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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Friday, February 20, 2004Social Capital and Moral Capital
While our society is in constant social transition, we can sometimes witness the coexistence of vanishing forms of social activity with newer forms. You can still find fraternal organizations like the Elks or the local Moose lodge. You will still find the traditional social network of Catholic parish life surviving--many times due to the deeply loyal participation of aging parishioners. Social association in clubs and fraternal organizations points to what the sociologists define as "social capital." Harvard professor Robert Putnam became famous in the nineties for his book Bowling Alone in which he pointed out the decline in Americans engaging in civic or social activities in the age of television. In one article, Putnam defined "social capital" as follows:
Putnam article, available at this link.
In typical academic fashion, Putnam gives us the sort of highly abstract definition that is the hallmark of the social science fraternity. In more concrete language, social capital is social cooperation: putting on the parish fair, the local Knights of Columbus raising funds at a spaghetti dinner or on the street, working on a political campaign, collecting signatures to ban partial-birth abortion. We have older forms of social cooperation that are in decline such as membership in PTA's, unions, or fraternal organizations. But we also have increasing participation in the Right to Life movement in churches, both Catholic and evangelical. Because of this variety, academics debate if social capital is really declining or if social capital is just being "redistributed" in new forms and guises.
Yet, my hunch is that Putnam is right that there has indeed been a decline in civic and social group participation. Putnam list various socio-economic reasons for this, including the movement of women into the labor force which dramatically effected volunteer groups sustained by women and the increase in people uprooting and moving to other parts of the country. Yet, there might be a deeper dimension which Putnam comes close to touching when he points to the breakdown of stable marriages. It may be that people have reluctantly withdrawn from many forms of social interaction because of the loss of another more fundamental form of social capital: moral capital.
We are in a society in which moral capital is in decline. By "moral capital," I refer to common moral beliefs, a moral consensus. It is hard for someone who is pro-life to take in stride the views of those who are pro-abortion because for the pro-lifer what is at stake is infanticide, not a matter of mere political preferences or choices. It is hard for someone who wants to raise modest and chaste children to feel comfortable in school settings where behavior, dress, conversation, and demeanor give the opposite message. With the rise of the gay marriage wedge issue, there is now another source of division where many will not feel comfortable with gay couples flaunting their ties. In other words, the decline in social capital pointed out by Putnam could very well be tied to the decline in moral consensus. Today, in the United States, there is little moral consensus.
There used to be a consensus that pre-marital sex and "shacking up" was undesirable. That is no longer the case. There used to be a consensus that abortion was a crime. Of course, the Supreme Court changed that. There used to be a consensus about what was meant by Christianity in terms of certain fundamental beliefs. Liberal Protestants and even liberal Catholics have put in question what a Christian must still believe to remain a Christian. The disarray in the Episcopal Church is a prime example of how the breakdown in moral consensus or moral capital is leading to the anguished loss of decades of social capital built up by membership in an historic denomination.
Putnam also notes the breakdown in family life and interaction. Well, today lifestyles vary so widely within extended families that it is not surprising that extended families fail to interact as much as they did in the past. Chances are that few extended families uniformly share the same core beliefs and moral standards. You may not want your children to see the household arrangements of uncle so-and-so or aunt so-and-so.
My own unproven and undocumented thesis is that past forms of social interaction or social capital assumed a shared moral consensus. When that moral consensus shatters, people reluctantly withdraw and search for other forms of social interaction with others who share their moral beliefs. Sometimes this means socializing more with non-relatives than with relatives. Sometimes this means no longer participating in the affairs of a union that supports pro-abortion candidates. Episcopalians are learning that it may mean painfully leaving behind membership in longtime local churches to join those who share the same moral beliefs. Others find it necessary to leave the local school system in favor of home-schooling.
So it may be that sociologists should look into the collapse of moral capital as a major cause of the collapse of social capital. But the secular mindset of much of social science may preclude that, especially if it becomes apparent that the remedy is that we need to return to a strong moral consensus about sexual behavior, marriage, and abortion in order to rebuild our social capital. What is becoming clearer is that we are paying a high price for our abandonment of moral consensus in a social sense as well as in a personal sense. Morality is both personal and social.
