My day today has been spent preparing for a program tomorrow over in the Daytona Beach area, at a parish a little north of the city and inland from the ocean. The course is numbered 101, "Ministry and Catechesis," our diocese's introductory course to the track for certification in catechetics. Our Catholic school teachers are able to obtain credit toward renewal of their state teaching licenses by taking these courses as well. Looking at my roster, I have about a 50/50 mix of religious educators and school teachers. I am rather pleased with that, since I am always beating the drum for uniform competence. This is the first diocesan course of the fall, as well, and the group is small enough that we will have the time and the intimacy for serious discussion about the challenge of faith formation.
The diocese provides us instructors with reams of pages of course material; from this we cobble a personal outline that works to our strengths. Material, as such, is not a challenge, but I do wrestle with what I personally want to emphasize, particularly in our "100" series where the newbies chalk up their required courses before progressing to the 200 and 300 series.
I get a good number of questions from the students, most of which deal with the rather lackadaisical support of parents and the reality that many of their students do not attend Mass on Sundays. Some feel quite disengaged from other parts of their parishes, and a growing number in this part of Florida report the challenge of working smoothly with pastors from overseas. Fortunately I usually have national figures at my fingertips, so at least our local folks don't feel alone in their struggles. Whether they are comforted to learn that 24% of all Catholics attend Mass weekly is another matter entirely.
It will be interesting to see what this year's formation personnel bring to the table. The challenge will be to let them know the demands this ministry will call forth from them while at the same time infusing them with enthusiasm and pride in the path they have chosen to take.
My experience has been, over the years, that anyone who gives up a Saturday for an eight hour day with me is already armed with the moxie for ministry.
Start that coffee pot at sunrise. Pray for us.
Can the Church Change?
With the approach of the Synod and a number of moral issues in the public domain this summer, I hear of anguish, anger, and uncertainty among many who fear that Pope Francis might “sell the store” to make accommodations to various pastoral constituencies, notably those Catholics married outside the Church or those in same sex marriages. Today seemed like a good day to talk about the question of what is changeable and what is not in the life of the Church. I am indebted to the June 2015 issue of Theological Studies and an essay by T. Howland Sanks, S.J., “A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Dynamics of Tradition.” (76:2, June 2015, essay available for purchase here)
The basic issue at hand is the issue of “hierarchy of doctrines.” Are all teachings of the Church equally binding on the Catholic conscience? I would have to say that this statement would be the “official” response of the Church, certainly of the Catechism, based upon the structure of St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology that every act of a man should bring him closer to his eternal destiny with God. Thus the slightest deviation from the divine order of the cosmos is a grave moral question. I should add here, though, that discussions of hierarchy are more common in matters of morality and church order. There was much more discussion of rhythm and the pill than of the Real Presence in the Eucharist in say, 1960.
On the other hand, issues of Church change have been discussed by loyal Church academics, including saints, whose writings enjoy preeminence in most circles of Catholic thought. Sanks discusses three such theologians, the first being St. Vincent of Lerins, a monk from southern France whose Commonitorium is a product of his own years of reflection on the matter. Vincent wrote his main treatise after the Church Councils of Nicaea (325) and Ephesus (431), which had declared Jesus to be homoousios (or for Latins, consubstantial), of one substance with the Father, and that Mary was consequently the Mother of God.
Vincent believed both doctrines of these Councils, but he also recognized that neither of these teachings were taught in this conciliar form in the New Testament. This “development” prompted him to examine its strength and liabilities; he devoted himself to the study of what we might call a progression of doctrine and belief, specifically how we discern what is growth and new formulation from erroneous or even heretical ones. In doing so Vincent coined the classic Theology 101 phrase memorized by all new students of religious study, that the Catholic Faith is ”what was believed always, everywhere, and by everyone.” It was a satisfying formula adopted as a principle in manuals and textbooks for centuries, but it came under criticism as too simple. How did Latin Catholics know what Greek Catholics really believed in Vincent’s day, given the differences of language and mindset? Moreover, the definition was too static: it did not actually solve Vincent’s original dilemma of progression of Gospel to Creed. Vincent himself would write that “over time, growth undoubtedly occurs in Christian doctrine,” and he compared the Christian body of faith to a child growing into adulthood or a wheat seed coming to full maturity.
