I have, over the years, playfully accused some of my atheist interlocutors of being “secret Herods.” The biblical Herod arrested John the Baptist but nevertheless took pleasure in listening to John preach from his prison cell. So, I’ve suggested, the atheists who come to my website and comment so acerbically and so frequently on my internet videos are, despite themselves, secretly seeking out the things of God. I will confess to having a certain Herod syndrome in reverse in regard to Christopher Hitchens (who died Dec. 15). Though he was certainly the most outspoken and biting critic of religion in the last 50 years, and though he often infuriated me with this cavalier and insulting dismissals of what I hold most dear, I will admit that I loved to listen to him. I think I watched every Hitchens debate that I could find on YouTube; I subscribed to Vanity Fair largely because Hitchens was a regular contributor; I read every one of his books—in fact, I’m currently plowing through his paving-stone sized collection of essays called Arguably; and I delighted in watching him thrust and parry with news interviewers from across the political spectrum, who just could never seem to get a handle on him. Part of the attraction was what the ancient Romans called gaudium de stilo (delight in style). No one wrote quite like Christopher Hitchens. Whether he was describing an uprising on the streets of Athens, or criticizing the formation of young men in the British boarding schools of the 1950s, or defending his support of the Iraq war, or begging people to let go of what he took to be their childish belief in God, Hitchens was unfailingly intelligent, perceptive, funny, sarcastic, and addictively readable. Another part of the appeal was that his personality was always massively present in what he wrote. There was absolutely nothing detached about a Hitchens book, article, or speech. Rather, his aggressive, inquisitive, cock-sure, irritated, delightfully alert self was consistently on display. Also, Hitchens and I liked a lot of the same people and topics: Evelyn Waugh, contemporary politics, religion, and above all, Bob Dylan. But what I appreciated most about Christopher Hitchens was his passion for God. I realize this might require a bit of explanation!One of the fundamental mistakes that Hitchens and his new atheist colleagues consistently made in regard to religion was their misconstrual of what serious believers mean by the word “God.” Time and again, the new atheists mocked God as a “sky fairy” or an “invisible friend,” and they argued that religious belief was tantamount to accepting the existence of “a flying spaghetti monster,” a wild mythological fantasy for which there is not a shred of evidence. Or they ridiculed religious philosophers for proposing, over and again, a pathetic “god of the gaps,” a supernatural cause fitted awkwardly into a schema of explanation that science would eventually clarify in its own terms. In all of these ways, however, they missed their mark. For the classical theological tradition, God is not a being in the world, one object, however supreme, among many. The maker of the entire universe cannot be, himself, an item within the universe, and the one who is responsible for the nexus of causal relations in its entirety could never be a missing link in an ordinary scientific schema. Thomas Aquinas makes the decisive point when he says that God is not ens summum (highest being) but rather ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). God is neither a thing in the world, nor the sum total of existing things; he is instead the unconditioned cause of the conditioned universe, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Accordingly, God is not some good thing, but Goodness itself; not some true object but Truth itself; not some beautiful reality, but Beauty itself. And this helps us to see how Christopher Hitchens, despite his protestations, actually loved God.What you couldn’t miss in Hitchens’s writing and speaking was a passion for justice, a deep desire to defend those who were denied their rights. This comes through from his first book on Cyprus and Greece to his articles in defense of his friend Salman Rushdie to his recent essays and speeches on the Iraq war. Where does this passion come from? What makes sense of it? If there is no God, which is to say, no unconditioned justice, no absolute criterion of good and evil, why precisely would someone burn with righteous indignation at violations of justice? If we are here simply by dumb chance, if all of us will one day die and simply fade away, if the earth will one day be incinerated and the universe spins away without purpose and in utter indifference to human cruelty and human nobility, why would anyone finally bother? Wouldn’t in fact Dostoyevsky be right in saying that if there is no God everything is permitted? My point is that the very passion for setting things right, which burned so brightly in Christopher Hitchens, is a powerful indicator that he was, whether he acknowledged it or not, connected to unconditioned justice. And that connection brought him very close indeed to what serious believers mean by God. Soon after Hitchens revealed that he had been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, I wrote a piece for the CNN Belief Blog in which I urged my fellow Christians to pray for him. The article, which I considered rather benign, awakened a furious response on the part of Hitchens’s allies. More than 2,000 respondents told me, effectively, to leave Hitchens alone and not impose my “medieval mumbo-jumbo” on their hero. I didn’t abide by their recommendation. I prayed for Hitchens throughout his illness, and I pray for him now—a man religious despite himself.
