One of the greatest theological diseases we find in contemporary Catholicism is pelagianism, the notion that we’re all basically good people whose moral improvement and salvation is the result of our good actions. In this mindset, God’s grace becomes less consequential because it’s less necessary. At its heart, Christianity is about doing good things.
Throughout history, great theologians have combated pelagianism: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and, in our own time, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Benedict XVI. They have reminded us that, at its heart, Christianity is a love story in which God seeks us out and draws us closer to himself. The first move belongs to God, and any real good we do is a gift from him, enshrouded with his own love. In this understanding, God’s grace has the primacy and priority.
It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.
As we hear God’s call to evangelize and serve, we do so mindful that we are responding to a gift received. We are no longer our own, and we no longer operate by our own powers. But the more we respond, by grace, to the grace that we have been given, the more grace grows in us, making us more and more alive.
On Wednesday, in his General Audience, the pope drove the point home further. He reminds us that God’s grace seeks us out before we seek him out, that God’s love and action are prior to our own:
God did not wait for us to go to Him, but He moved towards us, without calculation, without measures. This is how God is: He is always the first, He moves towards us. . . .
God always thinks with mercy: do not forget this. God always thinks with mercy: our merciful Father. God thinks like a father who awaits the return of his child and goes to meet him, sees him coming when he is still far away . . . What does this mean? That each and every day he went out to see if his son was coming home. This is our merciful Father. It is the sign that he was waiting for him from the terrace of his house; God thinks like the Samaritan that does not approach the victim to commiserate with him, or look the other way, but to rescue him without asking for anything in return, without asking if he was Jew, if he was pagan, a Samaritan, rich or poor: he does not ask anything—he does not ask these things, he asks for nothing. He goes to his aid: This is how God thinks. God thinks like the shepherd who gives his life to defend and save his sheep.
Let us approach Holy Week, then, mindful that we approach a God who first approached us, a Father whose exquisite mercy we need desperately, who gives us abundantly that mercy and grace without which we can do nothing of everlasting importance.
Maundy Thursday, like Palm Sunday, begins in joy and ends in sorrow. The music of Maundy Thursday usually recounts the events of the Last Supper, the foot-washing, the discourses found in the Gospel of John, the betrayal, and Jesus’ arrest. Orlando di Lasso’s “In Monte Oliveti” focuses with sad beauty on the solitary time when Jesus prayed alone in the garden, overcome by the horror of what he was about to take on, yet full of that humble abandonment and receptivity that lie at the heart of all the Christian mysteries.
In monte Oliveti ad patrem oravit:
Pater si fieri potest transeat a me calix iste.
Spiritus quidem promptus est caro autem infirma.
Fiat voluntas tua.
Verumtamen non sicut ego volo, sed sicut tu vis.
Fiat voluntas tua.
On the Mount of Olives he prayed to his Father:
“Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Let your will be done.
Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,
Let your will be done.”
It is a widespread opinion, confirmed by numerous testimonies, that the intention of electing pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew substantially among the cardinals on the morning of Saturday, March 9, when the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires spoke at the second to last of the congregations – covered by secrecy – that preceded the conclave.
Now the notes he used have become public. They show Francis’ first priority, one that made him favorable in the eyes of his colleagues: evangelization.
1) Evangelizing implies apostolic zeal. Evangelizing presupposes in the Church the “parresia” of coming out from itself. The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographical, but also existential: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, those of ignorance and of the absence of faith, those of thought, those of every form of misery. . . .
4) Thinking of the next Pope: a man who, through the contemplation of Jesus Christ and the adoration of Jesus Christ, may help the Church to go out from itself toward the existential peripheries, that may help it to be the fecund mother who lives “by the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
The age of evangelical Catholicism has come indeed. For all the problems we face in the Church and in the world, it’s a very good time to be Catholic.
William Cornysh served as a court composer to Henry VIII. While he wrote liturgical works, he also set the poem “Woefully Arrayed” to music for domestic use and private devotion. The music and words are well worth pondering as the Passion approaches. This recording comes from the excellent young ensemble Stile Antico and their new CD Passion & Resurrection.
