Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Sunday, August 28, 2016

St. Augustine, St. Monica & St. Ambrose: A Dynamic Trio

St. Ambrose, St. Monica, & St. Augustine
     Today it seems fitting to talk about not one Saint, but a trio. I'll begin with the first two: St. Augustine [ here] whose feast is today, and St. Monica [here], whose feast was yesterday.  St. Augustine, of course, is one of the greatest theologians, a bishop, Doctor of the Church, and subject of one of the best-known conversion stories in the history of Christianity. The story of St. Monica is also well-known, how she “stormed Heaven” with her fervent prayer over many years on behalf of her wayward son in his less-than-saintly days, and how after he had at last returned to Christ and his Church she died in great contentment.
    St. Monica has long been an inspiration to parents worried about the spiritual welfare of their offspring. And she is a powerful intercessor on their behalf.  We need to bear in mind, however, that as essential as her prayers were, they were not enough.  She softened Augustine’s heart, and prepared the ground to receive the seeds of his conversion, but she herself was not able to plant those seeds: she could not convince her son to change his life.
     Although Augustine was unwilling to be swayed by his mother’s entreaties, it seems that her prayers brought someone into his life to whom he was willing to listen: St. Ambrose [here], our third Saint.  St. Monica’s efforts in the realm of the spirit combined with Ambrose’s eloquence and intellectual brilliance were too much for Augustine’s will to resist.  Together they brought him back to communion with the Body of Christ.
     It often perplexes and saddens those of us who are parents that however hard we try, sometimes our children simply can’t, or won’t, hear what we have to say.  What’s even more maddening, they often treat those same things as the height of wisdom when they encounter them on the lips of a stranger.  It’s a hard reality.  That’s why when we are Storming Heaven for the sake of our children, whatever else we pray for, we would do well to ask the Lord to send a St. Ambrose.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

St. Bridget Of Sweden, Patroness of Successful Failures

     Today is the feast day of St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden, who lived in the fourteenth century.  She was married in her early teens and had eight children, one of them St. Catherine of Sweden, she enjoyed a deeply committed and loving relationship with her husband, and at the same time acquired a reputation for personal piety and charity that attracted favorable notice from many people, including learned clerics and even the King of Sweden.  When Birgitta was in her early forties her beloved husband died, after which she devoted herself completely to the practice of religion and Christian virtues.  Also, as the Catholic Encyclopedia [link] puts it:

The visions which she believed herself to have had from her early childhood now became more frequent and definite.  She believed that Christ Himself appeared to her, and she wrote down the revelations she then received, which were in great repute during the Middle Ages.  They were translated into Latin by Matthias Magister and Peter Prior.

Influenced by these visions, she laid the foundations for a new religious order (the Brigittines), and set out for Rome, both to seek Papal approval for her order (which was finally granted twenty years after she set out, in 1370), and also to urge to Pope to return to Rome from Avignon (a task later taken up by St. Catherine of Siena).  She is truly a versatile saint: she can be seen as a patroness of mothers and families, and also for those in religious communities, and also an exemplar of charity, piety, and determination. 
     One of things that I found most interesting about St. Bridget is summed up in this passage from the article about her [link] at Catholic Online:

Although she had longed to become a nun, she never even saw the monastery in Vadstena.  In fact, nothing she set out to do was ever realized.  She had never had the pope return to Rome permanently, she never managed to make peace between France and England, she never saw any nun in the habit that Christ had shown her, and she never returned to Sweden but died, [a] worn out old lady far from home in July 1373.  She can be called the Patroness of Failures.

The article goes on to call her a “successful failure”, citing her canonization in 1391.
     St. Bridget of Sweden is in fact an excellent example of the quote attributed to St. Theresa of Calcutta: “God hasn’t called me to be successful, he has called me to be faithful”.  Whether or not Mother Theresa actually said it, it’s a marvelous statement of what it is to be a Saint.  As St. Paul tells us, the “wisdom of this world” is foolishness in the sight of God (1 Corinthians 3:19).  St. Bridget is a living reminder to all of us that our “success” as Christians consists in fidelity to Christ, and in nothing else.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Has Pascal's Wager Really Been "Debunked"?

