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.

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.




Sed Contras for Both Sides in the Amoris Laetitia Debate

Side 1: Conscience must guide the mature Christian. God speaks to us there, with the voice of the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” If my conscience does not accuse me, God does not accuse me. If my conscience bids me do something, God bids me do it.

amoris-laetitia-coverA good shepherd of Christ’s flock empowers, encourages, and facilitates obedience to conscience. There lies the true path to Christian freedom, to intimate friendship with God.

BUT! We sinners spend a great deal of our lives doing things which quiet the voice of conscience. We can render it practically inaudible. Attaining the discipline and fortitude we need to hear God speaking in the inner sanctuary, and promptly obey–that entails a long, hard struggle. No one is born with that kind of discipline and fortitude.

A good pastor must help his sheep anticipate judgments which conscience will make after the rush of passion has passed, after our self-justifications have all exposed themselves, in the cool light of day, as shallow half-truths.

God has given us a moral law, which clearly and unmistakably prohibits sex outside of marriage. A shepherd who does not repeat and emphasize God’s clear law to someone who asks for guidance–someone who knows perfectly well that his or her mind suffers from the buffets of passion and self-imposed confusion: that’s no shepherd at all.

Side 2: A second marriage, without an annulment of the first, always involves adultery. Marriage binds for life. The vows express this, echoing the teaching of Christ. Christ’s teaching about life-long marriage touches on the very heart of the Christian mystery, the Eternal Law of love. We human beings fail to stay faithful, but the triune God does not. God’s holiness makes lifelong marital fidelity possible, fruitful, beautiful; He makes Holy Matrimony an image of heaven, of the wedding day of the Lamb.

BUT! The law of the Church provides a set of criteria according to which a judge may declare wedding vows to be non-binding. Diocesan tribunals issue declarations of nullity every day. Christ is always faithful to a marriage that was properly established in the beginning. But not every couple succeeds in properly establishing the bond, because of something lacking at the time. A declaration of nullity implies no moral judgment on anyone. But it does mean that wedding vows become non-binding.

No one has ever proposed that the operations of diocesan tribunals are infallible. Here’s what the Apostolic See has said:

The discipline of the Church, while it confirms the exclusive competence of ecclesiastical tribunals with respect to the examination of the validity of the marriage of Catholics, also offers new ways to demonstrate the nullity of a previous marriage, in order to exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience. (Letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, September 14, 1994)


“To exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience.” Therefore, some divergence is inevitable. Not everyone who should have an annulment does in fact have one.

By the same token, no one can judge his or her own annulment case. That’s a basic principle of law: You can’t render a just judgment on a case in which you have a personal interest.

Therefore, it seems to your unworthy servant that the question left before us by chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia actually is:

Can anyone legitimately appeal to a judge–other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar of the diocese–to apply the criteria by which we can conclude that a wedding vow does not bind?

In other words, can a parish priest effectively grant annulments? That would seem to be the ultimate meaning of the Holy Father’s suggestion that pastors can help couples in second marriages reach the point where they could receive the sacraments.

If the answer to this question is Yes, then we face a serious problem: It will no longer be possible to know for sure whether or not someone is married. Marital status is a matter of public record. But if a priest other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar (or his delegate) renders a declaration of nullity, that anonymous judge has no real means by which to publish his decision. We would no longer have accurate records regarding the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Things could change in the lives of the people involved–one of them might ultimately want to marry someone else–and we would have no way of knowing whether or not that is possible. A mess.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the question is No, then we continue to have the same problem that we have had: Literate, educated, and relatively well-to-do people can and do successfully use the annulment process. But uneducated, illiterate, poor people? Not so much. The effect: Education and affluence give people an advantage in receiving the sacraments. Not good.

May the good Lord help us! No one ever said any of this was going to be easy.

Human Freedom +Amoris Laetitia Session

We read at today’s Holy Mass: This is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke. (Isaiah 58:6)

sistine isaiahWhat does it mean for man truly to reign over himself in freedom? We need to know that, in order to co-operate with it. As we read: above all sacrifices, the Lord demands my co-operation with the true freedom of my neighbors. Not to mention: my co-operation with the true freedom He wills for me, myself.

Freedom comes from knowledge. We can only make free choices about things that we know and understand. Human knowledge extends only so far, so human freedom extends only so far. We don’t have absolute freedom. Only God knows everything, so only God can act with absolute freedom.

