More on Mormons…

November 12, 2012

My good friend Rachel Lu has published an intriguing piece on the “Mormon Moment” created by Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president on the First Things blog.  Rachel’s thoughtfulness and unique perspective on all things religious, political, and cultural make her a scholar and commentator to watch.  Her piece addresses the contentious question of whether Mormons are really Christians by asking, “Do Mormons really want to be Christians?”  And then she goes on to explore why Mormonism presents such a unique challenge to today’s orthodox Christians.

While many of us might be tempted to simply dismiss Mormonism as a weird aberration, making jokes about the magic underwear and polygamy, Rachel points out that the Catholic Church has long benefited from serious engagement with other such “heresies of an older style.”  I continue to think, as I’ve argued before, that we Catholics have much to learn from Mormonism.    And when it comes to sorting out the helpful from the erroneous in Mormonism, we are fortunate to have scholars such as Dr. Lu in the discussion.

AL, SJ

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J.F. Powers: Catholic literature’s forgotten gem

August 1, 2011

Over the last Christmas break I had lunch with my old high school English teacher, Mr. Studer.  (Mr. Studer has a first name, but it still feels impious to use it.)  More than anyone else, Mr. Studer is responsible for getting me interested in writing.

At the end of our lunch, Mr. Studer gave me a small stack of books by J.F. Powers, a collection of short stories and two novels.  The pages of the books were brown with time, and one, Morte D’Urban, was held together with a rubber band.

I had read an odd J.F. Powers short story here or there before, and my last pre-Jesuit job was at St. John’s University in Minnesota, where Powers spent most of his career.  Powers wrote only two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, in addition to several collections of short stories—an understated literary output that in some ways seems appropriate.

Powers is a master craftsman; in terms of tightly constructed prose—taut, subtle, perfectly pitched—he surpasses even Flannery O’Connor, though his subtlety and understatement mean that his work never packs quite the same explosive punch as O’Connor’s.  Powers’ subject matter is the Catholic Church of the Midwest in the middle of the twentieth century, and his mastery of his material is flawless.  He seems especially fascinated by priests—and by all the petty ambitions, joys, politics, and frustrations that occur within the walls of a rectory.

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Top 10 Small Pleasures of being Catholic

June 9, 2011

To celebrate the birthday of the Church last Pentecost I put up a top 10 list of things to love about being Catholic.  This year I thought I’d list my top 10 favorite sacraments… but kept getting stuck at number 8.

So, since there are still plenty of things to love about being Catholic, here’s my not very scientific list of the small pleasures of our ever-new, ever-ancient faith.

We should, after all, rejoice this Pentecost.  Imagine the list read by Dick Vitale.

10.  The feel of rosary beads.  Because sometimes the words don’t even matter.

9.  Glow in the dark rosary beads.  Because they don’t work only for the luminous mysteries.  (And prove that Jesus loves those with a weakness for kitsch, too.)

8.  A properly executed genuflection.  Crisp, chivalrous, reverent.  Nice.

7.  Red wine.  I realize this is not an absolute requirement of the faith, but as Hilaire Belloc once put it, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.  At least I’ve always found it so.  Benedicamus Domino!” Read the rest of this entry »


Guilt & Gratitude

February 14, 2011

One of the pleasures of my time at Loyola has been getting to know some particularly thoughtful undergraduates who are living their faith with enthusiasm in a culture that is, to say the least, not always supportive.  I had an interesting conversation with a few of these students two weeks ago, in which one of them expressed regret that she did not spend more time volunteering.  In fact she said, “I feel guilty for not doing more.”

Now the young woman in question is a model Christian—generous, open-minded, and joyful.  (She also makes excellent soup.)  She does so much for others that I’m often tempted to ask her where she has managed to find days with more than 24 hours.  So the word “guilt” coming from her surprised me.

The conversation got me thinking about two things—the role of guilt in Christian life and the various pressures young people feel to volunteer.

“Catholic guilt” is, of course, a familiar trope in literature and pop culture, even if, for those of my generation, the idea now seems somewhat quaint.  As our sense of sin has evaporated, so too our sense of guilt—or so, at least, I thought until my conversation of a few weeks ago. Read the rest of this entry »


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jesuit story

February 7, 2011

I have long thought F. Scott Fitzgerald to be a very Catholic writer, though explicitly Catholic themes show up only rarely in his work.  There’s the urbane Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise, for example, and a few scattered references in Tender is the Night, but mostly Fitzgerald’s Catholic sensibilities come through in his moral vision, in the interplay of truth and illusion we see, for example, in The Great Gatsby.

In a Fitzgerald biography, however, I’d once come upon a reference to an early (1920) short story called “Benediction,” and I took advantage of a Chicago snow day last week to track the story down.  I was not disappointed.

The story is a gem, written in the witty, dancing prose of the youthful Fitzgerald, and touching on many of his typical themes—the giddiness of coming of age, the wistful sadness of romance, even a hint at class sensitivities.  The story centers around Lois, a romantic and beautiful nineteen-year-old travelling to Baltimore to meet her lover, Howard; on her way to their rendezvous she stops to visit her only brother Keith, a seminarian she has not seen in seventeen years.

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Catholics and abortion: Single-issue voting? (Part III)

January 31, 2011

Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial.  I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable.  I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult.  Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide.  Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.

I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument.  When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts.  So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.

There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.

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Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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