Sunday, January 31, 2010

Year C 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 71: 1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30

As Christians we talk about love all the time because love is fundamental, not just for our lives, but for all of reality. After all, love is the reason there is something rather than nothing. When we speak of love we often do so by way of a reduction. Very often we repeat from Scripture, "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16). In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict points this tendency out and attributes it, at least in part, to the poverty of our language. In English we have one word, "love," that we use across a vast range of meaning. In koine Greek, the language in which St. Paul composed his letters, we encounter three distinct words that we translate as "love": philia, agape, and eros. Philia refers to a particular kind of love between friends, exalted by Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle. The word eros, as we know, means something like the "love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon" them (par. 3). This brings us to agape, the word that St. Paul wrote about in our second reading, which is the same word used in 1 John to describe the divine nature of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In western Christianity, taking Latin as our normative language, agape becomes caritas and, in turn, charity.

As with the word love, charity takes on many meanings, perhaps the most common of which in our day is bound up with being something of a do-gooder. Hence, our reduction is often revealed to us when a person we try to help says, "I don’t want or need your charity." This rejection is understandable and arises from a well-intentioned effort that fails to take full account of the humanity of the person we wish to help. In short, people cannot be the objects of a charitable act because true charity involves only subjects. It is precisely Jesus’ refusal to be reductive in today’s Gospel that causes him refuse to perform miracles in his home town in order to prove the truth of the messianic declaration he made in the synagogue, namely that the words of the prophet Isaiah, which he read to them at worship, were fulfilled in their hearing that very day. What was the messianic declaration of Isaiah? Let’s look back at last week’s Gospel: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19). Without getting too cute with this passage, because in reality, even prior to his return to Nazareth, especially in Capernaum, he did restore sight to the blind, make the lame walk, and the deaf hear, we ask who are the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed? In this passage it is those who were there present. Their blindness is manifest by the fact that they do not recognize Jesus as the anointed one, the Messiah. They become infuriated that he refuses to demonstrate his claims with physical healings and other great signs to the point of trying to kill him. Jesus’ refusal shows that he has no ego-centric need to prove his identity.

Msgr. Luigi Giussani makes a distinction between charity and generosity. According to his view, "[g]enerosity arises from within you and therefore is like an escape valve" (Is It Possible to Live This Way?, Vol. 3 pg. 61). As such, it is an attempt to meet your own need and is not primarily concerned for the person you seek to help. For example, if you don’t give to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti, you feel cheap, and so you give. Looking at things like this if you give $1,000 instead of $100, you feel as though you have done more. When we act out of caritas, it works contrary to generosity: caritas "arises from without, from a presence in front of you," a person "who moves you and asks you" (ibid). Stated simply, "[c]harity poses itself in the relationship with another when there is no reason, no calculation" and can often only be done by us with great difficulty, which makes it a sacrifice acceptable to God (pg 38). This is the lesson of the widow, who we will encounter later in St. Luke’s Gospel, whose "two small coins" amounted to more than the contributions of the all the wealthy people combined because, while the wealthy "made offerings from their surplus," she gave "from her poverty," thus offering "her whole livelihood," everything she had (Luke 21:1-4). Charity always requires sacrifice.

Fr. Leonardo Grasso, a missionary sent from Venezuela to Haiti after the earthquake, when asked what he found upon his arrival in Haiti, said he "found people who are not as they are reflected in the current news, where they are portrayed as desperate, a prey for violence, and who are looting the aid. This is not true." He says that in his daily interactions with people he does not see, nor do people complain about all the conditions reported in the media. Rather, Fr. Leonardo says that because the Haitians "are people who have suffered greatly" that "they are also capable of facing conditions which seem impossible… They are able to recognize, in the circumstances of the catastrophe, a strength that comes from a relationship with God and with others. Haitians know the difficulties that confront them and embrace them in an extremely positive way." He says that "[i]nto the disaster, they breathe the desire to start over." One piece of reportage has stayed with me throughout these past few weeks came via Twitter from one Troy Livesay, who was in Port au Prince on the very night of the quake: "Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy." Charity always includes prayer through which we acknowledge the One who is our hope, the LORD who tells Jeremiah, "I am with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:19). In all of this we see that God does not so much deliver us from circumstances, but through them.

Reflecting on love in light of the Gospel, I see that if my actions derive from something dictated to me, which gives rise to a felt need of my own, then I am engaging in child’s play, a kind of mechanical calculation. If, however, my actions arise "from the awareness moved by the presence of a [person] destined for the eternal, it’s no longer child’s play" (Is It Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 3 pg. 60). Without reference to Christ, I cannot help but reduce the humanity of those I try to assist as well as my own. Returning to the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, we read that "[s]eeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave" (par. 18). Hence, I can never look at another person "with the eyes of Christ" and see a problem to be solved. Indeed, our greatest need is to be loved, which is why St. Paul can confidently say that love "endures all things" and "never fails" (1 Cor. 13:7c-8a).

Finally, let’s look at the devastation wrought by the spread of HIV throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is not uncommon to hear the response that we must make condoms more widely available, but this response ignores the humanity of those we want to help. What is the more charitable way? Rose Busingye, who runs Meeting Point International, a place in Kampala, Uganda for women infected with HIV and those with full-blown AIDs, many of whom are victims of rape and violence, tell us that we must "start from the fact that we need to be educated" and that "education primarily concerns the discovery of self: the person who is conscious of himself. He knows that he has a value that is greater than everything. Without the discovery of this value - for themselves and others - there is nothing to hold." Therefore, if we start, as those who think the distribution of condoms is either the only way, or merely the primary way, of combatting the spread of this deadly virus, from a negative hypothesis- that people in Africa, or anywhere, like teenagers in high school, will inevitably behave in an irresponsible manner, we fail to take seriously their humanity. Dear friends, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must recognize that charity always trumps mechanics, be they physical, psychological, or even moral. Our ability to do this can only arise from our awareness of first being loved, which love gathers us here and makes what we do Eucharist, which moves us from what is partial to what is perfect.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A few thoughts on reality, memory, and experience

Something real happens to all of us everyday, all day long. If we pay attention, we will be humbled into true spirituality. God preserves everything that happens, whole and complete, which is why we purify memory by being unreservedly honest about what happens. It is just what JPII called for at the turn of the milennium with regards to how Christians have treated Jews, but extended to other times when we were untrue to the Lord. Confession is how we purify memory in our own lives, by being unflinchingly honest about what we do and what motivated us to do what we know is wrong. Not to be honest in confession reveals pride and a lack of trust in God's infinite mercy given to us in Christ Jesus.

Prior to confession we examine our consciences so that when we confess we will recall our lives as accurately as we can. Since we are not able to have total recall, God's mercy makes up for what we unintentionally leave out, which spares us the vice of scrupulosity and the neurosis that accompanies this spiritual affliction. At end of the day, all we do has to be dealt with; the choice is ours to reconcile now or we can wait for the day of reckoning. To think for one moment that we can skip over the bad parts is an exercise in self-deception. In other words, my limited consciousness can only preserve some of the past via memory, but I don't remember everthing, even what I remember I do not recall perfectly. God preserves everything that happens, whole and complete, which is why we purify memory by being honest about what happened.

