Fatima: A Meditation

Though this is probably stating the obvious, I am not the kind of Catholic who has had much to do with Fatima-based spirituality.  Or, perhaps, I should say I haven’t much to do with any Fatima-based spirituality, as there appears to be a “diversity” (in the words of a wise friend) of spiritualties inspired by Our Lady of Fatima.  This is not to say that I disbelieve in Marian apparitions, though I find more inspiration from Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Guadalupe than I do from Fatima.  Nonetheless, several of our recent Popes-all men more intelligent and holy than I-have believed that Our Lady of Fatima was of genuine supernatural origin.  That being the case, I’m not at liberty to simply write the apparition and her warnings off (though I actively ignore as best I can some of the conspiracy theories having to do with the three prophecies).

I was prompted to write this post, as is often the case, by a comment I read online.  Fr. Robert Barron had written an article in which, following van Balthasar, he suggests that it is permissible for a Catholic to hope that all may be saved, and adds that the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell (it is often said that Judas “must” be in Hell due to the words of Scripture saying it would be better had he never born-an argument that has never made sense to me and that St. John Paul II expressed disagreement with in Crossing the Threshold of Hope).  Michael Voris responded to this with an angry tirade, as I’ve noted before, and a commentator to the article asked directly:

The Church may not, as yet, have stated that there is in fact human beings in Hell, but the Church has definately approved of the apparitions at Fatima in which the Blessed Virgin showed the three children a vision of Hell with burning souls. Now if no one is suffering in Hell, why did She put those kids through that terror?

Before adding my own speculation on this point, I think it is helpful to reiterate the formal position of the Magisterium on Fatima.  Our Lady of Fatima, like all Marian apparitions, is a “private revelation.  Paragraph 67 of the Catechism explicitly addresses private revelations:

Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

In short, the events at Fatima-even if they were of genuine supernatural origin, which the Church has accepted-they are not part of the Deposit of Faith and not binding on believers, even if Popes are devoted to them (a point worth noting given that more than a few rattled conservative Catholics have been reminding us almost daily that Pope Francis is not protected from all error).  In the words of St. John Paul lI:

If the Church has accepted the message of Fatima, it is above all because that message contains a truth and a call whose basic content is the truth and the call of the Gospel itself.

As the Catechism states, the purpose of private revelations is to help people in a particular epoch live out the faith more fully-for instance, a Marian apparition could spur a call to renewal.  Moreover, the language of the Catechism is suggestive: The Magisterium and sensus fidelium discern and welcome “in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.”  This language suggests that private revelations are not necessarily to be taken simply at face value, rather the revelations contain a “truth and call” which is “the truth and the call of the Gospel itself.”

This makes a great deal of sense.  James Arraj writes the following:

A vision, Karl Rahner tells us in Visions and Prophecies, (1963, NY: Herder and Herder) “is a kind of overflow and echo of a much more intimate and spiritual process.”15 “The imaginative vision… is only the radiation and reflex of contemplation in the sphere of the senses, the incarnation of the mystical process of the spirit.”16 Because an interior grace underlies the vision, we can understand why a certain deep humility, as well as other virtues, were looked for as signs that the vision was genuine, but even in the case of a saint who is receiving genuine contemplative graces, his or her visions are a compound “of the divine influence plus all the subjective dispositions of the visionary.”17 We can imagine the interior grace received deep in the center of the soul, as it were, and then echoing or reverberating throughout the psyche of the seer, and therefore being received by the psyche which expresses the grace to itself in the form of the interior vision according to the visionary’s education, historical situation, particular temperament, and so forth. Therefore, we can say that “imaginative visions are as a rule only indirectly caused by God.”18 Subsequently it becomes extremely difficult for any outside observer to distinguish between what part of the vision could be said to be a direct result of the interior grace, and what part is the result of this grace’s reception in the psyche. Even the visionary who can experience the authenticity of the interior grace is in a similar position. There is no way for the visionary to decide with complete certitude what part of the vision comes from God and what is coming from the psyche.

As bold as this thesis may first appear, Rahner abundantly supports it by turning to the lives of the saints, and illustrating that even when we can presume the sanctity of the person receiving the vision or revelation, that person can be mistaken about its import. St. Vincent Ferrer, for example, thought his visions taught him the end of the world was close, while St. Catherine of Siena believed Our Lady had told her she had not been conceived immaculately. St. Frances of Rome had visions that told her about the nature of the heavens, but which, in fact, were incorrect. St. Magdalene of Pazzi, St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Elizabeth of Schoenau all had revelations about the lives of Jesus and Mary, but contradicted each other.

The yet-to-be-canonized have not fared any better. Josefa Menéndez was told by Jesus that the robe Mary had made for Him grew as He grew, and Lucía of Fatima learned from an angel a prayer that was theologically unsound. In short, “Even in “genuine” imaginative visions human powers are creatively at work.”19 From the perspective of these interactions between grace and the psyche, other questions could be examined, Rahner tells us, like the fashions in visions that have appeared through the ages, and the interplay of visions with psychopathological influences, or how the vision may interact with parapsychological gifts, or how a genuine vision might be followed by more human ones, for “true visions produce a habitus and may so foster an inclination already present that this will sometimes set the psychic mechanism operating even if there is no divine motion.”20

Even a genuine revelation must be filtered through the all-too human element of the receiver.  Luke Timothy Johnson writes helpfully (from Faith’s Freedom-Johnson’s chapter on revelation, where this is drawn from, is most helpful):

If we think of God in terms of Spirit rather than as a physical object out there, than it is obviously nonsense to say that God could ever be perceived “as God is” by humans whose perceptions are conditioned by time and space.  Pertinent here is an axiom of scholastic philosophy, quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur: “Whatever is received, is received according to the capacity of the receiver.”…any such experience is inevitably shaped to the capacity of the one experiencing.

Again, none of this is to deny that genuine supernatural revelations happen.  The point is rather that the revelations must be filtered through the human element, which is a key reason why the revelations must validated by the Magisterium to determine what the “real message,” so to speak, is.  As Arraj noted some revelations appear to contradict each other if they are all taken on strictly literal terms (a problem that is mirrored in more dramatic fashion by the myriad of Near Death Experiences documented in recent years, which all effectively cancel each other out).

The lesson of Fatima seems fairly clear and can be summed up in a single word: Repent.  That is effectively the message of the Gospel, as St. JPII noted.  Does make the (private) revelation of Our Lady of Fatima incompatible with a hopeful universalism?  I don’t think so.  But, as Fr. Barron’s interlocutor asked, why on earth would the Blessed Mother put the three children through such terror?  Let us assume that the vision the children recounted was indeed what was delivered to them-and incidentally neither I, nor anyone else, can assess this-though I admit that I do wonder if the “capacity of the receivers,” in this case their age and the Catholic symbolism they were raised with, affected their reception.

I wish to offer a comparison.  In the famous Dickens classic A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge is shown a series of terrifying visions of his own future (or, rather, his legacy, as he is dead in the visions).  As he is driven onto his knees in an act of repentance (take note) he begs the Ghost of Christmas Future to tell him whether the visions he has seen are visions of things that will be or may be only.  The Ghost remains silent, but Scrooge answers his own (rhetorical) question with the observation that “Man’s courses foreshadow certain ends, but if the courses be departed from the ends may change.”  And, indeed, Scrooge’s repentance leads to a departure from the courses of his life that foreshadowed such a terrifying end.

This analogy is unlikely to satisfy many (it may even offend some, for which I apologize) but I stand by it.  Why would the Blessed Mother terrify children?  I think the answer is surprisingly simple: Sometimes terror is the only way to get the message across.  Jesus, as many seem to almost delight in reminding us, spoke frequently of Gehenna, the hellish consequences that would befall upon those who refused to repent of their sins.  The consequences are real and must be taken seriously (hence why universalism can never be more than a hope).  And sometimes we need a two-by-four to remind us of that.  A revelation of hell-fire is not sadism, it is a warning of where the courses of humanity lead if not departed from.

Nor is that the end of the story.  Rev. Fleming Rutledge once noted that the beauty of the Gospel is that the bad news (Sin and Divine Wrath) are wrapped in the Good News (Grace and Mercy).  The Fatima prayer, derived from the revelation and now included in the devotion of the Rosary, says unambiguously “Lead all souls to Heaven; especially those most in need of thy mercy.”  This should not be taken as an endorsement of universalism by any means, that we are commanded to pray this does not mean all souls WILL get to Heaven.  But, Fatima is more than simply a two-by-four in the head to remind us that we must repent or court damnation.

