Category Archives: Culture

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.


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 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!

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 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.

Spiritual and Religious

“I am spiritual, but not religious.” It has become the fastest growing religious affiliation.  So popular is it, that it now has its own acronym—SBNR.  Its appeal is that it supposedly frees its adherents from the trappings of organized religion so that they may become more “spiritual.”  What it means to be more “spiritual” remains a mystery because any formal dogma or Creed would signal its death knell.  Usually it is about “connecting to God within.”  Although the popularity of SBNR has grown, it is not something new.  In fact one could say it is the second oldest religion in the world, beginning when Lucifer decided that he too would spend eternity as spiritual but not religious.

Ultimately the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a permanent refusal to have any obligations towards God.  The eternal cry of the demons is “non serviam”—“I will not serve.”  They desire to be like God, but shun religion.  Although their fall was instantaneous, many of the adherents to SBNR slide in the same direction—many not realizing what they are agreeing to when they recite the SBNR mantra.

What is Religion?

Without a doubt, some of the issue has to do with vagaries surrounding the word religious.  The English word religion is derived from the Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up or treat.  First and foremost, religion is the moral virtue that consists in giving to God the worship and service He deserves.  It is part of the virtue of justice which consists in rendering to each his due.  Because He is the Creator of all things and has supreme dominion, God in a singular way has a special service due to Him.  This service is worship.

Herein lies a source of confusion, namely why God creates us and then commands that we worship Him.  This is worth investigating because it is often an obstacle for the SBNR congregants.  We offer worship to God, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, not for His sake but for ours.  We cannot give to God anything He doesn’t already have.  Instead He creates us as rational creatures not just because we manifest His goodness or glory, but because we, among all visible creation, have the capacity to appreciate it.  In other words, we worship to both show our appreciation and to grow in the pleasure that His goodness brings to us.

The SBNRer may willingly concede that they do owe something to God in terms of worship, but they prefer to connect to God privately “in their souls.”  This ultimately stems from a denial of what we are as human beings.  As body/spirit composites, we are capable of both internal and external acts of religion.  In a certain sense the internal take precedence, but these internal acts can never be wholly free from the external and must be guided by them.

As human beings, our bodies and our spirits act in unison with each other.  That which is in the mind, must first have been in the senses.  You cannot perform a wholly interior act without also affecting the exterior.  Just the very thought of God or Jesus, invokes an image in our material imaginations.  We worship both from the inside-out and the outside in.  Our external acts of devotion effect our internal acts of devotion.  One is more likely to have increased devotion in their heart to God kneeling (an external sign of supplication) in front of a Crucifix than if they are staring at a blank wall sitting on a bed.

The implications of this are obvious.  There are some external acts that are better than others at increasing devotion.  This is certainly true in the subjective sense—we all have our favorite environments in which to pray—but it is also true in the objective sense.  God is equally present in the bathroom as He is in the chapel, but it is the chapel that has been consecrated (i.e. set aside) as a place of prayer that is objectively better than the bathroom.  This is why praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is called Adoration.  You can adore God anywhere in spirit, but in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament that Adoration occurs in “spirit and truth.”

SBNR and Organized Religion

As you probe more deeply into the motives of the typical SBNRer, you will find that really what SBNR means is that “I am spiritual, but I loathe organized religion.”  They view religion as something wholly personal and subjective.  But if it is really true that we owe God worship and that certain forms of worship are better than others, then a loving Father would teach us what those forms are.  The history of mankind outside of, first Judaism and then Christianity, has been man groping for these forms.  Some of the forms were innocuous like offering incense to the local god, while others commanded human sacrifice.  God commands definitive forms of worship to keep us from falling into two equally dangers traps—one of defect and one of excess.

There is the trap that once we realize that worship is really for us, we will worship in a way most pleasing to ourselves.  This has not only led to the Non-denominational denomination with their mega-churches and “praise and worship services” worthy of a pep-rally, but also the pop music masquerading as liturgical music in Catholic churches.  The second trap is that of excess.   The truth is that no form of worship will ever feel adequate because no merely human form of worship is.  So we keep upping the ante so to speak leading to some of the religious atrocities we still see in certain cults and Middle Eastern religions.  We need God to tell us what is acceptable and what is not.

God does not merely tell us, but He comes and shows us.  Through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows us the most pleasing form of worship—the one act that is enough.  He gives us the power to make that sacrifice our own—both through Faith (subjective) and through the perpetuation of that same Sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass (objective).  The One True Religion is the one that offers that Sacrifice because it is not just any organized religion but the Religion organized by the Holy Spirit Himself.

