Monday, August 31, 2009

The Assumption of Mary and Revelation 12

I was reading a homily given by one of my priests in his homily for the Assumption of Mary a few Saturdays ago, and he talked about how men look for wives like their mothers. And he used this to explain the connection between Mary (the Mother of God) and the Church (the Bride of Christ), which I thought was a fascinating point. He then said:
For example in today's introit from the St. John's Book of Revelation [Rev 12:1]: "A great sign appeared in the heaven, a woman clothed in the sun..." Some would say that this woman is the Church; others would say it’s Mary; but the Catholic tradition has always seen this as referring to both Mary and the Church. Because Mary, the Mother of the Bridegroom, is the archetype, or the model of what the Church is called to be. The Church, and each member of the Church, is called to be like Mary: full of faith and love, chaste and holy, and full of grace.

Of course, the Church is both human and divine, and the human elements in the Church are rather imperfect. Yet, as Father explained, Christ's expectations of us are not (and cannot be) unrealistic. But to help us along the way, He also gave us His Mother as an additional gift upon the Cross (see John 19:26-27; Revelation 12:17):
But also, because, like a perfect mother of the bridegroom should, at the time of the wedding, Mary became not just a mother-in-law, but a real mother to her son's wife. When Christ hung on the Cross in the middle of his greatest act of nuptial love for his bride, his Church, he turned to Mary and gave her as mother to his bride. And so she loves the bride as her own daughter.

Well said, Father!

Assurance of Salvation and the Sin of Presumption

One of the most misunderstood parts of Catholicism is the notion of the sin of presumption. Protestants who are big on "assurance of salvation" often claim that Catholics can't know that they're saved, because to do so would be the "sin of presumption," as understood by the Church. Then, they trot out Bible verses like 1 John 5:13, which says the following: "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God."

And if they understood the sin of presumption, this would be a good argument (and in fact, it is a good argument to convince misinformed Catholics to turn their back on authentic Catholic teaching). But the sin of presumption isn't saying "I'm saved." The sin of presumption is saying, "No matter what the future holds, I'm saved." If you believe in Once Saved, Always Saved (OSAS), this distinction probably makes no sense - so it's reasonable that even well-intentioned Protestants would misunderstand this notion (particularly since lots of Catholics seem misinformed or ignorant of it).

If we truly believe in Jesus Christ, and are in a right relationship to Him, we can say with 100% assurance, "I'm saved." Not only is there no sin there, but it's foundational to effective evangelization: someone who isn't saved can rarely be an effective servant of the Gospel. But since Catholics reject OSAS, we think that just because you're in a right relationship with God now, and just because God is faithful, you can still be unfaithful. Saying, "no matter what the future holds, I'm guaranteed a spot in Heaven," is wrong not because it puts too much Faith in God, but because it puts too much faith in ourselves.

In fact, we see the evidence of this in 1 John 5:13 itself, given how John explains his purpose: "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God." So John says that those who believe in the name of Jesus have eternal life - now. But he's still writing to them so that they will continue to believe. This only makes sense if it's possible that they won't continue to believe. And note that his scope is narrow, he's writing "to you who believe in the name of the Son of God," that is, those currently saved.

So, in short, the sin of presumption is not saying "you who believe in the name of the Son of God ... may know that you have eternal life." It's saying "you who believe in the name of the Son of God ... are assured that you will always continue to believe in the name of the Son of God, no matter what."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Are So Many Catholics Leaving the Church?

That's the question that InsideCatholic posed last year to a long list of luminaries: the bishops of Orlando and Baker, Oregon; the Archbishop of San Antonio, the auxiliary bishop of San Diego, the late Bob Novak, Senator Sam Brownback, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. (founder of Ignatius Press, the single best Catholic press, bar none), Mark Shea, Thomas Peters of American Papist, Elizabeth Scalia of The Anchoress and sometimes First Things, Steve Skojec, etc.

It's sparked an incredible discussion: you can read all of the contributions here (one-page version here). And their answers were almost uniformly excellent. There were a few exceptions: Bishop Cordileone's response (although I suspect very well-intentioned), reads as if having a cultural Catholic identity is what's most important -- I suspect my problem may be that I'm not sure I understand what he's driving at. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's answer was basically that churches were still full due to incoming immigrants, an answer which downplays a real problem, treats human souls as if they're interchangable, and acts as those immigrantion is the same as conversion (an influx of primarily Hispanic Catholics hides the cold facts that the Pew study suggests). Bishop Wenski warns of this exact error when he says that for churches in Florida (and I suspect something similar is true for southern Texas, where Cordileone is archbishop):
Our pews are full because of the continuing influx of people to our area, either
from the North (the snowbirds moving to a warmer climate) or from the South
(Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean). It is
tempting to glibly dismiss the Pew study. However, given the constant arrival of
newcomers, we might not as easily notice the members who quietly defect.

Still, on the whole, the answers are quite good: cultural shifts (Americans in general are less religious than they were a generation ago), increasingly bloated American egos (trying to make religion more about "us," and finding churches, or abstract forms of spirituality, to accommodate that narcissism), the media portrayal of Vatican II and some of the ways that it was implemented in the US context, and so on. The people responding, for the most part, seem to have their pulse on American Catholicism in a way that secular journalism simply doesn't.

Some of the best answers, in my opinion (in no particular order):
*1*Bob Lockwood, director for communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, noted that we don't teach young adults apologetics anymore. Not only are they denied the tools of conversion, but they don't even have the intellectual mooring to defend the Faith when it's inevitably attacked. As a result, scores of young adults leave the Faith (usually in their 20s), many never to return.

*2*Ronald J. Rychlak, associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law, says that church leaders are selling the flocks short in other ways, too. When you describe all religions as basically equal, and put all your emphasis on "being a good person," there's no reason to become (or stay Catholic). Dean Rychlak concludes by saying that " the Church needs to ask more of us, not less. Most people are pretty strong when they are assigned a task and know that others expect them to meet it. Most of us tend, however, not to be particularly good at self-motivation. I'd like to see the bishops pick up the challenge, ask more of the people, and develop a more robust Catholicism."

*3*Mark Shea places blame where it is richly deserved:

Indeed, much of our present predicament seems to me to proceed precisely because of our bishops' stunning obliviousness to the needs of the flock and their over-attention to world methods of navigation. When the flock cried for justice in the matter of the rape of their children, our bishops heard only the counsel of lawyers and psychologists, not the bleedin'-obvious testimony of the Tradition. When the faithful begged for decent catechesis, a generation got "Cut, Color, and Draw," not formation in the Tradition. When the pope tried to make Catholic universities teach the Catholic faith, our bishops labored with might and main to make certain that Ex Corde Ecclesia was dead on arrival, lest we learn the Tradition.

In each case, however, the problem has not been with the Church not knowing what to do. It has only been with the Church not liking what it had to do: namely, preach the gospel in season and out of season. That is what the flock needs, what it has ever needed: a Church that preaches and lives the Tradition of the Apostles. If we live it, they will come.


*4*Fr. Dwight Longenecker, chaplain of St Joseph's Catholic School, makes a pretty convincing argument that the Church correctly identified the problem -- people were feeling disconnected from the Mass, and then provided the wrong remedy. Instead of addressing the personal needs of the flock, they tried to address what they understood to be the communal needs, so many in the Church started leading the way on social issues, even on issues where either side could be held in good faith. The result was only to further alienate people: after all, few people show up to weekly Mass, but far fewer show up to weekly ACLU meetings... and besides, if people wanted a place to talk current events and forment political action, those itches can get scratched elsewhere, while the need to feel spiritually connected to, and loved by, God is best met in the Mass (particularly, in the Mass done correctly).

Fr. Longenecker also notes that much of the attempt to become more relevant was done by mimicking Protestantism, but not the things that Protestantism does well. So instead of powerful, moving homilies (which many Protestant churches do quite well), we got folk music which badly mimicked what was going on either at the Protestant church down the road, or the hippies' campsite.

*5*In a lengthy response worth the read, Todd M. Aglialoro, editor of Sophia Institute Press, describes how many Catholics, all too often deprived of the authentic Faith by bad cathechesis, bad homilies, and bad liturgies, are drawn like moths to Evangelism, where they see a faith that means something. His conclusion for the Church is that:
A Catholicism that sets before its believers a broad and strict test of moral and doctrinal adherence will keep its members. A Catholicism that is reduced (and often it is so, ironically, in order not to scare folks away) to "being a good person" will lose them.

*6*Catholic blogger Rich Leonardi provides examples that support Aglialoro's claim: the Denver diocese, under the auspice of the almost unparalleled Bp. Chaput, is growing quite well: over half of Catholics polled considered themselves "fervent" or "faithful" in their belief, and their weekly Mass attendance is well above average, although still not ideal. Meanwhile, the "inverse of Denver is Rochester, whose shepherd, Bishop Matthew Clark, serves the same weak tea as the mainline Protestant denominations. There, Mass attendance is in a free-fall, dropping almost 20 percent since 2000."

