For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Whether you stand with “First Things” and affirm that such a claim is coherent or with “Commonweal” and affirm that it is absurd, Ryan’s assertion prompts a healthy thinking-through of Catholic social teaching in the present economic and political context.Ryan himself has correctly identified two principles as foundational for Catholic social thought, namely subsidiarity and solidarity. The first, implied throughout the whole of Catholic social theory but given clearest expression in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, is that in the adjudication of matters political and economic, a preferential option should be given to the more local level of authority. For example, when seeking to solve a traffic-flow issue in a suburb, appeal should be made to the municipal authority and not to the governor, even less to the Congress or the President. Only when a satisfactory solution is not achieved by the local government should one move to the next highest level of authority, etc. This principle by no means calls into question the legitimacy of an over-arching federal power (something you sense in the more extreme advocates of the Tea Party), but it does indeed involve a prejudice in favor of the local. The principle of subsidiarity is implied in much of the “small is beautiful” movement as well as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which exhibits a steady mistrust of imperial power and a steady sympathy for the local, the neighborhood, the small business.Now in Catholic social theory, subsidiarity is balanced by solidarity, which is to say, a keen sense of the common good, of the natural and supernatural connections that bind us to one another, of our responsibility for each other. I vividly remember former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s speech before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984, in the course of which he effectively lampooned the idea that individual self-interest set utterly free would automatically redound to the general welfare. Catholic social thought does indeed stand athwart such “invisible hand” theorizing. It also recognizes that, always in accord with subsidiarity, sometimes the federal and state governments are the legitimate vehicles by which social solidarity is achieved. Does anyone today, outside of the most extreme circles, really advocate the repeal of Social Security, unemployment compensation, medical benefits for the elderly, food stamp programs, etc.?Solidarity without subsidiarity can easily devolve into a kind of totalitarianism whereby “justice” is achieved either through outright manipulation and intimidation or through more subtle forms of social engineering. But subsidiarity without solidarity can result in a society marked by rampant individualism, a Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality, and an Ayn Rand/Nietzschean “objectivism” that positively celebrates the powerful person’s dominance of the weak. Catholic social theory involves the subtle balancing of these two great principles so as to avoid these two characteristic pitfalls. It does, for example, consistently advocate the free market, entrepreneurial enterprise, profit-making; and it holds out against all forms of Marxism and extreme socialism. But it also insists that the market be circumscribed by clear moral imperatives and that the wealthy realize their sacred obligation to aid the less advantaged. This last point is worth developing. Thomas Aquinas teaches that ownership of private property is to be allowed but that the usus (the use) of that privately held wealth must be directed toward the common good. This is because all of the earth and its goods belong, finally, to God and must therefore be used according to God’s purpose. Pope Leo XIII made this principle uncomfortably concrete when he specified, in regard to wealth, that once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest of what one owns belongs to the poor. And in saying that, he was echoing an observation of John Chrysostom: “ If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt.”In his wonderful Orthodoxy, written over a hundred years ago but still remarkably relevant today, G.K. Chesterton said that Catholicism is marked through and through by the great both/and principle. Jesus is both divine and human. He is not one or the other; nor is he some bland mixture of the two; rather, he is emphatically one and emphatically the other. In a similar way, the Church is radically devoted to this world and radically devoted to the world to come. In the celibacy of its priests, it is totally against having children, and in the fruitful marriage of its lay people, it is totally for having children.In its social teaching, this same sort of “bi-polar extremism” is on display. Solidarity? The Church is all for it. Subsidiarity? The Church couldn't be more enthusiastic about it. Not one or the other, nor some bland compromise between the two, but both, advocated with equal vigor. I think it would be wise for everyone to keep this peculiarly Catholic balance in mind as the debate over Paul Ryan’s policies unfolds.
In one way or another, all religions deal with the problem of evil, both how to explain it and how to solve it. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all life is suffering and that the only way out is through the extinction of egotistic desire, that “blowing out of the candle,” designated by the Sanskrit word nirvana. All of Buddhist practice, theory and doctrine are devoted to the attainment of this blissful state. Manichaeism and Gnosticism—ancient theories still very much alive today—teach that evil is a powerful force that does battle with good down through the ages. Usually, but not always, Gnostics tend to identify the good principle with the spiritual and the evil principle with matter. A variant on the Manichaean philosophy is represented in the “Star Wars” films, which feature an ongoing struggle between the dark and light sides of the “Force.”Judaism understands evil as the result of a departure from God’s command and tends to see the solution, therefore, as a more faithful following of the divine law. All four of these approaches are operative in our culture, though often in disguised form. But the most dominant is still, despite the increasing secularism of our time, the Christian proposal, namely, that the problem of evil is solved only through an act of self-emptying love on the part of a savior. The Gospels are certainly interested in the teachings of Jesus, but they are primarily concerned with the strange act that took place at the end of his life, a sacrifice by which the sins of the world were taken away. Throughout his public career, Jesus provoked opposition, for his words and deeds put him at odds with the standard manner of thinking and acting. This opposition came to a climax when Jesus, around the year 30, entered the Holy City of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Betrayal, denial, stupidity, violence, cruelty, institutional injustice, and just plain hatred massively came at him. Read the still compelling Passion Narratives in any of the Gospels for the details. The culmination of this assault was his execution at the hands of the Roman occupying power. They nailed him to a cross, employing a peculiarly brutal method of torture that the Romans had perfected.In the face of all of this punishing darkness, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Like an animal offered in the Temple, Jesus took upon himself the sins and dysfunction of others, and by his self-emptying love, took them away. The efficacy of this move was ratified three days later when the now risen Jesus, still bearing his wounds, said to his frightened and guilt-ridden disciples, “Shalom” (Peace). What the first Christians felt—and you can sense it on practically every page of the New Testament—is that Jesus, through that terrible cross, had deflected evil from them, suffered so that they wouldn't have to suffer. I went into this in some detail in order to make explicit what is so often implicit in the popular culture, especially in the West. Consciously or not, the archetype of Christ the Savior still haunts the imaginations of our writers, critics, philosophers, and especially our filmmakers. The most recent instance of this is the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” As this third film in the Batman trilogy opens, we find Bruce Wayne a broken man, both physically and psychologically, still bearing the terrible wounds of his struggle with evil some eight years before. After initial hesitation, he resolves to don his Batsuit and re-enter the lists, since a new and especially menacing figure, Bane, has emerged to threaten Wayne’s beloved Gotham City. A graduate of the same quasi-monastic school of fighters that had shaped the Dark Knight, Bane is not only physically overpowering but also morally bankrupt, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his destructive ends. Having been facially disfigured as a young man, he also sports a mechanized mouthpiece that makes him sound like a combination of Darth Vader and Sean Connery. In a word, he is a particularly effective symbol of the evil that darkens the human heart. At the culmination of his assault on Gotham City, Bane has arranged for the detonation of a neutron bomb. Much of the drama of the second half of the film is generated by Batman’s race against time to deal with both Bane and his bomb. At this juncture, I have to issue a spoiler alert. To make my point, I have to give away the end of the movie. Things are so desperate that the only way for the city to be saved is for Batman to use his specialized plane to tow the nuclear device out to sea. Since there is no autopilot on the vehicle, Batman will have to sacrifice himself in order to protect Gotham. Only an act of love, even love unto death, will avert cataclysmic suffering, and Batman is willing to perform that act. The solution to suffering proposed by this film is not a shift in consciousness, not the extinction of desire, not the correct following of the law, and not a direct confrontation with evil. It is, instead, a heroic act of love on the part of a savior willing to take upon himself the dysfunction that he fights. This makes Batman, unavoidably, an icon of Christ.
Who would have thought that Woody Allen, who twenty years after separating from his longtime girlfriend to notoriously marry her adopted daughter, would emerge as a defender of what can only be called traditional morality? And yet, I find that conclusion unavoidable after viewing the writer-director’s most recent offering, “To Rome With Love.” This film is the latest in a series of Woody Allen movies – “Match Point,” "Vicky, Christina, Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris” – celebrating great European cities, and it shares with the last of those three a certain whimsical surrealism.“To Rome With Love” presents a number of story lines, none of which interweave at the narrative level, but all of which share a thematic motif, namely, the need to resist those things that would tempt us away from real love. The funniest and most bizarre of Allen’s tales has to do with a very ordinary man, Leopoldo, played by the wonderful Italian character actor Roberto Benigni, who one day inexplicably finds himself the center of intense media attention. As he makes his way to his car, Leopoldo is mobbed by photographers and reporters peppering him with questions about his breakfast preferences and his favorite shaving cream. Everywhere he goes, he is recognized and lionized. Women suddenly appear, offering themselves for his sexual gratification. When he asks one of his colleagues why this is happening, the answer comes: “You’re famous for being famous.” Now at one level, of course, this is a parody of our “breaking news,” celebrity obsessed, Kardashian culture. But Allen uses this little fantasy to make another deeper observation. Though put off by many aspects of his “fame,” Leopoldo also becomes addicted to it. When another very ordinary figure suddenly attracts the media spotlight, Leopoldo, lamenting his lost fame, dances on one foot in the middle of a busy intersection just to get people to notice him once more. At this point, the poor man’s wife intervenes, and Leopoldo realizes that his notoriety, superficial and evanescent, is no match for the affection of his wife and children.Another farcical tale has to do with Milly and Antonio, a newly-wed couple from the Italian countryside who have ventured into Rome for their honeymoon. Looking for a hairdresser, Milly gets hopelessly lost and finds herself on the set of a movie starring one of her favorite actors. In short order, the leading-man charms her, romances her and leads her back to his hotel room. But before he can complete his seduction, they are held up at gunpoint by a thief who manages to chase the frightened actor away. Dazzled by his looks and by the “excitement” he represents, Milly then gives in and makes love to the thief. Meanwhile, in a case of mistaken identity, the abandoned Antonio meets Anna, a voluptuous prostitute played by Allen favorite Penelope Cruz. Despite his embarrassment and protestations, Antonio gives in to Anna’s charms and allows himself to be seduced. Both covered in shame, Milly and Antonio eventually make their way back to their honeymoon hotel suite and admit to one another that they would like to return to their home in the country and raise a family.In some ways the most conventional of the stories is the one that features Woody Allen himself as a retired opera producer who has come with his wife to Rome to meet the parents of the young man to whom their daughter is engaged. Allen’s character is utterly bored by his future son-in-law’s parents until he hears the father, Giancarlo, singing like a combination of Caruso and Pavarotti in the shower. When he presses the man to share his gift with the wider world, he is met with complete resistance. When Giancarlo gives in and agrees to audition, he fails to impress. Finally, it dawns on the opera impresario that the man can sing well only in the shower. That light bulb having gone off, Allen’s character arranges for him to sing publicly, but in a make-shift shower! Giancarlo gives a triumphant performance in Pagliacci, and it appears as though fame and fortune await. But upon reading the reviews with pleasure, the man refuses to tour and eagerly returns to his ordinary employment (he’s an undertaker) and the embrace of his family.These various characters confront, in all of their vivid and seductive power – fame, sex, pleasure and material success. In each case, moreover, the embrace of these things would involve the compromising of some unglamorous but stable and life-giving relationship. Thomas Aquinas said that the happy life is the one that remains centered on love, for love is what God is. Furthermore, he argued that the unhappy life is one that becomes centered on the great substitutes for love, which are wealth, pleasure, power and honor. What I found utterly remarkable about “To Rome With Love” is how its writer and director consistently and energetically insisted that simple love should triumph over glitz, glamour and ephemeral pleasure. I’m entirely aware that Woody Allen’s private life leaves quite a bit to be desired from a moral standpoint, but in regard to the fundamental message of “To Rome With Love,” Aquinas couldn’t have said it better.
