Saturday, July 31, 2010

H. P. Lovecraft???!!!

That's who I write like, according to this online test. They even gave me an "I WRITE LIKE H. P. LOVECRAFT" badge to insert in the blog in case I want to brag about it.

I don't.

Here's a sample of Lovecraft's imperishable prose, from his story "The Call of Cthulhu."

Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises heard by Legrasse's men as they ploughed on through the black morass toward the red glare and muffled tom-toms. There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other. Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell. Now and then the less organized ululation would cease, and from what seemed a well-drilled chorus of hoarse voices would rise in sing-song chant that hideous phrase or ritual: "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

Now come on. I'm not that bad, am I?

Friday, July 30, 2010

St. Ignatius Loyola

One of the very greatest saints (who would not have liked being called that in his lifetime), founder of the Jesuits, he is honored with a feast day on July 31, the anniversary of his death in 1556.

I feel one point of connection with him. When he finally responded to his priestly vocation -- at the (then) advanced age of 33 -- he had to learn Latin as an adult, and he found it difficult. I learned Latin as an adult too. And it is difficult.

I've decided that, as an Ignatian "spiritual exercise" for August, I am going to try to live out this summary of the saint's attitude toward judging others (from History of the Life and Institute of St. Ignatius de Loyola, by Fr. Daniel Bartoli):

"To avoid condemning the actions of our neighbors, we must have recourse to their intentions, which are sometimes innocent, although their actions appear guilty; and if the action is so manifestly bad that there is no possibility of excusing it, we must search for extenuation of a violent temptation, and think that our weakness would probably have succumbed under the same, or perhaps under a lesser one."

Evidence of the greatness of the Jesuits' accomplishment can be found in the grudging respect they won from even as unrepentant an anti-Catholic as the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who said this about the Society of Jesus in his famous essay on Ranke's History of the Popes:

"That order possessed itself at once of all the strongholds which command the public mind, of the pulpit, of the press, of the confessional, of the academies. Wherever the Jesuit preached, the church was too small for the audience. The name of Jesuit on a title-page secured the circulation of a book. It was in the ears of the Jesuit that the powerful, the noble, and the beautiful, breathed the secret history of their lives. It was at the feet of the Jesuit that the youth of the higher and middle classes were brought up from childhood to manhood, from the first rudiments to the courses of rhetoric and philosophy. Literature and science, lately associated with infidelity or with heresy, now became the allies of orthodoxy. Dominant in the South of Europe, the great order soon went forth conquering and to conquer. In spite of oceans and deserts, of hunger and pestilence, of spies and penal laws, of dungeons and racks, of gibbets and quartering-blocks, Jesuits were to be found under every disguise, and in every country; scholars, physicians, merchants, serving-men; in the hostile Court of Sweden, in the old manor-houses of Cheshire, among the hovels of Connaught; arguing, instructing, consoling, stealing away the hearts of the young, animating the courage of the timid, holding up the crucifix before the eyes of the dying."

O God, in order to promote the greater glory of your name, you fortified your Church militant with a new army through the work of blessed Ignatius. May his help and example bring us through our battle on earth to be crowned with him in heaven. Amen.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Come Unto Me...

...all ye that have 25 quid."

Looks like it's English Church officials who are responsible for this. I'm glad they're not afraid of playing into anti-Catholic stereotypes or anything....

What I Got for My Birthday

For those of you who (like me) appreciate kitschy yet state-of-the-art Catholic sacramentals...


the scratch-and-sniff holy card!

One comes free with every bottle of "The Pope's Cologne," an authentic recreation of Bl. Pius IX's personal fragrance. Talk about the odor of sanctity.

DISCLAIMER: I neither have a financial interest in nor am being compensated by the manufacturer of this product. I just love Pio Nono. (And the stuff really does smell pretty good.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reading Scripture -- With and Without the Church

I recently finished An Introduction to New Testament Christology, by Fr. Raymond Brown. I don't read a lot of Bible scholarship (yeah, I know, it, but I picked up the book for $5 used and decided that I should read something of Fr. Brown's all the way through. He was known to me, vaguely, as one of the "bad guys" among 20th-century scripture scholars, the most prominent example within the Catholic intellectual establishment of a demythologizer in the Bultmann mold.

