Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (Feast of Christ The King 2014)

    Happy Feast of Christ the King!  Welcome one and all to “Sunday Snippets (A Catholic Carnival)”, a bubbling brew of bloggers in the Catholic tradition . . .no, better yet, Catholic Bloggers who gather (in the virtual sense of the word) on the Lord’s Day to share their posts from the week and enjoy the air of bonhomie to be found at This That and the Other Thing under the indulgent eye of our gracious hostess RAnn (main site right here). 
     Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, a feast which, interestingly, has only been on the Liturgical Calendar since 1925 (and in its current place only since 1970).  Pope Pius XI added the feast in order to counter growing nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere, and to remind Catholics that their Lord and Savior is Jesus Christ, not the Volk, and certainly not whatever Duce happened to have grabbed the reins of power at a given time. 
     While the totalitarian states of the twentieth century have almost all gone through the entire cycle of rise, decline, and fall, and now reside in what one of their authors so eloquently termed “the dustbin of history”, the totalitarian impulse and the idolatry of the state continues, albeit in a rather less homicidal form.  All of us, however, even those who have consciously sworn off looking for messiahs in politics or government, fall into idolatry from time to time: how often have I pinned my dearest hopes on some passing thing, such as a new job, the next tax return, or even some ridiculous new gadget to add to my collection of equally ridiculous gadgets? If I’m not careful (and, honestly, sometimes I’m not), I can find these seemingly innocuous little idols setting themselves up on the Throne reserved for Jesus alone.  Only Christ is the King of the Universe, only Christ is the Lord of men, only Christ is master of our hearts: Inquietum est cor meum, donec in te requiescat, “my heart is restless until it rests in you”.  Today’s Feast is a timely and needed reminder.

This Week's Snippets:

I’ve been woefully remiss - I’ve only once in the past year posted anything by Palestrina . . . until now: “Kyrie: Missa Papae Marcelli – Palestrina / Tallis Scholars 1980 [link

This is one of those things where a few random thoughts wandering through my brain surprise me by combining in a way that sort of makes sense.  A Throwback from Easter of this year: “Steyn, Spong, Kempton and The Passion of the Christ” [link

In this one I become the 3,987, 654, 033rd person to abuse the term “perfect storm”, while bemoaning the state of the culture, the Church, and whatever else is bugging me.  I also toss a little Latin around, just to be pedantic.  What, you don’t like it? Hey, “Don’t Be So Judgmental!” [link

Friday, November 21, 2014

Don't Be So Judgmental!

Athanasius Against the World 

St. Athansius of Alexandria
     I hate to use the now overworked term “perfect storm”, but the past few weeks I have felt like all the weather in the world was pouring down on me.  I’ll share just a couple of the highlights, or lowlights.  There was the recent Sunday when I found myself (not me personally, but me and people like me) berated from the pulpit for having the temerity to expect Catholic clergy to speak out in support of the Church’s moral teaching on issues such as abortion, marriage, serial adultery, etc.  We were told we should be more like the Pope, and welcome everyone with a wink and nod and just stick to talking about Jesus (too bad Pope Francis didn’t get the memo: see here).  Then there was a recent Friday afternoon, when I found myself trying to explain the Church’s teaching on human sexuality to a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds, to whom the idea that one need not indulge any and every sexual desire seemed novel and inexplicably bizarre.  I began to feel a little bit like Athanasius contra mundum.  Shouldn’t these kids have heard this somewhere before, or from someone, anyone, beyond their 9th grade religion teacher?  Even students from church-going families seemed unfamiliar with any perspective other than the self-righteous libertinism of the popular culture, and not just in this particular group: I’ve been seeing it more and more over the years.

The Good Professor Says His Piece

     Interestingly, when I arrived home that same day my lovely bride had an article by Anthony Esolen (“Who Will Rescue the Lost Sheep of the Lonely Revolution?” here) that she had just read, and that she was eager to share with me.  Apparently, Professor Esolen is also getting rather frustrated with trying to reach students who have grown up immersed in the grim propaganda of the sexual revolution, often without even knowing that there was another (more excellent) way, or those who have heard the Truth, but see no examples of anyone celebrating it or living it out.  He makes an impassioned plea to all the adults out here, including, emphatically, those with teaching authority in the Church, to “man up”, as it were (my term, not his), and speak boldly for the sake our young people who are being left to wither on the vine:

Let me speak up for the young people who see the beauty of the moral law and the teachings of the Church, and who are blessed with noble aspirations, but who are given no help, none, from their listless parents, their listless churches, their crude and cynical classmates, their corrupted schools. These youths and maidens in a healthier time would be youths and maidens indeed, and when they married they would become the heart of any parish. Do we expect heroic sanctity from them? Their very friendliness will work against them. They will fall. Do you care? Many of these will eventually “shack up,” and some will leave dead children in the wake of their friendliness. Where are you? You say that they should not kill the children they have begotten, and you are right about that. So why are you shrugging and turning aside from the very habits that bring children into the world outside of the haven of marriage?

