Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Ravasi: art and faith - the invisible in the visible

2 Lucio Fontana Conceito espacial 1968

Today I’d like to bring you my, rough English translation of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s 2011 talk, entitled: “The invisible in the visible: art and faith,” which has given me great joy and which I hope will delight you too:

The title of this talk, “The invisible in the visible: art and faith”, points spontaneously to two great painters of the last century. On the one hand Paul Klee and on the other Joan Miró, who in different ways, but with the same substance, have declared that art does not represent the visible, but the invisible that is in the visible. […]

For Vasari, the holy and the beautiful, holiness and beauty, intertwine. Not as extrinsic realities, but almost as if they were, among themselves, sisters. So, in a certain sense we can say, and I would like to demonstrate only […] this sisterhood between art and faith. […]

As a premise, we know that a single expression is used, curiously, to indicate two realities that are similar, but that are also profoundly different. Isn’t it true that one speaks about the inspiration of the Scriptures, of the word of God? The word of the Scriptures is inspired. And doesn’t this same expression also get used to speak about artistic inspiration? It can therefore be seen that both faith and art, the witness of the divine word and of the human word, have inside them a seed of eternity. A seed of the infinite. A dimension that precedes them and that exceeds them, that surpasses them.

The artist, in a certain sense like the prophet, has inside them a voice that comes from the beyond and the other. And Beyond and Other need to be written with capital letters. The invisible that is in the visible.

It is interesting to note that, e.g., in the Scriptures, chapter 35 of Exodus speaks about Bezalel, who is an artisan, an artist, who built the ark and the mobile temple of the desert that the Hebrews carried with them. Having left the drama of their enslavement in Egypt behind, they carry with them a mobile temple. So, what is said about this artist is that he was filled with the spirit of God (cf. Exodus 35:30-31), exactly like a prophet.

And think about how in the first book of Chronicles, in chapter 25 [...] musicians are mentioned, the singers in the temple. It is said that they were inspired by God. And do you know what Hebrew expression is used? Navi - the same one as used for prophets (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:1). Prophets and musicians are almost the same reality, infused by the spirit of God.

This is why speaking about art and faith isn’t speaking about two external realities. Unfortunately, however, as we know well, a divorce has been consummated and art and faith do not walk together anymore. Therefore we must struggle to rediscover [..] the harmony that is beneficial for art, precious for art, so that it no longer has to lose itself in the vague, the inconsistent, the banal, and may rediscover the great narratives, the great symbols, the great themes, the great challenges: the invisible. On the other hand it is beneficial for faith because we must say “God” in a beautiful way, as the Bible says in Psalm 47: “sing to God with art!”1

My reflection [...] is linked to two movements that revolve around a single symbol. A symbol that, I have to say, is a bit strange and that might puzzle you. [...] I take this symbol from a phrase of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, from one of his articles on faith and art. He wrote the following words, in which you will see the symbol that I’ll then use: “Beauty wounds, and by doing so reminds the person of their ultimate destiny.” Hence, beauty, art as a wound. And we will see that faith too is a wound.

So, let’s start with this theme: the wound. The wound makes us bleed. The wound unsettles, torments. It doesn’t let you sleep. It is a plague. Hence, art, like faith, have this scope. To make you tremble.

What is the great illness of our times? [...] Indifference, superficiality, banality. The French Catholic writer, Bernanos, in one of his novels [...] - The Impostor, tells the story of a priest - Fr. Cenabre - who loses his faith and becomes an atheist. He writes: “There is a fundamental difference between emptiness and absence. Emptiness is nothing, a lack of substance. Absence is not a nothing.” When I go home, to my sisters, in the north, in Milan, we still have the two empty chairs of my dad and my mother. They are apparently empty. But, in reality, they aren’t. They are an absence. An absence that, in this case, is filled with memories, and for the believer also with another type of presence, by a nostalgia. Our times have lost the absence of God, the nostalgia for great values. These are empty times, lacking substance.

Some of you will know the great painter, Braque, friend of Picasso, cubist, who then also went beyond cubism, and so on, and who died in 1963. And Braque said this phrase, which is not entirely true, but that has its meaning: “Art is made to disturb, science to reassure.” Technology. We are children of technology. Technology will solve all your problems. Don’t ever ask yourselves the great questions.

This is why we must return greatness to art. When I speak about art I don’t only have figurative arts in mind - sculpture, painting, etc. - I speak about art in general, with all of its thousand manifestations that pass from literature through music to photography to the cinema. We have a need for returning to, rediscovering this restlessness.

[...] Henry Miller, who as a profoundly anti-christian writer, even a scandalous one at a certain moment, wrote a book entitled “The wisdom of the heart.” And in that work there is the following paradoxical phrase on which we must meditate: “Art, like faith, is good for nothing, other than to give you the meaning of life.”

You see, if you have to look for food, for the immediate, are chasing fashions, you have no need for art. On the contrary! Poetry. What’s it for? Hölderlin wrote an entire poem: “Wozu Dichter?” [“Why poets?”] Apparently they are good for nothing. But, like faith, they point you to the meaning of life.

That is why we need this wound, this restlessness, in a time that is so superficial, in which we are dragged along, in which we have passed from immorality, which means that we are at least aware of it, to amorality, total indifference. [...]

The wound keeps you awake. And it therefore keeps you continuously looking. So, there is another element that associates art and faith in this context of the wound. Wonder. When you are in front of a work of art, that work of art isn’t to be explained, to tell the truth. You can say something about its origin, about the image it depicts, about something. But, you have to, in the end, if you want to enter in harmony with it, succeed in establish a bond of wonder, of contemplation, as is indeed the case with faith. Yes, there is need for reason, but in the end, art is an intuition, something that dazzles you.

The poet, Ezra Pound, said:2 “Do you perhaps explain the charm of an April wind? Do you perhaps explain the luminous beauty of one of Plato’s thoughts? Do you perhaps explain the unexpected beauty that you perceive in a woman’s face?” They don’t have explanations. You discover them, unexpectedly. They are an epiphany. So, we still need clear eyes. Eyes that has been dirtied by so many images of extreme vulgarity and superficiality and violence ... We need to regain the eye of a child that is filled with wonder when faced with the marvels of being and of human creatures. In front of the marvels of the divine. This is why faith and art are like each other.

The English writer [...] Chesterton, wrote these words: “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.” And he continued: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; [...] There are plenty of them, I assure you [...], but only for want of wonder.” Because it is no longer able to contemplate, to look, to go beyond the skin, the surface of things.”

This was my first reflection, the simpler one, the second one is a little more complex, also because I would like to enter the theme in a more profound way.

Art and faith as wound, as we have said, that generates restlessness, that makes you tremble, that looks for something that isn’t there in our times anymore: the question about the meaning of what you do, who you are, of what is.

In the second reflection I will take that same symbol of the wound [“ferita”] that in Italian has another word that derives from it: “slit” [“feritoia”].3 So, I would say that art, like faith, is a slit through which the absolute, the transcendent, mystery can be accessed. I would, therefore, like to invite you now to look for where these slits are so that we may discover a mystery, something that exceeds us, that transcends us, which is what true art and great, authentic faith need to do. I would, in this regard, like to put forward five ways, which in the end justify the fact that there exists a religion like the Christian one, which is the celebration of art.

