Topic: Study

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.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

To Be A Neighbor is to Practice Mercy

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There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” But because the man wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied… (Luke 10:25-37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’ve heard many times before, and yet like all of Jesus’ parables, it is not just a story. In this case it is Jesus’ mysterious response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus could have been very direct and said, “Brother, sister, friend and enemy…all of these are your neighbor,” but instead he leads the scholar to the realization that the one who acts as a neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In other words, Jesus helps the young man to see that the real question he should be asking is: “Am I treating others with mercy?”

Mercy, or the lack thereof, is one of the themes addressed in the documentary Bully, which I recently watched for one of my classes at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The film features five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, but the primary focus is a boy from Sioux City named Alex. At 13-years-old, Alex doesn’t like going to school. In addition to being taunted on the playground and called “fishface,” his bus ride to and from school is a nightmare. While one boy stabs him with a pencil, strangles him, and repeatedly slams his head into the back of a seat, another threatens, “I will end you.” 

Over the years there have been many responses to the question of bullying, why it happens, and how to stop it. Some have suggested that it’s just a phase, that “boys will be boys” and will eventually grow out of it. Others have taught that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him, or to ignore him entirely. Finally, there are those who believe that the only way to get a bully to stop being a bully is to teach him about compassion. Anyone who has been a victim of bullying or cyberbullying* would probably agree that this last option is the best one, for no one wants to wait for their bully to "grow out of it," and often standing up to a bully or ignoring him can make things even worse.

So how does one teach a bully about compassion? Surprisingly, the process begins with the victim showing mercy. Now this doesn't mean condoning the bully's behavior. A bully still needs to be shown that his/her actions are harmful; it would be unjust to do otherwise, and mercy never undermines justice. Mercy, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice (ST, I, 21, 4 ad 2). In this case then, showing mercy means not returning like for like, not responding to physical and verbal abuse with further violence. For Alex, the young man in the film, this is extremely difficult. At one point he notes that, he "wants to become the bully." Yet to do so would only result in a further perpetuation of the problem. The young boys who bully Alex might learn about suffering, but it's high unlikely that they would learn anything about compassion and empathy. 

Mercy, justice, and compassion...these are virtues one must practice in order to be a neighbor, and in order to love one's neighbor. Without them, the possibility of inheriting eternal life is a long way off.

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*Cyberbullying involves the use of e-mail, text messages, and various forms of social media to harass and humiliate other individuals, and may include the spreading of rumors by way of a blog or website, the posting of embarrassing photos, and/or the use of hate speech in online conversations or posts.

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

A Little Lower than the Angels

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"What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!" – Psalm 8:5-10

There is perhaps nothing quite as perplexing, or important, in our contemporary age as the question, "Who am I?" This can be seen, if only implicitly, in the often existential, if not openly nihilistic, lyrics in popular music; in the various sub-cultures among teenagers searching for their identity; or behind heated political debates about freedom and rights in our own country. Yet not often, in public, is the question asked directly: What does it mean to be a human being? What is man? The psalmist asks this very question, noticing both man's humble stature and his glorious destiny. He is a little lower than the angels, yet crowned with glory and honor. Yet even in pointing out his humble stature, we can see an insight into human nature's dignity: the human being is, indeed, "a little lower than the angels" or "less than gods,"1 but this very comparison is itself telling: the Psalmist does not say, "He is a little greater than the beasts;" rather, the comparison is made with angels or gods. The comparison itself speaks of our rather high stature. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on this Psalm, notes how it is that angels and human beings are both similar and different:

"The image of God is found in the angels by the simple intuition of truth, without any inquiry; but in humans discursively: and therefore in man only in a certain small degree. This is why humans are called angels [in Malachi 2]... And, man is corruptible, but in a certain way; since, at a certain time, man will know all things without discursive thought in his homeland (heaven); and he will be incorruptible in the way of his body."2

So we are comparable to the angels in bearing in ourselves the image of God via our intellectual powers, although we differ in the limited, temporal way that reason works, and – of course – by our 'natural' corruptibility.

In a similar vein, in my metaphysics class I recently read an article by James Lehrberger commenting on Thomas Aquinas' account of human nature as seen in one of his earlier writings, De Ente et Essentia.3 Lehrberger argues that Thomas does not see the traditional Aristotelian definition of the human being – a "rational animal" as the final word or the most complete description of the human being. Instead, he argues that this physical definition (pertaining to the natural philosophy of Aristotle), stands alongside a more complete metaphysical account of the human being which holds that man is an incarnate spirit. That is, while the soul of man can be logically or physically categorized, on the one hand, with the souls of living things (and, more generally, with the forms of material bodies), it can also be (metaphysically) categorized with "separate intelligences" (i.e., angelic beings). In the first case, we see man as another being in the material world; in the second, he lives in the realm of spiritual beings. Yet we can see that neither account alone suffices; man does not belong only to the earth; nor, simply, to heaven. He dwells between heaven and earth, with a foot, so to speak, planted firmly in each realm.

We are, in fact, incarnate spirits, "links" or "bridges" between the merely physical realm and the purely spiritual realm. We live among rivers, rocks, trees, and cattle; yet we also live among – and have powers comparable to – angels. We are a little less than gods. If only we might recognize this unique role we fill, and try neither to be simply angels, or beasts, but rather incarnate spirits, embodied intelligences, displaying the image and glory of God in a bodily form, connecting heaven and earth. If we live as such, and recognize our place in the created order, we can look both at the earth as our natural mother, and heaven as our intended home.

