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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Secular Interpretation of Thomas's "Palea"

Nov. 15 will be the feast of St. Albert the Great: Bishop, Doctor of the Church, and patron of scientists. Of all the monumental achievements of Albertus Magnus, arguably one of the greatest was his mentorship of St. Thomas Aquinas, another Dominican Doctor who has been described as one of the greatest minds in the history of the Church.

It is perhaps worth the time of every individual interested in the pursuit of the examined life to reflect on one oft-told story of Thomas regarding an event near the end of his life. It is said that, following a profound interior experience, he stepped away from his authorship of the Summa Theologica. When asked to continue his work, he refused, replying to his comrade, "I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me" ("mihi videtur ut palea"). His life on Earth would expire without his ever completing the Summa.

In my experience, two interpretations of Thomas's statement seem most prominent. The first might be called the skeptic's interpretation. This interpretation suggests that through his experience, Thomas somehow came to the realization of the truth that the god on which all of his writings were founded was, in fact, non-existent. Hence, his statement that his writings were "straw" is taken by the skeptic to mean that all of his efforts had been completely in vain.

The next interpretation might be called the interpretation of the faithful Catholic. This interpretation states that in his experience, Thomas caught for just a brief instant the image of God with whom he was destined to dwell upon passing to eternal life. Just this brief glimpse of God was enough to reveal to him that his works - monumental as they were - were, in comparison to this glimpse, nothing more than "straw."

I surmise that many men of much greater erudition than I have supported one or the other of these interpretations, so I will not try to make a case here for either. However, recently, I came across a third interpretation by Prof. Daniel Robinson that is worth considering. I've listened to many lectures by Prof. Robinson, and in none of them does he affiliate himself with any religion. He has, in fact, directed harsh criticisms toward Catholicism in particular: perhaps the most stern criticism being that of Her dealings with the Malleus Maleficarum in the fifteenth century. Anyhow, in what might be called the secular interpretation, Robinson asks us to "step out of the context of religion itself and just consider the man Thomas Aquinas." This perspective affords Robinson the opportunity to provide a reflection that will likely be edifying for proponents of either of the previous interpretations.

"Well, never before or since would there be so complete a faith in an age hosting such extraordinary intellects. It is quite remarkable, I mean, if you step back, and, in fact, step out of the context of religion itself and just consider the man Thomas Aquinas. This is a towering intellect: the author of still-to-be-translated hundreds of thousands of words of rich philosophy, logic, ethics, etc. An instructed mind, a mind fashioned by the best productions of the classical world, and a mind that, at the end of the day, turns itself away from scholarship, from writing - comes out of a chapel toward the end of his life, reflecting on everything he had put in print or put to paper, saying that, 'It was pointless - it was just like sand, do you see?' That is, one who thinks so deeply and so persistently on the meaning of life: a life - an examined life, and examined at such depth and with such sincerety and purpose and gratitude as to find words incapable of expressing truths that somehow and otherwise are known by the grace of God. This is a tradition put in place where the intellectual foundations of the faith are thick and firm and, I should say, even into the twenty-first century, durable. A great figure in a great age: Thomas Aquinas.

...not a bad lawyer, either." ~Daniel Robinson.

Sancte Alberte Magne (c.1206-1280) et Sancte Thoma de Aquino (c.1227-1274), orate pro nobis.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe

Today is the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Beatíssima Virgo María, in coelum assumpta, ora pro nobis.

A friend mentioned to me that on the new calendar, it is also the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), a Franciscan friar who is the patron saint of the pro-life movement. Due to his Marian spirituality and fervent promotion of devotion to Mary, St. Maximilian holds the title of the Apostle of Consecration to Mary. He was martyred at Auschwitz.

(Enlarge image.)

The Servant of God Fr. John Hardin, S.J. (for whom there is an open cause) wrote an article on the Marian Spirituality of St. Maximilian that is available here: link. Another interesting fact is that St. Maximilian was an Amateur Radio operator. His call sign was SP3RN. (Mine is AG4JQ.)

