Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul

Today is the three year anniversary of the foundation of this blog! Blessed Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul to all of you. I hope your "Year of the Priest" was fruitful for you and all your pastors. It is fitting, on this day  when we commemorate the martyrdoms of the two most glorious apostles, to revisit the famous passage from St. Irenaeus' Against Heresies on the double-apostolic origin of the See of Rome:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Contra Haeresies, Book III, Chap. 3, i-iii).

"O God, Who hast made this day holy by the martyrdom of Thine Apostles Peter and Paul: grant that Thy Church may in all things follow the precepts of those through whom she received the beginnings of the Faith" (from the Collect for the Mass of Ss. Peter and Paul).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sacral Kingship: The Emperor as Pius and Victor (Part 4)

Part 4 of my work on Christian Kingship, looking at the ideologies of power surrounding the first Christian Emperors of Rome. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

The Emperor as Pius and Victor

It did not take long for Constantine to begin to fundamentally alter the way the office of the Roman Emperor was viewed. The office of the Emperor had many pagan connotations that would be unseemly in a Christian context. Constantine may have understood the Christian faith poorly, as most historians assert, but he was prudent enough to realize that if he was to be at all sincere with his conversion that many of the pagan trappings of the imperial authority would have to be done away with. He did not, however, try to abolish hundreds of years of Roman tradition all at once and attempt to substitute something completely novel in its place, like some new Roman Akhenaten. Instead, he modified Roman imperial protocol like a surgeon, skillfully removing parts that had to go, replacing them with well established Christian customs and making the best of the old Roman ideals that remained.

Immediately after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, he offended the aristocracy of Rome by failing to perform the customary victory rites at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus when entering the city. It had been customary for centuries for every emperor, upon his ascension, to go straight to the temple the first time he entered the city to perform offerings to the state god. This glaring neglect of protocol offended conservative Roman sensibilities.1 He introduced a further novelty by dropping the imperial title Invictus, or “unconquerable,” which had been used as an official epithet of the Roman Emperor as far back as Severus Alexander (222-35) and as an unofficial title as far back as Trajan. It was certainly dropped because of its connotations of sun worship and the cult of Sol Invictus. Constantine replaced it with the more ambiguous title Victor, which implied all of the same images of victory as Invictus but without the pagan trappings. This compromise was acceptable to both Christians and pagans alike.2

His adoption of the new epithet as well as his failure to sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus both attest to the military nature of Constantine’s conversion. His initial commitment to Christianity in the years immediately after his victory at the Milvian Bridge “was inextricably bound up in his own understanding of his military success.”3 Constantine viewed his victory as a result of his obedience to the Christian God,4 giving the Christians a modern example of the Old Testament model of the faithful and militarily victorious king. Here was not some ancient David or Hezekiah, centuries removed from common experience, but a living man. For the first time since the Maccabbean era, the Lord God of Israel had granted a military triumph to His chosen one.

This idea obviously had many precedents from Biblical history. Constantine and his circle were quick to apply the ancient ideas of the king as the Lord’s anointed to the Roman Emperor, as was the Church. Thus, it was not long before sincere Christians and shallow sycophants alike began to refer to Constantine’s “Divine Face” and his “Sacred Countenance,” which almost became unofficial epithets of the Emperor.5 Constantine tried very hard to portray his role as the first Christian emperor as an event supreme importance in salvation history, a probably very sincerely believed this. The Emperor and the ecclesiastical writers of the age tried to foster this image by comparing Constantine’s acts to things mentioned in the Scriptures. Thus, Eusebius calls him the “most beloved of God” and compares his victory at the Milvian Bridge to the victory of Moses over the Egyptian chariots and invokes the triumphant hymn of Moses and Miriam as a fitting description of Constantine’s triumph. Conversely, all those who opposed Constantine were “haters of God” and “enemies of religion.”6 When the Emperor finally died, he was buried in the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople (which he himself had built) amidst statues of the twelve apostles of Christ, even in death identifying himself with the anointed of the Lord. After his death, and even a little during his life, he was referred to as the “Thirteenth Apostle”7 and hoped by his internment in the Church of the Twelve Apostles “that he should thus even after death become the subject, with them, of the devotions which should be performed to their honor in this place.”8

Besides drawing on a rich reservoir of Biblical images, Constantine also drew on the vast heritage of Roman tradition to create his new image. As mentioned above, he substituted the title Invictus, offensive to Christians, with the title of Victor, which placated Christians and pagans alike. A further change came in the redefinition of the classic epithet given to Roman Emperors since the beginning: Pius. To classical Roman thought, the blessing of the gods upon the state was bestowed if the rulers and the people demonstrated the virtue of pietas. Though it is the etymological root of the English word piety, the Roman understanding of it is considerably different. While the word piety in a Christian context denotes a kind of humble devotion, the Latin pietas had a more social connotation and meant fulfilling one’s duty to family, clients, the state and the gods. It invoked the idea of justice, exemplified by a rightly ordered society in which everyone gives their superiors their due: children to parents, parents to family (gens), individual gens to the state and the state to the gods. It was this rightly ordered society that secured the blessing of the gods upon the state, the pax deorum. This peace of the gods consisted solely in material blessings. But it was a societal effort; if any element was missing, whether it be on the state or the familial level, the gods would not bless the nation.

Glaringly absent from the classic idea of pietas to the gods was any notion of obedience to the gods. The idea of Jupiter or Minerva issuing commandments or ordinances like the God of Israel would have seemed strange to an ancient Roman. The gods were not something to be obeyed, but something to be placated. Their worship consisted not in hymns of praise and thanksgiving for the intrinsic goodness of Jupiter, but it a series of sacrifices and liturgies performed according to hallowed custom, where the heart of the individual worshipper was not as important as the insistence that the rites be performed according to meticulous adherence to tradition. They thus took on a kind of magical flavor. With Constantine’s conversion comes the idea, which had always been prevalent in Judaism and Christianity, that a ruler must demonstrate active obedience and allegiance to God, as opposed to the kind of passive placation that characterized most pagan liturgies. “The idea that any sort of day-to-day service or perpetual allegiance was owing to divinity had little currency [among the pagans]…You only made offerings, or promises of offerings, in order to gain favor from powerful beings.”9 This fulfilling of vows, sacrifices and the proper acting out of liturgical rites characterized the pietas that the Romans owed the gods collectively and individually.

