Tuesday, December 28, 2010

St. Joseph and the Holy Innocents

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  These were the infant children of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod in an attempt to wipe out Christ, whom he perceived as a future rival.  This act ultimately was inspired by the devil.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, three magi are led to a manger to adore the Word made Flesh.   In a real way, they are proclaiming the value of life.  Under the inspiration of the devil, Herod proclaims death.  This situation has remained with us today.  Today's massacre is the outrage of abortion, where millions of innocents have been sacrificed under the direction of the evil one.

Both have the same purpose, the destruction of the innocent.  Many people ponder Satan's conflict and think his battle is only with God.  His battle is against all God has created.  When Herod massacred the innocents, the devil intended to send a shot across the bow to all creation:  there is no length he would not go to in his goal of warring against God.  Anyone who thinks they can be "neutral" is sadly mistaken.  These babies were as "neutral" as could be (most of them infants, lacking the ability to even choose good or evil at this point) and they were slain, partly out of a vain hope that Christ would be amongst the slain, and partly just out of rage by Herod.

Yet we do know that Christ survived.  He survived thanks to St. Joseph.  We know from today's Gospel that Joseph was told by an angel to flee Bethlehem and go into Egypt where he would be safe.  At this point, St. Joseph gave up his entire livelihood and smuggled Mary and Christ out of Israel.  By this very act, he was signing his death warrant.   Even with all the risk, Joseph does all of this without complaint.

Perhaps we should start imploring his aid today.  Just as he protected Christ from the devil, is he not also willing to protect all of us, as he is our patron?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: The House of David Continues

After a bit of a break, I would now like to continue our series on the Incarnation and its understanding throughout salvation history.. Today, we come across what could be viewed as the most important of the “Emmanuel” prophecies of Isaiah. Indeed, we Christians have recently celebrated the fulfillment of this prophesy at Christmas. We are told “Behold, a woman shall conceive a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel.”

While this prophesy ultimately points towards Christ, I believe there are certain aspects of it that we miss, and these are vital for why this was such a comforting prophesy to the Jews. We must remember, the prophets were not simply there to tell news of the distant future. The immediate context is quite different.

If we remember from our previous discussions, the Kingdom of Judah was a vassal of the King of Assyria. A vassal is one who is forced to be in submission to a stronger power, for the sake of their own survival. The King of Assyria had almost complete domination of this region. In addition to Judah, the Kingdom had forced into servitude the Kings of Damascus and Samaria (amongst many others) as well. As with any vassal, rebellion was a common occurrence. People hate to be under forced submission for long. The moment they get an opportunity, they will likely rebel to assert their own independence.

This is precisely what was happening. The Samarians and Syrians declared their independence from Assyria. In such rebellions, the retaliation of the overlord is normally swift and brutal. If the Assyrians let this go unpunished, their other vassals may likely follow suit. Once they declared their independence, Damascus and Samaria immediately prepared for war. They also did their best to recruit other vassals of Assyria to likewise follow in their footsteps. The most obvious choice was the Kingdom of Judah.

For various reasons, Judah rejected this overture. They felt their interests were not served by a rebellion. They were historical enemies of Damascus. (Within the very generation of this event, Syria launched a failed siege of Jerusalem) They originally submitted to the Assyrians to save their necks from Samarian aggression. Barely a century before, they had been the vassal of Omri, King of Samaria.

For the anti-Assyrian coalition, this rejection was unacceptable. They needed all the manpower they could get in defending their lands from the coming Assyrian invasion. Furthermore, if Judah stayed loyal to Assyria, the Assyrians could easily use the realm of Judah for their own ends. Their troops could be resupplied, and they would have easy access to launch invasions on both fronts. For their plan to work, Judah had to go along with them.

With this in mind, they devised a plan. They would invade Judah and depose King Ahaz. In his place, they would place their own puppet ruler. This ruler was not of Ahaz’s direct line, and would be gladly follow along with this plan if it meant he could secure the throne. The armies of Judah would then join with Damascus and Samaria to prepare for the Assyrian invasion.

Whatever one thinks of King Ahaz, he was no fool. He knew that joining this coalition would not work. The Assyrians would respond, and respond brutally. (Such was their history.) Even if it did, Ahaz would not find his kingdom independent. Syria would no doubt attempt to bring them under their umbrella. At least with the Assyrians, they were far enough away to where Ahaz had a degree of autonomy, provided he did not rebel. Yet this distance was also a curse. Ahaz reasoned the Assyrians would not arrive in time to save him most likely. He could not stand against the might of both Damascus and Samaria. The situation looked hopeless.

God announces that He will not let this stand. He made a promise to David that one of his descendants would remain on the throne. This plot went directly against that plan. In addition to announcing His opposition to this, God declares to Ahaz He will perform a sign to that effect. The God of the universe intends to show a sign of good faith in His defense of Judah.

Ahaz rejects this overture, claiming He has no desire to tempt God. While sounding noble, perhaps there is something more at work. We know that Ahaz was not a noble man. The book of Kings describes him as doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord, like the Kings of Israel.” In a sense, he was even worse than the Kings of Israel. The last time he felt threatened, he offered his son as a burnt offering to his pagan deity. He desecrated the altar in the temple; making it identical to a pagan altar he was awestruck by when he visited Damascus.

When Ahaz rejects a sign, he does so out of a rejection of the God of Israel. In his eyes, Yahweh was not supreme. He was just another god. Any god could give a sign. His humility is entirely false. God delivers an angry response, stating that this rejection shows Ahaz wishes to provoke Him as well as the nations.

Yet God will still show a sign, yet not for Ahaz’s sake. Just as He defended the wicked Samarians from the Syrians because they insulted Him (1st Kings 20:23-28), He would defend Judah for His own sake. If the royal line died, God would have broken His promise.

This is the context for what was said. Isaiah announces that a woman shall bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel. He also predicts a true golden age for the people of Israel as a result of this son.

Christians and Jews have debated for centuries if the prophesy is to be understood in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet what we do know is that this birth would be a sign. What was that sign? If a true golden age of the Davidic Kingdom would be launched by this son; this means the Davidic line would survive. This would mean that the schemes of Damascus and Samaria would have to fail. They would not be deposing Ahaz, for one of his sons would reign over a true golden age of Judah according to God. Considering that at the time Ahaz had no direct heir, this cemented the deal.

In the immediate sense, the people would have seen this prophesy fulfilled with Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Hezekiah was one of the greatest Kings of Judah. Under him they did gain independence from Assyria. Judah ended up rebelling anyways later in Hezekiah’s life, but for their own freedom. When the Assyrians invaded, they suffered a humiliating defeat. Though the Assyrians attempted to spin it as a victory (Sennachrib in his memoirs uses propaganda to boast of humbling the “puny” King of Judah, even though he retreated with a significantly smaller army and never again attempted to make them submit), their hegemony over Judah had ended. Hezekiah also launched bold religious reforms, helping Judah to return to the worship of Yahweh.

While a certain case can be made for Hezekiah to be the fulfillment of this prophesy, I submit Isaiah has much more to say on the matter. In chapter 9 Isaiah expounds on what kind of child this servant will be. The prophesied child shall be called “Father of the World to Come”, the “Prince of Peace”, and one whose “empire” would be “multiplied.” Illustrious though his reign was, Hezekiah did none of these things. There had to be someone else.

Whoever this applies to, the message is clear. Even in their darkest hour, God stands beside them, for the sake of His covenant. Man may plot and scheme all they wish, their plans will not come to fruition when they conflict with God’s.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

When Did Continence Become a Dirty Word?

When I introduced the concept of the "Death of the Catholic Male", one commenter was quite perturbed that I claimed many Catholics have contributed to it through their incomplete presentations of the Gospel.  I stand by this assertion, and I believe that a recent article vindicated my assertion.

In an essay over at Catholic Exchange, Bill Donaghy wrote:

We were not made for law; we were made for love. However, when it comes to living out our eros, our God-given passion for all that is good, true, and beautiful, it seems many of us don’t even equate it with Christianity anymore. We feel that eros is less than holy, and are content with continence, not consummation – so we divorce passion from purity and just tough it out, trying to stay clean, in a kind of legalistic contract with God that will keep us on the “Big Guy’s” good side.

In a certain sense, Mr. Donaghy is certainly correct.  One of the greatest problems inherent in human nature is our refusal to embrace what we were called to be.  St. Cyprian of Carthage (along with Augustine) talk about how one of the greatest difficulties to embracing the Gospel was that they were holding themselves back from becoming what God truly wanted them to become.  Once they came to the light of the Gospel, they were tormented by their sins and indiscretions, and would not advance forward.  They finally realized that God says "I will remember their sins no more", he meant what he said. 

Yet God was never content with a mere forgiveness of their sins.  In addition to forgiveness, God brings about a restoration.  Yet that restoration can be hard to accept.  We are indeed called to the eternal consummation of all things in Christ.  So if we understand Mr. Donaghy's words in this sense, he is indeed correct.

