19 September 2009

Why are we so divided?

Meandering thoughts on Catholic polarization. . .

Russell Shaw of Inside Catholic has posted an article titled, "Polarization and the Church."

After pointing to the presidential candidacy of B.O. and his subsequent election as President as the principal suspect in the growing rift between factions in the Church, Shaw makes this important point:

But let's be realistic. On the whole, the polarization of American Catholics isn't a split among practicing members of the Church.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 23 percent of Catholic adults in the United States now attend Mass every Sunday -- which is to say 77 percent do not. Moreover, reports CARA, 75 percent receive the Sacrament of Penance -- confess their sins, that is -- less than once a year or never.

Former Master of the Order, Dominican friar, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe has argued that the polarization in the Church is a split between what he calls "kingdom Catholics" and "communion Catholics." The essential difference here being that Kingdom Catholics embrace Christ's admonitions to pursue justice and peace in the world, while Communion Catholics tend to focus on his call to foster a strong sense of identity over and against the world. Given these divergent and necessarily imperfect visions of the Church, Catholics (broadly speaking) tend to shake out politically as liberals and conservatives. Fr. Radcliffe argues that a true Catholic identity will is best perfected by transcending these limited categories.

If Fr. Radcliffe is right, then Shaw is arguing that Communion Catholics are the one most opposed to the political agenda of B.O. And Kingdom Catholics are more inclined to give B.O. the benefit of the doubt. This seems right to me--as far as it goes.

Assuming that your view of the Church's relationship with secular power shapes your notions of how we ought to go about evangelizing the culture, it is very simple to step back a bit and see how your secular politics can influence your view of the Church itself. Fr. Radcliffe seems to be arguing that Catholics begin with a view of the Church and then move out to the culture. It seems to me that it is often the case that Catholics on the extreme ends of the ecclesial spectrum begin with their secular political views and then move in toward the Church, defining the faith as just one plank in a party platform. In other words, what counts as "being a good Catholic" gets defined in terms of what counts as "being a good liberal/conservative." It is no accident that our ecclesial polarization (at its extremes) seems to mimic our political polarization.

To the degree that American Catholics are polarized along secular political lines, I would say that we differ philosophically in three major areas:

1). Truth: is truth revealed, rational, or constructed? Or some combination of the three? Is it knowable in any form? Is it useful, if knowable? If useful, how should it be used and for whom? For example, some argue that religious belief necessarily opposes scientific fact and vice-versa. Religious belief is understood to be assent to revealed and rational truth, while scientific fact is a rational construct based on observation and experiment, i.e. devoid of any divine revelation. What you think about the nature of truth goes a long way toward shaping your politics.

2). Goodness: is goodness a transcendent goal to be achieved, or a cultural/rational construct built to serve as a measure of social conformity, or merely an emotive expression of preference enforced by convention and law? For example, some would argue that Goodness is an objective end to be achieved as a matter of religious practice. Others would say that Goodness is just a way for us to talk about what appears to be useful for social harmony. In debates about health care, we may differ over ends and means, but it seems that we might differ most over the questions: does Goodness measure us? Or do we measure Goodness?

3). Beauty: like Truth and Goodness the differences here fall within the more fundamental debate over the whether or not our measures are transcendent/revealed or immanent/constructed. Beauty is about harmony, order, and proportion in all things. Those who see beauty as an essential characteristic of the created order will naturally look for it as a sign of God's presence, an indicator that creation participates in the divine. Those who understand beauty as a constructed measure, a way of talking about how we see ourselves as creators within the material world, will call something "beautiful" based on criteria that do not appeal to the divine.

Are we measured by God, or do we measure Him? It seems to me that at the extremes of our polarization, each extreme inconsistently applies a favorite measure. Kingdom Catholics measure the divine by cultural standards on some issues but not others. Communion Catholics measure cultural norms by divine standards on some issues but not others. Which standards are applied to what issue seems to be determined by a desired political outcome. The trick, of course, is to surrender always to the standards of God. But what counts as "God's standards" is itself part of the debate. . .

What do you think is the source of our polarization?

18 September 2009

3 Things a Pastor Can Never Say (Updated)

Recently, I received a request to repeat my "Three Things a Pastor Can Never Say to His Parish."

Here they are:

1). What Father says, "Please, be mindful of your children during Mass. We have a cry room." What parents hear: "Your kids are disruptive brats and you cannot control them. They have no place at Mass, so why do you insist on ruining our prayer with these public displays of your failed parenting? Go somewhere else!"

2). What Father says, "Mass is a solemn celebration for the Church. Please keep this in mind when you are choosing your Sunday morning attire." What is heard: "Do not come to Church if you can't afford decent clothes. And by 'decent clothes' we mean expensive clothes, preferably designer labels with good shoes. Also, nobody wants to see you poured into jeans three sizes too small, or watch you slouch around in what you think of as your 'comfortable outfit.' We are an exclusive club here, so dress like you belong! Or go somewhere else!"

3). What Father says, "Just a reminder. . .Mass begins with the opening hymn and closes with the closing hymn. Please join us at the beginning of Mass and stay with us until the end." What is heard: "I'm sick and tired of you people coming in late and leaving early. What? You can't manage to roll outta bed before noon? You can't wait to get back to your ballgame and pot roast? Geez, people! Jesus died for your sins and all you can think about is getting out of the parking lot before traffic gets heavy. Get here on time. Stay to the end. . .or, go somewhere else!"

Though I have never been a pastor, I know from talking to many pastors that these exaggerated responses to gentle prods for decorum are not all that exaggerated. I also know that not all pastors have been as gentle as I have made them here. There's a story in the OP world of an American friar who actually stopped preaching during his homily every time a baby cried. He would stop. Wait for the crying to quiet down. And then continue. Ouch.

Examples, anyone?

[Update: I had to share this. . .I once con-celebrated a "first Mass" of a newly ordained priest. It was a typical 11am Sunday N.O. Mass. He had four altar servers--all girls. When we gathered at the back of the Church to process in, I noticed that all four servers were wearing identical hot pink shower shoes. . .yes, hot pink flip-flops!]

17 September 2009

First review of Treasures: Old and New

Jonathan Sullivan wins the prize for posting the first review of my prayer book.

The prize: a beer next time I am in St. Louis!

Thanks, Jonathan. . .

Graphic pics hurt the pro-life cause

California Catholic Daily has re-posted a newsletter article by Father Thomas Eutenerer, president of Human Life International, sent out on September 14. Part of the article quotes vicious comments left by viewers of a local Michigan NBC TV station's report on the recent murder of pro-life activist, Jim Pouillon.

One comment prompts some reflection: "I've never seen this man before, but I've seen others like him. The signs are so offensive that the issue becomes about the sign instead of being about abortion. He hurts the pro-life cause and I'm glad that he's gone."

I have argued in the past that the use of graphic pictures of aborted fetuses at pro-life protests hurts the cause for life. This commenter mentions the presence of such signs as a good reason for Pouillon's murder. Of course, this is baloney. The direct killing of innocent life is an intrinsically morally evil act in all cases, under all circumstances, without regard to intent. There is no reason or excuse that renders such killing "a good thing." Period. Full stop.

But the commenter does raise a good question in my mind: what, exactly, do these signs tell others about the pro-life movement? What do they say about those of us who hate abortion and would see it stopped?

During my time as a pro-choice/abortion advocate, I was always appalled by these signs. I was less offended by the rhetoric of "abortion is murder" because, strictly speaking, I reasoned, abortion is not murder. Murder is the illegal killing of a person. Abortion is legal, therefore, it cannot be murder. That bit of legal sophistry went a long way in soothing my seared conscience at the time. However, the graphic pics did something else. They kept me away from the pro-life cause for years.

How so? Seeing these pics I immediately associated them with what I thought was fundamentalist Christian extremism: women are the property of her male family members; non-Christians are damned to hell; theocracy is the only way to govern America, etc. Being an enlightened left-liberal academic, these were horrific political positions to support. If "pro-life" meant theocracy, then I could never be "pro-life." The right to abortion was essential to American democracy.

Keep in mind: these were nearly subconscious associations not well-reasoned conclusions. The pics struck me at a visceral level, and I reacted at that level. How many other pro-choice/abortion folks out there resist the pro-life cause because of these pics? How many other otherwise decent citizens refuse to join us because, at some level, they associate the pro-life cause with unrelated extremist political positions? There's no way to know.

