Back in 2002 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005) published his three book-length interview, God and the World, his second such work with the German journalist Peter Seewald.
Despite the fact that the book is thirteen years old and that Ratzinger/Benedict is now living out the remainder of his life essentially out of the public eye, the interview remains a powerful text, worthy of consideration and reflection. In this post, I’d like to highlight one excerpt that relates to recentposts here at Cruciform.
Seewald asks the Cardinal about Jesus’ enthusiastic love for children, and quotes Matthew 11:25: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes.” Ratzinger comments thusly:
Something I’ve realized over the last several years is that people who are not very familiar with the Christian (specifically Catholic) tradition on sin — and this includes both Catholics and other Christians — tend to associate belief in sin with backward, repressive, irrational thinking. In other words, to seriously call something “sinful” implies that you are irrational and backward, that you are restricting yourself from achieving happiness by submitting to an apparently arbitrary and irrational moral code.
Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”
Sin is defined as first being an offense against — what? — reason. According to the Catechism, a sinful act is an act against right reason, i.e. it is an irrational act. This same idea was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century; Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologiae that — among other things — sin is “contrary to reason” (I-II, Q. 71, A. 6). This understanding of sin is aptly explained by the 20th century german philosopher Joseph Pieper in his book, The Concept of Sin. Pieper also shows how — again, according to long-standing Catholic thought — a sinful act goes against our nature. In other words, to commit a sin is to in some way deny or prevent the fulfillment of what it is to be human.
So, contrary to widespread intuitions today, to believe in sin is not to be irrational, but in fact to commit sin is irrational. This furthermore means that one can discuss the sinful character of particular actions in the context of public policy discussions, because this sinful character can also be considered the irrational character of such actions. I’m not advocating using the word “sin” in this sort of format — precisely because of the common misunderstanding of its meaning — but rather I am arguing against a tendency to throw out arguments because they discuss acts in terms of sin “instead of” reason. In fact — as I have shown above — sins are by definition irrational, and this feature allows us to make arguments against such acts that can’t be dismissed by categorizing them as “arguments from sin”.
How might this understanding of sin change how you discuss this topic with others?
Catholics and many other Christians don’t ask why enough.
This might seem to some to be obviously false, given that plenty of people question Church teaching. But I’m not talking about questioning Church teaching in the sense of doubting it; yes, Catholics who disagree with Church teaching (i.e. dissenters) do that aplenty, but what they don’t do is ask “Why?” with sufficient depth, with the goal of truly seeking to understand what the Church teaches on topic X and why she teaches that. In the case of most dissenters I’ve encountered, their “why?” is unfortunately something more like “Well, that’s silly, I don’t believe that,” without any substantial engagement with the Church’s teaching, without any grappling with the inner rationale of the doctrine.
For all of us, there are two ways ask “why?”. One looks like this:
The other looks like this:
And all of us are called to ask it in the first sense.
Remember the greatest commandment: love God with your whole heart, mind and soul. As our everyday experience of love indicates, you can’t love what you don’t know, and you can’t grow deeper in love without growing deeper in knowledge. We are called to grow deeper in knowledge of Church teaching not merely so that we have a greater intellectual grasp of our Catholic beliefs — although that is certainly essential — but so that we can grow in our love for God, so that we can grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Catholic doctrine isn’t mere abstract theological mental gymnastics… it matters to my life, to our life, to the life of each and every human being. There is no doubt that there is great intellectual depth to Church teaching, but we cannot forget that those teachings have a real impact — or ought to have a real impact — on our existence.
The evangelization efforts of many Catholics today are focused on demonstrating the truth and rationality of Catholic teaching, and rightly so. But we cannot stop at a demonstration of the truth of Catholicism… we need to show its relevance as well. I’m not saying — as some do — that we need to make it relevant… it already is relevant. Just as we are called not to make doctrine true but to reveal its truth, so too are we called not to make Christianity relevant but to reveal its relevance. There are all sorts of truths which have little or no bearing on my life: the atomic weight of iridium, for example, matters little to my day-to-day existence.
The truths of Christianity, however, are far different. Despite the fact that Church teaching can seem abstract and overly-intellectual, the reality is that these truths do speak to our daily existence, if we allow them to.
We need to be encouraging ourselves and our fellow Catholics and other Christians to ask “Why?” even more, not less. The more we know, the more we can love.
