Monday, January 20, 2014

The Doctrine of the Trinity in 800 Words

I was asked a few months ago by The Record, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Louisville to write a 'teaching editorial' on the doctrine of the Trinity and the implications of this doctrine for everyday life.  

My limit was 800 words.

Below is the piece I wrote.  Those familiar with my blog will see that I've repurposed some ideas I've expressed elsewhere on here.

I called my brief essay, "The Trinity and Being Church".  Your feedback is, as always, very welcome.

The idea that God exists as Trinity, as three persons in one essence, lies at the heart of our Catholic faith.  Yet this central doctrine is one of the most complicated beliefs in Christianity, and arguably, the least understood.  Despite the fact that we are all baptized in the name of the Trinity, we don’t always know what to make of the doctrine of the Trinity.

A mystery the Trinity surely is, and I won’t here pretend that I comprehend this mystery fully.  ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly,’ as St Paul reminds us (1 Cor 13:12).  But our ancestors in the faith didn’t formulate the doctrine of the Trinity because they wanted to be intentionally difficult, as if they wanted to play a grand theological joke for posterity.  Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity formed out of concrete experiences of the Divine, experiences that shaped the kind of language our ancestors used to express their understanding of God.

And over the centuries great theologians like Augustine, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Liseaux have endeavored to come to terms with the implications of God’s triune existence not only for our understanding of God and our relationship with God, but for our understanding of how we are to exist one with another.

Peel back all the complicated Trinitarian language of consubstantiality, persons, essence, hypostases, and ousia, important though that language is.  To say that God is Trinity is simply to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love.  It is to say that God exists eternally giving God’s self within God’s self, that God exists as an eternal embrace of self-giving and generous love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so complete and generous that threeness comes to equal oneness.

This is what it means to believe that, as St. John says in his first epistle, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8).  God exists as love.  God, in God’s very essence, exists and has always existed as an eternal community of love, and it is God’s very existence as eternally loving that explains why the created order came to be, and particularly, why God gave the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  We know that God exists as love because that is how God lived on earth.  Jesus’ example of a totally generous and self-giving love, a love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that love is at the heart of who God is.

This understanding of God as a community as generous love is vitally important for understanding how we are to relate to others, both within the church and outside the church.

The Trinity, I want to suggest, not only shows what it means to say God is love.  The Trinity also provides an icon that vividly shows us how we are to live in community.  If God in God’s essence exists in community, and if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we too are created to exist in community with one another.  We were not created to live lives of isolation, focused solely on our own well-being to the neglect of the welfare of others.  We were created for one another, to exist relationally just as God exists relationally.  We are, in other words, most fully ourselves, most fully human, when we exist in the kind of community that God is as Trinity.

I don't, however, want to speak here only in terms of abstracts, for there are concrete implications that should be spelled out.  A church that imitates God's Trinitarian life is a church characterized by unity in multiplicity, in which people of various life experiences, perspectives, and temperaments love and embrace one another regardless of the differences that may exist.  It is a church in which each person becomes fully known by the others, in which each person - including our bishops and priests - makes themselves fully open to becoming known, in which each person is willing to be totally vulnerable and open.

It is a church in which persons knows their own and each other's strengths and weaknesses, joys and hardships, character qualities as well as character foibles, and is fully - fully - embraced and accepted and helped and cherished and loved as they are.  It is a church of radical equality in which, regardless of wealth, expertise, abilities, gender, sexual orientation, or race, each person is understood to be absolutely pivotal to the community's life.

May God grant us the grace to become and exist as the Love that God is essentially.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Seeing the Person Before the Rule: My Conversation with Archbishop Kurtz

Last October Bellarmine Magazine asked me to sit down with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, to discuss the impact of Pope Francis on the Catholic church in the months since his election.  We talked for a little over an hour, and there was a great deal more from our conversation that could have been included in my write-up.  But I think I covered the main points below.

Bellarmine University sent a photographer, Bill Luster, to take pictures during our visit, and some of these I've provided below if only because they document something very rarely seen - me wearing a tie.  The article below was published in the Winter 2014 edition of the Bellarmine Magazine.  Archbishop Kurtz also reprinted the conversation this week in the archdiocesan newspaper in English and Spanish.  

Since our conversation in October, Archbishop Kurtz was elected President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

When Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio emerged as Pope Francis onto the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica without the papal mozzetta – the red cape traditionally worn by popes – and greeted the crowd with a simple, “Buona sera,” the tone changed in Rome and throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Over the months since his election, his gentle and pastoral personality has resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and his message of generous love for each person challenges and compels us all.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville and member of Bellarmine University’s Board of Trustees, met with Pope Francis in October 2013 alongside Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. I recently sat down with the archbishop to discuss the pope and his message, as well as reaction to the pope worldwide and particularly in the archdiocese. I began by asking him about his recent audience with Pope Francis.

Archbishop Kurtz describes Pope Francis as being “warm and engaging,” and the archbishop came away deeply impressed by his pastoral demeanor: “If I had to choose a parish based on the pastor, I think I’d go to (Pope Francis’) church.” They discussed a wide range of topics of serious import, but the archbishop drew attention as well to the lighthearted good humor of the pontiff. At the conclusion of the audience, Pope Francis offered to walk his guests to the door, to which Cardinal Dolan responded that it wasn’t necessary for him to do so. Francis jokingly replied, “No, I want to make sure you leave.” “There’s something very endearing about that, isn’t there?” the archbishop said.

Even more endearing has been the message and example of the new pope. Francis’ “primary word is mercy,” said the archbishop, and this emphasis on mercy comes from a deep awareness of his own shortcomings and imperfections. His humility is also the fruit of this awareness, and Archbishop Kurtz identified the pope’s genuine humility as being key to his widespread popularity: “It’s holy and it’s very beautiful. But it’s also very engaging … He seems to remind people of Jesus.”

Throughout our conversation, Archbishop Kurtz kept returning to one particular facet of Pope Francis’ message that appears to have resonated deeply within him: the importance of “accompanying the person.” Pope Francis does not call us to ignore sin entirely. Indeed, the archbishop pointed to one section in an interview with the pope published in America magazine last September in which Francis said that we cannot in the church simply be lax when it comes to sin, as if sin doesn’t exist.

At the same time, and it is this point to which the archbishop drew special attention, “we are not called to be the rigorist that does not see the person but sees only the rule.” We are rather to “reach out and accompany, (and) see the person before the rule.”

Archbishop Kurtz pointed out that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI actually talked in a similar way in his encyclical, Deus caritas est (“God is love”), in which Benedict emphasized that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person,” the person of Jesus. But “in some ways,” the archbishop said, “the Holy Spirit is working through the personality of Pope Francis” such that this message is coming through loud and clear. The pope’s “great charism is to do powerfully symbolic things that call forth actions from you and me.” His actions bring “people to tears because he really is seeing the person that is before him.”

I asked Archbishop Kurtz about what this message of accom-panying and seeing the person could mean practically for the archdiocese of Louisville and for his own ministry as archbishop. He responded by talking about the importance of efforts in the archdiocese to serve the poor, particularly through the Catholic Services Appeal, but he recognizes that we’re being called to something more, that Pope Francis has created a “new impetus” for generosity. The archbishop admitted that what this will look like more concretely on an archdiocesan-wide level requires planning, though he stressed that “it cannot be an antiseptic, sterile planning.”

When it comes to the implications of Pope Francis’ message for himself, Archbishop Kurtz hears the pope saying to him and to all clergy: “Don’t become distant from the people you serve. Find ways to hear people, to visit people… The Holy Father is not asking us to see the person from a distance. He’s asking us to be close up.” And indeed, the archbishop said, it is this accompanying of the person genuinely and lovingly that has to come before all else, because “if there is not that attempt to seek to accompany, then there will be no credibility.”

Archbishop Kurtz acknowledged that there are some in the church who feel uncertain about Pope Francis and his message. The pope himself said during their meeting that he knows he has critics. But the response in the archdiocese has been, according to the archbishop, “extremely positive.”
Pope Francis is “so engaging when he talks about how we need to heal wounds and warm hearts,” the archbishop said. “I think that just strikes a chord in people, even people who are themselves not Catholic. I think that (message) resonates in their hearts.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Catholics do not care about doctrine"

Debates about Pope Francis rage furiously.  At least they do on my Twitter feed.  I try to follow people on Twitter who represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints, theological and political, and the question of whether Pope Francis is a liberal or not is one of the most debated among those I follow.

This morning Damon Linker published an interesting essay in The Week called "What do liberal Catholics want?", in which Linker tries to make sense of a conversation he had with a listener on an NPR call-in show regarding Pope Francis.  He was under the assumption that "liberal" Catholics wanted the Pope to change Church doctrine, particularly its teachings on sexuality, and he expressed confusion that "liberals" kept gushing over the Pope despite the fact that he has not changed Church doctrine.  This assumption was challenged after his appearance on NPR:
After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I'm beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.
The seeds of doubt were planted a couple of weeks after my TNR essay was published, when I appeared on an NPR radio show to discuss the pope. I repeated my argument, but then a caller challenged me. Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. "Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue," said Trish from Kentucky (you can listen to her beginning at 24:43). "Catholics do not care about doctrine," she said, adding, "It's irrelevant. It's a non-issue for Catholics."
That, to be honest, is something that I hadn't considered when I wrote my essay. As I indicated in my remarks responding to Trish, I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine — that they wanted to bring the church, as I wrote in TNR, "into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality."
But here was a liberal Catholic telling me I'd gotten it all wrong. The pope's warm, welcoming words are "everything," Trish said, because doctrine, including that covering contraception and divorce, is "useless."
I don't entirely know what to make of Trish's comments except to say that I really don't think Trish can be seen in any way to represent "progressive Catholicism" in the United States or elsewhere.  Nor does Damon Linker correctly understand "progressive Catholicism."  (I use scare quotes when using the words "liberal" or "progressive" because I think such labels are far less helpful than most people assume them to be.  I've been accused of being "progressive" by some and of being "conservative" by others; precisely where a centrist like myself wants to be!).

However, for the sake of ease, let's agree that what Linker refers to when using the word "liberal" are Catholics who disagree with official Church teaching regarding issues of sexuality.  Linker assumes that such Catholics simply want to bring the church "into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality."  This is, I think, a fundamental misconception of such Catholics, but is one I regularly encounter.  The assumption is that "liberal" Catholics simply want to turn the Church into the image of the dominant culture, that the starting point for these Catholics is modern liberalism's sexual mores.  I've no doubt that some "liberal" Catholics think like this; Trish appears to be an example.  But, and here I admittedly appeal to my experience with "progressive" friends and colleagues, the starting point for most of the "liberals" I know is theological not cultural.  Undoubtedly, of course, their reading of theology is shaped by their societal and cultural contexts (as is always the case), but it is far too easy to dismiss "progressive" Catholic ideas re: sexuality as simply "worldly conformity" when, in fact, many of the arguments I've encountered are both theologically-centered and theologically-weighty, and need to be engaged as such

Which brings me to Trish.  Whatever may be her understanding of theology, she certainly did not represent her viewpoints well.  Without meaning to disparage her, I would say that she represents a kind of "progressivism" that does indeed exist within the Church, one that is somewhat illiterate theologically (an illiteracy due, I should add, in no small part to the unfortunate state of catechesis in this country, but that's a topic for another day).  But as we are all aware, viewpoints that lack sufficient depth of analysis are to be found on all points of the ecclesial and political spectrum.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Abbey of Gethsemani in Prayer

It is to me truly remarkable that, having had Merton as a constant companion for many years, I now find myself living only a short distance away from the Abbey of Gethsemani.  I try to spend as much time as I can at the Abbey -  even if only for a day - to read, to hike, to pray, and to converse with one or two of the monks who have become good friends.  I will long remember the time I spent alongside students in Merton's hermitage on a cold November evening, talking about Merton's poetry with Br. Paul Quenon around a roaring fire.

Br. Lawrence Morey, the novice master for the community, recently posted a video of the community singing Terce, and I thought I'd re-post it below.  I like the video very much, both because of the shots Br. Lawrence took of the monastery and because of the way he incorporated images of each monk singing the office.  If you've never been to the Abbey of Gethsemani before, the video gives a lovely introduction.  If you have been, the video will allow you to reminisce.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Malicious", "Abusive", & "Vile" Comments: How Female Writers are Treated Online - Updated

On Monday the National Catholic Reporter suspended comments on its website, and yesterday the editor, Dennis Coday, explained why:
We are not reacting to “irreverent comments.” The words I used to describe the comments were “malicious,” “abusive” and “vile.” An NCR contributor called me and asked me to read some of the comments over the phone to him, and I declined. That’s how vile they were.
To get an idea of what we are struggling with, read Amanda Hess’ piece at Pacific+Standard, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” and Conor Friedersdorf’s reaction to Hess on The Atlantic site, “When Misogynist Trolls Make Journalism Miserable for Women.” They may give you some idea of what we are struggling with.
NCR suspended comments because female writers received heinous comments that simply demanded a response.  How heinous?  Read the two articles Coday cites above.

Such comments appear to be the norm.  When I asked Kaya Oakes, a Catholic writer I recommend you read, whether she's received such comments, her response was startling:
There are times when - as a straight, white, male - I feel like I've had my head in the sand.

This is one of those times.

I grow tired of some of my fellow Catholics who refuse to acknowledge that the Catholic church falls short - very short - when it comes to women in the church.

For it appears that misogyny is alive and well in the Catholic church, in other churches, and in society at large.

And I don't really know what to do about it, apart from bringing attention to the problem.

Since writing this post, a few female writers tweeted me to tell me of their on-line experiences.  One mentioned that she regularly receives rape and death threats whenever she writes something, and that a Catholic woman blogger once suggested that she be dropped off in Pakistan without a burka so she could be raped and killed.

Moreover, abuse doesn't only occur on-line.  Another writer said that a male called the college she attends in order to get her address and phone number.  And another mentioned that her research discovered abuse of women administering parishes without priests.

I've had trolls and even a bit of hate-mail.  But nothing compared to this.  Nothing.

Update #2 - January 10
Jill Filipovic today published an article on Talking Points Memo on this theme, in which she describes when one of the misogynist trolls showed up at her office.  Terrifying and horrifying.