The Catholic Response to SBNR

SBNR is really a protest movement against religious tolerance. Properly understood, religious tolerance assumes that there is a true religion and that we are willing to tolerate some people who hold only part of that truth. Tolerance respects human freedom to discover the truth. But religious tolerance has come to mean that all religions are equal. If all religions really are the same, then why should I have anything to do with any of them? But, if one of them is different because it is true, then it does matter. As the One True Religion is only the Catholic religion that can lead the SBNR away from sliding down the Luciferian slope.

This claim to be the One True Faith may seem arrogant, but it is no more arrogant than the claim that 2+2=4.  It is a statement of truth and it is a truth that has been handed down to us.  I am not the inventor of my religion, but its grateful recipient.

The Inventor died to give this religion to me.  Before dying He deeded it to its caretakers.  As proof, notice the first time that Jesus mentions His suffering on the Cross—it is only after setting up the Church upon Peter the Rock that He tells of His redemptive death (c.f. Mt 16:18-21).  Those same caretakers wore martyrs’ crowns rather so that the Faith was passed on to me.  Thousands upon thousands of martyrs and confessors boldly preached that religion so that I would have it.  Now it is my turn and your turn to pass it on to the next generation.  We cannot hide our light under a bushel.  We should not apologize for being Catholic, but we should apologize for not being Catholic enough.  Only we can show SBNR what it means to truthfully and joyfully be spiritual AND religious.

The Biggest Fan?

Perhaps because of the number of players from Catholic Latin America, Major League baseball is the most outwardly religious of all the professional sports. Players regularly make the sign of the cross before stepping into the box and point to the heavens when they get a big hit. But most players and fans, when pressed, will say that God does not really care about the score of a baseball game. Despite the consensus, this assumption should be addressed. It reveals God as distant Father that is too busy running the universe to care about the outcome of a baseball game rather than Him in whom “we live and have our being”(Acts 17:28)
One might reasonably ask what kind of father does not care whether his son wins his baseball game. It might be that the father cares solely because his son does, but nevertheless a loving father ought to care whether his son wins his baseball game or not. But, it might be objected that the interlocutor is projecting man’s fatherhood onto God’s Fatherhood rather than the other way around. Only God is truly a Father and a man is a father only by way of analogy. For example, everyone would agree that a man who stands idly by while his child runs into the street and gets hit by a car is a terrible father. God’s Fatherhood on the other hand is not diminished when He allows the same thing to happen because His Fatherhood extends eternally. In other words, God’s Fatherhood is more than man’s fatherhood and not less. If a human father cares for his children’s happiness more so would God the Father care. We shall return to this point shortly.
In truth, the person who says that God does not care about the score of a baseball game is reversing the analogy. He is projecting the “trophy mentality” that is so prevalent among parents and coaches today onto God the Father. There is no award for excellence, only for trying. We do not care whether you win or lose and therefore God does not either.
But there is a deeper issue at play here. This type of mentality reveals a deep-seeded dualism that infects modern man. The modern dualist believes that the world is made up the two opposing realms of the secular and the spiritual. There is no real overlap between the two worlds and the gods of both realms act independently of each other. The end result is that modern man is disintegrated and lives his life in a completely compartmentalized fashion. One needs only to look at Sundays as evidence. The ritual of watching football (and usually a lot of it) honors the secular god “weekend” while we go to Mass in the morning because “giving God one hour of my week is the least I can do.” The best of us try to try to keep one foot in each realm but the secular god eventually wins out because he is literally in our face all the time. He finally wins out when we concede “God does not care how we worship Him.”
It was mentioned above that if human fathers care about the happiness of children than God cares even more. This comment deserves further explanation. To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment. It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent on external circumstances. That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this. Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaimonia which defines happiness as a condition of the soul that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the beatific vision. God, because He wills our eternal happiness, cares about all those things and events that contribute to our beatitude.
What the person who says that God does not care about who wins a baseball game is really saying is that the result of a baseball game has no bearing on the sanctification of mankind. This is to suggest that there are things (or at least this one thing) that are neutral to our salvation. This is a slippery slope. If it really is neutral then the game can be played in any manner the participants and spectators see fit. If the behavior of many of the players and the baseness of the advertising we will see this Sunday is any indication then empirically this seems to already be the prevailing thought. The truth is that grace perfects nature and, not only does it never destroy it, but it also never ignores it.