While serving as a campus minister at U.D., I was the faculty sponsor of the school's pro-life group. My one condition for serving in this capacity: no pics of aborted fetuses at clinic gatherings. There was a little grumbling, but the students took this restriction as a challenge to deepen the prayerful element of their presence outside the clinic. They focused on reciting the rosary and sidewalk counseling. No signs. No harsh rhetoric. Just prayer and a peaceful presence. They were prayerful rather than political.

We have no way of knowing how passers-by viewed their presence. But I do know that had I seen faithful Christians simply praying outside Planned Parenthood rather than holding pics of aborted fetuses, I would have come to the pro-life cause long before I did; or, at the very least, I would have thought better of those who opposed my pro-choice/abortion stance. Instead, the pics were an excuse for me to continue my support for abortion "rights." Anyone who would use tactics like these wasn't someone I wanted on my side of the argument.

Pouillon murder cannot be justified. But we have to wonder if his presence as a pro-life advocate would have been more effective as a faithful witness if he had chosen not to use them. I can only say that twenty-years ago I would have dismissed him as an extremist kook because of the pics. Nothing he said or did would have touched my conscience.

The Devil loves strife. He thrives on anger and violence. There is nothing for him to use against us when we bring nothing but love and hope to the fight. Pics of aborted fetuses hurt the pro-life cause. We should stop using them and focus our efforts on being a compassionate, prayerful presence.

16 September 2009

B.O. rewrote school speech after the fuss

This article from the Washington Post confirms my earlier suspicion that B.O.'s speech to school children was re-written after a furor erupted over the auxiliary teaching material for the speech was made public.

When critics lashed out at President Obama for scheduling a speech to public school students this month, accusing him of wanting to indoctrinate children to his politics, his advisers quickly scrubbed his planned comments for potentially problematic wording.

This is the reason his perfectly boring and harmless "Stay in School" speech had no connection with the teaching material released prior to the speech. Of course, the original speech could have been perfectly harmless and boring too, but the teaching material did not suggest that.

I find it interesting that the 7-12th grade materials called for teachers to hang banners in their classrooms with B.O. quotes written in block letters. I've seen this sort of thing before. . .in communist China when I taught English there in 1990.

Seriously, can you even begin to imagine the hell the Bush White House would have caught had it suggested such a thing?!

Tony Blair: pro-life?

Former British Prime Minister and recent Catholic convert, Tony Blair gave an interview to Zenit. He was asked about his reasons for converting to the Church. . .

Blair praised Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate, saying it should be "read and re-read."

He particularly highlighted the Pope's affirmation that "the Christian religion and other religions can make their contribution to development only if God finds a place in the public sphere, with specific reference to the cultural, social, economic and especially the political dimension."

"Personally, I share completely what the Pope writes in the encyclical," Blair added.

I wonder if Blair has actually read Caritas in veritate. Does he agree with the following paragraph from the encyclical?

In vitro fertilization, embryo research, the possibility of manufacturing clones and human hybrids: all this is now emerging and being promoted in today's highly disillusioned culture, which believes it has mastered every mystery, because the origin of life is now within our grasp. Here we see the clearest expression of technology's supremacy. In this type of culture, the conscience is simply invited to take note of technological possibilities. Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal. To the tragic and widespread scourge of abortion we may well have to add in the future — indeed it is already surreptiously present — the systematic eugenic programming of births (75).

Does the former PM now believe that abortion is a "tragic and widespread scourge" foisted on the British people by the "culture of death" he helped to create?

I certainly hope so. Otherwise, his claim to agree with the Holy Father's teaching in CV is somewhat suspect.

On celibacy and being a good Catholic

During my recent vacation in Mississippi, visiting family and dodging those @#$% beer-swilling squirrels, my mom asked me to come by the bank where she works to autograph copies of my prayer book purchased by her co-workers. I donned Ye Ole Habit and dutifully took up the task.

The citizens of Byhalia, MS have never seen a Dominican in habit. Most of these good folks are Baptists, Pentecostals, Church of Christ, etc. I've heard rumors that there are a few Catholics holding up somewhere on the other side of the railroad tracks, but I've never seen them. Needless to say, my appearance at the bank in habit gave rise to lots of questions. . .not to mention quite a few incredulous stares.

