Wednesday, 10 December 2014

What is a good liturgy?

Among my friends, it is customary to talk at great length about liturgy, good and bad. The Second Vatican Council did, after all refer to the Divine Liturgy of the Mass as the "source and summit" of the Christian life, that is, the beginning from which the Christian life flows, and that to which it is aimed and finds its true end. Consequently, we are highly concerned that the liturgy is done correctly. Our conversations often begin with some story of a terrible abuse of the liturgy, and progress from there to a thorough discussion of all things liturgical.

There are certain clear points on what constitutes an abuse. First of all, an abuse occurs when there is a breakdown of obedience to the due authority, which in the case of the Mass, is the rubrics that govern its proper use. Therefore, if one is unsure whether something is an abuse (I will restrict myself for the moment to the Ordinary form of the Roman rite, also known as Novus Ordo) then one can check the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), or the Roman Missal itself.

This on its own would uncover, at least where I live, such a large amount of liturgical abuse that it would fuel our conversations for months. For instance, the GIRM requires that the main place be given to Gregorian chant in the Mass, although this does not exclude other forms of sacred music, of which it names polyphony. I can count on one hand the number of parishes I have heard Gregorian chant or polyphony in the Mass. The same paragraph (41) says that the faithful precisely because they come from diverse cultures should be able to sing at least some of the Ordinary of the Mass, especially the Profession of Faith (the Creed) and the Lord's prayer (Our Father). The noise levels in most parishes go against the rules for sacred silence given in paragraph 45, which extend to before the celebration of Mass begins. Moving away from the sounds side, the GIRM also specifies that the sign of peace, whatever the Conference of Bishops actually decides it should be - the ACBC has it that the most common form is a handshake, although for those belonging to different cultures are not barred from expressing it in their way - needs to be in a sober manner, and only to those who are nearest. Or take an instance of an abuse from a priest: the priest is to wear an alb, stole and chasuble (119) and the chasuble covers the stole (337). There is also an alarming tendency to miss certain prayers, such as the Munda cor meum, which most would not notice since it is a prayer said quietly. Most parishes also have an excessive abundance of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, which are not required and are meant to be used only when the parish is enormous. Plus, EMHC are only meant to be included after those with Holy Orders have become too occupied and the ministers of the altar (in particular, instituted acolytes, or failing that, altar servers) have become over-burdened. Usually what happens in my experience is that someone else is brought up when the altar server is left not doing much. Or consider the building itself: the GIRM mandates that church buildings express the hierarchical structure of the People of God, which means that the ordained have a place distinct from the laity (294). Altars should be fixed and immovable, indeed, made of stone (298, 301). Tabernacles should be in a truly noble, prominent, conspicuous place (314). Sacred vessels (like the chalice and paten) should be made of precious metal (328).

I hope this brief sampling of abuses is a sufficient to get my point across that liturgical abuses happen and are common. Still, another question arises if one pushes deeper: certainly it is the case that obedience to the due authority is proper, but one may still ask why these norms are the way they are. What principles underlie them?

The first principles of liturgy are obvious enough: the liturgy needs to incorporate certain elements that it has had from apostolic times, including reading from the Scriptures (indeed, one way of looking at the canon of Scripture is as the texts which are appropriate for use in the liturgy) and the Sacrifice of the Mass. This latter part will mean that there is a a consecration of the Eucharistic species, and consequently, an institution narrative. The way in which these are done is consequently to be done appropriately. This means that one of the operative words underlying our response and conduct to the Mass is reverence, as the Scriptures themselves frequently demand reverence in the face of an encounter with God.

Reverence is sorely missing in most parishes these days. Reverence, just to be clear, is a combination of respect, awe, and fear. As common instances of lack of reverence the Holy Scriptures are often mostly ignored by the congregation and the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is mostly disregarded, indeed, the manner in which even the priest celebrates the Mass is conducive to this lack of reverence.

Other words which ought to appear in discussions of proper liturgy include mystery, sacred otherness, awe, beauty and penitence. The otherness, the holiness of God leads to mystery, awe, beauty, whilst our iniquity makes us penitent, particularly in light of the reality of the Cross and sacrifice of Calvary made present in the Mass, a reality which has only ever occurred on account of our sins.

There is, however, a quite distinct angle in addition to these which many of my friends take: they assume that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the so-called Latin Mass, although strictly speaking both forms are the Latin Mass) is in principle normative (or close to), and that the Ordinary Form of the Mass should hence be as close to it as possible. Heck, an unusually large number of my liturgically minded friends (compared a random sample) would prefer abrogating the OF Mass and the sole use of the EF. Their basic argument is that the OF is so different that it constitutes a break from tradition and is so significantly inferior to the EF. Some use arguments such as "the Traditional Latin Mass/Tridentine Mass/EF/Vetus Ordo is the Mass of the saints/martyrs/majority of the Church." This is different to saying that it is more reverent or mysterious or so forth, although they also make arguments along those lines. In short, for some, the EF is better because it is more traditional, sine plus.

This year, one of my main interests is to learn about and evaluate the principles that regard the liturgy, particularly the Mass. I intend to do this in three phases: learn how the liturgy developed, learn what the Magisterium considers to be the most important principles in guiding the celebration of the liturgy, and then making comparative study between the OF and EF. By the end of it, I should have a well-informed grasp of the liturgy, and be able to make similarly informed judgements of what directions the reform of the liturgy should take today, particularly by being able to evaluate arguments offered on all sides of the debate.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Good works, good works, everywhere! And all my time did shrink.


Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

~ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge's famous poem has these memorable lines of the mariner surrounded by his abundance, yet stranded also because of it, for the water was useless if not drinkable. I have found that much the same can be said for ministry: opportunities abound, even more, they are in excess. And so we are stranded, with good works in every direction we look, but until we take a step, make a commitment, it remains mere potentiality. The mariner can distill the water, but he must take a portion of the sea, he cannot distill it all. So too can we Christians take a portion of ministry as our own, and by doing so do what is good and right, but we cannot do anything if we simply gaze at the plenitude of possibilities for ministry.

There is good to be done in almost any walk of life. Doctors and medics who heal, lawyers who can be advocates for the unjustly accused, priests who can administer the sacraments, social workers who provide all sorts of services, missionaries who provide the Gospel in a manner particular to their calling, politicians who work for the common good of society, natural fathers and mothers who care for their children, contemplative religious who take as their own the yoke of prayer, teachers who educate the young...the list is probably as long as there exists people. There is a lot of good to be done in the world. No one person, however, can do all these things.

If we try and take all of them upon ourselves, we will surely fail. Certainly, one might object, one can be more than one of these professions: one can, for instance, be married (with duties to one's spouse), with children (with parental duties) a doctor and missionary, all in one. I have met such people. Yet even these unsung heroes cannot do everything, they simply do more than most. What remains - and this is clearly evident to the man I know who does combine those professions and vocations, since studying medicine is hardly a weekend hobby - is to commit. A bucket full of water can be taken to be distilled, not the whole ocean.

