The Importance of Doing Nothing

The other day I was listening to Dr. Ray Guarendi on EWTN Radio. A woman called his show to explain that her husband was leaving her and their two small children in order to go after other women. She had appealed to the husband to stay “for the sake of the children.”  The man’s response absolutely floored me. “What good would that do?” he asked.  “They’re young and have their lives ahead of them. But I’m in my forties. It’s time I got on with my life.”  In this man’s mind, we have no higher obligation than to serve our pleasure. His kids had a lifetime left to do what they want, but he was tied down. His wife was seeking to stop him from doing what he wants. She was the one who was at fault, not him.


How do you even argue with a man like that? The man’s most serious fault was not simply sexual incontinence (although that is really bad).  His greatest fault was refusal to deliberate about what is truly valuable.  It did not even occur to him to question whether our pleasures are a sufficient end in themselves, or whether they exist in a larger context of meaning that we can accept or reject.  This is what makes us moral agents. We alone among the animals can know the meaning of our acts and order our lives accordingly.

The truth is that our acts are objectively meaningful.  They occur within a context of ends and purpose that we ourselves do not create. Food is pleasurable so that we will eat so that we can nourish our bodies so that we can acquire or maintain health and strength.  It is possible to eat for pleasure alone.  It is also possible to eat intentionally in a way that fosters health and strength. The latter is subjectively more meaningful because it brings our intentional acts in line with the objective meaning of the activity.

The same is true of our work, our play, our sexuality, our reason, and every facet of our being.  In the case of this unfaithful husband, he refused to accept that erotic inclination has an intrinsic meaning that transcends sensual pleasure. It exists for the sake of family. Giving ourselves to that meaning is what makes marriage ennobling. We must fight against our concupiscence, and place erotic inclination at the service of familial love.

How do you cultivate this sensitivity to beauty, this love of the true and the good? One way is through the gift of holy leisure.  Much of the time we are bored and restless and we seek to dull that angst through amusement or work. These are inherently good things and serve a purpose, but they are not ends in themselves. If we do not rise above mere amusement or work then we are either the slaves of our senses or but cogs in an economic machine.  True leisure – the gift of Sabbath rest – is not a frenetic search for the latest amusement, but a (relatively) still and quiet determination to enter fully into the meaning of our lives.

Last Sunday I got my kids out of the house and took a hike in the woods. An hour into our walk, I was struck by the loveliness of the thing. We were there with each other and for each other in an environment of natural beauty.  Worries about money, work, or health faded before the objective splendor of life, family, and the goodness of creation. It wasn’t high contemplation, but it was good.  It is no substitute for prayer and the sacraments, but it was an intentional engagement with the meaning of life.

The Catechism tells us that we need this kind of holy leisure. It quotes St. Augustine: “The charity of truth seeks holy leisure.”  “The institution of the Lord’s Day,” it adds, “helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.”

The kind of leisure I’m advocating  is an antidote to mere amusement or distraction. Distraction, says von Hildebrand, is the antithesis of recollection.  Similarly, Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns against “tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul.”  True leisure, by contrast, “is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” (Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture)

Amusement should refresh us so we can work more efficiently. Work should to meet our material needs so that we have leisure. But Leisure (as opposed to mere amusement or pleasure) exists so that we can give ourselves to lives of meaning. Every so often we should give ourselves and our familes to such leisure, to nourish an awareness of beauty and the truly human good.


Martin Luther King, Jr.: Prophet of Common Sense

I have a friend who teaches ethics in a secular university. He is a Catholic.  His employers are not friendly to his point of view. His challenge is teaching right and wrong in a world that no longer believes in right and wrong. More precisely, a world in which the only wrong is believing there is a right.  We were talking some months ago about how to present objectively true ethics in a way that students would appreciate and administrators would accept. I asked him, “Why don’t you teach MLK?” He answered, “My class just finished the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”


I write this one day before our nation rightly honors Dr. King for his astonishing life and legacy.  King is respected for his heroic courage in the fact of injustice. But what of King’s vision of right and wrong? What of his belief in a universal moral law incumbent on all people at all times? When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize he said, “I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought-ness’ that forever confronts him.”  We remember King’s dynamic personality and moving oratory. Do we remember or acknowledge the philosophy and theology that sustained his vision?

