Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Spirit of Lent

I have heard it on good authority from Muslims that during Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset, it is not uncommon for there to be lavish feasts and parties thrown after sunset that are grander in scope than any meal eaten outside Ramadan. Thus, the technical obligation of fasting during Ramadan is observed, but the penitential nature of the season is obfuscated.

A similar phenomenon can and does happen with Catholics during Lent. Not wanting to be too burdened down with the obligations to do penance that Lent imposes on us, we find little ways around them, ways to still be festive and at ease in the midst of the Church's most intense period of penance, ways in which we fulfill the letter of the law whilst completely missing the purpose of this season of austerity.

The examples are legion, but I think you know what I am talking about. Here are some common Lenten loopholes:

Staying up until midnight feasting the day before Ash Wednesday and Good Friday so you don't experience hunger the next day.

Conversely, staying up until 12:01 on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday and pigging out on meat as soon as the fast is technically over.

On fast days, eating one massively, grossly inflated meal so that your "two snacks" that can't equal the size of the meal can likewise be larger than usual, in practice, two other meals.

Going out of the way to create Friday meatless meals that are nevertheless lavish, extravagant or excessively celebratory, as if Fridays in Lent are not meant for penance but rather for an exercise in culinary creativity.

Changing your Lenten resolutions midway through Lent or applying them on different days to get around enforcing them (YOU: "I'm giving up movies for Lent!" FRIEND: "Hey, wanna go watch a movie?" YOU: "Uh...well, I'm only giving it up on Mondays, Wednesday's and Fridays!" FRIEND: "Sweet. Today is Tuesday.")

All of these examples are a bit crass and stem from a lackadaisical attitude towards Lent that views the season in terms of doing the bare minimum.While I am pretty sure nobody who reads this blog regularly does these sorts of things, it is still possible to miss the spirit of the seasons even if you are not guilty of these more egregious examples.

Whatever your Lenten regimen, the point of Lent is that the season is supposed to be penitential; this does not simply mean that we notice that Father is wearing purple, give up meat for a few Fridays, cover our mouths jokingly when we almost say "Alleluia", or patronizing the parish Fish Fry. Penance has an objective element (hence the Church's Lenten disciplines that are binding on everyone), but it is also a profoundly personal and subjective thing, and when the Church tells us that a season is supposed to be penitential, it means nothing other than that we are supposed to experience it as penitential. If we intentionally arrange our circumstances in such a way as to avoid experiencing any unpleasantness, difficulty, or challenge during Lent, then we are negating the purpose of the season.

Of course, we do not eat meat on Fridays in my home, not only during Lent, but ever. But beyond that, even though are Friday meals are always meatless, we also try to make them simple, frugal affairs that lack flair and ostentation. Broccoli and rice. Tomato soup and grilled cheese. Baked beans and mac n' cheese with dinner rolls with water to drink. We are supposed to feel and realize that we are being deprived of something, not manipulate our circumstances to offset the penitence of Lent by creating little islands of pleasure within the season over and above what we would being doing under normal circumstances.

If we are going to go through the trouble of observing Lent, we want it to be of real benefit to our souls. There is a threefold way to do this.

In the first place, use Lent as an opportunity to cut off a bad or sinful habit that you ought to be giving up anyway. There are graces available to those who avail themselves of the penance the Church prescribes for this season, and real opportunities for growth in holiness.We ought always be striving to cut off sin, but Lent is an especially appropriate time to do this.

Besides this, give up something that is a legitimate good, and something that is actually challenging (in other words, something you will experience as penitential). There is benefit to our souls in depriving our bodies of a legitimate good, because they help unshackle the reason from the passions and redirect it towards heavenly ends. Even so, remember that a smaller penance done with great regularity and devotion is better than an extreme penance done in fits of passion and only now and then.

Finally, add an extra devotion to your life, extra periods of prayer, extra visits to the Blessed Sacrament, more daily Masses if possible, extra Scripture reading: something that can help dispose the soul more towards God during this time and take advantage of the grace God offers us. People often miss the connection that part of the purpose in giving up an activity during Lent is to replace it with prayer. If we are giving up watching movies, then the time we would have spent doing that should be at least partially spent in some activity conducive to the salvation of our souls, not some other fun activity that replaces the one we are giving up. If we usually watch a movie every Thursday afternoon but during Lent we go to the indoor waterpark on that day instead, then we are missing it. If we gave up chocolate, we do not gain anything by eating Skittles in its place. Offer up the longing for chocolate you experience as a prayer for the sanctification of your soul.

Lent ought to be experienced as penitential. If not, we are wasting our time. This is a big problem in the Church today; Catholics know penance only by name, only as a sacrament, or perhaps a season that is said to be 'penitential', but we do not know penance as St. Paul did: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection." Why? "Lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Benedict Narrative Emerges

I have been ruminating on the abdication of Benedict all week, as I am sure many of you have. In this very brief time, I have noticed a certain theme has come to the fore in most of the public discussion in Catholic publications and blogs on these remarkable events. With the last papal resignation in 1415, it is understandable that Catholics would seek to put these events into some sort of context and try to make sense of these developments. This article represents my attempt at doing so, and I apologize up-front for its lengthiness.

As we have all groped about looking for understanding, praying, and discussing these things with our brethren, it seems that a certain accepted way of thinking about the abdication has come forward. An official narrative has emerged, and it did not take long. I'd say probably within the third day after the announcement the narrative was fully in place and being trumpeted aloud from all of the major Catholic commentators.

A narrative is not a bad thing; coming up with canonical narratives of historical events are usually the way we try to make sense out of situations that are confusing, disappointing, traumatic or don't fit neatly into our worldview. Please note, a narrative is not necessarily false; saying that a narrative of Pope Benedict XVI's abdication has emerged does not mean that the facts are being denied or anything is being omitted. A narrative does not mean facts are being obscured - it means we have (a) opted for a specific way to understand what the facts mean, and therefore (b) we have assimilated the events into our preexisting worldview in a way logically consistent with it.

Therefore, the official narrative of Benedict's abdication represents a certain way of understanding these events that reinforces certain preconceived notions about the papacy, the prudential decisions of popes, the church in the modern world, etc. While this narrative is not necessarily wrong (it is just one way of looking at things), I want to point out some inconsistencies I see in it while things are still fresh, before this narrative solidifies and becomes the "official history" of what happened, which will occur inevitably. I think it is important that we have some honest discussion about this whole issue, because very soon there will only be one politically correct way of looking at the abdication of Benedict XVI, and that is what is being shaped right now as the official narrative emerges and gains widespread acceptance.

So, what is this emerging narrative of the pope's abdication? There are four reoccurring points that I am seeing in articles, websites, parish bulletins and even one on one discussion that I believe constitute the Benedict narrative:

1. Not Unprecedented: Everyone who is commenting on this seems to go to great lengths to point out that this is not unprecedented and that papal resignations have happened in the past, the last being approximately 600 years ago. The implication is that even if a papal abdication hasn't happened recently, really this is nothing new. This point concerns the legal justification for the pope doing what he did.

