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John Paul II and the Founding Fathers

In his great encyclical preaching the Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II recognized the important role that politics plays in building a culture of life.  Civil laws are closely tied to an individual’s awareness of the moral law and therefore always act as a great moral teacher.  Unfortunately, especially from within a democratic ethos, there can be great difficulty in overturning unjust laws without widespread support and a moral catch-22 often arises.  This is the experience of many pro-life politicians who find themselves trapped and unable to avoid being complicit with evil.  It was in this light that the saintly Pontiff articulated an important principle encouraging those politicians to exercise what he would later call the “art of the possible.”

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (Evangelium Vitae, 74).

In truth, John Paul II was not introducing anything novel but simply applying some long-held principles within the Church’s social doctrine to the scourge of abortion.  It is well worth our time to examine these principles in depth because they have application in other arenas of social justice as well.

Morality and Legislation

There are those who contend that “you cannot legislate morality.”  While this is quite obviously false, they do have a point, even if they do not realize it.  While we can, should and do legislate morality, one cannot use civil law to create a utopia in which all moral evil is eliminated.  This is one of the serious errors (although certainly not the only) that totalitarian regimes, especially those that are Marxist in their roots, readily make in thinking they can absolutely enforce a complete moral code from above.  Even the best regimes, that is those that result in the most virtuous people, will have to exercise tolerance towards certain evils.

How do we know which ones should be tolerated and which ones should be legislated against?    The logic is relatively simple—you tolerate those for which outlawing would do more harm to the common good than the evil itself does.  This is why John Paul II doesn’t encourage those legislators to start a revolution and overthrow the existing government.  The chaos that would ensue would do great harm to all members of society, including those most vulnerable, the very ones you are trying to protect.  Relative peace and stability are part of the common good and thus cannot be tossed aside lightly.

This is not to suggest however that you must sit idly by and allow the evil to continue.  Instead you should seek ways in which to limit the evil and its effects on the common good.  All too often tolerance turns into acceptance which then turns into promotion and even provision.  The just politician must seek solutions to limit the evil and keep it from spreading.  This takes a fair amount of prudence because it always requires some accommodation with those who are bent on its continuation.  Prudence should not be confused with expediency.  The means of bringing about the reduction of evil should not create further evils.

Abortion is not the only application of the “art of the possible.”  In fact, there is a historical example from the founding of the United States that still gets much airplay today—slavery.

The “Art of the Possible” and Slavery

Slavery, like abortion, is gravely evil and something that no society should ever have to tolerate.  Nevertheless, our country had to confront this great evil during its Founding.  A grave distortion, animated by political correctness, revisionist history and chronological myopia, has occurred and left blinded us to the true dilemma that the Founders faced, casting a dark cloud over what could rightly be judged as a glorious achievement.

Like the pro-life politicians of today, the Founders were in no position to outlaw slavery outright.  It had become an institution upon which a number of the states had become so dependent that they would rather form their own country than to give it up.  The truth is that the Union of the Thirteen Colonies was extremely fragile with very little to bind them together.  In order to “form a more perfect union” they gathered in 1789 in order to re-constitute this Union with stronger ties among the states.  In order for the experiment in liberty to work, they would need to band together.

As the Constitutional Congress met it became very obvious that many of the southern delegates would not bend on their support of slavery.  Most of the Constitution’s framers condemned slavery, but there were powerful interests who still supported it, making those delegates demand concessions.  So divisive was this issue that James Madison himself said, “the real difference of interests, lay, not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states.  The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.”

Faced with the prospect of no union at all and a union where slavery was tolerated, the Framers chose the latter.  Many have asked “why didn’t the North just form their own country and leave the South to its own devices?”  There is a sort of intellectual dishonesty in the question itself, because the South then would have never eliminated slavery.  Even the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized this saying, “[M]y argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding states, and withdraw it from the power of the Northern states, which is opposed to slavery…I am therefore, for drawing the bond of the union more closely, and bringing the Slave States more completely under the power of the free states.”  Even so, the North was not strong enough to stand on its own, especially without Virginia.  The greatest problem facing the new Nation was its collapse under its own weight.

The Framers decided to exercise the “art of the possible” so that the founding principle “that all men are created equal” could eventually shine forth.  They did this by instituting three measures.  First, they agreed that Congress could make no laws forbidding slave importation until 1808 (at which point they outlawed it).  Second, they instituted the 3/5 compromise by which each slave only counted as 3/5 of a person when determining congressional representation and electoral votes.  Finally, it outlawed the spread of slavery to new states and the Western territories (although not the Southern), and gave Congress regulation power over inter-state commerce, including in the commerce of slaves.  In short, the framers thought that, while not eliminating it completely, they were choking it out.

Chronological myopia also creates another blind spot—what would it actually look like to free the slaves?  There is the assumption that one day they would simply say, you are “free to go” and off the slaves went to live free.  Most were not educated and would not have been able to take care of themselves.  You could help to train them and give them the means to get started, but where was the funding to come from for this from a country that was begging other countries for loans?  Most of the slaves, once freed would end up worse off than they were currently.

There was also the historical problem that no two races had ever lived together peacefully.  This was foremost on the mind of Jefferson himself who said, “many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”  This is exactly what happened in Haiti from 1791-1804 when every white person on the island was killed.  This is why many favored colonization (a solution also supported by Lincoln) rather than citizenship.

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, the great Civil Rights reformer, it is important that we set the record straight.  The Framers may not have been prudent in their accommodations, but accusations of racism go too far, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and division.  When Jefferson penned the phrase “all men are created equal,” he and his compatriots believed this included slaves as well.  His further writings and those of the other founders support this.  In his book Vindicating the Founders, Thomas West furnishes primary sources—writings from the Founders themselves—to, well, vindicate the founders against the accusation of racism.  He thoroughly treats the subject, but five quotes in particular are noteworthy:

  • Washington—“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
  • John Adams—“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for he eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…I have through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in…abhorrence.”
  • Franklin—“Slavery is…an atrocious debasement of human nature.”
  • Madison—“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
  • Jefferson–“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

 

In short, to use the language of Evangelium Vitae, their “personal opposition was well known.”   There may have been some personal weakness in resolve, but their condemnation of it was clear.   They knew that a change in the law would strengthen their personal resolve.   In any regard, West’s book should be required reading for any American, especially American Catholics, if for no other reason than its clear presentation of  John Paul II’s “art of the possible” in action.

Did Jesus Ever Get the Flu?

With frigid temperatures gripping much of the country confining much of America to the indoors, flu season has fully blossomed.  In response, many are scrambling to get flu shots so as to build up an immunity to the virus before it hits them.  Setting aside the question of the effectiveness of flu shots in general, I would like to focus on immunity to the flu.  Specifically, to ask whether Our Lord was immune to the flu during His earthly sojourn.  Did Jesus get the flu?

While some of us who are theology geeks might consider it “cool” to speculate on these types of questions, they appear to have little additional spiritual value.  It could be grouped among the other useless musings of the medieval theologians; musings such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is hard to imagine, however, that Saint Thomas Aquinas would spend so much time on theoretical questions without them also having spiritual value as well (like he does for this particular question in ST III q.14).  Questions like this one have value because they put the right amount of flesh on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  We can get so stuck on the idea of the Incarnation, that we forget it is first and foremost a real event touching even down to our own time.  Exercises such as these help us to meet Our Lord in the flesh with the right proportion of familiarity and wonder.

Like Us?