Let’s start from a Biblical text what, paradoxically, begins with a negation of art. You remember the first commandment of the decalogue, the great, so called aniconic commandment, i.e., that wipes out images: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Avert your eyes from the golden calf! Sure, it is idols that are condemned here, but then you know that during the course of history some have taken this by the letter, and have drowned art. Think of Islam which, for some time already is moving in this direction. God must never be represented, and human beings neither, because there is always this risk of idolatry. [...] It is not for nothing that at a certain moment Protestantism has exalted music in a particular way. Bach was a protestant. Schütz was a protestant. Pachelbel - protestant. Then there is Handel. A whole line that goes towards music, towards its sound that is extraordinarily potent in speaking to us about the eternal and the infinite, while avoiding recourse to images. Why is it then that Christianity has instead, over the centuries, returned to and celebrated the image.

Overcoming this silence, the silence of the images of art therefore, has been done in certain ways, which I would now like to evoke because they are ways in which the famous slit appears.

In parenthesis, regarding slits, I would like to tell you something that you may not have heard before. [...] You all know a great painter, who was important in the last century: Lucio Fontana. I knew his widow, and I know many of his works since I am from Milan and he was from Milan too. Why is Fontana famous? Because, at a certain moment, he made that famous gash in a canvas. He painted it and slashed it. And do you know that when others asked: “But why?,” critics elaborated complicated discourses to explain it. But when they asked the artist himself, he responded with a phrase that is almost the formulation of the thesis of this second movement. He replied: “For me, this cut is a glimmer of the absolute, of the infinite.” It is almost a going beyond the canvas, beyond matter, to look for depth, for the secret.

First of all there is a place where the Bible sees a slit opening towards the infinite, the eternal, the divine. And this reality, a reality that is fundamental also, e.g., for literature, is the word. If you look closely, God, precisely because images are forbidden, is presented in the beginning of the first line of the Bible using this expression: “God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3). The silence of nothingness is slashed by a word. Also, how does the New Testament begin? Ideally, with the prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” (John 1:1). Absolute primacy.

When Moses, and maybe you have never heard this phrase, because it is from a book that is read little, speaks in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, in its fourth chapter, verse 12. When in Deuteronomy Moses describes the entire experience of Sinai, of what the Hebrews have experiences up there, once they were back down in the valley. Moses says: “Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (Deuteronomy 4:12) God is a voice. He is a word that creates, that saves, that liberates. So, the first place where we find a slit: the word. It is not for nothing that the Bible is at the center of our faith. It is a word. And this word pierces and shows you the horizon that is God.

Jesus, for example, is his word, his lips, his parables; his 32 parables, or 72 if one also includes the extended metaphors, are an expression of the power of this word. I don’t know whether you have in your minds that episode recounted in the seventh chapter of John. One day the priests of the temple decide to shut up this voice that is so annoying - Christ, so they send their police, i.e., the temple guard, and tell them to go and arrest him. These simple people go and return. But they come back with empty hands. And the priests ask: why haven’t you brought him? And their response is, in my opinion, illuminating for this first way: “Never before has anyone spoken like this one.” (cf. John 7:32-46) And the hands drop. Words can’t be imprisoned.

This is why it is important for the word, the word of God, to be at the center of our liturgy, of our lives. And it is important for art, for poetry for example, to continue to exist, to open this slit onto the infinite.

The second element, and I will do this one more quickly, because in a certain sense I have already called it out. The second place, the second slit is the cosmos, nature. Nature that is seen as a decipherable element, not as an accumulation either of cells or of matter. There is a phrase in the book of Wisdom (13:5), that is important. It says: “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” Analogos in Greek means a ladder - rung by rung. So, you see: this experience is to be had in nature. This is why art so often starts from nature. Not to represent her as such but to manage and create landscapes of the soul. All the great scenes of nature that are in the backdrops made by great artists are an evocation of something that speaks of harmony and that therefore speaks of beauty and of God.

Let’s think along this line about Psalm 19. Do you remember it? The song of the sun: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalms 19:2) When the Hebrews even now, today, in the synagogue celebrate what we call the feast of Pentecost, they call it Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Easter, they sing a hymn that basically says this: Between heaven and earth, God has unfurled a great parchment that is nature and on it He wrote a message. We must tear a quill from a shrub to write on this parchment our response of praise: the alleluia.

So, you see this idea that in nature, in the beauty of nature, that art transfigures, there is the secret of God. A word of God that has been called the cosmic revelation, open to all. The revelation of the Bible is open to believers, that of the cosmos - the great book of the universe, as Galileo said.

The third way is a way that is particularly significant and that, in the context of art, has a particular meaning, but that we’ll base on a phrase of the Bible that is usually interpreted in a completely different way, which is not the correct reading of the text. It is an extremely famous expression. But, first, let’s start with saying what this way is. It is that way that in this moment allows you to communicate also beyond words. It is the way of faces. Faces. We know that communication happens through faces. They aren’t planes, surfaces. They are signals. Think, e.g., of two people in love. When they have exhausted all words, and if they are truly in love, what do they do? They look into each other’s eyes. This, looking each other in the eyes, is not merely about seeing the pupils of the other. It is, instead, a language. As Pascal said: “In faith, as in love, silences are far more eloquent than words.” A communion of faces.

In the Bible there is this phrase, in Genesis 1:27, that says: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” Here we have that fundamental law of Eastern languages, that is the Biblical one, of parallelism. Things get repeated so that they may leave more of a mark in one’s attention, or also to explain them. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” And then it continues and explains what the image is, what is it that corresponds to the image. “[I]n the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” So, the image, the statue that looks most like God, what is it? The Patristic tradition, the tradition influenced by the Greeks, responded that it is our soul. But the Bible doesn’t say that. What’s more, the Bible speaks about the soul in an altogether different way. The Bible considers the human being in its fullness.

So, what would it be instead? Is it that God is both male and female? Evidently not. The Bible has continuously fought against a sexist concept of the divine, as the nations who surrounded it had and that the Bible condemned. Peoples who, for example, believed that when there was a storm it was the orgasm of a male and a female god and the rain was the seed, the fertile seed of the god who thereby fertilized nature. And the cracked earth was like a womb that received the seed of the god. The Bible rejected this type of concept and continues to consider it an idolatry. So, what would this image of God be like? And here the slit can be seen in the faces of man and woman, the male and the female, through which we see God. And the answer is obvious because as Genesis unfolds, the history of salvation is built on generations. What this means is that that which represents God most for us are man and woman in their capacity to give live. If you will, their capacity to love. So, this is why the human figure of the male and female saint becomes so fundamental, because at the heart of this reality, which is that of the human person in their generative capacity, in their capacity to give live, is the reflection of the Creator Himself. Creation continues precisely because man and woman continue to generate and generation in man and woman is born of a wellspring of love. So, this is the third way, a slit open onto the divine.

Number four. And here we arrive at another face, a fundamental face, that is at the center of all of our churches. A face that also dominates artistic tradition, but above all it also dominates faith. It is the face of Christ. Colossians 1:15. What does Paul say? “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God.” God has His image in Christ and it is a carnal image. And it is because of this that when the temptation comes, which is the temptation of iconoclasm that I referred to before, that negates the possibility of art, artists and theologians like St. John Damascene continue to repeat: if we negate images, we also negate the incarnation. We negate that God has made himself visible in a face. And it is because of this that the face of Christ is a face that is repeated infinitely many times. And it is because of this that St. John Damascene encouraged the following experience: [...] “If a pagan comes to you and ask you: “How is your faith? What is your faith?,” don’t answer them. Take them by the hand, lead them into a church and show them the paintings, the images.” You see, God is in the image of Christ that reflects the divine, that reflects the mystery, the transcendent.

