Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

Articles by Bishop Robert Barron

René Girard, Church Father

Nov 13, 2015 / 00:00 am

René Girard, one of the most influential Catholic philosophers in the world, died last week at the age of 91. Born in Avignon and a member of the illustrious Academie Francaise, Girard nevertheless made his academic reputation in the United States, as a professor at Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford University. There are some thinkers that offer intriguing ideas and proposals, and there is a tiny handful of thinkers that manage to shake your world. Girard was in this second camp. In a series of books and articles, written across several decades, he proposed a social theory of extraordinary explanatory power. Drawing inspiration from some of the greatest literary masters of the West—Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust among others—Girard opined that desire is both mimetic and triangular. He meant that we rarely desire objects straightforwardly; rather, we desire them because others desire them: as we imitate (mimesis) another’s desire, we establish a triangulation between self, other, and object. If this sounds too rarefied, think of the manner in which practically all of advertising works: I come to want those gym shoes, not because of their intrinsic value, but because the hottest NBA star wants them. Now what mimetic desire leads to, almost inevitably, is conflict. If you want to see this dynamic in the concrete, watch what happens when toddler A imitates the desire of toddler B for the same toy, or when dictator A mimics the desire of dictator B for the same route of access to the sea. The tension that arises from mimetic desire is dealt with through what Girard called the scapegoating mechanism. A society, large or small, that finds itself in conflict comes together through a common act of blaming an individual or group purportedly responsible for the conflict. So for instance, a group of people in a coffee klatch will speak in an anodyne way for a time, but in relatively short order, they will commence to gossip, and they will find, customarily, a real fellow feeling in the process. What they are accomplishing, on Girard’s reading, is a discharging of the tension of their mimetic rivalry onto a third party. The same dynamic obtains among intellectuals. When I was doing my post-graduate study, I heard the decidedly Girardian remark: “the only thing that two academics can agree upon is how poor the work of a third academic is!” Hitler was one of the shrewdest manipulators of the scapegoating mechanism. He brought the deeply divided German nation of the 1930’s together precisely by assigning the Jews as a scapegoat for the country’s economic, political, and cultural woes. Watch a video of one of the Nuremberg rallies of the mid-thirties to see the Girardian theory on vivid display. Now precisely because this mechanism produces a kind of peace, however ersatz and unstable, it has been revered by the great mythologies and religions of the world and interpreted as something that God or the gods smile upon. Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Girard’s theorizing is his identification of this tendency. In the founding myths of most societies, we find some act of primal violence that actually establishes the order of the community, and in the rituals of those societies, we discover a repeated acting out of the original scapegoating. For a literary presentation of this ritualization of society-creating violence, look no further than Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece “The Lottery.”   The main features of this theory were in place when Girard turned for the first time in a serious way to the Christian Scriptures. What he found astonished him and changed his life. He discovered that the Bible knew all about mimetic desire and scapegoating violence but it also contained something altogether new, namely, the de-sacralizing of the process that is revered in all of the myths and religions of the world. The crucifixion of Jesus is a classic instance of the old pattern. It is utterly consistent with the Girardian theory that Caiaphas, the leading religious figure of the time, could say to his colleagues, “Is it not better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to perish?” In any other religious context, this sort of rationalization would be valorized. But in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, this stunning truth is revealed: God is not on the side of the scapegoaters but rather on the side of the scapegoated victim. The true God in fact does not sanction a community created through violence; rather, he sanctions what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, a society grounded in forgiveness, love, and identification with the victim. Once Girard saw this pattern, he found it everywhere in the Gospels and in Christian literature. For a particularly clear example of the unveiling process, take a hard look at the story of the woman caught in adultery. In the second half of the twentieth century, academics tended to characterize Christianity—if they took it seriously at all—as one more iteration of the mythic story that can be found in practically every culture. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, the “mono-myth,” to use Joseph Campbell’s formula, is told over and again. What Girard saw was that this tired theorizing has it precisely wrong. In point of fact, Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it. The recovery of Christianity as revelation, as an unmasking of what all the other religions are saying, is René Girard’s permanent and unsettling contribution.

Preaching the Strange Word

Oct 27, 2015 / 00:00 am

About fifteen years ago, I prepared an elective class at Mundelein Seminary which I entitled “The Christology of the Poets and Preachers.” In this course, I endeavored to explore the Catholic tradition’s non-technical, more lyrical manner of presenting the significance of Jesus. I studied the literary works of Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and G.K. Chesterton, and I also investigated in detail the sermons of many of the greatest masters: Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard, Aquinas, Newman, and Knox, among others. What struck me with particular power, and caused me, I confess, to re-think things rather thoroughly was this: none of these figures—from the late second century to the twentieth century—whose sermons we specially revere and hold up for imitation, preached the way I was taught to preach. I came of age and went through my theological and pastoral formation in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. The watchwords of the time were “relevance” and “experience.” Practically every teacher and Church leader of the time insisted that our theological language had become increasingly irrelevant to modern people and that we had to find, accordingly, a way to relate the Bible to lived human experience. In line with instincts that go back at least to the beginning of the 19th century within Protestantism, we felt obliged to engage in a great “translation project,” transposing the obscure and puzzling world of the Scriptures into the language and conceptuality of our time. The consequences of this shift for preaching were obvious. Sermons should be filled with references to the actual lived experiences of the congregation; they should be marked by stories and cultural references; and they should use a good deal of humor. Now don’t get me wrong: the emphases of the post-conciliar period were not entirely misplaced, and the sermons that came out of that time were not entirely bad. But they were indeed egregious when seen in the context of the great tradition. It’s simply the case that none of the master preachers that Catholicism reverences actually preached in that way.  How did they preach? They took their listeners/readers on a careful tour of the densely-textured world of the Bible. The Scriptures, they knew, open up an entirely new acting area, filled with distinctive characters who do and say anomalous and surprising things. And they understood that through all of the twists and turns of the Biblical story, the strangest and most unnerving character of all comes into view: the God of Israel. To get these figures and to grasp the nettle of the great story, one has to enter into the jungle of the Bible with patience and under the direction of an experienced and canny explorer. And this was precisely the role of the preacher: to be a mystagogue, a knowing guide through the tangled forest of the Scripture. I might propose an analogy with some well-known literary texts. Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is a wonderful amalgam of detective story, Bildungsroman, and metaphysical exploration; and it commences with a lengthy description of life in a fourteenth century Benedictine monastery. To those who questioned why this lengthy propaedeutic was required, Eco said, “my reader must go through a sort of monastic novitiate if he is to understand the story I’m trying to tell.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, which is a rollicking adventure story and an evocation of the Catholic faith, begins with about 75 pages describing the birthday party of Bilbo Baggins. When Tolkien was challenged on this score, he responded in a manner very similar to Eco: his reader, he explained, had to learn the languages, characters, weather, topography, and history of his imaginative world; otherwise they would never get what Tolkien was trying to communicate. Though he never said so explicitly, we could deduce the same principle from Melville’s lengthy (even tiresome) detailing of the arcana of whaling in the middle of Moby Dick. We might sum this up as follows: entering the world of a text is required if one is to understand the thematics of a text. So a good preacher unfolds the patterns of meaning within the Biblical universe—precisely so as to draw our world into that world. The fundamental problem with much of the preaching after Vatican II is that it got this principle backward. It tended to make the Bible accessible to our consciousness and thereby tamed it and domesticated it, often turning it into a faint echo of what could be heard in any other religious text or within the culture itself. But if what the preacher is offering what can be found, often in more compelling form, elsewhere, people will leave the Church in droves. The Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas relates a story of his time as Gifford Lecturer in Scotland. He had been invited to preach at the Cathedral of Edinburgh and discovered a practice that went back to the Reformation period: a sexton of the Cathedral literally locked Hauerwas into the pulpit and told him that he wouldn’t let him out until he had preached the Gospel! Now I don’t entirely subscribe to the sixteenth century Protestant idea of what the Gospel is, but I love the instinct behind that discipline. We shouldn’t allow preachers to run away from the density, complexity, and sheer weirdness of the Bible. We should lock them into their pulpits until they display the world of the Scriptures!

'The Martian' and why each life matters

Oct 20, 2015 / 00:00 am

Editor's note: This article contains plot spoilers! Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a splendidly told tale of survival and pluck, reminiscent of the novel Robinson Crusoe and the films Life of Pi and Castaway. In this case, the hero is Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars who is left behind by his crewmates when he is presumed dead after being lost during a devastating storm. Through sheer determination and an extraordinary application of his scientific know-how, Watney manages to survive. For example, realizing that his food supplies would run out long before a rescue mission could ever reach him, he endeavors to produce water and, through some creative fertilizing, grow an impressive crop of potatoes. At another critical juncture in the narrative, as his life hangs in the balance, Watney says, “I’ll just have to science the s*** out of this!” In time, NASA officials, through a careful observation of surveillance photos, realize that Watney is still alive and they attempt to contact him. Some of the most thrilling and emotionally moving scenes in the film have to do with these initial communications across tens of millions of miles. Eventually, the crew who left him behind discover that he is alive and they contrive, with all of their strength and intelligence, to get him back. The film ends (spoiler alert!), with the now somewhat grizzled Watney back on earth, lecturing a class of prospective astronauts on the indispensability of practical scientific intelligence: “You solve one problem and then another and then another; and if you solve enough of them, you get to come home.” This summary speech communicates what appears to be the central theme of the movie: the beauty and power of the technical knowledge the sciences provide. But I would like to explore another theme that is implicit throughout the film, namely, the inviolable dignity of the individual human being. The circumstances are certainly unique and Watney himself is undoubtedly an impressive person, but it remains nevertheless strange that people would move heaven and earth, spend millions of dollars, and in the case of the original crew, risk their lives in order to rescue this one man. If a clever, friendly, and exquisitely trained dog had been left behind on Mars, everyone would have felt bad, but no one, I think it’s fair to say, would have endeavored to go back for it. Now why is this the case? Much hinges upon how one answers that question. The classical Christian tradition, with its roots in the Bible, would argue that there is a qualitative and not merely quantitative difference between human beings and other animals, that a human being is decidedly not simply an extremely clever ape. Unlike anything else in the material creation, we have been made, the Scriptures hold, according to God’s image and likeness, and this imaging has been construed by most of the masters of the theological tradition as a function of our properly spiritual capacities of mind and will. With The Martian in mind, let me focus on the first of these. Like other animals, humans can take in the material world through sense experience, and they can hold those images in memory. But unlike any other animal, even the most intelligent, humans can engage in properly abstract thinking. In other words, they can think, not only about this or that particular state of affairs, but about fundamental patterns—what the medieval called “forms”—that make things what they are. The sciences—both theoretical and practical—depend upon and flow from precisely this kind of cogitation. But truly abstract thinking, which goes beyond any particularity grounded in matter, demonstrates that the principle of such reflection is not reducible to matter, that it has an immaterial or spiritual quality. And this implies that the mind or the soul survives the dissolution of the body, that it links us to the dimension of God. Plato showed this in a simple but compelling manner. When the mind entertains an abstract truth, say that 2 + 3 = 5, it has in a very real way left behind the world of shifting impressions and evanescent memories; it has, to use his still haunting metaphor, slipped free of the cave and entered a realm of light. And this explains why the very science so celebrated by The Martian is also the solution to the moral puzzle at the heart of the film. We will go to the ends of the universe to save an endangered person, precisely because we realize, inchoately or otherwise, that there is something uniquely precious about him or her. We know in our bones that in regard to a human being something eternal is at stake. In the context of what Pope Francis has called our “throwaway culture,” where the individual human being is often treated as a means to an end, or worse, as an embarrassment or an annoyance to be disposed of, this is a lesson worth relearning.