And then we can see Christ, "crowned with glory and honor", having been given "all authority in heaven and earth" (Matt 28:18), as the one who has has brought about that most marvelous union between heaven and earth which is proper to man, but had been hindered by sin; the one who has done even more than this – for in heaven this glorified man is no longer "a little lower than the angels", but now is "far superior" to them (Heb 1:4). It is to this exalted state that our Lord has raised our nature; and it is to this exalted state that we are invited, if only we humbly accept our lot, and His mercy.


Notes:

1. The Hebrew could be translated as "less than gods"; the Greek Old Testament and the Latin have "a little less than the angels."

2. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Psalm 8. Available online in Latin and English at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/PsalmsAquinas/ThoPs8.htm. 

3. James Lehrberger,  'The Anthropology of Aquinas's "De Ente et Essentia,"' The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Jun., 1998), pp. 829-847 (available on JSTOR for those who have access to that resource); Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia ("On Being and Essence"), available online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/DeEnte&Essentia.htm.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Theology, Art and Judgment

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Typically one thinks of Advent as a time to prepare for Christ's Second Coming, since the readings of that season focus our attention, not only on the coming of Christ incarnate at Christmas, but also on the return of Christ at the end of time. Considering the fact that Lent is a season to reflect on the role of sin in our lives, and its effect on our relationships with God and one another, I believe this, too, is a good time to ponder the mystery of Christ's parousia. In order to do so, I offer part of a paper I wrote on Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" for our Christian Iconography class at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The following excerpt deals with some of the artistic and Scriptural sources that influenced Michelangelo as he painted the altarpiece that now inspires so many visitors to the Sistine Chapel in Rome:

Anyone who has seen Luca Signorelli’s fresco of The Resurrection at the cathedral in Orvieto will notice a resemblance to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In both works, the dead emerge from the earth with great difficulty, some still buried to the waist, others as skeletal figures half-clothed in flesh. This is no coincidence. In his book on Michelangelo, Howard Hibbard writes that “in the scenes of punishment and damnation, no less than in the scenes of resurrection, Michelangelo was notably influenced by Luca Signorelli’s famous series of frescoes in Orvieto depicting the end of the world” and that “the images of skeletons clothing themselves with flesh and of the torments of the damned are surely indebted to Signorelli.”1 Art historian Antonio Forcellino agrees, noting that Signorelli’s work had a profound impact on Michelangelo, particularly in regards to the demons at the bottom right of the painting. He states that, “while Giotto in Padua and Buffalmacco in Pisa depicted devils as creatures alien to the human world, Michelangelo followed the example of Signorelli in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto and the sculptures on the façade of that cathedral, where the devils are depicted as a slight degeneration of men and the angels.”2 In addition to Signorelli’s influence, Forcellino asserts that, “Michelangelo was undoubtedly very impressed by the depictions [of the Last Judgment] in the Florentine Baptistery and the Cemetery in Pisa, both of which were distinctive for their aggressive and monumental emotive force,”3 while Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s portrayal of Christ, “is like an antique hero-god…developed from the figure of Jupiter in one of the Cavalieri drawings.”4

Although it’s clear that Michelangelo owes a great deal to Signorelli and Cavalieri, one cannot assume that Michelangelo’s imagination was stirred by the work of these artists alone. Literary sources, such as Sacred Scripture, also played a role. For example, the seven angels blowing trumpets beneath Christ’s feet are a reference to the Book of Revelation, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s biographers.5 In chapters 8, 9, and 11 of the Book of Revelation, the author – who tradition holds to be John the Beloved Disciple – has a vision of seven angels with seven trumpets. As each angel blows its trumpet, a different disaster strikes the earth. Despite the fact that Michelangelo doesn’t show each of these disasters, he alludes to them by depicting the angels as heralds of the apocalypse, and not just ministers of God. Naturally this is not the only Scriptural allusion in Michelangelo’s work. Throughout the fresco one notices that, “the angels fight to release the souls that have been saved from the grip of the devils. And, to their great satisfaction, the devils fight to push the ‘iniquitous souls’ down to their eternal damnation.”6 While many scholars typically associate this illustration as being reminiscent of “The Judgment of the Nations” found in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the Son of Man separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, Forcellino is describing a scene which could very easily be associated with Matthew 13:24-27, as well. In “The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat” we find a landowner who lets the weeds and wheat grow up together until the time of the harvest, at which point the reapers gather up the wheat for storage in the landowner’s barn, while the weeds are separated out to be burned in the fire. In addition to these illustrations from the Gospel of Matthew, Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s representation of the bodily resurrection, i.e., his “skeletons clothing themselves with flesh,” is an artistic citation of Ezekiel.7 He is, of course, referring to chapter 37, when Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley of dry bones. After Ezekiel speaks to the bones, they rise from their graves, come together, and are covered in sinew and muscle, flesh and skin. Finally, Hibbard suggests that Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ, whose appearance is more like that of Apollo the sun god,8 is probably based on a particular description found in the Book of Malachi. Hibbard believes that “the equation of Christ with the sun of Justice (cf. Malachi 4:2) may have influenced Michelangelo’s conception.”9

1 Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo (New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1974), 252.