2. Humble Benedict: The second point has to do with the personal or moral justification for Benedict's abdication, and focuses on the praiseworthy nature of the act. Thus it is said that this was a tremendously humble thing for Benedict to do, because it is humble to know when someone else can do your job better than you, or to know when you can no longer do it.

3. What JP2 and BXVI Taught Us: Every commentator has to grapple with the issue of Benedict's resignation for reasons of health in light John Paul II's refusal to resign because of health, for which the former pontiff was praised immensely. This issue is resolved by stating that the seemingly contrary actions of the popes are each meant to teach us different lessons; John Paul II's long death taught the world about suffering, and Benedict's abdication is a lesson in humility. This could be looked at as the pedagogical justification for Benedict's resignation, focusing on what admirable lesson the faithful can take away from this historic event.

4. Inevitability: Finally, many commentators are saying that, in hindsight, this was a very "logical" decision by the pope and that in a way it was almost inevitable. This is just a way to make the whole thing "fit" into a worldview of how the popes are expected to act.

As I said above, this narrative is not false; it is one way of looking at Benedict's departure. But even so, I do believe it is deficient in a few ways and it does not take in to account several important points.

For example, take the assertion that this is not unprecedented. One parish bulletin I picked up had an article on the subject that said "Popes have resigned several times in the history of the Church." Well, it is true that a papal resignation is not unprecedented, but it is a bit much to say this has happened "several times." A few popes in the latter patristic era were forcibly deposed by persecuting emperors and subsequently accepted their deposition as a fact so the Roman Church could elect another bishop and move on, but these can hardly be called voluntary papal abdications. Pope John XVIII (1003-1009) may have abdicated, but the evidence is very unclear. Benedict IX resigned the papacy for money in 1045 but then declared his resignation invalid and tried to take the papacy back. The only real voluntary resignations I know of were those of Celestine V and Gregory IX, and it is speculated that Celestine resigned under pressure from Cardinal Gaetani, later Boniface VIII. Gregory, of course, resigned to end a schism.

Celestine's case is interesting because there is a question of how free it truly was. Most believe Celestine did resign freely, and interestingly enough, at the time, despite the precedents of forced depositions, theologians of the day treated Celestine's resignation as unprecedented and had lively debates over whether a Roman pontiff could, in fact, resign. The issue was so controversial that Boniface VIII had to issue an authoritative declaration after the fact teaching that such a course of action was acceptable. He wrote:
"Whereas some curious persons, arguing on things of no great expediency, and rashly seeking, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is meet to know, have seemed, with little forethought, to raise an anxious doubt, whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honour: Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren." (Decree, "Liber Sextus" I, vii, 1).
Boniface notes that it was none other than Celestine himself who had first instituted the law, by his "authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign." Some questions arise:

If there was a long tradition of popes resigning, as some are now asserting, why did Celestine V need to establish a law specifically allowing popes to resign? Why did Celestine's contemporaries regard him as the first pope to resign if there were examples of late patristic popes being forced to abdicate? If there was a well-established precedent in 1295 that popes could resign, why did Boniface VIII feel the need to issue a clarification on the issue?

The obvious answer is that the forced depositions were not regarded as resignations. Pope Celestine V was therefore regarded as the first pope who had ever resigned. This precedent laid the groundwork for the very carefully orchestrated resignation of Gregory XII in 1415, which brought about the end of the Great Schism.

So it cannot be said that popes have resigned "several times"; two popes have resigned. Where does that put Benedict XVI? Well, again, it depends on what you mean by "precedent." Does precedent exist? Yes, if you consider 2 out of 266 to be precedent (by the way, that is 0.7% of our pontiffs; not even 1%). Is 0.7% substantial enough to be considered "precedent?" Would a new interpretation of a law be upheld in court if similar rulings were only issued in 0.7% of preceding cases? When we talk about the precedents for Benedict's resignation, we are really being generous and flexible with the word precedent.

Furthermore, consider that though there certainly is precedent for a pope abdicating, but there is absolutely no precedent for a pope abdicating for reasons of health.  If we are just looking at the fact of a papal abdication, then sure, there are precedents; but if we ask, "Has any pope ever abdicated for reasons of health?" then the answer is clearly no. Benedict's resignation is unprecedented in that sense.

What about the second claim in the narrative, that this was an extraordinary humble thing to do because it is humility to know when one can do the job better or know when you cannot do the job?

This statement of it being humility to step aside if you know someone else can do the job better than you is frankly the silliest part of the narrative. According to long-standing tradition and many anecdotal tales, the vast majority of the popes, mostly humble men, all upon election protest that they are not worthy, that others could invariably do the job better than they. If we say Benedict resigned because he believed someone else could do the job better than he, than there is no reason why every single pope in history shouldn't have resigned, for almost all have similarly protested that others could do the job better - including St. Peter, who said, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). Every pope, bishop and priest feels his inadequacy. But they do not resign. They remember that "My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Perceived weakness or lack of ability has never been justification for someone to step out of apostolic labor, not in the days of Moses ("O Lord, please send someone else" -Ex. 4:13), not in the days of Peter, nor of Paul, nor ever, for the Lord Himself uses this weakness as a blank canvas upon which to work His marvels.

Beside, just as a simple fact of life, statistically speaking, there is always someone out there who can do a job better than you. But God never asks us to be the best at doing things, only to do things the best that we can. God is more interested than what we have than in what we don't. "For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" (2 Cor. 8:12).

Away then with this excuse that humility dictates that we step aside as soon as someone appears who can do the job better. Benedict himself did not offer this justification for his actions, so let us not add our own silly reasoning to the pope's.

The second part of the "Humble Benedict" explanation has a little more merit: that it is humble to step aside if one can no longer bear the burdens of the office. This I grant. Boniface VIII's declaration said as much when he stated that it was fitting for a pope to resign "especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, [and] can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honor."

No qualms about this. If the pope simply physically cannot do the job, then it is certainly permissible for him to step aside. I do not question the principle, but I question its application: what does, in Benedict's own words from his statement of abdication, "adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry" mean? Why in "today's world" is a specific strength of "mind and body" necessary that is fundamentally different from that strength that was necessary to the popes of old? In other words, what is the standard of an "adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry" that Benedict has in his mind that he feels he cannot live up to?

We have no way of knowing this, because the pope did not feel like explaining it. I have wondered if it has something to do with filling the shoes of John Paul II. If so, this would be regrettable; I certainly hope that Pope Benedict does not feel that he has to be as active and dynamic as John Paul II was in the first years of his pontificate. John Paul II's pontificate was a lot of firsts, but his deeds do not need to be replicated by all subsequent popes. It is not as if John Paul II so defined the modern papacy that everything that follows must be in the same vein. I understand that JPII was a big act to follow, but let us remember that the pope possesses what the medieval canonists called plenitudo potestatis, the fullness of power over how the Church is governed. Benedict need not fit any mold or follow in any footsteps whatsoever. He is free to determine his own course, to continue traditions started by John Paul II, to suspend them, or discard them.

