Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If Rome really were the Church, how would you know it?

Over at Called to Communion, Tim Troutman recalls a tough question that Bryan Cross once posed to a Reformed Christian:

“If Rome really were the Church, and you, as a Reformer, were actually in schism, how would you know it?” The Reformers have no answer except, “I would know it because Rome would be faithful to the Scriptures and I would be unfaithful.” But as [Reformed theologian Keith] Mathison stated, any appeal to Scripture is an appeal to private interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, the answer is really, “I would know it because Rome would agree with me.” 

I think it's a very good question -- and one that would be difficult for a Reformed person to answer without devolving into "I'm right because I'm right" argumentation.  In a future post, I'll attempt to take up the mirror-image of this question, which might be posed to a Catholic.

Ash Wednesday

"Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return" (cf. Gen 3:19)

Over the weekend, Mrs. Lee and I were discussing the curious and quite amazing fact that we were both life-long Christians, in our late twenties, college-educated (I, with a degree in Religious Studies), married, and parents three times over before we had any clue what Ash Wednesday was.  Yes, we had seen it arrive every year on our calendars for as long as we could remember, but we gave it little thought and assumed it was one of those minor, modern, manufactured "holidays" akin to Boxing Day, Secretaries Day, or Arbor Day.  In fact, I even remember thinking that it was probably a sub-holiday of Arbor Day -- meant for those with a particular devotion to the White Ash tree (Fraxinus americana - photo by Willow, Wikipedia).

We certainly had no inkling that Ash Wednesday was a Christian holy day dating from, at latest, the 8th century -- nor that many of our friends (both Protestant and, especially, Catholic) would be going to church on that day to receive ashes and thus begin the ancient pre-Easter period of penitence known as Lent.  I suppose our striking lack of such basic knowledge was emblematic of the a-historical bent of the American Evangelicalism in which we were reared.  Not that there weren't some powerful historical elements present in the faiths of our youth, but Christian history was rarely, if ever, mentioned or celebrated.  In any case, our family is now Catholic, we finally know what Ash Wednesday is, and it has become a treasured and anticipated day for all of us.

A very blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent to you all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Missing R.J.N. on the First Things 20th Anniversary

Today's mail brought the latest volume of First Things -- as it happens, the 20th Anniversary issue.  It's been a little over a year since Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, passed away, and this issue, a sort of "greatest hits" issue that includes his classic 2002 essay "How I Became the Catholic I Was", reminds me of how much I miss him.  A Christian thinker and writer of exceptional grace, wit, and charity, Neuhaus' death left a vacuum that will not soon be filled.  The following passage, in particular, exemplifies his style and substance:   

To use the language of old eucharistic controversies, finitum capax infiniti—the finite is capable of the infinite. Put differently, there is no access to the infinite except through the finite. Or yet again, God's investment in the finite can be trusted infinitely. Although Lutheran theology discarded the phrase, it is the ex opere operato conviction evident in Luther's ultimate defiance of Satan's every temptation by playing the trump card, "I am baptized!" Ex opere operato is the sacramental enactment of sola gratia. It is uncompromisingly objective. By it morbid introspection, the delusions of religious enthusiasm, and the endlessly clever postulations of the theological imagination are called to order by truth that is answerable to no higher truth; for it is Christ, who is the Truth, who speaks in the voice of his Church—"I baptize you . . . ," "I forgive you your sins . . . ," "This is my body . . ."

Video from Sisters' Appearance on Oprah

A follow-up to my post from several days ago regarding the appearance on Oprah of The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  The sisters were wonderful!  With a few minor exceptions, Oprah and her assistant were very gracious in the questions they asked.  All segments featuring the sisters are available at Dave Armstrong's Biblical Evidence.  The following segment is my favorite:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

He Loved Us, and So He Chose Us.

Several years ago, I happened upon the great, but I think under-appreciated spiritual classic, All for Jesus, by the English priest and hymn-writer Father Frederick William Faber (1814-1863).  The following passage from this treatise is one of the most powerful things I have ever read in any book:

What a wonder it is that God should love men. Intrinsically what is there in them to love?  If we compare our own natural gifts with those of an angel, how miserable we appear!  If we consider how much more faithfully the beasts answer the end of their creation than we do, of what shall we be proud?  Moreover, God has tried men over and over again, and they have always failed Him, and failed Him with every circumstance of unamiable selfishness which can be conceived.  There was first of all, Paradise and the Fall.  Every one knows what came of it.  God was matched against an apple, and the apple carried it. . .  Then here is the world since the Crucifixion.  To look at it you would say that our dearest Lord's Passion had been a simple failure.  So little is the face of the world, or the tone of the world, or the ways of the world changed. . .  Then here are we Christians, a most unsatisfactory sight indeed!  How do we treat our sacraments?  How many of us are serving our Crucified Lord generously and out of love?  

