With Good Reason

By Father Thomas Berg

In this article I intend to address a series of problematic and closely related ideas bearing on perennial Catholic moral teaching and its underlying understanding of the human person. All of them, in one way or another, have already manifested themselves in the run-up to the 14th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops—to be held in October on the theme of “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world.”  

There has been much speculation that the deliberations that will ensue at Synod 2015 could lead to some dramatic changes in the Church’s pastoral ministry to Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly, to those who cohabitate, and to those who live in same-sex unions, and that consequently those changes might imperil Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage.  At very least, those deliberations will not be unimportant, especially in giving shape to Pope Francis’s mind on these matters, his of course ultimately being the final word.

We should be grateful that these problematic ideas do not appear to have significantly influenced the synod’s working document—the Instrumentum Laboris—released last month. My point however, is that, if not consistently avoided by a majority of the synod fathers, these ideas still have the potential to exercise considerable influence on the participating prelates, and were they to do so, would have irreversibly deleterious consequences for the Catholic faithful.

Allow me to begin, however—especially for the benefit of readers who have not been following the synod preparation closely—with a brief, but by no means exhaustive, recap of important moments in the ensuing debate.

Recap of the debate and the controversy

The preparations for Synod 2015 have occasioned a renewed debate within the Catholic Church over questions most Catholics believed to have been essentially settled matters: whether, and under what circumstances divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (without benefit of annulment and continuing to enjoy sexual relations in the second union) could be allowed to approach holy communion; whether the Church can in some way validate such second unions; how the nullity of one’s marriage ought to be determined.  Catholic teaching on these issues was expounded in Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (specifically in number 84)—itself, the product of a synod on the family—and the doctrine later incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Cf. 1649-1651). Be that as it may, Pope Francis believed these issues were worth revisiting, and that is what many good minds in the Church have been doing over the past several months. Not surprisingly, new questions have also been attached to the aforementioned issues: Can the Church grant some kind of validity to cohabitating couples? Can the Church not affirm the “values” present in same-sex relationships without compromising her stance on homosexuality?

In February 2014, at the request of Pope Francis, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a lecture titled “The Gospel of the Family” to an extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals gathered in Rome in preparationfor the upcoming synods, in which he included a series of proposals for dealing with the divorced and remarried. It was, we might say, the first volley in what has become the current tense and very public theological debate. Then, in October of 2014, a smaller, preparatory synod with a select number of bishops convened in Rome to commence discussions.  

At the halfway point of this first—extraordinary—synod, a “mid-term” report provoked considerable controversy.  This report was supposed to have taken and represented the pulse of the bishops, presenting in written form a summary of their input thus far into the issues at hand. Instead, that document reflected much more the ideological bent of its several authors, who seemed to consider that much was up for grabs in terms of the Church’s pastoral approach to the divorce and remarried, challenging the Church to countenance the “constructive elements” present in the relationships of cohabitating persons and to “value the sexual orientation” of “homosexual persons.”

Such proposals were considerably tempered a few weeks later with the publication of the final synod report (relatio synodi). This then became the basis for Instrumentum Laboris published today. This new working document incorporates the 2014 synod final report in its entirety, but almost doubles its content in size by incorporating input from a months-long consultation process with dioceses around the world.  

It is well known that not a few Catholic bishops are sympathetic to Kasper’s proposals, especially in his native Germany. Indeed, it came as no surprise in early May when the Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (Central Committee of the German Catholics) released a statement encouraging the Synod fathers to give serious consideration, among other things, to “a re-evaluation of the methods of artificial birth control,”… “an integration into the life of the Church of spouses who now live in a second marriage after a divorce, and also their admittance to the Sacraments after a sound decision of conscience,” and “the unconditional acceptance of the cohabitation of loyal same-sex partnerships, and a clear attitude opposed to those current exclusions and devaluations of homosexual persons.”

Later in May, an invitation-only private gathering—including the presidents of the episcopal conferences of Germany, France, and Switzerland, and some fifty bishops, theologians, and other assorted experts and invitees under the direction of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx—was held at the Gregorian University in Rome in late May. The prime focus of this assembly was a strategy for advancing the Kasperian proposals, including some form of Catholic “affirmation” of homosexual unions. Adding to a sense that lines are being drawn and sides taken, a symposium of African bishops met in Ghana in early June. The two groups of prelates could not be more at odds on those proposals.

Responses to Kasper’s Proposals

It is not difficult to find thoughtful accounts of all the debates that have ensued in the past year and a half. Here I will briefly identify some of the key responses to Kasper’s proposals, keeping in mind that these proposals are not recent.  

In 1993, Kasper joined Archbishop Oskar Saier and then-bishop (later Cardinal) Karl Lehmann, in authoring a pastoral letter that advocated for the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. Their implicit contention in that pastoral letter—that the bond once established by valid, sacramental, consummated marriages sometimes simply dissolves, and that a Catholic could in conscience decide that such was the case with his or her previous sacramental marriage and thus approach communion in good faith—was dealt a devastating rebuttal a year later by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and the late William May.

An excellent essay by several authors (the majority Dominicans from the House of Studies in Washington, DC) detailed a systematic response to Kasper’s proposals.  Christian Brugger has addressed proposals very similar to Kasper’s put forth by the Jesuit Giancarlo Pani—detailing specifically how we would best interpret the Council of Trent’s approach to the practice of oikonomia by the Orthodox Churches (whereby under certain circumstances a blessing is given to a second (civil) marriage after a period of penance). Finally, the most comprehensive and authoritative response to date was the volume edited by Fr. Robert Dodaro, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, which counted five Cardinals among its co-authors and was nothing short of a very public rebuke of their colleague Cardinal Kasper.

Some Problematic Ideas

Ideas have consequences—we well know.  My concern here is a series of highly problematic and closely related propositions with regard to conscience, human freedom, the moral qualification of human choices, and the Church’s understanding of our progress in moral living that may well be exerting an influence on the thinking of any number of Catholic bishops, especially many of those set to participate in Synod 2015.

I would note from the outset that my reflections here invite the valid question—and concern—as to exactly what metaphysics and what philosophical anthropology each of the Synod fathers will bring to his task in October. Theology presupposes philosophy, just as revelation presupposes lived human existence.  Show me the framework of your theological system, and I will tell you something about the metaphysics on which it is built.

I am not intimately familiar with the theological system or project—presumably he has one—of Cardinal Kasper, whose theological output and influence in the final decades of last century was considerable. Fortunately, others are. A recent critical assessment of the philosophical underpinnings of Kasper’s theological project by Professor Thomas Heinrich Stark illustrates this very point in spades.

Whence the Eagerness to Affirm the Positive (Within the Disordered)?

Let’s begin by asking why the authors of the October 2014 synod midterm report felt so compelled to explore avenues for a more or less formal Church “affirmation” of the “positive elements” to be found in “faithful” cohabitating relationships and in same-sex unions, and to “value” the sexual orientation of “homosexual persons”?  There is much more behind this than mere political correctness, or succumbing to one of our odd moralistic fetishes du jour, namely that of “affirming positive values” (in just about anything), or simply a hat-tip to a secular culture which demands such affirmation.

To fall short of such an affirmation—in the mind of not a few theologians and bishops—would be to remain beholden to an impersonal ethic of rule-following, an ethic putatively in tension with the lived reality of these individuals, and incompatible with a sound pastoral sensitivity and personalistic approach to morality.  Cardinal Kasper has been quite clear on his perception of this supposed tension when he seems to imply that fidelity to absolute moral norms is incompatible with the Church’s understanding of the flexibility of positive law (technically referred to by the Greek term epikeia), which needs to be malleable in view of the applications and adaptations that could not be foreseen by the framers of such laws. This is well and good as far as it goes for positive law. Of course to suggest that all moral norms should be subject to such adaptation and flexibility is not only to conflate positive law with the whole of moral normativity but also to suggest the non-existence of moral norms that have no exception, a stance incompatible with perennial Catholic moral teaching.

Accordingly, I argue that this eagerness to entertain such notions rests on at least two problematic conceptions: an idea of conscience whereby it is construed as a personal decision and a faulty notion of human freedom.

A Problematic Conception of Moral Conscience

The view of conscience as personal decision conflates the genuine judgment of conscience (something which can and should arise in one’s interiority fundamentally independent of one’s emotions and decision-making capacity) with mere moral opinion.

Granted, this is something of a default understanding of conscience in our contemporary culture.  Its highly problematic reduction of conscience to the level of moral opinion, however, sets it deeply at odds with the perennial Catholic, natural law understanding of conscience.  

