06 August 2016

Of Bad Popes and Bad Presidents

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bishops of Rome were saintly scholars and heroic pastors who inspired great devotion among Catholics because of their radiant goodness, and for the Church to have the service of such men is a great blessing. But in that blessing lies a danger. When we have so many valiant shepherds on the Chair of St Peter, one after the other, we can forget that many scoundrels and notorious sinners - to say nothing of average men of modest ability - have also served as popes, and that forgetfulness opens us to undue distress when a pope comes who doesn't measure up to his predecessors. Pope Alexander VI - Rodrigo Borgia, pictured above - reminds us that the office of the papacy can certainly survive and in some ways even flourish when occupied by a man who is manifestly unfit to be the Pastor of the Universal Church, and that knowledge should console anyone who is troubled by the character or actions of a man who sits on the Chair of St Peter but seems ill suited for that office. And that is true not only of the papacy but also of all political offices.

The two persons most likely to be the next President of the United States are clearly and hopelessly unsuited and unsuitable for that high office. Whatever one's political convictions, it is surely possible for us all to admit that Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton are both people of low character and that neither of them can be described as honest, virtuous, or wise. That our two dominant political parties should produce such candidates for the presidency is a pure sadness and a sign of distress in our Republic, but we must know that this country can and will survive the unhappy administration of either of these two wretches and - as with the Borgia pope - we might actually see progress of some kinds despite the manifest deficiencies of either President Trump or President Clinton.

So, perhaps it would be well for everyone to bring the wailing and gnashing of teeth down a notch or two, and all people of good will should resolve to promote a more responsible exercise of political power through a wiser and more humane practice of the political process. This nation is almost evenly divided between two parties, each of which holds the other in ever increasing contempt and suspicion and both of which constantly grapple for any advantage over the other. Each seeks to criminalize the activities of the other, and both contribute to the poisonous cloud of hateful rhetoric in which one's opponents are always not just wrong but wicked. We already had one Civil War, and we do not need another - either military or political.

Conservatives should understand that it is impossible to roll back the cultural revolutions of the last fifty years at the ballot box, and liberals must see that using executive or - even worse - judicial power to force on the nation what could not be accomplished by legislative action will only weaken the rule of law and fray the fabric of trust that are essential to the unity of the Republic.

One way or another, we're about to have a Borgia president, but that does not mean we have come to the end of this Republic. Building a better nation is possible and would be easier if we could speak to and about each other with mutual respect and a common commitment to seek the welfare of this country before promoting the advantage of one's own party. The commonweal is too important for us to get lost in the weeds of Borgia strife and excess, so let's put aside the apocalyptic language that now fills the air and work together quietly and diligently to bequeath to our children and their children a more just, more prosperous, and more civilized nation than the one we have now.

26 June 2015

The Evangelical Possibilities Presented by the Victory of the Sexual Revolution

On 12 October 2014, I preached at St. Mary's, Greenville about the wider theological and pastoral context of the legal and cultural debates over same sex marriage. Here is the text of that homily:

As I explained last Sunday, the Synod of Bishops is meeting right now in Rome to discuss challenges to marriage and family life in the context of proclaiming the Gospel in our time, so it seems particularly appropriate that the Supreme Court of the United States announced last week that they would not accept appeals to several decisions by federal district courts which struck down laws against same sex marriage in five states. And by their refusal to hear those appeals, the nine Justices were declaring that the disputed decisions of the lower courts would stand, thus allowing same sex marriage to become law both in the five states which had appealed and in the other states which are included in the geographical areas of those district courts. Though isolated court battles will continue, including here in South Carolina, the legal dispute over same sex marriage in the United States has now been decided, and in that contest the traditional Christian understanding of marriage lost. What you may be surprised to learn is that I welcome this defeat, and I want to explain why.

Since I began to preach from this pulpit over thirteen years ago, I have attempted in a variety of ways to explain that we now live in what must rightly be called a post-Christian era in human history. It has been many decades, some would say centuries, since the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the primary engine for the formation of culture in the West, and now we are seeing the rapid abandonment of the Gospel as a source of law in the West. For fifty years and more the trajectory of law and culture in Europe and the United States has been away from the Christian worldview and towards a new paganism, particularly in regard to sex, marriage, reproduction and family life: no fault divorce, birth control, abortion, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, embryonic stem cell manipulation, assisted suicide, multiple remarriages, and now same sex marriage. These changes in law and custom are but a reflection of the post-Christian character of our civilization, and for most people today, Christianity is neither a life-changing nor life-giving force; it is simply a relic of a pre-modern past. And that is among the many reasons we are now witnessing the all but complete collapse of cultural Christianity.

Though it may be an unpleasant prospect to contemplate, I welcome this collapse of cultural Christianity because I believe that only when Christianity as a cultural memory is gone can Christianity as an evangelical movement return. As for Christians in the first centuries after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, so now it is our privilege in a post-Christian culture to change human lives one at a time and then to form vibrant sub-cultures which can eventually shape entire cultures with the liberating truth of the Word of God. That is the framework of the New Evangelization and of Evangelical Catholicism, and I welcome the arrival of same sex marriage in the United States as a harbinger of the time when the boundaries between the Church and the world can be clarified, especially for us, by the disappearance of the last vestiges of cultural Christianity. In other words, Christians must let go of nostalgia for our faded Christian civilization in order to build it again. 

If we can see the collapse of cultural Christianity as a great evangelical opportunity, then with joy and love we can proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen to the millions of people who now have only debonair nihilism to help them understand the purpose and meaning of their lives. To put it plainly: if we let the new pagans be honest pagans, then we have a new opportunity to propose to them that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God, the Way, the Truth and the Life. It’s when we ask others to live as Christians without being Christians that we set the stage for bitter conflict with those who do not share our faith, and in fidelity to her divine Lord, the Church never seeks to impose herself or her teaching on any person or society. We seek only the liberty to teach what Christ teaches, to organize our lives around that teaching, and to invite all others to accept him as Lord and Savior.

Now responsible voices in the Church will respond to me that in sketching the drama of our times in this way, I have surrendered too much, including the truths about human nature that we can know by right reason alone without the assistance of grace or by saving faith in the truth of divine revelation. I have deep respect for those who offer that criticism, many of whom are my teachers and friends, and they may be right. But abstract principles of the natural law no longer have purchase in the minds of the majority of Western people, and arguments derived from those principles are irrelevant in a culture which is running away from the God of the Bible as fast as possible and rejecting the entire project of biblical religion as hostile to human freedom and flourishing. In such a time as ours, it is imperative for the effectiveness of our evangelical witness that we begin at the beginning and ask no one to accept the conclusions of Christian faith who does not first believe the premises of that faith. Let pagans once again be pagans so that Christians can once again be Christians proclaiming Jesus Christ in a world where he is no longer or not yet known and loved.

