NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 13: 1-9 LINK TO USCCB ALL THREE READINGS
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them--
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”
The Lectionary of the Lenten Season provides a bit of a challenge here for those of us who prepare during the week, because parishes and congregations have options regarding the Lenten Gospels of weeks three, four, and five. In the A Cycle the Church assigns three masterful compositions of conversion from the Gospel of John (the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.) These three texts are intimately connected to the RCIA and the preparation of the catechumens for baptism. The liturgical guidelines indicate that these three readings from St. John may replace the Gospels of the B and C cycles “especially in places where there are catechumens.” Hopefully, that would be most parishes. However, in checking with my own diocese I see that the regular B and C Cycle Gospels are used except at the parish Mass where the “scrutinies” of the catechumens take place. So, if you happen to attend that Mass in your parish schedule, be prepared for the Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well, she of the five husbands fame.
The rest of us will be presented with Cycle C’s Lukan reading, which might be titled “when bad things happen to average people.” This is an intriguing piece, and it is tempting to take our eyes off the bigger picture to the rather vivid account of local violence. Joel Green reflects that some interpreters have read the account of Pilate’s misdeed as a test to see if Jesus is pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary. (513ff) Jesus’ own citing of a collapsing tower tends to put this text in the greater horizon of the need to repent.
Think back a moment to the healing of the man born blind in St. John’s Gospel, where the disciples open the narrative with the question of whose sin caused the blindness, the blind man’s, or his parents? There was, Green observes, a certain arrogance of the times that bad things happen to bad people. In truth I suspect that this is still a commonly held belief—that all poor people just need to work harder, for example. For much of my lifetime the New York Times would include in its obituaries of famous people who died of cancer that they were “heavy smokers.”
This particular text is better understood with geography in mind. Jesus is himself a Galilean (Luke 1 and 2), and the ugly hand of Pilate’s abuses had extended into his home setting. Midway through his Gospel, Luke reports that Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” where his final act, submission to crucifixion under the auspices of this same Pilate, is even more undeserved than the fate of eighteen bystanders killed by a falling tower. Crucifixion—as a means of capital punishment—was reserved for the worst of the worst. That this fate was to befall Jesus was a scandal to his followers and evidence to his enemies that indeed Jesus was Beelzebub, the devil incarnate. Thus the confusion among Jesus’ followers on Easter and beyond. For our purposes here, Jesus will reaffirm redemptive suffering. Suffering is not a curse but the common lot of man, all of whom stand in need of redemption and conversion. Those of us who have dodged bullets in this life can never disengage ourselves from the wounded.
In fact, the lucky ones should consider themselves so due solely to God’s mercy. This is the point of the second part of the passage, the unfruitful tree. There is a Syrian tale of a failed tree which is quite similar to Luke’s narrative, except for one point: The Syrian farmer follows accepted farming practices of the time and roots out the tree as soon as it peters out. In Luke’s narrative the owner-farmer was inclined to do the same, as the tree had not produced anything in three years. (Is this a parallel to the people who heard Jesus during his three-year ministry?) The gardener, however, implores the master to give the tree one more year. He explains that maybe better treatment and feeding might restore the tree to fruitfulness. Both men are demonstrating extraordinary patience with a tree that most would have abandoned two years ago.
Luke’s intent throughout his Gospel is to connect good preaching with bearing good fruit. One cannot hear the Word of God without a change to productive behavior. We do not find out exactly what happens to this tree in the text, though one thing is certain: if one year later the tree is not producing good figs, both the master and the gardener are in agreement that the tree be cut down.
Luke’s purposes here do not include explaining the problem of evil; why Jesus’ listeners surround him in good health while their confreres in Jerusalem are killed in the market pursuing business as they should to feed their families. If Luke were alive today, I guess he would say that God loved us so much that he gave up all to join us in what so often looks like a rigged card game.
I received word on Monday night that one of our regular blog readers, Bill, died last week after a long and painful illness. Bill had written to me about a month ago. His favorite page was the Tuesday Gospel post. He said that to keep himself focused and spiritually enriched, as well as to manage his pain, he was translating the New Testament from its original Greek to English. We were high school and college classmates.