Constantine, by his confession of the Christian faith, redefined the concept of pietas, though this transformation seemed to be more of a slow change in thought on the part of the late Roman world than any kind of concerted effort on the part of the Emperor. With his obedience to the heavenly vision to paint the chi rho on his soldiers’ shields and his subsequent victory, the Christian idea of securing God’s blessing on the state implied the idea of obedience to God’s law and to the moral precepts of the Gospel. This image was backed up by the Biblical imagery of the pious king, like David or Asa. The result was that military victory, in terms of which Constantine viewed his immediate conversion, was connected with piety. This was not new in the Empire, but in the novel Christian understanding of the word pius it was something new. Never before had people, much less rulers, been obliged to love and obey the divinity, only placate it. In the post-Constantinian empire, Pius and Victor went hand in hand. 

The Christian emperor had to be pious in his personal and public life, which meant living morally, obeying Church law, governing justly and loving God. The exercise of piety certainly would involve patronizing the Church, and Constantine certainly did this by exempting the clergy from other civil obligations, granting the Church immunity from taxation and building several lavish basilicas. This type of piety brought God’s blessings to his people, which the ancient Christians usually equated with victory over hostile enemies, bountiful harvests, and the spread of the faith. It was especially in the context of military victory that Pius and Victor were connected. 

By the late 4th century, a standard set of characteristics of a good Christian emperor had developed, complete with a court protocol. The Christian writers of the Constantinian period did much to emphasize that the power of the Christian emperor came from God and was not the result of popular acclaim or military might. It was the anointing of God, just as it was with David and Solomon, which made the emperor. The idea of authority to rule coming from heaven was something eastern in origin and originally foreign to the Greco-Roman mind, but by the 4th century years of autocratic rule had gradually accustomed the citizens of the Empire to the idea. Diocletian had begun the process of ritualizing court protocol along eastern lines, and Constantine and his successors continued to do so in a Christian context. Two examples of this protocol help demonstrate this: Constantine’s entry to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the trip of his son and successor, Constantius II, to Rome in 357.

Constantine had set a remarkable precedent by calling the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, an example that would be followed by future Byzantine emperors seeking to imitate the piety of Constantine. Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s entry into the council chamber in of pivotal importance, for it demonstrates both the exalted image that the emperor tried to portray by his appearance and the ceremony surrounding his entrance, and the first beginnings of an integration of civil and ecclesiastical ceremonies. It is worth quoting at length:

[Constantine entered the chamber] like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones….it was evident that he was distinguished by piety and godly fear. This was indicated by his downcast eyes, the blush on his countenance, and his gait….he surpassed all present in height of stature and dignity of form….As soon as he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, at first he remained standing, and when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited until the bishops beckoned him, and then sat down, and after him the whole assembly did the same.10
This is far removed from the republican modesty of Augustus! This example demonstrates how clearly ideas about authority and the image of power had changed by the Christian era. Notice that his piety is ascertained by his “downcast eyes” and serious countenance. Christian emperors, as the anointed of God, tried very hard to appear as “other” from the rest of humanity. Out of deference, the bishops remained standing until the Emperor sat down, but lay people who supplicated the Christian emperors of the east usually were required to do more homage, such as prostrations. The idea of one emperor anointed by God fit in well with Christian theology. After all, if there was but “one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all”11 as St. Paul had taught, why not also one emperor ruling earth in God’s name? The concept seemed appropriate to Christian thought. Christian emperors at Constantinople consequently transformed their courts into conscious imitations of the heavenly court, thus proclaiming their piety and displaying their power. Perhaps this was done in imitation of the way the early Christian liturgies were meant to mimic the heavenly liturgy revealed in the Apocalypse. Either way, the message got across. Eusebius himself understood this court symbolism and said of Constantine’s banquet following the opening of Nicaea, “One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth, and a dream rather than a reality.”12

About half a century later, when Constantine’s son Constantius II visited the city of Rome, the image of the emperor as “other” than the people had been more refined. The imperial procession is described by Ammianus Marcellinus:

[E]scorted by formidable troops…he was conducted, so to speak, in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze….while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden car in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a shifting light….And their marched on either side of him twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail….Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favoring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred…as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to the right nor to the left, but (as if he were a lay figure) neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or to move his hands about. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood.13
Every motion and expression of the Emperor here is meant to convey the message that he is far removed from the daily lives of his subjects. Everything from the exalted golden throne upon which he sits (which Ammianus assures us that nobody except him was ever permitted to sit on)14, to the image of his stone-faced immobile head, “as if his neck were in a vice”, is meant to display his regal power by exalting the person of the Emperor far above mere mortals. After all, if imperial authority is given by God, why not make certain that everybody knows it? 

Making sure that everybody knew it was the job that court ceremony took on in the Byzantine world. Constantius’ visit to Rome was meticulously choreographed down to the minutest detail in order to convey a message of divine power to his subjects, serving the purpose of a primitive commercial.

This “advertising” of the divine power of the emperors was temperately encouraged by the Church, which was always ready to remind the emperors that their power was derived from God, whether encouraging them to exercise it or to refrain from doing so. St. Ambrose, for example, reminds the western Emperor Eugenius upon his ascension that “as you wish to be held in respect, allow us to respect Him from whom you would like to prove that your authority if derived.” 15 This simple statement alludes to the way in which the divine authority of the emperors could work for or against the imperial image. If the emperors “allow us [the Church] to respect Him [God],” then they prove by their deeds that their authority comes from God and will receive the praise of the Church and the blessing of God. But if they do evil, then they only prove that they abuse God’s authority, and thus incur an even more severe condemnation on themselves by God and the Church. Ambrose seems to be lightly censuring Eugenius here, saying that the emperor would like to prove his authority came from God, and insinuating that perhaps Eugenius was not being as good a steward of God’s authority as Ambrose thought he should have.16

What is the picture we get of Church and State relations at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages? How had the image of the Christian emperor developed from the time of Constantine into the early 5th century? Constantine had made the connection between the faith and the empire a military one. God rewarded the pious emperor for his obedience by blessing him with military victory. This ideal, accompanied by a desire to distance himself from the cult of Sol Invictus, prompted Constantine to adopt the imperial epithet Victor, which he used widely. Indeed, of all the letters and imperial edicts of Constantine recorded for us by Eusebius, all of them are given in the name of “VICTOR CONSTANTINVS.”17 The “victory” was at first military in nature, but afterwards came to symbolize the victory of the Christian empire over the evils of paganism. Victory was ensured by Christian piety, which Constantine redefined, exchanging the pagan idea of pietas as duty done properly for the Christian idea of piety as obedience done out of love. This piety was shown forth by patronizing the Church, repressing heresy (sometimes by calling an ecumenical council), funding Church building programs and defeating pagan barbarians. The truly godly emperor was both Pius and Victor, and the two were inseparably connected.

Taking the idea of themselves as God’s anointed partly from Biblical precedents and partly from trends already latent in the late empire, the Christian emperors made wide use of ceremony to display their power and convey the ideal that their authority was directly from God. This idea was strongest in the Byzantine world, where elaborate rites of court ceremony developed and where emperors were exalted to the point where, like Constantius II on his lofty gold throne, they were portrayed as being utterly “other” than the rest of humanity. Though a Christian emperor, Constantius II might as well have been a pagan statue of some god or goddess being born along his litter in a procession, so stone-like was his countenance. Church leaders called the emperors to task, admonishing them to live up to their public profession of faith and rebuked them sharply if they did not. The rebuke of Ambrose to the emperor Theodosius I when the latter massacred the citizens of Thessalonica is the most widely cited example of this sort of ecclesiastical censure, and by the time of Ambrose and Theodosius (c.388) the Church was well enough established that the Emperor willingly submitted to Ambrose’s censure and did public penance for his sin. This image of an emperor doing penance at the behest of a bishop, along with the later images of Henry IV at Canossa and Henry II at Becket’s tomb, is a prime example of the secular power bowing its knee to ecclesiastical reprimand. A good emperor could not afford to recklessly abuse his power like some Persian potentate, but nor could he afford to haphazardly throw it away to the people, as in the Greek democracies. Rather, he had to wield the sword of temporal authority firmly with the justice of God backing him up, but with an attitude of reasoned temperance and a determination to be a good steward of God’s authority. Beginning in the era of Ambrose, the Church began to take on the role of tempering the edge of the secular sword.

1 Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986), 101
2 Ibid., 21, 104-5
3 Ibid., 101
4 The strategic blunder of his foe Maxentius (who abandoned a well fortified position within the city of Rome in order to engage Constantine at the bridge) probably helped Constantine a little bit, too.
5 Michael Grant, History of Rome (Michael Grant Publications: London, 1979), 313
6 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 9.9, 10.9.
7 Grant, 313
8 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.60
9Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: A.D. 100-400, (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT., 1984), 13
10 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.10
11Eph. 4:4-6
12Ibid., 3.15
13Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 16.9,4-11
15 St. Ambrose, Letter 57
16Ambrose invoked the ideal of the pious Christian ruler both to get things done and refrain from getting them done. For example, he calls the piety of Theodosius into question in order to convince the emperor not to force the Church to fund the rebuilding of a burnt synagogue (Letter 40) and in another place uses the same argument to get the same emperor to make amends for his actions in Thessalonica (Letter 51). Thus, an appeal to the emperor’s pietas could get him to do something or refrain from an action.
17Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How to run a successful RCIA program.

 Interior of the Merovingian bapistry of St. Jean in Poitiers

As a follow up to my previous post on the horrors that often accompany RCIA programs, I thought I would delve into the positive side of the issue: how to put together and run a successful, educational and faith forming RCIA program, which, believe it or not, can be done. As I said in my prior post, I think the Church should ultimately rethink the entire idea of RCIA. I'm not saying it should be scrapped altogether; teaching the faith in a structured, class setting has certain benefits (of course, the problem is that these days it is seldom a class and seldom structured). What I do think is that RCIA needs to be made but one part of many possible avenues of entry for coming into the Church, so that pastors can respond accordingly to the needs of various individuals. I know several Protestants who I hope will be entering the Church in the next couple of years; while I rejoice at this, I am also deathly afraid that they will have an experience of RCIA like the one I described last time - something which will drive them away from Mater Ecclesia rather than into her bosom.

It is an unjust situation that a Catholic should face this dilemma - wanting their friends to come into the Church but fearful that the very process of making them Catholic will drive them away. This is why RCIA needs to be reevaluated, overhauled and placed as one option among many for people coming into the Church. This is also why I am going to post on how myself and my predecessor and co-blogger Anselm put together a successful RCIA program for out parish.

In the first place, we need to jettison any idea that the RCIA experience is going to be about experience at all; what I mean is that we need to abandon the diocesan-pushed idea of RCIA as a "faith sharing" forum where participants discuss their spiritual journey and their feelings. Rather, RCIA will be academic in nature; a series of classes - lectures. Sure, there will be discussion and interaction, but the sessions will primarily be made up of lecture time in which you (the DRE, director, or whatever) teach and the students listen receptively. This is a very, very important point and is the first step. This step must be taken in your mind before classes ever begin - these are to be truly classes in the traditional, academic sense. Make sure you are prepared to really teach and not just share experiences, and make sure the pastor is on board with this as well.

Now, before classes begin, interview all potential catechumens and candidates. Our classes begin in late August, so usually in July or early August I have private interviews with everybody who has signed up for the classes. They fill out a sheet with all their important info on it, date of baptism if applicable, etc. But the most important reasons for the interview are (1) to assess the potential catechumen/candidate to see if they have good reason for doing what they are doing; i.e., "Why do you want to become Catholic?"  (2) to inform them up front of the nature of the classes and, more importantly, of the commitments they will need to make (3) to see if they will require an annulment; if so, the case is referred to the pastor.

A little more elaboration on the second point regarding commitment: when I am interviewing people, I try to make RCIA sound challenging, maybe a little more so than it actually is. They need to commit to coming to class every single Monday night for the next nine months, showing up at various liturgical events, coming to a few extra-curricular activities (like a trip down to Detroit for a TLM on Palm Sunday, so they can get exposure to the Extraordinary Form), coming to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation and (if they are engaged or have a boyfriend/girlfriend) abstaining from all sexual relations. If I get a person who is cohabiting I tell them up front that they will not be received into the Church as long as that state of affairs continues (but I usually refer these cases to the pastor, who makes the final call).

This meeting presents Catholicism as something very challenging - and therefore valuable - and puts them in a disposition to be willing to work and suffer, if need be, for the Faith. It also weeds out people who would not be able to put up with all of the requirements. This is no real loss; it is better to get such people out at the very beginning rather than let them go through the motions and then let them into the Church with sinful habits already formed (like fornication, Mass-skipping, etc.).

Okay, now for the actual curriculum - this is important, and this is where many RCIA classes fail. In the first place, many have no curriculum so to speak of. They have a lot about sharing spiritual experiences, but little concrete in the form of academic instruction/catechesis; this is why, in my previous post, the RCIA director was unable to give the Protestant catechumen any reason why she should become Catholic, saying instead that it was "for her to decide." To avoid this, we will need to come up with a definitive curriculum. Remember, your people are there to receive something from you - what are you going to give them?