St. Maximilian Kolbe, ora pro nobis.

For the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption, here is the Magnificat in C by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), composer of the famous Canon in D. The Gospel tomorrow will include the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55).

Et ait María:
Magnificat: anima mea Dominum.
Et exultavit spiritus meus: in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae:
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est:
et sanctum nomen eius.
Et misericordia eius, a progenie et progenies:
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede:
et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum:
recordatus misericordiae suae.
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros:
Abraham, et semini eius in saecula.

And Mary said:
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;
for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant,
being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Catholics and Contraception: Blind Acceptance of Authority?

I recently was speaking with a protestant who intimated an understanding of Catholics' opposition to contraception as being just another instance of our blind acceptance of an authoritarian rule established by the Catholic Church that has been added to the Bible arbitrarily. Here, I present four perspectives - in brief form, conveniently tailored for our ADHD culture - in response to this claim to illustrate that it is unsubstantiated and unequivocally false.

A Brief Historical Note: For Centuries, Protestants Rejected Contraception
The first important point is that although protestants depict the Catholic opposition to contraception as a teaching through which the Church exercises its supposedly totalitarian control over those subscribing to the Catholic Faith, the truth of the matter is that the founding members of the protestant movement - including Luther and Calvin - also openly opposed contraception. In fact, Christianity was unified in its opposition to contraception for centuries, until the early 20th century when the Anglican bishops convened at the Lambeth conference in 1930 to establish some exceptions to their opposition to the use of contraception. Hence, if the Catholic Church is in this case, as many protestants say, simply adding arbitrary rules to those established in the Bible, then so were the protestants for all those centuries.

To this conclusion, the pro-contraceptive protestant may respond, "Fine - the protestants were wrong all those years. It took this long for us to realize that contraception is indeed morally permissible." Ignoring the unabashed brazenness of this claim for the time being, I will respond by saying, "OK, but the evidence above still eradicates the grounds for holding the position that the Catholic teaching on contraception is just another instance of Catholic authority flexing its muscles of totalitarian control over its people through the establishment of principles that were (it is alleged) without good reason added to those principles found in the Bible, when in fact all of Christianity, including protestants, taught and abided by a principled opposition to contraception for centuries."

For more on the history of the Christian opposition to contraception, which dates back to the infancy of Christianity (about two millennia ago), see Fr. Mitch Pacwa's article on the subject: link.

A Response to the Claim that the Catholic Teaching on Contraception is an Authoritarian Rule Created by the Pope that is Blindly Accepted by Catholics
One of the many works by Christian figures giving a reasoned opposition to the use of contraception is the great book Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (who later was to be elected Pope John Paul II). Upon mentioning that such works exist, the protestant whom I mentioned earlier made it clear that she understood that such works are simply instances of Catholics blindly accepting the authoritative teachings of Church leaders.

Such an understanding is, to be frank, a gross distortion of the truth of the situation. In fact, in Wojtyla's introduction to Love and Responsibility, he establishes clearly that the book was not written to be taken as doctrine - that is, as an authoritative teaching of the Church. It was, in fact, written 18 years before he was even elected pope. (Note that there are many other books by people who aren't even priests that establish through reason the immorality of contraception. I mention Love and Responsibility here only because it is the best one I have read.) If it helps the protestant reader, you may think of Love and Responsibility as similar to a sermon written by the pastor of your own church, in which he (or she) discusses his (or her) understanding of how one is to rightly live out the Gospel. You as a member of that church may accept or reject that understanding based on your own reasoning. I could say more on this, but I will leave it to the reader to study for himself the introduction to Love and Responsibility, which is available in its entirety in the preview of the book on Google Books (link).

