God in the Tomb

For most Catholics, Holy Saturday is a kind of blank.  Since there is no liturgy for Saturday itself, we don’t hear homilies explaining it.  Good Friday drives home the passion, and Easter booms with the resurrection, but Holy Saturday has no one to preach it.

And yet the Catechism says startling things about Holy Saturday.  In this post I’ll focus on just one aspect:  Christ’s stay in the tomb.  Here’s what the Catechism says (paragraph 626), echoing an ancient and consistent tradition:

Since the “Author of life” who was killed is the same “living one [who has] risen”, the divine person of the Son of God necessarily continued to possess his human soul and body, separated from each other by death:

By the fact that at Christ’s death his soul was separated from his flesh, his one person is not itself divided into two persons; for the human body and soul of Christ have existed in the same way from the beginning of his earthly existence, in the divine person of the Word; and in death, although separated from each other, both remained with one and the same person of the Word.

To put that in plain English, we all know that when we walk by Grandpa’s casket, the corpse in the casket is not Grandpa anymore—not really.  But when Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ corpse in the tomb, that corpse was not a man but it was still Jesus—really and truly. Continue reading “God in the Tomb”

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Thinking about Amoris Laetitia: Should sacramental discipline change?

As promised in my last post, I would like to make a simple contribution to the conversation about communion for the divorced and remarried.  The questions competent people raise about moral philosophy are important, but I plan to take time over the Christmas break to think them through more carefully.

In any case, I think the moral philosophy questions are something of a red herring.  First Cardinal Casper and then Pope Francis mustered ethical arguments to show that the divorced and remarried may not be culpable for their ongoing situation, but it appears to me that their arguments are off-topic.  The arguments the Church has heretofore given for the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from communion have not been rooted in moral philosophy but in sacramental theology.  Here’s a sampling: Continue reading “Thinking about Amoris Laetitia: Should sacramental discipline change?”

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What should the layman do about Amoris Laetitia?

To this point I have stayed out of the conversation about Amoris Laetitia.  But within the past few weeks, multiple people have approached me, as a guy who teaches theology, with questions about the uproar.  Voices not only of confusion but of alarm and even panic fill the Internet.  Should we be running around and shouting?  Or should we duck under the Catechism and wait for the storm to pass?  What should lay Catholics do?  That to me is the most pressing question:  Not what the Pope should do, not what the Cardinals should do, but what I, as a lay Catholic, should do. Continue reading “What should the layman do about Amoris Laetitia?”

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The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel

[The is the third in a three-part series on Mark’s Gospel.  The other parts are 1. Hearing Mark’s Gospel and 2. The Strange Beginning of Mark’s Gospel.]

While Mark’s beginning is strange to those who think about it carefully, his ending is strange to anyone who reads.  In the oldest and best manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel ends like this:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

That’s it.  No meeting the resurrected Jesus, no moment of glory, not even a moment when the petrified women actually tell someone what happened.  “They were afraid”—and the curtains drop.

The longer ending printed in our Bibles was written very, very early on, so early that it is canonical and considered an inspired text in its own right.  But the very fact that the longer ending is so ancient demonstrates that even the earliest Church found Mark’s ending strange.  No resurrection scene?  We gotta fix that.

For Mark, however, it made sense.  And I have a theory about how. Continue reading “The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel”

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5 reasons I love the scholastic “question”

These days, anyone familiar with the medieval “question” format has probably met it through the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.  To the modern eye it seems stuffy or even pretentious, with its stilted language and logical distinctions and its appearance of completeness.  We prefer the humble “essay,” a word that means an “attempt,” an effort in the right direction.

But over the years I have come to love the “question” format.  Each “article” within the “question” is a dehydrated debate.  Just add imagination, and you have a rowdy crowd of objectors who even disagree with each other and an enthusiastic team of supporters whose support is sometimes as embarrassing as the objections, and in between them the master whose mental agility alone can keep order.  Here are just a few of the things I like about the “question” format: Continue reading “5 reasons I love the scholastic “question””

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Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis on Marriage and Family

By chance, I received a copy of the Pope’s new apostolic exhortation yesterday, about nine hours before it was published.  So of course I started skimming it, if only to enjoy my brief time of being “in the know”:  never forget, all you bloggers and blog readers, that when it comes to Amoris Laetitia I’m nine hours ahead of you.  And I always will be.  😉

On a quick first-skim, I think there are two things to say about the document: Continue reading “Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis on Marriage and Family”

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The universal call to theology?

Today a friend asked me about the distinction between philosophy and theology. In the course of responding, I said what I have said before on this blog, namely that theology is what happens when faith gets to follow its own impulses. He then asked me, reasonably enough, whether it is not important to distinguish between faith and theology.

Yes, I said, of course it is: you can’t be saved without faith, but you can be saved without “doing theology.” Similarly, everyone is capable of faith, but not everyone is capable of becoming a theologian.

But one must be careful about drawing these lines too sharply. Trying to distinguish between theology and faith is a lot like trying to distinguish between the religious life and the universal call to holiness: Continue reading “The universal call to theology?”