Aquinas held that conscience in the strict sense was as an act of human reason—called a judgment—following upon and concluding a time of deliberation. Conscience is reason's awareness of a choice or action’s harmony or disharmony with the kind of behavior that truly leads to our genuine well being and flourishing. If our choice is not in accord with the judgment of a rightly formed conscience, then that judgment will linger in our awareness and present itself as a felt disharmony between the choice and the moral norm (and corresponding virtue) that is being violated. While such felt disharmony is indeed of an emotive nature (e.g., a healthy emotional guilt), the judgment of conscience remains something distinct and irreducible to the negative feeling that happens to accompany it.

In a word, in the Catholic understanding of conscience—based firmly on the thought of Aquinas (who in turn, it must be pointed out, was simply being a student of human psychology here)—conscience does not create moral norms: it is not literally autonomous—a law unto itself. Rather, conscience is the manifestation of human practical reason guiding an individual to be fully reasonable, to embrace and be harmonious with a perceived ordering of personal choices and actions which most fully respects the integrity of the human goods involved and is most conducive to one’s genuine flourishing and that of others.

One might make “decisions” based on “opinions” about how to achieve the good, but such decisions might actually have nothing to do with the genuine judgment of conscience on such matters. On this view, conscience is essentially creative, autonomous, a law unto itself, settling personal moral matters by way of autonomous decision.

A Problematic Conception of Freedom and Moral Self-Determination

The aforementioned faulty view of human freedom posits that it actually operates on two levels, one conscious—the state in which we make everyday choices—and the other deeper, transcending conscious awareness, wherein we find our true self-worth and determine ourselves as moral beings. Presumably, barring stark evidence to the contrary (such as having a zest for acts of genocide), everyone’s fundamental option is in the “right” direction from the get-go of one’s moral life:  the radical orientation of one’s whole life is toward God, as evidenced by the collective whole of one’s “right” moral choices in everyday life, the rightness of which is primarily assessed by the motives that inform them.  

Given this two-tiered understanding of personal freedom, a person can licitly at times choose what these theorists would term as “pre-moral,” “physical” or “ontic” evils (such as abortion, adultery, euthanasia, and the like), albeit reluctantly and regrettably, and bring them about. However, if brought about for personally valid and substantial reasons, such choices and actions can be “right” moral options. Nor do these choices have an impact on the core or fundamental moral goodness (the “fundamental option”) of the persons who thus operate as long as their choices are buoyed by right motivations and a careful moral calculus that has assured a greater net outcome of good consequences over evil or less desirable consequences in choosing and acting.

I have just described, of course, the conception of human freedom that underlies the set of moral theories broadly characterized as Proportionalism, all of which were definitively refuted in Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Proportionalism can be defined as a moral theory that proposes the possibility of determining right and wrong action by calculating the maximum Net good or minimum Net harm entailed in performing that action.  This theory holds that such a calculation is possible in light of a reasoned consideration of benefits and harms (especially in terms of foreseeable consequences) entailed in the proposed action, and in light of what would follow by its omission. These benefits and harms would then be calculated. The theory then proposes that right action would be that which offers a better proportion of benefit to harm. Consequently, if that calculation is made with care, and choices made intending the greater net good as an outcome, one could conceivably choose and commit even behaviors which the Church has consistently held to be intrinsically evil, and not in any way compromise one’s basic moral orientation or “fundamental option”.

While Veritatis Splendor thoroughly excoriates this dualistic understanding of human freedom which separates choices and actions from one’s basic moral orientation, those ideas—though perhaps fallen from the prominence they enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s—are still influential in the thinking of not a few priests (and, it is to be feared, bishops) who were students of Proportionalist professors of Catholic moral theology during their seminary years.

A Problematic Appeal to the Law of Graduality

These ideas inevitably lead some to suggest that it can be possible for at least some of the baptized to remain validly, legitimately, without consequence to their ultimate salvation, and in varying degrees, in communion with the Church even when, in their life-style choices (their decisions), they openly reject the Church’s perennial moral teachings on marriage, cohabitation, premarital sex, and sexual activity between persons of the same sex.  To be clear, we’re not talking about persons who might engage in such behaviors in a state of invincible ignorance (which the Church’s moral tradition naturally understands can attenuate and even eliminate personal responsibility); the idea here is that persons would knowingly engage in such behaviors acknowledging the inconsistency of such behaviors with Church teaching, even that they are gravely sinful.  The further idea is that, in response the Church would somehow find a way to affirm some degree of soundness in their moral status, and “good standing” with the Church, to use a more common expression. Granted, even the baptized who persistently remain in un-repented  mortal sin still remain related to the Mystical Body—but the theologically laden concept of communion cannot adequately describe the nature of that relationship.

To arrive at such a proposition, in addition to the preceding notions, requires taking more than a bit of theological license with a principle of Catholic moral teaching normally referred to as the law or principle of graduality, or the law of gradualness (hereafter LOG). The principle seems to have come to the fore of the moral theological lexicon particularly when John Paul II referred to it in Familiaris Consortio (in a paragraph which includes an internal quote of a homily he delivered at the close of the sixth Synod of Bishops, October 25, 1980):

And so what is known as “the law of gradualness” or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with “gradualness of the law,” as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will (34).

Though not offering a precise formulation of the LOG, John Paul II, in the same exhortation, points to the proper Christian context which forms the framework in which the LOG is to be properly understood:

What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man. Therefore an educational growth process is necessary, in order that individual believers, families and peoples, even civilization itself, by beginning from what they have already received of the mystery of Christ, may patiently be led forward, arriving at a richer understanding and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives (9).

Hence, the LOG, properly understood, has its origin in the very reality of human psycho-moral development: as in most areas of human development, so too in the moral sphere, maturity manifests itself through a gradual process—“steps”—toward an ever deeper appropriation of right moral behavior as instantiated in concrete choices and actions.  In the Christian context, it articulates the gradual nature of conversion. Genuine conversion places us necessarily on a course that intends steady progress—notwithstanding human weakness and occasional moral failures—toward an ever more consistent and holistic embrace of the truth of Christ’s moral teaching.  Historically, as a “law” or moral principle, the LOG was applied in the Church’s missionary endeavor as a measure for pastorally guiding converts to a steady embrace of moral precepts as presented by the Church. This is the necessary context in which the Church understands the LOG.

But it is vitally important to understand, as noted in Familiaris Consortio 34, that the LOG does not imply that either the convert or the Church should craft and validate individualized and autonomous moral norms “as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” That would constitute the very perversion of the law of graduality to which John Paul refers—namely, the “graduality of the law.” Converts to the faith are to be led and assisted in appropriating the new moral requirements of life in Christ in progressive steps of gradual conversion and exigency, assuring them of God’s mercy, presence, and grace, safeguarding against their discouragement, accompanying them in a step by step renewal of life, but without diminishing the full import of the moral requirements.

The authors of the October 2014 synod midterm report creatively attempted to import into this sound principle of moral and pastoral theology another notion of “graduality,” which has its own, very distinct theological context: namely, the degrees of relationship of the different Churches and ecclesial communions (and of persons baptized in those communions) to the Roman Catholic Church.  This movement of thought may be discerned in number 17 of that report:

In considering the principle of gradualness in the divine salvific plan, one asks what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how it is possible to offer them Christ’s help through the ministry of the Church. In this respect, a significant hermeneutic key comes from the teaching of Vatican Council II, which, while it affirms that “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure ... these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8).

The latter principle regarding degrees of relationship to, or communion with the Church, is articulated in the 2000 Declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus:

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. (17)

That formulation has its roots in the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, 22, and—as suggested by the authors of the midterm report—in Lumen Gentium, 8.

However, to import the latter notion of gradualness into the law of graduality, is to open up a space for the very “graduality of the law” denounced by Familiaris Consortio. To further suggest that in such a conflation of meanings the synod fathers should discover “a significant hermeneutic key” that would enable them to affirm the “positive elements” discoverable in intrinsically disordered behaviors—or to affirm that Catholics who, in deliberate contradiction of the Church’s moral tradition, engage in such behaviors yet remain nonetheless (albeit “imperfectly”) in a communion of life with the Church—is not only intellectually dishonest but also incompatible with the Church’s received understanding of how our deliberately chosen behaviors shape us as moral beings and affect our relationship with the Author of the moral order. In a word, such a project is—through and through—incompatible with moral truth as consistently taught by the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.  Genuine pastoral concern for men and women on the road of conversion can never be served by infidelity to that truth.

