EG 254: God Working With Non-Christians

Vasnetsov_Maria_MagdalenePope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, speaks of the “justification” of non-Christians. Do you buy it?

254. Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”,[International Theological Commission, Christianity and the World Religions (1996), 72: Enchiridion Vaticanum 15, No. 1061] and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”.[Ibid.] But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God.[Cf. ibid., 81-87] While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.

This kind of thinking, even if it does come from a Catholic theological commission, might be troubling to some believers. Does the Holy Spirit work in non-believers? Do Christians have something to learn from the “practical wisdom” mentioned? I suppose we have to accept that Thomas Aquinas utilized a pagan philosopher, and the result–scholasticism, was a primary theological movement of the second millennium.

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Double Comet

Comet_67P_Churyumov-GerasimenkoWhen I saw this development–the target of the space probe Rosetta is a double comet–I wondered if this will make landing the probe more difficult. Then I thought about this celestial body, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Will one lobe get named Churyumov and the other Gerasimenko?

Svetlana Ivanova Gerasimenko took the photograph, above. Klim Ivanovych Churyumov found the comet on the 1969 picture.

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Progressive Preaching

pulpitThe bishop of my first see has decided to end lay preaching in that diocese. I found a curious statement by the journalist:

The reversal is perhaps the starkest example yet of the contrasting stewardship of Matano with his predecessor, Bishop Matthew Clark, under whom the diocese earned a reputation as among the most liberal in the country.

To be honest, Rochester never struck me as a very liberal place. Not in the culture of upstate New York. Not in ministry, really. Matthew Clark was a mainstream bishop when he was appointed. The movement of the Congregation of Bishops in the period of 1978-2013 basically left him out by himself. But what he was doing in the 80′s: consulting with lay people, encouraging women’s leadership, and such–that was far from a liberal exercise. It’s just what any sensible pastor today would do. That pastors and bishops don’t do this, well, that’s a case for nonsense more than it is orthodoxy.

A few observations …

Putting lay people with divinity degrees in the pulpit is not particularly liberal. Widening the preaching ministry to include non-preachers as well as non-clergy: now that would be progressive. Rochester didn’t have that, in my experience, in the 80′s.

In the parish where I worshiped when I was a grad student, I was a member of the lay preaching group. I preached Communion Services (the pastor’s day off) every several weeks. Long-time members of the group, the original six, were all non-staff parishioners. They preached a weekday noon Mass in rotation. Lay staff preached Sundays.

My sense of it was that lay staff served as a new layer of administration, and that the charism of the original group was somewhat lost. The group was totally different from  how a friend described it to me.

A cleansingfire Catholic:

(Lay preaching) made me very uncomfortable because I knew it was against church law. It felt like I could be talking to this person anywhere else, and it was taking time away from what I really wanted to hear: Preaching from a priest or deacon.

I seriously doubt people were harmed by lay people giving homilies. Preaching from priests is everywhere on the internet these days. It could be that this is more about not letting some people do something.

Theologically, I’m aware of the tenuous thread between Eucharistic presidency and preaching the Liturgy of the Word. I don’t know how that addresses the practical need for good, inspirational preaching. Is preaching a distinct charism serving a real need? Or is it a “right” given to a class of persons by virtue of their ordination? How does one discern good priests? Preach first and ordain later? Ordain first and cross fingers?

I remember that my first exposure to lay preaching was to hear about monthly from the seminarians assigned to our parish when I was a teen. When I went to college, the woman religious chaplain preached every other Sunday. She was good. Was her preaching ministry needful to show we took women Catholics seriously? Wanted them to stay in the Church? Or was the witness more for lay people: to show that we could study theology, explore our faith, and do it on a serious level? The latter was the message I got.

Like many eastern dioceses, Rochester is in decline by most standards. Parishes and schools close. Youth leave after First Communion and don’t come back. A handful of women mostly older than I, get involved as lay preachers. Does that bring back the disaffected? Prevent more loss? Is it about their “participation,” or about the message they bring?

Where is the best place to leave the decision on lay preaching? Could a pastor determine he is not a good preacher, and then either petition the bishop for a deacon or hire a lay person to take the pulpit on Sunday? Should a bishop decide? There’s some traditional precedent for that. There’s probably less tradition behind a bureaucrat on another continent making a call. But that’s where the power is. And preaching is partly about power, isn’t it?

Will Bishop Matano’s new policy improve preaching? That is the question I would ask. And if not, how does he propose to do it?

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On Reading the Bible and Other Matters

I felt a bit of trepidation in engaging our guest Atheist Max on this site. My observation of him at RNS was that he was a persistent, if not aggressive poster. Some of you readers offered caution as well.

I do feel a degree of obligation to dialogue. I would wish it for myself, recalling the insults I’ve been dealt as a person who does not think with the mind of many Catholics online.

Max appears to struggle with words and events in the Bible, or at least, seems to assume these are problems for others. I think this statement is illustrative:

But that does not solve these problems because as a Christian you MUST accept SOME of the Bible as literally true. That is what I was trying to point out to you.

Call me post-modern, but while I can accept the Bible as “truth,” it does not mean I am compelled to accept all of it, or even any of it, as “literally true.” I am a traditionalist in the sense that being a disciple means more to orthopraxis than to orthodoxy. In other words, it about how I respond to God. Not so much the words I absorb about God.