The Throwback below was first posted on the blog Principium et Finis on May 26th, 2015

The Wager

Blaise Pascal
     Is it true that Pascal’s Wager has been “debunked”? Most informed Catholics will be familiar with Pascal’s Wager, which is an argument 17th century Catholic philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal developed in his Pensees.  Pascal says that we all have to make the choice to believe in God or not.  There are four possible outcomes to our choice: if we choose to believe and we are right, we experience endless bliss after death, but if we are wrong we experience nothing at all, we simply cease to exist.  If we choose disbelief and we are right, we likewise experience nothing after this world, but if we are wrong we suffer eternal damnation.  Belief is clearly the best bet, because we risk nothing and stand to gain infinite joy, whereas disbelief gains us nothing even if we’re right, and costs us absolutely everything if we’re wrong.
     It’s a simple and straightforward argument, and it seems pretty obvious.  You wouldn’t think that there was room for much “bunk” in it.  And yet the New Atheism’s evangelists of nothingness claim to have shown it to be an empty shell.  You can find websites created by self-proclaimed debunkers which present the main anti-Wager arguments (along with a fair amount of neo-atheist snark).  One such site, for instance, takes three main lines of attack:

1)      “It assumes that there is only one religion”, thus we are presented, not with two clear choices, but with a myriad of choices. This objection, which has been around since Pascal’s time, is traditionally known as the argument from inconsistent revelations.

2)      The second, as we shall see, is not so much an argument as an unsupported opinion: ‘Also, the second problem is that it assumes that the possibility that the Christian doctrine that “everyone is going to hell unless they become a Christian and accept Jesus as their Savior” is a realistic and significant possibility.  Perhaps they think it is even as probable as the possibility that there is no God.  However, based on the arguments in this book and in others linked, it should be clear that that probability is pretty much zero by now.’

3)      ‘Finally, few, if any, disbelievers disbelieve out of choice . . . Most disbelievers disbelieve simply because they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe . . .’ and  ‘Even if you said all the  right prayers and attended church regularly, that would still not be the same thing as believing from the heart, and any real God would obviously see straight through that.’

    Let’s get the second out of the way first because, as I observed above, it is not a serious argument.  Our unbelieving friends make a sweeping assertion and offer no proof other than inviting us to read their book.  Sorry guys, your opinion isn’t proof of anything.  And if the quality of their argument here is any indication, I doubt that I’ll find the rest of their book any more persuasive (and I’m willing to bet I’ve heard all those “arguments” before, too).  This is no more than an attempt to dismiss the case before it can be litigated.
    Number one at least has the virtue of being an actual argument, one that was first raised, in fact, in Pascal’s lifetime (just as an aside, if Pascal’s Wager is “old and outdated”, as the debunkers assert, isn’t their counter-argument as well?).  Pascal himself dismissed it as an attempt to derail the argument, rather than an attempt to get at the truth, adding “But if you desire with all your heart to know it, it is not enough; look at it in detail.”   What he says next points up the main weakness with this objection: “That would be sufficient in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake.”  His wager is not an exercise in formal logic, nor is a metaphysical proof, nor is it an attempt to offer a comprehensive answer to all the possible possibilities raised by religious belief. He is offering it as a guide to making a real decision of which path to set out on, confident that a seeker who is sincerely looking for the truth will, ultimately, find it.
    Consider the following analogy: suppose you’re driving down the road and you come to a T intersection.  A sign pointing to the right says “Jerusalem”, the sign pointing to the left says “Danger: Bridge Out.”  If you take the left road, you might find yourself driving into a river, or maybe the bridge will have been repaired, or there could be ferry service, who knows? If you take the right, there might be an unexpected landslide, or you might miss another turn and get lost, or you might get eaten by a lion; there are an endless variety of things that might happen.  Nevertheless, you can be reasonably sure that if you want to get to Jerusalem, the right hand turn is your best bet, while the left  will, at best, take you somewhere else, or at worst get you killed.  That’s what Pascal’s Wager is about, it’s about that initial decision to commit yourself to finding God, or to turn away.  If you choose God, you will still have an endless series of further choices and decisions ahead of you, even if you are sure that the Catholic Church is the True Church.  And remember, Pascal doesn’t promise that you will find salvation if you choose God, only that you might, whereas if you choose to reject the possibility of God you definitely won’t.  The argument from inconsistent revelations does nothing to change that.
     The third argument is a variant of the argument from inauthentic belief (briefly, that Pascal’s Wager is arguing for the outward appearance of belief, as opposed to actual belief).  Like the first, it misrepresents what the Wager is really saying, and misunderstands what Catholics have traditionally understood by “belief”.  It starts out, as does the debunkers' second argument, with an unsupported assertion: "few, if any, disbelievers disbelieve out of choice", followed by another, “Most disbelievers disbelieve simply because they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe.”  Not only do they provide no proof whatsoever for either of them, the two statements are, in fact, contradictory: if nobody chooses to disbelieve, then what does evidence have to do with it? In any case, they don’t say reasons and evidence don’t exist, but “they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe”.  The word “compelling” means persuasive, and implies that they do have a choice either to accept or reject the evidence on offer. And as it happens, according to polling data, 8 out of every 10 Americans do find the same evidence “compelling” enough to believe, so it would seem that whether or not it is "compelling" is in the eye of the beholder, in which case we all do have a choice; or maybe believers don’t have really choose either, in which case, why try to “debunk” anything, since none of us, apparently, have any control over our beliefs?  I have no choice but to believe this argument is simply incoherent.
    That leaves us with the argument that following the outward form of religious observance without “believing from the heart” would not count as real belief, and “any real God would obviously see straight through” it.  Like many fallacies, this point contains enough truth to make it appear plausible at first glance, because insincere belief is, of course, false belief.  

