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 15, 2005Lutherans Try to Please All on Gay Issue
A reader recently sent me the link to a New York Times article (free reg'n required) (1/14/05) reporting that the Evangelical Lutheran Church--the more liberal of the two major Lutheran denominations--is trying to avoid the fiasco created by its official partner church, the Episcopal Church, on the gay issue by retaining "policies" against gay relationships but refusing to enforce them. Of course, this approach is what all orthodox Christians of any denomination have always been unable to understand. It is an approach which puts "reconciliation" or getting along above a matter of fundamental truth. This issue is not a matter of overlooking minor differences on liturgy or on certain optional religious beliefs such as whether you believe in a particular Marian apparition not formally recognized by the Church. This issue goes to the heart of marriage which mirrors the very relationship of Christ and the Church.
The Lutheran task force that recommended this approach obviously finds the truth to be an optional concern. The main focus is to allow everyone to be true to their conscience. But, if conscience is the voice of God speaking intimately to each person, then conscience cannot directly contradict the biblical revelation that homosexual acts are gravely sinful. What the task force is really doing is saying that being members of the same dues-paying club is more important than divine revelation. Getting along with the group is more important than the truth.
You would think that Lutherans, with their strong German heritage, would be a bit apprehensive about that emphasis on "group think." Like it or not, this subordination of truth to getting along is what led many Germans in another era to cooperate with the Holocaust. But at least some of those Germans could try to make the claim that they too would have been executed if they had resisted. But in this current situation the truth is given up quite easily even when there is no fear of physical persecution or punishment.
What the Lutheran task force recommendation tells us is that this particular Lutheran denomination does not find biblical revelation to be binding at all. Ironically, these particular Lutherans have gone from "sola Scriptura"--the traditional rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation started by Luther--to "sola conscientia" or "conscience alone" where conscience is given the freedom to directly contradict the clear biblical teaching. We are back at the Garden of Eden where our first parents sought to be like gods independent of the expressed will of the one God. So the real rallying cry for these modern Lutherans is better termed "sola ego"--"only I" as in only I determine what is right or wrong.
For Catholics, the fact that the revolutionary Reformation call for "sola Scriptura" has ended in this latest call for replacing divine revelation with our own independent personal choices is no surprise. From the very beginning, it was inevitable that the divorce of Scripture from the Church that gave us the canon of Scripture and from her living Tradition, a divorce that took place during the Reformation, would have ended up with the supremacy of personal convenience over biblical revelation. The great irony is that without Peter, without the papacy, the Protestant Reformation has ended up betraying the Bible. Like so many other revolutions, the revolution of the Reformation has failed and betrayed the very thing it sought to honor. I think even Luther would say in retrospect that his rebellion was not worth that.
Friday, January 14, 2005Pray for Iraq Elections
As most people know, the election in Iraq is set for January 30th, and the fanatics are doing everything possible to get the election postponed or to cow people into staying home on that day. It is a clear battle of good versus evil. The forces of good want free elections so that a democratic majority can determine the future of Iraq. The forces of evil want an Iraq with no elections--ever. The forces of evil want the permanent rule of might over right, a regime of terror over free expression. All of us should pray that the elections take place and are successfully concluded.
As this Fox news story shows, the various terrorists groups are obsessed with intimidating the people into not voting. One group has announced it will attack voting centers on election day. What are they so scared about? Why do free elections in which anyone can run scare them so much? One can only conclude that the terrorists hate democracy and plan to impose a totalitarian government again on Iraq. There is no moral ambiguity here. The Palestinians recently held their own historic election in the wake of the death of Arafat. It's now Iraq's turn. Let's pray for the good guys. The line between good and evil could not be clearer.
Thursday, January 13, 2005MSM Met Its Waterloo
Many are saying that the biggest story of 2004 is not the election or even the terrible tsunami disaster late in the year. The story that will have the greatest long-term impact in the U.S. and presumably elsewhere is the media revolution of 2004. The initials "MSM" have now entered the vocabulary to replace the phrase "mainstream media," the term that brings to mind the elitist organs of the liberal establishment that we all know so well: the N.Y. Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, and their devout second tier imitators in cities throughout the land.
