Monday, October 31, 2011

The Three "Reformation Day" Ironies

Today, for most of us, is Halloween.  But a lot of Christians are disturbed by the way that Halloween seems to celebrate evil, and many Protestants choose to celebrate Reformation Day instead.  While I respect the desire to have fun without celebrating evil, I find Reformation Day to be unwittingly hilarious.  Here's why.

Irony #1: Calvinist Iconography

This made me grin: To celebrate Reformation Day, Calvinists are commemorating with John Calvin Jack O'Lanterns.  I wonder if the (quite-skilled) artist recognized the absurdity of making a Calvinist graven image.

What about Calvin's fatuous interpretation of the First/Second Commandment, that it prohibits all religious imagery?  After all, this is the same Calvin who was such a fierce iconoclast that he denounced as idolatry any images of God or His Saints.

In Book I, Chapter 11 of Institutes of Christian Religion, he wrote, “It is therefore mere infatuation to attempt to defend images of God and the saints by the example of the Cherubim [Exodus 25:17-22].” And this same Calvin oversaw the burning of the religious paintings in Geneva, and the destruction of the religious statues.

Nor is this graven image alone.  The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland (depicted on the left) is an enormous stone monument with engraved figures of the Calvinist Reformers. Four figures: Calvin, Beza, Farel, and Knox, tower over their mortal counterparts, and form the centerpiece of the wall.

And let's be honest here.  Calvin (and the others) are being venerated in this way for the religious contributions.  If this were, say, the Apostles, or St. Augustine, instead of Calvin, Calvinists would be having a fit.

But perhaps it's okay to have Calvin engravings, because modern Calvinists aren't prone to superstition, and aren't about to start worshiping a Calvin pumpkin or statue.  That's a fair point.  Except that it's an argument that Calvin rejects: “Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a single nation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 11).

So that's the first Reformation Day irony: it involves engraving images of the men who hated engraved images.


Irony #2: Reformation Day is Everything (Some) Evangelicals Hate About Christmas

This second irony is admittedly more narrow in scope.  It's specific to those  Evangelicals who are against Christmas, on account of their belief that it stems from Babylonian paganism.  John MacArthur is a good example here.  While he permits celebrating Christmas, he still thinks it's a combination of Christianity and paganism.  In a nutshell, he claims:
  1. December 25 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Catholics tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe) remained.
  3. Evangelicals denounce this as a spiritually-dangerous mish-mash of Christianity and paganism.
Many Evangelicals refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, for this reason.  Now, I suppose I should note that, historically speaking, this is mostly garbage. As Mark Shea explains, the evidence suggests the exact opposite: that it was the paganism mimicking a Christian  religious observance, rather than the other way around.

But there's no question that “Reformation Day” is an attempt to Christianize Halloween.  By their own logic, then, Reformation Day should be considered evil.  In other words:
  1. October 31 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Protestants tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (pumpkins, gourds, candy-eating, etc.) remained. 
  3. Yet Evangelicals like John MacArthur embrace Reformation Day.
At a bare minimum, next time you hear an Evangelical parroting that claptrap about how Christmas or Easter is warmed-over paganism, ask where their outrage is at Reformation Day.

So that's the second Reformation Day irony: many of the same people who denounce Christmas for (allegedly) Christianizing a pagan festival embrace Reformation Day for attempting to do the exact same thing.

Irony # 3: To Avoid Celebrating Evil, It Celebrates Evil

As I said above, the origin of Reformation Day was a desire by conservative Protestants not to celebrate Halloween, since it often involves folks celebrating evil.  That's completely legitimate, and an issue Catholics address as well.  Of course, it's quite possible to have fun celebrating Halloween without celebrating anything evil.

But the solution that these Protestants have taken is the saddest irony. Instead of celebrating Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517 (which probably never actually happened).

But they're not celebrating the Theses themselves: to my knowledge, no Protestant actually believes all 95 of Luther's Theses.  For example, you'd be hard pressed to find a Protestant claiming that:

  • inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh” (Thesis 3), or that 
  • God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest” (Thesis 7), or 
  • That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25), and so on.

Rather, what's being celebrated is the Protestant Reformation.  That's why it's “Reformation Day,” not “95 Theses Day.”

But in celebrating this, they're celebrating the unraveling of the Church. Even for many Protestants, that makes Reformation Day morally problematic.  Why celebrate divorce?  Why celebrate the great Christian refusal to listen to Jesus' Prayer that we all remain One (John 17:20-23)?  Why celebrate the refusal to listen to Hebrews 13:17-18, which says,
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
And finally, why celebrate the commission of many of the sins that St. Paul condemns in Galatians 5:19-21:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That's the third, and saddest, irony of Reformation Day. While it rejects Halloween for celebrating evil, it replaces it with a celebration of different evils.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Prayer Request: Heart Surgeries for Girls with Down Syndrome

Kevin Heldt wrote in response to the post on Down syndrome, abortion, and forced starvation:
The [abortion] statistic (and 92% is what I've seen) is chilling. Our society is desperately sick.

Just last month, after a long wait, my wife and I brought home our newest daughters, two girls with Down syndrome from Ethiopia. After having the privilege of getting to know them better over these last several weeks, it is no surprise to me whatsoever that the devil would target those who, like them, have a little something extra. Their sweet souls are specially fashioned by God to soften and make tender the hearts of all who come in contact with them. (It has been nothing short of incredible seeing this in action every single time our new daughters meet someone new.) They are uniquely gifted to give love, without inhibitions, without conditions. I firmly believe these precious children are some of God's most powerful instruments to heal our society which is quite literally hell-bent on choosing fear and death and hate over hope and life and love.

Leticia, thanks for all that you do. Brianna and I can't wait to read your book!

And Joe, I'm going to shamelessly (pun intended, based on your blog's title) take advantage of your wide readership and ask any and all of your readers who might be reading this comment to pray for our girls' upcoming heart surgeries. Thank you.
What a beautiful and inspiring comment.  And please, pray for them!

The Heldts seem like a pretty amazing family, with seven kids aged seven or under.  If you want to learn more about them, and the two newest members of their family (Tigist and Mekdes, the girls Kevin refers to above), check out Just Showing Up, the blog run by Kevin's wife, Brianna. I've mentioned it before because it's very good. In particular, check out this post for more information about the procedure, and adorable pictures of them both.

Why It Matters that Kate Middleton Can Be Catholic Now

This morning a certain priest (who may or may not be my putative “co-blogger” here) texted me to say, “British royal family opened to Catholics now! Time to take back the island!!” He was joking, of course, but it turns out, plenty of Brits are very worried about this exact thing.

