A Justification for Metastasized Disdain
I applaud Fr. Lawrence Porter for his tempered review of Garry Wills’s latest book, Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition (Dec.). If I had to put a title to his review, I would have called it “Why Bother?: A Waste of Time” because Mr. Wills, and the anti-Catholics and secularists who agree with him, have seemingly impenetrable opinions on the matter. They remind me of Dan Brown and his legion of Da Vinci Code devotees who are absolutely persuaded by cherry-picked and altered history and groundless innuendo. Like Brown, the evidence and exegesis Wills offers serves primarily to justify his metastasizing disdain for the Catholic Church and her three-tiered hierarchy.
I’m not surprised that Why Priests? garnered a favorable review in The New York Times. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that it received a somewhat less favorable review in the National Catholic Reporter. And I was heartened that, here in the NOR, Fr. Porter rebutted Wills’s deconstructionist claims with more politesse than I could have mustered, but more importantly, with sound history and theology.
Unfortunately, Fr. Porter’s own masterful work, The Assault on Priesthood: A Biblical and Theological Rejoinder, will not get the kind of readership that Wills’s book has received precisely because it is careful, scholarly, and, contra to Wills’s claims, demonstrates the historical and theological continuity between the ancient Hebrew cultic priesthood and the modern Catholic sacramental priesthood.
Rev. James A. Hamel
St. Patrick's Seminary
Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Apropos Fr. Porter’s excellent review of Garry Wills’s Why Priests?: The priesthood certainly needs explanation and support, in part because of cultural changes that have little to do with religion. In the past few decades, society has come to view professionals in wholly commercial terms: physicians and teachers are vendors, their patients and students are customers. To an increasing degree, the relationship between priests and laity is seen in the same way, and when that occurs, the notion of a sacramental priesthood simply disappears.
So, if Father X is charismatic, engaging, or simply makes himself available at convenient times, his parishioners will welcome his baptizing their children, witnessing their marriages, and offering funeral Masses for their deceased loved ones. If Father Y is in some way less attractive, parishioners will skip the baptism, be married by a friend with a license from the Internet, and replace the funeral Mass with a memorial service at the funeral home. Bishops bemoan the resulting drop in weddings and funerals in their dioceses, but few are finding ways to stop the trend.
Fr. Porter’s review, as well as his own book on the topic, may signal a new interest in the priesthood. We can only hope that others will continue what he has begun.
Peter J. McGuire
St. Norbert Abbey
Fr. Porter’s review of Garry Wills’s Why Priests?, as well as his own recent book, The Assault on Priesthood, both show how the priesthood and sacrificial cult are inextricably intertwined. In attacking one, you destroy the other, the residue having little in common with Catholicism.
Fr. Porter’s book proves that the priesthood, far from being an invention of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, as Wills claims, has deep Old Testament roots. Indeed, the Old Testament’s priests, while centrally connected to cult, also mirrored a broad range of additional activities not unlike those of subsequent Christian priests. They were scholars; they fostered the common temporal good; they were confidantes of leaders; they defended their people.
Old Testament priests could also sometimes be failures. Some were not the brightest, but just as the “wise man” and the “fool” in the Old Testament were those for whom God (and not book learning) did or did not have a proper place in their lives, so the Old Testament’s priestly failures were those for whom Yahweh was displaced by “another idol.” They were the money grubbers, the lechers, or the moral cowards — or the (priestly) fathers (like Eli) of priests who didn’t keep their biological and spiritual sons morally in line.
Since priesthood and sacrifice go in tandem, it’s no wonder that those who attack the former usually wind up having problems with the latter, especially regarding the Eucharist. Just as Protestant Reformers who denied the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the priests who offer it by and large lost that sacrament — it’s certainly not the “source and summit” of their weekly worship life — so today’s opponents of the priesthood usually wind up with theological illiteracy about the Real Presence, which they tend to write off by appealing to a primitive Church of their imaginations in which an assembly of proto-socialists gathered in egalitarian friendship over organic bread and wine (never mind 1 Cor. 11), perhaps humming an Aramaic version of “Kumbaya.”
There’s no denying that today’s priests are suffering a real crisis, in no small measure self-made. We’ve had our share of episcopal Elis who failed to rebuke their spiritual sons. We’ve reaped the fruit of a vision of the priesthood that failed to stress sacrifice — both as he who offers sacrifice as well as he whose life must be a total sacrifice. Recovering the priest as a figure of sacrificial cult will go a long way toward ending that crisis.
