-speaking Jews.  It was for the celebration of this feast that many Jews from throughout the world (Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamian, Egyptians, etc. as listed in Acts 2:9-10) had gathered when the Holy Spirit was finally manifest on that day.

This helps to explain why so many were gathered on that day in Jerusalem to witness the power from on high, but it does not necessarily explain why it had to be that feast day.  In other words, why was it that the Jewish Feast of Weeks found its fulfillment on Pentecost?

A word first about the concept of “fulfillment.”  When we hear this term used, there is a tendency to think “it had to happen that day in order to fulfill the meaning of Pentecost.”  In short, we can think that the purpose of Pentecost was to fulfill the Feast of Weeks.  Thinking in these terms there is a danger of thinking that the Feast of Weeks is obsolete and now only Pentecost matters.  Properly understood though we should attempt to see things the other way around.  The purpose of the Feast of Weeks was to make Pentecost understandable.  It may no longer be efficacious, but it is not devoid of meaning.  God was so demanding in the rubrics surrounding the Jewish liturgy because He wanted them to act as clear signs of the thing they were pointing to.  The Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost would have recognized what was happening and were instantly moved upon hearing Peter’s explanation.  But Pentecost was not just for them.  By deepening our own understanding of the Feast of Weeks, we can enter more fully into the celebration and join those first Christians in being “cut to the heart.”

This challenge of deepening our understanding of the Jewish celebrations is echoed in the Catechism:

A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy…The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation. (CCC 1096, emphasis added)

In ancient Israel, the Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival in which loaves of bread were offered to the Lord as a gift of the first fruits (a minor Jewish festival celebrated just after the Feast of Unleavened Bread).  It was accompanied by sacred rest and sacrifices (see Num 28:26-31).  It was by the death of the grains of wheat, the first fruits of the wheat that the bread was to be baked.   This grain then takes on the value of a sign of the One Whom “God raised up” (Acts 2:32).  As the definitive sacrifice, He ascended to heaven where God received Him and showed His approval by pouring out His Spirit by a strongly felt sign (Acts 2:33).  Rising on the day after Passover, that is the feast of first fruits, Christ is “the first fruits of those who have died” (1Cor 15:20).

The Feast of Weeks

By this powerful sign, the Apostles now become the harvesters.  And on this day, the harvest is great, drawing 3000 souls to the Lord.  This number is far from arbitrary and it would immediately bring to mind the other aspect of the Feast of Weeks, namely that it was to be marked as a time to remember the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

While God was giving the Law to Moses, the Israelites fashioned the Golden Calf.  In response, the Levites were commanded “’Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!’ The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell” (Ex 32:27-28).  Spiritually inebriated, the Apostles, that is the priestly successors to the Levites, will put to death the flesh of those 3000 souls, each of which will follow the law because it is written not in stone, but on their hearts (Jer 31:33).

The giving of the Law was the initiation of the Old Covenant.  This indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Faithful that will become the sign of the new Covenant, that is Baptism.  Those who are claimed for Christ, the 3000, do as Peter told them— “repent and be baptized” so that they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The giving of the Law as part of the Old Covenant also formed Israel as the People of God—that is the visible Kingdom of God on earth.  At Pentecost, the Church becomes the Kingdom of God that is open to all people.  This understanding helps bring clarity to the somewhat random question and ambiguous response Our Lord gives to the Apostles when, just prior to His Ascension, they ask “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” to which He replies that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:6,8).

The Spirit of Pentecost

All of this remains mere proof-texting unless we allow the effects of Pentecost to be felt in our day.  So many within the Church speak of waiting for a “New Pentecost” in which the power of the Holy Spirit will be made manifest once again.  But there will be no “New Pentecost” because Pentecost was not a single event, but one that was to last perpetually.  The Jews celebrated the different festivals not merely to remind them of the past, but to make the past somehow present to them so that they could participate in it.  The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling and renewing the Old Covenant and Pentecost ought to be a time that we consciously renew our participation in the New Covenant.

The first way that this should be done is through a renewed focus on our baptismal commitment to offer spiritual sacrifices unceasingly to Christ.  Likewise, we should renew our commitment to the graces of Confirmation, that is when we received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and march to the Front in the battle to win souls.  Offering Mass for the grace to live those two Pentecostal Sacraments to their fullest would be a worthy intention.

Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.  With this in mind, a second way to live Pentecost is to do what we all do at all birthday celebrations—show gratitude for the gift of the person and offer a gift to pay our debt of gratitude.  We can often take for granted the gift of the Church and how much easier it makes our lives.  Yes, we have to deal with the human elements, that is the weeds among the wheat, but the guidance that her teaching office gives us can save us from making a lot of mistakes.  She speaks to nearly every aspect of our lives and offers us a sure port amidst the storms of life.  Amidst a culture in which we are “tossed to and fro by every wave of false doctrine,” there is great comfort knowing we have a place to go for the Truth.  By renewing our efforts to form ourselves in her teachings, to be docile to the truth and proclaim it loudly, we can pay the debt of our gratitude.  We are the new harvesters in the long line of harvesters known as the Communion of Saints.  Pray then, this Pentecost, that the Master of the Harvest will send more out into the fields, priests, and laity alike.

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Death and the Three Judgments

“You are going to die.”  It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man).  Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth.  100% of the people who read the book are going to die.  We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly.  St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam.  To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point.  Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death.  Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death.  By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts.  Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men.  Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human.  Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ.  For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.

If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment.  It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny.  For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy.  For those who do not, death will be a condemnation.  This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths.  But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable.  It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.

The Third Judgment

St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time.  But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living.  In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives.  The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”

Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge.  That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living.  This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder.  But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead.  Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.

Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression.  First there is the damage caused to the order of things.  Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in.  Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good.  Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense.  Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc).  Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone.  Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.”  It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment.  Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order.  To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge.  Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.

Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins.  The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny.  It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is.  Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal.  This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own.  This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient.  We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven.  The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.

Death as the Meaning of Life

All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well.  Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life.  Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned.  It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy.  God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.

