Category: Catholicism

Cry ‘Woof!’

And here’s the big news: starting today, I’ll be blogging over at the Catholic Channel at Patheos, at my new blog: “Cry ‘Woof!’ and let slip the dogs of whimsy“.

The blog title is a Dominican thing; go see my welcome post for more on that.

The Foothills aren’t going away…but on the other hand, I’m not likely to be blogging here much— so point your feed reader at “Cry ‘Woof!'” if you don’t want to miss anything. There are multiple subscription methods at the new blog.

We are Saved, We are Being Saved, We will be Saved

If you’re Catholic, and you’ve ever been asked, “Are you saved?”, Aggie Catholics has you covered.

This may be the best short explanation I’ve seen of the difference between the Catholic understanding of salvation and the Evangelical Protestant understanding.

Field Hospital

In his recent interview with America Magazine, Pope Francis suggests that the Church needs to be a field hospital:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds….

And our wounds, of course, are the consequences of sin: our own sin, or, heartbreakingly, the sins of others. Christ came to heal those wounds, and he wants to use his body, the Church, to do that.

Now, here’s the thing. I can look at someone, someone I know something about, and say, “Gosh, he has a problem. He needs to fix that. Right now.” And maybe he does: but from where I sit, I don’t know whether I’m seeing high cholesterol or a sucking chest wound. And I don’t know what wounds the person has that I can’t even see.

But Christ sees. And given access, he’ll heal those wounds, and he’ll do the job in priority order, as he sees the priorities.

I know in my life (I may not be representative), Christ seems to deal with one issue at a time. I expect that I’m as sinful as the next guy, but Christ doesn’t seem to bury me under the weight of all my unexamined and unrepented sins all at once. He picks one, or two, and works with me on that. Right now, it seems to be my temper, and keeping my mouth shut when I’d rather give my tongue free rein. There have been others in the past, and will no doubt be others in the future: but I don’t know what those are. Christ, in his mercy, isn’t banging on me about those.

Pope Francis is asking us to extend that mercy to our opponents in the culture wars. Christ loves them. He wants to heal them, too. He’ll give the job as much time as it takes for each individual, and it’s a job that will take the rest of each patient’s life. But they need to come see him and ask him for help.

This is hard for us Catholic bloggers. Good warriors in the Culture Wars, we strive to uphold the truth and defeat falsehood (sometimes too stridently). We so often have a passionate desire to share the truth with the world. If only they could see! But for that, Francis tells us, we need to share the Truth, the Truth Himself, Christ our Lord. It’s His face they need to see.

Discovering the Saints: Thomas Aquinas

My latest for Discovering the Saints.

Accidental Heretics and the Power of N

Last week I wrote a post in which I purposely used the emotionally loaded term “heresy” in its precise technical sense. And I did this not because I wanted to slam Evangelicals (I like Evangelicals) but because it’s a useful word, and I because I planned to say more about it.

The essential thing about a heretic isn’t what they deny, but what they affirm. Bishop Arius held that the Son wasn’t of one being with the Father, but was the first and greatest creature in all of creation. In saying this, he wasn’t so much trying to drag Christ down, but rather to protect the status of the Father as the one true God. He was mistaken; but he was mistaken because he took the part of the Gospel that he understood best and judged to be the most important and upheld to the exclusion of other Gospel truths.

I think we are most of us in the same position, even those of us who have every desire not to dissent from Church teaching. I think it’s unavoidable. We are parts of the Body of Christ, and different parts of the body have different functions. (I have sometimes thought that the Catholic blogosphere is the spleen of the Body of Christ.) And each body part is naturally most concerned with its function. You can’t blame a hand for being all about grasping. You can’t blame a nose for smelling.

Given that each of us has a call and particular gifts in support of it, we naturally emphasize it, and the theology that goes along with it. And that will naturally lead us, if we aren’t careful, into a kind of accidental heresy. I don’t mean anything intentional, mind you: but there it is. And when birds of a feather flock together, as they so frequently do, we can be strengthened in our accidentally heretical views of the world. I believe it was Chesterton who described orthodoxy as a kind of balancing act: and keeping your balance can sometimes be next to impossible.

So let’s think about this from Jesus’ point of view. You’ve come to Earth as a man, God-incarnate. You are, yourself, the fullest revelation of God to his people. You bring the Deposit of Faith, with the intent that it be passed down from generation to generation. And you’re dealing with people who are inclined to go off of the rails, even when they give you all of their love and devotion. What do you do?

What Jesus did was, he gave it to a group. And those apostles appointed successors, the first bishops, and passed on the Deposit of Faith to them. And they passed it on to their successors.

