Saturday, 26 July 2008

Schonborn and the Ideologues

On Wednesday last, I attended a talk from Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna on the creation/evolution debate at Sydney University. It was fascinating, and indeed, I've never seen the Great Hall so full (nor, for that matter, have I ever seen so many Dominicans in one place!). The Cardinal was compelling and intriguing in his arguments and very difficult to put in a box as regards his views. I got the impression, however, that he understands the debate better than almost anyone else engaged in it (though I still have several questions I would very much like to hear him answer).
One of the chief points he made multiple times during the course of the address was, "Science must not allow itself to be married to ideology." Which, being a Dominican and Thomist, he made as a general principle, rather than meaning "Science should not be married to your ideology but mine", which is perhaps its more common meaning these days.
All of this leapt back into the forefront of my mind when I saw this :

Whatever the final scientific consensus on the matter, the steady politicisation and sacralisation of climate change does have its moments of unintended humour.
H/T Zippy Catholic at What's Wrong with the World.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Aftermath of WYD

Well, its over. The Holy Father has boarded the plane and gone home to Rome. All the pilgrims have departed. And Sydney sits back, a bit dazed, and wonders what to make of it all.

Was it all a dream? By no means. The Holy Spirit is subtle, however, both startling and unexpected, and the work of grace never proceeds the way one would expect.

Now we watch and wait for the fruits. Veni Sancte Spiritus!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Coleridge Encounter

This incident is notable enough to quote more or less in full.

We had Archbishop Mark Coleridge from Canberra for catechesis this morning (first Australian this week, actually; so far its been all American and Canadian bishops in our particular group). After his sermon, he opened up the floor for questions. It was then that this exchange occurred.

Man: The Church teaches some things I have trouble with. What do I do with these sorts of hard Church teachings?

Archbishop Mark: I struggle with hard Church teachings too. It shouldn't surprise us that we do. When Christ preached in John 6, the people said, "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" What Christ taught was not easy or comfortable. But He taught the truth. Our Lord taught unexpected things, but they were all true. The Church teaches what He taught. It speaks in His Name what He wants spoken. It teaches the truth from Him. But the truth is not always how we expect it. Like Christ Himself, the truth sometimes baffles us, sometimes takes forms or entails things we didn't suspect and may not like. But Christ desires our good, desires our salvation and the truth He teaches through the Church will always bring that. We have to make an act of faith in Him, to trust Him, and therefore the Church which is His Body, that He may know better than us. However much we struggle to accept the truth when it comes to us in unexpected ways, it is only the truth that will set us free."

Very well-put, I thought.

WYD Continues Apace

For the record, I too think they should change the name to World Youth Week. But anyway...

Not as much chance to blog as I had hoped this week. Needless to say, there's a lot going on around the place. I shall, hereafter, reflect on the entire thing in more depth. For the time being, however, I would like to note just one thing- which in fact was my very first impression at the Opening Mass- and it is this:

There is something unbelievably cool about 150 000 people all saying 'Amen' at once!

Monday, 14 July 2008

St Francis Evangelism

I expect to be blogging a bit about WYD as the week goes on. This is probably inevitable. For my own part, I feel like the man who is about to enter the darkened theatre for a showing of a film that has been recommended to him but, having seen no previews or synopses, is unsure what to expect.

A few preliminary thoughts then.

Whatever the result of WYD be (and I do have high hopes), I think JPII was onto something when he first came up with the idea. Our culture is such that it needs to be shown things. It has a high intolerance for hypocrisy, double-dealing and insincerity (one could analyse how this flows naturally from the philosophical "turn towards the subject", but I'm not going to do that). Being very individualistic, it also abhors imposition or manipulation of any kind (while, ironically, the media have become consummate masters of the latter- but this too is a rant for another time). Most of us, I suspect, are put off by solicitors (not lawyers- the other kind) and spruikers.
In addition, as a consumer culture, we also like assurances (warranties, try before you buy, etc.) before we make commitments.