If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment?  St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment.  First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad).  Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly.  The truth will be made known.  Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known.  Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death.  The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond.  Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death.  The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.

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The Truth of the Resurrection

“If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “then your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:17).  It is the Resurrection of Our Lord that underwrites all that He did and said.  It almost goes without saying then that the most effective attack Christianity would be to undermine the certainty of Christ’s Resurrection.  Clearly it was the first response of the Jews when they paid the guards stationed at the tomb to claim that Our Lord’s followers came and stole the body (Mt 28:12-13).  We should not be surprised when, without fail, each Easter we are met with the latest evidence of finding the tomb of Jesus or a long-lost letter describing where the Apostles laid the body when they stole it.  Predictably the “evidence” falls flat upon closer scrutiny, but this doesn’t stop someone from trying again.  In their approach however, the debunkers do have one thing right—they treat the Resurrection, not as a matter of faith, but as a true historical event.

This was the approach that St. Paul took as well.  In the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he describes all the witnesses to the Resurrection, most of whom were still alive and could testify to the fact that a man whom they knew to have died, still lived.  Certainly, the Corinthians would need to believe their testimony.  But the testimony was related to a historical fact, not a matter of belief.  In other words, they would need to be convinced that the evidence reasonably led to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.  Can we, nearly 2000 years removed from the historical event, reasonably come to the same conclusion based on the evidence?

Historical Evidence

First a word about historical evidence.  All too oftenthe debunkers say that there are no extra-biblical sources that mention the Resurrection and therefore the New Testament is somehow inadmissible as evidence.  Of course the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  The fact that there are no extra-biblical sources simply means there are no extra-biblical sources that are sin existence (either because they never existed or because they are lost).  One cannot conclude that the Gospels are ahistorical simply because you cannot confirm the historicity of the Resurrection.  At best, it is an open question.  Although the historical circumstances presented in the Gospels do jibe with other historical facts known from other sources (things like who the rulers were, the mass crucifixion in Galilee, etc.).  For that reason, one may reasonably conclude that because they are factually accurate in those things we can check, that they are accurate in those that we can’t.

It is more than just circumstantial evidence however.  The fact that we have four different eyewitness accounts written in different places at different times that basically agree with each other is a lot of historical evidence given the time span since the events themselves.  The fact that the Gospels were later included in the Christian Scriptures has no bearing on them as historical documents.  There is no more reason to think them propaganda material than there is for thinking that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon because it is not mentioned in any other source of the time than the Roman Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Just as Suetonius’ account (100 years after the event) seems to accurately portray other events we find mentioned in other sources, there is no reason to suppose he made up the part about Caesar crossing the Rubicon because he was a Roman who wanted to put the glory of Rome on display.

We accept Suetonius’ account because it fits with the other evidence and likewise we should accept the Resurrection as a historical event because it fits the evidence.  We struggle to defend its historicity because we tend to treat it as a matter of faith and not a historical event.

There first is what we can call the biblical package, which includes the empty tomb and the sightings.  These need be a single package because people report seeing departed loved ones all the time.  What makes the accounts so powerful is that there is evidence that the tomb the deceased one was buried in was also empty.  This biblical evidence was the basis of the early Christian argument for the Resurrection.  Yet, no one ever attacked the Christian argument by saying that the tomb was not empty.  They may have argued for other reasons why the tomb was empty, but the fact that the tomb He was left in was empty on the first Easter morning was never questioned.  A reasonable historian would conclude that the tomb was in fact empty.  What remains is the explanation.

The Resurrection as Truth

There is an important point for us to grasp about the Resurrection itself.  In the Greco-Roman world the notion of the resurrection of the body was absurd.  They thought the body was a prison and something to be escaped rather than something to return to.  The resurrection of the body would have been seen as a curse and not a triumph.  Most Jews believed in the resurrection of the body, but only “only the last day” as a sign that God’s victory had been won.  The idea that a man would rise from the dead before that would have been considered anathema.  That is one of the reasons it makes little sense to say that the Apostles made up the story or it was something made up later by the Christian community.  Christ’s manner of resurrection would have been wholly unexpected and entirely new.

But this is not the only problem with the clever myth hypothesis.  We still have the problem with establishing motive.  The Apostles had absolutely nothing to gain by fabricating the story, except the suffering promised the followers of Christ.  They stood to gain neither wealth nor power from their testimony.  The only plausible explanation is that their motive was because it was true.

All too often one will give a variation on Pascal’s argument “I believe those witnesses that get their throats slit” by saying that no one dies for a lie.  But the reasoning is more subtle than that.  The witnesses of the Resurrection were all martyred not for sticking to the truth.  No, they had seen a man who was dead, conquer death.  They were willing martyrs because they all had no fear of death.  Their Friend had overcome death and promised them the same.

Why didn’t Christ appear to the powers of the age?  Surely He could have appeared before Pilate or the Sanhedrin in His Resurrected state and convinced them all.  But that is not what He was about.  He was looking not to convince the likes of Pilate and Caiaphas.  The Church, that is the extension of the Incarnation through time and space, would need credible witnesses to serve as foundation stones.  With Pilate and Caiaphas as witnesses, the Resurrection would become just some unexplained historical event.  With Peter, Paul and all the Apostles as witnesses, this tiny group of followers founded a society that has outlasted every earthly kingdom.  Surely, that should be a strong reason to take the historical evidence surrounding the Resurrection more seriously as a true historical event.

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“When I was Hungry and Thirsty You Gave Me to Eat and Drink”

In the past few months our family has been confronted with end of life medical care for two close members.  In both cases, we had to fight to continue providing nutrition and hydration.  After hitting so close to home twice, I began to wonder about other’s experiences and found that nearly everyone who has had to walk this journey with a loved one did not know what to do and eventually deferred to “the experts” in the medical profession.  Already emotionally overwhelmed and lacking confidence in their medical knowledge, they trusted that the medical professionals would guide them to do the right thing.  If our experience has taught us anything, it is two things.  First, the culture of death is so deeply imbedded that even those medical professionals who are genuinely compassionate and of good will can succumb to it and that we were glad that we did not wait until the situation came up to learn about the importance of nutrition and hydration at this most vulnerable stage of life.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of those caregivers who devote their lives to walking with families through this.  This is meant to raise awareness that the current “best practice” in dealing with those who are actively dying is morally repugnant.  By arming yourself now with a proper understanding, you can protect yourself later when your thinking may be clouded because of the stress of the situation.

