Those of you who pray the daily Liturgy of the Hours are quite aware that Friday Morning Prayer is earmarked every week, regardless of the four week cycle, with the recitation of Psalm 50 (51). Long before Acts of Contrition came into being, this psalm became Christianity’s official cry of confession and repentance, and its regular use in the private and public prayer of the Church is a constant reminder of what Jesus claimed was his primary work, ushering in the Kingdom of God and its attendant forgiveness. In several of the Resurrection appearances reported by the Gospel, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles to empower them to forgive sins in his name.
With all the attention paid to sin in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and the long tradition of Catholic moral theological scholarship, it is interesting to me that the term continues to defy precise definition. Looking at the index of my hardcover Catechism, I found 142 distinct paragraphs on the issue of sin, evidence of just how hard it is to encompass the subject. For my own work, I tend to delineate sin in three general categories.
First, there is the general “sinfulness of man,” or what my brilliant Dominican professor would refer to in class as “post-lapsarian man.” The literal meaning is “after the fall” and it refers to the state of humanity after Adam and Eve’s bites at the apple in the Garden. Scholarship in recent centuries has generally concluded that the Adam and Eve story, though it appears early in the Bible (the second creation account), was probably a philosophical work written rather late in the Hebrew Testament era, a wisdom text akin to Job and Jonah. The thrusts of the Adam text include an effort to explain the origins of the sinful tendencies found universally and the reality of evil in the created world. The snake, for example, is described as “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” There is no mention of outside agency, such as the Devil, despite what was taught to me in my First Communion Class of 1956.
The nature of man, including his natural tendency to sin, is an immense study; this branch of theology is called Christian Anthropology and is usually among the first courses taught in college, graduate, or seminary theological study. In truth, each of us carries within a highly personalized Christian anthropology, which rests ideally between the two poles of absolute pessimism and unbridled optimism about human beings and the potential of God’s power to heal. McGlone’s and Sperry’s The Inner Life of Priests (2012, see my review October 3, 2014) recommends the development of diagnostic tools to measure a prospective candidate’s outlook on God and human nature in vetting for the priesthood.
Second, there is the experience of sin in human life. My own professional life as a Catholic priest and then as a psychotherapist, plus my own personal wrestling with managing my own life over the years, has led me to understand the general complexity of human life and behavior. Free will does not guarantee our understanding of the motives for what we do. Age, experience, upbringing, religion and environment shape our values, to be sure, but we still do not understand with precision the human decision making process. A frequent symptom I observed over the years was rumination (I have this problem myself) or the inability to “turn down the brain” as many patients would tell me. Given the unknowns of brain function, how do we know the parameters of personal sinful acts?
On the subject of sin, is the brain capable of what my oven can do, namely self-clean? The fifth century debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the theological version of this question. I was always a little uncomfortable indentifying too closely with Augustine, whose Christian anthropology was austere, to say the least. And yet many of my patients found themselves repeating destructive behaviors (all of which the Church would identify as sin of some sort); breaking the cycle of pathology here (or in the confessional for that matter) was hard, the conduct deeply imbedded in the psyche. I had a non-denominational way of putting this to clients: “You seem to have lost your North Star” (and hoping the patient was not a recent arrival from New Zealand.)
Third, there is the body of defined sins by the Church. These are acts and pattern of thinking drawn from Scripture and Church teaching that not only violate God’s good ordering or divine Providence; they are objective and taught as such. I should add here, though, that under the heading of morality in the Catechism is an exhaustive treatment of virtuous attitudes and acts. Thus the Church gives us a fix on the North Star, so to speak, through its official moral teaching of not just what to avoid, but more helpfully, what to embrace.
Even the most precise statements of sinful conduct, however, are addressed to highly complicated people. Traditional Church teaching makes some allowance for this reality in its definition of the conditions of a mortally sinful act: (1) the subject matter must be grave; (2) the sinner must understand, or at least know, the Church teaching on the subject, and (3) the sinner must give full consent of the will to the act. Items two and three are complex in determining the degree of guilt, which is why the Church establishes the practice of individual, confidential confession in which to assess this.
