Friday, December 24, 2010

The Word Becomes Flesh

Thinking about the Christmas story what strikes me is how surprising it is. Nobody expects God to become man. Nobody expects God to do it through such an obscure family. They are talking about John the Baptist. The son of a priest. Miracles surrounding his birth. People were predicting great things for him. But nothing like that is recorded for Jesus. There are some saying of prophets and Mary is pondering things in her heart but nothing like Luke 1:65-66:
All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
This refers to John the Baptist and not to Jesus. So Jesus comes to us under the radar. All that seems to be widely known about him is he is conceived out of wedlock. Nobody is expecting God to do anything amazing though that child.

I strikes me that such is always the way with God. He is so amazing and glorious and holy that you would think He could not sneak up on you. But He does. The more we think we have God figured out. The more we have a strong idea of what God will look like when He shows up. That is when the word can become flesh and dwell among us and we can just miss it.

Certainly finding God in the Catholic church was like that. Having been a serious protestant for so long and having very strong ideas about how God works. I even believed that God would often surprise us. But I never expected Jesus to be using the Catholic church. The surprise I was ready for was that God does NOT work through structured liturgy or church hierarchies. I was all ready for that surprise.

It amazes me how many people are so close to the body of Christ and yet cannot see it. It is like we are looking for a formula. For a systematic theology. For a way of generating spiritual experiences. For simple, practical formulas. For anything but a person. Flesh and blood that is willing to bleed for us. We don't look for martyrs. Even white martyrs who have sacrificed in the form of religious vows. We look for a teacher rather than a savior.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Calling Yourself Catholic

Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix removed the right of a hospital to call itself Catholic. That is quite something. The hospital performed an abortion in one of the "hard cases." That is a case where it could be argued the mother's life was in danger. Abortion was one way to solve the problem with the mother's health but there are other treatments that would have saved the life of the baby. Bishop Olmsted explain the whole thing here. The NY Times's story that completely fails to explain the facts is here.

This seems like a new chapter in the rift between Catholic bishops and Catholic institutions. Many hospitals and schools have been drifting away from Catholicism slowly but surely. But every issue seems small. The bishops typically have only one option. That is to do what has been done here and say the institution is no longer Catholic. They have hesitated to use it because it means long term their influence over the institution is likely to disappear completely. So they have used persuasion with some success. But over time we have seen many of these Catholic institutions become less and less Catholic. At the same time we have seen Catholic bishops become more and more orthodox.

This is why this is such a big deal. This could become the first of many hundreds of similar decisions by Catholic bishops. If it is that will forever change the nature of the Catholic church in the US. Catholic institutions will either have to really be Catholic or give up any pretense of being Catholic. My guess it the vast majority will choose the latter but there may be some interesting exceptions. What that will do is purify the church. The church will become a lot smaller but a lot more authentic. This is what we need for a new evangelization. An orthodox magisterium insists on an orthodox church. Then people will see the true value of the gift of apostolic succession.

So God bless Bishop Olmsted. For his willingness to see the big picture and be willing to dig in his heels on this issue. To stand up to nuns and PhD's and tell them that it is bishops that define the faith. To stand up to secular pressure as well. Look at this from the linked NYT article:
This is no small matter. Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and are the only hospital facilities in many communities. Months ago, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to investigate reported instances where religious doctrine prevailed over the need for emergency reproductive care, and to issue a formal clarification that denying such treatment violates federal law.
Emergency reproductive care is code for abortion. That applying Catholic doctrine would violate federal law. Somehow the ACLU seems to think the federal government imposing it's doctrine on Catholic institutions is what civil liberty is all about. We live in strange times. But thank God that he has given us bishops with some backbone. God didn't promise us schools or hospitals with backbone but he did say His church would not fall.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Idea And The Reality

One thing we notice with our kids is they can love the idea of something but not the real thing. Like when we come in from the cold. The kids get very excited about hot chocolate. But often they don't finish their hot chocolate. They get excited about the idea of having it but once they have it the reality is not as exciting. People talk about the same thing with stock markets. The saying is the market goes up on anticipation and down on realization. So if there are reports Apple Computer is going to post great numbers their stock will go up. Once the numbers are published the stock often goes down. The idea of higher numbers is exciting. The reality is they are just numbers.

There is the idea and the reality of being a Christian as well. People like the idea of going to heaven. They like the idea of living a moral life. They like the idea of being part of something big like the Kingdom of God. But the reality is sometimes not as exciting. Heaven means being close to God. People say they want to go to heaven. Then you ask them what they can do to get close to God. They answer with things like reading the bible, praying, going to church, etc. But do they do those things? Often the answer is No. So they like the idea of heaven but do they like the reality?

This distinction really creates problem if you believe in "faith alone."  How do you know the person has not just accepted the idea of Jesus and not the reality? The truth is there are many idea about who Jesus is. It is only when somebody grows in holiness that they understand the true Jesus. You say Yes to the idea but more and more your Yes becomes a Yes to the reality. So Catholics believe God gives you a choice every step of the way. If you find the road to heaven is too hard and you prefer the things of this world God will not force you. But it is a problem if you want to say everything depends on the initial Yes. Because that initial Yes can be based on a very shallow and even a very wrong idea about Jesus. 

So if someone says Yes to Jesus based on a "health and wealth" gospel does that save him? If he rejects a more orthodox gospel does that matter? Or maybe someone accepts a gospel that is quite liberal on question of sexual morality. Many people will start there and grow into the fullness of the faith. You can see they really did fall in love with Jesus and it was only a matter of time before they surrendered themselves to the true gospel. But then there are others that don't follow Jesus when he asks them to surrender the hardest areas of their lives. Their initial Yes looks exactly the same.

So protestants go in two directions. They both lead to real problems. One group talks about how just accepting Jesus is all that matters. They would take that initial Yes as always leading to eternal salvation no matter how flawed the person's notion of the gospel might be. Now if you scratch them they will admit some boundaries. Leaving the content of the gospel wide open is pretty untenable. But even if you did you get another problem. Why should we preach the true gospel? Get people to say Yes to Jesus anyway you can. Just get them saved and move on to the next person. But that is not what Jesus did. He made sure they understood the true gospel and how hard the path to holiness really is. So you end up with a strategy for evangelism that is, by your thinking, much better than the strategy Jesus used and the strategy most Christians have used throughout church history.

Then there is the other direction. To assert some sort of reasonableness to the gospel that a person accepts. The idea of a baseline Christianity of certain doctrines people need to get right for the Yes to count as salvific. But there are huge problems there too. First of all, there is nothing like that in scripture. Secondly, people disagree wildly on what should be a baseline doctrine. It leads you into the endless subjectivity that can never be resolved because principle of a resolver is rejected. Requiring any content at all to the faith means you require a definition of that content. A definition, in turn, requires a definer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No Strings Attached

This is a movie going to come out next year. If they thought it was good they likely would have released it for Christmas. The plot is familiar. People try and treat sex as a purely physical thing and they fail. They find out there are endless emotional and spiritual overtones to our sexuality. It is interesting that in a culture where so many are willing to analyze sex in purely scientific terms our movies present that as an impossibility and people seem to accept it. When a religious person says that sexuality cannot be separated from spirituality there is huge skepticism. But on another level people know it is true.

The other think that strikes me is the inability of movies to actually explore the complexities of sex and love. Like the news story about pornography that always seems be become pornographic and fail to give any insight into the reality of pornography. Movies are another medium that just cannot stay away from the graphic sexual content so we can keep our brains engaged in the deeper insights. Sin is stronger than reason. We want to think about things and do what is right but we can't. We need grace.

Addictions are like that as well. People try and reason their way out of an addiction but they can't. The power of sin is just too strong. You get smart people making the same mistake over and over again. They just can't see it. In clear thinking moments they can see it. But they can't see it when they need to see it. When the temptation comes on strong the mind is simply no match for it. We need grace.

This is why this a society that focuses on the primacy of human reason has such problems with unreasonable behavior like materialism, promiscuity, and drunkenness. But it goes further. When behavior can't confirm to reason then reason will conform to behavior. So the defeat of reason becomes complete. People have to bend their reason out of shape to justify the way they live.

So if you leave God to pursue reason you not only lose God but you lose you ability to reason as well. If you humbly seek God's grace you not only don't lose God but you don't lose your mind either. Faith actually empowers the mind rather than obliterating it. The struggle with sin is still there but you can understand why such stupid behaviors are so hard to avoid. There are powerful spiritual forces at work. You can understand why it is more important to be prayerful than smart.