Our initial reaction might be to say, Our Lord was human, “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15) and so, while He may never have caught the flu specifically, He almost certainly got sick.  Being fully human would mean He was subject to all kinds of bodily limitations in His human nature, sickness included.

The problem with this hasty response is that “except sin” marks a rather broad exception.  Most of the time we take it to mean that He didn’t do anything wrong.  That is, of course, true, but it does not fully capture the broad scope of the effects of sin, especially personal sin.

To properly frame the issue, let us make what is an important, albeit often misunderstood distinction.  Death in man, because of his composition of matter and spirit, is natural.  It was only a privilege that God gave to Adam and Eve in their state of innocence that they were exempt from suffering and death.  Put another way, man is naturally mortal and it is only by a preternatural gift that the first man and woman could avoid it.  Being “like us in all things but sin” means that Christ took to Himself a passible nature that included a body that was subject to death and suffering. Being “like us in all things but sin” means that His suffering and death were a natural consequence of becoming human and not as a result of Original Sin.

To be absolutely clear the Son, when He took the passible human nature to Himself, was under no necessity to do so, but instead did it voluntarily.  He could just as easily have prevented suffering and death, but He chose to endure them for three reasons.  First, and foremost, He did so that He might make satisfaction for our sins.  The second was so that He might show Himself to be truly human.  His human nature was a sacrament of His divinity in that it was the sign that made visible the reality that He was the Son of God and thus Our Redeemer.  Finally, He did so as to leave us an example of heroic patience.  In short, He did so because it was necessary to complete His mission as Redeemer.

By focusing on the fact that Our Lord willed to suffer, rather than to be the passive victim that Original Sin turns us all into, we can move advance the ball down the field towards a definitive answer.  Our Lord suffered only insofar as it was necessary to make satisfaction for the common sin of human nature.  his was provided that the defects He was subject to did not interfere with His mission as Redeemer.

This helps us to understand why Our Lord experienced hunger, thirst and exhaustion.  In order to make satisfaction for the common sin Our Lord would have to voluntarily assume these common penalties that were imposed on mankind because of Original Sin.  St. John Damascene calls these natural, but not degrading affliction.  This also helps us to rule out a few things.

What Our Lord Didn’t Suffer

First, He did not suffer anything as a result of any hereditary defect.  His constitution was perfect and He was not even prone to certain illnesses.  Second, He would not have suffered any illnesses that would be an indirect result of personal sin—things such as heart disease, diabetes or liver disease.  In summary He did not take on particular sufferings that afflict particular men.

So then, what about the flu and other illnesses?  Since the flu is not a common punishment meted out to human nature in general, then Our Lord would not have suffered it.  One might immediately object that neither was scourging and being crowned with thorns.  Those sufferings were willed because they atoned for the common sins of mankind, especially as they relate to sorrow for our sins and unwillingness to do penance.  Each of the sufferings of His Passion makes these sins visible so to speak and thus cry out for our participation.  These sufferings were a part of His mission as Redeemer whereas the Flu and other such illnesses would have hampered His mission, rendering Him unable to carry out good works.

Our Lord, because His soul was filled with wisdom and grace, could not suffer as a result of failures on either count.  Our Lord, filled with wisdom, would have known how to avoid illness, even if He were subject to it.  Likewise, filled with grace in His humanity and able to heal the sick, He would not have been subject to sickness Himself.

Joining the Choir

In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians.  What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers.  In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.”  Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best.  It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.”  They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).

Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time?  More than likely, not.  Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point.  Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses.  Liturgical music ought to be different.  No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,

“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music

This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy.  Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.”  This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once.  Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present.  Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy.  But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.”  That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension.  Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own.  It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.

Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation.  In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them.  Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation.  But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’”  The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.

The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology.  With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers.  Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing.  These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”

What Makes Good Liturgical Music

That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112).  “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place.  It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text.  This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.

Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality.  He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”  This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God.  They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them.  They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present.  Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.

When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges.  This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion.  By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”  One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate.  As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God.  And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2).  If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.

Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do.  This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.”  The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.

Sign of Contradiction

In what has been labeled as a landmark study into various institutional responses to child sex abuse, the Australian Royal Commission targeted two particular practices of the Catholic Church; deeming them as directly contributing to abuse.  There is a certain familiar ring to them with the Commission recommending that the Church remove the canonical seal of Confession as pertains to sexual abuse and make clerical celibacy voluntary.  Many in the media, both Down Under and abroad, have criticized the Church for being too quick to dismiss the recommendations of the Commission.  Of course, the Church has been listening to these “recommendations” for many years now and so has good reason for rejecting them out of hand.  Nevertheless, it is always instructive for us to look at why, particularly the recommendation to change the practice of celibacy, is not a real solution.

To be fair, the Commission was quick to point out that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse but instead called it “a contributing factor,” especially since it “is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children.”  Furthermore, “for many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives, and contributes to a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” (p. 71).

Statistics Don’t Lie but People Sometimes Use Them Wrong

Because we live in a world that increasingly relies on empirical observation, it is always helpful to begin by examining exactly how they came to their conclusions.  There can be no doubt that the Church in Australia, like the Church in the United States and the rest of the world, fostered a culture of abuse in the past.  There have been many effective safeguards put in place in the last decade but there is always room for improvement.  Still, there is some extreme speculation in what the Commission is saying.  To say that celibacy is a contributing factor with any degree of statistical confidence, you must be able to compare the incidence with non-celibates, with all other risk and institutional factors (including size) being equal.   To simply report raw numbers and unadjusted proportions comparing the Catholic Church (964 institutions) with Hinduism (less than 4 institutions) is highly misleading and can lead to spurious conclusions (see pp. 45-46).    They mention that the Church had the highest percentage of the total abuse cases, but there is no adjustment in that percentage for the fact that it is by far the largest institution.  It is like comparing the number of murders in Billings, Montana, with those in New York City without making any adjustment for the population size.  Per capita the incidence of abuse within the Church is no higher than other religious institutions, making any claim that celibacy is a contributing factor spurious at best.  In a peer reviewed setting, what they reported in their numbers of victims would have never passed even the most cursory of scrutiny.

They may have data to support this claim, but it would have been remarkable since no other group has found the incidence among priests to be any higher than other religious denominations and some have even found it to be lower.  If you really want to know the truth as to the incidence of abuse, follow the money.  Since the 80s insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance and they have found that the Catholic Church is not at any additional risk than other congregations.  In fact, because most abuse claims involve children, the only risk factor they do include is the number of children’s programs they have (for more on this, see this Newsweek article).

The Unattainable Ideal

There is also a familiar tone to their contention that compulsory clerical celibacy is an “unattainable ideal” for many of the clergy.  In fact, it is similar to the response that Our Lord gave to the Apostles when they questioned Him regarding “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:12).  It is a calling based on a very high ideal, an ideal that can never be attained unless there is a particular call—”Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12).  It is both a free choice and a calling to a high ideal, but God always equips when He calls.

The point is that it is an unattainable ideal for all of the clergy without the necessary graces attached to the call.  But it is still a fallen man who accepts the call and thus the possibility for infidelity always remains real.  But just because some men fail, does not mean that the Church should throw away the ideal.

What this really betrays is a hidden assumption that everyone is making.  Priests are human just like everyone else and when they itch they must scratch.  We do not understand what celibacy is and therefore assume the solution to the problem is an orgasm.  If we can set it so that this orgasm occurs in a licit situation then we will rid the priesthood of this problem.  But again, if that were the case no married men would do something like this.

