Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Greatest Mystery in All Existence, Explained (Kind Of)

Today is Trinity Sunday, or the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity if you're not into the whole brevity thing. The doctrine of the Trinity is the greatest and most central mystery of our faith--you can't build up anything else if you can't answer the question, "Who is God?" Of course, answering this question is a bit trickier than answering "Who is Richard Nixon?" or "Who is this person who keeps calling me and hanging up?" The biblical and traditional data we have presents us with quite the puzzle:

We know that God is one. There is only one God. We know that.
We know that the Father is God. Obvi. No one disputes that.
We know that Jesus is God. God became man in Jesus Christ. Got it.
We know that the Spirit of God is God. God is the Spirit. Check.

But, wait a tic... doesn't that give us three gods? No, as St. Athanasius affirms for us: "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods, but one God." And as the early centuries went on with their disputations and divisions, the ecumenical councils decreed that this indeed is the belief of the Church? But one could not be blamed for looking at the above and asking, "Are you sure there, St. A?" It's not easy to wrap your head around.

Many have wrestled with this and tried to formulate a theory that accounts for all the data while not sounding so contradictory-y. And many have failed. Which is good, on the hand, since it helps us to narrow things down by saying, "No, that's not it.... No, not that either.... Hmm, well... no."

I can't think off the top of my head of anyone who tried to say that God the Father isn't God. He's always been the sort of baseline, starting point, "Well, we can say at least this much." So we've got that goin' for us. Some denied the divinity of Christ, such as the Arians, who said he was almost, nearly, but-not-quite good, and super-swell creature but a creature all the same. Some denied the divinity of the Spirit, like the people whose names escape me right now, but who said that the Spirit was merely the force or power or energy of God. Some said that the one God was really truly only one but merely manifested Himself in different "modes," Father Mode, Son Mode, and Spirit Mode. (For you video gamers out there, this really complicates the secret "God Mode" status in some games.) These, and many other positions, were tried and tested and found insufficient by the early Church.

Basically, the false conceptions of the Trinity tend to waver between this modalism (God is really one, but looks like three) and tritheism (God is really three, but looks like one). And even most of the "helpful" explanations you hear in Sunday school or from the pulpit tend toward these: God is like an egg, with its shell, whites, and yolk (tritheism); like a shamrock, with its stem and three leaves (tritheism); like water, which can be liquid, ice, or steam (modalism). All analogies limp, as they say. They go as far as they go, but they're never perfect. These can be helpful in some ways, but they don't quite do the trick.

The orthodox doctrine is that there is one God, one divine nature, in which there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all co-equal, all co-eternal, each as much God as the others. These three Persons are not three distinct substances or thingies, but they are one in every way apart from their relation to each other: The Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. The Father eternally begets the Son, the Father and Spirit eternally generate the Spirit, yet not in any sort of linear, sequential, "Oh, so the Father is really God, and then He produces the Son," etc., but rather in the way that as soon as a flame is lit, you already have with it its light and its heat, generated from the flame but inseparable from it. (Thank you, St. Hildegaard of Bingen... even though that one has its problems, too. Analogies limp.)

For a fantastic exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, check out this excerpt from Frank Sheed's classic "Theology for Beginners."

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, both now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

My (Least) Favorite Protestant (Non) Replies to Catholic Questions

Our Protestant brothers and sisters tend to be somewhat more familiar with the texts of Scripture than we Catholics are. There aren't a few of them who are able to recite any chapter and verse asked of them, a skill both impressive and jealousy-inducing. It's as though they have every tool in the hardware store in their own garage.

But here's the thing: just because you have all the tools at hand doesn't mean you'll use them correctly. You might have a socket wrench in your collection, but if you use it to pound a nail into the wall, your possession of the tool is less impressive.

The battle cry of the Protestant Reformation/Revolution was sola Scriptura, Scripture alone! It is the only (or some prefer to say "final") authority they acknowledge in matters of faith, and the only source they will appeal to. Their operating assumption is that any question related to the Christian faith has an answer in Scripture. This belief, however, does not hold up to scrutiny, and it often leads to Protestants appealing to Scripture verses that have tangential relations at best to the issue at hand. Here are some of my favorite examples, to illustrate what I mean.

One key divisive point between Protestants and Catholics is the question of the communion of saints, the spiritual relation of the members of the Body of Christ to one another, with the sticking point usually being the dearly departed members. When a Catholic asks why a Protestant objects to the practice of asking for the intercession of the saints, a very common Protestant response is to quote 1 Timothy 2:5, "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ." The Protestant smiles and says, "Your argument is with the Word of God, not with me. ONE mediator, my friend, not many."

Yet the Protestant should be careful, for this argument proves too much. If the passage here meant what they believed it does, that there is one and only one person, Jesus, who can mediate between any of us and God, then this passage rules out the mediation not only of the deceased saints in heaven, but mediation by any living Christian as well. If you ask your friend to pray for you that you pass your exam, the proposed Protestant reading of this passage would have them respond to you, "No, I won't! You can go to God yourself! ONE mediator! Don't make an idol of me!" I have yet to meet a Protestant who holds this position. Now, they might press on with other objections to the practice, which can be dealt with elsewhere, but this is enough to show that the appeal to this passage does not work.

