Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Prayer to the Saints Pointless?

In my experience, Catholic-Protestant dialogues about praying to Saints tend to have two steps. In the first stage, prayer to the Saints is viewed as something suspect, or even evil. In the second stage, prayer to the Saints seems harmless, but also pointless.  Let's address each stage in turn.  

Is Prayer to the Saints Evil?

Nikolay Ge, Witch of Endor (1857)
The first of these objections is simple enough.  The Old Testament prohibits divination, witchcraft and mediums (Deuteronomy 18:10).  This is why King Saul was sinning when he visited the witch of Endor, and persuaded her to conjure up the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28).

But the difference between praying to the Saints and conjuring up the dead is exactly the same as the difference between magic and miracles.  Magic is condemned in Scripture as well (Rev. 21:8), and precisely for this reason: it seeks to achieve the supernatural by working around God, or by trying to force His hand. J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, admitted as much in an interview with Oprah, saying, “I'm not saying I believe magic is real—I don't. But that's the perennial appeal of magic—the idea that we ourselves have power and we can shape our world.”  That's a good definition of magic, and also what makes the appeal of magic so dangerous.  It's Lucifer's non serviam all over again: we've got magic, who needs God?

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family (1537)
With miracles, you accomplish the exact same things, but going through God, rather than around Him.  The clearest contrast is when Moses faces off with the Egyptian magicians in the Book of Exodus. When Moses and Aaron unleashed the ten plagues, the magicians would attempt to imitate it through magic -- sometimes successfully (Exodus 7:10-12; 20-22; Ex. 8:6-7, 16-19; Ex. 9:10-11).  My point is that the godly and the sinful thing may look similar, but they're very different morally.  Since miracles involve working through God, they're tied to faith, and seeking God's gifts.  Since magic involves trying to work around Him, they're tied to rebellion, and trying to steal God's power.  Even if the end result is the same, it makes a big difference whether we got there by seeking a gift or stealing.

Having said all that, I understand that to Protestant eyes, a Catholic praying to Mary probably looks a bit like Saul conjuring up Samuel.  But with Catholic prayer, we're going through God, not around Him.  For example, the Rosary begins, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” followed by the Apostle's Creed, and the Our Father.  The only way that the Saints can hear us is through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Is Prayer to the Saints Pointless?

Even assuming the person you're speaking to can accept the idea that going around God is sinful and going through God isn't, you're not quite home free yet.  More than once, I've found myself explaining this, only to have the other person say something along the lines of, “So let me get this straight.  When you pray a Hail Mary, you're offering up prayer through God to Mary, asking Mary to pray to God for something.  Why not just ask God yourself, directly?”  The whole thing seems needlessly indirect.
Philippe de Champaigne, Anne of Austria and Her Children
at Prayer with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica
, (1646)

One answer to this is simply that we think that the prayers of the Saints in glory are more efficacious than the prayers of those of us still mired in sin.  Certainly, James 5:16 ties the effectiveness of prayer with the righteousness of the person praying it.

But perhaps the better answer is simply this: all prayer is indirect.  The clearest example comes from Matthew 6:7-13, in which Jesus says,
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:  
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
Did you catch that?  Immediately before introducing us to the Lord's Prayer, Jesus reminds us that our Father already knows what we need before we ask Him.  If we're concerned with efficiency, then, that sounds like a good reason to cut out prayer all together.  After all, God doesn't just know what we need before we ask.  He also knows what we need better than we do.  But Jesus doesn't say, “Therefore, don’t worry about praying.”  He says, “Pray, then, like this.

Philippe de Champaigne, The Annunciation (1644)
Or to take another example, think of all of the times that God communicates with man through angels.  Does an omnipresent God need to send a messenger?  Of course not. But He routinely does so in both the Old and New Testament.

Clearly, then, prayer isn't simply about identifying the solutions to problems as efficiently as we can: God can do that just fine on His own.  Rather, it's a transformative process that helps to do at least two things: conform our wills with God's, and draw us into closer union with one another.  With that in mind, consider a few examples of prayer from Scripture:


Genesis 18:17-19:29.  God tells Abraham that He plans to destroy the city of Sodom for its sinfulness.  Abraham then intercedes on behalf of the city, essentially bartering with God until He agrees that if there are even ten righteous people in the entire city, He won't destroy it.  There aren't, so Sodom gets destroyed, but as a blessing to Abraham, God saves his nephew Lot, along with Lot's family.  This is captured beautifully in Gen. 19:29, “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.”  So rather than God negotiating directly with Lot, He goes to Lot's holier uncle, Abraham.  Abraham's intercession saves Lot.


Deuteronomy 9:16-21.  When Israel, including the high priest Aaron, fall into idolatry, it's through the intercession of Moses that they're saved, after Moses fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights.

Albrecht Dürer, Mary Praying (1518)
1 Kings 2:13-25.  When Adonijah has a big favor to ask of his brother, King Solomon, he accomplishes it by asking Solomon's mother, Bathsheba, who then asks Solomon on his behalf. In this case, things don't work out well for Adonijah (he's asking for Abishag's hand in marriage, and Solomon immediately realizes that he's plotting a coup and has him killed).  But it's clear why he chooses such an indirect way.  By going to the king's mother, Bathsheba, the king is more likely to grant the request.  Indeed, when Bathsheba enters the room, King Solomon honors her by rising from his throne and bowing to her, telling her that he'll grant her whatever she asks (1 Kings 2:19-20).  Christ is greater than Solomon (Mt. 12:42), but doesn't love His Mother any less.


