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 about 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."

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Synod on the Family and Interchurch Families

This morning the midterm report of the Synod on the Family, the Relatio post disceptationem, was released.  For a helpful analysis of the document, I recommend John Thavis' report.

Reaction to the report has focused on what it says about gradualism, communion for divorced and remarried persons, and gay persons.

Less has been made of what the text says about those in interchurch families.  Last week I wrote about the challenges and gifts of living in an interchurch family, and suggested that the Synod on the Family needed to discuss situations like ours in more depth.

It appears that this is what occurred.

Paragraph 49 of the Relatio simply relates: "The problems relative to mixed marriages were frequently raised in the interventions of the Synodal Fathers."  While the text doesn't go into detail about these interventions, it seems hopeful that this issue is on the radar of the Fathers.

Even more encouraging to me was what was said about interchurch marriages in paragraph 7:
In countries in which Catholicism is a minority religion, there are many mixed marriages with all the difficulties that these may lead to in terms of legal form, the education of children and mutual respect from the point of view of religious freedom, but also with the great potential that derives from the encounter between the differences in faith that these stories of family life present.
In this one sentence, the Relatio beautifully summarizes what I wrote in my previous blog post.  Interchurch marriages do come with difficulties, particularly surrounding the sacraments.  But - and it is this that I find so encouraging - the Fathers emphasize that such marriages bring about valuable encounters that carry "great potential."

Such positive language with reference to interchurch marriages is very welcome.  I hope and pray that the Synod Fathers continue to discuss carefully and seriously the pastoral reality of families such as mine.

Photo above is from

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and Pope St John XXIII

The good folks at Daily Theology asked me to write something for their Theological Shark Week, answering the question, "What should Pope Francis do when he visits the United States next year?"

I, of course, suggested that he should visit Louisville to devote some time and attention to Thomas Merton as we celebrate the centennial of his birth.  You can read my post - "Pope Francis at the Corner of 4th and Walnut" -  here.

Speaking of Merton, look who popped by my office today?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Prayer, Anger, and Lament

A number of years ago I went on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York, a daughter abbey to the Abbey of Gethsemani here in Kentucky.  As is still the case, I was then interested in the contemplative tradition and in learning how to pray (I've come to realize that the latter is an ongoing quest), and so spent time in silence and eagerly attended the daily offices as well as the talks given by monks to the retreatants.

At one of these talks, a gregarious monk named Fr. Jerome spoke to us about what we are to do with people we simply do not like, and may even hate.  He suggested that we turn our hatred into a prayer.  I admit that at this suggestion I started to tune out, for it sounded like he was going to feed us with the same kind of pious stuff I heard growing up.  As he continued, I quickly learned I was wrong.

 photo ThankyouGod1_zps7b7df0b2.gif
Basil Fawlty's prayer of lament
"Yes," Fr. Jerome said, "turn it into a prayer.  A prayer that goes something like: 'Dear God, I hope that son of a bitch gets exactly what he deserves.'"

Such prayers have a distinguished pedigree.  The psalms that Fr. Jerome chants with his brother-monks seven times a day are filled with expressions of anger and frustration with God and others.

And yesterday's mass reading from Job 3 shows Job cursing the day he was born in response to the calamities that struck him.

At mass at Santa Marta yesterday, Pope Francis focused his attention on Job's curse, discussing the idea that prayer means being truthful before God.  The summary of his homily on the Vatican Radio website is worth reading at length.
Reflecting on the First Reading of the day, in which Job curses the day he was born, the Pope noted that his prayer at first appears to us like a curse. Pope Francis recalled how Job was “put to the test”, how he “lost his entire family, everything he possessed”, how he lost his health and “his body had become a plague, a disgusting plague". The Pope said in that moment "he had lost all patience and he says these things. They are ugly! But he was always accustomed to speak the truth and this is the truth that he feels at that moment”. Pope Francis recalled how even Jeremiah, "uses almost the same words: 'Cursed be the day I was born!'", and then he asked: "But is this man blaspheming? This is my question: Is this man who is so very alone, blaspheming?”.

"Is it blasphemy when Jesus complains - 'Father, why have You forsaken me’? This is the mystery. I have often listened to people who are experiencing difficult and painful situations, who have lost a great deal or feel lonely and abandoned and they come to complain and ask these questions: Why? Why? They rebel against God. And I say, 'Continue to pray just like this, because this is a prayer'. It was a prayer when Jesus said to his father: 'Why  have You forsaken me!'".

The Pope continued that what Job is doing in the First Reading is praying, because prayer means being truthful before God. This was the only way Job could pray. "We should pray with reality - he added - true prayer comes from the heart, from the moment that we are living in". "It is prayer in times of darkness, in those moments of life that seem hopeless, where we cannot see the horizon". "And so many people, so many today, are in the same situation as Job. So many good people, just like Job, do not understand what has happened to them, or why. Many brothers and sisters who have no hope. Just think of the tragedies, the great tragedies, for example, of these brothers and sisters of ours who because they are Christians were driven out of their homes and left with nothing: 'But, Lord, I have believed in you. Why? Is believing in you a curse, Lord? '".

"Just think of the elderly who are sidelined - he continued - think of the sick, of the many lonely people in hospitals". The Pope assured that the Church prays for all of these people and for those of us when we walk in darkness. “The Church prays! She takes this pain upon herself and prays". And those of us who “are not sick, or hungry, who have no pressing needs, when we suffer a little darkness of soul, act like martyrs and stop praying”. 

The Pope continued that there are even those who say: "I am angry with God, I will not go to Mass". "But why? Over some trifling thing” is the answer. Pope Francis recalled that St. Therese of the Child Jesus, in the last months of her life, "tried to think of heaven, but heard a voice within herself, telling her not to be silly, not to be led astray by fantasies. Do you know what awaits you? Nothing!”.

"We all go through this situation, we experience this situation. There are so many people who think it all ends in nothing.  Yet Saint Teresa, prayed and asked for strength to persevere in the dark. This is called entering into patience. Our life is too easy, our complaints are overdramatized. Faced with the complaints of so many people, of so many brothers and sisters who are in the dark, who have almost lost all memory, almost lost all hope – who are experiencing this exile from themselves, who are exiled, even from themselves - nothing! Jesus walked this path: from sunset on the Mount of Olives to the last word from the Cross: 'Father, why have you forsaken me!”.

Pope Francis concluded that there are two things that can help in such situations: “First, to prepare ourselves for when the darkness comes” which perhaps, will not be as hard as that of Job, “but which will come.  Prepare your heart for that moment". Second: "Pray, pray as the Church prays, pray with the Church for so many brothers and sisters who suffer exile from themselves, who are in darkness and suffering, without hope at hand." It is the prayer of the Church for these ‘Suffering Jesus’ who are everywhere".