Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, January 10, 2003
IRAQ GETS A NEW BISHOP: John Allen writes about Iraq's new auxillary bishop, Andraos Abouna, who was personally consecrated by the Pope on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. Allen's notes on Abouna are worth reading. Allen also provides his usual insights into Vatican goings-on.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:49 PM
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ETERNAL FATHER STRONG TO SAVE is a Navy hymn, but I hope that Catholic Light blogger and Marine reservist Eric Johnson won't mind if I hum it when I remember him in my prayers. Eric has been activated and was due to report to duty today.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:56 PM
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STILL MORE ON THE ATONEMENT:In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II was asked why Jesus had to die on the cross. What is interesting is that the Pope did not fall back on the traditional theory of the atonement. Rather, he spoke of the paschal mystery as a manifestation of God's solidarity with human suffering. Here's an excerpt (from page 66):

Was putting His Son to death on the Cross necessary for the salvation of humanity? Given our present discussion, we must ask ourselves: Could it have been any different? Could God have justified Himself before human history, so full of suffering, without placing Christ's Cross at the center of that history? Obviously, one response could be that God does not need to justify Himself to man. It is enough that he is omnipotent. From this perspective, everything he does or allows must be accepted. This is the position of the biblical Job. But God, who besides being Omnipotent is Wisdom and--to repeat once again--Love, desires to justify himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, who shares man's lot and participates in his destiny...

God is always on the side of the suffering. His omnipotence is manifested precisely in the fact that He freely accepted suffering. He could have chosen not to do so. He could have chosen to demonstrate His omnipotence even at the moment of the Crucifixion. In fact, it was proposed to Him: "Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so that we might see and believe." (Mk 15:32) But He did not accept that challenge. The fact that he stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross He could say, as do all who suffer: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34), has remained the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.
I think it is important to remember that what we are wrestling with here are essentially theories of the atonement. As Christians we believe that Jesus' death was in some way salvific for us, even if we find it very hard to understand why and how. The Church's dogmatic statements on the atonement have been somewhat limited, and lean heavily on the witness of Scripture itself. Theology can help us, but in the end we are faced here with a fundamental mystery which words can only partially explain.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:00 PM
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UNCOOL? It's sort of interesting to watch the process by which something once thought as "cool" (e.g. smoking) gradually becomes "uncool." I wonder if a similar cultural moment is approaching with Sport Utility Vehicles. There is a new set of ads sponsored by Ariana Huffington that link SUVs to terrorism. But even car manufacturers themselves are worried, according to this Wall Street Journal story that was reprinted in my local paper. People in their late teens and early 20s have less positive views of SUVs than older drivers. And now the new issue of The New Republic has an extended takedown of SUVs by Greg Easterbrook, the scion of moderate environmentalism. Maybe I shouldn't trade in my Saturn after all...

posted by Peter Nixon 2:31 PM
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A CONVERSION STORY: A wonderful one can be found at Not for Sheep, which is a blog worth watching.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:22 PM
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Came across a paragraph today from Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community:

Except for the Southern Baptists, virtually every church body in the U.S. that has spoken on the war question has concluded this would not be a "just war." Churches all over the world have also spoken out against an Iraq war. What does it mean when the leaders of the international body of Christ are united in opposition to a war? When huge majorities of the populations of European countries oppose war with Iraq? When the Middle Eastern countries most threatened by Saddam Hussein oppose war as the solution to that threat (except for Israel)? When former U.S. defense secretaries, many former military officers, and Republican former office holders are also against war? Doesn’t it at least mean we ought to have a serious national debate before we go to war?

posted by Peter Nixon 2:19 PM
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MORE ON THE ATONEMENT: A few days ago I posted some thoughts on the atonement in response to a question posted by Camassia: what does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins? I took a stab at this, but unfortunately it raised more questions for her than it answered. But I got an e-mail today from a reader who had a slightly different take on the atonement, one I found very helpful:

I wanted to comment on your post on Jesus dying for our sins. Being no theologian, I'm taking this from a good Jesuit friend. He claims that the protestant fundamentalist definition of vicarious atonement is quite hideous. To simplify, they claim that we are all sinners. All sinners deserve to die. Jesus took our place, ergo, we are freed of our sins. Why is this wrong? Because it is predicated on the premise that God is accepts as legitimate the death of an innocent, Jesus the Christ. I also think this distortion explains a lot about the fundamentalists support for the death penalty.