*7*Many of the commentators noted the methodological shortcoming of a survey: even the most perfect survey could only tell you quantity, not quality. And given that the Pew survey which sparked this discussion was based on self-reporting, it tells you much less: someone calling themselves "Catholic" tells you nothing about their religious fervor, Mass attendance, morality, or lifestyle. Cultural Catholics who stopped attending after First Communion, but never embaced another religion: are they Catholics or ex-Catholics? And if they never practiced the Faith, how can they be considered to have left it? For many of them, Baptism and First Communion were the two times they may have darkened the doorstep of a church throughout childhood. Thomas Peters makes the case that as a group, practicing Catholics today, deprived of the Catholic ghetto in most parts of the country, are more faithful, simply because practicing the Faith requires more courage than it did in, say, early 20th century Boston. Bob Novak described how those leaving the Faith usually have little idea of Her teachings on fundamental issues, while those entering the Faith are usually vibrant "Catholics by choice" who know why they believe.

My Own Take.
I really liked what I gleaned from all of the above (and much more which I didn't mention), and I thought that the point that Aglialoro and Leonardi made is very sound. From virtually everything I've read, the more orthodox a parish, diocese, etc., is, the more people will enter and stay within in. On the other hand, the watered-down Faith appeals to very few. One of my priests, Fr. Belli, puts it like this: "In World War II, due to shortages and the number of wounded men, they watered down the penicillin to try and stretch it further. The result was that it didn't work for anyone." I think it captures the problem perfectly: a Faith that requires nothing from anyone isn't worth the effort of going to Mass.

Think about it this way, in the context of "be a good person" cathechesis that treats all religious views as fundamentally equal. Would you rather "be a good person" and have required Holy Days of Obligation, Lenten fasts, avoid premarital sex and birth control (even after you're married), and so forth, or would you rather "be a good person" and live a life of hedonism? There's a correct answer to the question, and then there's the answer that a countless number of young people are choosing. Particularly if you've never heard a homily explaining the importance of Lenten fasts or Holy Days of Obligation, and if you've never learned why the Church teaches against birth control and fornication, the answer seems deceptively easy: why do more work than required if you just need to be a "good person" to go to Heaven? And with that, you've just lost another Catholic.

Where Do We Go From Here?
It seems to me that Catholic teachers and clergy have two responsibilities: raise the dismally-low bar set for Catholics today, and start teaching the Catholic Faith. When teachers in Catholic schools are non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and dissident ex-clergy, the odds of getting a Catholic education in the schools declines. When the priest would rather be liked than right, the homilies become suspect. The thing is, the things which are uncomfortable to preach on - purgatory, Hell, homosexuality, abortion, papal infallibility, women's ordination, etc. - are uncomfortable for a reason, namely, that they're unpopular. But they're not just unpopular among Catholics - non-Catholics often see this beliefs as oddities, absurdities, or worse. So when a priest or religious education teacher refuses to teach on the topic, or teaches something wrong on the topic, they're doing a supreme disservice to young people: sending them out unprepared, where they will be attacked on these issues. Just because many in the Church are too timid to speak on the Church's teachings on homosexuality, those who are hostile to the Church harbor no such timidity. Expect young adults (and increasingly, children), to be grilled by peers on why the Church teaches x. Without priests and religious educators supporting them, these young adults are easy prey for Fundamentalists (who do know what they believe, and aren't afraid or ashamed of it) or atheists (who have become increasingly vocal "evangelists" for faithlessness).

Or to put it another way. Someone, inquiring or hostile, is going to raise some tough questions about the Catholic Faith. Maybe it'll be in a friendly way, maybe it'll be angry. This can be either an opportunity for evangelism, or an opening salvo that destroys a weak faith. And the questions will be posed to untrained laypeople, most likely: a strange sense of decorum prevents all but the most brazen from assaulting the Church in front of priests. If the Church in America is going to thrive, it needs to prepare Her laypeople to answer these questions and respond. And at this point, we're still only talking defense. Ideally, we'd have waves of laymen and women so on fire for their Faith that they are always "ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks [them] for a reason for [their] hope," while maintaining a sense of gentleness and reverence, which keeps their consciences clear (1 Peter 3:15-16).

I don't claim to have a full answer to the problem, nor is a lack of religious education the only problem. Bishop Wenski points out that the Catholic immigrants who built a good part of this nation a century ago were poorly educated in the Faith (and everything else, as schooling was sometimes slow to catch up with mobile immigrants, and industrial workers had little time for school or cathechesis), yet they remained loyal and devoted to the Faith and to their local parish. He's right, of course. But in modern times, with Catholic assimilation and new threats from secularism and the New Atheism (along with more familiar challenges, like Protestant evangelists, modernism, and simple selfishness), having the tools of Faith seems more indispensible than ever.

I'm interested in what others have to say on this topic. I don't think any of us will capture the full problem and solution in one take, but I think all of us can provide a unique perspective, and a unique piece to the puzzle (whether one is looking at the Catholic Church from the inside or the outside, really).

Senator Edward Kennedy, RIP

Two Kennedys in a very short time have died, which has to be a sort of heart-wrenching 1-2 combo for a family that's used to its share of tragedy. There's little or nothing I can say on this blog that hasn't been said elsewhere, but it's worth repeating that you should keep the late Senator and his family in your prayers. I try and avoid speaking any ill of the dead, but I also dislike dishonest hagiography.

If you're interested in what Catholics are saying on the subject, Patrick Madrid and Frank Beckwith have been sparring against the uber-liberal "Catholic" weekly America. Pat explains the backstory here, and the comments on America's site were worth the read. Because a lot of Pat Madrid friends and readers were commenting on America's blog, they, combined with the regular America readers, created an interesting cross-pollination. Non-Catholics can take a peek into the world of intra-religious squabbling, for better or for worse: there's the usual internet snark, unfortunately, and the basic question is, "Should a man who was proudly, avowedly, even fanatically, pro-choice be honored by a Catholic publication, if his record was fantastically Catholic in numerous other areas, like immigration, concern for the poor and sick, etc.?" It's a question worth asking, and I'm happy to leave it up to them to answer.

There's an uglier question that has to be asked as well: should the late Senator be given a Catholic funeral? The two sides of the coin are either no, because to do so would scandalize the faith, and make it seem that a Catholic can hold the values that he is publicly known for holding; or yes, because he showed at least some signs of repentence (lots of time spent praying and with his priest) before he died, and because to deny him a Catholic funeral could itself create scandal. The canon law in question, if you're curious (by curious, I mean "nerdy"), is 1983 CIC 1184 -- not everyone baptized Catholic is entitled to a Catholic funeral. Famed canonist Ed Peters says Kennedy should get a Catholic funeral, but notes in passing that Obama shouldn't be giving the eulogy, which apparently, he will be doing. Regardless of the correct interpretation of 1983 CIC 1184, the canon is rarely enforced by Catholic bishops anyways: they allowed a joint Catholic funeral for Steven Sueppel and the wife and children he murdered on Easter. So I'm going to go with Ed Peters here: Kennedy should get a Catholic funeral, but allowing the non-Catholic president the chance to do the eulogy risks turning it from a religious into a political event.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Twelve Important Differences Between Catholics and Orthodox

...from an Eastern Orthodox revert to Catholicism (that is, raised Catholic, became EO for four years, and reverted to Catholicism).

This list is excellent, and the comments are worth reading. The blog's author is very fond of the Eastern Orthodox still, and presents their arguments with their full weight (to the point that Patrick Madrid got worried he still believed these things). It's irenic, and some intelligent Catholic and Eastern Orthodox posters have added interesting addendum at the bottom.

There are other issues, as well, particularly in regards to moral theology. Although the Orthodox stand tough on abortion, their views on birth control are weak, and their stance on divorce is just wrong, in that they will consecrate re-marriages while the de-spoused is still alive (in other words, they'll bless adultery in the Church).

All that said, they remain the "other lung" of Apostolic Christianity, to borrow JPII's phrase.

Under the Weather!

I'm not feeling very well (which is why I haven't posted yesterday or today). It's nothing serious, just sinuses and the works -- it's probably nerves acting up because law school starts up again on Monday. Prayers, as always, are appreciated.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Some Comments on Total Depravity

I've gotten a number of insightful and thought-provoking comments here on the blog since I started it in April. And honestly, it's the biggest thing keeping me going on this at times. If I felt like this was just an echo chamber for people who already felt the same way that I do, I'd have a hard time justify devoting any significant amount of time to it; as it is, because I hear so many unique perspectives, it's constantly enjoyable. This week, I wanted to spotlight some of the recent comments, and respond to them, as appropriate.

