A Tale of Two Popes

My Catholic columns this month discuss a call for tradition by Pope Saint Pius X in his encyclical against modernism, and a call for–God knows what?–by soon-to-be-blessed Pope Paul VI in his speech closing the Second Vatican Council.

The speech is fascinating and should be read. Paul VI appears to have been a man with considerable intellectual and spiritual gifts who was unable to take seriously how perverse, obstinate, cruddy, stupid, and downright evil people can be. The problems he saw all around him didn’t make sense, so they must all be a big mistake that would dissolve if we only showed sufficient intelligence and good will so the mistake could be cleared up. That’s how he seemed to come out, even though as an intellectual matter his account of the modern world in the speech was quite astute, as a Catholic he should have remembered that superstrength measures were needed to overcome the world, and in any event he was obviously aware of problems with the Council itself. (Otherwise why talk of its “real and deep intentions” and “authentic manifestations”?)

Reading him reminds me that we’ve had a run of pontiffs who were major figures even though they might not always be perfect or make the right decision. The run seems to have come to an end, and the uninspiring day-to-day reality of the post-Vatican II Church has caught up with us at all levels. That’s no fun, but I can’t say we deserve better.

On other fronts, I have a shorter piece at the Catholic World Report weblog about why the Church should keep making natural law arguments on sexual matters even though nobody can make sense of them (they present essential aspects of the Christian view of reality). There’s also a longer piece at the International Journal of Architectural Research on the architectural theorist Christoper Alexander.

Cardinal Kasper’s mercy

St. Paul, picking up on several of Jesus’ allegories, acknowledges in his epistle to the Ephesians that marriage is a type of the Church — that is, that marriage, while real in itself, also symbolically alludes to or foreshadows some greater reality. He thus admonishes wives to be subordinate to their husbands, as the Church is to Christ, and husbands to love their wives, as Christ loves the Church.

Yet the Church, we know too, is made up of sinners, and our sins are acts of adultery — literally, of infidelity — against our Lord and the covenant he has made with us. We are always cheating on him, rebelling against him, hiding from him, spurning, mocking, casting longing glances to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. And is our Lord not a faithful lover? Does he not continue to withstand our abuses and admonish us to be and do better? Is he not always wooing us?

I suppose we should be glad, then, that the Father is not so merciful as Cardinal Kasper, that he would spare his only-begotten Son the difficulty of our continued company.

Monarchy and the common good

Father Edmund Waldstein has posted some excellent writings explaining the pre-modern (classical and Christian) view of politcs and defending it from its ill-informed liberal detractors.  I particularly recommend them to Orthosphere readers, even though I know by now you’ve all heard plenty of arguments against modern autonomy-worship, because Waldstein bases himself on an understanding of the common good that, although a part of our philosophical patrimony, has been all but forgotten.  To sum it up

the human good is a participation in a higher, divine good. Thus our good exists not principally in our selves, but principally in the divine realm, and secondarily in ourselves. The divine good is more our own good than the good which exists in our own souls.

the community of men reflects God more than an individual man just as the universe reflects Him more perfectly than any one creature. Recall what I said about participation a moment ago: my own good exists more in the divine than in my individual existence; a corollary can now be seen: the common good, the order of the community, is more my good than any private good of mine. The common good of order or peace is common in fullest sense of the word: all the members of the community share it without it being divided or lessened by this sharing. Thus the common good is not merely a useful good; it is not merely the conditions that enable individuals to get what they want, it is the best good that individuals can have, it is that in which they find their happiness.

By the way, Waldstein is guided on this subject by the work of early twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Charles De Koninck, whose writings are one of those many Catholic intellectual resources that seem to have been thrown out and forgotten during the post-Vatican II deluge.

What is at the heart of Catholicism?

The question I ask is one of ideology, rather than ecclesiology.  The heart of the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ present to us in the Eucharist.  The heart of the Catholic belief system is a way of understanding this presence.  Catholicism is not just whatever the reigning pope says, or even a mere aggregate of what past popes and councils have said.  If Catholic belief were just a two-millennium long pile of arbitrary bureaucratic memos, there would be no coherence to it, and orthodox Catholics would have no ground for resistance when prelates at the highest level plot to undermine the faith, as they are now doing through the coming Extraordinary Synod for the Normalization of Adultery.  No, the pronouncements of the Church, especially her creeds, are a wonderful witness to the Catholic faith, but the faith they witness precedes them.  It derives from the ecclesial-sacramental system instituted, as we believe, by Christ Himself and as interpreted through a distinct Catholic perspective.  This perspective is unitary, internally consistent, tightly interconnected, and rationally and imaginatively compelling.

What is the essence of this Catholic perspective?  What is distinctive about it?  I’ve just finished an essay trying to explain it in 15 pages, already a feat of condensation if I do say so myself.  Let’s see if I can give the gist of it in one.

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Maundy Thursday

God could have eliminated the stain of Original Sin from our world altogether. He could speak a single Word of power and wipe it out. Why didn’t he? Why instead did he become a man and suffer death? Why did he then put us through the perils of this life?

It’s simple: the only way he could have wiped out sin is to unmake the world as we now find it.