Then you can love a world where everything has strings attached. Thomas Howard talked about Catholicism being a philosophy where everything means everything. That secularism is a philosophy where nothing means anything. Why would we want things to be shallow and superficial?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Joy and Vocations

The 3rd week of advent is supposed to focus on joy. At our parish we had the vocations director for the diocese giving the homily. The homily he gave was a rather unremarkable vocations talk that completely ignored the readings and the liturgical calendar. But I got to thinking about the relationship between joy and vocations.

When you talk to a young person about a religious vocation you often get a strange reaction. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they groan. Sometimes they just go all quiet and look embarrassed. Why is that? Why is a religious vocation so hard to even talk about? I think one of the main reasons is the person lacks the gift of joy. The Catholic faith is supposed to give you a deep spiritual joy. When you don't have it then you can't imagine a religious vocation. A joyless faith is something you want to minimize. A bit like paying taxes. You see the need to do it but you don't want to do any more of it than you are required to. The real source of joy in your life is worldly things.

That is sad. It is common but it is sad because the catholic faith is meant to give a person the most profound experience of joy possible. If that was not true then religious vocations don't make any sense. A vow of celibacy would be silly if we can't find greater joy in God than we can find in sex. A vow of poverty presupposes that money can't give us the joy God can. A vow of obedience only makes sense if power and personal freedom are means towards the ultimate end which is God. We know this. We confess it. But does our heart really believe it?

If we lack this spiritual joy we tend to fall into the deadly sin of sloth. We just can't work up much energy for living the faith. We don't deny it. We just don't get as excited about it as we do about worldly things. Spiritual sloth is not just deadly for religious vocations. Any time we have a crisis in religious life we also have a similar one in marriage. That is why when you talk with young couples about contraception you get almost the same reactions you get when you talk to young singles about vocations. They have already decided that the Catholic faith is not worth such a sacrifice of worldly pleasures. God is not seen as the source of joy but rather the enemy of joy.

Like many sins sloth tends to prevent it's own solution. When we are slothful Christians we don't meditate on the great truths of the faith. We don't frequent the sacraments. We don't give sacrificially of our time and money. So our fears become realized. Christianity is boring. No. Half-hearted Christianity is boring. Real faith, where you give your whole life with no plan B, that is anything but boring.

Bad Catholics

Why should I become Catholic when there are so many bad Catholics and so many good reformed Christians? I asked that question. I think every potential convert does at some point. CtC raises the issue here. There are many answers to that. I thought I would go over some of them:
  1. Should we judge a church based on works or on grace? Protestants emphasize grace and rightly so. So why should we expect the church of Christ to be remarkable based on the virtue of it's member rather than based on the special graces it receives from Christ? 
  2. Who are we to judge? Are we not assuming to much when we can discern who is walking with Christ well and who is doing it badly? Why does it matter who knows more bible verses or who consumes less alcohol? We think that is important but that is based on our understanding of God's truth. Isn't the accuracy of that precisely the issue? So it is a different form of judging a church based on how well it conforms to your opinions. Not judging the doctrine but judging the spirituality. 
  3. Are we really looking at the best Catholics? Bad Catholics tend to continue to call themselves Catholic and return to the church for weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, etc. Bad protestants don't. They just stop coming altogether. Because protestants vote on many issues and Catholics  don't they tend to get non-attenders off the membership list much more efficiently. But if you exclude those and just look at faithful attenders in both churches the gap pretty much disappears. 
  4. Many Catholics are living like protestants. Having sacred tradition and apostolic and petrine succession only helps you if you set aside your personal opinions and agendas and obey God's word. In fact, it is worse to sin knowingly than to sin out of ignorance. So a Catholic who uses artificial contraception is worse off than a protestant who uses it because the Catholic has less excuse for not understanding it is wrong. But the point is not to dodge culpability for out disobedience. We want to know and obey God's word. Many suggest we are better off not knowing so we can have more sex. But obedience always carries more blessings than disobedience. God's way is better than the world's way. 
  5. Sacraments can be harmful. Paul talks about people eating and drinking judgment to themselves if the take the Eucharist in an unworthy manner. People point out how many Catholics are going to communion and not becoming holy. But how often do they go to confession? When they go do them make a good confession or do they hold obstinately to a mortal sin? Jesus gave us the sacraments but we have to allow them to change us. Just going through the motions is not enough.
  6. The church is flawed because guys like you are not in it. I can see how protestant converts have already made the Catholic church much more faithful to it's own teachings. How many of these problems in the church are a direct result of the people best equipped to solve them have been leaving the church and joining a protestant fellowship with like-minded people? It is precisely the reason we are called to unity. It is a command of God. One we have been disobeying big time. So it is a bit like the man who says he will keep committing adultery because his marriage is so bad. But his marriage is only bad because he commits adultery. 
  7. What do you want from a church? As a protestant it was important for me to have good preaching and good music on Sunday mornings. As a Catholic it does not matter that much. Our parish does OK but if it didn't I have lots of places I can go to find good preaching and good Christian music. I don't need the change churches for that.
I remember long before I considered becoming Catholic a nun said to me,"If you become a Catholic become a good one. We have enough bad ones!" That has stuck with me. Nobody converts and tries to be the stereo-typical Catholic. We convert to embrace the gifts God has for us through His church. If other Catholics don't embrace them that is sad but really irrelevant. It was never about them. It was about God. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

3 Out of 4 Gospels

Suppose some piece of historical evidence was discovered to cause some group of Christians to reject the gospel of John as part of the bible. That is they change the classic protestant 66 book canon and makes it a 65 book canon by removing John's gospel. The question is whether these people have a less solid foundation for their belief than a typical protestant holding to the 66 book canon of scripture. Is there something inherently less reasonable about this group?

We would still have the essentials of the gospel. Those who say Sola Scriptura is right because scripture is sufficient would have to admit the 65 book canon is still sufficient. All the major doctrines of Christianity can be built up from the remaining books. The gospel of John would still be there. It just would not longer be seen as inspired or inerrant.

Then there is the "last man standing" idea. That scripture, tradition, and apostolic succession were once trustworthy sources of truth but tradition and apostolic succession were deemed to have been corrupted over time and so now only scripture can be trusted. Well, if sources thought to be trustworthy have been rejected before. Why not now? As long as we have enough revelation we can proceed.

The New Testament canon is based on which books are apostolic in nature. But if that is based on fallible human analysis of historical data then there is no great surprise that that answer can change over time. Many protestants have left open that theoretical possibility. When that possibility is realized how can they say a bad thing has happened?

Most protestants, I think, would be strongly averse to changing the canon. I think quite rightly so. But why? What would the basis for disliking the 65 book canon? In a word, tradition. That would be the problem. That the 66 book canon has a long history of being at the very center of protestantism. Now the 66 book canon has almost no defenders prior to the reformation but most protestants don't know that. But it is very strong in all the various branches of protestant tradition. They would never assert any kind of infallibility in that tradition. Still it is unthinkable that there is an error in the very center of the Christian faith passed down through the generations.

The truth is Christianity needs tradition to know innovations like this are wrong. There are a lot of them but when you bring one up people get lost in the details of why they don't think this idea is biblical. But comparing the exegetical arguments is not the heart of why people know it is wrong. The truth is they know the faith. They know what has always been part of the essence of Christianity. It has been part of the soul of the church for as long as they can remember and as long as their father and grandfather can remember and back to the beginning. There is a sense of infallibility there that cannot say it's name.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Being Sinless

Every Christian believes that when we get to heaven we will be sinless. But as a protestant I found that hard to imagine. I had been trained in the doctrine of total depravity. That all people are stained by sin at all times. Nothing is spared. Least of all me. I was so far from being sinless I could not even imagine it. In fact, imagining it was probably the sin of pride.

The effect of this was for heaven to be unreal. Sure you believe that after you die you go to heaven and it is very nice. But you can't even think of what one  moment in heave might look like. Not what you will be like or what anyone else would be like. You are just sure that whatever it is it will be totally outside any experience on earth. Not even comparable. It is almost like the being in heaven will be something else, even someone else.

Then I became Catholic and had to deal with the idea that Mary was sinless while on earth. That seemed too weird. The transformation that was supposed to happen when we enter heaven had already happened to her. But she lived her life on earth. She was a mom. She had a husband. She got frustrated when she could not find the boy Jesus for 3 days.

It was one thing to believe Jesus was sinless. Jesus is God so I am not going to think that a sinless me would be exactly like Jesus. But Mary is not God. It makes me wonder if sinlessness is something we could achieve or at least get close to. It gives me a continuity between heaven and earth. The person I will be in heaven and the person I am on earth are one.

Why should I believe in the Immaculate Conception? Why should I believe in the virgin birth? As a protestant I believed in the virgin birth because it was in scripture. I understood that accepting scripture meant accepting all of it. I could not just opt out of this part without knocking the foundations out from all biblical teachings.But beyond that there was a certain logic to it. Mary needed to be pure because Jesus was special.

