Saturday, October 15, 2016

St. Antiochus of Lyons & the Will of God

Today the Church commemorates a truly great saint, St. Theresa of Avila.  A Doctor of the Church, she was at the same time one of the great mystical writers of all time and a hard-nosed pragmatist who, along with St. John of the Cross, led a much-need reform of the Carmelite order.  Her reform efforts were not welcome to everyone: she met strong, sometimes violent, resistance from her fellow Carmelites. We can all grow in Christ through her example of total surrender to our Lord, and it comes as no surprise that there are any number of beautifully written and insightful meditations on this amazing saint today.
    One disadvantage of the large shadow casts by giants of sanctity like St. Theresa, however, is that lesser-known saints who share the same day on the liturgical calendar can go unnoticed.  I’d like to look at one of these holy men and women, St. Antiochus of Lyons, whose feast we also celebrate on October 15th.
The sources I’ve been able to locate on St. Antiochus are brief, but tell an intriguing story.  He was a 5th century priest of Lyons, in what was then still called Gaul (the modern country of France).  The bishop of Lyons, St. Justus, abdicated his office and left for Egypt to become a hermit in the desert.  The people of Lyons sent Antiochus on the long journey to Egypt to persuade their holy shepherd to return to his flock.  Justus, apparently, was unwilling or unable to comply, and Antiochus returned home, an apparent failure.  The people of the diocese, however, recognizing that “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21) saw in the failure of Antiochus’ mission a gift as well: a new bishop.  They promptly chose Antiochus to replace the departed Justus as their spiritual father.  We are told that he went about his new office “with zeal and firmness” until he was called to his final reward.

Egyptian hermitage
    St. Antiochus, very much like St. Bridget of Sweden, is one of those saints who seems to have failed in his primary mission, only to discover that his failure there really served to prepare him for a success greater than he had dared to imagine. We learn from the lives of saints like Antiochus is that the path to sanctity lies not so much in our own efforts as it does in accepting the will of God.  Even more, the failure of these holy men and women here on earth reminds us that whatever we do accomplish, or fail to do, here only matters for a little while; our true mission is not only loving and serving God in this world, as the Baltimore Catechism puts it, but enjoying eternal happiness with him in the next.
Let us all prayer for the Grace to join St. Antiochus, St. Theresa of Avila, and all their fellow saints before the Throne of God.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Keep The "Hallowed" In Halloween

    Autumn has officially begun, and here in Northern New England you can feel and see it: cool days, cold nights, and bright flashes of colorful leaves set against deep blue skies.  Halloween might still be a few weeks away, but it sure feels like it’s almost here. In the retail stores, with a wide array of ghastly, ghoulish, and gory Halloween accessories on display, it looks like it.  Given that, it seems like a good time for a Halloween rant.

Jesus shows Satan who's boss: "The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain"
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
    Let me hasten to add that I am not anti-Halloween on principle; I have defended the holiday in the past against the spurious charge that it is merely a remnant of our dark, pre-Christian, pagan past.  We do need to remember that Halloween is really Christian in origin.  It is a way in which believers can mock death and “the principalities, the powers, the world rulers of this present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  In making sport of the spawn of Satan we celebrate Christ’s Victory over Death (1 Corinthians 15:55-58).  That is, if we truly acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
    Here, however, is where we start to run into trouble with Halloween celebrations: even if it is not a product of pre-Christian paganism, what is the role of the holiday in a post-Christian society, a society that does not acknowledge the Lordship of Christ?  I was reminded of the relevance of this question the other day when I was in one of the aforementioned retail stores. I overheard a little boy who was admiring the creepy Halloween paraphernalia observe that in their house Halloween was by far the most important holiday, an observation smilingly confirmed by his mother. I had to ask myself, what exactly was this family celebrating? After all, whatever its Christian origin, All Hallow’s Eve is a mere afterthought compared to the great feasts of Easter, Christmas, and Epiphany (and any number of lesser celebrations) that go straight to the heart of the Mystery of Christ.  Anybody who doesn’t bother with those is unlikely to be observing Halloween as any sort of Christian holy day.