Yet I believe he is missing a vital part of the story.  Is there really meant to be the separation between "continence" and "consummation" that Mr. Donaghy talks about?  I submit it is precisely this distinction in the world and the Church at large that is one of the greatest reasons for a decline in not only an authentic understanding of our masculinity, but an authentic understanding of the human person in general.  One cannot reach the point of consummation without continence.

Ironically, Mr. Donaghy cites all we should need for this understanding, but misses the point entirely.  He quotes John Paul II's Novo Millennio Ineunte, where the Pontiff said the following:

“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?”
A brief understanding of history tells us that these individuals understood continence quite well.  John Paul II engaged in "the discipline" of bodily mortification and intense fasting.  St. John of the Cross underwent intense purification in the natural and supernatural realm.  Near the end of his life, the majority of it was spent in a very cruel captivity by his rivals.  He died of injuries that his captors refused to treat.  Mr. Donaghy treats the Christian spiritual life as a life of enjoyment.  These individuals would disagree sharply.  While one receives great spiritual consolations at times, other times the soul receives an intense feeling of loss and suffering.  Both are used by God in purifying the soul.  This spiritual purification is inevitable.  We will go through parts of it now, and we will undergo it in Purgatory.

In their coverage of the Theology of the Body, many popular commentators almost entirely ignore the Theology of the Cross.  Put simply, we are fallen creatures.  As a result of that fallen nature, we have sinful tendencies, especially in regards to selfishness, that we understand as concupiscence.  As a result of original sin, this will always stay with us.  Even though Christ has indeed redeemed us, our selfish natures remain, albeit (hopefully!) in a diminished form.  As we are conformed to the Image of Christ, the effects of concupiscence are slowly but surely defeated.

Why is it slowly defeated?  When we are restored in Christ, we are restored to our original calling.  We were indeed called to the consummation, but original sin did a lot of damage to our participation in that calling.  Instead of directing our hearts towards union with God, we direct them towards increasing our own power, fulfillment, etc.  The remedy for this is the Cross, and only the Cross.  "Whoever does not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me cannot be My disciple."  So says our Blessed Lord.  While sin and concupiscence exist, the Cross tells us they need not be our masters.  We can deny the influence they have over our lives through that same Cross.

Yet in order to do this, we must begin to renounce that past life, and live a life towards our calling.  Sometimes, we even renounce those things that are good normally, because they might not be fitting to our new calling.  Earthly food is good, helps nourish the body physically.  Yet at times, we are called to fast and abstain from certain foods, as an ultimate reminder that "not by bread alone" does man live.  Our true food is that of the love of God, given to us on earth principally in the Blessed Sacrament.  Where is this understanding in the thought of Mr. Donaghy?  He would seem to counsel us to eat and drink, since all food was made clean by God and given for our benefit!

So why does this lead to a decreased understanding in authentic masculinity?  God knew we would need help.  One could say He wired the desire for discipline and sacrifice into our very natures.  Even in the secular sphere, our politicians and athletes sacrifice constantly.  Very few athletes like watching film for several hours a day.  They'd rather be out playing, or enjoying their time away from the field, "living the good life" as it were.  If they could have it their way, many of them probably wouldn't like having to live such a strict diet and exercises regime.  Yet they understand they have to do it if they want to succeed.  St. Paul himself compares the Christian life to that of the athlete, who brings his body into subjection to compete, lest he find himself disqualified.  (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Take away continence, and you take away part of man's nature.  He also will never find true fulfillment.  Indeed, he is rejecting the very language written into his mind, body, and soul if he thinks continence is not necessary, if he has somehow passed beyond it.  That will not occur until we have finished the race.  Acting as if you have won the race before you actually cross the finish line is a sure way to lose it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Isaiah the Universalist

                After exhorting the Kingdom of Judah to righteousness, Isaiah begins what could be called the “Messianic” Prophecies.  While they certainly do foretell the coming of the Chosen One, I think we must look deeper.  We must consider how they would sound to their initial audience.

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:  Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.  For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples…

               While this is a very inspiring text, the average Jew of that time would’ve looked at it in one of two ways.  He would’ve viewed it inspiring, or thought of Isaiah as a madman.  We must consider the context in which this was written.  Isaiah lived during a time of great unrest.  The King of Judah was a vassal of Assyria.  It was the King of Judah who requested the aid of the Assyrians, which eventually led to the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.  The Jews of this time were lowly vassals, and a divided people.  The prophet speaks of a time when not only are the children of Jacob united, but the entire world is united under the faith of Yahweh.

               Contained in this call is the call to their original purpose, and something even greater.  It is frequently noted that the original purpose of the nation of Israel was to be a “priestly” nation, bringing the light of Yahweh to the nations.  Yet I submit that Isaiah is going even further.  In these “latter days”, they will be a lot like the first days. 

               From creation through Abraham, there was no “Jew” or “Gentile.”  In the earliest times of creation, man was of one mind and language.  Once again remembering our history, we remember how bad we human beings corrupted that initial vision.  Far from changing that vision, God reaffirms it.  If the successive covenants God established with man looked to be an accommodation to man’s weaknesses, the foretelling of the “latter days”, we see something entirely different.  All the people of the world are God’s people.

                Already we see in this calling a promised new covenant.  Under the Old Covenant, there were distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.  Under the Old Covenant, the law had evidence of man’s weakness and sin.  Many in Israel had no desire to learn the ways of Yahweh, much less the nations!  Isaiah follows his prophecy with an indictment of precisely this fact.  Trusting in their own devices, man has perverted the initial purpose of the Kingdom, and they will suffer as a result.

               Yet why does Isaiah prophecy of such a time?  Such a vision would be almost impossible to reconcile with the facts.  I would say, that’s the point.  God will do this not because of Israel’s merits.  Their only merit is destruction for their acts.  In the beginning of this series, I spoke about how God called us to union with Him.  Even though we rejected that call, the call is still made, and that call will come to fruition.    Yet we need help.

                I believe the Scriptures point to this help, albeit in an indirect manner.  After giving the “lay of the land” so to speak, Isaiah recounts a vision he has.  In this vision, he appears right before the throne of heaven itself.  Faced with such majesty, Isaiah recognizes his utter unworthiness.  At that time one of the Seraphim places a hot coal upon his lips. 

                If one ever tries to eat something that is too hot, one gets a burning sensation in their mouth, and we immediately recoil.  We talk about how that ruins our taste buds.  Well think of placing a burning coal on your lips and inside your mouth.  Such would destroy any trace of our taste buds.  So why did this occur?  Man needed to have his spiritual taste buds burned away.    In that act, the angel states that his guilt is removed, and is cleansed from his sin.  All of those impurities are removed by God, so the prophet can fulfill his ministry. 

                Likewise, we must do the same.  If we look to aspire to this calling Isaiah gives, we too must be purified.  Our senses have not only been darkened, but they have been perverted.  Elsewhere in his prophesy he states “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil!”  It is only through God’s gift that we can be purified, and become able to fulfill our original calling.  Once we have been cleansed, we must then learn of what our true calling is.  Isaiah gives us that in our next section.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What Happens When you Abandon Tradition?

This is what happens:

For those keeping score, one remembers that a constant refrain from critics of Christopher West's interpretation of Theology of the Body is that it did not give sufficient weight to the greater Catholic tradition.   Without those clear safeguards, ideas would begin floating around that have absolutely no basis within Catholic tradition.  This article showcases this in spades.  Without the benefit of tradition, people are twisting Pope John Paul II to say things that the good pontiff would have found absolutely abhorrent.  That Catholic Exchange would run this is even more saddening.  In the comments section of the article, Senior Editor Mary Kochan defended running this article by stating:

This is not my opinion and I don’t feel compelled to defend it. When Steve Pokorny put this article in, he put it in under the CE Editors name — our author field is glitchy and he might have been having trouble with it. I did not even realize that he had done that until this morning and so I fixed it....  But I think it is better for this article to be here and be brought to light and argued against so well, then for it to be isolated on some TOB site where they only discuss it among themselves.
While I am sure that myself, dcs, Wade St. Onge and others are only too happy to point out the errors of this article, some things you should never have to point out on a Catholic site.  Popes in times  past condemned some thoughts as "offensive to pious ears."  Offensive is not a strong enough word.  Many times people believe that we are interpreting Mr. West and his defenders wrong, they really don't believe the crazy things we attribute to them.  If that's the case, how does one explain this work?  Let us see why.

Mr. Simons begins his article by retelling a story.  Now we have no clue if it's accurate or not, but such need not concern us, only his ideas contained therein matter.  Allegedly, a question was asked of Mr. West that if one saw his friends wife naked, what should he do?  Should he turn his eyes?  West allegedly stated that what was most important was that the individual not lust.  This is central to Mr. West's doctrine of "mature purity" which posits that as one begins to understand the Theology of the Body and apply it to their lives, they are able to overcome situations others would find an occasion of sin.

