Superstition

While attending Mass a few weeks ago I picked up the June-July 2015 issue of Inside the Vatican.  I was taken aback-sharply-by some of the Letters to the Editor (why letters to the editor continue to surprise me after years of reading them I’ll never know).  One letter, written by a gentleman affiliated with the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (the present-day disciples of Fr. Feeney), asserted

The crucial issue…: no salvation outside the Church.  That is the answer; everything else is an effect due to the denial of the cause…the problem with modern Popes is that they do not believe in the Church’s clear teaching on the issue of salvation.  Give them a loophole (baptism of desire, etc.) and they prefer that to Holy Scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church and her doctors.

This response, which has an overly simplistic ring to it (“The cause of the Church’s issues is [X] and everything can be solved by [Y]”), but it also makes a nice bookend to comments made in response to Pope Francis’s 2013 comments on salvation (which I recently commented on).

Another letter asserted

Prior to being elected Pope, Francis supported same-sex sexual unions, and thus same-sex sexual acts.  The fact that Francis is permitting a debate among Catholics about that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith, is evidence enough that the Synod was not of The Holy Spirit.

While it may or may not be true that Pope Francis is sending “mixed signals” on homosexuality, to say that he “supports” same-sex sexual acts is…well, bluntly, just wrong.  Moreover, the Holy Spirit’s working in the Church is by no means a pretty process to watch (e.g. St. Nicholas decking Arius).

The letters that most stood out to me, however, all concerned Fatima and the Blessed Mother.  For instance:

Our Lady is Queen of Heaven and Earth, so when God sent her to Fatima, she said that only she can help us…so I feel the Popes have let us down by not following her orders.

…you did not mention the only effective answer [to the Irish “yes” to same sex marriages]: the Rosary and the sacrifices for the Triumph of Mary.  All the “human” explanations and solutions will fail because Satan is far too clever.  Only Our Lady is able to crush his head.

For the record, of course, it is not true that “only Our Lady” is able to crush the head of Satan-that role belongs to her son.  Much less is it true that “only Mary can help us” (again, that honor belongs to her son).  One cannot help a divergence here between the actual teaching of the Church (aptly summarized by Bishop Fulton Sheen, who memorably commented “Mary is like the moon, for her light is always the reflection of a higher light”) and the mindset of the writers.  I was reminded of Tim LaHaye, co-author of the abominable Left Behind franchise, who once remarked how “deeply impressed” he was by how the Catholic cathedrals of Latin America reminded him of paganism, particularly in how one cathedral dedicated a far more prominent statue to Mary than Christ.  A wise friend of mine read the letters and wondered if perhaps these were stealth letters written by Protestants (“LaHaye lemmings”) to mock Catholics.

I have already given my thoughts on Fatima.  When it comes to the Blessed Mother, I think the following comment from Frederica charitably suggests the possible mindset of the letter-writers and the proper response:

I once saw a small comic-book tract (maybe you’ve encountered those Jack Chick publications) that showed the Virgin Mary kneeling before God’s throne; she was praying that he would forgive those Christians who treat her like an idol. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what liturgical Christians believe she does— she prays for us. She must pray especially for those who have misunderstood her role, and “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1: 25). Misguided affection may have been offered with the best of intentions, and in simple ignorance or exuberant but-misguided love; but it is, all the same, a very serious sin and must grieve her profoundly.

It’s a shame that inappropriately extreme adoration of the Theotokos has made some Christians wary of her altogether. If we didn’t have those excesses before our eyes, we’d find it natural to accord her at least as much admiration as we give to the apostle Paul— and more, in fact, considering her unique and tender role in Jesus’ life. He must have loved her very much, and would want us to love and honor her as well.

We don’t preach the Virgin Mary; we preach only Christ. But when we’re at home in the family of the Lord, we cherish her companionship. Likewise, you might discover on a visit to a friend’s home that you like his parents and siblings, too. That would not diminish your affection for your friend, but enhance it.

In short, the sentiment expressed by the letter writers is “misguided affection” and “inappropriately extreme adoration.”  It is, to put it another way, a forgivable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.  Nor is it a new problem.  I do not recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism as a reliable source (the authors have an extremely liberal bent and conclude by recommending something they call “quantum Catholicism”), but I think the book aptly summarized the “Mary problem” when it noted that whenever the Magisterium has tried to de-emphasize Mary her light glows brighter in the hearts of the people.  I can sympathize-I have never, even in my most Protestant moments, been able to fathom how anyone could have a problem with Catholic Marian devotion.

Having said this, I’d like to turn my attention to a broader issue: Catholic spirituality has a bent, it seems, towards superstition.  Father Andrew Greeley explained this well in his book The Catholic Imagination:

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.

This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality. And Reality.

Catholic devotions include, as I have said, Mary the mother of Jesus, angels and saints, souls in purgatory, statues, stained-glass windows, holy water, religious medals, candles. Most other Christian denominations do not engage in such devotions. Indeed, they dismiss them as superstition and perhaps idolatry.

[David]Tracy noted that the classic works of Catholic theologians and artists tend to emphasize the presence of God in the world, while the classic works of Protestant theologians tend to emphasize the absence of God from the world. The Catholic writers stress the nearness of God to His creation, the Protestant writers the distance between God and His creation; the Protestants emphasize the risk of superstition and idolatry, the Catholics the dangers of a creation in which God is only marginally present. Or, to put the matter in different terms, Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God. Tracy is consistently careful to insist that neither propensity is superior to the other, that both need each other, and, in my sociological terminology, the correlation between the two imaginations and their respective religious traditions is low level. Nonetheless, they are different one from another.