Pope Francis and true mercy

Oct 14, 2015 / 00:00 am

Having just returned from a week covering Pope Francis’s triumphant journey to the United States, I can confidently tell you that the news media are in love with the Vicar of Christ. Time and again, commentators, pundits, anchorpersons, and editorialists opined that Pope Francis is the bomb. They approved, of course, of his gentle way with those suffering from disabilities and his proclivity to kiss babies, but their approbation was most often awakened by this Pope’s “merciful” and “inclusive” approach, his willingness to reach out to those on the margins. More often than not, they characterized this tenderness as a welcome contrast to the more rigid and dogmatic style of Benedict XVI. Often, I heard words such as “revolutionary” and “game-changing” in regard to Pope Francis, and one commentator sighed that she couldn’t imagine going back to the Church as it was before the current pontiff.  Well, I love Pope Francis too, and I certainly appreciate the novelty of his approach and his deft manner of breathing life into the Church. In fact, a number of times on the air I commented that the Pope’s arrival to our shores represented a new springtime after the long winter of the sex abuse scandals. But I balk at the suggestion that the new Pope represents a revolution or that he is dramatically turning away from the example of his immediate predecessors. And I strenuously deny that he is nothing but a soft-hearted powder-puff, indifferent to sin.  A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God’s essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God’s essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.  Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or to shift to one of the Pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires, not minor treatment, but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked, in a famous interview two years ago, to describe himself, he responded, “a sinner.” Then he added, “who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.” That’s getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenaged Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn’t reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person. When Pope Francis speaks of those on the margins, he does indeed mean people who are economically and politically disadvantaged, but he also means people who are cut off from the divine life, spiritually poor. And just as he reaches out to the materially marginalized in order to bring them to the center, so he reaches out to those on the existential periphery in order to bring them to a better place. In speaking of mercy and inclusivity, he is decidedly not declaring that “I’m okay and you’re okay.” He is calling people to conversion. As my mentor, Cardinal Francis George, said, “All are welcome in the Church, but on Christ’s terms and not their own.” Nowhere has the confusion on this score been greater than in relation to the Pope’s famous remark regarding a priest with a homosexual orientation, “Who am I to judge?” I would wager that 95% of those who took in those words understood them to mean that, as far as Pope Francis is concerned, homosexual activity is not really sinful. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Pope was responding to a hypothetical involving a priest with same sex attraction, who had fallen in the past and who is now endeavoring to live in accord with the moral law, a sinner, in a word, who has been looked upon by the face of mercy. So as we quite legitimately exult in the beauty of Pope Francis’s unique style and theological emphasis, let us not turn him into an advocate of an “anything goes” liberalism. As St. Augustine long ago reminded us, misericordia (mercy) and miseria (misery) are two sides of the same coin.

Brian Williams, Chris Matthews and letting the fly out of the bottle

Oct 8, 2015 / 00:00 am

During the Pope's visit to America, I had the privilege of commenting for NBC News and for MSNBC. Twice I was on for extended periods with Brian Williams, the former anchor for NBC Nightly News, and twice with Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball. I must say that both men are very good at what they do, namely, keeping a conversation going among several different people with varying points of view and assuring that things stay sufficiently lively and interesting. Like most gifted people, they make their particular work seem effortless, but it is a delicate and dangerous high-wire act that they are performing—and all on live television. Williams is a cool customer with a sly sense of humor, and I might add a surprisingly detailed knowledge of motor vehicles and aircraft, whereas Matthews is more passionate, brash, and unpredictable. I enjoyed spending time with both of them.  A theme to which Chris Matthews returned again and again was the role of women in the Church. Like most liberally minded Catholics, he thinks that women get the short end of the stick most of the time and that simple justice demands that they be given equal opportunity. Once he baldly introduced the subject to me this way: “Bishop, isn’t it true that, in the Catholic Church, the management is all male while the women do most of the grunt work? Why can’t women be priests?” Another time, he wondered, “how come all the bishops are Republicans while all the nuns are Democrats?” I certainly know how complex these questions are and how they stir up such strong feelings on all sides, but in responding to these questions, I tried a technique that the philosopher Wittgenstein referred to as “letting the fly out of the fly bottle.” This means to move the discussion into an entirely different register so as to prevent all the disputants from spending a lot of energy only to end up in frustration.  I told Matthews that I thought it was very important to revisit the largely unrealized aspiration of the Vatican II fathers to empower the laity to sanctify the world. Priests, I explained, have as their sole purpose the sanctification of the laity through word and sacrament precisely so as to enable great Catholic lawyers, business leaders, writers, journalists, investors, parents, teachers, etc. to make the world a holy place. The book of Revelation holds out to us the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, with its streets of gold and gates of pearl, but with no temple in it. The point is that the city itself has become a temple, which is to say, a place of right praise. So what is the role of women in the Church? How can women find more power? By becoming world-transforming saints! Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernadette of Lourdes, Mother Katharine Drexel, Mother Cabrini, Mother Teresa, and Edith Stein all wielded more real power than 99% of the priests and bishops of their time. If we move our attention away from the priesthood and toward sainthood, we let the fly out of the fly bottle. During our coverage of the Pope’s final Mass in Philadelphia, Brian Williams posed a question to all of the commentators: “Isn’t it odd,” he asked, “that those without families are setting the moral agenda for families?” A number of the contributors chimed in, more or less agreeing with this anomalous thought, and I felt obliged to intervene. “As the only celibate on the panel,” I said, “May I offer an opposing point of view?” Borrowing a phrase from the scholastic philosophers, I said, “Brian, in regard to your question, nego majorem (I deny the major premise). Priests, I explained, have families. I then indicated the ring that I received upon being ordained a bishop and I said, “That’s a wedding ring, and we are explicitly told never to take it off, for it symbolizes our marriage to the people we serve.” Then I quoted my mentor, the late Cardinal Francis George: “Priests are not bachelors; they are married men, and they have spiritual children.” Celibacy should never be understood in a purely negative way, as though it amounts simply to the denial of something. The no to marriage and children in the ordinary sense is in service of a far greater yes, the yes to a wider, more inclusive, and more abiding form of marriage and procreation. In point of fact, the very familial implication of the celibate commitment is precisely what makes priests uniquely positioned to help and advise families. Once again, the teaching of Vatican II is apposite. Celibacy and marriage are ordered to one another, since both are ultimately in service of the sanctification of the world. When they are set up as rivals or as mutually antagonistic, we get a fly stuck in the fly bottle.  When Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow, he led his people in a careful and prayerful reading of the documents of Vatican II. I am convinced that many of the disputes that we have in the Church in this country are a function of not having done what Wojtyla compelled his people to do. When the properly theological and spiritual framework falls away, all we are left with is the political or psychological or sociological framework—and this leads to lots of bumping against the side of the bottle.

Your life does not belong to you

Sep 18, 2015 / 00:00 am

It was revealed this week that, for the first time in its history, Harvard University, which had been founded for religious purposes and named for a minister of the Gospel, has admitted a freshman class in which atheists and agnostics outnumber professed Christians and Jews. Also this week, the House and the Senate of California passed a provision that allows for physician assisted suicide in the Golden State. As I write these words, the governor of California is deliberating whether to sign the bill into law. Though it might seem strange to suggest as much, I believe that the make-up of the Harvard freshman class and the passing of the suicide law are very really related.  I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that non-believers have come to outnumber believers among the rising cohort of the American aristocracy. For the whole of their lives, these young people have been immersed in the corrosive acids of relativism, scientism, and materialism. Though they have benefitted from every advantage that money can afford, they have been largely denied what the human heart most longs for: contact with the transcendent, with the good, true, and beautiful in their properly unconditioned form. But as Paul Tillich, echoing the Hebrew prophets, reminded us, we are built for worship, and therefore in the absence of God, we will make some other value our ultimate concern. Wealth, power, pleasure, and honor have all played the role of false gods over the course of the human drama, but today especially, freedom itself has emerged as the ultimate good, as the object of worship. And what this looks like on the ground is that our lives come to belong utterly to us, that we become great projects of self-creation and self-determination. As the Bible tells it, the human project went off the rails precisely at the moment when Adam arrogated to himself the prerogative of determining the meaning of his life, when he, in the agelessly beautiful poetry of the book of Genesis, ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Read the chapters that immediately follow the account of the Fall, and you will discover the consequences of this deified freedom: jealousy, hatred, fratricide, imperialism, and the war of all against all. The rest of the Biblical narrative can be interpreted as God’s attempt to convince human beings that their lives, in point of fact, do not belong to them. He did this precisely by choosing a people whom he would form after his own mind and heart, teaching them how to think, how to behave, and above all, how to worship. This holy people Israel—a word that means, marvelously, “the one who wrestles with God”—would then, by the splendor of their way of life, attract the rest of the world. On the Christian reading, this project reached its climax in the person of Jesus Christ, a first-century Israelite from the town of Nazareth, who was also the Incarnation of the living God. The coming-together of divinity and humanity, the meeting of infinite and finite freedom, Jesus embodies what God intended for us from the beginning.  And this is precisely why Paul, one of Jesus’ first missionaries, announced him as Kyrios(Lord) to all the nations, and why he characterized himself as doulos Christou Iesou (a slave of Christ Jesus). Paul exulted in the fact that his life did not belong to him, but rather to Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, “there is a power already at work in you that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.” He was referencing the Holy Spirit, which orders our freedom and which opens up possibilities utterly beyond our capacities. To follow the promptings of this Spirit is, for Paul and for all the Biblical authors, the source of life, joy, and true creativity.  All of which brings me back to Harvard and legalized suicide. The denial of God—or the blithe bracketing of the question of God—is not a harmless parlor game. Rather, it carries with it the gravest implications. If there is no God, then our lives do indeed belong to us, and we can do with them what we want. If there is no God, our lives have no ultimate meaning or transcendent purpose, and they become simply artifacts of our own designing. Accordingly, when they become too painful or too shallow or just too boring, we ought to have the prerogative to end them. We can argue the legalities and even the morality of assisted suicide until the cows come home, but the real issue that has to be engaged is that of God’s existence.  The incoming freshman class at Harvard is a disturbing omen indeed, for the more our society drifts into atheism, the more human life is under threat. The less we are willing even to wrestle with God, the more de-humanized we become.