But we human beings do have it in us to reign over all the other creatures in the material cosmos. For us to serve anything beneath us means slavery. And we can’t enslave ourselves to each other, either. Which means we must cultivate free minds.

How about if we strive during Lent 2017 to attain genuine independence of thought? If I have an independent mind, I will know how to respect my neighbor’s right to exercise his or her independent mind.

How? By smashing my interior idols. God alone has absolute authority to teach me the truth. I must offer Him constant access to my mind. By keeping silence. By reading unfamiliar things. By listening to others patiently. By speaking only what I know to be true. By eliminating gossip from my life altogether.

amoris-laetitia-coverThe free person is not the one who serves nothing. The free person is the one who learns from God and serves Him out of love. When I live this free life, I will know how to respect everyone else’s right to live it, too.

We had an illuminating parish study session on Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia yesterday evening. Since Lent is supposed to be hard, I distributed a six-page handout and gave some pop quizzes.

We agreed, I think, that we possess a shining nugget of gold. Namely, the image of marriage which we behold when a man and a woman exchange vows before a clergyman and the holy altar–and then go home and start making babies.

This image shines with a particular light: the light of God giving life. Human beings can and do bind themselves to the service of such a mystery. And our conjugal service to God the Giver of Life goes to the death, just as Jesus went to the death to espouse Himself to His people.

In order for sex or marriage to make sense, they must mean the same thing. Neither prudish nor crass, we recognize our own origins in this reality. And we recognize in Christ crucified, in His sacred wounds, the revelation of the meaning of life. Eternal Love made us to be His friends forever.

Which brings me to this: The more times I read Amoris Laetitia, the less I get out of it. I’ll give you my current bottom line on it.

Catholics living in “irregular” sexual situations can and do receive Holy Communion all the time, without consulting the parish priest. Perhaps they do so with tranquil consciences. No one gets scandalized who doesn’t know. The communion lines at our parishes here in Roanoke are anonymous-enough places.

If someone initiates a conversation with a parish priest about his/her irregular sexual situation, it’s because s/he does not have a clear conscience about it. Trying to shepherd souls lovingly, I of course cannot close the door on such a conversation with a “get away from me, sinner!”

But, by the same token, saying, ‘go ahead and receive Holy Communion,’ seems to me like closing the door in a different way. I have read Amoris Laetitia three times through, and have yet to find anything that convinces me that it makes sense to tell people having sex outside of canonical marriage that they’re fine.

Sed contra: In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Coccopalmiero proposed this case:

Think of a woman who lives with a married man. She has three little children. [Note: Apparently the man’s children; not hers.] She has already been with this man for 10 years. Now the children think of her as a mother. He, the partner, is very much anchored to this woman, as a lover, as a woman. If this woman were to say: ‘I am leaving this mistaken union because I want to correct my life, but if I did this, I would harm the children and the partner,’ then she might say: ‘I would like to, but I cannot.’

In precisely these cases, based on one’s intention to change and the impossibility of changing, I can give that person the sacraments, in the expectation that the situation is definitively clarified…How can she leave the union? He [her civilly married spouse] will kill himself. The children, who will take care of them? They will be without a mother. Therefore, she has to stay there.

I see problems. Instead of saying, Yes, of course, go to Holy Communion! I would ask if she thought she should tolerate her husband’s suicide threats, since they are no less aggressive than threats to her life. I would ask if he had sought to obtain an annulment, so they could be married in church. I would try to point out to her that she was being exploited.

In other words, with all due respect, I think the Cardinal’s case is not very convincing.

Would love to read you thoughts, dear reader!


Worrying, Conscience, Obedience

dont-worry-be-happy-bobby-mcferrin-cd-cover-artYour heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field, even though they neither sow nor reap nor toil nor spin. Are you not more important than they? So do not worry. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. (see Matthew 6:26-32)

Comforting. Almost enough to make you sing ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy,’ by Bobby McFerrin. But the Lord had a little more to say.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Do not worry about tomorrow. Today has plenty of evil.

So maybe our song should be: “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Landlord said your rent is late; he might have to litigate. Don’t worry. But avoid evil.”

Anyone know the phrase contemptus mundi? Anyone know Latin? I think we could translate it: contempt for the world’s business.

Let’s start with this: Human beings seek happiness. That’s what we do. Squirrels seek nuts; dogs seek squirrels; human beings seek happiness. We would be just fine if we knew clearly what will make us happy. But we don’t.