     Part of the problem here is that this objection misrepresents what a Christian means by belief, in the same way that the secular world misunderstands what is meant by “love”.  The modern secularist sees love as primarily an emotional effect, or even as pure emotion, and therefore something that happens to you, not something you do.  In the Christian view, Love is a decision of the will, informed by the intellect, and ideally supported by the emotions, but the emotional part is the least essential.  It is therefore possible to love, truly love, someone whom you heartily dislike if you sincerely desire what is best for them, without regard for your own self-interest. Genuine belief is likewise a conscious choice and a movement of the will.  Emotions are a very unreliable guide to actions, but often serve to support and reinforce the will.  Very often we find that our emotions change (sometimes slowly) following a firm decision on our part, especially if we change our habits or practices to go along with it. Countless people have experienced such emotional changes after switching political parties, for instance, or changing some other allegiance.  In fact, it is very often the emotional attachments that keep people from switching long after they see solid reasons to do so, and it’s only after they decide to act that the emotions follow.  
    Pascal believed (as Catholics and many other people traditionally have) that reason, not emotion, should govern the will, but that emotions were the main obstacle for most people, certainly for those who claimed that they wanted to believe but could not. Accordingly, this is his advice to such people:

Learn from those who were bound like you . . . Follow the way by which they began: that is by doing everything as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having masses said, etc. Naturally, even this will make you believe and will dull you. -’But this is what I am afraid of.’ - And why? What have you to lose?

    Of course, Pascal was depending not only on the natural tendency of emotions to follow a firm will, but also the working of God’s grace on those who are sincerely seeking Him, even if they are not yet sure that they have found him.
    Now, our atheist friends might point out that they don’t believe in God’s Grace, and our emotions don’t always do what we want them to do.  True enough.  But it also doesn’t matter.  Notice that Pascal isn’t offering a counter argument above so much as advice to those might be hesitating, because the argument from inauthentic belief isn’t really an objection to Pascal’s Wager at all.  As I indicate in the“T intersection” analogy above, the Wager is solely concerned with whether it is wiser to choose a road that leads toward God, or one that leads away.  The choice itself is just a beginning, and is the same whether or not there might be difficulties or further choices along the way (as, in fact, we should expect there will be).
    The simplicity of the choice is what gives Pascal’s Wager its persuasive power. You can find critics who present much more formal and complicated discussions than the self-proclaimed debunkers cited above, but they are all variations of the same old arguments presented here, all of which have been around since Pascal’s day, and all of which rely on making his Wager something it is not.  They all have to do with raising questions about the certainty of Eternal Salvation, but that is, of course, why it is a wager in the first place, because there is no certainty in this world.  But what’s the worst that can happen if you gamble on God?  What’s the worst if you take the other path?


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

July 4th: An Experiment In Freedom Under God

This Worth Revisiting post was first published July 4th, 2015.  Monday of this week was the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which grounds the founding of the Unites States in a theological argument:

. . . that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

The post below looks at a related argument: the founders believed that only those who subject themselves to the rule of God are capable of successfully directing the government of a republic.


