Spiritual But Not Religious

May 25, 2012

The following is a reflection on Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual But Not Religious by Joe Hoover, SJ.

            In a religious and political climate today that fiercely grapples for position on precisely what American values are and where they are rooted, it is helpful to realize in more depth what American religious pursuit has traditionally been about. Though it came out more than ten years ago, the historical survey Spiritual But Not Religious makes a timely contribution to this discourse in pointing out that a strain of independence has been running through American spirituality for a very long time. Those who think that the United States was founded on the same kind of church-going faith that we have today, for instance, are mistaken. As author Robert Fuller points out, only a small number of colonialists were churchgoers. By the time the Revolutionary War came, a mere fifteen percent of Americans belonged to any church. Most of them practiced religion, but not solely rooted in Christianity. Early America was rife with “fortune telling, astrology, folk medicine, witchcraft and divinization.” He goes on to note that “[f]rom the outset, Americans have had a persistent interest in religious ideas that fall well outside the parameters of bible-centered theology.”

          The freedom embodied by those without religion–then and now–is mirrored somewhat by those with religion. “A sizable percentage of church members have little loyalty to their church’s theological traditions,” writes Fuller, speaking of today’s Christians. In America, the market reigns, not just in economics but in the culture as a whole, including the spiritual. Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter: Mother’s Day

May 13, 2012

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Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17

Happy Mother’s Day.  As I’m sure y’all know, Mother’s Day is not an official holiday on the liturgical calendar.  Hence, the Scripture readings don’t exactly reflect the occasion; there are no direct references to the dignity of Christian motherhood.  There is, however, a theme that I consider indirectly related to Christian motherhood: baptism.  The reading from the Acts of the Apostles presents baptism as the culmination of the Holy Spirit’s among in Cornelius and his household.  Since Christians have always considered baptism a birth to new life, and the Church the womb where that new life gestates, they have always also considered the Church a true mother.

But what does the Church’s motherhood have to do with the flesh-and-blood motherhood that we celebrate today?  I think, actually, quite a lot.  Experience suggests that esteem for the Church’s supernatural motherhood is closely tied to esteem for natural motherhood.  Even the historical origin of Mother’s Day in certain countries suggests this.  Read the rest of this entry »


The Current Crisis of Catholic Feminism

May 13, 2012

My good friend Jim Keane has written a stirring encomium to the religious sisters who are members of the LCWR at In All Things.  The pastor at my parish this morning referenced the tremendous motherly role that many of those sisters have played in our lives.  On this Mother’s Day we do well to remember them.

Yet the pastor also reprimanded the Vatican for its importunate “attack” on those same sisters, as he called it.  Also on this Mother’s Day, I think it well to reflect on a part of this discussion that is often left out.  That is on the current crisis of Catholic feminism in the United States.

In her excellent sociological analysis of nuns and feminism, Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, Rebecca Sullivan notes that in the post-war era, nuns became the blank slate upon which many feminine dreams were written.  They were deemed acceptable as such a slate because “they fired up dreams of feminine independence while smothering any possibility that the flames might spread out of control.” Eventually, of course, nuns reacted strongly to playing this role for American civil society and instead embraced a more radical form of feminism. Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B: God is Greater than our Hearts

May 5, 2012

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Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8

There’s a verse in today’s second reading that hints at the depth of healing that Christ makes possible: “[I]n whatever our hearts condemn … God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 Jn 3:19b-20a).  Sometimes we get so used to cadences of biblical language, that it’s easy to overlook the depth of the mystery being expressed.

The first remarkable feature of this verse is surely this: it speaks of the heart as the origin of a certain kind of condemnation.  What could this mean?  Nowadays we use the heart to refer strictly to our emotions—and usually to out positive emotions.  We often oppose the “heart” to the “head,” and we describe compassionate and generous people as having “big hearts.”  In Scripture, though, the word is broader and deeper: it is the source of bad emotions as well as good; it is the seat of our cravings, the organ of our private thoughts, the storehouse of our memories.

The condemnation of the heart, understood biblically, can consequently refer to “accusations” that originate from a place deeper than our own thinking and willing. Read the rest of this entry »


Rhetoric, Action, and Cooperation

May 1, 2012

On this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, it is time to tone down the corporate language of cooperation in evil and instead begin to take personal, active measures towards cutting out in significant ways our own material ties to evil.

Let me say this first: I am proud of our Bishops.  I am proud that they have made a statement about freedom of religion and the requirement that the government not infringe on that freedom, as I have expressed already here.  The government has stuck its head into the right of religious liberty, mostly especially of Catholics and Muslims, and it is time for it to back off.