(The reader will note that the above analogy between the teachings on contraception contained in Love and Responsibility and a protestant pastor's sermon is somewhat inaccurate, in that the faithful Catholic cannot in good conscience refuse to accept the Church's teaching on contraception, since this teaching has elsewhere been stated authoritatively (for example, in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae). However, this point is tangential to the current discussion, as my objective here is to establish that non-authoritative works, such as Love and Responsibility, do indeed exist and establish the immorality of contraception based on reason alone, without relying upon authority.)

A Note from a Prominent Protestant Leader of Today on the Catholic Opposition to Contraception
Although many protestants have since 1930 rejected the centuries-held Christian opposition to contraception, there are still prominent protestant leaders who are not vehemently opposed to the Catholic teaching on the matter and who actually see great value in it. This fact by itself is further evidence that this teaching is based on reason, and is not accepted solely because it is taught authoritatively. Consider the thoughts of the Protestant pastor Russell E. Saltzman on this topic: link.

A Note from the Perspective of a Young Lady
A video was produced recently by a young lady (in her teenage years, I would guess) that offers her case for opposing contraception. Although less intellectually rigorous than the above references, it is more lighthearted and was received well by priests I know, so it may be helpful for some.

On the General Calendar, August 9th is the feast day of St. Edith Stein (1891-1942), Carmelite nun, prominent Catholic intellectual, convert from Judaism, and martyr of Auschwitz. On the Traditional Calendar, it is the feast of St. John Marie Vianney (1786-1859), patron of parish priests. Orate pro nobis.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fr. Wade Menezes, C.P.M. on Mt. 10:24-33 -
Fear of the World and Its Complexities

"Even so, my child, your changed life may be attended with some inward discomfort, and you may feel some reaction of discouragement and weariness after you have taken a final farewell of the world and its follies. Should it be so, I pray you take it patiently..." ~St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Ch. 2.

Throughout the writings of the spiritual masters, we see an emphasis on the importance of a devout prayer life - so much so that one could easily get the impression that a life of prayer per se is a reliable means to attaining holiness. One might come to the conclusion that amidst the trials that he will inevitably encounter in the world that he will always be able to find peace and consolation in prayer. Indeed, the importance of prayer cannot be overstated. The Doctors of the Church have assured us of this. Ralph Martin has stated:

"Teresa of Avila tells us that the entrance into the mansions (or stages) of the spiritual journey begins with prayer." ~Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, p. 121.

He goes on to quote several other Doctors of the Church in support of this point:

"Prayer opens the understanding to the brightness of Divine Light, and the will to the warmth of Heavenly Love - nothing can so effectually purify the mind from its many ignorances, or the will from its perverse affections." ~St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Ch. 1, No. 1.

"How wonderful is the power of prayer! ... With me prayer is an uplifting of the heart; a glance towards heaven; a cry of gratitude and love, uttered equally in sorrow and in joy. In a word, it is something noble, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites it to God." ~St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, Ch. 9.

"So, dearest brothers, I exhort you to participate always in the divine praises correctly and vigorously: vigorously, that you may stand before God with as much zest as reverence..." ~St. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. III, sermon 47, no.8 .

Fr. Jacques Philippe, a French priest and author of many books on the spiritual life, has emphasized that prayer is indispensable in the search for interior peace:

"Acquiring and maintaining interior peace, which is impossible without prayer, should consequently be considered a priority for everybody, above all for those who claim to want to do good for their neighbor." ~Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, p. 8.

While the importance of prayer cannot be overstated, it has also been made clear that it is wrong for us to always view prayer as a means to receiving consolation from God. Again, the Doctors of the Church have taught us:

"What a farce it is! Here are we, with a thousand obstacles, drawbacks, and imperfections within ourselves, our virtues so newly born that they have scarcely the strength to act (and God grant that they exist at all!) yet we are not ashamed to expect sweetness in prayer and to complain of feeling dryness." ~St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Second Mansion, Ch. 1, No. 14.

