Sursum Corda
"an insightful Catholic Blog that eschews extremism in any direction."
--Commonweal Magazine
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, August 16, 2002
NEED YOUR PRAYERS: My wife and I are on the planning team for a Cursillo-type retreat that starts in about five hours. I would ask you to pray that our 26 candidates receive an experience of the Holy Spirit and leave the weekend more committed disciples of Jesus Christ. Please also pray for our retreat team. Thanks!

posted by Peter Nixon 12:23 PM
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FR. RON ON THE PSALMS: Okay, I'll admit I'm biased. One of the reasons I pray the Liturgy of the Hours is because I actually like the Psalms. But I understand that a lot of people don't. A lot of Psalms seem to conclude with the writer asking the Lord to crush his enemies into powder. It can be a little off-putting. If that describes your reaction, you should definitely read Fr. Ron Rolheiser's column this week. He notes that, too often, instead of offering up what we are really feeling to God in prayer, we offer up what we think is a more edifying version of our thoughts:

Sometimes we feel good and our spontaneous impulse is to speak words of praise and gratitude and the psalms give us that voice. They speak of God's goodness in all -- love, friends, faith, health, food, wine, enjoyment. But we don't always feel that way. Our lives have their cold, lonely seasons when disappointment and bitterness spontaneously boil under the surface. Again the psalms give us honest voice and we can open up all those angry and vengeful feelings to God.

Other times, we fill with the sense of our own inadequacy, with the fact that we cannot measure up to the trust and love that is given us. The psalms again give us voice for this, asking God to have mercy, to soften our hearts, to wash us clean, and give us a new start.

And then there are times when we feel bitterly disappointed with God himself and need some way to express this. The psalms give us this voice ("Why are you so silent? Why are you so far from me?"), even as they make us aware that God is not afraid of our anger and bitterness, but, like a loving parent, only wants for us to come and talk about it. The psalms are a privileged vehicle for prayer because they lift the full-range of our thoughts and feelings to God.
Still not convinced? Go pick up a Bible and read Psalm 63 verses 1-8.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:55 AM
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ALLEN ON THE ICEL: Last night I posted a link to a Tablet article on the recent changes at the ICEL. John Allen's NCR column (posted this morning) provides a more balanced assessment of the controversy.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:36 AM
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DOES ANYBODY LIKE THIS TURKEY? Is there anyone left who actually supports the clerical sexual abuse policy adopted by the Bishops in Dallas. “Liberals” like Gen-X theologian Tom Beaudoin don’t like it. “Conservatives” like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, don’t like it. Many abuse victims seem unhappy with it. There are unconfirmed reports that the Vatican has already decided to reject it (thanks to The New Gasparian for the link).

Well, maybe the laity like it. In his new essay in the New York Review of Books, Gary Wills quotes some polling figures that suggest that a large majority of Catholics are very supportive of “zero tolerance.” On the other hand, Amy Welborn seems to have something every day on her site about some parish where the parishioners are pleading with the Bishop to hold on to their priest who is a “good man.” This is similar to the phenomenon where people tell posters that they want to get rid of all the bums in Congress and then cheerfully vote to re-elect their own Congressman.

I have written before that I am no great fan of “zero tolerance.” But it seems to me its critics need to offer something specific in its place. It is easy to say, in principle, that each case is different and needs to be judged on its merits. But who makes the call? As Margaret Steinfels points out in this week’s Commonweal, many (probably most) Catholics no longer trust their bishops to make such decisions. I wish that weren’t the case and I actually feel quite comfortable with my own bishop in this regard. But I respect the fact that millions of Catholics who live in the Archdioceses of Boston, New York and Los Angeles probably feel differently.

Then, of course, there is the fact that the bishops who failed to protect us from these abusive priests are not being disciplined in the slightest. Unlike the priests who are being removed from active ministry, they will still be able to celebrate mass, perform weddings, hear confessions, and wear clerical clothing not to mention enjoying all the trappings of their episcopal offices. I suspect many find this situation to be unjust and I, for one, agree with them.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:10 AM
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YES, THIS STILL HAPPENS: Under national labor law, it is illegal to fire employees for trying to organize a union. But that doesn’t stop it from happening. In the last 24 hours I’ve heard of two cases here in the Bay Area.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is reporting that Ricardo Olgin, a janitor employed by Team Services (the contractor that cleans the offices of Yahoo here in California) has been fired for union organizing activity. You can register your displeasure with those responsible by clicking

Over in San Ramon (a few miles south of where I live), Lynda Bredleau, a nurse with 25 years of experience, has been fired by the San Ramon Medical Center for posting a union organizing leaflet. You can find more details in this article from the Contra Costa Times.