In just a few days, Catholics in this country will notice a rather significant change when they come to Mass. Commencing the first Sunday of Advent, the Church will be using a new translation of the Roman Missal. I would like to emphasize, at the outset, that this in no way represents a return to “the old Mass,” for the Latin texts that provide the basis for the new translation were all approved after Vatican II. So why the change? What had come increasingly to bother a number of bishops, priests, and liturgists over the years was that the translation of the liturgical texts, which was made in some haste in the late 60s of the last century, was not sufficiently faithful to the Latin and was, at least in some instances, informed by questionable theological assumptions. And so, over the course of many years, two groups in particular—ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and Vox Clara (a committee of bishops, liturgical experts, and linguists from around the English-speaking world)—labored over a new translation. This work was approved by the United States Bishops’ Conference and finally by the Vatican, and Advent 2011 was determined to be the time to begin use of the new Missal. What marks these new texts? They are, I would argue, more courtly, more theologically rich, and more Scripturally poetic than the current prayers—and this is all to the good. An unmistakable feature of the Latin liturgical texts is their nobility and stately seriousness. They were composed by people who clearly knew that liturgical prayer is a manner of addressing Almighty God, the Lord of heaven and earth. Accordingly, they utilized not the language of the street or of the market or political forum, but instead, the speech appropriate at the court of a King to whom supplication is being made. Or to situate things more in the context of our culture: they employ the kind of speech one might use in addressing the president in a formal letter or the recipient of an honorary degree at a university commencement exercise. Now when these texts were rendered into English in the late 60s of the last century, they were translated in accord with certain definite cultural tendencies of that time. Starting in the 1960s, we began to prize speech that is blunt, clear, direct, casual and unadorned. And we developed a prejudice against language that seems fussy or overly ornamental. To see a vivid illustration of this shift, compare the sermons of John Henry Newman or Fulton J. Sheen to almost any sermon delivered today. But what this gave us, many came to see, was a certain flattening out of the language of the liturgy, a rendering pedestrian of that which ought to be elevated. I will give just one example from hundreds that I could have chosen. Here is the prayer that we currently offer as the opening collect for Tuesday of the first week of Advent: “God of mercy and consolation, help us in our weakness and free us from sin. Hear our prayers that we may rejoice at the coming of your Son.” Pretty clear, direct, straightforward. Now here is the new translation of the same Latin prayer: “Look with favor, Lord God, on our petitions, and in our trials grant us your compassionate help that, consoled by the presence of your Son, whose coming we now await, we may be tainted no longer by the corruption of former ways.” We notice first that a great deal of the Latin original was simply not translated in the earlier version, but we also remark that the formality and courtly elegance of the Latin is preserved in the new version. Next, let us consider the increased theological density of the new translations. It appears to have been a conviction of the translators in the 60s that overly theological language would turn people off and make the liturgy less immediately appealing. A particularly clear example of the application of this principle is the old translation of the post-Communion prayer for the thirtieth Sunday of the year: “Lord, bring to perfection within us the communion we share in this sacrament. May our celebration have an effect in our lives.” That prayer, I think you’ll agree, is rather bland and inelegant, landing, as one wag put it, “with a thud in heaven.” But it is also remarkably lacking in theological density and precision. Effect? What kind of effect? Good, bad, sacred, secular, psychological? Now listen to the new translation of the same Latin prayer: “May your sacraments, O Lord, we pray, perfect in us what lies within them, that what we now celebrate in signs we may one day possess in truth.” In a rather pithy formula, we find both a subtle theology of grace as well as a presentation of the eschatological dimension of the sacraments. Now we know fairly precisely what the “effect” is that we’re praying for.Finally, let us look at the richly poetic and Scriptural quality of the new translations. Once more, it seems to have been a conscious decision of the earlier translators that much of the poetic imagery of the Bible—so evident in the Latin originals—should be trimmed from the English versions. I will give one example of dozens I could have chosen. The older translation of the opening collect for the first Sunday of Advent runs, in part, as follows: “All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming…” And here is the new version of the same prayer: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.” Our longing for Christ was pretty blandly communicated in the earlier version as “eager;” but in the new translation, it is given wonderfully rich expression as “running forth to meet” the Lord. If the new prayers sometimes won’t seem as immediately understandable as their predecessors, we should remember that poetry is generally harder to grasp than prose, but infinitely richer than prose in its evocative and descriptive power. There has been, over the past several decades, an enormous debate concerning this process of translation. If you doubt me, dip into blogs written by liturgists—if you dare. But the Church has given us these new texts, and I think it is wise for us to accept them in a positive spirit. We will find in time, I believe, that they will deepen and enrich our prayer together.
