Thursday, December 26, 2013

How Long is Christmas?

Today, I found that the radio stations had gone back to playing their usual fare, the stores were removing their holiday displays, and people looked at me funny when I wished them a merry Christmas. But today is Christmas! You may be thinking, "Nick, check your calendar, buddy, it's the 26th," to which I would respond, "Check your liturgical calendar, friend, it's Christmas today!" See, there is in the Church an octave for Christmas, meaning that this feast, like Easter, is celebrated for not just one day, but for eight days--and each day is just as much that feast as any other. The Liturgy of the Hours uses many of the same prayers for these eight days; the Mass uses the same collects and prefaces; as far as the liturgy is concerned, it's all one. So, in a sense, today is Christmas just as much as yesterday!

(Now, today is also the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, also called the Proto-Martyr because he is the first Christian to have been killed for his faith, but that doesn't stop it still being Christmas.)

The octave ends on January 1, which is itself a great holy day: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, formerly known as the "Feast of the Purification of Mary," referring to the ritual for women post-childbirth which Mary would have undergone on this day. 5 days after that is the Feast of the Epiphany, in which we celebrate the visit of the Magi, which represents Christ's manifestation (or "epiphany") to the whole world. These 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany are the Christmas season. So, THAT'S where the "twelve days of Christmas" come from!

In previous times, though, the Christmas season was made to last 40 days, up until the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, commemorating his circumcision and thus his entrance into the covenant of Abraham, which was to be fulfilled in its totality by him. 40 days is a nice biblical number and corresponds well with the 40 days of Lent and the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension.

All of this is to help answer a very important question: how long can my Christmas lights stay up? I'd say you've got a good case for leaving them up all the way to February 2. But if they're still up at, say, Pentecost, you're pushing it. But, either way: Merry Christmas to you all!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keep the Mass in Christmas

I notice the occasional post on Facebook where someone puts up same variation of a "Keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" meme. It is a response against the term "X-mas," feared to be a black mark redacting the title of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ from one of His most august feasts--the verbal equivalent of a brown paper bag covering a bottle of booze or a dirty magazine. And people protest against such an affront, and say that we ought not separate Christ from Christmas.

Except that "X-mas" doesn't take Christ out of Christmas, it just abbreviates it.

"X" in this case is not a crossing-out of something. It's the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter in the Greek word Christos [Χριστός], and you don't have to be a scholar of ancient languages to figure out that Christos means "Christ," "anointed one." Perhaps you've seem this symbol in church:

That's the chi-rho, the first two letters of Christos, which the Emperor Constantine famously had his soldiers place on their shields before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 313 AD after he had a vision in which God said to him: "In hoc signo vinces," or "In this sign you will be victorious." Constantine won the battle over his rival, and within a dozen years established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. All of which is to say: this has a long history as an explicitly Christian symbol.

I've read that "X-mas" came about because advertisers wanted a way to save precious space in their ads, so they began abbreviating it with the well-known Greek letter. It doesn't take Christ out of Christmas; it just shortens it.

Now, I can very well see the argument that says, "Nick, how many people are going to make that connection? Who knows Greek? If the link were so obvious, people wouldn't make this mistake! Besides which, technically it does take the word 'Christ' out of Christmas--that word ain't there no more."

Fair point. I'd prefer to use "Christmas" over "X-mas" any day. My point is to say it wasn't intended or invented as some plot to excise the Jesus from his own nativity.

I propose stressing a different point, though: how about keeping the "mas" in Christmas?

"Christmas" is short for "Christ's Mass." Yes, my non-Catholic friends, when you celebrate Christmas, you are at least nominally honoring the Catholic Mass. Thanks! This usage was more widely used in previous times. Maybe you've heard the term "Candlemas" for the feast of the Presentation, on which traditionally liturgical candles for the year are blessed?

So, whaddya say we keep the Mass in Christmas, and remember that, in the midst of the buying and the feasting and all the secular hub-bub and hoopla that fills this time of year, we are celebrating a religious holiday, a holy-day, in which we commemorate the day God Himself came forth from a virgin's womb and entered our world to save it. Let's keep the Mass in Christmas!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Women Cardinals and Clericalism

The pope has given an interview to Italian Journalist Andrea Tornielli, mostly focusing on the meaning of Christmas, but with a few random quick questions thrown in. I found this one particularly interesting:
May I ask you if the Church will have women cardinals in the future? 
“I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not 'clericalised'. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” 
Clericalism is an attitude that clerics (bishops, priests, deacons, cardinals) are somehow morally superior to the rest of the Church, that the authority they hold and the power they exercise to enact that authority are the highest goods in the Church. Clericalism is overly concerned with power, and it is a problem you find on all sides of the ecclesiological spectrum. Anyone who is more interested in using authority to put into place their ideological agenda than using it to further the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is a clericalist. Clericalism is about power, not servant leadership.

The clericalist assumes that one's worth within the Church is determined by the authority or power one holds in the Church. We see this mindset everywhere within the ecclesiological spectrum, whenever someone tries to turn every utterance of a priest or bishop into an infallible proclamation, binding by force of excommunication--be it ueber-traddies who denigrate receiving Communion in the hand because some saint somewhere allegedly said it was bad (even though it's an ancient practice and the Church officially allows it), to the super-lib who says anyone who doesn't adhere to their reading of every suggestion of prudential judgment from every USCCB statement on peace and justice issues is "not really Catholic" (ignoring, of course, all the conference's pro-life statements, which are just as much "peace and justice" issues as anything).

Those who agitate for women to be included among the College of Cardinals usually couch their argument in terms of power and authority: the Church needs to include women in decision-making roles; women need to have their voices heard at the highest levels; and so forth. And dig a little deeper with these folks and ask why they think women need to be placed in these positions, and 11 times out of 10, you'll hear things like: "...because then we would have the influence to change the Church's teaching on contraception/abortion/women's ordination...."

Aha! It's not about humbly serving the Church, but about substantially changing the Church. They think that might makes right, that the will determines the truth, that the teaching of the Church will be determined by the personal ideas and preferences of the governors of the Church--an even more twisted form of cuius regio, eius religio. It is the clericalist mindset that thinks the ruler makes the religion.

Pope Francis' point in this brief quotation is to slap down clericalism and uphold the dignity of every Christian and the unique calling God makes to each. You don't have to be a priest or bishop to do the work of God. Indeed, as Jeremiah 23 reminds us, the shepherd has an awful burden and responsibility before God should he lead the sheep astray--if that authority is misused, "woe unto you shepherds."

Pope Francis has said elsewhere that Mary is the model Christian, around whom the apostles were gathered at Pentecost... and she wasn't an apostle, wasn't a bishop, wasn't a cleric. She was simply herself: a disciple of Jesus Christ. Which is what we are all called to be. Let's be that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Middle of What?

Have you ever asked yourself what the "Middle Ages" are supposed to be in the middle of? The answer tells us something about our biases.

See, at the time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (or, as my brother likes to call it, "the Endarkenment"), European intellectuals began to rediscover knowledge from the ancient Greeks and Romans that had been lost or neglected. They came to see themselves as heirs to this classical heritage, and looked upon their predecessors of the most recent centuries as poor benighted souls who had toiled away on matters that were at best insignificant and at worst frivolous superstition. So they termed the ancients as the "classical" period or "antiquity," and themselves as "modernity" or "the Enlightenment." And what was left in between? Those ho-hum "middle ages."

Basically, it's the historiographical equivalent of "flyover country."

Yeah, never mind that medieval Christian Europe invented the hospital, the university, and the fundamentals of the scientific method (thank you, Bishop Robert Grosseteste and St. Albert the Great). Never mind that they kept alive and furthered the thought of Aristotle. Never mind that they preserved the Roman legal system which still serves as the root of European law today. We'll just ignore all that. Silly moderns. What do they know anyway?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How Busy Are We?

We lead busy lives. We're constantly stretched and pulled by commitments here and there, by work and meetings and practices and rehearsals and events and parties and gatherings and projects. Our tools for making our lives easier, our smartphones and laptops and iPads and such, don't seem to ease our burdens, but rather multiply them. We don't finish our tasks and then relax--we make more things to do!

Let me offer a question for reflection, aimed as much at myself as anyone else:

To what degree are we busy... and to what degree are we distracted?

Yes, business and obligations and the never-empty email inbox can put a lot of demands on our time. But think: how much time during our "busy" days do we spend playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds? (Not my vice.) Watching YouTube videos of old Royal Rumble matches? (Guilty.) Binge-watching TV shows on Netflix? (Yeah, sometimes.) Writing posts for your rinky-dink blog? (Hey, wait a second!)

