The State of the Church

Perhaps the neatest thing in Lander this week was that J.D. Flynn gave a lecture for Wyoming Catholic College. That’s J.D. Flynn, co-founder of The Pillar and former editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, the man whose website seems to have changed Vatican policy—that J.D. Flynn, right here in Nowhere, Wyoming.

I actually met and shook hands with J.D. in a coffee shop this morning. It came about this way. My favorite coffee joint is run by an old friend, Andrew Whaley, and one day Andrew joked that he would like to make every Wednesday “Bollywood Day,” meaning that staff are required to sing their interactions with customers and customers get a discount for singing their orders. Ever since then, I’ve made a point of singing my order every Tuesday, and Andrew always says no, it’s not Wednesday, and warns that on Tuesdays people who sing their orders actually pay more, etc. It’s our thing. Anyhow, I walked in this morning and noticed that the place was almost entirely empty, so I launched into my order with amateur baritone zeal—and only then, out of the corner of my eye, saw J.D. Flynn sitting at a table.

Yep, J.D. Flynn, the journalist, the maker and breaker of reputations, just sitting right there watching a WCC professor sing for his caffeine. Well, I thought, he has dedicated his life to the truth, so he might as well know the truth. I kept singing. But getting cream for my wife’s coffee took us right next to his table, and at that point I could either pretend I hadn’t been making a spectacle of myself in a public place or I could meet his eye boldly and introduce myself. So we shook hands.

J.D.’s lecture this evening was well done. He is funny, takes his topic seriously without taking himself too seriously, and he focused on telling great stories. The title was, “What Is the State of the Church? Hint: It Isn’t What You Think”. He began by describing the anxiety he encounters constantly about the state of the Church, and he recounted the reasons for it: scandals among the clergy, the Synodal Way, corruption in the Vatican, etc., etc. But then he told the story of a recent Nigerian martyr under Islamic persecution, and the story of a heroic Nicaraguan bishop who may soon be a martyr under the persecution of a corrupt government, and he advised his listeners that these are the real stories in the Church right now. There is in fact a kind of clericalism, he said, about assuming that stories about Rome are the only really important stories. He concluded by quoting John Henry Newman to the effect that in every age people make the mistake of thinking their age is the worst one yet, when in fact things are bad in every age.

The bottom line: You should get J.D. Flynn as a speaker. He’s great.

If I am asked to put on my professor hat and take a critical stance, then I would say that the lecturer needed to define terms more clearly. What precisely does “the state of the church” mean, and what does it mean to say that this state is good or better or bad or worse?

J.D. seemed to be addressing people who think of “the state of the Church” as “the probability that the Church will collapse soon”. Since our faith tells us that the Church will never collapse, then from the point of view of faith the probability that the Church will collapse is zero in every age, and so the Church is doing equally well in every age. But humanly speaking it is helpful to have encouraging stories to reassure us that in our age, too, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the next era of the Church.

However, I expect that most of the people in the audience in Lander tonight would not define “the state of the Church” that way. Our faculty and students have no fear that the Church will collapse. For this audience, I expect that “the state of the Church” means something like “the probability that a given Catholic will stay Catholic and be saved” or “the probability that a given non-Catholic will become Catholic”, or perhaps simply “the probability that any one of my children will stay Catholic and be saved.” A higher probability means a better state, and a lower probability means a worse state. One could put this the other way around: “the probability that my child will be eaten by the surrounding secular culture,” and then a higher probability means a worse state for the Church. These are reasonable definitions, because the Lord’s mandate to the Church was to make disciples of all nations, and fundamental to making disciples is keeping the disciples she has. If the Church is not fulfilling her commission well, then in some real sense she is in a bad state.

Taken this way, it is immediately obvious that the Church has been in a better state in some centuries than others. Some centuries have seen great growth in the numbers of believers, while others have seen a precipitous falling away. From this point of view, the state of the Church in the United States right now is worse than other times, i.e., the probability that a given Catholic will stay with Christ, or that his child will stay with Christ, is much lower.

A further distinction has to do with the reason for the probability. If the probability of a given individual remaining Christian is low because of government persecution, then one can argue that the Church herself is doing well, i.e., carrying out her mandate well, but the effect is being impeded by external factors. But when the probability of a given individual remaining Christian is low precisely because of things the Church is doing, then the Church is indeed bearing her mandate badly. In this sense, J.D. Flynn’s opening litany of woes is not entirely answered by his ensuing stories of heroism.

In the end, I think J.D. Flynn knows all this and would agree with it. He said that he does what he does, including exposing corruption in the Church, because he thinks that public accountability is good for the Church’s governance and that good governance is crucial for the Church. In other words, he thinks that times when we have lacked public accountability have been worse for the Church and so not all eras have been equal in some sense. His lecture was great on the assumption of a certain definition of “state of the Church”, but he could have reached his audience better tonight by clarifying his definition and distinguishing it from other valid definitions.

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A wedding toast

When Israel was longing for the messiah, the prophet Malachi warned them that he is like a refining fire. When our Lord Jesus Christ came at last, he said, “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and would it were already kindled!” But when he finally cast his fire, it found an answering fire: the love between husband and wife had anticipated, indeed had prophesied, his coming.

So he took the husband and wife as his coat of arms, if I can put it that way, and he cast his fire into their midst. They blazed out with a supernatural flame in this dark world: their children took refuge in its warmth, and their neighbors all around found the way to our Lord by following that beacon.

Of course, not all Christian couples stayed in the refining fire. All too many crept away to the cool and comfort of the shadows, proving themselves inferior to the pagan Scaevola, who held his hand in the fire.