The Catholic imagination in all its many manifestations (Tracy calls it “analogical”) tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of creation. The objects, events, and persons of ordinary existence hint at the nature of God and indeed make God in some fashion present to us. God is sufficiently like creation that creation not only tells us something about God but, by so doing, also makes God present among us. Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us.

Though Fr. Greeley is here focusing on the differences in Catholic perception and Protestant perception I find his description of the Catholic sacramental imagination deeply congruent with the Eastern Orthodox view expressed by Fr. Stephen Freeman in his book Everywhere Present.  In any case, however, a Protestant perspective that neatly illustrates the contrast Tracy and Fr. Greely were drawing comes from Rev. Rutledge, who once noted

Almost every week I think about the importance of the Reformation. A few days ago on NPR there was a long discussion about the unequalled importance of reading and how reading shapes the mind in ways that nothing else can, certainly not video games. (It was heartening to hear that the advanced oral traditions of certain illiterate and pre-literate cultures have played the same role in this respect as reading has done in literate cultures.) One of the panelists started talking about the harnessing of the printing press by the Reformation. He argued that this phenomenon unleashed a great surge of intellectual freedom that only now showed signs of slowing as people are reading less and less. This argument about the Reformation is not new, but hearing it reminded me of the power and significance of the Protestant idea. This is no time for the Church to turn its back on the Reformation! We necessarily live now in a post-Enlightenment age — that is a given, no matter how much the heirs of Thomas Jefferson may want to reverse the course — but thank God for the Enlightenment and its very Protestant reaction against superstition, fortune, and fate.

Elsewhere, she is even more provocative:

To what extent do the people participating believe that a statue has intrinsic power? Do the uneducated among them think that the idol is really a goddess? Do people who rub the foot of St. Peter at theVatican believe in the efficacy of a bronze statue? Do worshippers in Eastern Orthodox churches think that an ikon of a saint has spiritual powers? Do Tibetan Buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel is in itself a sufficient mode of praying? I have been told repeatedly that the answer to these questions is no, but I remain partially unconvinced. It is a very easy matter to transfer one’s hopes and dreams to a simple ritual involving an inanimate object; isn’t it much more challenging and potentially more transforming to refuse material aids and direct one’s thoughts and prayers to the God who has revealed himself exclusively through his Word? In that respect, at least, Islam offers a more rigorous view of God.

It behooves us all to work at understanding world religions the way that we would like Christianity to be understood. Most readers of this blog don’t want Jerry Falwell and Joel Osteen to define Christian faith, and we should not judge religions by their most egregious or uneducated practitioners. Although most Protestants are disturbed by the veneration of relics and the cult of the saints in many circles of Roman Catholicism, we don’t believe that is the best of Roman Catholic theology and practice.

Now, I love Rev. Rutledge, but on this matter I part company with her.  She is not wrong to note the problem of superstition or that the Reformation helped correct certain abuses.  Fr. Greeley agrees:

The Reformers, rightly upset about the prevalence of superstition among the peasant peoples of Europe, thought that the analogical imagination brought God too close to the world and was responsible for superstition. Indeed, the dialectical imagination, latent in the Catholic heritage all along, emerged powerfully with the Reformers precisely because it had not been taken seriously enough by Catholic leadership (though what the Church could have done about the peasant superstition in Europe is another question). Tracy quite properly insists that the dialectical imagination is a necessary corrective to the analogical imagination.

Nonetheless, Rev. Rutledge is wrong to conclude that ritual and the use of material aids is incompatible with the “God who has revealed himself exclusively in his Word.”  Catholicism, of course, agrees that God is revealed exclusively in His Word but for the Catholic, Christ is the Word of God, not the Bible; the Word is expressed in both Scripture and Tradition (the latter making copious use of ritual and material aids); and we are not, as the Catechism notes, “people of the book” (see # 65, #s 101-104, and-particularly-# 108).  Indeed, to her remark that Islam offers a “more rigorous view of God,” I offer Fr. Freeman’s thoughts in response.

In regards to ritual, Seyyed Hossein Nasr suggests that

…rituals, from the point of view of religion, are God-made. I am not using the term ritual as seen from the secular point of view, as if one were putting on one’s gown and going to some commencement exercise or some other humanly created action, often called a “ritual” in everyday discourse today. I am using it in the religious sense. According to all traditional religions, rituals descend from Heaven…these rites, by virtue of their re-enactment on earth, link the earth with the higher levels of reality. A rite always links us with the vertical axis of existence, and by virtue of that, links us also with the principles of nature.

This sentiment is echoed by the Catechism:

1147 God speaks to man through the visible creation. the material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator.16 Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both his greatness and his nearness.

1148 Inasmuch as they are creatures, these perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. the same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator.

1149 The great religions of mankind witness, often impressively, to this cosmic and symbolic meaning of religious rites. the liturgy of the Church presupposes, integrates and sanctifies elements from creation and human culture, conferring on them the dignity of signs of grace, of the new creation in Jesus Christ.

As for the Catholic view of sacraments, Karl Adam articulates the Catholic view beautifully:

The second element in her internal catholicity is her comprehensive affirmation of the whole man, of human nature in its completeness, of the body as well as the soul, of the senses as well as the intellect. The mission of the Church is to the entire man.

So the Church, starting from this basis, is able to enlist man’s entire nature, his body and its sensitive life, his reason and his will, in the service of the Kingdom of God. Since man’s nature is not essentially damaged in its natural powers, but only by diversion from its supernatural end, that is to say by a false orientation, therefore so soon as this false orientation is mended and man is replaced by baptism in his original, living union with God, that nature can be gripped in all its powers by the Church’s preaching. The Church as the Body of Christ lays hold of all that is of God, and therefore of man’s body, his senses and his passions, just as much as of his intellect and will.

