Sunday, January 31, 2016

Laudamus Te - Antonio Vivaldi

What a joyful song of praise! "Laudamus Te" from a Gloria by the incomparable Antonio Vivaldi.  Next Sunday is the last before we put on the more somber garb of the Season of Lent, so let's enjoy it while we can!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Merton's Parable: Christ Is The Only Sure Foundation

An earlier version of the this Throwback post entitled "Merton's Tale of the Trappists vs. the Icarians" was published on February 13th, 2015

Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey
A  piece by Carl Olsen at Catholic World Report (“More on Merton”) brings to mind one of the more interesting and controversial Catholic figures of the Twentieth Century:  Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton.  The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he published in 1948, is the beautifully written and compelling story of his conversion to Christ and to Catholicism.  He was not without his failings, however, some of them rather serious. Not only that, but toward the end of his life in the mid to late 1960’s he became increasingly enamored of Zen Buddhism, and it was not clear that he could still be truly considered a Catholic at the time of his unexpected death in Thailand in 1968.

The Founding    

      Prior to his later turn toward Buddhism, however, most of Merton’s writing was thoroughly Catholic and often inspirational.  One of my favorite pieces, from his 1949 book The Waters of Siloe, is his account of the founding of the monastery in which he was living, Gethsemani Abbey, which had been established in Kentucky by French monks a century earlier.  The tale starts with the departure of the founding monks, in the dead of night in the pouring rain, from their monastery in France; it details their many adventures in getting to, and then across, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally their arrival at their new home in the rolling Kentucky hills.
     I had at one time hoped to write a children's book drawing on Merton’s story (which is itself based on a contemporary account in the monastery’s records).  My own kids liked the idea, but, sadly, the late monk’s  literary trustees did not share our enthusiasm for the project, so it was not be.  Too bad.
     Nonetheless, it’s worth reading Merton’s version of the story.  He has a wonderful way with a narrative, and makes the most of some of the amusing twists in the story, as when the reclusive Trappists lose their luggage in the worldly sprawl of Paris, or when (again in the pouring rain) the “Silent Monks” need to find a way to wake up the Jesuits under whose roof they were planning to spend their first night on their arrival in Kentucky. 

The Parable of the Icarians

Gethsemani Abbey as it looked during
Merton's residence in the 1950's
     What most strikes me in Merton’s story, however, is a little parable which he weaves into the larger narrative.  As it happens, among the other passengers on the ship that carries the Trappists to America  are members of a secular communal group called the Icarians.  Merton doesn’t miss an opportunity to contrast the peace and order of the Trappists, whose little society is founded on Jesus Christ, with the Icarians, who follow the ideas of the socialist utopian Etienne Cabet: the trappists feed the other travelers, including the Icarians, from their mobile kitchen, while the Icarians prohibit their members from taking spiritual sustenance at the monks’ masses; the Trappists “owned all their property in common.  They were, in fact, vowed to the most uncompromising poverty, forbidden to possess anything as individuals,” whereas when the Icarians decide to divide up their wealth one member attempts to make off with all of it and another “wrote a letter of delirious invective against Cabet and then blew out his brains.”  The Trappist superior is shocked when one Icarian, who had fallen overboard, confided that he was prepared to stab himself to death rather than drown if nobody came to save him; later, the monk is bemused to discover that another Icarian, who is asking to join the Trappists, is in fact a married man.
     Merton himself explains the difference between the two groups as follows:

. . . the monks had Christ living and working in them by faith, by charity.  The monks were united by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God, which tames and dominates and sublimates man’s nature and ordains it to the highest possible ends.  But the Icarians were united only by the frail bonds of an “armed neutrality” of insatiable animal appetites.

     Merton’s thesis is a simple one (which I address from a somewhat different angle in my recent  post :"What Would Darwin Do? Random Selection Favors Religion"): Jesus Christ is the foundation of all truth, and a society built on Christ will be orderly and flourishing; a society that relies exclusively on human wisdom is doomed to futility and disintegration.  The Icarians (who were actually more successful than most such groups: their last community didn’t disband until 1898, fifty years after they began) are neither the first nor the last example history offers.  Merton saw it himself in his own history, in the contrast between the disorder and unhappiness of his early, worldly, life, and the joy that he found in the Christ-centered world of the monastery (and one hopes he found his way back to the Lord before the final end).  His tale of the Trappists and the Icarians is just one more illustration that only the house built on the Rock (see Matthew 7:25) will stand.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Please also see "St. Thomas Aquinas And Conscience: A Sin Is Still A Sin" HERE at Nisi Dominus