Vincent’s writing and thought survives to the present day (his feast is April 24), and his work came to the attention of St. John Newman, who in the 1840’s was still a priest and historian in the English Anglican Church. Newman was a key figure in the Oxford or Tractarian renewal of study of the Church Fathers and he himself translated Vincent’s Commonitorium, but he found Vincent’s foundational platform inadequate to present day discourse, living as he did in the age of Hegel and Darwin. For Newman, issues of development of doctrine and practice were very much on his mind: he believed Protestantism had jettisoned too much of the writings of the early Fathers, and Roman Catholicism had added too much to them. Newman saw his Anglican Church as “a middle way.”
Newman believed that Catholic doctrine had grown and developed over the centuries, and like Vincent, he attempted to explain the process. Unlike Vincent, Newman did not find novelty necessarily a fearful or dangerous thing, and he coined another theological maxim, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Where some would see heresy, Newman saw vitality, but he too needed to explain fidelity to origins. Among his analogies is that of the Christian Church receiving its revelation from God in the beginning, but only gradually coming to fuller awareness of its implications “until she had tried them out in life, in the world, in the gamut of heresy, and the gauntlet of philosophical onslaught.” Under such challenges, the Church would gain some aspect of an understanding of its doctrine not previously held in its consciousness. Newman goes on to explore the process of receiving doctrine by individuals, who generally grasp a broad outline first and then proceed to specifics, and applies this process to the Church’s understanding of what it has received in Apostolic times. Newman’s maxim on change was no idle theory: he himself converted to Catholicism and would become a Cardinal and a saint.
A very practical application of this discussion of change came to the floor of the Council Vatican II (1962-65) in the person of the French theologian and peritus or expert at the Council, Yves Congar. At the heart of the Council, Congar (and everyone else present, for that matter) sat through four years of debate on how the Church should reform itself. Congar proposed four criteria to discern the validity of change in teaching and practice in the Church: (1) a primacy of charity and pastoral concern; (2) unity and communion with the whole Church; (3) patience with delay; and (4) an honest and full assessment of the Church’s history of sources in the light of today’s circumstances and challenges. On this fourth point, for example, the reality of nuclear weapons renders much of what was called “”just war theory” obsolete, particularly in terms of noncombatants.
Speaking of change, Congar, incidentally, was a prisoner of war for five years during WWII. Upon his release, the Vatican censured his writings, primarily due to his views on ecumenism. John Paul II, on the other hand, made him a Cardinal.
The challenge of living a timeless faith in an ever-changing world has been with us since St. Paul and the Evangelists. It is probably no accident that the opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the ultimate paradox of a God who is “wholly other” involving himself in the creation and the history of the human experience. The Church, imperfectly but accurately, reflects this mystery till the end of time.
An Enduring Sorrow
We got the rain we had been hoping for—about an inch and a half at our home yesterday (Thursday). Unfortunately we got over two inches on the trail we were walking. We carry an emergency change of clothes for such dousing, but the element of chance here is that you can find a place to change…and after a Florida monsoon, you have to change everything. Fortunately we were on a local trail with good facilities and electric lights. I did have pause to consider the homeless, for whom decent public facilities must be a godsend. Stopping at various rest areas along I-95 and other interstates this summer, I would see signs forbidding shaving and bathing in the men’s rest rooms. I believe it was along the New Jersey Turnpike that a woman from another part of the world approached me on foot while I was filling my tank at the pump (I guess if it was Jersey, I was watching an “attendant” do it for me). I thought she would ask for money, but actually she was looking for directions to a major city far down the road. Her English was good enough that we could converse, and I explained that there was a staffed information booth inside the door. She indicated that she had no idea what was inside the service center. I explained that there was food, bathrooms, free maps as well as information. This surprised her, and she hurriedly headed to the glass doors and went in. I could not help but wonder about the circumstances that brought this intrepid traveler to this point on the Jersey Turnpike.
