Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Confession Lines

Hey Catholics! I just wanted to remind you about the proper way to go through a confession line. A confession line ought to be set up like this:

NOT like this:

And NOT like this:

And certainly NOT like this:

Really. It is not that hard.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cardinal Pell, Richard Dawkins, Adam & Eve

I have been reflecting on the now infamous debate between Cardinal Pell and Richard Dawkins that took place on April 9th, trying to find some positive spin to put on it, thinking that perhaps the reports were skewering the truth or that there was some fundamental misunderstanding of the Cardinal's words. But there wasn't, and there isn't any positive spin. It was a debacle. To put it frankly, Cardinal Pell has made Catholics look like idiots.

In case you may not know what I am referring to, Cardinal George Pell of Australia recently agreed to an online debate with famous atheist Richard Dawkins. Basically, Dawkins dominated the terms of the debate and kept Pell on the defensive. Pell, perhaps trying to sound sophisticated or philosophical, hemmed and hawed on several important points of Catholic doctrine; he stated that atheists could go to heaven (not atheists who convert, mind you, but atheists qua atheists), stated his adherence to Balthasar's doctrine that hell exists but is "probably" empty, and then, in the most discussed aspect of the evening's discussion, went on to explain that Adam and Eve were entirely mythological and affirmed his belief that mankind was the product of evolution.

Pell admitted that human beings "probably" evolved, which earned him a round of applause from the audience. At this point, Tony Jones, the moderator, asked a very reasonable question: "But you accept that humans evolved from non-humans, so at what point did the soul come about?”

Cardinal Pell responded: “The Soul is the principle of life. Whenever the soul was able to communicate then we had the first human. But if there are humans, there must be a first one.” By the way, this is essentially the position that Benedict XVI took when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote that "matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit...spirit is created and is not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development" in a 1973 essay on Creation (see here).

Jones: “Are you suggesting a sort of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?”

“Well Adam and Eve are terms that mean ‘life’ and ‘earth’. Like an Everyman. It’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science. But it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and universe. Secondly that the key to the whole universe is humans. And thirdly it’s a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world….It’s a religious story told for religious purposes.”

Now Richard Dawkins, who proved himself more astute than Pell in seeing the implications of Pell's denial of a historic Adam and Eve, retorted with this question: “Ah, well, I’m curious to know, if Adam and Eve never existed where did Original Sin come from?” It's painful to watch the Cardinal's sullen, silent expression after this question. He is unable to come up with any answer.

Dawkins is spot on here: No original parents, no original sin. No original sin, no explanation for sin in the world. No explanation for sin, no need for a savior. Christianity, apart from the reality of original sin, does not make any sense. It's a shame that Dawkins understands this better than the Cardinal. That is very troubling.

What is equally troubling is that the Cardinal does not seem aware of Pius XII's teaching in Humani Generis. In that encyclical, Pius XII specifically condemns the opinion known as polygenism, which is the belief that Adam "represents a number of first parents." The pope states:

"When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own" (HG, 37).

Notice that the very reason why Pius XII condemns this opinion is because of the objection that Dawkins brings up - original sin. Belief in original sin necessitates belief in first parents, and "a sin actually committed by an individual Adam," as Pius XII teaches. As much appalling as it is that an atheist understands the coherence of Catholic truths better than a Cardinal, I think it is even more appalling that the Cardinal either deviates from the clear teaching of Pius XII or else appears ignorant of it. I do not presume to judge the reason for the Cardinal's statements other than to say that they were unacceptable.

Some have come forward and tried to save original sin in spite of a denial of a historic Adam. For example, Michael Potemra of the National Review made the following argument:

"The fact of the existence of Original Sin does not depend on the historical existence of Adam and Eve. To say that it does seems to me the equivalent of declaring that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was not, in fact, responsible for the Great Chicago Fire, then the Great Chicago Fire must not have happened at all. Original Sin is a fundamental choice in which man declares his prideful rebellion against God, and we see that choice in our own hearts" (source).

The problem with this thinking is that Potemra is stating that original sin is basically the existence of sinful tendencies within every man in the present without any account for its origin. Let's follow Mr. Potemra's line of thinking here - so, we need not have an historic Adam because the sinful desires we have in our own hearts prove original sin. Okay, so, where do these sinful desires come from then? Potemra has already ruled out a historic Adam who introduced sin into humanity. What is the genesis of sin, then?

Presumably, the only answer is that Original Sin is "part of human nature", something inherent in every human being and that we all experience intimately in our own hearts. I think this is what Potemra is getting at. Unfortunately, it is not theologically viable explanation. Despite the common parlance that sin and evil are "part of human nature", Christianity tells us that, no, they are not part of our nature. Our nature was created in a state of harmony with God, in a state of natural perfection. Sin was not part of man's nature. To say otherwise is to say that God created sin, and to say that man's current state is the one God envisions for him. This is untenable for a Christian.

One could say that the Chicago Fire can be accounted for without Mrs. O'Leary's cow, but one must admit that the Chicago Fire had some cause. To apply Potemra's logic to the Chicago Fire, we would have to say that we don't need to hypothesize a historical cause for the fire in the past because it is in the nature of cities to burn, and just because the present city is on fire does not mean that that fire had a historical origin. Utter nonsense. The presence of an effect in the present implies a cause in the past, and that cause if either God or man. And to say it is God would be the heresy of stating that God created evil and sin. We are left, therefore, with a first sin committed by man.

If our leaders are going to take the approach of trying to look sophisticated to impress atheists and secularists, they'd better just knock it off. The true tragedy of this was summed up in a great article in the Remnant:

"A few million viewers of the Pell-Dawkins debate walked away wondering since when have Catholics become so eager to debunk their own Scriptures and discard their own theology. Outright enemies of the Catholic Faith couldn’t invent more expedient ways to baffle (and thus alienate) non-believers than those the Modernist leaders of the Catholic Church have come up with all on their own."

This dialogue probably should not have happened; Cardinal Pell could have done more for the world and the Church had he spent that hour in Adoration praying for the conversion of poor sinners. It reminds me of a story I have referenced elsewhere in the life St. Louis IX. Apparently, a discussion panel had been set up by a local abbot between some rabbis and some monks to debate the Christian faith. After the rabbis said something amiss against Christ and the Virgin Mary, an knight watching the debate struck the rabbi. The abbot rebuked the knight, but the knight had an interesting retort:

"The abbot went up to the knight and told him he had acted most unwisely. The knight retorted that the abbot had been guilty of even greater folly in calling people together for such a conference, because there were many good Christians there who, before the discussion ended, would have gone away with doubts about their own religion through not fully understanding the Jews."

It is good to have dialogue for the purpose of defending our faith and giving an answer to the heathen. But if the result of the debate is going to be that Christians go away more confused than before, then it becomes folly. Trying to present sophisticated, modern interpretations of the Faith that explain away or mythologize the Scriptures do not help Catholics strengthen their faith; it simply confuses them and makes us look like idiots.

Knock it off, Cardinal Pell!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

JustFaith and Fr. Richard Rohr

We have written elsewhere on this blog about the dangers of the JustFaith program, how its theology is fundamentally anti-Catholic and actually is a front for Marxist liberation theology. This time we will look at the teachings of the dissenting priest Fr. Richard Rohr and how they are incorporated into the JustFaith program.

The first half of week nine of the JustFaith program spends 50 minutes listening to Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has built a small New Age empire around books and talks on subjects ranging from the Enneagram, the Cosmic Jesus, Liberation Theology, and the Men’s Movement. Titled “Portrait of a Radical,” this talk seems to be a surprising detour. There is nothing in it about social justice other than a passing comment that even peace and justice activists can be happy because it’s not their job to save the world – it’s God’s.

That’s a true enough point, but it’s unlikely that’s all the JustFaith participants are meant to take from the talk. The facilitator materials, describing “Portrait of a Radical” as an attempt “to draw the viewer into a space where Jesus can be seen from the perspective of his radical, compassionate, and inclusive teachings,” clarifies the intention of the JustFaith program to leave the participant with additional messages, which are confirmed in follow-up questions: “How did this representation of Jesus’ ministry add to…understanding of Jesus as a person? As the Son of God?” (pg. 4, JustFaith facilitator’s materials, week 9: 2011-12)

Rohr’s talk is largely a challenge to the institutional church, what he dubs “managed” religion. Jesus, he says, has been largely misunderstood by European Christendom. “In so many ways, it didn’t matter what He [Jesus] said; it’s what we wanted Him to say and many people really thought He said these things that they presumed they wanted Him to say.” Rohr wants to get us back to the honest, Jewish Jesus so we can get away from dealing with Jesus as “the divine savior of our denomination.”

The Bible, according to Rohr, moves us from a violent, angry, “toxic” God demanding to be placated with human – and later with animal substitutions – blood to a God who has taken away human shame about being naked and unworthy. Far from demanding our blood, Rohr says, we are confronted with “the most  extraordinary turn-around in the history of religion – God spilling [His own] blood to get to us.”

“But how do you give away God?” Rohr asks. Nobody wants Him; He’s too frightening. Yet, God could not be content to be a theology, which we’d like because we can argue about it and “keep God as a private possession in our pocket.” So, He became a person, and “we see in the Risen Christ a God Who blames nobody…The Good News is that the end of the Bible is a totally non-threatening, non-blaming, non-violent  God” – not that God was ever violent, Rohr adds, but that we had created Him in our own image.

This “non-blaming” Jesus says nothing about the things the Church is obsessed about, such as premarital sex – He is only concerned with violence and greed….and in overcoming those diabolical possessions with possessing us Himself. “We’ve been so comfortable with violence – we’ve been comfortable with greed – since the 3rd century, since Constantine made us the established religion. It almost seems like some kind of smoke and mirrors game is going on here – some kind of shadow game, diversionary tactic: ‘Look over here, so you won’t see what He’s really talking about…”

Of course, Rohr is quick to say that he’s not condoning pre-marital sex but “the Christianity is much more about mystical issues than about moral issues.” Get the mystical issues right and “the moral issues will take care of themselves.”

That mystical relationship is about intimacy, the “emptying of self so there’s room for another person inside of me.” “It’s almost sexual, cannibalistic language, this Eucharistic language. Jesus saying, basically, “Eat Me.
Drink Me. Get Me inside of you.”

Rohr insists that faith isn’t a head thing, as opposed to doubt, but is a trust thing, as opposed to anxiety. Jesus doesn’t worry about the hot sins – like premarital sex – but worries about power, prestige, illusion, and the other things that blind us. Jesus came to say it’s radically OK, that life is great simplicity and comfort. We don’t have to control it all.

If Jesus takes away the sin of the world – and Rohr stresses the Biblical use of the singular “sin” (John 1:29) – what is “the sin”? Rohr answers that Jesus didn’t go to a brothel or to a bar but to a place of execution, a place where people try to “destroy evil” and then feel good that they’ve done away with the impure and are themselves superior. That behavior, says Rohr, is the sin of the world Jesus will take away.

There is much more in this vein. Managed religion – or institutional religion, Rohr explains – makes the law complex to keep us safe (e.g. no premarital sex). Jesus, on the other hand, wastes no time on the shadow but focuses on the ego, respecting the infinite complexity of people – honoring that people break the rules in very unique ways – but keeps his law very simple: Love one another.

One is at a loss to see how this brings JustFaith participants into any deeper understanding of the Church’s social teachings. Rather, it seems designed to reinforce within them a qualified relationship with the Church – the liberationists’ view of “church” – that either bends to the will of the social activist or is dismissed as merely “institutional” and “immature.”

Hopefully this is enough to persuade anyone who was uncertain about this program. The program's books are written by New Age and dissenting priests who preach a Christianity unlike that which the Church has taught for 2,000 years.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Obscure Saints: St. Lambert of Maestricht

St. Lambert of Maestricht (633-700) may not be a familiar name, but the details of his life and martyrdom are extremely relevant to the current condition of the world. St. Lambert was of the local nobility and had a very pious upbringing. His devout parents entrusted his education into the care of two other saints, St. Landoaldus and St. Theodardus, Bishop of Maestricht in modern day Switzerland.

In 670, Lambert became Bishop of Maestricht. During this time, the Mayors of the Palace were beginning to eclipse the power of the Merovingian kings and a struggle for supremacy was raging throughout the Merovingian court. St. Lambert sided with the weak King Childeric and was forced to flee Maestricht when the cause of Childeric went awry. Lambert spent the next seven years in exile (674-671), living as a simple monk in the Abbey of Stavenlot. When Pepin of Heristal became the new Mayor of the Palace in 681, St. Lambert was invited back to his see. For the next few years he assisted in various missionary journeys of other saints, at one time working with St. Willibrord, the mentor of the famous St. Boniface.Later in life, he was also the spiritual director of St. Hubert, the worldly young nobleman who dedicated his life to God after seeing a stag in the woods with a cross between its antlers and hearing the voice of Christ warning him to repent.

