Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

23 January 2015

Rabbit? Run!

The latest papal obiter dictum (read: leaving on a jet plane) concerned his contention that good Catholics do not have to "be...like rabbits" when it comes to family size.

It may be accurate, though picayune, to insist that Pope Francis did not say, *breed* like rabbits, as the phrase typically is attested. Be...breed...whatever.

This post of Dr. Gregory Popčak is informative, especially his reference to paragraph 50 of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

One segment of the citation clears up this breeding problem (emphases mine):
...in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.
Before reading the Popčak piece, I recalled a phrase that I picked up at some point in the seminary: humano modo. Context? Glad you asked:
Can. 1061 §1. A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion [humano modo] a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh. {source}
A "human manner"--a manner suitable to free and rational creatures who are "now called children of God, for that is what we are" (1 Jn 3:1). A human manner presumes a total investment of self that is permanent, exclusive, and open to new life. A human manner is not "arbitrary" and casual, fit for public display and risible observation.

Can rabbits marry each other--or dogs, cats, gerbils, or even the most intelligent orangutans? Does a total investment of self that is permanent, exclusive, and open to new life ("openness" being a uniquely human possibility) even occur to rabbits, or any of the other animals? The sexual expression of rabbits and other animals is instinctual, not free and rational.

Now maybe scientists and others have observed in animals some approximation to human love. Every concern for the other as other certainly participates in, derives from, divine love--and cannot  otherwise exist. But we are not animals; and Pope Francis is reminding us that the Catholic Church wants responsible parents who must decide wisely and generously how they will cooperate with God's gift of generation. Indiscriminate copulation, devoid of devotion, will not suffice.

Maybe I'm a "speciesist" by insisting that, however tender we may deem it to be, the procreation and rearing of animals is different from human love both in degree and in kind. Maybe my take doesn't catch the spirit of the Holy Father's words any more than the rereading by any author in the mainstream media (or even this article), but I offer it nonetheless.

11 January 2015

The Tonight Show and The Baptism of the Lord

While Johnny Carson may remain for many the all-time favorite host of The Tonight Show, I am also fond of the newest host, Jimmy Fallon. He has a whimsical, self-effacing wit, and embraces technology in his skits. He fits in with the younger generation [although, after the first Mass, an older woman came up to me, put her arm on my shoulder, and said, "I like Jimmy Fallon, too" and walked along--which made the day]. Whatever shoes he's had to fill, he seems content to be himself.
Just the other night Jimmy was interviewing actress Nicole Kidman. He recalled that they had met ten years before. On that occasion, a friend of Jimmy called him to say that he wanted to bring Nicole Kidman by his apartment.

Jimmy later realized, and Nicole affirmed, that it was a set-up date, and he’d given her a rather bland reception: playing video games, not talking much. Nicole then revealed that she had been romantically interested in Jimmy, but he was clueless about it! Imagine: he could have been Mr. Nicole Kidman—if he wasn’t so—aargh! The whole interview unraveled rather humorously after that admission, but they took it in stride. Although the awkwardness of the past could not be erased or redone, the interview opened the door to a new perspective in friendship.

Many times in life we recognize a choice before us, and many times there doesn’t seem to be a choice. In that instant when Jimmy realized the opportunity he’d missed, the audience also could see the present outcome, where both are happily married with children.

After watching the interview I wondered whether there were any times I was simply unaware of others’ intentions about me, and how things might have been different, especially if I had handled them better. But that practice is a kind of spiritual and emotional quicksand. My thoughts needed to turn to a more productive and worthwhile theme: the mysterious workings of God’s Providence, which aims to reinforce within each of us our fundamental identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.

That’s what Baptism does for us: makes us children of God, heirs of heaven, temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. It frees us from the Original Sin and, in the case of adults, from any personal sins we have committed. Baptism confers upon us a new identity and a new mission, leaving behind the way that leads to death. Though, like Jimmy with Nicole, we may be unaware of God’s loving intentions for us, through Baptism He inaugurates for us the strange and wonderful journey that is discipleship, where, though we participate freely, there is always Another Hand at work.

Along our life’s course we will stray, we will miss the mark, we will sin. Not just instances of wry regret like the way that Jimmy Fallon initially regarded Nicole Kidman, but snubs of the most meaningful relationships of our lives: intentional choices against God’s commandments to love Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. But no sinful choice that we ever make will erase our splendid identity as God’s beloved, made for communion with Him. That’s not to say that we can’t reject that communion or don’t need to repair it; but, even if we rejected it completely, we’d still have been made for it, which would add all the more to the frustration that is hell.

