Some Cautions While Watching “The Passion”

March 30, 2010

I realize that many will be watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ throughout this week.  I myself have been showing parts of it to my students. So I am not opposed to watching it.  Nor am I interested in resuming the vitriolic arguments that surrounded its release.  But I would like to suggest a few cautions to all viewers that arose in my mind again while I watched some scenes today in class.  Again, because I find these cautions helpful to myself, I offer them to you.

Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on world religions, states:

Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.  It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ. Read the rest of this entry »

The Application of Empathy to the Abuse Crisis

March 29, 2010

My colleague, classmate, and friend, Aaron Pidel, balances the New York Times’s point of view with some very helpful facts and some wise insights regarding how one might work through a trying time such as this. Aaron helpfully points to articles by John Allen and others. I would add to his list, this morning’s piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Aaron also wonders if perhaps the more could have been done on the part of the Church and, in particular, the Holy Father. I would like to follow Aaron’s good points with some additional thoughts as I’ve reflected on the Church’s experience over the past few days and weeks. However, I would like to propose a different line of thought. Read the rest of this entry »

The Application of Thought to the Abuse Crisis

March 28, 2010


These are indeed heavy days for the Church as she enters Holy Week.  The coincidence of Passiontide with ongoing scandals in Ireland and Germany calls to mind Fr. Romano Guardini’s haunting observation:

The Church is the Cross on which Christ is always crucified. One cannot separate Christ from his bloody, painful church. One must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the church.

It seems to say everything necessary—that Christ is always both obscured and revealed in His Church.

Most of the analysis of Pope Benedict’s involvement in the scandals, on the other hand, reminds me of a different quote—A. E. Housman’s mordant observations on thought and prejudice in “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921).  Apparently, even in a field as unlikely to excite the passions as manuscript editing, he detected the hindrance of complacency:

These internal causes of error and folly [in textual criticism] are subject to very little counteraction or correction from the outside.  The average reader knows hardly anything about textual criticism, and therefore cannot exercise a vigilant control over the writer: the addle-pate is at liberty to maunder and the impostor is at liberty to lie.  And, what is worse, the reader often shares the writer’s prejudices, and is far too well pleased with his conclusions to examine either his premises or his reasoning.  Stand on a barrel in the streets of Bagdad, and say in a loud voice, “Twice two is four, and ginger is hot in the mouth, therefore Mohammed is the prophet of God,” and your logic will probably escape criticism; or, if anyone by chance should criticise it, you could easily silence him by calling him a Christian dog.

Substitute “Canon Law”—or even “the Church”—for “textual criticism,” and I think you have a decent pretty description of the present situation: Read the rest of this entry »

René Girard & Christian Sacrifice, Part I

March 28, 2010

With Holy Week here, it’s natural for our thoughts to turn to the Cross and Christ’s self-sacrifice.   Of late I’ve had the pleasure of being drawn into conversations with a number of Girardians, here at Loyola and elsewhere, so as I’ve contemplated the Passion this year, I’ve done so in light of the work of René Girard.

My knowledge of Girard comes mainly from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999), in which the French-born anthropologist summarizes many of his ideas in a form accessible to theologians.  Girard’s work is refreshingly insightful because he takes seriously two notions most of his secular colleagues are afraid to touch:  Christianity’s claim to uniqueness among world religions and the religious foundations of civilization itself.  Girard, in fact, refers to I See Satan Fall Like Lightning as an apology for Christianity made on anthropological grounds.  Though he is clear in stating that he is not a theologian, it is well worth puzzling out the theological implications of his unique “apology.”

But since some of our readers are likely unfamiliar with Girard, it’s perhaps best to begin with a summary of the key ideas he develops in I See Satan this week and then turn to their applications in a second post two weeks from now.  This will also give others a chance to correct my non-expert misinterpretations. Read the rest of this entry »

Catholics and Health Care: A Note

March 25, 2010

I have found it interesting to watch the many responses of Catholics to the new health care bill.   Cardinal George has applauded the bill while maintaining some reservations:

We are apprehensive as we look to the future, even as we applaud much of the increased care that will be available.

I think it is important for Catholics to recognize both the applause and the apprehension.  The USCCB has been working on “universal” health care now for a long time.   They have been a constant advocate of reform.  The two primary reasons usually given for their apprehension about the current bill are first, that its language is vague about federal funds being used to pay for abortions, and second, it does not include illegal immigrants.  It is not “universal” enough.