Until yesterday, “a future monarch could marry someone of any faith except a Catholic.”  So if Kate Middleton had been a Catholic, she would have had to convert to Protestantism (or anything besides Catholicism), or the wedding couldn't have gone forward.

The rule also bars the future monarch himself from being Catholic (sorry, Prince Charles), as well as the Prime Minister.  These anti-Catholic laws remain in place: so Kate Middleton can be a Catholic, but Prince William cannot, and neither can Prime Minister David Cameron.  It was this last part that drew international attention to the discriminatory laws, because former Prime Minister Tony Blair was regularly attending Mass, but decided to wait until he left office to convert, since he would otherwise cause something of a constitutional crisis.

Allegedly, the ban on Catholic royals and Prime Ministers was because the Queen (or King) and the Prime Minister are involved in some capacity in the governance of the Church of England, the official state religion.  But this reasoning didn't bar non-Anglican Gordon Brown from becoming Prime Minister in 2007, after Blair stepped down.  And the law only forbids Catholics: Prince William could married a Muslim or a Sikh, but not a Catholic.

Beyond all this, the Queen is also the head of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. The reality is that these positions of authority are almost completely ceremonial - it's not as if the Queen is being called upon to settle the issue of female or gay ordination, or even to decide between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, for example.  If an Anglican can head the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, and a Presbyterian can be Prime Minister of the (Anglican) Church of England, then sectarian purity seems to be of a somewhat lower import than defenders of this law would suggest.  Where's the outrage over Gordon Brown or Queen Elizabeth?


The True Reason for the Bar Against Catholics

The true reason for the law, plainly, is anti-Catholic prejudice: the wild idea that a Catholic will be the mindless servant of the pope, and therefore, can't be a true patriot.  The fears were serious enough that the Telegraph ran an article claiming that even if the heir married a Catholic, there'd be nothing to worry about, since they'd raise their kids Anglicans (since the monarch cannot be a Catholic, still).  That suggestion already assumes that a Catholic monarch is something worth worrying about.

But the comments readers left in response to the article waxed conspiratorial.  To take a sampling of just what I've seen from the front page, there's this:

As for letting the Roman Catholics back into the succession, you can be sure that Rome will do everything in its power to ensure that any issue from such a marriage is brought up as a left-footer. This article is the start of the campaign - telling us not to worry our pretty little heads about it.
Left-footer” is a bizarre anti-Catholic slur, if you're not familiar.  Here's another of the Telegraph comments:
And if the child is secretly brought up as a catholic (mothers usually put their offspring to bed and, if religious, say goodnight prayers with them) and upon ascending the throne feels his/her allegiance is to Rome what might happen next?
What indeed?  Why not allow British heads of state to be Catholic?  There are a lot of Catholic heads of state throughout Europe.  Are any of them handing the keys of the country over to the pope?  Does Pope Benedict seem even a little like he really wants to be King of England?  Finally, this comment gets right to the heart of things:
Any sovereign sympathetic to the Catholic Church could potentially act in a manner subservient to the Pope. Personally I don't see the benefit in surrendering sovereignty to the Holy Roman Empire.
To justify this anti-Catholic prejudice, the commenter has to act like the Holy Roman Empire still exists, which it hasn't, since 1806.  And of course, even when it did exist, it wasn't as if the Holy Roman Emperor was a docile servant of the pope.

In addition to these (and many, many, many more) anti-Catholic comments, they were a lot of atheists smearing all religions.  And all this, in England!

The Sad Reality of Secular England

Once upon a time, the Crown played a central role in these things, and the Prime Minister was actually a minister.  Those days are long over.  So, for that matter, are the days of Anglicanism mattering to the British, it seems.  Currently, Anglicanism is only the third most practiced religion in England.  Despite being the official state religion, there are more practicing Catholics and Muslims than practicing Anglicans, although the fastest growing religious group are non-religious.  In fact, practicing Catholics outnumber practicing Anglicans simply because of (a) Eastern European immigration, and (b) Catholics leave the Church slower -- both religious groups are in terrible shape, and have seen their numbers halved in the last few decades.  This is made dramatically clear by the statistics compiled by the Church Society, measuring Anglican Sunday attendance from 1968 - 2009:


The change in the royal succession laws is good, in that it gets a blatantly anti-Catholic law off the books, and one that was causing heartburn as recently as 2007, with Blair's conversion.  But the sad reality is that this change is possible simply because religion of all sorts - Anglicanism, Catholicism, or theism in general - no longer seems to matter to the United Kingdom in the way that it once did.  It's largely played out as a battle between those who dislike Catholicism and those who dislike all religion.  What we're witnessing may not be the triumph of reason over anti-Catholic bigotry, but  the triumph of secularism over religion of any and all sorts.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Down Syndrome, Abortion, and Forced Starvation

Kids with Down Syndrome face a society disturbingly willingly to kill them.  As the New York Times notes, “About 90 percent of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion.”  For those who make it out of the womb alive, the danger isn't over yet.  Many are then forcibly starved as infants.  From pages 99-100 of Edward Tivnan's pro-euthanasia Moral Imagination: Confronting the Ethical Issues of Our Day, outlining the history of the euthanasia movement:
Despite significant advances during the 1960s in surgery, resuscitation methods, and intensive care, health professionals were deciding to let patients die every day. And these were not just the terminal, but also the very elderly and babies so horribly deformed and physically limited that no one could offer a prognosis of “a meaningful life” for them. Privately, doctors were saying, “Enough, let the poor thing die.” But it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began talking publicly about the reality of euthanasia.
Forcible starvation, Dachau (1945)

One reason for this was the “John Hopkins Case,” reported in 1973. After seeking some spiritual advice, the parents of an infant born with Down's syndrome and duodenal atresia, an intestinal blockage that can be repaired, decided that a mongoloid child was better dead and refused permission for corrective surgery. Fifteen days later the child died of starvation.

Most commentators were appalled by the simplistic standards of “deformity” and “suffering” applied in the case, and many disagreed with the parents’ decision. But such cases were not as rare as most people thought. In the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, two doctors reported that among 299 deaths in the special-care nursery of the Yale-New Haven Hospital between 1970 and 1972, forty-three -- 14 percent -- were infants with multiple birth defects to their bodies, hearts, and central nervous systems. In each case, doctors and parents had agreed that the chance the infant had for a “meaningful life” was either extremely poor or hopeless; treatment was ended.
There is a sense in which this is perhaps worse than abortion or assisted suicide.  There's no illusion that the crying infant is anything less than human, yet he's forcibly starved.  If intentionally starving someone you know is (a) alive, and (b) totally reliant upon you for food and water isn't murder, on what basis can we condemn the forcible starvation of the Jews during the Holocaust?  What moral grounds distinguish those two actions?