The Self-Help Guy Agrees

Esolen makes a number of important points, particularly that our culture is toxic, that its moral corruption has very real material consequences, and, most damning, that we have largely abandoned our young people to it.  Some years ago the late self-help author Stephen Covey pointed out (in only somewhat less emotional language) that raising morally sound and emotionally healthy children has become much more difficult in our current environment: 

In the past, it was easier to successfully raise a family ‘out-side-in’ because society was an ally, a resource.  People were surrounded by role models, examples, media reinforcement, and family-friendly laws and support systems that sustained marriage and helped create strong families. Even when there were problems within the family, there was still this powerful reinforcement of the whole idea of successful marriage and family life . . .  
(Stephen Covey, The7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 15)

That is no longer the case. In fact, society now actively subverts parents’ efforts to raise their children: it is, as Covey puts it, “family-fatal”. He marshalls an impressive array of statistics (he cites sources for all of these in his book) to support his assertion:  

-          Illegitimate birth rates have increased more than 400 percent.

-          The percentage of families headed by a single parent has more than tripled.

-          The divorce rate has more than doubled. Many project that about half of all new marriages will end in divorce.

-          Teenage suicide has increased almost 300 percent.

-          Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among all students have dropped 73 points.

-          The number one health problem for American women today is domestic violence,  Four million women are beaten each year by their partners.

-          One fourth of all adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease before they graduate from high school.

Since 1940 the top disciplinary problems in public schools have changed from chewing gum and running in the halls to teen pregnancy, rape, and assault.
(Stephen Covey, The7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 16)

     Covey’s book was published in 1997; I guarantee that these statistics have not changed for the better in the intervening 17 years.  And these are only some of the more obvious bad consequences of what Esolen calls the “Lonely Revolution”. 

Who Needs Those Goofy Rules Anyway?

     If you’d like something more recent, here’s an item from last week, an article [here] from the Catholic News Agency called “Agree to Disagree: Why Young Catholics Pose a Unique Challenge For the Church.”  It seems that a recent study commissioned by the U.S. bishops has found that young Catholics, even those who consider themselves devout, feel free to ignore “’goofy’ rules” that they don’t like:

If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. 
“They agree to disagree with the Church,” [Archbishop Thomas 
Wenski] said. 
Furthermore, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner’,” Archbishop Wenski said.

     The last sentence gives the game away, even if the article does not explicitly say which particular “goofy” rules are at issue: the conflation of the sin with the sinner, in conjunction with the damning charge of “judgmentalism”, is the preferred tactic of the storm troopers of the Sexual Revolution, and thus they often lead good Christians into error (see here, for instance).  The Church, on the other hand, has always been guided by “hate the sin, love the sinner” and the old legal maxim Qui bene distinguit, bene docet, “he who distinguishes well, teaches well.”  Notice that docet comes from the same root as doctrine: doctrine is the sacred teaching of the Church.  If those responsible for teaching doctrine don’t teach, then those under their tutelage will be left to the teaching of the World, which, as we have seen, non distinguit. Is it any wonder, then, that our young people also non distinguunt? The Church is supposed to be a Sign of Contradiction (Luke 2:34), but if all she offers is a Nod and a Wink, then how is any distinction possible between her teaching and what the Conventional Wisdom has on offer?  Do we not then give tacit assent?

     Where's That in The Bible?
The Prophet Ezekial

     The underlying problem is not a new one.  Let’s go back a little into the past, to the Book of the Prophet Ezekial:

If I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekial 3:18-19)

All of us baptized Christians have a prophetic office, and the warning addressed to Ezekial above applies to all of us, as the Letter of James tells us:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

When it comes to guiding the young, our Lord himself puts the matter even more starkly:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

Avoiding unpleasant Truths, it seems, is not an option. 

