Sunday, December 28, 2014

Year B The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Readings: Gen 15:1-6; 21: 1-3; Ps. 128:1-5; Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19; Luke 2:22-40

For many the days leading up to Christmas, along with Christmas Eve and Christmas day, is an overwhelming and exhausting experience, which is why we should be grateful that we don’t have to wait too long this year for Lent to start. Right now we can simply enjoy the twelve days of Christmas with a measure of peace that allows us, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation in our hearts. A preview of Lent, even of Good Friday, is certainly one fruitful way of looking at the witness of Anna, the prophetess, and the devout and righteous Simeon in today’s Gospel. The Feast of the Holy Family gives us the opportunity to put the great mystery we celebrate, and in which we are invited to participate, into broader perspective, which is essential if our faith is to be fruitful in our lives.

What I mean when I mention our faith bearing fruit in our lives is not some Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian insistence, that we now need to set about earning what we can never earn, which is God’s ever-faithful love for us. My friends, on this wonderful day in the Octave of Christmas, let’s not bog ourselves down with a to-do list. I think the vast majority of us are tired of those by now, even as we set about making our New Year’s resolutions. Rather, let’s just try to soak in the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us.

One of the greatest temptations we need to resist is measuring the “success” of the Gospel, whether in our own lives, or in the aggregate, by worldly standards. This is true whether we are talking about stewardship, which, as Bishop Wester often and rightly reminds us, is simply the way of life for a disciple of Jesus Christ, or evangelization, about which we hear and speak so much, especially this thing called “the New Evangelization.”

Author A.N. Wilson, who spent years in the wilderness as an atheist after his largely devout youth before returning to faith several years ago during Holy Week, began an article that appeared in The Telegraph on Christmas day by asking, “Is Christianity a dying religion?” Throughout the rest of his piece he grappled with this question, mustering, on one hand, evidence that rebuts the argument that Christianity is dying, and, on the other, looking at the signs, especially in Western societies, that Christianity, if not exactly dying, is in poor health and getting worse.

In the end, Wilson concluded, rightly, in my view, that none of these measurable indicators (“metrics,” we like to call them in our increasingly instrumentalized world) really tell us anything at all, or least tell us nothing worth knowing. Ruminating on this for the past few days, I recalled an observation made by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Tom Waits: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. We are monkeys with money and guns.” My sisters and brothers, the Gospel is precisely the power that can free us from this worldly enslavement.

We all know the well-worn cliché- “Freedom isn’t free,” which is usually employed in a jingoistic manner to justify war-making. Here’s the good news- Jesus Christ came into the world to pay a debt that He did not owe, because you owed a debt you couldn’t pay. In other words, He came, as stated in the Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”- “To save us all from Satan's power/When we were gone astray.” If you don’t believe you’ve gone astray, one might sensibly ask you, “What are you doing here right now?” Perhaps you came for the preaching.

In fact, to look at the world in an instrumentalized, metricized, reductive, manner- a way of looking at reality wholly at odds with being a Christian- amounts to voluntarily putting on blinders in a vain attempt to reduce everything to your own measure in the foolish and false belief that you are in control. If we learn nothing else from Abraham, who is our father because of his faith, it is to trust God, whose ways are mysterious and, at least when viewed from a worldly perspective, often a more than a bit odd.

Wilson nicely summarized the words spoken by Simeon to the Lord’s Blessed Mother and St Joseph, whose quiet faithfulness always shines brightly through the infancy narratives:
The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory
In his Christmas message to the Church and the world, Pope Francis noted:
Humble people, full of hope in the goodness of God, are those who welcome Jesus and recognize him. And so the Holy Spirit enlightened the shepherds of Bethlehem, who hastened to the grotto and adored the Child. Then the Spirit led the elderly and humble couple Simeon and Anna into the temple of Jerusalem, and they recognized in Jesus the Messiah. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaimed, “the salvation prepared by God in the sight of all peoples” (Luke 2:30)
What does this salvation look like it the here and now? I’ll let Wilson handle this one too:
The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world
Simeon with the Christ child, by Rembrandt, 1669

Indeed, Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph concerning Jesus continue to be proven, to be verified in reality through experience by those who surrender to Him, who dare to revere Him as Lord and not merely accept Him as Savior: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

That's a wrap for 2014. I'll catch you both in the New Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The best of Καθολικός διάκονος 2014

My blog is a very personal endeavor and has been since its inception. It will continue to be until such a time as I decide to call it quits. In other words, Καθολικός διάκονος is not a Catholic news aggregation service, or a clearing house for Catholic goods and services. I do not blog for gain, quite the opposite: I do so at some cost, albeit not huge, just the time it takes to compose and post something. I see what I do here in this cyberspace as part of my diaconal ministry, a way to reach people I could not possibly reach otherwise. I do not want to sell you anything. I am not remunerated in any way, shape, or form- I don't get paid for receiving a certain number of hits, etc. My beyond-modest-offerings I give for free to anyone who finds value in them.

I compose my posts, not with fellow Catholic bloggers in mind, but people I know, that is, ordinary, every day people who are Catholic Christians and non-Catholic Christians who constantly ponder how it is they integrate their faith, which is a gift from God, into all aspects of their lives, to live integrated lives, lives of integrity, with Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the integrating factor, keeping in mind that grace works in and through ordinary circumstances. Faith can never amount to smug certainty.

In my view, it is all too easy for the so-called Catholic blogosphere to become a closed circle, a self-licking ice cream cone, which, at least to my mind, amounts to the antithesis of evangelization. I am fully aware that my approach to faith and life, while quite conventional and even conservative in most respects, is eccentric, but I hope not in the extreme. I know for a fact that my approach annoys some and infuriates others. You know what? I am fine with that. God bless my detractors. One of my passions is to show how Christian faith and contemporary culture are not as at odds as many Christians and atheists seem to think, even as I keep in mind Balthasar's lament that you can't simply baptize everything.

One way I know I am eccentric is by approaching things with the conviction that most of the time adult Catholics are spoken and written down to, as if they don't have a brain in their head, which only serves to reinforce the notion many people have, which is that faith has no bearing on real, grown-up, life.

Serving at the altar of the Lord with my bishop- the greatest privilege I can imagine

It is my constant prayer that everything I post helps at least one person in her/his daily walk with the Lord, about which C.S. Lewis observed: "Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done." It has become my custom at the end of each year to offer one post from each month that stands out in my mind. These are not necessarily the most popular posts. In fact, most of them aren't (a few are). So, below you will find what I consider to be "the best of Καθολικός διάκονος" for 2014. I would be more than thrilled if either of my two readers shared something from Καθολικός διάκονος that struck them this year.

January: Finding my own Penmaen Pool

February: Becoming "like" God, or becoming Gods?

March: You are you, past, present, future

April: Pope Francis on the current milieu- a few thoughts in passing

May: The Lion, Lucy and the necessity of growing in faith

June: Transcendence in the drama of Samuel Beckett

July: Odysseus and the quest for home

August: Suicide, anger and fear

September: Balthasar on being a Christian

October: Finding love and value in same-sex relationships

November: Are all saved regardless?: Thoughts on universalism

December: Abortion: When does a person become a person?

Friday, December 26, 2014

"Every night I had the strangest dream"

Joe Cocker passed away just before Christmas. While forever associated with his Woodstock performance, which included the best ever rendition of The Beatles "I Get By With a Little Help," Cocker was really an old-time bluesman of the best sort. Thanks for all the great music, for singing the blues, the music of the human soul.

Here's one that is quite recent for our traditio:

Seems I got to have a change of scene
Cause every night I have the strangest dreams
Imprisoned by the way it used to be
Left here on my own or so it seems
I got to leave before I start to scream
But someone's locked the door and took the key

Praying that Joe is, indeed, feelin' alright.

Feast of St Stephen, deacon and martyr

St Stephen is my patron saint. Stephen is my Dad's name and my middle name. As my patron saint and as one of the seven men universally acknowledged as the Church's first deacons, he is also the patron saint of my blog, "Catholic deacon." The Feast of Stephen is traditionally a day on which the service of deacons is acknowledged. Like his six fellow deacons, Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew. Each year I share a reflection on the occasion of his glorious feast, usually quite lengthy. But this year I am sticking closely to his story as conveyed by Sacred Scripture.

St Stephen in Glory, by Giacomo Cavedone, 1601

Stephen's martyrdom, or "proto-martyrdom," was a dramatic event that came as the result of his long discourse to Sandhedrin on salvation history reaching its culmination Jesus Christ. His discourse culminated with these words: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it" (Acts 7:51-53). These words were the immediate cause of this Spirit-filled deacon being put to death:
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60)
St Stephen, glorious witness of the transforming power of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, pray for us!

Urbi et Orbi Christmas 2014


Christmas 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!

Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, is born for us, born in Bethlehem of a Virgin, fulfilling the ancient prophecies. The Virgin’s name is Mary, the wife of Joseph.

Humble people, full of hope in the goodness of God, are those who welcome Jesus and recognize him. And so the Holy Spirit enlightened the shepherds of Bethlehem, who hastened to the grotto and adored the Child. Then the Spirit led the elderly and humble couple Simeon and Anna into the temple of Jerusalem, and they recognized in Jesus the Messiah. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaimed, “the salvation prepared by God in the sight of all peoples” (Lk 2:30).

Yes, brothers and sisters, Jesus is the salvation for every person and for every people!

Today I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution. May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world. May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigours of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity. May the Lord open hearts to trust, and may he bestow his peace upon the whole Middle East, beginning with the land blessed by his birth, thereby sustaining the efforts of those committed effectively to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve: a reflection

It's become something of a minor tradition for me offer a few thoughts on Christmas Eve here on Καθολικός διάκονος. I don't mind saying that there was a time when I enjoyed Christmas much more than I do now. Even though I was raised in a fairly secular manner, when I was growing up Christmas was always a day for which we prepared, "trimmed the hearth and set the table," as it were. The few days before Christmas were quiet and Christmas Eve was a positive joy, a day we spent at home together just hanging out. It was joyful because it was quiet, one might say even a bit contemplative. Frankly, I have always found Christmas Day itself exhausting and tiresome. I'll be honest, I am always glad when it is over. I can remember feeling that way even when I was a child.

