The Convivial Christ

Jesus was not an ideologue. He did not push a political program. When Pilate confronted him about his agenda, Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus recognized the legitimacy of government. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”)  He simply took no overt stand in favor or against the various political factions of his day.

Instead of promoting a political agenda, Christ pursued the hearts of men. His strategy was not electioneering, propaganda or campaigns. It was friendship, food, and drink, breaking bread with “sinners.”  He said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:29)

How was his “wisdom vindicated by her deeds?”   Christ’s method was vindicated because it worked.  Instead of confronting Zacchaeus with a political pitch, he said, “Zacchaeus come down! I’m going to your house today.” (Luke 19:5) It was as if Christ had said, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee, shall we?”  Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus’ generosity was repentance and faith.

Jesus’ friendliness was more than an evangelistic strategy. It was a sign of the heavenly life to come. Jesus describes himself as Israel’s bridegroom. In view of the upcoming “wedding,” the guests of the bridegroom do not fast. They celebrate. (Mark 2:19) Jesus’ eating, drinking, and celebrating was a sign of the coming Wedding Feast of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:7)

Christ’s friendship lies at the heart of the Christian faith. “I no longer call you servants, but friends,” Jesus said. (John 15:15) To the paralytic, Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5:20)  Likewise, Peter confessed his friendship with Christ. (John 21:15)  It is a friendship Jesus wants to extend to the whole Church, and especially to the poor. (Luke 14:12; Luke 16:9) According to Cardinal Schoenborn, the whole Christian ethic is summed up in the ideal of friendship. (Commencement Address, Thomas Aquinas College, 2002)

Today, our country is very divided politically and ideologically. According to the Pew Research Forum, Americans are more polarized today than they have been in twenty years. Democrats are more consistently liberal. Republicans are more consistently conservative. There is less and less common ground between them, and more and more acrimony. Online dating websites report that politics now trumps religion as the biggest “deal breaker” for future relationships. People are more willing to date across religious lines than political ones.

It is tempting to find solutions to social problems in ideology.  The ideologue rests smug and secure in the knowledge that he is on the “right side.” He identifies justice with an abstract state of affairs, a political program, or a body of legislation.  He easily demonizes his opponents. They are on the “wrong side.” He does not have to win their friendship. He has to defeat them politically.

But Catholic tradition tells us that justice can never be identified with a political program. That is because justice is a virtue, a habit, than inheres in the will of individuals. It is the habit of doing right by one’s fellows. It is the habit of concerning oneself with the common good, not simply in political electioneering, but in concrete acts of generosity and good will.  You can have a deep theoretical concern with justice, but still be very unjust.  Karl Marx spent his days studying political economy, but his children died of starvation.  Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote treatises on education, but handed all his children off to orphanages.

St. Thomas tells us that the first baby steps towards justice are found in friendliness. “It behooves man,” Thomas writes,” to be maintained in a becoming order towards other men . . . this virtue is called friendliness.” (Summa theologica, II.II.114.1)  It’s not the whole of justice. It’s just a necessary first step, but it is still necessary.  If we look to Christ, we would have to conclude that friendliness and kindness are more immediately important than striving for the best political policy.

Pope John Paul II recognized the dangers of ideological blocs. In his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis, he identified the human heart as the more important locus of division and reconciliation:

It is important to note therefore that a world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies . . . can only be a world subject to structures of sin . . . rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove.

Politics and ideology are inevitable. We cannot legislate without some theoretical understanding of the common good. But our ultimate good transcends politics.  It is telling that Jesus did not leave us with a manifesto. He left us with the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian faith. How appropriate is St. Thomas’s hymn O Sacrum Convivium! “O Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received!” By it we are renewed in the convivial Christ.

Catholic or Christian?

Recently I was talking to a non-Catholic friend when I mentioned an acquaintance. “He’s a good man,” I said. “He’s a good Catholic.” My friend took offense. “Why do you have to say Catholic? Why not just say Christian? It seems divisive to insist on being Catholic.” It’s a good question. Why distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic? Why not focus instead on what we all share?

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that the Catholic Church does celebrate what all Christians have in common. In fact, she even celebrates what all humans have in common (Christian or not) and rejects nothing that is truly good or beautiful wherever it may be found. There are elements of truth and sanctification in many traditions, and these are pointers towards our common origin and destiny in God. The Second Vatican Council took great pains to emphasize this point. (See especially the declaration Nostra Aetate.)