This is where JPII’s elixir of Theology of the Body comes in.  In man who has been redeemed by Christ, sexual desire is meant to be the power to love as God loves.  Nuptial love is the love of a total giving of self.  It is in the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of being and existence” (JPII General Audience 16 January 1980).  Marriage and Procreation aren’t the only ways to love as God loves.  These are simply the original models that God gave us “in the beginning”.  Anytime we image Christ in giving up our bodies for others we express the nuptial meaning of the body.

With this in mind we can begin to understand celibacy.  Celibate life can only flow from a profound knowledge of the nuptial meaning of the body.  Anyone who chooses this vocation out of fear of sex or some deep sexual wound would not be responding to an authentic call from Christ (JPII General Audience 28 April 1982).  Celibacy is meant to be an anticipation of Heaven where we are neither married nor given in marriage.  It is a witness to the resurrection of the glorified body.  In other words, those who forego marriage in this life do so in anticipation of the “marriage of the Lamb”.

The Commission simply sees no value in celibacy and therefore is quick to dismiss it.  It is a sign of contradiction and therefore “has to be the problem” even if there is no way to prove it.  They rightly call it an ideal, but then fail to grasp the value of that ideal.  It is an ideal because it is also a sign—a sign that is valuable to the rest of society as a whole.  It serves a complimentary role to marriage and helps to show its true meaning.  It is an anticipation of our future life where our union with Love itself will be more intimate than marriage.  But it also shows the great worth of marriage itself because it is a sacrifice of great worth.

A Truly Virgin Birth

Sometimes familiarity can be a catalyst for myopia, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the faith.  Christmas is no exception in this regard and offers an excellent opportunity to expand our sights by fixing them on some of the not-so obvious mysteries hidden with of Our Lord’s nativity.

In his customary manner, St. Matthew ends his account of the birth of Our Lord with an Old Testament proof-text to show how the prophets spoke specifically about Jesus.  Quoting Isiah 7:14, the Evangelist says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:24).  It is common for us to use this as Scriptural proof of the virgin birth of the Messiah, but unfortunately very little attention is paid to what this actually means.  More to the point, we often substitute our idea of the virginal birth with the idea of the virginal conception.  Both of course are true, but how is it that a virgin could give birth?

If we come at it from the perspective of the one who gave birth, clarity emerges.  For a belief in Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is really saying three things.  First, that she became pregnant with Our Lord without “knowing a man” (Lk 1:34).  Second, that Our Lady remained in this state after the birth of Our Lord.  These two are obvious, but it is the third that helps bring illumination—Our Lady remained a virgin “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499).  Or, as the Council of Ephesus puts it: “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”

The Miracle of Christ’s Birth

In order to keep her virginity intact, Our Lord did not leave His Mother’s womb through the birth canal.  He would have been delivered in a miraculous manner, passing directly from her womb into the outside world.  Without getting overly bogged down in the biological details, we can still glean some particularly poignant aspects of the mystery.

As a first consequence of this, Tradition has always taught that Our Lady’s partus was completely devoid of pain.  This is more than an interesting fact, but carries with it a very deep corollary that Our Lord wished to establish from the beginning of His mission.  When Our Lord came into the world, He came to suffer so as to redeem us.  But He was unwilling to be the cause of any other unnecessary suffering.  As St. Thomas says, “But the mother’s pains in childbirth did not concern Christ, who came to atone for our sins. And therefore there was no need for His Mother to suffer in giving birth”(ST III, q. 35, a.6).  Our Lady would suffer because of her role as the New Eve, but only in the amount that was absolutely necessary.  Likewise, all those associated with Him (us) are guaranteed only to suffer when it is necessarily tied to His redemptive mission.  He did, and still does, refuse to “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” (Is 42:3).

Remaining on the more practical level, we can also see why this miraculous intervention might be necessary.  If Our Lady’s virginity remained physically intact, there can be no doubt as to the truth of the virginal conception.  This is also why it is reasonable to believe that Our Lady remained a virgin throughout her entire life.  While we do not get overly fixated on the biological details, the virginal birth is still a biological fact.

Virginity, properly understood though, is not just a biological fact.  It is a condition of the entire person and does not simply mean someone who has never had sex.  Our Lady is ever-virgin because she is all-pure, both body and soul.  Her body is as a sacrament revealing the state of her soul.  In order to affirm this Our Lord does not destroy the physical sign of her personal virginity.

As a point of clarification, we call it a miracle because it defies the laws of nature for a human body to pass under its own power from its mother’s womb.  This should be seen as distinct from Christ, while operating under the power of His resurrected body, had the power of subtlety, that is, the power to pass through physical objects.

The Miracle as a Sign

But we also refer to it as a miracle because, like all Christ’s miracles, it has great value as a sign.  The same infant that was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that is burial cloths, had just passed from the closed womb pointing to the time when He would pass from the tomb.

His birth also was to serve as a sign revealing the fullness of Our Lord’s person as true God and true man.  As St. Thomas says, “He mingled wondrous with lowly things. Wherefore, to show that His body was real, He was born of a woman. But in order to manifest His Godhead, He was born of a virgin, for ‘such a Birth befits a God,’ as Ambrose says in the Christmas hymn” (ST III, q28, art. 2, ad. 2).

The miracle also serves as a sign of our ultimate redemption.  Living in this post-lapsarian world, it is difficult to view creation as anything other than a closed system of corruption.  By passing through Our Lady’s womb, without leaving behind the natural traces of corruption, Our Lord was pointing ahead to the redemption of creation in the New Heavens and the New Earth where corruption is no longer possible.

Finally, Our Lord wanted to point each of us to the true joy of Christmas.  By taking something that is naturally painful and filling it with gladness, He was forever instituting Christmas as a day of great joy.  Merry Christmas everyone!

The Devil in the New World

In the battle against the Culture of Death, there is a certain gravity pulling towards two self-defeating tendencies, both of which equally plague those building a Culture of Life.  The first is to treat evil as something abstract, a mere force or darkness that looms around us.  No one ever won a battle against an abstract enemy.  The second is to treat other men as evil, that is, to literally demonize them.  It puts a face on the evil, showing it to be something that is orchestrated, but also misses the mark because it misidentifies the true enemy.  This temptation is perennial, especially since the enemies are relentless and have no real face, but instead are powerful and intelligent evil spirits, hell-bent on destroying as many human beings as possible.  “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  The Apostle to the Gentiles wants to remind the Ephesians (and us) that a Christian, as their name suggests, does not defeat his flesh and blood enemy but instead wins him over.  When we forget this fact, more souls will be lost.  No doubt, the Devil’s plan was always self-defeating, but our goal must always be to limit the casualties.

In a gloss on St. Paul’s aforementioned spiritual combat plan, St. Thomas Aquinas paints a vivid word picture which helps us to better understand our plan of attack.   Using the analogy of a battle, he says that “evil men are horses, and the demons the riders; hence, if we kill the riders, the horses will be ours.”  We win souls by releasing them from the grips of the Devil.  This means using first and foremost spiritual weapons of the Mass, Our Lady, prayer, and fasting.  But it also means engaging the enemy head on by exposing him and his works for what they are.

The Historical Battleground

This may sound woefully abstract, until we look at a historical example that illustrates what this looks like in practice; an event whose effects are still felt today.  Not surprisingly, we will have to do some digging to uncover what actually happened because like much of Christian history, it has been overcome with the Smoke of Satan, obscuring the truth with outright lies and revisionist history.  The event that I am referring to is Hernan Cortes and the conquering of Mexico.