Hence two further elements in that catholicity which gives the Church her comprehensive power of attraction. The first of these is that she loves and understands man’s nature, his bodily and sensitive structure, as well as his mental powers.

This reverence for the body leads the Church further to a careful consideration for man’s sensible needs. Since we are not pure spirits, but spirits enmeshed in body, we grasp spiritual things by means of things visible and sensible. Hence the whole sacramental system of Christianity and the Church.

In short: Boom.  Catholicism encompasses everything Protestantism offers, but is far more comprehensive-more complete-precisely because it goes beyond refusing material aids and is not limited to the written Word.  Ditto for Orthodoxy.

In any case, Fr. Greeley has a bit more to say:

In the chaos which enveloped Western Europe during the time of the invasions and the gradual collapse of the Roman civil order, the Church lacked the resources to do anything more than spread a veneer of Christianity over the resident pagan cultures save in the royal courts, the monasteries, and eventually the universities (from which sources come the little we know about the early Middle Ages). People were baptized, married, and buried in Catholic rites administered by often semiliterate, and usually married, clergy who frequently had no idea what the words or the ceremonies meant. To expropriate as much paganism as one could was merely to make a virtue of necessity. Still, Catholic Christianity did not hesitate in carrying out this perhaps foolhardy strategy. In one sense, the Reformation was a protest of a segment of the clerical elite and the newly emerging middle class against the continuation of paganism at a time when the Dark Ages had been definitely left behind.

Historian Stephen Ozment, no foe to Protestantism, remarks of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation that they were a “conservative campaign on the part of elite Christian clergy to subdue a surrounding native culture that had always been and preferred to remain semi-pagan . . . an attempt to impose on uneducated and reluctant men and women a Christian way of life utterly foreign to their own experiences and very much against their own desires.” Having undercut traditional Catholic ritual and practice, he adds, the Reformation unloosed far worse superstitions, especially concerning witchcraft, that were among the horrors of European preliterate culture.

If the rainforest of metaphors, which Catholicism not only made its peace with but also patently celebrated, provided it with an enormous wealth of resources (and, I will argue, is why Catholics remain Catholic), it also created problems from which Catholicism has never been freed— superstition, folk religion, idolatry. What, for example, about Our Lady of Guadalupe? Some Catholic historians will argue that devotion to her is a form of folk religion which has crossed the admittedly broad and permeable boundary between Catholicism and paganism. The original shrine in Spain (an image on a rock) was a baptized pagan sanctuary. While the Mexican devotion to this Lady wears a patina of Catholicism, the customs and beliefs associated with it are mostly superstitious. Indeed, the woman does not even hold the Babe in her arms; she is not even a Madonna.

Yet does she not assure the masses of Mexico that God loves them like a mother as well as like a father, that she is on their side when they resist poverty and oppression? Will not Mexican Americans tell you that she is not carrying the Babe because she is pregnant with Him and will soon bring Him to life even as she brings life to us? Is she not then an appropriate popular exercise of the Catholic religious sensibility?

I will not assert that the Catholic imaginative tradition— the way Catholics picture the world and God’s relationship to it— is better than other ways which might be available but merely that it is different. Nor will I suggest that it is without potential weaknesses and flaws, especially its propensity for folk religion, superstition, and magic. Instead, I will suggest that it chooses to emphasize the presence of God in the world and runs the risks of that choice while acknowledging that the opposite choice— to emphasize the absence of God from creation— has risks of its own.

In short, of course Catholic spirituality carries the risk of superstition, folk religion, and idolatry.  But corruptio optimi pessima.  This risk is simply the consequence of a spirituality that properly reflects both human nature (as Adam noted) and the presence of grace in the world (as Frs. Greeley and Freeman have observed) being improperly incarnated by fallen human beings.  It is a risk that we cannot avoid-and we should not try.

CODA:

The Catechism helpfully articulates the Church’s position on superstition:

2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.41

The paragraphs on popular piety are helpful as well:

1675 These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They “should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.”181

1676 Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions so that the faithful may advance in knowledge of the mystery of Christ.182 Their exercise is subject to the care and judgment of the bishops and to the general norms of the Church.

At its core the piety of the people is a storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life. The Catholic wisdom of the people is capable of fashioning a vital synthesis. . . . It creatively combines the divine and the human, Christ and Mary, spirit and body, communion and institution, person and community, faith and homeland, intelligence and emotion. This wisdom is a Christian humanism that radically affirms the dignity of every person as a child of God, establishes a basic fraternity, teaches people to encounter nature and understand work, provides reasons for joy and humor even in the midst of a very hard life. For the people this wisdom is also a principle of discernment and an evangelical instinct through which they spontaneously sense when the Gospel is served in the Church and when it is emptied of its content and stifled by other interests.181

Summer reading

I am currently enjoying a hiatus in the Adirondacks for the summer.  I have been reading a number of books during this break and have come across a few quotes that are worth sharing.  Here they are:

Cardinal Ratzinger on Biblical scholarship (God’s Word):

Yet gradually, the picture became more and more confused.  The hypotheses branched out, separated from each other, and became a visible fence that barred the way to the Bible for the uninitiated.  The initiate, however, no longer reads the Bible, but dissects it into the elements from which it is supposed to have grown.  The method itself seems to require this radicalizing process: it cannot stand still anywhere in the process of getting to the bottom of the human activity in sacred history.  It must try to remove the irrational remnant and explain everything.  Faith is not a component of this method, and God is not a factor in the historical events with which it deals.  Yet because, in the biblical depiction of history, everything is saturated with God’s activity, you must begin a complicated anatomy of the words of the Bible: you must try to separate the threads in such a way that you can ultimately hold in your what is “actually historical”-that is, what is purely human in the events-and explain, on the other hand, how it came about that the idea of God was woven in everywhere.  Thus, in opposition to the history depicted, another, “real” history must be constructed: behind the surviving sources-the books of the Bible-more original sources must be found, which then become the criteria for interpretation.  No one can be surprised that in the course of this, hypotheses increasingly branch out and subdivide and finally turn into a jungle of contradictions.  The end, we find out, no longer what the text says, but what it ought to say and to what components it can be traced back.

