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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Feminist Confusion at Fordham University
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Saturday, March 20, 2004Feminist Confusion at Fordham University
Sister Elizabeth Johnson is a well-known and widely published feminist theologian at Fordham University. The problem is that she is peddling theological misinformation. A major example can be found in her writings on the priesthood. In 1996, she wrote a Commonweal article denying the teaching that reserves the priesthood to male candidates only. In the article, she speaks with the triumphalism of the Zeitgeist that the defenders of the all-male priesthood are losing the intellectual arguments on this issue. Her triumphalism is based on her own superficial engagement with the issue, not on reality.
In the Commonweal article, she makes three major arguments against the Pope's declaration in 1994 that the Church cannot, even if she desired to do so, ordain women to the priesthood. These are her three arguments:
1.) that Jesus Christ never ordained the twelve apostles as priests;
2.) that the Church has changed her official teachings on issues such as usury, slavery, the morality of pleasure in the marital act, "killing infidels as a way to salvation," discrimination against Jewish people, and the use of the historical critical method in biblical studies ;
3.) and that men are not exclusively the image or icon of Christ.
Source: Elizabeth Johnson, Commonweal, vol. 123 (Jan. 26, 1996): 8-10.
If we focus on each of her arguments, we see a pattern of superficiality and overblown rhetoric worthy of the defense lawyers at the O.J. Simpson trial. Let us take each argument in turn.
Johnson says that it is an anachronism to say that Jesus "ordained" the twelve apostles as "priests." This type of argument is not unusual among theological liberals. They will take a later term that evolved in Church history and claim that, because that term is not found in the New Testament, that the reality behind the term never existed in the New Testament. The fallacy involved here is the confusion of form with substance. The vocabulary of the Church changes-- after all, like Jesus himself, the Church is "incarnated" in a particular historical setting-- but that does not necessarily mean that the reality behind differing terms has not always been present.
In the gospels, Jesus sets the Twelve apart from the wider group of disciples for special instruction and mission (Mt. 10; Mk 3:13-19; Lk 6:12-16; Jn 6:67-71). And, of course, in the Synoptic Gospels, we have Jesus instituting the Eucharist and commanding its celebration by the Twelve. In the Gospel of John, Jesus in addition breathes the Holy Spirit on the apostles (except for Thomas who was absent) and grants them the power to forgive and retain sins (Jn 20:19-24; cp. Mt 16:18-19 and Lk 24:45-51). In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands the Eleven to baptize new disciples. Clearly, Jesus sets apart the apostles with a special and distinct mission with special powers. To say that this special appointment of the Twelve is not "ordination" is just playing word games.
And, of course, our term "priest" refers to that reality, and as Johnson surely knows our English word "priest" derives from the New Testament Greek word "presbyter" which refers to an "elder" in the church. Yet, she plays a semantic sleight of hand by telling the reader that the reality encompassed by the English word "priest" is absent from the New Testament. Yet, not only is the reality and substance of the priesthood present in the New Testament, but the Apostle Paul even explicitly refers to himself as a priest in Romans: "But on some points I have written to you boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:15-16 RSV). In this passage, Paul uses a Greek verb referring to acting as a priest; one reference source translates the passage as meaning to "serve the gospel as a priest" (see Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 373). In addition, Peter refers to himself as an elder or "presbyter" in 1 Peter 5:1.
Possibly sensing that she may be skating on thin ice, Johnson wraps up her first argument by saying that, even if Jesus did ordain the apostles, the Church can always change this practice. Well, now Johnson is raising the issue of sacramental matter. If Jesus did ordain the apostles, then we have a sacrament instituted by Christ Himself. In each sacrament, the sacramental matter refers to "that part of a sacrament with which or to which something is done in order to confer grace, e.g., water in baptism, chrism in confirmation, bread and wine in the Eucharist" (Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary under "Matter of a Sacrament"). The "matter" of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by Christ's own sovereign choice, includes only males as candidates. The Church has no more the power to change the matter of the sacrament of Holy Orders than she has the power to substitute rice cakes for bread in the Eucharist or oil for water in Baptism.
In sum, Johnson's first argument that Jesus did not ordain the apostles to the priesthood is contrary to the Scriptural witness, let alone the tradition of the Church.