To illustrate my point, let us flesh out an alternate history. Say Benedict did not announce his abdication last Monday. Let's say he decides to stay on until death. But, knowing he is frail and in poor health, he decides to make some changes. So, he announces the following changes to take effect immediately and for the duration of his papacy, due to ill health:
  • The pope will not make any more international trips.
  • There will be no more World Youth Days for the duration of the pontificate.
  • Do not expect any more encyclicals.
  • Wednesday audiences are cancelled indefinitely.
  • The pope will not preside over any more public liturgies.
  • The pope will in fact not make any public appearances at all.
  • There will be no more "Year of This or That" for the remainder of the pontificate.
  • The pope will not make any more tweets.
  • Finally, should the pope lose his wits or become too ill to function, he will appoint a Cardinal to delegate solely specific administrative duties to so that the business of the Vatican can move along even if the pope himself is ill.
Then, having effectively cancelled everything, the pope lives a life of seclusion and rest at the Vatican, reading, studying, praying and preparing for death, but while remaining pope. Why not? Many other popes have ended their days in such a fashion. Why would this be such a problem? Well, the reason it would be a  problem is that everything listed above is what the modern world and even many Catholics have come to identify with the papacy. A pope who is in seclusion and can't show up at World Youth Days or travel abroad isn't very likeable, and some figure that if the pope can't do those things, he might as well step aside.

As I said above, I don't know if these are the sorts of things Benedict is thinking of when he says he can no longer exercise the Petrine ministry, but I hope it isn't the case, because the fact remains that he is the pope, and he can take on as much or as little as he wants to, and we ought not to think that John Paul II's early years defined the modern papacy for all subsequent popes.

Finally, let's move on to what I have called the pedagogical justification for the abdication - the notion that both the refusal of John Paul II to abdicate for health reasons and the abdication of Benedict XVI for health reasons are somehow equally appropriate because of what they taught us: John Paul II's long death taught the world about suffering, and Benedict's abdication is a lesson in humility.

I have really been grappling with this one, and I understand where folks are coming from who keep repeating this, but it doesn't sit right with me. Bear with me as I walk you through my thinking here.

Let's begin with one thing we can all agree on: If any pope would have been justified in resigning because of health problems, it would have been John Paul II. His last few years were especially agonizing; I was privileged to get to see John Paul II in person at a Wednesday audience a year and a half before he died, and my goodness, he looked horrible - a frail, hunched, sagging shell of man with barely enough energy to lift his own head; Cardinals reading canned statements while the pope just sat there oblivious. Had John Paul II announced his resignation any time during those last few years, I do not think anyone would have blamed him. We probably would have applauded him as many are applauding Benedict now.

But John Paul II did not resign. He stayed on, endured a very horrific and public period of suffering, and finally died. And you know what? We all praised him for staying the course. We all knew that what we were witnessing was true heroism, as Samwise says, "folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't." We lauded John Paul II for how he "taught us how to die" and how it was good for him not to resign though the whole world wanted him to and though his health would have justified it. His demise at the same time as the Terri Schiavo fiasco lent special weight to these sentiments. We all praised him for his decision to face death, and not only face it bravely, but face it bravely as pope, because we all felt the world was learning a lesson it desperately needed through it.

In other words, John Paul II had two choices before him: abdicate or stay on. He chose to stay on, and in praising him so extravagantly for staying on, we imply that abdicating would have been a lesser choice. It might not have been sinful or wrong, but it would have been less heroic, less appropriate for a pontiff, and ultimately less morally excellent as staying on and suffering. When we praise John Paul II for going out the way he did, we are implying that his choice was the better choice for a pope to make.

So, as of 2005, we all agreed that given an ill pope, it was better for him to stay on and serve till the end in order to show the world how to embrace suffering. And that was what we all agreed upon universally...until around 6:30am on the morning of Monday, February 11th, 2013 when it was announced that Benedict XVI was stepping down for the same reasons that John Paul II refused to step down.


Now what? The narrative has been shaken and needs to readjust itself. What do we say now? We are no longer at war with East Asia; we are now at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia. Get my point?

Now, we can say that Benedict's resignation is totally different in substance, but the only reason we can come up for why it is different is because of what it taught us. Benedict taught us humility, because of the somewhat convoluted reasons mentioned above. But are two similar acts substantially different because we get different "lessons" out of them? Some are trying to make the cases of JPII and BXVI so different that we really can't compare them, as if we were trying to compare the resignation of Cornelius Sulla to the abdication of Edward VIII, or the abdication of Diocletian with the resignation of Richard Nixon.

But we are not comparing apples and oranges here. In fact, I can't think of two men whose cases are so strikingly similar. Two popes; successive popes, in fact. Both raised under Nazi oppression. Both participants at Vatican II. Both unexpectedly elevated to the papacy. Both unpopular with the world, both pressured at times to resign, both dealing with crippling health problems, both shouldering similar responsibilities and responding to similar crises in the Church, both of similar age when they resigned/ very similar cases in so many ways. Yet one, when facing illness, resigns and the other doesn't, and we have to pretend that they are both equally praiseworthy acts, when in 2005 we had pretty much established that staying on and suffering was much better than resigning? Now in 2013 we change our minds in three days time and try to convince ourselves that the situation of Benedict XVI  (which is materially no different than the situation of John Paul II, as illustrated above) is in fact totally different, and that while John Paul II chose the more excellent course by not resigning, Benedict XVI has chosen the more excellent course by doing the exact opposite of what John Paul II did!

But perhaps we are viewing these two events too closely when we should be looking at them as two, distinct events that really have no relation to one another. This might be plausible, except that Benedict XVI himself has cited the example of John Paul's suffering as precisely what he would try to avoid by an abdication. In other words, Benedict's decision to abdicate was directly related to John Paul II's decision not to abdicate. This complicates things, because if the whole Church pretty much adopted the line that JPII was right not to abdicate, Benedict XVI himself seems to have dissented from that. Having an inside view of the late pontificate of John Paul II, perhaps Benedict thought that a long, drawn out death was not as ideal as we all thought, and thus he seems to disagree with us that John Paul II made the most morally excellent choice. Benedict would never say that publicly, of course, but what else does he imply when he says that he would not put himself and the Church through what John Paul II did? Benedict thus makes an argument that abdication is the better choice, and he does this based on an appeal to the experience with John Paul II.

No matter how much I think of this, it seems like we are dealing with contradictions here. If person A does action X instead of action Y, and we all say, "Wow! It is so much better that A did X instead of Y," and then later person B, who holds the exact same office, duties, responsibilities as A, instead chooses to do Y instead of X, how can we now say that B/Y is the better choice when we formerly said A/X was the better choice, especially when person B says, "I chose Y precisely because I saw what happened when A chose X and I didn't want that to happen"? All things being equal (and in this scenario, they are substantially equal), if A/X was praiseworthy, then B/Y is not as much so; if B/Y is praiseworthy, then A/X is not as much so.

