Saturday, November 22, 2014

A note on executive orders and the imperial presidency

Thinking about President Obama's executive order on immigration, issued yesterday, 21 November 2014, it seems to me there are two distinct issues in play: what was done and how it was done; the end and the means to that end. Responsible citizenship requires us to consider both.

For those of us who live in the U.S. we must acknowledge that the imperial presidency has been a long time in the making. Abraham Lincoln, it seems, can be viewed as the president who inaugurated it. This is brilliantly set forth in Spielberg's spell-binding movie Lincoln. While chattel slavery is a without a doubt a deplorable evil, one our country needed to be rid of, it obscures the whole issue of states rights. Hence, it bears noting that in exchange for recognition as a sovereign nation by Great Britain and France, the Confederate cabinet agreed to abolish slavery within five years after end of the Civil War. The forceful tendencies of an imperial presidency, coupled with claims of U.S. exceptionalism, has also had a tremendous impact on our foreign policy, especially since the end of the Second World War, making it rather violent and increasingly bellicose.

Considering what is set forth in the scene from Lincoln below, the question arises, Is the only thing that matters the here and now? This is the existential question we face when it comes to ordering our lives together has to do precisely with a certain transcendence. Are we truly satisfied with, "I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power"?

It seems to me that in order to regain the balance of power the U.S. constitution seeks to achieve, Congress needs to start asserting itself across-the-board. Members of both houses of Congress belonging to both parties must start being as concerned, or perhaps more concerned, about how things are done as they are about what is done. Congress needs to be assertive both towards the Executive and Judicial branches, both of which, in my view, have become far too powerful. Bracket for a moment the immediate cause and consider the revolutionary nature of federal judges striking down duly enacted amendments to state constitutions. Even in polity, do ends always justify means? In a democratic republic, does process matter, or are all matters decided in the most oligarchic manner imaginable?

The sad reality is that Republicans denounce President Obama's Executive Order on immigration, not because they are opposed to an imperial (in Obama's case imperious) presidency (they would applaud executive overreach when done on a matter of which they are in favor- the Dems do the same thing), but simply because they oppose what the order mandates. This strikes me as adolescent politics. To highlight this I will, again, point to the part of Spielberg's film that shows how Lincoln's agents went about obtaining the necessary votes and abstentions, which is all artistic license as far as I know, is done in a humorous vein.

Are all saved regardless?: Thoughts on universalism

Once in awhile I am tremendously provoked by my experience of reality. Questions of meaning have been part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. I am not unique in this regard, questions of meaning are not only part and parcel of being human, these questions, in a very real sense, constitute our humanity. These questions begin with the word "Why."

I remember in the wake of the Haitian earthquake several years ago Msgr Lorenzo Albacete, insisting that our Christian faith does not and, moreover, should not give us easy answers to reality's vicissitudes, saying something to the effect, "Asking 'Why?' in the face of a devastating natural disaster is the most human response imaginable." It is just as human to ask "Why?" when we are confronted with the evil committed by human beings. The result of my provocation yesterday was posting this on Facebook: "If we're universalists, then screw it, I'll do whatever I want and conform my life accordingly. Take your theology with you when you leave lest I beat you with it." Ham-fisted? Certainly. Provocative? I hope so, but probably not.

One question in which I am interested is, Does universalism amount to consequence-free living, at least in the ultimate sense? In other words, do I only have to endure the natural and temporal consequences of my bad choices without fear of an eternal consequence? If so, why should I keep going to confession, one of the key features of which is to take away the eternal punishment due to me as the just response to my sins. More to the point, What about the effects my sinful behaviors have on others? How is justice achieved for them? At least as it concerns me, as a Christian, I relinquish my just claim against others, which is what it means to truly forgive, but what about those who do not relinquish their just claim? Yes, they will be liable to those who, in turn, have a just claim against them, but even so... is such a refusal to relinquish just claims itself a damnable offense?

This reflection strikes me as a very good one as we approach tomorrow's Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, which is all about the end of time and the Lord's return in glory to judge the living (i.e., "the quick"- better to be quick than dead) and the dead.

As a Catholic I believe in what the Church calls "mortal sin." According to the Church's teaching eternal punishment is due these sins, namely hell. If my understanding is correct, if I recognize the evil I have done, realizing I have been the cause of evil effects that I can never correct, and refuse to repent of it, I stand in danger of damnation, which is eternal, not merely temporary.

