31 December 2008

On Spiritual Directors

When looking for a good spiritual director, it is standard practice to interview the potential S.D. first. The idea is not to weed out those who are going to challenge you or disagree with you. The idea is find one who holds and practice the Catholic faith as taught by the Church and is able to actually help you grow in holiness.

Ask the following questions politely. There is no need to be offensive or defensive. You are not an Inquisitor. You are not hunting heresy. If it turns out that the potential S.D. is some kind of New Age kook, you are obligated to keep that assessment to yourself. The obligation to confidentiality binds both the director and the directee.

A few cautions up front:

1). Do not be impressed with S.D.'s who have credentials in spiritual direction. Most spiritual direction programs in the U.S. teach their students amateur forms of guru-ism and occult gibberish.

2). Do not be impressed by titles like "Father," "Sister," "Brother," or "Doctor." Anyone holding any of these titles can be dodgy.

3). Do not be impressed by celebrity or ecclesial status. Abbot Father Dr. Alred Boniface Schultz of the St. Labyrinth Benedominican Monastery, author of 46 books on meditation and a national speaker, can be as big a moonbat as anyone.

4). Do not be impressed by the potential S.D.'s personal piety, orthodox theology, solid publishing record with the best Catholic houses, or his/her reputation for brilliant spiritual direction. Every director/directee relationship is different. What works for you, might not work for me. And being a good S.D. takes more than unwavering allegiance to the magisterium.

5). Do not be impressed by a potential S.D.'s willingness, even eagerness, to take you on as a directee. In fact, I would interpret any sort of "salemanship" on the part of the S.D. as creepy and immediately disqualify him/her.

Questions (with the qualification that he/she may say, "'Nunya."):

--Tell me about your spiritual life, your daily spiritual routine, your prayer life.

--What are your strengths as a S.D.? Weaknesses?

--Tell me about your experience as a S.D. How many years? What sorts of directees?

--How would you describe your relationship to the Church? The local bishop? The Holy Father?

--What do you think of commonly used spiritual direction tools like the Ennegram, labrynith?

--What do you think of personal devotions like the rosary, novenas, etc.?

--What authors/books do you regularly read and recommend?

--Have you had any spiritual direction training? Where and what kind?

--What's your understanding of the sacraments, esp. Mass, confession, marriage?

--How do you understand the relationship btw God and creation?

--How do you understand holiness, goodness, morality, sin, etc.?

--Do you use fasting or other sorts of penance in your direction?

--My biggest spititual difficulty is X. How would begin to approach this problem?

--My greatest spiritual gift is X. How would you direct me to use this gift?

--Generally speaking, from what sources do you pull from for inspiration as a S.D.?

Keep in mind that you are being interviewed as well. I have turned down potential directees b/c I didn't have the particular gifts to deal with their challenges. I have also been "fired" as a S.D. for being too theologically orthodox and for being "too hard."

Do you want someone who will "kick butt and take names"?
Or someone who will be more of a gentle listener, a guide?
Or someone who will function as a teacher, a model?
Or someone who will sympathize but challenge nonetheless?
Or someone who maintains an emotional distance and directs you?
Or someone who will "get in there with you" and fight?
Or someone versatile enough to shift among these as needed?

You really have to know yourself before choosing a S.D. But you also have to be open to change and growth. I find it very difficult to get a good S.D. because I need a "kick butt and take names" kinda director. I need someone who can look me in the eye and tell me how full of crap I am. Not many of those around these days. . .sigh. . .

30 December 2008

Guidelines for Faithful Catholic Reading (Updated)

Question. . .

1). Can you give me some guidelines about what books are OK for Catholics to read?

Sure, but first you have to decide where you are on your road to be perfected with God's grace. For someone who is intellectually and spiritually solid, that is, someone who thinks with the Church and believes with the Church, most anything is appropriate so long as you approach it with a strong critical eye. A Catholic who knows his/her faith well and holds to it tenaciously will not be easily dislodged from the Body. Now, I do not mean to say here that you must be a closed-mined anti-intellectual with your mind made-up already. What I mean to say is that your relationship with God through the Church is sufficiently strong that you "see" the world through your faith. Some tend to make their faith (or Church teachings) as just one more compartment of their lives that can be kept separate from their personal relationships, their politics, their jobs. This sort of compartmentalization gives us divorced/re-married, pro-abortion Catholic Republicans who work for Greenpeace and who see no contradictions in their lives yet wonder why they are unhappy!

If you are new to the faith, your situation is quite different and I would urge a different approach. So much of our faith is about just living day to day with the sacraments, in personal prayer and service. The more intellectual side of the faith is attractive b/c it allows a certain distance from the grubbiness of working on our perfection in grace. That's a trap. Our faith is about beliefs and works, knowing and doing, trusting and acting. For a new Catholic, I would suggest that you ground your first few years in the Church in three things: 1) frequent use of the sacraments (Mass, confession, etc.) and a prayerful devotion (rosary, etc.); 2) stick to the basics in your reading--the Catechism, a good "treasury of Catholic writing" type book, the Bible; and 3) do volunteer work consistent with our tradition (pro-life work, St Vincent de Paul Society, etc.). Your intellectual needs will arise out of these and give you a better direction for reading.

NB. If you have a copy of Richard McBrien's popular work, Catholicism, throw it away. It's useless for understanding the faith. I mention this book in particular because it is one that most new Catholics buy for instruction and is widely used in diocesan RCIA programs. Though he gets some things right, he has been admonished multiple times by the American bishops to revise the errors in this book, and he has steadfastly refused. Most of it is modernist nonsense and heresy.

General Guidelines for all Catholics

Catholics have nothing to fear from reading material that opposes the Church or attacks our faith. God is in control not us. The question for your reading choices is this: will this book help me to better cooperate with God's grace given through the Church to grow in perfection? If not, don't waste your time. If so, try it out.

Don't waste your time on most of the books in the Self-Help section of your bookstore. There is no such thing as "self-help" for Catholics. "Self-help" is just Pelagianism and gnosticism dressed up in pop-psychology. God helps us and we cooperate with that help.

Don't waste you time on most of the books in the Spirituality section of your bookstore. Most of these are New Age and neo-pagan garbage. The only good thing about these books is that they don't lie about their non-Christian origins and pretend to be helpful to Catholics. This section will likely include many books with Christ, christian, Catholic, etc. in the titles. Don't be fooled.

Don't waste your time on most of the books in the Christian Inspiration section of your bookstore. Most of these are fundamentalist Protestant or "community church" movement versions of Positive Thinking pseudo-theology or Purpose-Driven Life drivel. The fiction is mostly anti-Catholic nonsense from a fundie Prot perspective, i.e. the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation blahblahblah.

In the bookstore, go to the Christian religion section and look for books published by Ignatius Press. These books are normally written for intelligent Catholics who are curious about growing with Christ in his Church and who want to do more than memorize the Catechism but aren't yet willing or able to put in the time and effort to delve full-time in the complicated academic world of Catholic theology. They well-written, solidly orthodox, challenging, but not high-brow theology. Now, having said all of that, let me add: Ignatius Press does publish some very, very high brow stuff. They publish Hans Urs von Balthazar. There are probably three people in the world who have read his stuff and understood it. One of them currently occupies the Chair of Peter. The other two teach at Oxford University and one of them has decided that von Balthazar is probably dangerous to the faith. But generally, Ignatius Press is the way to go.

UPDATE: from the comboxes I want to add two publishers:

TAN Books: mostly reprints of Catholic classics
Our Sunday Visitor: contemporary spirituality, theology of moderate difficulty

Spend some money on a good Catholic theological dictionary (O'Collins is good, so is Hardon). This can help you get a grasp of basic terms and usage. Also there are a number of "shorter catechisms" out there as well as catechisms written for adults.