But the logic of the Immaculate Conception was exactly the same. It was based on revelation from scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. I could not ignore that without effecting the logic foundation of everything. I had been doing a ton of thinking about that so that was obvious. But the logic was the same as well. If it was important for Mary to be free from sexual sin why would it not be important for her to be free from other sins? If Mary needed to be pure then why would God go halfway?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mary and Catholicism

Taylor makes an interesting point at CtC:
I’ll close by saying that if you “Get Mary” you “Get Catholicism.” Mary represents everything that Catholicism is: sacraments, incarnation, sanctity, matrimony, celibacy, prayer, silence, love, charity, faith and works, and even the synergy of the divine work within human vessels.
I have long thought this but not been able to express it this well. Seeing that the church father's had a devotion to Mary was on the surface just one area where they disagreed with protestants. But it was more than that. I felt that it showed a deep Catholicism.

I see that in the modern church as well. When I try to sort out liberal Catholics from those that understand the faith I have learned that Marian devotion is a very good sign. It is related to the concept of spiritual motherhood. If you accept Mary as a mother you will accept the church as a mother and vise versa.  Even though the church does more mothering. The church gives us spiritual food in the Eucharist, she nurses us back to spiritual health when we sin, she makes the rules for the house, etc. Still Mary is mother in other ways. She is what we want to be when we grow up. She is in heaven. She is free from all sin, both original and actual. She blesses the world by mediating God's grace.

The other parallel is both Mary and the church offer the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Mary did it at the cross and the church does it at the mass. The idea that a sacrifice must be offered willingly to be effective. That we are not able to do that. We need a special grace to do that. So the grace of the immaculate conception was needed at the cross. The grace of an immaculately conceived church is needed today.

It boils down to what a protestant would call Sola Christo. That is the sufficiency of Christ. But that is not accurate. Because Christ provided us a church and He provided us with His mother. So Christ is not lacking. Really what is lacking is us. We need help that goes beyond letting Jesus into our hearts. Not because Jesus lacks anything but because we need to be more fully transformed. We need to know what that looks like before we can say Yes to it. Before we can go out and live it. That has to be constant. Like the difference between a wedding vow and a marriage.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Why Less Giving?

Up here in Canada we are seeing that charitable giving is down again. Volunteering is down too. Secular society is doing its very best to change that. Lots of TV shows profiling volunteers and singing their praises. They don't mention their religion but secular society knows that does not matter. People do good things to achieve self-fulfillment. The particulars of their doctrine won't make any difference. The trouble is doctrine does make a difference. Modern humanism simple cannot motivate people to do good in the same way that Christianity did.

There is a sense of breaking life down. A person's inclination to give to society needs to be analyzed in a vacuum. We can talk about whether the Christmas story is true completely separately from why people get caught up in the Christmas spirit. We can promote a sexual morality that completely ignores the dignity of the human person and then wonder why people don't sacrifice for their fellow man like they used to. The reality is that serving God and serving family are the strongest motivators for doing good. Yet we work so hard to undermine both and then are shocked when people are less concerned with the good of society.

What is our connection with eternity? There is life after death and there are the children we raise. A person who is godless and sterile is never going to think about eternity. In fact, they don't even want to think about growing old. So why would it matter if they leave the world a better place then they found it? It is a nice sentiment but how much short term self-interest are you willing to give up for such nice sentiments? When it comes down to giving time and money we it doesn't happen.

The truth is it is easy for Christians to get caught up in the same thinking. We talk about storing up treasures in heaven but do we do it? We also talk about having love relationships that last and bear much fruit. Yes that means children but that is just part of it. True agape love will always overflow and bless others. But how often do we sterilize relationships? To make relationships fun but not fruitful. People can enjoy listening to the word of God for many years and not really change their lives. We need to have an openness to life that permeates everything we do. It starts with out sexuality because that is an icon for our entire spiritual life. But it has to go beyond that. We need to avoid the superficial pleasures and desire the deep joy that comes form lasting fruit.

For all the analysis of how we arrived at such a faithless society and even such a faithless church there is not a lot of mystery about how to fix it. We need saints. People who decide to embrace the faith fully and love sacrificially and intercede for lost souls. Mat 13:23 says:
But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
We need to be one of those seeds. That does not means we need to have that many biological children. But we should have that many spiritual children. We need to be open to God's seed. To nurture them into fruit that will last.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Celebrate Reason?

Interesting billboard. I find it funny because it celebrates reason but does not engage in reason. Is it rational to just assert something is a myth? Is it more reasonable to reject all stories of the supernatural? There is a common perception that science has shown the supernatural can't happen. Really science has very little to say about the supernatural. It is in the business of analyzing the natural. That is explaining events that occur in the world in some sort of predictable way. It can't analyze the supernatural. All it can do is declare that the event is impossible within the framework of the laws of science. But that is not even in dispute. Nobody accepts the virgin birth and claims it is anything other than a miracle. Even Mary knew it was impossible. That didn't mean she lacked faith. It just means she knew science. Virgins don't have children. There is a perception that atheism is advancing because science has advanced to a point where we know these things are impossible. But no new scientific knowledge has changed the facts since the first century. The relationship between sex and children was well understood then.

So what has changed? We have more detailed information about how natural conception takes place. What does that tell us about supernatural conception. Not much.So our level of knowledge has not changed but our acceptance of ignorance has. We tend to be more quick to say that if I don't understand it I don't believe it. But is that based on reason? If we are investigating possible interventions by God into human history is it reasonable to expect to understand how God does things?

We have many stories of supernatural events. Some credible, some not. Some from long ago, some quite recent. A small percentage of them are quite well documented. That small percentage still amounts to thousands of events. So what is the reasonable response to these stories? Is it just to dismiss them all as impossible? How do we know that? From science? What experiment would you expect a different result from if the virgin birth was true? Same for any miracle story. Experiments can show that miracles are not reproducible. But who is saying they are? So science tells us something is not possible naturally. That is precisely why people are suggesting a supernatural cause. So declaring you just KNOW something is a myth is hardly a celebration of reason. It is a refusal to engage in reason.

The truth is most people are afraid to think seriously about the big questions of life. Atheism is gaining popularity not because it encourages deep thinking but because it avoids it. The atheism of a Bertrand Russell was deep and brutally honest. The atheism of Hitchens or Dawkins is more about sneering at Christian thought than responding to it. It is often good because it encourages those who secretly rejected the gospel to more openly reject the gospel. But they are still not being honest with themselves. They think they have rejected faith and embraced reason. The truth is they have embraced a faith IN reason that does not stand up to rational scrutiny. They often are unaware that faith AND reason is what Christianity actually teaches.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Charity and Justice

There is a piece on First Things that talks about charity by the sword. Can the government make people love their neighbor? The answer, of course, is No. Faith, hope, and love are theological virtues. We cannot force people into these virtues. They have to surrender to God. Surrendering to the sword does not count.

But the real question is what is charity? Consider Chesterton:
Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and eclipse. It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment.
So what the government is doing when it guarantees basic living, health care, eduction, etc. for the poor is forcing people to exhibit the virtue of justice. Justice is not a theological virtue. It is a cardinal virtue. Those we can cultivate without reference to God. Governments should cultivate them for the good of society. Certainly making theft illegal is one way a government cultivates the virtue of justice. Making health care available to all is another way.

Now this guy does make this distinction but not consistently. For example he says:
Protestant authors such as Tony Campolo have advocated for charity by the sword in a more directly partisan manner. “I buy into the Democratic Party,” he wrote, “. . . because there are over 2,000 verses of Scripture that deal with responding to the needs of the poor.”
But are the 2000 verses of scripture dealing with charity or justice? He begs that question. But many of those verses come in the prophets and they are addressed to the Kings of Israel and Judah. That means they are not just thinking about individual choices but public policy.  Many of those 2000 verses even use the word justice. So it is not fair to assume he is advocating charity by the sword. That is just partisan exegesis. That is assuming any interpretation that leads a person to support a political party I don't like must be wrong.

It is interesting that Republican worry about legislating morality when it come to the poor. Democrats worry about it when it comes to the unborn or gays. The truth is we are a million miles from charity by the sword. There was a time when that was a problem but it isn't now.  We are in danger of imposing evil by the sword. But we tend to worry about problems we don't actually have. It is the problems we don't acknowledge that kill us.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Person or a Plan?

When protestants despair about the number of denominations and the doctrinal confusion on so many issues one thing you will hear a lot is that Christianity is not about doctrine but it is about a relationship with Jesus. Rhetorically it works. You say not X but rather Y and you push the person's mind to an either/or. Of course it is about both. But it is more than that. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." He is not just saying both but actually saying the two are in fact one. To have a relationship with Jesus is to have a relationship with the truth and it is to have a relationship with the way we are to live and it is to have a relationship with eternal life.