The wind of truth can sweep away the haze by posing a simple, almost common-sense question that challenges the conventional wisdom of the day: how could Cortes, commanding 500 men with 10 cannons, 16 horses, 13 muskets and 32 crossbows, possibly conquer an enemy who outnumbered them at least 100 to 1?  For sure, the Spaniards may have enjoyed a technological military advantage, but the Aztecs were no backward savages either.  Their advanced culture would have rivaled anything found in Europe at the time.  They had many fierce warriors skilled in hand to hand combat and had conquered most of Mexico through their military prowess.  In fact they may have been able to match the military skills of the Spaniards except for one thing—they refused to kill their vanquished enemy, insisting on carrying them off as prisoners instead.  This novel approach however was not really a military tactic but a religious one as we shall see in a moment.

The Aztecs may have had an advanced sanitation system, aqueducts and a very accurate calendar system, but they exceeded all cultures in previous history in one particular regard.  It was this regard that especially drew the interest of Cortes and his Spanish Conquistadors.  It was not their gold or their riches, but their blood lust.  They were unrivaled in their penchant for human sacrifice, sacrificing at least 50,000 men women and children every year and as many as 80,000 during a 4-day festival in 1487.

Although the Aztecs had a number of gods in their pantheon, it was their primary god Huitzilopochtli, who was called the Hummingbird Wizard or the Lover of Hearts and the Drinker of Blood who demanded the human sacrifice.  It was to sate the Hummingbird Wizard that the Aztecs would carry away their vanquished enemies in battle—offering them as human sacrifices to the Lover of Hearts and the Drinker of Blood.  But we should resist the temptation to think the Aztecs think that these were backward people caught up in superstitious practices of sacrificing human lives to imaginary idols.  This would ignore the reality and the power of the Devil.

By possessing a few people of influence (influence he was able to give them) and speaking to the people through them, he was able to enslave the entire population of Mexico.  Things would go well when his demands were met, instilling a sense of fear and loyalty in the average person.  When they failed to meet his demands, he would punish the people through a reign of terror.  Without the light of Christ to free the people of Mexico from this demonic stronghold, the people were trapped in a bloody snare.

One might be accused of “over-spiritualizing” history to view it this way, except for the truth that the Devil is the great copycat—mimicking the good that God does, to set himself up as a god.  For Huitzilopochtli was believed to have been born from the goddess Coatlicue who was an earth goddess who was depicted as a woman wearing a skirt of snakes and a necklace of hearts torn from victims.  She immaculately conceived her son when a feather fell on her apron.  When her son was born, he killed all her other children who became the stars and the moon.  The parallels to Revelation 12 are uncanny, especially given they had no contact with the Christian story.  Compound this with the fact that they viewed cannibalism as a religious ritual in which those who fed on the flesh were thought to be eating the flesh of the gods that Huitzilopochtli killed and we can see that it was a great Black Mass that Cortes encountered.

The story can only be fully understood by adding one important detail.  The Aztecs were awaiting the return of Quetzalcoatl, a god wholly unique among their pantheon because he was of light and wanted men to live and serve him, rejecting all forms of human sacrifice.  He was supposed to return in a year of 1-Reed which occurred every 52 years on the day of 9-Wind.  When Cortes arrived on Good Friday 1519, which was both a 1-Reed year and a 9-Wind day and was dressed in penitential black, the same color that Quetzalcoatl wore as a priest, the Aztecs, especially their leader Montezuma assumed it was Quetzalcoatl returning.  Cortes never said he was Quetzalcoatl, but he was vague enough to use the deception to his advantage.

Cortes was joined in his war against the Aztecs by many of the indigenous peoples in the region, who were only too eager to finally be freed from the yoke of the Hummingbird Wizard.  In order to placate the Aztecs they regularly had to supply them with victims for sacrifice.  When they refused, the Aztecs would go to war with them and carry away their warriors as sacrificial victims.  They were quite literally damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.  Cortes was hailed as a great savior of the native peoples, especially because he did so in a true Christian spirit, always with his eyes towards their conversion and the toppling of idols and human sacrifice to be replaced with churches and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Having been so recently victorious in freeing their homeland from the Muslims once and for all, the Spanish had a natural crusading spirit; a spirit that Cortes appealed to in rallying his men to fight for the freedom of the Mexicans, “The greater the King we seek, the wider the land, the more numerous the enemy, so much the greater will be our glory, for have you not heard it said, the more Moors, the greater the spoils?  Besides we are obligated to exult and increase our holy Catholic faith which we undertook to do like good Christians, uprooting idolatry, that great blasphemy to our God, abolishing sacrifices and the eating of human flesh, which is so contrary to nature and so common here.”  Surely, there can be no question as to Cortes’ primary motive in setting out to tear down the Aztecs’ altars of sacrifice and “conquer” the Aztecs.

What it Means for Us

One can’t help but wonder given the valor exercised by Cortes and his men why we are so quick to condemn him.  How many of the descendants of the indigenous people are alive today because of him?  The Aztecs were slowly but surely eliminating all the other peoples in Mexico so hungry had the Hummingbird Wizard become.  Surely any celebration of “Indigenous People’s Day” that is true to the name would be marked with gratitude for the Spanish.

The Conquest of Cortes and his companions serves as a great reminder that every cultural battle is a spiritual battle.  As soon as he arrived in Mexico City he set up icons of Our Lady and altars so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could be celebrated.  Everything that he did, was aimed first and foremost towards the conversion of the Mexican peoples.  He knew that a time would come when some of his fellow Spaniards would demand that the Mexican people be sacrificed in slavery to their idols—gold and that only through Baptism could this be avoided so that he always acted with a sense of urgency.  It was he and Christopher Columbus who called Our Lady down from Heaven into the New World by frequenting the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain because they knew the only way to squash the serpent was by becoming her heel.

Disorderly Conduct

It’s not always what you say, but also how you say it.  Even a man like St. Peter, characteristically known for his bluntness, recognized this and cajoled the peddlers of the Good News that while having a ready defense of the reason for their hope, it should always be done with reverence and respect for the other person.  The truth is naturally harmful to error, but it can always be presented in a manner that makes it more palatable to those who hold those errors.  This balance is at the heart of the Church’s pastoral mission.  That is why, when the self-appointed Apostle to the LGBTQ community, Fr. James Martin, says that the Church’s language regarding the homosexual condition is unnecessarily harsh, we ought to take his criticism seriously.

Fr. Martin takes exception to the use of the term disordered.  The Catechism uses the term twice within the context of same sex attraction (SSA)—once when referring to homosexual activity, calling it intrinsically disordered (CCC 2357) and then a second time calling the inclination itself objectively disordered (CCC 2358).  Many people, Fr. Martin included, are quick to point out that the term disordered refers “to the orientation, and not the person” (Building a Bridge, p.46).

Why We Use the Term Disordered

They are correct that in this context the adjective, disordered, is modifying the inclination and the action and not the person.  But this does not mean that the persons themselves are not disordered.  In fact, the Church believes that we are all disordered and those with same sex attraction are no different in that regard.  The particulars of their disorder may be different than mine or yours, but rest assured dear reader that we are all disordered.  If we weren’t then there would be no need for the Church.  The Church is given by Christ so that He might continue His ministry to disordered tax collectors and prostitutes throughout time and space.