But God the Son fully identified Himself with the human race by becoming man and submitting Himself to the baptismal waters. He knew and owned His identity as the Father’s Beloved and the Savior of mankind. Through Baptism He invites all to receive that dignity and to walk in that dignity each day. In view of that wise and loving plan, God will use even our sins and our missed chances for His glory and for the good of all. Though much of life may cause real and deserved shame, God allows us to participate in our redemption and renewal.

03 January 2015

Take Me To What?


I saw this song being featured on iTunes, but it wasn't until a friend tipped me off to it that I paid it any real attention. Irish singer Andrew Hozier-Byrne, who goes by Hozier, rocketed to fame with his hit "Take Me To Church."

Now my friend jokingly marketed it to me as a song advocating Mass attendance; but when I gave it a listen, and followed up with cursory research on the song and the artist, I experienced mixed admiration, irritation, and shame.

Admiration, because I like Hozier's warm and full voice. The song is growing on me, too. "Church" is a dramatic, almost maudlin ballad with its pulsating beat and haunting background voices. It's very serious. I wonder if he's the type of person who can enjoy a chuckle; and if not, I'd like to sit him down to a Three Stooges or Monty Python marathon and see how he does.

I admit, however, that it could just be the aura necessary for this piece. After all, we're not allowed to act up in church! But tell that to his funeral-mocking lover, whom he seems to admire for her humor.

Hozier was born in 1990, around when most of my high school students were born (I taught between 2004 and 2006). Since my days as a teacher I have begun to take note of "his generation," and of generations in general--their differences, the way that other generations perceive them, etc. I don't at all style myself a theorist on these matters, but that's never kept me from theorizing, yea, even with curmudgeonly notes.

Millennials and younger sense that they are living in a moral and doctrinal wasteland. At once they object to it and wallow in it, precisely in songs like this. Hasn't that been the way of artists, though? I have to give it to millennials. They've been holding up all right, given the circumstances of their age.

Irritation and shame are of a piece. The Church has proved for Hozier and many of his generation woefully insufficient, what with its allegedly homophobic and frigid teachings alongside its abusive and elusive representatives. Besides the dearth of sound modeling, there's also the drought of catechesis and devotion. Can we therefore blame him and his generation for turning to idols? Theirs isn't even a defection; they never really came to know the Way, the Truth, and Life at all! We've been fiddling while Rome's been burning.

Hozier alludes to a line of "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens: "Born sick, but commanded to be well." If I understand this line (admittedly ignorant of its context), he posits a conflict between the Church's doctrine of original sin and her demanding moral teachings, especially with respect to the "pelvic issues" of the sixth and ninth commandments.

Hozier declares that his religion "has no absolutes," but he would fain fashion his lover (or how he feels about himself when he's with her) into an absolute. We've heard that contradiction before: "How can you say there is no absolute truth? Isn't that very statement an absolute?" One's own will or whim becomes the absolute, the standard. But worship we will--and the object of one's worship will, as he notes, "demand a sacrifice," even if it be one's own understanding and freedom.

He is right to say that there are "lots of starving faithful." While some of the Church's leaders were on their alleged "high horse," his generation has been starving for rich fare. Spare no doctrine! Spare no liturgical beauty! But only when mired in his brand of madness, free of "masters and kings" (oppressive hierarchy? oppressive everyone?) does he style himself "human" and "clean." It's hard to get any headway here, because madness consumes.

Our worshipper is not asking for pity. He is declaring his righteousness and piety before everyone. What more can be said? Yes, he is promoting the (hedonistic) worship of his "lover," a "goddess" who "demands a sacrifice." In the absence of the God of revelation, eros seems to be a trusted place to hang one's hat--trusted in the sense of typical, expected, and accessible.

Fulton Sheen and others spoke often of how we are hard-wired, geared by nature, to worship, to outpour ourselves. If the object of our worship is not God, then go with whoever or whatever else offers ecstasy, escape of oneself. But substitutes soon prove fatally flawed, and soon betray the sad fact that their slaves (dogs, he calls them!) are really worshipping the image of themselves that they see in the other. A human being is a fine wine that cannot be made into a reduction.

We have far to go with the evangelization of this generation. One place we can start is the sense of bleakness that people rightly experience amid the surfeit of earthly desires. Someone can satisfy!

This task, this responsibility, this mission--"Let it begin with me." How else will it continue?

15 December 2014

On Animals in Heaven and The Insufficiency of God

For several reasons I stepped aside from The Shipwrack-Harvest, but knowing that this medium has brought some satisfaction to me and to a few readers, I am picking up the pen once again. No promises of frequency, however. As with everything, I will enjoy what happens while it lasts as God's gift.