It reminds me of some of St Thomas Aquinas's thoughts on divine simplicity. That God cannot be divided. His goodness, His beauty, His truth, His justice, His mercy, etc. are all really the same thing. His essence is all of these things You cannot separate them. That actually predates Aquinas but I read it from him.

This connects with the Catholic church. Having a relationship with the church is having a relationship with Jesus and it is believing in the doctrines that make up the faith. There is a unity of many things that we think of as separate but are really one. So those that eat and drink the body of blood of Jesus are those that have faith are those that see Jesus in the poor are those who repent of their sins are those who are baptized.

As a protestant I did think of Catholicism as too simple. There was one simple answer for any and every doctrinal question and any and every liturgical question and questions about leadership and on and on. Every question seemed to go away with one simple answer. But if the nature of God is simplicity then why should we expect Christianity to work any differently? When someone would say Jesus is the answer to all your questions I was OK with that. When someone said the Catholic church is the answer to all your questions that would rub me the wrong way. Of course neither is literally true but Catholicism provides a lot more answers in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic package. It cannot be divided just like God cannot be divided.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Over at CtC I made a comment where I talked about how Catholicism teaches that God is still with us. That what happened at Christmas is still our reality. Some others followed up reflecting a bit on what the difference is between the way God is with us in the New Testament that was not true in the Old Testament.

When Jesus was on the cross the curtain of the temple miraculously ripped in two from top to bottom. As a protestant I learned that the barrier between God and man was removed. We now could connect with God directly. That curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. It was a symbol of that separation. So how does that work? The temple is gone. It is replaced with nothing? So how does that benefit us? We can pray directly to God. But could they not do that in the Old Testament? So they had the temple then and now we don't. How is that Immanuel? In what sense is God with us now that he was not before?

Then we have the priesthood. God was present in His priests in a special way. As a protestant I learned about the priesthood of all believers. What that means is we lose the ministerial priesthood. But what do Christians have now they didn't have in the Old Testament? We are not sure but it must be something. But it sure seems that another way in which God was with his Old Testament people actually seems to have disappeared and to not have been replaced.

There were prophets in the Old Testament. People God used to speak His word to His children. They had the scriptures but they also had real live people anointed to speak God's word. Again that is supposed to be replaced with the prophetic office of every believer. Well if everyone is somebody then nobody is anybody. That is how you feel when you are told every believer is a prophet and priest and king. It means the real prophets and apostles who were significant enough to be in the bible don't exist any more. So again we have a lack of Immanuel. God is not with us in a more significant way. We have lost something and not replaced it.

The beautiful thing about Catholicism is we believe all these have been replaced by something greater. We have the Eucharist which is a greater presence of Christ in our church than the Holy of Holies ever was in the temple. We have the ministerial priesthood which is a more powerful office then the Old Testament priesthood. We can personally encounter Christ through the priest especially in the sacrament of confession. Then we have the pope and the bishops. People anointed to teach the church the Word of God.

So God was serious when He said Jesus would be called Immanuel. God is really with us now. The body of Christ is the church and it is visible on earth. If God is with us who can stand against us?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Values and Virtues

To continue on with my previous rambling, we believe in a hierarchy of truths. Higher truths like those revealed by God take precedence over lower truths arrived at through less reliable means. Science does not do that. But in the area of morals we see people using the same kind of reasoning. They break down moral questions to a very low level and try and analyze them that way. The analysis boils down to feelings. Do I feel this is right or wrong? When you try and describe the conclusions on a more general level you get values. What things are, in general, right and what are, in general, wrong? But like scientific theories they allow for exceptions. So adultery can generally be wrong. That can be my value. But I can still feel adultery is OK in exceptional situations.

Catholics say there is a higher truth here. That God has said "Thou shalt not commit adultery." So then my feelings become irrelevant. Again, modern man will look at that and complain you are using faith to trump reason. But the truth that adultery is always wrong can be derived from faith or from reason. So that isn't it. It is the notion that higher moral principles must apply regardless of the individual situations. Modern man tends to rebel against such notions. Often citing reason but never giving a rational argument. Typically there is an appeal to a person's moral intuition rather than an appeal to reason. But a someones moral intuition is hardly infallible. There are always hard cases.

Protestants do appeal to higher truths but they want them to be explicitly in scripture. Adultery is pretty explicitly condemned in scripture. Abortion? Not so much. The evidence becomes questionable very fast. St Thomas Aquinas said the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument. Reason is much more convincing to people. But protestants ONLY accept authority. When you make an argument against contraception based on reason they simply demand scripture and don't even interact with it. Of course, there is scripture as well. But in the Catholic world a rational argument can be given authority by the church. In the protestant it will always be second class.

Queen of the Sciences

Theology was once called the queen of the sciences. Why did they call it that? There is the idea of a hierarchy of truths. Higher truths are more important. Lower truths must be understood in a way consistent with higher truths. Modern man does not get that. Often they describe it as faith trumping reason. But it isn't that. Both the higher and the lower truths might be arrived at through faith and/or reason. The issue is the big picture is clarifying the small picture. Modern man does not accept that as valid.

Science tends to break things down. It tries to understand things by understanding each component. There are big picture scientific theories but they are more patterns found in observations. If most living material is found to be made up of cells then we construct a cell theory that describes that. But if there are exceptions to the theory. For example, red blood cells have no nucleus or viruses are living and have no cells. Then the cell theory just has to admit exceptions. The cell theory is not a truly higher truth. It is more a way of organizing smaller truths so they can be understood more easily.

The theory of evolution is like that. It can give you a way of understanding and organizing data around extinct species. Scientists that do that sort of thing seem to believe it works well. There are exceptions but the theory remains the most useful way to describe the patterns found in the data. But there are people who want to interpret the data using a higher truth. Fundamentalists tend to want to throw out the whole theory. Scientists don't like that because it is the best theory they have for explaining and predicting observations. You want to use the best theory. If you don't have a better one then come back when you do. Better in this case means more intuitively explaining the data and more accurately predicting new observations.

Catholics don't want to throw out the theory but want to understand the data in terms of higher Catholic truths and especially want to control extrapolations into unproven areas. For example, the tendency to assume physical randomness proves a lack of supernatural design. We have long understood that a fairly random physical event like the death of a particular person on a battlefield does have a supernatural will behind it. The scientific analysis would seem random but we would take the will of God to be a higher truth. So the randomness must be understood in that light. So there has always been this tension and it has always caused some to conclude there is not God. But the problem has  typically been with what God allows to happen. Is it against his nature?. The idea that He could be working His will in this huge amount of data is not the problem. Somehow with evolution it becomes a problem. But logically nothing has changed. The numbers are bigger but God is infinite.

Part of it has to do with the influence of Fundamentalist thinking. Many will say if the scientists are right about evolution then the bible is wrong. They know not all Christians say that but their perception is the biggest names are taking that position. Then the position of Catholics and many evangelicals seems like a sad second choice. We can't take the position we really want so we have to revamp out theory. But that is not it at all. This is the natural Catholic position to be open to development and a better understanding of creation.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Contraception Confusion

One of the things getting lost during the recent condom controversy is the more general lack of teaching on contraception in the Catholic church. Why do people parse a few paragraphs by the pope? Maybe because they are obsessed with sex. But part of it is because there are so few priests and bishops who regularly explain and defend the church's teaching on contraception. If that happened more often and more effectively then nobody would think the doctrine could be changed by the pope just saying the word. There would be more of a sense that this is the faith of the church and not just the faith of the pope. Not that 100% of Catholics are going to believe it but many more would if it was taught. But people would get the problem. That Catholics have been saying this is gravely immoral for 2000 years. That we have been basing that teaching on the revelation of God given by Jesus which we claim to understand. To say we got it wrong  is essentially to say we don't understand what God revealed through Jesus. That essentially means we are clueless about the gospel of Christ.

People don't get that because the church has not actually been teaching it very actively for the past 50 years or so. So few people would be shocked if their local priest and bishop accepted contraception because the majority of Catholics have never heard their local priest or bishop speak against contraception. So they don't feel this is part of the core of the faith. This is the shame of the church that there are so many moral cowards that even Catholics who want to know and live the fullness of the faith often have a hard time finding someone who will teach it. There is an such epidemic of niceness that prevents us from even discussing the topic. So when the pope mentions it Catholics are too shocked to be able to process the comments intelligently.