In some cases though, and I wouldn’s say always, since we are starting to revive the sisterhood between art and faith, but in some contemporary, modern churches it is better not to bring pagans, atheists since they would completely lose their faith. [...]

The fifth and last way that I would like to recall is the way of the liturgy. The liturgy is the place where [...] music succeeds in passing through hearts. Therefore it is necessary ceaselessly to return to the beauty of temples, of art, where the liturgy is celebrated, to a proclamation of the word in a beautiful way, to song, to celebration that is a drama that has its own dignity and nobility. [...] It is said that contemporary music is [inadequate] ... That is not true, because in contemporary music, the music of our days, that has its own musical grammars, there is its own beauty. Think about what happened when in the 16th century, imagine being inside St. Peter’s, where before only Gregorian chant was heard. Gregorian chant is most pure in spaces like that because, thanks to the echoes that are there, it becomes a song that is enshrined and held in that space and it is a monodic song that rises up high and allows for the possibility of being welcomed by a sonorous womb. But, what happens in the 16th century? Palestrina introduces polyphony into the liturgy. Polyphony disrupts the unicity of Gregorian chant, it multiplies the voices, makes them cross each other, one above the other, it constructs new harmonies through a sequence of crossings. This must have been scandalous at the time! But then think about the masterpieces of faith that have been created thanks to it. Slits, also in this case, onto the beauty of the divine. Let’s just think of the absolute pinnacle of music, who is Bach. Or think of Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, with its absolute purity that, however, consists in a richness of voices and that celebrates a need of the divine, which is like an instinctive, physical need. Like the doe [cerva] that charges ahead towards the river bed, where it expects to find water but that is dry. And now it launches into a cry of lament, a lament of thirst ... in Hebrew there is a thing that can’t be translated into our languages, because in Hebrew there is a single word - nefesh - that at the same time means throat and soul. So, when we translate: “My soul thirsts for the living God” (cf. Psalms 42:3), in Hebrew there is a joke - the throat, which indicates a need for God that is physical. So, all of this has been exalted through new music and it is because of this that I am struggling for contemporary art with its new expressions [to have its place]. Not always and only retracing the past, which, however, is the great, supreme heritage that we mustn’t forget or humiliate, we mustn’t discard it [...] but we also have to be open so that the liturgy may once again become the highroad on which art and faith meet each other and walk together.

There was a very important thing in the statutes of the artists of Siena in the 14th century. In the statutes of these artists, one of the first paragraphs was this: “We, artists, have as our task to show to people who don’t know how to read the Bible the great marvels worked by God throughout history.” The artist, you see, was in the cathedrals, the great churches of the past, for a good reason. There was a Bible of stone, pages of stone, the bas-reliefs, or, instead there were pages of frescoes, or paintings, that spoke about God. The liturgy always needs to have in its interior, as Jean Guitton, the French Catholic philosopher, said - making a play on words in Latin - it needs to have at the same time mumen and lumen. Lumen, because it must be light, must be representation, must show reality straightaway in all its beauty. But, it is not just any old representation like you would have in some arbitrary building. It also must be mumen, that is mystery, which is beyond the slit.

I have presented two moments to you about this single symbol. I have concluded. We have presented, on the one hand, art and faith as wound. We need a thrill. We need to be a bit shaken. To return again to this intensity. It is always impressive to see, e.g., in great squares, and it is sad because it is often the young generations, people moving as if they were flocks. They move like that - without purpose. And they may even be next to marvelous monuments that used to speak in extraordinary ways [...]. This flow, almost a drift ... This is the great need of our times. To do things again so that this thrill may return.

I often quote [...] a phrase from the diary of a Danish, Christian, Protestant philosopher, a strong believer, of the 19th century - Søren Kierkegaard. He spoke in the 19th century, but think how true this reality is in our days too ... He said - he used this image [...]: “The ship is in the hands of the cook’s mate and what the captain’s megaphone transmits is no longer the route of the ship but what we shall be eating tomorrow.”4 How many are, e.g., in front of a television, or a computer. They learn about everything. They know, they can look for everything. But what they are lacking, and let’s return to Miller, is the route, meaning.

Once, in Florence, I was walking along with a friend of mine, whom many of you know - one of the greatest poets of the last century: Mario Luzi [...], and he - it was an afternoon or maybe evening - [...] said to me: “Look,” the lights in the windows were coming on in the houses and in the flats you could literally see in almost all of them the bluish rectangle of the television. And he said a phrase to me - he spoke slowly - a phrase that has always impressed me. He said: “We don’t know whether these people, who are there in front of the television, have their hands up as a sign of surrender or adoration.” Effectively this is true. In the end it tells you everything about what you’ll eat tomorrow, about all that is happening - the banal and the vulgar. It tells you all about fashions, but about the route? Here is the open wound.

On the other hand we have also wanted to evoke the need for transcendence. Art and faith that take you towards the beyond, the divine, in these different forms, these five ways that we have called out: the word, the world, the human face, the face of Christ, and finally the celebration.

And now I’ll finish and conclude with two witnesses that I would like to seal together [...]. I’d like to finish with a lay voice, the voice of a writer, since we need both the voice of faith and the voice of art. He is a famous writer whose books still sell even after a long time since his death. It is the German, Herman Hesse, who is much liked also by the youth. The author of Siddhartha, of Narcissus and Goldmund. He once wrote a historical novel that has two artistic protagonists already in its title: Klein und Wagner. So, on the one hand figurative art and on the other music. And at the end he says, he explains what art is. And, look, he wasn’t a particularly strong believer. He did have his own spirituality in his own way, imbued with oriental elements. And this is the definition he writes: “Art means: seeing God in everything.”5 The slit. Seeing God in everything.

But, I would like to conclude with the voice of believers, a choral voice, and I’ll leave the words as they sound. There are two subjects who speak, in a choral way representing also all of us.

On 8th December 1965, the Council concludes and messages are sent, where one is also addressed to artists. Let’s hear the words of the council fathers: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the year and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands.” The Council has thanked artists, the true, great artists.

On the other hand there is the voice from which I have started, the voice of Benedict XVI [...] who addressed artists in the Sistine Chapel and his talk finished as follows. And I too will finish with these words that speak to artists, that speak about beauty and that are spoken by a pastor, a believer, by him who continuously feels the need for art and faith to be together. So, here are his words, spoken on 21 November 2009: “You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”

Thank you.

