Friday, April 28, 2006

An Inside Look at the Abuse Crisis

NCR's feature article profiles a prosecuting attorney and a cooperative priest in the central administration offices of the archdiocese of Philedelphia under Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Msgr. James Molloy had the job of performing the intitial interview with those who made allegations of sexual misconduct against a priest, and the initial interview with the priest, himself.

Many will find fault with his own participation in what occurred.

What is commendable is that when he sensed something was amiss, he began keeping meticulously detailed records of what was occurring.

When the prosecutor, Will Spade, called him expecting the priest to refer him to a lawyer, Molloy's first words were, "What took you so long?"

This is a very painful and very well told story of both men and their experience with survivors of priestly sex abuse.


Is the Vatican Contemplating a Moral Use of a Condom?

The lead story in John Allen's weekly column is that the Vatican is exploring whether it might be morally licit for a married couple to use a condom if one partner in the marriage is infected with HIV/AIDs.

For many people, this is probably a no-brainer, and it almost seems obvious to many that this would be morally licit.

I have had at least one reader who feels certain this is immoral and that the Church will never, under any circumstances whatsover, admit through the authority of magiterium that a condom is morally licit.



Thursday, April 27, 2006

Can Church Teaching Change?

I haven't been posting much since I came back after easter. This is because I find something I feel passionate about being dismissed in a fashion that frustrates me.

I am prompted to write this because of reader reaction to some of my statements regarding the resurrection.

But underlying that debate is a deeper issue that goes to the heart of many things I discuss on this blog: Can Church teaching seem to change?

When does dissent become heresy and when does it lead to real development of doctrine?

How do we know that a change is a good change?

Though I intellectually believe that the tomb was empty (without a corpse) on the first easter Monday, I do not consider it a doctrine to be held definitively and given the assent of faith that the tomb was empty.

One reader seems to think that my passion on distinguishing what is solemnly defined or demands the assent of faith from what is not amounts to an abstract exercise in reductionism far removed from the concerns of ordinary Catholics in the pew.

Perhaps the issue is abstract, and I do accept that the average Catholic in the pew is concerned about things for more immediate to his or her own personal life.

I do not mean to be flippant in saying this, but it is highly likely that for many American Catholics the question of whether their deceased pet will be in heaven is far more urgent than hairsplitting over whether belief in the empty tomb is a dogma demanding the assent of faith - especially if we all agree that it was empty anyway.

Furthermore, calling into question beliefs that are widely held by the average person in the pew may seem simply a pointless diversion to those who want to embrace a robust faith-life that effects change in our culture.

Yet, precisely because there are people who want a robust faith-life in order to act as change agents in the culture, I remain convinced that it is imperative that such people fully understand the limits of what dogma demands.

When we understand those limits, it brings us to our knees in humility before God and others.

My passion on this issue of what faith actually demands is precisely that if we are going to be passionately and energetically committed to promoting a Catholic vision of the good of the human person and the common good and a vision we claim rooted in divine mandate, we must not claim that something the Church does not demand is part of that vision.

To do so sets us up for potential error.

I've been slow blogging over the past few days because I have been mulling this over, trying to think of other ways to express what is on my mind.

I decided to go back to the basics on my own "conversion", as it were, from a more "conservative" view of what it means to be Catholic to a more "liberal" or "progressive" view.

This is tedious. It is abstract. It requires actually reading texts of Church doctrine I am posting in the body of this post carefully.

It involves considering the full import of something that at least appears to have radically changed in a solemnly defined doctrine of the Church and how that occurrence applies to other issues.

I have no gift for making things simple without coming across as provocative, and no gift for explaining why the provocative actually seems a sort of common sense in hindsight without going into detailed analysis.

I confess up front that I can't explain everything more adequately than I am able. I am limitted in my ability to convey what I mean to say by own inability to simplify the issue more than I think I already am making it simple.

Simply put: Solemn dogmas seem to have changed within the life-time of many of my readers, and that has many of us asking what else can change - some embracing the possibilities (generally called liberals) and others resisting consideration of new possibilities (generally called conservatives).

The key issue that led me to understand the notion of the development of doctrine and what is infallible compared to what is not to be considered infallible was the issue of salvation outside of the Church.

I have an article on this in my sidebar already, but I want to flesh this subject out further than I have in the past.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

I suspect that for most Catholics who spend time reading Catholic blogs, this is a familiar issue, and most of us have formed our own opinions.

I will rehash the issues anyway in detail.

For those less familiar with the issue, the Latin phrase above sums up a doctrinal position that is typically translated as "outside the Church there is no salvation".

I believe that the word "extra" has a variety of meanings in Latin that could be translated as "outside" but also as "apart from" or "without".

If we translate the phrase as "apart from" or "without", the meaning shifts a bit from a statement that one must formally belong to the Roman Catholic Church to a statement that if others are saved, it is because of a mysterious relationship to the Roman Catholic Church.

This said, let's look at a few select texts in context.

In 1215 A.D., the Ecumenical Fourth Lateran Council issued a dogmatic decree (first decree) stating the following:

There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, ["outside of" or "apart from" or "without"] which nobody at all is saved, in which Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice.
This statement reiterated a teaching of the patristics strongly rooted in what would today be considered a precritical or even fundamentalist reading of some New Testament passages.

Eighty seven years later, on November 18, 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued an Apostolic Constitution (also called a Bull), which is the highest form of authoritative letter a Pope can use.

The bull is entitled Unam Sanctum, and it states the following:
Porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus dicimus, definimus et pronunciamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis.
A good English translation is the following:
Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
What is interesting here is that the language "declaramus dicimus, definimus et pronunciamus", in the context of a papal bull adressed to the whole Church, constitutes what would today be called the invocation of extraordinary papal magisterium to make a solemn ex cathedra infallible definition.

Of course, we can argue until we are blue in the face about what it means to say that every human creature is "subject" to the Roman Pontiff.

We can also debate at length the historical circumstances that prompted these texts and those that will follow.

It seems to me that regardless of the historical circumstances prompting these writings, or the various ways we might interpret words, we have here some sort of attempt at a formulation of solemn dogma.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Boniface attempted some clarification of his intentions in a restrictive direction by saying the following regarding what appears to be the Eastern Orthodox:
Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John 'there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.'
Boniface goes on to assert the right of the Pope to use state authority to enforce this subjection to his proper authority.

Apparently, despite Boniface's bull, people did continue to argue the meaning of such a term, because the valid Ecumenical Council of Basel/Florence that ran from 1431 to 1445 (starting in Basel but ending in Florence) felt compelled to issue the following dogmatic statement:
It [the Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are ["outside", "apart from", "without"] the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the Church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.
Here we have little wiggle room for arguing that salvation outside of the Church means that one can die outside of formal union with the Church expecting to be saved.

