I changed the title of Friday’s blog series to “Wild Card Friday,” which in effect it was becoming anyway. Near my house there recently opened an expressway spur to Disney and Tampa; the posted speed limit was 65 mph, but the D.O.T. upped the limit to 70 mph on the grounds that “everybody does 70 anyway,” an approach to government that might have interesting implications on other areas such as drug laws and penalties for offensive holding in the NFL. In my case, no consistent theme line has emerged in almost a year, so Fridays will be my (and your) opportunities to put anything on the table.
I have a couple of sticky-notes here on my computer terminal. One says “bishops meeting” and the other “Lutheran communion.” If I indulge myself in the first one I’ll just get angry and my day will be spoiled. Our United States bishops met in Baltimore this week and among other things produced a 32-page document stating that pornography is a mortal sin. The main achievement of the meeting was the approval of an updated “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a guide to voters issued before every presidential election. Actually this is the 2007 text with a new introduction. The Bishop of San Diego stirred the meeting some when he pointed out that this is not 2007 and that new issues and difficulties need to be addressed—as in, “we have a new pope” who was just here weeks ago with some timely approaches to preaching and emphases. Commentators noted the beginnings of new alignments within the conference between “John Paul II bishops” and “Francis bishops.” Again I return to my quote from Pius XI in 1925 that only a few learned men read church documents. I make my annual donation to the Sierra Club in November to replenish the trees.
The “Lutheran communion” note to myself involves a somewhat involved question-and-answer session during a papal ecumenical visit to an Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Rome last Sunday. National Catholic Reporter seems to have the most detailed account of an exchange between Pope Francis and a Lutheran woman who expressed to him her frustration that as a Lutheran she could not receive the Eucharist with her husband. The pope responded in a lengthy and metaphorical excursus and, at the end, seemed to indicate that that not even he himself could presume on the woman’s conscience in her decision of whether or not to receive Catholic Eucharist.
I suggest you read the actual exchange liked above, because it reveals a great deal about the Pope, how he thinks, how he expresses himself, and what his own inclination and prejudices may be. In the exchange here it seems to me that the Pope is more than a little burned out with the verbal bureaucracy of the Church, particularly the part he sees each day. There is considerable humor in his comment to the young boy that he dislikes protocol, but particularly telling is his like for children, as they “don’t make up questions in the air.”
This then raises the issue of who does make up the “questions in the air” that seem to annoy him. The context of the Lutheran woman’s question may give us a clue. The Pope has recently concluded an arduous three-week synod on the family where there was a great deal of legal fussing and fighting about who can and cannot receive communion without harm to the legal concept of the marriage bond. As a papal encyclical summarizing the Synod is expected, it would not be preposterous to suppose that some of this wrangling continues in the composition of the draft. I did research this morning from a number of Canon Law sites (most independent of official Church entities), and the certainty and arrogance of some of them is truly stunning, essentially equating the 1983 Code (in use at the present time) with Holy Writ, which it is not.
The Canon in play during the Pope’s conversation is 844, which addresses if and when baptized Christians of other traditions may receive Catholic Communion, and vice versa. This is a very lengthy theological and canonical discussion that we probably don’t need on a Friday afternoon. Suffice to say that Pope John Paul II called for the strictest interpretation limiting interfaith communion (or communio in sacris); in the late 1990’s you may have noticed the socially peculiar “non-invitation” statement of Holy Communion reception in missalettes and hymnals. The concern of the official Church at that time was the danger of casual intercommunion without full understanding of the commitment involved.
Francis, on the other hand, takes a different approach to aspects of Church Law and structure. “Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always make reference to Baptism.” These were his words to the Lutheran woman, his Lutheran hosts, and certainly to Catholics at large. As he has throughout his reign Pope Francis has striven for a return to the basics of faith: Baptismal identity, prayer and good works, particularly on behalf of God’s poor. He is not overturning the importance of creedal identity (Catholic vis-à-vis Lutheran) nor is he calling for bonfires for texts and directives. But he is centering the Church again on basic priorities and attitudes. It was Jesus himself who taught that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and from what I read a goodly number of Catholics need to be reminded of that.
Something that fascinates me is that the Pope gave an example of a solution he knew about, an Episcopal bishop who celebrated his tradition's Eucharist with his own assembly and then attended Roman Catholic Mass with his wife and children. Francis commented that “this was a way of participation in the Lord’s Supper [for the couple].” And, he never gave a direct answer to the woman, either, indicating that whatever her decision she needed to make it in an honest fashion in conversation with her God.