I want to write about two things in brief: first, how do we pick? I give St Ignatius Loyola's answer. Second, what then do I pick?

What then shall we do?

For Christians, as I explained when I went discussed vocation briefly here, deciding what to do is about discernment, discerning the will of God who knows how best to include us in the unfolding of salvation history. The problem we come to when figuring out what ministry to engage in, however, is that we already have as a premise that the choices are good. We already know what is wrong, and not to be involved in such activities. We have to distinguish, somehow, between good-and-meant-for-me and good-but-not-meant-for-me.

St Ignatius has a profound answer, which would be hard to summarise here. The way I understand it, his answer is threefold: first, a holy person makes holy decisions, so our first step should be to strive in everything to be holy. Second, Following the will of God produces feelings of consolation, and opposing it produces feelings of desolation. These are terms are used in a very specific way in the spirituality of St Ignatius, they do not refer simply to feeling good (consolation) or feeling bad (desolation). For this reason, I will at most touch on them briefly, in connection to one of the central insights of St Ignatius, which is (thirdly) that our deepest and holiest desires accord with the will of God for us.

Before alarm bells go off, this is not a sort of "prosperity discernment," whereby I declare whatever I want to be God's will for me to get. "I want some chocolate? God must want me to have chocolate." - not exactly, sorry. I am going to extrapolate from Ignatius' insight into a new form of language which may be clearer (hopefully without being unfaithful to St Ignatius). Our common desires, for pleasure over pain, having a full belly, being well rested, indulging our whims, can be called first order desires. Our second order desires are our desires of what we want our first order desires to be. Third order desires are about what we want our second order desires to be, and so forth.

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this division, which is far from being his human will pulling one way and his divine will pulling another. It is a deeply human problem. On the one hand, the natural inclination to avoid pain makes Jesus want to avoid the cross. On the other, his deeper desire is to want whatever the Father wants. His surrender of the will ("not my will be done, but yours") is an act of a high order desire. It is here where St Ignatius places that convergence of God's will and ours.

Let me give an example that is not explicitly moral: my conflicting desires between checking Facebook for the fifth time this hour or doing my coursework. My desire to procrastinate, I assure you, is strong, and Facebook provides an infinite venue for it. Still, I could hardly say that checking Facebook is a particularly deep desire, in fact, it pops up more regularly precisely because it is a superficial, surface level desire. Deeper down, hidden somewhere, I want to do well at university, and in fact, deeper down I thoroughly enjoy my university work.

If it is true that my deepest desires accord with God's will, noting that idea can certainly be misunderstood and perverted, then it follows quite clearly that holy people make the right choice the holier they are. Part of what the stain of original sin does to us is disorder our desires, so what is fundamentally good is perceived as peripherally good, and what is peripheral (at most) is fundamental. So part of undoing that stain and once more being sanctified, being holy, is to re-order our passions so that the true, the good and the beautiful are sought in their right hierarchy. It is not bad, for instance, to be concerned with oneself, it is healthy and good. Yet narcissism is a perverted form of self-concern which comes from placing oneself as the highest good. All sin results in some way from a disordering of these desires, these passions. This message, which could be expanded to fill a book, can be summarised as follows: holy people make holy decisions because their deepest, holiest desires are given centrality.

What then shall I do?

Now it is time for some introspection. What is it that I desire most deeply, what moves and motivates me more than anything else? I have sort of begun to answer that question with my series of blog posts, still unfinished, on what influences my theology. Vocation is an obvious one, but that is almost a given here, other than to note that most profoundly I want to do what God wants me to do. Grace for me implies, at least in part, that I have a deep desire for reconciliation, a point that will become clearer when I write about another crucial element of my theology, which is the focus on communion. This focus of mine on communion also implies that I have a deep desire for community, more than that, covenantal community, or in other words, a community that is based on a bond of sacred kinship. For the Christian, this bond is based on the reality of baptism.


Two other concepts, one I already wrote about and another yet to come, are central to my thought: incarnation and mission. Incarnational ministry, as I view it, is a form of ministry which makes the minister renounce what makes them above those ministered to (where by absolute I might mean, for instance, that a rich person renounces wealth to minister to the poor) in a way that imitates the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ "and dwelt among us." Last but far from least, mission is a central motivating concept for me. It is for every faithful Christian really, since Jesus came proclaiming the good news, St Paul pronounces woe on himself if he does not preach the good news and up to today the apostolic authority entrusted to the Church by Jesus has continued to say such things as "the Church exists to evangelise" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI).

That might sound overly intellectual, but it is really quite important, not least because to some extent my innermost is really quite intellectual anyway, perhaps to the point of being (overly) cerebral. Community, incarnational (sometimes called "intentional") community, witness and proclamation of the Gospel. These are all key. If I did not engage these, I would be being false to my vocation. I could name a few others (resurrection and truth are both exceedingly important), but I will skip them for brevity.

Changing modes for a moment, what about people's physical needs? The spiritual is important, and anyone who says otherwise is simply mistaken, but so is the corporal. Are corporal works of mercy something I am called to? Absolutely. Most people, if I may dare to generalise, probably are. Still, what variety? There are diseases to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, hungry to be fed, the socially marginalised to be included, and so on. The list is long. So what am I meant to do?

I genuinely do not know. There are certain issues I perceive as injust, and yet I do not find myself called to work in those areas. For instance, as it stands at the moment, I do not think I am called to work in political activism for the sake of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' rights. I am far from claiming it is an unworthy cause, it is simply not my cause. Similarly, whilst I have been to all sorts of rallies, marches and vigils for the end to the murder of children in the womb, it is similarly not fundamentally my cause. Still, nobody who knows me can really say that I do not care about these things. On the other hand, there are some issues where I am compelled to do something: homelessness, hunger, de-humanising poverty, slavery both physical and otherwise (like substance addiction), social marginalisation because of such stigmas as related to race or mental health illness, among others.

To that effect, I have begin discerning committing to various apostolates that deal with these issues, and am involved already in several. To the extent that I can identify key issues, and since engaging with the corporal ones is clearly compatible with engaging in the spiritual ones (which, because they effect eternal consequences, I am compelled to give pre-eminence), it would seem that my problems are largely solved.

That would, I think, be to go too fast. Whilst there is a sense in which I will always have a certain autonomy of will, in a few years time I will be taking not one but two vows of obedience, where I consecrate my will to God via my superiors and the Pope. I find that a comforting thought. But whether comforting or not, I am not sure in the long term what sort of ministry I will be involved in. I can only discern the next two years.

This will involve, as far as my eye can see, continued involvement in soup kitchens and including whoever I meet who seems to lack community. It will involve continued service in the Newman Society at UQ, and Frassati Australia. It will hopefully involved, though I have just started doing so, being involved with outreach initiatives of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It will hopefully involve working with initiatives of the Waiter's Union, soon. All of this, whilst not neglecting that my primary state in life as it stands is that of student at university. These are my buckets of water.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation


When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.