But if the Church rejects a narrow exclusivism, she also rejects a facile relativism. To the post-modern mind, one religious tradition is as good as another. Some Christians regard one denomination as good as another. The Catholic, by contrast, regards the fullness of grace and truth to be found in Christ and in the Church he established. In brief, it makes a difference what you believe, how you worship, and how you live.

I would like to focus on three respects in which the Catholic Church contains the fullness of Christian religion. The Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth, the fullness of grace, and the fullness of Christian holiness. These elements subsist together in a visible structure, a society, the Church, founded by Christ and given to us for our salvation. This Church will endure to the end, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Math 16:18-19)

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he appeared to eleven disciples and charged them, “Make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you . . . I will be with you to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 16-20) Christ left a body of oral teaching, ritual, and example. He transmitted this tradition to authorized teachers, not to a text or a document. The apostles themselves appointed successors charged in perpetuity with the same task. (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:2, Titus 1:7-9) Thus, the Church hands on the fullness of apostolic teaching.

Christ demanded that his apostles teach, but also that they celebrate the sacraments. “Do this in memory of me,” he said. “Baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he commanded. “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven,” he promised. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14), we cannot neglect those gifts received by the laying on of hands. (Holy Orders, confirmation).

The Church’s sacraments are real means of grace. Scripture teaches we “abide in Christ” by eating his flesh, which is real food, and that by abiding in him, we can bear “much fruit.” (John 6:53-59) By baptism, moreover, we are “clothed with Christ,” we die with him and are raised again. (Romans 6; Galatians 3:27) When we confess our sins, St. James says, we will be forgiven and healed.” (James 5:15-16) In her seven sacraments, the Church fully transmits the means of grace.

The perfection of holiness is charity, the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3) Christian love demands agreement on all things. (1 Cor. 1:10) According to Christ, we cannot be perfect until we are one. (John 17:21) This unity in the faith is more than simple benevolence or good will. It is a visible unity that all men can see. The aim of the gospel is more than individual salvation. It is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) Adhering in charity to the unity of the faith, the Church exhibits the fullness of Christian holiness.

We cannot enjoy the fullness of Christian faith without the fullness of truth, grace, and holiness. For that reason, Christ founded a Church with the power to teach, sacraments to heal, and a visible society in which to reconcile all men. He founded it upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) To one apostle, he gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” He charged Peter with the care of his sheep. (John. 21:17) This society is more than an invisible association of the elect. It is a body from which one can be ejected and into which one can be admitted. (Mattew 18:18) The mystery of the Gospel, says Paul, is that we are to be members together in one body, the Church. (Ephesians 3:10)

The Biblical Meaning of Salvation

Christianity is a message of salvation. What does that mean? Our Protestant friends sometimes ask, “Brother, have you been saved?” They have in mind a private religious experience, a prayer meant to guarantee one’s place in heaven. Is that what salvation means?

In the ancient near east, kings and emperors were described as “saviors” when they liberated a besieged city, or brought peace and harmony to the land. The Old Testament ascribes that task to God.  The Hebrews were often besieged by their neighbors and ultimately suffered exile in Babylon and Assyria.  They cried out to God for “salvation.”  In the book of Chronicles we read, “Save us, God our Savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations.” (1 Chron. 16:35)

The Hebrew prophets looked forward to a time when God would raise up a divine king (the Messiah) to save Israel from the nations. (Isaiah 9) But unlike the kings of the nations, the Messiah would conquer in humility and meekness. “A bruised reed he will not break; a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3) His dominion would extend to the whole world, and not just Israel. (Is. 49:6)  He, himself, would suffer, “offering his back to those who beat him.” (Is. 50:6). He would “bear the sin of many,” and make himself “an offering for sin.” (Is. 53:10).  In that day, God makes a New Covenant with Israel.  He puts his law in their minds and writes it on their hearts. (Jer. 31:31)

When Jesus appeared in Galilee, he declared the arrival of this Messianic kingdom. (Mark 1:15) But unlike the Hebrews, Christ said his kingdom was not of this world. (John 18:36) His enemies were not nations and armies, but the spiritual powers and principalities. (Ephesians 6:12) Christ said, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, know that the Kingdom of God has come among you.” (Matt. 12:28)