"These persons have the same defect as regards the practice of prayer, for they think that all the business of prayer consists in experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads; and when they have not found this pleasure they become greatly discouraged, thinking that they have accomplished nothing." ~St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Book I, Ch. 6, No. 6.

"I would say, then, that devotion does not consist in conscious sweetness and tender consolations, which move one to sighs and tears, and bring about a kind of agreeable, acceptable sense of self-satisfaction. No, my child, this is not one and the same as devotion, for you will find many persons who do experience these consolations, yet who, nevertheless, are evilminded, and consequently are devoid of all true Love of God, still more of all true devotion." ~St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Ch. 13, No. 1.

And Fr. Philippe, quoting another Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena, ensures that we are aware that the journey to interior peace through the life of prayer is indeed a struggle:

"Every Christian must be thoroughly convinced that his spiritual life can in no way be viewed as the quiet unfolding of an inconsequential life without any problems; rather it must be viewed as the scene of a constant and sometimes painful battle, which will not end until death - a struggle against evil, temptation and the sin that is in him. This combat is inevitable, but is to be understood as an extremely positive reality, because as St. Catherine of Siena says, 'without war there is no peace'; without combat there is no victory. And this combat is, correctly viewed, the place of our purification, of our spiritual growth, where we learn to know ourselves in our weakness and to know God in His infinite mercy. This combat is the definitive place of our transfiguration and glorification." ~Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, p. 9.

Fr. Wade Menezes, C.P.M. has explained that in the journey to God, there is a "Holy Separation" that must take place between us and all things that separate us from God, to which Jesus refers in Mt 10:34 when he speaks of bringing "not peace but the sword." Relying upon Isaiah, Fr. Menezes goes so far as to say that God will even separate us from our own prayer, insofar as it separates us from union with Him:

"...and, if necessary, His ministry of division might include - even for a short time - separating Himself from our prayers. Let us not forget that the book of Isaiah, chapter 1 verse 15, says, 'Though you pray the more, I will not listen.' Why? Because the people were living, knowingly, sinful lifestyles, and refused to turn away from them." ~Fr. Wade Menezes, CPM, Homily for 16 July 2012, @13:42.

The image of the sword as a weapon in the "spiritual combat" in which each of us fights daily is used elsewhere by St. Catherine of Siena. Ralph Martin states:

"Catherine of Siena talks about fighting the spiritual battle with a two-edged sword in our hands, with hatred of sin as one edge of the blade and love of virtue as the other." ~Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 155.

In the midst of this tension between seeking peace through prayer and the temptation to presume that we will receive consolation in it, it is easy for one to become fearful of the adversities, temptations, and struggles that lie ahead. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux has warned us:

"Our common experience tells us that it is fear which disturbs us at the beginning of our conversion, fear of that dismaying picture we form for ourselves of the strict life and unwonted austerities we are about to embrace. This is called a nocturnal fear, either because in scripture adversity is usually represented by darkness, or because the reward for which we are prepared to suffer adversity is not yet revealed to us." ~St. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. II, sermon 33, no. 11.

But from the Scriptures, the addresses of Bl. Pope John Paul II, and the lives of the martyrs, we have been taught repeatedly, "Do not be afraid." We will inevitably face adversity in our efforts to attain uniformity with the will of God, but as Fr. Menezes, in his homily on 14 July 2012, states:

"...we should not fear death, dying, pain, persecution, rejection, loneliness, poverty, old age. We should not fear having a large family, evangelizing, defending traditional marriage as God's masterful design for the continuance of the human race. We should not fear going to confession, being a priest, a religious, or a missionary. We should not be afraid of tithing and giving alms, of downsizing our lifestyles and the like. We should fear none of these things, my dear friends." ~Fr. Wade Menezes, CPM, Homily for 14 July 2012, @8:14.

Amidst all of these challenges and tensions within the struggle for holiness, there is yet another threat that we face, and that is the danger of becoming overwhelmed by the complexities faced in both the intellectual endeavors of the spiritual life and also those in our secular affairs. However, with her life and her writings, St. Thérèse has shown to us that we may rest assured that union with God requires of us a child-like simplicity.

