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.