Tag Archives: catholicism

Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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Creation vs. Evolution vs. Catholicism

The Barna Group, commissioned by BioLogos, has just released an intriguing new study about sharp divides among “today’s pastors” about science, faith, and the origin of species. The study shows an almost even split between those who believe in Young Earth Creation and those who do not, with the do not group being divided between proponents of theistic evolution and progressive creationism. Young Earth Creationists have their stronghold in the South, while theistic evolution is most common in the Midwest. Most clergy think that questions of faith and science are important, but, at the same time, a majority fear that disagreements are distracting from the greater Christian witness.

There is little there to shock, unless you realize one glaring omission: Catholics. While the survey of Protestant ministers actually excludes both Orthodox and Catholic leaders, the Orthodox have only about one million members in the United States, making their omission excusable (at least from a statistician’s point of view). Catholics, on the other hand, are no minority to be trifled at. As the largest single Christian denomination in the United States–one in four Americans belongs to the Roman Catholic Church–their absence from a survey about the origins of life suggests an array of possible biases, all of them disturbing. It is likely that, in lockstep with history, that Catholics are still being treated as second class Christians or (perhaps implicitly) not real Christians at all. It would not be the first time the self-proclaimed Protestant establishment drew a sharp line between Christianity and papism–even if it can no longer express the dichotomy in those terms in our politically correct age. Equally possible, Catholics may have been excluded because their presumed answers would have tipped the scale away from a picture of conflict between conservative and progressive thought on origins. The Roman Catholic Church never engaged in the kind of systematic anti-evolution campaigns that so many Protestants did at the turn of the twentieth century in response to Darwin. In fact, for more than sixty years the official Catholics position has been that there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity, leading to a de facto triumph of theistic evolution among leading Catholic divines. Admitting Catholics into the dialogue would throw off both the slim majority of Young Earth Creationists and the geography of creationism (with the South and Southwest being an area of significant Catholic presence).

Or maybe the Barna Group just never thought to include Catholics. But would that really be better?

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Some Standard Wisdom for Hiring Help

Continuing with the amusing theme of anti-Irish racism picked up in the Deseret News, this week’s tidbit from the Christian Standard has it all: racial, class, and religious chauvinism.

The people who need house servants find the Chinese more serviceable than any others they employ, and they have relieved them from the tyranny of the Irish girls. Mr. James Redpath says, “The real secret of this outcry against the Chinese is that the Catholic Church can no longer levy a tax on every Protestant family on $5 a month, which used to be added to the Irish girl’s wages; and the Irish girls openly avow it.”

The world has changed so much. Whereas once Americans advocated switching to Chinese domestic labor, now Americans are content to let the Chinese stay in their own country and do American labor (all the while, of course, complaining that no labor is domestic anymore).

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Dorothy Day, the Anarchist

I began this study of Day by admitting that my interest in, and therefore my knowledge of, her had always been limited to my focus on the history and thought of Christian anarchism. That narrow-mindedness has been corrected to such a degree that I am ashamed of many of the uninformed musings I have blithely made about Day in the past. Yet, for all that, I return now to Day and her place in Christian anarchism, though my intent is less to stand as ideological judge than it is to situate her within the broader realm of my thought. I find that I have has as much to learn from Day as a Christian anarchist as I have learned from her simply as a Christian. Some of this has just been to put a more gifted voice than I possess to common thoughts that ought to inspire all Christians, particularly those of us reading (or writing) this comfortably in our middle-class affluence:

I recall this tiny incident [where she slapped a man who made a pass at her] now because it illustrates a point that has since come up many times in our work with others. Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized, the slighted.

Other times, Day brought new dimensions to my thoughts as a Christian anarchists. Growing up in the deeply Baconian Stone-Campbell Restoration, my thoughts on power and on evil have always been more rational than emotional, tinged though they more than occasionally are by Orthodox mysticism. Day reminded me, however, that there is an emotive side to anarchism, one that may form the basis for more pragmatic cooperation between me and my ilk and those who either do not know or do not care to class themselves as anarchists.