Cubs Win
It also seems to reveal a denial of God’s Providence. At first glance this seems reasonable. After all, anyone who watches any sporting event is struck by how prominent a role “chance” plays. From a ball that bounces off the pitcher’s leg and ends up in the hands of the first baseman to the weather, chance is often the difference maker in a game. The truth is that a belief in chance and a belief in a Provident God cannot coexist.
What we call chance really is based on one of two things. The first is when we speak of chance that is really based on some unobserved causality. For example, a receiver slips and the defensive back intercepts the pass. The replay later reveals that what we would chalk up to chance is really due to the fact that a sprinkler head was left above the ground.
The second explanation of chance results from two or more lines of causality, neither of which is governed by chance, but act independently of each other. One of these agents of causality is God as the cause of all that is, although there may be other agents as well.
With a proper understanding of the notion of chance, we can now begin to see what someone might mean when they say God does not care about baseball games. God’s Providence imposes necessity on some things and contingency on others. It might very well be the case that God imposes contingency on the results of the baseball game. This however does not mean that it falls outside His Providence. It only means He imparts the dignity of being a cause to His creatures. To the matter at hand, the result of the baseball game may depend upon the freely chosen preparation of the two teams. Nevertheless it does not fall outside His Providence. Everything is part of His plan, even if there are different causes, and this includes who wins a baseball game.
In closing, and to be fair to those who say this, I think it bears mentioning one possible meaning to a statement like “God does not care who wins baseball games.” Like all things governed by His Providence, it is not an absolute end. He uses a baseball game as a means to His overall end of uniting mankind with Himself. That doesn’t mean only that He plots out how a Cubs victory in the World Series can bring about some other good (or the Apocalypse), but also that sports (and I think this is what makes them so attractive to us) point to higher things. St. Paul uses sports (and specifically winning) to both enlighten and motivate his Corinthian audience. The joy of winning can be a sacrament pointing to the joy of winning THE race. And that is enough for God to truly care about the outcome.

The God of Tolerance

There is perhaps no single word that strikes more fear into the heart of a Catholic than to hear that he is being intolerant.  In fact, there is no greater weapon against killing the apostolic spirit of a follower of Christ than the fear of being labeled as intolerant.  In truth though, we have so twisted the concept of tolerance that we no longer even recognize intolerance when we see it.  The word tolerance really has no practical meaning any more.  It is time that we come to understand exactly what tolerance is and what it isn’t.  Our culture has now set up tolerance as the new god and it is time that we slay this false god.

While this may seem like hyperbole, have you heard about the Day of Silence on April 15th?  In the name of tolerance, schools throughout the country are encouraging students to remain silent throughout the day to “address the problem of anti-LGBT behavior.”  So, we have replaced the moment of silence which was unconstitutional because it could be associated with the true God and replaced it with a whole day of silence to worship the new god of tolerance.

What exactly is a proper understanding of tolerance then?  First of all, tolerance is not an end in itself.  The moment that tolerance becomes an end and becomes the greatest good it means that we can no longer say out loud that anything else is either good or evil.  Tolerance is meant to be a working principle that allows everyone to live peacefully for a time.  The word tolerance comes from Latin tolerare which means to “bear or sustain” and tollere which means “to lift up”.  In other words, it implies bearing with or carrying another person’s beliefs as a burden.  It is truly a negative thing and it is certainly not a Christian virtue.  Unfortunately, it is all too often confused with a real Christian virtue, prudence.  Furthermore, you will find no place in Scripture where we are exhorted to tolerance nor Christ telling His followers to “tolerate one another”.  His command is “to love one another as I have loved you” and he did this by guiding all to the truth.

Rightly identified, what we call tolerance now is really either indifference or agreement.  What masquerades as tolerance is really an attitude that it is OK to believe whatever you like as long as I agree with you or it does not inconvenience me in any way, especially by making moral demands on me.  This is how the new version of tolerance is really intolerance.


An example from an encounter I had comes to mind.  A self-labeled feminist that I know came to me and asked me one day and asked me how I, as a man, could dare to speak on the issue of abortion.  In her mind it was a woman’s issue and I had no right to speak on it.  I asked her if she accepted the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade.  She responded that of course she did.  She thought it was one of the best decisions that the Court has ever made.  I reminded her that there were exactly 9 men on the Supreme Court at the time and asked her how she could accept the decision of 9 men.

Seeing her reeling and recalling all the times she had called me intolerant (why she still spoke to me, I have no idea), I kept going.  I said, “So I guess what you are really saying is that a man can speak on the issue of abortion as long as he agrees with you.  Come to think of it, that is the very definition of prejudice.  Do you know what that makes you?  That makes you not only sexist, but intolerant.  To say that someone’s opinion doesn’t matter because of who they are and not on the merit of what they are saying is the very definition of intolerance”  Once I used the I-word, I got nothing but stunned silence.  She knew I was right, but couldn’t admit it.