2 Antonio Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 193.

3 Ibid., 192.

4 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.

5 Ibid., 242.

6 Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life, 194.

7 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 250.

8 Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), 165.

9 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.

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

Not by "Faith Alone"

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Council of Trent

Over the last week of ordinary time before the season of Lent, we have been reading from the epistle of St. James during the weekday mass. As a former Lutheran, this epistle has played a special role in my life, due to the wrestling match forced upon me as I tried to reconcile my inherited belief in salvation by “faith alone” with the clear words of the second chapter of this letter, that salvation is not by faith alone. Needless to say, I lost the wrestling match, a loss which is not uncommon when fighting against sacred scripture, and have now embraced the full teachings of the Catholic Church. However this week has provided yet another occasion for me to reflect once again on how my own thinking developed during the years leading up to my entrance into the Catholic Church.

            When I was a Lutheran, I believed that, within the doctrine of salvation by faith alone the unpolluted, and pure core of Christianity was expressed with simple clarity. I believed that within this doctrine existed a key to that “Mere Christianity” that all Christians had been searching for. The very essence of the Christian faith was here contained and summarized, that man cannot save himself but is entirely dependent on the Grace won for him in Jesus Christ.

            But what about the epistle of James?

            “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:14-16

            What could James be talking about here by saying that faith without works is dead? What about all of those times in the writing of St. Paul where faith is continually contrasted with works and the two are apparently opposed?  How was I to understand this?

            The best explanation that I came across from the protestant camp, and the one that I held for some time, was this, that what James was talking about when he used the word “faith” was a mere intellectual assent, not true faith that saves. He is referring to the mere assent to certain propositions as true, like facts that are checked-off as on a list. There was no contradiction at all. What the reformed doctrine of Luther is referring to as opposed to St. James is (and this is the important phrase) a “Saving Faith”.

            I reasoned along with many Protestants that what is required for Salvation is a “Saving Faith”. Faith cannot be mere intellectual assent; it must be that faith which St. Paul speaks of, the faith that will unite us mind and heart to God. This is the answer; a clarifying and nuancing of the word “faith”. What is required for salvation is a “saving faith”. This is the faith that “alone” can save. This is at least how I would have reasoned ten years ago.

            But by saying this, what did I just do in my reasoning? By clinging to the doctrine of faith alone I was forced, in order to be faithful to scripture and to make sense of St. James, to clarify what I meant by faith. I was forced to make a distinction. I was forced to distinguish between faith in one sense and faith in another sense. The idea of faith must be qualified if it is to be a faith that saves. There is something about saving faith that makes it different from that mere faith that doesn’t; something about the faith of the saints that renders it wholly other than the faith of those who St. James is condemning for having “faith alone”. If there is truly a distinction between the faith of mere intellectual assent that James is referring to and the faith that saves, and there has to be if we are to understand James at all, then there must be something by which saving faith is different than mere faith. This something by which faith becomes saving must be something real; it must have real being. If it did not have real being there would be no reason to speak of the distinction at all and we must go back to the unacceptable contradiction. Also, this something by which faith becomes saving must be different than faith itself, it cannot just be “more faith”; otherwise St. James’s warning against “faith alone” would still stand as a contradiction. So there is something that must be added to the notion of faith to render it saving; and even if I were to recoil from the phrase ‘add to faith’ I still had to admit that there is something real to distinguish mere faith from saving faith. What is that? If there is something truly real by which the faith spoken of by St. James is distinguished from the saving faith of St. Paul, than that something must also be saving and essential.

            The next question: what is it that distinguishes faith to render it salvific? The faith that I had in my mind when I spoke of salvation through faith was a faith that opens the heart to the grace of God. It was a whole disposition of the soul, intellect and will, towards God. When I asked myself, “what is it about faith that is saving?” I had to conclude this. That faith in and of itself is an entire re-orientation of my life in the direction of God. And this is by no meansonly intellectual assent. It is indeed an intellectual assent at first, but that assent is immediately accompanied by ahope in God, a hope which surpasses human reason, and alove of God which is not of ourselves, not a love that arises from our own natural ability to Love, but a love that is infused from above, true Charity. This is the answer; what is added to faith that distinguishes it as saving is CHARITY! It is Charity that saves.

            This is the faith that St. Paul was talking about, a faith that, as soon as it was born in the heart, rebounded to acts of hope and love, and, as soon as the opportunity arose, overflowed into acts of obedience to God and acts of Charity to ones neighbor. This is what is truly saving, true Charity.

            I concluded thus: there is no such thing as the gift of the theological virtue of Faith alone. It is always accompanied by an infusion of all of the theological virtues and those virtues immediately begin the perfection of my natural powers to flourish as a human being and to know God. God Never gives the gift of faith alone but the gift of all the virtues. The faith can remain after the virtue of Charity has been lost, but once charity is lost through sin the faith that remains is “dead”.

[1]

It is Charity that saves. Just as what St. Paul said in the thirteenth Chapter of 1st Corinthians, it is Charity that is the supreme virtue.

            I came to realize that these two concepts, faith and works of Charity, were not separated at all but were two aspects of the same reality that was given to me at my Baptism, sanctifying grace. The gift of faith that, far from destroying my natural abilities to know, perfects them by granting them the power to rise and assent to divinely revealed truths that reason alone could not know, and the gift of charity, perfecting my nature by giving me the ability to love God for His own sake, are both aspects of the same gift of grace. This sanctifying grace was given to me as a free gift when I was reborn through baptism, but this grace did not remain dormant. This grace, then in seed form, began to sprout shoots, not only of acts of faith, but act of charity as well. This grace was not merely nourished by acts of faith but also by acts of love of God and love of neighbor. If this sanctifying grace given to me as a free gift at my baptism did not grow into free acts of charity towards my neighbor, the only thing that could be said about my faith is thatit is dead. As St. James so plainly puts it,“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”.

            This is by no means an exhaustive account of the debate that has raged for almost five hundred years over the nature of salvation. It is, as I said earlier, my own personal reflection, in summary form, of how I struggled to come to terms with discrepancies between the teachings that I inherited from my Lutheran training and the truth as revealed through Sacred Scripture. I wrestled with scripture for many years. But to fight against scripture is to lose. For me, it was a glorious defeat. When the fighting was over I found myself staring at the true Gospel of Grace as articulated by the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years; and how beautiful a teaching it is.

[2]




[1]

Trent (session VI, Decree on Justification) canon 28

[2]

See the November talks (esp Nov 19) from 2008. Pope Benedict shows that it is Charity that saves, not faith.

 

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

Conscience, Freedom, and Law

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Perhaps you have noticed—it has been hard not to, with many articles and op-ed pieces in the news lately—the latest controversy between the U.S. Catholic bishops and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The debate is centered around the HHS mandate that employers provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage for employees—a requirement which, at least in the initial form of the mandate, even Catholic hospitals and universities would need to comply with by 2013.1 The responses from the U.S. Bishops have been remarkably unanimous, and firm; in fact, no controversy in recent memory has drawn such a swift and universal response. Their opposition, while softening only slightly with an apparent modification to the ruling, remains. And it has not been only Catholic leaders who are upset; nor only Catholics. Some who have no particular objection to the use of contraception in general are also upset: the rule has clearly struck a nerve, and raised alarm; and rightly so, in my opinion. But what is this all about really?

Religion, Freedom, and Conscience

It may seem at first that this is simply a religious matter: Catholicism, somewhat uniquely in our culture, officially opposes artificial contraception, and to force Catholic institutions and employers to provide contraceptive or sterilization services is akin to forcing others to abdicate their religious beliefs; it would be like forcing Jewish restaurant owners to sell pork, because of some supposed universal right-to-eat-pork. And in a very real way, this would be, and is, a violation of religious freedom. But several have pointed out, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, that this is more than simply an issue of religious freedom; it is also that of a more general freedom of conscience. But what is "conscience" anyway, and what does it mean to say that it is free?

Synderesis and Conscience

St. Thomas AquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas, from whom I draw insights as a Dominican, identifies several aspects of the moral activity of a human being, including conscience. Moral reasoning begins with the recognition of fundamental moral principles, by a natural habit that Thomas and the medieval scholastics called "synderesis", and which Josef Pieper, a 20th-century Thomistic philosopher, calls "natural conscience."2  Synderesis (or synteresis) is implanted in every human being, and this natural habit first discovers the most basic principle of all: "do good and avoid evil." Practical reason—our capacity for thinking through issues of morality—can analyze such first principles of our "natural conscience", along with other knowledge that we acquire, and then draw out further moral principles. Lastly comes "conscience" proper: this is the act of applying knowledge of universal moral principles to particular actions and circumstances. Applying to past actions, the act of conscience evaluates what we have already done: "screaming at the grocer yesterday was wrong", or "it was good when I helped that homeless man with food." In the present or impending future it results in commands or prohibitions: "don't do this," and "do that". The experience of this, indeed, is quite familiar to us all. Thomas was just placing a particular vocabulary and conceptual framework around it.

In any case, conscience comes in at this last phase of moral reasoning, in which principles are applied to a situation, and leads to a command or prohibition; and notice that this is a command or prohibition which our own intellect arrives at. It is not simply imposed from without; it flows immediately from within. In this regard, Bl. Pope John Paul II called conscience a "dialog of man with himself", which is also a dialog with God, a "sanctuary" within which a man or woman discerns the good action to take "here and now," or the evil to be avoided. Conscience, he wrote, is the "proximate norm of personal morality," the inner "witness" of the divine law, a witness whose voice is "only known to the person himself," hidden "from the eyes of everyone outside."3 

But precisely as a witness, it is first receptive: it testifies to what it has already heard and come to know in general about the good to be done, or the evil to be avoided. As the "proximate" norm, it is the nearest to us in every human act; but it derives it binding force, its personal witness in our inner sanctuary, from the truth about the good—about man, the world, and God. It brings home to us, and makes practical, the things we know to be true about human life, about how we should live. It is they way by which our moral ideals are invited to become incarnate.

Conscience and the Will

And once our conscience places before us a command, we are presented with a choice: do we obey it, or not? Do we will to "do this, shun that," or do we not will it? Of course, there are times when we are uncertain about what to do, since we do not yet see how our moral principles can be consistently applied to a particular situation ("should I stop, be kind and listen this person? Or should I move along and fulfill my promise to so-and-so on-time?"); but we all have also experienced times when our conscience's verdict is quite clear, and yet we remain conflicted for other reasons: "If I am honest about my mistake and publicly take the blame for this, I will be disgraced and looked down upon." In such cases, what we ought to do is clear; but we must give consent to the verdict of our conscience with our will, and we have the freedom not to do so; we can easily be dissuaded by self-serving rationalization and our passions or emotions. We can also be compelled by external forces, such as laws.