I have to cut my desk time early today as I am shortly on my way to the Chancery. No, I'm not in any trouble that I know of. Actually, my "handler" in our catechist training program, Mike, retired a few weeks ago. For nine years I drove him crazy with my idiosyncrasies of content and paperwork. Today I meet his successor to explain that not everything he has heard about me is true.
I didn't have an opportunity to bake something fresh, so I am dipping into my archives. In about two weeks we will be addressing moral theology on a weekly basis, with the aid of a new text, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century by James F. Keenan. I reviewed a similar work in 2010, Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History by Father Charles Curran. No one went through an American Catholic seminary after the Council without exposure to Father Curran and his method. As I note in the review, he eventually was forced to give up his teaching position at Catholic University and has been teaching at Southern Methodist University for decades. I had some criticism of his method. However, I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis is in the process of reassessing the way that moralists do their work, notably in his encyclical Laudato Si, in a fashion that redeems some the best thinking of the twentieth century pioneers.
This is what I sounded like six years ago:
Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History
Charles E Curran
Here is a situation where the author's place in history demands equal attention to the subject of his book. Father Charles E Curran, a Rochester, New York priest, possesses for better or worse probably the highest visibility of any Catholic academic on the subject of moral theology in the United States. His enemies are many, but the fact is that the author did not invent "the new Catholic morality" (Bernard Haring and Josef Fuchs preceded the author by nearly a generation]; nor did Father Curran instigate the use of artificial contraception among Catholics in the United States (local priests and their parishioners addressed this in the privacy of confession long before the events of the late 1960s.) Father Curran’s claim to fame or infamy is the matter of his academic research, public visibility, and, at the end of the day, his fifty year crusade that papal teachings on moral issues in the Church be subjected to the same academic scrutiny as all disciplines of sacred theology.
So, there will be some who discard this book simply because of the name Curran. Whatever one thinks of the man’s theological approach, in fact, this book has many things to commend it. The first third of the work examines the state of moral theology in the United States prior to 1962, the convocation of Vatican II. Students of moral theology will recognize immediately that the primary sources of Catholic moral teaching were the "manuals," the Latin declination of moral acts by significance and consequence, written primarily for confessors. United States pastoral practice generally followed European lead, in part because of an absence of major seminaries in America. Curran makes the point on several occasions that only in recent decades, in fact, has moral theology moved out of seminary settings. Catholic University in Washington DC. was not established till the 1880’s. Early American moralists and/or commentators were generally native Europeans, such as Tanqueray, Bouquillon, and Francis Patrick Kenrick. It is worth noting that the papal condemnation of “Americanism”  was not related to specific issues of moral theology but to pastoral questions of enculturation.
Major shifts in American Catholic moral studies developed gradually after World War II, as American priests like the author himself studied in Europe and discovered a new theological gestalt, spurred by renewed scriptural, historical, liturgical, and psychological influences. Haring's classic work, “The Law of Christ”, is that type of postwar moral writing that attempted to bridge the legalities of the manuals with scriptural rebirth and renewal. This brings us into the second section of this work, which parallels the rise and fall of Father Curran, so to speak. I suspect that a large number of readers have a general outline of the controversy surrounding Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” in 1968, reaffirming the Catholic Church's long-standing prohibition of artificial contraception.
The author, situated as he was at Ground Zero for US reaction, the Catholic University of America itself, gave voice and face to wholesale academic and pastoral opposition to the Pope's teaching. Thus, for this critical juncture, the author is essentially writing about himself, proudly and a touch arrogantly at times. In fairness, Father Curran and his colleagues raised valid points about this and other moral teachings that still hobble Catholic morality. The author objected to the Church's overemphasis upon physicalism and narrow definition of natural law, the rather indiscriminate use of the term "grave matter", and the apparent absence of any recognition of sensus fidelium or moral sense of the faithful. Father Curran continued to address other defined moral teachings throughout the tenure of Pope Paul VI. John Paul II, however, had less tolerance for dissent and established fidelity to traditional moral teaching as a primary means of reestablishing church unity. Father Curran was discharged from Catholic University and relocated his moral teaching and research to Southern Methodist University, remaining a Catholic priest in good standing (a point frequently overlooked by his naysayers).