Why St. Junipero Serra matters today

Sep 4, 2015 / 00:00 am

The upcoming canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra in Washington, D.C.—the first ever to take place on American soil—has generated, as I’m sure you know, a good deal of controversy. For his defenders, Padre Serra was an intrepid evangelist and a model of Gospel living, while for his detractors, he was a shameless advocate of an oppressive colonial system that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Indians. Even many who typically back Pope Francis see this canonization as a rare faux pas for the Argentine Pontiff. What should we make of all this? It might first be wise to rehearse some of the basic facts of Serra’s life. He was born in 1713 on the beautiful island of Mallorca off of the Spanish coast, and as a very young man, he joined a particularly severe branch of the Franciscan order. He quickly became a star in the community, recognized for his impressive intellectual gifts and his profound spirituality. After many years of study, he earned his doctorate in philosophy and commenced a teaching career, which culminated in his receiving the Duns Scotus Chair of philosophy. But when Padre Serra was thirty-six, he resolved to abandon his relatively comfortable life and promising career and become a missionary in the New World. He undertook this mission out of a sincere and deeply-felt desire to save souls, knowing full well that he would likely never return to his homeland. After spending a few years in Mexico City doing administrative work, he realized his dream to work with the native peoples of New Spain, first in Mexico and then in what was then called Baja California (Lower California). When he was around fifty years old, he was asked by his superiors to lead a missionary endeavor in Alta California, more or less the present day state of California. With the help of a small band of Franciscan brothers and under the protection of the Spanish government, he established a series of missions along the Pacific coast, from San Diego to San Francisco.  He died in 1784 and was buried at the San Carlos Borromeo Mission in Carmel by the Sea.   Much of the disagreement regarding Junípero Serra hinges upon the interpretation of the mission project that he undertook. Though it is certainly true that the Imperial Spanish authorities had an interest in establishing a strong Spanish presence along the Pacific coast in order to block the intrusion of Russian settlers in the region, there is no doubt that Serra’s first intention in setting up the missions was to evangelize the native peoples. What fired his heart above all was the prospect of announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who had never before heard it, and there is no question that his missions provided the institutional framework for that proclamation. Moreover, the missions were places where the Indians were taught the principles of agriculture and animal husbandry, which enabled them to move beyond a merely nomadic lifestyle. I find it fascinating, by the way, that there was nothing even vaguely analogous to these missions on the other side of the continent. Though by our standards they treated the native people in a rather patronizing manner, the Spanish evangelized and instructed the Indians, whereas the British settlers in the American colonies more or less pushed them out of the way.  Critics of Serra’s project claim that Indians were compelled to join the missions, essentially as a slave labor force, and were baptized against their will. The consensus of responsible historians, however, is that both of these charges are false. In fact, the vast majority of the Indians recognized the advantage of living in connection with the missions, and only about 10% of those who had come to missions opted to leave. To be sure, those who left were hunted down and, upon their return, were sometimes subjected to corporal punishment. Indeed, there is real evidence that Padre Serra countenanced such violence: in one of his letters, he speaks of the need to punish wayward Indians the way a parent would chastise a recalcitrant child, and in another document, he authorizes the purchase of shackles for the mission in San Diego. Certainly from our more enlightened perspective, we would recognize such behavior as morally wrong, and it is no good trying to whitewash the historical record so as to present Serra as blameless.  Having acknowledged this, however, it is most important to note that the lion’s share of the evidence we have strongly indicates that Serra was a steadfast friend to the native peoples, frequently defending them against the violence and prejudice of the Spanish civil authorities. Very much in the spirit of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the great sixteenth-century defender of the Indians, Serra insisted, again and again, upon the rights and prerogatives of the native tribes. In one case, he spoke out against the execution of an Indian who had killed one of Serra’s own friends and colleagues, arguing that the whole point of his mission was to save life, not to take it. As Archbishop Jose Gomez has argued, this represents one of the first principled arguments against capital punishment ever to appear in Western culture.  One might ask why Pope Francis—who certainly knows all of the controversy surrounding Padre Serra—wants to push ahead with this canonization. He does so, I would speculate, for two reasons. First, he understands that declaring someone a saint is not to declare him or her morally flawless, nor is it to countenance every institution with which the saint was associated. Secondly and more importantly, he sees Junípero Serra as someone who, with extraordinary moral courage, went to the periphery of the society of his time in order to announce Jesus Christ. Serra could have pursued a very respectable career in the comfortable halls of European academy; but he opted to go, at great personal cost, to the margins—and this makes him an extraordinary model of a Pope Francis style missionary. Was Padre Serra perfect? By no means. Was he a saint?  Absolutely.  

Stephen Colbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Henry Newman, and the providence of God

Aug 25, 2015 / 00:00 am

Just last week, Stephen Colbert gave an interview in which the depth of his Catholic faith was on pretty clear display. Discussing the trauma that he experienced as a young man—the deaths of his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash—he told the interviewer how, through the ministrations of his mother, he had learned not only to accept what had happened but actually to rejoice in it: “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was ten; that was quite an explosion…It’s that I love the thing that I wish most had not happened.” Flummoxed, his interlocutor asked him to elaborate on the paradox. Without missing a beat, Colbert cited J.R.R. Tolkien: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” What a wonderful sermon on the salvific quality of suffering! And it was delivered, not by a priest or bishop or evangelist, but by a comedian about to take over one of the most popular television programs on late night. But what particularly intrigued me was the reference to Tolkien, which was culled, not from The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, but from a letter that the great man wrote to an inquirer, who had wondered whether Tolkien took death with sufficient spiritual seriousness in his literary work. Like Colbert, Tolkien had suffered enormous trauma as a young man. His father died in 1896, when Tolkien was only three, and his mother Mabel took him and his younger brother back to England (the family had moved to South Africa for economic reasons). Upon their return to her hometown of Birmingham, Mabel decided to become a Roman Catholic, a move that was met with enormous opposition on the part of her family, who essentially disowned her and left her in destitution. During this terrible period, Tolkien’s mother turned to the priests of the Birmingham Oratory, who cared for her needs both spiritual and financial and who took a keen interest in her fatherless children. In 1904, Tolkien and his brother became orphans when their mother died of diabetes. Years later, the famous author mused that his mother was a kind of martyr, since she had been in effect hounded to death for her decision to become a Catholic and to raise her sons in the faith. Frightened, alone, and adrift, the boys were taken in by Rev. Francis Xavier Murphy, a priest of the Oratory. The kindly man, whom Tolkien always referred to affectionately as “Fr. Francis,” became a father figure, instructing the young men in matters both sacred and secular and teaching, as Tolkien would later put it, the meaning of “charity and forgiveness.” Tolkien named his eldest son for the priest, and many have suggested that there is a fair amount of Fr. Murphy in Gandalf and other wisdom figures in the master’s oeuvre. It was assuredly Fr. Francis who taught the young Tolkien, who had endured more trials than any child ought to endure, that “all of God’s punishments are gifts.” But where had the priest learned that lesson? The Birmingham Oratory had been established in the mid-nineteenth century by the legendary John Henry Newman, who at the time had just become a Roman Catholic, thereby excluding himself from the institutions of British society. When he set up the Oratory in the industrial city of Birmingham, Newman was passing through a real “Lenten” period, for he was excoriated as a traitor by the Anglican establishment and looked upon with suspicion by Catholics. In time, Newman would reemerge as a cultural leader within British society, and his Oratory would become a center for Catholic evangelism in England. But this would happen only through Newman’s dark night experiences. What his Oratorian disciples, including Fr. Francis, would have taken in is the lesson that “punishments” often turn out to be precious gifts. What this chain of influences teaches us—and here I come to the point of this essay—is that God’s providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing. Were it not for John Henry Newman’s establishment, through much suffering, of the Birmingham Oratory, there would never have been a Fr. Francis Xavier Murphy, and if there had never been a Fr. Murphy, the young Tolkien boys might easily have drifted into unbelief or spiritual indifference, and if J.R.R. Tolkien had not taken in the lessons he learned from his mentor, he would never have shared the insight about God’s gift that brought such comfort to a young Stephen Colbert in his moment of doubt and pain. One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God’s providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp. Why are we suffering now? Well, it might be so that, in St. Paul’s language, we might comfort someone else with the same consolation we have received in our suffering. And that someone might be a person who has not even been born. St. John Paul II commented that, for people of faith, there are no coincidences, only aspects of God’s providence that we have not yet fully understood. The line that runs from Newman to Murphy to Tolkien to Colbert was not dumb chance, a mere coincidence; rather, it was an instance of the slow but sure unfolding of the divine plan.  