The point is this: tolerance assumes three things.  The first is that the two parties do not agree.  A person can only be tolerant when they believe someone else is wrong or mistaken.  We do not tolerate things we like or agree with.  No one says, “I tolerated a delicious ribeye last night.”  Second, our tolerance is always extended to a someone not to a something.  For the sake of the dignity of the person and the absolute good that they are, we tolerate some of their bad ideas or actions.  Finally, it assumes that in fact somebody is right.  There is no room for the new tolerance’s only begotten son, relativism.  A tolerant person and a tolerant society is one that must believe in an absolute moral truth.

Ironically true tolerance rests upon two foundational truths that our culture rejects out of hand—the dignity of the human person and moral absolutes.  It is no wonder then that when those two things were removed from the cultural landscape, tolerance went awry.

As Christians, we should not be surprised that we become victims of intolerance under the guise of tolerance.  Our Lord too was a victim of intolerance masquerading as tolerance of the Romans.  Once we realize it is simply a weapon in the hands of the evil one, we can only heed the first words of advice in the pontificate of John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”  Be not afraid to be called intolerant because it conforms us to Christ.  It can serve as a wake-up call of sorts reminding us that the time for indifference is over.  As Archbishop Chaput said in his great book, Render unto Caesar, “The time for easy Christianity is over.  In fact, it never existed.  We’re blessed to be rid of the illusion.  We need to be more zealous in our faith, not more discreet; clearer in our convictions, no muddier; and more Catholic, not less.”


The Star of the New Evangelization

In his 1999 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pope St. John Paul II referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization” (Ecclesia in America (EA), 11).  In referring to her as the Star of the New Evangelization the Holy Father was calling to mind the profound effect on the evangelization of Mexico after her appearance to St. Juan Diego in 1531 and her guiding role in evangelization today.  With the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe upon us, it is instructive to look at least two ways in which we can look to her to guide us.

The first  is that Our Lady uses lay people who are specially devoted to her as instruments in the spreading of the message of Guadalupe.

At the time of the apparitions, the spreading of the Gospel to the Mexican people was largely unsuccessful.  Even though Cortes demolished all the blood soaked temples where human sacrifice to demons was going on, conversion was virtually non-existent because of a deeply rooted paganism.  Further slowing the process was a fundamental mistrust among the native peoples of the Spaniards because of abuse at the hands of the First Audience, the five administrators appointed by Charles V after Cortes returned to Spain.  Charles V also appointed Bishop Juan Zumarraga as the first bishop of the new world and the Bishop worked to protect the Indians against the harsh rule.  This brought the Bishop himself and his friars under persecution that he described as “worse than that of Herod and Diocletian.”  Eventually he was able to smuggle a message back to Charles V he immediately replaced Guzman with a Second Audience headed by Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez y Fuenleal.  Knowing that the Aztecs were about to take up arms against the Spaniards Bishop Zumarraga begged Our Lady to intervene.  Secretly he asked her to send him some Castilian roses as a sign of her intercession.

Enter Juan Diego, a simple farmer who was on his way to Mass one Sunday.  When he passed a small hill named Tepeyac, six 6 miles north of Mexico City and the location of a former temple to the great mother god Torantzin (whose head was a combination of serpent heads and dress a mass of writhing serpents), he began to hear music and the voice of a woman bidding him to come to the top of the hill.  She told him she was the Virgin Mary and that he was to present himself to the Bishop and ask him to build a Church on the hill.  After two visits the Bishop and two additional apparitions, she eventually gave him the sign the Bishop had asked for in the form of roses and the beautiful image on the tilma (more on this below).

What makes St. Juan Diego a model for our collaboration with Our Lady’s work of evangelization is what he did after the apparitions.  He was appointed as custodian of the chapel on Tepeyac where the image was kept and he tirelessly explained the significance of the image to wave after wave of pilgrims.  He emphasized the providential location of the apparition as formerly the site of pagan temple and this had such an effect on them that they referred to the image as Teonantzin (God’s Mother).  It was His ability to re-tell his story in the Indian language that served as a major source of conversion.  In fact when many of the Indians presented themselves to the missionary priests for instruction and baptism they had already been converted.

A major obstacle to the spread of the New Evangelization has been a lingering clericalism.  Our Lady of Guadalupe shows us what happens when lay people live their vocation in the Church properly and when clerics live theirs.  Juan Diego, despite being a widower, did not become a priest.  Instead he remained as a lay person and embraced his role as the primary evangelizer of the pilgrims that came to the chapel to venerate the image.  It was only after they had been evangelized that he sent them to the missionary priests for further instruction to prepare them for the sacraments.  Like St. Juan Diego, laity need to see themselves as the primary evangelizers of culture.  We cannot abdicate that role to priests and bishops but instead must embrace it.