This second point seems to be lost on certain Catholics.  For example, Deal Hudson has come out with much praise for the Bishops’ reservations.  But this is the same Hudson who wrote:

Criticism of the USCCB among lay Catholics, as well as many priests and bishops, has been a constant since its march to the political left in the years after its creation in 1966. Pastoral letters, including the ones on the economy (1986) and war and peace (1983), created a clear line of demarcation between the liberal politics of the conference (aligned with the Democratic Party) and the Catholics, both lay and religious, who interpreted the Church’s social teaching differently (in a way inclining them toward conservatism and the GOP.)

So as to avoid a serious divide among Catholics in America, we cannot take this approach.  The bishops are wise, and they desire both to promote “universal” health care, and, precisely so that it be “universal,” push for it to include the unborn.  We would be wise to follow their lead, and not select what we like and don’t like from them.  Cardinal George has made it clear that the Bishops are trying to steer away from politics on this matter.  We should try to give them the benefit of the doubt and listen carefully to what they are saying.

The Bronx Paradox

March 25, 2010


I like cultural paradoxes.  They often give us a keyhole view onto the vast room of the “unthought,” i.e., those scarcely-noticed prejudices and instincts that color thought and action.  So, in that voyeuristic spirit, I thought I would draw attention to the “Bronx Paradox,” the puzzling coincidence of hunger and obesity chronicled recently in the New York Times:

The Bronx has the city’s highest rate of obesity, with residents facing an estimated 85 percent higher risk of being obese than people in Manhattan, according to Andrew G. Rundle, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

But the Bronx also faces stubborn hunger problems. According to a survey released in January by the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger group, nearly 37 percent of residents in the 16th Congressional District, which encompasses the South Bronx, said they lacked money to buy food at some point in the past 12 months. That is more than any other Congressional district in the country and twice the national average, 18.5 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Hunger and obesity are now so closely linked that the Department of Agriculture dropped the word “hungry” from its official reports in 2006.  It now prefers the term “food insecure.” Read the rest of this entry »

It’s a Small World, After All

March 23, 2010

Blogosphere: A Map

Sometimes I worry that people may read this blog. Whenever I wander through other parts of the Catholic blogosphere, I become even more anxious. What happens, I wonder, when an average, decent, God-loving person stumbles into the Catholic blogosphere? What happens when a typical Catholic, who believes and serves in the fields of everyday life, gets a whiff of the rancor in the comment blocks of a typical Catholic blog? In a way, I hope they never find us blogging away in the dark forests of cyberland busy about our bloodsport.
Read the rest of this entry »

Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

March 23, 2010

If anyone has both the ambition and the ability to complete a critical history of God, philosophy, and universities in 193 pages, who better than Alasdair MacIntyre?  Now a hair over eighty and still teaching a very-hard-to-get-into undergraduate seminar at Notre Dame, the Scottish-born philosopher and trenchant critic of modern morality has done just that in God, Philosophy, Universities:  A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I have been a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre since he made a guest appearance in one of my undergraduate ethics courses and warned the roomful of over-eager philosophy majors not to let our minds be ruined by philosophy.  Though he admits God, Philosophy, Universities is by no means a comprehensive history of any of the three, MacIntyre’s insights into all of the above are worthwhile.  What is particularly valuable is MacIntyre’s conviction that the three should somehow fit together.

As one might expect, many sections of the book are dense, summarizing centuries of philosophical arguments in a few paragraphs.  MacIntyre delivers a succinct summary of Aquinas’ metaphysics in a single memorable chapter, and his treatment of Pascal, the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, and the soul/body problem is enlightening.  He quotes Newman on conscience—“Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that moreover superior, to itself”—and even draws on Nietzsche’s criticism of the presuppositions of philosophers.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Sad Songs

March 22, 2010

I was realizing the other day, as I listened to Ryan Adams’ country tune, “The End,” that I like great sad songs. I’m sure part of this is in the blood. Being half-Irish and half-German, I joke sometimes that my worldview is evenly balanced: half the time, I’m an extroverted pessimist, and the other half I’m an introverted one.

