instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 24, 2015

On a homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

I finally synced up with our new parochial vicar this past Sunday, attending a Mass at which he preached. (The only other Mass he presided at and I assisted at, the deacon preached.)

He was ordained a couple of months ago, and he's still getting the hang of the delivery. I'd say he also needs to work on tightening up his homily, but other than a now-deceased Dominican priest who made three points (no more, no less) in five minutes (no more, no less) at every Sunday Mass, every homilist I've heard needs to work on tightening up his homily.

Still, I did get a few things -- no more and no less than three, in fact -- out of the homily.

1. Our parochial vicar preached that the Church is here to get us to heaven. I chewed on that a bit, since it could be said that the Church is here to preach the Gospel to every living creature. Of course, the Church isn't like a wildfire, which burns and moves on; it brings the Gospel to a place and remains there, burning (more or less). There is a maintenance and a mission to the Church. I settled on bringing the two views together by recognizing that the Church is here, as in here in this church, to get us, as in the half-pagans we remain, to heaven, which wouldn't be such a chore if we were fully evangelized.

2. Christ is needed so we can give ourselves fully, yet remain fully ourselves.The priest left off the second part, but I don't think the first part is quite true by itself. People can give themselves fully to others by purely natural means, but then they become less of themselves. That's the complaint against "be submissive to your husbands," that for a man to be head of his wife she has to lose her own head. That's not what happens when Christ is involved, though. He surrenders everything He has to the Father, just as the Father gives everything He has to the Son; neither is diminished, and in fact from this mutual, complete (though not identical) surrender proceeds the Holy Spirit. The same happens to us when we surrender ourselves to the Father through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. We become like Christ, so like Him that we share in His Eternal Sonship, and that is precisely who we were created to be. One way we have been given to surrender to God is through the submission and sacrificial love of a sacramental marriage. A natural marriage, a marriage without Christ, can involve submission and sacrificial love, of course, but the best a person can do in such a marriage is give back part or all of what the other spouse has given. It lacks the divine fecundity (unless the Divine Free Will decides otherwise) for a spouse to give fully and remain full. Anyone in a sacramental marriage who hasn't given themselves fully -- or who has the habit of yoyoing between giving and taking back (and why are you looking at me?) -- should get cracking. This sacramental, matrimonial surrender is an act of faith (that Christ and His Church can be made present in the domestic Church) and hope (for mutual salvation) and love (of each other and of Christ).

3. The Eucharist is nuptial. The priest said Pope Benedict has written about how the Eucharist relates to Christ's marriage to the Church. That may seem a bit rich, with sacraments being each other, but it certainly fits with the Bread of Life Discourse and St. Paul's
For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.... This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the re-presentation of Christ's offering the flesh of His physical body for, and to, the flesh of His mystical body, the Church. The eternal banquet that is the wedding feast between Christ and His Church is inseparable from the paschal sacrifice on the cross from which flows the graces and merits that give rise to the Church, and that enable our own individual membership in that body that is both Christ's body and His bride.

I think the so what here has two parts. First, when we receive the Blessed Sacrament, we receive a wedding gift from Christ. As a wedding gift, it's not given to us as individuals, but to us as the Church. The union with God that is the primary fruit of the Eucharist is also a union with the Church and each of her individual members.  What is the most personal and intimate communion with Jesus is at the same time an altogether corporate and public moment.

Second, as disciples we imitate our Master. The imitation is most obvious, I suppose, with husbands who "should love their wives as their own bodies," and hand over their own bodies for their wives, but the pattern -- offering ourselves to God, then offering our now-blessed selves to others -- extends to everyone whom the Father has given us as individuals to love.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

As St. Paul teaches, let's get drunk!

You know the famous Elbow Passage from Ephesians ("Wives should be subordinate to their husbands...Husbands, love your wives"), so called because of the elbowing in the pews that occurs when it is read during Mass. It follows what could be called the Dodged a Bullet Passage, which is today's second reading:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks always and for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
The bullet we dodged is, of course, the first part of verse 19, which I've highlighted. Can you imagine if this had been absolutized, and we could only communicate with each other in song? What would donuts after Mass be like?
And I will pour a cup of free trade joe,
Bear it to the sugar bowl,
Make it too sweet, then give my son
A sticky piece of ciiiiin-namon bun.
Or the church parking lot?
All drivers in this lot, it's noon!
Out of my way, the game starts soon!
Would it improve the tone of on-line dialog? Maybe not.
Tantrum? Ergo, my responses
Can't be answered by your side.
And the ancient customs tell us
I just whupped your sorry hide.
Crawl back in the hole you came from,
You defective creep, and die.
But what particularly interests me in this passage is verse 18:
Do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.
What's that "Do not get drunk on wine" doing here?