What makes the second case really bizzare is that we are having a terrible nursing shortage here in California. Nurses with 25 years of experience don’t hit the market every day and I suspect Ms. Bredleau will have no difficulty obtaining a temporary position elsewhere.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:37 AM
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Thursday, August 15, 2002
NEW LEADERSHIP AT ICEL: The new Tablet has a lengthy piece on changes in the leadership of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The ICEL and its translations have been the subject of controversy in recent years. Earlier this year, the Vatican Congregation on Divine Worship rejected the ICEL's translation of the Roman Missal. The article does a fairly good job of explaining some of the key issues, but the author's sympathies are clearly with the ICEL. I think some of the charges made against the ICEL are overblown and I'm not an opponent of "dynamic equivalence" as a principle of translation, but I find some of the ICEL's translations so pedestrian that I just can't work up the energy.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:36 PM
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ZIMBABWE: Another nice piece in the new Tablet on the situation in Zimbabwe begins with this blistering paragraph:

In the past 40 years Zimbabwe has had only two leaders – and both have defied world opinion in the pursuit of race-based policies. Why this medium-sized, landlocked country in southern Africa should produce such obdurate and destructive rulers remains a mystery. For 15 years Ian Smith tried to impose white rule on the country, defying isolation, expulsion from world bodies and sanctions. Robert Mugabe has ruled for 21 years and in the last few has taken on the mantle of his pigheaded predecessor.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:23 PM
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CAN WAR BE JUST? There has been a very interesting debate going on between a group of U.S. intellectuals and a similar group of German intellectuals about the use of military force in the war on terrorism. This article in the Weekly Standard describes the exchange and this web site contains the original letter from the U.S. side, the German response, and the U.S. counter-response. The exchange focuses on the military action in Afghanistan, but I think the issues raised are also applicable to the ongoing discussion about Iraq.

Some of my readers may be wondering why I am spending so much time on this issue this week. Isn’t this a web site dedicated to religious issues? Yes it is, and in a world as violent as ours has become, Christians need to reflect seriously about our relationship to violence. Can a Christian ever endorse or take part in war? As Catholics, does our Tradition’s acceptance of the possibility of a “just war” stand in tension with the witness of Scripture? What do we make of John Paul II’s continued condemnation of war and his questions about whether war waged with modern technology can ever be “just?”

Admittedly, most of my musings this week on the issue of Iraq have not really raised these religious questions so explicitly (although I discussed some of them in a post a few weeks ago). I find that I am frustrated with my inability to get outside the traditional language of international relations: force, interests, balance of power, etc. I worry that there is something inherently corrupting in trying to engage the issue in these terms, and yet they are the ones that quickly come to mind and allow me to engage in debate with individuals who don’t share my faith.

I will have more to say about this in the future.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:42 AM
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ASSUMPTION: Today's Office of Readings has an excerpt from a homily by Saint John Damascene about the Assumption:

It was necessary that she who had preserved her virginity inviolate in childbirth should also have her body kept free from all corruption after death. It was necessary that she who had carried the Creator as a child on her breast should dwell in the tabernacles of God. It was necessary that the bride espoused by the Father should make her home in the bridal chambers of heaven. It was necessary that she, who had gazed on her crucified Son and been pierced in the heart by the sword of sorrow which she had escaped in giving him birth, should contemplate him seated with the Father. It was necessary that the Mother of God should share the possessions of her Son, and be venerated by every creature as the Mother and handmaid of God.
For a more contemporary take on the Assumption, check out Fr. Shawn O'Neal's homily, which has been posted at
Nota Bene.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:14 AM
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A SIMPLE ACT OF PURE FAITH: A group of Cistercian monks from the Czech Republic are trying to build the first monastery in that country since the fall of communism. This web site contains information on their progress and information on how you can help.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:03 AM
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TRULY CATHOLIC: After posting the link to John Allen's article about the papal masses, I received a letter from a reader who was very much in favor of efforts to incorporate the traditions of other cultures into the mass:

We were enchanted by the Aztec dancers at the canonization in Mexico! It thrills me when the Church shows herself able to assimilate and honor the religions of indigenous peoples It all makes our faith so much richer....truly catholic! When I first became interested in Catholicism I was edified by hearing about the priests who went to live with the Navajos, and learned their language before even attempting to proselytize in any way. Also, I saw a mass in St.Peter's for the African was accompanied by drums and other African instruments, as well as a lot of movement and dancing right in the pews during the Mass prayers. So moving!!

posted by Peter Nixon 8:59 AM
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Wednesday, August 14, 2002
HE IS HERE: In response an earlier post about the Gary Wills book, a reader sent me a link to a wonderful essay by Peter Kreeft. Here's a paragraph that may help explain Wills (and a few of the rest of us, I suspect):

