Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
"There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God." --Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
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Saturday, January 10, 2004New High Quality Catholic Publisher: Zaccheus Press
Zaccheus Press of Bethesda, Maryland, is a new high quality Catholic publisher whose first publication is a reprint of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Abbot Vonier, a highly respected and eloquent English (though German born) theologian of the 1920s. This book is highly praised as a theological classic by Aidan Nichols, O.P., of Blackfriars in Cambridge, England, by Avery Cardinal Dulles of Fordham University, by Fr. Kenneth Baker of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and by Fr. Neuhaus of First Things.
The book is without exaggeration simply beautiful in appearance and print quality and also fully indexed. (It is a shame that for some reason Ignatius Press fails so often to index the great authors it does us the favor of publishing! Maybe, someone should make a gentle suggestion.) The preface is by reknown apologist Peter Kreeft of Boston College, with the aforementioned Aidan Nichols writing the introduction. Catholic Analysis will review this book in the near future; but, in the meantime, it is obvious from those vouching for the book that it is a worthwhile purchase. If interested, please visit the Zaccheus Press website at www.zaccheuspress.com or link here. Here we have another orthodox Catholic publisher--to borrow from the defunct Maoists, "let a hundred flowers bloom."
Contemplation vs. Action: The Ascension Perspective
One of the perennial themes among Christians is the alleged conflict between contemplation and action. Those who style themselves as "progressive" tend to a contempt for those whom they view as preoccupied with piety and devotion at the expense of social activism. The more extreme "progressives" end up outside of Christianity as they jettison any concept of divine transcendence and instead embrace a vision no different from that of secular humanism. For such, the liturgy becomes, as so many have pointed out, merely a form of human socializing or an excercise in aesthetics no different than what takes place in a theater. For extreme "progressives," the missionary enterprise becomes indistinguishable from the Peace Corps with no urge to convert. They view the role of bishops as being primarily that of political commentators and lobbyists, as opposed to guarding the orthodox faith.
In addition, those who honestly identify themselves as secular dismiss Christianity as "pie in the sky," much as Marx did. For these, Christ's kingdom is indeed "not of this world" and therefore irrelevant to the hard reality of life. That sentiment runs deep and maybe even unconsciously in the minds of many. It is not surprising given the hard realities and tragedies of human existence.
As usual, many of our questions, including these, can find their ultimate answer only in returning to the Christ of the Gospels. Christianity affirms that all the answers are there in the concrete Christ authentically presented through all the gospels, if we only put ourselves in a position to discern those answers.
Hans Urs von Balthasar answers the errors both of "progressives" and of the disillusioned precisely by returning to the Christ of the gospels. In his answer, the false conflict between contemplation and action, between devotion and the harsh realities of the world dissolves in the imitation of Christ.
Balthasar makes clear that in "Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person" (Balthasar, Prayer [Ignatius Press 1986], p. 278]. From this insight, Balthasar shows how in the New Testament the life of the Christian even while remaining on earth is "in heaven":
Balthasar, p. 280 (emphasis added).
Even while on earth, Christ "transplants us from earth into the soil of heaven" (Balthasar, p. 280). All of this goes back to the Christ of the gospels "for, while he lived on earth in a complete manner, he had never left the Father's heaven" (Balthasar, pp. 282-3). Just as Christ's "continuous contemplation of the Father" led to his teaching, blessing, and healing miracles, so "it is this heavenly love that causes [us] . . . to love the earth, human beings and the transient circumstances and tasks of life, but this love is nourished by a 'food which you do not know' (Jn 4:32)" (Balthasar, p. 283).
Balthasar summarizes his thoughts by concluding that the "Church's heavenward gaze . . . promotes . . . and alone makes [our earthly task] possible" (Balthasar, p. 283). He continues:
If the experience of having "our heart in heaven" were not the foretaste of eternal bliss with God, our existence, bafflingly torn and battered between heaven and earth, would never be "at home" anywhere; we should have to see it as pure tragedy, as nothing but torture.