This sounds harmless enough, and could even be defended on a certain level.  It goes past that point when Mr. Simons says the following:

But West was pointing out that what was required was that the man not lust, whether or not he looks away.
With all due respect to Mr. Simons, why is this even under dispute?  The answer is we should do both.  We should both turn away our gaze, and not lust.  Put simply, a man does not have the right to see a woman naked not his wife under normal circumstances.  Nudity between two people implies a certain intimacy.  Vulnerability is implied.  They see you in a state everyone else does not.  If that intimacy is not there, it is an invasion of that person's intimacy, privacy and dignity to see them in the state only their spouse should see them in.

This is the core of modesty.  Even if there were no lust, we would still keep ourselves covered.  It is fitting that we be covered, as an external manifestation of the inward dignity we are called to possess.  In heaven, we possess that dignity in the fullest.  We are not "naked without shame" in heaven.  Instead, we are clothed in white robes.  To defend his truly absurd pet idea, Mr. Simons demonstrates that "a little learning is a dangerous thing."  He has proven his ability to cite historical examples, but not understand them.  Let us see how this is the case when he states:

If it were wrong for a man to look at a friend’s naked wife, then the early Church would never have demanded that men, women and children be baptized naked in each other’s presence.
When one looks at the early Church, one indeed does find that people were baptized in the nude.  Yet if one actually comprehends what was occurring, Mr. Simons should take no comfort in the real story.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, there existed the office of the "deaconess" in the Early Church.  Her roles were as follows:

“There can be no doubt that in their first institution the deaconesses were intended to discharge those same charitable offices, connected with the temporal well being of their poorer fellow Christians, which were performed for the men by the deacons. But in one particular, viz., the instruction and baptism of catechumens, their duties involved service of a more spiritual kind. The universal prevalence of baptism by immersion and the anointing of the whole body which preceded it, rendered it a matter of propriety that in this ceremony the functions of the deacons should be discharged by women. The Didascalia Apostolorum (III, 12; see Funk, Didascalia, etc., I, 208) explicitly direct that the deaconesses are to perform this function. It is probable that this was the starting point for the intervention of women in many other ritual observances even in the sanctuary. The Apostolic Constitutions expressly attribute to them the duty of guarding the doors and maintaining order amongst those of their own sex in the church, and they also (II, c. 26) assign to them the office of acting as intermediaries between the clergy and the women of the congregation; but on the other hand, it is laid down (Const. Apost., VIII, 27) that “the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon”, and there can be no doubt that the extravagances permitted in some places, especially in the churches of Syria and Asia, were in contravention of the canons generally accepted. We hear of them presiding over assemblies of women, reading the Epistle and Gospel, distributing the Blessed Eucharist to nuns, lighting the candles, burning incense in the thuribles, adorning the sanctuary, and anointing the sick (see Hefele-LeClercq, II, 448). All these things must be regarded as abuses which ecclesiastical legislation was not long in repressing.” (H/T DCS and Steve Kellmeyer)
Women were not baptized by men when they were naked.  This was done out of a sense of "propriety", or, if you prefer the modern term, modesty.  Mr. Simons seems to imply that this attitude of respecting modesty is being "suspicious" of the heart, and Manichean.  (If one remembers, Mr. West's editor stated this outright when attributing this attitude to the Spiritual Master St. Frances De Sales).  Since under certain circumstances a layperson can baptize, this makes sense.

Now as the sacramental theology behind baptism developed, baptismal garb started to become more common.  This was done not to "repress" nudity, but to signify the purity the person has at the moment of baptism.  At the moment of baptism, all of their sins are washed away.   They also wear white to remind them, and everyone present, that they are called to be pure like the saints in heaven are pure.  There was not some hidden sexual agenda behind the manner of baptism.  It smacks of impiety and offensiveness to even suggest such.

Mr. Simons continues this lack of wisdom when he states:

If it were wrong for a man to look at a naked woman, John Paul II would not have celebrated Mass with almost totally naked women participating.  Nor would he have condoned nude models posing for life art students, male doctors delivering babies, or nudity in general where the climate and culture allowed for it.  Men all over the world are able to see naked women and not lust.  Why can’t we?
If there is one thing the audience will notice, nowhere does Mr. Simons actually cite John Paul II to justify these views.  If one actually reads John Paul II, they will find something entirely different.  Forgive me for quoting the Pontiff at length, but this needs to be said:

We tried to understand the difference between the situation—and the state—of original innocence, in which "they were both naked, and were not ashamed" (Gn 2:25), and, subsequently, between the situation—and the state—of sinfulness. In that state there arose between man and woman, together with shame, the specific necessity of privacy with regard to their own bodies.

In the heart of man, subject to lust, this necessity serves, even indirectly, to ensure the gift and the possibility of mutual donation. This necessity also forms man's way of acting as "an object of culture," in the widest meaning of the term. If culture shows an explicit tendency to cover the nakedness of the human body, it certainly does so not only for climatic reasons, but also in relation to the process of growth of man's personal sensitivity. The anonymous nakedness of the man-object contrasts with the progress of the truly human culture of morals. It is probably possible to confirm this also in the life of so-called primitive populations. The process of refining personal human sensitivity is certainly a factor and fruit of culture.

Beyond the need of shame, that is, of the privacy of one's own body (on which the biblical sources give such precise information in Genesis 3), there is a deeper norm. This norm is the gift, directed toward the very depths of the personal subject or toward the other person—especially in the man-woman relationship according to the perennial norms regulating the mutual donation. In this way, in the processes of human culture understood in the wide sense, we note—even in man's state of hereditary sinfulness—quite an explicit continuity of the nuptial meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity. That original shame, known already from the first chapters of the Bible, is a permanent element of culture and morals. It belongs to the genesis of the ethos of the human body. (General Audience April 22)

The Pontiff notes here that as culture advances, the covering of the individual becomes necessary, not just for climatic reasons, but to protect and highlight the individuals dignity.  Indeed, it is one of the sure signs of advanced civilization that a society protects the nuptial meaning of the body by covering nudity.  So in the theoretical case of Mr. Simons, we could simply answer, with John Paul II, that the culture in which this occurred is not advanced in the realm of understanding the need to protect and promote the nuptial meaning of the body.  Such might be politically incorrect to say so, but it is nonetheless true.

Mr. Simons next example is in regards to an artist.  Certainly if an artist can draw nude models, that means we are called to look upon a naked person just as they do, right?  Wrong, according to John Paul II.  When speaking about nudity in art, the Pontiff states:

The artistic objectivation [sic] of the human body in its male and female nakedness, in order to make it first of all a model and then the subject of the work of art, is always to a certain extent a going outside of this original and, for the body, its specific configuration of interpersonal donation. In a way, that constitutes an uprooting of the human body from this configuration and its transfer to the dimension of artistic objectivation—the specific dimension of the work of art or of the reproduction typical of the film and photographic techniques of our time.

In each of these dimensions—and in a different way in each one—the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift. It becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many. This happens in such a way that those who look at the body, assimilate or even, in a way, take possession of what evidently exists, of what in fact should exist essentially at the level of a gift, made by the person to the person, not just in the image but in the living man. Actually, that "taking possession" already happens at another level—that is, at the level of the object of the transfiguration or artistic reproduction. However it is impossible not to perceive that from the point of view of the ethos of the body, deeply understood, a problem arises here. This is a very delicate problem, which has its levels of intensity according to various motives and circumstances both as regards artistic activity and as regards knowledge of the work of art or of its reproduction. The fact that this problem is raised does not mean that the human body, in its nakedness, cannot become a subject of works of art—but only that this problem is not purely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.
When an artist portrays someone in the nude, there will always, by nature, be a certain objectification of the person.  One has to approach the subject detached.  You know nothing of the person, nor is such knowledge relevant to the task at hand.  Sometimes, this may indeed be required, but one should always tread carefully, and make sure that the limits of shame are not crossed.

Yet the Pope's point is that we are not meant to look at such a person all the time this way.  We cannot reduce people to their bodies.  The same goes for situations with medical examinations.  (Indeed, the Pope mentions these as "special circumstances.")  A doctor is not looking to understand the meaning of a woman's naked body when he is operating on her.  No, he must approach the woman as detached as possible to save her life.  Does Mr. Simons think this is how individuals should treat each other?

