Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cum Grano Salis

The other day Father Robert Barron (Word on Fire) came out with a video about using figures from pop culture in the work of evangelization. To my mind, it seemed more like he was still smarting from a scolding he mentioned that his mother had given him the previous Sunday at brunch for quoting some rowdy rock guitarist in his homily. His plea in favor of quoting populare names reminded me of a serious discussion of some point made by Bultmann that I read recently in a von Balthasar book. I had remembered all those theology lessons in seminary discounting Bultmann, to the point that I couldn't understand as a student why any self-respecting Catholic would read him. With the point made by von Balthasar I finally understood that the man had had at least one thing to say that was worthy of attention. Bultmann was never pop culture but he was an authority at least in some theological circles that could focus the analysis of a common issue. Popular names can be a meeting point for seeking truth, even if they are not orthodox or properly approved authors of decent character.

I also have watched two of Michael Voris' videos on location this week in the Philippines, in both of them with his hair combed forward right over his eyes (he should stick to audio and radio!). Michael is "no quarter to the enemy" and "approved authors" or none at all. Regardless of their common Catholicism, I suspect they would need a mediator for any sort of effort between them. Father Barron's mother would probably have advice on how Michael should cut his hair and no doubt she'd also demand some manners of him when speaking about his Protestant neighbors, regardless of their heresies. Just as it is for her son, Fr. Robert, so also for our man, Michael, he says nothing wrong but at least in Michael's case, it'd be awkward to invite him to a neighborhood barbecue.  

I'm thinking today not so much of either man's message, but of the dynamics of similar situations and as they play out in two recent events: in all of the controversy over Dr. Peters' canonical analysis of the matter of refusing Holy Communion to the younger Cuomo politician (pro-abortion and flaunting his cohabitation) and the recent Sunday demonstration in front of the Chicago Cathedral of the GLBT "outrage" generally in the world over our holding and teaching our Catholic Faith in support of marriage as it is in natural law and as it forms the cornerstone of society always and everywhere. Why are people, who should be capable of orderly thought, uncomfortable with Dr. Peters' analysis? Why do people hesitate to state clearly that the social disestablishment of marriage and family is not an option: one man, one woman united in an unbreakable and exclusive bond of life and love, which is open to children and for their benefit? Marriage is what it is and society has no reason to want to regulate any other kind of relationship as no other can bring forth children; no other is better suited to raise happy and well-adjusted children.

Why are people apologetic or embarassed over things that are simply so: in one case, the law; in the other case, the truth about the world? 

No one who enters politics thinks of avoiding intense, yes exaggerated, public scrutiny. It would seem that contrast between Church and those who walk the corridors of power has always been part of the game. Some of our Catholic martyrs in Europe won their colors conscientiously opposing Catholic monarchs. I'm not wishing Dr. Peters the crown of martyrdom, but I'm exhorting all those out their who are less grounded in their faith than Fr. Barron's mother to take a cue from history and show less sympathy for those who play Catholic on their own terms. The Church and our children deserve a better example of what the Second Vatican Council taught about the role of the laity in the public square. I cannot set my own terms or conditions for being Catholic or demand that the Church support me in open misbehavior or contempt for its laws.

In defence of marriage, let me drop another name and quote a reprint from the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. I received it as a gift and a precious one it is. It is entitled "What is Marriage?" and co-authord by Sherif Girgis, Rober P. George & Ryan T. Anderson (Volume 34, Number 1, Winter 2011). The article is 43 pages long and very understandable. Here is the conclusion:

"Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society. And when the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the argument against the alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence that it serves the common good. For reason is not just a debater's tool for idly refracting arguments into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing."

In the 2nd Reading for this Sunday, St. Paul speaks with indifference about the judgment of earthly tribunals and exhorts one and all to faithfulness as Christ's stewards. Before the judgment seat of God it will no doubt be less important whether we stepped on anyone's toes (courage, Michael!) and important to explain ourselves in terms of what we have done or failed to do in defense of the truth which comes from God about life, love and ultimate happiness.

properantes adventum diei Dei

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blessed are They Who Mourn!

“Zion was saying, ‘The Lord has abandoned me,
the Lord has forgotten me.’
Does a woman forget her baby at the breast,
or fail to cherish the son of her womb?
Yet even if these forget,
I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:14-15)

I am already positively haunted by tomorrow morning’s First reading for the 8th Sunday throughout the Year (A). Haunted simply wondering about all those people in the congregations of so called “developed” countries who will fumble with those words knowing that an older or younger brother or sister was aborted…
The poignant words, “Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you”, take on a different meaning for the brother or sister of a child aborted, a complex one (how’s that for understatement?). The mixed feelings of these listeners, if they happen to be in the pews, the thoughts of these children who escaped the morning after pill, or the vacuum or the knife (really by chance) cannot be hardened against the siblings they never knew, cannot not be troubled by the decision which limited their family either before or after them.
Who are those who cannot see the horror of it all? Has our society really become so gray, so dull as not to shudder at the violence which cannot be explained?
Blessed are all those who mourn! Blessed are all those who hunger and thirst for justice and for the rights of the unborn!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where to go from here?