Conscience and Law

So what happens when some external law, which comes from a legitimate authority, orders us to do something which our conscience forbids? What is our "duty": to our conscience, or to the external law? Vatican II's document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, has this to say:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.4

Any attempt, then, to force another to violate their own conscience is an offense against their human dignity. And it presents its own moral challenge: will I be steadfast in doing what is right, and in avoiding what is wrong, or will I do what I am convinced is wrong in order to live comfortably, to "make peace"? This is the position that the current mandate puts many people in, including the Catholic bishops themselves. Those who, in following principles of natural law or of the Catholic tradition, are convinced that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil, are being asked to financially support such things, in spite of the fact that their own conscience will tell them to avoid such participation, or to even speak out against it. The U.S. bishops' own consciences, foreseeing this moral problem, have compelled them to speak out so that such a situation may be avoided. If these objections are not heeded, many will be in the position such that the right thing to do, the command of their own personal conscience, will be to disobey the law.

Thus, what is being threatened is the "freedom" which one ought to have from external coercion to go against one's own conscience. As Bl. John Henry Newman put it, conscience possesses its own rights, precisely because it possesses its own duties:5 its job is to allow the truth to speak in the depths of our hearts about how we should be, about who we should be. And this right is being violated by the current mandate; there is no allowance for "conscientious objectors."

May this political controversy, then, not merely lead to a peaceful political resolution—as important as that may be—, but to a renewed appreciation for the rights, and duties, of the human conscience—the sanctuary within which we are invited to encounter the truth: the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God.


Notes:

  1. Below are various articles and webpages about this recent controversy:
    USCCB page on the issue. This includes a video-statement by the President of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and a list of individual statements issued by over 110 U.S. Bishops.
    USCCB Statement of objections to the mandate and its recently modified form.
    USCCB Blog: "6 Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate"
    Here's a page showing that apparently every USCCB Bishop has issued a statement against the mandate. This page has links to another page with bishops' statements, and another page with a list of institutions, Catholic and non-Catholic, that have done likewise. [Back to reading]
    The Catholic Health Association's statement about the modified mandate, and a note about reviewing its implications.
    Article on Carol Keehan (head of CHA) and the Bishops' response to the Administration's modification (National Catholic Register). [Back to reading]
    Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia's statement.
    Editorial in America Magazine by Spokane's Bishop Blase Cupich, and the America Magazine Editors' op-ed piece.
    National Catholic Reporter editorial: "Obama administration went too far with contraception ruling."
    Wall Street Journal Article: "Immaculate Contraception" — "An 'accommodation' that makes the birth-control mandate worse."
    "Bishops Oppose Compromise" (WSJ)
    NY Times: "Bishops Criticize Proposal on Birth Control"
  2. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame Press, 1966; reprint: 2003), 11. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 79, articles 12-13. [Back to reading]
  3. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, §§ 54-61. Quotations are from §§ 58, 54, 59, 60, 57, respectively. Cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 1-3; Gaudium et Spes, 16. [Back to reading]
  4. Dignitatis Humanae, 3. [Back to reading]
  5. John Henry Newman, "A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, Vol. 2, chapter 5. [Back to reading]

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Mystery and Scandal of Sacred Scripture: A Christological Reflection

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“The study of the Sacred Page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.” (Dei Verbum #24)

Courtesy of Edal Anton LefterovThe Incarnation, said St. Irenaeus, is a scandal.  He borrows the term from St. Paul, where the Apostle uses the Greek skandalon to describe Jewish reaction to the idea that a crucified man could also be the longed-for Messiah.  Paul’s words are as bracing as they are instructive: “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block [skandalon] to Jews and folly to the Gentiles”(1 Cor 1:23).  The scandal and folly of the Cross sharpen our attention around a particular Christian doctrine at the very center of our faith as Catholics: the Incarnation, the assertion that the same God who rules sea and earth and sky, and holds all creation together in being, became a man like us in every way but sin.  This reality permeates almost everything we do as Catholics, from receiving sacramental grace poured out through the humble means of bread, water, wine, and oil, to discerning God’s active presence in our lives and in the world, to the reading and interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  This sacramental grace, this living with Christ day to day, this seeking of God’s wisdom revealed in Christ in the Sacred Scriptures; all these were folly and scandal to many in St. Paul’s time, and they remain so to many today.  But the last point in particular – the understanding of Sacred Scripture – is a particularly controversial arena of ongoing debate, controversial precisely because intimately connected with the mystery of the Incarnation.

In many ways, the Christian world in general has not fully recovered from, or addressed the implications of, the schools of what is called “historical-criticism” coming to fruition in Europe, mostly in Germany, in the 19th century.  The current Holy Father has been one of the most prominent spokesmen to address the crisis of faith that historical-critical schools gave rise to when applying their methods to the Bible beginning in the 19th century.[1]

It was in the late 18th century and then through the 19th,  that more rigorous and scientific methods were developed to ascertain a clearer picture of what has happened in the past.  For example if we are studying, say, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we might ask: how many actual manuscripts do we have of the Gallic Wars? do they disagree with one another, and if so where and why? how much did Caesar’s own interests in furthering his political standing in Rome play into portraying himself as a successful general? did such an interest perhaps lead him to exaggerate certain facts, and can this be demonstrated by appeals to archaeological or other evidence outside the text itself? what do we know about the Roman Empire and the uncivilized areas of Europe at the time that help us understand more clearly what Caesar describes?