There is plenty in An Introduction to New Testament Christology to reinforce those initial impressions of mine. Fr. Brown engages in speculation on the historical authenticity of various passages in the Gospels, and applies form-criticism techniques to the question whether a particular statement of Jesus' represents ipsissima verba or is an insertion back into the Gospel of a later Christian community's understanding of Jesus' words. It's all impressively well-informed and intelligent, and I didn't find any of it especially  persuasive. And when, annotating Jesus' words in John 21:22, Fr. Brown suggests that "the Johannine author of chapter 21 employs casuistry to show that Jesus' promise [about the Beloved Disciple living  until the Second Coming] was not absolute," I think he crosses a line that mustn't be crossed in questioning the veracity of the Gospel record.

But none of that gets at the strongest impression I carried away from reading the book. Fr. Brown is a conscientious practitioner of the historical-critical method of scriptural exegesis, looking at exactly what the Bible text says and drawing whatever conclusions seem valid on the basis of that evidence. He does not argue (as a member of the Jesus Seminar would, for example) that the Bible text itself is the only evidence there can be. On the contrary, Fr. Brown is remarkably and refreshingly humble in defining the limits of his discipline. Here, for example, are two passages that I found impressive in their clarity, their honesty, and their Catholic orthodoxy. The first is Fr. Brown's summary of his position on whether the Gospels clearly depict a Jesus who was (1) all-knowing in keeping with his divinity, and (2) conscious of his own relationship to God the Father:

The issue of Jesus' self-awareness is not the same as the issue of how much knowledge he possessed. Above I have signalled extreme caution about the claim that Jesus knew all things (secular, religious, the future, etc.) -- a claim that runs against much scriptural evidence and (I note for Roman Catholics) in support of which there is no clearly binding church teaching. In reference to Jesus' awareness of  his own identity...the situation is different. There is not a word in the Gospels to indicate that at any stage of his life Jesus was not aware of a unique relationship to God; and although again there may not be a binding church definition that is absolutely clear, this issue is much closer to the heart of the Christian proclamation.

Fr. Brown's answers in this passage raised the further question of their compatibility with one particular Church pronouncement on Jesus' self-knowledge. Pope St. Pius X, in his condemnation of Modernism, identified as error the proposition that "Christ did not always possess the consciousness of his Messianic dignity." Fr. Brown points out that first-century Jews seem to have held widely variant understandings of what the Messiah was to be and that, for this reason, Jesus himself showed some ambivalence in proclaiming or acknowledging himself as the Messiah. To clear up this point -- and specifically to square his own reading of the Gospels with St. Pius X's definitive teaching on the subject -- Fr. Brown continues:

The present discussion of Jesus' attitude toward messianic terminology is perfectly consonant with faith in Jesus' divinity. If I had to phrase a common modern position with an eye on Pius X's statement, I would say that the Gospels always show Jesus conscious of his dignity (which involved a unique relationship to God); they are not clear as to whether he regarded "Messiah," in the sense understood by his contemporaries, adequate to express that dignity.

Here we have a prominent 20th-century Catholic exegete being true to his own understanding of the Gospel texts and simultaneously taking pains to demonstrate that that understanding is solidly within the bounds of (1) specific magisterial teaching and (2) the broader constant tradition of the Church ("the heart of the Christian proclamation," as Fr. Brown puts it). To my unschooled layman's mind, that's a very reassuring example of what Catholic scripture scholarship should be.

One other thought occurred to me after reading An Introduction to New Testament Christology. Fr. Brown (like all practitioners of the historical-critical method) insists on looking at the scriptural texts themselves, without recourse to patristic or medieval or modern applications of those texts to theological questions. But he does so without denying the usefulness of those other sources of biblical insight for a Catholic. The New Testament, as is often pointed out by Catholic apologists, is a Church document. It is the Church that gave us the Gospels, not the other way around. For the Catholic, as distinct from the scripture scholar, the Bible must be read with the Church -- as the Church reads it. Maybe that explains why modern approaches to scriptural study have undermined Christian orthodoxy among Protestants far more seriously than among Catholics. Without Tradition to illuminate and reinforce it, the Protestant Bible -- so famously sola -- stands exposed to every challenge of the demythologizers and the deconstructionists and the redactionists and the "historical-Jesus" hunters. The adherent to sola scriptura can make no corrective appeal to "the heart of the Christian proclamation," because for him it is the heart of the Christian proclamation that the scholars are challenging.

Coincidentally, the current issue of First Things contains a pithy expression of a very similar point. It's in an essay titled "A Richer Bible," by R. R. Reno (sorry -- subscription required to read the whole thing online). Here's the passage that says exactly what I've been trying to.