This second portion of the book also highlights the work of Father Richard McCormick, S.J., who for about two decades reviewed English-language writings in Catholic moral theology in the Jesuit journal “Theological Studies.” Not surprisingly, the author makes use of Father McCormick’s reviews, as well as the latter's own emerging theological ideology, as a primary source for the 1970 and 1980 material. This was an era when moral theology was still redefining itself after the birth control controversy and attempting to flesh out the implications of the Council's teachings on social justice.
Father McCormick's “Theological Notes" came to an end, however, as by the late 1980s new theologians emerged from graduate schools and universities, not seminaries, and the majority of professional moral theologians were no longer clerics, but lay men and women. Father Curran observes that moral theology has diversified in so many ways in the past generation that a project like "Theological Notes" is no longer possible. In his final segment, Father Curran attempts to at least sample the more recent theological controversies, such as matters of stem cell research, international relations and economics, medical care and availability, etc.
It is in this section that the author engages in overindulgence that has marred some of his other later works as well. Specifically, he pays particular attention to the subjective stance of the moralist: he is fond of teasing out the implications of moral theology undertaken by women, a plethora of minorities, members of economic substrata, and the like. This is a methodological concern that at some point will evolve into hopeless paralysis, and would put moral theology outside of the mission of Christian unity in my view. By the end of this work, the reader feels as if he has just witnessed the Big Bang, watching various strands of moral scholarship heading in infinite directions. I suspect this actually reflects Father Curran's personal sense as he looks back over the explosion that has become in fact moral theology in the United States over his lifetime.
Editor’s Note: There are a number of links to Lenten spirituality sources posted on last Sunday’s blog site. God bless us all this Ash Wednesday.
I was curious about what’s going on in the Church this Ash Wednesday, so I did some pure internet searching and found some intriguing posts.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis is holding all-day free confidential consultations with its Tribunal Canon lawyers for anyone wishing to discuss his or her current marital status and reconciliation with the Church.
Here is the official chancery posting.
If you go to confession on Ash Wednesday, and you are not sure what to confess, the Diocese of San Diego certainly spells it out with the precision of an IRS form. Have you pirated materials: videos, music, software? Have you plagiarized or been academically dishonest? Have you had any involvement with the occult, witchcraft, Wicca, Ouija boards, séances, tarot cards, new age crystals, fortune telling, or the like? (Consulted my portfolio advisor?) Have you put faith in horoscopes? Anyway, here they are for you to cut out and bring to the box. Something tells me that this isn’t exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he addressed the confessors of the world a few days ago on how to reach out during this Year of Mercy, but there’s always someone who doesn’t get the email. Or, the webmaster hasn’t updated the site yet. I can understand that.
If you are looking for an examination of conscience for your parish or diocese, the Archbishop of Atlanta is evaluating its parishes with a questionnaire based upon “benchmarks.” I was the 225th person to download the Adobe document, which has been available on-line since May, 2015. My main objection to such surveys is that the results are never posted online. Historically, such polling is a precursor to parish realignments and closings, and the final determinations are financially driven at the end of the day.
The Holy Year page of the Diocese of Pensacola/Tallahassee is the only one I have seen to reference Pope Boniface VIII as the first pontiff to declare a Jubilee year or Holy Year. This is historically accurate but a bit less inspiring than our present year. Boniface VIII’s mandate included the condition that participants must actually visit the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul for fifteen successive days to gain the cherished indulgence. Some historians believe that the expected financial gifts proffered by pilgrims (including Dante, by some accounts, who put Boniface in the Eighth Circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy) were solicited to strengthen the pope’s hand in his dealings with Phillip IV of France.
For certain, Boniface is remembered for his Encyclical Unam Sanctam (1302), famous for the line “It is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Although unenforceable even during his reign, the claim lingered on until it was formally put to rest at Vatican II in its declaration of freedom of conscience.
I need to cut out early today for the noon Ash Wednesday service here in town, so I will be back tomorrow with our Thursday reflection on the Catechism. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I regret that a very full schedule today has made it impossible to post intelligently. I know that hasn't stopped me before, but today I beg your indulgence and I will be back tomorrow for Thursday's discussion of the Catechism. By the way, what color tie is appropriate for a Confirmation Mass tonight?