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, August 27, 2005Returning to the Sources
Part of the contribution of Vatican II was to build upon the pre-conciliar movement of ressourcement or "return to the sources." Today, a small group of students at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary got together to preview the Greek alphabet in preparation for our fall New Testament Greek I class. Taking Greek at a seminary is not unusual. But all of us at this informal study session were lay students. That fact may not be unusual among Protestant evangelicals; but, in my experience, it is not all that typical among lay Catholics. But the gathering happened. We are returning to the sources in a very concrete fashion.
The Bible is Catholic. The Catholic Church guided by the Holy Spirit determined the canon of Scripture--a ready-made, leather-bound Bible did not drop out of the sky. So it is certainly most appropriate for lay Catholics to dig deeply into the Bible. That digging means learning to handle the original biblical languages to some degree or another.
Today, I also received an e-mail from a web writer--on issues not primarily related to religion--who informed me that she was "on the road to Rome." I believe thinking people, especially those of a Protestant evangelical background, are indeed making their way to Rome because as they dig into Christian origins they can't miss the Catholicism that goes with those origins. As another convert, Cardinal Newman, stated, to be immersed in history is to cease to be a Protestant. Given this unmistakable Catholic stamp on Christian origins, it is very fitting that more and more lay Catholics are returning to those origins by returning to the sources. The study of New Testament Greek is but one example. May such study become more commonplace among lay Catholics.
Friday, August 26, 2005St. Augustine on Friendship
A very fruitful work to browse through is the encyclopedia on St. Augustine's thought entitled Augustine Through the Ages, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. (Eerdmans, 1999), which contains entries on various topics associated with Augustine. Particularly interesting is the article on friendship by Thomas Smith who notes that Augustine "was the first Christian writer to elaborate a theory of Christian friendship" (p. 372).
In popular culture today, friendship is a neglected topic. The emphasis is so much on the sexual aspect that any friendship between male and female must be inevitably driven to the point of sexual contact. This sexual emphasis is also seen in the surprise shown by many when Catholics insist that friendship between homosexuals must exclude sexual contact. In addition, too many friendships remain on the level of the useful or the pleasurable, two of the three categories of friendship described by Aristotle (p. 372). For Aristotle, "true friendship" is based on the third category, the good (p. 372).
Augustine builds and transforms this classical tradition of friendship so that the bond of friendship becomes "the gift of the Holy Spirit through grace" (p. 372). Friendship merely adds "the notes of attraction and delight to the Christian charity owed to all" (p. 372). In his article, Smith points out that Augustine even "allows for the possibility of conceiving of the Holy Spirit as the friendship of Father and Son" (p. 373). The radical difference between Augustine's view of friendship and the eroticized view now prevalent in modern culture can be seen in the fact that the celibate and chaste Augustine still strongly valued his friendships to the point of writing in the City of God these words: "What consoles us in this human society so full of errors and hardships, except unfeigned faith and the mutual love of good and true friends?" If the Holy Spirit is the Consoler, then it is easy to see that consoling friendship based on the good is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
More and more our popular culture is in need of taking another look at the value of authentic friendship. On a recent EWTN show, I noted that the psychologist on the air emphasized friendship as the key to getting young people away from the pressures of one-on-one dating. A recent book on courtship also emphasized the building of friendship as an essential stage prior to entering a courtship phase. The problem today is that too many relationships swiftly graduate to an accelerated exclusiveness that becomes lost in the fog of sexual desire. It happens to young and old alike. Friendship, as noted before, is also the Catholic answer to the gay agenda. People with same sex attractions can and ought to have chaste friendships. In many ways, the old idea of friendship so dear to Augustine holds the key to addressing many of our current social problems. The Catholic way is not to deny us the good things of life, but to show us new and neglected horizons for delighting in the good.
Thursday, August 25, 2005Mary in an Unlikely Place
I recently picked up a Protestant evangelical pamphlet entitled the "Covenant of Abstinence: What the Bible Says About Premarital Sex," by Joy Jacobs and Deborah Strubel (Camp Hill, Pa.: Christian Publications, 1997; see this link). Everything that I read in the pamphlet is completely consistent with Catholic teaching. In fact, I was surprised to see some very Catholic emphases--including praise for the celibate lifestyle.
The biggest surprise is that the authors focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary as the model for not only physical virginity but also for "spiritual and mental virginity" (p. 5, original emphasis). The pamphlet continued with its Marian emphasis:
Decisions in today's world require the innocence (which some may mistakenly term ignorance) of a physically virginal teenager named Mary, who asked, in response to Gabriel's announcement of her impending pregnancy, "How can this be?" Her question reflected a virginal "Mary mind." Gabriel assured Mary that God's power would enable the impossible to take place, and Mary's final reply to the voice of God was the pure outflow of a "Mary mind": "Be it done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38, NASB).
Pamphlet, pp. 5-6.