I am beating this point into the ground, but I think it is important to discuss. The fact that the narrative even tries to reconcile the acts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is evidence that this is a real conundrum - but it is only so because we insist not only on loving and obeying the popes, but on affirming every prudential decision they do as good, even claiming they are the best possible decisions. When we adopt such an unrealistic attitude, we find ourselves in the absurd position of having to affirm each act of a pope as heroically virtuous and as the best possible act even if it directly contradicts what we previously agreed was the best possible course of action for a pope.

This leads us into that final aspect of the narrative - the commentators who are all tapping themselves on the chests and saying, "In retrospect, it's not surprising he resigned; it was kind of inevitable even." Please! Not one of these folks had any inclination when they went to bed last Sunday night that they'd hear the pope resigned in the morning. Had Benedict stayed in till the day he died, they would have said, 'It's inevitable that he did this, seeing the example left by John Paul II." Inevitable!? Please. How was it inevitable? Because Benedict mentioned it as a hypothetical scenario once? Because he prayed at the tomb of Celestine V twice in eight years? It's like saying it is inevitable that I am going to die by getting tortured and bludgeoned by natives somewhere because I once visited the shrine of the North American Martyrs. I'm sorry, but we can put a probability to this: 0.7%, as I mentioned above. When there is only a 0.7% chance something will happen, you will forgive me if I show disbelief when you tell me it was inevitable?

This "Benedict's resignation was inevitable" stuff is just a way to make the whole event fit neatly into a preconceived notion of how modern popes are supposed to act - and to make the papal commentators feel good about something that took them completely by surprise. "Of course Benedict resigned! Anyone who follows the papacy like I do could have seen this coming from a mile away..." This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the musical hipster who takes delight in talking about bands "you've probably never heard of." Enough already.

The official narrative exists because Catholics are trying to digest this bizarre news and fit it neatly into their schema of how the Church and divine providence work and how we ought to relate to them. The narrative is valuable in that it fulfills this function. I do not think it does this in the most intellectually honest way, but neither do I think it is an outright falsehood; it is simply an interpretation. So, after all that, I do not tear down those who propose the official narrative, nor do I ultimately say Benedict was wrong to abdicate. But if I have spent so much time poking holes in the narrative, I suppose it behooves me to answer the question, "What ought we to think, then? What should we feel about Benedict's abdication?"

Here is what I think, and I base this on a conversation I had about this with a friend from the Poor Knights of Christ last week:

It is what it is. Benedict has abdicated. He may have had very good reasons for doing so, and indeed, he might have even been right for doing so. I trust him entirely, and I trust his judgment completely. But we are ultimately dealing with the prudential judgment of a very fallible human being. There is absolutely no warrant for tearing Benedict down for his decision or calling into question his motives, but neither is there any necessity for pretending like this was an extraordinarily clever strategic move, an act of heroic virtue, or some kind of obvious evidence of sanctity.

Ultimately, Benedict has decided to join a very, very small group of popes (0.7%) who have resigned voluntarily, and while the fact of resignation isn't unprecedented, Benedict's resignation for purposes of health is absolutely and completely unprecedented - and that is okay, because he is the pope and has the plenitudo potestatis. He can resign if he wants to, precedented or not. It is within his legal and moral right to do so, and we don't have to layer his decision with extra coatings of virtue to sanctify it for him, as with all this nonsense about getting out of the way if someone can do something better than you, etc. There is no lesson for us here in that sense. This was not meant by the pope to be a teachable moment, and we don't need to grope around to try to find some "lessons" to take away, especially by tortuously trying to force the admittedly contradictory actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI onto some seamless garment in order to somehow heap praise on their contradictory actions. While Benedict is certainly justified in taking this course of action, I would ultimately say that his abdication is probably a less morally excellent act than John Paul II's example - and that's fine to say that, because I feel under no compulsion to insist that every action every pope does is the best possible action.

John Paul II made a heroic decision; whether or not that was good for the Church, history will have to judge. Benedict made a decision that probably was not as heroic, but may be better for the Church in the long run; maybe Benedict's resignation will set a precedent that will not be good, maybe it won't; maybe John Paul II should have resigned earlier so someone with more alertness could handle various crises; then again, maybe not. We simply don't know. The ultimate legacies of these last two pontificates are decades away from being satisfactorily evaluated, and until that day comes, there is no compulsion for us to make more out of something than it is. Pray for the Church and the Holy Father, both the one going out and the one to come. Do penance. Amend your life. Pray, pray for the Church and leave the rest to God.

Other than that, it is what it is. If you think we need more intelligent conversation about this issue and less talking points, then please forward this article to others.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Apostolic Nuncio ViganĂ² on Persecution and Martyrdom

Though it might have passed under the radar of many because of the hype leading up to the election at the time, on November 4th, 2012 the Apostolic Nuncio for the USA, Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ², addressed a conference on Religious Liberty at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In this address, he made some interesting remarks on the question of religious liberty in the western democracies. His talk is interesting because of the analysis of the psychology of persecution and his observations about the public demands of the Christian witness. I did not reproduce the entire talk, but substantial portions of it are quoted below, with certain passages emboldened that I found of interest.

"As the papal nuncio to the United States, I realize that I speak from a distinguished podium at a great university. It is my intention to propose for your consideration the interrelated matters of religious freedom, persecution, and martyrdom that are, or should be, of vital concern to you – for these grave concerns exist not only abroad, but they also exist within your own homeland.

In order to establish a framework for my presentation, several key definitions are in order. I will first address the subject of martyrdom. What is it, and why is it relevant to you today? I am sure that most if not all of us are familiar with the martyrs of the Church – both past and present – who gave of their lives because they would not compromise on the principles of faith that accompany the call to discipleship. Theirs is the experience of great suffering that often includes torture and death. Some of the early martyrs of the Church experienced this through cruelty, often by slow means, designed to bring on death.

However, the intention underlying the objectives of the persecutor is important to understand: it was to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and His Church. An accompanying objective can be the incapacitation of the faith by enticing people to renounce their beliefs, or at least their public manifestations, rather than undergo great hardships that will be, or can be, applied if believers persist in their resistance to apostasy. The plan is straightforward: if the faith persists, so will the hardships. In more recent times, martyrdom may not necessitate torture and death; however, the objective of those who desire to harm the faith may choose the path of ridiculing the believers so that they become outcasts from mainstream society and are marginalized from meaningful participation in public life. This brings me to the meaning of persecution.

Persecution is typically associated with the deeds preceding those necessary to make martyrs for the faith.While acts of persecution can mirror those associated with martyrdom, other elements can be directed to sustaining difficulty, annoyance, and harassment that are designed to frustrate the beliefs of the targeted person or persons rather than to eliminate these persons. It would seem, then, that the objective of persecution is to remove from the public square the beliefs themselves and the public manifestations without necessarily eliminating the persons who hold the beliefs. The victimization may not be designed to destroy the believer but only the belief and its open manifestations. From the public viewpoint, the believer remains but the faith eventually disappears.