This past decade has seen a plethora of movies dealing with superheroes: the “Batman” films, “The Green Lantern,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” etc. But the most popular—at least judging by box office receipts—has been the Spider-Man franchise. Since 2002, there have been four major movie adaptations of the Marvel Comics story of a kid who gets bitten by a spider, undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, and then “catches thieves just like flies.”What is it about these stories—and the Spider Man tale in particular—that fascinate us? May I suggest that it has something to do with Christianity, more precisely, with the strange hybrid figure around which all of the Christian religion revolves. St. Athanasius’s most significant contribution to the Christological debates of the early centuries of the Church’s life was a soteriological argument for the dual nature of Jesus. In the saint’s pithy formula: only a human being could save us; and only God could save us. If Jesus were only divine—as the Monophysites argued—then his saving power wouldn't be truly applied to us. If he were only human—as the Arians and Nestorians argued—then he could not really lift us out of the morass of sin and guilt in which we find ourselves mired. In a word, salvation was possible only through a God-man, someone in the world but not of it, someone like us in all things but sin, and at the same time utterly unlike us. I can't help but hear an echo of the ancient Christological doctrine in the latest crop of films featuring “Batman” and “Superman” and “Spider-man.” All three of these superheroes are hybrid combinations of the extraordinary and the ordinary. In all three cases we have someone who, in his lowliness, is able completely to identify and sympathize with our suffering and, in his transcendence, is able to do something about it. A particular charm of the recently released “The Amazing Spider-man” is the Andrew Garfield, the actor who plays Peter Parker is quite obviously an ordinary and, even geeky, kid who at decisive moments gracefully demonstrates godlike powers.Another obliquely Christological feature of the new Spider Man film—and in some of the other superhero movies as well—is the motif of mission and vocation. Once aware that he is in full possession of stunning physical capabilities, Peter mercilessly taunts an obnoxious classmate who had some time before humiliated him. His Uncle Ben, skillfully underplayed by the always watchable Martin Sheen, quickly upbraids the young man for indulging a crude desire for revenge. Precisely how he should use the gifts he has discovered emerges as perhaps the central theme of the movie. Should he use them as the means to aggrandize his ego and settle old scores? Or should he make them ingredient in a program of protection and service—a program of love? Both Matthew and Luke portray Jesus, at the beginning of his public career, wrestling with the meaning and implication of his Messiahship. He indeed knew himself to be the beloved son of his heavenly Father, but what did this identity entail? The classical interpretation of these accounts of Jesus’ time in the desert is that the Lord confronted and finally resisted the temptation to use his Messianic authority for the acquisition of sensual pleasure, for the puffing up of his ego, and for power. It is the conviction of the Church that every baptized and confirmed person has been equipped with gifts from the Holy Spirit, which are participations in the identity of Christ Jesus. The whole drama of an individual’s life hinges on the decision concerning the use of those gifts. As Peter Parker’s literature professor puts it towards the end of the film, “There is finally only one plot line to every story ever written, namely, who am I?” A third theological theme in “The Amazing Spider-Man”—and in the Batman” movies, “Iron Man,“ and “The Avengers” as well—is that of knowledge and the abuse of knowledge. When the Spider Man comics were written in the 1950’s, during the Cold War, there was a great deal of concern in the general culture about the way science was being used for less than constructive purposes. In the current film, Peter Parker’s father and his colleague, Dr. Connors, are endeavoring through biological research to perfect the technique of mixing species in order to address a variety of human ailments and deformities. Their motives might have been laudable but their hubris was unconstrained, and the results of their overreaching proved a disaster. The Biblical story of original sin centers on an act of grasping at knowledge. This is not tantamount to a disavowal of knowledge as such; but it is indeed a warning that the use of knowledge as a means of achieving godlike control over nature is nefarious. The conceit that we can eliminate all suffering—physical, political, psychological—through the exercise of reason has invariably resulted in an increase in suffering, as the secularist ideologies of the last century amply prove. Though Jesus certainly cured some, the heart of his salvific work was not the total eradication of human pain but precisely his own embrace of it. This indispensable Christ move, I would argue, is present in almost all of the superhero movies to which I alluded above.“The Amazing Spider-Man” and its cinematic cousins might appear to be just summer popcorn movies, but upon closer examination it appears that they carry a considerable amount of theological weight.
Ross Douthat’s "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics" has certainly been the most talked about book on religion published in 2012. The New York Times op-ed columnist has discussed his work everywhere: CNN, The 700 Club, Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Beast” video blog, and even “Real Time with Bill Maher.” His central thesis can be rather simply stated: institutional religion is in disarray and decline in America, yet an overwhelming majority of Americans are religious. This means, Douthat argues, that they have succumbed, for the most part, to heretical versions of classical Christianity, forms of thought that draw a good deal of inspiration from orthodox Christianity but manage to depart from, even pervert, the substance upon which they are parasitic. He names and explores a number of these modern day Christian heresies, including the "prosperity gospel" which more or less identifies the goal of the spiritual life as material success, as well as the "God-Within" religion, which turns the God of the Bible into a greater Self, something like the "Oversoul" in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mysticism. This latter heresy is on vivid display, Douthat argues, in much of Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual teaching, in the feel-good ruminations of Deepak Chopra, and in novels such as "Eat, Pray, Love," which extols the God "who is in you as you." Both of these spiritualities borrow extensively from classical Christianity. Thus Joel Osteen, the most popular advocate of the prosperity Gospel, is the son of an evangelical preacher; and Winfrey, Chopra, and their innumerable disciples cite the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus frequently. This blending of Christianity with decidedly un-Christian ideas makes these contemporary ideologies—like the Gnosticism of the second century or the Manichaeism of the fourth century—Christian heresies. Since I’ve written quite a bit about the two heresies mentioned above, I would like to draw attention to a third corruption of Christianity upon which Douthat rather deftly puts his finger. This is the tendency to identify the Kingdom of God, as described in the Bible, with American ideals and the American cultural system. Douthat draws attention to the extraordinary rally organized and led by the conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, during which he seamlessly blended his vision of a dominant America with the spiritual aspirations of the prophets of Israel toward the realization of God’s reign. Douthat observes the affinity between this Beckian perspective and the triumphant affirmation, made most memorably by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, of American democracy as a world-saving, God-inspired, ideology. That Bush’s claims were much more than abstract became unmistakably clear when the President sent planes, tanks, and troops in order to impose democracy on an Iraq that was utterly unprepared, politically and culturally, for such an imposition. Douthat insists that this identification of the American system with divine purpose is by no means the exclusive preserve of conservatives. In fact, in the course of the 20th century, liberal statesmen have been some of its most devoted advocates. At the close of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson shared his vision that an American-style democracy, including the rule of law and respect for the rights of ethnic peoples to self-determination, would usher in a world free of war. That Wilson could not even get his own Congress to agree to his pet idea of a League of Nations, and the Europe, within two decades of the end of the First World War, plunged into a second and even more devastating conflagration were rather clear indications of the utopian character of this dream. Moreover, in the middle of the last century, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson offered new versions of the Wilsonian project: the New Frontier and the Great Society, both attempts to realize the Kingdom through political change. Much of the American politics of the last four decades can be read as a response—by turns angry, nostalgic, and skeptical—to that earlier utopianism. Douthat concludes, quite correctly, that the Kingdom of God, as the Bible envisions it, ought never to be identified with any political or cultural status quo. That Kingdom represents, the accomplishment of God’s grace. Hence, every political or cultural system—even one as relatively benign as the American—falls under judgment. And indeed the best of our political and religious figures have clearly understood this. Many American statesmen—Ronald Reagan most recently—have drawn inspiration from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which the colonial leader spoke of the society he and his fellows were about to found as “a city upon a hill,” which is to say, a visible place of great interest to the rest of the world. If one reads the whole of Winthrop’s homily, it becomes clear that he is not one-sidedly extolling the virtues of the new colony, but just the contrary. He is warning his people that since their experiment in ordered liberty would be carefully watched, they must be vigilant lest sin get the better of them.President-elect Abraham Lincoln, in a February 1861 address to the New Jersey General Assembly, said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this his almost chosen people ...” How wonderful that Lincoln, who certainly read American history in light of his belief in Divine Providence, was careful not simply to identify America with the chosen people of Israel, but to imply, that an “almost chosen” people would always stand in need of correction.These lessons from Winthrop and Lincoln should be taken to heart, not only to correct a jingoistic patriotism, but to warn us of a dangerous corruption of Christianity.
