Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, July 18, 2003
THE CHURCH AND SLAVERY: Rodney Stark, author of the recently released book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery, has an interesting essay in Christianity Today about the history of the Catholic Church and slavery. Stark tries to refute what he believes is a commonly held view that the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until the 19th century. Stark cites a large number of papal statements against slavery, statements that were generally ignored by governments engaged in the slave trade.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:27 PM
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THE FINGER OF GOD: Fr. Ron Rolheiser suggests that in our secular age, many of us have lost the capacity to discern the "finger of god" in the events of our daily lives. As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to see ourselves as victims of a conspiracy of accidents. We need to recapture something of the spirit of our biblical forebearers:

For Israel, there were no pure accidents, no purely secular events. God's finger was everywhere, in every event, in every blessing, in every defeat, in every victory, in every drought, in every rainfall, in every death, in every birth. If Israel was defeated in battle, it wasn't the Assyrians who defeated her. God defeated her. If she reaped a bountiful harvest, it wasn't simple luck, God was blessing her. Nothing was ever purely secular or simply accidental.

Israel wasn't so naive or fundamentalistic, of course, as to believe that God was actually the efficient cause of these events or that, in the case of death and disaster, God even intended those events. But, nonetheless, in her view of things, God still spoke through those events.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:57 AM
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COME TOGETHER: Last week, Amy Welborn posed an interesting question with respect to ideological divisions within the Church: "Is there an American Catholic leader, thinker or activist who is respected and inspires by most of us? Or do they all, once again, fall along these divides...?"

Well I can't help but notice that many of the initial plaudits for new Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley have been, shall we say, "bipartisan." Some have responded positively to his doctrinal orthodoxy and strongly expressed pro-life views, while others have responded to his obvious humility and concern for victims of clerical sexual abuse (I would note in passing that some have even responded to all of these aspects of the man). National Catholic Reporter has an editorial that sums it up nicely:

The common wisdom -- and we certainly share it -- is that O’Malley will have a brief honeymoon and then the job will get tough, perhaps overwhelming. But maybe that common wisdom doesn’t account for the effect of holiness, another word used in describing O’Malley. Maybe a bishop who steps out in front of the lawyers, who leads with his pastoral instincts and the demands of our gospels, maybe that bishop gets beyond the honeymoon to a long and rich relationship with a people of God that has already distinguished itself in its patience, its fidelity and its willingness to work through the awful problems at hand.
I think NCR is right that the honeymoon will be short, but let us hope that charity and love prevail.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:50 AM
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Thursday, July 17, 2003
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP: Having not yet seen Mel Gibson's The Passion, I have no opinion on whether the film has undertones of anti-Semitism. However, I must say that at least a few of the film's defenders occasionally cross that line. At the bottom of the North America news page of the Catholic Nexus site, there is a link to the web site for the film, and the following statement:

CatholicNexus.Com has received no payment or money to promote this film. I, the webmaster when I saw the clip cried and screamed . No wonder jewish powers do not want this film released!!!!!!!!!!!!

posted by Peter Nixon 8:33 PM
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SOCIAL TEACHING: The Vatican has posted an on-line compendium of the Church's social teaching. It is organized by topic, with excerpts from key documents. I haven't sorted through it all yet, but it looks interesting.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:59 PM
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WHAT MAKES A CHURCH? Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who has been buffeted a bit by recent events, gave a reasonably well received address to the General Synod of the Church of England yesterday. Here is an excerpt:

What makes a Church is the call of Jesus Christ, and our freedom and ability, helped by grace, to recognise that call in each other. The first reality is God's action summoning us together as a people - in the words of Jesus, which make it clear that we can belong to God's people if we trust what Jesus says about God and does in God's name, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which actively remove the barriers we set up by our sin to communion with God. To announce all this is to announce God's invitation. To accept the invitation, with all it carries of acknowledging what Jesus has done, is to be taken into Christ's living Body, finding there a company of unlikely people who have received and answered the same invitation.

The Church's life develops as we slowly and clumsily start working on the ways we recognise each other as called by the same God and Saviour. Let me repeat that: working on the ways we recognise each other as called by the same God and Saviour. Our language, our doctrine, our worship all seek to be effective assurances that we are stepping to the same dance. At the centre of everything, the Scriptures provide the first test of that unity and coherence, to which all else is brought to be judged; then there are the basic identifying acts of the community which tell us that the life of the Risen Jesus is promised if we once let go of the self-protection we cling to (baptism) and that it is to be celebrated and deepened as we literally respond to the invitation of the Risen Jesus at his table (Holy Communion).
You can find more coverage of the Archbishop's address at the Christianity Today weblog.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:43 PM
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RIGALI: CNS coverage of Philadelphia's new archbishop, Justin Rigali, who comes from Saint Louis. Well, whatever else you might say about it, this post is certainly a step down in baseball terms...

