Sunday, December 31, 2017

Is Nothing Sacred?

I have a book of humorous illustrations by the cartoonist Gahan Wilson titled “Is Nothing Sacred?”  Apparently the current generation thinks so. Christmas has become the joyous celebration of nothing in particular. The stupidity of the current age has reached a crescendo in this year’s “holiday” season. There was a “holiday” fundraiser for Planned Parenthood featuring celebrities Rory Scovel, Nick Thune, Chris Sullivan, Mandy Moore, Taylor Goldsmith, April Richardson, Daniel Van Kirk and of course, Colin Hanks.
I have no idea who any of these people are, but apparently they are film stars, musicians and comedians currently popular. Has the irony not occurred to any of these new lights of the culture that it is odd to celebrate the birthday of a baby who many think is the very image of God in human flesh, or anyone’s birthday for that matter, by promoting the foremost abortion provider in the country?  The advertising poster for the event is downright creepy. It shows Santa Claus being embraced and perhaps devoured by some horned green creature who is wearing what appears to be a snake. If that doesn’t say Christmas, what does?

The run up to Christmas has been filled with news that public figures in the sacred professions of news person and entertainer are guilty of making disgusting suggestions to those over whom they have power. The people who have taught us that there are no rules are now in trouble for breaking the rules. We’re talking crazy here. Perhaps the most amazing silliness of the season is the St. Peter’s square nativity scene by which the eye is drawn not to the child born in the manger but to a rather erotic sculpture that people are calling the “Nude Dude”. The whole thing is a busy, distracted collection of sculptures in the style of the Christmas scenes of Naples Italy.
The purported purpose of the display is to remind people of the seven corporal works of mercy. It reminds me of nothing so much as the Disney torture-chamber ride, “It’s a Small World After All”. The eye is drawn to nothing except the Nude Dude, reminding one to renew his gym membership so he is ready for swimsuit season or other clothing optional events. We say that anything goes in the name of tolerance, and then get upset when people do or say strange things. It is almost humorous that the same pundits who have been telling us all how immoral we Christians are find themselves being devoured by the forces that they themselves set in motion. 
Again, does it not occur to anyone that if you take away the Judeo-Christian ethic with its Ten Irritating and Intolerant Commandments, there is no real reason not to enjoy the perks that power brings? The people who smear Christians as conservative fundamentalists and Pharisees forget that fundamental is derived from the Latin word for foundation and the Pharisees were heroic defenders of revealed truth. Catholicism is an inherently reasonable religion. The secular worship of nothing in particular other than personal preferences and emotional experiences is inherently crazy. So what do we do?
St. Paul answers the question in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 15. “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also.” Keep praying. Keep studying. Keep thinking. Be reasonable. Don’t get mad. Get smart. Remember what St James tells us, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)  It may be true that the lunatics are running the asylum. Don’t worry. They are in the process of burning the asylum down. If we preserve the fundamental foundations, it won’t be that hard to rebuild. We’ve done it before.

The Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, December 24, 2017

How can you be monotheistic and believe in the Trinity?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I have a non-Christian friend with whom I got into a big argument the other day. He is really offended by the idea of the Holy Trinity. He said that Jesus is not the Son of God, and belief in the Trinity is just too much to swallow. Jesus may be the Messiah, but He is just the Son of Mary and some other human being. He was only a messenger of God, if that. One should believe in God and His messengers, but there is no reason to believe that any of those prophets are God, only God is God. It is a contradiction of His transcendent majesty that He should have a Son. He went on to say that Christians have no right to call themselves monotheists (believers in one God) because they worship three Gods by claiming that God is a Trinity. I couldn’t answer him, so automatically I thought of you.