Thursday, February 19, 2004The Doctrinal Confusion of Liberal Liturgists
The official newspaper for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, headed by liberal bishop Kenneth Untener (now gravely ill), quotes the remarks of a priest holding a liturgy conference in the diocese. Here are the newspaper's report of the remarks of Fr. Lawrence Mick of Cincinnati on the Eucharist:
Source: Brett McLaughlin, "Liturgists urged to promote reverence in church ritual," The Catholic Weekly, Feb. 13-20, 2004, available at diocesan link.
The great strength of Catholicism is its ability to do justice to all facets of the divine mysteries without the one-sided exaggeration on a particular aspect found in the various forms of Protestantism. In contrast to the misleading remarks of the quoted liturgist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church's discussion of the Eucharist does justice to all the facets of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Fr. Mick claims that "Christ did not create the Eucharist to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ." Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church ("CCC") teaches otherwise:
CCC, 1380 (emphasis added).
Fr. Mick also teaches that the Eucharist is not a call to adoration: "Jesus is not saying 'adore me.' " In contrast, the same passage of the Catechism goes on to quote from John Paul II's writings on the Eucharist:
CCC, 1380, quoting John Paul II, Dominicae cenae, 3 (emphasis added).
Fr. Mick's remarks are so off-base that it is difficult to pick out a single passage from the cornucopia of passages in the Catechism and the Pope's writings that contradict the letter and spirit of Fr. Mick's remarks. But it is not even necessary to find passages to quote, for the sense of the faithful rejects any absurd contention that Christ did not wish to leave us his body and blood in the Eucharist. He did not wish to leave us orphans. Fr. Mick's remarks echo the foolishness of biblical exegetes who claim that Jesus did not realize that he was the Son of God or the Messiah.
The strange remarks of the liturgist--to 300 assembled officials of the Diocese of Saginaw--are another example of the tired liberal obsession with using the liturgy to reduce the Mass to the mere horizontal dimension of "meet and greet." Ironically, the rest of the reported remarks of Fr. Mick emphasize the need for greater reverence in the Mass, but his theologically erroneous remarks serve only to undercut and mock any plea for greater reverence. We are reverent at the Mass because Christ is uniquely and "most especially" present in the Eucharist (see CCC, 1373-74). You don't encourage greater reverence by diminishing the intent of Christ to be really present, body and blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. The proper expression of that reverence is adoration. It is precisely in that common adoration that we become united with our fellow Catholics sharing in the Eucharist. Without that adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ, the pleas for greater reverence ring hollow--and the much-touted "unity" is merely superficial.
Wednesday, February 18, 2004Abstinence-Only Education: Response to Corporate Exploitation
President Bush has come under attack for proposing significantly more funding for abstinence education among young people (see report). What has the social liberals up in arms is that the President is targeting the increase for abstinence-only education which does not cover contraceptive methods. The President's critics act as if contraception is in danger of being vanished from the social consciousness.
Walk into any drugstore with your children, and contraception is thrown right into your face. It seems that the shelf space devoted to condoms has expanded dramatically in the past few years. It began years ago when condoms first started appearing on shelves at all, instead of behind the counter. Now, the shelf space has expanded dramatically and prominently with dozens of brightly colored and slick boxes touting particular brand names. I recall teaching at a large state university a few years ago and coming across a condom vending machine prominently placed in the hallway next to the entrance to the public restroom at the main university center. The ads for the condoms even touted their use for oral sex.
The message of this flood of condoms in drugstores and public restrooms is that fornication is a normal part of our culture and of being "alive." If you are not fornicating, you are out of the loop. For young people still forming their identities and wrestling with self-doubt, no message is more threatening than that of being out of the loop. That is the existential reality of the young. So to hear a proposal for abstinence-only education is extremely refreshing. The social liberals act as if the President is going to censor the media or forbid the marketing of condoms.
The reality is that abstinence-only education is a sorely needed counterweight to the massive corporate marketing campaign being waged on young people. From what I see, the campaign is not aimed at married people: it is aimed at the most vulnerable segment of our population, the young and single. True proponents of social justice would be angry at this corporate targeting of the most vulnerable who have the most to lose. But social liberals are, in spite of their rhetoric, not really concerned with social justice. Social liberals are for social deconstruction, and they will be happy to use corporate greed and exploitation to advance the cause at the expense of young people.