posted by Peter Nixon 11:05 AM
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LORD, LET ME PROVE TO YOU THAT WINNING THE LOTTERY WON'T SPOIL ME: Baltimore parishioner wins $76 million in multi-state lottery. Plans to produce a musical celebrating the sanctity of life, install air conditioning in her parish church.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:03 AM
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Wednesday, July 16, 2003
O'MALLEY: OSV has a profile of new Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:27 PM
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WINNING THE WAR: Tom Friedman's back from vacation. Today he argues that however you feel about the Administration's fudging of the facts in the runnup to the war, we need to move aggressively to finish what we've started. That means more boots on the ground to mop up what's left of Saddam's resistance, massive support for Iraq's new governing council (including some serious debt relief), and helping Iraqis to catalog the vast scale of Baathist atrocities.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:36 AM
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Tuesday, July 15, 2003
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME? Amy Welborn continues to use her blog to offer provocative questions for discussion. This week, the question is “Someone asks you....what's the big deal about Jesus? Why should I care? What's in it for me?” (Scroll down past the road report to get to the question).

This is a great question and it’s one we need to do a better job answering. I know a significant number of people who have only minimal or nonexistent ties to any faith community, Christian or otherwise. In my immediate family of birth, all of whom are baptized Catholics, I am the only one who actively practices my faith. Explicit religious faith also appears to be relatively rare among the professional staff in my organization, although it is quite common among the clerical staff. Most (but not all) of the men in my poker group would describe themselves as atheists or, at best, agnostics.

Most of these people do not seem greatly troubled by the absence of faith. A few (mostly ex-Catholics, interestingly enough) are noticeably anti-religious. But for the majority, it doesn’t seem to be something they feel strongly about one way or the other. As far as they are concerned, it’s just another fact about someone’s personality. Some people like to go to church, others like to go kayaking, and still others favor woodworking in the garage.

Now it would be one thing if I could report that these individuals were mostly unhappy and troubled individuals and that they seemed to be missing “something,” something that one could find among Christians or even religious people generally. In my experience, this does not appear to be the case. You would be quite pleased to have most of them as neighbors. They curb their dogs, recycle their trash, volunteer in their schools, remember to vote, and even write the occasional letter to the editor. Most lead lives of moderate comfort, although several have faced personal traumas of one form or another.

So while most of these folks are far too polite to pose the question as bluntly as Amy does, their lives do pose an implicit challenge to us as believers called to preach the Good News: Why do they need Jesus? How would knowing Jesus make their lives different? What do they stand to gain?

Let me answer by telling a story. I did my undergraduate work at McGill University in Montreal, where French is the majority language. After four years of high school French, I believed that I knew enough of the language and that I would not need further course work. I could just “soak it up.” But it didn’t work out that way, and the truth is that my French got worse, not better. My poor French limited my ability to truly immerse myself in the majority culture of the city. I basically had to live, work and play within the confines of the smaller Anglophone community. Although I very much enjoyed my years in Montreal, one of my principal regrets is that I did not work harder to break through the boundaries of that smaller world into the larger one outside of it.

I knew a number of people at university who spoke little French and were not terribly troubled by this. Their classes were in English, their friends spoke English and they lived in English-language neighborhoods where the clerks at the local depanneur spoke English. They didn’t feel that they needed French. Most were not obtuse about this; they readily conceded the value of being bilingual. But they were busy with other things.

Christianity is, in some sense, a language and in the person of Jesus that language becomes flesh. Like most languages, it is best learned not in the classroom, but by immersion. By following Jesus, by praying as He did, by worshipping as He did, by reaching out to those on the margins as He did, by entering into the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection, we gain facility in a language that is, in a real sense, the language of the universe itself. It is our native tongue, but we have been raised away from our native place and have not learned to speak it well.

Knowing the Christian tongue gives reality a depth that it lacks in the language we use every day. Coincidence becomes serendipity. Suffering becomes redemptive. Prose becomes poetry. The absurd becomes meaningful. The lined face of the beggar on the corner becomes the Face of God, and bread and wine become His Body and Blood. We come to understand the depths of our depravity but also the glory of our destiny. We come to understand the smallness of our lives but also that those lives are woven together into a magnificent tapestry, each thread of which is precious.

Can one “get by” without this language? Certainly. Just as it was possible for me to lead a reasonably active life inside the confines of my linguistic ghetto during my university years, those who lack the language of Christian faith are not somehow rendered unable to function as human beings. But a Christian would hold, at a minimum, that their world is smaller than it might otherwise be.

This is not all we hold as Christians, of course, and it is at this point that the metaphor may break down. Because while it is easy to argue for the desirability of competence in a second language, few would argue that it is necessary. But one of the beliefs that has fueled Christian missionary efforts for two millennia is a conviction that unless human beings understand themselves the way the Christian narrative understands them, their very souls are in peril.

This is, of course, a harder sell than it used to be. We speak of a God who is Love itself and then suggest that those who fail to believe in this loving God run, at the very least, the risk of eternal damnation. There are many—even many Christians—who wonder how they can assent to such a proposition.