Yes, of course, don't get drunk is sound moral doctrine, and getting drunk is something foolish people do in evil days. But I don't think the function of that phrase in this passage is simply to illustrate or stress one vice to avoid. I think it contrasts with "be filled with the Spirit" in the same way "as foolish persons" contrasts with "as wise" in verse 15.

More precisely, "Be filled with the Spirit" has the effect on wise Christians that "Get drunk on wine" has on fools. The words "on wine" are there, not to give an out for getting drunk on beer or whiskey, but to parallel "with the Spirit."

St. Paul tells us to get drunk, not on wine, but on the Holy Spirit.

Those who are drunk on the Spirit might very well address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Singing and playing to the Lord in your heart is just the sort of thing a spiritual drunk would do.

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God Who is also the Spirit of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of the Church He founded, is the new wine that Christians are to drink too much of. When you're drunk on wine, you lose your reason, the faculty that makes us like God. When you're drunk on the Spirit, the foolish of these evil days will think you've lost your reason, but it's the very way we've been given to become, not just more like God, but His own children.

Drink up!

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

But wait, there's more important

In my last post, I did the same thing the media (and, I get the impression, too many bishops) have done, which is to reduce the Church's current concerns over the family to the question of "remarried" Catholics.*

The excerpts Vatican Insider published of Cardinal Cottier's interview with Fr. Spadaro of La Civiltà Cattolica cover more than just that -- even beyond the weekend retreat you could make on the single statement, "Mercy... is the crux of Christian doctrine."

For example, Cardinal Cottier says the Sacrament of Matrimony is
"the elevation of a natural institution to the dignity of a sacrament. It does not mean that a supernatural element should be added to a reality that essentially remains natural; it means that sacramentality gives this reality – which then presents itself as a material cause – a new form, a new essence and identity."

Is "transubstantiation" too strong a word for this? Don't the words I've boldened apply to the Blessed Sacrament? Ever think about the parallels between what happens when a couple exchanges vows before the altar and what happens when a priest prays the words of consecration at the altar?
What concerns the Swiss theologian the most “is the fact that no real innovations have been introduced on an ecclesial level to implement a new pastoral care programme for marriage preparation that addresses the crisis in the sacrament. Current practice has become inadequate and often come across as a mere formality rather than an education towards a commitment for life.”
The collapse of Catholic marriage is a documented fact we in the Church are pretty good at ignoring. One of the bees in my bonnet is that, although we pray at every Sunday Mass for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life (yay!), I don't think I've ever heard a prayer for vocations to marriage. It may just be a problem of which crisis do you put the oxygen mask on first, but I'm not sure how many Catholics even realize that marriage need oxygen -- that is, that marriage is a sacrament and a vocation, and that those words means something, just as "Holy Orders is a sacrament and a vocation" means something.

Cardinal Cottier concludes by talking about mercy and the Church's pastors:
"There are still people who are scandalised by the Church, men and women who, due to a negative judgement which was expressed in an impersonal and insensitive way, have felt a terrible rejection. This is where confessors have a huge responsibility. Whenever they express a judgement and whatever this judgement is, it needs to be expressed and explained in a way that communicates the Church’s maternal concern. Pope Francis repeatedly speaks about the beauty and joy of Christian life which the Church needs to get across. Through the voice of its pastors, the Church must always show that it is guided by divine mercy."
As you say, your Eminence, but let's not forget the other 99+% of the Church, which is how the world nearly always personally encounters her. The laity too needs to express and explain their judgments in a way that communicates the Church's maternal concern. We too need to get across the beauty and joy of Christian life. We too must always show that we are guided by divine mercy.

I've said it before: A Christian is always a sign. The question is whether the Christian is a sign that points toward Christ or away from Him.


* Is a person who is married any more capable of marrying someone else than a person is capable of marrying someone of the same sex?

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Mercy is doctrine

I think there is a real risk that the laxist shenanigans over the question of pastoral care of the divorced and remarried* has primed the rigorist pump, to the point that almost anything the coming Synod might propose beyond an emphatic restatement of previous teachings and positions will be dumped on as a betrayal of the holy Catholic Faith.

And I think there's a very high likelihood that the coming Synod will propose something beyond an emphatic restatement of previous teachings and positions.

Georges Cardinal Cottier, OP, theologian of the papal households of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and no outspoken progressive, gave a recent interview arguing both against rigorism --
"In rigorism there is an innate brutality that goes against the gentle way God has of guiding each person."

-- and for pastoral practice that goes beyond legalism:

“Mercy is doctrine, It is the crux of Christian doctrine,” the Swiss cardinal said. “Only a narrow-minded person can defend legalism and imagine that mercy and doctrine are two separate things. In this sense, today’s Church has realised that no one, no matter what their position, can be left alone. We need to guide people, both righteous and sinners."
This guidance can't be, "Come back when you're not in mortal sin," nor can it be, "No worries, we don't do 'mortal sin' any more." People need to get used to the idea that there are other possible positions. If the Synod rejects your laxist position, that doesn't make the Synod rigorist. If it rejects your rigorist position, that doesn't make it laxist.