The great challenge to freedom today is what Pope Benedict called “The Dictatorship of Relativism.” It is a false view of freedom that makes the will or whim of the individual the ultimate criterion of right and wrong. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy endorsed this view and trashed human dignity when he declared that I can kill you if I decide you are not a person.  “At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey)

King’s writings and speeches stand flatly in opposition to this view of human freedom. King was not simply a partisan proponent of one group’s claim on public life or the radical freedom to say or do whatever I want. Rather, King promoted a universal vision of right and wrong. King advocated the equal dignity of every human person, not the moral equivalence of every culture or society. For King, segregationist culture is objectively worse than the culture defined by brotherhood, love, and human dignity.

Dr. King was not a Catholic, but his thought was deeply consistent with major elements of Catholic moral theology. On two points in particular King’s philosophy echoes the teaching of the Church.  King believed in the primacy of reason, the eternal and natural law, and he believed that Christ reveals the transcendent dignity of every human person.

In the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote:

 How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Similarly, King once commented, “When we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.” (Christmas Sermon on Peace)  “Segregation, he said, “is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.” (Paul’s Letter to American Christians)

King was inspired by his Christian faith and appealed to the moral sensibilities of his fellow Christians. But the truth is, you do not have to be a Christian to see the sense in what King fought for. The bedrock of natural law is not a uniquely Catholic morality, nor Protestant morality, not Hindu, Islamic, or Buddhist morality. It is human morality, the morality of common sense. The pagan Socrates said, “Do not do unto others what angers you if done to you by others.”  A Nigerian proverb says, “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”  What we read in the Dhamapada (an ancient Buddhist text) we could have found in King’s sermons: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”

Common sense is under assault today. The post-modernist world seeks to throw out the patrimony of the whole human tradition: reason and truth, right and wrong, life not death, man, woman, child. The Catholic Church stands prominently against that onslaught and teaches that God is divine reason.  “The truly divine God,” says Pope Benedict, “is the God who has revealed himself as logos [reason] and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”  In that fight for reason and truth, in our dialogue with modern America, Catholics should celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.

Of Cheetahs, Cars, Girls, and Boys

I had an interesting conversation at a coffee shop a few weeks ago. My daughter and I were discussing modern “gender politics.” I was remarking on how the intelligentsia now frowns on labeling children “boys or girls.” A stranger (a woman) overheard our conversation and interrupted to let me know that she thought these new social conventions are entirely reasonable, even salubrious. This led to a lengthy exchange about language, culture, identity, and sex.

CheetahsMy new friend argued that language and the concepts it expresses are entirely conventional and malleable.  I, on the other hand, suggested that our language can attain something true (if not the whole truth) about reality. To illustrate, I pointed to car and said, “That is a car. It is not a cheetah.”

But she would not concede the point. “It has things in common with a cheetah,” she answered (as if that made the apparent differences entirely subjective).

Next, I pointed to my daughter (a beautiful, feminine young woman). “That is a girl,” I said.

“No offense to your daughter,” she replied, “but I don’t know that.” (Let me tell you, there is no mistaking that my daughter is a girl.)

I found the interchange to be both mildly amusing and sad. My daughter captured my sentiments exactly. When we got in the car, she said to me, “Daddy, that woman can’t tell the difference between a car and a cheetah.”

It’s a strange ideology that makes people deny the obvious. Cars are not cheetahs. Girls are not boys.  However, it might surprise you to know that the new gender theorists aren’t the first to call these things into question. In the 14th century, the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) became the most important western proponent of “nominalism.”  Nominalists think our language does not capture the reality of things. Our categories (boy, girl, dog, tree) don’t really address the nature of things, but are simply names we give to objects that appear similar to us.

Occam worked within a Catholic theological framework, but most historians believe he was important for the development of Protestant theology.  (Luther trained as nominalist and once called Occam “his master.”)  In contrast to Occam and nominalism, the Church’s Magisterium has repeatedly upheld St. Thomas Aquinas as the model for philosophy and our understanding of language. Thomism is the “perennial philosophy” because it gives scientific form to the certitudes of common sense.  As Chesterton said, “The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs.”

