Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Old Revealed in the New: Reading the Old Testament in the Light of Christ

This Sunday's Gospel reading presents us with a potentially surprising saying from our Risen Lord. Jesus appears to his apostles and, after demonstrating that it is truly him and that he has truly risen, he tells them that "all that was written about me in Moses and the prophets and psalms has been fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). This phrase merits close consideration. In what sense did these Old Testsment texts speak about Jesus?

I imagine that many Catholics, when they open the Old Testament and read the Books of Moses and the prophetic words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like, expect them to be line after line of detailed description of what they were to expect of the Messiah: height, weight, shoe size, preferred method of dispatching Israel's enemies (that's what many expected his main occupation to be). They may be surprised, as I was, to find huge swaths of material that don't seem to refer to the Messiah at all. I mean, yeah, we get Isaiah 6 (the virgin shall conceive) and Wisdom 2 (the innocent man betrayed and murdered) and Exodus 34 (Moses' promise of a future prophet like himself), but what about all that other stuff? Israel's conquest of Canaan, their exile in Babylon, their fights against the Persians; all those words calling Israel to repentance so that God will restore them to the land? There's an awful lot of politics and battle statistics. And the psalms have some lovely bits of praise, and some rather depressing stuff, too, but not much in the way of presaging or predicting. What's it all got to do with Jesus dying and rising for our sins?

Christians learned to read their Scriptures in a new light, the Light of the World. Words and events were seen to have new meaning when viewed through the new lens of Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Jesus himself began to make such connections for his disciples: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14). This story of the ancient Israelites in retrospect can be seen to prefigure the death of Christ. The apostles continued this line of figurative interpretation, as when St. Peter wrote that as Noah was saved through water in the ark, so baptism now saves us (1 Peter 3:20-21). All of these events are no longer just Israel's history; they are part of the great drama of salvation history. 

The Church Fathers and other early Christian writers continued to find such connections. Origen saw in the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 a figure of God sacrificing his own Son (when it could most truly be said that God provided the sacrifice). St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote an entire book tying every detail of the life of Moses to the mystery of Christ. Many of the Fathers, such as St. Hilary of Poitiers, saw Christ as the true speaker of the psalms, the ultimate heir of the promises to David. Examples abound, but all is summed up in St. Augustine's wonderful phrase: "The new is hidden in the old, the old revealed in the new." 

Every letter of the Bible communicates something of Christ, for the Bible communicates the Word of God, who is Christ. All that was hidden is revealed in Christ. He is the light that enlightens everyone, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Responding to "The Truth About Communion In The Hand While Standing"

In the past few days this article has crossed my path several times, enough that it seemed to merit a viewing. "The Truth About Communion In The Hand While Standing," it's called, a priest's homily published as an article on the site Roman Catholic Man. I had a sneaking suspicion that the "truth" revealed in the article would not be something along the lines of "It's great!" and I was not proven wrong. The author is not at all in favor of the practice. But I think the reasons he presents for his objection are faulty. Let me explain.

First, though, let me say that I am all in favor of the practice of receiving communion on the tongue, and while kneeling. If I had my preference, there'd be altar rails in every church. I think it is a beautiful posture of reverence and humility in the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. But the beauty of this posture does not make all other postures ugly, or irreverent, or lacking in humility. This is a point I will return to repeatedly, and is my main criticism of this article: the better is not the enemy of the good. One thing being preferable does not make other things unacceptable. With that in mind, let's look at the article.

The article begins with the priest noting that his parish had just restored the communion rails to their church, and that their removal in the first place was not called for by the documents of Vatican II, just as another "innovation" was not: the reception of communion in the hand.

Stop. Learnin' time.

Something can be an innovation only if it is new; and not in the sense of "new to me," as is the case when something is restored (thus the "new" altar rails in the priest's church would not be an "innovation") but "new" in the sense of "never before seen under the sun." The reception of Holy Communion in the hand, then, is not an "innovation," because, while it may have been new to the Church in the last several hundred years, it was in fact a restoration of an ancient practice, just as the re-installation of the altar rails in his church, or the re-introduction of the permanent diaconate, was a restoration: the return of something that had been there before.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
That, in the early Church, the faithful stood when receiving into their hands the consecrated particle can hardly be questioned.... The custom of placing the Sacred Particle in the mouth, rather than in the hand of the communicant, dates in Rome from the sixth, and in Gaul from the ninth century (Van der Stappen, IV, 227; cf. St. Gregory, Dial., I, III, c. iii). 
We have quotations from the works of Sts. Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Augustine, John Damascene, and the Venerable Bede, all attesting to the common and accepted practice in ancient times of the faithful receiving communion in the hand. If something is ancient, it cannot, ipso facto, be an innovation, as the term has been defined above.