John Hick on the nature of the world (quoted by Phillip Yancey in Where is God When it Hurts)

To realize this…to understand that this world, with all its “heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” an environment so manifestly not designed for the maximization of human pleasure and the minimization of human pain, may be rather well adapted to the quite different purpose of “soul-making.”

George Maloney on the Eastern Christian vision (Prayer of the Heart)

The end of the whole salvific order as seen by God is that everything created is meant to be reconciled to the Father through the working of his Son through the divinizing power of his Spirit.  The redeeming work of the crucified and risen Jesus consists in giving us his Spirit of love through whom we may know the Father and the fullness of the Son (Jn 17:3) and thus we ourselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can become truly children of God (Jn 1:12, Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6).

The optimistic Eastern Christian view of the world does not ignore the reality of a world that is still groaning in travail (Rom 8:22), but it professes and enters actively into a prayerful experience of God’s transfiguring energies of love already effecting what is hidden in embryonic form.  The energy is hidden within.  Prayerful cooperation on our part with God’s creative Word is to bring about fulfillment of the universe which will be a perfect diaphany of God’s indwelling, loving presence within all things.

We share in the redemption of the universe and become with Jesus Christ “a reconciler” (2 Cor 5:19) of the entire world as we allow Jesus to have his healing, redeeming way in our life.  Everything we do is prayer, the prayer of Jesus, as we seek to fashion the Body of Christ out of the material world that we see and touch and reverence for its hidden sacredness.

Jesus wishes to transfigure the whole world through us, by our humble actions in the world.  He fills all things: “the fullness of him who fills the whole creation” (Eph 1:23).  By pronouncing the holy name of Jesus we release this transfiguring power.  We call him into being to touch a world groaning in travail.  We ask him to transform the universe, to make each human being, each part of God’s creation into members of the Body of the Risen Lord.  In such prayer, redemption is experienced as the process by which Jesus transfigures the world through loving human beings who allow him to his redeeming way in them.

The world is not to be annihilated; it is destined to be transfigured into Christ.  The Body of Christ is being formed out of the whole creation, including not only human beings made according to his image and likeness, but also the material, subhuman creation.  In pronouncing Jesus’ name, we are becoming members of the Body of Christ that is reaching out to the whole universe in order to bring it into his divine life.

Atheism and TNR

I was once a regular subscriber to The New Republic, and I still periodically read articles online.  There have been a few in the last few months that I have flagged for containing interesting snippets.  Here they are:

1) A skirmish between Deepak Chopra and Jerry Coyne.  Though some would say I’m hypocritical (as a Catholic who accepts belief in miracles) I can’t help but inadvertently side (generally) with Coyne on this one.

2) Jerry Coynes takes exception to John Gray’s review of a Richard Dawkins book.  Among other things, Coyne bristles that

Even I, a lowly biologist, know that many of the “church fathers,” including Augustine and Aquinas, took the Genesis story literally (including Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden); only after you accepted the historicity of these events, they said, could you also read into them other meanings. And get your story straight, you faitheists! A common contention of liberal believers (just as false) is that literalism began with the rise of Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, while Gray says it began with the Reformation. Which is it? (It’s neither, of course.)

It’s time to dispel the trope that nobody took Genesis literally until recent times. For millennia, theologians and believers have seen it as historical truth, and you don’t have to do much research to find that out. Millions still see Genesis as literal truth, and these people, as well as more “liberal” believers who cherry-pick parts of the Bible as real history (the crucifixion and Resurrection are examples) were the intended audience of The God Delusion. 

Coyne isn’t entirely wrong in this assertion, but he still misses that the “literal” sense of Patristic and medieval theologians is not equivalent to the flat-footed literalism that has come to define contemporary strains of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) and that largely took shape in the early 20th Century with roots going back to the Reformation (e.g. Augustine’s “literal” interpretation of the Hexameron is not a young earth treatise).  Moreover, several of the fathers (such as St. Basil) incorporated the best science of their time (one cannot fault them for failing to incorporate scientific discoveries that lay over a millennium in the future).  Moreover again, ancient history was not written in the same literal (journalistic) manner as “modern” history-hence, as the Pope Emeritus once commented about the Gospel of St. John, “historical” need not be understood to mean that the Scriptures have to be something like a “recorded transcript” to be acknowledged as historically authentic.

Not all agree of course.  See Peter Leithart’s recent parody of the historicity of Abraham-lost on many First Things readers judging by the comments-for an example of another perspective (Leithart makes good points here by the way).  Leithart has no problem accepting that the Scriptures are symbolic, but also insists, along with Coyne, that the Biblical authors took them literally.  Likely they did, although I’m highly skeptical that most of them believed in a literal talking snake (as Fr. William O’Malley once quipped the author Genesis lived at around the same time as Aesop, who most likely did not believe that a turtle and a rabbit actually made a wager-the ancients were not as dumb as we often assume).