One friend very usefully asked me to list the names of people I hope are not saved. It was a brilliant provocation. I suppose the most honest answer would be, Anyone and everyone who has ever done me wrong, treated me poorly, slandered me, unjustly impugned me, etc. But such an answer points right back at me and puts me on the list of anyone and everyone I have ever wronged. Jesus came to put an end to the infinite regress of retribution in a fallen world. So, I answered, "Me, after that I am at a loss." Truth be told, like St Paul, I desperately want to be saved, not just as a function of wanting the best for myself, but a deep desire to experience that for which I was made and redeemed.

Last Judgment, by Stefan Lochner, ca 1435

Another thoughtful response asked the question, "is our reason for following Jesus Christ and his Church our love for him, or is it utilitarian: a quid pro quo? I'll be nice if you give me eternal life. And if I'm not, you'll kick my ass. Eternally." These questions are posed rhetorically to demonstrate a point I find frustrating because I find it so difficult to truly love. In terms of the practice of our faith, it's that way with everything- Do I attend Mass because I am obligated or because I love God and want to do what I am made and redeemed to do, namely worship Him, which is my sanctification?

I think it's important not to short-circuit my own concern, reduce it to a cliché and say, "See, problem solved!" I truly believe that there are questions of meaning and significance that do not arise from an utilitarian calculus, even while accounting for the fact that nobody will be saved because s/he deserves it, least of all me. Even now, as defective as I am in love of God and neighbor, I want what God wants- that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Did I not want this I would be wholly unsuited for ministry. Even so, in this regard the question remains- Do I or do I not have reason for concern in this regard, for myself or anyone else? In other words, does my ministry serve God's purpose over and above any palliative and temporal effects my service might have on those I serve.

Earlier this week I was browsing through a pamphlet of prayers published and distributed by the now defunct magazine 30 Days In the Church and in the World. The English title of the booklet is "Who Prays Is Saved" (you can view it here). It features an introduction by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It's basically a little Basic Book of Catholic Prayers.

"Who Prays Is Saved" also contains some catechetical material. Listed number one under the "Six Sins Against the Holy Spirit" is "Presumption of God's mercy." I suppose the relevant issue, stated with considerably more care than my initial provocation, is, What is the source of the tension between the two poles of trying to save one's self by being "good" (Having been raised in a religion that taught not only the possibility, but the necessity, of self-perfection, I have enough experience of this to know that, at least for me, this is not possible) and being presumptive of God's mercy, which seems, at least at first glance, to remove a great deal of significance and meaning from human existence?

In his encyclical letter Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope, Pope Benedict XVI addressed some of this in a most useful way:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love [here he cited Tractatus super Psalmos, Ps 127, 1-3]. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened
Fred, who is perhaps my best friend that I have yet to meet in person, in a comment noted something I found very useful and provocative: "Universalism is an abstract solution to an existential problem, but this problem has itself been castrated, rendered abstract, by having been removed from the present to the afterlife. What can save me, who can save me, is the question of daily life. Tax collectors and prostitutes know this, and this is why they enter heaven ahead of the Pharisees, who smug in their daily life, feel a kind of anxiety as to whether the ultimate bookkeeper will approve of their accounting."

My critical response to this would be that the existential is the beginning of my question. The question I pose here is not, "Is it possible to live this way," but, "Is it desirable to live this way?" If it is, how so? These concerns do not seem to me abstract, but rather concrete. Again, speaking only for myself, there is way for me to live that comes quite easily, too easily.

I suppose the existential answer would go something like, "Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year."

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Going where nobody says hello"

It's been awhile, far too long, really, since we've had a REM song for our Friday traditio. I was put in mind of REM (one of my all-time favorite bands) by a dear friend who went on a REM jag on Facebook this week. The particular song for us (i.e., myself and both of my readers) is "Don't Go Back To Rockville," a song that resonates with me from experience, a song that, when I was younger and the album new described a particular set of experiences.

Waiting for the bus, by Allan Rostron

Live performances are always preferable to studio recordings. Mike Mills, the band's bassist, takes over lead vocals on this version. Nonetheless, here's a link to the recorded version from the album "Reckoning."