Bad as the article has been so far, Mr. Simons plunges the nose of the plane right into the gutter next:

The professor would have had to look at his friend’s naked wife if she were a model in an art class he was enrolled in, or if she was his patient and he were an M.D., or if they were vacationing at a nude beach and were chatting with each other.  As long as he looked with love, he needn’t be worried about lust, which is a violation of love.
Note well what is said here.  Mr. Simons finds no problem with nudism.  If they had "mature purity", there's nothing wrong with being on a nude beach having friendly conversation!  This is where we have come ladies and gentleman.  He has taken Christopher West's views about "mature purity" to their logical, if logically absurd, conclusion.  If the only reason modesty in appearance exists is to protect from lust, then the removal of lust should make modesty in appearance frivolous.   Since Mr. West applauds the "bishop who did not turn his eyes" (in a horribly distorted story on St. Nonus) from a "half-naked prostitute", and since we are called to have a "holy fascination" with the naked body, then what is wrong with nudism?

Cardinal Ciriaci, at the behest of Pope Pius XII, stated the following when talking about modesty:

"Everyone knows that during the summer months particularly, things are seen here and there which are certain to prove offensive to anyone who has retained some respect and regard for Christian virtue and human modesty . On the beaches, in country resorts, almost everywhere, on the streets of cities and towns, in private and public places, and, indeed, often in buildings dedicated to God, an unworthy and indecent mode of dress has prevailed. Because of this, the young particularly, whose minds are easily bent towards vice, are exposed to the extreme danger of losing their innocence, which is, by far, the most beautiful adornment of mind and body. Feminine adornment, if it can be called adornment, feminine clothing, 'if that can be called clothing which contains nothing to protect either the body or modesty.' (Seneca) are at times of such a nature that they seem to serve lewdness rather than modesty . What we are discussing here is obviously most serious, since it vitally concerns not only Christian virtue but also the health and vigor of human society . Well did not the ancient poet say of this matter: 'Vice necessarily follows upon public nudity' (Ennius)."
In giving a speech on athletics and gymnastics, Pius XII said the following:

"There is, moreover, in sports and gymnastics, in rhythm and dance, a certain nudism which is neither necessary nor proper. Not without reason did an impartial observer remark some decades ago: 'What is of interest to the masses in this field is not the beauty of the nude, but the nudity of beauty.' The religious and moral sense places its veto on such a manner of practicing gymnastics and sports. In a word, gymnastics should not command and dominate, but serve and help. This is their duty and in this do they find their justification."
When speaking about certain people's nudism in Goa, India, a member of the Pontifical Council for Migrants (under John Paul II), stated that:

There should be an intensive educational programme through talks and audio-visuals to conscientise people against the evils of drug addiction, nudism, etc.
Near the end of the article, Mr. Simons bemoans the plight of the women at Franciscan University of Stuebenville.   Allegedly, men were so afraid of lusting, that they "turned their eyes" merely at the sight of a woman.  Having made several visits to Stuebenville over the past 10 years, I find this highly unlikely.  He then looks to give counsel to those college men, as well as all of us men:

But back to the women on campus: these women needed the men to be their brothers in Christ.  In the men turning away, the women felt that their beauty, something they had no control over, had become a curse from God.  They felt that there was something very wrong about the way God had made them because the men would look away when they would pass by on the walkways.  They felt that they weren’t women, but problems for men instead.  Is this love?  Is this the behavior of a gentleman?...... If men were taught to really see all women as persons of equal dignity, they would not lust and they would not look away.  They would look with love and see God revealed through his artistry.

Of course, if we think that the only option is to look away since lust is the normal response of a man to a woman (aren’t we really just animals after all?), then we will never embark on the journey to purity of heart.  If it isn’t possible to be pure, why break our backs trying?  It is so much easier to lust or look away.  Of course we can’t blame ourselves for our problems.  It is really the women.  The women that God put on this Earth with us.  And isn’t it ultimately all of His fault?  We wouldn’t sin if it weren’t normal.  But Christ calls us to so much more.  He tells us that in the beginning it wasn’t so.  Yes, yes, we’ve heard that all before.  We know all about concupiscence and that is why we have to look away now.
I find it interesting that in the entire essay, he only mentions concupiscence once, and only to dismiss it.  Much is talked about having a "perpetual suspicion" when it comes to lust.  Allow me to propose an alternative.  I say this knowing full well that it is highly likely that it doesn't go down the way Mr. Simons describes it.

Why are we so quick to attribute lust to these men?  What of women?  Are they free from struggling over lust?  Certainly not!  There could be a thousand reasons why they weren't checking the ladies out.  Or maybe, just maybe, these Catholic men have manners.  It isn't polite to stare.  When one stares, you are objectifying someone.  Whether or not someone is lusting in their heart during this, it's still wrong to just sit there and stare.  When I see an attractive woman, I do not stare at her.  I might glance, she might glance back, but you don't stare.  Doing so makes you a creep.  Mr. Simons claims to be against objectifying women.  Yet the remedy is to stare at the woman when you notice she is attractive, hoping to see God's artistry.  Ever wonder how the woman feels?  Or how her boyfriend feels at you gawking at her?

Notice something here?  It's all about the individual.  Never about the responsibility towards the other.  It is selfishness.  What we have here is a self-serving rationalization to gawk at a woman.  It is the very opposite of the gift.  Yet like so many popular presentations by certain speakers on the Theology of the Body, they promote the precise opposite of what John Paul II intended.  This is what happens when you depart from tradition.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

St. Frances De Sales and Christopher West

Earlier this year, I had went to lunch with a friend and his girlfriend before a baseball game.  At another table near us sat around 5 or 6 very attractive women our age.  My friend was fixated on them the entire time.  I could tell his girlfriend was not too thrilled about it.  When he stepped away for a smoke, I followed and we talked about it.  When I expressed dismay at his behavior, his response was telling:

Were you not looking at them as well?
I tried pointing out to him the difference between a single person noticing them in passing, and someone committed to another staring at them.  This was lost on him.  Of course, my friend is not Catholic, so I'm a bit more indulgent with him.  (Though not too much of course!)

I mention this story because I believe it sets the tone properly for the discussion I wish to have.  My friend would honestly fit in right at home with my friends across the aisle in their defense of Christopher West.  In civil society, my friend was being a pig.  Yet if he only knew the truth of the Theology of the Body (according to Christopher West) he could simply tell his girlfriend "relax baby, I'm simply admiring the beauty of woman as God created them!"  Some may think I'm exaggerating.  I believe the evidence will be with me though.  After establishing that evidence, I would like to focus on what I believe is something Mr. West cannot overcome:  the teachings of St. Frances De Sales.  Indeed, to some of West's defenders, St. Frances' admonitions smacked of prudery and "suspicion."  (See this thread, where Mr. West's editor and a very vocal lay defender of him state precisely this.)

First, let us go to the evidence, we will be discussing the story of the "two Bishops" as Mr. West presents it, and a certain incident that Mr. West claims happened to him at Holy Mass.  In discussing "mature purity" as opposed to mere "continence" Mr. West gives the following "historical" example.

The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by. One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, “Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!” When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, “How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.” Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law? (Theology of the Body Explained, Revised Edition, page 215)
When I first read this passage, I thought "certainly West isn't asserting that a holy man is to spend his time looking at a half-naked prostitute!"  Apparently I was the "other bishop" in this story.  Claiming a fascination with a prostitute's (half-naked in West's eyes) body is a path to holiness doesn't sound right.  Yet this is exactly what Mr. West is saying:

...It is generally reported that upon seeing the half-naked Pelagia parading through the streets of Antioch while his brother bishops turned away, Bishop Nonnus looked upon her with love and great delight. She noticed his look of love and was eventually converted through his counsel and preaching. She is known as St. Pelagia of Antioch.
In short, when you see a woman, stare at her, become fascinated with her body.  Of course, do so with purity.  Who knows, she might notice and convert!  If this sounds silly and absurd, it is.  While it might seem like an interesting story, it is only that, a "story."  The real life example of St. Nonnus happened nothing like this.  As Dawn Eden relates in her masters thesis:

In a footnote, West cites Helen Waddell’s account of Nonnus and Pelagia in The Desert Fathers.  However, the story she relates, translated from Eustochius’s Latin version of James
the Deacon’s Greek account, differs from his own on many key points. Nonnus’s tears are not
because “such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.” Rather, the bishop feels ashamed upon
witnessing the effort that the harlot puts into preparing her appearance for men, for he believes
he has not put nearly so much effort into his appearance before God. Returning to his chamber,
he flings himself upon the floor and repents to Christ: “for a single day’s adorning of a harlot is
far beyond the adorning of my soul.”

The original story also counters West’s implication that casting a look of “mature purity”
upon a “scantily clad prostitute” may cause her to notice the loving gaze and so discover God’s
love. Pelagia, in Waddell’s account, does not notice that Nonnus looks at her on the street; her
conversion comes about afterwards, when she hears him preach. Most significantly, when
Pelagia then writes to the bishop and asks to see him, he agrees only on the condition that there
be other bishops present. “[S]eek not to tempt my weakness,” he writes.
Mr. West continues his very curious views when he relates a story that occurred during Mass.  He discusses an experience where he felt a rush going through him during Mass at the sight of a beautiful woman not his wife and her hair.  In prayer, he believes God told him that such attraction was given to point Mr. West to the power of the Eucharistic sacrifice.  (The account is told at length in TOB Explained, 398.)