To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at  

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."  –Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1

     The Publication of the American Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, marks the formal beginning of a great experiment.  As Alexander Hamilton put it a decade later during the debate over adopting the new constitution, the question was whether free men, exercising “reflection and choice,” were up to the job.  The founders of the new republic, as Hamilton’s quote above suggests, also saw the new republic that they inaugurating as not simply a matter of local interest, but as an example to the rest of the world that such an arrangement could succeed.  The conventional wisdom at the time was that republics and democracies were doomed to fail, devoured by the unchecked passions and appetites of the populace.  That, it was said, was the verdict of history.

Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence"

     We might reasonably ask what it was that led Hamilton and the other founders to believe that this republic would not similarly fall victim to the baser motives of its citizens.  It wasn’t education, as important as that might be, because the founders understood the difference between knowledge and wisdom, as so many of us today do not.  George Washington put it very directly in his Farewell Address [bold mine]:

…Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens . . .  Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton
     Washington was most emphatically not referring to a national religion or state church, something that was explicitly ruled out in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.  Despite the current conventional wisdom that the founders were "all deists", in fact he and the others were mostly Protestants of various stripes; some, such as Jefferson, did hold to rather idiosyncratic mixtures of Christianity and deism.  A very few were Catholic, including only one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, who was nevertheless one of the most prominent Catholics in the colonies.  They were united, however, by a strong Christian worldview and a firm conviction that human dignity demanded that men should be accorded the freedom under God to conduct their own lives.  Religious toleration was therefore an essential part of the polity they devised, an arrangement amenable to the flourishing not only of Protestant Christians, but also favorable to a growing Catholic population as well  (often in spite of very real prejudice on the part of their non-Catholic fellow citizens).  The result was an inversion of the usual political order, in which ordinary citizens occupied the lowest position, with a governing elite above, and God over all; the American model still had God at the apex, but directly below him not the rulers but the citizens themselves, and they, each one shaped and informed by his faith, were empowered to direct the government.

    For its first two centuries the American experiment seemed to be proving the doubters wrong, although not without a few significant rough spots along the way (the stretch from 1861-1865, for instance, and the long struggle of which it was a part to free the slaves and extend the full benefits of citizenship to them and their descendants).  The United States has grown and prospered, and has often been the example its founders hoped it would be.  Material success, however, often leads both individuals and nations to lose sight of their radical dependence on the Grace of God.  That would seem to be the case in the United States today.  It appears that a new and very different experiment is under way, in which religion and morality are no longer guiding principles; the indulgence of appetites and passions is held to be a virtue, such that those who object must be harassed and silenced, and oaths of the Courts of Justice, as Washington called them, are no more than empty words, if recent judicial decisions are any indication.  History and reason suggest that experiments of this sort do not end well.  I am reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson who, deist though he might have been, had the wisdom to say: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
     God is indeed just, but he is also merciful, and this country has seen several “Great Awakenings” of religious faith in the past.   I believe with Alexander Hamilton that the “conduct and example” of the American people are being watched with interest around the world; the failure of the experiment in Liberty under God would be a loss not just for Americans but for people everywhere.  Please join me in praying that we rediscover the reliance on our Creator that animated the signers of the Declaration of Independence whose proclamation we celebrate today; please join me in echoing one of our great presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who at perhaps the darkest juncture of our national history prayed “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

N.B. Lincoln’s quote comes from his “Gettysburg Address”, which he delivered at the dedication of a cemetery to inter the dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the largest and most destructive battle in the history of North America.  It was fought on July 1-3 1863, 153 years ago this week.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why Jeopardy Doesn't Know Judas

(This Throwback post was first published May 15th, 2015.)

     Sometimes a single detail captures and gives flesh to something much larger.  For instance, today a person of my acquaintance (a non-Catholic Christian) told me with evident disgust that he recently saw a television quiz show in which not one of three contestants could name the betrayer of Jesus.  Just think about that.  What do you think the odds were forty years ago of picking three reasonably well educated adults in the United States at random and finding that none of them could name Judas Iscariot?  We might in fact have been mildly surprised (at least) to find even one such person, because the Christian worldview, and the Christian story, had been so deeply embedded in the culture for so long that even the non-religious and non-Christians generally had a pretty good idea of the major players in the Biblical drama. No longer.