So when Matthew writes about people waking from the dead and walking through Jerusalem, it is not important as a literal fact. Not at all. Decisions about accepting this literally or symbolically are indeed in the hands of a reader, a seeker, or a believer. But this is not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about the Beatitudes, about personal transformation, about following Christ, and embracing reform and renewal in ones life as a response to the initiative of God. The Bible may be a tool that helps me. But it is not an idol.

I appreciate that an atheist like Max has passion, and wishes to engage others on some personal level. I don’t intend my laughter–chuckling is likely more accurate–to be insulting or dismissive. I think about the discussions I’ve had with fundamentalists among Catholics and Protestants over the years. It’s actually funny to be accused of the sorts of things I’ve criticized in others. If I’ve really deluded myself, the laughter may well be directed to me.

And yet:

Yet you say I am a fool to not love this guy.

I said no such thing. People like Max are free to read the Bible carefully, and look for all sorts of errors, inconsistencies, contradictions, an such. They will not find in the pages of a book what I have found as the foundation of my Christian faith. They will not gain traction by insisting Christians think as they do, or in misrepresenting what we say.

Ask more questions, by all means.

But keep in mind that this blog is not about a two-person conversation. I have other tasks here and in my life off the computer. This is not about finding Eighty-three Biblical Inconsistencies and throwing them at a Christian like one would bail a sinking ship.

My friend Max declined suggestions to conduct this conversation by email. I can only conclude he didn’t take me seriously, or that he prefers to have an audience. (Those who believe in trolls likely think the latter.) I’m unwilling to turn this web site over to such an enterprise. Personal conversations are the proper sphere for dialogue. Not contests in who is more rational, or who can shovel water faster.

Without your answers, I am left with nothing but an impression that you and your religious crowd have accepted on some strange authority that a violent monster is okay with you – and you don’t mind this.

Speaking for myself, I don’t have any control over what people might read into my good intentions. Speaking of God as a “violent monster” is emotional language, and a gross exaggeration. There are no human behavior manuals that will tell a person not to write their objection to faith in this form. It’s something one learns from socialization.

When one wants to get a reaction out of another, one uses audacity to get noticed. That’s all this is. I advise us all to treat with deep, deep skepticism people who say a lot of things about things they criticize. Often they say very little about their own beliefs. Why would we listen to those who reject the very things they reject? Max strikes me as less an atheist and more an anti-religionist.

Max wrote, “I’m leaving with an even emptier bag than I came in with.” I never got the impression the bag was for anything except to deposit a lot of stuff. But I’m still willing if you want to write me personally and ask your questions. Once a day on this site is enough for me.

Max wrote:

When “Love thy neighbor” means ‘save their soul’ that is a recipe for conflict which religion can only fuel. Am I wrong?

Totally.

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EG 252-253: Islam

Vasnetsov_Maria_MagdalenePope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, speaks of our Muslim sisters and brothers:

252. Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”.[Lumen Gentium 16] The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration and it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services. Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.

Praying five times a day: what can Christians take from that? What does prayer like that mean for Muslims in the world? Only monastics bring that kind of intensity to their daily spiritual and religious routines.

253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition.

Does the ejection of Christians from nations and regions in Muslim lands affect this, or our willingness to put real intent and feeling behind it?

I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.

Not an easy path, to be sure.

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As A Bird

crowOne of the challenges this past year in my experience with the Spiritual Exercises in daily life involved the use of imagination. When I was younger–mid-twenties–I found it easier to place myself in the picture with the Lord.

This past year, some problems surfaced. It’s one thing to seek out the easy passages: Jesus calling fishermen, Jesus in the household of Martha, listening to Jesus telling a parable. These are far different from the difficulty I encountered being with Jesus in the desert, to cite one example.

I struggled with this until stumbling on being a bird, watching from the branches of a tree as Jesus encountered the devil.

One of the graces from spiritual direction this past year has been not to just dismiss an image or experience because it worked once. Stay with it, my retreat director urged last month. Another spiritual friend suggested I take the bird image and switch it up: what if God were the bird, and I were the man walking? And remarkably, it was an amazingly rich set of suggestions.

I was a bird on the cross, and as I regarded Jesus’ head, I felt the urge to use my beak to pull the thorns away. Are such things permitted, I wondered. Using one’s ability to fantasize into a story or scene is one thing. But changing history?

 

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EG 251: Other Religions

Vasnetsov_Maria_MagdalenePope Francis counsels we keep in mind the difference between and the relationship of the proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma) and the personal communication each of us has with other people. He draws on the previous two popes, cautioning against the dangers of extreme positions:

251. In this dialogue, ever friendly and sincere, attention must always be paid to the essential bond between dialogue and proclamation, which leads the Church to maintain and intensify her relationship with non-Christians.[Cf. Propositio 53] A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters. True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being “open to understanding those of the other party” and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side”.[Redemptoris Missio 56] What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says “yes” to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with others. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.[Cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia (21 December 2012): AAS 105 (2006), 51; Ad Gentes, 9; CCC 856]

This distinction isn’t terribly difficult, but many believers do find this basic discernment problematic.

Evangelii Gaudium is online here.

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