In the early mid-twentieth century, however, there was a controversy with an American Jesuit priest named Leonard Feeney (b. 1897, d. 1978).

Feeney once was the editor of America, which stired up controversy about a year ago when the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith apparently forced the resignation of a more recent editor, Father Thomas Reese.

As a mild digression, Reese got into the recent trouble because he gave equal time to views oppossed to Church teaching to create what Reese saw as a balanced magazine.

Returning to the focus, Feeney was also a best selling apologist and popular radio host. In the 1940's, he worked with Avery Cardinal Dulles long before Dulles was a cardinal.

Feeney believed that American Catholicism was corrupt, and saw religious tolerance as the central corrupting influence on the faith.

Feeney interpreted "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" in a very strict and rigorous sense - some may say "robust" and "orthodox" - believing the doctrine to be solemnly and infallibly defined.

I even agree with him that there are solemn definitions involved here.

However, when I say I was a convert from a more conservative view to a more liberal view, it was not because I agreed with Feeney's view at one time.

Rather, it was because I once would have thought it absurd to say that Feeney's teaching was based on solemn and infallible definitions.

I now realize that Feeney stood on what appeared at the time to be absolutely solid grounds from a dogmatic point view - almost unassailable grounds.

And only because those grounds CAN shift out from under your feet a bit can we finally see how Feeney was in error and us post-Vatican II babies are not caught in web of what he might have considered Jewish deceit.

Let's keep looking at the issue,....

Feeney interpreted this doctrine in such a restrictive way as to clearly indicate that without baptism in the Roman Catholic sense, and formal union with the Church, one would be damned to hell.

Many of his opinions would be seen today as clearly anti-semetic, unecumenical, intolerant, racist, and extreme.

Perhaps the most doctrinally controversial aspect of his teaching was that Feeney rejected the notions of "baptism by blood" and "baptism by desire" as non-infallible and erroneous opinions, even if held by such saints as Augustine and Aquinas.

On this theory, he is correct that baptism by blood and desire have not been solemnly defined.

Ironically, Feeney was excommunicated in 1953 by Pope Pius XII.

Defenders of Feeney say that the excommunication was invalid because it did not follow the proper process.

Even if valid, it is argued that it was due to disobedience to superiors more than doctrinal error, and Feeney was clearly not always obedient to his superiors.

For example, in defiance to his Jesuit superior, he founded a religious order without permission that included married people with children in violation of canon law (a surprisingly "liberal" act for such a "conservative" figure).

He reconciled with the Church before his death without being required to retract his basic position, and he had "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" inscribed on his tombstone.

The excommunication of Feeney in 1953 gave many American Catholics who were paying attention the impression that the Church was backing off the doctrine of "extra ecclessiam nulla salus".

However, it is important to note that there is little evidence that Feeney was excommunicated solely over doctrinal positions, or that the Church had deemed his doctrine outside of the pale of orthodoxy in 1953.

Feeney could have been correct that baptism by desire and baptism by blood are simply non-infallible errors that were widely held like limbo, but contradicted by the clear teaching of solemn definitions.

Further, a very strong argument could be made that the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium made it abundantly clear through numerous reiterations of the doctrine and through various anathemas and excommunications that there is absolutely no possible salvation outside of the Church.

This explicitly meant that without water baptism in the Trinitarian formula, explicit affirmation of Jesus as Lord and the Nicene creed, and explicit formal union with the Roman Catholic Church acknowledging the infallibility and primacy in doctrine and jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and all that this implies in toto, at least in the form of no conscience denail, one cannot be saved.

Even when I was a child, Catholic nurses in public hospitals sometimes secretly baptized "pagan babies" (non-Catholics) so that they would not automatically go to hell!

Nevertheless, even in the days of Feeney, there were voices of dissent challenging the most restrictive interpretations of the dogma.

Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, for one, was writing in dense and very abstract terminology of a theory of the "supernatural existential" - a gift of primordial or preventient grace given to every human person at birth - such that we can speak of an "anonymous Christian" who is saved by Christ without knowing Christ by name.

He speculated that all human persons are touched by Christ's grace such that any sort of response to grace at all made one an implicit, if not formal member of the true Church - an "anonymous Christian".

Rahner took an extremely minamalist view towards what dogma demands, though he made no explicit denials of the core content of any dogma of the Church.

Rahner's own orthodoxy was hotly questioned at times, and the Sacred Congegation for the Doctrine of the Faith finally settled in his favor posthumously.

He was never excommunicated like Feeney, and he even enjoyed the status of being a key theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council despite the controversy surrounding his theology.

Despite all of his "abstractions" and "intellectualizing" and the "controversy" and "provocation" he stirred, Rahner's theology ultimately had very practical applications that touch on the heart of core concerns of almost all the faithful today.

Prior to Vatican II, many Roman Catholics worried intensely over such issues as whether their Protestant and Jewish spouses or relatives could be saved, or their unbaptized babies that died at birth would go to heaven, or how to tolerate agnostics in society, and so forth.

To understand just how practically important these issues are, consider that the crusades, religious wars with Protestants, the excesses of the inquisition, pograms against Jews, witch burnings, book burnings, and so forth were directly rationalized with the teaching "extra ecclesiam nulla salus".

Rahner's doctrinal mimimalism saw through the dogmatic formulations to the core we want to keep, while purifying the dogma of that which seemed erroneous.

This view came to be confirmed in November of 1964 when the Ecumenical Second Vatican Council issued the dogmatic decree Lumen Gentium.

I highly recommend that any Roman Catholic read this decree in full, and I want to highlight only two key paragraphs. After establishing that Christ did found a Church, the Council states the following:
This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Savior, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it, and which he raised up for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity. (LG 8)

Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things, and since the Savior wills all men to be saved. Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life. (LG 16)
As I indicated, the full text of the Dogmatic Constitution should be read, because it explicitly says that Christians separated from Rome are united to the Church in a real and mysterious way such that valid sacraments and salvation is possible for them.

It also says that Jews and Muslims are united to the Church in a mysterious way, and it affirms all that is true and holy among the practitioners of eastern religions.

The Council also affirms here, and in Gaudium et Spes, that atheists often reject Christianity because of the faults of Christians in the poor way we witness to the faith, rather than their own obstinance or sin.

One does have to ask oneself, if this "new" teaching is true, how are those people saved who not only were not baptized, don't know Christ explicitly, ate meat on Friday's, and so forth, but may also contracept, divorce, and so forth? Or, are they?

On the surface, the teaching of Vatican II is a direct contradiction to the teaching of the Council of Florence or the bull, Unam Sanctam.