But the rhetoric of “cooperation with evil” got out of hand.  Cooperation is one of those things that is very much a matter of personal discernment.  There are “objective” principles to take into account, but the judging of them is highly personal and complex, and many have gotten it wrong.  For example, a well known prelate, in a statement of personal opinion, explained in an interview: Read the rest of this entry »


Von Balthasar and Theological Freedom

April 30, 2012

As the magisterium continues to try to do its job, something for it, and us, always to remember.  Von Balthasar speaks to the need for allowing the necessary freedom for theological reflection to take place:

Heresy is an analogical concept.  Even if a sharp boundary line is drawn between those heresies that have earned an express judgment of condemnation and those that never met with such a condemnation and thus continue to claim a part of the Church’s heart, still we should consider how much objective distortion was held in the course of time by the most important Doctors of the Church, how much was lost out of sheer accident or as a necessary adjunct to an express condemnation, how many erroneous and inexact views float around in the heads of nearly all believers!


Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B: The Shepherd and the Wolf

April 29, 2012

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Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18

We’ve perhaps become so familiar with the tender image of the Good Shepherd carrying a lost lamb on his shoulders, that we might easily overlook the urgency of its message.  The Shepherd and the sheep, if you recall, are not the only actors in the fable.  Christ also mentions the presence of the wolf.  And though he doesn’t describe the wolf in any detail, its background presence points to an unsettling truth: humanity has an enemy whom he cannot match in strength and cunning; we stand before the power of evil as a sheep stands before a wolf.  Apart from the Shepherd and His flock, our prospects are not good.

As Christ presents it, in other words, the world is not a safe place.  It is the theater of a “high-stakes” drama.  If we take Christ at his word, then He and His Church are not simply optional extras for those who need the “crutch” of religion.  They are our hope of salvation.  Peter makes this teaching the center of his preaching, insisting, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”  He also describes Christ as a “cornerstone,”  implying the existence of a building—i.e., the “Church”—in which Christians seek refuge from the wolf.

Important questions arise.  How exactly does the wolf go about seeking to destroy us?  And how exactly does the Shepherd go about defending us? Read the rest of this entry »


Does God Directly Create the Human Soul? Part I/3

April 26, 2012

Whether in debates about evolution or  about pro-life issues, the language of the “direct” creation of the human soul often pops up.  Yet this language is very philosophically problematic.  The purpose of the next three posts will be first, to lay out the dilemma, second, to present theologian Karl Rahner’s solution, and third, to present theologian Piet Schoonenberg’s solution.

I have often heard this language of “direct” creation used in the context of arguments about evolution.  In his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on Evolution, John Paul II explains:

Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides non retimere iubet”). (Humani Generis)

I have also frequently heard this language used throughout my lifelong involvement in the pro-life moment. Read the rest of this entry »


Prophecy in the Church

April 23, 2012

I have no competence to speak to the recent document from the CDF to the LCWR.  Rather, I would like to use it as a springboard to discuss briefly the place of prophecy within the Church.  In one place, the document comments about prophetic activity:

Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful. “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office.

So what is the role of prophecy in the Church?  Is it only to be directed ad extra and never ad intra?  Catherine of Siena may have something to say to this point.  In either case, prophecy without the utmost respect for magisterium of the Church must be carefully avoided.   Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B: The Pattern of Fear

April 22, 2012

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Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48

It’s funny how the presence of certain people can shift our perspective on our fears and our problems.  I once heard a story about a meeting between the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Kolvenbach, and Pope John Paul II.  According to the story (which at least has the ring of truth), John Paul was by this point already quite diminished by Parkinson’s Disease.  Fr. Kolvenbach, then more than 80 years old, had come to ask for permission to step down as General.  John Paul declined his resignation and Fr. Kolvenbach accepted his decision tranquilly.  When he returned to Jesuit headquarters, his fellow Jesuits inquired about the meeting, and Fr. Kolvenbach observed rather matter-of-factly, “It’s very difficult for me to stand before this Pope and argue that I am too old and too frail to do my job.”  In light of John Paul’s own heroic perseverance, in other words, even substantial concerns and frailties came to seem rather manageable by comparison.

The presence of the Risen Christ seems to have had a similar effect on his first disciples—only more so.  Read the rest of this entry »


Hunger Games and Hermeneutics

April 13, 2012

Perry Petrich at the Jesuit Post has a very different interpretation of the Hunger Games than I do.  His piece begins: “The Hunger Games are all about hope.”  Mine: “The Hunger Games are a tragedy.”  I don’t have a lot to add to what I already posted on his article:

The Hunger Games are not about hope but rather a strongly cautionary tale about the very possibility of constructing human societies that are not built upon deception, manipulation and death. Collins thinks we actually cannot construct such a society. So as a dystopian series they are rather pessimistic. They do give more agency to the individual than most dystopias, such as 1984 and Brave New World, but each character at one time or another is forced to sacrifice their own morality and self. There is no hope in that.