This Wednesday is the 33rd anniversary of my night of fire, the night in which the living God took hold of my life and revealed his love to me so that in the obedience of faith I could find true freedom, the evangelical freedom of the children of God. I was then a college boy of 19, and my life changed that night when I accepted the truth of the Gospel. Most disciples of the Lord Jesus will never have such a dramatic experience of grace, but every Christian must have heard at some point in his or her life the clarion call of Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Only from the personal conviction of conversion to Jesus Christ can we find the desire and strength to live as Christians must live in every time and place. We must be a sign of contradiction. We must live as strangers in every country, including this country, because we are citizens only of the heavenly Jerusalem. We must be disciples and friends of the Word made Flesh, who calls us to be salt and light in this world, so that others may see in him God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.

I have set aside the readings for today to speak about these things because one task of every pastor is to help his people read the signs of the times, and I believe that the arrival of same sex marriage in our nation is an important sign of our times. Yes, it is a sign of the end of the influence of cultural Christianity, but for that very reason, I believe it is also a sign of a great evangelical possibility. And to take full advantage of this opportunity, Christians must heighten the contradictions between the Church and the world so that all will see what true Christianity is and how Christians live and love. 

I hope, for example, that our bishops will completely disentangle the Church from civil marriage and teach our people to visit a judge if they want the State to consider them life partners but to come to the altar if they want to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and live as husbands and wives in Christ. I believe that we must equip every Christian to resist and refute the lies of the sexual revolution and find the interior freedom needed to cultivate the virtues of chastity and self-mastery, both in single life and in marriage — not in order to repress sexual desires but to integrate them into healthy personalities according to the Creator’s design for us. I also believe that in prayer, service and study we must find the courage to bear witness to Jesus Christ in every corner of our lives and in our every corner of our hearts, even when — especially when — that witness will cost us dearly. I believe that in the wasteland of debonair nihilism we have a precious and rare chance to propose the Gospel as though for the first time to people who are prosperous and healthy but whose lives are, finally, without purpose and therefore unsatisfying. But to make that proposal we must first know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel and be prepared to share the Gospel with others.

In short, we must all be missionaries, right here and right now. And one thing all missionaries learn to do in preparing to share the Gospel with others is always to be mindful of the human situation of those to whom we seek to give witness. In every human life there is something good, true and beautiful, and pagans search for love and want to live a good life no less than Christians. The same sex couple, for example, in asking for marriage from our courts are seeking to make the gift of self to another person which gives life meaning. Christians believe, of course, that such a gift of self can find its true meaning and purpose only when it is made in keeping with God’s plan for our lives, a plan that does not include same sex marriage, but anyone who is already seeking a way to make that gift, however confusedly, is climbing the ladder of love, whether they know it or not. And a skillful missionary will use that as a starting point to invite the seeker to climb higher, not to humiliate or demean a human person who is created in the image and likeness of God, even when he is in the grip of sin. But above all else, a good missionary will never present Christianity as a moral code or set of rules to be obeyed for the sake of some future reward; a good missionary will explain that authentic Christianity, which of course does have a moral code, is first a relationship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who alone can reveal our full dignity and eternal destiny and who alone can redeem us from the grave and give us a share in the glory of the one, only, living and true God.

My friends, by our Baptism we are called to invite others through our words and deeds to follow the more excellent way of divine love revealed by Jesus Christ on the Cross, but we cannot do that if we think or speak of those who do not share our faith with derision or contempt or hatred. So even as the news in the coming months is filled with smiling, newly married same sex couples on the steps of the court house, do not allow your hearts to harden. Remember, instead, that the final collapse of cultural Christianity clears the way for a new proclamation of the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and our proclamation of that Gospel begins now and always with our own continuing and ever deeper conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Father Jay Scott Newman
Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Greenville, South Carolina
12 October 2014

04 March 2014

Magdalene Parker Mileski

On 15 May 2007 I preached at the Mass of Christian Burial for Magdalene Parker Mileksi, one of the most extraordinary teachers to shape my life. Here is the text of my homily ...
Silas Marner.

This, of course, is the title of George Eliot’s classic novel about loss and gain, hatred and love, sin and redemption. But for generations of Maggie Mileski’s students, it is also a byword. For us the name Silas Marner stands for terror in the classroom, for our cold indifference towards literature transformed into reverence for learning, and for Mrs. Mileski’s own disciplined learning ordered to cultivating wisdom in us. But only a gifted teacher could bring about such a change in sullen adolescents, and what a gifted teacher she was.

It is thirty years this August since I became Maggie’s student, and in those days I was an atheist who dreamed of being a physicist. I thought that reading Silas Marner and all the rest was a dreadful waste of time, and I told her so. Early in the first term of my sophomore year, I sat in Mrs. Mileski’s classroom one afternoon and explained with all the arrogance of youth that I was taking her course only because I had to and that I regarded the study of English literature as far beneath the dignity of real learning in the serious disciplines of math and science. With a knowing twinkle in her eye, Maggie thanked me for condescending to attend her lectures and asked only that I fulfill the course requirements. That year passed quickly, and in the first semester of the following year I was back in Maggie’s classroom at her request so that she could ask me very gently to stop correcting my junior year English teacher with the constant refrain, “But that’s not what Mrs. Mileski taught us.” It may be thirty years since I sat in Mrs. Mileski’s classroom, but I have never stopped being her student.

Maggie Mileski was the first Catholic I ever knew, but to the best of my recollection she never explicitly discussed her faith in the classroom. Her task was to teach us the rules of grammar, the techniques of writing, and the glories of the English language, not to catechize us. And yet without ever mentioning the Gospel of Jesus Christ in so many words, she bore eloquent witness to the Truth who sets us free, the eternal and incarnate Word of God. Maggie taught us to revere all things good and true and beautiful, and in so doing she was planting seeds of the Word which helped prepare her students to receive in another time and place the grace of saving faith in the Word made flesh. Maggie also insisted that we implicitly honor our Creator by working honestly to the very highest standards and to the uttermost limits of our gifts. She sought to open our hearts and minds to the wonders of love, and she formed our souls in the perennial wisdom of Christian civilization reflected in classical works of literature. But how and where did she get all this? Who taught the teacher?

Long before she became Magdalene Mileski, she was Magdalene Parker. From her parents and siblings she learned the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and through Christ’s Church she was born again in Baptism and nourished with the sacraments of the New Covenant. In the late 1940's the young Maggie was taught by the famed School Sisters of Notre Dame at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, the first Catholic college for women to grant the four year baccalaureate in the United States, and from the Sisters, accomplished scholars all, she acquired the intellectual habits which shaped her mind and her character for the rest of her life. Then, over a span of four decades, Maggie honed the art of teaching to near perfection at the high schools of Elizabethtown, East Mecklenberg, and our beloved Ragsdale. But this splendid teacher learned her most important lessons not in the library or the classroom; rather, she learned them in the school of the solemn and sacramental covenant of marriage with her beloved husband, Raymond, who completed her transformation from Miss Magdalene Parker into the teacher of legend, Mrs. Magdalene Mileski.

By the time Raymond and Maggie were retired, I was no longer an atheist. Indeed, I was by then already studying for the priesthood, and they both took great interest in my path to the altar. During those years of healthy leisure, Raymond and Maggie gave themselves fully to what they had already done for many years as time permitted: they served the residents, the staff and the Sisters of Maryfield Nursing Home with the gift of sacred music, and they gave their all to the upbuilding of this parish church, their spiritual family. But at length the years of healthy leisure gave way to the long struggle of illness and the losing battle we all fight with time and gravity, and in the suffering which attended those years, Maggie began to understand ever more deeply the eternal wisdom of Holy Scripture: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And as her understanding grew with suffering, Maggie began again to teach. She taught us how to surrender gracefully the things of youth; how to offer our trials in union with the suffering of Christ; how to live in the sacrament of the present moment with childlike confidence in the tender mercies of the Savior.

Now, make no mistake: Magdalene Mileski was tough. How else could a woman who stood barely five feet tall reduce to quivering fear the largest and most aggressive students? And even with the passing of years, Maggie never lost her edge. She could be sharp, impatient, and blunt. But Maggie’s dissatisfaction with compromise came from her lifelong desire to see things all things be made perfect, or as nearly perfect as the frailty of the human condition permits this side of the Kingdom. And the thing she most wanted to be made perfect was her own soul, fallen, wounded, and sinful as we all are, but striving always by conversion to be conformed to that which is good, and true, and beautiful. Striving always, in other words, to be conformed by grace through faith to Christ Jesus, and Him crucified.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life.” Maggie knew in the depths of her soul that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and in loving all that is good, and true, and beautiful she learned to love Jesus Christ above all others and all others for Christ’s sake. As daughter and sister, as wife and aunt, as teacher and friend, Maggie lived her life from beginning to end as a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus, and in so doing she drew countless others to walk with her in the Way of the Cross.

Ten years after my conversion to Christ, I was traveling in England with two seminary classmates, and during a long drive through the glorious English countryside, we were trying to sort out the mysterious workings of grace that had led each of us to the improbable vocation of being priests. As we thought out loud about the things that had moved us imperceptibly along the path to that moment, I suddenly understood that the love of literature and the desire which it awakened in me to know and love all things good, true and beautiful were indispensable means of grace in my turning to the Lord, and then I thought of Magdalene Mileski and that afternoon so many years before when I declared that her course was a waste of time. That circle of grace was completed when Raymond and Maggie traveled as pilgrims to Rome for my ordination to the diaconate in 1992 and to Charleston for my ordination to the priesthood in 1993. On the morning of my first Mass, as I wore this chasuble for the first time, I heard Maggie say that it was one of the proudest days of her life: the hidden work of a teacher bearing fruit after long years of loving service. And what is true of my own story is multiplied times beyond reckoning in the lives of generations of students who learned much more than the rules of grammar and composition from Magdalene Mileski.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, the Lord High Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, is in conversation with a young man named Richard Rich, who wants a post of prestige and power in the royal court of King Henry VIII. But the Chancellor and future martyr knows that Rich is not suited for such a life and sees in him instead the makings of a teacher. More suggests, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.” Dejected by this prospect of hidden toil, Master Rich responds, “If I was, who would know it?” And Sir Thomas answers, “You; your pupils; your friends; and God. Not a bad public, that.”

Magdalene Mileski was a loving wife, a devoted sister and aunt, a true friend, and a faithful Christian. And by the grace of God, the gifts of nature, and the discipline of hard work, she was also a great teacher. Her students know it, her friends know it, and God knows it. Not a bad public, that.

Thanks be to God for the life of Magdalene Parker Mileski. May Christ Jesus the merciful Savior acknowledge her now as a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming, and a teacher of his own Gospel.

Grant rest, O Lord, to your servant Maggie with all your saints in light, where sorrow and pain are no more, but perfect peace and everlasting life. Amen.

Fr Jay Scott Newman, Ragsdale High School Class of 1980

22 July 2013

Communion with the Church by Degrees of Fullness

A Lecture Addressed to the 
Theological Students' Association 
of The Catholic University of America
by Father Jay Scott Newman, J.C.L. 
Assistant Professor of Canon Law 
at The Pontifical College Josephinum
18 April 2001

In his De Praescriptione Haereticorum, Tertullian famously asked with derision, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?", meaning "What has philosophy to do with theology?" I begin with this reminder because, although I am here to address the Theological Students' Association, I am not a theologian; I am a canon lawyer. And some among you may well ask with derision, "What has canon law to do with theology?" It's a fair question, so before I explore the topic at hand today, I need briefly to digress and establish something of a lingua franca for our discussion.

Because she is a human society, the Church has had law, and therefore lawyers, since her foundation, but canon law as a distinct science and course of study did not emerge until the twelfth century. Canonists reckon the Italian monk Gratian as the Pater scientiae canonicae because his work provided a systematic and logical ordering of 1000 years of lawmaking. The Decretum Gratiani, completed around the year 1140, remained an indispensable touchstone for all canonists in the Western Church until the promulgation of the first Code of Canon Law in 1917. Now, you might suppose that after nearly nine centuries of doing this thing called canon law, there would be common agreement among canonists about just what their discipline is. You might suppose so, but you'd be wrong.

Among canonists today, there are some fundamental disagreements about the nature and method of their discipline, with two of the major proposals being -- for lack of more precise terms -- legal positivism and juridic theology. I am not here today to describe this disagreement, let alone to resolve the dispute. But to make intelligible much of what will follow in my remarks, I must explain that I hold canon law to be a truly theological discipline and therefore to have a theological method and object. Within the one science of sacred theology we commonly acknowledge many divisions: dogmatic theology, moral theology, biblical theology, and so forth. To these, I submit, must be added juridic theology-that is, canon law understood as a theological discipline with a specifically juridic character, vocabulary, and purpose.