To the contrary, it is also a reminder to pray for the souls of others, especially those who seem most wretched and depraved (i.e. the ones who need God’s mercy most).  So powerful is this element of the Fatima events that is has become embedded into the defining devotion of Latin-rite Catholicism.  I suspect, though of course I do not know for sure, that this why St. John Paul II could be simultaneously devoted to Fatima, and, without any cognitive dissonance, articulate a hopeful universalism in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  My parting thought is a simple one: The call of Christ in the visions at Fatima is a reminder that we must repent and never take our salvation for granted, while also reminding us of God’s love for souls and commanding us to pray that those who need God’s mercy most will find it.  In a nutshell, it is simply the Gospel.

Not Impossible for Human Nature: A Meditation

I mentioned recently that I am a great fan of St. Gregory of Nyssa.  It has long been a frustration to me that of the 3 great Cappadocian Fathers (the others being St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus) he is the only one who is not considered a Doctor of the [Roman Catholic] Church.  For those who wish to know more about the spectacular vision of St. Gregory of Nyssa, I strongly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite (though, arguably, Hart’s book is more incomprehensible than the actual writings of the saint).  In any case, however, this is not to say that the Roman Catholic Church has not copious use of St. Gregory’s insights.  Many excerpts from his writings and homilies appear in readings for the Daily Office.

A friend forward me the following excerpt from such a homily from the Office of Readings from 6/26:

The hope of seeing God

The happiness God promises certainly knows no limits. When one has gained such a blessing, what is left to desire? In seeing God one possesses all things. In the language of Scripture, to see is to have. May you see the good things of Jerusalem is the same as May you possess the good things of Jerusalem. When the prophet says: May the wicked man be carried off and not see the glory of the Lord, he means: May he not share in the glory of the Lord.

One who has seen God has, in the act of seeing, gained all that is counted good: life without end, everlasting freedom from decay, undying happiness, a kingdom that has no end, lasting joy, true light, a voice to sing pleasingly in the spirit, unapproachable glory, perpetual rejoicing, in a word, the totality of blessing.

Such is the wonderful hope held out by the beatitudes. As we have seen, the condition for seeing God is purity of heart, and now once more my mind is in confusion, as from an attack of giddiness, wondering if purity of heart is something impossible, something beyond the capacity of human nature. If the vision of God is dependent on purity of heart, and if Moses and Paul did not attain this vision—they state that neither they nor anyone else can see God—then the promise of the beatitude spoken by the Word seems to be something impossible of realization.

What do we gain from knowing the means by which God may be seen if we have not the power to see him? It is like saying that one is blessed if one is in heaven because in heaven things are seen that are not seen on earth. If we were told beforehand how to get to heaven, it would be helpful to know that one is blessed if one is in heaven. But as long as the way to heaven is impossible what do we gain by knowing about the happiness of heaven? This only saddens and annoys us when we realize the good things we are deprived of, because it is impossible to get there.

Surely the Lord does not encourage us to do something impossible to human nature because the magnitude of what he commands is beyond the reach of our human strength? The truth is different. He does not command those creatures to whom he has not given wings to become birds, nor those to whom he has assigned a life on land to live in water. If then in the case of all other creatures the command is according to the capacity of those who receive it, and does not oblige them to anything beyond their nature, we shall come to the conclusion that we are not to give up hope of gaining what is promised by the beatitude. John and Paul and Moses, then, and any others like them, did not fail to achieve that sublime happiness that comes from the vision of God: not Paul, who said: There is stored up for me a crown of righteousness, which the judge who judges justly will give me, nor John, who leaned on the breast of Jesus, nor Moses, who heard God saying to him, I know you above all others.

If it is clear that those who taught that the contemplation of God was beyond their powers are themselves blessed, and if blessedness consists in the vision of God and is granted to the pure in heart, then purity of heart, leading to blessedness, is certainly not among the things that are impossible.

Hence it can be said that those who with Paul teach that the vision of God is beyond our powers are right in what they say, and that the voice of the Lord does not contradict them when he promises that the pure in heart will see God.

St. Gregory’s point, made so beautifully, is that seeing God, and attaining all the happiness that comes with that vision, is not impossible.  We need not despair, for God would never make impossible demands upon us-it is within the capacity of human nature to truly KNOW God.  This homily brings a great comfort to me, for I am one of those to whom St. Gregory speaks: In an age when so many of my contemporaries seem to have no problem sensing God’s immanence (to the point that, in Pope Francis’s words, some want to take a “spiritual bath in the cosmos”) I have the opposite problem.  God’s transcendence is the barrier for me, I know all too well that the Lord  “dwells in inaccessible Light” (1 Timothy 6:16).  If purity of heart is a necessary condition for penetrating the Light, than I don’t stand a chance.  So it feels most days.

I’m waxing a bit Eastern here, I realize.  The Eastern Orthodox take the concept of “seeing God” more literally than we do in the West, for the path of Orthodox spirituality leads to an encounter with the “Uncreated Light.” The Orthodox saints, it is said, have seen the same Light that was seen by the apostles at the Transfiguration (hence the Uncreated Light is also known as the “Tabor Light”).  It should be stressed that this concept emphasizes that the Light, while not itself physical, is actually seen (with one’s eyes), it is not a mere mental phenomena.  It also must be remembered that the Tabor Light is generally-to use the terminology of Gregory of Palamas-identified with God’s “energies”-His “essence” remains unknown within the inaccessible Light.

One cannot demand a vision of the Uncreated Light.  Frederica Mathewes-Green has noted that while God is of course at liberty to reveal Himself to anyone he chooses (and does) the majority of us can only prepare ourselves as best we can by…purifying our hearts.  In her wise thoughts on this subject she says

The Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, the Very Rev. Dr. Thomas Hopko, says, “Everybody wants the Jesus Prayer, but nobody wants Jesus.” Some people who explore Orthodox prayer disciplines are looking for spiritual experiences, not a Lord.

What the Church, East and West, says on seeing the Lord and the (generally) antecedent requirement of purity of heart is delightfully paradoxical.  We are asked to do something that is within our nature, as St. Gregory of Nyssa notes, but that still demands great spiritual discipline.  Even that discipline isn’t enough, however, with right motive.  Yet we’d still never have a chance of seeing God if He hadn’t revealed Himself, made Himself accessible, first-and provided us with the grace to do so.  And even now, He may dramatically bypass the disciplines for some.  Yet, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, one thing is clear: Purity of heart is NOT impossible.  We have not been commanded to do something that we cannot.  Not if we are prepared to turn to God’s grace.

At this point, I am going to abruptly switch gears and quote a recent sermon given by Rev. Fleming Rutledge, in which she references the shooting in Charleston.  I have been unable to find anything meaningful to say on this monstrous event (beyond the usual expressions of grief, outrage, etc.) but as usual, Rev. Rutledge can find the Lords I cannot (rather, as she herself would immediately point out, the Lord directed her to the right words).  Preaching on the Lord’s parable of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins” she says

Two days ago, the principal of the Goose Creek School in Charleston, where one of the murdered churchgoers was an admired track coach, said, “Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.” Notice the use of the passive voice, “will be made right.” There is a divine agency behind this making-right, and that agency cannot be overcome by the principalities, or by the powers, or by things present or things to come (Romans 8:38-9). That’s what the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew point to. They are oriented toward the triumph of God in the second coming of Christ.

We can be here for the rest of the day debating the ultimate destiny of the foolish five. Barth famously wrote that we are permitted to hope for a salvation that will reach to all. That’s why one woman in Charleston—a woman prepared—said directly to the killer, “May God have mercy on your soul.” The important thing about this parable right now is to think about what it means for the church to be ready for the coming of her Lord. What does it mean for us, all these weary and discouraging hours, and days, and years that he does not come and it appears that he never will, and the church grows slack?

This confidence in the “great gettin’ up morning” has strengthened the congregation of Emanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina—known to many as “Mother Emanuel.” When I started struggling with this sermon ten days ago, I wondered how in the world I was going to illustrate it. Little did I know that something would happen that would show forth the Advent church, assaulted by darkness, but rising up with all its lamps burning, and with plenty of extra oil for the long, long haul ahead.

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up the Columbine High School in 1999, there were some troubling stories about local Christian youth groups. Before the blood was even dry, it seemed, youth leaders began asking the traumatized students whose friends were dead, “Do you forgive Eric and Dylan?” This sort of premature, even invasive, call for forgiveness should never be inflicted on anyone, let alone young teenagers who have just experienced the unimaginable. It’s very difficult even for much older Christian people to navigate the passage between justice and mercy. Ordinarily we might do well to mistrust such premature offers of forgiveness.

Last week in Charleston, however, was different. To be sure, it’s important not to romanticize or idealize the black church, or any church. All Christian groups are riven by Sin just like all other groups. But the black churches have suffered so extremely, and so unjustly, for so long, that they have achieved a maturity that seems almost superhuman. The members of “Mother Emanuel” Church who lost their pastor, their relatives, their friends in a bloody, hateful assault are not teenagers unaccustomed to suffering, crime, violence, and death. These are adults who have seen ugliness in human character that white people cannot even comprehend. Many of them have been learning “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16) for decades. They were being conformed, as a group, to his likeness. Therefore they had a readiness, as a community of believers, that can’t develop the same way in isolated individuals.