All of the above is sketchy and probably skewed in some way. It began with Sandro Magister's summary of philosopher Robert Spaemann's presentation as part of the God today conference held in Rome back in December, specifically this: "The proposition 'in the more remote future it will no longer be true that we had gathered together this evening' is nonsense. It cannot be thought. If one day we will no longer have been, then in fact we are not real now either, as Buddhism concludes. If one day the present reality will no longer have been present, then it is not real at all...The only answer sounds like this: we are forced to think of a consciousness that preserves everything that happens [not obliterates it], an absolute consciousness""

Who gives best witness to Christ? Not political leaders, not generals, not even popes or bishops, or priests or deacons necessarily, but the saints. All that Mother Teresa did, all her sisters continue to do, is in the name of Christ. Christianity can account for the evil doing of its adherents, which shows how much we all need God's mercy and healing, which was effected in the world by the Incarnation of His Son, who is not a myth but a real person. His life, His passion, His death, His resurrection are facts in the world, like the genocide in Rwanda, the on-going situation in Darfur, et. al. Reality cannot be denied if we are to acknowledge and maintain our humanity. The world is not overcome by mythical beings.

It is important to note that one cannot adhere to a system called Christianity, but only to Jesus Christ. Among the most misunderstood aspects of Christian faith are original sin and post-baptismal concupiscence, both of which are necessary in accounting for the whole of reality, especially that part of reality that is my own life! It is necessary to account for reality, something we cannot do by rejecting language, politics, and all of the other factors that make up reality. To reject any factor that constitutes reality is not an answer to anything and leads to a kind of paralyzing fixation on one's self and to fear. Reflecting on the writing and life of J.D. Salinger offers us an actual glimpse of what a person who seeks to reject a great deal of reality looks like.

Just as I was finishing this post my dear friend Fred brought this post to my attention: For the Soul of David Foster Wallace by Webster Bull.

Friday, January 29, 2010

in memoriam: J.D. Salinger

I am still reeling a little from the death of J.D. Salinger, which was made public yesterday. Of course, Salinger's most famous book is Catcher in Rye, which really created a genre in English fiction. The book was controversial for its language, especially for its use of the F-word:

"But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written 'Fuck you' on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them - all cockeyed, naturally, what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days..."

Salinger's well-played F-bomb put me in mind of a line by Spencer Tracy from Inherit the Wind: "I don't swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands." Hence, I see Salinger's obsession to maintain youthful innocence as misguided. It is misguided because it is more of an inevitability than a virtue, especially in a broken world that is our path to destiny. To paraphrase something Pope Benedict XVI said in one of his Christmas Urbi et Orbi addresses: we are not saved despite our humanity, but precisely through it.

With Salinger's passing, there are three deaths of artists over the past roughly year-and-a-half that have affected me deeply because their works touch my deeply, wound me with beauty, and show me what in means to be human in all of its awe/some/ful/ness.

My friend, Lisan offered a beautiful synthesis of how I feel today: "Apropos to say that deep feeling is beautiful like God's grace. When do childlike observations stop and blindness begin?" Indeed, Salinger saw growing up as being swamped by the world, having your I's eyes poked out, as it were. In his brilliant assessment of Salinger's work, David Skinner lights upon this as the primary concern of all of Salinger's fiction, which limitation is precisely what gives it meaning. Salinger's concern about this loss of innocence was not confined to fiction, but was the main preoccupation of his life. Loss of innocence is not a blinding, but seeing reality according to the totality of its factors, having your eyes opened. While what we see is not always pretty, it is reality and no amount of wishing will make it otherwise. In order to engage reality, I must first see it for what it is, which is certainly more than the two dimensions I observe, or even the third of which I am aware. This is why the power of positive thinking is foolishness and why a life without regrets is not a human life.

Towards the end of The Sentimental Misanthrope, Skinner writes:
"The reason for his silence is not found in [Salinger's] life, but in his fiction—the work that captured perfectly the adolescent who has discovered the world is corrupt. Salinger's compounding of misanthropy and sentimentality was always smart. He knew that the problem is not children but adults, just as he knew that the solution involves God somehow. That's why his late stories filled up with saints and seers and sages and holy fools. But he never quite figured out how it worked, and his stabs at second innocence kept falling back into first innocence. In raising his children too high—in making childhood not just innocent but wise—Salinger damned his adults forever and ever."
I am grateful that I have figured out, albeit to a very limited extent, how the solution involves God: the Incarnation, which is a solution akin to trying to light upon the repeating number in Pi if you relegate it to an intellectual problem to be solved instead of a life to be lived.

These days Catcher in the Rye, which provocatively appears on the Barnes & Noble banned book table at a certain time of the year, remains a cause célèbre because it features what Fr. John Montag, SJ says "is the best-placed F-bomb in all of literature." I think Skinner gets to the heart of what Salinger's writing is all about, which does not demean it, but gives it meaning. Besides, I grew up with and around foul language. So, it has never bothered me. To that end, I'll conclude by going all Holdin Caufield: What bothers me are people who bad language bothers and who make a big deal about it. I hope for their sakes that such people are better than I am, but the fact that they wouldn't say shit if they had a mouth full of it is not the basis of any supposed moral superiority.

"There's a time device inside of me..."

The Kinks' Destroyer is this week's Friday traditio. Why? Because I heard it on the radio this week and remembered what a strange and catchy song it is, the sequel to Lola. I remember I went through a Kinks phase way back in the early '80s. Remember friends, "it's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world," including Lola.

By way of Quaerere Deum "Grace is a gift, and it is not given for innocence nor withheld for sin" from The Cloud of Unknowing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti is a people

While driving from work to my parish last night I listened to a story on All Things Considered about the people in Haiti who are desperately trying to find work, to be employed for wages in order to make a living. As I listened to the story I thought "Well, surely after the earthquake there is plenty of need for people to help with recovery operations, with the distribution of food, water, and setting up temporary shelters, burying the dead, etc." Beyond the immediate aftermath, there is a lot of work to be done rebuilding Port au Prince and outlying towns and villages, along with what little transportation infrastructure there is. Then I thought how the relief efforts are much like the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that have flowed into Haiti just since the Clinton Administration, which, like so much aid given to desperately poor countries, seems to have no effect beyond enriching the corrupt elites.

I think much of what economist Dambisa Moyo set forth in her book of a few years ago, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, is applicable to Haiti, too. At the end of the day, we have to take the humanity of the Haitian people into account, just as we do anybody we would deign to assist in any way. While people rushing to Haiti and donating generously are, on the whole, good things, we must coordinate and distribute in such a way that we do not ignore the humanity of the people of Haiti.

What helped me to synthesize all of this today is an interview for Il Sussidiario, which appears as part of their Diary Haiti series, with Fr. Leonardo Grasso, who is a missionary priest that went from Venezuela to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. When asked what he found upon his arrival in Haiti, apart from the devastation caused by the earthquake, he said "I found people who are not as they are reflected in the current news, where they are portrayed as desperate, a prey for violence, and who are looting the aid. This is not true." He says that in his daily interactions with people he does not see, nor do people complain about all the conditions reported in the media. Rather, Fr. Leonardo says that because the Haitians "are people who have suffered greatly" that "they are also capable of facing conditions which seem impossible. These people are also very religious. They are able to recognize, in the circumstances of the catastrophe, a strength that comes from a relationship with God and with others. Haitians know the difficulties that confront them and embrace them in an extremely positive way." Most importantly, he contradicts the passivity and resignation with which the people of Haiti are portrayed, insisting that they "are responding with great initiative. Into the disaster, they breathe the desire to start over." For me this means we need to be careful not to break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

Above all, Fr. Leonardo states that there is reason for great hope in the midst of this disaster. I thought his perspective surfaced something that seems to be ignored and shunted off to the side, the Haitian people themselves. Our Lady of Perpetual Help- pray for us!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union

On this day of the president's annual State of the Union address, I think the title of Andrew Wilson's Spectator article this morning sets us up nicely for what we'll hear: Coming Tonight: The Mythic Tale of How Barack Obama Averted the Next Great Depression. Of course, this is the argument being used to secure a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve for Ben Bernanke. At the end of the day this really amounts to saying, "It coulda been worse." It could always be worse, but not much worse. The other barb being levelled at those, like myself, who think Benanke should not be given a second term, is that we are engaging populism, which is a peculiar form of demagoguery.

