Bishops’ Dilemma

  This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem.  In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.

       For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question.  And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors.  Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties.   That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward.  And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.      

       It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed.   And while there was the brave line:  “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,”  there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church.  John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic.  The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best.  There was something to be said for Camelot.

        Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future.    When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive  might be.  It was a  ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion.  As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision.  This disagreement had and  has a religious base,  being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics. 

       Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life.   This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful;  indeed  the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation.   But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure.  This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint.   In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it.   But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market.  If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.    

       And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of  the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause.   At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle.   The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality.   No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable.   Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus.  “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is coming to be one.”   Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.     

       Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix.  Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us.   This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins.  [In this vocabulary  grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent.  The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to  those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service.  The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well.   Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked.    On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented.    Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege.  Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.  

       Now consider this.   In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles,  Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent.   These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love.   From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin.   They are likely to go to confession maybe once  a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax.   They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not.    And they will be there on Sunday.   Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae.  They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant.   And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place.   It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility.  For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life. 

       Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion.   It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table.   What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD  advised the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.  

       It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop.  The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics.   What kind of person says:  I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others.  Let the killing proceed and multiply.   Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.”  Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing  a child.   As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”         

       So what are the bishops to do?   They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion.  Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of  165  to 71 that they should say something.  Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles.  On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.  

       But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ.  The teaching is not in doubt.  There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics.   As for the President and the Speaker and the like,  just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality.  In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.

Fathers and Children

Beloved:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called children of God.
Yet so we are.

I John 3:1

For much of the last century fatherhood has been an  endangered vocation. In the popular culture of the twenty-first century Patriarchy, when it is not the subject of ridicule, is a synonym for repression, an ancient pathology belonging to a vanished world in which fathers attempted arbitrarily to exercise authority and commanded obedience.  In a complementary way to be child-like, open and trusting, an attitude that our Savior considered necessary to faith, is now  counted naiveté.   Yet He once called a child, put him in their midst, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5). And the wide world forgets that Jesus taught His disciples to call God His Father and theirs.  Christ the Son of God taught us to  pray beginning with the words “Our Father,” that He calls God His father thirty-four times in the discourses of chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of John, and His last words were, “My Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).    

But leaving aside the folly of the present—and every age has its follies—we can remember that fatherhood is the cornerstone of reality in the world Christ revealed:  the divine paternity of our Creator, the paternity over the Church of him called in Italian Papa, our pope, in the old world the paternal government of the anointed king, and everywhere the divinely appointed fatherhood of the head of every human family.

Among things human, the finest aspiration of every man is to be a good father, to beget children of the woman beloved is a natural duty, but fatherhood  itself in its fulfilment of a vocation that must be chosen and in Christendom fatherhood is a supernatural vocation.  In the natural and divinely appointed order every father is the head of  household, for which, the Christian way teaches, he must be willing to give his life, not always or even often  in a dramatic one-time fashion, but in the wearying, unending way of life lived, thus imitating Christ, who gives his life for the whole world and who still  intercedes for us.   Fathers of sons and daughters to a great degree chose that role, and when they choose to fulfill it they do so in imitation of our Father in  heaven, who, having called our humankind into existence first gives His life for His bride the Church whom He loves and then nurtures and disciplines every one of His children.  

Just so every father on earth is to his daughters and sons the model of our Father in heaven who governs with power and authority transfused with a tenderness that loves and gives.    Christ assumes the just generosity that belongs to fatherhood:  “Which of you, if a son asks for bread will give him a stone? If you give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9).  The Epistle to the Hebrews construes the obedience of children to their fathers as analogous to the duty of every Christian to God the Father:  “We have earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of Spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:7).   

The world Saint Paul assumes is one in which the bond that binds the family together is love made present in obedience. We know that these are inseparable:  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Saint Paul says directly:  “Children obey your parents for this is right.  Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1–2).  And Paul then makes it clear that paternal authority combines patient teaching with discipline:  “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them  up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” 

  When Saint Paul commands children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands he is assuming that this obedience within the family is the second step in a hierarchy of obedience that begins with the father who is head of the family.   To be a good father is not simply to exercise one’s own will, for the tree of obedience that bears much good fruit begins higher.   It begins when the Father himself is obedient to the laws divine and natural, to the teaching of the Church and the laws of the political community, themselves being the reflection of natural and divine justice.   To ask one’s children to be obedient in the Lord, to ask one’s wife to be subject to him, every father and husband must first himself be submitted to the law both of the cross and of this world’s authority.   Saint Paul’s command regarding obedience to political authority , necessarily addressed to fathers as head of the family, are now no less embarrassing than his command that Christians obey and revere the emperor.  But the fact that they cannot easily be located in post-modernity does not mean that they can be ignored.  