"As Thérèse grew in the simplicity of her relationship with God, she found it increasingly difficult to speak about what was going on inside her soul even to her wise and kind superiors. One day an elderly nun spoke to her about why this was the case.

`"[It is] because your soul is extremely simple, but when you will be perfect, you will be even more simple; the closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes." The good Mother was right.' " ~Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 154, quoting St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, Ch. 7.

From St. Thérèse, we have assurance that our struggles are not in vain, when our hope is placed in seeking uniformity with God's will:

"The saints tell us that usually, even in the very midst of exterior and interior trials, a deep-seated peace is felt. Perservering in the midst of these trials is a very important part of uniting our will to God's - and in His will is our peace.

Thérèse testifies to this reality in her own life especially as she approached its end.

`For seven years and a half that inner peace has remained my lot, and has not abandoned me in the midst of the greatest trials.'

Indeed, in His will is our peace." ~Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 178, quoting St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, Ch. 7.

21 July is the feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, O.F.M Cap. (1559-1619) (General Calendar) and St. Praxedes († 165) (Traditional Calendar). Orate pro nobis.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fr. Pacwa, S.J. on Verbum Domini #38:
On the "Spirit" of Sacred Scripture

One of the many features of the Catholic Church that I cherish is that the greatest biblical scholars are Catholic. It is a popular misconception that it is protestants who best know Scripture and that their extensive knowledge of it is something that Catholics should learn from them. But the evidence of the unrivaled excellence of Catholic biblical scholarship is readily available, now that we have in recent decades broken ground upon the Digital Continent and have access to the great writings and commentaries on Scripture by popes, bishops, and priests over the centuries. Although it may be true, in general, that the average protestant has more Bible passages memorized than the average Catholic (although even this fact may be debatable), rote memorization of the letter of Scripture is limited in usefulness if one has not begun to attain a spiritual comprehension of Scripture. But what exactly does the "Spiritual" comprehension of Scripture entail? Fr. Pacwa here has given us a discussion which addresses this very question.

I found this discussion to be particularly important today, as the idea of the "spirit" of the law - both in the context of Scripture and elsewhere - has been greatly misconstrued. We often hear of people referring to the "spirit" of the law as a means to relax the strictness embodied by a written rule when interpreted literally.

For example, let's consider a situation in which a police officer finds his friend's car parked illegally over the lines in a parking lot with no other cars in it. In such a situation, one might not be surprised if the officer were to pardon the offense on the grounds that, although the letter of the law has been broken, the "spirit of the law" allows him to excuse it. Although this may be permissible on the grounds of common courtesy, the truth of the matter is that such a pardon opposes both the letter and the spirit of the law, in their true senses.

To consider an ecclesial example, we hear frequently of certain questionable activities in the Liturgy being justified on the grounds that they are being done in the "spirit of Vatican II" (a talk by Bishop Athanasius Schneider in January on this topic can be found here). For one who has an apprehension of what the "spirit of the law" really means, this is quite confusing when it is used to permit actions that are not supported by the Council's texts themselves. Even more perplexing are cases in which the actions permitted by the "spirit" of the Council go so far as to contradict what is written in the conciliar documents. A particularly noteworthy example of this is the common practice of the complete elimination of the use of the Latin language from the Mass, a practice which is allegedly justified by the following of the so-called "spirit of Vatican II," while being expressly forbidden within the documents themselves (see Sancrosanctum Concilium, #36).

The truth regarding the "spirit" of the law - as presented by Pope Benedict in Verbum Domini, Fr. Pacwa here, and Eric Moore elsewhere - is that it builds upon and even transcends the letter - rather than working in opposition to it - and it is vital that we grasp this point.