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Saints - All That Matters In The End

St. Francis De Sales

Christ established his Church almost two thousand years ago.  The last two millennia have been filled with countless holy people, many of whom we honor with a feast day on the Liturgical Calendar.  Today, for example, is the feast day of well-known and well-loved saint, St. Francis De Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church.  St. Francis, who died almost four centuries ago, was ahead of his time in his concern for the devotional life of laypeople. I'll have more to say about this wonderful Saint in the future.
    Today we also honor some less well known saints. For instance, we find the following in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

St. Macedonius: Hermit of Syria, called Kritophagus, the barley-eater. He lived forty years on barley moistened in water, till finding his health impaired, he ate bread, reflecting that it was not lawful for him to shorten his life to shun labours and conflicts, as he told the mother of Theodoret; persuading her, when in a bad state of health, to use proper food, which he said was physic to her. Theodoret relates many miraculous cures of sick persons, and of his own mother among them, by water on which he had made the sign of the cross, and that his own birth was the effect of his prayers, after his mother had lived childless in marriage thirteen years. The saint died, ninety years old, and is named in the Greek menologies.

St. Macedonius may not be as well known as St. Francis de Sales, especially not in the western Church, but important details of his life have been preserved.  We can see that his story shows us a model of holiness, but also provides a salutary lesson about the importance of respecting the physical bodies God gave us, and also about the efficacy of prayer.
    In some cases, however, we know little beyond the names of some of the holy men and women who appear on the liturgical calendar.  Today, for instance, we also honor:

St. Mardonius: Martyr of Asia Minor with Eugene, Metellus, and Musonius, burned at the stake at an unknown location. (from

That's pretty scanty compared to what we know about St. Francis de Sales, or even St. Macedonius, but it is more than we know about Saints Thyrsus and Projectus.  Their biography at Catholic Online [here] is rather brief; it reads, in full:

Martyrs of an unknown year and location. Their Acts [i.e., histories] are no longer extant.

That’s it.  We don’t know when they lived, where they lived, or what they did. All we know is that they are Saints . . . which is really all that matters in the end.  St. Paul says:

. . . Run so as to win.  Every athlete exercises discipline in every way.  They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)

That crown is the crown of sanctity. We are all called to be Saints with God in Heaven, but we can’t all be a St. Francis De Sales, of even a Saint Projectus or Thyrsus.  Most of us, even if we persevere to the end, will be just like the vast majority of saintly Christians through the centuries, forgotten a few generations after our passing from this world.  All the things that seem so important to us today will likewise have disappeared.  And that’s fine, because there’s only one thing that ultimately matters, that eternally matters: that, by the Grace of God, we be Saints.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Abortion Myth # 13

I'm re-posting "Abortion Myth # 13" today on the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, which made abortion-on-demand the de facto law of the land.  Legal abortion is often presented by its supporters as necessary for women's rights; that claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny:

MYTH: "Legalized abortion is necessary for the protection of women’s rights."

TRUTH: Abortion demeans and exploits women.

-Pregnancy is a natural, healthy state for women; it is the most significant difference between women and men.  Treating pregnancy like a disease implies that there’s something wrong with the nature of women's bodies and therefore with simply being a woman.  The group Feminists for Life says in their Debate Handbook:

When women feel that a pregnant body is a body out of control, deviant, diseased, they are internalizing attitudes of low self-esteem toward the female body.  These attitudes contradict the rightful feminist affirmation of pregnancy as a natural bodily function which deserves societal respect and accommodation.

-It is also natural for women to want to protect and nurture their children; to destroy their own children when they are most in need of protection violates an essential part of women's nature.

Mother and Child, by Frederic Leighton

-Abortion denies the most basic right, the right to life, to hundreds of thousands of unborn women every year.

-Most women who abort do so because they believe they have no choice: many are coerced, and they are often abused and threatened with violence, with loss of employment or educational opportunities, or with other adverse consequences if they don’t abort (see ). Shouldn't we protect a woman's right not to be forced to kill her own children?

-Legalized abortion empowers irresponsible men, because it enables them to exploit women sexually without having to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood.

-Pro-abortion activists fight strenuously at every turn against laws requiring women be given information about abortion and its alternatives.  What about women's right to make informed choices?

-The original feminists (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, for instance) opposed abortion on the grounds that abortion was a crime against women as well as their children.  Alice Paul said “Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.”


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Choice" And The Father Of Lies (Worth Revisiting)

Friday of this week, January 22nd, will be the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, which voided the abortion laws of all 50 states. In light of that, I'm re-publishing this Worth Revisiting post from January 23rd of last year. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

"He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44)

The March For Life In Washington, January 22nd, 2015 (Washington Times Photo)

The Father of Lies

     As we mark the ugly anniversary of Roe vs. Wade this week, it is only appropriate that we take a look at “Old Scratch” himself, the Devil.  In John’s Gospel our Lord tells us everything we need to know about the Devil: “He was a murderer from the beginning”, and “He is a liar, the father of lies”.  And what is his first lie, the Big Lie that is still his primary murder weapon? “You will not die . . . you will be like God, knowing good and evil”. (Genesis 3:4-5)  There will be no eternal consequences, Satan tells us, we can decide for ourselves what is good and evil, we are gods.  For this reason he is called “the Devil”, from the Greek διάβολος (diabolos), which means “slanderer, perjurer, false accuser, and can also mean “deceiver, one who misleads”.  It derives from the verb διαβάλλω (diaballo), whose original meaning is “drive through”, or destroy.  Satan seeks to destroy us, eternally, by using falsehood and deception to separate us from God.

A Unique Set of Prayers

     I got to thinking about all this the other day due to a comment from my Lovely Bride.  She had just run across this article [here] from the National Right To Life News, detailing certain pro-abortion "prayers" that are being circulated by our old friends at Planned Parenthood, and she couldn’t help but think of the observation of C.S. Lewis (and many others) to the effect that Satan can’t create anything on his own, all he can do is mock and falsify God’s creation.  I think she has a point.  PP calls their campaign by the inelegant title “40 Days of Prayer For Women Everywhere”, an obvious mockery of 40 Days For Life.  Here is a sample of a few of the Planned Parenthood “prayers”, from the NRTL News article:

     “We give thanks for the doctors who provide quality abortion care"
     “We pray for a cloud of gentleness to surround every abortion facility.”
     “We pray for all the staff at abortion clinics around the nation.  May they be daily            confirmed in the sacred care that they offer women.”
     “We give thanks for abortion escorts who guide women safely through the hostile gauntlet of protesters.”
     “We pray for women who have been made afraid of their own power [of choice, i.e.      abortion] by their religion.  May they learn to reject fear and live bravely.”

National Right To Life News notes that these “prayers” were composed by a group calling itself “Faith Aloud”, and that “Infamous late term abortionist Dr. Leroy Carhart is a member of the board.”

"To Whom It May Concern . . ."

     My first reaction on reading this was: do these people really believe that God will surround their butchery of unborn babies made in His image and likeness with “a cloud of gentleness”? That this butchery could be in any sense called “sacred care”? That the Lord would smile upon their request to separate women from their (most often Christian) religion?  Well, maybe they don't, because these petitions are not actually addressed to God, or to anyone else for that matter.  Is it due to a lack of faith, or perhaps a realization that a just and loving God would not be likely to answer prayers such as these? Whatever the case may be,  these are the same people who mocked the words of the Heavenly Host with “Choice on Earth” Christmas cards (in Planned Parenthood newspeak, “choice” always means “abortion”); these are the same people who thought it a generous gesture after the terrorist attack on 9/11 to offer free abortions to pregnant widows of men who died in the World Trade Towers.  This macabre mockery of religious faith has been a part of the pro-abortion industry/movement for a long time, and it isn’t limited to that movement’s flagship enterprise: immediately after the Roe decision in 1973 a group calling itself the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) was founded, which soon, recognizing that the truth in this case was a rather unlovely thing, removed the explicit reference to abortion and changed their name to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  And the ugly truth about abortion is the reason for the euphemisms and the bizarre, phony prayers: if they’re honest, they lose, and so they must pretend to be something they’re not.

Spiritual Hosts of Wickedness in Heavenly Places


The Anti-Christ taking orders from his boss
So how do we go about combating the Powers of Darkness?  St. Paul tells us to take on “the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13)  and “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18) “that utterance may be given me in boldly proclaiming the Gospel” (Ephesians 6:19).       So, let’s see now, lies, mockery of God and sacred things, death; who does that sound like? Could it be…? Yes, you know where this is going.  Now, I’m not saying that the people at PP and their fellow travelers in the abortion industrial complex are Satans themselves: I’m willing to believe that most of them think they’re doing the right thing, and that they’re on the side of the angels.  The problem is, they are on the side of the fallen angels, whose army is commanded by the father of lies himself.  I am again reminded of the words of St. Paul: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the  powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly place” (Ephesians 6:12). 