Anarchism has been called an emotional state of mind, denouncing injustice and extolling freedom, rather than a movement.

Even so, I came away knowing that somewhere in our thinking Day and I diverge. At some point she conceives of power, and the violence inherent in exercising it, differently than I do.

The spiritual works of mercy include enlightening the ignorant, rebuking the sinner, consoling the afflicted, as well as bearing wrongs patiently, and we have always classed picket lines and the distribution of literature among these works.

The most dramatic change for me, however, is to read that now and see more our spiritual affinity than our categorical difference. I hope that Day is recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, but, for my part, I can rest easy in the knowledge that, as a Protestant, I am empowered by the hubris that mine is the only judgment that matters when it comes to seeking profound spiritual guidance from the holy departed.

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Dorothy Day, the Catholic

To those who have little grasp of history, or who get their history from disreputable sources, it might seem odd for such a powerful advocate for social justice–even, arguably, for socialism–should find so comfortable a home in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day complicates this picture by being an adult convert, removing the convenient “she was born into it” rationalization from those who see the Catholic Church as an agent for repression of the marginalized and a bastion of conservative values. Yet as those who float left politically find a friend of women and homosexuals in the Episcopal churches, the poor have traditionally found their home in the Roman Catholic Church. (In fact, it is entirely within the realm of defensible argument to suggest that the progressive nature of the Episcopal church is tied intimately to its affluence and that the conservative values of Catholics are popular values.) It should therefore surprise no one that Dorothy Day should be both an ardent Catholic and a dedicated advocate for the poor, the oppressed, and the stigmatized. The next entry will deal with the latter aspect of her life, but for now consider two quotes that show the deep Catholic influence on Day’s thought, first on the value of tradition (the great enemy of progressive philosophy) and then with respect to church.

Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington, all a pattern, all prospering if we are good, and going down in the world if we are bad. These are attitude the Irish, the Italian, the Lithuanian, the Slovak and all races begin to acquire in school. So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language, and no longer listen to their mothers when they say, “When I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.” They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and leave their faith and folk songs and costumes and handcrafts, and try to be something which they call “an American.”

I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God.

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An Unexpected Benediction

Go with God, Pope Benedict.

This is undoubtedly the biggest religious news in a long time, and, much to my unceasing shame, I can think of nothing substantial to contribute to the discussion. I can only reiterate the commonsense observation that has been made at least since the death of John Paul II, namely that the papacy no longer reflects the largest and most vibrant Catholic constituencies. It seems that the primary discussion in the wake of Benedict’s announcement has been whether or not the papacy will remain Germanic or return to Italian dominance. Never mind that Europe represents a radical minority of stereotypically nominal Catholics in the global picture.

As to the frequent and melodramatically dire warning that the election of a “third world” pope might bring about a conservative backlash that could undermine Vatican II, of course it could. But this reflects precisely the same problem as minority domination of the papacy: the guiding vision of a liberalizing strand of Catholicism which predominates in the West is foisted upon the majority of Catholics who may or may not share that vision. The papacy ought to reflect the Catholic Church, both through continuity with its honored traditions and through representation of the needs of the parishioners.

(Of course, in truth, my biggest hope is that whoever is elected will be someone willing to work closely for the bettering of relations between the papacy and the patriarchate in Constantinople. Fingers crossed.)