Verily, God's love of men is a simple wonder.  Yet how He must love them, seeing that He became not an angel for angels, but He did become a man for men!  There is no other account of the matter, than the Scripture account of it.  It is simply one of the mysteries of the character of God . . .  But it is a greater wonder still that He lets men love Him. Where are the words to tell the privilege which it is to love the incomprehensibly beautiful, infinitely good, and immensely holy God?  One would have thought such love as ours would be but an insolent profanation; and that were we allowed to be before God with such instinctive love as that of the patient cattle or the drinking birds, it would have been honour enough for us.  Yet if, by permission of His inexhaustible compassions we might love Him, then surely it must be by blood, and pain, and suffering, and shame, and penance, and the costly offerings of a terrific austerity and an appalling self-sacrifice.  Ah! dearest Lord God! and so, in truth, it is; but the blood and the pain, the suffering and the shame, are not ours, but His own!  He weeps that we may smile; He bleeds that we may be whole; He is put to shame, that we may be glad and joyful; He is afraid, and anxious, and heavy, and sweating blood, that we may be at ease about our past sins, drinking in the sunshine of the earth, familiar with God, and sweetly confident about eternity. 

So far does He go, that not only may we love Him most earnestly, but He has arranged all things to entice us into love.  He coins our very desires into worship; and He lets us love Him, and glorify Him, and earn glory for ourselves by what would almost provoke a smile from an unbeliever, it looks so like a mere make-believe, the artifice of a good-natured father, a very child's play of love. If all this on earth, what will He be, what will He do in heaven?  Isaias and St. Paul have both told us how useless the enquiry is.  We must have other eyes to see it with, other ears to hear it with, and a far other range of thought to compass it and take it in.  And will all this one day be ours?  By the Blood of our sweet Jesus, we trust undoubtingly it will.  And whatever have we done for it? Where is the proportion between it and our deserts?  There is none, none, none.  It is all because of Jesus.  Jesus is the secret of everything. Jesus is the interpretation of all the secrets of God. What a religion is this! and what a God!  Oh let it be told to every inhabitant of the earth that it is not as he thought it must be.  We may all love God as much as ever we please, and in as many ways as we can think of.  Would that angels might proclaim it every hour of the day and night, with the sound of the trumpet, to all the dwellings in the four quarters of the world!  If, when they hear it, they neglect their worldly interests, and become like the men of Galilee, gazers into heaven, it is only what we might expect.  Infinite permission to love!  Infinite permission to love!  There is the creature's charter.  The blood of a God bought it.  What a religion!  What a God!

Do wonders end here?  No! there is a greater still.  It was passing wonder that God should love men.  It was more marvellous that He should let men love Him.  But man can outdo God; for his is the greatest wonder of all; it is that he does not love God when he may.  This is hardly to be believed, though we see it.  Oh, if we were not hardened by custom to this fact, it would breed in us some such horror as a cruel and savage parricide would do.  It would take our breath away.  We should not know what to make of it.  Belief in it would only grow slowly into us, and would stupify us as it grew.  But to forget God is the order of things, and we hardly notice the phenomenon at all.  Alas, if we could see it altogether as faith would have us see it, we should long for tears of blood to wash away our infamy!  And what can be said to make men love God, which is one half as strong as what God has actually done for them?  His mercy is so eloquent, His bounty so touching, His indulgence so persuasive, that if He has failed to win, why need men trouble themselves to proclaim His love?  This is what St. Paul must have meant when he talked about the foolishness of preaching.  Christ crucified was Himself the sermon and the preacher, what need of more?  It was foolishness.  Only in His love again God let us do this; we are always meeting love and running against it at every turn; He allowed us to take the words of His covenant into our mouths, and show our little love of Him by telling others His great love of us.  And He showed His love again by letting the conquest of the world depend upon this foolishness of preaching. 

But you and I love Him!  Well!  and this is another wonder; for how come we to do so, when so many more around us do not?  It is simply His own gift, simply grace.  Here is Jesus again.  He taught us how to love, and seeing what unapt pupils we were, He took some of His own love out of His Sacred Heart, and put it into ours, that we might love God with it.  And all our share in the matter is that we have left the lamp untrimmed, and caused the fire to burn far duller than it did before.  It almost seems as if He purposely chose those who were least capable of loving Him.  You and I must surely feel this.  We could point to scores who do not love Him; and yet are a thousand times nobler and more generous of heart than we are, and would have made far finer characters.  How miserable we are!  Why did not God call other souls out of nothing that would have loved Him gloriously, and not been the mean things that we are?  He loved us, our souls, ourselves.  He chose us with an eternal choice, gave us an eternal preference, and loved us with an everlasting love.  Why?  There is no answering the question.  Simply, He loved us, and so He chose us.