Today, a colleague at work related this story to me. A close friend of hers was at a train station last week when a lady approached her. Without introduction, the lady put this question to her, "Do you want to be saved?" Not altogether surprisingly, my colleague's friend avoided making reply and escaped the encounter by leaving the station.

What was wrong with this approach? Presumably the lady in question was sincere and well-meaning in her intent. One would also assume that she actually desired the person's salvation. Yet this method of evangelism, clearly, has done nothing to attract her to the gospel; if anything, it has repelled her.

The reason is not difficult to discover. The lady, whatever her inward intentions, has not displayed charity or interest in the person she is evangelising. The love of Christ for the individual is nowhere to be seen. The desire of the solicitor to get somebody-anybody!- to sign on the dotted line, however, is plainly in evidence. In this case, the question, "Do you want to be saved?" is roughly equivalent to "Do you want to sign up for a Platinum credit card?" And since one finds it more difficult to simply reply "No" to the former and have done with it (saying "I don't want to be saved," is only going to extend the encounter, not end it), my colleague's friend has simply avoided the encounter entirely.

As Christians, all evangelistic endeavours are undergirded by certain facts, and we do well to keep them in mind. Firstly, God has created every individual freely. They are unique creations of His and have innate value simply because they exist. Furthermore, they bear His image. This is an extraordinary fact. And it is true of every human being. In addition, He has taken on flesh for our redemption. That means that every human being now has something in common with God that not even the angels have. God, in our own humanity, has borne the sins of each of us, out of His supreme love of us. Therefore, every person I meet is a person whom God loves more deeply, richly and abundantly than I can begin to grasp, and a person for whom He has died. They are therefore of infinite worth. And they too long for God, whether it is articulated in that way or not. Each person longs for love, longs for joy and happiness, longs, in other words, for union with God, for the Beautific Vision. In the end, nothing but Jesus Christ can satisfy that longing. And if I really believe all of that, I ought to act as if it were true.

This principle applies to evangelism between individuals. When it comes to evangelism on a grander scale, the same truths are writ larger.

Which brings me to WYD. There are myriad folk who think, deep down, that Christianity is a bunch of humbug, and that the chief message of Christians is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" There are also myriad folk who are afraid that behind the facade lies nothing much, emptiness, a teleological abyss. So we protect ourselves from silence and solitude with countless distractions, whether they be the busyness of our jobs, a non-stop social life, a thrilling television series or the rugby. We have become, as one person put it, " a Paris Hilton people in a nuclear age". Those for whom distractions fail yield to depression and perhaps suicide.

Sitting quietly in the midst of the cacophany is the good news of the Gospel, the good news of a Creator who is not a tyrant but a father, of God Who removes misery and suffering from the world not by divine fiat but by suffering it Himself, Who lets His children kill Him to save them.

This good news is not a promotion but an announcement. It is, moreover, an announcement that is more than just words. It is a reality to be witnessed.

Standing on the rooftops proclaiming things which may or may not be true is not going to satisfy a culture such as our own. Whatever university lecturers may claim, ours is an age with little interest in ideas for their own sake. We like to see results. WYD proposes this simple concept- flood a city with young people who hope. Let the citizens work out why.

I expect many of the older generation (and not a few of the younger) to be baffled at such an event. But to us young people who have placed our hope in Jesus Christ and trust Him for both the future of the world and also of our own individual lives (for He directs both according to His own purposes), it is our responsibility as witnesses to the gospel to answer questions after they are asked rather than before. Every human heart longs for God. Not every person recognises that longing for what it is, but the chances are good they will recognise its satisfaction when they see it and want to know why.

To bear witness in this manner is by no means a new concept. I believe it was St Francis who said, "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary."

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Scandal of the Incarnation

I read some time ago a statement made on the Sydney Anglicans website, in which Peter Jensen justified his largescale rejection of classical and traditional church music because it led to, among other things, "the folly of sacramentalism".