I like the counter-argument made yesterday by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who resonded to the "it coulda been worse" argument by accepting it at face value: "After the house has burned down you don't need a fireman, you need a carpenter." Here's a fun game we can play during the speech, keep score as to how much new, deficit expanding, government spending is proposed and how many times he still blames President Bush for the mess we're in. Add the new spending to all the other expensive initiatives, like cash for Toyota and Honda and the $787 billion non-stimulating stimulus, which are wholly creations of the current administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. The non-stimulating stimulus does not even meet Pres. Obama's benchmarks for success, like keeping unemployment at or below 8%, etc. Pay no attention to yesterday's announced freeze on domestic discretionary spending, the savings to be realized by this freeze only amount to $100 billion more than the $150 billion jobs bill, which is in addition to the $787 billion non-stimulating stimulus, which the CBO is now saying will cost an additional $75 billion, thus making the savings in domestic discretionary spending only $25 billion. I agree with the editorial in today's Wall Street Journal: "stop spending more now: Drop the health-care bill, cancel the unspent stimulus spending from last year, kill the $150 billion new stimulus that has already passed the House, and bar all repaid bailout cash from being re-spent. Everything else is marketing."

Something I read a long time ago, during the administration of the first Pres. Bush, from P.J. O'Rourke's book Parliament of Whores, comes to mind: "giving money and power to Congress is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." This time-tested axiom was as true when the Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, as it is now that the tables are turned and the Dems are in power. We need to get beyond the myth of gridlock, which states that unless one party controls everything nothing gets done. In the first instance, there are a lot of cases where getting nothing done would be excellent. Secondly, there needs to be opposition that has to be taken seriously, like having control of at least either the House or the Senate. Otherwise, we'll get more reckless spending that benefits almost everyone except those it supposed to benefit, everyday people. Even before tonight's announcement of many new, expansive and expensive programs, we are already beyond the realm of even any kind of rational Keynesian construct. The recent Supreme Court decision permitting no limits on what corporations can spend on elections goes a great distance to perpetuating this fiscal insanity. Apparently, change you can believe in is a variation on the old theme, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

As Pete Peterson pointed out in his insightful book, written quite a few years ago now, the thesis of which is captured in the title, there is only one true bi-partisan activity: Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. There is reason for optimism, the kind of revolt that took place in Massachusetts last week, which I do not see in partisan terms. It was a time when elections worked the way they are supposed to work. Even though Pres Carter infamous malaise speech effectively marked the end of his presidency (and rightfully so), his observation that the people of the United States will never have a better government than they deserve is true. It is a provocation that challenges us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Random thought for a snowy morning

It occurred to me the other day as I was re-reading parts of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, in which one of his main concerns is to explain why and how the material dialectic caused the communist revolution to occur in backwards ass Russia instead of in one of Europe's industrialized countries, as Marx believed (Trotsky is bold and creative in his effort to explain, but ultimately unconvincing), that if I had been a communist in those early days I probably would have been a party theorist. Only then did it occur to me that, as a result, I probably would've been one of the first people marched into woods and shot in the head.

Yes, these are things I think about, which explains why I have a hard time replacing door knobs and other practical chores.

Hierarchy update

Keeping up the fervent pace sustained through last year, it was announced this morning that the Holy Father appointed His Excellency, Bishop Joe Vasquez, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, as the new bishop of Austin, Texas. Bishop Vasquez is 52 years-old. Vasquez's assignment marks the Holy Father's second episcopal appointment for the U.S. this new year. Prior to being named an auxiliary bishop, he was a priest of one of my old stomping grounds, where I did a bit of my pre-ordination internship: San Angelo, Texas. Bishop Vasquez and I have the same middle name- Stephen! Bishop Vasquez succeeds now- Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was returned home last year as the archbishop of the Big Easy. His job now being to root and pray the Saints to victory!

As with the appointment of Bishop-elect William Mulvey to Corpus Christi last week, Bishop Vasquez's appointment to Austin creates no new vacancies. So, there are now five vacant Latin Rite sees in the United States: Springfield in Illinois; Scranton, PA; Ogdensburg, NY; LaCrosse, WI; Harrisburg, PA. The Syrian Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, headquartered in Newark, NJ, is also vacant after Archbishop Younan was selected by the holy synod of that church last year to be their patriarch. Along the lines of Eastern Catholic Churches, I was very happy to see this heading in yesterday's Vatican Information Service bulletin: ACTS OF THE ORIENTAL CHURCHES. Presently, there are two archbishops (i.e., Beltran of Oklahoma City and Brunett of Seattle) and two bishops (Higi of Layfayette, IN and Skylstad of Spokane) serving past age 75. I am hearing some credible rumblings, a few whispers in the loggia, as it were, regarding Seattle.

As always, one cannot give too much credit to Catholic Hierarchy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ideology cannot move us, part 2

The anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is always observed by a massive pro-life march in our nation's capital. It is a peaceful demonstration and it is, without a doubt, a good thing to see hundreds of thousands of people, citizens of a free country, exercising their rights to free speech and free association in support of the worthiest of all causes: human life. To paraphrase something Pope John Paul II said over and again: without the right to life all other rights do not really matter. Nonetheless, we can't just leave it there because it is very easy to get together with a large group of like-minded folks to march with banners and chant slogans in the service of a cause that is just and true.

Beginning last Saturday I began to see the following on Facebook: "Yesterday, January 22, 2010 marked the 37th anniversary of the day abortion became legal. Since that day 50,000,000 human beings have lost their lives. 3,500 abortions are performed each day, adding up to over a million abortions a year. If you want to take a stand for life, post this on your page and leave it as your status for at least one hour." I did not post this as my status at all. Why? Because it strikes me as very abstract. I can't really see the humanity in this statement, factually accurate and disturbing as it is in its own way. I stand for human life unambiguously. With regard to the statement above, I ask, what good does it do, especially if we are content to remain in the realm of ideology? For somebody who takes the opposing view, I imagine their response would be to say "Ho-hum," then to stretch and yawn.

My own experience in pastoral ministry has taught me that the part of being pro-life that consists of opposing abortion requires me to reach out to and to pray for women who find themselves pregnant, alone, scared, and uncertain, who feel unloved and unwanted themselves, more than it means being politically active. Political posturing with a lot of bon homme and hot chocolate is easy, whereas it is quite difficult to love because love requires a lot from me and is often inconvenient and always means not being in control. I cannot love an abstraction. I can only love a person. Humanity, humankind, mankind, etc., is an abstraction, the woman looking at me through tears who is scared and alone is not just a concrete reality, but someone of infinite worth. She is also, if I am honest, very often someone I would rather not face. The part of being pro-life that opposes abortion also means recognizing that whenever I teach or preach on this important issue, I must do so knowing full well that there are women who have had abortions listening to me. Many of these women carry a lot of guilt, their choice remains for them an open wound, like the woman with the hemorrhage who needed Jesus' healing touch (Mark 5:25-34). So, if all I offer is ideology, condemnation, and a reaffirmation of something too many of them might already believe, namely that they are beyond the reach of God's love, I am not in the service of Christ, in whom and through whom God brings life from death.