"Haunted Doll" Halloween decoration from
    The little boy’s comment also ties in with something I’ve noticed more and more over the past few decades: as Christian belief and observance have declined, Halloween celebrations have become increasingly more elaborate, and correspondingly more macabre. We have forgotten Christ’s Victory, and so are left with only Death and Corruption, apparently unchallenged. A society that celebrates death and corruption for its own sake is, I submit, a society in deep trouble.
    As I said at the outset, I am not against Halloween per se, and I don’t advocate its abolition.  I do suggest that we who are Christians observe it in its proper context, including its original function as the prelude to All Saints Day (which is why, after all, it is called “Hallow’s Eve”).  You have no doubt heard in recent years calls to “Keep Christ in Christmas”; let’s also keep the Hallowed in Halloween.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Corpus Christi: To Whom Shall We Go?

"The Savior" by Juan de Juanes
    It’s so hard for us to fully accept that the Infinite God of the Universe could fully inhabit a human body, and be both True God and True Man. I’m reminded of how thorny a problem this is for us every year when I discuss the Christological Heresies with my adolescent religion students.  The Arians could accept the human Jesus, but not his Divinity; the Docetists had no problem with Christ the Son of God, but they were sure his Humanity was just a show; the Monophysites could understand that Jesus was both man and God, but insisted that he had only one, Divine, nature . . . and so on.  
    These and numerous other incomplete answers to the puzzle presented to our finite minds by the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity have been with us from the earliest days of the Church to the present day.  The Council of Chalcedon gave a definitive answer in A.D. 451, when it declared that Christ is

made known in two natures without confusion [i.e. mixture], without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon [person] and one hupostasis [subsistence]--not parted or divided into two prosopa[persons], but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.

    As hard as it is to accept that Jesus Christ is both fully God and a true man with a human body, however, we are asked to accept an even harder teaching: that the same body is truly present in the Eucharistic bread and wine offered up at every Mass.  Furthermore, as Christ Himself tells us,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (John 6:55-57)

Many of his disciples found this teaching too hard to accept, and went away.  Today’s Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ reminds, however, as Peter points out (John 6:68), that we have nowhere else to go, and only by eating the Body and Drinking the Blood of the God-Become-Man can we share in his eternal life.  
    There’s the wonder.  Christ has a human body, and so the Infinite God shares in our humanity; not only that, He shares that body with us in the Eucharist, and thereby lets us participate in His divinity.  No wonder we call it “Gospel”, that is, “Good News.” Yes, it is hard to believe, but, as today’s feast reminds us, it’s The Truth.

Links For The Week

I have been doing most of my blogging at Nisi Dominus lately.  This past week saw a couple of inspiring women who gave their lives for the faith, the final installment of my series on the Liturgy of the Hours, and more.  Please feel free to explore the links below:

Monday May 23rd: The power of Christian witness - “St. Julia of Corsica: A Saint For Our Time

Wednesday May 25th: We can find at least a few minutes during the day to pray with the whole Church - “Daytime Prayer Sanctifies Our Labors

Thursday May 26th: With a little help from (non-Catholic) authors Henry Adams and Ursula LeGuin we consider the Church’s power of endurance: “Those Who Love Him Will Follow His Commandments

The assault on the family is nothing new: “Blessed Margaret Pole, Martyr For Church And Marriage

A beautiful musical celebration of the True Presence: “William Byrds’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

We Won't Find God In A Test Tube

(An earlier version of the Throwback below titled "To Love God Is To Know Him" was first published 31 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)

How do we know He’s there?

     In our present skeptical age Christians are often asked: "How we can know that God is there?" What and how we know is, of course, the matter of epistemology and related branches of philosophy, and the vast majority of us don’t have the academic training to engage in high-powered epistemological debate.   Nonetheless, we all conduct our lives guided by things we know are true, and reject others as false, and we Christians stake everything on certain very definite truth claims.  How can we justify our confidence in Christian Truth in a clear but comprehensible way that does not require formal philosophical training?