Medical Treatment and Ordinary Care

First, there is an important distinction to be made between medical treatment and ordinary care.  In general treatment would include those interventions that may cure a disease or aid one in returning to health. Medical treatment would include things like antibiotics, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, and the like.  One may look at these treatments and decide that their burdens outweigh their benefits and decide to forgo them in order to live the remaining days of his life with a certain quality of life.

Medical treatment is different than ordinary care however.  Ordinary care is simply routine attention given to the patient.  This would include bathing, providing clean clothes and sheet, keeping them warm, and providing food and water.  Each of these is essential to life and to withhold any of these, especially to those who cannot provide them for themselves, and assuming you have the means to do so, is considered cruel.  No amount of misguided compassion would say that we should leave a sick person outside in December exposed to the elements.  Likewise, no amount of misguided compassion would say that we should allow someone to starve and become dehydrated.

It was this important distinction between medical treatment and care that Pope St. John Paul II brought attention to when in a papal allocution in 2004 he said,

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering” (Address of John Paul II To the Participants in the International Congress on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”).

Notice as well that John Paul II did not say nutrition and hydration must be given in all circumstances.  He said that they are only to be given for as long as they are “seen to have attained its proper finality.”  What he means is that they should be given in all circumstances until it can be definitively shown that they no longer can be processed or assimilated by the body.  It must be “seen.”  There cannot be mere medical conjecture or blanket statements like “we see that as the patient is dying their nutritional and hydrational needs are greatly diminished.”  Even if their needs are greatly diminished, this is an argument for giving less, not cutting them out altogether.  All too often this argument is put forth as a reason for omitting them altogether.  The only time they should be completely removed is when it is shown that the body no longer can make use of them.

Other Arguments against Nutrition and Hydration

The “diminished need” argument is not the only one that is commonly put forth.  There are two others.  The first is what I like to call the “argument from technology.”  This argument essentially says something like “75 years ago we didn’t have the ability to use feeding tubes or IV’s and we can now keep people alive longer because of these technologies.”

What makes the flaw in this argument hard to see initially is that it is true.  We did not have the ability to use feeding tubes and IV’s for nutrition and hydration in the past.  The problem with this argument is that we have a lot of things because of technological advances that we did not have in the past.  The refrigerator that allows us to feed sick people (even those who can still feed themselves) in a relatively recent invention.  Indoor plumbing, another technological advance, keeps the sick who can still hold their own cups (another technological advance) hydrated.  But we also did not have the pain killers we have now.  Should we remove those as well?  Certainly, we are prolonging their lives by controlling their pain.  In the past they would have gone into shock and died.

One can easily see how absurd this line of reasoning can actually become.  Where do we draw the line?  If we have the ability and the technology to provide care for someone and it is care that they have the capacity to receive, then we ought to provide it.  The fact that nutrition and hydration extends one’s life is true for all of us.  Remove those things from even the healthiest person and they will die.  More accurately, removing those things from the person would be to kill them.  Allowing someone to die is different than causing someone to die, even if you do so by an act of omission such as withholding care from them when you have the means to do so.

The second argument is that by providing nutrition and hydration, even when the patient is still able to tolerate it, we are “postponing the inevitable.”  Again the difficulty in seeing where this thinking goes wrong is that it is true.  We are postponing the inevitable.  Although again, by me eating lunch today, I also have postponed the inevitable.

What those who use this line of reasoning surely mean is that when death is imminent we should do nothing to stop it.  But doing nothing to stop it, is not the same thing as aiding it.  Why not, as my son with Autism suggested when we told him his grandmother was going to die, push them off the roof then?  The fact that death is imminent does not mean we should kill the person, even if it is by omission.

The fact is that human life, even when the person is suffering, even when the person is close to death is a good that ought to be protected.  Life is a gift, one that none of us earned.  Therefore we are never free to give the gift back or decide that we do not want it any longer.  We must wait on the decision of the One Who bestowed the gift.  Until such time, we should see the person before us and care for them.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick—all corporal works of mercy that should never cease as long as a person is present before us.  Don’t allow anyone to take those acts of charity away from you.  Provided the person can still assimilate the food and water, you should never remove a feeding tube or a hydration IV.

 

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The Miracle of the Sun

As the Church marks the 100th Anniversary of the six appearances by Our Lady to three young children in Fatima, Portugal with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, one question associated with the apparitions has remained largely unanswered.  What exactly happened on 13 October 1917 when 70,000 witnesses saw the sun dance?  While accounts may vary in some ways, there is universal agreement among the witnesses about several key facts surrounding the event.  First, it had been raining hard for several hours and the sky cleared right as the children began praying.  One of the children, Lucia, instructed the crowd that they should look at the sun at which point the sun, covered by what looked like a thin silver disc, appeared to change color, spin like a fire wheel and plummet towards the earth 3 times.  Although it was bright, it seemed to have a filter (the thin silver disc) that made it possible to look directly upon it.  This was met by both reverential awe and fear especially because many of the pilgrims spoke of a heat emanating from the sun as it approached; a heat so intense that all of their clothes were dried.  All total, the miracle lasted about 10 minutes.  Despite the near unanimous agreement about this extraordinary event and its overwhelming evidential power, the miracle itself has been largely ignored by those outside the Church and misunderstood by those inside the Church.

Perhaps some of the reason why it has been ignored is because of the label of miracle.  Informed by a materialist philosophy, miracles are a priori impossible.  Any talk of them is usually met with ridicule and the charge of incredulity and superstition.  Such a public event as what the people in Fatima witnessed that October day is an open contradiction of this and therefore many pretend it did not happen.