But the arguments the author focuses on are from much more recent history. The present allowance of the reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful, he says, is "an indult born out of disobedience," and he details how Pope Paul VI came to a "compromise" with bishops in certain countries where communion was being distributed in the hand in violation of present liturgical law: the law would not change, the pope said, but an exception would be granted provided that certain conditions were met. He then alleges some shady practices of the US bishops in the 1970s to have the indult applied to the United States as well. (I say "allege" because he provides no sources. I realize that a homily is not an academic paper nor a newspaper article, but a source citation, a book or a witness, would be appreciated, just so we could check things out ourselves--perhaps he innocently left out some detail which he deemed irrelevant but which might indeed be germane to the situation, for example.)

The implication here is that reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is illegitimate in and of itself because it was re-introduced into the Church initially through illegitimate means, i.e. through the violation of liturgical law. But this is a confusion, a conflation of two separate issues. The question of whether reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is inherently and by its very nature disrespectful, sacrilegious, or irreverent is separate from the question of whether its introduction into the liturgy against the present liturgical law was disrespectful or illegitimate.

To the latter question, the answer is, of course, yes: it is disrespectful to the Church's authority and illegitimate to contravene the Church's law. But that has no bearing on the former question. If an 18-year old is caught buying alcohol, he has violated the law that says only those over 21 may buy alcohol; but that fact does not answer for us whether it ought to be allowed for 18-year olds to buy and drink alcohol, or whether their drinking is in and of itself wrong or undesirable. You might think it better to put the limit at 21, but one being better does not make the other unacceptable. The author here, then, is trying to make reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful guilty by association.

Next the author names three of the conditions set by Pope Paul VI for the indult to be granted, and evaluates whether those conditions are currently met: first, that the reception of the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling be respected; second, that the laity maintain a proper respect for the Eucharist; and third, that the laity's faith in the Real Presence be strengthened. The author then uses anecdotal evidence to argue that these conditions are not being met: that communicants are scolded for receiving on the tongue and on the knees; that people have been frivolous, careless, and blasphemous with the received Host, discarding it, playing with it, even using it in Black Masses; and that belief in the Real Presence has plummeted in the years since the indult was granted.

Three points must be raised here. First, the question of whether the legitimacy of this practice is still contingent upon these conditions; second, the relation between abuse and proper use; and third, the cause of decreased belief in the Real Presence.

Are the conditions set by Pope Paul VI still in effect, such that if they are not met, the practice is illegitimate? What does the present liturgical law say on the matter? The 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, paragraph 92, quoting the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, says the following:
Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.
According to the Church's present law, then, reception on the tongue is considered the norm, but a Bishops' Conference may apply for permission from the Holy See to have reception in the hand be a normal option in their jurisdiction, the sole condition listed that the Sacred Host not risk being profaned. The other conditions listed by Pope Paul VI are not listed in the present liturgical law. So, the legitimacy of reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is not contingent upon all of those conditions.

What of the risk of profanation? The stories the author tells would suggest that such a risk indeed does exist, and thus that reception in the hand should not be allowed. And while these stories are disturbing, I do not think they merit the permission being rescinded. While they are sensational, they are not necessarily frequent, or frequent enough to warrant such a change in practice.

One might object that the instruction does not say that the profanation itself be frequently present, but only that the risk of profanation be present at all. But surely that cannot be the case, or we simply would not distribute Holy Communion. A person receiving Holy Communion on the tongue could still profane it by spitting it out, or clenching it between their teeth and preserving it for later abuse. There is some risk in profanation under any form of distribution. But I do not think the instruction envisions risk simpliciter, but rather a substantial risk based on experience. One might argue that there is less risk involved in distribution on the tongue versus distribution in the hand, but just because one thing is better than another does not make the other bad--this is to make a false dichotomy--and the abuse of something does not negate its proper use.

Third, what about the decrease in belief in the Real Presence? It seems to coincide with and correlate to the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. Shouldn't this be a cause for concern?

Well, for starters, the author gives us an irrelevant statistical comparison. "In 1950, 87% believed in the Real Presence. Today, that number has plummeted to a mere 34%." That certainly is a significant and worrying decrease. But the practice did not become widespread until almost 20 years after the time of the initial percentage; I wonder, what was the percentage of those who believed in the Real Presence in 1968, or in 1975? I would wager the decrease had already begun by that point.

