Friday, December 22, 2006

Salvifici Doloris - Part 3



9. Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? It is a question about the cause, the reason, and equally, about the purpose of suffering, and, in brief, a question about its meaning. Not only does it accompany human suffering, but it seems even to determine its human content, what makes suffering precisely human suffering.
The question of "why?" or "for what purpose?" seems to be inherent to the world of human suffering. This "why?" can take radically different forms, from defiance, to humble questioning. But even a true acceptance of pain, united to the salvific suffering of Christ is predicated on the presence of that question. For the question itself is part of the suffering.
It is obvious that pain, especially physical pain, is widespread in the animal world. But only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and wonders why; and he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil. Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we are always, at least to a certain extent, asking a question about suffering too.
The question of evil and the question of suffering -- though not identical -- are related, for the experience of suffering, like the experience of evil is, in the modern usage, "natural." By this we mean that it is a part of human nature as we now experience it. Yet we are profoundly "not at home" with either suffering or evil. The difference is that suffering has been taken up into the life of God HimSelf and been hallowed as a means of purging evil from this world.
Both questions are difficult, when an individual puts them to another individual, when people put them to other people, as also when man puts them to God. For man does not put this question to the world, even though it is from the world that suffering often comes to him, but he puts it to God as the Creator and Lord of the world. And it is well known that concerning this question there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God. For, whereas the existence of the world opens as it were the eyes of the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering and of so many faults without proper punishment. So this circumstance shows—perhaps more than any other—the importance of the question of the meaning of suffering; it also shows how much care must be taken both in dealing with the question itself and with all possible answers to it.
The existence of the world "shows forth the work of his hands," but evil and suffering often obscure it. Our task then is to pull back the veil so that we may clearly see His splendor.

10. Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it, as we see in the Revelation of the Old Testament. In the Book of Job the question has found its most vivid expression.

The story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings, is well known. He loses his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally he himself is afflicted by a grave sickness. In this horrible situation three old acquaintances come to his house, and each one in his own way tries to convince him that since he has been struck down by such varied and terrible sufferings, he must have done something seriously wrong. For suffering—they say—always strikes a man as punishment for a crime; it is sent by the absolutely just God and finds its reason in the order of justice. It can be said that Job's old friends wish not only to convince him of the moral justice of the evil, but in a certain sense they attempt to justify to themselves the moral meaning of suffering. In their eyes suffering can have a meaning only as a punishment for sin, therefore only on the level of God's justice, who repays good with good and evil with evil.

Job's friends are the symbol of those among us, who, wishing to defend the justice of God, give the easy answer that all suffering is deserved. But the easy answer also strips God of his majesty and wisdom.

The point of reference in this case is the doctrine expressed in other Old Testament writings which show us suffering as punishment inflicted by God for human sins. The God of Revelation is the Lawgiver and Judge to a degree that no temporal authority can see. For the God of Revelation is first of all the Creator, from whom comes, together with existence, the essential good of creation. Therefore, the conscious and free violation of this good by man is not only a transgression of the law but at the same time an offence against the Creator, who is the first Lawgiver. Such a transgression has the character of sin, according to the exact meaning of this word, namely the biblical and theological one. Corresponding to the moral evil of sin is punishment, which guarantees the moral order in the same transcendent sense in which this order is laid down by the will of the Creator and Supreme Lawgiver. From this there also derives one of the fundamental truths of religious faith, equally based upon Revelation, namely that God is a just judge, who rewards good and punishes evil: "For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true and thy ways right, and all thy judgments are truth. Thou hast executed true judgments in all that thou hast brought upon us... for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins"(23).

The opinion expressed by Job's friends manifests a conviction also found in the moral conscience of humanity: the objective moral order demands punishment for transgression, sin and crime. From this point of view, suffering appears as a "justified evil". The conviction of those who explain suffering as a punishment for sin finds support in the order of justice, and this corresponds to the conviction expressed by one of Job's friends: "As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same"(24).