As for the standard of “a meaningful life,” it's garbage.  Or more specifically, it's not based on how happy those with Down Syndrome are, but on how uncomfortable Down syndrome makes the able-bodied.  As Brown, Taylor, and Matthews explained in Down Syndrome Research and Practice:
As far as we are aware, no large study of the views of people living with Down syndrome about their quality of life has been conducted. Anecdotally, people with Down syndrome do not appear to consider their condition a source of suffering. Much of what effects quality of life for people with Down syndrome perhaps results from society's behaviour towards them rather than necessarily the condition itself.
Anecdotal evidence supports the authors' conclusions. From the Times:
Sarah Itoh, a self-described “almost-eleven-and-a-half,” betrayed no trace of nervousness as she told a roomful of genetic counselors and obstetricians about herself one recent afternoon.

She likes to read, she said. Math used to be hard, but it is getting easier. She plays clarinet in her school band. She is a junior girl scout and an aunt, and she likes to organize, so her room is very clean. Last year, she won three medals in the Special Olympics.

“I am so lucky I get to do so many things,” she concluded. “I just want you to know, even though I have Down syndrome, it is O.K.”
The sign carried by the little boy below says it all (h/t LifeNews):

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Are the Marks of the True Church?

This past weekend, a Calvinist explained to me that she left the Methodists after concluding that they weren't a church, since they didn't preach the pure word of God. To Catholic ears, this sort of claim can sound pretty strange, so I wanted to explain what Calvinists mean by this, and why it's wrong.

I. What's Meant

In the Sixteenth Century, the Reformers faced a serious problem.  They believed, as John Calvin wrote in Book IV, Chapter I of Institutes of the Christian Religion, that “beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.”  Since Calvin and others were breaking away from the visible Church, this doctrine posed a serious hurdle.  After all, they appeared to be condemning themselves with their own words.

So what they did is redefine what “Church” means. The clearest example of this is from the Dutch Calvinist Belgic Confession (1567):
The Belgic Confession

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church-- and no one ought to be separated from it.
So it's only the true Church if the preaching of the Gospel and administration of sacraments are pure, and church discipline is used for correcting faults.  Calvin only believed in two marks of the Church: “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments.”  He argued that to lose these two marks would “destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church”:
There is nothing on which Satan is more intent than to destroy and efface one or both of them - at one time to delete and abolish these marks, and thereby destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church; at another, to bring them into contempt, and so hurry us into open revolt from the Church. To his wiles it was owing that for several ages the pure preaching of the word disappeared, and now, with the same dishonest aim, he labours to overthrow the ministry, which, however, Christ has so ordered in his Church, that if it is removed the whole edifice must fall.
Thus, he argued, Catholicism wasn't the true Church, because the Sacraments and preaching were all wrong. In the 1559 French Confession of Faith (PDF), he put it like this:
Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them.
Thus, schism from the visible Church was not only permissible, but necessary, since the Church had (according to Calvin) stopped being part of the true Church.

II. Why It's Wrong

Catholics will readily agree that good preaching, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and Church discipline are important parts of the life of the Church.  A church that fails to do these things fails the flock in important ways.  But here's the important caveat: a church that fails in these ways doesn't cease to be part of the Church.  We can see this clearly from Scripture.  In Revelation 2-3, Jesus delivers a message through St. John to the seven churches of Asia Minor (see Rev. 1:17-20).  In Revelation 2:12-17, we hear this message to the Church in Pergamum:
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. 
 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
In other words, the Church in Pergamum both (1) failed to enforce Church discipline (as did the Church in Thyatira -- see Rev. 2:20), and (2) apparently permitted heretical (Nicolatan) teachings.

That is, it failed to meet two of the standards that the Belgic confession claims are basic marks of the Church.  And yet Jesus still calls it a church.  He even says that despite these problems, the local church (as a whole) has remained “true to My Name. (Rev. 2:13).

So plainly, while the failure to enforce Church discipline, and to ensure that heresy isn't preached are important tasks of the Church (Jesus is rebuking them for these failures, after all), they don't render the Church not the Church.  And if that's true on the local level, it's certainly true on the global.

III. The True Marks of the Church, And Why They Matter

The (Calvinist) Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) acknowledges that:
Since the fourth century, Christians, including the Reformers, have used the Nicene Creed as a confession of faith. Worshippers confess that they believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. However, since many sects claim the name "church," the Reformers asked what scripturally defined marks distinguish true and false churches? How can we identify where the true church of God is present?  The Reformers are clear: Where the word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, there the one true holy and apostolic church is present.

There are three important points to be made here.
  1. There are distinctive marks that the true Church must hold to, laid out by the Nicene Creed.  The Creed, at the heart of orthodox Christianity, proclaims a belief in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”  These are the Four Marks of the Church, and the Fathers point to them constantly.  The True Church is a single Institution, is Holy, is Catholic, and has Apostolic Succession.  Historically, there's no real question that the Nicene Fathers were referring to the visible Church, the very Church Calvin and the other Reformers broke away from and denied.

  2. The Reformers are the source of these new “Marks”: solid preaching, proper administration of the sacraments, and Church discipline faithfully exercised.  And the Calvinists are divided over what these new Marks are, and how many there are.  The Belgic Confession and the Orthodox Presbterian Church list these three, while Calvin himself listed only two (excluding Church discipline).  Some Reformed Evangelicals now claim that there are nine marks (none of which are the four identified by the Nicene Creed).  Yet we've already seen from Scripture that the Church remains the Church even where She fails to deliver on one of these two (or three, or nine) categories.

  3. The new “Marks” are divisive and unhelpful:  The OPC notes that “many sects claim the name "church,"” but as an excuse for using the new “Marks.”  But these sects can't credibly claim Apostolic Succession or Catholicity or Oneness.  But every sect can (and does) claim proper preaching, sacraments, and Church discipline.  We think Presbyterians have too few sacraments.  They think we have too many.  So the new “Marks” provide no serious basis for distinguishing between the Church and schismatics or heretics.  It quickly devolves into “they disagree with me, so they're not really the Church.” 

In fact, the new “Marks” were made for precisely that purpose.  Calvin and the Reformers wanted to break away from the visible Church, and by creating heightened standards (including vague and impossible to prove or disprove criteria), they were able to justify it.

Let's use divorce as a parallel.  There's no question that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and totally forbids it (Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18).  But if you really wanted to divorce your husband, all you'd have to do is create a new checklist, claiming that a true husband gives his life up for his wife (Ephesians 5:25).  So unless your husband has risked martyrdom for you, he's not really your husband, so you're free to leave.

Do you see the error there?  A husband should do x, y, and z.  But that doesn't mean he ceases to be your husband if he doesn't, or that you get to divorce him if he doesn't.  There is such a thing as a lousy husband.  By adding more and more things to the list of what it takes to be a true husband, you may sound pious, but you're really just adding more and more excuses for divorce.

Likewise, the Church has some lousy ministers.   There are bad homilies, there are times when heresy has sprung up, and the Church has been slow in cracking down.  And there are times when there are even invalid Sacraments: a heretical priest who refuses to use the Trinitarian formula, or changes the words of consecration.  But those people are, short of excommunication, still a part of the Church.  Judas was a bad Apostle.  But he was still an Apostle, according to Scripture (Acts 1:20; Matthew 10:1-4).

And of course, even Reformed churches suffer from bad homilies, lax ministers, and the like.  For example, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has complained that Church discipline is “the missing Mark,” in that it's so rarely exercised in the modern world.  In other words, even most Reformed churches don't meet the Reformed definition of Church.  So this vague and heightened definition destroys the Church, rather than building it up, or locating it.

IV. Conclusion

Hopefully, this basic outline establishes a few things.

  1. The Church, from the beginning, has believed that there are four essential Marks by which we can know the true Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  
  2. The Catholic Church possesses all four, in the sense understood by the Fathers of the Council.  
  3. Protestant churches don't, since the Reformers deliberately broke the Oneness of the Church, and end Apostolic Succession.
  4. To justify these schisms, the Reformers invented new criteria that the Church must hold to, but they contradicted one another and the Church Fathers in so doing. 
  5. These new standards are contrary to the Bible, are subjective, and have helped destroy the Oneness that the Nicene Creed calls for, and that Christ calls for (John 17:20-23).
So if you're looking to find the fullness of the Church established by Christ, look for the One that can credibly claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Doomsday Radio Wants Your Money

You may remember Family Radio, the group predicting that Judgment Day was coming on May 21, 2011, followed by the end of the world on October 21.  After nothing happened on May 21, their leader, Harold Camping, claimed that Judgment Day was just invisible, that the world was still ending on October 21, and that “We had all of our dates correct” (no, really: he said this after May 21).

Well, after staking what remained of the organization's reputation on October 21, 2011, Family Radio went big... and came up short.  The world didn't end on Friday, and it's really hard to spin that failure.

The damage that these false predicted have already done to the Body of Christ has been profound.  After the May 21 date didn't pan out, angry callers described being financially ruined: “You’re really pathetic, you know? I wasted all my money because of you. I was putting all my money and my hopes on you… I wish I could see you face to face, I would smack you. Mr. Camping, you always say a lot of (redacted) I lost all my money because of you, you (redacted).”  Another caller described the loss of something worse far more than money: “I don't know what it means to be faithful anymore because I am really disappointed.”  And of course, atheists have been using these failures to argue that Christianity is stupid.

Of course, this is yet another reminder that Psalm 146:3 isn't joking when it says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.

In light of the unambiguous evidence that they have no idea what they're talking about in regards to the end-times, what should Family Radio have immediately done?  I think that the answer is obvious.  They should have apologized for their crazy eschatological views, their obsession with the end-times, and their loose-cannon Scriptural exegesis, as well as for the lives they ruined, the damage they inflicted upon the Body of Christ, and the two times that they humiliated Christians around the globe.

But of course, they didn't do any of that.  Instead, they sent out an appeal for money.   Turns out, they didn't budget very well past October 21:
Family Radio Stations, Inc, the radio network founded and managed by Bible teacher Harold Camping, was broadcasting a message on Saturday, one day after the world failed to end as the 90-year-old evangelist had predicted, encouraging remaining supporters to keep making donations to the network. 
The message also revealed that the station, which reaped about $80 million in donations between 2005 and 2009 and also benefited from sales of some of its radio properties, may be in danger of experiencing financial difficulties.
While we're on the subject, why did Family Radio still have any money?  If they really believed the message they were proclaiming, why not live it, and give up everything for Christ, in the lead-up to the end of the world?   By the way, Harold Camping retired on October 16, but apparently for health reasons, rather than a belief that he had five days left to live.  He has yet to apologize.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Eucharist in the Early Church, Through Non-Christian Eyes

One of the things I've pointed out before is that the writings of the Church Fathers are devoid of (1) Church Fathers teaching something contrary to Transubstantiation on the Eucharist, and (2) Christian objections to Transubstantiation by taught by certain Church Fathers.  That is, all of the Church Fathers can be lumped into “clearly Catholic,” or “hard to tell” on this topic, without anyone apparently denouncing the Catholic view as incorrect, much less idolatry.

I referred to these as the “dogs that didn't bark,” in reference to the Sherlock Holmes' novel Silver Blaze (Tony Lane informed that Msgr. Ronald Knox called this form of argument “Sherlockismus”).  If the early Church really was Protestant in their Eucharistic theology, we should find them teaching obviously-Protestant things about the Eucharist, or at least objecting when prominent Church members proclaim obviously-Catholic things.

A Protestant reader turned this question on its head, and asked: if the early Church took Jesus' words here literally, where was the Jewish outcry?  After all, it was contrary to the Law to drink blood, and the whole practice seems barbaric from the outside. That's a great question. And fortunately, Catholics can point to plenty of places where we do see this outcry.

Jewish Outcry

A few things to remember. The first is that there's no question that the early Christians didn't keep kosher, and that this was a major cause of controversy.  We see the debates over this (called “the Judaizer controversy”)  in places like Acts 10-11, Acts 15, Paul's writings, etc.

Second, it's not clear that the Eucharist is a violation of the Law. Certainly, it's not against the Spirit of the Law. The Eucharist isn't consumption of Blood in the normal sense. Otherwise, we'd be cannibals. Although it's literally Jesus' Body and Blood, we aren't destroying Jesus in the process (more on this in the next section). So it's no more against Jewish kosher laws than it is against the Christian prohibition against cannibalism. For example, Origen argued that the Eucharist didn't count as breaking a fast, because it's not ordinarily eating and drinking.  Similar logic would seem to apply here.  Besides that, non-Christian Jews would have believed the Eucharist to be just bread and wine.  So they were likely less scandalized by it then they were by the Christian practice of eating pork, for example.


Third, we actually see this outrage in John 6. In particular, read John 6:52-58:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
Note that Jesus doesn't correct the Jewish objection as a misunderstanding.  He reinforces it, instead.  After this, many of His disciples denounce it as a “hard saying,” and stop following Him (John 6:60, John 6:66).  In other words, this is exactly the sort of outrage we'd expect to find... and we find it from the very beginning.   

