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

The field hospital is open: reflections on Pope Francis’ interview

Oct 2, 2013 / 00:00 am

As by now everyone in the world knows, Pope Francis offered a lengthy and wide-ranging interview to the editor of Civilta Cattolica, which was subsequently published in sixteen Jesuit-sponsored journals from a variety of countries. As we’ve come to expect practically anytime that this Pope speaks, the interview has provoked a media frenzy. To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary.The first question to which the Pope responded in this interview as simple: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (his given name)?” After a substantial pause, he said, “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” At the heart of the matter, at the core of the “Catholic thing,” is this encounter between us sinners and the God of amazing grace. Long before we get to social teaching, to debates about birth control and abortion, to adjudicating questions about homosexual activity, to disputes about liturgy, etc., we have the graced moment when sinners are accepted, even though they are unacceptable. Pope Francis aptly illustrated his observation by drawing attention to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Matthew,” which depicts the instant when Matthew, a thoroughly self-absorbed and materialistic man, found himself looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze. Because of that look, Matthew utterly changed, becoming first a disciple, then a missionary, and finally a martyr.I believe that this first answer given by Pope Francis provides the interpretive lens for reading the rest of the interview. He is confessing to be a sinner who has found grace and conversion and who has thereby been transformed into a missionary. On the basis of that master insight, he is able to survey both Church and society with astonishing clarity and serenity. One of the most commented upon remarks in the interview is the following: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” What the Pope is signaling here is that the Church, as his predecessor Paul VI put it, doesn’t have a mission; it is a mission, for its purpose is to cause the merciful face of Jesus to gaze upon everyone in the world. It is not an exclusive club where only the morally perfect are welcome, but rather, a home for sinners, which means a home for everybody.And this insight provides the right context for understanding another controversial remark from the interview: “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation:  Jesus Christ has saved you.”  The Pope is not suggesting that rules — moral, spiritual, liturgical, etc. — are unnecessary or unimportant, but he is indeed suggesting that they are secondary to the central reality of encountering the living Christ. If the Church leads with moral regulation, it will appear, especially to our postmodern culture, as fussy, puritanical, censorious. And it will most likely awaken a defensive reaction on the part of those it wishes to reach. It ought to lead with its always-appealing central message, namely the saving cross of Jesus, and only then should it speak of the moral and spiritual disciplines that will bring people into greater conformity with Christ. If I might proffer a perhaps trite analogy: when attempting to attract a young kid to the game of baseball, you don’t begin with the rulebook; rather, you begin with the beauty and majesty and rhythm of the game — and then you trust that he will come in time to understand the nature and purpose of the rules from the inside. One of Pope Francis’s gifts as a communicator is a peculiar feel for the memorable image: “Shepherds should smell like their sheep;” and seminarians and priests ought to be willing to “make a mess” come readily to mind. The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding. What we find today, the Pope is implying, are millions of people who are, in the spiritual sense, gravely wounded. They are alienated from God, stuck in the no-man’s land of moral relativism, adrift with no sense of direction, and tempted by every form of errant desire. They require, therefore, not the fine points of moral doctrine, but basic healing. Perhaps this explains why the Church’s altogether valid teachings on ethics are so often met with incomprehension or hostility: far more elemental instruction is required. I will confess to sharing some of the misgivings of commentators who have lamented that the Pope’s criticism of excessive legalism gave comfort to the wrong people. NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) published an ad, which simply said, “Pope Francis, Thank You. Signed, Pro-Choice Women Everywhere,” and Planned Parenthood expressed its approval of the Pope’s call to Catholics not to “obsess” over the issue of abortion. I certainly understand that those who have stood on the front lines of the pro-life battles for years feel that the Pope has unfairly characterized them as fanatics.In the end, I feel that this relatively casual interview, precisely because it is not a formal encyclical, will provide a route of access to the Church for many people who might otherwise not have bothered to pay attention. It might in fact appeal to many of the walking wounded today who are in desperate need of mercy and healing.

Your life is not about you

Sep 9, 2013 / 00:00 am

Time Magazine’s recent cover story “The Childfree Life” has generated a good deal of controversy and commentary. The photo that graces the cover of the edition pretty much sums up the argument: a young, fit couple lounge languidly on a beach and gaze up at the camera with blissful smiles—and no child anywhere in sight. What the editors want us to accept is that this scenario is not just increasingly a fact in our country, but that it is morally acceptable as well, a lifestyle choice that some people legitimately make. Whereas in one phase of the feminist movement, “having it all” meant that a woman should be able to both pursue a career and raise a family, now it apparently means a relationship and a career without the crushing encumbrance of annoying, expensive, and demanding children.   There is no question that childlessness is on the rise in the United States. Our birthrate is the lowest in recorded history, surpassing even the crash in reproduction that followed the economic crash of the 1930’s. We have not yet reached the drastic levels found in Europe (in Italy, for example, one in four women never give birth), but childlessness has risen in our country across all ethnic and racial groups, even those that have traditionally put a particular premium on large families. What is behind this phenomenon? The article’s author spoke to a variety of women who had decided not to have children and found a number of different reasons for their decision. Some said that they simply never experienced the desire for children; others said that their careers were so satisfying to them that they couldn’t imagine taking on the responsibility of raising children; still others argued that in an era when bringing up a child costs upward of $250,000, they simply couldn’t afford to have even one baby; and the comedian Margaret Cho admitted, bluntly enough, “Babies scare me more than anything.” A researcher at the London School of Economics weighed in to say that there is a tight correlation between intelligence and childlessness: the smarter you are, it appears, the less likely you are to have children!In accord with the tenor of our time, those who have opted out of the children game paint themselves, of course, as victims. They are persecuted, they say, by a culture that remains relentlessly baby-obsessed and, in the words of one of the interviewees, “oppressively family-centric.” Patricia O’Laughlin, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, specializes in helping women cope with the crushing expectations of a society that expects them to reproduce. As an act of resistance, many childless couples have banded together for mutual support. One such group in Nashville comes together for activities such as “zip-lining, canoeing, and a monthly dinner the foodie couple in the group organizes.” One of their members, Andrea Reynolds, was quoted as saying, “We can do anything we want, so why wouldn’t we?” What particularly struck me in this article was that none of the people interviewed ever moved outside of the ambit of his or her private desire. Some people, it seems, are into children, and others aren’t, just as some people like baseball and others prefer football. No childless couple would insist that every couple remain childless, and they would expect the same tolerance to be accorded to them from the other side. But never, in these discussions, was reference made to values that present themselves in their sheer objectivity to the subject, values that make a demand on freedom. Rather, the individual will was consistently construed as sovereign and self-disposing. And this represents a sea change in cultural orientation. Up until very recent times, the decision whether or not to have children would never have been simply “up to the individual.”  Rather, the individual choice would have been situated in the context of a whole series of values that properly condition and shape the will: family, neighborhood, society, culture, the human race, nature, and ultimately, God. We can see this so clearly in the initiation rituals of primal peoples and in the formation of young people in practically every culture on the planet until the modern period. Having children was about carrying on the family name and tradition; it was about contributing to the strength and integrity of one’s society; it was about perpetuating the great adventure of the human race; it was a participation in the dynamisms of nature itself. And finally, it was about cooperating with God’s desire that life flourish: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen. 9:7). None of this is meant to be crushing to the will, but liberating. When these great values present themselves to our freedom, we are drawn out beyond ourselves and integrated into great realities that expand us and make us more alive. It is finally with relief and a burst of joy that we realize that our lives are not about us. Traditionally, having children was one of the primary means by which this shift in consciousness took place. That increasingly this liberation is forestalled and that people are finding themselves locked in the cold space of what they sovereignly choose, I find rather sad.

Why faith is indeed a light

Aug 13, 2013 / 00:00 am

In “new” atheist and secularist circles today, faith is regularly ridiculed. It is presented as pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, Bronze Age credulity, the surrender of the intellect, unwarranted submission to authority, etc. Time and again, the late Christopher Hitchens, echoing Immanuel Kant, called on people to be intellectually responsible, to think for themselves, to dare to know.  This coming of age would be impossible, he insisted, without the abandonment of religious faith.  And in standard accounts of cultural history, the “age of faith” is presented as a retrograde and regressive dark age, out of which emerged, only after a long twilight struggle, the modern physical sciences and their attendant technologies. In accord with this cynical reading, the contemporary media almost invariably present people of “faith” as hopelessly unenlightened yahoos or dangerous fanatics. If you want the very best example of this, watch Bill Maher’s film “Religulous.”It was to counter this deeply distorted understanding of faith that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed an encyclical letter, which has just appeared under the name of his papal successor and bears the title Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). The text—smart, allusive, ruminative, informed by a profound grasp of cultural trends—is, though signed by Pope Francis, unmistakably Ratzingerian. Though it is impossible in the context of this brief article to do justice to its rich content, I should like to gesture, however briefly, to a few of its principal motifs. The Holy Father’s move is to confront directly the sort of rationalistic dismissal of faith that I just outlined. Moderns, in love with the illuminating power of technological reason, have, as we have seen, tended to view faith, not as light, but as obscurity. But the Pope insists that faith is the proper, indeed reasonable, response to the experience of the living God, who is not an object in the world, but rather the Creator of the world. Precisely because he is the source of all finite existence, God is not one being among many and hence cannot be pinned down on an examining table and lit up with the harsh light of technological reason. The prophet Isaiah expressed this point with admirable economy:  “Truly you are God who hides himself, O God of Israel, Savior.” Isaiah does not mean that God is a worldly reality that is, for the moment, hidden away, like the dark side of the moon; rather, he means that God is a reality which cannot, even in principle, be seen in the ordinary way. Further, the hidden God is not an abstract force or a distant first cause. He is, instead, a living person, and this means that he cannot be manipulated, controlled, or analyzed in an intrusive manner. Therefore, faith or trusting acceptance is the only legitimate response to an experience of such a reality. The encyclical’s second move is to show how the darkness of faith, once embraced, actually turns into light. By accepting God’s overture, the faith-filled person finds the supreme value, which unifies and gives direction to the whole of his life; he basks in the light, which illumines every aspect of his existence. In the absence of faith in the one God, a person necessarily drifts from idol to idol, that is to say, from one fleeting value to another. One of the Pope’s most brilliant observations is that idolatry, therefore, is always a type of polytheism, a chase after a multiplicity of gods, none of which can satisfy: “Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.” What an apt description of the spiritual state of so many in our postmodern condition. And how deeply congruent with the Biblical notion that the rejection of God conduces automatically to a disintegration of the self. Notice that Biblical demons speak typically in the plural.The Pope’s third major move is to show that authentic faith is liberating, and he does this by returning to St. Paul’s classic texts on justification. Famously, the apostle argued, in his letter to the Romans and elsewhere that salvation comes, not through works of the law, but through faith in what Jesus has accomplished. The Holy Father reads this, not in the Lutheran manner, as a demonization of “good works,” but rather as a reminder that real salvation comes by way of surrendering to God’s purposes. When we are convinced that our fundamental well-being depends on our efforts and the accomplishment of our plans, we lock ourselves into the cramped quarters of the sovereign Self. But when we acknowledge through faith the primacy of grace, we move in the infinite and exciting space of God’s intentions for us. As all of the great spiritual masters have acknowledged, our lives are not, finally, about us, and in that realization, we find peace and joy. Dante expressed the idea splendidly: “In your will, O Lord, is our peace.”  I think that this encyclical could best be interpreted as Pope Emeritus Benedict’s and Pope Francis’s challenge to the secularist ideology that has already enveloped Western Europe and that is now threatening our country. It is a reminder that faith alone can deliver us from the tyranny and sadness of the closed-in self.