Historical study of the Bible certainly remains legitimate and perhaps necessary. But as a mode of interpretation it cannot serve as the final authority for Christian readers. Because the Church claims to teach apostolic doctrine, efforts by Christians to explain what the Bible fully and finally says require addressing Church teachings and explaining their truth in relation to the Bible. To do this, we cannot play an ad hoc game of match the doctrine to the verse. We need a biblically shaped metaphysical horizon for biblical interpretation, which is what the Nicene tradition provides.

Double Lives

The Catholic Church apparently sees itself in the midst of a public relations crisis. From Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech, to the flood of priestly sex abuse scandals, to the release of new canonical norms pertaining to those scandals, to the news this week that some number of Catholic priests in Rome are leading double lives as active homosexuals, the Church seems intent on disproving that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

Since "public relations" is more or less the art of lying about oneself to large numbers of people, I've never been much troubled by assertions that the Church is not very good at it. An organization whose mission statement includes the certitude that "men will revile [it] and persecute [it] and utter all kinds of evil against [it]" should not waste too much time with media consultants cultivating a glossy corporate image. The real problem, I think, would be if the Church started trying to get really good at PR -- imitating celebrities and politicians and oil companies in a concerted effort to "spin" whatever bad news comes their way.

I fear something like that may be going on in Italy right now. The reaction of the Diocese of Rome to reports of "gay priests' wild nights" has been to issue a statement calling on any such priests to come forward publicly and renounce their priesthood. To those who long to see the Church adopt a get-tough policy (verbally, at least) against miscreant priests, the Rome Vicariate's statement probably looks like a welcome step in the right direction -- a strategic response, PR-wise.

I find it a little disturbing.

The pastoral care of sinners, and the discernment of what is and is not a genuine priestly vocation, are matters to be handled in chanceries and rectories and confessionals -- not in the headlines of Italian newspapers. Some of the priests involved in this story probably should never have entered the priesthood, and should leave it under the guidance of competent spiritual direction. But there may be others with real vocations who have gotten themselves caught up in a destructive, habitual, and seemingly hopeless pattern of sin. Does the Church have no pastoral obligation to priests in both of those categories? And is a face-saving blanket pronouncement that calls on all the priests involved to come out of the closet and get out of the priesthood an honorable way of meeting that pastoral obligation?

The message of Jesus Christ has always been:

"Hey, sinners! Stop it! I'll help you."

The Diocese of Rome has decided instead to shout:

"Hey, sinners! Go away and quit embarrassing us!"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Beautiful Game

No, not soccer. (Boy, do you have the wrong blog.) I'm talking about what Babe Ruth called "the only real game, I think, in the world." Baseball.

Looking back over the 50 or so years that I have been a fan, I guess I thought that baseball had already afforded me just about every kind of pleasure and excitement the game offers. But this season, baseball has given me a new reason to love it. My kids have finally become fans -- baseball fans in general and Texas Rangers fans specifically. (It doesn't hurt that the Rangers are playing very, very well.)

And they're  not just the "go-to-a-game-and-buy-a-cap" kind of fan. I'm talking about the "memorize-batting-averages-and check-the-box-scores-daily" kind of fan. In fact, it's even better than that: My daughters are now the "score-the-game" kind of fan. They will sit, score sheet and pencil in hand, diligently recording 6-4-3s and F7s and HBPs -- maybe even an occasional CI or IFR. (Okay, I had to look up the notation for those last two myself.) The point is that scoring makes you pay attention to the game, and paying attention to the game is what will make you love the game. Very seldom do my girls have to record a play with Phil Rizzuto's famous WW (wasn't watching).

Maybe baseball isn't "the only real game in the world" (I say maybe because I'm a little nervous disagreeing with the Babe). But, more than any other, it's still the game that fathers play with their kids. It is supremely the game that ties American generations together. (Watch Field of Dreams if you don't know what I mean.) And this season, to my delight, it's tying two Woodward generations even closer together.

Now if only I could get my 10-year-old son to quit rooting for Tampa Bay....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"La Caballeria de Cristo"

During a recent visit to San Antonio, I took some time (on the recommendation of my parish priest) to visit the retreat center and Lourdes shrine operated there by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Oblates are a heroic missionary order, with priests and brothers in every corner of the world -- especially the remote and dangerous corners. (Pope Pius XI once referred to the Oblates as "specialists in difficult missions.") Their work in Spanish-speaking countries in the nineteenth century won them the nickname "Christ's Cavalry," and a large bronze relief sculpture on the grounds of the center commemorates that particular aspect of their apostolate. It offers an image of the priesthood that is, to say the least, arresting...

...and, in these difficult times, a much-needed reminder that the vast majority of Catholic priests are still what Catholic priests have always been -- good men (often heroically good) with a deep commitment to bringing the Gospel to a suffering world. Seeing them depicted as the cavalry "riding to the rescue" adds a nice touch of romance.