You are right in saying that it is difficult to explain. I like to think of it as follows: God is so merciful, that he himself became a mortal, and was put to death on account of our sins. What greater indication of the sinfulness of humanity than the brutal judicial murder of an innocent man? But through his resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death and pointed out the way for us to follow. By accepting his infinite mercy and following him, by uniting ourselves with Christ, we are "saved". In the great words of St. Peter, God became man so that man could share in the divine nature. This is the wonderful truth of our faith, and it is so much richer and more beautiful than the vengeful deity theory of vicarious atonement, which is accepted by protestant fundamentalists today.
Disputations has also weighed in on this question.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:35 AM
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Thursday, January 09, 2003
LIGHT AND DARKNESS: Sean Gallagher has a post worth reading on this subject. Check it out.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:27 AM
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CONGAR: Fr. Joseph Komonchak, who teaches at Catholic University, has written a short essay for Commonweal on Dominican theologian Yves Congar and his role in the Second Vatican Council.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:16 AM
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TIPS FOR GODPARENTS: Some good ideas from the National Catholic Register this week.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:13 AM
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AN INDIFFERENCE TO LIFE: The New York Times is running a three-part series on the safety and environmental record of McWare Pipe, one of the world's largest makers of cast-iron pipes. The stories are harrowing. Click here to read Part One (from yesterday's NYT) and here to read Part Two (from today's issue).

posted by Peter Nixon 11:10 AM
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Wednesday, January 08, 2003
FUN WITH BREAST CANCER NUMBERS REDUX: Greg Popack at HMS Blog blogs on the study that came out a few months back that women who have more children and breast feed them more have a lower risk of breast cancer. On why such data are likely to be completely useless in getting women in the United States to change their behavior in the way that Greg would like (i.e. having more children and breastfeeding them longer), see this post that I blogged a few months back.

posted by Peter Nixon 5:03 PM
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SISTERS: Amy Welborn has a very nice post on her blog about women religious, which is sort of a review of the book Sisters by John Fialka. Amy makes the following observation about the decline in the number of women religious that I think is very well taken:

It’s not just about habits and praying the liturgy of the hours. A great deal of the decline is related to increased opportunities for women, period. Religious orders have always been havens for women who were less interested in marriage and childrearing than others, who were interested in education and had a desire to establish and manage institutions. I don’t mean to say that spiritual factors weren’t a part of it – of course they were – but this plain fact of social relations is as well.
Amy elaborates on this point at greater length and her observations are worth your time.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:59 PM
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Tuesday, January 07, 2003
FOR OUR SINS: A couple of weeks ago Camassia asked what it meant to say that Jesus died for our sins. She’s received some interesting replies, including suggestions to check the usual sources (Anselm, Von Balthasar, etc.) But she makes the following point:

I asked the question less to get a scholarly disquisition than to learn what this means to individual Christians. I mean, if I were asking about some obscure branch of theology like monophysitism I could understand being referred to books, but I assume every Christian must have a conception of dying for sins, since it's such a central idea in Christian theology.

A fair point, I think. It’s all well and good to quote Paul or Anselm, but we are many centuries removed from the cultures in which these men lived and which informed their theology. We may need to find a new language to express old truths.

As much as I love this world and the people in it, it cannot be denied that something has gone very wrong with it. Those of us who live in relative comfort and security may find this truth easy to evade, but that does not make it any less true. The human mind that discovered the wheel and the plough also crafted the sword and the arrow. The same skills that allow us to heal also allow us to unleash devastating plagues of our own design. Every advance of civilization, it seems, is accompanied by a terrifying retreat into barbarism.

Into this world a child is born, and when he grows to manhood he tells the world something astonishing: you are forgiven! We may have squandered our inheritance and taken to living among swine, but the Father is waiting to welcome us back. In fact, he will run to greet us. He will welcome us home and clothe us in garments of honor.

What are we to make of such forgiveness? What about the evil that has been done? Is there to be no accounting? What about the victims, those who have suffered and died? What about Auschwitz, Srebrenica, and Kigali? What about justice?

I suppose God could have refused to answer such questions. He is God, after all. Who are we to question whether and how he should extend forgiveness? He could simply have decided that none of it mattered. What are the sufferings of a few billion beings on a tiny planet in an insignificant corner of the galaxy compared to the vastness and majesty of the Almighty?