Balthasar, p. 284.
That experience of "pure tragedy" is what so many affirm in their disillusionment. Christians, on the other hand, while maintaining "the distinction between heaven and earth grounded in creation" believe that this "distinction has been superseded in principle (though not yet made manifest) by the ascension to heaven of the Man Christ, who has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hiddenly" (Balthasar, p. 284). Thus, precisely because Christ has put "earth in heaven" by his ascension, we are impelled to love the earthly realities around us (Balthasar, p. 278). Thus, by looking to Christ, our tendency to falsely oppose heaven and earth is undermined, and our alienation is remedied.
Friday, January 09, 2004Surprises Will Not End
In spite of history's dramatic account of great falls and dramatic transformations, we always tend to canonize the present and put an unrealistic trust in established patterns and trends. The history of Christianity has surely taught us to expect revolutionary transformations in the long run. Many will suppress, but no one can deny the momentous transformation of the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian empire by an offshoot of the tiny Jewish religion, a transformation which began by appealing to the marginalized in Roman society. Some point instead to the rapid and dramatic expansion of Islam beginning in the seventh century. But there is and always will be a crucial difference: the Christians remade the Roman Empire without military conquest. Islam from its inception used the sword. In addition, Christianity had already paved the way for monotheism in lands that would later become Moslem.
Now there are hints of another dramatic transformation-- this time in China. Former Time magazine Beijing bureau chief David Aikman writes in his new book:
China is in the process of becoming Christianized. That does not mean that all Chinese will become Christian, or even that a majority will. But at the present rate of growth in the number of Christians in the countryside, in the cities, and especially within China's social and cultural establishment, it is possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China's population within three decades. If that should happen, it is almost certain that a Christian view of the world will be the dominant worldview within China's political and cultural establishment, and possibly also within senior military circles.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery 2003), p. 285.
Aikman goes on to directly compare this potential transformation with that of the Roman Empire when he writes that "[j]ust as Christianity's spread in the West led to the dominance in global Christendom of the Western, or Roman, interpretation for centuries, so the spread of . . . [Christianity] into Asia and the southern hemisphere in the past two decades will probably affect Christianity on a global scale" (Aikman, p. 291). From Aikman's account, it appears that Chinese evangelical Protestants are exhibiting the most vigor and growth. (I hope to pen another, fuller essay in the future that will consider the implications for Catholicism of global evangelical growth.) Like their American cousins, these Chinese evangelicals put no limits on their ambitions. (Evangelicals, unlike Catholics, are blessed with the absence of those European theologians who use carefully parsed ambiguities to view other world religions as effectively equal to Christianity.)
Aikman notes that Chinese evangelicals are boldly taking aim at the Islamic swath of nations that lie between Jerusalem and China:
Aikman, p. 12.
As a result, Aikman concludes that a "Christianized China is poised to change the face not just of Christendom worldwide, but potentially of the world of Islam" (Aikman, p. 12). In an ironic twist, just as early Christianity's monotheism paved the way for Muslim expansion, now Muslim monotheism, along with its recognition of the prophetic role of Jesus and of his virginal conception, may prove a fertile ground for the expansion of Christianity.
This scenario turns on its head the awe that the Western secular media reflexively exhibits toward Islamic expansion. In another noteworthy book, The Next Christendom, Penn State professor Philip Jenkins questioned the conventional wisdom in the West that Islam is the wave of the future in the developing world. Jenkins pointed instead to the Christian upsurge in the Third World as being of equal or even greater significance. Add China to the mix, and there is no question that Islam will by no means be unchallenged in the developing world.
It is an old lesson that we must constantly remind ourselves of: do not rest complacently on the secular conventional wisdom. As the Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi said in a quote dear to all activists, religious and secular: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." (see links). It is a quote with which Christians throughout history can closely identify.
Update: See this timely story from the Asian press about the consecration--with Vatican approval-- of a new, 39-year-old Chinese bishop.