Some people seek happiness in a full belly or a heady buzz. Some seek happiness in the esteem and honor of men. Some try to get happy by piling up money. Some want to become little Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.

crispy_bacon_1But none of it really satisfies. No one ever gets anywhere near real wisdom without realizing: This world and its business cannot, in and of itself, make me happy. I won’t truly find happiness–peaceful happiness–until I get to heaven. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”

Now, there’s a bit of a debate swirling around the upper echelons of the Church these days. The subject is: how the Church should interact with someone’s conscience.

I guess we could paint two cariciatures, depicting the extremes. On the one end, mindless Catholic lemmings who obey their priests like robots. I get up and say, “No meat on Fridays during Lent!” Then everyone marches home mechanically, takes the bacon out of the fridge, and drops it into the garbage, like a factory machine with a robotic arm.

On the other end of the spectrum: Priests never challenging anyone about anything. They just talk like Obi Wan Kenobi, saying, “Well, sure the sixth commandment officially says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But what does your heart tell you? Stretch out with your feelings, Luke! Put on the blast helmet, and do whatever you want!”

Lord Jesus started by saying: “Repent, and believe the Good News.” God is God. Righteous and holy and wonderful. He will provide. Today you will confront plenty of evil. Recognize and renounce your own evil, and your heavenly Father will guide you through, and He will lead you to the higher goal.

I guess the easy thing to say would be: When it comes to exercising our consciences, we need to come down right smack in the middle of the spectrum between blind obedience and unchecked license. But I don’t believe that.

Luke on approachYes, of course, the Lord communicates directly with every individual soul, in the inner sanctuary called the conscience. Yes, He has put each of us into our own hands by giving us the power to think and act freely. Yes, only the particular individual knows enough about his or her own situation to make a prudent judgment about how to act.

But what kind of priest would start with anything other than what Jesus started with? Repent! We sinful human beings must first question ourselves, doubt ourselves. We must give the benefit of the doubt not to our own opinions, but to the Word of God. In order truly to attain freedom, we have to renounce our own self-justifying opinions and obey the Ten Commandments and the laws of the Church.

It’s not that God doesn’t love us with fatherly kindness. He wants nothing more than to share His friendship with us. He wants us to flower and flourish like the freeborn children of heaven He made us to be. He wants us to be a holy rule unto ourselves, with Him guiding us sweetly, by His interior promptings, toward heavenly bliss.

But if we imagine that this friendship of ours with God can begin with anything other than us repenting of our sins and going to confession, then we live in a dream world. If I think I’m smarter than Holy Mother Church and her ancient teachings, I’m kidding myself. If I feel that being God’s friend is easy, I’m friends with a god other than the real God.

Contemptus mundi. And contemptus sui. Contempt of myself. Not that I hate myself and want to destroy myself. But that I recognize: I have a very profound problem. I desperately want happiness. And I’m desperately ignorant regarding how.

Our heavenly Father knows how to guide us to real happiness and freedom. And He does it by giving us clear commandments to obey.

Amoris Laetitia on Grandparents

amoris-laetitia-coverIn his letter to us about family love, Holy Father urges nice long talks with grandma and grandpa…

The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now,” is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth: “Recall the former days” (Heb 10:32). Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country. A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future…

Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness, and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. (Amoris Laetitia 193)

Pope Francis on Always Being a Child

Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, by Ilya Repin

Jairus the synagogue official loved his little daughter. So did the Lord Jesus. St. Mark narrates well in his gospel how much fuss and bother the Lord had to endure, just to get to the little girl’s bedside. But we know how much Christ loved little ones.

St. John Bosco died 129 years ago today. He loved little ones, too. In our Collect to begin Holy Mass today, we call him “father and teacher of the young.”

Pope Francis wrote something that I find very captivating in his letter to us about love and family life. In explaining the fourth commandment, the pope wrote:

Even if one becomes an adult, or an elderly person, even if one becomes a parent, if one occupies a position of responsibility, underneath all of this is still the identity of a child. We are all sons and daughters. And this always brings us back to the fact that we did not give ourselves life but that we received it. The great gift of life is the first gift that we received. (Amoris Laetitia 188)

The eternal Word of God gave us all our lives in the first place. Jesus gave Jairus’ daughter her little life in the first place. Then, to remind us of this sublime truth, Jesus gave the little girl her life back again, after she had succumbed to her illness.

We forget sometimes that God has given us our lives, as a loving Father lavishing His goodness upon His children. So Lord Jesus worked a miracle to remind us.