In her second argument, Johnson argues that, because the Church allegedly changed her teachings on ethical or practical issues such as interest-bearing loans, slavery, killing infidels as a way to salvation, religious discrimination, the moral character of sexual pleasure in marriage, and the historical critical method, the Church can change her teachings on the composition of the priesthood. A full response to this laundry list would require many pages. Yet, any reader can see that she has overextended herself and is comparing apples and oranges. To my knowledge, none of the specific practical resolutions of the issues she raises was ever declared a matter of divine revelation, and none of those highly specific and concrete applications is necessarily connected to matters of divine revelation. As to economic interest, the Old Testament did prohibit the taking of any interest from a fellow Israelite in Deuteronomy 23:19, but Jesus himself reflected the development of the Jewish tradition on this monetary matter by referring, in a matter of fact fashion, to interest paid by bankers in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:27 (see The Revell Bible Dictionary under "usury"). Moreover, Johnson's crude characterization of the crusades as teaching that "killing infidels [was] a way to salvation" is clearly a distortion. The focus of the crusades was not killing, but the recovery of the Holy Land precisely from those who did indeed (and many of whom still) believe that killing infidels is a way to salvation. Johnson even claims that the Church officially taught that sexual pleasure in marriage was evil. Frankly, I do not know what official Church teaching she is talking about. All I can say is that the great Church Father St. Augustine, who heavily influenced Catholic teaching on sexuality, viewed "sexual pleasure, sought temperately and rationally" as moral (See Lawler, Boyle, & May, Catholic Sexual Ethics [OSV Publishing, 1998], p. 52).
In contrast, the issue of Holy Orders relates directly to the matter of a sacrament instituted by Christ and thus is necessarily connected to the divine revelation of the New Covenant by Jesus Christ himself. The issue of women's ordination is not just an issue of concretely applying a broad ethical norm or principle, as is the case in virtually all of the items in Johnson's laundry list of allegedly changed official teachings. The only item on the laundry list not involving an ethical norm is that of the historical critical method in biblical studies, and, clearly, that is an issue of the acceptability and scope of a particular and contingent scholarly technique that certainly does not rise to the level of theological importance held by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. As said before, she is comparing apples and oranges and hopes that the jury won't notice.
Johnson gives as a final example of the Church's alleged ability to depart from Scripture (a sign that she is not so sure that Scripture is on her side) the notion that we must ignore Paul's view that Adam was a single individual in order to evaluate properly the scientific hypothesis of polygenism. In general, polygenism holds that human beings had multiple origins instead of a single origin in Adam. In sharp contrast to Johnson's argument implying that we must reject St. Paul in this matter, Pius XII and Paul VI have taught that polygenism is highly suspect in this broadly defined sense and discouraged its embrace by Catholics. These popes certainly did not contradict or ignore St. Paul.
But the more significant problem with Johnson's argument is that she is using "polygenism" in an ambiguous sense which, true to form, she leaves undefined.
Even if one feels compelled to accept polygenism as a valid scientific theory, an argument has indeed been proposed by which Catholics can reconcile some form of polygenism with the idea of a single human ancestor as affirmed by St. Paul. But what is meant by "polygenism" must be precisely defined:
Earl Muller, S.J., "The Magisterium and Human Origins," The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Autumn 2003: 510 (bold emphasis added).
As I understand the argument by Muller, polygenism does not necessarily mean that we had several different primordial or founding human ancestors each endowed with immortal souls who initiated different lines of descent for humanity--what Johnson must assume in order to say that polygenism contradicts St. Paul's insistence that Adam was a single individual. Polygenism can merely refer to a "process of bodily formation" which does not exclude true humanity as having one true single human ancestor who was the first creature endowed with a "divinely created immortal soul" and from whom all humanity in turn descends (Muller, pp. 507, 510). Again, Johnson inflates and overstates matters in order to conclude that the Church is required to depart from or ignore Scripture by modern developments. (In any event, no one is required to affirm polygenism. As noted above, Pius XII and Paul VI warned that polygenism in its general outlines is highly suspect. It is a matter of scientific speculation and is not set in stone. The paleontologists proposing polygenism could change their minds tomorrow.)