It's not as though I really need you
If you were here I'd only bleed you
But everybody else in town only wants
To bring you down and that's not how it ought to be
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cardinal O'Malley on ordination

There seems to be a lot of uproar this morning about something Cardinal Seán O'Malley said last night in his lengthy 60 Minutes interview with Nora O'Donnell in his response to her question about why the Church does not and cannot ordain women. Given the cultural climate in which we live, it is an inevitable question for any prelate during such a high-profile interview.

Cardinal O'Malley with Nora O'Donnell

O'Donnell posed her question in a provocative manner, asking, if it wasn't immoral to exclude women from the Church's hierarchy. Cardinal Seán, as he likes to be called, replied simply: "Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. It’s a matter of vocation and what God has given to us." He went on to say something far more important: "Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the Church." This is not only true, but very important, even vital for the Church.  Cardinal Seán's answer hints at something many of us have sought to point out over and over: the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life, the sacrament by which we are infused with divine life, born again as sons and daughters of God, is baptism, not orders. One of the greatest points of emphasis for the Second Vatican Council was the importance of Baptism, the retrieval of what it means to be baptized.

There should be no consternation over something else Cardinal O'Malley said: "If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different." If this is not your answer and you would not ordain women, if you were founding a church, then fine, you have an honest disagreement with Cardinal O'Malley about a matter that for us, as Catholics, is purely hypothetical in the most abstract sense.

I do not agree that His Eminence's answer was imprudent. On the contrary, I think it was highly prudent. His response shows two things. First, that it is not rank sexism and a commitment to inequality that keeps the Church from ordaining women. Second, it demonstrates, yet again, something the late Carlo Cardinal Martini wrote in response to the question "Why not women priests?", posed to him in his book-length dialogue with Umberto Eco, published in English under the title Belief or Non-Belief: A Confrontation- "The Church does not fulfill expectations, it celebrates mysteries."

In my view, the trouble with too many people is that they see what God has actually done in history as the only possibility and so attempt to confer on all of God's actions a kind of necessity God never intended them to have. Take the old question, Was it necessary for God to save us by means of Jesus' passion and death? Another question, Why is it necessary to go to confession? Is God not able to normatively pardon us and freshly infuse us with sanctifying grace in some other way? More fundamentally, the question I have pondered in my previous two posts- Does being a Christian give us an answer concerning creation that eliminates its mystery? By saying God does not do everything out of any necessity I only mean God could have done things differently, but, in His providence, He did not. What God has chosen to do remains definitive and binding. In other words, as Cardinal O'Malley intimated, we can't simply choose to do things differently simply because there are different ways of doing them, even some ways that have an attractive rationale.

The question, "Why does the Church not ordain women?", goes to the great mystery of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the only begotten Son of the Father, becoming a human being as a male. There is a deep logic, but it's what we might call a theo-logic (along with an aesthetic and drama), to the divine plan of redemption.

Adoration of the Children, 1620, byGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:4-6)
Let's not get bogged down in ideology. His Eminence's statement was not an ideological one.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"This is the riddle of creation"

This is a follow-up to what I posted on my birthday and flows from reading Fergus Kerr's After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, which book I started reading Tuesday evening.

There is little doubt in my mind that when Heidegger dismissed Christianity from his philosophical project of bringing the question of being ("Why are there things rather than no things?") back to the center that he had in mind the seemingly static formulations of the Neo-Scholastics. This version of Thomism began to flourish in the nineteenth century, given shape and form by the First Vatican Council in Dei Filius and subsequently by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris.

St Thomas Aquinas

Contra the view of Heidegger and others, the Angelic Doctor did not introduce a kind of drab, deistic, certitude in answer to the mystery of creation. In other words, his theology does not represent a monumental effort to reduce the Mystery to man's measure. In response, Kerr turned directly to the Summa Theologiae: "For Thomas...'God alone is supremely generous' (ipse solus est maxime liberalis), God acts 'not for any advantage but out of sheer bounty' (non propter utilitatem sed solum propter suam bonitatem)" (42). In this Kerr notes that none other than, Karl Barth, notorious for his fierce rejection of the analogia entis (i.e., analogy of being)- Balthasar, in his book The Theology of Karl Barth, demonstrated how Barth's analogia fidei (i.e., analogy of faith) can be taken for a restatement of the analogia entis)- is in tune with St Thomas:
God has no need of us, He has no need of the world and heaven and earth at all. He is rich in Himself. He has fullness of life. All glory, all beauty, all goodness and holiness reside in Him. He is sufficient unto himself, he is God, blessed in Himself. To what end, then, the world? Here in fact there is everything, here in the living God. How can there be something alongside God, of which he has no need? This is the riddle of creation (Kerr 42- citing Barth's Dogmatics in Outline, which were lectures he delivered in 1946 in the ruins of Bonn, Germany after World War II)
Kerr summarizing Norris Clarke's version of Thomism, observed,