I heard a long interview on NPR with an African-American pastor in South Carolina. The interviewer simply could not comprehend what he was saying to her. She kept saying, “But how can you forgive? How can you be like this?” All weekend, the mystification of the reporters was notable. They kept asking the same question over and over: “How can you forgive Dylann Roof?” They couldn’t understand it. The radio and TV people kept using well-worn phrases like “the triumph of the human spirit” and “the goodness of the American people.” No, the pastor on NPR said, it is our faith. What we have seen in the members of Mother Emanuel church and the other black churches is neither the triumph of the human spirit nor the goodness of the American people. It was a cloud of witnesses to the victory of the limitless love of the One who will come again to set things right.

Maybe the best clue to the inner meaning of this parable of the lamps and the oil can be found in just two words. The parable tells us that when the bridegroom arrived, “those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast.” With him! The five who were prepared, who stored up a supply of oil in anticipation of the great banquet, see the lighted procession approaching them with the glorious Bridegroom at its head. “Come, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Master.” We accompany him, we enter his eternal wedding banquet with him, at his side, cleansed from all our accumulated misdoings, freed from our bondage to the power of Sin, in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in all his splendor, the one who has loved us even unto death and hell, who comes again to receive those who belong to him.

As usual, I strongly recommend reading the whole sermon.  Rev. Rutledge here says nothing of seeing the Uncreated Light or purity of heart, and yet her words add a piercing insight to the struggle.  She makes the following points:

  • What seems impossible can be done.  The forgiveness offered by the members of AME Church seems impossible.  It should be impossible.  But isn’t.  It happened.
  • The impossible happens by God’s grace.  We cannot do these things of our own accord, as Rev. Rutledge never tires of saying the “human spirit” won’t do it alone.  This is not, by the way, at odds with St. Gregory’s assertion that we have a capacity for purity of heart in our nature.  We do.  But as Fr. Freeman has explained, we have become alienated from our own nature due to sin.  It is the Lord who sets us straight.
  • The “way of the impossible” is through suffering.  Rev. Rutledge describes the suffering undergone by the black church.  Fr. Freeman speaks of our “patient endurance” of God healing us.  These things are related: The wholeness of “purity of heart” is not easy. It involves a-dare I say it-purgatorial pain as our nature is, to speak, wrenched back into place.  Only in this can we attain the purity of heart that allows us to forgive as God forgives, to see the Lord.
  • Finally, though Rev. Rutledge likely didn’t mean it in quite this way, the way of the impossible is an ecclesiastical way.  One cannot, and should not, do this alone.  A suffering borne in community leads, as Rev. Rutledge observes, to greater readiness for the Lord, to greater strength.  Frederica observes that one can only learn to pray properly in the context of community and tradition.  The way of salvation is not isolated.  We need the Church-to belong to the Church and be immersed in Her life.

So: Those like myself who struggle daily believing we can never attain purity of heart, and will never see God, take comfort.  The Lord’s promises are not in vain, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (living and not) who remind us that it is.  It will not be easy, but know that God has given us His grace and His Church to get us through it.  Purity of heart, leading to blessedness, is NOT impossible.

Credo quia absurdum and Ratzinger on Religio vera

I have always had certain traits that are rather unusual for a believing and practicing Catholic.  For one thing, I see nothing wrong with ridiculing the ridiculous and have had several not-very-nice things to say about people who believe outlandish things, whether it be that President Bush caused 9/11, President Obama is a closet Muslim, or the world is 6,000 years old (that parallelism, or rather lack thereof, is deliberate).  While I’m working on being more charitable to such folks as people I still find their ideas as ideas stark raving mad.  Does not this mindset, which many would call skeptical, not jive with religion of any kind, particularly one such as Catholicism?  After all, Catholicism makes more than a few claims that can sound just as absurd as the ones listed above.

To some, absurdity is actually good news.  The infamous phrase Credo quia absurdum, first used by the church father Tertullian, has become a secondary credo for these folks (even if they don’t use the phrase), to the point that it appears the more outlandish one is the better.  In fact, Bill Maher suggested just this in Religulous as an explanation for scientology: “Religions have to get crazier to keep up!”  If Maher is right that faith really is nothing more than believing in things without evidence-making a virtue of not thinking-how is it not rightfully targeted as ridicule?  Christopher Hitchens, in one of his debates (I think with Alister McGrath) gleefully cited Tertullian as proof of this assertion.

Well, the “Maher mishegoss” should be addressed right away.  First and foremost, I am not much of a Tertullian man myself (if there were Patristic equivalents of sports jerseys mine would say “Gregory of Nyssa” on it) but it is far from obvious that what Tertullian meant by Credo quia absurdum is what we assume he meant.  Keith Ward argues

When he spoke of believing absurdities, he obviously did not mean that he believed in stupidities.  He meant that he believed in divine revelation in Jesus of things that could not be inferred by rational speculation alone.  Moreover, these revealed things were ‘absurd’ or ‘impossible’ in a very special way.  They were impossible only if there was no God who could act decisively in history, who might express the divine being in the life of a human being, and who might raise a finite human life to the life of eternity.

For Tertullian, God does what is impossible for nature alone to do-and that shows that it is God who is acting.  God unites the natural to the supernatural.  That is impossible only for those who think there is no supernatural, or that it cannot affect the natural world of events in space and time in any way.

Tertullian’s faith was founded on the testimony of the apostles to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, testimony to a set of historical events that are impossible without God, and cannot be demonstrated by reasoning alone.  But, he thinks, those events occurred, the testimony is believable, and so reasoning cannot disprove them.

Second, faith is not “making a virtue out of not thinking” as Maher argues-or at the very least in the sense Maher thinks it does.  To quote James Alison:

Part of what makes us viable as human beings is the regularly dependable certainty of things just being there.

What would you say if you were to come across someone who, every time they open a door, before stepping through it checks carefully to see if there is a floor on the other side?  You would regard them as seriously troubled, in need of medical attention.  If they were to say to you “I don’t know how you can be so blithe about stepping through doors: faith and doubt are equal and opposite realities, and I’m always tortured as to which one I should go with”, you would react with concern.  They are talking nonsense: faith and doubt are not equal and opposite realities.  Faith is the habitual disposition which knows and trusts the regular certainty of what is about us, without any need to see it or think about it at all.  Doubt, on the contrary, is a very highly developed and skilled subsection of faith in the regular certainty of things thanks to which, from time to time, we may question whether the normal certainty holds in this or that situation.

There is a huge seedbed of unexamined certainty prior to our viability as human beings in any field at all…just think of the first words you address to someone in the morning.  You do not typically spend any time, or emotional energy at all, in worrying about whether or not words still mean the same this morning as they meant last night.

Ward adds to this

Faith and reason are not two totally distinct faculties, with completely different modes of operation.  Reasoning does not tell us what the world is really like, without any reference to God.  Faith does not tell us that God exists and acts, without any appeal to reasoning.

Third, and finally, the Pope Emeritus has spoken directly on this subject:

The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith. Indeed God is not absurd, if anything he is a mystery. The mystery, in its turn, is not irrational but is a superabundance of sense, of meaning, of truth. If, looking at the mystery, reason sees darkness, it is not because there is no light in the mystery, but rather because there is too much of it. Just as when humans raise their eyes to look at the sun, they are blinded; but who would say that the sun is not bright or, indeed, the fount of light? Faith permits us to look at the “sun”, God, because it is the acceptance of his revelation in history and, so to speak, the true reception of God’s mystery, recognizing the great miracle. God came close to man, he offered himself so that man might know him, stooping to the creatural limitations of human reason (cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, n. 13). At the same time, God, with his grace, illuminates reason, unfolds new horizons before it, boundless and infinite. For this reason faith is an incentive to seek always, never to stop and never to be content in the inexhaustible search for truth and reality. The prejudice of certain modern thinkers, who hold that human reason would be as it were blocked by the dogmas of faith, is false.

Exactly the opposite is true, as the great teachers of the Catholic Tradition have shown. St Augustine, before his conversion sought the Truth with great restlessness through all the philosophies he had at his disposal, finding them all unsatisfactory. His demanding, rational search, was a meaningful pedagogy for him for the encounter with the Truth of Christ. When he says: “I believe, in order to understand, and I understand the better to believe” (Discourse 43, 9: PL 38, 258), it is as if he were recounting his own life experience. Intellect and faith are not foreign or antagonistic to the divine Revelation but are both conditions for understanding its meaning, for receiving its authentic message, for approaching the threshold of the mystery. St Augustine, together with so many other Christian authors, is a witness of a faith that is practised with reason, that thinks and invites thought. On this same track St Anselm was to say in his Proslogion that the Catholic faith is a fides quaerens intellectum, where the quest for understanding is an act inherent to believing. It was to be St Thomas Aquinas in particular — strong in this tradition — who challenged the reason of the philosophers, showing how much new and fertile rational vitality comes from human thought grafted on to the principles and truths of the Christian faith.