Diakonia veritatis

In the end, the synod fathers bear the grave responsibility of the diakonia veritatis—the ministry of truth, so eloquently elaborated by Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Cf. nn. 49-56). As the same Pontiff observed in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, “Being responsible for that truth also means loving it and seeking the most exact understanding of it, in order to bring it closer to ourselves and others in all its saving power, its splendor and its profundity joined with simplicity” (n. 19). Notwithstanding the evident and ever-growing complexity of the manner in which the Church attempts to communicate truth to a post-modern secular culture, we can only hope that the synod fathers will think well, think carefully, and think with the Church—sentire cum Ecclesia.

The Instrumentum Laboris for Synod 2015 gives some tentative assurance that these very problematic ideas can and will be eschewed by the synod fathers.  The notion of graduality operative in the working-document seems sound and consonant with the Magisterium.  As for specific proposals that have seemed in tension with the Church’s received teaching and pastoral practice, I would note:

•    The “journey of reconciliation or penance” for the divorced and civilly remarried (through which they might be admitted to Holy Communion) about which the document suggests “a great number agree” in paragraph 123 is nothing other than a reaffirmation of the pastoral elements already outlined in Familiaris Consortio, 84: guidance of the local bishop, the couple avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance, investigation into the nullity of the prior bond, and commitment to live as brother and sister.  

•    While paragraph 123 also refers to a second more problematic conception of a “way of penance” leading to communion (one that would place discernment of their situation in the hands of a priest designated for the purpose, and rely largely on the couple’s and the priest’s assessment of the validity of their prior bond) it is mentioned only in passing.

•    For the divorced and civilly remarried who are not on such a penitential path, the document does push the notion of pastoral “inclusion” of such persons in their local Christian communities to an extreme, even appearing to suggest (paragraph 121) that the exclusion of persons in these irregular situations from liturgical ministries (e.g., lectoring at mass) should be “re-examined.”  

•    The possibility of the Church assuming some form of the practice of the Orthodox Church in blessing second marriages (oikonomia) is only given a brief, and less than enthusiastic, mention in paragraph 129.

•    With regard to persons with homosexual tendencies, the working document simply reaffirms (paragraphs 130-132) what should be current pastoral practice in the Church, namely, that such persons are to be received with respect, gentleness, and sensitivity. At the same time, the working document strongly reaffirms that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.” It also affirms that the world’s bishops are not to succumb to cultural pressures on this question.

Fully certain that the Holy Spirit is constantly assisting the Church, and particularly the successor of Peter, we pray that the synod fathers—in the form of a final synod report, along with the Holy Father’s eventual post-synodal apostolic exhortation itself—will not back away from the moral imperative of articulating fundamental truths about the human person: that all share a common human nature whose fulfillment comes about by participation in intelligible human goods pursued through choice and action in accord with right reason, and that human persons can know universal truths about our human nature and about what does and does not fulfill that nature, and what consequently is incompatible with Divine charity in this life and in eternity.

Posted: July 6, 2015, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

Catholics, as a segment of U.S. population, shrank by 3.1 percent from 2007 to 2014, and are now outnumbered as a portion of American population by the “nones”, the religiously unaffiliated. That was the headline-grabbing revelation two weeks ago from the Pew Research Center.  That trend fits within the overall decline in affiliation with Christian denominations, notwithstanding population growth in the U.S. in the same time period.

So there it was in black in white:  approximately 51 million adult Catholics in the United States as of 2014 versus approximately 56 million religiously “unaffiliated” adults.

That should come as no surprise to any Catholic who is attentive to the current situation of the Church in North America.  What the study did not point out, but we know from experience to be the case, is that only approximately 12 percent of those 51 million Catholics attend mass regularly on Sundays.  The Catholic Church in America is, and has been for decades now, constituted by practicing Catholics, kind-of-practicing Catholics, and non-practicing Catholics—a situation in many ways not unlike previous centuries, yet which emerges from new and complex causes, and has resulted in a Church of profound internal tensions.

Those tensions have all too painfully come to bear on the religious experience of most present day Catholics.  Yet our manner of articulating those tensions within the Church is often far too simplistic, contrasting as we often do conservatives with liberals, the remnant with the fallen-away.

Although open to similar over-simplifications, the terms ‘committed Catholic’ and ‘cultural Catholic’ are sometimes contrasted, but arguably with good reason. Committed Catholics are those who, in varying forms, manifest a robust religious practice, an active pursuit of a spiritual life, a deepening of their understanding of Catholic dogma, and an intentional embrace of the fullness of Catholic teaching—including her moral teaching on hot-button issues such as contraception and homosexuality—giving the free allegiance of mind and will to the Church’s authentic magisterium. 

‘Cultural Catholics’ by contrast are those who in varying degrees have negligible Catholic practice, or while retaining elements of practice (such as occasional Church attendance) find themselves disagreeing (whether they understand why or not) with certain Church teachings.  And of course it is no secret that culturally Catholic politicians and academics especially, while insisting on their Catholic identity, will openly dissent from the Church’s received teaching (even to the extreme of explaining their dissent as a ‘service’ to the Church).

The truth is, the baptized express their Catholicism across a broad spectrum of practice, or lack thereof, of embrace of Church teaching, or rejection thereof.

So, yes, the tensions are real.

A historically shallow view of the Church’s history, we might add, faults the Second Vatican Council for those tensions.  But if we are attentive to history, we see that this has generally been the Church’s situation throughout her two millennia of existence, and that the Holy Spirit has not yet ceased to be present and active in the lives of all of his faithful—the committed and fallen-away alike.

Yet, cultural Catholics are the ones who are exiting. And that’s disturbing, and it invites reflection. What ought a committed Catholic’s attitude be toward this situation?  And what will our Church look like in the America of the future?  For what it’s worth, I offer a few thoughts on both questions, beginning with the latter.

As we watch the exodus of 6.5 American Catholics from the Church for every one person received into the Church (according to the Pew study), it is very reasonable to assume that robust Catholicism will, in the future, be found more commonly in smaller, more concentrated communities characterized by intense, faithful religious practice. 

Why so?

It’s not just that there will likely be fewer Catholics.

Rather, it’s a question of how cultural changes—readily reflected in the Pew study—will impact Catholic practice and identity.

No matter who happens to occupy the White House or have control of Congress in the coming decades, committed Catholics in the United States will feel more and more, not just as ‘strangers in a strange land’ but as aliens in an openly hostile environment, in a secular culture that wishes to render Catholicism insipid, innocuous, and largely indistinguishable from itself. 

While large percentages of cultural Catholics will continue to be assimilated (to not say digested) by that secular culture, to the eventual loss of their religious practice and Christian faith altogether, it makes all the sense in the world to expect that committed Catholics will find themselves bolstered more and more by tightknit communities of Catholic belief and practice.  If truth be told, this dynamic has already been going on for years.

And, yes, of course I am thinking here of Pope Benedict’s (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s) 1997 interview with Peter Seewald in Salt of the Earth.  In that interview, Benedict mused on the future of the Church in these terms:

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.

That vision was echoed in a 2003 interview he gave to EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo.  In that interview, then Cardinal Ratzinger took a question about the future of the Church and was asked to give his own interpretation of what had become by then a major theme of Pope St. John Paul’s pontificate: “the new springtime of evangelization.”  His reply echoed the response to Seewald: “The essential things in history [of the Church],” observed Benedict, “begin always with smaller, convinced communities…communities with the élan of the faith.”

In our present circumstances, we can be quite sure this is a vision of what we will look like as a Church: convinced communities where the faith is lived robustly and dynamically; communities composed of relatively smaller numbers of Catholics living their faith on their sleeves; communities full of joy and irradiating the faith; communities—it goes without saying—that live in communion with the institutional Church and in docility to the local bishop as well; communities, not of messiah complexes and misguided reform, but of fidelity.  Idyllic? Perfect? Hardly. There will be plenty of problems and tensions therein as well.  Yet, how resist the hopeful thought that they should act as creative minorities engaged in a long, twilight struggle to avoid becoming the next European-style spiritual wasteland of empty cathedrals and emasculated Catholicism?

To be sure, Pope Benedict was not thinking here so much of a return to the catacombs, as of communities—arguably, on the whole, parish communities—in which Catholics live in a state of intense—or more precisely, intentional—discipleship.  These communities will be places, by God’s grace, in which Catholics who have been given the grace of a personal and life-altering encounter with the risen Lord will guide other Catholics to a similar encounter.