Jesus also assumed the role of the suffering servant. He gave his life as a ransom for those held under the power of the devil. (Mark 10:45; Hebrews 2:14). His death was an offering for sin. (Romans 3:25) By his suffering, Christ merited the gift of the Spirit. (Acts 2:32)  Because of his humility, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above all names.” (Philippians 2:8)

Before the coming of Christ, Jews and Gentiles were divided by the Mosaic Law. It was “the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) But Christ nailed it to the cross, with its laws and commands. (Col. 2:14) Now, in Christ, those who were far off have come near. The Gentiles are heirs together with Israel. It is not by the Mosaic Law, but by faith that we are incorporated into Christ.  All those who believe are now children of Abraham.  According to Isaiah’s promise, the light of Israel extends through Christ to all the nations. (Romans 3-4)

Those who believe in Christ are promised forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).  God’s love is shed abroad in their hearts. (Rom.5:5) Since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8), those who walk by the Spirit have fully met the law’s demands. (Rom.8:3) The Spirit is a deposit, guaranteeing their resurrection from the dead. (Rom. 8:11)

But the promise of faith comes with a condition. Faith joins us to Christ, to the people of God, but Scripture exhorts us to persevere in faith and obedience. “Those who persevere to the end will be saved,”  Christ says. (Matt. 24:13). If we fall away through disobedience, if we neglect such a great salvation, there is no more sacrifice for sins. (Hebrews 10:26). If we walk in the Spirit, we will be saved. But if we return to the deeds of the flesh, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21).

We persevere, we remain in Christ, by fellowship with his body, the Church, and by receiving the sacraments. “Whoever eats my flesh abides in me,” Christ says.  (John 6:56)  This bread is his flesh, given for the life of the world. (John 6:51)) For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, “writes the second-century St. Justin, “we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word . . . is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66)

Salvation, in Scripture, is a rich concept.  Following ancient usage, it suggests the coming of a conquering king who vanquishes his enemies and invites the meek and humble to partake of his reign.  It’s more than a private experience. Those redeemed by Christ enter into a society, the Church, and are nourished by Sacramental mysteries.  Through faith and obedience, they await the consummation of all things at the end of time.

On the Pope and Politics

I recieved an email this week from a man who would like to become Catholic, but finds his politics getting in the way. He identifies as a political conservative. He perceives Pope Francis to be a political liberal. The Pope’s recent words about capitalism and the environment give him pause. They are a stumbling block. What should he do?

The problem is not a new one. Friends of mine who are political liberals responded vitriolically to what they perceived as the conservatism of John Paul II and Pope Benedict.  In fact, Popes throughout the centuries have exerted great political influence (wittingly and unwittingly), and it is not always easy even in hindsight to evaluate that influence. In the case of my correspondent, this has provoked a real crisis of conscience.

Some simplistic responses to this problem are clearly inadquate.  The “easy” way is to dismiss the pope, to write off what he says as “poor prudential judgment,” constantly to qualify him, to talk about what “he really means,” to point out that he’s not speaking ex cathedra, or otherwise mitigate his point of view.  This response fails to take seriously that we owe the Pope a religious submission even when he is not teaching dogma. He is the vicar of Christ, raised up by God to teach the faith and to relate that faith to the the concrete demands of human life.

There is another error that is perhaps more dangerous. We can fully embrace what we think he is saying, or what we’d like him to be saying, by assimilating it completely to our own political ideology. We can enlist the Pope as politcal partisan in the service of our agenda. In some ways this error is worse than the first, since we don’t even allow ourselves to hear what the pope says before accepting or rejecting it. We are so enclosed within our ideological worldview that we have lost the ability even to hear competing voices.

Third error is the most pernicious. We dont’ like what the pope is saying, and so we reject the authority of the Church altogether. The political or ideological agenda is our real authority. We are only interested in the Church to the extent that it furthers that agenda.  Do not think that this danger applies only to “the other guy.” There are ideologues across the political spectrum who would sacrifice their souls for the sake of “the agenda.”

Fortunately, the popes themselves have told us how to address this problem. In the encyclical Solicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II explained that Catholic social teaching does not fall along the continuum of existing political discourse.  The Church is not left or right. She is not capitalist or socialist. Nor is she halfway between the two. Rather, social doctrine is in the genre of moral theology.  The Church is in the business of pointing out the moral demands of the just society, not in dictating the political program necessary to get there.