Now, there's nothing wrong with these activities in and of themselves. I'm not saying one is morally defective simply by doing any of these things. BUT if there are certain responsibilities we're shirking in favor of these activities, maybe we should think twice about how we spend our time?

My main candidate in mind for the neglected party is prayer. And I accuse myself first and foremost. I'm rubbish at making time for prayer during the day, and I tell myself, "Oh, I'm just so busy!" Really? Really? I managed to watch five episodes of Doctor Who in a day, but I couldn't spend fifteen minutes praying the Divine Office, or the Rosary, or just sitting in silence and opening my heart to God?

I know I can do better about this, and if this is an issue for you, dear reader, I know you can, too. All we have to do is do it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go trawl through my Facebook feed for an hour....

Monday, December 9, 2013

Preserved from All Stain: How's that?

Though December 8 is usually the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, this year, because the date falls on a Sunday of Advent, the feast is transferred to today, December 9. I'm sure you heard this at Mass yesterday, but it serves as a handy opening to this post, so indulge me, will ya? I just wanted to mention one aspect of this wonderful dogma you may not have thought of before.

First, though, the annual reminder: the "immaculate conception" refers to MARY being conceived without original sin. It does not refer to Jesus' virginal conception. I understand that some of our Protestant brethren regularly use "immaculate conception" to refer to the miraculous circumstances of Jesus' coming into the world--I guess they just liked the term and wanted to keep using it since they disbelieved in its original content.

Here's the problem with that, though: macula means "stain," or "dishonor," so an "immaculate conception" would mean "a conception without stain or dishonor." This makes perfect sense if we're referring to the stain of original sin. But if we're referring to the Virgin Birth of Jesus? What stain or dishonor has been avoided by that "immaculate conception"? It implies that the sexual act, which normally is that which produces a child but which was miraculously dispensed with in this case, is the "stained" or "dishonorable" thing. This puts the conjugal act in quite a negative light, doesn't it? Now that marvelous act in which a man and woman come together to cooperate with God in creating a new life suddenly is portrayed as a dirty and wicked performance of a duty necessary for propagating the species, but nothing more. This is hardly a fitting way to describe one of God's great gifts to humanity.

OK, so perhaps there were two aspects of this dogma I wanted to consider today. Here's the other. The Blessed Virgin Mary, by a singular grace of God, was kept free from the stain and the effects of original sin from the first moment of her existence. The Church believes, further, that she was preserved from all personal sin during her life. But hold on: if Mary never had any sin, and Jesus saves us from our sins, does that mean that Jesus is not Mary's savior? Does that mean Mary didn't need a savior? Does that mean "Christ died for all humanity... except Mary"?

No! Mary was indeed saved by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but in a unique way. An analogy would help here. Let's say there's a large pit in your path. There are at least two ways someone could be saved from the pit: 1) after someone's fallen into the pit, they are pulled out of it; or 2) someone is prevented from falling into the pit in the first place. Everybody falls into the pit of sin and needs to be pulled out by the cross of Christ. In Mary's case, though, the cross of Christ (that is, the grace of God merited by Christ's sacrifice) bars her way and prevents her from ever falling into the pit. Mary is saved by prevention, not by rescue.

Now, you might say, "How could Jesus have saved Mary before he was born?" Well, keep in mind that Jesus is identical to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, so He existed before His Incarnation. "Yeah, fine," you might reply, "but he hadn't died on the cross yet. How could the grace of the cross be applied to Mary before it had happened?" Time is no object to God. God does not exist in time. He does not experience time in a linear sequence as we do. All moments are present to God, so it is no more trouble for Him to apply the merits of Christ's sacrifice to Mary or Abraham or Moses or anyone else who lived before Christ than it is for Him to apply it to those who live after Christ. And He doesn't even need a ship sling-shotting at warp speed around a star or a TARDIS to do it.

Fun fact: some theologians in the Church's history have believed that St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and the prophet Jeremiah were all sanctified in the womb, having the stain of original sin removed after their conceptions but before their births. With the latter two, certain Scripture passages suggest this: for Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5); with St. John the Baptist, Luke 1:41 says that John leaped in Elizabeth's womb and Elizabeth was "filled with the Holy Spirit." And with St. Joseph, it seemed fitting to some theologians that he who was to be the guardian of the Virgin and the protector of the Christ Child should be strengthened for this task (and perhaps also prepared for the life of perpetual virginity he was to lead with his holy wife). Neat, eh?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fake Grammatical Forms

There may be perhaps four other people in the world who will find this post interesting or amusing or engaging or not sleep-inducing, but the fact that they are few is no reason to rob them of their enjoyment. Here I present fake grammatical categories which label irregular but common usages of speech.

Interrogative Imperative: a command that looks like a question. Often used by annoyed teenagers.
Example: The question "Are you done talking?" is in actuality the command "Stop talking."

Interrogative Declarative: a statement that looks like a question. Often used by, well, everyone.
Example: "You're going to drink that expired milk? Are you stupid?" Here, "Are you stupid?" is meant to make the statement, "You are stupid."

Super-Comparative: a middle ground between the comparative (e.g. more fun) and the superlative (e.g. most fun). To be used when something is more fun than "more fun," but is still not the "most fun."
Example: "This is even more funner than the other ride!"
Hyper-Superlative: a degree beyond the superlative (e.g. most fun). To be used when "most fun" just isn't fun enough; often requires an irregular superlative (e.g. "funnest").
Example: "That ride was the funnest ever... but this ride was even more funnest!"

Semi-inclusive Pronouns: a pronoun which refers to some members of a group but not the entire group. Used by cliques of middle school girls.
Example: "We're going to the mall after this." "Oh, great, which mall?" "Oh, not you; we are."

And a serious grammatical question:

Why do the same people who insist on gender-specific terms in most cases, e.g. "Congress-person" instead of "Congressman," also insist on abolishing gender-specific terms when those terms come from another language? Why do we increasingly hear people refer to both males and females as "actors" or "rectors" when there is a specific term for a female in those roles, that is "actress" and "rectress"? (Thankfully we still have "waitress" in use.) Why do some get offended at "being called a man" in their own language but not in another? Perhaps they just don't know? Thankfully some people still use these nouns properly--my fiancee, when giving directions while I'm driving, insists on being called the "navigatrix."

Friends, what other fake grammatical forms are we missing?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hits and Highlights from Christian Iconography

A few fun bits from class...

If you see a picture of a saintly figure with a dog's head, don't worry: it's not an attempted Christianization of the Egyptian god Anubis, nor a hagiographical depiction of the Wolfman, nor an early rendering of Chewbacca. It's actually... St. Christopher! No, seriously! See, apparently some translators at some point mistook the word that was describing him as a "Canaanite" (i.e. someone from the land of Canaan) to be calling him a "canine" (i.e. a cute little pooch). So, naturally, instead of thinking, "Hmm, did I translate that word correctly?" they concluded that St. Christopher was an overgrown Ewok. Other depictions of St. Christopher portray him more akin to Andre the Giant (or maybe Hillbilly Jim)....

Have you ever seen the pawnbrokers' symbol? Do you know where that comes from? St. Nicholas! According to the legend, there was a man who was too poor to be able to give his daughters in marriage (i.e. he had no money to provide a dowry for them). He was going to send them into prostitution. St. Nicholas, to prevent this, on three successive nights, dropped a bag of gold through the man's window, providing him the money to let his daughters get married. I think the connection with pawnbrokers is that, by doing this, St. Nicholas sort of "bought back" the daughters from prostitution. This also explains why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of prostitutes. No, seriously. Hey, everybody needs a patron saint, right? ....

You may have noticed that a fair number of saints are depicted together with weaponry of various kinds: swords, flaying knives, spears, arrows, etc. Not exactly the peaceful image of holiness, is it? Are they "soldiers for Christ"? Is this what we mean by the "Church Militant"? Ought we to picture roving bands of saints, armed to the teeth like a 19th-century street gang, laying the smackdown on all the pagans and sinners within arms' reach? No! They aren't showed with these instruments because they used them, but because they suffered by them. Martyrs are often shown with the instruments of their martyrdom, as a visible display of what they suffered for the name of Christ. St. Paul was beheaded by a sword. St. Thomas was killed by a spear. St. Bartholomew was skinned alive with a flaying knife. St. Sebastian was shot with arrows. These are the symbols of their victory over death in Christ. Actually, Christ himself is often depicted with the instruments of his torture: the scourge, the nails, the crown of thorns, etc. These are called the arma Christi, or "arms of Christ," because the serve as his coat of arms, his royal banner, displaying the weaponry by which he conquered Satan--not by using them, but by undergoing their torment. They remind us of the horror of the Passion, which makes the glory of the Resurrection that much more glorious.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Plea to Pastors

Some recent news stories have reported an increase in the number of people going to confession since Pope Francis ascended to the Holy See. This is a wonderful thing to hear, and we ought all to pray that it continue. If the spiritual life is likened to the bodily life, then this sacrament is medicine for a sick soul, and all of us are suffering from one sort of spiritual illness or another. We all could use a little booster shot of God's grace now and then!

