I am taking the day off today, in part to read James Keenan’s A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences (2010). The link to Bloomsbury Publishers is here. I believe this book will provide our next target for intensive study as we complete the Vatican II overview of Xavier Rynne. Check the links if you are curious. Have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow as our reflections on Vatican II draw to a close.
.I will be off today to recharge my batteries. In fact, I have already had a profitable morning listening to an excellent hour interview of Martin Sheen, the Catholic actor whose body of work includes the TV series "The West Wing" and a powerful movie of conversion, "The Way," which I never tire of watching. In this interview today Sheen discusses his spirituality as a Catholic with a candor that reveals many surprises and inspirations. I am very grateful to my high school buddy Matt for passing along the link, and I will in turn pass it on to you, if you wish to hear it at a convenient time. By the way, those of you who follow the Catechism posts on Thursdays will be surprised at how Sheen--quite coincidentally--addresses so many questioned raised in yesterday's discussion of Paragraph 30 regarding God's power and man's freedom. Have a good day and I will be back tomorrow with memories from Vatican II. Link is here.
The Road to ExtinctionRead Now
This week marks the first anniversary of our daily blog. For my impressions of the first year and plans for 2016, click here at your leisure.
Today I am taking a day off from blogging, truthfully to get a few days ahead in the prep work. But I did come across an interpretive interview on recent research about the religious beliefs and practices of millennials vis-à-vis their elders from the good folks at PEW. So you won’t be alone with your coffee today.
I found a number of points of agreement with the author, Dave Masci, though I think the research needs to look a little more closely at the internal dynamics of religious faiths, to see what trends and practices within faith communities might be leading to a progressive disinterest in church commitment.
Anyone who knows me is probably well aware of my strong belief that religious education in American Catholicism is presently woefully inadequate, if not terminally ill, and it is only getting worse. In short, each successive generation of Catholic parents and catechists are less prepared to share the faith with their children than the previous one. This has been a problem long before the priest abuse scandal that Masci references.
Back in the late 1990’s, when I was teaching a college course on world religion, I assigned Alan Dershowitz’s 1997 work, The Vanishing American Jew. (It was one of my first review submissions to the new Amazon site, and it was refused, incidentally.) In this book Dershowitz describes Jewish youth formation for bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. “The kids typically hate it, but they want to be bar or bat mitzvahed because it is a rite of passage and it comes with a party and presents. The “deal” usually made between parents and their children is that in exchange for “giving up” several afternoons and Sunday mornings, the children would get the party and a promise of no more Hebrew school." (295)
Does that sound familiar?
As a New Year's resolution, I am working to make the font larger for better ease in reading. Let me know if I am on the right track for you.
I feel like the first day of 2016 should call forth something profound, but I’m not feeling profound, as the joys and sorrows of this world continue along their unpredictable ways regardless of the turning of the calendar. I guess I prefer straight and narrow language, the kind I get from my garbage man, for example, who left me a note that read “if we don’t get a bigger Christmas tip this year, we’ll kick your can.”
In yesterday’s post (December 31) I talked about the origin of today’s feast of Mary, the Mother of God. After I posted, I went to the Vigil Mass along with the small congregation that show up for “holy days of obligation” and I was awarded with a very good sermon from our newly ordained associate. He went to the trouble to explain the Nestorian heresy, something I had overlooked in my reflection yesterday. I had failed to consider that the development of this Marian feast of January 1 in Rome of the fourth century is historically connected to a line of well-intentioned but erroneous conclusions embodied in the works and preaching of Nestorius.
Nestorius is one of the Church’s truly tragic figures, for from all indications he was trying to do the right thing, that is, defend the divinity of Christ from what we would call today the “excesses of piety.” Nestorius was a monk and a priest, so highly regarded for his orthodoxy and asceticism that the Roman Emperor Theodosius II nominated him as Archbishop or Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius may have taken his new responsibilities a bit too strenuously, as the year was hardly finished before the new archbishop was embroiled in one of Christianity’s greatest doctrinal conflicts.
To understand the problem, one must step back and look at the figure of Mary in the divine plan, or the “economy of salvation.” She is identified in all four Gospels as the mother of Jesus; this point is beyond dispute. The problems arose as the Church, from the early post-Apostolic times forward, attempted to understand the nature of Jesus, and gradually came to a point where Jesus’ divinity could be doctrinally established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The language of this Council produced the phrase in our Creed today, “consubstantial with the Father,” or “of the same substance as the Father.”
Nestorius came into Church life at a time when this doctrine was a century old. In his efforts to protect this primal doctrine of Jesus, he became concerned about the intensity of devotion to the Virgin Mary, particularly intense in the East. One possibility for the intensity of Marian piety in the East may have been the long-held belief that after the Ascension the Apostle John took Mary to Ephesus where she lived out her natural life under his protection. In any event, the custom of reverencing Mary as the Mother of God or theotokos was widespread by his time. There was a logic here, too: if the Council of Nicaea had declared Jesus to be fully God and fully man, of one substance, it stood to reason in the heart of the faithful that Mary must be the mother of the godly as well as the humanly Jesus, since Nicaea had declared these inseparable.
Nestorius, though, could claim a logical position, too: if the human Jesus is consubstantial with the Father, i.e., one with the Father, then the phrase “Mother of God” states without asterisks that Mary is God’s mother, that she gave origin and birth to the Creator, to Yahweh, to He who lives in the heavens and the holy of holies in the Temple. Understood this way, the assertion of Mary’s divine motherhood is at least a literary conundrum; at worst it is either absurdity or blasphemy. Nestorius never, to my knowledge, made his argument ad hominem against Mary; his issue was the theological claim made about her.
Nestorius had a not insignificant following, which included for a time the Emperor himself. The controversy Nestorius evoked on Christmas Day, 428, in his holy day sermon (timing not being among the archbishop’s greatest gifts) took place in a time when several cities were vying for position as the seat of Christendom: Rome; Constantinople (now Istanbul); Alexandria, Egypt; Ephesus (now Selcuk, Turkey); and Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, saw this misstep of his rival Nestorius as an opportunity to promote Alexandrian esteem as the center of Church orthodoxy and led the crusade for the discrediting and excommunicating of Nestorius—though this process took nearly a generation as bishops and theologians attempted to unravel the difficulty.
In truth, there never was a compromise because such would have been impossible. Human logic can only take us so far in our understanding of the Incarnation, God become man. We cannot--pace Nestorius—explain how an eternal being takes form in a finite environment. It is a one-time occurrence, the one-time occurrence that grounds all of human reality. St. Paul, in Philippians 2:5ff, talks of this frontier of belief with a poetry that might have better served Nestorius. In its growing awareness of the demands of faith and the limits of Greek logic, Church theologians did develop a kind of literary and devotional shorthand known as “the communication of idioms,” whereby attributes of the divine and the human in Jesus could be interchanged for reasons of worship and catechesis. Thus, one can say on Good Friday that God died upon the cross (a mysterious but wondrous truth) just as one can say that Mary is indeed the Mother of God, with the understanding that our human speech and logic can only take us so far, to the point where it is our honor to render an intellectually submissive act of faith.
Nestorius overlooked another facet of Christian life that remains true even today. The term “Mother of God” was not invented at a council; it was the product of grass-roots faith, the sublime truth of countless worshippers who—in the full knowledge of the humanity and divinity of Christ, did the math that the French mathematician would describe centuries later: “The heart has reasons that reason knowns nothing about.”
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