So, theoretically at least, Maher and Hitchens are full of sh*t.  Yet, for all the insight Ward, Ratzinger and Alison have given, is it not true that many believers in the real world are closer to the Maherian stereotype? Are most Christians really people who relish believing in absurdities?  I’ve noted in the past Jerry Coyne’s argument that the God described in David Bentley Hart’s Experience of God is irrelevant to the discussion because few in the real world actually believe in such a God.  Ignoring the fact that this is a marvelously convenient way of avoiding really engaging with Hart’s arguments, I found myself troubled that Coyne might have a point: the “urbane philosophical” view of God presented by Hart is light years away from what many Christians seem to believe (at least if K-Love is any indication).

I don’t want to discuss this in the abstract however (especially without any “data” on what the “average Christian”-whoever that is-“really believes”).  Instead, I’ll use a different case study for which I have a somewhat better understanding: Myself.  As noted at the top of the essay, I have a highly functional Bullsh*t-O-Meter, and am not generally the kind of person who rejoices in believing things that fly in the face of reason.  In recent years I have found I have a particularly low threshold for New Age talk.  Consider these statements I have seen on Facebook all of which have given me hives:

  • We can just be Breatharians and breathe in the Love (Adamantine Particles) the way it was Divinely Designed
  • [Social isolation is] a worry when it comes to becoming Globally Connected in Spirit.
  • The tears born of industrialization, and dispossession flow into the Oceans, the Mother of physical life, affecting them negatively.
  • As the old order crumbles with no animating Spirit-in the New Spirit We are the Artists-Thrilling Beauty, Peace and Harmony continually unfolding!
  • There is a generation who have not been inseminated with distorted scriptural implants who are becoming the new Cultural Creatives.  We must take and make note of them and support their emergence in the earth.
  • All our souls have inherited Divine powers and encrypted in our spiritual DNA is the living Logic of divinity and Universal Truth.  We are all being transformed and this is our defining moment.  A new humanity and human consciousness is on the horizon.

Now, the over-use of capitalized buzzwords, coupled phrases like “Adamantine Particles” (are these the “thetans” of scientology?) and “spiritual insemination,” suggests we may have entered cult territory here.  Is all of this not a load of tripe?  Well, though there may be valid points in some of this, to be blunt-yes.  Most of this is supercilious nonsense.  A Catholic interlocutor once told me, in my liberal blogging days, that some of what I had quoted from Deepak Chopra on the “Cosmic Christ” was an insult to rational thought.

Fair enough.  But in the interest of consistency, is it not hypocritical to say the same thing about Catholicism?  I remember thinking how rich my interlocutor’s response was considering in her mind God was somehow three and one simultaneously and yet she saw no problem with that (at the time, of course, I didn’t know that in 5 years I would be looking back across the Tiber from the same position she was standing).  More recently a law school classmate was commenting on The Book of Mormon (the musical), which led another law school classmate (a self-described “evangelical atheist”) to respond that he “didn’t hate on the Mormons” because they have “another ghost story” and the “Christian ghost story” was no more credible just because it was older.

Now, I must confess I quite liked the musical, not least because it does humorously highlight some of the absurdities of Mormonism. But still, the point needs to be addressed: Am I being a hypocrite?  Were the writers of Family Guy right when they suggested sardonically that the “whole exercise of Christianity just looks bizarre when one stands back and looks at it with some objectivity?”  The Catholic religion professes faith in a man who was resurrected from the dead.  We canonize our saints based on miracles.  We speak of Marian apparitions and locutions, demonic possession and angelic encounters.  We even dare to speak of prayer-asserting that not only is there an agency beyond the world, but we can communicate with it.  If “objectivity” is defined simply as the way most people experience their everyday life, then yes, there is something “bizarre” about Catholicism.

Here’s another interesting twist to consider: I’ve gotten to the point where I kind of enjoy admitting that I really believe in the Catholic story.  In other words, yes I believe Jesus was actually raised bodily from the dead, I believe a young virgin woman became pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit.  I really believe in transubstantiation (that one left one of the guys I carpooled with speechless).  I have no problem believing Jesus turned water into wine.  I don’t even have a problem with talk of angels or demonic possession-though I share the perspective of a wise man (I think C.S. Lewis though I’m not sure) I believe in the reality of such things in the abstract and tend to disbelieve virtually every specific case I hear about.  In other words, it gets worse: Not only do I scorn New Agers, I now almost enjoy shocking people when I admit to really-yes, really-believing in what the Church teaches.

Having admitted to all of this, however, I vigorously contend that there is something different about Catholicism.  The Catholic faith has an inherent coherence, rationality and beauty that places it on a different playing field altogether from the New Age chatter that we here these days.  Moreover, the history of this religion-when one stands back and really views it with objectivity-is mind-blowing. A group of desert nomads are sent into exile, an experience that leads (counter-intuitively) to learning that their God is no mere tribal deity but the Creator of the universe.  This people survives innumerable odds-right down to the present day-shaping Western civilization in a manner all out of proportion to its numbers.  Over 2,000 years ago, on the margins of the world’s largest Empire, a member of this people is executed as a criminal by one of the most brutal methods known to man, a method that effectively erased its victims from history.

Yet the unthinkable happens: A small group emerges proclaiming that this executed convict is the Messiah, the Savior, of his nation-and more than that, he has been raised from the dead.  The story is insane.  Just crazy.  Yet this group grows and within a few short centuries it baptizes the very empire that crucified its founder; synthesizes the insights of its Jewish heritage with Greek philosophy, creating a metaphysical system that is still unrivaled, and completely changes the course of human history.  The executed founder is spoken of in the earliest years as somehow Divine, leading to the eventual conclusion by some of the greatest minds in history that he was the very Incarnation of God.  He becomes the most famous human being in history.  The community he founded becomes worldwide, transcending and embracing virtually every culture.  It effectively creates what we know as Western civilization-at the grave risk of oversimplifying everything from modern science to the concept of human rights owes a debt to the Church.  And the Church itself, like its Jewish parent, seems almost indestructible.

Can all of this be written off as simply a product of the vicistudes and vagaries of history?  Of course it can-many, perhaps most, people do just that.  But for those who are willing to stand back and look with some objectivity, the story is too strange, too remarkable, to be written off.  Of course it is bizarre, but in a way that suggests-to go back to Alison’s words above-that perhaps the dependable certainty of the world has been shaken up a bit.  Maybe, we think, Tertullian wasn’t so crazy after all.

My conclusion to this piece requires me to turn back once more to the Pope Emeritus.  I recently read the book Truth and Tolerance for a small book club I belong.  In this exhilarating read Ratzinger offers an explanation into the history of Christianity-why it arose, what made it so unique and so attractive within the world in which it emerged, and why it still matters.  Listen to these words:

The Enlightenment raised the banner of “religion within the bounds of sheer reason” as an ideal.  But this purely reasonable religion soon crumbled, above all because it possessed no vital force: a religion that is to serve as the fundamental force for life as a whole does no doubt need to be comprehensible to some extent.  Both the collapse of the religions of antiquity and the crisis of Christianity in modern times show us this: if a religion can no longer be reconciled with the elementary certainties of a given view of the world, it collapses.  But, on the other hand, religion also needs some authorization that reaches beyond what we can think up for ourselves, for only thus will the unconditional demand it makes man be acceptable.

The present-day crisis is due to the fact that the connecting link between the subjective and objective realms has disappeared, that reason and feeling are drifting apart and that both are ailing because of it.  Reason that operates in specialized areas in fact gains enormously in strength and capability, but because it is standardized according to a type of certainty and rationality, it no longer offers any perspective on the fundamental questions of mankind.  The result is an unhealthy overdevelopment in the realm of technical and pragmatic knowledge, as against a shrinking in that of basic fundamentals, and thus the balance between them is disturbed in a way that may be fatal for man’s humanity.  On the other hand, religion today has by no means been made redundant.  In man ways there is a indeed a boom in religion but religion that collapses into particularism, not infrequently parting company with its sublime spiritual context, and that-instead of uplifting man-promises him greater power and the satisfaction of his needs.  People look for what is irrational, superstitious, and magical; there is a danger of their falling back into an anarchic and destructive form of relationship with hidden powers and forces.

[In the Wisdom literature] The meaning of monotheism is further elucidated, and associated with an attempt to understand the world in rational fashion, it becomes more rationally persuasive.  It is the concept of wisdom that enables the idea of God and the interpretation of the world to be bracketed together.  The rationality that is to be seen in the structure of the world is understand as a reflection of the creative wisdom which has produced it…the view which links God and the world through the idea of wisdom and conceives of the world as reflecting the rationality of the Creator, also then permits the association of cosmology with anthropology, that of understanding the world with morality, because wisdom, which builds up matter and the world, is at the same time a moral wisdom, which expresses essential guidelines for living.