One of the most theologically fascinating and just plain entertaining books I’ve read in a long time is Yves Congar’s My Journal of the Council. Catholics of a certain age will recognize the name, but I’m afraid that most Catholics under the age of 50 might be entirely unaware of the massive contribution made by Congar, a Dominican priest and certainly one of the three or four most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. After a tumultuous intellectual career, during which he was, by turns, lionized, vilified, exiled and silenced, Congar found himself, at the age of 58, a peritus or theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. By most accounts, he proved the most influential theologian at that epic gathering, contributing mightily to the documents on the church, on ecumenism, on revelation, and on the church’s relation to the modern world.During the entire course of the Council, from October 1962 to December 1965, Congar kept a meticulous journal of the proceedings, which includes not only detailed accounts of the interventions by various bishops and Cardinals, but also extremely perceptive often arch commentaries on the key personalities and the main theological currents of the Council. Several times as I read through the journal, I laughed out loud at Congar’s pointed assessments of some of the players: “a bore,” “useless,” “talks too much.” But what most comes through is – if I can risk employing an overused and ambiguous phrase – “the spirit of the Council,” by which I mean those seminal ideas and attitudes that found expression in the discussions, debates and texts of Vatican II. Over and again; in the pages of Congar’s journal, we hear of a church that should be more evangelical and open to the Word of God, of the dangers of clerical triumphalism, of the universal call to holiness, of a liturgy that awakens the active participation of the faithful, of the need for the church to engage the modern world, etc. Attending meeting after meeting and engaging in endless conversations with bishops and theologians, Congar was indefatigably propagating these ideas, which we now take to be commonplace and the permanent achievement of Vatican II.As Congar led this charge, his chief opponents were Archbishop Pericle Felice and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the keepers of the traditional, scholastic form of Catholicism. His principal allies were “progressive” council fathers Cardinal Frings of Cologne and Archbishop Wojtyla of Krakow, as well as fellow periti Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Hans Kung, and a young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger. As I read the pages of Congar’s journal, all of these figures and that very heady time came rather vividly to life. But even as I was caught up in the moment, I couldn’t help but think of the divisions that would later beset that victorious group. Archbishop Wojtyla, of course, later became Pope John Paul II, and he would appoint Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) as his chief doctrinal officer. Further, John Paul would create de Lubac and Congar himself as Cardinals, but would preside over a critical investigation of the works of both Kung and Schillebeeckx. Why did these divisions arise in the post-conciliar period?One way to get a perspective on the split in the victorious party is to look to the beginnings of the theological journal “Communio.” In the wake of the council, the triumphant progressive party formed an international journal called “Concilium,” the stated purpose of which was to perpetuate the spirit of the great gathering that had prompted such positive change in the Church. On the board of “Concilium” were Rahner, Kung, Schillebeeckx, de Lubac, Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger and many others. But after only a few years, three figures – Balthasar, de Lubac, and Ratzinger – decided to break with “Concilium” and found their own journal and the reasons they gave to justify this decision are extremely illuminating. First, they said, the board of “Concilium” was claiming to act as a secondary magisterium, or official teaching authority, alongside the bishops. Theologians certainly have a key role to play in the understanding and development of doctrine, but they cannot supplant the bishops’ responsibility of holding and teaching the apostolic faith. Secondly, the “Concilium” board wanted to launch Vatican III when the ink on the documents of Vatican II was barely dry. That is to say, they wanted to ride the progressive momentum of Vatican II toward a whole series of reforms – women’s ordination, suspension of priestly celibacy, radical reform of the church’s sexual ethic, etc. – that were by no means justified by the texts of the council. Thirdly, and in my judgment most significantly, Balthasar, Ratzinger, and de Lubac decried the “Concilium” board’s resolve to perpetuate the spirit of the council. Councils, they stated, are sometimes necessary in the life of the Church, but they are also perilous, for they represent moments when the Church throws itself into question and pauses to decide some central issue or controversy. We think readily here of Nicea and Chalcedon, which addressed crucial issues in Christology, or Trent, which wrestled with the challenge of the Reformation. Councils are good and necessary, but the Church also, they contended, turns from them with a certain relief in order to get back to its essential work. The perpetuation of the spirit of the council, they concluded, would be tantamount to a Church in a permanent state of suspense and indecision.Kung, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar, de Lubac and Wojtyla were all proud “men of the council.” They strenuously fought for the ideals I mentioned earlier. But in the years that followed, they went separate ways – and thereupon hangs a tale still worth pondering as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II.
The new feature film “For Greater Glory” tells the story of the Mexican Cristero war, which broke out in the 1920’s when the secularist government, under the leadership of President Plutarco Elias Calles, decided to enforce the strict anti-clerical laws embedded in the Mexican constitution of 1917. All religious ceremonies – Masses, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, etc. – were banned, bishops were forced to leave the country, and priests were forbidden to wear clerical garb in public. Priests who resisted were imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases, killed outright. One of the most affective scenes in the film is the execution of Padre Christopher, an old priest played by the great Peter O’Toole. As the federales arrived in his small town, the priest refused to hide or flee. Instead, he sat quietly in his church, robed in Mass vestments, and accepted his fate as an act of witness. Others also resolved to resist through nonviolent means, most notably Anacleto Gonzalez Flores (played by Eduardo Verastegui), a magazine editor and activist, who rallied Mexican youth through his speeches and writings. But given the intensity and violence of the attack on Catholicism – which Graham Greene called the most thorough persecution of a religion since the time of Elizabeth I – it was practically inevitable that an armed resistance would emerge. The bulk of “For Greater Glory” concerns this “Cristero” rebellion, which began with small and disorganized bands of guerilla fighters, but grew, under the leadership of General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), into an efficient military operation. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between the General and a 14-year-old boy named Jose, who had been a friend of Padre Christopher and witnessed the priest’s murder. Despite his youth, Jose joined the Cristero army, serving as standard-bearer and aide-de-camp to Gorostieta. In the course of a particularly brutal battle, Jose was captured by the federales, who then tortured him mercilessly, hoping to compel him to renounce the ideals of the Cristeros and accept the decisions of the government. Even in the face of this horrendous attack, Jose refused to give in, stubbornly repeating the motto of the resistance: Viva el Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King). I won't give away any more of the story, but I would like to reflect on that motto, which is heard throughout the film on the lips of dozens of characters. Viva Cristo Rey! is the hinge on which this entire Cristero episode turns and is, indeed, the central teaching of the New Testament. The great Scriptural scholar N.T. Wright has argued that the four Gospels are fundamentally the story of how Yahweh, the God of Israel, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, established himself as king. On the Biblical reading, the world had long been governed by various “kings” who ruled through violence and cruelty: Pharaoh, the Amalekites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. But Yahweh had promised that one day, through his anointed servant, he would deal with these tyrants, and would himself come to shepherd and to reign. It is of enormous significance that when Jesus first appeared as a preacher in the hills of Galilee, his theme was “the kingdom of God is at hand!” In other words, in his own person; an entirely new way of ordering things is on offer. Then, in his love and non-violence, in his open-table fellowship, in his outreach to prostitutes and tax collectors, in his mocking of the Pharisees and religious establishment, in his healing and teaching, Jesus was demonstrating precisely what the reign of the God of Israel looks like. This way of life inevitably awakened the opposition of the powers that be. At the climax of his ministry, Jesus faced down the resistance of “the world,” to use the typical New Testament term, meaning that whole congeries of cruelty, betrayal, denial, violence, corruption, and hatred by which human affairs are typically ordered. He permitted all of that darkness to wash over him, to crush him and snuff him out. But then, on the third day, he rose again from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit and thereby outflanked, out-maneuvered and swallowed up the darkness. In a delicious irony, it was Pontius Pilate who anticipated the significance of this victory over the cross of Jesus, the Roman governor had placed a sign written in the three great languages of that time and place, which read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” In the light of the resurrection, the first Christians knew that, in Jesus, the God of Israel had become king, and that the world was now under new management. They saw their mission as the declaration of that kingship to everyone. This did not imply at all that they were advocating “theocracy” in the crude sense. (Indeed, both Peter and Paul urge their readers to show deference to the properly instituted Roman authority.) But they were insisting that Jesus is the one to whom final allegiance is due and that he is more powerful than any of the “kings,” – political, economic, military or cultural who tend to dominate human affairs. They reveled in the fact that Jesus’ kingly power was exercised, not through violence and domination, but through the non-violence of the cross. They gladly announced to anyone who would listen that the true king wore a crown of thorns and reigned from a throne that was a Roman instrument of torture. At the very close of “For Greater Glory,” we see a listing of those figures from the film that the Catholic Church beatified or canonized as saints. Without exception, they were those who chose the path of non-violent resistance. As I said, I certainly understand why an armed rebellion sprang up in the Mexico of that time, and I wouldn't dream of questioning the motives of those who participated in it. But I would indeed say that those who advocate the kingship of Jesus should fight the way he did: invading the darkness by light and swallowing up hatred through love. Viva Cristo Rey!
