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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.