This is something Pope Francis himself has said over and over. On his recent trip to Latin America he remarked,

 It is not so easy to define the content of change – in other words, a social program which can embody this project of fraternity and justice which we are seeking. So don’t expect a recipe from this Pope. Neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues. I dare say that no recipe exists. History is made by each generation as it follows in the footsteps of those preceding it, as it seeks its own path and respects the values which God has placed in the human heart.

Sometimes, of course, the Pope does speak immediately to  matters of public policy. John Paul II, for instance, was a vocal critic of U.S. War policy in the middle east. But even then, it is still a mistake to assimilate the Pope fully ino one political camp. The Pope has very different reasons for weighing into contemporary debate.  Ultimately, the Popes remind us that we are made in the image of God. We possess a dignity that transcends partisans poltics. Politics may be unavoidable, but the Church calls us to submit our ideologies to that trasncedent dignity.  Following St. Paul, we “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

It’s very easy to dismiss the Pope when we don’t like what he says. It’s even easier to press him into the service of our personal political program. It’s much harder to lay down our agenda and listen attentively. But in the final analysis, I have to try and listen. “Whoever has ears,” the Lord said, “out to hear.” (Matthew 13:9)

SCOTUS Decision Analyzed

On Friday, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in the case of Obergefell vs. Hodges.   At issue was the purported right of homosexual couples to marry and to have that right enforced across state lines. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that all states must issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples that ask for them.  Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the case.

My purpose is to analyze the moral argument that underlies Kennedy’s opinion. I am not equipped to evaluate questions of constitutional interpretation, precedent, statutes, and case law. However, one does not need to know much about the law to understand Kennedy’s argument. That is because the law barely entered into Kenney’s thinking.  As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his dissent, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment.”  In other words, Kennedy and the majority hope for societal acceptance of homosexuality. They simply want to use the court’s power to further that acceptance.

At the heart of Kennedy’s argument is his desire to force social acceptance of gay sex.  It is not enough to legalize gay sex. The state must promote gay sex, so that gay couples can feel good about themselves. “Outlaw to outcast may be a step forward,” he writes, “but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.”  Kennedy explains:

 As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.

We find the same argument in his treatment of gay adoption. We must legalize gay marriage, he says, or else the children of gay parents will feel bad about themselves. They will “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. . . . The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”  According to Kennedy, the state demeans homosexual relationships if it fails to dignify them with the title of marriage.  It treats homosexual unions as essentially different from heterosexual unions. Kennedy finds that intolerable.

There are a number of reasons he thinks that homosexual unions are of equal dignity to heterosexual unions.  He asserts, for instance, that homosexuality is normal.  He also asserts that homosexuality is healthy (that it poses no obstacles to successful societal integration or the adoption of social roles).  He claims that homosexuality (and sexual orientation in general) is an immutable condition. And crucially, he asserts that homosexual persons cannot successfully make the commitment of marriage to persons of the opposite sex.  He writes: “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”

None of those things is true, but none of them matters either. The state does not promote marriage to make people feel good about themselves. According to the Catholic bishops, the state promotes the marriage of men and women because only men and women make babies and babies have an inherent right to their biological parents.

As Catholics, we agree that homosexual persons and their children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  But homosexual sex is not dignified and is no reason to destroy the natural bond between parents and children. (Gay adoption can only mean taking a child away from at least one biological parent.) Our dignity does not consist in the alleged immutability of our sexual orientation, but in our rationality, our freedom, and our openness to the transcendent.  In light of that dignity, we must make responsible use of our sexuality for the good of our children and our society, whether or not we feel good about ourselves.

Kennedy’s assessment of homosexuality is also wrong.  To begin with, homosexuality is not normal.  It may be enduring, present throughout much of history, but it is not normal. According to a 2013 study by the CDC, homosexuals amount to 1.6% of the population while 97.7% of the population identifies as straight.

Second, homosexuality does pose challenges to health, psychology, and social well-being. The New Family Structures Study, led by Sociologist Mark Regnerus and published in Social Science Research (June 2012) has documented significant difficulties faced by children raised by same sex-couples.  The couples themselves also suffer from much higher rates of infidelity, dissolution, and physical, psychological, and psychiatric comorbidities.

Third, it is certainly true that many homosexuals experience their sexuality as something intractable.  But is it immutable?  That depends on what you mean.  There are certainly men and women who have changed their sexual behavior (from straight to gay; from gay to straight).  More importantly, there are those who have left the gay lifestyle for successful marriage, even though they may experience that as a struggle.