The question I get most often from non-Catholic Christians is: why can't you get married? True to form, this question popped up while I sat chatting with some of my mom's co-workers in the break room. Marriage is such a normal part of everyday life for most people that its absence causes quite a vacuum in their worldview. Why would anyone not get married if they could? Adding to this confusion is the unbending requirement that Catholic clergy and religious remain unmarried! It's not that we can't find someone to marry. . .we are actually forbidden to marry. This is beyond bizarre. . .so bizarre, in fact, that it must be both explained and defended.

Rather than give these women a history lesson or a theological lecture, I told them about my life as a celibate man. How celibacy frees me. How celibacy helps me grow in holiness. How I am pushed to a broader intimacy by not having to focus my love and attention on one person. And how all of these allow me to serve the Church better. Oddly enough, this all made perfect sense to them.

Here's what I didn't tell them: being a priest is the only way I can be a good Catholic. My best friend is a philosopher of astonishing intellect and insight. He knows exactly the right question to ask when I need clarity. Before I entered the Order in 1999, he asked me: "Would you be a Catholic if you couldn't be a priest?" Without a moment's hesitation, I answered, "No." That response stunned me. No? What does that mean? At first I thought it meant that I wanted to be a priest more than I wanted to be a Catholic. If priesthood were not an option, then I would simply try something else. Maybe Zen Buddhism or Unitarianism. This disturbed me b/c it seemed like my interest in Catholicism was defined by my desire to be a priest. That can't be right. Surely, being Catholic is more fundamental to me than being a priest.

Though still a "baby priest," I have come to understand that the only way I can be a good Catholic is to be a priest, and more specifically, a Dominican friar. If I am called by God to the Catholic Church, then everything I am is called. The vocation to priesthood is part and parcel of who I am as a person. Being a priest is the means through which I cooperate with God's grace and perfect my nature by participating in the Divine Life. The only way for me to grow in holiness is to grow as a Dominican priest and friar. In a very real sense, leaving the Order and/or the priesthood would be a sin for me--an act of disobedience.

For me, celibacy is the least onerous of the evangelical counsels. Not having ready access to money for what I want is frustrating, but my needs are met with generosity. However, sometimes I long for a place of my own and a normal job. Obedience is very difficult b/c I am grossly stubborn. Mama Becky says I am "bull-headed." Exactly. Just ask any of the friars! By comparison, celibacy has been easy. As a gregarious introvert, spending time in solitude is refreshing for me. I can be outgoing and animated--what preacher/teacher doesn't get energy from a responsive congregation or class full of students? But time spent with others can be exhausting. The focus required to stay in the conversation is tremendous. I often think of Captain Kirk yelling at Scotty: "Dammit man, we need more power to break free of the gravity well!" Can you see how this attitude would be disastrous for a marriage? OY!

Just as the rules of formal verse free the poet to write what he would never write without them, the vows free a religious to be the person he would never otherwise be. I think it was Chesterton who noted that the rules and regulations of the Catholic faith do not give us a prison yard but a garden. The walls of the Church do not fence in what matters; they fence out what doesn't.

Petulant clamoring for glamor (repost)

[NB. This is a repost of a homily from Advent 2006. The gospel in this homily is Matthew's rendering of Luke's gospel reading for today. Minor edits made.]

2nd Week Advent (F): Isaiah 48.17-19 and Matthew 11.16-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, U.D.

We demand that the Pope change the rules on the use of artificial birth control. He does and then we shout for changes in gender exclusion in marriage. The Pope allows gay marriages and we shout for women priests. The Pope allows women priests and we start protesting for gender equity in the College of Cardinals. The Pope gives us 50/50 male to female in the College and we shout for his resignation b/c he is so unresponsive to the voice of the people! Or maybe b/c he’s turned soft…

This is the reward of those who play to the crowd, hoping, in vain, that the crowd can be persuaded or lead or bought off to give its allegiance to the truth. Not likely. Jesus makes this very point this morning: “Your generation is like a bunch of kids playing in the street. You whine when we don’t dance to your favorite music and you whine when we don’t cry along with your funeral dirges. You call John the Baptist demon possessed b/c he doesn’t eat or drink. And I come among you, eating and drinking and you call me a glutton and drunkard.” Jesus is frustrated b/c he’s having to confront again and again the invincible ignorance of the crowds who clamor for glamor, that is, crowds who are following him and gathering about him who want to be see the miraculous done for their amusement. Some will believe, some will remain unbelieving, and most will tag along to see the show, perhaps hoping that something of Jesus’ healing power will pour over and travel to visit their ailments. They were there and we are here.

To what shall we compare this generation? Hyperactive rabbits? A computer with hundreds of lines running in and out? A cyborg with technology stuck in every hole? Needy children on too much sugar? We seem to climb about, swinging away, growing and eating, but left deeply hungry and thirsty in the absence of the Divine. I mean to say that God is always here with us, of course, but that his presence to us is spiritually fruitful only when we invoke His name, go get His gifts to us, and use them honorably in service to others. This generation—yours, mine, or the ones to come—best honor Christ by following his Way; forget the manipulation and craft; we can best use his grace by putting it in front of us to clear our path to Him, to open the Way, to allow His wisdom to be vindicated in us by wisdom’s good works.

The children in the market are petulant, proud, and probably a bit bored. They play their music for reaction, for reflection, or maybe just plain ole for fun. And so too the crowds. They gathered around Jesus for all sorts of reasons. Some pure. Some private. And some for simple delectation. Why do we gather around Jesus in 2006? What draws us to him? Surely he radiates power and we are always ready to vibrate at that hum. Is it his life-philosophy: personal sacrifice for public good? How about his teachings on peace or marriage or eternal life? Do we gather to be seen? To be in control, in charge? To be attention-seeking servants? How ready are you to serve w/o recognition?

Perhaps we do well to keep the words of Isaiah firmly in mind: “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.” Ministry is God’s work. You and I are the subcontractors; we’re the hired help. Apparently, we work for a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Not company we can boast about. But this is the company that will see our souls before the Throne of the Most High.

If divine wisdom is vindicated by her works, then rank foolishness is celebrated by our pretensions: “if you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river…”

15 September 2009

US Condemned for attack on Pakistan

NB. This is a parody from The Onion, i.e. it's funny.

U.S. Condemned For Pre-Emptive Use Of Hillary Clinton Against Pakistan

Catholics & Evolution (UPDATED)

A question. . .

Please comment on how the Church deals with evolution.

A very quick response*: As far as I know, there are no magisterial documents that address evolution per se. Pope John Paul II caused a stir when he (correctly) distinguished between the use of evolution as a theory** about biological development and its use as a philosophical system. In effect, he argued that Catholics are free to understand the development of the human species as a process of evolution, but that an analogous application to philosophical, political, or theological questions is off-limits. This makes sense given that evolutionists often jump from "humans evolved over time" to "there is no Creator" or "there is no such thing as a soul." Social reformers have used evolutionary theory to propose all sorts of dangerous political ideas that have nothing to do with how humans developed/evolved biologically. Also, current attempts to explain human behavior in terms of "genetic survival" tell us nothing about why we are here in the first place. The only proper scientific answer to the question "why are we here?' is: we can't tell you.

UPDATE: Consider this book, Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI. I have to warn you--the talks can get very technical.

Several points to keep in mind:

1). There is no single, comprehensive scientific theory about evolution. The broadly construed notion of evolution is actually made up of many other "smaller theories" that purport to describe and explain fossil evidence and biological diversity. Get ten evolutionists in a room and you will have one hundred theories about how it all happens.

2). What almost all evolutionists agree on is that their theories attempt to describe and explain how an already existing species evolves over time. Evolution as a scientific theory does not and cannot tell us why anything exists in the first place.

3). Historically, Christian opposition to evolutionary theory is often based on a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. Since St. Augustine, the Church has taken this account of creation to be metaphorical in its details but nonetheless true in its central claim: we are creatures of a loving Creator. Evolutionary theory does not and cannot tell us anything about God or His activity in His creation.

4). As a way of describing and explaining the fossil record and contemporary observations about biological development, evolutionary theory is good science, and as such, it tells the truth about biological entities and processes. Aquinas teaches us that truth has a single source: Truth Himself. If evolutionary theory accurately describes and explains the physical evidence available to us, then it is true and cannot contradict the faith.

5). Some evolutionists (cf. Dawkins) go well beyond the biological theory and make philosophical, political, and theological claims that do not follow from the theory itself. The key is to keep evolutionists honest by insisting that they do what they claim to do best: tell us about how biological entities develop over time. Out of their theory alone they have nothing to say about political, spiritual, or religious issues. Of course, evolutionists can hold any opinions that strike their fancy. But these opinions are not given scientific weight simply because they are held by scientists.

6). In modern/contemporary western culture science is to presumed to be the final arbiter of truth. Insofar as science describes and explains the physical world, this is largely true. However, human experience entails far more than the merely physical. Science can tell us how the sun shines. It cannot tell us why. Science can tell us how the universe came to be. It cannot tell us why. When scientists presume to answers outside their methodical purview, they are playing at being philosophers and theologians. The same is true for philosophers and theologians who play at being scientists!

Bottom-line: as a theory about how biological entities develop/evolve over time given a particular environment, evolutionary theory is no threat to the Catholic faith. In fact, if evolutionary theory is true, it is made true by Truth Himself.

* I'm answering this "off the top of my head," i.e. I'm not researching the answer in any substantial way, just commenting informally.

** "Theory" here should not be taken in its commonly understood sense; i.e., a guess or speculation about. In the scientific world, "theory" is understood to be a global explanation of available evidence. The Laws of Thermodynamics are scientific theories insofar as they accurately describe and explain phenomena in the real world. They are not guesses.

Coffee Cup Browsing

Get all your ACORN-related news here. . .you won't find any of this in the MSM.

Despite her genetic origins in Shea the Shaggy, Lucy the Former Pagan Baby is quite cute.

Laughable: "Certainly Pope Benedict XVI is no fan. His first book as pontiff was Jesus of Nazareth and was seen as a corrective to Brown's heretical depiction of the savior." Yes, this rag is actually suggesting that the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, the Successor to the Chair of Peter wrote a book about Jesus in order to refute the third-rate hack, Dan Brown. Simply. Unbelievable. I guess the Holy Father's follow-up to his first book will be a touted as a commentary on the philosophical implications of the Family Circus cartoons. Geez.

This is one reason the Vatican is currently conducting two investigations into women's religious life in the U.S.

Trouble for the Dems in 2010? Let's hope so. But this is good news to me only if the GOP gets its pro-life act together. They had eight years to get it right and didn't.

"Some enthusiasts claim that homeschooling is the Catholic approach to a child's education, but neither history nor the teaching of the Church supports this exclusivity." I am a Big Fan of homeschooling. Teaching at U.D. has put me in the classroom with many homeschooled students. They are extremely well-educated and motivated to learn. The stereotype of socially awkward and needy geeks is unfounded. Well, the geek part is true. . . ;-)

Soon-to-be "St. John Henry Newman" and all his works on-line.

Thomas Howard: "The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means everything. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything."

14 September 2009

Obama gets it right

Giving credit where it is due: Obama condemns the murder of a pro-life activist. . .

Still waiting on Planned Parenthood and NARAL, however.

Why so muddled?

Reading back over Sunday's homily, I am struck by just how muddled it is. It took me a while to figure out that problem.

Quite apart from the fact that it is about three homilies in one, there is no voice to it. I'm not speaking to anyone. There is no audience for it, meaning I didn't compose the thing for a particular audience, a specific congregation. Even when I compose homilies that I never preach, there's an audience listening "behind the computer," or so I imagine.

Having been away from Normal Catholics (!) for so long, I can't hear you listening! :-) It's amazing how vital a component the audience really is to preaching.

What does having a clear audience in mind do for the preacher?

1). Real people have real problems that the gospel addresses.

2). Knowing that a homily will be heard by these people forces the preacher to deal with these problems.

3). Dealing with problems means clearly addressing the root of the problem and exposing folks to what the gospel says about a possible solution.

4). And even when there seems to be no pressing problems, there is always the need to encourage, inspire, teach, and maybe even admonish (just a little)--the preacher included.

5). For the preacher, having an audience clearly in mind also forces him to consider his own spiritual condition, his own state of grace before daring to open the Word to others.

6). Also, the preacher must be open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that moves through and with the whole Church. Every time I have tried to bend a homily to my will, it has failed. And so have I.