Thursday, January 08, 2004Canonical Notice in Wisconsin: Pro-Abortion and Pro-Euthanasia Politicians Can't Receive Communion
In the waning days of his tenure administering the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bishop Raymond Burke, shortly to take over as the new archbishop of St. Louis, has formally notified Catholic politicians in the La Crosse diocese that they are not to receive Holy Communion if they support abortion or euthanasia.
Burke's notice is simple, clear, direct. Numerous bishops, archbishops, and cardinals should follow his lead. What they are waiting for I, frankly, don't know. You can read more at Catholic News Service (News Briefs for Jan. 8, 2004).
A Meltdown That Can No Longer Be Denied
It is a topic most of us, including this writer, would rather not consider. But it is a topic that can no longer honestly be denied: the meltdown of femininity in today's America. Several hints at the collapse of femininity began emerging recently in the media--although the signs have long been apparent. First, the fascination by many for two young Russian female entertainers, who go by the name "Tatu," whose signature style is engaging in open lesbian kissing and bragging about their lesbian relationship. I still find it incomprehensible, but it is true. The second was prurient lesbian kissing by vulgarians "Madonna" and teen idol Britney Spears. That pornographic image is emblazoned on tabloids in thousands of Middle American grocery check-out aisles. It is an image rudely pushed into the faces of parents and children simply going to the grocery store. Even the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper has taken note of this American trend.
Maureen Dowd, the liberal (and strange) columnist for the New York Times, confirms the latest lesbian craze:
Women kissing women, often as a way of turning on men, has become such a staple of entertainment that by the time Madonna and Britney did it on stage, it seemed more stale than shocking.
Maureen Dowd, "Tizzie Over Lezzies," N.Y. Times On-line (free reg'n required), Op-Ed Section, 1/8/04 (emphasis added)(scroll to bottom of article).
Even the question and answer section of a Christian pro-chastity website for teens has had to deal with the practice of teenage girls "making out" to entertain teenage boys (see pro-chastity site).
So there it is. The liberation of women celebrated by our supposedly sophisticated, progressive secular society ends up in a new generation of young girls providing pornographic entertainment for males. This distressing development confirms the strange irony of the false gospel of liberation preached by the modern West: that self-debasement is liberation. I have always had the apparently naive idea that women's liberation was about being respected and treated with dignity by males. Instead, we see that the secular version of women's liberation is the woman as pornographic entertainer. In a way, it is not surprising: fornication and promiscuity are simply the ways many teen girls and young women use to attract and maintain male attention and approval. And the males are only too happy to oblige this unhealthy craving.
There are deeper causes. The panorama of females embracing such debasement tells me that the father in the family has been absent, either because he has physically abandoned the family or because, although remaining in the family, he is utterly indifferent to the dignity of his daughters. This open lesbian craze is a sign that too many fathers have failed miserably in their role as assertive protectors of their daughters. One of the great Old Testament themes is that of God as the protector of Israel, especially of widows and orphans. Human fathers are supposed to be the image of God as fatherly protector, yet there are obviously too many "orphans" with no protector at hand.
In the end, the fornication culture has created a new generation of geisha girls desperate to debase themselves for male approval. What a sad ending for a culture that used to venerate the true Madonna. And yet, what a time, to affirm more strongly and vibrantly than ever the image of true femininity, the "handmaid of the Lord."
Wednesday, January 07, 2004Catholic Church Mobilizes in Michigan
Earlier this year, adamant pro-abortion Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed the Michigan Legal Birth Definition Act passed by large majorities in both houses of the Michigan state legislature. This Act would have banned partial birth abortion in Michigan by recognizing as a legal person, entitled to all the protections of law, a human being who is partially born. That means that as soon as any non-severed part of the anatomy of an unborn child is coming out of the mother that child is protected against murder. Given her radical pro-abortion stand, Granholm vetoed the bill in the face of overwhelming and bipartisan legislative support. Granholm is the same governor who incredibly claims to be a prayerful Catholic inspired by Mother Teresa and who quotes Scripture in her budget battles with Republicans. She is obviously another deeply confused and untrustworthy pro-abortion "Catholic" politician.