Catholics often have a more-than-intellectual faith in the sacraments that Protestants do not understand. Thus they don't see why Catholics who come to disagree with essential teachings of the Church don't just leave. The answer is symbolized by the sanctuary lamp. They do not leave the Church because they know that the sacramental fire burns there on the ecclesiastical hearth. Even if they do not see by its light, they want to be warmed by its fire. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a magnet drawing lost sheep home and keeping would-be strays from the deathly snows outside. The Church's biggest drawing card is not what she teaches, crucial as that is, but who is there. "He is here! Therefore I must be here.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:39 PM
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RULES: Some more thoughts on Iraq. How do we feel about the idea of waging a pre-emptive war? Most Americans, I suspect, would hold as a principle that we should only use military force to defend ourselves or an ally. There may be exceptions to this, but it's a good rule of thumb.

The campaign in Afghanistan seems to be a good example of this. Here we had a country that was allowing itself to be used as a base for military attacks against the United States. Attacks on two major U.S. cities had already been made, and more were almost certain to come unless the infrastructure supporting Al-Queda—which clearly included the Afghan government—was destroyed. The United States proceeded to do this and I think we were quite within our rights to do so.

Iraq presents a very different case. No credible evidence has been presented that Iraq has been involved in military attacks against the United States. It is true that Iraq has a large army and it is almost certainly true that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction at its disposal. But as I noted yesterday, these are mostly a threat to Iraq’s immediate neighbors, most of whom have shown no enthusiasm for military action aimed at removing him.

So how would we justify a unilateral military campaign to conquer Iraq and set up a government more to our liking? Certainly the Iraqi people would probably be better off, but that would also be true if we invaded and conquered North Korea, China, Burma and Iran, just to name a few. Cleansing the world of all its loathsome regimes, while a nice idea, is probably a task for which the American people are unlikely to want to pay the price.

Is Hussein a potentially destabilizing force in a region in which we have a vital interest? Absolutely. But it should be noted that the most potentially destablizing action he has taken during his long tenure was actually not the invasion of Kuwait but the Iran-Iraq war, in which we provided Hussein with a certain degree of support because we disliked the people who were running Iran.

Could Iraq one day pose a direct military threat to the United States? Perhaps. But Hussein is hardly a fool. He might get off the first shot, but we would quickly reduce his entire country to smoldering radioactive ash. Everything Hussein has done since taking power in Iraq has been aimed at maintaining himself in power. Hussein and Osama Bin-Laden are very different men. Bin-Laden is a fanatic. Hussein is Don Corleone in a uniform.

One could also argue that Iraq, by pursuing weapons of mass destruction, is in violation of the terms of the U.N. ceasefire. In some sense, we are still at war with Iraq. But it is hard to see how the United States can claim to be acting in the name of the United Nations if, in fact, the United Nations refuses to endorse our actions.

Could we act unilaterally and launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq? Of course we could. We could reduce the entire nation of Iraq to a comixture of sand and rubble in a few hours. Why haven’t we? Because at the end of the day, what separates the United States from a nation like Iraq is that we believe in rules. There are some things you just don’t do, even if they’re in your interest, and even if you have the power to do so. Now we have to decide whether launching a unilateral, pre-emptive military attack is one of them. I'm starting to have my doubts.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:41 PM
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BEAUTY: Fr. Jim Tucker over at Dappled Things has some wonderful posts today about gregorian chant, the late Cardinal Danielou, and the importance of beauty in the mass. Fr. Jim notes that "traditionalists" can be just as blind to this need as many "modernists":

There's a certain mindset that if it doesn't have to do with orthodoxy or solid morals, it's extraneous. The Good and the True get ample attention, but the Beautiful is left to fend for itself. I've seen this mentality at work over and over again in very faithful priests, and they can't seem to understand that all the "fluffy externals" really do condition the people's receptivity to the graces that God wants to give them. Perhaps there's a mistrust of Christianity's incarnational principle at work here? Or perhaps it's just American utilitarianism? It not only robs our liturgies of graciousness, but it also leads to ugly, barren churches. I think this is the same old 16-minute Low Mass mentality, all over again. I love Low Masses as much as the next guy, but that can't be our liturgical norm.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:26 AM
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Tuesday, August 13, 2002
CRY HAVOC? The Hussein regime in Iraq is certainly one of the more repellent little tyrannies on the face of the planet right now. But it’s not the only one. Burma is still under the thumb of a bizzare group of fascist generals. North Korea, of course, remains North Korea. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has set the progress of democratization in Africa back by at least a decade. I could go on.