Now, each of these men was just a normal human being, and each of them had the same tendencies I described above to emphasize the parts that were most important to them, personnally. So how is it that the Deposit of Faith gets passed down without error? The Holy Spirit, of course, ensures that it will be; we’ve been promised that. But I’ve noticed that Jesus likes to work through simple human things. And here’s the thing about a group: individually, the members might go astray, but collectively they can correct each other. Bishop X emphasizes this while Bishop Y emphasizes that, and so both points of view are preserved. And when Bishop A goes too far and leaves the rails, bishops B through Z can call him on it.

It’s rather like a radio tower with guywires on all sides. Each wire pulls the tower in its direction, but collectively the tower stands vertically and can withstand the winds. Our natural tendency to emphasize one thing and ignore another becomes not a source of division, but a source of strength. I love it when that happens.

The Heresy of Evangelicalism

OK, so you’ve read the title of this post and gotten entirely the wrong idea. That’s the problem with provocative titles; you lose people. So lemme ‘splain.

Heresy, properly understood, isn’t simply doctrinal error. Buddhists disagree with Christians about all sorts of things, but Buddhists aren’t heretics. More precisely, Buddhists aren’t Christian heretics: to be a heretic, you have to be a heretic with respect to something. Given that I’m a Catholic, and therefore believe in the Catholic Church’s teachings as the norm for Christian orthodoxy, Christians who dissent from the Church’s teachings are to some extent heretics. (That’s a technical description I’m making, not a moral judgement. The one person I’ve met who struck me as possibly being a genuine saint was an evangelical Anglican. She ate, drank, and slept intercessory prayer in a quite remarkable way. It really is who she was.)

But even in that context, heresy isn’t simply doctrinal error; it’s a particular kind of doctrinal error. Heresy involves taking one part of the truth to extremes, so that you abandon some other part of the truth. The Arian heretics emphasized the glory of the Father to such an extent that they refused to believe that Christ was truly God; rather, he was the greatest of all created beings.

In short, the interesting thing about a heresy, and the thing that drives everything else, isn’t so much what the heresy gets wrong, but what the heresy gets right.

In reading Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, and in interacting with others who have read it, it’s clear that Evangelicalism is doing something right. Catholics who leave the faith usually leave either for no faith at all, or for some variety of Evangelicalism; and the latter usually leave because they’ve had a personal encounter with the rised Christ and nobody around them in church seems to get it. Then they meet an Evangelical, and personal encounters with Christ are a thing for them. They get it.

And then, many converts to Catholicism (or reverts, like me) have been greatly influenced by Evangelicalism. The Episcopal (later Anglican) congregation to which I belonged had a very Evangelical flavor to it, and my formation as a disciple owes a great deal to that. It’s through that experience (and others like it, earlier in my life) that I came to understand the importance of being a disciple. Mind you, I don’t feel like I met much success at it until I returned to the Catholic Church, and found all of the needed tools (the Divine Office, the aid of the saints, and most especially the Eucharist) ready to hand. It’s as though God’s using Evangelicalism to teach Catholics what discipleship means.

And so I think that discipleship is the truth that Evangelicalism is based on, the truth that gets emphasized so much that other truths are suppressed, or, at the least, ignored. They get discipleship right—very, very right. It’s a tribute to the loving power of Christ that it works so well for them in the absence of the helps I mentioned above. And it’s equally a tribute to the loving power of Christ that the Catholic Church is doing as well as it is without a strong emphasis on discipleship. I hope that with Christ’s help we’ll be able to change that.

On Kerfuffles

So recently there’s been a kerfuffle in the Catholic part of the blogosphere. Somebody made some harsh and uncharitable remarks about a Catholic organization that’s doing good work. Someone else called the first party on their harsh and uncharitable remarks, and defended the Catholic organization. Others are now criticizing the second party for his criticism of the first party, and anyway the second party hates Catholics like the first party and the Catholic organization is icky.

You’ll note that I’ve not given any names or links here, first because I don’t want to add to the feeding frenzy, and second because while I have my own sympathies with certain of those involved I have very little information of my own about the actual circumstances, and would be just repeating hearsay.

And third, and most important, I could have written the above two paragraphs at almost any time in the last five or ten years. This sort of thing goes on all of the time. And that’s what I want to write about: not the facts of this case, but about an attitude that can be spiritually corrosive.

Many years ago my then pastor told a story about a government agent who investigated counterfeiting operations and gave a talk about it. Someone suggested to the agent that he must spend a lot of time studying counterfeit bills. He said, no, he didn’t. Counterfeit bills are all different. Instead, he spent his time studying real bills so that he could readily see any differences.