By the way, the sculpture is obviously based on this photograph of a group of Oblates somewhere in south Texas in the early decades of the last century.

See -- they really were cowboys.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Pope William F. Buckley Wanted

Here's an interesting little snapshot from the past -- an essay that William F. Buckley wrote for The New Republic in the late summer of 1978, as the world waited for the Catholic Church to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI. Buckley's wish list for the qualities the new pope should possess is fascinating both for the ways in which it accurately diagnosed what was wrong with the Church in those turbulent years, and also for the ways in which Buckley could not have foreseen or even hoped for the kind of pope the Church ultimately got in John Paul II.

What did Buckley get right about the Church's most pressing needs that September? First of all, he realized that the Church needed more than anything else a pastoral pope, rather than a pope around whom one ideological brand of Catholicism or another could rally for the advancement of its own worldly agenda.

"The Pope must stand out as the principal symbol of the transfiguring dimension of life...The Pope’s capacity persuasively to superordinate the spiritual over the material is the highest skill his community can demand from him."

John Paul II was nothing if not a "symbol of the transfiguring dimension of life." He successfully placed himself above the political squabbles that had already broken out in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and, simply by the force of his own personality and intellect, made it impossible not to acknowledge him as the Pastor of the Universal Church in a way that Paul VI never managed to do. He was, supremely, a spiritual leader of a kind the church had not elevated to the Chair of Peter in 20 years.

Buckley also saw accurately the damage done to the liturgical life of the Church by the "spirit of Vatican II," although he was rather too willing to blame Vatican II itself, rather than a false implementation of the Council's decrees, for that damage:

"The showplace of the church is the liturgy, and here the [Council's] reforms proved disastrous: a disfiguration of what was venerable and beautiful, into a vulgar collegiality that is artificial, distracting and appropriately celebrated by the worst abuses against the English language in the history of syntax."

Well, maybe. Most of what Buckley is lamenting here can be catalogued under the heading of what was permitted in the name of the Council rather than what the Council mandated. And surely Buckley -- a man to whom language itself had a sacramental dimension -- would be pleased to see the reformed translation of the Mass that will be introduced next year, a translation that will correct many of the "worst abuses against the English language in the history of syntax."

In other respects, Buckley can sound surprisingly -- and perhaps to some people disillusioningly -- like a typical '70s "progessive" Catholic. He thinks that dispensing with the rule of celibacy would not harm the standing of the priesthood as a "distinctive spiritual caste." More tendentiously, he seems to hope for a general dilution of the Church's teaching on human sexuality and marriage.

"The new Pope is likely to look again at these arguments [condoning contraceptive practices within marriage], and it is likely that, in a fresh allocution, he will modify Humanae vitae at least to the point of making it paradigmatic as distinct from binding. To say that the supreme point of sexual union is the continuation of life is to say that and not necessarily more than that. A retreat from a strict constructionist reading of Humanae vitae probably would be welcome in the long run without being held up as evidence of theological demagogy."

Well, we're none of us perfect, and it's almost reassuring in a way to discover that even as subtle a mind as William F. Buckley's could occasionally lapse into relativist incoherence, as he does here. With John Paul II he did not get his wished-for "retreat" from Humanae vitae. Instead he and we got a brilliant and forceful vindication of that historic and courageous papal document. (If you're Catholic and have not read Love and Responsibility, you should. Tomorrow.)

Perhaps the ecclesiastical portent that Buckley most obviously missed as he gazed into his 1978 crystal ball was the central importance of generational transition in the Church. It's a portent that the coming pope, John Paul II, did not (thank God) fail to recognize. Buckley's generation of Catholics -- the Vatican II generation, if you will -- was already giving way to the next generation (mine, as a matter of fact) when John Paul II was elected. And my generation in turn would prove much less influential in shaping the Church of the New Millennium than the generation that followed it. It was this younger generation that John Paul II targeted so successfully, and molded into the generation of young priests -- priests in their 30s and 40s today -- that will fulfill the promise of the Second Vatican Council and correct the misdirections committed in the Council's name. Ultimately, the inspiring of that generation may prove to be John Paul II's greatest gift to the Church.

As things turned out, the Church in October 1978 did not quite get the pope William F. Buckley wanted. Instead, it got a better pope than Buckley -- or any of us -- could ever have imagined.

"Is Any Among You Sick?"

