Posts Tagged 'Catholic'

A Summary Defense of John Paul II

… and why he should be canonized a saint.

JPII In PrayerIt is practically a foregone conclusion that John Paul II will be canonized a saint in the coming years. This makes some quite uncomfortable, and others downright angry. In fact, the whole idea of sanctity is rather antiquated in our culture. We don’t like to single others out. It’s not polite. And anyway, who’s to say you’re holier than I? Because of the  very public nature of the papacy, not all will be happy with the canonization of Pope John Paul II; and this is perhaps the reason that less than a quarter of all Popes have been canonized. No public office holder, secular or religious, holds a 100% approval rating; but this should not be an impediment to canonization, nor will it be.

The arguments against John Paul II’s canonization come down to one thing: He was a bad Pope. The arguments may not state that explicitly (some do), but it is certainly the conclusion to be drawn. Just take a look what happened to the Church on John Paul II’s watch. The number of priests and religious have dwindled. Known sexual deviants among the clergy were “protected”. Catechesis among the faithful was almost non-existent. Catholic politicians at odds with Church teaching (usually regarding abortion and contraception) were allowed to receive communion without retribution. In a similar fashion, “liberal” theologians, with few exceptions, were allowed to continue teaching at Catholic universities and receive communion without penalty. And so it goes. Basically, everything that is wrong with the Church happened, and indeed flourished, under John Paul II’s watch. But this cannot be a serious argument against his canonization.

It is rather unfair to blame all the ills of the Church on a Pope that was elected in 1978. As most would agree, it is empirically evident that all of the aforementioned ills were present, at least in seed form, in the period between the closing of Vatican II and John Paul II’s election as Pope. Besides that, the entire line of argumentation is premised on a false perception of papal power. It is said that John Paul II “didn’t do enough”, as if the role of the papacy is to force, from on high, orthodoxy on the rest of the Church. This is not how John Paul II saw his role as Pope, and, I might add, that is not how Benedict XVI envisions his role either. What many see as the job of the Pope to “fix” whatever problems are existent in the Church is primarily the job of local Bishops. It is the local Bishop who is to foster vacations within his diocese. It is the local Bishop who is to ensure his faithful are catechized; and it is the local Bishop who is to discipline sexually deviant priests, and heterodox politicians and professors. Sure, the Pope can and, arguably, should step in when a Bishop is not doing his job; but now the argument against John Paul II has been narrowed from “he was a bad pope” to “he was a bad disciplinarian”. Fine. John Paul II even admitted as much in his book Gift and Mystery (his reflections on the 50th anniversary of his ordination). But is this reason to doubt his personal sanctity? I think not.

Being non-confrontational and a bad disciplinarian no more speaks against one’s personal sanctity than does being confrontational or a good disciplinarian. These are character traits, not marks of virtue (or non-virtue). It can be argued that, as Pope, it was John Paul II’s job to discipline those who erred. Besides the fact that this is primarily the role of the local Bishop, let us remember that the papacy was not something for which John Paul II volunteered. In fact, he wanted more than anything to go back to his beloved Poland upon completion of the 2nd conclave of 1978. However, the Holy Spirit had other plans, and he accepted his new role as an obedient son of the Church. Is it reasonable to expect that someone as non-confrontational as Pope John Paul II would spontaneously exhibit disciplinary vigor after his election as Pope? Of course not. After all, he was human and putting on the papal mitre in no way changes this fact.

Was John Paul II a good Pope? Maybe not, depending on your view of the role of the papacy or your political leanings. But the real question is, throughout his life did those who knew him see John Paul II as one exhibiting exceptional virtue, personal holiness, and singular devotion to God and man? By all accounts, the answer is a resounding yes! And is this not the reason for canonization, to provide the (Catholic) faithful a model of virtue and holiness to be imitated? If John Paul II were not to be canonized, it would simply be because he is a public figure, and thus controversial. I’d hate to think that on such grounds the Church could be robbed of such a model of sanctity. No matter how you slice it, the arguments against the canonization of John Paul II come down to what this or that person dislikes about his papacy. He was too lenient. He was too liberal. He was too conservative. Blah, blah, blah. It’s a shame that someone who is otherwise a saint can be denied canonization for being a crummy administrator or not amiable to your political or theological agenda.

In closing I will state the very obvious fact that every canonized saint had flaws of character, no matter what the hagiographers may tell us. And every saint was a sinner, like the rest of us; but, unlike most of us, they exhibited in an exceptional way personal holiness and devotion to God and his people. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that John Paul II should be canonized. I am of the opinion that St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the greatest saint (regarding personal holiness) in the history of the western Church, but I am quite sure that he would have made an awful Pope. Thank God he was never put in such a position, or we may have been deprived of one of the Church’s great saints.

Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

Aristotelian Influences – Part 3

Or The Triumph of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX, while maintaing the prohibition, appointed a commission of theologians, William of Auxerre, Stephen of Provins and Simon of Authie, to correct the prohibited books of Aristotle, and as this measure obviously implied that the books were not fundamentally unsound, the prohibition tended to be neglected. It was extended to Toulouse in 1245 by Innocent IV, but by that date it was no longer possible to check the spread of Aristotelianism and from 1255 all the known works of Aristotle were officially lectured on in the University of Paris. The Holy See made no move against the university though in 1263 Pope Urban IV renewed the prohibition of 1210, probably out of fear of Averroism, the renewed prohibition remaining a dead letter. The Pope must have known perfectly well that William of Moerbeke was translating the prohibited works of Aristotle at his own court, and the prohibition of 1263 must have been a check to Averroism, not as a seriously meant attempt to put an end to all study of the Aristotelian philosophy. In any case the prohibition was of no effect, and finally in 1366 the Legates of Pope Urban V required from all candidates for the Licentiate of Arts at Paris a knowledge of all the known works of Aristotle. It had by then long been clear to the mediaevals that a work like the Liber de Causis was not Aristotelian and that the philosophy of Aristotle was not, except of course, in the eyes of the Latin Averroists, bound up with the interpretation given it by Averroes but could be harmonised with the Christian faith. Indeed the dogmas of faith themselves had by then been expressed by theologians in terms taken from the Aristotelian system.

This brief summary of the official attitude to Aristotle on the part of ecclesiastical and academic authority shows that Aristotelianism triumphed in the end. This does not mean, however, that all mediaeval philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries extended an equal welcome to Aristotle or that they all understood him in the same way: the vigour and variety of mediaeval thought will be made clear in succeeding chapters. There is truth in the statement that that shadow of Aristotle hung over and dominated the philosophic thought of the Middle Ages, but it is not the whole truth, and we would have a very inadequate idea of mediaeval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries if we imagined that it was inspired and characterized by a slavish acceptance of every word of the great Greek philosopher.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Participation in the Eternal Law

How is the natural law linked to the eternal law of God? The latter is the source of the former. Read the previous post for some context pertaining to what follows.

The eternal law is identical with God’s creative wisdom and providential governance of the world, which are as radically interior to the world and everything in it as they are transcendent of that world. In this sense, then, everything in the world is an expression of God’s eternal law – his creative wisdom – and finds its true or complete identity only in that law and wisdom…

As Ratzinger points out, the consequence is that the world – created being – is saturated with divine reason, indeed is constituted by divine reason. According to this view, the world can never be understood as simply pre-rational (as not yet participating in, and embodying, logos) because its internal order shares in divine reason. Indeed, it is in itself an expression of divine reason.

The result is that the world is not simply matter with certain physical properties that confronts human reason as object. Rather, the world in all of its physicality is itself saturated with meaning for its highest fulfillment in specifically human being. When the mind engages being, in other words, it is engaging what is primordially rational.

— David S. Crawford, “Natural Law and the Body,” Communio XXXV (Fall 2008). Emphasis original.

“The world… is in itself an expression of divine reason.” “[T]he world in all of its physicality is itself saturated with meaning…” “When the mind engages being… it is engaging what is primordially rational.” Chew on that for a while.

Re-thinking Divine Reason

Here’s some food for thought, courtesy of the latest issue of Communio (XXXV, Fall 2008).

All that is exists because it was thought by God. Therefore all creation can be seen as ontologically bearing that mark of divine reason; all creation meaning what is material and what is immaterial (e.g. reason, intellect, nous, etc.). In the context of natural law and the phenomenon of conscience, man participates in the divine reason by way of the memory (anamnesis) implanted in him at his beginning. In this way when man thinks (as a created being), he re-thinks the divine reason of which he is a part.

It follows from this traditional view that that human thinking is the re-thinking of being itself. Man can re-think the logos, the meaning of being, because his own logos, his own reason, is logos in the one logos, thought of the original thought, of the creative spirit that permeates and governs his being.

— Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, quoted in the Communio XXXV essay by David S. Crawford entitled “Natural Law and the Body.”

Confronting Death

celtic-crossIn Chapter IV of Eschatology, Joseph Ratzinger follows, in broad outlines, how death has been understood from ancient Israel to the Christian century. Ratzinger begins the chapter by noting how death is not being confronted in our world. We wish to ignore death, and if we must die (as if we have a choice) we wish it to come quickly without warning. We are scared to death of death. As such, we come up with ways to trivialize it in order to lessen its sting. Death may be joked about or it may be the object of entertainment; but it may never be discussed seriously. Thus we are left with a confused understanding of death in society. On the one hand we wish to ignore death so as to not think about it, but on the other hand we wish to speak about it as freely as we would tea. It is as if the pink elephant is in the room and we have chosen to acknowledge it, but not as a pink elephant. Instead we point to the pink elephant and talk about it as if it were a nice piece of furniture. Death is an uncomfortable subject, but the consequences of ignoring it are profound.

