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Mother Theresa’s diaries

The Italian publisher of Mother Theresa’s letters and diaries seems to be putting out some teasers: Mother Teresa’s diary reveals her crisis of faith. Still, she became such a symbol that it does seem doubtful she was exactly as portrayed and as people wanted her to be. It will be interesting to find out more about her. I wonder when the English translation will come out? (I also wonder what language she kept her diary in—Albanian?)


The Pope on immigration

The Pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (“To Overcome Racism, Xenophobia and Exaggerated Nationalism”) is in one sense typical—it follows the line all respectable Christian religious leaders now follow—but in another sense quite extraordinary:

  • He speaks of “undocumented migrants” as among “the most vulnerable of foreigners,” of “the Christian duty to welcome whoever comes knocking out of need,” of “true acceptance of immigrants in their cultural diversity,” and of “Christ, who through us wishes to continue in history and in the world his work of liberation from all forms of discrimination, rejection, and marginalization.”
  • He “urge[s] Catholics to excel in the spirit of solidarity towards newcomers among them.” “Such openness builds up vibrant Christian communities.” Therefore, “Christians must struggle to overcome any tendency to turn in on themselves.” He further points out that “if newcomers feel unwelcome as they approach a particular parish community because they do not speak the local language or follow local customs, they easily become ‘lost sheep’. The loss of such ‘little ones’ for reasons of even latent discrimination should be a cause of grave concern to pastors and faithful alike.”
  • He further requests that Catholics work with other ecclesial communities to create “societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed.”
  • He notes, however, that “solidarity does not come easily. It requires training and a turning away from attitudes of closure, which in many societies today have become more subtle and penetrating. To deal with this phenomenon, the Church possesses vast educational and formative resources at all levels. I therefore appeal to parents and teachers to combat racism and xenophobia by inculcating positive attitudes based on Catholic social doctrine.”

What does all this add up to?

First, it appears that every country should have open borders. If they aren’t open, some migrants will be undocumented and therefore become the special objects of hospitality and care. But if we have to welcome and care for them anyway, why not make it official and give all comers papers at the border?

Second, the flood of immigrants should be welcomed by local communities just as they are, and truly accepted in their cultural diversity. No boundaries of any kind may be drawn, because even the hint of a boundary would be latent discrimination. The Catholic Church should use its vast resources to inculcate such attitudes, and work with others to spread them through society generally. That, as all “social concerns” bureaucrats agree, is the prophetic function of the Church.

But what of the local culture? The Pope “also invite[s] the immigrants to recognize the duty to honor the countries which receive them and to respect the laws, culture, and traditions of the people who have welcomed them.” So it appears the net effect is to be a world without boundaries of any kind, in which each is equally present to all others and each respects and honors the particularities of all.

By calling for such a thing the Pope is saying nothing new but simply repeating with his usual intellectual and moral fervor the view all official moral teachers hold today. What he and other moral teachers leave unexplained, however, is how the particularities that are to be honored will be able to exist as anything but individual idiosycrasies in a world utterly without boundaries in which no culture is authoritative because each is equally present and equally honored.

The short answer is that they won’t. A culture is a particular complex of habits, understandings and loyalties that are normative although mostly unstated among a particular group of people. As such, it requires boundaries. A culture can exist as a culture only among a group of people who have grown into it together and feel that among themselves they can take it for granted. Such conditions cannot exist in a group that feels obligated to be utterly and continuously open to numerous new arrivals, avoiding even latent discrimination, and called to honor them in all their otherness.

What the Pope is calling for is therefore not the honoring of culture but the abolition of culture by the abolition of every social setting in which any particular culture can exist. Can that be right? A culture is a mode of being human, and is always particular. Because man is a social animal, participation in culture—and therefore in a particular culture—is necessary for a fully human life. If it weren’t needed, why all the talk in the Church about “inculturation”?

The odd thing is that the Pope seems to understand the problem. He says “The path to true acceptance of immigrants in their cultural diversity is actually a difficult one, in some cases a real Way of the Cross.” He’s quite right. The Way of the Cross is the way of giving up everything we have and by which we live. The proposed approach to migration does involve something rather like that.

