Archive for February, 2015

Update: The image below is Man Ray’s Venus Restored. This is the original image used by Pontifical Council of Culture which has apparently been changed since this post. 

Aside from the smoke of Satan (really is there anything more), I’m really not sure what is going on at the Vatican. Books are being stolen, synods manipulated (okay, that’s par for the course), confusion among bishops and cardinals about things there just shouldn’t be any confusion about, and… the Pontifical Council for Culture. I am really beginning to wonder how out of touch with reality the members of this council are. First, their was the embarrassing video (here) asking women to send in videos or photos of themselves to potentially be used at the Pontifical Council’s plenary assembly. There was so much backlash from the anglo world that the video was taken down. And now from the same council we have this:

Venus Restored - Man Ray

This is the image which accompanies the outline document for the Council’s Plenary Assembly – Women’s Culture: Equality and Difference. The Vatican webpage is here with a link to an English translation of the document. There is a note on the page regarding the use of this image:

Some complaints have reached the Dicastery concerning the image above. While acknowledging the anger, Cardinal Ravasi has chosen not to remove the image as it speaks clearly for one of the central points of the document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless).

Okay, I get it. Here’s the thing (well, really things). An image that needs to be explained shouldn’t be used. I get the whole artsy thing of limblessness and being bound, but the Pontifical Council for Culture held an assembly on women’s culture and the image they use doesn’t give women a face. It doesn’t show the beauty of women’s culture. It doesn’t proclaim to the world the good news of women. I could understand the image if the assembly had been about the plight of women who are suffering the horrors and atrocities of human trafficking. I could understand the image if the assembly had been about raising awareness of and calling to take action against the brutality and shamefulness of domestic violence and the great need of a restoration of the family in love. But this isn’t what the assembly was about. It was about “Women’s Culture: Equality and Difference“. This is suppose to be a celebration of womanhood: it’s gifts, distinctiveness, vital importance within society, and advancement. The image shouldn’t simply “speak clearly for one of the central points of the document.” It should speak clearly for all the points of the document. It should represent the whole, not a part. Images are powerful tools. Surely Cardinal Ravasi must know this. The image should visualize the text. So powerful is the image that even after reading that the assembly was on women’s culture I kept thinking the assembly was on human trafficking. Consciousness of the text had to overcome the impact of the image.

There is also the question of what the image of a nude torso bound in rope often brings to mind in the Western world – more specifically, the Western world at this particular time when 50 Shades of Grey is an international bestseller and the movie just recently released as an international blockbuster hit. In a hyper-sexualized world in which bondage is now becoming less taboo, the image for many people immediately translates as just that. When asked to say the very first thing that popped into their heads when they saw the image, the young women in my class said: naked, rope, S&M, slavery, trapped. One young man, jokester that he is, said, “a shade of grey.”

I truly wonder if anyone takes the Pontifical Council for Culture seriously. At the moment, they have been doing a good job of reinforcing the perception that the Vatican is just a bunch of old men who are out of touch with reality.


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Where sons are fools, slaves will be masters, and share the inheritance like heirs born. (Proverbs 17:2)

In Jesus’s time the idea that God’s grace and goodness was for the gentile and not just for the Jew was an absolutely revolting idea. The Jew’s took immense pride in their situation. They were God’s chosen people with whom He had covenanted Himself. The Lord was not just their God, but the only God; He was the living God and all other gods were not gods at all, just pieces of wood, stone, and metal formed by human hands. That a people who were not of the covenant, a people to whom the Lord had not revealed Himself, and a people who engaged in abominable practices should be part of the kingdom of God was unthinkable. The Messiah who would reestablish the everlasting kingdom of David was of the Jews. It would be His throne, the throne of a Jew, a descendant of David, that would be everlasting while all others passed away. It was the Jews who worshipped God as He was suppose to be worshipped and only Jews could enter the Temple past the outer court. So far removed was the gentile from the Jew that to even go into a gentile’s house was to make one’s self unclean and necessitate purification.