Cutting to the chase, yet again: it is not a matter of having the correct ideology, the one that opposes the ideology set forth in my previous post, it is recognizing once more that ideology cannot move us. If anything, ideology hardens us. With each day that passes I am more convinced that the Eucharist is where we resist the "annihilation of the human subject," which does not mean politicizing the Eucharist. It means verifying through experience that we are accompanied by His presence and seeing how we are called to make Him present to everyone we encounter in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Today we observe the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Apostle's encounter with our resurrected and living Lord moved him beyond the narrow confines of religion as ideology- "For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors... God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me..." (Gal. 1:11-16a NRSV).

I also want to acknowledge the fifteenth anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. He was ordained 25 January 1995 in The Cathedral of the Madeleine. Roger Cardinal Mahony was his principal consecrator who was assisted by then-Archbishop William Levada, and Bishop Tod Brown- though it might make him chuckle at this point: Ad multos annos!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Diocese of Salt Lake City has 21 new permanent deacons

The Diocese of Salt Lake City now has 21 new permanent deacons. Deacon Greg has piece on them over at The Bench, which he links to the very nice article in The Salt Lake Tribune by Kristin Moulton- Utahns answer the call to serve as Catholic deacons. As we say in Utah, with our inability to conjugate the verbs to be and to see in the past tense plural, not to be ignernt or anything- "We was there. We seen it."

Photo courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune

Ms. Moulton observes that being a ordained a permanent deacon today is little different from when the first men were ordained permanent deacons in "the 1970s and '80s, when parishioners and priests alike treated deacons with suspicion..."

"It was a new thing for everybody," Deacon Silvio Mayo told Moulton. "No one would call you 'Deacon'," he continues, "[n]ow it's like it's your first name." Of course, Silvio, who serves as Chancellor of our fair diocese, was ordained in the first class of deacons way back in 1975 by Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal, who eagerly ushered in the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry for our local church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI's Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, and the subsequent permission granted by the Holy See for deacons to be formed and ordained in the U.S.

Sr. Patricia Riley, a Holy Cross sister, deserves more credit than could ever be expressed for her role in leading these men through their formation. She is an exemplar of the call of all the baptized to service, to diakonia, as well as a woman consecrated to Christ and the Church through her religious profession. Hence, her legacy of service will live on in these men. It was Sr. Patricia who extended to me the great privilege of teaching a few classes to these men who now have the privilege and responsibility of being constantly at the service of the church and the world. So, to her and to our new deacons, Ad multos annos!

So, along with all of us previously ordained to this vitalizing order, I welcome my new brother deacons. Serving God's holy people is a privilege, not a burden. For a deacon it becomes your path to salvation. I am very mindful today that the sixth anniversary of my own ordination at the hands of now-Archbishop George Niederauer, one day shy of the anniversary of his ordination as a bishop, is tomorrow, 24 January. The reason I chose the picture that appears above, taken by Scott Sommerdorf for the Trib, is because it shows what I want my ministry to be, focused on Jesus and not on me. I am happy to be a blur in the frame, a snapshot in time of God redeeming the world through His only begotten Son, the perfect sacrifice, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We now have 21 new deacons who will ask with joy their hearts, smiles on their faces, and little weariness in their legs- "Is it Monday yet?"

Speaking of service, I am pleased and grateful that Il Sussidiaro published Adventures in Theodicy: the phenomenon we call life.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"You can feel the punishment but you can't commit the sin"

Howard Jones' classic No One Is to Blame is this Friday's traditio. It certainly does not hurt that this version was recorded as part of the tremendously funny Kenny Everett show.

"You can see the summit but you can't reach it/Its the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit/Doctor says you're cured but you still feel the pain/ Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain."

What is hope and, assuming it is not an illusion that leads to being delusional, can I have it? I'm not trying to be cute. I have hope, which is revealed and reiterated to me whenever I have the kinds of experiences Howard sings about in this song. I mean, if your aspirations are in the clouds but your hopes are down the drain, chances are that even if your hopes, such as they are, were realized your aspirations would be greater still; you will still wind up dissatisfied because your desire, what you want, is bigger than the world! You're human and that's how we roll.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few reflections on Catholic blogging

Blogging is always a worthy topic to address, especially for a blogger who is conscious of the perception many people have of blogging and the low regard they have for bloggers. I readily admit that given the vastness of the blogosphere, even when you break it down into discrete parts, like the Catholic blogosphere, to which I belong, it is still vast. This vastness contains blogs of many different flavors, from the well informed and informative, to the ignorant and narrow. I also recognize that a fair portion of the Catholic blogosphere is a quasi-traditionalist echo chamber, which is not say that there are not quite a few well-written and insightful blogs composed by thoughtful Catholics of a more traditional bent. I am one of those who is considered to be liberal by those more conservative that me and conservative by those who are more liberal. Frankly, I find this gratifying largely due to the fact that I find both labels practically meaningless and adhere to Archbishop Niederauer's position that to ask me if I am a liberal or a conservative is like selling me a car and asking me if I want either a brake pedal or a gas pedal. As a Christian I judge things according to a criteria that differs dramatically by those proposed by secular ideologies.

I am not really certain that there exists an equally large number of blogs that take the opposite point-of-view and that are more what Fr. Timothy Radcliffe called "Kingdom" Catholics. Of course, Catholic publications have entered the blogosphere in a big way. There is dotCommonweal, America's popular In All Things blog and the less well-known, but equally good, The Good Word: A Blog on Scripture and Preaching. First Things is host to a number of blogs, including On the Square, The Anchoress, and Postmodern Conservative. As long as this list is, it does not come close to exhausting even the blogs that exist in conjunction with Catholic print magazines. It doesn't even exhaust all the blogs you can access via First Things!

At least two archbishops, Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Dolan maintain blogs. One can hardly mention Catholic blogging without mentioning Deacon Greg Kandra's The Deacon's Bench, hosted on Beliefnet, Rocco Palmo's Whispers in the Loggia and Amy Wellborn, the true pioneer of Catholic blogging, who now composes Charlotte was Both. John Allen's All Things Catholic is another worthy on-line institution and anchor of the Catholic blogosphere.

I am enthusiastic about blogs that chart their own paths, like my friend Kim's Faith, Fiction, and Flannery and Image's Good Letters blog. These blogs are a refreshing break from the overly earnest Catholic/Christian commentariat, to which I belong. While not necessarily part of the Catholic blog ghetto, I loved Alice Bag's autobiographical blog Violence Girl, where she old her story. It was a compelling exercise in blogging! My dear friend Sharon, who seems to always be one step ahead when it comes to communications technology, has a truly remarkable thing going on over on Quaerere Deum.

My little endeavor pales in comparison to all the blogs mentioned above. Nonetheless, I believe that Catholic voices from the West and from smaller dioceses need to be heard and not just those that emanate from New York, Chicagoland, D.C., Irondale, et. al. I like thinking it a bit subsversive to use new media, which often has the effect of homogenizing instead of diversifying, to inject a different point-of-view, to express views from the local level and from those of us who live and move in a unique milieu. Being a Catholic in Utah and being a permanent deacon, I believe, qualifies. I am firmly convinced that those of us who venture into the public domain as Catholics have a responsibility to act like Christians, which at a minimum means being civil, but it also means being thoughtful, creative, and informed. Writing is an opportunity for the one who writes to find his/her own voice and to make a unique contribution. The last thing the church and the world needs is an echo chamber made up of either "Communio" Catholics or "Kingdom" Catholics. Being civil does not prevent one from clearly, logically, and creatively expressing strong opinions and insights, or from engaging and arguing with those who may not agree.

Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, for whom I am praying as he battles cancer, recently wrote about his experience of a day spent listening to Catholic radio: "there are some embarrassing and ignorant goof-balls who have managed to corner an hour of Catholic radio. If anyone thinks that evangelicals or fundamentalists have a corner on this market, you are quite wrong." Consider how much easier it is to set up a blog! A blog should be judged by its content and its layout, but content trumps appearance, just as substance trumps style. Holy orders certainly does not confer the charism of clear thought charitably expressed, or the gift of being informed, or of being able to make logical arguments. It certainly does not make you infallible. Accuracy when it comes to facts, making clear and logical points, expressing experience creatively are, at least to my mind, the hallmarks of a good blog. For a good Catholic blog we must add charity: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). Do we go bong, bong, clank, clank, or make a beautiful and symphonic sound, or, more aptly, that of a jazz combo?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adventures in theodicy: the phenomenon we call life

When arise we all awaken to news. I am always more than a little surprised to find each day that the world continues to turn when I am asleep, even though as I get older sleep does not come as easily as it used to. The news I am fixated on this morning is that Haiti was hit by an aftershock that registered 6.1 on the Richter scale, a fair earthquake in its own right. This fact tells us something important about this natural disaster and others like it; we call them natural disasters because they happen as the result of forces that are beyond our power manipulate. Haiti's earthquakes and the Asian tsunami of five years ago are attributable to plate tectonics, the shifting and moving that happens below the earth. Port au Prince sits on a fault line that extends all the way across the Caribbean to Central America. It seems a strange irony that the same geo-phyiscal dynamics that so devastated Haiti's capital also made the island of Hispañola, which the Dominican Republic and Haiti share.

Since the Haitian earthquake, I am even more conscious that my house, the very place I sit typing, is situated very near, nearer than I care to contemplate, to the Wasatch fault line, which runs north-to-south along the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, part of the chain of the great Rocky Mountains. This makes me realize that in important ways my life is not as secure as I often delude myself into thinking it is. My situation is only slightly less precarious than that of the Haitian people. I am firmly convinced that true solidarity with the people of Haiti can only arise from this awareness.

So, in a very real sense, to quote words from an old Howard Jones song, no one is to blame (i.e., "You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat/You can feel the cushion, but you can't have a seat/You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim/You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin"). Even at our most irrational we do not blame that damn old tectonic plate, at least not for more than a few seconds. As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete surmises in his post over on America magazine's In All Things blog, whether we are people of faith or of no faith "our humanity demands that the question 'why' not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity." Indeed, why?, is the most human of all responses. It shows that as human beings we do not just seek or demand meaning, we need it, we must make sense of things. A detailed explanation of plate tectonics and geo-physical facts that contributed to the earthquake, or the tsunami in Asia do not satisfy us. So, we turn to God. This turn usually causes us to look up, to the great god in the sky, but the God of Israel is not the great sky god who manipulates the world as a puppet master. Neither is God the god of deism, who constructs the watch and lets the laws of thermodynamics run the course.

The fact that matters more that those of geo-physics, as Msgr. Albacete points out, is the Incarnation of God. Along with Lorenzo, "I cannot worship a God who demands that I tear out from my heart and my mind the question of why the suffering of the innocent happens". Hence, "I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to speak. I can only accept a God who 'co-suffers' with me." Jesus Christ is the One in whom I place my faith. His living as a marginal peasant, His suffering and death are how I make sense of these things. More than those events, His resurrection, which, along with what we know about geo-physics, is also a fact in the world. It is the fact that gives me hope, which is not a kind of vague longing for everything to work out alright in the end, but a fact that gives me certainty that in Him and through Him the victory is always already mine! This, dear friends is the Christian faith. St. Paul shows this when he writes: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

'For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us"
(Rom. 8:35-37).

Typically, because we want everything to be alright without passing through (often painful) experience, we leap right from verse 35a to verse 37, from which we even pass over the word "No", thus deliberately avoiding "tribulation," "distress,"
"persecution," "famine," "nakedness," "danger," "sword," "being killed all the day long," being "regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."

Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? Why did the Father choose to reconcile the world by sending His only begotten Son to suffer a cruel and unjust death and to be expiation? Why did God tell Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, which, oddly, means "laughter," and offer him as a sacrifice? Kierkegaard didn't get it and, frankly, neither do I, really. When I ask "Why?" in such situations the words of Rich Mullins' song Hard to Get start playing in my mind, not the polished version recorded by the Ragamuffins, but the scratchy recording featuring Rich, his guitar, and an old tape player, recorded just before his own untimely death:

"And I know you bore our sorrows/And I know you feel our pain/And I know it would not hurt any less/Even if it could be explained/And I know that I am only lashing out/At the One who loves me most/And after I figured this, somehow/All I really need to know/Is if You who live in eternity/Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time/We can't see what's ahead/And we can not get free of what we've left behind."

It also reminds me What Job teaches us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK/Human Rights Day- X Factor Ed(Add?)ition

Since today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day, I draw your attention to an article published in The Salt Lake Tribune last Saturday by Pastor Corey Hodges, who is pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in SLC- Remembering two martyrs: King and Malcolm X. Pastor Hodges is a frequent contributor to the Trib's 'Faith' section. I look forward to his articles which are always insightful and often constructively provocative. To frame the legacies of Dr. King and Malcolm X in terms of Catholic social teaching, King represents solidarity and X subsidiarity. As Pope Benedict pointed out in his most recent encylical Caritas in veritate: "The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need" (par. 58).

I read The Autobiogrpahy of Malcom X shortly before Spike Lee's Malcom X was released. Lee's biopic, starring Denzel Washington, remains, at least in my opinion, one of his very best films. Suffice it to say that my assessment of the achievements of and societal critique offered by Malcolm X is more positive than that of Pastor Hodges, which is why I allude to his autobiography, told to and written by Alex Haley, and Lee's movie. This is also why I see the contribution of both men in terms of solidarity and subsidiarity, two approaches that can only be balanced through tension of the dialectical kind.

Hierarchy Update with a twist of commentary

The Holy See announced today that the Holy Father has accepted the resignation of His Excellency, Bishop Edmond Carmody, of Corpus Christi, Texas. Bishop Carmody resigned having reached the canonical age limit last January. Monsignor Michael Mulvey, who is currently serving as the adminstrator of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, which has been awaiting the appointment of a new bishop since now-Archbishop Aymond was transferred to New Orleans last year, will be the new bishop of Corpus Christi, making him the Holy Father's first episcopal appointment of 2010 in the U.S.

Bishop-elect Mulvey has been very instrumental in the development of the Focolare movement in the United States. Like Communion & Liberation, Focolare, also known as Work of Mary, is a lay ecclesial movement. In Italian Focolare means hearth, family fireside. The founder of this movement, which is very committed to ecumenism, was Chiara Lubvich. Like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Chiara Lubvich, and, come to think of it, her namesake, Chiara Offreduccio, known more popularly as St. Clare of Assisi, give lie to the political posturing and ideological assertions of the kind expressed by Nicholas Kristof in a recent article for The New York Times, which reads like something re-published from the early 1970s, which culminates in a logically invalid inference: "Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior." The last thing the church needs, especially in this day and age, is to be driven by secular ideologies. With that off my chest, I readily acknowledge that there are much better arguments out there for what Kristof is proposing; arguments that make sense and avoid sloganeering and political posturing. Whether these are ultimately convincing arguments in their own right is a different question. This is relevant to Bishop-elect Mulvey's elevation within the hierarchy because Chiara Lubvich is for him, as her name would indicate, a light, someone in whose charism he shares. She leads him.