The Church and the Miraculous

This may be compounded by the fact that the Church is extremely cautious in labeling something as a miracle.  Every conceivable natural explanation must be eliminated before declaring an event to be miraculous.  In the case of the so called Miracle of the Sun, the Church, even though she has deemed the message of Fatima as worthy of belief, has never declared that a miracle occurred that day.

This leads to confusion among those in the Church, especially because many take this as an indication that the Church is drinking scientism’s Cool-Aid.  Instead, it shows her access to Divine Wisdom.  She knows that if a natural explanation were to be found for what she had previously called a miracle, then it would shatter the confidence of many believers and destroy her own credibility.  Those steeped in a solely scientific worldview are always on the lookout for a the capital offense of placing “God in the gaps.”

What was witnessed that day may have a natural explanation.  To be sure, the Sun did not move that day.  For the sun to approach the earth (ignoring the problems of size, gravity, etc.) it would have been a global event and not something localized to Fatima.  In other words it would have been witnessed throughout the world.  God can do anything, but even He cannot make something that is a contradiction occur.  Contradictions are not things but nonsense.  A wholly material thing cannot be in two places at once.  The sun could not both be in the sky over Spain and approaching the earth in Portugal.  It will not do to say that God somehow played tricks on the minds of the pilgrims to make it seem as if they were seeing the sun.

Rather than placing God in the gaps, scientism’s adherents like to put Mesmer (the inventor of hypnosis) in the gaps.  Many have said that those present that day all were victims of mass suggestion.  Some people were not in the Cova that day and there were witnesses as many as 9 miles away that saw the event.

Certainly, whatever happened that day was unique.  But the meteorological conditions themselves were unique as well.  The atmospheric conditions may have been such that there is a wholly natural explanation for what happened.  Fr. Stanley Jaki in his book God and the Sun at Fatima offers one such possibility.

The point however is that even if we came up with a natural explanation tomorrow, it would not change the supernatural character of the event.  The “Miracle of the Sun” is not a miracle just because of what the people saw that day, but because three barely literate sheepherding children predicted the exact date and time that it would occur.  The children had told the people that Our Lady would provide proof of her appearance at Fatima on that day.  That is why most of the people were there—the children had called the shot.  They were given knowledge that goes beyond what could be known naturally—the definition of supernatural.  In that sense it was a wholly supernatural event, whether we find a natural explanation for the event itself.

We should not be surprised because Our Lord performed miracles like this in the Gospel.  He tells Peter that the fish he will catch will have a coin in it that can pay their tax.  As any fisherman knows, fish can often have some strange things in their mouths.  Even if you think that the fish at some point swallowed the coin, Jesus knew something that only God could know.  Likewise, with the prior identification of the man who would provide the lodging of the Upper Room to the Apostles.  No natural human knowledge could know that.  The miracle can be in the ability to know something that human reason could not have otherwise known.

“Not because you saw signs…”

Whether there is a natural explanation or not, does not mean it was not God Who did it.  He can act directly or He can use secondary causes.  Either way, it is God Who has manifested Himself.  The star over Bethlehem may have a natural explanation, but it is an explanation that falls under the power of Divine Providence.  It is the same God Who set the heavens in motion such that in the “fullness of time” they would declare the birth of the Messiah that also arranged things such that the “Miracle of the Sun” would occur.  It does not detract from His power to attribute it to a natural cause but instead shows Him to be more powerful in that He is able to use secondary causes (even those who are free) to bring about His plan of making Himself known.

This may be why the events of 13 October have not been well understood inside the Church.  In the haste to explain the miracle and defend it, we have forgotten that miracles are not just events, but signs.  In other words, we should not be so quick to look for explanations but for the meaning.  Our Lord invited those who had witnessed the multiplication of the loaves to see the meaning of what He had done and not so much the event itself— “Amen, amen, I say to you, your seek Me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of loaves” (Jn 6:26).

The Miracle of the Sun was not just a sign that the apparitions were true, but fit into the overall message of Fatima itself.  Our Lady appeared to the children with a sense of urgency, inviting them (and us) to do penance.  It is a time of mercy, although that time is running is short.  Divine Justice will manifest itself.  The Miracle of the Sun portrayed the sun as rushing towards the earth three times, but there was something kept it from hitting the earth.  It was the thin silver disc, the same thing that allowed the pilgrims to look at it without hurting their eyes, that kept the sun from being fully exposed.  One of the visionaries, Lucia, saw Our Lady with her hands on the sun as if she was holding it back.

The message seems obvious, it is Our Lady of Mercy, that has obtained for us the reprieve from God’s Justice.  But even He grows tired of allowing her to do so because of the blasphemies against her Immaculate Heart.  If the time of Mercy is to last, then her Immaculate Heart must reign.  So then on this feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, let us rededicate ourselves to doing all that we can to make this a reality by following her commands.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

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A New Pentecost

When the Catechism of the Council of Trent was published in 1566, it contained a warning regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation:

If ever there was a time demanding the diligence of pastors in explaining the Sacrament of Confirmation, in these days certainly it requires special attention, when there are found in the holy Church of God many by whom this Sacrament is altogether omitted; while very few seek to obtain from it the fruit of divine grace which they should derive from its participation.

As much as this was true is 1566, it is probably even more so today.  Most Catholics operate under a false understanding of what the Sacrament is and does and therefore fail to make use of it.  Given the direction our culture is going and the need for strong Christian witness, it is time to examine this Sacrament once again so we can make use of the supernatural power that God provides us.

The Purpose of Confirmation

The most common misunderstanding about Confirmation is attached to its purpose.  Most see it correctly as somehow completing the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism and the Eucharist), but assume it just involves accepting responsibility for your faith.  It is given when someone is old enough to make a decision for themselves about whether they are going to accept the faith they were baptized into.  While it is often received after someone has reached the age of reason, this accepting of responsibility for your faith would not make it a Sacrament.  Sacraments are first and foremost the work of God.