Up first, here's what Christopher had to say about the post about C.S. Lewis on total depravity:
I'm not really sure what your question is! I'm no apologist and am usually hesitant to comment here as I can't compare to your splendid resourcefulness. But... I have read a lot of C S Lewis and I think that the key to absorbing him as a writer is that he does a lot of thinking out loud, despite his apparent care in his words. I liken him a bit to Pascal where much of his writing is more beautiful in its prose than helpful in its true conclusions. I'm most assuredly no match to his intellect but I think it's safe to say that he tried to provide sure answers to questions of faith that even he was still unsure of. (After all, all of his "Catholic" ways of thinking never led him to the Church, and yes I understand his Ulster loyalty even as Anglicanism began to crumble but it's no excuse.) His words are beautiful and poetic and soothing even when they are disturbing.
This is, I think, a very fair criticism of Lewis' writings in general, particularly (in my opinion) those outside of Mere Christianity, which were intended for people with a bit of background in the area. Since he assumes an educated readership in these works, he isn't afraid to present some sort of novel interpretations or positions, although certainly, he intends to stay within the confines of orthodoxy. His views on hell, in particular, are somewhat unique, and I know that Joseph Pearce has argued that he basically looked to himself as a final authority on certain questions regarding purgatory (Pearce was a bit nicer, but this was the basic argument).

That said, I find myself very frequently agreeing with Lewis' positions, except those obviously at odds with the Catholic Church (there are few of these). I prefer him greatly to what little of Pascal I've read, but on the whole, I am trying to withhold judgment on Pascal, since I know a lot of much smarter people than myself, like Peter Kreeft, who are fans (at least, Kreeft seems to be). I assume they're seeing something I haven't been exposed to yet from reading short segments of his work.
Proof of God's goodness begins in our very creation and culminates in our salvation. I don't understand any other way around that except in the possible case that someone is not questioning the goodness of God but rather in the goodness (or even the existence) of ANY God. That's a different matter. In which case, I refer as last resort again back to Pascal and his "wager".
I think that Lewis' point is that for us to say "God is good," and have 'good' mean anything objective, Goodness must be both objective and in some form knowable. That is, we cannot be so wholly depraved as to no longer have a sense of right and wrong. If unregenerate man has no way of knowing right from wrong, he has no way of knowing that God is good, or that good is preferable to evil, etc. There is, in short, no way to evaluate good and evil. In addition to everything that Lewis has argued, this would also seemingly place man beyond (or beneath) judgment, in the same manner that it would be immoral to punish an animal for sin or vice, if they have no concept of right and wrong behavior. Nothing good could come of punishing unwitting violators, and it wouldn't serve to further any sense of justice, either.

All of that said, I have to agree with DJ AMDG that Lewis' use of total depravity is different than the way that most Calvinists today use the term, from his comment here:
The problem I have with both Lewis' and Most's view is with how they are defining Total Depravity. Both the Augustinian and Reform understanding of Total Depravity had to do with the inability by man to DO anything reaching a degree of perfect good. The definition didn't have to do with man's ability to 'know' good from evil or recognize God's goodness. The classical understanding also never meant that a degree of goodness wasn't attainable...only that the perfect goodness (as represented by God/Christ and required for eternal salvation) was not attainable by man on his own.

This is why Lewis' argument falls as does Most's, in my opinion. Just because I have no ability whatsoever to tune a piano doesn't mean that I can't recognize when a piano is in tune or when it has recently been tuned.

DJAMDG
To be honest, I'm not familiar enough with early Calvinism to know whether (or to what extent) the ability to know good from evil is discussed. However, the Synod of Dordt, as authoritative a statement as Calvinism has ever produced, responding to the "error" that "unregenerate man is not strictly or totally dead in his sins or deprived of all capacity for spiritual good but is able to hunger and thirst for righteousness or life and to offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit which is pleasing to God," they responded that this error was contrary to Scripture in part because: "The imagination of the thoughts of man's heart is only evil all the time (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). Besides, to hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer God the sacrifice of a broken spirit is characteristic only of the regenerate and of those called blessed (Ps. 51:17; Matt. 5:6)."

Although I may be misunderstanding what's being said here, it seems very strongly like: (1) The canons of Dordt fundamentally misunderstand human nature (to suggest that non-elect don't mind misery, or at least, don't desire to be saved from misery, seems cruel and bizarre); (2) that to the extent that the unregenerate desire what they believe is good, it necessarily is not good; and therefore that (3) the unregenerate cannot tell good from evil.

Again, I may be misunderstanding, and even if I'm not, no Calvinist is hidebound to follow everything which Dordt set down. Nevertheless, it'd be helpful to know, because it impacts whether or not what Lewis and Most have written is helpful in this regard. In fairness to Fr. Most, his point was more a positive statement of what Christ's love is like -- that is, that it's something we can understand. I was the one saying that if Fr. Most is right about that, then it necessarily disqualifies certain premises, like that God's goodness is what we would call evil; or that God would desire to create some humans only to damn them (I think he does mention that point somewhere in the text). If Jesus has a human heart, even a moderately good human being would never create someone solely to torture them under the guise of "justice," particularly if the "justice" were triggerred by original sin. By this standard, Christ could have tortured babies during His earthly life. None of us would protest calling that an evil act unfitting to our Divine Lord. He did not cease to have a human heart post-Ascension, and indeed, His divine love exceeds human love, it doesn't replace it with something strange and cruel.

By the way, thanks for the comments - I really enjoy reading what you have to say and trying to respond. Keep it up!

Claptrap!

Often, Catholic practices are analyzed with the "where does it say to do THAT in the Bible" lens. Sometimes, this is on legitimate practices: knowing where sacramental confession or the ministerial priesthood comes from in the Bible is fundamental to understanding their import. But other times, it's to things which are almost irrelevant. For example, you don't find people in the Bible praying the rosary, because that collection of prayers isn't assembled until much later (similarly, you don't find people reading a Bible, since that collection of Scriptures wasn't assembled until much later, as well). In both cases, they've got Biblical components: the Lord's Prayer is from Matthew 6; the first half of the Hail Mary comes from Luke 1; and the idea behind the second half, asking saints for intercession, is found in 1 Timothy 5:1. But even if they weren't, so what? Where does the Bible ban praying in any way other than the Bible mentions? It certainly doesn't.

You can raise your voice and proclaim, "Glory be to God the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!" All you're doing is proclaiming the grandeur of God: you don't need a precise Biblical blueprint. That prayer is nonbiblical, in the sense that you don't find it prayed in the Bible, but it's not antibiblical, in the sense of being contrary to the Bible. So if that's ok, then the Catholic Glory Be prayer is just fine, as well - the third major prayer of the Rosary. After all, it's just that exclaimatory prayer repeated on later occassions (and since it's a concise and beautiful prayer, why not?).

This principle, that "Nonbiblical ≠ Antibiblical" is lost on some people. They'll do things like pray in a very particularized way every week, they'll have Wednesday night services (you don't see that in the Bible), they'll pray the Sinner's Prayer, and so on, and so on. These are all nonbiblical practices which are perfectly wholesome. Not only are they not antibiblical,* they're edifying and uplifting for the Christian spirit. But when a Catholic does a similarly edifying nonbiblical thing, alarm bells go off, and suddenly, said Catholic doesn't seem to care what the Bible instructs.

It's an unintentional hypocricy. Most people who believe they're following the Bible alone have little or no idea how many acquried norms and traditions they accept without much further thought. Anyone attempting to prove Wednesday night religious services is required by Scripture is facing a heck of an uphill battle, but given enough thought, most of us realize that there are lots of practices which the Bible doesn't micromanage -- different cultures and different centuries may have somewhat different liturgical styles or spiritual practices... and that's ok.

But what if someone didn't ever come to this conclusion? What if someone stubbornly insisted upon the antibiblical notion that "unless it's in the Bible, it's forbidden"? Well, we might end up with weird arguments, like that poems denouncing Sunday night worship, or apologists claiming that clapping in church is forbidden by God:


Singing is an acceptable form of worship to God in the church. Clapping is not singing any more than sprinkling is baptizing. The person clapping might be sincere and honestly trying to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but clapping is not singing. The clapper might be adding a nice sound to the song, but clapping is not singing. If clapping is acceptable, then why don't we have a song of "only clapping" without singing? Because the New Testament authorizes singing, not clapping, and clapping is not singing!


Note the argument: the Bible says to do x (in this case, sing). Anything in addition to x (not just anything opposed to x) suddenly becomes forbidden. But the Bible doesn't just omit any mention of clapping or instrumental music (both of which the author is against). It also doesn't mention anything about sheet music or hymnals, etc. Should we take the argumentation to its logical extreme, "the Bible doesn't tell us that we have to breathe, so breathing is a sin"?