Just as when nature has been defeated by the awful technological transcendence  that ignores the very forms in things, one must still respect those forms, just so when political authority claims only positive sanction, only the ability to command and punish, Christians, and especially the head of the house, must  live as though the law has the authority of God because the law of Christ lives in our hearts and is taught by the Church. When the head of the house, the authority in the family is truly submitted to the law of Christ it may be time to consider the duty of wives to be submitted to their husbands and of children to be obedient.   If the husband and head is truly submitted to God he has before him ever Paul’s admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her (Ephesians 5:25), and as well the teaching of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed:  “The gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you,” and he has in  memory  as well the admonition that children are not to be provoked to anger (Ephesians 6:4).  A husband and father thus armed is able to expect from his household the obedience that belongs to love.    

Saint Paul incidentally names one other tie between fathers and children.  In explaining to the Corinthians that he seeks nothing but their good, that they owe him nothing,  he writes, “Children ought not lay up for their parents but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”  Paul is citing a commonplace of family life to illustrate a spiritual obligation, but it is noteworthy that he recognizes the duty of fathers to the secular  future, to lay up something for their children.  But Paul knows that the greatest gift of fathers to sons and of mothers to daughters is a tradition of Christian virtue and honor.    

 

Understanding with the Heart

There are seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit, yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty.  These are those who hear the word and understand it.   

                                                             Matthew 13:23

The parable of the sower is somewhat unusual because Jesus tells the disciples its meaning.  Its broad purpose is to explain the failure of the grace God has poured out on the earth and its inhabitants to produce universally faith, hope, love, and obedience, and in some the seed, understood, has produced fruit pleasing to God.    

Jesus gives three examples of failure, examples now familiar.   The seed that falls along the path is easily taken away by the birds because the one thus gifted has no understanding.   The seed that fell on rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy but whose understanding is superficial; when their faith is tried, when the commands of Christ seem hard, these fall away.  The seed that falls among thorns  does not bear fruit because the one to whom it is entrusted is seduced by the cares of the world, delights in the good things of the world to the exclusion of faithfulness to Christ.  

Jesus also gives a single example of success.  These are  seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit , yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty.   They hear the word and understand it.  The good soil is the heart prepared by grace given and received, enabling the elect to understand  the Word.      

The verb beneath the word “understand”  is a compound of the prefix together or with and a verb that has many meanings.  Its use in Matthew must signal its importance, for, although it appears in other biblical texts, in the Gospels it is limited to parallel texts and to those describing the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ words.   Of  course Jesus spoke Aramaic, but we trust the Greek-speaker who recorded His words for the Graeco-Roman world to have used the verb translated as “understand“ accurately.  In any event we know that “to understand” is different from knowledge that signifies our recognition of the facts of the  matter, although it includes that recognition, but to understand the Word sown means something deeper.   Monsignor Knox and the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized Version translate “understand” as “understanding of the heart,” and RSV in another place as “hear and grasp.”  

The translators are telling us something important.  The word “heart” does not appear in either the Greek or Latin. The Greek for “grasp” is also missing from the text. Jesus is explaining that those  who failed to enter the Kingdom, although they heard did not take the Word into their hearts.   But there were those who  both heard and understood, who located Christ and His Gospel at the center of their lives, those who have grasped Jesus and His message, who make His person and His words the very principle of their thoughts and actions, bearing fruit for the Kingdom of the New Heart over which Christ now reigns as king.

           Jesus offers an explanation of the failure of those who hear but do not understand.   Christians are not permitted to say that Satan caused them to sin (James 1:13), but it is evident from Scripture that he never stops trying, and that with the cooperation of the human will, he may have his successes.  From the moment of the Incarnation, Satan has roamed the earth seeking to destroy the faith of the children of the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12:17).  His principle method is obfuscation and studied neglect. It is he who sows weeds among the wheat that grows in the Church.  And the weeds will continue to grow because Jesus warns the zealous disciples that if they try to clear the field of weeds, in rooting up the weeds the wheat may be damaged.   And this means that the Kingdom in its historical manifestation as the Church will always be a mixed community consisting of some who have taken the Gospel to heart and some who hear but do not understand.   It is a mercy that only Christ knows who has understood with the heart and who has not; this will not be revealed until He comes again, until the book of life is opened at the end of the age. 