1 Note that this is a verbatim translation of the Italian rendering of the end of Psalm 47:8, the term “art” does not appear in most English ones. The New American Bible simply says “sing praise”, while the King James Bible, which - in this case - comes closest to the Italian that Ravasi uses, renders that phrase as “sing ye praises with understanding.”
2 This probably refers to the following passage from Pound’s The Serious Artist:“You don’t argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it. You feel bucked up when you come on a swift moving thought in Plato or on a fine line in a statue.”
3 “Feritoia” in Italian can refer to a narrow slit or opening, e.g., in a wall that can can let light in, or an arrow loop through which archers can shoot out of a fortress’ walls.
4 It looks like this refers to the following entry in Kierkegaard’s diary from 24th January 1847: “Suppose there is only one megaphone on a ship and the cook’s mate has appropriated it, an act that all regarded as appropriate. Everything the cook’s mate to has to communicate (“Some butter on the spinach” or “Fine weather today” or “God knows if there’s something wrong below in the ship” etc.) is communicated through the megaphone, but the captain has to give his commands solely by means of his voice, for what the captain has to say is not so important. Yes, the captain finally has to ask the cook’s mate to help him so that he can be heard, if the cook’s mate would be no good as to “report” the order, which, it must be admitted, sometimes gets completely garbled in going through the cook’s mate and his megaphone, in which case the captain strains his little voice in vain, for the cook and his megaphone are heard. Finally the cook’s mate gets control, because he has the megaphone.”
5 Incidentally Benedict XVI quotes that same definition in his address to artists two years earlier.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Ceaselessly re-expressing the universal


For several years now I have kept coming across articles by George Weigel, the US author and political and social activist, all of which have to my mind been misguided and lacking in insight. This undoubtedly makes me biased, which may be why I have not responded to his writings here before, and his latest piece - “The deeper issue at the Synod” - was destined to join that growing rank of articles to which I turned with silence. It is not like his latest feuilleton is any more objectionable than its predecessors, but, since it addresses a point that I do agree is pivotal for the upcoming Synod on the Family, and now that I have put my cards clearly on the table, I will spell out my disagreement in this case.

Weigel in this piece starts with recalling opposing positions before Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, where the losers “argued, moral choices should be judged by a “proportional” calculation of intention, act, and consequence” while the winners - who upheld “tradition” - “held that some things were always and everywhere wrong, in and of themselves.” He then cites John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor as reinforcing this position and moves on to recounting an analysis of the pre-Synod battle-lines by Prof. Thomas Stark, likely from this article - although without referring to it directly, where he argues that the real opposition at the Synod will be between two camps. The first, who, like Cardinal Walter Kasper, effectively believe that there are no “sacred givens”:
“Professor Stark argues that, for Kasper, the notion of what we might call “sacred givens” in theology has been displaced by the idea that our perceptions of truth are always conditioned by the flux of history – thus there really are no “sacred givens” to which the Church is accountable. To take a relevant example from last year’s Synod: on Kasper’s theory, the Lord Jesus’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, seemingly “given” in Scripture, should be “read” through the prism of the turbulent historical experience of the present, in which “marriage” is experienced in many different ways and a lot of Catholics get divorced.”
This, in Weigel’s reading of Stark results in Kasper denying human nature or there even being “Things As They Are”, since the attitude they attribute to Kasper is one where “what happens in history does not happen atop, so to speak, a firm foundation of Things As They Are; there are no Things As They Are.”

The second camp, instead believes that “the “truth of the Gospel” is a gift to the Church and the world from Jesus Christ: a “sacred given.”” Weigel then concludes that Kasper “absolutizes history to the point that it relativizes and ultimately demeans revelation – the “sacred givens” that are the permanent structure of Christian life.” The opposition, in Weigel’s view, is between an absolutization of history at the expense of relativizing revelation and tradition, versus a - in Weigel’s view - appropriate absolutization of the latter.

Instead of retracing Weigel’s steps through Stark’s article, which quotes from Kasper’s 1972 (!) book, An Introduction to Christian Faith, let me instead look at how well invoking John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor as a rod for Kasper’s back holds up, and then proceed to argue for Weigel’s point being built on category mistakes.

Let’s begin by looking at Veritatis Splendor though, and test the strength of Weigel citing it as an argument for “sacred givens” and for “Things [Being] As They Are” as opposed to historical interpretation [I am sure St. John Paul II is slowly shaking his head in disbelief, looking down on this spectacle from the Father’s house.]

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II kicks off with the following preamble:
“The splendour of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6).”
From the get go he speaks about a process: Truth leading to knowledge and love of God, rather than “givens” no matter how “sacred” they may be. Not a good start for the “Things As They Are” team.

Already in the second paragraph, John Paul II presents the teaching of the Church to be not words, but the Word - a person:
“Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself.”
Then comes the killer (and we are still just in paragraph 2 of this 45K word gem of clear thinking by one of the 20th century’s greatest minds):
“The Church remains deeply conscious of her “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related” (Gaudium et Spes, 4).”
Oh ... “interpreting ... in every age” ... “manner appropriate to each generation” ...

But, let’s take a closer look at how John Paul II thinks about permanence versus historicity, by reading the opening lines of §25:1
“Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man [Mt 19:16-21] continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own. The question: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer. The Teacher who expounds God’s commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst, as he himself promised: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). Christ’s relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would “bring to their remembrance” and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26), and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13).”
Jesus, who is alive in His Church today, continues to converse with us and continues to supply us both with reminders of what He has already told us and with “new life” too through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words today are not mere mindless, mechanical repetitions of what he said 2000 years ago, but instead His continuing and evolving desire to lead us to an understanding and love of Himself, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

To avoid giving a distorted impression about what John Paul II is saying here, it is important not to confuse the above process of renewal, of being up to date, of - as he himself later says - “doctrinal development” and “renewal of moral theology” (§28), with some giving in to the World. No, this being in the presence of the living Christ and under guidance from the Holy Spirit also means not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2):
“Assisted by the Holy Spirit who leads her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), the Church has not ceased, nor can she ever cease, to contemplate the “mystery of the Word Incarnate”, in whom “light is shed on the mystery of man”. [... The Church needs to undertake] discernment capable of acknowledging what is legitimate, useful and of value in [contemporary tendencies], while at the same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers and errors.”
John Paul II also speaks directly about how the divine and the human interplay in this context:
“The teaching of the Council emphasizes, on the one hand, the role of human reason in discovering and applying the moral law: the moral life calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. On the other hand, reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself. At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a “rightful autonomy” of man, the personal subject of his actions. The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law.”
Human reason discovers (imperfect historical process) divine wisdom (perfect atemporal). This leads us directly to the question of immutability that Weigel sees threatened by Kasper. Here John Paul II first insists on the reality of “permanent structural elements”:
“To call into question the permanent structural elements of man which are connected with his own bodily dimension would not only conflict with common experience, but would render meaningless Jesus’ reference to the “beginning”, precisely where the social and cultural context of the time had distorted the primordial meaning and the role of certain moral norms (cf. Mt 19:1-9). This is the reason why “the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change and are ultimately founded upon Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and for ever”. Christ is the “Beginning” who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbour.” (§53)
However, the very next lines distinguish the above, permanent structure from how it is expressed:
“Certainly there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law — like that of the “deposit of faith” — unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [“with the same meaning and the same judgment”] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium.”
And John Paul II proceeds to refer to John XXIII’s words at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, saying that:
“This certain and unchanging teaching (i.e., Christian doctrine in its completeness), to which the faithful owe obedience, needs to be more deeply understood and set forth in a way adapted to the needs of our time.” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 12, 1962, p. 2.)
Looking back over St. John Paul II’s words and those of George Weigel, the funny aftertaste that the latter left in my mind crystalizes and, I believe, boils down to the following: a confusion of being with knowing and a mistaken assumption that attributes of the latter transfer to beliefs about the former. Weigel, taring with a broad brush, effortlessly transposes Kasper’s talking about a historicity of knowing (“perceptions of truth ... conditioned ... by history”) to an alleged historicity, or indeed total absence, of being (“there really are no “sacred givens””). This, even with a strained desire to apply the Principle of Charity, is a fundamental category mistake. Epistemological constraints do not ontological ones make.