This is not to say that every egg is exactly the same or that the “true egg” must conform in every way to some platonic ideal.  Thomism (and common sense) does not deny that eggs can change, some are big, some are small, some may produce chickens, others, because of some defect, may produce nothing. Catholic philosophy simply says that calling something an egg is not a meaningless statement, not simply an expression of my subjective opinion.

How does this affect the current discussion about gender politics?  First of all, it does not mean that we deny or ignore the sometimes considerable difficulties people may face in living out their biological sex.  What the Catechism says about homosexuality would be applicable here as well: the number of people facing this difficulty is “not negligible” and for most of them it “constitutes a trial.” “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” (CCC 2358)

But the truth about language and reason is that the concepts “male and female” are not purely arbitrary.  And this does have normative implications. A man fathers a child. A woman conceives, carries, and bears a child.  Children deserve a mother and a father.  In marriage, a man and a woman pledge themselves to give children what they deserve.  This is what we call family.

Pope Benedict made similar remarks in an address to the Roman Curia (Christmas 2012).  He complained about the “new philosophy” in which: “sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of.” He said this philosophy is “profoundly false.” The duality of male and female is “an essential aspect of what being human is all about.”

I know a man who divorced his wife and left his kids to have a surgical procedure making himself look more female. The number of people imitating this decision today is not negligible. (And the number who profoundly regret this decision is also not negligible.) The suffering which prompts such a decision must be acute and suffering calls for our compassion.  But this man (for only a man can father a child) placed his subjective sense of wellbeing ahead of the objective realities of fatherhood. We should not be afraid to say this is wrong.  Behind our moral conviction lies the evident fact that cars are cars and cheetahs are cheetahs.

Mean Catholics

I once had an argument with a non-Christian friend about a point of Christian apologetics. I thought I came off pretty well in the debate, and I was hoping my friend would concede the point.  Instead, he said something I was not expecting. “But Dave,” he said, “I just don’t like Christians.” Ouch! Truth is a lot less persuasive if you can’t stand the person delivering it.


I hear this a lot in my work with non-Catholics. I sometimes ask, “What is keeping you from becoming a Catholic?” Not infrequently they answer, “Catholics. Catholics are my biggest obstacle to becoming Catholic.” I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ.  I don’t like your Christians.”  This is something the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has also spoken about. In a Wednesday audience (October 29, 2014), he complained about mean Catholics: “if this or that person is a Christian,” someone might say, “then I shall become an atheist.”

So what should we do about the problem of mean Catholics? One option, historically, has been Puritanism.  Puritans are those who are sure they know who the “real” Christians are.  They reject everyone else.  In colonial New England, for example, Puritans wouldn’t let you receive the sacraments, or become a minister or even vote in civil elections or run for office if you couldn’t “prove” you were one of the “real” Christians. Puritanism is attractive because it seems to solve the problem of bad Christians. We write them off as “not really Christian” and withdraw into our sect.

But Puritanism doesn’t work. New England Puritans from the very beginning split up into factions, each one sure they were the “real Christians” and that everyone else was a mere pretender. Puritanism is also unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the tares, the Lord teaches there are good and bad in the Church. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” he said. (Matthew 13: 24-30)

We must avoid Puritanism, furthermore, because we can make mistakes about who the “good” and “bad” Catholics really are. It’s very easy to think the “good Catholics” are those we feel comfortable with, those who look or sound like us.  But the best Catholics may be the ones who go unnoticed, like the poor widow in the gospel. “Do you see this poor widow,” Jesus said, “She put in more than all the rest.” (Luke 21:3)

We may also misjudge who is really mean or bad. In 1944, the Anglican theologian and lay apologist C.S. Lewis gave an address called “The Inner Ring.” He pointed out that in most organizations or societies there are confidential discussions, unofficial hierarchies, and intimate circles that exclude us.  One of our strongest temptations is to resent that exclusion, even when it is perfectly innocent.  Sometimes we may call someone “mean,” simply because we envy their friends or influence.