Keeping the above in mind, it is understandable that the Jews of Nazareth would want to kill Jesus, the son of a poor carpenter. He is proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. Rumors spread about him being a great prophet. He is already known to have done many miracles. When He anticipates that the people of His own town will ask Him to do what he has done elsewhere, He points out that in Elijah’s time their were many widows in Israel during the great famine, but it was a Sidonian widow to whom Elijah was sent; likewise, in the time of Elisha there were many lepers in Israel, but it was Naaman, a Syrian, who was healed by the prophet. (Luke 4:23-30) It is also understandable that it took a particular revelation from God to prompt Peter to make the first proclamation of the Good News to the gentiles. (Acts 10) Finally, it is understandable that some Jewish Christians would go about telling other Christians they need to observe the Mosaic law including circumcision because salvation is for the Jews, and one becomes a Jew through circumcision and observance of the rest of the Mosaic law. But the Jews didn’t accept their inheritance. And so it went to the slaves who were willing to accept it.

In the earliest years of the Church it was exclusively Jewish. Those of gentile background who were of the baptized were those who had already become a Jew through the Mosaic law. (We get a hint of this by way of the first controversy of the Christian community: unequal distribution of goods to the widows). Within the lifetime of the Apostles, however, the Church became both Jewish and Gentile, and before a century had past the Church was distinctly Gentile in composition, having been rejected by the Jews. The sons were fools and the slaves became masters. We even find instances in which this did not just happen spiritually, but in a worldly sense was well. For the runaway slave, Onesimus, when sent back to his master, Philemon, by Paul was not only accepted back in love, but eventually set free and later became a bishop. We see in St. Onesimus a microcosm of salvation and glory, a glory completed through martyrdom.

St. Onesimus with Paul's letter to Philemon

St. Onesimus with Paul’s letter to Philemon

St. Onesimus - bishop

St. Onesimus – bishop

Now we finally come to the point of this post. Why is it that some Christians think that this does not apply to us? Are we not like the Jews of Jesus’s time when we act as though our salvation is assured because of our faith, because we have that feeling of love in us, because we go to Mass everyday, pray the Rosary everyday, obediently support Catholic institutions, and engage in charitable works? Are we not like the Jews of Jesus’s time by taking offense when a pope says (and Pope Francis is certainly not the first to say this) that it is possible for an atheist to go to heaven? There is a striking pericope from the Gospel of Matthew in which a Canaanite woman is crying out to Jesus to free her daughter from an evil spirit. Surprisingly, He ignores her pleas. His Apostles (not surprisingly) beg Him to rid them of her. When our Lord speaks to her, He calls her a dog, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she responds: “Lord, the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” To which Jesus answers: “Woman, for this great faith of thine, let thy will be granted.” (Matt 15:21-28) In keeping with this analogy we must never forget that it is quite common for children to refuse the food their parents put before them, food that dogs will quite happily and indiscriminately eat up. Therefore, let us not simply be good and obedient children, but loving children. Love, however, must be fruitful. Let us proclaim the Good News of salvation to all, a proclamation that springs forth from the joy of our own experience in encountering and living within God, Trinity and Unity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The fear of the Lord is the foundation and summit of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. It can properly be understood in two ways, the second building on the first: awe and wonder, and filial fear.

When one begins to get a sense of the glory of God, it inspires reverential awe. To be aware of your own nothingness, your complete and utter dependence on the One Who Is, the Creator. We can become fearful in the sense that we have just had the ground taken out from under our existential selves; we realize just how truly fragile we are. We also can become fearful in the sense that we suddenly find ourselves in the presence of a great mystery, the Mystery of mysteries. We start to get a smidgeon of an idea of how little we truly know in every possible way that there is to know. We also begin to see that the wisdom of God is more important and more imperative to seek after than knowledge and wisdom of the world. This is why it says in the Scripture that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10) and not just the beginning, but also “a school of wisdom” (Prov 15:33). It fosters humility which is necessary for all other virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