Dr. John Grondelski
A Powerful Excuse for the Morally Irresponsible
It cheered me to read D.Q. McInerny’s article on the scientistic bias that has overtaken the universities and the general public (“On Science sans Context,” Dec.). I’m so tired of having colorful “brain images” thrown at me purporting to explain every human condition under Heaven. Sure, many psychiatric disorders are the result of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. But the media and even some scientists seem to rush to the metaphysical conclusion that all our sane and insane actions, and even our religious convictions, are caused entirely by brain chemistry. This reductionist philosophy has been tried many times in the history of thought but it never satisfies the philosopher, although it is a powerful excuse for the morally irresponsible.
Due to this dissatisfaction with reductionist naturalism, we are witnessing a revival of the balanced philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. It might not be obvious to the average Catholic, but in the seminaries St. Thomas’s thought is being rediscovered as an alternative to the extremes of flossy New Age “thought” and materialist reductionism.
Dr. McInerny is right to warn us about the popular bias in favor of scientism. To say that our actions, maladies, and convictions are all the result of electrochemical events in our brains, and that a purposeful and free soul or consciousness simply does not exist, is a bold denial of human freedom. Our common sense abhors this determinism. I’m glad that McInerny is a balanced thinker, and I’m happy to know that he teaches seminarians as I do. There are many of us who join him in seeing St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosopher for our time and place.
Menlo Park, California
The Bible: Channeling History
I truly appreciated Maria Hsia Chang’s insights regarding the weakness of the Roman and Jewish historical accounts of Christ and her questioning the claims of some modern Scripture scholars that Mark’s Gospel and the elusive document Q were the sources of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels (“Finding the Christ in His Apostles,” Dec.). The assertions of the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible and The Founding of Christendom by Warren H. Carroll, founder of Christendom College — namely, that John wrote his Gospel between A.D. 90-110, Matthew roughly in A.D. 85, Luke in A.D. 75, and Mark in A.D. 70 — are more accurate than those found in the Gospel introductions of some of the newer translations of the Bible.
According to the introductory notes in the Douay-Rheims Bible, Matthew wrote his Gospel about six years after Jesus’ Ascension, Mark about 10 years, Luke about 24 years, and John about 63 years afterwards. According to Carroll, who gives precise historical facts to substantiate the timing of the Synoptic Gospels, the Apostles were in Palestine when Herod Agrippa was appointed governor of Palestine by the Emperor Claudius. Agrippa had James the Greater beheaded and Peter imprisoned in A.D. 41. Therefore, the Apostles decided that it was necessary to disperse, except for James the Lesser, who was to remain and care for the church in Jerusalem. Matthew, who knew both Aramaic and Greek, was an eyewitness to Christ who could write a Gospel in Aramaic for the others to take with them before they dispersed in A.D. 42, and a Greek one that could stay in Jerusalem.
Mark, whose Gospel is presently claimed, with no proof, to be the first Gospel written, was not an eyewitness to Christ as was Matthew. Mark converted in A.D. 37, traveled with Paul on his first missionary journey, and later with Luke on his. He was with Peter in Rome but left there in A.D. 59 for Alexandria, where he founded the local church. Mark returned to Rome in A.D. 62 when Peter was also there, allowing him to gather accounts of Christ from Peter and other eyewitnesses. He likely did not include Christ’s choice of Peter as head of the Church because Peter did not wish to be exalted. The evidence not given by the evangelists themselves was given by St. Papias, bishop of Hieraopolis, known as a survivor of apostolic oral tradition and a companion of St. Polycarp circa A.D. 125.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke, who were not eyewitnesses, are rarely challenged by the modernists, whereas those of John and Matthew are. Questioning John’s Gospel gives critics more opportunity to deny the divinity of Christ. Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar goes even further in an introduction to one of his books, stating that Mark’s and John’s accounts cannot both be accurate, so he chooses Mark’s as the true one and John’s as a myth, thus insinuating that John was lying when he claims to have been an eyewitness (Jn. 19:35, 21:24).
Sr. Eleanor Colgan, S.N.D.