The use of the term disordered is really meant to highlight an important aspect of human life, one that truly is Good News.  Life is not just a series of unrelated episodes, but has a specific purpose or end based upon the fact that we have an unchangeable human nature.  Those inclinations and actions which take us towards true fulfillment are said to be ordered to happiness, those which take us off that path are said to be disordered.  In short, homosexual inclinations and actions are only one of a number of things that are disordered; things such as lying and calumny are also classified as being intrinsically disordered by the Catechism (CCC 1753) precisely because they lead us away from a life of true fulfilment and happiness.

Nevertheless, the Catechism does single out the inclination as disordered and this also for a very good reason.  There is only one way in which order can be re-introduced back into our fallen nature—grace.  The Church turns her focus to this inclination rather than the many others because she wants to apply the medicine of grace to those who live with same sex attraction.  She is the lone voice crying out in the desert that SSA is a serious obstacle to the Promised Land.  That is, in their struggle for chastity and rightly ordered love, the person struggling with same sex attraction may unite their suffering with the suffering Christ, sanctifying the whole Church in the process.  This is why we should “build a bridge” to them and invite them in—not just because we want to see them healed, but because of their particular cross they might add to the holiness of all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

The Weight of the Burden

It is worth mentioning as well why so many people who suffer with SSA do read into the Catechism a specific condemnation of their being ontologically disordered—they read it as a noun rather than an adjective.  There is something much more fundamental to each person than their sexual inclinations.  In fact the Church, “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: a creature of God and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life”(PCHP, 16).  The truth is that no one is ontologically homosexual; there really is no such thing as “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”.  There are only two sexual identities; male and female.  Our sexuality is the call of men and women to love as God loves in and through their bodies.  The unfortunate reality is that we live in a fallen world where there can be distortions that obscure our sexual identity.

This particular burden is especially difficult because it attacks one’s ability to relate to other people, both of the opposite sex and the same sex.  In other words, it disorders all your relationships.  This leaves the person feeling very isolated and very alone.  When they find a community of like-minded people, whose social action centers on making their inclination and actions ordered it is hard not to fall victim to wearing nothing but the homosexual label.  We are so much more than our feelings and our genitals however.  Even if the inclination were not disordered, wearing the label to the extent that many wear it, would lead to grave unhappiness.  That basket can’t hold the eggs of our identity and the Church wants those who struggle with SSA to know that.

We can see why then the Church might use the term disordered as a way to point out there is an ordered way of life in which things proceed in an ordered fashion towards true human fulfillment, but is the phrase “still needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel” (p. 46-47), as Fr. Martin suggests?  There might be a gentler term that could be used, but most that I can think of betray the truth.  Fr. Martin’s suggestion that we should call it “differently ordered” is problematic in that it implies that it is ordered.  It is, according to him then one different way of life that when lived out would lead to true personal happiness and thriving.  The Church cannot, as Cardinal Sarah says in referring to Our Lord’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, be more merciful than her Lord.  The merciful call of the Church always echoes Christ’s compassionate call to conversion.  That is, it always mixes the bad news with the Good News, or rather begins with the bad news (dis) and ends with the Good News (ordered).  Come to think of it, maybe, just maybe, there is wisdom in the use of the term.  It’s not always what you say, but how you say it indeed.

 

***As a postscript, I would not recommend anyone spend money on Fr. Martin’s book as it is really a veiled attempt to circumvent the Church’s teaching through subterfuge and verbal gymnastics.  His unwillingness to engage any of his critics head-on always makes someone suspect in my mind.  Instead, buy Daniel Mattson’s book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay.  For anyone trying to aid in the bridge building, this book should be one of the pillars.

A Death Like His

For those who have spent any time in school, it is a universal experience.  On the cusp of final exams, you perform the “what’s the worst I can do and still get an A?” calculation.  Or if you don’t have an A, you’ll ask “what will my grade be if I get 100%?”.   Crunching the numbers, the study plan develops accordingly.  Outside of the academic arena this approach can get us in trouble—especially when we apply a similar pattern of thinking to life’s final exam, death.  We assume that if we have performed well during the semester of life, then death will be a breeze.  Not only does this attitude ignore the tremendous temptations that await us, but it fails to discern the truly Christian meaning of death, or more to the point, the meaning of life.  For a Christian the meaning of life is dying well.

When St. Paul was being held captive in Rome, he penned his great opus on joy to the Church in Philippi.  Written during his first imprisonment in Babylon (c.f. 1 Pt 5:13), the Apostle reflected upon his own approach to death.  But rather than performing the “end of semester calculus” he “forgets what lies behind straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:14).  In other words, St. Paul eschews the cruise control and sprints all the way through the finish line.

This attitude is antithetical to the spirit of the world which confronts death in one of two ways.  First there is the mode of distraction.  It looms in the back of our minds, but as something we will deal with later.  Meanwhile we come up with creative ways to avoid thinking about it.  As Pascal maintains, “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”  We know it is inevitable, but we hope it catches us by surprise and “peacefully”.  Second there is the wisdom of pop-psychology which summons us to “accept it.”  Paradoxically this type of acceptance is a denial.  Like its proverbial doppelganger, taxes, we simply treat it as something to be planned around and cheated.

Planning for Death

Scripture on the other hand tells us to plan for death.  As the Book of Sirach tells us, “Remember the Last Things and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36).  Biblically speaking, to remember is not simply to keep it in the back of our mind or to “accept it” but to make it a present reality.  Knowing you are going to die is one thing, knowing how you will die is quite another.  Very likely we have no knowledge of the external circumstances but we can rehearse the interior dispositions that will accompany our deaths.  Just as we plan fiscally for our deaths with life insurance and a will, we should plan physically by preparing our souls, making death a testament.

In order to hit the target, we must first distinguish what we are aiming at.  The goal is, as St. Paul tells the Romans, to be united to Christ in a “death like His” (Rom 6:5).  Our own death, not surprisingly, finds meaning in His Passion.  Like a lamb being led to slaughter, Our Lord was silent in His sufferings.  The only time that Christ lets out a cry of anguish during His Passion is at the moment of His death.  The agony of His death is so keen that He could not remain silent.  The cry of anguish was proceeded by His last words—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  That is, Christ the Priest, has made a definitive offering of the pain of death to the Father.  A “death like His” is one that has been offered to the Father.

Life is not really pass/fail.  We run through the finish line because in death we have something, perhaps our greatest something, to offer to the Father.  Death ceases to be a punishment and becomes a true offering of our lives to God.  Death, when offered in union with Christ, becomes the pathway to Life.  It is when we receive the fullest share in the priesthood of Christ and in turn conform ourselves more fully to Him as victim.  It is only at death that we can truly offer our life to God—no other person, even Christ Himself, can do that for us.

A Priestly Annointing for Death

To prepare us for the greatest of our priestly tasks, the Church “completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life…completing our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523) in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  This Sacrament, even though it is often touted as a Sacrament of Healing, is first and foremost a priestly anointing so that “the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521).

A proper understanding of death as primarily a priestly occupation, enables the Christian, even when facing great bodily pains surrounding death, can remain spiritually joyful.  God loves a cheerful giver.  Unfortunately this aspect of death as a definitive offering has been lost to the prevailing culture.  We collectively accept the wine and myrrh thinking we can anesthetize death, depriving the person of their opportunity to give their life to God.  This is also why euthanasia is the very opposite of mercy, robbing the person of the only true gift they have to offer to God.

Seeing the Sacrament of the Anointing as an anointing for a good death also helps bring out another important facet of death.  The dying person often sees himself as a burden upon other people, especially his loved ones.  But the Church says that there is an Ecclesial grace attached to the Sacrament such that the “sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’  By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).  By uniting themselves to Christ in a “death like His,” the sick man finds joy, able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1:24).  Far from being a burden, the sick actually lighten the burden on the other members of Christ body.