Secondly, this curriculum must cover the whole of Catholic faith, morals and spirituality. It must not be narrowly focused on "social justice" issues, heavily bent towards "service projects" or parish involvement. Programs that are weighted down with these elements tend towards the heresy of activism - giving the impression that being Catholic is all about doing a bunch of stuff and making people feel good because they are doing things rather than making them holier by forming their soul. Instead of making your program top-heavy with these sorts of efforts, develop it to be broadly dogmatic; the classes will be about what Catholics believe. Only after understanding what we believe is it proper to discuss how we act on our beliefs.

One other pitfall to avoid - and I can't stress this enough - do not set up your RCIA classes to be based on the liturgical year. I know that a lot of parishes and even diocesan offices recommend this approach, but it is doomed to failure, for two reasons:

(1) While helpful to occasionally discuss liturgical feasts and readings, doing so exclusively gives the impression that the classes are not going anywhere. Remember, the liturgical year is primarily devotional in nature, not catechetical. I've heard many testimonies from disgruntled catechumens who have said, "I didn't get anything out of RCIA at this other parish; all we did was sit around and talk about the readings." Just following the readings and the liturgical year is not pedagogically sufficient for the formation that RCIA requires.

(2) Furthermore (and this is the flip side of the first point) the Catholic Faith can only be fully grasped when it is presented in its integrity, with regard to the hierarchy of truths, and in an organic fashion. Certain truths need to be taught in a certain order, so that student can apprehend higher, more fundamental truths at the outset in order to see how other truths "interlock" with them to form a composite body of doctrine and morality. Basing classes on the liturgical year, even partially, destroys this essential order and obstructs the instructor from presenting topics hierarchically and organically. It gives the impression that the Faith is a jumble of doctrines with little correlation to each other. Since Catholicism is most certainly the most logically consistent religious system in existence, to deprive catechumens of the knowledge of this logical synthesis borders on sacrilege.

Okay, so I've told you what not to do with your curriculum; so what should you do with it?

In our program we use the model laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: first theology, then sacraments, morality, and finally prayer; I've tinkered with this a little bit by adding some apologetics at the outset and some other miscellaneous topics. Here is an outline of what my RCIA year looks like topically (note how they are broken up into larger thematic groupings):


Sept. 14: Proofs for God’s Existence
Sept. 21: The Divinity of Christ


Sept. 28: Scripture & Tradition
Oct. 5: The Blessed Trinity
Oct. 12: Creation, the Fall, Angels & the Devil
Oct. 19: Incarnation of Christ & Crucifixion
Oct. 26: The Church
Nov. 9: The Blessed Virgin Mary
Nov. 16: Purgatory
Nov. 23: Heaven, Hell & Second Coming of Christ

Sacraments I

Nov. 30: Sacraments &  Liturgy
Dec. 7: Baptism & Confirmation
Dec. 14: The Eucharist
Dec. 21: Sin & Confession
Jan. 4: Anointing of the Sick


Jan. 11: Freedom &  Happiness
Jan. 18: Moral Virtues
Jan. 25: 1st, 2nd, 3rd Commandments
Feb. 1: 4th Commandment
Feb. 8: 5th Commandment
Feb. 15: 6th & 9th Commandments
Feb. 22: 7th & 10th Commandments
Mar. 1: 8th Commandment & Church Precepts

Miscellaneous Topics

Mar. 8: Church History 33 - 1054 AD
Mar. 15: Church History 1054 - 2008 AD
Mar. 22: Saints / Communion of Saints
Mar. 29: The Papacy & Hierarchy

Sacraments II

Apr. 12: The Mass
Apr. 19: Holy Orders
Apr. 26: The Matrimony

Mystagogy (Post-Baptismal Instruction)

May. 3: Introduction to Prayer
May. 10: The Lord’s Prayer
May. 17: Dinner & Reflection (I take them out to a nice restaurant and we just talk about the year)

Note that by moving topically, sometimes the class topics do line up with liturgical feast days - the class on Purgatory just happens to fall close to All Souls Day and the class on the Second Coming falls during the week prior to Advent when the eschatological readings are done. It's nice when this happens, but it's not so desirable that I rearrange classes to make it happen. For me, preserving this order  in the presentation is more important than aligning with the readings.

There is an inner logic to this line-up: Apologetics comes first in order to specifically answer the question "Why am I here in this class?" It is also good because it gets certain objections out of the way that can linger and fester if not dealt with up front. It's not impossible for a man to sit through four months of RCIA but keep questioning whether or not it is all hogwash because he has never had the existence of God sufficiently proven to him; and if he can't even accept God's existence entirely, why would he accept, say, the Church's teaching on contraception? Deal with the big apologetical issues first, which can be summed up in two questions: Why believe in God? Why believe in Christ? Once these are out of the way, you are set to get into theology.

The miscellaneous topics are just important stuff that people need to understand if they are Catholic, and which are greatly misunderstood.

So how are these lessons actually composed? What do they look like? If you click here, you can see a sample of one of my class outlines, in this case, on the papacy and the hierarchy. I will lecture from these notes myself; in addition, I will pass out a copy of this to every person at the beginning of class so they can follow along, take notes, etc. This way, by the time you reach Easter, they have a 200 page booklet of Catholic dogma for future reference.

My lessons all have a few things in common:

They begin with a quote from the Scriptures as well as a quote from a saint for meditation; this gets the tone for the class and grounds the doctrine in the Bible while also cementing it firmly together with Tradition. From the very outset I get them thinking about Divine Revelation in terms of Scripture and Tradition together.

The bulk of the content is based on or quoted from the CCC, which is what my pastor wanted, but which also ensures that you are teaching what the Church considers a "sure norm" for the faith; as much as I love traditionalism, you want to make sure that you are teaching mainstream stuff and not going off onto tangents that might not be immediately relevant to the situation of your catechumens.

Not to say I don't work in Tradition - the lessons are seasoned with quotations from the saints, Aquinas, Church Councils (all of them) and a list of books for additional reading. Furthermore, every lecture draws on examples from Church history to make various dogmatic or pastoral points - the end result is that the catechumens do not walk away with a skewered view of Catholicism (like, there's the "old" Catholicism and then there's the "new", updated Church); instead, they learn to view the Church in its historical fullness as a single, organic entity and to value Tradition as a lens through which to interpret and understand the teachings of the Faith. This appeal to tradition is solidified when I take them to an Extraordinary Form Mass shortly before Easter. If you get it right, they will pick up on traditional issues as you go. For example, if you teach properly on the majesty and reverence owed to God in justice, they will naturally start to ask, "Then why doesn't this parish have the tabernacle more centrally located? Why doesn't everybody receive in the tongue?" and similar questions about decorum and fittingness. Just teaching the Faith makes them orthodox and traditional without them realizing it. You should never have to stand up and say, "Let me give you five reasons why parishes should never be built in the round"; they can deduce these conclusions from the simple truth of the Faith alone if you just give it to them. That's all an RCIA instructor needs to do.

What about RCIA teams? Do we use an RCIA team? Nope. My pastor's opinion is "I pay you to be the DRE. You teach them." This is good enough reason for me; but from a pedagogical viewpoint, it is disorienting to have a string of teachers instead of only one. Can you think of any other field where this is standard? Does a company want a string of managers coming in one after another? Does any school district think it is a good idea to have two or three different teachers take a class within a single year? What does it say about a professional sports team (Detroit Lions?) when they go through a head coach every year and a half for several years? If these examples are all unanimously agreed to be bad for the team/students/employees, why would we adopt such a model to form our catechumens, whose souls are at stake? Just when you get used to one instructor you have to adjust to the eccentricities of another. It also retards true relationships from building between the instructor and the class; at least that's my opinion. Yet despite all these negatives an RCIA "team" is standard for most parishes. That's because most parishes care more about their programs being inclusive, democratic and representative than they do about actual faith formation.

Finally, it might be objected that this academic approach leaves out too much. Some object that being too academic renders the "evangelical" nature of the Faith weaker - that by focusing too much on converting their minds we fail to convert their spirits; after all, Christ is a Person, and they need to be led into relationship with a Person, not just membership in an organization. Can this academic approach lead to heartfelt conversion as well as intellectual formation?

Absolutely. In fact, more so than other approaches that lay the emphasis squarely on experience. Remember, there is no dichotomy between knowledge and relationship. In fact, before we can adequately live God we must know what we are loving. Basic Thomism comes into play here: the essential vision of God is an intellectual vision that transforms the rest of the person in consequence of the intellectual sight of God. Practically speaking, this means that the truth itself is evangelistic. If we simply teach the truth, and teach it with conviction, then its beauty and splendor are evident and compel the will to act on what the intellect has apprehended. I have found, in five years of teaching RCIA in two different programs, that when you simply teach the truth the interior conversions experienced by the participants in the class are more profound and long-lasting. This is because the truth is transformative, and as they grasp the truths of the Church with docility (as opposed to being put on the spot to "share" their feelings), they find themselves transformed in the will and soul even as they learn the truths with the mind. Ironically, if you focus on experience and conversion as primary ends (as opposed to education), they get neither education not conversion; but if you emphasize education, they become converted as well.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to pass this post along to anyone you know who may be involved in RCIA or contact me with any questions. Oh, and don't forget to pray for your catechumens constantly. Very much depends on this and you are accountable for their souls while they are in your care. If you've done everything right, you'll see your former students around the parish for years to come and get feedback like this:

"I most enjoyed [Boniface's] enthusiasm and reverence for the subject matter! He was able to relate each separate piece to every other piece, and to the whole, so that both the intellectual and spiritual Truth and Beauty of God and His Church were made obvious and undeniable. It was the most fulfilling and rewarding journey of my life! As the weeks went by I realized how important it is to truly understand the reasons why Catholicism is what it is, why we do what we do, and especially why knowledge is so important for spiritual growth.”

This from a former atheist of thirty years.

I don't toot my own horn here; it was Anselm who really got this program rolling - I just polished it up. But I bring it up because I firmly believe the key is not in me, or Anselm, or whoever else presents, but in the fundamental approach taken towards the classes - are they for sharing or for education? Will the instructor teach or will the catechumens blab? Will the curriculum be organic and dogmatic or based on the lectionary? These questions determine the success or failure of the program. Here I've laid out my formula for success - employ it at your parish and I think you'll get good results.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Master's Thesis

Dear friends, readers of Boniface's excellent blog, et al. As you may or may not remember, I have posted here occasionally over the past three years while pursuing studies in theology at the ITI in Austria. I am pleased to report that I have successfully completed a Master's degree in Sacred Theology (STM), and graduated Summa cum laude last June 10.

As you might also remember, my primary interest within the field of dogmatic theology is soteriology, the study of how Christ's death on the cross saves us. Working toward a proper understanding of this central point of the Christian creed has been the subject of several posts here, and is also the subject of my recently completed Master's Thesis:

Poena Satisfactoria: Locating Thomas Aquinas's Doctrine of Vicarious Satisfaction in between Anselmian Satisfaction and Penal Substitution.

As you might have guessed, it contains a few criticisms of the Protestant theory of penal substitution. There are even a few criticisms of St. Anselm himself. But the main project of the thesis is to expound the soteriological doctrine of the Angelic Doctor himself, which is substantially the same as that held and taught by the Catholic Church. Placing his doctrine in relation to St. Anselm on the one side and to the Protestant Reformers on the other is thus intended primarily to highlight the unique contours of St. Thomas's position, and only secondarily to criticize their deficiencies and errors.

Those interested in reading the thesis (98 pages) can follow this link to purchase either a soft-cover edition.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

RCIA Horror Stories

When I was coming into the Church almost a decade ago, I loved RCIA. I couldn't wait for every Sunday to come, when after Mass my wife and I along with a few other catechumens and candidates would head out behind the parish to the classroom-trailers up on the hillside to have RCIA. We had a very dedicated and knowledgeable RCIA instructor who knew what he was talking about, loved the Catholic faith and was able to bring in a few other really gifted people to teach (some of them had worked or trained under Fr. Hardon). All in all, it was a great experience.

Years later, when I began teaching RCIA, I was pleased to find that my classes almost got unanimously positive responses from the people who went through it; actually, not "almost unanimous," but completely unanimous - I never had a real complaint from anyone.

Thus, my personal experience of RCIA as a student and later as a teacher was very positive and I was never aware that, in most parishes and for many people, RCIA is seen as a waste of time or a downright nightmare. One thing I found very disillusioning about RCIA was that it is presented (at the Rite of Election) as a very ancient process that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. I was made to feel like I was partaking of a very ancient tradition; since I was a baby Catholic, I didn't know any better. But I did notice as I read the lives of other famous converts from even the early 20th century there was no mention of RCIA. Of course, come to find out that RCIA was created basically by committee in 1972 and has very little to do with the ancient Church. When I was told that RCIA was a very ancient tradition, what was meant was that the process of a bishop scrutinizing the candidates for admission into the Church is ancient, but there is of course no direct connection between the modern RCIA rites and anything in the early Church. Perhaps some of the liturgical prayers are modeled after patristic era prayers, but modeling a thing on something of antiquity and the thing actually being from antiquity are different matters altogether.

One horror story I heard from RCIA concerned a young woman who wanted to convert from Protestantism. I knew this woman - she worked at a local Christian bookstore. I used to go in there and try to get her to come to my RCIA classes; she said she was very interested in Catholicism and wanted to look into it but just wasn't sure. She was very sincere and seemed like somebody who was disinterestedly seeking the truth for its own sake. Well, eventually I stopped running into her after she quit the store, but I later found out that she did indeed decide to respond to the grace God had given her and seek entry into the Catholic Church. She went to the nearest Catholic Church and signed up for classes. After a few RCIA sessions, she began to feel like she wasn't getting anything specifically Catholic out of the class; it was a bunch of generic Christian stuff, like God is a loving God, Jesus forgives, etc. Finally, she asked the instructor, "Why should I specifically be Catholic over any other Christian denomination?" The instructor told her, "That's for you to figure out, not me." She got upset and said, "So you can't give me one reason why I should be Catholic and not go back to my Protestant congregation?" The instructor shook his head and said, "You are thinking too much in terms of black and white and right and wrong. That's not how Catholics think." Disgusted, the woman quit the classes and went back to her Protestant church, where I believe she happily remains to this day.

Now, what are we to make of this? This woman, a devout Christian, may now live and die in the Protestant church. Is it her fault? Will God hold her guilty of the sin of heresy or schism? For heaven's sake, the woman wanted to be Catholic. She went so far as to seek visible, full communion witht he Church; then some half-cocked RCIA instructor chastised her for thinking in terms of black and white for asking the very reasonable question, "Why should I be Catholic?" It is my guess that on the day of judgment the woman will fare better than the RCIA director.

I heard another RCIA tale where a older couple, who had basically studied themselves into the Church, were going through the classes because they had to and the nun teaching them said that contraception was a matter of conscience. The catechumens (who knew more about Catholicism than the nun) brought in Humanae Vitae and tried to discuss it, but the nun raged at them and said, "Who are you to judge what other people do?" In this case too the persosn left the classes, but fortunately they found their way into the Church through some other avenue.

RCIA is right up there with Youth Groups and Social Justice Ministries as an example of things done poorly in the vast majority of parishes. Why is RCIA so bad almost universally? Well, RCIA itself is not a bad program; as I said, I had a great experience with it and the people that have entered the Church under me have as well. It can be done well. The problem is with the people who wind up running these things, and the pastors who refuse to allow orthodox Catholicism to be taught. In most (but not all) parishes, RCIA is in the hands of women who came of age in the 1960's; if you don't believe me, do a Google image search of the term "RCIA director", or have a look here.

I think ultimately the Church ought to reconsider the whole idea of RCIA; it is too bureaucratic, too cookie-cutter to fit the needs of everybody. It often fails to address the core philosophical-spitritual needs of the person (as evidenced by the very low rate of people who remain in or join the parish after completing RCIA - in most parishes about 10%, though happily higher in mine). Prior to Vatican II instruction was more individualized; a person might take three months or three years of instruction depending on his specific level of understanding - and most of the time it was taught by a priest. Most priests these days delegate this to lay volunteers or employees because they are far too busy because there are far too few priests to go around; but those are another set of problems, though not unrelated.

In the meantime, let's get some younger people heading up our RCIA programs - people who know and love Jesus Christ, who were not around for the insanity of the 60's and who want to pass on the truth to others - people who know that the truth itself is transformative and that what the world desperately needs is persons who will boldly stand up and say, "Yes. There is a right and wrong. There is a true and false, and this is the Truth..."

Anything less is building on sand.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A tribute from my Youth Group

This past weekend I was away on a Summer Conference with my Youth Group. It went truly excellently; most of the kids agreed it was the best parish-sponsored event/retreat they had ever been to. It was also very special because it was my last major event with the kids of our parish, as I am moving on to another job this Fall. Quite to my surprise, some of the kids put together this touching tribute video. I laughed through a lot of it because the kids' comments were very funny, but my mom cried when she watched it. Sorry to keep putting YG stuff up here, but I just think it is cool.

I still have one more Youth Group video, our mini-film, to put up, which I will hopefully by tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Some intelligent discussion on Cortez

I'm currently enrolled in an American history course that I am mandated to take to graduate from my college program even though I've already had enough history courses to last me until the Second Coming. In this online history class, we are currently studying the Spanish Conquest of Mexico (groan). The professor makes us read these online excerpts and then has us write essays on what we read. Here's an example of some of the "intelligent" discussion that goes on in the discussion board. This is copied and pasted from one of the posts; remember, this is college level writing and is supposed to be the equivalent of a quiz grade since it is like a weekly essay:

I guess you cant say Cortez was an evil man, he thought it was the will of the gods to take power in the civilization and control it using Montezuma. So pretty much Cortez tryed to convert all the Indian people to Christianity or they would suffer gods raff [gods "raff"?] through his hands. How did he know the gods would kill them for their non-belief? Im not saying he was terrible, I mean he really thought that he was saving them from the evil. But why was the gods will to kill all non-believers or hethens? Religion was huge in those times, bigger than our society, they went by the entire book of the old testament. Pretty much anyone who didnt follow it was killed, tortured, or just shunned from society and ignored by everyone. For one beief of something different in the world, you were not tolerated. Would it have been different if their gods were not involved or our god?

Of course the tribe didnt take it too well with this religious take over and they got rid of Cortez and his puppet Montezuma. But they should have killed Cortez when they had the chance and he came back with all the enemy Indian tribes and just masicured [sic] them all, it was no contest. Then when the tribes that worked with Cortez did not want his religion either, he came with his Europeon army and killed them as well. They had too much technology, muskets and armor against their arrows it was not even a battle.