In the context of martyrdom and persecution, the law enforcement branches of the state can be relied upon to achieve the desired goal. The state’s enforcement mechanisms were surely employed in the campaigns that brought the deaths of the early Roman martyrs. The legal mechanisms of new legislation and its enforcement in Tudor England were relied upon in the persecution and martyrdom of Thomas More and John Fisher. As one thinks about these two heroic individuals, you can see the multiple objectives of the state. The first, in their sequential order, were words and then deeds designed to encourage through pressure More and Fisher to accept the King’s and Parliament’s wills to agree with the divorce of King Henry from Queen Catherine. However, when Fisher and More remained resolved in their fidelity to the Church’s teachings about the validity of the marriage but discreet in how they did so, the state mechanisms designed to bring them and their views around were ratcheted up so as to increase the pressure on them. When they resisted the increased pressure, statutes were enacted and amended to make non-compliance a treasonable and, therefore, a capital offense.

At the core of this fidelity is the desire to be a good citizen of the two cities where we all live: the City of Man and the City of God. This kind of dual citizenship necessitates libertas Ecclesiae, i.e., the freedom of the Church. This freedom is essential to the religious freedom which properly belongs to the human person. And this freedom that belongs to the human person is simultaneously a human, civil, and natural right which is not conferred by the state because it subsists in the human person’s nature.

We live in an age where most, but not all, of your fellow countrymen still share in the conviction that Americans are essentially a religious people. While current data suggests a progressive decline in religious belief across the western world including the United States, there still appears to be deference given to the importance of religion. But as I have just indicated, there are those who question whether religion or religious belief should have a role in public life and civic affairs. The problem of persecution begins with this reluctance to accept the public role of religion in these affairs, especially but not always when the protection of religious freedom involves beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share. Thus we are presented with the pressing question about whether the devoted religious believer, let us say the Catholic, can have a right to exercise citizenship in the most robust fashion when his or her views on civic concerns are informed by the faith. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution more than suggests an affirmative answer to this question. But we should not be satisfied with this recognition. After all, important figures, some of whom hold high public office, are speaking today about the right of freedom of worship, but their discourse fails to acknowledge that there is also a complementary right about the unencumbered ability to exercise religious faith in a responsible and at the same time public manner.

Let me address the concerns that I see about this fundamental and non-derogable right, on your home front. When Catholic Charities and businesses owned by faithful Catholics experience pressure to alter theircherished beliefs, the problem is experienced in other venues. In short, the menace to religious liberty is concrete on many fronts. Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom isnot solely a concern for non-democratic and totalitarian regimes. Unfortunately it is surfacing with greater regularity in what many consider the great democracies of the world. This is a tragedy for not only the believer but also for democratic society.

If George Orwell were still alive today, he would certainly have material to write a sequel to his famous novel 1984 in which the totalitarian state, amongst other things, found effective means from distancing children from their parents and monopolizing the control of educational processes especially on moral issues.

But we must not forget the other perils to religious liberty that your great country has experienced in recent years. Once again, we see that the rule of law, in the context of your First Amendment and important international protections for religious freedom, has been pushed aside. Let me cite some examples of these other hazards. A few years ago, the Federal courts of the United States considered the case of Parker v. Hurley in which a number of families were alarmed over the curriculum of the public schools in Lexington, Massachusetts (ironically one of your cradles of liberty!) where young children were obliged to learn about family diversity as presented in a children’s book that elevated as natural and wholesome same-sex relations in marriage. The Parker family and other families, who are Judeo-Christian believers, wished to pursue an “opt-out” for their children from this instruction. However, the civil authorities and the Federal courts disagreed with, and thereby denied, the lawful claims of these parents who were trying to protect their children from the morally unacceptable. If these children were to remain in public schools, they had to participate in the indoctrination of what the public schools thought was proper for young children. Put simply, religious freedom was forcefully pushed aside once again.

More recently, we recall the federal court review of Proposition 8 in California. In the legal proceedings surrounding this initiative dealing with the meaning of marriage, Judge Vaughan Walker said this about religious exercise – a freedom enshrined in your Constitution: “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.” This “harm” cited by the judge became the basis for devising a mechanism used to minimize if not eradicate the free exercise of religion which includes the vigorous participation of the religious believer in public and political life.”

“…[W]e have observed influential members of the national American community – especially public officials and university faculty members – who profess to be Catholic, allying with those forces that are pitted against the Church in fundamental moral teachings dealing with critical issues such as abortion, population control, the redefinition of marriage, embryonic stem cell commodification, and problematic adoptions, to name but a few. In regard to teachers, especially university and college professors, we have witnessed that some instructors who claim the moniker “Catholic” are often the sources of teachings that conflict with, rather than explain and defend, Catholic teachings in the important public policy issues of the day. While some of these faculty members are affiliated with non-Catholic institutions of higher learning, others teach at institutions that hold themselves out to be Catholic. This, my brothers and sisters, is a grave and major problem that challenges the first freedom...

“Catholics have, in the past, experienced and weathered the storms that have threatened religious freedom. In this context, we recall that Pope Pius XI took steps to address these grave problems in his 1931 encyclical letter Non Abbiamo Bisogno dealing with religious persecution of the faithful by the fascists in Italy, and in his 1937 letter Mit Brennender Sorge addressing parallel threats initiated by the National Socialists in Germany. In the context of Germany during the reign of National Socialism, we recall that the Oxford Professor Nathanial Micklem examined and discussed the persecution of the Catholic Church is Germany in his 1939 book entitled "National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church." The problems identified by Micklem over six decades ago that deal with the heavy grip of the state’s hand in authentic religious liberty are still with us today.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict's Resignation

Like most of you, my reaction upon hearing of the resignation of our Holy Father Benedict XVI was one of shock and disbelief mixed with sadness and no little bit of frustration. Before we say anything further about this momentous decision on the part of our Holy Father, let us listen to the pope's words from his own mouth:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer. 

 From the Vatican, 10 February 2013

I was on my way to work when I heard this on the radio. I pulled over and idled on the shoulder, cars passing me by as I sat in stunned disbelief at the news of the first papal resignation since 1415.

The first emotions that came over me were those of frustration and of anger that the pope would lay down his charge in such an unprecedented manner. While there have been papal resignations in history, those that I know of have not occurred without some sort of pressure; I am thinking of Celestine V and Gregory XII, who, while they both resigned technically of their own free will, did not do so without considerable pressure from outside events, the former by the part of Cardinal Gaetani (later Boniface VIII), and the latter by the pressure to end the Western Schism.

In a way, though Benedict emphasizes the freedom of his decision, he, too, is under constraint by the nature of the body and the weakening of the flesh and mind. My first thought upon hearing his explanation about being too old and weak and about the demands of "today's world" on the papacy was that it was a cop-out. Whatever one thinks of John Paul II, one thing that must be said in his praise is that he showed the world how to courageously face death. Benedict, however, has stated that it was largely the example of John Paul II that led him to consider resignation - that he did not want to go through a long period of anguished incapacitation that characterized the last years of John Paul II. This upset me; the papal throne is an elected office, but it is still a royal one - the pope is a monarch, and a king is a king forever.

But I think my initial discouragement may have been out of line. I reflected that, if Benedict does want to avoid a long, drawn out decline, I do not believe the motivation is fear of pain or public suffering; but what other motivation could he have? Then I began thinking that perhaps the reason he wants to avoid following John Paul II's example is not due to fear of publicly experiencing pain or suffering, but due to the fact that when the pope is not capable of governing, the Curia and the various congregations run amok. It is the principle of "when the cat's away the mice will play." Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, probably saw this principle at work during all the years of John Paul's illness. Perhaps he saw what disorder and chaos the Vatican was plunged into when the pontiff lacks the ability to effectively direct his Curia and wanted to preempt a situation like that by enabling the papacy to transfer directly from him to another without a drawn-out, informal interregnum of senility. The increasing lack of control he has been able to exercise over the Vatican bureaucracy even while he is alert may have led him to ruminate on how worse the situation could be if he were not alert.

Yet, even if that were the motivation, we can't really pretend that the problem of curial shenanigans or sick popes is a new one. This has always been an issue, and why "today's world" merits a different approach than that which the popes have always maintained throughout the ages is difficult to understand. In a certain sense, this is indicative of everything that has concerned Traditionalists all these years - that "today's world" somehow requires an approach that is different from what the Church has always done; that the examples of the popes and saints from antiquity on through the centuries need to be tweaked and updated for "modern man", who is somehow different from his predecessors; that what "today's world" needs is a faster, more efficient "Church 2.0."

But to give the pope some credit here, there is another possible way we could construe his words, one that does make a little bit more sense. In the old days, due to the state of medical knowledge, it is the case that a pope who got really sick would not linger on for years and years. If John Paul II would have been pope in the 14th century, he would have died a lot sooner than he did. If Benedict were pope in the 9th century, that little accident several years back where he slipped and fractured his hip would have been the end of him. So, while the papacy itself has not changed, it is true that only in the modern world do we now have the likely possibility of a pontiff lingering on and on into extreme old age and senility, which pallative care and top-notch medical treatments could prolong for years. Damian Thompson has pointed out in his post on Benedict's resignation that such a prolonged period of senility can have disastrous consequences for the Church. He cites the example of Fr. Marcel Maciel:

"John Paul II rather than Benedict XVI can be accused of turning a blind eye to certain abominations, not least to those of the Mexican child abuser the late Fr Marcel Maciel, whom Benedict sent into disgraced exile as soon as he became Pope. One reason Maciel was not dealt with in time was that John Paul II was too ill and, let us be honest, mentally enfeebled to confront Maciel's crimes. Ratzinger has been determined from the beginning not to allow the same situation to overtake him."

In other words, the fundamental question is will the sorts of prolonged periods of incapacitation such as characterized the last years of John Paul II be the norm for modern pontiffs? Whether or not we agree with Thompson's assessment of this vis-a-vis the Maciel case, I don't think anyone disagrees that these long periods of decrepitude are good for the Church government. The question is how can they be dealt with.

So, when all is said and done, is Benedict's decision then a kind of "spiritual euthanasia", such that he wants the Church to put his pastoral office out of its misery before it becomes too enfeebled and burdensome on the whole Church and ends up facilitating more scandal and embarrassment? If so, is he setting a new precedent that popes can and ought to resign when things get difficult, as if they were Prime Ministers or politicians? Is this good for the Church and the institution of the papacy?

This is all just speculation. I don't doubt the pope's sincerity of motive one bit. I do question whether this will set a good precedent in the Church. Once a pope resigns, it will increase the pressure on any future pope to resign who may be unpopular or sick or that people are just getting tired of. We also have to be aware that there really is no protocol for what has to be done to facilitate the transition of power to a new pontiff when the previous pontiff is still living. The last pontiff to resign, Gregory XII, did so in the context of an ecumenical council. The last before him, Celestine V, was imprisoned after his resignation to forestall any possibility of a schism. Though papal schisms seem to be a thing of the past, it is very true that there is a real danger that this transition could turn into a schism if it is not done properly.

One last thing to keep in mind: Depending on how seriously you take the prophecies of St. Malachy, Benedict XVI was Gloria Olivae, the last pope in the sequence. If you take the prophecies literally, then the next pope who will take office probably less than a month is Peter the Roman, the pope "who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations: and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the terrible judge will judge his people." If you are in to that sort of thing.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Two Accounts of Saul's Death

Among those who take glee is attempting to point out real contradictions in the Sacred Scripture, the passages narrating the death of King Saul have become proof-texts for alleged biblical contradiction. The death of King Saul is narrated in two places, 1 Samuel 31:1-6, the story of the Battle of Gilboa, and also in 2 Samuel 1:1-16, when David hears the battle narrated second hand from an Amalekite who claims to have witnessed Saul's death. In the first and probably most well known passage, Saul, upon seeing the battle against the Philistines going poorly and being wounded by Philistine archers, falls upon his own sword and kills himself. In the second passage, however, the Amalekite finds Saul wounded on the ground and Saul begs him to thrust a sword through him. The Amalekite obliges and dispatches Saul upon the latter's request.

It seems we have a cut and dry instance of a biblical contradiction. 1 Samuel says Saul committed suicide; 2 Samuel says he was slain in a mercy-killing by an Amalekite.

Before looking at these passages and attempting to reconcile them, let us remind ourselves of a few points: First, according to commonly accepted logical principles, a contradiction is defined as occurring when two statements are in relation to each other in such a way that if one is true, the other must be false; they cannot both be true and both be false at the same time. "All men have beards" and "Some men do not have beards" are contradictory statements. If all men have beards, then it cannot be true that some men do not have them; similarly, if it is true that some men do not have beards, then it cannot be true that all men have them. The truth of one necessitates the falsity of the other. This means that the essence of contradiction is that there is no way to reconcile the two statements. The truth of one means the other is false and there is no possibility or way around it. Sometimes the word "contradiction" is applied too loosely in biblical scholarship to refer to passages that are merely problematic or confusing. But to say the two accounts of Saul's death are problematic is a far cry from saying their are contradictions in the logical sense.

Second point: if the Scriptures are inspired by God, there can never be a true contradiction in the logical sense. All saints and orthodox theologians freely affirm this. So there must always be a manner of reconciling the two texts. Problematic texts, or confusing texts, can be reconciled with one another if they are not truly contradictory. One could always object that an infallible and all-knowing God ought not to give mankind revelations that are "problematic","difficult" or in need of "reconciliation", but now one is not objecting against alleged contradictions per se as much as against the manner God has chosen to reveal, which is a tremendously arrogant statement and one that cannot be answered at any rate, since human beings have no way to answer questions relating to why God chose to create or act in one way and not another.