“The Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but is above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” As I’ve said often when giving presentations on discipleship, this quote doesn’t come from Billy Graham, but from Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, the brilliant German theologian not given to flights of rhetorical fancy.
While this sort of language is foreign to many Catholics, as this quote illustrates, it’s not foreign to our popes; similar statements from Benedict and both his predecessor and successor could be multiplied. One more from Benedict will suffice for this post:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (God is Love, 1).
As this Easter Season draws to a close, may we grow closer to the Risen One who lives in our midst: Jesus of Nazareth, alive and present in the midst of the community of His disciples. May He open our eyes that we might see Him and embrace Him.
The difficulties and scandals that we face in the Church today are real, but not new: unfortunately, even when it comes to sin, it seems that there is nothing new under the sun.
And yet, the solution is the same: sanctity.
Back in 2002, in the midst of the uproar over the priestly sex abuse scandal in the United States, now-deceased Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete told journalist Michael Sean Winters this:
If, in addition to all the terrible things we have learned, if tomorrow it was revealed that the pope had a harem, that all the cardinals had made money on Enron stock and were involved in Internet porno, then the situation of the Church today would be similar to the situation of the Church in the late twelfth century … when Francis of Assisi first kissed a leper.
Not only does this quote give some perspective to how bad things have been at various points in the Church’s history (and how things today are far from the worst), it points to the solution: saints. Commenting on Msgr. Albacete’s words at the time, Fr. Richard Neuhaus in turn said this: “In short, the Church will only be renewed by saints, meaning sinners — bishops, priests, and all the faithful — responding to the universal call to holiness.”
One of the things I struggle with is Critical Cultural Consumption: how to “consume” things that the culture offers me (movies, music, tv, books, etc.) but in a thoughtful, intentional way (i.e. critical in the best sense) in which I take the good, true & beautiful while leaving the bad, false & ugly.
I alluded to this struggle in my last post when I referred to two of the ways that we as Christians can engage the culture: by evaluating existing culture and by creating new culture, or, to use the image I proposed at the end of the post, by being a “movie critic” or a “movie maker”. As I mentioned there, being a “movie critic” entails that “sifting” process of separating the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the true from the false when we engage or even simply “consume” things in our culture.
I know that leaving the bad, false & ugly is necessary… consuming everything the culture offers me without any thought or discernment is like eating without paying any attention to the nutritional value of the food.
And while the monastic or Amish approach — leaving the world behind almost completely and consuming almost nothing from the wider culture whatsoever — might work for some, I think most of us are called to be what’s in the title of the previous post: in the world, but not of the world. That’s where the level — or better, manner — of engagement becomes a bit trickier to get right.
As I said, this is a balance I can struggle to get right… this will be one of the recurring Culture topics here at Cruciform. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts that any of you might have: how do you maintain that balance in your own life?
The mission which Jesus has given to all members of the Church — and to the lay faithful in a particular way — entails being in the world but not of the world (cf. John 17:15-16). As lay Christians, we are called to engage the culture in which we live — or more accurately, the variety of cultures in which we live — in order to transform them.
This means that we, as Christians, must determine how to best and most effectively engage the culture in which we live, how to make a difference in the lives of those around us, in the places not only where we live but where we work, shop and recreate. We are called, in other words, to be engaged with the world without being worldly, in order to make our culture(s) more Christ-like.
This topic is a central theme of Cruciform, as the subtitle of the site indicates: exploring the intersection of Christianity and culture. In this post I’d like to introduce this topic and note some of its key points.
Bringing transformation to our culture can often be a challenge, for the reason found in the title of this post: “in the world but not of the world”. As Christians — and in a particular way as lay Christians — we are called to live in, to act in, to be in the world, but not to be of the world, and getting that distinction right is crucial if we are to most effectively engage the culture in which we live, if we are to make a difference, if we are to make an impact rather than just be impacted on.
There are really two different issues at play here: the first is the task of engaging the culture in which we find ourselves by evaluating it: analyzing it, sifting it, determining its principles and presuppositions, embracing its truth, goodness and beauty while discarding its error, evil and ugliness, etc.; the second is the task of engaging that culture by creating new culture, culture which more deeply reflects reality, culture which more fully embodies truth, goodness and beauty, culture which makes us look both out and within in new ways.