How do we know at all?

Does "science" have all the answers?
    We need to start with the understanding that the prevailing world-view today, even among many people who don’t consciously embrace materialism, is materialistic.  It’s just assumed that we can only know about things that can be observed, measured, and be proven using what is commonly called “scientific” proof.  
     How does one respond to the common near deification of science?  I’ve discussed a number of approaches to this problem on previous occasions (see below); here’s a more comprehensive tack.  We can start by pointing out that the materialist argument above arbitrarily limits “knowledge” to a very narrow class of things.  There is no scientific proof, for instance, for justice (an example used by St. Augustine), or for love.  Nevertheless, even strict materialists can be certain that they know when justice has been done (some of them are particularly vocal about injustices that they are convinced have been committed by the Church), or when they are loved.  Scientific knowledge (knowledge about things) is what philosophers call “propositional knowledge”, but that doesn’t apply at all to an abstract reality such as love, which is a matter of “acquaintance knowledge”. The question, then, is whether knowledge of God is a question of propositional knowledge, or knowledge of another sort.
     Before moving on, it’s worth pointing out that even scientific knowledge is not as straightforward as it may seem.  People often say things like “Science tells us that . . .”, but “science” itself can “tell” us nothing: it is simply a method by which we, with our limited and fallible intellects, interpret the phenomena of the natural world. The accuracy of our interpretation can be limited by human factors such as our incomplete knowledge, limited powers of cognition . . . or attachment to sin.  And however carefully we have formed scientific propositions, they can only be considered knowledge when they have been confirmed by repeated experiment.  Even then, scientific “truths” can be displaced by newer discoveries.  Scientific knowledge, then, is very often more a matter of evidence than of iron-clad proof.

Proof, or Evidence?

"What proof do you have of this 'God' ?"
"Why, the heavens proclaim the Glory of God!"
     We also need to recall that there are different kinds of evidence.  For instance, how can we be sure enough to convict somebody of a crime, even condemn them to long imprisonment or death, without direct physical proof?  The answer, of course, is that the evidence of witnesses, if they are known to be reliable, can secure a conviction (and it’s hard to conceive of an adequate system of criminal justice that does not admit eye-witness testimony as evidence).  We can also make reasonable conclusions about something we can’t detect directly, based on its effects on things that we can apprehend (I discuss this kind of evidence at greater length in my post “A Dark Matter: ‘Proving’ God in a Materialist World”). 
    At this point, we can consider the question of how we can have knowledge of God.  If God is the creator of nature, he cannot be part of it, just as no matter how hard we look, we will not be able to find a painter inside his painting. God is therefore necessarily outside the scope of scientific inquiry, as he necessarily is not part of the natural worild (see “Looking For God In All The Wrong Places”).  We might expect, of course, to see evidence of the artist in his work (characteristic brush strokes, a certain use of light or color, etc.), which brings us to the other, indirect, kinds of evidence we looked at above. The first converts to Christianity, for example, were convinced by the eye-witness testimony of the Apostles and other Disciples who had known Jesus personally, and were convinced of these witnesses’ reliability both by their manifest integrity, and by their willingness to suffer excruciating deaths for the Gospel (the word “martyr” itself comes from the Greek word for “witness”).  Over the intervening centuries, countless others have been drawn to the Church by the testimony of Christian witnesses to the power of the Risen Christ (often, like the Apostles, witnessing with their lives: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, as Tertullian said).  Having accepted Christ, they see the fulfillment of his promises in their own lives, thus gaining experiential knowledge.
     We should also consider whether the Christian explanation fits reality better than the materialist one.  The better fit is more likely to be true (see "The Geometry of Faith").  Societies and individuals who embrace the Christian worldview tend to be more successful by any number of objective measures (see “What Would Darwin Do? Random Selection Favors Religion”).  The evidence shows that Christianity is more conducive to human flourishing, and so is more likely to be true.