Accepting an evolving, changing understanding and expression of Truth, as is consistent with John Paul II’s teaching, also has a corollary that may have irked Weigel, which is that past expressions and understanding have use-by dates and expiring validity in the present (without this implying a change of underlying reality). In one of the passages that Stark quotes from Kasper’s 1972 book, and identifies as a serious problem, Kasper expresses this situation as follows:
“Whoever believes that in Jesus Christ hope has been revealed for us and for all mankind, and whoever ventures on that basis to become in real terms a figure of hope for others, is a Christian. He holds in a fundamental sense the whole Christian faith, even though he does not consciously accept all the deductions which in the course of almost two thousand years the Church has made from this message.”
Yes, what was the best the Church could do to understand and express the Truth in the past may no longer be the best it can do today. And, just in case this interpretation of the renewal argument sounds dodgy or misguided, let’s hear it also from Pius XII, who has the following to say about his own teaching in view of his successors’ words, in his Mediator Dei:
“Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas.”
“Old formulas” are no guarantee of holding on to “sacred givens,” whose expressions today need instead to be sought by living with the Jesus who walks among us today. A less obvious and easily testable answer to what doing the right thing means and one that requires courage, but one that leads to the Truth, however imperfectly we understand Her or adhere to Her.

1 Note that the italics in quotes from Veritatis Splendor are John Paul II’s own, who liked to use them for emphasis in all his writings.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A heart as great as the heart of God

Maria fiore

Today is the feast of Mary's assumption into heaven, a belief held by Christians since at least the second century and proclaimed as a dogma of the Catholic Church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII:
"we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
To get a better sense of what this teaching of the Church means and, even more importantly, what its implications are, I would like to share some passages from homilies given by the last three popes on this important marian feast that have given me most joy.

To begin with, St. John Paul II situates the feast of the Assumption not only as a guide for Catholics or Christians, but for all "people of good will" and links it to two themes so central to Pope Francis' teaching: the poor and mercy:
"Taken up into heaven, Mary shows us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to life. She shows it to her children baptized in Christ and to all people of good will. She opens this way especially to the little ones and to the poor, those who are dear to divine mercy. The Queen of the world reveals to individuals and to nations the power of the love of God whose plan upsets that of the proud, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away (cf. Lk 1:51-53)." (St. John Paul II, 15 August 1999)
Pope Benedict XVI then elaborates on what is meant by the destination of Mary's assumption - Heaven - and how this teaching of the Church is central to two important aspects of its world view: that all of what is on earth is destined for salvation and that there is a profound continuity between the here and now and the eternal:
"All of us today are well aware that by the term "Heaven" we are not referring to somewhere in the universe, to a star or such like; no. We mean something far greater and far more difficult to define with our limited human conceptions. With this term "Heaven" we wish to say that God, the God who made himself close to us, does not abandon us in or after death but keeps a place for us and gives us eternity. We mean that in God there is room for us. To understand this reality a little better let us look at our own lives. We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them. We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end. God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God's thoughts and in God's love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our "shadow". Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this: in God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a "shadow" of ourselves that survives but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love. It is his Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call "Heaven": God is so great that he also makes room for us. And Jesus the man, who at the same time is God, is the guarantee for us that the being-man and the being-God can exist and live, the one within the other, for eternity.

This means that not only a part of each one of us will continue to exist, as it were pulled to safety, while other parts fall into ruin; on the contrary it means that God knows and loves the whole of the human being, what we are. And God welcomes into his eternity what is developing and becoming now, in our life made up of suffering and love, of hope, joy and sorrow. The whole of man, the whole of his life, is taken by God and, purified in him, receives eternity. Dear Friends! I think this is a truth that should fill us with deep joy. Christianity does not proclaim merely some salvation of the soul in a vague afterlife in which all that is precious and dear to us in this world would be eliminated, but promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come". Nothing that is precious and dear to us will fall into ruin; rather, it will find fullness in God. Every hair of our head is counted, Jesus said one day (cf. Mt 10: 30). The definitive world will also be the fulfilment of this earth, as St Paul says: "Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8: 21). Then we understand that Christianity imparts a strong hope in a bright future and paves the way to the realization of this future. We are called, precisely as Christians, to build this new world, to work so that, one day, it may become the "world of God", a world that will surpass all that we ourselves have been able to build. In Mary taken up into Heaven, who fully shares in the Resurrection of the Son, we contemplate the fulfilment of the human creature in accordance with "God's world". (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2010)
Benedict also traces the belief in Mary's Assumption to her closeness with her Son and, like Francis does in Evangelii Gaudium (§269) with regard to the life and passion of Jesus, explains its deep continuity:
"[T]he Mother of God is so deeply integrated into Christ's Mystery that at the end of her earthly life she already participates with her whole self in her Son's Resurrection. She lives what we await at the end of time when the "last enemy" death will have been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15: 26); she already lives what we proclaim in the Creed: "We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come". (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2010)
Two years later, during the last year of his pontificate, Benedict XVI focuses on what the specific implications of the Assumption are for our life as Christians, and he points to two complementary statements: in God there is room for man, and in man there is room for God:
“But now let us ask ourselves: how does the Assumption of Mary help our journey? The first answer is: in the Assumption we see that in God there is room for man, God himself is the house with many rooms of which Jesus speaks (cf. Jn 14:2); God is man’s home, in God there is God’s space. And Mary, by uniting herself, united to God, does not distance herself from us. She does not go to an unknown galaxy, but whoever approaches God comes closer, for God is close to us all; and Mary, united to God, shares in the presence of God, is so close to us, to each one of us.

There is a beautiful passage from St Gregory the Great on St Benedict that we can apply to Mary too. St Gregory the Great says that the heart of St Benedict expanded so much that all creation could enter it. This is even truer of Mary: Mary, totally united to God, has a heart so big that all creation can enter this heart, and the ex-votos in every part of the earth show it. Mary is close, she can hear us, she can help us, she is close to everyone of us. In God there is room for man and God is close, and Mary, united to God, is very close; she has a heart as great as the heart of God.

But there is also another aspect: in God not only is there room for man; in man there is room for God. This too we see in Mary, the Holy Ark who bears the presence of God. In us there is space for God and this presence of God in us, so important for bringing light to the world with all its sadness, with its problems. This presence is realized in the faith: in the faith we open the doors of our existence so that God may enter us, so that God can be the power that gives life and a path to our existence. In us there is room, let us open ourselves like Mary opened herself, saying: “Let your will be done, I am the servant of the Lord”. By opening ourselves to God, we lose nothing. On the contrary, our life becomes rich and great." (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2012)
Finally, Pope Francis, in his first Assumption homily as pope, outlined the strong parallels between Jesus' and Mary's lives, as a result of Mary's unity with her Son, making her not only our Mother, but also our "eldest sister":
"The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, insists that being Christian means believing that Christ is truly risen from the dead. Our whole faith is based upon this fundamental truth which is not an idea but an event. Even the mystery of Mary's Assumption body and soul is fully inscribed in the resurrection of Christ. The Mother's humanity is "attracted" by the Son in his own passage from death to life. Once and for all, Jesus entered into eternal life with all the humanity he had drawn from Mary; and she, the Mother, who followed him faithfully throughout her life, followed him with her heart, and entered with him into eternal life which we also call heaven, paradise, the Father's house.