It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.


All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

What Inspires My Theology? Part II: Incarnation



If I had to write an blog post on how the Incarnation affects my theology, my thought, and my life, I would rather have to write a book. All my theology is centred around Jesus Christ, who is incarnate - my prayer is incarnational (a point I made tangentially here), when I think of mission or ministry, it is incarnational. My perspective on a theology of creation is incarnational. My thoughts on grace, and how grace and nature intersect, are incarnational.

In short, most of my theology is Incarnational. But what does that mean? For me, the Incarnation is about three things: first, that God does not remain distant from our problems, but through Mary is incarnate and shares in our humanity. This was my point with incarnational intercessory prayer: that when we pray for others, we must take on their poverty as our own, and intercede before God on their behalf. Together with God reaching down to us in human flesh, however, is the elevation of our humanity that comes with it. As St Athanasius writes in his treatise on the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The Incarnation is the concrete illustration of Jesus saying "I have become what you are so that you can become what I am."

Secondly, the Incarnation does not remove the divinity of Christ. It is the supreme example of the both/and approach to theology, where (as we confess in the Nicene creed) Jesus is true God and true man. Not half and half. Not a mix of divinity and humanity. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation is hardly the only instance of paradoxical unions: Catholic Social Teaching has that combination of solidarity and subsidiarity, soteriology has numerous paradoxical combinations, such as free will and predestination, or faith and works. Trinitarian has three persons in one God. Still, the Incarnation is such a special instance of this both/and principle that it is, after some thought, easy to see why so long was spent arguing about Christology, why so many councils were convened to discuss Christological dogmas. Christ is the self-revelation of God, so this very precise theological investigation of Jesus is fundamental to all theology. This unique combination of divinity and humanity means that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. It implies with the full force of theological fact that "nobody comes to the Father except through [him]." 

Third, the Incarnation elevates the visible. Before the Incarnation, people were right to be sceptical about the divine being presented in any sort of image, and hence the Decalogue has its injunction against graven images. Yet with the Incarnation, what was invisible and spiritual became visible in Christ Jesus. He is the "image of the invisible God", and therefore we can no longer scorn the created order as bearing the mark of God, not only as Creator, but even to the point of representing God. This is exceedingly important for all sacramental theology, though obviously it is most obvious in that most blessed of Sacraments, the Eucharist, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells under the species of bread and wine. In short, there is a divinisation of all of creation, not only humanity. What is this, however, if not a general statement of the fact that grace builds on nature?

These are just three of the underlying principles of the Incarnation that make this doctrine so crucial to Christianity, so crucial to theology, and so crucial to me in particular. I began to understand this in the context of social outreach ministry, when reflecting on intentional community and the vow of poverty that I hope to be making in a few years time. Why do we become poor to help the poor? It is the way of Jesus Christ, as St Paul writes to the Philippians in one of my favourite canticles:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!


Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11)

As I said, if I could come up with enough material to write a book on anything, it would be on the Incarnation. This, however, is only the briefest collection of points, to which I will add another small one that should merit much lengthier treatment: the Incarnation, in addition to highlighting both/and's in theology, endowing with special importance the visible created order as the means by which the self-communication of God took place, as well as being both and inheritance of our poverty and the exchange of it for riches, it becomes our own model not only insofar as Christ is our model in general, but also insofar as our ecclesiology centres around the Church qua the Body of Christ. One crucial mistake of those who "love Jesus but hate the Church" is that not only did Jesus start the Church, die for the Church, is the Bridegroom of the Church...the Church is also the mystical continuation of the Incarnation, which (though mystical) is still visible. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

So What if She is Gomer? She is my Gomer

With a couple of rare exceptions, most people are perplexed when they hear I am seeking entry into the Society of Jesus. Several people think celibacy is a ridiculous way of life, others have no idea why I would pick religious and priestly life over a secular career in physics (or a career in pretty much anything else, for that matter). By far the most surprised people are the people who see the Jesuits as a heretical, hyper-liberal and liturgically nonsensical order, and know that I am none of these things. Well, maybe I am a heretic, but I do try and avoid being one. Here is my apologia of sorts.

Why would I pick such an apparently dreadful order when I could be something sensible like a Franciscan or a Dominican? In part, it is because neither of those two orders reflect properly my charisms, though I have admiration for both nonetheless. In part also because I think that the Jesuits are considered far worse than those two quite unfairly; this prejudice is not a new, post-conciliar idea, either, as a glance at the Society's history will demonstrate. There has always been an anti-Jesuit myth.

Still, there is a great deal of truth to the post-conciliar Jesuit bashing, one that it would be hard to deny if one is in regular contact with a Jesuit parish. I am very far from saying that all Jesuits are bad priests, or even that I am in substantial disagreement with all of them. Of my favourite books, the top three are written by 20th century Jesuits: Henri de Lubac, Hugo Rahner and Walter Ciszek. I would be lying, however, if I said I could calmly read a book written by a Jesuit in the past fifty years without being consciously on the lookout for error. Although to be fair, I am rather critical of anyone I read, even canonised saints.

In short, the objection people present to me is this: Lobi, you have high standards for liturgy, a no nonsense attitude to theology, you are more interested in truth than in being airy fairy and nice, and even though you do spout the occasional modernist line, you are pretty far in general from the current ethos of the Jesuits. So, why join them, when you could join some better and more suitable order?

The answer is quite simple. I have full assurance that I am called to the Society of Jesus, and hence that I am not called to another order or another state of life. What does it matter if the Jesuits are a horrible order? If it is God's will, that is the end of the discussion. One cannot pick one's vocation as "whatever suits you" - vocation is necessarily where God calls you to be. Now, if you have some theory of discernment which says that somehow one's deepest and holiest desires are where God communicates one's vocation (as St Ignatius Loyola himself does), then by all means, pick whatever is suitable. But one should not confuse the discernment of the call with the call itself. The call of Jesus comes, and the disciple follows, it is really that simple. Just one verse from the Gospel according to St Mark show this:
 
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)

Some exegetes have tried to imply that there is something between the call and the response, or perhaps some past experience that primes Levi to respond as he does. Surely, they say, nobody would just get up and leave when just presented with a simple "follow me" - without any build up of trust, any prior confidence in this stranger, a conversation separating call and response? Yet such an imposition on the text is a prime example of a crucial error in considering vocations: the idea that there needs to be extensive dialogue between Jesus and oneself, between Master and disciple, before we agree to some conclusion and label that "vocation." That sort of perspective on vocation makes Jesus into a sort of Prime Minister rather than Lord and King, someone that we get to elect rather than someone who we have to accept. We would always get the vocation we wanted, and not in a divine sense, but in a worldly one. It is great when what we want is aligned with what God wants, but when there is tension, one must heed always to the will of God, even in perplexing cases where it seems that even God should want something different. Sometimes our discernment can be marked by pious human wisdom, which leads us to follow what we imagine God would want for us rather than follow what God in actual fact calls us to.