Read the rest of this entry »

Interpreting God

March 21, 2010

Kyle Cupp writes over at Journeys in Alterity:

The idea of an infallible teaching authority has long made sense to me given the idea of a divinely-revealed text proclaiming matters of eternal life and death, especially as the particular text – the Bible – seems to avail itself to multiple conflicting interpretations. Put another way, it doesn’t make much sense to me to say that God revealed what is necessary for salvation through a text marked by ambiguity and layers of meaning, a variety of genres, and myriad historical and cultural nuances (not to mention inaccuracies and inconsistencies) without also providing a way of resolving fundamental disputes concerning salvation that inevitably arise during the difficult task of interpreting that text. The assurance that the Bible is divinely inspired and free from error in the essentials doesn’t mean much if we don’t have any assurance of knowing whose interpretation is true and whose is false.

He is right precisely because knowledge — all knowledge — is an interpretative projective act.  Let me give a simple example:  The other day, for some reason that I cannot quite explain, I was watching Glenn Beck.  Don’t worry, I went to confession after.  He was ranting about government and about the fact that we all “know” what it is supposed to be just by looking at it, and that it is the same as looking at a chair.  You look at it and say, “that is clearly a ‘chair.'”  The same is true of government.  It is what it is.

The obvious problem of course is that a chair is not simply a chair to everyone.  All knowledge is based on interpretation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Election and Faith of Sarah and Abraham: Laughing All the Way to Canaan

March 17, 2010

In simple and straightforward terms, the first letter of John captures the essence of one of the most important themes in all of Scripture. The author of this letter does not let us forget that God first loved us before we loved God in return. From the very start, Scripture represents this dynamic in the relationship between God and humanity. Whether it is Adam, Abram, Joseph or David, God makes the first move. God creates, calls, and chooses a people and that people, in response, commit their lives and their destinies to this God.  In scripture, being chosen obliges the chosen people to put their trust in God. To contemporary readers of these stories, though, the idea of God selecting one person, one people, one nation over others seems off-putting at the very least and, at worse, a possible rationalization for violence/oppression on behalf of God. When these all the elements of these stories of election are considered, one can see that, far from justifying the basest desires of the elect, these stories emphasize the people’s experience of God’s own desire to liberate all people. The people, in their turn, are moved to place their trust in the Lord. Consequently, all of their actions are colored by their having placed their trust in this God who first loved them. Read the rest of this entry »

Jesuit History 101: Basketball

March 16, 2010

In The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola extols the value of “holy rivalry.”  Perhaps that Jesuit virtue helps explain the notable success Jesuit schools have had over the years in men’s college basketball.  As four Jesuit teams (Georgetown, Gonzaga, Marquette, and Xavier) prepare to the take the court in this season’s NCAA tournament, let’s take a crash course in Jesuit history—Jesuit basketball history, that is.  Here are my top ten postseason moments in the history of Jesuit basketball:

10.  Seattle University’s 1958 Final Four appearance. Long before the NBA instituted the dunk contest, basketball fans watching the 1958 NCAA tournament were awed by the aerial acrobats of Seattle University star Elgin Baylor.  Baylor propelled Seattle all the way to the 1958 NCAA title game, where the Chieftains eventually lost to Kentucky.  Baylor was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Read the rest of this entry »

A Parable for 2010

March 15, 2010

There once was an island in the Mediterranean Sea, small and poor and far from here.  The island had no oil and no gold deposits, and despite its fair climate held little interest for tourists.  It had been overlooked by the European Union.

The island was suffering from the global economic downturn; unemployment was up and the people were restive.  But the king of our island was young and optimistic (and good-looking), and he was determined that our far away island’s best days should still lie ahead.

Bartolomeo Amabo, for that was the king’s name, had ascertained that at the root of all the island’s problems was its antiquated health care system.  Life expectancy was down and infant mortality was up.  Hospitals in the capital and largest city, Notgnishaw, were still using X-ray machines they had salvaged from torpedoed British navy supply ships at the end of World War II.

Read the rest of this entry »

Xavier and Tolerance

March 14, 2010


In the afterglow of the Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier, I thought I would comment on a troubling aspect of Xavier’s missionary activity.  Stated baldly, Xavier was not particularly tolerant of other religions.  Deeply imbued with the theology of the later Augustine, he was fiercely jealous of God’s greater glory and deeply suspicious of the untutored efforts of man to scale the heights of the spirit.  In fact, as the late Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac puts it, Xavier considered non-Christian lands to be under the “quasi-exclusive rule of the devil.”