All of the Sacraments confer sanctifying grace, but each one also bestows a unique grace called “sacramental grace.”  Three of them, Baptism, Holy Orders, and Confirmation, also bestow an indelible mark on the soul called a character.  In addition to serving as a mark of distinction, it also acts as a sign that denotes a certain duty.  Think of it as a badge on the soul that deputizes us to perform a certain office.  It also disposes us for the reception of actual graces.  Even more than that, it gives us a right to all the actual graces that are necessary to fulfill that particular office.

The sacramental grace that is bestowed on us in Confirmation is the “power of the Holy Spirit” by which we are enabled to believe firmly and profess boldly the Gospel.  Think of Peter on Pentecost and afterwards.  It marks us as soldiers for Christ and causes the necessary growth in us to serve on the front lines, wherever the Front that God sends us may be.  It also imposes on us the duty to witness to the Faith. Because God never gives a mission without the necessary grace to fulfill that mission it also gives us the right to those actual graces we need to fight for Christ and His Church.

There is a danger in leaving this on an intellectual level.  But we need to realize (i.e. make real in our own lives) what Confirmation does to us and how God puts Himself in a position in which He owes us something.  I have been marked as a Christian witness at the core of my being and this mark obligates me to profess the One Who has marked me.  It is no cosmetic change, but a change that will last forever.  Because I bear this mark, God owes me all the actual graces that I need.  I can count on them when I need them because He is just.  The challenge is to live with this realization and allow my courage to increase daily—the grace of Confirmation perfects each of our seemingly small acts of witness until we are boldly professing the Truth to all who need to hear it.  How different my encounters will be if I live with this in mind rather than relying on my own strength?  How much confidence will I gain?

As I walk down the street no other man may see the mark, but this mark can be seen by our real enemies.  It becomes a bull’s-eye of sorts in which they now take sharper aim at us.  This is why we must recall that the Greek word for witness is martus, from which we get the word martyr.  Ultimately Confirmation is the Sacrament of Martyrdom.

Pentecost

When the Levitical priests were preparing burnt offering sacrifice to God, they always laid their hands upon its head (c.f. Lev 1:3 and Exodus 29:10, 15).  This is why a Bishop, who has received the fullness of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament.  By laying his hands on the confirmand’s head, he is setting that person aside as a sacrifice to God.  This is why it is so important for us to enter the Sacrament with eyes wide open and having a proper understanding what it actually empowers us to be.  It fully conforms us to Christ by marking us a victims.  We are no longer just adopted sons and daughters through Christ, we now become more fully conformed to Him as victims.

When Confirmation Should Happen?

Before closing, a word about who should receive the Sacrament.  With all the Sacraments, there is an ever-present danger of treating them like magic.  We grasp objectively what they are—essential channels of sanctifying grace—but spend little time worrying about the subjective dimension.  In other words, we don’t necessarily ask whether the person is really ready (not just superficially able to tell you what the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit are) to receive that grace.  It is given to many teens in the hopes that something “sticks.”  Then we are surprised when we don’t see any real change in the Confirmandi and the Church as a whole.  Rather than quibbling over the proper age to give the Sacrament, what if we spent the time really preparing them?  Helping them develop a true prayer life, a true Sacramental life (including regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession) and forming them to battle the enemies of the Church.  A Catholic boot camp of sorts to train the next generation of Christian soldiers.

The need for credible witnesses to the Faith has grown dire in the past fifty years and one can imagine that it will increase even more in the immediate future.  In response to this, many in the Church have called for a New Pentecost.  In truth however a New Pentecost is not needed—the grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation extends the same power of Pentecost through time.  What is needed is a greater emphasis on the necessity of this Sacrament.  We should be giving it sooner to children rather than later, especially since children today seem to face a unique set of challenges that could lead to a loss of faith earlier in their lives than ever before.  This starts however by spreading an understanding of this virtually untapped source of supernatural power so that we can truly bring about the fruit of Pentecost today.

 

 

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On the Idolatry of Money

The strange thing about idols is that they usually travel in our blind spots.  We may very well be aware of their dangers, but fail to see that we have succumbed to them.  This is true especially when it comes to the idolatry of money.  We may agree, for example, with Pope Francis that “the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money,” but think that it is the greedy rich people’s problem and not necessarily our own.  The plank is firmly implanted in our own eye and unless we submit ourselves to some self-examination we may remain permanently blinded to what has always been viewed as one of the Seven Capital Sins.

The Role of Money in Exchange

A word first on the reason many of us our blind to this particular vice.  St. Thomas Aquinas, building on the economic teachings of Aristotle, thought that the marketplace was governed by two different types of exchanges which he called natural and unnatural.  A natural exchange was one in which one good was traded for another.  This might be a barter system or a money as medium of exchange system.  A cobbler needs to feed his family and so he might trade a pair of shoes for a cow or he sells the shoes so that he could buy the cow.  In either case the end of the cobbler’s transaction was to obtain a cow.  It may be that he chooses to save the money so he can purchase the cow later, perhaps when business is slow, but his purpose is always clear—to obtain something he needs to feed his family.

An unnatural exchange, on the other hand, is one in which money ceases to be a medium of exchange but instead becomes the end.  The cobbler sells the shoes with the goal of making money and to get rich.  He does not have any particular end in mind, even if it is to save for some future hardship.

What also makes an exchange unnatural is when one or both participants has an irrational end in mind.  All exchange should be governed by needs and rational wants.  The needs are obvious but a rational want represents something that may not be strictly needed but is a reasonable thing to purchase.  A second pair of shoes may be a reasonable want, a tenth pair, not so much.

When a commodity is the end of an exchange there is a certain protection against greed.  One may desire only so many things.  There is only so much room to store them.  There are only so many loaves of bread we can eat.  There are only so many pairs of shoes we can wear.  Our desire may be unreasonable, but there is a natural limit to how much we will desire.

Money is completely different.  Our desire for money is infinite.  There is no natural limit on how much we can desire.  For the rich, their “net worth” becomes merely a game to see how high they can go.  This, of course, only happens when money becomes an end instead of a means.  When we see it merely as a means to purchase those things we need and rationally want, we will be satisfied with only a certain amount.