In pastoral practice I would guess that wise priests have well-developed dispositions of Christian anthropology and understand the multi-layered dimensions of human conduct and knowledge. The challenge is in developing moral catechizing and sacramental ritualizing that embraces the Scriptural, liturgical and behavioral nature of the penitent and his/her acts. Without this, confession for example remains an occasional MRI of the soul without a treatment plan.
I had to smile this morning after reading two variant accounts of the conclusion of the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s office of doctrinal affairs. The National Catholic Register reported yesterday’s breakthrough as the LCWR’s capitulation to Church authority. The New York Times, however, described the end as Pope Francis’s official conclusion to an embarrassing episode and carried a photo of the pontiff with four very happy LCWR leaders after an unusually long hour-meeting.
Today is “Morality Friday” here at the blog, and I wondered—hopefully if cautiously—if there are moral lessons to be learned both for the Church and society as a whole. This Vatican-LCWR prolonged process has been followed closely by Americans of all stripes; indeed, I would go so far as to say that had this confrontation ended any other way, the New Evangelization itself in the U.S. might have been profoundly endangered, for as we now know, the works of the sisters enjoy immense respect in this country.
(1) The dangers of scape-goating. Bishops in the U.S. have had a tough time over the past half-century. Catholic schools have closed in significant numbers; preaching and activism to stem abortion have not borne significant reforms. Defections from the U.S. Catholic Church are currently numbering about a thousand daily. In times of fear and rage, the most natural and impulsive thing to do is to identify a highly visible target as the culprit. Vatican II and religious women became inviting targets. Scape-goating avoids the embarrassment of more honest reactions, such as outside evaluation of internal Church problems, which could uncover flaws further up the ecclesiastical food chain. Face the truth in all things.
(2) Due process. I wrote yesterday about the Enlightenment and its legacy of human rights. One of the enduring temptations of those in authority, particularly when that authority presumes to speak for God, is the abuse of power. Or, as Lord Acton put it in the nineteenth-century, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” All Catholics, clerics and lay, are entitled to due process in Church proceedings, which includes an assumption of innocence until proven guilty and preservation of the good name of the accused. See Canon Law, notably Canon 221. I might note here that very recent research indicates wholesale concern among U.S. priests about wholesale violations of due process in the Dallas Charter mandates regarding child abuse accusations. Use authority with wisdom and charity.
(3) Vendettas. This process has been marked by several personal conflicts between certain American bishops and U.S. women religious in general. The most common reporting trend has led since 2012 to, of all people, the disgraced Cardinal Law, who lobbied extensively from Rome after his demotion and who by some accounts solicited funds by the Knights of Columbus for the costly proceedings. However, Cardinal Law’s enthusiasm for the investigation of American sisters has a long history: The Cardinal was an outspoken force in promoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and from what I have read, resented the hesitations and opposition posed by many American religious educators, notably religious. These concerns of educators in the 1980’s about these proposals, as I recall, dealt with pedagogical concerns about the text’s usage, philosophy, sourcing, theological emphases, etc. In short, professional peer review. Nursing grudges destroys.
(4) Scandal. The timing of this investigation could not have come at a worse time in terms of negative impact upon “the simple faithful” as some churchmen are still wont to say. The initial visitation of American sisters began in 2008, a time when the sheer numbers of credible accusations of priestly child abuse as well as their financial costs (over $2.1 billion by some sources) became generally known and worse—the extent of Episcopal cover-up—was beginning to be investigated by civil authorities in criminal investigations. The logical question on the lips of most observers was why investigate the sisters, and not the clergy? The John Jay Study reported that 10% of all priests ordained in the U.S. in 1970 alone have credible allegations made against them. The grand total of all credibly accused sisters in the U.S. was about 60, the last time I checked a few years ago. This imbalance did not pass the moral smell test among the faithful, or common sense, for that matter. See how they love one another.
(5) Professional jealousy. One reason the investigation lost traction in the last few years has been the outrage of corporate America. A number of CEO’s in a variety of industries are the product of Catholic education and have a long history of providing grants to the very charitable causes of the sisters that the Vatican was critical of. The Conrad N. Hilton Corporation is a good example—it donates $2.5 million annually to sisters’ retirement alongside numerous individual grants to ministerial social outreach undertaken by Catholic women religious.( Ironically, the investigation was funded in part by generous assistance from the Knights of Columbus. I find that sad.)