To extend the analogy, it would certainly help if the clinic were open more often. As much as we talk about the vital importance of this sacrament to the spiritual life, most parishes offer confessions very infrequently: most typically, for somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes right before the vigil Mass on Saturday afternoons. But life is busy, and Saturday afternoon seems a busier time than most: you might have to work, or coach a Little League team, or it may be the only time you can work on that home improvement project without the neighbors complaining. There are 10 thousand and eight reasons why any 60 minute block of time may be unavailable to you in a given week.

And in my experience, often the priest shows up 10 or 20 minutes late. Can you imagine a health clinic that only offered flu shots once a week for 45 minutes? Yes, most parishes also say you can make an appointment to have your confession heard. But have you ever tried actually doing this? Whatever time you suggest, odds are the pastor is in a meeting.

God bless our priests, they're often over-extended and over-worked, I know. My point here is not to blame them. My point is to say that if the Church is serious about its words on wanting the faithful to avail themselves of this sacrament more frequently, parishes should make this sacrament available more frequently. The Church teaches us that the Mass is the "source and summit of the Christian life," and it backs this up by offering four, five, six Masses during the weekend, giving people as much of a chance as possible to partake of the Supper of the Lamb. The Church also teaches that the sacrament of Penance is sorely needed for our spiritual health, and it backs this up by... 45 minutes a week? That doesn't add up.

The leadership of the Church knows this, I think. In his 2002 apostolic letter motu proprio Misericordia Dei, soon-to-be-St. John Paul II, as part of an effort to effect a "vigorous revitalization" of the sacrament, directed the bishops and priests of the Church to ensure that this sacrament be made more widely available to the faithful:
"Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful."
Now, there are lots of reasons that the number of people partaking of this sacrament has been down in recent decades. The biggest, I'm sure, is the loss of the sense of sin, the dulling of our consciences, the defining-down of sinfulness to "I'm basically a good person... I mean, it's not like I kill people... often." This problem also needs to be addressed. But I'm convinced of the Field of Dreams Principle: "If you build it, they will come." If you offer confession more often, more people will participate. I know that priests are often extraordinarily busy, but would it be that much of a demand on your time to offer other half hour periods during the week, three or four days--heck, maybe every day? Look at it this way: if people come, fantastic, you've been a Good Shepherd and reconciled them to God; if people don't come, you can use the time as a daily period for spiritual reading, prayer, homily prep, etc. Work on your crossword puzzle if you want. But be there for us. You are doctors of grace and we need your ministrations.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Women's Intuition and Aristotle on Why Tired Babies Cry

There are two basic ways of knowing: intuition and rational thought. Intuition is the grasp of the truth immediately, while rational thought progresses through a series of steps to demonstrate a conclusion from several premises. We're all familiar with the notion of a "woman's intuition," which is often derided by men and is compared negatively to logical reasoning, which men associate with themselves. This is demonstrated humorously by a Monty Python sketch featuring an annoyed logic professor:
For example, given the premise, "all fish live underwater" and "all mackerel are fish", my wife will conclude, not that "all mackerel live underwater", but that "if she buys kippers it will not rain", or that "trout live in trees", or even that "I do not love her any more." This she calls "using her intuition". I call it "crap", and it gets me very *irritated* because it is not logical.
Now, this is an exaggeration, obviously, but it expresses the view that many men have toward "intuition."

It should be noted, however, that angels gain knowledge by intuition and not through rational thought; so, if women really are more intuitive, they are, in that way, more angelic than men. It seems we men have to go through all the extra work of logical demonstration when women can often recognize the truth right away.

Recently this was demonstrated to me. I was telling my fiancee how it is so mysterious to me that young children cry and throw fits when they're tired. When they're hungry, and are presented with food, they stop crying and eat. When they want a toy, and are given it, they cease their blubbering and play. But when they're tired, and have the ability to sleep well within their grasp, they don't sleep, they go on crying! Why? Why would this be?

My fiancee answered, immediately and matter-of-factly, "They don't want to miss anything."

At first I didn't understand. Wait.... what? Where did that come from? Where did you get that idea? Huh?

But then I thought about it a bit, and applied some lessons I learned from philosophy courses, and came to see she was right! Behold as I demonstrate, using Aristotle, that this woman's intuition is spot-on.

1. All human beings by nature desire to know. (The first line of Aristotle's Metaphysics.)
2. All knowledge begins with sense experience. (The foundation of Aristotle's theory of knowledge.)
3. Thus if one wants to fulfill the desire to know, one must be gaining sense experience or reflecting on it.
4. When one is sleeping, one cannot gain sense experience or actively reflect on it.
5. Thus, the need for sleep conflicts with the desire to know.

To a child, practically everything is new and wonderful and exciting. Every waking moment is an adventure of discovery--that's why the only way to bore a child is to make them sit still and keep them from exploring their surroundings. Sleep interrupts this exercise, causing distress and dismay in the child, whose desire to gain experience overrides their desire to allow this natural bodily function to take its course. We all face moments like this in our lives: when we need to go to the bathroom but are in the middle of an enthralling movie; when we're on the phone late at night with our significant other, enjoying every moment, but are fighting to stay awake; when we're listening to a fascinating lecture but are so hungry we contemplate eating our note paper. To kids, though, everything is as enthralling and exciting and fascinating as that.

Now, see, I had to spend two paragraphs explaining all that, whereas my fiancee nailed it in one sentence (and I'm sure many of you moms already got the gist before I wrote a word). Not every flash of intuition is going to be valid... but I'm willing to give it some credence.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is a Sacrament?

OK, boys and girls, it's time for a little Catechesis 101. (Actually, this stuff is so basic, we probably ought to call it Catechesis 1.) Here follows a (not-so-) brief introduction to the sacraments:

The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Christ which communicate grace, that is, God's own life, making us participants in the very life of God--it would seem that they're pretty important then! Or, in the classic definition, a sacrament is "a visible sign of invisible grace."

A sacrament consists of two things: the sign (the visible), and the reality that the sign signifies and brings into effect (the invisible). Every sacrament signifies what it does and effects what it signifies. For example, Baptism through its pouring or immersing in water clearly signifies washing, but this physical washing also has the spiritual effect of cleansing us from our sins. The effect of every sacrament is sanctifying grace, the gift of God's own life that unites us with God. Each sacrament also gives us virtues and gifts particular to that sacrament. For example, Matrimony gives the wedded couple the grace to be faithful to one another as a sign of the fidelity between Christ and the Church.

The sacramental signs themselves are a combination of words and things. In the Summa Theologiae, Question 60, Article 6, St. Thomas Aquinas says that it is fitting that the sacraments combine words and material things for three reasons: 1) it mirrors Our Lord's Incarnation, in which the Word became flesh; 2) it mirrors the human person's composite nature of soul and body, whereby the matter touches the body and the words touch the soul; and 3) material things can be signs, but words help to clarify those signs (think of a stop sign--we might be able to learn that a red [or orange?] octagon means "stop," but having the word there helps). So, in Baptism, the material thing, the washing, is accompanied by the words that clarify what the washing is doing: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Some people object that it is absurd or even denigrating for God to communicate His spiritual grace to us via material things--several of the objections in the Summa's sections on the sacraments make just this argument: "a material thing cannot communicate a spiritual effect." The prime piece of evidence against this was mentioned in the previous paragraph: the Incarnation. Our salvation was won precisely through God taking on flesh, taking on a human nature, and suffering and dying in the flesh for love of every single human being who will ever live. Was it unfitting of God to become man? Many heresies in the history of the Church have arisen from that very sentiment. (Perhaps I will make a post in the future about St. Anselm's argument from Cur Deus Homo on why it was fitting that God become man to save us.)

A little etymology may help to bring to light two important aspects of sacraments. The word English word sacrament derives from the Latin word sacramentum, which means an oath or a promise. This is a fitting term because in the sacraments God has bound Himself by a promise to act through their administration: God has promised that when someone baptizes, that baptism will have the effect of cleansing the person of their sins and regenerating them as an adopted child of God (Galatians 3:26-27); God has promised that when the priest says in the Mass, "This is my body," that bread which he consecrates will truly become the Body of Christ. And when we participate in the sacraments, we too are making an oath or a promise, a promise to cooperate with God's work in our lives and be bound to Christ as a branch is to a vine (John 15:5). So the word sacramentum denotes this promising or binding.