Poverty of all sorts will be with us until the end of time, precisely because it is fueled by two rock-bottom facts of life: nature is unpredictable and mankind is sinful. The idea that we will stamp out poverty under the reign of a particular pope or the leadership of a particular political movement is utopian. Here in Central Florida we are observing the anniversary of Hurricane Charley (August 14, 2004), the first of three hurricanes that struck this region in six weeks. Hurricanes of much greater intensity have caused more death, destruction, and personal disruption in many places; ironically, the existence of hurricanes is a planetary necessity, relocating intensive heat near the equator to the northern regions of our hemisphere.
While nature itself can be and is a cause of temporary or permanent poverty, the conduct of human beings, individually and communally, is an equal if greater cause of human suffering and want. Until the classic landmark decision Brown vs, the Topeka Board of Education (1954) black American children were segregated from the benefits of generally better equipped while school facilities. This pre-1954 state of affairs had many fathers: courts, local jurisdictions, and public sentiment. The substandard educations provided in many “black” schools effectively shut the door for advanced ambition and opportunity. Today there are countless reports of situations where, to use the old phrase, “the fix is in” and individuals, societies, and nations remain shut out of the necessities of life and the opportunity of competition.
One of the finest books I have read this year is Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. (2012). (See my review at book’s site.) Thompson, a Dominican friar and scholar, developed his biography by isolating the factual and historical writings of Francis’s own time from the interpretations already beginning to appear in his lifetime, including from his own hand. I was struck by the fact that (1) Francis’ earliest post conversion desire was to live alone as a hermit; (2) that his initial spiritual impulse was repentance of and penance for his sins, and (3) that for Francis, at least, the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were not his natural categories of thought, but rather the full imitation of Christ as revealed in the Gospels.
Modern scholarship has uncovered a vast number of brotherhoods and sisterhoods in the medieval era who resembled the troop with St. Francis, groups living at the margins of urban life in great simplicity. Their motivation was penitential. We forget that one of the main preoccupations of the Medieval Church, in fact, was life after death and eternal destiny. In 1095, just before Francis appeared on the scene, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade with the promise of a plenary indulgence for anyone who took up the cross (and the sword) to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, meaning that any post-confession punishments in Purgatory would be absolved.
Thus Francis and his followers, whom he did not actively recruit (“and the Lord sent me brothers…”) lived a life of poverty, and while they shared their countrymen’s hope of redemption after the grave, they could not help but notice the theme of poverty that runs through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Francis paid keen attention to Jesus’s instruction to sell all in order to follow Jesus more closely. Francis feared that possessions would distract from the brothers’ true call: he embraced what I would call a “practical poverty,” a means to an end.
Francis was not a social worker. His works of charity for lepers and others were evangelical, signs of God’s love for the most unfortunate. Such works focused Francis himself on the reality of his bond with Christ. In today’s language, we would say he saw Christ in every suffering soul, but he saw that living a poor life himself would make him ever mindful of what he preached.
Again, Francis never saw the friars as eradicators of poverty. He was wise enough to understand that a total abandonment to the task of alleviating poverty would destroy the soul and the psyche first because of the pride involved and eventually because of poverty's endlessness. Consequently he budgeted the priorities of the friars’ time, with prayer—notably the Eucharist and the Divine Office—the care of churches, preaching, fraternity, the richness of nature, poetry—creating the template for the next generation of friars to live among the next generation of the poor. Francis, the man who embraced a life of sorrow for sin, knew that sinners of the next generation and the fruits of their sins would guarantee that “the poor are always among us.”
Yesterday (Thursday) I posted early in the morning and then went out for a hike with my wife Margaret on our Thursday Date Day. We were on a six-mile trail in Flagler County, Florida, a new trail for us, and we were about halfway out when we encountered—are you ready for this?—a wild boar. We often see alligators in the wild, a rare deer, no rattlesnakes to date, but this was a first. We stood absolutely still, and the creature continued on his way and disappeared into a palmetto woods. Later, in McDonald’s, Margaret googled up some info and discovered that wild pigs kill on average five Americans annually. I didn’t see that posted at the ranger station with all the pictures of the pretty birds.
