Sins and Commandments

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Sometimes the Lord Jesus said genuinely hard-to-understand things. He came to reveal the eternal mysteries of divine love. So the gospels record statements He made that require a lifetime of meditation even to begin to understand. Like “I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me.” [Spanish]

But sometimes Jesus’ words sound out clear as a bell. Like the list of evils we hear at the end of Sunday’s gospel reading. In addition to “evil thoughts,” the Lord listed twelve particular sins that defile the human heart. We can break down the list into four groups, and co-ordinate them with the Ten Commandments. Let’s turn this into a fun little quiz.

Group One: Adultery, unchastity, and licentiousness. First we have to make sure we know what “licentiousness” means. Promiscuity, unprincipled sexuality. So: adultery, unchastity, and licentiousness involve violations of which commandment? Or commandments? Correct. The Sixth and the Ninth, which prohibit violations of the marriage bond.

We can begin to grasp the fundamental holiness of marriage when we reflect on how we each came into existence. Namely, the union of a man and a woman. Because children deserve to grow up in a family, sexual union requires lifetime fidelity. We talked about this a little last week. God makes the rules, and the law of chastity is crystal clear.

The Catechism has a helpful definition of chastity:

The inner unity of a human being, body and spirit. Sexuality becomes truly human when it makes a part of a lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman… either man governs his desires and finds peace, or he lets himself be mastered by them and becomes unhappy. (CCC 2337-8)

Ok. Second group of items on Jesus’ list. Greed, envy, theft. Which commandment? Or commandments? The Seventh and the Tenth. Thou shalt not steal nor covet.

When my neighbor has something good, and that very fact makes me sad, instead of happy; makes me want to have the good thing, rather than my neighbor having it—well, then I’m in trouble.

What’s the antidote? St. Paul wrote about “the desires of the Spirit,” as in the Holy Spirit. If we live the Catholic life, receiving divine grace through the sacraments and praying daily, then God will work within us. He will move us to desire Him. He will make us want the true happiness of Christ’s eternal Kingdom. When we want God, envy, greed, and theft, fall by the wayside.

Charlton Heston Ten Commandments Moses

Third group. Arrogance, malice, murder. Which commandment? The Fifth.

God does not simply prohibit literally killing people, like in abortion or euthanasia. God prohibits not just killing people, but also hating people. When they came to take Jesus to the cross, He told Peter to put his sword in its sheath. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We must practice brotherhood. Some people practice tennis, or yoga. Fine. But Christians practice brotherhood, sisterhood.

Finally, the last group of items from Jesus’ list of sins: Blasphemy, deceit, folly. Which commandments? The Second and the Eighth.

We owe the ineffable mystery of God profound respect. We owe Him silence. We owe Him our attentive ear.

Yes, we must speak of Him sometimes. We’re not agnostics. We have a message to communicate to the world. God has revealed Himself, and He has entrusted His Holy Gospel to us, for us to spread and help souls get to heaven.

But we must exercise great restraint and discipline in speaking of God Almighty. Because His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways. Like I said, we are most certainly not agnostics; we believe that God has revealed Himself fully in Christ. But: We give the genuine agnostics a grudging respect. Because they cultivate the skill of absolutely avoiding blaspheming the impenetrable awesomeness of God.

Now, that great God gave us our capacity to communicate, so we must use that capacity well. That means honesty. I daresay that ‘deceit’ might pose the greatest danger of all the items on Jesus’ list. What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to…

Problem is: Good intentions can and do lead us down the path of deceit. Because we have Messiah complexes. I am a good person; I please everyone; I do good to everyone…

But wait. Oh, no! I double-booked myself. Or: Oh, no! I’m too tired or out-of-sorts to do that good deed, even though I said I would. Or: Gosh, I’m embarrassed by my own weaknesses and human limitations. I can’t bring myself to admit them even to myself.

So I lie.

Maybe I convince myself it’s a “white lie.” Maybe it protects someone else’s feelings. More likely: It protects my feelings. That is: my egomaniacal delusion that I am Mr. or Mrs. Super-Good Person.

Well, what could I have said, Father? Rather than that little white lie? How about… Nothing.

May God help us to avoid all the sins that Lord Jesus listed. And humbly try to do good.

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Even More Dramatic

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If we were looking for something more-dramatic than the controversy involving the pope and bishops, we found it. The Passion of St. John the Baptist, the anniversary of which we keep today.

St. John, while languishing in prison, sent two of his disciples to Jesus, to ask if He is indeed the Christ. I think we can safely assume that John sent these disciples with this question for their benefit, not his; he knew the truth.

Anyway, the Lord Jesus answered the question with a kind of question of his own (though it was hardly a prevarication 🙂 ) The Lord asked them: What do you see?

I have come, and the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear; lepers are clean, the dead rise again, and the poor have hope. Blessed is the one who takes no offense in Me.

In other words: Look, I may be a humble, dusty, sweaty Nazorean with no property, surrounded by low-class followers. But I am obviously the Messiah. You can see with your own eyes that I am the King of Justice, Peace, and true Life.

Tissot Herod
Herod

…Now to the dramatic moment of St. John’s death.