The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once commented that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the religious vocabulary. I’m increasingly convinced that he was right about this. The ground for my conviction is the absolutely steady reiteration on my Internet forums of gross caricatures of what serious believers mean by faith. Again and again, my agnostic, atheist, and secularist interlocutors tell me that faith is credulity, naïvete, superstition, assent to irrational nonsense, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence, etc., etc. They gladly draw a sharp distinction between faith so construed and modern science, which, they argue, is marked by healthy skepticism, empirical verification, a reliable and repeatable method, and the capacity for self-correction. How fortunate, they conclude, that the western mind was able finally to wriggle free from the constraints of faith and move into the open and well-lighted space of scientific reason. And how sad that, like a ghost from another time and place, faith continues, even in the early twenty-first century to haunt the modern mind and to hinder its progress. Just last week, Pope Benedict XVI announced that, commencing next fall, the universal Church will celebrate “a year of faith.” A good way to mark that announcement is, it seems to me, a clarification of what Catholics do and don’t mean by that obviously controversial word. I will begin with an analogy. If you are coming to know a person, and you are a relatively alert type, your reason will be fully engaged in the process. You will look that person over, see how she dresses and comports herself, assess how she relates to others, Google her and find out where she went to school and how she is employed, ask mutual friends about her, etc. All of this objective investigation could take place even before you had the opportunity to meet her. When you finally make her acquaintance, you will bring to the encounter all that you have learned about her and will undoubtedly attempt to verify at close quarters what you have already discovered on your own. But then something extraordinary will happen, something over which you have no real control, something that will, inevitably, reveal to you things that you otherwise would never know: she will speak. In doing so, she will, on her own initiative, disclose her mind, her heart, her feelings to you. Some of what she says will be in concord with what you have already found out, but much of it—especially if your relationship has deepened and your conversations are profound and intimate—will be new, wonderful, beyond anything you might have discovered on your own. But as she speaks and as you listen, you will be faced with a choice: do you believe her or not? Again, some of what she says you might be able to verify through your own previous investigation, but as she speaks of her feelings, her intentions, her aspirations, her most abiding fears, you know that you have entered a territory beyond your capacity to control. And you have to decide: do you trust her or not? So it goes, whether we like it or not, anytime we deal with a person who speaks to us. We don’t surrender our reason as we get to know another person, but we must be willing to go beyond our reason; we must be willing to believe, to trust, to have faith. This is, I think, an extremely illuminating analogy for faith in the theological sense. For Catholics (and I would invite my Internet friends to pay very close attention here), authentic faith never involves a sacrificium intellectus (a sacrifice of the intellect). God wants us to understand all we can about him through reason. By analyzing the order, beauty, and contingency of the world, there is an enormous amount of “information” we can gather concerning God: his existence, his perfection, the fact that he is endowed with intellect and will, his governance of the universe, etc. If you doubt me on this, I would invite you to take a good long look at the first part of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. Now one of the truths that reason can discover is that God is a person, and the central claim of the Bible is that this Person has not remained utterly hidden but has, indeed, spoken. As is the case with any listener to a person who speaks, the listener to the divine speech has to make a choice: do I believe him or not? The decision to accept in trust what God has spoken about himself is what the church means by “faith.” This decision is not irrational, for it rests upon and is conditioned by reason, but it presses beyond reason, for it represents the opening of one heart to another. In the presence of another human being, you could remain stubbornly in an attitude of mistrust, choosing to accept as legitimate only those data that you can garner through rational analysis; but in so doing, you would close yourself to the incomparable riches that that person might disclose to you. The strict rationalist, the unwavering advocate of the scientific method, will know certain things about the world, but he will never come to know a person. The same dynamic obtains in regard to God, the supreme Person. The Catholic Church wants people to use reason as vigorously and energetically as possible—and this very much includes scientific reason. But then it invites them, at the limits of their striving, to listen, to trust, to have faith.
In 2005, Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt published a wonderful book on Shakespeare called “Will in the World.” Witty, insightful and surprising, it caused thousands of people, including your humble scribe, to look at the Bard with new eyes. Thus it was with great anticipation that I opened my copy of Greenblatt’s latest “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Like its forebear, this new book is indeed lively, intelligent and fun to read, but as I moved through it I grew increasingly irritated and finally exasperated by its steady insistence upon one of the most tired myths of the contemporary academy, namely, that the modern world, in all of its wonder and promise, emerged out of a long and desperate struggle with (wait for it) Roman Catholicism.
The management of the 2002 Oakland Athletics found itself in a bind. The team had performed very well the previous year, making it to the playoffs, but in the offseason, three of its best players were lured away by lucrative contracts offered by east coast powerhouses. In a relatively small market and with a very limited budget, the A’s had to find a way to compete. Their general manager, former big-leaguer Billy Beane, stumbled upon a revolutionary strategy to make the Athletics winners while remaining within their means. It doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of story line that Hollywood would embrace with enthusiasm, but it provides the foundation for a terrific film called “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as the visionary general manager. “Moneyball” is not only a great baseball film; it is also a compelling exploration of the dynamics of leadership and the psychology of success. And as such, as I hope to show, it is a movie that teaches a great deal about the spiritual life. Beane’s breakthrough occurred through the ministrations of a young, untested, Yale-trained, junior executive named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill). Setting aside the assumptions that had, for decades, determined the way baseball talent was assessed, Brand asked a pair of elemental questions: what wins games? Answer: scoring runs. nd what makes scoring runs possible? Answer: getting on base. Therefore, he concluded, if you want to win games, you have to acquire players who have a knack for getting on base, through hits, walks, getting struck with the ball, etc. He had developed a metric for determining precisely who had that ability—and found that, more often than not, baseball executives and scouts overlooked or undervalued those very players. Inspired by Brand’s vision, and armed with his statistics, Beane assembled his scouts for a meeting regarding the acquisition of players for the upcoming year. Over and again, the grizzled and experienced baseball men spoke of the “look” or the “body” of a player, the way the ball “jumped off the bat” of one prospect, the “confidence” of another. Exasperated, Beane shouted, “but do they get on base?!” He was implying that a great looking, athletic, skillful player might not actually be the kind of player that wins games. He wanted his scouts, who were beguiled by the romance of the game, to share his own clarity of vision in regard to their ultimate purpose. Needless to say, the old veterans didn’t jump right on board. Neither