In today's Opinion Journal Online, Peggy Noonan relishes in the blogger revolution that took down CBS over Dan Rather's embrace of forged memos in a frenetic attempt to throw the election to Kerry. As usual, Noonan is exhilarating to read. But the most telling point in her column is that even as liberal an establishment figure as Howard Fineman of Newsweek, who is ubiquitous as a TV pundit, admits that a revolution has indeed occurred.
Without descending to the unnecessarily personal, I must make clear my own opinion that Fineman is a caricature of all that is wrong with the MSM. His political commentary isn't worth a nickel. Remember, he was the one who thought Kerry was great at the Democratic Convention. Fineman reminds me of some other experts I have encountered: most of the time you are better off embracing the exact opposite of what the expert has just so definitively and vehemently concluded.
Fineman specializes in the bland and foggy platitudes of a Manhattan/D.C. liberal mindset. How someone so out of touch with political reality gets to comment regularly on politics is what has really wounded the mainstream media. Rathergate was just the icing on the cake. Long ago, many of us began to tune out the Howard Finemans of the MSM when we realized that their "reporting" and "analysis" take place in front of a mirror. So to have such an out-of-touch MSM figure like Fineman finally--apparently--face reality is indeed revolutionary.
Unlike the MSM, for the rest of us, the internet revolution is not a threat but rather an outlet for our passion for ideas. For Catholics who are passionate about the truth, the internet revolution is an indispensable tool in the New Evangelization. Catholic blogs will always let you know that you are not alone, no matter how crazy our culture becomes. And knowing you are not alone has a way of dissipating the fear that fuels mindless conformity. And from that comes courage--ironically, the same word that Dan Rather, in a fit of noblesse oblige, used to intone so earnestly.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005God, Science, and Closing Gaps
Between an article commemorating Einstein's 1905 scientific achievements and some recent excerpts from the writings of Protestant evangelist John Stott commenting on religion and science, I am led to give some more thought to the relation of God and science. In a recent e-mail excerpt from Stott's writings, he mentions the old term "the God of the gaps"--an old secular taunt claiming that theists make use of God to explain only what science can't explain. The anti-religious argument is that, as science closes the gaps in our knowledge, God becomes increasingly redundant.
Two observations come to mind. First, as Stott himself pointed out in another e-mail excerpt, our scientific explanations in fact point to an intelligent designer. Stott quoted a remark by the famous astronomer Kepler that scientific explanation "think[s] God's thoughts after him" (see Stott link). So to "close the gaps" through science does not mean God is unnecessary. To the contrary, when science does manage to give us explanations, science puts a spotlight on the complexity and elegant beauty of our universe, a complexity, elegance, and beauty that point to intelligent design. Recently, longtime atheist philosopher Antony Flew abandoned his atheism precisely for this reason: science has shown us a universe so amazingly complex that it calls for an intelligent designer. And, as Aquinas would say, the intelligent designer of the universe is what all men call God. Whatever Einstein's personal religious views, he had the same sense of nature as ordered and awesome beauty.
So when science "closes the gaps," science is not excluding God. Rather, science is pointing even more vehemently to the necessary existence of God. So the "closing the gap" criticism of religion is off-base. It is a criticism that assumes that humans stop asking why after being given a scientific explanation. Humans never stop asking why. And that why points to intelligent design. People will always express wonder and amazement at what science discovers as marks of their human intelligence and rationality.
But there is an even more immediate problem with the claim that scientific explanations squeeze out God. Does science really close any gaps? Can science really fully--and I mean fully--explain anything? Science is always evolving. Science is always revising itself. That self-revision is the distinctive modus operandi of science. But, if science has supposedly closed any gaps, why does science need to revise itself? Einstein is, of course, the stellar example of someone upsetting an older grand scientific vision: the Newtonian view of reality. Einstein showed that Newtonian physics was an incomplete picture--it had not closed the gap. And certainly Einstein himself did not produce a complete explanation of our world. Cosmologists still struggle to learn more. Do we really think that at some point the cosmologists will tie all the loose ends together? To think that is the worst sort of superstition, even if it has a scientific and modern flavor to it.