According to immemorial tradition, St. Lambert died as a martyr in the defense of the sanctity of marriage, though this claim is disputed by some. Pepin of Heristal, the power behind the Merovingian throne, had lived for many years in faithful wedlock to his wife, Plectrude. Later, however, he had a very open affair with a woman named Alpais, to the scandal of the Merovingian court. When Lambert saw that no one else was willing to rebuke the Mayor for his behavior, he himself went to Pepin's court and openly admonished the Mayor to put away his mistress. Alpais, fearing a loss of influence, convinced her brother (humorously named Dodo), to murder the saintly bishop. Shortly thereafter, while St. Lambert was praying the the chapel, assassins entered and plunged a javelin through his heart while he was kneeling. He died at the altar, a martyr to marital fidelity.

Interestingly enough, Pepin ended up having a son by Alpais his mistress who was none other than the famous Charles Martel, savior of Europe and patriarch of the Carolingians.

The Feast of St. Lambert is celebrated on September 17th. His remains, originally interred in the cemetery of St. Peter in Maestricht, were removed to the cathedral of Liege by St. Hubert in 723.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Transplanting Tradition

So where did this liturgical custom come from? Does it mean anything to Catholics?

I have been reflecting lately on why certain customs flourish in one religious setting but those same customs utterly fail to produce fruit when transplanted to another. By custom I mean those outward expressions of religious faith common to humankind - certain types of song and musical instruments, manner of prayer, bodily gestures, architectural and artistic creations, and every other expression of culture that usually accompanies religious belief. Religious setting in the broadest sense could mean different religions, but in the context of this discussion, I mean it more with reference to different ecclesial traditions within Christianity itself (Lutheranism, Baptist, Calvinist, and of course, Catholic).

A very large assumption we find in the mindset of the post-Conciliar Church is that a custom one one religious setting can be transplanted into the Catholic Church. It was assumed that because a style of music, or vestment or dance had proved vibrant in one religious setting that it would be equally vibrant and "fruit-bearing" within the Catholic Church. An easy example is the style of hymn known as the "Negro Spiritual," a sort of song composed by enslaved African Americans in the South and associated with varieties of the Baptist tradition. Modern Catholic hymnals typically feature many of these Negro Spirituals; the Spiritual has been "transplanted" from the Baptist to the Catholic tradition.

There are several aspects of this idea of "transplanting" of custom that need to be examined:

(A) The true vitality of these customs within their original religious setting

(B) The assumption of "transplanting" the custom into another tradition

(C) Explanation for the failure of such efforts

First, it is necessary to assert the vitality of a custom within the context of its own tradition. A Negro Spiritual is extremely edifying to African Americans or anyone else raised in that tradition. The dull, austere architecture of a Mennonite gathering hall is pleasing to the sensibilities of Mennonites. Certain types of high-tempo Christian rock music are edifying to Pentecostal Christians, for whom that sort of music is an integral part of their tradition. These customs are all truly vital within their own religious setting.

Now, please note than when I speak of the vitality of these customs, I am not speaking of any supernatural ordering or any merit before God, and this is a rather important point in this discussion. I say not that bare Mennonite gathering halls are pleasing to God, only that they are pleasing to Mennonites. We could have a great discussion about whether God likes Pentecostal rock music; it is undeniable that Pentecostals like Pentecostal rock music. Every individual is edified on a natural level by those elements native to their own tradition. People like that which comes naturally.

But beyond "liking" these customs, we could go further to say that, because these customs have sprung up organically out of these religious communities, there is a certain naturalness to them from a cultural standpoint. It is natural for a black Protestant congregation in rural Mississippi to sing Negro Spirituals just as it is natural for Muslims to pray in Arabic or Catholics to genuflect. Because these customs are natural to these traditions, they form a positive link between the believer and those who have come before him; they serve to build a bond rooting that person to his tradition, edifying him within the context of that tradition. They keep the tradition alive. Thus, on a strictly natural level, we can rightly say that a custom has a true vitality within its own religious setting.

The next part of this discussion is looking at the assumption that these customs can be transplanted into another religious setting other than that of their origin. In the Catholic Church, this is where Negro Spirituals are put into liturgical hymnals, or Protestant praise and worship music is performed at Mass, or Protestant architectural principles are incorporated into parish design, or Eastern meditation is incorporated into Catholic spirituality. The assumption is that these customs will bear fruit in a Catholic setting because they have borne fruit in their natural setting; that the Catholic's experience of the Faith will be enriched by these customs that have enriched other cultures. This implies several problematic things.