My go-to question to our Protestant friends is to question the premise of sola Scriptura itself: "You appeal to the Bible because it is the Word of God. But how do you know that this book in your hand, this collection of books, is the definitive collection, is the entirety of the Word of God, that you haven't included too much, or--as I would say--left anything out?" The common Protestant counter is 2 Timothy 3:16 (Timothy's getting a workout today!), which says, "All Scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." The Protestant looks at you and says, "See? I know the Bible is the Word of God because it says itself that all Scripture is inspired, 'God-breathed.'"

Do you catch the problem here? Scripture says that all Scripture is inspired, but that wasn't the question. There is no dispute that Scripture is inspired--that's a tautology: that which is inspired is Scripture, that which is Scripture is inspired. The question is: how do we know which writings are inspired, and thus are Scripture? The Bible did not drop from the sky shrink-wrapped in silver with an inspired table of contents chiseled into its golden pages. Where did it come from, then? If you're going to claim a text is the Word of God, the first question anyone would ask is, "Who says?" And the quest to answer to that question will lead the Protestant in a non-Protestant direction.

OK, I think that's enough for now, but you get the picture. Just because a verse comes from Scripture doesn't mean that it applies, or applies well, to the question at hand.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Pastoral": The Magic Word That Makes Truth Disappear

If there's one phrase in the life of the Church the misuse and abuse of which really chaps my hide more than any other, it's "pastoral application." Yes, even more than "liturgical dancing" or "the spirit of Vatican II." In the case of each of these, how the term is used is so far removed from what the term is supposed to mean that the use and the meaning have lost sight of each other and are wandering about, bewildered and hopeless.

Take "liturgical dancing." (Please!) In its proper use, this phrase means refers to "dancing that takes place in the liturgy in those cultures for which dance is an integral form of worship." In its twisted and misappropriated sense, often invoked by Western folk today, it means "children hopping about with streamers because isn't that cute," or occasionally "stealing someone else's proper form of cultural expression and shoe-horning it in where it doesn't fit, like a Ming vase in a log cabin."

Or consider the "spirit of Vatican II," which ought to mean "the intentions, principles, and presuppositions that inform and animate the texts of the Council," but which is usually used to mean "an attitude of revolution and rupture having little to no reference to the actual content of the Council."

So, too, with "pastoral application." This phrase, when found in canon law or the teaching documents of the Church (or when it's like appears), refers to the application of the abstract truths of the faith or the general laws of the Church to the concrete situations of the faithful with the good of the faithful in mind. It's much more readily understood how this term applies to canon law, as the entire notion of law centers on the application of generic formulations to particular incidents or situations (e.g. does this or that event match the definition of murder, or fraud, or jaywalking). And the law consists much more of disciplines than doctrines, of prudential choices for good order rather than eternal and immutable truths, which is why the law is filled with exceptions "for a just reason, for a grave reason, according to the judgment of the local ordinary," etc. The pastoral application of the law consists in applying these laws and their exceptions (where the law allows) for the benefit of the flock of Christ. If St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday in Lent, and your diocese has St. Patrick as a patron, it's proper for your diocese to celebrate its patron with due joy and solemnity, and thus just for your bishop to grant an indult from the obligation to abstain from eating meet that Friday. It's for the good of the people, and it's within the bishop's competence to do so.

But when people talk about a "pastoral application" of the Church's teachings on matters of faith and morals (usually morals), what can that mean? Do these truths sometimes not apply--are they occasionally not true? Or can any ecclesial authority grant an exception to the moral law? "In honor of St. Augustine, I'm granting an indult on stealing--but only stealing pears!" Of course not. That's absurd.

And yet when the topic of certain sinful acts arises--say, divorce, or contraception, or homosexual acts (why is it always about sex?)--some people get pained looks on their faces and close their eyes and ask in that whispery, NPR interviewer-type tone, "But how can we approach this pastorally?"

Now, I'm all for a pastoral approach, if by "pastoral" we mean "with the good of the faithful in mind." I would advocate for a kind and charitable discussion in which we assure them of our love for them and our concern for their well-being, and listen to their thoughts and about their experiences, and acknowledge the difficulties that they face, and explain how those actions are not in accord with how God made us to act and with what will bring us true happiness, and encourage them to not despair or give up.

But too often, what happens under the auspices of "pastoral care" is a granting of license to sin. "Oh, it's OK, life is messy, you have to do what's best for you, follow your heart, God just wants you to be happy, we don't want to upset you, please don't get mad at me, can we still be Facebook friends" usually followed by "the Church is behind the times, it'll come around eventually." To quote Kaiser Soyze: "And just like that *poof*: he's gone!" Here comes the magic word "pastoral," and the truth has disappeared. This "pastoral" approach sets truth on a shelf, like a decorative plate that one looks at and admires but which of course is entirely impractical and would never work for use in real life. 

It is not a pastoral approach to tell people it's OK to do what the Church knows to be wrong and to be harmful for people. In doing that you give people permission to live outside the truth and put their souls in jeopardy of being sundered from God forever. This is looking out for the good of others? This is shepherding the sheep?

This false use of "pastoral" is not an application of the truth, but a dismissal of it. Truth is left at home while the kids head out to a party at their friend's when the parents aren't home and they found the key to the liquor cabinet. You might think truth is getting in the way of you living your life, but really truth is just trying to stop you from ending up with a hangover and a missing wallet.