You would think, from scanning the blogosphere, that Christians were embroiled just at present in a heated debate about the appropriateness of praying for Christopher Hitchens's recovery from his recently diagnosed illness. And yet I can't find a single Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox blogger -- or indeed any self-identified Christian or Jewish commentator in the mainstream press -- who has questioned the rightness of doing so. How, and by whom, did this question first get raised?

Forgive my paranoia, but I can't help suspecting that the question initially occurred (or appealed) to secularists eager to demonstrate one -- or if possible both -- of two things: that Christians are (1) officious and sanctimonious busybodies lacking the simple decency to respect someone's privacy in a time of personal crisis; or (2) vengeful hypocrites unwilling to pray for the well-being of anyone they perceive as an enemy.

As for implied allegation (1), I fail to understand how wishing the good of another human being, particularly if it is done (as Jesus encourages us to do) in private, constitutes any infringement of that other human being's privacy or dignity. Hitchens himself has been the soul of graciousness on this point -- and in doing so has shown himself to be a much bigger man than those on his side of the "God question" who want to protect him from the scourge of intercessory prayer.

As for allegation (2), I think the outpouring of Christian solicitude on Hitchens's behalf is the best possible refutation of it. Oh, I suppose there are some professed Christians somewhere who refuse to pray for people they don't like. (They're the ones I constantly hear in my own church responding to the Prayers of the Faithful with "Lord, partially hear our prayer.") But such an attitude, if it really does exist anywhere other than in the darkest and slimiest corners of various comboxes,  is obviously, demonstrably, and self-evidently not what Christianity is about.

In that regard, we Christians should all be just a bit ashamed if the insinuation that we're not praying for Christopher Hitchens -- or for any human being in any kind of trouble -- is able to gain traction with the public at large. If we're not famous as the people who "love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us," then we're not fully living out the Gospel we profess.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Coming and Passing of Things

I wanted a blog title that would cover just about any topic I might choose to pontificate on, and the phrase from St. Augustine's commentary on Genesis ought to serve nicely.

But beyond that, I've always loved the insight St. Augustine brings, in the passage quoted in my banner, to one particular riddle of creation: If the world God created is "good" (as God Himself declared it to be), then why doesn't it last forever? Why does anything good have to come to an end? To get right to the real point, why does my own earthly life, why do the earthly lives of people I love, have to come to an end? Why would God bestow existence on good things and then withdraw the gift?

I think St. Augustine offers a workable answer to this hard question. Some good things do last forever -- the things that are closest to God Himself, and we human beings are among those things. To the extent to which we draw close to God in this life, we will "abide in the most exalted holiness next to God" forever. But temporal things, as we can see all around us, abide only "according to the determinations of their time." This evening's beautiful sunset, the flowers in the garden, my dog Nellie, Chartres Cathedral, the Rocky Mountains -- all exist only for a determined time, and God allows them to do so (if I understand St. Augustine correctly) in order that we will have some understanding of what eternity is. The ageless beauty of God Himself, that beauty "ever ancient, ever new" that so transformed Augustine's own life, would not be even remotely comprehensible to us unless we had, as an object lesson before our eyes daily, the unfolding of a lesser beauty -- "the beauty of the ages."

For the most part, we see that beauty unfolding only up close and partially, in the events of our own everyday lives. And, frankly, it doesn't always look all that beautiful. The beauty of the ages is more like a crazy quilt of big events and small, some obviously meaningful, most seemingly meaningless, and we seldom have the time or perspective to sort out whatever meaning there may be in them. The Brueghel painting I chose as the emblem for this blog makes the point beautifully. It's called The Census at Bethlehem, and unless you know the title, you could stare at it for a long time, perhaps even admiringly, without knowing exactly what it depicts. The canvas pulls together several whirlwinds of activity: some children are having a snowball fight, merchants load their carts, women carry firewood, a man butchers a pig, travellers crowd toward an inn. You have to look closely amid all the confusion, knowing what you're looking for, to notice the man carrying a saw and leading a donkey upon which sits a woman in a blue cloak. They pass anonymously through the crowd.

Isn't that exactly what life is like? Men, women, children scurrying here and there like ants, each singlemindedly about his own business. What does it all mean? To the Christian, it will often look as confused -- and confusing -- as it does to anyone else. But the Christian also knows that amid the crowding events of daily life, if he watches attentively and knows what he is looking for, he will see Jesus.

So that's what I'm going to do with this blog. I'm going to watch the coming and passing of things, using some of those things as pegs to hang my convictions and prejudices on, but trying not to miss St. Augustine's beauty of the ages as it unfolds, and looking always for that figure from Bethlehem in the crowd.