Herod drunk at his egomaniacal birthday celebration. Engaging in perverse, incestuous sensuality by leering at his own step-daughter, who was also his half-niece, the daughter of his half-brother. Reveling in his worldly power, swearing up and down to give her anything–as if he, Herod, were some kind of tin-pot god.

Then a dark thunderclap cuts through all the debauched levity. Execute the holy man. Kill the herald of the Messiah.

The mother and daughter had called Herod’s bluff.

Herod knew that what they asked him to do was wrong—grievously, preposterously wrong. He knew that a sober man would not think of such an act of violence. He knew that John, and John’s lord Jesus, spoke righteous truth, gave hope, offered people a path toward a good and wholesome life in the sight of God.

A big part of Herod’s own soul wanted to go down that path. But he couldn’t choose it; wouldn’t choose it. Instead, he chose merciless, hopeless, meaningless death. All because he feared being exposed for the puny little fraud that he actually was.

May God save us from such a fate. May He strengthen us so that we can face our choices humbly and soberly.

Let’s start by freely acknowledging that we ourselves are puny little frauds. No need to fear being exposed as such; we declare it ourselves! Then let’s stay close to Jesus and His saints.

New Scandal, Worse Than the First

McCarrick sofa

He spoke with forked tongue. In Dallas. In 2002. When the American Bishops’ Conference supposedly addressed the problem of sex abuse by priests.

If it turns out we are not faithful to what we have all agreed, it will be similar to if we’re not faithful in teaching the faith. This will be a delict that we will be sanctioned for.

Craven hypocrisy. Thundering, preposterous, sickening lies.

We will take this seriously… We will be accountable to do what we promised to do… We must put an end to this.

McCarrick lead the bishops. In their supposedly sincere effort to win back the public’s trust.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, the holy angels looked down upon the spectacle, and they wept. Because the Vatican’s Man of the Hour in 2002, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, himself deserved, at that very moment, to be defrocked and jailed for the rest of his life.

When I wrote about this before, I made a mistake regarding Cardinal McCarrick’s statement last month, when the Pope suspended his public ministry. McCarrick said: “I have no recollection of this reported abuse… I believe in my innocence.”

I interpreted this as an implicit admission of guilt. In my then-naive mind, I could not imagine a grown man, a priest, who could not remember whether or not he fondled the genitalia of an eleventh-grader. So this is the Cardinal’s way of admitting that he did it, I concluded.

But now, with more information available, the Cardinal’s statement makes more sense. It is plausibly sincere. As in:

I myself have watched the sun rise many, many times in my life. Did I ever watch the sun rise from the Virginia side of the Potomac River? Or did I ever watch the sun rise while thinking about 19th-century Italian politics? Can’t say that for sure; can’t remember that exactly. I have no recollection of thinking about Vittorio Emanuele while watching the sun rise. (Though I may have done so.)

sunrise2It appears that Cardinal McCarrick has fondled many different male genitalia in the course of his life. So maybe he truly and honestly can’t remember that particular time in 1971. The one that got him suspended from ministry, forty-seven years later.

I have no patience for vagueness and rumor mongering. Plenty of writers in the Catholic press have felt free to insinuate that “many bishops must have known about this.” But there’s not a single fact in that sentence. Others assume that more, terrible stories about McCarrick will emerge. Maybe they will; maybe they won’t.

But the simple facts that sit on the table now: McCarrick fondled a teenage seminarian in 1971. He abused a boy he had baptized through his pre-teens, teens, and twenties. He manipulated seminarians into sleeping in the same bed with him. The Church paid out cash settlements in secret to protect McCarrick–at least $180,000 that belonged to holy Church, spent to buy the silence of abused seminarians. These facts suffice.

Yes, I believe in due process, not trial by newspaper article. But can we honestly think that these stories are all untrue?

Does Pope Francis care? About McCarrick’s multiple victims?

Do the bishops of the United States care? And do they recognize that the institution called “the USCCB” has now suffered irreparable damage? McCarrick always called himself “a man of the Conference.” The “Conference” has burnt to ashes now, your Excellencies.

Speak. As individual men, as aggrieved fathers in God.  As St. Thomas More put it so eloquently, “Silence gives consent.” The papal and episcopal silence at this point is genuinely sickening.

Wimpy bureaucrat-ese won’t do it. McCarrick’s red robes must burn in a bonfire in St. Peter’s Square. Or no one will ever listen to anything. Any of you say. Ever. Again.

Jairus and the Life-Giver

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Things have come around in a circle. We talked about Jairus the synagogue official and his twelve-year-old daughter three summers ago–in the lovely little parish churches of St. Francis and St. Joseph. Shortly after that, I had to go to Roanoke. Now, praise God, I’m back as the shepherd of Franklin and Henry counties. And we’re talking about Jairus and his daughter again. [Spanish]

That was a World-Cup-Soccer summer, too—the summer of 2015. The women’s. And we won it, the USA.

Now, we don’t know if Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter played soccer. We do know, from the end of the story, that she had a twelve-year-old-soccer-player’s appetite. We also know that the girl’s father loved her. He refused to accept the apparent death sentence her illness had imposed on her. He wanted to continue to help her grow up.

As his daughter lingered on her sickbed, Jairus found himself surrounded by well-meaning Debbie Downers from all over the neighborhood. O, alas, alas! She’s dying! Woeful tidings! Lamentations! What a hopeless, cruel world we live in!

Maybe Jairus simply got annoyed with the weepers and the wailers. He got up and left the house. He strode off to look for the famous Nazarene rabbi, who had just returned to Capernaum from a visit to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Pope Paul VI 1975Jairus found Christ and begged Him to come to his home. “Lay hands on my daughter, and she will get well and live.”

Now, why did Jairus say this to Jesus? Did Jairus know what we know? Namely, that this wandering rabbi had the omnipotent power to form the heavens and the earth out of nothing? To knit together little girls and boys in their mothers’ wombs? So he could certainly save the girl from death?

Somehow, at least some part of Jairus did know. He believed in the Nazorean. Jairus appealed to this poor, dusty former-carpenter—appealed to him as if he were appealing to God. I think we can imagine the look that Jairus gave Jesus. Jairus had left the den of weeping and wailing that his home had become. He had stepped out into the light of day, because he refused to give in to despair. He wanted to keep fathering his daughter. He looked at Jesus with eyes that said: I have hope, because You have the power of life. Help me. Help us. Help our family.

Then the bad news came from the house: The little bundle of energy has lost the light from her eyes. She’s dead.

Now Jairus’ hope was about to falter. Maybe this is a meaningless world after all? But Christ returned Jairus’ gaze.

‘You had faith before. Hold on to it. You are dealing here with no mere traveling Torah expert. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Morning Star and the eternal Word. I am the Giver of Life. I love your daughter even more than you do.’

Jairus believed. He did not say, ‘Oh, no, teacher. It’s over. Let’s both go home. And I’ll start making funeral arrangements.’ No. Jairus believed that the girl who could eat her way through four or five pitas at one sitting, and who had a question about everything, and who loved to run around chasing the chickens—he believed what the Teacher said about her: She will live.

At that moment, dear brothers and sisters, we can find in Jairus something close to the epicenter of our own Christian faith. Because we believe in the Gospel of Life. We believe that God wills not that we should die, but that we should live. We believe that life and love have a meaning, an eternal meaning in God.

Pope Francis baby kissWe look at the earth and the sky; we see the people we care about around us; we honor the memory of those who gave us our inheritance. And we know: A power that gives life made everything. He wills a triumph of life. He loves with a life-giving generosity that never runs out. Death and darkness try to snuff out the power of life. But springtime comes.

People outside the Church think that our Catholic code of sexual morality and family life doesn’t make sense. They think the Catholic sexual rules cramp your style, limit your freedom, make you less of a person.

A huge irony, since denying the religious aspect of sex actually means failing to honor your own origins. We all come from that moment when a man and woman embraced in the way of marriage. That’s where we are all “from.” And it’s a holy place to be from. It’s where Jairus’ daughter came from, where all God’s sons and daughters are from.

This year we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s solemn declaration that artificial contraception, condoms, birth-control pills, etc., have no place in the life of a Christian. Because the life of a Christian means believing in, and co-operating with, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who governs sex and marriage the way He does for His own very good reasons.

The entire sexual morality of the Catholic Church proceeds from this idea. There is nothing arbitrary or constricting about Christian chastity, inside or outside of marriage. Masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, homosexual acts, abortion, artificial fertilization, etc.—all of this is wrong for one precise reason: Because every human being always needs to be right where Jairus was spiritually when He looked at God and begged His help. And God looked back at him. And helped.

Jairus knew, at that moment: This is holy business, this business of marrying and having children and raising them. And God comes into the middle of it, to make it good. To give life. To fill the world with girls and boys who play soccer, and eat a lot, and spill stuff. And who fill our world with joy.

“Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged”

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Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

One of Lord Jesus’ most-famous sayings. But to understand its meaning, we clearly need a little context.

Because if we human beings stopped judging altogether, we would smash up the car and make enemies real quick. Plus none of us would ever learn anything.

Whenever you pull into a parking place, you have to judge the stopping distance and apply the brake proportionately. Whenever you encounter another human being, you have to judge what tone and manner of conversation fit the situation, to try to avoid giving offense, and to foster communication. And some of us have the responsibility of training others in doing good and avoiding evil—parents, teachers, supervisors, etc. So we have to judge the actions of others, and apply discipline sometimes–when our charges break the rules.

Constant judgments, therefore, in this life of ours.

What does our Creator and Lord mean, then, when He commands that we not judge? The answer is actually quite easy, quite precise, and readily available in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching. Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light. Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God’s grace as nothing be condemned. Our attitude to our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the Last Day Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (para. 678)

Our attitude toward our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love.

To understand ‘judge not, lest you be judged,’ we have to start with: Almighty God brought me into being, and has offered me eternal life in Christ, without my deserving it. God has loved me without me deserving it.

Therefore: let me love my neighbor without stopping to wonder about whether or not he or she deserves it. Let me love my neighbor with divine love. This is someone with whom I want to share heaven. And we both need mercy to get there.

Faith in the Marriage Bond

The prophet Elijah suffered. Because the nation of Israel had broken faith with her Lord. Israel was governed by cynical world-lings who knew no law other than their rapacious short-term appetites.

wedding umbrellasBut God is faithful, faithful to His promises and His covenant. He did not vanish from the life of His chosen spouse. He stayed close. He continued to guide His people into a better future. The nation had abandoned God, but the story of love and friendship between God and man was not over.

Spouses need to live and breathe this history of Israel. Because anyone who has been married for more than ten minutes knows that: Marriage is no picnic.

I mean, hopefully it does involve picnics. Frequent picnics. But:

Human beings have grave difficulties getting along. Human Nature 101: Getting along takes work, requires compromises, and inevitably means humbling yourself sometimes.

So the mystery of the ancient Scriptures, the mystery of God’s faithfulness in His union with an unreliable, capricious spouse: that mystery of God’s unswerving dedication must be the spiritual air that married couples breathe. Marriage requires one thing, above all: Believing in this God.

He loves to the end. He did not abandon His chosen Bride, even when she abandoned Him. To the contrary, He took His bride’s nature to Himself and became a man. Then He let His recalcitrant spouse take out all her destructiveness on Him. Even then, as His bride killed Him, He did not give up on His marriage bond. “They know not what they do. Forgive them, Father.”

So: If your cellphone removes you from the mystery of the ancient Scriptures, cut it off and throw it away. If you’re gossipy friends make suggestions that involve divorce, shut them up and tell them to get lost. Better to live in the life-giving truth of the ancient Scriptures, without knowing whether or not your high-school classmates have gotten fat, than to enter Gehenna with 1,000 facebook friends.

The Apostolate

Philip & James

How can we understand the meaning of our lives? The life of a Christian makes sense as an apostolate: The Son of God has consecrated us and sent us to help build His kingdom.

Christ has consecrated some Christians to propose His Holy Name to people Who have never heard of Him, or barely. And the Lord has consecrated others to live relatively quiet lives, in a small circle, building up the kingdom by daily prayer and acts of kindness.

We have two heavenly patrons of missionary work: St. Francis Xavier, who went to India and Japan to preach the gospel, and St. Therese, who lived a short, hidden life in a convent. Both St. Francis and St. Therese made sense out of the lives in the same way: They had been consecrated by God for the apostolate, to serve the building of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no starting point for understanding reality other than Jesus Christ Himself. And He gives us an apostolate, which makes getting out of bed every day worthwhile.

Focusing on the idea of my life as an apostolate can help me resolve all kinds of questions, with relatively little difficulty. To start with: Do all ‘religions’ offer equally good paths to God? As far as I know, absolutely not. There’s only one Christ, one Savior, one Incarnate Word.

st_therese_of_lisieuxBut: Should I try to convince people about Him using any methods other than those that He used? Namely, to choose to suffer rather than inflict suffering; to understand and empathize before speaking; to love all, and hope the best for all, and believe in the Father’s love for all. Of course I should use no other methods in my apostolate–only Christ’s methods. We apostles march gently beside the Prince of Peace, Who rode a little donkey, not a war stallion.

Does it matter what Christian “denomination” you are? As far as I know, it matters a very great deal. Did Jesus Christ Himself found the Thomas Road Baptist Church?

The Roman Catholic Church does not claim to be perfect in every respect. Far from it. She spent the twentieth century meditating very deeply about Herself, about who She is exactly, about what She possesses–and what She doesn’t possess.

One thing the Catholic Church does not possess is: A ready answer to every question or problem. She does not possess a divine mandate to govern everything about how we live our pilgrim lives.

Our Mother the Church, governed by St. Peter’s successor in office, possesses: 1. The faith of the apostles, expressed in our creeds. 2. The seven sacraments instituted by Christ Himself. 3. The rules God  has given us to help us sort out right and wrong. 4. The prayers that we need to worship God and communicate with Him as He Himself has ordered us to do, for our own good.

Every Christian ought to have all these good things at his/her disposal. But how could anyone take good advantage of any of these rich endowments, unless someone—some apostle—offers them in a kind and sympathetic way? The Church’s divine gifts only bring about their good effects when people embrace them freely and sincerely.

Let’s march on, fellow apostles, beside the Lord! He makes our lives worth living, when we spend them for the good of those around us.

To Change the Church

Holy Father had his name day yesterday (se llama Jorge). Mine comes tomorrow. So, to celebrate, I present my review of Ross Douthat’s new book…

Ross Douthat To Change the Church

Douthat sees a profound conflict in the Catholic Church. On one side, “conservatives,” who believe that the gospels give us the words of Christ the Lord, including, What God has joined together, let no man put asunder… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. On the other side, “liberals,” who think that the Church must change with modern times in order to survive.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic conservatives and liberals struggled for… hmm…struggled for what, exactly? control?… The struggle continued for a decade under Pope Paul VI. Then the “conservative” post-Vatican-II popes, John Paul II and Benedict, reigned for over three decades, supposedly stabilizing everything by giving Vatican II a traditionalist interpretation. But the struggle never really abated; the liberal side did not exit holy Mother Church, as many expected. Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 led to a surprising re-eruption of the year 1968.

Douthat marshals many illuminating details of Church history in order to lay out this narrative–details which I myself have lived through in my own little life. My fellow seventies’ child lays out so many accurate observations, and interprets them so well, in fact, that I could easily let myself follow him to his doleful conclusion.

Namely, that either 1) Catholicism as we know it is on the way out, or 2) the Church will trudge on, as a house deeply divided, until schism erupts, or 3) by some miracle, God will soon give us a Pope Pius XIII. Then we will give up on trying to win-over our contemporaries and simply retrench. Thoroughly retrench.

But I can’t follow Douthat the whole way to his conclusion, for all his mesmerizing eloquence. For one thing, Douthat falls into one of the traps dug by the EWTN commentators who endlessly fuss about Pope Francis’ supposed misdeeds.

Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount a conversation between Christ and some contemporary Jews. Lord Jesus said that divorce became legal for the ancient People of God “because of your hardness of heart. In the beginning God made them male and female, and the two become one flesh in marriage.”

As Douthat rightly points out, “only a professional theologian” could miss the meaning here. Christians cannot divorce. But, by the same token, this conversation of Christ’s evidently does not stand on its own. The Lord refers to the original creation, to Adam and Eve, and to the act of marriage. The act of marriage–vows and consummation–lies at the center of the contemporary ecclesiastical controversy, not chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, or chapter ten of St. Mark’s.

G.K. Chesteron explained how true love always makes a lifetime vow, in “In Defense of Rash Vows,” published in The Defendant.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

The Holy Bible doesn’t prescribe the text of marriage vows, because it doesn’t have to. What the Lord said about divorce in the conversation recorded in Mt 19 and Mk 10 gets proved at practically every wedding. A lifetime commitment, sex, and forming a family with all its attendant duties and privileges–at a wedding, these are not distinct realities. They are one reality: marriage.

And, in this case, the sacramental grace does not come through the ministry of an ordained priest. A man and woman do this; a man and a woman minister the sacrament of marriage to each other. They make their life together an image of God’s love for mankind, an image of Jesus the Bridegroom’s faithful love for His Church, by taking vows and having sex.

marriage_sacramentWhat Jesus said in Mark 10 bears witness to, and confirms, the underlying reality of what marriage is. But marriage itself, which a man and a woman do (as God’s ministers): that’s the thing that lies at the heart of the controversy that occupies good Mr. Douthat.

I would say that both sides of the controversy miss what to me is this all-important distinction: the difference between a. ecclesiastical authority imposing itself or refraining from doing so, and b. the vows taken by lay people who marry. In other words, both sides want to put the pope and the clergy in a role which we do not in fact possess. That leads to unfocused and unhelpful rhetoric.

As I have tried to explain here before: According to the rhetoric, the controversy has to do with people being “barred from Holy Communion” vs. “admitted to Holy Communion.” But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers do not bar people from Holy Communion. It simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never denied Holy Communion to any adult who approached the altar looking like he or she knew what she was doing, and wasn’t chewing gum. Everyone in the church is always “admitted” to Holy Communion. The decision lies with the individual: Should I approach the altar to receive, or not?

So the whole controversy gets out of focus from the outset, when people start talking about denying/admitting to Holy Communion. The real disputed point is this: What should a parish priest (or anyone else, for that matter) say to someone who asks for guidance about whether or not to go to Holy Communion? This is something that actually does happen on a regular basis.

I, for one, almost always respond to such requests for guidance with some questions of my own, to gather facts and try to clarify the matter. Like:

Well, did you make marriage vows to someone else? Including a vow of sexual fidelity until death? Is that person still alive?

So, let’s concede that we have a genuine controversy regarding what priests outght to say to people. Douthat plumbs the depths of this controversy with both penetrating insight and stunning blindness.

I. Douthat’s Insights

The Pope and his ”Twitter apologists” won’t answer questions. Not just the semi-famous “dubia.” But simple, honest questions that Catholics can and should expect their priests to help them answer, by providing authoritative criteria for judgment.

Let’s take two examples. The first comes from Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence.” (I have not seen the movie, nor could I ever manage to get through the joyless novel. But Douthat helpfully outlines the plot.)

The main character faces a crushing choice. The local Japanese shogun will stop at nothing to stamp out Christianity. He tortures fellow Christians in front of the hero. “All you have to do is put your foot on this image of Christ, and deny Him. That way, you can save the lives of your friends.”

amoris-laetitia-coverThe hero’s priest mentor also tries to convince him to step on the image of Jesus. “These people’s Buddhism has the same ethical teaching as our Christianity. This is a dispute over supernatural things that the Japanese will never understand. Your stepping on the image won’t cost anyone anything.”

Fr. James Martin, SJ, the leading American Pope-Francis apologist, wrote about this. Douthat recounts what the Jesuit had to say. According to Father Martin, “Silence’s” hero faced “an almost impossible choice,” a discernment “in a complicated situation where there are no clear answers.”

Exhibit A of Jesuit sophistry. Who can fault Douthat for pinning it to the mat? Father Martin’s refusal to confront the moral facts: colossally obtuse. The “moral dilemma” here is actually not hard. How about this:

“Sir,” the hero says to the shogun, “I am not torturing and killing anyone. You are. Stop it. You send them to heaven by martyring them, but you do irreparable harm to yourself. For your own sake, stop this cruel nonsense.”

Then the hero adds, “Now, you think that I am going to step on the image of the one hope for heaven that we have, and deny Him? Deny the God-man, for Whose Holy Name countless of my smarter and more subtle-minded ancestors in the faith have gone to their deaths singing? If you think there’s any chance I will do that, forget it. May He have mercy on us all.”

Yes, it would require supernatural strength. (The sacrament of Confirmation promises precisely such grace.) But, at the same time, it would be the only moral option available. A difficult act, heroic martyrdom–but not a difficult decision, as far as right and wrong go. Apostasy is a sin that no situation can ever justify.

Now to the second example of a question which the “new paradigm” of pastoring doesn’t answer. This doesn’t spring directly from Douthat’s pages, like the “Silence” example. But it is the question upon which the entire controversy turns. Douthat regrettably never quite manages to lay it squarely on the table, but everything that he writes circles around it. It is the question which Pope Francis and his allies so studiously refuse to answer.

When should a person have sex?

Again, not a difficult question, when it comes to figuring out right and wrong. (It may be  difficult to act in accord with the right answer, but that doesn’t change the answer.)

When should a person have sex? When you’re trying to have a baby with your spouse.

Like I said, not a hard one. To borrow Douthat’s trenchant insight, and apply it here: It would take a professional theologian to get that one wrong. Sex is for making babies: Human Anatomy 101.

But let me address the reasonable, well-founded objection you, dear reader, might make. Father, can’t I have sex–even when I’m not trying to have a child with my spouse–just for the sake of love?

To answer that one, I think we have to say this:

If marriage means something like finding a “soul-mate”–that is, a companion with whom I will truly share my entire life; with whom I will become the person God made me to be; without whom, when everything is said and done, I will never understand myself as a person, since my self will become part of a marriage and a family– In other words, if marriage is what God originally gave Adam and Eve, and which a man and a woman establish by taking vows at the altar and making love in private, to start a family– If that is what we’re talking about here, and it is: Then no one can doubt that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No one gets two chances at it. It is a beautiful mystery of God, having to do with getting people to heaven.

So: people involved in such a holy communion with each other–they don’t exactly have the freedom to make their own rules, but: who could say they should refrain from love-making simply because they know that conception at this moment likely will not occur? Not me. Couples having sex for the sake of love during infertile periods is no sin.

john paul ii loggia be not afraidNor would I tell a widower and a widow beyond child-bearing age not to marry. Though I would say: Pray in solitude awhile first, calling to mind that death and judgment draw nigh.

Anyway: Douthat hits the nail on the head when he calls the bluff of the “discernment’ rhetoric on the controversy’s liberal side. Their presumption is: Man must have sex. But that presumption is false. To have sex is a choice. Every individual soul must wisely make that choice–with a partner likewise making a wise, informed choice–or not. And we must make such choices according to sound criteria of judgment. Where do we start, in formulating criteria for such a judgment? The Nicene Creed. Life on earth is short; Christ gives us heaven; the Church guides us with the truth; etc.

All this is Christianity 101. Priests who won’t help their people make wise choices about having sex? Those priests suck. They suck as priests, at least. Douthat skewers that nonsense with aplomb. But…

II. Douthat’s Blind Spots

To Change the Church misses some extremely important facts of recent history. Douthat sees everything through the lens of political tribalism, so he does not understand the enduring significance of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate. Douthat calls JPII a “conservative.” He’s not alone in calling the saint that, of course. But calling Pope St. John Paul II “conservative” is like calling Michelangelo “talented.”

Seeing everything through the lens of politics, Douthat looks only for “the center” which can hold a political group together. St. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived and died for the Truth–which is what holds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together.

Douthat imagines that the “damage” done by Pope Francis has already undone the work of Pope St. John Paul II. The least convincing part of To Change the Church involves Douthat trying to explain why so few people seem to recognize this deep structural damage. It’s all happening silently because Christianity has lost its political and cultural power, Douthat argues. Therefore, only a few ardent Twitter users really know how big a problem we Catholics have on our hands.

But a reasonable appraisal of the current state of the Church would recognize: The influence of Pope St. John Paul II endures. Pope Francis himself cites JPII’s Catechism not infrequently. The Novus Ordo of the Holy Mass, which grew to “adulthood,” so to speak, under JPII–it gets prayed by validly ordained priests and their people all over the world, with sincere devotion and spiritual profit for countless souls, continually. In other words the Church continues to live Her life, largely unaware of the current “controversy”–and not the worse off, for not knowing about it.

Ok, yes: JPII had a way of not answering questions, too, when he didn’t want to. He did not answer the question of whether Latin-rite priests might be able to marry. He made it more of a question than it was before, in fact, by authorizing the ordination of quite a few married men–men who entered the Catholic Church in the middle of a career as Protestant clergymen. I remember serving Cardinal Hickey at the ordination of a married Methodist-minister-convert while I was a seminarian in the late 1990’s. I wondered to myself, Why don’t any of our spiritual fathers talk to us celibate seminarians about how to deal with this–watching a married man get ordained in front of our eyes? No one ever had that talk with us.

But, that said, the consummate priest of the 20th century did turn his prodigious mind to numerous crucial questions, like: Are there some things that we simply cannot do? Why is abortion wrong? How do we know the Holy Spirit? Is capitalism Christian? Why do we evangelize? How can all Christians re-unite in one Church? How should priests understand themselves? And bishops? And women? And college professors/intellectuals? Was Freud right? If so, how?

I still cannot forgive Pope Benedict for abdicating. But 2013 did not leave us in a re-booted 1968. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla inherited a papacy struggling to find its center of gravity again. That giant of a man proceeded to spend all his energies finding it. He gave the clergy and the whole Church their center of gravity back. Namely Jesus Christ. That center holds and will hold.

Douthat opines that Vatican II did not resolve the central modernism-vs.-tradition question of “religious freedom.” Again, let’s take a supposedly “difficult” moral case to try and get to the heart of the matter.

In 1858 papal gendarmes took Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents. The boy was Catholic, having been baptized by the maid when he was in danger of death. The Mortaras had hired this maid in violation of Papal-State law, which forbad Jews to hire Catholic household servants. The law stood on the books not out of bigotry toward Jews, but precisely to avoid such situations.

At that time, Pope Pius IX ruled not only the Church, but also a large part of Italy. So he had not only Cardinals and monsignori at his command, but also police officers with weapons. When the Pope learned that young Edgardo Mortara was Catholic, he insisted that the boy’s parents offer their child a Catholic education. When the parents refused, the Pope sent the police.

Pius IX
Blessed Pio Nono

Now, Edgardo grew up happy and became a priest. He loved Pope Pius and insisted that the man was a saint.

But: be all that as it may, the question is, Should the Pope have sent armed men to take the boy away from his parents?

Moderns howl, “of course not!” On the other hand, conservatives say, “Well, it’s complicated. He was baptized, after all, and we have a supernatural understanding of the effects of baptism.”

In fact, however, it is not complicated. Yes, we of course have a supernatural understanding of the effects of Holy Baptism. Edgardo was a Catholic, with a right to a Catholic education. All true. But do we Catholics with a supernatural understanding of things claim that the Pope has a right to employ armed men to remove a child from his parents? We most assuredly do not.

Pio Nono had gendarmes not as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, but as the head of the Papal States. The pope wrongly held such a temporal office. Religous freedom does not mean that Catholicism isn’t always true, for everyone. It is. What religious freedom means is: The Church of Jesus Christ does not employ force to win souls for Christ. Because force cannot win souls for Him. Or, to put it better: No force can win a soul for Christ, other than the all-conquering power of His Truth.

Pius IX rightly insisted that Edgardo had a right to a Christian education. But the pope wrongly sent armed men to vindicate Edgardo’s Christian right. That doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to make.

The rhetoric of “modern vs. traditional” clouds minds. It doesn’t really help anyone resolve his or her moral problems. We Christians hold fast to the Sacred Tradition, and we deal with the times we live in, as they are. I wouldn’t call our times “modern.” I would call them pagan. The useless modern vs. traditional-Catholic distinction is a trap into which Pope Francis’ liberal advocates, his conservative enemies, and Ross Douthat all fall.

Pope John Paul II refused to fall into that trap. He lived his twentieth-century life ready to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but always as a loyal son of Pope St. Pius X. Pius X settled the Modernism controversy well over a century ago, with the encyclical Pascendi. (I summarized the encyclical here.)

JPII left us a Church very much alive and well, and equipped to march into the future with confidence. We will all die before the resources he left us run out. Pope Francis and his friends may decline to answer questions about sexual morality, and God will judge them. But we can still find the answers we need easily enough. They are all there, in beautiful black and white, in JPII’s Catechism.

Fifth-Commandment Way of Life

To give God His glory, flowers bloom, birds chirp, dolphins frolic in the surf, and elephants spray water from their trunks. We give God His glory by… obeying the Ten Commandments. [Spanish]

We could spend all day and all night meditating on which of the Ten Commandments requires the most careful attention. The First sums them all up: ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but Me.’ We owe Almighty God everything. Without Him we are nothing, quite literally nothing. The only “lifestyle” that makes any real sense: giving everything back to the good Lord, Who gave it all to us in the first place.

paniniThe First Commandment, therefore, takes priority. But can’t we say that the Fifth Commandment shares in the profundity and absolute seriousness of the First?

Why shall we not kill? After all, people have killed each other since the beginning. Of the first two brothers ever born, the one killed the other. We find ourselves enormously disturbed by one school shooting after another, and rightly so. But meanwhile in Syria, death and destruction have rained from the sky for seven years.

Back in the twentieth century, we human beings fancied ourselves “advanced” and “evolved.” But we have killed each other more during the last 104 years than we ever did in all the countless centuries of human history before that. Every day the abortionists of the world bring an end to at least 125,000 human lives. We could easily conclude that killing each other is a normal human thing.

Except: God.

“O God of our fathers, Lord of mercy, in wisdom You formed man” (Wisdom 9:1). He made us “male and female, in His own image and likeness.” He declared through the prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and I consecrated you.” Lord Jesus said: “I came that they may have life.”

The question of the Internet Age is: Is nothing sacred? And the answer is: Yes, human life is sacred. All human life partakes in the holiness of the Incarnate Christ. In Christ, God has united Himself with the human race.

pancakes syrupAfter all, who makes a person? You and I can make pancakes. Or a panini. But who has what it takes to make a person? A unique, unrepeatable, unpredictable, creative, smiling, moody, open-ended person. Google, Inc.? No.

This is what we are saying, we pro-life Catholics. The cynics who rule the planet endlessly babble about how the Catholic Church has a medieval hang-up about abortion and sexual morality. And that we’re overly soft on refugees and death-row inmates. And that we have a fetish for keeping sick and handicapped people alive, who really would be better off dead.

But actually we’re a hundred times more reasonable and clear-headed about all this than Carl Sagan was about galaxies, on his most-lucid days. We have no hang-ups or fetishes or silly soft-spots. We just make it our business to try and recognize the fact: You and me and every other human being—all of us who have these mysterious depths in us: a heart and mind that can know the truth and love our neighbor—we are sacred. Our existence pertains to the holiness of God. We are fruits of His magnificent handiwork.

Therefore: It’s not okay to snuff this out. It’s not okay to crush and destroy this. To kill another human being, by choice—that’s a sacrilege. Even in those cases when a good and just person kills in self-defense—we nonetheless mourn and grieve. Because human life is, of itself, a wonderfully open-ended thing. Human life has only one true “end.” Not death. God.

thou shalt not killThat is why thou shalt not kill—the sacredness of human life. Therefore, the light of faith in the triune God is also the light of peace and tranquility among men. The sacredness of God, and the sacredness of human life, and the sacredness of love for my fellow man—we perceive all this sacredness by the light of Christian faith. Whenever this light of faith does not shine in a human mind, horrible crimes can happen–meaningless violence against the sacred life of a human being. Ultimately, the problem is ignorance. Ignorance of the glory of God, shining forth in a unique human being.

In other words: How could someone do it? How could someone walk into a school, or a church, or a mall, or a concert, and just start shooting? How could someone drop bombs on civilians? Or abort a baby? Or cheer at an execution? Or gun down a rival? How could anyone act with such malice? How? Because darkness fills the mind, where the light of faith should shine.

We mourn and lament that darkness. We don’t answer malice with malice; we don’t pray for revenge. We pray for light, for redemption.

What do things like school shootings mean for us? They mean that we must bear witness. We ourselves must shine the light of faith. That light allows human eyes to see the beautiful divine horizon which shines on a human face. The interior light that makes the Fifth Commandment not just a rule to follow, but a whole way of life.

Ecclesia docens, Ecclesia discens

st paul preaching to the bereans
Mosaic of St. Paul Preaching

The Church teaching, the Church learning.

I had a few moments to read the transcripts of two lectures–one by a Cardinal, the other by a prominent theologian. Both deserve a reading.

The Cardinal argues that Pope Francis has brought about a “revolutionary” change. God reveals Himself in family life. The teaching Church must learn from today’s families. Doctrine and rules don’t always apply. Ministry = accompaniment.

The theologian insists that Pope Francis has endangered the unity of the Church by teaching ambiguously. And this also endangers the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

The four marks. Not St. Mark, Mark Wahlberg, Mark Cuban, and Mark White. One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The celebration of Holy Mass expresses the marks of the Church: united with the local bishop and the Pope, with the Apostles of old, with all the other local churches throughout the Catholic world, professing our faith in the Christ, Who unites Himself with us in the Most Holy Sacrament.

It’s hierarchical–not for the sake of anyone lording it over anyone. Hierarchical in order to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Church is hierarchical in order to be Herself.

In the authors’ introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne laments how his becoming an official of Uncle Sam nearly cost him his independence of mind, his imagination, his interior life. But I can’t say the same about becoming an official of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At the center of Her life we find the endless mystery, the source of all interiority: divine Beauty, Creativity, boundless Freedom.

The theologian, Father Weinandy, thinks we have a crisis because some priests and bishops say, “The Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.” Or: They just say nothing whatsoever about how to have sex without committing sins.

Cardinal Cupich thinks contemporary family life can teach us new things about God. Maybe he should read a few John Updike novels before getting too excited.

God became man, and He became a humble man. He submitted Himself to the authority of Pontius Pilate. The Church of Christ always proposes; She never imposes. What wins souls? Kindness, gentleness.

But: Did God reveal Himself by declaring, “I’m nice. Just you be nice now, too?”

No. The ecclesia docens began teaching, ruling, and sanctifying when the Lord commanded Her: Go, baptize all nations, teaching them to observe all the I have taught you.

Because the Apostles listened to that command, we ourselves do not wonder aimlessly, like orphans, through life. We have our sacred patrimony: the Church’s Liturgy, Her books, Her immeasurably rich wisdom. How do we acquire this wisdom? Mustn’t we ceaselessly pray, study, and meditate, with girded loins?

The people wandering the highways and byways of this world seek instruction from their priests. The “democratization” of the modern world hasn’t ended the priest business. Far from it. We priests must be more prepared to instruct and advise then ever. After all, what other sources of information do our people have–about how to live a good life with a tranquil conscience?

What kind of teaching and advice would we priests give if we didn’t listen to our people? Unhelpful teaching and bad advice. Everyone has to wake up every day as a card-carrying member of the ecclesia discens.

But what kind of teaching and advice would we give, if we didn’t base it all on the Gold Standard: The Catechism of the Catholic Church? Is that book not a reliable compendium of apostolic doctrine, normative and hugely enlightening?

If we blow off the Catechism (and all the sources that constitute it), our teaching and advice won’t be worth a damn. Kinda like the advice of priests who suggest, by word or by cowardly silence, that the Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.