The prophet Hosea's life illustrates this well. Hosea was a northern kingdom prophet who was called to live out in the context of his own marital context the prophecy given to Israel. The call of Hosea is simple:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2)

I cannot seem to find a Catholic dating guide that suggests marriage to a harlot is a good idea. Following worldly wisdom for marital discernment would have lead Hosea to picking for himself a wife of better repute. Heck, even following a general sort of Catholic wisdom would lead Hosea to pick a different spouse. But Hosea knew better. He knew that he had to follow the will of God, not his own wisdom, not what he thought God should call him to. So he marries Gomer, an unfaithful woman, and whilst they have children together, Gomer continues to be a harlot.

God gives a reason for why Hosea is called to take a "wife of whoredom", but the reason given is not in any sense an absolute one. There is no logical necessity between Hosea taking Gomer as wife and Israel being unfaithful to God, even if it would make for a good illustration of the nuptial covenant between God and Israel. The call is ultimately senseless to worldly wisdom, but the Lord is not God of worldly wisdom.

Why does God call me to the Jesuits? I have vague ideas about it. I am a missionary at heart, I am adaptable to wherever God wishes to place me, and these make me kin to the authentic Jesuit spirit. I am drawn to Ignatian expressions of spirituality. By the grace of God, I can be equipped to be one of "God's marines." But whether I can figure out why God wants me to pursue entry into the Society or not, this is where he has called me.

I am now more certain of that than ever before. When I first wrote the short essay explaining my discernment process and decision, I had not even been accepted into the Catholic Church, my reception of the sacraments would be months away. It was not quite the complete story when I wrote it, and it is certainly not the whole story now, since I have altered and refined my reasoning. I am completely at peace with celibacy now, I have acquired a more mature desire for liturgy, and as Fr. David Braithwaite, SJ, pointed out in a talk given about a year ago as vocations director for the Society, the development of lay ministry is not fundamentally at odds with more clerical forms of ministry. Whatever tension exists in my mind now between me going to married life or religious life is rather centred on my love of children, something more directly suited to married life. Still, the more I learn and grow, the more certain I become of where God calls me.

Since I have used such harsh words to describe the Society - though not my own, only the accusations of others - it must be the case that I am more resigned to my vocation than happy about it. Quite the contrary. I am entirely at peace, filled with joy, at the prospect of entering the Society. Perhaps this is in part because I do not think that the caricature is largely accurate. More than that, though, I am content to abandon myself to whatever God wants for me. So I go towards the Jesuits not with weariness, but with a happy demeanour, not a forced one either, rather one that wells up from within me. That famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi of which I have a wooden plaque on my wall in front of my desk begins with "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Perhaps that great saint had found that he was to be an instrument of peace. As it stands, I cut the prayer even shorter: "Lord, make me an instrument of yours." That is enough for me. Or as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote in his famous hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," words that remind me every time that every vocation is both gift and mystery: "I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me."

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Intercessory Prayer is Either Power or Poverty

When you are in the world of Christianity, you hear it often: please pray for this or that, for this situation or that person, for me or for someone else. You also, when you are a bit into the game, start remembering that praying for others is not something to be done only on request, but that it forms a core part of any Christian's prayer life. The causes are endless, but some strike us as requiring our attention more than others, and we pray for these things most keenly.

I fall into a trap when it comes to this sort of prayer. Something will catch my eye as being a matter of concern to bring to God, and I will instinctively think of praying for the situation. For instance, I might see a homeless person on the street, or see a car crash that looks nasty, or a build up of armed police officers that signal a dangerous situation. Whatever the case may be, one jumps into prayer mode.

This prayer for others is known as intercessory prayer, and Jesus speaks quite frequently of its importance, for your friends, "your enemies and...those who persecute you" (cf. Mt. 5:44). In light of this, I decided to pray also for anyone who annoyed or perturbed me, in part because of this directive but also because praying for someone else has a profoundly humanising effect. One does not pray for objects, one prays for persons.

I have found that, instead of humanising others like I intended, what often happened is that I perceived myself to be exerting a certain power over others, and hence making objects of them once more. Not that prayer is an exertion of power per se, and it is important to clarify our theology of prayer to make this evident within a framework in which prayer is still efficacious, but that was none the less my experience: insofar as I consider prayer to be effective, praying for others was twisted into self-exaltation, as I elevate myself into a position where I bless others. In other words, if I pray for someone who is doing something wrong, I prayed from a status of exalted moral virtue, or if I pray for a poor person, I prayed from an exaltation of spiritual wealth. In short, my prayer was an expression of self-exaltation and and exercise of power over others, a power that I had because I was praying for them.

This attitude is, I think, highly problematic. It colours not only my interactions with the persons I pray for, but even my perceptions of the more distant situations I pray for. Like giving money to some poor person - which can also be an expression of dominance, a clarification that "I am richer and you are poorer" - praying for someone in this way is just a matter of self-righteous pride and contrary to the beatitude "blessed are the poor in spirit." The poor in spirit cannot dish out these blessings upon others like some people babble words of prayer: "I pray for this, and this, and that, and..ah yes, that one, and him, and those people, and definitely her....hmmm...and that too. Amen." because they have no blessing to give.

What then is the right way to experience intercessory prayer? I think that if intercessory prayer is to be genuine and avoid this pitfall of self-exaltation, it must begin with poverty of spirit. The first step is to recognise that we cannot bless others, that our prayers are simply petitions, we ask God for this or that. Being keenly aware of this fact is the right step towards avoiding the spiritual pride that can come with praying for others, since we become conscious that we are doing nothing for the situation or person other than presenting it to God.

Yet there is a more important step than this mere recognition of fact. I contend that intercessory prayer is a prayer made from the poverty of the other being prayed for. In this petitionary prayer, we enter into the other's needs, not insofar as they affect us, but from within their otherness. I think on this point we can learn from the experience of parents: a good mother, for instance, will not see their own needs, wants, desires and sufferings and those of her children to be particularly separate. If I were to break my arm, I have no doubt that my dad would feel the pain just as much as I would, if not more. Similarly, Jesus makes this link between his hungry brothers and himself in that famous line in the Gospel according to St Matthew when he says "as you did to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." For a mother, the needs of her children are her own. For Jesus, the hunger of his brothers and sisters is his own. When we pray for another, their needs should be our own.

Hence, I have learnt, and am slowly learning, to shift intercessory prayer from a mode of power to a mode of poverty. For as I pray for the poor man, I do not pray as someone foreign to him, but I go to his side and pray for him as if for myself. I make his poverty mine and plead to God for him.