This worldview led him to missionary tactics that today seem, at least at first glance, downright “mean.” Read the rest of this entry »

Feuerbach, Dawkins and Puddleglum

March 7, 2010

The figure of Ludwig Feuerbach dominates the history of atheism.  His may not be the most philosophical argument against the existence of a God, but its compelling force has proven to be difficult to overcome.   One of the reasons for this seems to be its initial plausibility to a vaguely curious listener.   It echoes Dawkins’ argument for the origins of religion in The God Delusion, that it is an evolutionary byproduct of the obedience and reverence offered by children to parents and to elders and leaders.  Natural selection, so the argument goes, favors this obedience since in general the maxims passed on from generation to generation serve to transfer old wisdom concerning safety and new insights about living to subsequent generations.

Dawkins uses the example of a moth to drive home his point.  A moth navigates its way by means of the parallel beams of the moon’s light in order to fly a straight line.  It is wired to use these beams as a navigational guide.  Along with the creation of artificial light, however, the moth, continuing to use its nature given navigational device, now ends up flying straight into an artificial light.   Read the rest of this entry »

On the Novena of Grace

March 4, 2010


The Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier (March 4-12) is upon us once again (for the complete novena prayers click here).  Nine days of prayer and renewal commemorate the canonization of St. Francis, who was raised to the honors of the altar (along with Sts. Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri, Teresa of Avila and Isidro of Madrid) on March 12, 1622.  The Novena itself seems to date back to 1634, when the intercession of St. Francis obtained the instantaneous cure of one Fr. Marcello Mastrilli from a “grave legion of his brain.”  Fr. Mastrilli went on to suffer martyrdom in Japan.

The Novena of Grace has been powerful for obtaining miracles and conversions ever since.  However, even as I write the sentence, I am aware that that I am not saying something obvious to all.  Everything about the Novena of Grace seems to stand in need of some justification nowadays.  Why nine days?  Why these dates and not others?  Why St. Francis Xavier? Read the rest of this entry »

Balancing Acts

March 4, 2010

On August 7th, 1974, in the early thick morning air of New York City, nearly a quarter of a mile up in the air, a man danced on a wire. The wire, strung between the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center, supported Philippe Petit’s six-year-long dream of walking between the world’s tallest structures. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, the world then wanted to know why. The police arrested him and gave him psychological test to determine his sanity. The media speculated and the public stared up in the sky, wondering what might follow such an extraterrestrial  feat. It was an event that ruptured the routine of the New York rush hour, an event that would surely be remembered forever for its shear brazenness, it’s remarkable brilliance. But the event receded into dark canyons of the limitless collective ‘unconscience’ that is New York City. The city that never sleeps  has a very short memory.

Two recent works of art, a film and a novel, recollect Petit’s  early morning walk among the clouds, and both helpfully refocus our memories on the significance of the event and the significance of thinking about such events. Read the rest of this entry »

Jesuits in Chile

March 2, 2010


No deep thoughts today.  This is something akin to a public service announcement regarding the activity of the Jesuits of Chile in the wake of the recent earthquake.  I have it on good authority that the earthquake struck when the entire Chilean province were assembled for their annual silent retreat.  Perhaps fittingly, they were entering into the Third Week of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the contemplation of the passion of the Lord.  And ever since the earth shook, they have been one of the most prominent forces for organized com-passion in their country.  In fact, two of the three domestic organizations designated by the Chilean government to coordinate relief efforts are Jesuit charities: Hogar de Cristo and Un Techo Para Chile.  (If you are inclined to contribute to the relief effort in Chile, it might be easiest to do so through the website of the Maryland Province).  Both the great trust of the Chilean people in the Jesuits and the significant investment of the Jesuits in charitable works seem to be the enduring legacy of the most recently canonized Jesuit saint, Fr. Alberto Hurtado.

Crisis, of course, always occasions two responses.  More than occasionally, crisis leads men to desperate and shameful acts.  Yet, crisis also means an opportunity for heroism and generosity.  By all accounts, it seems that the Jesuits of Chile are responding in this second way.

Please pray that they continue to do so.

The Ten Commandments (in Polish)

March 1, 2010

The seventh graders I teach Confirmation classes to every Saturday morning finished their test on the Ten Commandments last week (though a few will be doing retakes!).  As I graded lists of the Ten Commandments, two things came to mind.  The first was a question an agnostic friend posed to me a few years ago:  how useful are the Ten Commandments, really?  Can morality be boiled down to ten rules?

The second was a film—or more precisely, a series of films—I watched at the end of last semester, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1989).  If you haven’t seen The Decalogue, add it to the list—along with the Brideshead Revisited miniseries—of really long films you really must see. Read the rest of this entry »