Thursday, 30 January 2014

Book review: I am so much in God’s hands


A first (and hopefully last) in a series of book reviews of books I haven’t and will not read, today’s post looks at the upcoming publication of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s personal notes from 1962-2003. A book I would love to read, but won’t.

Imagine that some hitherto unpublished text by your favorite author, thinker or personality has come to light - e.g., some of Aristotle’s works thought lost with the burning of the library at Alexandria, a previously unknown treatise by Voltaire, a new novel by Hesse or the memoirs of Marilyn Monroe (whatever your personal preference). You’d be queueing up to pre-order it as soon as possible (as I did with Camus’ “The First Man,” first published in 1994 - 34 years after his death) and be keen to get hold of any extracts or quotes from it as soon as they were released or even leaked.

So why don’t I feel the same about the upcoming publications of John Paul II’s “I am so much in God’s hands” - 640 pages of new material by probably my favorite thinker of the 20th century, if not of all time (based on having read almost all of his extensive corpus of writings)? Wouldn’t I take great pleasure in reading new words penned by him? Wouldn’t they be edifying, thought provoking and intellectually satisfying? Wouldn’t they further boost my admiration for him? I am certain they would do all that and possibly more.

Yet, I won’t ever read that book.

The reason for this is simple, and follows from my respect and love for its author, who in his Last Will and Testament had the following to say:
“I leave no property behind me of which it is necessary to dispose. Regarding those items of daily use of which I made use, I ask that they be distributed as may appear opportune. My personal notes are to be burned. I ask that Don Stanisław oversees this and thank him for the collaboration and help so prolonged over the years and so comprehensive. All other thanks, instead, I leave in my heart before God Himself, because it is difficult to express them.”
The book about to be published (initially in Polish) contains the “personal notes” that John Paul II ordered to be burned in his will. They are his personal writings, written in the knowledge of their being private and not destined for publication and commercial distribution. Like the diary of a friend, I would not dream of reading it without their express permission.

So, how is it possible that these personal notes will be published? What happened to “Don Stanislaw,” entrusted in John Paul II’s will with executing the burning of his personal notes? Has he been obstructed from carrying out the Pope’s last wishes?

No. To add insult to injury, it is “Don Stanisław” (a. k. a., the now-Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz) who is behind the book’s publication.

How, you ask, is that possible?! Well, Cardinal Dziwisz gives the following explanation:
“I didn’t burn John Paul II’s notes, because they are the key to interpreting his spirituality, his innermost self: his relationships with God, others, and himself. They somehow reveal another side of the person, whom we knew as Bishop in Kraków and in Rome, Peter of our times, a Pastor of the universal Church. They even show his life much earlier, in the years when he was ordained a bishop and was taking over the bishopric in Kraków. They allow us to look at the intimate personal relation of faith with God, the Creator, Giver of life, the Master and Teacher. They also show sources of his spirituality - his inner strength and a definite will to serve Christ till the last breath of his life.”
OK, I see that the text is rich and precious (and I didn’t ask for an ad for the book), but that wasn’t the question. Let’s try again:
“However, I was not courageous enough to burn these sheets of paper and notebooks with his personal notes, which he had left, because they include important information about his life. I saw them on the desk of the Holy Father, but I had never read them.”
Now, that makes more sense - not complying with the Pope’s orders was a failing - the absence of courage. And admitting that he had never read them while John Paul II was alive should have given him a hint about what was to happen with them after the Pope’s death.

I don’t mean to suggest any malicious motives on the part of Cardinal Dziwisz, but, Don Stanisław, how could you?!

Monday, 27 January 2014


South Sudan Rain Clouds UN Photo

An easy way of making a Catholic gasp and recoil in horror these days is to utter the word “gender,”1 which in many cases is heard as being synonymous with “heretic.” Saying: “I work for gender equity,” is tantamount to admitting to drug dealing, human trafficking, or worse. What are “gender equity,” or the more widely used term “gender equality,” though? Here one of the best descriptions of it’s consequences - in my opinion - is the following:
“And what shall we say of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life? [...] As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.”
Oh, but this doesn’t sound despicable!? If anything, it seems like exactly what every Catholic ought to be (and very often is) striving for! So, where does the opposition to anything to do with “gender” come from?