Maria Hsia Chang puzzles over a character named “Yeshu” in the Babylonian Talmud, whom she supposes is Jesus. Not so. “Yeshu” was actually an historical person named Jeschu ben Pandera.
In the Babylonian Gemara, a story is told twice that “when King Jannai directed the destruction of the Rabbis, R. Joshua ben Perachiach and Jeschu [ben Pandera] went to Alexandria.” Jannai or Jannaeus (John) was of the Maccabean line of kings and reigned over the Jews from 104-78 B.C. His wife, Salome, later reigned from 78-69 B.C., and their rule was generally considered a golden age for the Pharisees. It was the Pharisees who stoned this man to death (after he returned from Egypt) and later hanged him on a tree and also dragged his body through the streets. The Pharisees were deathly jealous of the Essenes. Jeschu was the leader of the Essene community at Qumran, known affectionately as the “Teacher of Righteousness” in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Chang’s Dominican professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley confused this great Bodhisattva with the historical Jesus. The Jews certainly never did.
Over many centuries, hundreds of great saints and brilliant scholars devoted a vast number of hours to studying and explaining the New Testament, with particular emphasis on the four Gospels. Their findings and conclusions were synthesized and presented as official Church teaching at the Second Vatican Council, where it was declared, “The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels…. whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms” (Dei Verbum, nos. 18-19).
But Maria Hsia Chang, after taking one graduate-level course at GTU in Berkeley, and reading a book by a Lutheran pastor, now presents her contrary conclusions to the readers of the NOR: “There are reasons to doubt that the Gospels were contemporaneous accounts of Jesus, or that they were written by His Apostles.”
To begin, Prof. Chang confuses contemporaneous (from the same time period as Christ) with simultaneous (at the same time He lived). Mark obtained his information from St. Peter, and Luke learned about the birth of Christ from Mary, His Mother. You can’t get much more contemporaneous than that.
Those in doubt about the authorship of the Gospels may turn to the rulings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, made binding upon all Catholics by Pope St. Pius X: “Matthew…is in truth the author of the Gospel published under his name” (1911), and “Mark…and Luke…are really the authors of the Gospels attributed to them” (1912).
Chang writes that “the total transformation” of the Apostles “from cowering to fearless men, from illiterate fishermen to bold preachers” can “only be explained by something extraordinary that happened in the brief interim between the crucifixion of Jesus and the disappearance of His body.” That “super-extraordinary event,” she claims, “was the Resurrection.” But, as recounted by an eyewitness in the Gospel of John, the Apostles were still cowering in fear behind locked doors after the Resurrection. Anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles should know that the “transformation” of the Apostles took place fifty days after Chang’s “super-extraordinary event” — at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the new Church.
Of course, any effort to know “Jesus the man, instead of Jesus the Christ” is doomed to failure. Christ was the God-man, true God and true man. Trying to separate His divinity from His humanity is not only impossible but is an explicit rejection of the fact that He was and is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Joseph H. Gehringer
Manahawkin, New Jersey
MARIA HSIA CHANG REPLIES:
What every author most desires and appreciates is that the reader understand his or her purpose and primary thesis. In writing “Finding Christ in His Apostles,” my purpose was to report, albeit in a shorthand summary fashion, what I had learned from a graduate course on modern Christology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. As I wrote, “Instead of studying Christ as the object of religious devotion or faith…modern Christology means to study Jesus as a figure in history…. [It] seeks to know ‘the historical Jesus,’ which means Jesus the man, instead of Jesus the Christ…. I came to the course not only as a person of faith but as a scholar who is trained in and had taught epistemology…and the philosophy of science.”
Over the course of the semester, I learned that modern Christology (or the quest for the historical Jesus) spans centuries and can be divided into at least four periods:
– Old Quest (1778-1890), followed by a brief interregnum when the Old Quest broke down (1890-1910)
– New Quest (1954-1970)
– Third Quest (1965-present)
– Renewed New (or Neo-LiberabpQuest (1985-present)
In the 236 years, thus far, of modern Christology, countless scholars and theologians in literally hundreds of writings have proffered their exegeses and hermeneutics — their critical explanations and interpretations of biblical texts, including the Synoptic Gospels. Those scholars include Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976), Karl Barth (1886-1968), Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), Karl Rahner (1904-1984), Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009), Wolfhart Pannenberg (b. 1928), Alister McGrath (b. 1953), and Mark Allan Powell (b. 1953).
