Archive for November, 2009


Against The World But For The World

November 30, 2009

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

In a wonderful essay called Christ Without Culture, based on a lecture delivered at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus spoke to the relation of the Church to culture – borrowing on a title of  a book by H Richard Niebuhr. Reading selections follow along with links to posts that show this is a familiar theme on Paying Attention To The Sky.

The Big Picture
To look at the big picture of the relationship between Christ and culture is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a dizzying experience. Our most immediate cultural world is chiefly Europe and the Americas. We do well to keep in mind, however, that the majority of Christians, and the most expansive growth of the Christian movement, is today in the Global South, led by Catholics and those who are described as evangelicals and Pentecostals, although many indigenous movements do not fit easily into our familiar categories. Only God knows what world Christianity will look like a hundred years from now, and that is perhaps just as well.

Niebuhr’s Five Ways
Speaking of Christ and Culture will, for many, immediately bring to mind H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book of that title. Recall his typology of the ways in which the relationship between Christ and culture, meaning Christianity and culture, has been understood over the course of Christian history. Niebuhr suggests that there are essentially five ways:

(1) Christ against culture,
(2) the Christ of culture,
(3) Christ above culture,
(4) Christ and culture in paradox, and
(5) Christ transforming culture.

While Niebuhr’s typology is suggestive and therefore useful, it is also seriously misleading on several scores. I confess that, after some years, I stopped using it in classroom teaching when I found that I was spending more time in arguing with Niebuhr than in being guided by him.

Nevertheless, Niebuhr is certainly right that the questions of Christ and culture have been a constant in Christian history from the apostolic era to the present, and will be until Our Lord’s promised return in glory. Barrels of ink have been spilt in trying to define what is meant by culture, and I do not presume to have the final word on the subject. By culture I mean the historical ambiance, the social context, of ideas and habits, within which the Church proclaims and lives the gospel of Christ. This includes the dominant moral assumptions, the widely held aspirations, and the beliefs and behaviors that characterize economic, political, religious, and educational life, along with the institutions that reflect and support those habits, beliefs, and behaviors. One might go so far as to say that culture is to us what water is to fish; it is more assumed than analyzed.

American Culture
There is an American culture. Although the phrase is hotly contested, we speak of “the American way of life.” In a society so vast and various as ours, there are many subcultures and even countercultures. Indeed, the proponents of unbounded pluralism would persuade us that there is no longer an American culture; that what was American culture has been displaced by a maddening mix of subcultures and each of us lives in one subculture or another. Those who feel marginalized, constrained, or oppressed by the prevalent patterns of life in America tend to think this is a very good thing.

People who have a more comprehensive appreciation of world history, however, along with those who have the experience of living in other and very different societies, know that there is such a thing as American culture. Precisely in its being a capacious and hospitable culture with a marked respect for pluralism, it is American culture. Although it includes many non-Europeans, American culture is in the main an extension and reconfiguration of European culture, which is to say it is part of the culture of the West. And today it is the strongest and most vibrant part of the cultural tradition of the West. The challenge of Islam in its militant form of Jihadism powerfully reinforces our awareness that we are part of the West and, however ambiguously so, the Christian West.

A Sixth Way: Christ Without Culture
In addition to the above-mentioned five ways of framing the Christianity-and-culture relationship suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr — Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture — we might add a sixth way to his typology: Christ without culture. Now, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, “enculturated.” In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped. What then do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Church — and here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through time — can at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. In the “Christ without culture” model, that indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are incompatible with her gospel.

Saint Paul writes, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Worrying about the cultural conformity of Christianity is nothing new. Such worries are a staple in the history of Christian thought, from the third-century Tertullian’s defiant question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Kierkegaard’s withering critique of culturally domesticated discipleship, to Karl Barth’s emphatic Nein! thrown in the face of the Kulturprotestantismus that was the form taken by the “Christ of culture” model in liberal Protestantism. And, of course, there are today in America forms of principled nonconformity finding expression among both left-wing and right-wing Christians who would revive, at least in theological and moral rhetoric, a “Christ against culture” model, meaning most specifically Christ against American culture.

Religion Is A Bull Market
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort of another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is “authentic” or “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, but the fact is that this is the form — composed of myriad forms — of the Christian movement in our time and place.

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a bull market because it is now evident that homo religiosus, man in search of transcendent meaning, is irrepressible. The secularization theories that held sway over our high culture for three hundred years, ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, have been falsified by the very history to which they so confidently appealed. Or at least so it would seem. That form of Enlightenment rationalism confidently assumed the unstoppable progress of modernity. As people became more modern — meaning more enlightened and skeptical — religion would gradually wither away, or at least be confined to the sphere of privacy where it is hermetically sealed off and prevented from exercising cultural influence. In important respects, history is not turning out that way. I have already mentioned the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South. When China really opens up, it may seem that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Pope John Paul II’s vision of the twenty-first century as “the springtime of world evangelization.” And then there are other forms of religious resurgence, such as the newly assertive Islam mentioned earlier.

If one is inclined to put it in vulgar terms, one might say that this is a good time to be in the religion business. And yet the Enlightenment prognosis of secularization may not be falsified in its entirety. While religion is certainly not withering away, one may wonder whether, in its very flourishing, it is fulfilling the second part of the prognosis; namely, that the “Christ without culture” model is impotent, and quite prosperously happy in its impotence, when it comes to exercising cultural influence. In our society, there is a greater awareness of the public influence of religion than was the case more than twenty years ago when I published The Naked Public Square. But that awareness is almost entirely centered on the political influence of religious voters and activists, leading to alarmist cries of a threatening theocracy. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that Christianity in America is not challenging the “habits of the heart” and “habits of the mind” that dominate American culture, meaning both the so-called high culture and the popular culture.

Exploiting Habits of the Heart and Mind
On the contrary, some of the more flourishing forms of Christianity not only do not challenge those habits; they exhibit a wondrous capacity to exploit them, and thus to reinforce them. Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness and discontent with one’s circumstance in life is a disease; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries, is a dangerous indulgence. The entrepreneurial spirit has built empires of Christian books, Christian music, and entertainment mislabeled as worship, all of which creates the delusion of living in a vibrant Christian subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants think they are challenging — or at least escaping. As everything goes better with Coke, so everything goes better with Jesus, and, if that doesn’t work, there is always Prozac.

A False Evangelism
The fact that such religious enterprise presents itself as “evangelization” should not mislead us. Despite all the talk about a religious resurgence or revival, the percentage of the population characterized by a disciplined commitment to Christ, however that might be described, and by active engagement in Christian service to the Church and the world has not grown appreciably. At least I have seen no evidence to that effect. Rather, religious entrepreneurs are increasingly competing for niche markets within a stable population that prefers religion to Prozac, or prefers their Prozac with a panache of religion.

I do not wish to paint too grim a picture. There is, to be sure, the undeniable reality of the culture wars. There are Christians not only voting their moral convictions but, especially with respect to the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death, making truth claims and advancing arguments in terms of public reason aimed at engaging the centers of cultural influence. For instance, there is the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement issued last fall, “That They May Have Life.”  That is a welcome exception, but it is an exception.

A Stealth Christian Challenge?
The centers of cultural influence in this country do not recognize that they are being challenged by Christians, except for the allegedly theocratic challenge in electoral politics. They do not recognize that they are being intellectually, conceptually, and culturally challenged, in largest part because Christians are not persuasively articulating such a challenge. Their complaint is that Christians are trying to “impose their values” on them. They do not understand that we want to engage them in a civil argument about the possibility of moral truth, about what kind of people we are and should aspire to be, and therefore about how we ought to order our life together. They do not understand that because so few Christians understand and attempt to practice such engagement.

The Church Proposes
Engagement is very different from imposing one’s understanding of the truth on others. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II said, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” But what she proposes she believes to be truth. She proposes as a lover to the beloved, reflecting as she does the words of John 3:16 that “God so loved the world.” She proposes persistently, persuasively, and winsomely. Unlike an imposition, a proposal is not a conversation stopper but a conversation starter.

The Disenchanted World
Of course, it is true that many people will reject the proposal, and many will simply refuse to be engaged by it. They simply know that, no matter how winsomely proposed, the conversation with Christianity is but a cunningly disguised threat of imposition on their freedom. Their default position, so to speak, is one of methodological, if not metaphysical, atheism. Any reference to God or transcendent truth, any proposal associated with religion, and especially any proposal associated with Christianity is a threat to the autonomous self and to the achievements of a rigorously secularist modernity. They live in what Max Weber called “a disenchanted world,” and they are determined to keep it that way.

This is a mindset powerfully influential in our culture. Karl Marx spoke of those who control the commanding heights of economies, and so we may speak of those who control the commanding heights of culture. Even though they may be a minority of the population, they succeed in presenting themselves as “the mainstream” through their control of powerful institutions in the media, in entertainment, in the arbitration of literary tastes, in the great research universities and professional associations, and in the worlds of business and advertising that seek the approval of those who control the commanding heights of culture.

An Aside
(DJ: Elsewhere I have borrowed a conception of G. K Chesterton’s and called this mindset The Diabolists Among Us. In fact the inaugural post of Paying Attention To The Sky was written in support of Judea Pearl and railed against what I was calling an Age of Detached Tenderness – all part of the same phenomena.) 

A Minority of Diabolists
It is necessary but not sufficient to alert them to the fact that they are a minority by defeating them in electoral politics. Yet such alerts intensify their alarm that “The theocrats are coming!” They are thus reinforced in their determination to resist what they view as a populist uprising against the hegemony of their enlightened ways. On many questions pertinent to the right ordering of our public life, Christians view those who control the commanding heights of culture as political opponents, and they typically are that. While we view them as political opponents and engage them in fair battle, we must not view them personally as our enemies. Many of them may view us that way, because, for many of them, politics is the name of the game. It is the only game in town. But we know, or we should know, that politics is not enough.

Christ-Without-Culture Christians
The great contest is over the culture, the guiding ideas and habits of mind and heart that inform the way we understand the world and our place in it. Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture” are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.

Cultivating Christian Culture in the Catacombs
Christianity does indeed have its own culture, its own intellectual tradition, its own liturgy and songs, its own moral teachings and distinctive ways of life, both personal and communal. The Church must carefully cultivate that culture and, in times of severe persecution, cultivate it, if need be, in the catacombs. (Fr. Barron refers to this same thought here.) But that is not our time in America, although there are Christians who, embracing the model of “Christ against culture,” invite us to take refuge in the catacombs of their own imagining.

Against The World But For The World
A rich ecclesial culture, a distinctively Christian way of being in the world, sometimes finds itself positioned against the world as the world is defined by those who are hostile to the influence of the Church. But even when the Church is against the world, she is against the world for the world. “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” In season and out, whether the response is sympathetic or hostile, she proposes what Saint Paul at the end of I Corinthians 12 calls “a more excellent way.” The way proposed is not so much a message as a person, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but the revelation of man to himself. Those words of Gaudium et Spes were insistently repeated in the pontificate of John Paul the Great and have a prominent place in the teaching of Benedict XVI.

The Contentments of Subculture
The Christian proposal of a more excellent way is not just one option among others, although it must be freely chosen. Some years ago, in conversation with a prominent Anglican bishop in Britain, I asked how he would define the mission of the Church of England. After a pause for thought, he said, “I suppose I would say that the mission, so to speak, is to maintain the religious option for those who might be interested.” Needless to say, those who control the commanding heights of British culture do not feel threatened by that understanding of the Christian mission.

While religion flourishes here in America, it is largely of the Christ-without-culture variety. What in recent decades have been the distinctively Christian contributions that deserve to command the attention of the cultural gatekeepers of America? In literature and the arts, in music and entertainment, in political philosophy and the humanities, such contributions are few and far between. Distinctively Christian cultural products typically cater to the Christian market. They are not proposals of a more excellent way for American culture. Recently the Fox movie studio announced that it was inaugurating a new series of films under the label of FoxFaith. Does this indicate a growing Christian influence in our public culture? Perhaps so, but it is much more obviously a commonsensical capitalist decision to take advantage of the niche market that is the Christian subculture.

The “Christ without culture” model induces contentment with being a subculture. But, as I have suggested, Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it.

Religion As Private And Intensely Subjective
Many Christians, possibly most Christians, have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning. These dichotomies are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism. In what is called our high culture, this understanding of religion as private and intensely subjective was influentially depicted a hundred years ago in William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Early on in that work, James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In this understanding, church, community, doctrine, tradition, morality — all of these are secondary and, as often as not, hindrances to genuine religion. Genuine religion is subjective experience, and subjective experience in solitude.

Harold Bloom And “A Religion Of The Self”
Many years later, in 1992, the influential literary critic Harold Bloom published The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. The post-Christian nation, says Bloom, emerged a long time ago and is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you… It is God in you that responds to God without.” Bloom, rather loosely, calls the American religion “gnosticism,” the belief that each individual possesses a divine spark and salvation consists in the liberation of that divine spark from the body and from the particularities of its constraints in history and cultural space. Bloom writes:

Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion; but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for two centuries now. It is almost purely experiential, and despite its insistences [to the contrary], it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many names, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom — from the world, from time, from other selves.

Of course, Harold Bloom overstates his case. It is not sufficient, however, to point out that there are innumerable ministries in the several Christian communities that insist on the objectivity of truth, the authority of Scripture and Spirit-guided interpretation, the ecclesial means of grace, and the reality of moral good and evil. But in preferring such religion, Bloom might respond, one is still exercising a private preference. One’s preferred religion may be conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy, but the point is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.

“Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Bloom calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The “Christ without culture” model would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that it confine itself to the sphere of privacy, William James’ radically individualistic solitude, even if that solitude is celebrated in a five-thousand-seat auditorium of a megachurch.

The Church’s Message And Mission

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:3-14

It was not so in the apostolic period, as witness Saint Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8 and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. It was not so in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as “the true philosophy.” It was not so with Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.

A Public Proposal Inhibited And Stifled By Christians
“The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” For the past three hundred years, that public proposal has been inhibited and stifled by Christians who acquiesced in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity. In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue. The freedom of religion was purchased at the price of agreeing to the public irrelevance of religion. Religious empires were constructed and flourish today by catering to private salvation and the spiritualities of solitude.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Challenge
Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with respect to the truths that really matter, divorcing fact from value, knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, is being boldly challenged. Whatever one may think of papal authority, on the world-historical stage that challenge is being pressed most boldly, even audaciously, by the bishop of Rome. That was the real significance of Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg University on September 12. The media excitement focused on a few words about Islam. And he did say that the use of violence to impose religion is to act against reason, and to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, for God has revealed himself as logos — the word and the reason by which all came to be and in which all coheres.

But the bulk of the Regensburg address was directed to Christian intellectuals who, in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, pit biblical faith against the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved over the centuries of the Christian intellectual tradition. At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has challenged also non-Christian intellectuals to free themselves from the truncated and stifling definition of rationality imposed by the Enlightenment. It is not reasonable, he argues with great intellectual sophistication, to hold that atheism or agnosticism is the default position of rationality. Nor, he insists, can the undoubted achievements of modernity be sustained without reference to transcendent truth.

Living As Though God Does Exist
Since we cannot prove beyond all reasonable doubt that God is, the rational position is not to live as though God does not exist but to live as though God does exist. Here he is urging a form of Pascal’s wager. As you remember, the seventeenth-century genius Blaise Pascal proposed that it is more rational, in view of the benefits to be gained, to believe that God exists than to believe he does not exist. If the believer turns out to be wrong, he has lost what he had hoped for; if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he has lost, quite simply and catastrophically, everything, including life eternal. In short, what is at stake is the infinite or the finite, and there is no commensurability between the infinite and the finite. C.S. Lewis rephrased Pascal’s wager this way: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

Rejecting “Christ Without Culture”
In these and many other ways, the case is advanced that Christianity is a public proposal within the realm of authentically public discourse, and requiring decisions of immeasurable consequences, both personal and cultural. In different times and in different places, the Church has understood its relationship to culture in different ways. There is Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. As I said, H. Richard Niebuhr’s useful taxonomy can be expanded and modified. The one model that is not possible, except by deluding ourselves and betraying the Church’s proposal to the world, is Christ without culture.


Abortion And The Catechism

November 26, 2009

I enjoy many of the people I meet online at various Catholic Forums. One fellow the other day was launching a debate between Catholics on abortion using just the references in the Catechism. Well this is what he was using (I looked them all up, along with their references). While there are many statements by various Catholics about abortion, this is what you might call the Church’s teaching as demonstrated in the modern Catechism. Some of it is based on biblical references, others on the Didache, still others on various Church documents.

One of the interesting upshots of the debate between pro-choice and pro-life Catholics is how both the former and latter accept Church teaching (if they didn’t they would not be Catholic) but differ on legal or biological interpretations. I realize that is a broad statement to make and a raft of exceptions ensue; but it captures something nevertheless.

2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. Jeremiah 1:5.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. Psalms 139:15

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. Didache 2, 2:Sch 248, 148.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. Gaudium in Spes 51:3

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,” and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Vitae III

“The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Vitae III

2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, “if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safe guarding or healing as an individual…. It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Vitae I, 2

2275 “One must hold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.”

“It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Vitae I, 5.

“Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity” which are unique and unrepeatable. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Vitae I, 6

2319 Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.

2322 From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a “criminal” practice (Gaudium in Spes 27:3), gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.

2323 Because it should be treated as a person from conception, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed like every other human being.


An Introduction to Dante Alighieri

November 25, 2009


Dante Alighieri by Andrea del Castagno

Robert Hollander is Professor of European Literature at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton Dante Project, which can be found here. The following are selections from an essay he wrote in 2002 titled Dante: A Party of One 

His Place in History
Rarely has a writer left a more indelible mark — and under less favoring circumstances — than Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). His major work is considered one of the crowning achievements of human expression. It lives even today, nearly seven hundred years after its making, as one of the two or three greatest poems ever written.

Exile and Unfulfilled Political Hopes
The author of the Divine Comedy was born in Florence into a family of minor nobility, Guelph in its political alignment and thus siding with the popes in the city’s political tensions (as opposed to Ghibellines, at the time mainly banished from Florence, who favored the imperial cause). The struggle between the two largest political forces in medieval Europe had not abated in Dante’s time.

Dante was significantly involved in politics, eventually holding office as one of Florence’s six Priors in 1300. Within a year, perhaps after an encounter with Pope Boniface VIII in 1301 — Dante may have been part of a political mission to the Holy See — he was sent into exile when an opposing Guelph faction in Florence took over the city. Refusing the humiliating compromises offered by his enemies, Dante saw his exile eventually become permanent. After 1302 he never again entered his native city, at that time one of the most wealthy, beautiful, and important urban centers in the Western world. The exile was a difficult period, and we know little of his itinerary around northern Italy during the last twenty years of his life. He enjoyed two lengthy sojourns at the court of the Scaligeri, in Verona (ca. 1303-06 and 1312-18). Upon his return from a political mission to Venice on behalf of that city’s ruler, he died in Ravenna of malarial fever in September 1321.

If his life seems fairly unremarkable except for the bitterness of the exile and of his unfulfilled political hopes, it resulted in an overpowering single work, the Comedy (which was not known as The Divine Comedy until 1555, an apt editorial intervention that has remained with the poem to this day). His earlier literary activity is also of considerable interest. Perhaps as early as 1293 he had composed a work called Vita nuova (“New Life”), in which he assembled thirty-one poems written during the previous ten years, many of which celebrated a woman named Beatrice.

Beatrice and the Presence of Christ
There is still some debate as to the actuality of this “relationship,” which in the telling seems to have been totally devoid of sexual concourse, no matter how defined. Suffice it to say that the pretext of the work is that the miraculous woman it celebrates was a flesh-and-blood Florentine woman. What is most remarkable about Vita nuova is that it contrives, in ways that remain securely on the side of calculated understatement, to make the reader understand that Dante’s lady is to be understood as directly, and miraculously, related to the physical and noumenal presence of Christ.