In response to her radical agenda, the Catholic hierarchy, along with the state's Knights of Columbus, are collaborating with Right to Life Michigan in a petition drive to override her veto. Pro-life Protestants are also supporting the petition drive. The Michigan Constitution allows the people to present a bill to the legislature by petition. If the legislature approves the bill by a simple majority in each house, the bill automatically becomes law without the signature of the governor. The legislation is veto-proof. In the past, other pro-life measures relating to government funding of abortions and parental consent laws have passed using this same petition route. The prognosis for the success of this petition drive is excellent. The apt name for this petition drive is "The People's Override."
It is refreshing to see the Catholic hierarchy led by the Cardinal in Detroit and the Knights of Columbus mobilizing our pastors and churches to participate aggressively in this non-partisan petition drive. The success of this petition will ban partial birth abortion with a novel approach that is very different from that taken in the federal ban recently signed by President Bush and which is now tied up in the courts. While the federal ban takes the approach of describing the surgical procedure used in partial birth abortion and outlawing it, the Michigan ban defines a partially born human being as a legal person entitled to all the rights and protections of the law, without even mentioning the word "abortion." This approach is a novel one that some believe will hold up better in court than the recent federal ban and which will preempt efforts by some to evade the language specifically describing a surgical procedure in the federal ban.
In addition to its legal creativity, the Michigan ban will send a powerful message to aspiring and sitting politicians, as noted by one legislator: namely, that pro-life sentiment is a mainstream, not an extreme, position as caricatured by the liberal media. The success of the Michigan petition drive may also be a precursor of the voters' rejection of Granholm's bid for re-election in the near future. The Michigan petition drive is a grass-roots, volunteer effort for which the Catholic Church in Michigan has mobilized. It is good to see the Church Militant in action on the ground. In addition, this effort is an example of ecumenism at its finest. You can learn more about this effort and how you can participate at the People's Override website. (Only registered Michigan voters can sign the petition.)
Update: Out-of-state residents can contribute to the People's
Override. According to Michigan Right to Life, state law prohibits contributions from foreign
nationals only. Checks or money orders can be made out to STTOP, which stands for "Standing Together to Oppose Partial-birth-abortion," the official name of the committee sponsoring the petition drive. The committee can accept up to $20.00 in the form of cash, with amounts above that required to be in the form of check or money order. The committee must have a name & address for all donors. No anonymous contributions can be accepted.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004Where is the Cross?
That is the question that must be put bluntly to liberal or "progressive" Catholics and Protestants. At the heart of Christianity is the crucifix. Catholics gather at churches to worship in the presence of a beaten and tortured man. He was beaten, tortured, and died for our sins. If there is no sin, the cross makes no sense. Without redemption, there is no Christianity. The seal of that redemption was the victory of the Resurrection. But the starting point was the reality of sin.
It is clear that for liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics "sin" has become a meaningless concept. Instead of "sin," what the liberals proffer is an ever-changing catalogue of things that are "not nice." Early feminists considered abortion an evil. Today, liberals consider it a fundamental human right. So now the taboo is not abortion, but denying someone the right to have an abortion. For centuries, the Christian tradition has held that sexual activity outside of marriage was sin. Today, for liberals, it is malice to deny the right to sexual activity outside of marriage. The Christian teaching is that evil means are never justified. The liberal consensus is that each individual can weigh and do what he deems appropriate to reach self-satisfaction and self-actualization, including killing off old and sick relatives.
What is left in the category of sin for liberals? I guess murder--except for abortion or euthanasia or, as some now propose, the killing of disabled infants who are a burden on families. Or rape--except that rampant promiscuity and the expectations it has given rise to have begun to blur the line between rape and "making love" to the point that we now have to negotiate the new and fuzzy concept of "date rape" or the aftermath of the semi-anonymous "hook up" usually facilitated by drugs and alcohol. Or mutilation--but, then again, the so-called sacred right of abortion commonly involves mutilation.