But I don’t deny that there are truly “mean” peple in the church. There are the self-absorbed, the narcissistic, and the materialistic.  There are also the cocky, doctrinaire, holier-than-thou Pharisees. Jesus told us to expect this. We find both types even among his disciples. (Judas was a money grubber and a traitor. James and John could be unforgiving and censorious.)

So, again, what do we do? The solution is to remember why Christ founded the Church. The Church is not an exclusive social club for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners. The whole liturgical and sacramental system of the Chruch presumes that we will sin against each other. “If you remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled to your brother.” (Matthew 5:23)  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters. . .

The truth is we need our sinful, mean, fellow Catholics. The Church is supposed to be like a sacrament, a sign and instrument of union between God and neighbor. We are supposed to show the world how to forgive, how to overcome differences, how to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)  If everyone were beautiful and easy, what kind of heroic charity would we need? Like in marriage, we enter the Church starry-eyed and full of wonder. But reality sets in eventually and the work begins. “But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)

I went to Mass recently with a friend who complained to me, “These aren’t my people. I don’t have anything in common with them.” Exactly. Where else can you find a bunch of people (some nice, some mean), thrown together, with nothing in common, but pledged to get along no matter what.  Jesus gives us the example. As St. Paul once said, “For a good man, someone might dare to die. But God showed his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

The Logic of Indulgences

Probably no part of the Catholic tradition has been more maligned than indulgences. The controversies of the sixteenth century have forever marred this tradition in the popular imagination. Most people cannot get over the hackneyed cliché that Catholics think they can buy their way into Heaven. But this is a gross distortion of Catholic teaching. The tradition of indulgences is venerable, ancient, biblical, and logical. To understand why is to go deeply into the most beautiful, gracious, and sublime teachings of our faith.

Peasants torturing indulgence seller

Peasants Torturing an Indulgence Peddler

The roots of indulgences can be found in the biblical teaching on penance. Jesus instructed the disciples to exclude the impenitent from the fellowship of the Church, but to forgive those who seek forgiveness. (Matthew 18:15ff) St. Paul likewise told the Corinthians to expel the immoral brother, but to readmit him after due penance. (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11) Many other passages of Scripture command the Church to correct, admonish, and punish the immoral, the disobedient, and the factious. (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Tit. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:20; Galatians 6:1-2)

The ancient Church kept up this practice.  Penance and absolution were a public affair, sometimes lasting for years. Disputes raged, however, over how long penance should last and under what circumstances it should be reduced. Would a quick “I’m sorry” do for a murderer, apostate, or adulterer? “Hard liners” (like Tertullian and Novatian) argued that some sins were so severe they should never be forgiven. (They appealed to Hebrews 6:4-8 in defense of their views.) Others, like Pope Calixtus (d. 222) were more lenient, and extended absolution to everyone.

Under St. Cyprian (210-258), the North African Church offered another perspective. Christians had long valued the intercession of the saints and martyrs. Through Christ, their merits and prayers were of extraordinary value. (James 5:16; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 7:14-15) What if those saints, martyrs, and confessors (those in prison for their faith or on their way to martyrdom), offered their sufferings on behalf of the penitent?

It’s very important to grasp what was being suggested. No one thought that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient. No one thought that the penitent or the martyrs could buy their way into heaven.  They were concerned simply with the temporal punishments due to sin, not the eternal consequences of unremitted guilt. It was a matter of the disciplinary action of the Church, excluding and admitting from communion, and the conditions for that readmission. The question was whether the merits of the saints could be applied towards remitting only the temporal punishments.

This is where things get complicated for non-Catholic Christians. They are not accustomed to distinguishing between the guilt of sin and its temporal consequences. Nor are they used to thinking in terms of vicarious merit. And yet, both ideas are deeply biblical. 2 Samuel 12 and 2 Samuel 24 both teach that God demands satisfaction for sin even when the guilt has been previously remitted.  Likewise, we find vicarious merit and suffering throughout Scripture. (Genesis 18:32; Colossians 1:24).