Its Greek equivalent (that is, the Greek word which is translated into Latin as sacramentum) is mysterion, which means, as you might have guessed, mystery, that is, something which is hidden and has to be revealed in order to be understood or known. This is why we sometimes refer to the sacraments as the "sacred mysteries," and the Eastern Orthodox churches regularly do. Referring back to the classical definition above, something in the sacraments is invisible, is hidden from our eyes, but at the same time is hinted at by the visible sign and revealed by faith; the material sign signifies and reveals a spiritual reality. The sign of washing with water reveals the hidden, spiritual cleansing which baptism effects. The sign of the appearances of bread and wine reveals the hidden reality of Christ's Body and Blood, which is our spiritual nourishment. St. Paul calls marriage a great mysterion which refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32)--most English Bibles today translate it "mystery," but it could just as easily be translated "sacrament."

This notion of "visible sign/invisible effect" dovetails with another way St. Thomas gives us to conceive of the sacraments: as the spiritual life mirroring the physical life. Each of the seven sacraments corresponds to a major aspect of our incarnate lives. We all begin life by being conceived and born, that is, generated; in Baptism we are re-generated in new life in the Spirit. We grow into full maturity, just as in Confirmation we become perfect adult members of the Church. (This does not mean that this sacrament need be delayed until adolescence or early adulthood, for as St. Thomas points out, spiritual age does not correspond to physical age--one can reach spiritual maturity as an infant. [ST III, Q. 72, A. 8, corpus].) We are nourished, just as the Eucharist provides us spiritual nourishment. We require healing and easing of our pains, just as Penance and Anointing of the Sick heal our spiritual wounds and provide us comfort. We form relationships and propagate new members of the species, just as in the spiritual life we are bonded with another person and co-create new life with God--and in both the secular and spiritual worlds, this is done in Matrimony. And we form societies that require structure, order, and administration for public needs, just as Holy Orders creates servants and shepherds in the Church to teach, govern, and sanctify us.

Finally: is any one sacrament greater than the others? Yes! That sacrament which the Second Vatican Council called "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11): the Eucharist. The reason for this is very simple. In each of the other sacraments, we come into contact with God for particular effect or help in coming closer to Him in the spiritual life. In the Eucharist, we come into contact with God in a most perfect way: we receive Him in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. We can't get any closer than that! The other sacraments are ordered toward us being able to be joined to God in this most perfect way. In receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a sacred unity with God, a holy communion, if you will.

The sacraments are moments of encounter with God. Participate in them as often as you can! Go to confession! Receive the Eucharist! Don't be afraid to be anointed if you're seriously ill! Don't pass up the opportunity to be united with God, to receive His grace, to have His help in this life. Lord knows we all need it... which is why he gave us the sacraments.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How is an Angel at My Side?

In honor of today's Feast of the Guardian Angels, I'll give a short example of how seemingly abstract philosophical and theological reasoning can provide beautiful insights into the faith. Ready?

We know that we each have a guardian angel whose task it is to watch over us, protect us from spiritual harm (and, in some cases, physical harm), nudge our consciences when we consider doing wrong, and so forth. Our guardian angels are always at our side.

This raises a question, however. Angels do not have bodies; they are pure spirits. Since they have no physical bodies, they can't be said to be in any particular physical place in a physical way, e.g. "at my side." So what does it mean to say that my guardian angel is always present with me, "at my side"?

St. Thomas gives us the answer. He tells us that an angel's relation to place is not according to physical presence but rather according to "contact of power" (ST I, q. 52, a. 1). In other words, an angel is said to be located wherever it is that the angel is working or turning its attention.

Let's put these two things together: if an angel is said to be in a place according to its directing its power to that place, then if our guardian angel is always with us, that means that our angel is always working on us, attentive to us, directing its power to us. Your guardian angel is constantly working for your spiritual well-being.

A beautiful and consoling thought, made possible by a truth cultivated by "dry scholastic speculations." 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Journalism 101 and the Pope's Interview

For the past 80 years or so my tiny home parish has put on a traditional Dutch sausage & sauerkraut dinner as a fundraiser for the church and its school. It's a huge event, known throughout the state, and the local news channels usually cover it. They send down a camera crew, talk to people, eat some sausage, then go off to produce their segment.

And every year the story gets something wrong: they mispronounce someone's name; they place our parish in the wrong city; they quote someone who has little to nothing to do with putting on the dinner and they say something incorrect. You see this and think, "Man, what a bunch of amateurs! They got this all wrong!"

But what do you do then? You watch the next segment, and assume that everything is accurate and correct! Even though you just saw for yourself that they make mistakes!

When we know something about an event being reported, we're able to see where the reporting goes wrong; why don't we remember that when we hear other news stories?

I was reminded of this recently in the hubbub over the interview with Pope Francis. Newspapers and TV news outlets made a story out of this interview, but anyone who had actually read the interview for themselves would be able to tell you that these news media grossly distorted what the pope had said.

Every single news story I saw on the interview made the same fundamental reporting mistakes, things my journalism classes taught me were absolutely unacceptable in reporting.

  • They made the increasingly more prevalent error of mixing news analysis with news reporting, speculating on the pope's intentions or motivations in giving the interview. The news page is supposed to report what happened; the editorial page is supposed to give opinions. If the news page wants to give voice to the opinions of particular people on a story's content, they should attribute those opinions to those particular people, e.g. "Professor John Q. Academic thinks this could signal..." instead of just saying, "This could signal...." Really? It could? Says who?
  • They quoted the pope out of context, warping his words to make him say things he didn't. In most stories, this practice started right at the headline and worked its way down. Nearly every headline said something like, "Pope says church is 'obsessed' with rules on abortion, contraception, gay marriage." What a gripping headline! Only problem is HE DIDN'T SAY THAT. This glues together words from THREE DIFFERENT PARAGRAPHS to fabricate a quotation. In one paragraph he said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods" (adding that "the church's teaching on these things is clear"); in another he said "The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently" (instead desiring to first and foremost focus on the "proposal of the Gospel"); and in another he said that "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules." Nowhere did he say what the headline reported him to say.

How did these news outlets end up making this mistake? They took their first mistake of improperly inserting analysis into news and applied it to these quotations. The headline they concocted tells you more about what the media thinks on these issues than what the pope thinks: to them, the Church's teachings on these moral issues are nothing but small-minded rules that the Church has spent far too much time obsessing over.

Your ten-dollar word for the day is eisegesis, which means "the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one's own ideas." The news media, in reading and reporting on the pope's interview, was doing eisegesis: they inserted their own presuppositions and opinions into the text and tried to make the pope their puppet. Whether this was done intentionally or not, I couldn't say. Sometimes people just hear what they want to hear. But, at the very least, I would hope this episode would make you wary of trusting everything you read or see in the news. If they can't even get my parish dinner right, why should you expect them to report accurately on a 12,000 word interview? 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Purgatory and Limbo

A reader writes in (Yay! First time for that!) asking:*

"Bertha said something such as the souls in purgatory are awaiting judgment. I told her that any soul in purgatory is on its way to Heaven. Hildy asked, "What about Limbo?" ...Can you make your next theology topic Limbo/purgatory?"

* -- I have changed the names of the parties involved to protect their identities, and to allow me to use some amusing names in their place.

So, a few questions are involved here:

1) Are the souls in purgatory awaiting judgment?
2) What's the deal with Limbo?

Let's do this!

As to the first question: are the souls in purgatory awaiting judgment?

Answer: negative. A soul in Purgatory has already been judged and is, as the reader correctly said, "on its way to Heaven." What's the deal with purgatory, then? If they aren't waiting to be judged, what are they doing there? The key to understanding Purgatory is right in its name: Purg-atory, as in purgation, purging.

Every human being ends his life either in the state of friendship with God or not in friendship with God. For those who are in friendship with God, for those who fundamentally desire God and whose actions in their lives have reflected that and oriented them toward God, they will get what they want: spending eternity in the blessed presence of the Holy Trinity, beholding their glory (the Beatific Vision).

BUT we must remember that Scripture of heaven says "nothing impure will enter" (Revelation 21:27). Now, though we may die in the friendship of God, we may still have on our souls venial sins or attachment to sin that make us impure. So, before we can enter heaven, this impurity needs to be purged from our souls, via the prayers of the living and the merits of Christ and the saints. (This is why it's so important to pray for the dead! We help them get to heaven!) This state of purgation we call Purgatory.

Think of Purgatory as the "wash room" or "mud room" in your home, where you clean off whatever dirt or grime you picked up outside before coming in to the house.