I'm not going to comment at length on this particular incident.  Speaking personally, I find it highly unlikely, if not outright laughable.  Yet that's just me, and if someone seriously made that connection and this caused a far higher bit of reverence at Mass, more power to them!  Color me suspicious.  While West indeed notes that if people are impure, they shouldn't be thinking these things, he believes his purity gave him the power to do so.

Here's my only question:  Where was his wife during all of this?  What does she think about Mr. West and others who claim that the best way to overcome impurity is for her husband to constantly stare at another woman at Mass?  Mr. West nowhere expresses sorrow for this incident.  Rather, it was incredibly revealing for him he says.  Fr. Thomas Loya gives similar instruction when he tells someone who struggles with impurity:

Alright Look at her!!  That's right, look at her!  Look at her butt, her breasts, but don't stop there.  Look at every aspect of her magnificent femininity!  Take her in completely and say "How many are your works O Lord, in wisdom you have made them all!"  (Psalm 103)
I speak only as a brother who has a sister.  If someone told a man in an audience to learn who my sister is as a woman by staring at her butt and breasts, we would be having some problems!  If I were in that audience, I honestly would probably say something along the lines of "be glad you are a priest."

Is my repulsion evidence of some nascent prudery or disgust with the human body?  To answer this and the story above about Mr. West, I bring forth St. Frances De Sales.  In writing on marriage, St. Frances says the following in his masterpiece Introduction to the Devout Life:

The first effect of this love is the indissoluble union of your hearts. If you glue together two pieces of deal, provided that the glue be strong, their union will be so close that the stick will break more easily in any other part than where it is joined. Now God unites husband and wife so closely in Himself, that it should be easier to sunder soul from body than husband from wife; nor is this union to be considered as mainly of the body, but yet more a union of the heart, its affections and love.

The second effect of this love should be an inviolable fidelity to one another. In olden times finger-rings were wont to be graven as seals. We read of it in Holy Scripture, and this explains the meaning of the marriage ceremony, when the Church, by the hand of her priest, blesses a ring, and gives it first to the man in token that she sets a seal on his heart by this Sacrament, so that no thought of any other woman may ever enter therein so long as she, who now is given to him, shall live. Then the bridegroom places the ring on the bride’s hand, so that she in her turn may know that she must never conceive any affection in her heart for any other man so long as he shall live, who is now given to her by our Lord Himself.
So I ask again:  Where was his wife?  Was Mr. West honoring the wise counsel of this great spiritual master?  What does Fr. Loya say to the married man who took his advice?  In light of this wise teaching, would it be okay to do this simply if the girl were single, since before the foundation of the world, a man was made for her if her vocation is marriage?  It should be a blatantly obvious truism that a man looks upon his wife differently than other women.  Of what purpose and benefit is another woman to him?  God did not make that woman for him and his sanctification, only his wife.  What compelling reason is there to reject the sound principles of St. Frances here?

There are those who will read this statement, and will respond "this is impossible."  They will reason that men, as visual creatures, will always turn their gaze towards that which is around them.  There is indeed a certain truth to this.  Yet even if true, it is not to be commended.  We are fallen creatures.  While we make such oaths, nobody ever fulfills them perfectly.  While a man's gaze might in passing notice a woman not his wife, he should not focus his gaze in this instance.  If by chance he finds himself focusing his gaze on her, he should immediately call to mind the oath that he made which was signified by that ring.  He should then also immediately call to mind the pearl of wisdom St. Gregory of Nazianzen teaches: you cannot expect your spouse to fulfill obligations you yourself are refusing to fulfill.

We should never set the standard aside because we view it impossible.  With God, all things are possible.  Mr. West often declares he refuses to limit the power of the Cross in transforming our desires.  I will agree with him.  For those who find the counsel of St. Frances impossible, grace makes it possible.  In the end, a true love illuminated by divine grace makes up for our shortcomings, we fulfill our obligations through that love.
I would say this is the tradition of the Church in these matters.  It is impossible to understand the mystery of "man and woman He created them" apart from this tradition.  Those who say likewise may indeed "know" the teaching, but they do not fully understand or comprehend it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Isaiah's Call

When pondering the lives of the prophets, we can do no higher than pondering the life of Isaiah.  We will be spending several posts on this prophet's message, because he was a prophet without equal in the Old Testament. 

He lived during a time of great peril and great change in the world.  It was during his time that the Kingdoms of Judah and Samaria first came into conflict with the mighty Assyrians.  During his time, the Kingdom of Samaria was actually destroyed by the same Assyrian Empire.  The Kingdom of Judah was originally meant to serve as God's way of bringing the light to the nations.  During this period, that light is about to be extinguished.  Isaiah appears to not only comfort his people, but also to remind them of their calling. 

By the time he walked the earth, Judah had indeed fallen far from their calling.  After the righteous reigns of Uzziah and Jotham, Ahaz ascended to the throne.  Ahaz turned away from God, and committed sins even greater than that of the people of Samaria.  He sacrificed his (at the time) only son to pagan idols.  He removed the altar of God from the temple, and replaced it with a copy of the Syrian altar in the great temple of Damascus.  In his desperation, he swore allegiance to the King of Assyria becoming his vassal, begging the King to bring vengeance upon Samaria.  (In a true irony, what he relied upon for salvation ended up nearly becoming his doom.)

This was the time during which Isaiah lived.  We know from the introduction that he was the son of Amoz, a man of high nobility.  He was born during the reign of Uzziah, and promoted the true worship of Yahweh during his reign.  No doubt he had fallen out of favor with the powers that be during the reign of Ahaz.  Yet it is during this time that he begins to build his reputation.

What is this reputation?  He indicts with great rhetorical power the sins of Judah.  The first chapter is full of a seething condemnation of Judah for her sins and hypocrisy.  Their hypocrisy if anything makes them worse than the pagans.  The pagans knew no better.  Judah had the truth, and they had turned their back on it.  Here the prophet calls on them to forsake this path in what could be called the summation of Isaiah's entire message:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:  though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This is a prophecy of restoration.  He calls them back not only to the practices of the previous Kings, but to their original calling from Adam, to Abraham and to Moses.  They must not only put away the evil they did, but learn to do something in place of it.  Many times the people of Judah and her kings would repent of the evil they did, but they continued to do it.  There was no real change in their behavior.  If anything, the sacrifices they offered were being used as an excuse for loose living.  The prophet points out that God does not accept the sacrifices offered unless a real change of heart occurs.

Instead, we must replace our evil with that which is righteous.  If we do so, God will bless the land and leave them in security.  His message was a great challenge to the people.  His next prophesy gives us insight into the fruits of this repentance and conversion.  May we likewise repent of our evils and experience true conversion in our hearts and souls.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

In many of the discussions surrounding Christopher West's interpretation of "Theology of the Body", West invokes John Paul II talking about the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion."  I'd like to offer a very brief outline of this understanding.

As anyone who studies Church history knows, the Church has dealt with various heresies.  Sometimes, those heretical concepts colored the judgement of even good and honorable men, some even saints!  St. Hippolytus was an anti-pope.  Tertullian died outside of the Church due to his Montanism.  St. Cyprian through his rigorous orthodoxy at times lacked Christian charity towards the lapsed, and Pope St. Stephen rebuked him for it.

That this mindset has also colored the worldview of some Catholics throughout the years in the battle to present an authentically Christian view of sexuality is not surprising.  We know that the Manichean influences that Augustine was once associated with at times led to some problematic statements he made regarding sexuality.  While one should be very careful in substantiating the charge, there are those throughout Church history, even saints, who had a very dismissive view of sex and sexuality.  This is why we must take great care to understand their statements in a wide context.  Charity requires that we first attempt to reconcile their statements with the greater Catholic tradition. 

I believe the precise opposite has happened with the debate surrounding Christopher West and those who defend him.  A classic example of this occurs in the comboxes at Sr. Lorraine's blog.  After what was a fairly boilerplate discussion, the topic turned to the importance of the marital embrace within marriage.  Some were arguing that it was the "central" and "fullest" way of understanding the "spousal meaning of the body."  Wade St. Onge objected to this line of thought, and used St. Frances De Sales to buttress his claims:

Married people ought not to keep their affections fixed on the sensual pleasures of their vocation, but ought afterwards to wash their hearts to purify them as soon as possible, so that they may then with a calm mind devote themselves to other purer and higher activities. (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 39: “The Sanctity of the Marriage Bed”)

The response of Sr. Lorraine was telling.

Well, Wade,it seems to me that the quote from St Francis de Sales perhaps has a bit of the attitude of suspicion, as John Paul might call it.....  But when he says "wash their hearts to purify them" he seems to imply that they were somehow made impure by conjugal union. But authentic conjugal union marked by love is not an impure activity, so why would they need to be thereafter purified? Even some of the saints had traces of Manichaean attitudes, as probably most of us do still have them in some ways.