Go And Sin No More

     To return to the homilist with whom I became this little excursus, he’s correct that we need to model the love of Jesus, but we do that when speak the Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  When we distinguish between the sin and the sinner, we can show that we hate the sin because of our concern for the sinner.  I recently tuned in to a Catholic radio station just in time to hear a host ending his show by saying: “The worst thing you can do for somebody is to allow him to wallow in sin.”  That’s exactly right: it is more loving to warn a person about sin, with all its painful consequences, than to leave them ignorant of something that’s destroying them.  And if we’re going to talk about Jesus, should we not mention that he suffered and died for the express purpose of saving us from sin?
     I’m not saying we should be mean, or accusatory, or call people names.  We do, however,  need to recognize, as Anthony Esolen points out, that the currently popular sexual sins are not simply harmless “peccadilloes”: they destroy families and ruin people’s lives, and put people in danger of being lost forever.  Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from stoning, but he also told her: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).  We all, and particularly those of us appointed as teachers, should be prepared to say the same.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Steyn, Spong, Kempton and The Passion of the Christ

This Throwback exploring the theme of personal integrity was first published on April 22nd of this year.

Sometimes there is a certain event that perfectly crystalizes important social trends: such was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. We may forget ten years later the magnitude of the film’s impact.  Last week Mark Steyn marked its ten year anniversary with an updated review [here].  While I disagree with some of his points (more on this below), Steyn does a good job of capturing the movie’s significance, while at the same time recognizing some of its artistic weaknesses.  His most incisive observation is that the controversy sparked by the movie was “not between Christians and Jews, but between believing Christians and the broader post-Christian culture, a term that covers a large swathe of the media to your average Anglican vicar.”  There’s a lot packed in to that brief quote, including a recognition of the sad reality that a very large part of that “post-Christian culture” is made up of people who claim to be (and very often think that they are) “believing Christians”.  Among protestants the two groups break down to some degree along denominational lines, although even the most “progressive” churches have some members who adhere to a more traditional Christian belief and practice; in the Catholic church we’re all thrown in together, which keeps things lively.
     One of those devout, traditional Christians in a denomination that was much less so was the late left-wing journalist and commentator Murray Kempton, who was an Episcopalian.  I remember reading one of his columns at least a decade before The Passion came out in which he was comparing Catholic Cardinal O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, to Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey.  As I recall, Kempton had less than kind words for co-religionist Spong, who had made himself a darling of the cultural elite by publicly doubting the Resurrection and dismissing orthodox Christian morality, and lavished high praise on the Catholic Cardinal, with whom he doubtless disagreed on many points, but whose determination to teach without apology the faith as received from the Apostles was undeniable.  I don’t recall the columnist’s exact words from a distance of more than twenty years, but I have retained a very clear recollection of his assertion that a man who could not affirm the most essential Christian doctrine had no business being a bishop.  To Kempton, it was a matter of integrity: you should be what you are.
     Murray Kempton and Cardinal O’Connor are no longer with us, but John Shelby Spong, it seems, lives on.  The now-retired Episcopal bishop was a major focus in an article published in the Washington Post on Holy Saturday which assures us that “The Gospel Story Of Jesus’ Resurrection Is A Source Of Deep Rifts In The Christian Religion”.  You may wonder exactly what “Christian Religion” they’re talking about.  After all, belief in the Resurrection is, and always has been, the absolute minimum requirement for being a Christian. St. Paul says that if Christ didn’t rise from the dead we are the most pitiful of men (1 Cor. 15:19) – and he never even met Bishop Spong. The Resurrection marks the rift between Christians and everyone else: on one side you are a Christian, on the other you’re not. In any case, Easter has become an annual occasion for the secular press to celebrate self-proclaimed Christians who deny the divinity of Christ, or the latest hyped-up claim that such-and-such archaeological discovery “proves” that Jesus had brothers, children, wives, etc. Why should they care?  Because the Church and believing Christians are all that stand between them and the “progressive” program of re-making the world in the image of whatever appeals to them at the time.
Mel Gibson's Satan: he, she, who knows?
     Which brings me back to Steyn’s review of The Passion of the Christ. One of his criticisms  with which I disagree is his take on Gibson’s Satan.  Steyn dismisses him (Her? It?) as “a cross between Nosferatu and Jessica Lange in All That Jazz”.  I don’t actually disagree with that description, but where Steyn sees it as a misstep, I found the creepy androgyny of Evil One to be a particularly astute touch, especially for a 21st century audience.  Non Serviam! “I will not serve!” is the essence of Satan; Lucifer’s refusal to be what God made him to be lies at the heart of his fall.  His refusal to be either male or female is a brilliant counterpoint to the creation story in Genesis: “Male and female he created them (Genesis 5:2)”, and of course an apt reflection of the refusal by so many in our world today to accept this basic truth about human nature, not just in our sexual relationships but even in our very bodies [see here]. Which, in turn, brings us back to  Integrity, which is, after all, is about much more than telling the truth: it is about being a fully integrated whole, about truly being who you are.
     This is where Steyn, Spong, Kempton and The Passion of the Christ all come together.  While The Passion was a big hit among the believing crowd, there are nevertheless any number of reasons why a devout Christian might not like the film.  Its effect, however, has been to cast a bright light on the growing divide between enduring Christian belief and the Spirit of an Age that more and more is succumbing to what Cardinal Ratzinger, just before he became Pope Benedict XVI, called “the dictatorship of relativism”, an age in which integrity has been conquered by ideology. The late, great Richard John Neuhaus used to say that “When orthodoxy becomes optional, sooner or later it will be proscribed.”  In the decade since the release of The Passion of the Christ, the wisdom of those words has become ever clearer.  I have previously cited St. Ignatius [here] to the effect that there are two armies facing each other, Christ’s and Satan’s, and there’s no middle ground. Eventually, we all have to be who we truly are, and choose our Master, our Commander: which one will it be, Christ or Satan?


