The Angels as a Political Problem

September 29, 2009


The Feast of the Archangels always makes me—and others, I suspect—acutely aware of the divide between contemporary and ancient religious sensibilities. Angels—once as present in Christendom’s social imaginary as microbes in our own—no longer loom large. Perhaps mothers still say the “Angel of God” prayer with their children before bed (as my own mother did with me), but such devotions usually do not outlive Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

The ostensible explanation of our disenchantment with the angels points to technological progress. Read the rest of this entry »

Since They See That All Are Going Down to Hell…

September 24, 2009

9780316113786_388X586-743553At the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius asks the retreatant to call to mind the three persons of the trinity as they “look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings.” They decide that the second person of the trinity, “should become man to save the human race” since humankind is in a pretty deplorable state, i.e. “going down to hell.” The retreatant may imagine all sorts of scenarios that might move the three persons of the trinity to send the second one on such a mission of salvation. However, Ignatius says that the retreatant should ask for one thing as a result of this contemplation–“an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.” Read the rest of this entry »

Justice and the C.I.A.

September 22, 2009

In the wake of a conversation with a friend, and as I prepare something longer, I wanted to get a poll from readers on the current investigation of actions of the C.I.A. towards prisioners.  Or, more widely, whether or not an investigation should be launched of the members of the Bush administration, and even Bush himself, for war crimes.  The thoughts came in lue of the following memorable quotes from “A Man for All Seasons.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Ratzinger on Christ’s Descent into Hell

September 22, 2009

 Christ's Descent into Hell by Maulleigh.

Many WD readers will recall the theological skirmish which once, twice, and thrice erupted on the pages of First Things two and a half years ago.  The warring parties were Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.  The point in question was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s controversial Holy Saturday theology, wherein he argues that Christ’s descent into hell was a passive, i.e., suffering, descent.  The traditional Holy Saturday motif is of the triumphant Christ descending in glory.  Pitstick argued that it is “undeniable that [Balthasar’s] theology of Christ’s descent entails a de facto, and sometimes even conscious, rejection of Catholic tradition.”  Oakes defended Balthasar’s orthodoxy, proposing that Pitstick’s “real service has been to argue against Balthasar so disagreeably that she will end up midwifing his theology into the mainstream of Church thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »

Do you believe in status?

September 21, 2009

Unlike my fellow contributor, Aaron Pidel, S.J., who reads genuine sociologists like Mary Douglas, my tastes these days run toward the trivial musings of Christian Lander.  In 2008, with an unfinished Ph.D. and an office job, he started writing whimsical posts on a blog he titled “Stuff White People Like.” Don’t immediately think the worst: it is not the rantings of a white-supremacist, or some strange fashion guide.  It is faux-sociology, written from the point of view of a non-white guide who describes the strange traits of white people.  Amusing, short, and often sloppily written, the posts went along for a while attracting little notice, until, as they say, his blog “blew up.”  Now he has a published book, and claims to have been read 62 million times.

What’s the hook? Read the rest of this entry »

Bellarmine and Galileo

September 17, 2009


St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), whose feast the Church celebrates today, was in many ways a remarkable man.  One of the few charges that the tribunal of history ever leveled against him was his opposition to Galileo, the great hero of scientific freedom.  The many myths surrounding the Galileo affair have been propounded and exploded too many times to count.  Even the defiant rejoinder, “Eppur si muove” (“Yet it moves”), seems to have been the fabrication of polemical historians.  Yet it too “moves” from generation to generation as a slogan of the dignity of conscience and the density of the Church.

The true story is, of course, more complicated.  As it turns out, Bellarmine and Galileo were both partly right. Read the rest of this entry »

Mythos and Logos

September 15, 2009

An interesting interchange betwee Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong on belief and evolution in the Wall Street Journal.  In particular, I thought the distinction she makes between logos and mythos can be helpful for properly reading Scripture literally:

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.

Evolution and Original Sin: The Problem of Evil

September 13, 2009

Evolution and Original Sin: Where are the Parameters Today?

Evolution and Original Sin: How to Read Genesis 1-3

I want to turn now to one of the more difficult aspects of the problem of original humanity and original sin, and that is to the origins of suffering and evil.  For the most part I will be relying on two Jesuit theologians to help me articulate the problem and some possible solutions.  These are Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner.  I feel particularly prompted to write on de Chardin after Benedict XVI so recently spoke approvingly of his work.  Indeed, Benedict helps point the way forward on some of these hard questions through his appropriation of Teilhard from as far back as Introduction to Christianity.  But that is getting ahead of myself.  

In a collection of essays, God and Evolution, Teilhard states: 

The principal obstacle encountered by orthodox thinkers when they try to accommodate the revealed historical picture of human origins to the present scientific evidence, is the traditional notion of original sin. Read the rest of this entry »

Favre, Hopkins, and the Languor of Youth

September 13, 2009

Brett Favre will begin his 19th NFL season today.  And yet if there is one word I associate with Favre, it is youth.

My reasons are twofold.  The first is personal.  Growing up in Packer-crazed Wisconsin meant watching Favre play Sunday after Sunday – in fact start every game for his team since I was a nine-year old fourth-grader.  Much has changed in the years since: friends grew up and got married, loved ones died, girlfriends came and went (as did my hair), somehow I ended up as a vowed Jesuit.  But Favre remained.

The second reason is Favre’s style of play.  How many times have I heard people exclaim when watching Favre, “He’s like a little kid out there!”   Read the rest of this entry »

Some Clarifications from Obama

September 11, 2009

congress.480Some important clarifications from Obama’s speech to Congress two days ago.  The full text is here:

And I have no doubt that these reforms would greatly benefit Americans from all walks of life, as well as the economy as a whole. Still, given all the misinformation that’s been spread over the past few months, I realize that many Americans have grown nervous about reform. So tonight I’d like to address some of the key controversies that are still out there.

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

Pack like it’s priceless

September 10, 2009

ewaste3The article on Spike Jonze in this week’s New York Times Magazine was a great story, but somehow the article that has stayed with me this week was not about that fascinating filmmaker but about something much more banal: self-storage.  I strongly encourage you to read it.  Strangely for me, what makes the article come alive are not only the personal stories of Elizabeth, Danielle, or Terry, but the statistics.  Now there is the old canard about statistics: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  So keep some grains of salt nearby.  But it’s hard not to drop your jaw at some of these numbers from the Times: Read the rest of this entry »

St. Peter Claver: A Study in Sanctity

September 9, 2009
St. Peter Claver

St. Peter Claver


St. Peter Claver’s (1581-1654) style of sanctity furnishes something of a counterpoint to that of St. Alberto Hurtado, about whom I rhapsodized previously.  Whereas St. Alberto happily demonstrates the compatibility of great sanctity with the pursuit of structural reform, St. Peter highlights the possibility of great sanctity without the same.  In this sense, St. Peter is about as kindred a spirit to a Bl. Teresa of Calcutta or a St. Damian of Molokai as the Jesuits have ever known.

It was in fact this very quality that in 1947 prompted Sir Arnold Lunn, a British literary figure and convert to Catholicism, to publish a biography of St. Peter, Saint of the Slave Trade.  The book succeeds admirably as straightforward hagiography, but also manages to transcend its genre by presenting Peter as a case study of Catholic sanctity.  Lunn meditates on the “slave of the slaves,” not merely because his life inspires, but because St. Peter casts the essence of Christian holiness into deeper relief. Read the rest of this entry »

The Soul’s Journey into…New Jersey?

September 8, 2009


With a subtle touch writer/director Sophie Barthes offers a brilliantly conceived film on the relationship between the body and the soul. This nettlesome little issue has a long pedigree, going back to Plato, at least, and probably back much further. What exactly is the soul? What does it do? and does it really exists? These are questions being hashed out among theologians, scientists, and now filmmakers.

In “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul” (2007), Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary make a strong case for the nonmaterial origin of religious experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on Faith and Certainty

September 7, 2009

doubt_movie_image_philip_seymour_hoffman_and__amy_adams_as_sister_jamesLately I have been showing the movie “Doubt” to my Seniors.  Of course, it is hard to convince them that the movie is not really about whether the priest “did it” but rather about how we go about arriving at certainty as humans.  Having begun the class with selections from Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos” though, this line from the opening homily of the movie helped to clue them in: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”   Read the rest of this entry »

Pharisees, Now and Then

September 4, 2009

Pharisee +AMDG+

Pharisees are a perplexing lot.  Last Sunday’s Gospel, for instance, had Jesus admonishing the Pharisees because they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”  For the edification of the onlookers, the Lord goes on to draw the famous inside/outside distinction: “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person, but the things that come from within are what defile.”  The outside things refer to the purification of jugs and hands and the like, whereas the inside things comprise a litany of sinful actions and attitudes.  If one did not know that Christ himself established a ritual meal, one might gather that the heart of Pharisaism is the substitution of ritual action for ethical performance.  This is a particularly welcome conclusion since it is so congenial to the spirit of the age.   

Before congratulating ourselves for having successfully dodged the bullet of legalism, however, we might do well to consider the other shapes that Pharisaism can take.  Perhaps fussy externalism is no longer the siren she once was because we are now deaf to her song. Read the rest of this entry »

Cardinal Sean Speaks

September 3, 2009


Cardinal Sean takes on those who objected to Kennedy’s Catholic funeral over on his personal blog.  Here is an excerpt:

There are those who objected, in some cases vociferously, to the Church’s providing a Catholic funeral for the Senator.   In the strongest terms I disagree with that position.   At the Senator’s interment on Saturday evening, with his family’s permission, we learned of details of his recent personal correspondence with Pope Benedict XVI.   It was very moving to hear the Senator acknowledging his failing to always be a faithful Catholic, and his request for prayers as he faced the end of his life.  The Holy Father’s expression of gratitude for the Senator’s pledge of prayer for the Church, his commendation of the Senator and his family to the intercession of the Blessed Mother, and his imparting the Apostolic Blessing, spoke of His Holiness’ role as the Vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd who leaves none of the flock behind.

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another.  These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church.  If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.

Pope Benedict and the “Inhuman Humanism”

September 2, 2009

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described contemporary Western society as a three-cornered battle.  In one corner are those of religious faith who posit that there is an ultimate good beyond the limits of human life.  Another corner features secular humanists who contend that there is no good beyond human flourishing.  Finally, the last corner belongs to a variety of neo-Nietzscheans who reject the idea of a human good, whether in this life or beyond.

Read the rest of this entry »

“The Poor You Will Always Have with You …”

September 1, 2009


The penumbra of Hurricane Katrina’s fourth anniversary is as good a time as any to reflect on the situation of the poor.  As the storm revealed in spectacular fashion, times of crisis are always hardest on marginal groups.  Obviously, the South has no monopoly on marginalization (though perhaps it follows racial lines more notably there), and we see it surface in countless places and in myriad forms.  It might be helpful, then, to check our own reflexes as the effects of recession advance glacially across the country.

Some food for thought: Mary Douglas (whose writings continue to fascinate) points out in How Institutions Think that scarcity situations tend to reinforce rather than obliterate social hierarchies.  A social body in crisis acts like an organic body in hypothermia; it directs its threatened resources to the most vital organs. Read the rest of this entry »