For one, it implies that the Faith is somehow lacking and must be enriched by elements brought into it from the outside; I have already written about this elsewhere in the context of the Charismatic Renewal.

But more relevant to this discussion is that it is often forgotten that these customs possess vitality not by virtue of the customs themselves, but because of the context in which they occur, and that this vitality is of a natural, not supernatural, character. There is nothing meritorious before God about clapping hands during a song; it is a purely natural act that the worshiper finds edifying because it is organically part of the tradition to which he belongs. To the degree that, say, Protestant worshipers obtain some grace through their worship, it is because their hearts are more properly disposed towards God, not because there is anything better about clapping hands or singing a Negro Spiritual. If the worshiper does experience more grace through these acts, it is because participating in worship according to their own tradition is what puts them in that disposition.

This is not like the liturgy of the Mass, where the ritual comes from the Apostles and is intrinsically pleasing to God because in the Mass the Son of God is offered to the Father (this is why the Mass is still objectively pleasing to God even if the priest is sinful or the Mass is said privately without a congregation). The problem is that we assume that these other customs (Negro Spirituals) that have vitality within their own religious setting will produce the same results when transferred to Catholic worship. This ignores the fact that the inner vitality of these customs within their own tradition is due to their cultural context, not the merit of the act itself. It also presumes that the Mass, which has a supernatural origin and is ordered towards God, needs the inclusion of these foreign customs that have only a natural goodness, even within their own tradition. These are the problems with transplanting customs from one religious setting to another.

Are these transplants successful? I think anyone who objectively evaluates this question will unequivocally say that these cultural transplants have been a miserable failure. Our worst parishes are the ones where this cross-cultural pollination happens most. By the way, since these cultural transplants are such failures, those who support them can only claim they are successful by changing the definition of success. Instead of success as measured by holiness, increased participation in the sacraments, growth in knowledge, private devotions, etc., the proponent of this ideal has to make the transplant itself a kind of measure of success. Thus, the success of incorporating Negro Spirituals is the simple fact that Catholics are now singing Negro Spirituals. The cultural cross-pollination goes from being a means to an end in and of itself; a "mutual enrichment" as Cardinal Dulles used to call it.

But to anybody who cares about sanctity, love of the truth, or knowledge of the faith, these attempts to inject foreign customs into Catholicism are utter failures. Why is this? Because of the basic premise enunciated above - a custom has vitality within its tradition only because of its cultural context. Remember, the custom builds a bond between a worshiper and his own tradition. But what sort of bond can be established by Catholics singing a Negro Spiritual? How does a lay person taking classes in yoga thereby become more firmly rooted in Catholic spirituality? What does a person clapping hands to Pentecostal rock music at Mass learn about the Catholic liturgy?

A custom is vital when it builds bonds between a believer and his tradition. We could summarize the whole essence of this post in one statement: A custom that does not reflect the tradition of the believer is of no value to the believer. It's "bond building" function is effectively cancelled out. At best it can function only as a sort of novelty that holds the believer's interest briefly before becoming meaningless. The spirituality becomes crassly individualistic - if a custom cannot "plug" us into a greater tradition, its only value is in whatever "interest" it can arouse in the individual, and it cannot hold that interest for long. At that point we can only continue to maintain that such experiments have meaning by asserting that the inclusion of foreign elements in our tradition is itself a positive good.

We would not expect a Negro Spiritual to mean anything in a Catholic liturgy any more than we would expect the Salve Regina to mean anything in a black church is rural Mississippi. We understand this when we talk about other traditions or religions; anyone would acknowledge that Gregorian chant would be out of place in a Mennonite gathering hall or that a genuflection inside a Mosque would be highly improper; why are Catholics alone not able to exercise this same sort of reasoning when it comes to foreign customs transplanted into our own tradition?

Traditions cannot be transplanted. Just because a Protestant church finds great vibrancy and edification in Pentecostal rock music does not mean that a Catholic parish will likewise be edified. A salt water fish can't live in fresh water. The crops that thrive in Cuba wither in Norway because the environment is different. The only difference between these examples and what we have today in the Catholic Church is that it only takes the green-thumb farmer one trial and one error to realize that tropical crops cannot flourish in cold climates; how many decades will it take for our liturgists to learn the same simple lesson?