I suppose the question I would put as a citizen is whether something that involves the Way of the Cross—whatever its spiritual benefits for a man like the Pope—can be justified as public policy. Because it seems to me that as a practical matter the destruction of particular culture is much less likely to lead to the vibrant communities of which the Pope speaks than to tyranny, brutishness and mutual hatred.


The bishops on Iraq

I’m dubious too about the projected war with Iraq, although the reason may be that I know so little about the situation. Still, it’s important to sort through the issues rationally. With that in mind, it seems to me that the definition of “just cause” as a case in which “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain” [emphasis added] shouldn’t be treated as if it dealt adequately with all situations. Taken in a formulaic way, it’s not persuasive.

A formulation of “just war” doctrine has to depend on the nature of war, and that changes. It matters that travel is easy today, that bacteriological warfare and suitcase A-bombs have become possibilities, and that war between states can now be carried on through shadowy informal associations as well as directly.

Under such circumstances the possibilities become infinite. The immediate threat of violence—pointing a gun at someone to force him to do something—would I think constitute aggression. What if it weren’t certain the threat would be carried out? How about the implicit threat that if we don’t play ball something very bad might plausibly happen to us in the near future? What if a tyrant found he could get his way in the world—could engage in gross injustice with impunity—because of the known risk he had created by acquiring atomic weapons, his known willingness to stop at nothing to get his way, and perhaps the difficulty of tracing what had happened if one went off somewhere? What if it seemed likely a tyrant was about to put himself in that position?

It seems hard to draw clear lines under present circumstances. That’s bothersome, because it makes it harder to exclude horrible things. Still, I’m not sure what one can do but try to think through the issues as well as possible. The bishops can make a contribution to public affairs by dispassion, by placing things in a different perspective, or in some cases (especially if they have personal credibility) simply by pointing out the obvious and making an issue of it. They can’t do that though if they use formulations that don’t respond to actual serious concerns about the specific situation presented. And saying the war’s unjust because certainty of damage happens to be a requirement doesn’t seem to me helpful in this case.

On another point, the bishops say

In assessing whether “collateral damage” is proportionate, the lives of Iraqi men, women and children should be valued as we would the lives of members of our own family and citizens of our own country.

The lives of Iraqis are certainly as valuable as the lives of the members of my family. Still, I have a special obligation to look out for the well-being of the members of my family, and the American government has a special obligation to look out for the well-being of Americans. That principle must have some weight, although I would agree that in practice it’s not likely to be slighted.


Ens realissimum

“The question of whether God exists is less important than whether he is love.”

I’ve run into this a couple of times now on Catholic blogs and it really seems wrong to me. If we talk about God while putting his existence to one side a statement about his nature becomes a statement about our attitudes. What matters most is no longer God but our sentiments about him. That can’t be right, though.


The necessity of dogma, revelation and miracles

Dogma, the question of what we can know and what is real, is essential to religion. We can’t commit ourselves to what is nonexistent or utterly unknowable. We need God because we lack something, and what we lack must be supplied by something not ourselves. The God we need is therefore one who is real, who transcends us, and whom we know in some definite way. If God is not real, not knowable, or only a personification of our ideals, he can’t give us anything we don’t have already and so is useless to us.

For definite knowledge of a God who transcends us neither myth nor philosophy is enough. We need a God who reveals himself, one whose revelation is not a theory or an image but a fact. A transcendent God can be known only by his own action, and thus as a person who does things. Hence the concreteness of Catholic belief and its embodiment in a story of divine acts whose truth is more than symbolic: God revealed himself at a particular time and place in the form of a particular man who did and said surprising things, who suffered, died and was raised bodily from the dead, and who set up a concrete way for his effective presence in the world to continue.