Beatrice is a “nine,” he once explains, because the root of nine is three and that is the number of the Holy Trinity. While the poems themselves may on occasion hint at this equation, the prose, which controls them and our understanding of them, eventually serves to release a secret: loving Beatrice was his way of finding Christ in his “new life” (a phrase that can hardly fail to bring to mind Paul’s frequent insistence on our conversion from the old way of being to the new). The figure of Beatrice was probably derived indirectly from the life of St. Francis, who was thought to have offered his followers as close an approximation of an experience of the nearness of Jesus as anyone since apostolic times had ever felt. Vita nuova is the first work in the history of Western writing to take the form of commentary on one’s own poems. In Dante’s startling decision to frame the work in this manner, we find the demon of experiment that always drove him. Indeed, De vulgari Eloquentia (Concerning Eloquence in the Vernacular), one of the two succeeding unfinished works that he began while in exile, begins by claiming, rather presumptuously but altogether accurately, that no one had ever before written about the rules governing writing in the vernacular. It was written in Latin, but argued that vernacular poetry, which had only begun in Italy 150 years before with the poems of St. Francis, was worthy of all the consideration previously bestowed on Latin alone. This polemical analysis was in Latin because Dante knew that to beat those who exalted Latin, and scorned all who wrote in the “vulgar” Italian, he had to join them — at least when composing a work on such a subject.

Earlier Work
At about the same time (ca. 1304-1307) Dante also completed the first four books of what was to have been a fifteen-book encyclopedic treatise, written in the vernacular, on the nature of philosophizing. Called Il Convivio (“The Banquet”), it takes the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius as its model. Although at the conclusion of Vita nuova Dante had promised to write still more about Beatrice, in Convivio he has a new and “allegorical” beloved, the Lady Philosophy. Convivio, like Vita nuova, is cast in the form of commentary on poems by its author. The poems in this case were canzoni, or odes, long lyrics of considerable artifice, which in De vulgari Eloquentia Dante claimed to be the highest possible literary form in the vernacular, lofty (“tragic” is Dante’s word for this) and serious.

The fifteen “treatises” (trattati) of the work, after an introductory treatise that was to function as introduction to the whole, were each to comment on a canzone. The first two of the three succeeding treatises that Dante completed deal with his new love, Philosophy. Dante says that he sought “silver” (consolation) after the death of Beatrice but found “gold” instead in the counsels of philosophy, a “lady” better suited to the more mature man that he now was. These two unfinished works both contravene Vita nuova‘s celebration of Beatrice as the most valuable teacher of a fully charitable love that the writer could know. It is thus understandable that the Comedy, which presents Beatrice as giving essential meaning to Dante’s life and work, in turn contradicts things said in the two abandoned texts, while essentially presenting Vita nuova as a necessary and praiseworthy beginning.

The fourth and last treatise of Convivio that Dante completed moves in more political directions. Although a Guelph by family ties, early disposition, and Florentine political allegiances, Dante in this treatise turns in the direction of empire. He addresses the question of Rome and its authority as imperial seat. The question is presented as part of a larger discussion on the nature of philosophical and imperial authority, yet it is clear that the imperial part of the argument is not necessary to its main thrust, as a result standing out all the more.

This matter will resurface in the first and second cantos of Inferno, where state and church are seen as equally important, and then as the central concern of his later essay, Monarchia. Monarchia is one of Dante’s few forays into explicitly political concerns. Written in Latin to guarantee the readership of the “cultural elite” he intends to engage, probably around 1317, it offers a ringing attack upon the hierocratic position so urgently put forward by many after Pope Gregory VII. According to Dante, God created Rome to be the imperial leader of the secular world. Dante’s concept of “monarchy” (synonymous with “empire”) as a current possibility, however, exists only as an ideal. Except for its Roman model, it refers to few precise past and no existing temporal states, but to the divinely sanctioned secular government of all Europe that should be the essential ordering force of human affairs in this world.

The Comedy: Not A Summa Of Medieval Thought
It is important in this respect to note the dangers of taking the Comedy as a sort of summa of medieval thought. While one cannot deny that it at least appears to engage almost every subject that seized the imagination of the day, it is also true that to take Dante as the voice of late medieval Christendom is to fail to observe his heterodoxy and, one should add, his genius. Perhaps Dante’s strategic advantage lay in his ability to be completely himself, unworried should he oppose generally held beliefs, while also presenting his own ideas as though they were normative. A reader of the Comedy unversed in medieval debates and unaware of Dante’s idiosyncratic notions about them is easily persuaded that this work indeed represents the late middle ages in nuce (in a nutshell). In fact, Dante finds something to quarrel with in the positions put forward by almost every recognized authority, even those he respects the most, from Aristotle (whom he honors perhaps more than any other thinker) to Aquinas (with whom he fights mainly friendly but nonetheless frequent little battles).

The Comedy was probably composed between 1307 and 1321. We can only begin to imagine how its germinal idea was conceived. It probably took no more than an instant for Cervantes to have the simple, fruitful idea that produced Don Quixote: take a middle-aged, down-at-the-heels landowner, fill his brain with the entire tradition of chivalric romance, and then have him ride forth into the world as a knight errant. In the case of Dante’s Comedy, we likely read the result of a similar sudden inspiration, one based on a perhaps even less promising pretext: take a not-very-successful (though respected), soon-to-be-exiled civic leader and poet, and send him off to the afterworld for a week.

The Comedy: A Break From Previous Work
We shall never know what brought the work to life in Dante’s mind, his first awareness of a plan. But we can see how largely the Comedy departs from his previous work, despite its thematic and stylistic links to his literary past. Vita nuova, De vulgari Eloquentia, and Convivio all put prose to the service of controlling and explaining verse. The Comedy sticks to verse. And almost everything about it is new.

To begin with, the Comedy‘s verse form (terza rima) is an innovation. “Loosing and binding,” in the words of Erich Auerbach, its rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc . . . yzyz) is ideal for propelling a rhymed narrative. No one had written in the form before Dante. Perhaps surprisingly, no later writers of epic in Italian (e.g., Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso) would follow him.

Dante calls each of the one hundred divisions of the work a “canto,” or “song.” This word in this context is so singular and foreign that many early commentators didn’t “get it,” and referred to the canti as “chapters,” a more usual and perhaps more dignified way to indicate the parts of a “serious” whole. Dante’s word seems to reflect epic precedents (Virgil too was a “singer”: “Arma virumque cano,” begins the Aeneid) as well as his pride in his own vernacular. In addition, the word he eventually chooses for the three large divisions of the poem, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso-cantica-had never been used for such a purpose before him. Its resonance with the Canticle of Canticles is probably not coincidental.

The Choice of Virgil
The choice of guide is dramatic and challenging: Virgil, the greatest of the Latin poets (for Dante and many contemporary judges). What is a pagan, damned to Limbo forever for his lack of faith, doing as guide in a Christian poem? This was a bold decision. As has frequently been pointed out, Virgil’s example was seminal for many aspects of Dante’s poetic strategies in the Comedy: to write a poem that prominently features a visit to the underworld (Dante could not read Homer’s texts, though he did know of them, which explains why he can behave as though Virgil were uniquely qualified to serve as his model); that celebrates the Roman concept of political order as exemplified in the empire; and that is narrated by a poet who has been lent prophetic powers.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Virgil was a poet who wrote poetry as history, and Dante followed this example as well. As the work of Ulrich Leo demonstrated some years ago, Dante had been rereading the texts of Virgil and the other Latin writers of “epic” (Statius, Lucan, and Ovid) as he was finishing the fourth and last book of Convivio. We can say, then, that Dante chose Virgil as his guide because Virgil was his guide. Dante seems to be indicating that rereading the pagan Virgil redirected his attention to his good beginning as the Christian poet of Beatrice, the role to which he now returns in the Comedy.

The Veracity Of The Comedy’s Narrative
Before Dante no one had dared to write a poem that claimed for itself revealed truth. And one can understand why. The question of the veracity of the Comedy‘s narrative is never far from its readers’ attention. In the first invocation of the poem (Inf. II, 7), the poet asks for the aid of the Muses (the rules of grammar and rhetoric?) and of alto ingegno (“lofty genius” — either, somewhat implausibly, the poet’s own capacities, or, more probably but also rather disconcertingly, that of a higher Power). What follows immediately is a claim (and not an “invocation”) for the ability of the poet’s memory to set forth an exact record of his week-long visionary journey: “O mente, che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi / qui si parrà la tua nobilitate“ (O memory, that set down what I saw, here shall your worth be shown-II, 8-9). Dante here seems to acknowledge his need for two kinds of external assistance, that conferred by what one can learn about poetic discourse (figures of speech, rhetorical devices, rhymes, etc.), and that conferred by God so that the poet can conceive the meaning of his experience.

Not A Mere Fiction
Dante’s claims for the absolute veracity of the Comedy offend, one might say, only two classes of reader: believers and nonbelievers. In ways that would have deeply surprised and troubled St. Thomas, Dante assumed for himself the ability to write his poem using the same procedures that interpreters like Thomas believed God employed in dictating Scripture. This tactic provides one of the continuing debates in Dante criticism. To this day there is controversy over whether Dante actually wrote the “Letter to Cangrande,” whose author overtly claims that he wrote the Comedy making use of the four senses of Scripture, almost exactly as these are defined by St. Thomas near the beginning of the Summa (I, i, 10). Even if Dante did not write the epistle, the techniques of signifying in the poem nevertheless centrally reflect “God’s way of writing.”

From Dante’s first insistence that what is narrated as having occurred is to be treated as having actually occurred, it is clear he does not actually expect us to believe that the journey really took place. He does want us, though, to pay particular attention to the fact that he has claimed that it did. Here lies the central difference between the Comedy and more “standard” medieval allegorical visions (e.g., the Roman de la Rose, Brunetto Latini’s Tesoretto). Take the moment in Inferno XVI when Dante stakes the credibility of his entire comedía on his having seen the fabulous monster Geryon. In such moments, we may sense that the poet realizes that his reader will not grant for an instant that such things really have occurred, but will recognize the reason for which the poet must make the outrageous claim. Dante does not want his poem categorized as a mere fiction, like those castigated by Aquinas and other theologians who held that poets are in effect liars and have little to say that is epistemologically valid.

Just Another Lying Poet
In Inferno XXIX, Dante emphasizes this point by comparing counterfeiters, victims of a plague-like ailment in their eternal damnation, to those plague victims on the island of Aegina described by Ovid, who were replaced by “ant-people”– “secondo che i poeti hanno per fermo” (as the poets hold for certain). That dig in Ovid’s ribs-no one will (or should) believe what a lying poet tells-is a risky and amusing joke between us and Dante. For at heart we know that his sinners, as he portrays them, are as “fictive” as Ovid’s Myrmidons. Dante takes on Thomas’ objections by claiming total veracity for his poem as he smilingly capitulates to them: he is, after all, only another lying poet, but one who nonetheless claims to tell “the truth,” and indeed literal truth.

There are, to be sure, several moments in which he seems altogether serious about the truth claims made for his vision. Yet his careful (and often amusing) undercutting of their full impact makes the poem’s readers far more comfortable than they would be were such passages not present. They allow the poem to be utterly serious when its author wants it to be (one cannot imagine such playfulness being allowed in the climactic visions of Paradiso XXXIII), and they allow readers to think that Dante is at least as sane as they are. Dante, while as stern a moralizing poet as one is likely to find, is a surprisingly restrained visionary.

A final example of his witty playfulness about his role as prophetic seer is worth noting. In describing the six wings adorning each of the four biblical beasts representing the authors of the Gospels in Purgatorio XXIX, Dante assures us that their wings were six in number (Ezekiel’s cherubic creatures had only four [1:6]), that is, as many as are found in John’s description of the same creatures (Revelation 4:8). Verse 105 puts this in an arresting way: “Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte“ (John sides with me, departing from him). No one but Dante would have made this statement in this way. “Here I follow John” would have been a more acceptable gesture for a poet to use in guaranteeing the truthfulness of his narrative. Not for Dante. Since the pretext of the poem is that he indeed saw all that he recounts as having seen, that experience, in good Thomistic procedure, is prior — he knows this by his senses. And so John is his witness, and not vice versa. It is an extraordinary moment.

The Time For Mercy And A Time For Justice
Nothing is more difficult for one who teaches this poem to students than to convince them that all of the damned souls, no matter how attractively they present their own cases, are to be seen as justly damned. The poem creates some of its drama from the tension that exists between the narrator’s view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil’s interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes our task as readers difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil offers clear moral judgments. Instead, Dante uses irony to undercut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators of outrage in the eyes of God. Guido da Pisa’s gloss (to Inf. XX, 28-30) puts the matter succinctly: “But the suffering of the damned should move no one to compassion, as the Bible attests. And the reason for this is that the time for mercy is here in this world, while in the world to come there is time only for justice.”

If it was John Milton’s task in Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men,” Dante before him had taken on the responsibility of showing that all that is found in this world and in the next is measured by justice. Everything in God is just; only in the mortal world of sin and death do we find injustice. And it is small wonder that Dante believes there are only few living in his time who will find salvation (Par. XXXII, 25-27). Words for “justice” and “just” recur frequently in the poem, the noun some thirty-five times, the adjective some thirty-six. If one were asked to epitomize the central concern of the Comedy in a single word, “justice” might represent the best choice.

An Insistence On God’s Justness
In the Inferno we see this insistence on God’s justness from the opening lines describing Hell proper, the inscription over the gate of Hell (III, 4): “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore“ (Justice moved my maker on high). If God is just, there can be absolutely no question concerning the justness of his judgments. All who are condemned to Hell are justly condemned. Thus, when the protagonist feels pity for some of the damned, we are meant to realize that he is at fault for doing so. This is perhaps the most crucial test of us as readers that the poem offers. If we sympathize with the damned, we follow a bad example. In such a view, the protagonist’s at times harsh reaction to various sinners, e.g., Filippo Argenti (canto VIII), Pope Nicholas III (canto XIX), Bocca degli Abati (canto XXXII), is not (even if it seems so to some contemporary readers) a sign of his falling into sinful attitudes himself, but proof of his righteous indignation as he learns to hate sin.

If some readers think that the protagonist is occasionally too zealous in his reactions to sinners, far more are of the opinion that his sympathetic responses to others correspond to those that we ourselves may legitimately feel. To be sure, Francesca da Rimini (canto V) is portrayed more sympathetically than Thaïs (canto XVIII), Ulysses (canto XXVI) than Mosca dei Lamberti (canto XXVIII), etc. Yet it also seems to some readers that Dante’s treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and others asks us to put the question of damnation to one side, leaving us to admire their most pleasing human traits in a moral vacuum, as it were.

It is probably better to understand that we are never authorized by the poem to embrace such a view. If we are struck by Francesca’s courteous speech, we note that she is also in the habit of blaming others for her own difficulties; if we admire Farinata’s magnanimity, we also note that his soul contains no room for God; if we are wrung by Pier delle Vigne’s piteous narrative, we also consider that he has totally abandoned his allegiance to God for his belief in the power of his emperor; if we are moved by Brunetto Latini’s devotion to his pupil, we become aware that his view of Dante’s earthly mission has little of religion in it; if we are swept up in enthusiasm for the noble vigor of Ulysses, we eventually understand that he is maniacally egotistical; if we weep for Ugolino’s piteous paternal feelings, we finally understand that he, too, was centrally (and damnably) concerned with himself, even at the expense of his children.

Trusting His Readers
Dante’s innovative but risky technique was to trust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths. It was indeed, as we can see from the many readers who fail to take note of this evidence, a perilous decision for him to have made. Yet we are given at least two clear indicators of the attitude that should be ours. Twice in Inferno figures from Heaven descend into Hell to further God’s purpose in sending Dante on his mission. Virgil tells of the coming of Beatrice to Limbo. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she feels nothing for the tribulations of the damned and cannot be harmed in any way by them or by the destructive agents of the place that contains them (Inf. II, 88-93). All she longs to do is to return to her seat in Paradise (Inf. II, 71). And when the angelic intercessor arrives to open the gates of Dis, slammed shut by the rebellious angels against Virgil, we are told that this benign presence has absolutely no interest in the situation of the damned or even of the living Dante. All he desires is to complete his mission and be done with such things (Inf. IX, 88, 100-103).

Such indicators should point us in the right direction. It is a continuing monument, both to the complexity of Dante’s poem and to some readers’ desire to turn it into a less morally determined text than it ultimately is, that so many of us have such difficulty wrestling with its moral implications. This is not to say that the poem is less because of its complexity, but precisely the opposite. Its greatness is reflected in its rich and full realization of the complicated nature of human behavior and of the difficulty of moral judgment for living mortals. It asks us to learn, as does the protagonist, as we proceed.

Each Of Us Reads His Own Dante
One tradition of deathbed utterance has it that Calderón’s last words were, “Dante, why were you so difficult?” Whether or not the anecdote is true, the lament is a fitting one. We might choose a different version of this question: “Dante, why were you so good?” His extraordinary gifts as poet-and these are the most salient aspects of what he has left behind-enable him to reach everyone who loves to watch or hear language do everything it can do. In this he is like Homer and Shakespeare. And, like them, he enjoys some of this power even when he is translated. He has the further ability to enter the hearts of nearly everyone: “Monarchists” read him their way; “Papists,” theirs.

For some conservative Catholics he is the authentic voice of the medieval Church; for many liberal atheists he is an authentic voice of human suffering and hope. Each of us reads his own Dante, and admires what he reads. How would Dante react, come back to experience it, to all our fuss over him? It seems reasonable to believe that, first of all, he would be pleased with the extraordinary amount of attention his work continues to gather. The poet who, with unbelievable boldness in Inferno IV, had made himself one of the six major poets between antiquity and his own day (Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, . . . Dante), now looks modest, in the world’s estimation; he has eclipsed, for most readers, all but Homer.

But then do we not imagine hearing him complain, over and over, about how badly we now read him? Even posthumously he probably would consider that he had ended up what he had said he was in his political endeavors: “a party of one.”


Same-Sex Unions And Marriage

November 24, 2009

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Genesis 2:23-24
This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:32-33

Marriage comes to us from the hand of God. It does not originate from the state or the church, though both institutions regulate its practice. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the meaning and structure of marriage in such a way as to grant equivalent status to same-sex unions.

From the perspective of Catholic teaching, “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms. Marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, not between persons of the same sex. This is a truth given by God in the natural order of creation and then confirmed through his revealed word in the Bible. It is a truth recognized by human reason and strengthened by faith.

In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. Marriage then, is the first institution of human society — indeed it is the institution on which all other human institutions have their foundation. In the Christian tradition we refer to marriage as “holy matrimony” to signal the fact that it is an institution ordained by God, and blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem.

Why does the church teach that marriage is a sacrament?

The sacraments make Christ present in our midst. Like the other sacraments, marriage is not just for the good of individuals, or the couple, but for the community as a whole. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament. The Old Testament prophets saw the marriage of a man and woman as a symbol of the covenant relationship between God and his people. The permanent and exclusive union between husband and wife mirrors the mutual commitment between God and his people. The Letter to the Ephesians says that this union is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church. 

Why does the Catholic Church teach that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman?

Marriage, as both a natural institution and a sacred union, is rooted in the divine plan for creation. The fact that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman is a truth woven deeply into the human spirit. The Church’s teaching on marriage expresses a truth, therefore, that can be perceived first and foremost by human reason.

This truth has been confirmed by divine Revelation in Sacred Scripture. In Scripture we see that marriage comes from the loving hand of God, who fashioned both male and female in the divine image, and who blesses their joining as one flesh and commands them to be fertile and to multiply. The Bible frequently uses the image of marriage to teach about the loving relationship between God and his people. In instituting the Sacrament of Matrimony, Jesus made marriage a symbol of his unconditional love for the Church. The Christian meaning of marriage confirms and strengthens the human value of a loving and life-giving marital union.

Why can marriage exist only between a man and a woman?