This is the essence of the Incarnation, is it not? The Son does not intercede to God first at his right hand, instead he takes on our flesh and so represents us before the Father. Indeed, Jesus takes on our poverty until death, even death on a cross. It is written that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," meaning nothing other than that Jesus, as High Priest, first inherits our poverty before God as human creatures before he intercedes for us. Jesus prays as we should pray: from the position of the one being prayed for, from the poverty of the poor man.

If I can make a practical aside for the celebration of the Mass, which as the highest prayer of the Church certainly includes intercessory prayer, the posture of "I stand, not as myself, but for them for whom I pray" is best displayed in Ad Orientum celebration of Mass. The priest acts in the person of Christ as he intercedes to God the Father in the name of Jesus, bringing to God our petitions as our head (for Christ is the head of his Body, the Church), and so it makes most sense to pray in the same direction as the people. A lawyer interceding for the defendant will not speak to the judge facing the defendant, but will look with the defendant towards the judge as the case is pleaded. Likewise, our representative Jesus Christ, in the person of the priest, looks towards God and offers to him our petitions.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Seeking Pastoral Solutions to Factual Problems

If you ask some people, they would define pastoral as a vacuous word used to justify an attitude of polite niceness that would never offend, rebuke or admonish anyone, potentially also masquerading as an attitude of love. Those same people know that pastoral has a real meaning that is good and worthwhile, they just never hear the word used that way.

At its most basic, being pastoral means looking after someone, like a shepherd (pastor) does for their sheep. It is the duty of the priest and bishop to be pastors modelled on the Good Pastor, or Good Shepherd, himself, and by implication, it is the duty of the Church to be pastoral. The Church has always done this, and in one sense, it is one of the few things she really can do.

If that strikes you as odd, that might be because you think of the Church as being very concerned with dogma. The thing is, for the Church, dogmas are facts, and it is always facts that produce pastoral problems. For instance, to put a secular example which I will return to in this post, imagine a tall cliff top which was a popular tourist attraction, but where unfortunately people keep on falling off. The pastoral problem is that people fall off, but it is produced by some facts about the scenario: the fact that people go to the top of this cliff, the fact that falling off a cliff is dangerous, the fact that gravity makes people fall. If any of these were not facts, there would be no pastoral problem.

It is with this in mind that we must go about seeking pastoral solutions to matters. It is far too easy to approach thorny issues and try and solve them by denying one of the facts. In the spiritual life, it is far easier to deny facts than in the physical life, but things are no less true because that are not readily perceived. Falling off cliffs kills. Mortal sin kills.

Since reality is constrained by facts about how the world is, one must solve whatever problems arise in light of the facts. Hence, one cannot ignore the fact that people are falling to their deaths, and perhaps the right response is to build a fence. When the matter is spiritual, however, pastoral approaches tend to play hard and fast with dogmas, the fact of the spiritual life. For instance, it is not "pastoral" to give the Eucharist to someone in an unrepentant state of sin. It is good neither for the Eucharist nor for the person, and I daresay, it is not good for the person giving them it, or encouraging them to take it, either. If we try and spin the situation as pastoral, what we are doing is ignoring the harm it does to all parties involved.

My point is really quite simple: when we try and approach issues from a pastoral perspective, we must always be ready to navigate the facts, be they worldly or otherwise. If we fail to take the facts seriously, we have not solved any problem at all. This might sound obvious, but it seems to be shockingly missing in some people's minds.

----------------------------

What I have said should be understood as applying in general, however, there is one issue that is very contemporary which begs to be looked at as an example of what I have said: the discussion about communion for the divorced and remarried. First, let me quote the Church's position, from a section of paragraph 84 of Familiaris Consortio:

"However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.""

Notice how Pope St John Paul II recognises that the pastoral approach is fully conscious of the facts of the matter, in this case, that a valid marriage is an indissoluble covenant. On the other hand, you can take a look at the impoverished and I daresay, twisted perspective given in this piece from the 1990s by some activist organisation. You are welcome to read the rather long piece at your own leisure, but glancing at the ARCC's new webpage, not much has changed. In light of one Cardinal's reaction to the responses given in the survey for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the president of the organisation wrote that:

"Your published assumption that the global Catholic community remains ignorant of the current Church teaching on the family, is the true shock to us all.  It is clear that your are not aware of our intelligence, knowledge, and understanding that we have about traditional Catholic teachings and that the survey demonstrates that the Catholic people who are the People of God, the Church, not only know and understand the Chuch's teaching on the family, but continue to suffer from, and reject, these teachings." (Source)

Let me set aside the lapse in grammar and spelling - "your are" and "Chuch's teaching" - and indeed, what seems to be a jump in logic: Mr Edgar, the ARCC president, says that it is clear that Cardinal Tagle is not aware of the faithful's intelligence and so forth. But it is quite to the contrary, in fact, since the Cardinal was surprised not at the depth of their understanding, but of their ignorance. He had presumed they knew, and was surprised they did not.

Those things aside though, we see after over a decade that not much has changed: for Mr Edgar, and many others, a pastoral solution means that the facts must be changed. Unlike the case of the cliff, where the facts are perfectly obvious, Mr Edgar cannot see the facts of the spiritual life, expressed as they are in Familiaris Consortio. As he says, he rejects them. I cannot comment on his life or the state of his soul, but it certainly seems like his lack of sight is due to lack of faith, since as St Thomas Aquinas' hymn puts it, "faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail."

There is more to the Church's pastoral response to divorced and remarried people than simply that they cannot receive Holy Communion, and during and after the Synod we may hear of some change in practice. But Mr Edgar's approach will always and everywhere fail, because for him, the facts are the ones that need to change. That is just not going to happen.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part I: Grace

See Introduction here.


Whilst I think I came closer than most, it is hard to become Christian for purely intellectual reasons. This is because Christianity is not primarily about conveying a cognitive content; its message can only with approximations be put into propositions. Christianity has as its cognitive content Jesus Christ, and as any biographer knows, converting a person into words is not just difficult, it is impossible. For me, that non-intellectual reason was the central Christian concept of grace. I quoted the full transcript of the testimony I gave when I was baptised in a previous blog post, and a section of it I can transcribe here:

"There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!

Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.

Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.

And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me."


That was quite an eloquent way of putting it, but I did not explain on that day the particular path that had led me to have, to this day, such a grace-centred approach to theology. At its heart, of course, it is because I experienced grace and found it to be a good of inestimable wealth. It is because I recognised a dual problem in myself: I did not do what I thought the right thing was, and so I needed forgiveness, and I did not think I was capable of doing the right thing - not because of physical incapacity (because "should" implies "[physically] can") but because I was weak of will.

My parents know I am fairly rotten in a moral sense because they have to live with me. Others, however, thought I was a decent enough person. This was no-where near enough, because I was not a decent-arian, I was a utilitarian. This is crucial to understand: utilitarians are often pressed with what is known as the demandingness objection, which goes that utilitarianism cannot be correct because it demands too much of people. As Famine, Affluence and Morality (a famous essay in applied ethics) argues, one cannot justify spending an amount of money on oneself unless one is improving one's well-being comparably to how much somebody else could benefit from it.

Let me illustrate this. I carry round in my wallet a card, a cut-out from the back of one of Caritas' Project Compassion donation boxes which tells me what money can do if donated to Caritas: $5 could buy a chicken for a children's centre in Mozambique to raise and sell for food, medical supplies and school uniforms. $10 could provide a family with a water filter to access clean, safe water and reduce waterborne diseases in Cambodia. And so forth, up until $250. Since the benefit someone else can get from $5 is more than I would get from, say, buying one of those ridiculously priced coffees with a macaroon on the side, it would be wrong for me to spend the money on myself, rather than donating it to the work done in Mozambique. Of course, there comes some point where spending it on myself really is better, but chances are that comes when I am spending the money on my survival, rather than my pleasure.

Yet, whilst I do not buy ridiculously priced coffees for simple lack of money in general, I would indulge other whims where I could. My conscience, informed as it was by utilitarian precepts, was aghast at this. Probably not as much as I should have been, because I had not realised quite how much utilitarianism demanded of me, but I was nonetheless horrified at my actions. The problem was that I felt powerless to change it. Not powerless in the sense that someone forced at gun point is powerless, but rather incapable because of something within. I have never found anyone else explain it better than my dear St Paul:

"
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:15-19)

In becoming a Christian, then, I found the grace of God in twofold way: not only the forgiveness of wrongdoings past, but also the promise of transformation. The former is important, yet the latter is perhaps even more so, since without transformation the forgiveness would need to be replicated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

It was equally important, and I think this is the major thrust of my thinking on grace, that it be entirely and wholly a free gift. Of course, if it is earned, it is no longer grace, but desert. Which is why St Paul also says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom. 11:6) This, I think, is crucial. The Christian idea of grace requires a radical rethinking of what can and cannot be considered desert. Certainly, when Catholics talk about their own theological version of desert, that is, merit, they mean it in the way St Augustine used it, and the Council of Trent elaborated dogmatically on: "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness." Or as the Missal puts it: "in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts." We see clearly how the Christian perspective on desert is that, in a way, it involves some doublethink. God must bestow grace in order that there be any good, and yet, God freely associates humans with the works arising from that grace, counting it as deserved.

Grace forgives, justifies, sanctifies, and all this completely freely. In a shortened form, I had already discussed this in Time in the Evangelical Church. Perhaps some would think that such a high view of sin and grace, with such a strong sense of culpability, would lead me to affirm with Martin Luther the doctrine of sola fide, with its essentially cognitive sense of faith. However, I was convicted of the fact that grace required something of me, not so much in return so as to repay a debt, for I knew that such a feat was not even possible to contemplate, but merely as a response to grace and of grace.

In other words, I was convinced that grace came as a package deal, and that if I was not transformed, nor was I forgiven. Bonhoeffer, in a book I discovered later (and wrote about here) writes of the fake sort of grace, "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself."

It is entirely true that in a more complete sense, it was the challenge of John Henry Newman that led me to become Catholic. Still, in a smaller sense, it was that I was only really being fed cheap grace as a Protestant, yet affirming costly grace in my innermost, that led to my openness for me to explore what I then thought of as the most distasteful form of Christianity, if it could be called that.


This doctrine of grace has, I think, powerful implications. It means I can write posts like "Loving the Lovely and Unlovely", which certainly sounds nice, but is really based on the premise that when one is loving another person, one must reject all notions of desert, ignore whether the person could be said to "deserve" love or not. This is simply based on the conviction that God loved me, and I did not deserve it, so I cannot count desert as relevant for someone else. It affects my political philosophy, where again I consider grace to be a central and guiding principle, and why I can write with general approval about the philosophy of John Rawls, or at least his second principle of justice, and link this directly to grace in the aptly titled essay "John Rawls and Grace." It has many other implications, and in fact, I think that because "God is love", grace lies at the very heart of who God is, not just what God does.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Not a Traditionalist, Just Catholic

I have been to an Extraordinary Form (Latin) Mass this week. I can sing the Kyrie in Greek and the other main Mass parts in Latin, like the Gloria, the Sanctus, Angus Dei. I prefer the Mass celebrated Ad Orientum. I receive the Eucharist kneeling. In short, I have what some would consider "traditionalist cred", but I am not a traditionalist. I am just Catholic.

Some might say that a traditionalist is defined by practicing some traditional devotions. Some might say a traditionalist is someone who thinks Humanae vitae is correct in its essential teaching. Or in other words, one could label traditionalists by what they do or what they think. This is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go about defining what a traditionalist is. I put to you that a traditionalist is someone who considers that the argument "it has always been done this way in the Church, therefore we should continue to do it this way, unless it is actually necessary to change" is, prima facie, valid.[1]

That might sound rather technical, but I think it encompasses the sort of person that is clearly and self-professedly a traditionalist, without reaching too far. The problem with the practice definition is that many practices labelled "traditional" are still relevant and edifying today, and so for instance, even non-traditionalists can benefit enormously from praying the Rosary. The problem with the what-they-think definition is that it is ignoring the fact that in many cases these are infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Or in other words, if the subtle and implicit definition of traditionalism is orthodoxy, then not being a traditionalist is synonymous with putting oneself outside of communion with the Church. In other words, this latter definition would make non-traditionalists not really Catholic.[2] I think this is clearly an excessive and simply untenable position, because it seems obvious that not all Catholics have to be traditionalists.

The definition I gave is true to experience, I think, or at the very least my own experience and that of my friends. Traditionalists will often argue by pointing to what is sometimes known as small 't' tradition as an authority in itself, whereas non-traditionalists are open to the small 't' tradition but do not feel particularly bound to it. Though he meant it slightly differently, when Chesterton said that tradition was democracy of the dead, one could more poetically say that the traditionalists would rather consider it to be the aristocracy of the dead.

I am not a traditionalist, therefore, because I do not consider the argument structure to be prima facie valid. I am perfectly content to change things other than out of real necessity, and I will give two examples pertaining to the liturgy: first, one difference quickly noted by anyone who has experienced both between the Vetus Ordo (Latin Mass) and the Novus Ordo is that the Vetus Ordo is very quiet, because the priest says most of the prayers quietly at the altar. I think the Novus Ordo, though perhaps tending in modern practice to lend itself to being "noisy", is an improvement in this regard. Similarly the use of the vernacular language is, in my opinion, an improvement over the sole use of Latin.