As to the second question: what's the deal with Limbo?

Answer: Limbo was a solution posed by theologians to a problem they perceived. Follow me: Baptism removes original sin and puts us into friendship with God through Christ. Those who still have original sin on their souls are not in the friendship of God cannot enter Heaven, and are thus bound for Hell. But, the question arose, what about babies who die before they can be baptized? They still have original sin on their souls, but they never had the chance to get it removed, nor did they grow old enough to develop the capacity to choose or reject God by their actions. Does it seem right that these babies suffer Hell for all eternity?

That didn't sit right with people. Such a fate for babies with no personal fault seemed unthinkable with an all-merciful God involved. So, they proposed a solution: a state in which the unbaptized babies would not enjoy the Beatific Vision in Heaven, but neither would they suffer the pains of Hell. (They might suffer the pain of the loss of Heaven, but this would be minor.) This state came to be referred to as Limbo, and for many centuries was taught in the Church as a likelihood.

In recent years, though, the Church has deemed the theory unnecessary. As Catechism paragraph 1261 states:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
This is to say, "We can't say for certain what happens, but we can trust in the mercy of God." But if God has revealed that Baptism is necessary for salvation, how can this be? Catechism paragraph 1257 gives a quotation that gives us the principle by which we may have this hope: "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." That is: God has bound us to receive the sacraments, but He, being their Author, is free and able to act outside of them if He chooses. This allows for the possibility of salvation of those who lived before Christ; or those who lived after but never had the opportunity to be baptized, like an inhabitant of 9th-century Papua New Guinea who never heard the Gospel message; or those who perhaps have only ever been given a distorted view of Christ and His Church and reject that distortion and thus are not truly rejecting God or refusing baptism. We deem it fitting of God, our merciful Father, to extend his grace in such a way in the case of unbaptized babies.

Some may hear such an idea and think, "Post-Vatican II claptrap!" I would give two responses to that: 1) I've seen this phrase used at least as far back as Peter Lombard, the 12th-century bishop of Paris and theologian whose Book of Sentences was THE textbook in the medieval Church; and I think it's older, but I can't find an earlier reference. The point is, it's an old and well-received idea. 2) Even the venerable Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, written in the 1950s (before Vatican II) calls Limbo a theological assumption (p. 114), and theological assumptions are subject to revision.

So, neither Purgatory nor Limbo are places where souls are awaiting judgment; indeed, the Church does not even really teach Limbo as a theory anymore.

Hope that helps! Do ask follow-ups!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Smashing Icons and Why God Has a Beard

In the first few centuries of Christianity, very few religious works of art were produced by Christians. There were several reasons for this:

1) When you're an illegal, underground movement, you don't generally commission sculptors or painters to depict your sacred stories or beliefs, lest that artist turn to the nearest centurion and shout, "Yo, another one for the lions over here!"

2) There was a bit of a hangover from Judaism with its strong prohibitions against making images of God or gods, making Christians wary to portray God.

3) Likewise, since they lived in a pagan world, and the pagans loved their statues and mosaics of the gods, Christians tended to associate such artwork with paganism, and wanted to distance themselves from it.

After the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, great public churches were built and artwork began to increase: we see mosaics and paintings of the Trinity, of the saints, of scenes from Scripture. But in the 8th and 9th centuries a movement arose called iconoclasm (literally, "image smashing" - this what I meant by "smashing icons": not "Oh, excellent, well done, smashing icons, old chap!" but rather breaking icons into tiny bits). The iconoclasts had various motivations. Some said that any images of Christ, the Trinity, or the saints amounted to idolatry, the worship of images, strictly prohibited by the Scriptures. To make icons, they said, was to violate the First Commandment.

St. John Damascene made several arguments against this. First, very simply, because God had become man in Jesus Christ, God could be depicted, rendering the Old Testament prohibition against making images of God null. Second, the veneration of icons was an ancient tradition which had borne abundant spiritual fruit. And third, he stressed that the veneration shown to an icon is not directed to the image itself, but rather to the one whom the image depicts; when I venerate an icon of Christ, the image is serving as an occasion and a point of focus for my veneration of Christ himself. I'm not worshiping the image, but the one imaged. Thus St. John defended iconodulia (veneration of icons).

One group made a theological argument against making images of God, attacking Damascene's first point: they claimed that, because Jesus is a divine person, because he is God, and because God cannot be described or depicted, therefore we cannot depict Jesus. They acknowledged that Christ indeed had a human nature as well as a divine nature, but asserted that his human nature was one that could not be drawn (the ten-dollar word for this position is agraptodocetism, agrapto- meaning "cannot be drawn," -docetism meaning "seeming," as in "only seeming to have a fully human nature, with all a human's attributes"). Some even went so far as to say that Christ had all colors of hair, all possible heights, all possible noses, etc.!

Theologians like St. Theodore the Studite defended the full humanity of Christ, including its ability to be depicted, against these heretics. There is nothing essential to being human that Christ lacked, they argued, and that includes the ability to be described. The Incarnation means Christ became truly human, which includes having a particular hair color, height, etc. St. Theo argued, "You would have it that Christ became incarnate not into the world, but only into your minds, only as an idea." But because Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis ("The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" - John 1:14), Christ can be drawn, and icons are legitimate.

Further, because Christ said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), it was argued that it was not inappropriate to portray God the Father in some way. (This was more prevalent in the Western Church; the Eastern Church still tends to be wary of imaging the Father.) Two modes of depiction seem to have become dominant.

The more common one was taken from the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel has a vision of God:
I beheld till thrones were placed, and the ancient of days sat: his garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like clean wool: his throne like flames of fire: the wheels of it like a burning fire. (Daniel 7:9)
This "Ancient of Days" is where we get the image of God the Father as an elderly man. And it just looks so much better to have a big flowing beard on an old man, so artists tended to add that on.

A less common mode, but one popular for a time, was to take John 14:9 very literally and show the Father as looking like Christ. If you've ever seen a religious painting with what appear to be two Christs and wondered, "What the Samuel F. Hill is that about?" that's what's going on. It's not Jesus' brother Jerry (Robin Williams's joke), or a high-class ad for Doublemint gum; nope, it's an artistic way of illustrating the idea conveyed in this passage of Scripture.

There ya go: a little history, theology, and art history all in one!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Laws and Rules

The Catholic faith is often criticized for being legalistic, too bogged down with rules, too focused on the no-no, too concerned with its canons and commandments, etc. I hear this from both non-Catholics and Catholics themselves. "It seems like all the Church does is say 'no': no sex outside of marriage, no meat on Fridays during Lent, blah blah blah. Come on, guys, live a little!"

This attitude is reaching for a good thing, but it misidentifies its goal. Every single human being wants to be happy; but many human beings today think that the only way they can be happy is to be free from any constraint to indulge any whim or exercise any desire that flits across their mind. Many people today seem to think that happiness lies in the possession of absolute freedom... except they don't understand what freedom is. They confuse it with something else.

We need to make the important distinction between freedom and license. As Fulton Sheen once put it, license is the ability to do whatever you want; true freedom is the ability to do whatever you ought. Often when you hear people today talk about wanting freedom, what they really are after is license: they want to do whatever they want, whenever they want, with no one attempting to stop them or judge them. Freedom is more than this capability for wish fulfillment, though. Freedom is the capability for fulfilling not your wishes, but your nature.

"Fulfilling your nature" and "doing whatever you ought" refer to the same thing: acting in accord with the way in which God has made human beings to act. God has made human beings in His own image, so that human nature conforms to God's nature and mirrors it. This way of conceiving of what is "natural" to us helps us to distinguish what is part of true human nature from what is a result of our fallen, sinful state--it may feel "natural" for me to want to rear-end the guy who cuts me off in traffic, but that does not mean this action or inclination is in accord with the way God made us and intends us to act.

Let's take the above example of extramarital sex. Why is it forbidden? Because it is not in accord with our nature. But the urge is so strong, the compulsion so great, how can it not be natural? Because, due to our sinfulness, our sexual desire has gone out of balance, out of our control. So what makes sex within marriage so "good" or "natural"? Sexual union creates an unparalleled closeness between a man and a woman and has as its object the procreation of children. These both require a permanent bond. On the practical level, because sharing this greatest intimacy with too many spreads one thin, and because the stable relationship of the parents is the ideal environment for a child to be raised. But even apart from that, the elements of fecundity and permanence and all-embracing love are the elements of the relationship between God and His People, between Christ and the Church, for it is within the Church that we are birthed into new life by being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection (being "born again of water and the Spirit"). And that great mystery is foreshadowed in the human relationship of marriage and the procreation of children. In short, sex has its proper place within marriage because only in this way does it model the divine reality.