If the amount of hammering that Francis is presently enduring from the Catholic right about this and a number of other of his pastoral directives is any indication, we as a Church are not used to this depth of intimate decision-making with God. It would seem there is a thirst for certitude and direction, a love of the black-and-white that is often mistaken for true religion. Ironically it was the Lutheran reformation of the 1500’s that emphasized the “here I stand” of Christian existence. With the Feast of Christ the King this weekend, we reflect upon judgment before God as a matter of degree: how much did you love? How to drive a lawyer crazy.
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
“I BELIEVE” — “WE BELIEVE”
26 We begin our profession of faith by saying: “I believe” or “We believe.” Before expounding the Church’s faith, as confessed in the Creed, celebrated in the liturgy, and lived in observance of God’s commandments and in prayer, we must first ask what “to believe” means. Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life. Thus we shall consider first that search (Chapter One), then the divine Revelation by which God comes to meet man (Chapter Two), and finally the response of faith (Chapter Three).
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And so we begin the “doctrinal” journal through the Catechism with a statement of priorities, the most critical one—not surprisingly—being man’s ability to comprehend and embrace God in the act we call “faith.” The Catechism, as a Church teaching text, begins with the understanding that there is indeed a God, a personal God at that. The mystery of para. 26 is the nature of man’s response to God, the miracle of faith. If the Catechism was a free-standing theological exposition of belief for a world audience of all peoples, it would have needed to address what we called in school “the God question.” Paras. 31-34 will address “ways of coming to know God,” but again the assumption in the texts is the very existence of God; the Catechism’s interest here is in Christian anthropology—how human beings, by natural and supernatural means, comes to embrace the living and saving God.
Those very qualities of God, however—supernatural, living, saving—are the qualities of a God who is. The presupposition of the Catechism—all religious activity, actually—is the very existence of the divine. If the idea of atheism is coming into your head, I would agree that there are a lot of individuals who hold steadfastly to the hypothesis that there is no God. Their organized persistence at it takes on some of the trappings of religion itself in some settings. The point here, though, is the pronounced rejection of an all-powerful being.
I do not believe that atheism is a major challenge to “organized” religion, and certainly not to Roman Catholicism. In fact, the philosophers of atheism today continue to raise the kinds of questions Catholics should be asking. I came across an “atheist take” on the “God question” spanning two millennia. Epicurus (d. 270 BC) is credited with the first expounding of the problem of evil. David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779 AD) cited Epicurus in stating the argument as a series of questions: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
Once you get past the queasy feeling about asking probing questions of the deity, both Epicurus and Hume summarize the more critical “God question” that we hope the Catechism can address in a convincing way: the nature of evil. Interestingly several Biblical authors do something of the same thing. Most notably, in the second creation account in Genesis, the author(s) describe Eve’s encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden. “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” In contradiction to the good nuns who taught me that the serpent was actually the devil in reptilian clothing, the Biblical texts of creation and early history make no mention of outside forces of evil.
I suspect that a significant majority of Catholics believe in God, but that under close scrutiny this belief is very similar to the Deist belief of many of our American Founding Fathers, who readily acknowledged God as the first cause, the being who made the master watch and established its multiple mechanics (with an assist, perhaps, from Sir Isaac Newton, among others), wound it good and tight, and then stepped back to let life on earth and throughout the cosmos play out its course. However, there is a sizeable minority of Catholics—and all thoughtful people of good will—who behold this world’s evil in microcosmic or macrocosmic ways, and who labor to reconcile the brutality of humanity with God’s “job description.” This struggle with God is not atheism; in fact, those who wrestle with doubts about God’s role manifest true faith in things unseen, attempting the purposeful reconciliation of God’s wisdom and goodness with suffering on a planetary scale.
Because I read a great deal of history, I have become aware over the years of the sheer immensity of fatalities and sufferings from wars limited just to the twentieth century. As a religion teacher I have studied the Holocaust in great detail, numbers and facts dwarfed by individual stories and some magnificent works of art, such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank. More recently in time I have followed the coverage of the Catholic priest scandal, first in Boston and then around the country. (The Boston story is the subject of the new movie, “Spotlight;” its trailer is here.) And in my own life, my stepson was killed 14 years ago by a drunk driver.
I can honestly say that I never “lost my faith.” At some level I knew, in that irrational way, that there is a God whose ways I don’t understand, despite a lifetime of reflection. But the contemporary daily carnage of cruelties, starvation, relocations, and the inability of us humans to work out our issues between one another has always been the Achilles heel of my faith: how the plan of a good God has so much wreckage along the way. Paragraph 26 promises that its successive entries on faith will address our interactive life with God, who “reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life.” Hopefully, there will be equal time and equal help for those seeking the ultimate meaning of God’s life and purpose as well. To seek discovery in the one we love is the fruit of desire, not arrogance.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything