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Monday, July 16, 2018

Justification Across The Divide, In Brief

I was asked by a reader to compare notions of justification--the state of being in right relationship to God--across the Catholic-Protestant divide. I'm going to try to keep it as simple as I can, and I don't want to spend hours wading through sources and footnotes, but, by all means, if I make a mistake, let me know.

It's somewhat erroneous to simplify the debate to "Faith Alone" versus "Faith plus works." Indeed, that formulation is a very Protestant way of framing the question. There is an absolute supremacy of grace in Catholic theology, so much so that we agree that man is not able to save himself by his own effort.

The absolute point of departure between Catholics and Protestants is the fall of mankind, and its aftermath. For the original Protestants, man's nature has become completely corrupt. Man has lost innocence and right standing before God, such that he can't even properly desire what he lost. Indeed, the classical Protestant account of justification has God triumphing over man's nature in bringing him back to Himself, because if this account of the fall is correct, man cannot cooperate in any meaningful sense. God declares or reckons man righteous, by faith in His Son, quite simply because it could not have happened any other way, according to this view. The sinner is imputed righteous, with the righteousness of Christ by faith, and faith alone, at that. Man has no righteousness of his own, as we might say, in the course of holding this view.

With a little thought, you can imagine why people who think of faith and justification this way would begin to see the Catholic sacramental system as an enemy to a certain peace and freedom, as they understand it. If God the Father has declared me innocent in His Son by faith, why am I here wallowing in this penance ritual, as if my sins remain unforgiven? You can sense the force of this objection, can't you? I hope it begins to make a certain sense.

We might reply with a certain humor, "We wallow in this penance ritual because in fact, these particular sins I bring are not forgiven until I am absolved by the priest." In Catholic theology, the sacraments effect what they signify, that is, when the priest declares the sinner forgiven, she's forgiven. She's not reckoned as forgiven, or merely declared to be so. Christ, acting in the person of the priest, does it himself. When we renounce our sins, firmly resolving not to commit them again, this constitutes our acceptance of God's mercy, and our desire to live in that mercy. In short, God offers us friendship of a remarkable kind. He elevates us by His grace into His friendship, a friendship only lost through mortal sin. This grace of justification--a state of justice and righteousness before God--is called "sanctifying grace." The sacrament of Penance/Confession/Reconciliation, when celebrated worthily, restores sanctifying grace to the soul, if it has been lost through mortal sin.

Sanctifying grace carries with it three theological virtues, as we call them: Faith, hope, and charity. They are supernatural virtues; that is, pertaining to God and the life of Heaven. Also, that super- indicates something above nature, or the virtues or vices we might acquire through practice in ordinary life. Grace and friendship with God, the very life of Heaven, is and always will be a gift. We can't earn it or deserve it. And to be plain about it, you can only get this gift through the sacraments of the Church, the Catholic Church. There is an objection you often hear in response to this, that these realities leave the Catholic in a state of fear, as she never knows that God in Christ truly loves her. On the contrary; I am immensely comforted by the nearness of Christ, his willingness to literally meet me where I really am. God's love for me has never been in doubt; my acceptance and correspondence with His love often is.

We're leaving out a big aspect of the question of justification. Protestants and Catholics are divided over that theological virtue of charity. For the Catholic, justification consists primarily in charity, or supernatural love for God. Charity is a gift, a fruit, of the sacraments primarily and fundamentally. Friendship with God consists in charity, and is synonymous with it. So justification by faith is faith formed by love (charity). For the Protestant, this supernatural love comes with his justifying faith, but it doesn't consist in charity. It's a fine distinction, to be sure. "Faith alone" was the rallying cry of the Reformers, precisely because they believed that sinners could not co-operate with grace, any grace, while sinners. Here's where it gets interesting: the Catholic Church teaches that even a "dead" faith along the lines St. James describes, is a gift of grace. To even profess the correct doctrine--even if it won't save your soul by itself--is a fruit of grace. For the Protestant, a person with no "works" as St. James describes them, is a person whose faith is fraudulent. It has no supernatural origin at all. It's a very technical discussion, since both sides agree that charity is important.

Let me back up and briefly explain the Catholic view of the fall, as simply as I can. When man fell, he lost many gifts, the most important of which was sanctifying grace. In the moments when Adam and Eve hid from God as God walked in the cool of the day, they experienced the loss of their communion and friendship with Him. They lost more than sanctifying grace; they lost preternatural gifts also. Adam and Eve lost immortality; they lost impassibility, the freedom from suffering. They also lost what we call integrity, the subjection of the passions to reason. And they had special infused knowledge from God. This loss of integrity, the experience of desiring to do the wrong thing almost continually, we call concupiscence. Hugely Important Note: The Catholic Church does not consider the experience of concupiscence as such to be a personal sin. Generally speaking, the communities of the Reformation do consider it a sin. Or, better said, they don't find it useful to distinguish "sin" (see Romans chapter 7) as an experience of the fall from the commission of a personal sin. One often hears a little phrase among Protestant Christians: "fallen nature." Be careful with this phrase, I say. Because it can obscure the goodness of humanity's creation itself, and of the individual's responsibility before God. Indeed, the critique from Catholic theologians to the basic Protestant system is that it conflates nature and grace. On the one hand, the Church through St. Augustine has always maintained that communion with God in Heaven requires grace. The beloved Augustine stood against the heretic Pelagius, who maintained that doing God's will was within the ability of a man, and simply required effort. Protestants and Catholics at least agree that this is a mistake. Martin Luther wasn't particularly persuaded by the Catholic account of humanity's fall and the loss of sanctifying grace. He compared it to losing a fancy ornament on a Christmas tree. On the one hand, he didn't think humanity by nature was capable of anything but sin. On the other, he thought man possessed grace by nature. That mistake will certainly foul some things up, when trying to operate within the Catholic system. Grace is a gift. It cannot be otherwise.

Significantly, grace is, in layman's terms, God's presence and power. It's not simply God's favorable disposition toward us, though it includes that. This is why we can co-operate with grace, or not. This is why sanctifying grace leaves the soul of someone who commits mortal sin. God cannot dwell in the presence of sin. For the Protestant, there is no distinction between venial and mortal sin. Every sin is mortal, and paradoxically in practice, no sin is mortal. Anyway, back to Luther for a moment. Luther confused the capacity to receive grace--and fellowship with God being our final end--with having grace from the start.

The great appeal of the Protestant system is that it takes the problematic sinners out of the equation. God loves you because He loves you. He gives you the gift of faith in His Son, empowering you to believe in Him, and forgives you all of your sins when Jesus dies on the cross (and rises again). The Father clothes you in the righteousness of Christ, ever and always. You can't earn it, and you can't mess it up.

What we can learn from this account is that God really does love everyone to an unimaginable degree. He really did send His Son to die for us. Jesus really did rise from the dead. The prophets really spoke to Israel by the Holy Spirit. In short, God's action of creation and redemption, especially as recorded in the Scriptures, testifies to the depth of God's "desire," if I can speak that way, to be with us, and to bring us to Him. I think sometimes Catholics underplay all this, by a lot. Go talk to a Protestant, especially an evangelical. You might begin to think, if you have been raised Catholic, that you don't understand or appreciate a tenth of the love story of Christianity, or the Person at its heart.

It hurts me to think of Luther sometimes: terribly fearful, horrified by his own sinfulness--another true word you have to be careful with--and simply searching for a personal experience of God's love. I can empathize with a man like that. But the determination of exactly what God has revealed is not done by sentiment. Being reminded of God's love for me--which should be a regular thing for all Christians--is not the same as being vivified by that love, no matter how closely they are related.

It's not hard to see why Protestants formed alternative communities: If you think the dogma is wrong, you naturally reject the authority proclaiming it. Certainly they could not foresee the disunity this would produce. And you may say to yourself, "I thought Scripture Alone was the fundamental point of Protestantism." Well, "Sola Scriptura" is an alternative method of knowing dogma, in the absence of knowing it through the mediation of the Church. Sacred Tradition was rejected by the Reformers. Sacred Tradition is, in a sense, the prayerful reflection upon the Scriptures, as we live them out in community. Protestants to varying degrees do not reject traditions, per se. Rather, they reject the binding nature of Tradition. As people of various communities re-integrate practices from older times, they find it consonant with Scripture as they read it. They may find that it is unwise to juxtapose Scripture and Tradition so sharply. The fundamental principle of Protestantism is the right to individually interpret the Scriptures, for both good and ill.

This is but a cursory examination. I tried to keep it free of technicality as much as possible. If you need sources, let me know. Sorry for the length.


Thursday, July 05, 2018

I'm In For Hugs If You Need Them

Something touched me here. It just did, and now we have to talk about it. First off, as you read, shut off that part of yourself that needs to punch holes, to correct, and to minimize. It's always something. I'm an orthodox Catholic; you can imagine I have a few things to leave at the door, if I want to enter in with any kind of empathy.

In some ways, I'm the literal worst person to do this. "Fervent," "zealous," maybe even "unyielding" might be words people use to describe me. I cannot understand myself without God. There is no me, in fact. This reality uneasily coexists with the fact of my weakness, failure, and hypocrisy, but I suppose this isn't news. I'm a personality that is certain, and in most things. There was once a man I was friends with, and I told him I really loved the David Horowitz memoir, "Radical Son." He said he didn't like its "conversionist" aspect. I get it; people like me and Horowitz change our minds, but never with doubt, hesitation, or humility. I'm the kind of person who takes 10 people with me, whatever I'm doing.

I've never doubted my faith. On the other hand, going from Reformed Protestant to Catholic has some interesting analogs. What do you do when it seems you have lost everything you relied on? I can tell you that I needed something familiar, something human, to remind me that I was still me. Friendships died, but some survived. Those that had their self-image wrapped up in particular dogmas may have tolerated me, so long as I didn't threaten that self-image, but as I did, they went away at their pleasure. I wish them well. One of the tough things, being a proclaimer, being a leader, is that you tend to go, "How do you not see X, Y, and Z?" and lack a certain patience with those who can't see what you see. People are funny, aren't they? Even me. I don't have a current practice of dialogue with my former co-religionists, for this reason. Right now, I have to love certain people more abstractly, for their good and mine.

I wasn't turned off by hypocrisy, or harmed by anyone in any grave way. It's funny, though: if people don't want to take you seriously, they'll find any reason they can to convince themselves they don't have to. I am proud enough that this does fill me with something akin to rage, if I don't watch it. In the end, I have had a lifetime of being brushed aside, patronized, or similar reactions.

I'm not sure Chris here would describe where he is as unbelief, but maybe he would. In any case, I saw signs for hope and joy, mainly because I read him and say, "He doesn't seem to be radically different than before, in some bad way." Who are we? What do I know to be true about myself, others, and the world around me that has not changed? There is a limited usefulness to the phrase, "be true to yourself," mainly in the fact that what we construct is only as good and true as we are, but I think it can be helpful here. We do not live in a world of no truth, goodness, or beauty, and in fact, those things do not subsist in my ability to apprehend them! God doesn't need me! There may be all manner of bad outcomes for me to decide I do not need God, but the reverse is not true.

Meditating on the fact of my uselessness, in fact, reminds me of something Bishop Barron has been saying. If the Almighty truly is Almighty, He need not coerce. If I am breathing and doing all the things I do, God is more behind it all than my capacity to know, or to thwart. I may indeed incur debts for my unbelief, but it will not change the fact of my dependence.

Love is an interesting consideration. We could use some definition of terms, but what do we do with our greatest desire, our highest aspiration? I suppose right now, [In 2013.--ed.] Chris doesn't know, really, and that's OK. There is something oddly hopeful about being alive. We are metaphysical oddities, even in the darkness of not wanting to be here. What's it all about? I'm not entirely an expert, but I'm in for hugs, if you need them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Divorce: Stop "Explaining," And Listen

You probably don't have any idea how horrible divorce really is, for a child. One slogan we hear is kind of true: "Kids are resilient." It's kind of true, because children are often amazingly courageous and loving, many times. The real question is, "How courageous do you want to force your children to be?"

I read a thing the other day on that site Scary Mommy. This woman said she had a B+ marriage, but told her husband to try something exciting. He said no. It came out that he was resenting being controlled, and he'd finally had enough. They divorced. This woman inflicted carnage and suffering on the world over a "B+". And apparently, she's so controlling that a little conversation about trying a dance class erupted into this ending. They're still friends. How precious! Get back together, you scumbags. If you love your kids at all. If you were dumb enough to get "re-married," break that off, if at all possible. I'm not kidding. The kids are most definitely not all right.