These days it is the week of Christmas, the Octave of Christmas, that I look forward to and enjoy the most because all the hustle and bustle, the empty running around and silliness have all subsided. Most of all, I have the time to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God and what it means to me and for me. Hence, I grateful that, as a Catholic, Christmas is a season, not only a day.

I know that all sounds a bit hum-bug. Perhaps it is. It's not Christmas so much that gets me down, it's the way we observe it. It's all sentimentality, which is the spiritual equivalent of eating too much sugar, eventually it makes you a bit sick. Plus, it seems that no matter how hard I try, Advent is simply obliterated. That is not a complaint, merely a factual observation. I bear the biggest share of the blame for this, no doubt.

Nativity Scene in a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq

The late John O'Donohue, in a reflection on Christmas for BBC 4 back in 1998 offered something of an antidote to all the sentimentality. He sought to channel it constructively and not just obliterate it: Christmas awakens wonder in the heart. All belief depends on wonder. Where there is no wonder, there can be no faith. Wonder is a beautiful way of seeing. Wonder never rests on the surface of a fact or situation. It voyages inwards to discover why something is the way it is. Wonder celebrates the mystery and depth of presence that is within us and around us. It has no greed to grasp or own the heart of a thing. In the words of .38 Special, "Just Hold on loosely, but don't let go."

Nonetheless, Christmas remains, despite my Celtic gloom, a time of hope for me because my hope is not in the ephemeral, in running around trying to maximize the entertainment value of Christmas, but in the One whose birth remains, even at a time when many ignore it, seek to relativize it, or even outright deny it, the occasion of our celebration. This was well-stated by His Excellency, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England:
How much we need to be reminded on this Christmas Night 2014, that the greatest message for peace and the cohesion of society is being lost amongst us! Charles Dickens captured this message in his Christmas Carol by tracing the path of Scrooge’s conversion. "Christmas," Scrooge’s nephew tells him "… apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that … is the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely …" If the light and meaning of Christmas were to be lost amongst us, then what would call new generations to so open their hearts? What would call them beyond divisions to recognise each other as sisters and brothers, each with an eternal value and dignity?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Abortion: When does a person become a person?

When does human life begin? Does it begin at conception? When does conception occur? Is there a "moment" of conception?

According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 2270). I suppose there is some ambiguity as to when "the moment of conception" occurs. However, given what is at stake, namely the inherent sanctity and dignity of each and every human being created in the image of God, the Church, if she is to err, does so on the side of caution. Hence, when the sperm fertilizes the egg would be the earliest "moment." In natural terms, a lot can happen to a fertilized egg both before and after it implants on the uterine wall and cell division begins. Nonetheless, to willfully kill a fertilized egg (as with taking the so-called "morning-after-pill") is a gravely sinful act.

It is our duty to protect each human life from the "moment" of conception until natural death. Now, natural death can occur pretty early as many pregnancies end quite early as the result of what are usually called natural, spontaneous abortions. In these instances, due to purely natural reasons beyond anyone's control, the new life ends. For moral purposes, these surely count as natural deaths.

Speaking of moral purposes, when it comes to abortion, that is, when someone intends and then deliberately ends a pregnancy, the most important question is about whether one is terminating a "what" or a "who." If it's a "who" then what I like to call the Dr Seuss principle applies: "A person's a person, no matter how small." In other words, if abortion is about taking the life of an innocent person, then it can in no way be morally countenanced. This strikes me as obviously true even for people without particularly strong religious convictions. Stated differently, such a view is the application of right reason, which does not require divine revelation.

Pope Francis, who trained as a chemist before beginning priestly formation, speaking just last month, expressed something he's expressed before, namely that the Church opposes abortion not only as a matter of faith, or even of philosophical principle, but as a question of science: "Many times in my life as a priest, I have heard objections. 'Tell me, why, for example, does the Church oppose abortion? Is it a religious problem?' — 'No, no. It’s not a religious problem' — 'Is it a philosophical problem?' — 'No, it’s not a philosophical problem.' It is a scientific problem, because there is a human life there and it is not licit to eliminate a human life to resolve a problem."

For those who profess belief in and seek to be faithful to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the latter of whom was given the name Israel by God (Gen 35:10), we have as one of the Ten Commandments- "You shall not kill" (Exo 20:13). Right now, we are in the time of Advent during which the Church recites the O Antiphons. Here is the antiphon for 18 December: O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law. Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us. Divine revelation often serves to bolster what is available to us by our right use of reason.