     The battle agains the Spiritual Hosts of Wickedness, then, calls for a two-pronged strategy: first prayer and reliance on God, next a bold proclamation of the truth.  That’s why, before the March for Life in Washington and our local marches, we attend Mass or a prayer service.  We need to remember that, and remember that this isn’t simply a matter of politics, it’s a matter of Good and Evil, the God of Truth and the father of lies.  Let’s make sure we stay on the right side.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

St. Vitalis, Love & Human Traffficking

When a man dies, his life is revealed.
Call no man happy before his death,
for by how he ends a man is known.  (Sirach 11:27-28)

Back when I was new to the world of bloggery I published a post on St. Julia of Corsica which I called "St. Julia of Corsica - A Saint For Our Times." And, of course, she was a timely Saint. Interestingly, every time I write about another Saint, I find myself wanting to title the post the same way: "St. [Fill In The Blank], A Saint For Our Time", or " . . . A Saint For Today". It stands to reason, because sanctity, a reflection of the Eternal God, has a universal quality about it; every Saint has something that every one of us hoping to rest their heart in the Lord wants to find. At the same time, every Saint is a distinct individual, and sometimes by identifying with some of the unique aspects of a particular Saint's life, their sanctity seems a little less remote, and therefore a little more attainable, for ourselves. For just that reason we have Patron Saints and devotions to particular Saints.
It is also true that the unique stories of particular Saints illuminate specific problems or issues that are still with us today (which is another reason why we have Patron Saints). For instance, earlier this week (January 11th; the scripture quote above is from the same day's Office of Readings) we commemorated St. Vitalis of Gaza, who is venerated both in the Orthodox Churches and in the Catholic Church as the Patron Saint of both day laborers and "ladies of the night" (that is, handy-men and prostitutes: the reasons for both will be made clear below).  His hagiography [Here and Here] tells us that, around 625 A.D.,  when he was already advanced in years, he came to Alexandria in order to minister to the prostitutes.  His method, as described in the brief biography on, was as follows:

[A]fter obtaining the name and address of every prostitute in the city, he hired himself out as a day laborer, and took his wage to one of these women at the end of the day. He then would teach her about her dignity and value as a woman and that she did not deserve to be used by men as an object of their lust.

He followed the same routine every day, and he succeeded in rescuing a large number of women in this way.  Many fellow Christians misunderstood his motives, however, as he insisted that the women he helped not tell anybody about his role in their conversion, or the real reason for his nocturnal visits (presumably because these women - and their handlers - only let him in because they believed the he was a paying “customer": if they knew what he really wanted, they would have barred the door . . . or worse).  One righteously indignant young Christian, assuming the worst about Vitalis, struck him a blow to the head that resulted in his death.  Only then, freed from their promises of silence, were the women he had helped to save able to clear his name by their testimony.  
   There are a number of compelling angles to the story of St. Vitalis.  One is that yet again we have confirmation that “there is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  The scourge of prostitution is still very much with us and, as St. Vitalis understood fourteen centuries ago, it is a vicious form of exploitation that not only enslaves the body but sickens the soul.  Despite the push in some quarters today to whitewash prostitution with terms like “sex workers”, it is becoming more commonly recognized for the evil it is, and included under the broader heading of “human trafficking” (slavery, in other words).  Nonetheless, not only is prostitution still with us, but it is in fact worse, and more pervasive, than most of us realize.  I recently had the opportunity to hear a talk by Darlene Pawlik, now a pro-life and anti-trafficking activist, but formerly an exploited teen who was first “trafficked” on her 14th birthday and who remained under the control of various traffickers for the next several years . . . all right here in United States.  She was eventually saved by turning to Christ, and with the help of Christians who, like St. Vitalis, made it their mission to reach out to the victims of the “sex trade”.  There are in fact many groups today that similarly follow in the footsteps of St. Vitalis, both among Catholics and other Christians as well.


    Another point that stands out in the mission of St. Vitalis is his desire to save one soul at a time, like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable (see Luke 15:4) who leaves behind the 99 sheep to recover the one who is lost.  St. Vitalis treated each woman as an individual, and talked to her about her life, and the salvation of her own soul.  He treated each prostitute as a thinking, feeling child of God instead of an object to be used, and he was therefore able to offer real Love, as opposed to the tawdry simulacrum of love they were used to dealing in.  I can't help but think, in a way, of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who also insisted on treating each human being like, well, a human being. Secular leftists such as the late Christopher Hitchens have criticized her for being an ineffectual sentimentalist: she should have been addressing "The Real Causes" of poverty (capitalism, inequality, etc.) instead of “merely” comforting the poorest of the poor in their distress.  There is certainly a place governmental and political action, but as Mother Theresa understood, laws can't save souls, and Christ didn’t suffer and die to save us from abstractions, or to establish a perfect political or economic system: he came to save us from sin, through the great outpouring of  His Divine Love on The Cross.
    His Love is still the only thing that can save us from sin.  That’s why so many of us have come to conversion through the example of others, or because of the loving attention of a Christian who, like Christ Himself, showed an interest in us, not as a means to an end, but simply for our own good.  Not all of us are called to start seeking out prostitutes, of course; as the death of St. Vitalis shows, that was and remains a risky undertaking, for a number of reasons.  We can, however, offer material assistance to those who are willing and able to take the risks (perhaps some of the groups linked above), and offer our prayers for their safety and success, and also for the salvation of the exploited women (and men) they seek to help.  We should certainly support appropriate laws to thwart traffickers and to help their victims. Finally, we can work and pray for our own continued conversion, that we recognize the seriousness of sexual sin, and how permissiveness in this area can help create an environment in which a soul-killing evil like the “sex trade” can flourish.*

St. Vitalis of Gaza, pray for us, and for all victims of human trafficking.

* I intend to address this last point in more detail in another post in the near future.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Truth Is Our Ally In The Fight For Human Life

     “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.”  Thus spake Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority in the U.S, Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in January, 1973, the 43rd anniversary of which will be observed next week (January 22nd).  And so the era of virtually unlimited abortion in the United States burst upon the nation in a flurry of obfuscation and falsehood.  There never was, in fact, any question of when “life begins”, certainly not on scientific grounds: the only question was whether all human life was deserving of protection, or only certain lives.  For more than four decades now, the abortion industry and its apologists have relied on verbal smokescreens like Justice Blackmun’s to provide just enough cover that Americans can avoid the ugly truth about abortion.

     It’s getting harder all the time to keep the charade going.  In 1973, ultrasound was not yet commonly used by obstetricians in the United States, and so for the vast majority of Americans unborn babies remained invisible, out-of-sight . . . and therefore fairly easy to dismiss.  Not anymore.  Virtually all expectant mothers have pictures of their babies in the womb long before the birth, pictures that have become increasingly clearer and more life-like.  If it looks like a baby, squirms like a baby, gives a “thumbs up” like a baby (see photo above), well, what can one conclude?  Of course, women who go to abortion clinics are unlikely to be offered such pictures, even if an ultrasound is performed, because women who see an ultrasound of their unborn baby are much less likely to abort [see here].

3d ultrasound image of baby in utero
from website of 1st Glimpse 3D/4D Ultrasound
Howard Slugh, an attorney, addresses the ultrasound issue in an article [here] in National Review Online called “The Life-Affirming Power of Ultrasound”.  He discusses in particular the growing number of state laws in the U.S. that require the abortionist to perform an ultrasound and to show the images to the mother of the unborn baby.  There are some interesting features to the legal battles over these laws.  First of all, even though abortionists deny that ultrasounds change minds, they “in fact have conceded the point in lawsuits challenging mandatory ultrasound laws”, which they have been fighting tooth-and-nail to stop.
     That’s not the only revealing thing about the abortionists’ legal arguments.  “No one” Slugh tells us, “asserts that the images are misleading or that the laws require additional pro-life commentary.”  The abortion providers can only argue that simply requiring them to show truthful, unaltered pictures of what (or more accurately, as the images show, who) is being aborted will dissuade some of their customers.  A federal court, in striking down one of these laws in North Carolina, said in its decision that the law “explicitly promotes a pro-life message by demanding the provision of facts that all fall on one side of the abortion debate.”  Notice that the law does not require the suppression of “facts” that fall on the other side of the debate: it simply requires that the mother know all the facts before undergoing abortion, and the facts happen to be pro-life.  And so the abortionists are reduced to asking the court to help them hide the plain, incontrovertible truth.  As Slugh notes:

All these sources agree that the more a mother knows about her child, the less likely she is to abort him.  This is not because ultrasound images are misleading or politicized; it is because they supply a mother with truthful information necessary for making an informed choice.

     It’s good to bear this in mind as we work to protect life: truth is our ally.  We should continue to publicize the truth by educating and informing our fellow citizems, by participating in pro-life events over this next week, and by supporting pro-life laws such as the ones mentioned above that give women more access to full and accurate information. But more than that, we should also be sure to pray to the Lord of Truth, that He continue to open our eyes and those of our fellow people to the Truth of the humanity of the unborn, and to the sanctity of all human life.

(An earlier version of the Throwback Thursday post appeared under the title "The Truth Will Out" 16 January 2015)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whose World Would You Rather Live In?

     We are approaching the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, which in "an exercise of raw judicial power" (as Justice Byron White called it in his Roe dissent) cancelled out the abortion laws in all fifty states and short-circuited the democratic process to impose de facto abortion on demand on the United States.  It seems like a good time to republish this Worth Revisiting piece,  first published in October of 2014. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

     One thing that comes up when I am discussing the existence of God with young skeptics is the idea that faith (not just belief, but trust in God) is much more conducive to human flourishing than the alternative.  We see how Faith can change lives and transform people, and when we embrace it ourselves, our faith is confirmed by similar changes in our own lives.
     In spite of the empirical evidence, it’s still a tough sell. Militant atheism is a bit trendy these days, due in large part to the success of prophets of nothingness such as insect biologist Richard Dawkins (whom I previously discussed here).  Many people, and particularly young people (as I said, it's kind of trendy) have become enamored of the atheist worldview, and are always demanding “proof” - in this case, that faith supports life, and life abundantly, while atheism does not.
     The proof is there for those with eyes to see.  This past weekend (Oct. 2014), for instance, I attended our state Right To Life convention with my lovely bride and two of our sons.  The Keynote speaker was a man named George Michael Lane who wrote book called A Different Kind of Perfect, about his daughter Amy.  Amy has Down's Syndrome. In his talk, Lane described his struggle of conscience when he and his wife Thea received an in utero diagnosis of their daughter’s condition.  He wrestled mightily with the temptation to seek an abortion, but he was finally convinced by his parish priest to put his trust in God, who forbids us to take innocent life.
     Lane’s life since has been abundantly rewarded.  Amy is a beautiful young woman who plays the viola, has an encyclopedic knowledge of musicals and old movies, and infectiously spreads love through her family and beyond.  We spoke at length with Amy after the talk and can confirm that she is as delightful as her proud father claims she is.  She is a living reminder to us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
     Which brings us back to the aforementioned Dawkins.  I couldn’t help but think of the last time I had heard of him in the news.  This past summer, in response to a woman who was wondering what she would do if her child were diagnosed before birth with Down’s Syndrome, the esteemed insect biologist tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”  No Amy for him.
     All I can say is that it’s a good thing George Lane went to a priest for advice, and not to Richard Dawkins. And whose world would you rather live in: Amy’s, or Dawkins’?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of The Lord, An Icon Of Grace

The Baptism of Christ by Tintoretto
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and so on the last day of the Christmas Season we celebrate the first event in the Public Ministry of Jesus.  All four Gospels tell of John’s baptism of Jesus, but all present a slightly different view.  Mark’s account is the sparest, except that he gives us the most vivid picture of John himself: "Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:6).  Luke's account (which we hear in today’s Mass) starts with the people "filled with expectation", eagerly anticipating the Messiah, whom they take John to be.  John’s Gospel recounts John the Baptist hailing Jesus with the title "Lamb of God".  They all tell of John’s recognition of himself as a merely the forerunner to Jesus, to whom he is inferior, but only Matthew records his reluctance to baptize the Lord:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

John knows that Jesus, being sinless, requires no Baptism, but Jesus seeks it out in order to show his commitment to being one of us, and to show us the path to follow.  In this account we see Jesus acting out what St. Paul tells the Phillipians:

. . . though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phillipians 2:6-7)

In all the Gospels, we see the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and the voice of the Father proclaim him to be the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.  And so Christ’s Public Ministry begins with an icon of all three Persons of the Trinity working together, and an image of Grace in action.  This scene sums up the meaning of the Nativity we have just celebrated, and tells us something about the agenda for the ministry that is begun.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, we are reminded that it is all Grace, a word for which the Latin root gratia means not just favor, but favor freely bestowed (hence related English words “gratuity” and “gratis”); Grace is completely, absolutely, free. God needs nothing, nothing is necessary for Him: He does it all for us, He gives us a share in His own life, as a completely unnecessary gift.  Because He loves us.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What Would Darwin Do? Random Selection Favors Religion

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Charles Darwin: Prophet of an angry god
     Let me say at the outset that I am not taking issue in this post with the theory of evolution in general, or even with Darwin's specific take on it in particular.  I am interested in a different discussion, which takes as a starting point the curious fact that many people who reject religious belief treat Darwinian evolutionary theory with almost religious awe, and have turned the man himself into something of a god (Darwin Fish, anyone?), or at least a prophet.  The irony is, Darwinian natural selection seems to have "selected" atheists in particular for extinction.
     Let me start at the beginning. Over the past few years, I have engaged in ongoing dialogue with young students who are enamored of proselytizing atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (whom I refer to as “Cacangelists”, that is, messengers of bad news, an appropriately ugly word).  In the course of these discussions, I came to an interesting realization: in Darwinian terms, atheism is a negative trait.  In strictly materialist terms, that is, based on the clear, straightforward evidence, if we all became atheists, humanity would cease to exist in short order. 
      I soon discovered that I’m not at all the first person to come to this conclusion: the Scilogs site has a report [here] on the work of German researcher Michael Blume, who says that

It is a great irony but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favor those with religious beliefs . . . Most societies or communities that have espoused atheistic beliefs have not survived more than a century.

Blume’s research shows that not just atheist societies, but unbelieving individuals consistently undermine their own posterity:  

Blume took data from 82 countries measuring frequency of worship against the number of children.  He found that those who worship more than once a week average 2.5 children [2.1 children per woman is the “replacement rate”, the minimum necessary to maintain a population at its current level] while those who never worship only 1.7 – again below replacement rate.  There was also considerable variation in religious groups . . . Those without a religion, however, consistently averaged less than two per woman below the replacement , whereas those with the strongest and most fundamental religious beliefs had the most children.

What would Charles Darwin say?  It would appear that Evolution is an angry and capricious god indeed, as it has clearly selected its most ardent adherents for extinction.

An Endangered Species?
    The curious hostility of the process of evolution to the materialist worldview casts a bright light on a contradiction that lies at the heart of the project of atheist proselytization: even if you believe it, why would you want to convince other people? The Dawkinses of the world will reply, as the Blume post says, “that religions are like viruses of the mind which infect people and impose great costs in terms of money, time and health risks.”  This, it seems to me, actually defies reason:   as I ask my unbelieving students, is it logical to conclude that a world populated by those who think we are nothing but matter created by meaningless, random natural forces will be a better, kinder place than a world that is the home of people who believe we have been created intentionally by a loving God? Who have been commanded by Him to love one another?  It just doesn’t make sense.
    And not surprisingly, the empirical evidence agrees.  In addition to the demographic data above, anyone who has studied the history of Rome, before and after the Christianization of the Empire, can attest to the humanizing effect of Christianity, and that it was that same Christian Church that civilized the barbarians who eventually overwhelmed the Roman state.  Modern day sociological evidence shows the same thing: religious believers (especially Christians) report higher levels of personal happiness (see here, for instance), and as in the demographic data above, the more devout the believer, the stronger the effect.  Also, as Arthur C. Brooks copiously documents in his book Who Really Cares, believing Christians are much more involved in building up their societies, and are much more willing to spare their wealth and their time to help others.  The Catholic Church alone has founded and runs thousands of hospitals, schools, and countless other charitable projects around the world; can you think of any founded or run by atheists? I submit that the reasonable view is the one that fits the evidence, not the one that contradicts both the empirical data and common sense.
     A final point involves getting beyond narrow materialist ideas of what constitutes reason and taking a more expansive (and more traditional) view.  Is The Truth about humanity more likely to be something that diminishes humanity, that tears down our societies, makes our lives meaner, and maybe even leads to our annihilation?  Or does it lift us up, does it promote flourishing societies and happy productive people?  Jesus Christ says “I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life” (John 14:6): doesn’t the evidence bear him out?

An earlier version of this Thursday Throwback was published on 6 February 2015.