Some new Catholics like to jump into the classical Catholic spiritual tradition (mostly writers like John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Theresa of Avila). If you can read this stuff and it helps, go for it! Generally, I steer young Catholics and those new to the Church away from these texts because these mystics and saints are writing to and for monks, nuns, priests who have been at this perfection in grace thing for a long while. Many of my spiritual directees at U.D. were reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. This is a classic Catholic work. It is also a dangerous book for those not ready to use it properly. And the proper way to use it is with an experienced spiritual director! A requirement, by the way, that the saint himself insists on. These classic texts require religious maturity and a deep discernment. They are NOT textbooks or DIY manuals.

Finally, for all Catholics, check everything you are reading against the Catechism. This sounds juvenile, I know. However, the Catechism, for all of its structural flaws and misplaced emphasises, is a distillation of 2,000 years of Catholic wisdom. Use the index to find specific topics. There are a number of searchable Catechisms on-line. There is a book titled A The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that contains the texts of all the footnotes in the Catechsim. Having this book handy can make your reading easier. You can read the CCC as a book, starting on page one and going to the end. It is a "one piece" book in that understanding page two requires that you understand page one. Using it as a reference book is OK, but don't expect to get fullsome answers 100% of the time. You will still have to think through most of your questions with a critical mind.


If you are new to the faith and/or not sure of your spiritual maturity, I would caution you against the following:

--trying to read advanced works of theology/spirituality
--works of spirituality without a solidly orthodox spiritual director
--works that claim to combine Catholicism with some other spiritual tradition (New Agey junk)
--"self-help" books, even ones claiming to be Christian/Catholic
--avoid identity politics theologies: feminist, queer, black/latino, liberation, ecological theologies
--books of private revelations, "An angel came to me and told me that. . ." type books
--books that stress "spiritual warfare" or "apocalyptic" themes; "end times"
--purely "social justice" works, i.e., books that focus on good works alone
--books by self-anointed prophets and mystics
--books about a Catholic spirituality using the "new cosmologies," junk science, junk theology
--Merton's later works, i.e. his Buddhist writings & his peace/justice writing; early work is great
--anything by any of the following popular writers: Eckhart Tolle, Don Miguel Ruiz, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Jon Kabat-Zin, Anthony De Mello, Ken Wilber, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Fritjof Capra, Elaine Pagels, Joan Chittister, Richard McBrien, Matthew Fox, and Richard Rohr. This is not a comprehensive list, just a mention of authors I've read and have found damaging.
--generally books published by Orbis Books, Paulist Press*, St Anthony Messenger Press, The Liturgical Press are dodgy though not always. . .just a caution.
--big caution: books about Ennegrams, centering prayer, yoga, angelic prayers, Buddhism
--basically anything that negatively challenges your faith too early in your growth

Let me also direct you to a recent post titled "Can Catholics Dabble in the New Age Practices?" Under section three ("Discernment") of this post you will find a fairly comprehensive set of questions designed to steer you clear of dangerous spiritual practices. To apply these questions to your reading habits, just replace "Does this practice. . .?" with "Does this book. . .?"

A (very) few recommendations:

Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (adults, moderately advanced)
Joseph Ratzinger, God is Near Us: the Eucharist, the Heart of Life (adults)
Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (adults)
Pope Benedict XVI, The Church Fathers (adults)
Romano Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology (adults)
Kenan Osborne, Sacramental Theology: A General Introduction (adults, advanced)
John O'Connor, The Catholic Prayer Book (general)
Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics (advanced)
Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (adult)

Happy reading! If you have questions about a specific book or author, leave a comment and I will respond if I know anything about either.

*Paulist Press often gets it right: Thomas McDermott, Catherine of Siena: Spiritual Development in Her Life and Teaching, 2008.

29 December 2008

Additions to the blog, OK to read?

Check out the new additions on the side-bar.

I've added links to three of my recently posted personal stories & links to a few of my fav posts from this blog.

I might get up the nerve to post links to my fav homilies! [Partially done. . .on-going revision]

Also, I've gotten a lot of questions these last few months about whether not This or That book is OK for Catholics to read. If you will post the title and author of the book in the combox, I can respond if I know anything about the book or the author.

Generally speaking, a Catholic strong in the apostolic faith and thinking with the magisterium, one who has a good critical sense (and sense of humor) can read just about anything. If you are new to the Church, be careful! There's a lot of junk out there pretending to be Catholic.

Another Dominican preacher blog

If you need a spiritual boost or a some wisdom to wrestle with, click over to Fr. Carmen Mele, OP's homily site and enjoy!

He calls his pieces "homilettes," but that only indicates their brevity in length not their depth in wisdom.

Tell him I sent you!

26 December 2008

Homilies: Third & Fourth Sundays of Advent, Christmas Day

[NB. I have to apologize for getting these three homilies posted so late. Though they are here long after their proper liturgical time, I hope and pray you will find them helpful. As promised, I will be taking several days away from blogging as I get some school work done. Please continue to comment. I will to continue to post comments but not respond myself. Have a blessed New Year and keep those prayers coming!]

Gaudete Sunday: Is 61.1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5.16-24; John1.6-8, 19-28
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

If, while flipping through the cable channels and surfing the web, reading the news and watching it, if you are not yet convinced that the Church is being called go “whole hog” as the Body of Christ, the Prophet, then I don’t think you are paying very careful attention to “the signs of the times.” More and more, as we resist the temptations to submit ourselves as believers in the Truth to the lowest common denominators of secular culture, more and more our resistance to assimilation and our insistence on our identity are seen as combative, strident, radical, even extremist. As the center moves left, those who stand their ground quickly fall out of the mainstream, becoming freaks in monkish isolation, denizens of an edging-fringe that seems only to cut itself, suicidally bent on being right no matter the costs. We do not need to rehearse recent attacks on the Church in detail—the BVM as Playboy model; the soon-to-be-released “Gay Bible;” Catholic hospitals performing abortions, to quickly name just a few—no details are necessary b/c we feel the pressure; we see it: the little loses in court over free speech and free exercise issues; the small nudges toward secular accommodation in how we govern our parishes; compromises with health care corporations when our Catholic hospitals are sold; anti-Christian faculty in our Catholic schools and colleges; attempts to secularize the culture even more by de-Christianizing Christmas; and on and on. If you don’t see it, feel it, taste it, hear it…well, you ain’t paying attention! And if you aren’t paying attention, how will you ever be a voice crying in the secular wilderness? How will you ever be a prophet crying out, “Make way for the coming of the Lord!”?

The Jewish priests from Jerusalem, hearing that a prophet has appeared in Bethany, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, seek out this prophet to test him. They find John the Baptist preaching the advent of the Lord and ask him if he is the prophet, Elijah. He says, “No.” They press him. Who are you? He says in answer, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord…’” Now, we know that John is not among the more reputable characters in scripture. He’s, um, less than hygienic. Has some pretty strange dietary habits. Claims to baptize folks with water in the name of a coming Messiah. Is way too humble to be a real preacher or prophet. He’s an all-around dodgy fellow who comes out of the desert yelling about the Lord and flailing about with these out-dated morals, flinging accusations of malfeasance at public officials. Any of us might read about him on SpiritDaily, give an easy chuckle, and click over to the Drudge Report, forgetting all about him.

So, how are you going to be prophetic? How will pick up the prophetic slack and draw the noose of righteousness tighter around the neck of our deaf, dumb, and blind culture? Appearing out of the desert like John the Baptist will get you certified and hospitalized. We can no longer hear that voice crying out in the wilderness. Now, it seems, prophets need degrees, corporate sponsorship, a logo and tag line, maybe an entourage and a structured hairdo. Certainly they need stadium-sized pulpits, PR toadies, and one or two scandals to give them the appearance of being somewhat human. But these powdered, pampered, and perfumed frauds wouldn’t know a decent prophecy if it fell through their limo sunroof and scuffed their Ferragamo’s. They only sing the hymns our shopping mall religious culture demands to hear. Prophets never tell us what we want to hear. They never point to the horizon of your comfortable expectations and assure us that that break of the dawn is as easy as a credit card number and an internet connection.