But we don't have to enter the realm of physics and cosmology to see how incomplete our scientific knowledge always has been and always will be, short of the Second Coming. Medicine is the science that the average person is most intimately familiar with in his daily life. And medicine is an example of science at its best in saving and extending lives in new and creative ways. But medicine is also a constant reminder of how much scientists do not know. Many people go from specialist to specialist who are at a loss to explain what really ails the patient. One day cholesterol is the key to preventing heart disease. The next day the media reports that a previously ignored protein is the key to preventing heart disease that will now displace the starring role of cholesterol. All of us know, firsthand, that so much medicine is just trying something--with side-effects--and seeing if it works, whether we understand why it works or not. A less flattering description would be "trial and error." It seems that much of the rest of science is the same way. We can predict certain events, but we really don't know why we can do so. All we know is that it works.
So, when someone claims that scientific progress makes God unnecessary, remember that science rarely, if ever, tells us why something really works. Much, if not all, of science merely gives us the pragmatic conclusion that something works in most cases until the next scientist proves otherwise. The authentic scientist is the one who, like Socrates, is painfully aware of how much he or she does not know. Science cannot close the "why" gap. Only God closes that gap.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005Annulments as a Tool of Evangelization
Recently, I asked an experienced Catholic evangelist what were some good ways to evangelize at the parish level. One of the items he mentioned was holding a parish talk on annulments. The reason educating people on annulments is a valuable evangelization tool is that many divorced Catholics fail to look into the possibility of a declaration of nullity. If divorced Catholics are also "remarried" outside the Church, then the failure to obtain an annulment means that they cannot receive the Eucharist, although they are still welcome to attend Mass, participate in parish activities, and certainly raise their children as Catholics. (Note that a divorce alone, without "remarriage," does not bar a Catholic from the Eucharist.) Like many, I favor the term "declaration of nullity" because it makes clear that in an annulment the Church is not undoing a marriage but rather declaring that there was no valid marriage from the very beginning of the relationship.
An excellent site for an expert (and fascinating) discussion of declarations of nullity is run by the Archdiocese of Boston at this link. Since I am no expert in canon law and since it is no use to paraphrase what is already concisely written, I reproduce below a portion of the information at the Boston website. This excerpt concerns the contention that there are too many declarations of nullity in the U.S. and that the process has become a form of "Catholic divorce." As the excerpt below explains, the large number of declarations of nullity in the U.S. is due to procedural changes in Church law, to the funds and resources that U.S. dioceses can afford to dedicate to Church tribunals (in contrast to poorer Catholic dioceses in the rest of the world), and, most significantly, to the anti-Christian cultural values permeating American culture. Here is the excerpt in a question and answer format:
"13. There are too many declarations granted in the United States - NO.
The United States vs. other countries
In the last twenty years, the numbers of declarations are much higher in this country than they had been in the past. Yet this is due to the fact that the procedural laws governing marriage cases were expanded in the late 1960's. Cases no longer had to go to Rome. They could be adjudicated locally. The appellate system was also somewhat streamlined. Furthermore, Roman jurisprudence was expanded in the light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Cases could be heard on new grounds of jurisprudence.
Tribunals across the United States are operative so that individuals may vindicate their rights. The bishops of our country have invested personnel and resources to ensure the church's jurisprudence and procedural law are fulfilled. Unfortunately, such an investment in justice is not as evident in other parts of the world. This is why the numbers in the United States appear high. In fact they are skewed.
Cultural factors in the United States
There has been much written in the faith community that First World countries - especially the United States - have fallen into the trap of materialism and hedonism. The American culture is commonly referred to as pagan.
Once we admit to this we must also acknowledge the consequences. One obvious consequence is that the ministers of the sacrament of marriage live in this culture. They are formed and raised in this culture. This is a culture that says nothing is permanent. This is a culture that promotes sexual excess. This is a culture that perpetuates a contraceptive mentality. Our children and youth are bombarded with these pagan, cultural values.
The Church presumes that at the time of marriage, our ministers are committing to permanence, fidelity, and conjugal love. That is the presumption. One can readily see in this culture how the presumption could be overturned subsequent to a wedding ceremony.
The greater number of declarations are therefore due to procedural law changes, an expansion of jurisprudence, and cultural changes in our society. It's interesting to note however that fewer than twenty percent of those who can petition, do petition. The vast majority of divorced Catholics do not.