Without reading Vatican II, there can be absolutely no doubt that the intended meaning of Unam Sanctam and the Council of Florence is that Feeney is far more right than Rahner if we head in the direction of dogmatic "maximism" rather than "minimalism".

Perhaps arguments against Feeney's view of baptism by desire or blood could be mounted.

Even here, it is clear that Florence implied a formal union, at least in intent appropriate to age, with the Roman Catholic Church prior to death was required.

As I've already indicated, one would be hard pressed to find any manner of interpreting the actions and words of "ordinary and universal magisterium" that would lead to a different conclusion.

Yet, Rahner saw the wisdom of not interpreting the dogma in a "maximist" or "most restrictive" or "most expansive" or "most conservative" sense.

Perhaps a quotation from the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia can help shed some light on this subject since this was considered a solid and orthodox guide even prior to Vatican II. In the New Advent article on infallibility, we see the following quotation:
But before being bound to give such an assent, the believer has a right to be certain that the teaching in question is definitive (since only definitive teaching is infallible); and the means by which the definitive intention, whether of a council or of the pope, may be recognized have been stated above. It need only be added here that not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible. For example, in the lengthy Bull of Pius IX defining the Immaculate Conception the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in a sentence or two; and the same is true in many cases in regard to conciliar decisions. The merely argumentative and justificatory statements embodied in definitive judgments, however true and authoritative they may be, are not covered by the guarantee of infallibility which attaches to the strictly definitive sentences -- unless, indeed, their infallibility has been previously or subsequently established by an independent decision.
Rahner saw that no matter what was intended by those who wrote "extra", the word has shades of meaning that the Holy Spirit may intend going beyond what the human authors intended at the time a formula was proposed.

More importantly, he saw that the dogmatic formula is limitted to "a sentence or two" and not an entire text and its argumentation and application.

Rahner also saw the wisdom in exploring ideas that lie in a more seminal and undeveloped non-fallibly defined form in the tradition.

His theory of the "supernatural existential" has its antecedants in the teachings of Trent on "prevenient grace", the common belief that Old Testament prophets are counted among the saints, in Aquinas' notions of grace building on nature, and in the theology of Saint Iraneaus of the third century regarding the divinization of the human person accomplished in the incarnation, as well as the theories of baptism by blood and desire.

All he did was pull these various ideas together and flesh them out further than anyone had done before.

He saw that while the deposit of faith demanding the assent of faith is an unchanging reality, our collective understanding of that deposit as a church body is imperfect and there can be developments in understanding.

The Second Vatican Council even affirms that doctrine does develop in this manner in Dei Verbum. The pertinent paragraph is number 8, which states the following:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.
The path of development involves a sort of two-fold process that is done by what might be called the "speculative theologian".

Speculative theology is different than the theology done by most Catholic bloggers, which is "apologetic theology".

Apologetic theology attempts to offer a gentle but well reasoned argument in defense of the faith.

It takes current teaching as its starting point without distinguishing too carefully between infallible and non-infallible teachings, and attempts to offer scriptural support, historical arguments and natural reason in support of the current teaching.

There's nothing inherently wrong with engaging in apologetics, so long as we recognize that it doesn't always represent "absolute truth", but rather defends the reasonableness of a tentatively held position.

Speculative theology, on the other hand, aims at discovering where doctrine will develop next and what the teaching will be tomorrow.

Speculative theology also doesn't claim to possess absolute truth, but does attempt to seek the next discovery of truth on the horizon.

It is a more intuitive exercise, but absolutely necessary if doctrine is to develop at all.

Nobody who lived through the collosal changes of Vatican II or who was raised in its immediate aftermath and did not split off with the Society of Saint Pius X can accept the idea that doctrine doesn't at least seem to change as it develops.

The change in understanding salvation outside of the Church is probably the most monumental.

My own parents were raised to believe that if they ate red meat on Friday's, they would go to hell.

My daughter will think of such an idea as ancient history that was settled a long time ago. She will believe it absurd that anyone actually took seriously that it is mortal sin to eat red meat on Friday.

If she ever meets a SSPX'er, she will likely dismiss the person as a cook.

For me, the change was taking root while I was just old enough to overhear the debates among my parent's generation.

I had to come to a conclusion myself by the time I was seven whether eating red meat on Friday is a mortal sin knowing that there were older Catholics than myself in my own lived experience who insisted it is, and others insisting that's silly.

Many of today's conservatives are younger than myself (I'm forty), and think of Vatican II as almost ancient history that settled debates - or they think John Paul's interpretation of the Council settles the issue even though he never issued a solemn definition himself - at all!

What they don't get is that for most Catholics alive today, the Council raised more questions than it settled, and it calls into question the demands of John Paul's interpretation of the Council when he isn't even making claims to solemn definitions.

How were these questions raised? Was it all the fault of sneaky dissidents distorting the meaning of the texts after the Council?

The answer is emphatically "no"!

The Council itself introduced a real and substantial change in understanding certain teachings that were thought to be firmly settled.

This happened because the theologians who "minimized" the demands of dogma were proven correct in their methodology.

If you do not accept that these theologians were correct, the logical alternative is truly the Society of Saint Pius X and the whole Latin Mass crowd in condemning Vatican II almost in whole.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was excommunicated by John Paul II over an issue of disobedience (consecrating bishops without papal approval), and the current roadblock to reunion remains acceptance of Vatican II in its entireity - and especially on the issue of salvation outside of the Church.

In the way we each live our Catholic faith today, we are either consciously or unconsciously deciding who is right: Feeney and Lefebvre, or Rahner and Vatican II.

If Vatican II is a valid council, a certain minimizing of the demands of dogma without denying dogma is healthy, and speculative theology is not a waste of time.

What exactly is this method of speculative theology that differs so much from apologetics?

First, we must minimize the demands of dogma to the core nugget that is "manifestly demonstrated" as the essential content of the doctrine that is intended to be understood as infallible (c.f. - Canon 749.3 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law).

If the Code of Canon Law is not sufficient proof that we must do this, consider that if we do not minimize the demands of dogma, we simply cannot explain the direct contradictions between the Council of Florence and the Second Vatican Council on the slavation of Jews who have not converted prior to death.

The Society of Saint Pius X understands this dilemma and exploits it.

If, and only if, dogma can be understood in a minamalist sense can we resolve the tension between Florence and Vatican II.

I hate to draw an analogy to a secular law that I deem immoral, but the notion is similar to American Supreme Court rulings since Roe v. Wade that a principle of stare decisis demands the court acknowledge some sort of "essential holding" in the process of self modification.

In an analogous fashion, doctrine can and does seem to change, even though an "essential holding" that never changes runs throughout the apparent surface changes.

A better analogy might be the transformation of any living thing - such as a seed into a full blown flower. The essential DNA structure in the cell of a seed never changes, even as the plant outwardly undergoes a radical transformation.

Further examples of changes in doctrine could be drawn on the issue of loans at interest, slavery, and heliocentrism.

In every case, with painful debate, the Church seemed to "flip flop" in some ways, even as hindsight reveals something seemingly "small" stayed the same.

Second, we must look at what is not infallible in a sort of maximist sense seeing where it logically leads by way of implication in order to make a judgment where development may proceed.

This is the most speculative part of the task, and every age will make errors in speculation. This portion of the task is very intuitive and abstract.

In effect, the theologian tries to imagine the extremes of potential developments seeking that logical inference that most likely seems to truly reflect the "sense of the faithful".

An example of what I mean by this can be understood by looking at the developments that have taken place in Church teaching regarding the death penalty.

There is a clear trajectory of limitting its application more and more through the ages to the point where John Paul II could say that instances of a morally licit use of it are "practically non-existent" if not theoretically non-existent.

Though John Paul's teaching is by no means a solemn definition, it has found its way into the Catechism as an expression of authentic Catholic doctrine, even if not solemnly defined.

The question that lies before us now is not whether John Paul's teaching could be reversed on the one hand, or lead to an abolition of the death penalty in the modern world on the other.

It clearly can change in either direction, since nobody, liberal or conservative, would claim a solemn definition has been made yet, from which we must preserve some core nugget or "essential holding".

On the other hand, as "authentic doctrine", the teaching demands a submission of the intellect and will.

If not the assent of faith, this still means we give the doctrinal development as it has come to be expressed right now every benefit of the doubt and obey it in practice, unless a clear and morally certain conflict in conscience arises.

Thus, critics of the new development trying to reverse to the old must attempt to demonstrate how the development might reflect something of the deeper understanding of the deposit of faith even as they offer critique that the development may go too far.

For example, it is insufficient to simply say, "Past popes allowed the death penalty, therefore, this pope is simply mistaken."

Instead, one must accept the reasons the Church generally tries to limit application of the death penalty while continuing to try to flesh out further the theoretical exceptions John Paul admits and show that his statement that such instances are "practically non-existent" are actually more prevelant than he thought.

One may even nail down some precise criteria that will seem to be inevitable in every society making the death penalty morally licit.

This imagined criteria is not likely the demand of retributive justice, since the teaching is currently explicitly opposed to that reason by itself.

Those who take this approach of critiquing the authentic but not solemnly defined doctrine on the death penalty are in a form of "dissent", but not heresy - since "heresy" is reserved to denial of that which demands the assent of faith.

I stated early on that I would distinguish dissent from heresy: Heresy involves the direct denial of a solemnly defined doctrine, not only in part of the formulation, but in it's entireity.

Authentic teaching that is not solemnly defined demands the religious submission of intellect and will, which is far less than the assent of faith IMHO.

Religious submission of intellect and will seems to mean that we receive the teaching with a benefit of the doubt that it conveys some degree of truth, and we search the teaching for every degree it may contain obeying as best we can.

The assent of faith is something we'd stake our life on, like the martyrs of old.

If we simply consider what the assent of faith demands of us, we'd be more cautious in making the demand from others over trivialities or uncertainties.

When in doubt, it makes sense to give religious submission of intellect and will to what our ancestors seemed to believe - to the tried and true democracy of the dead - but that doesn't mean we'd stake our lives on what can potentially change.

On the other extreme of the cultural wars in America, there is a body of teaching not yet solemnly defined that indicates that any direct act intentionally preventing conception during conjugal relations is intrinsically evil because it opposes the human good of procreation inherent to the sex act as its primary end.

It is not sufficient to simply dismiss this teaching because you find it inconvenient to your sex life.

Opponents of the current Vatican view should argue from theological premises.

For example, they might argue that natural family planning involving the deliberate timing of conjugal acts during a period of infertility arrived at with high degrees of certainty is a direct act intentionally preventing conception during conjugal relations.

Since such an act is considered morally licit according to authentic doctrine based on the unitive love expressed in the act, it could be argued that a further development of THAT doctrine might allow that unitive love is the primary end of conjugal relations, and procreation is secondary.

The logical conclusion of such developments might indicate that a gay couple open to adopting could express unitive love in a monogamous commitment.

The question then becomes, "Is this the sense of the faithful?"

In asking this question, the theologian does not mean "Is this the current unconsidered consensus?"

An unconsidered consensus of the masses often leads to disaster. Unreflective mobs have waged wars and enslaved people or even been driven to genocide. (Some may point to the election of George W. Bush as an example).

What the theologian is refering to by "the sense of the faithful" is that God speaks in the depths of conscience of every single human person.

If all people took the time to critically reflect upon a certain question in light of the voice speaking in the depths of conscience, we would all reach a consensus around some sort of conclusion.

To a liberal, a pope would ideally reserve solemn definitions to giving voice to this consensus as it emerges unless reaffirming a solemn definition already made.

Infallibility comes from Christ and not from the consensus of the Church according to Vatican I. That appears to clearly be a solemn definition.

But does any solemn definition say that what comes from Christ should be exercised without the consent of the Church?

On an issue like whether gay sex in a monogomous relationship open to child-rearing is morally licit, the critical question that each person must face in conscience is whether such a union is morally different than a marriage between a man and a woman that are infertile?

Some folks will want to answer such questions by appealing to something outside of their conscience - such as current Church teaching.

In response, the speculative theologian is merely pointing out that this teaching is not yet solemnly defined, and we cannot evade probing the depths of conscience by appealing to an external authority to resolve the question.

This emphatically does not mean the current teaching is wrong or untrue.

It merely means that the teaching is not yet certain to have reached infallible purity in its formulation. Thus, we can question it even to the point of seemingly changing it.

Further, we have to speculate the other extreme from the position I just presented as well.

What if Pope Paul VI was simply in error with his non-infallible opinion that natural family planning is morally licit in the exercise of "responsible parenthood"?

Prior to his teaching, the actual teaching of the Church seemed to be that any intentional engagement in non-reporductive sex was morally illicit.

Is it a sin for post-menopausal couples to express conjugal love?

Can infertile heterosexuals marry?

Is natural family planning as a morally licit option really dogmatically valid?

We must consider where our premises lead, as well as trying to understand what premises underlie the current formulation of a doctrine.

If our premises underlying the current teaching lead to absurd conclusions that conscience cannot accept, something needs to change - either conscience or the doctrine - both of which are in a constant state of development.

If our premises lead to contradictions and cognitive dissonance with more certain dogmatic principles, we also need to examine what needs to change in that situation too.

There are tests of natural reason that always must be applied to our understanding of dogma, even as we also apply the tests of scripture, tradition and the authority of the magisterium.

Underlying all of this, I believe the golden rule is the ultimate guide by which we test our speculations to ultimate conclusions.

Would acceptance of gay unions help or hinder me in treating others the way I want to be treated?

Would acceptance that the death penalty might be immoral help or hinder me in treating others the way I want to be treated?

Would acceptance that contraception might be morally licit in some specific instances help or hinder me in following the golden rule?

Does the practice of liberation theology help or hinder me in following the golden rule?

Does the current teaching, precisely as formulated today, help or hinder me in treating others the way I would want to be treated? Etc...

I have written a few times that a major indicator of my usual topic selection is exploring ways that Christians with power seemingly violate the golden rule justifying their behavior theologically or with a sort of "tough love" approach.

Minimizing the demands of dogma while being willing to take everything to it's logical extreme provides a means to make such critiques of power using God's name in vain.

It also allows me to occassionally challenege the arrogance of left leaning theologians who claim things with dogmatic certitude that cannot be certain - such as claiming not only that the empty tomb is not an article of faith, but that it is certain the corpse was left in a shallow grave to be eaten by dogs. That is not certain!

Ultimately, I believe the final test always remains the golden rule.

The golden rule points to our conscience, which the Church calls the aboriginal vicar of Christ.

If we hear the voice of God in the depths of conscience indicating that homosexual sex is intrinsically evil even in committed partnership open to child-rearing, and even with an assumption that the homosexual condition is not itself chosen, it would seem that we could express what we hear God saying in terms of natural reason in consonance with scripture and Church authority.

Nevertheless, the reasoning emerging from conscience would stand on its own to some degree without papal sanction, especially since this issue, and contraception, rely on natural law reasoning as part of their basis.

On an issue like the ordination of women, we are less constrained by natural law types of reasoning, because our theology of ordination is itself grounded in revelation and there is a content to this faith that is solemnly defined.

Yet, minimizing the demands of the dogma, we can raise the question whether it is absolutely necessary to imagine all ministerial priests as male.

In response, the Vatican merely takes the approach of maximizing the demands of dogma by appealing to "ordinary and universal magisterium" - but does so in a manner that would have made Lumen Gentium's theology of salvation outside of the Church impossible if ordinary and universal magisterium meant what is claimed.

Ordinary and universal magisterium cannot simply be what was commonly held for a long time and seemed to be uncritically accepted as universal.

Rather, ordinary and universal magisterium must involve something of what Vatican II implies in LG 25.2 of a collegial act - a conscience decision by the college of bishops dispersed throughout the world in union with the pope to make a decision after careful, and even critical consideration - to hold a doctrine definitively.

I am not denying that such a decision must also affirm some sort of principle already manifestly present in the tradition.

I am not even denying the "right" of traditional Catholics to pray the rosary and worship in Latin Masses, so long as they don't deny the genuine doctrinal developments appearing to be radical changes in doctrine at Vatican II.

I am merely saying that "what has always been done" is not sufficient evidence of infallibility by ordinary and universal magisterium.

If it were, Vatican II is a heretical "robber council" for what it says on salvation outside of the Church - and I think most Catholics know in conscience that this isn't true.

Ordinary and universal magisterium must be more deliberate than some of the claims made about it.

When can we say such a thing ever happened?

I would argue that when GS 27 condemned abortion - in a decree that passed the council by a vote of 2307 to 75 and then was approved by Paul VI, affirming a long standing non-solemnly defined tradition - we might have a clear manfifestation of ordinary and universal magisterium.

Even in saying this, is the infallible "essential holding" that abortion is immoral, or that killing an innocent human person is immoral?

It is easy to try to dismiss this question with a response of "both/and", and I am personally pro-life and vote pro-life.

Yet, the question must be raised whether the Church demands the assent of faith to the belief that an embryo is a human person, and the answer is that according to a CDF statement entitled Donum Vitae, no. 26, she makes no such claim.

On the abortion issue, the Church is careful to avoid saying dogmatically that an embryo is a human person or that abortion is "murder" in the strictest sense of the word.

Instead, the Church insists that the embryo is a human being, and that terminating the life of a human being intrinsically risks murdering a human person.

In a like manner, the teachings on the meaning of just war outlined in Gaudium et Spes that informed several bishops conferences in union with two popes now almost forty years later to condemn the United States invasion of Iraq, we have a clear manifestation of ordinary and universal magisterium to hold a certain doctrine about war definitively.

It may remain debatable exactly what portion of the teaching on just war is the infallible nugget and whether it was correctly applied to the American invasion of Iraq. I leave it to the dissenters to justify their dissent.

My point here is that I am not denying the existence of ordinary and universal magisterium as a vehicle for recognizing infallible truth.

Rather, my point is that infallible truth is a small nugget that we catch mere glimmers of without comprehending the whole, and there are strict criteria for finding the one or two sentences that contain it and interpreting those sentences.

And this is true of almost all Church teaching.

If we were to summarize what is solemnly defined staying as close as possible to the core nuggets that cannot change, we wind up basically with a general notion that scripture is divinely inspired, the creeds, some simple statements affirming the seven sacraments, two marian dogmas, the intercession of saints and existence of purgatory, the infallibility of the pope and councils in strict circumstances, and maybe the golden rule with a special emphasis on avoiding the direct killing of innocent human persons.

The further we move from these core principles, the less certain we are on "infallible" grounds.

Don't get me wrong when I speak of minimizing the demands of dogma either. When we purify dogma by extracting the one or two sentences of a solemn definition and open our minds to all possibilities of the meanings each word employed, a dogma becomes like a diamond that sparkles with new beauty and looks different from different angles.

To see this beauty, you have to clean the crud from around the dogma. The beauty of dogma considered simply can distract sometimes from "hot button" issues.

Most of the "hot button" issues that get debated today are not in these core dogmas: women's ordination, married priests, gay unions, contraception, abortion, social justice doctrines such as living wages, just war doctrine, the death penalty and so forth are not solemnly defined.

The empty tomb seems to me to fall in this category.

I outlined three initial reasons for hammering the theme that this specific notion is not "infallible" in my comments.

First, once one accepts that the bodiliy resurrection of Christ could occur without an empty tomb, it has an apologetic advantage in that it doesn't pin me into proving the existence of something I cannot prove - and it even allows me to cling fast to the faith should counter-evidence arise.

Second, I indicated that I am concerned about the heresy hunters who roam about the Church like the pharisees who tried to trip up Jesus. It is uncharitable to be seeking ways and means to demonstrate that other Catholics are outright denying the faith.

Third, I indicated that I was aiming for a point of accuracy - of "orthodoxy" of all things.

If it isn't an infallible dogma at this point in time to give the assent of faith to the existence of an empty tomb, it is simply an error to claim it is an infallible dogma.