God is Love

The Holy Trinity
   There are some genuinely scientific arguments that can play a supporting role (see Fr. Robert Spitzer's Magis Center), but we should avoid trying to rely on science to prove the existence of God (notice that the discussion of Dark Matter to which I link above is an analogy, not proof).  Theological truths, as we have seen, are simply beyond the scope of scientific inquiry and an argument based only on science is unlikely to be persuasive.  We should also want to avoid conceding the false (and unscientific premise) that "scientific" proof is the only proof.     

   Not that any purely intellectual argument is going convert many people. Let’s go back to our discussion above about kinds of knowledge.  As Christians we understand that God is a Trinity of Persons, that God is Love (1 John 4:8): knowledge of God, therefore,  is  “relational knowledge” , and we know him through the God/Man Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Father Larry Richards is known to wind up discussions of this sort by saying that he knows that God is there because he knows him.  For every one of us, that’s the only kind of “proof” that will lead to real faith.  We can show through our arguments that belief in God is reasonable, but we can only really “know” when we return his loving embrace.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Our Eternal Destiny: Armed Robbery, or A Warm Place By The Fire?

Today is Ascension Thursday; click here for my Ascension Thursday post on the blog Nisi Dominus. The throwback below, which first appeared on Nisi Dominus April 19th 2015, examines the (apparently) vexing question as to how Eternal Salvation differs from a mugging.. 

  Analogical thinking, it would appear, is a dying art.  I recently heard Catholic apologist and scholar Peter Kreeft on Catholic radio, and he was pointing out that brains which spend a lot of time interacting with video games and various other electronic devices simply don’t develop in the same way as those formed by extensive reading.  Among the those things that are undernourished are linear and analogical thinking.  Professor Kreeft has found that this makes it difficult to teach a subject like Theology that requires dealing with a lot of difficult and abstract ideas.

Is this your image of God?
     Over my own nearly 30 years of teaching high school students I’ve observed the same trend.  Fortunately, we still have a long way to go: while many people, especially young people, may not be as quick to grasp them as they might have been several decades ago, analogies are still the most effective way to communicate many ideas.  They have always been a preferred way of explaining Christian Doctrine: think of the parables of Jesus, or St. Paul's comparison in 1st Corinthians of the Church to a body, with all the members working together at their own assigned tasks; not only that, but one of the four traditional Levels of Meaning in scripture, the Allegorical, relies very heavily on analogical thinking.  Analogy is often the only reliable way for us who are composed of both spirit and matter to understand spiritual realities.
     Not surprisingly, analogies are also an essential tool in any dialogue with atheists and agnostics.  I recently became aware of the following analogy, which is appears to be in vogue in atheist circles: God, as we Christians envision Him, is like an armed robber with a gun to our heads, and he is offering a choice between giving him all our money (i.e., living according to the Gospel and spending eternity in Heaven), or having our brains blown out (which is spending eternity in Hell).
     Now, clearly, there are some very obvious problems with this analogy.  The vast majority of people, even many non-Christians, will have a hard time seeing going to Heaven as equivalent to getting mugged, even if we accept the premise that living a Christian life “robs” us of pleasures we might otherwise enjoy: Heaven promises something infinitely better than anything available here, whereas an armed robber does not even pretend to make our life better than it was before we met him.  And of course there is quite a lot of secular, sociological evidence that following God’s law actually makes us happier in the here-and-now.  Also, the robber analogy depicts Hell as something that God imposes on us, in which we take no initiative at all, when in fact the Catholic conception of Hell is that it is something that we choose for ourselves, contrary to God’s wish, by our rejection of his freely offered love.

Wouldn't you rather be inside?
     I propose a better analogy to communicate the eternal choice which God presents to us.  Imagine that we are standing outdoors on a cold, rainy night.  Somebody opens a door and invites us to come inside with them, where it is warm and dry (although, of course, we need to take off our wet muddy boots and our wet, dripping coats).  That’s God’s offer of eternal salvation.  We can say yes, although we are equally free to say no.  In fact, we can say “No, you can’t tell me what to do! Besides, can you prove it’s really warm and dry in there before I go in?”  and remain out in cold, wet darkness.  That’s Hell, the product of nothing but our own pride and stubbornness.