This position isn't a joke or a hypothetical. The above link is from a man's letter to his elders telling him that he was leaving his church over the presence of clapping. Elsewhere, he defines who is an is not in the church of Christ:


By "church of Christ" I refer to the individual, autonomous congregations throughout the world that generally believe in baptism for salvation, the Bible as the sole source of authority, and do not believe in the use of mechanical instruments in worship of God. The "church of Christ" is the representation on earth of Christ's true Church in heaven.
Granted, he's careful to delineate between the Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven (he doesn't go so far as to say that clappers or instrument-users are damned), but the idea that the earthly Church consists only of those who don't use instruments during worship services is still pretty extreme.

I found the arguments he raised thought-provoking, not only because they showcase the "Not Mentioned = Forbidden" argument run completely amok, but paradoxically, because I sympathize with his tastes. If I were to catalog my favourite songs, I'd likely find that many of them were either non-instrumental (like the Pange Lingua), or instrument-optional (like the Ave Maria or Holy God, We Praise Thy Name). And indeed, this hardcore sola Scripturist winds up on strangely Catholic territory in his distaste for instrumental music:
The Church has never encouraged, and at most only tolerated, the use of instruments. She enjoins in the "Cæremoniale Episcoporum" that permission for their use should first be obtained from the ordinary. She holds up as her ideal the unaccompanied chant and polyphonic, a capella, style. The Sistine Chapel has not even an organ.
The major difference, of course, is that although the Church prefers to do things the tried and true way, She doesn't say "anyone who uses an instrument is violating the Bible," because the Bible simply doesn't speak on the topic. The decision to include or forbid instruments is properly the decision of the Church; it's not indispensable to salvation, but Church unity may demand a decision one way or the other.

I think there comes a time, and it usually comes up on liturgical matters, where we have to acknowledge: "This is a matter of personal taste; what you find edifying, I find distracting (or vice versa), but neither of us can claim God is on our side." The Christian thing to do, it seems to me, is learn to worship together in a way which edifies us both. Sometimes, this means being in less-than-ideal worship spaces, but it's certainly better than creating further schism over the issue of clapping. That's a load of claptrap.

*I think I just used a triple-negative.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Does Tobit 12:9 Contradict the Rest of the Bible?

Protestants often raise Tobit 12:9 to argue against the authenticity of the Deuterocanon. The argument goes something like this. Tobit 12:9 says that, "For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fullness of life." This, they argue, is works-righteousness. This contradicts the parts of the Bible they know to be true, and therefore, is not itself a part of the Bible. Under this theory, Tobit isn't even an uninspired-but-useful-for-edification book: it's a book promoting a gospel contrary to that of Christ.

There are plenty of problems with this theory. For starters, you can't start with a theory like sola fide, and determine which books of the Bible are in or out based upon that. That was Luther's criterion for determining whether or not to include books like Tobit, but also books like the Epistle of James, which virtually all Christians today accept. If you do that, your theory of justification isn't based on the Bible: your Bible is based on your theory of justification. So a true subservience to Scripture as God's word would require an open-mindedness on this point. If this is Scripture, then perhaps interpretations which contradict it, like sola fide, need to be changed. After all, sola fide isn't God-breathed. Holy Scripture is.

But second, is Tobit really saying you can buy your way to Heaven, or work your way to Heaven? Of course not. The message here is little different than that of Proverbs 19:17, “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, And He will repay him for his good deed.” Or better yet, Jesus' statement in Matthew 19:21-22. A rich man comes to him and asks how to get to Heaven. Jesus asks him if he's following the Law; he is. Then Jesus says: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. See also the parallel account in Mark 10:17-23. Taken in isolation, the way that certain Protestants do with Tobit 12:9, Jesus is saying, "you can earn your way to Heaven, just pay 100% of your worldly goods." In fact, even before he gets to the "come follow Me" stage, the man who gives away this 100% already will a treasure in Heaven (since that treasure precedes the following of Christ given His particular syntax). But of course Jesus isn't saying, "you don't have to follow Me, you just have to give lots of money away." He's saying that giving everything you have to the poor because of Him is a form of faithful obedience, the sort of Faith/Works combo that saves you.

No one who hears that would give everything they had unless they believed; and not just a little (like the man in the passage), but a lot. Believed so much that they were willing to give everything up for Jesus' name. That's a work, yes, but it's also an act of faith.

So the message in Tobit is identical to the message of Christ on this point. If anything, it shows that Tobit is harmonious with the Gospel message. If it's a reason to do anything, it's a reason to trust the Deuterocanon.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sola Scriptura

From the New York Times:
The denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is considering lifting a ban on noncelibate gay and lesbian pastors, permitting the ordination of people in committed same-sex relationships.

At issue is how the Bible should inform policy, how the denomination can best serve its mission, and how a vote to ordain gay men and lesbians would affect the church’s relationships with the broader Christian community.

Remember that in Luther's famous "Here I stand" speech, he demanded to be convinced by Scripture or reason. More from the Times:
The scriptural framework of the debate only feeds those divisions, [delegate Chelsea] Mathis said. “There are dueling Bible verses when the microphone is open to people,” she said.

From an outsider's perspective, it seems very much like the pro-noncelibate gay ordination crowd position is arrived at as follows:
  1. They think that gays and lesbians should be able to be ordained. Perhaps it's out of a misplaced sense of equality, perhaps it is out of sympathy for those who truly love the Lord and struggle with homosexuality, pehrpas it's just because they know so many gays and lesbians who seem like normal enough sorts. Whatever the reason, I suspect it isn't some devious plot to try and destroy the ELCA. By reason, they're more or less convinced that this is the right direction to go, and frankly, the ELCA has been moving in a very liberal trajectory for a while now. (Besides that, if the Anglicans are doing it, ELCA has to follow; PCUSA may well go next).
  2. Tradition's out already: they already allow women's ordination, so one of the largest barriers to these sorts of "innovations" is gone.
  3. Reading Biblical passages with a new set of eyes, they begin to "notice" verses which might sort-of kind-of lead to the conclusion they've come to by reason.
  4. There are plenty of Bible verses specifically forbidding the conclusion they're coming to on the basis of reason, but then again, if you only read certain verses, about love and not judging, you can use those to justify just about anything.
I've said earlier that whatever Luther's intent, it's the light of individual reason which guide much of Protestantism in its varied forms. (I readily acknowledge that the early Reformers were much more creedal than their liberal descendants).
  • Calvinism is a logically coherent philosophy, and if you accept certain metaphysical assumptions about the impact of total depravity, it's an easy enough conclusion (i.e., if we're so totally depraved we won't desire goodness, then grace must be irresistable, or we'll resist it; therefore, anyone who doesn't have irresistable grace must be denied it by God, since they couldn't have rejected it themselves; therefore, Christ only died for some). It is, in other words, logically sound. It's much harder to make the case for something like limited atonement from Scripture alone. It is no coincidence that Calvinism thrived in the Universities (due to its metaphysical appeal) and amongst the middle class (since it was understood as saying that prosperity was a mark of eternal election).
  • Anglicanism used really simplistic reason for a long time in its early years, as Tumbleson has shown. Since England is obviously God's favorite country (hence, the destruction of the Spanish Armada), it should have its own Church. To deny this is treason. On the other hand, anyone proposing radical reforms threatens the national stability and to abolish Christian Tradition. So only those reforms which are... reasonable. The Catholic critics of Anglicanism would frequently use the Anglican's own arguments against the Dissenters as an argument against schism, but the original schism, you see, was reasonable. (In this instance, the Anglicans actually followed the Lutherans' lead, instead of the reverse).
  • Anabaptists, the (sort of) precursors to Baptists, and more direct precursors to the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, decided that violent revolution was a logical way to create a Christian theocracy which would live as they thought the early Christians lived. (It's fair to say that their theological descendants don't follow the same teachings).
  • Many Christian Scientists have claimed that the birth of their founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was foretold in the Bible. In Eddy's own case, the Christian Science movement was almost completely due to her recovery from an 1866 illness that convinced her that medicine was against the Bible. When she looked in the Bible, she was unable to find any reference to medicine and, she decided that if Jesus wanted us to use medicine, He would have prescribed it. It's the same Protestant argument against Purgatory taken to strange new lengths.
  • Some Dispensationalists, particularly the Hal Lindsey crowd, thought or think that the world will end soon. Seeing things like the restoration of the State of Israel, Communism, the Sexual Revolution, and so forth, they came to a lot of conclusions. In Late, Great, Planet Earth, he hinted that 40 years from the founding of Israel would be the Second Coming. That date came and went in 1988. In The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, he said that "the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it." It wasn't. Lindsey and others are still at it. Most recently, he's stated that Obama may be preparing the way for the Antichrist. Others like him, like Tim LaHaye, have been doing the same thing, and they're making a load of money off of it, even while prediction after prediction is rendered false. Why? Because people feel like there's something gravely wrong with the world, so obviously, this must be the end times. It's fueled at least in part by the sort of self-important generational navel-gazing the 20th century has bred (Of course Jesus is coming back in my generation!) coupled with a lot of historical ignorance.
  • The same sort of eschatological nuttiness lead to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. A man named Hong Xiuquan had a series of dreams after reading some missionary Bible tracts, where he claims that the Godhead appeared to him and introduced Itself/Themselves (you'll see the distinction shortly). Some years later, after studying under Issachar J. Roberts, a Southern Baptist minister, Hong formed a cult set to destroy idolatry in China. His goal was to create a (sort of) Christian theocracy in China, a "Great Peace" formed through violent revolution. I say "sort of" Christian, because it was a religious system heavily influenced by his own delusions, was non-Trinitarian, and had lots more wacky beliefs. No matter. Millions of Chinese followed him to their own, and many more, deaths. Some 20 to 30 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the Taiping Rebellion he began.