It's the type of error made by Feeney or Lefebvre that can lead to more trouble than the dissidents like Rahner, Schillibeeckx, or Congar.

I then added a fourth reason for my adamance on this point in that I find it spiritually valuable to consider that God may reveal himself in more mysterious ways than physical signs that hit us over the head as indisputable, and that maybe the experience of coming to faith by the early disciples was not entirely dissimilar to our own coming to faith in the year 2006.

Yet, even in stating all of this, I affirmed that I intellectually believe the tomb was empty and pointed out rational evidence supported by scripture to support that intellectual opinion. I believe in the empty tomb even if I don't give it the assent of faith.

There is a deposit of faith which could be said to be all that Christ really and truly is. Christ gives himself to us in the Church. This is an "objective truth" in the sense that Christ exists apart from or prior to my own existence.

I am not a relativist in the sense of claiming that there is no such thing as absolute truth, or that we cannot reach an infallible certainty of the truth.

It is not relativism in the sense of an absolute denial of truth that I am advocating.

Rather, what I am advocating after the collosal changes of Vatican II is a humility before the truth that says that even though I know objective truth exists, I am not personally certain I understand it all, and neither is the Roman Catholic Church as a collective body.

Oh. We may already possess the fullness of truth God wishes to reveal.

Yet, some of that truth is only grasped by us in the present moment in a seminal form that needs further development - just as we understand salvation outside of the Church a little better today than we did in the year 1445 at the Council of Florence.

We may already possess the fullness of truth God wishes to reveal in a manner more excellent than any other world religion, but there is a vast field of truth that we do not know or know only in fragments.

The one-eyed man is king in a land of the blind, but that doesn't mean that his vision as good as the two-eyed man, especially if he has a stigmatism in that one eye!

This is all extremely abstract, but I am trying to emphasize that this abstract exploration of the limits of dogma and what can be known with infallible certainty touches on every aspect of our life of faith.

Even in dealing with a fellow Catholic morning the loss of a family member, it is often better to share the pain of a little uncertainty with the other than to meet deep grief with pat answers and smug certainties.

Eventually, if the second coming does not come first, we may even know with infallible certainty whether pets go to heaven if that is your most urgent concern.

In the meantime, the answer of the theologians is honestly that we don't know, and some arguments can be presented on both sides of the debate and you can weigh these various arguments in conscience if you need a personal resolution.

There was once a time when theolgians were highly regarded, and the more speculative, the better.

Some are still considered authorities, such as Aquinas or Bonaventure who were never even bishops, much less popes.

Sometimes the theologians do get caught up a bit too much arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of the pin, and Ockham's razor, some epistemological humility, and teachings against idolatry are a healthy antidote to interject from time to time.

Running through the same three or four "reasons" I pushed the issue of the empty tomb, we can apply almost the same reasons to any issue.

Gay sex: 1) You don't need to lose your faith trying to defend current Church teaching on this issue even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the teaching might contain error mixed with truth. 2) Be on guard against pharisees hunting uncharitably to divide the Church over this issue by kicking people with questions out hastily. 3) Stick accurately to the Church's own admissions that the current teaching is not infallible in the sense of being solemnly defined, even if you believe the current teaching is fairly accurate and you want to provide evidence it may be right. 4) Consider what it might mean to your spirituality if God does bless gay unions.

Women's ordination: 1) You don't need to lose faith if overwhelming evidence emerged that there was a woman apostle. 2) Be on guard against heresy hunters seeking to squash the debate. 3) Stick exactly to what Pope Benedict has said on the issue - that there is no solemn definition and that John Paul presented a case for infallibility by ordinary and universal magisterium, and 4) What would it mean to your spirituality should a future pope decide John Paul was simply mistaken and the doctrine and discipline appeared to change.

I could go on and on through every hot button issue and a few that are not such hot button issues.

What I am driving at is a path towards understanding THAT Church teaching often does seem to radically change even as something remains unchanging underneath the appearence.

I am also outlining HOW we can be best prepared for the changes that might occur - namely by advising that we make it part of our habit to consider the possibilities of extreme positions that we tend to think "off limits" even if there is no reason to consider the topic "off limits".

I am also opening the mind to WHY Christ might want us to change sometimes, as he did with salvation outside of the Church, slavery and other issues.

I am also providing in advance the apologetic for the change IF it ever occurred, and in that sense, far from weakening faith by raising questions that seem a diversion, faith is being strengthened.

The path is simple: minimize the demands of of dogma demanding the assent of faith, and mentally toy with the extreme positions of all the rest.

It's an abstract exercise, but it has a concrete application to everything touching your life of faith down to whether your non-Catholic relatives can be saved, or whether you can contracept in good conscience, or what to think of your gay friends, or how to talk to an atheist, or even whether you can believe that your dead pet is in heaven.

A reader criticized intellectuals for being drawn to the provocative like moths to a flame.

Well, if grace builds on nature, and it is the nature of an intellectual to be drawn to the provocative like a moth to a flame, shouldn't the provocative be explored by those drawn to the flame by nature?

If the exploration bears no fruit, that will eventually be known with no permanent damage to the Church, which will survive until Christ returns.

If there is a practical application to the abstract exercise of distinguishing sharply the infallible from the non-infallible that touches on everything involving the life of faith for a Roman Catholic, then let the intellectual do what nature and grace compel her or him to do without criticizing her or him for doing what seems to come natural to him or her.

True, not everyone will be interested in such abstract exercises, but do not fault those who find such exercises both practical and exciting for doing what comes naturally to them.

And to the topic heading of this post, it is obvious that there is a sense that Church teaching changes, even as it stays the same.

For what it's worth, my non-infallible opinion is that your deceased pet is in heaven.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Interesting Statistics

EWTN posted a short summary of statistics regarding the Church in Poland. The country is 95.8 percent Catholic and has approximately one priest or bishop for every 1275 other Catholics. The number of Catholics in formal Catholic education facilities is less than one percent of the total population.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Dionne on Rove's new Role

It is his last two lines to pay attention to: "Hold on for the new Swift Boaters, coming soon to your swing state. It's not the politics dreams are made of, but it often works."

Rove is getting back into campaign work.

To the American voter: When negative rumors seem to surface out of nowhere about any candidate running against a Rove candidate, a pattern is playing out.

There will always be a plausible deniability by Rove's candidate that he or she had anything to do with the origins of the rumor, and the candidate will then say he or she is against whatever the negative rumor is about.

It goes like this: "Is [female candidate] a lesbian?" starts getting whispered in the columns and cocktail parties and blogs and talk radio.

Rove's candidate then says something like "[female candidate]'s personal life is not important to this election, and I know nothing about her personal life. I support the traditional family."

When you hear the whispers, they will have absolutely,, positively no basis in fact, but only if you have paid attention to how this keeps happening wherever Rove has a hand would you know that.

And to this day, Rove will deny this pattern of his campaigns exists, but it is demonstrable that the pattern is thetre in one hundred percent of the elections he has been involved in, starting even in his college days.

The rumors are coupled with more overt negative campaigning on the issues, and candidates who stay on message no matter what is asked.

So, the bottom line is that if you hear any slightest whiff of a rumor that any candidate opposing a Rove candidate has any baggage - like an explosive temper or is in trouble with the FBI, or has bugged an office, or might be a pedophile, or acted cowardly on a battle field (all real examples, by the way, as was the lesbian example), you can be reasonably certain that you are hearing utter lies and that Rove's candidate will deny participating in these lies.

Voters beware as we head into this November's elections.


John Allen's Word From Rome

Allen provides some great insights into the Pope's theme for Holy Week and his first year as Pope.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another Resurrection Homily

This short piece by Fr. Phillip Powell was recommended by a reader in my comments. I hesitated to post it for one simple reason. It is a single line in the homily that got under my skin:

..., do you believe in 2006 that a man who hung on a cross, who was dead and buried for three days, has somehow sprung to live and walked away from his grave?
It's the words "walked away from the grave" that disturb me.

Is that really what I believe? Is that really what the doctrine of resurrection requires me to believe?

I know I am opening a whole can of worms here, but where in the New Testament does it say Jesus walked away from the grave?

I'm nitpicking, and I am aware that I am nitpicking, but this nit bugs me.

The resurrected Christ is said to "walk" along-side the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but then he disappears from their midst in a manner that implies he did not merely walk away.

As far as I know, this is the only reference in the New Testament to the resurrected Christ walking at all - anywhere!

The resurrected Christ appears through locked doors or comes out of nowhere at times - often unrecognizable to even his closest followers. He doesn't walk around as though he is constrained by the laws of physics.

The resurrection of Christ - even dogmatically said to be a bodily resurrection - is emphatically not a resuscitated corpse!

Other than this minor nitpicking, the homily is OK.


Does Church Attendance Lengthen Life-Span?

A physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has published a study that indicates weekly church attendance extends life expectancy better than cholesterol lowering drugs, and almost as much as regular exercise.

The physician also happens to be an Episcopal priest and peers accuse him of bias. In response, he states that his method is sound and that while he may have a bias, his research warrants further research.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pope Benedict's Urbi et Orbi Message on Easter Sunday

A nice meditation on the resurrection from our Holy Father.


Something I'm Having Trouble Articulating Even to Myself...

Over Lent, Cardinal Mahoney seemed to emerge as a voice of moral clarity, despite the abuse scandals, on an issue that galvanized many Catholics - immigration policy.

My own 18 month daughter participated in her first political protest with many fellow parishioners.

She held a sign saying "Don't criminalize our parents" and learned to chant"Si se puede" with the crowd - meaning, "Yes you can".

She enjoyed it tremedously, even if she hadn't a clue what it was all really about.

I also attended a lecture by Gary Wills on one of his latest books, What Jesus Meant.

I also read the book, which I recommend, though I finished it hungry for more.

Wills argues that anyone claiming the politics of Jesus misunderstands Jesus.

There is no politics of Jesus, according to Wills, and the question, "What would Jesus do?" is absurd, since Jesus is God and his followers are not.

He provides plenty of New Testament texts to support the idea that we cannot possibly imitate Jesus without falling into blasphemy.

I confess that I may not fully comprehend Wills' position even after hearing him live and reading the book.

He seems to interpret "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's" as meaning that we almost ignore the state while we are busy building the reign of God, which is simply not a political reality.

Unless we can base a political argument on nothing but natural human reason, we should make no political arguments.

If a political case is founded on natural reason, it is idolatrous and blasphemous to claim it comes from God.

On the other hand, if our politics are rational, by definition, it belongs to Caesar, and we give it to him while our main focus is elsewhere.

Wills seems to argue that if we follow Jesus' teachings as humble disciples, instead of trying to imitate him, the demands of social justice will fall right into place. Indeed, we'll exceed those demands.

There is something to Wills' rhetoric that appeals to me, and yet something I find uncomfortable.

As I reflected on his little devotional over Lent, I realized that when I first started blogging, I was less interested in convincing Bush supporters that Bush does evil then convincing Bush supporters to stop saying everyone else is an evil-doer.

I sort of lost focus, and maybe that is why I needed a break.

Back in 2003, when I started blogging, one could easily reach the conclusion through Catholic blogs that the Catholic Church saw all Democrats or liberals or progressives as Molech worshipers offering fetuses on the altar of abortion - people who should be denied communion if claiming to be Catholic, because they have the hidden agenda of godless gay nazis and lesbian brownshirts, or feminist goddess worshipers advocating women's ordination, or they are tacit allies of evil-doing Islamic terrorists, or atheistic communists.

And lest one think I am making all of this up, exaggerating, demonizing others and over-reacting, I can supply links to more conservative and far more popular Catholic blogs than mine who have explicitly used every term I just typed describing their political foes, whether their foes were Catholics or non-Catholics.

Most of these Catholics also supported the invasion of Iraq, and a few mixed Bush's logo with the religious symbols on their blogs, and Evangelical Protestant Christians shared the fun.

Wills and I agree that there is simply no possible way to justify the invasion of Iraq based on the teachings of Jesus.

Wills enjoys taking pot shots at the religious right probably more than I do, and pointing out how those claiming Christian support for a neoconservative agenda are distorting the Gospel in ways that are almost obvious even to the non-scholar.

Yet, he warns the left just as sharply to avoid claiming Jesus in support of their own politics as well.

I'm a little bit troubled by that, though I'm not sure if I am troubled because I know he's ultimately mostly right, or because I think he might be somewhat mistaken in the precise way he puts it.

Others in the audience struggled with this as well.

This was a predominantly liberal audience - though many voiced that they want to learn how to really love conservatives, which is a sign of hope to all, I would hope.

Yet, we were all troubled by the idea that Jesus is as far beyond politics as Wills claims - though we know that it is sort of absurd to think a 2,000 year old text addresses every political question in twenty-first century America.

Several people asked, "What about the Berrigans?...What about Dorothy Day?...What about Martin Luther King, Jr?....What about Pope Benedict's own opposition to war?...Where does social justice fit in here?"

Wills would reiterate that there is no politics of Jesus, and the demands of Christianity are internal, and the question of what Jesus would do is absurd, and we need to focus on what he meant, and politics must be rational.

I don't think it helps Wills that he scoffed at some pro-lifers as irrational during the lecture - as though the consistent ethic of life argument has no logical and rational merit apart from faith.