Finally, it is just not true that same-sex marriage is the only path to marital fulfillment for homosexual persons. Kennedy himself wrote in another decision (Planned Parenthood v Casey) that the state should not dictate the meaning of existence. But here Kennedy does just that. He declares as an absolute truth that a gay man cannot make a fulfilling commitment of marriage to a woman (or a woman to a man). This is perhaps the most demeaning thing I have ever read about gay people.

Outside In: Catholic Faith and the Emotional Life

I went to see the New Pixar movie, Inside Out.   The film takes us inside the mind of a young girl, Riley, where we literally see her emotions, depicted as cartoon personifications.  “Joy” is a bouncy, bubbly, vibrant young woman. “Sadness” is a pudgy, mopey little blue girl.  We also meet characters named “Fear,” “Anger,” and “Disgust.” They live and interact in a vast landscape – deep canyons of forgetfulness, mountains of memory, factories of imagination, and so forth. The emotions operate the command and control center of the brain and help Riley make decisions.  They also carry out the daily task of logging memories into long term.

Using these cartoon figures, the film’s writers attempt to capture the complexity of human psychology. Inside the young girl’s brain, we see “islands of personality” constructed around stable long-term memories. The “train of thought” (depicted, literally, as a train) travels seemingly at random throughout the mind, but stops frequently at imagination. The emotions must tread warily when they pass through “abstract reasoning,” since they risk becoming abstracted into two dimensions. The depths of the subconscious (depicted as a cave at the bottom of a staircase) contain long-dormant fears.

Watching the film prompted me to reflect on the Catholic teaching on the emotional life and how it differs from Pixar’s pop-culture psychology.  The film’s crisis emerges because the character “Joy” attempts to stifle “Sadness,” keeping her away from the control center of the brain. The attempt backfires, and Sadness overwhelms Riley’s emotional life. Riley becomes disconnected from the people around her.  Both Joy and Sadness then go on a journey through Riley’s mind, trying to piece together her emotional stability and restore her relationships.

The movie offers a metaphor about the well-balanced emotional life.  When Riley loses touch with “Joy,” Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over her brain. When her emotional crisis erupts, “The Train of Thought” literally breaks down.  Joy can’t think her way back, but has to depend on imagination to return to the control center. The climax of the film comes when the emotions realize that they all need to work together in harmony. Even Sadness has a role to play in a healthy emotional life.

Viewing the film through Catholic tradition, I found many things to appreciate. Like the film writers, our faith recognizes the complexity of human psychology and strives for a well-balanced emotional life.  St. Thomas, in particular, discusses the proper ordering of the passions and the positive role that each of them plays in a happy life. He even recognizes a positive role for sorrow. Catholic spiritual writers also deal with the wandering “train of thought,” and warn against over reliance on discursive or abstract thinking.

But a Catholic analysis would find things to criticize in Pixar’s pop psychology. To begin with, Riley’s emotions are in charge of her decision making.  They literally run the show.  To make matters worse, the power of abstraction, critical to our rationality, is depicted largely as an impediment to healthy emotions.  The film’s prescription for a sound psychology is simply to give adequate attention to each emotion.  In this way, positive relationships with others can be restored.

 Catholic thought gives a different analysis of emotional disorder and offers a different solution. Our primary problem is not failure to give vent to emotion. Rather, our passions are disordered because they do not accord with the good known by reason. And the solution to our problem doesn’t begin from the Inside Out, but rather, from the Outside In. The solution comes in that touch of divine love we call grace.  God’s love heals our emotions, enlightens our intellect, and draws us towards the good.

Catholic tradition also aims at an experience of happiness that is far richer than emotional balance.  As an intellectual being, man desires to know. As a person, man desires to love.  In this life, intellect, comprehension, human freedom, and love of persons all play a role in the good life.  In the next life, we look forward to an experience of the ultimate good (God) in an intuitive vision that transcends all human intellectual and emotional experience.

Inside Out was a delightful movie.  It was creative, visually beautiful, and thought provoking. But its vision of the interior life, though complex, was lacking in spiritual vitality.  It was typical of our culture, which sadly diminishes the role of reason and of the objective good in its picture of the good life.  In moral philosophy, this diminished view of persons leads to emotivism, or the view that morality is only a matter of emotional attitudes.  Against this, we uphold the rich and comprehensive Catholic vision of the good life. We are complex emotional creatures, but we are also rational beings with a spiritual nature. Our ultimate good, including our emotional balance, comes through loving union with the ultimate Good who is God.