And, as Peter Kreeft has put it, from a strictly textual point of view it is clear that the biblical narratives contain a variety of genres, a point the Magisterium has acknowledged for over a generation now (see here and here for recent examples).  Kreeft notes some biblical stories are literal history, some are nonliteral history, and some are literary fictions.  In line with the Magisterium (see Paragraph # 390 of the Catechism)  I affirm the creation story in Genesis 2-3 as an example of the second-the text uses figurative (mythic) language and is not to be read as a “recorded transcript” of the events; but nonetheless it is not pure myth, there is a historical core.  The actual historical details are likely lost to us-paleoanthropology cannot tell us who the real Adam was.  Likewise neither are we likely to discover overwhelming evidence of a historical Abraham.  This does not, however, prove anything-the events of the Pentateuch took place at the margins of the known world at the time and would not have attracted as much attention as, say, Caesar crossing the Rubicon.

A final thought: Rev. Rutledge has a discourse on biblical archeology that is worth reading.

3) Coyne also castigates Pope Francis (noting in passing that 27% of US Catholics reject evolution-a point that made me want to weep for a moment) and dismisses David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God.  Coyne describes the book as “a sophisticated version of old God-of-the-Gaps arguments,” a line that baffles me because Hart’s book is absolutely nothing of the kind (though “God-of-the-Gaps” seems to be the standard response from some atheists whenever a believer writes about science).  As I have noted before, the argument (properly understood) is not over gaps in science but over the philosophical interpretation of science.  The question of whether one sees the inherent (mathematical) rationality of nature as indicative of a “Mind Behind it All” or simply as a natural “given” that we accept as “just there” is not a “God of the Gaps” debate.  To see consciousness as a “final cause” within nature rather than a by-blow of natural selection that means nothing in itself, is not a “God-of-the-Gaps” argument.

Coyne does state, fairly I think, that one can neither scientifically (which is to say experimentally) prove or refute God’s existence-a point that Hart openly admits in his book.  But God, properly understood, is not amenable to experimentation.  As Hart stated in a recent talk about Coyne’s “exegesis” of his book, however, when one is asked for the umpteenth time “Why do you believe that?” sometimes all you can do is throw up your hands.

4) Anyway, enough about Jerry Coyne.  There is another article from TNR I had meant to comment on months ago, a rather intriguing review of Waking Up, Sam Harris’s most recent book.  I have only skimmed the book itself at this point, but Trevor Quirk’s review suggests that this book may be worth the time to read.  Consider:

All spiritual guides of this nature begin with more or less the same diagnosis. First, the vague despondency of modernity: “There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave.” Then, our source of suffering: “Even for extraordinarily lucky people, life is difficult. And when we look at what makes it so, we see that we are all prisoners of our thoughts.” The simplicity of our imprisonment is what makes it so complete, and hard to recognize. Most of us do not even realize that suffering cannot arise without thought, or that we have the power to choose what and how to think. This is worth contemplating, and for those skeptical of this tyranny, the typical test is to ask them to not think, say, for one minute. Most of us fail immediately.

Worse still is our derivation of identity from thoughts and memories. It is commonsense to assume the existence of a “self” that experiences and thinks and remembers, which we locate “in the head.” As Harris argues, this “conventional sense of self is an illusion—and […] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.” As with much that is easily described, this is damningly hard to execute. One lesson that Harris attempts to impart is how horribly clever and tenacious the self can be: selves that endlessly yearn to extinguish the suffering from which they cannot dissociate; selves addicted to the strange dualistic conversation we call thought; selves so mesmerized they cannot enjoy “limitless” comfort, let alone access the transcendental nature of their experience. We find ourselves in a strange and recursive predicament. Our solution is found in recognizing “thoughts as thoughts,” as Harris writes, for that reveals the true nature of consciousness, which breaks the cycle and shatters the prison. There are a variety of ways to achieve this goal, if only momentarily, and Harris supplies various methods, both pharmacological and meditative, while being (sensibly) more prescriptive about the latter.

For those who sense a rather Buddhist tone here, Harris has had long a long fascination with some aspects of Buddhist thought.  Otherwise, why would one prescribe meditative solutions to rectify the “strange dualistic conversation we call thought”?  I am not endorsing Harris’s solution here, nor for that matter the Buddhist “no-self” solution-the Christian dilemma to this very struggle suffering that Harris describes is communion not dissolution.  Quirk adds helpfully:

In terms of personal experience, you will never think your way out of the problem of suffering, and while you may have qualms about the way contemplative practice is described, this says nothing about what you will experience if you choose to engage it. Generally, I think the way to proceed is not to universally regard the self as an illusion, but as something real, rich, and complex that nevertheless must be tantamount to the register in us which makes its perception possible. Some people call this a truer self, or a soul.

Nonetheless, Harris has shown a willingness to take on and wrestle with the inherent nature of existence-suffering-that tends to be glossed over in contemporary atheist writings (except as proof that God doesn’t exist).

What I like about this venture is that it permits Harris to explore a variety of positions that just might appear preposterous. He entertains the possibility that consciousness might be beyond human intelligence to explain, and contrasts the metaphor of a brain that “generates” consciousness to one that “transduces” it (the popular theme in visionary and psychedelic subcultures that likens the brain to a sort of “receiver,” making consciousness the “signal”) and supports the resurging philosophical idea that consciousness inheres in all of matter. He doesn’t exhibit rigid certainty, either. He simply makes arguments.

This open-mindedness is rather jarring, especially juxtaposed against Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands.  Harris also apparently does not dismiss panpsychism, at least as rabidly as Coyne does (see the dispute with Chopra above).  I have read this portion of the book and Harris is by no means endorsing these views.  Nonetheless, simply acknowledging that there is a genuine mystery here is quite rare these days.