Meanwhile understanding the Good News planted in the human heart prompts many actions: belief, obedience, and above all love, love for God and love for our neighbors, for those we come upon as we walk the path that is our life.   Each of these has its own necessity.   Belief involves belief in the merciful acts of Jesus by which He bought our freedom with His death and resurrection.  But it involves more; each sentence in the Creed invites our belief, and we dare not prefer belief in one of Jesus’ actions to another.    For belief to be effective it must be what is called theological faith, belief that is ours not because we consider it suitable or even because we are grateful for it, but belief because the truths of our religion are expressions of the authority of God.   In an analogous way heart-understanding expresses itself in obedience.  Very often the yoke is easy and the burden light, but the day will come when conscience makes a claim that desire can follow only with difficulty and humility.  It is the evangelist John who reminds the ages that the sure sign of our love for Christ is our obedience to His commandments, of which the first is love of our brothers and sisters.  And as for love, it is the supernatural empowering gift that enables belief and obedience.    

What the Word in our hearts promotes may seem simple, but it is in reality deep.  Jesus commands us to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  And perfecting the Word understood in a life lived is made difficult by the fact that God is not unopposed in this world.  As Matthew 13:24–30 tells us, there is an enemy roaming the earth, seeking endlessly with demonic energy to snatch the Word from every life, sowing doubt, ever proclaiming the glory and the satisfactions of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life.”  In our present century Satan has an easy sell, for he moves among a people, perhaps even  Christian people, who have never taken Christ and His words into their hearts, who do not understand and who do not know that they do not  understand.  

Therefore to our duty to believe, to obey, and to love, there is added one more, the duty to witness.   You, said Jesus, are my witnesses to the ends of the earth.   Laying aside not the grace of conversational engagement but the fear of intruding upon others and the pusillanimity that cannot bear a challenge, refusing the stance that considers religion too private to have any place in the public square, the time has come to accept the scandal of the Gospel, that no one comes to the Father except through His Son Jesus, that men are appointed once to die and after that comes judgement, that God’s judgement is the ultimate source of meaning, that this same judgement rewards those who long to see the face of God and allows those who have not and will not understand the consequences of their neglect.

“The Risks of Repudiating Reality: Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man”

Lewis Tolkien Society
2016 Banquet

 “The Risks of Repudiating Reality:
Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man”

 by Ken Myers

 

 In 1998, during the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth, I had the privilege of interviewing philosopher and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, prompted in part by the reissuing of Gil’s book The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis, originally published in 1978.

 During our conversation, we talked about the distinctive qualities of Lewis’s writings, particularly his works in Christian apologetics. Gil said that he thought that Lewis’s success as an apologist was tied less to the cogency of his arguments, and more to the vitality of his imagination

 “His work is so fundamentally imaginative, I think he’s not so much trying to argue anybody into thinking something as he is simply trying to help us understand what it would mean to believe something, through the enormous gifts he has for illustration and metaphor and story. A great deal of what he does is simply trying to think through what the world looks like from a Christian perspective, make it understandable and make it come alive for us.” Continue reading ““The Risks of Repudiating Reality: Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man””

Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain

Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain:

Why C. S. Lewis Believed Science Must Repent

by Ken Myers

PDF of this article: ken-myers_repentant-science

In the past few years, we have witnessed the publication of a number of books by very angry atheists. The tone of these books has been remarkably intemperate; “Jeremiad” is a term that comes to mind, but it’s not an apt term to describe these books, since it suggests some higher cause being served; intoning prophets were channeling divine wrath, not simply their own, and the last thing authors like Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg want is to identify their complaints with some transcendent cause.

 But I can’t escape the irony of the tone of righteous indignation in these books. Rarely has the case for the superiority of cool rationality been made with such irrational heat. Commenting on Richard Dawkins and on a number of hysterical op-ed pieces published when the film version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out, sociologist Frank Furedi observed that “the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a fanatical Inquisitor.”1 Such violent rhetoric gives one little confidence in the premise that religious belief is the main source of violence in our world, and that eliminating religion would leave room for intrinsic human niceness to flourish.