Mother Nature is one unreliable lady

Aug 13, 2015 / 00:00 am

Conservation International has sponsored a series of videos that have become YouTube sensations, garnering millions of views. They feature famous actors—Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Robert Redford, and others—voicing different aspects of the natural world, from the ocean, to the rain forest, to redwood trees. The most striking is the one that presents Mother Nature herself, given voice by Julia Roberts. They all have more or less the same message, namely, that nature finally doesn’t give a fig for human beings, that it is far greater than we, and will outlast us. Here are some highlights from the Mother’s speech: “I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years, 22,500 times longer than you; I don’t really need people, but people need me.” And “I have fed species greater than you; and I have starved species greater than you.” And “my oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests—they all can take you or leave you.” I must confess that when I first came across these videos I thought, “just more tree-hugging extremism,” but the more I watched and considered them, the more I became convinced that they are fundamentally right and actually serve to make a point of not inconsiderable theological significance. That nature in all of its beauty and splendor doesn’t finally care about human beings came home to me dramatically many years ago. I was standing in the surf, just off the coast of North Carolina, gazing out to sea and remarking how beautiful the vista was. For just a moment, I turned around to face the shore, and a large wave came up suddenly and knocked me off my feet and, for a few alarming seconds, actually pinned me to the ocean floor. In a moment, it was over and I got back on my feet, but I was shaken. The sea, which just seconds before had beguiled me with its serenity and beauty, had turned on a dime and almost killed me. The ancients knew this truth, and they expressed it in their mythology. The gods and goddesses of Greece, Rome, and Babylon were basically personifications of the natural necessities: water, the sky, the mountain, the fertile earth, etc. Like the natural elements that they symbolized, these divine figures were fickle in the extreme. One minute, Poseidon smiles on you, and the next minute he sinks your ship; now Zeus is pleased with you, now he sends a thunderbolt to destroy you; Demeter can be a gentle mother, and Demeter can be an avenging enemy. And indeed, so it goes with the ocean, with the weather, and with the soil. But this is precisely why the worship of these natural necessities is always such a dicey business, for the best one can hope for is to mollify these finally indifferent divinities to some degree through worship and sacrifice. Biblical religion represents something altogether new, a fact signaled in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, where it is emphatically stated that God creates earth, sky, the stars and planets, the animals that move upon the earth and the fishes that inhabit the ocean depths. All of these natural elements were, at one time or another, worshipped as divine. So even as he celebrates them, the author of Genesis is effectively dethroning them, desacralizing them. Nature is wonderful indeed, he is telling us; but it is not God. And the consistent Biblical message is that this Creator God is not like the arbitrary and capricious gods of the ancient world; rather, he is reliable, rock-like in his steadfast love, more dedicated to human beings than a mother is to her child. The entire Scriptural revelation comes to a climax with the claim, in the fourth chapter of John’s first letter, that God simply is love. St. Augustine celebrated this Biblical departure from the ancient worship of nature in a lyrical and visionary passage in his Confessions. He imagines the natural elements coming before him, one by one. Each says to him, “Look higher,” and then, in a great chorus, they gesture toward God and then shout together, “He made us!” As classical Christianity came to be questioned by some of the intellectual elite in the early modern period, the ancient worship of nature made an unhappy comeback. One thinks of Baruch Spinoza’s blithe equation Deus sive natura (God or nature) and then of the many forms of pantheism that it spawned, from Schleiermacher’s “infinite” to Emerson’s “Oversoul” to George Lucas’s “The Force.” In fact, the return to the classical sense of divinity is on particularly clear display in the “dark” and “light” sides of the Force that play such a vital role in the Star Wars narrative. Though it can be used for good or ill, the Force is finally as indifferent to human beings as is Mother Nature. And this is why the Julia Roberts video functions as an effective antidote against all forms of nature worship. It vividly reminds us that when we make Mother Nature our ultimate concern, we are turning to an exceptionally cruel and unreliable lady. Though I don’t think this was her intention, Ms. Roberts is urging us to “look higher.”

Why you need spiritual food

Aug 6, 2015 / 00:00 am

Every third summer, the Catholic lectionary provides a series of readings for Sunday Mass from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. This is the magnificently crafted chapter in which the evangelist’s Eucharistic theology is most fully presented. It is a curiosity of John’s Gospel that the Last Supper scene includes no “institution narrative,” which is to say, the account of what Jesus did with the bread and cup the night before he died. But as many scholars have indicated, the Eucharist is a theme that runs right through the entirety of the Gospel and which finds richest expression in the famous chapter six. I won’t focus in this essay on the great issue of the real presence—“My flesh is real food and my blood real drink”—but rather on the more general matter of spiritual nourishment. A few months ago, I spent a week in the hospital recovering from surgery, and for about three days, I was not permitted to eat any solid food. What amazed me was how rapidly my body shrank. The muscles of my arms and legs began quickly—and rather alarmingly—to atrophy, and it proved difficult even to cross the room and sit up in a chair. Almost twenty years ago, I undertook, with a good friend of mine, a bicycle trip from Paris to Rome, covering about seventy miles a day. We really pushed ourselves to the limit. One day, somewhere in the south of France, after about five hours of pedaling, I hit the wall. Though I had heard of this phenomenon, I had never experienced it before. When you hit the wall, you don’t gradually slow down or calmly realize that you have to take a rest; you just stop, your body simply unable to go on. May I suggest that these examples are very exact analogies to spiritual health and spiritual nourishment? Without food, the body quickly collapses; without spiritual food, the soul atrophies. It really is as simple as that. Though materialists of all stripes want to deny it, there is a dimension of the human person that goes beyond the merely physical, a dynamism that connects him or her with God. Classically, this link to the eternal is called the soul. (We oughtn’t to construe this, by the way, in the Cartesian manner, as though the soul is imprisoned by the body. Rather, we ought to follow Thomas Aquinas who said, “the soul is in the body, not as contained by it, but containing it.”) What the soul requires for nourishment is the divine life or what the spiritual masters call “grace.” It is of this sustenance that Jesus speaks in John 6: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Most people are at least inchoately aware of the soul and its hunger, but they feed it with insufficient food: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. All of these are good in themselves, but none of them is designed to satisfy the longing of the soul. And this is precisely why some of the wealthiest, most famous, and accomplished people in our society are dying of spiritual starvation. So where and how do we find the divine life? First, I would suggest, through prayer. The soul wants to pray every day, to speak to God and to listen to him. So we should spend time before the Blessed Sacrament, pray the rosary, do the Stations of the Cross, read the Bible in a meditative spirit, confess our sins, and above all, go to Mass. A second way in which we encounter grace is through serious spiritual reading. One of the principal marks of an engaged Catholic is the faithful reading of spiritual and theological books. Most of us fill our minds with junk; but the mind, the soul, wants to be filled with the lofty things of God. Why have so many Catholic bookstores faded away? Because Catholics have stopped taking spiritual reading seriously. A third way to feed the soul is to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. If you are spiritually hungry, feed the physically hungry, give drink to the thirsty, counsel the doubtful, visit the sick and imprisoned, pray for the living and the dead. You’ll find that the more you empty yourself in love, the more satisfied your soul will feel. Finally, and most importantly, you can receive the Eucharist regularly. In his discourse on the Eucharist in John 6, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The divine life is found, par excellence, in the transfigured bread and wine of the Eucharist. Aquinas said that the other sacraments contain the virtus Christi (the power of Christ) but that the Eucharist contains ipse Christus (Christ himself). What the soul is hungry for, finally, is the person of Jesus, the body and blood of Christ. Without feeding regularly on that food, the soul will atrophy. Why are so many Catholics feeling lost today? Well, 75% of them stay away from the Mass and the Eucharist on a regular basis. This is not rocket science: if you want to be healthy spiritually, you’ve got to eat!

The death of God and the loss of human dignity

Jul 30, 2015 / 00:00 am

I am sure by now that many of you have seen the appalling hidden-camera videos of two Planned Parenthood physicians bantering cheerfully with interlocutors posing as prospective buyers of the body parts of aborted infants. While they slurp wine in elegant restaurants, the good doctors—both women—blandly talk about what price they would expect for providing valuable inner organs, and how the skillful abortionists of Planned Parenthood know just how to murder babies so as not to damage the goods. One of the doctors specified that the abortion providers employ “less crunchy” methods when they know that the organs of a baby are going to be harvested for sale. Mind you, the “crunchiness” she’s talking about is a reference to the skull-crushing and dismemberment by knife and suction typically employed in abortions. For me, the most bone-chilling moment was when one of the kindly physicians, informed that the price she was asking was too low, leered and said, “Oh good, because I’d like a Lamborghini.” Now it is easy enough to remark and lament the moral coarseness of these women, the particularly repulsive way that they combine violence and greed. But I would like to explore a deeper issue that these videos bring to light, namely, the forgetfulness of the dignity of the human being that is on ever clearer display in our Western culture. One has only to consider the over 58,000,000 abortions that have taken place, under full protection of the law, in our country since Roe v. Wade in 1973, or the ever more insistent push toward permitting euthanasia, even of children in some European countries, or the wanton killing going on nightly in the streets of our major cities. The figures in my home town of Chicago typically surpass those recorded in the battle grounds of the Middle East. What makes this sort of startling violence against human beings possible, I would submit, is the attenuation of our sense of God’s existence. In the classical Western perspective, the dignity of the human person is a consequence and function of his or her status as a creature of God. Precisely because the human being is made in the image and likeness of the Creator and destined, finally, for eternal life on high with God, he is a subject of inalienable rights. I use Jefferson’s language from the Declaration of Independence on purpose here, for the great founding father knew that the absolute nature of the rights he was describing follows from their derivation from God: “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” When God is removed from the picture, human rights rather rapidly evanesce, which can be seen with clarity in both ancient times and modern. For Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato, a cultural elite enjoyed rights, privileges, and dignity, while the vast majority of people were legitimately relegated to inferior status, some even to the condition of slavery. In the totalitarianisms of the last century—marked in every case by an aggressive dismissal of God—untold millions of human beings were treated as little more than vermin. I realize that many philosophers and social theorists have tried to ground a sense of human dignity in something other than God, but these attempts have all proven fruitless. For instance, if human worth is a function of a person’s intelligence or creativity or imagination, or her capacity to enter into friendship, then why not say that this worth disappears the moment those powers are underdeveloped, weakened, or eliminated altogether? Or if respect for human dignity is related to the strength of one’s feeling for another person, then who is to say that that dignity vanishes once one’s sentiments change or dry up? My suspicion is that if we interrogated people on the street and asked them why human beings should be respected, some version of this argument from sentimentality would emerge. But again, the problem is that feelings are so ephemeral, shifting and changing like the wind. If you doubt me, read some of the accounts of the officers and soldiers in the Nazi death camps, who, after years of killing, lost all feeling for those they were murdering, seeing them as little more than rats or insects. For the past two hundred years, atheists have been loudly asserting that the dismissal of God will lead to human liberation. I would strenuously argue precisely the contrary. Once the human being is untethered from God, he becomes, in very short order, an object among objects, and hence susceptible to the grossest manipulation by the powerful and self-interested. In the measure that people still speak of the irreducible dignity of the individual, they are, whether they know it or not, standing upon Biblical foundations. When those foundations are shaken—as they increasingly are today—a culture of death will follow just as surely as night follows day. If there is no God, then human beings are dispensable—so why not trade the organs of infants for a nice Lamborghini?