But I stand here on this twenty-second of October, as the nights grow longer and the days colder, to tell you that the world is a brighter and warmer place because of this marriage. In Michel, Bernadette has found a man whose love is stronger than death; in Bernadette, Michel has found a woman whose heart is as clear as a mountain stream, as big as the Wyoming sky, and as steady as the everlasting hills.

So I propose a toast: to the newlyweds, and to our joyful God, our merry God, who would have us be merry—and would have them be married!

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A lecture on Abraham

I was recently out at the New England campus of Thomas Aquinas College, where I gave a lecture on the patriarch Abraham. It was a blessing to see the little pioneer community in their cavernous campus, planting a 50-year-old tradition on new soil. The lecture is available here:

Here’s a funny coincidence: my father was out there a couple of years ago, and he lectured on Abraham Lincoln!

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How formal authority works

Over the past two years, a lot of people have asked about whether anyone is bound to obey this or that decree by this or that authority. Sometimes it’s about the secular government, and sometimes it’s about an ecclesial figure, but the common thread has been confusion about when obedience is good or bad. In practice, I see people flee to extremes: one group acts as though the government has absolutely no authority to deal with COVID while the other group acts as though there could never be such a thing as government overreach. One group acts as though a bishop or the Pope has no authority that could practically affect them, while the other acts as though a prelate’s most casual remark overthrows all other moral considerations. Often, I see individuals vacillate between these extremes depending on the issue at hand.

At root, it appears to me that most people lack a coherent notion of what authority is. This is a strange thing, since we live with authorities all the time: parents, teachers, employers, club presidents, priests—we have a lot of concrete experience, but we seem bad at tapping into that experience to deal with new questions.

This post offers a definition of authority and an explanation of how authority works. I am not addressing any particular controversy, but offering a general account applicable to all controversies.

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Final episodes on the Ten Minute Bible Hour

Over a year ago I sat down with Matt Whitman at the Lander Bar and we filmed a conversation. He’s a protestant, recently a pastor, and I’m a Catholic theologian, and I just let him grill me about Catholicism. I have intense conversations pretty much every day, so I had that one and then went on with the week. Didn’t give it much more thought.

But I keep seeing nice comments from people who say how helpful the series has been to them. I am honestly surprised! I didn’t prepare or pre-think the interview, I didn’t see the questions ahead of time, and I got tired as the afternoon went on, so it must be the Holy Spirit bringing a treasure out of an earthen vessel.

Matt finally dropped the last two episodes just recently, so here is the whole series:

  1. A Protestant Talks with a Catholic Theologian.
  2. Are Protestants Christian According to Catholics?
  3. A Protestant Asks a Catholic Theologian About Mary.
  4. Praying to the Saints? A Catholic and a Protestant Talk.
  5. Is Violence in the Name of the Church Now Forbidden in Catholicism?
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I published a book

It has been a while now since my book came out: Cur Deus Verba: Why the Word Became Words. It culminates twenty years of thinking about what exactly Scripture is, getting past the various partial viewpoints and straining for that view from the mountaintop where you can see the whole landscape. That vision was a burden: I felt that I was with child, so to speak, and the only way forward to peace was to bring it forth to the world. The day it was accepted for publication by Ignatius Press I felt a weight drop from my shoulders.

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Is “fine arts” a useful term?

Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.

This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?

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Maritain on art: a summary and synthesis

Over the past two years I have studied Maritain’s aesthetics with great enjoyment. I even taught an art history course and used it as a chance to find out whether Maritain’s theory can help students in a practical way. (The answer was, “Yes!”) When I turn to others who have written on aesthetics, like Gilson, they seem clumsy in comparison. Unfortunately, many interpreters of Maritain also seem clumsy to me, so it might be helpful to others if I set out what I took away at least from Maritain’s major work, Creative Intuition.

What follows is not only a summary but also an interpretation of Creative Intuition. I aim to set down what he meant, but I spell out some ideas that he left implicit and others that may have remained implicit in his own understanding. Maritain had in mind a theory with many parts that make up a system, but he never wrote a summary chapter to bring all the parts into explicit relation, and as a result I think he never asked himself some questions that inevitably occur to the reader. Here is an outline, according to me.

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What is Hell?

A question from a man up late one night wondering:

It seems that if one can know something he can also from that, arrive at its opposite – what it is not. If we can not know Heaven, can we know Hell? Divine Revelation gives a nice lot of imagery: Fire, darkness, etc. and if the greatest joy of Heaven is of the soul in the Beatific Vision, the primary suffering in Hell would be the deprivation of It. But we don’t know what ‘It’ is.

Why I am wondering what Hell is like, I do not know. It is known that if I knew the smallest bit, I would wish that I didn’t, and also I am left confused about the fact that people do indeed choose to be there.

On a somewhat smaller scale, I have chosen against good sense, to be up far past a relatively decent hour. Similar problem, smaller matter?

My response:

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The Bible: inerrancy, inspiration, etc.

Questions from a man in the trenches, with answers from yours truly:

When we read a biblical passage, what is the criteria for determining when the biblical author is making an assertion; and when the author is expressing his opinion, or making an assumption?  The same question would relate to the Church Fathers scientific and historical knowledge of their day, compared with the scientific and historical knowledge of our day.

The initial problem here is that most of us are unaware of the intricacies of our own speech. We think there is a simple on/off between assertion and non-assertion, and we think it is fairly clear which is which, so we want to know what are the two or three criteria one would need to detect the on/off in Scripture. Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is helpful for beginning to explore how many subtle distinctions there are within our own experience of thinking and claiming. Add in the further complications of multiple genres of text and distance in time and culture, and you can imagine that a list of criteria for determining when Scripture is or is not asserting could go on more or less indefinitely. How many ways are there for a human being to signal his intent linguistically? It would be like trying to make an exhaustive list of criteria for determining whether an individual from any given contemporary culture is serious or telling a joke.

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