World War Z and the Council of Trent

Jul 3, 2013 / 00:00 am

There were a number of reasons why I liked “World War Z,” the film based on Max Brooks’s book of the same name. First, it was a competently made thriller and not simply a stringing together of whiz-bang CGI effects. Secondly, it presented a positive image of a father.  In a time when Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are the norm for fatherhood in the popular culture, Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is actually a man of intelligence, deep compassion, and self-sacrificing courage. But what intrigued me the most about “World War Z” is how it provides a template for thinking seriously about sin and salvation.  As the movie opens, an ordinary American family is alarmed by news of a mysterious contagion that is spreading quickly across the globe. In a matter of days, the disease has reached their hometown of Philadelphia, and they are forced to flee. It becomes clear that a virus is turning people into the walking dead, hungry for human flesh. What is particularly frightening about this iteration of the zombie myth is that the undead of “World War Z” are not the lumbering oafs that we’ve come to expect, but rather are fast-moving, teeth-grinding, extremely focused killing machines. After a series of close calls, Gerry and his family manage to escape and make their way to a ship off the eastern seaboard. We learn that Gerry had been a special operative for the United Nations, skilled in fighting his way in and out of hot spots around the world. His superiors draft him back into service, charging him with the task of finding out how to contain the virus.  Accompanied only by a small team of scientists and military personnel, Gerry wings his way first to Korea and then to Jerusalem, where, at least for the moment, the Israeli government has managed to keep the zombies at bay behind a high and thick wall. Now when Jerusalem came into focus, I realized that the filmmakers perhaps had some ambitions beyond simply another ringing of the changes on the zombie story.One of the more thought-provoking assertions of the sixteenth century Council of Trent is this: original sin is passed on from generation to generation, “propagatione et non imitatione” (by propagation and not by imitation). What the fathers of Trent meant is that sin is not so much a bad habit that we pick up by watching other people behave, rather, it is like a disease that we inherit or a contagion that we catch. A newborn inheriting a crack addiction from his mother would be an apt trope for the process. If it were simply a matter of imitation, then the problem of sin could be solved through psychological adjustment or mental conditioning or just by trying harder. But if it is more like a disease, then sin can be fully addressed only through the intervention of some medicine or antidote that comes from the outside. Moreover, if sin were just a bad habit, then it wouldn’t reach very deeply into the structure of the self; but were it more like a contagion, it would insinuate itself into all the interrelated systems that make up the person.  The fathers of Trent specify that sin causes a falling-apart of the self, a disintegration of mind, will, emotions, and the body, so that the sinner consistently operates at cross-purposes to himself.  Do you see now why the zombie—a human being so compromised by the effects of a contagion that he is really only a simulacrum of a human—is such an apt symbol for a person under the influence of sin? And do you see, further, why the erection of a mighty wall would be an utterly unsuccessful strategy against such a threat? Indeed, one of the most memorable scenes in “World War Z” is of the zombies swarming over the walls of Jerusalem. A bad habit might be solved by a teacher, but a disease requires more radical treatment.  I won’t burden you with all of the plot details, but Brad Pitt’s character figures out that the zombies are dissuaded from attacking if they sense in someone a deadly disease. Accordingly, he enters a lab, protected by a veritable army of zombies, in order to inject himself with a noxious contagion. Having done so, he is able to walk among the undead unmolested, and from his blood, an antidote can be produced for the world. Now one would have to be inattentive in the extreme not to notice the rather clear Christ symbolism at play here. Gerry does not fight the zombies on their own terms; rather, he enters courageously into their environment, takes on a deadly disease and then, through his blood, offers a cure to suffering humanity. St. Paul said that, on the cross, Jesus became sin so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21); and “in him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7). Jesus becomes the healer (Soter in Greek, Salvator in Latin), precisely in the measure that he enters the world of sin, even to the point of shedding his blood, and explodes it from within.The great story of salvation is still in the intellectual DNA of the West, and that is why it pops up so regularly in the popular culture. And perhaps this is happening precisely because the Christian Churches have become so inept at relating the narrative. To those who don’t know this fundamental story well, I might recommend a thoughtful viewing of “World War Z.”

Sympathy for the Devil: What happens when love turns into tolerance

Jun 4, 2013 / 00:00 am

Some years ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that perfectly lampooned the loopy ideology of “inclusion” that has come to characterize so much of the Christian world.It showed a neat and tidy church, filled with an attentive congregation. The pastor was at the podium, introducing a guest speaker. “In accordance with our policy of equal time,” he said, “I would like now to give our friend the opportunity to present an alternative point of view.” Sitting next to him, about to rise to speak, was the devil, dressed perfectly and tapping the pages of his prepared text on his knee. I was put in mind of that cartoon when I read a sermon delivered recently by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Addressing a congregation in Curaçao, Venezuela, Bishop Jefferts Schori praised the beauty of (what else?) diversity, but lamented the fact that so many people are still frightened by what is other or different:  “Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil.” Now I suppose that if one were to make the right distinctions—differentiating between that which is simply unusual and that which is intrinsically bad—one might be able coherently to make this point.But the Bishop moved, instead, in an astonishing direction, finding an example of the lamentable exclusivity she is talking about in the behavior of the Apostle Paul himself. In the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find the story of Paul’s first visit to the Greek town of Philippi. We are told that one day, while on his way to prayer, Paul was accosted by a slave girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling” (Acts. 16:16). This demon-possessed child followed Paul and his companions up and down for several days, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Having finally had enough of her, Paul turned to the young woman and addressed the wicked spirit within her, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts. 16:18). And the demon, we are told, came out of her instantly. Up until last month in Venezuela, the entire Christian interpretive tradition read that passage as an account of deliverance, as the story of the liberation of a young woman who had been enslaved both to dark spiritual powers and to the nefarious human beings who had exploited her. But Bishop Jefferts Schori reads it as a tale of patriarchal oppression and intolerance. She preaches, “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps, for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.” The Bishop correctly points out that the girl was saying true things about Paul and his friends, but demons say true things all the time in the New Testament. Think of the dark spirits who consistently confess that Jesus is the Holy One of God. That a Christian bishop would characterize the demonic possession of a young girl as something “beautiful and holy” simply beggars belief. But things get even more bizarre. We are told in Acts that the girl’s owners are furious that Paul has effectively robbed them of their principal source of income and that they therefore stir up controversy and get him thrown in prison. But on the Bishop’s reading, Paul is just getting what he deserved:“That’s pretty much where he put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she too shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does—maybe more so!” She seems to rejoice that a mid-first-century Philippian version of the liberal thought police had the good sense to imprison the patriarchal Paul for his deep intolerance of fallen spirits! You see why this sermon reminded me of that New Yorker cartoon.That night in prison, we are told, Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise to God and preached the Gospel to their jailors. Jefferts Schori reads this, strangely, as Paul coming to his senses at last, remembering God, dropping the annoyance he felt toward the girl, and embracing the spirit of compassion. Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler and clearer to say that Paul, who had never “forgotten God,” quite consistently showed compassion both toward the possessed girl and the unevangelized jailor, delivering the former and preaching the Gospel to the latter? What is at the root of this deeply wrong-headed homily is a conflation of early 21st century values of inclusion and toleration with the great Biblical value of love. To love is to will the good of the other as other. As such, love can involve—indeed, must involve—a deep intolerance toward wickedness and a clear willingness to exclude certain forms of life, behavior, and thought. When inclusivity and toleration emerge as the supreme goods—as they have in much of our society today—then love devolves into something vague, sentimental and finally dangerous. How dangerous? Well, we might begin to see the devil himself as beautiful and holy.