Who is that guy, and why is he kissing Jesus?
(The Taking of Jesus by Caravaggio)

     Lest you think I’m just another old-timer pining the “good old days” that never were, take a look at this recent report, “Five Trends Among The Unchurched”, from the Barna Group, a Christian-oriented research firm.  Barna’s five trends are that 1) “Secularization is on the Rise”, which is to say that each generation is not simply less religious in terms of numbers, but also more radically separated from religion; 2) “People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church”, as measured by the number of unchurched who are open to appeals from their believing fellow citizens; 3) “Churchgoing Is No Longer Mainstream”: the percentage of Americans who have never attended church regularly increased by more than 50%, from 15% of the adult population to 23% of the adult population, from 1993 to 2013; 4) “There Are Different Expectations of Church Involvement”, or more simply people are much less clear on what “church-going” is all about, including the importance of Sunday worship, or staying in a particular faith community; 5) “There Is Skepticism about Churches’ Contribution to Society”, as Barna explains:

Although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse.  When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were not able to identify a single negative impact.

Overall, Barna’s report paints a picture of a society that is increasingly “indifferent” to religion, comprised of a growing number of people who live unaware of any religious dimension to their lives, and who don’t perceive any need for it. Moreover, while most unchurched people today have at least some knowledge of, and experience with, Christian belief, the report shows that with every generation we are seeing more and more people with no direct connection to Christianity at all.  As I said a few years ago in an essay I wrote for Catholic Exchange:

Our civilization has been shaped by Christianity for almost two thousand years.  Christian beliefs, attitudes, and moral convictions (commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian worldview) are woven into all of our customs and institutions . . . anyone raised in the West over the last two millennia has been formed, to a large degree, by that Christocentric worldview, whether they consciously embrace it or not.  More than one commentator has remarked that even the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have not jettisoned principles such as the dignity of the human person (not a universal value by any stretch) or a Judeo-Christian concept of justice – they employ these very ideas, in fact, as weapons against Christianity . . . Without its source and foundation of Christian belief, however, the worldview itself will quickly wither . . . a society that abandons faith will soon be resubmerged in paganism.

The loss of that worldview will have a profound impact (what we have seen so far is just the beginning).  In his eye-opening book Who Really Cares Arthur C. Brooks copiously documents the fact that believing Christians are not just more generous, but much more generous, of both their time and their treasure than other people, and correspondingly more honest, courteous, etc.  Any objective observer would have to conclude, based on the data, that a less Christian society would be proportionally less generous, honest, and courteous.  Not only that, but people who are so disconnected from any experience of religion at all, and perceive no need for any religious dimension in their life, are going to be much harder to evangelize. At the same time, greater efforts at evangelization will be necessary, because our Western Society, which at one time could with some amount of truth be called Christendom, is quickly reverting to Mission Territory.

     Evangelizing a neo-pagan culture presents a very different challenge than did the conversion of the original pagans.  The ancient pagans found Christianity to be strange, and sometimes counterintuitive (“love your enemies” [Matthew 5:44] is still tough for us to swallow), but the neo-pagans believe that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, and most of what they hear from the media and popular culture is negative, which is why barely half of the unchurched people cited above could think of a single good thing the Church has done, while almost two-thirds could think of something bad.  We need to work as never before at being “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), to be that city on a hill (Matthew 5:14) without looking like hypocrites, to preach without “preaching”.  How to do that I don’t know, except that we’ll get nowhere without prayer, the sacraments (especially Confession and the Eucharist . . . and Confession),  and a firm reliance on love and God’s Providence.  Lord, have mercy on us.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What's Latin Got To Do With It?

This Worth Revisiting post was first published January 10th, 2015. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at  

Thus the Roman tongue is now first and foremost a sacred tongue, which resounds in the Sacred Liturgy, the halls of divinity, and the documents of the Apostolic See.  In this same tongue you yourselves again and again address a sweet salutation to the Queen of Heaven, your Mother, and to your Father who reigns on high.  This tongue is the key that unlocks for you the sources of history.  Nearly all the Roman and Christian past preserved for us, in inscriptions, writings and books, with some exceptions of later centuries, wears the vesture of the Latin tongue.
 - His Holiness Pope Pius XII's Address to the Student Youth of Rome, January 30, 1949   

     Over the last couple of days I have been watching two gentlemen going back in forth in the comboxes about the Pope’s decision not to use Latin as the official language of the upcoming Synod of Bishops.  They both make some interesting points about the place and importance of the Latin language in the life of the Church. Their spirited discussion has got me thinking not just about the Latin language, but about some of the distinctive features of Catholicism. 