One of the reasons why there is disagreement among canonists about the nature of their discipline is that there is often a tension between theological language and juridic language, or to put it otherwise, making laws out of theological truths is not simple. And yet, there must be an organic connection between the two if the law of the Code is to be truly the law of the Church. Pope John Paul II addressed this point in the 1983 Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, by which he promulgated the present Code of Canon Law. The pope writes:

"As the Church's principal legislative document founded on the juridical-legislative heritage of revelation and tradition, the Code is to be regarded as an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and in social life ... the Code ... fully corresponds to the nature of the Church, especially as it is proposed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.... Indeed, in a certain sense this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same conciliar doctrine and ecclesiology into canonical language."

John Paul continues "It follows that what constitutes the substantial newness of the Second Vatican Council, in line with the legislative tradition of the Church, especially in regard to ecclesiology, constitutes likewise the newness of the Code.... If, therefore, the Second Vatican Council has drawn both new and old from the treasury of tradition.... then it is clear that the Code should also reflect the same note of fidelity in newness and of newness in fidelity, and conform itself to this in its own subject matter and in its own particular manner of expression."

It is clear, I believe, that the legislator -- the pope -- fully intends the juridic language proper to the Code to be nothing other than a translation of theological doctrine into canonical norms, reflecting most especially the true development of doctrine -- or, as the pope puts it, the substantial newness -- present in the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. Now, with all this in mind, we can turn to our proper topic: communion with the Church by degrees of fullness.

One of the great services of the Second Vatican Council is the recovery of the understanding that the one Church of Christ is a koinonia, a true communio -- a genuine fellowship or communion of persons. Moreover, the Council teaches that the Church is a communion of communions; in other words, the communion of the universal Church is a communion of all particular Churches, each of which is a true ecclesial communion of Christians gathered around their bishop. Following this path and striving to find a way to describe the condition of baptized Christians who are not Catholics, the Fathers of the Council began to use, in a variety of forms, a new phrase: full communion.

In the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism, for example, the Fathers are describing the fact of disunity among Christians: "In (the) one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church"… (UR, 3).

Having acknowledged the fact of disunity, the Council Fathers then describe the theological condition of non-Catholic Christians: "… one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who at present are born into these communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (UR, 3).

So, the Council Fathers both acknowledge the fact of disunity and confess that even non-Catholic Christians have real, if imperfect, communion with the one Catholic Church. And then they add one additional refinement: "Without doubt, the differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church -- whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church -- do indeed create many obstacles ... to full ecclesiastical communion" (UR, 3). In other words, the real but imperfect communion which exists between baptized non-Catholics and the Catholic Church exists by degrees of fullness. To illustrate, we may say that the Orthodox, because they retain a valid episcopate and Eucharist, are -- among non-Catholics Christians -- in the fullest degree of communion with the Catholic Church. Next, perhaps, would come Lutherans and Anglicans, who -- among the children of the Protestant Reformation -- hold the highest doctrines of the Church and her sacraments. The central point here is that communion between a baptized Christian and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is a reality which exists -- according to differences of doctrine and discipline -- by degrees of fullness.

Having described the condition of non-Catholic Christians and using this same idea of communion by degrees of fullness, the Council Fathers then describe Catholic Christians in this way in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: 

"Fully incorporated into the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who -- by the bond constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion -- are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops." (LG, 14)

It is here, I believe, that the Second Vatican Council has achieved a genuine development of doctrine in ecclesiology. In the bitter controversies surrounding both the eleventh and sixteenth century schisms, theological and canonical language -- following the notion of the Church as a perfect society -- focused on an individual Christian being either in or out of the Church. To put it crudely: if you were subject to the Pope, you were in; if not, you were out. By recovering the notion of the Church as a communion of communions, Vatican II restored the possibility of seeing one's communion with the Church as a delicate, complex reality which can exist by degrees of fullness. No one validly baptized, in a certain sense, is ever truly out of the Church, although his communion with the Church may be impeded or all but destroyed in a variety of ways -- for example, full communion is impeded or broken by apostasy, heresy, schism, or mortal sin. Here the Council follows the teaching of St. Augustine, "Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body', not 'in heart.'"(LG, 14). But, in addition to following the tradition on this point, the Council also made a genuine innovation. In seeking a way to describe the relationship of non-Catholics to the Church, the Council Fathers also found a new way to describe the often complex relationship of Catholics to their Church.

As we saw earlier, Pope John Paul desired that the newness of the Council's ecclesiology should be reflected in the Code and that the Council's doctrine should be translated into canonical language. It is not surprising, therefore, to find canons in the code which take the texts I have quoted from Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio almost word for word.

First describing all the baptized, whether Catholic or not, Canon 204 says, "The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God. For this reason, made sharers in their own way in Christ's priestly, prophetic, and royal office, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each."

Next, having described all the baptized, Canon 204 continues by describing the Church, "This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him."

Finally, describing only the Christians who are Catholics, Canon 205 says, "Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance." (emphasis added)

It is worth noting here the clear echoes in this juridic language of the words of Sacred Scripture from the Acts of the Apostles, "So those who received (Peter's) word were baptized...and they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:41-42). Thus did St. Luke first describe fullness of communion with the Catholic Church.

Once again, as John Paul indicated, what was new in the Council would be new in the Code. Accordingly, there is nothing remotely like Canon 205 in any earlier legislation of the Church, including the Code of Canon Law of 1917. The newness of this canon meant that understanding its true meaning and full consequences would take some time and that interpreting this canon would involve trial and error.

Towards the end of lessening the trials and curbing the errors, John Paul II has continued to make clear the intent of the legislator and to explain the correct meaning of the conciliar doctrine on, among other things, communion with the Church by degrees of fullness. The most recent example of this ongoing clarification is Dominus Iesus, which although not a document specifically about ecumenism, does help us understand more fully the ecclesiological consequences of the Church's faith that there is but one Lord, one faith, one baptism. More to the point for us today, however, are two other clarifications which shed light on the meaning and consequences of Canon 205.