Monday, November 17, 2014

'Kyrie': Missa Papae Marcelli - Palestrina / Tallis Scholars 1980

It occurs to me that I have only once posted any music by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, one of the great masters of sacred polyphony.  Tonight I'm making a start toward rectifying that omission with the "Kyrie" from his Missa Papae Marcelli.
     Music has developed and grown in the more than four centuries since Palestrina's time in wonderful ways, and there have been composers of outstanding genius, but nothing, if I may offer my personal opinion, has surpassed the sheer beauty of the best sacred polyphony. The video of this rendition by the Tallis Scholars complements Palestrina's beautiful music with beautiful views of religious sites in Southern France.  Enjoy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A "Cool" Homeschooling Project

Our backyard in winter - not the ideal gardening environment
     Our faith calls us to live our lives by standards different than those of the secular world: “’My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).  God’s ways and the World’s ways seem further apart than ever.  As society at large becomes ever less Christian, it becomes correspondingly more hostile to the practice and the values of the faith, a hostility which is intensified in the public school system, which tends to be dominated by leftist and materialist ideologies.  To put young children there, at an age when character, values, and worldview are still being formed, seems too much like exposing tender plants to rigors of cold weather too soon.  State schools are simply too firmly committed to forming their students in the Ways of the World.

Marigolds protected in the unheated greenhouse
     Catholic schools are a much better option, of course, and a Godsend to countless Catholic families and others looking for a saner, healthier educational environment for their children.  Even here, however, the influence of the secular world can often have a more powerful effect than we would like, despite the best intentions and efforts of those who run the schools (and as one who has taught in Catholic schools for almost three decades, I know about both the good and the, um,  less good) .  And so a small but growing number of us are choosing (along with many of our separated brethren in other Christian traditions) is to teach our children at home.
     For us, then, the choice to homeschool  has been based mostly on a desire to have more influence over the character development of our children, in the hope that when they do go out on their own they’ll better understand what it means to be “in the world but not of it.”  As it happens, there are also some practical advantages as well.  For one thing, our children have been able to work on long-term projects that would have been impractical or even impossible if they had to schedule them in or around school attendance:
Marigolds from the same bed as those above left outside
several of them have written books and made feature-length movies, one has composed a piano sonata, and they all have participated a couple of times in productions of Shakespearean plays  (organized by a local Baptist Pastor with extensive training in theatre) that were intensely  involved, demanding, and rewarding.
     Their most recent project has been to convert our little front porch into a cold weather greenhouse. This is a whole-family project, but the main movers are my son John and my lovely bride, Linda.  John and Linda have just started a blog , “Little Greenhouse in the Woods” [here], chronicling the progress of the project.  Feel free to stop by to encourage a worthy homeschooling project, and to see how things are growing (God willing) through the Maine winter. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Christ Is King Of All . . . Even The Holidays

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god.”  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)

     Halloween is past, Christmas is coming, and not only are the geese getting fat but the doubters and mockers are getting ready for another round of “demystifying” the Incarnation by pointing out (or making up) connections to pagan holidays and practices . . . and then we’ll go through it all again at Easter time.  Here in the time in between, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on the holiday (i.e., Holy Day) just past, and look forward to those that are to come.