This covers the moral law that makes up part of the Church's "rules." What about all those disciplines like fasting before receiving Communion, and not eating meat on Fridays during Lent (heck, the whole Lenten season in general), and all those other sorts of things?

Think of the Church as a family. In every family, in every househould, there are "house rules" which parents set down for their house's good order and to aid in their children's good upbringing. Chores are assigned to teach them responsibility and to keep the house tidy. "No dessert unless you eat your vegetables" to teach them which foods are more important. Things like this. Well, the Church is our mater et magistra, our mother and teacher. The bishops in union with the Holy Father, by virtue of their apostolic office, have been given the great task by God to shepherd their flocks to heaven, to teach the children entrusted to them about God and His plan for us. As part of this, the Church makes certain rules for our benefit and welfare.

So the Church prescribes periods of fasting to help us realize how we ought to hunger for God. The Church designates a period of penitence before celebrating the great mystery of Easter to help us cultivate sorrow for our sins and an awareness of our need for God's forgiveness. The Church tells us to abstain from meats during the penitential season because the ancients thought that "flesh-meats" aroused the passions and made us less in control of ourselves. (Fun fact: modern science has discovered that those meats contain high levels of zinc, and that zinc increases one's libido. So the ancients were right! And guess what seems kind of like meat but doesn't contain large amounts of zinc? Fish. And you thought the Church was just being random.)

And by following these practices of discipline, we're better able to control our passions, instead of letting them control us; we're able to keep them in their proper balance. And when we can do that, we're better able to live our lives according to the nature God gave us. These disciplines and commandments, these laws and rules, work together to help us lead holier, happier lives. Only then can we be fulfilled, when we're filled with God.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Redemption vs. Salvation

Recently I wrote on how "acceptance" and "tolerance" are often used as synonyms when they really denote two separate ideas. Today I'd like to do something similar, but this time I'll be pulling from the theological lexicon. Let's talk about the difference between "redemption" and "salvation."

We know that "redemption" and "salvation" both generally refer to our being freed from our sins and their eternal consequences. We speak of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, which freed us from our sins, both as his "saving act" and "the work of our redemption." So it would seem like these two words essentially mean the same thing, like "song" and "ditty," or "politician" and "crook." Right?

Well, not quite. Not all crooks are politicians.

Redemption and salvation refer to two aspects or, perhaps, two levels of our being freed from sin. On one level, Christ's sacrifice pays the debt for the sins of all humanity, thus opening the possibility for every single human being to return to the friendship of God, if they have faith in Jesus, repent of their sins, and are baptized (Acts 2:38). Redemption is the paying off of the debt, the paving of the highway to heaven, the printing of the "Get out of Jail" cards.

On another level, when a person is baptized into Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5), the effect of the redemption is applied to the individual person; that particular person's sins are forgiven them, and that particular person returns to the friendship of God. This is salvation: when you step into the First Bank of Christ and accept the offer of "debt forgiveness," when you take the on-ramp for the highway to heaven, when you cash in your "Get out of Jail" card. Salvation is redemption applied to the individual.

If we equate these two words, confusion can creep in. We remember a few months ago when Pope Francis spoke of how "the Lord has redeemed all of us," and the secular press took that to mean the pope was announcing a belief in universal salvation; that is, the pope said that Christ had given everyone the opportunity to be saved, but the press took that to mean that everyone will be saved. It's the difference between "7-11 is giving away free Slurpees, you just have to go and get one!" and "7-11 is giving away free Slurpees, and they're delivering them to your house!" An important distinction!

Our English language is a hodge-podge of German, French, Latin, Greek, and whatever else the Anglo-Saxons could borrow. This amalgamation has blessed us with over half a million words at our disposal, each with its own subtleties and nuances. Let's use them to the fullest!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fall 2013 Courses

The beginning of the fall semester is upon us. Classes start next week, and since I'm sure my upcoming blog posts will be influenced by my coursework, you might like to have a heads-up on what I'll be taking.

Modern Philosophy: This is the third in a sequence of four survey courses on the history of philosophy: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary. This terminology could seem a little confusing, since we tend to use "modern" to mean "present, recent, up-to-date, latest," but in historians tend to use it differently, more precisely. The modern period is typified by the rejection of the medieval systems and the creation of new systems of thought by such men as Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant. I've studied these guys before in undergraduate classes, so it should sound familiar; I'm hoping that they might make a little more sense this time around. The class will be taught by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP, a Dominican priest from Germany who, like many of the faculty here, specializes in just about everything.

Christian Iconography: Do you ever wonder why pictures or statues of St. Paul almost always feature him holding a sword? Why St. John the Baptist is often depicted by the Eastern Churches as having wings? What the significance is of images of the Resurrection of Jesus including Adam and Eve rising with him? When it comes to imagery in Christianity, there is a science to the art. This course will teach us how to recognize meaningful elements in Christian art and interpret their significance. The class is being taught by Fr. Michael Morris, OP, who also teaches courses on film and the arts at the DSPT.

Theology of the Sacraments: A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. There is an awful lot packed into that statement, and we'll unpack it in this course. We'll study the notion of sacraments in general and each of the seven sacraments in particular, including the history of the development of their ritual celebration and our understanding of them. I've always had an attraction to sacramental theology, and I think I may be able to glean a thesis topic from this course, so I'm doubly excited for it! The course will be taught by Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP, who specializes in eschatology (study of the end times).

It's going to be a busy semester, but, I hope, a fruitful one!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Tolerance

Much like "paradigm" and "pro-active" in past times (Simpsons reference, anyone?), "tolerance" has become a buzzword in our society, a sacred sound invoked by people to communicate to others that they have the correct mindset, the proper disposition, the right attitude. "We need to work toward a more tolerant society," they'll say, hitting that T and exhaling on that O to milk the word for all its worth.

But I must say to such folk, in the words of Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means."

The above-mentioned sort of person tends to use "tolerance" as a synonym for "acceptance." When they say we should "tolerate" a particular behavior or idea, what they usually mean is that we should accept it as a legitimate behavior or idea, that we should welcome it into the fold of The Normal, that we should strive for the day when we the practice or idea is approved by society as laudable and admirable. That is acceptance. That is not tolerance.

To tolerate something is to precisely say, "I think this is wrong/stupid/worthless, but I will allow your practice/promotion of it, because you have a right to your opinions/practices." To say that you tolerate something is not to say you approve of it; it is precisely to say that you disapprove of it, but that you will allow it over your objections. You don't tolerate something you find to be good or acceptable.

(Please do not attempt to contradict me by pointing to dictionaries or thesauruses that list "tolerance" and "acceptance" as synonyms. Dictionaries and thesauruses tend to follow usage just as much as they dictate it; if a mistake in grammar or definition is made often enough, dictionaries will start to list them as "alternate usages." J.R.R. Tolkien, who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, often complained of this phenomenon. These two words have different definitions that allow us to make a useful distinction. Let's not paper over them.)

We see this word used quite often today in the debate over same-sex marriage. We are told we ought to be "tolerant" of people of homosexual orientations, but such advocates typically actually mean we should be "accepting." (And they do sometimes use that word, to their credit--at least then they're saying what they mean.) Now, if we were to use these words properly, "tolerance" would translate in public policy to "not using legal force to punish homosexual acts with fines or jail time," while "acceptance" would be more akin to "redefining marriage so that it includes this arrangement." Those are two very different things. Tolerance can be mapped onto the Church's notion of "love the sinner, hate the sin." But acceptance would have us call a sinful act good. That is not acceptable, nor will I tolerate it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Only Reason to Be a Catholic

Dear readers, I ask you: what is the point of being a Catholic?

Is it to carry on the traditions of your family, attending the same church that Mom & Dad went to, getting married in the same church Mom & Dad got married in, getting your kids baptized in the same church you were baptized in, so that you can be buried in the same cemetery Granny & Gramps are buried in? 

Is it a tribal designation, like the old joke: A man got lost in Belfast and wasn't sure if he was on the Catholic or Protestant side of town. Some rough-looking youths came up to him and asked, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" Knowing the wrong answer could get him killed, he answered, "Actually, I'm an atheist." The youths looked puzzled and asked, "Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"

Is it to have a sense of belonging and community? Perhaps that which you belong to is less important to you than that you belong, and it might as well be the local country club as the local parish? Or maybe you're simply trying to get the parishioner discount at the parochial school? Maybe using the Knights of Columbus for a little business networking?

These are insufficient reasons. The only reason to be a Catholic, the whole point to it, is that the Catholic faith reveals to us the purpose of life and helps us to fulfill it. I turn now to the first few entries in the venerable Baltimore Catechism.