Otto Mattock
Dear Otto,
Our difference with our fellow monotheists is not about the oneness of God, but about the nature of that oneness. The Trinity is a very reasonable idea if you believe what Jesus taught, that God is Love. Human beings can only long for perfect unity. God who is infinite can accomplish it. Who doesn’t want to be perfectly one with his or her spouse and their children? For us it is not possible, for God perfect diversity and perfect unity are possible if He is as, so many people say, absolutely sovereign. I remember meeting a holocaust survivor who was truly an amazing man. He was a good friend of a very dear nun who taught me Early Christian studies in grad school. She loved to bring her students to meet him and have him shake them up. We were having lunch when he looked at me and said, “You Christians! You say God has a Son. We Jews gave the world monotheism. This idea of God having a Son is step backwards to the religion of the Greeks and the Romans. God can’t have a Son!” I looked at him squarely and said who are you to say what God can and can’t do?” He was amazed. I was the first of Mother Mary Agnes’s students who had dared to challenge him. I hold to what I said.
Those who say that God is so absolutely sovereign that He can’t enter into real relationships effectually limit His sovereignty. If God wills to be relationship, then He can be. If God is love, true sacrificial self-giving love, then He reasonably has diversity within himself. If God is Love, then whom is He to love? If He IS love, but has only His creation as the object of His love, then He would be dependent on His creation for His very existence and would disappear along with the universe in a puff of logic! If you believe that God is love as Jesus of Nazareth taught, then God can be a Trinity, of Lover, Beloved and perfect Love itself, Father Son and Holy Ghost! The Trinity is a very reasonable idea, if (and only if) you believe what Jesus revealed, that God is love.
Belief in the Trinity also says a lot about humanity. Christians believe, as said by St. John Paul the Great, that God is the perfect family. Your family and mine attempt to be families, but God is family in its perfection. My destiny as a human being is to be adopted into that relationship which is God, the relationship that called all things into existence. The purpose for my existence and all existence is eternal and perfect love. It is the destiny, not the fate, of the universe and it is my destiny, should I choose to accept that destiny. 
The purpose of existence for the Christian is more than existence. The other monotheisms promise heaven, or at least the possibility of heaven. We Christians don’t just go to heaven. We go home to a Father who loves us and to a perfect family gathered from all time and space.  Even in this world, to believe in the Trinity means that we believe in the reasonableness of love. Spouses should be faithful, neighbors should be kind, parents should love their children and children should love their parents and the poor are our brothers. Life’s purpose and fulfillment is relationship, not just power and pleasure.
To believe that oneness of God excludes any real relationships is to isolate human beings and to demonize God. In his classic the Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis contrasts the absolute sovereignty of the Devil with the humility and self-giving of the Christian God. By “father below” he means the devil.
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself - creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle that can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
In other words, the devil insists that two things can be perfectly united only by one thing devouring the other. Two unique and separate things cannot be perfectly one and perfectly other. In our limited existence that may be true, but God who is absolutely and infinitely perfect can unite things which our limited power hold as completely separate, in other word for the devil, three cannot be one, unless one subjects the other two to its power. Unity must be a devourer “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  (1Peter 5:8) 
The Trinity is reasonable. To hold that the creator of the universe is anything less is actually quite unreasonable and a bit disturbing.
the Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I heard that Constantine started the papacy...

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
A non-Catholic friend of mine told me that Peter doesn’t mean rock. It means more like a chip off the old block and that Jesus didn’t ever intend to start the papacy and that the papacy started in 325 with the takeover of the Church by the emperor Constantine. Is he right?