To answer Joseph H. Gehringer’s sarcastic put-down in his letter (“but Maria Hsia Chang, after taking one graduate-level course at GTU in Berkeley, and reading a book by a Lutheran pastor, now presents her contrary conclusions”), the above scholars’ writings — and more — were the assigned readings for the course I took. Catholic priest and theologian Edward Schillebeeckx’s book Jesus: An Experiment in Christology alone numbers 757 pages.
Given the plethora of modern Christologists, the tsunami of their writings, and the complexity of their exegesis and back-and-forth arguments, it would take a lifetime of study to fully digest it all — a task about which I made no pretense to have undertaken. Nor am I even remotely qualified to assess Christologists’ broad consensus on the authorship and dates of the Synoptic Gospels.
Instead, what I hoped to convey in my article was what one thinking person took away from that course — which is that, given historians’ skepticism about the authorship of the Synoptic Gospels, I nevertheless found not just the historical Jesus the man but Jesus the Christ in the lives and martyrdom of His Apostles.
As such, “Finding Christ in His Apostles” is, in the end, a testament of my journey of faith. It is regrettable that the purpose and thesis of my article seem to have eluded some readers.
Enough with the "Nice Guy" Routine
Your editorial “Longevity & Faithfulness” (Dec.) raises the dispiriting prospect that a secular foundation will finance a public-relations campaign on behalf of dissident religious orders in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter. You are so polite in referring to that journal with phrases such as “across the aisle” and “the flagship publication of progressive Catholicism,” and you print its name as it is given. May I suggest that you be No More Mr. Nice Guy!
Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, where that paper is located, has directed it not to present itself as a Catholic publication, and his predecessor unsuccessfully ordered the paper, under canon law, to remove the word Catholic from its title. As your part in educating the faithful who may not know these facts, why not put an asterisk next to that word in the publication’s title or, better yet, give its name as the National Catholic [sic] Reporter?
Tom F. Moore
North Tonawanda, New York
The Courage to Criticize
Your two brilliant New Oxford Notes, “Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience” and “Pope Francis: Delight of the World” (Dec.), have confirmed my suspicions that Francis is a narcissist who hungers for the adulation of the secular media and proudly promotes the ongoing infidelity to revelation exhibited by many of his fellow Jesuits and their colleges and universities.
Your courage in criticizing Francis shows the importance of the NOR being financed only by its readers, rather than taking money from special-interest groups that would control what you choose to report. I pray that your readers will give you the support you need to continue your publication of the truth about what is going on in our beloved Roman Catholic Church.
To dispel any possible doubt, let it be known that it is not the editorial position of the NOR that Pope Francis is, in the words of Mr. Moore, “a narcissist who hungers for the adulation of the secular media and proudly promotes the ongoing infidelity to revelation exhibited by many of his fellow Jesuits and their colleges and universities.”
Brewster, New York
I am employed at a Catholic hospital. My coworkers know that I am a faithful, practicing Catholic who consistently defends the teachings of the Church. A few weeks ago some Catholic coworkers informed me that Pope Francis had alluded to the fact that living a homosexual lifestyle is now okay. “Didn’t you hear?” they asked me. “It’s been in the news.” A few Protestant coworkers who overheard the conversation exclaimed, “No, it’s not okay! Homosexuality is a sin. The Bible confirms that homosexuality is wrong.”
I found it tragic that Catholics are getting the impression from this Pope that homosexuality is now acceptable. I agree with moral theologian Germain Grisez (quoted in the Dec. NOR), who stated, “I’m afraid that Pope Francis has failed to consider carefully enough the likely consequences of letting loose with his thoughts in a world that will applaud being provided with such help in subverting the truth it is his job to guard as inviolable and proclaim with fidelity.”
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
We need a new Catherine of Siena to approach the Pope with grace and determination to convince him to speak sparingly and with the reserve and scholarship of his predecessors, mindful of a hostile press and a theologically unschooled flock. Who might this be?