Words from the First Reading for Mass on this Thursday of the 7th Week throughout the year (Ecclesiasticus 5:1ff.) urge me to attempt to channel my wonderment over a couple issues in life I am still striving to sort out:
“Do not give your heart to your money,
or say, ‘With this I am self-sufficient.’
Do not be led by your appetites and energy
to follow the passions of your heart.
And do not say, ‘Who has authority over me?’
for the Lord will certainly be avenged on you.”
Mine has to be an open-ended reflection because I doubt if a broad-based consensus could be reached, enabling choices and reforms, on the basis of my observations alone. My hope in sharing these thoughts is that they might inspire someone else to that bigger synthesis or creative initiative which could make a difference for the good or better in the life of the Church.
The dissatisfaction in the general populace, which brought about both the fall of the Berlin Wall and much of what we have seen in the last year for youthful protest against sitting governments somehow compromised by their involvement in the world economic crisis and against despotic regimes also compromised, finds its motor less in ideas and ideals and more (I believe) in the drive for self-sufficiency or material security (Ecclesiasticus!). Just as the economic bankruptcy of European Communism provided the broad-based support for rejection of a system which also came up short in areas less easy to quantify like respect for the dignity of persons and basic human rights, so for Greece or Spain or Egypt, the material sacrifices demanded of the youth tipped the scales of judgment where more fundamental issues were also at stake but alone and on principle could not have carried the day. When it comes to swaying voters people can be very jaded about calculating the weight of economics over enduring values and principle even in the most sophisticated of democracies (how far are we really from “bread and circus”?).
            World politics, however, is not my focus of the moment. Rather, the urgent need to deal adequately, if at all possible, with situations like that in Ireland, where foot washing in the Dublin Cathedral may be recognition of a fact, but resolves nothing. It does not really tackle the question of how child abuse and especially by priests came to be in Ireland. The grand jury in Philadelphia, too, has the archdiocese scrambling to deal with matters from the recent past which evidently still had not been faced by those in authority concerning allegations and possible priest perpetrators. I am not advocating that economics be used to topple the old regime and usher in better times. That is little more than a pipedream and smacks of little more than vindictiveness and rage. The number of bankrupt dioceses across the United States haven’t answered profound questions or given a clue as to what went wrong. Things from the past must be faced and resolved, but more importantly provision must be made for a future which, at least from the example of Philadelphia, does not seem yet to have been inaugurated. Principle should carry the day and not unruly popular groundswells.
I think it is important to focus on Western society as we know it today, after the two great World Wars of the 20th Century. Prior to the wars, society must have had problems but it had certain priorities and restraints, which were lost in the war effort also in the every day lives of people far from the front lines. The almost solitary rebellions against the will of parents and family became the commonplace basically through world-wide upheaval. Ours became that willful world which is the only one you and I have ever known, represented in iconic fashion by the famous news photo of the young sailor giving a uniformed nurse a kiss on the open street in celebration of the end of the war. It’s a world which has not only defied social strictures (public displays of affection were once forbidden) but that has effectively overrated personal choice as the sine qua non for commitment.
Why has the institution of marriage fallen on such bad times and increasingly so in the last half century? Why so much resignation in the face of divorce? Among the factors involved is the prominence of an exaggerated form of personal choice as essential life component. Less than a century ago, families could still forbid children’s marriages and feel terribly responsible for the success of the marriages that parents had arranged for their children. Nowadays, well, it would seem that you are on your own and few are confident enough to face the challenge of going it alone no matter how much we think we love that person. There are lots of components to what we might describe as a healthy marriage culture, not the least of which is the insertion of marriage and family within a support system assured in the first place by the extended family, but no less as defended by a society espousing similar values.
The marriage crisis also sheds light on the crisis of priestly and religious vocations.
            Following World War II lots of men went to the seminary; there was a real flowering of missionary institutes especially in Belgium, Holland and France. Even though these men had a classical seminary formation, it is also from their ranks that came forth the perpetrators of the abuse of young men and boys which has come to light in recent years. As one of my bishop friends told me, the issue is not as simple as formation. The regimentation of a bygone era seems not to have played a role in the lives at least of some of the men trained in traditional structures. The bulk of the perpetrators had classical seminary training. Subsequently, other factors worsened our lot (I’m thinking of the book exposé “Goodbye, Good Men”). It is indisputable that up until recently preference in some seminaries was given to promoting the wrong type of men toward priesthood, thus creating even within some presbyterates a homosexual subculture. Many of us are witness to the kind of “proselytizing” which went on in seminaries where such elements were allowed free rein.
Since then, much has taken place to assure healthy seminaries and better choices of candidates, but the problem remains. It resides within the culture of protagonism which had men in the 1970’s seeking ministry to further the cause of justice and peace. The kind of self-seeking perhaps which describes certain men today is equivalent but without such a social activist veneer. Talk of narcissism, however, may actually distract from a challenge which is not only and not primarily personal but social and has not only debilitated the institution of marriage but thwarted considerably the possibility of distinguishing between a vocation and a career choice.
God does indeed call men through the Church to priesthood. I don’t really think I chose the priesthood, I was called to it and never experienced sleepless nights trying to figure out if I or the world would be happier were I a rocket scientist. The kind of personal protagonism which makes it my choice alone is not real. A couple generations of vocation promoters and directors seem to have missed that point. There is a school of thought, all too prominent, which swings incense in the direction of a new generation of young mystics whose journey to priesthood has an interior dimension mine and many others never had. I’m thinking about a very telling book Archbishop Timothy Dolan produced as rector of the North American College, describing a world of very intense adult interior struggles in the process of discerning a vocation to the priesthood. It may be the reality, but it is not what earlier generations contended with, thanks to the sort of accompaniment they had from childhood on. God surely calls men to priesthood; it is not a job description or lifestyle I choose for myself.
One of the phenomena which confirms me in my analysis is the perhaps formerly unheard of case of the guy who goes smiling right up through ordination and in less than a year afterward, well, is gone and gone without a trace. It has been happening for some years and continues to happen. The parallels to a failed marriage are there, the key would seem to be the fact that it was “my choice” and I’m gone.
Much has been done in our day to provide good seminaries. Just as the perpetrators of nearly a half century ago were the product of good seminaries, however, I don’t think that’s enough in a willful culture where young people have the impression that it’s always up to them to choose and on their own. We need to come to believe once again that God calls, for His own reasons, which have nothing to do with my merits or talents. He asks me in ways that respect my nature over the course of a life of experience and development to simply say yes and keep up the good fight.
Ecclesiasticus says: “Do not be led by your appetites and energy to follow the passions of your heart.” I’d like to think that the “kindly light” is always there to lead, “the encircling gloom” notwithstanding. The little boy Samuel’s vocation was not tended by his own anguished introspection but by simple obedience to the wise old words of Eli: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