Luke 16:19-31.  The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the rich man prays to Abraham, asking him for relief from the torments of Hades, and asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the man's brothers of the consequences of their sin.


Luke 22:31-32.  Jesus tells Simon Peter that Satan desires to sift all of the Apostles like wheat.  Jesus then says that He has prayed for Peter (personally),  “that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  Clearly, Christ could have prayed for all of the Apostles directly.  But He chooses to fortify them through Peter instead.

Philippe de Champaigne, St. Paul (1640s)
Romans 15:30.  Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for him.  And look at the way he describes it:  “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.”  So intercessory prayer draws Christians closer together with one another in Christ.  Just as Paul sought to have the Roman Christians united to his struggles through intercessory prayer, Catholics today seek to have the Saints in Heaven united to their struggles in the same way.

This final point gets us to the heart of an often-overlooked part of salvation.  We're not just saved as individuals detached from one another.  We're part of a larger Body of Christ, as St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 3:6).  Trying to have Christ without the Church is trying to have the Head without the Body (Eph. 5:24), or trying to dissolve the mystical union between the Bridegroom and the Bride (Eph. 5:25-32).  It can't be done.  For the same reason, Communion with Christ is Communion with the Saints (1 Cor. 10:16-17).  

But the Church doesn't just consist of those on Earth: She's also present in Heaven (Revelation 21:2).  Given all of this, and particularly in light of Paul's description of the unifying effects of intercessory prayer in Romans 15:30, we should unite ourselves with the rest of the Body of Christ through prayer.  We should freely ask others (whether in Heaven or on Earth) for their prayers, and we should offer our prayers for their intentions as well.  In this way, we grow closer to bother God and our neighbor.

This, I think, is the key to understanding prayer.  It's not about efficiency, or of drawing the shortest distance between points A and B.  Instead, it creates a beautiful and complex web, enveloping us ever-tighter within God's saving grasp, and drawing us nearer to one another.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Three Prophesies About Christ That Couldn't Have Been Made Up

In the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as fulfilling numerous Old Testament Messianic prophesies.  These prophesies provide objective verification that He is Who He claims to be.  But how can we know that these things really happened?  In other words, how do we know that the New Testament writers didn't just make up these details, to make Jesus look like the Messiah?

I want to suggest three sets of prophesies that the New Testament writers couldn't have manipulated, because they were outside of their control.


(1) Israel Would Be Under Roman Control 

Julius Caesar
In Daniel 2, the prophet Daniel interprets a dream that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had.  In the interpretation, Daniel prophesies that there will be four succeeding kingdoms (starting with the Babylonians).  In the fourth of these, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people” (Dan. 2:44).  Historically, we can say that the four kingdoms to rule over Israel are Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Rome, the fourth kingdom, rules Jewish Israel from 64 B.C. until about 70 A.D.(when the Jews are sent into Diaspora, and Israel is crushed).  That's a fairly tiny window for the Messiah to arrive, yet Christ lived, died, and was resurrected during this span.  Now, obviously, the New Testament writers couldn't have controlled whether or not the Romans controlled Israel during this period.  More on that here.

(2) The Christ Would Die from Crucifixion

Callisto Piazza,
Nailing of Christ to the Cross (1538)
Psalm 22 is one of the Messianic Psalms, and the one that we're told that Christ quoted on the Cross (Mark 15:34, quoting Ps. 22:1).  The Psalm was written centuries before the advent of crucifixion.  Yet a Crucifixion scene seems to be vividly depicted.  In Ps. 22:16-18, the Speaker cries out,
 Dogs surround me,a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.  All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  They divide my clothes among themand cast lots for my garment.
That sounds a lot like Crucifixion: after all, how many other forms of capital punishment involve being stripped, having your hands and feet pierced. and being put on public display?  What's more remarkable is that we know that the Romans relied heavily upon crucifixion in the first century.

So Psalm 22 appears to predict a form of capital punishment that wouldn't exist for centuries, this form of capital punishment was used by the Romans in the first century, and would certainly have been used upon Christ for His alleged crimes.  None of these are facts that the New Testament writers could have controlled.  Put another way, had the Death of Christ taken place at virtually any other time or place, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which His Death would have fit Psalm 22 so believably.

Matthias Grünewald, The Crucifixion (1515) (detail)
Nor is it just Psalm 22: one of the constant themes of the New Testament is that Jesus is the sinless Lamb of God (John 1:36; Revelation 7:17), prefigured by the Passover lamb (Exodus 12; 1 Corinthians 5:7).  Yet one of the requirements of the Passover Lamb is that none of its bones could be broken -- this symbolized its perfection (Ex. 12:46).  The Apostle John tells us that Jesus fulfilled even this detail at the Crucifixion (John 19:36).  And with a Crucifixion, that's quite believable. But what other form of execution would have so neatly fit all of these prophesies?

Here, the evidence is so strong that it was once thought that the evidence was forged.  Psalm 22:16 literally says that “they dug my hands and my feet,” a very graphic image of being nailed to the Cross.   Skeptics used to think that Christian forgers had changed the Hebrew (from ka’ari, “like a lion,” to ka’aru, “they dug”) to make this sound prophetic.  Today, we know that isn't true: a first-century parchment was found, proving that the passage wasn't some later forgery.