However, one must move beyond this type of the fear of the Lord. To progress in the spiritual life it is necessary for one to enter more deeply into the practice of this virtue so that it is no longer merely awe and wonder, but is now filial fear. Not only is it not possible to progress in the spiritual life if one does not progress in the fear of the Lord, but remaining at the state of awe and wonder can actually have adverse effects on one’s soul and move them further from God. One can come to emphasize the mystery of all things to the point that it leads to doctrinal and spiritual indifference.  This can also eventually lead to a false fear of God which can manifest itself in a fear of God’s vengeance (“Catholic” guilt is an example of this) or even a form of nihilism. But the Holy Scriptures tells us: “Better to have little and with it fear of the Lord than to have treasure and with it anxiety.” (Prov 15:16) One who possesses fear of the Lord in its fullest sense is free from anxiety, no matter the circumstances of their life at any given moment. St. John of the Cross explains it thus:

Thus when the soul attains to the perfect possession of the spirit of fear, she has the spirit of love insofar as that fear, which is the last of the seven gifts, is filial. And perfect filial fear arises from perfect paternal love. So when the divine Scripture wishes to point out that a person is perfect in charity, it says such a one is God-fearing. (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle,stanza 26, para. 3)

st-john-of-the-cross1Fear of the Lord is also love of the Lord; it is a filial fear arising from a paternal love. It has moved beyond awe and has become a manifestation of mystical union. In the first (awe) a personal relationship is not necessarily implied and if there is one (as is common) it is the first steps of the relationship entailing openness and seeking progression in the relationship. In the second (filial) there is necessarily a relationship, a relationship founded on love. The love of the most Holy Trinity for the soul and the love of the soul for God. It is a fear on the part of the beloved not to harm the Lover. A husband should be scared of hurting his wife. Not because of how she may retaliate, but because he loves her so much that he only desires her happiness and to do something that causes her pain also causes him pain. This is the fullest sense of the fear of the Lord. A fear of not loving Him; not because of twisted conceptions of wrath and retribution, but for fear of hurting the One we love above all else, the One who has become our All.

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A group of pagans in Iceland will be building a temple to the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, and Frigg. You can read about it here. Over the past few generations there has been a general fascination with the occult, and in the past few decades Wicca and similar “nature” based religions have been growing in popularity. This neo-paganism has recently began looking to the gods of old, or at least it is now more prominent in the eyes and ears of mainstream culture. However, is the new paganism actually able to hold water in the modern age? I am inclined to say, “no”.

The god of peace?

The god of peace?

The primary problem for neo-paganism is that it isn’t pagan. It is an imitation reenacted by atheists and agnostics. At best some of it’s adherents fall under the vague category of spiritualists. Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the “high priest” of Asatruarfelagio, said, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man [Odin] who is riding about on a horse with eight feet.” He continues, “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” Since this “high priest” uses the pronoun “we”, I assume that he too sees the stories in this manner and does not actually believe in any of the Norse gods to whom he is suppose to be directing worship. In this scenario there is no substance. There is nothing on which the “religion” is founded. There is no worship of God or even a false god; there is only worship of the self, of human psychology, and the self as a part of the natural world. It is a religion without faith. This is an experiment that has been tried many times, and it fails every time.

While fascination with the occult, Wicca, nature religions, and Far Eastern spiritualities has persisted, Western people have been reluctant to actually give themselves to these religions as they come and go out of fashion. Among secularists this trend is even more pronounced. As indicated above, they do not actually believe. Religious practice and symbolism without religious faith is an empty shell that leads only to spiritual death. We have already seen this is Russia. The communist government took note of the great negative effect a lack of religion (due to their suppression of it) had on the people. In response to this, the government began to imitate the Christian religion that was in the blood of the its citizens. I remember walking in Vladivostok and being very surprised to see a memorial to a dead soldier that looked very much like an impersonal Pieta or Lady of Consolation. The soldier was lying at the woman’s feet. The woman (representing Russia) was robed in the manner that Mary the Theotokos often is, and the woman was standing with arms out in a cruciform. The religious symbolism was blatant, but it was from the communist era. I asked our guide about this (a man in his 40’s, born and raised in Russia). He spoke of the communists using religious styled art to tap into that part of the people in an attempt to fill the hole left by the suppression of religion. It didn’t work.