The natural structure of human sexuality makes man and woman complementary partners for expressing conjugal love and for transmitting human life. Only a union of male and female can express the sexual complementarity willed by God for marriage. This unique complementarity makes possible the conjugal bond that is the core of marriage. The permanent and exclusive commitment of marriage is the necessary context for the expression of sexual love intended by God both to serve the transmission of human life and to build up the bond between husband and wife.

Why is a same-sex union not equivalent to a marriage?

A same-sex union contradicts the nature and purposes of marriage. It is not based on the natural complementarity of male and female. It cannot cooperate with God to create new life; and the natural purpose of sexual union cannot be achieved by a same-sex union. Because persons in a same-sex union cannot enter into a true conjugal union, it is wrong to equate their relationship to a marriage.

What unique contributions does marriage between a man and woman make to society?

Marriage is the fundamental pattern for male-female relationships. It contributes to society because it models the way in which women and men live interdependently and commit, for the whole of life, to seek the good of each other. The marital union also provides the best conditions for raising children: namely, the stable, loving relationship of a mother and father present only in marriage. The state rightly recognizes this relationship as a public institution in its laws because the relationship makes a unique and essential contribution to the common good.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said of marriage: “To recognize and assist this institution is one of the greatest services that can be rendered nowadays to the common good and to the authentic development of individuals and societies, as well as the best means of ensuring the dignity, equality and true freedom of the human person” (Homily at the Concluding Mass of the Fifth World Meeting of Families, July 9, 2006).

Ideas about marriage have changed over the years. Isn’t same sex marriage just one more change?

The institution of marriage has experienced many developments. Some of these are related to our contemporary understanding about the equality of men and women. These developments have enhanced marriage, but none has conflicted with the basic purpose and nature of marriage. Proposals to legalize same sex marriage would radically redefine marriage.

If people of the same sex love and care for each other, why shouldn’t they be allowed to marry?

Love and commitment are key ingredients of marriage, and the Church recognizes that a basic purpose of marriage is the good of the spouses. The other purpose, however, is the procreation and education of children. There is a fundamental difference between marriage, which has the potential to bring forth children, and other relationships. The fact that marriage between a man and a woman will usually result in children remains a powerful human reality, even if circumstances do not permit every marriage to result in children. This makes marriage between a man and a woman a unique institution.

What difference would it make to married couples if same sex partners are allowed to marry?

We need to answer this question not simply as individuals, but as members of society, called to work for the common good. If same sex marriage were legalized, the result would be a significant change in our society. We would be saying that the primary purpose of marriage is to validate and protect a sexually intimate relationship. All else would be secondary. While we cannot say exactly what the impact of this change would be, experience suggests that it would be negative. Marriage would no longer symbolize society’s commitment to the future: our children. Rather, marriage would symbolize a commitment to the present needs and desires of adults.

Isn’t the Church discriminating against homosexual persons by opposing same sex unions?

To uphold God’s intent for marriage, in which sexual relations have their proper and exclusive place, is not to offend the dignity of homosexual persons. Christians must give witness to the whole truth and, therefore, oppose as immoral both homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons.

It is not unjust to deny legal status to same-sex unions because marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities. In fact, justice requires society to do so.

The legal recognition of marriage, including benefits associated with it, is not only about personal commitment, but also about the social commitment that husband and wife make to the well-being of society. It would be wrong to redefine marriage for the sake of providing benefits to those who cannot rightfully enter into marriage. It should be noted that some benefits currently sought by persons in homosexual unions can already be obtained without regard to marital status. For example, individuals can agree to own property jointly, and they can generally designate anyone they choose to be a beneficiary of their will or to make health care decisions in case they become incompetent.

What is the Church’s position on legislation to allow civil unions or domestic partnerships?

On two different occasions, in 2003 and 2006, the USCCB Administrative Committee stated: “We strongly oppose any legislative and judicial attempts, both at state and federal levels, to grant same-sex unions the equivalent status and rights of marriage – by naming them marriage, civil unions, or by other means.”

In 2003 a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated: “Every humanly-created law is legitimate insofar as it is consistent with the natural moral law, recognized by right reason, and insofar as it respects the inalienable rights of every person. Laws in favor of homosexual unions are contrary to right reason because they confer legal guarantees, analogous to those granted to marriage, to unions between persons of the same sex” (Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, n.6).

Why are the U.S. bishops supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same sex marriage?

The bishops are supporting an amendment that simply defines marriage as only the union of a man and a woman. They are doing so because they want to bear witness to a truth that is given by God in the natural order of creation and that is confirmed by divine Revelation in the Bible. Protecting marriage in this way will benefit children, families, and the common good of society itself.

In addition, many states have adopted similar amendments to their constitutions and others are preparing to place a proposal on the ballot. The USCCB Administrative Committee has urged bishops to lead a two-pronged strategy of education and advocacy in favor of laws and constitutional amendments that define and protect at both state and federal levels.

The above are some of the Q/A on marriage and same sex unions that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently posted on their web pages. I also added some material from the Manhattan Declaration that I posted yesterday.


Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience

November 23, 2009

One hundred forty-eight Signatories and YOU

Promulgated November 11, 2009

Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.

While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages, we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire’s sanctioning of infanticide. We remember with reverence those believers who sacrificed their lives by remaining in Roman cities to tend the sick and dying during the plagues, and who died bravely in the coliseums rather than deny their Lord.

After the barbarian tribes overran Europe, Christian monasteries preserved not only the Bible but also the literature and art of Western culture. It was Christians who combated the evil of slavery: Papal edicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries decried the practice of slavery and first excommunicated anyone involved in the slave trade; evangelical Christians in England, led by John Wesley and William Wilberforce, put an end to the slave trade in that country. Christians under Wilberforce’s leadership also formed hundreds of societies for helping the poor, the imprisoned, and child laborers chained to machines.

In Europe, Christians challenged the divine claims of kings and successfully fought to establish the rule of law and balance of governmental powers, which made modern democracy possible. And in America, Christian women stood at the vanguard of the suffrage movement. The great civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 60s were led by Christians claiming the Scriptures and asserting the glory of the image of God in every human being regardless of race, religion, age or class.

This same devotion to human dignity has led Christians in the last decade to work to end the dehumanizing scourge of human trafficking and sexual slavery, bring compassionate care to AIDS sufferers in Africa, and assist in a myriad of other human rights causes — from providing clean water in developing nations to providing homes for tens of thousands of children orphaned by war, disease and gender discrimination.

Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good. In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.

Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right — and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation — to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
John 10:10

Although public sentiment has moved in a pro-life direction, we note with sadness that pro-abortion ideology prevails today in our government. The present administration is led and staffed by those who want to make abortions legal at any stage of fetal development, and who want to provide abortions at taxpayer expense. Majorities in both houses of Congress hold pro-abortion views. The Supreme Court, whose infamous 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade stripped the unborn of legal protection, continues to treat elective abortion as a fundamental constitutional right, though it has upheld as constitutionally permissible some limited restrictions on abortion.

The President says that he wants to reduce the “need” for abortion — a commendable goal. But he has also pledged to make abortion more easily and widely available by eliminating laws prohibiting government funding, requiring waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and parental notification for abortions performed on minors. The elimination of these important and effective pro-life laws cannot reasonably be expected to do other than significantly increase the number of elective abortions by which the lives of countless children are snuffed out prior to birth. Our commitment to the sanctity of life is not a matter of partisan loyalty, for we recognize that in the thirty-six years since Roe v. Wade, elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as “the culture of death.” We call on all officials in our country, elected and appointed, to protect and serve every member of our society, including the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us.

A culture of death inevitably cheapens life in all its stages and conditions by promoting the belief that lives that are imperfect, immature or inconvenient are discardable. As predicted by many prescient persons, the cheapening of life that began with abortion has now metastasized. For example, human embryo-destructive research and its public funding are promoted in the name of science and in the cause of developing treatments and cures for diseases and injuries.

The President and many in Congress favor the expansion of embryo- research to include the taxpayer funding of so-called “therapeutic cloning.” This would result in the industrial mass production of human embryos to be killed for the purpose of producing genetically customized stem cell lines and tissues. At the other end of life, an increasingly powerful movement to promote assisted suicide and “voluntary” euthanasia threatens the lives of vulnerable elderly and disabled persons. Eugenic notions such as the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) were first advanced in the 1920s by intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe. Long buried in ignominy after the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, they have returned from the grave. The only difference is that now the doctrines of the eugenicists are dressed up in the language of “liberty,” “autonomy,” and “choice.”

We will be united and untiring in our efforts to roll back the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion. We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion, even as we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike.

A truly prophetic Christian witness will insistently call on those who have been entrusted with temporal power to fulfill the first responsibility of government: to protect the weak and vulnerable against violent attack, and to do so with no favoritism, partiality, or discrimination. The Bible enjoins us to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those who cannot themselves speak. And so we defend and speak for the unborn, the disabled, and the dependent. What the Bible and the light of reason make clear, we must make clear. We must be willing to defend, even at risk and cost to ourselves and our institutions, the lives of our brothers and sisters at every stage of development and in every condition.

Our concern is not confined to our own nation. Around the globe, we are witnessing cases of genocide and “ethnic cleansing,” the failure to assist those who are suffering as innocent victims of war, the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the sexual trafficking of girls and young women, the abandonment of the aged, racial oppression and discrimination, the persecution of believers of all faiths, and the failure to take steps necessary to halt the spread of preventable diseases like AIDS. We see these travesties as flowing from the same loss of the sense of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life that drives the abortion industry and the movements for assisted suicide, euthanasia, and human cloning for biomedical research. And so ours is, as it must be, a truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances.

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Genesis 2:23-24
This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:32-33

In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. Marriage then, is the first institution of human society — indeed it is the institution on which all other human institutions have their foundation. In the Christian tradition we refer to marriage as “holy matrimony” to signal the fact that it is an institution ordained by God, and blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem.

Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits — the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves. Unfortunately, we have witnessed over the course of the past several decades a serious erosion of the marriage culture in our own country. Perhaps the most telling — and alarming — indicator is the out-of-wedlock birth rate. Less than fifty years ago, it was under 5 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. Our society — and particularly its poorest and most vulnerable sectors, where the out-of-wedlock birth rate is much higher even than the national average — is paying a huge price in delinquency, drug abuse, crime, incarceration, hopelessness, and despair. Other indicators are widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation and a devastatingly high rate of divorce.

We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same.

To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love. We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce. We must work in the legal, cultural, and religious domains to instill in young people a sound understanding of what marriage is, what it requires, and why it is worth the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses make.

The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture. It reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil and religious law and in the philosophical tradition that contributed to shaping the law. Yet it is critical that the impulse be resisted, for yielding to it would mean abandoning the possibility of restoring a sound understanding of marriage and, with it, the hope of rebuilding a healthy marriage culture. It would lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life. In spousal communion and the rearing of children (who, as gifts of God, are the fruit of their parents’ marital love), we discover the profound reasons for and benefits of the marriage covenant.

We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners. For every sinner, regardless of the sin, is loved by God, who seeks not our destruction but rather the conversion of our hearts. Jesus calls all who wander from the path of virtue to “a more excellent way.” As his disciples we will reach out in love to assist all who hear the call and wish to answer it.

We further acknowledge that there are sincere people who disagree with us, and with the teaching of the Bible and Christian tradition, on questions of sexual morality and the nature of marriage. Some who enter into same- sex and polyamorous relationships no doubt regard their unions as truly marital. They fail to understand, however, that marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and that the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit.

This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies. The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit.

Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being — the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual — on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation. That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.

We understand that many of our fellow citizens, including some Christians, believe that the historic definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a denial of equality or civil rights. They wonder what to say in reply to the argument that asserts that no harm would be done to them or to anyone if the law of the community were to confer upon two men or two women who are living together in a sexual partnership the status of being “married.” It would not, after all, affect their own marriages, would it?

On inspection, however, the argument that laws governing one kind of marriage will not affect another cannot stand. Were it to prove anything, it would prove far too much: the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for same sex partnerships; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships? No. The truth is that marriage is not something abstract or neutral that the law may legitimately define and re-define to please those who are powerful and influential.

No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. Marriage is an objective reality — a covenantal union of husband and wife — that it is the duty of the law to recognize and support for the sake of justice and the common good. If it fails to do so, genuine social harms follow.

  1. First, the religious liberty of those for whom this is a matter of conscience is jeopardized.
  2. Second, the rights of parents are abused as family life and sex education programs in schools are used to teach children that an enlightened understanding recognizes as “marriages” sexual partnerships that many parents believe are intrinsically non- marital and immoral.
  3. Third, the common good of civil society is damaged when the law itself, in its critical pedagogical function, becomes a tool for eroding a sound understanding of marriage on which the flourishing of the marriage culture in any society vitally depends.

Sadly, we are today far from having a thriving marriage culture. But if we are to begin the critically important process of reforming our laws and mores to rebuild such a culture, the last thing we can afford to do is to re-define marriage in such a way as to embody in our laws a false proclamation about what marriage is.

And so it is out of love (not “animus”) and prudent concern for the common good (not “prejudice”), that we pledge to labor ceaselessly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and to rebuild the marriage culture. How could we, as Christians, do otherwise? The Bible teaches us that marriage is a central part of God’s creation covenant. Indeed, the union of husband and wife mirrors the bond between Christ and his church. And so just as Christ was willing, out of love, to give Himself up for the church in a complete sacrifice, we are willing, lovingly, to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage.

Religious Liberty
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.
Isaiah 61:1
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
Matthew 22:21

The struggle for religious liberty across the centuries has been long and arduous, but it is not a novel idea or recent development. The nature of religious liberty is grounded in the character of God Himself, the God who is most fully known in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Determined to follow Jesus faithfully in life and death, the early Christians appealed to the manner in which the Incarnation had taken place: “Did God send Christ, as some suppose, as a tyrant brandishing fear and terror? Not so, but in gentleness and meekness…, for compulsion is no attribute of God” (Epistle to Diognetus 7.3-4). Thus the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the example of Christ Himself and in the very dignity of the human person created in the image of God — a dignity, as our founders proclaimed, inherent in every human, and knowable by all in the exercise of right reason.

Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions. What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.

It is ironic that those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled and also a right to engage in immoral sexual practices, and even a right to have relationships integrated around these practices be recognized and blessed by law — such persons claiming these “rights” are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

We see this, for example, in the effort to weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro- life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions. We see it in the use of anti-discrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers of various sorts to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business. After the judicial imposition of “same-sex marriage” in Massachusetts, for example, Catholic Charities chose with great reluctance to end its century-long work of helping to place orphaned children in good homes rather than comply with a legal mandate that it place children in same-sex households in violation of Catholic moral teaching. In New Jersey, after the establishment of a quasi-marital “civil unions” scheme, a Methodist institution was stripped of its tax exempt status when it declined, as a matter of religious conscience, to permit a facility it owned and operated to be used for ceremonies blessing homosexual unions. In Canada and some European nations, Christian clergy have been prosecuted for preaching Biblical norms against the practice of homosexuality. New hate-crime laws in America raise the specter of the same practice here.

In recent decades a growing body of case law has paralleled the decline in respect for religious values in the media, the academy and political leadership, resulting in restrictions on the free exercise of religion. We view this as an ominous development, not only because of its threat to the individual liberty guaranteed to every person, regardless of his or her faith, but because the trend also threatens the common welfare and the culture of freedom on which our system of republican government is founded. Restrictions on the freedom of conscience or the ability to hire people of one’s own faith or conscientious moral convictions for religious institutions, for example, undermines the viability of the intermediate structures of society, the essential buffer against the overweening authority of the state, resulting in the soft despotism Tocqueville so prophetically warned of.1 Disintegration of civil society is a prelude to tyranny.

As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. The biblical purpose of law is to preserve order and serve justice and the common good; yet laws that are unjust — and especially laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust — undermine the common good, rather than serve it.

Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching. Their answer was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself. Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

Dr. Daniel Akin President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC)

Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola Primate, Anglican Church of Nigeria (Abika, Nigeria)

Randy Alcorn Founder and Director, Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM) (Sandy, OR)

Rt. Rev. David Anderson President and CEO, American Anglican Council (Atlanta, GA)

Leith Anderson President of National Association of Evangelicals (Washington, DC)

Charlotte K. Ardizzone TV Show Host and Speaker, INSP Television (Charlotte, NC)

Kay Arthur CEO and Co-founder, Precept Ministries International (Chattanooga, TN)

Dr. Mark L. Bailey President, Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX)

His Grace, The Right Reverend Bishop Basil Essey The Right Reverend Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America (Wichita, KS)

Joel Belz Founder, World Magazine (Asheville, NC)

Rev. Michael L. Beresford Managing Director of Church Relations, Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. (Charlotte, NC)

Ken Boa President, Reflections Ministries (Atlanta, GA)

Joseph Bottum Editor of First Things (New York, NY)

Pastor Randy & Sarah Brannon Senior Pastor, Grace Community Church (Madera, CA)

Steve Brown National radio broadcaster, Key Life (Maitland, FL)

Dr. Robert C. Cannada, Jr. Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL)

Galen Carey Director of Government Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals (Washington, DC)

Dr. Bryan Chapell President, Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO)

Scott Chapman Senior Pastor, The Chapel (Libertyville, IL)

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, CO

Timothy Clinton President, American Association of Christian Counselors (Forest, VA)

Chuck Colson Founder, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview (Lansdowne, VA)

Most Rev. Salvatore Joseph Cordileone Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, CA

Dr. Gary Culpepper Associate Professor, Providence College (Providence, RI)

Jim Daly President and CEO, Focus on the Family (Colorado Springs, CO)

Marjorie Dannenfelser President, Susan B. Anthony List (Arlington, VA)

Rev. Daniel Delgado Board of Directors, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference & Pastor, Third Day Missions Church (Staten Island, NY)

Dr. James Dobson Founder, Focus on the Family (Colorado Springs, CO)

Dr. David Dockery President, Union University (Jackson, TN)

Most Rev. Timothy Dolan Archbishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of New York, NY

Dr. William Donohue President, Catholic League (New York, NY)

Dr. James T. Draper, Jr. President Emeritus, LifeWay (Nashville, TN)

Dinesh D’Souza Writer & Speaker (Rancho Santa Fe, CA)

Most Rev. Robert Wm. Duncan Archbishop and Primate, Anglican Church in North America (Ambridge, PA )

Joni Eareckson Tada Founder and CEO, Joni and Friends International Disability Center (Agoura Hills, CA)

Dr. Michael Easley President Emeritus, Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, IL)

Dr. William Edgar Professor, Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA)

Brett Elder Executive Director, Stewardship Council (Grand Rapids, MI)

Rev. Joel Elowsky Drew University ( Madison, NJ)

Stuart Epperson Co-Founder and Chariman of the Board, Salem Communications Corporation ( Camarillo, CA)

Rev. Jonathan Falwell Senior Pastor, Thomas Road Baptist Church (Lynchburg, VA)

William J. Federer President, Amerisearch, Inc. (St. Louis, MO)

Fr. Joseph D. Fessio Founder and Editor, Ignatius Press (Ft. Collins, CO)

Carmen Fowler President & Executive Editor, Presbyterian Lay Committee (Lenoir, NC)

Maggie Gallagher President, Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and a co-author of The Case for Marriage (Manassas, VA)

Dr. Jim Garlow Senior Pastor, Skyline Church (La Mesa, CA)

Steven Garofalo Senior Consultant, Search and Assessment Services (Charlotte, NC)

Dr. Robert P. George McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)

Dr. Timothy George Dean and Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School at Samford University (Birmingham, AL)

Thomas Gilson Director of Strategic Processes, Campus Crusade for Christ International (Norfolk, VA)

Dr. Jack Graham Pastor, Prestonwood Baptist Church (Plano, TX)

Dr. Wayne Grudem Research Professor of Theological and Biblical Studies, Phoenix Seminary (Phoenix, AZ)

Dr. Cornell “Corkie” Haan National Facilitator of Spiritual Unity, The Mission America Coalition (Palm Desert, CA)