In the 1983 Code, Canon 833 provides a list of persons required to make a profession of faith according to the formula approved by the Apostolic See. All who become participants in a ecumenical or particular council, or in a synod of bishops or a diocesan synod must make this profession of faith. All who become diocesan bishops or a member of the College of Cardinals must make this profession of faith. All who become vicars general, judicial, or episcopal must make this profession faith. All who become parish pastors, seminary rectors or professors, and all who are to be ordained deacon must make this profession of faith. All who become rector of a Catholic university or who teach disciplines involving faith or morals in any sort of university must make this profession of faith. In short, anyone and everyone charged with teaching the Gospel in the Church's name must make this profession of faith. The Code, however, does not provide the text for this profession of faith, and it was six years after the promulgation of the Code that the new formula was finally given.

The text of the profession is simple: it begins with the Symbol of Faith, and after the words of the Creed are added three short paragraphs, each corresponding to a different level of teaching and the nature of the assent demanded. The first of these paragraphs states: "With firm faith I also believe everything contained in God's word, written or handed down in tradition and proposed by the Church, whether by way of solemn judgement or through the ordinary and universal magisterium, as divinely revealed and calling for faith."

The next paragraph describes a different sort of teaching and acceptance: "I also firmly accept and hold each and everything that is proposed definitively by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals."

Finally, the last paragraph describes yet a third level of doctrine and response: "Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they proclaim those teachings by an act that is not definitive."

When the profession of faith was promulgated in 1989, these three paragraphs elicited howls of outrage from many in the theological and canonical guilds, but these words are nothing more or less than a juridic translation of the teaching of Lumen Gentium on the nature of teaching authority in the Church and the response called for from the faithful. (cf. LG, 25). In other words, the Profession of Faith does precisely what the pope said in 1983 all legislation should do: translate conciliar doctrine into canonical norms for the right ordering of the Church's life.

So, as we have seen, the Code was promulgated in 1983, and the Profession of Faith followed in 1989. The third panel of our triptych came in 1998: Ad Tuendam Fidem -- a document which slightly modified the Code of Canon Law. At the beginning of that Apostolic Letter, John Paul explains why he decided to add sections to the 1983 Code. The pope writes: 

"To protect the Catholic faith against errors arising on the part of some of the Christian faithful, in particular among those who studiously dedicate themselves to the discipline of sacred theology, it appeared highly necessary to us, whose special task is to confirm the brethren in faith, to add new norms to the text of the Code of Canon Law.... The purpose of the new norms is to impose expressly the duty to preserve the truths proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church and to institute canonical sanctions concerning the same matter."

John Paul then goes on to explain that the promulgation of the Profession of Faith in 1989 left a gap in the Code of Canon Law of 1983 and that he decided to close that gap. Specifically, Canon 750 in the original '83 Code -- contained in Book III on the Teaching Office of the Church -- described in juridic language the obligation of the faithful to believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the deposit of faith. Moreover, Canon 752 described the duty to give religious submission of intellect and will even to doctrines which are not proposed as definitive. These two canons, then, corresponded to the first and third paragraphs which follow the Creed in the Profession of Faith.  As John Paul points out in Ad Tuendam Fidem, however, the Profession of Faith distinguishes not two, but three, levels of teaching, and one was missing from the original 1983 Code. Accordingly, he added a second section to Canon 750 which now reads, "Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church." As with the Profession of Faith nine years earlier, this Apostolic Letter raised the hackles of some in the theological and canonical guilds, and yet in both cases, John Paul was merely continuing the process of refining the Church's understanding of a new thing: the idea of communion with the Church by degrees of fullness.

Let's return to Canon 205: "Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance." Three essential elements for full communion are laid out: the profession of faith, the celebration of all the sacraments, and adherence to the authority of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Precisely because this canon was a new thing, however, it was not self-evident what all of this meant. Moreover, while Canon 205 describes what constitutes full communion, it does not describe how such fullness is effected, and neither does it explain how full communion might be compromised.

Because of these ambiguities in the law before the clarification offered by the Profession of Faith and Ad Tuendam Fidem, even able and respected canonists misinterpreted part of the novelty of this development. For example, in his commentary on Canon 205 published in 1985, the estimable James Provost wrote: "Heresy, the obstinate denial or doubt of a teaching that is to be held with divine and catholic faith, requires pertinacity in addition to denial or doubt (c. 751). Heresy does not apply to doubt or even denial of other types of church teaching, which presumably would not break the bond of full communion." (p. 127; emphasis added).

About one thing Father Provost was absolutely correct: heresy is technically only the obstinate denial or doubt of a doctrine which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith -- that is, the level of teaching corresponding to the first paragraph added to the Creed in the Profession of Faith. But fifteen years after Father Provost wrote those words, Pope John Paul closed the gap in the Code and clarified exactly this point. The Code now contains a section corresponding to the second paragraph of the Profession of Faith, and it is here that all of our strands come together.

On the same day Ad Tuendam Fidem was made public in June 1998, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger published an official commentary on the letter, explaining the consequences of the changes to the Code of Canon Law. Concerning the doctrines described by the second paragraph of the Profession of Faith and now included in Canon 750, Ratzinger wrote: 

"Every believer ... is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Church's magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in the position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church." (Ratzinger's Commentary, n. 6; emphasis added)

This bears repeating carefully: In light of the teaching of Lumen Gentium as clarified by the Profession of Faith and Ad Tuendam Fidem, it is now clear that as a juridic norm based on Canons 205 and 750 of the Code of Canon Law, a Catholic who rejects a doctrine which must be definitively held is no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church. Great precision of language is needed here. As Father Provost correctly insisted, rejecting a doctrine which must be definitively held (as opposed to one which must be accepted with divine and Catholic faith) does not make one a heretic. But contrary to the early interpretation of the law, rejecting a doctrine which must be definitively held does break the bond of full communion.

Now, you may well ask, what are some of those doctrines. In his commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger lists a few: that only baptized men may validly receive priestly ordination; that euthanasia is intrinsically immoral; that prostitution and fornication are immoral; that a Pope once legitimately elected is, in fact, the supreme pastor of the universal Church; that canonized saints do, in fact, enjoy the beatific vision; and that Anglican orders are absolutely null and utterly void. Within this list of examples there are truths connected to divine revelation by logical necessity, by historical necessity, or by dogmatic fact. But despite the differences in the kinds of connection to divine revelation, all of these teachings must be accepted with full and irrevocable assent; they are doctrines de fide tenenda and to reject such a doctrine is to break the bond of full communion.

What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, that isn't clear. Remember that it has taken 35 years to move from the conciliar documents to the understanding of their consequences now given in the pope's teaching and the law of the Church. But, whatever may still be in doubt, it is now clear that the law provides for consequences for rejecting a doctrine which must be definitively held.