And what is the alleged connection between receiving in the hand and a lack of belief in the Real Presence? Why would the former cause the latter? It was certainly no issue for the early Christians for whom such reception was common.

The argument often is that receiving in the hand while standing is too casual a posture, one that does not encourage one to think that what one is receiving is special in any way. But receiving something in your hands while standing is not a posture that has a naturally frivolous or ridiculous feel to it, as standing on your head and receiving with your feet might. We receive respectfully many things in our hands while standing: awards, presents, handshakes, babies, food; things we value and are grateful for. There's nothing inherently inappropriate about the posture. It does not automatically generate in one a disrespectful mindset.

I think the issue is larger than the method of receiving Holy Communion, and it is twofold: the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated, and the degree to which the faithful are well-catechized. I've personally heard some real whoppers being taught in RCIA and sacramental preparation classes--that baptism doesn't do anything but is just a celebration of our already being children of God; that we can and should create some new sacraments; that belief in Mary as Co-Redemptorix is heresy (!); that Catholics actually do believe in salvation by faith alone--and I've heard not a few stories of such classes teaching Catholics and catechumens that the Eucharist is a mere reminder of Christ's sacrifice but is not the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord. How can Catholics be expected to believe that when they're not taught it?

Likewise, I, like many of you, have been to some liturgies that were ridiculous, profane, and occasionally even invalid, featuring all sorts of nonsense that is prohibited by the Church's liturgical law and that creates the opposite of the sacred and solemn atmosphere that the event merits and requires: priests cracking jokes in the middle of the reading of the Gospel; or introducing the Sign of Peace by saying, "Smooch time"; or giving homilies that consist of readings of Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You Will Go; or generally conducting themselves as though they were game show hosts instead of sacred ministers; and so on. Why should anyone take anything seriously that happens in such circumstances? But reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful does not belong in this category, which is why the Church allows it.

The author then cites St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II (seemingly) saying that the Eucharist, and even the sacred vessels, ought only to be touched by the hands of the ordained, whose hands have been consecrated for that purpose. Here the author also would seem to render illegitimate the practice of using Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, or of having anyone apart from a bishop, priest, or deacon touch the sacred vessels, both practices which are approved by the Church (under certain circumstances, yes, but the author's quotations and the conclusions he would have us draw from them would ban the practices outright).

Quite irresponsibly, the author cites "reported" sayings of Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II against the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. The Mother Teresa Center website states the following:
You quoted "Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand." This statement does not seem authentic to us. We have never heard Mother Teresa saying these words nor read them in her writings. One thing that Mother Teresa used to repeat very often was: “…The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself… the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
A simple Google search would have shown the author this. And while I could find no reference for St. John Paul II saying what the author says he did on receiving in the hand, I did find this, in the very same document of St. John Paul II which the author cites.While referencing the abuses seen with reception in the hand, St. John Paul II says,
This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized. (Dominicae Cenae 11)

Far from denigrating the practice, the Holy Father acknowledges that reception in the hand can indeed be done with "profound reverence and devotion." And the very sentence after that stating the "privilege of the ordained" to touch the sacred things with their hands says,
It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation. (Dominicae Cenae 11)
The sainted Holy Father's documented words, then, give a quite different impression of his thoughts from what the author would have us think.

There is throughout the article a suggestion that because the practice is exceptional it is or should be at best tolerated with a barely hidden disgust for such weakness and hardness of heart. But the Church allows a myriad of exceptions to her liturgical law to accommodate the cultural norms, practical concerns, and compatible desires of the faithful. Just look at the two dozen different rites within the Catholic Church. The Church even allows the use of an ancient Eucharistic Prayer in one Eastern rite that doesn't even have an institution narrative! (That is, the recounting of Christ's words at the Last Supper, "This is my body," "This is my blood," which we consider essential in the Latin rite.) If such variation is acceptable in those instances, why not in this?

The author ends his piece noting again the humbling effect receiving on one's tongue while kneeling has on the individual, and I make no argument against that. I am not here arguing against the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling. It is the norm in the Church's liturgical vision, and I think it a worthy and laudable practice that promotes reverence for the sacrament. But the goodness of reception on the tongue does not render reception in the hand bad. They are not logical contraries that cannot exist at the same time. You might argue the former is better in some respects, but, again, the better is not the enemy of the good. If you want to promote your position, tell us why it's good; don't focus on why you think the other position is bad, and certainly don't give us spurious arguments and fake quotations in doing so. If you want to advocate for the reception of communion on the tongue while kneeling, please do so. But in doing so do not denigrate an ancient practice which is permitted by the Church.