I sat in the seminary chapel where I was once in school crying like a baby. A guy that was probably way too personal wanted my advice. It was just a question. He said he knew a kid whose parents were divorcing. "What would you say to that kid?" I was 29 years old. My parents were divorced 27 years prior. In fact, my father has been dead since 1989. By the time I finished my brief answer, I was a fountain. "It's not your fault." That's all I said. That's all I needed to say. That's what that little kid doesn't know, even if you tell him until he is old. That kid will have holes he doesn't understand, and can't even describe. And his parents put them there.

What about abuse? If you're in danger, absolutely, get out. Be safe. That doesn't mean divorce, and marry someone else. It just doesn't. Most folks aren't in grave danger. They just don't know how to get along. For those people, I have only one thing to say: Suck it up, and figure it out. I'm absolutely encouraging staying together for the kids. Whatever literature saying otherwise there is, it's garbage.

Go see Gottman, or read his books. Work on whatever toxic communication strategies are in play. WORK IT OUT.

If I'm totally honest, I'm envious of people from intact families of origin. It's not normal for me. It seems like a dream, or a TV show. You want to know where all this suicide, drug abuse, and violence is coming from? Divorce. You don't want to hear it, I know. It's still true. Homosexuality? Gender confusion? Divorce.

Some of you will feel threatened by this, because you are divorced. Maybe even abandoned. I'm sorry. I truly am. But in general, we have normalized a grave crime against our own children, in order to serve a god of personal fulfillment. Take up and read.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Yes, Blinders Do Blind

I'm really pro-life. And by "really," I mean that when someone says, "If you were really pro-life, you would..." my response is, "OK, let's talk about that." If you're out on the sidewalks praying the Rosary, counseling, working in a crisis pregnancy center, none of this criticism applies to you.

I see whataboutism all over the place, to the effect that because "The Left" supports abortion, homosexuality, divorce, etc, then every moral criticism of Right-leaning political engagement is invalid. Worse still, some of us have effectively or explicitly decided that our alleged blind spots on other issues aren't really blind spots at all. Some of us have decided that inconsistency on one point renders all other moral judgments suspect. In fact, people on our side love to do this, because it deflects attention from immoralities we have tolerated, or explicitly endorsed. Well, to be blunt about it, just because we're putatively in no danger of having Holy Communion denied to us for obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin doesn't mean we've honored the spirit or the letter of our social doctrine.

And a word about the "seamless garment": This phrase gets a bad rap in right-wing Catholic circles. It tends to be shorthand for, "These liberals think failing to provide just wages is of the same gravity as killing a baby!" That's not what it means. It means that the outworking of a truly Christian anthropology is holistic. It means that if we fail to uphold some aspect of dignity in one case, then our stand against another violation could be imperiled by our inconsistency. It means practically that we should have the guts to say, "It's possible that I/we have failed to grasp the moral implications of the gospel in this part of human society." Be bolder still: "My ideological commitments and predilections have made me incapable of fruitful engagement with actual arguments on these issues." I'd pay real money for someone to say this.

For my part, I must draw a distinction between acts through the lenses of moral theology, and the same issue or issues in terms of political engagement. Are we prepared to ignore everything except that which pertains to sexual conduct? Even there, hypocrisy is in evidence, because a certain presidential candidate's--now the president's--failures in sexual conduct didn't seem to matter much.

At what point does a philosophy become so incoherent that it should be abandoned?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Catholicism Without Rules?

A friend was saying he found some Catholic church at the "Pride" parade who in effect described themselves as Catholicism without all the meddlesome rules. As a note off the top, I won't belabor the point on homosexuality, because my views aren't hard to find or understand.

What about rules? On the one hand, a religion that subsists entirely in its rules is not from God. Revealed truth as we know it comes from a God whose very being is Love. On the other hand, rules in fact are a means to an end. The end is everlasting communion with God. We know from our own experience that a parent that gives his or her children no rules is deficient in love. Still, we don't want to push the analogy too far. Providence--God's ordering of everything--is too big for us, and we end up speculating dangerously (and doing a fair amount of complaining) instead of humbly seeking.

In any case, rules can be a problem if we ignore them, or if we make them an end, instead of a means.

Frankly, some people seem to imagine Jesus however he suits them. Funnily enough, this "Jesus" never challenges them, or says they are wrong. But then, remember my saying: "One cannot be both the arbiter of divine revelation, and a humble receiver of it at the same time." In simple words, if you decide for yourself what God says, your god is you.

Even our "rules" discussion is a little more complicated, because there are things we are able to know through our natural reason (e.g. "You shall not murder") and things we can't know by reason alone (e.g., God is three Persons in one Substance/essence). There exist divinely-instituted natural moral laws, and supernaturally revealed truths about God we wouldn't know, except that God has revealed them.

In practical terms, when someone says, "I'm not into organized religion," firstly, she's being redundant, since the definition of religion is something like, "An organized system of beliefs and practices," and secondly, she's probably saying she wants to find her own way. But if you do that, 1. You'll bump into something you already could and should have known; and 2. You don't need God for that. That's "self-help."

All that is rather interesting, in this respect: It never made sense for any sociologist to say, "Religion's main function is to provide humankind with comfort in this life," because revealed religion on its own terms is not, strictly speaking, for this life at all. Yet the statement hides his or her true premise: The supernatural as such does not exist.

The idea that the supernatural does not exist is called, "naturalism." I suspect that even an ardent naturalist isn't truly fond of--and does not actually envision--a world without rules. And I thank God for that. In other news, have you ever heard someone argue that humankind turned to religion because we lacked knowledge of the natural world? Isn't that silly? I mean, I'm glad somebody knows the truths of empirical science, but my religion doesn't cover that. And, interesting thought: Aren't some of these popular atheists conflating knowledge with meaning?

To conclude, you can trust someone to tell you what it all means, or you can try to find it for yourself. As for me, I always want to go up to the person who confidently pronounces that the point of everything is, "Be kind to everyone" (who wouldn't ever darken the door of a church) and ask, "Why, exactly? And isn't that a rule?"

Friday, June 22, 2018

We're All Right (And The Culture War Is Terrible)

Again, to the extent that family separation is happening at all, it should not be happening. If a progressive says this, they're right. Let me repeat: if a progressive says this, they're right. What you, O "Conservative," must decide is whether you want to feel superior, or whether you want to build a society worth living in. I'm 38 now. My rage against the Democrats and their galling hypocrisies is far spent. I had my twenties and half my thirties to be angry to little effect. What "whataboutism" does is blind us to the holes in our anthropology. We can't learn whilst scoring points.

If I turn to "liberal" issues, it's because they're in front of me. I don't need to repeat things I've already said. No effort to stop prison rape, or to save spotted owls, or curb carbon emissions, either explicitly or implicitly, signifies that I have changed my position on anything else. Take a moment to actually digest that.

I supported an unjust and horribly destructive war, war crimes, and other inhumanities in the effort to give the Democrats the finger. And in so doing, I didn't learn anything. I wonder what we might learn today, if we stop giving people the finger for being wrong about something.

In fact, no-fault divorce is just as bad as whatever outrages ICE or ORR has perpetrated at the border. It's true. It's also true that we'll be long dead before convincing Obama or Pelosi of this, most likely. In the end, though, if the progressives are right, they're right. Most of the chatter about "reclaiming" the social doctrine from the "Left" is an articulation of exactly which critiques from the Left will be ignored.

I can't lie to you and say that I have perfected some kind of Wise Moderate stance; I haven't. A friend pointed out that political culture drove our votes more than political issues, and that's been true for a while. I'm only hammering the Right now because I don't like its political culture. It doesn't feel like "home" anymore. If I could say it without sanctimony, I might say nowhere does.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

We Shouldn't Be Separating ANY Kids From Their Parents At The Border

I don't know why this is hard. Apparently, we have to say this. It's also ridiculous and indefensible to treat asylum-seekers as criminals. That position doesn't even make sense. If someone falsely claims asylum, that could be a crime. It is not required that the United States accept every claim, but a claim as such is not a criminal act.

We could grant that inhumane conditions and treatment of immigrants predates this administration. Indeed, advocates for immigrants had been suing the Obama administration throughout, and in many cases, rightly so. This policy of actively separating asylum-seekers from their children is weeks old.

Some advocates for the present administration blame a Flores directive from 1997, but the only relevant fact there is a limit to the detention of a child. Are you really suggesting that holding a child even longer would be acceptable?

Child psychology experts are telling us that the separation inflicts a trauma that may not be able to be undone. If we are somehow unable to know that this is wrong, we have corroborating evidence.

If indeed there is a risk of sex trafficking by releasing "families" intact, this does not permit the government to break apart actual families, in service to another dubious end.