I am a little late getting to the issue of the Irish vote last week to legalize same-sex marriages. There are many countries where same sex marriages are already legal, and of course a number of states in our own country take place by decision of the lower courts. Our own Supreme Court is taking up the question this year, I understand. What makes the Irish situation somewhat remarkable is that the decision was made by an electorate, and a predominantly Catholic one at that. This has led pundits of all sides of the question to speculate upon “what this means for the Catholic Church.”
This blog is intended for any interested Catholic reader, but in particular for catechists, teachers, parish ministers, or anyone who speaks for the Church. (I have always considered my content for the “Café” as falling under that umbrella, and naturally my own teaching for the diocese.) In a much broader sense I guess it is fair to say that every baptized and self-identifying Catholic has a responsibility to reflect the corpus of our teachings with accuracy and loyalty. It is also true that there is a right and a duty of Catholics to speak candidly and charitably (and within appropriate forums) about their difficulties with the moral teachings of the Church. Academic theology serves the Church best when it brings a breadth of biblical, historical, and interdisciplinary research to the Church understands of its teachings, again in an appropriate forum.
I have no idea whether your friends and neighbors, families, or those in your parish approach you—either personally or due to your responsibility in church ministry—to get your reaction to such matters as Catholic teaching on same sex marriage. One of teaching’s biggest landmines is being put on the spot by a “hot potato” question. Let’s say, for example, you are leading a Bible study group and someone brings up the Irish question and announces to the group that “Ireland is no longer a Catholic country.” Obviously you need to step in here, if for no other reasons than good catechetical ones.
My reaction here is to affirm what the Church actually teaches. Para. 2357 states that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” Note, however, that it is acts which are declared disordered. In a surprising admission, the same paragraph notes that the psychological genesis of homosexuality remains “largely unexplained.” Thus the entire weight of proof, as presented in the Catechism, falls to the Scriptures, and some rather marginal portions of the Good Book at that (Genesis 19: 1-29, which almost creaks under the weight of its own internal moral dilemmas.) The Gospels, by contrast, do not raise the subject.) Paragraph 2358 is in fact highly sympathetic to the sufferings of the homosexual, and 2359 simply reiterates, in a hopeful tone, that the law of chastity is a universal Christian application to all.
I went into some detail in the preceding paragraph for two reasons. First, you cannot not teach (I know-double negative) official Church teaching. To put it psychologically, this is a form of incongruence and it leads to burnout; within your diocese, it leads to a lot of administrative hassle. Your questioners already know the answers or they can find them on their Ipads; they are generally probing the depth of your own loyalty and in the process trying to determine whether they can remain faithful to the Church despite their own angers, doubts, sympathies and the like. As US Catholics are leaving the Church at the rate of a thousand per day, prevarication on the part of Church leaders and ministers is about the last thing we need. So, it is important that you yourself have made your peace—publicly at least—with your Church. Privately we all have our “confessional” inner doubts, as did most of the saints.
That said, I think we can continue to serve our people by sharing our own anguish, within appropriate boundaries and sensitivities. There are hardly any of us who do not have someone we love and know in a same-sex relationship, perhaps with a civil marriage license. I know—either personally or professionally—of the stress of individuals finding their way in the sexual mystery of their own lives, and I admit to my students (some of whom no doubt fall under this aegis) that we should be imaginative and zealous in finding theological and pastoral temporal solutions to their problems.
I am seeing in a number of Evangelical-based publications (including some Roman Catholic ones) a fear that the Irish vote represents one of the last straws in the decline and/or disappearance of Western Christian Civilization. The Catholic evangelical fear is that were the Church to accommodate in any way with the contemporary secular world (read: Post-Enlightenment world) she would lose her last great gift to mankind—certainty. The response to such fears is to note that not all the changes in society currently tend in an anti-humanitarian direction. I was surprised to see North Dakota outlaw the death penalty; even more so that “the end of the death penalty” is the cover story of Time Magazine this week. We have seen in very recent times growing social pressures against domestic violence and child abuse, business corruption, environmental problems, police brutality. This is not an age of unbridled evil, and there never was a golden age.