The entire book is available for free at Google Books.  As we approach the holy season of Lent, let us meditate on the unimaginable love that God has shown -- and continues to show -- for us.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Be My Methodius. . .

With characteristic wit, Leon Suprenant reminds us that it's not St. Valentine's feast day that the Church commemorates on February 14th:

"Very few of us will walk up to someone on Sunday and greet him or her with the words, 'Happy St. Cyril’s Day,' or even 'Happy Cyril’s Day.' And surely no one will ask their sweetheart to 'Be my Methodius.'

And yet, on February 14th, the universal Church commemorates Sts. Cyril and Methodius, not St. Valentine, notwithstanding the latter’s larger-than-life appeal. (Of course, when saint days fall on Sunday, the saint's feast is superseded by the Sunday, so this year February 14th is actually the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time.)

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers from what in biblical times was known as Thessalonica, were ninth-century missionaries to the Slavic people in Eastern Europe. Not only did they learn the oral language of the people, but they developed an alphabet and written language so that the Bible and liturgical texts could be translated into the living language of the people. They were truly remarkable men of God.

"Be my Methodius."  I love that.  Maybe I'll try it on Mrs. Lee this weekend.  On a related note, the Diversity Committee at my office left a little box of conversation hearts on each employee's desk overnight -- along with a note detailing the legendary biographical details of the third century Catholic priest, St. Valentine.  In general, I dislike the exaltation of diversity as a virtue, but if there's going to be a Diversity Committee, at least they are behaving in an equal opportunity fashion.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

American Papist on Hannity

Last night, Brent Bozell (Media Research Center) and Thomas Peters (American Papist) appeared on Fox News' Hannity program to discuss the Harry Knox controversy.  Knox, the gay-rights activist whom President Obama appointed to his Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has a history of making anti-Christian -- and, in particular, anti-Catholic -- statements.  For example, last March Knox said the following:  

"The Pope's statement that condoms don't help control the spread of HIV, but rather condoms increase infection rates, is hurting people in the name of Jesus."   

When given a chance to retract the comment this past Tuesday, Knox obstinately stood by it.  Considering that this miserable fellow continues to make such bigoted and inflammatory public statements while serving at the pleasure of the President, should we not conclude that the President himself takes pleasure in such bigotry? 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dominican Sisters to Appear on Oprah

According to the American Papist, some of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist will appear on the Oprah Winfrey show next Tuesday, February 9th.  This amazing community of women religious, located in Ann Arbor, MI, is a testament to the difference that faithfulness, orthodoxy, and tradition can make.

It's no secret that vocations to the religious life have taken a devastating hit in the last few decades -- so much so that many religious communities resemble sparsely-populated retirement homes, filled silver-haired sirens perpetually sporting their "recreation clothes".  Yet this community of Dominican sisters is growing so fast (nearly 100 new vocations since 1997) that their "vocations crisis" consists in trying to ensure that their infrastructure keeps up with the overwhelming influx of holy, intelligent, beautiful young women seeking to consecrate their lives to Christ.  What's their secret?

An unwavering fidelity to Christ, a humble obedience to His Church, a burning devotion to evangelization and mission work, and a dedication to living the religious life as it was meant to be lived -- in community, in poverty, proudly wearing the habit!  It's a thing of beauty, and it's precisely the kind of thing that is attractive to young Catholics who are serious about their faith.

No one wants to join a lukewarm religious community of aging liberal social workers in polyester pantsuits!  No young woman wants to dedicate her life to that -- and no one does!  Young people want to dedicate themselves to spiritual greatness, and these Dominican Sisters have it.  Let us pray for them (and Oprah, and her audience) as they appear on Oprah next week.  Oh, and please pray for one of my daughter's best friends, who will enter the community as a postulant next fall.  We're all very proud of her and know that she will make an excellent addition to the Dominican Sisters.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Think Brett Favre is Amazing? Check Out Herschel!

Herschel Walker, the greatest college football player of all time, has to be one of the most amazing athletes ever created by the good God.  The NFL decided he was too old years ago, but, to my eyes, he looks like he could still play.  At the age of 47, he has undertaken a new career as an "ultimate fighter".  I rather dislike this pseudo-sport (it strikes me as lacking the skill and class of boxing), but this clip of Herschel's first contest serves as further evidence of his continued status as a world-class athlete.