In other words, it can be said that I am a child of the Second Vatican Council. If one reads the documents concerning, for instance, the liturgy, one sees a spirit not of needless throwing out of ancient traditions, but of permission for the competent ecclesiastical authority to alter the liturgy in light of the development of society and culture. Its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says:

"In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it." (Paragraph 21, emphasis mine)

Too often, however, I am mistaken for a traditionalist because I am fully a child of the Second Vatican Council, which says in the very next paragraph:

"1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority." (Subsections of Paragraph 22, emphasis mine)

In other words, because I think that things ought to be done properly, the mistake is made that I am a traditionalist or have traditionalist leanings. Indeed, all the things I opened with which give me "traditionalist cred" are really ones that give me "Catholic cred": that I can sing the parts of the Mass in Latin is what the council called for, that I have prayed the Vetus Ordo as well as the Novus Ordo, that receive Holy Communion kneeling, that I strongly prefer Ad Orientum celebration of the liturgy.

If Pope Francis can do it, I think it is safe.
The first two are simply what the council called for. Receiving kneeling and on the tongue is not just traditional, though it has been done like so in the West for quite some time now; receiving Communion in the hand had its resurgence in the West under the shadiest of circumstances: an indult given because the practice was already illicitly widespread, and the fruit of the practice since its introduction last century has not been good. And Ad Orientum liturgies are simply what are assumed in the rubrics, and make the most sense of the prayers and movements of the priest at the altar. For example: to whom does one elevate the Host at the consecration? The movement, when the liturgy is celebrated Versus Populum, looks like the Host is being offered to the congregation, maybe for inspection. The sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the oblation of the Sacred Species to God is made most clear when the Mass is celebrated Ad Orientum.

Therefore, I think it is quite fair to say that I am not a traditionalist in the proper sense of the term.


[1] I am using the term validity here in a quasi-technical sense. If you have some training in logic, think of this as a inductive version of validity. That is not entirely accurate either, because inductive validity occurs, broadly speaking, when the premise being true adds likelihood to the conclusion being true, and I do consider that one can contently stick to the custom as a rule of thumb - however, this way of thinking about it will do. Another way might be to say that a traditionalist is someone who holds that what has customarily been done should, ceteris paribus, be continued. In my opinion, this definition is still too rough.

[2] This is slightly complicated by the fact that one can be Catholic by baptism but not by faith. Whether that makes the person part of the Body of Christ or not, I am not sure, though I would think not. I will not be using the definition of Catholic that bases itself on baptism, but rather, the one that basis itself on faith.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Introduction


In the past couple of days, I have learned a little about two theologians I regard highly, the Catholic 20th century theological giant Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf, and in particular their influences. von Balthasar trained as a musician, then also pursued studies in German literature and culture, and this influenced him into taking an aesthetic approach to theology. He was furthermore close friends with Karl Barth, probably one of the greatest Protestant theologians ever.

Volf, on the other hand, has quite a different set of influences. A lot of his work, particularly to do with forgiveness (though he is also notable in other areas, for instance, he presents the most robust defence of Free Church ecclesiology I have ever come across) had its genesis in reflecting upon his experience being tortured mentally and interrogated in former Yugoslavia for being a theologian with an American wife. A lot of his theology links back to that formative experience of his, his meditations on it, and extrapolations from it.

At bottom, the fundamentals of theology are all things that can be experienced. This is why the epistle to the Hebrews opens:

"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Or, in other words, God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who is incarnate, and can be experienced. Experience is generally a lousy way of making any concrete claim about God, which is why dogmatic theology never bases itself entirely on experiences - but I think it is quite clear that some of our best theologians have experiences which influence their approach to theology. If not those remembered for their monumental theology, at least consider the mystics.

So I began to wonder what inspires my approach to theology. Obviously it fluctuates somewhat, and evidently I cannot answer in an absolute way for all times, past, present and future, but there is a number of things that form the core of my theological perspectives, and in fact, my perspective on what might be called "exegetical" and "liturgical" theologies: particular perspectives on what lens I use when reading the Bible, and how I approach the matter of the role of the liturgy in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian, as well as what its characteristics are.

There are six of these. Each is important to the life of each Christian, but I take these six particularly to heart as essentially a hermeneutic for all theology because of experiences I have had and the things that have formed me. Hence, as an exercise both in self-reflection and self-explanation, as well as a recording of the state of my opinions at this "tender" age of 19, I decided to write a series with a short post on each one. These will provide anyone reading my blog who does not know me, and those who do know me but do not discuss theology enough with me to know my views, an insight into how I approach theological matters.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Globalisation, Consumerism and Buying Ethically


 
We have all heard sayings like you vote with your money. Underlying it is clearly the point of view that money and power are intertwined, that spending money is really what we do with our “allocation” of power. Our experience suggests that this is, at least to some extent, correct: people with lots of money have more power than people with less money.

Whenever we buy a good or service, we are casting a vote of sorts, because we are funding some company or organisation. Indeed, all of us do it: we buy food, clothes, often electronics, transportation goods (like a car, bike, motorbike, etc.) or services (like tickets on buses, trains, aeroplanes, or a taxi), and so forth. At least some of these are what we could consider “basic”, that is, we have some need for them. It is true that we could live in such a way that does not involve money, like a hermit or a monk does, but for most people these are not really options.

Modern society, however, brings us two problems which were not really experienced by people a few centuries ago: we live in heavily globalised societies, and we live in economies which thrive on consumption. In other words, we live in such a way that our actions in what part of the world are connected to other parts of the world in ways that were essentially unimaginable in earlier periods of human history, and we live in economic set ups that really only work on the condition that people consume goods and services. Whether or not these are good things does not concern me at present: they are, for most humans in the West, simply facts.

These three things can be combined: we have to consume, our consumptions and actions affect people on a global scale, and we are giving funds, we are voting, when we consume. Add to all of this the implicit point that we are talking about humans in all these interactions, and we have an issue that falls under the magisterium of ethics.

This matter not only falls under ethics, it is a matter of profound ethical concern. It would be a matter of ethical concern even if the economy were not so globalised. The problem is made incredibly complex by the way the economy functions, though, because of how far reaching our actions are. The only solution that can be deemed “simple” is to not play the economy game at all, to be a hermit or monk. For most of us, those of us who will not do so, the ethical course of action is not clear.

Let me give an example of why this is difficult, one that was briefly discussed at the Glimpse conference I attended recently in one of the electives, involving clothes. It is fairly well established that the working conditions for many in Bangladesh are deplorable. That is an affront to human dignity, particularly as expressed in terms of worker's rights. So what do we do? If we do not, collectively, buy Bangladeshi clothes, then people no longer have a job. Their economy is based on the textile industry. If we do buy clothes from there, then we are funding their exploitation.

Suppose we work to ensure they have better working conditions, so that their clothes are fair trade. Chances are, a bunch of the multinationals that make a large profit margin from cheap labour in Bangladesh will just move to neighbouring countries, and once again, the Bangladeshi people working in textile factories will be out of a job and even worse off than before. Maybe the solution lies in not buying new clothes at all, after all, if we buy from somewhere like Vinnies, we support a good cause, and the original labour is (to some extent) secondary, because the clothing is second hand and the proceeds go to a good cause.1 But living in an economy built on consumption means that not consuming essentially means that someone else can no longer make money producing, and once again, someone is out of a job. Of course, that's aside the fact that someone had to have the piece of clothing first-hand in any case.