Do not trust anyone who reserves to himself or herself the final determination of what is right and wrong. You shouldn't deposit a nickel with such a person, much less your body or commitment or future. Without acknowledging God's revelation of right and wrong, we end up as hopelessly amoral, untrustworthy, and lacking in integrity.
As stated by Balthasar:
All faith is resurrection faith. Hence contemplation of the cross is part of contemplation of the resurrection. In turn, contemplation of the cross is the context in which we are to contemplate our own sin and the sin of the world. For from a Christian point of view we cannot reflect fruitfully upon sin unless we do so on the way to penance, and the origin of penance is the cross. Only in light of the cross and its judgment on sin can the sinner hope to get some idea of what his sin is.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (Ignatius Press 1986), p. 298 (emphasis added).
The path from sin to cross to Resurrection is seamless in the Gospel. This seamlessness is evident in the way the liberal denial of sin progresses inevitably to a denial of the atoning significance of the cross so that the cross becomes merely a political martyrdom, and to the denial of an empty tomb so that the Resurrection becomes merely an altered psychological state experienced by Jesus' distraught survivors. The lie of sin thus leads us to lies about the content of the Gospel.
Balthasar, pp. 298-99.
The moral and the theological cannot be separated. The link between the Crucifixion and our sin is a fact that the liberals cannot wish away. Where is the cross? It is where we will find the sins we so assiduously try to hide.
Monday, January 05, 2004The Internet Shakes Up Religion As Usual
The Washington Times has a revealing story on the role that internet web sites have played in the battle being waged by conservative Episcopalians against the dismantling of historic Christian belief by liberal Episcopal bishops. The story comments on various sites that provide useful perspective on the battle over truth in the Episcopal Church USA: Virtuosity On-Line by David Virtue of Pennsylvania and the Classical Anglican News from Canada. Not mentioned, but also significant, are the blog Midwest Conservative Journal by Christopher Johnson of Missouri, whose site is on the blog roll at left, and the the blog Titusonenine by conservative Episcopalian theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina. Both blogs are regularly cited by the Classical Anglican News website.
Why should Catholics be interested in these new media developments in a Protestant denomination? First, as the Washington Times notes, the new media is making it impossible for denominational bureaucrats to take actions without worldwide repercussions. When a North American liberal Episcopal bishop strikes against Christian truth, an Anglican cleric in Africa finds out about it quickly and has to come to grips with the rise of heresy among liberal churchmen in North America.
Similar things have happened in the Catholic world. For example, the strange statements by Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland on certain moral issues after his elevation as cardinal eventually led him to retract those statements after significant internet publicity. In another instance, rumors circulated about converting the Fatima shrine in Portugal into an interfaith site. These rumors created an uproar necessitating a statement from the Vatican making clear that Fatima would remain what it has always been. Another famous Catholic example from the more distant past is the exposure of a gay internet site frequented by Catholic priests and even by a South African bishop. The South African bishop has since resigned. On liturgical matters, sites like Adoremus play a crucial role in educating Catholic laity so they can challenge the liturgocrats who mistakenly view their liturgical workshops as the definitive interpreters of proper Catholic liturgy. Most recently, the internet played a significant role in publicizing the plight of Terri Schiavo in Florida when her food and water supply were cut off for several days as she lay in the hospital with little initial protest from the Catholic bishops of Florida.
Secrecy and darkness have always accompanied what dare not speak its name openly: heresy, heterodoxy, and cowardice. In addition, even some public actions and statements, if limited to an obscure figure in another continent such as in the case of the Scottish cardinal, can remain unknown to Catholics elsewhere on the globe. The new media of websites and blogs eliminates the barriers of secrecy, distance, and even obscurity. As a result, the issues are placed openly on the table of worldwide discussion.
This new transparency makes the life of theological liberals, revisionists, and heretics a bit more complicated. The usual strategy of theological revisionists is to proceed incrementally away from the eyes and ears of the orthodox faithful. That is becoming increasingly less possible. The new transparency can pressure bishops and others to take firm stands instead of sitting on the fence. That is a good development in the life of the religious communities and churches of the West.