Think of the first task as the movie critic and the second as the movie maker: they are obviously different roles, but they are both important and essential. And in some way, we are all called to do both. How? That’s the question that we’re going to examine and answer in future posts.
What has been your experience of being a “movie critic” or “movie maker”?
In my post on Monday I mentioned that I am best able to avoid the various distortions or reductions of the faith by means of a regular (daily) prayer life, and in particular, a prayer life centered on prayerful reading of the Holy Bible.
In fact, one of the most powerful of the many forms of prayer in the Christian tradition is reflection and meditation on the words of the Bible. And even within this form of prayer are a variety of specific ways of doing so.One form of praying with Scripture that’s very ancient but has also seen a resurgence among Christians over the last few decades is called lectio divina (LEK-tseeo dee-VEE-na), which is latin for divine reading. This is the approach that I (attempt to!) use, and I’d like to explain it a bit here.
Having originated in the sixth century A.D. particularly within the early monasteries founded by St. Benedict, lectio divina consists of four (or five) steps. Entire books have been written on this process (here’s a helpful blog post), and I’ll have more to say in future posts, but in summary, here are the steps:
Reading: a slow reading of a passage from Scripture
Meditation: a prayerful reflection on the passage
Prayer: one’s attention now turns from the passage to God, addressing Him in light of the passage
Contemplation: now instead of addressing God in prayer, one simply rests in His presence, contemplating Him
(Some add Action: a resolution to a specific action based on this time of prayer)
Over the last four years lectio divina has been an important part of my own personal prayer, helping me listen more and talk less (a topic on which I have much to say, pun intended ;-).
What forms of praying with the Bible have you found helpful?
In yesterday’s post I referred to doctrine, morality and piety as (potential) false idols. One might have rightly asked, “Really? Who worships false idols these days? I haven’t seen any golden calves around in quite some time.”
That’s certainly true: we no longer build statues made out of precious metals and worship them as deities. But that doesn’t mean that idol worship has gone completely by the wayside… it’s simply become more subtle and sophisticated.
I’d like to take a short post to briefly explain.
In short, we commit idol worship anytime we place at the center of our lives anything but God. Yesterday’s post was focused on some of the ways that those who are striving to follow Him can unwittingly fall into idol worship by placing some good things at the center.
And that gets to an important point: a false idol isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we “worship”: it can be a good thing, too. It’s simply giving anything — good or bad — greater centrality in our lives than we ought to.
So idol worship could be drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc., but it can also be good things that we actually overvalue: our work, our hobby, or even our relationships… it’s possible to replace God at the center of our lives with our friends or family, even our spouses or children.
We are both called and empowered to live an integrated life, in which we give everything its due. When we fail to do so, when we over- or undervalue anything significant… we run into problems. And that’s not to say that an angry old guy with a white beard “up there” is going to shake his finger at us… it’s to say that when we misprioritize anything of significance, the result is dis-order in our lives… dis-integration.
Like it or not, we are hardwired by God, for God. In the oft-quoted words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” When we get the center right, everything else falls into place. But when we don’t…
Yesterday I mentioned that one of my temptations is to overvalue doctrine; another of my temptations is to overvalue technology, to give it greater due than I ought. I tend to do this by having my cell phone at hand and obsessively checking my email — work & personal — when I might be spending that time being fully present to my wife and my children.
I find it helpful to reflect regularly on this: what are the things in my life that I overvalue? What are the things that I’m giving more time or effort to than is due them? In short… what are my personal false idols?
How’s that for a title? As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s entirely possible for a Christian to make false idols out of certain teachings (doctrine), certain behaviors (morality) or certain prayers or ways of praying (piety). How? By putting them at the center of his faith in place of what belongs there: Jesus of Nazareth. As odd as it may seem to you, I know that it’s possible… I’ve done it.
I need to be absolutely clear here: in no way am I saying that doctrine, morality and piety are bad or even unimportant. On the contrary, they are both good and essential.
What I am saying is that they are not the beating heart of our faith. No, that place belongs only to Jesus Christ. Right doctrine, morality and piety flow from Him… they cannot replace Him. As soon as we elevate any of them to the center of our faith we have erected a false idol and have reduced Christianity to something else: ideology, moralism or pietism, none of which is authentic Christianity.