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.


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.”

And He Created them Male and Female . . .

I received a call last week from a man who was considering being Catholic, but facing a difficulty. “I think I’m transgendered,” he told me.  “How does this affect me?”  The immediate answer, of course, is that no personal challenge is an absolute barrier to becoming Catholic. There is always a way, even if that way may entail significant sacrifice. But this man’s challenge taps into a larger cultural phenomenon and one which will pose more and more difficulty in accepting a fully Catholic worldview.

Manif pour tous

Some people do obviously experience very real and acute suffering in integrating their sexual identity. This can include feeling positively disconnected from one’s body or sexuality. But the fact of such suffering is distinct from the larger cultural crisis about the meaning (if any) attaching to femininity and masculinity. What are masculinity, femininity, male, female? Are these essential elements of our personality, or accidental features, as changeable or variable as hair, eye, skin color?  The growing trend in culture is to insist on distinguishing one’s biological sex from one’s subjective experience of gender. There is an implicit assumption that if biology and psychology come into conflict, then biology must always give way to psychology. We see this modern preference expressed in legal codes and judicial decisions.

Underlying this modern notion is a form of Gnosticism.  Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that saw humans as “essentially” immaterial souls, disconnected from the body. For Gnostics, the body is evil, a burden to be sloughed off and not an essential element of one’s being.  The early modern philosopher Rene Descartes proposed a similar view of humanity in which we are essentially souls in fleshly vessels.

The current Gnosticism is more subtle. In this version, our “true self,” or “what really counts” are feelings, sentiments, preferences, and personal decision.  There is no objective order to reality, no “world out there” to which we are answerable. There is only the right to define my own meaning, whether about my body or anything else. From such a mindset, the body becomes a tool to be exploited or an obstacle to be overcome. The body provides no objective meaning to my existence, but only raw material to be shaped to serve the sovereign “true self,” an ethereal entity found only in one’s radically subjective experience of the world.

Against this Gnosticism stands the unalterable reality of objective meaning. Things exist in a context. They can be understood through a nexus of cause and effect, matter and form, purposes and ends. The whole goal of empirical science and philosophy is to explore these relationships. The whole purpose of the human intellect (very deeply rooted to our subjectivity) is to understand them. To deny that things have meaning is not to liberate the human spirit, but to denude our intellectual nature of any value.  This includes the meaning of the human body.

St. John Paul II is well known for having made an extensive analysis of the meaning of the human body. According to the Pope and all of Catholic tradition, male and female are not adventitious accretions to the human soul, but essential elements of our identity, given facts to be made sense of.  Their meaning is revealed preeminently in the type of love we call family.  Women bear and nurture children. They have a particular genius for the exercise of that gift. They have “special communion with the mystery of life,” and are “more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more.” (Mulieris dignitatem)  Men also have a special gift. Following St. Joseph, they are to be just and merciful protectors of the family. Pope Francis says a father, “is  . . . able to correct with firmness: he is not a weak, compliant and sentimental father.”

As Catholics, we confess that the world is real, the world is good, and we are unambiguously creatures of the material world. The soul (the inner self) is not something radically discontinuous with the material world, but something intrinsically connected to it. We are not “souls in bodies,” but rather bodies formed with rational, intellectual natures, natures capable of knowing and loving the truth about the world.  The philosopher William James once said that religion consists in “the belief that there is an unseen order and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” I think that is basically correct.  Spirituality is about bringing our lives into line with the objective meaning of reality as a whole.  As Catholics, this means integrating our knowledge and love with the truth about the body.

I do not want to make light of the challenges people face in coming to terms with the meaning of their bodies. Catholic thought has always acknowledged this difficulty. At creation, man enjoyed “an inner harmony of the human person.” This harmony (called original justice) was shattered by sin. As a result, says the Catechism, we are now “wounded in the natural powers . . , subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death.” (CCC 405)  They keys to overcoming this wound are the gift of grace, the teaching of truth, and the arduous personal decision to cooperate with grace.  St. Irenaeus says, “What we lost in Adam we regain in Christ.”  This means the unified totality of body and soul, “the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy.” (Familiaris Consortio)