But perhaps the metaphor of language can still help us here. I knew for some time before I moved to Montreal that knowledge of French would be very helpful to me. But I failed to take the necessary steps to solidify my command of the language. As a result, I suffered. My world was smaller than it might have been. By my fourth year, I was consciously avoiding situations where I might have to speak French for any length of time.

Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand. There is no question that the vision of the Kingdom that he sketched during his ministry was a world that was very different from our own. One might even say that most of us are not, as we are now, likely to speak the language very well. One of the reasons that some of us go to church is that it is a place where the language is (imperfectly) taught and (imperfectly) spoken. We are learning a language that both deepens our understanding of our present reality and also prepares us for our future return from Exile into the land promised to us.

And if we don’t learn the language? As was my own experience in Montreal, we run the risk of isolation, of living in a world that is much, much smaller than the place being prepared for us. Jesus gave his life so that this would not be our fate.

So, yes, there is “something in it for us” if we follow Jesus. By submitting ourselves in discipleship and joining in the common life of believers, we open ourselves to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We learn to think in a new way, to see in a new way, to speak in a new way. We gain "new life," both now and forever. Our purposes and the purpose of the universe—once tragically separated—are now reunited. Babel is defeated by Pentecost.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:33 PM
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MARRIAGE AND THE STATE: Fr. Jim Tucker raises some interesting questions in a post from yesterday:

For Catholics, the principle is clear that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, neither of whom is already bound in marriage to another spouse. As it stands now, the State already recognizes hundreds of thousands of unions that the Church clearly sees as invalid marriages, and it (the State) endows them with all the rights, privileges, perks, and trappings of valid marriages. So, I don't think that it's the question of the invalidity of same-sex marriage that is at the foundation of opposition to gay civil marriage among many Catholics (although this seems to be the most frequent argument one hears). Rather, I think the main question is this: "Does the flourishing of true marriage depend on State recognition and support?" The way one answers that question, I think, goes a long way to determining his basic stance to these same-sex marriage questions.
I think this raises the broader question about the circumstances under which it is wise for the Church to embrace what might be termed "the Constantinian option." A theologian like Stanley Hauerwas would probably argue that the Church shouldn't spend any time worrying about what the state does or does not do about marriage. The Church's role should be to form members who are capable of making the binding and permanent commitment that Christian marriage entails. If what is going on in the culture is somehow eroding the commitment of Christians to Christian moral norms, that is a problem for the Church to solve internally.

The Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck used to hold views similar to Hauerwas', but over the last decade he's had second thoughts, wondering whether helping post-Christian societies hold onto their religious roots is actually a "work of mercy" comparable to feeding the hungry, sheltering the naked, and so on. The traditional Catholic view on the role of the state is closer to Lindbeck's view, which is not surprising since Lindbeck was one of the Lutheran observers at Vatican II and has been closely involved in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue for three decades.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:05 AM
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Monday, July 14, 2003
PLEASE PRAY for Michael Gallagher, son of Cindy and Sean Gallagher (of Nota Bene fame). Michael was admitted to Columbus Regional Hospital last Thursday with a severe case of pneumonia. On Friday he was transferred to Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. Sean will be posting updates on Michael's condition at Nota Bene as time permits.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:28 AM
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WHERE'S THE OUTRAGE? TNR's Peter Beinart asks some tough questions about the response of the Left to the situation in the Congo and Africa generally. He notes that groups like International ANSWER focus almost exclusively on evils perpetrated by the United States which, ironically, leads to them to ignore one of the most destructive wars of the last century (3.3 million people dead).

If the greatest injustice in the world is U.S. imperialism, the world's greatest injustices must be found where U.S. imperialism is strongest. And, here, Africa poses a problem. Africa, after all, has less contact with the United States than any other part of the world. The continent accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. foreign investment, it receives less than 0.l percent of U.S. military assistance, and it hosts no permanent American troop deployments. If you are a left-wing activist scouring the globe for places suffocating under America's "stranglehold," you'll pass right over sub-Saharan Africa. And, even if you do find U.S. imperialism in Africa, you'll find it in countries stable and prosperous enough to attract investment and cooperate against terrorism, not in the disaster zones of Congo, Liberia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:04 AM
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IT DEPENDS WHAT THE DEFINITION OF "ACCURATE" IS. Not surprisingly, Joshua Micah Marshall has been all over the story about what the White House knew and when they knew it vis-a-vis the false reports that Iraq was trying to buy Nigerian uranium. Next up, what about those aluminum tubes...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:58 AM
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REACHING OUT TO CRIME VICTIMS: Brief CNS story about how the California Catholic Conference is supporting ministry aimed at the victims of crime. As someone involved in detention ministry, I wholeheartedly endorse this move. If we are going to be people of reconciliation, we need to stand with both offenders and victims.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:42 AM
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VEINTIDOS: That's the number of remaining cardinals who are old enough to have voted in the last papal conclave in 1978 (the original number was 111). CNS has coverage of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the election of John Paul II. My headline? Oh, that's Spanish for 22. I'm taking a course this summer and need the practice...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:38 AM
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