Karl Barth
Thomas's 'supreme being', far from being the static deity of substantialist metaphysics [the very metaphysics Heidegger set out to destroy- a worthy project in my view], is the subsistent (i.e., underived) sheer Act of existence, identically Intelligence and Will. Far from being a self-enclosed isolated substance, this sheer Act is also the freely self-diffusing Good, in effect self-communicative love. As participating in the infinite goodness of the Act whose very being is identically self-communicative love, all beings, by the very fact that they are, possess natural dynamism towards action and self-communication
My point? It seems that a proper understanding of Christianity, even when viewed through the prism of Thomism, does not pose the question of being in order to summarily dismiss it and certainly not by means of a simple catechetical formulation (i.e., Why did make you? God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this live and to live and be happy with Him forever in the next- in my view, it is the wonderfully weird and diverse lives of the saints that show us this is no foreclosure), which, when correctly grasped, also preserves the question that Heidegger sought to retrieve.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Smile's from the heart of a family man"

Our Friday traditio for this week is a song by Paul Young, "Love of the Common People." It is a song about which I had nearly forgotten. It is a beautiful song, of a kind that isn't written or recorded much any more. The way I see it, in addition to being an era of creativity during which artists put forth much that was new, was also a time of synthesizing the old with the new. It strikes me, too, how solid common, humane, values were even 30 years ago.

This song, while recorded by Paul Young, was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins. It is a folk tune, written in the late 1960s. In addition to Young, it has been covered by many artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Waylon Jennings. The attractiveness of the song is not necessarily evidence of the goodness we long for (though it is that), but, even now, a celebration of what many of us have experienced.

You know that faith is in your foundation
And with a whole lot of love and a warm conversation
But don't forget to pray
'Cause making it strong where you belong

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Birthday: being, nothingness, beggaring

Today is the Feast of St Martin of Tours, Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, and my birthday. On this day over the years I have written a lot on these themes, on how I see them converge and even diverge. Today I begin my fiftieth year of life. It hardly seems possible that one year from today I will be 50 years-old. A lot has transpired.

St Martin and the Beggar -- Trento Longaretti (b. 1916)

I remember being in high school and worrying about whether I would ever be able to support myself, let alone a wife and children, about making a difference, about being happy, being satisfied. Unlike many people, I was unable to decide about doing one thing. I wanted to do everything! Doing something, of course, takes time and we are only given so much time. The finite nature of our mortality should be no more lost on a Christian than on a person who takes a more existentialist view of life. If nothing else, time limits our choices by imposing a boundary. There is some good news here: I don't feel old. Frankly, I doubt I ever will. It was amazing to see my Mom last night. She is 73 and looks like she's twenty years younger than she is.

Martin Heidegger (another Martin!) began his famous lectures, delivered during summer semester of 1935 at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, which were later published as An Introduction to Metaphysics, by asking, "Why are there things rather than nothing?" This is the fundamental question of being that Heidegger sought to bring back to the center of philosophical discourse. In order to do this he felt he had to destroy traditional Western metaphysics, which he saw as too corrupt and distorted to be rescued. In his first lecture in this series, "The Fundamental Question," Heidegger shortchanges Christianity:

Martin Heidegger
Anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth has the answer to the question "Why are there things rather than nothing?" even before it is asked: everything that is, except God himself, has been created by Him. God himself, the increate creator, "is." One who holds to such faith can in a way participate in the asking of our question, but he cannot really question without ceasing to believe and taking all the consequences of such a step
Frankly, I beg to differ. First, the answer to the question "Why did God create things rather than simply continue to exist in Trinitarian bliss?" is not self-evident. At the grand level, God could create things for any number of reasons. Secondly, Christians believe that God created gratuitously, that is, there was no necessity for God create anything because God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lacked nothing. So, the question, even when answered with either the traditional catechetical response to the question, "Why did God make you?" (i.e., "God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life and to live and be happy with Him forever in the next"), or with this from St Paul's Letter to the Colossians- "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him" (1:15-16)- is not exhausted.

The above intuition (it is nothing more than that, certainly not a deep philosophical insight, of which I am wholly incapable) is why I appreciate the life, work, and witness of Msgr Luigi Giussani so much. I am grateful that quite soon after I became Catholic I read a booklet of his that was sent out one month with every issue of the now defunct magazine 30 Days in the Church and in the World (a publication to which I was highly encouraged to subscribe by a man I met twice in passing via my work- I was a student working part-time), "He Is If He Changes." In his seminal work, The Religious Sense, Giussani tackles the fundamental question head-on and from many different angles and employing several methods.

In the course of an interview with a journalist, Albert Einstein stated, "... he who does not admit to the mystery cannot be scientist" (50). I believe this is also true for anyone desirous of being a philosopher. Giussani went on to observe
By not admitting the existence of that incommensurable "x," by not acknowledging the disproportionate gap between the ultimate horizon and human capacity, one eliminates the category of possibility, the supreme dimension of reason... Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it [what Hilary White simply calls "The Real"]. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher (50-51)
Turning from science to philosophy, Giussani, after citing Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Act I, Scene 5, lines 166-167), noted, "There will always be more things in heaven and earth - that is reality- than our perception and conception of reality - that is to say in philosophy" (51). This why, according to Giussani, "philosophy must possess the profound humility to be a wide open attempt, earnestly seeking adjustment, completion, and correction; it must be dominated by the category of possibility" (51). If philosophy is not dominated by possibility, then philosophy becomes ideology, operating only on the basis of (often dangerous) preconceptions.

Luigi Giussani

Rather than lambasting Heidegger for misrepresenting Christianity, it is more fruitful to recognize that the predominant Catholic philosophy (Heidegger was Catholic, having been raised in a devout home, he began his academic career with a brief stint as a Jesuit seminarian) at this time was what is usually denoted as "Neo-Scholasticism," which is contrasted with the dynamism of what might be called "authentic Thomism." It was not until the advent of la nouvelle théologie, among the practitioners of which were included Henri DeLubac, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and Yves Congar, that Neo-Scholasticism would come in for a thoroughly Catholic critique and correction. While each one used different methodological approaches, their common objective was to reform Catholic theology at a fundamental level by confronting head-on the dominance of Catholic theology by neo-Scholasticism. Hence, Heidegger can be forgiven for his characterization of Christian faith vis-à-vis "The Fundamental Question."

Heidegger, a student of Husserl, mined the phenomenological vein, as did Edith Stein, Max Scheler and others. Phenomenology was also the philosophical method employed by Pope St John Paul II.

As far as St Martin of Tours and the beggar, I think Martin, who encountered Christ, was only able to take pity on the beggar because Christ took pity on him, a beggar. In the words of Don Gius: "Existence expresses itself, as ultimate ideal, in begging. The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sin, confession, justice, and mercy

Thinking a bit more about confession in light of the scene from the television show Copper I referenced in my last post it occurred to me, once again, how important evangelism is to catechesis and how important catechesis is to living a Christian life. The two characters, Kevin "Corky" Corcoran and Francis Maguire, both of whom, as Irish immigrants and NYC police detectives in the city's roughest section, have done and seen evil acts, muse, a bit like Protestants, about how easy it is to turn to the sacrament of mercy, confess your sins, say an Act of Contrition, receive absolution and then fulfill your penance. If I understand the scene correctly, they are puzzled by what they see as a lack of justice in that schema. Here's how Corky stated it: "Confession, penance, grand reconciliation between man and God. See Father Burke, say a few Hail Marys, and you're free." There is no doubt from the scene that both men have deep regrets, they are contrite, sorry for what they've done and the pain it has caused others and themselves. Among the effects of their actions is the ruination of their lifelong friendship.

Indeed, to make a good confession, one must be sorry for his sins and be committed to not doing what is wrong again. Of course, especially in areas of weakness, we need God's grace to keep that commitment. Receiving the grace necessary to overcome weakness is one reason to make recourse to the Sacrament of Penance and then the Eucharist. What is removed in and through this sacrament is the eternal punishment due to sin, namely hell. What is not removed is the temporal punishment due to sin. It occurred to me that this is the part they were missing in their dialogue. It is not as though all the effects of sin are erased once they are confessed, absolved, and satisfaction (which can never by given or received as if one is redeeming himself) is made.

In his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, promulgated on New Year's day 1967, that is, after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Bl Pope Paul VI wrote of temporal punishment:
These punishments are imposed by the just and merciful judgment of God for the purification of souls, the defense of the sanctity of the moral order and the restoration of the glory of God to its full majesty. Every sin in fact causes a perturbation in the universal order established by God in His ineffable wisdom and infinite charity, and the destruction of immense values with respect to the sinner himself and to the human community
It seems to me that this is a fitting reflection for the month of November.

How interesting it would be for a television series to have a well-catechized character who, in a situation like this, discussed temporal punishment and maybe even made reference to seeking indulgences. "An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints" (General Norm 1 from Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Indulgentarium doctrina). In this context, such an understanding would provide a sound explanation as to why Maguire has been sitting in the Church night after night.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Confession: longing for freedom

I have been "binge watching" the BBC America original series Copper. It is a compelling drama about the Irish set in the Five Points section of New York City in the 1860s. I heard about this series in, of all places, Gilbert magazine. One scene, that is a climax of the first season, but not yet a catharsis, takes place in the parish Church between two NYPD detectives, Kevin Corcoran and Francis Maguire. Two great friends with some dark secrets that are about to gush forth in a confession (Season 1, Episode 9 "A Day to Give Thanks").

After returning Maguire's police badge that the parish priest found on the floor underneath one of the pews and that he, in turn, gave to Corcoran under duress. "Corky" was looking for Francis in order to settle scores. Here's the relevant bit of dialogue:

Corcoran: Churches are the only places in Five Points that are unlocked day and night. Even the taverns close eventually. I guess that means a man can go without a drink for a few hours, but not without the chance to repent. I haven't been to a proper Mass since before the [Civil] war. But, if you're Irish and Catholic, the teachings are in your head, inside you, forever, right? Confession, penance, grand reconciliation between man and God. See Father Burke, say a few Hail Marys, and you're free.

Maguire: It's what they taught us.

Corcoran: Indeed it is. (Repeating himself) Indeed it is.

At least for me, the beauty (yes, beauty- true beauty is an awesome/awe-full experience, which is why, to borrow from Don Giussani, it leaves us wounded) of this scene is how the masks fall off and both men, in their confrontation with each other, are forced confront themselves. Maguire, who, it turns out, is guilty of several murders, all related to the matters they discuss, confronts himself more honestly than does Corcoran, the show's protagonist.

I am always struck by these words from the Act of Contrition, when, after I make my confession, I say to God, "In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things." I am struck because I realize in that moment how distorted my heart is. I hope one day to make a truly a good confession because I long to be free. Of course, it is in and through the Sacrament of Penance that the same sanctifying grace that God, in His infinite goodness, infused into our souls in Baptism, is given us anew: amazing grace, indeed.

As St Thomas Aquinas noted- grace builds on nature. More accurately, grace builds on fallen, deformed nature. It is through grace that God sets about reforming nature. The Sacrament of Penance is where grace confronts deformed nature, but only in order to reform it. Before being confronted by God, I must confront myself with the Truth.

It is by judging myself now and asking for God's mercy that I hope to survive God's final judgment. There one who accuses me "before our God day and night" (Rev. 12:10). I do not believe that this accuser accuses me of false charges. He only accuses me of things I have done. As difficult as it is to believe at times, I have an Advocate before God's throne and another one, the Parakeltos, who walks beside me. I also have my brothers and sisters who comprise the communion of saints, along with the angels, to intercede for me.

I cannot live more than a few hours without the chance to repent. We have a one word name for that: hope.

Faith, experience, ideology

Given that today Roman Catholics throughout the world observe the Feast of the Dedication of St John Lateran Basilica in Rome, which is the Mother Church of Christendom, I went in search of something I posted on a different blog a number of years ago only to find that I copied it over here to Καθολικός διάκονος shortly after I posted it there (see "Faith and memory on the universal Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran"). Prior to Morning Prayer today I prayed the Office of Readings, something I don't do very often. The second reading for the office for today's feast is from a sermon by St Caesarius of Arles.
My fellow Christians, do we wish to celebrate joyfully the birth of this temple [the Temple of the Holy Spirit that is our bodies after Baptism]? Then let us not destroy the living temples of God in ourselves by works of evil. I shall speak clearly, so that all can understand. Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins
That, indeed, is what we might call a good, old-fashioned sermon that gets to the heart of the matter by taking seriously the mystery, that is, the Paschal Mystery, we are called to live. In other words, St Caesarius made a judgment according to the criteria of divine revelation, which is what makes what he said then relevant now.