Love of Money as a Capital Sin

Scripture tells us that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10) and Tradition labels it as one of the Seven Capital Sins.  The latter are not sins in the classical sense, but more like motivations that gives rise to the actual sins in our lives.  Objectively speaking one may commit the sin of murder, but the personal motivation is always rooted in one of these seven capital sins.  We may murder because of wrath or we may murder to grow rich.  The act is the same, but the motivation differs.

Understanding this helps us to root out the actual sins in our lives.  When our motives change, our acts change.  Love of neighbor will only replace love of money when we see it for what it is.  Watch yourself over the next few weeks and see how often money motivates you; not by money as being able to purchase things that you need or rationally want, but just the idea of having more money.  Whenever I do this exercise I am always surprised by how easily I have fallen into the trap again.

Covetousness, that is a love of money, remains hidden to most of us because it is woven into the fabric of the culture.  Our economy is structured such that money is the end.  It is not about producing goods that people need and rationally want, but creating a desire for consumption.  Advertisers try to convince us we need something.  This is all motivated by a love of money.  Most people work, not because it provides for needs and rational wants and fulfills them as persons, but because they want to be rich.  When you are swimming in water, it is hard not to get wet.  The first step is to recognize that the water is what is making you wet and find ways to stay out of the pool.  Examining our motivations and ways that we personally contribute to the culture of consumption will help to purify us from this dangerous idol.

What also makes money a particularly deadly snare as an idol is the fact that it can rob us of our trust in God. Money is usually a sign of security for most of us. After all, money can buy all the things we need, or so the thinking goes. Money contributes to the lie that man lives on bread alone. It is not without accident that when religious fervor was stirred in the hearts of Americans during the Second Great Awakening that the motto In God We Trust first appeared on coins. It is a stark reminder that our security is in God and not in money. Our Lord called the poor in spirit, those who put their trust in God and not in money, as blessed.

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Unleashing the Truth

Most regular readers of this blog will readily admit that relativism, that is the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, is absolutely absurd and unlivable.  So ubiquitous is this false understanding of reality however that there is not a single one of us that remains outside the grasp of its tentacles.  Whether we believe in it or not, it still affects us in ways we might not initially realize.  It is one specific way that I want to address in today’s entry.

Relativism is not only damaging because it fails to recognize universal truth claims.  It is not only damaging because it is unlivable, causing a fracture in our personality between what we believe and how we act.  These are injurious only to those who profess belief in relativism.  It is most damaging because it depreciates truth in everyone’s eyes.  Where relativism reigns, there is a universal indifference towards the truth.

“Wait”, you say, “I am not indifferent to the truth at all.”  Really?  How many times, when confronted with a falsehood, have you just thought “it is not worth it to say anything”?  We might justify it using the Gospel maxim of “not putting pearls before swine” or speak of “picking our battles,” but most of the time we think that ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I would dare to say that it happens more often than we would be willing to admit.

The truth (see what I did there?) is that it does matter and matters immensely.  We are not preserving the pearls of truth nor picking our battles.  There is no danger of losing the pearls of truth because they are not really pearls.  Unlike material goods, spiritual goods like the truth multiply when shared.   What this means is that the truth has a power all its own, even when we don’t share it with great eloquence or fancy arguments.  It has no power when it is kept inside, but once unleashed, it can destroy falsehood.

The Truth and Charity

Note the important distinction between destroying falsehood and beating a person.  This destruction of falsehood is not an excuse to beat your opponent to submission.  What I am suggesting is that we re-capture the distinctively Christian habit of forcefully and charitably attacking untruth.   This is always done with two motives, each equally important—destroy the falsehood and win the person.  The truth will set you free.

This is one of the reasons that GK Chesterton remains one of the best apologists for the Christian faith even today.  He attacked untruth wherever he found it.  He never shied away from debate.  But he was often criticized for how gently he treated his opponents. Unyielding when it came to untruth, he would still speak kindly to and of his opponents.  His goal was to “kill and wound folly” not his opponent.

In fact, at the heart of the Christian message is charity, that is, the habit of loving like God loves.  God loves in truth and with Truth.  For many of us we treat the truth as something that we own rather than as something to be given away.  And because we are possessive of it, we lose our confidence in its power.  It really becomes “my truth.”  As Pope Benedict XVI has said on a number of occasions, “none of us have the truth.  At best, we can say the truth has us.”  You cannot both believe a truth while at the same time not believe in its evidential power, standing all on its own.  With this realization comes the ability to always remain charitable in our untruth slaying.

The Value of Arguing?

The truth is the truth whether I can argue for it or not.  In fact I may not be able to argue it, but still I have an obligation to stamp out the falsehood.  Simply saying “that is not true” is enough, although quite obviously it is much better to be able to say why it isn’t true.  Even still, not being able to argue should never be a reason not to speak out against untruth.  The humiliation of not being able to defend the truth often motivates us to learn how.  Charity is truth, but so is humility.  Trust in the hidden power of the truth.

Most of us are jealous of our own ideas so convincing someone of their falsehood is often difficult.  But do you know who else is listening?  This is something that I came to realize when I took a trip to Mississippi just after Hurricane Katrina to help with cleanup with two guys I knew.  One of them was my college roommate who could never understand why anyone in their right mind was Catholic.  Over the years we had covered pretty much every topic related to the Faith.  A few hours into the trip, he said something (I don’t recall exactly what) about the Blessed Mother that was not true.  I immediately called him on it, even though we had talked about this before.  We spent a couple of hours going back and forth about the Faith.  He was just as unyielding as I was.  The whole time the guy in the back seat was quiet and didn’t say a word.  Two months later he called me and told me that he was entering RCIA and that the eavesdropped conversation was the thing that put him over the top.  My arguments were not to him specifically, I didn’t even know his objections.  Instead he heard the truth and it opened up everything for him.  All this because I was unwilling to leave a falsehood floating around the car.

