Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Terrible Silence of Jesus Christ

The Passion Sunday reading of Christ's judgement and execution contains a vignette eerily relevant to our times. Pontius Pilate is confronted when Christ claims to have come into the world to bear witness to the Truth. His answer is the response of a devastated intellect: "The Truth. What is that?"

Jesus' answer to Pilate was silence, and this is a cause for wonder. Jesus was asked many questions during His public ministry, and there is no other record of Him refusing to answer. Often His answers opened up wider and higher vistas than the questioner expected, but were always to the point. But in this case, not so much as a word. Why?

In his response, Pilate speaks for the nihilism prevalent in the late classical period, and which also dominates modern philosophy. The artist Frank Pash once remarked that some people feel sorry for Pilate, but he didn't: "He would have crucified anyone who gave him a headache". Though it wasn't Pilate who said "it is better for one man to die than the nation be destroyed", he was an exemplar of the means-justifies-the-end functionaries who dominate the public forums of late modernity, and who give us a US political race between an Abortion Party and a Torture Party. It's more common than we realise.

Writing in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II warned that modern philosophy "rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being."

There is such a thing as intellectual vice, a fixed deformation of intellect that is the consequence of a persistent habit of thought. The intellect deformed by the false humility of nihilism is incapable of even acknowledging a truth to be approached. Ultimately, this vice leaves us self-blinded, incapable of repairing our own capacity for knowing, and cutting us off from the truth that saves: "If thine eye be darkened, thy whole body shall be full of darkness". The properly formed intellect sees the true and the good clearly, and orders its conduct accordingly. But the deformed intellect, blind to the true and good, sees no intrinsic moral order beyond the arbitrariness of power. The false humility both masks and empowers an arbitrary will.

To such a person, no answer will suffice because no answer can really be heard. Humanly, this person has passed the point of no return. The contemplation of this hellish state might lead us to despair of the person so trapped.

The grace of God transcends our notions of possibility, but the terrible silence of Jesus Christ reminds us that we cannot take this grace for granted. We do not know if Pilate later came to repent of his hardness of heart. But, at least on this occasion, God chose not to intervene.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Nobody but us

At the Lion and the Cardinal:

"God has entrusted the care of his Church in this world until the parousia to humanity. It is by building it in the territory of the enemy that we participate in the action of Providence in history, and are sanctified. God certainly can assist in extraordinary ways; the remarkable resiliency of the Church at times can only be explained by divine intervention. But nothing of Justice demands that God raise up a new group of saints and heroes and geniuses to fix everything as a matter of course.When the Church needs saints and heroes and geniuses, it may have nobody but us. And most of us are too damnably proud of our false humility to even attempt heroic sanctity. "

Do we really want to love others with the love that would make us saints or heroes or even geniuses? Do we even have the courage to be loved?

Or do we settle with being merely comforted?

Forgetting what it means to remember

Anthony Esolen, Dante translator and professor of English at Providence College, on the Catholic Church's crisis of confidence:

"For the fathers of the [Second Vatican] Council did not see that they could not have undertaken their task in a less promising time. They mistook the signs of that time. They thought that they had to scale again the promontory of wisdom, to renew for the people of their day the insights into a truth that is everlasting. But they could not see that those same people were rapidly forgetting what it means to remember; theage was not replacing one culture with another, but culture itself with nothing, with the anarchy of individual choice, which becomes little more than the managed chaos of mass entertainment and humanly pointless work. For we were finally rich enough to afford the ceaseless idleness of a hamster on his wheel.

"In such a time, the task was not to enculturate the Church, because there would in fact be no culture for the Church to leaven. It was to preserve, by and in the Church, the precious memory of culture itself."

If we were in a new Dark Age, would we notice? Does a barbarian recognise his barbarism?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

In the Name of the Father

I have observed with dismay the recent controversy over the Vatican’s ruling on baptism. What has dismayed me is the profound theological ignorance amongst Catholics that this affair has exposed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of Christian belief. Therefore, a failure to grasp this doctrine undermines the entire intellectual content of faith. In the failure of many to understand why the ruling was necessary and indeed essential to preserve a genuinely Christian belief, we have also exposed the rottenness of our catechesis.

Certain parishes, many in Australia, have been baptising in the name of "The Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer" or similar neologisms. This has been in place of the traditional formula "The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" which dates back to the time of the Apostles.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently ruled that all baptisms conducted with these new formulations are invalid. This means that these baptisms were ineffective, and that persons so baptised are not members of the Catholic Church. They are therefore ineligible to receive the other sacraments, and any sacraments they may have participated in (such as Confirmation) are also invalid.

Why does this formula matter so much? Because our understanding of the Trinity, expressed in the formula “Father, Son and Spirit”, is the foundation of Christianity.

The three Persons of the Trinity are each God in His fullness. Each lacks nothing of the divine nature. In this sense they are all the same. They only thing that distinguishes the Persons from each other is the nature of the (asymmetric) relationships between them. The nature of these loving relationships is the only thing we can know about the Persons of the Trinity. And our knowledge of this internal life is the crucial difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. Other key Christian beliefs such as the Incarnation and Catholic ecclesiology only make sense in the light of this revealed knowledge.

This has a profound consequence: when change our understanding of the relationships between the Persons, we change our understanding of the Trinity, and we alter the content of every Christian belief.

The Trinitarian nature of God is a fact that we could never know without God's revelation of Himself. This revelation reached its completion in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. And we know from His own words that the nature of the relationship between the Himself and the First Person is best described as that between a Father and a Son. This knowledge is His gift to us, and is not something made or discovered by us.

Something is dramatically changed when we abandon the idea of Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the idea of Creator, Liberator and Sustainer. A Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit that intrinsically proceeds from them, are intrinsically related. Just as importantly, they are related only to one another, and their internal relationships are entirely sufficient to define them. God’s independence from His creation, which he needn’t have created, is clearly acknowledged.

But a Creator, a Liberator and a Sustainer are not intrinsically related, and are three different persons with three different natures. The internal nature of the Trinity has been denied. They bear no obvious relation to one another at all. Instead, these persons are defined in relation to the created world. For clearly, a Creator is defined by what it creates, a Liberator is defined by the one whom he liberates, and a Sustainer is defined by the one he sustains. This formula is an expression of tritheism, and these three gods are only defined in relation to a creation on which they are now intrinsically dependent. The theological implication is a drift away from Trinitarianism, and towards polytheism and pantheism.

A typically modern (or hyper-modern) response is that any insistence on a particular formula is “magical thinking”. But this response is an intellectual dead end. If formulas don’t matter, then it is perfectly permissible to baptise in the name of Larry, Moe and Curly. The evident absurdity of this formula springs from our immediate recognition that Larry, Moe and Curly have no saving power, and that it would be ridiculous to call on them to save us from Sin.

In the real world, words are not meaningless. Father, Son and Holy Spirit simply do not mean the same thing as Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer - or Mother, Daughter and Spirit for the matter.

But at least Larry, Moe and Curly really existed. How absurd would it be to baptise in the name of a divine threesome who, thanks to revelation, we know never existed at all?
UPDATE: Caught in the media headlights, Fr Jim Spence in Brisbane gets it wrong:
"It doesn't mean it's invalid, it just means it's illicit", he said. "It doesn't
mean that it didn't happen, it means that it shouldn't have happened.
Wrong. The question that the Congregation addressed was whether these irregular baptisms were VALID. The answer was an unqualified negative, meaning that the baptisms were completely ineffective. If priests can't tell the difference between invalid (completely ineffective) and illicit (effective, but shouldn't have been done), what hope is the laity supposed to have?