In every case, the conclusions arrived at by reason could find Biblical support. Sometimes, a reading of a particular passage in isolation (from the rest of the Bible, or from Christian tradition) would start the ball rolling. Sometimes, it was a remarkable thinker or visionary who proclaimed a radical new understanding of Christianity. Other times, exigent circumstances would: when the pope says you're excommunicated unless you change your views, and you really don't want to change your views, you suddenly realize that Scripture teaches that the pope is the Antichrist (or later, an Antichrist, with "Antichrist" meaning whatever the author says it means), and write The Babylonian Captivity. Or, as in the case here, you're neck-deep in a culture promoting homosexuality as being morally equal, and where the notion of celibacy is too quirky for serious consideration.

Every one of these conclusions are a "product of their times," or of the particular lives of their founders (more extreme cases, like Joseph Smith's discovery that Joseph Smith is the True Prophet and can have as many wives as he would like, exist as well). Some of these are genuinely respectable conclusions or reasonable assumptions, some aren't. But it certainly shows that even amongst the well-meaning, there are some awfully divergent conclusions. Individual reason, influenced as it is by one's culture (the current ELCA scandal), health (Eddy), dreams (Xiuquan), time and place (Lindsey), and so on, mixes poorly with Scripture.

One of the most obvious benefits of Tradition is this: it shatters the self-important generational navel-gazing. It forces you to look at things through a different lens, by the mere fact that these earlier writers lived in a different culture. The life story of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Ignatius of Antioch are radically divergent. The culture surrounding (or not surrounding) St. Vincent De Paul and the Desert Fathers are quite distinct. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day had different influences than one another, or their (relatively close) contemporary, Avery Cardinal Dulles. They share a Catholic Faith, but little else: this Catholic outlook has weathered the storms of ancient Rome, Soviet Russia, urban America, Napoleonic France, modern China, Colonial Latin America, and countless more inhospitable climates.

In other words, with Sacred Tradition, you get a religious system that's tried, tested, and true from ages before, practiced in various cultural settings, and so forth. It's less prone to these sort of radical depatures from Scripture, like what we're seeing once more in the ELCA crisis.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Beautiful Nighttime Contemplation

“Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?” - G.K. Chesterton.

ELCA Moves to Allow Homosexual Clergy...

... and a freak tornado destroys their church. (Apparently, the tornado passed through downtown Minneapolis, right as they were beginning their conference).

To which the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Rev. Steven Loy, who was helping oversee the convention, remarked, I kid you not, "We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work."

"At this the Jews answered and said to him, 'What sign can you show us for doing this?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.'" (John 2:18-19). G.R. Beasley-Murray, in his commentary on the Gospel of John for Vol. 36 of the Word Biblical Commentary, notes:
"In its context, 'destroy this temple' does not convey a challenge to the Jewish leaders to tear down the stones of the temple; more plausibly it is an ironical call for them to carry on their behavior to its limit, which will end in the destruction of the temple of which they are guardians."

But no doubt, they didn't see any relationship between their destruction of Jesus' Body (the Temple of the Lord) in c. 32 A.D. with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., either.

Kudos to AMP for being on top of yet another story, and correcting the AP account.

The Effects of Original Sin: What About Unbaptized Babies?

In two previous posts (here and here), we looked at the possibility of inheriting sin. Based on deeply-rooted cultural assumptions we have here in the West, we think that everyone starts (or should start) tabula rasa. It's an assumption that ignores lots of complicating factors, like genetics and upbringing, but it's got some merit: everyone should be given a chance. The Biblical view, in contrast, seems to synthesize the best of these two strains: it recognizes that you are part of something bigger than yourself (your family), and holds each member accountable for one another to a degree, and yet salvation is offerred to the individual, not to the group. That's why faith is so important, rather than just being (in ancient times) born a Jew or (perhaps, in modern times) born into a Catholic family.

Still, even St. Paul is quick to point out (for example, in Romans 3), that there are serious advantages to being born into a good family. It follows, then, that there are disadvantages to being born into a "bad" family, and as we're all fallen creatures descended from Adam, all of us are born into just such a family: we've got a pretty tarnished history, this human family. This perhaps makes more sense in the way St. Paul conceptualizes it: as an inheritence. An inheritence can leave you a lot of wealth, or it can leave you with a lot of debt. Our inheritence leaves us with both.

All of this is directly tied up in the idea of original sin. But what does it mean to say that someone has original sin? Obviously, it means that their desires are no longer in perfect harmony with the desires of God. C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in the book I'm reading now, Problem of Pain, when he says, "We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are, as [St. John Henry Cardinal] Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms."

So we're born on the wrong side of Eden, so to speak. What about those who die on the wrong side of Eden? I don't mean those who actively take up the cause of rebellion from God. I mean those who die with the taint of original sin, but who do so through no fault of their own, like infants or the severely mentally retarded. There's been lots of speculation on this issue:
  1. Historically, many Catholic theologians have believed that while original sin is enough to deprive you of Heaven, and even send you to Hell, it's not enough to warrant punishment. In this view, original sin isn't the same as actual sin.* Rather than a punishable offense, it's an impurity: enough to keep us out of the beatific vision of God, but not enough to punish us eternally. Because they were impure, but not damnable, these infants were similar to the Old Testament saved, who couldn't enter Heaven prior to Christ, and who the Bible seems to suggest were in a Hell without punishment (see Luke 16:22-23) until the coming of Christ (see 1 Peter 3:18-21).** Thus, they concluded that unbaptized infants were also on the edge (or limbus) of Hell.

  2. From this came the theory of limbus infantium or limbus puerorum, which is the "Limbo" most people mean. There were two schools of thought. One, championed by St. Augustine, is that they suffered the "mildest punishment," because of Romans 5:16-18. The other school said that these infants enjoy the maximum natural happiness, but due to their impurity, cannot see God or be in His direct presence. Peter Abelard combined the two theories in the 12th century, arguing that maximum happiness without the beatific vision is the mildest punishment or condemnation.

  3. The Council of Florence seems to suggest that original sin is a damning sin (so that infants who die without baptism go to hell, barring a miracle of God's mercy), or at least a damnable one (in the context, they're explaining why it's important to baptize your kids, if memory serves). Specifically, they state that "the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains." The context here is about individuals who neglect to be baptized, not about infants specifically.
  4. Fr. William Most suggests that the children who are sent to limbo may be, in many cases, those who God knows will end up in Hell if allowed to mature, and that this state of limbo may be an incredible mercy. (Remember that next time atheists ask why a loving God would allow an infant to die).

  5. Pope Benedict XVI seems to take an even more liberal (or perhaps hopeful) view than Augustine, Abelard, or Florence: he's openly skeptical that unbaptized infants go to hell at all. He's gone so far as to say, in 1985, "Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally -- and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] -- I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis."
The Church's official stance is simply that while original sin is punishable, we entrust the mercy of unbaptized infants to the mercy of God. Nevertheless, a person who declines baptism risks damnation: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). Christ doesn't even allow the possibility of someone having saving Faith and not getting baptized.

Some of a more radically Traditionalist flavor have tried to use the Council of Florence's words against the current pope and modern theologians, and if you take a literalist and legalistic reading, that's possible: there is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, if you de-contextualize Florence's phrasing. But in the context, the Council of Florence isn't contemplating the state of infants who die. For those who they're addressing their point, they will be held liable for not getting baptized should they refuse. Like with Biblical texts, trying to read them as one might a statute or mathematical principle should be done cautiously: while their point in one regard might lead logically to another conclusion, we should be careful taking them outside of their intended context.

So here's what I think we can deduce. Children may have to pay off a debt their parents owed, but they weren't killed for their parents' sins in the Old Testament (it was forbidden in Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20, as I mentioned previously). And our God is a loving God who wishes that none would perish (2 Peter 3:9). Those of us who go to Hell are sent their by our own resistence to God: He would like to apply Christ's merits to us, and we reject His advances. He knocks, and we don't answer, or bar the door (see Revelation 3:20). Our house is on fire from sin, and we'd rather perish than let Him save us.

All of this makes sense for those of the age of reason... but a baby? Eternally tormenting a baby because of something that mom or dad (or great-great-great grandma) did is almost certainly out of the question for a loving God who, in the person of Christ, had a human heart. No possible good comes of it, since by the time any of us would even find out He's doing this, it'd be too late to change our own lives (so this notion some use that God must do it to prove His justice isn't sound). So assuming that children go to Hell is the least plausible explanation, in my opinion. Nevertheless, Revelation 21:27 assures us that nothing unclean will ever enter Heaven. So either children are in a state of bliss absent God (the "mildest punishment" option), kept from the doors of Heaven by their uncleanliness, or God applies the merits of Christ to them in some way, and cleanses them of their sins (perhaps accompanied by a process of purgation).

Even if these children are kept from Heaven due to their sin, we should note that God is punishing the sin, not the children: if a very muddy animal wants into our house, we might just bring it food and water to the porch, instead. We don't bar the animal from our house because we don't love it, but because we don't want it to get mud on everything else. If the animal will let us, we'll wash it clean. If not, it'll have to live outside of the house. Augustine suspects that God will use the "feeding on the porch" option, because of His aversion to sin (mud); Pope Benedict suspects that He'll bring out the cleansing waters. The truth may be a combination of the two... remember that these infants already have personalities known to God Alone.

That, from what I can tell, is the closest thing we have to an answer from the Bible and the Church. This one may just be a bit beyond what we may know.

*Actual, in its original sense: as in, related to action. Actual sin also covers acts of ommission, so if a person knew they were supposed to be baptized, and decided against, that would be an actual sin, while the mere state of being unbaptized is an original and unchosen one.

** Actually, the limbo of infants and that of the fathers is slightly different. In any case, the Old Testament righteous were saved by Faith, but were still impure without Christ's blood to wash away their sins, so they waited in what's known as the Bosom of Abraham or the limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers). The major difference between that and the limbo of infants is that the righteous dead prior to Christ were only there temporarily.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Biblical View of Inherited Sin

This is part 2 of a three-part series on original sin. This continues yesterday's theme of exploring the counter-intuitive notion of inherited sin. Tomorrow, we'll look at the implications of original sin.

III. The Problems With the Two Extremes

The American view imagines that each of us are autonomous individuals, who spring forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This seems to be a view shaped by a pretty radical Arminism and a secular American ethos. From a secular context, it's a good policy: you don't want the law arresting you for your dad's tax evasion, and our "forgive and forget" attitude in certain contexts (like foreign policy and bankruptcy) is both thoroughly Christian and smart public policy. Unfortunately, it's just not realistic. I think that there are at least two areas where even secular society recognizes this. The first is in racial issues, particularly surrounding the issue of reparations. The basic premise is that based on your ancestors' status, you're either born into a position of privilege or disadvantage, and that a laissez faire attitude towards this situation re-entrenches these racial barriers. Interestingly, one of the common arguments used by opponents is: "my ancestors never owned slaves," an argument which actually conceeds that penalizing children for the injustices of their ancestors is just (in some contexts).

Ari Roth produced a play with the significant title Born Guilty, based upon a book of the same title by Peter Sichrovsky. The point of both the book and the play is to examine the way that the children and grandchildren of Nazi war criminals struggle with their sense of identity, as they try to come to terms with their ancestors' barbaric actions. So it seems that even the least religious among us recognize something fundamental exists: so much of who we are is shaped by our parents, who were in turn shaped largely by their parents, and so forth, whether one believes in nature (where it's passed on in our genes), nuture (where it's passed on through their raising us), or both. On the other hand, the Mediterranean view unfairly punishes those, like the thief's great-great-great-grandson, who had no chance to live an upright life. (I think, given that the readership of this blog is overwhelmingly Western, that the difficulties with the Mediterranean view are fairly well apparent, so I'll leave it at that).


IV. The Biblical View

It seems, then, that the right answer is somewhere in the middle. And that, incidentally, is the view that the Bible takes: somewhere in between the modern Western view and the ancient (and apparently, modern) Mediterranean one. So, for example, God threatens in Exodus 20:5-6 to punish "the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." But on the other hand, says that "the son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20). And Deuteronomy 24:16 tells us that "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin."

At first glance, these seem to be contradictory, but they're really not. After all, even those who support reparations, a penalty of sorts, due to the ancestoral sin of slavery wouldn't support imprisoning those same slave owner descendants. If there' s a punishment, it's a light one, and intended not out of vengence, but out of a sense of justice.

Additionally, in Exodus 20:5-6, God uses the love/hate Semitism. It generally, as here, means a comparitive favoring, not literally "love" or "hate" (just as you aren't literally to hate your parents in Luke 14:26). Israel is blessed with a favored status for their faithfulness: they don't earn God's love, or get He who is Love Incarnate to love them more. That's nonsensical. Rather, it means the same thing here that it means in Romans 9: God lifts up those He will lift up, and casts down those He will cast down. Sometimes, this is based upon a parent's sin, other times, it's not. for His own purposes (which is why we can't assume that the poor and suffering are out of God's favor -- Christ shows the opposite to be true).

But those who are disfavored, even for the sins of the father, aren't loved less by God. Here's an interesting example: Deuteronomy 23:2 says that illegitimate children are barred from the assembly of Jehovah. In Genesis 38, we see two children produced out of wedlock (by inlaws, no less): Perez and Zerah. According to the lineage in Matthew 1:3-6, David is the first descendant born not under penalty of this sin. This adds a lot of meaning to his proclaimation in Pslam 122:1, "I rejoiced when I heard them say, 'Let us go to the House of the Lord.'" He was the first in his family to be able to join them in ten generations. But that didn't mean that the ten generations before him were all in God's disfavor: Ruth, his great-grandmother, even has a book in the Bible named after her. God disfavored (or even, cursed) her in one regard from an ancesteral sin, but this lifelong penalty was no obstacle to His love of her and His blessing her in other ways based upon her Faith.

Admittedly, a punishment that penalizes children is foreign to us, but it would be pretty absurd to dismiss it out of hand for simply that reason. Severe judgment would be unjust upon someone who commit no sin themselves, but some sort of reciprocal penalty (like taxing those who benefit from the system of slavery, even inadvertantly) can certainly be fair. Additionally, mild intergenerational penalties, usually in the form of family shame or stigma, are (a) pretty effective deterents to sin, and (b) tied to human nature. We naturally are influenced in our view of someone based upon who their dad was. Sometimes, this is a positive, sometimes not (DJAMDG mentioned Franklin Graham recently, and I think he's a good example of someone who has experienced both the benefits and perils of being someone important's kid).

I think that the Bible recognizes both that we are not liable for the actions of others, and that blood is thicker than water. The Biblical view is probably much more nuanced than I'm presenting it here, or giving it credit for being, but I think it's fair to say that whatever the view is, it seems to reflect some pretty reasonable beliefs about the connection of an individual to his or her family.

Tomorrow: What impact does inherited, or original, sin have?

Catholics, Know Your Rights!

See some weird stuff at Mass, and want to know if it's legit? By "weird stuff," I mean priests leaving the altar to shake hands during the Sign of Peace, having announcements in the middle of the Mass, or letting a layperson give the homily, etc.? Or a church building with the Tabernacle hidden in a side chapel where you have to look for it? Well, here's a January 1999 article from This Rock about the Ten Most Common Liturgical Abuses. It cites to the specific canon law and GIRM sections to let you know not only that all the above are illicit, but why (and according to which precise rule).

Also worthwhile: Redemptionis Sacramentum, Cardinal Arinze's killer instruction on the issue. If everyone followed this, liturgical abuses would be gone. Overnight.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can You Inherit Sin?

I want to do a three-part series on original sin, but before I do, I'd like to thank both of the guys who pointed out the problems with the blog comment feature, and Jess Rezac (who, incidentally, helped design the header) for fixing it so quickly. So... thanks! Feel free to check out her blog for museums, pop culture, and history, and if you feel like commenting on the blog, today's a great day to do it, so I can find out if the new comment thing works.

Alright, today I want to discuss the possibility of inheriting sin, since that's sort of a weird concept for a lot of people. Tomorrow, I want to look at the effects that this sin inherited from Adam, original sin, has - particularly on infants.