Pope Benedict often does this. He tries to focus on the positive. He wants people to understand Catholics do listen. We know the situation with AIDS and condoms. We don't just dismiss new realities and new thinking about it. But we don't dismiss the old thinking either. Certainly the morality of condoms has become harder to live out in recent decades. But saying something is hard does not make it any more or less moral. The question remains the same. I can not have sex or have sex with a condom. Both will prevent pregnancy and disease. Not having sex is the moral choice because it does not desecrate the sex and and turn it into mere orgasm exchange. That moral reasoning remains as valid today as ever.

But what about somebody who is not living a moral life and is spreading AIDS freely? Pope Benedict shows he does think about such people. But he does not want them to take one small step towards morality. He wants them to embrace all of what God has called them to. Can condom use represent a first step? One can imagine it. In some ways it is like embracing the religion of the secular west. Condom use is a value they preach. What if they joined an African tribal religion that preached chastity and they changed their behavior because of that? That would be a step in the right direction too but we would still want them to embrace the full truth of Christ.

The point is such moral reasoning is hard enough when you have a basic understanding of the church's thinking on contraception. The reality is not many people have that. Why? Because the church has failed. They have not boldly proclaimed the gospel of Christ. So when the pope does it he sounds weird. But it is the priest who fails to teach the faith that is the true weirdness. Like a beaver who does not make dams or a vine that does not grow grapes. They are not being what they are.This is common but it is not natural. Priests, starting with the ministerial priest and extending to the priesthood of all believers, priests must teach the faith. Especially those parts of it that society most ridicules.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Holy Days of Obligation

The setting of holy days of obligation resides with the national bishops conferences. So the USCCB decides which days, beyond Sundays, American are required to go to mass. The CCCB does the same for Canada. The CCCB has asked us to observe only 2 days of obligation. There is Christmas and the feast of the Mother of God on Jan 1st. That is it. The US bishops have a few more days.

But because it is decided at a national level it would make a lot of sense to add days that make sense for the nation. For example, Ireland has St Patrick's day at a holy day of obligation. The most obvious candidate is Thanksgiving Day. Canada and the US both have a strong secular tradition around Thanksgiving.  We celebrate it on different days but the sentiment is the same. Giving thanks. Who do we thank? We don't talk about that. We just give thanks.

This holiday could be transformed into a holy day. The connection with the Eucharist is obvious. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. So why not ask Americans and Canadians to celebrate the Eucharist on Thanksgiving? Catholics have a long history of transforming secular feasts into Catholic feasts. Embrace what is good about it and leave aside the bad. Sometimes it is called baptizing a feast. If there was ever a feast day ripe for baptizing Thanksgiving is it. But our bishops don't seem to want to go there.

I am a little biased because as a protestant Thanksgiving was baptized. We went to church. It was one of the highlights of our liturgical year. We focused on thanks of course. We also focused on giving. It was a day when as students we would do an accounting of our summer earnings. We would insure we had tithed properly. Even for the adults alms-giving was a big part of the day. Then I become Catholic and they do nothing. Why is it so hard to connect our thankfulness with our faith? It seems perfectly natural.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pope's Book

One spiritual principle I have heard on both sides of the Tiber is the notion that resistance is a sign of effectiveness. That is if you see a lot of spiritual weapons being marshaled against you then you can be pretty sure you are doing something right. This is what I feel about the pope's book. It is like Satan is firing absolutely everything he has to try and stop it. We have everything. There are high level Catholic officials stabbing him in the back. There is the classic "change some key words in the translation" trick that we have seen before. There is the media's inability to read a few hundred words of text and get the real story. There is the cultural obsession with all things sexual. There is the Vatican PR department that takes Sundays off. There is the protestant tendency to take cheap shots on any issue involving the pope and/or contraception.

This book launch seems to have combined absolutely everything that can go wrong. Which more than anything makes me interested to read this book. Why is someone working so hard to distract attention from the real message here? There has got to be some real potential for this book to be very powerful.

Why The Church Declines

I have been thinking a lot about history. About why the church grows and why it declines. The growth part is easy to get and exciting to talk about. But history has not been about uninterrupted church growth. One thing about the decline in the last 50 years is it is really a decline of the last few centuries. There have been times over that period where the church has grown. The years right after the depression and WWII are a good example. Certainly the time from 1945-1965 was a great period for the church. But that was a response to some very hard times. People were shaken to their very core by the war. Every life was in such danger. Ever institution was threatened. People turned to God in a big way. But when you look at what happened in the early part of the 20th century and what happened in the later part it is easy to see the continuity between them. That the war caused people to ditch their love affair with modernism and remain faithful for a time but they went back to modernism after the fear subsided. I think that is a much better historical narrative to understand the decline of the faith in the west. Seeing it as a 50 year phenomenon makes us idealize the spirituality of the 1950's. But that was a dysfunctional spirituality born out of fear. Their failure to pass their faith to their children is a sign that all was not well.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is Voltaire. I was thinking of a statement he made that if we can get rid of the Jesuits the Catholic church will be gone in 20 years. He got his wish. The Jesuits were suppressed. The church went into decline. In fact, the Catholic Church was banned as an organization in France for a while. Of course it was not really gone. But why did God allow that to work? The Jesuits of that time were great. They were showing how Catholic scholars could excel in every area better than secular scholars. They were educating much of Europe's elite and inspiring many of them to become priests. Why would God allow such a beautiful organization to be destroyed? It was even a pope that did it. Certainly God could have prevented that!

The answer comes back to free will. God wants us to love Him. He does not want us to feel trapped in a relationship with Him. Voltaire expressed what many in France were thinking. The Church and the Jesuits in particular were forcing France into religious submission against her true will. They were not revealing the deepest truths about man and God but rather they were suppressing the truth to preserve their own power. That was not the case but the fact that people felt that way was important to God. God never wants to be seen as a brain washer. He is a lover. He wants people to love Him back. Not to resent His power and wish they could escape. That would be an abusive relationship. Even if the relationship is not abusive just the fact that your partner feels it is quite a serious problem.

So God gives us what we want. If we want the to be free from the power of the church He lets that happen. But then we have to deal with whoever steps into the void. Another church, secular politicians, Catholics who are not really that serious about their faith. All of these are poor substitutes for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But God says Yes and gives us what we want because He is just. He says No and gives us what we need because He is merciful. If we got what we want all the time we would be in much worse shape.

The same can be seen in modern technology. When people resent the way God has linked sex and procreation God gives them the power to break that link. Not that it is a good thing to do. But if people feel the link is a torment rather than a blessing God allows us to experience how degrading sterile sex can be. Same with technology used for pornography. God gives us what we want to allow us to see it is not what we need.

This explains why secularism has taken hold in many countries where the Catholic church was dominate. Protestants have hailed this as evidence that their Catholicism is somehow inferior to American Evangelicalism. I have pointed out that dominate protestant churches have gone secular as well. But the deeper question of why still needs an answer. Part of it is the lack of separation between church and state. When society feels smothered by a church there seems to be a bad dynamic. Each generation has to be evangelized. When religion becomes so ingrained in society that people have to accept it whether they believe it or not then religion gets divorced from faith. It becomes a dead ritual. That is not just bad for the people being pushed into something they don't believe. It is also bad for the church. That is when we see God allowing the church to crash.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who To Invite?

One of the things that the church has always done is hold councils. The biblical model for this is in Acts 15 where the church gets together to resolve the question of circumcision for gentile converts. Protestants type and do this to resolve issues as well. They have synods or conventions where people get together and vote on disputed matters. The problem is they don't know who should be invited to these gatherings. If it is known issue X is going to be voted on at a synod then any time delegates are chosen for that synod their view of issue X is much discussed. So it becomes a political process. Like primaries and caucuses picking delegates for a presidential convention. Every delegate is fought over by the various sides in the debate.

So when we see a movie like the Da Vinci Code depict the Council of Nicea as that kind of event it is not hard to see where they got it from. But one thing that didn't happen at the Council of Nicea or any of the ecumenical councils is a dispute over who to invite. The central fight of any church synod simply did not occur. There was never any debate over who should go the council and who should not. Why? Because everyone thought it was self-evident that the successors of the apostles should go. It didn't matter what they believed about the Arian controversy. It just mattered if they were validly ordained by another bishop.

What that does is it changes the nature of a council. When it is a political process what you are going to get is the will of the people. But what you really want is the will of God. Sure the people we are talking about are all serious Christians but they are all influenced by the culture to a serious degree as well. Not just by secular culture but by Christian media as well. It is quite predictable. You can look at votes from today and 20 years ago and 40 years ago and see a definite liberal drift. That means people's opinions are changing. But if you were really discerning the mind of God you should not see this change.