Religion seemed to spark alot of histories conflicts, the war in the middle east (before we got there), and world war II just to name a few. Would it have been different if there wasnt a religion? Would there be more peace without religion? What if we didnt find a god, how would we be different?  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"God is Love"

As many of you know, besides being a blogger, Youth Director and professional loser, I am also an amateur musician. A few months ago, before my surgery, I started recording a song I wrote at my friend's studio. We got most of the song completed, but a few weeks ago his hard drive crashed and the song was lost. Luckily I had  a rough mix of the track that he had made for me sometime prior. Seeing that the song would probably not getting finished, I threw some images up over it and turned it into a little music video, which I now present here for your listening enjoyment. The only thing is, since it was a rough mix, there are some parts where there are no backing vocals (where there ought to be) and a lot of the levels aren't mixed right, but other than that it's pretty okay, except for that my singing is awful.

By the way, I will be away hosting a conference for our parish's Youth Group for the weekend, so I won't be back posting until probably Monday night.

Guitars, vocals, bass are by me; song is an original composition. My friend played the piano and the drums are done by a computer program.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Chesterton on...wife beating!?

I just came across this thought from Chesterton in an essay entitled "Divorce versus Democracy", originally featured in the 1915 edition of Nash's Magazine and reprinted in the November, 2001 edition of "The Chesterton Review" (Vol. XXVII, No.4 ). To put it in context, Chesterton is arguing against a relaxation in divorce laws in England, arguing (correctly, I think) that the causes put forward for a relaxation in divorce laws by the British government at the time were actually symptoms of the injustice of British society and themselves responsible for the increase in divorces. In this context, he discusses wife beating ("cruelty"), which he says is frequently grounds for divorce. Yet, he argues, if the British society were not so unjustly structured and the poor not ground down so hard, the husband would have less occasion to beat his wife. He then goes on a little tangent about wife-hitting, in which he says it is sometimes a "self-defense." The argument seems to be that wife beating is just a symptom of something else, and that judges should not grant divorces just because husbands may "hit out" at their wives once in awhile. Here's the excerpt from "Divorce versus Democracy":

A poor woman does not judge her husband as a bully by whether he has ever hit out. One might as well say that a schoolboy judges whether another schoolboy is a bully by whether he has ever hit out. The poor wife, like the schoolboy, judges him as a bully by whether he is a bully. She knows that while wife-beating really may be a crime, wife-hitting is sometimes very like just self-defense. No one knows better than she does that her husband often has a great deal to put up with: sometimes she means him to; sometimes she is justified. She comes and tells all this to the magistrates again and again; in police court after police court women with black eyes try to explain the thing to judges with no eyes...In these people's lives the rooms are crowded, the tempers are torn to rags, the natural exits are forbidden. In such societies it is as abominable to punish or divorce people for a blow as it would be to punish or divorce a gentleman for slamming the door (pp. 450-451).

It's hard to draw more out of it than this since the blurb is only a tangent in a bigger essay. Chesterton seems to be saying that domestic violence is the result of a stifling social situation that blocks off all the "natural exits" of a man's aggression, and that it does not make sense to grant a divorce because of isolated cases of "wife-hitting" which are (apparently) to be expected from time to time just as much as a gentleman slamming a door.

I don't know what to make of this, especially of GK's comment that wife-hitting is sometimes a "just self-defense." Does anybody have any input or comments on this? It be interesting to send this to Dale Ahlquist (or maybe Armstrong?) and get his take on it.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

St. Boniface and the zeal of Gideon

Today is the Feast of St. Boniface, the great missionary to the Germans, the destroyer of the oak of Thor and one of the patrons of this blog. The story of the chopping down of Thor's sacred oak in order to convince the Frisians that their gods were powerless reminds me of another great story, this one from the Old Testament - that of Gideon, as found in Judges 6-8.

Both Gideon and St. Boniface destroyed a pagan shrine in the name of the Lord; Boniface did so in a pagan land as part of a missionary work while Gideon did so within Israel as part of a "reevangelization", and at the Lord's command. Look at what God says to Gideon in Judges 6:

"That night the Lord said to him: Take a bullock of thy father's, and another bullock of seven years, and thou shalt destroy the altar of Baal, which is thy father's: and cut down the grove that is about the altar. And thou shalt build an altar to the Lord thy God, in the top of this rock, whereupon thou didst lay the sacrifice before: and thou shalt take the second bullock, and shalt offer a holocaust upon a pile of the wood, which thou shalt cut down out of the grove. Then Gideon, taking ten men of his servants, did as the Lord had commanded him. But fearing his father's house, and the men of that city, he would not do it by day, but did all by night.

"And when the men of that town were risen in the morning, they saw the altar of Baal destroyed, and the grove cut down, and the second bullock laid upon the altar, which then was built. And they said one to another: Who hath done this? And when they inquired for the author of the fact, it was said: Gideon, the son of Joash, did all this. And they said to Joash: Bring out thy son hither, that he may die: because he hath destroyed the altar of Baal, and hath cut down his grove. He answered them: "Are you the avengers of Baal, that you fight for him? he that is his adversary, let him die before to morrow light appear: if he be a god, let him revenge himself on him that hath cast down his altar." From that day Gideon was called Jerobaal, because Joash had said: "Let Baal revenge himself on him that hath cast down his altar" (Judges 6:25-32).

Both Gideon and St. Boniface act on the principle that was much later explicated by Leo XIII - that "error should not have equal rights with the truth" (Libertas, 34). Did not the Frisians have a "right" to worship their own gods in their own manner in their own land? Do not the worshipers of Baal have the "right" to maintain a temple to Baal in their village? Boniface and Gideon did not think so, and in the latter case, God even positively commanded Gideon to destroy the pagan shrine. Gideon is called by God a "mighty man of valor" and praised for his zeal in carrying out God's commands.

The implication behind these actions is that, like divorce among the Jews and idolatry among the Gentiles, the existence of pagan shrines is something that God tolerated for a time but never positively willed or endorsed.  St. Paul teaches this in Acts 17:

"Being therefore the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold or silver or stone, the graving of art and device of man. And God indeed having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declareth unto men that all should every where do penance. Because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in equity, by the man whom he hath appointed: giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead" (Acts 17:29-31).

While it is of course true, as Vatican II taught, that "elements of truth" can be found in all religions, it is also true that the importance of these scattered elements is often overstated. No doubt there were elements of truth in Baal worship, as in the worship of Thor, but Gideon and St. Boniface did not seem interested in these elements of truth, nor did St. Paul seem interested in dialoguing with the Greeks about their "elements of truth" but rather stated that God had in former times overlooked their ignorance but now called them to repent. And why would these saints be interested in mere elements of truth when they each possessed the truth from the source? I think Catholics that get too excited about "elements of truth" in other religions are a little mixed up in their focus - it's like showing a profound interest in the crumbs under your dinner table while ignoring the hot meal that is up on top and ready to be eaten.