Yours sincerely,
Roland Stone
Dear Roland,
Your friend’s scholarship is about as deep as a puddle. First of all, the papacy certainly goes back to the first century of the faith. Allow me to quote St. Irenaeus of Lyon:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; we do this, I say, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Against heresies Vol.3 Chapter 3 sec 2)
 Irenaeus wrote these words around 180 AD. He had some pretty good credentials. He was the Greek bishop of a Roman city in southern France. He was born during the first half of the 2nd century AD, perhaps as early as 115 and was a native of St. Polycarp's church in Smyrna in Asia Minor. He had been raised as a Christian at a time when there were very few cradle Catholics.  St. Polycarp had been a student of St. John and Irenaeus had been a student of St Polycarp. You can’t get a better early Christian pedigree than that. Irenaeus states that the Church of Rome was the preeminent Church of Christianity a full two hundred years before Constantine. So much for the myth of Constantine making the bishop of Rome the Pope. I suspect that Constantine would much rather have had the bishop of his new capital as the leader of the Church. The bishop of Constantinople wasn’t even considered a patriarch of the church until 400 years after Christ.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 convened by the Emperor Constantine, recognized the primacy of the Church of Rome, followed by the churches of Alexandria and Antioch. The church of Constantinople was considered unimportant and certainly didn’t go back to the first days of Christianity.  The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD recognized the diocese of Constantinople as “second in eminence and power to the Bishop of Rome”. This recognition certainly miffed the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria. Why? There had been only three churches which considered St. Peter their founder, and thus had Peter’s supervisory authority, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Antioch had been established as a church by St. Peter, Alexandria traced its origins back to St. Mark, the delegate of St. Peter but Rome was preeminent because both Peter and Paul had been its founders and St. Peter had been martyred and buried there. 
These lists of succession and such things as relics were quite important to the first Christians, no matter how we think of them. As to the Peter/Rock business, why would the first Christians make such a fuss about three cities, no less and no more, as having apostolic authority unless they could trace their ordination back to St. Peter? They were founded on Simon Bar Jonah, Peter the Rock. But I’m sure that your friend knows better than the first Christians.
As for this bit about Peter not meaning rock, it is nonsense. The fuss is made because in Greek the world rock is “petra”. Some languages, like ancient Greek, have gender, number and case. English words generally only have number.  A rock in English is neither feminine nor masculine. This doesn’t work in ancient Greek.  In order to know who you are talking about in Greek and for that matter Latin you have to use a masculine ending to refer to a man. Generally “-a” is a feminine ending in Greek and Latin.  The common ending for a male is “-os” in Greek and “-us” in Latin.  For Jesus to say that Simon Bar Jonah’s new name was “petra” would be like saying “Thou art Wilhelmina...”  William would be the more appropriate name for a man. It would avoid confusion, at least back then it would. To make His point clear that He was giving Simon Bar Jonah a new title as well as a new name, the translators of Jesus’ words would have had to stick a masculine ending on a feminine word.
That's how Greek and Latin work. However, the more important point here is that JESUS WASN’T SPEAKING GREEK OR LATIN!!! He was speaking Aramaic. Aramaic doesn’t have the gender problem that Greek does. Jesus called Simon bar Jonah “Kepha”. This title is repeated 19 times in the New Testament, so clearly it was noteworthy to the first Christians. In addition, St. Paul uses just the word Kepha eight times. When St. Paul wants to make a point, he uses the very word that Jesus used in Aramaic when talking about Simon bar Jonah. He is in effect conceding the title to St. Peter.  We can dispute what “petra” or “petros” or “kepha” mean, but the importance of the title and the importance of St. Peter to the first Christians are indisputable. He clearly appears as the leader of the apostolic band. 
More significant is the passage in which Jesus says that will give the keys of the kingdom to Simon bar Jonah who will control access to the court of heaven.  The Davidic monarch had an officer called the ‘al bayit, literally the “house supervisor”.  It was a continuous hereditary office and the keys of the house of David were its symbol. The first Christians perceived that Jesus was founding an institution that would have legitimate authority as prefigured in the Davidic royal court. People who try to redefine the words are simply trying to avoid the fact to which the first Christians and the Scriptures clearly attest: Jesus established a visible institution with legitimate authority.  That authority is limited to issues of faith and moral, but it is authority nonetheless.  Remember what St. Irenaeus said about “…those of perverse opinion who wish to assemble in unauthorized meetings”.
The history of the papacy is a catalogue of saints and sinners, of the strong and the weak. Its history reflects the life of its first incumbent who at one time Jesus called the rock and at another time called Satan. (Matt. 16:23) Despite their weakness and human frailty, and even sinfulness, the popes have been a stabilizing force in the unfolding of Christianity, regardless of the quibbles of those who think themselves more infallible than a pope.
The Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, December 10, 2017

What is "inspired" about a genealogy?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
What’s with all the list of names in the Bible? Things like “Mephibosheth begot Kaphuzalem who begot Habbakuk who begot…”  This stuff is inspired? I don’t find it very inspiring.
Yours ever,
Jeannie O’Lowjee
Dear Jeannie,
The lists of names in the Bible are very important. This is real history that involved real people. Admittedly our sense of history is different from theirs, but it is history none the less. Perhaps more importantly the lists of names mean that we worship a personal God with whom we have a personal relationship. He knows us by name and loves us as unique individuals. People are important. History is not just political, economic wave after wave. It is enriched or impoverished by actual persons.  I'm sure you’ve heard of the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Of course you have. Jumonville Glen changed the history of the world and caused the collapse of Western European civilization. The fact that you can’t be sure that a certain woman at work with the unusually large Adam’s apple is actually a woman is the fault of a trigger-happy colonial soldier from the English colony of Virginia who shot the French ambassador, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville at Jumonville Glen on May 28, 1754. That trigger-happy soldier, or at least his commanding officer, was none other than Lieutenant Colonel George Washington.
I regard George Washington as one of the greatest of history’s heroes. He established our republic by laying down power not once but twice. Still, his career got off to a rocky start with one of the greatest “OOPS!” moments in history. Washington and his soldiers, along with some Native American allies, had been sent to protect a fort at what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A larger French-Canadian force had captured the fort and sent a fellow named Jumonville to remind Washington that Pittsburgh belonged to France. Washington and the English ambushed the French who were camped in the glen, killing the French ambassador, Jumonville.
Britain and France were not at war at the time but after the English killed the French ambassador, things got out of hand, resulting in the Seven Years' War in 1756. France lost the war. The English taxed the American colonies to pay for the war. The colonies revolted. France helped the Americans throw off the British yoke to avenge their wounded pride. The Americans won that war, but the French monarchy went bankrupt helping the Americans. The American Revolution spread to France, but in a much more violent form. Napoleon Bonaparte was swept into power by the chaos of the French revolution. Europe was plunged into war once again, which brought the monarchy back to France. The French again revolted and elected Napoleon’s nephew to power. He attacked Germany in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war. France lost. The French swore revenge which led to the First World War, the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the Marxist takeover of a third of the world, causing the Second World War, the cold war, nuclear proliferation and the hula hoop.
In all the chaos Christian Europe died, the moral restraints of Judeo-Christian Europe were replaced by the silliness of never ending moral revolution. We have been sweeping away the tired old philosophies of the past for about three centuries and have tried to replace the ideas that created our civilization with the worship of science unfettered by a moral law. There is an old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Nonsense! War is the mother of invention! The goddess Scientia Invicta has given us the bomb and gender re-assignment surgery. Is this what we really want to be worshipping?
So, there you have it. Jumonville Glen begot the French and Indian war in 1756 which begot the American Revolution (1775) which begot the French Revolution (1789) which begot the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) which begot the Franco-Prussian War (1870) which begot the First World War, (1914) which begot the de-Christianization of Europe, the death of the culture, the use of weapons of mass destruction (mustard gas etc.), the bomb, the Russian revolution and all subsequent Marxist revolutions, 20th century fascism, the global struggle for the resources of war, particularly oil, the invention of plastic and, of course the hula hoop.
I imagine that if Washington had not lit the fuse, someone else would have, but my point is that history is about people. We are living in a world that is in a kind of meltdown because of individual decisions by specific people. As life’s little conveyor belt chugs along and I get closer to the drop off point, I wonder what will become of it all. We have turned our backs on any kind of moral certainty in a desire to be politically correct. We are living in the French Revolution run amuck. Political correctness was a matter of life or death in the French Revolution. The Revolution descended into a phase called “the Terror” in which political trials were convened on street corners and if one was accused of not being revolutionary enough, after a three-minute trial, your severed head was blinking at the crowd gathered before the guillotine.