The Spirit of God is not futuristic, it is reflective. As a Franciscan Superior wrote many years ago, “test everything; retain what is good.” We labor hard each day to discern what is good, praying to God for an honest conscience.
I had the benefit of living with some very witty theologian/professors during my grad school years. One night a group of us were eating in a Washington restaurant, probably Emerson’s, “the students’ best friend,” because it offered a full $2.99 steak dinner on Tuesdays if you presented a coupon from the Catholic University student newspaper. One of my professors—a gifted ecclesiologist—pointed his fork at a piano player tinkling away on the keys, smiling and singing merrily, and heard by no one over the din of lively conversations in the dining room. “That,” my professor friend said, “is the present day Roman Catholic Church.” In my twenties at the time I just laughed at the remark, but in my late 60’s the observation doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
I see in my news feed a few moments ago that the Archdiocese of Washington lost its appeal to the DC Court of Appeals on the matter of the Health and Human Services mandate regarding the availability of contraceptive medical intervention under standard health insurance plans. This particular coverage kerfuffle has left a distaste in my mouth for several years now, for reasons including (1) my belief that Kathleen Sebelius and religious institutions could have easily negotiated this issue early in the Obama administration; (2) the impact of a Church court victory must be weighed against the hardship of the many who are not Catholic but who work for the Church; (3) the United States Bishops seem to want the courts to do what they themselves have failed to do, make a compelling interdisciplinary argument against artificial contraception; and (4) the teaching and enforcement of the ban on artificial contraception has depended almost totally upon the fiat of recent papacies, without any significant discussion with theologians and, more importantly, the laity, who bear the burden of the teaching.
But I have one overriding stress: catechetics of the young and the old that devotes voluminous amounts of its generally precious time to what, at the end of the day, are rather “pedestrian issues” to quote my old professor in the restaurant. And, I think this is what he was driving at that night in Emerson’s—that as the Church tinkles on the keyboard of intramural tunes, a bigger world looks for at the very least some kind of Gospel commentary on the truly evil.
Every American who reads more than a weekly People Magazine for news has rolled with one shock after another: the Boko Haram kidnapping of hundreds of girls for an unspeakable future, the deaths of thousands of refugees on the Mediterranean whose crime, it would seem, was being the wrong kind of Moslem; local tribal and regional genocides too numerous to tally; the scourge of ISIS which can only be called nihilistic, a ruthless campaign against peoples and history itself; the streams of children fleeing conditions in gang ridden Central America. (As I write, I note with great pride that my wife is presently out of the house garnering educational resources for these Central American refugees, with whom she works as a volunteer.)
We cannot inoculate ourselves within American borders from the world’s sin, for we have our own evils: the continuing tendency to call abortion a “woman’s right” rather than what it really is; civil violence in Ferguson, Baltimore and last weekend in Waco, Texas; bullying and harassment; hunger and enduring poverty that is widening the chasm between the “Two Americas;” the sex and slavery empires that entrap women and children, to name a few. These are evils of Biblical proportions, and not surprisingly the Psalms and Prophets are filled with episodic prayers of people amazed, overcome and fearful of evils past and present. Today’s second psalm (canticle) of Morning Prayer, from Jeremiah 14, brings home the human experience of evil:
Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. If I walk out into the field, look! Those slain by the sword; if I enter the city, look! Those consumed by hunger. Even the prophet and the priest forage in a land they know not. Have you cast Judah off completely? Is Zion loathsome to you? Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed? We wait for peace, to no avail; for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers; that we have sinned against you. For your name’s sake spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of your glory; remember your covenant with us, and break it not.
One of the basic deficiencies in Catholic preaching and catechetics is our domestication of evil—the preoccupation with pharmaceuticals and masturbation—as opposed to the egregious sin about us that is significantly disquieting and disconcerting—producing the fear, loathsomeness, powerlessness and inadequacy that arises in the face of earthshaking sin. Just speaking from my own life experiences, churches and the people who frequent them look to us for escape, not reality. There is little interest today for the style of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, to preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Consequently our faith formation programs produce graduates anesthetized to the “sin of the world” (as in “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…”) and who, in later years, remember Catholic formation as the career restaurant pianist playing merrily away while the restaurant burns.