In the past week we have witnessed a stir over the subject of Pope Francis reportedly saying that animals will be in heaven. This USA Today article describes how the whole tale swung so swiftly, with misquotations aplenty. How writers could pick up on false leads (or even true ones) and craft sizable articles bolstered with commentary, and do it all so quickly, and do it amid other responsibilities, stymies me. It's one reason I stopped writing for so long.

It seems undeniably true that the mainstream news media have found in Pope Francis a favored son, someone whose gentle appearance and easy manner they can unfairly (and inaccurately) contrast with his mean, doctrinaire predecessor, Father Benedict. I'm afraid this trope won't go away. We'll be seeing media conflations, inflations, and speculations for the remainder of Francis' papacy.

To return to the subject of this recent beef: the possibility, indeed necessity, of animals in heaven.

The following is not relevant to the discussion, but I suspect that people may wonder where I stand with respect to having animals and with animal owners. While I love animals, I won't likely ever have one as a pet (especially a cat, which will probably end up in hell anyhow). I respect people who do. I want to appreciate the profound attachment that pet caregivers can develop. It's an attachment that I don't want to develop, because I am unduly attached to many things as it is. Moreover, the care that pets need exceeds what I am willing and able to provide.

Along with Pope Francis, however, I do share the concern that people may divert undue attention, funds, etc. to pets. Cohabiting and married couples can have "fur babies" instead of human ones. Unwilled infertility is another matter, of course--that is a real cross, sadly downplayed in a material,  insecure world. Every couple must strive to be conscious of the choices they make and the fears that may inhibit them from making other choices (e.g. adoption of children). Openness to children, however God sends them, remains a constitutive element of marital love.

But what a risk is a child! Someone who may not cuddle up to you when you need him, someone who will eventually snub you, loudly shut her door, and exclaim, "You don't understand!" when you are the one who wants to be understood. Someone who will "cost" you, and the government, lots of money over the years, who will be considered a burden from the beginning. Someone you won't be able to put down once she's gotten too sick...at least for now.

Scholastic theology has affirmed that animals do have souls. Every living reality has a soul--the tailor-made principle that informs and enlivens the body and distinguishes it from all others of its type. There are three levels of soul: the vegetative (found in plants), the sentient (non-human animals), and the rational (human persons). The vegetative soul can take in nourishment and give off waste products. The sentient can do what the vegetative does, but also feel and communicate with its surroundings. It operates according to instinct, and can seem to be motivated even by care and altruism. The rational can do what the sentient and vegetative does, but also can think and choose freely.

The powers of the rational soul are precisely what constitute man and woman as "in the image of God"--and this before the Son forever assumed human nature. As the inspired author of Hebrews reminds us, God did not become an angel (a purely spiritual creature). Nor did God become an purely instinct-driven animal. God took on the form of the very kind of creature who could (and did) reject Him. The human ability to choose for the good of another for the other's sake is, in a word, love. Regarding the expressions of affection and heroic displays of care that animals have shown toward their own and even toward human beings, I will call that love, but only in a derivative sense. (Basta così.)

Rather than speculate on the eternal fate of the animals, I would rather direct my attention to the eternal fate of human persons. While God's love extends to all creation, I do not consider arrogant the unique and profound claim that human persons--free and rational beings--exert upon that love. We are as undeserving of that love as the rest of creation, but we are most apt for that love because we alone are made in God's image.

Then there are our human, inadequate-by-definition concepts of heaven, marred by sentimentalism and other wounds of our fallen nature. Since earth (our fallen condition) is our current reference point, we base our ideas of heaven on it. Our concepts of heaven can be as self-centered--certainly as inadequate--as we are here on earth.

I can understand people imagining a life with perfect freedom from all adverse situations and consequences. Given our earthly trials, there is merit to such an image; but at its worst it expresses longing for the kind of free-for-all that we can't seem to get away with here on earth. A huge bash, promising eternal satisfaction to the point of surfeit, servants peeling us grapes and so forth. Calories mean nothing, so we can eat and eat and eat! But where is love in that? Where is sacrificial giving, caring for the other "just because"? It sounds like the kind of theological conclusion that follows from a model of prayer as making nice with God, trying to placate Him or stroke His ego--working to end up with the best possible retirement policy.

I have wondered why God's own Life, God's own Presence, wouldn't be enough for people in heaven. Why all the extras? What, you may ask, do I consider an "extra"? Anything that is not God. I do not have to know what the specifics of heaven include, except that God is. If animals and trees and music (even Sinatra's!) are there, fine; if not, that's fine too. I'm happy to note, however, that prophetic presentations of the worship around God's throne include singing...a new hymn, commissioned for a new heavens and a new earth. If other creatures happen to be there, they will be as rapt as we before the Heavenly Throne. Sure, we may be happy to see them, but we'll be infinitely happier to see God.