Roman Outcry

This dog also barked for the Romans, who accused the Christians of being cannibals, for covering baby Jesus with grain, then tearing His Flesh apart and drinking His Blood. See, for example, the reference in Minucius Felix's Octavius (which was written sometime between 150-270 A.D.):
Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily - O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.
The Roman critic appears to have gotten the details of the Nativity and the Eucharist all mixed together. Which is itself significant. The Nativity story involves a journey to Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread” in Hebrew, and “House of Meat” in Arabic), and placing Jesus in a manger, that is, a food trough. Jesus' Flesh is the Bread upon which Christians feed. So the Romans were inadvertently right in seeing a connection to the two, even if they screwed the details up badly.

Conclusion

An English Lutheran put it simply:  “If what you believe and teach concerning the Supper couldn’t be misinterpreted by some people as sounding like cannibalism, then your understanding and/or teaching of the Supper is deficient.”  The early Christians believed something about the Eucharist that sounded like cannibalism to outsiders.  If we don't believe that today, we've lost their faith. And when Jesus' Jewish critics accused Him of teaching that He was going to give us His Flesh to eat, He didn't deny it, but reinforced their point.  The Catholic Church would respond the same way today.  Would you?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interior v. Exterior Peace

In today's Gospel, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).  It's not what we expect from Him. After all, Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, “the God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, Romans 15:33),  and we're used to hearing Jesus say things like, “Peace be with you,” which he does three times in the span of seven verses in John 20 (see John 20:19, Jn. 20:21, Jn. 20:26).

I. What We're Not Promised: Exterior Peace

From the context, we can see the kind of peace that Christ isn't promising (Luke 12:49-53):
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
So He won't provide us with exterior peace. By exterior peace, I mean the ability of everyone to simply get along without arguing.  In fact, He's upfront about the fact that Christianity will lead to division. Non-Christians are often scandalized by what we believe and do, just as we're often scandalized by what they believe and do.

There's much in this world that's sinful.  Non-religious people can turn a blind eye, or pretend that everything's okay.  Thankfully, Christians don't have that luxury.  This, naturally, can lead to uncomfortable situations. At a bare minimum, I think anyone who's converted to Christianity can point to an old friend or two who it's become uncomfortable to hang around with anymore.  And some people give up a lot more in converting.  For example, a Saudi Christian was tortured and killed by her own father when she converted from Islam.


Ultimately, exterior peace in this lifetime is a pipe dream.  It's often false, papering over real conflicts.  When people pine for “world peace,” it's worth asking how existing inequalities and injustices should be addressed.  For example, when the NAACP started a concerted push for black civil rights, white Southerners often denounced them as “instigators.”   That is, they upset the exterior peace of Jim Crow.  The world is still like that: full of situations that need to be addressed.  As Christians, we can't be lulled into an attachment with the sort of peace that simply accepts the status quo, sins and all.

II. What We Are Promised: Interior Peace


But Christ does promise a form of peace. It's interior peace, the peace of the soul.  He's clear that this is something distinct form exterior peace in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  What He's describing is a peace of the soul, rather than the external absence of conflict.

So when the Bible refers to the “peace of Christ” (Philippians 4:7) or the  “peace of God” (Colossians 3:15), it's not idle language.  It's because this is an otherworldly peace, unlike what the world is capable of offering us.  And when we offer the Sign of Peace during Mass, it's this sort of peace we're praying that the other person will experience: the interior peace of the soul.


III. Interior v. Exterior Peace


Often, we have to choose between exterior and interior peace.  For example, imagine that an old friend of yours is doing something morally wrong: perhaps he's making blasphemous jokes, or making fun of disabled people.  You can either (a) laugh along with it, or (b) object to it.


If you laugh along with it, you're preserving exterior peace.  You and your friend stay friends, and you avoid an awkward situation.  But to do this, you sacrifice interior peace. Inside, you know you should have said something, and these moral failings will come back and haunt you. You have, in a certain way, let God down.  Live a life always compromising your morals in this way, and you're guaranteed to be unhappy.  By avoiding a fight with your friend, you're guaranteeing yourself a fight with your conscience, instead.

Plus, the underlying problem isn't solved: it's just lying dormant.  And that's what makes this form of exterior peace so risky: it's often false.  We end up just avoiding conflict, and putting a band-aid over a real moral problem.  Or, as God puts it in Jeremiah 6:14, “They dress the wound of My people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.


On the other hand, if you object, you've got exterior division. You have to address a situation you probably don't want to address, and you're risking losing your friendship forever.  But in risking this division, you gain interior peace. You can rest easy knowing that you're right with the One who matters, and that He'll take care of you.  Your friend may be annoyed with you, but your conscience isn't.  Plus, if this friendship is healthy, things will probably end up better off for it.  Your friend may actually learn something from the correction, and become a better person.  These sorts of conflicts have a way of drawing people together.

Father Jean de Brébeuf, whose feast we celebrated yesterday (along with St. Isaac Jogues), provided us a great example of interior peace, when he wrote in his diary:
I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered . . . My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them . . .
That's intense.  No matter how grim the external situation, St. Jean de Brébeuf was prepared to face it joyfully, and offer it up to God, in both good times and in bad.  He didn't have exterior peace: in fact, he was about to be tortured and killed.  But he was at peace inside.

Conclusion


Of course, external peace isn't bad. In fact, St. Paul tells us that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  We shouldn't be part of the problem.  But we also shouldn't be afraid to address problems, when they arise.  One of the last things Jesus said to His Apostles before His Death is recounted in John 16:31-33:
“You believe at last!” Jesus answered. “But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave Me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for My Father is with Me. I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
This, or rather, He is the source of our peace. No matter how bad things get for us, or even how badly we fail, Jesus remains in control, and He's already Victorious.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why St. Isaac Jogues Matters

At the start of this year, I followed Jennifer Fulwiler's advice and got a Saint for the Year, using the website she set up.  The Saint randomly chosen for me was St. Isaac Jogues, S.J.  As I stated at the time, I was initially a bit disappointed.  I'd never heard of St. Isaac, and people I knew were getting cool Saints I'd been meaning to lean more about, like St. Raymond of Peñafort.

It was foolish of me to be disappointed, because what God surprised me with was better than what I would have chosen for myself (as usual).  I've been amazed at St. Isaac's life.  He was a Frenchman by birth, but joined the Jesuits to spread the Gospel and save souls.  He was sent as a missionary to the Hurons, the tribe also known as Wyandots.  This went well until the Hurons were attacked by the Mohawks, a tribe so notorious that their name means “man-eaters.”

The Mohawks believed the Jesuits, who they called the “blackrobes” (in reference to their cassocks), were sorcerers, both because of the sacraments, and because disease seemed to follow in their footsteps.  They'd also learned enough about Catholicism to have some shocking cruel forms of torture.  For example, they burnt off or ate several of Isaac's fingers, to make it impossible for him to consecrate the Eucharist.

For thirteen months, he underwent constant torture at the hands of the Mohawk, without even attempting escape.  It wasn't until the Mohawks planned to burn him alive that Isaac allowed himself to be rescued by some Dutch Calvinists.  He went back to Europe, where he received a special dispensation to consecrate the Eucharist with his remaining fingers.  Said Pope Urban VIII: “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ not be allowed to drink the blood of Christ.”  And indeed, that's what Isaac was: a living martyr.  He voluntarily laid down his life for Christ, only to be allowed to take it up again (see John 10:18).

Then Isaac did the unthinkable.  He laid down his life a second time for the same people, saying as he left his home country again, “I go, but I shall not return.”  And indeed, he didn't.  Although he was at first well-received, after the Mohawks' crops failed, they turned on him, torturing him with knives, tomahawking him to death, and beheading him.

Even in death, he lead others to Christ.  He inspired his colleague, Father Jean de Brébeuf, to face his own martyrdom three years later, with bravery and confidence in the Lord,.  And incredibly, Isaac Jogues' killer even converted to Christ, taking the baptismal name Isaac Jogues.

Isaac continues to lead others to Christ.  To give a personal example, I was talking to a St. Mary's parishioner last week, who I'll call “Jack.”  He revealed that he'd been at a men's group meeting in January where I'd mentioned St. Isaac Jogues, and the Saint for the year idea.  Jack took the idea to heart, and devoted himself to learning more about St. Peter Julian Eymard.

Recently, while reading the subway, he was reading some of Eymard's writings.  The man sitting next to him struck up a conversation about it, and revealed himself to be a fallen away Catholic, and proceeded to ask about the areas of the faith he struggled with: the problem of suffering, the violence in the Old Testament, and so on.  Jack responded over the course of the few minutes they had together, planting a seed that just might help bring this stranger back to the faith.

The North American Martyrs
(Sacred Heart Church Parish, Cincinatti, OH)
Neither Jack nor I will likely ever know what became of the man, or whether he acted upon it, but it's easy to see the Hand of God working in events like this.  I hadn't gone out intended to persuade people about the Saint of the Year idea.  Jack hadn't gone to the subway planning to evangelize.  Yet God had His own goals, and accomplished them with plenty of bit players on earth and in Heaven, including St. Isaac Jogues.



Today is St. Isaac Jogues' feast day, along with the other North American Martyrs.  Consider asking God today how He can better use you in spreading His Gospel.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three Quick Points on Rendering Unto Caesar

Friday's post on religious images involved the “Render Unto Caesar” discourse from Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is Your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then He said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
The timing of the post was unintentionally perfect.  First, a copy of Abp. Chaput's book, Render Unto Caesar (which I'd forgotten I'd requested), came in the mail the next day.  And second, this passage was the Gospel reading on Sunday.  Fr. Kleinmann's homily on this passage made three points worth highlighting.


1. The Nature of the Trap

Jewish politics under Roman rule could be complex.  The major question was whether, and how much, to work with the pagan Romans.  In this regard, the Pharisees and Herodians were enemies, because the Herodians had completely sold out, while the Pharisees sought to assuage the Romans, while creating ever-stricter internal religious rules.  In other words, it's likely that the Pharisees and Herodians had different motives in wanting to ask Jesus this question, although they were united in wanting to trip   They probably also were hoping for different answers.

In a nutshell, here's why it was a trap:

  • If Jesus denounced the payment of the tax, He'd be guilty of a capital crime.  
  • In fact, this is one of the crimes He's accused of (Luke 23:2).  But Jesus' Death was about His claim to be the Son of God, and about His Atonement for the sins of mankind, not making a tax protest.
  • If Jesus supported the payment of the tax, He'd appear to betray His people.  The Romans were unpopular, often brutal, rulers.  To endorse them would appear to betray the Jewish people, particularly since many of them thought of Jesus still as Messiah in a political sense, of One who lead an army to overthrow the Romans.  Worse, the Roman Emperor was making blasphemous claims about claiming to be God.  Endorsing him would appear to be endorsing paganism.

Either way He answered, it seemed that Jesus' ministry would quickly get sidetracked into political feuds about tax payment and Roman public policy, even assuming He wasn't executed for it.  Jesus' answer here is brilliant, as we'll see.


2. The Inscription on the Coin was Blasphemous

As a numismatist reader noticed, the coin I used in Friday's post was of Antonius Pius, who was born well after the death of Christ.  Most likely, the coin Jesus was talking about was this one:


The inscription on the front of the coin means “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”  In other words, it's Tiberius blasphemously claiming to be Son of God.  And the coin becomes a tool for the true Son of God, Jesus Christ, to teach us about His Father, and how we can become sons and daughters of God.

It's interesting to see how Jesus handles this coin, given that background.  Archbishop Chaput has this to say about Jesus' answer, on page 204 of Render Unto Caesar (emphasis added):
It’s a clever answer. It’s also profound. Jesus does three vital things here. First, he acknowledges that Caesar has rights; that a difference does exist between the things that belong to God and the things that belong to Caesar. But second, he desacralizes - in effect, he demotes - Caesar by suggesting that Caesar has no rights over those things that belong to God. Only God is God, which means Caesar is not God. Caesar's authority has limits. And third, Jesus stays silent about what exactly belongs to either one. Figuring that out belongs to us.
So Jesus is debunking the notion that Tiberius Caesar is the son of the Divine.  He's flatly rejecting idolatry  But, to get back to the point of Friday's post, He doesn't do it through some knee-jerk iconoclasm, but through showing us who Is and isn't God.  (There's also a lot there about the appropriate roles of Church and State, but I'll do a post on that at a later date, after I've had a chance to read all of Chaput's book.)

3. Jesus Didn't Have the Coin, but His Opponents Did


This is a point I'd never noticed.  In Matthew 22:18-20, there's a crucial detail:

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
So the Herodians and Pharisees, while trying to play to the anti-Roman sentiment of the crowd, are the ones who own the blasphemous coin.  And Jesus doesn't.  

This reminds me of all too many political scandals today: one side will gin up false outrage at the moral failings of a political opponent, only to have it revealed that they, too, were guilty of the same charge.  Here, Jesus is innocent of the accusations they're suggesting, but they're not.  The crowds should be upset with the Pharisees and Herodians, not with Jesus.

UPDATE:  I should have mentioned this earlier.  I'm going to be talking about Friday's post on "graven images" tomorrow morning at 8:50 Eastern on the Son Rise Morning Show.  Feel free to listen in live online, or tune in the days to come to see if they re-air it.  Thanks!

Monday, October 17, 2011

St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Eucharist

Today's the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of my favorite Early Church Fathers.  He was a student of the Apostle John, and served as Bishop of Antioch, one of the hubs of early Christianity.