So, if we are looking for ways to stop the hemorrhaging of Catholics from the Church, our decades-old approach of reluctantly accepting lukewarm Catholic practice as “normal” is going to get us nowhere—we now have empirical proof of that. As Catholic evangelist, and author of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell observed, reacting to the Pew study, “cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of parishes across the U.S. headed by pastors who understand this.  They get it. They are pastors who understand that their congregations need to receive in their Sunday homilies, not psychobabble, but kerygma; not fluff, but the great story of salvation; not empty niceties, but the irresistible beauty of Jesus Christ.  And these priests employ new, out-of-the-box approaches to parish evangelization, religious education, youth ministry and marriage preparation.  They know that the primary task before them is to invite their flocks to a living encounter with Jesus, and to a life of discipleship. (And by the way—our seminarians get it as well).

Some might want to suggest that small, robust networks of vibrant Catholicism are by far preferable to large populations of lukewarm, innocuous Catholics. Smaller is better, it is suggested, and perhaps this should be adopted as a strategy.  As for the lukewarm who are nearing the exit doors, well, good riddance.

Of course, such an attitude is nothing short of diabolical. Nor would it seem that Pope Benedict was thinking of ‘small and robust’ as a strategy so much as the upshot of unavoidable historical circumstances.

So, as we find ourselves, nonetheless, living our faith lives more and more from within these potent Catholic nuclei, let’s forego the bunker mentality, and the remnant mindset. Our attitude must remain that proposed by Pope Francis, the attitude of those fully caught up in the drama of the Church as field-hospital, reaching out to the spiritually marginalized, to cultural Catholics, to the religiously “unaffiliated,” to the extremities of a Church troubled by deep internal tensions and profoundly in need of the experience of Jesus Christ.

Posted: May 25, 2015, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

With the nation going to the voting booths this week, and the news saturated with myriad international crises, it’s likely we missed the fact that this week the Church celebrates National Vocation Awareness Week.  As stated on the USCCB website, it is a week dedicated “to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.”

It’s no secret that the best catalyst for vocations is the personal holiness of those who have already embraced the call. Young men are attracted to the priesthood first and foremost by the holiness of the priests they have known—a fact borne out in just about every vocation story.

Which leads me to share a few thoughts on the whole question of priestly holiness.

In the final moment of the rite of priestly ordination, at the presentation of the gifts to the altar, the bishop in turn presents the newly ordained priest with the paten and chalice. The bishop entreats him:  “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross.”

In other words, once upon a time in our lives we priests made a commitment to pursue genuine holiness of life, and strive—amidst our own struggles and sinfulness—to remain faithful to that commitment through a life of on-going conversion, a life that would ordinarily include daily personal prayer time, frequent confession, Eucharistic and Marian devotion, an annual retreat, and regular spiritual direction—to model our lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross. 

I believe the reality of sexual abuse by a small percentage of Catholic priests in recent decades, and the harm wreaked upon the lives of so many innocent Catholic men and women, has become a constant motivation toward greater personal holiness in the present generations of Catholic priests.

But how would an average Catholic recognize genuine priestly holiness? By what standards could we assess it?

To the external observer, we may or may not fit the often superficial, pietistic criteria of “holiness” at play in the minds of some.  To be sure, the genuine holiness of priests is normally not measured by the categories that are available to superficial observation. Add up all the observable elements you want:  “Father is such a good preacher,” “father is so reverent at the altar,” “father visited my dad in the hospital and got him to got to confession,” “father is so dedicated to the homeless shelter,” “father celebrates the Latin mass,” “father wears the cassock on Sundays” and so on. It does not necessarily follow from such a list that “father is a holy priest.” These externals may or may not be confirmations of genuine holiness of life because, again, that holiness is really determined by elements that oftentimes elude the common categories by which certain individuals evaluate their priests.

The patent message of both Old and New Testaments is that personal holiness is nothing other than fidelity to Yahweh. Personal holiness means to possess a growing and lived affinity with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in docility to his Word, and to the promptings of his grace. And as the Catechism notes, “charity is the soul of the holiness to which all are called.”

The Catechism further elucidates the nature of holiness among the people of God when it reiterates two central assertions made in the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: there is genuine sanctity to be found already among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, who are also, in turn, all called—universally—to holiness:

“The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect” [LG, 48.3]. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” [LG, 11.3].

The Catholic who, by God’s grace, strives earnestly to live in that genuine interior freedom we call the ‘state of grace’, that is, a life characterized by the absence of deliberate concessions to mortal sin—this Catholic is, indeed, holy, in a real albeit imperfect (not yet complete) way. We might call such a state a first degree of holiness, even if characterized by struggles, and by plenty of deliberate falls in matters less serious. Such a person might not “seem” holy according to certain pietistic standards, but there is genuine sanctity present in such a person nonetheless, in possession as they are of the necessary foundation on which greater personal sanctity can be built.

The same applies to the priest.  So, we really can’t speak of genuine holiness in a priest who habitually and callously exposes himself to moral hazards, rationalizing behavior, allowing his conscience to become clouded, and conceding to what he knows to be gravely disordered behaviors, particularly in matters of chastity, and in behaviors that—given one’s own peculiar temperament and struggles—could quickly become addictive.  

That being said, one can also think of many priests who have been down this road, but have repented:  who today expiate the errors of their past adhering to a twelve-step program to overcome an addiction; who with genuine humility have perhaps spent time in a recovery facility; men who regularly approach the sacrament of penance; who capitalize on their own experience of weakness to counsel, guide and encourage others in similar struggles.

Again, according to certain pietistic standards, such priests might not “seem” very holy—which is just to evince the superficiality of such standards.  The priest who struggles mightily with his own foibles, who perhaps struggles day in and day out with the gnawing incitation of the addictive behavior he has renounced, who repents, who has regular recourse to Penance, who prays as best he can, who bears all of this for love of God and for love of the people of God, who bears all of this with genuine humility—this is a truly holy priest.

Indeed, one can’t insist enough that the biggest indicators of priestly holiness of life boil down to a few things that often escape external observation:  Is this man genuinely humble?  Does he live with profound interior detachment from himself, from others, from what he has, and from what he does?  Does this man pray? Does this priest have a vibrant commitment to seek intimate union with Jesus Christ every day through a personal prayer time (for example, by means of a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament as many good—and holy—priests do each day)?

The priest cannot give what he does not have.  A priest who is empty of Jesus interiorly will inevitably end up offering the faithful, not Jesus, but simply himself.  His interiority will be filled not with light, inspiration, growing virtue, patience and pastoral vibrancy, but with what Thomas Merton so aptly described as the “warm darkness” of one’s own sensible nature.

Tragically, not a few priests end up there—in the muck of self-absorption, cynical, living in spiritual mediocrity, their personal covenantal relationship with Jesus in tatters.  And this constitutes a great suffering for the entire Mystical Body of Christ.

While many priests in this sad condition can and do manage to reach retirement in such a state, I believe that more fall to the wayside. For most, perseverance in the priesthood in such an interior state is hardly tenable.

That’s why another less than obvious indicator of personal holiness in a priest is his endurance and perseverance in active ministry, especially when this has entailed years of all kinds of adversity—internal and external. I am speaking here of long years of frequent, hard, gritty—and often unseen and unnoticed—acts of virtue:  endless acts of keeping one’s composure, holding one’s tongue, sustaining positive thoughts, giving the world a pleasant semblance and a smiling face while interiorly traversing untold turmoil, the on-going exercise of patience, giving the benefit of the doubt, forgiving, gritting one’s teeth and just bearing it again and again. This is especially true of my brother priests, (and they are the majority) who have lived and will live out their priesthood in parish ministry.

At this often-overlooked level of the priest’s life, the grace of ordination bears fruit again and again, and the careful observer can discover the vibrant presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Consistency and integrity of priestly life, enduring over years and years—here we have a true indicator of a rather profound degree of personal holiness, of the action of grace and an intense relationship with our Lord.

What I have described here is what I see and sense in so many of my brother priests.  Truly, the Church is blessed with a majority of priests (and bishops) who are genuinely striving for holiness of life, striving to model their lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.  Certainly, we have our shortcomings, and failures and quirks. But last time I checked, so did just about every saint. And by God’s grace, our example, and the shining example of holiness of countless committed Catholics will draw countless others to the irresistible beauty of Jesus, and to the total commitment of priestly, religious and consecrated life.

Posted: November 6, 2014, 7:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

Here are some questions about sexuality and affective maturity you should be asking yourself.

As seminaries across the country commence a new academic year and re-engage in the crucial work of priestly formation,  so too a throng of young Catholic men throughout the U.S. will continue the task which might lead them one day to seminary, namely, the work of discernment.  And they will continue to be assisted in that effort by friends, family, spiritual directors and diocesan vocation directors.