That God is the Great Judge is indisputable within the Judeo-Christian revelation. God's judgement upon evil is one aspect of the purgative character of suffering. For to suffer under the just judgement of God offers the opportunity of healing. But it is also true that God is more than judge. He is Father, Savior, and Life/Love.
11. Job however challenges the truth of the principle that identifies suffering with punishment for sin. And he does this on the basis of his own opinion. For he is aware that he has not deserved such punishment, and in fact he speaks of the good that he has done during his life. In the end, God himself reproves Job's friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.
Ultimately, Job receives divine vindication for his protestations of innocence, and it is shown, not that God is not judge, but that Job's friends' conception of God as merely judge is itself an unjust judgement against God's mystery.
The Book of Job does not violate the foundations of the transcendent moral order, based upon justice, as they are set forth by the whole of Revelation, in both the Old and the New Covenants. At the same time, however, this Book shows with all firmness that the principles of this order cannot be applied in an exclusive and superficial way. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. Revelation, which is the word of God himself, with complete frankness presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt. Job has not been punished, there was no reason for inflicting a punishment on him, even if he has been subjected to a grievous trial. From the introduction of the Book it is apparent that God permitted this testing as a result of Satan's provocation. For Satan had challenged before the Lord the righteousness of Job: "Does Job fear God for nought? ... Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face"(25). And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter's righteousness. The suffering has the nature of a test.
Suffering can be permitted as punishment, true, but in the case of Job it was permitted, rather, as a test. Why the test? In the Book of Job it is presented as a bet or wager: a fitting metaphor for the contest between God and Satan. And how Job responds to his suffering is crucial in determining his standing before God, who remains Judge.
The Book of Job is not the last word on this subject in Revelation. In a certain way it is a foretelling of the Passion of Christ. But already in itself it is sufficient argument why the answer to the question about the meaning of suffering is not to be unreservedly linked to the moral order, based on justice alone. While such an answer has a fundamental and transcendent reason and validity, at the same time it is seen to be not only unsatisfactory in cases similar to the suffering of the just man Job, but it even seems to trivialize and impoverish the concept of justice which we encounter in Revelation.
This impoverishment of the concept of justice, is, unavoidably, also an impoverishment of man's conception of God. Though man's conception can never reach to the ultimacy of God, an impoverished view of the moral implications of suffering cuts at the roots from which our understanding may grow more fully into the reality of God's choice of the Cross.

12. The Book of Job poses in an extremely acute way the question of the "why" of suffering; it also shows that suffering strikes the innocent, but it does not yet give the solution to the problem.

Already in the Old Testament we note an orientation that begins to go beyond the concept according to which suffering has a meaning only as a punishment for sin, insofar as it emphasizes at the same time the educational value of suffering as a punishment. Thus in the sufferings inflicted by God upon the Chosen People there is included an invitation of his mercy, which corrects in order to lead to conversion: "... these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people"(26).

Thus the personal dimension of punishment is affirmed. According to this dimension, punishment has a meaning not only because it serves to repay the objective evil of the transgression with another evil, but first and foremost because it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.

Even as punishment, however, suffering has meaning beyond mere retribution. It is education. Not education in the sort of detached professionalized meaning given to the term by modern bureaucracies, but in the intensely personal meaning of being taught by our Father.
This is an extremely important aspect of suffering. It is profoundly rooted in the entire Revelation of the Old and above all the New Covenant. Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God.
Suffering must serve for conversion, for turning the hearts of sons to their Father. But such a conversion requires that the suffering be received not just as pain, but as penance. Penance is both the embodiment and the means of conversion, for it flows from a contrite heart and builds it up by the purification of our desires, disciplining the carnal by submission to that which is truly spiritual (though not disembodied.)

13. But in order to perceive the true answer to the "why" of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the "why" of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love.

In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering, following the revealed word of God, we must open ourselves wide to the human subject in his manifold potentiality. We must above all accept the light of Revelation not only insofar as it expresses the transcendent order of justice but also insofar as it illuminates this order with Love, as the definitive source of everything that exists. Love is: also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The answer to the "why" of suffering is Love, especially as revealed in the Cross. For the Cross shows that God does not remain remote and removed from human suffering but fully enters into it for our sakes, "for us men and our salvation."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Day and Night

When the father distinguished day from night in his creation of the world, the act that separated them involved a judgment. This one was dark, the other light. But lightness and darkness followed one another more in an alternating sequence than in a relationship of cause and effect. This alternation was a sign that would be furnished to men, a sign according to which they could order their lives: their work and cessation, their activity and rest. the perfection of this ordering was destroyed by the darknesses of sin. But when the Son became man, he did not abolish creation's law of day and night. Instead he simply led it beyond itself by bringing the light of God, so that, with it he could fight against the darkness of hell; he could break through its night with the radiance of this light, not simply to chase darkness out of the world but to fill it with a wealth of meaning.