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The real secret to preventing atrocities

“Certainty is dangerous; it makes people do terrible things to each other.” I’ve heard this view in the learned discourse of scholars and in the rough-and-tumble commentary of day laborers; it comes up in academic journals, at the local book club, and in the social media. Everywhere it is brought forth as something obvious: People who doubt their convictions cannot go to war or kill people for disagreeing. We need to doubt even our sincerest convictions, for the sake of civilization.

CCI04252009_00006The claim appeals in part because it contains a grain of truth: certainty in and of itself leads to action, while doubt in and of itself leads to inaction. As a result, certainty brings the advantages and disadvantages of action, while doubt brings the advantages and disadvantages of inaction. Consider:

  • Did slavery in America end because people came to doubt whether the black man was inferior? Or did it slavery in America end because people became certain that the black man was equal?
  • Did the push for women’s rights draw strength from uncertainty about whether women should have a different status from men, or did it draw strength from a growing conviction that they should have the same status as men?
  • Does an addict kick his habit because he has come to doubt whether he should keep it, or does he kick his habit because he has become convinced that he should drop it?

Continue reading “The real secret to preventing atrocities”

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The place of theology in liberal education

A friend and former classmate from my grad-school days recently wrote to me about the role of theology in a liberal education. He explained that he has been turning over in his mind an old, familiar argument for why theology should be the heart of a liberal education, but he has begun to wonder whether this argument is after all the best one. The argument goes like this:

A genuinely liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology. For liberal education aims at the knowledge proper to the free man. Now the free man, in contradistinction from the slave, is one who lives not for the sake of another, but for his own sake; hence his life consists in activities choice-worthy in themselves. The kind of knowledge that he will pursue, therefore, will be knowledge worth exercising for its own sake, and this will be theoretical knowledge rather than practical knowledge. But theoretical knowledge is desirable because it perfects the knower as a knower; to engage in it is to exercise one’s intellect in the most perfect way. But knowledge, considered in itself, is defined by its object; hence the most perfect knowledge will be knowledge of the most perfect object. And this is God. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the acquisition of the knowledge of God. But the science whose proper object is God is sacred theology. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology.

My friend’s unease with this seemingly ironclad reasoning is that the motive for studying theology ends up being so that I can perfect myself—while the real motive for theology seems to come from the supernatural virtue of charity, of love for God. As it happens, in our efforts to define the role of theology at Wyoming Catholic College my friends and I have wrestled with the above argument for a long time. Continue reading “The place of theology in liberal education”

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It’s all downhill from Damasus

While the Catholic blogosphere explodes with news of the Synod, I have tried not to think much about it. “It gets darker and darker,” a friend wrote on Facebook, “worse than the worst of the Dark Ages or the Renaissance.”

To keep my mind off the present, I read about the past. I have finally found a biography of St. Jerome that I like: Saint Jerome and His Times, by Jean Steinmann. The major critical biography by J.N.D. Kelly and the shorter but more recent work by Stefan Rebenich both suffer from the same problem: the authors despise St. Jerome. It’s like reading Ann Coulter’s biography of Hillary Clinton.

But Steinmann reveres the great doctor. He also does a marvelous job of setting the scene around Jerome, with all its drama and brilliant characters. Yesterday I chanced upon this manly bit about Jerome’s one-time employer, Pope Damasus:

The death of Pope Liberius in 366 saw the Christian community in Rome divided. The die-hards, who were in the minority, met in the basilica of St. Mary Trastevere, where seven priests and three deacons elected the deacon Ursinus Pope and consecrated him. Meantime, the majority of the clergy and the faithful were meeting in the basilica of St. Lawrence of Lucina, where they elected the deacon Damasus Bishop of Rome. When they heard of Ursinus’s election, the supporters of Damasus attacked the occupants of St. Mary’s. For three days Rome was torn by riots in which people were killed. Damasus won the day. He was consecrated, and the Prefect of Rome took his side, possibly as a result of Evagrios’s representations to the Emporer, and exiled Ursinus. When Ursinus’s supporters went on meeting and holding services in the Trastevere basilica, the Prefect had his priests arrested. Their congregation set them free. The followers of Damasus made up their minds to settle the question once and for all, and stormed the basilica of St. Mary again, and this time more than a hundred people were killed in the rioting.

A year later, Ursinus came back to Rome, and the trouble started all over again. The faithful of the two conflicting churches were involved in constant and sometimes bloody clashes, and the pagan Pretextatus, the new Prefect of Rome, disdainfully commented that this was a curious way of showing charity. The feud put the Church to shame.

Oh, for the good old days, when prelates killed each other with actual knives and clubs! In my imagination I see our wimpy modern cardinals at the Synod’s opening Mass, exchanging the sign of peace with fingers crossed behind their backs. Their backstabbing is so metaphorical! Silly redhats, proud of their “cutting” remarks. How have we fallen so far?

You can learn a lot about a man by locating his “downhill point”: where does he think the slide began? Everything in the Church started going downhill—at what point? Do you put it at Francis? Vatican II? Trent? One historian I know says everything has gone downhill since the Council of Florence in 1439.

Maybe the “downhill point” was the election of Pope Damasus in 366. Or maybe the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, where bishops voted on doctrine with spears in their backs. Somehow, we’ve just never recovered that spirit.

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