As much as I have in common with Peter Jensen (and I have his evangelical regime and culture, with its ministry through the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union, to thank for much of my Christian formation and for preparing me to be reconciled with the Catholic Church), I distrust in the most extreme terms the Christian credentials, and particularly Christology, of anybody who can refer to sacramentalism as "folly".

Someone who can talk like that does not really believe in the Incarnation. Though they may sign a creed or statement of belief including it, the doctrine has not penetrated any further than the intellect, if indeed even that far. It is no more than a statement to which one subscribes. The doctrine has not entered such a person's bones and begun to inform the way they look at the world. In a Christian, I, for one, find that disturbing.

Indeed, it is this fundamentally, more than any other thing, that I believe is the essence of the divide between the Catholic and the Protestant Evangelical. When I was on my way to being reconciled with the Church, I remember with some clarity the time when the connecting thread between all the Catholic doctrines I had formerly rejected became clear to me- and that thread was the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is this fact- that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, one prosopon in two hypostases- that informs all of Catholic doctrine and practice. It undergirds Catholic ecclesiology (which includes the papacy, apostolic succession, the communion of saints, confession and indulgences), the doctrine of the sacraments (and indeed the very idea of sacraments), justification, Mary and everything else. Not least, it informs the doctrine of Scripture.

Which brings me to a series of articles I found recently from a Professor at a Presbyterian seminary here. Prof. Enns has apparently come under fire in recent days for a book he wrote called "Inspiration and Incarnation" in which he argues that recognising the human element in Scripture does not subtract from its inspiration or inerrancy, nor from its divine origin or authority. For this he has been suspended from his position and is awaiting a hearing to decide his professional fate.

He defends himself on his blog in these words: "Where some have stumbled, I feel, is in thinking that an emphasis on Scripture’s humanity seems to represent an irrevocable “methodological” failure to give due weight to Scripture’s divinity, indeed to the supremacy of the divine element of Scripture. As some have asserted, the book is to be faulted for failing to recognize that Scripture, like Jesus himself, is “essentially” divine while only “contingently” human.

Frankly, I am a bit perplexed, even concerned (theologically), about this criticism. If we understand the word “essential” to mean “a property without which something ceases being what it is,” Christ ceases being who he is if either element is subordinated. It is essential that Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, be both divine and human. So, too, Scripture is not simply “contingently human”(precisely what that means is not clear to me at any rate) but essentially so, i.e., there is no Scripture apart from the human—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—words that the Spirit inspired biblical writers to write. To put it another way, we are not required to consider how to place one over the other, but to accept that they co-exist (if I may speak this way for sake of discussion) by God’s wise and gracious decree....

Ironically, perhaps, when we focus on the humanity of Scripture, we are not somehow showing disrespect for Scripture’s divine origin, nor are we in danger of running our faith aground. The truth, I feel, is precisely the opposite. By focusing on Scripture’s humanity, which is unfortunately often misunderstood as the purview of critical scholarship alone, we begin to see more clearly who this God is who has walked and talked with his people, and still does. Scripture’s humiliation is not an affront or an obstacle to be overcome in order to highlight its authority. Like Christ, it is the very means by which we behold God’s glory."

All of which is a perfectly orthodox and Christian approach to Scripture.

As Dei Verbum was at pains to point out, the doctrine of Scripture flows naturally from our Christology. The outcry that has accompanied Prof. Enns' work is symptomatic, I fear, of a far deeper problem within Protestantism in general and Protestant Evangelicalism in particular- a deep-seated discomfort with the Incarnation. Evangelicals don't want God to come too close, become too human. They are, at heart, afraid He might get dirty, that human-ness might corrupt Him somehow. So God must remain spiritual, as must our worship of Him and everything else we believe.