Anthony S. Pasquale
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Complete Submission & a Docile Mind
I am very troubled by your critique of Pope Francis (New Oxford Notes, Dec.). I recall what the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki wrote about John Henry Newman in his introduction to Conscience and Papacy (2002): Newman insisted, he says, “on the interior obedience and submission which the faithful owe to the pope even when he does not speak ex cathedra.” Newman was not concerned about whether Pius IX’s encyclical Quanta Cura was infallible; it still had “to be accepted with complete submission and a docile mind.” Also, Newman warned that “unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.”
Second, in his introduction to Anglican Difficulties (1994), Fr. Jaki cites two passages from Newman that ring out with fealty to the pope: “Those who take part with Peter are on the winning side,” and “One vessel alone can ride those waves; it is the boat of Peter, the ark of God.”
Third, in Newman’s Challenge (2000), Fr. Jaki cites these eloquent lines from Newman: “We must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying our Lord.” Moreover, “His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us.” And so, we the faithful should “defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father and as a wife or husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.”
Today, in the deluge of the great apostasy, we Catholics are securely lodged in the one and only Ark that God has provided for man, the Ark that cannot founder till the end of time. We must not imagine that Jesus is asleep as the waves rise above the ship. He is only testing us. When we rouse Him, He will surely say, “O ye of little faith!”
In His search for one lost sheep, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leaves the other 99 behind. Obviously, a good shepherd, one with good intentions and good judgment, would only leave his sheep behind if they were protected and cared for by good helpers. A bad or foolish shepherd who leaves the flock dangerously unprotected certainly deserves nervous “bleats” from the flock and constructive criticism from his appointed helpers.
Your scathing criticism of Pope Francis consists mainly of nervous “bleats.” Your references, quotations, and opinions are strongly biased against the obvious fact that Francis is reaching out to lost sheep, even with his comments of admiration for the late Carlo Cardinal Martini (perhaps because some of Martini’s ardent followers are close to being lost sheep themselves). There is absolutely no mention in these New Oxford Notes that Pope Francis’s manner of speech is aimed at evangelization! Where, then, is the scandal? Or have you fanned the flames of scandal by unjustly diminishing this Pope? Remember, evangelization by the shepherd aims at initial conversion; catechesis comes later, through the shepherd’s helpers.
You point out, in certain terms, that Pope Francis cannot be a humble man since he supposedly declared himself (to the atheist Scalfari, according to Scalfari’s testimony) to have both “humility” and “ambition.” What is humility? Humility is a lack of pretense. In positive terms, it means “oriented to truth.” The humble person, then, is unbiased. Humility also restrains a person from reaching beyond himself. It allows him to recognize his true and total dependence on God and his creaturely equality with others. Humility is, therefore, opposed to pride, but also to immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to His will. Perhaps the NOR has another definition of humility, but I see no evidence supporting the claim that Francis is not a humble man.
The Holy Father has stressed the prophetic nature of the priesthood and has frequently disdained clericalism and that all-too-common legalism characteristic of many, but by no means all, so-called conservative and traditionalist Catholics — that is, those who have the “right answers” but lack the inner life of love supplied by the Holy Spirit to those who are humble. I too am a conservative, a traditionalist. Real prophets are not easy for people like us to accept. Indeed, when the going got rough, the disciples of John the Baptist found it hard to accept Jesus. And so Jesus said to them, “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me” (Mt. 11:6). I accept Pope Francis and I am open to the possibility that he has something to teach me. I will follow him.
Chene Richard Heady
When Pope Benedict resigned, I was sickened by all the unfair criticism of him. Now I’m sickened by all the criticism of Pope Francis coming from the Catholic press. Pope Francis has a different style, and if some people misunderstand him, then so be it. Your December New Oxford Notes make me think twice about renewing my subscription. The tone of those Notes is downright nasty.
How can I say this: Francis is the Pope and you’re not. He was chosen by the cardinals acting with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But clearly you must think the Holy Spirit was off doing other things that day. Let’s hope that the next time our Church chooses a pope, you can be in the room with the cardinals to prevent them from committing another grave error. Shame on you. All you’re doing is giving succor to the anti-Catholics and that happy band of Catholics who see themselves as more Catholic than the pope.
Stephen J. Kovacs
De Pere, Wisconsin
Several recent New Oxford Notes question both Pope Francis’s leadership and his theological orthodoxy. The first, “The Poor Misunderstood Pope?” (Nov.), asserts that Francis was disavowing the teachings of Benedict XVI and distancing himself from the example of John Paul II. A subsequent Note, “Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience” (Dec.), goes so far as to claim that he was endorsing a relativistic understanding of moral conscience. Ironically, the NOR reaches these critical conclusions by employing a hermeneutical method that is foreign to Catholic orthodoxy.