1. Who made us? 

God made us.

2. Who is God?

God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.

3. Why did God make us?

God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?

To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

5. From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God?

We learn to know, love, and serve God from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who teaches us through the Catholic Church.
Every single human being who has ever lived has wondered, "What am I doing here?" asking both their origin and their purpose. Origin and purpose are fundamentally bound to one another: everything that is made is made for some reason, for some end, and is given that end or purpose or reason by its maker. Every person knows they have a purpose: they are enlivened when they have one and depressed when they have none. Modern folk tend to think that human beings should determine or create their own ultimate purpose for themselves, but this would only make sense if we were our own creators, which we are not. We did not bring ourselves into existence, so we cannot set our own ultimate reason for existing. That reason is inscribed in our very form, hardwired into us, part of the factory settings, so to speak, unalterable and irrevocable. 

Our purpose can only be made known to us by knowing the mind of the one who made us--that is, God. But who is this God who made us? He is the source of all existence, the creator of everything that is, having all perfections. And He made us out of pure generosity, absolute gratuity; He had no need to create us or anything--nothing could compel Him. Simply out of His goodness and His desire to share of Himself, God made us, destined for eternal happiness with Him. All we need do is follow His design for us, His design within us; for since He made us for Himself, our happiness will be in knowing and loving and serving Him. And yet we failed and continue to fail to heed this call, mysteriously rejecting that which will bring us fulfillment. So God comes to our aid, and helps us to know Him and love Him by revealing Himself to us, preeminently in the greatest event in history, in which God Himself condescended to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, teaching, dying, and rising, defeating death that we might live. In Christ our sins are forgiven and our unity with God is restored. In Christ we share in the very life of God Himself! And Christ continues his presence and his work on earth through his Body, the Church, built upon the rock of St. Peter, founded on the twelve stones of the Apostles, spread through the preaching of the Gospel message of salvation through Christ, nourished by those visible signs of his invisible grace, the sacraments.

This is the only reason to be a Catholic: to fulfill our destiny by knowing, loving, and serving God, taught by Christ and his Church. Family tradition and identity and belonging will follow from that, but those are ancillary concerns, attendant benefits of the grace of communion with the Triune God.

If this is not your reason for belonging to the Church, for attending Mass, I say: repent and be converted! Make Christ the center of your life! I say this as much to myself as anyone. We all need ever-deeper conversion to Christ, ever-strengthened unity with him, ever-greater love for him. Come and find your fulfillment! Come and find your purpose! Come and find your joy!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Go to Mass!

Q: Is it a mortal sin to skip Mass on Sunday or a holy day of obligation?

First, let's define our terms.

By "mortal sin," the Catechism says:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

1) it is a grave (i.e. serious) offense;
2) it is done with full knowledge (i.e. you knew it was wrong);
3) it is done with full consent (i.e. you weren't compelled). 

By "skip Mass," we mean choosing not to go to Mass even though there was nothing preventing you from going (e.g. work, illness, being 2,000 miles from a Catholic church, etc.).

By "Sunday or holy day of obligation," I think we all know what that refers to.

Second, let's examine our proposition: does the proposed action meet the conditions for mortal sin? If we answer positively for all three, then yes.

Condition One: is attending Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation a serious matter? Let's consult the Catechism. Please pay attention to the first part, as it tells us the reason for the conclusion that follows.

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

You are never more Catholic than when you go to Mass. As the Second Vatican Council tells us, the Mass is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11). It is the highest point we reach in our lives on earth as Christians, and it is the main wellspring from which we draw the gift of God's grace, His very life, which enlivens us and strengthens us and makes us holy. No other moment in Christian practice compares with uniting our worship of and prayer to God to the sacrifice of His Son as re-presented on the altar at Mass. This is our spiritual nourishment. And just as it is harmful to us to forgo bodily nourishment, so, the Church informs us, it is harmful to us (i.e. sinful) to forgo our spiritual nourishment. Skipping Mass is like skipping a week's worth of meals. To commit a mortal sin is to cut yourself off from God's life and grace through your action: there is no clearer way of cutting the lifeline than refusing our nourishment. God commands us to worship Him not because He needs it, but because, as I have just been saying, we need it; and the Church legislates this for the same reason. This is serious, which is why the Church judges it a grave sin.

Now, whether one "deliberately fails" in this matter will be determined by the other two variables of the equation, but let us acknowledge that Condition One, the nature of the act itself, is fulfilled.

Condition Two: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, did you know that you have a duty to attend Mass on those days? I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Catholic of any degree of devotion who won't admit that you "should" or "ought to" attend Mass on Sundays, "ideally." Keeping the Third Commandment by celebrating the day of the Lord's Resurrection is something that's pretty well engraved into our minds. And the phrase "holy day of obligation" is pretty unambiguous; the term "optional obligation" is just contradictory. Now, it's possible that a person could run into someone they trust, e.g. a priest, nun, friend, etc., who tells them, "Well, you don't have to go every Sunday, it's not that big of a deal, as long as you're a good person and you believe in God," or something to that effect, and that person acts on that in good faith. That person's culpability could be lessened in that case: "I trusted them and they led me astray!" But I think most folks know what they're supposed to do. For most of us, Condition Two is met.

Condition Three: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, that is, choose not to go to Mass when you had the ability to go, were you doing it with full consent? Was there anything constraining you from attending? Were you being forced to work through every available Mass time? Were you too ill either to get up or such that you didn't want to risk infecting other people? Did you have to take care of young children or the sick or elderly? Were you being held hostage by terrorists, aliens, or Jehovah's Witnesses? No? Then we've met Condition Three.

There are many people, I dare say, who meet these three conditions. Every Christmas and Easter we see churches filled to two or three times their normal capacity by Catholics who don't usually attend during the rest of the year. Now, I cannot know any of their particular circumstances or knowledge of their own actions; I don't know what may be keeping them from Mass every other Sunday and holy day, so I could not say, "They are all in mortal sin," nor is it my place to. My purpose here is not to scold, but to inform. We have a serious responsibility and a wonderful opportunity in attending the sacred liturgy. Go to Mass if you can. If you haven't been to Mass for a while, go to confession, and receive the gift of God's forgiveness. God is waiting there to give you Himself. What more could you want?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How to Make an Argument

One of the most useful things I learned in this last year studying philosophy was how to properly make an argument. The scholastics of the medieval period had a brilliant method for it. I thought I'd share the basics with you today.

Now, usually when you hear the word "argument" you think of an emotionally charged disagreement between two parties slapping each other with epithets and denouncing each other as hateful ignoramuses. One person says, "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer," the other says, "You're a moron," and they don't talk to each other for days--most people would call that an argument. An exchange of that nature is not properly labeled an "argument," though. This is better classified as a "fight," or perhaps a "tandem temper tantrum" (I think I just made that up). If that's not an argument, what is?

We were on the right track at first. Someone makes a claim or states a proposition, e.g. "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer." If we want to examine this claim, to see whether it holds any credence, we must do three things:

1. Define our terms.
2. Give supporting proof such as relevant facts and authoritative pronouncements.
3. Consider and address the arguments of the opposing view.

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Define your terms: This is the first step, and the most important, but all too often people skip it! It's absolutely crucial: how can you discuss a topic when you aren't even sure you're talking about the same thing? I heard a story once about a debate on the existence of God between an atheist and a priest. The priest said to the atheist, "Before we begin, would you describe to me this God you don't believe in?" The atheist replied, "Oh sure. God is an old man who lives in the sky and keeps a list of all the good and bad things we do, and if we've done more good than bad, he lets us into heaven when we die." The priest responded, "Oh good! I'm glad to see we're in agreement. I don't believe in that God either." They then were able to have a fruitful discussion on the existence of God. How much time would have been wasted had they debated for an hour not even talking about the same thing! So, in this example, one would want to define "overrated," or ask "what are the criteria by which we will evaluate or rate a singer?"

2. Give supporting proof: Once you determine by what criteria the question will be decided, you must introduce relevant support for your position. So, if you wanted to use record sales, you could point out that Janis Joplin hasn't sold nearly as many records as other people who aren't as highly regarded, and thus is overrated; or if you wanted to appeal to the opinions of music critics, you could show how so many of them love her voice and argue that she is not overrated. It would take too much time here to go into the issues of logical fallacies (the argument from authority is not a logical proof) and subjective vs. objective questions (isn't singing a matter of taste?), but the point is if you're going to discuss any issue, you need to agree on the criteria and support your argument according to those criteria.