Good Cop, Bad Cop     

    First, a little background. Many, many years ago, in the days of my neo-pagan youth, I recall reading that the Christians, as they converted previously heathen peoples, intentionally built churches on what had been pagan holy sites: the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, for instance, built on the ruins of what was believed to have been a temple of the Roman goddess of wisdom.  In the same way, countless churches were built adjacent to ancient circles and standing stones in Northwestern Europe, including a whole series of churches dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, the scourge of Satan (the most famous of these is Mont St. Michel, pictured above), which were situated on the hill tops that were considered especially sacred by the pre-Christian inhabitants.
     There was a two-fold purpose to this practice, an ancient precursor to what we today call the “Bad Cop, Good Cop” routine (wherein the suspect confesses to the Nice Policeman, the Good Cop, hoping to earn his protection from the Mean Policeman, or Bad Cop).  On the one hand, we have a concrete sign of the triumph of Christianity, a church built sometimes on the very foundations of a previous pagan establishment, sending as clear a message as one of those paintings of St. Michael with his foot on the Devil’s neck.  Consider also the very name of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: “Holy Mary over Minerva”.  The name does not simply tell us which building previously occupied the site, it proclaims the victory of the Mother of God over the pagan goddess.  This is the “Bad Cop” approach.
     We can see the “Good Cop” strategy in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles at the top of the page.  St. Paul commends the Athenians for their religious devotion, which may well be an expression of a real desire to find God, but directed toward false divinities.  Rather than condemn the Athenians for idolatry, he seeks to redirect them toward the True Lord.  In much the same spirit, the Church seems to have concluded that previously idolatrous peoples would accept conversion more easily if they could worship the True God in the same places that they and their ancestors had been accustomed to commune with the old gods.  We can see this as an example of “Baptizing the World”, of sanctifying what is good or neutral in the outside world, and using it to build up the Kingdom of God.  And in cases such as this, how powerful must the effect have been when the new Christians had a tangible sign, in the old familiar place, of the Victory of Christ?

Trick or Treat?

     We can see a similar process at work in the case of many Holy Days.  Not that the Church created them for the purpose of replacing pagan festivals, as the naysayers claim: the Christian feasts commemorate real events in Salvation History.   Christian feasts do tend, however, to subsume and Christianize some pagan practices, which the Church often allows to happen.  Take Halloween, for example.  A couple of weeks ago the Catholic blogosphere was filled with commentary, some arguing that Halloween is no more than a modern day pagan bacchanal, others that it is at worst harmless fun, and still others explaining its Christian source and purpose.  One of the better discussions is this one [here] by Nathan Barontini.  Of the “Four Halloween Mistakes for Catholics to Avoid” Nathan’s mistake #1 is thinking that “Halloween is ‘Pagan’ Rather than Christian.”  He points out that it is tied to the feast of All Saints established by Pope Gregory III in the eight century in conjunction with the dedication of a chapel to “All Saints” and not, as he says, “to compete with some Celtic pagan feast.”  Quite so.  At the same time, one can make a case that some pagan traditions did indeed attach themselves to the celebration of All Hallows Eve, but here we see them serving a new master.  As Mr. Barontini says (under the heading of “Mistake # 3 – Make Halloween ‘No Fun’”:

The traditional ghouls, skeletons, vampires, and zombies all speak to a simple post-Easter reality - Christ has conquered death. At Halloween we mock death, we laugh in its face, proclaiming with St. Paul, "O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory?" (1 Cor 15:55).

In other words, like Holy Mary Over Minerva, or St. Michael curb-stomping the Devil, our celebrations on the eve of All Saints Day invoke images of death and corruption in order to show Christ’s victory over the forces they represent.

Our Battle Is Not with Flesh And Blood

     This is not to say that we should disregard those Christians who warn about the demonic aspects of Halloween: when Christ is out of the picture, all that’s left is death and corruption, and the powers of darkness are left in possession of the field of battle.  I have noticed over the past couple of decades that, as the wider culture becomes less Christian, observances of Halloween are becoming both more elaborate and more grotesque.  And there is always a risk when we set out to “Baptize the World” that, if we are not properly fortified and sustained by the Faith and the Sacraments, the World may instead have its way with us.  We should not, however, let the Devil have the last word. 

Our task is first to “put on the full armor of God” (see Ephesians 6:3-17) and then set out to reclaim Halloween for Christ, rather than surrender it to the hosts of the Evil One.