did the manager; neither did the sports writers; neither did the fans. And when Beane’s team, assembled according to Brand’s calculations, started the season slowly, the critics came out in force, accusing the general manager of arrogantly standing athwart years of baseball common sense. But Beane stuck to his guns, and the team “of misfit toys” began to gel, and then to excel, and finally to produce the longest winning-streak in American league history.The single most important quality of a leader is clarity of vision, and his second most important quality is a willingness to do what he has to do in order to realize that vision. Lincoln was no great economist; he did not have extensive experience in government; he was not a particularly skilled legislator, but at the most dire moment in American history, he saw with crystal clarity what the country needed and he had the intestinal fortitude to make it happen. “If I can save the Union by freeing some of the slaves, I will do it; if I can save the Union by freeing none of the slaves, I will do it; if I can save the Union by freeing all of the slaves, I will do it,” he famously said. Then, in the course of the war, despite choruses of criticism, he fired and hired a whole bevy of generals until he found the man he needed. When people complained about the drunken General Ulysses Grant, Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” and then, playfully, “send a case of Grant’s whiskey to all my other commanders.” The President knew that he had to win the Civil War and that in order to win the Civil War he needed a general who would bring the battle to the enemy. In the Gospel of John, Jesus turns on two young men who are following him and asks, “what do you want?” It’s an indispensably important question. Many people go through life not really knowing what they, most fundamentally, want, and accordingly, they drift. The correct answer to Jesus’ question is “eternal life” or “friendship with God” or “holiness.” This corresponds to Billy Beane’s “scoring runs” or Lincoln’s “winning the Civil War,” for it is the simple, clear, unambiguous articulation of The Goal that any believer should have as he endeavors to “lead his life.” Now other people may know, more or less, what they want spiritually, but they lack the courage and attention to pursue that end in the face of distractions and opposition. They know that they should be growing in holiness, but the secular culture proposes sex, pleasure, power, and honor so attractively, that they lose their way. Or perhaps, they receive withering criticism from those who are stuck in the old, standard way of life, and they give in. What is true at the personal level obtains at the institutional level as well. How many Catholic dioceses can clearly state their objective, what it is, precisely, that they are trying to accomplish through all of their programs and activities? How many bishops can see past old patterns and tired strategies that are no longer serving the purpose of making people holy? How many can resist (or dismantle) bureaucracies whose raison d’etre is self-preservation rather than the proclamation of the Gospel? “Moneyball” is a portrait of leadership in the world of baseball. But its lessons apply to any seeker on the spiritual path.
It is with a particular fascination that I’ve been following the speeches that Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has been delivering in his native Germany. We can certainly hear Herr Doktor Professor Ratzinger in the distinctively academic rhetoric of the addresses, but we also hear the voice of a pastor, uttering a cri de coeur to his wandering flock. In his first speech on the tarmac in Berlin, upon being welcomed by the officials of the German government, Benedict XVI specified that his main purpose was not to foster diplomatic relations between the German nation and the Vatican City State—as welcome as that would be—but rather to speak of God. This might appear a commonplace—a Pope talking about God—but Benedict uttered those words in what is generally acknowledged to be the most secularized area on the planet, a cultural region marked by a sort of forgetfulness of God, a setting aside of ultimate reality, a complacent resting in the goods and joys of the empirically verifiable world. Sociologists have suggested that the European culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the very first one ever to have embraced a predominantly secularist ideology—and nowhere is this secularism more apparent and more deeply rooted than in northern Germany. There are many reasons for this—anger at the Church, disagreement over particular moral positions that the Church has taken, a newly aggressive atheism, etc.—but I believe the principle cause is spiritual crisis prompted by the two terrible wars of the last century, fought largely on European soil and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions. Something in the European soul—especially the German soul—just broke in the twentieth century, and the damage has not yet been repaired. And so the Vicar of Christ has indeed come to his homeland as a kind of missionary.It is especially instructive to read the Pope’s address before the German Reichstag under this missionary rubric. Benedict reminded the lawmakers and political leaders of Germany that the Catholic Church never derived a concrete program of law from the data of revelation, as did many other religions, most notably Islam (think of Sharia law). Instead, Catholicism relied on philosophical principles articulated by ancient Greek philosophy and on the practical wisdom inherent in the Roman legal tradition. This allowed for a richly independent flourishing of political traditions and practices within the Christian cultural ambit. Though Popes, emperors and kings certainly clashed in the course of the centuries, the Catholic tradition, at its best, never pushed toward theocracy; rather, it recognized the legitimate authority of the state and the freedom legislators needed to do their practical work. In a word, the Pope was saying to the German lawmakers, you should have no fear that the Church would seek to intervene in your work in a fussy, imperious manner. However, he also reminded his hearers that all law rests finally upon certain fundamental moral principles that are not themselves the proper subject of debate and deliberation. The positive law—the concrete statutes formulated by cities and states—nests within the natural moral law, which in turn nests within the eternal law of God. When that set of relationships is ignored, positive law degenerates into pure subjectivism and relativism—and finally into an expression of the will of the most powerful within the society. To concretize this point, he argued that the human rights so revered by the political theorists of the 18th century and so respected by the secularist political establishment of the West today are the moral absolutes upon which all legislative deliberation is properly founded. And he pressed the case: those rights are themselves grounded in the existence of God, for it is only a Creator who can guarantee the equality and dignity of each individual. A healthy democracy, accordingly, must operate within this moral and spiritual framework, or it will devolve in short order into something at the very least dysfunctional or at worst tyrannical. Speaking in the very building which Adolf Hitler’s followers set on fire in order to advance the Nazi program, Pope Benedict was not reluctant to invoke the example of Hitler in order to demonstrate what happens when the state sets the moral dimension aside and arrogates to itself the prerogatives of God.The day after his address to the Reichstag, Pope Benedict journeyed to Erfurt, the little town where Martin Luther attended university and where he was ordained to the priesthood. There, in the ancient Augustinian monastery where Luther came of age spiritually, the Pope addressed an ecumenical gathering. He spoke of Luther’s enormous passion for God and his desire to know how he stood in regard to God. It was this burning preoccupation that conduced toward the development of the Reformer’s theology of justification by grace through faith. To be sure, Pope Benedict is not altogether comfortable with the manner in which Luther articulated the dynamics of salvation—the Pope is Catholic, after all—but he wanted to draw attention to Luther’s deep and abiding interest in God and the things of God. The last thing one would ever be tempted to say about the founder of the Reformation is that he had forgotten God—and this in itself makes him, Pope Benedict thinks, an important object of meditation for the secularized Europe of the early 21st century.
The tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 falls on a Sunday and, providentially, the readings proposed for the Catholic liturgy that day have to do with forgiveness. This interesting confluence provides the occasion for reflecting on this complex and oft-misunderstood spiritual act. Let’s begin by remembering the terrible day. I was at my computer on that crystal clear early autumn morning when I received a call from a friend who said, “a plane just flew into one of the World Trade Center towers.” I immediately thought of a small plane, which had tragically lost its way, like the one that crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1930s. I ran to my room, turned on the television and saw what in fact had taken place. My first reaction was to wonder how in the world the fire fighters would ever put out a blaze that far up on the building. I then crossed the campus to teach my class and I found the students huddled around the television. We all watched as the two towers crumbled to dust, and I will admit that I didn’t quite know what I was seeing. They say that when the Spanish caravels first arrived on the shores of the New World, the native people didn’t really see them, for they had no frame of reference for such things. My seeing but not understanding the collapse of the towers was something like that. My students and I just stood in silence for several minutes and then one of them said, “the world just got about ten thousand times worse.”Osama bin Laden and those wicked men who hijacked the planes on September 11th not only killed 3000 people; they also haunted and terrified the rest of the world. We feel this in our bones and we remember it every time we go to the airport and are compelled to remove our shoes and belts and submit to humiliating body searches, etc. Were we and are we legitimately angry about September 11th? Absolutely. Thomas Aquinas said that anger is the natural response to injustice, for it is the passion to set things right. Martin Luther King was angry at racial inequality in mid-twentieth century America; Gandhi was angry at the injustices born of British imperialism; John Paul II was angry at Communist oppression in his native Poland—and they were all justified in their anger. This is why the Bible coherently speaks of God’s anger. It doesn’t mean that God passes into an emotional snit; it means that God consistently desires to make right a world gone wrong. Can anger legitimately conduce toward the prosecution of criminals, the formulation of tough laws, the imprisonment of dangerous people? Yes indeed.But in contradistinction to legitimate anger, there is what the Catholic tradition calls the “deadly sin” of anger. This is an exaggerated or irrational desire for vengeance, a passion that is untethered to love. Love, of course, is not an emotion, but rather a determination of desire, an active willing of the good of another. King didn’t want to destroy White America; he wanted to redeem it; Gandhi didn’t want to annihilate the British; he wanted to convert them and see them off as friends; John Paul II didn’t want to kill the Communists; he wanted them to become better people. In all of these cases, anger was situated in the more fundamental matrix of love. In light of these clarifications, we can begin to understand what Jesus means by forgiveness. Authentic forgiveness has nothing to do with willful ignorance (“forgive and forget”) or with a pollyannaish wishing away of evil. In point of fact, real forgiveness assumes a frank and realistic knowledge of wrongs committed and is accordingly accompanied by legitimate anger. But it is indeed incompatible with the desire for vengeance or, to say the same thing, with the deadly sin of anger, for forgiveness is always an act of love, willing the good of the other. The author of the book of Sirach beautifully catches the negativity of anger: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” The deadly sin of anger actually feeds the ego and its needs in the measure that it convinces the angry person of his moral superiority. We sinners remember old hurts, rehearse the offenses of others, and cling to our resentments so as to put ourselves on a pedestal. Accordingly, we hold tight to our anger and utterly forsake the path of love. Forgiveness stands athwart such a move.One way to practice forgiveness is to say, in regard to any hurt, insult, or injustice that has been done to you, “this is our problem,” that is to say, a problem that has to be solved both by you and by the person who has offended you. This is not to indulge in “blaming the victim” politics or to be soft on evil, but it is a willingness to get down and do the hard work of drawing an offender back into the circle of the community. It is a loving refusal to give up even on the wickedest of people. For Jesus, forgiveness is a kind of absolute. When Peter asked the Lord how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus replied “seventy times seven times,” a Semiticism for “always, always, always.” On the tenth anniversary of September 11th 2001, we should remember, we should be angry at the gross injustice done that day, and we should forgive.