All of this brings me, via the long route, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints official statement on abortion (you can access the statement here), issued in April 2011. In their official statement the LDS Church allows for "possible exceptions," as opposed to "automatic" exceptions, to its general prohibition on abortion for three reasons:
Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or

A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or

A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth
I don't want to be derogatory in any way, but if we adhere to the axiom that a person's a person no matter how small, or, stated more seriously, that life in utero is human life, then how can exceptions, even in these admittedly distressing cases, be considered moral as opposed to just being expedient? How would having an abortion in these situations not be a violation of God's commandment not to kill? As Pope Francis said in the same speech cited above: "Listen, in the old and the modern schools of thought, the word kill means the same thing!"

Given the rapid approach of our celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is a timely reflection, especially when we consider that the circumstances in which He was conceived were far from ideal, at least from a worldly point-of-view. Clearly, from a Divine perspective, the situation was ideal, as St Paul bore witness: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Gal 4:4-5).

Friday, December 19, 2014

"There's a room where the light won't find you"

It's important, a service to humanity, to make fun of evil dictators precisely because they tend to take themselves so seriously. I still love watching Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator.' Adam Taylor's apologetic puff piece in Wapo is just that, puffy, notwithstanding.

Then that's the trouble with most foreign affairs journalists, they, too, tend to take themselves too seriously and they're usually wrong. If our foreign policy was guided by this largely incoherent lot, we'd be in even worse trouble than we're presently in, which is a lot. Just gauge their enthusiasm for the so-called "Arab Spring."

In honor of all this, our Friday traditio this week is Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World":

There's a room where the light won't find you
Holding hands while
The walls come tumbling down
When they do, I'll be right behind you

There's an Advent tie in all this, which I will make by citing Tolstoy's well-known observation, made in his pamphlet, published in 1900, "Three Methods Of Reform": "There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself."

At least for me, that leaves the matter too vague. So let's turn to Pope Benedict's address to the young people of Lebanon, made on his final Apostolic Journey outside Italy:
Be thoughtful, upright and pure of heart! In the words of Blessed John Paul II, I say to you: “Do not be afraid! Open the doors of your minds and hearts to Christ!” An encounter with Jesus “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). In Christ you will find the strength and courage to advance along the paths of life, and to overcome difficulties and suffering. In him you will find the source of joy. Christ says to you: سَلامي أُعطيكُم – My peace I give to you! (Jn 14:27). This is the true revolution brought by Christ: that of love

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torture, yet again

In light of some on-going conversations in the wake of the Senate report on C.I.A. interrogation techniques, I offer a few more thoughts.

Firstly, I think it is important when faced with things like this report to recognize that these are not new issues and we're not the first ones to grapple with them. 

Second, classic Just War theory gives us good guidance, in terms of principles, as to when it is licit, perhaps even obligatory, to engage in war (jus ad bellum), and just conduct of war (jus in bello). Interrogating prisoners, which is fine and even necessary in war, clearly falls under the latter.

Third, I want to, once again, suggest that the distinction between intrinsically evil acts and extrinsically evil acts is most useful. The former consists of actions that are always wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance (i.e., they may never justly or rightly be done). Few knowledgeable people would argue against the proposition, the Catholic Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil. The latter are actions that, while normally to be avoided, can be justified under certain circumstances, like killing other people who are legitimate combatants in battle, etc.

Fourth, this brings me back to the definition of torture. On the one hand, torture cannot be defined so broadly that interrogating an enemy combatant or criminal suspect is precluded. On the other hand, it's wrong to brutally beat, or drown, or starve, information from a captured combatant or criminal suspect. When it comes to torture then, the question becomes, "How far is too far?" What I think many people, including me, find disturbing about many of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" cataloged in the Senate report is that they go too far by deliberately and systematically violating human dignity in grotesque ways. Besides, if we aren't morally superior to enemies like al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/IS, then what's the point? There is also the issue of the relatively (not absolutely) indiscriminate use of these "techniques" even on innocent persons, not to mention that torture is often a terribly unreliable way of gaining useful information. In this case, these kinds of activities are also a cause of radicalization of many more young men. In other words, it's probably self-defeating.

Perhaps right now, at least for Catholics, the best we can do is to borrow and adapt the words used by the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a case concerning hardcore pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

A brief follow-up on torture

In thinking more about my recent post on torture (see "What is torture"), it occurred to me that what we very often lose sight of in discussions about torture, as well as discussions on crime and punishment, is the inherent and ineradicable dignity and integrity of each and every human being, who bears the imago dei.

Anything that is contrary to this inherent, that is, God-given, human dignity is intrinsically evil. It seems to me that this is the principle the Church's magisterium gives us to apply when approaching these matters. Hence, it seems clear to me that many, even most, of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Senate report on the C.I.A., none of which the C.I.A. denies using, constitute torture.

As Artur Rosman noted in his post on this subject, William Cavanaugh, in his book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, observed: "Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, the Eucharist is the realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers."

Privatus Dei Filio

It seems to me that observing Advent in our present cultural context, above all other aspects of truly Christian praxis, is a way for followers of Jesus Christ to resist so many things that are, to state it bluntly, contrary to authentic Christianity. It is a way to resist Western hedonistic consumerism, which, due to skillfully manipulative marketing over decades, has largely succeeded in reducing Christmas to an orgy of buying and self-indulgence. Increasingly how we commemorate "Christmas season," all of which happens and comes to an end on Christmas day (i.e., the true beginning of Christmas), is by looking back longingly on ad campaigns of old. This is what often counts for us as tradition because it's what we deem worth handing on. "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" and all that...