Books with the inside dope on right-wingers

I’ve been reading or paging through a couple of books critical of antiliberal Catholics: Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei, by Robert A. Hutchison, and Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism, by Michael W. Cuneo. Both give some interesting background info, although the first seems rather over-the-top and therefore I suppose unreliable (the author views the death of JP I and election of JP II as a right-wing assassination/coup d’etat), and the second takes a point of view that seems very odd to me—the author explicitly accepts an attitude toward religion that is consumerist to a point that I would consider cynical, and then lumps the most ill-assorted people together as representatives of something he calls “Catholic fundamentalism” because they all reject that attitude in favor of something more transcendent and authoritative. Still, he writes clearly, he’s done a lot of interviewing and research, he tries to be accurate and (within limits) fair, and if like me you don’t care about the Bayside apparitions or self-styled popes you can skip those sections.


These things are secondary

All roads lead to Rome. Looking at what I’ve posted on Metanoia it seems my own road has been more through metaphysics, ethics and law than anything else. All of which are important and even necessary things but somewhat ancillary. They point beyond themselves and set the stage so that the real work can begin.


Current reading

I’ve started reading Jonathan Kwitny’s Man of the Century, which seems a competent account of the Pope’s life by a very industrious New York journalist well-known as an investigative reporter. The author’s basic outlook is that of a mainstream New York journalist—my guess is that he’s a secular Jew—but he admires the Pope and has no special ax to grind. He mostly likes digging out the “real story”—puncturing myths, and discovering little-known connections between his subject and other men and events. All of which makes the book an interesting read, if not necessarily something to swallow in all respects.

I had had no idea of the extent of Wojtyla’s involvement in theater, his success as a pre-marital counsellor, or his leanings toward contemplation and asceticism. It all makes the way he acts as Pope more comprehensible: the love of large audiences, the interest in establishing contact and finding common ground with everyone everywhere, and the utter confidence that one can do that without danger of losing focus. Very likely that really is true of the Pope, but I still can’t help but think that the all-things-to-all-men approach can create problems for the Church as a whole. It seems that most of us not-so-saintly-or-ascetic types do better with clearer definitions, boundaries and limits. Such, at any rate, is one lawyer’s view.

[ADDENDUM: further reading discloses that Kwitny does have some axes to grind, mostly having to do with the Reagan administration, U.S. foreign policy, capitalism and so on. As a result, he spends a lot of time on things I don’t want to spend time on, and he’s further handicapped by a tendency to reduce things to the dimensions of his journalist’s world. Also, his comments on disciplinary and doctrinal matters evidently reflect the influence of a “prominent theologian who has asked to remain anonymous,” who “donated enormous time” to the book—presumably for a reason. Still, Kwitny does make an effort to control partisanship in the interests of fairness and accuracy, you don’t have to read every page or take the interpretations seriously, and the strictly biographical materials in the first half of the book remain quite interesting.]


Why bother with Catholicism?

The obvious reason to become a Catholic is that you accept the claim of the Church to be a divine institution meant for all men, yourself included. A lot goes into that claim—what the world is like, how the Church fits into it, Church doctrine, ritual, organization, history, and what not else. One can discuss such things forever.

Conversion has a subjective side as well, though. What is it in us that makes us feel the need for the Church? No doubt the answer is that man is naturally social and ordered toward God, so he can be what he is only in society and by reference to God. Still, a defective relation to God and man shows up different ways in different times and people. Here are some thoughts about the situation today, at least among many people:

  • Most people don’t seem to feel the need to be saved from their sins any more. That feeling depends on knowledge that there is an objective moral order from which we have fallen. The knowledge is natural, but it can be suppressed by habitual dissipation or bad education. Modern life multiplies dissipations, and modern education makes objective moral order seem incomprehensible.
  • So what we experience today is a lack of objective moral order. “Do what you want,” within the limitations imposed by the equal authority of all other wills, is the highest law. “What you want” is no guide at all, however, to someone who’s asking what it makes sense to do, what he owes to himself and others, or what will give him the enduring satisfaction of having done what is right.
  • It seems to us then that the world has no meaning apart from what we give it. The problem though is that we can’t create meaning. At most we can pursue pleasure, fall into obsession, submit to the desire of others, or try somehow to divert our attention from our situation. None of those things satisfies us. Further, we can’t really believe things have no meaning. As a result, we come to feel that our whole way of life is not simply directionless but radically misdirected in a way we can’t identify or put right. Hence the appeal and power of radical ideologies like the politically correct liberalism now dominant.
  • A world that means nothing can be nothing that matters to us. But to the extent the world becomes unreal we become unreal as well, and without a relation to a real world and real others language becomes meaningless. In the end we cannot even talk about our situation in ways that can be understood. We end blind, deaf and dumb.
  • What Catholicism does for us today is give us back the world and ourselves. Incarnation fills the world with ordered meaning. The Real Presence decisively connects us to that ordered meaning and so makes it possible for us to be really present to each other and to ourselves. We know we are connected to other men through our common incorporation in the mystical Body of Christ. And the capacity of language to state truth, without which it could not carry determinate meaning, is guaranteed by the doctrine of infallibility.