     The second analogy presents a much more accurate image of the Catholic view of our eternal destiny.  Not only that, when juxtaposed to the “armed robber” scenario, it also casts light behind it, as it were, giving observers a vivid illustration of the different worldviews that have generated each analogy: the atheist worldview which is concerned with power, force, and will, and in which one party must be the loser, and the Christian perspective, which envisions a reality in which love can triumph, and everyone can win.  Which is likely to appeal to more people in the end?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Charpentier's Te Deum - Praise the Lord!

     Last week I posted a clip of Haydn's Te Deum [here] on the Blog Nisi Dominus.  Many other composers before and since have written beautiful musical settings for this ancient hymn of praise, which probably dates back to the 4th century A.D.  
     One of the best known setting is a motet (clip below) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, composed a century before Haydn's piece.  Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the prelude to Charpentier's Te Deum is well known, as it has been used extensively by the European Broadcasting Union as intro music to broadcasts such as the Eurovision Song Contest for many decades, and has been part of several movie soundtracks.  As we are now celebrating the Resurrection of Christ during this joyful Season of Easter, I think it's a good time to hear this magnificent musical prayer in its entirety.  The Lord is truly risen, allelujah!

Te Deum laudamus:
te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur.Tibi omnes Angeli;
tibi caeli et universae Potestates;
Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim
incessabili voce proclamant:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra
majestatis gloriae tuae.
Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus,
Te Prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.
Te per orbem terrarum
sancta confitetur Ecclesia,
Patrem immensae majestatis:
Venerandum tuum verum et unicum Filium;
Sanctum quoque Paraclitum Spiritum.
Tu Rex gloriae, Christe.
Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.
Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum.
Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes, in gloria Patris.
Judex crederis esse venturus.
You O God, we praise:
You, Lord, we acknowledge to be.
You are the eternal Father.
All the earth venerates you.To you all Angels;
to you the heavens and all the Powers.
To you Cherubim and Seraphim
with unending voice proclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Sabaoth.
Full are heaven and earth
with the majesty of your glory.
You the glorious chorus of Apostles (praise),
You the praiseworthy number of the Prophets (praise),
You the white-clothed army of Martyrs praise.
You throughout all the world
are acknowledged by the holy Church,
Father of immense Majesty:
Who is to be worshiped, your true and only Son;
Also the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
You are the King of Glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.
When you took upon yourself to deliver man,
you did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
You, by overcoming the sting of death,
opened to all believers the Kingdom of Heaven.
You sit at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
Our Judge we believe that you will come to be.
Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni:
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti.
To you therefore we ask you, help your servants:
whom you have redeemed with your precious blood.
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria
[added later, adapted from Psalm
Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine,
et benedic hereditati tuae.
Et rege eos, et extolle illos usque in aeternum.
Per singulos dies benedicimus te;
Et laudamus Nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi.
Dignare, Domine, die isto sine peccato nos custodire.
Miserere nostri Domine, miserere nostri.
Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,
quemadmodum speravimus in te.
In eternity with your saints make them in
glory to be numbered.
[added later, adapted from Psalm
Save your people, Lord,
and bless your heritage.
And rule them, and lift them up for ever.
Every day we bless you;
And we worship your Name forever, and forever for all ages.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, this day without sin to keep us.
Have mercy upon us, our Lord, have mercy upon us.
Let your mercy be upon us, O Lord,  since we have
trusted in you.
In te, Domine, speravi:
non confundar in aeternum.
In you, O Lord, I have trusted:
may I not be confounded forever

Sunday, May 1, 2016

St. Joseph the Worker - The Laborer Is More Than His Work

     They say that necessity is the mother of invention but, as today's feast of St. Joseph the Worker shows us, sometimes measures taken for practical purposes can point to deeper truths.