Toward this end, in this episode of Threshold of Hope, Fr. Pacwa gives a discussion of paragraph 38: The Need to Transcend the "Letter," from Pope Benedict's apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. You can follow along with Fr. Pacwa by reading the document online here.

Fr. Pacwa begins by emphasizing what is needed to gain a "Spiritual" comprehension of Sacred Scripture, which requires that one understands the text in four senses:
  1. The Literal Sense: To understand the "meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture" (CCC 117) - "All other senses ... are based on the literal" (St. Thomas Aquinas).
  2. The Allegorical Sense: To understand what we believe, the doctrines.
  3. The Moral Sense: To understand right from wrong.
  4. The Anagogical Sense: To understand life and the after-life, or what happens when we die.
As Fr. Pacwa mentions in the previous episode of Threshold of Hope, these four senses are presented in greater detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #118.

Two important points Fr. Pacwa goes on to make are that:
  1. The "interplay between the different senses of Scripture is essential in order to grasp the passage from letter to spirit" (4:38).
  2. "...this is not an automatic passage, and it is not spontaneous - it takes some work." (4:55)
Fr. Pacwa then begins a discussion of what such an understanding of these senses entails. He emphasizes that we must look at the passages of Scripture in context: that is, "not only the context of the other words around it, but also to see various elements of the Bible in the context of the whole of Scripture and the whole development of the history of the people of Israel from Abraham forward..." (12:39). Hence, we see here the importance of not only the Scripture itself, but also of Sacred Tradition, which is rejected by many heretical teachings today. In this paragraph of Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict explicitly highlights the importance of Scripture through a reference to Pope Paul VI's 1965 dogmatic consitution Dei Verbum, and through making this reference, implicitly highlights the importance of Sacred Tradition. In opposition to this fact regarding the emphasis that the Church has placed on the study of Scripture, some protestants have propagated the falsehood that a distinguishing feature of Catholic Church history is that the Magisterium has discouraged or even forbade people from reading Sacred Scripture. To counter this, Fr. Pacwa mentions Pope Leo XIII's (R. 1878-1903) order to print in every Catholic Bible that Catholics would receive indulgences for reading Scripture (19:55). Although there may have been Catholic individuals who were discouraging laypeople from reading the Bible, this has not been the official teaching of the Church.

So we see here that the interplay of these two contexts illustrates the timelessness - manifesting itself through temporal universality - of the Truth embodied within Christianity. The Tradition of the Faith was an inextricable component of the Councils of the early Church at which the Bible was compiled, as it continues to be an inextricable component today, and will continue to be in the future life of the Church. However, this vitality of Scripture within the Church does not sustain itself automatically, but rather requires a volitional participation of learning and living the Scriptures from each of its members. Fr. Pacwa, quoting Verbum Domini, states, "There is an inner drama in this process, since the passage that takes place in the power of the Spirit inevitably engages each person’s freedom" (13:23). This deep level of understanding of Scripture will necessarily involve an act of one's will and will affect his daily decisions as he lives, "demanding full engagement in the life of the Church" (9:48, quoting Verbum Domini).

July 3 is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle († 72) (General Calendar) and Pope St. Leo II (R. 682-683) (Traditional Calendar). Orate pro nobis.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Problems with Ecclesio-Nihilism

"He must increase, I must decrease." ~St. John the Baptist.

One may come to the arguably reasonable conclusion that our existence in this world is really nothing. This is not to say that each of us is merely a grain of sand in the seemingly infinite cosmos - but that we really are nothing. However, in disagreement with this, one could with good reason present his successful career, his stellar academic record, or the endearing words of his significant other as clear evidence of the meaningfulness of his life. But when gazing in adoration at our Lord during the elevation, contemplating the prayers of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others over the centuries in their preparation for receiving Him, whom could we convince that we really are something? It would seem to me easy to convince ourselves that we are, in truth, nothing.