Johnson's final argument is that women are as much the image of Christ as men. Here Johnson is making a general statement that cannot carry the conclusion she wishes it to carry. What does she mean when she says that women are also in the image of Christ? Well, I assume that she means that women are created, as males, in the image and likeness of God who is Christ. With that, there can be no argument (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 369). But to draw from this general statement the conclusion that the male priest does not have a special and distinctive iconic role in representing Christ is unjustified and requires ignoring a decisive and ubiquitous theme in the rest of Scriptural revelation. In the Old Testament, God is the Bridegroom of Israel and Jerusalem. In the New Testament, Christ reveals himself to be that Bridegroom as an essential aspect of his identity. Paul affirms that the relation of Christ to the Church is that of Bridegroom and Bride (Ephesians 5: 31-32). Thus, the priest as male does have a unique and distinctive iconic role in representing Christ as Husband and Bridegroom. That distinctive iconic role is a matter of direct divine revelation in the Scriptures and cannot be conveniently ignored.
In sum, the three legs of Johnson's feminist argument for ordination of women collapse one by one if you take a hard look at her ambiguous and misleading use of terminology and if you take a hard look at Scripture. Her arguments have more to do with contemporary sociology than with theology and Scripture. My final advice to Johnson is that she walk over to Fordham's law school and learn to carefully define her terms of argumentation. That is a better aspect of legal rhetoric to imitate than the "smoke and mirror" style of argument found among some celebrity trial lawyers.
Friday, March 19, 2004Wojtyla's Love and Responsibility
In the past, George Weigel has noted the explosive potential impact of the Pope's theology of the body. Recently, the Catholic media noted that the Pope's theology of the body has become so popular that lay people have even started study groups to pour over his writings. Having read the Pope's Wednesday audience addresses collected and published as the Theology of the Body by the Sisters of St. Paul, I knew that portions of the Pope's addresses made for quite difficult reading. But then I came across what Karol Wojtyla wrote back in 1960 well before he became pope. As I began dipping into Love and Responsibilty, I could now understand what Weigel was referring to. The writing is much easier to understand than that in the papal addresses; and the subject is, to say the least, gripping. In a modern world, where pornography is now so ubiquitous that even advertisements in respectable newspapers are unmistakably pornographic in character, it is a relief to read something deeply interesting about our sexuality that is not oriented to our basest instincts of using the bodies of others for our own pleasure.
Here are a few selections from Love and Responsibility. They resonate with the truth of our human experiences. They lift the vision to a horizon that many of us have been miseducated to think is a fiction. They propose a liberating challenge.
In commenting on carnal concupiscence, Wojtyla points us beyond the mere sensual reaction:
Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 150 (originally published in Polish in 1960).
We have always known what Wojtyla is referring to, but think of the last time you heard anyone in our secular society refer to this fundamental distinction. It is amazing to see advice columnists peddle counsel in newspapers that makes no mention of this crucial distinction between viewing a person truthfully as a person and viewing a person as just "body and sex."
But Wojtyla is careful to point out that mere concupiscence is not itself sin:
Wojtyla, pp. 160-61.
No wonder our secular ways are so dysfunctional. We do not recognize actual sin, much less the background of original sin. So it is not surprise that many of our interactions and marriages end in disaster. What is surprising is that the divorce rate is not greater than 50%. But then again many do not even bother with marriage any more.
And then there is the great lie we and our culture love to tell: love is what feels good. Wojtyla unmasks the great lie:
Wojtyla, p. 163.
And so our emotional subjectivism "is commonly the origin of egoism--though this egoism (egoism of the senses)-- is experienced as 'love', and is often so called, just as what is only a particular form of 'enjoying' the person was called 'loving' " (Wojtyla, p. 165).
In contrast to a purely negative view of chastity, Wojtyla views as mistaken the view that chastity is "one long 'no' " (p. 170). Rather, he points to the opposite:
Wojtyla, p. 171.
In the end, our society with its intentional and manipulative bombardment of sensual images in fashion and in all forms of media is focused on submerging us in concupiscence and emotionalism run amock:
Wojtyla, p. 124.
Anyone reading the words of Wojtyla knows how providential it was that he is today the third longest serving pope. He is surely the pope for our times. If Catholic high schools would dare to put Love and Responsibility in the hands of their students, the true and authentic sexual revolution would begin.