Holy Family Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier
     St. Joseph the Worker is a very recent addition to the liturgical calendar. Pope Pius XII, who wanted to present a Catholic alternative to the Communist celebration of May Day, instituted it in 1955.  Who better to counter the self-proclaimed "vanguard of the workers" than a great Saint who was also a laborer, a man known for his patience and perseverance, but also his piety?  As such, St. Joseph is also the ideal embodiment of the Dignity of Work.  He shows us that work is not simply something we do to survive, or that connects us to a certain economic class, but is an essential part of our humanity, a way in which we act, at least in a small way, as co-creators with God (see St. John Paul II's Laborem Exercens).
     At the same time, we can see that while a worker may be honored for his work, he is not defined by it.  Here the Catholic view stands in sharp contrast to the outlook of Marxism, where a working person's primary identification is with his class, and he finds meaning by working toward the "workers' paradise" of a fully communist society; since the realization of the workers' aspirations is the Greatest Good in this worldview, those who are seen as obstacles (such as members of the Capitalist Class) deserve to be extirpated.  Western market-driven societies have their own false anthropology in the phenomenon of the workaholic, whose whole life centers on his career, and who sees no meaning beyond it.  
     Christians, however, see our primary identification as adopted sons an daughters of God: equal in dignity (regardless of externals such as class, sex, race, etc.), called to love, and all of us part of the One Body of Christ.
     Now look at St. Joseph.  There have probably been carpenters more skillful than Joseph, or more productive, but none of them have feast days. We honor him today in his role of worker, but that's not why he is a Saint.  He's a Saint, and a great Saint, because he cooperated in God's great work of salvation.  Today's feast reminds us that we can all aspire to sanctity, even humble laborers, and that whoever we are, and whatever we do in this world, what we do for the Kingdom of God and who we are in the eyes of the Father is what matters in the end. 

(See also: "Fighting Dragons, Inside And Out" on Nisi Dominus)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is The Catholic Church A Political Animal?

   Right now we are in the midst of an unusually rambunctious presidential election here in the United States. It seems a good time to revisit this Throwback to April 15th 2015 (first published on the blog Nisi Dominus), which looks at the difference between secular politics and "politics" within the Church.

   You’re going to find politics wherever people gather, or so someone once told me when I had objected to using the secular political terms “liberal” and “conservative” to describe different factions within the Catholic Church.  And he was right, if by “politics” we mean the small-p wrangling that unavoidably accompanies any human enterprise requiring two or more people.  But that is a very different thing from Politics, of the partisan variety.  The Church is not a political party, and does not work like a political party.  Nor should it.

Synod on the Family October 2015 (photo: Vatican Radio News)

     That may seem an obvious point to you and to me, but it’s not at all obvious to everybody.  It’s a distinction lost on a large number of people outside of the Church for instance, for many of whom politics has taken the place of religion, and so has become the lens through which they interpret everything. Many such people have come to dominate the secular media in the developed world, with the result that the mass media projects the secular political model onto the Church, with bad guys called conservatives working to thwart the good guys, the liberals (sometimes referred to as progressives), who are fighting to bring about a kinder, better Catholic Church more in step with The Times.  This is the only model of the inner-workings of the Church most people see, including most ordinary Catholics, unless they intentionally seek out Catholic publications which reject this distorted view (sadly, many self-identified Catholic outlets do not).
     That is not to say that there isn’t a wide range of legitimate differences of opinion within the Church; there most certainly is.  Unlike a political party, however, where major policy planks can change overnight with a vote of the membership (and why not? They’re only opinions), there are many things in the Church which are grounded in Divine Revelation, and are therefore not up for negotiation.  This vital distinction was expressed very clearly by then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in 2004.  Senator John Kerry, the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States, was widely criticized for receiving communion and touting his Catholic bona fides despite his open advocacy for legal abortion and other positions contrary to Catholic moral teaching.  Accordingly, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter (later published by the Holy See under the title “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”) to Kerry’s ordinary, then Archbishop of Washington, D.C. Theodore McCarrick,  which gives an excellent example of how the Church is different from a political party.  For instance, Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
     This crucial difference can be obscured by applying secular political terms to church “politics”.  Political parties often change even basic positions, and this is sometimes a good thing: consider that, when I was a child, many prominent leaders in the Democratic Party in the United States were unapologetic White Supremacists and segregationists. Such a position would be unthinkable today, and yet nobody doubts that the Democratic Party is still the Democratic Party.  Using the political analogy can create the impression that proposed changes in the Church are benign or even desirable changes of the same sort.The difference between abortion and euthanasia on the one hand and war and capital punishment on the other is that the Church has always taught that the first two are intrinsically evil, and so never permissible; this teaching is part of the deposit of faith and cannot change, and to publicly oppose it is to separate oneself from the Church (hence the unworthiness to receive communion).  In the case of war and capital punishment, the Church has taught that, in some instances, they may be morally licit, a teaching that likewise cannot change.  While there are certain moral principles that bind a Catholic here (e.g., the Just War Doctrine), the actual application of these principles belongs to the prudential judgment of individual Catholic decision makers.  It is in matters of prudential judgment that legitimate differences of opinion may arise.