     It is good to bear all this in mind as we approach the so-called “holiday season” (i.e., the Christmas Season).  We will hear a chorus of claims that our Feast of the Nativity is really “only” a thinly disguised form of the Roman Saturnalia, or some Mithraic feast, or something similar (never mind that the Birth of Jesus really happened, and these other things are based on fantasies).  Even if it’s true (and most such claims are highly debatable) that Christmas took it’s gift-giving from Saturnalia, or Christmas trees from some pagan Germanic Yule tradition, and so on, well, so what?  If these things ever did have pagan origins, now they are in the service of Christ, who “will reign until he puts all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).  So, be of good cheer, and when the time comes, throw another Yule Log on the fire, because Christ is King.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Blessed Pope Paul VI Is Proved Right Yet Again

     Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power [i.e., contraception] passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. (Bl. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 17)

    Outrageous, but hardly surprising. As Pia Di Solenni reports [here], the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, the international aid group created by the United Nations, have been giving women in Kenya tetanus vaccine secretly laced with the HCG hormone, which causes infertility and miscarriages.  Di Solenni includes the text of a statement by the Catholic Bishops of Kenya detailing: the Kenyan government’s refusal to cooperate with the Bishops’ inquiries about the immunization program; their own clandestine efforts to acquire a few vials of the vaccine, all of which tested positive for the hormone; the “attempts to intimidate and blackmail medical professionals who have corroborated information about the vaccine, with threats of disciplinary action.” She also excerpts a portion of a statement by that confirms the Bishops’ findings, and also reveals that the tetanus campaign in Kenya “is targeted at girls and women between the ages of 14-49 (child bearing age)” and involves giving five doses six months apart, which is not required for tetanus, but is necessary for the sterilization hormone.  The statement also reveals that WHO/UNICEF has previously done exactly the same thing in Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Phillipines.
     Sin loves company.  It’s not content to sit quietly by itself, but seeks to implicate others in its corruption.  And so we see now the working out of Pope Paul’s prediction: having freed ourselves from the burden of Christian morality, we determined first that contraception was Good for married people; next, if it’s good for them, well then, it must be good for everyone.  If it’s good for everyone, it must also be good for brown-skinned people living in poor countries, even if they don’t want it.  If they don’t want what’s good for them, then we more enlightened folks (having freed ourselves from the burden of Christian morality) have not just the right but an obligation to force it on them. 
     So it goes when we allow such power to pass “into the hands of those authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law”.  The problem is, such authorities and, come to think of it, individuals, tend to create their own precepts, their own “moral law”, but it is untethered to God’s law, which is the only law perfectly attuned to the true good of humanity.  Thus Henri de Lubac, S.J., famously said: “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God.  What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man”. 
     Catholics have long believed that our personal sins affect not only ourselves, but our neighbors, the Church, and the rest of the World.  We have usually taken these effects to be more spiritual in nature, but we can see that it is true in a very practical material sense as well. When we reject God and his precepts, we reenact the rebellion of Satan and the Fall of Adam and Eve.  And as we see here, even private sins can eventually become Public Policy.
     Now, going to confession and resolving to avoid further sin will not directly or immediately help the exploited women of Kenya: that requires exposing the wrongdoing and working to change the policies that allow it.  In the long run, however, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  If we want a more decent and moral world, we all (myself included  - mea culpa!) need to become more decent and moral people.  And we can only do that with God’s help.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

On Staying Awake In The Garden

This Throwback is a substantially revised version of a post called "Scripture: Why is Language Important?" that I posted on April 8th of this year.

The Word Made Flesh     

My family doesn’t attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on a regular basis, but we go whenever we can.  One of the things (among many) that always impresses me about the Tridentine Liturgy is the fact that every Mass closes with a reading of the “Last Gospel”, the opening of John’s Gospel, which reads in part:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made . . .  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,  (and we saw his  glory, the  glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1-14)

St. Jerome Visited by Angels by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
     On those occasions when I have been granted the privilege of teaching a religion course in the High School where I work, I always start the year with this passage because it is an excellent introduction to the Catholic understanding of the “Sacramental Principle”, that is, that God speaks to us through his creation. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us"!  Catholic and Orthodox Christians have always understood that the embodiment of the Eternal Word Who Existed Before the Creation of the Universe in the Man Jesus Christ reveals a pattern that is repeated in countless lesser embodiments: in the men and women whom God chooses to carry out his will, such as prophets, evangelists, and saints, not to mention his ordained clergy; in his Church and its sacraments; in the events of Salvation History and of everyday life.  “The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God!”, says the Psalmist (Psalm 19:1).  Accordingly, things, details and events are important.  That’s why the early Church was always careful to emphasize that Jesus was an actual man who lived in known places, at a certain time, under certain verifiable Roman officials such as Pontius Pilate.  The details matter.