I firmly believe that observing Advent in a quiet, prayerful manner, engaging in acts of charity, born of faith, through which we make manifest the hope we have for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, along with penitential acts, like fasting, are effective ways to counter the grotesque sentimentalization of faith, which is the reduction that follows from allowing ourselves to be spiritually co-opted.

Christ in Glory, by Agostino Carracci, 1597-98

Veni, veni Emmanuel,
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio
Privatus Dei Filio

It bears noting that "Privatus Dei Filio," which we traditionally translate as "until the Son of God appear," is more accurately translated, "deprived of God's Son." Now, there's an Advent point-of-reflection.

How we (fail to) observe Advent clearly shows that Israel is captive today as of old, perhaps more enslaved now than then, due to our failure to recognize the bonds that constrain us, the realization of which would surely cause us now, as it did Israel then, to turn to God as the one, true source of hope. Hence, we need to be ransomed by the only One who can pay the price. This is the true message of Christmas, as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, for those who deign to actually read it rather than have it culturally filtered and sentimentalized for them, can see.

Here's what Dickens wrote as the preface to A Christmas Carol:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843
My prayer is that we may allow ourselves to be so haunted, not by taking a sentimental stroll down memory lane, which is what the culturally-filtered versions of Dickens' novella usually bids us do, but by pondering the true meaning and significance of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which has been described as an event "so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" (Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology 7).

Jacob Marley, by Rose Colligan

To be clear, I am not a kill-joy. Christmas is well-worth a full-fledged, joy-filled celebration, but only after waking from the kind of slumber out of which Ebenezer Scrooge was stirred. My point is, our celebration is made much more joy-filled by fruitful preparation. In my view, Scrooge actually experiences Purgatory. Advent bids us do what the old comedic line when something is about to happen does- Waaaaiiiitttt for it ... There is a joy in the journey.

So, at least for me, it's either Advent or Festivus. In terms of Fesitivus, perhaps this counts as an aired grievance of sorts.

"They'll carry you on 'til morning"

Ever since I discovered it a week or so ago, I have been compulsively watching the BBC series Ashes to Ashes. I won't ruin for anyone, or bore you to tears describing the program. I will just note that, having just finished the first season, I am enjoying it tremendously, not least of which because it is set in London in 1981. As one might expect, the music for the series is marvelous.

Chris and "Shazz," supporting characters in Ashes to Ashes

What is best about the music is that it tends to eschew all the powerhouse popular stuff that has survived through the years without completely ignoring it. Instead, the music tends to be the very good, less popular music that, frankly, is more characteristic of the time. This week's very late Friday traditio, which I am posting on Saturday, is one of those songs: Marshall Hain's "Dancing in the City." This is the song that plays at the end of episode seven, season one

Can you feel the darkness call
Let the street have their way
They'll carry you on 'til morning
And steal your soul away.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is torture?

The entire internet, including that part of it that constitutes the Catholic blogo-trapezoid, is awash with commentary on the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program. Much of the commentary strikes me as quite hysterical, which is why, in addition to apologizing in advance for weighing in, it is important to take up what we mean when we use the word "torture," which the magisterium of the Catholic Church condemns as intrinsically evil. While torture is unambiguously condemned by the Church in the Catechism and elsewhere, like in Gaudium et Spes (par. 27) and Veritatis Splendor (par. 80), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (par 404), it is not precisely defined.

But an imprecise definition is still a definition: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (par 2297). Because torture is contrary to human dignity, that is, the dignity of the human person, it is intrinsically, as opposed to extrinsically, evil (more on this distinction to follow). An act that is intrinsically evil is an act that is always morally wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance. On other hand, perhaps what we are given in the Catechism are criteria by which to judge acts.

It bears noting that it is her objective understanding of the nature of morality that most often puts the Church at odds with an increasingly relativistic world that, being what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his still highly relevant book After Virtue, described as "emotivist," typically judges acts based on intention and/or consequences. In this regard, I cannot help but note that, at least when it comes to torture, many people who usually laugh at those of us who employ the moral category "intrinsically evil" do so now with great relish. But then ideology requires incoherence.

Judging from how both are treated in the Catechism, it seems that torture is as well-defined by the magisterium as pornography, which the Catechsim tells us, "consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties" (par 2354).

In my view it seems clear that most of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Senate report meet the definition of torture. The trouble is, given how wide the net is cast, so do many other acts that are not as extreme. At least for me, it would be interesting to analyze all of this through lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ethics, which has always struck me as quite consequentialist in nature.