When the laity are living out their vocation to evangelize those outside the confines of the Church (and even those who need it within the Church), Priests and Bishops are able to focus on tending their flock through catechesis and the Sacraments.  They also will not feel the need to abdicate this role in order to change the culture.  They can comfortably focus on the formation and sanctification of the laity and support them in their mission to the world.  I dare say that Bishop Zumarraga and his friar priests understood that their role should be to support Juan Diego in his evangelizing mission and they reaped the fruit of it, sometimes baptizing up to 6000 people day—most of whom they had not evangelized.

The second lesson we can learn from Our Lady of Guadalupe is the power of images.

Like our culture today, the Aztec culture was one of the image.  In his account of the apparitions, the missionary Fernando de Alva Ixtilxochitl recalled:

“The Indians submerged in profound darkness, still loved and served false little gods, clay figurines and images of our enemy the devil in spite of having heard about the faith…But when they heard that the Holy Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ had appeared and since they saw and admired her most perfect Image, which has no human art their eyes were opened as if suddenly day had dawned on them.”

The devil in inspiring the creation of the little idols knew that the Indians found them visually appealing and he exploited that even after the destruction of the temples and human sacrifice.  That is why Our Lady did not haphazardly leave the image on St. Juan Diego’s tilma but instead every element was wrought with meaning.  The people were familiar with using glyphs rather than written language and so Our Lady offered them an evangelizing image.  Not only is it edifying for us to discover the meaning of this image but it increases our reliance upon her (for more detail on the image, see Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez).



  • Clouds — in the image, the Virgin is surrounded by clouds, showing that she is from heaven. The indigenous greeted people they believed came from God with the expression: “Among fog and among clouds.” which is why Montezuma thought Cortes a god at first when his ships came through the fog into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Sun —golden rays from the second sun, behind her, signify that she is the “Mother of Light” and greater than the dreadful Aztec sun god, Huitzilopchtli, whom she eclipses.
  • Cross medallion — around her neck, Mary wears a gold medallion engraved with a cross. For indigenous people, the medallion symbolized consecration, so the medallion around Mary’s neck meant that she was consecrated to Jesus. It was also the same black Cross that appeared on the banners and helmets of the Spanish soldiers.
  • Hands — the indigenous people expressed prayer not only by the hands, but by the whole body. In the image on the tilma, Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown in a position of dancing prayer, with her knee bent in movement. Presented in the position of prayer, it would  have shown that despite the fact that she was greater than all the Aztec gods and goddesses, she herself was not God.
  • Mantle and tunic — Mary’s rose-tinted, flowery tunic symbolizes the earth, while her turquoise, starry mantle represents the heavens. The mantle also indicates that she is royalty since only the native emperors wore cloaks of that color.
  • Moon — the Virgin stands on a crescent moon. The Aztec word for Mexico, “Metz-xic-co,” means “in the center of the moon.” She is standing upon it as their mother. The moon also symbolizes the Aztec moon god, fertility, birth and life.  This was the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Angel — an angel with eagle’s wings appears below Mary’s feet. According to Aztec belief, an eagle delivered the hearts and the blood of sacrificial victims to the gods. The angel holds up the pregnant Virgin, signifying that the child in her womb is the offering that pleases God and only those with eagles wings could go to god
  • Black ribbon — the black ribbon around Mary’s waist shows that she is expecting a child. For the Aztecs, the trapezoid-shaped ends of the ribbon also represented the end of one cycle and the birth of a new era.
  • Four-petaled jasmine — the only four-petaled flower on Mary’s tunic appears over her womb. The four-petaled jasmine represents the Aztecs’ highest deity, Ometéotl. It shows that she is carrying the true deity within her womb.
  • Flowers — nine golden flowers, symbolizing life and truth, adorn Mary’s dress. The flowers are made up of glyphs representing a hill and a river. The indigenous people considered hills the highest points of encounter between God and people. Viewed upside down, the flowers take the shape of hearts with arteries coming out, representing life, which originates from God and that sustains creation not by blood of sacrifice but shedding of His own blood.

One of the most amazing things about the image is the eyes.  In the eyes of Mary miniscule human figures were discovered.   Using digital technology, the images in the eyes were enlarged many times, revealing that each eye reflected the figure of the Indian Juan Diego opening his tilma in front of Bishop Zumarraga.  Obviously no merely human artist could have painted these.


