Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is "Evangelical Catholicism" The Answer?

When George Weigel speaks, mainstream Catholic thought tends to listen.  He's an obviously gifted writer who knows how to make Catholicism at least accessible to the world at large, if not respectable.  (That won't ever happen, nor is he trying.)

Yet there's something about his latest pitch that just makes me yawn.  It reads as if Weigel looked to pack as many buzz words from his checklist as possible into a column.  I happen to agree that Catholics need to be a bit more creative and aggressive in presenting their faith.  Yet how is this to take shape?  Weigel offers no answers there.

I would say there's some uncomfortable truth Weigel doesn't want to encounter.  The "mission territory" his Evangelical Catholics enter are their home parishes.  Our Catholic schools, far from forming kids spiritually, are doing more damage than simply sending them to a public school.  Even worse, they are taking tens of thousands of dollars a year from hard working middle class families so they can wreck the faith of their children.  Want the grace to live out this "evangelical Catholic" life from the sacraments?  The pop Catholic evangelists downplay those sacraments.  Many of those evangelists are Mr. Weigel's friends, and whom he wants us to emulate.

The culture hasn't destroyed the faith of younger Catholics.  The world has always been the world, and Catholicism has managed to produce saints in Christendom and the world of the heathen.  The list of what destroyed the faith of Catholics is far too long to go into here, but everyone pretty much knows the story:  Poor leadership, good intentions but bad ideas, echo chambers, old-fashioned sin, etc.  Forget the culture at large.  Obstensibly Catholic homes need to be made Catholic first before we worry about the world.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I Don't Buy It

With far less fanfare than before, Matt McGuiness concludes his "Second Look at Porn" series over at Catholic News Agency.  I can only say that if he had simply jettisoned the first two columns and instead just published this, he would have less to work with, but it would have been far more effective.  I still think the pop culture references are a bit dated and silly, but that is minor compared to  his thinking Fight Club is a Summa for Catholic sexuality, or cracking jokes about sodomy. 

Perhaps he learned his lesson to speak far more carefully, or perhaps not.  In the end people can read it for themselves.  Yet I would like to make a suggestion for Mr. McGuiness:  He believes the internal logic of pornography is based between hedonism and "angelism."  In this he is correct.  If one listens to the world, one must either indulge in everything without question to morality, or one is a prude.  That is the lesson pornography teaches.  This is obviously false.  There must be some way to still enjoy the pleasures of this life God has given us, without engaging in sin.

In three articles, he never gets there.  He takes time to bash the sacrament of confession, look down on a bunch of "pious devotions" which are clearly distractions from doing the real work:  considering the purpose of human desire and its end.  I submit he didn't get to that point because he is still acting according to the playbook of the world.

Never once in the works of Mr. McGuiness is self-denial mentioned in any sort.  Self-denial isn't sexy, and it can make the reader feel very uncomfortable.  Yet for the one struggling with pornography, lack of self-denial is the root of the problem.  Yes, he points out that there is more to penance than the hair shirt.  Why is it everyone brings up the hair shirt?  Do any of these authors actually know someone who would wear the hair shirt on a regular basis?  When was the last time even a distinct minority of Catholics used the hair shirt?  If Mr. West didn't tell you about it in one of his rock concert/lectures, would you know it even exists? Why aren't we spending our time talking about things which are actually relevant?  Even the simplest act of self-denial can powerfully transform someone.  The entire season of Lent is made to teach us that very lesson.

Another problem is that to Mr. McGuiness, all of this is one gigantic thought experiment.  Thinking is a great thing.  Thinking critically is even better.  Yet one can have a deep understanding of something, yet still do the opposite.  This reality is central to the Gospel and salvation.  To the likes of Mr. McGuiness (and also Christopher West, Janet Smith, Fr. Thomas Loya, Christina King, etc), all you need to do is intellectualize the truth of sexuality, and everything changes.  St Paul makes it crystal clear:  That which he wills to do he does not, and that which he does not will he does.  How does one translate the proper thinking into proper practice?  Traditionally, Catholics have encouraged prayer, the sacraments, popular devotions, all those "pious practices" Mr. McGuiness downplays.  The hope is that these practices, combined with prayer and hopefully a sound confessor will lead you to learning the root of your problems, overcoming them, and most importantly, replacing the sin with virtue.