Mary also experienced the martyrdom of the Cross: the martyrdom of her heart, the martyrdom of her soul. She lived her Son's Passion to the depths of her soul. She was fully united to him in his death, and so she was given the gift of resurrection. Christ is the first fruits from the dead and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of "those who are in Christ". She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven.” (Francis, 15 August 2013)
Thinking about the words of these three popes, what stood out for me is the profound logic of Mary's assumption into heaven - body and soul - and her closeness to all of humanity, and this - in turn - reminded me of a beautiful passage from the intellectual visions that the Servant of God Chiara Lubich had in 1949. There, she one day saw the following image:1
"Looking at nature, it seems that Jesus has given his new commandment also to it.

I observed two plants and I thought about pollination. Before it happens, the plants grow upward, as if they loved God with their whole being. Then they unite, almost as if they loved one another as the Persons of the Trinity love one another. Out of two they make one single thing. They love to the point of abandonment, to the point of losing - so to speak - their personality like Jesus in His forsakenness.

Then, from the flower that emerges, the fruit is born and, therefore, life continues. It is like the eternal Life of God imprinted in nature.

The Old and New Testaments form a single tree. Its flowering came about in the fullness of time. And the only flower was Mary.

The fruit that followed it was Jesus.

Also the tree of humanity was created in God's image.

In the fullness of time, at the point of blooming, unity came about between heaven and earth and the Holy Spirit married Mary."

1 Apologies for the limitations of the following translation from Italian, which is mine.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The broken bread, shared and eaten


On 26th June this year, the Spanish priest and writer Pablo d’Ors (appointed consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Pope Francis) published an essay entitled “Will anyone in the Church dare?” in the magazine Vida Nueva, because of which he has since been accused of heresy and condemned by no less than three Spanish bishops.

Let’s first take a look at the essay in question (rendered in my own, crude translation):
The sacraments of the Church now mean virtually nothing to the vast majority of those who still participate in them. A sign that no longer signifies isn’t a sign anymore, but a game of magic. Christian rites, and the symbols in which their foundations lie, have degenerated, for the majority of believers, into pure magic. Of course men and women today still need magic, that is, words and gestures that in an automatic and irrational way connect us with the transcendent. But that’s not the point.

I argue that many of the behaviors of priests and lay people during the Eucharistic celebration are fundamentally magical, not religious. Can you imagine the apostles kneeling before the bread or Jesus collecting crumbs from a plate? These behaviors reflect our attitude towards the sacramental sign being much more magical than religious.

For them to convey meaning, signs have to be understood. The doctrine of ex opere operato, which postulates that the sacrament is effective irrespective of the understanding of the recipient, has disconnected the sign from the subject and has degenerated and objectified it. The sacraments need to be understood, at least to some extent. Otherwise, they sacramentalize nothing, which is what is happening today in our temples. Nobody understands anything. What our masses remind me of most is Beckett’s theater of the absurd.

Let’s take the example of the Eucharist, whose symbols are bread and wine. Bread is, of course, something everyday, soft and nutritious. That bread is a symbol of God means that God is something everyday, that God is soft, that God is nutritious. But if the symbol is the bread, the sign or sacrament is the broken bread, shared and eaten. So that what it is about is to break and share the bread consciously; to lift it to one’s mouth consciously; to, consciously, chew it and swallow it.

Consciously means knowing that it is not just about giving bread to others, but about be being bread for them, to turn yourself into the food that relieves their need. Eating of this Bread gives us the strength to be bread. In the same vein, the sign is not simply the wine, but the wine shared and drunk. Drinking from this Wine enables us to be wine for others. And wine is blood, that is, life: to be life for others.

And storing the Eucharist in a tabernacle, what’s that about? Have we not said that the true sign is sharing it? A proof of our mentality being magical is that we think that God is more in the tabernacle than outside it. But that ... is absurd! It is not as if he were more there than elsewhere. It is that he is there to ... show us that he is everywhere, so that we may remember it. God is everywhere, we say, but then we endeavor to put him into a box. Enclose him in a few theories we call theology and symbols that we call sacraments, but that do not sacramentalize anything.

There is only one solution: to explain everything as if it had never been explained before, because maybe that’s the situation; and it is, of course, to be all done as if for the first time, perhaps because it is the truth. We will see then, in wonder, the power of our symbols, we will save our rites, we will discover, at last, their transformative power for the human soul.

But will anyone in the Church dare? Will anyone present these symbols and rites not only as those in which the most genuine Christian identity is encoded, but as symbols and rites of universal value, suitable for everyone, Christian or not? Will someone, finally, present Christianity as a religion that includes humanism, not one that excludes it or is exclusive?

Respect for difference from other spiritual traditions must not make us lose sight of Christianity as a universal humanizing proposition. I detect in my contemporaries not only a hunger for spirituality, but a desire to recover, in an understandable and contemporary way, the religious tradition we come from. Care for silence, a sensibility that is growing, will bring with itself a care for the word and the gesture. But, will there be anyone in the Church who dares? Where will be the prophets who’ll make us understand that the only possible fidelity to the past comes from creativity and renewal in the present?
And now, for completeness’ sake, let’s look at the criticism leveled at it by José Rico Pavés, one of the three Spanish bishops who have condemned this essay as heretical (again in my own translation and only focusing on the passages that specifically address d’Ors’ text):
[I have] read the article by Pablo d’Ors entitled ‘Will there be anyone in the Church who dares?’ with sadness and concern. Sadness, because of finding, in so little space, such a vast number of doctrinal errors whose consequences are dramatic for Christian life. Concern, noting that the article’s author is a writer and priest, and since not long ago, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Without offering any proof beyond his own perception, the author affirms in a way that exudes absolute certainty that “The sacraments of the Church now mean virtually nothing to the vast majority of those who still participate in them”; he argues that “many of the behaviors of priests and lay people during the Eucharistic celebration are fundamentally magical, not religious”; and, as an argument, ask the reader whether they can imagine “the apostles kneeling before the bread or Jesus collecting crumbs from a plate” (sic); he blames the doctrine of ex opere operato for disconnecting the subject and the sign, objectifying and degenerating it; he explains the Eucharist departing from the bread as “a symbol of God”, whose meaning is “to break and share the bread consciously”, from which he deduces that the Eucharistic reservation in the tabernacle becomes meaningless, and he considers it a proof of our magical mentality to think that God is more present in the tabernacle than outside it.

The author proposes to “explain everything as if it had never been explained before,” and to present the sacraments as “symbols and rites of universal value, suitable for everyone, Christian or not” showing “Christianity as a religion that includes humanism, not one that excludes it or is exclusive”. But, he asks finally, will someone in the Church dare to implement this solution?

To find in so few lines so much nonsense results in a great weight. Does the author know what the Catholic Church means by sacrament? Does he ignore the difference versus magical rites? Does he know that the sacred character of the sacraments does not lie primarily in the meaning that we give them, but in being born of the salvific will of Christ to communicate his Life to us? Why doesn’t he mention even once the word faith and the verb to believe? Does he think that the sacraments can be understood without faith? Does he maybe not know the teaching of the Church on the permanent presence of Christ in the Eucharist, on the eucharistic reservation and worship due to this Sacrament of Love outside of the Holy Mass?