By Faith in One Word

I was somewhat taken by the way the First reading for Saturday of the 6th Week throughout the Year in the edition approved for England, Scotland and Wales has translated Hebrews 11:1ff. :
“Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen. It was for faith that our ancestors were commended.
It is by faith that we understand that the world was created by one word from God, so that no apparent cause can account for the things we can see.”
Years ago I memorized those verses in the translation from the New American Bible edition, but I must say that the thought contained in the third sentence as per the Jerusalem Bible is different or at least seems so to me. It would seem that I have less reason to be impatient or Pauline with, for example, exponents of the “Big Bang Theory”:
“It is by faith that we understand that the world was created by one word from God, so that no apparent cause can account for the things we can see.”
As silly as that sounds, seriously it helps me class a lot more “scientists” or “sophisticates” among those who don’t know their right hand from their left. I can pray that their hearts be touched and they might know the God Who spoke that “one word” and know the enormity of their human life destroying experiments (I am shuddering at the horror of embryonic stem cell research).
            Years ago, I knew one of the Polish priests who survived the concentration camp at Dachau and the “medical experiments” which left him with malaria bouts and nightmares for the rest of his life. In the same way today, countless pre-born brothers and sisters will never encounter us this side of Heaven. My concern here today in particular is for the darkness of the souls of those pseudo-scientists back then in the pay of the Nazi regime and now today for the souls of batteries of no less wretched folk whom some would excuse from moral consequences simply on the basis of their geekyness…
            St. Augustine, in The City of God, goes on and on in an attempt to reason with proud pagans and free them from the embrace of folly. Ultimately, then and now the challenge is to argue in favor of, or better, prepare the encounter with the one and only God, Who spoke that “one word” and it all was made. Sadly, too many of those who profess the faith don’t appreciate the fact that that “one word” was and is a word of love for you and for me by name. By His one word we stand over and above His creation.
            This Saturday has given me reason for insistent prayer that “scientists” and “sophisticates” might be saved and that the Lord would bless our world with a new “Augustine” to tirelessly argue the case for the sake of their change of heart and new insight in the lives of those who claim the faith but do not possess it enough to imagine that “one word” and thereby live as creatures in God’s world of an inestimable dignity and worth, willed for us by Him Who has revealed Himself to us in His Son as our loving Father.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Theology and Sanctity

"Cooperatores Veritatis"

The Holy Father’s homily from yesterday’s ordination of five bishops: three for the service of the Roman Curia and two as Apostolic Nuncios is a treasure trove of points for reflection. So far the text is available in Italian and German. No doubt ZENIT will have an English translation of the homily posted and emailed by tomorrow. I recommend it highly for your consideration, but with just a touch of impatience I’d like to jump the gun and use my Sunday leisure to ponder it a bit.

The Episcopal motto of Pope Benedict XVI and his vision of the office of bishop (Cooperatores Veritatis) shines through every word of his preaching. The last two paragraphs, inviting the new bishops to mission, to set out into the rough seas and darkness all around for the sake of bringing men up from the briny deep and leading them to the fullness of life in communion with Christ, is indeed a worthy image. Bishops, today as always, share, through prayerful openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in a work willed and brought to perfection by the Most Holy Trinity. That is the simple but oh so glorious truth!

I hope nobody minds if I take a cue from Hans Urs von Balthasar and address a mild criticism at one of those unofficial “magisteria” (university professors), who here and there in the world seem to be ruffling their feathers again for some reason. The upper echelon of Catholic academia could well back off a bit and take its cue for doing so from St. Hilary of Poitiers (as quoted by the Holy Father in his homily) who prayed that the Lord might fill the unfurled sails of our faith and our professing it with the breath of His Spirit and carry us on in “the sea crossing” (traversata) of our proclamation. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain… Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the watchman…” My point is that Catholic theologians owe us simple folk better than their impatience. It might be a delusion of grandeur on their part if they presume that most of us fall silent before the learning of the great ones whose names are suffixed with Ph.D. or S.T.D. (doctor of Sacred Theology). Calling oneself a serious theologian does not make one so. If somebody is suffixed and published besides, all things being equal, they bear responsibility and might expect to command our ear and even a slight, respectful, inclination of the head, especially if they speak with tenure from some place where they speak German (the latest “manifesto” from 143 men and women of that language is what I have on my mind). But learning and tenure are not enough.

Way back in 1989, Ignatius Press published in four paperback volumes a new English edition of a work by Hans Urs von Balthasar from 1960, entitled “Explorations in Theology”. I just finished volume “I: The Word Made Flesh”. Von Balthasar describes it as more of a “sketchbook” than a theological treatise. Hence, with very little foreword, I can dive into a chapter titled “Theology and Sanctity” and quote a couple of phrases worthy of note. It was his introduction to the topic that caught me off-guard:
“In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. We mean here by “theologian” one whose office and vocation is to expound revelation in its fullness, and therefore whose work centers on dogmatic theology. If we consider the history of theology up to the time of the great Scholastics, we are struck by the fact that the great saints, those who not only achieved an exemplary purity of life, but who also had received from God a definite mission in the Church, were, mostly, great theologians. They were “pillars of the Church”, by vocation channels of her life: their own lives reproduced the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and their teaching the fullness of the Church’s life.” (p. 181)
In the article, which is less than 30 pages long, von Balthasar makes a proposal for yoking the two, theology and sanctity, back together again. His is not a plea for turning back the clock but for learning from the example of the Fathers and applying it to our circumstances. Apart of St. Augustine, he focuses with enthusiasm on the contribution made by Denis the Areopagite, whom he lauds as both an intellectual giant and a saint. His list is much longer than those two and he sums up the contribution of the Fathers in these words:
“In short, these pillars of the Church were complete personalities: what they taught they lived with such directness, so naively, we might say, that the subsequent separation of theology and spirituality was quite unknown to them.” (p. 182)
“True theology, the theology of the saints, with the central doctrines of revelation always in view, inquires, in a spirit of obedience and reverence, what processes of human thought, what modes of approach are best fitted to bring out the meaning of what has been revealed.” (p. 196)
Word had it that early on in his pontificate, soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II did most of his writing at his kneeler in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. While I must concede that my arthritic knees would not permit such a feat, the lesson is evident. Evident and urgent is also the need for all of us to borrow the prayer of St. Hilary of Poitiers and pray it for our bishops, young and not so young, that the Lord might fill the unfurled sails of our faith and our professing it with the breath of His Spirit and carry us on in “the sea crossing” (traversata) of our proclamation. It could be, too, that we need but open our hearts and eyes and give thanks for the number of “Fathers” amongst the bishops today, teaching the fullness of faith and by their holiness of life.

To close let me simply re-propose, for perspective’s sake, a passage from another approved author, who helps me keep things on an even keel:
“Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical structures. They live on what the Church always is: and if one wants to know what the Church really is one must go to them. For the Church is most present, not where organizing, reforming, and governing are going on, but in those who simply believe and receive from her the gift of faith that is life to them. Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope – the path to eternal life – only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.” Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Ignatius Press, 2004, pp. 343-4.