     Many so-called liberals in the Church today, however, are not advocating simply the more “liberal” application of unchanging principles in prudential situations, but are pushing for changing more foundational things like the teaching on marriage, the meaning of priesthood, sexual morality, etc.  The Catholic Church, however, can’t change its teachings and still remain the Catholic Church. One can usually make a case for being either a conservative or a liberal in political matters, but when it comes to Church Doctrine, we can only be Catholic . . . or Not. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sins Of The Fathers . . . And Of Kings

(This Throwback was first published 24 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)

  530 years is a long, long time to wait.  Thursday [March 26th 2015] England’s King Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle, and one of the last English kings to die a Catholic, will, finally, receive a Christian burial.  Not a Catholic funeral, unfortunately, but his interment in the Anglican Cathedral of Leicester will be a great improvement over the hasty, unmarked burying of his desecrated corpse after the Battle of Bosworth Field 530 years ago.

Richard III
     Richard remains one of the most controversial of British kings.  He assumed the throne when his twelve-year-old nephew Edward V was declared illegitimate by Parliament. Edward and his younger brother Richard were sent to live in the Tower in London (which was not yet used exclusively as a prison), and their uncle became King Richard III.  The two boys disappeared from public view and just two years after his accession Richard was deposed by Henry Tudor, who then became Henry VII.  Richard has been suspected of having the “little princes” murdered  ever since, although historians today (for instance, Paul Murray Kendall) acknowledge that there is no evidence that he had anything to do with their deaths, and that Henry Tudor had far more motive to kill them than Richard did.*
     As interesting as it would be to speculate on the probable guilt of the various parties involved (and of course it would be), that’s not the purpose of this blog.  Instead, I’d like to focus on what can happen when we let desires untamed by a properly formed conscience have free rein.  The connection here is that Henry VII, who drove Richard from the throne, in time bequeathed the throne to his son Henry VIII, who separated the English Church from the Universal Church and made himself its head.  Henry’s action had profound consequences, and not only the destruction of Catholic culture and a century and a half of strife and bloodshed in England (which was, in itself, more than enough).  Some historians (such as Warren Carroll)  believe that the separation of the English Church went a long way towards ensuring that the Protestant Reformation became a permanent feature of religious life in Europe, and did not remain a largely German affair.  In later years, the spread of the British Empire ensured that the split in the Latin Church was spread over the whole globe.