The remainder of the article notes that Harris has lost none of his disdain for religion and he gives a rather lame example of suffering (in making this point Quirk quotes, of all people, Eckhart Tolle-which is quite disappointing if for no other than reason than if Harris’s suffering looks small compared to Tolle’s experience both appear as winnows next to a whale when one looks at, say, Dostoevsky).  Even so, the review is a fascinating read, and suggests that this book itself may be worth a read.  Let it never be said that the New Atheists never grapple with the nature of existence-they are speaking to the universal struggles of human life, and in so remind us that we have an obligation to do the same.

A Word from George Weigel (and Thomas Merton)

Courtesy of First Things:

Then there is the Catholic blogosphere. Authoritarian bullying and shaming are certainly not a monopoly of progressive Catholic blog-post writers; there are plenty of ignorant, ill-informed, graceless, and narrow-minded folk on the other end of the spectrum. But those boys and girls don’t regularly congratulate themselves on their openness and tolerance of diversity. That the progressive Catholic blogosphere does so is almost as bad as its penchant for misrepresentation and calumny.

I’ve cited it before, but it’s so prescient that it’s worth citing again. Thomas Merton, who was no one’s idea of a traditional or conservative Catholic, was nonetheless attacked by the Catholic left of his day for alleged offenses against the orthodoxies of radicalism. His response, in one of his charming “nonsense letters” to his friend and fellow-poet, Robert Lax, has a certain prophetic ring to it, read at a distance of forty-eight years:

I am truly spry and full of fun but am pursued by the vilifications of progressed Catholics. Mark my word man there is no uglier species on the face of the earth than progressed Catholics, mean, frivol, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous, and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and Teilhardian subways. The Ottavianis was bad but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.

Progressive Catholic authoritarianism is, one might say, an enduring problem.

Or as I often put it…”conservatives” are often proud of their intolerance.  “Liberals” on the other hand, are often intolerant and genuinely don’t know it.

Augustine’s Confessions

Over a year ago I commented that I would be reading St. Augustine’s Confessions.  I confess (!) I only just started reading a few weeks ago, while I was on vacation in the Adirondacks, and am still not quite done, so a thorough review is still not forthcoming.  However, I do have a rather intriguing story to share.  While reading the book I found myself increasingly irritated that Augustine’s theology was interspersed with his own prayers.  Put another way, I would preferred Augustine simply state his theological views directly, rather than interweaving them with his prayers to God.  At one point, however, I put down Confessions and picked up Christ the Stranger, an overview of the theology of Rowan Williams written by Benjamin Myers.  Here is what Myers had to say:

‘In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that since the great period of Scholasticism there have been few theologians who were saints.’ That was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s melancholy observation in 1948.  Until the late medieval period, he says, most saints were also theologians who reproduced the church’s teaching not only in ink and paper, but also in the solid tissue of their lives.  Their influence on the tradition came from this unity of life and teaching; their believing was also a knowing, and their knowledge was a function of their faith.

If I had to point to a single text that resonates with Williams’ imaginative life, it would perhaps be Augustine’s Confessions, a work that uniquely fuses spirituality with theology.  Augustine articulates truth about God by talking to God: the reader is an eavesdropper on his theology.  That is why reading the Confessions is a curiously lonely experience. It is bittersweet, because for once we are on the outside looking in, whereas in most theological writing it is the scholars who talk among themselves while God is presumed to be outside.  The cold modern distinction between theology and spirituality is rendered meaningless in Augustine’s language of prayer.  In the opening paradox of the Confessions, he asks whether we first pray (in order to know God) or first know God (in order to pray).  How can we call on a God whom we don’t already know something about?  But how could we know anything about God unless we’ve already prayed?  Augustine never resolves the paradox.  There is no need to decide whether prayer or theology takes priority.  We simply find ourselves in the mystery of prayer, and experience of this mystery is itself a kind of knowing.  The whole Confessions is thus a demonstration of the mutuality of praying and knowing.  The activities of spirituality and theology are integrated not by any theoretical method, but by the integrity of a sanctified life, a life that prays.  That is why the Confessions-perhaps the pinnacle of theological writing in the western tradition-is not a systematic doctrinal treatise but an autobiography, an account of one human life swept up in the shattering tempest of divine love.  Only here, in the converted life, do theology and spirituality join hands.

Well then.  Providence, it appears, has a sense of humor.  This “coincidence” made its point.  I can’t say I’ve completely overcome my irritation, but I am certainly looking at the Confessions with newly opened eyes and a fresh perspective.  Whether my own writing will ever go that direction is anyone’s guess-but Myers has certainly made a provocative point and gotten me thinking.

Put Not Thy Trust in The New York Times

I begin with a wise thought from Frederica Mathewes-Green:

There’s a distinction that is often missed between praying that all will be saved and assuming that all will be saved. That’s especially the case in our time, when the more challenging aspects of faith are routinely played down, and God’s mercy is emphasized to the near exclusion of any other characteristic. Of course he is great in mercy, and what we say of that is true; yet in emphasizing it we can lose our balance, tipping too far toward one side. In a comfortable age such as ours, we assume God wants us to be comfortable, and we skip over the Scriptures that tell the tougher things Jesus said.

What’s more, the secular world puts enormous pressure on us to espouse universalism. For that reason, we must give careful consideration to the other side of the argument. A non-universalist view characterized Christian faith from the beginning, and we should not assume that we are wiser than all the other Christians in history.

Social pressure can sure obscure our ability to think clearly, though. I recommend what I call “the New York Times test:” when considering a viewpoint, ask yourself which side the New York Times would approve. Which side would the secular elite smile upon and reward? Then put a little extra weight on the other side of the scale. Challenge yourself to think a little harder, a little longer, about whichever point of view would make you less popular with the powers-that-be.