I think the Hunger Games are a caution rather than a proposal. I don’t think Collins ever gets beyond that.

So I think they are really, indirectly, about the need for grace.

That leads to two points I would like to make.

First, why discuss the “meaning” of the Hunger Games?  Can’t they be just a fun series?  Yes and no.  We all construct meaning while we read.  Reading is not just the sequential linking of isolated words on a page. Read the rest of this entry »


Seven Instances of Violation of Religious Liberty

April 12, 2012

The bishops of the United States have issued a list of 7 violations of religious liberty.  The list includes:

  1. The mandate for required contraception and sterilization coverage
  2. State immigration laws, such as in Alabama, that violate the basic dignity of human persons
  3. Laws that influence Church structure in governance, such as in Connecticut
  4. Discrimination towards Christian groups on university campuses
  5. Laws that discriminate against Catholic foster care and adoptive services, such as were leveled at Catholic Charities
  6. Discrimination against small church communities in the Bronx
  7. Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services for refusing to provide abortive and contraceptive services

The bishops have called for two weeks of prayer beginning on the eve of the memorials of St. Thomas More and St. Thomas Fisher and leading up to July 4.

Needless to say, Commonweal thinks that the bishops’ statement “vastly exaggerates” the problem. Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for Easter Mass During the Day, Year B: The Feast of Feasts

April 8, 2012

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Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; 1 Cor 5:6b-8; Jn 20:1-9

There’s an experience that the liturgy so often links to Easter that we almost take the connection for granted.  Our Psalm antiphon declares, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.”  The second reading from 1 Corinthians reads, “Our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  Therefore, let us celebrate the feast …”  The Gospel Acclamation echoes the theme, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed; let us then feast with joy in the Lord.”  The experience so often connected to Easter, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is nothing other than festivity, rejoicing together.  The connection, of course, isn’t accidental.  Christians have always understood the Resurrection not just as a feast, but as the feast, as the source all genuine festivity in this world.  In the 4th Century, St. Athanasius observed that those without a share in the Resurrection “forever … remain without a feast” (Paschal Letters, VI).

Why is this?  I think the claim is easier to understand if we distinguish genuine “festivity” and simply “partying.”  Why is the atmosphere surrounding great festivals—Christmas, Thanksgiving, a wedding—distinct from the atmosphere surrounding night clubs, frat parties, or even greeting-card holidays like “Secretary’s Day”?  One of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th Century ventured this answer: to keep a genuine festival is

to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole  (Pieper, In Tune with the World 30). Read the rest of this entry »


Freedom and Divine Violation

April 6, 2012

O Lord, You have seduced me,

And I am seduced;

You have raped me

And I am overcome. 

That is Abraham Heschel’s translation of Jeremiah 20:7, usually translated as “deceived.”  Heschel, possibly the most famous commentator on the Old Testament prophets, explains that the two Hebrew words, patah and hazak mean, in succession, “wrongfully inducing a woman to consent to prenuptial intercouse” and “the violent forcing of a woman to submit to extranuptial intercourse, which is thus performed against her will.”  

So how could Jeremiah accuse God of such horrendous, unspeakable things?  The question arises when we consider, not those evils that God allows to happen to us but does not intend, but difficult things that God seems to intend to offer to the choice of our freedom, even though they seem extremely painful at the time. Jeremiah seems to experience this Divine Violation in regards to his own vocation.  So what is Jeremiah getting at?   Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for Holy Thursday: “Sine Dominico, non possumus…”

April 5, 2012

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There is a famous episode (often cited by the Holy Father) illustrating the devotion to the Eucharist in the early Church.  In the year 304, a group of Christians from the town of Abitinia in North Africa gathered on Sunday, in defiance of orders from Emperor Diocletian, for the celebration of Mass.  They were “caught” and promptly hauled into court.  When asked why they disobeyed, one of the worshippers, Emeritus, gave this simple and profound answer: “Sine Dominico non possumus” (“Without the Lord’s thing, we cannot …”).  Emeritus and 48 others eventually died martyrs’ deaths because they simply could not live without the “Lord’s thing,” that is, without the Eucharist.

A question naturally emerges: How did the Abitene martyrs come to regard the Eucharist as something they could not live without?  How did it become for them, not just an external duty, but an inner necessity?  The answer, briefly stated, is that they came to view the Eucharist much as the liturgy presents it to us tonight.  They came to see the Eucharist as 1) freedom to worship, and 2) as power to serve. Read the rest of this entry »


The Hunger Games

March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games are a tragedy.  (As a spoiler alert, if you haven’t read them, then don’t keep reading). They are a harsh look at what happens to people when they think they must make war on one another.  Perhaps the best summary of the thesis of the Hunger Games comes from Hermann Goring’s famous quote from the Nuremberg interviews:

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship….  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Goring was onto something: there is little difference in the end between people on both sides who become intent on killing one another.  And Collins’ book makes one thing clear: it is not that hard to convince people that this is what they must do.