The great spiritual masters of the Church all speak of the art of dying well.  Like any art, it can only be done well when it is practiced and prepared for.  Remember death and you will do well in life.

The Truth on Lying

 

One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

Science and the Immaculate Conception

One of the most common mistakes that Catholics make regards what is actually celebrated during this week’s feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The general consensus is that it is a feast marking the Immaculate Conception of Jesus.  They this feast with the Feast of the Annunciation which marks the miraculous manner in which the Word took flesh in the womb of the Immaculate Conception.  One thing they are not wrong about however is that, while the feast centers on the circumstances and consequences of Our Lady’s singular grace, the Feast, like all things pertaining to Our Lady really is about Christ.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was called in response to the Monophysite heresy.  This heresy believed that the two natures of Christ were united such that they really became one, that is, the human was fully absorbed by the divine rendering only a single nature. Its backers proposed the metaphor that the divine nature was like an ocean and His human nature like a drop of water totally lost in the divinity.  This may seem to be unnecessary theological hairsplitting until we follow through to its logical conclusions.  First, with no true humanity, He would only appear to be human like some sort of vision or hologram.  Second, and more importantly, it meant that the humanity of Christ could not be a separate source of activity from the divinity.  He could not really suffer and die as a man and any appearance of those things would be only that, an appearance.

The Council, with the approval of St. Leo the Great, was quick to reject any trace of this and reaffirmed that Christ ss true God and true man, “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’. He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God” (quoted in CCC 467).

The necessity of both powers of operation, human and divine, are necessary for Christ’s sacrifice to be efficacious.  Remove either power and atonement becomes a sham.  Mankind incurred a great debt, so great that only God could pay it.  Justice must be served for the moral order of the universe to be restored.  In mercy, God takes the debt as if it is His own.

Christology and the Immaculate Conception

What does all this have to do with the Immaculate Conception?  As true man, Christ was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).  That is self-evident, but it also means His mother was a true mother.  And like all mothers, she supplied to Him her flesh and it was her blood that coursed through His veins.  Put in a more scientific manner, it was her ovum that was fertilized and that ovum became the building block of the human nature that was assumed by the Person of the Son.  She was truly His mother and not merely a surrogate or a human incubator.

Furthermore, we are told that the Son of God come in the flesh is “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), that is, neither original nor actual sin touched Him.  The impossibility of actual sin we all intuitively grasp, but we may not think about the fact that the human nature He inherited must also be free from original sin and its effects.   Original sin is not sin committed, but “sin” inherited.  It is passed down from our parents.  Since Our Lord had only one human parent, and she was truly His Mother and no mere surrogate, the flesh that Mary passed down to Him had to be free from original sin and its effects.

We begin to now see the logic of the Immaculate Conception as an explanation for the purity of His blood offering and His freedom from Original Sin.  We have ruled out the possibility that by some miraculous intervention the ovum that was to become a part of Our Lord’s human nature was altered at the moment of Conception.  Mary would no longer be His true mother.  But we have not yet seen why Our Lady must be free from the stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception.  Why could it not be that she was sanctified at some other time?

When Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he commented on the fact that it was “wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin.”  In other words, he thought it was not theologically necessary, only fitting.  But there may be a certain biological necessity that would help us to see why this dogma is true.

How Science Supports the Immaculate Conception

Thanks to advances in the field of human embryology, we know that the flesh of Our Lord (in Mary’s oocytes) was actually formed at her conception. Although He takes her flesh at the Annunciation, but the actual flesh He takes to Himself (in the oocyte that matured into an egg) was present in Mary at her beginning.  Just as she carried it around after His birth, Mary was, in a very real sense, carrying around the flesh of Our Lord from the moment of her conception.

For the more scientifically minded, we know that at the moment of conception, although obviously not fully formed, the human person is self-directed and thus needs no outside intervention to develop assuming the proper environment.  That means that even if oogenesis occurs at the meiosis I stage of development, everything that is to be used for the formation of those germ cells is already present.  We should make sure that we see development as a continuous process, begun in a definitive direction at conception, and not a series of independent stages.  The stages are simply mental constructs to help us understand the development itself.

Science then would help to confirm that the Immaculate Conception is necessary, even if theology can only describe its fittingness.  Science is a path not just to facts but to wonder, a sure path to the Truth.  The dust from the earth shattering landing of the Son of God has yet to settle, leaving traces of Him everywhere we look.  Science is no threat to our devotion but a means of increasing it.

This realization can also help to increase our devotion in another way.  According to Josephus, the great Jewish historian, the restoration of the Second Temple of Zerubbabel began in the year 19BC.  This is the same year that tradition also says Our Lady was born.  That is, at the same time that Herod set out to rebuild the Temple, God began construction on the true Temple.  The cornerstones of the Temple of Our Lord’s body were laid at the moment of Our Lady’s Conception, of that truth science confirms.

As Friday’s Feast Day comes around, we can be sure that there will be many Catholics confused as to who the Immaculate Conception refers to; thinking it refers to Jesus’ conception and not Our Lady’s.  But they are not entirely wrong—Our Lady, in whom the true Temple was made, carried around the building blocks with her from the moment of her own conception.

Our Lady, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

The Slippery Heresy

There is an innate pessimism in all of us that leads us to believe we are living in the worst of times.  So ingrained is this habit are we that we surround ourselves with prophets of gloom—paid professionals whose sole task is to point out how bad things are.   We can hardly imagine things getting worse and we simultaneously pine for the good ol’ days when things were so much better.  Paralyzed by nostalgia we feel the darkness of doom surrounding us; surrounding us, that is, until we ask “when exactly were the good ol’ days?”  History becomes the elixir of pessimism.  The more we examine it, the more convinced we become that we are living in neither the best of times nor the worst of times.  We find examples of when things were better certainly, but we also find times where things we far worse.

The Church, for her part, has no shortage of prognosticators of peril promising that the collapse of the Church is imminent.  But history, if we study it, tells us otherwise.  The Church survived far worse circumstances than our own and we are assured it will survive the worst.  Talk about optimism!  The worst is yet to come, but the best will follow shortly thereafter.

The Gates of Hell and the Church

The Church holds an insurance policy against the gates of hell will not prevail, underwritten by the Divine Son of God, but we also have plenty of historical examples giving the promise a certain amount of street cred.  Hardly a century has gone by in which the Church did not seem to be on the verge of destruction and yet rebounded.  Our time is likely to be no different—the Mystical Body may enter the tomb like its Head, but it will always be a sign of His resurrection as well.

No worries, right?  Well, not exactly.  When you love someone, you not only want them to live, but you want them to be healthy.  The Church most certainly will survive, but her health is another issue altogether.  The Church may have been in great peril in the first three centuries, but her health was never in question.  She may have been big and rotund 1000 years later, but her health was delicate.

It may seem odd to go to these lengths for the sake of making a proper distinction, until we carry out the implications of this.  The Church as she sits here in 2017 is not healthy.  If we love her then we ought to greatly desire her health.  This is not pessimism, but realism.  The disease may not be terminal, but many members, especially in the extremities may end up being amputated unless we can properly diagnose the problem and apply the remedy.

Diseases in the Mystical Body of Christ have a very specific name—we call them heresies.  Rather than being infected from without, these are like autoimmune diseases that attack the body from within.  To fight them, God injects saints as antibodies.  These saints witness in a particular way against the prevailing error in the Church and then attack those errors with truth and charity, that is, by their words and way of life.