(3) The Second Temple Would Still Be Standing


The Dome of the Rock (background) and the Wailing Wall (foreground)
The Old Testament contains a number of prophesies about the Second Temple.  The most important of the prophesies are these two:

  • Haggai 2:1-9 promises that, while smaller in size than its predecessor, the Second Temple would exceed the First Temple in glory.
  • Malachi 3:1 tells us that the reason for this is that “the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.
We're told in the New Testament that Christ fulfills this, entering the Temple, driving out the money-lenders, and declaring it His House, and a House of prayer (Matthew 21:12-13).  Again, the fulfillment is perfect: He is both the Message and the Messenger, and He's the only possible Messiah who could call the Second Temple His Temple, since it was created for Him (and at His command).

But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  All that remains is the Wailing wall, what used to be the western wall of the Temple.  So if the Messiah didn't come by 70, it seems these prophesies were wrong.  Once again, whether the Temple stood or fell was outside of the New Testament authors' control.  But we again see a clear Messianic window: if the Messiah didn't come by 70, He wasn't coming.

Conclusion

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Plenty of other prophetic passages pointing to the same time period (Dr. Taylor Marshall mentions another: the 490 years from King Artaxerxes to Christ prophesied in Dan. 9:24-27).  If the New Testament authors were con men, they were insanely lucky con men, since the stars aligned just perfectly for them to convincingly claim that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies.  To be sure, we can't go back and verify that each of the events that they're describing occurred.  But the events which we do know -- for example, that the Old Testament predates the time of Christ, that Someone named Jesus lived in the early first century, that the Romans used crucifixion to punish certain crimes, that the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., etc. -- all match up perfectly. 

My challenge, to anyone who thinks that the Gospel accounts are mythologies, and that Jesus is simply a fictional character created to fulfill these events, duplicate it.  Who else in history (either real historical figures, or someone imaginary) fits these prophesies, and the innumerable other Old Testament Messianic prophesies? 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Steve Martin v. John Dominic Crossan

A while back, I wrote a post on the historical accuracy of Luke 2:2.  In a nutshell, some Biblical critics claim that the global census that St. Luke describes (in Lk. 2:1-2) as occurring during the reign of Herod the Great didn't happen.  I think that Mark Shea does a great job of answering this, using a stand-up sketch by comedian Steve Martin to show the absurdity of the skeptic's argument:
Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)... exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!” 
I can’t help but think of that as I read [John Dominic] Crossan’s take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a Risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David”, Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?
Well, a lot of options are open to the creative gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?
But no, according to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.
Now, realize that even Crossan admits that the Gospel of Luke was written in the first century. So the people reading it would know whether or not this enormous event had or hadn't occurred.   And this is true for countless other New Testament historical claims: these claims were easily falsifiable in the first century: that hundreds of people claimed to have seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:6), that St. Peter preached about the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem, on Pentecost, only a few months after Easter (Acts 2:14-40), etc.  That they were taken as historical fact is evidence that they were, in fact, historical fact.  And this, in turn, makes a solid case in favor of Christianity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ten Tips for Successful Catholic Blogging

A couple of readers have asked for tips in starting out in Catholic blogging. I don't have any great secrets, and can think of plenty of people more qualified than myself to answer, but here are the things that I wish I had known (or thought of) back when I was first beginning.  I'll mention up front that I haven't always done everything on this list -- some of these are areas where I'm aware I need to improve.

5 Tips for Starting Your Blog
    Lionello Spada, St. Jerome (1610)
  1. Why do you feel called to blog?  Start by asking yourself this question.  What do you feel like God is calling you to do?  What are you hoping to get out of it?  How serious are you in your commitment?  Pray on this.

  2. What do you love or hate about other blogs?  This is the easiest way of figuring out which things to do, or to avoid.  Chances are, the things you really like or really hate are going to be things other people really love or hate.  Regardless, you don't want to be the kind of blogger that you can't stand.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that true humility is a trait we admire in others, while neglecting it in ourselves.  Whoever it was, it's a sound point.  We can often see the flaws and the strengths of our neighbor more clearer than we can see them in ourselves.

  3. Figure out your “genre.” Sin is monotonous: the pleasures of the earth are finite, and end in nihilism, as nearly any addict can tell you.  Sanctity, in contrast, is vibrant and unbounded, since it's a love affair with the Infinite.  Are you going to write about canon law?  Parenting?  Art and beauty?  Apologetics?  Catholicism and politics?  Liturgy? Pro-life and social justice issues?  Before you write a masterpiece, you need to figure out your “genre.”  Some blogs are able to cover multiple genres well, but many aren't.  For example, think long and hard about getting into the weeds on political issues on which Catholics can take either side.  This can be either a good way of stimulating discussion on the dual roles of faith and politics, or a quick way of alienating even other Catholics.

  4. Set a tone.  I think that the most successful blogs are somewhat predictable: regular readers have a feel for what they're getting.  This includes the topics or genres covered, but it also includes how you cover them.  For example, how much of the blog will be able your own experiences?  Figure out if you're more like Augustine or Aquinas. But it's much more than that.  Look at the contrasts in how  John the Baptist and John the Apostle present the Gospel.  Same content, different tone.

  5. Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (1866)
  6. Choose a name wisely.  Names are incredibly important in Scripture (e.g., Gen. 17:4-5, Gen. 32:28, Mt. 16:17-19, Rev. 2:17), and in the life of the Church (particularly at Baptism and Confirmation), and should tell us something about you.  The same holds true for your blog's title and for the titles of your posts, particularly since these are the things people see before they enter your site.  This is usually all the advertisement you get.

    Personally, I try to keep things relatively lighthearted, while addressing serious topics.  The original names I was mulling over for this blog (like Catholic Defense or Catholicism Contra Mundum, etc.) sounded too boring, stern, or pretentious.  Finally, I asked my Calvinist friend Don for suggestions, who without skipping a beat, answered, “Shameless Popery.”  That name captured the feel of the blog better than anything I could have come up with.

    My point is this: a blog named To View the World Through Blood-Colored Lenses evokes a very different feel than a blog named Little Catholic Bubble.  It's likely to appeal to a different crowd, even before anyone opens the page.  
5 Tips for Keeping Up Your Blog

The internet is filled with abandoned blogs, tiny ghost towns lining the sides of the Information Superhighway.  What do you need to do to avoid consigning your own blog to an early death?
Diego Velázquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618)
  1. Fill up.  You can only give what you've received.  When I find myself getting snarky, or running out of ideas for things to talk about, or finding myself unable to turn my idea into a a coherent post, that's usually a good sign that my tanks are running low.  I need to step away from the computer, spend some time at Mass, in prayer, or doing some spiritual reading, and fill up those tanks.  This both revitalizes the spirit, and frequently inspires good posts.  Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Work, work, from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” We could benefit from a similar attitude: everything, including blogging, goes better with prayer.

    Cutting out prayer time with God because you want to blog about Catholicism is like saving time on a long roadtrip by not stopping for gas: it may seem smart in the moment, but it won't end well.  Worse, it may be a sign that you're trying to be the Messiah -- trying to save people through your own intellect or rhetorical skills.  You can't.  Only God saves.  The best we can hope for is that, like St. Paul in today's First Reading, we can be a “chosen instrument” in God's plan of salvation (Acts 9:15).

  2. Consistency.  This is the single most important distinctive in blogging, in my opinion.  I try to post daily (or nearly so) every Monday through Friday.  Missing a day or two is fine, but if you don't post anything for a few weeks, people will move on.  The reader base that you spent months building up can be lost very quickly through inactivity.  So if you do need to take an extended break (eventuallyalmost everyone does), and want readers to be there when you get back, try to let them know ahead of time.

    This also means that you can't afford to be a perfectionist.  You can't spent two weeks on each post to make sure they're perfect.  Give what you can, and leave the rest to God.  You'll surprised by the results.  I have posts that I spent hours painstakingly researching that nobody seemed to care for, and posts that I rushed through in a few minutes that took off like hotcakes.  For example, one of my more popular recent posts was this one: it's only four paragraphs long, and consists primarily of my reaction to a First Things article and a Catholic Vote post.  I almost didn't publish it, because it didn't seem to have a point.  I suspect this is all another way of God reminding me that He's the one in control, not me.

  3. Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (1620)
  4. Content.  This is hopefully obvious, but your blog isn't all sizzle.  It needs some steak for people to come back for more.  Keeping your audience in mind, along with your purpose in writing the blog (see above), write the posts that you would want to read.  Write the posts that you think other people need to hear.

    Don't wait until you're the perfect Catholic Saint / encyclopedia: this blog has helped me grow as a Catholic.   Things that seem obvious to you may seem insightful to those just discovering Catholicism.  Those who are spiritual infants, just learning to walk in the faith, may find it easier to learn from a toddler than from a sprinter.  Keep the Catechism and Catholic Encyclopedia close if you're not sure about what you're saying (or just don't say it), be prepared to apologize and fix errors, and cast out into the deep.  Having said that, don't contradict or undermine the Church, and don't dwell on disciplines you wish She would change.  You should be building up the Body of Christ, not grumbling (1 Cor. 10:10).

    You should aim for a mix of your own content, and your reactions to other people's posts.  You also don't have to dominate the discussion.  Sometimes, it's enough to just get the conversation going.

  5. Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1652)
  6. Beauty.  This is something I realized far too late in the game.  If you read my older posts, they're often just walls of text.  Now, I try to enhance the post with Catholic art and even the occasional video.  You can find plenty of art for free, from places like Wikimedia Commons.  If nothing else, just use a site like Biblical Art, and find relevant art by Scripture passage.  And remember, we're Catholics; we believe that all beauty points to God.  On a related note, see how your blog looks in different Internet browsers, different sized windows, and on smart phones.

  7. Marketing. Even if you're doing everything perfectly, you may be ignored.  It helps to talk to more successful bloggers, particularly those who are good about promoting upstarts.  Mark Shea, for example, was the first to plug my blog, and Pat Madrid linked to me early on (on his old blog).

    Two people you should know about, who do an amazing job of directing traffic towards Catholic blogs: Tito Edwards, who runs The Pulp.it, and has a recurring Register feature highlighting Catholic blogging, and Kevin Knight of New Advent.  You'll know when they link to you because hundreds (or even thousands) of people suddenly show up.  I was blessed in that they found me, but I don't think it's wrong to send your particularly good posts to them in the hope of getting a plug.  After all, you're writing this stuff for people to read, right?
There's much more that can be said: how active to be in the comments, how to handle rude or blasphemous commenters, whether sleep is really as important as people claim, etc. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments. Honestly, though, Jen Fulwiler understands this all better than I do, and wrote a two-part series on blogging here and here. So maybe you should check her out, instead?

Finally, heed the words of St. Peter: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

P.S.  Please, feel free to post links to your own Catholic blogs in the comments, particularly if you're just starting out!  If you'd prefer, link to a specific post or two you'd especially like to share.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Annual March for Life Media Blackout


This picture is one of numerous great shots highlighted by Matt Cassens on his blog St. Blogustine (which I note in passing is an excellent name for a blog).  Contrast it with Newsweek's spin from 2010, in an article entitled, Who’s Missing at the 'Roe v. Wade' Anniversary Demonstrations? Young Women.  The article rhetorically asked, “where are the young, vibrant women supporting their pro-life or pro-choice positions? Likely, they’re at home.


In lieu of doing their own reporting, Christian Science Monitor shamelessly regurgitated Newsweek's outright false claims: “According to Newsweek, demonstrators on both sides were mostly from the baby boomer generation.”  I mean, just look at all those Baby Boomers.  Wait, I don't actually see any in that shot.  In fact, I'm not sure I've seen a single March for Life picture from the last ten years containing more than a few dozen people in which most of those in the shot were Baby Boomers.  And in the four years that I marched, I can attest that the ratio of young people to Baby Boomers is staggering.  The youth own this movement.

So the media coverage has long been riddled with lies and distortions.  If you ever want to be in the press, an easy way to do it is to be a pro-choice counter-protester at the March for Life.  Each year, a few dozen show up, and each year, seemingly every one of them gets a close-framed shot that make them seem to be part of a huge pro-choice contingent.  In the Monitor article I mentioned above, the accompanying photo showed four pro-choicers and a single pro-lifer.  That huge protest of hundreds of thousands of people?  Ignored in favor of a few dozen (literally!) counter-protesters.

But as bad as media distortions are (and they really do seem intentional here: the photographers had to have noticed an enormous procession of people passing them by), the worst is the outright media blackout.  For five years straight, the New York Times has refused to run anything on the March for Life.  This year, they were forced to indirectly acknowledge the March's existence, because Senator Rand Paul was detained on his way to the March, after he refused a TSA patdown.  The last thing Senator Paul had tweeted before his detainment:


Senator Rand Paul 
Today I'll speak to the March for Life in DC. A nation cannot long endure w/o respect for the right to Life. Our Liberty depends on it. 
So you can't really cover Senator Paul's detainment without acknowledging the March for Life, since it's part of the story.  Unless you're CBS:
Paul said he was "detained" at a small cubicle and couldn't make his flight to Washington for a Senate vote scheduled later in the day.
And where was Paul headed before that vote, I wonder?  CBS doesn't give us any clues.  Because this isn't news (be sure to watch the time lapse video -- it's the best way of grasping just how enormous the March actually is):



P.S. My friend Matt Balan offers an extreme example from this year's coverage.

Monday, January 23, 2012

March for Life 2012, Byzantine-Style

Today is the March for Life.  While much of the press (local and national) ignores the March, our local NBC affiliate did a good job covering the basics:
Monday marks the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that removed many state and federal restrictions on abortion. 
Thousands will gather in the District for the annual March for Life. 
It’s been deemed the largest and longest-running peaceful human rights demonstration for the unborn, with more than 100,000 expected to attend. [...] 
The National Prayer Vigil for Life is scheduled to begin at at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The vigil, which will last through the night and into Monday morning, typically draws about 20,000 people and is organized by the Basilica, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholic University. 
The rally begins at 12 p.m. on Monday on the National Mall near the Smithsonian Castle. The actual march is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. The march will follow its traditional route up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court building.
While I'm not able to attend the March itself this year, due to some work-related commitments, I was able to attend part of last night's   National Prayer Vigil for Life.  Specifically, I made it to the Byzantine Catholic Compline (Night Prayer), which was amazing.  Here's the description from the schedule:
Night Prayer (Byzantine Rite) - Crypt Church, Led by Most Reverend William C. Skurla, Bishop of Passaic and Metropolitan Archbishop-elect of Pittsburgh; Homilist: Most Reverend Stefan Soroka, Metropolitan Archbishop for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia; Cantors and Slava Men's Chorus from Epiphany of our Lord Church, Annandale, VA
The prayers were unspeakably beautiful, in large part due to the Slava Men's Chorus, who lead sung chant of a number of Psalms.  Archbishop Soroka gave a touching personal homily about his twin brother, who nearly died in infancy.  Their father, an immigrant who spoke nearly no English, fought for the young boy's life, even in the face of doctors who encouraged the family to give up and just be thankful for the son that they had. Today, that sickly infant is a police officer, and a father himself.  Abp. Soroka then described how an assault on the unborn is an assault on God Himself, and we prayed for His Mercy.

I shot a few videos towards the end, just to give some sense of how beautiful this all was, including the Crypt Church itself.  One:

video

Two:
video

And three, showing both Archbishop Skurla and Archbishop Soroka recessing from the church:

There are many more events going on tonight, including an Advocates for Life reception featuring Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life activist.  I'm looking forward to that!

P.S.  Speaking of the March for Life, it brought Brock Smith, who comments here from time to time, into D.C.  We met in person for the first time.  Here's a picture of us with my friend Carlos, who comments under the name Grimaud:

I'm the one in black.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?

Hans Multscher, The Resurrection of Christ (1437)
That's the title of an article written by Matthew Vogan, who appears to be an elder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  Incredibly, he claims that Benedict denies the historical Resurrection of Christ, and “flatly denies the fundamental biblical truth of the resurrection of the body.”  That's obviously absurd, and shouldn't even pass the laugh-test.  How stupid would Catholics have to be to not notice if the pope rejected the Resurrection?

Really, Vogan's article is essentially asking, is the pope Catholic?  But what's remarkable is that (a) the article appeared in Free Presbyterian Magazine, which puts on scholarly airs, and (b) nobody seems to have bothered fact-checking (or answering) the accusations Vogan raises.  So just to clear the air and put the matter to rest, let's address both what the pope believes, and how Vogan misrepresents the evidence.

What Benedict Believes About the Resurrection

Benedict's views on the bodily Resurrection are simple and straightforward: he's a believer, and has repeatedly declared that this belief is at the core of Christian faith.  For example, in May of 2003, then-Cardinal Ratzinger commemorated the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Pontifical Biblical Commission with a speech explaining the appropriate role of Catholic Biblical scholarship.  In that speech, he denounced those who deny the bodily Resurrection for destroying the very content of the Christian religion:
The opinion that faith as such knows absolutely nothing of historical facts and must leave all of this to historians is Gnosticism: this opinion disembodies the faith and reduces it to pure idea. The reality of events is necessary precisely because the faith is founded on the Bible. A God who cannot intervene in history and reveal Himself in it is not the God of the Bible. In this way the reality of the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the effective institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper, his bodily resurrection from the dead - this is the meaning of the empty tomb - are elements of the faith as such, which it can and must defend against an only presumably superior historical knowledge.
Gerard Seghers, Resurrection of Christ (c. 1620)
And when he was visiting New York City in 2008, he said this during an Ecumenical Prayer Service:
Throughout the New Testament, we find that the Apostles were repeatedly called to give an account for their faith to both Gentiles (cf. Acts 17:16-34) and Jews (cf. Acts 4:5-22; 5:27-42). The core of their argument was always the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the tomb (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30). The ultimate effectiveness of their preaching did not depend on “lofty words” or “human wisdom” (1 Cor 2:13), but rather on the work of the Spirit (Eph 3:5) who confirmed the authoritative witness of the Apostles (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-11). 
So the Apostles, led by the Holy Spirit, used the argument from Jesus Christ's bodily Resurrection to establish the Church, and this belief in the bodily Resurrection is at the very heart of the faith, and not to be viewed as somehow contrary to history.  There are plenty of other things we could point to. Even ignoring his innumerable Easter addresses celebrating the Resurrection, Pope Benedict recently wrote a book called Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, in which he said (on pp. 241-42) that without the Resurrection, “Jesus would be a failed religious leader,” and “we would be alone.

And it's not just Jesus' Resurrection he proclaims, but the resurrection of the body at the end of time.  From page 28 of The Sacrament of Charity:
The eucharistic celebration, in which we proclaim that Christ has died and risen, and will come again, is a pledge of the future glory in which our bodies too will be glorified.  Celebrating the memorial of our salvation strengthens our hope in the resurrection of the body and in the possibility of meeting once again, face to face, those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.
All of this is really unambiguously clear. So how did Vogan get his facts so distorted?

Where Vogan Goes Wrong

The starting problem with Vogan's article is that it's not written to understand what Pope Benedict believes.  It's written to scare Protestants.  In his introduction and conclusion, Vogan makes it clear that he’s worried that a conservative Catholic (particularly one who happens to be both a brilliant theologian and the pope) is going to be appealing to intelligent Reformed Christians, who will take it as a call to “return home to Rome.” So Vogan seeks to show that Benedict isn’t a conservative, in order to scare Calvinists away from Catholicism. In other words, you should view this as credibly as you do a negative campaign ad, because it’s similarly motivated: destroy the opponent’s reputation.

To “prove” that Pope Benedict is a heretic, Vogan grossly mischaracterizes a huge corpus of Benedict’s writings. Let me give you a few examples.

Vogan's Claim # 1: Benedict Thinks We Should Avoid Speaking of the Soul's Immortality

    Pieter Pourbus, Last Judgment (1551)
Vogan claims Benedict thinks it's the proper Christian thing to do to avoid speaking of the soul's immortality:
Ratzinger’s book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, covers, amongst other things, the nature of the resurrection. He notes that the accepted view among modern Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant theologians is that body and soul expire at the point of death and that 'the proper Christian thing, therefore, is to speak, not of the soul’s immortality, but of the resurrection of the complete human being and of that alone' (p 105). He notes that the word soul has disappeared from Roman Catholic liturgy (also from Roman Catholic Bible translations) as a consequence. 

The Truth is that Benedict accuses his opponents of this, and shows why that view is dangerous.


I was stunned by this argument.  Vogan presents this as if it's something Benedict is arguing for, that the proper Christian thing is to deny (or ignore) the soul's immortality.  That's completely false.  The quotation from page 105 is Benedict's description of his opponents' worldview and “the State of the Question.”  He then proceeds to show why this popular view is false.  In other words, this would be like citing Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 to “prove” that Scripture teaches that there is no God, or using Mt. 16:14 to “prove” that the Apostles viewed Jesus as simply another prophet.

At the end of the chapter, he writes:
Over against the theories sketched out in the opening section of this chapter, we were able to show that the idea of a resurrection taking place in the moment of death is not well-founded, either in logic or in the Bible.  We saw that the Church's own form of the doctrine of immortality was developed in a consistent manner from the resources of the biblical heritage, and is indispensible on grounds of both tradition and philosophy. But that leaves the other side of the question still unanswered: what, then, about the resurrection of the dead?  [...] Such questions make us realize that, despite their contrary starting points, the modern theories we have met seek to avoid not so much the immortality of the soul as the resurrection, now as always the real scandal to the intellectuals.  To this extent, modern theology is closer to the Greeks than it cares to recognize.
In other words, he explicitly rejects the beliefs Vogan accuses him of holding, and shows why those views are wrong.

Vogan's Claim # 2: Benedict Defines the Resurrection as Mere Fellowship

Vogan claims Benedict defines the Resurrection as simply fellowship:
The Last Judgment and the Mass of Saint Gregory
The book [Introduction to Christianity] seeks to explain the Apostles’ Creed in the light of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. When Ratzinger approaches the clause, 'I believe in the resurrection of the body', he recognises that this doctrine is a 'stumbling block to the modern mind' (p 232).9 His definition is both strange and ambiguous. 'Resurrection', he writes, 'expresses the idea that the immortality of man can exist and be thought of only in the fellowship of men' (p 172).
The Truth is that Benedict teaches that the Resurrection is more than fellowship.

Benedict clearly describes fellowship as just one aspect of the Resurrection.  He says things like: “part of the Christian idea of immortality is fellowship with other human beings. Man is not engaged in a solitary dialogue with God. He does not enter an eternity with God which belongs to him alone.”  That's from p. 159 of Eschatology, a book Vogan cites.  So once again, Vogan claims Benedict believes one thing, while the actual evidence proves the exact opposite.

So what about the partial quote Vogan does cite, from page 172 of Introduction to Christianity?  Well, it isn't a definition of the Resurrection at all.  Instead, Benedict is saying that since the Resurrection is true, we know that salvation isn't merely individualistic.  So, I can't say Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior, to the exclusion of the Communion of the Saints.  He writes:
Resurrection expresses the idea that the immortality of man can exist and be thought of only in the fellowship of men, in man as the creature of fellowship, as we shall see in more detail later on.  Finally, even the concept of redemption, as we have already said, only has a meaning on this plane; it does not refer to the detached monadic destiny of the individual.
That's a savvy point.  If we understand the Resurrection, we see why concepts like the Communion of the Saints and the Church are so important.  But Benedict isn't defining what the Resurrection is, any more than if I say that Alaska is cold, I'm defining “Alaska” and “cold” to mean the same thing.  By stripping the first sentence of any context, and declaring it a definition, Vogan distorts Benedict's point be that the Resurrection means nothing more than fellowship.


Vogan's Claim # 3: Benedict Explicitly Denies the Resurrection of the Body


Vogan claims that Benedict explicitly denies the resurrection of the body on pp. 240-41 of Introduction to Christianity
Francisco Pacheco, The Last Judgment 
In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger explicitly denies the resurrection of the body. 'It now becomes clear that the real heart of faith in the resurrection does not consist at all in the idea of the restoration of bodies, to which we have reduced it in our thinking; such is the case even though this is the pictorial image used throughout the Bible'. He says that the word body, or flesh, in the phrase, the resurrection of the body, 'in effect means "the world of man" . . . [it is] not meant in the sense of a corporality isolated from the soul' (pp 240-41).
The truth is that Benedict explicitly affirms the resurrection of the body on pp. 240-41 of Introduction to Christianity.


Once more, we see that the evidence supports the polar opposite of what Vogan claims.  The very passage that Vogan cites (pp. 240-41; pp. 350-51 in the Google Books version) says the opposite of what Vogan claims it says.  Instead of Benedict explicitly denying the resurrection of the body, Benedict explicitly affirms the resurrection of the body, saying:
Immortality as conceived by the Bible proceeds, not from the intrinsic power of what is in itself indestructible, but from being drawn into the dialogue with the Creator; that is why it must be called awakening.  Because the Creator intends, not just the soul, but the man physically existing in the midst of history and gives him immortality, it must be called “awakening of the dead” = “of men”.  It should be noted here that even in the formula of the Creed, which speaks of the “resurrection of the body”, the word “body” means in effect “the world of man” (in the sense of bibilical expressions like “all flesh will see God's salvation”, and so on); even here the word is not meant in the sense of a corporality isolated from the soul.
Leaving aside that Benedict is talking about the use of the word “body” in the Creed (rather than the Bible, as Vogan claims), we should see an obvious pattern emerge.  Once again, Benedict has explicitly affirmed the resurrection of the body, saying that the “the Creator intends, not just the soul, but the man physically existing in the midst of history and gives him immortality.”  How is that open to any meaning other than bodily resurrection?

All he's done in the passage I quoted is explain that man isn't simply a soul trapped in a physical cage, as the ancient Greeks imagined, but a union of body and soul.  In the resurrection of the body, then, it's the full man, body and soul (not just our bodies, isolated from our souls) that is glorified.  That is exactly the orthodox Christian definition of the resurrection of the body, and what the Church that formed the Creed taught (and continues to teach, under the Roman Pontiff).  If Vogan believes something else, he's the one embracing something heretical, not the pope.

Conclusion

Vogan makes more arguments, but I think this is sufficient.  At some point, we just have to conclude that Vogan either lacks the capacity to understand Pope Benedict's scholarly writings or lacks the virtue and veracity to accurately represent what the pope believes.

