Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Church as a Sign of Contradiction

A very chilly scooter ride to work this morning compelled me to think about things other than the cold.  And on my mind was the ongoing debate occurring in the Roman Catholic Church about what it could mean to read the signs of the times, and how it is that the Church is to do this guided by the Holy Spirit.  The recent on-line dialogue between Ross Douthat and James Martin, SJ had me thinking about it, as did Stephen Okey's excellent assessment of this dialogue.

One part of Mr. Douthat's response to Fr. Martin struck me particularly, because it represents a common refrain I've heard in recent months whenever the question of sex and marriage is discussed:
It seems to me that there have been many cases in church history when the faith did need to learn from a changing culture, to read the signs of the times and to adapt. But there are just as many cases, under regimes ancien and modern, when “adaptation” meant corruption, worldiness [sic], the partial abandonment of the gospel. And I always wonder, in our contemporary discussions about sex and marriage, how would-be reformers so confidently distinguish the Spirit from the spirit of the age. By which I suppose I mean: Does it make you feel uncomfortable at all that every power and principality of our age—every establishment, political and judicial and cultural—is on the side of change in these internal church debates? Does it ever make you worry, even a little, that these reforms are truer to a passing historical moment than to Christ?
What Douthat appears to argue here is that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction in the world, and those who advocate for change on the church's viewpoints on sex and remarriage veer dangerously close to accommodation rather than to contradiction.

I think Douthat is right to point to the idea of the church as a sign of contradiction, but whenever this idea is cited with reference to the issues of sex and marriage, these thought always goes through my head: Surely it isn't only, or even primarily, in the realm of sexuality that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction? Is it not about so much more than that?

What we need to discern more clearly is what it meant for Jesus to be a sign of contradiction, to the point that his offensiveness to the prevailing order cost him his life.  And what we see, in my humble opinion and as someone who is not a biblical scholar, is someone who calls his followers to a way of existing as community that was fundamentally different from the status quo; one that called into question the centrality of power, wealth, and domination and offered a way of being community that reversed the predominant 'rules' that characterized his age, and frankly our own.

There's something both terribly frightening and exhilarating about Jesus' call, and something that appears to me to be far more revolutionary and far-reaching than is usually understood.  If I may be so frank, it seems to me that Jesus' message looks more like the Catholic Worker than it does Catholic Vote.

So yes, let's do appeal to the important idea of the church as a sign of contradiction.  But let's stop fooling ourselves by thinking that the church fulfills this call to be a sign of contradiction when it proposes a sexual morality supposedly at odds with the dominant culture.

It seems to me that the notion of the church as a sign of contradiction is far more serious than that.

Here's my Twitter rant after my scooter ride this morning.  I am, as always, open to dialogue.

Painting above is Rembrandt's "The Descent from the Cross" and was found on

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Our Little Oratory

In January 2013 I took a group of students from Bellarmine University's Master of Arts in Spirituality program to the state of Kerala in India.  We stayed at a vibrant Franciscan friary, and traveled throughout the state exploring Christian history and spirituality - tradition has it that St. Thomas evangelized Kerala in 52 C.E. - as well as the ways in which Christians in Kerala engage in dialogue with one another and with their Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

The most moving experience for me wasn't visiting sights associated with St Thomas, nor was it engaging in a discussion about interreligious dialogue at a Jesuit ashram.  It was, rather, being invited over to a family's house for supper along with two students.

The friary in Kerala
The hospitality was amazing.  The family walked us up and down the street and introduced us to their neighbours.  At each neighbour's house we were greeted warmly and were, of course, fed.  When we returned to their home, a carpet was brought out and the entire family - grandparents, parents, and children - knelt before a prayer altar on which were placed candles, icons, and statues.  The prayers were led by the mother and, though they were in Malayalam, I could tell that the family was reciting the rosary.

The prayers ended after twenty minutes - we were told that they shortened them for our benefit - after which we ate an incredible meal.

This image of the entire family knelt in prayer together moved me deeply, and continues to stay with me.

Our little oratory
While my family prays together, we don't do so as consistently as I would like, nor did we have a spot
in our house designated specifically for prayer.  It seemed to both Kim and I that this needed to change, and so we decided to create a little oratory in our dining room.  We found a little cabinet at the Good Will store, and we have plans to refinish it at some point in the future.  In the meantime, we put up some icons that we had throughout the house as well as in my office at work, and found some candles.