In the end the books are a tragedy because just about everyone is corrupted.  All of the leaders, both of the Capitol and of the Rebellion are evil.  Gale, Katniss’ best friend is transformed into the image of those he hates.  He becomes the new murderer, a Peacekeeper himself, just like Coin and most of the other rebels, even though he had been scourged to an inch of his life by a Peacekeeper.  Plutarch just switches sides, but he continues to be a Game Master, playing with lives that do not matter.   Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year B: The Eyes of the Heart

March 25, 2012

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Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

At first glance, it seems that Jesus is using the politician’s campaign-season playbook.  Philip and Andrew (two apostles with Greek names) bring Jesus a simple request from some Greek proselytes (honorary Jews): “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Rather than answer the question straightforwardly, however, Jesus opts to stick close to his talking points.  He goes on to speak of the seed that must die if it is to bear much fruit, the need to surrender one’s life in this world, the cost of discipleship, his spiritual distress, his trust in the Father, and the manner in which he was about to die.  By this point, Philip and Andrew are probably looking at their watches, thinking, “He could have just said no…”

But of course, Jesus is answering the question.  He is simply answering it a deeper level than either the Greeks or his disciples understand at that moment. Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for Laetare Sunday, Year B: Recovering our Lost Sabbaths

March 18, 2012

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2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

I’d like to speak this Laetare Sunday about sloth, one of the seven capital sins.  Sloth fits the occasion for two reasons: 1) it’s suggested by today’s readings, and 2) it may be the sin where there is the widest gap between the popular understanding (laziness or lack of ambition) and the Church’s understanding (spiritual sadness).

1)  The theme in the readings that sloth touches on is the sin of the “lost sabbaths.”  According to 2 Chronicles, God permitted Israel’s exile in order “to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:  ‘Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,/ during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest/ while seventy years are fulfilled.’”  God had commanded Israel to keep not only a Sabbath day, but a Sabbath year.  Every seventh year, the land was supposed to “rest” in the Lord, to lay fallow and uncultivated (Lev 25:2).  Apparently, Israel had been working their land during the Sabbath years, and God was not pleased that they were not resting.  Israel, according to the popular understand, was not being “slothful” enough.  Strange.

2)  Something stranger still: the great Christian tradition classifies sloth as a sin against the Sabbath command (ST II-II 36.3).  Here it becomes clear how far the Christian understanding of sloth is from the popular notion of laziness. Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B: Jesus and Anger Management

March 11, 2012

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Gustave Dore's Rendering of "the Wrathful" in Dante's Inferno

Ex 20:1-17; Ex 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

I’d like to use today’s Scripture passages as a basis for reflecting the classic problem of Christians and anger.  In a sense, the problem emerges from the readings themselves.  “Thou not kill,” the fifth of the commandments we hear in the first reading, later gets expanded by Christ: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22).  Christ appears to condemn anger.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Jesus acting as he does in today’s Gospel—making a whip of cords, spilling coins, overturning tables, running off moneychangers—without an emotional energy approaching anger.  The Gospel offers the word “zeal”: “His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.”  So what’s the difference between the sinful anger (“wrath”) that Christ condemns and the righteous anger (“zeal”) that Christ displays? Read the rest of this entry »


Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent: The “Transformation Perspective”

March 3, 2012

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Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10

As Catholics, we all know that we oppose something called “secularism.”  We want to keep Christ in Christmas.  We want the Church to be strong, to have freedom to worship and to shape culture and policy.  But thinking of secularism exclusively in terms of its legal and economic aspects has a downside: it encourages us to lay the blame on “them”—on godless lawyers, lobbyists, and CEOs.  It gave me pause, then, when I ran across definition of secularism, proposed by a prominent Catholic philosopher, that invited me to look at myself.  According to his definition, the heart of secularism is the denial of the “transformation perspective” (A Secular Age, 431).

And by “transformation perspective” he meant simply the belief—common to most religions—that we are transformed through sacrifice, that a “higher life” and new desires are possible for us through religious practices: through the discipline of passions, meditation, the study of holy books, etc.  From the secular perspective, on the other hand, desires and behavior are never really be transformed.  And since we can’t expect people to live frustrated, the best we can hope to do is damage control.  Hence the secular solution to the dangers of sex becomes not chastity but condoms, the secular solution to the problem of overeating becomes not moderation but Splenda, the secular solution to political corruption becomes not integrity but a system of checks and balances.  The “transformation perspective,” on the other hand, rates virtue above technique.

To this “transformation perspective” reflected generally in religious traditions, Christianity adds a new element: Read the rest of this entry »


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