- Adrienne von Speyr, Light and Images

Speyr was a Swiss convert and mystic who entered the Catholic Church under the direction of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Salvifici Doloris - Part 2

II THE WORLD OF HUMAN SUFFERING 5. Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man's concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its "objective reality", to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.
Pain, because it is so intrinsically personal, and in a certain sense, incommunicable, therefore has about it a sense of "unreality," especially when considered from the obsessively objective perspective of modern science. Yet in another sense it is more real than (almost) anything else, precisely because it does penetrate to the heart of what it means to be a person.
Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of "reaction" (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied, and multi-dimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself. A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words "suffering" and "pain", can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when "the body is hurting" in some way, whereas moral suffering is "pain of the soul". In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature, and not only of the "psychological" dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering The vastness and the many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.
Human suffering may be embodied in the physical, but it also transcends it. Physicians can heal the body. Psychologists can even help heal the soul to some degree. Yet the root of suffering always remains outside the reach of medicine.
6. Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death(5), the death of one's own children(6) and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son(7); and then too: the lack of offspring(8), nostalgia for the homeland(9), persecution and hostility of the environment(10), mockery and scorn of the one who suffers(11), loneliness and abandonment(12); and again: the remorse of conscience(13), the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer(14), the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbours(15); and finally: the misfortunes of one's own nation(16). In treating the human person as a psychological and physical "whole", the Old Testament often links "moral" sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones(17), kidneys(18), liver(19), viscera(20), heart(21). In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a "physical" or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.
In contrast to some understandings, the Christian view of the human person maintains that he is both revealed by and yet is more than his body. This "more than" is not independent of the body, but is the source of its meaning. Indeed, one formula calls the soul the "form" of the body. This means that mental or spiritual suffering is closely connected with physical suffering, sometimes to the point of bringing it into being where it would not otherwise exist.
7. As we see from the examples quoted, we find in Sacred Scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an "unwritten book"), and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual. It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate "suffering". Thus it defined as " evil" everything that was suffering(22). Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translations of the Old Testament), use the verb * = "I am affected by .... I experience a feeling, I suffer"; and, thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (from "patior"). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.
Even that suffering which man causes for himself makes him, not only one who inflicts suffering, but one who is the victim of suffering. This victimhood finds its culmination on the Cross, when Christ became both Priest and Victim, the instrument of our salvation.
This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific "activity". This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated "activity" of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.
The "activity" of suffering is interior, and common to all, yet it is also different for each person because of our many and varied constitutions.
Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: what is evil? This questions seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he a ought"—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.
Unlike Buddhism, for example, Christianity does not hold that suffering is exclusively the result of egotistical desire. Rather, it holds that there are real goods which are justly to be desired, and deprivation or distortion of these goods (like food, freedom, and love) is the cause of suffering.
Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good.
This distortion or privation of good is what we mean by evil. The idea is familiar enough: he evil of gluttony is a distortion of the proper desire for food. And the greater the good that is being distorted, the greater an evil it is.
8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific "world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion". Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world", but at the same time" that world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists "in dispersion", at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection.
Human suffering can be the cause of isolation from others because of its unrepeatable interiority. Yet when entered into with love, it can be a way of joining one's interior life to others. The Cross stands as God's entrance into solidarity with us where we are most fragile. And because of the Cross, we can join ourselves in solidarity with His weakness, which is greater than any human strength.
Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. This happens, for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemica, catastrophes, upheavals and various social scourges: one thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it - or with various other causes - the scourge of famine. One thinks, finally, of war. I speak of this in a particular way. I speak of the last two World Wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings. The second half of our century, in its turn, brings with it—as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization—such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity. In this way, that world of suffering which in brief has its subject in each human being, seems in our age to be transformed—perhaps more than at any other moment—into a special "world": the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man's work and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man's mistakes and offences.
Human suffering has always been a reality, and yet in particular times and places it reaches greater dimensions. And with modern advances in technology, the threat of war to create suffering on a mass scale is greater than ever before.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Salvifici Doloris

One of the most neglected writings of John Paul II - unjustly, if understandably - is his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering . No one likes to suffer. Most of us don't even like to talk about suffering. Yet John Paul II, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintains that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life. This is the first of a series in which I will read and reflect upon Salvifici Doloris. Though I do hope that you enjoy it, the series is mostly an exercise for myself to become more acquainted with the Man of Sorrows.


Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
1. Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church"(1). These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake"(2). The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.
How strange it sounds. Joy at suffering? Even granting that Christ's suffering is the means of our salvation, why would Paul rejoice in his own suffering? Because in suffering for the sake of others, for the sake of the Church, Paul found himself united ever more closely with Christ.
2. The theme of suffering - precisely under the aspect of this salvific meaning - seems to fit profoundly into the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption as an extraordinary Jubilee of the Church. And this circumstance too clearly favours the attention it deserves during this period. Independently of this fact, it is a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth: in a certain sense it co-exists with him in the world, and thus demands to be constantly reconsidered. Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now"(3), even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word "suffering" seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense "destined" to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.
Yes, the whole creation has been groaning in travail. And now it has brought forth the firstborn from the dead. But the travail continues, because He is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. And this travail is not just general, but particularly human, and yet more than human. Within our temporal world it is a revelation of eternity.
3. The theme of suffering in a special way demands to be faced in the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption, and this is so, in the first place, because the Redemption was accomplished through the Cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering. And at the same time, during the Holy Year of the Redemption we recall the truth expressed in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis: in Christ "every man becomes the way for the Church"(4). It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence. Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the Church at all times - and perhaps especially during the Holy Year of the Redemption - should meet man. Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man "becomes the way for the Church", and this way is one of the most important ones.
Because of the Incarnation, man has been endowed with an even greater dignity than that of a creature made in the image of God. We have been been granted the eternal eikon of the Father in human flesh, that we might participate in the divine nature. Because our eikon is human flesh, each individual man becomes a "way for the Church": a way to perceive Christ. And it is especially so in those who suffer. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."
4. This is the origin also of the present reflection, precisely in the Year of the Redemption: a meditation on suffering. Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart, and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: the need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith—formulated, for example, in the words of Saint Paul quoted at the beginning—provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: for man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.
Suffering must evoke compassion - the co-suffering of love. This is the message of the Cross. Here we can enter the mystery of what it means to be human, and a child of God.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I find it amusing (in a sad sort of way) that many of those who react most negatively to any idea of Ecclesial or Marian mediation have no trouble at all interposing a father/husband as ultimate mediator between God daughter/wife. Take for instance, the horror of some Christians at the idea of Elsie Dinsmore choosing to obey God rather than her father.

This leads me to suspect that it isn't mediation as such that is problematic for this particular group, but mediation between God and men (males). This becomes even more problematic if the one mediating happens to be personified as feminine (the Church) or actually be female (Mary).

Hmm. You'd almost think that I'd been reading one of those "radical feminists." Well, maybe, if St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka Edith Stein) counts as a radical feminist.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Acting Theologically

In considering the question of women's ordination, I've been struck by the inadequacy of most justifications for both the pro and anti ordination positions. It seems that most of the "pro" arguments make the mistake of assuming that an exclusively male priesthood is intrinsically unjust, while most of the "anti" arguments make the mistake of assuming that bride/bridegroom/etc. metaphors necessarily imply their literal embodiment. (Yes, the incarnational principle applies, but it doesn't necessarily mean that little boys should be dressed up like brides for their first communion because they are the "bride of Christ.") However, while mulling all this over, I came upon a thought which I'd never seen articulated elsewhere before: a theology of acting. (Perhaps because I haven't been looking in the right places.)

In this case, I do mean acting in the sense of stage acting rather than the broader sense of taking action.

I think it may not be entirely coincidental that the technical name for the priest's actions in administering the sacraments is acting in persona Christi, or "in the person of Christ." Persona doesn't just mean "person" in the modern sense. It also means "mask" &mdash a mask of the sort that one wears in a play. The priest, therefore is "acting" as Christ.