Cardinal Cottier goes on to say:
"I believe that the solution to some problems should come from the prudent judgement of the bishop. I say this not without hesitation and doubt, seeing division between bishops. My claim refers first and foremost to certain situations where there is a big likelihood of the first marriage being null but it is difficult to provide canonical proof.... [I]n accordance with its pastoral mission, the Church always needs to be attentive to historical changes and the evolution of mentalities. Not because it should subordinate itself to these but in order to overcome the obstacles that can prevent others from embracing its advice and guidelines.”
It sounds like he's proposing something akin to a presumption of nullity in certain circumstances, based on part on the fact that Catholics today generally don't understand what marriage is. That raises all sorts of concerns, as he acknowledges, but it does seem perfectly consistent with Catholic doctrine, even as it is contrary to current Catholic practice.

Something like this may well cone out of the Synod.Maybe the Pope will decide upon something wise and prudent, maybe he will decide upon something foolish and reckless. The point is that there are plenty of things he might decide upon that are different without being heretical, and I worry that some Catholics aren't prepared to consider that if and when he decides upon something.

The problem for rigorists is exacerbated since, throughout Pope Francis's papacy, they have been treated more brusquely than laxists (or atheists). I expect this will continue. Cardinal Cottier spoke of the brutality of rigorism and the narrow-mindedness of setting mercy against doctrine, but he did not (at least in the portions of his interview quoted by Vatican Insider) criticize laxism. This practice has not been perceived as merciful by the rigorists, who I expect might wonder about the Cardinal's self-awareness when he said,
"There are still people who are scandalised by the Church, men and women who, due to a negative judgement which was expressed in an impersonal and insensitive way, have felt a terrible rejection."
And in fact, rigorists and laxists alike have taken this sort of thing as a sign of growing laxism -- which, if I'm right, only confirms the rigorists in their rigorism.

Now, you can say, "Rigorists are, objectively, incorrect. They should be corrected. If they had accepted the relatively mild correction of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they wouldn't need the more pointed correction of Francis." That may be true. But the Church needs to guide people, both [your preferred form of] righteous and [your least favorite] sinners.


* I don't include Pope Francis among the laxists, though the freedom and encouragement he's given them in various ways has contributed to the environment in which they've been thriving.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

There is no equivalence

I'm not sure how to excerpt from Cardinal Chaput's August 10 column. There's maybe one or two paragraphs I'd leave out, and that would be just to make it look like I was being selective in quoting.

Read the whole thing.

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Saturday, August 08, 2015

Don't feed the extremists

In my last post, I wrote that it's a shame progressives have so abused the idea of a "seamless garment" approach to social issues that conservatives have been able to make great headway establishing an "anti-abortion only" approach.

My claim can be generalized: Laxism feeds rigorism. Or perhaps: Laxism and rigorism feed each other.

In a narrow and informal sense, "laxism" is the principle that a theological or moral position can be held if there is any basis at all for asserting it, however weak and tenuous it might be. "Rigorism" is the principle that the most stringent position on a disputed question must be held.

In practice, laxists tend to look for doubt and find it where there is certainty, and rigorists tend to look for certainty and find it where there is doubt.

When an extreme position is proposed, the opposite extreme seems easier to propose as well. Maybe because the opposite extreme is considered more for how completely it resists the first extreme than for how extreme it is in itself. Maybe because people who tend to extreme positions are more willing to express them in an environment in which extreme positions are common.

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Saturday, August 01, 2015

When you're right, you're right

I have a low opinion of the writings and statements of Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, as you can see if you search this blog. Based, admittedly, on very limited reading, I find her social commentary trite and narrow-minded; her theology has more grievance than Gospel about it. On those occasions when she does reject Democratic Party dogma in favor of Catholic teaching, she does so in a way that makes it much clearer that she remains within the Democratic fold than that she firmly believes Catholic teaching.

Here's an example, a quotation from a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers that Daily Kos featured yesterday:
The fact of the matter is that [the moral issues involved in the 2004 election are] all in contention with something else which is also a moral value and also equally important unless you put it completely out of your mind or your heart. For instance, let's look at the abortion question. I'm opposed to abortion.

I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
Note that Daily Kos didn't include the first paragraph, as their purpose was to weaponize the second paragraph against the Republican Party. Easily done, since Sr. Joan meant it to be an attack on the Republican Party. From what I've seen, her political opposition to abortion is purely theoretical, and always followed by a "but I support pro-abortionists anyway."