Fr. Chad Hatfield Chancellor, CEO. And Archpriest, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Yonkers, NY)

Dr. Dennis Hollinger President and Professor of Christian Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA)

Dr. Jeanette Hsieh Executive VP and Provost, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL)

Dr. John A. Huffman, Jr. Senior Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church (Newport Beach, CA) and Chairman of the Board, Christianity Today International (Carol Stream, IL)

Rev. Ken Hutcherson Pastor, Antioch Bible Church (Kirkland, WA)

Bishop Harry R. Jackson, Jr. Senior Pastor, Hope Christian Church (Beltsville, MD)

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse President, American Orthodox Institute and Editor, (Naples, FL)

Jerry Jenkins Chairman of the board of trustees for Moody Bible Institute (Black Forest, CO)

Camille Kampouris Publisher, Kairos Journal

Emmanuel A. Kampouris Editorial Board, Kairos Journal

Rev. Tim Keller Senior Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York, NY)

Dr. Peter Kreeft Professor of Philosophy, Boston College (MA) and at the Kings College (NY)

Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, KY

Jim Kushiner Editor, Touchstone (Chicago, IL)

Dr. Richard Land President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC (Washington, DC)

Jim Law Senior Associate Pastor, First Baptist Church (Woodstock, GA)

Dr. Matthew Levering Associate Professor of Theology, Ave Maria University (Naples, FL)

Dr. Peter Lillback President, The Providence Forum (West Conshohocken, PA)

Dr. Duane Litfin President, Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL)

Rev. Herb Lusk Pastor, Greater Exodus Baptist Church (Philadelphia, PA)

His Eminence Adam Cardinal Maida Archbishop Emeritus, Roman Catholic Diocese of Detroit, MI

Most Rev. Richard J. Malone Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, ME

Rev. Francis Martin Professor of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI)

Dr. Joseph Mattera Bishop & Senior Pastor, Resurrection Church (Brooklyn, NY)

Phil Maxwell Pastor, Gateway Church (Bridgewater, NJ)

Josh McDowell Founder, Josh McDowell Ministries (Plano, TX)

Alex McFarland President, Southern Evangelical Seminary (Charlotte, NC)

Most Rev. George Dallas McKinney Bishop, & Founder and Pastor, St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ (San Diego, CA)

Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns Missionary Bishop, Convocation of Anglicans of North America (Herndon, VA)

Dr. C. Ben Mitchell Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University (Jackson, TN)

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY)

Dr. Russell D. Moore Senior VP for Academic Administration & Dean of the School of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY)

Most Rev. John J. Myers Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, NJ

Most Rev. Joseph F. Naumann Archbishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City, KS

David Neff Editor-in-Chief, Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL)

Tom Nelson Senior Pastor, Christ Community Evangelical Free Church (Leawood, KS)

Niel Nielson President, Covenant College (Lookout Mt., GA)

Most Rev. John Nienstedt Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, MN

Dr. Tom Oden Theologian, United Methodist Minister and Professor, Drew University (Madison, NJ)

Marvin Olasky Editor-in-Chief, World Magazine and provost, The Kings College (New York City, NY)

Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, AZ

Rev. William Owens Chairman, Coalition of African-American Pastors (Memphis, TN)

Dr. J.I. Packer Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology, Regent College (Canada)

Metr. Jonah Paffhausen Primate, Orthodox Church in America (Syosset, NY)

Tony Perkins President, Family Research Council (Washington, D.C.)

Eric M. Pillmore CEO, Pillmore Consulting LLC (Doylestown, PA)

Dr. Everett Piper President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University (Bartlesville, OK)

Todd Pitner President, Rev Increase

Dr. Cornelius Plantinga President, Calvin Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI)

Dr. David Platt Pastor, Church at Brook Hills (Birmingham AL)

Rev. Jim Pocock Pastor, Trinitarian Congregational Church (Wayland, MA)

Fred Potter Executive Director & CEO, Christian Legal Society (Springfield, VA)

Dennis Rainey President, CEO, & Co-Founder, FamilyLife (Little Rock, AR)

Fr. Patrick Reardon Pastor, All Saints’ Antiochian Orthodox Church (Chicago, IL)

Bob Reccord Founder, Total Life Impact, Inc. (Suwanee, GA)

His Eminence Justin Cardinal Rigali Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, PA

Frank Schubert President, Schubert Flint Public Affairs (Sacramento, CA)

David Schuringa President, Crossroads Bible Institute (Grand Rapids, MI)

Tricia Scribner Author (Harrisburg, NC)

Dr. Dave Seaford Senior Pastor, Community Fellowship Church (Matthews, NC)

Alan Sears President, CEO, & General Counsel, Alliance Defense Fund (Scottsdale, AZ)

Randy Setzer Senior Pastor, Macedonia Baptist Church (Lincolnton, NC)

Most Rev. Michael J. Sheridan Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, CO

Dr. Ron Sider Director, Evangelicals for Social Action (Wynnewood, PA)

Fr. Robert Sirico Founder, Acton Institute (Grand Rapids, MI)

Dr. Robert Sloan President, Houston Baptist University (Houston, TX)

Charles Stetson Chairman of the Board, Bible Literacy Project (New York, NY)

Dr. David Stevens CEO, Christian Medical & Dental Association (Bristol, TN)

John Stonestreet Executive Director, Summit Ministries (Manitou Springs, CO)

Dr. Joseph Stowell President, Cornerstone University (Grand Rapids, MI)

Dr. Sarah Sumner Professor of Theology and Ministry, Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA)

Dr. Glenn Sunshine Chairman of the history department of Central Connecticut State University (New Britain, CT)

Luiz Tellez President, The Witherspoon Institute (Princeton, NJ)

Dr. Timothy C. Tennent Professor, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA)

Michael Timmis Chairman, Prison Fellowship and Prison Fellowship International (Naples, FL)

Mark Tooley President, Institute for Religion and Democracy (Washington, D.C.)

H. James Towey President, St. Vincent College (Latrobe, PA)

Juan Valdes Middle and High School Chaplain, Flordia Christian School (Miami, FL)

Todd Wagner Pastor, WaterMark Community Church (Dallas, TX)

Dr. Graham Walker President, Patrick Henry Univ. (Purcellville, VA)

Alexander F. C. Webster Archpriest, Orthodox Church in America and Associate Professorial Lecturer, The George Washington University (Ft. Belvoir, VA)

George Weigel Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center (Washington, D.C.)

David Welch Houston Area Pastor Council Executive Director, US Pastors Council (Houston, TX)

Dr. James White Founding and Senior Pastor, Mecklenberg Community Church (Charlotte, NC)

Dr. Hayes Wicker Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church (Naples, FL)

Mark Williamson Founder and President, Foundation Restoration Ministries/Federal Intercessors (Katy, TX)

Dr. Craig Williford President, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL)

Dr. John Woodbridge Research professor of Church History & the History of Christian Thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL)

Don M. Woodside Performance Matters Associates (Matthews, NC)

Dr. Frank Wright President, National Religious Broadcasters (Manassas, VA)

Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

Paul Young COO & Executive VP, Christian Research Institute (Charlotte, NC)

Dr. Michael Youssef President, Leading the Way (Atlanta, GA)

Ravi Zacharias Founder and Chairman of the board, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (Norcross, GA)

Most Rev. David A. Zubik Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, PA

I invite you to join this distinguished list and to  to affirm your support for the Manhattan Declaration here.



Reading Selections From Fighting the Noonday Devil by R. R. Reno

November 20, 2009

R. R. Reno teaches theology at Creighton University and is the author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002). From a review of the latter: “Our modernist heritage and postmodern sophistication have trained us well. We take care of ourselves, virtuously avoiding pain, rewarding ourselves with pleasure. Thanks to this thorough cultural training, we often approach the church with the same self-protective posture.

Faced with the failures, hypocrisies, and faithlessness in the church, we fall back on the modern strategy we’ve learned so well: we simply keep our distance. In this essay, as in the book, R. R. Reno, warns against this sense of aloofness and shows how it relates to acedia – a subject of many posts here on Paying Attention To The Sky. Reno‘s passionate call for Christians to “suffer divine things” also provides a message of hope: through intimate loyalty to the church, daily prayer, and serious reengagement with Scripture, we can dwell in and with the living Christ. We can abandon the “temptations of distance” and embrace the “imperatives of intimacy.” It is a  bold exhortation that has  enormous appeal for critical thinkers and Christians who are disillusioned with the church yet still desire to pursue a life of discipleship.” The roots of many of his arguments you will find in the reading selections of this essay which was published in First Things in 2003.

Pride and Faith
For most of the modern era, Christian apologists have emphasized the role of pride as the primary barrier to faith. Take Milton, for example. At the outset of Paradise Lost, Satan rallies his fellow fallen angels with a speech of exculpation. Bidding farewell to the “happy Fields” now lost, Satan hails the “infernal world,” promising his followers that they, with him, might make “Heav’n of Hell.” What seems a disaster can be made a victory. Satan’s reasoning is simple. “Here at least,” he says, “we shall be free.” “Here,” he continues, “we may reign secure.” The gain, then, is autonomy and self-possession. Thus, in famous words, Milton has Satan pronounce the purest formula of pride: “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.”

To a great extent, the standard story of modernity emphasizes exactly the self-confidence and self-assertion that Milton describes in Paradise Lost. The emerging powers of modern science gave the seventeenth and eighteenth century a keen sense of the real powers of the human intellect. Rebelling against servile obedience to dogmatic and clerical authority, progressive forces in Enlightenment culture championed free and open inquiry. The same sentiment, this standard story continues, characterizes modern moral and political thought. Against traditional moral ideals and social forms, modern thinkers have sought, and continue to seek, a pattern of life derived from and properly expressive of our humanity. Thus, Ralph Waldo Emerson shouts the battle cry of modernity: “Trust thyself.” Against subservience to the ideals of another, Emerson writes, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” So central and important is this self-affirmation that Emerson reports that “if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live from the Devil.” Better to reign in the hell of self-affirmation, than to subordinate the self to external ideals or principles, no matter how heavenly.

Does Secularism Come From Self-Trust And Pride?
This modern voice of rebellion against God’s sovereignty is quite real. Yet, in the twilight of modernity, do people really attack the Christian tradition because they have vibrant Emersonian souls? Do the nay-sayers and critics of Christianity attract audiences of willful and self-assertive individualists who are eager to find leverage to free themselves from the constraining powers of dogma and priestcraft? Does secularism today stem from a deep self-trust and demonic pride?

The answer, I think, is “no.” Pride may go before the fall. However, after the fall, other spiritual temptations and difficulties predominate. In our times, whether we call the prevailing outlook late modern or postmodern, the vigor and ambition of the ideal of self-reliance has lost its luster. When the United States Army can adopt a fine Emersonian sentiment — “Be all you can be” — as a recruiting slogan, then surely what was once a fresh challenge has become a hopeless cliché. For this and other reasons we need to turn our attention away from pride and look elsewhere for the deeper sources of resistance to the Christian message.

The Demon Of Acedia And Faith
Looking elsewhere does not mean looking away from the Christian tradition. Christians have not always thought pride the deepest threat to faith. For the ancient spiritual writers of the monastic movement, spiritual apathy was far more dangerous. Recalling the sixth verse of Psalm 91, the desert fathers wished to guard against “the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.” Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century monk, is one of the earliest sources of information about the desert monastic movement, and he reports that gluttony, avarice, anger, and other vices threaten monastic life. Yet, of all these afflictions, he reports, “the demon of acedia — also called the noonday demon — is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all.”

Defining Acedia
Acedia is a word of Greek origin that means, literally, “without care.” In the Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, it comes down to us as tristitia or otiositas, sadness or idleness. But citing synonyms and translations will not do. For the monastic tradition, acedia or sloth is a complex spiritual state that defies simple definition. It describes a lassitude and despair that overwhelms spiritual striving. Sloth is not mere idleness or laziness; it involves a torpor animi, a dullness of the soul that can stem from restlessness just as easily as from indolence. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a sterilitas animae, a sterility, dryness, and barrenness of his soul that makes the sweet honey of Psalm-singing seem tasteless and turns vigils into empty trials. Medieval English writers often speak of acedia as wanhope, a waning of confidence in the efficacy and importance of prayer. For Dante, on the fourth ledge of purgatory, those afflicted by acedia are described as suffering from lento amore, a slow love that cannot motivate and uplift, leaving the soul stagnant, unable to move under the heavy burden of sin.

Across these different descriptions, a common picture emerges. The noonday devil tempts us into a state of spiritual despair and sadness that drains us of our Christian hope. It makes the life of prayer and charity seem pointless and futile. In the heat of midday, as the monk tires and begins to feel that the commitment to desert solitude was a terrible miscalculation, the demon of acedia whispers despairing and exculpatory thoughts. “Did God intend for human beings to reach for the heavens?” “Does God really care whether we pray?” “Is it not unnatural to seek solitude and chastity?” According to another ancient writer in the Evagrian tradition, the noonday demon “stirs the monk also to long for different places in which he can find easily what is necessary for his life and can carry on a much less toilsome and more expedient profession. It is not on account of locality, the demon suggests, that one pleases God. He can be worshiped anywhere. . . . Thus the demon employs all his wiles so that the monk may leave his cell and flee to the race-course.”

A Real Modern Threat to Faith
Are these temptations that afflict the monk as strange or alien as the unfamiliar Greek word, acedia? I think not. Let me update the whispering voice of sloth: “All things are sanctified by the Lord, and one could just as well worship on the golf course as in a sanctuary made by human hands.” Or: “God is love, and love affirms; therefore, God accepts me just as I am. I need not exercise myself to change.” Or: “We should not want to put God in a box, so the Christian tradition must be seen as a resource for our spiritual journeys, not as a mandatory itinerary. I can pick and choose according to my own spiritual needs.”

In our day, these temptations seem far more dangerous than Emerson’s “trust thyself.” After all, how many people, believers or unbelievers, wish to reign anywhere, in heaven, hell, or even in their own souls? Few, I imagine. Most of us just want to be left alone so that we can get on with our lives. Most of us want to be safe. We want to find a cocoon, a spiritually, psychologically, economically, and physically gated community in which to live without danger and disturbance. The care-free life, a life a-cedia, is our cultural ideal. Pride may be the root of all evil, but in our day, the trunk, branches, and leaves of evil are characterized by a belief that moral responsibility, spiritual effort, and religious discipline are empty burdens, ineffective and archaic demands that cannot lead us forward, inaccessible ideals that, even if we believe in them, are beyond our capacity.

Finding Acedia In The Modern Milieu: Critical Distance
Acedia, then, is a real threat, a deadly sin doing its deadly work in the present age. Its presence can be detected rather clearly in two features of our intellectual and moral culture. The first is the intellectual spirit of dispassion and coolness that grows out of the ideal of “critical distance.” This ideal often contributes to the torpor animi that afflicts any who have entered into the habituating practices of our universities. For many of our professors, the drama of education is to break the magic spell of immediacy. Just as the commonsense observation that the sun revolves around the earth is quite false and must be corrected, so, we are told, we must step back from the moral and social opinions we were taught as children. Nothing that is given should be accepted. We must step back from our initial assumptions and see them as being, at best, merely true-for-us rather than being simply true.

In order to spur us toward critical thought, the dominant strategy of contemporary instruction is shock therapy. Anticipating the method, the early modern essayist Montaigne described his desires to “pile up here some ancient fashions that I have in my memory, some like ours, others different, to the end that we may strengthen and enlighten our judgment by reflection on the continual variation of human things.” Montaigne is confident that by “piling up” these examples, we will be forced to stop thinking parochially and recognize that men and women have lived many different ways according to many different ideals and customs. We will be shocked by the diversity, and for just this reason, we will be levered away from an atavistic loyalty to our particular ways of viewing the world.

But the ancient fashions Montaigne catalogues are not simply diverse. He chooses very carefully, and in a way that also anticipates postmodern historiography and cultural study, his examples tend toward the prurient and base. Montaigne quotes ancient descriptions of how people wiped themselves after bowel movements, as well as peculiar postcoital practices. The shock, then, is redoubled, for not only do we see the diversity of cultures, but as Montaigne insinuates, we begin to worry that those beliefs and practices we think so decisive for human decency and moral rectitude will come to seem as silly and pointless as the ancient Roman expectation that men would pluck all the hairs off their chest, legs, and arms.

What Montaigne sought to achieve has become the very ideal of “critical thinking.” He wants us to step back from our loyalty to the immediate and seemingly self-evident truths of our inherited way of life. He wants us to separate ourselves from our cultural context. To think responsibly about culture, morality, and religion, then, involves establishing critical distance. Just think about biblical criticism. In most cases, the basic strategy of instruction is to force pious students to step back from the immediacy of the canonical form of the text to see how what seems to be a doctrinally consistent and spiritually unified whole is, in fact, a text made up of heterogeneous sources and layers of editorial revision.

The Limits of Critical Thinking: John Henry Newman
The now widespread effect of the modern critical project is to undermine our confidence that any moral or cultural system should properly command our full loyalty. For this reason, as John Henry Newman observed, critical thinking has “a tendency to blunt the practical energy of the mind.” It loosens the bonds of commitment and distances us from the immediacy of truths we once thought unquestionable. Critical distance may free us from prejudice, but it can also undermine the hope that enduring truths might be found. It can engender a humility that sustains tolerance, but it can also so relax the passions of the intellect that our civility comes at the price of conviction. The ways in which this leads to acedia are, I think, obvious…

The very sentiments that the classical Christian authors feared are precisely the virtues modern educators seek to instill in their students. The lento amore, the slow love that Dante thinks must be purged from our souls, is the dispassionate heart that establishes critical distance and waits for compelling evidence. The sterilitas animae that so worries Bernard of Clairvaux describes quite well the ideal of a critical thinker who has purified himself of the corrupting parochialism that limits his larger, more universal vision. When someone prefaces a comment with the confession that he is speaking from a “white, male, upper-middle-class perspective,” it reveals either a competition for the upper-hand (“I am more critical than you are”) or a despair of ever saying anything worthwhile.

The Nobility Of Our Commitments
Critical distance is not the only ideal of our time. We can never achieve an entirely care-free approach to life. Commitment energizes our culture even as critical inquiry encourages dispassionate analysis. Yet the very nobility of our commitments can create a distance that is as debilitating as critique. Since no actual society or movement lives up to that ideal, we can end up unengaged in fact and in action — pushing away evil rather than seeking the good. Controlled by what the old writers called fastidium, a fastidious conscience, we boil with outrage on the surface of our souls, while at a deeper level, we go slack. Thus, many so-called seekers do not seek at all; they wait for something worthy of their allegiance and the waiting becomes habitual and comfortable. Our society has far more of these “waiters” than “seekers.”

The Fastidiousness Of Our Cruelty And Suffering
This fastidiousness is evident in our cultural response to suffering, the second feature of our current intellectual and moral landscape that strikes me as emblematic. We recoil from cruelty, and this dominates our collective conscience as the summum malum. The taboos of traditional morality may evaporate as we cultivate critical distance, but no pure vacuum develops in their place. Instead, our sensitivity to suffering and our horror over cruelty increases. Just consider the case of my grandmother, who went to a public hanging at a county fair in Hannibal, Missouri, when she was a child. Today, we shudder at the thought. How, we ask ourselves, could our forebears have been so insensitive to suffering and cruelty?

Once again, I do not intend a blanket criticism of our present squeamishness. Most likely, we should be thankful that something of moral significance has filled the void created by critical consciousness. At least we cannot gaze upon torture and suffering with a dispassionate and care-free attitude. Nonetheless, we must recognize how contemporary moral sensibilities tempt us toward acedia. Our vague and general moral sentiments — “suffering is evil” — overwhelm our immediate duties and corrupt our ability to function within the complexities of ordinary moral relations. As Judith Shklar wrote, “To hate cruelty more than any other evil involves a radical rejection of both religious and political conventions. It dooms me to a life of skepticism, indecision, disgust, and often misanthropy.”

Our misanthropy is swaddled in kindness, but it manifests the symptoms of acedia nonetheless. How many parents cannot muster the determination to discipline their children because they cannot bear inflicting the suffering it will require? How many educators have despaired of grading, not out of lassitude or neglect, but because they shrink from the thought of the hurt feelings of those who do poorly? The examples are but instances of a broad cultural trend. Demand and expectation are hurtful, and we turn away from zeal in order to soften the blows of discipline. Our general commitment to reduce suffering causes us to hesitate from inflicting the pain of shame. Thus, acedia, a languid disregard for moral and social standards, is now a virtue.

Fearing Evil
For this reason, I do not think our present culture of affirmation is based on an Emersonian conviction that each person is lit with genius. Rather, we hold our tongues and smile politely when people tell us of their divorces, abortions, infidelities, and transgressions because we do not want to make anyone feel bad. We indulge and we trim, because the thought of suffering paralyzes. Fixed on the horror of cruelty, the fastidious conscience is brought to inaction by the very passion of its commitment. Fearing evil — why add to the grief of divorce by condemning it? — we withdraw from action.

Bridging The Distances Demanded By Critical Thought
How can we bridge the distances demanded by critical thought? How can we overcome the fastidious conscience that cannot countenance the “no” of discipline? First, we need to guard against the tendency of modern theology to turn the afflictions of acedia into enticements toward virtue. Consider Paul Tillich’s formulation of the “Protestant Principle.” It is the negation of all positive, finite, and worldly forms of faith and practice. In this way, Tillich makes critical distance into a form of faith. “What makes Protestantism Protestant,” he writes, “is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms.” The stepping back that marks critical thought is, then, the essence of true religion. “Protestantism,” Tillich continues, “has a principle that stands beyond all its realizations.” “It is not exhausted by any historical religion; it is not identical with the structure of the Reformation or of early Christianity or even with a religious form at all.” Or still again, “The Protestant principle . . . contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.” Thus, Tillich draws a conclusion that is ubiquitous in modern progressive theologies: “Nobody can have the ultimate, nothing conditioned can possess the unconditional. And nobody can localize the divine that transcends space and time.” Or to quote from a bumper sticker version of the same: My God is too big to fit into any one religion.

The Torpor Of Critical Distance
If Tillich’s Protestant principle is true, then why in the world would anyone experience, let alone give in to, a burning desire to come to the Lord in baptism and worship? If nothing conditioned can possess the unconditioned, if the finite is not capable of the infinite, then who would not despair of the religious life? Contrary to Tillich, we must stop pretending that the distance and dispassion of modern intellectual life are covert forms of faithfulness. Critical thought may produce what St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 7, calls worldly grief, the sorrow that any honest person must feel when he recognizes that sickness, disease, and death conquer finite flesh. But we must be crystal clear. Critical thought does not and cannot produce the godly grief that St. Paul commends. That comes from repentance and personal change, not critical insight.

This leads me to my second observation. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the principle of sacramental penance holds sway. Vices are cured by their contrary, and thus, the slow and tepid love of the slothful is purged by a frenzied fervor. So, in a picturesque scene, just as Dante and Virgil doze off on the ledge of lento amore, they are awakened by a crowd of penitents rushing by, shouting and weeping with overwrought passion. “Sharp fervor,” says Virgil to those who run by, “makes up for negligence and delay which you perhaps used through lukewarmness in doing good.” Here we need to be careful not to moralize, for according to Dante, as for all premodern writers, the great work of charity is first and foremost the work of prayer. To the extent that we are brought to dispassion by critical thought, we must enter into the disciplines of daily prayer with all the greater fervor and commitment. The more we feel the torpor of critical distance, the more swiftly we must run toward the daily office, toward regular study of Scripture, toward the bread and the cup of the Eucharist. An intimacy with divine things is the proper way toward a passion for divine truth. We cannot enjoy that which we hold at a distance.

Desire For Truth
This insight also holds true for the intellectual life. Critical distance easily produces a torpor animi. We must resist the temptation to forever look behind or above or below. At some point, we must train our minds on some aspect of study, whether Wordsworth’s Prelude or a puzzling question in topology. We must allow ourselves to be romanced and ravished by the promise of truth. As St. Bonaventure observes in the prologue to the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, those who study must be “anointed with the oil of gladness” so that they might be inflamed with desire for wisdom. If we are to fight the noonday devil of acedia, then the lento amore of critical distance needs to be counteracted by forms of intellectual life that hasten toward an embrace of truth. Desire for truth needs to gain the upper hand over fear of error.

Evagrius Ponticus’ Solution: Fight The Agitated Search
Evagrius Ponticus offers a different remedy for sloth. For him, the single great weapon against acedia is stability. This seems to contradict Dante’s rushing throng, but it does not. The penitent are hurrying away from their negligence. Evagrius, however, is not concerned with how to restore the fallen, but how to prevent the monk from falling in the first place. He writes, “The time of temptation is not the time to leave one’s cell, devising plausible pretexts. Rather, stand there firmly and be patient.” When, a few centuries later, St. Benedict made stability the centerpiece of Western monasticism, he did so for the same reason. A great stratagem of the slothful is to hurry about from place to place to find a more congenial locale for their spiritual projects. The moment a postmodern seeker finds worship somewhat cold, off he goes to another church to try to find more “vitality,” or even more likely, he logs onto and orders a book on Buddhist spirituality. We demand immediate results, and should we experience the dryness and tepidness that comes from distance and alienation, we respond by distancing ourselves still further.

This agitated search for something higher, something more transparent — “the pure gospel” — comes at a great cost. One can no more play games with separation and divorce in marriage and expect to enjoy the fruits of intimacy, than one can in one’s union with the body of Christ. One can no more serve Christ by loyalty to theological abstractions than serve human beings by loyalty to sentience. Only a focused love can overcome distance. After all, Dante’s rushing crowds on the ledge of sloth are not going hither and yon. They are all going the same direction — toward Him in whom all will rest.

There Are No Intellectual Solutions To Spiritual Problems
Knowing whether to follow Dante’s advice and rush toward intimacy or to heed Evagrius and remain in stable loyalty cannot be reduced to a formula or principle. There are no intellectual solutions to spiritual problems. Like each of the seven deadly sins, acedia must be fought with spiritual discipline. Such discipline is profoundly alien to our culture, not because we have alternatives, but because we entertain the fantasy of life without spiritual demands. This fantasy is the most important legacy of modernity. For the great innovation of modern culture was the promise of progress without spiritual discipline. All we need to do is adopt the experimental method, calculate utility, institute the rule of law, establish democracy, trust the market. In each instance, scientific knowledge, the machinery of proper procedure, the invisible hand of a well-designed process, will carry us forward. If we will but believe in this promise, we are told, then we will be free to neglect our souls. For according to this modern dream, our virtues and vices are inconsequential matters of private taste and personal judgment. Thus, although our society is increasingly willing to use economic incentives and legal sanctions to influence behavior (welfare reform and laws against smoking are signal examples), we insist that all discipline must remain on the surfaces of life. Once economic and legal requirements are met, we insist upon our right to live as we wish.

This fantasy of life without spiritual demands demonstrates the depth of our captivity to acedia. Pride has no role here, for even when vicious, ambition shapes the soul. Our ideal, by contrast, is shapelessness. We want to be free . . . to be ourselves. Our ambition is a tautology empty of any will to shape or sharpen our lives. Even as we sculpt our bodies in the gyms, we cultivate a languid spiritual disposition, one aptly described by Chaucer:

For ye be lyke the sweynte cate
That wolde have fissh, but wostow what?
He wolde nothing wete his clowes.

In our sloth, we will not wet our feet in the frightening water of any spiritual discipline, Christian or otherwise. For fear of wounding sensibilities, for fear of ethnocentric dogmatism, we abandon discipline, or we individualize discipline to the point that it is not discipline at all.

A Larger Vision Of Journey
We must wet our claws. Neither Dante’s urgent rush toward the truth nor Evagrius’ patient stability leads to an exhausted or desiccated existence. On the contrary, the spiritual disciplines they urge serve the end of intimacy. Their strategies awaken and tether, energize and focus. They wish us to become persons with distinct outlines and deep purposes. Only as such persons can we be partners in fellowship — with the truths we seek and with each other. One can no more desire the blessings of marriage with indifference or a wandering eye, than seek a lasting truth with languid disregard or lack of concentration. This holds true in our relation to God. We must desire holiness to allow the burning coal to touch our lips, and we must be attentive and focused to hear the still, small voice. We should rush toward our Lord, for we can never become too intimate, and we should wait patiently with Him, for He always has something more to give. To do so, we must place the pedagogy of critical distance and the dictates of conscience within a larger vision of journey toward the truth, a journey in which the warm and enduring embrace of love is to be cherished rather than mocked or feared. 


Book (and PBS Series) Recommendation: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

November 19, 2009

Thanks to the PBS series of the same name, this book is getting a second life. I found it fascinating when I read it several years back (before my conversion) and reviewing these reading selections I realize it still holds the same attraction for me, although now I tend to read it through the prism of God’s creation – something I tended to lack as a point of view before. Many of the stories here also have a theme of the corrupting influence of man’s stewardship of God’s creation – one thinks of the tulip bubble or the use of cannabis.

A few posts back I introduced Fr. Robert Barron’s explanation of the etymology of the word “sin,” how it was related to scattering and the product of sin,” over-and-againstness, separation, suspicion, mutual hatred, blaming” were all signs of the presence of that scattering power of sin. The current economic collapse we are experiencing and some of these stories (think of the story of the potato) seem to illustrate that better than the usual.

The potato (you’ll have to see the video or catch the PBS special) was first rejected by Europeans because it was a member of the nightshade family and was thought to cause leprosy — and it came from America. three strikes that made it fit to eat, only by the Irish( then considered European miscreants. The Irish soon found that the combination of protein and vitamins B & C made the potato a worthy, versatile staple.

Their dependence grew so strong, that when a fungus eradicated their crops in the late 1840s, it also decimated the human population by millions. We seem to have punished the potato with our own genetic engineering techniques: a modern potato like The New Leaf variety (the potato favored by MacDonald’s for its fries) has the ability to kill beetles with toxins from its own leaf. But consumers, fearing the unintended consequences of man’s messing with nature, rose to protest its introduction into the modern food chain.

Here are my reading selections, random stuff I pick up,  from the book:

Coevolutionary Relationship
Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different: we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago. Like the apple blossom, whose form and scent have been selected by bees over countless generations, the size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations by us — by Incas and Irishmen , even by people like me ordering French fries at McDonald’s. Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness for the bee; heft and nutritional value in the case of the potato-eating human. The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in this arrangement. All those plants care about is what ever being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error these plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals — bees or people, it hardly matters — to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.

We automatically think of domestication as something we do to another species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The species that have spent the last ten thousand years or so figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories….Domesticated species don’t command our respect the way their wild cousins often do. Evolution may reward interdependence, but our thinking selves continue to prize self-reliance. The wolf is somehow more impressive to us than the dog. Yet there are fifty million dogs in America today and only ten thousand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t? The big thing the dog knows about — the subject it has mastered in the ten thousand years it has been evolving at our side — is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes as part of a sophisticated strategy for survival. If you could read the genome of the dog like a book, you would learn a great deal about who we are and what makes us tick.

…sweetness has proved to be a force in evolution. By encasing their seeds in sugary and nutritious flesh, fruiting plants such as the apple hit on an ingenious way of exploiting the mammalian sweet tooth: in exchange for fructose, the animals provide the seeds with transportation, allowing the plant to expand its range. As parties to this grand coevolutionary bargain, animals with the strongest predilection for sweetness and plants offering the biggest, sweetest fruits prospered together and multiplied, evolving into the species we see, and are, today. As a precaution, the plants took certain steps to protect their seeds from the avidity of their partners: they held off on developing sweetness and color until the seeds had matured complexly (before then fruits tend to be inconspicuously green and unpalatable), and in some cases (like the apple’s), the plants developed poisons in their seeds to ensure that only the sweet flesh is consumed. Desire then is built into the very nature an purpose of fruit, and so, quite often, is a kind of taboo. The vegetable kingdom’s lack of glamour by comparison (whoever heard of a forbidden vegetable?) can be laid to the fact that a vegetable’s reproductive strategy doesn’t turn on turning animals on.

Flowers and Beauty
Most of humankind for most of its history have been in the same irrational boat as the seventeenth century Dutch — crazy for flowers. So what is this tropism all about, for us, and for the flowers. How did these organs of plant sex manage to get themselves cross-wired with human ideas of value and status and Eros? And what might our ancient attraction for flowers have to teach us about the deeper mysteries of beauty — what one poet has called “this grace wholly gratuitous”? Is that what it is? Or does beauty have a purpose?.. Psychiatrists regard a patient’s indifference to flowers as a symptom of clinical depression. It seems that by the time the singular beauty of a flower in bloom can no longer pierce the veil of black or obsessive thoughts in a person’s mind, that mind’s connection to the sensual world has grown dangerously frayed.

Flowers and Natural Selection
Natural selection has designed flowers to communicate with other species, deploying an astonishing array of devices — visual , olfactory, and tactile — to get the attention of specific insects and birds and even certain mammals. In order to achieve their objectives, many flowers rely not just on simple chemical signals but on signs, sometimes even on a kind of symbolism. Some plant species go so far as to impersonate other creatures or things in order to secure pollination or, in the case of carnivorous plants, a meal. To entice flies into its inner sanctum (there to be digested by waiting enzymes), the pitcher plant has developed a weirdly striated maroon-and-white flower that is not all attractive unless you happen to be attracted to decaying meat. (The flower’s rancid scent reinforces this effect.)

Flowers Avoid Self-Pollination
Though many flowers, like the lilies, possess both male and female organs, they go to great lengths to avoid pollinating themselves. That would defeat the floral point, which is the mixing of genes that cross-pollination ensures. A flower can avoid self-pollination chemically (by making its ovule and pollen grain incompatible), architecturally (by arranging stamen and pistil in the flower so as to avoid contact), or temporally (by staggering the times when their stamens produce pollen and their pistils are receptive.

The Love of Their (Flower’s) Lives
For many flowers the great love of their lives now is humankind. Those daylilies leaning expectantly forward? Their faces are in fact turned toward us, whose favor now ensures their success better than any bug’s can. That peony with the salacious pubic stamens? Blame the Chinese for than one: for thousands of years their poets, discerning manifestations of yin and yang in the garden, likened peony blossoms to a woman’s sexual organs (and a bee or butterfly to a man’s); over time Chinese peonies evolved, by means of artificial selection, to gratify that conceit. Even the perfume of certain Chinese tree peonies is womanly, a scent of flowers tinged with briny sweat; the flowers smell less like perfume of the bottle than a scent that’s spent time on human skin. It may still attract the bees, but by now it’s our brain stems the scent is meant to fire.

Beauty and Health
Evolutionary biologists believe that in many creatures beauty is a reliable indicator of health, and therefore a perfectly sensible way to choose one mate over another. Gorgeous plumage, lustrous hair, symmetrical features are “certificates of health” as one scientist puts it, advertisements that a creature carries genes for resistance to parasites and in not other wise under stress. Among birds, the species most susceptible to parasites are the ones with the most extravagant plumage — probably because these are the ones that most need to advertise their fitness. A fabulous tail is a metabolic extravagance only the healthy can afford. In the same way a fabulous car is a financial extravagance only the successful can afford. In our own species, too, ideals of beauty often correlate with health: when lack of food was what usually killed people, people judged body fat to be a thing of beauty. though the current preference for sickly-pale, rail-thin models suggests that culture can override evolutionary imperatives.

The Canonical Flowers
What sets these canonical flowers [rose, peony, orchid, lily, tulip] apart from the run of charming daisies and pinks and carnations, not to mention the legions of pretty wildflowers? Perhaps more than anything else, it’s their multifariousness. Some perfectly good flowers simply are what they are are, singular and, if not completely fixed in their identity, capable of ringing only a few simple changes on it; hue, say, or petal count. Prod it all you want, select and cross and reengineer it, but there’s only so much a coneflower or a lotus is ever going to do. Fashion is apt to puck up such a flower for a time and then drop it — think of the pink or gillyflower, in Shakespeare’s day or the hyacinth in Queen Victoria’s — since it won’t let itself be remade in some new image once its first one is passé. By contrast the rose, orchid, and the tulip are capable of prodigies, reinventing themselves again and again to suit every change in the aesthetic or political weather.

Natural vs. Artificial Selection
From the chance mutations thrown out by a flower, nature preserves the rare ones that confer some advantage — brighter color, more perfect symmetry, whatever. For millions of years such features were selected, in effect, by the tulip’s pollinators — that is, insects — until the Turks came along and began to cast their own votes. The Turks did not learn to make deliberate crosses till the 1600’s; the novel tulips they prized were said simply to have “occurred”. Darwin called such a process artificial, as opposed to natural selection, but from the flower’s point of view, this is a distinction without a  difference: individual plants in which a trait desired by either bees or Turks occurred wound up with ore offspring. Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy by which the plants have exploited in us and our desires — even our most idiosyncratic notions of beauty — to advance their interests….Mutations that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes probe to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that’s been shaped by human desire.

Flowers, the Crucible of Beauty?
Human desire entered into the natural history of the flower and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding into its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes….we gazed even further into the blossom of a flower and found something more: the crucible of beauty, if not art, and maybe even a glimpse into the meaning of life…the heart of nature’s double nature — that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiraling toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were  names the Greeks gave to these to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, both transcendence and necessity.

Lessons of Coevolution
One of the great lessons of coevolution is that the all-out victory of one species over another is often Pyrrhic. That’s because a powerful, death-dealing toxin can exert such a strong selective pressure for resistance in its target population that it is quickly rendered ineffective; a better strategy may be to repel, disable, or confound….some plant toxins such as nicotine, paralyze or convulse the muscles of pests who ingest them. Others such as caffeine, unhinge an insect’s nervous system and kill its appetite. Toxins in datura (and henbane and a great many other hallucinogens) drive a plant’s predators mad, stuffing their brains with visions distracting or horrible enough to take the creatures’ mind off lunch….compounds such as flavonoids change the taste of plant flesh on the tongues of certain animals, rendering the sweetest fruit sour or the sourest flesh sweet, depending on the plant’s designs. Photosensitizers present in species such as the wild parsnip cause the animals that eat it to burn in the sun; chromosomes exposed to these compounds spontaneously mutate when exposed to ultraviolet light. A molecule present in the sap of a certain tree prevents caterpillars that sample its leaves from ever growing into butterflies.

Catnip contains a chemical compound, called “nepetalactone” which mimics the pheromone cats produce in their urine during courtship. This chemical key just happens to fit an aphrodisiac lock in a cat’s brain and apparently no other.

Types of Marijuana
Cannabis Sativa, an equatorial species poorly adapted to life in the northern latitudes. Sativa can’t withstand frost, and… usually won’t set flowers (sinsemilla) north of the thirtieth parallel…American hippies traveling the “hashish trail” through Afghanistan returned with seeds of Cannabis indica, a stout, frost-tolerant species that had been grown for centuries by hashish producers in the mountains of central Asia…it rarely grows taller than four or five feet (as compared to fifteen for the stateliest sativa) and its purplish green leaves are shorter and rounder than the long, slender fingers of sativa. Indica also proved to be exceptionally potent, although many people will tell you that its smoke is harsher and its high more physically debilitating than that of sativa.

Marijuana’s Genetic Revolution
Marijuana’s genetic revolution recalls an earlier horticultural watershed: the introduction of the China rose (R. chinensis) to Europe in 1789, an event that made it possible for the first time to breed roses that would flower more than one  a season…for both the rose and marijuana, human mobility coupled with human desire — for a rose that would rebloom in august; for sinsemilla that would grow in the north –  led to the reunification of two distinct evolutionary lines of a plant that had diverged thousands of years before… the smoother taste and “clear, bell-like high “ associated with the best equatorial sativa.. Could be combined with the superior potency and hardiness of an indica… the result.. “a great revolution” in cannabis genetics…

Cannabis Genetics
By judiciously manipulating the five main environmental factors under their control — water, nutrients, light, carbon dioxide levels and heat — as well as the genetics of the plant, growers found that the marijuana plant, this remarkably obliging weed, could be made to perform wonders….cannabis genetics improved to the point where it was no longer unusual to find sinsemilla with concentrations of the THC, marijuana’s principal psychoactive compound, as high as 15 percent…(THC in ordinary marijuana ranged from 2 to 3 percent…for sinsemilla 5 to 8 percent)…nowadays THC levels of 20 percent are not unheard of.

Indoor Growing of Cannabis
Indoors… the gardener is mother nature but even better. ..growers discovered they could speed photosynthesis by supplying plants with all of the nutrients, carbon dioxide, and light they could handle — vast amounts, as it turned out (Cannabis is, after all a weed.) Gardeners found that their plants could absorb hundreds of thousands of lumens — a blinding amount of light — twenty four hours a day. Later on by abruptly slashing their diet of light to twelve hours daily (and changing from metal halide to sodium lights, the frequency which more closely mimics the autumn sun), growers could shock their plants into flowering before they were eight weeks old. With the right equipment, an indoor grower could create a utopia for his plants, an artificial habitat more perfect that any in nature…

Female Marijuana Plants
As long as the female marijuana plant remains unpollinated, it will continue to produce new calyxes, steadily adding to the length of its flower. in this state of perpetual sexual frustration, the plant also continues to produce large quantities of THC-rich resin. But even a few grains of pollen to reach the plant’s flowers, and the process abruptly stops: bud and resin production shuts down, the plant commences producing seeds and the sinsemilla is ruined

A Regimen of Encouragement For Cannabis
The grower had chosen this particular town because it is home to a candy factory, a bakery, and a chemical plant. Marijuana plants, and indicas in particular, emit a strong, acrid odor; he was counting on the cacophony of smells produced by these three neighbors to cover the telltale stink of his plants…he flung open a tightly sealed door and I was hit squarely in the face first by a blast of white, white light, and then by a stink so powerful tit felt like a punch. Sweaty, vegetal, and sulfurous, the place might have been a locker room in the Amazon…I stepped into a windowless chamber not much bigger than a walk-in closet, crammed with electrical equipment, snaked with cables and plastic tubing, and completely sealed off for the world. More than half the room was taken up by the gardener’s Sea of Green: a six foot square table invisible beneath a jungle of dark, serrated leaves oscillating gently in an artificial breeze. There were perhaps a hundred clones here, each barely a foot tall, yet already sending forth a thick finger of hairy calyxes casting about vainly for a few grains of airborne pollen. A network of narrow plastic pipes supplied the plant with water, a tank of CO2 sweetened their air, a ceramic heather warmed their roots at night, and four 600-watt sodium fixtures bathed them in a blaze of light for twelve hours of each y. The other twelve, they were sealed in perfect darkness. The briefest lapse of light would ruin the whole crop…in exchange for a regimen of encouragement the likes few plants have ever known, these hundred eager demonic dwarves would oblige their gardener with three pound of dried buds before the month was out — some $13,000 worth of flowers.

One Culture’s Panacea Is Another’s Panapathogen
But the reason cultures give for promoting one plant and forbidding another are remarkably fluid in both time and space one culture’s panacea is another’s panapathogen (root of all evil).Think of the traditional role of alcohol in the Christian West as opposed to the Islamic East…Tobacco smoking and coffee drinking  were taboo in the West before the Industrial Revoliution. The German historian Wolfgang Shivelbusch, suggests that the two drugs became socially acceptable because they aided in industrialization’s “reorientation of the human organism to the primacy of mental labor.”

A Natural History of Religion
A natural history of religion would show that the human experience of the divine has deep roots in psychoactive plants and fungi. Karl Marx may have gotten it backward when he called religion the opiate of the people…somewhere in that volume we would surely find a chapter on the place of the opium poppy and cannabis in the romantic imagination…It’s well known that many English romantic poets used opium, and several of the French romantics experimented with hashish soon after Napoleon’s troops brought it back with them from Egypt… Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notion of the imagination as a mental faculty that “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate,” an idea whose reverberations to Western culture haven’t yet been stilled, simply cannot be understood without reference to the change in consciousness wrought by opium….Not just poetry but modernism, surrealism, cubism, and jazz have all been nourished by Coleridge’s idea of the transforming imagination….Lenson writes “We have to face the fact that some of our canonical poets and theorists, when apparently talking about imagination, are really talking about getting high.”

A meme is simply a unit of memorable cultural information. It can be sas small as a tune or a metaphor, as big as philosophy or religious concept. Hell is a meme, so are Pythagorean theorem,  A Hard Day’s Night, the wheel, Hamlet, pragmatism, harmony….Dwarkin’s theory is that memes are to cultural evolution what genes are to biological evolution…Memes are culture’s building blocks, passed down from brain to brain in a Darwinian process that leads by trial and error, to cultural innovation and progress. The memes that prove themselves best adapted to their “environment” — that is the ones most likely to survive and replicate and become widely regarded as good, true, or beautiful. Culture at any given moment is a meme pool in which we all swim  — or rather that swims through us.

Cannabis “High” is a Creation of the Mind?
Andrew Weil contends that cannabis does not itself create but merely triggers the mental state we identify as “being high.” The very same mental state can be triggered in other ways, such as meditation or breathing exercises. Weil believes that it is an error of modern materialist thinking to believe that the high smokes experience is somehow a product of he plant itself (or THC), rather than a creation of the mind — prompted perhaps but sui generis.

The Cannabinoid Network
On the assumption that the human brain would not have evolved a special structure for the express purpose of getting it high on marijuana, researchers hypothesized that the brain must manufacture its own THC like chemical for some as yet unknown purpose. The scientific paradigm at work here was the endorphin system, which is tripped by opiates from plants as well as endorphins produced in the brain….Raphael Mechoulam found…the brain’s own endogenous cannabinoid. He named it “anandamide’” form the Sanskrit “inner bliss”…the effects of the cannabinoid network: pain relief, loss of short term memory, sedation, and mild cognitive impairment …”All of which is exactly what Adam and Eve went after being thrown out of Eden. You couldn’t design a more perfect drug for getting Eve through the pain of childbirth or helping Adam endure a life of physical toil. …cannabinoid receptors had been found in the uterus, of all places, and speculated that anandamide may not only dull the pain of childbirth but help woman forget it later. The sensation of pain is curiously one of the hardest to summon from memory…

High With Carl Sagan
“There is a myth about such highs, the user has the illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny until morning. I am convinced this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved while high are real insights; the main problem is putting those insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day…If I find in the morning a message from myself the night before informing me that there is a world around us which we barely sense, or that we can become one with the universe, or even that certain politicians are desperately frightened men, I may tend to disbelieve; but when I’m high, I know about this disbelief.”
Marijuana Reconsidered, Lester Grinspoon

The Importance of Forgetting
What a curious thing ..for the brain to do, manufacture chemicals that interfere with it own ability to make memories…forgetting is a mental operation, not a breakdown of one….think how quickly the sheer volume and multiplicity of sensory information we receive every waking minute would overwhelm our consciousness if we couldn’t quickly forget a great deal more of it than we remember…oru mental health depends on a mechanism for editing the moment-by-moment ocean of sensory data flowing into our consciousness down to a manageable trickle of the noticed and remembered. The cannabinoid network appears to be part of that mechanism, vigilantly sifting the vast chaff of sense impression from the kernels of perceptions we need to remember if we’re to get though the day and get on with what needs to be done. Much depends on forgetting.

Nietzche is describing a kind of transcendence — a mental state of complete and utter absorption well known to artists, athletes, gamblers, musicians, dancers, soldiers in battle, mystics, meditators, and the devout during prayer. ..It is a state that depends on its effect on losing oneself in the moment, usually by training a powerful, depthless concentration on One Big Thing (Or, in the Eastern tradition, One Big Nothing). If you imagine consciousness as a kind of lens through which we perceive the world, the drastic constricting of its field of vision seems to heighten the vividness of whatever remains in the circle of perception, while everything’s (including our awareness of the lens itself) simply falls away…Some of our greatest happinesses arrive in such moments, during which we feel we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time — clock time, of course, but also historical and psychological time, and sometimes even mortality…in the Eastern tradition: “Awaken to this present instant,” a Zen master has written, “we realize the infinite is the finite of each instant.” We can’t get there from here without first forgetting.


Book Recommendation: The Ascent To Truth by Thomas Merton

November 18, 2009

There is no greater joy for a Christian seeking to deepen his practice of the faith than quiet time with Thomas Merton (a review of his autobiography here). The Ascent To Truth is Merton’s meditation on the great Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross and the contemplative life. It has been reported that Merton considered the book a failure, as it is a product of his youth, but if you take a quick scan down to the last entry on Mary, I think you will see that Merton’s “failures” are unqualified successes and can be sources of illumination for the rest of us.

A Pattern of Development in Life and In Contemplation
Our nature imposes on us a certain pattern of development which we must follow if we are to fulfill our best capacities and achieve at least the partial happiness of being human…it can be stated very simply: We must know the truth, and we must love the truth we know, and we must act according to the measure of our love…Contemplation reproduces the same essential outline of this pattern, but on a much higher level. For contemplation is a work of grace, The Truth to which it unites us is not an abstraction but Reality and Life itself. The love by which it unites us to this Truth is a gift of God and an only be produced within us by the direct action of God.

Mystical Contemplation
The true nature of mystical contemplation is first of all a supernatural experience of God as He is in Himself. This experience is a free gift of God in  a more special sense than are all the other graces required for our sanctification, although it forms a part of the normal supernatural organism by which we are sanctified. Essentially mystical experience is a vivid conscious participation of our soul and its faculties in the life, knowledge and love of God Himself. This participation is ontologically possible only because sanctifying grace is imparted to us as a new “being” superadded to our nature and giving it the power to elicit acts which are entirely beyond its own capacity.

Blaise Pascal on The Psychology of Illusion
A Man can pass his whole life without boredom, merely by gambling each day with a modest sum. Give him, each morning, the amount of money he might be able to win each day, on a condition that he must not gamble: you make him miserable! You may say that what he seeks is the amusement of gaming, not the winnings. All right let him play for nothing. There will be no excitement, he will be bored to death.

So it is not just amusement that he seeks, An amusement that is tame, without passion, only bores him. He wants to get worked up and to delude himself that he is going to be happy if he wins a sum that he would actually refuse if it were given him on condition that he must not gamble. He needs to create an object for his passions and to direct upon his object his desire, his anger and his fear — like children who scare themselves with their own painted faces.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa
All that man pursues in this life has no existence except in his mind, not in reality: opinion, honor, dignities, glory, fortune: all these are the work of this life’s spiders…but those who rise to the heights escape, with the flick of a wing from the spiders of this world. Only those who, like flies, are heavy and without energy remain caught in the glue of this world and are taken and bound, as though in nets, by honors, pleasures, praise and manifold desires, and thus they become the prey of the beast that seeks to capture them.

Men are condemned to physical or spiritual movement because it is unbearable for them to sit still. Blaise Pascal: “We look for rest and overcome obstacles to obtain it. But if we overcome these obstacles, rest becomes intolerable, for we begin to think of the misfortunes that are ours, or of those that threaten to descend upon us.” Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man’s guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire. Incapable of the divine activity which alone can satisfy his soul, fallen man flings himself upon exterior things, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of the agitation which keeps his spirit pleasantly numb….Pascal: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is , in itself, the greatest of our miseries.”

Discernment and Detachment
The Christian contemplation of nature is characterized in the ascetic gift of discernment, which is one penetrating glance, apprehend what creatures are and what they are not. This is the intellectual counterpoise of detachment in the will. Discernment and detachment (krisis and apatheia) are two characters of the mature Christina soul. They are not yet the mark of a mystic but they bear witness that one is traveling the right way to mystical contemplation and the stage of beginners has passed….The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good — charity, union with the will of God — and an equally spontaneous repugnance with what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right or deterred from evil by threat of punishment.

The Tragedy Of Man
Our tragedy consists in this: that although our reason may be capable of showing us clearly the futility of what we desire, we continue to desire it for the sake of the desire. Passion itself is our pleasure. Reason then becomes he instrument of passion. Its perverted function is to create idols — that is fictions –to which we can dedicate the worship of love and hatred, joy and anguish, hope and fear.

The First Commandment
Saint John of the Cross regarded the First Commandment as a summary of the entire ascetic and mystical life, up to and including Transforming Union. He tells us in fact that his works are simply an explanation of what is contained in the commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength.” …Saint John of the Cross: “Herein is contained all the spiritual man ought to do, and all that I have here to teach him, so that he may truly attain God, through union of the will, by means of charity. For herein man is commanded to employ all his faculties and desires and operations and affections of his soul in God so that all the ability and strength of his soul may serve for no more than  this.”…this is simply the imitation of Christ “who in His life had no other pleasure  than to do the will of his Father. We must renounce and completely reject every pleasure that presents itself to the senses, if it be not purely for the  honor and glory of God.

Acquired vs. Infused Wisdom
Acquired wisdom is the fruit of man’s own study and his thought and infused wisdom or contemplation which is a gift of God….Acquired wisdom can do nothing to bring a man to divine union with God, divine union is a vocation and, if faithful, a destiny…The whole ascetical and mystical life is a reproduction of the life of Christ on earth because it completely empties and “annihilates” the soul in order to unite it to God.

Saint Teresa of Avila
“My opinion has always been and always will be that every Christian should try to consult some learned person, if he can, and the more learned the person the better, Those who walk in the way of prayer have the greater need of learning and the more spiritual they are, the greater is their need. Let us not make the mistake that learned men who do not practice (contemplative) prayer are not suitable directors for those who do…if a person who practices prayer consults learned men, the devil will not deceive him with illusions, except by his own desire; for I think the devils are very much afraid of learned me who are humble and  virtuous, knowing these will find them out and defeat them.”

Notes on Christian Mystical Experience
In mystical experience God is apprehended as unknown.. A knowledge that registers itself in the soul passively without an idea…the intelligence needs light but contemplation obscures the clear knowledge of divine things, it hides them in a cloud of unknowing …God communicates Himself to the soul passively and in darkness….the only proximate means of union with God is faith…no vision, no revelation, however sublime is worth the smallest act of faith….

Three Statements On Unknowing
1. Acquired conceptual knowledge of God should not be discarded as long as it helps a man toward Divine Union. And it continues to help a man toward Divine Union as long as it does not interfere with the infused, passive, mystical experience of God in obscurity.

2. It is not so much the presence of concepts in the mind that interferes with the obscure mystical illumination of the soul as the desire to reach God through concepts . There is therefore no question of rejecting all conceptual knowledge of God, but of ceasing to rely on concepts as a proximate means of union with Him.

3. You are not supposed to renounce this desire of clear conceptual knowledge of God unless you are actually receiving infused prayer — or unless you are so advanced in then mystical life that your can enter into the presence of God without active thought of Him.

Explaining God
If you begin by juggling with a system of clear ideas which you think delimit and circumscribe the Being of God you will by that very fact, begin judging God according to the measure of your ideas…Like Job’s friends, you set yourself up as a theological advocate of God. You justify His ways to men not according to what He is, but according to what your system says He ought to be. In the end you find yourself apologizing to the world for God and demonstrating that, after all, He is not to be blamed for being what He is because it can be shown that He generally acts like a just prudent and benevolent man. Or rather to help him ascend a few degrees in the estimation  of men, you present Him to them as a well-disposed and democratic millionaire. The word for this is blasphemy. It is also atheism because a God who depends on your ideas for His justification cannot possibly exist.

The Certitude Of Scholastic Philosophy And Theology
Catholic philosophy and speculative theology…are in strict truth, sciences…they are not the pragmatic rationalization of vague spiritual desires. On the levels of both philosophy and theology. Catholic thought has a value that is speculative and absolute. That is to say, it arrives at conclusions about God which are endowed with a genuine scientific certitude, because they can be proved by clear demonstration to proceed with inexorable logic form the basic principles which are self evident, in the case of philosophy, and revealed by God, in the case of theology…Yet no matter how great may be the certitude of scholastic philosophy and theology, they both culminate in a knowledge of God tamquam ignotum. They know him in his transcendence. They know him as unknown….the physicist deals with energy in such a way that it becomes subject to his control…although the existence of God ends in absolute certitude, we cannot put our minds in possession of an object which we can determine, master, possess or command….our knowledge of God makes him master of the soul that knows Him….When he knows us we are. When he knows us not, we are not.

Christian Contemplation
Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears I the hours of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable. It is a vision in which Love, mounting into the darkness which no reasoning can penetrate, unites in one bond all the loose strands that intelligence alone cannot connect together, and with this cord draws the whole being of man into a Divine Union, the effects of which will someday overflow into the world outside him.

Concepts and Intelligence
The true spiritual crisis which sometimes leads to faith, the crisis within crisis that must always prepare  the way for contemplation, must first of all have an intellectual element. It must be borne of thought. It must spring from a respect for the validity of concepts and of reasoning. It accepts the work of intelligence. But it also sees that concepts and intelligence have their limitations. At the same time it realizes that the spirit is not necessarily bound by these limitations. And this is where the crisis begins…. I believe that Christ is God, that he is the word of God Incarnate. I believe that in Christ a human nature was assumed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in such a way that it does not subsist in a proper human personality of its own but has its being from Him, subsists in Him…I believe that the man Christ is a Divine Person, the Son of God. And I believe that by the grace which He has purchased for us all by His death on the Cross and which He has made available for all by His Resurrection form the dead, and communicated to all who are baptized. He has given me a share in that divine sonship. Spiritually therefore I am living by the life of the Son of God. My life is “hidden with Christ in God.” So much I believe….These are concepts and they are joined in intelligible judgments. I can penetrate their meaning by an analysis of them which compares their revealed content with the content of other propositions revealed by God or even with propositions known to reason. And yet they remain mysteries to me. No amount of analysis can make them clearly evident to my intelligence….Nevertheless, the love of God endows man’s spirit with a kind of instinctive realization that somehow these mysteries of faith are meant to be penetrated and appreciated. In a certain sense theyare given us to be understood Faith seeks understanding, not only in study by above all in payer. Fides quaerit intellect…And Saint Paul explained to the Christian converts of Corinth that although he spoke “the wisdom of God in a mystery, a mystery which is hidden,” nevertheless the Spirit of God would manifest hidden wonders of this wisdom. “To us God hath revealed them by His Spirit…We have received not the spirit of the world but he Spirit that is of God: that we may know the things that are given us from God .(1 Corinthians 2:7, 10, 12).

Contemplation: A Gift Of Self To God
The passage from philosophical understanding to faith is marked by a gift of our self to God. The moment of transition is the moment of sacrifice. The passage from faith to that spiritual understanding which is called contemplation is also a moment of immolation. It is the direct consequence of a more complete and radical gift of ourselves to God. Contemplation is a an intensification of faith that transforms belief into something akin to vision. Yet it is not “vision” since contemplation, being pure faith, is even darker than faith itself….For at the very moment we give ourselves to God, God gives himself to us. He cannot give Himself completely to us unless we give ourselves completely to Him: but we cannot give ourselves completely to Him unless He first gives Himself in some measure to us…We can only give ourselves to God when Christ , by His grace, dies and rises spiritually within us.

St. John of The Cross And Scripture
St. John of The Cross does not merely illustrate his doctrine by use of  scripture, he proves it by scripture…He finds his doctrine in the Bible. He can say, as Jesus said, that his doctrine is not merely his won but he doctrine of the Father who sent him….”He who speaks within the divine scripture is the Holy Spirit.”

Our happiness must come, metaphysically speaking, from outside ourselves. That does not mean that perfect happiness consists in a psychological exteriorization of ourselves in created things. Far from it! But even our happiness comes from a being other than our own spirit, beatitude cannot objectively be considered as he perfection which we receive from that Being, even though he be God. To be happy we must be taken out of ourselves and raised above ourselves, not only to a higher level of creation but to the uncreated essence of God. God and God alone is our beatitude…Perfect beatitude, which is union with God in a clear vision of the Divine Essence, is something which exceeds the capacity of any created nature to achieve…Our cooperation with his grace  is demanded of us. There must be action on both sides. He will not give himself to us unless we give ourselves to Him.

The Social Character of The Solitary Contemplative
No matter how solitary a man may be, if he is a contemplative his contemplation has something of a social character. He receives it through the Church. All true and supernatural contemplation is a share in God’s revelation of Himself in the world in Christ. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, prolonging His Incarnation manifesting Him still in the world. She is in full possession of his revelation. She alone dispenses the treasures of His grace.

The Humble Contemplative
God tells Moses to seek the advice of his brother Aaron: “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you.  You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” Having heard these words Moses took courage…for this is characteristic of a humble soul which dares not to treat with God alone and cannot be completely satisfied without human counsel and guidance. And this is the will of God, for he draws near to those who come together to treat concerning truth in order to expound an confirm it in them upon a foundation of natural reason….the last thing many men would look for in a mystic would be a positive need for the advice and guidance of other men. Yet this is precisely one of the characteristic of a truly interior soul.

The Role of Asceticism
Without asceticism, the mystical life is practically out of the question. But asceticism does not need to find expression in strenuous exercises of mortification, still less spectacular and extraordinary macerations. On the contrary the true path of asceticism is a path of simplicity and obscurity, and there is no true Christian self-denial that does not begin first of all with a whole-hearted acceptance and fulfillment of the ordinary duties of one’s state in life.

Reason And The Mystical Life
Mystical prayer is a gift of God to a soul purified by ascetic discipline. This is only achieved when all the passions and faculties are controlled by reason. Mystical prayer depends, per accidens,(per se – per accidens. <philosophical terminology> Latin phrases meaning “through itself” and “by accident,” used by medieval philosophers to distinguish essential and accidental features of substances) On the right ordering of the soul by reason. Reason is the key to the mystical life.

The Harmful Consequences Of Created Pleasure
(Under Christian asceticism) we must never allow our will to seek any created pleasure for pleasure’s sake…if the will does not pass through that pleasure to rest in God rather than in the pleasure itself, then, while not necessarily being formally sinful , it will have harmful consequences for the soul because it will cause it to rest in created pleasure and will thus blind it to the supernatural light that should lead us, by the way of the Cross, to union with God.

Sanctity And Self-Knowledge
The success or failure of a man’s spiritual life depends on the clarity with which he is able to see and judge he motives of his moral acts…the first step to sanctity is self-knowledge. It is the function of reason to judge these motives to try the purity of our intentions and to evaluate the object of our desire and all the circumstances that surround our moral activity. But this work of reason is obstructed and fouled by a habit of acting on impulse every time we are prompted by the instinctive motions passion and desire.

Asceticism And Charity
The true measure of asceticism is charity. Self-denial is the mark of the Christian only because it is the negative predisposition for that charity by which alone it can truly be known whether or not we belong to Christ. We have to deny ourselves because, in practice, love that is centered in ourselves is stolen form God and from other men. Love can only live by giving. When it steals and is stolen, it dies, because it is no longer free.

The Way To God
The way to God is a way of emptiness, without refreshment or pleasure, in which we seek no light but faith and hear no voice but that of faith — so that in the end, we must always walk in darkeness. We must travel in silence.

Intelligent Humility, The Functions of Intelligence And Sharing Truth
God’s infused graces depend on a  passivity that is supremely humble because it is intelligent. Since humility is truth, it presupposes a supernaturally enlightened intelligence….The function of the intelligence is to guarantee the purity of faith hope, and charity, not by much reasoning and subtlety but by the constant ascetical discernment between the illusions of subjectivism and the true light which come from God…Truth reveals itself to the light of reason in a way that can be shared in the same way by all who use that light. Once who understands a truth can convey his understanding to another by evidence and demonstration.

The act of faith is the first step toward contemplation and toward the beatific vision….Faith is the  supernatural virtue, the function which is to enable the intelligence of man to make a firm and complete assent to divinely revealed truth, not on account of the clear intrinsic evidence of statements about God but on the authority of God himself, revealing to us what we do not actually see….the act of faith is elicited under the impulsion of the will…It is a gift of God…and produced under the inspiration of grace….The Holy Spirit takes our will, which has been deflected away from God by sin and corrects its  aim and at the same time illuminates the understanding so that we believe….Faith is a vision of God which is essentially obscure. The soul knows Him, not because it beholds Him face to face, but because it is touched by Him in darkness.

The Church
The Church is the custodian of divinely revealed Truth. Guided by the Holy Ghost , she is the only true and authoritative interpreter of that Truth. The treasury of faith  to which she holds the key is a body of concepts about God. These are the statements which we believe. Believing them, we are able, with the help of our intelligence and the light of grace, to arrive at a certain measure of understanding concerning the things of God…Contemplation is the supernatural experience of the truths about God contained in the deposit of Christian faith.

The Central Mystery
“I in them and thou in me, that they may be perfect in one.” The words of Jesus allow of no looser interpretation. Jesus  is saying that those who reach perfect union with God, in Himself, will be as much One with God by grace as He is One with the Father by Nature. This is the most tremendous and central mystery of Christianity.

Pleasing God
God is said to be pleased with the soul which He finds filled with His own reality, His own love, His own truth. In a mysterious way we please God by knowing him, because we can only know Him by receiving His light into our hearts. Faith, then, is not only capable penetrating the intimate substance of God’s truth, but it is an immediately redemptive knowledge of God. It “saves” us. Its light…confers life…it transforms a man’s whole moral being. He is born again…the truth is actually contained, in a hidden manner, in the articles of faith themselves.

The Anguish Of The Soul
Creatures are such faint reflections of His divine Being that they are no more than the footprints He has left behind Him as He went on His way. They bear witness to His passing; but by that very fact their testimony is tinged with a special anguish….the soul is nailed to the cross of anguish and darkness which is he crisis of true faith. It sees that faith, because it is at once certain and obscure, reveals God by hiding Him and by hiding reveals Him. However this no mere intellectual dilemma. It is not a problem, for  a problem can be disposed of by reasonable solution. The soul is not looking for a solution. It is not proposing a question that faith must answer. Its anguish is of a different and far deeper nature. It is the agony of love that possesses God without seeing Him and is yet restless because it needs to rest in pure vision. Thus its rest is at best a suspension in the void.

The Needle Of Faith
Not all temperaments will seek God in the same way. Some will try above all to satisfy their minds with precise reasoning and clear speculative thought, by which, to some small extent, the truths of faith can be explained. Others will become engrossed in the vital organism of liturgical prayer in which God is at the same time known, loved and served in a way that brings into play all the faculties of man’s being and elevates his soul to God by easy and simple means. Still others will be drawn to seek God, almost from the first, by interior recollection and affective union within their own souls, and they will strive to effect this union by works of prayer, of self-denial and of love. But in every case the concepts and propositions taught by faith are a kind of needle’s eye. The virtue of faith itself is the needle. Our intellect and will, like a double thread, must be threaded into the needle and drawn by the needle through the veil of obscurity that separates us from God. Without the needle of faith, the veil can never be penetrated.

The Vision Of God In Heaven
St Paul says that in heaven “I shall be known even as I am known”….St John paraphrases the statement of the soul: “May I be so transformed in thy beauty that, being alike in beauty, we may both see ourselves in Thy beauty, since I shall have Thine own beauty; so that when one of us looks at the other, each may see in the other his beauty, the beauty of both being thy beauty alone, and I being absorbed in Thy beauty.

When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul saw that in containing Him she contained the world besides. The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and end of all things came before her in her deepest heart. And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm she slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence….it is the mission of Our Lady in the world to form this Christ of hers, this Giant, in the souls of men much as He formed Himself in her. She brings them His grace, and His grace is his own life-giving presence. He is born in every man by Baptism, but we do not know it. He casts his shadow over the soul that first senses Him in the peace of contemplation; but that is not enough. At the summit of the mystical life, God must move and reveal Himself and shake the world within the soul and rise from his sleep like a giant.


The Woman at the Well

November 17, 2009

The Samaritan Woman at the Well - by CARRACCI, Annibale - from Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The following is a reading selection from Fr. Robert Barron’s The Priority of Christ.

The English word sin is derived from the German term Sunde, which carries the connotation of sundering or dividing. The Greek word diabalos, from which various terms for the evil one derive — diablo, diable, devil, Teufel — means basically “scatterer.” In the book of Genesis, the original sin — incited by the serpent — amounts to a sundering of the human relationship to God (expulsion from the Garden) and a radical division and scapegoating among creatures. When Adam is challenged by God, he responds, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate,” and when the woman is confronted, she passes the buck to nature: “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:11-13). Over-and-againstness, separation, suspicion, mutual hatred, blaming — all are signs that the scattering power of sin is let loose.

In the course of the Old Testament, the twelve tribes of Israel — gathered together as one people through the power of God’s covenant — are periodically separated, divided, carried into exile because of their infidelity to that covenant. The hope for a united Israel, for a return of the exiled tribes, is expressed in the Prophets and in Psalms: “Jerusalem — built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up” (Psalms 122: 3-4), “the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” (Psalms 48:2). A large part of the mystique of King David was that he had united the disparate people of Israel and had governed them from the central capital city, Jerusalem. And despite his numerous failings, David’s son Solomon enjoyed great renown, first because he had built the temple in Jerusalem, which had become a physical and spiritual focal point for the nation, and second because his reputation had drawn to the capital potentates from around the world, most famously the Queen of the South. In this he had embodied Israel’s mission to be a light to the nations, the true pole of the earth, the gathering point of the world.

When a Jewish prophet of the first century announced that the reign of God is at hand, N. T. Wright has argued, he would be taken to mean something very specific: that the scattering of the tribes of Israel (in both a literal and a spiritual sense) was over and that Yahweh was coming to reign in Jerusalem, this reconfiguration inaugurating the illumination and salvation of the entire world.

In other words, he would be interpreted as saying that the dream of Israel-realized only fitfully and inadequately throughout its history-was now coming definitively true. So when Jesus of Nazareth said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15), he was not calling attention to general, timeless spiritual truths, nor was he urging people to make a decision for God; he was telling his hearers that Yahweh was actively gathering the people of Israel and, indirectly, all people into a new salvific order, and he was insisting that his hearers conform themselves to this new state of affairs. In this gathering, he was implying, the forgiveness of sins — the overcoming of sundering and division — would be realized.

In a word, the proclamation of the kingdom was tantamount to an announcement that the Gatherer of Israel had arrived and had commenced his work. What is most remarkable about Jesus, according to Wright, is that he not only indicated this fact but embodied it and acted it out, taking, in his words and gestures, the very role of the Gatherer. Origen said substantially the same thing when he described Jesus as autobasileia, the kingdom in person.

We continue our analysis of the Gathering by looking at one more splendid Johannine icon: the carefully crafted story of the meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman alongside a well. Like many of the other narratives in John’s Gospel — the woman caught in adultery; the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus-this story is both a literary and a theological masterpiece. And like the wedding feast account , it is, I will argue, a nuptial tale, a presentation of the process by which Jesus gathers to himself a bride.

As the fourth chapter of the Johannine Gospel opens, Jesus is making his way from Jerusalem (where he had cleansed the temple) back home to Galilee. Perforce, he passes through Samaria, that in-between country taking the term in both a geographical and a spiritual sense. Samaritans stood on the margins of official Judaism, partaking of its Scriptures and most of its practices but barred from full participation in temple worship and community life. Jesus’s work during his brief stay in this land will be to draw the marginal to the center.

At noon, he sits down to rest by the side of Jacob’s well, a place of powerful symbolic significance. There are numerous encounters at wells in the Old Testament that are associated with engagements and marriages. In the book of Genesis, the servant of Abraham finds a wife for Isaac at a well after uttering this prayer: “I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw…let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son” (Genesis 24 :43-44).

In the book of Exodus, we read of Moses’s sojourn by a spring of water: “But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian and sat down by a well.” After chasing away shepherds who were interfering with the daughters of the priest of Midian, Moses was welcomed into the priest’s home and given his daughter Zipporah in marriage (Exodus 2:15-21). Most important for our purposes, there is the Genesis narrative of Jacob’s journey to the land of Laban, his mother’s brother. ‘While reclining near a well, Jacob inquires after Laban and is told that Laban’s daughter Rachel is approaching. When he meets her, Jacob kisses her and then weeps for joy; later, of course, after many adventures and misadventures, he marries this girl, whose effect on him was like that of Beatrice on Dante. So as Jesus sits down beside a well (especially because it is identified as Jacob’s), we know that an engagement and a wedding are in the offing.

John tells us that Jesus rested at the well because he was “tired out by his journey” (John 4:6). Augustine commented that the fatigue of the Lord was a function of his total identification, through the “journey” of the incarnation, with the condition of sin. Sometimes the Gospel speaks of the Logos in forma Dei (in his exalted form as Son of God), and other times it shows him informa servi (in his humble incarnate state). The “tired” Jesus is a prime example of this second form of description, and what it points to is not simply the physical weariness of Christ but his entry into the life-denying and energy-draining state of sin. “I have come that [you] might have life and have it to the full,” says Jesus (John 10:10); but he brings that life through solidarity with the lifelessness of those who have wandered from grace.

So his sitting by the well is quite similar, theologically, to his standing shoulder to shoulder in the waters of the Jordan with those seeking John’s baptism of repentance: both are saving acts of identification with the debilitating condition of the sinner. We also hear that this session took place when it “was about noon” (John 4:6). We are at the high point of the day and hence a natural time to stop to rest and eat, but at the symbolic level we are at the moment of greatest illumination, a time when the light of the world will be on particular display.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” (John 4:7). From the standpoint of a Jewish man, we are dealing here with a triple outsider. First, as a woman, she would be considered inferior; second, as a Samaritan, she would be looked down upon as a half-breed and a heretic; and finally, coming as she does at midday (hardly the optimal time for physical labor) and unaccompanied by other women, she would be suspect as a person of probably questionable morals. Barriers religious, ethical, racial, and cultural would naturally separate her from someone like Jesus and make of her an exile par excellence.

As is his wont, Jesus reaches out to establish contact with the outsider:

“Give me a drink” (John 4:7). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus identifies himself with food and drink-”J am the bread of life” (John 6:35); “Take, eat, this is my body…Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:26-28)-but here he assumes the stance of one who needs sustenance. This thirst on Jesus’ part has nothing to do with divine “neediness,” as though God required something from the world that he makes in its entirety. It has everything to do with the establishment of the loop or pattern of grace that I discussed in the analysis of the prodigal son.  Jesus asks the woman to give him a gift, but this is only so that he can give her an even greater gift. The point is that he wants to draw her out of her isolation and exile, her tendency to be curvatus in se, and his strategy is to tempt her into generosity.

Conditioned by years of prejudice and the violence of marginalization, she naturally draws back: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). She has come to get water for herself, and a powerful enemy is asking her to give him the very thing that she seeks. This sounds, in short, like a typical game of antagonism in the realm of ousia, and so she turns in on herself in a defensive crouch. John 4:9 signals the lack of grace-the “far country” quality of the Jew-Samaritan relationship-in a wonderfully laconic aside: (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”) Anti-coinherence is the rule.

Under the full light of the noonday sun, Jesus then commences the disclosure of his identity: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). What better description of the being of Jesus is there than this pithy formula “the gift of God”? Like the father of the two sons who entrusts his entire being to his children-”all that is mine is yours” — Jesus, the Icon of God, presents himself as the giver of gifts, and the purpose of his gift is the gathering of those who have themselves forgotten how to receive and give. He wants to draw the Samaritan woman into that peculiar rhythm of grace through which alone authentic being can be maintained. The loop of grace is the engagement ring that this new Jacob, this new Moses, is proffering to his bride.

In line with John’s usual way of advancing a spiritual argument, the woman takes Jesus’ words at the literal level: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11). Earthly realities can only hint symbolically at the spiritual truth of the law of the gift, for no matter how superabundant, any material source eventually gives out.

What Jesus is driving at is the divine life that is never exhausted even as it is given, since it is, in its essence, nothing other than giving: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-44). When the divine gift is received, it becomes in the recipient that which can be given away infinitely and indefinitely, and that which, even as it is given away, never gives out. This is why it “bubbles up” to inexhaustible life.

On Augustine’s reading, the well water which the woman seeks every day and which leaves her thirsting for more, represents the various objects of concupiscent desire. The deepest thirst in us is for the divine life, and when we seek to slake that thirst with something less than God — money, sex, power, the esteem of others — we necessarily become thirsty again, much as a drug user becomes increasingly addicted to the narcotics that fail to satisfy him.

Further, we turn those finite goods, which are meant to be used as instruments in the flow of grace, into “substances,” what is ours, what is coming to us. What is being revealed in the exchange between Jesus and the woman at the well is that the fiercest thirst in us is not for possession but for the capacity to give, and this to the ultimate degree; to have this (by not having it) is to experience the spring of eternal life within.

In light of this clarification, Jesus’ sitting by the well in his fatigue takes on a new resonance His tiredness is a participation in the weariness that follows from the sinner’s repeated journeys to the well, which is to say, the incessant attempt to satisfy the desire that cannot be satisfied through possession.

Finally beginning to see with spiritual eyes, the woman replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15). Her words reveal that she is well acquainted with the rigors of the life of sin, with the fatigue that comes from concupiscent desire.

With that, the conversation takes a most unexpected turn: “Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). Why would the woman’s husband be of such concern? As we have seen, this entire episode is a wedding story, an account of how the Samaritan woman finds her proper spouse. In the context of an admittedly sexist culture, a woman’s quest for a husband is her search for governance and direction in her life.

Hence, once Jesus sees that she has come to a sufficient spiritual insight to ask for the living water, he explicitly introduces the theme of the husband or “headship,” essentially asking this: “Show me who or what governs your life.” When she says, “I have no husband,” she is witnessing, on the one hand, to her moral drift (she is at the mercy of her conflicting desires) but also to her openness to a new orientation (as spiritually unattached, she is able eventually to take Jesus as her husband). Sometimes it is our very dysfunction that allows for the advent of grace.

Jesus then compliments her for her honesty, but like a good spiritual director, he spies the rest of the truth hidden by her cagey response: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4 7-18). In accord with the hermeneutic that I have been developing, Jesus discerns that the Samaritan woman’s life is currently unfocused (no husband) but that she was formerly under the thrall of five powers from which she has managed to free herself.

Who or what are these five? Augustine suggests that they represent the five senses or the five books of the Torah. In her quest for meaning, she had submitted herself, first, to the tyranny of the senses, orienting her life to the empirically verifiable world of color, sound, taste, and pleasure, embracing the hedonist option. When this failed, as it necessarily would, she turned to a somewhat more refined form of idolatry, seeking satisfaction in the rigors of a moralizing religion.

This progression is, of course, a familiar one: the hedonist becoming the puritan, while retaining the same basic spiritual maladjustment of seeking joy in some worldly object or set of values. The fussy moralist is often just the sensualist in a flimsy religious disguise. By reminding her that she comes each day to the well and never finds satisfaction and that she has, in frustration, discarded five husbands in turn, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman’s hard truth, compelling her to see her spiritual condition: anyone but the Word made flesh is inadequate food for the soul.

Impressed by his clairvoyance, the woman tells Jesus, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” but then, with almost comic alacrity, she changes the subject: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). The prophet has revealed her truth, but she is not yet ready to deal with the implications of that revelation, so she redirects the conversation onto the far less threatening plane of abstract religious controversy. The Samaritans based their cult on Mount Gerizim, while the Jews centered their religious practice on the temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps if she can direct the attention of this “too perceptive young rabbi” to this speculative question, she can avoid the issue of her life’s direction.

But the prospective bridegroom is not so easily put off the trail. With breathtaking directness and clarity, Jesus dissolves the question that had helped to divide Jews from Samaritans: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem …[but] in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24). We recall that one of the principal tasks of the Messiah was to gather the tribes of Israel and then, through them, to gather the nations of the world. What the Messiah opposes, therefore, is division (Origen knew this when he said, “Ubi divisio, ibi peccatum”), especially that division which is perversely caused by religion itself. The Samaritan-Jewish battle over the correct place of the cult is a prime example of just this sort of corruption.

What the Father of Jesus desires is not geographically correct worship, but worship in “spirit and truth” (en pneumati kai aletheia). Both of these central Johannine symbols speak of the force of unity. The pneuma of God is the breath that God breathes into living things, awakening in them the corresponding breathing in of the psyche (from which our word suck is derived). Thus worship en pneumati is praise born of a living relationship with the Spirit of God, a breathing out in prayer of what was breathed in from the divine source. It is to be in the loop of grace, giving what had been received.

And the truth, which God is, is a universal power, transcending time, space, and artificial cultural boundaries. To worship in truth, therefore, is not to be sectarian or cultish but to pray in the power that unites the tribes of the world. We might draw a contrast between the twin mountains of Gerizim and Zion, standing over and against one another in opposition, and the well of Jacob that serves as a point of contact between Jesus and the woman. The mountains embody the great divorce, while the circular well bespeaks the wedding ring.

Beginning to sense that she is speaking to one who is even more than a prophet, the Samaritan woman says, “When he [the Messiah] comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (anaggelei hemin hapanta, John 4:25). This is one of the most extraordinary descriptions of the Messiah in the Bible. She is implying that in the Christ, the Icon of the living God, the fullness of truth, will be announced and made clear, not so much in the sense that he will give us every piece of data as that he will be the lens through which the whole of reality is properly viewed. The highest truth about God and ourselves will be made plain iconically in his way of being.

Genesis tells us that Yahweh walked with Adam in the cool of the evening as a friend. This easy relationship was interrupted when Adam sought on his own terms and through his own power to seize the knowledge that belongs naturally to God and that can be received by another only as a gift. In attempting to cling to this knowledge of good and evil (this lens through which the whole of reality can be properly viewed), he put an end to the friendship he had enjoyed with God. The Messiah, the person through whom God wishes to reestablish intimacy with the human race, is thus correctly described as the one “who will tell us everything.” But the key is that this divine interpretation must be given and received as grace.

Realizing that his interlocutor is ready for marriage, Jesus discloses his true identity: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). The Greek formula behind the first phrase is ego eimi (I am), evoking, obviously, the “I AM WHO I AM” of Exodus 3:14, the title by which Yahweh announced himself as the deliverer of his people. So the Samaritan woman, an archetype of the sinful and searching human race, is being rescued from the slavery of concupiscent desire through the taking of the Messiah as her bridegroom. And this Messiah is the one who is speaking personally to the woman (ho lalon soi).

Sin, the rupture inaugurated in the Garden of Eden, is a breakdown in the easy conversation between divinity and humanity. In the playful, almost teasing repartee between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we witness the act by which God, through grace, puts himself and humanity back on speaking terms.

After the full manifestation of Jesus’ messianic identity, we see the dramatic effects of grace in the sinner: “then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city” (John 4:28). The jug that she had carried on her head day after day, seeking after the water that would never finally quench her thirst, is symbolic of the weight of concupiscence. Fixed to worldly objects, human desire can never adequately enter into the ecstasy associated with the loop of grace and hence remains tied down, burdened.

In Dante’s the Purgatorio, the prideful are compelled to carry around huge boulders in order to feel the weight of the ego pressing them down; when Dante is freed from sin, at the end of his purgatorial journey, he is weightless and can therefore fly through the spheres of paradise. The putting aside of the water jar is evocative of this lightness of being which comes from the correct orientation of desire. Gifts are not heavy; for once they are received, they are given away, only to be received and given again.

I suggested at the outset of this analysis that the isolation of the woman probably indicated her social ostracization. How fitting therefore that, having set down her burden, she immediately runs into the town. Whatever had shamed her is now eclipsed, and she is filled with enthusiasm to speak: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29).

Hans Urs von Balthasar has argued that the beautiful calls to the one who perceives it and then sends him on a mission to spread the word. Having seen the young Beatrice, Dante is seized by the compulsion to write a poem more beautiful than any other; having spied his future wife in the surf off the Dublin strand.  James Joyce is compelled to become an artist, the reporter of epiphanies. So the woman at the well, having been drawn into a saving conversation with the Son of God, having been freed from concupiscent desire, and having realized that water is bubbling up in her to eternal life, becomes a missionary, indeed the first evangelist in the Gospel of John. The beauty of the coinherence has seized her, and now she must tell of it. We notice that the heart of her message is that the divine hermeneutics has appeared: “[He] told me everything I have ever done.” The implication is that this saving insight — this knowledge of good and evil, which was lost through grasping — is now available to everyone through grace.

The effectiveness of her evangelization becomes clear when we hear, a few verses later, that “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). The prime consequence of the divine gathering is a desire on the part of those gathered to gather others in turn. Like a storm over water, the circle of grace grows as it moves, irresistibly drawing others into its power.


Attacking The Church

November 16, 2009

François-Léon Benouville Christian Martyrs

This past October Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, offered some scintillating examples of anti-Catholicism recently floating about in the mass media of his diocese.  As October is the World Series month and the Yankees were playing this year the Archbishop titled the piece “FOUL BALL!” Calling anti-catholicism “another national pasttime,” he noted:

“It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime. Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people,” while John Higham described it as “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.” “The anti-semitism of the left,” is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic “the last acceptable prejudice.”

He cited five examples recently in the pages of the New York Times. The first was reporter Paul Vitello exposing the sad extent of child sexual abuse in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. The archbishop noted the selective outrage when it came to the coverage of the Orthodox Jews: “there were forty cases of such abuse in this tiny community last year alone. Yet the Times did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records, and total transparency. Instead, an attorney is quoted urging law enforcement officials to recognize “religious sensitivities,” and no criticism was offered of the DA’s office for allowing Orthodox rabbis to settle these cases “internally.”

He also noted the virtual non-coverage of Professor Carol Shakeshaft report on the wide-spread problem of sexual abuse of minors in our nation’s public schools. Outside of the AP, it seems the Times only covers sexual abuse of minors when it involves Catholic priests.

The archbishop continued: “On October 16, Laurie Goodstein of the Times offered a front page, above-the-fold story on the sad episode of a Franciscan priest who had fathered a child. Even taking into account that the relationship with the mother was consensual and between two adults, and that the Franciscans have attempted to deal justly with the errant priest’s responsibilities to his son, this action is still sinful, scandalous, and indefensible. However, one still has to wonder why a quarter-century old story of a sin by a priest is now suddenly more pressing and newsworthy than the war in Afghanistan, health care, and starvation–genocide in Sudan. No other cleric from religions other than Catholic ever seems to merit such attention.

Five days later, October 21, the Times gave its major headline to the decision by the Vatican to welcome Anglicans who had requested union with Rome. Fair enough. Unfair, though, was the article’s observation that the Holy See lured and bid for the Anglicans. Of course, the reality is simply that for years thousands of Anglicans have been asking Rome to be accepted into the Catholic Church with a special sensitivity for their own tradition. As Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, observed, “We are not fishing in the Anglican pond.” Not enough for the Times; for them, this was another case of the conniving Vatican luring and bidding unsuspecting, good people, greedily capitalizing on the current internal tensions in Anglicanism.

Finally, the most combustible example of all came Sunday with an intemperate and scurrilous piece by Maureen Dowd on the opinion pages of the Times. In a diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish, or African-American religious issue, she digs deep into the nativist handbook to use every anti-Catholic caricature possible, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, condoms, obsession with sex, pedophile priests, and oppression of women, all the while slashing Pope Benedict XVI for his shoes, his forced conscription — along with every other German teenage boy — into the German army, his outreach to former Catholics, and his recent welcome to Anglicans.

True enough, the matter that triggered her spasm — the current visitation of women religious by Vatican representatives — is well-worth discussing, and hardly exempt from legitimate questioning. But her prejudice, while maybe appropriate for the Know-Nothing newspaper of the 1850’s, the Menace, has no place in a major publication today.

The archbishop closed by noting that he did not “mean to suggest that anti-catholicism is confined to the pages New York Times. Unfortunately, abundant examples can be found in many different venues. I will not even begin to try and list the many cases of anti-catholicism in the so-called entertainment media, as they are so prevalent they sometimes seem almost routine and obligatory.”

The Archbishops comments were widely reported, including his slam of Patrick Kennedy for his criticism of the Catholic Bishops concerning ObamaCare. But the reply that truly astounded was by the National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Roberts.

Read this:


The ‘anti-Catholic!’ cry is a cheap, easy accusation

By Tom Roberts

Created Nov 09, 2009

It is unfortunate that Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, new to the national stage and responsible for one of the most visible and potentially most influential sees in the nation, chose to play the tired anti-Catholic card so early in his tenure. His recent blog posting accused The New York Times and the wider culture of indulging in rampant anti-Catholic activity.

In doing so, he wastes the authority of his office by aligning it with such imprudent screamers as William Donohue and his Catholic League, which exists to raise money so it can continue to scream Fire! in the crowded theater of overcharged religionists.

The reality is, of course, that it is increasingly difficult to establish an anti-Catholic case of any substance or depth in the culture when so much — industry, politics, finance, academia, the Supreme Court itself — is in the hands of high-profile Catholics.

One can understand the frustration of Dolan and others as church leaders attempt to regain some of the significant ground they’ve lost in prestige and credibility thanks to their conduct throughout the sex abuse crisis, financial scandals and complicity with such hierarchical nonsense as the recent investigation of religious women.

The anti-Catholic narrative is a canard, however, another attempt to deflect attention away from what most of us in the pews and beyond know is long overdue: a deep, introspective and honest look at the culture of hierarchy and whether it begins to reflect today the mandates of the Gospel of the Suffering Servant.

The cry “anti-Catholic!” has become a cheap and easy accusation. No one can hold a bishop to account for the charge. No adjudicating body exists to measure the evidence. We’re all left to measure it on our own, and I daresay most find the charge a pathetic attempt to deflect blame elsewhere.

I have known Laurie Goodstein, one of the targets of Dolan’s ire, as a colleague in the world of religion reporting for at least two decades. Her work could constitute a journalism seminar on how to cover that world. I find her scrupulously fair, and she spends more time on the ground than most doing the hard work of reporting. She’s been chosen for an award from the Academy of Religion for an earlier series, sensitively done and deeply reported, about foreign priests in the United States.

Several members of the hierarchy, most notably Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and now Archbishop Dolan, have attempted to distract our attention away from the severity of the sex abuse crisis in the church by pointing the finger at others — at teachers, Boy Scouts, the culture at large, the press — but it is an ineffective strategy. There are several principal reasons the church continues to come under scrutiny for its handling of crises and scandals related to sex, and none of them has to do with the press or an anti-Catholic culture.

First, no organization or institution in the world moralizes as publicly or persistently as the Catholic Church on matters of sex and sexuality. Its rules and sanctions are severe.

On the matter of homosexuality, the church claims to know the mind and intent of God so intimately and perfectly that its officials confidently pronounce that a whole category of humans who have a homosexual orientation are intrinsically disordered and are forever condemned to a life of sexual abstinence in order to remain within the community.

An entire continent can face devastation from the AIDS epidemic, but the church refuses to budge on its absolute opposition to the use of condoms. It doesn’t matter that even some bishops risk the wrath of Rome to beg that compassion be inserted into the equation. It doesn’t matter that some women essentially face a death sentence in having sexual relations with their husbands. No breach of the rules can be tolerated.

It is once and done for divorced Catholics. No mistakes can be tolerated. It’s either perfection or don’t remarry, and if you do, stay away from the Eucharistic table.

The love of married couples is considered illicit, unworthy of the church’s approval unless every sexual act is open to procreation. Love is relegated to biological machinery, the prime principle of responsible parenthood is a breeding function.

The church is a severe taskmaster when it comes to human sexuality. Any organization so absolute in its rules and so unforgiving in its sanctions naturally invites scrutiny of its own conduct, particularly that of its ministers and teachers.

Second, no organization on earth — not other denominations or faith groups, not the Boy Scouts or teachers or families — has the equivalent capacity and culture of the Catholic Church for hiding and protecting sexual abusers.

In those instances where internal church documents have been released, it is clear that bishops, cardinals, abbots and provincials went to extraordinary lengths to deceive the Catholic community and civil authorities. (That’s why the Bishop William Lori of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., fought to the Supreme Court to keep documents sealed; it’s why Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles has spent millions in legal machinations attempting to keep documents secret.)Those entrusted as overseers of the community kept in circulation repeat offenders with little regard for the community’s children or for victims’ families. Married people, homosexuals and divorced Catholics may live in a once-and-done world of sexual rules, but members of the privileged clergy culture could commit sexual crimes time and again and find limitless second chances and understanding among their peers.

Finally, in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis, the bishops have trampled the church’s fundamental teachings on what is required for seeking forgiveness and reconciliation within the community.

When it comes to laity, there’s little tolerance for general sentiments of sorrow or ceremonies of general forgiveness. The church demands specificity, the sin must be named in order to receive absolution, we are taught, and egregious public scandal requires a public accountability.

We’ve seen none of that. No bishop has yet given a detailed report of his complicity in the scandal. No bishop has detailed, without being forced by public pressure or civil authorities, his personal culpability in the scandal. We’ve seen some moving reconciliation services, where bishops generally apologized for what was done to victims by priests; we’ve seen priests tossed unceremoniously and with little or no due process, to the sidelines; we’ve heard endless apologies for the fact that children were abused. But there’s been no full voluntary accounting for what the hierarchy did in the church’s name to hide predators, buy silence and re-victimize victims in sometimes vicious legal proceedings.

The bishops betrayed the community’s sacramental life, and no amount of pointing the finger at others will heal that breach.

Everyone wishes this horrible period would come to an end. The scandal causes an endless drain of energy and distorts the life of the community. The realization remains that the leadership of the community has acted in a way it would not tolerate in anyone else and remains above church and civil law. That’s what’s truly anti-Catholic about this period of the church’s history.

I was quite frankly amazed at the out-of-control cynicism and sarcasm directed by this Catholic towards his Church.

Some points of conjecture:

(1)  On the matter of homosexuality, the church claims to know the mind and intent of God so intimately and perfectly that its officials confidently pronounce that a whole category of humans who have a homosexual orientation are intrinsically disordered and are forever condemned to a life of sexual abstinence in order to remain within the community.

An amazing sentence for a Catholic. “the church claims to know the mind and intent of God so intimately and perfectly…” Well, yes, Mr. Roberts.

“its officials confidently pronounce that a whole category of humans who have a homosexual orientation are intrinsically disordered…” Well, no, Mr. Roberts. The Church does not condemn those who suffer from same sex attraction and does not call them “disordered.” But the Church does say that homosexual acts such as sodomy and anal sex are “disordered.” A big difference, sir. And you should know better to spread such disinformation and prejudice.

You appear to be aligning yourself with the promoters of the normalcy of the gay lifestyle and the gay agenda. Here is the late Fr. Neuhaus on the Church and Homosexuality: “The (Church’s) teaching is that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and those who experience homosexual desires are to be lovingly supported in striving to live chaste lives. The Church urges firm resistance to the grim doctrine that homosexuality is simply a matter of fate, and the dehumanizing idea that one’s core identity is determined by one’s sexual desires. We are more, immeasurably more, than our sexual desires. …Those who succumb to homosexual desires are, like all sinners, to be loved and assured of the transforming power of God’s forgiveness. In law and social practice, they should not be subjected to unjust discrimination, but neither should the practices that define “the gay community” be put on a social or moral par with the union of man and woman in marriage.” Why can’t you advance that gentle message of truth rather than the lies of the Church’s enemies in this world?

“Condemned to a life of sexual abstinence?” Are you nutz, Mr. Roberts? Choosing abstinence can be a statement of personal integrity and an expression of strong self-esteem, not to mention of affirming one’s faith. Millions of people use abstinence to

  1. Avoid premature sexual relationships
  2. Avoid painful emotional situations for which they may not be prepared
  3. Avoid unwanted pregnancy.
  4. Avoid diseases.
  5. Avoid the effects of a same sex attraction lifestyle (elevated rates of depression, suicide, STDs and HIV)
  6. Affirm and heighten their faith through celibacy

Why can’t you support the Church’s advocacy of sexual abstinence rather than this stupid new age cant you advocate? Once again you align with your Church’s enemies.

(2) As to your views on the past sexual abuse crisis, the Church has taken substantial steps between the time of crisis and the present to put these things behind her. No full voluntary accounting? Are you nutz, Mr. Roberts? Have you not read the John Jay Report? Some reading selections for you here.  

…no organization on earth — not other denominations or faith groups, not the Boy Scouts or teachers or families — has the equivalent capacity and culture of the Catholic Church for hiding and protecting sexual abusers

Where does rhetoric like that take us, Mr. Roberts? The good news is that homosexual behavior is a disqualification for the priesthood. New and stringent rules of conduct are now in place in all parishes across the US to prevent reoccurrences of what happened in the past. I don’t know how Mr. Roberts’ Kansas Diocese handled its share of the scandal (perhaps it was untouched by it) but I know the Boston Archdiocese where I live has paid out millions of dollars in support and closed down a number of parishes to help the victims of homosexual priest predators. Yet despite all that pain by parishioners, it seems to mean almost nothing in Mr. Roberts’ accounting. Shame on you, Mr. Roberts.

There have been spectacular settlements like the one announced in L.A. a few years back but the crisis continues to work its way through its court-and-media phase – this year Delaware was the big story. But the tragedy of child sexual abuse is not going away. We can hope that the measures put into place since the scandal broke in 2002 have made child protection a priority. We are at least on the way to making our church a safer place for children.

Bryan Cones (U.S. Catholic) has written: “What we have still not found, however, is a formula for bringing closure to the crisis itself. While money, information, and attempted apologies have gone some distance toward reconciliation, this tragedy continues to run on two parallel tracks. From the beginning, victims and their advocates, frustrated by dioceses, turned to the courts and the media. Bishops, forced to action by public outrage, responded with the institutional changes found in the 2002 Dallas Charter.

Lost in the shuffle is the fact that the whole church-victims, their advocates, bishops and other leaders, and the rest of the baptized-has yet to sit down together to find a way forward. The great scandal here is that a community whose lifeblood is charity has been duking it out for five years for all the world to see. Surely we can do better.

What we really need is what the victims have been asking for all along: the unedited truth. What really happened? Who knew what and when? Why did they act or fail to act?”

There are legitimate questions here and we need to work to see it is all resolved. We need more than lawyer-crafted court-ordered apologies – let’s face it — a painful conversation still remains. Is anyone denying that?

As Coyne reminds us:  “Bishops will have to sideline attorneys and their own fear to acknowledge obvious failure. Victims will have to tone down their rhetoric and accept as the “whole” truth the stories the bishops finally tell. Both sides will have to agree upon a process for handling accusations in the future. Such diocese-by-diocese “truth and reconciliation commissions” may sound a bit far-fetched-and they would be messy — but if they can work in places like post-apartheid South Africa and post-civil war Guatemela, we can do it, too.

Such an accounting would not, of course, preclude paying legitimate damages to future victims, nor would every bishop come out still wearing his miter. But all of us would benefit from a confession freely given rather than coerced through legal machinations and media sensationalism. We may indeed find, as Jesus promises, that the truth will make us free.”

My understanding is that Tom Roberts lives in Overland Park, Kansas. I have written Mr. Roberts’ archbishop, His Excellency The Most Reverend Joseph F. Naumann, D.D. to enlist his support to intervene and encourage Mr. Roberts to cease and desist from his cheap shot attacks on the Church. Mr. Roberts is not a stupid man. He needs his bishop to sit down and have a quiet talk with him and put him back on track to be a servant of his Church. We should all pray for such an outcome.

If you would like to join me, I sent mine via this web page.  




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