A prophetic Pope and the tradition of Catholic social teaching

Jul 14, 2015 / 00:00 am

In the wake of the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and of the Pope’s recent speeches in Latin America, many supporters of the capitalist economy in the West might be forgiven for thinking that His Holiness has something against them. Again and again, Pope Francis excoriates an economy based on materialism and greed, and with prophetic urgency, he speaks out against a new colonialism that exploits the labor of those in poorer countries. With startling bluntness, he characterizes the dominant economic form in the developed world as “an economy that kills.” Moreover, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, a country under the command of a socialist president, the Pope seemed, almost in a Marxist vein, to be calling on the poor to seize power from the wealthy and take command of their own lives. What do we make of this? Well, a contextualization is in order. Pope Francis’s remarks, though strong, even a bit exaggerated, in the prophetic manner, are best understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching. One of the most significant constants in that tradition is a suspicion of socialism, understood as an economic system that denies the legitimacy of private property, undermines the free market, and fosters a class struggle between the rich and the poor, or if I can use the more classical language, between capital and labor. The modern popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have all spoken clearly against such systems, and it is hard to deny that experience has borne them out. Economies in the radically socialist or communist mode have proven to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, brutally oppressive. Robert Sirico, Michael Novak, Arthur Brooks, and many others are therefore right in suggesting that Catholic Social Teaching does not represent a tertium quid beyond capitalism and socialism; rather, it clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and clearly for the market economy. John Paul II appreciated the free market as the economic concomitant of a democratic polity, since both rest upon the dignity of the individual and his right to self-determination. But this valorization of the market by no means implies that the Church advocates an unfettered capitalism. The modern Popes have consistently taught that the market functions properly only when it is circumscribed both politically and morally—and it is precisely in this context that Pope Francis’s remarks should be understood. Let us look first at the political circumscription. Pope Leo XIII and his successors have deeply felt the suffering of those who have been exploited by the market or who have not been given adequate access to its benefits. And this is why they have supported political/legal reforms, including child labor laws, minimum wage requirements, anti-trust provisions, work day restrictions, the right of workers to unionize, etc. All of these legal constraints, they have taught, should not be construed as erosions of the market, but rather as attempts to make it more humane, more just, and more widely accessible. To be sure, people of intelligence and good will can and do disagree regarding the precise application of these principles, debating for example just how high the minimum wage should be fixed, just how stringently anti-trust laws should be interpreted, just how the rights of labor and capital should be balanced, etc. And neither popes nor bishops nor priests should get into the nitty-gritty of those conversations, best leaving the details to those expert in the relevant disciplines. But popes, bishops, and priests can indeed call for political reforms if a market has become exploitative and hence self-destructive. The second circumscription that the Popes speak of—the moral—is even more important than the first. A market economy enjoys real legitimacy if and only if it is set in the context of a vibrant moral culture that forms its people in the virtues of fairness, justice, respect for the integrity of the other, and religion. Indeed, what good are contracts—fundamental to the functioning of a market economy—if people are indifferent to justice? What good is private property if people don’t see that stealing is wicked? Won’t wealth destroy the rich man who doesn’t appreciate the value of generosity or fails to develop sensitivity to the suffering of the poor? Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all? This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West—fostered by the breakdown of the family and the attenuating of religious practice—poses such a threat to the economy. In light of these clarifications, we can hear the Pope’s words with greater understanding. He asks, “Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?” He is not speaking here of the market as such, but of a deeply immoral attitude that has seized the hearts of too many who use the market. And he complains, “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women.” These are strong words indeed, but we notice again that the Pope’s attention is not so much on the mechanisms of capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others. In his call for an ethical circumscription of economic life, Francis’s language is, if anything, milder than Leo XIII’s (“once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest that one owns belongs to the poor”) or St. Ambrose’s (“if a man has two shirts in his closet, one belongs to him; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt”). Therefore, we should attend to Pope Francis’s prophetic speech and allow it to bother us. But we should always situate it in the context of the rich and variegated tradition of Catholic social teaching.

We've been here before: Marriage and the Room of Tears

Jun 29, 2015 / 00:00 am

Just last week, I had the privilege of spending four hours in the Sistine Chapel with my Word on Fire team. Toward the end of our filming, the director of the Vatican Museums, who had accompanied us throughout the process, asked whether I wanted to see the “Room of Tears.” This is the little antechamber, just off of the Sistina, where the newly-elected Pope repairs in order to change into his white cassock. Understandably, tears begin to flow in that room, once the poor man realizes the weight of his office. Inside the small space, there were documents and other memorabilia, but what got my attention was a row of impressive albs, chasubles, and copes worn by various Popes across the years. I noticed the specially decorated cope of Pope Pius VI, who was one of the longest serving Pontiffs in history, reigning from 1775 to 1799. Pius was an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath—and his forthrightness cost him dearly. French troops invaded Italy and demanded that the Pope renounce his claim to the Papal States. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned in a citadel in Valence, where he died six weeks later. In the room of tears, there was also a stole worn by Pius VI’s successor, Pius VII. This Pope Pius also ran afoul of the French, who, under Napoleon, invaded Italy in 1809 and took him prisoner. During his grim exile, he did manage to get off one of the greatest lines in Papal history. Evidently, Napoleon himself announced to the Pope that he was going to destroy the Church, to which Pius VII responded, “Oh my little man, you think you’re going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!” Both popes find themselves, of course, in a long line of Church people persecuted by the avatars of the regnant culture. In the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, thousands—including Peter, Paul, Agnes, Cecelia, Clement, Felicity, Perpetua, Sebastian, Lawrence, and Cyprian—were brutally put to death by officials of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose was opposed by the emperor Theodosius; in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII locked horns with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; in the nineteenth century, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany, and in the twentieth century, more martyrs gave their lives for the faith than in all the previous centuries combined. Now why am I rehearsing this rather sad history? In the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, a not inconsiderable number of Catholics feel beleaguered and more than a little afraid. Their fear comes from the manner in which the decision was framed and justified. Since same-sex marriage is now recognized as a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution, those who oppose it can only be characterized as bigots animated by an irrational prejudice. To be sure, Justice Kennedy and his colleagues assure us that those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage will be respected, but one wonders how such respect is congruent with the logic of the decision. Would one respect the owners of a business who refuse to hire black people as a matter of principle? Would not the government, in point of fact, be compelled to act against those owners? The proponents of gay marriage have rather brilliantly adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, precisely so as to force this conclusion. And this is why my mentor, the late Francis Cardinal George, so often warned against the incursions of an increasingly aggressive secular state, which, he argued, will first force us off the public stage into privacy and then seek to criminalize those practices of ours that it deems unacceptable. One reason that this has been rather shocking to American Catholics is that we have had, at least for the last century or so, a fairly benign relationship with the environing culture. Until around 1970, there was, throughout the society and across religious boundaries, a broad moral consensus in our country, especially in regard to sexual and family matters. This is one reason why, in the 1950’s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen could find such a wide and appreciative audience among Protestants and Jews, even as he laid out fundamentally Catholic perspectives on morality. But now that consensus has largely been shattered, and the Church finds itself opposed, not so much by other religious denominations, as it was in the 19th century, but by the ideology of secularism and the self-defining individual—admirably expressed, by the way, in Justice Kennedy’s articulation of the majority position in the case under consideration. So what do we do? We continue to put forth our point of view winsomely, invitingly, and non-violently, loving our opponents and reaching out to those with whom we disagree. As St. John Paul II said, the Church always proposes, never imposes. And we take a deep breath, preparing for what could be some aggression from the secular society, but we take courage from a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. The Church has faced this sort of thing before—and we’re still standing.  

'Laudato Si' and Romano Guardini

Jun 25, 2015 / 00:00 am

In 1986, after serving in a variety of capacities in the Jesuit province of Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio commenced doctoral studies in Germany. The focus of his research was the great twentieth century theologian and cultural critic Romano Guardini, who had been a key influence on, among many others, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. As things turned out, Bergoglio never finished his doctoral degree (he probably started too late in life), but his immersion in the writings of Guardini decisively shaped his thinking. Most of the commentary on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ has focused on the issue of global warming and the Pope’s alignment with this or that political perspective, but this is to miss the forest for one very particular tree. As I read through the document, I saw, on practically every page, the influence of Romano Guardini and his distinctive take on modernity. To get a handle on Guardini’s worldview, one should start with a series of essays that he wrote in the 1920’s, gathered into book form as Letters from Lake Como. Like many Germans (despite his very Italian name, Guardini was culturally German), he loved to vacation in Italy, and he took particular delight in the lake region around Milan. He was enchanted, of course, by the physical beauty of the area, but what intrigued him above all was the manner in which human beings, through their architecture and craftsmanship, interacted non-invasively and respectfully with nature. When he first came to the region, he noticed, for example, how the homes along Lake Como imitated the lines and rhythms of the landscape and how the boats that plied the lake did so in response to the swelling and falling of the waves. But by the 1920’s, he had begun to notice a change. The homes being built were not only larger, but more “aggressive,” indifferent to the surrounding environment, no longer accommodating themselves to the natural setting. And the motor-driven boats on the lake were no longer moving in rhythm with the waves, but rather cutting through them indifferently. In these unhappy changes, Guardini noted the emergence of a distinctively modern sensibility. He meant that the attitudes first articulated by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century and René Descartes in the seventeenth were coming to dominate the mentality of twentieth-century men and women. Consciously departing from Aristotle, who had said that knowledge is a modality of contemplation, Bacon opined that knowledge is power, more precisely power to control the natural environment. This is why he infamously insisted that the scientist’s task is to put nature “on the rack” so that she might give up her secrets. Just a few decades later, Descartes told the intellectuals of Europe to stop fussing over theological matters and philosophical abstractions and to get about the business of “mastering” nature. To be sure, this shift in consciousness gave rise to the modern sciences and their attendant technologies, but it also, Guardini worried, led to a deep alienation between humanity and nature. The typically modern subject became aggressive and self-absorbed, and the natural world simply something for him to manipulate for his own purposes. If you want to see an English version of Guardini’s perspective, I would recommend a careful reading of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Inklings colleagues on the relation between capitalist, technocratic humanity and an increasingly aggressed nature. If you want vivid images for this, turn to the pages in The Lord of the Rings dealing with the battle between Saruman and the Ents or to the section of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe detailing the permanent winter into which Narnia had fallen. It is only against this Guardinian background that we can properly read the Pope’s latest encyclical. Whatever his views on global warming, they are situated within the far greater context of a theology of nature that stands athwart the typically modern point of view. That the earth has become “piled with filth,” that pollution adversely affects the health of millions of the poor, that we live in a “throwaway” culture, that the unborn are treated with indifference, that huge populations have little access to clean drinking water, that thousands of animal species are permitted to fall into extinction, and yes even that we live in housing that bears no organic relation to the natural environment—all of it flows from the alienated Cartesian subject going about his work of mastering nature. In the spirit of the author of the book of Genesis, the Biblical prophets, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi—indeed of any great pre-modern figure—Pope Francis wants to recover a properly cosmological sensibility, whereby the human being and her projects are in vibrant, integrated relation with the world that surrounds her. What strikes the Pope as self-evident is that the nature we have attempted to dominate, for the past several centuries, has now turned on us, like Frankenstein’s monster. As he put it in a recent press conference, “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” These lessons, which he learned many years ago from Romano Guardini, are still worthy of careful attention today.