Nor, I think, does Iraq present the most pressing threat to American lives and interests. It was the “friendly” regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt who produced most of the young men who killed thousands of people on September 11th. In some ways, it is the generalized political and economic collapse in the Arab world—rather than Iraq in particular—that poses the most serious threat.

It’s almost certainly true that Hussein has been manufacturing chemical and biological weapons and no doubt is exploring the possibility of trying to build nuclear weapons as well. But for a very long time to come, those weapons will only be a threat to Iraq’s immediate neighbors. And most of those neighbors have been rather vociferous in their view that they would not support U.S. military action to oust the Hussein regime. Even Israel has been somewhat cautious in this regard.

Of course, we are told that what the leaders of these countries say publicly—and what they say privately—may be two different things. Perhaps this is true. But is this what America wants? To allow Iraq’s neighbors to denounce us publicly while lauding us privately? Are we comfortable moving from the role of “global policeman” to “global hitman,” where we provide plausible deniability and “clean hands” to regimes who are afraid of their own people?

I haven’t made up my mind about this. I just offer it as something to think about.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:01 AM
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Monday, August 12, 2002
STEINFELS ON WILLS: Peter Steinfels review of Gary Wills "Why I am a Catholic," is now posted on the Commonweal web site. Like Amy Welborn, Steinfels finds the book strangely distant for what is supposed to be a personal memoir:

It is very hard to see Wills himself in all of this, hidden as he is behind a screen of learning and handling the hot coals of faith with the long tongs of Augustine and Chesterton. Twice in this book he expresses discomfort for being "so personal." He needn't have worried. The ego is kept well cloaked; it is the superego that runs rampant.
Steinfels also offers a more balanced perspective on how a Catholic who is also a public intellectual should engage these issues:

For many of us, being a Catholic means addressing the assumptions prevalent in the worlds of the New York Review of Books as much as those prevalent in the Roman curia—indeed, the challenge is to do both at the same time. If this is true for Wills as well, there is no hint of it in either text or notes, where the last serious challenge to Christianity appears to have come from Thomas Jefferson. The result is a disappointingly "churchy" book. Could a mind as lively as Wills's be so complacent or does he simply prefer to steer away from issues that might create waves along the Hudson rather than along the Tiber?

posted by Peter Nixon 1:50 PM
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WHO SAID THAT? Can you identify the author of the following quote:

My own view would be to let [Saddam Hussein] bluster, let him rant and rave all he wants and let that be a matter between he and his own country...As long as he behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him...If we try to act against Saddam Hussein, as obnoxious as he is, without proper provocation, we will not have the support of other nation states who might do so."
Some lilly-livered, "
blue-zone fifth columnist," as Andrew Sullivan might say? Well,, actually, it was House Majority Leader Dick Armey, talking to reporters the other day. I suspect there is something about not standing for re-election that must feel marvelously liberating.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:28 PM
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BLACK LETTER LAW: Our Sunday Visitor has a good overview of the provisions of canon law related to holy orders. The article lays out the circumstances under which a priest may be subject to restrictions in the exercise of his priestly duties. But it emphasizes that once ordained, a man remains "a priest forever."

posted by Peter Nixon 11:29 AM
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Sunday, August 11, 2002
SCENES FROM A COUNTY JAIL: I had a couple of great experiences this morning that I wanted to share with readers.

Today I was scheduled to go out to the county jail to lead a worship service. When I got to church, there were two other members of our jail ministry team talking to a young man who was there with his 3-year old son. It turns out he was an inmate at the jail two years ago. He had lost custody of his son, who was in the Child Protective Services system

He had attended one of our Sunday worship services and had a long conversation with one of our team members afterwards. He said it was a real turning point for him. After he got out, he got into recovery and was eventually able to obtain custody of his son. He’s now a leader of a local recovery group and active in his church.

It was a wonderful story and we shared it with the men today at the jail. We hope to have this man come up personally to give a witness talk at jail at some point in the future.

During today’s service, we had another wonderful moment. At the end of every service, we call up the men who will be leaving before next Sunday and we say a prayer for them. Today, there was one such man and we called him up. Usually, the men just extend their hands in blessing from their seats. But today, without anyone saying anything, all the men came up and laid their hands on this man. He was visibly moved.

A lot of men in jail don’t really believe they have anything to offer anyone else. But today they were able to offer their prayers for another man and it clearly made a difference for him.

I would ask that you pray for all of those incarcerated, that God might give them the strength to walk a new path, to seek forgiveness and to make restitution. Pray for those they have harmed, both the victims of their crimes and their own friends and families, that God might heal their pain and give them the strength to forgive.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:57 PM
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