He was also one of the Eucharistic martyrs, along with St. Paul.  On his way to martyrdom, Paul described himself as being poured as a libation (sacrificial drink offering) for the Lord (2 Timothy 4:6).  In comparison, when Ignatius was on the way to martyrdom (to be eaten alive by wild animals), he famously wrote, “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.

This wasn't a one-off comment.  Ignatius is probably the clearest of all of the very early Church Fathers in explaining the Physical Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Describing the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality,” it was Ignatius who condemned the Gnostics for denying the Real Presence, saying:
They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat It with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the Passion has been revealed to us, and the Resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.
That's a ringing endorsement of the Real Presence.  And not a vague spiritual Real Presence, but the Real Presence of the same Flesh of Christ that died on the Cross and was glorified in the Resurrection.  And he could scarcely be more grave about the consequences of denying this Real Presence.   In fact, Ignatius' writings are so Catholic that John Calvin said this of them:
With regard to what they pretend as to Ignatius, if they would have it to be of the least importance, let them prove that the apostles enacted laws concerning Lent, and other corruptions. Nothing can be more nauseating, than the absurdities which have been published under the name of Ignatius; and therefore, the conduct of those who provide themselves with such masks for deception is the less entitled to toleration.
Calvin, it turns out, was wrong.  Ignatius' writings are real, not some forgery.  And Ignatius wrote all of those incredibly Catholic epistles sometime prior to his death in 107-110 A.D. He was so close to the Apostles that he could tell you what they smelled like ... literally.  So you've heard it from the mouth of a Reformer. Ignatius of Antioch is nauseatingly Catholic. If you want to be like the students of the Apostles, you should be nauseatingly Catholic, too.

Update: Fr. Erlenbush talks about one of Ignatius' other central messages: the authority of bishops.  It dovetails nicely with what I just wrote.

The Acceptable Sphere for Talking About Abortion

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, pro-choicers have done a great job of making a lot of pro-life Americans feel guilty ever bringing up their views on abortion.  They've done it in two ways:

  • When someone argues that the government should limit abortion in any way, they're accused of injecting religion into politics, or legislating religion, or even trying to create a theocracy. No really, that's last one is real, not some straw man.  For example, it's what Slate's Amanda Marcotte claimed was going on when South Dakota required a three-day waiting period for abortion.  Full disclosure: I can't find the three-day waiting period for abortions anywhere in the Bible, but perhaps Ms. Marcotte and I use different versions (my Bible has a simpler, if tougher, rule: Exodus 20:13).

  • On the other hand, when someone mentions abortion from the pulpit, they're accused of politicizing religion.  In fact, the Catholic Church was sued back in the 80s for fighting against abortion.  The argument was that abortion was a legislative issue that the Church had no business addressing.
So the issue is too religious to be spoken about in political circles, and too political to be spoken about in religious circles.  In other words, you can never question legalized abortion anywhere, at any time.

These two arguments, in tandem, appear to be part of a campaign to silence pro-life voices, to remove opposition to abortion from the public sphere completely, and to recast it as thinly-veiled misogyny.  And the pro-choicers who do so  are aided by a simple, and obvious fact.  Abortion really is at the nexus of religion and politics.  

After all, the question of abortion relates to issues both moral and ethical, like whether or not it's acceptable to take the life of a fetus.  And it deals with a line of Supreme Court cases (starting with Roe) that run squarely against the teachings of most major religions.

Of course all sorts of issues relate to both political and religious issues: slavery, the minimum wage, war, the death penalty, gay marriage, immigration, and so on.  On these issues, quite sensibly, both religious and political leaders speak out vocally, because both religious and political leaders have (a) strong beliefs on the issue, and (b) a responsibility to see the issue handled appropriately. So the fact that abortion is political and religious is reason for both groups to speak about it, not neither.

The pro-choice side has redefined the debate pretty effectively.  No longer is the question, when does life begin?  That's a biological one, and a basic one.  It begins at conception.  Instead, they ask the question, when does "personhood" begin?  That question is vaguely religious or philosophical.  And we're told that anything religious must be a private opinion, unfit for public policy.  

There are three major points to remember:
  1. Just because your morals are shaped, in whole or in part, by religion doesn't mean that you have to ignore them in the public sphere.  Religion belongs in the public sphere.
  2. While revealed religion isn't an acceptable basis for American public policy (e.g., you can't legislate that everyone attend Mass, or believe in Jesus), morality is, and always has been.
  3. Many issues, particularly moral ones, are both religious and political.  Expect -- demand, even -- to hear about them in both the realm of religion and politics.  Press your political and religious leaders to speak out on the pressing moral issues.
The opponents of the pro-life movement want to strip it of its voice, and silence it completely.  Stay fervent, and bear the above points in mind, so that this doesn't happen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Troubling Indictment of Bishop Finn

After some reflection, I've decided to take this post down, because I don't think I did a good job in it of building up the Body of Christ. At this point, I think the most constructive thing that can happen is to encourage prayers and fasting for everyone involved. God bless!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Does the Bible Prohibit Religious Images?


Earlier, I came across this discussion, in which an iconoclast Protestant accuses the Catholic Church of eliminating the Second Commandment because we have statues... and then asks how to add an image to his post. Bravo, irony!

But this is a real stumbling block for a lot of Protestant Christians, and even Catholics often are left a bit uneasy, unsure how to rectify what the Bible seems to say with what the Church teaches.  So let's have a serious discussion about idolatry and iconoclasm.

I. What Does the Bible Actually Say About Images?

The starting point has to be the King James Version of Exodus 20:4-6, straight out of the Ten Commandments:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
The word being translated here as “graven images” literally means that in Hebrew, but it’s a bit misleading as a translation. The Hebrew word (pecel) is used some thirty-one times in the Old Testament, and every time it refers to idols. So a better translation is that you shall not make idols.

Understanding the prohibition as literally against  “graven images” is problematic for two reasons.  First, it's far too narrow.  What about idols that aren't engraved?  For example, to the right is a picture of Kali, one of the goddesses worshiped by Hindus.  Is this picture okay to worship, since it's painted, rather than engraved?  Obviously not.

Second, it's far too broad.  If the prohibition is against images, rather than idols, then all sculpture is out, regardless of the artist's motivation.  We can't have Michelangelo's David, or even those miniature statues of lions that people have in front of their houses.  And if you ignore the graven part (as Protestants tend to do), it would prohibit all paintings and photographs of people, or animals, or nature.  That's the irony I pointed out in the first paragraph: even posting a photograph online would be against the Ten Commandments, regardless of who or what the photo was of.  Who actually abides by that rule?  Certainly not God.

In fact, it's much, much worse than all that.  In Exodus 25:17-22, God orders the engraving of two golden Cherubim on top of the mercy seat upon the Ark of the Covenant.  It was here that God would commune with Moses, and Moses would worship Him. Here's a helpful picture of what this would have looked like:



Yup, incense, and kneeling in front of a couple of statutes.  So did God just order Moses to violate the Ten Commandments?  Obviously not.  But that means that pecel cannot be understood to mean all images.  It just cannot, or we're forced to accuse God of violating His own Commandments.  

Instead, the prohibition against making and kneeling before pecels is a prohibition against making and praying to idols, as the NIV, NASB, NLT, and most modern Protestant and Catholic translations of the Bible recognize.  This is the only understanding of the passage that makes any sense.

What should be incredibly clear is that God doesn't order iconoclasm.  He doesn't prohibit art, even realistic art, even religious art.  In fact, as surprising as this tends to be for Protestants, He doesn't even prohibit art where there's a chance it'll be misused for idolatry.  In fact, He orders it in at least one case.

In Numbers 21:8-9, God orders Moses to create a bronze serpent and mout it on the pole: anyone who looks upon it is healed of snakebite.  He does this, knowing full well that within a short time, the people are going to start worshiping the statue, instead of the God who saved them through the statue.  And sure enough, the Israelites name the bronze snake Nehushtan, and begin worshiping it, until King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4).  God foreknows that this will happen, yet he orders the engraving of the Nehushtan statue anyway.  Why?  Because before they fell into idolatry, the statue helped them visibly comprehend the majesty of the invisible God.  And it also prefigured the Cross, the most visible sign of God's love.

So what should we learn from the example of the bronze serpent?  God isn't upset with images themselves.  In fact, where images help draw us closer to Him, He wants us to have them.  That's why He orders the golden Cherubim: to remind us of Him.  But what upsets Him is anything that causes us to wander from Him.  Jesus illustrates this point dramatically in Matthew 18:7-9, when He warns us against letting our own bodies stand between us and right relationship with God.

II. How The Incarnation Answers Iconoclasm

Hopefully, at this point, we all agree that the Old Testament doesn't prohibit images, doesn't prohibit statuary or engraved images, doesn't even prohibit religious images.  But the New Testament builds upon and fulfills the Old, and this is true when it comes to religious imagery, as well.  See, for example, Jesus' teaching in Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is Your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then He said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
So while the coin is made in the image of Caesar, each one of us is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and should give our everything to Him.  But look at what He uses to make that point: a coin with a graven image of Caesar, the very man being worshiped by many Romans.  Jesus doesn't order the denarius to be destroyed as some sort of idol. Instead, He uses the coin to show us God.


This is radical, because in the Old Testament, the One you couldn't do a depiction of was God Himself.  He was too big, too infinite, too far beyond human imagination. Any image was considered to be an insult to His Divinity.  Christ fulfills all of this in Himself.  Fr. Robert Barron, at the beginning of his book Catholicism, (which really is as good as everyone says), talks about this point.  On pages 1-2, he explains the importance of the Incarnation, and what it reveals about God:

The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves. 
But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.
That passage is absolutely brilliant, even without diving into that theologically-rich final sentence.  This has huge implications for how we approach Creation, beauty, and science (the study of both Creation and truth), as well as how we understand God.  But let's just look at the implications for religious imagery.


Properly understood, then, the Incarnation answers the error of iconoclasm.  The infinite and immortal God, beyond all imagination, has taken on our humanity, that we might come to Him and share in His Divinity (2 Peter 1:4).  In other words, God isn't just telling us that Creation isn't evil. He's positively telling us that Creation is good.  Christ becomes the visible Image of God in a perfect way. Nehushtan is replaced by Our Crucified Lord.  St. Paul puts it simply  (Col. 1:15):  “the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”  Imagery of the invisible God is no longer prohibited, because we can now envision God: Jesus Christ.

So in a nutshell, if religious images elevate your spirit, if they draw you towards God, they're fine. In fact, they're better than fine.  You should use them.  But if you can't tell the difference between religious images and God Himself, then you shouldn't.

III. The Dangers of Iconoclasm

The prohibition against religious art and imagery isn't harmless.  To the left is a picture of the doorway to a  Dutch church (St. Stevens), that was vandalized by Protestants in the 16th century.  They cut the heads off of the statues of Jesus and the saints, and the angels from the doorway.

Thank God that they didn't find the Ark of the Covenant, because I can think of no coherent reason why they'd be against statues of angels in the doorway to a church, but fine with statues of angels on the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, obviously, Protestants today aren't roving around destroying Catholic art. But iconoclasm has ongoing negative impacts.  When The Passion of the Christ came out, it was condemned as idolatry, with commenters making sweeping claims like “all pictures, statues or portrayals of our Lord are idolatrous.”  Taken seriously, this goes a lot further than outlawing the local Nativity play (or creche).

If re-enacting the words and actions of Christ constitutes idolatry, it's hard to see how even Protestant Lord's Suppers wouldn't be idolatry, since the pastor speaks the words of Christ in the first person.  For that matter, why is it okay to read the words of Christ out loud from the Gospels?  It's about as likely that someone hears their pastor reading Scripture and mistakes him for Jesus as is it that they'll mistake Jim Caviezel for Jesus Christ.

Can you get to Christ without visible imagery? Certainly.  The blind do it all the time.  But step back and consider the countless number of people brought to Christ by The Passion of the Christ, or by the Oberammergau Passion Play, or by the numerous Nativity scenes and even Christmas school plays.  Those souls would be lost in the dreary world of the iconoclast.  That's far from harmless.

And take heed, Christian.  The Seventh Ecumenical Council, accepted by Catholics and Orthodox alike, and one of the seven that many Protestants give at least some weight to, actually declared “Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.”  This is a real problem for those who pay lip service to the Seven Councils while ignoring what those Councils actually taught.

Conclusion

So, here's what we know:

  1. The Old Testament prohibits idols, not images;
  2. God sometimes commanded religious images in worship;
  3. In using religious images, we're not to worship them (obviously);
  4. The mere fact that religious images could be (and sometimes were) abused as idolatry didn't stop God from ordering them;
  5. The one major religious image taboo the Jews had, about the creation of Images of God Himself, is resolved in the Incarnation, since “the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15).
  6. Iconoclasm (the total rejection of images) has prevented untold scores of people from coming to Christ;
  7. The Church, in a Council accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants, orders the use of religious images.
One final point: some Protestants try to argue that images in general are okay, but not Catholic statues, because we kneel down in front of them. But what's prohibited is kneeling in front of pecels, which as we've seen, only means idols. And again, there was a ton of kneeling in front of the Mercy Seat!