Thus, the Episcopalian civil war has been an exhibition of trends that impact other Protestant denominations, such as Presbyterians and Lutherans, struggling with theological liberalism. These trends also confirm the role of the new internet media in Catholic discussions and developments. An analogy from history may be apt (although it should not be pushed too far). The Spanish Civil War was in effect a dress rehearsal for World War II. The Episcopalian civil war may just be a dress rehearsal for conflicts that will break out in more open and heated fashion in other Christian circles.
The media tactics being used by conservative Episcopalians have been noted by Catholic bloggers such as Mark Shea who links periodically to the Classical Anglican News, which in turn links to posts by Shea. A perusal of the conservative Anglican sites also makes clear that they follow developments and statements coming out of the Catholic Church. There is a sense that the Christian world as a whole is in worldwide realignment between revisionists and the orthodox, as anticipated by Philip Jenkins' book The Next Christendom. In my opinion, the internet and its users are playing a significant role in that worldwide realignment.
New Link to Rome: Chiesa On-Line
Catholic Analysis has added a new link (at the top of the blog) to a Roman source, Chiesa ["Church"] On-Line by Italian journalist Sandro Magister. It affords readers an inside look and perspective on events in the Vatican. I do not necessarily agree with all of Magister's analyses (especially an apparent distaste for Opus Dei), but his site is worth reading. Today, he has a new article on two high-ranking clerics promoted by John Paul II, including one who is a vigorous defender of Humanae Vitae. See the link above ("More From Rome: Chiesa On-Line") at the top of the blog (not in the side margin).
Sunday, January 04, 2004Michigan Readers: Petition Drive to Outlaw Partial Birth Abortion Set to Start
Right to Life of Michigan is starting this month a statewide petition drive to override Governor Jennifer Granholm's infamous veto of the ban on partial birth abortion. The goal is to gather the signatures of 325,000 registered Michigan voters in 180 days so that the ban on partial birth abortion can be placed before the legislature which is very likely to pass the ban again as it did earlier this year. This petition procedure cannot be vetoed by Governor Granholm. It in effect will override her veto. Michigan Right to Life is holding training sessions for those who wish to collect signatures. You can get times, locations, and more information at Michigan Right to Life.
Epiphany of the Lord: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
The Epiphany or "Manifestation" of the Lord to the Gentiles first occurred as we all know to the "magi from the east." At that first manifestation, the evil and corrupt Herod, the Romans' half-Jewish ruler of Judea and former governor of Galilee, was "greatly troubled." Now, in hindsight, we can see why he was greatly troubled and also why he should not have been greatly troubled. He should have been greatly troubled because God was showing that He was still the master of all history and still the ultimate judge of all that men may do. As such, the murderous and conspiratorial Herod was right to have been greatly troubled, even as today's dictators should be greatly troubled. On the other hand, he should not have been troubled about political competition because God does not play for such low stakes. God's empire is universal, and not limited to a puny Middle Eastern tract. Instead of being troubled about political challenge, Herod should have been greatly troubled about God's judgment.
St. Paul in Ephesians refers clearly to his mission as steward "of God's grace": to proclaim that the Gentiles are now also part of God's empire. Today, there is no religion that is so universally present in the world as Christianity. Today, there are hopes that a new Christian revival is occurring in China--a revival that would outstrip in sheer numbers the spread of Christianity thus far. And the Roman Catholic Church is, by far, the world's leading Christian presence, not limited to a particular culture or language or the remains of a particular colonial empire.
Isaiah paints a marvelous and joyful picture of all the world bringing their splendor to Jerusalem. The Church is this New Jerusalem as noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 756). There remains much to be done as this peaceful empire of spirit and truth extends to the entire world. It is a domain not of political power, as feared by the world's Herods, but rather a domain of genuine power, the spiritual and divine power of the Holy Spirit. And that the world's Herods are right to fear.