In fairness, I greatly appreciate the contributions of some New York Times columnists (specifically David Brooks, Peter Steinfels and Ross Douthat); and there are times I worry more about the readership than I do the contributors.  A few years ago there was an editorial in which a young woman suggested that the “hook-up culture” could be damaging.  Her point was made calmly and very modestly-not a word about religion, not a call to chastity, simply a suggestion that a life of casual sex comes at a cost.  From the online comments, however, one would’ve thought that the author had called for all Americans to be fitted with chastity belts and required to submit to weekly interrogations by Catholic prelates on their sex lives.  Her modest suggestion, it seems, was too much for the New York Times readership, who are the living proof that we live, in the words of David Bentley Hart,

…in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good

Those caveats aside, I heartily approve of how Frederica invokes the venerable newspaper here.  I had previously quoted her concern that a Church which enthusiastically tries to appeal to the present age is doomed to fail-it is running on a treadmill to reach a dangling carrot it just can’t reach (I’ve started working with a personal trainer recently, so the analogy came easily-though for me I’d be running after a dangling piece of cake).  This is a prime example of that concern.  The aforementioned Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion, notes that

The challenge…is to avoid simply becoming a kind of warmed-over accommodationism…leading “emergent” pastors like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell tend to be more famous for downplaying the harder Christian teachings from hell to homosexuality, than they are for showcasing Christianity itself.

Bell, in particular, is a prime example of Frederica’s warning regarding universalism: There is indeed pressure to espouse that all are saved-after all, its much more “humane.”  Granted, I think more and more people would just as soon the Church dissolve altogether, but at the very least if Christianity is going to stick around it should at least blend in with modern spiritual trends.  As Douthat ironically put elsewhere, this is a call for a “post-Catholic Catholicism.”  This appears to be the absolute minimum standard that the New York Times would consider acceptable for Christians to belong in polite society.

Of course, the disdain from the cultural elites is nothing new.  Few have spoken better on this subject than Rev. Fleming Rutledge (who, ironically, has published a book entitled The Bible and the New York Times).  In another of her books (Help My Unbelief) she offers the following snippet:

“You don’t actually believe in God here at Harvard, do you?” A certain professor wrote in The New Yorker about three years ago that “I’m religious, but I try to keep quiet about it. In Cambridge, where I work, religiosity is accounted one of those conditions that suggest some lapse of hygiene on the part of those afflicted, as with worms or lice.” Richard Rorty has recently declared himself exhilarated because “in the final stages of democracy we won’t need religion any more.” Six weeks ago, Salman Rushdie told New York Times readers that his hope for the third millennium is that we would “finally outgrow our need for religion.” These sorts of observations are so commonplace among the high priests of our culture that they scarcely merit mention. Here is a rather more piquant comment on religious faith, from a letter of English novelist Virginia Woolf. Writing to her sister Vanessa about a visit with T. S. Eliot, she reports, “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God … and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”  Well, in spite of all, as your preacher today I identify myself with some words that Paul once wrote: “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16).

Those who are curious as to why a Roman Catholic like myself quotes so extensively from the homilies of an Episcopal priest, who describes herself as a “triple-convicted Protestant,” this is your answer: Rev. Rutledge is someone who truly is not ashamed of the Gospel and has molded her life around this conviction.  She has more spine than most Catholic priests I know, many of whom would swoon if the New York Times casts a dirty look their way.  In an address to Episcopal high school students Rev. Rutledge offered the following advice:

I vividly remember moving to New York from Virginia twenty-five years ago, meeting a famous literary critic who was one of my heroes, and listening to him say with scarcely disguised contempt, “A Christian! I don’t know anyone who is a Christian.”  Well, this is one of two attitudes that I meet all the time in the secular world, the same two attitudes that you will also meet there, if you haven’t already.  The first one, the belief of my critic friend, is that a Christian is somewhat lower on the evolutionary scale than the best people.  The benighted Christian might actually be a nice person, might even be well-educated, might be cultured and sophisticated in certain respects, but clearly, when it comes to religious faith, the Christian is not as highly developed as the secular person who believes that religion is a sort of self-deception and, as such, it is to be barely tolerated.  This is one of two ways of saying “Whatever works for you.”  “I don’t need it, dear, and I can’t imagine an intelligent person like you falling for it, but if it helps you, that’s fine.”

The other way in which the expression might be used is by the New Age crystals-channeling-and-chanting crowd.  When a New Ager says “Whatever works for you,” he is not being deeply patronizing like our secular friend, but is, rather, wholeheartedly enthusiastic about spiritual searches of all sorts and can therefore endorse any and all of them, without distinction.

Both of these positions are inimical to Christian faith, but the second is more so.  It is easier to know what one believes when challenged with unbelief than it is to punch one’s way through a marshmallow.  In either case, however, the young person-or the older person for that matter-is going to be faced with formidable obstacles if he or she wants to be a Christian.  She is going to face a lifetime of being patronized by the sophisticates, on the one hand, and on the other being smothered in sentimental embraces by the indiscriminately religious.

After these discouraging words, however, Rev. Rutledge declares with the conviction that so few of us are blessed to enjoy in this life:

I am here this week to testify that Christian faith is neither intellectually shallow nor spiritually thin…Christian faith is not worthy of your attention because it is religious or spiritual; it calls you into a lifetime of worship, service and fellowship because it is true.  “Whatever works for you” is a barren and empty formulation.  I do not proclaim the Christian story to you because it is workable; the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, risen and reigning took the Mediterranean world by storm and has never ceased to transform lives, not because it is practical or helpful or useful, but because it is life from the dead.

I know what Rev. Rutledge describes all too well-I know the disdain from the halls of higher education, having attended an Ivy League university (Cornell) and later a public law school (SUNY Buffalo), both environments not known for being friendly to faith (unless the faith accommodates itself).  I know it firsthand from work-most professionals tend to view Christianity with thinly concealed (if at all) disdain, even some who are ostensibly Catholic (and in Buffalo almost everyone is).  I know it from Facebook, where one friend almost daily equates those who believe in God with those who believe in Santa Claus-and deserving the same degree of respect.