Perhaps you may not win the person over to the truth, you may stop them from unthinkingly repeating what they are saying.  If what they are saying is untrue, it will crumble under its own weight.  He may not agree with you, but he will think twice before saying it on another occasion.  It will keep the falsehood from spreading.

Unleash the truth!

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The Great Feast of Mercy

Among the vast spiritual treasures that Pope St. John Paul II left to the Church, Divine Mercy Sunday may be his greatest gift.  During his canonization homily of St. Faustina, he declared that the Sunday after Easter, the final day of the Octave of Easter, would be called Divine Mercy Sunday.  The timing was no accident.  Among the requests that Our Lord gave to St. Faustina, was His request that a Feast of Mercy be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.  In the midst of the terrible “Century of Sin,” Our Lord desired to give the Church new channels for the outpouring of His grace—“where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Romans 5:20)—through devotion to Divine Mercy, and more specifically through the Feast of Mercy.  Our Lord told St. Faustina that “on the day of My feast, the Feast of Mercy, you will go through the world and bring fainting souls to the spring of My mercy.  I shall heal and strengthen them” (Diary, 206).

Divine Mercy and Private Revelation

First, a word about Private Revelation in general is necessary.  All too often we will look at certain devotions like Divine Mercy as something optional, that is, not binding on us in faith to believe as Catholics.  But this is an overly simplistic way of looking at them.  If the Church deems some apparitions and private revelations worthy of belief, then we should treat them as anything else that is sufficiently proved, namely that it is true.  In other words, we may not be bound in faith to believe these things but we are bound by reason and logic.

We should treat St. Faustina then as a great prophet of our age.  She brought no new doctrine or dogma, she added nothing to the deposit of faith.  What she did add is a blueprint for how the Gospel can be lived in our age.  Public revelation may have ceased at the death of the last Apostle, but prophecy did not—“where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18).  Faustina, the prophet’s message?  A radical trust in the mercy of God.

Our Lord promised through the pen of St. Faustina “to heal and strengthen” fainting souls on the Feast of Mercy.  What was He promising?  Our Lord promised to “grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy” (Dairy, 687).  What are “the unimaginable graces” attached to Mercy Sunday?   “Whomever approaches the Fountain of Life on this day will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” (Diary, 300).

This is unimaginable indeed!  Those who approach the Fountain of Life, that is Our Lord in the Eucharist, will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishments.  It is as if the person is to receive the Baptismal grace again, a spiritual do-over.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more!

We can see that one of the obstacles then to celebrating the Feast of Mercy is that it is practically unbelievable.  The Father who is “rich in mercy” is a prodigal Father, pouring graces everywhere and anywhere.  But like the lost son in the parable, there are conditions on our part.  It is not a magic wand, but like all things depends on how well we prepare for the Feast.

How is it then that we, “the fainting souls”, can approach “the spring of Our Lord’s mercy”?  Jesus lays out the conditions to St. Faustina; the things that we must do to “be healed and strengthened.”

A Special Grace Won

The first we have already mentioned, that is to receive Communion on the day of the Feast of Mercy.  If the “unimaginable grace” attached to the Feast is one similar to the grace of Baptism, then it will be delivered through the Eucharist.  In other words, if Our Lord is to bestow a grace of a “second Baptism” He will do so through the Eucharist.  Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist with that intention will only strengthen our own resolve to both desire and receive this extraordinary grace.

Provided we receive Our Lord worthily, that is in a state of grace, then we may receive this extraordinary grace.  Those who are conscious of mortal sin must first approach the Sacrament of Confession.  However, that is not the only reason why going to Confession prior to the Feast of Mercy is a good idea.  One of the graces of Confession is to receive true repentance for our sins, a condition of receiving the unimaginable grace.  Our imperfect contrition meeting Our Lord’s perfect contrition on the Cross through the Sacrament, brings with it the grace to have true repentance for our sins.  The better disposed we are to receive the grace of the Feast, the more likely we are to have it lead to true conversion and not a mere one time event.

Our Lord, repeatedly tells St. Faustina how important Confession is calling it the place where “the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy” (Diary, 1602).  Our Lord tells St. Faustina that “every time you go to Confession, immerse yourself entirely in My mercy with great trust, so that I many pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul.  When you approach the confessional, know this, that I myself am waiting there for you” (ibid).  The Confessional is the place where we encounter Our Lord, face to face and where we find the “fount of mercy.”

This extraordinary grace, seemingly too good to be true, can only be received by those who are willing to admit the possibility that God really is that merciful.  In other words, only those who have a radical trust in the mercy of Jesus can win this grace.  This is why Our Lord attaches this necessity—an absolute trust in Him—to its reception on the Feast of Mercy.

This is also why veneration of the image of Divine Mercy is also a key component of the Feast.  It is a visual reminder, with the Blood and Water flowing from the Sacred Heart that we always have access to God’s mercy by offering “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Only Begotten Son Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With this great Feast of Mercy upon us, let us approach Our Lord’s throne of Mercy well prepared to receive all that Jesus wants to give us.  Jesus, I trust in You!

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Filling in the Resurrection Accounts

The last couple of centuries have witnessed a great push both outside and inside the Church to mythologize Christianity. This is felt most keenly when it comes to the Resurrection of Our Lord. From positing that Our Lord did not actually die on the Cross (called the Swoon Theory), to mass hallucination, to “a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of the followers of Jesus,” each new “theory” offers a natural explanation to the central supernatural event in the history of mankind. Of course, it makes perfect sense. If you want to destroy Christianity, then you should start by destroying belief in the Resurrection itself. No less than St. Paul himself warned that downplaying the Resurrection of the Lord as the pivot of Christianity would lead to its eventual destruction; “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:17).

Given how long ago it occurred, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the Resurrection as a historical fact. I won’t attempt to add to what many other authors have already done in this area. Instead, what I would like to do in this post is to look at how we can avoid another pitfall, namely, over-spiritualizing the Resurrection.