That I suppose is my final worry about the entire series. Never once is the Catholic given an alternative lifestyle to the pornified culture.  We are told one exists, but never what it entails.  Many Catholics know that porn is wrong.  Instinctively, many secular people know this as well.  Even a secular man feels (at least!) uncomfortable with his teenage son doing nothing but retreating to his room looking up Internet porn all day.  Those who follow the thought of Christopher West (and Mr. McGuiness is certainly one of them) really don't think there's an alternative in the lifestyle.  Sure, we might not look at Playboy anymore, but we need to engage in "theography" with the naked body, not "pornography."  We don't stop reading sex into everything, we just read sex in a different fashion.  There has to be more to life than this, and that is what I (and many others) want to see from West and his ilk.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Church Endures

With Pope Benedict XVI's surprising abdication, Catholics are left speculating on a variety of issues. Who will succeed him? What will his vision be? How does the Church adjust to having a "former pope" still alive? Was Benedict a good pope? All of these questions are interesting and deserved to be considered. Alongside these questions will be a lot of pontificating from Catholics well known and obscure. Some of what they will say is worthwhile. A lot of what they will say is worthless. (Perhaps this writer will wind up amongst the latter.)

Yet If I could offer one bit of advice for Catholics during this truly unprecedented time, it would be to remember how little any of this will matter for our day to day faith lives. That might seem controversial, but let us think about it.

The Holy Spirit is ultimately in control of the Church, and there really isn't a darn thing you or I can do about it, for good or ill. Remember this every time you begin to worry about who the next Pope will be. Our daily faith lives will go on, more or less as they always have no matter who the Pope is.
Many are wondering what they can do during this unprecedented time. Prayer is certainly the first thing we should be doing. Not just for the New Pope (who will need a lot of our prayers no doubt), but for our own salvation as well. Benedict XVI talked about the demands placed upon his shoulders as part of the reason for his decision. Those demands are made worse by our sins. The Pope would not need to be such a powerful witness for the faith if every Catholic was living the Gospel fruitfully, ourselves included. Work on that above everything else.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Sacraments and Communion with God

In previous works, we defined the sacraments as (among other things) signs that facilitate communion with the God who is One in Three Persons.  In short, according to the Apostle Peter, we become "partakers of the divine nature" as we grow in holiness.  Before we can continue this discussion, we need to ask ourselves something.  What is the point of Communion with God?

While this question might seem simple, it has sparked a lot of debate throughout Catholic circles.  If one really wants to drill down into the issue, the entire debate surrounding Christopher West's interpretation of John Paul II boils down to this very question.  It has always been this way.  Ever since the Garden of Eden, man asked himself this very question we are considering today.

There are a lot of ways to look at this.  For some, we walk around with our palms pressed together chanting softly in praise and adoration of God.  For others, communion with God is a nuptial union that surpasses any human emotion or experience.  Then there are those who view attempting to describe heavenly realities with human expressions as utterly pointless.  Whatever it is, we know it will be better than here.

All of these are true, and I suppose they come into play one time or another in heaven.  Yet as true as they all are, their answers are incomplete.  They are means, not the end.  To the fan of Christopher West, why does God wish to "marry us?"  What is the purpose of God providing peace?  As always, the answer may be found within the Scriptures, starting with God's call to Abram:

And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father's house, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be blessed.  I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee, and IN THEE shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed:  So Abram went out as the Lord had commanded him....  Abram passed through the country into the place of Sichem, as far as the noble vale: now the Chanaanite was at that time in the land.  And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him: To thy seed will I give this land. And he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.  (Genesis 12:1-7)
We would do well to remember that at this point of salvation history, there was no Christianity, there wasn't even Judaism.  Mankind had just failed in their ultimate act of rebellion in the Tower of Babel, and the result was a perpetual rending asunder of humanity.  Out of this confusion and chaos, God calls Abram.  Now the classical understanding of this passage has always been that God showed Abram the land of Israel, and promised that land towards his descendants.  To Christians (possessing the fullness of revelation), though the original meaning remains true, we discover something far deeper:

By faith he that is called Abraham, obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.  By faith he abode in the land, dwelling in cottages, with Isaac and Jacob, the co-heirs of the same promise.  For he looked for a city that hath foundations; whose builder and maker is God....  All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and saluting them, and confessing that they are pilgrims and strangers on the earth. For they that say these things, do signify that they seek a country. And truly if they had been mindful of that from whence they came out, they had doubtless time to return. But now they desire a better, that is to say, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city.(Hebrews 11:  8-10,13-16)
As with just about everything in the Old Testament, what is happening is but a sign of a greater reality that will come.  When Abraham looked at "the land" which God would give him, he was not looking at some mere human city.  Rather he was looking at heaven, that which God designed and prepared for them, and invites those who have faith to enter into.