Last week, two prominent Catholic women—Kathleen Sebelius in an address to the graduates of Georgetown University’s public policy school, and Maureen Dowd in a column published in the New York Times - delivered strong statements about the Church’s role in civil society. Dowd's column was more or less a screed, while Sebelius’s address was relatively measured in tone. Yet both were marked by some pretty fundamental misunderstandings, which have, sadly, become widespread. Echoing an army of commentators from the last fifty years, Dowd exults in James Joyce's characterization of the Catholic Church (drawn, it appears, from the pages of Finnegans Wake) as “here comes everybody.” The word “catholic” itself, she explains, means “all-embracing” and “inclusive;” hence it is desperately sad that the Church, which is meant to be broad-minded and welcoming, has become so constricting. Whether it is disciplining liberal nuns or harassing pro-choice Catholic commencement speakers, the Church has abandoned the better angels of its nature and become intolerant. She concludes, “Absolute intolerance is always a sign of uncertainty and panic. Why do you have to hunt down everyone unless you’re weak? But what is the quality of a belief that exists simply because it’s enforced?” Not only is this narrow-minded aggression un-Catholic; it’s downright un-patriotic; “This is America. We don’t hunt heresies here. We welcome them,” she writes. The problem here is a fundamental confusion between inclusiveness in regard to people and inclusiveness in regard to ideas. The church is indeed all-embracing in the measure that it wants to gather all people to itself. The Bernini colonnade that reaches out like welcoming arms in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is meant to carry precisely this symbolic valence. But the Church has never had such an attitude toward all ideologies and points of view. It has recognized, from the beginning, that certain doctrines are repugnant to its own essential nature, or contradictory to the revelation upon which the Church is constructed. This is precisely why, for the past two millennia, theologians, bishops, Popes, and councils have consistently and strenuously battled heresies concerning central Catholic dogmas. They have understood that the adoption of these errors would fatally compromise the integrity of the Church. Truth be told, any community must, if it is to survive, have a similar “intolerance.” The Abraham Lincoln Society would legitimately oppose the proposal that its members ignore Lincoln and concentrate on the study of Winston Churchill; the USGA would find repugnant the suggestion that Pebble Beach be turned into a collection of baseball diamonds; and the United States of America indeed aggressively excludes those committed to the eradication of fundamental American principles. The Catholic Church is not a Voltairean debating society; it is a community that stands for some very definite things, which implies, necessarily, that it sets its back against very definite things. A church that simply “welcomed” heresies would, overnight, cease to be itself. We find another very common error in Secretary Sebelius’s address to Georgetown. Deftly side-stepping the issue that has generated such controversy, the HHS demand that Catholic institutions provide insurance for procedures that Catholic morality finds objectionable. Sebelius cited John F. Kennedy’s memorable 1960 address to Protestant ministers in Houston. Kennedy dreamed of an American “in which no religious body seeks to impose its will, either directly or indirectly, on the general populace.” Over and again, from every quarter, one hears this call echoed today. But when you really think about it, you realize that it is so much nonsense. What is so easily forgotten is that any law, any political movement, indeed any persuasive speech involves, in one way or another, the imposition of someone’s will. In the mid-nineteenth century, William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown were certainly endeavoring to impose their wills regarding the abolition of slavery on the rest of the country. In 1862, with the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln was most assuredly attempting to impose his will on many of his recalcitrant countrymen. Publicly protesting Jim Crow laws, marching through the streets of Selma and Montgomery, speaking in the cadences of Isaiah and Amos on the steps of Lincoln’s Memorial in Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King was certainly trying to impose his vision on an America that was by no means entirely ready for it. Indeed, just a year after the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King was delighted with the passage of strict civil rights legislation, which gave teeth to the proposals that he had long been making. Now in all the examples that I’ve given, explicit legal moves were motivated by solidly religious conviction. If you doubt me in regard to Lincoln, I would recommend a careful re-reading of his Second Inaugural Address. The point is this: none of it would have legitimately taken place in the America imagined by John F. Kennedy, an America in which no religious individual or institution tried to impose its will either directly or indirectly. What many have sensed in the recent moves of the Obama administration is precisely an attempt to push religion, qua religion, out of the public conversation. Individuals, groups; and institutions are continually trying, for various reasons and to varying degrees of success, to impose their wills on people. Fine. That‘s how it works. What isn‘t fair is to claim, arbitrarily, that religious individuals and institutions can’t join in the process.
Just last week it was announced that I have been named the new Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary, my alma mater and one of the largest seminaries in the United States. I believe that one reason Cardinal Francis George chose me for this position is that I’ve been working the past several years in the evangelization of the culture. The last two popes have emphasized that seminaries should take the New Evangelization as their raison d’etre and organizing principle; therefore, I think that Cardinal George wants me to bring what I’ve learned in my work at Word on Fire to my new task. What would I want to communicate to seminarians concerning this great theme? First, new evangelists have to be people of fervor, enthusiasm, and conviction. When he mentioned the New Evangelization for the first time, in a speech in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in 1983, John Paul II said that one of the principle marks of the method would be “new ardor.” Long ago, in his still remarkably helpful treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle commented that audiences really listen only to “an excited speaker,” by which he meant someone utterly convicted of the importance of what he is communicating. What makes advertisers, sportscasters, politicians or evangelists effective is a patent enthusiasm for their topic. I was trained as an academic, and I’ve done quite a bit of formal academic writing. I recognize that in the purely intellectual arena, cool detachment and a certain willingness to suspend judgment and entertain all points of view are virtues. But these are not virtues in the arena of truly persuasive speech. If we are wracked with doubts and unconvinced of our subject matter, people just won’t listen. Something that I sense on every page of the New Testament—in the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, James and Peter, the Revelation of John—is a palpable excitement. These men wanted to take the world by the lapels and tell them about the resurrection of Jesus. New evangelists have to have a similar fervor and energy. Secondly, I would tell my charges at Mundelein Seminary to be deeply rooted in the Bible and the great theological tradition. There are some evangelists—both Catholic and Protestant—who are filled with energy and conviction but who just don’t have that much to say. I saw one of the most popular televangelists in the world today being interviewed on the Larry King show some years ago. When a caller asked about the problem of evil—one of the most serious and central issues in theology, hugely important for the Biblical authors and massively analyzed by the great figures, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinis and John Henry Newman—the evangelist limply responded that he just wasn’t much of a theologian. I thought that his license should have been revoked. Can you imagine a surgeon responding to a pointed question from a suffering patient with, “ You know, I’m just not real good at anatomy”?! And what’s the difference between a doctor and a priest? Well, one is dealing with matters of life and death, while the other is concerned with the health of the body. New evangelists owe it to their people to be thoroughly versed in the Bible, both Old Testament and New, in the Councils of the church, in the writings of the pivotal theologians and spiritual masters, and in the poets, artists and architects who have expressed the Catholic spirit in words, paints, stone and glass. But the effective evangelist has to know more than the theological tradition; he has to know the culture he is attempting to address. If I might quote the great Aristotle again: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.” This implies that every communicator has to know the prejudices, expectations, mood and attitude of the one to whom he wishes to communicate. One who speaks the fullness of Christian truth; but does so in the void; might be correct, but he won’t be an evangelist. This is why the new evangelist has to know the contemporary culture, both high and low. He should be conversant with the philosophers and opinion-makers who shape attitudes in the salons of San Francisco and the drawing rooms of the Upper East Side and he should know which movies, songs, television shows, and books average people are attending to. More to it, he should look out at the culture through biblical eyes, which is to say, he should be especially attentive to the patterns and events in the world that correspond to patterns and events in the scriptural revelation. That way, he will discover what the church fathers called the logoi spermatikoi, the seeds of the Word, that are thick on the ground in any culture oriented to the good, the true and the beautiful. And looking through those same biblical eyes, he will also become cognizant of all of those elements in a culture that are fallen and that need to be called to conversion. Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of the last century, proposed an image for prospective preachers that is just as valid for prospective evangelists: they should carry the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Finally, new evangelists should be thoroughly conversant with the new media, with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, with podcasting, and with the myriad other means of communication available through the Internet These new media give the Catholic evangelist the opportunity to get his message out 24/7, all over the world, and at relatively little cost. We have to face the fact that the vast majority of eyes today are not glued to books or to newspapers, but to the computer screen. Many years ago, a very successful writer said to me, “The first rule of the writer is to read.” Good advice, and to follow it today, we have to get the message into the world where the most “readers” are found. I hope I can communicate to my seminarians that this is an especially exciting time for the evangelist, in many ways as exciting as the middle years of the first century; when the message about Jesus was brand new, or as the beginning of the sixteenth century; when the printing press first emerged. Now is a kairos, a privileged moment, to declare the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
It is very difficult indeed to watch the new documentary “Bully” without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness. The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates. We hear a number of similar stories throughout the film, and we also are allowed to watch and listen as very real kids are pestered, belittled, mocked, and in some cases, physically assaulted; just because they are; in some sense; different. The most memorable figure in the movie is a young man, around 12, named Alex. He seems to be a good-natured kid, happy in the embrace of his family, but because he’s a bit uncoordinated, geeky, and odd-looking (his brutal nickname is “fishface”), his fellow students mercilessly pick on him. Alex’s daily ride on the school bus is like something out of Dante’s Inferno. What would be funny; if it weren't so tragic, is the cluelessness of the school officials (and of the adults in general) who should be doing something about the problem. We get to watch the vice principal of Alex’s school as she deals with aggressive students, and as she tries to mollify Alex’s parents. What we hear is a pathetic mixture of bromides, self-serving remarks, boys-will-be-boys platitudes, and; worst of all, a marked tendency to blame the victim. When the parents complain about the bus that Alex rides, the vice principal vapidly comments, “Well, I rode that bus once, and the children were like angels.” I mean, is she really naïve enough to think that their behavior in the presence of the vice-principal is even vaguely typical? I will admit, however, that I sympathized with her confusion when, at one point, she gazed into the camera lens and sighed, “I just don't know what to do.” A lot of the adults in the documentary seemed to share that sentiment. Well, I know someone who knows what to do. Some time ago, I reviewed a book by Dr. Leonard Sax called "Why Gender Matters," an incisive study of why boys and girls benefit from very different approaches to education and character formation. Just recently, Dr. Sax sent me a copy of his 2007 study titled "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men." As the subtitle indicates, the book examines the problem of the "slacker dude," the teenager who would rather watch video games than attend class, or the 20-something who would rather lounge around his parents’ home than start an ambitious career. To get all of the details, please peruse Dr. Sax’s informative and eminently readable book in its entirety. But with the problem of bullying in mind, I would like to focus on one chapter of Boys Adrift; titled “The Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.” Echoing in many ways the reflections of Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr, Dr. Sax bemoans the fact that our culture has largely forgotten the subtle art of transforming boys into men. Despite (or perhaps because of) our scientific predilection, we think that this process just happens naturally. Our “primitive” ancestors knew that it did not and this is why they developed sophisticated rituals of initiation, designed to shock boys out of their natural narcissism and habits of self-protection into moral and spiritual maturity. Whether we are talking about the Navajo, Masai warriors, or Orthodox Jews, traditional cultures understand that boys have to be brought through a period of trial—some test of skill and endurance—during which they learn the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. Sometimes; these initiation rituals are accompanied by a kind of ceremonial scarring, for the elders want the boys to know, in their bodies, that they’ve been tested and permanently changed. Sax astutely observes that many of the great American authors—Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Studs Terkel, James Dickey—wrote passionately and persuasively about this very topic. Any great films, from “The Hustler,” “On the Waterfront,” and “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” dramatically display the process by which a boy becomes a heroic man of selflessness and courage. The principal element in the initiation process—whether real or fictionally presented—is a mature man who embodies the virtues to which the boy aspires. Finally, men of valor, charity, ambition, and grace transform boys into men of valor, charity, ambition and grace. When this mentoring dynamic is lost, Dr. Sax argues, the result is boys adrift and young men taking their cues from Eminem, 50 Cent, Akon, and the Situation. Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with the phenomenon of bullying. One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one around to turn them into men. Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society. Without strong male role models, and without a disciplined process of initiation into maturity, these energies remain either unfocussed (as in the case of slackers) or directed toward violence and the exploitation of the weak (as in the case of bullies). Dr. Sax comments that you might not be able to turn a bully into a flower child, but with the right male mentoring, you could certainly turn him into a knight.If a son of yours is either bullied or becoming a bully, I would strongly recommend that you read "Boys Adrift" and, above all, that you introduce your son to a strong, morally upright, focused and courageous male mentor—fast.