For a young man to act the part of Joan of Arc would be quite jarring. Why? Because though sex does not determine identity, identity does include one's sex. To watch the young man act the part of Joan of Arc, necessarily involves the audience in actively reconstructing his identity as Joan, whereas watching a young woman act the part does not.

But, someone might say, what of Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy (in which the actual mask was used)? These stages had only one sex on stage, and yet they acted both sexes. After all, it was a young man who originally played Juliet.

Certainly, this is true. My suggestion, though, is that we probably shouldn't be looking to imitate the practices of Greek and Shakespearean acting, especially since they both seem to have had this practice largely as a result of cultural misogyny.

But it would seem that introducing women's ordination would have to presume at least some degree of cultural misandrony. Of course, maybe I'm wrong. :-)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Regina Angelorum

It is the essence of Romanism that the authority of the living church interprets to the individual believer the meaning of the word 'God' and the word 'Christ.' What the Bible says to the individual is mediated through the declarative activity of the church which is assumed to be infallible.

- Cornelius Van Til

Maybe I'm missing something here, but wasn't the entire reason for the Council of Nicea to interpret to the individual believer the meaning of the words "God" and "Christ" in such a way that if a believer were to disagree with Nicea the believer is understood to be wrong?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Faith & Reason

Regina Angelorum
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? - Tertullian

My answer: Rome.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Grace and Merit

Regina Angelorum

The "classical Protestant" position on merit might be summarized as, "All is grace, therefore there is no merit." To someone who accepts this view, Catholic talk about merit on the part of human persons can seem like a denial of God's free (unearned) gift of grace. Thus the vehemence with which the idea of human merit is sometimes attacked.

But does Catholic talk of human merit actually amount to a denial of the unearned character of grace?"

426. What is merit?

In general merit refers to the right to recompense for a good deed. With regard to God, we of ourselves are not able to merit anything, having received everything freely from him. However, God gives us the possibility of acquiring merit through union with the love of Christ, who is the source of our merits before God. The merits for good works, therefore must be attributed in the first place to the grace of God and then to the free will of man.

- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

So, we can see that in the Catholic understanding merit is not something one earns on one's own, but has its source in Christ. How does that work?

2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

- Catechism of the Catholic Church

The "merit" that Catholics speak of, then, isn't absolute, but relative. It is like the merit of a child who helps his father clean up toys scattered all over the yard so that it can be mown. Does the child really deserve (absolutely merit) a treat for helping? Of course not. And yet the father, in his grace, freely chooses to associate the child with the father's work, and the merits that derive from it, including the ability to purchase ice cream.

This earned/unearned character of relative merit is most dramatically brought into relief by the case of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine proclaims that in the first moment of her conception, before she had ever done anything either good or evil, God Chose to associate Mary most deeply with the work of her son and His Son, Jesus Christ, granting her the grace of freedom from the taint of original sin. Mary's association with her son's work of salvation, especially in her unconditional "Yes" to the will of God at the Annunciation, is the source of her merits. And yet these merits themselves are gifts of grace.

The Catholic position might be summarized as, "All is grace, and only therefore is there merit."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Passover & Eucharist

The following quotations are taken from the Passover Haggadah, New Revised Edition by Rabbi Nathan Goldberg and from the Roman Missal. I found the parallels interesting

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

- Blessing before each cup of wine in the Passover

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through you goodness we have this wine of offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink. Blessed be God forever.

- Blessing of the wine before consecration

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

- Blessing before eating the Matzah (unleavened bread)

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread of offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. Bless be God forever.

- Blessing of the host (unleavened bread) before consecration

It is our duty, therefore, to thank and to praise, to glorify and to extol Him Who performed all these wonders for our ancestors and for us. He took us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from bondage to redemption. Let us, therefore, sing before Him a new song. Halleluyah. Praise the Lord.