My blood, man for thee ran, it may not be nayed;
My body, blo and wan;
“Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Christians use the phrase so often because it captures so well one of the foundational principles of our faith. Usually we think it means loving those whose actions we think are wrong, but not in gravest sense: He is sleeping around, she says nasty things about people; he doesn’t pay his employees enough, she is arrogant—but we love them despite it.
What about the most horrifying sins, though? Today it was announced that Pope Francis will celebrate the Mass for Holy Thursday not at St. Peter’s, before thousands of pilgrims, but at a juvenile prison, in keeping with his custom as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Many times we think of juvenile criminals as good kids in a bad system: If they’d grown up in a better place, with more money, with parents who loved them, they would have turned out differently. In many cases, that is, no doubt, true. But, Simcha Fisher notes, sometimes the people in juvenile prisons are rapists who thought they could get away with it. Sometimes there is no excuse good enough for their deeds.
We do not know the names of the prisoners whose feet Pope Francis will wash and kiss in a week’s time. Nor do we know why they are in prison. But, wherever they are that night, Christians will keep in mind the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners, some of whom, no doubt, did deeply wicked things. They will remember the man who washed the feet of those who would soon abandon him, and, in one case, betray him with a kiss. It used to be that those received into the pope’s presence bent down and kissed his foot. Now the pope bends down and kisses the feet of prisoners.
Hate the sin, love the sinner. Many times it means looking beyond the faults of those around us, or loving those being punished for crimes they unthinkingly committed. It is staggering, almost horrifying, to think that it might mean washing the feet of murderers and rapists as well.
Many fans of the TV series Downton Abbey may have wondered about the source of the turns and twists of plot, the historical inaccuracy and stunning anachronisms, the clashing strains of progressivism and traditionalism all present in the show. Just as with the apparent contradictions in Scripture, it turns out that good source criticism can lead us beyond the traditional construct of a single author to a deeper understanding of the historical Jesus or, in this case, Downton. Betsy Childs of Beeson Divinity School blazes the trail:
Readers familiar with the period drama Downton Abbey will have encountered it in final form as broadcast by PBS to an American audience. It is widely assumed that the screenplay for the mini-series was written by one Julian Fellowes of Dorset. This mistaken assumption, though promiscuously propagated by the press, evinces a lack of sufficient attention paid to the uneven, at times contradictory, nature of the narrative. It is patently obvious to this author and to those of a critical ilk that the so-called Downton Abbey storyline is the product of multiple authors with several different aims. . . .
This author proposes that there are at least three redactors behind the wildly popular series. These three authors do not, by any means, correspond to the three distinct seasons. These authors each redacted an original body of material, though it is unclear whether the alterations took place successively or simultaneously. We will call these authors the Aristocrat, the Moralist, and the Progressive.
In perhaps the most unexpected commentary on Benedict XVI’s legacy, the U.K.’s liberal Guardian has a fashion column on the significance of Benedict’s sartorial and liturgical choices. And they get it exactly right:
The root of his need to rediscover some of the more traditional, even baroque, elements of papal dressing can be traced back to the great liturgy gear-change of 1965, when the phase known as Vatican II, a period of modernisation aimed at reconnecting the Vatican to Catholics worldwide, came to an end. . . .
This meant the dumping of all tassels, trimmings and most decoration on vestments. Highly theatrical robes were considered too outre. Out went anything that made church leaders look like Cardinal Richelieu. As a priest friend of mine puts it: “The Church processed into the second Vatican council in cloth of gold and watered silk, and shambled out of the other end in drip-dry horse blankets and polyester.” Pope Paul VI even sold off the papal tiara, a three-tiered, egg-shaped adornment that made our imperial state crown look like something from Lidl.
Benedict’s desire to recapture the Church’s traditional liturgy and doctrine goes hand in hand with what he wore as pope. On his election in 2005, he wore Ming the Merciless-style vestments left over from John Paul’s administration, and after getting rid of his first master of ceremonies, Piero Marini, who had subjected him to a sort of blue dust-sheet for his first papal mass in Austria, he turned to Guido Marini (no relation) – an MC who understood the power of tradition. At a time of global economic uncertainty, and with the Church struggling to retain its flock in an increasingly secularised world, reinforcing tradition and underlining the continuity of ritual was a bold and, Benedict felt, necessary direction. . . .