I saw an advance copy of a survey by William J. Byron and Charles Zech, which will appear in the April 30th edition of “America” magazine. It was conducted at the request of David O’Connell, the bishop of Trenton, and its focus was very simple: it endeavored to discover why Catholics have left the church. No one denies that a rather substantive number of Catholics have taken their leave during the past 20 years, and Byron and Zech wanted to find out why. They did so in the most direct way possible and asked those who had quit.The answers they got were, in many ways, predictable. Lots of people cited the church’s teachings on divorce and re-marriage, gay marriage, contraception, and the ordination of women. These matters, of course, have been exhaustively discussed in the years following Vatican II, and I’d be willing to bet that anyone, even those vaguely connected to the Church, could rehearse the arguments on both sides of those issues. But there just isn’t a lot that the church can do about them. No bishop or pastor could make a policy adjustment and announce that divorced and re-married people can receive communion or that a gay couple can come to the altar to be married or a woman present herself for ordination.What struck me about the survey, however, was that many of the issues that led people to leave the church are indeed matters that can be addressed. Many of the respondents commented that they left because of “bad customer relations.” One woman said that she felt “undervalued by the church” and found “no mentors.” Many more said that their pastors were “arrogant, distant, aloof, and insensitive,” and still others said that their experiences over the phone with parish staffers were distinctly negative. Now I fully understand that parish priests and lay ministers are on the front lines and hence are the ones who often have to say “no” when a parishioner asks for something that just can’t be granted. Sometimes the recipient of that “no” can all too facilely accuse the one who says it as arrogant or indifferent. Nevertheless, the survey can and should be a wake-up call to church leaders—both clerical and non-clerical—that simple kindness, compassion, and attention go a rather long way. I distinctly remember the advice that my first pastor—a wonderful and pastorally skillful priest—gave to the parish secretary: “for many people, you are the first contact they have with the Catholic Church; you exercise, therefore, an indispensable ministry.” One respondent to the survey observed that whenever he asked a priest about a controversial issue, he “got rules, and not an invitation to sit down and talk.” Unfair? Perhaps. But every priest, even when ultimately he has to say “no,” can do so in the context of a relationship predicated upon love and respect. A second major concern that can and should be addressed is that of bad preaching. Again and again, people said that they left the church because homilies were “boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared,” or “delivered in an impenetrable accent.” Again, speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation, and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience. That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions. All of the biblical exegesis and oratorical skill in the world will be met with a massive “so what?” if the preacher has not endeavored to correlate the “answers” he provides with the “questions” that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks. Practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person—Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc.—who is questioning, wondering, suffering, or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.A third eminently correctable problem is one that I will admit I had never thought about before reading this survey. Many of the respondents commented that, after they left the church, no one from the parish contacted them or reached out to them in any way. Now again, I can anticipate and fully understand the objections from pastoral people: many Catholic parishes are huge—upwards of three or four thousand families—and staffs are small. Yet, just as major corporations, serving millions of people, attend carefully to lost customers, so Catholic parishes should prioritize an outreach to those who have drifted (or stormed) away. A phone call, a note, an e-mail, a pastoral visit—anything that would say, “We’ve noticed you’re not coming to Mass anymore. Can we help? Can you tell us what, if anything, we’ve done wrong? We’d love to see you back with us.”The problem of Catholics leaving the church is, obviously, serious and complex, and anyone who would suggest an easy solution is naïve. However, having listened to a representative sample of those who have left, parishes, priests, and church administrators might take some relatively simple and direct steps that would go a long way toward ameliorating the situation.
The recent story for Newsweek magazine during Holy Week, penned by political and cultural commentator Andrew Sullivan, concerns the “crisis” that is supposedly gripping Christianity. Weighed down by its preoccupation with doctrines and supernatural claims, which are incredible to contemporary audiences, compromised by the corruption of its leadership, co-opted for base political ends, Christianity is verging, he argues, on the brink of collapse. The solution Sullivan proposes is arepristinizing of Christianity, a return to its roots and essential teachings. And here he invokes, as a sort of patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, who as a young man literally took a straight razor to the pages of the New Testament and cut out any passages dealing with the miraculous, the supernatural, or the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience. ?As the reference to Jefferson should make clear, there is nothing particularly new in Sullivan’s proposal. The liberation of Jesus the wisdom figure from the shackles of supernatural doctrine has been a preoccupation of much of the liberal theology of the last 200 years. Hence, Friedrich Schleiermacher turned Jesus into a religious genius with a particularly powerful sense of God; Rudolf Bultmann converted him into the prototype of the existentialist philosopher; Immanuel Kant transformed him into the supreme teacher of the moral life. And this approach is very much alive today. Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, to give just two examples among many,present Jesus, not as the God-man risen from the dead, but rather as a New Age guru. ?The first problem with this type of theorizing is that it has little to do with the New Testament. As Jefferson’s Bible makes clear, the excision of references to the miraculous, to the resurrection, and to the divinity of Jesus delivers to us mere fragments of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were massively interested in the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus and they were positively obsessed with his dying and rising. The Gospels have been accurately characterized as “passion narratives with long introductions.” Further, the earliest Christian texts that we have are the epistles of St. Paul, and in those letters that Paul wrote to the communities he founded, there are but a tiny handful of references to the teaching of Jesus. What clearly preoccupied Paul was not the moral doctrine of Jesus, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And in the evangelical preaching of the first disciples—preserved in the Acts of the Apostles—we find, not articulations of Jesus’ ethical vision, but rather affirmations of the resurrection. St. Peter’s “you killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead, and to this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15) is absolutely typical. And from this followed as a consequence the affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus. One of the most common phrases in the writings of Paul is Iesous Kyrios (Jesus is Lord), which carried a very provocative connotation indeed. For a watchword of Paul’s time and place was Kaiser kyrios(Caesar is Lord), meaning that the Roman emperor was the one to whom final allegiance was due. In saying IesousKyrios, Paul was directly challenging that political and social status quo, which goes a long way toward explaining why he spent a good deal of time in jail!?And this leads to the second major problem with a proposal like Sullivan’s: it offers absolutely no challenge to the powers that be. It is precisely the bland and harmless version of Christianity with which the regnant culture is comfortable. Go back to Peter’s sermon for a moment. “You killed him,” said the chief of Jesus’ disciples. The “you” here includes the power structures of the time, both Jewish and Roman, which depended for their endurance in power on their ability to frighten their subjects through threats of lethal punishment. “But God raised him.” The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the clearest affirmation possible that God is more powerful than the corrupt and violent authorities that govern the world—which is precisely why the tyrants have always been terrified of it. When the first Christians held up the cross, the greatest expression of state-sponsored terrorism--they were purposely taunting the leaders of their time: “you think that frightens us?” The opening line of the Gospel of Mark is a direct challenge to Rome: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). “Good news” (euangelion in Mark’s Greek) was a term used to describe an imperial victory. The first Christian evangelist is saying, not so subtly, that the real good news hasn’t a thing to do with Caesar. Rather, it has to do with someone whom Caesar killed and whom God raised from the dead. And just to rub it in, he refers to this resurrected Lord as “Son of God.” Ever since the time of Augustus, “Son of God” was a title claimed by the Roman emperor. Not so, says Mark. The authentic Son of God is the one who is more powerful than Caesar. ?Again and again, Sullivan says that he wants a Jesus who is “apolitical.” Quite right—and that’s just why the cultural and political leaders of the contemporary West will be perfectly at home with his proposal. A defanged, privatized, spiritual teacher poses little threat to the status quo. But the Son of God, crucified under Pontius Pilate and risen from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a permanent and very dangerous threat. That’s why I will confess that I smiled a bit at Andrew Sullivan as I read his article. Like the young Thomas Jefferson, I’m sure he thinks he’s being very edgy and provocative. Au contraire, in point of fact.