Chiara passed in 2008. There is no doubt that Mulvey collaborated closely with her. He served as co-director of Focolare's school of formation for diocesan priests in Florence from 1997-99, then he directed their Spirituality Center in New York from 1999-2001. Chiara Lubvich is to Focolare what Luigi Giussani is to CL. Maybe nobody ever told Chiara that you have to be ordained to follow Christ and to lead the faithful. The church, as the Holy Father has pointed on several occasions, is inherently institutional and charismatic at the same time. Chiara, like Giussani and others to whom the Spirit gives charisms of the kind we heard about at Mass yesterday when we read 1 Cor. 12:4-11, was concerned to recover the church's charismatic dimension, which cannot be played off against the institutional. All of this makes Bishop-elect Mulvey's appointment very significant.

With the retirement of Bishop Carmody, the number of Latin Rite bishops serving past the canonical age limit of 75 is reduced to four. The appointment of Bishop-elect Mulvey does not create a new vacancy. So, the number of vacant Latin Rite dioceses in this country remains at six. This stable state-of-affairs for the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. was made possible by the good work of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Holy Father's representative to this country. Last year was a banner year for episcopal appointments in this country.

In ecclesiastical news of international interest, Pope Benedict XVI also announced today that he has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Godfried Daneels as archbishop of Malines-Brussels. His Eminence will be succeeded by Bishop Andre Mutien Leonard.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


My dear friend Fran generated a discussion on Facebook this morning about judging, the problem of judging. On that topic, there is no more misused and abused passage of Scripture than Matthew 7:1 "Judge not, that you be not judged." Of course this is clipping, or proof-texting. In other words, it is an illegitimate and unreasonable way to apply Scripture. Let's look for some context: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matt. 7:2-5).

It is an indisputable article of Christian faith that you will be judged. Each Sunday and on solemnities we recite the Credo and say: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead..." Judging, one respondent wrote, is a condition of life; we have to judge. He is correct that judging is not the problem because it is an inevitability. So, what is the problem? We must concern ourselves with the criteria by which we judge. We must judge with compassion, with empathy, with sympathy. More importantly, we must judge according to the truth and in accord with all the factors that consitute reality (i.e., the world as it is and not as we wish it to be). It is right and good that we take comfort in scriptural reassurances, like "[a]bove all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). I don't know about you, but I am kind of counting on that! I have my heavenly defense all planned out: I am going to fall prostrate, as I do before the altar, along with my bishop, fellow deacons, and priests each Good Friday at the beginning of that moving celebration, and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

We have all heard and read the slogan- Hate the sin, love the sinner. This is certainly a defensible stance, but it should not be a defensive stance. I can judge an action as wrong without condemning the person who acts. Look at the case of Pat Robertson's pronouncement on why Haiti had an earthquake. It is an inaccurate and foolish. I don't believe it for one moment. That is a judgment I feel perfectly justified in making. I also think Rush Limbaugh's overly poiltical response utterly lacking in humanity, both for Pres. Obama and the people of Haiti. When Bill O'Reilly is raking you over the coals, as he did these guys last night, for a lack of compassion, you're in trouble!

Another friend, earlier in the week wrote that he was "convinced that if Jesus were to meet Pat Robertson, he would slap him upside the head." I am convinced of no such thing. I am convinced that if Jesus were to meet Pat Robertson, or Rush Limbaugh, He would look on them both with great compassion. Like me, every hair on their heads is numbered and they are both loved just as I am loved.

As Christians we are not called to live in the realm of abstraction, which results in a lot of useless hand-wringing. Asserting that we ought never to make judgments is pointless. Let's show this without getting too deeply into logic (reading a lot of W and David Stove these days): To call me judgmental is to judge. Conversely, to decide not to judge is also a judgment. In the words of that great Rush song, Freewill, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ideology cannot move us

Feeling very tired this evening I watched an episode of All in the Family on TV Land. I had forgotten what a brilliant program this was. Of course, when it was on CBS on Sunday evenings I was quite young. In this episode Gloria finds out she is pregnant and is thinking about having an abortion because Michael does not want to have children. His reason for not wanting children is because the world is a mess and he is worried about overpopulation, or, so he says. Their neighbor, Irene, straightens him out. What really moved me, which almost always happens in All in the Family, is when Edith says something- go to 6:17:

Edith: Mike will be very happy once the baby gets here.

Gloria: Maybe the baby won't get here.

Edith: Well there ain't nothin' you can do to stop that...
(She realizes that Gloria is alluding to having an abortion and says...)
Edith: Gloria no, you wouldn't do a thing like that!

Gloria: That's exactly what I've been here thinking about.

Edith: Oh my, uh if I'd thought like that I'd be sittin' here now talkin' to myself.

Gloria: Well Ma, don't you feel that a woman has a right to do what she wants with her own body?
(Edith looks puzzled)
Gloria: Well?

Edith: When I'm sittin' here watchin' them women about it on t.v., I guess it's yes, but when I'm sittin' here with my own daughter whose carryin' my own grandchild...Oh, Gloria, I'm already in love with that baby.

Now, I realize that every woman considering an abortion does not have the kind of love and support that Gloria has in All in the Family. In fact, many women have abortions at the insistence of their husbands and boyfriends, the fathers of these children. So, what's my point? Ideology cannot move us.

"When no one's expectations do a heavy on my heart"

"Could you please knock me off my feet for awhile?" Galaxy of Emptiness, a song that resonates with desire, that acknowledges our need, the need that makes us beggars, that is, protagonists, is our Friday traditio

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Crux fidelis inter omnes"

We had a wonderful School of Community last night. We spent a good portion of our time together discussing this passage from Is It Possible to Live This Way?: An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence, Vol. 3 Charity:

"On Good Friday, we sing the hymn of the cross, Crux fidelis inter omnes, faithful cross, true tree among trees, tree that doesn't die. So, Jesus's sacrifice - which is the great value that saves the world from all its misery and from death - becomes our value if we participate in it, if we accept from Christ the method He establishes for making us participate in His sacrifice. For example, He sends me an illness, He makes me be treated unfairly, He disappoints me in love, He makes me sacrifice an affection" (pg. 74). The last phrase, I think, means to give up something I love. So, what is this method established by Christ for making me participate in His sacrifice? Suffering. I participate in Christ's sacrifice by making of my suffering an sacrifice. In conventional Catholic terms, "offering it up."

Just as there is a difference between something happening to you and truly experiencing it, there is a difference between suffering, which has no value, and sacrifice, which is the way suffering has a value. My suffering is redemptive insofar as I make of it an offering to God in union with Christ's perfect sacrifice. This is no proposal of passivity or fatalism. At least in the first instance, I am referring to unavoidable suffering, that which happens to me over which I have no control, or, as another put it last night, when I feel as though I am playing a role in someone else's movie. In order to offer my suffering to God in union with Christ's sacrifice, I have to make a judgment, a choice about how I will respond. Only by judging it can I understand what is happening and only by understanding it can I offer it. Otherwise, I just suffer, wondering why. I become passive and forgetful in the face of being.

This morning I awoke thinking of all this, thinking of the devastation being experienced by the people of Haiti, with these words of St. Paul in my mind:

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Cor. 4:7-12).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haitian earthquake relief

"1117 Troy Livesay tweets:'Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy'" BBC News.