With nearly 9 million converts in 8 years (that’s an average of 3260 per day), this approach can be a very powerful force.  I have written about the importance of evangelizing the culture through media before, but I want to re-emphasize just how important that is.  Ultimately the grip that pornography has on many men (and an increasing number of women) is like the little idols that the natives in Mexico turned to.  But the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe also offered a antidote the fear from the horrific images of human sacrifices that they had all seen.  We are surrounded by violent images all day long and it creates a culture of anxiety and ultimately distraction.  As Christians we need to offer different images to the culture—one based on what is objectively beautiful not beauty that has been objectified.  Only Catholics truly know the difference.

In closing, it cannot be emphasized enough how much we can do when we give ourselves over to the hands of Our Lady.  On the day of the third apparition, Juan Diego’s uncle grew deathly ill.  Rather than turning to her to help him, he avoided Tepeyac hill and sought help elsewhere.  When he came close, she came down the hill and confronted him saying,

“Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest son, that what frightened you, what afflicted you, is nothing; do not let it disturb your face, your heart; do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more?”

The gentle rebuke is for all of us.  We may be anxious about our culture, but for those who in her shadow and protection, we have nothing to fear.  It is ultimately she who will help us lead our culture back to her Son.  In fact, Pope St. John Paul II called upon Catholics in the Americas to rely on the power of Our Lady of Guadalupe to evangelize the culture.  “In America, the mestiza face of the Virgin of Guadalupe was from the start a symbol of the inculturation of the Gospel, of which she has been the lodestar and the guide. Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within” (EA, 70).



On Reading Great Books

One of the marks of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth Century was their propensity for burning books in an attempt to “cleanse” the culture of any spirit that was contrary to their ideology.  Anyone who has read or seen the Book Thief can see an example of those who acted as a cultural remnant to keep the great works alive.  Every totalitarian culture has needed this remnant to act, and unfortunately ours is no different.  Interestingly enough though, we willingly give them away and no actual book burning is necessary.  Instead we bury them under a mountain of dust.  We cannot really say why other than “reading is boring.”  But I believe there is a deeper reason at work here, one that needs to be brought out into the light of day so that we can restore literary works to the prominent role they have held in nearly every culture that has gone by.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has a 99% literacy rate.  Despite this incredible fact that nearly everyone can read, so few choose to except when absolutely necessary.  I deliberately referenced the CIA World Factbook and spoke of the “incredible fact” of nearly everyone being able to read.  At the heart of the Information Age is the fundamental confusion between information and understanding.  We confuse having a lot of facts about a thing with having an understanding of it.

Most people read merely for information.  They increase their store of facts, but have not increased their understanding.  In many ways, our patron saint is Cliff Clavin who could bombard the patrons at Cheers with fact after mind-blowing fact.  But all of these facts without an overall context in which to place them leaves us fragmented.  Where do these facts fit into reality and how do they help explain it?

Cliff Clavin

Of course, reading also takes a great deal of time and attention.  If I am reading merely to increase my store of information why bother reading at all when I can simply turn on the TV?  The average time a TV new show in America devotes to each subject is less than a minute.  This gives the viewer no time to interpret what the meaning of what they just saw is and they assume that the facts speak for themselves.  If the media is wise (often like serpents) they will spin the presentation of those facts and hide the interpretation within that presentation.  The point however is that each event become merely like an episode on a sit-com with very little connection to some overall story.  By next week, the focus will be on a new set of facts.

Reading for understanding however takes in information but attempts to fit it into an overall context.  It seeks to understand so that one might explain.  You are left fundamentally changed by an encounter with a good book because you have moved from understanding less to understanding more.  You will forget facts, but understanding never ceases.

There is a second reason why we do not read and that is because we have been conditioned to be chronological snobs.  To read the good books assumes that those who have gone before us are wiser than us in some way.  There is a certain inequality that must naturally exist between a teacher through speech or writing and a student.  We tend to think that those who have gone before us were simpletons.  We don’t read Aristotle’s metaphysics and his ethics because we proved his physics were wrong.

Even if we read good books by the authors who are still with us, we don’t like the presence of this inequality between teachers and students.  We prefer to have “facilitators” and not teachers.  All of the great men throughout history however were great readers and schooled in the classics.  Read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and see what a love of reading and learning turned him into.

Obviously it is not enough to say why we don’t read.  What makes reading an integral way for us to grow in understanding?