But would such indifference be the act of a loving God? How could He tell us “it doesn’t matter” without saying, in effect, “you don’t matter.” In his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus puts this well:

“Atonement.” It is a fine, solid, twelfth-century Middle English word, the kind of word one is inclined to trust. Think of at-one-ment. What was separated is now at one. But after such a separation there can be no easy reunion. Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world, we—what we do and what we are—would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence.
So there must be consequences. But who can bear them? Is there any amount of human suffering that can somehow “make up” for the evil that has been done? Can we really sort out who is “responsible?” Our clumsy efforts at justice often descend quickly into vengeance, and yet another cycle of injustice. We truly have a debt we cannot pay.

It is the conviction of a Christian that the debt has been paid, that God Himself has paid it and accepted the payment. We believe that Jesus’ death on a cross was not merely the result of a conspiracy between the religious and political authorities of His day, but, as Saint Peter tells us, that He was “delivered up according to a definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23). Caught between a justice that would condemn us and a mercy that would rob our lives of meaning, the Father and Son conspired to find another way.

The hour is late and my words begin to fail me. I don’t know if I have answered Camassia’s question. But I had to try. We all have to.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:58 PM
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ENTHUSIASM FOR ECUMENISM: Walter Cardinal Kaspar is the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. In the most recent issue of Priests and People, he reviews both the progress of the ecumenical movement since the Second Vatican Council, and some of the remaining challenges. While cautioning against unrealistic expectations, he lays out a number of ideas for an "ecumenism of life" that would bring separated Christians together on a more regular basis. Worth reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:24 PM
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MOTHER TERESA:The National Catholic Register has an interview with Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Missionary of Charity priest who is the postulator for Mother Teresa's cause for sainthood. Interesting reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:13 PM
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TOP TEN: John Allen runs down the "Top 10 neglected Catholic stories of 2002" You won't see this on Letterman...

posted by Peter Nixon 1:06 PM
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Monday, January 06, 2003
DETERRABLE? One of the major points of contention in the current debate over war with Iraq is whether Saddam Hussein, if he obtains nuclear weapons, can be deterred from using them. The more over-the-top voices in the Bush Administration argue that Hussein is a dangerous psychotic, but even moderate hawks like Ken Pollack argue that Hussein is an aggressive, risk-taking leader who is prone to miscalculation. In his book, The Threatening Storm, Pollack spends a large number of pages discussing Iraq's behavior in the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War and tries to show that Hussein tends to overestimate his chances of success. In Pollack's view, Hussein cannot be deterred because he will almost certainly fail to make an accurate assessment of the threat facing him.

Not everyone agrees with Pollack's analysis of these two cases. In the most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazein,
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that while Hussein is a nasty character, he is not irrational and he is certainly deterrable. In both the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War, Hussein tried to use military force to solve problems that he had been unable to solve by diplomatic means. Just because he failed in both cases does not mean his decision to use force, based on what he knew and believed at the time, was irrational. Furthermore, Hussein's behavior during the Gulf War--where he failed to use his WMDs despite the fact that he was losing--suggest that when faced with an unambigious threat of retaliation, Hussein will choose survival over suicide.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:19 PM
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JUST CAUSE? Tom Friedman poses some interesting questions in his most recent column. He concedes that a war against Iraq would be, in a real sense, a war for oil. The reason that the Bush Administration wants to remove Saddam from power (and not the psychotic colonels who run Burma, for example) is the threat he poses to the world's oil supply. He argues that "there is nothing illegitimate or immoral about the U.S. being concerned that an evil, megalomaniacal dictator might acquire excessive influence over the natural resource that powers the world's industrial base." But he poses some hard question about the United States' long term aims:

If we occupy Iraq and simply install a more pro-U.S. autocrat to run the Iraqi gas station (as we have in other Arab oil states), then this war partly for oil would also be immoral.

If, on the other hand, the Bush team, and the American people, prove willing to stay in Iraq and pay the full price, in money and manpower, needed to help Iraqis build a more progressive, democratizing Arab state — one that would use its oil income for the benefit of all its people and serve as a model for its neighbors — then a war partly over oil would be quite legitimate. It would be a critical step toward building a better Middle East.