Although decreasing in numbers in the United States—60,000 or thereabouts—religious sisters hold a disportionately high number of advanced degrees and hold significant positions in health care management, university administration, theological education in major universities, and social services. Sisters serve on the boards of many business, philanthropic, and educational foundations. Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy is one of the country’s outstanding Church Canonists. Arguably the most inventive theologian/authors today are women religious (which was, in fact, a focus of the investigation.) That this would be troubling in Rome—which forbade the study and teaching of graduate theology by all women till the 1940’s—and that sisters would grow to positions of access and prominence in society equal to clerics, well, the only phrase that comes to mind is “culture shock.” Rejoice in the good works of others.
It is good to be home in my own bed and drinking my own coffee again after a four-day jaunt to the National Catholic Educators Association annual convention here in Orlando. Although we live only forty minutes from the Orange County Convention site, we decided to take hotel accommodations next to the center, so we would have convenient connections to the many friends my wife has made over the years in her quarter-century work with NCEA. (In fact, we brought one old friend home with us so he can enjoy some balmy bike-riding weather.
I only attended one instructional session, namely my own. I was exceptionally pleased with the warm reception and professional focus of the individuals who attended, and I certainly wish them well. In the harried environment that always surrounds the end of a program, I neglected to invite them to stay in touch through the Café or other means if I can be of help. Of course, this invitation also goes out to anyone who ever stumbles upon this site. One funny anecdote (well, it seems funny now but not at the time) is my business card adventure. I designed, with much help from my wife, a new card for the Convention. I received them: unfortunately they were sitting neatly bundled at my front door on my arrival home last night.
Aside from the Convention Masses, I spent the entire Convention in the exhibitors’ hall. I had the opportunity to speak to a wide range of individuals, primarily those involved in publishing, religious education program designing, religious orders, Catholic Universities, and humanitarian ventures, such as the Anti-Defamation League. My cerebral data base was overloaded with both intriguing descriptions of the religious book/media market and the scrambles to develop parish programming effective for every member of the family.
As The Café generally dedicates Fridays to Morality, I would like to at least discuss some trends in teaching morality and the attendant publishing I observed at the Convention Expo Center. I would say that the preponderance of the featured material was devoted to a new intensity of concern and material in the teaching of morality and spirituality. While this was certainly true in matters of sexual morality, there appears to be an awareness of “The New Evangelization,” which I think has come to be understood as a need for new intensity in returning to personal devotion as well as extending the Gospel invitation to the unchurched, the alienated, and the fallen-away. To put it another way, Catholics are attending boot camp these days for the evangelical and cultural challenges ahead.
There were a good number of vendors focusing on the very basic rudiments of Catholic life: rosaries, simple prayer books (compendiums of traditional Catholic prayer, formats for confession, reflections on the mysteries of the rosary, etc.) I do not think this marketing emphasis reflects dissatisfaction with Catholic school content, but rather it may be addressing a concern that catechists have expressed for decades: the inactive Catholic parents. My own diocese’s director of faith formation has emphasized to me on many occasions the trending toward family based faith formation, and I saw evidence of this in materials available at the Convention.
In this environment the publishers were a wealth of information for me. It is a hard time for the major publishers, the series you may be currently using in your own parish or school, to meet what is clearly a diversifying market. I asked if they were diversifying into other forms of media (streaming, DVD, etc.) I learned from a number that while the USCCB carefully reviews religious teaching texts for conformity with the Catechism (an interesting site, by the way) there is not a parallel review of other media, notably electronic media, in part because it is physically impossible. I noted that in this blog I had reviewed several on-line faith formation programs, and one representative admitted that the decision regarding on-line programs essentially rests with a local bishop. We spoke of one diocese where a bishop evidently fell in love with an on-line program and just mandated it for his diocese. Canonically, the bishop is the senior catechist of a diocese and has the right to do this, but it does seem that the USCCB as a whole has taken the position regarding doctrinal standards of texts, at least, that a national unity in catechetics is a desideratum. I did hear considerable talk, by the way, about the USCCB issuing national standards of certification for catechists and religion teachers, which I think is an excellent concept if hard to enforce in the breech.