In short, we often read the obviously incredible post-Resurrection appearances in such an ethereal manner that we divorce them from the overall Incarnation. Rather than seeing them as real, historical events, we view them in a spiritual fog. Rather than making the Resurrection more real, it becomes less.

Overcoming the Spiritual Fog

There is only one way around this trap and that is to ask, in faith, concrete questions of those accounts in order to add substance to what would otherwise be too sublime to be believed. Some questions, such as what were the teaching sessions of the Risen Lord and the Apostles like, are left to speculation. But there are others that have more flesh to them and can serve to strengthen both our faith and our hope.

One such question is what was the risen body of Jesus actually like? We know that it was a physical body—it could be touched and he ate, two things ghosts cannot do. We know it was the same body as the one that hung on the Cross; it bore the marks from the nails and the spear. After all, in order for it to be a true resurrection, it must be the same body. If it is not a new body, then it has been transformed in ways we almost certainly could not have anticipated. A true body does not vanish from sight (Lk 24:31).

There is a more personal reason why the question of the qualities of Our Lord’s risen state is important. Those who die in Christ, will have resurrected bodies patterned after His. By assuming human nature to Himself, the Son becomes the form of all human destiny for those who “put on Christ” in Baptism. In other words, by carefully examining Christ’s risen encounters, we can catch of glimpse of the destiny we are promised.

The Resurrected Body of Christ

Once properly motivated, we find that Christ wins for us resurrected bodies that have four qualities in addition to identity (same body) and integrity (complete body) mentioned above. The first is commonly referred to as subtlety. The resurrected body is a “spiritual body.” What this means, is that while a resurrected body is tangible, it is completely under the direction of the spirit. It is able to transcend the physical laws that normally govern us (such as two physical things cannot occupy the same place at the same time in the same way) simply by willing it. It simply takes an act of the will to pass from one side of a locked door or sealed tomb to the other.

Once rendered completely under the control of the soul, the body’s movement is different as well. Agility enables the person to traverse great physical distances with ease and speed simply by willing it. The movement may be very fast but it is still observable. Angels have a similar quality to their movement as far as its rapidity, but their movement is more like a quantum leap and would not be observable as a linear movement from point A to point B.
The other two qualities are somewhat commonsensical and appear within the Book of Revelation. The glorified body is impassible, that is, incapable of suffering. Lazarus’ body was resuscitated, Our Lord’s resurrected. Lazarus could still suffer, Our Lord would suffer no more. Our Lord appears to John as a “lamb as though slain, standing” (Rev 5:6) and “God will wipe away all tears” (Rev 21:4)

It also has the quality of clarity. Because the union of the human nature of Christ was in the Divine Person of the Son itself (we call this the Hypostatic Union), He enjoyed the vision of God from the moment of the creation of that human nature. This means He was always filled with beauty and radiance (what we commonly call the “light of glory”). His soul maintained this, while it miraculously remained hidden in His body except for the Transfiguration where He releases the governor on it. We do not see this quality exhibited during any of the pre-Ascension appearances because of its overwhelming nature. Instead John sees it when he encounters Our Lord in Chapter 1 (verses14-18) of the Book of Revelation.

Jesus, Shape-Shifter?

In a number of the post-Resurrection accounts described in the gospels, Jesus is not recognized by His followers. This does not mean that one of the qualities of the resurrected body is shape-shifting. Instead, St. Thomas articulates an important principle for understanding. He says:

“Divine things are revealed to men in various ways, according as they are variously disposed. For, those who have minds well disposed, perceive Divine things rightly, whereas those not so disposed perceive them with a certain confusion of doubt or error: ‘for, the sensual men perceiveth not those things that are of the Spirit of God,’ as is said in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Consequently, after His Resurrection Christ appeared in His own shape to some who were well disposed to belief, while He appeared in another shape to them who seemed to be already growing tepid in their faith” (ST III, q.55, art.4)

In short, faith adds not just intellectual clarity, but the ability to see divine acts rightly. Christ was clearly manifested to those who believed in the Resurrection. For those who were tepid or doubted, “this hindrance in their eyes was Satan’s doing, lest Jesus might be recognized. Hence Luke says (24:16) that ‘their eyes were held, that they should not know Him.’”(ST III, q.55, art. 4, obj. 2). Seeing was not necessarily believing, but believing was seeing. Our Lord was trying to instill faith and so he was willing to allow these hindrances to remain as long as He could use them to drive them into the hands of true faith. This is the faith of “credible witnesses” that will never be shaken, even to the point of martyrdom. He is building an edifice on these people and so greatly desires to strengthen their faith during the 40 days between Resurrection and Ascension.

Our Lord allows this pretense to happen because it brings the person to faith. Mary Magdalene did not yet believe Our Lord was truly risen when she encountered the Gardener. She simply wanted to know what happened to the body. But her act of love of Christ, allowed her faith to expand so that she saw Him truly when He spoke her name. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus also had very imperfect faith, but once they were instructed in the Messianic texts, that is in a practical Liturgy of the Word, that their faith began to expand. Once Our Lord performed the Liturgy of the Eucharist, they were completely disposed to see Him as Himself.

Even Peter was not immune to this principle as his faith began to waver. We are told that when John saw the burial cloths, “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). It is not surprise then that when Peter begins to lose faith and attempts to return to fishing, that it is John who first recognizes Our Lord on the shore. Once Peter’s eyes are opened, he rushes to have his “come to Jesus meeting” (John 21:1-8).

So What?

What follows from this reflection are two things. First, the devil did not give up when Our Lord overcame death. He did not brood, but wasted no time attacking believers. He is still at work, especially on the tepid by using those “scholars” who would discredit the truth of the Resurrection. We must see these attacks for what they really are and be ready to counter them in faith and in fact.

Second, the Liturgical time between Easter and the Ascension of the Lord is a time in which a great many graces are available to deepen our faith in the risen Lord. But the key is we must first believe so that we can understand. Believing is seeing. This only happens when we ask the probing questions, not in a spirit of doubt, but in a spirit of true faith. When we color inside the lines, the true picture emerges.

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