I find this troubling in a number of ways.  Most importantly, she's accusing a Doctor of the Church of Manichean tendencies.  Not just any doctor, but one of the great spiritual masters of the Church, of whom Pope Pius XI said the following:

What is more, it appears that Francis de Sales was given to the Church by God for a very special mission. His task was to give the lie to a prejudice which in his lifetime was deeply rooted and has not been destroyed even today, that the ideal of genuine sanctity held up for our imitation by the Church is impossible of attainment or, at best, is so difficult that it surpasses the capabilities of the great majority of the faithful and is, therefore, to be thought of as the exclusive possession of a few great souls. St. Francis likewise disproved the false idea that holiness was so hedged around by annoyances and hardships that it is inadaptable to a life lived outside cloister walls. (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem )
I submit it is quite imprudent to charge one of the great spiritual masters with Manichean tendencies, unless you have some real evidence.  Sister Lorraine provides none.  While some may find the quote Wade cited troubling, reading the context helps give a far better understanding of the text in mind.  I submit that not only is the great Doctor assured of his spiritual orthodoxy, but he provides a large problem for the partisans of Mr. West.

There is one problem with the quote:  depending on which version you have, it will or will not exist.  An interesting discussion for scholars of St. Frances, but we need not bother ourselves with this debate.  The context of the discussion surrounds that of over-indulgence.  In giving his advice on the marriage bed, St. Frances says the following:

The marriage bed must be undefiled, as the apostle says, that is to say, kept free from uncleanness and all profane filthiness. Holy wedlock was first instituted in the earthly paradise, where as yet there never had been any disorder of concupiscence or of anything immodest.

We see here that St. Frances talks about the divine origin of marriage.  God instituted marriage, and it is something that helps the spouses grow in holiness.  There are those who take their warped views into the bedroom, and give us all kinds of perversity.  (A popular example is Dr. Gregory Popcak's "one rule" which states that almost anything goes in the bedroom, provided contraception isn't used and the spouse's fulfillment is in mind.)

He then goes on to point out that like anything else, humans can abuse what was given to us by God.  He demonstrates how to eat is holy, but people abuse eating into gluttony:

Just as to eat, not for the preservation of life, but to keep up that mutual intercourse and consideration which we owe to each other, is a thing in itself both very just and lawful, so the mutual and lawful compliance of the persons united in holy marriage is called by St. Paul a debt. But it is a debt so great that he allows neither of the parties exemption from it without the free and voluntary consent of the other....
After talking about the varying degrees of which indulgence is permitted (provided the primary purpose of marriage not thwarted), St. Frances says:

In truth, nuptial commerce, which is so holy, just and commendable in itself and most profitable to the commonwealth, is yet in certain cases dangerous to those that exercise it. Sometimes it causes their souls to be seriously ill with venial sin, as in cases of simple excess. Sometimes it kills it effectually by mortal sin, as when the order appointed for the procreation of children is violated and perverted. In this latter case according as one departs more or less from this order, the sins are more or less abominable, but they are always mortal. The procreation of children is the first and principal end of marriage. Hence no one may ever lawfully depart from the due order that that end requires.
Let us remember that above all, St. Frances was a pastor of souls.  He understood well that sexual temptation is a serious issue, even in marriage.  Even in marriage, even in the just, there can still be the temptation to use and exploit another person for your own ends.  The more one focuses on the sensual, the greater that danger is, just as the more one focuses on the pleasure food provides, the greater the risk of gluttony and over-eating.  It is in this context that the quote from Wade is given.  St. Frances continues afterwards:

In this advice consists the perfect practice of that excellent doctrine which St. Paul gave to the Corinthians: "The time is short," said he, "it remaineth that they also who have wives be as though they have none." According to St. Gregory,' that man has a wife as if he had none, who takes bodily consolation with her in such a manner as not to be diverted from spiritual demands. What is said of the husband is understood likewise of the wife. "Let those that use the world," says the same apostle, "be as though they used it not".... We should enjoy spiritual things but only use corporal. When their use is turned into enjoyment, our rational soul is also changed into a brutish and beastly soul.
St. Frances is not saying that the marital embrace is unholy.  Quite the contrary.  He is telling people to exercises it properly, and to never let it interfere with your spiritual duties, especially those towards your spouse.  Good as the marital embrace may be, it is not the epitome of marriage.  Though it is a readily available sign of the union of husband and wife that they are "one flesh", one can think of even greater signs.  (Indeed, St. Joseph did not partake in marital relations with the Blessed Mother, yet in John Paul II's eyes they practiced the spousal meaning of the body par excellence.)

Now is St. Frances saying that one can take no enjoyment from the marital embrace?  Certainly not.  What he is saying is that the said enjoyment of yourself should never be the main focus.  How many people do we know, even in marriage, who are only thinking of themselves and their "needs."  The more one focuses on their needs, the more likely they will start neglecting their spouse.  If indeed the marital embrace is supposed to provide (however faint) a glimpse of the enjoyment we spend in heaven, should we not afterwards stay focused on what that is, instead of what gave that enjoyment?

I believe I have demonstrated that on this area, and so many others, the great doctor is truly above "suspicion."  The question becomes:  Why is he not taken at his word?  I believe that if we do take this great spiritual master at his word, the positions of Mr. West and his associates are quite hard to justify, as I intend to prove another time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dr. Smith Issues a Response to Dr. Von Hildebrand


For what it's worth, the tone is leagues better compared to her previous response to Dawn Eden.  Dr. Smith said she would be taking that into account, and she deserves commendation for it.  I may write a little bit more on this later, but will simply make a few brief points as I read the article today:

1.)  The Philosopher and Evangelist

Dr. Smith states:

She is ferociously loyal to those she loves and the ideas she champions.  With most audiences, she is a terrific hit.  Some, however, observe that she may not fully appreciate what truth there may be in false philosophies or why so many are drawn to error.
I think one needs to consider the audiences.  Dr. Von Hildebrand's work was not meant as an analysis for why people feel the way they do, at least from what I can tell.  The focus of her work was to contrast two different approaches, and why she feels the approach of Christopher West ultimately falls short.  Those of our friends on the other side of the aisle have stated time and time again that West is meant to be the one who takes Church teaching and makes it accessible, that he's not a theologian.  I would say the Dr. Von Hildebrand's of the world are necessary to challenge the likes of Mr. West and others to make sure their thinking is consistent.  Make the message accessible no doubt, but make sure that both that the "wounded" can benefit from it, even the redeemed wounded.  (I've never really cared for this connotation.  We are all wounded in every aspect of our lives by sin, even if we have been redeemed by Christ.  It smacks of the idea that West's critics are just a bunch of Pharisees, in need of no physician, while West is going to those in need of healing.)

I have taught three courses for the Theology of the Body Institute, which also promotes the work of Christopher West.
If nothing else, I think this once and for settles the debate.  Dawn Eden's critics generated what many of us felt was a storm out of nothing over her assertion that the TOB institute promotes the works of Christopher West.  It was rather self-evident.  Putting seriousness aside for the moment, I hope Christina King and friends read this statement.  :)

There is one troubling theme I note throughout Dr. Smith's essay, and I do not feel she is being consistent.  One on hand, she claims Dr. Von Hildebrand doesn't cite evidence.  On the other, Dr. Smith:

  • Criticizes those who have she claims have never read TOB, and yet use Dr. Von Hildebrand's essay to go after West
  • That Dr. Von Hildebrand's essay is in essence corrupted by the influence of certain people who criticize West, one could say even implying that someone else wrote parts of the essay!
Nowhere does she cite any actual evidence of either instance.  She just leaves the charge out there hanging.  I do not think this is fair treatment, especially since Dr. Smith decries this alleged offense in her critics.

On "Junk Food"

Dr. Smith finds shock that anyone would view pornography as something other than "junk food."  Today for lunch, I had what could be called "junk food."  I had myself a double cheeseburger meal large sized with onion rings from Burger King.  While not ideal, the food has some nutrients in it, and is okay in moderation.  Pornography is never okay, and there are no nutrients in it whatsoever.  As Dr. Von Hildebrand said, it is poisonous.  That Mr. West opposes pornography is to be commended.  Yet in describing these things the way he does, it has been the assertion of his critics that the issue is confused. 

The same could be said about one who eats out of the dumpster.  There are those who through homelessness have been forced to eat out of the garbage can.  They are doing so out of desperation, yet are still being fed with nutrients.  While one might question what they are doing, to do so is not sinful.  Viewing pornography is again, always sinful.  While some may turn to it out of desperation, some people willingly turn to it.  West makes little mention of this in his presentations.  Everybody is just wounded and unable to find healing because of prudery.  Dr. Von Hildebrand was simply pointing out that some people know no limits in their depravity, and it is simply foolish to think it is just because of prudery.