Why does this not work, and by extension why will neo-paganism not work? The experience of the ancient Greeks can, I think, shed light on this current time. In The Feast of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger speaks of the state of pagan religions in relation to Greek philosophy.

Greek philosophy had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to pray to God, since the Eternal One, by being eternal, cannot enter into time relations. This led to such an utter separation of philosophy and religion, of reason and piety, that it heralded the end of ancient religion. (p. 17)

A few pages later he says:

But if they cannot communicate with one another, that is, if there cannot be a reciprocal influence between time [man] and eternity [God], then eternity (if there is an eternity) can be of no significance to men. (p. 21)

The problem with the resurgence of paganism is that it has picked up where paganism left off. There is a separation between philosophy and religion, between reason and piety, and consequently there is no reciprocal influence between man and God: “relation without reciprocity has no meaning”. (p. 23) This is felt even more by an atheist or agnostic practicing paganism today. The Greeks had come to believe there was a God, but it was impossible to communicate with this God. The neo-pagan does not even believe (or at least greatly questions the belief) that there is an Other with which they are not able to have a reciprocal relationship, with whom they are not able to communicate. In the end most adherents of the new paganism will get tired of it because it doesn’t truly offer them anything. They will either become people of faith or they will continue as a faithless people that no longer fills the need to express themselves through empty rituals in a “temple” to nothing. Either way, the fad will pass.

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Is it permissible to criticize a pope? Can it be good, just, and even imperative to do so? In the nearly two years that Pope Francis has occupied the Chair of Peter, he has been criticized a great deal. The vast majority of it has been unjust and lacking in charity to put it lightly. There have been no real controversies to speak of, but there have been a great deal of circuses. The media has taken much delight in twisting his words to fit their narrative of the Church and the world, and have attributed words to him that he didn’t even say. The Pope, however, is a man like any other man. He makes mistakes. He may be infallible (narrowly understood), but he most certainly is not impeccable let alone without imperfections. Keeping in mind that the benefit of the doubt should always be given and all things must of course be done in charity, popes need to be criticized. Good and just criticism is necessary for their learning and growth just as it is for anyone else. The latest circus surrounding Pope Francis is over a phrase he used during an in-flight press conference from Manilla to Rome on Monday, January 19. During this press conference he said that Catholic couples need not “be like rabbits”. The circus like any good circus has many acts. This particular one includes those saying that Pope Francis is opening a door for approving contraception and that he was insensitive for using the word “rabbits”. As usual there is a host of people who have rallied to explain what Pope Francis really said and/or what he really meant. Against those who would twist his words to say that he was perhaps opening the way for contraception or that large families are irresponsible let the rally continue. Here I am not concerned with misrepresentation or interpretations. I think that in this instance a valid criticism can be made of the Pope, and since this issue is so public I think it warrants openly criticizing.

Pope Francis was asked about “enormous” population growth contributing to “intense” poverty in the Philippines. What the reporter was really trying to do was challenge the Church’s teaching on the use of contraception, and justify its use by pointing to over-population and poverty. The reporter connected “enormous” population growth with the average Filipino woman having more than three children and ending his question by saying, “the Catholic position regarding contraception appears to be one of the few questions on which a great number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church.” Here is Pope Francis’s answer in full:

I believe that the number of three per family, which you mentioned, is important, according to the experts, for maintaining the population. Three per couple. When it is below this level, you have the other extreme, as for example in Italy, where I have heard — I don’t know if it is true — that in 2024 there will be no money left to pay pensioners. Population decrease. That is why the key phrase for responding is one which the Church constantly uses, as I do: it is “responsible parenthood”. How does this work? With dialogue. Each person with his or her pastor has to try to exercise this responsible parenthood.

