Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, December 20, 2002
THE LAST WORD: I promised Fr. Jim Tucker the last word in our discussion about the sources of faith, and he has responded with his characteristic eloquence over at Dappled Things. It is worth reading in its entirety, but I hope that Fr. Jim will forgive me if I take the liberty of excerpting his final paragraph:

I think, though, that it's very useful for us to make that sharp distinction between Faith in God and all those little-f faiths that lie in orbit around it. "What do I truly believe in?" is a question each of us ought to ask. Ultimately, my Faith is in God alone -- not in other Christians, not in the formulation of doctrines, not even in the Church herself. In the traditional theological and credal language of the Church, a stark distinction is made grammatically by using the phrase "Credo in" only in relation to God. Everything else is different, not just in degree, but in kind. The theological virtue of Faith originates in God alone and has God alone as its object. This point is more than just an abstract curiosity: especially in times of scandal and crisis, it's of fundamental pastoral importance.
For those of you interested in following the entire thread, Fr. Jim's original homily is here, my initial response here, Fr. Jim's first reply is here, my response to his reply here, and Jim's final response here.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:39 PM
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JOY: Father Ron Rolheiser offers some thoughts on joy this week. He notes that joy is not something that can be sought; it has to find you. "We can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out." Fr. Ron concludes:

That's the great paradox at the center of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.

If I go about my life demanding, however unconsciously, that others carry me rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off of others rather than trying to feed them; creating disorder rather than being a principle of peace; demanding to be admired rather than admiring, and demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me, no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer. I'm breathing the wrong air into the universe.
Let us pray that we might be joy for others this Christmas.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:54 AM
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THE FINAL DAYS: In his weekly NCR column, John Allen offers some thoughts on what led the Pope to accept Cardinal Law's resignation last week. The most critical factor seems to have been the letter written by 58 of Law's priests calling for his resignation. Allen also discusses the forthcoming Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries, growing Vatican opposition to a war against Iraq, and the new Secretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:47 AM
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OVERDUE: I have been meaning to add theologian and blogger Telford Work to my bloglist for sometime, primarily because he writes paragraphs like this:

Holiness is a good Samaritan who can't believe what he just did. Holiness is a poor old woman who gives her last penny, knowing full well that the authorities will fritter it away. Holiness is a Savior amazed at his own forgiveness of a tenacious foreign woman. Holiness is an apostle who finds himself in a Gentile's house, breaking the hallowed customs of his own beloved people. Holiness is a community of every tribe and tongue and nation, many of whom still drive each other crazy.
Go check out the rest.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:30 AM
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Thursday, December 19, 2002
MANAGEMENT: In commenting on the recent scandal, observers like George Wiegel have derided bishops for acting like "managers" rather than "apostles." Well, as someone who works in management and management consulting, I don't think they were doing a very good job as managers either. Management consultant and former seminarian Andrew Bushell seems to agree, and in this essay in Slate, he offers some analysis of what went wrong from a management perspective in Boston. It's worth reading.

UPDATE: The Accidental Catechist has blogged some interesting thoughts on this essay that are also worth reading. In general, Anthony believes that the "family" model is still more appropriate than a "business" model for describing how a bishop should conduct the affairs of his diocese, although he thinks that Bishops need to see the entire faithful, not just their priests, as the "family." I completely agree. But as a practical matter, most families are not as large as a diocese. The issues of effective delegation of authority and information flow that Bushell highlighted are important, even if the Bishop is going to take the more "familial" approach.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:41 PM
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DO THEY MAKE A BOARD BOOK EDITION OF CUR DEUS HOMO? Okay, I need some help people! The other night, my 4-year old son pushes a chair against the wall, stands on it, holds out his arms and says “Look Daddy, I’m Jesus dying on the cross!”

I was a little unprepared for this conversation, which went something like this:

“Joseph, do you know why Jesus died on the cross?”


“Uh…to take away our sins.”

“What are sins?”

“Well…uh…well there is a lot of meanness in the world and God wanted to take the meanness away, so he—“

“But I don’t want God to take the meanness away because I want to be a pirate.”

Okay, I was pathetic. I admit that. I just don’t know how to translate the theology into terms a four-year old is going to understand (although he clearly understands a lot more than I realized). So I need your help, gentle readers, especially those of you who have had this conversation with your kids before. Post any ideas in the comments section.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:25 PM
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Wednesday, December 18, 2002
OOPS: When I blogged about the Brian Urquhart essay in the New York Review of Books about Iraq, I neglected to activate the link. My apologies. Click here if you are interested in reading it.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:22 PM
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MAKING IT: Social critic David Brooks (author of Bobos in Paradise) has been spending a lot of time on campus of late and has some interesting observations in this essay he wrote for the Weekly Standard.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:46 PM
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WITHOUT WAR? The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame has set up a new web site on Alternatives to War with Iraq. There are a number of articles, essays and research reports. Of particular interest is a report entitled Winning Without War: Sensible Security Options for Dealing with Iraq, which is definitely worth reading. The authors believe that continued containment of Iraq is possible. It would be interesting to see a debate between the authors of this report and someone like Ken Pollack.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:09 PM
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DECALOGICAL: Slate has put together an interesting slide show of depictions of the Ten Commandments that have been, or are currently, the subject of litigation. Most of them are in stone, and as far as I can tell the text tends toward the Protestant version. Interesting reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:39 PM
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NOT THE ONLY ONE: One of the nails currently being used to construct Senator Lott's political coffin is an interview he gave to a publication known as Southern Partisan, a magazine that bills itself as "neo-Confederate." It turns out that Senator Lott isn't the only high-profile public figure who pals around with these folks. Can you identify the source of the following quote?:

Your magazine also helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.
No, it wasn't Trent, Strom or Jesse. It was Attorney General John Ashcroft. You can read more about the Attorney General's comments over at
Josh Marshall's site, where he has the entire interview archived in his documents collection.

I am not entirely unacquainted with the "agenda" to which Mr. Ashcroft refers. Several generations of my family lie in cemeteries in Northern Virginia. Some of them owned slaves (I have a copy of the will of one ancestor who freed his slaves upon his death). Some of them fought for the confederacy. My grandfather's uncle was a Methodist circuit preacher who helped lead the southern Methodists out of the Methodist Church over the issue of slavery (he was for it). So what is my view of this "agenda?" I'm afraid I can do no better than Christopher Hitchens on this one:

The Confederacy, under the leadership of Jefferson Davis, schemed to destroy the Union. It openly solicited the military support of foreign powers in order to do so. It attempted to assassinate a Republican president and may eventually have succeeded. It issued arrogant and disgusting orders for the execution of prisoners of war, without discrimination as to shade or color. It instated censorship, and it instated mandatory (if sectarian) religion. There isn't a "white" person in the country who should not spit upon its treasonous and hateful memory. There would be no such place as "America" if the bloody stars and bars had carried the day.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:31 PM
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Tuesday, December 17, 2002
O WISDOM: Sean Gallagher at Nota Bene is posting a set of reflections on the 'O Antiphons," which will bracket the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) at evening prayer from tonight through December 23rd. Read Sean's reflections on the subject for more detail.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:51 PM
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THE ACT OF FAITH: Fr. Jim Tucker and I are continuing a genial exchange this week about the source of faith. His original homily to which I responded yesterday (scroll below) is here and his response to my response is here. I’m going to let Fr. Jim have the last word, since I suspect he has more important things to do in the next several days than engage in theological disputation with yours truly. But I wanted to offer a couple of additional observations.

In his response, Fr. Jim stresses that while the witness of others is important in leading to faith, it is not ultimately the source of faith:

There is a point, after the preliminary work has been done, after a human judgment of credibility has been given, after one accepts that one ought to believe, after all our human reasonings and desires have done all they can -- there is still a gap that cannot be bridged by any of this, when a person in freedom accepts from God the gift of Faith, which goes beyond all human faith (important as that has been and will continue to be) and is an intensely personal and non-transferable submission of the self to God the Revealer. This act of Faith is radically different from all those motives of credibility -- including the witness of others – that preceded it and will continue to help it deepen. This is because we have moved from giving credence to Christ because of the testimony of others to the point of believing in Him with supernatural Faith. This Faith does not depend on anything but God alone, and it leads back to Him alone.
First of all, let me say that Father Jim and I are in agreement on this point. The witness of others prepares the way. As one of the commentators on my original post put it, the witness of the Church and individual believers are signs that point beyond themselves. In the end, we must make a personal act of faith, a submission of the self that is not really an act of human will, but in fact is a supernatural gift. Faith is not something we seize so much as it is something we are seized by.

But I wonder sometimes how many Catholics actually experience this process subjectively. Many of us are, in fact, Catholic because our parents were, because of Grandma, because of good old Father O’Malley and the sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Help primary school. Until comparatively recently in our history, most Catholics grew up surrounded by large numbers of other Catholics and a web of Catholic institutions that supported their faith. How necessary, subjectively, was a personal act of faith when everything that surrounded you attested to the truth of that faith? Perhaps it was only in times of crisis—the loss of a job, a divorce, serious illness, impending death—that a person was forced to ask the question “What do I really believe, and why?”