So, yesterday's homily was me preaching to me. I wonder what I learned? :-)

The Press: Inaccurate, Unfair, & Unaccountable

Americans are not being duped by the Old Media. . .we got their number! (H/T: PEW Research)

It's a lack of accountability. . .

13 September 2009

Nota bene. . .

I will celebrate a "private" Mass this afternoon in the priory chapel. The Mass has an intention already, but I will gladly offer other prayers as well. Leave a comment with your request. I won't publish them.

Also, please note that I have changed the shipping address on the WISH LIST back to Rome. I arrive back in the Eternal City on the morning of October 5th. Thank You notes will go out upon my return.

Fr. Philip, OP

"Fidelity with" NOT "Fidelity to"

[NB. I've been working on this homily for three days and it shows. Very muddled. I would not actually preach it. Too many leaps, too many untied strings of thought. Oh well. . .take what you can].

24th Sunday OT: Isa 50.5-9; Jas 2.14-18; Mark 8.27-35
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston, TX

Do we reward those who speak to us clearly and openly? Do we thank them for their clarity and openness? If the American political scene at the moment is any indication, we not only fail to appreciate frank communication, we punish it with contempt, outrage, and demands for apology. It is extremely difficult to tell the truth and not come away beaten and bruised and quite possibly unemployed or prosecuted for a crime. The result? Those charged with leading us dodge, weave, duck, and bob for all they are worth and pray that no one catches them with solid left-hook or a hidden-camera expose. Of course, that our leaders might be punished for telling the truth should never be a reason to lie or muddle through. But the cost-benefit calculus of most politicians tells them to say as little as possible, say it as cryptically as possible, and be prepared to “clarify” if caught red-handed. Unfortunately, many of our Church leaders are not exempt from the same temptation to count costs and avoid controversy. In stark contrast to this, Mark tells us that Jesus, when teaching his disciples, does the unthinkable: he speaks openly. He tells the truth. Just as it is. And even he is rebuked for his candid, even audacious disclosure. Telling the truth is difficult. Hearing it told is even harder. Therefore, with the prophet, Isaiah, let us proclaim: “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear; [. . .] The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” There is no shame in asking God for help. In fact, if we are to listen to God at all, we must deny the self and become lost in holy obedience.

Humility demands that we acknowledge our limitations, that we freely confess our shortcomings, especially those that we have wrongly cultivated as virtues. There is no shame in admitting that we do not always have every answer. There is no shame in saying clearly and openly that we do not understand every question. What is shameful is playing at being God with our ears all the while securely plugged against hearing the truth. When we Know That We Know and refuse to listen, shame consumes us. We are burnt up even if we believe that the fire consuming us is the flame of righteousness calling others to our cause. Quick to rebuke those who speak the truth, we deny ourselves—again and again—every chance to meet Truth Himself. Surely, this is a disgrace for a people who have vowed themselves to live and breath the truth who is Christ Jesus.

But look how easy it is to be deceived. Jesus asks his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Immediately, Jesus begins revealing to them his fate, “that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Peter, the very one who only moments ago confesses the truth of who Jesus is, takes his teacher aside and rebukes him—for candor! We know how this scene ends. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as men do.” Christ puts Peter to shame for his failure to listen to God's truth. Peter would deny God's plan for salvation before he allows his love for Jesus to be denied him by their enemies. His sin is not a lack of love for his teacher. His sin is to refuse self-denial. At a crucial moment in his apostolic training, Peter refuses to deny himself; he will not place Christ on the cross because doing so would take his beloved master from him. He cannot let Jesus go to Jerusalem. He cannot bear to let him be betrayed. He cannot tolerate what their enemies will do to his friend. For this betrayal, Jesus names his principal student and friend, “Satan.” Denier, Deceiver, Enemy.