The Pagan Roman Vergil guides the Christian Dante on his way to Paradise
(Virgil and Dante Meeting Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan by Nicola Consoni)

A God of the Particulars . . .

     Don’t get me wrong, I have some definite opinions about Latin (after all, teaching it has been my main source of income for the past three decades), both in general and in a Church context, but I’d like to use the discussion of the language as a springboard to a broader topic.  And, really, it’s something of a paradox.  I agree with Chesterton when he says: “It [Catholicism] is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”  Catholicism gives us an allegiance that is infinitely larger than those other things that try to make a claim on us, such as political parties and ideologies, nations, athletic teams and any number of false gods, including The Conventional Wisdom; and it is not just something larger, but something truer, something that is infinitely true, because it is our connection to the Infinite Omnipotent Creator.  At the same time, one of its unique features among the world’s religions is its interest in particulars, following the lead of its Lord, of whom I wrote in another post:

. . . He is a God of particulars.  He chose a particular people to whom he first revealed himself in order that he might incarnate himself among them in the person of the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth; he carefully chose and prepared Mary as the human mother of Jesus; he likewise chose and prepared particular individuals such as Peter and Paul to carry forward the mission of Jesus.

The Church has carefully preserved, in Scripture, in creeds, and in the broader tradition these names and the names of many others: and not only Saints, but Sinners such as the various Herods and Pontius Pilate.  The Gospels often don’t simply tell us that Jesus entered a town, but that he entered, say, Tiberias, or Betheny.  We are told about real, individual men and women in well-known places that you can see, where you can walk down the same streets.  And it doesn’t end with Biblical figures and events: the Catholic Church has carefully preserved not only the names and stories of thousands of Saints over the past two millennia, but actual pieces of their bodies as tokens that they were real people, not myths or abstractions. 

. . . And Yet Universal

     It may seem like a contradiction that Catholicism is at the same time the only truly Universal Religion and one uniquely focused on individual people and concrete things. But the living center of it all is the Incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, becomes the Man Jesus of Nazareth: Infinite God in a finite human body.  It is the glorified body of the Risen Christ that I find most telling here, particularly the passage where Jesus shows himself to the “doubting” Apostle Thomas: 

St. Thomas examining the wounds of Christ
(The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio)

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28

Who would have expected the Glorified Body, the eternal perfected Body, to include the horrible wounds inflicted on the first body here on Earth?  
     It seems to me that the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body on Earth, follows the model of the Master in incorporating into itself many of those things that happen to it along the way.  As St. Paul says:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28

I’m not saying that the various experiences and traditions (including liturgical languages) that have been part of the history of the Church enjoy the same status as Christ’s Wounds. Rather, in the passage about Thomas we see a supreme example of a pattern that is reflected in lesser things as well. It does seem that God doesn’t want anything to go to waste, and that He can use those things to join us more closely to Himself and to each other.  Just look at how the stories of the Saints, from the very earliest days of the Church, have been incorporated into her liturgical life, and how devotion to them has brought countless Catholics closer to their Lord.  The same can be said of many devotional practices. 

What’s Latin Got to Do With It?

     This is where the discussion of Latin comes in.  It’s true that it wasn’t the first liturgical language of the Church (and for much of the Church never has been).  In the Western Church, however, the Latin Church, it replaced Greek within the first few centuries, when there was still a Roman Empire.  For the past fifteen centuries Latin was the language in which great theologians (St. Augustine, St. Thomas) formulated their thoughts, and the medium through which Catholics, including most of the greatest Saints, prayed to their God and heard His Word.  