Clothing is not the only sort of thing that has this problem. I heard last year that many of our electronics, notably our mobile phones, have a metal called coltan, almost all of which is sourced from Africa, and particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are other metals also sourced from mines in the DRC. However, the past fifteen years have seen about five and a half million people die in fighting which gets funding (and motive) from these mines. That's about the population of Cairns in half a year. So electronics must be subject to ethical scrutiny. Or consider food, like so simple a thing as chocolate. It was brought to my attention during Holy Week that the cocoa industry relies heavily on child slavery in West Africa. In a particularly startling quote, one former slave said that “when people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.” Whilst that is allegorical, it points to an underlying reality, which is that most of the cocoa in the world comes from West Africa, and substantial portions of it are produced by people who are effectively slaves, often child slavery.

These examples are ones I am using just to illustrate a basic point: our purchasing choices are exerting global influence that aid and create systems of injustice, and furthermore, there is no easy opt-out. I did not even have to include the environmental effects of our actions, existing though they are. Even the hermits and monks that I said were “out of the system” are really so out of the system that they are not truly helping, either, because they are not consuming.

I wish I had some sort of solution to this problem. One, very idealistic one, would be to universally improve working conditions so that purchasing anything would mean purchasing fair trade goods and services. Then there could be no “migration” of labour from a fair scenario back to an unfair one. That is not going to happen over-night, if ever, though working for fair working conditions is not therefore useless, it is just to be considered within an economy which gives incentives to exploitation because it is what makes money, that is to say, within a system where, from the perspective of the producer, fair trade in one place is a push to go somewhere else.

Clearly, we can make use of the “inefficiencies” of the market and buy fair trade wherever possible, since in reality what will happen is that a balance will be shifted towards countries with low working conditions, rather than a complete displacement of all factories to such places. So, for instance, if Bangladeshi workers rights were respected, then there truly would be a overall benefit. We must simply not be na├»ve enough to think that the response of the multinationals will be simply to pay more and offer better working conditions. And evidently, we need not consume so much in the area of electronics, where really, we gain very little from having the latest phone or music device. Goodness knows what effects that will have on the economic balance, though it will avoid formal cooperation in the evil of funding a bloody civil war.

Really, though, I have no solution, not even a proper guideline. Buy free trade where possible! But that's not in itself enough. Consume less where possible! But that will not be enough. The way that systems are set up allow for no easy solution which will promote the common good.

1Not always, actually. I have gotten new clothes from Vinnies. But let us stick to the second-hand case, and ignore the charity-shop-but-first-hand case.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Uniqueness and Sanctity



It is among the most popular messages of films, television, songs and culture at large: be yourself! Love the person you are. Being true to oneself is among the highest virtues, it would seem. Exactly what one hopes to achieve with doing so is not always so clear: Psychology Today had an article on that challenged "Dare to be Yourself.," there is a WikiHow article on how to do it, and whether it is actually a Buddhist principle or not, LittleBuddha.com has an article on what it means and how to do it. Everyone seems to think "being yourself" is a great idea.

Lao Tse, the legendary founder of Taoism writes “When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”, whilst on the other hand, others (such as Frederick Douglas) suggest that not caring about winning other people's respect is the key to being oneself, and so Lao Tse's "incentive" would cease to be an incentive if we reached that point of being ourselves. For people like Douglas, it would be like advertising chocolate by telling people that it will seem great whilst they are buying it, but they will not want it when it comes to chomp time. Meanwhile, philosophers usually worry more about problems of personal identity, not in the sense of realisation of some hidden "you", but figuring out who "you" is right now, and who "you" will be tomorrow (if it is the case that "you" actually even exist tomorrow - some, like David Hume, would say "you" would not).

The Christian has a very unique spin on whether or not it is important to be oneself and what that means. For Christians, being yourself is crucial, but you are not who you think you are. For instance, you might think that you are a skilled baker, and so being yourself is making excellent bread. Or you might think you are a quirky student, so being yourself is being quirky as a student. Christianity says these matters are peripheral to who you are, they are you accidents, not your substance. We see who we are not by looking inward at what we are like, but by looking outward at Christ. In Jesus we see the image of real humanity, and it is in him that we find who we are, as well as who we are meant to be. This is why we say in the Nicene creed "true God and true man" - Jesus is the truly human one, he as sinless, as perfect, is the real human. We, through our selfishness, our pride, our greed, have broken our humanity.

So we must reclaim that humanity in light of Christ. This is what it means to be a saint: not being really really nice, but being transformed into what we were meant to be, ridding ourselves of our human brokenness and instead taking on our new humanity from the only one who has real humanity. Uh oh. That sounds a bit stifling, right? I mean, it is back to the whole "being someone else" thing, and surely that is not "being yourself", right? Not so, not so. Chesterton was right when he said: "It is a real case against conventional hagiography that it sometimes tends to make all saints seem to be the same. Whereas in fact no men are more different than saints; not even murderers."

If you read the lives of the saints - which can be a hard thing for some of the older ones, because of the pious legends and the homogeneity that comes from the stylists who wrote the lives up for us to read - you will find that over and over again, they are incomparably unique and wholly alive. Which can be a bit of a shock if you have been brought up thinking of saints as this:




Let me take just one example, a person close to my heart, who is well on his way to canonisation but who also made the mistake of thinking of the saints as this fairly homogeneous group of men and women. He thought he was not a saint because he was not like that group. He was wrong, because that group evades stereotyping. I speak of John Henry Newman, who wrote this when told that others thought him a saint:

"I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. I may have a high view of many things, but it is the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect—but this is very different from being what I admire. I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my way, but it is not the ‘high line.’ People ought to feel this, most people do. But those who are at a distance have fee-fa-fum notions about one."


He was so different to the saints he knew that he thought he could not have been a saint himself. And behold! It was only a few years ago that the Pope made insinuations about him being declared a Doctor of the Church, a title given to those whose theological writings and teachings have enriched the Church - but he is not just a great theologian, for all Doctors of the Church are themselves canonised saints - and sanctity is not merely a matter of intellectual acuity.

The saints are completely themselves because they have heeded to that perfect image they were made in. St Paul writes to the Colossians that Christ is the "image of God", and the author of Genesis said humans were made "in the image of God." It is in recovering that archetype of their humanity, that they found themselves, human as they were, being even more fully themselves. And far from stifling them, they flourished! This new humanity that we see in Jesus is a glorious one. It was not in vain that Pope Benedict XVI said:

"The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."

In short, the saints are those who are fully themselves. They found themselves by denying what they might have thought to be themselves, the sum of their interests and desires, and in that self-denial, found themselves in Christ. They found themselves in the wholeness of their humanity, and so they had to find themselves outside themselves. We, also, must be ourselves, and like the saints, find our humanity in Jesus Christ, who has it perfectly.