In addition to adding a second section to Canon 750, Ad Tuendam Fidem also added a section to Canon 1371 in Book VI of the Code, on Sanctions in the Church. Canon 1371 now says that anyone who rejects a doctrine which must be definitively held and who does not retract after having been warned either by the Apostolic See or by his Ordinary is to be punished with a just penalty. In other words, breaking the bond of full communion -- by, for example, teaching that women can receive priestly ordination -- has juridic consequences. Exactly what those consequences are is not spelled out in the law, and it is clear that more time will be needed before clarity emerges on the prudent, just, and charitable response of the Church's pastors to such situations. But that there must be consequences is now indisputable, because what is at stake is nothing other than full communion with the Church.

In the sometimes unruly disputes of the past 35 years, the claim has often been advanced -- sometimes crudely, sometimes with refinement -- that is possible to dissent, that is, to disagree with the Church about the doctrine of the faith and yet remain, as it were, a Catholic in good standing. With the increasing clarity gathered from theological and canonical reflection on the idea of communion with the Church by degrees of fullness, it is now apparent that this claim is false. Ideas do have consequences. Refusing to believe a doctrine which must be definitively held does not, it is true, make a Catholic a heretic, but it does render his communion with the Church less than full. And such a theological reality must have canonical consequences, especially if the person in question holds an ecclesiastical office or teaches in the name of the Church.

Here we must tread lightly. No one is advocating a witch hunt; neither can we tolerate a hypercritical spirit of which would attack even legitimate diversity. And when a Catholic does have difficulty accepting a doctrine which must be definitively held, we must be kind, gentle, and patient; after all, St. Paul exhorts us to bear the burdens of those whose faith is weak. Nevertheless, fidelity to the Gospel -- even, as the pope put it, fidelity in newness -- demands that we be honest about the consequences of our beliefs and acknowledge the effect they have on our communion with the Church. And because of a genuine development of doctrine from the Second Vatican Council we now have the conceptual apparatus--in the newness of fidelity -- to express with precision the theological and canonical consequences for a Catholic of rejecting a doctrine of the faith which must be definitively held.

Just as we now understand that it is possible for Orthodox and Protestant Christians to approach communion with the Church by degrees of fullness, so we must now grasp that it is equally possible for Catholic Christians to depart from communion with the Church by degrees of fullness and that such departure must have canonical consequences. Expanding on the precept of St. Augustine that a unless he persevere in charity a Catholic can remain bound to the Church in body but not in heart, I wonder if it is not now possible to describe circumstances in which some non-Catholic Christians have a greater degree of fullness of communion with the one Church of Christ than do some Catholic Christians because of their stubborn refusal to believe doctrines of the faith which must be definitively held. I suspect that such a prospect is a logical consequence of the substantial newness of ecclesiology in Vatican II -- namely, that one is not either in or out of the Church, but rather that all the baptized are joined in real communion with the Church by some degree of fullness. In other words, it is now clear that the road of communion with the Catholic Church by degrees of fullness is a two-way street.

07 April 2013

Who is Pope Francis?

Since the election of Pope Francis, Catholics of every stripe have been reading tea leaves to divine what sort of man he is, what kind of pope he will prove to be. Those on the Left see and fear a Jesuit who was held in contempt by the other Jesuits in Argentina because he stood in the breach against Liberation Theology, and those on the Right see and fear a Jesuit who behaves like a Jesuit in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. And partisans of every kind are stamping and sweating like frightened horses, wondering what these signs portend. To one and all I say: Chill out.

Papa Bergoglio is the 266th Bishop of Rome, and there will be a 267th. In our long history we have had great saints and craven cowards and brave reformers and depraved degenerates along with mystics, theologians, fools, worldlings, philosophers, warriors, diplomats, and a few men of world-historical stature. They each did their bit and then went to their judgment. And after each came another. The same will be true here.

Beyond that, however, here is what we know. Jorge Bergoglio is a man of intense and orthodox Catholic faith which he lives in great personal simplicity and complete dedication to the least of Christ’s brethren. These commitments incline him to brush aside many of the traditional dignities of his office, both as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and now as Bishop of Rome, and to Traditionalists, brushing aside anything traditional is a sign of danger. But let’s be candid: many of the trappings of the hierarchy are derived from Imperium more than from Evangelium, and from time to time it is useful for the Church to ponder this distinction and make whatever changes will bring the Gospel more clearly to the center of the Church’s life.

Meanwhile on the Left, Papa Bergoglio’s simple and accessible style has awakened hope of “progress” in those who would like to see the Catholic Church transmogrify itself into the Anglican Communion, but that is a fool’s hope, and those who want women priests and a Catholic blessing on contraception and same sex marriage will wait in vain until the Last Day. The gentle smile and personal humility of Pope Francis do not mean that he isn’t an orthodox Catholic who will defend the Church in the public square, and if you doubt that, just ask the socialist tyrant who presently lives in the presidential palace of Argentina.

Now, let’s talk about the liturgy. Long before the Liturgy Wars that followed the Second Vatican Council, the expression “He’s as useless as a Jesuit in Holy Week” had a hallowed history. By this phrase priests meant to say that Jesuits generally have no interest and little competence in the ars celebrandi to which so much attention was directed in the last pontificate. The dramatic change in style between Benedict XVI and Francis has caused no little discomfort to those who hoped that the return of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite would lead to the final defeat of living room liturgy in the Western Church, but I suspect that Papa Bergoglio’s liturgical praxis is not a sign that he’s some sort of ritual Bolshevik. Rather, it is simply a pointed reminder that he is a Jesuit and therefore that he will be “useless in Holy Week.”

One final thought. In his new book Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel argues that the Church is presently living through a transition from its Counter Reformation arrangement to something new: its Evangelical Catholic configuration. I believe that Weigel is correct, and one consequence of that transition will be the letting go of whatever in the Church is derived from Imperium rather than from Evangelium. This process has been underway in fits and starts for more than a century, and it will continue -- and, I suspect, accelerate -- in new ways during the pontificate of Pope Francis. Those who are discomfited by this transition would do well to consider the arguments made by Weigel in his book and to bear in mind the essential differences between matters of style and matters of substance. Jorge Bergoglio manifestly believes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and he will fulfill his new duties as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church according to the truth of the Gospel. If he chooses, however, not to maintain some of the accoutrements of a Renaissance prince, then let no one read into that more than Pope Francis intends: Ecclesia Semper Reformanda et Purificanda.

28 March 2013

Chrism Mass Homily of Pope Francis

28 MARCH 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters, This morning I have the joy of celebrating my first Chrism Mass as the Bishop of Rome. I greet all of you with affection, especially you, dear priests, who, like myself, today recall the day of your ordination.

The readings of our Mass speak of God’s “anointed ones”: the suffering Servant of Isaiah, King David and Jesus our Lord. All three have this in common: the anointing that they receive is meant in turn to anoint God’s faithful people, whose servants they are; they are anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed… A fine image of this “being for” others can be found in the Psalm: “It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down upon the collar of his robe” (Ps 133:2). The image of spreading oil, flowing down from the beard of Aaron upon the collar of his sacred robe, is an image of the priestly anointing which, through Christ, the Anointed One, reaches the ends of the earth, represented by the robe.

The sacred robes of the High Priest are rich in symbolism. One such symbol is that the names of the children of Israel were engraved on the onyx stones mounted on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, the ancestor of our present-day chasuble: six on the stone of the right shoulder-piece and six on that of the left (cf. Ex 28:6-14). The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were also engraved on the breastplate (cf. Es 28:21). This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart. When we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs of whom there are many in these times…

From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. The ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.

A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into prayer. The prayers of the people of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men. What I want to emphasize is that we need constantly to stir up God’s grace and perceive in every request, even those requests that are inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal – but only apparently so – the desire of our people to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it. To perceive and to sense, even as the Lord sensed the hope-filled anguish of the woman suffering from hemorrhages when she touched the hem of his garment. At that moment, Jesus, surrounded by people on every side, embodies all the beauty of Aaron vested in priestly raiment, with the oil running down upon his robes. It is a hidden beauty, one which shines forth only for those faith-filled eyes of the woman troubled with an issue of blood. But not even the disciples – future priests – see or understand: on the “existential outskirts”, they see only what is on the surface: the crowd pressing in on Jesus from all sides (cf. Lk 8:42). The Lord, on the other hand, feels the power of the divine anointing which runs down to the edge of his cloak.

We need to “go out,” then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.

A priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, our people take our oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets. It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep”, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” – not function – and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.

Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart.

Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those “outskirts” where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us. Amen.

04 November 2012

Why Am I a Catholic?

The Chapel at Princeton University

On Sunday 4 November 2012, I preached the following homily at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

Thirty years ago tomorrow, on 5 November 1982, to the astonishment of my friends, to the bewilderment of my family, and to my everlasting wonderment, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. As unexpected as that turn in my life was, even stranger was the day fourteen months earlier when I woke up in the morning an atheist and a scientific materialist and went to sleep that night a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. That day of my conversion to Christ was unexpected on two counts: First, from the age of thirteen I had been a sincerely convinced atheist, and second, I chose Princeton University for my undergraduate work, in part, because it was far from the Christ-haunted South of my childhood. I went to Princeton precisely to escape the ignorance and superstition I saw dripping from everything in this part of the world and in the hope of living with others of similar convictions in what I then regarded as the light of pure reason, and to arm myself for battle I enrolled during my first semester in a course called “Christianity and its Critics.” So, to find myself a few months later introduced to the Lord Jesus by students and teachers at Princeton was a life-changing surprise.

The final moments of my conversion to Christ in October 1981 constitute for me an indelible experience of fire: purifying, transforming, illuminating fire. When the fire passed and I came back to myself, I turned to my friend and classmate who was the indispensable instrument of grace that night and asked where I could go to be baptized, and immediately I was confronted with the scandal of division among Christians. Why aren’t Lutherans Presbyterians? Why aren’t Anglicans Baptists? And why is it that the only thing to which they all agree is that they aren’t Catholics?

In my search for an answer to those questions, I turned to the only clergyman on campus whom I knew: an Episcopal priest. He sketched a brief account of the very messy history of heresy and schism among Christians and suggested that I could approach my search in one of two ways: start from our time and work backwards or start from the beginning of Christianity and work forwards to find the causes of the disagreements and separations that afflict the Church. And then he added that since there is only one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism, I did not have to wait until I sorted through this mess to be baptized. So in January 1982 I was born again by water and the Holy Spirit in an Anglican font, even as I continued to read about the life and faith of the first Christians and the shape of the Church in which they lived together.

For six months I worshipped as an Anglican while I spent every available hour reading the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the decrees of the early ecumenical Councils. Friends, both Catholic and Protestant, suggested books which I inhaled, and evening after evening the main course at dinner was theological disputation. Then came a day in high summer when, after finishing John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography, I thought to myself: I do not protest anything taught by the Catholic Church, so I can no longer be a Protestant. To that point I had never met a Catholic priest, so I asked a friend to introduce me to one, and at our first meeting in his office, I said “Father, I have to become a Catholic.” He sent me home with several books to read and questions to think about, and when I returned the following week he asked if I was still certain about my convictions. I answered “Yes, I have to become a Catholic, and I think I am called to be a priest.”

My teacher was Father Peter Stravinskas, and he spent the next few months explaining what I needed to know to make a profession of faith with a clear and certain conscience, often while we strolled through the peerless campus of Princeton University or that of the nearby Institute for Advanced Study. At length, on the evening of 5 November 1982, I stood before the altar in the chapel of the Poor Clare Monastery in Bordentown, New Jersey, and professed the faith of the Church in the ancient Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople and then added “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” With those words, I was a Catholic, and in the next few minutes I received the sacraments of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist to complete my sacramental initiation into the Lord Jesus and his holy Church. 

And here I am today, thirty years later, still in wonderment that I should be a Christian and a Catholic Christian at that, especially because the secular and rationalist existence I so eagerly sought as a boy is now available everywhere. Indeed, it is not only available, it is pressed upon us from every side with great urgency by the chattering classes who have come to believe that all religions, particularly Christianity, and Catholicism most especially, are the enemy of human freedom and flourishing. And we must acknowledge that those who regard the Christian faith as superstition and the Catholic Church as a bulwark of darkness and ignorance are presently having their way with us. One in ten Americans today is an ex-Catholic, and more than half of those who still identify themselves as Catholics do not live the Catholic faith or practice our religion in any observable way. This great falling away is happening throughout the West, and that is among the many reasons why the just concluded meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome spent three weeks discussing the Church’s need for a New Evangelization to transmit the Gospel in our time.

But while I am delighted that the bishops are taking notice of these things, the truth is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not transmitted by new offices in the Roman Curia or more documents from the Roman Pontiff; the Gospel is transmitted by disciples of Jesus Christ who have come to “believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” What is necessary for those of us still trying to transmit the Gospel in this way is to acknowledge that the Church is now perceived by many people as a stumbling block rather than an instrument of communion with God. 