What would we find in such a city?  We may perhaps best understand what we could have by seeing what the faithless were denied.  We can find that answer many times throughout the beautiful Psalms of David:

Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest in thy holy hill?  (Psalm 14:1)
Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts:  As in the provocation, according to the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, they proved me, and saw my works.  Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart.
And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.  (Psalm 94:  8-11)
This last Psalm is of particular importance to us.  The writer of the Hebrews gives a rather lengthy commentary on this Psalm that needs to be quoted in full:

Take heed, brethren, lest perhaps there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, to depart from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, whilst it is called today, that none of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.  For we are made partakers of Christ: yet so, if we hold the beginning of his substance firm unto the end.  While it is said, Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in that provocation.  For some who heard did provoke: but not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. And with whom was he offended forty years? Was it not with them that sinned, whose carcasses were overthrown in the desert? And to whom did he swear, that they should not enter into his rest: but to them that were incredulous?  And we see that they could not enter in, because of unbelief.   Let us fear therefore lest the promise being left of entering into his rest, any of you should be thought to be wanting. For unto us also it hath been declared, in like manner as unto them. But the word of hearing did not profit them, not being mixed with faith of those things they heard.  For we, who have believed, shall enter into rest; as he said: As I have sworn in my wrath; If they shall enter into my rest; and this indeed when the works from the foundation of the world were finished.  For in a certain place he spoke of the seventh day thus: And God rested the seventh day from all his works.  And in this place again: If they shall enter into my rest. (Hebrews 3:12-16, 4:1-5)
While we receive countless things in the heavenly city, most importantly, we find rest.  This is something even Adam did not have, as he had to work in the garden even before the fall.  Throughout salvation history God's people have been nomads and they have been builders of empires.  They have been minorities and majorities.  They experienced ecstasies and sorrows, peace and war.  Yet all of them had the same purpose:  they had to work.  In the fullness of time, Christ came to bring us towards the home where we will have to do none of these things.  We will have rest.  We find further evidence for this in the masterful poetry of St. John of the Cross, perhaps the saint who expressed this union so perfectly:

Within my pounding heart
Which kept itself entirely for Him
He fell into His sleep
Beneath the cedars all my love I gave.

From o'er the fortress walls
The wind would brush His hair against His brow
And with its smoother hand
caressed my every sense it would allow.

I lost myself to Him
And laid my face upon my Lover's breast
And care and grief grew dim
As in the mornings mist became the light
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
Knowing what communion with God entails, we now have another question we will ask ourselves through our study on the sacraments.  How are the sacraments a sign of rest, and how do they provide this rest?

In Defense of "Checklist" Catholicism

Though it took awhile, Matt McGuiness has written his second installment of his "Second Look at Porn" series.  The first installment received a fair amount of criticism.  Dawn Eden and Fr. Angelo Geiger (in this case particularly the latter) have written very insightful responses.  Like them, I find this second installment a vast improvement over the original, and he deserves credit for this.  I would say he really only makes one mistake, yet it is a very large mistake.  Mr. McGuiness states:

If the multinational corporations have a “wonderful plan” for our lives (and they do), sometimes church people offer us “solutions” that alienate us from ourselves no less than the spinning wheel of production and consumption. Some within the Church will tell us to ignore the infinite need that makes our hearts restless and just plunge into Catholic practices and pious devotions. Never mind the meaning, “Just do it.” Here's a sample checklist: start going to daily Mass, pray the rosary, make a holy hour, try this novena, frequent confession more often, do some twelve step program, go to a Catholic conference, be virtuous. You get the picture.
The picture painted might seem familiar to some.  As a traditionalist, it is far more common than I am comfortable with for sure.  The difference between myself and Mr. McGuiness (and those of us and Christopher West for that matter) is that we see the same situation they do.  We see a lot of traditional forms of piety seeming to alienate people from their true calling.  We are just far likelier to place the blame on our fallen natures, not on the tools given.  When the Bible introduces Job, we see the following:

There was a man in the land of Hus, whose name was Job, and that man was simple and upright, and fearing God, and avoiding evil....  And when the days of their feasting were gone about, Job sent to them, and sanctified them: and rising up early offered holocausts for every one of them. For he said: Lest perhaps my sons have sinned, and have blessed God in their hearts. So did Job all days.  (Job 1:1,5)
 Job is following the checklist.  He has set times for devotional prayer for his children.  He offers sacrifices daily for them with elaborate rituals.  Everyday he repents not only of his own sins, but begs for repentance for the sins of his children.  When the Bible praises him, it does not do so falsely.  Job is using these things as they are meant to be used:  for our holiness and the holiness of others.  Now were these practices going to guarantee holiness?  Certainly not.  If anything, a good case could be made that throughout the story Job falls into the stale formulaic religion that Mr. McGuiness condemns.  Pride (or some other imperfection) seeps into our devotions and corrupts them.