Loosening Up the Meaning

     I couldn’t help but reflect on these things as I read this Anthony Esolen article here. I have commented previously on the substance of Pr. Esolen’s characteristically excellent piece (here); today I’m more interested in a tangential matter that he brings up in the opening paragraph of his article, where he says:

I recently read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae the way it was principally meant to be read: in Latin.  There’s something illuminating, I find, about reading in the original a work that is familiar to you in translation.  It becomes unfamiliar.  You can’t catch the gist of a clause unless you pay unusually close attention to the words.  You can’t dismiss something before you have quite determined what that something is.

     I immediately identified with the idea of reading something (particularly the Bible) in its original language as a way of reawakening my own attention to its substance because the same principle applies in many of my posts dealing with Holy Scripture (here and here, for instance). I often find that looking at a passage in the original Greek, and maybe the way it was translated into Latin just a few centuries later, is not so much a matter of “linguistic analysis” as it is simply a way of “loosening up” the meaning after the English translations have become so familiar that they have calcified, and no longer sink in.
     It’s also true that having to work through a language like Latin or Greek, where the syntax follows different principles, forces you to examine the language much more closely than if you were simply reading it in English.  Some of my students know this first hand. A few years ago I was searching through recent papal encyclicals looking for some “modern Latin” for a third year Latin class.  One day I heard some of the students in the class teasing one of their classmates because he had visited a store called “Condom Sense” (yes, it is what it sounds like).  “Of course!” I thought, “what would have more relevance to their daily lives than Humanae Vitae?”  Which we did indeed read, in the original Latin.  By the time we were through, those students knew Pope Paul’s teaching inside and out (which is not necessarily to say that they were pleased to know it).

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' (from Through The Looking Glass)

     Another problem with translations is that invariably many of the connotations and possible meanings of the original language will be lost.  This perennial problem loomed even larger in the latter half of the twentieth century, when an approach called “dynamic equivalence” was popular among translators.  In brief, dynamic equivalence means that the translator renders what he thinks is the “essential meaning” of the text, as opposed to what it literally says.  The result for scriptural and liturgical texts was “translations” that were really interpretations, since the translator would often replace figurative language with whatever (in his or her judgment) the figures or images were intended to convey. 
     We find a good example in Psalm 51, for instance, verse 7 or which literally reads “You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be made clean”. The official translation used in the Liturgy of the Hours renders this as “O purify me, then I shall be clean.”  Notice the concreteness of the original text: we can picture in our minds the priest in the Temple (or a Catholic Priest today) dipping an evergreen branch into a bowl and sprinkling the congregation; “purify”, on the other hand, is an abstraction which we can certainly understand, but it does not engage our imagination, and is easily passed over as we move on to the next line. We lose much of the distinctness, and sense of embodiment (“Word become Flesh”!), because much of the concrete and vivid imagery has been flattened or erased. Think also of the recently replaced translation of the Mass, where dynamic equivalence formerly obscured the scriptural source of things such as “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .”; this allegedly “dynamic” translation is clear enough, but it is abstract and remote. The new, more literal, translation, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .”, is not only something that we can visualize, but we see a clear connection to the Roman centurion with a sick servant in Matthew 8:8, whose words we are speaking.  It is always more meaningful when our imagination is engaged.

They Are There For A Reason

     We should also bear in mind that images that have been written into Holy Scripture by writers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could very well be there for more than one reason. In the passage from Psalm 51 above, for instance, in addition to what is a clear suggestion of a liturgical purification, the “sprinkling” can be seen as looking forward to Baptism. Another example is a translation I have heard (not in specifically Catholic circles) of the Lord’s Prayer which substitutes “daily strength” for “daily bread”.  While “strength” is certainly one of the things implied by the image of bread, there are so many other implications contained in the original image (which, in this case, was chosen by Jesus Christ Himself), not the least being allusions both back to the Manna that fed the Hebrews in the desert and forward to the Eucharist.

