Topic: Apologetics

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Why the Catholic Church?

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On July 25th I gave a presentation at St. Dominic's Church in Eagle Rock entitled, "why the Catholic Church?". Below is a link to the talk. This presentation followed a presentation that I gave earlier this summer, "Who is Jesus?" 

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

To know Mary is to know Jesus

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            I once read an interesting story about Non-Catholics attempting to live out their anti-Marian biases. The story illustrates the misunderstandings of Marian devotion.

            There was a group of Protestant Christians in England, where GK Chesterton lived, who took over and occupied an abandoned building once owned by a community of Catholic monks. The building, being a pre-nineteenth century ecclesial structure, had an architectural style that was overtly religious. There was no doubt at all that the building once belonged to Christians practicing the Catholic religion. The structure was replete with vertical lines shooting to the heavens, archways for every door and window. Every nook-and-cranny of the building had some figure or religious image or statue of a saint.

            Given that this was a Protestant group that took over the property, they were somewhat trepidatious about the images and icons; idolatry as they called it. Nevertheless, they gladly moved in to the building with the hopes that they could remove from the structure all the imagery and iconography that was distinctly Catholic. They, being Christians, did not necessarily mind the fact that there were images of Jesus and Angels.  After all, many main-stream Protestants still believe in these, but the icons of the Catholic saints and, most especially, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, had to go.

            So they went on and began the work of covering up or removing the uniquely Catholic imagery. In the paintings they covered over the saints and left most of the walls white-washed. They left the images of Jesus untouched; after all, they were devoted to Jesus and wanted to keep the images of Him as a constant reminder of their faith. When it came to the statues, since most of the statues were of Catholic Saints, they were thrown out all together. There were some statues that contained imagery that were favorable to them. Wanting to do the least damage to the structure, they did not throw these statues out all-together, but brought in sculptors and stone workers to chip away only those elements they did not like, only what reminded them of Catholicism. St. Joseph was chipped away and the child Jesus was left standing; St. Catherine was chipped away and they left a solitary image of Jesus handing a crown of thorns to any hypothetical believer. The Sacred Heart was chipped away and a very shallow bust of a man who looked like Jesus was left.

            The most prominent statue of the entire complex was the one that stood at the entrance. It was a statue of the blessed Virgin Mary holding her infant Child Jesus. The stone workers had orders to keep the images of Jesus but take away all that was added on around Jesus that smacked of Catholic devotion. But they couldn’t do it. There was no way that they could chip away Mary and not chip away Jesus. If they chipped away all that reminded the viewer of the Mother of Jesus, they would chip away so much of her child that there would be virtually nothing left to refashion into anything edifying or inspiring to religious devotion at all. There would be nothing left that looked like Jesus

            What did they do? They did what they had to… they simply threw out both Mother and Child.

            This story provides an illustration for the Christian life. Many Christians have a sincere desire to hold on to Jesus, and Jesus alone, to the exclusion of any other character that the Catholic Church might slide in. But there is a deep misunderstanding behind this.

            As Christians, we  cannot take Jesus alone because Jesus did not come alone. God, when he became man to walk among us, live among us, and die for us, did not come down in a vacuum. He came down as a human baby with a Mother. He was born in history, born in time once for all time. Sacred Scripture never tires of outlining for us his genealogy, showing us quite clearly that he was truly one of us, truly a human being born in the line of history shared by every of other human being. And, just as in the natural order, where children to not drop out of heaven by themselves, but come from mothers and fathers, so in the spiritual order our savior comes to us in a family.

            The recognition that our Lord is a sharer of our common human nature (Emmanuel, God with us) is lived out in the Catholic religion in many forms of devotion. Most especially, this is played out in the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary without whom there would be no Jesus. We cannot chip away the mother without chipping away the child. For a Christian, cultivating a devotion to the Mother of God is not optional, it is not something tacked on from the outside. No… it is an obligation of all who call themselves followers of Her Son. If we as Christians begin to chip out of our lives a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, we will soon find that remains may barely resemble authentic Christianity at all. 

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Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

On the Apparent Arbitrariness of Christian Morality

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Dan Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project, recently made some very pointed comments about Christianity and the Bible. I wish not to comment on his tone or strategy, nor on the very real problem of bullying which his talk was supposed to be about, but on one of his arguments. This particular argument is a very common one raised in the public sphere, often by well-known figures (once by our current president himself): very frequently it is claimed that Christians are arbitrarily selective in picking and choosing moral teachings from Scripture. In debates about the moral status of homosexual acts, for example, proponents of the behavior will sometimes argue that it is inconsistent, or at least arbitrary, to pick moral prohibitions about sexual matters from Leviticus, while not holding to others such as those about ritual purity, dietary laws, or slavery. Is there anything to this argument? Is Christian morality, at bottom, nothing but one rather arbitrary set of very peculiar, antiquarian, rules? Why does, for example, traditional Christian morality uphold the Old Testament’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality, but not eating pork? Why do Christians today allow intermarriage, which the Torah forbids, while opposing slavery, which the bible – so the argument goes – supports?

This is not simply about specific moral norms, but about the underlying theological and epistemological principles behind them: what is the basis of right and wrong in the Christian tradition, and what determines which Old Testament precepts are binding, and which are not? Among other things, this is a hermeneutical question at two different levels: How did the New Testament writers interpret the Hebrew Scriptures? And how are Christians, today, to interpret them, and how are we to interpret the New Testament itself in relation to morality?

All of these are rather large questions, but I wish to propose one fairly simplified version of an answer to them as it relates to sexual morality, an answer loosely inspired by my introductory knowledge of Thomistic thought and moral theology, and on Scripture: authentic Christian morality, both in the New Testament and in the Church, is rooted in the "telos" – the goal, the purpose – of the human being. That is, what determines whether or not some action is right or wrong is not that the Bible says so; rather, the determining factor is the ultimate answer to the question: “does this lead to the fulfillment of the human being?” Or, more personally, “does it lead me to, or away from, the supernatural destiny for which God created me?” Christianity, in turn, makes a remarkable claim about this supernatural destiny: we were created for eternal life. And what is eternal life? “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

And so Christian morality, by its very nature – even if this is not always made explicit in either Scripture or in the formulas of Tradition – has this supernatural goal – knowing the Triune God – as its foundation, its source, and its summit. And those behaviors which the New Testament and the Christian tradition condemn, are wrong precisely in virtue of their being incompatible with this supernatural destiny: they prevent us from knowing God.

For example, merely eating pork, in itself, does nothing to take one away from God; that this was prohibited for the Israelites, and modern Orthodox Jews, is not because human bodies which have incorporated swine flesh into themselves are unfit for resurrection or heaven, but such laws were made for some temporary instructive purpose (precisely what this lesson is is another discussion). In the Christian perspective, this was a limited law (not intended for all people, nor for all time), and one which is not absolutely binding because the act itself (eating pork) is not opposed to eternal life (the gospels describe Jesus teaching that food cannot make someone unclean – see Mark 7:19). Certain sexual acts, however, are in a different situation, not simply because of where we find them in Scripture, but precisely because of their intrinsic relation to our supernatural human fulfillment. Let me, very briefly, unpack that...

God created us as sexual beings, and therefore, sex is good. But sex is also purposeful, and rich with meaning as seen in Scripture itself. To deliberately distort the act of sex in such a way that its purpose or meaning is intrinsically thwarted, amounts to turning towards our creator and saying, “Thanks for making us sexual beings, but we don’t like the purpose you gave to it; so we’ll do it our own way.” The result is not that this makes God angry, and that since he’s so insecure and cannot take criticism he decides to punish us in his rage; rather, it is that this ends up hurting us, because we are not cooperating with our own sexuality’s purpose. If we deliberately frustrate our purpose in the arena of sexuality, we begin removing ourselves from the purpose of our whole life.  We cannot neatly separate one aspect of our life from another, nor can we separate one individual act from the whole.  Each individual sexual act is a microcosm of our entire sexuality, which – in turn – is a microcosm of our whole life. We can thus divert ourselves from the path of eternal life by misguided sexual activity. Since grace builds on nature, the purpose of our sexuality is of a piece with our supernatural purpose: to love another deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens up the two of us to the life of yet another.

This is worth reiterating, for this often gets lost in the whole discussion of sexual morality: we are, indeed, as human beings, and as sexual beings, created to love deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens us up to yet another person – “The greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:36-37). Sexual love is supposed to mirror, and be a lesson in, this supernatural calling, in the finite context of human relations: unceasingly loving the Other, and allowing that love to flow into the life of another. Thus, it is the purposefulness and integrity of our sexuality that forms the basis of Christian sexual morality, not the fact that sexual rules are included in a book with all sorts of ancient laws of ritual purity that seem strange to us. Thus, the discussion needs to be about the purposefulness and integrity of human sexuality – and the human being as a whole – rather than simply about commands listed in the Bible. Otherwise, both sides miss the real significance of the debate.

May God grant us all a greater realization of our great supernatural purpose, and enable us to live out and embody this in every aspect of our lives, especially in our sexuality.