On the other end of the spectrum, I met new publishers attempting to break into the Catholic market. Several explained to me the somewhat arduous process of getting USCCB approval. Just about all of these folks have invested heavily into their ventures, and many have lost a lot of money. My impression is they are motivated by the New Evangelization and a growing concern about the decline of the American culture. I think the primary problems they will face is precisely the helter-skelter nature of the thousands of educational internet sites (and publishers) calling themselves “Catholic.” The honest brokers also told me that getting theological/educational experts to review their works in publication is a lot harder than they envisioned. I can understand that.
This is a very general summary of one aspect of Faith Formation as seen on the Exhibition floor of the NCEA.
For the first time in my life I realized that the New York Stock Exchange is closed on Good Friday. This intrigued me; given that billions of dollars exchange hands on any trading day, I wondered why traders stepped back from the big board today. I did some on-line researching and discovered the history of the practice but no one is precisely sure how it was motivated. One popular theory is that a serious market crash occurred on Good Friday of 1907, the last holy day trading session, but economic historians now have their doubts about that. A blogger on a securities firm site observed that the idea of throwing dice on stocks at the same time the soldiers were throwing dice on Jesus’ seamless garment at the foot of the cross was at the least an unseemly exercise. I finally discovered in the Bloomberg News archives an interesting 2008 piece which does make sense. By 1907 a large number of Irish Catholic traders had entered the exchange, and there were many Irish Catholic CEO’s in American business circles. Catholics in 1907 would have spent all of Holy Thursday reverencing the Eucharist at the altar of repose (the Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated in the morning, unlike today) and Good Friday reverencing the cross and making confession. With this religious practice, the Bloomberg piece concludes, there was simply “insufficient demand” on Good Friday, at least, to justify opening the market.
The Passion of St. Mark makes specific references to time, with events occurring at 9:00 AM (Jesus’ actual crucifixion), 12 PM (a great darkness falling across the countryside) and mid-afternoon or 3 PM when Jesus dies after uttering a loud cry. Scripture scholars conjecture that these times may correspond to an actual prayer observance in the early Christian Church at the time Mark composed his Gospel, shortly before 70 AD.
The Passion of St. Matthew includes perhaps the most dramatic scenario of the crucifixion account. Matthew 27: 51-54 records that at the moment of Jesus’ death “the earth quaked, boulders split, tombs opened. Many bodies of saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came forth from their tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” This extraordinary account appears only in Matthew. The other evangelists report nothing of this sort. One would think that had this actually happened, secular historians of the time would have noted it, particularly the Jewish historian Josephus, our best independent source for these years. The best scholarship today indicates that Matthew constructed his dramatic account from at least five sources of the Hebrew Scripture: Joel 2:10; Ezekiel 37:12; Isaiah 26:19; Nahum 1:5-6; and Daniel 12:2. The common thread is apocalyptic: when the Lord comes, he will create a cosmic disturbance and raise from their graves those who died faithful to his word. This is a teaching tour-de-force from Matthew.
In today’s account of the Passion, written by St. John, note the theological/catechetical richness of Jesus last moments on the cross. Jesus entrusts the care of his mother to the one disciple who remained. This is more than a domestic arrangement; Jesus is in essence establishing his first “church family,” so to speak. Then, at his dying moment, Jesus “handed over his spirit.” This is a true Pentecost moment, one of several in John’s Gospel. Mary and John are thus marked by the Holy Spirit. Shortly after his death a soldier lances his side (a deviation from the common practice of leg breaking.) John has arranged for this to occur at the moment the lambs in the temple were being slaughtered (lanced) for families celebrating the Passover that night. When Jesus’ body was lanced, an outpouring of blood and water occurs, presumably splashing the onlookers at the foot of the cross. The symbolism of the water (Baptism) and the blood (Eucharist) are unmistakable.
In today’s Good Friday service, the seventh of the Great Intercessions is made on behalf of the Jews. I was twenty-two years old when Pope Paul VI ordered that this prayer speak kindly of our Jewish brethren. For nearly all of my youthful life, unfortunately, I worshipped and used the official term in the Roman Missal, “perfidious Jews.” A history of the term and its usage can be found here. This year, at our Good Friday worship, let us pray for the safety of Jesus’ own people. In addition, as catechists and evangelists, may we devote ourselves to the inestimable riches of the Hebrew Scripture, without which an understanding of our Savior in the Gospels is nigh impossible.
I will pray for each of you this afternoon.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything