Thursday, October 28, 2010

Castitatis Splendor

Lately I have been running into persons who seem very surprised that a Catholic who happens to be homosexually attracted would choose to retain his Christianity and actually attempt to practice chastity. (I do not have a stellar record, but that is beside the point.) I am baffled by this bafflement. From non-Christians it is less surprising, but even a number of my Christian friends have evinced it, or assumed that I was a practicing homosexual until corrected -- not out of any intention to insult me, but because it had apparently not occurred to them that someone would just abstain from sex; while it had not occurred to me that this needed explanation.

Make no mistake. Nobody, gay or straight, has ever found chastity easy. (Okay, perhaps Christ Jesus and the Virgin Mary did -- but, on the other hand, we know from Hebrews that He learned obedience from what He suffered, and I imagine the same would apply to the Mother of God as to God Incarnate.) It is, thankfully, straightforward: few people would even pretend that the obligations of chastity are hard to comprehend. They're just hard to actually practice. But I rather suspect that this surprise has less to do with chastity proper than it does with surrendering to God, and, secondarily, to the Church that purveys His teaching.

Curiously enough, one of the most neglected facts in the Church is the Sexual Revolution of the '60s. I don't mean that it has been neglected from a theoretic standpoint; reams have been written on it. And I don't mean that it's been neglected in the same way that certain, ahem, progressive persons within the Catholic Church might aver the same -- meaning that the Church has failed to adjust herself and her doctrines to a whopping ten percent of the world (North America and western Europe) that has abruptly discovered the truth that chastity is difficult. That it is not even, in itself, as entertaining as sex. But I digress.

Nor do I mean that the theologically conservative reaction, especially in the political sphere, has been absent. There is no shortage of pro-life advocacy, literature explaining the Church's teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning, and books and retreats and seminars in plenty on sacramental marriage, the vocation to celibacy, homosexuality and chastity, and so forth, until one begins to see C. S. Lewis' point: "Poor Aphrodite! they have sandpapered most of the Homeric laughter off her face."

What I am talking about is our mindset and our heart attitude. In giving talks and writing books (or blogs) and preaching homilies, and what have you, about chastity, there is one key element missing. Many people discuss symptoms: adultery, fornication, abortion. Some people discuss deeper symptoms: divorce, immodesty, contraception. But very few people discuss the lie which our culture's view of sex is based on, and which we have mostly bought.

The thing that makes chastity so hard for us -- it is always hard, in every age, because it is resisting a strong impulse, but the thing that makes it so particularly hard for our generation -- is that we, like our Babylonian rulers, believe in the Divine Right to Orgasm.

I wish I could give it a more dignified name. It is admittedly not a name that one is likely to come across at present, among those for it or against it (but give it a few years). But that is what it amounts to. We believe, and rightly, that God wishes us all to be happy; we also believe, less rightly, that happiness without orgasms doesn't exist or doesn't count. I remember once having a conversation with a lovely young woman, a Classics graduate student, who was fascinated and bewildered by my attempt to be a chaste Catholic even though I acknowledged quite frankly that I was gay: she asked me, not at all antagonistically, "How can you be part of a Church that restricts your ability to love?" I was lost for a second; then I realized that she was talking about sex.

For of course, real Christian teaching on the subject of sex is not a restriction to love at all. It does involve certain assumptions about what sex is, and does, and means -- spiritual assumptions -- and these assumptions are either true or false. Now, if they are true, then chastity (which, remember, is not the same thing as virginity; a married couple that has sex every night can be chaste) is not a restriction of love, but the logical result of plugging "Love your neighbor as yourself" into the data about sex and sexuality that Catholic doctrine constitutes. Conversely, if those doctrines are false, then what the World says about sex -- it's a great time, don't get pregnant, don't get a disease, leave kids and animals alone, otherwise you're good -- holds. But the question about what is true must be answered first. That might sound dry and demanding, but it is really no different from answering the question "Is this glass full of poison?" before offering it to a thirsty man. If the thirsty man claims not to care because, whatever it is, it tastes good, we just might continue to care.

The reason we have such a hard time keeping that in mind is that we have soaked in the values of the culture around us. The equivocation between sex and love evinced by my friend is not insignificant. Sex, broadly speaking, makes us feel loved and worthwhile. It was designed to; that's why the hormones it releases into our bloodstream do what they do, relieving stress and promoting emotional bonding and the like. A husband and wife are supposed to feel that way about each other, most of all when their spiritual oneness is sacramentally imaged forth through sexual oneness. But we have torn the pleasure (emotional, spiritual, and physical) from its sacramental context -- sacrificing most of the pleasure it has in the process -- and, maintaining its association with love, have now confused it with love. By mixing in the truth that everyone needs love and that it should be available to all, we have wrongly predicated the same thing about sex.

That, I think, is why so many Catholics have a tough time accepting not only clerical celibacy but the Church's teaching about homosexuality. I certainly don't have an easy time with it; I have absorbed the lie just like anyone else, the lie that I need a sexual relationship to be happy, and that since I don't or can't have one with a woman, my desire to have one with a man needs to be given the Nihil Obstat.

It must be stated plainly, however, that it is the Catholic view which gives profound significance to sex. Whenever something has and objective meaning, you can tell because the one who designed keeps saying, "No, not like that," and telling you how to use the thing properly. As if he knew! The view that sees nothing wrong with using precious, irreplaceable human beings for pleasure -- of whatever variety -- literally by the dozen, and then sending them on their merry, is as callous and contemptuous toward sex as it is toward humanity.

The late and Venerable John Paul II published an encyclical letter entitled Veritatis Splendor, or "The Splendor of the Truth," dealing with authority, the conscience, and relativism. I have not read it (though it inspired the title of this post), but I rather suspect I have found a summary of the relevant part of it. Dr. Peter Kreeft recently wrote a book, Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims, in which his main contention is that we western Christians have lost our spiritual toughness, and that Moslems set us an excellent example. Here is a selection from the chapter "On Sexual and Moral Ambiguity."

'"You have inherited the same commandments as we have, commandments that are very easy to understand and very hard to practice. And what do you do to them? You make them hard to understand and easy to practice. So you talk about 'moral ambiguity' so that you can feel good about yourself. And what is your motive for doing that? Your Bible gives you a clear answer to that question, and it tells you the same thing as the Qur'an tells you: that you are trying to escape God's demand to surrender. That's why you have invented your 'moral ambiguity.' It's a fog. You run into it to escape the hard, clear light that makes you uncomfortable. It's your wiggle room. You want to negotiate with God instead of making an unconditional surrender.
'... I see rationalization there in ordinary people. Don't you? What kind of psychologist are you if you don't see that? Don't you see how it works? You transfer the real inner struggle, the struggle between good and evil in the will, the struggle between good will and bad will, the inner struggle that we call jihad -- you transfer that struggle to the mind, where you call it moral ambiguity. That way, you don't have to admit that you have a bad will. You don't have to admit that you're a sinner."
'"You know, Jack, you're sounding more and more like one of those fundamentalist preachers."
'"But I don't want your money or your approval, Libby."
'"Well, it's clear you don't want my approval. What do you want from me?"
'"Your honesty."'

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Hymn of Abdiel

If there is anything most people nowadays would not claim to like, it is institutions. Whether one's deepest distrust is reserved for the federal government or the Catholic Church tends to depend on whether one is right- or left-wing politically, but institutional things as such leave a bad taste in people's mouth.

A lot of popular theological trends and movements reflect this: the Emergent movement, typified in authors like Rob Bell and Donald Miller, is perhaps the foremost, but a thousand signs indicate its presence. It is decreasing sharply among Catholics -- especially younger ones, ironically enough -- but the 'cafeteria Catholic' approach to the faith of the Church is by no means gone; the Church's teachings on sexuality, the ordination of women, abortion, divorce, and Jesus being the only way to God, as well as on her own authority, fill the position that green beans and creamed corn did in high school. (A quip went round in some circles when Pope Benedict XVI was elected: "The cafeteria is closed.") Among Protestant Christians, the popularity of quasi-denominational, inter-denominational, and non-denominational churches, movements, and Bible studies is a reflection of it, I think. So, too, is the tendency to avoid deep theological study and discussion and to dismiss the traditionally conceived list of Christian obligations, including things like attendance at church, in favor of spontaneous and self-defined devotions, with an affinity for the more dramatic charismata.

Now, I will have completely failed to communicate if anyone goes away from this thinking I disbelieve in the universal priesthood of believers (the Second Vatican Council made a point of the universality -- from Greek, the catholicity -- of the Christian faith, and that every believer is apostolic in his or her own capacity). Equally so if I am taken to mean that everyone is called to be a theologian in the strict sense; or that miracles belong to the past, a claim which ought to be laughable to any Catholic in the light of the holy Mass; or that spontaneous prayer is anything but a necessary part of our prayer lives. And so on. My point is not that the present mood is a bad one, though I must admit forthrightly that it is not to my taste, and that may color my perceptions of it. The trouble is that we may well be in danger of forgetting the counterweight-truths to those of liberty, equality, and fraternity; which likely has as much to do with the fact that we live in a Western democracy as with anything genuinely spiritual.

Milton's Paradise Lost is kind of a slow read. ("I have a point. I promise.") However, the following passage seems to me relevant. Satan, at the announcement of the Son's appointment as Messiah, King of the angels, and all His glories, has chosen revolt, and has now set up his scheme to seduce the other angels to rebel with him -- ignore the weird spellings:

'... They came, and Satan to his Royal seat
... For thither he assembl'd all his Train,
Pretending so commanded to consult
About the great reception of thir King,
Thither to come, and with calumnious Art
Of counterfeted truths thus held thir ears.
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers,
If these magnific Titles yet remain
Not meerly titular, since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross't
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed ...
Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none ...
This far his bold discourse without controule
Had audience, when among the Seraphim
Abdiel, then whom none with more zeale ador'd
The Deitie, and divine commands obei'd,
Stood up, and in a flame of zeale severe
The current of his fury thus oppos'd.
O argument blasphemous, false and proud!
... Shalt thou give Law to God, shalt thou dispute
With him the points of libertie, who made
Thee what thou art, & formd the Pow'rs of Heav'n
Such as he pleased, and circumscrib'd thir being?
... But to grant it thee unjust
That equal over equals Monarch Reigne:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,
Crownd them with Glory, & to thir Glory nam'd
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers ...'
-- Paradise Lost V.753-837

If that seemed a little abstract, these paragraphs from C. S. Lewis may illuminate it.

'This thought is not peculiar to Milton. It belongs to the ancient orthodox tradition of European ethics ... It may be called the Hierarchical conception. According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. ... The justice or injustice of any given instance of rule depends wholly on the nature of the parties, not in the least on any social contract. Where the citizens are really equal then they ought to live in a republic where all rule in turn. If they are not really equal then the republican form becomes unjust. ... He who rules permanently, without successor, over his natural equals is a tyrant -- even (presumably) if he rules well. ...
'The greatest statement of the Hierarchical conception ... is, perhaps, the speech of Ulysses' in Shakespeare's Troilus. Its special importance lies in its clear statement of the alternative to Hierarchy. if you take "Degree" away "each thing meets in mere oppugnancy", "strength" will be lord, everything will "include itself in power". In other words, the modern idea that we can choose between Hierarchy and equality is, for Shakespeare's Ulysses, mere moonshine. The real alternative is tyranny; if you will not have authority you will find yourself obeying brute force. ...
'... Satan's main contention is clear. He is maintaining that the vice-regency of the Son is a tyranny ... Abdiel's reply is double. In the first place he denies Satan's right to criticize God's actions at all, because God is his creator. As creator He has a super-parental right of doing what He will without question ... In the second place, granting Satan's definition of tyranny, he denies Satan's facts; the Son is not of the same nature as the angels and was indeed the instrument by which the angels were made. Of course, if He is not their natural equal, 'unsucceeded power' on His part ... would not be tyranny, but just rule.' -- A Preface to Paradise Lost, pp. 73-77

For this reason, I cannot join in the general anti-institutional sentiment of my generation of Christians. It is not exclusively because, according to our creed, the Catholic Church is personally guided and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, though that is what we believe. It is because the proposed alternative -- the gathering of Christians in a non-traditional format, one that might be labeled charismatic or non-denominational or non-institutional or even non-religious Christianity, contains a fatal flaw; one noted by Lewis.

Every group of people orients itself around leaders. Leaders are of two kinds: those whose authority is derived from some sort of institution, and those whose authority derives in one way or another from themselves, whether we speak of the force of their personality or the force of their muscles. And, although the leader who compels us by his personal charisma is more appealing to most of us on aesthetic grounds, it is disappointingly clear that, if we want the rule of law and the order of reason, they are to be found in the institutional authorities, because those are based on an institution -- that is, a rational idea. The idea might of course be a lousy one in particular cases, just as a powerful personality may also happen to be a rational personality. It does happen. But the thing-in-itself remains. And a rule based on rules is rational, while a rule based on personal rather than institutional authority is, in one of two senses, a dictatorship. It may be a dictatorship in the original Latin sense, i.e., the rule of one who speaks well, and perhaps rightly; or it may be a dictatorship in a more sinister sense.

This would mean we would have to take stock and see what the hierarchy in our own situation is. Do I have parents? a spouse? children? a pastor? a flock? governmental authorities? persons over whom I have governmental authority? In those areas in which I am rightly a subject, am I submitting to the authorities which are in existence, those which sacred Scripture itself tells me in no uncertain terms are from God? (I am put in mind of the first reading for today's Mass, Ephesians 5.21-33.) In those areas where I have authority over others, do I exercise it with care and caution, and without the false modesty or diffidence that would make me unable to accept others' expressions of loyalty, gratitude, or reverence? (Clerics who won't let us kiss your rings, I am looking in your direction. Humbly.) Am I lording it over people who are really my equals -- or, alternatively, limply surrendering myself who have no right to control me, when I ought to shoulder responsibility for myself? (Me, I'm looking in your direction for both of those. Not sure whether that is to be done humbly or not.)

It is difficult to digest the truth in this. It is difficult because we are soaked and infected by the World and its values. Hierarchy means obedience. We Christians are perfectly okay with obedience, as long as there is nobody to obey in the immediate and earthly sense. We love reading and hearing and talking about obedience; we just can't stand it when we are suddenly expected to incarnate that obedience, to particularize our theoretical submission by offering up our own wills to some specific authority that we encounter in real life -- in the family, in the government, in the Church -- instead of the God that we had situated so comfortably in our pious, sanctified, and meritorious imaginations. But we will never be saints if we do not try. Every saint is a saint, whether recognized and canonized or not, because they gave God His way with them; and, depend upon it, that always meant giving themselves to Him through their earthly experiences, including their experiences of authority here. After all, unless God appears to you in a vision, there is literally no other way of conducting yourself.

I dare say it'll be an adventure, after the shock of humility wears off.

'So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind'.
-- Paradise Lost, V.893-898

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Temptation of Virtue

We are all acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, the roots of sinfulness that characterize our actions when our hearts are turned away from God: arrogance; envy; anger; sloth; greed; gluttony; lust. Each of us, of course, has a personal 'favorite,' and each of them is animated likewise by pride (which is distinct from arrogance, I think: arrogance is a particular kind of pride, but so is anger, so is sloth, so is gluttony). Pride is simply the assumption that we have the right to direct our lives and that God does not.

A few weeks ago, however, I was having a conversation with a devout friend of mine over some fried shrimp and Yuengling, when a thought took clear form that I have been ruminating over half-consciously for a while. I have been thinking for some time that we can, in one sense, be tempted to virtue just as we can be tempted to vice.

I don't mean hypocrisy; that, true, is a very horrible corruption of the spiritual life, and open to anyone who wants to dabble in it, however far they may have advanced thus far. I mean temptation to what, from a natural perspective, is good, natural virtue: truthfulness, wisdom, generosity, self-control. These can exist apart from specifically saving grace (though they cannot exist in mere human beings, since the Fall, without common grace, i.e. the grace that God grants to all people, that which maketh the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust). The virtuous pagan, while rare in our own day -- I suspect that, for some reason, it is harder for pagan virtue to coexist with Christianity than with pagan vice -- does exist, and has existed in the past. One reason that the Church drew so heavily upon antiquity in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was that antiquity was, though not without flaws, chock-full of virtuous pagans, like Virgil (whom Dante chose as his symbolic guide through Hell and Purgatory).

The reason I speak of temptation to virtue is that I have been realizing of late that, while few men have any shortage of vices, one's makeup may easily be chiefly oriented toward natural virtue. This might be a boast, except that being oriented toward natural virtue is not only a gift of common grace, so that one might just as well be proud of the color of one's hair; but that it really does nothing to further one's salvation.

For the essence of salvation is to be supernatural. It is something that comes from without, something that breaks into our interior universe, suffusing us with something that we not only could not deserve, but could not even imagine on our own resources.

In consequence, though we certainly have to strive after virtue -- it is one of the elements of soteria, which in Greek means not only salvation but healing -- there is a sense in which it is quite beside the point. After all, the Cross itself is not the point of our being, but a means to an end, that end being a restored and fulfilled relationship with God: what the Church calls the Beatific Vision.

I think we can know we are being tempted to virtue, rather than wooed by the Holy Spirit, when our success makes us contemptuous of others -- when the thought, I can do it, why can't they? emerges in ours minds. This is perhaps my biggest sin; and contempt is an extremely serious sin, however hard it may be to resist. The thing that makes the temptation to virtue so dangerous is precisely that the thing we are being drawn toward is not only good in itself -- after all, every sin has some good element, on which it relies for its existence -- but may even be something to which the only alternative is objectively sinful. It is then that the Devil will press upon us most, for no direct evasion is possible. It is then, too, that purity of heart as such is being demanded of us -- and that, though daunting, is a comfort, for God will never refuse us the grace to do what he asks us to do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Christian Approach to Islam

At the Men's Night held at the Catholic Student Center on Friday, amid a haze of tobacco and bonhomie, the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York came up -- I have forgotten exactly how. This being America, two sides promptly developed, one opposed to the proposed mosque on the basis of deep patriotism, and the other vocally in favor of it on the basis of deep patriotism.

The debate never, thank God, became uncivil; but I don't think it came to a conclusion either. The one side objected strongly because the terrorists of September 11th were, after all, Moslems, and committed that atrocity in the name of Islam. A friend of mine, arguing for that side, pointed out that an ancient Moslem custom was to build mosques at the site of major Moslem victories, and following the proposal would delight the extremist enemies of our nation. Another friend, taking the opposite tack, argued that it was not only acceptable but actively desirable to build a mosque there: mainstream Islam is just as shocked and saddened by these attacks as the rest of the world, and having an Islamic center there would be a sign of sorrow for that tragedy and of rejection of the philosophy that inspired it.

My own position was, and remains, irrelevant. What I'd like to do is frame the question with more nuance, because I suspect that we find it easier to take positions than to think out what position is the more reasonable.

First, as to the mosque proposal. There isn't one. That is, there is a proposal for an Islamic center, which would contain what amounts to a mosque: a place where Moslems do, or can, gather on Fridays for communal prayers and listening to the reading of the Qur'an. But a mosque is not analogous to a Catholic church, or even most Protestant ones. Islam has no Incarnation, no sacraments, no saints in the Christian sense; it has persons whom it reveres (including, by the by, Jesus and Mary), but it has very little sense of the miraculous and no sense of a place of worship as a sacred space. This is not to knock Islam by any means. They simply aren't, for several reasons, the sort of thing that Islam happens to have or feels the need for. The only really sacred site for a Moslem would, I imagine, be the Ka'aba. Consequently, Moslem worship can take place anywhere in principle -- and, in predominantly Islamic cultures, does: when the muezzin calls the faithful five times daily for prayer, every faithful Moslem drops what he or she is doing and immediately faces Mecca and recites the appropriate prayers. (I wish Catholics had that kind of simple-hearted, instantaneous devotion. You see it with us sometimes -- for instance, when a ciborium or a monstrance containing the Host passes, Catholics will genuflect and make the sign of the cross -- but I'd like to see it more.)

Because of this, trying to ban the building of an Islamic center at that particular locale doesn't really tally with, say, trying to prevent the building of a Catholic church there. The absence of a mosque in the formal sense would not prevent any of the activities of a mosque from happening there. One could, I suppose, set up a small mosque in a private house; there are makeshift mosques in some places, such as the predominantly Catholic parts of the Philippines. Now, it would not bother me if a mosque, makeshift or otherwise, were set up in New York, whether at the proposed site or elsewhere -- actually, there is already an Islamic center only a few blocks further away. But, if it does bother anyone, it should be noted that the erection of an Islamic center sensu stricto would not really change anything -- nor would preventing it objectively prevent anything, except hurt feelings.

And why would some people's feelings, notably those of relatives of the victims, be hurt? Because the terrorists were Moslems. But let's clear that up too. Do we believe that all terrorists are Moslems? Of course not; look at Timothy McVeigh. Do we believe all Moslems are terrorists? Well, no. Are we aware that some of the victims of the September 11th attacks were, in fact, American Moslems? If not, was it because we had vaguely assumed, or rather imagined, that the World Trade Center was full of WASPs?

Are we willing to regard a Moslem as being, or as being able to be, a good American?

Of course we're going to answer Yes to that question when asked flat-out. But I think we need to pause and probe our mental image of Islam, just for a moment, and our mental image of America, too; and I believe we ought to ask ourselves whether, perhaps, there is a certain degree of bigotry in our approach to the question.

The general media angle on Islam shows us all the worst stuff about all the worst Moslems and Islamic regimes: ethnic "cleansing" of Kurds in Iraq, virulent anti-Semitism from Ahmadinejad, the murder of Indonesian converts to Christianity, suicide bombings of Israeli settlements in Palestine, the works. I can only imagine that Moslems who live here in the U.S. are, on the whole, as horrified by such things as the rest of us. But stop and think for a moment how we would feel if we -- we Caucasian Catholics (or otherwise), from a predominantly Christian, democratic society, knowing from within its strengths and virtues without being blind to its weaknesses -- imagine if we lived in a country like Saudi Arabia. And there, let us say, we saw on television a media image of this country in particular, and the West in general, based on abortions and abortion clinic bombings, on rape statistics, divorce rates, contempt and cruelty toward the poor (the sin of Sodom, according to Ezekiel), a nation of immigrants bent on preventing immigration, a nation plunged in intellectual and moral chaos, to all appearances ...

And now imagine -- just try -- how you would feel if everyone around you said, "Yes, that's what these Christians are like. Well, Christians, Americans, it's the same thing, really; it's just their culture. It's because of their religion -- their Bible is full of violence and racism -- and take a look at the history of the Church. Oh, they say that Christianity is a 'religion of peace,' but their history sure doesn't reflect that, and even if it did, I know how our national neighbors over in Iraq and Afghanistan feel about it right now, and what the state-less Palestinians think, too. Look what happened on the news last week." And so on.

The media concentrates on negatives because that is what makes for news. People will watch a story about an abortionist being murdered in the name of Christ. People will probably not bother to watch a story about someone praying a Rosary in the name of Christ. Likewise, people will sit up and take notice when a hijacker flies an airplane into a tall building to serve Allah. But people will be less likely to notice when a father teaches his little boy to tell the truth to serve Allah.

It is very difficult to resist the subtle and unceasing influence of the media on our perception of Islam. But for the sake, not of Christian charity, but of mere common honesty, we have got to try. Perhaps we have read part of the Qur'an. Fine; when we have read as much of the Qur'an as we have read of the Bible, we will be qualified to comment on its contents and their meaning, in the same measure that we are qualified to provide such commentary on the Bible. Perhaps we are acquainted with the Hadith: very well; when we can quote the Hadith as casually and accurately as we quote the Church Fathers, we may deliver our opinion on the Hadith as we do on the Church Fathers. Perhaps we know something of Moslem history and of its various sects. Excellent; when we know as much about those things as we do about Church history and of our own multifarious denominations, we may discuss them both intelligently. But not before. And you may be sure that, if we do not even know the scrolls and the traditions of our own faith, every Moslem has every right to take an exceedingly dim view of our pontifications about what his religion is, says, and does.

It may seem odd, but almost the only thing that bothered me about the conversation that night was that one young Catholic there said something about the proposed mosque pleasing "our enemies." Moslem terrorists (which applies to all Islam in exactly the same way that 'Christian terrorists' applies to all Christianity) may be irrevocably opposed to America. Let them be. I categorically refuse to regard them, or any other Moslems, as my enemies. I have one enemy, and that is sin, because sin is the enemy of God. Sin exists in me quite as certainly as it does in Osama bin Laden; indeed, I may be far worse than he is -- I do not know how he was brought up, or taught, or sinned against by Christians from the West. Islam and sin are two different things. Terrorism is a sin, but terrorists are not sin. Christ died for terrorists, too. And when we are faced with the decision of whether, in our own heart attitude toward them we elect to love or to hate, let us be mindful that Whatever ye have done to the least of these, My brethren ...

C. S. Lewis relates a short, powerful story of speaking with a pastor from continental Europe who had lived through the Second World War. He said that this pastor had met (or at least seen in person) Adolf Hitler on one occasion, and that he had what most people would regard as good cause to hate him. "What did he look like?" asked the apologist. The pastor replied, "Like all men. That is, like Christ."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Challenge of Submission

The American Catholic Council, a dissident group calling for all the usual revisions of Catholic doctrine (moral approval of homosexual behavior, the ordination of women, etc.), has slated a meeting for next summer, around Pentecost. Father Hans Kung, one of the most notorious dissenters of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has been invited; all of this happening in the wake of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, one of the two major associations of Catholic consecrated sisters in the United States, openly lending its support to the egregiously pro-choice health care bill recently pushed through Congress (without being read), in defiance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And these are just the latest events in what amounts to a low-level mutiny inside the Catholic Church in this country for the past three or four decades -- ever since the opening move was made when American theologians took it upon themselves to reject the papal reiteration of Catholic Christian beliefs about birth control in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae.

"Dissent," the polite word for what used to be called "heresy," is rampant among both the rank and file and even some of the theologians, religious, and clergy of American Catholicism. Encouragingly, it is declining -- particularly among younger Catholics, both priests and laity. The real riches of the Catholic faith, maintained by the Church as a whole and especially by Venerable John Paul II and our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI, are being rediscovered: Latin is again in vogue, new ministries like FOCUS are skyrocketing, and ancient devotions like the Rosary and the spirituality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are being revisited by young Catholics hungry for spiritual bread. But the era of dissent, while much more popular among previous generations than our own, is not over; and catechesis is, in some places, still so bad that many young Catholics who want to be faithful do not know how -- or worse, have only a latent desire to be faithful, because they are not aware that it is a live option. (I know a young woman, a paragon of Christian spirituality and an exemplar of our generation of Catholics, whose home parish was so pastorally lacking that she did not even know, until she reached college, that Catholics taught and believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.)

So why is dissent so dangerous? Is it because the Catholic Church needs to maintain her power? To that there is hardly any adequate answer except, "What power?" The Catholic Church has no armies, no masses of wealth (though people persistently assume that the Church is exceedingly wealthy), and in most places no extraordinary legal advantages -- indeed, in many places it is not even a legally legitimate entity: mainland China, for instance. It doesn't even have frozen alien skulls lining the walls of the Vatican Secret Archives, unless Fr. Malachi Martin is correct (because if there were no alien skulls, why would it be secret? Huh?).

Is it because the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, cannot bear dialogue? Well, that depends on what one means by "dialogue." The protesters in the Midwest (Minnesota, I think) who were recently refused Communion on the grounds that they were wearing rainbow buttons in open protest of the Church's teaching on sexual morality, thus turning the holy Mass into a political spectacle, claimed that the Church was unwilling to dialogue. If by that they meant "unwilling to contradict what the Church has maintained for her twenty centuries of existence," then certainly that is true. But what sort of dialogue are they, or anybody, really asking for? The Church has been proclaiming her teaching, being argued against and arguing back, setting forth a defense for the hope that she has, for millennia. If that does not constitute dialogue I am not clear what will satisfy the requirement.

For of course, the real reason that the Church's teaching offends and estranges the World is that the fashion of this world passes away, growing old like a garment; while the Church is founded upon a Rock. G. K. Chesterton pointed out, quite truly, in his last book (The Well and the Shallows) that a hundred years from now the Church will, to the eyes of those outside, look completely different than she does to the eyes of those now outside her -- she will look different because she will be the same.

Or why do people try so hard to loathe, defy, and smear the Pope? His reception in Great Britain was a good example: a sizable protest took place, labeling him a closet Nazi and holding him personally responsible for the abuse scandal, despite the fact that he was (and, to the extent that it is an issue, remains) an opponent of Nazism, and has actually done a great deal -- more, perhaps, than any single member of the Curia -- to improve the handling of abuse cases. By the end of his visit there seemed, thankfully, to be a general softening of the public perception of Pope Benedict in the U.K.; whether because of his sweet and gentle demeanor, or his cordial interactions with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, or the beatification of Bl. John Henry Newman, or the delighted English Catholics turning out in love and support, or his courteous reception by the Queen herself. But even so some people try to maintain an image of him as an outworn, heavy-handed theological tyrant.

I suspect it is something like this. Blessed Cardinal Newman once referred to the human conscience as "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." That, of course, is one of the titles of St. Peter's successor. Now, the role of conscience -- so often touted by dissidents as what they are obeying, in contrast to the dried-out dogmatics of the Church -- is to discern right from wrong, and Catholics believe that its pressure upon the will to do what is right ought always to be obeyed. Human beings, especially left to ourselves, can err about the content of right and wrong, but the pursuit of right and rejection of wrong, to the best of our knowledge and ability, are universal and absolute obligations.

The Catholic Church claims for herself in general, and for the Vicar of Christ in particular, infallibility. Not, that is, total freedom from error of any kind on questions of any kind; but possession of the unadulterated truth, and authority to proclaim it, on questions of Christian doctrine and human morals. But this is for teaching, for the formation of conscience; it does not create the conscience. That is built in. It may be misled, but it instinctively recognizes the truth, and St. Paul warns that it may easily become our accuser. We know when we have done something wrong, or for the wrong reason, deep down. And when the Church expounds the revelation entrusted to her, the World is made angry, not because it disagrees, but because there is a little, squirming bit of it that does agree -- and that really is an inconvenient truth. For if we were to actually attempt what the Church teaches us, well -- that would be like taking up our cross daily and following Jesus. And everybody loves Jesus until it starts to cost something. Pilate liked Him until it cost something.

If conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, then the Vicar of Christ is the human conscience manifest. That is why he is loved and hated.

And that is why fidelity to the Church is so vital. Not only because it is our duty, as Catholics and indeed as human beings, to believe what we say we believe -- when we recite the Creed, when we renew our baptismal vows every Easter, when we receive our God. Not only because Christianity is, in fact, true. But because, in the deep recesses of our hearts, in the inner sanctum more pierced by the knowledge of the Holy Spirit than by our own knowledge, we recognize the truth. And if we try to reject it, we will be miserable because we are trying to reject both God and ourselves. As Ven. John Paul II never tired of saying, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man, but the revelation of man to himself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Which Surpasseth Understanding

All the best stuff comes from Mount Carmel, it seems. A very wise priest suggested The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross -- it was tough to get into at first, but very nutritious. Really squirmed on reading this:

"During the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense [i.e., the lower element of the human soul] ... spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear that they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavor (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate their faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation, thinking that, when they are not doing this and yet are conscious of making an effort, they are doing nothing. ...
"The way in which they are to conduct themselves in this night of sense is to devote themselves not at all to reasoning and meditation, since this is not the time for it, but to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything. The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer without making any effort. What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered and at rest from all knowledge and thought ... but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him."

This is rough stuff. For one like myself, whose instinct is generally to go and do something in any given situation, the counsel "Be still and know that the Lord is God" is unwelcome.

It's very easy and pleasant to be a Christian at first. God gives us many of what are technically called "sensible consolations," positive emotions and mental illuminations and the like. Conquering temptation is easy -- graces are abundant. But of course, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters and St. John of the Cross here, this state of affairs does not last for ever. Physical children must be weaned from their mother's milk; spiritual children must also be weaned, given adult food -- "bread with crust," as the Carmelite mystic charmingly says in another passage.

We must not be discouraged by a loss of consolations; admittedly it is unpleasant to not have pleasant feelings, but that is why sacramentalism is such an important element of the Catholic faith. In every sacrament -- in the Blessed Sacrament -- there is something objective going on, something that does not depend upon our emotional state at the time. The Eucharist depends upon the spiritual office and intention of the priest, and that is one of the precious things about it: it exhibits the objectivity of God. ("Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn't go away." -- Philip K. Dick.) We believe it is far more than a reminder, yet it is a reminder, that our faith is a faith in reality and not in ourselves.