Let’s take a couple of steps back and look at the concept in isolation. In terms of etymology, “gender” derives from the Latin “genus,” which in turn means “kind” or “type” and which has since antiquity (at least since as early as Protagoras in the 5th century BC) been employed in the context of grammar, resulting in a categorization of nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter. While the application of such categories to human identity, behavior and social roles has traces in the Middle Ages, it is only since the middle of the 20th century that the term is consistently used to refer to a person’s identity or social role, distinguishing between male and female (and more recently a growing list of other types too).

In other words, “gender” refers to whether one considers oneself male or female and/or whether one is considered male or female by society, with all the implications that such (self)categorization entails. It “refers to the economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female,” as the United Nations put it.

So far, “gender” sounds like a fairly uncontroversial concept: men and women see themselves as male or female, where their being male or female also has consequences socially, economically and culturally. The term allows for distinguishing between biological sex and it psychological and social consequences and allows for highlighting inequality for which society rather than physiology is accountable for.

To a Christian, who professes that every human being is made in the “Image of God,” inequality needs to be fundamentally abhorrent and equal dignity, opportunity, recognition, rights and respect be seen as an inherent good. If you are a Catholic and feel a bit squeamish about any use of the term “gender,” get over it. And next time someone tells you they work for “gender equality,” congratulate them and support them. Period. Women today are at a disadvantage around the world - in many cases shockingly and criminally so, purely by virtue of being women. Gender equity - the striving for fair treatment of men and women - is an intrinsic moral good that is every Christian’s duty and a direct consequence of Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

So, is the kerfuffle around the term “gender” all just some big mixup or exaggeration?


There is another use of the concept of “gender,” where it becomes an ideology and where, I believe, it is distorted in ways that can lead to at least psychological harm. This ideology - “gender theory” - proceeds along the following lines: “Since gender is a social construct, and since I have self-determination, gender is not an intrinsic attribute of my self. Instead, it is something I “do” and I am free to choose arbitrarily. As a woman I am neither intrinsically female nor male. I become female or am made to behave according to female constraints that society imposes on me.” It is in this vein that Simone de Beauvoir says “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (The Second Sex) or that Judith Butler declares that “[r]ather than ‘woman’ being something one is, it is something one does” (Gender Trouble). And it is this ideology that Benedict XVI decries and sums up by saying:
“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. [...] Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. [...] From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.”
I believe that, in both of the above examples of gender theory statements, the motives for opposition to gender roles, as imposed by society and resulting in injustice, were positive. They were a revolt both against the misogynistic contortions of Freudian psychoanalysis, that posits female inferiority, and against social injustice perpetrated on women. The difficulty, to my mind, arrises neither from the well-justified analysis of social inequality, nor from the reactions against dubious models of female psychology. Instead, it lies with the conclusions drawn from them.2 The observation of unjust gender roles and models leads to their dissociation from sex, instead of to an attack on their injustice and a subsequent project for their rectification.

Instead of denying the link between the biological and the social, as tends to be the case with “gender theory” ideologies, I believe the answer lies in reforming unjust and inequality-fueling gender roles. Here, there are good examples of campaigns that foster awareness and work towards the changing of negative stereotypes, today imposing pressure both in peer groups and from the media. E.g., the UK-based “GREAT Initiative” has a “Great Men Value Women,” campaign where they work with teenage boys to challenge male stereotypes that foster gender inequality (e.g., being tough, even aggressive and not showing their feelings). Then there are: the “Men in Childcare” initiative, which promotes the involvement of men in childcare and related professions, one of the UN’s “Millennium Goals” focusing on gender equality, or the World Food Programme’s providing training sessions for fathers about maternal and child health and nutrition, just to name a few. These, to my mind, are pushing in the right direction. In contrast, the consequences of the sex-gender decoupling of “gender theory” range from the innocuous, albeit arguably exaggerated, protests against the ““pinkification” of girls’ toys” to the dramatically more worrying example of the raising of a boy as “gender neutral.”

Oh, and by the way, the opening quote of this post is from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to women” (§4)...

1 Many thanks to my überbesties YYM and PM for their nihil obstats.
2 In many ways this reminds me of Marxism3 (and apologies in advance for the great simplification of critiquing it in a single sentence here), which correctly diagnosed the serious problem of social inequality, but which applied to it a non-remedy: class war. The problem still persists to this day, but it requires an actual solution, mindful of human dignity, instead.
3 No, not of Martin Parr this time either.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Church is not only for good people

Dsm02 wordle

Due to the brief break in masses at Pope Francis’ residence - the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ - over the Christmas holidays, the set of 43 sermons he delivered there since the beginning of September until the end of 2013 can be considered their second season.1 In this post, I will again look at his sermons’ textual features, compare them against the first season and share with you some of my favorite moments from Francis’ homilies during this period, that haven’t already been referred to in the blog posts I wrote over the same period, which are frequently inspired by them or at least make reference to them.

In terms of the latest season’s language, it very much remained like that of the the first, with a heavy focus on Jesus - by far the most frequently used word throughout. The remaining nine of the top ten most frequently-used words were: God, Lord, you, our, him, Church, people, life and Christian (in that order) which means that eight of the top words from the first season remained unchanged, with only “love” and “what” dropping our of the top ten, being replaced by “Christian” and “people.” The specific shifts of these words are also worth noting from the following figure:


While even a relatively small dataset like the above fifty pairs of word frequencies is big enough to have lots read into it, it’d still venture to make the following observations: first, that “Lord” no longer outweighs “God,” second that the gap between the frequency of “our” versus “you” has dropped significantly and third that “Church” and “people” are on almost equal footing instead of the former being said almost twice as often as the latter in the previous season. I don’t mean to build an elaborate analysis on the above features, but they strike me as indicators of an even greater closeness between Francis and his audience.

Worth noting is also the further reduced Gunning-Fog readability Index (from an already very low 6.6 to 6.3), which indicates an increased ease of the text and that this is achieved at the same time as an almost doubling of the text’s lexical density (from 15.2 to 25.3). All of this points to Francis’ words being very accessible, while at the same time holding substance.

Both as an example of his style and as a way to pick out some of my favorite moments from these last three months, the following five are passages from Francis’ homilies that particularly spoke to me:
  1. “Those who live judging their neighbor, speaking ill of their neighbor, are hypocrites, because they lack the strength and the courage to look to their own shortcomings. The Lord does not waste many words on this concept. Further on he says that he who has hatred in his heart for his brother is a murderer. In his first letter, John the Apostle also says it clearly: anyone who has hatred for his brother is a murderer, he walks in darkness, he who judges his brother walks in darkness. And so, every time we judge our brothers in our hearts – or worse still when we speak ill of them with others, we are Christian murderers: A Christian murderer.... It’s not me saying this, it’s the Lord. And there is no place for nuances. If you speak ill of your brother, you kill your brother. [...] Gossip always has a criminal side to it. There is no such thing as innocent gossip. [...] Some may say that there are persons who deserve being gossiped about. But it is not so: Go and pray for him! Go and do penance for her! And then, if it is necessary, speak to that person who may be able to seek remedy for the problem. But don’t tell everyone! Paul had been a sinner, and he says of himself: I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man. But I have been mercifully treated. Perhaps none of us are blasphemers – perhaps … But if we ever gossip we are certainly persecutors and violent. We ask for grace so that we and the entire Church may convert from the crime of gossip to love, to humility, to meekness, to docility, to the generosity of love towards our neighbor.” (13th September)

  2. “You can’t govern without loving the people and without humility! And every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government, must ask themselves two questions: ‘Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path.’ If you don’t ask those questions, your governance will not be good. The man or woman who governs – who loves his people is a humble man or woman.” (16th September)

  3. “The Church is not the Church only for good people. Do we want to describe who belongs to the Church, to this feast? The sinners. All of us sinners are invited. At this point there is a community that has diverse gifts: one has the gift of prophecy, another of ministry, who teaching … We all have qualities and strengths. But each of us brings to the feast a common gift. Each of us is called to participate fully in the feast. Christian existence cannot be understood without this participation. ‘I go to the feast, but I don’t go beyond the antechamber, because I want to be only with the three or four people that I am familiar with …’ You can’t do this in the Church! You either participate fully or you remain outside. You can’t pick and choose: the Church is for everyone, beginning with those I’ve already mentioned, the most marginalized. It is everyone’s Church!” (5th November)

  4. “When we look at a father or a mother who speaks to their little child, we see that they become little and speak with a voice of a child and with the manners of children. Someone looking in from the outside think, ‘This is ridiculous!’ They become smaller, right there, no? Because the love of a father and a mother needs to be close. I say this word: to lower themselves to the world of the child … If the father and mother spoke to them normally, the child would still understand; but they want to take up the manner of speaking of the child. They come close, they become children. And so it is with the Lord. The Greek theologians explained this attitude of God with a somewhat difficult word: “syncatabasis” or “the humble and accommodating disposition of God who lowers Himself to make Himself one of us.”” (12th December)

  5. “There is a third coming of the Lord: that of every day. The Lord visits His Church every day! He visits each of us, and so our souls as well experience something similar: our soul resembles the Church, our soul resembles Mary. The Desert Fathers say that Mary, the Church and our souls are feminine, and that what is said about one can be said analogously of the others. Our soul is also in waiting, this waiting for the coming of the Lord – an open soul that calls out, ‘Come, Lord.’” (23rd December)

1 For a review of the "first season," see here.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Patriarchal plan perplexity


The other day I came across a series of blog posts by Phillip Cary, professor of philosophy at Eastern University, Yale Divinity alumnus and author of multiple books, three of which were even published by OUP. Given his credentials, my expectations were high and - after reading the posts - my subsequent disappointment, by their obvious lack of insight, commensurably deep.

The posts are an exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis regarding the relationship between man and woman, with the penultimate one focusing on Genesis 3:16 - the words God addresses to the woman after she and the man eat from the forbidden “tree of knowledge of good and evil”: “To the woman he said: I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Cary is “puzzled” here by the juxtaposition of the woman’s desire for her husband and his ruling over her and sets out to interpret the meaning of these words of Scripture from the perspective of being God’s plan for how man and woman are to relate:
“My assumption has been that God’s word in Genesis 3 aims at a justice that sets things right. So how does patriarchy, the rule of a man over his wife, set things right? [...]

[T]he key point about this patriarchal framework [... is]: because the property of the patriarch consists fundamentally of living things, the increase of wealth and the blessing of procreation are nearly the same thing in Genesis. [...]

[T]he man who rules over his wife has a deep economic interest in seeing that she lives well, is healthy and flourishes together with her children, being fruitful and multiplying.”

[And from the following post: T]hat is the framework within which I think we can begin to make sense of patriarchy, where procreation, wealth and the father’s rule of the household coincide. And that in turn is the initial framework we need to see the meaning of God’s word to the woman about her desire for her husband and his ruling over her.”
What I understand from the above is that Cary is saying the following: making the man rule over the woman, in response to their joint disobedience, is a way to re-introduce the value of life in a world where death has entered as a result of the Fall. Life is an economic good and by making procreation a contributor to its proliferation, the husband - who is in charge of the household - benefits and consequently treats his wife well, like he would any other profit-generating asset.


Before we get sucked into a diatribe against such a view, let’s take a breath and rewind to Genesis 2:24,1 where man and woman are described before the Fall and where their relationship is one of profound unity: “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” In the “one body” there is no master versus slave, no ruler versus subject - there is only one union between man and woman. This is God’s plan for humanity, and, I believe, Cary’s basic mistake is in taking the punishment delivered to man and woman after their disobedience and mistaking it for how man and woman are meant to relate to each other, to the point of arguing for the economic benefits of a relationship that is instituted as punishment. This is like taking the punishing of a child by making them sit still and extolling the virtues of motionlessness in terms of its low carbon footprint.

In fact, Cary’s approach is also at odds with the interpretation Blessed Pope John Paul II makes of Genesis 3:16 in his Man and Woman He Created Them:2
“[T]he words of Genesis 3:16 signify above all a breach, a fundamental loss of the primeval community-communion of persons. This communion had been intended to make man and woman mutually happy through the search of a simple and pure union in humanity, through a reciprocal offering of themselves, that is, through the experience of the gift of the person expressed with soul and body.”
He even goes on to characterize the state instituted in Genesis 3:16 as being a “deformation” of the “original beatifying conjugal union of persons” before the Fall. And if any more evidence were needed for taking this verse not as God’s plan for humanity but as a description of what happens when that plan is corrupted, we only need to look as far as the second reading from the feast of the Holy Family nine days ago, where St. Paul has the following to say: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands [... h]usbands, love your wives” (Colossians 3:18-19). The advice here is not for husbands to rule, but to love, which, incidentally, also means to self-empty, to subordinate oneself - the exact same thing also asked of wives. The result is a mutual subordination of husband and wife to each other, or - as John Paul II put it - “a reciprocal offering of themselves [...] with soul and body.”

1 Just to avoid misunderstandings, speaking about the events described in Genesis does not presuppose considering them to be historical events. The opening chapters of Genesis are a myth, which does not mean to suggest that they are false, but instead that they speak about deep anthropological, psychological and ontological features in a more archaic form - by way of analogy instead of by description of events in this Universe.
2 For more on this book by John Paul II, see here.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Jesus wept

Christianity is not stoicism. Sure, following Jesus’ example does mean first, accepting what is happening to me and recognizing that, whatever it is - whether pleasant or unpleasant, is willed or allowed by God and second, recognizing that it is a context in which loving my neighbors and God through them are open to me. However, the story does not end there, or rather, if it does, then it may well take on a form of the perennial Gnostic heresy that Christianity has resisted since as early as the first century AD and that Pope Francis still battles against today (e.g., see Evangelii Gaudium §94).

The central idea of Gnosticism is a dualism where matter and spirit are opposed, the former being evil and the latter good. A consequence of this belief is also a denial of Jesus’ incarnation, since God, who is good cannot at the same time be matter, which is bad. The Jesus of the Gnostics is pure spirit - a ghost of some sorts, instead of both fully God and fully man. Jesus’ affections and sufferings become mere simulacra and his compassion and sacrifice a mere caricature.

That is not Christianity.

Jesus’ and the Old Testament’s teaching is fundamentally panentheist (cf. St. Paul’s “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)) and, with some qualifications deriving principally from the difference in the cardinality of God and the Universe, monist. Jesus is both God and Man, both a delimited, finite human - made of flesh, nerves and bones - and the infinite, transcendent God who brought the Universe into being and maintains it in existence. Today’s feast of the Theotokos - of Mary being the mother of God and not only of Jesus the man - has profound consequences in terms of God's humility and love for men and women, instead of being just another piece of makeup as the Gnostic system would have it.

That Jesus was fully human and not only some form of a transcendent God’s apparent presence is also underlined by his incomplete knowledge (cf. “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)) and by his responding to events not only by will by also by emotion, to the point of shedding tears.

Jesus cried when faced with the death of his friend, Lazarus:
“When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”” (John 11:32-36)
when he was at the point of entering Jerusalem to face his capture and crucifixion (foreseeing the subsequent destruction of the city by the Romans and perhaps the longer-term persecution of his people - the people of Israel, including the unspeakable genocide of the Shoah):
“As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”” (Luke 19:41-44)
and surely also when praying to the Father in the garden on the Mount of Olives before his capture on Maundy Thursday:
“After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44)
Why did Jesus cry though? Was it weakness, a deplorable lack of trust in God the Father or for show?

No. Instead, it was for the reasons for which Pope Francis is asking anyone who wants to listen to cry too, when faced with injustice and suffering: “The mystery of the Cross [...] can only be understood, a little bit, by kneeling, in prayer, but also through tears: they are the tears that bring us close to this mystery. [...] Without weeping, heartfelt weeping, we can never understand [the] mystery [of the cross]. It is the cry of the penitent, the cry of the brother and the sister who are looking upon so much human misery and looking on Jesus, kneeling and weeping and never alone, never alone!” On another occasion, Pope Francis takes the importance of tears one step further, by likening them to lenses through which we recognize Jesus:
“At the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene's hopes are dashed, but rather than feel like she had failed again, she simply cries. Sometimes in our lives tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus. Let us ask the Lord to give us the grace of tears - it's a beautiful grace - and ask for the grace to be able to say with our lives, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ not because he appeared to me, but because I saw him with my heart.”
Tears, when faced with suffering either of another or even of oneself, are not signs of weakness, but expressions of sincere, heartfelt love and, I believe, Jesus may well add to the list of questions that will be asked at the Last Judgement (about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.): “When you saw your brother in pain or your sister in anguish, did you cry?”