We see the Church that saved Europe from the Dark Ages, that built schools, invented hospitals and founded universities. We see the Church that designed and raised up the most glorious buildings our civilization has ever produced and then filled them with art and music of unsurpassed beauty. We see the Church that brought the light of the Gospel to every part of the world even as it was first encountered by Europeans. We see the Church that provided the intellectual and cultural foundations for the rule of law in a limited State and for the scientific revolution to which so many people today look for their salvation. In short, we who already believe what the Church believes see her as a light-filled instrument for the transmission of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful and as a perpetual witness to the Father’s eternal Plan of Salvation for the entire human race in Jesus Christ. 

But many of those who do not share our faith look at the same Church and see a loathsome agent of oppression and bastion of ignorance, an unwanted survival from the Middle Ages which arrays itself against human progress and happiness by resisting the sexual revolution and teaching that there is an objective moral law which we do not make and to which we are all accountable, and not a few of those who see the Church in this way are baptized Catholics. Some of them are ordained. That too is among the many reasons we need a New Evangelization.

But before we can be instruments of the New Evangelization, we need to know why we are disciples of the Lord Jesus and members of his Catholic Church. Thirty years ago I came at these questions from outside the Church, as a young man seeking to understand the world and his place in it, but most Catholics are born into Catholic families and take these things for granted. These people are often called cradle Catholics to distinguish them from those like myself who are usually called converts, but the term cradle Catholic implies that one can be born a Catholic and that is simply false. No one is born a Catholic; one can only be born again a Catholic, and even the Baptism of infants is a sacrament of faith - the faith of the Church, the faith of the child’s parents, the faith of the child’s godparents. This is the faith in which the child should be instructed and formed until the day when he can renew with his own heart and mind and voice the promises of his Baptism and take his place among the disciples of the Lord Jesus who believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. In other words, all Catholics must be converts of one sort or the other or else they do not know what Catholicism is.

At this point, though, we must acknowledge a perennial problem in the life of the Church: Catholics do not always live according to the faith we profess. In fact, many of us fail to do so in ways that are scandalous and even horrifying, and when an errant believer is also a bishop or priest, then the damage done to the Church’s credibility is even greater. As a consequence, those who do not share our faith, including some souls who might feel drawn to the Church as a fellowship of Christ’s disciples, can point to the notorious sins of Catholics with dismay and then try to justify rejecting her claims because of the cognitive dissonance that always follows a conspicuous contradiction between the faith we profess and the lives we lead.

Two answers to such objections are readily available. First, that all men have sinned and are deprived of God’s glory is an essential truth of the Gospel, and no one should ever be surprised when Christians sin. Disappointed perhaps, but never surprised. The sacraments do not deprive us of our freedom, and fallen men and women - which all Christians remain - struggle every day not to misuse their freedom. When Christians sin, even scandalously, even when they are ordained, they are in a strange way confirming the faith they profess: we are all sinners in need of redemption, and we cannot save ourselves. That’s the first answer to the charge that the sins of Christians put the lie to the claim of the Church’s holiness, and the second answer is a bit more abstract. Just as the divine and human natures of the Lord Jesus co-exist in one person so that the Son of Mary is both God and man, so too in the Church the human and divine co-exist so that she is both a fellowship of sinners and the spotless bride of Christ. The holiness of the Church comes not from the moral character of Christians; it comes rather from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the Body of Christ, giving life and holiness to the Church so that she may fulfill her Great Commission to teach the Gospel to all nations. There is and can be no separation between the Lord Jesus Christ and his Church, and it is only in and with the Church that we can come to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus as he fully reveals himself to us in Word and Sacrament.

When I became convinced of this truth thirty years ago, I went to a priest and said “Father, I have to become a Catholic,” and three decades later I remain grateful every day for the grace of God that drew me to full communion with his one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church - the Church of Jesus Christ fully and rightly ordered through history, the Church governed by Simon Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome, in union with all the bishops of the world who stand in apostolic succession as authentic teachers of the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

So, why am I a Catholic? Because I believe it’s all true. Because I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. And because I want everyone I know, everyone I meet to find in the Catholic Church what I found: the goodness of grace, the truth of the Gospel, and the beauty of holiness. Here, in the Catholic Church, is where we find the freedom of the children of God; here in the Catholic Church is where we are born again to everlasting life; here in the Catholic Church is where we are nourished with the Body and Blood of the Savior; here in the Catholic Church is where we let go of sin and all of our false selves and discover our true dignity and destiny - a glory that surpasses anything we can imagine. 

But those of us who believe these things must take note. In the service of leading others to find these truths in the Catholic Church, we can no longer begin our witness by saying “the Church teaches,” because as we have seen, the Church herself is a stumbling block for so many. Instead, we must now begin with the simple witness of our own lives and then lead others to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ by helping them to receive him with saving faith as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. To do this in full measure, we must of course eventually come to “the Church teaches,” but to avoid the difficulties aroused in our time by the Church herself, we should begin the journey of evangelization by talking about what “the Gospel reveals” not with what “the Church teaches.” And to do that, we must know and believe the Gospel ourselves, something which is directly dependent on our own knowledge of Holy Scripture, our own life of regular prayer, and our own love for others in action. 

Now, for those of you who were hoping (or fearing) that I would preach today about Tuesday’s election, please understand that I just did. You see, every serious political dispute is, at root, first a theological dispute, and when one believes everything that God has revealed for our salvation, then many political arguments are already resolved. For example, one who believes everything the Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God does not support abortion, does not support the redefinition of marriage, does not support the reduction of the natural human right to freedom of religion to the laughably inadequate substitute of freedom to worship, and does not support massive government interference in free markets of honest exchange. Moreover, those who believe everything the Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God not only do not support these things; they also do not vote for politicians who do. And in this way the Church is involved in the political process, not as a partisan actor but as an evangelical witness. The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only changes individual lives, it also forms cultures and shapes entire civilizations, only a small part of which involves politics. And right now, our civilization is dying and is in need of a new proclamation of the timeless truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, but proclaimed now with new ardor, new methods, and new conviction.

So, if we want to contribute to the New Evangelization by being Evangelical Catholics, let us renew our commitment to study and pray with the Bible, to live the promises of our Baptism, to serve those in need, and to receive the sacraments of the New and Eternal Covenant regularly and worthily, and by so doing, to be prepared to draw others to Jesus Christ and his Church through radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism. That is how I was led to the Catholic Church thirty years ago, and that is how we will help others arrive at the day when they can say with a clear and certain conscience “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever!