Monthly Archives: April 2015

Staying Sane: A Good Reason to be Catholic

A few weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh and it reminded me why I am Catholic. It said, “Honk if you don’t exist.”  If I am not mistaken, the bumper sticker was meant to teach one of the central tenets of Buddhism – the anatta doctrine, or the doctrine of “no self.”  This Buddhist doctrine teaches that “I” don’t exist, or at the very least, that “I” ought not to worry about whether or not “I” exist.  Needless to say, I found it extremely ironic and somewhat amusing to think that someone would honk in order to signal their conviction that they are not there.  It’s as if they were saying, “Look, look at me! Here I am, Not!”

Outside the classical Judeo-Christian tradition, philosophical silliness like this occurs with astonishing frequency. The atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg (professor at Duke University) has gone on record, publically, many times, arguing that there is no such thing as thinking.  Thinking, he thinks, is an illusion. In one well-known essay of about 4,000 words (“The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality”), Rosenberg argues that there are no words, no sentences, and no meaningful arguments. (And yet, Rosenberg continues to make arguments, write words, and express both incredulity and moral indignation at those who disagree with him.)

We could easily make a rather long list of this kind of thing. Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) famously argued that there are no material objects. (Samuel Johnson refuted him by kicking a stone.)  David Hume (1711-1776) thought it more sensible to believe that things pop into existence without a cause than to believe in cause-and-effect.  I once met a modern gender theorist who stared a beautiful woman in the face and refused to acknowledge that she was female. Tragically, these kinds of mistakes have real-world, moral consequences.  Modern “ethicists,” like Peter Singer, rely on them to justify barbarism unprintable in a Catholic paper.

In the face of such absurdity, I reflect frequently on the good sense in being Catholic. Catholicism is, above all, a message about our eternal destiny and the way of salvation. But unlike the nihilistic or world-denying philosophy of the East, Catholicism offers you eternity and affirms the goodness of the material world as well.  Along with Buddhists, materialists, and idealists, Catholics acknowledge that that material world on its own is rather hard to explain.  But unlike some philosophers, Catholics affirm that language, meaning, minds, intelligence, and matter really do exist.  They just don’t exist on their own. We find their meaning in light of the unchanging, immaterial reality of God himself.

The Buddhists, nihilists, and absurdists do make one good point. Life without God is absurd.  To live like our pleasures, our bank accounts, or our reputations really matter in some ultimate way is to chase a fantasy. None of these things – on their own – have any eternal significance or any meaning worth pursuing. But Catholicism finds their meaning in light of eternity.  Catholic faith sees clearly what every Buddhist or absurdist sees dimly. You shouldn’t live for the things of this world, not because they don’t exist, but because they exist in dependence on God.  They derive their meaning from their relationship to the Creator.

Jesus made the point long ago:

 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . .  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25-33)

Catholicism does teach many things that cannot be known directly by human reason. Reason cannot discover on its own that God is triune, or that Christ is fully God and fully man, or that the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ. But it is remarkable that those who affirm these mysteries of faith are marvelously prepared to resist the absurdities and the irrationality that often accompany unbelief.  Those who believe God on the hardest doctrines find it an easy thing to believe in the evident facts of common sense. Those who doubt God end up doubting even that they exist.

Why is Catholic Marriage Different?

Catholic teaching on marriage elicits more practical opposition and misunderstanding than perhaps any other Catholic doctrine. When I ask people what is keeping them from full communion with the Catholic church, Catholic teaching and the canon law on marriage rank high on the list.

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The reason for the opposition is easily understood.  Christ calls married couples to lifelong fidelity, no matter what. A valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved for any reason by any power on earth. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6) This teaching seems so difficult that the apostles themselves could hardly believe it. “If this is the situation between a husband and wife,” they said, “it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)  Christ himself admitted that the teaching was impossible without grace: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” (Matthew 19:11)

Some Protestant denominations wish to make an exception to this law in cases of adultery or abandonment. They base this exception in the so-called “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9. But St. Paul explains Christ’s teaching very clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:10: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”  For this reason, the Church allows for the “separation of bed and board” in cases of abuse and neglect, but in no way countenances the remarriage of those separated while the true spouse is still living.

Why? Why does Christ call Christian couples to such a high standard of fidelity, even to the point of embracing the cross of suffering? The reason is that Christian marriage is no mere human contract. It is a mystical participation in the sacrificial, self-giving love of Christ for his Church. (Ephesians 5) It is a special vocation to holiness, an ecclesial state in the same way that priesthood or religious life is an ecclesial state. Christian marriage participates in the sacramental mission of the Church to bring Christ to the world. St. John Paul II wrote that “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.” (Familiaris Consortio)

The really glorious news is that God never calls us to a task without giving us the means to accomplish it. For this reason, the sacrament of marriage is accompanied by astonishing graces that are unique to the married state. The Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes) put the matter quite beautifully:

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfil their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God.

To be sure, not all married couples experience or enjoy the full benefit of these graces.  The increase of sanctifying grace in the sacraments calls forth our willing cooperation. Pope Pius XI explains: “[since] men do not reap the full fruit of the Sacraments . . . unless they cooperate with grace, the grace of matrimony will remain for the most part an unused talent hidden in the field.”  (Casti Connubii)

In order to reap the full benefits of sacramental marriage, one must live a sincere, faithful and generous Catholic life. St. John Paul II explains:  “There is no doubt that these conditions must include persistence and patience, humility and strength of mind, filial trust in God and in His grace, and frequent recourse to prayer and to the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation. Thus strengthened, Christian husbands and wives will be able to keep alive their awareness of the unique influence that the grace of the sacrament of marriage has on every aspect of married life.” (Familiaris Consortio).

Christian marriage is awesome calling. Like all the sacraments, it is “a mystery,” but a mystery of astonishing fruitfulness. The law on Christian marriage is arduous because the end of Christian marriage is so sublime. Through it we are “caught up into divine love.”  The Council teaches: “Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love.” (Gaudium et Spes)

What Catholicism is Not

I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to address a group of student leaders about preaching the gospel on college campuses.  The Gospel, I said, is fairly simple. There is a God.  He loves you and desires to make you part of His family. His plan is not just for you as an individual, but is to reconcile the whole human race. He will accomplish this through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prolonged and made present through the Catholic Church. He desires to elevate your life to a supernatural dimension (best exemplified in the lives of the saints). That supernatural life will ultimately be fulfilled in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead.

confused pope

This broad outline of the gospel is familiar to many people on college campuses today, but unfortunately it is also subjected to significant distortion in the media and in the popular imagination.  The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens was typical of this distortion when he depicted the Christian God as a greedy, exigent dictator, angry and bloodthirsty, who poured out his wrath on his only son. Our goal this weekend was to identify some of these distortions, and to correct them in light of the teaching of the Church.  What follows is a summary of those remarks.

What is God?

Is God a tyrannical dictator who stands over against the world, demanding, judging, and condemning?  And what, after all, is God? Allegedly, this is the first question that St. Thomas Aquinas put to his Benedictine teachers when he was a young boy.  It was also St. Thomas who gave the most articulate and subtle answer to that question. According to St. Thomas, God is not one being among many. Rather, God is the very act of to be itself. In Thomas’s words, He is ipsum esse subsistens. The world does not stand over against God as an independent entity, but exists more in the likeness of music to a musician. (One theologian said, “God hums the world.”)  As such, God is the ground of the world’s intelligibility.  To deny the existence of that God is simply to deny that reality is intelligible.

Why did Christ die?

Did Christ die to satisfy the bloodlust of a celestial dictator? Some Protestant sects have actually taught this, but that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that God became man to enter into solidarity with the human race, to restore what was lost in Adam, to infuse a divine principle into the human family. His death was not a divine punishment, but a freely given sacrifice, an act of love. We are joined to his death in a mystical sense in baptism: “our old man has been crucified with him, so that our body of sin might be destroyed.” (Romans 6:6) We also were “taken up into Christ” and his resurrection, so that we might live a new life. (Romans 6:4)

What is the Church?

Is the Church merely a corrupt and self-serving hierarchy? That’s how it is often portrayed.  But Catholicism sees the Church as a sign and instrument of cosmic reconciliation. Laity and clergy share a common dignity and are equally called to the perfection of holiness through love. “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.” (Lumen Gentium)  The Church has a hierarchical dimension, to be sure, which serves the unity of the faith through the principle of authority. But that authority does not exhaust the meaning of the Church, but rather serves the final end of reconciliation through love. The true meaning of the Church is revealed in a special way in the saints and martyrs, the fullest proof of divine love.

There are many other reasons that our contemporaries reject that Catholic faith. Some are more sociological than theological. Our prosperity/entertainment culture creates a huge barrier to assimilating the message of self-denial and the life to come. Peer orientation among the young, the loss of tradition, distaste for ritual and authority, and the skepticism bred by religious pluralism all create obstacles to evangelism. But to evangelize effectively we still need to know how to answer the common stereotypes.   Fulton Sheen’s famous words are as applicable today as ever: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”