My then pastor drew the moral that if we want to be able to spot falsehood we have to be thoroughly familiar with the truth. And that’s good advice, I think, but I want to extend it a little further.

As on-line Catholics, we can spend our time writing about what is true, good, and beautiful, or writing about what is false, bad, and ugly. We can look for uplifting links to share or for horrible things to castigate.

I’d like to suggest that we only do the former—but I won’t. We need to stand against error where we find it, and that will sometimes involve being critical. Standing against error isn’t spiritually corrosive.

But I would suggest that a constant and single-minded pursuit of error in order to stand against it can be. It can lead you to see error where there is none, or at the least to magnify molehills into mountains if it’s a slow news day. And if you’re spending all of time looking for errors, you can begin to forget what the truth looks like.

Don’t just stand against the false, the bad, and the ugly. Stand for the true, the good, and beautiful, not simply in principle but also in practice. It’s better for you, and you’ll have less to repent of.

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 13 (and Last!)

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

The final chapter of Forming Intentional Disciples, Chapter 12, is titled “Expect Conversion.” If you go out of your way to pray and teach and support and otherwise encourage discipleship in your parish, if you sincerely and persistently ask Jesus for his help in the matter, you’re going to get conversion.

A digression, for the benefit of my non-Catholic readers: we often call it conversion when a person joins the Catholic Church, and we call such a person a convert. That’s what most people mean by “conversion” in the religious context; but it’s not quite what Weddell is after, here. Conversion of life occurs when we follow Jesus and submit to His will. We find ourselves repenting, and reaching out, and trying things, and in general doing stuff in ways and for reasons that will surprise us. Sometimes the word “repentance” is used; when Jesus says, “Repent and be saved,” he’s talking about conversion of life. The trouble is, we usually understand “repentance” to mean, “I’m going try really hard to stop sinning.” Conversion of life is a much more positive thing. It involves trying not to sin, but it’s much more about actively following Christ and accepting the grace that he offers.

Of course, conversion in the normal colloquial sense often involves conversion in this sense.

There are number of issues about expecting conversion that affect a parish that is trying to make disciples, but one of the biggest is loneliness. A new disciple can feel isolated and alone, with no one to talk to who understands; and according to Weddell’s research, many people in this position leave the Catholic Church to find a place where the companionship of other disciples is to be found. It’s especially difficult in Catholic parishes because (as was discussed in an earlier chapter) we don’t talk about our interior lives. The woman who sits behind me at mass, or the fellow across the aisle that I say hello to every week might very well be a disciple, but as things stand I’ll never know.

Have you ever felt isolated in your quest to follow Jesus? What are the ways you have built a community of spiritual companions? My return to the Catholic Church in 2007 definitely involved conversion of life and a growth in discipleship, and yes, I did feel isolated. I was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be, there in the pew, in the Church, with the Eucharist before me…but outside of my immediate family, I didn’t really know anybody local. My conversion was done by reading books and blogs and thinking and praying about what I read, and by attending mass with my father, who could no longer drive. I was experiencing extraordinary things, and had no one to talk with who understood.

What I did was find the local chapter of the Dominican Laity and start attending meetings. And there I found people who took their faith seriously, who prayed and tried to grow in faith and discipleship. I won’t say it was a life-saver, but it has certainly given me companions for the journey.

You’ve put a lot of energy over the course of this study into learning about the need for evangelization and discipleship, and how to fulfill that need. Do you plan to take action? In what way? I do, and in whatever way comes to hand. As a blogger I can write about discipleship, and the interior life, and about Christ, and I do. I plan to continue that. I’m also trying to become part of the RCIA team at our parish, and my hope is that RCIA can have a discipleship focus. But mostly, I have to keep following Christ where he leads.

Beyond the Echo Chamber

So yesterday evening we had a meeting at my parish to kick off the confirmation program for this year. There were around eighty people in attendance (other than the folks running the meeting), half kids and half parents. Our youth minister opened the meeting with a prayer, and then told us that the confirmation program was going to be a little different this year. And then he asked how many of us knew what the Catechism of the Catholic Church was.

Naturally, I raised my hand. And I looked around. Nothing. I was all alone. After a moment or two, my pastor raised his hand. Still nothing. Just me and him (and the other members of the confirmation team, who didn’t put up their hands but certainly could have).

The youth minister encouraged us not to be shy. Still just me.

None of the other parents knew about the CCC.

I was floored.

Now, mind you, I don’t tell this story to bang on my fellow parishioners, or to lament the low level of catechesis at my parish. On the contrary. The youth minister asked the question knowing full well what the answer was going to look like…and then he and our pastor explained a plan for changing this:

  • The confirmation program is going to be based on studying the catechism (in the form of the highly-regarded youth catechism, or “Youcat”).
  • Parents and their teens are going to be studying it together, month by month.