In the last analysis, of course, the covert aim of this reduction of death to the status of an object is just the same as the bourgeois taboo on the subject. Death is to be deprived of its character as a place where the metaphysical breaks through. Death is rendered banal, so as to quell the unsettling question which arises from it. Schleiermacher once spoke of birth and death as “hewed out perspectives” through which man peer into the infinite. But the infinite calls his ordinary life-style into question. And therefore, understandably, humankind puts it to the ban. The repression of death is so much easier when death has been naturalized. Death must become so object-like, so ordinary, so public that no remnant of the metaphysical question is left within it.

The metaphysical question, of course, is one that regards our life and how we live it; but more acutely is it a question of what it means to exist in this life. If we know one thing with certainty it is that death takes us away from this life. This being so, the natural question is – what does this life mean? If we ignore death, we ignore its meaning. If we ignore the meaning of death it is unlikely that we will ever contemplate the meaning of life.

Yet as Christians we know that we are not to fear death, much less ignore it. In fact, the Lenten season can be seen as a contemplation of death – the suffering and death of Our Lord, as well as the dying to ourselves that takes place in our Lenten penances. These 40 days, we journey with the Lord as he approaches the Cross to suffer and die for our sins, but we know that death does not have the final word. During the Easter season we will celebrate the glorious victory of Our Lord over death. In light of His resurrection, we know that through death comes life. The lives of the martyrs have also taught us as much. They are able to joyfully face death because they have found true meaning in this life which entails a powerful hope for the life to come. Death has no power over the martyr. If we are truely living our lives cruciform, in the manner of Christ, we are all martyrs. It is when we pick up our cross daily to follow Christ that we find true happiness. This is the paradox that is at the very heart of Christianity. It is only in death that we find life.

More Ratzinger

In the last post I provided a brief passage from Joseph Ratzinger’s 1977 work, Eschatology, regarding his approach to exegesis (which I collapsed into historical method). As I noted Ratzinger views history as something alive, not something discrete to be studied like scientific datum. The present cannot be viewed without reference to the past, just as the past cannot be interpreted without taking into account the present, including all subsequent history. Here is more of the same from Ratzinger, but this time with a little more gusto.

The word of Jesus only persists as something heard and received by the Church. After all, it can scarcely enter the historical arena save by being heard and, once heard, assimilated. But all hearing, and so all tradition, is also interpretation…

Accordingly, the Gospel does not confront the Church as a self-enclosed Ding-an-sich [thing in itself]. Herein lies the fundamental methodological error of trying to reconstruct the ipsissima vox Jesu [the very voice of Jesus] as a yardstick for Church and New Testament alike. Realizing this should not turn us into sceptics, even though we are touching here on the limits of historical knowledge. Jesus’ message becomes intellegible for us through the echo effect it has created in history. In this echo, the intrinsic potential of that message, with its various strata and configurations, still resounds. Through its resonance we learn more about the real than we shall ever do from free-floating critical reconstructions…

Only as the actual course of history unfolds does reality fill the [literary] schema [of the gospels] with content and shed light on the meaning and interrelatedness of its various aspects. The fundamental and all-important hermeneutical insight here is that subsequent history belongs intrinsically to the inner momentum of the text itself. That is: it does not simply provide retrospective commentary on the text. Rather, through the appearing of the reality which was still to come, the full dimensions of the word carried by the text come to light. For this reason, the interpretation of these texts must, by its very nature, incomplete. For this reason also, a generation later, John could penetrate in authoritative fashion the depth of the word, and understand what was meant by it with greater purity than could his predecessors. For this reason, once again, his [John’s] own message is not simply a subsequent adaptation of the word to a changed situation, but reproduces the inner movement of the word itself. For this reason, finally, that kind of reconstruction which confines itself to the text in its earliest form and permits interpretation only on that basis is fundamentally out of order… Only through the harvest of historical experience does the word gradually gain its full meaning, and the schema fill itself with reality. In contrast, by insisting on definitive conclusions drawn from the most primitive wording the exegete can reconstruct, one condemns oneself to idling with an empty schematism. And so the reader himself is taken up into the adventure of the word. He can understand it only as a participator, not as a spectator.

As a point of clarification, in the preceding text Ratzinger is bringing up John – as in the Evangelist, John – because of the way John’s gospel is more theologically “robust” than that of the synoptic gospels. Instead of seeing John as re-interpreting the message of Jesus because of a new (and unexpected) situation in the Church (i.e. the end of time had not come), Ratzinger prefers to see John as a continuation of his predecessors and the message of Jesus itself. It was only in time that the full import of the words of Christ began to take hold in the Church. Ratzinger would argue that this is why the other Evangelists do not have the theological understanding of John. It took time for the word to grow in the Church – we could even say that it is growing still. As Ratzinger writes elsewhere, all four gospels must be read “as a choir of four,” no one pited against the others.


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