We are children. No matter how old or “wise” or important or knowledgeable or “professional” we become. We are our parents’ children, and we are God’s children. We did not give our selves to ourselves. God gave us us; God gave me me, through my parents.

When we remember this, I think we can continue to count ourselves—indeed we must continue to count ourselves–among the young. We need fathers and teachers. And our heavenly Father and Teacher will make sure we have the fathers and teachers we need in this world, provided we always remember how much we need them.

Amoris Laetitia Catena, Part II

amoris-laetitia-coverChapter 4 of Pope Francis’ letter on family love explains the phrases in St. Paul’s famous I Corinthians 13. Three selections, dripping with wisdom…

Love bears all things and hopes all things…

Married couples joined by love speak well of each other; they try to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults. In any event, they keep silent rather than speak ill of them. This is not merely a way of acting in front of others; it springs from an interior attitude. Far from ingenuously claiming not to see the problems and weaknesses of others, it sees those weaknesses and faults in a wider context. It recognizes that these failings are a part of a bigger picture. We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal. It is real, albeit limited and earthly. If I expect too much, the other person will let me know, for he or she can neither play God nor serve all my needs. Love coexists with imperfection. It “bears all things” and can hold its peace before the limitations of the loved one. (para. 113)

Each person, with all his or her failings, is called to the fullness of life in heaven. There, fully transformed by Christ’s resurrection, every weakness, darkness and infirmity will pass away. There the person’s true being will shine forth in all its goodness and beauty. This realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life, to see each person from a supernatural perspective, in the light of hope, and await the fullness that he or she will receive in the heavenly kingdom, even if it is not yet visible. (para.117)

Love believes all things…

This trust enables a relationship to be free. It means we do not have to control the other person, to follow their every step lest they escape our grip. Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything. This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships. The spouses then share with one another the joy of all they have received and learned outside the family circle. At the same time, this freedom makes for sincerity and transparency, for those who know that they are trusted and appreciated can be open and hide nothing. Those who know that their spouse is always suspicious, judgmental and lacking unconditional love, will tend to keep secrets, conceal their failings and weaknesses, and pretend to be someone other than who they are. On the other hand, a family marked by loving trust, come what may, helps its members to be themselves and spontaneously to reject deceit, falsehood, and lies. (para. 115)

Love endures all things…

Dr. Martin Luther KingHere the pope quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at length:

The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God’, you begin to love him in spite of [everything]. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off… Another way that you love your enemy is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it… Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil… Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

[Click HERE for Part I of the Amoris Laetitia catena]

The Mercy of Baptism

He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33)

St. John the Baptist washed sinners in the Jordan River. People came from all over the Holy Land to repent of their sins and receive John’s baptism.

baptismDid St. John the Baptist invent baptism? Not exactly.

The ancient Temple in Jerusalem had water baths for pilgrims to cleanse themselves in. Ritual washing goes way back. Water cleanses our bodies. So the religions of mankind have added a spiritual dimension to this cleansing power. In other words, “baptism” is as old as the human race; St. John did not invent it.

But John did administer baptism to God Himself, the God-man Jesus Christ. Not because God needed cleansing. But because God wills to use water to baptize with the Holy Spirit, through His Church. Lord Jesus commissioned us to “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

John said it: Christ baptizes not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Jesus pours out divine grace along with the water. So, yes: Catholic baptism is a religious cleansing ritual, similar to such washings in other religions. But that’s not all Catholic baptism is. Because here Christ acts through the ritual washing. God Himself produces invisible effects on the soul of the one baptized.

Jesus died and rose again for us, and He ascended into heaven. Through the sacrament of baptism, our High Priest applies to the baptized person the fruits of that mystery. Christ makes a Christian, a new anointed one. He unites the baptized person to Himself. Baptism cleanses us of sin. But the “cleanness” brought about by Christian baptism involves more than just pardon for personal sins. It involves unbreakable solidarity with Jesus Christ. In Baptism, Christ marks the soul with a permanent character. He “brands” the soul, so to speak, as belonging to Him.

Now, God possesses a firmness and permanence beyond what we can even imagine. We think of mountain ranges and vast oceans as being permanent fixtures, but they have nothing on the permanence of God. We also have a tendency to think that everything depends on us clever human beings. But it doesn’t. God works effects through His sacraments, effects that go beyond what we can understand. Baptism means God uniting Himself with us on His terms, not ours. As St. Paul puts it, “God must prove true, even if all men are fickle.” (Romans 3:4)

baptism-holy-card1If you pay attention to the Catholic press, you may know that lately various prelates and ecclesiastical big-wigs have emphasized the importance of “pastoral accompaniment.” We need to accompany everyone with supportive love, regardless of whether we approve or disapprove of how they behave.

To understand this, I think we need to meditate on what God affirms when He pours out the Holy Spirit on us in the sacrament of Baptism. He assures us: I made you in the beginning, and I made you out of love. I made you to reign in happy blessedness, as a member of the divine household. The nonsense of this world does not control your destiny. I will only good for you. I have a detailed plan for your life, which leads ultimately to heaven.

This doesn’t mean that baptized people can’t wind up in hell. You or I could wind up in hell tomorrow, if we don’t watch our p’s and q’s. Our choices have consequences. God’s law binds. The Lord does not lower His expectations of the morals of those He unites with Himself through baptism; he raises those expectations. God help anyone who knowingly chooses to break God’s law.

But if we think that Christianity simply means: “me being a good person,” we have missed it altogether. Because we are not good people.

Christ came to save us because we are sinners. We’re sinners who all deserve to go to hell. As St. John Paul II put it, in his encyclical on Christian morals:

No human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in…rendering God the worship due to Him…This fulfillment can come only from a gift of God. (Veritatis Splendor 11)

God loves sinners who deserve to go to hell. He died for sinners who deserve to go to hell. He came to affirm the truths that He affirms through the sacrament of baptism: Sinner, I love you. Sinner, I made you for happiness and glory. Sinner, I have a plan for you.

“Pastoral accompaniment” hardly means just chumming around and ignoring the Ten Commandments. Hanging out and talking sports hardly counts as “evangelization.” Much as I personally enjoy doing it. We can’t hide the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very challenging demands on us, precisely in order to help us find true happiness.

But we also can’t forget that all human beings fundamentally stand on the same footing before God–namely that His mercy can and does overcome all our evil. When we baptized people know we have done wrong, we can get right again by going to “second baptism,” also known as…confession. We can go again and again, because God never tires of forgiving.

Christ’s infinite and omnipotent mercy really is the pre-eminent power that reigns in the Church. Which is because, when everything is said and done, His infinite, omnipotent mercy is the pre-eminent power that reigns over all things.

So let’s help each other, and let’s help everyone we know, respond humbly to that bounteous divine love.

The Ecclesiastical Controversy (Compendium Included)



Why do they call Rogue One a “stand-alone” movie? Well….How do I put this delicately, without spoiling the movie for you, if you haven’t seen it?

The likable male and female leads, apparently in love, share an embrace at the movie’s end. Perhaps they whisper to each other “till death do us part.” But at that point in the great Star-Wars narrative, the Death Star exercises its power, and, well…let’s put it this way: “till death” ain’t very long in this case, and dead people generally don’t appear in sequels. Ergo, this film stands alone.

Also: Dead people don’t have sex. Maybe that sounds morbid. But our Lord Jesus made a point of highlighting that fact (Matthew 22:30) And I believe the inevitable celibacy of the dead can put a lot of things into proper perspective…

…Now, most people do not find Roman Synods particularly interesting. And even fewer people have the patience to read ecclesiastical documents of over 250 pages.

amoris-laetitia-coverI daresay most Catholics don’t even know that we have a Church “controversy” going on right now. But, in point of fact, we do.

Of what do we dispute in this ecclesiastical controversy? you ask.

A group of cardinals expressed doubts about the meaning of our Holy Father’s latest formal teaching document, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation called Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.”

Actually these Eminences expressed doubts about just a few paragraphs. Like this one:

It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. (Amoris Laetitia 304)

The Cardinals express their doubt about how to interpret this:

Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts? …For those proposing the creative idea of conscience, the precepts of God’s law and the norm of the individual conscience can be in tension or even in opposition… (Doubt #5, and Explanatory Note. )

The cardinals raise a pertinent question. And I find Fr.Antonio Livi’s ambivalence about Amoris Laetitia even more penetrating, because it takes into account the distinction between external law and internal conscience in the life of the pilgrim Church:

Here [in paragraph 304] the discourse [of Amoris Laetitia] is even more ambiguous, because it voluntarily confuses the “external” evaluation of the moral situation of the conscience of the faithful with their “internal” situation before God: the condition of the individual’s conscience flees the human eye, even that of the spiritual director or confessor, and the authority of the Church is not called to give judgment on the conscience (“de internis neque Ecclesia iudicat” — the Church does not judge what is internal). Therefore the evaluation of the external, that which remains evident to the eyes of men, is what is enough for a merely prudential judgment which does not pretend to be absolute and definitive but concerns the duty of the ecclesiastic authority of recognizing the external behavior of men conformed to the verbal law as just and to sanction the unjust ones.