The little oratory is a work in progress; we plan to find more icons, statues, and candles.  But I'm loving how our kids are reacting to it.  All of them love the process of lighting the candles (and blowing them out), and I can tell that they realize that we've created in our dining room a sacred space, carved into our dining room a corner where one can focus one's attention and be still.

I'll put updates here and on Twitter as the space transforms.  And I would love to see any spaces you've created in your homes.  Send me your photos on Twitter, and tell me how you use it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Thomas Merton Turns 100

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world...
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain  

2015 marks the centenary of  Thomas Merton's birth, and Bellarmine University has numerous events planned over the coming year to mark this special occasion.  If you're in the Louisville area, be sure to take advantage of the incredible line-up of speakers.  If you're not in Louisville, but are interested in any of these events, let me know; I'll find out whether they will be recorded, and if so, how to view them.

Please feel free to download the JPEG below of the event schedule (if you'd like a PDF, email me).  The first event occurs on November 16 with a lecture by Robert Ellsberg on Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.  For more information, go to this link:

And if you aren't familiar with Merton, might I suggest that the centenary marks a great opportunity to delve into his writings?  In the coming weeks, I'll provide some advice about where to start with him.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Clash of Ecclesiologies

Photo from Twitter
Last Saturday evening, Ross Douthat of the New York Times published an op-ed that has much of the English-speaking Catholic world buzzing.  Here is the link to the original op-ed, followed by some of the responses:

Ross Douthat's Op-ed: "The Pope & the Precipice" (Oct 25)

Andrew Sullivan's Response: "A Declaration of War on Pope Francis" (Oct 27)

Peter Steinfel's Response: "Douthat on the Synod" (Oct 28)

Ross Douthat's Response: "Why I am Catholic" (Oct 28)

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh's Response: "Room for Forgiveness, Caring, and Starting Over in the Church" (Oct 29)

John O'Malley, SJ's Response: "Is a Precipice Yawning?" (Oct 29)

Ross Douthat's Response to O'Malley: "A Church not a Party" (Oct 30)

I've found the exchanges engendered by Douthat's original op-ed to be very worthwhile, for they've illustrated to me that the clash is not so much between 'conservative' and 'liberal,' but between those who identify primarily with a juridical ecclesiology and those who identify primarily with a Eucharistic ecclesiology; Douthat's most recent post further solidifies my thoughts about the nature of the debate. Put simply, a juridical ecclesiology is one that focuses on the church as an institution characterized by clear boundaries demarcated by teaching and law.  A Eucharistic ecclesiology is one that focuses on the church in terms of communion; Lumen Fidei speaks of the church primarily in these terms.  I don't have time to write about this in any more detail right now, but I did write a series of tweets yesterday to test the waters.  I've pasted them below, and am certainly open to feedback, constructive or otherwise.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Temptations toward Extremes: Pope Francis' Concluding Synod Speech

If you haven't had a chance to read the speech Pope Francis gave at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, take some time to do so.  You can read it here and watch a video of the speech at the bottom of this post.  I found myself moved while reading the speech, which is both lighthearted and deeply theological.  Particularly valuable, I think, is Pope Francis' diagnosis of the various temptations we face as Roman Catholics - clergy and lay alike - when discussing issues as complex as marriage/divorce, familial life, and homosexuality:
One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
There's much in here to digest, and I've found myself reading and re-reading these paragraphs.  What struck me most had to do with Pope Francis' understanding of how the church is to undertake theological discernment, specifically in relation to tradition and the 'world'.

I think Pope Francis warns above of two extremes, both of which are to be rejected: One, the extreme of undertaking theological discernment with the goal being accommodation to the dominant culture (or 'worldly spirit').  Two, the extreme of viewing the tradition of the church as being completely immobile, as being incapable of development and/or nuance. 

Temptation to Accommodation

The relationship of the church to the 'world' is a complicated one.  The church is not ahistorical; it exists in the world and is necessarily influenced by it.  There have been times when the church existed in an unhealthy relationship with the world; I think specifically of the ways in which Christian political theology was negatively transformed after Constantine.  And there have been times when the church attempted too vigorously to cut itself off from the world, to portray itself as entirely distinct from the world, and so to approach the world primarily from a position of condemnation rather than dialogue; I think specifically of the long-nineteenth century inaugurated by Pope Pius IX.

I've written on this blog before about the more open attitude Pope Francis has toward the world, an attitude similarly expressed by Pope St John XXIII.  "The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is," Pope Francis said in his interview published in America, "these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today."

But Pope Francis' attitude towards the world is not an uncritical one.  There is a big difference between interpreting the signs of the times and allowing the dominating culture to dictate the parameters of theological discernment.  Francis refers above to the necessity of 'purifying' worldly spirits, bending them to the Holy Spirit.  This is definitely not accommodation.  This is reading the signs of the times carefully through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that there is much in the world that is worthwhile but there is much that is not.  We learned from following the Synod that such discernment is complex and messy, and we do not know to what conclusions the Synod will finally arrive next year.  These conclusions may perhaps look to some like accommodation, but it is important to recognize that the starting point of the bishops' theological discernment is and will be Jesus Christ, who was the sign of contradiction precisely because he demonstrated a way of being rooted in a generous love that many found threatening.  In this, the church's starting point differs radically from the dominant culture's starting point, making the conclusions to which they arrive necessarily distinct from those of the dominant culture.

Temptation to a Rigid Traditionalism

Pope Francis also warns above about the temptation to inflexibility; to look at the tradition of the church as a bulwark that doesn't admit of development; to look at tradition as something ahistorically communicated without recognizing that tradition developed in conversation with the signs of the times; to see tradition primarily as a series of doctrinal statements rather than the ongoing relationship of the church to the God who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ and deepens our understanding through the Holy Spirit.

I'm undoubtedly caricaturing the thought of my traditionalist friends (and so am open to correction), but I get the strong sense from them that they understand tradition as something already revealed that requires no elaboration, deepening of understanding, or development of thought.  They seem to tend to view tradition propositionally (that is, merely as a series of doctrinal propositions) rather than as the process by which the church continues to grow ever deeper in understanding of the divine will.  They seem to view tradition as static.

But a static understanding of tradition does not appear to be an authentically Roman Catholic understanding of tradition.  The whole of Dei Verbum - Vatican II's document on divine revelation - is worth examining on this point, but I take just one paragraph as an example of the church's understanding:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum 8)
For reasons that I have to admit that I don't entirely understand, I've heard many over the past few weeks suggest that a static understanding of tradition is the only alternative to nihilism and chaos.  For fear of such chaos, they insist on the letter of tradition without perhaps recognizing the Spirit who guides the church.

A Tightrope

Against these two temptations, Pope Francis urges us in the church to walk a tightrope between progressivist accommodation and traditionalist retreat to stasis.  To traverse this tightrope appears to be an uncomfortable process that involves disagreement, debate, and dialogue, all of which will continue over the coming year as the bishops in conversation with the laity continue their discernment.  It is also a tightrope where the conclusions are not absolutely clear, and this is for all involved more than a little nerve-wracking.  It is one that requires humility in the face of theological disagreement, a humility that recognizes our limitations to comprehend entirely the will of a God who transcends all things, but also one that is willing to - in Pope Francis' words - be surprised by God.

I myself am a lowly patristics scholar whose main field of study is the development of Trinitarian theology.  My specialty is not contemporary Catholicism, nor is it the intricacies of Roman Catholic understanding of the development of doctrine.  I am, therefore, open to constructive criticism in what I'm written above.

Photo above from

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Humility in the Face of Theological Disagreement: "Am I Open to God's Surprises?"

Pope Francis at Santa Marta
The moment the Relatio was released, my Twitter feed exploded.  On the one hand there were those who reacted to the document with joy and excitement, and more than a whiff of triumphalism.  On the other hand there were those who reacted with panic, fear, and even open hostility.

I prefer to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to the Synod.  The Relatio is merely one step in a long process of discernment by the bishops in consultation with the laity and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  A few friends on Twitter have suggested that my appeal to faith in the Spirit's guidance is a kind of pollyannish attitude that amounts to little more than passivity in the face of massive theological disagreement.  Not at all.  As an historical theologian with a particular focus on Cyril of Alexandria, I'm quite aware that the Spirit works in and through disagreement, often vociferous and truly nasty disagreement; you don't get much more cantankerous than Cyril.