On "Hefner"

When Dr. Von Hildebrand mentions West's praise for Hugh Hefner, Dr. Smith find astonishment that anyone would find fault with this.  She left out a few important points.  The way in which he praised Hefner was by comparing him to John Paul II, and viewing them as both opposing prudery.  The image was given in essence that they would be on the same side.  As James Akin pointed out, that is preposterous.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, prudery stems from a noble sentiment, yet a lack of balance.  There is nothing noble about what Mr. Hefner has done.  One could make a far easier case that his warped views on things came not from prudery, but his grandfather being a pedophile.  Elsewhere, Mr. Hefner was constantly cheated on by women.  If one is putting on their psychoanalysis hat, it was these things, not prudery which led him to what he did.  Of course, one could also say that Mr. Hefner is a very depraved man, with a complete hatred for women.  (This is demonstrated by the fact that the founder of playboy boasts of the fact he has always refused to sleep with intelligent women, because he has no clue what to do with them.)  Yet since Mr. West views everything through the lens of prudery, he overlooks these facts.

On "Tragic"

When one thinks of "tragic", even in the Greek world, it is more than merely a "great man has knowingly performed a very wrong action" as Dr. Smith states.  Many of the great tragedies of literature and cinema (including in the Greek world) involve the hero doing a grave evil despite having the best of intentions.  Great artists have throughout the centuries looked to portray the ills of this pragmatic impulse through telling these tragedies.  What noble intention exists in pornography?  I submit there are none, and that is why it is so heinous, not "tragic."  One watches The Godfather and notices the "tragic" nature of Michael Corleone:  he is a man who, out of a desire to protect his family, committed evil.  As the years went on, that noble intent to protect his family was gone, and all that existed was a cruel monster who orders the murder of his own brother.

The story of David and Bathsheba, there was no noble impulse David was looking to satisfy when he committed adultery, and then ordered the murder of her husband so he could not take revenge.  That is what made the sin so heinous.  There was no justification for it, and nothing that could reconcile the compounding of an even graver sin upon an already grave one.  Such a tale is a caution for even the just:  the inordinate desires of the flesh are never fully extinguished, and if we aren't careful, they can lead us to a very dark place.  Luckily, David repented.  We should not be so presumptuous about ourselves.

On "Intent" and "This isn't Central."

In far too many places to count, Dr. Smith protests that critics are reading West the wrong way, and how what we are criticizing "isn't essential."  Whether or not Dr. Smith realizes it, she has just proven the point of Dr. Von Hildebrand, Dawn Eden, and others.

If issue after issue is merely "tangential", how long before someone notices a trend?  You demonstrate how the tangential leads to serious problems.  Like the original heroes in the tragedies, they make a decision that is certainly "tangential" at first, but ends up leading to greater problems.  It is the assertion of Mr. West's critics that these problems which are indeed tangential reveal some even bigger problems in his methodology as a whole.

The alleged phallic nature of the paschal candle is a perfect example of how West's overall presentation is far too sexualized.  There is something sexual in absolutely everything, from the marital embrace to the Hail Mary to the Eucharist.  Dr. Smith is correct that in TOB, JP II rarely uses "sex" to refer to the verb, but rather the noun, our creation as male and female.  The question is:  does Mr. West?

I might develop some of these thoughts individually in later writings.  Dr. Smith's essay provides food for thought.  There is no surprise I disagree with it, yet I think she has finally managed to enter this discussion in a civil manner.  Hopefully now, 6 months later, we can finally get to the actual evidence, a debate I know many of us across the way are more than happy to have.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why The Incarnation Matters: Back to the Future

Having covered the prophets Elijah and Elisha in previous installments, we now make our way to the group known as the “Major” Prophets in the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. With these individuals, the Incarnational aspect of our faith undergoes considerable development. In modern language, when many people see “prophet” they think of someone telling the future. I would suggest the meaning is far deeper than this.

While these men do indeed predict the future, I would say they also spend time on the past. They remind Israel of their sins. For the future, they attempt to point Israel back to their initial calling. One could even say that there is precious little “new” about their ministry. The “newness” comes from the fulfillment of that original calling, and how will be carried out.

The prophets, despite living millennia ago, also live during a time which is quite relevant for our reflection. In one sense or another, they all lived during a time of apostasy. Those who were meant to act as custodians of the faith of Yahweh allowed the faith to weaken, whether through negligence or an active persecution of the true faith. In their varied walks of life, they used the understanding gained from these experiences to confront those leaders.

Is this not what we see today? The errors of the world have in many cases infected many Christians, even those whose job it is to guard the faith. In the world at large, they have not simply turned their back on God. Rather, they turn to face him, and raise their swords. This is a war man cannot win.

Like our heroes of old, God sends prophets into the world even today. Not in the sense of giving new revelation, but in the sense I described above. These prophets are meant to call the Church and the world back to what they were meant to be. They are meant to point out the folly of idols, whether they are actual “gods” or the self. Yet many times a fair question can be asked: where are today’s prophets? It seems that the Church grows weaker and weaker by the day, because there are no prophets to guide her message.

If one is upset over this state of events, we can blame nobody but ourselves. We are called to be today’s prophets. Through our baptism (of which we will discuss more in the future), we become citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, His Church. We are meant to proclaim God’s truth about man’s calling and destiny to both the secular and the religious. It is for this reason that we must turn to these great heroes.

Unfortunately, today’s Church frequently neglects the Prophets. They are viewed in two ways. Firstly, as those who were relevant millennia ago, and only dealt with issues particular to their time. Others look at the Prophets solely in light of prophesies about the Messiah. With those prophesies fulfilled in Christ, their value for the Christian today is minimal. Both are tragic, and nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is their message timeless, their message takes on a higher meaning in Christ. He never did away with their message, since He came to fulfill, not destroy. Indeed, the Incarnation of Our Lord elevates this message to an entirely new level. We read the message of the prophets in light of Christ’s elevation of their work.

It is with this understanding that we shall continue our study, beginning with the one known as the greatest prophet of them all, Isaiah.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Dr. Smith's "Revised" Response

It must be nice being able to be able to choose where you will publish something. I’m sure this thought had to have crossed the mind of Dr. Janet Smith. True to her word, she has revised her hit-piece on Dawn Eden, and this time posted it in a different venue. Instead of Catholic Exchange, she has it up at the Catholic Education Resource Center. Unfortunately, there’s no comments section at that site like there was at CE. Probably best for Dr. Smith, as now people cannot interact with what she said right in public.  The last time the plebeians were allowed their say, it didn't end well. Nonetheless, she prefers the “old media” style of publishing where people cannot interact right away with it, and it takes a more academic tone. Such is her right.

Such is the right of her critics, however, to point out that she still really hasn’t engaged with much of the evidence. I also think she did a little bit of whitewashing the record, and I think this should be pointed out. The article on Catholic Exchange is still there, at least for now.

Unfortunately, I might just be doing an exercise in futility. Dr. Smith hints of even further revisions:

While it may merit even further revision, I need to get on to other projects. In the end, I believe the substance of my critique is sound.

Is it that hard for Dr. Smith to refrain from writing until she is relatively certain what she is writing won’t need to be changed? Why isn’t that caveat also with her main work? Is this meant to inspire confidence in the reader? “The substance is sound” is classic double-speak for leaving enough wiggle room should you end up getting proven wrong yet again. Perhaps Dr. Smith should have never gotten involved. She certainly would’ve saved a lot of people the trouble for trying to figure out if what she says today will be the same as what she says tomorrow!

Ironically enough, Dr. Smith starts out her essay with a footnote, in which she says:

In my initial version of this critique, I critiqued Eden's tone first, simply because as a thesis reader, I work my way through a piece step by step. But I found in presenting the critique publically, readers took my comments on her tone to infer that I focused on the "accidental" features of Eden's work and did not pay enough attention to the substance. The approach also served to display such frustration with her tone that readers were less able to assess fairly my critique of the substance of the work. Indeed, I committed the same offense I accused Eden of: "biasing" the reader before a critique was offered. Mea culpa. I have deleted some portions on tone and added a few general comments. So in this version, I begin with substance, since it is unarguably more important than tone. I do turn to tone at the end, because it, too, is important.

I will only speak for myself. It wasn’t the tone; it was the substance of how she critiqued the tone. Confusing? Allow me to elaborate.

I for one think at times, we are far too genteel a society. Whenever someone comes up with a stinging criticism, it is automatically dismissed as a personal attack. If one reads the great masters of rhetoric throughout history (even the Catholic ones!) they recognized at times that a less than cordial approach was required. When dealing with the followers of Marcion, Tertullian stated the following:

But why call His body bread, and not rather (some other edible thing, say) a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart! (Against Marcion)

St. Jerome stated of Helvidius:

If I choose to say, the apostle Paul before he went to Spain was put in fetters at Rome, or (as I certainly might) Helvidius, before he repented, was cut off by death, must Paul on being released at once go to Spain, or must Helvidius repent after death, although the Scripture says In sheol who shall give you thanks?