-- I say "political opposition" because I have no idea what she does on a personal level. I say "from what I've seen" in the hope that someone who knows her work better will prove me wrong. --

Her claim that these different moral issues are "equally important" is contrary to the teaching of popes and bishops. It's a shame, really, what people like Sr. Joan have done to the seamless garment position. If they hadn't abused it and treated it like a reversible garment, or a garment you can wear upside down, if they had been functionally as well as rhetorically both/and, if their deeds had matched their sanctimony, it would have been much harder for their opponents who are openly either/or to make as much headway as they've made in the last twenty-five years. Which doesn't excuse the openly either/or opponents, but, as I say, it's a shame.

All that said, in the second quoted paragraph Sr. Joan is absolutely, completely, unreservedly correct.

Even read as nothing but a purely rhetorical attack on the Republican Party, as Daily Kos intends it to be, it is an absolutely, completely, unreservedly legitimate attack on the Republican Party. Not on every registered Republican by name, perhaps not even on every elected Republican, but on the party as a whole.

For that matter, it can even be argued that Sr. Joan is more generous to a portion of the party than is necessary, the portion that talks the pro-birth talk but never walks the pro-birth walk.

It's as true today as it was in 2004 that we need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is. The prospects, however, of making more progress over the next eleven years than we did over the past eleven are not bright. Even within the Church, we'd have to have a broad conversation with THEM, with people like Sr. Joan (or whoever your THEM are like). US are more bothered that THEM can make short term political hay out of US's alleged shortcomings than by the fact that those allegations are so often so very legitimate. If US have a conversation with THEM, the babies will pay the price.

And so the babies will continue to pay the price.

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Insincere flattery

For a while the other day, "#IfIStartedMyOwnReligion" was a trending topic on Twitter. I scrolled through a few dozen of these tweets, and noticed something curious.

Sure, there were the militant atheists, offering critiques of religion just as devastating and unanswerable as you'd expect. There were jokes, some original and some repurposed (like the evangelical agnostics who'd knock on doors and say, "So what do you think?").

It seemed that by far the most popular angle for jokes was a variation on what would be served for communion. Milk and cookies was a common one, Oreos in particular. Bacon showed up several times as well, and beer too of course.

What I thought was interesting is how many of these tweets said that their preferred food would be their "sacrament." I assume they didn't mean anything in particular by that word, beyond it sounding religious and being associated with Holy Communion. No one built a backstory of sacramental theology just to join in the hashtag fun; no one prepared an answer to the question, "Oreos would be a visible sign of exactly which invisible grace?" before typing their tweet.

Which, I submit, is precisely the problem with people these days. We all invent our own religion -- admittedly, some personal religions approach ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent pure Catholicism -- but so few of us are capable of inventing a religion that does what a religion is for.

What is a religion for? A religion is for cultivating the virtue of religion.

What is the virtue of religion? The virtue of religion is the habit that disposes us "to render to God what we as creatures owe him in all justice."

Is suggesting you'd have Oreos as a sacrament in your religion just a joke? It is a joke, but it is also a synecdoche for the problem at the root of all customizing of religious practice and belief, which is that it makes it about how we relate to ourselves, not how we relate to God.

Admittedly, not an original observation.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The unity of the Spirit

The word that popped out to me today during the readings at Mass was "striving." As in:
... live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace....
St. Paul doesn't (in this translation at least) tell the Ephesians to strive to live in a manner worthy of their call. Nor does he tell them to strive to live with all humility and gentleness, nor to strive to live with patience, nor to strive to bear with one another through love. He just tells them to do these things.

But he does tell them to strive to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

That might not mean anything in particular. Or it might mean that preserving the unity of the Spirit is particularly important. Or that preserving the unity of the Spirit is particularly difficult. Or that it's both important and difficult.

Consider the words in these verses that describe living in a manner worthy of the call of Christ:
  • humility
  • gentleness
  • patience
  • forbearance
  • unity
The first four are generally regarded as virtues our society honors independent of any particular religious tradition. Unity, though, doesn't fit in quite the same way. "You're really patient" is a compliment. "You really preserve unity" is... an unusual thing to say, and a compliment, I guess, if the speaker approves of the specific unity preserved.

Even then, unity is often seen as merely an instrumental good, a means to some good end. Political unity is an instrumental good that can lead to political success. Social unity leads to strengthening of the social group, against competing groups or simply against decay.

The unity St. Paul is writing of, though, is the unity of the Holy Spirit. It does happen to lead to other goods, but primarily it is a good in itself, because there is in fact
one body and
one Spirit, as you were also called to the
one hope of your call;
one Lord,
one faith,
one baptism;
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
That seems like something worth striving for. Given the current state of US vs THEM, it's also something that needs striving for. Fortunately, St. Paul tells us how to do it: through the bond of peace. Unfortunately, through the bond of peace is how St. Paul tells us to do it, and that's not something we've worked very hard on mastering in recent decades.

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