Henry VIII
    And all because of Henry VIII’s wandering eye.  He did not set up his own church for theological reasons (he never considered himself a Protestant), nor was he compelled by a groundswell of anti-Catholic feeling in England.  Rather, he was motivated by his failure to produce a male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon, coupled with an ardent desire to indulge in a more intimate relationship with one of Catherine’s ladies, Anne Boleyn.  Anne’s price for returning the king’s affections was that she be allowed to take Catherine’s place.  Since the Pope was unwilling to grant Henry an annulment, the English monarch simply made himself the pope of England, and, as far as he was concerned, the problem was solved.  While it is possible that a Plantagenet descendant of Richard III, had he ruled instead of Henry, might also have split with Rome, it seems much less likely, since the actual break was not precipitated by external forces, but was closely tied to Henry’s character.
     However decisive Henry VIII’s libido might have been for the creation of the Anglican Church, however, there would have been no Henry VIII to have caused the split had it not been for another king’s lust.  That king is Richard III’s elder brother, Edward IV, father of the little princes who were allegedly murdered in the Tower of London.  Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a sudden and inadvisable match, came as a surprise to his family and advisors; he married her not because it was an appropriate marriage for an English monarch but because, as with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII a couple generations later, it was her price for returning the king’s affections. Elizabeth brought her family with her, of course, whose ambitions after Edward’s death were so alarming that many nobles and Parliament called upon the late king’s brother   Richard to serve as protector of the young Edward V and his brother.  Soon it seemed expedient to remove the twelve-year-old king altogether in favor of his grown-up and capable uncle, especially after another sexual indiscretion of Edward IV’s came to light which allowed Parliament to declare Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville null, and the boy-king illegitimate.  In other words, Edward’s lust-driven behavior in one instance created the unstable situation that made the deposition of his son desirable, and his libidinous behavior in another instance provided the grounds to do so.  Consequences of these indiscretions can still be seen around the globe more than half a millennium later.

The Marriage of Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville

     Few of us, of course, can expect our misdeeds to have anywhere near the impact of those of Edward IV or Henry VIII.  Nonetheless we can see, as Scripture tells us, how “the iniquity of fathers” is visited “upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation” (Numbers, 14:18). Indeed, for centuries.  The point is, we have no way to predict how far-reaching the consequences of our own sins will be, and how long they’ll last.  As we’ve seen, one of the greatest contributors to poverty and other social ills today is the break-down of sexual morality (see “Where Have All The Fathers Gone”). The next time we are tempted, we might do well to remember what happened when Edward and Henry went astray.

*In brief, while Richard might fear that the princes could become a rallying point for those disaffected with his rule, they had been formally removed from the succession by act of Parliament, and he had been legally crowned.  Henry, on the other hand, came from a line that had been exc luded from the succession generations earlier by Henry IV.  He needed both Richard and the princes dead, because the justification for his rebellion was that Richard was a usurper: if so, then Edward V, and not Henry Tudor, was the rightful king; if not, then Richard III was the rightful king, and Henry simply a traitor.  Either way, no Henry VII.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Hallelujah" from Beethoven's Christ On The Mount Of Olives

the young Beethoven, by Joseph Willibrord Maehler
   The composer Beethoven was born into a Catholic family, but does not seem to have been devout as an adult.  It is known that he did not attend Mass regularly, and scholars are reluctant to assign to him any religious affiliation at all.  At the same time, it is also clear from his letters and his few religious compositions that, in his stubborn and idiosyncratic way, he retained a strong belief in God and His Providence.
Beethoven’s best-known and by far most successful religious composition is the Missa Sollemnis, which he completed just a few years before his death.  He did make other forays into sacred music earlier in his career, however.  In 1802, for instance, he produced the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, a revision of which he published in 1811.  The dramatic action of the piece focuses on Christ’s “Agony in the Garden” after the last supper, shortly before his arrest.  Beethoven’s piece reaches its climax not with the Resurrection, but at the moment in which Jesus decisively sets aside his human fears and says, “Not my will, but Yours!”
Christ on the Mount of Olives was not one of Beethoven’s more successful endeavors.  The composer himself was sharply critical of Franz Xaver Huber’s libretto; critics did not consider most of the music up to Beethoven’s usual standards.  The oratorio as a whole has not been performed as often as many other Beethoven pieces over the past two centuries, except for one passage: the triumphant “Hallelujah” that rings out at Our Lord’s moment of decision.  It’s a glorious musical acknowledgment of Christ’s self-sacrificing act of redemption, and a glorious way to celebrate the Easter Season.