[Benedict's] love of gothic vestments was about more than basic vanity; beauty and dignity reflect the splendour and mystery of liturgy. To Benedict this is God-focused rather than community-centred, as was favoured by the 1968 generation.
The bonus line comes right at the end with a wager on the next pope:
Fashion outsider? The magnificent former archbishop of St Louis, the American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. An appearance by him is the Catholic equivalent of a Broadway musical.
In the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Brooks calls on conservatives to care about the poor, and to make the public argument that what they believe and work for is good for the poor:
The answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.
Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien “bourgeois” morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.
By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.
One question that has always surrounded Benedict’s tenure as pope has been that of the sex-abuse scandals. In their assessment of his papacy, even otherwise friendly commentators, such as Ross Douthat, have said that he did not do enough to combat abuse, punish wrong-doers, and console victims.
In an interview with John L. Allen Jr., Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J., Vice-Rector of the Gregorian University, head of its Institute of Psychology, and a member of the “Round Table on Child Abuse” created by the German federal government, sets the record straight. He also describes the complexity of dealing with sexual abuse in various cultures and the steps that the Catholic Church is taking in Rome and around the globe.
Now that Benedict XVI is stepping down, how do you evaluate his legacy on the sexual abuse scandals?
Based on what I know personally, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he was the first person, and the most determined person, to take on what he called the ‘open wound’ in the body of the church, meaning the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. He came to know about a number of cases, and the intensity of the wounds inflicted on victims. He became aware of what priests had done to minors, and to vulnerable adults. As a result, he became more and more convinced that it has to be tackled, and at various levels he started to deal with it – the canonical level, the ecclesial, and the personal.
Benedict XVI is the first pope who has met with and listened to abuse victims, who has apologized, and who has written about the problem both in his letter to Irish bishops and in the book Light of the World.
One very important step was to concentrate all the legal and administrative procedures at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Another was to appoint a very intelligent, practical and dedicated man as Promoter of Justice.
You’re talking about Monsignor Charles Scicluna, now Bishop Scicluna in Malta?
Yes, Monsignor Scicluna, who was in that job for ten years. Now he’s appointed Father Robert Oliver [of the Boston archdiocese], which shows his resolution to go on – to do justice to the victims, to hold abusers within the church accountable, and to whatever can be done to promote prevention.
We had enormous support for the symposium on abuse last February by all the heads of the major offices in the Roman Curia – the Doctrine of the Faith, Propaganda Fide, Bishops, Education, the Secretariat of State. The Secretary of State wrote a letter to participants in which he quotes the pope. If you understand how Rome functions, all this could not have happened if there wasn’t a placet from above.
Other voices notwithstanding, and despite the bad image some people have created of the pope both as prefect and as Holy Father, he has been the most determined person to take this on. He’s been very encouraging for many people, including ourselves, to really face the issues and to try to do whatever can done to make sure that this evil within the church is acknowledged and is avoided as much as possible in the future.
Recently a friend introduced me to the Orlando di Lasso motet “Tristis Est Anima Mea,” a beautiful piece that captures in words and music the quiet, expectant sorrow of Lent and the coming sacrifice in which Christ is handed over to sinners for the salvation of sinners. The words are taken from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, right before the moment of his betrayal.
Tristis est anima mea usque ad mortem: sustinete hic, et vigilate mecum: nunc videbitis turbam, quæ circumdabit me: Vos fugam capietis, et ego vadam immolari pro vobis.
Ecce appropinquat hora, et Filius hominis tradetur in manus peccatorum.
My soul is sorrowful unto death:
stay here, and keep watch with me:
now you will see a crowd of men surround me.
You shall flee, and I will go to be sacrificed for you.
Behold the hour approaches, and the Son of man
will be handed over into the hands of sinners.