John shows these priests and elders something that shakes them at the root. He points toward a horizon star-long and sky-wide. He tells them something they have long wanted to hear but feared to listen to. Rather, he shows them someone; tells them about someone; points toward someone, someone who will not only wash their need away but bring them to their human perfection in his own promised death, a death that begins right at the point where their worst sins meet his best mercies. John brings them Christ. And that’s the kind of prophet we must be. The kind that climbs and claws out of the desolate wasteland of Me-driven clamoring for more and more things to tip over into our bottomless black holes of need and show this world the joy of Christ!

Prophets see the future not as it will be but as it should be; or rather, as the Father promises it can be if we will but listen and act according to His truth. Our joy is not a glassy-eyed, blank grin of stupidity, or a fawning niceness to sweeten evil; nor is our joy a perpetual state of excitement or the search for the highs of liminal experience. Our joy, the joy we receive from Christ, is the exhilaration we know and feel because we know and feel the approaching fulfillment of his promise to come to us again and again, to return over and over every time we call, every time we need him. Even when we are fully prepared and willing to tip ourselves into the well of despair, especially when we are ready to surrender to the dark, our hope is in the name of the Lord. He is our rock bottom and our highest reach. And as his prophets we are charged with shouting—along with Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mother Mary—shouting out our YES to his gift of life. And not only that but making absolutely sure that our thundering yes bounces off the ears of anyone willing to hear and listen. If those who live with us and near us don’t see our joy, feel it, taste it, hear it…well, we ain’t shouting loud enough or clear enough! We aren’t doing enough.

So, how will you become a prophet of joy, crying out in this wilderness, “Make way for the coming of the Lord!”?

4th Sunday of Advent: 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8-14, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Unless Samuel Beckett is right, and we wait for Nothing when we wait on Godot, then when we wait, we wait in need. There is something or someone we do not know, something or someone we do not have; yet feel, yet know we must have; so, we wait. When we wait, we desire. Waiting is what the body does with unfilled desire. We sit here or walk there, or stand, leaning against someone stronger or more patient, perched right on the edge of bounding up in mock surprise to shout, “Finally!” Exasperated, or relieved in anger. You are here. Finally! I have you. But it is too soon yet to claim victory, to claim our prize for patient waiting. Unlike Estragon and his philosophical friend, Vladmir, both waiting for Godot, our advent clock has many more ticks and tocks before the final gift is dropped, before our longest longing is eased, and our waiting in hope is rewarded with the birth of the Word into the world. What we have to wait with today is Mary’s surrender, the end of her anticipation as she answers the archangel’s call to be the ark of the Lord, His tent in flesh: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” If and when, in our waiting and in our desiring, if and when we surrender, what happens?

This week of our long wait begins a headlong fall into the celebration of the birth of the Word into the world. In just one week, we sit up and notice one more time that hope is born for us; faith is pushed out from eternity and into our lives; love is gifted with a body, a mind, a soul for our sakes. In just one week, the one John the desert prophet promised arrives and begins his thirty-three year presence to those who have waited for centuries. But today, this last Sunday of our waiting, we party with the angels as they and we hear a young Jewish woman, confronted with a choice by the archangel Gabriel, we all hear her choose life—his, hers, ours, and the world’s. We all hear her choose to be the mother of God, the God- Bearer. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Look! I serve the Lord. Let His will be for me as you say it is.

What would happen to your life if, every morning from now on, you awake up and say aloud, “I serve the Lord. Let His will be mine.” First, understand that this is a prayer of priestly sacrifice. All the elements of sacrifice are present in that one prayer: you are a priest offering yourself as victim to a loving God on the altar of your day. Second, once sacrificed with this prayer, this act of human will, you belong body and soul to He Who made you. He made you and his love holds you in being as His creation. Your prayer of sacrifice is an act of gratitude, of giving thanks. Third, if you will do His will you will expend your day in His service as His handmaid, his servant. Every thought you have, every act you do, every passion you feel has already been given over to the fulfillment of His will. Fourth, His will for all His servants is to love Him, love ourselves, and love our neighbors. We are able to love, that is, we are gifted with the capacity for love, to love in virtue of our creation by Love Himself. He loved us first so that we might love. Lastly, as His willing priests, our lives are made new again, reconstituted from the smallest cell out, gifted with the newest possible life available, the life of His Son. We are made Christ for others. We are the walking Word, the talking Word, the feeling, doing, working Word—priests forever now in an entirely sacrificial life of becoming perfectly His will in the flesh.

This young Jewish woman, given a choice by Gabriel, says YES to His will for her, and becomes the first Christian priest and prophet, the template from whom all of us as future priests and prophets will be pressed out. On the cross, dying for our sakes, the Lord himself follows his mother in saying yes. Abandoned by his friends, betrayed by one he loves, despairing, seemingly lost to pain and death, and believing himself to have been forsaken to his enemies, our Lord will cry out to His Father, “Yes! I will all that you will!” His life of perpetual sacrifice begins. This is what we long for. This is what we desire, what we need. Though we are constantly deflected and distracted in our priestly obligations to be love and to love others, we nonetheless know and feel the ineffable hollowness of a life that refuses to love, that wills not to be one for another.

Advent is one long Mass of Thanksgiving and Praise, a month-long prayer of rejoicing and sacrifice as we turn away from sin and toward our perfection in Christ. What must we do? Unclench your fist. Unlock your heart. Fling open wide your mind. Make straigth the path of the Lord to your very existence. Say YES! And join Christ at the altar as priest and victim. He is coming. He has come. He will come again. Wait. Need. Desire. And the flood of God as the Gift of Love Himself will overwhelm you and make you Christ.

Christmas Day: Is 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

God does Who He Is: Love. God is Love; therefore, He loves. The surest sign that we are given as a witness to this truth is the birth of His Word among us as a man.

Who is this Word given flesh in the body of our Mother?

Paul writes to the Hebrews that our Lord speaks to us through His Son, the Son whom He made His heir to all the things of heaven and earth, and through whom He brought the universe into being from nothing; the Son who is the shining radiance of His beauty and truth; the Son who is “the very imprint of His being;” the Son who sustains by his potent word all that he has been given.

Who is he?

John the apostle pulls back the veil and reveals to us that in the beginning, from the establishment of all that is from the void, the Word was, and that God’s Word was there with Him, and that this Word was God. John writes, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”

Who is he for us now?

John the apostle pulls back the veil again and reveals to us again that in the beginning and even now, from the establishment of all that is from the void and even now, the Word Is, and that God’s Word is there with Him even now, and that this Word is God—then, now, always. John writes, “He [is] in the beginning with God. All things [come] to be through him, and without him nothing [comes] to be.”

God does Who He Is: Love. God is Love; therefore, He loves. The surest sign that we are given as a witness to this truth is the birth of His Word among us as a man. We have waited. Needed. Desired. We are turned toward the advent of his coming.

He is here.

John the apostle pulls back the veil and reveals to us that all that came to be and is, came to be and is through him and is life; and this life, his life, is the light of all peoples, all nations, all tribes, all races, all tongues; for all our needs, all our godly desires, all of weaknesses, all our triumphs, all our failures; for all of us who will hear and listen and act in love as priests and prophets of His Word; this light shines in the darkness of violence, hunger, poverty and oppression; this light shines in the decaying reek of injustice, death, disease, and suffering; this light shines in the blackest pits of our despair, self-loathing, anxiety, disobedience, and the murder of innocence; this light burns in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.

The glory of God, His eternal Word, becomes flesh and bone with the YES of a virgin; he is born and makes his home among us. If we will see, we will see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, filled with His truth, beauty, and goodness; and not only will we see, but we will be illuminated, brightened, made to shine like the Son, sharing wholly and pure, made perfect in His divine life.