College in the sixties was a little like that. If one was not revolutionary enough, one was completely ostracized. The current theological and political climate is too. Revolutions tend to turn the crowd into the arbiter of truth, until someone like Stalin or Hitler or Napoleon comes along and volunteers to tell us what the truth is. It seems that tyranny begets revolution which eventually begets chaos which in its turn begets tyranny. That process seems inevitable. The Roman republic descended into political chaos and gave us the emperors. The French Monarchy descended into chaos and gave us Napoleon. The Tsar plunged into the Great War and gave us Lenin, Stalin. Mao, Pol Pot and now, Kim Jong Il and his nuclear bombs. The German imperial federation descended into chaos and gave us Kaiser Wilhelm and then Hitler. This seemingly unstoppable process just keeps stuttering its way through history. Will the current moral and intellectual quagmire in which we find ourselves in the Church and in the world give us a Hitler or a Stalin? 
There comes a point at which human anger is no longer sustainable and we live in angry times. There has never been a war in history that was absolutely necessary. It may be necessary to defend oneself against aggression, but why the aggression in the first place? In wars the world over people joyously marched off to battle over the flimsiest of pretexts, some anger that seems so important at the time. They are sure they will be victorious and that the war will be short and glorious. It never seems to work out that way.  Societies are smashed to bits, and the survivors sit among the ruins and mourn the dead. We are living in angry times that I fear will give way to fascism. We are willing to go to war over the silliest of things. Free speech is sure to offend someone. In the world and in the Church freedom of thought and speech are in greater danger than they have been in a very long time.
What is to be done? If my theory of history is correct, it should work for the good as well as for the bad. We have descended into a moral swamp and can’t seem to find any solid ground on which to stand.  In times like these, the greatest weapon of the truth is not the tyrant, but the saint. We think of the unity of the Church as a matter of space, the Church united throughout the world. The unity of the Church is also a matter of time, the Church united throughout history.  Perhaps you heard of the treasury of the merits of the saints? I like to think of the treasury a little differently. The lives and teachings of 2,000 years of saints are like watertight compartments on a great ship. If there are sufficient watertight compartments in such a ship when it hits an iceberg, it will stay afloat. The lives of the saints in this world are finished and unchangeable. What they have said and done remain untouched by the current chaos. Their example, their teaching and their prayers for us stand as unshakeable reminders of how to live out the Gospel. The present age doesn't need more study groups, committees, programs or meetings. Saints are what the world and the Church most desperately need. People change things. 
The Arian heresy had overtaken the whole Church, but one man, St. Athanasius, stood up and was willing to suffer for truth. In 452, the Christianized Roman Empire was in state of collapse. Invaders from the east, Attila and the Huns, were bearing down on Rome. Pope Leo took his life in his hands and single handedly confronted the invader who turned back from the conquest of Rome. The list goes on and on.

Around 500 AD, St. Benedict of Nursia established western monasticism which recreated the Christian world after it had collapsed. He had no armies, no committees, no study groups. He simply left the world and went off to Mount Subiaco to dedicate his life to prayer and holiness. In so doing he created western monasticism which sustained Europe in the darkest times and brought the faith to the barbarian world. 
When you look at the chaos of the current age, there is something you can do. Offer your life to the Lord to use in whatever way He wants. We recently had a pope, St. John Paul the Great who was a visionary and a wonder worker. When the Marxist/Fascist government of Poland decreed that there would be no Catholic Church in Nowa Huta, he picked up a shovel, went to Nowa Huta, started digging the foundation of a church, and dared the authorities to kill him. The entire empire of Marxism in Europe started to unravel right then and there.
One holy man changed history.  We may be living in one of the greatest ages of the faith in history. We are living in an age of saints. There has never been an age in which there have been more martyrs for the faith than now. The outlook for the world is brighter than one might think.
To be continued…