 Some of the anger is clearly related to the fear of religious extremism in a post-9/11 world. Many complacent secularists can’t imagine that anyone in the twenty-first century would suffer a minor inconvenience in the name of religion, let alone give one’s life and take a few thousand other lives along with them. Suddenly, people who had been superficially celebrating diversity and tolerance and the rational manageability of human life came face-to-face with a diversity they couldn’t fathom, let alone tolerate or manage, and some of them seem to have come unhinged. But I believe there is a deeper fear evident in the rhetorical style of many of the antireligious screeds in the past several years. While these writers insist that belief in God is irrational, they believe firmly in the modern liberal assumption that the hope of human progress could be realized through two principal mechanisms: scientific advancement and, in sociologist Craig Gay’s summary phrase, “the liberation of individuals from the repressive constraints of religion and tradition.”2 It’s bad enough that religions continue to inform the private lives of individuals, but when religion questions science, especially the science of evolution, then all hopes of human progress are threatened. Continue reading “Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain”

The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven.

Luke 10:18

What happens in the cosmos in time is a mirror and a consequence of what is known timelessly in heaven, where God’s knowledge comprehends all times and all ages, what was and is and  is to come, and the providential biography of every creature from the sparrow to the saints.  In the Book of Revelation, after the great commissioning vision of Christ, the first and last, who died but ever lives (1:12–16); and after the message to the seven Churches (2:1–3:22), God opens for the Prophet John a door in heaven:  “Come up hither and I will show you the things which much be done hereafter” (4:1).  What John will be shown is not a chronology but the pattern of time.  John’s vision is story-like in that it has a beginning in God, a peripety or turning point in the Incarnation, and a magnificent ending in the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ its center, creation restored. Continue reading “The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Looking Forward

No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is worthy of the Kingdom of God.

Luke 9:62

The Lord’s instructions to those who would follow him seem brutal. To one who says, “Let me go and bury my father,” the answer is “Let the dead bury the dead,” and to one who says, “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” the words are, “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is worthy of the kingdom of God”

(Luke 9:60–62).

These are not abstractions of universal application, but divine teachings given to the faithful to do with as we can. These words were given to a Church in which elaborate teaching had been given about our place in this world, how it is to be between husbands and wives, between parents and children, how fathers and mothers are to be honored; in short about the life of Christians as they take their place in society, living lives pleasing to God. But there are intimations of another, higher set of relationships, prefigured in the account of the man who could not come to the banquet of the king because he had married a wife (Luke 14:20). Continue reading “Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Many Things in Christ

All are sons of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. Whoever has been baptized has put on Christ. There neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For all are one in Christ Jesus. Galatian 3:26–28

Paul preached the Gospel to a world in which Jews considered contact with gentiles a kind of pollution, slaves had no standing before the law, women were not allowed to own property or drive carriages in the streets of the Capital, and men were prohibited under severe penalty from attending the Bona Dea, the annual celebration of femininity. Of these distinctions, except for the first, Paul has nothing to say. Slaves are to obey their masters, wives their husbands, and about the customs of those outside he was silent. For it was not the order of this world that Christ undid but the chains of sin, with the result that every human relationship was to be touched by grace and conformed to the image of the cross. Jews and Greeks are brothers; husbands are to give their lives for their wives, women are to honor and obey, men and women were subjects of God’s provident love. The order of this world Paul ever supports—honor is due those who are honorable; authorities exist to do God’s work—but that order is subject to a higher order in which everyman stands before God in His majesty, subjects of God’s justice and mercy and providential love.

Equality in the sense in which it is found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution, in which sense it at least tinges the founding documents, does not occur in the New Testament. Paul asked the Corinthians to share their wealth with the impoverished churches in Judea, “not that the burden of some should be eased and others burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance should supply their want, that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13–14). But the great pattern is given by Paul in Philippians when he wrote that Christ although in the form of God did not grasp at equality but humbled himself even to death on the cross. Continue reading “Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Uncomfortable Enthusiasms

She stood behind Him at His feet weeping And began to wet His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed then with ointment

Your faith has saved you, go in peace. Luke 7:38, 50

There is a sense in which faith means holding words to be true, as when we profess our faith in the Creed. And another sense in which faith means believing God’s will toward us is good, that He will do what He has promised; Christ will save us by making us right with the Father. In this sense faith is particularly personal, for it is about faith in someone, and about this one supremely important thing: the good of our soul and the meaning the future holds for us. There are no near analogies to “faith in Christ,” to that believing that gives eternal life. Divine faith is not without evidence, He gives us signs of many kinds, intellectual and historical, so that we may believe, but the evidence always leads the heart beyond itself; there is more in the perfection of faith than the evidence offered in the beginning. Continue reading “The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Thoughts on the Readings for Trinity Sunday

Ever-living, Informing, Loving

“God so loved the world that he sent his Son” John 3:16

So across the expanse of planet earth there are this day many millions who live in civilizations in which in ways often obscure, sometimes evident, love is valued, reason is honored, and power exercised through form not violence; and all this because the Church whom God called was obedient to the revelation that He is Trinity: omnipotent creative love, the source of an intelligible world. The truth of that revelation is not established by its effects but by its Author, but its effects, the consequences of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, are on this Trinity Sunday occasions for rejoicing and gratitude.