I. The Possibility of Inheriting Sin

My younger brother had a friend who balked at the idea that we can inherit sin, and particularly punishable sin. The idea seemed to him, and to a number of people I know, indefensible and if not laughable, at least strangely cruel. I was reminded of this recently when, during the same lunch I mentioned yesterday, my priest friend mentioned that our relationship with the Eastern Orthodox is pretty one-way: we love them, and they're still pretty mad at us. He suggested that this was pretty defensible in both directions. We're Westerners, and this fascination with the Eastern Orthodox is particularly acute amongst Americans, who have no problem being friendly with the British (who tried to crush our fledgling nation), or even the Germans and Japanese, who fought against Americans still alive today. As a nation, we're quick to forgive and forget in foreign policy. Other cultures don't share this. To them, suggested Fr. Andrew, the sacking of Constantinople is a recent memory, and he told me of a family outcast from a Mediterranean village he'd visited. Apparently, the man was generations descended from a town thief, and was regarded as a thief himself by the townsfolk. This Mediterranean view seems, more or less, to be the view held through most of the world. Even high-tech cultures with a sense of tradition, like Japan, often think of a family's honor or disgrace.

Their perspective seems practical, given the culture: the family and the clan were for eons, and still very much today, the most important level of society. If your family turned against you, you were toast: you had to stick together, through thick and through thin. Perhaps we identify today more with the nation-state: we can understand someone hating us because of something the American Government has done to their country, even if we were opponents of the idea. Other than being more familiar, it's hard to make a case that this view is more logical or reasonable.

In a bizarre way, punishing the son for the sins of the father is a sign of respect: you acknowledge that since he's a loyal son, he's going to stick with his dad no matter how crummy he is, since he's family. It's why we see so many lineages in the Bible. It's also why Luke 14:26 is so radical: Jesus suggests that you need to view Him as more important than family. He's asking His followers to leave behind how they defined themselves before (as James, Son of Zebedee), and replace it with something new (St. James, Disciple of Christ).


II. Spiritual and Biological Families

Just as there is Bios (biological life) and Zoë (spiritual life), there are biological and spiritual families. Zebedee is St. James' biological father; God is his Spiritual Father. Just as in the biological order, you were known by your lineage (Simon Barjona, for example, means "Simon, son of John/Jonah" - Matthew 16:17), through the laying on of hands, the old familial and physical lineage was replaced with an episcopal and spiritual one. (As I understand it, this is part of the reason some priests opt not to be known by last name, and why many religious take on a new name).

This is also why we call priests "Father": the New Testament teaches that this spiritual connection creates fatherhood (1 Corinthians 4:14–15) as well as sonship (1 Timothy 1:2), even between humans. The role of the spiritual family can hardly be overstated in the Bible. In fact, Jesus' point in some of His discourses with the Jews: for example, in John 8:34-44, is that while they are biological descendants of Abraham (cf. John 8:37), they are not his (spiritual) children (cf. John 8:39). He also cautions, "And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." (Matthew 3:9). Paul underscores this point through his epistle to the Romans, where he emphasized that you aren't born into the covenant, you're a member through faith.

But that doesn't mean that biological family suddenly became unimportant (or even that Christ wanted it to). Rather, the biological family proceeds from the Fatherhood of God (Ephesians 3:15). So, since the family is one, it's often treated as one, for better or for worse.

Tomorrow, I want to look at the problems with both the American view and what I've been loosely calling the Mediterranean view. After that, I plan to give what I think is the Scriptural view.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Novak and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, RIP

Two famous Catholics right died recently, in short succession: Robert Novak and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. We said a special prayer for them today (yesterday, technically, since it's after midnight here on the east coast), since both of them occasioned the Catholic Information Center. Shriver was a customer, and Novak was actually baptized at the CIC, apparently.

For Novak, here are some of his thoughts on dying, from an interview in 2008:

Q: You've said your Catholicism was helping you deal with your illness.

A: Well, nobody wants to die. I certainly don't. But all Christian faiths, and certainly Catholicism, hold that there's an afterlife, that we are not just dust to dust. And that's comforting, particularly now that I have an illness and there's very little chance I will recover. A priest who visited me told me I've been given a chance to prepare myself. So I began to think about my life and what I've done right and not done right and to prepare myself for the last days. I've found that reassuring.

[...]

Q: What's the most helpful thing someone can say to a person who's gravely ill?

A: There's not much you can say. A lot of people say: "You're a tough guy and a fighter. You're gonna beat this." Well, I don't know if I will beat it. Being tough and a fighter have nothing to do with it. I guess the most helpful thing they can say, if they're a man or woman of faith, is to tell me they're praying for me.


For Eunice Kennedy Shriver, here's a 1992 NY Times full-page ad she signed. It's powerful and worth the read. This was right at the point where the Democratic Party effectively (and irrationally) kissed its pro-life wing goodbye. If you would, say a few prayers for both of these individuals.

Laypeople in the (Online) New Evangelization

Pope John Paul II called for a "New Evangelization" to build a civilization of love. You can read about it here, if you're not familiar. One of the problems cited in the context of the Americas is "the scarce presence—in certain cases, the complete absence—of the Church in the field of the means of social communication. " In other words, in an increasingly high-tech world, the Catholic Church still rocks out the AOL-era wallpaper on a site that, while improving, is still a bit behind the times for a Church with as much going on as this one. By way of contrast, here's Shaun Gallagher's vision for a Vatican website done more in the style of Obama's popular campaign website and the current whitehouse.gov. If there's one thing that the Obama camp has done very well, it's presenting the message that it wants to present: it's done clearly, and in a way which regular people understood, and can log on to the website and explore.

In contrast, the Church is often slow to respond to crises, and when it does, it's often in a disorganized manner. When it comes to answering the questions of faith which people have (Catholics and non-Catholics alike), it was long the case that one could much more readily find people assailing and misrepresenting the Catholic view than find an actual Catholic source explaining the issue in question. Two solutions have been proposed to solve this problem:
  1. the use of the media to transmit the Gospel message and the Magisterium of the Church. At this level, even where the Church in all America is utilizing various means in the media to transmit her news (periodicals, various publications, radio and television broadcasts, computer networks, etc.), there is evidence that the use made of these media is often inadequate for lack of updated equipment, economic resources and sufficiently skilled personnel.
  2. the integration of the Gospel message in this "new culture" created by modern communications. The evangelization of present-day culture indeed depends to a large extent on the influence of the media. At this level, there is a need to bring the values of the Gospel to bear on the ethical principles underlying the handling of information, the content of communication transmitted to the masses and the goals of working in the world of communications. Too frequently the goal of the agents of communications is economic gain and not the promotion of the person.
In other words, we need the creation of modern, high-tech media whose goal is the conversion of souls, not the selling of papers or turning of profit. In large part, this goal has been achieved (or at least strived for) by laypersons: whether it's the small fish like myself, or the big fish like First Things Magazine, Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Francis/Frank Beckwith, Mark Shea, Thomas "American Papist" Peters, Jennifer Fulwiler, Rocco Palmo, and so forth.

Yesterday, I had a four-hour lunch with a priest friend of mine (who joked that I'd mention him on my blog today). We talked about dangers facing the Church now, and threats which seem to be just around the corner. One of the issues we talked about is the risk that the extremely public lay presence in online evangelization will make priests seem less relevant, and damage the priesthood as an institution. For example, when the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion came into greater usage (that is, the laypeople who help distribute the Eucharist after the priest transubstantiates it), the priesthood began to suffer a pretty crippling shortage - EMHCs weren't the sole cause by any means, but they were one factor in a trend which made priests briefly seem anachronistic. If the priest turns the homily over to a deacon (or even a layperson, in some cases!), turns the distribution of the Eucharist over to laypeople, and is overshadowed by a layperson-run choir, it's not exactly surprising when little boys aren't jumping out of the pews wanting to become priests. Of course, many of those who still jumped are the best of the best: the kids who realized why the priest's function was unique and irreplacably priceless, even when so many of the adults seem to have forgotten that; these kids, all grown up, are one of the best commodities that the modern priesthood has.

Now, the priesthood may face a bit of a catch-22. The vibrant and growing online apostolate is peppered with priests (Fr. John Corapi and Fr. Z come immediately to mind), but they remain a minority. Even most priests' blogrolls seem to be heavily tilted towards lay Catholics. There is a risk, below the surface right now, that priests will again begin to seem irrelevant or outdated, or worse: their absence from the frontlines of electronic sparring may appear to be an apathy to the care of souls. But realistically, there's little priests can do in response to this. The amount of free time that most priests have is heavily taxed, as they're in high demand for those things (like Confession, Mass, and Last Rites) which only they can do. Whereas in the past, priests could simply become more involved in the Mass - distribuing the Eucharist themselves, giving their own homilies, etc., maintaining an active electronic presence is a big time commitment.

Second, priests always seem to speak as agents of the Church, particularly when speaking on religious matters. One of the major dangers is that a priest will err, even innocently. Even if a layperson confronts him, the benefit of the doubt will likely (and usually, properly) reside with the priest. By the nature of their office and authority, a priest needs to be careful about public remarks.