What makes our time particularly unique, is that it would be very difficult to name the heresy plaguing the Church.  St. Athanasius could identify the pathology he was fighting—Arianism.  St. Dominic could name his—Albigensianism.  And St. Therese of Lisieux could name hers—Jansenism.  The list goes on and on.  God raised these men and women up and formed them to fight the diseases in the Church.  While there seem to be a lot of heretics, there is no great heresy.  Some will say modernism, but that, as dangerous as it is, is really a catch all and doesn’t quite capture it.  Some would say it has to do with the moral authority of the Church, but again that is not quite it either.  Try as you might, you would be hard pressed to name the one heresy.

The Mother of All Heresies

That is because the heresy we are facing is really the mother of all heresies—ambiguity.  Ambiguity is really a heresy of omission—it sows error not so much in being silent, but in not saying anything.  It is animated by the spirit of Pope Honorius, the 7th Century pope who was condemned for fanning the flames of heresy by remaining silent when he could have spoken clearly regarding the Monthelite heresy.

In this environment we should not be surprised to see the re-emergence of all the past heresies because all truth is now hidden under the veil of ambiguity.  It is a circumstance that Pope Pius VI anticipated in his 1794 papal bull Auctorem Fidei.

“[The Ancient Doctors] knew the capacity of innovators in the art of deception. In order not to shock the ears of Catholics, they sought to hide the subtleties of their tortuous maneuvers by the use of seemingly innocuous words such as would allow them to insinuate error into souls in the most gentle manner. Once the truth had been compromised, they could, by means of slight changes or additions in phraseology, distort the confession of the faith which is necessary for our salvation, and lead the faithful by subtle errors to their eternal damnation. This manner of dissimulating and lying is vicious, regardless of the circumstances under which it is used. For very good reasons it can never be tolerated in a synod of which the principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”

There is a demonic cleverness to the heresy of ambiguity that makes it difficult to grasp or even accuse someone of.  It says everything and nothing all at once.  It tells a different truth depending on where you are standing.  It is not either/or or even both/and, but both/or.  And like most heresies historically speaking they spread from the top down.  Nearly 80% of the Bishops in the mid-4th century were Arians as well as most of the Roman army, but it was the rank and file Catholics and faithful Bishops like Athanasius that stemmed the tide.

The Church may be a field hospital, but it is the unambiguity of divinely revealed truth that allows her to apply the salve of mercy.  There can be no mercy without justice, no mercy without acknowledging a truth that has been transgressed.  Take away the truth and mercy soon follows.  The Church is left defenseless and ineffective in her saving mission.  Eventually even her own children will be cut off with nothing to tether them to the Body.

Looked at through the lens of history, the saints of our age will be witnesses against ambiguity, fighting against the honorary Honoriuses of our age.  They will be marked by a clarity in their teaching that is matched by an unambiguous way of life.  They will be unambiguously joyful because they will be unambiguously holy.  They will accept unambiguous suffering at the hands of those afflicted with ambiguity and offer it for their sake (Col 1:24).  They will hold fast to the truth, but always in a way that speaks of love and mercy.  They will be true saints.

 

 

The Waiting Game

In his most celebrated and enduring work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a miserable old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  The protagonist is visited by three ghosts, each set on infusing into his heart the “Christmas spirit.”  As frightful as the experience might be, many of us would wholeheartedly welcome the arrival of a specter if it meant being given the Christmas spirit. In hopes of being caught up in the spirit, we try shopping for the perfect gift.  We may turn to Christmas music, but we can only listen to Feliz Navidad so many times (once) before our hearts grow cold.  We might blame the “culture” for the secularization of Christmas, but no matter what we do, the Christmas spirit remains elusive. What if, the problem was something else?  What if we struggle to get into the Christmas spirit because we never “get into” the spirit of Advent?

As the Latin derivation of the name suggests (Adventus for Coming), Advent is a period of preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation on Christmas. Although it has been observed to varying degrees and varying lengths of time throughout Church history, it has always been viewed as a “little” Lent because it is a period of spiritual preparation through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was “little” both because the duration of time is shorter (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because the Church does not command the same rigor as Lent. Its “littleness” has always been the reason why it is my favorite liturgical season and why it offers an excellent time for those of us who might grow weary and lose intensity during Lent or even suffer from a little spiritual ADD.

What Are You Waiting For?

Advent is a season of waiting.  Throughout history, God’s people have always waited for Him to fully reveal Himself. The Incarnation may have happened in a specific time and place, but it touches every time and place.  When God pitched His tent among us, time and eternity met—now each moment touches God’s eternal Now.  The season of Advent may end at Christmas—a day that marks the birth of Christ—but Christmas properly understood is meant to mark the three comings of Christ. First, there is His coming in the flesh in the cave in Bethlehem. Second, there is His coming in grace and the Eucharist to us in the here and now. Finally, it is preparation for His second coming when He will judge mankind. Christmas, like all the Christian mysteries, has a threefold meaning in the past, present and future. You cannot separate any of the three elements from the other two without doing harm to the meaning of Christmas. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

This threefold meaning of Christmas is what ultimately helps us to “keep Christ in Christmas” by protecting it from simply being a day we remember some past event.  We see it not only as an event in the past that put the world on a different trajectory, but an event that touches each of us individually today and ultimately determines our individual future.  The Christmas spirit is a living spirit.  But we must prepare for it by following the steady path laid out in Sacred Scripture.  The Church borrows the words of the prophets in the Advent liturgies not so much to show they were right, but to make their fervent expressions of longing our own. God’s word is living and active and never returns to Him empty (c.f. Heb 4:12, Is 55:11). We must wrap our hearts around His words through the prophets and make them our own expressions. Advent should be a time in which Scripture comes alive for us, especially by dedicating more time to prayer and study.

Are You Awake?

It is not just the words of prophets that form our Advent, but even the cosmos bids us to “stay awake” as the night grows longer.  It is not until the “Light of the World” enters on December 25th that the days will begin to get longer again.  The Christmas spirit only comes when we have allowed the spirit of vigilance to animate our Advent.  Advent allows us to give expression to that deep yearning for God that we all experience. That desire is so deep within us and such a natural part of our daily existence that we often become drowsy.  Advent offers us both the opportunity, and specific graces, to become vigilant.  In fact we will likely find that we are more vigilant throughout the rest of the year because we have paid our dues in Advent.

Fasting while we await the arrival of the Bridegroom is also a key aspect of Advent. Assuming that His disciples would fast (Mt 6:16), He won many graces for them when He Himself fasted in the desert.  Fasting not only helps us to gain control over our passions, but when done properly actually makes our senses more alert.  This is why fasting from food is such a powerful spiritual practice.  Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary.

Advent and the Eucharist

Advent can also be a time in which we double-down on our devotion to the Eucharist.  The Eucharist ensures that Christmas Day is not merely symbolic. We truly receive what we have been preparing for, even if God shields our eyes under the appearance of bread and wine.  The entire purpose of all the season is to receive Christ in His fullness and permanently.  The Eucharist is the Sacrament that truly brings this about.  It is not only Christmas Day but the entire season of Advent that is protected from becoming a symbolic gesture by the Eucharist. Spending more time “keeping watch with Our Lord” for an hour of Adoration ought to be a key practice of Advent. Likewise, we should increase our frequency of Daily Mass attendance, asking for the grace to receive Our Lord more perfectly each time. The Eucharist has a gravitational force about it in that the more you receive Our Lord, the more you desire to receive Him again. There is no better way to make real the goal of Advent than by allowing Our Lord to bestow this gift upon us.