If you are in the thick of that discernment process (or if you are trying to support someone who is), here are a few key questions about sexuality and affective maturity that you should be asking yourself and discussing openly and honestly, not only with your spiritual director, but also with your diocesan vocation director.

An affirmative answer to any one of these questions indicates an area that requires much more careful attention on your part prior to commencing college seminary or a pre-theology program (and certainly prior to beginning major seminary). It could also be indicating that you do not have a vocation to the priesthood.

Are you considering the priesthood primarily—more than anything else—because you just feel drawn to “serve others”?  

Such a motivation is laudable. And candidates to the priesthood had certainly better want to serve others. But if that is where the explanation begins and ends, then further examination of one’s motives is really required.  Such can be the case, for example, with so-called “late vocations”—men who either never married or are widowers, who later in years see priesthood as a possible avenue for “service” in the Church (and this is often coupled with their own acute sense of the shortage of priests).  Again, the motivation is laudable; but it is not enough in itself to demonstrate the presence of a genuine vocation to the priesthood. 

The key question for a candidate to the priesthood is always this:  Have you experienced a “call” from Christ?  The word ‘vocation’ itself derives from the Latin verb, vocare, to call. A ‘vocation’ is a call, as in:  “He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mk 3: 13-14). 

The Church has always understood this Christ-originated calling as the primary motive for seeking ordination to the priesthood—notwithstanding the historical reality of men who have been ordained for other motives, sometimes to the great harm of the faithful.  This is why it is a matter of co-discernment: you, the candidate and those who represent the Church engage in a process of discerning whether you have a genuine call to the priesthood.  Sadly, it has always been possible, and remains so today, to pursue the priesthood for all the wrong reasons.  Consequently, as stated in the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (5th edition):

Potential candidates for the priesthood must be in prayerful dialogue with God and with the Church in the discernment of their vocation. The linkage of this divine and ecclesial dialogue is especially important because “in the present context there is . . . a certain tendency to view the bond between human beings and God in an individualistic and self-centered way, as if God’s call reached the individual by a direct route, without in any way passing through the community” (Pastores dabo vobis, 37). Eventually, this dialogue, properly conducted, may bring candidates to the admissions process, completing this first phase of vocational discernment (33).

The key to that co-discernment is to uncover motivations that transcend the mere humanitarian appeal of the Catholic priesthood (“serving others”).  For the man called to the priesthood, there must be profound, rooted-in-the heart motives, a whole interwoven set of them that form a core drive in one’s life, in addition to sound motivations like the desire to serve others.  To name just a few: 

• A love for the Eucharist;
• A longing to administer the sacraments to the people of God;
• A hunger to build up the Church and promote bonds of profound ecclesial communion especially in the dynamics of parish life;
• A drive to be a servant-leader and spiritual father to your brothers and sisters in the faith;
• A zeal to live to its ultimate consequences a deep-rooted experience of Christic discipleship.

Granted, these motivations might only be incipient as you prepare to enter a college seminary program.  But your ability to identify several of these motivations and “connect the dots” between them constitutes a considerable piece of evidence that your vocation is genuine.

Ultimately, your primal motivation should arise from your intimate friendship with Jesus Christ.  Certainly by the time of your ordination, your seminary formators will want to hear from you a credible story about your personal encounter, once upon a time, with Jesus Christ, living and risen, who approached you on the shores of your life and got into your boat, and whose divine person became irresistibly attractive.  In the best case scenario, you will be able to share with them how you feel a call to priesthood the emanates from your love for Jesus Christ, how you want, like Jesus, to take on the Church as your bride, and serve her exclusively and unconditionally throughout the rest of your life. 

It’s not enough for a candidate to the priesthood simply to “decide” that he wants to “serve others” as a priest; his heart has to be irrevocably set and fixated on Jesus from whom he has perceived an undeniable invitation and calling to follow him more intimately through priestly ordination.

Do you find the prospect of marriage and raising a family unattractive? 

If so, then, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”  And if I may put it bluntly:  if you do not find marriage and raising a family profoundly attractive—so much so, that at least now and then the struggle to forego them becomes a real battle—then you really need to put on the brakes.  Marriage is a “natural” vocation; there should be in every human heart a natural proclivity to human love and the procreation of new human lives through the bond of marriage. Without over-romanticizing it, and hopefully informing our understanding of marriage with loads of realism (diapers, arguments, money problems, in-laws, illnesses, and everything life can throw at a married couple)—married life should nonetheless always remain immensely attractive to the celibate. 

The priesthood is not for men who choose it as a default because of their own personality foibles that have made long-term relationships with women difficult or impossible.  It is not for men who just don’t like kids, or who just prefer a bachelor’s life style. If you find marriage unattractive, if you cannot see yourself as a good husband and father, you really need to focus on discovering why that is.  And that might even require some professional help.

Do you find emotional intimacy with others difficult or distasteful? 

An affirmative answer here really constitutes a red flag.  One cannot underestimate the significance of one of the findings in the 2002 John Jay Report on the Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests: “Priests who sexually abused minors did not differ significantly from other priests on psychological or intelligence tests but had vulnerabilities, intimacy deficits, and an absence of close personal relationships before and during seminary.”  I am not suggesting that any degree of discomfort with interpersonal relationships or inability to express and communicate emotion might be indicating that an individual is a potential abuser.  But the report does shed light on an immensely important, and for decades overlooked, element of preparation for priesthood: the seminarian’s (and eventually the priest’s) ability—even as a celibate—to be enriched by emotional communion with others in healthy and supportive friendships.

In truth, the priest cannot genuinely thrive in a commitment to celibate chastity without at least a few close and emotionally intimate friendships, male and female. Emotional intimacy is not sexual intimacy, and it certainly must be channeled within proper interpersonal boundaries.  Nor is emotional intimacy to be confused with emotional dependency.  Rather, we are talking here of a degree interpersonal communion appropriate to the celibate state. It is, in a word, the most important manifestation of what we call “affective maturity.”  As articulated in the PPF, affective maturity entails, among other elements, the following:

[A] deepening of the capacity to give and receive love, an ability to practice appropriate self-disclosure, an ability to develop and maintain healthy and inclusive peer friendships, and an ability to set appropriate boundaries by choosing not to act on romantic feelings and by developing self-discipline in the face of temptation (94).

It means an acquired degree of self-mastery over feelings and emotions which enables him to be appropriately vulnerable, to manifest empathy, to communicate emotion with prudence and balance, and to share and receive appropriate gestures of affirmation and affection.  

We want to see our candidates for Orders thriving in genuine friendships with men and women, single and married, and planning on being sustained in their priesthood by a close-knit network of such friendships.

Have you been unsuccessful at abstaining from sexual intimacies with women in your recent past? Do you frequently or habitually use Internet pornography?

In most dioceses, it is expected that you will have not dated and will have been able to remain serenely chaste for at least a full year or more prior to commencing college seminary or a pre-theology program. 

It will also be expected that any struggles with pornography of any sort will have been substantially overcome by that time. Seminary is certainly an environment to grow in the virtue of chastity, to deal with relatively normal struggles in this area.  But seminary is definitely not the place to be struggling with unresolved and deep-seated sexual issues.  Obsessive or compulsive behaviors have to be worked out prior to commencing seminary, most especially issues pertaining to Internet pornography.  A diagnosed addiction to pornography is normally an indication that a man is not suited for the priesthood.

Is your willingness to embrace the Church’s celibacy rule simply deferential and acquiescent? (“If I want to be ordained, I just have to accept it…”)? Are you hopeful that the rule will change under the current Pope or a future Pope?

Somewhere along the line you really have to ask yourself if you have received a call to celibacy—a call that is in many ways distinct from the call to priesthood.  At some point, you have to embrace serenely and resolutely what celibacy means: that you commit yourself—amidst the usual temptations and struggles—to strive in earnest for life-long abstinence from any deliberate sexual gratification.  You certainly could not in good conscience begin any stage of seminary formation harboring and entertaining longings of sexual intimacy with others, leaving a door open to this for sometime down the road  (whether during seminary or after ordination).