The preachings of F. Scott Fitzgerald

May 24, 2013 / 00:00 am

The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby” provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel.Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby. As the novel commences, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan, two denizens of East Egg, a town on Long Island where “old money” resides. Ensconced in a glorious mansion, wearing the most fashionable clothes, surrounded by servants, and in the company of the most “beautiful” people, Tom and Daisy are, nevertheless, utterly bored, both with themselves and their relationship. While Daisy languishes and frets, Tom is carrying on a number of illicit love affairs with women from both the upper and lower echelons of the social order. One of the more affecting scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film depicts Tom and a gaggle of his hangers-on whiling away an afternoon and evening in a rented Manhattan apartment. In the aftermath, they are all drunk, sexually sated, and obviously miserable. Meanwhile, across the bay from the Buchanans in West Egg, is the hero of the story, ensconced in his even more glorious mansion. Gatsby wears pink suits, drives a yellow roadster, and associates with the leading politicians, culture mavens, and gangsters of the time. But the most intriguing thing about him is that, week after week, every Saturday night, he opens his spacious home for a wild party, attended by all of the glitterati of New York. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of these parties—all wild dancing, jazz music, cloche hats, sexual innuendo, and flapper dresses—is certainly one of the highlights of the book. We discover that the sole purpose of these astronomically expensive parties is to lure Daisy, with whom Gatsby had had a romantic relationship some years before. Though Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby wants to steal her from her husband. When Nick Carraway, the narrator, chides Gatsby that no one can repeat the past, the hero of the novel responds curtly, “What do you mean you can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” Without going into any more plot details, I will simply say that this set of circumstances led to disappointment, hatred, betrayal, and finally, Gatsby’s death at the hand of a gunman. Fitzgerald saw that, given the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West simply surrendered themselves to wealth and pleasure. Commitment, marriage, sexual responsibility, and the cultivation of a spiritual life were seen as, at best, holdovers from the Victorian age, and at worst, the enemies of progress and pleasure. Gatsby’s parties were, we might say, the liturgies of the new religion of sensuality and materiality, frenzied dances around the golden calf. And despite his reputation as a hard-drinking sensualist, Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, was as uncompromising and morally clear-eyed as an evangelical preacher. He tells us that the displacement of God by wealth and pleasure leads, by a short route, to the corroding of the soul.There is a burnt-out and economically depressed city that lies on Long Island in between West Egg and Manhattan, and the main characters of The Great Gatsby pass through it frequently. In fact, one of Tom Buchanan’s mistresses lives there. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly using it to symbolize the dark under-belly of the Roaring Twenties, the economic detritus of all of that conspicuous consumption. But he also uses it to make a religious point. For just off the main road, there are the remains of a billboard advertising a local ophthalmologist. All we can see are two bespectacled eyes, but they hover over the comings and goings of all the lost souls in the story. Like all symbols in great literary works, this one is multivalent, but I think it’s fairly clear that Scott Fitzgerald wanted it, at least in part, to stand for the providential gaze of God.  Though he has been pushed to the side and treated with disrespect, God still watches, and his moral judgment is still operative.It’s a sermon still worth hearing.

The adventure of classical morality

May 7, 2013 / 00:00 am

One of the most significant fault lines in Western culture opened up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when what we now know as the “modern” world separated itself from the classical and medieval world. The thinking of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Newton, Jefferson, and many others represented a sea change in the way Western people looked at practically everything. In almost every telling of the story, this development is presented as an unmitigated good. I rather emphatically do not subscribe to this interpretation. It would be foolish indeed not to see that tremendous advances, especially in the arenas of science and politics, took place because of the modern turn, but it would be even more foolish to hold that modernity did not represent, in many other ways, a severe declension from what came before. This decline is particularly apparent in the areas of the arts and ethics, and I believe that there is an important similarity in the manner in which those two disciplines went bad in the modern period.  Classical philosophy and science sought to understand things in terms of Aristotle’s four causes: material (what something is made of), formal (a thing’s essential structure), efficient (how it got the way it is), and final (its purpose or destiny). The founders of modernity became suspicious of our capacity to know form (for things seem to be in constant flux) and finality (for it just wasn't clear where the universe was going). Accordingly, they put a great stress on the remaining two Aristotelian causes, the material and the efficient. And this is precisely why the distinctively modern sciences – with their exclusive focus on what things are made of and how they got in their present state of being – developed the way they did.But this elimination of formal and final causality and the hyper-stress on material and efficient causality had profound effects outside of the physical sciences. A classical sculptor, painter, or architect was trying to imitate the forms that he found in nature and thereby to create something objectively beautiful. It is by no means accidental, for instance, that architects from the classical period through the High Renaissance designed buildings that mimicked the dimensions and features of the human body. One reason that Michelangelo’s architecture is so deeply satisfying to us is that it was grounded in that artist’s particularly profound grasp of the body’s rhythms and proportions. Thomas Aquinas defined art as recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to the making of things), and the rectitude he had in mind was none other than an understanding of the forms that God had already placed in nature. But a modern artist, unconvinced that objective form ought to provide a norm for her work, tends to see her art as the objectification of her subjectivity. The self-expression of the artist—the efficient cause of the work, if you will—is more important than any conformity of that work to a formal norm. This approach was beautifully and succinctly summed up by the Dadaist painter Marcel Duchamp:  “Whatever an artist spits out is art.” With that statement, we have reached the polar opposite of recta ratio factibilium.  And the marginalizing of final causality had a deep and deleterious effect on the way moderns tend to think about morality. Classical moral thinkers—from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—considered the ethical act in terms of its purpose or finality.  What made an act good was its orientation toward its proper end. Thus, since the end of the speech act is the enunciation of the truth, speaking a lie is morally problematic; and since the end of a political act is the enactment of justice, unjust legislating is unethical, etc. If art is recta ratio factibilium, then ethics, for Aquinas, is recta ratio agibilium (right reason in regard to action), the rectitude of the reason in this context coming from conformity to finality. But with final causality relegated to the margins, morality became a matter of self-expression and self-creation. The extreme instance of this attitude can be found in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. The nineteenth century German opined that the supreme morality – beyond good and evil – was the ecstatic self-assertion of the super-man, and the twentieth century Frenchman held that the “authentic” person is the one who acts in accord with her own deepest instincts. Sartre famously argued that existence (unfettered freedom) precedes essence (who or what a person becomes). And that is the polar opposite of a recta ratio agibilium ordered to objective finality. If you think that all of this seems hopelessly abstruse and irrelevant to the contemporary situation, then think again. Even the most radical ideas of the moderns in regard to morality have trickled down, through a network of professors, teachers, script writers, television personalities, singers, bloggers, etc. to reach the ordinary person today. And this, I would submit, is what makes the Catholic position on ethics so hard to understand. The modern person instinctually says, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” or “Who are you to set limits to my freedom?” And the Catholic instinctually says, “Order your freedom to an objective truth that makes you the person you are meant to be.” It would be the stuff of another article to explore, even with relative adequacy, the manner in which this dilemma might be resolved, but might I suggest, in closing, just one observation. The fundamental problem with modern ethics (as with modern art, generally speaking) is that it is boring. The self-asserting and self-expressing ego never really gets anywhere, never breaks out of its own clean, well-lighted space. But the human subject, enraptured by the objective good, sets out on a journey away from the narrow confines of the self and becomes an adventurer.

'Gay marriage' and the breakdown of moral argument

Apr 15, 2013 / 00:00 am

In his classic text After Virtue, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre lamented, not so much the immorality that runs rampant in our contemporary society, but something more fundamental and in the long run more dangerous; namely, that we are no longer even capable of having a real argument about moral matters. The assumptions that once undergirded any coherent conversation about ethics, he said, are no longer taken for granted or universally shared. The result is that, in regard to questions of what is right and wrong, we simply talk past one another, or more often, scream at each other.I thought of MacIntyre’s observation when I read a recent article on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the much-vexed issue of gay marriage. It was reported that, in the wake of the oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan remarked, “Whenever someone expresses moral disapproval in a legal context, the red flag of discrimination goes up for me.” Notice that the Justice did not say that discrimination is the result of a bad moral argument, but simply that any appeal to morality is, ipso facto, tantamount to discrimination. Or to state it in MacIntyre’s terms, since even attempting to make a moral argument is an exercise in futility, doing so can only be construed as an act of aggression. I will leave to the side the radical inconsistency involved in saying that one has an ethical objection (discrimination!) to the making of an ethical objection, but I would indeed like to draw attention to a very dangerous implication of this incoherent position. If argument is indeed a non-starter, the only recourse we have in the adjudication of our disputes is violence, either direct or indirect. This is precisely why a number of Christian leaders and theorists, especially in the West, have been expressing a deep concern about this manner of thinking. Any preacher or writer who ventures to make a moral argument against gay marriage is automatically condemned as a purveyor of “hate speech” or excoriated as a bigot, and in extreme cases, he can be subject to legal sanction. This visceral, violent reaction is a consequence of the breakdown of the rational framework for moral discourse that MacIntyre so lamented. A telltale sign of this collapse is our preoccupation, even obsession, with poll numbers in regard to this question. We are incessantly told that ever-increasing numbers of Americans—especially among the young—approve of gay marriage or are open to gay relationships. This is undoubtedly of great interest sociologically or politically, but in itself, it has nothing to do with the question of right or wrong. Lots of people can approve of something that is in fact morally repugnant, and a tiny minority can support something that is in fact morally splendid. For example, if polls were taken in 1945 concerning the rectitude of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in order to bring the war to a rapid conclusion, I am quite sure that overwhelming majorities would have approved.  And if a poll had been taken in, say, 1825, concerning the legitimacy of slavery, I would bet that only a small minority of Americans would have come out for eliminating the practice. But finally, in either case, so what? Finally, an argument has to be made. In the absence of this, the citation of poll numbers in regard to a moral issue is nothing but a form of bullying: we've got you outnumbered. Still another indication of the breakdown in moral argumentation is the sentimentalizing of the gay marriage issue. Over roughly the past twenty-five years, armies of gay people have come out of the closet, and this is indeed welcome. Repression, deception, and morbid self-reproach are never good things. The result of this coming out is that millions have recognized their brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, uncles, and dear friends as gay. The homosexual person is no longer, accordingly, some strange and shadowy “other,” but someone I know to be a decent human being. This development, too, is nothing but positive. The man or woman with a homosexual orientation must always be loved and treated, in all circumstances, with the respect due to a child of God. Nevertheless, it does not follow that everything a decent person does or wants is necessarily decent. Without a convincing argument, we cannot simply say that whatever a generally kind and loving person chooses to do is, by the very nature of the thing, right. This is why I am never impressed when a politician says that he is now in favor of gay marriage, because he has discovered that his son, whom he deeply loves, is gay. Please don't misunderstand me: I am sincerely delighted whenever a father loves and cherishes his gay son.  However, that love in itself does not constitute an argument.The attentive reader will have noticed that I have not proffered such an argument in the course of this article. That will have to be matter for another day. What I have tried to do is clear away some of the fog that obfuscates this issue, in the hopes that we might eventually see, with some clarity and objectivity, what the Catholic Church teaches in regard to sexuality in general and the question of gay marriage in particular.