The truth about communion in the hand is that it is not an innovation, but an ancient practice; that the circumstances of its coming into common use in some places do not render the practice itself illegitimate; that it is not necessarily the culprit for decreased belief in the Real Presence; that its abuse does not mean it has no proper use; and that certain people may not have said about it what you think they did. The truth about communion in the hand is that the Church allows it, and that it is perfectly possible to receive Holy Communion in the hand while standing with reverence, devotion, and ardent charity.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Catholic Both/And, or, The Deion Sanders Principle in Theology

Many of my readers may know I'm currently in the thesis-writing phase of a dual master's program in philosophy and theology; fewer readers may know my topic, and may they consider themselves blessed for it. For the curious, though, I will say that, generally, I'm writing on the subject of tradition, specifically as it appears in the writings of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and the theologian Yves Cardinal Congar, as there is some overlap in their thought. I have refrained from discussing the subject of my master's thesis in this space, both because I'm not quite far along enough to share succinctly any blog-sized bites of it, and because many things I might share would require several posts' worth of introduction in order to be appreciated. So I have spared you.

But, I just ran across a paragraph in Congar's master work Tradition and Traditions that touches upon the perpetually vexing subject of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition which I thought was worth sharing and briefly reflecting upon. Congar notes
           “a consistent pattern in God’s actions: namely, the proceeding by means of pairs or doublets. The more I think of this, the more I am persuaded that there is in this recurrent pattern something very profound, a kind of rule of the divine Poetics, of which the antiphonal form of the inspired poetry of the Hebrew Bible appears as a kind of reflection. Why are there man and woman, father and mother, why two sides of the body, two eyes, two hands, etc.? Why two Testaments, Law and Grace, and communion under two kinds? Why are there in the physical world, a negative and a positive pole? Could this not be a sign that, according to the structure of God’s plan, one reality must always be complemented in another, and by another? God is Communion in unity, Unity in plurality. Must plenitude be realized in his creation only in a fusion of the one and the many? Why had there to be two witnesses to assure the validity of a testimony, and why was this testimony, as a result, decisive? Is it not because there exists at the heart of reality a kind of structure of things based on duality in unity, agreement and completeness in difference? I think so, and I believe also that this is an element of tradition which is rarely noticed, but everywhere presupposed, and that it is a fact which could explain much in the monuments of this same tradition. The Reformation kept, or re-established, eucharistic communion under both kinds; it was not wrong in doing that. But there exists also a communion with the Gospel under the two kinds—of the text, and of life in the Church. That communion, too, needs to be kept or re-established.” (374-75)
This is a beautiful and deep exposition of something I've heard from many a Catholic apologist: the "both/and" principle. One could say that virtually every heresy in the Church's history has been a result of isolating some part of the truth away from the whole. Christ's humanity alone! Christ's divinity alone! God is really one! God is really three! Scripture alone! Faith alone! And so on. But the truth is found when we discover that these are not mutually exclusive contraries, but halves of a whole. Both divinity and humanity are present in their fullness in Christ. Both Scripture and Tradition present us with God's revelation. Both faith and works are required for salvation. Both nature and grace persist in the individual. Both Trinity and Unity are necessary ways of describing God. We need both.

Call it the Deion Sanders principle of theology.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Welcome to the World, Little Man!

I am sitting in the glider rocker I bought my wife for Christmas, typing this on my phone with one hand and holding my newborn baby boy in the other. 

He was born the evening of Palm Sunday, and in keeping with the liturgical color for the day, he was wearing red when he made his appearance. A birth during Holy Week is profoundly fitting, for what could be more Christ-like than someone going through pain and blood out of love for another to give new life to that person? A love having the depth and magnitude of that of a parent for a child could only be of God, who is himself Love. 

He is a little miracle, as we all are--a "great might-not-have-been," as Chesterton said--and the miracle is no less miraculous for being numerous, as with the feeding of the 5,000. At the moment of conception, God created life by infusing this newly-formed being with a rational soul, capable of knowing and loving him. It was a deeply sacred instant. 

And now, after months of preparation for his public debut, here he is, a perfect little man, with his mother's cheekbones, my nose, and Kirk Douglas's chin. He has so much to experience and to learn: basketball and Latin and meal times that aren't 3am. 

And soon he will be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and become a new man--not bad for one so little! God bless you, baby boy. Daddy and Mommy love you.