If you’ve read this weblog for a while, you know that these questions have pre-occupied me for some time. So I present to you a little compendium of my writings over the past 2 1/2 years on the great “communion-for-the-divorced” controversy. Consider it a Solstice-Day gift.

Click the links and dive in, as you like. I think you might find the Cardinals’ dubia, and the questions raised by the venerable doctors Grisez and Finnis (which you can read by clicking here) hidden in my musings. But I have tried to tackle things from my own ponderous, even lugubrious, goofball-existentialist perspective…

First, the historical context in which I, for one, see the Synod on the Family, and its aftermath. I called it “the Synod of Tweets” because the Catholic-press news coverage rarely penetrated beyond the 140-keystroke limit, and because many Synod Fathers tweeted their way through the whole thing, leaving us wondering how they possibly could have listened to all the speeches. Also: I tried to present the recent-historical context, which involves the early career of a great hero.

In the fall of 2014, I wanted to give a speech on honesty, if only I could have had the Synod floor myself.

Next, I raised some questions I have about the holy-communion controversy…

  1. Does the distinction ‘law vs. mercy’ really makes sense? (Also, divine laws against whitened sepulchers).
  2. Does giving yourself an annulment make sense? PS. Alanis Morrisette sings the rationale for marriage law.
  3. Does it make sense for Germans to try to turn the Catechism into bilge-water? With a good answer from Nova et Vetera

I tried to coach everyone through any confusion they experienced following the Synod. I heartily advised walks.

How about a spiritual context? I gave a homily on mercy and promises, and a homily on loving prudently.

princeThen our Holy Father gave us his very, very long Apostolic Exhortation. It has a lot in it, but not everything. It has the teaching of St. ThereseAmerica magazine made a super-lame video about it, and Prince unwittingly sang about it.

Now we find ourselves ready for Christmas 2016, and many internet enthusiasts see this as a moment of great crisis in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, most Catholics hardly know anything about any of this; the Redskins’ crisis impinges more directly on our daily lives.

I will certainly have much more to say. (For instance, CLICK HERE for a sermon on “pastoral accompaniment”. Or HERE for one about erring on the side of obedience.) I believe that carefully reading Amoris Laetitia will inspire and inform us. I intend to lead an adult-ed study, here at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, early in AD 2017.

I think studying the Catechism also will help us. And studying the Holy Bible. Studying the teaching we have received from our loving God.

IMHO, this controversy is actually not much of an ecclesiastical controversy for the 21st century. After all, I think it comes down to is this: Do we human beings need to submit our minds to God’s teaching? Do we receive the teaching of the Church for what it truly is? Namely, God’s kind, thorough, and wise instruction of His beloved children?

This was a controversy within the Church for our parents and grandparents. Catholics questioning Church teaching is a 20th century thing. Catholics did that, I guess, because 20th-century man rejected Divine Revelation, on the grounds that submitting to it meant humiliating one’s great human self beneath one’s dignity. But then St. John Paul II came along and pointed out to everyone that no one can achieve greater dignity than: sonship in the Son, Jesus Christ, God made man.

We still need time, of course, to reflect more deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Church’s communion with God Incarnate. But I think the 20th-century controversy about humble, obedient faith demeaning the human soul has long since fallen by the wayside, at least among Catholics. We know perfectly well that we do not have God’s intelligence.

In the 21st century, we Catholics do not expect the Church as a human institution to be perfect. We perceive that God reveals Himself through Her, in spite of Her limitations on the human level. So any “tension” between the Church’s rules and my supposedly liberated conscience? It really just doesn’t exist. To the contrary, I know that my adherence to the Church’s clear guidance is what allows me to live a genuinely free life–free of all the other nonsense that this world throws at me to try to entrap me in its misery.

In other words, my obedience within the great family that is the Catholic Church ensures my freedom from all pagan slaveries–especially the cruel slavery of imagining that I’m utterly on my own when it comes to having a relationship with God. After all, I will face Him in death sooner or later. And the Church has laws precisely to help me prepare for that inevitable day.