The ultimate danger of this is that it leads to the faith of the Cathars. But a far more immediate danger is a faith that becomes divorced from reality. I see this possibility played out, for example, in the minds of people (and I have met several) who, when told that Peter was crucified, say, "Oh, but that's not in the Bible.", as much as to say that if it were true it would be recorded there somewhere, as though Peter inhabits some kind of biblical fantasy-land separated from actual history (strangely such folk never demand that Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon be mentioned in the Bible, though both events are probably historically verifiable to roughly the same degree). In this view, God didn't really enter into history. God inhabits "Bible history". "History", by contrast, is a different realm from which God is largely absent.

An understanding like this is not conducive to evangelism in the end, because it bars God from public, objective reality, confining Him to a more subjective arena available only to the believer, thereby making secular and sacred two categories which have nothing to do with each other. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, breaks into the secular world and throws things around. He goes to where mankind is. He saves us by becoming one of us, being born in our flesh, dying and rising in it so as to redeem us and keeping it for all eternity. He has created a visible institution to preach His Name, whose members comprise both living and dead, which administers physical rites through which He transmits His grace and divine life, and He will glorify us in our flesh at the end of days. That is what was once called Christian orthodoxy. In the final analysis, the "folly of sacramentalism" is ultimately the folly of the Gospel.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Ruin

A lovely recitation of an ancient poem with some more modern imagery accompanying, and a brief foray into my own area of specialised study- Anglo-Saxon. The pronunciation is a little different in places from the way I was taught to speak it but, after 1000 years, I think we can let slight variations slide.

H/T Mark Shea.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Anglican Exodus

This is looking very hopeful indeed.

From what I've heard, things were tragically bungled in 1994. What could have been one of the greatest Catholic renewals in England was hampered and hindered at every turn. Thanks be to God it looks like England will have a second shot at it.

And as the Anglican Communion tears itself apart and we all watch it transform into something it has never been before (though what exactly that is remains to be seen), the Church has a great Pope sitting in Peter's chair who knows his stuff, and a well-led CDF. I hope and pray (with an appropriate level of trepidation) that what could be a milestone in England's relationship with Christ and His Church is not botched, especially by the bishops.

A whole bunch of zealous, liturgically- and doctrinally-informed Anglicans, especially clergy, is exactly what the English Church could use right now. And if they are permitted to retain a form of the Book of Common Prayer, I will be delighted. At last, we may have a form of the Faith that is at once thoroughly English and thoroughly Catholic! Please, please, pleeease let it be so.


I have been following the latest paroxysms within Anglicanism with great interest, and may post about it at some point, but in the midst of it all I was highly amused by this comment.

Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, also responded to the GAFCON declaration, saying in a statement:
“Much of the Anglican world must be lamenting the latest emission from GAFCON."

It appears that Kate Jefferts-Schori has imbibed the ideology of climate change a little too much.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Church Militant and the Newspaper Wars

Another interesting thing. Yesterday, in the SMH, a great kerfuffle ensued as it was revealed that "anti-annoyance" laws had been introduced for World Youth Day. Never mind that such laws are in place at sporting stadiums across the state at every game that takes place in them. No, it must be the Catholic Church quashing freedom of expression and expecting the people of Sydney to become the mindless Pope-adoring zombies it naturally wants them to be.

This is pretty representative of the tone the SMH has taken towards the whole thing, which is generally along the lines of "I didn't vote for this! It's disrupting more important things like business and corporate-ness in the economic hub that is the CBD! Its costing money!!! Catholics, go home!" All of which is by no means unexpected.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Daily Telegraph, which went to great lengths today to demonstrate that, unlike the SMH (and the editor made the point explicitly in his editorial), the Daily Telegraph is the friend of World Youth Day. 'They [the complainers] are aided in their non-cause by the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper so sensitive to the concerns of one culture that it routinely deletes references to 'men of Middle-Eastern appearance' from police reports and yet runs absurd front-page stories slamming Youth Day and promoting T-shirts bearing the lines '$5500- a small price to pay for annoying Catholics'....Our bottom line on World Youth Day is this- we hope that its a success and we think that it will be. Our question for our media friends elsewhere is: surely shouldn't you wait until something has actually happened before declaring it a disaster?"