The Father sent His Spirit to Mary to give her the seed of His Word so that she could make for Him a son of flesh and bone—a man like one of us, to walk among us, to talk with us, to love us passionately and sacrificially to his death.

Today, he is born.

He makes those who will hear and listen, those who will look and see, he makes us his sisters and brothers, children of God, heirs to the Kingdom of heaven and the glory of God; of those who believe in his name, sacrifice as his priests, prophesy as his prophets, of us he makes “other Christs” so that we might live and teach and preach his Word, and live and die with Mary’s YES on our lips, rising again to His brilliance at the end of this age to live again in His light.

Today, from His boundless abundance “we have all received, grace in place of grace.” Today, he is born. Today, we are born again.

25 December 2008

Four Defining Moments

Pope Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336): "By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following. . ." (On the Beatific Vision)

Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854): "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that [. . .] is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful." (On the Immaculate Conception)

Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950): ". . .by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma. . ." (On the Assumption of the Blessed Mother)

Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdolatis (1994): ". . .I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." (On the Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone)

NB. Two of these declarations were made before (1336 and 1854) the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870. It is plausible to argue that the 1870 definition was a true definition, that is, a limitation of papal power to teach infallibly on doctrine. Before 1870, the Holy Father's authority to settle theological questions in this way was unclear.

24 December 2008

Have yourself a merry little Christmas...

Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!

I will post three short homilies today (3rd, 4th Sundays of Advent, and Christmas) and then I'm going to take a blog break. I will still be checking comments but probably not replying, so be patient with any questions you might send my way.

I need to write a seminar paper, which will be posted on my recently much-neglected faith+science blog, suppl(e)mental.

Also, the license thesis needs to be sketched out.

Please be assured that I have received all the Mass intentions sent to me recently, and that I am dutifully fulfilling them.

Mail has been very slow this last week and will likely get much closer until well after the New Year. So, the likelihood of any books shot my way from the WISH LIST arriving anytime soon is close to nil. Regardless, as always, my gratitude is deep and abiding for every one sent!

If you have any topic requests for posts in the New Year, let me know. No promises! ;-)

Merry Christmas & Buon Natale!

Natural Theology at its best!

For those of you who are really into the academic study of natural theology, you cannot do better for excellent texts than to browse the lectures found on this site.

Check them out!

The Gifford Lectures

Answers to supporters of women's ordination (UPDATED)

I recently received an email from a young religious asking me to help him answer objections to the Church's infallible teaching that women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

Here's my stab at it. . .

First, notice the origin and ground of the objections. All of them are based on one or more of the following mistakes:

a) Priesthood is about power
b) "Access" to the priesthood is about rights and justice
c) The "exclusion" of women from the priesthood denies humanity of women. . .
d) . . .and it denies their proper place as potential "Christs for others"
e) All exercises of Church authority are excluding
f) Tradition is always about male privilege
g) Women would make better priests because of their natural empathy and compassion
h) Jesus' exclusion of women from the priesthood was culturally based and therefore reformable
i) Scripture is silent on the nature of the priesthood b/c it is a third century invention of males
j). Women report feeling called to the ordained priesthood, therefore the Church ought to ordain them.

Let's answer (briefly) each in turn.

Priesthood is about power. No, it's not. Priesthood in the Catholic Church is about service. Do priests often mistake their office of service as a privilege in the use of power? Yup. But that's an abuse of the office and in no way changes the actual nature of the office. Men are ordered to Christ, Head of the Church, to serve his people as he did: sacrificially in leadership. When supporters of women's ordination (WO) claim that women must be allowed to share in the governance of the Church as priests, they mistake the office for a political one.

"Access" to the priesthood is about rights and justice. Wrong again. The only right a Catholic has as a Catholic in the Church is the right and duty to serve others. Justice is getting what one deserves. No one--not even men--"deserve" to be ordained, to serve as ordained priests. To claim that ordination is a right is bizarre given that men are called by God and confirmed by the Church to be priests. This use of democratic rhetoric is attractive but misplaced. You cannot be the subject of an injustice if you have no right to that which you have been denied. I am not being treated unjustly b/c I cannot vote for the next Italian presidential election.

The "exclusion" of women from the priesthood denies their humanity. In fact, the Church's teaching on ordination reaffirms the humanity of women by clearly laying out what it means to be human, male and female. To be fully human as a creature is to submit one's will to the will of our Creator and cooperate with His grace to achieve our perfection AS men and women; that is, I am perfected as a male creature. My mother is perfected as a female creature. Often this objection is rooted in a modernist notion that one's sex is socially constructed. We are MADE male and female by our Creator and not pieced together sexually by social forces.

The "exclusion of women from the priesthood denies their proper place as potential "Christs for others." This would be true if the only means of being Christs for others was to be a priest. Fortunately, our Lord had to foresight to make sure that there were other means of becoming the sons and daughters of the Father in His service for others. Ordination is one way that some men are called by God and confirmed by the Church to "work out" their salvation. No one is denied their perfection in Christ b/c they are not priests. All the baptized serve the Father by being priests, offering themselves in sacrifice for others.

All exercises of Church authority are excluding. Wrong. If an exercise of Church authority excludes, it does so in order to liberate through a declaration of the truth of the faith., thus including everyone in the knowledge of truth. To be excluded is not in and of itself an injustice or a violation of human dignity. There are many perfectly beautiful options open to all Christians to which I am excluded in virtue of my ordination, e.g. marriage and biological fatherhood. In the case of WO, the Church has used her authority to recognize a limit of her own power. In effect, the Church has recognized that she is excluded from considering the ordination of women.

Tradition is always about male privilege. Tradition has certainly been misused to prop up abusive practices that privilege males. That we have seen these abuses in no way changes the fact that Tradition is the handing on of a living faith, the "living faith of the dead." The faith of the Church never changes. It cannot change. Our understanding of the faith can and does change. However, WO is not a change in understanding but a radical revision of some of the most basic threads of the Christian narrative. To alter these threads does more than "open the priesthood," it unravels the faith whole clothe.

Women would make better priests. I concede this readily. But we have to be clear about what we mean by "better priests." The objection assumes that the vocation of the priest is simply about empathy and compassion. It's not. Sometimes what the priest must do is show firmness, rectitude, and unwavering direction. . .even if empathy and compassion seem to be set aside in doing so. If the only vocation of the priest were to be empathetic or compassionate, then women should be ordained. However, as we have seen in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, women priests and bishops (at least for now) seem to be more inclined to the destruction of the living faith than its preservation. Each time a stone in the catholic faith has been removed by female clergy and their male supporters in these ecclesial communities, it has been removed on the grounds of justice, rights, empathy, and compassion--all understood in strictly secular terms. The results have been disastrous.

Jesus' "exclusion" of women from the priest was culturally based and therefore reformable. This objection assumes as true a number of false premises. First, it assumes that Jesus was not who he clearly said he was and is: God. God is not constrained by cultural prejudices. Second, it assumes that Jesus was disinclined to break social taboos. In fact, he broke any number of cultural taboos in teaching and preaching the Good News, causing a great deal of scandal. Why not break the taboo against women as priests/rabbis? Third, this objection also assumes that cultural change should guide Church teaching. Cultural change should and often does guide our understanding and application of the faith in the world, but the world is irrelevant when it comes to determining the content of our faith. A danger for WO supporters here is that the way they understand many of the Church's cherished social justice positions are undermined by this objection to the Church's teaching. If we can alter the faith to follow cultural change and ordain women, why can't we examine many of Jesus' legitimate justice teachings in the same light and alter them as well? Maybe our modern culture and social norms should be used to override the historical Christian concern for the poor. Surely, the recent collapse of the economy can be blamed in part on a misplaced concern for the poor and homeless.

Scripture is silent on the nature of the priesthood. This is a particularly odd objection for faithful Catholics to be making. It is largely a Reformation objection and ignores volumes of Patristic teaching on the origins and development of Christian priesthood. It is simply false to say that the Catholic priesthood is an third or fourth century invention. There are elements of the priesthood as it is enacted in the world that came about in later centuries, but the core nature of the priesthood was infallibly established at the Last Supper when Christ commissioned his apostles and friends as those who would lead the community in prayer and the breaking of the bread, to "do this in memory of me." He had every opportunity to include women in this moment, but he didn't. The key here is to understand that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, a family meal, one that reinforced the bonds of paternal authority in the ancient Jewish tradition. of liberation from slavery. Even with women present at a Jewish Passover, the men are commissioned to perform the rite. Does this mean that women are excluded from the liberation Moses brought and the Passover celebrates? Hardly.

Women feel called to the priesthood. In the paragraph directly below this one I note that all of the objections to the Church's teaching on WO are rooted in modernist, feminist ideology. This objection is a perfect example. What this objection assumes is that the call to priesthood is a subjective experience immediately deserving a positive response from the Church. What can be more modernist than the triumph of personal experience over objective truth. The truth of the matter is that the call to priesthood comes from God through the Church, who is the Body of Christ. To say that a particular person (male or female) receives a call outside the Church assumes that Christ speaks to a member of his Body from outside his Body. However, all calls to serve the Body come through the Church and are therefore verifiable by the Church. Most of us believe we are called to all sorts of vocations for which we do not have the requisite gifts or authentic vocation. I feel called to be a regularly published poet, yet my poetry is regularly rejected. The poetry community (i.e., the Church of Verse) regularly rejects my claims to being a poet. Years of personal experience, strong conviction, earnest effort, and multiple academic degrees cannot make up for the lack of consent by the poetry community to my alleged call. I can call myself a poet. I can rail against the perceived injustice of not being regularly published. I can even accuse my tormenters of bias, hatred, and lack of taste. I'm still not a poet. Think for a moment of the implications if the Church bowed to the "I feel called to priesthood" objection and answered these claims positively. On what grounds could we reject anyone from the ordained ministry? My application to be made a postulant for ordination in the Episcopal Church was rejected. Had the vestry of my parish not done their job of proper discernment and oversight, I would be an Episcopalian priest right now. Thank God they listened to the Holy Spirit!

It is important for faithful Catholics to understand how many of these objections are based on modernist, feminist theories of justice, gender, the social construction of reality, and postmodern identity politics. None of which have a place in the faith of good Catholics. All are deeply rooted in 19th and 20th century liberal democratic ideas about freedom, liberty, and rights. None of them pull from the tradition of the Church or her ancient philosophy and theology. None of them are scriptural or magisterial. I have yet to read a single objection to the Church's infallible teaching against WO that does not rely exclusively on ideas and argument entirely alien to our faith. The canonical objections I've read are little more than legalistic sophistry and grounded in a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that starts with an antagonistic attitude toward truth and quickly devolves into relativism and subjectivism--little more than minute loopholes.

Probably the best book on this subject was written by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, Sr. Sara started her life as a religious as a supporter of WO and has since looked carefully at the scriptural, tradition, magisterial, and archeological evidence for that position and changed her mind. This book does a much better job of defending the Church's teaching than I ever could, and I highly recommend it.

It is vitally important that women understand that the Church's lack of authority to ordain them to the priesthood is not based on the notion that they are inferior or damaged or in any way "less than men." Yes, some medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, put forward certain metaphysical explanations for an all-male priesthood that few of us will applaud now. But these are merely explanations of any already existing teaching and their dubious nature in no way detracts from the truth of the faith. In other words, Aquinas, et al did not invent the all-male priesthood based on medieval notions of biology and metaphysics. They took up the question in light of the sacaramental theology then current and the already existing reality of the all-malle priesthood and attempted to explain the truth of the priesthood in the light they had. Demolishing Aquinas' argument for the all-male priesthood does not demolish the Church's infallible teaching against WO.

A note on the question of the infalliablity of Pope John Paul II's document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. This 1994 document was issued by the Holy Father in order to settle forever the question of whether or not the Church has the authority to ordain women. Drawing on scripture, tradition, and centuries of papal magisterial teaching, he concluded that the Church does not have the power to ordain women. It is very important to understand that the Pope did not say that the Church will not ordain women or that the Church does not feel like ordaining women. He wrote: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. . ." The Church CANNOT ordain women. The Church also cannot declare that Jesus is not the Savior. The Church cannot declare that Mary was not the mother of Jesus, etc. In other words, the failure of the Church to ordain women is not based on a lack of will or inclination or patriarchal prejudice. If every bishop in the Church, including the Pope, laid hands on a woman, performing the entire sacrament of ordination on her in St Peter's Bascilica in front of the College of Cardinal with their wild applauses, she would still be a laywoman. And she would be a laywoman if every Catholic in the world believed that she was a priest.

Is this teaching infallible? Yes, it is. The Pope wrote in full: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Now, some theologians claim that this teaching is not infallible. They want to make a fine distinction between the content of the teaching and this declaration of the teaching. They want to say that OS itself is not infallible; in other words, they want us to believe that the Pope's declaration that the teaching is infallible is not itself infallible. This is typical modernist sophistry and a confusion of terms. All the Pope did in this document is repeat an ancient truth: women cannot be ordained. This is not new. Imagine the Pope issuing a document tomorrow declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a document would be pointless because the Church has always believed this. There is no need for an infallible teaching on the question. How odd would it be then for some theologians to assert that the document is not infallible when it asserts that the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah is infallible. Simply bizarre.

Reread the highlighted phrases above. Those are the words required for an infallible teaching. Period. OS as a document, OS per se does not have to be infallible, just as a document declaring Jesus as the Messiah would not have to be infallible. The content of the teaching is without error regardless of the magisterial/canonical status of the document. What the supporters of WO want us to believe is that the Pope is not interpreting the ancient teaching correctly. That he is merely repeating what has always been the case in the Church seems to be irrelevant to them. It seems odd to me that the Pope would issue this document "so that all doubt might be removed" and then have some claim that he did so in order to set the stage for future women's ordinations! We had a professor in my seminary who taught exactly that. Fortunately, none of us fell for the deception.

Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer, quoting a supporter of WO, Rev. Herman Pottmeyer, "According to Pottmeyer, 'O.S. is an instance of ordinary (i.e., non-infallible) magisterium, declaring that the church’s unbroken tradition with regard to ordination is irreformable.' In saying this, he may be right, even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently explained that the doctrine about women’s ordination belongs to the deposit of faith and has been constantly held in the church’s tradition and infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium." Fr. Fitzmeyer concludes his critique of Rev. Pottmeyer, "Pope John Paul II stated in O.S. that 'the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women' (No. 4). He did not mean that 'he could not himself change tradition in this matter.' He spoke rather of Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere. If it is so, that the church has no ability to change it, then the Pope cannot invite everyone to prayer and dialogue as he would summon 'a council to make a final decision.' If 'the church' cannot do it, then a council cannot do it, no matter what 'signs of the times' may be or what 'faithfulness to Jesus' might seem to call for in Pottmeyer’s estimation."

Best book on the history and theology of the Church's teaching authority: Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ.

This link from the USCCB helps to clarify a number of issues.

NB. This post will be revised and updated.

23 December 2008

CHANGE! we can all envy. . .

HOPE & CHANGE goes on Christmas vacation for a mere $3,500 a day. . .

I'm surprised that the lapdog press reported the story at all but not at all surprised that the rental listing was deleted from the web once the story broke. The link above takes you to a cached screenshot of the Obama family Christmas extravaganza.

Yawn. . .as I have said from the beginning: The One is just another politician.

Speaking of false messiahs. . .

22 December 2008

Fat Friar Wear

Thomas Peters of American Papist fame has his own line of A.P. gear. . .check it out!

. . .hmmmmm. . .what would Hanc Aquam gear look like, I wonder. . .?

Would have to start small and go LARGE!