Karl Rahner once said that the Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he won’t be anything at all. Those of us in the industrialized West are faced with almost a perpetual crisis of faith. We live in a culture that is hostile to absolute claims and we are forced, again and again, to ask the question “What do I really believe, and why?” Those of us who are blessed with the subjective feeling that we have answered the question firmly and definitively cannot despise those who, while wanting to believe, cry out like the father of the possessed boy, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”

To those who feel, subjectively, that their faith has been shaken, our response must be to reach out to them, to hold them and not let go. We must bind their wounds and allow them to heal. We must help them to understand the full nature of the gift that God is offering them. For then others will be able to say, despite everything, “see how these Christians love one another.”

posted by Peter Nixon 11:30 AM
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Monday, December 16, 2002
THAT YOU MIGHT BELIEVE: Fr. Jim Tucker has posted an extremely thought provoking homily over at Dappled Things. He cautions against placing too much faith in individuals rather than in Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, the only reason to become and remain a Catholic is because one is convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world:

One is saddened to read about Catholics who claim that their Faith has been destroyed by the abuse and cover-ups and negligence within the clergy. But, what sort of understanding of Faith is presumed here? It is a faith that is grounded not in the person of Jesus Christ and a serene commitment to the Church which He established, but rather a faith built upon the credibility of individuals. Why are we Catholics? Because Grandma was? Because we respect the Sisters who taught us in elementary school? Because we admire Father Schmidt who was our childhood pastor? If it's good enough for them, does that simply make it good enough for us? This is a faith that rests upon fragile human persons and is only as stable as they are. What happens if they fall? Then it is inevitable that our faith will crumble, because it rests upon the wrong foundation. Our religion is not about Grandma, or the Sisters, or Father Schmidt, or Cardinal Law, or Pope John Paul. It is about Jesus and the promises He made.
Now there is a sense in which I quite agree with this. We should not place so much faith in an individual as a persona Christi that the failure of this individual becomes a failure of Christ. We are all pilgrims on the road to Canterbury and all of us—all of us--are going to stumble and fall a few times. That does not mean we took the wrong road.

But I am wary of drawing such a bright line between the credibility of individual Christians and the credibility of the faith. While they are distinct concepts, they are very much intertwined. If Fr. Jim is correct (as I think he is) that it is our conviction that Jesus Christ is Son of God and Savior that is important, how do we come to that conviction? Reason alone will not lead me to that conclusion certainly. Nor will reading the scriptures. The Bible does not “prove” to me that Jesus is the Son of God anymore than the Greek myths “prove” to me that Hercules is. Even a personal mystical experience is unlikely to be convincing unless I already have an interpretive framework that allows me to make sense of that experience.

I can only come to the conviction that Jesus is the Son of God by encountering Jesus himself. And since I am 2,000 years removed from the life of Jesus the man, the only Jesus I can encounter is the Risen Jesus. I encounter that Jesus primarily through the community that gathers in His name—its prayer, its Word, its sacraments, its community life. It is through concrete involvement in this worshipping community that I come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

So, yes, it is quite a serious matter when those who claim to follow Jesus Christ—whether they are our family members, friends, priests, or bishops—fail to live lives transformed by His grace. The early Church understood this. They were stunned when individuals who had undergone baptism fell back into sin. It was the experience of the resilience of human sinfulness that led to the development of the sacrament of reconciliation, a sacrament that was far more onerous in its early years than it is today.

If the Church had utterly failed to transform the lives of those with whom it came in contact, then I suspect it would have remained little more than an obscure Jewish sect at the fringes of the Roman Empire. But we know that this was not the case. We know that people were willing to face torture and excruciating death rather than renounce their faith. We know that every time the community seemed on the verge of collapse, it was able to raise up extraordinary men and women whose lives gave resplendent witness to what they believed, and whose example inspired thousands—even millions—to remain strong in their faith. We know that despite the rising and falling of Empires, through disease, famine and devastating wars, this community survived and even grew exponentially larger.

So in a sense, our faith does depend on the credibility of individuals. Because it is through these individuals—and the community in which they gather—that the Risen Christ is made manifest to the world. A risky strategy, but perhaps no more risky than the Incarnation itself.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:29 PM
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TRADITIONS: A reader writes in with a story of her own family Advent tradition, which I thought was worth sharing:

Something I did with my kids, starting when they were very little, like Megan and Joseph. I got a Mexican Baby Jesus figurine with a manger. Ours is about four inches long, but they come in different sizes in almost any religious goods store. At least, I know that they can be ordered from The Autom Company in Phoenix. I'd put out the empty crib with a pile of straw at the beginning of Advent. All through Advent we could put a straw in the crib whenever we made some little sacrifice or were kind to someone just because we wanted to make a soft place in our hearts for the Baby Jesus, symbolized by the straws making a soft bed for the Baby. On Christmas Eve we had a candlelight (taking care of safety issues) procession throughout the house, with the youngest child carrying the Baby carefully, and placing him in the crib. Then we read the Nativity story and sang carols. It was a powerful thing in their lives...they still talk about it.
I loved this. How about the rest of you? Any great family Advent or Christmas traditions you want to recount? Use the comment function below!

posted by Peter Nixon 10:04 AM
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INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE: There is a great discussion going on in the comment section over at The New Gasparian on inclusive language in the liturgy. Check it out. If the link doesn't work, scroll down to the post entitled "Inclusive?"

posted by Peter Nixon 10:01 AM
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