Thursday, March 18, 2004Ohio Episcopalians Throw Down the Gauntlet
With media attention understandably focused on the general presidential election which has already begun with early ferocity and international events, the mainstream media will not give much space to the continued civil war in the Episcopal Church. The latest event in that war is the gauntlet recently thrown down by traditional Ohio Episcopalians who gathered, 800 strong, to celebrate the confirmation of about 100 persons from several congregations in an Eastern Orthodox church. The gauntlet was that the service was presided over not by the local ultra-liberal Ohio Episcopal bishop but by several conservative bishops, including one from Brazil (see story from Cleveland's Plain Dealer newspaper).
In the small world of American Episcopalianism, that is a big deal because it defies the territorial supremacy of the local bishop. The local liberal bishop, Clark Grew, voted to approve the first openly gay bishop in the denomination in 2003. In the past, the same liberal bishop approved the installation of an openly lesbian dean to be in charge of the Episcopal cathedral in Cleveland (see the recent public statement of Dean Tracey Lind in support of pioneering "Domestic Partnership" legislation in a liberal Cleveland suburb; scroll to page 7 of linked document). That is what is going on in a supposedly Christian denomination.
And for Catholics it is disturbing that, at least in the past, Cleveland's Catholic bishop, Anthony Pilla, was proud to point out that he met frequently for friendly discussions with his liberal Episcopal counterpart. If that is still going on, it should certainly stop. In my opinion, such closeness was inappropriate to begin with given the clear anti-Christian tendencies of the local Episcopal bishop. Even worse, in 2000, Bishop Pilla signed an ecumenical "covenant" with the local liberal Episcopal bishop (and the local Lutheran bishop) (see parish bulletin announcement). That covenant has been broken by Episcopal Bishop Grew, and should be rescinded. Yet, the so-called "covenant" is still on the official website of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. The language of the covenant is quite disturbing because it foresees close cooperation even on theological matters such as liturgy.
But the news is even worse. In an astoundingly Orwellian twist, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland recently bestowed on liberal, pro-gay Episcopal bishop Clark Grew an award for promoting Christian unity-- in January of 2004, even after his clear support for revising Christian teaching on homosexuality (see Catholic Diocese of Cleveland website). All of this after the highly publicized approval by Grew and others of the new gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. Grew has not promoted Christian unity. He has broken it. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has some explaining to do.
It is all a question of betrayal. If you visit the Episcopal cathedral in Cleveland, located across the street from the local state university, you will find a beautiful, old, and grand gothic church built generously by prior generations. The faith and piety of those prior generations have been rejected, but the assets retained. The Episcopal revisionists have broken faith with those who invested their lives and resources for the glory of God. From all indications, they will continue on that course. It is a sad spectacle to see the earnest faith of prior generations so radically betrayed and gutted.
Yet, it is inspiring to see the brave souls who defy the established powers in a denomination that has traded its Christian tradition for a new Gnosticism misusing Christian labels. All Christians have a stake in their bravery, and we should applaud them.
Wednesday, March 17, 2004Through Mary's Eyes
The Mel Gibson moving is opening the eyes of many to the role of Mary in our own Christian journey. It reminds me of an old religious print showing Jesus and Mary side-by-side with this Latin inscription underneath: "Cor Jesu Adveniat Regnum Tuum * Adveniat Per Mariam"-- in English, "Heart of Jesus, May Your Kingdom Come * May it Come Through Mary." Many Protestants and Catholics are re-awakening to this crucial aspect of the Christian revelation.
It is not simply a matter of homespun piety and custom. It is not even a matter, as many are now realizing, for Catholics alone. Hans Urs von Balthasar thought it crucial to our Christian discipleship:
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 44-45 (emphasis added).
Those words were first published in German in 1987, about seventeen years before the movie opened. The movie's resonance with the words of one of the greatest theologian of the twentieth century again shows the depth of the movie as a work of art, contrary to carping and ill-informed critics. (I include in this class of criticism some portions at least of the official movie review posted by the U.S. Bishops' conference, a review which strains at a gnat in making some of its criticisms of the movie, while the bishops' conference as a whole tends to swallow a camel on so many other more pressing matters under its jurisdiction.)
Yet, we need not have looked so far and for so sophisticated a source for the theological background for Gibson's masterful depiction of the relationship between Mother and Son. It was there all along in the old religious print. It was there all along in the much maligned old Baltimore Catechism which urged its young readers to:
Source: The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism (N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing, 1964) (back cover).