Apostles of the End Times

As the liturgical year comes to a close, the Church’s readings focus almost exclusively on the end times and the return of Christ in power and might, revealing Himself as Christ the King.  With Advent on the heels of the Solemnity of Christ the King, many of us will flip a switch and turns our eyes to His first coming, when He mounted the throne of the Cross to reign from the Tabernacle.  But rather than hitting the reset button, we should see a principle of continuity between the two seasons, especially if we subscribe to the beliefs of the greatest prophet of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II.  A recurring theme during his pontificate, one that he emphasized in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, was that we are in a season of “a new Advent.”  This new Advent means “to accept with keen conviction the words of her [the Church’s] victorious Redeemer: ‘Remember I am coming soon’ (Rev 22:12).” (John Paul II, ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, April 25, 1988).  Without succumbing to any distorted millennialism or fatalism, the saintly Pontiff nevertheless expressed a sober certitude that “We are living in the Advent of the last days of history, and trying to prepare for the coming of Christ…”(Angelus Address for World Youth Day, August 19, 1993).

While it remains always true that “you know not the day nor the hour,” the office of Supreme Pontiff carries with it a prophetic charism that invites us in a particular way to keep watch during our own time (c.f. Mt 25:13).  The Pope had a good reason for thinking that our own times were ripe for the return of Christ, one that he hints at in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

“For, if as Virgin and Mother she was singularly united with him in his first coming, so through her continued collaboration with him she will also be united with him in expectation of the second; ‘redeemed in an especially sublime manner by reason of the merits of her Son,’ she also has that specifically maternal role of mediatrix of mercy at his final coming, when all those who belong to Christ ‘shall be made alive,’ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).”

The great Marian pope reasons that because Mary played such a key role in the first coming, she would likewise play an integral role in the second.  This is a principle that he borrowed from St. Louis de Montfort, a saint whom John Paul II admitted to having a particularly strong devotion.

Mary’s Role in the End Times

The words of the Polish saint echo St. Louis’ who, in his book True Devotion to Mary, says that

“The salvation of the world began through Mary and through her it must be accomplished. Mary scarcely appeared in the first coming of Jesus Christ so that men, as yet insufficiently instructed and enlightened concerning the person of her Son, might not wander from the truth by becoming too strongly attached to her…As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time though not in the same manner” (True Devotion to Mary, 49, 50).

Mary’s greatness remained hidden at the first coming so as to cause no confusion as to the reason for her greatness—the Son of God come in the flesh.  Once the true nature of Christ was sufficiently known, the Holy Spirit wished that we come to know her more fully so that, made perfectly prepared for the first coming, she might prepare the world for the Second Coming.  Just as through her, He came, so through her, even if in a different manner, will He come again.  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 12 in which the Queen gives birth and the child is caught up to God and to His throne.  She returns to her place prepared by God and the devil takes out his wrath on her children.

Reading the signs of the times through a Montfortian lens, St. John Paul II likely interpreted the proliferation of Marian apparitions as a sign that the end is near.  Again, we do not know how near is near, but nevertheless Our Lady’s messages in each of the apparitions are marked by a spirit of urgency.  The “Fatima Pope,” deeply formed by these messages, invited the Church to a renewed vigilance in this “new Advent.”

Those consecrated to Jesus through Mary are, what St. Louis de Montfort, calls Apostles of the End Times (TD 58).  In describing these apostles, the 17th Century French Saint provides us with a blueprint for navigating this new Advent.  At the dawn of the Final Battle,

“Almighty God and his holy Mother are to raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs…These great souls filled with grace and zeal will be chosen to oppose the enemies of God who are raging on all sides. They will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, strengthened by her food, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection, they will fight with one hand and build with the other. With one hand they will give battle, overthrowing and crushing heretics and their heresies, schismatics and their schisms, idolaters and their idolatries, sinners and their wickedness. With the other hand they will build the temple of the true Solomon and the mystical city of God, namely, the Blessed Virgin, who is called by the Fathers of the Church the Temple of Solomon and the City of God . By word and example they will draw all men to a true devotion to her and though this will make many enemies, it will also bring about many victories and much glory to God alone.”

Becoming Apostles of the End Times

In short, these apostles will be identified by three particular marks—a love of the Cross, Apostolic Zeal, and a great Marian devotion.

These great souls, because they “carry the gold of love in their heart and the incense of prayer in their spirit” will love the Cross; a love shown by “carrying the myrrh of mortification in their bodies.”  They will, as Our Lady requested at Fatima, practice penance with great regularity.  In preaching devotion to Mary they “will make many enemies” (TD 48) and serving as Our Lady’s heel by which she will crush the head of the serpent, they will be “down-trodden and crushed” (TD 54) by all the children of the devil and of the world.

Not only will the Apostles of the End Times suffer for a love of God, but also they will be driven by an unquenchable apostolic zeal to save souls.  “Flaming fires” (TD 56) these apostles will spread the “the fire of divine love” everywhere.  Our Lady will use them like sharp arrows in her powerful hands and they will not only reform the Church, but will be instrumental in extending the truth of the Gospel to “the idolators and Muslims” (TD 59).

St. Louis says that “these great souls . . . will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, nourished at her breast, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection” (TD 48, 55).  They will be marked by a profound humility which enables them to act as her heel that crushes the head of serpent.  Their militant spirit will imitate the spirit of Our Lady of Mercy, always willing to suffer to win souls from the clutches of the evil one. “They will have the two-edged sword of the word of God in their mouths and the blood-stained standard of the Cross on their shoulders. They will carry the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, and the holy names of Jesus and Mary on their heart. The simplicity and self-sacrifice of Jesus will be reflected in their whole behavior” (TD, 59).

Are we living in the end times?  Most assuredly, yes.  But we may still be separated by many years from the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, the Church needs to set the wheels in motion so that the Apostles of the End Times are fully formed when the time comes.  It is hard to imagine a better way to live in the “new Advent”, then by spending this Advent by becoming an Apostle of the End Times.  This Wednesday, November 29th offers yet another opportunity to spend the next 33 days preparing for a consecration to Jesus through Mary on January 1st.

What’s for Dinner?

In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus.  Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast.  For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians.  Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death.   Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.

Animals and Their Use

In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect.  This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect.  The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals.  Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.

Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27).  But this is really a two-edged sword.  Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them.  With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures.   So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.

Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.”  Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood.  When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human.  Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship.  Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals.  This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight.  Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course,  always assumes there is a proper use.

The question also needs to be properly framed.  It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal.  Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower.  There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death.  Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing.  A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this).  No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain.  To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.

Kindness

Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness.  Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people.  The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain.  Pain is the greatest evil.  But this is not entirely true.  Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself.  This is true in both humans and animals.  It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose.  That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth.  Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily.  The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain.  This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.

The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer.  There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection.  As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.”  We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?”  The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz.  They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering.  Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.

The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it.  At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans.  When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals.  The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made.  Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man.  If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism.  In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29).  Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1).  The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated.  For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life.  Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3).  In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.

Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state.  With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy.  Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification.  We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed.  In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.

Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic.  It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death.  The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death.  How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.

All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation.  Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.  This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods.  Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice.  It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.

For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience.  But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday.  Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost.  Truly, something to be thankful for.

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.

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. Confronted with despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits.  In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “abase 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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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).

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.

 

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…”

 

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

 

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.”

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!

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.

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.

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.

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).

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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!

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.