I have just completed one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. For the past eight days, I participated in World Youth Day in Madrid, a gathering of some 1.5 million Catholic young people with Pope Benedict XVI. I met enthusiastic teen and 20-something Catholics from the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Nigeria, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, India, Denmark, and many other countries. The universality of the Church has never been, for me anyway, on fuller and more thrilling display. My Word on Fire team and I were especially encouraged to see so concretely the outreach that the Internet and the new media provide. To hear, over and again, and in dozens of different accents, that our videos and podcasts have made a difference in people’s lives was deeply gratifying. Some images that will be forever burned in my memory: a twenty-thousand seat arena, absolutely filled with young Catholics rocking, stomping, and singing; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, striding the stage like a pro, delivering one-liners worthy of David Letterman, and sharing the unvarnished Gospel with his youthful audience; giving a talk in a very hot room, jammed to the rafters with kids eager to hear about the process of discerning a vocation; hordes of young Catholics, wearing their distinctive yellow World Youth Day t-shirts, carrying overloaded backpacks, and marching through the streets of Madrid like a non-violent army; hundreds of fresh-faced religious in their distinctive habits, joyfully making their way through the various venues; tens of thousands of people kneeling in silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the successor of Peter presiding over a crowd of one and a half million at an airfield southwest of Madrid; a steady stream of kids asking where they could find the adoration chapel or how they could arrange for confession; Benedict XVI himself, drenched with rain, but willing to stick it out with the giant crowd that was enduring a downpour in order to hear him. All of it rich, splendid, unforgettable. But I would like to focus my reflections on a phenomenon that would actually be funny if it weren’t so tragic. I’m talking about the mainstream media’s extraordinary capacity to miss the point. Every night that I was in Madrid, I would return to my room after an incomparably rich day moving among the throngs of pilgrims and I would watch the news on CNN and the BBC. World Youth Day was, invariably, among the top stories, but the coverage was, not to put too fine a point on it, just bizarre. “Protestors descend on Madrid as the Pope arrives,” the BBC announcer would gravely intone; “The Pope was met today with strong opposition from secularists, gay rights activists, and Spaniards angry over World Youth Day’s cost to taxpayers,” the CNN anchorwoman would say, frowning into the camera. By the admission of the news reporters themselves, the number of protestors never reached beyond a few thousand, and not one event of World Youth Day was interrupted in the least by their demonstrations. There were, at most, a few scuffles between pilgrims and the protestors. But judging from the tone of the coverage, the average listener in the UK or the United States would have concluded that the Chicago riots of 1968 had broken out in the streets of Madrid. I actually laughed out loud when I focused in on some video of a “confrontation” between protestors and World Youth Day participants and noticed that at least half of the people in the picture were camera crews and reporters! A million and a half young Catholics from all over the world come to celebrate their faith and to declare their solidarity with the Pope—and the networks obsess over a handful of protestors! I know that controversy sells papers and pleases sponsors, but anyone who was on the ground for World Youth Day couldn’t help but conclude there was something more at work in the gross discrepancy between reality and reportage. The dirty little secret is that the actual World Youth Day doesn’t fit the standard secularist narrative, according to which Catholicism is a corrupt, backward-looking, moribund ideology, destined to fade away as science advances and subjectivist moral relativism becomes normative. A small percentage of priests engage in sexually deviant behavior? Blanket coverage. An international army of young people marches through the hot sun and then sits patiently through a rainstorm to see the Pope? Ho-hum. That’s called reporting the news according to a set of fairly rigid ideological assumptions and imperatives. The Catholic Church—at least in the West—is passing through a dark period, largely of its own making. But has the Catholic Church lost the future? The mainstream media wants you to think so. But any of those who experienced World Youth Day first hand would say, “Don’t you believe it.”