People understand that. There is no respect for the decisions of these bodies. They clarify what people already believe but they don't convince any dissenters to change their minds. So they are nothing like the council described in Acts 15. That is what they are going for but they just are not able to do it. This is in great contrast to the Catholic church which has been able to hold councils as needed right up to modern times.

Really the difference is that protestant gatherings are works-based and Catholic councils are grace-based. Protestants do as many good works as they can to try and make as good a decision as they can. But it is still a human effort. Catholics work and pray as well but they believe they need a special grace of God or the whole thing will fail. That is the grace of the apostolic office of bishop and the grace of the petrine office of pope. It is the protestants that are saying they don't believe God gives such a grace. That God works through individuals but there is no way of knowing for sure which ones they are.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Objectively Immoral

When discussing moral issues one of the key points of misunderstanding typically lies in the difference between the objectively moral or immoral acts and a subjectively moral or immoral disposition. Essentially the what we do and why we do it. Modern culture assumes that all moral questions flow from the why and not from the what. That what matters is whether your heart is in the right place. If it is you can't be morally culpable. One example I find breaks this down is the 911 terrorists. If you assume, as many do, that they really believed they were doing good does it then follow that they are not morally responsible regardless of how objectively evil the act was? But most don't think through examples like that. They believe that as long as their intentions were good that is all that matters.

The belief is so ingrained it is normal that people don't even understand what you are saying when you talk about objectively immoral acts. People assume you are being judgmental. If immorality flows from a persons subjective moral disposition then saying an act is immoral amounts to judging the interior thoughts of anyone and everyone committing this act. But that is not what the church is talking about at all. If it was then you could say nothing about the morality of any act because any act can have infinitely many possible moral dispositions behind it. But that just isn't true. Certain acts are immoral by nature. That is true regardless of the mental and emotional state of the actor.

You see that with the latest condom comments. The pope comments on one possible subjective moral disposition of a condom user. Then everyone leaps to the conclusion that he has changed his mind on the objective morality of condom use. He didn't even address that. He probably should have said more to clarify this distinction but the assumptions of our culture run deep. Our ability to read more than 20 words of what the pope says is pretty weak as well. So most people would just assume the pope is slowly coming around to the position that condoms are great. Not exactly.

The objective/subjective thing is more confusing to protestants. They have a problem with objective morality because they have a problem discerning objective truth. If condoms are objectively immoral then how are we supposed to know it when our protestant teachers are telling us they are fine? So there is a subjective element to doctrinal uncertainty. We have to assume we don't need to know the truth about faith and morals because protestants can't agree on what that truth is. So moral knowledge is subjective so how can morality have an objective component?

The problem with subjective morality is that it does not fit the big picture of Christianity. We believe in a fallen world. Sin is normal but it isn't natural. Sin is everywhere but it is evil. So how can subjective morality be enough in a fallen world? We need to know what we fell from and what God is restoring us too. We can't look to our moral feelings for that. We need God to reveal that to us. Sure we have some spiritual sense of what God's will for our lives is but we need an objective, external plumb line to measure it against. Otherwise many will fall into the trap of what is common must be acceptable.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Contradictions in Christianity

There is a post here about atheist claims that the bible has contradictions. He makes a few good points. What I find interesting is the strong parallel between alleged contradictions within scripture and alleged contradictions within the larger Catholic scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. His first point:
When I first got to college, I had begun to take my faith seriously and yet was encountering much opposition to the Bible in my humanities classes. So the claim that the Bible contradicted itself bothered me, and I looked into it. I went to the library and found the best books I could documenting so-called contradictions in the Bible, looked through them for the most challenging claims of contradiction I could find, and discovered through study and my own reflection that every single one had an answer.
This is a subjective thing but it is true about many intelligent people. They don't simply blindly accept the lack of contradiction. They take a skeptical view and study. But there are many Catholic converts who tell this same story. Studying all the alleged contradictions and finding them to have good answers. Many are just assertions that a text has to be interpreted in a protestant way. Many are a misunderstandings of the doctrine of infallibility. The point is all the specific examples you typically find have good answers. Those are from educated people who are motivated to find real contradictions and they fail every time. That means something.

The next point worth making is that the appearance of contradictions is not a bad thing. Rather, it is a good thing because it stimulates thought.
I reject entirely the notion that “the contradiction is the hallmark of truth.” If two things really contradict one another, they cannot both be true.
But tension and the initial appearance of contradiction are something else altogether. They cause us to think harder about how the two truths fit together. They cause us to probe more deeply and come to an even greater understanding.
Which is why crying out “contradiction” when we see tension in the Bible is lazy and superficial. It leaves us with uncreative level one thinking, rather than bringing us deeper into a fuller understanding of the truth.
This superficial and lazy thinking is something I see in protestantism a lot. Either you believe in Sola Fide or you are Pelagian. Really? There are no other options? Either you believe in a ministerial priesthood or the priesthood of all believers. Either you believe in the pope or the bible. The world is full of complex realities. These paradoxes may be difficult but why would you expect the questions of God not to be difficult? Either embrace the tension or study the theology and learn all the proper distinctions. But don't dismiss the whole system because of a lazy and superficial analysis.

Part of this expectation for both atheists and protestants is that God should make this easy. That God should make his existence obvious and He should make the truth about the Catholic church obvious. He has chosen not to do that. He makes us work. The effect that had on me is to allow me to fall in love with His church. If He had just pointed to the church and said, "There she is. Obey!" that would have been harder. That slow realization that this amazing, life-altering claim is really true. That allows the emotions to get involved.

Michael Horton and Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

Mike Liccione posted a link to a review of one of Horton's books.
Horton calls the prevalent American religion moralistic, therapeutic deism. It is moralistic in its belief that people are basically good and simply need good advice on how to save themselves. It is therapeutic in its diagnosis of humanity's problem as feelings of guilt and the unnecessary burden of living according to rules. God exists primarily for our happiness. It is deistic in its restriction of God's involvement in the world. God has set certain natural patterns in place for our self-realization, but he is not personally offended by our sin. In this religion the distinction between law and gospel is blurred so that no one is confronted with the gravity of their sin and therefore no one is amazed with the wonder of the gospel. People who are impressed with themselves will not be impressed with Christ except insofar as he serves their own personal agendas.
It is quite an insightful analysis of much of the church attending western world. There is a mix of secularism and Christianity that ends up being the operational philosophy of most church people. What is preached is often not wrong. Christianity has much to say about morals. It has much to say about healing our minds and hearts. Freedom from guilt is also important. But somehow those things get put together in a very unorthodox way. The central truth that we are sinners in need of salvation gets lost somewhere.

It is important to note that Michael Horton is reformed and he is talking mostly about reformed churches. Catholics sometimes feel they are the only ones who have problems with creeping liberalism. It is everywhere. It is hard to teach the truth about sin in a culture that worships self-esteem. It is hard to explain how profoundly offensive things like pornography and premarital sex are to God when the world celebrates them in so many forms. It is hard to ask  people to profess that the cross of Christ is the only way to heaven in a world that wants to make all faiths the same.

Historically evangelical pastors have taken that job somewhat more seriously than Catholic priests. Thankfully that is changing. But even evangelicals have seen mixed success. Not all pastors preach the counterculture parts of the gospel strongly and frequently. Those that do often find people choosing another church with a more watered-down message. Evangelical Christianity does not have an answer to secularism. They are fighting the good fight but on many fronts they are losing.

So what is the solution?
Horton calls the church to return to the ministry of Christ through the ordinary means of grace, Word and sacrament. The church needs to be the church, only then will people be transformed by the gospel of her Head.
So close  and yet so far. He is exactly right that the church needs to get back to the Word of God. That is scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. We need to embrace the faith and that means all of us embracing the same faith. We can't say God wants us to study His Word with reverence and obedience but we don't agree on what that word actually says. That God is deeply offended by sin but what sin is can change from one preacher to the next.

He is also right to mention sacraments. We need true sacraments, especially a Eucharist and confession. Then we need to go. We need to celebrate them with humility. We need to deal with mortal sins so we can come to the table in a state of grace. Not so we can achieve some worldly goal but so we can receive Jesus.

His is also right to point out the central role of the church. The church does need to be church. That means we need to start by getting a proper understanding of what the church is. The body of Christ. The household of faith. The pillar and foundation of truth. Built on the rock that is Peter. Who has the keys. All of that.

I said evangelicals and Catholics have a problem with this moralistic, therapeutic deism. The perception among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that the catholic church has a bigger problem. That certainly was true. I am not sure it is anymore. Nevertheless, it is hard for an evangelical to see moving to the Catholic model of church as the solution when the Catholic community has this problem worse than they do.