Questions like these are natural to ask if we want an historically accurate view of something, and we have access today to an enormous number of tools to do so that previous generations and centuries did not.  In this sense, the new methods are great gifts to learning and historical research.  When it comes to the Bible, however, the situation becomes more complicated.  To begin asking in a scientifically rigorous way questions like, “Did (or how) the Exodus really happen?,” or “Did Abraham really exist?,” or, let us say, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” brings into play not only historical questions, but questions which have dramatic spiritual implications depending on the answer.  What if the evidence is slim?  If the answer to the last question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” for example, is negative, then Christians should pack up their bags and go home (see 1 Cor 15:12ff).  The direction much of the early historical criticism took (which has implications down to today) was to undermine the reliability of the Bible and thus the believability of many important Christian truths.  So: what if an historical inquiry results in a conclusion that contradicts the faith?  In principle, Catholics must say, it can’t, which is where the difficulties and debates begin.  What parts of Scripture may we count as “strictly” historical and which not?  Does the faith hang on, for example, asserting the historicity of the Book of Jonah?  Catholic scholars would say on this point, no; Jonah has a good amount of theological truth to give us despite its being more in the genre of narrative fiction, versus strict history.  The Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, however, are integral to the faith, even though many historians will admit that, on purely historical grounds (apart from faith), the Virgin Birth cannot be demonstrated.  There is also a very large gray area where lines are not so easily drawn.  It seems vital to me, for example, to assert that someone like Abraham and Moses existed and really did the things attributed to them, since the God’s salvific plan for the human race is something that takes place in history.  The faith does not simply drop down to us from above in dogmatic formulas of the Church; our dogma must emerge from the actual things God has done in history, one of which is preserve the Holy People of the Old Testament in preparation for the Messiah.  But many scholars would disagree with me there, seeing less necessity to assert the historicity of these narratives.  On the other hand, does Moses and Abraham’s historical existence necessitate every detail in the narrative of the Pentateuch being strict history, or can we not see literary art and intention and crafting of the author at work too?  Scholars will vary widely on the precise answers to this question.  We cannot here go into a more detailed explanation of the limits of “inspiration” pertaining to the Scriptures, interesting as that topic is.  What I want to point out is something even more fundamental.  The tension between how to use the tools of historical criticism and how to simultaneously affirm the truths of our faith is almost inevitable given what Catholics believe Scripture is.

The Sacred Scriptures are, on the one hand, a collection of historical documents by a vast array of writers collected together through time; using historical methods of inquiry, then, and following them out to their logical conclusions, must be valid in principle.  On the other hand, Christians also assert these documents are a divinely inspired “whole,” through which the Holy Spirit has narrated without error one single plan of salvation issuing from the Triune God.  The Bible has a human dimension and a divine dimension; it is, if you will, “fully God-inspired” and “fully man-crafted,” fully the result of the Holy Spirit’s inerrant authorship of salvation history by words and deeds, and fully the result of human art, style, intention, craft, and even weakness (see Dei Verbum #11).  If these two things seem in tension, that is because they embody in a secondary way the mystery of the Incarnation itself, the mystery of the Word of God who become Flesh, subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh but sin.  Origen strikingly says that in the Incarnation the Eternal Word “became Jesus” while in Scripture the Eternal Word “became a book.”  Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council says similarly that “the words of God expressed in human language have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (DV #13).

The problem for Catholic interpreters today is how to remain faithful to both the valid methods of historical inquiry, which have resulted in seeing much more clearly than past ages the complexity of the human dimensions of Scripture, while retaining a robust faith that all of Scripture, whatever the disparate array of particular contexts it arose out of, bears a unified witness to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.  An interpreter may, in fact, commit “Exegetical Heresies” paralleling the Christological heresies of the early centuries of Christianity.  Much 19th and 20th century exegesis tended to a kind of “Arian” exegetical heresy, focusing so narrowly on the human dimensions of Scripture that it lost sight of the divine.  The great split between the “Historical Jesus” and the “Christ of Faith” that began to be drawn so sharply is a result of this error.  Fundamentalists err on the side of a “Monophysite” exegetical heresy, wanting to speak solely and only of the way the Divine Author has  dropped down eternal truths from above into a text whose human dimensions don’t matter much and are not worth studying.  Ironically, both of these methodological errors fail in getting an accurate picture of the text (though for opposite reasons) and often end in being more a reflection of the ideological posture of the exegete.  A more subtle exegetical heresy is a “Nestorian” one, where the human and divine dimensions of the text are neatly syphoned off from one another and seen as not intrinsically related: here “exegesis” proper is done in an atmospherically sealed arena where faith gets “tabled” and conclusions are reached that might exclude, for example, the possibility of the supernatural, or contradict other elements of the Catholic faith; then “theology” proper takes the often reductionist conclusions and does its work, seen as a categorically different task.  To the Arian Exegete the divine aspect of Scripture is the skandalon of St. Paul – he wants to exclude and finds offensive the supernatural aspects (cf., for example, the Jesus Seminar).  The Fundamentalist trips over the human dimension of the text, constantly trying to see easy harmonies and do exegetical gymnastics to explain away the messiness and complexity of textual and historical issues.  The Nestorian Exegete thinks it foolishness to see the tasks of exegesis and theology as, though distinct, essentially one.  A very interesting study to make on this topic is some of the correspondence between St. Augustine and St. Jerome, when the latter was in the Holy Land making his translations into Latin of the Hebrew Bible without recourse to the Septuagint.  Jerome began to see a number of disturbing discrepancies between manuscripts, and notice where the Hebrew text differed from the Septuagint in many places.  St. Augustine, ever the stalwart theologian and pastor, chides Jerome for not using the Septuagint, which had gained authoritative prominence in the West as the source for the Latin Vulgate translation.  Jerome was attending to the human "messiness" of the text as a kind of proto-critical scholar, while Augustine was worried about the theological and pastoral implications of seeing tension and disharmony in the One Revelation of God, highlighting the "divine aspect."  Ultimately, a Catholic approach must see both dimensions in unity, reflecting the mystery and power of the Incarnation itself.