Here is a superb piece from one of the greatest theologians of the world on the work of another. John Milbank writes an extensive essay on Pope Benedict’s vision of love and politics. I would argue that he and (to a lesser extent) Benedict are more negative than they should be about capitalism and liberal democracy. That aside, the essay is well worth reading because it draws out the critical ideas of Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate, illuminating their complexity without compromising their clarity. The key paragraphs are below:
So agape is also eros. But for Benedict the inverse equally applies. In pagan religion eros was ecstasy, in the sense of mere self-intoxication which often involved the gross exploitation of women. By contrast, in the Hebraic Song of Songs the physically erotic is poetically intensified precisely because the erotic is now linked to preference for a single one, to fidelity and to commitment unto sacrificial death. Romance, one might say, is born here and not with the Greeks.
Nor – and here Benedict is particularly acute – does this represent any abandonment of ecstasy: rather the truly ecstatic is discovered in terms of a self-abandoning movement towards the other that is also a paradoxical self-realisation. Far from this being a banning of pleasure, it is rather the first discovery of real pleasure – including in a physical sense. (more…)
Garry Wills—whose latest book raises a call against the priesthood—claims that he can remain a Catholic while espousing the common doctrines of low-church Protestantism, without the theologically nuanced arguments that most low-church Protestants make. And he throws out the book of Hebrews. In the video below, Stephen Colbert takes him back to catechism class.
At Public Discourse, Peter Blair reviews Roger Scruton’s intriguing case for a conservative environmentalism:
In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”
The liberal vision supports a “salvationist” politics that shuts down risk-taking enterprises and seeks to insure people against the costs of risk-taking by collecting all power into a protective, centralized authority. While conservatives look to local or, at most, national institutions supported byoikophilia to counter threats and stabilize leadership, liberals rely on international regulation and borderless nongovernmental institutions (NGOs). They support organizations and movements structured around causes and campaigns, rather than civil associations that arise spontaneously out of a shared life. . . .
Scruton also defends environmental conservatism with arguments less often heard from American conservatives. Central to his case, for example, is his view that a local, voluntary, patriotic culture can motivate environmental care. Under local stewardship, people don’t defend the environment because they are on a global campaign to save the world. They defend it because they have thick ties to their home, and they want to keep their home safe and beautiful.
If we want to shrink the income and achievement gaps, we need to grow the vocabularies of our children. So writes E.D. Hirsch, one of the brightest lights in the world of educational theory:
Such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.
Piggybacking onto Joe Lindsley’s post, which captures Notre Dame so well, readers might enjoy G.K. Chesterton’s poem about Notre Dame football, reflecting on how the gladiatorial games were transformed by the coming of Christ. You can read the whole thing here, but the final stanzas are the best part:
Burns above the broad arena
Where the whirling centuries circle,
Burns the Sun-clothed on the summit, golden-sheeted, golden shod,
Like a sun-burst on the mountains,
Like the flames upon the forest
Of the sunbeams of the sword-blades of the Gladiators of God.
And I saw them shock the whirlwind
Of the World of dust and dazzle:
And thrice they stamped, a thunderclap; and thrice the sand-wheel swirled;
And thrice they cried like thunder
On Our Lady of the Victories,
The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the World.
“Queen of Death and Life undying
Those about to live salute thee;
Not the crawlers with the cattle; looking deathward with the swine,
But the shout upon the mountains
Of the men that live for ever
Who are free of all things living but a Child; and He was thine.”
Today on Public Discourse, Mark Regnerus speculates about the connection he found between men who support gay marriage and men who use pornography. Today’s pornography treats viewers to “a veritable fire-hose dousing of sex-act diversity.” Moreover, it doesn’t depict sex as making babies or an exclusive act of total self-gift. Therefore, Regnerus speculates, men who have seen sex frequently depicted that way might be more inclined to define marriage as something other than permanent, exclusive, and conjugal, or to reject marriage altogether. The results were telling: (more…)
Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.
“We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is,” argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. “It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.” . . .
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.
About a year before he died, Richard John Neuhaus did a small series of videos on vocational discernment and marriage. They present him at his finest and capture well the faith that fueled him in his life, priesthood, and public work, particularly a deep and abiding hope in God. Hope, he liked to say, was not optimism. Optimism is a matter of optics, of whether the world looks rosy or gray. Hope is the forward projection of the faith we have in God.
In the videos, Fr. Neuhaus notes that many young people approach marriage wanting to work it all out before they enter. They have a checklist of characteristics they think are essential in a spouse, and they want to get all the ducks in their own lives in a row before they take the plunge. As much as there is a place for prudence and consideration, however, we cannot live life by a checklist. Rather, Fr. Neuhaus reminds us, we must live in faith-based courage. We must have the courage to look at our own lives, messy and riddled with sin as they are, and commit ourselves to the loving care and providence of God. Courage, Neuhaus says, is the form that faith takes in the midst of anxiety, and we must look our anxiety in the face, make “the great ‘nonetheless,’” and cast off into the deep.
We can do this, Fr. Neuhaus argues, because marriage is God’s project before it’s our project. We do not create it out of whole cloth. Rather it is an institution, “the gift God has given for the right ordering of human loves in abiding fidelity to the gift of life and openness to the gift of new life.” Those who ask themselves whether they are prepared to embark on the adventure the Church proposes should freely admit that they are not prepared for it–but that’s okay, because it is not their problem. They are responding to an invitation to the Lord that requires wise discernment, yes, but that remains the Lord’s invitation.
Invitations require decisions. To decide, Fr. Neuhaus liked to say, comes from the Latin word decidere, to cut off. It means to say yes to something, and in so doing to say no to others. We are frequently afraid to decide because we might make the wrong decision, but we must make that great “nonetheless” nonetheless. After all, he reminds us, there is no mistake so great that we will no longer remain “abidingly in the hands of God.”
This year, the bees are back in the Exsultet. The Church’s prayer of rejoicing before the Paschal Candle never ceased to mention them in the Latin text, but the English translation omitted them for no good reason. Since the new translation of the Mass is more careful in rendering the Latin prayers into English, the bees are making a comeback. The chant reads:
This is the night of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels all wickedness,
washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.
Why care about the bees? First, they are a delightful poetic flourish. (more…)
Today in “A Stem Cell Report,” Rebecca Oas writes about yet another way in which we might be able to use ethically unproblematic stem cells‑in this case, from hair follicles‑for medical treatment. Again and again, it seems, scientists are finding actual cures that come from adult stem cells instead of undefined potential cures that come from destroyed embryos. The promise, it seems, lies more in adult stem cells than in embryonic ones.
Another indication of this, which few seem to have noted, is that two months ago, the Geron Corporation quietly ended the world’s first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells. The company did this citing costs as the primary reason. Apparently embryonic stem cell treatments would not be as lucrative as other projects. Not only that, the company’s stock had been dropping and has not recovered to what it was even last August. Though there is no way to tell, some doctors also speculate that there were clinical reasons for stopping the research. So said Dr. Daniel Salomon, associate professor in the department of molecular and experimental medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego: “This company would not walk away from this trial in the absence of an unexpected complication or safety concern, if there was any evidence that it was working.”
Financially and possibly clinically, therefore, embryonic stem cell research makes less sense, regardless of the question of its morality. That’s not to discount the ethics involved, but it is significant that the major player in the field has abandoned ship while more ethical projects continue to sail smoothly.
Everyone forgets Advent, Christians lament as they feel the assault of yet another holiday song on their battered spiritual senses. We seek ways of carving out a space for the preparation of our hearts. We want to find nooks in which to hide for contemplation, even if only for a bit. This year, I picked up a new book of daily meditations for Advent, Prepare the Way, by Dr. Ronald Thomas. First Things readers might know him as the husband of our favorite home-schooling poet, Sally Thomas, but he is also assistant professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College. A former Anglican and Methodist clergyman, Thomas crafts meditations that exhort without being preachy. They challenge the reader and lift him up. They don’t seek to plumb the depths of the great theological mysteries; rather, they offer a nugget to chew on throughout a busy day. Take, for example, his offering for one day last week: