Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Black Hand of the Madonna

This month we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, as well as the canonizations of Francisco and Jacinta.

I highly recommend this article, "Fatima's Gradual Descent into Darkness" by E.A. Bucchianeri at the blog Books, Blabble, and Blarney (May 17, 2017). It is a fascinating read about the site of Fatima written from the perspective of a devout Catholic who has lived in Fatima for the past fourteen years. He chronicles the architectural and liturgical abominations that have become ubiquitous at the site. He also chronicles some of the interesting sorts of observations that its hard to categorize and assign precise meaning to - for example, that the hand of the Blessed Virgin Mary statue at Fatima has become blackened with mold, the hideous "toothpick crucifix" and other things of this sort. I highly recommend this article; even if one does not adopt all the author's interpretations of the signs he is witnessing, one should at least be aware and give them some thought.

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When I first saw the above mentioned article posted on social media, there were all sorts of skeptical comments to the tune of "You're reading too much into these occurrences" and "Don't be superstitious" and so on. I encountered similar comments when I posted an article noting that the ceremonial doves released by the Roman pontiffs as emblems of peace were frequently attacked and killed by crows ("Safe Place for a Dove", June 7, 2015). We could note a similar responses when people drew attention to the famous lightning strike at St. Peter's Basilica just hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

It is difficult for people to interpret such things. Most Catholics tend to default to two opposite extremes when confronted with potential supernatural signs, prophecy, etc - on the one hand, some have a tendency to seek too much exactitude out of these sorts of things, interpreting them as very clear communications, establishing elaborate timelines, and generally acting as if they possess the entire schedule of the eschaton down to the minute. One the other hand, you will have people who react against that sort of presumptuous precision and flee to the other extreme of supposing that nothing at all can be gleaned from such occurrences. These people almost take a Kantian approach to supernatural signs: God sends us supernatural signs and prophecy, but there is an unbreachable chasm between God's actions and our understanding of them. Sure, maybe God sends signs, but who can possibly interpret them? Therefore, it's best to just ignore them altogether.

As an aside, it was this frustration that led me to create the video "Shortcomings of Catholic Eschatology" on the USC Youtube channel. And no, my complaints about Catholic eschatology are not to be construed as an invitation for you to spam me with you utter rubbish about Maria Divine Mercy.

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People inherently have a problem interpreting supernatural signs when prudence is required. They want to either throw prudence to the wind entirely, or apply it in excess. But Jesus calls us to moderation. He presents His signs in terms of natural phenomenon, like the coming of evening or the changing of seasons. Think of how we perceive these things, seasons, weather, etc. They are not matters of precision; jokes about the reliability of weather forecasts are ubiquitous. Predictions about the weather and the seasons are helpful for telling us the general direction in which we are moving, without too much precision. We would be foolish to put too much stock in a particular forecast; we would be equally foolish to ignore the general changing of the seasons altogether just because particular forecasts are not extremely precise.

This is why Jesus uses examples taken from the weather. “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times" (Matt. 16:2-3). Jesus wants us to pay close enough attention to the signs of the times that we can say "A storm is coming,"  but he also wants us to be humble enough to realize we cannot figure it all out. It is sufficient to know the storm is on its way and to prepare accordingly. That is ultimately why God sends such signs.

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The hand of the Madonna of Fatima has turned black.One calls to mind the message of Fatima about Our Lady using her hand to withhold the vengeance of our Lord. One prominent ecclesiastic has recently derided this idea as a "Mary of our own making", making fun of the idea of Mary as "one who restrains the arm of a vengeful God" and is "sweeter than Jesus the ruthless judge." This critique is much too simplistic; of course Mary is not "sweeter" than Jesus. Of course this is a false dichotomy; it is not as if Christ is ruthless judge and Mary is pure mercy. God's justice and mercy are perfectly in harmony, and insofar as Mary is the holiest saint, she too possesses perfect mercy and justice.

The point of the Fatima's teaching about Mary withholding the arm of Christ is not to establish some kind of distinction between a "sweet merciful Mary" and a ruthless Jesus. Rather, the purpose is to impress upon us that if Christ does come in judgment, it is because of our sins. And if grace is extended to us to forestall that judgement, that grace has come through the intercession of Our Lady.

These occurrences at Fatima may not "mean" anything; I file them away in my mind under "Interesting...note taken." But they are ominous. We live in ominous times.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Would Political Freedom Would Make Our Parishes Stupider?

Here in the United States, President Trump just announced a new executive action that is supposed to loosen the restrictions on religious organizations from engaging in political activity. How exactly this action will change things is uncertain at the moment, as Trump's action only gives directives to the IRS and Treasury to interpret existing legal norms with maximal leniency when dealing with possible violations. To actually change the law itself would require an act of Congress.

At any rate, this turn of events led me to consider whether it would be a good or bad thing for the Church in the United States if all restrictions on political activity by religious organizations were lifted. After reflecting on this for a few days, I think my answer is yes it would be good in theory, but in practice it would be harmful.

Why would such a thing be good?

The Church historically was extremely engaged in politics. Obviously the whole history of Christendom is replete with examples of the Church engaging political matters vigorously. One only need think of the struggles of the Investiture Controversy and similar Church-State conflicts to see that political activity has often been a necessary prerequisite for the Church to maintain her autonomy.

In fact, the traditional understanding of the Church's relationship to the state as exemplified by the famous teaching of Pope St. Gelasius (c. 494) presumes that the Church is able to make her opinion known on political matters, insomuch as political acts sometimes overlap matters of faith. The State concerns itself with the temporal ends of man, the Church with the supernatural, but sometimes the former touches on the latter, and in such cases the Church may engage in activity in order to advocate for political activity that does not contravene divine law; indeed, in some cases, the clergy actually have an obligation to speak truth to power, as Pope St. Gelasius says, "there is no slight danger in the case of the priests if they refrain from speaking when the service of the divinity requires."

The Church has often used political speech in the past with great benefit to the public good. For example, in 1948 Massachusetts put Referendum No. 4 to voters, which would have relaxed the state's ban on artificial contraception. Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing led a vigorous opposition to the measure, plainly telling Catholics not to vote for it. The Referendum was defeated by a 57% margin. Such plain political engagement by the Church was subsequently banned with the 1954 Johnson Amendment - which may partially explain why Cushing later changed his tone on contraception.

At any rate, I don't think I need to belabor this point. Most readers of this blog, who tend to be more historically and theologically literate, understand why, in theory, returning more autonomy to the Church in this regard should be a good thing, and certainly more in keeping with Catholic tradition.

If I admit this in theory, why would I deny it in its application here in the USA?

In application, I feel that loosening restrictions on political activity would be harmful for the Church in practice for one simple reason - the two party stupidity of the American mainstream has infected the Church.

Greater freedom to engage in politics would be wonderful for the Catholic Church - if American Catholics had a well-grounded Catholic identity and some semblance of a Catholic political vision grounded in the Church's social tradition. But, since American Catholics are so pathetically lacking in any independent Catholic political ethos, in practice we would witness each parish devolve into a satellite of the Republican or Democratic Party. It would not engender an independent Catholic political spirit; rather, it would inject further secular partisanship into parish life and fasten the chains of Catholic thought more securely to the agendas of Hudge and Gudge.

It would also be horribly divisive for Catholic parishioners. Even now parishes tend to lean liberal or conservative politically, but the lack of overt political activity provides a kind of breathing space for Catholics who might not agree with their pastors on every issue. As it stands now, a Catholic might, for example, realize his pastor is softer on illegal immigration than he would like. But since there are limits on what sorts of political advocacy a pastor can engage in, he is somewhat prevented from shoving his opinions down his parishioner's throats. And this allows pastors and congregants to kind of co-exist socially in the same parish, because their obnoxious political opinions are buffered and they don't have to engage each other directly.

Now suppose, however, you walk into your parish one day and your pastor is vocally pushing a petition drive to turn your town into a Sanctuary City. He is lambasting political candidates by name and campaigning for others. He has ushers ready with the ballot petition at the back of the Church and is hovering around encouraging people to sign it. Even if the pastor and parishioner would have had the same differing opinions before, now the buffer is removed. The parish has become a locus of political confrontation. The man who disagrees with his pastor's political agenda will no longer feel "safe". This would be the case whether the pastor was pushing liberal-Democratic garbage, or whether he was stumping for the local GOP hack.

The result would be the politicization of parishes in the image of our stupid two party system. We would see a massive population realignment as parishioners who no longer felt welcome at their parishes would migrate to others more reflective of their views.

I understand this already happens to some degree, but if the Church in the United States were to have complete freedom of political action, watch parish life be entirely politicized immediately. GOP and Democratic operatives would swoop in and organize the parishioners politically. The two party stupidity we all hate would take over our parishes. It would be omnipresent and inescapable. There would be no breathing space.

In conclusion, it would be excellent if Catholics in this country had an independent political vision grounded in the perennial truths of the Gospel. If that were the case, political freedom for the Church would mean the creation of a robust "Third Way" that could challenge the prevailing political dichotomy and bring true reform to the nation. But, in the absence of such a coherent mindset, in practice we would see each parish become a tool of the Democratic or Republican parties, and the politicization of parish life in the basest manner. Catholic social life, already anemic, would become that much stupider.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Advice About Confession Problem?

So, I need your advice here. A friend came to me with this problem, and I really don't know what to do about it.

A young man I know told me he has been struggling with certain habitual sins. He has been going to confession regularly to help obtain the graces he needs to overcome these sins. The other day, he went to a parish he doesn't normally go to for confession just because it was close and kind of convenient.

He made a standard confession, saying how long it had been since his last confession, the sins of thought and deed he had committed, both in kind and number - then, he also added, "Because I have confessed this sin so many times, I believe I am also guilty of presuming on God's mercy - of assuming I can just go to confession." So, he was confessing what he had done, but also confessing the sin of presumption.

Then he told me the priest giggled and said, "You know a priest has the power to forgive or retain sins. You cannot presume on the mercy of God. Because you did, I am retaining your sins. I will not forgive you today. You will have to go to confession another time." The young man went out, confused and unabsolved.

I have heard stories of saints who have refused absolution to penitents because they were able to tell (by supernatural intuition) that the penitent was not actually contrite. But that was certainly not the case here. The young man was contrite; he knew he had sinned through presumption and was actually confessing that he was guilty of it.

I believe the priest was probably trying to teach the young man a lesson about not presuming you can always just go to confession. But even so, aren't priests supposed to always absolve penitents who profess contrition and don't give any indication that they aren't.

Was this an abuse of the sacrament? Was this young man denied his canonical rights? Or is this something priests have the discretion to do?

Please note, my friend is not wanting to "do" anything about it or make trouble necessarily. He and I both just really want to know if this is something anyone has heard of or if it is legitimate.