Bruce Jenner, the 'shadow council' and St. Irenaeus

Jun 9, 2015 / 00:00 am

Two news items from last week put me in mind of St. Irenaeus and the battle he waged, nineteen centuries ago, against the Gnostic heresy. The first was the emergence of Bruce Jenner as a “woman” named Caitlyn, and the second was a “shadow council” that took place in Rome and apparently called for the victory of a theology of love over John Paul II’s theology of the body.  I realize this requires a bit of unpacking. Let me begin with Irenaeus. Toward the end of the second century, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, wrote a text called Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), and the principle heresy that he identified therein was Gnosticism. Gnosticism was, and is, a multi-headed beast, but one of its major tenets is that matter is a fallen, inferior form of being, produced by a low-level deity. The soul is trapped in matter, and the whole point of the spiritual life is to acquire the gnosis (knowledge) requisite to facilitate an escape of the soul from the body. On the gnostic interpretation, the Yahweh of the Old Testament, who foolishly pronounced the material world good, is none other than the compromised god described in gnostic cosmology, and Jesus is the prophet who came with the saving knowledge of how to rise above the material realm. What Irenaeus intuited—and his intuition represented one of the decisive moments in the history of the Church—is that this point of view is directly repugnant to Biblical Christianity, which insists emphatically upon the goodness of matter. Scan through Irenaeus’s voluminous writings, and you will find the word “body” over and over again. Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, the theology of the Church, sacraments, redemption, the Eucharist, etc. all involve, he argued, bodiliness, materiality. For Irenaeus, redemption is decidedly not tantamount to the escape of the soul from the body; rather, it is the salvation and perfection of the body.  Now you might think that this is all a bit of ancient intellectual history, but think again. As I hinted above, the gnostic heresy has proven remarkably durable, reasserting itself across the centuries. Its most distinctive mark is precisely the denigration of matter and the tendency to set the spirit and the body in an antagonistic relationship. This is why many thinkers have identified the anthropology of René Descartes, which has radically influenced modern and contemporary attitudes, as neo-gnostic. Descartes famously drove a wedge between spirit and matter, or in his language, between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space). In line with gnostic intuitions, Descartes felt that the former belongs to a higher and more privileged dimension and that the latter is legitimately the object of manipulation and re-organization. Hence he says that the purpose of philosophy and science is to “master” nature, rather than to contemplate it. One would have to be blind not to notice how massively impactful that observation has proven to be. Echoes of Descartes’s dualism can be heard in the writings of Kant, Hegel, and many of the master philosophers of modernity, and they can be discerned, as well, in the speech and attitudes of millions of ordinary people today.All of which brings me back to Bruce Jenner and to the “shadow council” in Rome. In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner consistently says something along these lines: “Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity.” Notice how the mind or the will—the inner self—is casually identified as the “real me” whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self. The soul and the body are in a master/slave relationship, the former legitimately dominating and re-making the latter. This schema is, to a tee, gnostic—and just as repugnant to Biblical religion as it was nineteen hundred years ago. For Biblical people, the body can never be construed as a prison for the soul, nor as an object for the soul’s manipulation. Moreover, the mind or will is not the “true self” standing over and against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self. Until we realize that the lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism, we haven’t grasped the nettle of the issue.And just a word about what took place in Rome last week. I want to be careful here, for I’m relying on a few reports concerning what was intended to be a private gathering of Church leaders and intellectuals. I certainly want to give all of the participants the benefit of the doubt and I remain sincerely eager to hear their own accounting of what was discussed. But what particularly bothered me—in fact, it caused every single anti-gnostic sensor in me to vibrate—was the claim that the secret council was calling for a “theology of love” that would supplant the theology of the body proposed by John Paul II. For Biblical people, human love is never a disembodied reality. Furthermore, love—which is an act of the will—does not hover above the body, but rather expresses itself through the body and according to the intelligibility of the body. To set the two in opposition or to maintain that an inner act is somehow more important or comprehensive than the body is to walk the gnostic road—which is just as dangerous a path as it was in the time of St. Irenaeus.

Thoughts on the Passing of Cardinal George

Apr 20, 2015 / 00:00 am

Cardinal Francis George, who died last week at the age of 78, was obviously a man of enormous accomplishment and influence. He was a Cardinal of the Roman Church, a past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archbishop of one of the largest and most complicated archdioceses in the world, and the intellectual leader of the American Church. A number of American bishops have told me that when Cardinal George spoke at the Bishops’ meetings, the entire room would fall silent and everyone would listen. But to understand this great man, I think we have to go back in imagination to when he was a kid from St. Pascal’s parish on the Northwest side of Chicago, who liked to ride his bike and run around with his friends and who was an accomplished pianist and painter as well. At the age of thirteen, that young man was stricken with polio, a disease which nearly killed him and left him severely disabled. Running, bike riding, painting, and piano playing were forever behind him. I’m sure he was tempted to give up and withdraw into himself, but young Francis George, despite his handicap, pushed ahead with single-minded determination. The deepest longing of his heart was to become a priest, and this led him to apply to Quigley Seminary. Convinced that this boy with crutches and a brace couldn’t make the difficult commute every day or keep up with the demands of the school, the officials at Quigley turned him away. Undeterred, he applied to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary congregation. Recognizing his enormous promise and inner strength, they took him in. I bring us back to this moment of the Cardinal’s life, for it sheds light on two essential features of his personality. First, he was a man who never gave up. I had the privilege of living with Cardinal George for six years and thus I was able to see his life close-up. He had an absolutely punishing schedule, which had him going morning, noon, and night, practically every day of the week: administrative meetings, private conversations, banquets, liturgies, social functions, public speeches, etc. Never once, in all the years I lived with him, did I ever hear Cardinal George complain about what he was obliged to do. He simply went ahead, not grimly but with a sense of purpose. When he first spoke to the priests of the Archdiocese as our Archbishop, he said, “Never feel sorry for yourself!” That piece of advice came, you could tell, from the gut. Second, his identity as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate deeply marked him as a man of mission. The OMI’s are a missionary congregation, whose work takes them all over the world, from Africa and Asia to Latin America, the Yukon, and Alaska—not to mention Texas and Belleville, Illinois. When he was a novice and young OMI seminarian in Belleville, Francis George heard the stories of missioners from the far reaches of the globe, and he imbibed their adventurous spirit. As the vicar general of his order, he undertook travels to six continents, dozens of countries, visiting with thousands of OMI evangelist priests. I was continually amazed at his detailed knowledge of the politics, culture, and history of almost any country or region you could name. It was born of lots of direct experience.This missionary consciousness is precisely what informed the intellectual and pastoral project that was closest to his heart, namely, the evangelization of the contemporary culture. In this, he showed himself a disciple of his great mentor Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. What Cardinal George brought rather uniquely to the table in this regard was a particularly clear grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of the Western and especially American cultural matrix. Cardinal George often signaled his impatience with the term “counter-cultural” in regard to the Church’s attitude vis-à-vis the ambient culture. His concern is that this can suggest a simple animosity, whereas the successful evangelist must love the culture he is endeavoring to address. But he saw a deeper problem as well, namely, that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to be thoroughly counter-cultural, since such an attitude would set one, finally, against oneself. It would be a bit like a fish adamantly insisting that he swims athwart the ocean. Therefore, the one who would proclaim the Gospel in the contemporary American setting must appreciate that the American culture is sown liberally with semina verbi (seeds of the Word). The first of these, in Cardinal George’s judgment, is the modern sense of freedom and its accompanying rights. Following the prompts of Immanuel Kant, modern political theorists have held that all human beings possess a dignity which dictates that they should never be treated merely as a means but always as an end. It is interesting to note that the young Karol Wojtyla, in his early work in philosophical ethics, put a great premium on this second form of the Kantian categorical imperative. What Cardinal George has helped us see is that, at its best, this modern stress is grounded in a fundamentally theological understanding of the human person as a creature of God. Were the human being construed simply as an accidental product of the evolutionary process, then he would not enjoy the irreducible dignity that is assumed by Kant. Indeed, Kant’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson rather clearly indicated that his understanding of human rights was conditioned by the Christian theological heritage when he specified that those rights are granted, not by the state, but by the Creator. The Kantian-Jeffersonian philosophical anthropology must be distinguished, Cardinal George insisted, from Thomas Hobbes' account. On the Hobbesian reading, rights are grounded, not so much in divine intentionality, but in the unavoidability of desire. Hobbes opined—and John Locke essentially followed him—that we have a right to those things that we cannot not desire. For Hobbes this meant the sustenance of biological life and the avoidance of violent death, whereas for Locke, it was somewhat broadened to mean life, liberty, and property. The problem is that Hobbes’s interpretation is thoroughly non-theological and his consequent understanding of the purpose of government is non-teleological, purely protective rather than directive. Government exists, not for the achievement of the common good, but for the mutual protection of the citizens. That the Hobbesian strain found its way into the American political imagination is clear from Jefferson’s refusal to characterize the nature of happiness, even as he insisted on the universal right to pursue it. In a word, therefore, the Church can and must affirm, at least in its basic form, the Kantian understanding of freedom and rights, even as it can and must stand against the purely secularist Hobbesian notion.Cardinal George knew that the prime spokesperson for this deft act of affirmation and negation was Pope John Paul II, who emerged, in the late twentieth-century, as the most articulate and vociferous defender of human rights on the world stage. The Cardinal drew attention to a speech that the Pope made in Philadelphia in 1979. John Paul sang the praises of our Declaration of Independence, with its stress on God-given rights, but he filled in the theological background by referencing the Genesis account of our creation in the image and likeness of God. Pressing well past any sort of Hobbesian secularism and utilitarianism, the Pope insisted that Jefferson’s ideal should inspire Americans to build a society that is marked by its care for the weakest and most vulnerable, especially the aged and the unborn. The second major feature of modernity that Cardinal George identified is an extreme valorization of the physical sciences, or in his own words, “the imposing of scientific method as the point of contact between human beings and the world and society into which they are born.” The founders of modernity appreciated the sciences not only for their descriptive and predictive powers, but also for their liberating potential. Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Kant, and many others, held that the mastery over nature provided by burgeoning physics, chemistry, medicine, etc. would free the human race from its age-old captivity to sickness and the strictures of time and space. But what this led to—and I see it practically every day in my evangelical work—was the development of a “scientism” which, as a matter of ideological conviction, excludes non-scientific or extra-scientific ways of knowing, including and especially religious ways. The scientistic attitude has also obscured the undeniably theological foundations for the scientific enterprise, namely the assumptions that the world is not God (and hence can be analyzed) and that the world is stamped, in every detail, by intelligibility. Both of these assumptions are predicated upon the doctrine of creation, which the founders of modern science took in, along with their astronomy, mathematics, and physics, at church-sponsored universities. In the measure that the sciences flow from and rest upon the properly theological presumptions that non-divine universe is well-ordered and intelligible, Catholic theology can involve itself in a very fruitful dialogue with them; but in the measure that scientism comes to hold sway, the Church must resist. One of Cardinal George’s most memorable remarks is that liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. It is important that we parse his words here carefully. By “liberal Catholicism” he means an approach to the Catholic faith that takes seriously the positive achievements of the modern culture. In this sense, Lacordaire, Lord Acton, Lamennais, von Dollinger, and Newman were all liberal Catholics—and their successors would include De Lubac, Rahner, Guardini, Ratzinger, and Congar. One of the permanent achievements of the liberal Catholic project, in Cardinal George’s judgment, is “restoring to the center of the Church’s consciousness the Gospel’s assertion that Christ has set us free, but also for the insight and analysis that enabled the Church herself to break free of the conservative social structures in which she had become imprisoned.” In the 1950’s Hans Urs von Balthasar called, in a similar vein, for a “razing of the bastions,” behind which the church had been crouching, in order to let out the life that she had preserved. And this is very much in line with Vatican II’s limited accommodation to modernity in service of the evangelical mission. Liberal Catholicism also took into account the second great achievement of modernity, stressing that certain doctrinal formulations and Biblical interpretations had to be reassessed in light of the findings of modern science. One thinks in this context of the vociferous interventions, made by a number of bishops on the Council floor at Vatican II, concerning certain naïvely literalistic readings of the Old Testament.All of this assimilation of the best of the modern represents the permanent achievement of Catholic liberalism, and this is why Cardinal George never argued that liberalism is simply a failed or useless project. He said it was an exhausted project, parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. What are the signs of exhaustion? The Cardinal explains that the liberal project has gone off the rails inasmuch as it “seems to interpret the Council as a mandate to change whatever in the Church clashes with modern society,” as though, in the words of the notorious slogan from the 1960’s, “the world sets the agenda for the Church.” If the Church only provides vaguely religious motivation for the mission and work of the secular society, then the Church has lost its soul, devolving into a cheerleader for modernity. The other principal sign of the exhaustion of the liberal project is its hyper-stress on freedom as self-assertion and self-definition. In Cardinal George’s words: “the cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the Gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice.” We might suggest that another shadow side of Catholic liberalism is a tendency to accept the scientific vision of reality as so normative that the properly supernatural is called into question. We see this both in a reduction of religion to ethics and the building of the kingdom on earth, as well as in extreme forms of historical critical biblical interpretation that rule out the supernatural as a matter of principle.What is too often overlooked—especially in liberal circles—is that Cardinal George was just as impatient with certain forms of conservative Catholicism. Correctly perceiving that authentic Catholicism clashes with key elements of modern culture, some conservatives instinctively reached back to earlier cultural instantiations of Catholicism and absolutized them. They failed thereby to realize that robust Catholicism is, in Cardinal George’s words, “radical in its critique of any society,” be it second-century Rome, eighteenth-century France, or the America of the 1950’s. What he proposed, finally, was neither liberal nor conservative Catholicism, but “simply Catholicism,” by which he meant the faith in its fullness, mediated through the successors of the Apostles. At the heart of this Catholicism in full is relationality. Cardinal George has often pointed out that Catholic ontology is inescapably relational, since it is grounded in the Creator God who is, himself, a communion of subsistent relations. More to it, the Creator, making the universe, ex nihilo, does not stand over and against his creatures in a standard “being-to-being” rapport; rather, his creative act here and now constitutes the to-be of creatures, so that every finite thing is a relation to God. Aquinas expressed this when he said that creation is “a kind of relation to the Creator, with freshness of being.”  This metaphysics of relationality stands in sharp distinction to the typically modern and nominalist ontology of individual things, which gave rise to the Hobbesian and Lockean political philosophy sketched above, whereby social relations are not natural but rather artificial and contractual. Since grace rests upon and elevates nature, we should not be surprised that the Church is marked by an even more radical relationality. Through the power of Christ, who is the Incarnation of the subsistent relation of the Trinity, creation is given the opportunity of participating in the divine life. This participation, made possible through grace, is far more intense than the relationship that ordinarily obtains between God and creatures and among creatures themselves, and Catholic ecclesiology expresses that intensity through a whole set of images: bride, body, mother, temple, etc. In Cardinal George’s striking language: “the Church is aware of herself as vital, and so calls herself a body. The Church is aware of herself as personal, and so calls herself a bride who surrenders to Christ. The Church is aware of herself as a subject, as an active, abiding presence that mediates a believer’s experience, and so calls herself mother. The Church is aware of herself as integrated, and so describes herself as a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Notice please the words being used here: vital, personal, present, surrendering, mother, integrated. They all speak of participation, interconnection, relationship, what Cardinal George calls esse per (being through). This is the living organism of the Church which relates in a complex way to the culture, assimilating and elevating what it can and resisting what it must. This is simply Catholicism.Cardinal George was a spiritual father to me. In his determination, his pastoral devotion, his deep intelligence, his kindness of heart, he mediated the Holy Spirit. For this I will always be personally grateful to him. I believe that the entire Church, too, owes him a debt of gratitude for reminding us who we are and what our mission is.