Christ became…the discovery of creative love; the rational principle of the universe had revealed itself as love-as that greater reason which accepts into itself even darkness and irrationality, and heals them.

According to Augustine and the biblical tradition that is normative for him, Christianity is not based on mythical images and vague notions that are ultimately justified by their political usefulness; rather it relates to that divine presence which can be perceived by the rational analysis of reality.  In other words, Augustine identifies biblical monotheism with philosophical perceptions concerning the foundations of the worlds…this is what is meant when Christianity…advances the claim to be the religio vera.

…Christianity was convincing because of the connection of faith with reason and by directing behavior by caritas, by loving care for the suffering, the powerless and the weak, across any boundaries of class or status…the power of Christianity, which made it into a world religion, consisted in its synthesis of reason, faith and life; and it is precisely this synthesis that is summed up and expressed in the term religio vera.

In summation, of course there is a sense in which believing in Christianity is absurd.  And indeed, many of its adherents-myself included-do frequently fail to appreciate the faith in its fullness, as Coyne is quick to highlight.  Yet as the Pope Emeritus so beautifully explains, and I have come to see myself, there really is something different about Christianity.  The coherence, beauty and rationality of the faith point clearly towards what the Pope Emeritus credits as the lifeblood of Christianity:  It is simply the religio vera.


Readers will note I deliberately left unresolved the issue my believing in supernatural things.  Frankly, once one believes in God-and acknowledges, as the Pope Emeritus has written elsewhere, that matter and not just ideas belong to God-the concept is not anywhere near as troubling.  Indeed, one can even work out arguments for miracles that are rational (C.S. Lewis’s aptly titled Miracles is a fine example).  Of course, this amounts to so much nonsense for those who refuse to believe in God.

I myself remain, as I say frequently, a bit of a weak supernaturalist, but as Fr. Barron said not long ago there are two opposite dangers when it comes to alleged supernatural events in our world: We can make too much, or too little of them.  Frederica Mathewes-Green has also noted that there is no harm in simply accepting the possibility that such things could happen.


NOMA by Another Name

NOMA, for those unfamiliar with the term, is an acronym for “Non Overlapping MagisteriA,” the idea advocated by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rock of Ages that religion and science occupy completely separate spheres of authority and thereby never interact with one another.  While Gould meant well with this idea (unlike many other evolutionary biologists who are also atheists he seemed to harbor no animosity for religion and sincerely seemed interested in finding a détente) it largely fell flat and has been panned by both believers and non-believers alike.  Stephen Barr, Keith Ward and Steven Pinker have been just a few to dismiss NOMA-Pinker going so far as to call Rock of Ages Gould’s worst book (Gould’s famous line, of course, was “The age of rocks has nothing to do with the Rock of Ages”).

The most incisive critique came from H. Allen Orr, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Rochester (in my own backyard) who has written numerous book reviews, slapping both Richard Dawkins and Michael Behe (Orr has worked with Jerry Coyne in the past but is far more nuanced-read balanced-in his approach).  In his review of Rock of Ages Orr writes

Gould’s position is not therefore so much, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” as “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that Caesar says he can have.”9Gould’s view of religion follows fairly naturally, though not necessarily, given a prior commitment to materialism. But this is precisely the commitment many religious people do not make. And if, to you, materialism is not logically prior, Gould’s look-within view neither follows nor likely seems attractive. Not surprisingly, religion means anything but looking within to most religious people (at least in Gould’s sanitized sense).

I do not wish to make too much of this, but the fact that NOMA derives from a scientific stance raises hard questions about the cogency of Gould’s non-overlapping thesis. How can it be that religion and science are non-overlapping when this very view of religion follows from science? There is something close to a paradox here. If your religion is dictated by science, the two are non-overlapping. But if your religion is independent of science, the two routinely tread on each other’s toes. This problem is, I think, more serious than it first appears, and suggests that Gould may try to reconcile two views that part company much earlier, and at a much deeper level, than he thinks. If the problem boils down to choosing materialism or not, a reconciliation built on lessons from materialism is beside the point.

In any case, this post isn’t about religion and science.  Rather it is about another form of NOMA in another sphere.  And this NOMA has its own name: Mater si, magistra no.  The slogan, coined in response to the encyclical Mater et Magistra, means “Mother yes, teacher no,” and refers-to use another colloquial expression-to “cafeteria Catholicism” (e.g. Catholics are obligated to respect the Church but need not always obey the Church).  In its origin, however, the expression was not aimed at the cafeteria Catholic of today (whose chief beef is usually the sexual ethic) but was initially intended as an “escape clause” for conservatives who were displeased with the Magisterium’s pronouncements on social and economic justice.  It is one of history’s greatest ironies that the phrase was not coined by William F. Buckley (who usually gets the credit) but rather by-of all people-Garry Wills.

Mater si, magistra no is alive and well among many economic conservatives today, including (as just one example) the libertarian theorist/Austrian economist/conservative historian Thomas E. Woods.  To a lesser degree one sees it in Michael Novak and George Weigel, but those of the First Things crowd have at least taken the Magisterium into account in shaping their views-the Woods response is essentially a complete dismissal.  And here is where NOMA comes in: The argument is the Magisterium is competent to make proclamations on “faith and morals” but nothing else.  When it comes to economics, in other words, Holy Mother Church belongs in the kitchen barefoot and scrubbing dishes, while the competent men in the other room hash out the details.

There is of course a legitimacy to this position: The Church’s charism of infallibility does not extend to the human sciences, be they astronomy or economics (though, as one wag put it, the “science” of economics frequently amounts to explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today).   This does not, however, render the Church completely silent in these spheres: Genetic engineering and economics, to give just two examples, are permeated through and through with moral implications.  The Church is not competent to discuss specifics of the activities, perhaps, but She is competent to address the moral ramifications inherent the activities.

This is not a new point-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observed in Caritas in Veritate that while the Church is obligated to provide charity it is the laity-in the course of their daily lives-who are responsible for justice.  The Magisterium has reiterated several times that the Church does not offer “technical” solutions to economic problems-that is the domain of Catholic economists.  C.S. Lewis made the same point in Mere Christianity when he observed that the injunction to “feed the hungry” is not “a lesson in cookery.”  A similar analogy would be that while the Church is competent to make proclamations on just war it would be foolish for the Magisterium to attempt to direct battlefield activity.  [Incidentally, it was the New Oxford Review-a publication hardly known for its liberalism-that rebuked unequivocal supporters of the Iraq War for failing to realize that the Pope’s denouncement of the War was not a prudential judgment: “These pronouncements have to do with doctrine and morals. War is precisely about morals.”]

The reason I am writing this, of course, is the predictable string of criticisms has emerged from some on the right about Laudato Si.  I will grant-in charity-that at some places Pope Francis may well have violated his own principle (and that of the Magisterium) of not offering technical solutions.  The equivocation is necessary because I do not have the scientific wherewithal to actually adjudicate this issue.  In fairness, however, as Josiah Neeley puts it at First Things, the encyclical makes reference to a “very solid scientific consensus” and that there are “different approaches and lines of thought;” that debate must be encouraged among experts, there are different possible solutions, etc.  In any case, even granting that the Pope may have overstated, improperly stated or even erred (!) on some of the technical points, none of thus undermines the general thrust of the encyclical.

What our Franciscan-minded pontiff is gunning for in the encyclical is far from a simple critique of the free market.  No, the Holy Father has something else in his sites, a spiritual cancer if you will: The disordered desire many of us call “consumerism.”  We are in the grip of greed, a greed that has blinded us to the consequences that the certain use of certain technology produces.  Consumerism goes well beyond economics, even infecting the faith itself at times (Fr. Freeman has written well on this-see his thoughts here for example).  Rod Dreher, in his book Crunch Cons, writes well of the issue.  Against contemporary political ideologies he writes:

There is an older, less-ideological tradition, a sensibility that comes out in people I call crunchy conservatives…it seems to crunchy cons that most Americans are so busy bargain-shopping or bed-hopping, or talking about their shopping and screwing selves, that they’re missing the point of sex.  Sex and commerce are fine things, but man cannot live by Viagra and the Dow Jones alone.  A life led collecting things and experiences in pursuit of happiness is not necessarily a bad life, but it’s not a good life either…mainstream liberalism and conservatism, as the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry said, are “perfectly useless” to combat the forces that are pulling families and communities apart.  Berry says that most liberals won’t take a stand against anything that limits sexual autonomy, and most conservatives won’t oppose anything that limits economic freedom.