With the Feast of Pentecost upon us, we may want to reflect that the God who visited his new Israel, his new Church, appeared as fire according to St. Luke. Such a dramatic and unexpected visitation by God should be some indication of our weakness in confronting evil and an absolute need for the divine to restore creation. People pray for comfort and consolation….how about praying for realistic fear of evil?
I wouldn’t call myself an ambulance chaser, though I did leave my house once by car to try to view a tornado reported on TV to be on the ground in my neighborhood. For the record, it’s a lot harder to do that in a residential area than on the plains in Kansas. Back in 2008 I caught a news story that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued a warning about errors in a theology book entitled Quest for the Living God by Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Naturally I had to take a look myself, and I purchased the book at the time. It sat on my book shelf on the “to read” shelf (I must admit, I have two such shelves) through two presidential election cycles. Then early this year I came across the author in another context and I thought it would be useful to read this work to refresh my foundational theology roots, and I purchased it again on Kindle forgetting that I owned the book in hard copy.
In retrospect I can see the 2008 fuss in better context. That was the same year that the Vatican investigation of women religious in the United States began in earnest, and I think that one of the discontents of the Vatican (as expressed by certain American bishops with influence) was the numerical reality that fewer sisters were doing catechesis (e.g., teaching the Catechism) and more sisters were undertaking professional theology (e.g., exploring the roots of what we teach). I certainly get the impression that some of the best theological work taking place today is being produced by women religious. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, for example, is a full professor at Fordham University.
So, in the more tranquil times of the present, I have been able to reflect upon this book as it was intended, a text on foundations of reality and belief, the work one must do before engaging in specific religious practice or teaching. In grad schools and seminaries “Foundational Theology” is the first course of theological study. Those of you in catechetics can appreciate the importance of foundational work. Imagine you are leading a Bible study, and someone asks inquisitively, “How do we know these books are true?” Your answer: “Because the Church has taught us so.” To which your questioner asks, “How does the Church have that power?” And you, “Because Jesus gave it to the Church.” Questioner: “Who is Jesus?” “God.” And the questioner has thus gotten to the core question, “Who is God?”
Elizabeth Johnson begins her work addressing the contemporary problem of “God talk.” I should point out that theological discussion of God is standard scholarly fare. Even Cardinal Wuerl, in his criticism of the book, concedes that if the book was confined to use by theologians, the bishops would not have intervened. The author reminds us of the sobering truth that God is “totally other” and defies every analogy we can conceive of. As she puts it, “God cannot be compared with anything in the world. To do so is to reduce divine reality to an idol.” (13) Or put another way, if language about God is possible, then this totally other Being cannot exist, because language implies control on our part. Our Jewish ancestors knew this; a Jew was not allowed to utter the sacred name.
Her second critical point is that the human search for God is insatiable. This is not a denial of the Church’s Creed; rather, the Creed simply opens more doors of mysterious searching. Johnson draws from the writings of perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, S.J., whose theology looks for points of contact between created man and a “totally other” God. Johnson uses an excellent analogy of Rahner’s vision of theology. Imagine a scientist in a lab jacket looking through a microscope. The normal instinct of our culture would be to inquire about what the scientist is viewing. Rahner’s methodology draws more to the scientist: why is looking, what drives him to search, what is he hoping to find? Rahner contends that all people are created with an insatiable thirst to pursue a being that is of its nature inaccessible.
Johnson goes on to highlight the great mystery of this totally other being, that this being has freely and lovingly extended its very being into the human world, first by creating the world, and more importantly, by sending the living Jesus to express the perfect love and desire of the being we call God for our own well being and happiness. But this omnipotent love of God for the individual human is not a solitary event; those who experience both the awe of God’s otherness and the irresistible desire to pursue are drawn together by this most powerful experience, and thus we have a rudimentary u7nderstanding of what we casually at times refer to as Church. This was my reference in Wednesday’s blog, to those who have left the Church—the possibility that the awe and the passion for God were nowhere to be seen.
