Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, December 27, 2002
INTO TEMPTATION: This week's National Catholic Register has an essay on war in Iraq that is worth reading. Click on the archive link on the left and then click on the story entitled "Into Temptation."

posted by Peter Nixon 12:21 PM
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AWAKENING THE CHRIST CHILD: Fr. Ron Rolheiser reflects on the spirituality of Christmas. He suggests that one of the messages of Christmas is that we need to awaken the Christ child in our own bodies and our own lives. How do we do that?

We awaken the child by inducing it to smile. How's that done? Where is the Christ-child? In terms of an icon, the Christ-child is in the crib, but, in terms of spirituality, the Christ-child appears in our lives in a different way.

If Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit - defined as charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, gentleness and chastity - then obviously the child she gestated will radiate those qualities. We awaken the Christ-child when we smile at charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, gentleness and chastity until they begin to smile back. What comes back is the power of Christmas, a baby's power to transform a heart, divine power hidden in human weakness.

We have to help make Christmas happen.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:16 PM
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JOHN PAUL II: TOO LIBERAL FOR THE DEMS? In his weekly NCR column, John Allen offers some cautions to those who would describe Pope John Paul II merely as a "conservative." Allen looks at some of the key themes from some of the Pope's recent talks and concludes with the following:

As a thought experiment, translate John Paul’s priorities into a secular political program: a strong United Nations, promotion of social justice, an end to war, environmentalism, human rights, inter-religious tolerance, and a special option for the young. Throw in a couple of the other stands for which the pope is well known, such as staunch opposition to the death penalty and the concept of a “living wage.” Such a candidate could not get nominated for president by the Democrats in the United States, let alone the Republicans, because he would be seen as too liberal.
Those interested in reading the text of the Pope's remarks for World Peace Day (January 1st) can do so by clicking here. They are structured as a commentary on Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:04 PM
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Thursday, December 26, 2002
SAINT STEPHEN: It is interesting that the day after Christmas is the feast day of the first Christian martyr. The Office of Readings from today has a sermon by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop that reads, in part:

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen's weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him.
All we know of Stephen is contained in Chapters 6 and 7 of

posted by Peter Nixon 5:01 PM
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PACIFISM: AN EXCHANGE: A few weeks ago, I linked to an article by Darrel Cole in First Things entitled Listening to Pacifists.""That article generated a letter by Stanley Hauerwas and J. Alexander Sider of the Duke University Divinity School, and a subsequent response by Cole. You can read the exchange by clicking here.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:37 PM
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ABORTION IN THE TIDES OF CULTURE: Frederica Mathewes–Green has a fascinating essay about abortion and culture in the December First Things (just posted). Most of the essay is actually a look at alcohol and alcoholism and how it has been portrayed in movies over the past 75 years or so. Characters in movies of the 1930s and 40s, for example, used alcohol in ways that look downright pathological to us today. Much of that was a reaction to Prohibition, which enshrined drinking as a "trangressive act." Mathewes-Green argues that a similar dynamic occured with sex in the 1960s and 1970s, and wonders whether a gradual return to sexual sanity might also change public attitudes toward abortion:

There is hope here. What pro–lifers have not been able to accomplish through a head–on attack may eventually take place anyway, thanks to humanity’s self–protecting tilt toward health. Sometimes positive change occurs due to an intentional campaign for moral reform, but more often it’s due to a gradual realization that certain things that looked like fun actually hurt. Sexual promiscuity, abortion, divorce, disease, and shattered families hurt a great deal, as had been obvious to our ancestors for millennia. The hope that the current situation is a bizarre blip, that sanity could return as slowly and completely as the tide, is a fully reasonable one.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:21 PM
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MORAL CLARITY IN A TIME OF WAR: George Wiegel has a thoughtful, well-argued essay in the current issue of First Things about the Catholic Just War tradition. The argument may be summarized as follows: The Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, the Curia, the U.S. Bishops, and leaders of other Christian denominations are simply wrong in their interpretation of the just war tradition. I, George Wiegel, am apparently the only person who has interpreted the tradition correctly.

Now that may sound rather caustic, but you should know that Wiegel actually comes very close to making this argument work. I think he is moderately successful in showing that many contemporary religious leaders have redefined the just war tradition into a form of crypto-pacifism that neither Augustine or Aquinas would recognize. But even he admits that the tradition would require "development" before it would countenance a unilateral invasion of Iraq by the United States. Wiegel tries to argue that the traditional understanding of just cause, competent authority, and last resort, need to be updated to take into account the real dangers of allowing "rogue states" to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But the way in which he would like us to define these terms would essentially give the United States the unilateral right to decide which governments should be allowed to obtain such weapons. I suspect this is going to be a hard sell outside the United States.