But there are two things being ignored. One is that there is a strong core inside the Catholic church that has not succumbed to this. Certainly there are many Catholic that have gone liberal. Even entire Catholic institutions like universities and religious orders have completely caved in. Still the bishops and the pope remain faithful. You would not expect that naturally but you would expect it supernaturally. That God's promise to preserve His church through the successors of the apostles and the successors of Peter is actually real and He is actually keeping it.

The second thing is that this problem is getting worse and worse in evangelicalism and it is getting better and better in the Catholic world. As a whole evangelicals are getting more liberal and Catholics are getting more orthodox. I expect that tend to continue and become even more dramatic. It is related to the bishops and pope being protected from error by God. Evangelical leaders have no such protection. The younger leaders tend to be more liberal. There will be some faithful remnant churches splitting off but the big picture will be decline. Many protestant churches will go down the road of Anglicanism. The Catholic church would to if it was not for the special graces God gives her. Human organizations cannot remain holy no matter how hard they try.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

50 Anglicans Swimming the Tiber

Interesting story in the Telegraph.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, will reveal on Friday the Vatican's plans to welcome the departing priests - including five bishops - who are expected to be received into the Catholic Church early in the new year.
Hundreds of Anglican churchgoers will join them in the Ordinariate - a structure introduced by Pope Benedict XVI to provide refuge for those diaffected with the Church of England.
The number of worshippers who leave the Church is predicted to double as the new arrangement finally begins to take shape.
Fr Z refers to Pope Benedict as the pope of Christian unity. It makes sense. What does unity look like? It looks like everybody accepting one faith, one Eucharist and one leader. The protestant idea of church unity is so far from this that they don't even see this as a unification. When somebody becomes Catholic the idea that church unity has increased does not even compute. But how else can unity happen? Jesus needs to draw all men to Himself. But visible unity is only going to happen through the visible Vicar of Christ.

The Anglican church often leads the way and other denominations follow. There have been many individual Anglican priests converting. This is being followed by whole groups of clergy coming together. I would not be surprised to see whole groups of Lutheran or Presbyterian clergy swim the Tiber in the next decade or so. Isn't God's grace amazing?

All the focus will be on the Anglicans. That these people are leaving the Anglican church because they don't like gays or women. The truth is much deeper than that. The hope is they are not motivated by an anger at their old church as much as they are by a love for Jesus. A realization that He is present in the Catholic church in ways He is not present in the Anglican church. Some of their motives will be mixed for sure but my prayer is they focus on where they are going and not what they are leaving.

I am even hopeful people like this might help transform the church in England. In many ways these converts will be better Catholics than 90% of England's Catholics. Like Bl Cardinal Newman and GK Chesterton they can become positive forces in the church.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Death and Development

Listening to some more Caritas in Veritate.
Authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension. Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity.
The focus in November is on the last things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. I appreciate that the church does this. There was never a set time for this as a protestant. It is a topic we avoid when we can. But avoiding it has pretty dire consequences. Here Pope Benedict talks about the development of human society. The trouble is progress only happens when people are focused on the long term good of humanity. If people see human life as finite then it becomes hard to keep you mind on the big picture. People start to wonder whether the rewards of such idealism will be seen in this life. The answer is often No. So a young visionary might become selfish as they get into middle-age. They might betray the cause for the sake of personal gain. If they are living just for this life the temptation will be strong.

Even the very definition of progress depends on having an eternal perspective. Is the state more important than the individual? If the individual is eternal and the state is temporal then you will answer No. Or what about immodest displays of public sexuality? If chastity is important for a person's soul then society won't tolerate pornography.

While many people in society have this eternal perspective they seem to feel it is appropriate that it be excluded from public life. That public policy can maintain a purely temporal perspective. That we might have a bit of God talk as part of an election but that it is out of place while planning and implementing social policy. The pope seems to suggest that if you don't keep the perspective of eternal life in mind you will choke the life out of your social programs. It will become focused on who gets what in purely material terms. Health care becomes a fight about money between doctors and insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies instead of society respecting the value of human life and the importance of supporting each other in death.

Verbum Domini

Pope Benedict recently published a document on scripture, Verbum Domini. Eric Sammons has a post where he goes into the two dangers the pope sees in interpreting scripture. The historical-critical method and the fundamentalist method.
Historical-criticism is the dominant method of biblical interpretation in the academic world. Historical-critics look at the Bible as simply a human document and study it as such. They want to answer questions such as: “Who wrote this?” “When was it written?” “What is the history of its development?” “How was the text handed on through the centuries?” They are not concerned with topics such as inspiration or inerrancy, nor do they look at how one’s life might be impacted by reading the Bible. To historical-critics, biblical interpretation is a purely scientific affair that attempts to uncover the origins of the biblical text. Anything beyond that is seen as superfluous. In the academic world, whether Protestant or Catholic or secular, this is almost the only biblical interpretation that exists.
Fundamentalism is a reaction to historical-criticism that became widespread in the early 20th century and is most commonly found among conservative Protestants. It is the viewpoint that takes every word completely literally and at face-value. For example, a fundamentalist will count the years noted in Genesis and then determine how old the earth is. Fundamentalism grew because many faithful Christians believed that the historical-critical method denied the divine authorship of the Bible and they wanted to recover that.
This is a common theme for Pope Benedict. In so many areas he sees people viewing God as a creation of man and therefore all alleged divine revelation as merely wise human insights. That makes them ideas modern man may discard if they believe they have better ideas. Then there is the reaction of those who say certain ideas are fundamental to the faith and must be assented to regardless of what modern man deems to be wise or moral. The one group uses reason to destroy faith. The other group uses faith to destroy reason. So it is no surprise the pope sees these same two schools of thought in the area of biblical exegesis as well.

Of course the truth is even more amazing than either side dares dream. It is not that God said it and that settles it. It is that God continues to speak. When our modern reasoning contradicts our doctrine we don't have to pick one or the other. We can allow God to speak to the matter through His church. This does not mean leaving scripture behind. God's modern guidance is never going to contradict God's ancient revelation. It is also never going to contradict what we know through scientific and historical analysis. Unless, of course, we have made an error in interpreting that data or those texts.

Fundamentalism tries to save scripture from contradictory human opinions by declaring one opinion to be right. It is a noble effort. They know in their hearts they need infallibility. So they assume they must have it. They are right. God would not leave them orphans. But their method of declaring doctrines infallible assumes they are orphans. It assumes the Christians I respect are the ones that need to get together and define what the fundamentals of the faith are. That makes it pretty easy. I can rig the process to insure the answers I get will be to my liking. But God's true word is not that safe and predictable.

We all learn about the 3 legged stool where scripture, tradition, and the magisterium support each other and hold up the church. But you really see that here. The simplistic view of scripture just does not work. You need to view scripture as an historical piece of literature. So the historical-critical method is not wrong. It is just incomplete. But if you allow for all that complexity you lose clarity and strength. Not if you have tradition and the magisterium as a guide. Not if our goal is to deepen our understanding of the deposit of faith rather than to find a reason to doubt the faith.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Skeptical and Rational

Spending some time reading Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa. That is Kreeft picking sections of St Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and walking you through them with generous footnotes. Lots of interesting stuff. I was thinking about something on arguments for God. Consider this argument:
  1. This beach has footprints
  2. All things that have footprints have been in contact with feet
  3. This beach has been in contact with feet.
Now this argument runs backwards from most. Most look at the cause and make conclusion about the effect based on some cause and effect relationship which we know. This starts with the effect. It tries to reason back to the cause. When we do this arguments tend to be a lot less rigorous. If you think about it, premise 2 is not rigorously true. We can think of ways footprints could be created that don't involve human feet. So if someone wanted to be skeptical one could reject this argument as unsound. But would that be rational? Not in this case. We live in a world where such inferences are normal and they are almost always right. It would be irrational to reject such arguments. We would be rejecting a very good source of information even if it isn't 100% logical.

Thomas makes the point that every argument about God is going to be of this form. When we reason about God we are always moving from the effect back the cause. This is because nothing causes God. So the arguments might be able to convince a rational mind but are unlikely to convince a skeptical mind. A mind that rejects the footprints/feet relationship because they can imagine another cause for footprints will not get far in reasoning about God. But we don't have many minds like that. What we do have are minds that move from rational to skeptical when talking about religion. They accept footprints and feet but will not accept creation and creator.