Besides this, Gideon and St. Boniface both understood that pagan shrines and pagan worship are so offensive to God and so intrinsically evil that any other good that might be found within them was overshadowed by the great evil that idolatry is. Though Boniface labored in a foreign land, it was a land that was claimed for Christ, and the existence of any pagan shrine within this land was an offense to God and to Boniface. The chopping of the tree of Thor is an act of claiming the land for Christ, just as, in a lesser and more humble way, were the lovingly carved crosses of St. Isaac Jogues that the saint etched in the trees around Ossernenon whenever he could find a spare moment away from his Mohawk captives, "so that, seeing it, the demons might take flight...that the enemy might flee before it, and that through it, O Lord, my King, thou might rule in the midst of thy enemies, the enemies of the Cross, the unbelievers, the pagans who dwell in these lands and the demons who rule far and wide throughout all these regions" (Saint Among Savages, Talbot, 284). The chopping of Thor's oak, the destruction of Baal's shrine and the humble crosses of St. Isaac are all proclamations of divine victory and conquest of God over pagan error.

That pagan shrines have no place in lands under Christian dominion or lands even in the process of becoming Christianized is such a well attested fact of our Tradition that it would take too long to cite all the instances in sacred history of pagan shrines being destroyed (but anyway, check here, here, here and here). Given this long tradition, what should our attitude towards the pagan shrines in our midst today be?

I think this answer is easy in those countries that are predominantly Catholic or Catholic officially, or in places which are officially set aside as Catholic shrines. One thing is for sure: any Catholics who were present at Fatima the day in 2004 when a Hindu prayer service was carried out on one of our Lady's altars ought to have rushed in their with the zeal of Gideon, thrown down those pagan idols and hurled those Hindu priests out on their ear. That was a unique situation, however. Even if physically destroying pagan shrines is no longer a reality, we ought to never rejoice when new pagan shrines are erected - like the nonsense that occurs in many big cities where a Catholic bishop will send congratulations when the Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims open up a new multi-million dollar pagan shrine. Contrast this with the attitudes that have been prevalent in our history - Pope Gregory the Great was noted for his justice toward the Jews; yet even he did not restore the synagogues that had been taken from them at Palermo by Bishop Victor and dedicated as churches, although he obliged the bishop to pay for them. During the Merovingian period a synagogue at Orleans was destroyed by the mob, and the Jews were unable to induce King Guntram to permit it to be rebuilt (584).

Perhaps the most well-known example is the protest which St. Ambrose made to Emperor Theodosius when the latter sought to rebuild a burned Jewish synagogue at the expense of a local bishop. Though Ambrose admits Christians were responsible for the burning of the synagogue, nevertheless he sees it as a positive evil for Christians to ever contribute to pagan worship under any circumstances:

"There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned... Will you give this triumph over the Church of God to the Jews? This trophy over Christ's people, this exultation, O Emperor, to the unbelievers? This rejoicing to the Synagogue, this sorrow to the Church?" (St. Ambrose, Letter XL:14,20).

The modernist mind no doubt recoils at these examples of religious intolerance from our history. The modernist can easily wipe away such embarassing examples, since for him there is no need to maintain anuy real continuity with tradition. But what is the orthodox Catholic to do? Start going out an burning down mosques? Hardly. Such an action would not be condoned today in a pluralistic society, much less in America where Catholics are a minority and don't really have any grounds on which to boast that this is a Catholic country - our position is more akin to those Catholics who lived in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages, just one minority among many other religious groups, finding themselves in a culture that was by and large hostile to their values, having to do what evangelical work they could when and wherever it was possible but also attempting to live in peace with their Muslim overlords. Things would not have gone well for them had they started burning mosques, nor would things go well for the Church in America if we started doing like things. What would be the norm in a thoroughly Catholic society where the Church's teaching was reflected in the government is different than what we would expect to see in a pluralist society like the United States.

Even if we have to tolerate pagan shrines in our midst for the time being, we ought to have some refutation to the modernist critique that the examples from our history cited above are completely incompatible with Christian charity. To those conditioned to see all religions as equally valid, it is indeed difficult to see how Christian charity can exist in the heart of somebody who is tearing down a pagan altar. But Romano Amerio in his excellent book Iota Unum reminds us that the opposition between charity and severity in a false dichotomy. He says:

"This setting up of the principle of mercy as opposed to severity ignores the fact that in the mind of the Church the condemnation of error is itself a work of mercy, since by pinning down error those laboring under it are corrected and others are preserved from falling into it" (Iota Unum, 40).

Mercy is not making pagans feel good about their false religion. Gideon was being merciful when he threw down the altar of Baal. Cortez is being merciful and charitable to the Aztecs when he breaks off the head of Huitzilipotchli and sends it toppling down the steps of the teocalli to smash apart before the stunned eyes of the angered Indians. St. Boniface chopped down the oak out of love for the Frisians and as an act of mercy for their souls, as St. Benedict did when he toppled the statue of Apollo, by which he hoped to deliver them from their ignorance. Ignorance of the truth is bondage, let us remember.

While destroying pagan places of worship is not a prudent course of action to take in our own country, let us remember the great deeds of men like St. Boniface and Gideon, and let us never grow accustomed to all of the paganism around us just because we are used to seeing it so much - let us see in these shrines the same horror and loathing that they inspired in the heart of Gideon and remember that "the gods of the Gentiles are devils: but the Lord made the heavens" (Ps. 95:5). It would be fitting to close with the words of the illustrious St. Paul, who reminds us that the pagan gods are actually demons, and some of the Church's most venerable saints:

""What then? Do I say that what is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? Or that the idol is any thing? But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. And I would not that you should be made partakers with devils. You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils: you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils" (1 Cor. 10:19-21).

"All nations then had devils for their gods: those whom they called gods, were devils, as the Apostle more openly saith, ‘The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice unto devils, and not to God.’ …For when he had said, ‘He is more to be feared than all gods:’ he added, ‘As for all the gods of the heathen, they are devils’" (St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 96, 5-6).

"The consummative cause of idolatry was the influence of the demons who offered themselves to the worship of erring men, giving answers from idols or doing things which to men seemed marvelous, whence the Psalmist says (Psalm 95:5): ‘All the gods of the gentiles are devils’" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. xciv, a. 4).

"All the invocations of the pagans are hateful to God because all their gods are devils" (St. Francis Xavier, quoted in James Brodrick, S.J., Saint Francis Xavier [New York: Wicklow Press, 1952] p. 135).