But beyond this, the seminarian should be able to discover a theologically grounded beauty in the celibate state. He should be able to discern within himself the God-given wherewithal to live in such a state. He should feel “at home” as he envisions himself living a chaste and celibate lifestyle even in the company of married and single female friends.  Indeed, celibacy would ideally be understood as a gift, and an avenue for an intense form of human flourishing. In other words, the candidate for Orders really needs to see celibacy as something compellingly attractive and deeply spiritually meaningful—as an expression of his love for Christ and the Church.  Again to cite the PPF:

A candidate must be prepared to accept wholeheartedly the Church’s teaching on sexuality in its entirety, be determined to master all sexual temptations, be prepared to meet the challenge of living chastely in all friendships, and, finally, be resolved to fashion his sexual desires and passions in such a way that he is able to live a healthy, celibate lifestyle that expresses self-gift in faithful and life-giving love: being attentive to others, helping them reach their potential, not giving up, and investing all one’s energies in the service of the Kingdom of God (94).

The man who is affectively mature habitually strives to invest his vital energies, pursuits and endeavors in the spiritual and temporal good of the people of God, in their sanctification and his own.  He discovers early on in his discernment in fact that such a life can only be maintained by a habit of daily intimacy with Christ in prayer. Hence, a final paramount question.

Do you find in yourself little or no inclination to take time for daily personal prayer—beyond the recitation of formal prayers and devotions?

A sustained life of personal prayer is key to the development of affective maturity.   Why? Because living in intimate union with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is “far more than a personal or individual relationship with the Lord; it is also a communion with the Church, which is his body.” (PPF 108)  Daily intimacy with Christ in personal prayer (whether understood as ‘mental prayer’, meditation, or lectio divina, whether in the privacy of one’s room or before the Blessed Sacrament) will draw the candidate (and later, the priest) to a deeper desire for that transformative union with the Trinity to which we are all called. It will also draw that candidate into a deeper, affectively mature, and fruitful communion with the Church.

Here’s hoping that—before God and your own correctly formed conscience—you have been able to respond ‘no’ to each of these questions.   Either way, entrust your life and your discernment to Mary the Mother of Priests, and ask her to guide you along the path envisioned for you by God the Father from all eternity.

Posted: September 23, 2014, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

Peer deeply into any one of the many contemporary conflicts afflicting human beings on the world stage—the ISIS purge of Assyrian Christians and other minorities from the boundaries of their putative new Islamic state, the felling of Malaysia Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, the seething hell-hole that is Gaza—and you will eventually discover, if not the utter renunciation of human reason, at least catastrophic failures to approach conflicts reasonably. 

When I am assaulted by these headlines each day, my thought sooner or later returns to Pope Benedict XVI—the great herald of the scope, and role, and possibilities, and place of God-given human reason in human life and civilization. (And I am equally reminded every time of the immense historical paradox that it was a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church who played this role at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.)

From his reflections in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, to his touchstone speech at the University of Regensburg, to his 2007 address to the government and diplomatic corps of Austria, and beyond, the Pontiff did not lose an opportunity to get at the very core of the conflict, namely, our conflicting conceptions about the limits, possibilities and purpose of human reason.  And that is because Christianity is the religion of the Logos. Benedict explains:

Yet another part of the European heritage is a tradition of thought which considers as essential a substantial correspondence between faith, truth and reason. Here the issue is whether or not reason stands at the beginning and foundation of all things. The issue is whether reality originates by chance and necessity, and thus whether reason is merely a chance by-product of the irrational and, in an ocean of irrationality, it too, in the end, is meaningless, or whether instead the underlying conviction of Christian faith remains true: In principio erat Verbum—in the beginning was the Word; at the origin of everything is the creative reason of God who decided to make himself known to us human beings.

The sheer irrationality of militant Islam should be lost on no one today.  But the fact that Christianity is the religion of the Logos—discovering revelation to be anchored in a God who is the font and source of reason itself, discovering creation to be immensely meaning-laden, and ordered to good ends—this is no guarantee that individual Christians will achieve the necessary synthesis of faith and reason in their own lives.

As Pope St. John Paul the Great reminded us in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Christians along with all human beings, long to be anchored in absolute truth:

[P]eople seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer-something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt (27).

But the culture has doused that interior yearning with the virulent message that “truth” is too much work (and why bother since we know by now that “truth,” if it exists, remains inaccessible anyway).  Christians are immersed in the resulting cultural riptide of metaphysical boredom: Search for truth or… shop the App Store?

Consequently, in the lived reality of Catholicism today, that synthesis of faith and reason is often anemic at best. Faith only remotely connected to reason can lead in two equally undesirable directions: a kind of blind and childish fideism and moral legalism, or to the confusion of freedom with libertinism, and the embrace of moral license and moral relativism.  In either direction, the loss of any faith whatsoever often follows, or at least the abandonment of “institutional” religion.

In the face of the tragedies we see unfolding on our televisions and smartphones these days, in addition to prayer, one of the best things we can do is revamp our understanding of the faith, our prayerful study of Catholic doctrine, our personal insistence on the orderly hierarchy of faith and reason over feelings and emotions in our moral lives In this way we will be much better prepared explain to anyone who asks, the reasons for the hope that is ours (Cf. I Pt. 3:15).

Posted: August 4, 2014, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

If true wisdom is anything, it is the ability to judge current situations within an historical context: “to know the age in which one lives.” Such historical contextualization is often crucial to the moral assessment of one’s “life and times.” For example, we would be at a loss to assess adequately the disordered state of contemporary sexual mores without discovering their roots in the cultural and sexual revolution of the late 1960s.

Consequently, it is always a valid question for Christians to ask themselves: What age or moment of the Church are we living in? 
There was, of course, the apostolic age, followed by the patristic age with the duty incumbent upon it to solidify our creed, and plumb the depths of our understanding of the Trinity as the Three in One, and of Jesus as at once fully human and fully divine.

There were subsequently the ages of Christendom, and New World evangelization. Throughout her history, the Church was at all times accompanied by holy men and women especially designated by God to call the Church to holiness and reform:  Gregory IX, Francis of Assisi, Catherine o f Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Vincent de Paul, Therese of Liseiux, Faustina Kowalska—saints who understood the age in which they lived.

What is the moment in which we, the Church, find ourselves a decade and a half into the twenty-first century?

It’s been a bit over thirty years since John Paul II first proposed that the Church engage in what he termed a “new evangelization.”  A recent Synod of Cardinals convened precisely to discuss the topic of the “new evangelization” would seem to confirm that this nuclear concept s till informs the times in which we live as committed Cath olic Christians.  Is this assessment correct?  Does the age of ‘new evangelization’ properly name this current era of the Church?

If George Weigel’s analysis is accurate in his latest publication Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, then the answer must be affirmative.

As Weigel reads history, the era nearest to us as Catholics, but which has already come to a close, is the period known as the Counter-Reformation.  In the aftermath of Martin Luther’s heretical attempts at bringing about reform in the Catholic Church in the mid-sixteenth century, genuine and faithful manifestations of reforms appropriate to the times began to take shape in the pontificate of Pope Pius IV in 1560.  How long this counter-reform endured in a fruitful manner for the Church is a matter of historical debate, but according to Weigel, a counter-reformation brand of being Catholic (with its attendant practices and internal culture) endured in most of the Church until the mid 19th century. By that time, however, counter-reform Catholicism was failing miserably.

Then Pope Leo XIII entered the scene, a reform Pope in his own right.  Weigel sees in the reforms of Leo the beginning of a new age of Catholicism, evidenced as such only decades later in the workings of the Second Vatican Council. Writes Weigel:

"If Leo XIII, the last pope of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, is the starting point for understanding the deeper currents at work in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Catholicism, then Vatican II and what has happened since can be properly understood, and in depth. The Second Vatican Council brought to a moment of high drama the dynamic process begun by Leo’s reforms: the process of moving Catholicism beyond the Counter-Reformation."

According to Weigel, something very new was afoot in the pontificate of Leo XIII; that something, he affirms, “was nothing less than the end of an era…and the birth of a new moment in Catholic history: the era of Evangelical Catholicism.” 

Weigel’s thesis is thought provoking and deserving of serious scholarly attention.  It lends meaningful and credible content to an understanding of the present age of the Church.

To understand one’s age is to place it in historical context. It is to remember. Pope Francis wonderfully reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium, 13 that for the Christian, historical memory is of such significance that it is, in fact, sacred and, therefore, liturgical. And it is to be found at the heart of every Christian life:

"Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call 'deuteronomic', not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore…The believer is essentially 'one who remembers.'"

Careful students of history know that it is precisely the loss of historical memory that can be cataclysmic for any people of any age.  The metaphysical cynicism of Friedrich Nietzsche was fueled in large part by the widespread historical ignorance he despised in late 19th century European academia (particularly its ignorance and dismissiveness of the history of ideas). 