What does one do?  In Bad Religion Douthat notes that in such an environment Christians have different reactions-some accommodate, others retreat.  He notes

The community of Latin Mass Catholics, which has recently been given encouragement and support from Rome, has long sought to sustain a purer church within the Church-one that’s more liturgically rich and doctrinally rigorous than the American norm and less compromised by Catholicism’s current disarray…drop in on the right enclave of Latin Mass Catholics…and it’s easy to come away convinced that traditional believers will eventually inherit the earth.

But separatist Christians also risk falling into the same traps that snared the fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s-paranoia, crankishness, and al the other pathologies of the religious ghetto…what’s more, they risk effectively giving up on their religious co-believers.

For myself, I try to follow the example of Rev. Rutledge: Stand firm, do not surrender patronizing disdain or indiscriminate, “mushy spirituality;” and above all else, do not be ashamed of the Gospel. At the same time, however, I have no separatist tendencies-I don’t, for instance, wish to limit my friends and those I freely associate with, to those who share my convictions; neither (as I have made very clear) do I see a rigorous Catholic traditionalism as the answer.  I live, instead, with the conviction that the Truth will triumph in the end; and I stand in the Catholic tradition with thankfulness, joy and an almost playful enthusiasm-in Virginia Woolf’s words I may have less credibility than a corpse with some folks (such as my friend on Facebook), but if I am going to be a corpse I’m at least going to be a zombie.  And one with a sense of humor at that.

In summary, take Frederica’s challenge: Don’t take the path of least resistance and follow the easy way of the New York Times.  Take up the challenge offered by the Church.  And remember the rallying cry of Rev. Rutledge, which is say the same rallying cry of the Catholic Church: Christianity demands everything of you for it is true.  Be not ashamed, be not afraid.  Put thy trust in the Lord, not in the New York Times.

The Pope Emeritus on “Co-Suffering Love”

Lazar Puhalo, a retired Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in America, often speaks of what he calls a “co-suffering love.”  Andrew Sopko, summarizing Puhalo’s thinking, explains

For Puhalo, the concept of co-suffering love serves as the basis for all Orthodox theology.  According to Antony Khrapovitsky, from whom he has garnered the expression, “the co-suffering love of one who perceives the fallings of a neighbor with as much grief as if he himself were the sinner becomes a powerful force of regeneration.”

Puhalo himself adds

Righteousness does not consist in correct behavior but in genuine co-suffering love…No deed has any moral value unless it proceeds from the heart motivated by love.  Otherwise it is simply ethical or correct behavior according to one or another systems of laws, a human work which anyone in any culture, with or without faith in God can attain to…Our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who fulfilled righteousness was motivated solely by love, co-suffering love.  And this is why our Lord Jesus Christ became our righteousness on the cross and imputed that righteousness to us through faith.

One can find something similar in the writings of Dostoevsky, as explained by Fr. Stephen Freeman and Metropolitan John Zizioulas.  Fr. Freeman writes:

It is at this very point of despair that Dostoevsky introduces the heart of redemption. He does not solve the problem of existence and its contradictions through reason or balanced equations. Rather, meaning and existence come through suffering love. His characters are never delivered through understanding, but by the encounter with others, most specifically, others who are suffering. 

Metropolitan John states:

If man, by exercising his freedom rejects existence, he has no other choice except suicide. If, on the other hand, he accepts existence, then he has no other choice than to accept it the way it is: that is, as an (irrational) suffering, as a Cross.  That is exactly what happened with the Incarnation of the Lord.

Acceptance of the Cross signifies identifying with all those who suffer, an undertaking of responsibility for all of the pain in Creation – and identifying thus, to the death.  Only then does redemption come from evil, and not through morality and logic: only with self-sacrificing love.  It is not about masochism, because it is not about the self-satisfaction of a sacrificed one. It is the realization that the only path to defeating evil and death itself is for one to voluntarily sustain them both, and even then, for the sake of the others.  Thus, Dostoevsky – not entirely perchance – chooses as the frontispiece of his great work the Gospel quote: “If the grain of wheat that falls to earth does not die, it will only lay there; but if it dies, it will bear much fruit.”  The Cross is not an end in itself. The ultimate purpose is the Resurrection. But one doesn’t reach there except only by passing through the Cross.

This concept of co-suffering love, it turns out, is not simply an Eastern Orthodox idea.  In his encyclical Spe Salvi Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote the following:

37. Let us return to our topic. We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever (Ps 136 [135]). The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1 [79:2]). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love. O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations … Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God, from whom every good proceeds; bless the Lord with me, for his mercy is for ever … I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”[28]. This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

38. The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.

39. To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this? Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on his account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself? In the history of humanity, it was the Christian faith that had the particular merit of bringing forth within man a new and deeper capacity for these kinds of suffering that are decisive for his humanity. The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvellous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis[29]—God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’s Passion. Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises. Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.

40. I would like to add here another brief comment with some relevance for everyday living. There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.

One would be hard pressed, I think, to find a more beautiful expression of Christian love.  These words, from the man who has been slandered as “God’s Rottweiler,” are a window into the deepest essence of the Gospel.  One cannot but be moved by reading this.

A final thought: “Morality” has become a much critiqued word these days, Archbishop Puhalo, for instance, often sets Christianity against “morality.”  As the Pope Emeritus illustrates, however, true morality is something far deeper than mere compliance with ethical codes: At its core it is to embody the love of Christ, the so aptly-named “co-suffering love.”