The example I mentioned just now, about the woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven caesarean births: this is a form of irresponsibility. [Some might say:] “No, I trust in God”. “But, look, God gives you the means, be responsible”. Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and it is the reason why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this area, there are pastors, and people are trying. And I know of any number of solutions which are licit and have helped for this. You did well to ask me this. Something else is curious, which does not have to do with this directly, but is in fact related. For very poor people, a child is a treasure. True enough, here too one needs to be prudent. But for them a child is a treasure. God knows how to help them. Maybe some are not prudent in this area, that is true. Responsible parenthood. But we also need to consider the generosity of those fathers and mothers who see in every child a treasure.

First, I like that Pope Francis pointed out the great problems of decreasing populations in the West. This is of course directly caused by the proliferate use of contraceptives, but he unfortunately did not make this clear. I also like that he affirmed the treasure children are and the love given them in families which are poor and/or large. Are there exceptions to this? Of course, but for every loveless poor family I’ll show you at least one that is rich. In other words, economic status does not determine how much parents love their children.

Unfortunately, the Pope’s answer does leave a lot of room for genuine misunderstanding that is not just a twisting of his words by the media. The simple fact of the matter is that the issue of contraception was part of the question and he never says anything about contraception. On average three children per couple is important “for maintaining the population;” people must exercise responsible parenthood (he never says what this is); couples need not “be like rabbits” in order to be good Catholics (he asked pardon for his language before using the word “rabbits”); and he says that he “knows[s] of any number of solutions which are licit” (he doesn’t say what any of those solutions are). In all of this he never says anything about contraception, NFP, or various economic structures that place undue burdens on society, especially on the poor and those with large families. In regards to this question though, who is the Pope’s audience? The world. The problem is that those who are not faithful Catholics will not have the proper context for understanding his words. Need not be like rabbits? Must exercise responsible parenthood? Lots of licit solutions? He didn’t say anything about contraception? Maybe contraception is one of those licit solutions. “There are marriage groups, there are experts in this area, there are pastors”? There are lots of marriage groups operating in Catholic parishes that promote contraception; there are also lots of experts and pastors who do this too. There are a great many Catholic couples who with their pastor arrived at contraception as a good solution. But what of those marriage groups, experts, and pastors? Do the Pope’s words continue to plainly contradict their own thoughts on contraception? They do not. While their thoughts on contraception have not been affirmed either, it is understandable if they interpret the Pope’s words as the papacy finally starting to come around to their position.

Concerning his use of the word “rabbits” many people have taken offense and many have accused him of being insensitive. I do not believe that the Pope was being insensitive (he certainly did not intend this). But I do think he was being thoughtless. First he knew that the word was not a good word – he asked pardon for his language. His saying this puts an undue burden on many parents who do have large families and have endured a lot of pressure from family and friends, as well as just plain mean remarks from strangers. These remarks have come from people at the grocery store to fellow parishioners the see at church on Sunday. I know a young woman, faithful and devout, whose parents have been putting pressure on her to use contraception because of the frequency of her conceiving children. I don’t they will go to her and say how beautiful the generosity of her and her husband is. I can, however, see them saying, “You know, Pope Francis said that you don’t need to be like a rabbit to be a good Catholic.” The simple fact of the matter is the Pope was not thinking of the thousands and thousands of good, faithful Catholics who have been ridiculed because of the size of their family.

Finally, there are any number of speeches that Pope Francis has given to various groups that have had audiences with him at the Vatican and during his journeys that are clearer on issues of responsible parenthood and contraception. Consistency is important though. If he was not going to give a clearer answer he could have made reference to previous speeches where he has already spoken of this. Sometimes the Pope seems to still be in a process of adjusting to speaking to a world audience rather than just an Argentine. In this case it means that the lack of a fuller statement and reference to rabbits, which is a negative expression of large families (and he used it in a negative way), predictably leaves many people scratching their heads.

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