The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don't sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death. In Mark’s Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples “drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives.” A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But we have to remember that pious Jews of Jesus’ time were immersed in the infinitely complex world of the Hebrew Scriptures and stubbornly read everything through the lens provided by those writings. About five hundred years before Jesus’ time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the “Shekinah” (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its corruption: “The glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house (the temple) and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim…rose from the earth in my sight as they went out…They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them” (Ez. 10: 18-19). This was one of the most devastating texts in the Old Testament. The temple of the Lord was seen as, in almost a literal sense, the dwelling place of God, the meeting-place of heaven and earth. Thus even to imagine that the glory of the Lord had quit his temple was shocking in the extreme. However, Ezekiel also prophesied that one day the glory of God would return to the temple, and precisely from the same direction in which it had left: “Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory” (Ez. 43: 1-2). Furthermore, upon the return of the Lord’s glory, Ezekiel predicted, the corrupt temple would be cleansed, restored, re-built. Now let’s return to Jesus, who, during his public ministry, consistently spoke and acted in the very person of God and who said, in reference to himself, “you have a greater than the temple here.” As they saw him approaching Jerusalem from the east, they would have remembered Ezekiel’s vision and would have begun to entertain the wild but thrilling idea that perhaps this Jesus was, in person, the glory of Yahweh returning to his dwelling place on earth. And in light of this, they would have understood the bewildering acts that Jesus performed in the temple. He was, in fact, another Ezekiel, pronouncing judgment on the old temple and then announcing a magnificent re-building campaign: “I will tear down this place and in three days rebuild it.” Jesus, they came to understand, was the new and definitive temple, the meeting-place of heaven and earth. And there is even more to see in the drama of Jesus’ arrival in the Holy City. As the rabbi from Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, no one could have missed the reference to a passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). A thousand years before the time of Jesus, David had taken possession of Jerusalem, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. David’s son Solomon built the great temple in David’s city in order to house the Ark, and therefore, for that brief, shining moment, Israel was ruled by righteous kings. But then Solomon himself and a whole slew of his descendants fell into corruption, and the prophets felt obligated to criticize the kings as thoroughly as they criticized the temple. The people began to long for the return of the king, for the appearance of the true David, the one who would deal with the enemies of the nation and rule as king of the world. They expected this new David to be, of course, a human figure, but something else rather surprising colored their expectation, namely, that through this human being, God would actually come to rule the nation. Here are just two passages, chosen from dozens, that express this hope: “For I am a great king says Yahweh of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations” (Malachi 1:14); and “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever…Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Psalm 145). So to draw these various strands together, we might say that the Biblical authors expected Yahweh to become king, precisely through a son of David, who would enter the holy city, not as a conquering hero, riding a stately Arabian charger, but as a humble figure, riding a young donkey. Could anyone have missed that this was exactly what they were seeing on Palm Sunday? Jesus was not only the glory of Yahweh returning to his temple; he was also the new David, indeed Yahweh himself, reclaiming his city and preparing to deal with the enemies of Israel. He fought, of course, not in the conventional manner. Instead, he took all of the dysfunction of the world upon himself and swallowed it up in the ocean of the divine mercy and forgiveness. He thereby dealt with the enemies of the nation and emerged as the properly constituted king of the world. And this is why Pontius Pilate, placing over the cross a sign in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew announcing that this crucified Jesus is King of the Jews, became, despite himself, the first great evangelist! And so the message, delivered in the wonderfully coded and ironic language of the Gospel writers, still resonates today: heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord.
Artistic representations of the Ten Commandments often depict two stone tablets on which there are two tables of inscriptions. This portrayal follows from a classical division of the commandments in which there are two specific categories—those that order humanity’s relationship with God and those that order human relationships with one another. If we consider the Bible as a totality, it becomes apparent that the Scriptures give priority to the first table, those commands dealing with God. The Ten Commandments begin with an insistence that the Lord alone is God and there are to be no other gods besides him. This is not just a principle meant to order humanity’s expressions of ritualized worship, but a statement about the ethos of the entire moral and spiritual order. Whatever it is that humanity worships, be it the gods of the ancients or the allures of wealth, power, pleasure and honors, will by necessity give rise to our perceptions and practices concerning the moral life. The God or gods in whom we place our ultimate concern will direct our lives and determine our choices.Given that the Bible calls humanity over and over again to relinquish its attachment to false gods and embrace the worship of the one true God, we might take that emphasis as means to interpret Christ’s actions in regards to the moneychangers in the Jerusalem Temple, actions that are traditionally referred to as the “cleansing of the Temple.” The dramatic scene portrays Christ entering the sacred center of Israel’s culture and worship at the height of the Jewish year—the feast of Passover. Christ then raises a ruckus, for he finds the Temple to be not a house of prayer, but a “marketplace.” He turns over the tables of the moneychangers, disrupts the trade in animals for sacrifice, and cleans the place out.This scene is often interpreted as testimony against materialism in religious practice. Religion is to remain radically pure in regard to the corruptions of commerce. An idealism emerges from this interpretation that engenders a hair trigger with respect to any and all associations of religion with economics or money. According to this conceit, the only way forward for religion is to maintain its purity by eschewing the corrupting influence of commerce. While sharing the aversion of using religion as a means to gain material wealth, I think a more fruitful way of understanding Christ’s action to cleanse the temple can be discerned in relation to Israel’s aversion to the worship of false gods and the necessity of cleansing our own temple—that is, our lives—of these fallen deities. Remember, St. Paul said that the body of each Christian is “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” By this, he means a place where the one true God is honored and worshipped. The apostle is providing us with an image of the Christian life as one in which a person finds happiness and integration in the measure that she becomes, personally, a place where God is first. Think, then, that Christ has come not only to “cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem,” but the temple of your own body, your own life. The Lord Jesus comes into your life expecting to find a place ordered to the worship of the one true God, but what he finds is “a marketplace.” What does this mean? It means that Christ finds a place where things other than God have become primary. To bring such idolatry closer to our cultural experience, how much of your life is given over to materialism, commercialism or the accumulation of things? What rivals to the one true God have you allowed to invade the sacred space of your soul? I have referenced earlier wealth, pleasure, power and honor. How are these things enshrined in the sanctuary of your own heart?The temple-cleansing Christ is a memorable image with enduring power. We shouldn't relegate that image or the Lord himself to merely a statement about our impatience with the corruptions of religious institutions and miss the point that strikes closer to home: Christ comes to each of us to rid the temple of our own body of the idols to which we have foolishly given power and pride of place.
As I write this column, I am embarking on a trip to Australia with the Word on Fire team. We’re heading halfway around the globe at the invitation of the Australian Catholic University, and my team will be with me to film the events. My intention is to produce a documentary on the New Evangelization as it is actually practiced. The documentary will feature the trip to Australia, as well as a journey to the United Kingdom, and after that, New York City. Those settings will provide the context, and a kind of lens, by which I hope to invite the Church to not only imagine the New Evangelization in the abstract, but also to see it in action. My message during these adventures will be about laying out the basics of the Church’s proclamation. Announcing the Good News is a matter of giving testimony to the risen Jesus Christ, declaring that he is divine, celebrating the deep humanism of the Faith, and finally, insisting on the indispensability of the Church as the Mystical Body of the Lord. These matters, which have the power to transform our lives and culture, are not merely ideas that are to be discussed, but an invitation to share communion with the divine life itself. In other words, evangelization is not just talk, it is a way of life.How, then, do we engage this way of life? How do we move evangelization from talk to action? I would like to propose some simple, practical strategies to make it happen.First, deepen your knowledge of the Catholic tradition. We have in the Church an extremely smart, rich, and profound history that comprises the incomparable Scriptures, treasures of theology, spirituality, art, architecture, literature and the inspiring witness of the saints. To know all this is to enter into a densely textured and illuminating world of meaning; not to know it deprives one of spiritual joy. If there is a first step in evangelization it is to cultivate a passionate regard for knowing what the Church believes, and how those beliefs have been a positive force for sustaining the human spirit.You can’t share what you don’t know, and if you don’t know the full potential of what the Church has to offer, efforts at evangelization will go nowhere.Second, let the language of the Faith be naturally on your lips. Many Catholics -consciously or unconsciously- censor our own speech out of fear that interjecting religion into public discourse is offensive. To be sure, we should never be aggressive or overbearing in regards to our Faith, but we should never acquiesce to social conventions that require a privatization of our Faith either. The Faith must be all pervasive, invading and influencing every dimension of our lives: public and private, personal and professional. Allow your Catholic convictions to come to verbal expression. If this prompts a reaction or a question, so much better for the Church’s efforts at evangelization. How many people in your circle of acquaintances even know that you are a Catholic? I would submit to you that if the answer to that question is few to none, then you are not accomplishing your mission.Finally, don’t be afraid to pray in public. How many times have you sat down with your family or friends at a restaurant and simply dug into your food without offering a word of thanksgiving? Again, you need not be ostentatious, but a simple, unaffected prayer, publicly offered, can be a powerful witness to the culture. Do you remember that sentimental but effective painting by Norman Rockwell depicting an elderly woman and her grandchildren bowing their heads in prayer before taking a meal in a truck stop? What I’ve always loved are the looks of bewildered admiration on the faces of the regular denizens of the place. Don’t underestimate the evangelical power of demonstrating your faith in public.The Lord Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations. This call went out, not simply to the leaders of the Church then and now, but to all of us, the baptized. There is a danger that too much talk about evangelization can reduce it to an idea rather than a way of life.