The new Francis

Mar 18, 2013 / 00:00 am

I had an excellent vantage point for the presentation of Pope Francis to the world, for I was doing commentary for NBC News from a perch above St. Peter’s Square.  I will confess that my initial impression was negative, not because he was a relative surprise or because he wasn't from the United States, but because, for more than a minute, he stood ramrod straight, hands at his side, and not smiling. I remember saying to his image on the TV monitor: “Do something!”  Then — praise God — the new Pope spoke, and he immediately won me over. Asking the people to bless him, bowing low to receive that blessing, promising to work for the evangelization of the city of Rome, pledging to beg the Mother of God to watch over his papacy, leading the people in the Hail Mary and Our Father, and yes, even managing to smile a little—the new Pope didn't make a false move.   But what most impressed me was his first truly significant gesture, the choice of his papal name. Francis of Assisi (and it was confirmed that the Pope was honoring the founder of the Franciscans and not his fellow Jesuit, Francis Xavier) was a friend of the poor.  So close was his identification with “Lady Poverty” that he was referred to in his own time as il poverello (the little poor man). By all accounts, Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, has a similar feel for the spiritual value of poverty, taking the subway to work rather than a limousine, eschewing the trappings of power, living in a simple apartment rather than the episcopal palace, happily flying coach class to Rome, and passionately advocating for social justice on behalf of the underprivileged. But there is another dimension to this identification with the poor man of Assisi. When Francis was just beginning his spiritual pilgrimage, he had an extraordinary encounter with Christ. While praying in the little church of San Damiano, the young man heard a voice coming from the crucifix: “Francis, rebuild my church.” At first, he thought that the Lord was indicating that some work needed to be done on a local church structure that had fallen into disrepair. But what became clear soon enough, both to Francis and others, was that this command of the Lord had a far wider valence.  Precisely through his recovery of the radical heart of the Gospel, Francis would help to revitalize a church that had been compromised by worldliness, ambition, and clerical corruption. This interpretation of the Lord’s words was most dramatically confirmed by a dream that Pope Innocent III had on the eve of meeting il poverello. The Pope dreamt that a small man, dressed in a brown habit, was holding up the Church, which was about to collapse. When he saw Francis, he recognized him as the man from his dream and resolved, on the spot, to sanction the Franciscan order.For the past couple of decades, the Catholic Church has been living through not so much a dream as a nightmare. The first wave of the clerical sex abuse scandal broke in the early 1990s, shocking us with story after story of priests violating their vow of celibacy in the most egregious ways, and of bishops who, far too often, turned a blind eye to the outrages or covered them up. The second and even more devastating wave hit in the early 2000s, beginning in Boston and then spreading, it seemed, all across the country. There were thousands of victims, hundreds of guilty priests and negligent bishops, and over $1 billion of Church money paid out in settlements. And just when the American crisis began to calm, the same awful pattern revealed itself in Europe, most terribly in intensely Catholic Ireland. And on top of all of this, the Vatican itself seems under a cloud of scandal. Charges of corruption, financial mismanagement, careerism, and serious personal misbehavior are coming at the Roman Curia from all sides.  It seems to me impossible to deny that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was thinking of il poverello’s “church rebuilding” project when he took the name of the saint of Assisi. And the program of this new Francis remains fundamentally the same as that of his spiritual forebear, namely, to re-energize the Church through a recovery of the radical Gospel. If you want to be my follower, said the Lord, then sell everything and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. That means that the true disciple has to become detached from his career, his own projects and plans, his will, his pleasure, his need to be first — in order to become a vehicle of God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s projects, God’s pleasure.  I believe that this new Pope wants to put the winsome face of Francis of Assisi on the Church, and he wants to unleash the same reforming energy that il poverello unleashed eight centuries ago.

Garry Wills agonistes

Mar 13, 2013 / 00:00 am

The hermeneutical key to Garry Wills’s preposterous book "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition" can be found in the second chapter, which is a memoir of the author’s Catholic boyhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He recalls a time when lay people were denied access to the chalice, when Catholic grade school children worried about what happened to the consecrated host once it entered their intestines, when cossetted and pampered priests wore “fiddle-back” vestments, maniples, and birettas, when women pinned paper tissue to their hair in order to satisfy the requirement that their heads be covered during Mass, and when priest golfers were ceded to on the first tee. I am 53-years-old and I’ve been a priest for 27 years, and I can testify that the only contact I have had with the world Wills describes is in Bing Crosby movies and John Powers books. Though the hyper-clerical Church of Wills’s youth has almost entirely evanesced, he is still railing against it. Why Priests?, it seems to me, is a sustained, deeply polemical, and finally irrational working out of that anger.On Wills’s reading, priests have been bad news from the beginning. Jesus was a layman and a prophet, who was opposed by the Jewish establishment of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. But when those relatively ineffectual enemies of Jesus wanted to eliminate the troublesome prophet, they turned – like Don Corleone turning to Luca Brasi – to the priests:  “The priests killed Jesus. That is what they do. They kill the prophets” (Wills, p. 80).  I suppose Pontius Pilate, the Roman cohort, Judas, the Sanhedrin, etc., etc., had nothing to do with it. It was just those “killer priests,” whose distant descendants were undermining the true spirit of Jesus in mid-twentieth century America.This bizarre association leads Wills down all sorts of strange paths. At the center of his argument is an analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews, a text that is not only part of the canonical Scriptures but that has worked its way deeply into the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church.  The unknown author of this ancient sermon/exhortation/treatise famously used the language of temple, cult, sacrifice, and priesthood in order to explain the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He urged that Jesus best be understood as the recapitulation and perfection of the ancient Jewish priesthood and that his bloody death on the cross best be construed as temple sacrifice lifted into a new and higher context. What priesthood and sacrifice only imperfectly accomplished in the old dispensation, he wrote, was now fulfilled and brought to completion through the act of this new and unexpected High Priest.Very much in the spirit of Martin Luther, who recommended that the Letter of James, which stood athwart Luther’s theorizing about justification, should simply be eliminated from the canon, Wills wants us to think of the Letter to the Hebrews as an egregious anomaly, the black sheep in the family of the New Testament texts. The priesthood and Mass as we know them today, he claims, flow exclusively from this unique and exceptional letter. No other New Testament author, he says, ever characterized Jesus as a priest or even hinted that his crucifixion should be given a sacrificial interpretation. Now all of this is patently absurd. The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple, and its entire trajectory is toward the cross, which is given an unambiguously sacrificial reading by Jesus himself at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you … This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:19-20). More to it, the disciples who take this cup of blood are implicitly identified with temple priests whose task it was to catch the blood of sacrifice in bowls. Further, all the Gospels reference John the Baptist, son of a temple priest, who was doing temple work in the desert: washing the faithful in a kind of mikva bath and offering the forgiveness of sins. And the Gospel of John places in the Baptist’s mouth the words that clearly designate Jesus as a sacrifice: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  Moreover, on John’s reading, Jesus offers his body and blood to his disciples at the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple (Jn. 13:1). Matthew tells us that, at Jesus’ death, “The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51). On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, having performed a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, would come past the veil and sprinkle the people with blood, symbolizing Yahweh’s forgiveness of his people Israel. No first century Jew would have missed Matthew’s implication that Jesus is the definitive High Priest who has performed, through his death, the final sacrifice and hence affected the final reconciliation of God and humanity. I could cite many more examples, but let these suffice to demonstrate that the interpretation of Jesus offered by the Letter to the Hebrews is anything but egregious. In point of fact, it is the summation and explicitation of priestly themes present throughout the New Testament. The priesthood and the Mass, with its strong sacrificial overtones, were hardly accretions distorting the New Testament, but rather developments of themes seminally present from the beginning of Christianity.Another peculiar claim of Wills is that the early Fathers of the Church, including St. Augustine, did not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and that this doctrine, so tied to the distinctiveness and indispensability of the priesthood, was but a Medieval distortion. But St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century said, “The bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, heavenly and earthly.” Origen of Alexandria, writing in the third century, said that Christians rightly reverence every crumb of the consecrated bread. And Wills’s hero, St. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fourth century, said, “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the Body of Christ.” It also might be worth noting that all three of these worthy gentleman were ordained priests and two were bishops. To be sure, Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on transubstantiation represented a development and precision of these earlier views, but it was by no means a betrayal of them. To claim that Augustine and his patristic colleagues would subscribe to Wills’s repudiation of the real presence and the priesthood is beyond absurd.According to Catholic theology, the ministerial priesthood is a unique participation in the High Priesthood of Jesus, which in turn is grounded in the coming together of two natures, divine and human, in the person of Christ. Affirming the distinctiveness and necessity of the priesthood, therefore, is tightly linked to affirming the divinity of Jesus. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that the author of this attack on the priesthood should conclude his text as follows: “Let me say simply this: There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers” (Wills, 259). Quite right: if Jesus is nothing more than one more prophet of God, then the Catholic priesthood is indeed an absurdity. But if Jesus is who the great Creeds of the Church say he is, then priesthood, real presence, sacrifice, and Eucharist remain as indispensable as ever.

To evangelize through beauty

Feb 19, 2013 / 00:00 am

In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time.“Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel that was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again. In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability.  Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic, had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer. This brief and utterly inadequate summary of Waugh’s narrative is meant simply to highlight a rhythm that obtains, I would argue, in effective evangelization. The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good, and finally, to the true. Especially within our cultural matrix, so dominated by relativism and the valorization of the right to create one’s own system of meaning, commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize.(Who are you to tell me how to behave or what to believe? How can you be so arrogant as to think that you should impose your thought patterns on me?) This is precisely why moralizing and intellectualizing are often non-starters in regard to persuasion. But there is something unthreatening about the beautiful. Just look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral or Picasso’s “Guernica”; just read The Divine Comedy or Hamlet or The Wasteland; just watch Mother Teresa’s sisters working in the slums of Calcutta or Rory McIlroy’s golf swing or the movements of a ballet dancer. All of these work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally, to share. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the great advocates of the aesthetic approach to religion, said that the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission. The pattern is more or less as follows: first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!), and finally, the true (now I understand!). A young man watches a skillfully played game of baseball, and it awakens in him a profound desire to play as well as those whom he admired; and then the actual playing of the game teaches him, from the inside, the rules and rhythms of baseball. A completely inadequate way of drawing a kid into the world of baseball would be to start with a clarification of the rules or with a set of drills. Rather, show him the beauty of baseball, and he will want to play, and having played, he will know. The same applies, a fortiori, in regard to religion. I might suggest that the evangelist start with the Sainte Chapelle or the life of Francis of Assisi or the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Gregorian chant, or perhaps best of all, a carefully executed liturgy of the Roman rite. These would function in the manner of Brideshead, captivating even the most bored agnostic. Then, the wager goes, the captivation would lead to a desire, perhaps vague at first, to participate in the moral universe that made those artistic expressions possible. And finally, the participation would conduce toward a true and experiential understanding of the thought patterns that undergird that way of life. First the beautiful, then the good, then the true.  I wonder whether this winsome aesthetic approach might prove more fruitful in a postmodern culture so instinctively skeptical of dogma, either intellectual or moral.

Putting teeth back into Faith, Hope, and Love

Jan 29, 2013 / 00:00 am

St. Paul famously tells the Corinthians that there are “three things that last:  faith, hope, and love.”  At this Pauline prompt, the Christian tradition has identified these three as the “theological” virtues, meaning those features that come as a unique gift and (from?) God and that serve as the structuring elements of a properly spiritual life.  They are also today massively misunderstood, and this misunderstanding has, I would contend, contributed mightily to the dismissing of religion in many circles of our increasingly secularist society.The theological virtue that causes the most trouble is faith.  This is because, in our culture besotted with the physical sciences, faith is construed as simple-mindedness, credulity, and superstition, a poor pre-scientific substitute for real knowledge.  As I have often argued often before, authentic faith does not lie on the near side of reason; it doesn't fall short of reason’s demands or lurk in a subrational or irrational darkness.  Rather, real faith is a surrendering on the far side of reason, a leap into darkness to be sure, but a darkness beyond, not prior to, the illumination of the sciences and philosophy.  This implies, of course, that the person of real faith reverences reason in all of its forms and refuses to accept the myth of a “war” between religion and science.  Moreover, scientists who are religious believers as well—think of Georges Lem Maitre, or George Coyne, or Stanley Jaki, or John Polkinghorne—readily accept the fact that reason is surrounded on all sides by something akin to faith.  No scientist could get her work off the ground unless she accepted on faith the proposition that the world in its entirety is intelligible; and she couldn't move forward with her projects unless she accepted, without personal verification, the findings, research, and experiments of thousands of others; and she couldn’t bring her studies to fulfillment unless she conceived of an intellectual goal that was not entirely available to her rational gaze.  Therefore, the theological virtue of faith involves absolutely no sacrifice of the intellect.In the wake of an event such as the Newtown tragedy or the Christmas tsunami of 2004, many will wonder how Christians can possibly exercise the virtue of hope.  The deaths of innocents at the hand of a madman or of hundreds of thousands through natural disaster would seem to preclude the possibility of hoping in a loving God who actively cares for the world that he has made.  But hope, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, has little to do with conventional optimism.  The person of authentic hope is not compelled to hold that suffering, tragedy, conflict, and the deaths of innocent people will simply disappear through the intervention of God.  Take a good hard look at the Bible.  Every page of the Scriptures was written by someone who believed passionately in God, yet the Bible is filled with accounts of tragedies and disasters of all stripes:  rape, murder, genocide, military collapse, political distress, etc.  Jeremiah hoped in the Lord, and he watched the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians; David hoped in Yahweh, even as he was relentlessly pursued by Saul; Paul hoped in God, and he himself was mocked, tortured, and finally put to death.  An optimist might think that God’s existence is irreconcilable with evil, but a person of hope never assents to such a naïve proposition.  To hope, in the theological sense, is to know that God finally is the sovereign master of the universe and hence that the drama of both nature and history is, at the end of the day and despite all darkness, a divine comedy.  When the great English mystic Juliana of Norwich said, “All will be well, all manner of things will be well,” she was not chirping optimistically about the disappearance of evil; she was exhibiting hope that God’s triumph is assured. The third theological virtue is love, and like its counterparts, it too is often flattened out and trivialized.  For many, to love is equivalent to being a nice guy, or in Flannery O’Connor’s formulation, “having a heart of gold.”  In his great autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton remembered a professor of his in England who said that love was, essentially, “being a gentleman.”  Now there is nothing in the world wrong with being a nice guy or having a heart of gold or being a gentlemen, but you can easily achieve all three of those states and not have love.  For love is not really about fitting in and being friendly and getting along; it is willing the good of the other as other.  It is truly wanting what is best for another person and then concretely doing something about it.  And this means that real love can be as tough as nails or as disagreeable as a slap in the face, indeed, in Dostoevsky’s phrase, something “harsh and dreadful.”  Compelling an addict to get help, or questioning a dysfunctional style of life, or calling someone to real conversion all involve the willing of the good of the other—and none will cause people to characterize you as a nice guy.  This is why, by the way, the God who is love is not a kindly Santa Claus who magically makes troubles disappear.There are indeed three things that last:  faith, hope, and love.  A robust Christianity revolves around them.  But we must be careful lest those terms lose their bite.

Victor Hugo’s re-telling of the Gospel

Jan 17, 2013 / 00:00 am

Just in advance of Christmas, the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit appeared.  As I and many other commentators have pointed out, Tolkien’s great story, like its more substantive successor The Lord of the Rings, is replete with Catholic themes. On Christmas day itself, another film adaptation of a well-known book debuted, namely Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Though Hugo had a less than perfectly benign view of the Catholic Church, his masterpiece is, from beginning to end, conditioned by a profoundly Christian worldview. It is most important that, amidst all of the “Les Mis” hoopla, the spiritual heart of Hugo’s narrative not be lost. The story revolves around the figure of Jean Valjean, a man who, in his youth, had been convicted of the crime of robbing a loaf of bread to feed his starving child. For this eminently excusable offense, he had been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor for 19 years. The experience made him, understandably enough, embittered and deeply distrustful of both individuals and societal institutions. Having escaped from prison and fallen into desperate straits, he was taken in by a kindly bishop, who fed him and gave him a place to sleep. But Valjean answered this kindness by stealing two silver candlesticks from his benefactor. Apprehended by the police, the criminal was brought back to the bishop. Instead of accusing and condemning Valjean, the prelate blithely told the constables that the candlesticks were a gift and even gave the thief more valuables. To the uncomprehending criminal, the bishop then explained that this grace is meant to awaken a similar graciousness in Valjean. In this simple and deeply affecting episode, one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is displayed. God is love. God is nothing but gracious self-gift. And what God wants, first and last, is that his human creatures participate in the love that he is, thereby becoming conduits of the divine grace to the world. What Jean Valjean received through the bishop was precisely this divine life and the mission that accompanies and flows from it. If the bishop’s gesture had been, in any sense, self-interested, it would not have conveyed God’s manner of being. But in its utter gratuity, it became a sacrament and instrument of uncreated grace.  The bulk of Les Miserables then unfolds as the story of Valjean’s sharing of this divine life with others. He becomes the mayor of a town, and in that capacity proves a benefactor to the poor and destitute. Most notably, he reaches out to Fantine, a woman who had been forced into a life of prostitution in order to feed her child. (Anne Hathaway’s performance of Fantine’s desperate song “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most moving moments in the film). Upon Fantine’s death, Valjean takes in her daughter, Cosette, and becomes a father to her. At the climactic moment of the film, when Valjean has the opportunity to kill the chief constable Javert, a man who had been mercilessly pursuing Valjean for decades, he relents and lets his persecutor go. Time and again, we see that unmerited love (the bishop’s forgiveness many years before) gives rise to unmerited love. Let me say a further word about the relentless Javert, portrayed in the film by Russell Crowe. The constable seems to appear at every key moment of Valjean’s life, judging exactly how and whether Valjean lives up to the demands of the law. Even the slightest offense fills him with righteous indignation. Victor Hugo seems to have been using this tortured and torturing character as the embodiment of law in the absolute sense, law unchecked by mercy. Whereas Valjean had been touched by grace, Javert remained locked in by legality and moral demand. Throughout the film, Crowe’s expression is as severe and unchanging as his uniform. After the moment I described above, Javert repairs to a height overlooking the Seine and, after singing a final lament, hurls himself to his death. What became clear in his swan song is that Javert simply could not fathom what Valjean had done. There was no room for grace in his uncompromisingly legalistic worldview, and therefore the breakthrough of mercy broke him. I can’t think of a better image, by the way, for what the Church means by damnation and the suffering of the damned.  The tension between Valjean and Javert should not be overstated in a dualistic way, as though mercy simply eliminates justice. Pope Benedict XVI has argued that no society could survive, even in the most rudimentary way, without justice, that is to say, without law, structure, order, moral demand, legitimate punishment, etc. But at the same time, the Pope insists that a society characterized simply by justice will become, in the long run, dysfunctional—as frozen, resentful, and lifeless as Javert. At the close of the film, as Valjean nears death, he is visited by two heavenly figures: the bishop who had shown him such kindness and Fantine, the mother of the child that he raised. The appearance of these long-dead figures speaks the important truth that grace is properly eternal, precisely because it is identical to the divine life.  Since God is love, love is more powerful even than death. Isn’t it curious that at a time when an aggressive secularism is, with increasing vehemence, announcing the death of religion, that two of today's most popular films are filled with the Gospel spirit?