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Queen of Heaven: a Working Hypothesis

God willing, I shall be confirmed a Catholic at the Vigil of Easter. In preparation since September, I have (among other things) read and studied the Catechism. It’s been edifying to have the Faith completely spelled out, at least in outline. I’ve learned that as a traditional Anglican, the orthodox theology to which I have long adhered is thoroughly Catholic – at least with respect to those doctrines of the Faith that I had yet tried to understand.

One domain of doctrine I had not ever much thought about or understood concerns Mary. Anglicans venerate Mary, of course, but are not as fascinated with her as Catholics. So I’ve been studying up a bit on Mary. I’ve not been concerned so much with this or that controversial Marian dogma, as with far more general questions of how we ought to think about her – e.g., what is her function in the plan of salvation, what is her status in the economy of Heaven (including this little cosmos), and so forth. I figured that if I understood that, then the rest of Mariology would fall into place without too much fuss.

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Catholics and the Pope, a year later

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Fr. Hunwicke had a great post up a few days ago reflecting on the Pontificate of Francis one year after his election. He remains prayerful and hopeful but frankly acknowledges the Holy Father’s contribution to a certain poisoning of the discourse among orthodox Catholics (with predictable consequences), which he attributes to their tendency toward servility and Papal idolatry:

Despite the facile cliches which are so invariably abundant after conclaves, we have no divine assurance that any Pope since S Peter ever has been or is “God’s choice”. Even as a corporate collegium, the Cardinals are not protected in their prudential decisions. That would be an absurd dogma. I will not insult my readers by inserting here a history lesson about ‘bad popes’ … except to say that we can find more whole-hearted moral evil in quite a number of First Millennium popes than in the iniquities of an occasional Renaissance libertine. Popes, needless to say, are protected from proclaiming heretical propositions ex cathedra; but they are not vi ipsius muneris necessarily good or wise or nice men. Continue reading

A plea for mercy

We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Kasper’s gestures of compassion to the divorced and remarried.  Indeed, we are all sinners, and these wise prelates know that the Lord’s table is no place to exclude those who refuse to submit to Jesus’ statements on remarriage.  However, it should be remembered that selective mercy is often a greater cruelty to those who remain outside its graces.  Let us not forget those other sensitive Christian souls who have for so long suffered judgement and exclusion from the Church.  I refer, of course, to that other subset of unrepentant adulterers, the ones who haven’t abandoned their first families and civilly remarried.

Consider, if you will, the dilemma of a believing Catholic man who has found himself in a relationship with a mistress.  Rosary-counting Catholics–more Pharisee than Christian!–would condemn this man for his sins of “lust”, but I know that many extramarital relationships involve genuine friendship, love, and spiritual fellowship.  We acknowledge that the love in this man’s marriage has failed, and we have to feel the pain of the failure; we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love.  Not to condemn them!  To walk with them!  And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation.

What do adulterers actually hear from us though, when they earnestly desire to participate fully in the life of the Church?  Do we not presume to judge them?  Do we not cruelly demand that they severe those extramarital attachments that bring them so much joy and comfort?  Do we not hold the Lord hostage, saying that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist until they conform to our ideas of an acceptable level of monogamy?  Yes, we acknowledge that it may not be practical for a man never to see his mistress again, but we insist that when he does spend time with her they should behave as brother and sister.  But this is cruelly unrealistic!  A man may have an intensely meaningful relationship with his mistress.  Illegitimate children might be involved.  Plus, she might be totally hot.

Consider also the utter perversity of the fact that if this man were to abandon his wife and children to poverty and fatherlessness and “marry” his mistress, he would be welcomed with open arms in the Church of Pope Francis the Merciful.  Is it not bizarre that we accept a man who breaks all of his marital vows but not a man who only breaks one of them?

What should the Church do in such situations?  It cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Moses.  The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this command of fidelity in its pastoral action concerning adulterers.  It is always the case that those in mortal sin are called to spiritual communion with the Church even though they can’t receive sacramental communion.  But if one, why not the other?  Some maintain that non-participation in communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament.  The question that is posed in response is:  is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?  Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?

Now, it is true, alas, that the Church cannot disregard the biblical teaching that cheating on one’s spouse is sinful.  However, while doctrine teaches us what is true in the abstract, it doesn’t judge concrete particulars.  Thus, just as we now know that although sodomy is abstractly speaking always a mortal sin, every particular homosexual relationship is wonderful and deserving of civil affirmation, we can say that although adultery is wrong in the abstract, human beings are not abstractions, and we may not judge any particular extramarital dalliance.  We shall not presume to tell the husband with a wandering eye whom he may and may not love!  Look, the same bible that teaches us about the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people.  So I would say to the married man who’s on the side proudly banging his secretary “Bravo“.

Yes, we may say that monogamy is ideal, so long as we don’t proudly imply that open marriages among our sincere Christian brothers and sisters are therefore inferior.  Nor may we imagine that a man’s sexual desire for his wife is somehow more wholesome than a desire for some random other woman.  That would be to encourage the sin of pride in those who happen to be attracted to their spouses, an inclination that is not in itself praiseworthy.

Acceptance of adultery means compassion toward everyone:  the cheater, the mistress,…, um, yeah, everyone.