Some people appear to be worried about the level of theological confrontation both in and outside the Synod.  None of this is new in the history of the church.  I have over the last few months been reading Yves Congar's 900+ page My Journal of the Council, and have been struck by the intensity of the arguments that occurred in and around the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.  Much of that was behind closed doors.  Pope Francis, however, appears willing to allow the bishops to argue both inside and outside the synod chambers, to air the dirty laundry, and so to allow us to understand that the process of theological discernment is one that is difficult and often messy.  This is not something with which we should be worried.

What should concern us all is the attitude with which we participate in the disagreements.  We can and should vocalize our disagreements, express our concerns and opinions, and endeavour if necessary to demonstrate where our interlocutors may fall short.  But - and I'm preaching to myself as much as to anyone reading this - such disagreement must be done with humility.  By this I mean that it  must be done with the clear understanding that none of us has a complete purchase on truth, beauty, and goodness.  This is a point I make with my undergraduates regularly.  When discussing God, we have to remember that we're not talking about an object within our universe, only bigger.  We're talking about the very cause of that universe, and while God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and continues to reveal himself to us through the Spirit, we have to admit that each one of us singly cannot possibly claim to understand the fullness of God or of God's revelation.

In short, I have to approach theological disagreement fully open to the possibility that I might be wrong.  We all have to do this.  When we recognize that we (I truly am including myself in that first person plural) don't have the complete purchase on theological understanding, we must turn in faith to the idea that God continues to guide the church through the Holy Spirit (read Vatican II's Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium to get a sense of what the Roman Catholic church understands this to look like).

So, yes, let's disagree.  Let's even do so forcefully and passionately.  But let's also do so in humility, recognizing that the conclusions to which the church arrives through the guidance of the Spirit may not be precisely what we might want.

It is for this reason, I think, that on the morning of the Relatio's release Pope Francis gave a sermon at Santa Marta in which he asks whether we are truly open to God's surprises.  Whether we are truly open to having our theological assumptions and ideas challenged by the God of all things.  To do so takes a level of humility that, frankly, I do not yet have.

I've pasted the summary of Pope Francis' homily below, as well as a short video from Rome Reports.  While I think Pope Francis could have made his point without using the Pharisees as they're depicted in the Gospels as a foil, his overall argument is worthwhile
"Why were these Doctors of the Law unable to understand the signs of the times? Why did they demand an extraordinary sign (which Jesus later gave to them), why they did not understand? First of all, because they were closed. They were closed within their system, they had perfectly systemized the law, it was a masterpiece. Every Jews knew what they could do and what they could not do, how far they could go. It was all systemized. And they were safe there".
They believed that Jesus did “strange things”: "He went about with sinners, ate with tax collectors." The Pope noted that they "did not like” Jesus, he “was dangerous; doctrine was in danger, the doctrine of the law”, which the theologians had formulated over the centuries. Pope Francis said that while they had  "done this out of love, to be faithful to God", they had become “closed", they had "simply forgotten history. They had forgotten that God is the God of the Law, but He is also the God of surprises". On the other hand, said Francis, "God has often reserved surprises for His people" like when He saved them "from slavery in Egypt":
"They did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: 'But, give us a sign'. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Closure! Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know".
And, he added, "a path is not absolute in itself," it is a path towards "the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when He will come again". This generation "seeks a sign", but the Lord says, " but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah", that is "the sign of the Resurrection, the glory, of that eschatology towards “which we are journeying".
Pope Francis repeated, these doctors "were closed in on themselves, not open to the God of Surprises, they did not know the path nor this eschatology".  So, when before the Sanhedrin Jesus claims to be the Son of God, "they tore their clothes", they were shocked saying that He had blasphemed. "The sign that Jesus gives to them - he said - was a blasphemy". And for this reason "Jesus says: an evil generation”.
Pope Francis added, "they failed to understand that the law they guarded and loved" was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ. "If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ - he said – if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead. And Jesus rebuked them for this closure, for not being able to read the signs of the times, for not being open to the God of surprises”.
"And this should make us think: am I attached to my things, my ideas, [are they] closed? Or am I open to God's surprises? Am I at a standstill or am I on a journey? Do I believe in Jesus Christ - in Jesus, in what he did: He died, rose again and the story ended there - Do I think that the journey continues towards maturity, toward the manifestation of the glory of the Lord? Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should ask ourselves these questions today and ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law -  because the law belongs to God – but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself".
Pope Francis concluded, this "journey” is a pedagogy "that leads us to Jesus Christ, the final encounter, where there will be this great sign of the Son of man."