Since over eighty percent of divorced individuals remarry, one can only assume most do so outside of the faith community. It is this reality which undermines the faith community, not the superficial notion that there are too many declarations of nullity.
With the continued commitment of bishops, canon lawyers and dedicated personnel who staff them, tribunals in the United States will continue to administer the church's justice. The legal work of these Christians ultimately fulfills the supreme law of the Church, the salvation of souls (c. 1752)."
Source: Archdiocese of Boston website.
The three traditional goods of marriage are procreation, fidelity, and indissolubility. It doesn't take a canon law expert to see that American Catholics marrying each other--the ministers of this sacrament are the couple, not the priest--could very well have severe problems in understanding these three goods of marriage. In a contraceptive culture which claims to separate the unitive from the procreative, neither the man nor the woman may view procreation as necessary to marriage and its meaning. In a culture which shamelessly celebrates transient extramarital sexual acts of all kinds, it would not be surprising that someone seeking a Catholic marriage would not take the commitment to fidelity seriously. In a culture of easy legal divorce, it would also not be surprising that an American Catholic would view the idea of indissolubility as an archaic myth not to be taken to heart. One or all of these factors can create issues that may render a marriage null.
So informing Catholics of the Church's laws concerning marriage and declarations of nullity can be a way of educating all Catholics in a pagan culture on the real meaning of marriage and sexuality. Such educational efforts can also be a way of bringing inactive Catholics back to the Church and to the Eucharist. Education on Catholic marriage and annulments is a powerful form of evangelization.
For Mid-Michigan readers:
There will be a free one-hour Marriage & Annulment Information Session in the Diocese of Lansing at Blessed Sacrament Church, 6340 Roberta St., in Burton, Michigan 48509, on Saturday, February 12, 2005, at 10 a.m. The speaker will be a judge from the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal for the Diocese of Lansing. This session is a good opportunity for those needing information on declarations of nullity and for those just seeking to learn more about the Catholic view of marriage. For further details, e-mail Catholic Analysis (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Monday, January 10, 2005The Humility of Einstein's Awe
Let's be clear from the beginning. From what I have seen of Einstein's references to religion, he did not believe in the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition who issues commandments and judges the morality of our actions. Because of this view, you could say that Einstein was an agnostic or even an "atheist" in a narrow sense. But Einstein was not a full-fledged atheist. He spoke about God and seems to have thought of God as nature and nature as rational. In one quote, Einstein says that his God is the God of Spinoza (1632-77), the Sephardic Jewish philosopher whose complex and very original philosophical system can be described as a form of pantheism (see Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy [St. Martin's Press, Revised 2d ed. 1984], under "Spinoza").
So Einstein believes in a God of some kind. You can't just flatly say that Einstein was an atheist in the fullest sense of the term. In addition, it is clear that Einstein's religious feeling consisted primarily of a deep sense of awe at the complexity of an orderly universe, along with the belief that this complexity was, at least in part, amenable to human reason. And so we may have the best summary of Einstein's murky religious views in his popular quote that "God does not play dice with the world" (for this and other Einstein quotes on religion see the website run by the late atheist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould).
These thoughts of Einstein arise from an Houston Chronicle article (noted at Realclearpolitics.com) entitled "We can learn from Einstein's greatest failure" (1/8/05). This article is one of many on Einstein that you will see in 2005 because this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of Einstein's theory of special relativity (see the Houston article for the two other Einstein achievements from 1905). The gist of the Houston article is the significance of the humility of Einstein who at one point in his career admitted that he had been wrong to view the universe as eternally existing. For me, the scientific details of his admission are not significant because it is clear that scientists even today are still at sea when it comes to giving a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. What is important to see is that Einstein's sense of religious awe toward the universe made him humble--he was willing to admit error because he knew how complex the universe and its order was in comparison with his own capabilities.
So while Einstein seems to have viewed morality as completed divorced from traditional religious considerations, we have in fact an example here of how Einstein's religious view of the universe led him to a particular moral attitude--humility. It seems to me that Einstein's own character belies his loosely stated claim that morality has nothing to do with the religious. The religious and the truly human can never be separated, and the attitude we take toward the world determines our morality. If we adopt a religious attitude of awe in the face of an intelligently designed and highly complex universe, certain moral attitudes will follow. One of them is the humility of Einstein.