Photo BBC News

Today we need to pray for the people of Haiti and look for other ways to help them. So, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, or any other reputable aid organization that is helping with search and recovery operations as well as feeding and sheltering the displaced. Estimates indicate that thousands are dead. Times like this call forth solidarity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Personal and philosophical ruminations for a Tuesday

Life unfolds. The previous sentence is an apt metaphor. As life unfolds I gradually become aware how much choices have consequences. The consequences I am referring to are unintended. I do not bring this up in order to make some quaint and wholly inaccurate point about how when we make the "right" choices the consequences we desire happen and vice-versa. In fact, the older I get the more I realize that for every right choice I make there is a price to pay. Because of Christ I can say- "So be it." My reason for writing about this at all is to point out that we have to make choices, that is, judgments and, in most instances, there is nothing inherent about the choice, certainly not the ones to which I am referring, that would preclude certain things happening.

The particular choice about which I am writing is the choice to write. To write publicly is to take a tremendous risk. To write in a straight forward manner in my chosen genre (i.e., uncreative non-fiction) is even riskier. By and large people do not like to be provoked and challenged. Rather, we like to be stroked and reassured. Hence, especially in this day and age, we tend to read to people and sources that we know up-front share our point-of-view. This simple fact plays a large role in our political and civil division/alienation. In politics it takes the form of red states and blue states. It also takes the form of congressional, legislative districts being drawn so as to virtually assure that one or the other party holds the seat.

The essence of what I am trying to communicate is not political, though it does have to do with not mindlessly toeing the party line regardless of the party. In many circles it is not fashionable to have an opinion other than the predominant one, which is never to be challenged, even when it is an ill-considered line, a reactive and ideological line, which is not unknown even in the church. Getting to my point, I have never played that way. It started to occur to me late last year the price I have paid for this is quite high. I would like to blame being corrupted not just by Philosophy and by logic in particular, but my attraction toward both was very much the result of who I am. This brings me to the status I posted on my Facebook profile, one that is easily reduced and misunderstood. I wrote: "realized driving home from work that very few of things I worry about matter. I have to have one of those moments once in awhile." This occurred me to because I spend too much time worrying about consequences, making judgments on the basis of bullshit calculations. To be truly alive is to take the risk of engaging reality according to the totality of its factors, which means making judgments.

It has been wonderfully consoling to start reading my dear W once again, not only Ray Monk's truly brilliant little book How To Read Wittgenstein, but the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus itself. While this breathtakingly bold book was proved by Frank Ramsey not to have solved all the problems of philosophy, a proof that forced W to re-think many of its aspects, in it he set forth a way of looking at the world that is not just accurate, but, indeed, beautiful. Like many I do not see a big break between the early thought of W, which culminated in the Tractatus, after the publication of which he left academia believing he had solved all the philosophical problems and went on to teach elementary school, and his later thought. I think the basic issues he introduced in the Tractatus remained the focus of his later thinking. For example, I do not believe W ever conceived of Philosophy very different from how he defined it in the Tractatus:

"Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.

Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.

A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.

Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions.

Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and give them sharp boundaries" (4.112).

At the end of the day we have to explore the relationship between thought and and reality. Therefore, not language, but the logic that underlies language becomes the major focus. Take this bit from the Catechism: "Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so" (par. 40). We can turn this around and say that our knowledge of God is limited because our language is limited. Either way, there is no dispute about the fact that "God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God... with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (par. 42).

In my re-reading of W's Tractatus I also re-read Russell's introduction. I had forgotten what a fitting and insightful introduction it is. Towards the end of his discussion of the role mysticism plays in W's early philosophy (mysticism being the sum total of what W refers to in 7 of the Tractatus- "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence") Russell observes that W's attitude towards the mystical "grows naturally out of his doctrine in pure logic, according to which the logical proposition is a picture (true or false) of the fact, and has in common with the fact a certain structure which makes it capable of being a picture of the fact, but the structure cannot itself be put into words, since it is a structure of words, as well as of facts to which they refer." The mystical for W is that which can be shown and not spoken, but to show is the most convincing proof.

What Russell observes with regard to the Tractatus, I think, holds in W's later thought and writing, namely that we can "only say things about the world as a whole if we could exist outside the world, if, that is to say, it ceased to be for us the whole world. Our world may be bounded for some superior being who can survey it from above," as it were, "but for us, however finite it may be, it cannot have a boundary, since nothing is outside it." In his early phase as expressed in the Tractatus, W encountered in solipsism a particularly difficult problem, as Russell points out, for W "[t]hat the world is my world appears in the fact that the boundaries of language (the only language I understand) indicate the boundaries of my world. The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of the world."

All of this brings me to the obvious complementarity between W's philosophical insights, the ones he had early on and only worked to develop, not the ones he discarded, and Giussani's method. Take the last sentence I quoted from Russell's introduction to the Tractatus describing W's take on being human: "The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of the world" and what Giussani says in Is It Possible to Live This Way, Vol. 3 "the 'I' lies at the crossroads between the relationship with the mystery" (i.e., that which W asserts we must pass over in silence) "and the relationship with nothing" (pg. 62). Giussani's insistence that the fact of the Incarnation, which is a fact in the world, is the only appropriate starting point for Christian praxis, for living this way, is also in accord with engaging reality according to the totality of its factors (i.e., the world as it is and not as I wish it to be) is also of paramount importance for Giussani's method.

In the Tractatus W wrote that a) "[t]he world is the totality of facts, not of things," which means that relations constitute the structure of the world; only the relations of things to other things (to strike a Pythonesque tone) constitute facts (1.1); b) "[t]he world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts" (1.11); c) "[f]or the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case" (1.12). Perhaps most foundational to Giussani's method is the uniquely Christian insistence that God became incarnate in Jesus. This is a fact, an event that is the case, something that really happened. It is only by virtue of this fact that we overcome the problem of being bounded by the world, by the limits of our language. Further, living this way is how we show instead of just say, that is why experience always trumps discourse and also why talking about experience clarifies it for us, which is the point of School of Community, where we come to use accurate language to describe experience not just in light of the fact the Incarnation, but in light of the fact of my encounter. This why Fr.Carrón spent time correcting us in our sloppy use of the word correspondence at La Thuile, published as Experience: The Instrument for a Human Journey.

The priority of showing over speaking for the Christian is set forth beautifully in the 1 John 4:7-12: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (emboldening and underlining emphasis mine).

Think about this: the only way God is seen is through how those who, because they are first loved, in turn, love. As the Holy Father pointed out in Deus Caritas Est, in our time "the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings" (par. 2). Love is only known by means of a fact: "that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." So, like Philosophy, Christianity, at least in the first instance, "is not a body of doctrine but an activity," one that flows from an event that becomes an encounter.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Some wise and timely comments by the other Hitchens

Peter Hitchens, the conservative and devoutly Christian brother of Christopher, wrote something in his most recent Daily Mail column that moved me deeply. He was commenting about how he and about 100 other people stand along the roadside with their hands over their hearts as the remains of Great Britain’s war dead pass by in Oxfordshire near the town of Oxford where he resides. Writing about those who gather to honor their country’s fallen, Hitchens avers: “We feel, in short, that a country where nobody could be bothered to stand by the roadside for its dead soldiers wouldn’t be worth living in.”