Lest someone think this was just against a heretic, Jerome answered much the same way during his dispute with Augustine. Sometimes rhetorical wit can prove an argument better than any genteel discussion ever could. St. Frances De Sales knew this well. His The Catholic Controversies was many times a masterpiece of rhetoric. Even in the academic world, then Cardinal Ratzinger worded responses to Cardinal Kasper that many found surprising for a break in the rather genteel decorum such disputes normally have. Neither took it personally.

Their very combative tones never prevented them from being rightly lionized as Catholic heroes. If Dr. Smith wanted to take a combative tone against Miss Eden’s thesis, such is her right. Indeed, if it were as bad as she says it is, such a response would probably be merited. Whenever one employs rhetoric, we must ask ourselves: does it further making your point?

To this I ask:

1.) Does stating your opponent lacks any shame (since essentially they disagree with your assessment) further the discussion?

2.) Does stating they lack any humility or docility further the discussion?

3.) Does insinuating she whines further the discussion?

4.) Does stating that she had a hidden agenda of using her thesis to turn her from an obscure graduate student into a big name on the lecture circuit to get rich further the discussion?

The problem wasn’t tone. The problem was, in making her assessment, she engaged in pure character assassination. There was absolutely no point to any of her charges, other than to sling as much mud as possible. While she may have done this in anger or haste, that does not change it for the fact of what it was. Something tells me if Dr. Smith had alerted her readers to this, they would tend to think rather lowly of her work. As I said, it must be great to be able to choose your own venues!

Dr. Smith starts out her revised critique not looking to assassinate this time, but rather provides personal testimonies of why Mr. West’s work is great. For someone who begged her opponents to engage in an academic discussion, I find this line of argumentation curious.

All the personal references in the world can’t prove a thing one way or the other. I am equally certain Dawn Eden could mention the people whose lives have been changed by her works or talks. I myself am aware of a few personally. Yet does that make her thesis any more or less worthy of belief from the standpoint of the truth? Of course not. No doubt Caesar could say the women around him had their lives transformed and improved. This didn’t take away from the fact that Caesar was still a womanizer and serial adulterer.

While obviously dealing with lesser circumstances, all the personal stories in the world will not make what Christopher West is doing right or wrong. If anything, appealing to emotion is a sure sign you aren’t winning the discussion. After Dr. David Schindler delivered stinging critique of Christopher West, Drs. Smith and Waldstein, a long with Matthew Pinto, essentially made their main argument “but look how many people are change?” This is not a compelling argument.

While watering down her criticisms, Dr. Smith still poisons the well. She keeps the line that, if she were so inclined, she could refute Miss Eden’s entire thesis. If you aren’t going to do it, don’t say it. Stick with the facts you intend to interact with.

As for the majority of the essay, my original work still stands. I refer the reader specifically to parts II through IV. I would like to talk about very briefly one of the subtle but serious changes she makes: the discussion about the Latin in previous works where a sexual nature is discussed.

As readers of this blog were aware, the door was blown wide open on her original argument. It was mocked by many as lacking all seriousness, and rightly so. In short, her original argument stated that since two works had mainly been written in Latin when discussing sexuality, it was evidence of repression from the faithful.

As I and others demonstrated, the work she cites was never meant for the average Catholic faithful. In the preface, the author specifically rejects the idea his work is meant for edification. It was meant for very specific instances of assisting priests in the confessional on how to deal with issues of moral theology.

The only area that was in Latin dealt with sins contrary to nature. One of them listed was bestiality. As Steve Kellmeyer noted (in a mocking tone that Dr. Smith deserved every bit of):

Are lay Catholics being repressed when they are not offered a discussion of how to hear the confession of someone who has had unnatural relations with livestock?

Dr. Smith has changed the argument a bit. Shockingly, she has managed to make it even less scholarly:

Undoubtedly there were some good reasons for that practice, but it suggests some "repression" to me. I believe it is not only because fewer priests today can read Latin, that passages about sex are no longer written in Latin; certainly a willingness to talk about matters of sexuality more openly today, has also led the Church to stop that practice.

In short there is repression because……. Repression because……. Dr. Smith says so, that’s why! She fully concedes now there were good reasons to keep it in Latin. Yet it still suggests repression? She offers no evidence for why this is the case. She just asserts it. If anyone is thinking Dr. Smith is letting her bias show, go to the head of the class.

I’d like to broaden my original argument I made about the sources she cites even further. Since Dr. Smith has provided the link, I was able to do some fact-checking. In the sections that are in English, the following is mentioned:

1.) There is a section on incest and why it is wrong

2.) There is a section on rape, and why it is wrong

3.) “Venereal pleasure” is talked about 6 times, and when it is, and isn’t sinful

4.) “Dirty talk” has a section as well as “immodest touching.”

5.) Finally, a discussion about a dispute amongst theologians on impure touching and kissing, and the gravity of sin associated with it.

What honestly is repressed here? Is Dr. Smith upset that a moral theologian, writing a moral theology manual, didn’t talk about sex in extremely explicit or popular phrases? As I stated before, it’s obvious she didn’t read what she cited. She just saw an area on impurity in Latin, automatically thought that the book was trying to hide the truth from the faithful, and ran with it. In her original, she at least had an argument: Latin equals repression. Now, in her revised work, she doesn’t even have any evidence, it just “seems” repressive. Or maybe, just maybe, Dr. Smith has blinders on. We could just as easily take a page from the playbook of the man she defends. Dr. Smith, if you find this work problematic, perhaps you should ponder deep in your soul and see what hang ups you have that cause you to view a work approved by two august bishops as evidence of repression.

There is one more issues that needs to be commented on. Dr. Smith states:

In fact, if Eden is still confident that her work exposes serious errors in West's work and that he is a danger to others, I believe she has a moral obligation to submit her concerns to bishops (perhaps the committee on catechesis would be a place to start) and they can decide whether they need to challenge the imprimaturs and endorsements that have been given by members of their own rank.

Many have asked me for my thoughts on this, and I will repeat what I told them. There’s no reason to go to the Bishop’s on this. One goes to the Bishop’s when somebody is denying doctrine. For the majority of people in this debate, they are not stating that Mr. West is some heretic. Miss Eden never even implies such in her thesis. Instead, on several occasions she notes the precise opposite, and notes, with Dr. Schindler, that West would “jump in front of a bus” for the Church.

Such a move would poison the well in regards to this. In the eyes of the public, such a move would certainly be interpreted that Mr. West is in doctrinal trouble. Even if he were in the end vindicated, his livelihood would be ruined during the endless investigations, inquiries, appeals etc. Nobody wants to see a faithful son of the Church dragged through such a process when it is not warranted.

No, what we have here is quite different. Since both sides profess to believe the same thing (JP II’s Theology of the Body must be interpreted alongside previous Church teachings), the question is how to achieve that. We have two rival schools of thought on the manner. Church law gives even lay Catholics the right to have these discussions (Canon 212).  How much more so for theologians? If the work is really as poor as Dr. Smith alleges, let the readers compare the work of Dawn Eden and Christopher West. So far, the mere fact that Dr. Smith felt the need to become involved tells you how that one is playing out. 

However, the reverse of this is that people are also under no obligation to do anything in regards to the Bishop, except obey if one gives a ruling that is within their competence to give.  (No such thing has been given.)  Even if they did find him denying doctrine, they are free to denounce him in public all they want.  To say one is under a moral obligation, is to say that someone is committing a sin of omission by refusing to step up.  Church law says nothing of the sort.

Besides, during an on-going inquiry, would not charity require that both sides not speak on the manner until such a formal judgment was reached? If one were to say the intent of some were to sweep this thesis under the rug and engage in damage control, this would be an ideal situation. The Bishops would eventually not become involved or state “West is not a heretic.” Partisans of various ideological persuasions can then spin it into a victory, when it was the wrong battle all along. This is a smokescreen, plain and simple. Provided people engage in this discussion with charity, there need not be one dogmatic way to approach a subject. I myself am comfortable with this approach.  I get the feeling our friends across the way are not. If that’s the case, let them write to the Bishops conferences (which really have no authority to settle the question) then to Rome herself.

That’s really all that can be said. Dr. Smith’s work, instead of being an outright class in character assassination, is now an attempted instructional in how to do it with subtlety. The only problem is that she falls short on both accounts. Furthermore, in her attempt to “tone down” her arguments, she leaves them even more lacking in scholarship than before.

Since she isn’t going to say anymore on the matter, I don’t think either side should, until Mr. West himself speaks. Nothing much has changed. His defenders still have not engaged the actual evidence, try though they might. There’s a reason for this. In the end, the majority of what Miss Eden says in her thesis I believe cannot be assailed. Truth is the best defense.