In Cyprian’s day, some of the confessors began handing out indulgences in their own names, or on their own authority. Sometimes, they gave them out as “blank checks” on which penitents could write their own names.  St. Cyprian’s response was truly astonishing. He did not deny that these libellus (as they were called) had value. Rather, he demanded that the granting of indulgences should be subject to the authority of the bishop.

In Cyprian’s day, the Church recognized that sin has a temporal consequence, to which the Church’s authority and intercessions apply. The Church fathers also believed deeply in the communion of saints, and that the weaker members can share in the merits and gifts of the stronger. They applied this biblical logic to the problem of penances. It was a small step to apply it as well to the sufferings of those in purgatory.

The details of purgatory are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the Church, following the Jewish practice, has always offered prayers for the dead. (2 Maccabees 12: 38-46)  From this, and from what we know about penance, purity, and some suggestive scriptures (Matthew 5:25-26; 1 Cor. 3:11-15), the fathers inferred the doctrine of purgatory.  The important thing to remember is that purgatory is a temporal punishment. As such, it is subject to the merits and intercessory prayers of the Church. These can be directed through the practice of indulgences.

Indulgences are not a “get out of hell free card.” They are not a license to sin. Rather, they are how the Church can direct the prayers and merits of the faithful to the spiritual benefit of poor souls. They are grounded in the biblical teaching on Church discipline and the communion of saints. They emerged in the earliest years of the Church with the approbation of her holiest doctors and saints. Rightly understood, they are a beautiful testament to the solidarity of all Christians, to our union in Christ.

Technology and the Common Good

I went to a restaurant in Birmingham a few months ago and saw a family at lunch. Parents and children sat at the same table and ate in each other’s presence, but they were not together.  Each one was immersed in his own computer, smart phone, or tablet.  Communications technology, which promises to connect everyone, was disconnecting those who ought to be closest.  Now, I am a big fan of technology, including communications technology, but I tell the story because it illustrates a danger central to Scripture’s story and as old as mankind.

Tower of Babel

One passage that speaks directly to this danger is Genesis 11: the story of the Tower of Babel.  As a child, I read this passage as an etiology. That is to say, I thought its main point was to describe the origin of human languages. It was many years before I began to grasp the real, theological meaning of the text.  Man will achieve neither social harmony nor significance if he ignores God and relies exclusively on technology and material progress.

The key to Genesis 11 is to read the passage in context. It immediately precedes the call of Abraham (in Genesis 12), and is set in deliberate contrast to that passage. Consider the words of Genesis 11:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Note their goal and their method. The men of Babel apply technology (bricks, mortar, and architecture) in order to make a name for themselves (significance) and to achieve a measure of social cohesion (not to be scattered over the earth). Obviously, God does not approve their plan and metes out to them exactly the consequences they meant to avoid. He scatters them across the world and divides them.

The contrast with Abraham is stark and obvious. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave the security of land and family and to “go to the Land I will show you.”  What Babel meant to achieve through technology and development (a name, a family), God promises to Abraham through faith and obedience:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

The rest of the Bible and all of salvation history is the unfolding of that promise. The people of God are often strangers and sojourners, sometimes excluded from the world of political, economic, and technological might, and yet they are salt and light. They point others to their origin and destiny in God and to their common humanity.

The Second Vatican Council embraced this vision of the Church and her mission. In the constitution Lumen Gentium, the Fathers described the Church this way:

The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.

The Council fathers did not reject technology, but they warned of its insufficiency:

All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm [man’s] anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast. (Gaudium et spes)


Pope Francis has recently sounded a similar note. Technological and economic progress are insufficient to achieve the full, human good. We are spiritual creatures and find our good and the good of our neighbor only when seen in this light:

Growth in justice requires more than economic growth . . . I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society. (Evangelii Gaudium)


Abraham obeyed the call of God. He left Haran and lived as a stranger and a wanderer. He never saw the material promises fulfilled in his lifetime. Rather, he was looking forward (Hebrews 11 tells us), “to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  “Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)

The place of technology in human flourishing is critical to the story of Scripture.  In the opening chapters of the Bible, man attempts to achieve the human good without reference to his transcendent nature. The result is that he loses relationship both with God and with his fellow man.  In contrast, the Gospel promises that our good is to be found wholly in God and in the dignity of our neighbor, whatever our access to technology.  Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.” (Jesus of Nazareth)

“Successful” Marriage and the Catholic Faith

Marriage and family are in the news.  Pope Francis has just convened an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops to discuss “the crisis of the family” in the modern world. The media and even some hierarchs have already floated proposals for addressing the crisis.  But what do we mean by the crisis in family life? We cannot assess the crisis until we know what we mean by success. What is this ideal of marriage to which we are striving?