He lauds one Abdul Latif and his wife, immigrant Muslim citizens of the U.K., who also have begun standing and honoring those who gave the full measure. These people stand in contrast to Islamo-Fascist rabble rousers, at whom Pope Benedict XVI courageously took aim in his famous in Regensburg address, many of whom express joy at the death of U.K. military members. Of those, like Mr. & Mrs. Latif, he writes they are as likely "as sick" as he is of Britain's "swear-word and sex culture, and that they understand that courage is the greatest of all the virtues – because none of the others is worth anything without it." Of their own courageous gesture, Hitchens rightly observes that it "is a reminder to us that there is an alternative to multiculturalism and decay." All of this is made more worthy of comment by the fact that Mr. Hitchens, as a conservative, opposes his country's on-going involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Baptism of the Lord

The season of Christmas comes to an end today with our observance of the Baptism of the Lord

"After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased' " (Luke 3:21-22).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wittgenstein on ethics

When I was just beginning graduate studies in Philosophy, which I did not complete, one professor, a well known ethicist, a great person, and talented teacher told me that based on my senior thesis I should pursue the study of ethics. I said in that quasi-arrogant manner of the budding grad student that I would not study ethics because to do so would be to pretend that the more fundamental problems of philosophy, particularly those posed in epistemology and logic, the latter of which is in the realm of metaphysics. I still stand by this statement, at least as it pertains to philosophical ethics, but I do so with far more humility. This conviction is the direct result of reading Wittgenstein.

In what is proving to be his fine introduction to W's thought, How To Read Wittgenstein, Ray Monk, citing a letter Wittgenstein wrote to Ludwig von Ficker immediately following his service of behalf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI, writes that before the war W believed himself to be writing a work of logic, whereas after his service and being taken prisoner-of-war he thought his work to be one on ethics. Ficker was on of three people to whom Wittgenstein sent copies of his completed work, later given the title by G.E. Moore Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was to remain the only book published during his lifetime, along with Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Ficker was a publisher who W did not expect to understand the book. However, it was a disappointment to W that, in the end, Frege, the mathematician on whose work much of W's logical excursions was built, did not "get" it.

In the Tractatus itself W writes this about ethics:

"The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form 'thou shalt . . .' is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least thse consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the qustion. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.

(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable)" (6.422).

That the consequences of an action do not take the form of an event apart from the act itself is consonant with the objective character of classical Catholic morality, especially with the axiom that we may never do evil that good may come of it, or, stated another way, ends do not justify means. I would love to explore this connection more deeply.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wittgenstein revisited

Ray Monk, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton in England, published How To Read Wittgenstein back in 2005. I remember wanting to read it at the time because introductory books on W's thought are fairly rare and difficult to write because his thought is quite complex. I am hoping that Monk's is good as I just purchased it. Of course, Monk wrote what is the standard biography of Wittgenstein, a brilliant book in its own right: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.

I remember The Duty of Genius because I received it as a gift from my lovely wife the very first Christmas we were married. As student newlyweds we had no money and decided that we would buy each other presents costing no more than $20.00. When she asked me what I wanted it was an easy call. I read the book over Christmas break along with some essays by Alvin Plantinga. For anyone who wishes to immerse her/himself in Wittgenstein, I would recommend The Duty of Genius.

As I am just perusing How To Read Wittgenstein I can write that if the back cover is any indication, it will prove to be a worthwhile introduction to thought of my dear W:
"Though Wittgenstein wrote on the same subjects that dominate the work of other analytic philosophers - the nature of logic, the limits of language, the analysis of meaning - he did so in a peculiarly poetic style that separates his work sharply from that of his peers and makes the question of how to read him particularly pertinent.

"At the root of Wittgenstein's thought, Ray Monk argues, is a determination to resist the scientism characteristic of our age, a determination to insist on the integrity and the autonomy of nonscientific forms of understanding. The kind of understanding we seek in philosophy, Wittgenstein tried to make clear, is similar to the kind we might seek of a person, a piece of music, or, indeed, of a poem."

Another great book on W's thought, especially as it bears on theology, is Fergus Kerr's Theology After Wittgenstein. In 2010 I am once again seeking the consolation of philosophy, which, as W pointed out, is therapeutic in its own right.

"To prove to you what I said was real..."

Inexplicably, our Salt Lake PBS station showed Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions from 11:00-Midnight last night despite it not being a weekend. Of course, I had to stay up and watch it. Consequently, there is a certain inevitably to Cowboys Junkies being our traditio for this Friday in January. However, there is no inevitability to the song being Cheap Is How I Feel.

"The sound of clinking bottles is the one sure thing I'll always drag with me from my past."

I love this video because it is aesthetically akin to a David Lynch film.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A few thoughts on the shape of national politics

It is funny how not posting anything for two days makes me feel like I have abandoned my poor little on-line effort here at Καθολικός διάκονος. Rest assured, I have not. New Year is a time for reflection and introspection, but I am not too keen on that these days either, which for me is not a bad thing.

As always, there is no shortage of issues to comment on: matters religious, cultural, and political. On the political front, I am appalled that the Senate and House health care bills are not going to a typical Senate/House conference committee to resolve differences and come up with a unified bill that can be voted on by both chambers and signed into law. Instead, it will all be done by Democrats from the House and Senate. I can unequivocally write something I have been hinting at all along: I oppose both bills and likely will oppose whatever emerges from what I can only call Democratic health reform caucus. This is different from opposing health care reform. The grounds on which I oppose what will emerge is that it will be too expensive, it will still not provide universal coverage, and not include adequate protection for human life across the board and very likely allow for tax payer money to be used for abortions. Nonetheless, I am ready to be surprised.

I suppose if there is any good news in all of this it is that no Republicans will vote for the bill and, given that there are elections next year in which every member of the House Representatives will stand for re-election, at least the ones choosing to run, with quite a few Senate seats at stake as well, there are likely to be quite a few Democrats in the House and some in the Senate who will not vote for the bill. All of this means that at end of the day there is no good news because we will either have an atrocious reform or no reform at all. As I have written before, the Obama Administration's mantra of "doing nothing is not an option" and then proceeding to sub-contract the writing of legislation to Congressional Democrats who invariably come up with an ineffective, pork-laden bill is not sound policy-making. Since we are talking about health care reform, perhaps the Hippocratic oath should be in effect- first do no harm!

On the positive side of the political equation, it looks like there is starting to be some positive momentum for enacting comprehensive immigration reform. I am very glad that this effort is being led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have declared this week National Migration Week. However, enacting meaningful and necessary immigration reform will be no less a fight than is health care reform.

I am not politically naive, but I think some bi-partisanship of the kind promised by the president during his campaign would go a long way towards breaking the impasse on big issues, like health care and immigration reform. It seems increasingly evident that the White House does not have effective congressional liaison, especially with the House leadership. One need look no further than Speaker Pelosi's recent criticisms of the president for evidence of this disconnect. It looks increasingly like in next year's congressional elections the pendulum will swing back towards the Republicans. It is almost a certainty, however, that the GOP will not wrest control of either the House of the Senate. It seems equally certain that the Democrats will not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Sadly, such a swing will not result in any better governance.

I end with the prayer for this week:

Lord Jesus, when you multiplied the loaves and fishes, you provided more than food for the body, you offered us the gift of yourself, the gift which satisfies every hunger and quenches every thirst! Your disciples were filled with fear and doubt, but you poured out your love and compassion on the migrant crowd, welcoming them as brothers and sisters.

Lord Jesus, today you call us to welcome the members of God's family who come to our land to escape oppression, poverty, persecution, violence, and war. Like your disciples, we too are filled with fear and doubt and even suspicion. We build barriers in our hearts and in our minds.

Lord Jesus, help us by your grace,

•To banish fear from our hearts, that we may embrace each of your children as our own brother and sister;

•To welcome migrants and refugees with joy and generosity, while responding to their many needs;

•To realize that you call all people to your holy mountain to learn the ways of peace and justice;

•To share of our abundance as you spread a banquet before us;

•To give witness to your love for all people, as we celebrate the many gifts they bring.

We praise you and give you thanks for the family you have called together from so many people. We see in this human family a reflection of the divine unity of the one Most Holy Trinity in whom we make our prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...