Monthly Archives: September 2014

Love and Sacrifice

Want to know the secret of happiness? The secret is that there is no secret. Happiness is love, communion, and fellowship. Happiness is meaning in the context of relationship. We all know this. Scientific research confirms it. Every great religious and philosophical tradition has taught it. So why do we find it so difficult sometimes? And what if there were a sure-fire way to overcome our difficulties and finally embrace love?

Host elevated

The difficulty is that we don’t do what we know we should. Catholic faith says there are at least two reasons for this. One is that our intellect has been darkened somewhat by the effects of original sin. (Darkened, not destroyed.) That is to say, the abstract truths of practical reason (do good, avoid evil, love your neighbor, prefer mercy to pleasure, and so forth) are more obscure to us than the immediate inclination of our sensitive nature, which is quite noticeable and quite insistent. A second reason is that our will is weak and we find it difficult to submit our passions to the control of reason, even when we know clearly what reason dictates.


So why would this make it difficult to love, if love brings happiness? My pastor Msgr. Muller is fond of saying, “Sacrifice is the language of love,” and I think he is exactly correct. The love-that-brings happiness is precisely that kind of love that says no to my own immediate pleasures and looks to the good of another. “Greater love hath no man,” says Scripture, “than that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)


Love (and therefore happiness) is difficult because it requires sacrifice. This is why, I suspect, God has made sacrifice the central act of worship. At each pivotal moment in salvation history, the people of God have entered into covenant, communion, love, and fellowship with God through sacrifice. (Genesis 8:20, Genesis 15; Exodus 24, 1 Chronicles 16 & 17)  The Psalm says, “Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” (Ps. 50:5)


This act of sacrifice is both a ritual act of worship and an interior disposition, a willingness to give up something of value for the sake of another. King David typified this when he said, “I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”  The mere ritual act, apart from the interior disposition, is not what God desires. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it,” says David, “you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)


So how do we lay hold of that disposition? How do we acquire that supernatural habit of mind that embraces the arduous good? The good of sacrificial love? How do we overcome the effects of original sin? The Catholic faith offers us the most sublime means, the most awesome mystery. It proposes for our faith the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. By entering the mystery of the Mass we enter the domain of supernatural charity, of sacrifice-made-present, of the perfect act of worship.  Speaking of the Mass, Malachi says, “In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 1:11)


Consider the Sacrifice of the Mass. First, the Mass is the perfect ritual offering. (Romans 8:3; 1 Peter 1:19) Second Jesus, the High Priest, made the perfect interior act of sacrifice, voluntarily laying down his life in love. (John 10:17-18). Third, the Mass establishes a covenant of communion between God and his people.  Jesus calls the Mass, “The chalice of the New Covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22: 20).


All of this is made present for us by the minister of the Eucharist, the ordained priest. As lay people, we do not make Christ present on the altar. We do not effect the sacrifice. But we can lay hold of that sacrifice and make it our own. Christ is the head and we are the members.  What the head does for the sake of his body, we have a right to call our own. (Colossians1:18) And in being present to that sacrifice, we can offer ourselves along with it. (Romans 12:1).


The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is the perfect sacrifice, the perfect demonstration of love. Devout attendance at Mass, intentional, recollected attendance at Mass creates a habit of mind that is infused with supernatural grace. We become a Eucharistic people. We become able to say, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

Why ISIS Threatened the Pope

ISIS, the Sunni Islamist movement now wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria, announced its intention to assasinate Pope Francis.  ISIS representatives claim the Pope “bears false witness” against Islam and is “the greatest exponent of the Christian religions.”  For that, apparently, he deserves to die.


What has the Pope said about Islam that they find so objectionable? Perhaps it’s nothing specific. It might just be that Francis represents world Christianity and that Christianity, by its very existence, is an affront to the claim that Muhammed supersedes Jesus.  Maybe they identify Christianity simpliciter with Western military action in the Middle East. Or, perhaps they take issue with what Francis  actually has said about Islam.


In his apostolic exhoration Evangelii Gaudium,  Pope Francis called on Christians to “embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” He pointed to areas of commonality between Catholic and Muslim faith, and asked for respectful dialogue from both sides. He “humbly entreated” Muslim countries to grant the same freedom of worship to Christians that Western countries extend to Muslim immigrants. He suggested that “authentic Islam” opposes every form of violence.

Francis immigrants

Francis’s remarks are similar to those made by Pope Benedict throughout his pontificate.  He also called for the respectful embrace of immigrants, for dialogue and mutual respect, and for reason, rather than violence, as the resolution to religious conflict. Pope Benedict addressed this last topic in his famous lecture in Regensburg (2006).  The Pope argued that God’s nature is Supreme Reason, that spirituality must conform to the dictates of reason, and that violence and compulsion are utterly contrary to the nature of true religion.


Is this what ISIS objects to? Obvioulsy, there are large segments of the Muslim tradition that have advocated violence.  “Oh Prophet,” says the Koran, “exhort the believers to fight.” (Koran 8:65)  Historically, the Muslim Caliphate had no objection to advancing Islam with the sword. For a thousand years, Christian Europe was hemmed in from Spain to Austria as expansionist Muslim empires threatened the borders of Christian kingdoms. Christian North Africa, the Middle East, and Byzantium fared much worse as they fell to Islamic violence. Christians were either killed or reduced to second-class status.  ISIS clearly wants a return to this view of Islam.


Popes Francis and Benedict have appealed to more civil and reasonable proponents of Islam. Some, like Algerian Muslim philosopher Mustapha Cherif, have embraced the Pope’s vision and condemned anti-Christian violence in Iraq and Syria.  Cherif, like the Pope, advocates dialogue rather than armed conflict as the way to live together.  But others, like ISIS, Hamas, or Hezbollah, obviously demur.


I think it is unhelpful to debate which of these represents “real Islam.” There are over a billion Muslims in the world and they disagree widely among themselves. There is no Islamic “Pope” who speaks for the world’s Muslims. It is simpler to admit that Islam is a diverse tradition with competing and incompatible interpretations, some of which are more consonant with reason and humanity than others.  “Real Islam” is, for the moment, whatever the Muslim standing in front of me says it is.  Who am I to tell a Muslim what he “really” believes?


So why does Pope Francis appeal to “authentic Islam?”  To make sense of this, I would turn to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture. In that text, the Pope issued a charge not just to Muslims but to all people of good will. Will you submit your ideology to the dictates of reason? The “authentic” is simply fidelity to our rational nature, to what makes us essentially human.  On these terms, we can judge any ideology as “authentic” or “inauthentic.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963)  The Popes challenge Muslims (and all people) to consider their own rationality, and to observe the transcendent dignity of the human person.  Perhaps this is what ISIS hates so much about Francis and Catholicism?


There are very important differences between Islam and Catholicism. It was the Catholic Church that first  introduced the world to a clear delineation between spiritual and temporal power. “My kindgom is not of this world,” Jesus said. (John 18:36.)  Pope Gelasius I (d. 496) made clear long ago that Catholicism  is not fundamentally about the political expression of religion. Islam, by contrast, has traditionally embraced precisely such a juridical view of religion.  As future Muslims make sense of their faith, let us pray they will heed the Pope’s words and submit that judgment to reason.


Christians are under mortal threat in Iraq and Syria.  Pope Francis has said that international military action may be necessary to prevent the genocide of minorities in those regions.  This would be an instance of just war thinking: the legitimate and proportionate use of force to prevent a grave evil. But Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict, has decried violence over and over again as a way to resolve specifically religious conflict. He reminds us that authentic religion – any authentic religion – ultimately is about the love and worship of God who is Reason Itself.



Answering Hitchens: What Can Faith Do?

Before his death, atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a best-selling book attacking religious belief.  It had the provocative title God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens promoted the book throughout the world by debating with religious believers of many types: Christians, Jews, Moslems, and Hindus.   In these debates, he would often challenge his opponent, “Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.”  Hitchens claimed no one ever met this challenge.


Christopher Hitchens

My favorite humorous response to Hitchens came from Protestant minister Doug Wilson. When Hitchens asked him to name one moral act only believers can do Wilson replied, “Tithe.”  But more seriously, Hitchens assumed – like many secular thinkers – that the only good is the good of social or material progress. An atheist can ladle soup in a soup kitchen –same as a Christian– so Christianity must not bring anything to the table.  Even worse, for Hitchens, is the fact that people can do a lot of harm in the name of religion that they might not do otherwise. (Hence his book’s subtitle.)

I have to admit that I was never very impressed by Hitchens argument because I never accepted the unstated premise. It’s just not true that soup ladles are the sole measure of value. Catholicism, in particular, for all its good works and charity, has always rejected the idea that religion should aim for Utopia in this world or that it exists only to promote material wellbeing. “The Church is not an NGO,” as Pope Francis says frequently.

Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa so much. (He wrote viciously about her.) He understood her mission better than many. He knew that her main goal was not social work, but mysticism. “We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported,” Mother Theresa said. “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers.  We are religious, we are religious, we are religious.”

Mother Theresa knew (and struggled with the fact) that the greatest value of religious faith in this life is not material wellbeing, but the gift of transcendent hope. That’s something a believer can give that Hitchens can never give. In a debate with Rabbi David Wolpe, Hitchens once said, “I think despair is quite a good starting point myself . . . Those who offer [hope] to me, I spurn the gift. I don’t want what you want. I don’t want the feeling of an eternal love and peace. Love and peace, very, very overrated in my view.”

Hitchens is just flat wrong here, of course. Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation.  “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul said. (Philippians 3:8)  When St. Josephine Bakhita reflected on her life of horrific suffering she could say, ““I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”

But even if nonbelievers do good things, there is still no reason to conclude that unbelief is the best stance for advancing material and social wellbeing. Fr. Richard Neuhaus, a long-time crusader for the important role of religion in public life once argued (I think correctly), “It is empirically probable and logically persuasive that human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.”  The fact is that atheists don’t ladle as much soup as Catholics.  It was the Catholic Church that invented the modern institutions of benevolence precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.

What of Hitchens’s charge that people can do evil things in the name of religion that they wouldn’t do otherwise?  This is obviously true of religion, just as it is obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation, which one reason why the Catholic Church (unlike Islam and some forms of Protestantism) does not propose a specific juridical order derived from revelation. The Church cannot and does not replace the state, but must “play her part through rational argument.” Pope Benedict also said, “she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.” (Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est)

What good can a believer do that a nonbeliever cannot do? Only a believer can offer transcendent hope.  Only a believer can propose or work for a social order grounded in the transcendent dignity of the human person. Only a believer can say, “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”