It’s All Greek To Me

     So, you might be saying, "I don’t know Latin or Greek: where does that leave me?"  Fortunately, there are things you can do refresh your reading of Scripture, short of learning another language (although it’s never too late to start), and that can help you achieve much of the same result.  You can read the Bible with a good Catholic commentary, for instance.  It can also be helpful to compare different translations (sticking to approved Catholic translations, of course). I would make a point of including the Douay-Rheims version, which for a long time was the Catholic Bible in English; it is from the same era as the King James (a few decades earlier, in fact), and makes a point of following the original text much more closely than has been the fashion in recent years (the passage from John's Gospel at the beginning of the post is from this translation). Working with the language in this way can help to free it from the choices of a particular translator, and also help the reader to get below the surface of a translation that has become too commonplace.

     Here’s my final point: God speaks to us through his creation, including the words of Holy Scripture.  But we are like the Apostles, who could not remain awake with the Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane; it’s a mark of our fallen nature that the very words of our Lord can become so familiar to us that we barely notice them as they fly past our eyes or ears.  The good news, however, is that sometimes looking at a familiar text from a different angle can loosen up the stuck cogs in our brains, Deo volente.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Monteverdi: "Laetatus Sum", Copenhagen Soloists

     Another delightful piece from Monteverdi’s Vespro Della Beata Vergine, “Laetatus Sum”.  It is a musical setting for Psalm 122 (English translation below from the RSV).  The Psalm itself celebrates the joy and peace to be found in “The House of the Lord”.       
     The ancient psalmist was no doubt referring principally to the actual Jerusalem of his day, and the Temple of stone and wood built upon its heights. We, looking back through the lens of God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ, can see a deeper meaning: “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God”, our Heavenly Destination (God willing) that is spoken of in the Book of Revelation (Rev 21:2).  The New Testament, as St. Augustine pointed out, is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New. And, here, beautifully put to music.

Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the LORD!"
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Jerusalem, built as a city
which is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
"May they prosper who love you!
Peace be within your walls, 
security within your towers!"
For my brethren and companions' sake
I will say, "Peace be within you!"
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mary In The Annunciation Is A Model For Us All

I first posted this piece on March 24th, the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation.  In a few weeks we begin the Season of Advent, in which we wait ever more expectantly for the culmination of the pregnancy that started back in March, and the birth of the Savior.  This is not a bad time to remind ourselves how it all begins. Christ is indeed at the Center of History, and his Incarnation is the greatest event in the history of the cosmos, but at the same time it all starts with one particular young women, and one little human baby . . . and that baby is the King of Kings.

     I’ve often admired the stained glass window depicting the Annunciation that looks down on the sanctuary in my local cathedral.  We see the young woman Mary, kneeling on the floor and surrounded by angels, while God the father looks down on her from above, sending forth a beam on which rests the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove.  God the Son is there, too, although we don’t see him, a human embryo in Mary’s womb, the Omnipotent Divine wrapped in mortal human flesh.  That’s how we encounter Jesus in the Gospels: the Eternal Word in human disguise; that’s how we receive him in the Holy Eucharist: the Second Person of the Trinity in the form of simple bread.  It’s a marvelous image to contemplate as we approach the Altar of the Lord to receive Holy Communion.
       Tomorrow, of course, is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated nine months before the Nativity of The Lord at Christmas.  I’ve often thought that, the current vogue for atheists and atheism notwithstanding, it’s not really that hard to believe in God.  What is difficult, very difficult in fact, is to believe that the Uncreated Creator of all Time and Space is the least bit interested in beings as small, short-lived, and insignificant as we appear to be in the vast sweep of the Universe.  That he should become a little human baby just so that he could suffer with us and die for us, well, this saying is hard; who could accept it (see John 6:60)?  And that’s not all: the Omnipotent God sought the consent of one little maiden in a small town in an insignificant corner of the world in order to do it.  Not the least of the reasons why we honor Mary is her willingness to put her very self in God’s hands: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
     Mary’s willingness to give up herself to be a part, perhaps the greatest (solely) human actor in God’s Great Drama of Salvation is the big picture; as is often the way, there’s a little picture, too, a way in which the Annunciation is reflected in our own lives.  God has a plan for all of us.  He imposes nothing, to paraphrase John Paul the Great, but always proposes (Redemptoris Missio).  He is constantly asking us to allow him in, to consent to serve him in ways big and small.  “Today if you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts” is one of the Lent antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours.  We all hear the voice of the Lord at some point, if we’re listening; let us all not harden our hearts, but rather let it be done to us according to his word.