What do I mean by consumerism?  It’s an uncodified materialist philosophy that considers the acquisition of goods and services at the least expensive price to be a fundamental social value.  Consumerism fetishizes individual choice, and see its expansion as unambiguous progress.  A culture guided by consumerist values is one that welcomes technology without question, and prizes efficiency…its ultimate goal is the spread of happiness and well-being through the improvement of material conditions, and the creation and general increase of wealth.

Crunchy cons believe in the free market as an imperfect but just and effective means to the good society.  When the market harms the good society, it should be rained in.  Because crunchy cons, as conservatives, do not believe in perfectibility or essential goodness of human nature, we keep squarely in front of us the truth that absent the restraints of religion, community, law or custom, the commercial man will tend to respect no boundaries in the pursuit of personal gain.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, whether it’s in the hands of big government or big business.

…practical capitalism and conventional left-wing bohemianism agree that the purpose life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  The bohemian wants his desires satisfied; the capitalist wants to make money by satisfying those desires; it’s a perfect match.

Dreher notes that consumerism and sexual libertinism are two sides of the same coin, and that both stem from a problem with human nature (original sin), not economic systems.  Developing new technology and redistributing wealth by themselves are not solutions (the Pope explicitly notes in the encyclical the former won’t work).  What we need is metatonoia, a change of heart.  And on this, the Church is more than competent to speak.

Now, it may well be true, as the Austrian school and others have argued, that capitalism and free markets have been more effective at lifting people out of poverty than any other system (though that point is arguable and means little to those in the Third World who are still living in abject poverty).  This does not mean, as Dreher noted, that the free market is without problems that are of interest to the Church.  The problem with any economic system, no matter how effectively the rising tide may lift all boats, is that it still works with the fallen human element.

Charley Reese, my favorite columnist, once remarked of JPII that “He criticized communism and he criticized capitalism, as any decent Christian must, for both sin against the human race. One sins out of a lust for power, and the other out of a lust for material gain.”  Reese also wisely observed that “Anybody who expects real compassion from a corporation would mistake Hannibal Lecter for a vegetarian…capitalism, unless moderated by Christian virtue or government, is just as brutal and cruel as communism.”   His point is that to put faith in the “invisible hand” is blind faith-as Edmund Burke understood, human beings who have less internal restraint (virtue) will need more external restraint (regulation) lest they be devoured by their own passions.

What Pope Francis says in Laudato Si is discomforting.  He is calling on us to see the moral implications for our world in our economics and economic activity, then to take up our crosses and act accordingly.  That demands sacrifice.  It threatens the bourgeois American mentality Dreher takes to task.  It isn’t difficult at all to see why there would be pushback.  Mind you, I’m not saying that all who give the “right-wing” response if mater si, magistra no are simply using it to avoid sacrifice, though I think it would be hard to argue that opposition to these magisterial pronouncements isn’t at least do in part to our position.  As David Bentley Hart notes, some go to almost any lengths to prove that the Lord was wrong about serving God and Mammon.  The Church has more than a few souls in Her pews who spending an inordinate amount of time trying to sneak their camels through the Needle’s Eye.

But if anything, what I see in the mater si, magistra no response is not unlike what I would expect from man with a hammer who sees the whole world as a nail, or who-in biblical terms-has forgotten that man cannot live on bread alone-or as Orr characterizes Gould, as limiting anything “religion” may say in the realm “economics” to that which complies with a particular economic orthodoxy.  It is an almost knee-jerk reaction that has inadvertently turned the free market into an idol, while walling off the Church from anything other than threatening those who don’t donate enough of their income to the poor with hellfire (Judge Napolitano said more or less just that a year or so ago).

It is fair of a conservative economist to note that it isn’t the job of economics to divinize (or even humanize) human beings.  It is fair of a conservative economist to contend that the free market is the best of all possible options.  Fine and fine.  But no one, conservative economist or otherwise, should invoke mater si, magistra no as a matter of principle, as if theology has nothing to say to economics.  That’s just NOMA by another name.


  1. At a lunch meeting yesterday a friend commented that  traditionalist Catholics who consider themselves “more Catholic than the Pope” (his use of the expression, not mine) are just as guilty as cafeteria Catholics of the left in failing to recognize the authority of the Magisterium.  I agree, but I think what I am describing here is a distinct phenomena (even though there is overlap-Tom Woods, for instance, has co-authored a screed denouncing “post-Vatican II Catholicism”).
  2. In case it isn’t obvious, I am-more or less-a “crunchy con” myself, though I don’t generally use the label.  If I had to point the form of economics that I think is most congenial to Catholicism I would be inclined to say Distributist, though again I don’t use the label (Woods, shockingly, has taken that to task as well).
  3. Another friend suggested I should define “capitalism.”  I use the term to mean an economic system where the means of production are privately owned and business is conducted in a free market.  I consider the term, as noted above, neutral insofar as like all human ventures it is only as good as the players within it.  My sarcastic comment above about the “invisible hand” notwithstanding I do think the market is likely to often produce positive benefits.  To put too much trust in this metaphor, however, comes to close to a parody of Romans 8:28 (“in all things the market works for the good of those who act in their economic self interest”).


Thank God for Legalism

How’s THAT for a provocative title?

I’m not about to propose (God forbid) that all of us adopt the mindset of lawyers Jesus interacted with in the Gospels, much less that what religion really needs is a healthy dose of legalism (as others before have observed Christianity, unlike Judaism and Islam, is not a religion of divinely-revealed law).  Instead, what I am proposing-arrogantly-is that lawyers have an epistemological advantage when it comes to engaging certain texts.  I have said many times, with full seriousness, that my legal training has been an asset in reading documents promulgated by the Magisterium, be they papal encyclicals, the Constitutions of Vatican II, or the Catechism itself.  Allow me to elaborate.

To do so, we need to go back in time to 2013, when the media asserted that Pope Francis had declared that “atheists could go to heaven.”  The Internet was set a-Twitter, and I even weighed in myself, with my own caricature of the discussion:

Fundamentalist: “The old fool thinks atheists can sneak into a side door of heaven.”
Atheist: “Well I’ll be damned!”
Fundamentalist: “You will.”

As the twits continued to hit the fan, Fr. Thomas Rosica issued a response that was characterized by some as “walking back” the Pope’s statements.  Without revisiting the issue in detail, I’d like to quote an excerpt from an article written by Hendrik Hertzberg, an atheist, on Fr. Rosica’s response:

For one thing, there’s a high weasel factor at work here. In that “refuse to enter” passage, Rosica is quoting from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Compendium is a kind of lawbook, and, as such, it has its share of loopholes. I think I can spot one here. To deserve eternal damnation, you have to do more than just “refuse to enter” the Catholic Church. You also have to “know” that being a Catholic is “necessary for salvation.” But knowing isn’t the same as hearing. I’ve heard that Obama is a Muslim, but I don’t know that he is. You can know about something, but if you’re sure it’s nonsense you can’t know it. A technical quibble, but I figure it might get me off on appeal.

Another Rosica loophole I could maybe slip through:

“A non-Christian may reject a Christian’s presentation of the gospel of Christ. That however, does not necessarily mean that the person has truly rejected Christ and God. Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ. For if a given individual rejects the Christianity brought to him through the Church’s preaching, even then we are still never in any position to decide whether this rejection as it exists in the concrete signifies a grave fault or an act of faithfulness to one’s own conscience. We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity and who, in spite of a certain encounter with Christianity, does not become a Christian, is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God, or whether he has now entered upon the way of perdition.”

The language is kind of murky, but this sounds to me like an admission that “faithfulness to one’s own conscience” takes precedence over “the Church’s preaching.” In which case the Pope is right (and, in this instance, the Catechism is wrong). Also, as long as I steer clear of “grave faults” other than having heretical religious opinions, I should be O.K. come Judgment Day.

Hertzberg is wide of the mark in his conclusions (he is wrong in suggesting that Pope Francis and the Catechism are somehow opposed to each for other) but he still offers a thought-provoking analysis of what Fr. Rosica was saying (more so than most of those who-either joyfully or with panic-thought that the Pope had proclaimed universal salvation, while an underling was going over the Holy Father’s head).

Before going any further it is important to clarify what the Catechism actually says on this subject.  Here are the relevant paragraphs:

“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337

848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338

I am going to zero in a bit on each of the three-bolded passages.

First, what is true rejection of the Catholic Church [substitute Christianity, Gospel, Christ, Truth if you like]?

Before answering this question I need to give a disclaimer and then some background.  First, the disclaimer, I am somewhat “left-wing” when it comes to the theology of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, but the position I come from is hardly heretical.

Next, the background.  Hertzberg’s flippant dismissal of the Catechism and Fr. Rosica’s “weasel words” obscures the fact that Fr. Rosica (and Pope Francis) are voicing a view that has long been held by some of the Church’s greatest minds.