St. Augustine of Hippo, last of the Romans
(Saint Augustine by Antonio Rodriguez)
     That common language, on a purely human level, is a tangible way that we share in their experience.  I often relate to people, when discussing the study of Latin in a purely secular context, my experience studying English as a graduate student.  I found that in the work of authors writing in English prior to the mid-twentieth there always seemed to be a sort of substrata of allusions and knowing nods to the literary tradition of the Greeks and Romans, and a rich admixture of Latinisms; most of this was invisible to the vast majority of students who had never studied Latin (never mind Greek) or classical literature.  There was an entire dimension to the literature they were reading that they simply missed.  Consider how much more profound a loss that is in the context of the Church, whose traditions an institutions go back to a time before any language we could call English existed.   
     Of course, the Church is not merely an institution, and our predecessors in the faith are not merely our forebears: they are our fellow Christians, participants right now from their eternal heavenly home in the same Church, which is the Mysticum Corpus of Christ our Lord. If we venerate bits of their bone and tiny snips of their clothing, surely we must derive some spiritual benefit from praying the same prayers, not just the same thoughts but the exact same words, and singing the same songs as they did?  We are both body and soul, and we need tangible things to help us understand spiritual realities.  We can’t survive on abstractions: that’s why Our Lord has given us Sacraments.  The Latin language has been one of those tangible things for most of the history of the Western Church, one of the most prominent of those things (sociologists call them “identity markers”) that help us understand who we are and with whom we belong.

Look Before Leaping

     As I said above, this is not merely about Latin, because the gentleman is correct who said that the Church has changed her liturgical language in the past, and may do so again.  No human language is essential for Salvation, and the Church will go on with or without it (Matthew 16:18); also, she continually needs to assess whether the things she has picked up on the on the way are really helpful for her mission (Ecclesia reformans et semper reformanda, if I may indulge in an antique tongue). At the same time she must also consider long and hard before jettisoning things that have a long history of uniting those of us in the Church Militant with our predecessors who are now in the Church Triumphant, and beyond them to "Our Father who reigns on high," as Pope Pius XII reminds us.  Whatever happens in the upcoming Synod (things being what they are, it makes sense to conduct the proceedings in some other language), we would be unwise to abandon completely the Language of our Fathers (Lingua Patrum) too quickly.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Charleston, The Stranger, And Orlando: The Power Of Forgiveness

Love Overcomes Hate

One year ago, a shocking crime was dominating the news here in the United States, the vicious murder of nine members of a prayer group in Charleston, South Carolina.  The killer, a young man named Dylann Roof, hoped that the crime would ignite a race war (Roof is white, his victims were black).  It didn’t happen.  It’s true that some political activists took advantage of the understandable outrage at Roof’s racist massacre to push for various tenuously related pet causes, such as banning displays of the flag of the old Confederacy (never let a good crisis go to waste, someone once said).

Funeral for victims at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2015

More important than the machinations of the usual political agitators, however, was the reaction of the family and friends of the victims.  They had every reason to rise up in a spirit of anger and righteous vengeance.  Instead, they came together in a spirit of love and forgiveness, forgiveness explicitly grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  These grieving, wounded Christians gave the whole world a moving example of the healing power of Christ’s love.

A Stranger Comes To Town

Last year, however, was not the first time, and these were not the first Christians to have lived out the words of their Savior: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  I was reminded of another such example a few days ago, when I paid a visit to the town cemetery in Gray, Maine.  There, among other Civil War era graves stands a headstone which reads:
a Soldier of the late war
Died 1862
By the Ladies of Gray
A star medallion accompanies the stone, to indicate that the man beneath was a combat veteran.  There is usually a flag as well; when I visited last week, there were actually three small flags snapping in the breeze.  The Stranger differs from the dozens of other Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, however, in that, here in the heart of the northernmost state of Yankee New England, his grave is honored not with the American flag, but with the Confederate battle flag, an emblem of the enemy in that conflict.
There’s an interesting story here, going back over a century and a half.  At the time of the Civil War, soldiers who fell in battle would be buried in a military cemetery, usually not far from where they died.  If a soldier’s family wished to bury him at home, they had to pay out of their own resources for the transport of his body.  And so it happened that when Lt. Charles Colley of Gray died in September of 1862, succumbing to wounds he received at the battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia, his family paid to bring his body back to Maine.
    An unpleasant surprise lay in store for Lt. Colley’s family when they opened his coffin, however.  They found in the casket not their son, but an unidentified young man in a confederate uniform.  The government was not willing to ship him back, and besides, who knew where to send him? And so a group of local women arranged to have him interred in the local cemetery. There he lies today, the gray-uniformed Stranger side by side with one Johnson Smith, his blue-coated antagonist from the Maine Volunteers.