Long ago, in obedience to the words of the Savior and the witness of the prophets, the Church sought to say what cannot, but must, be said: God is Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in three persons. There would later be technical exposition, but in the beginning the Church was confronted with what were in the light of faith the facts: God was Father, for He had a Son, whom He had begotten eternally; Jesus of Nazareth was that Son, consubstantial with His Father, in whom the divine paternity was realized perfectly; the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus was the very spirit of God, who spoke by the prophets and who lit the fire of Pentecost, and who is the love through whom the Father eternally begets the Son.

Over time the inspired attempt to say who God is was called the doctrine of the Trinity, a word first used by Theophilus of Antioch in 168 to name a reality that had lain in the experience of the Church. Establishing such facts as the begotten equality of the Son in the face of the predisposition to believe that what is dependent is, to however small a degree, lesser; its companion truth that ‘there was no time when the Son was not;’ and with these the fact that the persons were not functions or aspects but realities; and the cardinal insight that the Son is mystically not only Son but the Word through whom all things were made, the source of form and intelligibility; this work was the work of four councils and five centuries, culminating is the triumphant statement of the Church’s third creed, a masterpiece of thought and fidelity now largely unknown, which bears the name of the great Athanasius.

The Athanasian Creed, written in the happy days when ‘catholic’ was not a word in controversy and clarity not an offense, begins with triumphant assertion:

Whosoever would be saved, it is before all things necessary that he holds the Catholic faith, which unless one keeps it inviolate he will without doubt perish eternally.

Now this is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance. For the Father’s person is one, the Son’s another, the Holy Spirit’s another; but the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one; their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

Hard words, judgmental, a scandal of precision to post-modern ears, but also true. But to refer again to the evidence as we have it in history, true. Look out into the great world. That God is love is a truism we teach our children, but a truth that is mere sentimentality unless the Athanasian Creed is true. It is easy to forget that the very foundation of science is the intelligibility of the world, which can be observed and honored but which cannot be ‘proved;’ as it is easy to forget that the existence of a gentled world, in which the weak are protected, in which greatness of heart is measured in discipline and self-surrender, is a consequence of presuppositions that can be summoned to the surface of experience only with difficulty but which presuppose the truth that the Son is Word through whom all things bear the stamp of intelligibility.

Even our great errors are born of truth, anchored in the Trinitarian being of God, misused. An allegiance to the omnipotence of God without the notes of form and self-giving will always lead to vulgarity of power, or an indomitable will unmoderated by reason. Neglect of the truth that reason is rooted in the mystery of love will father in us a rationalism that destroys what it seeks to know.

The Athanasian Creed expresses an inspired, centuries-long effort to say what can be said of God. But, as the Creed also tells us, salvation consists not only in the knowledge that allows our confession of the truth but in the actual formation of our very selves: worship. The word in the Athanasian Creed is a form of veneror, which means respect, honor, worship. It is all very well, indeed essential, that mankind can, given the light of intellect, know what can be known of the mystery, seeing even now in a glass, darkly, but seeing still; but to know what is and not to acknowledge it is the warrant of inauthenticity. Thus from the time when Jesus took bread and broke it, God the Blessed Trinity had been known and worshipped in the breaking of bread. Even this Sunday, even when love must make its way through the ruins, the act most common in this world will be the offering of bread and wine so that these may become the Body and Blood of Jesus for us. And that offering will begin with thanks given “to the Father most holy, through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, your word through whom you made all things, whom you sent as our Savior and Redeemer incarnate by the Holy Spirit.

There are simpler religions. There is the religion of all powerful will. There is the religion of reason. There is the religion of experience. What the Athanasian Creed calls the Catholic faith is blessedly complicated, finally a mystery. It is power informed, reason informing, love giving Himself. The doctrine or dogma of the Blessed Trinity comprehends all of these and more, ideas and more than ideas rightly held as evidence of the Mystery, reality itself.

Give thanks that we are the children of the Blessed Trinity. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and forever.