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The beautiful thing about Catholicism is we believe all these have been replaced by something greater.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.