So, I have no problem with a war for oil — provided that it is to fuel the first progressive Arab regime, and not just our S.U.V.'s, and provided we behave in a way that makes clear to the world we are protecting everyone's access to oil at reasonable prices — not simply our right to binge on it.
Well folks, are we willing to "pay the full price?"

posted by Peter Nixon 11:09 AM
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RAEL-POLITIK: Wesley Smith compares the Raelians to Jack Kevorkian in this interesting essay from the Weekly Standard. Here's a sample:

The Raelians and others who claim to be busily cloning human children seem to have adopted Kevorkian's strategy of defiance. Society's moral revulsion? Irrelevant. The likelihood that a cloned child would have serious health problems caused by genetic defects? Beneath concern. The Raelians and the parents willing to participate in this immoral human experimentation want what they want, the opinions of society and the health consequences be damned. The cult proudly claims to have several other cloned babies in gestation.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:00 AM
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KOREA: Joshua Micha Marshall, who more or less owned the Lott story, is now raising some very serious questions about how the Bush Administration has dealt with Korea. The growing impact of bloggers on important policy debates is becoming obvious. Marshall is a Democrat, but has been something of a hawk on foreign policy. It also helps that he is a great wordsmith:

Tough talk sounds great until your opponent calls your bluff and everybody sees there's nothing behind the trash talk. Then you look foolish. That's where we are right now with North Korea. As Nelson says, no doubt the NKs are the bad guys. And this is an extremely complex problem with no easy solutions. But the Bush administration has pursued a keystone cops policy on the Korean Peninsula for two years now, mixing think-tank braggadocio with feckless inconstancy. Now we're all going to pay the price.
Maybe you have to have lived in Washington for a few years to love a line like "think-tank braggadocio." As Balzac might have said, le mot juste!

posted by Peter Nixon 10:50 AM
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THE EUCHARIST: Fr. Jim Tucker over at Dappled Things does us all a service by posting some excerpts from Karl Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith on the subject of the Eucharist. Foundations can be slow going (lots of talk about the "Absolute Existential" and all that), but these passages are positively luminous.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:32 AM
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HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAINT GASPAR: Fr. Jeff Keyes celebrates the birthday of Saint Gaspar over at The New Gasparian. As many of you know, Gaspar is one of the traditional names for one of the three kings, whose visit to the infant Jesus we celebrated yesterday at Epiphany. It's almost like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon or something. But not quite.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:30 AM
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SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION DEPARTMENT: There are apparently a set of annual awards for weblogs, called the Bloggies, which are something like the Oscars for weblogs. Well, I'd love to nominate myself, but 1) it would no doubt be an occasion of the sin of pride and 2) my browser is so old I can't read the form. But if you are feeling charitable toward SC, the form is here.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:07 AM
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SCENES FROM A COUNTY JAIL: The crowd at our Sunday chapel service tends to be a bit smaller in the winter. It’s a bit of a walk up the hill to the chapel, and the men—for very good reasons—are not allowed to wear coats over their jumpsuits. This doesn’t stop a lot of them from going outside; many wear thermal underwear under their jumpsuits. There’s also something of a lethargy that seems to settle on the jail during winter, even though California winters are hardly harsh compared to those elsewhere in the country.

Yesterday only two men showed up for the service. One was a man named Doug who has been at the jail for a few months. He doesn’t live in California, but he managed to get into a bit of trouble here. His brother Mike has advanced stomach cancer and is beginning a final round of chemotherapy. It probably won’t help, but they want to give it one last shot. Doug isn’t due to be released until June. “All we can do is pray, I guess,” he said to me when I walked through the barracks before the service. Given that his brother lives out of state, he knows that there is a chance he won’t see him again.

My godfather Ken has advanced colon cancer, and he is in a situation similar to Doug’s brother. His doctor told him he’s one of only two people in the world who have received such a large dose of an experimental cancer medication. I told Doug a little bit about Ken, and he told me a little bit about Mike. It seemed to help him to share what he was feeling with someone in a similar situation.

I know a man who believes he beat his cancer through the power of prayer. I don’t dispute him. But I’ve known a few folks who prayed just as hard as he did and didn’t make it. I pray because God wills it, not because I think it will change His mind. I pray to a God who suffered and died as we suffer and die. There are those who can’t imagine praying to a God who would do such a thing. I can’t imagine praying to a God who wouldn’t.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:59 AM
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