The Pater noster

I have no piercing insights on the Lord’s Prayer, but I should try to get my thoughts a bit more straight on the subject, so here are some reflections. (I’ll use the Latin version because it’s more Popish and so more in line with the blog’s theme.)

Pater noster, qui es in caelis,

It’s “our” Father—the prayer is essentially a prayer of the Church. (I wonder if anyone’s ever tried praying it in the singular? That would seem very odd. I wonder though why unless you’re ICEL it’s “I believe” in the Nicene Creed.)

Jesus addressed God as Father, and here he tells us to do so as well. That’s rather a change from the “I AM THAT I AM” of Moses, but it seems fitting for a religion of Incarnation (and therefore immediate personal relationship) as opposed to a religion of Law. God nonetheless remains transcendent and therefore distant—he’s in Heaven, which means he’s not here in any obvious way. The father who is also God in Heaven is a paradox, and the need to resolve the paradox sets up a dynamism that motivates the rest of the prayer.

sanctificetur nomen tuum.

So first and foremost, God’s name should be holy. Makes sense—it’s not obvious how we can speak of God at all, but if we can’t we’ve got big problems because it means we’re shut up in the closed circle of our own conceptions and experiences. We’ll never get anywhere. So it’s a very good and important and utterly basic thing that we can name God. (I wonder how this fits into speculations about “anonymous Christians”? Don’t know enough about them to say.)

Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.

Here the dynamism is expanded. God’s our father, he’s also in Heaven, since we can name him he has a foothold here and we have one in Heaven, and Christianity is about expanding those footholds and resolving the paradox.

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo.

So here’s how some immediate practical issues that come up in bringing Heaven and earth together get resolved. There’s a great deal of Christian morality packed into those lines: simplicity and purity of life, reliance on God, humility and forgiveness. All of which makes sense—you don’t resolve paradoxes by forcing through complicated schemes that you’ve cooked up. You have to accept God’s way of dealing with things.


Liturgy old and new

We continue to go through Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy in “RCIA” (in fact, it’s a one-priest/one student affair). I found the historical discussion fascinating, for example with regard to the traditional orientation of Christian prayer to the East because of the association of the rising sun with Christ.

It seems to me that the loss of the sense of that cosmic dimension in the West, which apparently took place in the Middle Ages, goes along with other changes Ratzinger mentions: the change from the image of Christ Pantocrator to that of Christ suffering on the Cross, and the greater emphasis on the reserved sacrament. If focus shifts from the cosmic, mystical and eschatological to the concrete everyday world around us while the faith remains the same, our relation to the faith will change. In particular, we will look for the presence of God more in the confusion and disorder of life—in the extreme, in the midst of horrible crimes and calamities—than in the order of the cosmos, and we will find his presence in the transformed Bread and Wine more startling and worthy of note. The change from standing to kneeling and in the manner of receiving communion would be part of the same transformation. The general understanding of the world had changed in a way that made God seem farther away, so more special observances were needed so we could see him as present.

All of which makes me wonder what recent liturgists were thinking when they responded to an increased orientation toward concrete everyday things by doing away with everything that had developed in response to the initial shift in that direction during the Middle Ages. The Bread and Wine are indeed for eating and not for looking, and the point of eating them is that they transform us, but that isn’t likely to happen unless we know and feel what’s going on, and it seems to me a lot more is necessary to make the point to us today than was needed in Patristic times. You can’t persuade people today that bread and wine are the very Body and Blood of God just by saying so. The effect of moving bits and pieces of pre-Medieval liturgies to modern times, when men’s sense of the cosmic and eschatological has long evaporated, is radically to secularize the liturgy and thus teach a different faith.

One of the things that always drew me to the Catholic Church was the crucifix over the altar. It seemed to me that if they put that there then they were a church that knew that absolutely horrible things happened, took them seriously, and thought they had a way to make sense of them. That made me feel they were on to something important that other people didn’t know about. The notion of mass as a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice that is at the center of spiritual life had the same effect on me. The Church tells us how to find God when it seems God is absent. Part of its answer is not to conform yourself to the world’s way of thinking. It seems to me though that to make an alternative way of thinking real to 21st century Americans takes some doing. What we need is what we lack. It follows, I think, that liturgy that imitates how we habitually live is basically mistaken.


Those dang liberal heretics

Here’s a link to a couple of comments I made at another blog I maintain in which I bring back the theory of contemporary advanced liberalism as a gnostic heresy. I suppose it’s not exactly gnosticism, though. The gnostics (it is said) believed this world is evil, while liberals as liberals believe only that it meaningless, that it has no meaning apart from the meanings we project upon it.


In defense of essences

Now there’s a title that should make this entry even more crowd-pleasing than others I’ve posted recently. Still, I feel the need to mull over some basics, and those who get bored can skip entries.

Anyway, “essentialism” is considered a big sin among a lot of educated and intelligent people today. It seems to be the belief that big complicated things like orthodoxy or Islam or femininity have a coherent enduring character such that one can make statements like “Islam is by nature militant and intolerant” or “Christian orthodoxy excludes female priests.” If you say such things you’ll be told that there are many Islams, orthodoxies and conceptions of femininity and the priesthood, so your decision to choose one of them and make it the standard depends on your purposes and—since standards aim to control human relations and conduct—is essentially political and should be judged as such.

An easy response to the objection is that it proves too much. If words mean what one chooses, and there’s no right or wrong but only politics in the matter, then communication becomes impossible. Manipulative rhetoric recognized as such becomes useless. If I know that a reputed expert won’t use “Islam” to mean anything but “religion of peace,” so that the only meaning of “jihad” he will admit is a struggle for justice and understanding that on further inquiry turns out to be identical with liberalism, I’ll simply stop paying attention to what he says. The same holds for those who simply refuse to use words that everyone else finds useful, for example who won’t use “orthodoxy” without putting it in quotation marks.

So in order to talk meaningfully about the social world in which we find ourselves we have to accept that even words as big as “Islam” and “orthodoxy” have some stable meaning. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t use them. Still, the question arises how that can be and what sort of meaning that is. After all, aren’t such things collections of diverse materials, all of which can vary greatly?

One answer is that any functional complex has an internal dynamic that constantly tries to maintain and restore stability and coherence. That is obviously true of a living being, but it’s also true of species of living beings. Species don’t blend gradually into each other, geographically or in the fossil record. Each constitutes a particular stable mode of being alive that resists further change after fairly narrow limits are reached, and tends to restore itself to its original form when special distorting influences (for example, selective breeding) are removed. Even less definite wholes, such as ecologies, demonstrate similar tendencies. If you set up an aquarium, micro-organisms in the water will initially fluctuate wildly but soon establish an equilibrium that resists further change. Such a result is to be expected. The situation that can not only establish but maintain and restore itself is the one that in the end will prevail. We should therefore expect to live in a world ordered by stable patterns of relationships with particular qualities.

So how about cultures, philosophies, religions, and so on? These are particular ways of understanding the world, of organizing action, of establishing relations with other men and with things above and below mankind, of being human. They have names that those within and without have always found useful, and that endure for centuries with no feeling that the thing named has changed identity. They inspire loyalty and sometimes ultimate self-sacrifice. People think they are particular things with a definite character, and that belief is basic to how most of us carry on life. What great philosophical discovery has been made that proves that everybody’s wrong? And if there has been no such discovery, why not go on believing that cultures, religions and what not are indeed particular things that are definite and stable enough that some descriptions are correct and some are simply incorrect?