Who among us now has not played “Satan” at some point along the Way, thinking as men do rather than as God does? Here we arrive at an apparent contradiction. Earlier I said that we fail to live and breath our baptismal vows when stubbornly refuse to listen to the truth and we play at being all-knowing gods. We bring shame upon ourselves even if we do not see it. Yet, Jesus rebukes Peter for not thinking as God does. How do we remain humble in the face of our limited, creaturely knowledge and at the same time think as God does? Obviously, we cannot think as God does because we are not God. In fact, God does not think at all. God is Thought; that is, God is not a being that thinks—He is Thinking. The best we can do is participate imperfectly in the One Who Thinks, participate to the degree that each of us is capable of doing so. This means that each of us—in varying degrees—sees and hears a silver of the Truth, just a portion of the whole. Thus, listening to one another is more than just a matter of practicality; it is a moral imperative. I dare say: it is a matter of our salvation, our work to grow in holiness.

The English theologian, Nicholas Lash,* writing about the classical debate between faith and reason, has proposed a provocative distinction: “There is no one thing called 'faith,' and no one thing called 'reason,' and the 'habits of the mind,' or mental practices [. . .] we do better not to speak, not of the relations between 'faith' and 'reason,' but rather of the relations between 'believing' and 'reasoning' [. . .].” At first glance, this distinction may seem too subtle, too gentle to make a difference in how we seek out the truth and speak it, if found. What is the difference between faith and believing, between reason and reasoning? To possess faith, to have reason implies that we hold a thing, something whole and wholly knowable. Believers, secure in their possession of faith, know what they believe. Those who hold reason as a foil against belief, also quite secure in their possession of imperturbable reason, know what they think. Believing and reasoning do not undermine faith and reason; rather, they extend the ability of the believer and the reasoner to search more deeply into uncharted territory. What we believe and what we think provide the grounding anchor, a weight to counter the pull of cyclical, intellectual tides. Lash goes on to note that some might see his distinction as permission to believe “this, that, or the other.” He writes, “On the contrary, I would wholeheartedly endorse the traditional insistence on the fidelity faith requires [. . .] even to the shedding of blood, in martyrdom.” Clearly, believing does not oppose the faith anymore than reasoning sets itself against reason. What we have is the difference between “having faith” and “working with faith,” the difference between “having reason” and “working with reason.”

Let Peter's rebuke of Jesus' freely spoken prophecy be our example. Can we say that Peter lacks faith? Is he lacking in reason? Surely, we can say that he is believing and reasoning even as he rebukes Jesus. He believes that Jesus is the promised Christ. After hearing Jesus describe his fate at the hands of his enemies, Peters reasons that it would be better for Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. And why shouldn't he reason so?! Peter loves Jesus and does not want to see him killed. If this is true, then why does Jesus rebuke Peter, naming him “Satan”? Peter is not listening; he's hearing, but he is not listening. Peter's faith has failed him in a crucial way: he has taken his fidelity to Jesus and made it an idol. From his faith, he has carved an idol of Christ that cannot do what Christ came to do. Horrified at the prospect of his seeing his faith upended, Peter moves to prop up his idol, thinking as men do and not as God does. Jesus teaches Peter and the other disciples how to move from Faith to Believing, from fidelity to to fidelity with: deny yourself. There is no other way to believing.

To deny oneself is to lose oneself in God. If I am truly lost in God, then there can be no “I” who is faithful to God. God is faithfulness. Wholly lost in Him, I am faithful with Him rather than to Him. Of course, being a limited creature, the degree to which I am lost in Him is measurable by my obedience, my eagerness to listen to Him and beg Him for clarity. Like Isaiah, I must pray for my ears to be opened. The more I shed Faith as a possession and embrace being faithful with God, the more I come to think as God does. Obedience's clarity rings purer in a soul lost in faithfulness with our Lord. Lash argues that fidelity with God, even to martyrdom, is a virtue Christians must cultivate. Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Jesus speaks freely to his disciples. Without fear, without calculation, he tells them the truth: he will be persecuted and killed for the salvation of the world. No idol of faith can accomplish this. Nor will reason heal our injuries. Only self-denial, the surrender of self to God, can bring us to the necessary fidelity, the sort and degree of believing that loses us wholly within God's own faithfulness to us. We may begin, as Peter does, being faithful to Christ. But if we will follow him to Jerusalem, we must come to be faithful with him. . .as he is faithful with us, right up to an agonizing death on a cross.

*Lash, Nicholas. “Thinking, Attending, Praying.” In Philosophers and God: At the Frontiers of Faith and Reason, ed. John Cornwell and Michael McGhee, Continuum, 2009, 39-49.