At this point, the course of action is not to throw off these devotions which have sanctified millions of souls over thousands of years in search of some action with deeper meaning.  If pride and imperfections weakened these "simple" devotions, how much more so something deeper?  Better to avail ourselves to adoration, where alongside our God, we can probe deeply our desires and human nature to better understand them.  Even better still is the Confessional, where we can throw off our imperfections, receive sound guidance, and hopefully learn how to transform these devotions from something stale into something magnificent.

At the end of his work, Fr. Geiger criticized Mr. McGuiness for essentially being to reliant on the "self-help" side of things.  I completely agree, but I'd like to take Mr. McGuiness at his word.  If the self-help way of deep introspection leading to a fundamental change in paradigm is really the way, such a person needs to be in a pretty advanced state mentally to achieve this.  He needs an understanding of his own passions and desires far beyond what a porn addict is likely to achieve.  The best way to know ourselves is through prayer "on the mountain", that is, separate from everyone else and seeking to be close to God.   There is a reason such devotions have played such a monumental role in the lives of everyone, including the founder of the religious movement Mr. McGuiness venerates so heavily.  Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why they played such a huge role in their lives as saints, and why they play so little a role in ours.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Signs and the Sacraments

When we talk about the sacraments, we return to the old cliche of what a sacrament is.  We understand the sacraments as a "visible sign of an invisible reality."  While this is true, it really doesn't tell us much about the sacraments.  A visible sign of what?  What is the reality?  As with so many aspects of contemporary Catholicism, we have the right answers, but ask the wrong questions.

To help us better ask these questions (and hopefully come to a better understanding) we should return to the sources of truth for Catholics.  In this case, we should return to the Sacred Scriptures.  When outlining what the Passover entails, the Book of the Exodus describes the point of the Passover:

And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt.
From a purely natural standpoint, a Biblical sign is meant to recall a past action.  In the case of the Passover, the paschal memorial was meant to call to mind God's deliverance of the Israelites from the cruel Egyptians.  We do this sort of thing all the time.  For sports athletes, trophies serve not only as a recognition of our triumphs, but they serve to recall those great moments where we excelled seemingly beyond ourselves to achieve that triumph.  When a spouse looks at their wedding band, it is supposed to call to mind the commitment they made to their spouse that day at the altar.  So far, so good.  Modern Catholics accept and understand this aspect of the biblical sign.

Yet there is far more to the proper understanding of a sign and what we "remember."  When the Prophet Elijah visits the widow of Zarephath, the widow believes his visit is an omen of ill news, stating:

What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son? (1 Kings 17:18)
 In the Bible, the act of remembrance also causes an action.  In this case, the remembrance of the widows sins by Elijah's presence caused the death of her son.  The Prophet Ezekiel states that when the sins of Israel came to remembrance, they were taken into captivity.  (Ezekial 21:24)  So for the Bible, signs convey a far deeper meaning than a mere remembrance of past events.   The remembrance of past events causes a present reality.

Now what does this insight do for us in understanding the sacraments?  I would actually argue that it provides quite a bit.  Remembering our previous post on the sacraments, the Sacraments were defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:

They [the sacraments] are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (Paragraph 1118)

With this in mind, we can come to a certain understanding.  When we say a sacrament is a visible sign, we state that a sacrament is a visible sign of communion with God.  Since a sign is meant to recall something, I would submit that the sacrament recalls our original purpose in relation to God:  that we were created for union with God.  Every sacrament, in one way or another, points to this purpose.  Like the "signs" of the Old Testament, the remebrance of this sign enhances that reality.

So why was there a need for Christ to institute seven new sacraments?  Many times we point to the fact that the sacraments of the new covenant confer grace, whereas the sacraments of the old covenant were "merely" signs.  While grace is of supreme importance, there's more to the story here.  The sacraments of the New Covenant not only call to our original purpose, they manifest a new reality.  While we were created for union with God, what happens when we achieve such a union with God?  The grace the sacraments contain transform us to a new reality.  We are no longer living a life of anticipation of union with God.  The Sacraments don't just transform our lives making that union a reality, they conform us to the state of life that is our destination:  eternity in heaven. 

To better understand this point, we will need to do a few things.  We will need to take a trip through salvation history, and then through each of the Sacraments of the New Covenant and how they fit within the framework I have outlined.  This will be the subject of future installments in this series.