One reason people feel it is right to become more skeptical in matters involving God is because we are looking at finite effects. We are drawing inferences about an infinite God. There seems like a mismatch. But magnitude does not really matter. We accept DNA evidence in a murder trial. Nobody argues since DNA molecules are small and the impact of a guilty verdict is large that DNA should not be used to justify murder convictions. Small evidence can lead to big conclusions. Finding the footprints of God is like that. They have huge implications if we are willing to take them to their rational conclusion.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Misconceptions About Catholicism

Mark Shea has a post about anti-Catholic legends. He is talking about the classic list of Loraine Boettner stuff that keep s getting recycled. I guess I don't worry about that much. When I was a protestant I never put much stock in such things. But there were some serious misconceptions about the church that did cause problems. Catholics worship Mary. Catholics believe you need to earn your salvation by good works. Catholics don't believe in the bible. These I think are more damaging. Serious protestant thinkers believe and repeat these ideas. Most people understand the use of candles is not a good reason to accept or reject Catholicism. But the more serious charges of false teachings do form the basis of why protestants feel they cannot become Catholic.

The thing I noticed as a protestant starting to explore the Catholic faith was not only are these caricatures false but many protestant apologists who admitted they were false would still repeat them in other contexts. Part of it is just protestant shorthand. They need to refer to protestant/Catholic issues without explaining them in detail. But even shorthand should be accurate and charitable. Part of it is insecurity. The shorthand is designed to remind people that the Catholic position is just completely unreasonable. The trouble is that really is in accurate and uncharitable.

If you think about reasonable and charitable ways to refer to these disputes. Instead of "Catholics don't believe in the bible" you could say "Catholics don't read the bible the way I do."  That does not really capture it. Because it is not just one protestant who feels that way. So maybe "the Catholic way of reading scripture is wrong." That states the wrongness as an objective reality but people get that a Catholic would not agree. The trouble is that it can make people curious. How exactly does this wrong reading of scripture hold together?

Protestants will preach this way frequently. Group A says this. Group B says that. But the bible says such and such. What they really mean is group C says such and such and I am a member of group C. But if they preached that way the subjectivity and self-centered nature of protestantism would be obvious. The preacher himself does not understand that his group, group C, is logically parallel to groups A and B if you take his personal opinion out of it. He really thinks the bible says such and such and he treats that as an infallible interpretation. What else do you do? Tell them you don't know? Preachers are not wired that way.

If we move on to "Catholics worship Mary" or  "Catholics believe you need to earn your salvation by good works." These are a bit more difficult. The problem here is Catholics make a distinction that protestants think is invalid. So to describe in shorthand any distinction at all would kind of concede the point to the Catholics. But they end up as saying positions condemned by the church are official church teaching. It must be possible to be more accurate than that. Just saying Catholics believe in salvation by faith and works. That is accurate and charitable. The trouble is most protestants immediately thing, "What is wrong with that?" That is the reaction they are trying to avoid. But it is the normal reaction when interacting with reasonable biblical exegesis.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Myth of a Life Without Suffering

There is an article in the Wall street Journal called Mothering Madness. Carl Olson does a long fisk of it here. It just struck me how her argument went. Motherhood has some big challenges. Therefore motherhood should be avoided. The same logic leads to many abortions. Raising a child is going to be a long, hard struggle. But that is the end of the thinking. There is an unspoken premise. That the life we choose could or should be anything other than a long, hard struggle. We just accept that without argument. That somehow the default is a suffering-free life.

Do we know anyone who has had such a thing? We can point to people who superficially seem to be free from suffering. They might be rich, healthy, good looking, etc. But typically we don't know these people very well at all. When we know them well enough to know if they are truly pain-free then often we find the answer is No. But is the absence of pain a good way to happiness? We can take the "don't worry, be happy" approach to life. But to not worry is to not love. Do we want to go there? Often going there involves taking drugs because we are not designed to not care. But caring involves suffering.

I remember a professor I had at Calvin College. He said that when choosing courses that most mistakes are made when people choose course A over course B because A is easier. That kind of stuck with me. Taking the easier road leads to more mistakes. It does not mean we should go looking for a hard life. It means that when we try and avoid it we should have red flags go up. Is avoiding suffer being achieved by ignoring some important cost? Suffering has the ability to skew our reasoning. We can't see why taking the hard course will matter much anyway.

One thing that has mattered to me is looking at how the saints approached suffering. None of them had an easy life. So if I want to be a saint why should I desire an easy life? Is that the path to holiness? Maybe taking the harder course will benefit us somehow.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Kant and Theology of the Body

Edward Feser has an interesting post on the influence of Kant on modern society and on Christian thinking. It seems to tie in pretty directly with the Theology of the Body debate. Kant described man as a “self-legislator” or an "end in himself." Some Christian teachers use this kind of language, which is everywhere in the modern world, to describe Christianity. I would say Theology of the Body is at least partially in this category. Here is his comment:
To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.
He has a good point. When we try and use Theology of the Body as a shortcut. It often fails. We start with the idea of human dignity. I am not convinced this talk does not convince anyone. Some can sense intuitively that pornography is a violation of human dignity. But his is right you cannot make the case solid without going back to who God is and for what purpose God made us. Theology of the Body does that too. It talks about the trinity and where we come from and where we are going. But much of the language that is most appealing to the culture and most offensive to traditional Catholics is the baptized Kantian language.

When you present truth you can start anywhere. You can start with man and teach the truth as it related to him. You can start with God and move down to man. The logic does flow better when you start with God. When you start with man you can't rationally compel people to go the direction you want them to go. You can show how the it is logically consistent and fitting but you can't really prove this is the only option. When you start with God the logic flows much more powerfully. But when you start there much of modern society won't remain engaged enough to hear you finish.

So there are two dangers. One is that we don't communicate the truths of Christianity in the language of our culture. That we teach it in the language of the Scholastic metaphysics and end up talking past people. I think Humanae Vitae and some of the older teachings on morality did this. They are not wrong but the culture has no idea how to interact with them.

The second is to lose the gospel in the translation. This is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem because of the unconscious assumptions inherent in the language. It is really more of a tradition. It is very hard to challenge premises so deep that people don't realize they are there. Often even the teachers are so deeply immersed in the culture's way of thinking they accept unchristian premises without questioning it. This is why on contraception protestants didn't just change the medium. They changed the message. They got the morality tragically wrong.

Theology of the Body changes the medium but not the message. Yes, if you try and take shortcuts John Paul never took then you can get a distorted message. Do guys like Chris West take these shortcuts? Not if you do what I did and start with an introduction that has 4 hour long talks. But people are looking for shorter presentations than that. People just look at a few clips on YouTube. Then there can be dangers. He follows the flow of the modern mind for a while and then takes it in a different direction at a key point. If you don't get that key point you might think he is simply endorsing modern thinking. Only some of it. The part that is right.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. Often people want to simplify Christianity to just faith or simplify it to just love. We love things to be instant. But Christianity is not instant. It is meant to take a lifetime. So we are to take faith and develop hope. How do we do that? November is a month where we contemplate the last things. They are heaven, hell, death, and judgment. These are truths we know by faith. Still we need to internalize them so they can produce hope in us. Hope is orienting our lives towards salvation. Recognizing the eternal significance of some of our choices and the insignificance of others.

We tend to avoid focusing on the next life. The most common thing you here is not to worry. Where does that lead? We end up worrying about temporal things. How much money do we have? What do people think of us? How can we have more fun? It is not wrong to think about these things but they need to be of lesser importance than the eternal matters. That means sacrificing the temporal for the eternal. Certainly a logical thing to do. He is no fool who sacrifices what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

One question we are faced with is whether we really believe what we confess. We accept it as true but are we willing to order our lives around those truths? Modern man has found a strange category for religious truth. We can affirm foundational truths in very strong language and still not take them very seriously. Death is one reality that makes us take them seriously. Do we really believe what we believe? If we do faith will cause us to develop the virtue of  hope. Our lives will become ordered towards heaven.

Of course the content of the faith we have matters here. When we focus on things that matter in eternity it makes a difference what we believe those things are. If we believe in double predestination then the answer is nothing matters. Who goes to heaven and hell is predetermined. Purgatory does not exist. So nothing we do in this life has any eternal consequence. All that talk about storing up treasure in heaven must be just a figure of speech or something.

If we are Armenian then we believe faith decisions matter. So we might focus on things directly related to faith. Things like worship, bible study, prayer that make our faith stronger. Evangelism is also big because we want to help others make those faith decisions. Of course Calvinists would be quick to point out how this immediately becomes about works. Doesn't this water down Sola Fide? It does. That is a good thing. Armenians would never admit that but they are much closer to the Catholic position.

So what matters for Catholics? Everything. Purgatory requires the purification from all sin - even venial sin. Suffering in any degree can be united with Christ's suffering and become redemptive. Holiness can merit many graces including the salvation of souls. It is beautiful and it is scary. We can make such a difference in so many ways. Yet we can fail to do so. So life becomes full of choices that could save souls or could damn souls including your own. This is how the virtue of hope produces the virtue of love. We are called to sacrifice for the good of others.