Well, quite.

This might of course have something to do with the fact that, apparently, the Telegraph is the "WYD Sydney08 Official newspaper" (was there one of those in Cologne?) but I wouldn't be one to say. But, well and good, you might think. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that (or the naysayer of my naysayer, perhaps). But then, if the Telegraph is prepared to be so positive, what exactly does it think World Youth Day is all about?

The answer comes on p7 in an interview with one Carla Mascarenhas. "Its not about preaching the gospel," she says, "its about bringing people together."


Somehow, I suspect the Pope would disagree with a statement like that. But, whatever the Pope thinks (and if I know Benedict XVI, he would probably retort by pointing to Christ and how His preaching of the gospel brought and brings people together in a way that all other things in history have been incapable of doing), this is far more illuminating of what the Telegraph staff think. One gets the image of WYD as a sort of feel-good Woodstock about joy and togetherness focussing on nothing much in particular- apart from navel-gazing and everyone saying to each other, "I'm really excited! Aren't you excited? I'm so excited!" The idea that the whole thing might be centred on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and that its culmination will be the making present of the Eternal Sacrifice of Calvary at Randwick Racecourse in the presence of hundreds of thousands of young people on the Sunday morning doesn't seem to have been noted. Indeed, the vague suspicion that the Pope might stand for something or Someone other than himself doesn't seem to have crossed the minds of anyone at the Telegraph offices! In point of fact, the image of WYD put across by the Telegraph seems suspiciously like the Olympics, except with no sport in the middle, just the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I think some surprises will be in store.

The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the critical reaction to Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto. That film I went and saw soon after it came out, enjoyed it a lot, and then went leafing through dozens of reviews to see if anyone else had. I subsequently came away with the singular impression that most of the reviewers hadn't understood what the film was trying to say, and those that did didn't like it. While the SMH is unrelievedly hostile, I think it perceives at least dimly that its cherished values are threatened by what will be happening in Sydney in a fortnight, whereas the Telegraph seems to think the Church shares its values. In this the SMH at least is closer to the truth.

Ultimately, of course, regardless of media, newspapers and talk, the Catholic Church does its own thing, because it marches to a different drumbeat to the surrounding culture. It is, after all, the Mystical Body of the most unpredictable Man Who ever lived, Who didn't even stay dead when everybody expected Him to. Those who try to second-guess the Church, categorise it and pigeon-hole it into their own political, cultural or ideological boxes, or harness it to further their own agenda will ultimately be confounded. The Church is bigger than them and it is alive with a very different sort of life.

Penance, or the Fruits of Repentance

Well, this is interesting:

LUBBOCK, Texas — Dan Bentley, 38, used to have trouble admitting he was wrong, until a sermon series convinced him that asking forgiveness was the path to personal freedom. Now he is asking forgiveness so much that he’s on the verge of losing every friend he’s ever made. "I’m cleaning the slate with everybody, no matter how difficult that proves to be," he says. Bentley recently asked a woman at work to forgive him for spending years ogling her, especially when she wore particular outfits. He was promptly hit with a sexual harassment claim and a demotion. He asked forgiveness of two high school buddies and detailed what had bothered him about their personalities. They haven’t invited him fishing since. Even his mother is angry at him for confessing that for years he’d seen her as overbearing, selfish and manipulating and that he needed forgiveness for "always liking Dad a lot better." She promptly disinvited him to the family’s Fourth of July reunion. Bentley says that though he’s paid a high price for coming clean he "really feels free." "My pastor was right," he says. "Asking forgiveness completely changes your life."