Many a “proudly post-modern” individual of today, unencumbered by the “moral taboos” of yesteryear, forms part of some of the most historically ignorant generations ever to walk the planet.  They are consequently also among the most humanly disintegrated and self-alienated.   In the age of Evangelical Catholicism, it is to just such as these that we must propose the possibility of understanding one’s existence in the context of:  a cosmos providentially created by an eternally loving Supreme Being; a metaphysical dimension of reality that transcends the material; and a perennial and compelling conception of what constitutes a ‘good’ human life, of what it means to attain authentic human flourishing. To just such as these, we must then bring the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Posted: February 17, 2014, 7:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

In his hand written notes that formed the basis of his presentation during the General Congregations prior to the Conclave, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio penned the following:

“When the Church does not go out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential; she grows ill (like the stooped woman in the Gospel). The evils which appear throughout history in Church institutions are rooted in this self-referentiality – a kind of theological narcissism.”

This theme – the dangers of self-referentiality – has often been the subtext of much of Francis’ teaching to date. It has flavored his preaching and contributed greatly to the public perception of Papa Bergoglio as “the new management” at the Vatican, the one who has come to “shake things up.”

Hence, Evangelii Gaudium can very rightly be interpreted – for all else that it is – as Francis’ antidote to Catholic self-absorption.

And if we are hearing Francis, it would seem that this message is especially directed to priests and bishops, far too many who minister in the Church as joyless managers who fail to communicate Jesus Christ. I cannot help but think especially of careerist clerics turned bureaucrats who sustain a Kafkaesque labyrinth of inefficiency, priests who consider themselves members of a privileged caste, living in pursuit of power and perks, absorbed in their self-referential ecclesial existence.

But again – this is a problem in all sectors of the Church, not merely amongst the clergy. The self-referentiality and spiritual narcissism, the focusing on institutional self, the clinging to tried and failing methods, the focusing on means, instruments and institutions, on turf, control, and self-importance: these enemies of evangelization have plagued laity, apostolic movements, religious communities and clergy for centuries.

Of course, self-absorption is not a uniquely Catholic problem. To be sure, it constitutes a fundamental temptation of the human spirit. Observes Francis:
Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all. These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations (EG, 263).

What then does Evangelii Gaudium prescribe as a first step beyond this Catholic – and especially clerical – self-absorption? Nothing less, and nothing more than a renewed personal experience – encounter – with “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” (EG, 36). 
In moving terms, Francis explains the profoundly renewing impact such an encounter (or re-encounter) can have:

Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? (EG, 8).

Enemy of "theological narcissim," Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, has thrown down the gauntlet before a self-absorbed Church, calling her to reencounter Christ and in so doing to recover a more authentic visage of herself. Indeed, as George Weigel has aptly put it, the exhortation “should be read and appreciated for what it manifestly is: a clarion call for a decisive shift in the Catholic Church's self-understanding, in full continuity with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”  The ‘shift’ Weigel has in mind—and I believe he absolutely right—is  “the great historical transition from institutional-maintenance Catholicism to the Church of the New Evangelization.”

In a word, Francis believes that institutional-maintenance Catholicism needs a makeover. 

That can only begin, in Francis’ estimation, with a shift away from self-referentiality in all its forms in the Church whether that be clericalism, or the internecine fighting and turf battles in our ministries and chancery offices, or the spiritual narcissism and lack of ecclesial communion in our movements and apostolates, or our fatal focusing on pessimism and cynicism. 

This must be accompanied by a shift toward remembering and reconnecting with the vitality of the early Church in her nascent state: 

Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”(EG, 13).

The evangelizer is essentially one who remembers what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. And nourished each day by personal contact with Him in prayer, “when evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others” (EG, 282). 

Each and every one of us faces the temptation to self-absorption in bigger or lesser ways every day; if we are honest, we know we all too often succumb.  Perhaps that is why Evangelii Gaudium feels like the jab of a Shepherd’s staff, and resonates like a shepherds terse call to the sheep—but for these too we need to be thankful, for they are intended to return us to the spontaneous joy of the Gospel.

Posted: December 5, 2013, 7:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

My friends know that I appreciate candor, and that I can be frank to a fault. I don’t tolerate it well when everyone in the room is desperately trying to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred pound gorilla sitting in the corner.

Author Sherry Weddell does not tolerate this well either.

And she would like us – “active” and presumably committed Catholics, lay, religious, consecrated and clergy – to focus on one rather large gorilla sitting in the corner of our contemporary Church: the reality that a disturbingly large proportion of Church-going Catholics fail to live as disciples of Jesus – as intentional disciples.

That message is at the heart of a sorely needed reality check she provides in her new book, Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.

She begins by sharing some disturbing statistics she has extrapolated from her own analysis of a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. Among them:

• Only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic are still “practicing” (which in the survey meant “attending Mass at least once a month”).

• Another 38 percent hang on to the Catholic label – cultural Catholics – but seldom or never attend Mass.

• The other 32 percent no longer consider themselves Catholic. Of these, 3 percent follow a non-Christian religion, 14 percent consider themselves "unaffiliated," and 15% have joined a Protestant faith community.

Weddell observes:

“[W]e have asked hundreds of diocesan and parish leaders from sixty dioceses throughout the English-speaking world this question: What percentage of your parishioners, would you estimate, are intentional disciples? To our astonishment, we have received the same answer over and over: ‘Five percent.’”

More troubling still is her discovery – after working with hundreds of parishes, and personally interviewing a couple thousand practicing Catholics, most of whom described themselves as “active” and “heavily involved” in their parishes – that many of them have tremendous gaps in their understanding of the faith.  They might be in Church every Sunday: ushers, lectors, parish secretaries, religious ed teachers and so on. Yet Weddell not infrequently discovered many who – upon sharing with her their own experience of the faith – did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or who intimated that that they don't even believe in a personal God at all! Her personal experience in these one-on-one encounters seems to confirm one of the most disturbing implications of the Pew study. Weddell explains:

“It is especially sobering to learn that when Pew surveyors asked the question, ‘Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?’ only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.”

This is tragic. But this is the reality on the ground in today’s Catholic Church. And we should be thankful to Sherry Weddell for forcing the issue, and presenting a clear strategy to bring these brothers and sisters of ours to a personal relationship with Jesus, to a state of being intentional disciples.

One of the most important contributions of Forming Intentional Disciples is Weddell’s articulation of what she calls the “thresholds of conversion.”

The idea is simple.

“Catechesis” in the Church is meant for those who are already deeply committed to Christ as disciples; catechesis is meant to build on a foundation that already exists. But non-believers, or those who have become estranged from the faith, or those who only understand Jesus notionally (but not personally) are almost certainly not ready to be “catechized.” That’s why, as Weddell points out, the problem we are facing in the Church today – though often chalked up to “poor catechesis” or “poor adult faith formation” – is way beyond resolution through “better” catechesis.

To be genuinely catechized (nourished in an ever deeper understanding of the faith) presupposes that one is already a disciple of Jesus in mind and heart. What Weddell and her collaborators have discovered and demonstrated over the past decade is that many of our baptized Catholics never made it to that threshold; in fact they are quite a few thresholds away from getting there. Consequently, attempts to “catechize” them are often futile. They must be met where they are and gently coaxed and accompanied to discipleship.

To get there, most people need to cross at least four other thresholds: first they need to trust – to trust those in whom they see modeled something which they themselves lack:  a robust and joyful living of a personal relationship with Jesus.  Having crossed this threshold, they would then ideally become imbibed with curiosity about Jesus. That curiosity would then be nourished and grow to genuine openness to learning more about Jesus, which would then move them to seek Jesus actively; then – and only then – they would be in a position to take the final step to following Jesus as an “intentional disciple” in the midst of his Church.

Catechists, and evangelizers, and many a committed Catholic are often frustrated in their attempts to draw others back to Church for the very simple reason that we have failed to understand the psychology of this fundamental process of going from non-practicing (or non-believing) to committed discipleship. Weddell’s paramount contribution – and what makes Forming Intentional Disciples one of the most important books written in the past decade on the topic of evangelization – is precisely to focus our attention on this process, to explore it, and help us to understand it so we can become much more effective in our evangelizing efforts.

In an online interview with her Bishop Michael Sheridan of the diocese of Colorado Springs, she notes that when she and collaborators at the Catherine of Siena Institute began using the term “intentional disciple”, they drew fire from many different groups.  Were they being elitist? Judgmental?  But here again, if Weddell has touched a nerve, that may well indicate that she is exactly right in her assertion that a vast majority of Catholics lack in their self-understanding the very category of committed, active “discipleship” that should be in the very DNA of baptized Christians.

So what does she mean by the term?