One might then convince himself that his being misled into believing that he was something is primarily the fault of the secular culture. It is the fault, he might say, of those in the mainstream of society who, in rejection of the transcendent, portray happiness as something attained through egocentrism and rebellion against any system of morality imposed upon them, who are guilty of fooling us into thinking that we could find meaning in our lives completely on our own.

There are two problems I see with the nihilistic view and this claim regarding its roots. The first is that it is clear that our society - which would include those groups who adhere to no particular religion - is not completely devoid of the sense that we really are in need of something outside of ourselves - namely, something other than nutritional sustenance. A faculty member at Wellesley High, a public school in Massachusetts, recently gave an address that expressed clearly the importance of our acknowledging our minuteness in the grand scheme (link). We can also see an acknowledgement of this truth clearly in the lives of countless other individuals: in the soldier who gives his life for his nation, in the parent who lives out his entire life in the service of his family, and in the mother who carries and sustains her child for nine months in her womb.

So, it would be a caricature to say that the secular society is completely out of touch. To address society in such a way would be a distortion of the truth of the situation. To gain perspective, we could consider that there may be a number of statue-worshipping, pagan individuals who claim to be Christian, but it is obvious that it would be unfair for anyone to speak as if all Christians were this way. In reality, there are competing, mutually exclusive worldviews that are subsisting within society. No one group of people embodies perfectly one or another of these worldviews. Here, we are perhaps getting at what people speak of when they talk of spiritual warfare. It is a battle taking place within and outside each one of us, and the only reasonable response to such a dire situation is a life of prayer, seeking mercy, and repentance from sin.

The next problem with the nihilistic view is that, strictly speaking, we aren't really nothing. After all, we exist, don't we? To speak more precisely, we should instead say, then, that we are just virtually nothing. However, to ensure an accurate perspective on this, let us imagine a picture of all people who have ever lived, are now living, and ever will live, appearing on a standard 1680x1050 monitor. If one were to look for himself in such an image, he could realize in short time that he is much smaller than even a single pixel. Hence, we are virtually nothing. So close to nothing we are, in fact, that one might even be justified in making the claim that we are nothing. The more that one grasps this and attempts to deal with it on his own, the more he might be drawn to self-destructive habits. Do we have the courage to place instead our trust in our Lord, and turn to him during the great "Hoc est enim corpus meum"? How does one find the courage to approach Him in whom we find all that sustains us? We find part of the answer by looking around at our fellow congregants in the Mass and thanking God for them: the parents, the children, the religious, etc. Their very presence might speak to us, "We know. We are virtually nothing. It is only by receiving Him into our lives that we have hope." We look to the priest: at his life and in his prayers. It may seem impossible to approach our Lord, but we don't have to ask the priest the question, "How?" He tells us in the thrice-spoken "Domine non sum dignus." We listen also to the voices of the Saints, echoing throughout the centuries:

"He must increase, I must decrease."

June 24 is the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, prophet and martyr.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fr. Pacwa, S.J. on John 15:9-11 - Love is not in the Passions

"What does it mean to 'remain in Jesus'?"

He begins in the first 11 minutes (6:15-17:00) by responding to the question from a Scriptural perspective. The Readings will explain in the coming days how we are to "remain in Jesus," in large part by developing the theme of what it means that He is the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:1-8, the reading from last Wed.). He references the passages that tell us that Jesus loves us as the Father loves Him (John 15:9), and that to understand this, we must see it in light of the passages that tell us that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16), and also that everything that the Father has He gives to the Son (John 16:15). Furthermore, He loves the world in spite of the fact that the world is characterized by an opposition to His Son. As the Father gives completely to the Son, the Son gives Himself completely to us, and it is this love which draws us to Himself (John 12:32). This complete gift of self is "what it means to 'remain in Jesus'." This kind of love, indicated by the word "agapan," is expressed exteriorly: it does not subsist only in the interior life or only in the emotions. The primary expression of this love is the keeping of His commandments, which Jesus emphasizes three times in Chapter 14 to stress its importance.