We could start here.

No, Bishop, kids really do want the faith. . .

This post from the Curt Jester about the English bishop who thinks he knows what Catholic youth REALLY want reminded me of my post from last year. . .

Kids These Days: what they don't want from the Church!

Someone send his excellency the link. . .


Turn the volume WAY up!

H/T: Rocco

Natale a Roma!

It's final. . .I will be in Rome for Christmas. . .ah well. . .

I was trying to finagle my vacation budget and take a quick trip home to surprise my parents on the 24th.

But. . .flights to the U.S. are running at about $1,300 and that's with two and three stops along the way. I've traveled enough to know that you increase exponentially the chances of problems with every stop you add.

So, instead I'm going to go home over the Easter break (Apr 4-19). That way I can visit with the family; take a trip to Irving to rummage around in the storage building for books I need for the dissertation; see my doc for the needed RX's, etc.

This will be a much more relaxed visit b/c I will have longer to hang around. . .

Any suggestions for Midnight Mass? (other than St Peter's!)

20 December 2008

New arrivals

A few new book arrivals from the WISH LIST to report:

Sabine N. (2), Will D. (1), and Catherine T. (1).

Grazie mille! Mille grazie!

Makes it all worth it. . .

The following was sent to me anonymously as a comment. . .it deserves a post all its own:


I just don't have the time to read every comment in detail and ponder every point you have made. Can I just say this. . .? I am a "modern, educated" woman who has had the experience of contracepting, trying to be Protestant, and now, currently living in a Catholic, sacramental marriage with a Catholic man.

Trying to be humble, trying to integrate the beauty of Church teaching with the reality of Originl Sin and the fall from grace... isn't easy, simple, or a done-deal. It's a daily battle.

But. . .I THANK GOD for good priests like you, and good husbands like mine, imperfect as they may be (like mine), who help me to understand that I am not at war with my spouse, my fertility, my children, or patriarchal humanity; what I am at odds with is satanic influence (yes, it exists as surely as the molecule), and with my own lack of humility and fall from grace.

I love men who, while battling their own concupescience, acknowledge the grace of God, the beauty of His plan, and embrace fertility, fidelity, and children. This is the way to combat the sorrowfully deficient arguments of Tony Blair's wife, and those who would like to embrace God's beautiful plan for the complemetarity of humanity yet are held back by. . .well. . .sin.

18 December 2008

Fr. Philip's comments on Cherie Blair's Angelicum lecture

Below you will find excerpts from Cherie Blair's talk at the Angelicum conference held here last Friday. I have chosen to focus on the more controversial parts.

The Church and Women’s Rights: time for a fresh perspective? (full pdf text)

[. . .]

It is clear that the way Jesus related to women indicates that he did not expect the main role of women to be to enchant or be subjects of admiration for men. Matthew’s Gospel describes, for example, his interaction with the Canaanite woman whose daughter he eventually healed. He first tries to brush off the woman when she asks him to intervene with a brusque “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.” But the woman was no shrinking violet. Matthew’s describes here reply as a retort as she says: “Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus was not all dismayed by her outspokenness but replied instead: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.” Scripture reveals that to be a woman of faith is to be a woman confident and assertive of herself, and her female desires and perspectives.

Given the broader context of this passage in the talk, these comments may be a quibble on my part, but I feel bound to point out that this particular interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is theologically bankrupt. In order for this reading to be true, we must accept that 1) Jesus is unaware of his mission as universal savior; 2) that Jesus is not who he himself says he is—God; 3) that the man who will later go willingly to the Cross for the salvation of the world is here rejecting one of those he will later die to save; 4) that a human being, one person somehow teaches the Messiah a lesson; and 5) that the woman’s assertiveness is the focus of Jesus’ praise. The text of the meeting between Jesus, his disciples, and the Canaanite woman can be very easily interpreted in a way that makes sense of everything that Jesus has said about himself and everything the Church has subsequently taught based on these revelations. Briefly put, Jesus and the Canaanite woman engage in something like a skit in order to teach the disciples who Jesus is. Jesus knows who he is. So does the Canaanite woman. It is the disciples who appear to be struggling with Jesus’ identity and mission. Jesus takes this opportunity to demonstrate to his disciples who he is by giving the Canaanite woman the opening she needs to point out the universal salvific mission of the Messiah. Imagine Jesus looking at his disciples as the woman pleas with him and giving them a look that says, “Hey! Even she gets it. . .are you listening, blockheads!?” Jesus praises the woman’s faith, her trust, and by extension her love for her daughter. Nowhere in the story does Jesus praise her assertiveness, her confidence, or her desires as Blair asserts. The Canaanite woman is a woman of faith, that’s her power. I have preached about this ridiculous reading of the Canaanite woman several times: here, here, and here.

By drawing on the example of the confident women who have found their rightful place in the church in earlier times, women today can shape their role in the church and help interpret its fundamental truths in a way speaks with relevance to the modern world. What John Paul II wanted to see in Mulieris Dignitatem, the twentieth anniversary of which we also celebrate this year, was that the full human potential of women should be released, for their benefit and for that of the whole of society. For that to happen, along with access to property and to education, the Church has also rightly recognized the need for couples to exercise their fertility responsibly. We know better than ever before now, thanks to modern science, that life begins at conception with the contribution of both man and woman.

The phrase “to exercise their fertility responsibly” makes me nervous. To deny the implicit claim of the phrase would be ridiculous. However, what we mean by “responsible exercise” must be carefully unpacked. I know that there are faithful Catholics who believe that the responsible exercise of fertility means not using NFP because they consider it a form of artificial birth control. And I know Catholics who advocate the immediate sterilization of husband and wife in order to foster zero population growth in defense of Earth. Most Catholics, if the media are to be believed, stand with most Americans in their stalwart support for the moral use of contraception and medical necessity of abortion. All parties, when acting on their moral principles, believe that they are acting “responsibly.” So, the question for Blair at this point needs to be: “What standard are you using to judge the exercise of your fertility as responsible or irresponsible?” This question is answer in part in the following paragraphs. . .

I know that for myself, not least through the wonderful surprise of becoming a mother again for the fourth time at the age of 45. The Church rightly makes a clear distinction between controlling fertility and terminating a life once conception has occurred. I experienced that myself when I refused to have an amniocentesis test which was regarded as automatic for an elderly mother such as myself when I found myself pregnant with my fourth child. Two years later I was more than conscious of a life lost when I miscarried a second late pregnancy.

This paragraph makes four important points. First, Blair describes her fourth pregnancy at age 45 as a “wonderful surprise.” Not the phrase we would expect for a pro-abortion ideologue. Second, Blair makes a distinction between “controlling fertility” and “terminating a life once conception as occurred.” This is a dodgy distinction where the Catholic faith is concerned. Yes, there is a difference between controlling the use of one’s fertility and aborting a child. However, the question is: what is the responsible use of one’s fertility? Not having sex is one responsible means. Surgical sterilization is an irresponsible means. This distinction is the set up for Blair’s later assertion that the Church makes a grave error when she links contraception and abortion. In other words, it appears that Blair denies any link between “preventing conception” and “terminating conception.” This distinction throws a very suspicious light on her commitment to the Church’s single teaching on the sacredness of life. Third, unspoken but strongly hinted at in her admission of refusing the amniocentesis test is a rejection of any possibility of having an abortion. For a woman of 45 years, a pregnancy can mean giving birth to a child with Downs Syndrome or some other birth defect. As I understand it, it is quite common in the UK to abort children when they show any signs of congenital birth defects. Blair is telling us here that by refusing the test, she never considered abortion as an option. Fourth Blair reports that a fifth pregnancy was lost in a miscarriage and that she is conscious of having lost a human life in that tragic event. Clearly, Blair believes that human life begins at conception and is sacred from that moment on.

The Church’s current teaching on responsible parenthood is summed up in Article 3 of The Charter of the Rights of the Family, It says “The spouses have the inalienable right to found a family and to decide on the spacing of births and the number of children to be born, taking into full consideration their duties towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society, in a just hierarchy of values and in accordance with the objective moral order which excludes recourse to contraception, sterilization and abortion.”

Here Blair freely admits the Church’s teaching against the use of contraception, sterilization and abortion, categorically excluding their use as a means of exercising responsible fertility. However. . .

And while I am on record as having had difficulties with accepting the current teaching on responsible parenthood [. . .]

Here we enter the land of ambiguity. In the paragraph Blair quotes the Church excludes the use of contraception, sterilization and abortion in the development and exercise of responsible parenthood. When she says that she is “on record as having had difficulties with accepting the current teaching on responsible parenthood,” is she saying that she has difficulties with contraception, sterilization, abortion, all three, or some combination of the three? This is unclear. It does not help her pro-life case that she follows this ambiguous admission with the following. . .

[. . .] I do recognize that much of what Paul VI predicted could happen in Humanae Vitae as a result of the wide and indiscriminate use of abortion has been borne out particularly in relation to baby girls as the birth ratios of boys to girls in some countries testify. What those lost girls demonstrate is that across the world we lack widely held sense that the contribution of women is important to society in its own right. The situation of too many women in the developing world shows that we are still so far away from women being regarded as of equal worth to men.

We might want to jump in here and note that a truly pro-life Blair would be horrified at any abortion regardless of the sex of the child or its nationality, socio-economic status, etc. But we must remember that she is presenting at a conference on women and human rights, so she is simply connecting the particular point to the theme of the conference. I doubt very seriously that Blair is only concerned about the aborting of poor Indian girls to the exclusion of all other nationalities, etc.

Here, the overwhelming problems are economic, education and health-related. The British Independent newspaper, commenting on the 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo singled out the Catholic Church for praise. It persuasively argued that by being one of the leading providers of education to girls across the developing world, the Church was making a powerful contribution to improving the lives of women, to lifting them out of poverty and enabling them to reduce levels of childbirth which can be dangerous to their health. History teaches us that improving the general economic situation and women’s educational levels gives them more power in society and helps them to exercise more responsible fertility.

Taken as it is written, there is nothing objectionable here. Women’s education and access to property rights is a basic human rights issue and one that the Church is right to support. Improved economic conditions, etc. are always a good thing. My sneaking worry here is that Blair is making an Obama-esque move toward the argument that we ought to focus our pro-life attention on improving overall economic conditions as the primary means of reducing the number of abortions. Again, on the surface, what’s objectionable about improved economic conditions and a reduction in the number of abortions? Nothing. The difficulty lies in the priority given to the socio-economic over the juridical. Abortion must be outlawed as an expression of our nation’s horror at the killing of children. If someone argues that the numerical reduction of abortion needs to be our goal and not the outlawing of abortion, ask them: Why do you want to reduce the number of abortion? In other words, why do you consider abortion to be that sort of activity that needs to be reduced? We outlaw rape, slavery, murder, kidnapping, etc. in order to dissuade people from committing these heinous acts. We also outlaw them in order to define who we are as a people who respect human life and freedom. So long as we continue to move toward lifting all legal restrictions on abortion; eliminating all moral and religious objections to abortion; and then making tax dollars available to pay for abortions, we cannot expect to see any reduction in the number of abortions.

We are all on a journey here. Just as there has been a journey from hostility to acceptance in relation to the Church’s teachings on human rights. I think we will see the Church continue to develop and refine some of its teachings regarding the specific issues which arise from women’s rights, always on the basis of an ever-deeper entering in to the witness and teaching of Christ and into his love for humanity.

Again, I am struck by the desire to shout Yes! and at the same time Wait! Clarification is needed here. Yes, we are all on a journey. A journey to the perfection that is Christ Jesus. And this journey to Christ Jesus is clearly and carefully defined by objective moral and ethical standards that brook no violation in the honest pursuit of holiness. To say that “we are all on a journey” is true but hardly profound if what is really meant is “all these moral standards are subject to the whims of history and will disappear on our journey soon enough.” Being on a journey in no way excuses the sojourner from his or her responsibility in traveling the narrow way though the eye of the needle. Of course, we will venture off the path, but those moments of getting lost have reasons not excuses. And we must always be on guard against making the short-cuts, the off-trail adventures, the off-road expeditions the norm. It is entirely too easy and too dangerous to excuse one’s moral error with a flippant “well, I’m on a journey.” I don’t think this is what Blair is doing here, but I find it necessary to flash the warning.

Those who predicted the death of religion have been disappointed. In the 21st Century, faith for many hundreds of millions of people remains an integral part of what it is to be human. And the Church has a critical role to play in discussions about what true equality must mean.

So, the question remains: is Blair pro-life or not? Here’s my considered conclusion given this talk, her answers after the talk, and her public associations. The easy conclusion: Blair has no difficulties with artificial contraception. She openly advocates for its use contra Church teaching and argues that the Church makes a serious error when she links contraception to abortion. She holds that the Church’s moral authority in opposing abortion is seriously weakened by its opposition to artificial birth control. On this issue she opposes the Church’s pro-life teachings and fails to understand the intrinsic link between a respect for the dignity of the human person and the proper moral use of our reproductive faculties. Though strictly speaking, contraception is not abortion, the two are inevitably tied to the destruction of the sacred links among love, sex, and procreation. Blair acknowledges that Paul VI was correct in predicting the destructive result of legalized abortion. It is very odd that she fails to see how artificial birth control has de-valued women globally by undermining any legitimate progress for women’s liberation from cultural oppression and leaving women more isolated and alone than every before in human history.

On abortion, I am ready to believe that since Blair admits that life begins at conception, she holds that abortion is the termination of a human life. It seems fairly apparent to me that she is opposed to abortion for the sake of birth control and that she would be happy to see a reduction in the number of overall abortions or even their elimination altogether through improved education, economics, and the liberal use of contraception. Given Blair’s public associations, International Planned Parenthood, for example, it is impossible for me to say that she is categorically opposed to abortion as a form of murder. In other words, I do not believe that she accepts without qualification the Church’s teaching that abortion is the direct killing of innocent life, and because it is so, abortion is always, everywhere, and in all circumstances a morally evil act. The answers she gave to questions after her talk clarified very little of the confusion. She reacted against the accusation that she is not a good Catholic. She asserted again that she follows Church teaching—this is manifestly untrue in the case of contraception. She said that she could not understand how pro-life advocates so misunderstand her own pro-life position and she seemed genuinely upset that she is misunderstood. I am hesitant to call this upsetedness disingenuous, however, it strikes me as odd that she is so puzzled about the opposition when she belongs the Planned Parenthood and supports the UN treaty on the elimination of discrimination against women, a document that clearly and forcefully calls for the establishment of “reproductive rights” as a human right. At the very least, Blair must admit that her critics have something to worry about when they look over her C.V. and see so many national and international groups that vigorously support abortion.

Despite the ambiguity of Blair’s pro-life credentials, I want to say unambiguously that I fully support the decision of Sr. Helen Alford and the Angelicum administration to invite Blair to speak at this conference. Catholics have absolutely nothing to fear from the truth. No one that I know here at the Angelicum came away from this event emotionally scarred, spiritually disenchanted, weakened in the faith, or magically converted to a pro-abortion position. Our job here is to teach the truth. Sometimes the best way to do that is to point to error and say, “See. That’s wrong. And here’s why…” We cannot turn a Dominican university into a Sunday school class. No one at the Angelicum advocates for abortion. There are legitimate disagreements about how best to address the evil of abortion. These are tactical and strategic differences. Not differences with the Church about core teaching.

Some will object that Blair was not properly challenged in the question and answer period. I agree. This was not a conspiracy of silence but rather a consequence of our limited time. For those of us who go to conferences regularly, we soon learn that a common feature of these gatherings is the lack of sufficient time for questions and discussions. They are structured occasions for professionals to discuss topics of interest not casual gatherings of friends for debate. Often questioners give long-winded speeches before asking a dull question, or ask a good question that gets lost in the subsequent discussion.