- Recited before a psalm of praise in the Passover

Father, it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks through yor beloved Son, Jesus Christ. He is thw Word through whom you made the universe, the Savior you sent to redeem us. By the power of the Holy Spirit he took flesh and was born of the Virgin mary. For our sake he opened his arms on the cross; he put an end to death and revealed the resurrection. In this he fulfilled you will and won for you a holy people. And so we join the angels and the saints in proclaiming your glory as we say:

- Recited before the "Holy, holy, holy" in the Mass (varies according to the text used)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Assumption of Mary

To many people, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin looks like a case of the Catholic Church indulging it's fondness for odd Marian doctrines. But is that interpretation correct?

Well, let's start with a simple question. To what doctrines might the Assumption be related? The one to which its resemblance is most striking is obviously the Ascension of Christ. But there is an important difference. The Ascension was an action of Christ's own divine power, whereas in the Assumption, it is not an internal power of Mary but the external power of God which acts upon her.

What, then, is the connection between the two? I submit that it is a question of bodies. We profess not just that Christ was incarnate once, but that He remains incarnate. He did not become bodiless to ascend to the Father, but carried His bodily humanity with Him. And we, as members of the Body of Christ, will share in that glorification.

Why the unique privilege of Mary in sharing that glorification? Because she is the one who is most intimately connected with Christ in both body and spirit. In the Body of Christ she is the only one who was privileged to be the earthly origin of His humanity (including His body) by the overshadowing of the Spirit. Where others are related to the Body of Christ sacramentally, she is related both sacramentally and maternally.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

It's a bit late, but I thought I'd post a thought on the Transfiguration. I'm sure someone has expounded it before, but...

The light which shone from the transfigured Christ did not shine from above the cave of this world, though that Sun of the Good is its source. Rather, it shone within the "cave." It shone from the Body of Christ. And we are that body! We are the face and hands and feet through whom the divine light is to reach those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Liturgy, Kenosis, and NFP

One of the dimensions frequently overlooked in discussions of NFP and birth control is that of askesis or self-discipline. This is odd, because it figures prominently in Humanae Vitae.

21. The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers.

Yet most discussions of NFP and birth control quickly devolve into questions of why NFP is allowed to Catholics and contraceptives are not, as if all that mattered was implementation of a technique. While the question can certainly be answered on that level (natural law, etc.), it implies a thorough misunderstanding of what Christian life is to be.

The Christian life is about coming to participate, through Church and Sacrament, in the inner life of the Most Blessed Trinity.

And NFP, unlike its contraceptive alternatives, proposes a way consistent and complementary to way of fast and feast which the Church sets forward in her liturgical year. Indeed, in a certain sense, one can say that NFP is liturgical, for in its principle of self-denial it gives us the opportunity to enter into the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ.

Friday, July 14, 2006


This is a drawing of mine from almost a year ago. It is, obviously, a study of Michelangelo's Pieta. It seemed appropriate given the title of this blog.

Why the title? If it is true that theology arises from doxology, then given the radical embodiedness implied by Christ's incarnation, theology cannot remain purely abstract but must express itself in tangible things like statues or icons. This isn't free of danger, but neither was the incarnation, as the Pieta itself makes quite clear.

Five Theses on Scripture

Thesis 1: The composition of the canon of scripture (what books belong in the Bible) cannot be determined by recourse to scripture both because of the circular nature of the argument and (even ignoring the circularity) because none of the proposed canons address the issue of canonicity in sufficient detail.

Thesis 2: The composition of the canon cannot reliably be determined by recourse to an "inner witness" because of its radical subjectivity. (Even the LDS church claims an "inner witness" for its canon, as do many Protestants for their canon, etc.)

Thesis 3: The question of the canon can therefore only be answered by recourse to the authority of the Church as expressed in magisterial rulings and patristic sources.

Thesis 4: The Protestant canon was not supported by any Church council or ecclesiastical ruling prior to the Reformation. (I'm 99% sure of this, but if I'm mistaken, please correct me.)

Thesis 5: The Protestant canon can only claim one Church Father (Jerome) as support, but even that isn't unambiguous, as his Latin translation of the Bible does include the deuterocanonicals.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Being Love

"I am that I am." That is the name which God announced to Moses from the burning bush. God is He whose existence is absolute. Pair this with the description of God from St. John, that "God is love." Taken together, these revelations of God's identity also reveal the identity of man. Man can only truly exist insofar as he loves and participates in the love of God. That is why the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. For only in so doing can man fully become a "being" before God, who is Being itself.