“All we meant,” she explains to Bishop Sheridan, “was ‘intentional’ as in Peter and his brother, on the sea of Galilee… They dropped their nets, and they followed him.”   You don’t do that accidentally… you don’t do it in your sleep… And neither can any of us be disciples in our sleep!”

Deliberate, conscious discipleship.

On one occasion when I was speaking recently to Weddell – who is herself a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism – I asked her if she is optimistic about the prospects of the New Evangelization. “Of course I’m optimistic,” she responded without missing a beat, “because I am watching people do it.” In further explaining her optimism, she added: “I come from a world [evangelical Protestantism] where this is normal – making disciples. The question is not whether this is possible, but what are the resources at our disposal. The Church has already supplied us with everything we need.”

To be sure, Sherry Weddell has supplied us with one amazing resource – Forming Intentional Disciples – which is must-reading for any Catholic who wants to be realistically, honestly and effectively engaged in the drama of making disciples.

Posted: October 10, 2013, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

Yesterday's publication of an exclusive interview with Pope Francis by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, is creating quite a buzz in the media.  I offer here three reflections on what I believe Pope Francis meant in the context of some key—and easily misinterpreted—responses to the questions posed to him.

1. The Primacy of Mercy in the Thought of Francis

When Spadaro asked the Holy Father what kind of church he dreams of, Francis’ magnificent response was: a field hospital. “The thing the church needs most today,” affirmed the Pope, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”

And in that field hospital, the first order of duty is a tender and mercy-laden accompanying of the spiritually wounded:  what Francis calls “proximity.” Bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and all committed disciples of Christ are to tend to, and “accompany” those who have been wounded by life, and often in their own experience of the Church.  In fact, it was about this point in the interview that the Pope used slightly different forms of that phrase “accompanying them” six times in short order. And the image he has in mind here is, obviously, the Good Samaritan.  We are hearing once again a theme that is at the very heart of Francis thought (as presciently observed recently by John Allen):  mercy. If we want to understand Francis, we much think in terms of genuine, Gospel mercy:  not failing to ‘speak the truth in love’, yet encountering the spiritually hurting where they are (and applying correctly and pastorally, among other things, the moral principle of gradualism).

2.  The Church’s Teaching on Homosexuality:  no change of doctrine, but again the change of ‘tone’.

There then emerges in the interview, the question of those whose “wounds” are experienced as condemnation by the Church over their homosexual lifestyle. The Holy Father responded:

“In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

The Pope explained that both this answer, and his response to a similar question last August aboard his Alitalia flight returning from World Youth Day (“Who am I to judge?”), was consonant with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. In fact, Catechism 2358 states: 

They [persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

The person must always be accepted, even when we cannot accept the person’s actions, lifestyle or behavior. “Acceptance” here does not mean condoning the behavior. Rather, it means genuine Christian love, which speaks to this person in love, which accompanies this person in love, and which also requires honest dialogue about a biblical vision of human loving union on which the Church’s moral teaching on human sexuality is founded.

What we hear then in Francis once again is not something that presages a change of Catholic moral teaching on homosexual acts, but yes, a significant change of tone.  Catholic teaching must be enveloped in genuine Christian agape love:  a love that encounters, dialogues, accompanies, and endures even in the face of profound disagreements over moral teaching.

But prior to dialogue about specific moral norms, there must arise a discussion about the basis of our moral convictions:  the person of Jesus Christ.  Which leads to a final reflection.

3.  Moral Rules Detached from Kerygma Will Bring Down the ‘Moral Edifice of the Church’

Francis continued:

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

And further in this same context:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

What to make of all that?  That we should capitulate and stop speaking in the public square about the “tough issues”?  Hardly.  But at the basis of his remarks, I find a profound truth which must today come to bear heavily on our understanding of evangelization and catechesis:  the presentation of a “disjointed multitude of doctrines” (and moral norms) apart from the joyful and Emmaus-like heart-warming proclamation of Jesus Christ is inherently flawed. Catechesis apart from kerygma no longer works. 

This Pope wants us—disciples of Jesus—to focus more on “what fascinates and attracts,” namely, the adorable person of Jesus Christ.  In so many ways today, moral argumentation will not only fail to attract people to Christ, but will—in many contexts and circumstances—turn them away.  Our error has so often been to focus first on argumentation. We must learn—lest, indeed, the Church’s edifice of moral teaching come tumbling down life-less and fruitless, cold and barren, a legalistic house of cards empty of meaning—to focus first on the beauty, the compelling attractiveness of the Teacher from Nazareth. 

Francis understands this. He wants us to understand too.

Posted: September 20, 2013, 6:00 am
By Father Thomas Berg

As our attention seems to coalesce on next April 27, 2014—Divine Mercy Sunday—as the likely date Pope Francis has in mind for the canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II (and likely along with him, Blessed Pope John XXIII), it’s worth recalling that this September 14—feast of the Holy Cross—marks the 15th anniversary of the promulgation of John Paul’s wonderful encyclical Fides et Ratio (FR), on the relationship between faith and reason.

This encyclical reminds us just how deeply John Paul was, every ounce, the philosopher pope, how he delighted in the pursuit of truth, how he was so often seemingly a lone voice—in the intellectual barrenness of post-modernity—insisting that truth exists.

We can benefit richly from a re-reading of Fides et Ratio, especially we who inhabit an age in which, on the secular view of things, Christian faith grows more and more quaint with every passing day, and the “big questions” (the very possibilities of human reason) are eclipsed by extremes of digitally-driven sensuality and immediacy of gratification never before seen in human history.

John Paul wrote Fides et Ratio as a response to “today’s most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth” (5). When canonized next year, John Paul the Great’s legacy will include—by his teaching, and by his own lived example—his passion to direct humanity back to the “foundation,” to the very “ground” of its own existence, to “reality in itself” and to the possibility of knowing this objectively and truly.

Fides et Ratio is an expression of John Paul’s “diakonia of the truth” (2), his stewardship, in the name of the Church, of the truth about human existence. He knew well that human maturity coincides with embarking upon the great journey of discovering truth born of a questioning wonder and amazement in the face of created reality. Writes the philosopher-pope:

“No one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person. The answer we give will determine whether or not we think it possible to attain universal and absolute truth; and this is a decisive moment of the search. Every truth-if it really is truth-presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer-something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.” (27)

The message of Fides et Ratio is that Christian faith and human reason—together—can take us there; that philosophy and theology together can take us there. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles—in a wonderfully synoptic interpretation of Fides et Ratio written as only Dulles could write it—describes John Paul’s understanding of the interplay of faith and reason in these terms:

“Faith purifies philosophical reason in a twofold way. On the one hand, it cures philosophy of the pride to which it has at times been subject and with which it was reproached by Paul, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, among others. On the other hand, faith inspires philosophy with courage to tackle certain difficult questions, such as the problem of evil and suffering, that might seem insoluble except for the light cast on them by revelation.”

Faith purifies reason and opens up horizons that, of itself, reason could never consider. Reason in turn becomes the tool, as it were, with which faith can penetrate toward its goal knowing the Author of all truth.

Of course, the intellectual wonder of which this journey is born can be frightening. That explains to a large degree why our era is one of great digital escapes. Even fleeting sensations of this in-born thirst for truth are rendered almost imperceptible in a culture constantly awash in digital distractions.

It’s no secret, of course, that humanity loses touch with that thirst to its own peril. This “metaphysical boredom” —as George Weigel has so aptly labeled it—can lead to that human spiritual suspension we call agnosticism, and to the ultimate nihilistic desperation of feeling oneself afloat in a meaningless universe that does not give a damn about us.

Nowhere is such escapism more paradoxical and contradictory, however, than in the baptized who would otherwise count on the gift of faith—fides—to propel their own intellect—ratio—on the great journey, with confidence, and in a daily encounter with Truth who, by faith, we know to be a Divine Person and who became incarnate precisely that we could come to know him—Divine Love—as the ultimate ground of all things.

Thomas Aquinas taught that the ultimate end of the human person is to understand God (intelligere deum), and to attain to divine knowledge (divina cognitio). The greatest attainment of the rational, intellectual creature, the final frontier for reason, is the attainment, guided by faith, of the Absolute Being. To use Thomas’ own words, the human intellect “desires, and loves, and delights in the knowledge of divine things.”

One of the great challenges of our age—as Fides et Ratio reminds us—is our responsibility to lead our brothers and sisters beyond the immediate gratification, say, of awaiting their bff’s next text message … to the delights of eternal truths.

Posted: September 10, 2013, 6:00 am
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