Wills kept going back to the point that politics must be based on reason, and asserted that Dan Berrigan was his good friend who never claimed to be a Christian, per se, but instead self-defined as "a would be Christian" involved in politics.

He continued to assert that the demands of discipleship are so lofty and so high that if we get anywhere near being a good disciple, the demands of mere social justice will easily fall into place.

Yet, doesn't that mean that being a Christian has an impact on your politics?

And during this last holy week, I meditated on why Jesus died.

Yet, intrinsically woven into the question of why Jesus died is the question, "Why was Jesus killed?"

Jesus threatened someone enough that they wanted him killed - and killed with religious and political sanction. He did not die of old age or natural causes or even a random act of violence.

The New Testament paints the picture that it was rival groups of religious authorities, the Herodian court, and ultimately Pontius Pilate representing Caesar that had Jesus killed, either by their direct acts of commission or their conscious and deliberate omissions.

Jesus somehow was either a political and/or religious threat, or was worth sacrificing in his executioners' minds for some sort political and religious expedience or advantage.

In a word, his actions had political consequences no matter what he intended, and no matter whether he was divine or not, and no matter what he taught.

The Church too, avoids overt political stands these days, and constantly reminds us the kingdom of God is not of this world - a very similar point to Wills despite Wills' often valid critiques of the hierarchy.

I accept that the reign of God is not ultimately of this world and will not reach its final fullfilment until the eschaton.

But isn't it breaking into our reality here and now,...,through the One who holds the power of life over death that we celebrate this easter season,...,isn't the reign of God breaking into our own lives and eastering within us?

Despite efforts to avoid overt politics, doesn't the Church seem to have something to say addressing almost every political question one could imagine?

If it isn't always clear what the Church is saying politically, it is clear she is saying something political, at least in abstract principle.

Doesn't Wills also hold political opinions - partly shaped by what Jesus means to him?

I don't know what it is I'm trying to articulate.

On the one hand, I agree with Wills that we ultimately need to avoid judging one another based on political disagreements.

Christianity is first and foremost an inclusive community built on an overwhelming experience of love and mercy that we simply cannot keep to ourselves.

If we are judging one another rashly over politics, we're losing our way.

It does seem obvious Jesus left room for legitimate debate among the disciples about worldly matters.

I see little conflict between reason and faith, and am willing to appeal to reason without appealing to faith in realms where reason establishes a common ground.

God gave us the gift of reason and politics is a proper realm to use this gift.

I agree with Wills that we cannot imitate Jesus exactly, though I believe Wills is incorrect to say we don't try in certain ways.

As remembered in the Gospels, Jesus taught us to imitate him explicitly in such moments as washing the disciples feet. He says we will be called friends, rather than servants.

I agree that there is an interiority to all authentic religious experience and that Jesus criticized irrelevant formalism creeping into religion.

I agree that the primary marks of discipleship are the coporal works of mercy summed up in chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, free the prisoner,....

On the other hand, it seems to me that it is erroneous to imply that the Christian retreats from the world, claims no political opinions except in cold, rationalistic terms, and almost avoids confrontation with secular culture while busying him or herself solely with church matters.

It is true that "church matters" can lead to political reform.

The sort of inclusive Jesus that Wills envisions would embrace gays and women in the church community through concrete acts of love.

These radical acts of love would shake some political and cultural opinions within the community of faith, without ever explictly refering to political platforms or saying anything to outsiders.

The kind of Jesus Wills envisions would have something to say to ecclesial leaders who cover for sex abusers in their midst while being almost silent about unjust wars.

Were this critique of religious authority effective at invoking change in the hearts of church leaders, it would lead to both political and religious reform without ever speaking directly to outsiders.

What is bothering me is that the way Wills puts it, it seems to me an excuse to separate the secular and the religious spheres so sharply that our lives are divided.

It has the ring of all those who want to privatize religion to the point where the Church has no place at all in the public square.

We could easily wind up with a sweet and sacharine Jesus who comforts us from unpleasant feelings, but never challenges us to go out of ourselves.

The Church could become an opiate to the masses, rather than a shot of adreneline for the oppressed: salt that has lost its flavor and is good for nothing but to be thrown underfoot,...,a light hidden under a bushel basket,...,lukewarm water to be spewn out,....

It is as though we are not called to go out two by two and share discipleship with others in every nation.

Are we not leaven? Are we not called to be change agents in the culture?

As an example of his point, Wills argues that Jesus' teaching that we pray to our Father in secret is intrinsically opposed to school prayer.

That strikes me as a bit anachronistic.

Maybe this teaching sort of is a warning of the dangers of such public reliousity if we mean forced Christian prayer -or any forced prayer - or even any heartless or vain and repetitious prayer.

Does the teaching exclude a moment of silence so that those who want to pray can do so in the cell of the heart, even if simply repeating "God, have mercy on me a sinner" over and over while fearing to look up to heaven - like the tax collector Jesus holds up as an example?

Did Jesus forbid his disciples from praying in public in an absolute sense, such that whatever is being described in stories of exorcisms and healing by the disciples occured through unspoken wishes or telekinesis?

That simply doesn't ring true to what I see in the New Testament.

It seems to me that Christianity converts the whole person - including our outlook on politics and culture, as well as family life, relationships and internal disposition.

As Jim Wallis argues in God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong, and the Left Doesn't Get It, faith is personal, but never private.

We shouldn't imply otherwise.

I fear Wills does imply otherwise, whether he meant to or not.

Has anyone else read this book or heard Wills speak on this?


How to Talk to Democrats About Euthanasia

This feature article for the conservative magazine, Crisis, is actually written by a board member of "Democrats for Life", Eric Pavlat, who self-defines as "a convert from pro-choice agnosticism".

This thought provoking article can be seen as Part II of a contribution he made to Crisis in October of 2005 on How to talk to Democrats about abortion.


Commonweal Advocates for Life of Moussaoui

Being a staunch opponent of the death penalty, I am already biased against the death penalty for Moussaoui.

The argument presented in this Commonweal editorial is less a general critique of the death penalty, and based more on the specifics of this case.

The gist is that Moussaoui was obviously not part of the 9/11 attacks since he was in jail already on that day.

The editorial goes on to state that there is no solid evidence he truly knew of the 9/11 plot. Even if he did know of the plot, he had no legal obligation to reveal what he knew, since the Constitution protects one from offering self-incriminating testimony.

Further, there is no reason to believe that had he revealed the plot ahead of time, anyone would have taken him seriously at that time.

The editorial argues that while he may deserve a life sentence without parole, his actual crimes are not a capitol offense.


Easter Always: by Leo J O'Donovan

This meditation on the meaning of the resurrection for NCR is very nice.


Monday, April 17, 2006