The most obvious reason is that we can only learn from teachers who are somehow present to us.  Books makes the great teachers who are absent present to us.  It is as if we can have a conversation with the greatest minds of those who ever lived.  I have long claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas is my spiritual father because of the conversations I have had with him through his writings.  The fact that he is a saint obviously helps facilitate that learning as well, but whether the author is a saint or not, reading allows us the vantage point of reality that is only possible when we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Culturally, we suffer from a form of ADD in which we cannot sit still or concentrate for any length of time.  This is because we have forgotten how to control our imaginations and memory.  The minute things are quiet, our imaginations begin to run amok.  However when we read, the mind seizes control of these two faculties to form images and recall other things related to what we are reading.  This soon becomes habitual and we have greater control of them even when we are not reading.  In many ways, reading can help to undo this effect of the Fall.

In reading this essay, one could rightly sense a certain amount of personal prejudice for reading Old Books.  The Old Books have stood the test of time not because they are particularly well written (most of them are), but because they shed light on the eternal truths.  As CS Lewis says in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, we ought to be prejudicial toward the Old Books because,

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets so enduring is his portrayal of the good and evil that runs through man’s heart.  The Divine Comedy is remarkable not just for its innovative use of terza rima, but also for the imaginative manner in which the author depicts man’s journey to his ultimate end that Dante built on St. Thomas’ philosophical vision of man.  With all the books on marriage and family being written today, which one could supplant Homer’s Odyssey in portraying the family as the center of civilization?

In closing, I can find no better summary than that of Chesterton (another giant we should mount), “It is always supposed that the man in question has discovered a new idea.  But, as a fact, what is new is not the idea, but only the isolation of the idea. The idea itself can be found, in all probability, scattered frequently enough through all the great books of a more classic or impartial temper, from Homer and Virgil to Fielding and Dickens. You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.  The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.”

Reclaiming the Media Culture

One of the last documents that Pope St. John Paul II presented to the Church was his Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development.  He wrote this document mainly as a means to “reflect on the ‘challenges’ which the communications media constitute for the Church, which Paul VI said ‘would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means.’”(The Rapid Development (TRD), 2).  Among his reflections he recognizes that “[T]he communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior” (TRD,3) and emphasized that Christians should “not be afraid of new technologies! These rank ‘among the marvelous things’ – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom” (TRD, 14).  I find that the approach many Christians take towards media is either one of indulgence or total avoidance.  Both are unacceptable unless we want to give up the culture completely.  If we are to continue to be a missionary Church then we cannot forget that “[T]he first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications, which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a ‘global village’” (Redemptoris Missio, 37).

There is a tendency to somehow personalize “the Culture” and then demonize it without really reflecting on what culture is.  Culture arises out of the fact that man by nature is a social creature that is made to seek the truth.  Therefore, men seek the truth not just individually but also in community.  Culture then is a community’s answers to the great questions.  These answers become ubiquitous, touching nearly every aspect of the lives of the community.  No one, no matter how hard they try can live outside its reach.

There is another aspect of culture that is very important for us to understand which the saintly Pontiff points out, namely that culture itself, prescinding from its content, arises from the very existence of new ways to communicate with hitherto unknown techniques and vocabulary’ (TRD, 3).  In other words, culture is both parent and child in that it is both formed by and forms the community.

Now there are many particular components that make up culture, not the least of which is religion since you can’t have culture without cult.  Each of these components are meant to express in various ways the answers to the great questions but the culture as a whole has the “primary and essential task of education” (John Paul II, Address to UNESCO, 2 June 1980).

Literature and art also play a key role in any culture, but in ours these roles have been taken over by movies and television.  It is nearly impossible to have a culture that simultaneously produces both movies and TV and great literature and art.

To see why this is so, we need to understand the role our imagination in coming to know things.  Because we are material beings, those things that we come to know are known through our bodies.  As St. Thomas reminds us, “nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.”  This comes about either when an object is present to us it is first experienced through the exterior senses or when it is absent to us its image is presented through the imagination.  In either case, every object of knowledge that we have passes through the imagination.  The imagination passes the images (St. Thomas calls them phantasms) through the agent intellect where they are abstracted and judgments are made.  In essence, our imaginations act as filters for what we think about.


What is the point of this?  Motion pictures come at us so quickly that we can very easily lose this filtering ability.  We end up surrendering control over the imagination (by our wills).  We then cease making judgments about the images.  This is the dangerous part because the cultural norms that are present in the movie will become ours.  The judgments implicitly found in the movie will be ours.  So for example, if we see a happy gay couple over presented over and over we begin to associate the two together and eventually judge homosexual relationships as a good thing because of this association.  This ability to overwhelm the imagination is at the heart of the TV advertising industry as well.

To see the point I am driving at, recall what JPII said regarding the culture as parent and child.  We are all children of the culture whether we realize it or not.  There is no avoiding this and to simply abdicate our role as Christians in forming the culture is not an option.  What is needed is to recognize that “a vast work of formation is needed to assure that the mass media be known and used intelligently and appropriately. The new vocabulary they introduce into society modifies both learning processes and the quality of human relations, so that, without proper formation, these media run the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people” (TRD, 13).  We need to be properly formed in how media affects us and how it can still act in service of us rather than serving as a tool for propaganda.  Once we do that we can assume the parental role in the culture rather than mere children.  Personally I see three key ways we can affect the media.

1) Mental Prayer

This may seem obvious and probably shouldn’t even be mentioned but I mention it for a very specific reason.  Many people simply cannot pray today.  When they sit down to pray and meditate on the Scriptures they are so driven to distraction that they find it impossible to pray.  It never seems to get better so they give up.  The cause of most of our distractions in prayer is that we are unable to govern our imagination.  Once we gain control of our imagination, our prayer life immediately improves.

If you recall what I said above TV and movies’ effect on our imagination then you can see why this might be the case. The remedy is less TV.

Reading also is a great help.  Again if you are accustomed to a lot of TV and movies it is very difficult to develop the habit of reading.  There is a reason why the “book is better than the movie.”  We must fully engage our minds in a book.  We learn to govern our imaginations especially in reading authors are very descriptive.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the most popular book of the twentieth century precisely because of his ability to actively engage the imagination and paint a world where beauty, truth and goodness win.

Poetry is also great in this regard because of the word pictures that good poets create.  Along with his many talents, John Paul II was also an accomplished poet.  He wrote a poem on the Conclave of Cardinals that was later printed.  One would be hard pressed to watch a video that would capture what these few words do:

It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color that the Cardinals assemble — the community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom. They come here, to this very place. And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision. “In him we live and move and have our being.” The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord: Tu es Petrus (Mt 16:18) — once heard by Simon, son of John. “To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom.” During the Conclave Michelangelo must teach them — Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius. You who see all, point to him! He will point him out …

–Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel

Finally I would recommend reading books out loud as a family.  This is something that has completely falling out of vogue.  But families have done this for generations and it has served them well in not only forming them in the true, good and beautiful but forming a bond around the shared stories.  He who controls the stories, controls the culture.

2) Become a discerning viewer and teach others what to look for

Notice that above I said the remedy I mentioned was less TV, not to cut it out completely.  Our goal ought to be, first to become discerning viewers, but also to form discerning viewers.  We have to fight the tendency to use TV as means to “veg-out.”  We need to be active in our consumption and make judgments about what we are watching.  In order to do this we need to limit the amount of time (especially consecutive time) we spend watching.  Use the PAUSE button liberally to stop and think about what is going on.  If you are watching with someone else, pause and talk about it.  If you are seeing it in a theater then stop for ice cream on the way home so you can talk about it.  See if you can label the worldview of the producers and writers.  What did they get right?

Along the same lines, resist the temptation to use the TV as a babysitter.  Watch TV with your kids and avoid allowing them to watch it alone.  Help them too become discerning viewers.  When you see something wrong (like teenager boys objectifying girls or doofus dads) point it out.  Having a family movie night is a great way to do this as well.

Which leads to the third way we can affect the media…

3) Demand Excellence

TV and movies, like all good art, ought to reflect the True, the Good and the Beautiful.  If that is lacking turn it off.  Demand an account for the time you have spent.  God will ask you for an account for all the time He gave you, will you be able to give a good account?

Resist the temptation to voyeurism that drives the “Reality TV” genre.  These shows exploit the families that are a part of them (and has led to the downfall of more than a few) and can be made with very little monetary investment on the part of producers.  Family life should never be on display for the world to see.

An important corollary to this is to demand excellence from so-called Christian film-makers.   Often we’re so happy to see Christian media that we don’t care about the quality.  So often the movies are cliché and the characters are so smarmy that it only serves to make Christianity look even worse in the eyes of the rest of the culture.  “If Christians are that dull and fake, then why would I want to be one?” is what many non-Christians think after seeing them.  But shouldn’t Christian media be better off because of its goals and motivations?  If a movie is meant to spread the Faith then it should meet industry standards.  Think of the effect of a Catholic film like the Song of Bernadette winning the Oscar for Best Picture today.  Certainly critically acclaimed movies like Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby were instrumental in forming the culture.  There was a time when Catholics controlled Hollywood, why couldn’t this happen again?  The desire in all men for the Good, the True and the Beautiful cannot be stamped out and most know it when they see it.  If we make it, they will come.

And certainly never forget that TV and Movies are consumer-driven.  If we don’t watch it then they won’t make it or show it.

St. Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of the Media, Pray for Us!