Scott Hahn, in his recent book Angels and Saints, writes:

St. Augustine, in one his greatest works, examined the Communion of Saints according to a single metaphor: the City of God.  Its citizenship, he said, includes souls already in heaven and folks on earth.  Yet its earthly citizenship is not limited to those who are enrolled in a parish.  St. Augustine held that many who did not profess Christianity were Christians unawares.  Meanwhile, he said, some others who were card-carrying Christians were really living by the laws of another city, the City of Man.  Yet in this world the two cities are mixed together, like the wheat and tares in Jesus’ parables about the field, or the fish and trash in his parable about the net.

While we’re on earth, we can’t know which way another individual is tending.  The agnostic who struggles may be clawing his way toward sanctity.  The pew-warmer who never misses Sunday Mass may go home every week to indulge secret vices behind closed doors.  Only God keeps the census rolls of the Communion of Saints.  He sees what we do not.

And we never know how any individual story will end.  True love is proved through the ordeal, the trial, the testing, the temptation and sometimes the results are surprising…if a wicked man turns to God he’ll be…a saint!  If a seeming saint sails sinward-sad to say-he’s chosen a hell of a future.  God has called each of us to sainthood.  So each of has the God-given potential and the God-given freedom, to choose our path whenever two roads diverge in our moral woods.  We can go either way.

If there were social-networking software to track our dealings with God, the relationship status, for many people perhaps, would be stuck on “It’s Complicated.”

This is quite similar to something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

The situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs… in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat.  But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.

The essential point both Hahn and Lewis are making is this: Human beings have an-if I may co-opt a term from the “intelligent design” folks-an “irreducible complexity” that makes engaging in abstract discussion about the salvation of souls impossible.  Put another way, we are not cardboard cut-outs.  In the words of the great Catholic theologian Karl Adam:

Dogmatic intolerance is…a moral duty, a duty to the infinite truth and to truthfulness.

But so soon as it is a question, not of the conflict between idea and idea, but of living men, of our judgment on this or that non-Catholic, then the theologian becomes a psychologist, the dogmatist a pastor of souls.  He draws attention to the fact that the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and mentality of the individual of so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula.  In other words the heretic, the Jew and the pagan seldom exist in a pure state.  What we actually have before us is living men, with their fundamental outlook influence or dominated by this or that erroneous idea.  Therefore the Church expressly distinguishes between “formal” and “material” heretics.  A “formal” heretic rejects the Church, and its teaching absolutely and with full deliberation; a “material” heretic rejects the Church from lack of knowledge, being influenced by false prejudice or by an anti-Catholic upbringing.  St. Augustine forbids us to blame a man for being a heretic because he was born of heretical parents, provided that he does not with obstinate self-assurance shut out all better knowledge, but seeks the truth simply and loyally.  Whenever the Church has such honest inquirers before her, she remembers that our Lord condemned Pharisaism but not the individual Pharisee…life does not express itself in the sharp contrast of Yes and No, Truth and Error, Belief and Unbelief, Virtue and Vice, but in an infinite wealth of transitional forms and intermediate stages; and that in dealing with living man we have to take account not only of the logical force of truth, but also of the particular quality of the mental and spiritual endowment with which he reacts to truth.

It is important to understand what Adam is articulating here.  He is not suggesting Truth does not matter-far from it (prior to this passages he zealously defends the Church’s claims to Truth as an essential dimension of Catholicism).  What he is getting at instead is that real human beings cannot be reduced to concepts, and indeed the psychological complexity of any given individual is mind-boggling.  In St. Paul’s words we are mysteries even to ourselves.  Incidentally, it is worth noting Adam wrote this in 1924, well before Vatican II.  James Arraj noted thatThere have been wide-spread theological opinions in the church before about all sorts of matters that later turned out not to be true. It was widely taught, for example, that there was no salvation outside the church, and when this doctrine was finally examined at Vatican II, it was seen not to mean what it had been commonly understood to mean.” In fact, the groundwork for Vatican II’s interpretation had been laid for many years prior to the council, with roots going back to St. Augustine!

Background over.  What is true rejection of the Catholic Church?  True rejection demands “full deliberation” and “obstinate self-assurance” in shutting out the truth.  As Fr. Rosica wisely noted, none of us are really qualified to evaluate when someone has or has not done this.  Adam goes on to note that

…the theologian has by means of psychological and historical studies attained a wider understanding and become increasingly cautious of attributing an “evil will” to the heretic.  He has become more alive to the thousand possibilities of invincible and therefore excusable error.  “It must be regarded as true,” declared Pope Pius XI in allocution of the 9th December 1854, “that he who does not know the true religion is guiltless in the sight of God so far as his ignorance is invincible.  Who would presume to fix the limits of such ignorance, amid the infinite variety and difference of peoples, countries, and mentalities and amid so many other circumstances?  When we are free from the limitations of the body and see God as He is, then we shall see how closely and beautifully God’s mercy and justice are conjoined.”

Now, this is not the end of the story.  One cannot make him or herself invincibly ignorant.  Hertzberg, for instance, comes dangerously close to suggesting that he is “safe” in maintaining his self-described “heretical religious opinions” so long as he obeys his conscience.  It is quite clear that he has not actually read what the Catechism actually says on this (see Part Three, Section One, Chapter One, Article 6 for the Church’s actual teachings on conscience and it will be clear why Hertzberg is wrong).

In short, Hertzberg is skirting the obstinate self-assurance that the Church’s theologians are in agreement points one toward damnation.  As I know not the state of Hertzberg’s soul or how the story will end, I dare say no more.  I will stress, however, that anyone who seriously, deliberately, seeks “loopholes” may well be courting damnation (do not look to this lawyer for help in that).

Second, to frame the question positively, how CAN we be saved?

Rather than reinvent the wheel I would suggest reading the essay appropriately entitled Who Can Be Saved? by Cardinal Avery Dulles.  I will quote his concluding lines:

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.

Lest one get too excited about this, however, one should carefully consider the full analysis Dulles has gone through to get to this point.  In particular, he warns:

The search, however, is no substitute for finding.

We cannot take it for granted that everyone is seeking the truth and is prepared to submit to it when found. Some, perhaps many, resist the grace of God and reject the signs given to them. They are not on the road to salvation at all. In such cases, the fault is not God’s but theirs. The references to future punishment in the gospels cannot be written off as empty threats. As Paul says, God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).

To put it simply, in order to be saved one must seek the Truth and be prepared to submit to it when found.  This is the sine qua non of salvation, the “bare minimum” if you will.  The Pope Emeritus further elucidates this subject (Truth and Tolerance):

…salvation does not lie in religions as such, but it is connected to them, inasmuch as, and to the extent that, they lead man toward the one good, toward the search for God, for truth, and for love….Paul does not say, If the pagans keep their own religion, that is good before the judgment-seat of God…he points to another source-to what is written in everyone’s hearts, the one good, from the one God…everywhere and in every age-albeit often with difficulty and in fragmentary fashion-the speech of the “heart” can be heard, because God’s Torah may be heard within ourselves, in our creaturely being, as the call of duty, and it is thus possible for us to transcend what is merely subjective in order to turn toward each other and toward God.  And that is salvation.  Beyond that, what God makes of the poor broken pieces of our attempt at good, at approaching him, remains his secret, which we ought not to presume to try to work out.

As Cardinal Dulles observes, however, one cannot assume that most people are answering this call of duty and seeking the Truth, much less that they are prepared to submit to it.  One who does not seek cannot find.  One who refuses to concede to reality (see my previous writings on spiritual realism) cannot attain salvation.  Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be too hasty about who we will “see in heaven.”  In the words of Scott Hahn

…it’s far easier to dialogue with [materialists, objectivists or empiricists] than with more radical skeptics, like those who doubt the very notion of reality.  With the former group, we can at least agree on the importance of material reality, objective reality and empirical reality…materialists, objectivists and empiricists may be well on their way to the kingdom.

However, we need not despair.  As Dulles says

We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7)

This point is made vividly by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce.  Lewis puts the following words into the mouth of the literary incarnation of George MacDonald:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

Third, what then of the mission imperative?  Does it actually matter?

Finally, the points I have made above flow into the third-has the Church been relieved of her obligation to evangelize?  By no means.  Cardinal Dulles explains why:

…it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth…God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

A friend of mine said recently that she is reminded of the line from Spider-Man “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  Indeed.  Truer words were never spoken.

If I can turn East for a moment, Kallistos Ware explains of “outside the Church there is no salvation” that

All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology.  Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.  Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned?  Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved.  As Augustine wisely remarked, ‘How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!’ While there is no division between a ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone.  If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense we cannot always say.

It is, of course, true that there are many who with their conscious brain reject Chris and his Church, or who have never heard of him; and yet, unknown to themselves, these people are true servants of the Lord in their deep heart and in the implicit direction of their whole life.  God is able to save those who in this life never belonged to his Church.  But, looking at the matter from our side, this does not entitle any of us to say “The Church is unnecessary for me.”