Modern Western culture equates spontaneity with sincerity. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton complained about the common belief that words most truly express a person’s deepest feelings and convictions when they are uttered spur-of-the-moment and without forethought. The media coverage of Pope Francis operates on the same assumption. Whether positive or negative, the coverage assumes that Francis’s interviews — not his decrees and decisions — present us with the real man and what he really thinks. Consequently, the interviews have been analyzed ad nauseum, in the NOR as elsewhere, while his magisterial documents have been comparatively ignored.
However, as Chesterton also notes, the equation of spontaneity with sincerity rests on very little intellectual foundation. Much of what a person says on the spur of the moment is inarticulate and inexact; what spontaneous speech gains in emotional warmth, it loses in clarity. Chesterton suggests that words most truly express our deepest feelings and convictions when they are premeditated and carefully polished. When we have thought through precisely what we desire to say, we are most likely to be able to express clearly and without distortion what we actually think.
This principle is formalized in Catholic hermeneutics. Papal documents possess varying levels of authority. The more spontaneous the document, the less authoritative it is; the more formal and solemn the document, the more authoritative. For instance, papal homilies to groups of pilgrims possess less authority than encyclicals, which possess less authority than bulls. And interviews, as the Vatican has repeatedly clarified, possess no magisterial authority at all. Under traditional Catholic hermeneutics, the papal interviews must be interpreted in light of magisterial documents (not vice versa). If we are looking for Francis’s deepest beliefs, we find them in his encyclicals “The Light of Faith” and “The Joy of the Gospel.”
The NOR’s critique of Francis depends on getting this principle exactly backwards. The NOR’s criticisms are valid only if the interviews express the true Francis and the magisterial documents and decisions are mere posturing. Otherwise, how could the NOR possibly accuse Francis of relativism when he had already issued an encyclical (“The Light of Faith”) that eloquently defends the objectivity of truth? Otherwise, how could the NOR accuse Francis of rejecting the teachings of Benedict when in the same encyclical he uses the authority of his office to endorse Benedict’s teachings? Otherwise, how could the NOR accuse Francis of distancing himself from the revered example of Bl. John Paul II when he is literally canonizing him?
The NOR has been relatively explicit about its decision to employ this backward hermeneutic. While admitting that “public interviews…are not magisterial acts” (“Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience”), the NOR then proceeds to analyze them in meticulous detail as if they possessed magisterial authority. More tellingly, the magazine refers to the major papal interviews as being Francis’s “first ‘encyclicals.'” This statement both confers magisterial status upon the interviews (they “can be considered” in some sense encyclicals) and denies magisterial status to Francis’s actual magisterial documents (the interviews can be the “first encyclicals” only if “The Light of Faith” is not, in fact, an encyclical or was not, in fact, issued by Francis). By reversing the hermeneutical principles that the Catholic Church has established to ensure the clarity of papal teaching, the NOR is spreading the very ecclesiastical confusion that it laments.
I hope that in future issues the NOR will change course and interpret the Pope according to traditional Catholic principles. By so doing, the magazine would be truly performing the valuable work it has asserted as its intention: ensuring the clarity of Church teaching.
Rev. Roman Vanasse, O. Praem.
Real Love for Manifest Sinners
I thank Fr. Regis Scanlon for his excellent column “On ‘Politicizing’ the Eucharist” (Dec.). His explanation of why canon 915 must be heeded by ministers of Holy Communion in order to prevent “politicizing” the Eucharist is welcome and refreshing. It’s especially relevant at a time when many manifest sinners (who can help but think of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Vice President Joe Biden, to name only two) approach and are administered the Sacrament, only to be condoned — at least implicitly — by many in the Church’s hierarchy. This is scandalous, not to mention sacrilegious. Let’s hope that, for the good of the Church, one day soon canon 915 will be followed universally. This is one scandal the Church could easily avoid.