One of the commonest complaints against Catholicism is that it is the religion of “no,” especially in regard to the sexual dimension of life. As the rest of the culture is moving in a progressively more permissive direction, the church seems to represent a crabbed, puritanical negativity toward sexuality. I think it is important, first, to make a distinction between two modalities of “no.” On the one hand, there is “no” pure and simple—a denial, a negation of something good. When a jealous person sees someone else’s success, he will say “no” to it, out of resentment. When a racist perceives the object of his irrational hatred, he will say “no” to him and try to undermine him. But on the other hand, there is a “no” which is in service of a “yes,” since it represents a “no” to a “no;” it is a double negative that constitutes a positive. Any golf swing coach worth his salt will say “no” much more than he says “yes,” precisely because there are a thousand ways to swing a club poorly, but really only one way to swing it properly. So when he says “no,” he is negating a series of negatives, trying to move his student onto the narrow path of the right swing. I would suggest that the many “no’s” that the church says to imperfect forms of sexual behavior are of this second type. Now what, according to the mind of the church, is the correct or proper expression of sexuality? In order to provide an adequate answer, it would be wise to consult a curious passage in the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle to the Gentiles writes: “Think of God’s mercy…and worship him…in a way that is worthy of thinking beings, by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God” (Rom. 12: 1). Sacrifice, of course, was central to ancient Israelite religion. A Jew would bring an unblemished animal to the Temple in Jerusalem and would then, through the mediation of a priest, offer it to God as a token of gratitude, worship, or penance. In doing so, he would align himself to God, bringing his mind, his will, his very body into right relationship with the Lord. Any pious Israelite would know that Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, had no need of these burnt offerings, unlike the gods of other nations who seemed to require them. But that faithful Jew also knew that he needed sacrifice, since it brought him into deeper communion with the God who loved him, making him like the God whom he worshipped. Now in Jesus Christ, the face of the true God appeared, precisely as a face of love: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” (1 John 4:16). To sacrifice to God, therefore, is to become conformed to the love that God is; it is to become love. Paul is telling the Romans (and us) to turn our bodies—our whole selves—into an act of worship of the true God, which is simply another way of saying that we should allow every aspect of our lives to become radical love. Now we can understand the great “yes” of the church in regard to sexuality. Sex is meant to be completely attuned to love, which is to say, to self-gift. Sex is designed to be a vehicle by which the good of the other is sought and attained. When sex devolves into something less than an expression of love, the church resolutely and loudly says “no!” And so it says “no,” obviously, to rape, to sexual abuse, to the sexual manipulation of another. But it also says “no” to sexual expression outside of the context of that mutual and radical self-gift that we call marriage. It says “no,” furthermore, to a deliberate and conscious frustration of the procreative dimension of sex. In all of these “no’s,” the church is fundamentally saying “yes” to sex as a path of love. I realize that many balk at this, arguing that while rape and sexual violence should always be condemned, other forms of sexual expression should be left to the discretion of the individual. But would we settle for this kind of leniency and mediocrity in any other area of life that we take seriously? For example, someone dedicated to having an excellent golf swing will, of course, accepts correction of his most egregious faults, but he will expect his teacher to press forward, righting relatively minor errors, fine-tuning his swing until he reaches real proficiency. I imagine that he would want his teacher to hold up the example, not of a middle-level, weekend golfer, not even of a star on the junior tour, but of Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples and Jack Nicklaus. The one thing he would not want his coach to say is, “well, now that you’ve overcome the major problems, just swing any way you want.” So the church, which desires to bring human sexuality into full conformity with the love that God is, corrects us, cajoles us, objects to us, encourages us, holds up to us high ideals, and invites us continually into the high and challenging adventure of sexual virtue. Do we often fail? Sure—just as we usually fail to hit the golf ball excellently. Does that mean that the church should dial down its ideals? Absolutely not. Its “no’s” are so strong, because its “yes” is so ringing.
From the 1950’s through the late 1970’s Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was a professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, specializing in sexual ethics and what we call today “marriage and family life.” He produced two important books touching on these matters, The Acting Person, a rigorously philosophical exploration of Christian anthropology, and Love and Responsibility, a much more accessible analysis of love, sex, and marriage. These texts provided the foundation for the richly textured teaching of Pope John Paul II that now goes by the name “theology of the body.” As was evident throughout his papacy, John Paul had a deep devotion to young people, and he wanted them to see the teaching of the church in regard to sex, not as a burden, but as an invitation to fuller life. In the context of this brief article, I would like to develop just one insight from John Paul’s rich magisterium on sex and marriage, for I share the perennial concern of older people that too many young people are treating sex in a morally casual way. Karol Wojtyla taught that in making an ethical decision, a moral agent does not only give rise to a particular act, but he also contributes to the person he is becoming. Every time I perform a moral act, I am building up my character, and every time I perform an unethical act, I am compromising my character. A sufficient number of virtuous acts, in time, shapes me in such a way that I can predictably and reliably perform virtuously in the future, and a sufficient number of vicious acts can misshape me in such a way that I am typically incapable of choosing rightly in the future. This is not judgmentalism; it is a kind of spiritual/moral physics, an articulation of a basic law. We see the same principle at work in sports. If you swing the golf club the wrong way enough times, you become a bad golfer, that is to say, someone habitually incapable of hitting the ball straight and far. And if you swing the club correctly enough times, you become a good golfer, someone habitually given to hitting the ball straight and far. John Paul put his finger on a problem typical of our time, namely, that people think that they can do lots of bad things while still remaining, deep down, “good persons,” as though their characters are separable from the particular things that they do. In point of fact, a person who habitually engages in self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative behavior is slowly but surely warping her character, turning herself into a self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative person. Viewed from a slightly different angle, this is the problem of separating “self” from the body, as though the “real person” hides under or behind the concrete moves of the body. Catholic philosophy and theology have battled this kind of dualism for centuries, insisting that the self is a composite of spirit and matter. In fact, it is fascinating to note how often this gnostic conception of the person (to give it its proper name) asserts itself and how often the Church has risen up to oppose it. Now apply this principle to sexual behavior. Study after study has shown that teen-agers and college students are participating more and more in a “hook-up” culture, an environment in which the most casual and impersonal forms of sexual behavior are accepted as a matter of course. As recently as 25 or 30 years ago, there was still, even among teen-agers, a sense that sexual contact belonged at least in the context of a “loving” or “committed” relationship, but today it appears as though even this modicum of moral responsibility has disappeared. And this is doing terrible damage to young people. Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychiatrist, explored the phenomenon of the hook-up culture in his book Why Gender Matters, a text I would warmly recommend to teen-agers and their parents. He described that tawdry moral universe in some detail, and then he remarked that his psychiatrist’s office is filled with young people—especially young women—who have fallen into debilitating depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Dr. Sax theorized that these psychological symptoms are a function of a kind of cognitive dissonance. The wider society is telling teen-agers that they can behave in any way they like and still be “good people,” but the consciences of these young people are telling a different story. Deep down, they know that selfish and irresponsible behavior is turning them into selfish and irresponsible people—and their souls are crying out. Their presence, in Dr. Sax’s waiting room, witnesses to the truth of John Paul’s understanding of the moral act. I might sum up John Paul’s insight by saying that moral acts matter, both in the short run and in the long run. For weal or for woe, they produce immediate consequences, and they form characters. And so I might venture to say to a young person, tempted to engage in irresponsible sexual behavior: please realize that, though you may not immediately appreciate it, the particular things you choose to do are inevitably shaping the person you are becoming.