In short, the mission imperative absolutely matters.  The Catholic Church knows what the rest of the world either thinks is unknowable or knows only in part.  Much has been given to us.  Much is expected to us.  Indeed, to quote Rev. Fleming Rutledge, it would be selfish of us to keep the Gospel (Good News) to ourselves.  We MUST share it.  And our work is all the more important today, in a world where-in the words of Pope Francis-human beings are trying harder and harder every day to emancipate themselves from reality-as I have said in this essay and in many others, there is tremendous spiritual danger in that.  We are needed now more than ever.

A final point. Hannah Hurnard, in her book Wayfarer in the Land, struggles to come to terms with the unexpected death of a woman she had been evangelizing.  In her grief she received a ‘message’ from God, which prompted her to make a most insightful reflection.

God: Can you trust her to me and my love?  Will you not believe that nothing has been left undone, nor will be left undone, that can help her?  Trust her to me.

Hannah: It was not that I felt afterwards that it did not matter so much if we did not urgently seek the lost before they left this world, for in the end all shall be well.  Rather it was an overwhelming sense of our Lord’s passionate love and longing for the souls whom he has created, and his determination to seek them at all costs, and his longing that we should cooperate with him in this work.  The one thing w cannot do, we who have tasted of his love and grace, and been lifted out of the darkness and brought into all the joy and power of knowing him, is to sit back comfortably and leave him alone in his task of searching for the lost.

Yes, we have a great responsibility, but we have also been told, by St. John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”


So, what does all of this have to do with legalism?  As I recently noted, reality is never simple.  Many would prefer that the question of salvation be simple, to know without any qualification who is saved and who is damned.  Even easier would be to take for granted that everyone is saved in the end.  We are given no such assurances.  The Church has made clear-and has never reversed-Her assertion that She alone carries the words of eternal life handed over by the founder.  Yet, with human beings, things are never quite that simple.

Lawyers are justifiably the butt of many jokes-I have invented a few myself along the way.  Yet if there is one thing our mindset is good for it is problem-solving, of making sense out of complexities.  It is our profession that is charged with trying to “incarnate” justice, of resolving innocence and guilt, of working to rectify injustice, to hold some to account and to vindicate others.  It is a deeply biblical, I daresay even spiritual, calling.

When it comes to the salvation of souls lawyers cannot of course achieve God’s justice-only God can do that.  However, we can help elucidate God’s justice, to help explain why our faith that the Judge of All the Earth shall do right, rests on solid grounds.  It may case it has meant applying my legal training-a certain method of reading and analysis-to the Magisterium.  In so doing I arrive at the same place as the Church’s greatest theologians.

And as unnecessarily complicated and legalistic as the Magisterial teaching on salvation may seem, there is no “weasel factor” at work here.  To the contrary.  The truth that Pope Francis and Fr. Rosica speak of is a truth as complex as humanity and legalism-whatever its faults-is sometimes the best way to make provisional sense of the justice in these teachings.  And for this I dare to say: Thank God for legalism.

Passages from Laudato Si

One last post for today (feast or famine).  I have read Laudato Si twice and am still digesting it. There are MANY comments I could make, but alas I do not have the time to completely annotate the encyclical.  Initially I planned on writing a post called “Disordered Desire” but this particular angle has already been well addressed.  Instead, here are a few snippets that stood out to me, followed by a few brief responses. 

22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

George Carlin, in his rant on saving the planet, quipped that if plastic ultimately proves not to be biodegradable “the earth will evolve into a new paradigm, the earth plus plastic!”  Perhaps, Carlin mused, this is the answer to the age old mystery of why we are here: Plastic.  “The earth wanted plastic for itself but couldn’t figure out how to make it.  It needed us.”

I’m not trying to make any particular point with that reference, by the way, I was just reminded of it from this paragraph and wanted to invoke it.  In all seriousness, I have been told that there have been some promising technological breakthroughs in this arena, but even so we need more progress towards developing a true “circular model of production.”  For inspiration I quote the French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement:

Indeed, today we see the crowds in our cities awkwardly seeking any opportunity of contact with the earth…we see communities of young people rejecting…the endless greed of commercial civilization; they do not reject technology, however, but subject it to the requirements of a true encounter with beings and things…the automated factory is already setting free human energy, which for the time being we would rather leave to rot in unemployment while the third world suffers poverty.  We are waiting for the prophetic will that can direct it towards lifegiving forms of work.

Those of us you with skills in the STEM areas (I am not among you) this call is directed to you!

47. Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

Is it just me or is this a call for bloggers to do an examination of conscience?

In all seriousness, it is quite hard to argue with the Holy Father’s point here.  I rarely get many comments on this blog and virtually never comment on anyone else’s, and this is just as well.  The Internet is a very poor forum for engaging in conversations on such subjects; the discussion is better had in the physical presence of other human beings, where people cannot hide behind pseudonyms and can actually cultivate real friendship.  [I’m not going to stop writing here, just thinking out lo-er, online]

90. This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us.[68] At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.

The Pope’s words in this paragraph are rather harsh, but I find them hard to argue with.  That some live in desperate and degrading poverty while others have far too much is simply a fact-and though most of us, myself included, would bristle at the suggestion that those of us who are well off consider ourselves more human than others, one has to wonder if we deny it with our lips while affirming the opposite with our life.

105. There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”,[83] as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”,[84] because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”.[85] But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.

The Pope’s thoughts on freedom sound a bit like mine.  That’s…encouraging.

107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build

This would be the Pope b*tch-slapping scientism. 

117. Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.[95]

I love the phrase “declaring independence from reality”-I could hardly think of a more succinct summary of our age.

118. This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”.[96] A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.

There is something rather schizophrenic that, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, “the higher human achievements become, the lower the human self-image sinks.”  Or, in the words of Raniero Cantalamessa, there is almost a competition among some scientists today to “see who can best assert the total marginalization and insignificance of the human race in the universe.”  Wryly he refers to this as “atheistic dishumanism.”  It is strange that many who hold to this schizophrenic view still recognize the human capacity for responsibility-an inadvertent admission that human beings are unique after all.

The paradox that a “dehumanized” view of human nature exists alongside the position that human beings can declare independence from reality (see, I’m already using the phrase) has been noted before.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

If before, perhaps through the conclusions implicit in the doctrine of the origin of species, he [Man] might have resignedly noted that so far as his past was concerned he was just earth, a mere chance development, if he was disillusioned by such knowledge and felt degraded, he does not need to be disturbed by this any longer, for now, wherever he comes from, he can look his future in the eye with the determination to make himself whatever he wishes; he does not need to regard it as impossible to make himself into the God who now stands at the end as faciendum, as something makeable, not at the beginning, as logos, meaning.  This is already working itself out concretely today in the form of the anthropological approach.  What already seems more important than the theory of evolution, which for practical purposes already lies behind us as something self-evident, is cybernetics, the “planability” of the newly to be created man, so that theologically too, the manipulation of man by his own planning is beginning to represent a more important problem than the question of man’s past.

In any case, the Holy Father here, like William F. Buckley, is clearly standing athwart such nonsense yelling “Stop!”  [Also, it is clear-as if there was any doubt-that the ‘environmentalism’ of Pope Francis is not “deep ecology;” humanity is not reduced to just one creature among others]

199. It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things.[141] I would add that “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons… Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief?”[142] It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context. Nor does the fact that they may be couched in religious language detract from their value in public debate. The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language.

Truth is truth.

The Faith of the Grandparents Part II: Letter from Grandma

I was in 8th grade (back in 1999/2000) when I became fascinated with Christianity.  At that time my interest was fervently encouraged by my Grandmother, whose influence (along with my Grandfather’s) continues to this day.  She sent me the following letter, which I continued to keep in the back of the copy of Mere Christianity she purchased for me (the other Lewis book referenced is God in the Dock).  Reading this now all I can say is I owe her a very great debt of gratitude.  And for once, I can truly say no more than that.

Dear Logan

I am so glad you are interested in being a Christian and that you are reading so much of its history and good writers like Max Lucado.

I hope you will learn to pick those authors you listen to with care.  While there is nothing wrong with people writing their own opinions and experiences, it is necessary to remember the Bible’s warning about False Prophets.  Especially today with “pop” psychology and “feel good” religions offering a take your pick kind of religion, you need to use that great brain of yours and choose with care.

There are many great Christian writers who spent their whole lives studying the Word of God and trying to serve Him to the best of their abilities.  Some like St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton and St. Augustine are a little deep for you right now but are there for you to research.

I am sending you 2 books by C.S. Lewis (yes, he wrote Narnia).  He was a great “apologist” for Christianity (speaker for).  He was once an atheist but found Christ.  These are 2 of my favorites-I hope they become two of yours.


Grandma Barb

Grandma Barb fell asleep in the Lord on March 18, 2004.  May her memory be eternal!