As previously noted, acts that are intrinsically evil may never be morally done by anyone, regardless of one's intention or the circumstances. Ends do not justify means and we may never do evil that good may come of it. By contrast, an extrinsically evil act is an act that is normally to be eschewed, but, under certain circumstances, may be justified. I think understanding this distinction is necessary, though not sufficient of itself, to arriving at any workable definition of torture. If some "enhanced interrogation technique" can, at least under certain circumstances, be justified, then it simply fails to meet the Church's definition of torture.

Given that torture is intrinsically evil, I do not think that how one defines it can be a matter of prudential judgment.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Remembering my Dad

It's probably because I attended the funeral of a neighbor yesterday that I have been thinking about my Dad. Well, that and seeing a picture of my Dad, our oldest son, and me in our first apartment, which my lovely wife had out in our kitchen this morning. Whenever I despair about the state of masculinity today, I look at a picture of my Dad for inspiration. What he taught about being a man is not that being a man entails being mean and ornery, but that it means to live for others and not yourself, especially for your wife and children, and when you commit to something, like marriage, you commit, you're in, it's irrevocable.

You see, my Dad basically grew up without a Dad (his Dad left my grandma for a younger woman). I remember my Dad giving the eulogy at his brother Harry's funeral. He said, choking back tears (my Dad never cried), "Harry taught me how to be a man." I am blessed to be able to say, "My Dad taught me how to be a man." I have no doubt that my Dad puzzled, for many years, about how his only son could be so unlike him. We were very different people. I cherish how close we grew after I married and had children.

The only "Scripture" I remember being recited at Harry's funeral was by my cousin, Danny, his son: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil because I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley." If you knew Harry, like I knew Harry, this was no idle boast.

For the past few years, Johnny Cash singing this U2 song speaks, not just Advent, but particularly the Second Sunday, John the Baptist Sunday, to me:

I went out searching
Looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father's right hand
I went out walking
With a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart

This song, along with all Johnny Cash songs, makes me think of my Dad, too. Until the resurrection, nobody dies until you forget them. God remembers everyone, which is why we say, "May his memory be eternal."


Friday, December 5, 2014

"Is what was true now no longer so?"

For reasons I'll keep to myself, our Friday traditio is Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros with "Johnny Appleseed"

Joe Strummer was briefly the singer for The Pogues, during a time when Shane MacGowan's drinking got the better of him. So, well, yeah, okay...

Lord, there goes a Buick forty-nine
Black sheep of the angels riding, riding down the line
We think there is a soul, we don't know
That soul is hard to find

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent, hope, and abuse in the Church

A week ago Friday I posted REM's "Don't Go Back to Rockville" as our Friday traditio ( see "Going where nobody says hello"). Later that same day someone anonymously posted the following comment on that post:
Hi- I would like to request prayers for the victims of rape and abuse by members of the Catholic Church. Many of them were children when they were attacked or abused. This is also an ongoing crisis, with new victims each year, worldwide. I will remember them and their stories forever, but for the healing to truly take place, it will take the voices and efforts of many. To paraphrase a poem by an Indian schoolgirl, "Too many Catholics, in too many countries, speak the same language-- of silence." Thank you
As both of my readers know, I am not a fan of anonymous comments. After dealing far too much and too often with one or two genuine trolls earlier in my blogging career, I no longer publish negatively critical comments posted anonymously. I think being on-line all-too-often plays to our natural, sinful, tendency to be passive aggressive. I don't want to encourage or facilitate such cowardly behavior. Anonymous posts that are positive, insightful, neutral, or perhaps even constructively and charitably critical, I may well post. This is my blog and so these matters are at my discretion.

Dave Manthei, who blogs over at "A Humble Servant's Catholic Blog," who received the same comment on one of his posts, did some looking into the matter. He discovered that this same comment was made on at least nine Catholic blogs. He spent some time putting together a response: "The Sex-Abuse Crisis: What are Christians Doing About It?"

On the whole, I appreciate Dave's post. It is important, as he noted, for our society to deal with this vexing issue across the board, meaning in any and every institution that such evils have occurred and have been swept under the rug. Given the prevalence of pornography-driven perversion, such efforts seem to me more important that ever!

I have no idea who wrote the comment in question. Hence, I have no idea what her/his intentions or motives are. While I can understand how someone might construe the comment as an attack on or attempt to smear the Church, I think there are other ways of taking it. I certainly plan to continue praying for those who have been raped and sexually abused by members of the Catholic Church. I always pray for these evils to stop, especially within the Church, but in other institutions too.

I am well aware that there are other institutions, like the ones Dave mentions, that are guilty of the same evils and perhaps at even higher rates. But as someone who has pastorally assisted people who were victims of sexual abuse, both within and outside the Church, I feel I need to note that this is not an issue that can be dealt with justly or compassionately by using statistics. It is no consolation at all to someone who was sexually abused by, say, a priest that someone else, perhaps many others, were sexually abused by, say, public school teachers.

Not too long ago, I drew the ire of a good friend, who is a great guy, for complaining about all the Facebook posts I read whenever someone outside the Church was found to have sexually abused children that snarkily asserted something like "If only news anchors were allowed to marry." I get the point and feel the tug of such temptations myself. But I don't want to ever downplay the evils that occurred or be seen to minimize the painful, devastating experience of someone who was abused by a person in the Church, let alone attempt to relativize such grotesque evil.

I like that Dave noted how important it is for victims of rape and sexual abuse not to remain silent no matter what, no matter where it occurred, or who did it. In this, we agree with the person who made the anonymous comment. I also appreciate that he highlighted the tremendous effort the Catholic Church, at least in the U.S. and most of Western Europe, has put into identifying, apologizing to, and helping bring about the healing of those people who were violated in Church institutions by members of the Church and for putting measures in place aimed at reducing and eliminating, as far as possible, these atrocities. It's nice to believe we have put this all behind us, but no sooner do we think that than something else is brought from the dark into the light. As painful as such revelations are, we should thank God that what was hidden has now come to light.

When I consider the sad reality of sexual abuse in the Church I can't help but think of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his reflection for the Ninth Station of the Stations of the Cross he composed back in 2005: "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!"

Since Advent is a season of hope, I can't leave it there. So I point to the response by Communion & Liberation to these matters in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's Letter to the Catholics of Ireland (see "Greater than sin"): "Alongside all the limitations and within the Church’s wounded humanity, is there or is there not something greater than sin, something radically greater than sin? Is there something that can shatter the inexorable weight of our evil?" These question strike me as most useful points of reflection during Advent.

Advent: journeying from present to future

According to most dictionaries of standard modern English, the word "advent" means "the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event." Even from a theological perspective, I am perfectly content with that definition. Liturgically, the First Sunday of Advent is so full that it overflows, making it impossible to take it all in.

If I have one regret about my homily for yesterday, it's that I didn't find a way to work in even a passing mention of the saints. It seems to me that the second antiphon of First Vespers (i.e., Evening Prayer I for the First Sunday of Advent) says it well:
Know that the Lord is coming and with him all his saints; that day will dawn with a wonderful light, alleluia
I don't know about you, but this for me is reassuring. I don't find it reassuring because I have achieved perfection by the grace of God or otherwise, but because I trust in the Lord, in His goodness, His mercy, and, yes, His justice, which is perfect.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we enter the cold, darkest days of the year. This why Advent is so important to me at an existential, that is, at an every day, where the rubber hits the road way: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

The vast majority of human history is constituted, not by passive waiting, but journeying towards, or away from, the light. In his lovely book, the capstone of his triology on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Emeritus Benedict, writing about Abraham, our father in faith, had this to convey:
He is a wayfarer, not only from the land of his birth into the promised land, but also on the journey from the present into the future. His whole life points forward, it is a dynamic of walking along the path of what is to come (5)
I suppose an alternative title for this post could be- "Random thoughts for the start of Advent and December." Happy journeying to all pilgrims. Let's remember- for a journey to be a journey there must be a destination. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews stated it:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God (Heb 11:8-10)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Year B First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 63:16b-17.64:2-7; Ps 80:2-3.15-6.18-19; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” So sang the band REM in a song from their album Document, which was released way back in 1987. With everything going on in the world from the outbreak of ebola in west Africa, to the takeover of large swaths of Syria and Iraq by radical Islamists, who gleefully kill our brothers and sisters, as well as other religious minorities who cross their path, to rioting and looting on the streets of cities in our own country, it can easily seem to us now and always that the end of the world is neigh.

There is a story told about St Francis of Assisi, likely apocryphal, in which one of the friars approached him as he toiled in the community’s vegetable garden, and asked him, “Brother Francis, what would you do if the Lord returned right now?” Francis, who was most likely a deacon, agreeing to be ordained only in order to be licensed to preach, said thoughtfully, “I’d continue working in the garden.” True wisdom is simple.

The Ecstasy of St Francis ca. 1437-1444, by Sassetta

We’re all familiar with the image of the street corner prophet standing there wearing his sandwich board that reads on the front and the back: “THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR!” Today I’d like to suggest that from the perspective of a disciple of Jesus Christ, St Francis’ approach is the correct one. It is far too easy to have a religious excuse for simply copping out, for writing everything and everyone off as hopeless, to hunker down and wait for the end to come. But this has never been the attitude of Christians, even the earliest Christians, who expected Jesus to return right away.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, which was likely the very first book of the New Testament to be written, St Paul wrote that community, which was experiencing a bit of a crisis because the Lord had not yet returned, saying:
When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober (1 Thess 5:3-6)
Brothers and sisters, Christ came to relieve the anxiety of those who would accept the gift of salvation that He offers everyone freely. For those who believe and have received new life, which is eternal life (eternal life is now, not life that begins after mortal death), being a Christian does not induce anxiety, but gives us hope. St Paul in our second reading wrote to encourage just this realization when he wrote, God “will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus [Christ]” (1 Cor 1:8).

As followers, as disciples, of Jesus Christ, we are called to extend His work, to sow hope, through space and time until He finally returns in glory to judge the living the dead. But what does it mean to watch, to stay sober, and to remain alert? What this means for us is simply an extension of last week’s Gospel: we are to engage in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Rather than list them out, I’m going to give you a homework assignment. Go home and look up “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” I especially recommend finding a very useful a three-page document by Joe Paprocki entitled “Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Use this, or something similar, during Advent to prepare yourself for Jesus’ return and/or our observance of His nativity in a little more than three weeks’ time.

In our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear the lament: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” (Isa 63:16b-17). We are all familiar with the proverb: “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). But let’s not forget these inspired words of hope from the First Letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).

Love is what gives us hope and hope, in turn, relieves our anxiety, our existential angst, our cynicism toward others and toward the world. So, before we get all worked up about keeping Christ in Christmas, let’s endeavor to cooperate with God’s grace and observe a holy Advent. Advent is the season of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the fulfillment of our deepest longings, desires, and aspirations, which are expressed well in the hymn “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”-
Through the way where hope is guiding,
       Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
      Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
      Thou dost ever lead Thine own
      In the love of joys unknown
If we heed Jesus’ words- “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35), the end of the world should make us feel just fine. My dear friends in Christ, we should eagerly anticipate the Lord’s return, not fear His coming, His Advent. Rather, let's be engaged in the task He gives us: to prepare for His glorious return by setting the banquet table for the great wedding feast. Hence, as we begin the holy season of Advent today, let us pray with added fervor: “Marana’tha!” “O Lord, come!”

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Then again the same old story"

At least for me the end of November is a deeply reflective time of year. In terms of blogging (something I've been at far longer than is probably good either for me or both of my readers) it makes selecting the Friday traditio very easy. This week's traditio is Joy Division's "Ceremony," which I posted a few years ago shortly after Bastille Day to note what a truly sickening event the French Revolution was.

In any case, Ian Curtis' gravity is still felt more than 30 years after his death. It's strange the appeal Joy Division's music holds for many of us who are a certain age. When we first heard it we were kids who didn't know jack about anything, really. Nonetheless, we felt drawn and expressed. It's difficult to describe the effect.

Life's too short, varied, and full of surprises to stand on ceremony...

This is why events unnerve me,
They find it all, a different story,
Notice whom for wheels are turning,
Turn again and turn towards this time

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, the common good, and freedom

Each year I post something on Thanksgiving Day. Typically someone will take exception to the fact that, as a nation, the United States sets aside a day each year, not just to give thanks, but specifically to give thanks to God. Of course, nobody is forced to be thankful or to give thanks, either to God or or their fellow man. As for me, I believe at the deepest level of my being that "It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life."

Thanksgiving was formally instituted as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln on 3 October 1863, during the Civil War. In his proclamation, Lincoln called upon citizens to do penance. For those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on politics writ large, not just focus on specific political issues, like what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri (prayer strikes me as the best response for most of us to the troubles there).

I disagree with any and all who assert that people are not interested enough in politics. In my view, we have become far too dependent on politics in a most unhealthy manner. We look to resolve any and all matters by political means, bringing the tremendous coercive force of an inflated and ever-expanding state to bear even on questions that are not, at root, properly political matters.

This is why I am grateful that a friend posted this by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman today:
The greatest privilege of a Christian is to have nothing to do with worldly politics,—to be governed and to submit obediently; and though here again selfishness may creep in, and lead a man to neglect public concerns in which he is called to take his share, yet, after all, such participation must be regarded as a duty, scarcely as a privilege, as the fulfilment of trusts committed to him for the good of others, not as the enjoyment of rights (as men talk in these days of delusion), not as if political power were in itself a good
Thanksgiving Day seems a fitting day for citizens of the United States to spend at least a little time reflecting on the whats, whys, and wherefores of political power. To wit: when understood properly, political power is a means to an end, not an end itself.

For St Thomas Aquinas political power, when understood and exercised properly, is a means of serving and helping us to realize the common good. It is important not to reduce the common good to utilitarianism, which is a leading cause of an overly centralized state that is not really interested in fostering authentic human community. Since we live at a time when everyone seems to be, even if only in a latent way, an economic determinist, the risk of utilitarianism runs high. Perhaps the most important contribution that engaging in politics for the purpose of fostering the common good is factoring in the transcendent orientation of the human person.

For Aquinas, relying on Aristotle, "The good is what all things desire." When it comes to human beings, this is true whether we're conscious of it or not. Philosopher John Goyette defined the common good, which is the end that political power is but a means: "insofar as many individuals work together for the sake of a common goal they can be said to form a community and to act in common. To sum up: The common good is a good that is one in number and is able to be shared by many without being diminished." The common good, in turn, if it is truly good, serves the ultimate good, which is the fulfillment of the end for which we exist in the first place. Any politics that does not recognize this is bound, sooner or later, to go awry. Freedom, too, is a means to an end, not end in itself. As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles observed in an article on freedom according to Pope St John Paul II- "freedom is meaningless and self-destructive if it is not used in the service of what is truly good."

For this we need look no further afield than sacred Scripture: "For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13).

"Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God" (1 Pet 2:16).

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.

Koinonia: One God, three persons

The end of our second reading is from the conclusion of Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Koinonia is the Greek word trans...