St. Rita

St. Rita of Cascia

I have read a few secular books on marriage and family. I’ve encountered the “revolutionary five-step program for thriving relationships.” I’ve studied techniques for “harmonious, long-lasting relationships.”  And many of these are, no doubt, very, very useful and very, very important. There are natural principles, drawn from psychology and science, that are true, beautiful, and good and of which Catholics ought to avail themselves. We all want harmonious, long-lasting relationships and Catholic faith exhorts us to seek such an outcome.

But we should ask, “Is a marriage deemed ‘successful’ simply because it is harmonious and long-lasting?”  If so, how would a marriage differ essentially from a harmonious, long-lasting friendship, or a love affair, criminal conspiracy, or a business partnership? Not every “harmonious and long-lasting” relationship constitutes a marriage.

And there is another question we should ask.  What if a marriage was neither harmonious nor long-lasting? Should we automatically deem it a failure as a marriage? I am thinking, in particular, of the life of St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457). St. Rita married an extremely difficult man who, because he lived a vengeful life, was murdered in a vendetta. But before he died, he was converted by Rita’s love and devotion to a sincere Catholic faith. Rita bore him two sons who also died (of illness, not murder). Rita’s marriage would likely be deemed a failure by the standards of modern psychology and couples therapy, but does that mean it failed completely as a marriage, particularly a Christian marriage?

 Historically, marriage (whether Christian or not) has been understood as a legal or covenantal relationship extending bonds of kinship and property for the purpose of bearing and raising children. Marriage establishes a society (the household), brings many people into relationship, and provides for the replenishment of the human community. Thus, it is a public institution and it serves the common good.  The romanticized ideal of marriage as a more-or-less private affair, essentially providing  a soul-mate, friendship, or passionate lover (however valuable those things may be) is a novelty and does not capture the meaning of marriage.

Christian marriage presupposes natural marriage. In other words, a Christian marriage is not something less than a natural marriage nor is it something completely different from natural marriage. Rather it recapitulates and perfects the meaning of natural marriage and raises it to the dignity of a sacrament. Christian marriage (the marriage of a baptized man and a baptized woman) is effected by a freely given vow of life-long fidelity for the purpose of creating a family. In this sense, Christian marriage recapitulates the meaning of natural marriage.  But Christian marriage is also a sacrament: a sign and instrument of union between Christ and his Church.

Christian marriage is a sign. Throughout Sacred Scripture, marriage appears as a symbol of God’s fidelity to his people, in spite of their infidelity to God. The Old Testament type is found in the marriage of Hosea and Gomer. God called Hosea to marital fidelity even as his wife Gomer was unfaithful.  Hosea writes, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.” (Hosea 3:1)

In the New Testament, marriage is an even more sublime sign of fidelity.  Christian marriage also becomes an instrument, effecting that union of God and his people.  Christian marriage is not only the bearing and raising of children in the midst of many hardships.  It is also for the sanctification and salvation of the spouse:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word . . . For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)

Natural marriage is about children, household, property, and the common good. Christian marriage incorporates all of that. But St. Paul tells us that the ultimate purpose of Christian marriage is to lay down one’s life as Christ did, a total donation of self, so that by love and sacrifice the spouse may be cleansed and sanctified. My mother has often told me, “I learned that if my husband, a mere man, could love me without condition, how much more could God love me.”

Christian marriage ought to be “harmonious and long-lasting.” We all want that. And friendship, soul-mates, and passionate lovers aren’t bad either. But do not be deceived. St. Rita’s marriage, though difficult, was a phenomenal success. It brought about the conversion of her spouse and has been an efficacious sign of Christ’s love for the Church and the world ever since.

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.”