In an era when the Archbishop of New Orleans, in his capacity as head of a committee reviewing catechetical texts, recently commented that most religion texts used in Catholic high schools are inadequate presentations of the faith and when I myself as a parent can testify to the "fluffy" and mediocre nature of some of the textbooks used for first communicants, we could do (and have done) much worse than to re-introduce an updated version of the Baltimore Catechism. If some publisher takes up the challenge, I think we would see a boom in sales for the simple reason that people want and yearn for substance. The same yearning for substance evident in the numbers paying to see The Passion.
The cinematic phenomenon we are now witnessing also confirms the ecumenical teaching of Vatican II. Any Baptist, Methodist, or Lutheran who looks at Jesus as Mary did is closely linked, however imperfectly, to the one Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004Faculty Positions at Nashville's Aquinas College
Sister Mary Justin, Academic Vice-President of Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, has asked me to post a notice to our readers interested in applying for an academic or administrative assistant position at her college. The college is committed to the vision of John Paul II as set forth in Ex Corde Eccclesiae. There may be other faculty positions available in addition to the business positions described below. Please contact sister directly for more information.
Below is the relevant descriptive and contact information:
About Aquinas College
Aquinas College, a small Catholic institution located on a beautiful
92-acre campus in west Nashville, was founded in 1961 by the Dominican
Sisters of St. Cecilia ("Nashville Dominicans"). The Dominican
Sisters have more than 140 years of experience providing education in a
value-centered, Christian learning environment permeated with faith.
At Aquinas College, liberal arts are at the heart of all of our
programs of study. In addition to studies in Liberal Arts, we have
concentrated our professional degree programs on three areas in which we
believe our students can make a tremendous impact on today's culture:
business, education, and nursing. Encouraged by the Church's message
to colleges and universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Aquinas desires "to
determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various
disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the
world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in
Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and human history" (#16).
Thus, we consider it important that candidates be committed to the
Catholic moral tradition. Catholic applicants are preferred, but all
applicants are expected to uphold this moral tradition and the Mission
of Aquinas College.
Aquinas College is currently accepting applications for full-time
faculty positions for the Bachelor of Business Administration Degree, a
young program that seeks to fulfill the challenge of Ex Corde Ecclesiae
by 'providing an education in a faith context that forms men and women
capable of rational and critical judgment and conscious of the
transcendent dignity of the human person with professional training that
incorporates ethical values and a sense of service to individuals and to
society' (ECE #49).
Requirements: Applicants must be doctorally prepared in business or a
related field and have significant coursework in management. Those who
are currently in pursuit of doctoral studies may be considered.
Teaching experience is preferred.
Interested candidates should submit the following: 1) resume, 2) cover
letter outlining specific qualifications for the position, teaching
philosophy, teaching experience and specific interest in Aquinas
College, 3) unofficial transcripts of graduate coursework, and 4) name
and contact information for three references.
Reply to Search Committee, c/o Sister Mary Justin, Aquinas College,
4210 Harding Road, Nashville, TN 37205.
615-297-7545 ext 425 fax: 615-279-3892
Appeasement in Spanish: "Apaciguamiento"
David Brooks, the semi-conservative columnist for the New York Times (who also regularly appears on the Friday evening Lehrer News Hour on PBS) has delivered the undeniable bad news (see David Brooks, "Al Qaeda's Wish List," Mar. 16, 2004, Opinion section, free reg'n required). The victory of the socialist party in Spain rewarded the terror attack of March 11th. Now, the terrorists will likely seek to target Britain in a pre-election attack in an effort to unseat Tony Blair--although that will be more complicated given that Blair is the leader of the Labor or "socialist" party in Britain, and I doubt that the return to power of British Conservatives will better serve terrorist aims. But I also doubt that Al Qaeda will bother with such fine points. Other countries like Italy and Poland that have troops supporting the reconstruction of Iraq will also likely be targeted at election time. And, of course, we in the United States are not immune, and we are in an election year.
The new Spanish socialist leader Zapatero is the Iberian Neville Chamberlain. His public comments show a recklessness that is playing to the script ruthlessly dictated by the terrorists. On September 11th, Al-Qaeda opened the way to its eventual destruction as the U.S. methodically removed the terrorist controlled government of Afghanistan that sheltered Al-Qaeda. The emergence of a free and democratic Iraq will also be a major blow against the appeal of the Islamist extremism of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and will address the root causes of such extremism. This effort is, as President Bush says, a "forward strategy" in the war on terrorism.