This is very cool, and I’m looking forward to it.

The two of them went on about for a while, and our pastor made an observation: what most adult Catholics know about the Faith is whatever they learned as a child in catechism class. For most, catechism class ended with Confirmation, around 8th grade; for some, it might have ended even earlier, after First Communion. And as he pointed out, you wouldn’t expect to have success in any adult endeavor based on a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of the subject. We But that’s the situation we’re in, and we’ve got a plan to begin to deal with it. As I say, cool.

I tell this story because my guess at the number of hands would have been much higher. I’d have guessed at least 25%, and maybe 50%. Instead, there was just me. Now, why I would I expect it to be higher?

Let me rephrase that question. What kinds of Catholic do I hang out with? Well, let’s see. I’m a Lay Dominican. I hang out with other Lay Dominicans once a month; and I assure you, they all know about the CCC. And then, on-line: I hang out with blogging Catholics. These are Catholics who care enough about the Church to write about it on-line. From the frequency with which I see the CCC mentioned, most or all of them know about it.

And the point is, these are not typical Catholics.

The term “echo chamber” has been floating around the blogosphere for a while now. You’re in an echo chamber when your positive interactions are only with people who think about things the way you do, and you begin to think that all of the sane people in the world must think that way, too. Every month or so, I see another call to get out of the echo chamber, and to see your opponents as real people with something worthwhile to say. And this is good advice, and we’d all be wise to follow it.

But…but…there’s a tacit assumption here that what’s beyond the echo chamber is the Real World. And that turns out to be hogwash: what’s really outside the echo chamber is just a bigger chamber with more disagreement in it. The set of Catholic bloggers, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, labeled or “merely” Catholic, simply isn’t representative of the American Church. It’s worthwhile listening to the different voices, and essential to remember that there’s a person beloved by Christ behind each one, but you can’t safely generalize from that set to the people in the pews with you on Sunday.

Now, there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that you’re never going to get out of the chamber: no matter how hard you try, you’re going to be dealing with a particular set of Catholics, and there’s no reason to think that whatever set you’re dealing with is representative of the Church as a whole.

The good news is that there’s no need to generalize. We’re called to serve our neighbors, which is to say the people that God puts us next to. They’re the ones we need to get to know. Each of them is different, and each reflects Christ in a unique way.

Generalizations are odious.

The Rainbow or the Egg?

Yesterday, my friend Ian happened to mention a bit of dialog from an episode of the 80’s TV show Moonlighting. Bruce Willis’ character is surprised to discover that Cybil Shephard’s character doesn’t believe in God. “Well, where do rainbows come from?” “Refraction of water droplets in the air,” says Cybil. (We’d been talking New York baseball teams, and the bit of dialog ended with a gag about the ’69 Mets.)

But I was thinking about it later, and it occurred to me that the whole snatch of dialog was based on a misunderstanding of what it means when we say, “God made this.” Since that same error underlies a lot of the arguments I hear around and about, about evolution and similar issues, I thought I’d say something about it.

Bruce asks, “Well, if there’s no God, where do rainbows come from?” He’s arguing from the beauty and grandeur of nature to the existence of God: God is responsible for rainbows.

Cybil respond, “Rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets in the air.” She’s using one of the only two real arguments for the non-existence of God: we don’t need God to explain natural wonders, so there’s no God.

But there’s a false dichotomy in how the question is stated: it’s assumed that either God makes rainbows, or nature makes rainbows, but not both. And to ask, “Does God make rainbows or does Nature make rainbows?” is kind of like asking, “Which came first, the rainbow or the egg?” It’s simply the wrong question.

In point of fact, God makes rainbows; and He uses Nature to do it. This is what theologians refer to as “primary” and “secondary” causes. God is the primary cause, and Nature is the secondary cause.

It is the nature of water drops to refract light. It is the nature of light that different wavelengths bend differently when refracted. It is the nature of the Sun to produce light and heat. All of these things have the natures they do because God so created the universe. Put these things together in the proper geometry, and you get a rainbow.

A skeptic might complain that I’ve just pushed the problem back one step. Now the question is, “Why do water droplets refract light?” And the skeptic might come up with a perfectly natural explanation for how water droplets refract light. This is not a problem; God is still the primary cause.

And then the skeptic might say, “But saying that God is the primary cause doesn’t tell you anything about how it really works!” To which I answer, “Yes, that’s right,” if by “how it really works” you mean, “How natural things interact to make it happen.” Secondary causes are true causes. There’s more than one kind of knowledge, and more than one way to discover the truth.

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