Frankly, a good case can be made for either.  On the one hand, the pope's scholarly work is admittedly quite dense at points, and I've struggled slowly through some of his writings myself.  A priest I know jokingly refers to Introduction to Christianity as “Introduction to Christianity for German Theologians,” since Benedict's encyclopedic knowledge can be hard to keep up with.  On the other hand, Vogan's piece is dripping with anti-Catholic disdain.  I omitted the sheer gratitious attacks, like when he lambasts Benedict for the “Jesuitical distinction that he makes between his official and private views,” or when he claims that “is typical of Roman Catholicism to say both 'yes' and 'no' at the same time to biblical doctrine,” before grossly misrepresenting the Catholic teachings on Scripture, the Church, the Saints and Mary (none of which are remotely connected with what he is allegedly writing about).

So I don't know if Vogan's problem is blind bigotry, dishonesty, or just an inability to understand Ratzinger's work.  For his own sake, I sincerely hope it's the latter.  But regardless, he seems singularly unqualified to be writing articles on subjects he knows so little about, and it's to the shame of Free Presbyterian Magazine that they ran such a provocative and unedifying piece without checking to see if his facts were even remotely correct.

Yes, the pope is Catholic.  Yes, he believes in the Resurrection of Christ, and yes, he looks forward, with all Catholics, to the resurrection of the body.  Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Twilight of Protestant America?

Back in 2008, Jody Bottum, then the editor of First Things, wrote a fine essay called The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline, exploring the collapse of “mainline” Protestantism.  There's been a lot of talk of this: that Protestantism in America is rapidly losing its grip on the culture.

It's easy to exaggerate this idea, but I think there's really something to it.  Consider the Supreme Court.  Of the nine justices, there are exactly zero Protestants.  This would have been completely unthinkable even a generation ago.  From 1789 until about 1969, nearly every justice was Protestant, and even as recently as 1994, a majority of justices were Protestant.  Today, in the words of Christianity Today, we've got a Court composed of 6 Catholics, 3 Jews: Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg are Jewish, while Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Sotomayor are Catholic.

Catholic Vote noticed that we're seeing a similar phenomenon now in the GOP primaries, where the three candidates credited with a shot at winning (Romney, Gingrich, and Santoroum) are either Catholic or Mormon (with another Mormon, Huntsman, having recently dropped out of the race).  What's even stranger is that this thing that was very recently unthinkable wasn't newsworthy.

In a talk he gave this summer, Cardinal George said that he was much less worried about Protestant America, and much more worried about post-Protestant America.  I think we're going to have to start thinking much more seriously about just what this entails, because America's post-Protestantism is descending upon us rapidly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Ratzinger Reacted to Becoming Pope Benedict

On Monday, I looked at how various men have reacted to being elected pope.  I included popes from Clement XIV (elected in 1769) to John Paul II (1978), but didn't include Pope Benedict's reaction.

Since then, I heard a great talk on Benedict's election given by Msgr. Bartholomew Smith, the pastor at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in D.C., and a former priest-secretary to Cardinal William Baum.  Cardinal Baum attended the conclave, but was frail enough to need Msgr. Smith's assistance, meaning that Msgr. Smith got a unique view into the way the conclave process works.  Without disclosing anything confidential, he was able to walk us through the way a conclave works, and he was clearly struck by the organic beauty of the thing.  He mentioned something I hadn't known before: that the room in which the newly-elected pope vests is called the Room of Tears,  This captures well what I pointed out in Monday's post: that the calling to the papacy is a serious responsibility indeed, and one which no man is truly prepared for.

The same day that I learned this, my friend Peter e-mailed the section in Light of the World in which Pope Benedict discusses his own reaction to being elected.  Since it dovetails so perfectly with both Monday's post, and Msgr. Smith's talk, I thought I'd share it here.  This is from a series of interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald (whose questions are in blue italics):

What the crowd saw
Holy Father, on April 16, 2005, your seventy-eighth birthday, you told your co-workers how much you were looking forward to your retirement. Three days later you were the leader of the universal Church with 1.2 billion members. Not exactly a project that one saves for his old age. 
Actually I had expected finally to have some peace and quiet. The fact that I suddenly found myself facing this tremendous task was, as everybody knows, a shock for me. The responsibility is in fact enormous. 
There was the moment when, as you later said, you felt just as if “a guillotine” were speeding down on you. 
Yes, the thought of the guillotine occurred to me: Now it falls down and hits you. I had been so sure that this office was not my calling, but that God would now grant me some peace and quiet after strenuous years. But then I could only say, explain to myself: God’s will is apparently otherwise, and something new and completely different is beginning for me. He will be with me.
What Pope Benedict saw
In the so-called “room of tears” during a conclave three sets of robes lie waiting for the future Pope. One is long, one short, one middle-sized. What was going through your head in that room, in which so many new Pontiffs are said to have broken down? Does one wonder again here, at the very latest: Why me? What does God want of me?
Actually at that moment one is first of all occupied by very practical, external things. One has to see how to deal with the robes and such. Moreover I knew that very soon I would have to say a few words out on the balcony, and I began to think about what I could say. Besides, even at the moment when it hit me, all I was able to say to the Lord was simply: “What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me!” In this sense, I stood, let us say, in an urgent dialogue relationship with the Lord: if he does the one thing he must also do the other.

This is what humility looks like.  And it's the mark of a great pope.