In contrast, after the March 11th attack, the Spanish public responded with embarrassing appeasement. Mr. Brooks asks in his column what the Spanish word for "appeasement" is. As a Hispanic, it pains me to give him the answer: apaciguamiento.
The best hope at this point is that political reality, pressure, and common sense will lead the new Spanish leader to realize that appeasement is making the rest of Europe a target for more attacks. The leaders of the rest of Europe must stop the Spanish retreat into appeasement. It is ironic that the new Spanish leader who boasts of "rejoining" Europe is the biggest danger that European security now faces. If the other Europeans can reign him in and pressure him to continue to cooperate with the reconstruction of Iraq, Europe and the rest of the world will be more secure, and Al-Qaeda will be denied a major victory.
As to Spain itself, as an observer of Spanish society, I expect that the socialists will mismanage the economy by retreating from the economic policy of the outgoing party that has resulted in a good economy. The immediate post-election decline in the Spanish stock market signals the continuing lack of confidence in socialist economic policy. The voters will eventually throw the disappointing socialists out again, as they did in 1996. In the meantime, Al-Quaeda will relish its biggest victory so far in the war on terror and launch other attacks.
There is something ugly and base going on here, as Mr. Brooks points out. Apparently, many voters in Spain are seeking a "separate peace" with the terrorists: attack others but leave us alone. Such an approach does not work with homegrown criminals. It will not work with international terrorists. It is a delusion that the delusionary politicians of the Spanish left are only too willing to encourage in order to attain their dreams of political power.
In the face of this appeasement, is there any special contribution to enlightening this situation that a Catholic perspective can make? In the gospels, Jesus teaches non-violence (Matt. 5:38-42; Luke 6:27-30) in a clear elevation of prior stages of biblical teaching on the treatment of enemies. But what does Jesus' teaching mean in the face of ruthless terrorism?
Let us take a look at a very mainstream and moderate Catholic biblical commentary, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary commenting on the part of Matthew in which Jesus speaks of turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies:
Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., Commentary on "The Gospel According to Matthew," The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 644, section 36 (commenting on Matthew 5:38-48)(emphasis added).
Gandhi faced a democratic Great Britain in the 1940s in India. Martin Luther King, Jr., faced, with the increasing sympathy of the federal government and the assistance of federal courts, federal marshals, and even the national guard, segregationists in a South that was a regional minority in a free society with a free press. Al-Qaeda is not on the same moral level as the British administration in India in the 1940s or the U.S. government in the 1960s. As a result, the appeasement evident now in Spain--which in the long run engenders more violence-- is not the appropriate response.
Monday, March 15, 2004Sudden Death and the Gospels
Last Sunday's Gospel is quite thought-provoking in light of the March 11th train bombings in Madrid. The gospel passage is from Luke 13:1-9, and consists of two parts. The first part shows Jesus using two recent tragedies to urge his audience to timely repentance to avoid perishing. The second part is the parable of the fig tree in which the unfruitful fig tree is given one last chance to bear fruit before being cut down.
The two tragedies referred to by Jesus are: 1.) Pilate's killing of Galileans "while [they were] sacrificing in the temple at Jerusalem," as noted by the New Oxford Annotated Bible; and 2.) the collapse of a tower killing eighteen people. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary states that these two catastrophes "did not overwhelm these folks [the audience] because they [the dead] were notorious sinners." (I do not know why the commentator seems so sure that the dead were "notorious sinners," other than Jesus' own words of warning to his audience which imply that his audience held that view.)
In any event, the commentaries I have checked seem pretty clear on the basic meaning of the passage. The New Jerusalem Bible states the meaning tersely: "The meaning of both [tragedies] is clear: sin is not the immediate cause of this or that calamity (cf. Jn 9: 3), but such disasters as these are providential invitations to repentance." (John 9:3 is the story of the healing of the man blind from birth.) The Navarre Bible states that the "two tragedies . . . should not be blamed on the sins of those who died; no, they are a call to conversion."
Yet, the Oxford Annotated Bible diverges somewhat from this consensus by stating that:
Jesus does not argue here (as in Mt 5.45) for a disconnection between natural and moral good and evil. Here suffering represents God's judgment and is a call to repentance lest spiritual catastrophe overtake his hearers.
The Oxford Bible's point that Jesus is not necessarily arguing that moral evil does not lead to natural evil or catastrophe seems to contradict the gloss from the New Jerusalem Bible which sees a continuity between Jesus' words here and Jesus' healing of the man blind from birth in John 9. In that healing of the blind man, Jesus responds to a question from his disciples about whose sin was responsible for the man's being born blind. Jesus replies that "[n]either he [the man blind from birth] nor his parents sinned, . . . he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him" (John 9:3).
So the question about this passage can be narrowed to this: were the sudden catastrophe and suffering that befell these people a judgment on their sins? In Matthew 5:45, Jesus' statement that the Father "causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike," weighs against viewing the catastrophe itself as a judgment on the sins of the dead. As to suffering, Jesus' words from John 9:3 that the man was born blind so that "the works of God might be revealed" also weighs against viewing the suffering involved in the tragedies as being in itself a judgment for sin. In the case of unexpected tragedies, we have no choice but to read Scripture as a whole and in the context of all the canonical gospels. Even lawyers do that in interpreting their statute books. We owe at least the same care to a statement from the gospels. Yet, we must be careful to note that we do not know exact details about the activities of the Galileans executed by Pilate. Some catastrophes are indeed connected to our moral behavior: violent or arrogant behavior tends to provoke retaliation, and promiscuity can result in sexually transmitted diseases. So our sins can and do create unnecessarily early death and suffering.
In sum, what then can we conclude after seeing that not even erudite commentators are of one mind on all the aspects raised by last Sunday's Gospel reading? In my view, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary seems to get it right when it focuses on the parable of the unfruitful fig tree: "[I]t is a parable of crisis, which should light a fire under procrastinators and other unproductive disciples." A sense of crisis permeates the gospels. Jesus is preaching an eschatological message, at times with apocalyptic imagery.
For each of us, our individual death is an eschaton or last thing. The traditional Catholic listing of the "Four Last Things" as Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell is instructive. Nowadays, you will rarely find Catholics referring to the "Four Last Things." The only time I recall seeing a recent liturgical reference is in a missal for an approved Tridentine liturgy. We do not need to speculate about the date when the world will end. My individual earthly world and existence will end at my own death at an unforeseen time (unless we are alive at the time of the Second Coming and undergo some other kind of transformation). That is the realism behind traditional Catholic prayers for a "good death."
It is fitting that for free, intelligent, but fallen creatures that the timing of the end is uncertain for most of our lives. Otherwise, we would naturally seek to misuse that information to accommodate through manipulation our inherited tendency to sin. In my view, when Jesus points out the two recent tragedies to his audience, he does not appear to be saying that the tragedies in themselves are judgments for sin, but that the tragedies are the setting for that judgment. Our unforeseen moment of death is not a punishment for our sins, but the setting for judging our sins. Death itself is an effect of original sin and so falls on all of us. But death is the setting for judging our individual actual sins. That moment, more or less, comes to both the good and the wicked by surprise. Some deal with illness as a journey to that final moment. Others, such as both the good and the bad who filled the trains in Madrid on March 11th do not undergo or complete that journey of illness. The unexpected tragedies of others that those rail commuters had witnessed or heard about during their own lives had already, or ought to have already, taught them that the same could happen to them. The message then is indeed clear: living is an urgent matter.
Sunday, March 14, 2004John Paul Is 3rd Longest Serving Pope: Amen
This picture was taken Feb. 17, 2004, less than a month ago. Let us rejoice, while some liberals and "conclave" journalists pull out their hairs in exasperation. Source: AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti.
Brooklyn Bishop: Voters Can't Support Immoral Laws
The Catholic News Service reports that Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, has already written to his flock warning them that the American idea of separation of church and state has misled some into thinking that they can cast their votes without considering Church teaching. The bishop makes clear that no Catholic should vote for a candidate promoting immoral laws. The bishop also states that Catholics have "a basic obligation" to participate in political life-- the approach of washing one's hands of the matter is not an option. It is good to see a bishop getting the message out early. Let us hope that many more will follow. Any Catholic with any minimal knowledge of our political parties understands the message the bishop is sending in the abstract language that bishops use in discussing an upcoming election.