3. Consider the opposing view: It's not enough to state your own case; you won't be able to defend your position unless you answer the strongest arguments from the other side. To be convincing, you have to show how the other side is mistaken in its facts, or misinterpreting an authority, or defining a term incorrectly, or focused on irrelevant matters, or something of that sort. You have to show not only that you're right, but that your opponent is wrong. This is the way that thinkers from Socrates to Aquinas to Abraham Lincoln have proceeded.

In the Middle Ages, a popular exercise in the schools was the disputatio, or "disputed question," which used these basic elements as the framework for a discussion. One of the masters would be presented with a thesis, e.g. "Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?" The master would present his case, defining the terms and presenting supporting evidence, then answer objections from the students, who would cite other authorities and make counter-arguments. These were often recorded and used in teaching texts such as St. Thomas' Summa Theologica.

Rather than give a Summa-style argument for our facetious question, I'll link you to this tongue-in-cheek Summa-style argument on whether St. Thomas is boring. Enjoy! And remember: next time you have a disagreement with someone, please argue, don't fight.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Was Paul Crucified for You?

I thought this joke was pretty funny:

They say the Protestant Reformation was the triumph of Paul over Peter, and that Fundamentalism is the triumph of Paul over Jesus.

This may require some explaining, and one rarely wants to explain a joke as it usually kills the humor, but this may provide some insight into the mindset of the Fundamentalist.

First, why would the Reformation be called the "triumph of Paul over Peter"? One might see it that way if one thought that the "Petrine" Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the successor of St. Peter and tradition and apostolic succession and works and such, had been conquered by the "pure Gospel" of justification by faith found in the letters of St. Paul, with his free-wheeling preaching all over the Mediterranean, even "opposing Peter to his face" (Galatians 2:11). No more popishness interjecting itself into our relationship with the Lord. Once again, Peter has been opposed to his face!

So then what's this second bit about? Why would Fundamentalism be called "the triumph of Paul over Jesus"? Here's why: notice that when you talk to a Fundamentalist about salvation, often they don't appeal to the Gospels to make their case; they instead point to the writings of St. Paul. They don't appeal to the words of Jesus, but to the words of Paul. For example:

"So, how are we saved?"
"Romans 8, justified by faith apart from works of the law, sola fide! Salvation by faith alone, irrespective of our works!"
"Yes, faith is certainly important, but Jesus said to gain eternal life, you must keep the commandments. So clearly our works or our actions or our keeping the moral law has something to do with our salvation."
"Yeah, yeah... but... but Paul said in 1 Corinthians...."

Oh, my hypothetical Fundamentalist brethren... You end up pitting Christ and Paul against each other, and you end up choosing Paul. Which is your savior? This is why the joke is funny!

Yes, St. Paul's writings make up the bulk of the New Testament, so his explanation of the Gospel message and the language and phrasing he uses sets a standard for how we understand it. Yes, we're going to rely a lot on his words and works. But we should not get so focused on the messenger that we forget the message. The joke above points to this tendency among some to focus on Paul over Jesus. It's not a new phenomenon; even in his own time people became so devoted to Paul that they primarily identified with him; Paul responded by asking if he had been crucified for them, if they were baptized into him (1 Corinthians 1:13). Paul wants to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). We must strive to do the same.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

St. Lawrence: Patron of Cooks, Comedians, and Me

Today is the feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr. He is one of the saints nearest and dearest to my heart. The story of my relationship with St. Lawrence is a good illustration of how one's faith can grow and mature over time.

First, his story. St. Lawrence was a deacon in the church of Rome in the early 3rd century. At this time in the church, deacons served as assistants to the bishop (which they still are theologically, but this was manifested in a much more practical, day-to-day way back then), and Lawrence was very close with his bishop, Pope Sixtus II; in fact, at that time there were only seven deacons in the church of Rome, and Sixtus made Lawrence their chief (the archdeacon), responsible for distribution of alms to the poor.

During a period of persecution, Pope Sixtus was captured by Roman authorities and executed. Lawrence was then ordered by the imperial prefect to turn over all of the church's wealth. Lawrence asked for three days to gather it up, then distributed the remainder of the church's goods to the poor of the city. On the third day, Lawrence reported to the prefect and brought with him "the treasures of the Church": the sick, the poor, the blind, etc., saying, "These are the true treasures of the Church."

The Romans were not amused, and executed Lawrence by roasting him alive on a gridiron. According to the tradition, after having suffered a long time, Lawrence responded, "Turn me over--I'm done on this side!" (One version reports him saying: "Turn me over, and eat!")

St. Lawrence became one of the most beloved and venerated saints in the Roman church, and that veneration spread throughout Christendom over the centuries. His church in Rome is one of the seven major churches of that holy city. He is the only non-biblical person whose memorial day reaches the rank of "feast." (We often use "feast" as a shorthand for someone's memorial, but the church actually has several degrees of feast day: optional memorials, obligatory memorials, feasts, and solemnities.) He's kind of a big deal.

What does this have to do with me? St. Lawrence is my confirmation saint, the name I chose to take as my own when receiving the sacrament of the sealing of the Holy Spirit. I only knew about him because when I would flip through the missal and see the different saints' feasts, I looked to see if there was one on my birthday: lo and behold, St. Lawrence of Rome! Then in school we learned about his martyrdom story, and I thought it was brave and hilarious that someone in the midst of their own murder would have the guts to crack a joke. (I wanted to be a comedian when I was little.) His feast was on my birthday, and we seemed to share a sense of humor: just as good of a reason as any other to pick him as my confirmation saint, right?

Looking back, my reasoning seemed a little flippant, and I sometimes wondered if I might have chosen someone else had I given it more serious thought. But then I learned the other story about St. Lawrence, the one that led to his martyrdom, and it touched me. I thought, "Here is a man of depth, filled with the love of God and love of neighbor, AND he cracks jokes during his martyrdom! Now that's a saint!" Some people may think this combination of humor and gravity to be incompatible, but as Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not serious: the opposite of funny is not funny. Funny and serious can go together. As readers of this blog know, I think levity and gravity can go together, and often should. I take my humor seriously, and my seriousness humorously.

Over the last 15 years since my confirmation, St. Lawrence has been for me a model for the love of God and neighbor, and proof that in the most dire moments of life we can find joy, because Christ has conquered sin and death: we can laugh at Satan even as he's killing us, because we know that "he who believes in me will never die." Hey, Lucifer, Jesus called: he said thanks for letting him use your guestroom, but he had to go and was taking some folks with him; he left the sheets folded on the bed.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Churches

There are two parishes in my area that I've attended several times. I think they serve as illustrations of two visions of the Church current in America. And they show which one is winning out.

One parish has a church building that looks like a civic center on the outside and someone's living room from 1978 on the inside. It's earth tone color scheme and pews oriented in a semi-circle around a sanctuary that resembles a middle school theater stage don't exactly shout "sacred space set apart for the worship of God." The other parish looks like it was plucked right out of 17th century France. I don't know enough about architectural styles to tell you exactly what it is, but outside and in it has a very classic look. The stained glass windows fill the place with color when the light shines through. The high altar, adorned with gold candlesticks and an ornate tabernacle, shout "glory and majesty" to the eye.

One parish selects music almost exclusively published in the 1980s: sappy, un-sing-able Broadway-style tunes that make you feel like you're in the middle of one of the romantic numbers from West Side Story. The Alleluia may or may not have been lifted from one of those children's singalong albums, and comes complete with hand gestures that look like geriatric calisthenics. The other parish sings traditional hymns ("traditional" meaning not simply "old" but "in a traditional hymn style") that are beautiful, simple, and singable (and, surprise surprise, people then actually sing along!), and often includes some plainchant and polyphony (as Vatican II said the liturgy should, and as the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal assumes every Mass is doing); I'd bet the heavenly angelic choir sounds something like this, or at least closer to this than the other one.

One parish treats the Sign of Peace as "smooch time" (as I heard one priest at another parish call it), running across the aisles to compliment each other on their blouses, waving and winking to each other as if they were greeting each other at a soiree, and completely disregarding the Agnus Dei chant when it begins. The other parish appears to view this part of the Mass as a time to "share with one another a sign of Christ's peace," to invoke the Lord's blessing of peace upon each other, not to ask how yesterday's fishing trip went.

One seems to view the Mass as a weekly social gathering of the book club, while the other seems to view it as a holy time for worship and joining in communion with God.

One parish has a half-filled church on a good day, mainly populated by people my grandparents' age, because that vision of the Church is falling to the "chronological solution," i.e. its ideas are not being accepted by the next generations and thus is dying off. The other parish is packed every Mass with young families, many with at least a half dozen children.

Neither parish is perfectly ideal, and neither parish is completely flawed. But one seems to be more conformed in many important ways to what the Church envisions a parish's liturgy to be than the other. And that one is thriving.