I have often thought that if we took seriously the communal aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the obligation to do things like this would form a larger number of our assigned penances. The purpose of penance, after all, is to undo the temporal punishment (or, in other words, the objective damage inflicted on our souls and those of others) caused by our sins, something that remains even after our relationship with God and with His Body has been restored in the sacrament. Certainly, prayers (which are the most common assigned penances) aid in this by purifying our motives and fixing our attention on the face of Christ. Nonetheless, it is beneficial, when our sins have had concrete consequences, to undo these with concrete penances. If a thing has been stolen, it should be returned. If a lie has been told, the person to whom it was told ought to learn the truth. And so forth.

This chap, who is clearly Protestant, seems to understand this much at least, even if he remains ignorant of this Sacrament of Divine Mercy. Though his actions may seem at first glance bizarre and rather counter-productive, I think he's onto something.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Harry Potter and Meditations on Hype

"I never could see anything wrong in sensationalism; and I am sure our society is suffering more from secrecy than from flamboyant revelations." G.K. Chesterton

I recently finished the final volume of the Harry Potter books, and the experience got me thinking. In point of fact, I enjoyed the book (and its predecessors) thoroughly- they are the kind of thing one would enjoy reading to one's own children one day. The conclusion was largely satisfying, and left me with roughly the same reaction as I had to the final Matrix film, viz. given the fact nothing could meet the hype, that was quite as good as could be expected and the author could really not have done better.

Of course, one has to make an effort not to expect too much with something as hyped as both of those things were (at least in their respective subcultures) which, as I say, got me thinking. For hype, that most evitable element of popular culture, is at bottom nothing less than a great and instinctive (and communal) yearning for the Beautific Vision. When a group of people get inordinately excited in expectation of some new thing, investing in it hopes that it could never possibly meet, what we have is a grass-roots form of the virtue of hope. When you hear the story of the Star Wars fan who said they were avoiding crossing roads because they didn't want to die before they saw The Phantom Menace, most of us are moved to pity the man and think he should get a life, as the expression goes. But is he more pitiable than the suicide who deliberately steps out into the road because there is nothing left to live for?

To the reply, "Its just a movie!", I say, isn't that significant? The fact that hype, quite frequently, relies on story, on some sort of narrative, especially an epic one, and the eternal question 'What happens next?' (or, in the case of The Phantom Menace, 'What happened before?') is not, I submit, unimportant. At the moment, I myself am waiting for the final episode of the present season of Doctor Who to air this Saturday, and there are great questions hanging over what will transpire in that particular long-running story. Consequently, I can't help getting a little excited. The sense that some extraordinary new revelation will be made, something that will tie together all that has come before, the great expectation of such a prospect is very human.

We long for an end (especially in the sense of a goal) that will make the journey worthwhile; some sort of ultimate destination, something that will make sense of everything, in whose light everything that has preceded will take on new meaning and purpose. Indeed, we long for what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the great happy ending. These sorts of epic stories awaken in us that longing. Inevitably, when what we seek is eucatastrophe, bliss, the Beautific Vision in fact, we will be disappointed, because neither Harry Potter, the Matrix, Star Wars or Doctor Who can offer us those. God alone can. The whole of history must have that ultimate ending, that great revelation that makes sense of the whole thing, but it hasn't yet. We're still in Book 4 and Book 7 is a long way away. Nonetheless, the hype attached to each of these things is a signpost, drawing attention to that which will satisy the human heart. Even in a child that eats dirt, the fact that he is hungry is evidence of the existence of food.

Moreover, it is not by any means an abberation that hype is attached to particular things, particular stories, films, books. Mankind longs not for the concept of a revelation or a happy ending, but an actual revelation, an actual happy ending. Not an abstract but a particular, a specific. And if we put the book down after turning the last page, if we walk out of the theatre elated and then have to find the car, and thus have to deal with what Walker Percy calls 'the problem of re-entry', this only serves to remind us that the stories Man creates are a reflection, a sometimes quite enjoyable and marginally satisfying reflection, but ultimately only a reflection of a far greater and more ultimate reality, and it is that which the hype really points to.