Now, let's examine the texts in question. First, the famous account of Saul's suicide from 2 Samuel 31:1-6:

"And the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa. And the Philistines fell upon Saul, and upon his sons, and they slew Jonathan, and Abinadab and Melchisua the sons of Saul. And the whole weight of the battle was turned upon Saul: and the archers overtook him, and he was grievously wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armorbearer: "Draw thy sword, and kill me: lest these uncircumcised come, and slay me, and mock at me." And his armorbearer would not: for he was struck with exceeding great fear. Then Saul took his sword, and fell upon it. And when his armorbearer saw this, to wit, that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men that same day together."

So, a few things to point out here:

Note that Saul was grievously wounded by arrows. An arrow wound in the ancient world was a terrible thing; most likely Saul was hit randomly, as most archers in ancient armies fired random volleys, not unlike the famous English longbowmen of later ages. It would be a very painful wound, probably not severe enough to kill him outright, but enough to incapacitate him from the battle and kill him slowly by infection, if he were to escape the battle.

Yet, seeing the battle pressed hot around him and no chance of escape and his kin all slain, Saul opts for death, but note that he does not at first try to kill himself. Rather, he begs his armor bearer to run him through. It is only when the armor bearer refuses that Saul falls on his own sword in an attempt to take his own life.

Now let's look at the second account, from 2 Samuel. In this passage, David is king, and he is anxiously waiting for some word about how the battle has gone, for he is very concerned for the welfare of his companion (and not gay lover), Jonathan. Here is how the Scripture tells it:

Now it came to pass, after Saul was dead, that David returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and abode two days in Ziklag. And on the third day, there appeared a man who came out of Saul's camp, with his garments rent, and dust strewed on his head: and when he came to David, he fell upon his face, and adored. And David said to him: From whence comest thou? And he said to him: "I am fled out of the camp of Israel." And David said unto him: "What is the matter that is come to pass? Tell me." He said: "The people are fled from the battle, and many of the people are fallen and dead: moreover Saul and Jonathan his son are slain." And David said to the young man that told him: "How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son, are dead?" And the young man that told him, said: I came by chance upon mount Gilboa, and Saul leaned upon his spear: and the chariots and horsemen drew nigh unto him, And looking behind him, and seeing me, he called me. And I answered, "Here am I." And he said to me: "Who art thou?" And I said to him: "I am an Amalekite." And he said to me: "Stand over me, and kill me: for anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." So standing over him, I killed him: for I knew that he could not live after the fall: and I took the diadem that was on his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm and have brought them hither to thee, my lord." Then David took hold of his garments and rent them, and likewise all the men that were with him. And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel, because they were fallen by the sword. (2 Samuel 1:1-12)

As in the first passage, Saul is presented as being wounded in the battle. Seeing no hope of recovery, Saul asks the Amalekite to thrust him through, which the Amalekite does.

The pivotal question is this: Does the account in 2 Samuel contradict, in a logical sense, the account in 1 Samuel? That is, if one is true, must the other be false?

The obvious answer is no. The account of 2 Samuel can be reconciled with that in 1 Samuel is we presume that Saul's attempt to kill himself in 1 Samuel was unsuccessful. This would mean that when the Amalekite came upon him, not only was Saul wounded by arrows, but he had also tried to fall on his sword and yet had life in him.

From a common sense standpoint, this makes sense. It is a very difficult and challenging thing to take one's own life even in regular circumstances, let alone when laying on a battlefield riddled with arrows. According to a report released by the American Association of Suicidology, there are 25 attempts at suicide for every one success; in young people, the odds are actually close to 200:1 that the suicide attempt fails [1]. In a 2008 study done by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it was reported that 1.1 million people actually attempted suicide in the United States that year, but only just over 33,000 succeeded [2]. And this is in the age of powerful firearms and lethal drugs. What must have been the chance of success when one was relying on driving a sharp piece of metal into one's abdomen?

So, from the standpoint of common experience, rather than ask "What justification do you have for presuming Saul's attempt to fall on his sword failed", we should ask rather, "Why should we automatically presume it succeeded?" Statistically, Saul was way more likely to fail than to succeed. Couple this with the fact that Saul failed at most other things he tried, and we do have a strong circumstantial case that he totally biffed his attempt to fall on his sword and just ended up hurting himself worse.

But in addition to this, we can look at the textual evidence presented in 2 Samuel 1. Note that in 1 Samuel, Saul's decision to kill himself is more motivated by despair that his sons have been killed and he does not want to be mocked by the Philistines. Yet in 2 Samuel, his case is presented as more desperate - he seems to want to die in order to end his pain, which would make sense if he had tried unsuccessfully to stab himself. Look at his language to the Amalekite and the Amalekite's response:

"Stand over me, and kill me: for anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." So standing over him, I killed him: for I knew that he could not live after the fall."

Saul laments that he is in great pain and points out that his "whole life" is still in him. In other words, he is in severe pain and can't believe that he is still living after the wounds he has received. The Amalekite clearly sees this and realizes that, though Saul is living, he cannot live long. Thus he slays him.

Compare this with Saul's words in 2 Samuel 31:

"Saul said to his armorbearer: "Draw thy sword, and kill me: lest these uncircumcised come, and slay me, and mock at me."

This is quite a different motivation! Here his concern is much different. Ultimately, what the textual evidence reveals is that the nature of his wounds in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 are different; in the former, he is wounded but still viable; his decision to take his own life is motivated by fear of being dishonored and knowledge that tactically speaking there is no escape. But in 2 Samuel he is not only wounded but terribly wounded, such that his motivation for wishing for death is to end his physical pain, for, as he says, "anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." The difference in the nature of these two statements only makes sense if his suicide attempt in 1 Samuel 31 did not kill him but only further wounded him and placed him in even greater pain, such that he was willing to ask to first person who walked by to thrust him through and put him out of his misery.

So then, here is how it went down:

While fighting on Mount Gilboa, Saul witnessed all his sons fall in battle around him. The battle pressed hot, and Saul was struck by enemy arrows - maybe in the legs, maybe shoulders, who knows - wounded in such a way that he was still alive and could have survived, but he saw no tactical way to get out of the battle. Seeing this, and seeing his house destroyed, he asked his armor bearer to kill him so he could save himself from being mocked and tormented by the Philistines, as they had done to Samson. This would preserve his dignity. Yet the armor bearer refused, and so Saul attempted to fall on his own sword. The armor bearer saw this and killed himself as a consequence, apparently with better effect than Saul, because after falling on his sword, the king realized that he had botched his suicide attempt and was now in even greater pain and in even more danger of being taken alive. Not long after, the Amalekite wandered by and Saul begged him to end his misery, seeing that despite all the wounds he had endured from the Philistines and by his own hand, "my whole life is yet in me." The Amalekite, seeing Saul riddled with arrows and suffering terribly from the botched suicide attempt, knew it was futile to try to save him and thus acceded to his request, thrusting him through and finally ending the king's life.