In addition to the argument addressed in Fr. Scanlon’s column that withholding Holy Communion from manifest sinners politicizes the Eucharist, another argument sometimes put forth by those unwilling to heed canon 915 is that denying Holy Communion to such persons would be presumptuous and unloving. This argument, however noble it sounds, is simply false. None of us has an inviolable right to the Body and Blood of Christ; our Lord gives Himself to us in the Sacrament as a pure gift, and we can only receive Him when properly disposed (i.e., free from grave sin). To receive Holy Communion when in the state of grave sin has no efficacy, and such reception is itself a grave sin. Sacred Scripture is unmistakably clear on this. St. Paul says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).
Can we really believe that someone like Nancy Pelosi — who’s on record as saying that as a “practicing and respectful Catholic” abortion is “sacred ground” to her — has properly discerned Christ’s Body as St. Paul says? Out of pastoral necessity, the Church must conclude that she and others who publicly and obstinately engage in or promote grave evils that are grievously offensive to God are not disposed to receiving the Lord’s self-gift. They’ve openly set themselves up as His persecutors, so there can be no real misunderstanding as to their objective moral status. To say this is to be truthful, not presumptuous.
Given this reality, administering the Eucharist to a manifestly grave sinner is not a loving thing to do; it only makes the minister complicit in the defilement of our Lord’s Body and increases the number of sins the recipient must account for on Judgment Day — a sobering thought. Though it takes fortitude, the truly loving thing to do when the manifest sinner presents himself for Communion is for the minister to withhold the Sacrament, as canon 915 stipulates. Those ministers who insist otherwise need to stop and think of the serious position in which they would be putting themselves, despite their ostensibly good intentions. To give Holy Communion to those who publicly and obstinately persist in grave sin is to hand our Savior over to His enemies. This is the great scandal of Judas, who betrayed our Lord by giving Him over to His persecutors at Gethsemane. Who would dare choose to stand in Judas’s place?
The Elusiveness of Evil
Paul J. Utterback is to be congratulated for the spiritual honesty displayed in his article “The Devil in Our Midst” (Dec.). Unfortunately, it took a two-year stint in an African milieu before he allowed his eyes to be opened to the reality of evil spirits. That opportunity is not available to most of his contemporaries, who remain contemptuously disbelieving of the phenomena he has experienced.
Some years ago, I made a private retreat at a small Benedictine monastery situated in an isolated spot on the shores of a small lake and adjoining several acres of forest. Every day, I walked along the lake and through the woods, seeking prayerful contemplation and quiet. Several times, approaching a small clearing containing shreds of police tape, I was seized by a strong sense of the presence of evil, provoking powerful feelings of anxiety and fear in me. Finally, I asked one of the monks about it. He told me that several years previously the site had been used by members of a satanic cult who had tied a young man to a tree, tortured him with knives for hours, and then burned him alive. I was careful never to go near that spot again during the remaining days of my retreat. Denying or ignoring the existence of Satan in our midst empowers him to act even more strongly on our feelings and imagination.
From the beginning, Jesus taught His disciples that His kingdom is not of this world. Still, even after the Resurrection, one of His followers asked Him if now was the time He would initiate His (politicabpkingdom. The image of God in us surely is not a material one, since He is pure Spirit. It is that embodied spiritual image which is the battleground for our salvation. That battle is made almost impossibly difficult when we deny the existence of our worst enemy.
I found Paul J. Utterback’s article timely and interesting, as my husband and I had just attended a weekend seminar given by a priest named Fr. Yozefu B. Ssemakula, originally from Africa but who is now stationed in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. His seminars and his book The Healing of Families deal with Satan’s influence in our lives, particularly what Fr. Ssemakula calls “generational sin” or “generational bondage.” In the wake of the seminar, attended by numerous members of three Catholic parishes in our town, there has been much discussion, reaction, and opinionating from those who have called this priest’s message heretical to those who have taken it up with more emotional fervor than pious fervor and have attempted to use it to solve every life problem.
I heartily agree with Mr. Utterback that we ignore Satan’s activity at our own peril. Concurrently, most Catholics have little to no catechesis on demonic influences — the result being that we hardly know how to incorporate this new knowledge into our present theological system of God, ourselves, and the saints. Not only that, we have limited theological knowledge with which to test the veracity of those who write and speak of the devil and his works, in which it is also necessary to speak of God, His own works, what He allows, redemptive suffering, illness, etc. This is indeed a subject that is ripe for further examination!
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