Third, there's another risk, which isn't unique to priests, but perhaps most notable there. To save their own souls, priests must actively fight the people's desire to turn them into celebrities. Although some (like Bp. Fulton Sheen) can navigate the perils of clerical fame, the risk of developing a sense of pride or hubris is real. When clerics start needing the people's respect and adoration, they're less likely to take a bold stance on unpopular issues, less likely to admit to being wrong, and so forth. While this is true for all of us, it's perhaps most true for priests, since most of us really do love our priests. (Case in point: during our four-hour discussion yesterday, the Five Guys manager offered my priest friend free fries - a small gesture, but a significant one).

Dr. John Armstrong, springboarding off of N.T. Wright's commentary, makes a good case that this isn't a problem unique to Catholic priests, but in fact, is true of all Christian pastors. In fact, I think many of these are the same problems facing politicans. They obviously have strong views on public issues, and many of them would have interesting points in online discussions, but they wisely tend to keep their electronic output to a minimum (other than silly, poorly written Twitter posts).

It seems to me that this is one forum where the laity should lead the way, but in a manner which supports our priests. We should be like the pundits and talking heads who support and advance the politicans' agendas (only much more genuine, naturally); or like the WebMD which provides general advice and support online until you can get to your local physician. But just like pundits can't pass legislation, or online medical resources perform surgery, blogs such as this are incomplete. They should call you towards the priest at your local church, not towards more time staring at the glowing screen o' information.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fr. William Most on Total Depravity

Fr. Most wrote a section in Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God which I think unintentionally adds to this discussion (I say unintentionally, because his focus wasn't answering Calvinism or total depravity; it was answering arguments raised by the early Thomists which resemble Calvinism substantially in many features). The section in question is §74, from Part I, Chapter 6, "Official teaching on the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart." In it, Fr. Most describes Pope Pius XII's teachings on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and specifically, three aspects of the heart of Jesus. He possesses:
1) Divine love "which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit."
2) Human spiritual love, which resides in the spiritual human soul of Christ: "Furthermore [His Heart] is a symbol of that fiery love which was infused into His soul, and enriches the human will of Christ."
3) Human sensory love: "And finally-and that, in a more natural and direct way-[His Heart] is also a symbol of sensory affection, for the body of Jesus Christ enjoys a most perfect power of feeling and perceiving, truly more than all other human bodies."
So just like Jesus Christ Himself, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, and felt the full range of human feelings. One need not be a Catholic to believe this: any Protestant affirming Chalcedon (or affirming the dual natures of Christ) must necessarily come to the same conclusion.

The reason why this is important for yesterday's discussion is this. If total depravity means that we humans have no idea what good and evil is, because we are so fundamentally warped, it's easy to say that God's Goodness is so contrary to our own that it is unrecognizable as Good. But once you add in the fully Human Jesus, the picture changes somewhat. Because if Jesus, in His human form, consistently behaved in a way which was seemingly evil (which is what this theory would necessarily require), He wouldn't have seemed moral, much less worthy of following. Yet we know from John 6:66 and other places that there were disciples who ceased to follow Him. In other words, there were those who were not finally predestined who were attracted to Christ's Man and teachings, even if they weren't willing to put their faith in His Divinity and Messiahship. And in fact, we can see from Jesus' life and behavior that He behaved in a way that is immediately recognizable to even the most primitive sense of right and wrong.

If we reject this, we must also reject Lewis' trilemma. That is, Lewis argues:
  1. Jesus must be either Lord (He was God and knew it), Liar (He wasn't God and knew it), or lunatic (He wasn't God and thought He was);
  2. The Bible provides a window into the earthly life of a Man who seems so thoroughly moral and humble, and so philosophically insightful, that we immediately recognize in Him the traits opposite of what we should find in a liar or a lunatic.
  3. Therefore, it seems reasonable to accept Jesus Christ's explanation that He is, indeed, the Christ.
But if the Human, Jesus, has a sense of right and wrong unrecognizable by you or I, we might immediately assume that He was cruel or depraved. In other words, step 2 falls apart.

Finally, Fr. Most says this, which I think summarizes my thoughts on this aspect:
Now, no really human heart wants to permit anyone it loves to suffer without necessity without personal fault. But the Heart of Christ is fully human and is enkindled with great love, even sensory love, for us, so that Pius XII said, as we have already seen:3 "And actually our divine Redeemer was nailed to the cross more by love than by the violence of the executioners; and His voluntary holocaust is the supreme gift that He imparted to each individual man, according to the terse statement of the Apostle: 'He loved me, and gave Himself up for me.'" Therefore, the Heart of Christ does not want to desert4 anyone without grave and persistent personal demerits. For He who suffered so much for each individual out of love, has proved and demonstrated a most vehement love for each individual.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

C.S. Lewis on Total Depravity

I picked up a copy of The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis tonight, and found a part that I'd read a few weeks ago, and was surprised by. Specifically, it's where Lewis says this:
Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma.
On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
On the other hand, if God's moral judgment differs from ours so that our 'black' may be His 'white,' we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say 'God is good,' while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say 'God is we know not what.' And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) 'good' we shall obey, if at all, only through fear - and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity - where the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing - may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.
What has drawn me back to this point is simply how strongly he makes his case. Lewis was generally careful to avoid overstating a point, and he tended to understate his point more often than the converse. In all of his writing, he chooses his words carefully. And more than perhaps any other Christian writer since the Reformation, his public writings have bridged denominational bounds without sacrificing orthodoxy. Yet here, in a book intended for publication, he calls the doctrine of total depravity potential "devil worship." It seems to me that when an author as irenic and as respected as C. S. Lewis makes such a bold claim, it seems to warrant an answer, or at least, discussion.

That said, there's not anything which I feel I can add of worth to the discussion. Personally, I find Lewis' particular formulation of this argument completely compelling.* It's devoid of argument from emotion - no "how could a loving God do that?" In its stead, he poses the simple thesis that if we are so depraved we can't know what goodness is, we have no way of saying that God is morally superior to the devil: only that we prefer Him, or that He is more powerful.

Lewis explains further in the chapter (it's chapter 3, by the way) that the proper solution to this is that the difference between God's understanding of good and evil and our own is a difference of degree and not of kind. An analogy which helped me was this: a calculator is far better at addition and subtraction than a child working alone. There may even be times when the child fails to understand how the calculator is right and his is wrong. But at base, what the child is doing is simply an imperfect form of what the calculator does perfectly. The calculator, for this child, is a helpful guide, and a ready source of necessary correction. On the other hand, if what the boy called addition the calculator called multiplication, or vice versa, the difference would not be one of the calculator performing a task better than the boy, but of the two performing different tasks, but calling it by the same name. The child would not even be able to say that the calculator was better at addition than he was -- only that the calculator was doing something too far beyond his grasp to understand. The first example is a difference of degree, the second is a difference of kind.

As recent technology, like HD and Blu-Ray, has evolved, what we once thought of as "crystal clear TV" has revolutionized. What once looked crisp and white now looks faded and dulled by comparison. That's how even the greatest of saints will look by the Perfect Goodness of God. But this isn't because what we think of as good is really evil, but because sin taints. But this notion of tainting is the difference between a red stain on a white shirt, and a red shirt. Again, a difference of degree v. kind.

Perhaps put more succinctly. God, being Perfect, will surpass our understanding of the Good; but if He instead is wholly distinct from our understanding of the Good, then He's not "Good" within any human meaning of that term. So to say we worship God because He is Good becomes misleading. Rather, we worship God because He says He is good. But from 2 Corinthians 11:14, we know that Satan mimics God's goodness, even masquerading as an angel of light.

So if both God and the devil say that they're Good (even Perfect, and worthy of emulating), and we're too depraved to have any accurate sense of right and wrong, we have no way to evaluate their claims. By what standard then can we say that God is truly perfect Goodness, while the devil is merely aping that goodness in a fatal deception? Lewis concludes that we're left with merely worshipping God because He is more powerful, and that it could just as well have been the devil had he had held the upper hand.

What's more, and this goes beyond Lewis' argument, is if we worship God and obey Him only because we fear His power, and because we think He's going to triumph, we're not really moral. We're simply opportunists. We're simply siding with the side we suspect is the winning team: there's nothing morally redeemable about making that choice for that reason.

Anyways, I don't intend for this to be the last word on the subject, but hopefully, this can spark some dialogue on the issue. I'm interested in what anyone else has to say on the subject.

*I am, perhaps, not Lewis' target audience for such an argument, as I have no particular inclinations towards total depravity as he has articulated it. I should note as well that within Calvinism, the term "total depravity" has much more flexibility than most people let on. For some, it means exactly what Lewis has identified - this is, I understand, the historical usage; for others, it seems to mean no more than "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), a sentiment with which all Christians would (or should) readily accede.