Naturally I don’t think a foundational work like Johnson’s belongs in the elementary stages of catechesis. But an awakening of awe in God and an introduction to those who passionately seek “the other” are the first legs of instructor and student alike. In preparing for my First Communion in 1956, I can remember my religious teaching sister emphasizing that “God always was” and “God always will be.” At seven years old I found this to be the most challenging but engaging teaching of the catechism, and even today (allowing that the analogy of time has no meaning for the Other) the analogy has great power for me still. Only when the divine imagination is stirred is the catechetical process possible.
I am sorry to be late today, as I had a number of errands and household duties that took me about my town. I did experience two cultural icons for the first time, Hobby Lobby and Chipotle. It is hard to believe that when I moved here in 1978 there was still a Sambo’s Restaurant in town. For obvious reasons that last chain is no longer among us.
I got an interesting e-mail from a student who had read an Amazon reviewer highly critical of Sister Faustina’s diary. (It was Sister Faustina, now St. Faustina, whose influence led Pope John Paul II to declare the Sunday after Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.”) In the review the claim was made that Sister Faustina and her writings were the object of much persecution by the official Church prior to the papacy of St. John Paul II. I have to be honest that I have not read any of Sister Faustina’s works, and my devotional life takes me to different sources. So I had to do some research today as well.
I use Wikipedia as a starting point for a lot of research, and I found that the entry on Sister Faustina was eminently fair and balances with what I do know from other sources about the major players in the story. Sister Faustina’s writings, and the devotion to “Divine Mercy” were quite popular especially in post-War Europe, However, Sister’s writings came under the scrutiny of Cardinal Ottaviani, the prefect of the Church’s Holy Office (for the protection of doctrine.)
It is sad to see that there is no critical biography yet written about Cardinal Ottaviani. He was the most powerful cardinal in the Vatican when Vatican II convened in 1962, and he was fiercely opposed to the very idea of a Council and to everything it would ultimately put forward, not surprising for a man whose motto was “always the same.” He attempted to hijack the proceedings by means of a “fast track” strategy, but was fought and ultimately defeated by a block of his cardinal peers, themselves influenced by a brilliant young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, among other. Ottaviani was involved in the Council’s most dramatic moment, when Cardinal Josej Frings of Cologne declared to Ottaviani’s face on the Council floor that “your dicastery (office) is a scandal to the whole world.”
It was this same Ottaviani who, just a few years earlier, had issued a disciplinary statement to the entire Church regarding Sister Faustina. I quote from Wikipedia: On 6 March 1959, the Holy Office issued a notification, signed by Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty as notary, that forbade circulation of "images and writings that promote devotion to Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina" (emphasis in the original). The negative judgment of the Holy Office was based both on a faulty French or Italian translation of the diary, and on theological difficulties such as the claim that Jesus had promised complete remission of sin for certain devotional acts without specifying whether the forgiveness would be obtained directly or through undertaking reception of the sacraments, and what may have been thought to be excessive concentration on Faustina herself.
Ottaviani appears to be the only major opponent of Sister Faustina, from what I can see. Pope Pius XII had refused his request to suppress the movement in the mid 1950’s. Ottaviani thus took the strategy of raising questions about her writings. In truth, though, some of his concerns are not unusual, even by today’s standards. The Church will obviously have great concern over anyone claiming to speak for Christ, particularly in such directives as establishing images and feasts. It is Church doctrine that all Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. He expressed concern that her writings might mislead individuals to replace the sacramental discipline of Penance; we can only guess at what his motives might be regarding his concerns about Faustina’s alleged self-promotion.
That a Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla was already working behind the scenes in 1965 to restore the good name of the Sister and the movement is a fairly good indication that “persecution” was limited to Ottaviani during the latter’s tenure of office.