Kenneth Branagh's Very Christian Cinderella

Mar 20, 2015 / 00:00 am

Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is the most surprising Hollywood movie of the year so far. I say this because the director manages to tells the familiar fairy tale without irony, hyper-feminist sub-plots, Marxist insinuations, deconstructionist cynicism, or arch condescension. In so doing, he actually allows the spiritual, indeed specifically Christian, character of the tale to emerge. I realize that it probably strikes a contemporary audience as odd that Cinderella might be a Christian allegory, but keep in mind that most of the fairy stories and children’s tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm and later adapted by Walt Disney found their roots in the decidedly Christian culture of late medieval and early modern Europe. In Branagh’s telling, Ella is the daughter of wonderful parents, both of whom instill in her a keen sense of moral virtue and joie de vivre. The girl’s idyllic childhood was interrupted by the sudden illness of her mother, who, while on her death-bed, delivered to Ella the injunction always to be “kind and courageous.” Her father then remarried and brought his new wife and her two daughters to live with him and Ella. Some years later, Ella’s father left on a lengthy business trip. Before he set out, she enjoined him to send back to her the first branch that his shoulder would brush while on the journey. A few weeks later, a servant arrived with the branch in his hand and the dreadful news that Ella’s father had become sick and had died. The now utterly isolated Ella became the victim of her wicked stepmother (played by the always compelling Cate Blanchett) and her obnoxious stepsisters, who visit upon her every type of cruelty and injustice. They even take away her bedroom, forcing her to sleep by the dying embers of the fire to keep warm. The ashes that stain her face give rise to the cruel nickname her stepsisters assign to her. Significantly, the cat belonging to Ella’s stepfamily is called Lucifer. So we have a beautiful, vivacious, and morally upright young lady whose life becomes a nightmare through the intervention of untimely death and wicked oppression. So thorough was her loss of dignity that she finds herself covered in dust, her beauty obscured. It does not require a huge leap of imagination to see this as an allegory of the fall of the human race. God created us as beautiful, indeed in his own image and likeness, but through sin and the ministrations of the devil, we descended into dysfunction, and our beauty was covered over. In the technical language of the theologians, though we had kept the image of God, we had lost our likeness to him. To return to Branagh’s traditional telling of the tale: while out riding in the country, Cinderella encountered a magnificent stag that was being pursued by a hunting party. Subsequently, she met the leader of the hunting brigade, a handsome young prince, the son of the King. The two almost immediately fell in love. Because she returned home without identifying herself, the prince called for a ball and invited all of the young women of the realm to come, hoping to lure his mysterious beloved. Though her stepfamily tried desperately to prevent her from attending, Cinderella, through the ministrations of her fairy godmother, managed to get to the ball, where she, of course, entranced the prince. Once again, she was compelled to return early, and the lovesick prince sought her desperately until he found her and married her. We are tempted, no doubt, to see all of this as the stuff of ordinary romance, but we should look more deeply. First, the stag is a traditional sign of Christ and thus his presence as the object of the hunt is meant to signal his presence at the symbolic level of the narrative. Moreover, the prince, the son of the King, who falls in love with a woman despite her lowliness, is an obvious evocation of Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent to become the bridegroom of the human race, whose spiritual beauty had been covered over by sin. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the “builder of the human race” would come one day to marry his people, and the motif of the sacrum connubium, the sacred marriage, runs right through the New Testament. Indeed, the fathers of the Church took particular delight in ringing the changes on this theme, emphasizing that the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, in marrying the human race, lifted us up out of our lowliness and bestowed upon us all of his own benefits and dignity. This is precisely why the early theologians of the Church specified that the sacrum connubium involved an admirabile commercium (a wonderful exchange), God taking our sin from us and giving us his grace. In the symbolic language of our story, the unmerited love of the prince indeed transformed Cinderella into a princess.The surest sign that this transformation has occurred—and it is one of my favorite elements in Branagh’s telling—is that Cinderella, upon escaping from the cruel oppression of her stepmother, turned to the wicked woman, not to curse her, but to offer a word of forgiveness. There could be no more compelling proof that she had thoroughly taken on the character of the bridegroom.When you see this film, I would invite you, even as you take in the fantasy and romance of it, to appreciate it too as a deeply Christian story.