Some years ago, Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell published a seminal book entitled The Dying of the Light. The central thesis of this study was that hundreds of universities that began under religious auspices and for religious purposes—the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, to name just some of the most prominent—have undergone so thorough an erosion of their original identities that now they are utterly secular in orientation. A particularly interesting feature of Burtchaell’s book was his analysis of the slow, subtle process by which the change from fervently religious to blandly secular took place: slight changes, little adjustments, tiny concessions barely noticed at the time, but all of them conducing finally toward the inevitable secularization. The Dying of the Light was meant to be a sobering lesson and a wake-up call to many Catholic universities today, which find themselves on a similar path to compromise.I won’t follow that part of Burtchaell’s argument now (perhaps another time), but I bring up his book because it sheds a good deal of light on an analogous situation today. Decades ago, priests, religious brothers and religious sisters were colorfully visible features of Catholic hospitals, serving as nurses, chaplains, business officers, and chief administrators. With the decline in vocations, this obviously religious leadership largely disappeared, but Catholic values, for the most part, still animated these institutions. What has begun to concern a number of observers is that, as today’s medical personnel, staffers, and administrators at Catholic hospitals have accommodated themselves more and more to secularist assumptions, even those values are in danger of disappearing. And what exacerbates the situation is that the leaders of many Catholic health-care facilities feel obligated not to overstress their religious distinctiveness, precisely because they are so reliant upon government funding. In short, the slow but steady creep toward secularization of Catholic health-care has already been, for some time, a reality. But now the process has been given a massive push by the Obama administration’s recent mandate that all health-care agencies and institutions must pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and certain kinds of abortifacient drugs—all of which are repugnant to Catholic teaching. Here is what is particularly worrisome: the state seems no longer satisfied with a slow but steady evolution toward secularity; it is aggressively forcing Catholic hospitals off the stage, for it is creating for them an impossible situation. If they cave in and provide insurance for these verboten procedures, they have effectively de-Catholicized themselves; and if they refuse to provide such insurance, they will be met with fines of millions of dollars, which they cannot possibly pay. In either case, they are forced out of business as Catholic. And this seems, sadly, to be precisely what the Obama administration wants. At the University of Notre Dame, on the occasion of his receiving (controversially enough) an honorary degree of laws, President Obama publicly and vociferously pledged that he would provide for a “conscience clause” for those who wanted, for religious reasons, to opt out of a policy they find objectionable. But with this recent mandate, he has utterly gone back on his word. The secularist state recognizes that its principle enemy is the Church Catholic. Accordingly, it wants Catholicism off the public stage and relegated to a private realm where it cannot interfere with secularism’s totalitarian agenda. I realize that in using that particular term, I’m dropping a rhetorical bomb, but I am not doing so casually. There is a modality of secular liberalism that is not aggressive toward religion, but rather recognizes that religion makes an indispensable contribution to civil society. This more tolerant liberalism allows, not only for freedom of worship, but also for real freedom of religion, which is to say, the expression of religious values in the public square and the free play of religious ideas in the public conversation. Most of our founding fathers advocated just this type of liberalism. But there is another modality of secularism—sadly on display in the current administration—that is actively aggressive toward religion, precisely because it sees religion as its primary rival in the public arena. Appreciating certain moral convictions as disvalues—think here especially of Catholic teachings concerning sexuality—it seeks to eliminate religion or at the very least to privatize and hence marginalize it. In doing so, it indeed reveals itself as totalitarian, for it allows no room in the public space for anything but itself. The reason that the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—is so important is that it holds off the tendency, inherent in any government, toward totalitarianism, even if that means the totalitarianism of the majority. The very first amendment, of course, guarantees the free exercise of religion in our country. Our founders obviously feared that even a democratic system, predicated upon a repudiation of tyranny, could become so tyrannical itself that it would seek to intrude upon the sacred realm of the religious conscience. As Jefferson, Toqueville, Lincoln and many others have seen, our democracy is especially healthy when it disallows a concentration of power—political, economic, or cultural—in any one place. I would hope that American Catholics would argue against the Obama administration move, not only because they are Catholics, but also because they are Americans.
Every once in a while, a video unexpectedly becomes an internet sensation, garnering attention all over the place and spreading like wildfire through the virtual world.Just this past week, a phenomenon of this type has emerged in the form of a slickly produced video of a twenty-something-year-old man in a leather jacket half rapping, half speaking a poem about Jesus and religion—more specifically how the former came to abolish the latter. Incredibly, this five-minute video (without much musical or visual enhancement) featuring a single person offering a not very sophisticated argument, as of today has garnered upward of 12 million views! A student of mine at the seminary first clued me in to the video, but then, through the Word on Fire website and Facebook page, I was flooded with requests to comment on it. So here goes.What the young man in the video is presenting is a simplistic and radical form of evangelicalism whose intellectual roots are in the thought of Martin Luther. Luther famously held that justification (or salvation) takes place through grace alone accepted in faith, and not from good works of any kind. To rely on liturgy or sacraments or moral effort for salvation, Luther thought, amounted to a pathetic “works righteousness,” which he sharply contrasted to the “alien righteousness” that comes, not from us, but from Christ. This basic theological perspective led Luther (at least in some texts) to demonize many elements of ecclesial life as distractions from the grace offered through Jesus, and this is why we find, even to this day in many evangelical Protestant churches, a muting of the liturgical, the sacramental, the institutional, etc. These things constitute the “religion” that many evangelicals are against. And what the young man in the video learned from his evangelical teachers is that Jesus himself stood against these same “religious” distractions in his own day—which is why the Lord criticized the Pharisees for their fussy legalism and why he promised to tear down the Temple in Jerusalem. Now Luther’s theological theory had enormous implications culturally and politically as well. The freedom that Luther declared from church law and institution soon morphed in the minds of many into a call for freedom from what were taken to be repressive political laws, traditions and institutions. One of Luther’s earliest and most provocative texts was titled "The Freedom of a Christian" and it is no accident whatsoever that “freedom” became the most powerful and explosive word in the modern political lexicon. Indeed, our own country, which proudly bears the title “the land of the free,” was born in a great act of revolutionary anti-institutionalism—which goes a long way toward explaining why this young man’s video is getting such great play in America. Well what does a Catholic make of all of this? Not much, as it turns out. In his theology of justification by grace alone, Luther conveniently overlooked a plethora of biblical texts, including many from St. Paul, whom he claimed as his principle inspiration. In the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25, it is clear that salvation is dependent, not primarily on faith, but on the quality of our love, especially toward those who are weakest and poorest. The same Paul who spoke of justification through faith also said, “If I have faith enough to move the mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” And the same Paul who experienced the risen Jesus in an intensely personal moment of conversion also spoke eloquently and often of becoming a member of Jesus’ “mystical body,” which is the Church. In short, the Bible drives a wedge neither between faith and love nor between individual salvation and ecclesial belonging. Further, the same Jesus who railed against the hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees also said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” And the same Jesus who threatened to tear down the Temple in Jerusalem also promised “in three days to rebuild it.” The point is this: Jesus certainly criticized—even bitterly so—the corruptions in the institutional religion of his time, but he by no means called for its wholesale dismantling. He was, in point of fact, a loyal, observant, law-abiding Jew. What he affected was a transfiguration of the best of that classical Israelite religion—Temple, law, priesthood, sacrifice, covenant, etc.—into the institutions, sacraments, practices and structures of his Mystical Body, the Church. If the young rapper in the video is against the corruptions of institutional religion up and down the ages, then he’s got an ally in me. Finding them is like shooting fish in a barrel and criticizing them is as easy as being against rotten eggs. But if he is advocating an individualist spirituality that ignores the thousands of ties that bind believers to one another through sacrament, practice and institutional belonging, and if he’s calling for a theology that divorces Jesus from his Body, the Church, then he’s got an opponent in me. Lots of New Age devotees today want spirituality without religion, and lots of evangelicals want Jesus without religion. Both end up with abstractions. But the one thing Jesus is not is an abstraction. Rather, he is a spiritual power who makes himself available precisely in the dense institutional particularity of his mystical body across space and time. Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, he came to fulfill it.
One of the great icons in the Catholic Church today is Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York making his way up the aisle to commence Sunday Mass at St.Patrick’s Cathedral. While the congregation belts out the opening hymn, the good Archbishop thumps his episcopal crozier on the ground,beams at all and sundry, kisses babies, embraces young and old, calls out the names of friends he recognizes and generally speaking,spreads good cheer in every direction. One would have to be either catatonic or positively Scroogian in temperament not to find the scene utterly delightful. And this is far more than effective PR. In point of fact, it’s one of the reasons why Timothy Dolan is,arguably, the most persuasive Catholic evangelist in the country today. The Archbishop of New York is a remarkably intelligent man (his principle academic interest being American Catholic Church history) and he brings his significant gifts of mind to whatever he says and does; but he also knows that radiating a sense of the joy that comes from friendship with Christ is the key to bringing others to the Lord. In the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, we hear about two young men who, at the prompting of the Lord, come and stay with Jesus. So thrilled are they by this encounter that they immediately begin to announce to anyone who would listen that they had “found the Messiah.” In that little episode, we see the fundamental rhythm of effective evangelization: they meet Jesus,they find the experience life-enhancing, they want to tell everyone about it. The very best bearers of the Gospel are those whose joy in Christ is contagious. The second part of Thomas Aquinas’s masterpiece the “Summa Theologiae” deals with ethics, the question of how precisely we ought to live. It is most instructive to note that this massive treatment of Christian morality begins with joy, what Thomas called beatitudo. Ethics is all about what makes us happy. After determining that wealth, pleasure, power, and honor,though good, are not the source of true joy, Thomas argues that only the infinite good of God satisfies the deepest longing of the human heart. Next, Aquinas analyzes the habits and virtues that inculcate in us the moves that properly order us to our ultimate good. And finally, in question number 99 (!), Thomas broaches for the first time the issue of the law – and thereupon hangs a tale. Laws, he argues, are those prescriptions and prohibitions that place in us the habits that produce the virtues that in turn give rise to joy. The relegation to question number 90 shows clearly that moral laws are not the heart of the matter, nor are they the starting-point for ethical deliberation. They are utterly subordinate to and ordered around happiness. When I was coming of age in the Catholic Church – in the 70s and 80s of the last century –Catholics were utterly preoccupied with law. What I mean is that they focused relentlessly on ethical matters, especially in the area of sexuality. This was true whether one was on the right or on the left. I think of the endless disputes around the morality of birth control, divorce and re-marriage, pre-marital sex, etc. that ripped the church apart in those days. Mind you, I'm not suggesting for a moment that those issues were unimportant or that the people who staked out positions on both sides were un-serious. But I am indeed suggesting that a church battling with itself over ethical law presented a deeply disedifying and unattractive face to the wider world. That is precisely why the Church of that period proved so evangelically ineffective, it was so preoccupied with defending (or changing) the Church’s teaching on sexual matters that it forgot how to invite people into joyful friendship with Christ Jesus. The huge number of people from my generation who have either left the Church for other Christian denominations or, more likely, drifted into a bland secularism which testifies to this failure. Am I subtly implying here that sexual ethics doesn't matter? By no means! I am arguing that moral law follows and attends upon something far more basic, namely, the happiness that comes from intimate union with God. Once one has caught the zest of Christian life, one wants to know how to maintain that life. We might compare it to someone who has experienced the exuberance of a baseball game well played and who then endeavors, on his own and with enthusiasm, to search out the rules and disciplines of the game. Ethics is important; but joy is more important. And when the joy is in place, the ethics won't be shunned; it will be embraced. If I might return to my original image, I would say that a good Catholic evangelist could commence with the contagious joy of Archbishop Dolan walking up the aisle at St. Patrick’s. Once he has drawn someone in, he might say, “Did you ever wonder how he got that way? Let me show you.” First the joy, then the ethics. Getting this right makes all the difference.
A recent survey has indicated something that should lift the hearts of Christians everywhere, namely, that the fastest growing religion on the planet is Christianity. This explosive growth is on particularly clear display in Africa and Asia, where churches and seminaries can’t be built fast enough to accommodate the need. It is especially important that we in the West become cognizant of this state of affairs, for with the rise of secularism and the fall-off in church attendance in Europe, Canada, Australia, and America, we can far too easily assume that Christianity is in a state of permanent decline. Au contraire, in point of fact. But other studies carry the dark truth that the fastest-growing religion in the world is also the most persecuted. Again, this might surprise many in the post-September 11th West, who presume that Islam is the religion most in danger and hence most in need of special protection. But all over the world, and particularly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Christians are, by far, the most threatened religious group. Indeed, Vatican research shows that 75% of those killed around the world for religious reasons are Christians. Who can forget the horrendous attack on a Catholic Church in Baghdad last fall? Islamist militants burst into the church while Mass was in progress and proceeded to open fire indiscriminately on men, women and children. As they finished up their grisly work, the killers found themselves trailed by a toddler who asked plaintively, “Why are you doing this?” In time, they turned on the child and killed him. In the wake of that assault, huge numbers of Catholics and other Christians left their country. Estimates are that in the last ten years somewhere between 600 thousand and one million Christians have been forced to flee Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, no Christian is allowed to worship publicly, and no church of any kind can be built. Many were cheered by the “Arab Spring” which saw the expulsion of dictators from Libya, Yemen, and Egypt and the shaking of the Assad regime in Syria, but Christians in those countries are far from encouraged. The secularist proclivities of the dictators at least allowed for a rough toleration of non-Islamic religions; thus the collapse of the tyrants has made possible the tyranny of the Islamic majority, resulting in an aggressive campaign against Christianity. Just a few weeks ago, Egyptian Copts — members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world — were publicly assaulted in the streets of Cairo by representatives of the Islamic brotherhood. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that an Egyptian Christian mother of two young girls was blithely informed by her Muslim physician that, according to the prescriptions of Sharia law, her daughters would have to be circumcised. Convinced that the government would no longer protect them, mother and children fled the country.Just days ago, Nigeria’s president declared a state of emergency in sections of his country, due to a series of unprovoked attacks on Christian churches. Boko Haram, a militant Islamist sect, has claimed credit for the assaults, including attacks on Christmas day that left 42 people dead. One of the most troubling stories of Christian persecution comes out of Pakistan, where fierce anti-blasphemy laws are in effect. A Christian woman named Asia Bibi was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of speaking against the prophet Muhammad. Despite protests from around the world, she was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Currently she languishes in prison, awaiting her execution and praying for her jailers. Now God knows that Christians have far from a spotless record when it comes to tolerating religious diversity, but the fact remains that as the year 2012 commences, Christians are, by far, the most victimized religious group in the world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, from Egypt to Iraq, ordinary Christians routinely risk their lives simply by declaring their faith and worshiping according to their lights. They are walking in the footsteps of great martyrs of the tradition, from Stephen, Peter and Paul to Charles Lwanga and Edith Stein. And this leads me to declare persecuted Christians as people of the year.At this point, I will make a confession. This reflection was prompted by a piece published by the editors of the National Catholic Reporter. In their lead article, they declared Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian from Fordham University, as the “person of the year” in the Catholic Church. What was the reason for this designation? Sr. Johnson, they explained, had been unfairly “persecuted” by the bishops of the United States who dared to question the theological integrity of one of her many books. The bishops did not excommunicate Sr. Johnson, or strip her of her teaching position or declare her not to be a Catholic theologian. They simply were critical of aspects of one of her books. And for this, a tenured professor at Fordham, a woman lionized by the academic establishment, is declared a persecuted victim. Give me a break.The nineteen-seventies era narrative of brave progressive theologian fighting against the repressive church is tired and utterly un-illuminating. Far more compelling is the story of the truly brave souls who are risking livelihood, life, and limb in order to declare their faith in Jesus Christ.
Like Star Wars, The Divine Comedy, and Moby Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the story of a hero’s journey. This helps to explain, of course, why, like those other narratives, it has proved so perennially compelling. The hero’s tale follows a classical, almost stereotyped, pattern: a person is wrenched out of complacency and self-absorption and called to a great adventure, during which he (or she), through struggle, comes to maturity and vision. In Moby Dick, the young Ishmael quits the narrow space of his depressed mind (“whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul”) and goes on a long and dangerous voyage of discovery; in The Divine Comedy, the middle-aged Dante leaves the dark wood where he had become lost and goes on a pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, until he comes at last to salvation; and in Star Wars, the teen-aged Luke Skywalker (who is modeled in many ways after Dante) is wrenched out of the quietude of his aunt and uncle’s home and summoned to an inter-galactic struggle against dark powers, which results in his coming of age. The Hobbit begins, humbly enough, with this line: “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien is quick to clarify that this is not a nasty or unkempt hole, like the lair of a mouse, but rather a cozy place, filled with fine furniture, doilies, and a well-stocked kitchen. This is the homey, all-too-comfortable space from which Bilbo Baggins (the hobbit in question) will be summoned to adventure. To the door of Bilbo’s residence comes Gandalf the wizard, a figure evocative of the in-breaking of grace. This association between the wizard and supernatural grace is not an arbitrary one, for Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and Christian themes abound in this particular hero’s story. Though he ardently resists it at first, Bilbo eventually accepts Gandalf’s invitation to join a cadre of dwarves on their mission to recover a horde of treasure that had been absconded by a dragon named Smaug. He will come to maturity precisely in the measure that he leaves his “comfort-zone” and finds the path of self-sacrificing love. The mission is marked, at every turn, by danger. Bilbo and the dwarves confront hungry trolls, fiercesome orcs, wicked goblins, ferocious wolves, giant spiders, and eventually the mighty fire-breathing dragon himself. These fanciful characters signal the fact of serious evil at work in the world. Tokien was a participant in the trench warfare of the First World War and thus experienced, at first hand, cruelty, violence, injustice, depravity, and mind-numbing fear. His Christian faith gave him the conviction that all of this evil was the result of sin, at both the human and super-human level. It also helped him to see that the whole point of life was to enter into the lists against evil, to find one’s unique calling to battle wickedness and hence bring the world more into conformity with the reign of God. What is particularly instructive in The Hobbit is the manner in which a Christian knight properly engages in the battle. At a key moment in the story, Gandalf suggests that while many think darkness is best opposed through exercises of great worldly power, in point of fact, it is most effectively countered through simple acts of kindness. This is, of course, nothing but Jesus’ still deeply challenging teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that evil is properly resisted through love, non-violence, and forgiveness. The most striking example of this principle in action is Bilbo’s refusal to kill the loathsome and dangerous Gollum when he has the chance. As readers of The Lord of the Rings know, Gollum would, despite himself, play the decisive role in the destruction of the ring. Had Bilbo indulged his violent instincts and put Gollum to death, the day would not have been saved. That evil is best engaged through pity is a deeply Christian and profoundly counter-intuitive insight.At the climax of The Hobbit, the adventurers come face to face with Smaug, the dragon who, deep in the bowels of a great mountain, guards a pile of treasure absconded from the dwarves many years before. The beast knows every little bit of his horde: each coin, each goblet, each jewel and precious stone. To be sure, he cannot possibly use or benefit from any of it, but he wallows in it and protects it with his life.Tolkien refers to this weird obsession as “the dragon sickness,” and he implies that it bedevils many people in contemporary society, those who know the value of everything and the worth of nothing. Nurtured by Catholic social teaching, Tolkien was no defender of laissez-faire capitalism or modern industrialism. In fact, he saw both as soul-killing, for the spirit thrives, not on gaining possessions, but on emptying out the self in love. This is why the killing of the dragon is such a moment of liberation. However, it is most important to observe how the sudden freeing up of the treasure awakens the dragon sickness in hundreds of other creatures in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who stream toward the mountain to claim Smaug’s trove. The battle of these rival claimants is held off (and I won’t give too much of the story away here) by an unexpected act of letting-go on Bilbo’s part, not unlike the letting-go of the ring at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings. Once more, maturity comes, not from getting, but from giving.A coming of age story, a rollicking adventure tale, a delicious fantasy, and a droll commentary on human foibles—The Hobbit is all that. But finally, it is a narrative spun by a serious Catholic who wants to communicate the still surprising ethics of the Gospel.