The authors went on to make the obvious connection for all Christians: we must have the courage of Mary to surrender our wills to God's plan for each of us. The authors then go on, in the rest of the pamphlet, to discuss how explicitly committing to God's plan before events and situations overtake us is the key to being chaste. What is marvelous is that these Protestant evangelicals are doing explicitly what Catholics also do very explicitly: marking Mary out as the model Christian.
All authentic Christians, even the most robustly Protestant, are inevitably Marian. Either we imitate Mary consciously or unconsciously--for she is the model Christian who abandons herself wholly and radically to God's shocking plans. She is the model Christian because her abandonment to God's plan lies at the uniquely singular and dramatic pivot of salvation history: the Incarnation. In contrast to most Protestants, Catholics simply choose, in continuity with the tradition of the early Church, to make that imitatio Mariae, imitation of Mary, robustly conscious, deliberate, and explicit. If all Christians are called to imitate Mary, then we might as well imitate her consciously and deliberately. That is the Catholic way. And if Protestant Christians think more deeply about it, it is also their way.
Wednesday, August 24, 2005The Pornography of Riches
Pick up a concordance to the Bible, and you will find many references to the "rich." The Gospel references are not complimentary to the rich. The Epistle of James is quite harsh: "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire" (James 5:1).
And, of course, the famous passage at the end of Jesus' encounter with the rich young man ends with the fearful saying: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt 19:24; see parallels at Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). These types of passages are further proof that no one "made up" the Gospels. No mere human would be likely to insert such disturbing sayings into the Gospels. This message comes from God. We mere human beings would have found it very easy to soften such a statement.
Why is it so hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Riches are like alcohol, narcotics, lust, and pornography: addictive. We have more and get more, but more is never enough because someone else has more, someone else has a bigger house or car or bank account or real estate holdings. In addition, our very human fears for the future and for our children drive us to amass more and more. We are weak before the temptation to become addicted to money and riches as we are weak before substances, lust, and pornography. We have Alcoholics Anonymous. We need a "Materialists Anonymous."
A good Catholic, especially male, is very nervous of ever looking at anything remotely pornographic, even on public billboards, because we know that this stuff is dangerous. Riches are in the same category. Riches are dangerous. They are highly seductive. Our culture and our families fawn over them. We feel important and special with riches, even if our lives are really very empty. Material riches can lead us to waste our lives on false riches. We tend too often to judge ourselves and others by what we possess, instead of by what we are and are becoming.
Worst of all, materialism leads us to ignore the weightier things. We vote for candidates based on our perceived economic self-interest and ignore the life issues. We focus on making more money, and at the same time let our daughters dress like hookers. We stick to our exclusive social circles, and miss out on the real treasures: our fellow Christians, many of whom have very little of the world's goods. Read the Bible about riches and pray. We Catholics, who claim to be faithful and traditional, should be just as suspicious of riches as we are of dangers like pornography and substance abuse.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005The Great Man Theory of History
In the past, people have spoken disparagingly of the so-called "great man theory of history" which emphasized the world historical significance of figures like Alexander the Great, Caesar, or Napoleon. Critics pointed out that certain events or trends would have happened anyway even if these particular great figures had not come along. Or the criticism is qualified by saying that if Julius Caesar had not come along, someone else would have come to fill the "Caesar" role.
But when we look closely at historical events, it certainly seems that very unique individuals combine with trends and events to transform societies, continents, and civilizations. In my view, the historical equation must always include the unique, sui generis individual as essential to historical transformations. Without Alexander the Great, how else would Hellenistic civilization have overwhelmed the Near East? Without Napoleon, how else would French troops have marched on Moscow? Without the evil Hitler, how else would Germany have embarked on its disastrous course?
On a recent trip to my hometown of New Orleans, I attended a Jesuit church downtown. I was happy to see that before the evening Mass there was a recitation of the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, we all know the severe problems that permeate the Jesuit order. Back when I attended Jesuit schools in the seventies and eighties, there was a one-sided emphasis on social justice rather than on traditional Catholic religious instruction. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the downtown Jesuit church was prominently highlighting the Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration.
Maybe, this particular church always scheduled these devotional practices. I cannot be sure. But I can't help but speculate that one world historical figure, a humble man from Poland, had something to do with this traditional devotion. John Paul the Great emphasized the Rosary to the point of even adding the luminous mysteries. John Paul the Great's last encyclical was on the Eucharist. We are in the Year of the Eucharist decreed by JPG. It is no secret that Eucharistic Adoration withered away during the seventies. It came back under John Paul the Great.
So my hunch is that this very unique great man, a man who came from a country on the fringe of Europe, a country isolated and oppressed for decades by a backward and primitive ideology, a man who was almost killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland, this man who came out of literally "nowhere" and changed the world, this man had something to do with what I saw in New Orleans. Some find the "Great Man [or Woman] Theory of History" hard to swallow. I don't. And other Catholics should not either. If we indeed do believe in divine providence or control of the flow of history, the advent of such unique saints should be no surprise. John Paul the Great stands as exhibit one. I saw the results of his transformative role in a small downtown Jesuit church in New Orleans.