What continues to grate on my nerves when I read Wiegel on this issue is his refusal to come clean about who he is really arguing with. Consider the following statement that occurs towards the beginning of the essay:

The fact of the matter today is that the just war tradition, as a historically informed method of rigorous moral reasoning, is far more alive in our service academies than in our divinity schools and faculties of theology; the just war tradition “lives” more vigorously in the officer corps, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and at the higher levels of the Pentagon than it does at the National Council of Churches, in certain offices at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or on the Princeton faculty. (There are different degrees of forgetfulness here, of course, and recent statements by the U.S. Catholic bishops on the question of Iraq were of a higher degree of intellectual seriousness than the effusions of other national religious bodies. But the bishops’ statements did, I would argue, continue a pattern of just war forgetfulness whose origins I shall discuss below.)
Wiegel apparently wants to undermine the authority of the Bishops' statements by suggesting that they were the work of some low-level bureaucrat within the USCCB, someone who lacked Wiegel's understanding of the fullness of the just war tradition. But if anything, the statements from the U.S. Bishops have been rather tame compared to some of the recent statements from a number of high-level Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ratzinger. Are we to assume that they, too, were the work of pacifist infiltrators?

C'mon, admit it, George! You, too, have become part of the "aging culture of dissent." Time to start writing that column for the National Catholic Reporter...

posted by Peter Nixon 2:04 PM
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IT'S NOT OVER: Christmas is not over! No, I'm not referring to the stack of unwashed dishes in your sink, or the large number of toys scattered across your family room floor, although those, too, are reminders. Christmas is an entire liturgical season, lasting from Christmas itself through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 12th. So rejoice! This also means that it is not too late to read the Christmas homilies of Fr. Shawn O'Neal and Fr. Jim Tucker, as well as a very nice reflection from Telford Work. Enjoy!

posted by Peter Nixon 11:00 AM
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Monday, December 23, 2002
CHRISTMAS: It’s not an accident that Christmas occurs near the time when the days start to get longer. Oh sure, you can say that Christianity “stole” the older pagan festival of Yule if you want. I prefer to think that the older festival reflected a truth woven into creation by the hand of the Creator, a truth that was made manifest by the entry of Jesus into our world. Jesus comes into our world when things are darkest, when we’re pleading like Isaiah for God to “rend the heavens and come down.”

Sometimes when you look at the world, you can understand how Isaiah felt. Every day, it seems we get a little closer to another war in Iraq. People are fighting and dying in Israel and Palestine, the Sudan, the Congo, the Philippines, and half a dozen other places. The AIDS virus is devastating Central and Southern Africa, leaving millions of children orphaned.

America isn’t immune from the darkness. Here in Northern California, the food banks and shelters are reporting greater demand and fewer donations, as our economy continues to try to claw its way out of the dot-com crater. And of course, we know that our own Church has been touched by the darkness in a particularly terrible way.

When we’re surrounded by darkness, it’s easy to lose hope. So it’s not surprising that that’s the point where Jesus comes in. As the Gospel of John puts it, “What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Hold on to that light. Merry Christmas, everyone.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:54 PM
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IT MUST BE THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Tablet continues its series on Vatican II with a reflection by one of the major figures at the Council, Cardinal (then Archbishop) Franz König. Towards the end, he talks about Nostra Aetate, the Council's groundbreaking statement on Catholic-Jewish relations. König notes how controversial the declaration was and how hard a number of Arab nations tried to block it:

Right up to the end of the council this opposition mobilised the mass media and evoked diplomatic protests from the Arab states. I received sacks of letters, many of them from Christians in the Middle East, begging me to prevent a declaration on the Jewish question. Some of the pamphlets that were circulated were positively malicious and defamatory. When the small group of council bishops which was so against any declaration on the subject saw that they could not prevent it, they tried to water it down and continually lodged complaints so that the drafts had to be changed at least three or four times. Finally, however, on 28 October 1965, Nostra Aetate was passed: there were 2,221 votes in favour, 88 against and three abstentions. It had taken four years to reach agreement on a few hundred words! For Karl Rahner, “the wording and inner dynamism” of Nostra Aetate was “unique”.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:07 PM
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"WE'D RISK THE JUNGLE": In an interview with La Republicca, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran (the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign minister) called on the international community to do "everything possible" to avert a war in Iraq. Tauran reiterated the Vatican position that military action would only be legitimate if authorized by the United Nations. "A single member of the international community cannot decide: 'I'm doing this and you others can either help me or stay home.' If that were the case, the entire system of international rules would collapse. We'd risk the jungle," said Tauran.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:59 PM
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DID HE DO ENOUGH? In a move sure to reignite the controversy over the wartime actions of Pius XII, the Jesuit newspaper Civilita Cattolica has published an article suggesting that Pius did not do enough to respond to the Nazi Holocaust. Click here for the Agence France Press coverage. The content of Civilita Cattolica usually reflects Vatican thinking on issues. Thanks to the Mighty Barrister for the link.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:52 PM
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Sunday, December 22, 2002
RECONCILIATION: Fr. Jim Tucker at Dappled Things has an interesting discussion about the various ways in which the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be received. Since the mid-1970s, the Church has authorized a communal celebration of the sacrament, which many parishes are now using. This service is basically a Liturgy of the Word, with a communal examination of conscience and the opportunity for indvidual confession. As Fr. Jim notes, "some people like these kind of services, while others seem to hate them."

Count me among those who like them. Part of my affection for them is that they place our individual reception of the sacrament in a communal context. In its initial development, the sacrament was at least as much about reconciliation between the penitent and his community as it was about imparting individual absolution. In many cases, that reconciliation led to the imposition of rather severe penances that were publicly imposed. While I don't think anyone wants to return to those days, I think it is important to hold on to the idea that Reconciliation is a communal act. In his book Confession Can Change Your Life, David Knight puts this well:

Sin doesn't just create a need in the individual for forgiveness; sin creates a need in the Body of Christ itself, in the Church as a whole, for reconciliation and a restoration of relationships. It is not just a matter of restoring the sinner to God's friendship, but of restoring the wholeness of the Body of Christ. Wounds have to be healed, lines of communication repaired, confidence reestablished, bonds of understanding and love strengthened, the life of the Body quickened, the work of witness carried forward. What we have taken away from the Body by our sin, we have to restore to the Body through our repentance--and through the expression of that repentance to the community of believers.
There is also something about the communal examination of conscience that strikes me. Something about hearing the words read aloud forces me to confront my sins in a way I might find easier to evade if I were doing my own private inventory. At our parish reconciliation service the other night, one of the sentences of the examination unexpectedly confronted me with something that I had buried that clearly needed to be brought out and discussed with my confessor.

A communal service may also be a good way for those who have been away from the sacrament for a long period to 'ease back into it,' as it were. Those of you in this position may also want to consider reading the David Knight book cited above. It's inexpensive ($4.95) and short (60 pages), and provides a good overview of the history and theology of the sacrament.

posted by Peter Nixon 5:11 PM
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THE BARQUE OF PETER? Last week I asked readers for help in explaining the meaning of Jesus' passion to a four year old. As you may recall, my son Joseph said that he didn't want Jesus to take away the meanness of the world because he wanted to be a pirate. Well I didn't offer any prizes, but if I did, first prize would have to go to theologian and blogger Telford Work, who offered the following:

On Good Friday, the whole world played pirate, only for real. We made Jesus walk our plank. And though it hurt him terribly, he let us all be mean to him. Only Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, Jesus turned out to be the captain of God's ship! And after God saved him, Jesus had every right to fight back and make us walk his plank.

That was a very scary time. It was then that playing pirate stopped being fun.

Only Jesus wasn't mean back to us. He forgave us. Then he made us officers on his ship – imagine that! – and taught us a whole new game to play. It's called the Way. We're still on a ship, we still sail around and adventure, but now we help people instead of hurting them. God even helps us play! Some of the people who see us playing start wanting to play too, and we let them.

To people who still think playing pirate is fun, the Way sounds boring and silly. But to us, it's the best game in the world. It's hard to go back to a ship of your own when you've served on God's ship. It's hard to enjoy being mean, or even just pretending to be mean, when you remember how people hurt Jesus and he wouldn't hurt them back. It's no fun once you know that hurting other people hurts Jesus most of all.

And that's one of the many ways that Jesus saved us from our sins on the cross.
Thanks Telford!

posted by Peter Nixon 4:08 PM
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NOT AGAIN: I seem to be continuing an annual tradition of developing a nasty upper respiratory tract infection right around Christmas. While I missed mass this morning, I was able to read Fr. Jim Tucker's homily on today's readings. I recommend it to you. Hopefully, I will recover in time for Christmas; but if not, I will at least have the consolation of reading Fr. Shawn O'Neal's homilies, which will soon be posted at Nota Bene.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:44 PM
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