For those who might be unaware, St John Lateran is the Roman Pontiff's cathedral church as Bishop of Rome. It is the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (the other three being St Peter's, St Paul Outside the Walls, and St Mary Major).

St John Lateran Basilica

The other post I came across that seemed more than fitting for today's feast, as well as for my forty-ninth birthday, which is coming up on Tuesday, the feast of that glorious saint and holy bishop St Martin of Tours, I entitled "each of us knows in his own experience when he judges it." I wrote this reflection more than five years ago (18 August 2009) in light of the Spiritual Exercises for the year of Communion & Liberation: From Faith, the Method. This explains why some of the references are a bit dated. So, with just a little editing, here it is:


There is a difficult passage near the end of the final Assembly at this year's Exercises [2009 Exercises], the one about following the experience of a person and not of the person per se. It is not difficult to comprehend. Rather, it is difficult because it is all too clear and runs counter to my inclinations. I have had the experience of a person saying, doing, being a certain way that moved me, that changed me and who has turned around and become very off-putting to me. This confuses me because it causes me to call the authenticity of my experience into question. I remember when Ted Haggard's sins were revealed, his meth use and consorting with a male prostitute. It made many question whether their being moved through him toward Christ was real. So, the question remains: Is it the person, or the Spirit? This is not a question that someone can answer for anyone else. This is what Carrón had to say about the charism given to Giussani and our experience of it:
Father Giussani communicated an experience that he had to us, and this is true even if tomorrow I betray it. It is true and will always be true, because what makes for a correspondence or not is not what I say or what Father Giussani says, but is what each of us knows in his own experience when he judges it. This is why one follows the experience of another, which he communicates to you as best he can, gropingly. We do not follow the person because of [his personality] [the translation as it appeared in the English booklet of the Italian word "personalismo", was "a personalism"], because the boss said so. This is not human; it is not human! But if he is communicating an experience to you that he is having and if you are interested in learning, following that person means following the experience that he is having, in such a way that you can make it your own. And it will remain yours even if he would betray it. I do not want us to repeat Father Giussani’s sayings (or mine), but I want that this be our experience, that it become ours, because when we want something we want it to become ours, as we wanted what the mathematics teacher taught us to become ours. Do you not want this? Father Giussani says this when he explains obedience: obedience is following until, at a certain point, one is following himself, struck by the experience that another has had, because he is so entirely one with himself that, in the end, he follows himself, struck by another’s experience. If we do not do this, we keep on repeating the sayings of Father Giussani, but we will not have the experience that he has (italicizing emphasis mine- From Faith, the Method, pg. 64)
Papal cathedra in St John Lateran

It was interesting to watch the dynamic at the Green Day concert I went to the other night [16 August 2009], it made me think about what Alice Bag wrote about her discussions with Darby Crash regarding music and fascism. Green Day is certainly not fascist and I saw Billy Joe Armstrong as having an awareness of the potential and not pushing it too hard- the potential is there, just as it is in CL, or in the church writ large, it seems to be an all too human tendency to drift toward ideology, which I employ to mean wanting a pre-conceived system of iron clad certainties all packaged up and ready for purchase, like everything else in our consumer society. This is an emotivist reduction: I have my ideology and you have yours and our choosing them is just a matter of preference and/or pre-disposition having little or nothing to do with my experience or yours and certainly nothing at all to do with correspondence. I guess my point here is that to follow the charism given to Giussani is not to follow Giussani, but the experience communicated to me through him, through Carrón, through Albacete, through Fred, Sharon, Suzanne, Alex, Greg et al., making it my own through my experience, which is my unique path to destiny.


In light of all this, it bears noting that it was 25 years ago today, 9 November 1989, that the Berlin Wall was breached and torn apart. In his still relevant book, A Turning Point for Europe?, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing in the wake of that momentous event, noted, "The Church's first task in this area is to keep alive in fidelity to her holy tradition, the basic criterion of justice and to detach it from the arbitrariness of power" (60). This fidelity to holy tradition is the faithfulness to the experience that not only spawned, but continues to constitute, that is, make, what we revere as "holy tradition," which, in turn, makes us.