Note that this explanation does not do any damage to the text, for it is not only in keeping with what the Scriptures narrate but actually is the only explanation that really addresses the nuances in Saul's language satisfactorily. It also makes sense from an experiential viewpoint, since the research supports that most suicide attempts are unsuccessful. Furthermore, this explanation is the one that has traditionally been offered when scholars and theologians have attempted to explain these passages. Thus we can certainly not say there is a contradiction here, since asserted one does not make the other impossible. In fact, they are complimentary and give us two pieces of the story that fit together.

As in other cases (Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus, Seeking and Finding, Praying in Public, Oprah's ignorance about God's "jealousy", Resurrection chronologies, etc) there is no real contradiction, just people not willing to exert the mental effort to examine the texts critically or the faith to presume that a satisfactory resolution actually exists.


[1] USA suicide 2006 Official final data: JL McIntosh for the American Association of Suicidology 2009. Many figures there taken from Reducing suicide: a national imperative, Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM, Bunney WE, editors.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434). Rockville, MD. and

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Retreading History Toward the Heavenly Jerusalem

I have a theory about Church history. It is only my private theory, so I will grudge no person who ventures to disagree with me about it. The theory is this: knowing how salvation history has unfolded from the beginning of the world till the coming of Christ - ripe with shadows, types, antitypes, fulfillments and prophecy, symbolism and acts that, while not repetitions, bear strong resemblances to one another - that as we approach the end of time and the Second Coming of our Lord, the history of the Church will in a way repeat itself backward as we approach the terminal moment of Christ's return.

The Christian era begins and ends with a coming of Christ. Within those brackets, we have the physical persecution of a small but pure Church, the growth of the Church as an institution, the origin of the hermits, the blossoming of the monastic orders, the conversion of Europe, the ascendancy of the Church as a political power, the beautiful unfolding of unified Christian civilization in medieval Europe with its own distinctive art, architecture and philosophy. Then, with the Reformation, things start to go backward, and the Church seems to go through these same phases again, only this time backward, losing what was gained and in reverse order to how they were attained, but in doing so, returning to a smaller, purer state more reminiscent of the early Church; the Church has gone from small, formative to large, institutional, but since the Revolt has been shedding some of the temporal power and clout it once enjoyed and is moving back towards a small, formative society: and just as this smaller Church immediately followed the First Advent, so its reappearance - not as a global entity with billions of lukewarm Catholics - but as a small, faithful Remnant, will also precede His Second Advent.

Before we go on, please do me some credit and don't presume that I am implying the "small, formative" and "large, institutional" aspects are opposed to one another; I am not coming at this as a Hegelian but as a historian, simply noting that the Church has gone through these stages without passing judgment on them or speculating on their compatibility or lack thereof. Nor am I approaching this as a Joachimite, positing a conflict between an "age of the Church" with an "age of the Spirit." I note merely that the Church is a living thing, and as all living things, has a time of growth and development. I also think that, as a metahistorical reality, there is some symbolism or rationality to the way it has changed and how it will change in the future, and that the future is related to the past.


The first thing lost after the Protestant Revolt was the uniquely Catholic culture that was the product of the Catholic Church, that unity of culture across all Christian peoples that was called "Christendom." This culture was lost and fragmented as nation-states replaced Christendom.

Even as Catholic culture had followed the Church's temporal ascendancy in the 12th century, so the next thing the Church lost after the unified culture it brought forth was its political influence, especially as we move into the Enlightenment era. Then, just as the conversion of Europe preceded the growth of the Church as a political power, so in the Enlightenment the decline of the Church as a political power was followed by the de-Christianization of the west.

If we are moving backward from the large to the small, the next thing we can expect to see is a new blossoming of monastic life, just as the original monastic flowering preceded the conversion of the west. I think we are in this stage right now; old religious orders are dying and small but extremely faithful orders, congregations and societies are popping up all over the place. You and I all know that vocations are thriving wherever tradition is the standard. There is no vocations crisis; there is an identity crisis. The shift we are seeing is one from quantitative to qualitative; in the next generation,we may see numbers of religious among the traditional orders decline in number, but we will also see, overlayed as it were, the explosive growth of newer, smaller orders whose quality is outstanding.

Following this, probably when I am an old man and going into the 22nd century, I believe we will see a rebirth of the eremetic movement. Eremetic movements grow when there is a lazy, contented urban Church that is incapable of satisfying the desires of the zealous and penitent soul. I foresee a time when, like in the age of the Desert Fathers, men and women will again take to the wilderness, but this time it will not be the deserts of Egypt - it will be the medians and freeway off-ramps outside our major cities, or remote Appalachian mountain tops, or in inhospitable, stony retreats in the American desert. These new hermits will stand a living condemnation of the greed and materialism of the current age and in their bodies will manifest the reality and power of Christ. Who knows how long this will last.

With their resurgence, I believe, we will return to an age of more widespread, public and undeniable miracles, miracles that will convict and convince the honest few while further alienating the apathetic majority.

If we are going backwards in time, the next thing that happens, or actually at the same time, is a renewal of violent persecution, in which the Church, even though small and harrowed politically and ostracized socially, gives a spectacular public witness, attested by many martyrdoms and accompanying miracles, and like the preaching of the early Church and martyrs, these martyrs will vocally warn the world to repent because the coming of Christ is at hand. This period will also be the period of the antichrist, a new Nero or something similar.

Then, going backwards, we get to Pentecost, the birth of the Church with the manifestation of great power exercised by Christ's apostles, and likewise in these latter days the Church will exercise great power in the Spirit in the days immediately preceding Christ's return, when "his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is over against Jerusalem toward the east: and the mount of Olives shall be divided in the midst thereof to the east, and to the west with a very great opening, and half of the mountain shall be separated to the north, and half thereof to the south." (Zech. 14:4).

Note that, if we take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, the very first act of God on earth is the creation of the universe, and the very last act God will do in salvation history is the destruction of the current order and its reconstitution in glory.

I know this theory does not adequately take into account various other things commonly associated with the End Times, which are of varying degrees of authority (two witnesses, conversion of Jews, false prophet, age of peace, days of darkness, etc), but knowing how history has worked out in the past, I would not be surprised if it did somehow work out this way - as if the march of the ages is like a Yo-Yo that is unfurled to a certain point along a certain trajectory, and then when it has reached that point, at a certain time known by God, it begins to be unfurled, developments are undone, things repeat themselves in a certain manner, and we finally find ourselves in the same situation our early Catholic ancestors were, except whereas they bore witness in the age immediately after Christ's departure, we shall do so in an age immediately prior to His glorious return.

Just something I have been ruminating on, perhaps taking as my locus of though the saying of Mark Twain that "History does not repeat, but it does rhyme."