Stephen Fry, Job, and the Cross of Jesus

Feb 24, 2015 / 00:00 am

The British writer, actor, and comedian Stephen Fry is featured in a YouTube video which has gone viral: over 5 million views as of this moment. As you may know, Fry is, like his British counterparts Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, a fairly ferocious atheist, who has made a name for himself in recent years as a very public debunker of all things religious. In the video in question, he articulates precisely what he would say to God if, upon arriving at the pearly gates, he discovered that he was mistaken in his atheism. Fry says that he would ask God why he made a universe in which children get bone cancer, a universe in which human beings suffer horrifically and without justification. If such a monstrous, self-absorbed, and stupid God exists, Fry insists, he would decidedly not want to spend eternity with him. Now there is much more to Fry’s rant—it goes on for several minutes—but you get the drift.To those who feel that Stephen Fry has delivered a devastating blow to religious belief, let me say simply this: this objection is nothing new to Christians. St. Paul, Origen, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and many, many other Christian theologians up and down the centuries have dealt with it. In fact, one of the pithiest expressions of the problem was formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. The great Catholic philosopher argued that if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. Yet God is called infinitely good. Therefore, if God exists, there should be no evil. But there is evil. Thus it certainly seems to follow that God does not exist. Thomas thereby conveys all of the power of Fry’s observations without the histrionics. And of course, all of this subtle theological wrestling with the problem of suffering is grounded, finally, in the most devastating rant ever uttered against God, a rant found not in an essay of some disgruntled atheist philosopher but rather in the pages of the Bible.  I’m talking about the book of Job. According to the familiar story, Job is an innocent man, but he is nevertheless compelled to endure every type of suffering. In one fell swoop, he loses his wealth, his livelihood, his family, and his health. A group of friends console him and then attempt to offer theological explanations for his pain. But Job dismisses them all and, with all the fury of Stephen Fry, calls out God, summoning him, as it were, into the dock to explain himself. Out of the desert whirlwind God then speaks—and it is the longest speech by God in the Scriptures: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you know….Who shut within doors the sea…when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place” (Job 38: 4, 8-10)? God goes on, taking Job on a lengthy tour of the mysteries, conundrums, and wonders of the universe, introducing him to ever wider contexts, situating his suffering within frameworks of meaning that he had never before considered. In light of God’s speech, I would first suggest to Stephen Fry that the true God is the providential Lord of all of space and all of time.Secondly, I would observe that none of us can see more than a tiny swatch of that immense canvas on which God works. And therefore I would urge him to reconsider his confident assertion that the suffering of the world—even the most horrific and seemingly unjustified—is necessarily without meaning. Imagine that one page of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was torn away and allowed to drift on the wind. Imagine further that that page became, in the course of several months, further ripped and tattered so that only one paragraph of it remained legible. And finally imagine that someone who had never heard of Tolkien’s rich and multi-layered story came, by chance, upon that single paragraph. Would it not be the height of arrogance and presumption for that person to declare that those words made not a lick of sense? Would it not be akin to someone, utterly ignorant of higher mathematics, declaring that a complex algebraic formula, coherent in itself but opaque to him, is nothing but gibberish? Given our impossibly narrow point of view, how could any of us ever presume to pronounce on the “meaninglessness” of what happens in the world? A third basic observation I would make to Mr. Fry is this: once we grant that God exists, we hold to the very real possibility of a life beyond this one. But this implies that no evil in this world, even death itself, is of final significance. Is it terrible that innocent children die of wasting diseases? Well of course. But is it finally and irreversibly terrible? Is it nothing but terrible? By no means! It might in fact be construed as an avenue to something unsurpassably good.In the last analysis, the best rejoinder to Fry’s objection is a distinctively Christian one, for Christians refer to the day on which Jesus was unjustly condemned, abandoned by his friends, brutally scourged, paraded like an animal through the streets, nailed to an instrument of torture and left to die as “Good Friday.”  To understand that is to have the ultimate answer to Job—and to Stephen Fry.

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age

Dec 2, 2014 / 00:00 am

Postmodern relativism and deconstruction have produced, at the popular level, what I have termed the “Meh culture,” that is to say, a culture dominated by the “whatever” attitude, a bland, detached indifferentism to the good and the true.  How often have you heard someone say, “that’s perhaps true for you but not for me,” or “who are you to be imposing your values on me?” or in the immortal words of the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” “well, that’s just like your opinion, man.”  Is it not a commonplace today that the only moral absolute that remains is the obligation to tolerate all points of view?  What this subjectivism has conduced toward is a society lacking in energy and focus, one that cannot rouse itself to corporate action on behalf of some universal good.  John Henry Newman said that well-defined banks are precisely what give verve and direction to a river.  Once those banks are knocked down, the river will spread out, in short order, into a large, lazy lake.  Applying the analogy, he argued that objective truths, clearly understood, are what give energy to a culture and that when those truths are compromised in the name of freedom or toleration, said culture rapidly loses its purpose and cohesiveness.  It is as though people today are floating on individual air-mattresses on Newman’s lazy lake, disconnected from one another, each locked in the isolation of his or her subjective judgments. The great twentieth century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the most articulate and incisive critics of the kind of relativism that has come to hold sway in our time.  Following the prompts of both Plato and St. Augustine, Hildebrand delighted in showing the self-defeating incoherence of the position:  if he is to be consistent, the relativist must hold that the claim of universal relativism is itself relative and hence not binding on anyone beside himself.  Hildebrand taught that the philosophy of relativism flowed from the failure to honor the fundamental distinction between the arena of the merely subjectively satisfying and the arena of real values.  There are many things and experiences that we seek because they please us or satisfy some basic need.  One might find a cigarette appealing or a slice of pizza tasty or a political party useful, but in all these cases, one is bending the thing in question to his subjectivity.  But there are other goods (Hildebrand’s “values”) that by their splendor, excellence, and intrinsic worth, draw the person out of himself, bending his subjectivity to them, drawing him toward self-transcendence. In the presence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Chartres Cathedral or Plato’s Republic or the daily work of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, one is compelled to acknowledge the preciousness of a reality that goes beyond the needs or expectation of one’s ego.  To characterize such things as merely subjectively satisfying, as though appreciating them is simply a matter of individual taste, would be simply ludicrous.  The whole point of the moral life for Hildebrand is to cultivate the appropriate response to these objective values, to channel one’s energies according to their demands.  A crucial consequence of cultivating the proper response to values is that real community increases and intensifies.  Whereas the merely subjectively satisfying correlates to the individual and his particular preferences, the objectively valuable correlates to the entire society of those drawn out of themselves and into a shared devotion. One might be tempted to think, “so far so abstract.”  But a new book titled My Battle Against Hitler, edited by two of the most devoted Hildebrandians on the scene today, John Crosby and his son John Henry Crosby, vividly demonstrates how Hildebrand himself lived out the principles of his moral philosophy in the face of the most vicious ideology of the last century.  In the 1920’s, as the National Socialist movement was gaining ground, Hildebrand, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Munich, commenced to speak out against Hitler and his cronies.  He saw Nazism—marked by anti-Semitism, crude nationalism, cruelty, and indifference to human dignity—as a repudiation of an entire range of objective values.  Though it put his career and eventually his very life at risk, Hildebrand became, accordingly, an impassioned opponent of this political movement which had begun to attract the support even of leading intellectuals.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hildebrand was compelled to leave his beloved Munich and take up residence in Vienna.  From 1933 to 1938, he continued vocally to oppose Hitler, founding and editing an anti-Nazi journal that so infuriated Hitler that the Fuhrer referred to Hildebrand as his “number one enemy.”  When the German annexation of Austria took place, Hildebrand was aggressively sought by the Gestapo and narrowly escaped with his life, eventually settling in New York, where he became professor of philosophy at Fordham University. A key concomitant of the assertion of objective value is the claim that objective disvalues exist as well.  And just as we should cultivate a response of love and appreciation to value, we should cultivate a response of hatred and opposition to wickedness.  Hildebrand saw that indifference to evil is as destructive as indifference to good. In our relativistic age, when we are confronted with a whole range of disvalues in our society, Hildebrand’s is a voice we need to heed. 

Revisiting the Argument from Desire

Nov 21, 2014 / 00:00 am

One of the classical demonstrations of God’s existence is the so-called argument from desire. It can be stated in a very succinct manner as follows. Every innate or natural desire corresponds to some objective state of affairs that fulfills it. Now we all have an innate or natural desire for ultimate fulfillment, ultimate joy, which nothing in this world can possibly satisfy. Therefore there must exist objectively a supernatural condition that grounds perfect fulfillment and happiness, which people generally refer to as “God.”I have found in my work as an apologist and evangelist that this demonstration, even more than the cosmological arguments, tends to be dismissed out of hand by skeptics. They observe, mockingly, that wishing something doesn’t make it so, and they are eager to specify that remark with examples:  I may want to have a billion dollars, but the wish doesn’t make the money appear; I wish I could fly, but my desire doesn’t prove that I have wings, etc. This rather cavalier rejection of a venerable demonstration is a consequence, I believe, of the pervasive influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, both of whom opined that religion amounts to a pathetic project of wish-fulfillment. Since we want perfect justice and wisdom so badly, and since the world cannot possibly provide those goods, we invent a fantasy world in which they obtain. Both Feuerbach and Freud accordingly felt that it was high time that the human race shake off these infantile illusions and come to grips with reality as it is. In Feuerbach’s famous phrase: “The no to God is the yes to man.” The same idea is contained implicitly in the aphorism of Feuerbach’s best-known disciple, Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”In the wake of this criticism, can the argument from desire still stand? I think it can, but we have to probe a bit behind its deceptively simple surface if we are to grasp its cogency. The first premise of the demonstration hinges on a distinction between natural or innate desires and desires of a more artificial or contrived variety. Examples of the first type include the desire for food, for sex, for companionship, for beauty, and for knowledge; while examples of second type include the longing for a fashionable suit of clothes, for a fast car, for Shangri-La, or to fly through the air like a bird. Precisely because desires of the second category are externally motivated or psychologically contrived, they don’t prove anything regarding the objective existence of their objects: some of them exist and some of them don’t. But desires of the first type do indeed correspond to, and infallibly indicate, the existence of the states of affairs that will fulfill them: hunger points to the objective existence of food, thirst to the objective existence of drink, sexual longing to the objective existence of the sexual act, etc. And this is much more than a set of correspondences that simply happen to be the case; the correlation is born of the real participation of the desire in its object. The phenomenon of hunger is unthinkable apart from food, since the stomach is “built” for food; the phenomenon of sexual desire is unthinkable apart from the reality of sex, since the dynamics of that desire are ordered toward the sexual act. By its very structure, the mind already participates in truth. So what kind of desire is the desire for perfect fulfillment? Since it cannot be met by any value within the world, it must be a longing for truth, goodness, beauty, and being in their properly unconditioned form. But the unconditioned, by definition, must transcend any limit that we might set to it. It cannot, therefore, be merely subjective, for such a characterization would render it not truly unconditioned. And this gives the lie to any attempt—Feuerbachian, Freudian, Marxist or otherwise—to write off the object of this desire as a wish-fulfilling fantasy, as a projection of subjectivity. In a word, the longing for God participates in God, much as hunger participates in food.  And thus, precisely in the measure that the desire under consideration is an innate and natural desire, it does indeed prove the existence of its proper object.One of the best proponents of this argument in the last century was C.S. Lewis. In point of fact, Lewis made it the cornerstone of his religious philosophy and the still-point around which much of his fiction turned. What particularly intrigued Lewis was the sweetly awful quality of this desire for something that can never find its fulfillment in any worldly reality, a desire that, at the same time, frustrates and fascinates us. This unique ache of the soul he called “joy.” In the Narnia stories, Aslan the lion stands for the object of this desire for the unconditioned. When the good mare Hwin confronts the lion for the first time, she says, “Please, you are so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I would sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.” To understand the meaning of that utterance is to grasp the point of the argument from desire.