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Abortion is Murder, Rabbi

In an ill-advised recent article, Rabbi Boteach attempted to argue in the Huffington Post that the Catholic Church ought to abandon its stance on abortion because it is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew in the Septuagint. There are countless reasons–logical and illogical–why the Catholic Church, not to mention other “Bible-believing” Christians, can ignore Boteach’s argument, not the least of which is that the very last Christian denomination that would take doctrinal advice about its tradition from a rabbi is the Roman Catholic Church. There are better reasons of course, including that the Catholic Church does not view the Septuagint with the same disdain that modern Jews do (the opinions of late-antique Jews notwithstanding). It is also worth noting that even if the tradition were based on a faulty reading of the text in question, the Catholic Church has traditionally been loathe to interpret Scripture without tradition as a hermeneutical lens. Wrong or not, the tradition gives the normative starting point for reading the sacred text.

The best reason, however, for ignoring Boteach is that the Christian pro-life tradition does not spring exclusively (or even primarily) from the verse in question. Boteach rightly identifies a passage in Exodus as the prooftext to which many contemporary Christians turn to ground their opposition to abortion in Scripture:

The Hebrew Bible makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: “And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, though shalt give life for life.”

He even goes through the trouble of tracing the Catholic tradition of interpretation for this verse back through Byzantine law to the writings of the second century Latin father Tertullian–a noble effort for a HuffPo article. Not being in a position–nor thinking it particularly relevant–to challenge this historical account, I grant it to him, arguendo. I will even grant him his exegetical work on the meaning of the original text. In both cases the points are moot. 

What truly matters is that Boteach fails to consider a Christian tradition against abortion that antedates even Tertullian and is based on another text in the Hebrew Bible which references abortion by implication: “Thou shalt not kill.” Outrage is sure to follow at the suggestion that the commandment can be simply construed to prohibit abortion, but the argument being made here is not an exegetical one. It is historical. I need not demonstrate that the prohibition on murder extends to the unborn, only that the text was not corrupted in its translation to the Septuagint and that an early Christian tradition construed the verse to prohibit abortion.

If anyone seriously doubts the first point, I will be glad to argue it, but for my purposes here, the latter point is the more novel and more contentious. Yet, had Boteach bothered to dig only a little deeper he would have found an earlier contemporary of Tertullian, Athenagoras, writing passionately against all murder, including abortion. The following is from his A Plea for Christians, specifically from a section when he is answering charges that Christians kill and eat babies as part of their “love feasts:”

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

The passage is interesting for its implications both for the Christian position on capital punishment and our modern delight in virtualizing our love of torture. For the moment, however, consider that abortion falls into a single category, “murder,” considered here by Athenagoras: execution, abortion, infanticide. They are all equally beneath the broad heading of murder which, naturally, Christians abstain from. All these are not only opposed by Christians on the grounds that all are murder, but Athenagoras thought them so central to Christian belief and practice that anyone who knew a Christian would know that he abhorred execution and opposed abortion and that on those grounds could be freed from any suspicion of infanticide. There is no complex exegetical wrangling, no attempt to define the way Hebrew law applies to Christian ethics. Just the simple maxim Christians do not murder and the obvious (at least in the second century) implication that this includes abortion.

The precedent goes back even farther than even Athenagoras. The late first century Didache includes a clear statement on abortion and it links it again, not with the passage Boteach cited, but with the general prohibition on murder:

Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued

Here the connection with the Ten Commandments is even clearer, as the various applications of the commands are interspersed haphazardly with quotes from the Decalogue. Not only does the general command not to murder apply, but it applies specifically to murder of “a child by abortion” and, as with Athenagoras, infanticide.

The two passages offered provide wonderful avenues for further contemplation. The language of creation and the perception of the fetus as a child as early as the first century would seem to lend legitimacy to much of the rhetoric used by the pro-life camp. More important, however, at least for my purpose here is the fact that the anti-abortion stance of Christianity, the tradition that Boteach ties specifically to the Catholic Church, is neither bound to the passage Boteach considers nor is it as late in its articulation as he imagines. The belief that God has tasked his people with the preservation of life–in all the richest, theologically-informed meanings of the word–is not something the exegetical acrobatics and critiques of tradition can remove, especially not ones that fail by their own critical criteria.

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Breaking News: Text About Jesus’ Wife Prompts Zero Controversy

There is breaking news coming out of Boston:

A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth century Egyptian papyrus that contains the first known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could fuel the millennia-old debate about priestly celibacy in the Catholic church.

Of course, journalistic pot-stirring aside, this discovery will actually generate no controversy and will likely go entirely unnoticed in the debate about priestly celibacy. Why? It’s not because the document is already facing serious scholarly doubts about its authenticity. It’s also not because even the professor in question admits that the content of the papyrus in no way constitutes evidence that Jesus was actually married. This discovery, even if it is authentic, will mean absolutely nothing to the question of clerical celibacy because it isn’t news to the Catholics. They, like everyone else remotely versed in the issues, already knows that numerous late antique heterodox sects believed that Jesus was married. They, probably rightly, lump them in with the people who thought Christ was a phantom and the people who thought, as a boy, he turned clay into pigeons.

If the Catholic Church can find a way to cope with the fact that Peter, ostensibly the first pope, was married, they can certainly ignore the fact that some fourth century fringe groups speculated that Jesus was too. And they will ignore it. And so should you.

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Lessons from Jerry Sandusky and Pedophile Priests

This sentiment, expressed with various degrees of intensity, popped up regularly in public responses and official statements regarding the recent resignation of Metropolitan Jonah from his position as primate of the Orthodox Church in America:

They finally got him. What they don’t understand is that they probably signed the OCA’s death warrant in so doing…because the sleazy, corrupt way the Synod has handled this from the beginning shows them to be a pack of ravening wolves.

That’s actually Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative, and he doesn’t get any nicer about it: “I wish he had gone out like Samson instead of yielding to this pack of wild dogs. But what’s done is done. And what was done is dirty. Filthy.” Even if others didn’t feel the need to get that heated, there was a sense that Jonah was a crusader who was making the Orthodox relevant in the twenty-first century Christian social and political landscape. Having followed Mark Stokoe over at OCA News for years, my reaction was decidedly less indignant.

As more information begins to surface, it would appear that perhaps Dreher and others should temper their criticism of the Synod. It seems their primary motivation was concern over the possible criminal sexual behavior of a priest appointed by Jonah and the Metropolitan’s questionable attempts to conceal it:

“Metropolitan Jonah has repeatedly refused to act with prudence, in concert with his fellow bishops, in accordance with the Holy Synod’s policies,” the synod said in a statement.

“In light of the recent widely publicized criminal cases involving sexual abuse at Penn State and in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Kansas City Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, the extent of the risk of liability to which Metropolitan Jonah has exposed the church cannot be overstated,” it said…

“At some time after his enthronement as our primate, Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and others to be . . . severely abusing alcohol, which more than once was coupled with episodes of violence and threats toward women,” the synod said.

These episodes included the “discharge of a firearm” and the “brandishing of a knife,” which led to the man’s arrest. In 2010, he was alleged “to have committed a rape against a woman.”

Although informed of the rape allegation in February, Jonah “neither investigated, nor told his brother bishops,” and did not report the incident to police or church lawyers, according to the synod.

In other words, the Synod is giving every appearance of doing exactly what people, in hindsight, wished that the Catholic Church and the administration at Penn State had done when their was suspicion of misconduct by their authority figures. They are cooperating with local law enforcement, being transparent about the accusation (save for releasing the priest’s name), and removing the rogue administrator who allowed an accused rapist to be ordained in the OCA in the first place. And the revelations about Jonah just get worse:

When the woman reported her alleged rape to police, however, she and a family member were admonished by unnamed church officials “that their salvation depended on their silence.”

As recently as last week, the synod reported Monday, Jonah was “regularly communicating” with the person who was instructing the woman to keep quiet.

Furthermore, it said, Jonah first encouraged the priest to pursue a military chaplaincy “without informing the military recruiter of any of the priest’s problems,” and then allowed the man to enter another Orthodox jurisdiction while assuring it there were “no canonical impediments” to a transfer.

I’m quite certain there were other factors involved in his removal, other less compelling reasons, but I can’t imagine anyone reading that and thinking that the Synod is a pack of ravening wolves who have driven out the great hope of the Orthodox Church in America. If anything, the information now available shows the tremendous wisdom of the Synod in not allowing what’s happened to the Catholic Church and to Penn State to happen to the Orthodox.

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Jesus, Nuns, and the Margins of Society

I recently commented on the foolishness of reading misogyny into the Vatican criticism of Margaret Farley’s defense of homosexuality, masturbation, and divorce. The Vatican having age-old positions on these questions, Farley’s sex would have no bearing on their judgment. It is a smokescreen–intended or not–to try to throw sexism into an issue that has been decided for centuries just because the present dissenters happen to be women.

In the article I linked to, the writer referenced critics but made little attempt to name them. Since posting, critics have been coming out of the proverbial woodwork to defend Farley and other nuns against Vatican censure. One prominent monastic, Sister Simone Campbell of the lobbying group NETWORK, went on to Stephen Colbert’s show last night in order to say her piece with Colbert as her farcical foil. During the course of their discussion, Colbert asked her to admit that she wasn’t socially conservative enough. She responded:

Actually, what I’ll admit is that we’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society. That’s all we do.

Colbert retorted, tongue firmly in cheek, that it was unfair to play the Jesus card and that he couldn’t debate the Bible with a nun. Luckily I have no such compunctions. What Sister Campbell claims to be doing is the Gospel. There really can be no argument about that. Jesus did live his daily life among the socially marginal, forming relationships and working for their benefit. Unfortunately, her contention that this is “all we do” is misleading. The Vatican is not complaining that the nuns are ministering to or forming relationships with homosexuals, divorcees, and other arguably marginal groups. The problem is that they are endorsing morally marginal behaviors.

It is necessary to remember Jesus’ stated motivation for being among sinners: it’s the sick who need a doctor. Jesus solution to morally marginal behavior was not to expand what was morally permissible but to rehabilitate sinners (a grace of which we are all recipients). When Christ steps in to defend the woman caught in adultery, apocryphal though the story may be, he does tell her “neither do I condemn you” but he concludes with the admonition “go and sin no more.” It is critical in this discussion to realize that keeping the commands of love and forgiveness do not translate into a fluid morality.

That’s the fundamental problem when people–take Carrie Underwood for example–try to say that their Christianity made them endorse homosexuality. It is possible, because people have done it, to make a number of reasoned (though I think fatally flawed) arguments that homosexuality is consistent with the Scriptures and the broader Christian ethos, though obviously not with the traditional testimony of the church universal. Stating matter-of-factly, however, that God wants everyone to love everyone ergo gay marriage is moral misunderstands love just as much as Sister Campbell misunderstands relationship. The question of whether or not gay marriage is morally permissible is distinct from whether or not we should love homosexuals or establish relationships with them.

I, of course, have opinions on both issues which coincide neither with Sister Campbell nor Stephen Colbert’s caricatured conservative. But those aren’t really the point. The point is that the unthinking appeal to Jesus and the Gospel like a political slogan by both sides is shameful and, more importantly, unproductive. Jesus does not belong to a modern political party–just like he didn’t belong to an ancient political faction–and the suggestion that Christianity endorses political positions is repugnant. At the very least, however, we should realize that God does not recognize the lines that we draw. Social liberals and social conservatives need to realize that they can both be Christians–flawed, finite, wrong more often than they’re not Christians. When the Vatican says to its ecclesiastical subordinates, “You’re not teaching what we believe” that is not sexism and it is not infidelity to the Gospel. It is a statement of fact. Meanwhile, when Sister Campbell says “We’re faithful to the Gospel…that’s all we do” it has all the grandiosity characteristic of self-delusion and unintentional falsehood.

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