As to the writings of Sister Faustina, it is important to note that at the time of her canonization she was cited as a visionary, meaning that she experienced intense communion with Christ in her subjective prayer life. She is honored today for reinforcing a basic New Testament teaching, namely, that God’s mercy is available to all who call upon Him. This is not new information channeled to us by Christ through Sister Faustina, but her understanding of the need to reinforce this belief of the Church. Many other saints have preceded her in doing this; St. Margaret Mary and her devotion to the Sacred Heart come immediately to mind.
It is important to note, too, that the large number of saints and devotional practices are evidence that prayer and piety takes many shapes in the universal Body of Christ. While many find a renewed faith in Sister Faustina’s life and experiences, so others may find similar ways to God through Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman or Thomas Merton, among those whose writings survive today and enrich us. And these names are only the beginning.
There are many branches of theology, and students of the sacred science often specialize in particular areas, such as worship or morality. But everyone must pass through the door of “foundational theology,” the boot camp of theological thinking. This was another course that I did not adequately grasp the first time around, and I have had to go back many times in adult life to address the main agenda of theological introduction: the paradox of talking about and to God.
Every question of “how to pray” or “teach me to meditate”—and how often do I find these requests on class evaluations—goes back ultimately to two things, the existence of God and the revelation or disclosure of God. They are not the same thing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its teachings with the assertion that God does exist—which an atheist, for one, would dispute—but the Catechism also confirms what the Judaeo-Christian tradition has held from antiquity, that God is self-sufficient and needs no props, such as creation and an adoring public.
The self-sufficiency of God is also a statement that creation—the cosmos, us—is not necessary. There has always been a sizeable school of Catholic theology that has argued otherwise, that God needed to create so that the perfect love of his Son could be manifest in the redemptive act of the cross—but the doctrine of the Trinity, God’s inner community of love—affirms the perfect completeness of God, period. If you pause here and think about this paragraph and play it out in your head with two millennia of theologians, you will understand why foundational texts run to 800 pages or more.
The Catechism goes on to say in its very first paragraph that God’s creation of man was, and is, free. It underscores the mystery of a self-sufficient being involving Himself historically with creatures that are utterly dependent upon him. For those of us who attempt to absorb this, the process is psychological as much as theological, coming to grips with the harshest truth of all: we didn’t have to be, and we are beholden to a power greater than ourselves. This is almost verbatim the second step of the AA program, and it has always seemed to me that AA is way ahead of churches in conveying this foundational truth.
In my view prayer begins with both the intellectual and the affective acceptance of total dependence upon God. Prayer is at its roots a religious/psychological acceptance of understanding one’s true nature. Marriage is a good if incomplete analogy: as a married man most everything I do is impacted by the reality of my marriage, from spending money to allocation of time to maintenance of my morale to the good order of our common home. As often as not, my failures are those of omission as much as commission: overlooking chores, thoughtless flip comments, gratitude only randomly expressed (and missing recycling day, an all-too-common-omission).
The act of accepting a perfect God who is relational is a reordering of a human’s very conscious life itself, and the quality of that reordering is proportional to the number of times we remind ourselves. The act of praying begins to make more sense in this context. We are verbalizing or conceptualizing what we know to be true. In A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1994) John Meier contends that one of Jesus’ sayings with the high confidence of historical basis is precisely the core of what we know as the “Our Father.” This formulary is a direct response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray. One of the interesting points of the Our Father is its petition that “thy kingdom come.” In its earliest context this saying is probably a reference to the Second Coming and continues that meaning to the present day, though this is little discussed pastorally. But God’s kingdom is going to come—his ultimate purposes revealed—whether we pray for it to happen or not, in a manner that is out of our control. Thus, this is a phrase of acceptance, not petition; it is our acknowledgement of the “right ordering” of God whether we comprehend it or not.
Prayer from powerlessness is the basic religious stance. One of the most powerful examples of prayer is described in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews. He describes the spirituality of Jews in the Nazi death camps. In my review I wrote: “They died, he reports, in the confidence that their grim fates were in some mysterious way God's plan for his chosen ones to become that "light to the nations" proclaimed in Isaiah 60.”
Catechetically speaking, how does one teach this kind of prayer?
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