People Are More Than Symbols Or Categories

It might be helpful to consider who these “Ladies of Gray” were.  First of all, the Town of Gray sent a larger proportion of its population to the war than any other community in Maine; 178 of them are buried in the town cemetery.  The “Ladies” were mostly mothers of young men who had gone to fight against the Stranger and his comrades-in-arms.  Many of these women had already seen their sons killed or grievously wounded.  How tempting it must have been to take symbolic vengeance on the remains of this enemy.  The Ladies of Gray were good Christian women, however, and saw him not as a symbol or a category (“The Enemy”), but as a fellow human being whose mortal remains deserved to be treated with the same dignity as any of their own.

Enemies in life, together in eternity

The two cases above, in Charleston, SC in 2015 and in Gray, ME in 1862, are vivid reminders of what we can do if we take Christ’s words to heart.  And if Christ’s love can help us to see, and to love, the humanity in someone who has murdered a brother or sister, or who has been making war against our sons, surely we can do the same with somebody with whom we simply disagree.  That’s why it was perfectly natural for Christians around the United States and around the world to offer prayers for the forty-nine people murdered and dozens more injured at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and offer support to their families.  It doesn’t matter if we disagree about the morality of homosexual acts or the proper legal status of homosexual relationships.  They are our fellow beings, made in the image and likeness of God, unjustly slaughtered by a heartless fanatic.  We Christians would be hypocrites indeed if we did not pray for their souls and for the consolation of their loved ones.


As it happens, however, there are some people who are accusing us Christians of hypocrisy because we pray for the victims of the Orlando massacre.  They argue that because we oppose gay marriage and the homosexual lifestyle, we must therefore really hate the victims, since they were slaughtered in a gay nightclub.  Some of these critics have even gone so far as to say that conservative Christians are really to blame and not radical Islam, nor even the Muslim jihadist himself who publicly declared his allegiance to the terrorist Islamic State in the midst of the killing.
Some of the purveyors of this venomous nonsense are political operators, intent on exploiting a tragedy to push their agenda. Most of them, on the other hand, are probably convinced of the current secular dogma that our worth derives not from the fact that we are human beings made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), but from our membership in various ethnic or sexual identity groups.  The fact that Omar Mateen’s victims were mostly members of the LGBQT community is more important than the simple fact that they were people cruelly murdered. In such a worldview there is little sense of shared humanity for its own sake, and to disagree with a particular group is necessarily to hate its members.  In such a worldview it is impossible to love your enemies, and praying for them can only be pretense.  And so large segments of the popular culture have proclaimed Christians who pray for the murdered men and woman of Orlando to be haters and hypocrites.  Case closed.

Speaking The Truth In Love

Now, it’s mighty tempting to lash out in turn at those who are exploiting the crimes of a fanatical jihadist, not to mention the deaths of his many victims, in order to slander Christians.  I was ready to lash out myself a week ago.  That is until I came across this article titled “Pastor: Have Mercy On Dylann Roof”.  It tells about a prayer service held in Charleston on the first anniversary of Dylann Roof’s rampage:
Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith gave the invocation for the service . . . During the prayer, he asked for guidance and healing for the families, but also mentioned Roof, the man charged with the murders of the church members.
"Have mercy upon the soul and the life of young Dylann Roof," Keith told the crowd. Some in the crowd could be heard saying "Amen," and clapping after his statement.

Moments earlier, Keith told the gathered crowd inside the area, "help us o God never to deny humanity in others, for it is then we destroy humanity within ourselves."

Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith speaking at commemoration service for Charleston massacre victims
After that, how could I not feel ashamed at my own anger at people guilty of little more than name-calling?
It’s not for us, of course, to forgive Omar Mateen: that is for the loved ones of those he has killed, if God grants them the grace. It is our place to respond to our accusers with forgiveness. That does not mean that we agree to abandon the moral law or to reconfigure society based on the assertions of the ever-evolving sexual revolution.  Nor should we allow slanders against us and our faith to go unanswered.  The trick is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), respecting our antagonists as human beings even as we point out where they’re wrong (not coincidentally, what we saw will be much more effective if we match it with how we say it). That’s not easy to do (certainly not for me), which is a good reason to keep praying for for God’s grace to live up to the example of the families of Charleston and the Ladies of Gray.  Only then can we hope to be that shining lamp (Mark 4:21) that Christ calls us to be.