How Many Are Saved?

Dec 3, 2012 / 00:00 am

Dr. Ralph Martin, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, has written an important book titled “Will Many Be Saved?” The text received a good deal of attention at the recent synod on the New Evangelization, and its opening pages are filled with endorsements from some of the leading figures in the Church today. Dr. Martin’s argument is straightforward enough: the attitude, much in evidence in the years following Vatican II, that virtually everyone will go to heaven has drastically undercut the Church’s evangelical efforts. Why then, if salvation is guaranteed to virtually everyone, would Catholics be filled with a passion to propagate the faith around the world with any urgency? Therefore, if the New Evangelization is to get off the ground, we have to recover a vivid sense of the reality of Hell, the possibility, even likelihood, of eternal damnation for the many who do not come to a lively faith in Christ.Martin certainly has some theological heavyweights on his side. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the majority of human beings end up in Hell. And the official magisterium of the church has insisted on a number of occasions that missionary work is vital, lest millions wander down the wide path that leads to perdition. Moreover, these theological and magisterial positions are themselves grounded in the witness of Scripture. No one in the Bible speaks of Hell more often than Jesus himself. To give just a few examples, in Mark 16, the Lord says, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And in John 5, he declares, “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” And in a number of his parables – most notably the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 – Jesus stresses the desperate urgency of the choice that his followers must make. To be sure, the conviction that Hell is a crowded place has been contested from the earliest days of the Church, and Martin fully acknowledges this. Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor all held to some form of universalism, that is to say, the belief that, at the end of the day, all people would be gathered to the Lord. And this view was revived during the era of exploration, when it became clear to European Christians that millions upon millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Americas would certainly be condemned if explicit faith in Christ was truly requisite for salvation. The universalist perspective received a further boost in the 20th century, especially through the work of two of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the time, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Rahner held that every human being is endowed with what he termed a “supernatural existential,” which is to say, a fundamental orientation toward God. This spiritual potentiality is fully realized through explicit faith in Christ, but it can be realized to varying degrees even in those non-Christians who follow their consciences sincerely. The supernatural existential makes of everyone – to use Rahner’s controversial phrase – an “anonymous Christian” and provides the basis for hoping that universal salvation is possible. Basing his argument on the sheer extravagance of God’s saving act in Christ, Balthasar taught as well that we may reasonably hope that all people will be brought to heaven. A good part of Balthasar’s argument is grounded in the Church’s liturgy, which demands that we pray for the salvation of all. If we knew that Hell was indeed a crowded place, this type of prayer would be senseless. Now the heart of Martin’s book is a detailed study and critique of the theories of Rahner and Balthasar, and space prevents me from even sketching his complex argument. I will mention only one dimension of it, namely his analysis of Lumen Gentium paragraph 16. Both Balthasar and Rahner – as well as their myriad disciples – found justification in the first part of that paragraph, wherein the Vatican II fathers do indeed teach that non-Christians, even non-believers, can be saved as long as they “try in their actions to do God’s will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience.” However, Martin points out that the defenders of universal salvation have, almost without exception, overlooked the next section of that paragraph, in which the Council Fathers say these decidedly less comforting words: “But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the world rather than the Creator…Hence to procure…the salvation of all these, the Church…takes zealous care to foster the missions.” A fair reading of the entire paragraph, therefore, would seem to yield the following: the unevangelized can be saved, but often (at saepius), they do not meet the requirements for salvation. They will, then, be damned without hearing the announcement of the Gospel and coming to an active faith. So who has it right in regard to this absolutely crucial question? Even as I deeply appreciate Martin’s scholarship and fully acknowledge that he scores important points against both Balthasar and Rahner, I found his central argument undermined by one of his own footnotes. In a note buried on page 284 of his text, Martin cites some “remarks” of Pope Benedict XVI that have contributed, in his judgment, to confusion on the point in question. He is referring to observations in sections 45-47 of the Pope’s 2007 encyclical "Spe Salvi," which can be summarized as follows: There are a relative handful of truly wicked people in whom the love of God and neighbor has been totally extinguished through sin, and there are a relative handful of people whose lives are utterly pure, completely given over to the demands of love. Those latter few will proceed, upon death, directly to heaven, and those former few will, upon death, enter the state that the Church calls Hell. But the Pope concludes that “the great majority of people” who, though sinners, still retain a fundamental ordering to God, can and will be brought to heaven after the necessary purification of Purgatory. Martin knows that the Pope stands athwart the position that he has taken throughout his study, for he says casually enough, “The argument of this book would suggest a need for clarification.”Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of who or how many will be saved, but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn't to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as “remarks” that require “clarification” is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI’s teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical "Humanae Vitae." It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s position – affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there – is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.  

The greatest meeting of all time

Nov 20, 2012 / 00:00 am

Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Accordingly, there has been a good deal of commentary from historians, theologians and even from the handful of bishops and experts who actually participated in the Council five decades ago. I was particularly struck by an observation made by Fr. John O’Malley, the Jesuit historian who penned, some years ago, an influential book called What Happened at Vatican II? The Second Vatican Council, he said, was the largest meeting in the history of the world. Indeed, some 2,600 people – bishops, theologians, observers and advisors – gathered for months-long sessions between 1962 and 1965; they were setting agendas, debating, arguing, voting and resolving. In a word, they did all the things that people typically do at business meetings.I will confess that O’Malley’s insight produced quite an “a-ha!” moment in me. I came of age in the years just following Vatican II. I went to first grade in 1965, the year the Council ended, and my Catholic formation and seminary training all took place from the early ‘70s to the mid-‘80s of the last century. This means that I was thoroughly immersed in a “Vatican II” culture. Now, one of the marks of that period of ecclesiastical history (and this is why O’Malley’s remark was so illuminating to me) was a preoccupation, even an obsession, with meetings. At the diocesan level, at the parish level, at seminaries, in regard to schools and hospitals, etc., Catholics met. As many have observed, bureaucracies burgeoned everywhere in the Church after Vatican II, and what are bureaucracies but structures established to facilitate meetings? When I was a seminarian, I was invited by the leaders of my home parish to get a taste of parish life. Did they send me to a soup kitchen, or into the school, or to the sacristy, or on a communion call? No, they asked me to take the minutes at a meeting of the parish staff! O’Malley helped me to see that, for the generation of church people that formed me, the defining event of their lives was indeed a giant meeting, and hence the meeting became for them something of almost sacred importance.Now don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the importance, even necessity, of meetings. From time to time, every group or organization has to pause, gather, assess and discuss its work. Otherwise, it will not adequately fulfill its mission or purpose. A meeting is the matrix for this process, and hence the virtues of a meeting include open-mindedness, mutual respect, and honest dialogue. But a meeting is never an end in itself. Its purpose is to clarify mission and strategy so as to enable the members of an organization to return to their work with renewed vigor and focus. The open-mindedness and dialogue, which are indeed prime virtues of a meeting, are not necessarily the virtues attendant upon action. Would you expect the passionate sales representative for the Ford Motor Company to be open to discussing the value of Toyota’s latest model with his customer? Would you expect a Catholic evangelist to be in an attitude of wondering whether Christianity is really the best religion?In an article explaining why he had quit the editorial board of the journal “Concilium,” whose stated purpose was the perpetuation of the spirit of Vatican II, Joseph Ratzinger said that it is not in the best interest of the Church to perpetuate the spirit of any council. Only 20 times in its 2,000-year history, Ratzinger wrote, has the Catholic Church held a council – and thereupon hangs a tale. Indeed, there have been key moments when the Church had to pause and interrogate itself in regard to some basic matters of belief and practice. At the Council of Jerusalem in the first century, for example, the nascent Christian community had to decide whether and how non-Jews could become followers of Jesus; at the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, the Church had to determine, with some precision, just who Jesus is; at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Church had to formulate a response to the powerful challenge offered by the Protestant reformers, etc. Those “meetings,” those gatherings during which the Church paused, threw itself into question, and came to crucial determinations, were necessary.  But it was, with a certain sigh of relief, that the Catholic community turned from those moments, for it was eager to get back to its basic work and form of life. Listening, dialoguing, wondering, doubting and discussing were all appropriate during a conciliar meeting, but those activities were not necessarily helpful in the actual accomplishment of the Church’s mission of declaring the Lordship of Jesus.I think it is plausible to argue that the Vatican II generation was beguiled by the ethos and style of the greatest meeting in human history. And this goes a long way toward explaining why that generation was compromised in its capacity to evangelize with confidence.