Skills aside, just look at the guy.  Ripped to shreds -- impressive!  (h/t: Georgia Sports Blog)

C.S. Lewis Crypto-Catholic?

Had he lived to see the Anglican Church's modern abandonment of historic Christianity, would C.S. Lewis have felt compelled to become a Catholic?  It's an interesting question, the end-game of which is purely  hypothetical.

Over at Canterbury Tales, Taylor Marshall examines some of the very Catholic views that Lewis held.  His view of the Eucharistic Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration were very close to what the Catholic Church teaches, he regularly frequented the Confessional, and he wrote with striking specificity of his belief in Purgatory:

"Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favorite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am 'coming round',' a voice will say, 'Rinse your mouth out with this.' This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed."

Of course, despite the best efforts of his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkein (left) and others, Lewis never sought communion with the Catholic Church.  In fact, he had some very serious objections to it.  But one cannot help but wonder, given the distinctively Catholic trend of his beliefs on many aspects of the faith and his devotion to historic Christian orthodoxy, if there is any life boat -- other than the barque of Peter -- into which Lewis might have clambered when the Anglican ship went down in heterodoxy?
For a fuller treatment of this engaging topic, I highly recommend Joseph Pearce's excellent book, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tom Brown on Nehemiah and Perspicuity

Over at Called to Communion, Tom Brown reflects on his personal reading of Nehemiah -- and on how Nehemiah 8, in particular, seems to contradict the Protestant notion of Scriptural perspicuity:

"The people in Nehemiah 8 were competent, capable of hearing with understanding. The people were listening carefully; the ears of all were attentive. They listened with worshipful hearts, crying 'Amen!' and falling on their faces upon seeing the Scripture. In short, we have an ideal setting for an audience to be able to understand the Scripture that was read to them. And yet Ezra and the teachers were needed to give the meaning of the text 'so that the people understood the reading.' These faithful listeners’ qualities of being competent, attentive, and worshipful were not independently adequate to understand Scripture."

It's a short reflection, to be sure, but one that, when taken with other Scriptures (such as Acts 8, wherein the Ethiopian eunuch tells St. Philip: "And how can I [understand the Scriptures], unless some man shew me?"), with a basic application of reason, and with the empirical data of Protestant history (with its ever-expanding multifariousness of contradictory notions regarding what the Scriptures mean) establishes an overwhelming case that God gave us a Church to authoritatively guide us in our understanding of the Scriptures.

Why authoritatively?  Because unless the guidance is authoritative, it could be wrong.  In fact, the law of averages tells us that, more times than not, it will be wrong!  An experience from my own life may be instructive.  I was reared in the Presbyterian Church in America, a vibrant, godly Protestant denomination that was founded a few short years prior to my birth.  As good Presbyterians are wont to do, my folks had me baptized, by sprinkling, when I was an infant.  To their minds (and later to mine), my baptism was a sign and seal of the covenant, but the sacrament itself did not regenerate my soul in any way.  Fast forward to my late teens, when I first met my future wife. 

She, being reared in one of the offshoots of the Campbellite movement, had been taught that the waters of baptism actually effect in the soul of the baptized the regeneration that they symbolize.  Additionally, she was taught that baptism must be offered only to mature believers -- and that it must be administered only by full bodily immersion.  Rarely having been exposed to the doctrines of non-Presbyterian Protestants, I was dumbfounded by her seemingly strange beliefs regarding baptism, but I was prepared to observe a "different strokes" approach.  Her unique set of beliefs, however, would not allow her to take such a laissez faire approach with me.  You see, her faith taught that the baptism-by-sprinkling that I received as an infant was not a true baptism -- and not being truly baptized, I was not truly saved.

Hours and hours of Bible study, reflection, consultation, prayer, and discussion followed.  I thought my Presbyterian teachings on baptism were well-supported by Scripture, but I was distressed to find myself concluding that her sect's teachings seemed to have even greater biblical support!  How could the Scriptures support mutually-exclusive conclusions on such a vital issue?  Is sprinkling okay -- or not?  Is infant baptism acceptable -- or isn't it?  Is baptism necessary for salvation -- or is it something less?  Never being able to reach a firm, satisfying conclusion, I decided to cover my bases and reluctantly agreed to be "re-baptized" at her church.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in the position of the Ethiopian eunuch -- I had an authority gap.  It would take me almost ten years to realize that I, too, needed a successor of St. Philip to authoritatively "shew me" the meaning of the Scriptures and the fullness of the faith that can only be found in the Catholic Church.