It seems to me that even abstinence-only education will inevitably have to address the contraception issue by pointing out that abstinence is superior to the contraceptive methods being heavily marketed to young people. One way or another, young people will know about different contraceptive methods in a culture saturated with corporate marketing of such methods. So lack of awareness of contraception is not the problem. The problem is that the contraceptive propaganda machine gives the false message that the physical and emotional dangers of fornication have been tamed. In addition, some young people in particular social settings, such as the inner city, will simply refuse to use contraception. Abstinence-only education is a sane response to the incessant contraceptive propaganda, and a real alternative for those in areas like the inner city who fornicate but who cannot or will not use contraception.
Tuesday, February 17, 2004Pope Encourages Use of Internet for Evangelization
Zenit has a report in which the Pope encourages visiting French bishops to continue using the internet to evangelize young people ("Use of Internet by Church Is Encouraged," Feb. 16, 2004). This report brings to mind how the internet is a new agora or gathering place where different proposals for viewing events are presented. Obviously, the Pope wants the Catholic proposal to be presented. That is an encouragement to all of us who use this medium. The situation hearkens back to that of Paul preaching at the Areopagus of Athens where civic affairs were conducted. Before being "dragged" to the Areopagus by Athenians eager to know what he was teaching, Paul "argued . . . in the market place [en te agora] every day with those who chanced to be there" (Acts 17:17; RSV). The internet is likewise a place for Catholics to argue with or persuade every day those who chance to visit. The book of Acts also makes a, perhaps slighting, comment about the inhabitants of Athens that some would vigorously apply to internet users: "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). New technology, same human nature.
The Second Stage of the Sexual Revolution
The first stage of the sexual revolution that has engulfed the United States was centered around contraception. The introduction of the birth control pill plus the Supreme Court's 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut which struck down state laws restricting contraceptives removed the fear of pregnancy that kept many middle class young women and their parents cautious in sexual matters. Strangely enough, the Griswold decision focused on married couples obtaining contraceptives (see legal history). But the ultimate effect of the decision was opening the gate for anyone, married or not, to obtain contraceptives. With the increasing secularization of American society, a strong moral foundation for chastity was already missing. Once the fear of pregnancy departed, the deluge of fornication and "shacking up" began which today is conventional, expected, and normalized.
Today's second stage of the sexual revolution has also unfolded as rapidly, if not more so, than the first. Again, the beachhead is marriage. In the sixties, the beachhead was contraceptive access for married couples. Today the beachhead is access to marriage by gay couples. The effect of striking down restrictions on contraception led to the fornication culture we have today. I submit that the ultimate effect of the crusade for gay marriage will be an increasingly bisexual culture for the future--however distasteful it is for us to imagine this outcome.
Human beings as social animals are quite malleable and elastic. The same young woman with the same personality who would never think of engaging in premarital intercourse in the more conservative era of the forties becomes a prolific fornicator and "concubine" in the eighties. So it will not be surprising that individuals who in the nineties would never think of engaging in homosexual activity will in the future become comfortable with a background of bisexual adventures for themselves and their partners. My guess is that the experimentation in bisexuality will be more common among females than males, given the greater female emphasis on emotional intimacy. The current fornication culture which deprives many females of emotional intimacy with their male sexual partners may well drive some disillusioned females into a bisexual lifestyle. It is a psychological downward spiral: bad experiences make previously ignored and rejected alternatives palatable. People become hardened and desperate. And, of course, for females, lesbian experiences offer the ultimate contraceptive lifestyle--the "scourge" of pregnancy is absolutely vanished.
Today, many will say that such a dire prognosis is exaggerated, that heterosexuals will go their way, while gay couples celebrate their civil marriages or civil unions. In the Catholic Church, liberals argued in the sixties that contraception could be safely contained in marriage. But that is not what happened. The embrace of contraception gave social approval to sex divorced from procreation. The embrace of gay marriages or unions gives social approval to same gender sexual activity. With the social stigma gone, the social animal will respond and change its behavior. Not a few who participated or still participate enthusiastically in the heterosexual fornication culture will now irately draw the line at gay marriage. But the truth is that the fornication culture was the leading edge of the bisexual culture which is now gestating in the United States, an example of the law of unintended consequences. Is this an argument for fatalism? No, but it is an argument for realistic analysis that points to the solution: embracing the Christian vision of chastity as the only sane and civilized alternative.
Monday, February 16, 2004Heresies, Old and New
In the study of Church history and doctrine, the student is sometimes overwhelmed with accounts of the minutiae of past Christological controversies. The student has to keep the distinctions between dynamic monarchianism and modalistic monarchianism in mind, plus keep track of a wide number of previously unknown or seldom mentioned names such as Sabellius, Theodotus, Paul of Samosata, Theognostus, and Albinus. It is not surprising that at times the student will wonder what all of this has to do with the Gospel.
Well, however counterintuitive it may sound, this study is crucial to the Gospel because many of these old imperfect or heretical attempts at understanding the relation of Christ to the Father are being recycled by modern theologians. If you read about the project of Jesuit theologian Roger Haight or read the works of Hans Küng, you get the feeling that you are being regaled with a new version of "adoptionism," also known by the forbidding name of "dynamic monarchianism." The term "adoptionism" is preferable because it clearly signals that a theologian is proposing that Jesus was a merely a man, although an extraordinary man of extraordinary virtue, whom God "adopted" or designated to be a vessel for revelation. The modern adoptionists will insist over and over again that Jesus is an extraordinary messenger of God, but they will not explicitly and clearly say that Jesus is God.
Here is Hans Küng's version of adoptionism:
The whole point of what happend in and with Jesus depends on the fact that, for believers, God himself as man's friend was . . . definitely revealing himself in this Jesus who came among men as God's advocate and deputy, representative and delegate . . . .
Küng, On Being a Christian (Image Books, 1984), p. 449 (emphasis added).
More recently, we have the work of Roger Haight, S.J., who addresses the issue of the divinity of Christ by describing the approach he favors:
Source: Boston Theological Forum, available at this link (emphasis added).
Of course, the early Church rejected such minimalistic positions as inconsistent with apostolic tradition and with the New Testament. Carefully re-reading the New Testament today will confirm the wisdom of the Church's judgment. Yet, highly educated theologians continue to repackage what was decisively rejected centuries ago. So the student is well served by studying the forgotten names of erroneous theologians so that he or she can recognize the erroneous theologians of today who are destined to share the same obscurity.
Sunday, February 15, 20046th Sunday in O.T.: Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Cor. 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
The Beatitudes that are the subject of today's Gospels are always jarring and paradoxical. Happy or blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, and the insulted. Woe to the rich, the satisfied, the mirthful, and the highly praised. The Beatitudes are an exact inversion of our natural, instinctive assessments of our lives. Those who to us appear cursed are in fact called the blessed.
But whom was Jesus addressing? His audience clearly included a large number of Jews "from all Judea and Jerusalem," people, like Jesus, immersed in the Scriptures, what today we call the Old Testament. So today's reading from Jeremiah surely must shed light on the Beatitudes.
In Jeremiah, we see that cursed "is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh." Then, there is Jeremiah's beatitude: "Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord." The cursed will be "like a barren bush," while the blessed will be "like a tree planted beside the waters" which bears fruit and flourishes.
If our minds hear the echoes of the prophet Jeremiah in Jesus' words, we understand why the unfortunate, who appear to be cursed, are paradoxically the blessed. For it is the unfortunate suffering the slings and arrows of misfortune who can no longer trust in human beings. For most of the unfortunate, the betrayal of their fellow human beings is precisely the cause of many of their misfortunes. The unfortunate turn to God, while the fortunate are eager to continue to trust in their fellow human beings who shower them with esteem and praise.
In my view, the Beatitudes are a prediction of the passion of Christ when He becomes "cursed" in our eyes, when He becomes the man greatly distressed and troubled in his agony in the garden, the man who is betrayed and stripped of everything, the man hated and insulted by the mob, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman soldiers, the excluded man dying outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Yet, those who in our eyes appear to be "cursed" are in fact destined for glory just as the cross led to Jesus' glorification.
That glorification is the subject of the reading from 1 Corinthians where Paul famously states that the promise of the resurrection of the dead is the justification for our faith. Paul bluntly states that if "for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all." "This life only" is unavoidably one in which suffering, betrayal, and misfortune enter for all. The eschatological promise of glorification at the end of our earthly lives is what makes the unfortunate, who appear cursed yet trust in God, the blessed.