Resisting an aggressive secularism

Oct 31, 2012 / 00:00 am

It was with barely concealed delight that “Chicago Sun-Times” columnist Neil Steinberg conveyed the findings of the recent Pew Forum survey that the “nones,” those who claim no particular religious affiliation, are sharply on the rise in America. Moreover, he crowed, the survey revealed that a disproportionate number of young people placed themselves firmly in the “none” camp, thus indicating that religion’s decline would only accelerate in the years to come. Taking these findings as a starting point, Steinberg then delivered himself of an anti-religion screed that was, even for him, remarkable in its vitriol and lack of nuance.Central to Steinberg’s argument is that the “virus” of freedom, which the founding fathers planted in the body politic long ago, has spread to the point that it now threatens religion itself. Finally, he says, people have the courage to throw off the shackles of “arbitrary rules and arcane liturgies” and join the society of free-thinking moderns. There are two fundamental problems here. First, like so many of his secularist colleagues, Steinberg conveniently forgets that the political liberty he rightly praises is predicated inescapably upon religious assumptions. The keen sense that each human being is the subject of rights and dignity is grounded in the antecedent conviction that that dignity and those rights come from God and hence have an absolute sanction. As Thomas Jefferson put it rather memorably, “All men are created equal … and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If you want to see what happens to freedom and human rights when God is removed from the picture, consult both ancient aristocratic societies and modern totalitarian regimes. Steinberg exults that the “freedom virus” conduced toward the liberation of blacks in America, but he seems utterly to have forgotten that both the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth were led by passionately believing Christians, who advocated for liberty precisely because of their religious beliefs, not despite them.The second problem is that Steinberg assumes that his position – modern, secularist liberalism – is not itself sectarian, peculiar, and indeed marked by its own “arbitrary rules and arcane liturgies.” This is a difficulty that any cultural analyst tends to have, but modern liberals seem especially susceptible to it, namely, the assumption that their own culture isn't really a culture at all but just “the way things are supposed to be.” The form of life that came up out of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century – empirical, scientific, subjectivist, rationalist, anti-traditionalist – strikes modern secularists as just identical to sweet reason and hence they feel that anyone who fails to conform to it is operating “irrationally” or is in thrall to some strange “superstition.” Jurgen Habermas, one of the leading philosophers in the world, advocates (admittedly at a higher level of sophistication) the position staked out by Steinberg. He argues, accordingly, that the only people who should be allowed around the table of political discussion in contemporary societies are those who accept the presumptions of the Enlightenment. Thus religious people, representing some of the most ancient intellectual traditions in the West and relying on the work of such geniuses as St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, John Wesley, and G.K. Chesterton, would not be allowed Habermas’s table. Nor for that matter would William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, or Mohandas Gandhi. One wonders how neither Habermas nor Steinberg can see that the Enlightenment view, though obviously valuable, is hardly identical to Reason tout court.Utterly congruent with this idolatry of the Enlightenment is Steinberg’s sneering relegation of religion to the arena of hobbies and harmless avocations: “Life is a long time … and you have to fill it somehow, and adhering to the various tenets of Lutheranism or Baptism or Seventh Day Adventism … is not inherently a worse use of your time than, oh, knitting colorful afghans or playing John Madden Football or anything else.” Though the Christian tradition essentially created the culture of the West, though it invented the university system, and though it gave rise to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Bach’s cantatas, and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot, it is, according to Mr. Steinberg, the intellectual equivalent of knitting an afghan! Trust me when I tell you that whatever matrix of thought produced that conclusion ain’t identical to “sweet reason.” It is in fact something peculiar and sectarian indeed.The relegation of religion to the private realm is, of course, an aggressive move, for it is designed to exclude religious people from the political and cultural conversation. Basically, Habermas and Steinberg and their fellows are saying to religious believers, “While you play at your little hobbies, we rationalists will take care of serious matters.” In the face of this act of violence, believers should engage in non-violent resistance, entering the public arena with the language of the Bible and the great tradition on their lips, as did our forebears Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Pace the secular ideologues, it is altogether possible for religious people – especially those who believe in the divine Logos – to have a logical conversation.

Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism

Oct 23, 2012 / 00:00 am

Many of the Catholic Church’s teachings are vilified in both the high and popular cultures, but none more than its doctrines concerning marriage and sexuality. Time and again, the Church’s views on sex are characterized as puritanical, life denying and hopelessly outdated — holdovers from the Bronze Age. Above all, critics pillory the Church for setting unreasonable limits to the sexual freedom of contemporary people. Church leaders, who defend traditional sexual morality, are parodied as versions of Dana Carvey’s “church lady” — fussy, accusatory, secretly perverse and sex-obsessed.Let me respond first to the charge of puritanism. Throughout the history of religion and philosophy, a puritanical strain is indeed apparent. Whether it manifests itself as Manichaeism, Gnosticism or Platonic dualism, the puritanical philosophy teaches that spirit is good and matter is evil or fallen. In most such schemas, the whole purpose of life is to escape from matter, especially from sexuality, which so ties us to the material realm. But authentic Biblical Christianity is not puritanical. The Creator God described in the book of Genesis made the entire panoply of things physical — planets, stars, the moon and sun, animals, fish and even things that creep and crawl upon the earth — and found all of it good, even very good. Accordingly, there is nothing perverse or morally questionable about bodies, sex, sexual longing or the sexual act. In fact,  it’s just the contrary. When, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself is asked about marriage and sexuality, he hearkens back to the book of Genesis and the story of creation: “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one. They are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk. 10:6-8). That last sentence is, dare I say it, inescapably “sexy.” Plato might have been a puritan, and perhaps John Calvin too, but Jesus most certainly was not.So given this stress on the goodness of sex and sexual pleasure, what separates the Christian view from, say, the “Playboy” philosophy? The simple answer is that, for Biblical people, sexuality must be placed in the wider context of love, which is to say willing the good of the other. It is fundamental to Catholic spirituality and morality that everything in life must be drawn magnetically toward love, must be conditioned and transfigured by love. Thus, one’s business concerns must be marked by love, lest they devolve into crass materialism; and one’s relationships must be leavened by love, lest they devolve into occasions for self-interested manipulation; even one’s play must be directed toward love, lest it devolve into mere self-indulgence. Sex is no exception to this rule. The goodness of sexual desire is designed, by its very nature, to become ingredient in a program of self-forgetting love and hence to become something rare and life enhancing. If you want to see what happens when this principle is ignored, take a long hard look at the hookup culture prevalent among many young  — and not so young — people today. Sex as mere recreation, as contact sport, as a source only of superficial pleasure has produced armies of the desperately sad and anxious, many who have no idea that it is precisely their errant sexuality that has produced such deleterious effects in them. When sexual pleasure is drawn out of itself by the magnetic attraction of love, it is rescued from self-preoccupation. Now there is a third step as well, for human love must be situated in the context of divine purpose. Once Jesus clarified that male and female are destined to become one flesh, he further specified that “What God has joined together,” no human being should put asunder. When I was working full time as a parish priest, I had the privilege of preparing many young couples for marriage. I would always ask them, “Why do you want to be married in church?” After some hesitation, the young people would invariably respond with some version of “Well, we're in love,” to which I would respond, “I'm delighted that you're in love, but that’s no reason to be married in church!” My point was that entering into a properly sacramental marriage implied that the bride and groom realized that they had been brought together by God and precisely for God’s reasons, that their sexuality and their mutual love were in service of an even higher purpose. To make their vows before a priest and a Catholic community, I would tell them, was tantamount to saying that they knew their relationship was sacramental — a vehicle of God’s grace to the wider world. This final contextualization guaranteed that sexuality — already good in itself and already elevated by love — had now something truly sacred.Our culture has become increasingly Nietzchean, by which I mean obsessed with the power of self-creation. This is why toleration is the only objective value that many people recognize, and why freedom, especially in the arena of sexuality, is so highly prized. It is furthermore why attempts to contextualize sex within higher frameworks of meaning are so often mocked as puritanism or fussy antiquarianism. Thank God that, amidst the million voices advocating self-indulgent sexuality, there is at least the one voice of the Catholic Church shouting “No,” a no in service of a higher Yes!