How is it possible that almost 50 years after the encyclical Mysterium Fidei (03/09/1965), the same weak proposals concerning the Eucharist and the sacraments, which were already rejected by Pope Paul VI, continue to spread today? In these times, it may be that the only thing that we need to dare is this: ​​believing with the Church, believing in the bosom of the Church.
So, here we have two texts: an essay on the popular lack of understanding of the sacraments and a call for their revival, and a refutation of that essay. But, you could ask, why should I care about a Spanish argument between a priest and a bishop? Well, I can certainly tell you why I care: because this is one of the few examples I have seen so far of a theologian accepting Pope Francis’ invitation from paragraph 49 of Evangelii Gaudium:
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).”
When I read d’Ors’ essay, what I see is someone who is concerned for the good of the Church, who sees his “brothers and sisters [...] living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ” and who identifies an anachronistic and life-detached exposition of the sacraments as a barrier and as a source of degeneration. He perceives a perversion of the sacraments to the point of being confused with magic - not in the good way of Arthur C. Clarke’s: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but by deforming a gift from God that builds on faith but that does not suppress reason into a mere irrational, “God-spray” gimmick. A danger that has a reminder built into the very vocabulary of magic, where the term “hocus-pocus” itself is likely a corruption of Jesus’ words at the last supper: “Hoc est corpus meum.”

d’Ors then offers readings of the Eucharist that are simple, broadly understandable and that powerfully underline its being gift, communion and source of life. He finally makes a call for a new language, a new explanation, explicit (very much like last year’s Synod on the Family), points to the latent hunger for transcendence in the world (a need also recognized by atheists) that the Church is called to sate, and closes with an exhortation to continuity through renewal (wholly in-line with Benedict XVI’s ““hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church”).

Yes, d’Ors is critical of the doctrine of “ex opere operato,” but he does not deny it, only attributing negative consequences to it (or - arguably - its misuse). He also speaks about God’s presence in the tabernacle pointing to His presence outside it, which is in fact in line with how the Catechism speaks about it: “God, who reveals his name as “I AM,” reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.” (§207) and - incidentally, quoting from Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei:
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 73, 3c.) In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (Council of Trent (1551)) “This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei 39)” (§1374)
d’Ors’ sentiment about the tabernacle pointing to God’s presence all around us is also very much along the lines of St. John Chrysostom’s homily on the Gospel of Matthew where he too warns against false formalism and where he calls for a harmony between Eucharistic adoration and - to borrow Pope Francis’ words - a care for His flesh in the poor:
“God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts. [...] Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honour? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?”
I do not wish to dissect Bishop Pavés’ words or speculate about the motives of his choice of what to focus on or why he transferred the lack of understanding that d’Ors describes and laments among the faithful to a supposed lack of d’Ors’ understanding of Church teaching. Instead I would like to close with appreciating d’Ors’ clear desire to see the sacraments understood and brought closer to the lives of the faithful today and to extend their gifts to all, whether they be in the Church or beyond it.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Natural law

Multiple exposure photograph human with nature 4

Last year’s Synod on the Family lamented an almost universal lack of understanding of the concept of “natural law” among the faithful, a principle that the Church relies on for the bulk of its moral teaching, which she sees as being shared by all of humanity. Her teaching on marriage and on human reproduction makes copious reference to the natural law, as does her social teaching. As a result, I would here like to review the foundations of what natural law is, how it fits into the bigger picture of the Church’s teaching and how access to it works. Since, like any aspect of the Church’s teaching, the understanding and consequences of natural law develop over time, let me look at a couple of sources in chronological order, starting with Aristotle and arriving at the current, 1993 Catechism.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric points to a distinction between societal laws and laws that derive from nature and that supersede the conventions of a society. While doing so, he refers to examples from Greek literature that already at his time were “classics”:
“Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles’ Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she means that it was just by nature: “Not of to-day or yesterday it is, But lives eternal: none can date its birth.”

And so Empedocles, when he bids us kill no living creature, says that doing this is not just for some people while unjust for others: “Nay, but, an all-embracing law, through the realms of the sky Unbroken it stretcheth, and over the earth’s immensity.””
St. Augustine then emphasizes three very interesting things about natural law. First, that it relates to the orderedness of the universe (which is also its basis of intelligibility and of rationality in general):
“Therefore, let me explain briefly, as well as I can put it in words, the notion of that eternal law which is impressed upon our nature: ‘It is that law in virtue of which it is just that all things exist in perfect order.’” (De libero arbitrio, 1.8.18.)
Second, that such ontological order translates to a rational one and that acting in accordance with it leads to a well-ordered and fulfilled life:
“From this ineffable and sublime arrangement of affairs, then, which is accomplished by divine providence, a natural law [naturalis lex] is, so to speak, inscribed upon the rational soul, so that in the very living out of this life and in their earthly activities people might hold to the tenor of such dispensations.” (De Diversis Questionibus Octoginta Tribus)

“Whatever sets man above the beast, whether we call it ‘mind’ [mens] or ’spirit’ [spiritus] or, more correctly, both since we find both terms in Scriptures, if this rules over and commands the other parts that make up man, then man’s life is in perfect order ... We are to think of a man well-ordered, therefore, when his reason rules over these movements of the soul, for we must not speak of right order, of or order at all, when the more perfect is made subject to the less perfect ... It follows, therefore, that when reason, [ratio] or mind [mens], or spirit [spiritus], rules over the irrational movements of the soul, then that is in control in man which ought to be, by virtue of the law which we found to be eternal.” (De libero arbitrio, 1.8.18.)
Here the idea of a right order seems particularly well aligned also with the first (and again last) step of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, which is right understanding and about which he says that it is “a knowledge and vision of things as they really are”.

Third, St. Augustine - rooted in St. Paul - is also very clear about natural law being accessible to all, regardless of their beliefs and he even goes as far as to recognize its knowledge in the “ungodly”:
“For who but God has written the law of nature (naturale legem) in the hearts of men? that law concerning which the apostle says: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing them witness and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another, in the day when the Lord shall judge the secrets of men." [Rom. 2:14-16] And therefore, as in the case of every rational soul, which thinks and reasons, even though blinded by passion, we attribute whatever in its reasoning is true, not to itself but to the very light of truth by which, however faintly, it is according to its capacity illuminated, so as to perceive some measure of truth by its reasoning.” (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount)

“For hence it is that even the ungodly think of eternity, and rightly blame and rightly praise many things in the morals of men. And by what rules do they thus judge, except by those wherein they see how men ought to live, even though they themselves do not so live? And where do they see these rules? For they do not see them in their own [moral] nature; since no doubt these things are to be seen by the mind, and their minds are confessedly changeable, but these rules are seen as unchangeable by him who can see them at all; nor yet in the character of their own mind, since these rules are rules of righteousness, and their minds are confessedly unrighteous. Where indeed are these rules written, wherein even the unrighteous recognizes what is righteous, wherein he discerns that he ought to have what he himself has not? Where, then, are they written, unless in the book of that Light which is called Truth? Whence every righteous law is copied and transferred (not by migrating to it, but by being as it were impressed upon it) to the heart of the man that works righteousness; as the impression from a ring passes into the wax, yet does not leave the ring.” (De Trinitate, 14.15.21.)
St. Augustine paints a picture of great harmony here: the universe is ordered, reason recognizes that order and even those who do not live in sync with it understand that there is an order that is proper to human conduct and that is inscribed in nature.

Next, St. Thomas Aquinas develops the concept of natural law by thinking of it as a rational agent’s participation in God’s eternal reason:
“All things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted upon them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end, and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.” (Summa q91, a2 (p20))
Going beyond just the concept of Natural Law, Thomas Aquinas takes a stab at spelling out its “first principles” as being the following: that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided, that life is to be preserved, that one is to reproduce and raise one’s offspring and that knowledge and life in society are to be pursued:
“Whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of natural law as something to be done or avoided. [...]

All those things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as being good and, consequently, as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil and objects of avoidance. [...] Wherefore the order of the precepts of the natural law is according to the order of natural inclinations."
What is interesting here is that, in addition to the orderedness of reality being reflected in our understanding of it that St. Augustine spoke of, St. Thomas adds to it also a link to our inclinations, making being, understanding and desire all aligned with each other. Even though St. Thomas already speaks about limits to the understanding of natural law, and gives examples of it being overridden in some societies (e. g., “theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates.”), the overall picture is one of all-encompassing harmony.

In 1888 Pope Leo XIII picks up the subject of natural law in the context of his encyclical entitled Libertas (“freedom”). There he first challenges the notion of freedom being opposed to an adherence to laws, which he in turn equates with reason:
“Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason; whereas the truth is that we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature.”
Leo XIII then defines natural law as follows, identifying it again with reason:
“natural law [...] is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin.”
and proceeds to elaborate on how God helps us to adhere to it in a way that does not cancel our freedom:
“To this rule of action and restraint of evil God has vouchsafed to give special and most suitable aids for strengthening and ordering the human will. The first and most excellent of these is the power of His divine grace, whereby the mind can be enlightened and the will wholesomely invigorated and moved to the constant pursuit of moral good, so that the use of our inborn liberty becomes at once less difficult and less dangerous. Not that the divine assistance hinders in any way the free movement of our will; just the contrary, for grace works inwardly in man and in harmony with his natural inclinations, since it flows from the very Creator of his mind and will, by whom all things are moved in conformity with their nature.”
The need for help with discerning natural law is also underlined in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, where he writes:
“[T]he human intellect, in gaining the knowledge of such truths is hampered both by the activity of the senses and the imagination, and by evil passions arising from original sin. Hence men easily persuade themselves in such matters that what they do not wish to believe is false or at least doubtful.”
And with that we arrive at the Church’s present understanding of natural law, which is clearly set out in the current Catechism. There human rationality (which already to St. Augustine was key) is presented as the interface with the natural law [note also the referring to humans as animals, consistent with evolutionary continuity]:
“Alone among all animate beings, man can boast of having been counted worthy to receive a law from God: as an animal endowed with reason, capable of understanding and discernment, he is to govern his conduct by using his freedom and reason, in obedience to the One who has entrusted everything to him.” (§1951)

“Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” (§1954)
The aims of natural law, it’s subsisting in reason and being accessible universally are spelled out next:
“The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. It hinges upon the desire for God and submission to him, who is the source and judge of all that is good, as well as upon the sense that the other is one’s equal. Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. This law is called “natural,” not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature. [...] The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.” (§1955)

“The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties.” (§1956)
The Catechism then picks up on St. Thomas Aquinas’ point about variation in the application of natural law and presents a particularly useful way of looking at how our varying understanding of natural law differs from the immutable natural law itself (a relationship akin to that between science and the laws of nature):
“Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures, the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.” (§1957)

“The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies.” (§1958)
While the Christian sources cited so far all speak about a close link between natural law and divine law, the vast majority of what they assert about it can, in my opinion, be considered even in the absence of theist beliefs and depends only on whether moral values can be discerned by reason or whether they are all solely the result of social convention or individual choice. E.g., whether the goodness of treating men and women equally can be arrived at by the use of reason alone or whether it is solely the result of a social contract. Whether we could all just agree on its opposite tomorrow or whether the rational appeal of it would persist against social consensus.

This is a question that has been controversial for centuries and I won’t even attempt to do it justice here, skipping even Hume’s famous distinction between is and ought (i.e., that what is (e.g., as in human nature) has no normative power), and I’ll just conclude with presenting a pair of opposite assessments of natural law from the atheist perspective.

The first is Mark Murphy’s flat-out declaration of their incompatibility in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“If Aquinas’s view is paradigmatic of the natural law position, and these two theses — that from the God’s-eye point of view, it is law through its place in the scheme of divine providence, and from the human’s-eye point of view, it constitutes a set of naturally binding and knowable precepts of practical reason — are the basic features of the natural law as Aquinas understands it, then it follows that paradigmatic natural law theory is incompatible with several views in metaphysics and moral philosophy. On the side of metaphysics, it is clear that the natural law view is incompatible with atheism: one cannot have a theory of divine providence without a divine being.”
To me this sounds a bit tautological though in that it can be read as saying: the way St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about natural law is theist, therefore there is no atheist way of positing natural law. It does not engage with considering whether those aspects of Aquinas’ thought on natural law that are not theist (i.e., “human’s-eye point of view”) don’t also make sense in isolation (and would argue that they do).

Second, Murray Rothbard’s rebuttal of such a facile opposition to the concept of human nature in atheist thought, arguing precisely from a perspective of humans being just as much part of the material world as atoms, molecules and stones, all of which have specific shared features.
“It is indeed puzzling that so many modern philosophers should sniff at the very term "nature" as an injection of mysticism and the supernatural. An apple, let fall, will drop to the ground; this we all observe and acknowledge to be in the nature of the apple (as well as the world in general). Two atoms of hydrogen combined with one of oxygen will yield one molecule of water — behavior that is uniquely in the nature of hydrogen, oxygen, and water. There is nothing arcane or mystical about such observations. Why then cavil at the concept of "nature"? [...] And yet, if apples and stones and roses each have their specific natures, is man the only entity, the only being, that cannot have one? And if man does have a nature, why cannot it too be open to rational observation and reflection? If all things have natures, then surely man’s nature is open to inspection; the current brusque rejection of the concept of the nature of man is therefore arbitrary and a priori.”
Considering all of the above, I believe there is a basis for recognizing that humans have rational access to innate moral values, from which normative laws can be derived. This does not necessitate a belief in a superhuman source of such laws (although for a Christian such a belief has added incentives for discernment and adherence) or a belief that those laws are perfectly and unchangeably known. In fact, the Church too recognizes that the natural law is not immediately accessible and that it subsists beneath our attempts to elucidate it, attempts that because of this alone need to continue and may yield evolving results. All that a subscription to the concept of natural law entails is a belief to there being values that derive from who humans are rather that only from our arbitrary consensus.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Sister Silence

Stabat Mater

There is a Silence, the mere absence of sound.
There is a Silence empty of thought.
But these are the rarest of the sisters,
daughters of the Void.

There is a Silence who seethes with the fires of Hell.
There is a Silence in whom the saints commune.
There is a Silence who has nothing to say.
There is a Silence who needs no words for joy.

There is a Silence who saw Judas hang.
There is a Silence who first beheld the risen Christ.
There is a Silence ushering bone-chilling news.
There is a Silence in which a child delights.

There is a Silence before the first intake of air.
There is a Silence after I last exhale.
There is a Silence who gives birth to despair.
There is a Silence in whom oneness buds.

There is a Silence who has no answers left.
There is a Silence who makes insight take form.
There is a Silence who is fertile with words.
There is a Silence who lives in a catatonic state.

There is a Silence atop a mountain at night.
There is a Silence beneath a stormy sea.
There is a Silence, vessel of flow.
There is a Silence, music’s own rest.

There is a Silence at creation’s explosive expansion.
There is a Silence who inhabits interstitial space.
There is a Silence who embraces the tabernacle.
There is a Silence awaiting her absent spouse.

There is a Silence, the greatest of ills.
There is a Silence, the shirker’s maid.
There is a Silence, the least of all wrongs.
There is a Silence, the perfect response.

Sister Silence, ...