Go read the full texts for yourself and make up your own mind.

On the event itself. I’ve read some very dodgy news reports and blog posts about the reaction of the audience to Blair’s talk. It is obvious from the slant given in these descriptions that the reporters/bloggers need for Blair to be seen as a pro-abortion advocate and anyone who invites her to speak as secret pro-abortion supporters.

Let me say here with all the clarity I can muster:

--there were no standing ovations for Blair as has been reported.
--the applause was polite not enthusiastic.
--the laughter was “yea, we know what you mean” and not appreciative.
--most all of the friars who attended came away noting Blair’s ambiguity.
--none of us were in any way “duped” by Blair’s talk.

No doubt this conversation will continue for a while longer. . .in the meantime, I believe that we are bound to pray for Cherie Blair and her husband, asking God to work overtime in converting their hearts to an unambiguously pro-life stance, propelling them to work as hard for life as they work for other social justice goals supported by the Church.

15 December 2008

When YES leads to despair

3rd Week Advent (T): Zep 3.1-2, 9-13; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

For those who wander in the desert, relying on one another for survival, relying on family and friends to live day to day, relying on the providence of God to flourish where they find themselves, for these folks, the city, with all its complications and distractions, represents everything that can go wrong with the human spirit. The city is clogged with unnamed faces. It’s dirty, polluted with waste. Filled to the brim with crime, sin, disease. Souls are detached from one another. There is no communion, only commerce. No peace, no silence. Only racket, wrecks, riots, and the tyranny of loneliness. For those who wander in the desert, relying on family, friends, and the Lord, their God, the city is Sin given architecture and a population. The city is a disobedient mouth, gaping in the desert, shouting up at God, “rebellious and polluted,” a mouth both defiant and desperate, shouting up at God, “I WILL NOT!” This is the start of loneliness, the beginning of despair: the first step is to shout NO! at God.

The first son shouts, “I will not!” when asked by his father to work in the vineyard. The second son, when ordered to go to work among the vines, says, “Yes, sir!” The defiant son, his disobedient mouth twisted with rebellion, resolves his heart and mind and goes to work despite his first wrong step. The compliant son, his obedient mouth ready with yes’s and sir’s, has no resolution in his heart or mind and goes ahead instead to do his own will. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two [sons] did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus agrees. The first son took the first step to loneliness and despair by defying the will of his father. But he repented and did as he was told. The second son also took the first step to loneliness and despair. Even though his compliant mouth said, “Yes, sir”, his rebellious will said no, leaving him set aside, detached, without the help of his father.

Jesus tells the chief priests and the elders of the people that they are like the second son, obedient in word, mouthing yes yes but doing nothing, believing less, watching the rebellious prostitutes, the loathsome tax-collectors change their defiant NO’s to loving YES’s, and yet, even with John coming to them “in the way of righteousness,” they do not believe; they do not act. And so they stand together in their loneliness and despair, poking around for visions and signs and wonders, wandering the desert of the sinful city, rebellious and polluted with yes on their lips but the heavy darkness of no in their hearts.

Our Lord comes. If your mouth says yes, let it come from a heart and mind given to the Lord. If your mouth says no, let it come from a heart and mind willing to change, willing to repent. The rebellious and polluted city is no place for a son or daughter of the Lord.

14 December 2008

Heresy and Mass Intentions

Aight! I feel bad for all those who answered the heresy question correctly but didn't have the advantage of the good time zone. . .the perils of living at GMT +1 with an audience at GMT -6.

So, if you correctly guessed the Name That Heresy question, send me your intention, and I will offer that intention at Mass over the next few weeks.

Please note: my family, friends, book benefactors, men and women seeking vocations all get lifted up every Mass. . .I tend to storm the gates of heaven when I say Mass and receive communion!

Send away. . .I will keep track. If you don't want me to publish your intention, say so.

13 December 2008

CD's for Christmas!!

Since Christmas is fast approaching, check out this new CD by two University of Dallas students--brother & sister team, Joe and Ellen.

Joe took a theology class with me one summer. . .buy a CD, buy several. . .I wanna be able to say someday when they are famous, "Oh yea. . .I knew them when they were just snotty nosed U.D. geeks!"

Name that heresy! (RESULTS)

This pic is a great illustration of a common Christian heresy. . .

Do you know what that heresy is?

Do you know why it is a heresy?

Do you know why so many of us fall into this heresy?

I will hold all comments until everyone has a chance to guess. . .

First one to guess correctly gets a Mass for their intentions!

RESULTS! Yes, the pic represents the heresy, pelagianism. . .the idea that man can not only do the good without God's grace, but can save himself through his good deeds. Augustine worked out the basics of our Catholic understanding of grace and free will while engaging the British monk, Pelagius in debate.

Looks like "The Shepherd" was the first to answer correctly. . .now, if The Shepherd turns out to be a bishop. . .well, I may have to go to the next closest lay answer. . . ;-)

I am very pleased with how many of you came up with the correct answer even if you didn't know the name of the heresy!

Thanks for playing. . .Name That Heresy!

12 December 2008

Is Blair really pro-choice/pro-abortion?

Just stepped back into my room from listening to Cherie Blair speak here at the Angelicum. . .

I will give a full report when I have had a chance to read the text of her talk.

Initial observations:

Great historical survey of human rights as they relate to women.

Good intro to the secular philosophy of the Declaration on Human Rights.

Good job placing the Catholic Church in the history of the struggle for recognition of human rights, though she said that the Church was not involved in the human rights struggle until well into the 20th century. Dominicans from the University of Salamanca fought against slavery in the New World in the 17th century using primitive notions of human rights and dignity.

Made several predictable and annoying points about "women's rights" in the Church; e.g., "more women in the curia would give the Church different priorities." The Church has one priority regardless of the sex of those who work in the curia: preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

From her remarks and her answer to questions afterward, I must conclude that Blair is pro-contraception but not pro-choice on abortion. This is a tentative conclusion on my part. I want to read the text itself before saying anything too firmly. Her political and charitable associations would make it very difficult to conclude that she is not pro-abortion; however, she seemed to reject outright any difficulty with Church teaching on this issue.

More later. . .

11 December 2008


Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of my priestly vocation. Today I will concelebrate the Mass and pray for the intentions of all those young men I know who are discerning vocations to the priesthood. I will ask our Lady to strengthen their hearts and clear their minds so that they can say YES! to the Lord's call to serve in his ordained ministry.

Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer

Holy Mary, who under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe are invoked as Mother by the men and women of Mexico and of Latin America, encouraged by the love that you inspire in us, we once again place our life in your motherly hands.

May you, who are present in these Vatican Gardens, hold sway in the hearts of all the mothers of the world and in our own heart. With great hope, we turn to you and trust in you.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us!

Oh, but they do carry pom-poms...

In the Jesuit tradition

Diogenes from Catholic Culture

The newly elected US Congressman:

* was once a former Jesuit novice, before realizing that his calling was to marriage and a secular career.

* remains an active Catholic layman-- in fact, served a term on the National Advisory Council to the US bishops' conference.

* won a special-election victory over an incumbent who is facing bribery charges.

* is the son of immigrants, whose father spent years in a Communist prison camp.

* has worked primarily as an attorney for immigrants.
* is solidly pro-life.

So why isn't Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao a poster boy for Catholic activism? Why isn't be being asked to speak on the campus of every Jesuit university in the country? Why aren't editors of America magazine shaking their pom-poms?

And please don't tell me that America editors don't carry pom-poms.

This guy cracks me up every time!

You just might need them some day. . .

you have any extra cash or transferable stock lying around, send them to these folks. . .

I have the distinct feeling that we are going to need their services quite often in the next, oh, four to eight years. . .