The ongoing discussion for Catholic exegetes today is exactly how to bring these two dimensions of the Sacred Text into an organic synthesis, both the human dimension which is legitimately subject to anything and everything right reason can discover, and the divine dimension which is mysteriously imbedded in, and visible through, the human.  Dei Verbum (#12) highlighted both of these necessary stages in exegesis – using critical tools and reading in the light of faith – in an authoritative way that remains a commission for Catholic exegetes today.  Benedict XVI has articulated the task, with characteristic eloquence and precision, in his 2010 post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (see especially #’s 29-39).  The task of exegeting Scripture as both human and divine testimony is ultimately one of bridging and seeing in mutual relationship the “two wings” of reason and faith which John Paul II spoke of; it is one of seeing the disparate and particular human circumstances out of which the Scriptures arose, as a developing fabric of one Divine Plan revealing the love of God in Christ; it is a task, though scandalous and foolish to the world in various ways, of seeing God reveal His Face in the Scriptures as in a mirror (DV #7), just as men gazed upon Christ when on earth and beheld the Face of the Father (Jn. 10:30).


[1] See his lecture “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1-23; and his introductions in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, tr. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007) and Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week, From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, tr. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011); see also the foreword to On the Way to Jesus Christ, tr. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius 2005), where he states his belief that “the crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading Sacred Scripture—seemingly the sole scientific way”(9); finally, see his most recent statements in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (given in response to the 2009 Synod on the Word of God), especially #’s 29-39 (available at www.vatican.va).

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

Advent, Finals, and the Day of Judgment

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Advent has now begun, and for us students that means that the Day of Judgment is quickly approaching. Of course, by “Day of Judgment” I mean Finals Weeks in mid-December, when all of our studies for the semester are summed up in term papers and final exams, and our professors “judge” our learning for the semester by assigning grades. It is a time of busyness and of stress, of late nights, and those disconcerting moments when we think, “can I get it all done in time?

 I suppose that, in general, the several weeks before Christmas are that way for many others as well: gift-purchasing, holiday party-planning, travelling arrangements, and general preparations for the Christmas season tend to fill our time and generate a bit of stress. And Christmas day itself becomes a sort of “Judgment Day”, when the results of all of our prior efforts are revealed – and we hope that our work will not have been in vain!

 IMG_0169 copyWhile all of this busyness and stress can indeed seem to take away from the season of Advent, there is, at least, one thing fitting in all of this: Advent is supposed to be a time of anticipation and preparation; but it is a preparation for the coming of Christ – at Bethlehem and at the end of time. Thus, at the very least, our preparations for our own “judgment days” – whether that be the last due date for a research paper, the day of the final exam, or Christmas day itself – can serve as a reminder for us that something “big” is indeed coming, and we ought to be prepared.

 But how are we to prepare for the real “Final Exam” – that anticipated coming of Christ, whom we believe “will come to judge the living and the dead” (Apostle’s Creed)? Not indeed by sheer busyness, nor by worry or stress. Instead, I think one important way to prepare is made clear when we notice that the New Testament Greek word for Christ’s coming – παρουσία (“parousia”) – also simply means “presence”: we are called to prepare for  Christ’s presence in our midst. And yet, his presence is not simply a future reality: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). That is, Christ’s “coming”, or presence, has already begun in our midst; we must, therefore, acknowledge and respond to Christ’s presence now if we want to be ready for His presence in the future.

 As religious, we are reminded of this every morning, during Matins, when we pray Psalm 95, which exhorts us: “If today you here his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7b-8; cf. Heb 3:7-4:14). That is, “Judgment Day” begins today; Christ’s presence is before us, now – in his Church, his Sacraments, his Word, his servants, and his poor. Do we see him? Do we hear him? Are we watching? Listening?

 This advent, then, may our other preparations remind us to prepare for the presence of  Christ. Let us keep watch and adore his Presence in our midst, and let us today listen to and heed his voice in his Word, his Church, and in our conscience. Let us allow Him to call us, to change us, to make us holy. And, then, indeed, the Day of Judgment will not be a day of woe or of stress for us, but a day of fulfillment and of completion – of dwelling in Christ’s Glorious Presence.

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Br. Emmanuel Taylor, O.P.'s picture

Saintly Scientists

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“The heavens proclaim the glory of God.” - Psalm 19:2

St. AlbertSt. Albert the Great blazed a path to God through the natural sciences. Now, --whether a professional scientist, a more casual bird-watcher, or one who simply enjoys watching nature shows--you too can be a saint. Conducting scientific investigation can lead you to God if you follow the example of Albert. If you follow this pedagogy you will be a saintly scientist.<--break->

The first step of a saintly scientist is to see. The Dominican historian Simon Tugwell describes Albert as “an inveterate looker at things” (Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, 29). St. Albert was a great scientist because he delighted in looking at things. To learn to see things is the first step of a saintly scientist.

St. Albert found time to explore the natural sciences even though he had other jobs. He had official positions in the Church: he was Provincial of the Order of Preachers and he was Bishop in Regensburg, Germany. However, these official duties did not stop him from looking at things. As he would travel on business he would visit mines, “going far out of his way to do so, because of his interest in mineralogy” (Albert & Thomas, 8). He incorporated into his busy life his, the habit to see things.

From seeing things, the next step is to understand. “The natural scientist seeks to understand the cause of all these things,” writes St. Albert in his book On Minerals (III 1.10). This means that it is not enough simply to see things. To be a saintly scientist you must also wonder about their cause.

St. Albert sought understanding across many areas of science. He loved not only geology, but also biology. He studied animals of many varieties in their natural habitats. He also kept some animals, including snakes and even a “puppy with one white eye and one black eye.” (Albert & Thomas, 29)

Finally, to be a saintly scientist requires not only seeing and understanding nature but also seeing and understanding God. In addition to his scientific enquiries, Albert sought to see and understand God. From Scripture he developed his vision of God. This ability to “see” God is called contemplative prayer--it can just as easily be called contemplative vision. It is because St. Albert the Great combined his natural vision with spiritual vision that he proclaims with delight: “The whole world is theology for us, because the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Comm. Matt. 13.35; trans. Tugwell, Albert & Thomas, 29). Albert shows us that the study of nature can bring us to God. Let us follow his example, and be saintly scientists who proclaim the glory of God.

 

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Br. Ambrose Sigman, O.P.'s picture

Homily from the Feast of Saint Dominic

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Yesterday, for the feast of Saint Dominic, the prior and superior of Saint Albert's, Fr. Reginald Martin, OP, said and preached the mass. The following is the homily he gave. While this is not from a student brother, it might be considered one of the examples of preaching to which we aspire:

In the last couple of weeks, Fr. Augustine Thompson and I had the chance to visit a number of fabled cities built on hills. I confess, to my embarrassment, that I had hitherto, appreciated them for their scenic beauty, but this go-round Fr. Augustine’s scholarship helped me realize the immense responsibility citizens must be willing to embrace when they undertake to build their city on a hill.

The strategic advantages are obvious, of course, but once your life cannot be hidden, you must make all sorts of provisions and take all sorts of precautions that your more secluded neighbors don’t have to worry about. Noblesse oblige, after all, or – as we learned when we were growing up, beauty is, as beauty does.

Which is why no one lights a lamp to hide it. We may take light for granted, but it was extremely valuable – and costly – for Jesus and his contemporaries. It’s no wonder the ancients should have considered light an ordering principle, or that God should have created it first.

Physicists can tell us what light is, but we don’t need to be scientists to know what light does; it makes things safe and it makes them warm. But it does so by making them bright. When the Albigensians let their ears be tickled by a dualist fable that denied the Incarnation, St. Dominic countered with the light of his study. He got the Albigensians’ attention by studying their doctrine to understand it well enough to point out its errors.

The dictionary defines “study” as “the application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge…by reading, investigation, or reflection….” St. Dominic didn’t invent study, but he invested it with a purpose that was wholly his own. Benedictines study a great deal. They may become smart along the way, but Benedictines study to become holy.

The Franciscans have produced great scholars, but legends say that St. Francis himself was suspicious of school. Fr. Augustine’s book will probably deny this, so let’s repeat it one last time. St. Francis is reported to have said,

The Lord told me that He would have me poor and foolish in this world and that He willed not to lead us by any way other than that.

A Dominican’s study is an act of piety ordered to an end outside of us. It may not make us holy, but it ought to make us smart – at least smart enough to cause the people we preach to, to think – and to call them to God. Study is our obligation, and everyone we preach to has the right to expect it of us.

How beautiful, Isaiah tells us, are the feet of the one who brings Good News. Notice, it’s the preacher’s feet that are beautiful, not the shoes. The light of Christ equips us to look beneath the surface of things, to penetrate to the truth. As St. Dominic did when the Albignesians said that matter and spirit are so opposed that God could never be united with something so fallen as this flesh, or reveal Himself in anything so corrupt as food and drink.

We are the light of the world, Our Savior tells us – a light that makes things bright, keeps them safe and makes them warm. Warmth may not be a quality we immediately associate with St. Dominic, but one of his peers wrote,

... the tranquil composure of the inner man was revealed outwardly by the kindliness and cheerfulness of his expression [which] easily won the love of everybody. Without difficulty he found his way into people’s hearts as soon as they saw him.

“As soon as they saw him.” Like that city on a hill. The life of our founder, no less than the example from the gospel, warns us, if we’re going to enjoy the prominence, we must be prepared to embrace the responsibility.

 
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