In the remaining 9 minutes, he gives a practical discussion of these verses, presenting the forces that work against us in today's society when trying to live according to these teachings. What follows, in part, is an elaborate refutation of the common misconception that love is an emotion. In our society, love is commonly portayed as a "passion that somebody undergoes and cannot help feeling." The culture establishes and builds upon this principle that if one has a passion, he must act upon it. In fact, by this principle, one is being "inauthentic" by not acting upon his passions. Fr. Pacwa presents the situation in which one's passions change from being directed from one person to another, in which case it is considered by our culture right for one to act on those new passions, even when these acts of passion are contrary to the commandments of God. Continuing on to a deeper level to unveil the causes of these errors, he states that this principle upon which the media builds is a manifestation of how those in the media are living their own lives, and that a large amount of effort is put forth into promoting to the rest of the culture the worldview based upon this principle. They see this as a very progressive and "post-Christian" worldview that is leaving behind the Christian worldview, which is built upon the "old-fashioned" principle that the foundation of love is the following of God's commandments. However, it is evident that they are so ignorant of history, that they don't understand that in actuality their worldview is not cutting-edge at all, but is even pre-Christian. Because of this ignorance, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that follow from this distorted definition of love - as has been done so many times over the centuries by other societies, including the Romans and many others. These cultures inevitably collapse, as Christians have foreseen by the teachings of St. Paul in Eph 2:2-3. And what remains is the Christian Church - those who remain in the love of Jesus, the Word of God who will never perish - by following His commandments.

"Right now, we have people throughout the West who see themselves as post-Christian. They see that they're leaving this behind and coming to a brand new culture. They're not. They are so ignorant of history that they are actually reverting to the type of culture that once existed in pre-Christian times. They are being the conservatives in trying to change Christian morals, Christian family, the definition of what it means to be a family. They are trying to change that and think this is modern. They will fall away." (@ 24:30)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

DCMission Video: "Isn't Christianity Just Another Religion?"

Rev. Michael Orsi of Ave Maria School of Law on Principles of Catholic Identity for Law Schools

Rev. Michael P. Orsi, Chaplain and Research Fellow of Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law has written an article for the most recent issue of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (available here). Motivated in part by the trend of weakening Catholic identity among law schools in the country that were originally founded as Catholic, he presents principles on which a law school should be based to sustain its Catholic identity. At the core of the blueprint he gives for such a law school is that in "maintaining equilibrium" it must find a balance between "the natural and the supernatural." The four principles he gives are:

1) Teachings on supernatural revelation should be made available to the students. He mentions specifically that material from Church documents (he names Veritas Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Fides et Ratio in particular) should be incorporated into the coursework.

2) At least 90% of the faculty should be practicing Catholics.

3) The chaplain should work closely with the dean and play a strong role in ensuring that the Catholic identity of the school is sustained and respected.

4) 3 out of 4 students should be Catholic.

Rev. Orsi also lists a few threats against which a Catholic law school must defend itself. He mentions specifically that there is the danger of a law school being too heavily influenced by political movements among students, but we must remember that Catholicism is not a "political theory or a political party." Libertarianism, he notes, is gaining popularity among conservative law students, but "administrators must be vigilant that their school is not taken over by such an ideology."

Another danger he discusses is the threat of "uber-Catholicism," stating that the school must not "allow the ultra-orthodox to gain hegemony."

He goes on to state that the school should not extend permission or funding to student groups with principles that oppose Catholic teaching. He gives the example of a Democratic club that was allowed only under the stipulation that support for abortion be excluded from the club's constitution.

Rev. Orsi has presented a bold vision for law schools in the U.S. seeking to maintain their Catholic identity. These will surely be positive forces in preparing the next generation of Catholic lawyers for the growing threats to the common good in our nation. Let us hope that more schools take on such a vision built upon the principle that "in the end, a Catholic law school has the obligation to help its students become saints."