Last week, I gave an address at the annual Atlanta Eucharistic Congress, which is one of the most impressive gatherings in the American Catholic Church. Roughly 30,000 people came together, on the eve of the feast of Corpus Christ, to celebrate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Congress opened with a spectacular procession of thousands of Catholics, representing practically every parish and organization in the Atlanta Archdiocese. As the throngs marched in, a choir, backed by an energetic band, sang spirited gospel songs. After an hour of singing and marching, Archbishop Wilton Gregory appeared, at the end of the procession, bearing a large consecrated host in a gold monstrance. As the Archbishop approached the elevated altar, a group of Mexican drummers, dressed in Aztec finery, beat an insistent rhythm. Then, when the monstrance was placed on the altar, the entire arena fell silent for two minutes, and finally one of the classic Eucharistic hymns of the church was sung. It was one of the most impressive expressions of the church’s belief in the real presence that I have ever witnessed. What is the provenance of this distinctively Catholic conviction that Jesus is “really, truly, and substantially present” under the Eucharistic signs of bread and wine? I would suggest that we begin with the still breathtaking discourse of the Lord, found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Astounded by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the crowds come to Jesus and he tells them not to search for perishable bread, but rather for the bread that “endures to eternal life.” He then specifies, “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Now it would be hard to imagine anything more theologically problematic, and frankly, more disgusting to a first century Jew than this claim. Scattered throughout the Old Testament are numerous prohibitions against the eating of an animal’s flesh with the blood, for blood was seen as life and hence as the special prerogative of God. But Jesus is proposing, not only the eating of an animal’s flesh with blood, but his own human flesh with blood. When they balk (“The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”), Jesus does not tone down his rhetoric; he intensifies it: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” It is fascinating to note that the Greek verb that lies behind the word “eat” here is not phagein (the verb normally used to designate the way human beings eat) but rather trogein (a verb that designates the way animals eat, having the overtone of “gnawing” or “munching”). And in case anyone has missed his point, Jesus adds, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Are we surprised that most of the crowd, having taken in this teaching, decided to leave Jesus? “Therefore, many of his disciples…said, ‘This is a hard saying: who can understand it?” So indeed has this teaching been hard and divisive in the course of the church’s life. How can we begin to understand it? Let us consider the power of words. Certainly words can describe reality, standing, if you will, in a passive relationship to what is. But they can also play a much more active role, not simply describing reality, but affecting it, changing it. Think of the manner in which a word of praise, spoken by a significant authority figure, can change the direction of a young person’s life. Or consider the authoritative statement, “you’re under arrest,” spoken by a properly deputized officer of the law: whether the addressee of those words likes it or not, he is, in fact, under arrest, the words having actively changed his status. Now if our puny human words can change reality, how much more thoroughly and radically can the divine word bring about an ontological transformation. On the Biblical telling, God’s word in fact constitutes reality at the deepest level: “God said, ‘let there by light,’ and there was light.” The prophet Isaiah, channeling the words of the Lord, says, “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please…” The central claim of the New Testament is that Jesus is not simply one teacher among many, one more in a long line of prophets, but rather “the word made flesh,” the incarnation of the divine word which made and sustains the world. Therefore, what Jesus says, is. To the dead daughter of Jairus, Jesus said, “Little girl, get up,” and the dead girl got up. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus come out!” and the dead man came out. The night before he died, Jesus sat down with his disciples for a Passover supper. He took the ordinary unleavened bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “take this all of you and eat it; this is my body.” He then took the blessing cup after supper and, passing it around, he said, “take this all of you and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood.” Was he trading in symbolic and metaphorical speech? If he were an ordinary human being, one more prophet or religious poet, that’s all he could have been doing. But he was, in fact, the Word of God, and therefore, his words had a power to transform at the most fundamental level of reality. This is why that ordinary bread and wine became Christ’s very body and blood. At the consecration at every Mass, the priest takes bread and wine and pronounces over them, not his own words, but Christ’s. He acts, not in his own person, but in persona Christi and hence he affects the transformation that Catholics call “transubstantiation,” the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. And this is why, in the presence of those transformed elements, the only proper action is to fall down in worship.