Why the sciences will never disprove the existence of God

Oct 2, 2012 / 00:00 am

Given the ruminations of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, one might have thought that the absolute limit of scientistic arrogance had been reached. But think again. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, was quoted in a recent news article asserting that “science” is on the verge of providing a complete understanding of the universe — an explication, it goes without saying, that precludes the antiquated notion of God altogether. Before addressing the God issue specifically, let me make a simple observation.Though the sciences might be able to explain the chemical make-up of pages and ink, they will never be able to reveal the meaning of a book; and though they might make sense of the biology of the human body, they will never tell us why a human act is moral or immoral; and though they might disclose the cellular structure of oil and canvas, they will never determine why a painting is beautiful. And this is not because “science” is for the moment insufficiently developed, it is because the scientific method cannot, even in principle, explore such matters, which belong to a qualitatively different category of being than the proper subject matter of the sciences. The claim that “science” could ever provide a total understanding of reality as a whole overlooks the rather glaring fact that meaning, truth, beauty, morality, purpose, etc., are all ingredients in “the universe.”But as is usually the case with scientistic speculation, Carroll’s thought is designed, above all, to eliminate God as a subject of serious intellectual discourse. The first and most fundamental problem is that, like Hawking, Dawkins and Dennett, Carroll doesn’t seem to know what Biblical people mean by “God.” With the advance of the modern physical sciences, he asserts, there remains less and less room for God to operate, and hence less and less need to appeal to him as an explanatory cause. This is a contemporary reiteration of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s rejoinder when the Emperor Napoleon asked the famous astronomer how God fit into his mechanistic system: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” But God, as the classical Catholic intellectual tradition understands him, is not one cause, however great, among many; not one more item within the universe jockeying for position with other competing causes. Rather, God is, as Thomas Aquinas characterized him, ipsum esse, or the sheer act of to-be itself — that power in and through which the universe in its totality exists. Once we grasp this, we see that no advance of the physical sciences could ever “eliminate” God or show that he is no longer required as an explaining cause, for the sciences can only explore objects and events within the finite cosmos.To demonstrate the relationship between God and the universe more clearly, it would be worthwhile to explore the most fundamental argument for God’s existence, namely the argument from contingency. You and I are contingent (dependent) in our being in the measure that we eat and drink, breathe, and had parents; a tree is contingent inasmuch as its being is derived from seed, sun, soil, water, etc.; the solar system is contingent because it depends upon gravity and events in the wider galaxy. To account for a contingent reality, by definition we have to appeal to an extrinsic cause. But if that cause is itself contingent, we have to proceed further. This process of appealing to contingent causes in order to explain a contingent effect cannot go on indefinitely, for then the effect is never adequately explained. Hence, we must finally come to some reality that is not contingent on anything else, some ground of being whose very nature is to-be. This is precisely what Catholic theology means by “God.” Therefore, God is not one fussy cause within or alongside the universe; instead, he is the reason why there is a universe at all, why there is, as the famous formula has it, “something rather than nothing.” To ask the sophomoric question, “Well, what caused God?” is simply to show that the poser of the question has not grasped the nettle of the argument. Now Carroll seems to acknowledge the probative power of this sort of argument of first instance, but he makes the common scientistic mistake of identifying the first cause with matter or energy or even the universe itself in its endlessly fluctuating rhythms of inflation and deflation. But the problem with such explanations is this: they involve an appeal to patently contingent things or states of affairs. Energy or matter, for example, always exist in a particular modality or instantiation, which implies that they could just as well be in another modality or instantiation: here rather than there, up rather than down, this color rather than that, this speed rather than that, etc. But this in turn means that their being in one state rather than another requires an explanation or an appeal to an extrinsic cause. And the proposal of the fluctuating universe itself is just as much of a non-starter, for it involves the same problem simply writ large:  how do you explain why the universe is expanding rather than contracting, at this rate rather than that, in this configuration rather than another, etc.?Finally, a cause of the very to-be of a contingent universe must be sought, and this cannot be anything in the universe, nor can it be the universe considered as a totality. It must be a reality whose very essence is to-be and hence whose perfection of existence is unlimited. As I have tried to demonstrate in very short compass, philosophy can shed light on the existence of God so construed. The one thing the sciences cannot ever do is disprove it.

Savvy headhunters and the hookup culture

Sep 18, 2012 / 00:00 am

I first came across the term “hookup culture” in Leonard Sax’s thought provoking and disturbing 2005 book, Why Gender Matters. But the phenomenon itself I found beautifully depicted in a novel published a year earlier: Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. As Sax specifies, the hookup mentality—prevalent among even some very young people but especially among university students—dictates that casual sexual encounters involving absolutely no expectation of relationship, or even psychological engagement, are perfectly acceptable. Sax, a psychiatrist specializing in family therapy, learned of the hookup world from the veritable army of young women suffering from depression and anxiety who were streaming to his office. And through the figure of Charlotte Simmons—an innocent girl from North Carolina who utterly lost her way morally and psychologically at a prestigious university where casual sex and drugs were far more important than learning—Wolfe showed the debilitating effects of this self-absorbed and hedonistic culture.  Now it would seem self-evident that such permissiveness, though prevalent, is morally problematic and something to be decried rather than celebrated. But peruse an article titled “Boys on the Side” in the most recent edition of “The Atlantic” in order to find a dissenting opinion. According to Hanna Rosin, the hookup mentality is, in point of fact, a great boon to women. She allows that lots of books and studies have pointed out the dark side of the hookup culture, the deep frustration and humiliation that can follow from transient sexual encounters, but she insists that steady questioning of typical young women today would reveal that none of them really wants a return to traditional morality. She argues, “For most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don't know any better. But it is not a place where they drown.” Why aren't they destroyed by this sexual licentiousness? Rosin explains, “The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don't get in the way of future success.” One might think that prevalence of casual sex would produce women who are sexual victims, but Rosin contends that precisely the opposite is the case. Young women who choose a variety of sexual partners and who assiduously steer clear of pesky relationships are “managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters.” Instead of being manipulated by powerful men, young ladies are happily becoming adept at manipulation. And here is Rosin’s grand conclusion: “The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.” Now I would like you to concentrate on that last statement. Notice how every virtue that Rosin cites—freedom, confidence, self-reliance—is a subjective disposition. No one in his right mind would contend that those attitudes are anything but good, but they are good precisely in the measure that they order a person to some objective value that lie outside of his subjectivity. We savor freedom because it is the condition for the possibility of pursuing the good in a responsible way; we think that confidence and self-reliance are worthwhile, because they enable one to achieve the good easily and joyfully. But if the question of the objectively valuable is bracketed, then those subjective dispositions lose their orientation and devolve, in point of fact, into something quite destructive. What struck me throughout Rosin’s article was the complete absence of a reference to the objectively valuable in regard to sexual behavior. The purpose of sex? The meaning of the sexual act? The proper ethical, or dare I say religious, setting for sexuality? Never mentioned—and apparently irrelevant. All that seems to matter is that young people—especially young women—have the opportunity to define themselves sexually however they want, to “manage” their sexual activity “like savvy headhunters.” Can I suggest that that last phrase is telling indeed? When the realm of the objectively valuable is marginalized, the subject will inevitably fall back on herself, stewing in her own juices. And let’s be honest, left to our own devices, the vast majority of us will do what is most convenient and most selfish. (The Church, by the way, refers to this natural tendency toward self-absorption as the principle effect of “original sin.”) In the arena of sexuality, the one-sided stress on freedom and self-reliance will lead, in very short order, to manipulation, domination and indifference to relationship. But when the sexual impulse is ordered according to the objective values of love, commitment, marriage and the call of God, then it is transfigured into something radiant and rare.  The hookup culture is all about sexual freedom. However, it would be wise to remember a line from Bob Dylan, “Freedom, just around the corner from you/ but with truth so far off, what good would it do?” Sexual liberty without objective value produces a lot of savvy headhunters, but they will wind up in Dr. Sax’s office suffering from a deep sadness of the heart. 

Why the Queenship of Mary matters

Sep 11, 2012 / 00:00 am

The Catholic Church annually celebrates the feast of the Queenship of Mary.  I would imagine that most people, upon hearing of this celebration, would think of it as something rather twee and sentimental, a quaint devotion for grandmothers with a taste for saccharine spirituality.  But when we examine this feast as we should, through Biblical eyes, a very different picture emerges. The clearest Scriptural indication that Mary of Nazareth is a queen is a remarkable passage in the 12th chapter of the book of Revelation. The visionary author sees an extraordinary sign in the sky:  a woman clothed with the sun, the moon at her feet, and a coronet of twelve stars on her head. Twelve, of course, is a designation of the tribes of Israel, and the crown is a rather unambiguous indication that we are dealing with a royal figure.  It soon becomes clear that this woman is not only a queen but more precisely, a Queen Mother, for we hear that she is laboring to give birth to a king, one who is “destined to rule the nations with an iron rod.”  Both the Queen Mother and the infant king are involved in a terrible struggle. The visionary tells us that a fearsome dragon is poised to devour the baby as soon as it comes forth. But God sweeps the child up and brings him to the safety of the divine throne, while the mother flees to the desert where she finds refuge. In the wake of this, a war breaks out between “Michael and his angels” and the dragon and his angelic supporters. This image is, of course, symbolically rich and multivalent, but at the very least it indicates that the Queen and her kingly Son are protagonists in a spiritual warfare of some magnitude.  They are, in a word, warriors. Just before this passage, at the very end of chapter 11 of the book of Revelation (and remember that the chapter designations came many centuries after this text was originally composed), we find the vision of the heavenly temple. Amidst flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and a mighty hailstorm, the seer spies,the Ark of the Covenant within the temple. The Ark, we recall, was the container of the remnants of the Ten Commandments, and hence the most sacred object for ancient Israel.  Placed within the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple, the Ark was understood to be the link between Heaven and earth, the definitive bearer of the Divine Presence. When King David brought the Ark into the Holy City, he danced before it with reckless abandon. Moreover, at various points throughout its history, Israel brought the Ark into battle, most notably when the priests marched with it seven times around the walls of Jericho, before those battlements came tumbling down. Now the juxtaposition of the vision of the Ark in the heavenly temple and the vision of the Queen Mother clothed with the sun cannot have been accidental.  The author of the book of Revelation is telling us that Mary, the bearer of the Word of God made flesh, was the Ark of the Covenant par excellence. Indeed, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with the unborn John the Baptist, he leapt in his mother’s womb for joy, a beautiful infant imitation of the dance of David before the true Ark.  Both Ark and Queen are associated with the spiritual warfare. In her Magnificat prayer, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Mary speaks of the God “who has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Like her Son, Mary does not fight with the puny weapons of the world, but rather with the weapons of love, forgiveness, compassion and provocative non-violence. Those who have experienced a Jesuit retreat based upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius will recognize the “two standards” meditation. Ignatius asks the retreatant to imagine a great field of battle. Arrayed on one side, under the standard of the Church, is the army of Christ; and on the other, under the standard of Satan, is the army of the dark powers. Then Ignatius compels the retreatant to make a decision, indeed the most fundamental and important choice imaginable, the election that will determine everything else he will say and do for the rest of his life:  which army will you join? Bob Dylan posed the same stark spiritual option in his 1979 song “Gotta Serve Somebody:” (“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.”)  In other areas of life, a fair amount of nuance and subtlety is called for, but at the most basic level, where one determines the fundamental orientation of one’s life, things actually become quite simple and clear. I would suggest that the feast of the Queenship of Mary has to do with this choice: where do you stand in the great spiritual struggle? With whose army do you fight? Do you march under the banner of the Queen Mother and her Son or with their enemies? Do you go out with the Ark of the Covenant or against it? Say what you want about those questions, but they are neither twee nor sentimental.