Tonight we are hosting our small faith group, so I will be brief (I know you’ve heard that before) but I have been seeing and hearing some concern of late about a supposed change in the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Just a few days ago the Pope urged priests to extend warmth and sensitivity to couples married outside the Church. News stories quickly follow that “no doctrines will be changed,” but there seems to be a lot of unrest that Catholicism is on the verge of losing its soul and succumbing to the compromises of the modern world.
I think that a great deal of Catholic angst about the sacrament of marriage is brought about by a lack of understanding of the sacrament itself, what Jesus and later church leaders would teach and practice, and to ignorance of Church or Canon Law on the subject of marriage. The best summary of the Catholic marriage tradition remains that of Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, which remains the best one-volume treatment in English for those looking for a thorough treatment. Martos and other scholars believe that the Christian Church left the procedures of marriage to the Roman Empire until the Western Empire dissolved and could no longer maintain civic order, and around 500 A.D. Christian clerics began to assume the office of performing marriages and establishing family law. So, for the first five centuries after Christ—and probably longer in various regions—Christians wedded and bedded by the authority of Roman civil servants, and continued to receive the Eucharist.
St. Augustine (d. 420) was the first Church theologian to speak of an invisible “marriage bond.” But Church practice on the matter of marriage and divorce was not uniform. An Irish confessor’s guide written during the Dark Ages instructed that “if one spouse allowed the other to enter the service of God in a monastery or convent, he or she is free to remarry.” Around the time of Charlemagne the clergy was charged with examining couples prior to marriage, looking for such matters as blood relationship, previous marriage, family arrangement and coercion, for example. Popes of the day argued that only consent was necessary for make a marriage, but Germanic tribal law prevailed, that a marriage must also be consummated to be truly legitimate. Today’s Canon Law works from this Germanic principle, though with obvious exceptions.
By 1000 A.D. all marriages in Western Christian lands fell under the aegis of the Church. By the twelfth century a formal ceremonial came into use by a priest or bishop celebrating a marriage, along with the practice of a nuptial Mass. At just this time, however, the science of Canon Law was coming into its own, and because of the connection of marriage to property, dowries, political connection of dynasties and principalities the technical side of the marriage vow, as well as divorce and remarriage, came under highly technical scrutiny. By the thirteenth century, under the influence of Pope Alexander III and his successors, canonists established that a marriage bond could be broken only if it could be proven that the marriage was nonexistent. A marriage could be declared non-existent if it had not been consummated. This is the principle of the modern annulment, though much later such issues as psychological incapacity, moral depravity, or force and fear at the time of the marriage vows could also serve as grounds that a true marriage had never really taken place.
Interestingly, some of the greatest minds of the medieval Church did not believe that marriage was a sacrament. Peter Lombard considered marriage “a sign of something sacred but not a cause of grace.” One problem was the dowry: its payment at the time of marriage looked to theologians like a purchase of sacramental grace. But as medieval thought evolved, its scholars were divided on the purposes of marriages: more optimistic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas celebrated the procreational nature of marriage as enriching Church society. But the Franciscan John Duns Scotus was representative of some other strains of thought we might find peculiar today. For Scotus, intercourse in marriage was appropriate not just for the begetting of children, but for protecting the marriage bond, in that a wife’s submission to her husband’s needs kept him from serious sexual sins outside the home. Scotus, however, was the first Catholic theologian to teach that the couple administers this sacrament to each other, with the priest serving as official witness; this is our contemporary understanding.
Needless to say, the Church’s difficulties in modern times have hardly decreased. Napoleon decreed, for example, that all marriages would be civil. What of the countless number of couples married in those uncertain times? I bring all of this for your consideration to put the present day pastoral considerations of Pope Francis in a more congenial light. He stands in a long line of saints, popes, theologians and ministers who have attempted to protect the reality of Christian marriage in its integrity and absolute necessity in the Church. The idea that he is “playing with fire” in opening discussion about pastoral and legal practice involving those whose marriages have already failed is quite a stretch, given all that has gone before him. If anything, I trust him at the end of the day to give us a model of the marriage sacrament that upholds the ideal while tending to human weakness. Which is what we do every day.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything