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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Geometry Of Faith

“The Catholic Church,” according to G.K. Chesterton, “is much larger on the inside than it is on the outside.”  Those of us who have been out and now are in (back in, for some of us) know how true it is.  And it stands to reason: as both a worldly and a spiritual entity, the Church cannot be contained within purely physical bounds.

What is both seen and unseen?     

This sounds like sheer nonsense, of course, to those who are formed in a materialist worldview, because they reject a priori the existence of a non-physical reality.  It may be a decided minority who consciously embrace such a worldview, but many, many more unthinkingly see the world in the same way.  Explaining Catholicism and the Catholic Church under these circumstances (except, maybe, in the most zealously orthodox Catholic schools) sometimes feels like trying to converse with someone who speaks a completely different language.
    Instructing the unknowing, however, is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy (and for some of us, it’s also part of our employment contract), so we must always search for new ways to communicate the experience of faith.  In another post, for instance (“A Dark Matter: 'Proving' God In A Materialistic World"), I discuss the cosmological theories of “dark matter” and “dark energy”  as a way of addressing the common idea that, because we can’t detect God directly using scientific instruments, it’s unreasonable to believe in him.  Scientists believe that 95% of the matter and energy in the universe is completely undetectable, but they are convinced it is there because of its observed effects on things we can detect; likewise, we can be sure of the existence of God, even though he is beyond this world, because of his effect on things (and people) that we are able to see.

The Faith Postulate

     In a similar way, there are things we can know only by experiencing them; the love of God as we experience it in His Church is a prime example.  The outsider will often dismiss this sort of knowledge as requiring an irrational, unsupported belief, since the proof comes after our initial commitment.  We might ask such skeptics to consider geometry as an analogy.  Euclidean Geometry, for instance, starts with the parallel postulate, which requires that parallel lines never meet.  It’s not proven, you simply have to take it as a given.  Once you do, of course, you find that the entire system is consistent, which validates your starting assumptions.  More importantly, you find that when you apply it to the real world, for measuring property lines, for instance, it is absolutely reliable.  Likewise the Catholic Faith: once you “step inside” and see the results in your own life, the most “reasonable” response is belief (this is Blaise Pascal's proscription for those who remain unconvinced by the logic of his famous wager).  From the inside we can also see that Christianity yields truer results on a global scale than other systems of belief (as I explain in “What Would Darwin Do?”).
     All analogies are imperfect, of course, and a skeptic might point out that, while the Catholic Church claims to hold immutable truths, we can change the parallel postulate and still come up with other internally consistent systems of geometry, systems which may not work on a plane, but work perfectly well in other contexts.  In spherical geometry, for instance, parallel lines (which are actually lines of longitude) meet exactly twice, at the poles.  This system is much more accurate than Euclidean geometry for measuring on a globe.  Spherical geometry shows us, for example, that what looks like shortest distance from, say, Chicago to Rome (a straight line from west to east) on a flat map is actually much longer than a route which loops north (or appears to “loop” north) over Greenland. 

United Airlines' graphic showing Chicago to Rome flight path

The Fullness of Truth

     The fact that there are different geometries, however, doesn’t weaken the analogy at all: if anything, it develops it further.  Like Euclidean geometry, which only works on a two-dimensional plane, the scientific worldview is an accurate and quite useful tool for interpreting reality . . . within a certain narrow focus.  It enables us to learn about and work with things that are physical and measurable, but it cannot tell us about things like love, justice, or any other reality that might exist outside of the purely physical realm. Just as a bathroom scale can tell us how much we weigh but can’t tell us our age, it cannot alone tell us anything about things outside of its set boundaries.  The Christian Revelation, on the other hand, reaches beyond the material world and gives us access to a much fuller reality, and once we accept its premises, we can see both its internal consistency and its Truth when applied to our experience.
     Maybe when we look at it in this way, it can help us explain what St. Paul means when he says: “Let no one deceive himself.  If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).  He is not rejecting reason, but saying that, to someone who thinks in only two dimensions, three-dimensional reasoning is incomprehensible.  Likewise with Chesterton: those on the outside of the Catholic Church often think they are looking at a plane, while from the inside we can see it in all its three-dimensional fullness.  Finally, one last quote, from one of the greatest of geometricians, Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world!”  Everything depends on that “place to stand”, and there’s no firmer ground than the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

(This Thursday Throwback was first published 9 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Feed My Sheep (3rd Sunday of Easter)

Today is the 3rd Sunday in the Season of Easter.  The Gospel Reading is John 21:1-19, which I addressed in o
ne of my very first blog posts, first published January 10th, 2014; a revised version is posted below:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.”    JN 21:15-17

It's Greek To Me

     You’re probably familiar with the beautiful passage from John’s Gospel above.  As he sits with the Risen Christ at a charcoal fire on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Peter has the opportunity to redeem himself for what he did the last time we saw him at a charcoal fire.  On the night of Holy Thursday, when Our Lord had been arrested, he denied Jesus three times; here Jesus invites Peter three times to tell his Lord, face to face, that he loves Him.

"Christ's Charge To St. Peter", by Raphael

    The first time I read this passage in the original Greek I was intrigued by the fact that two different words for “love” are used, which is not reflected in English translations.  The first two times Jesus asks, “do you love me?” he say ἀγαπᾷς (agapais), and when Peter answers  “I love you” he says φιλῶ (philo).  Now, knowing that, among Christians, the verb ἀγαπῶ came to mean all-embracing divine love, whereas φιλῶ referred to ordinary human affection, I thought I had stumbled onto Something Big.  It seems that many others have had the same idea, because I soon learned that there has been quite a lot written on this topic (who knew?).  Scripture scholars warn us, however, not to make too much of the different verbs.  It appears that at the time John wrote his Gospel the two verbs were used more or less interchangeably, although φιλῶ was much more common.  John, the scholars tell us, was probably doing no more than making his language more interesting by avoiding redundancy.

More Than Words

     I’m not one to pick a fight with the experts on their own turf; on the other hand, we know that John is a careful and subtle writer, and if he were that concerned with varying his vocabulary for purely stylistic reasons the prologue to his Gospel would read rather differently.  In any case, even if we can’t find a Big Linguistic-Theological Significance here, it seems to me that John is nonetheless showing us something.  Here’s what he have in the passage: Jesus asks “do you love me?” using one verb (ἀγαπᾷς), Peter answers affirmatively using what appears to be a synonym (φιλῶ); then they repeat, each using the same separate verbs they used before; finally, as Peter grows visibly distressed by Jesus repeating the question (but knowing all too well why it needs repeating), the Lord asks a third time . . . only this time He uses Peter’s preferred word, as if to say, “All right, Peter, you love me, but do you love me?”.   

The Good Shepherd (5th century mosaic from Galla Placidia Mausoleum) 

     I think we can see in this a reflection of how Grace works in our life.  Just as Grace always starts with God, Christ comes to Peter, who does not at first recognize Him. After Peter realizes with whom he’s talking, Christ invites him to express his love, and in so doing repudiate his earlier sin; Peter is willing, but can’t quite bring himself to use the same word that Jesus uses, instead replying with a (possibly more humble) synonym.  After the same thing happens the second time Jesus moves a little closer, and when He moves closer yet, echoing Peter’s own word back to him. He "meets him where he is", as we like to say.  And every time Peter proclaims his love, Christ calls on him to share that love with others (“feed my sheep”).  

The Word Becomes Flesh

     Just so, God is always the initiator, inviting us to share His grace; He often comes to us in a tangible form (the Incarnation, the Eucharist, his ordained ministers acting In Persona Christi); He calls on us to act out the love we proclaim (audible confession, acts of mercy, evangelization). And He’s always willing to move a little closer, if it will bring us closer to Him . . . even to the point of becoming one of us, "taking the form of a slave" (Phillipians 2:7).  Christ is asking us, "Do you love Me?"  Will we answer, along with Peter, φιλῶ ?

(See also "Mother Angelica And Brother Joe" at Nisi Dominus)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reasonable Faith

In a recent post, “Moses, Pharaoh, & Why We Preach The Gospel”  I touched on a few of the limitations we run into in arguing for the Faith out in the world, and why we should nonetheless continue to do so. There is, of course, much more to say on this topic than I cover in my little blog post.  For instance,  I often hear Catholic apologists say that it is enough to convince people that the Catholic Faith is a “reasonable” faith; it is not necessarily their job to “close the sale.”  This may at first seem like aiming too low: aren’t we trying to save souls? Don’t we want people to embrace the fullness of the faith?  

St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the church

    Of course, we do need to promote the faith in its entirety, but to be successful we need to take into account what the Faith teaches us about the nature of humanity, about what it means to be both body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God.  Human reason is finite and fallible, so it needs to be guided by faith.  That’s why St. Augustine, in a commentary on John’s Gospel, says: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand; since, 'except you believe, you shall not understand.'”

This, unfortunately, is the sort of quote that those who do not share the faith can easily misunderstand, or even attempt to use against Christian belief.  It can appear that Augustine is rejecting reason in favor of "blind" faith, but that's not the case; rather, he is recognizing that our imperfect human reason is subject to our wayward desires, which tend to cloud our reason, and that “to perceive . . . more accurately, we need the Lord Himself for expounder.”  The “belief” to which he refers does not simply mean accepting a set of propositions, but entrusting ourselves to God; after all, he says, “even the devils believed him, but they did not believe in Him.” After embracing God, the source of all Truth, and rejecting the false gods our wayward human desires put in our way, our reason can proceed on a firm foundation.  
True Faith, therefore, involves first the heart, and then the head. A mistaken belief that the faith is unreasonable can keep people from even considering Christian belief. For that reason we must, as St. Peter tells us, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope within you” (1 Peter 3:15). Once both the heart and the head are open to the His message Christ's Gospel can begin to take root.

(This Thursday Throwback is based on a discussion in my Sunday Snippets post of 28 February 2015)