Active participation

I wonder whether what these women are doing in Piero’s Discovery and Proof of the True Cross constitutes “full, conscious, and active participation”? One guy’s doing everything, everyone else is just watching, and he’s not paying the slightest attention to the audience or even facing them. I call it hopelessly bad liturgy.


So what now?

So now that I’ve decided that Christ is a sign of contradiction and that we should “accept and pass on to others the whole of the truth that sets men free,” what next? Sounds hugely ambitious. Still, everything has to be put in its setting and grand plans do that. And I suppose the idea of the Church is that I’m not the only one involved, even though Vatican II—which certainly didn’t get everything wrong—says that I as a layman have a definite role to play.


Religion left and right

A look around the net confirms that mainstream and liberal religion is instinctively left-wing, traditional and orthodox religion right-wing. The exceptions usually seem a little artificial, more a matter of sticking with a theory than immediate unselfconscious perception of how things are.

I suppose the reason things sort out that way is that both mainstream liberal religion and the Left accept the ideal of comprehensive control and reconstruction of human experience for human purposes while orthodoxy and the Right don’t. I expect orthodoxy to be the more durable outlook. Apart from the question whether we’ll really be able to control our world enough to ignore the things that are beyond our control, it’s not clear why the Left needs religion. If the idea is that man is going to create a fully human world why not just do it?


Modernity and Christ

The great contribution religion can make to us today is to liberate us from the chains of modernity. “Religion today must speak to modern man” is true the way “religion in a jail must speak to prisoners” is true. Fundamentally, modernity is an attempt to abolish the transcendent and reconstruct the world as a system men can fully understand and control for their own purposes. Thus, the supreme achievement of modernity, modern natural science, makes knowledge a matter of standardized public observation and control. To the extent that something can’t be quantified, verified by reproducible experiment and explained by reference to uniform mathematical relationships among operationally-definable properties, it’s not knowledge but preference. A consequence is that the realm of “values”


The Romish Bible in the Romish tongue

I’ve been reading Matthew in the Vulgate and rather like it. The Latin is simple—the vulgar tongue after all—and familiarity with it helps with the language of the Tridentine mass. Also, it means something that the words are words that some people in the Palestine of Jesus’ time might have used. It seems to bring me closer to the events when they are talked about in ways that they might have been talked about then.


Congar in The Tablet

Some interesting background on Vatican II: Diary of an insider (the “insider” was Yves Congar).

I have no knowledge of Congar or his views, but gather that one objection he made to the pre-Vatican II situation was over-centralization. I agree with that. All I’d add is that if centralization is the problem reform-from-above and rule by experts, as exemplified by the New Mass, are not the answer. If coherence is to be maintained, the obvious alternative to bureaucratic command-and-control is greater emphasis on tradition. That’s what all enduring religious communities that lack something like the papacy rely on—the Eastern Orthodox, the Jews and the Muslims, for example.

Another thing I get from the piece is that it’s unclear why there’s more need for me to “believe in” Vatican II than for Cardinal-to-be Congar to “believe in” Pius IX or XII. On strategic and tactical matters, it seems generally admitted, the Church can make catastrophic mistakes.


What sorts of things are there?

The function of Catholic dogma is mostly the description of a world in which Christian morality is the natural way of acting. So conversion has its theoretical side. The world should look different. A couple of random thoughts on what that might mean:

  • Putting God—an objective reality radically other than oneself—at the center of things, and the assumption that in the end things are in his hands, should give one a greater concern for truth. Since God made the world you don’t have to force anything to be other than what it is. You should try to know them as they are. Some say that the consequence has been the self-demolition of Christianity as new truths overthrew old dogmas. Still, it seems to me that the demolition of Christianity has been a result not of concern for truth but of an attempt to make man as the standard, which has led to a refusal to recognize as truth anything we can not fully possess.


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