“Evil talks about tolerance only when it is weak”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia offers one of the most powerful meditations on modern life I’ve seen in ages. In it, he ties together the descent of our culture into a kind of moral insanity, its eugenicist tendencies, and its profound frivolity.

He begins by linking the extermination of unborn children with Down Syndrome and other disabilities to the selfishness or modern man:

The vulgar economic fact about the disabled is that, in purely utilitarian terms, they rarely seem worth the investment. […] And, just as some people resent the imperfection, the inconvenience and the expense of persons with disabilities, others see in them an invitation to learn how to love deeply and without counting the cost.

Archbishop Chaput makes it clear that our corrupt culture has led us to this point, with cowardly pseudo-Catholics all-too-often leading the charge.

Catholic public officials who take God seriously cannot support laws that attack human dignity without lying to themselves, misleading others and abusing the faith of their fellow Catholics.  God will demand an accounting. Catholic doctors who take God seriously cannot do procedures, prescribe drugs or support health policies that attack the sanctity of unborn children or the elderly; or that undermine the dignity of human sexuality and the family.  God will demand an accounting. And Catholic citizens who take God seriously cannot claim to love their Church, and then ignore her counsel on vital public issues that shape our nation’s life.  God will demand an accounting. As individuals, we can claim to believe whatever we want.  We can posture, and rationalize our choices, and make alibis with each other all day long — but no excuse for our lack of honesty and zeal will work with the God who made us.  God knows our hearts better than we do. If we don’t conform our hearts and actions to the faith we claim to believe, we’re only fooling ourselves.

We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of death; the nature of real beauty; the impermanence of every human love; the oppressiveness of children and family; the silliness of virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith.  It’s a culture of fantasy, selfishness, sexual confusion and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves. And we’ve done it by misusing the freedom that other — and greater — generations than our own worked for, bled for, and bequeathed to our safe-keeping.

What have we done with that freedom?  In whose service do we use it now?

Catholics need to wake up from the illusion that the America we now live in — not the America of our nostalgia or imagination or best ideals, but the real America we live in here and now — is somehow friendly to our faith. What we’re watching emerge in this country is a new kind of paganism, an atheism with air-conditioning and digital TV.  And it is neither tolerant nor morally neutral.

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed more than a decade ago, “What was once stigmatized as deviant behavior is now tolerated and even sanctioned; what was once regarded as abnormal has been normalized.” But even more importantly, she added, “As deviancy is normalized, so what was once normal becomes deviant.  The kind of family that has been regarded for centuries as natural and moral — the ‘bourgeois’ family as it is invidiously called — is now seen as pathological” and exclusionary, concealing the worst forms of psychic and physical oppression.

My point is this: Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it.  So it always has been.  So it always will be. And America has no special immunity to becoming an enemy of its own founding beliefs about human freedom, human dignity, the limited power of the state, and the sovereignty of God.

Read every last word.

The Gospel of John and the Catechism

I’m a catechist and a theology student, and from time to time I’ll be posting some longer pieces on these subjects. The following is adapted from something I wrote for a graduate class on the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is at the heart of the Church’s Christology, and thus forms a vital part of her catechesis. While the Synoptic Gospels bear witness to the divinity of Christ, it is in John that we find the most complete unfolding of His signs, glory, and unity with the Father.

The use of John in the Catechism of the Catholic Church was not without controversy. Reflecting upon the Catechism ten years after its publication, Pope Benedict XVI noted that “the volume of the attacks on the Catechism’s use of scripture was particularly loud.” (1) Specifically, historical-critical exegetes said it was “naïve” to “cite passages from the Gospel of John concerning the historical figure of Jesus.” (2) By the time the Catechism was being created, the historical-critical method had drifted so far from its moorings in the faith of a living Church that the notorious “Jesus Seminar” could assert that the Gospel of John contained none of the words or teachings of Jesus. (3)

Well aware that these extreme exegetical trends were already passing into history, the Pope points to sections 101 – 141 of the Catechism as an example of “the correct way of dealing with Scripture when testifying to the faith.” (4) He dismisses the criticisms against the Catechism’s use of scripture, saying that “any interpretation that is detached from the life of the Church and from her historical experiences remains non-obligatory and cannot rise above the literary genre of a hypothesis.”(5)

John is itself a catechetical gospel, developed over a longer period than the Synoptics and thus reflecting a more advanced sense of the Church’s understanding of Christ, his Person, and His teachings. As Teresa Okure observes, “Modern scholars believe in the existence of a Johannine (catechetical) school where the traditions embodied in the gospel would have been reflected upon, taught, and finally transmitted in writing to a wider body.”(6)

Thus, the Gospel of John was created not only for rhetorical purposes, but for pedagogic purposes as well. In reading John, we are transported back to the school of Ephesus, becoming catechumens in the early Church, learning the faith from the Beloved Disciple.

John tells us directly that his Gospel is “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20: 31) Likewise, the Catechism tells us that “The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him.” (CCC 425)

While understanding the historical context, development, theological agenda, and redaction of John can aid in better understanding the scripture, all of these are merely tools. Certainly, the Catechism acknowledges the value of these tools when it says,

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.” (CCC 110)

Yet in the following paragraph, the Catechism adds,

But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” (CCC 111)

We may learn and benefit from many different kinds of critical methods if we use them cautiously, but only by remaining grounded in the common-sense guidelines of the Catechism (cf, CCC 112-119) can exegetes find in the scripture “strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” (CCC 131)

Citations after the jump. Continue reading

St. Dymphna: Out of the Shadows of Mental Illness

This was the first thing I wrote for Patheos, two years ago. It’s about St. Dymphna, the patron saint of those with “nervous disorders”: in other words, the mentally ill. She’s a tough saint to love:

The problem for anyone with a devotion to St. Dymphna is that her story may be mere legend, embellished in the shadows of the Middle Ages. In the tale, Dymphna is the beautiful young daughter of an Irish pagan king and a pious Christian woman. Raised as a Christian, she is tutored and ultimately baptized by a priest named Gerebran. Noted for her faith and piety, she consecrates her virginity to Christ and takes a vow of chastity.

When Dymphna’s mother dies, the king is driven mad with grief, and sends his councilors to scour the land for a replacement wife of equal beauty and grace. Failing this, the councilors point out the resemblance of Dymphna to her mother, and suggest the king take his daughter as his new wife. Repelled by the suggestion, Dymphna asks for forty days to consider her choice, and then promptly flees the country with Fr. Gerebran, the court jester, and his wife.

This odd band of wanderers finally land in Gheel, Belgium, where they decide to settle and build a church. The king soon tracks them down, and when Dymphna rejects his advances, he decapitates both her and Fr. Gerebran. The villagers lay the pair in a cave, and when they return later to give them a proper burial, find a pair of tombs already carved from pure white stone. A red tile lies on Dymphna’s breast, bearing the words “Here lies the holy virgin and martyr, Dymphna.”

Although these events are traditionally dated between 620 and 640 A.D., the story itself remained an oral tradition until written down in the 13th century. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “This narrative is without any historical foundation, being merely a variation of the story of the king who wanted to marry his own daughter, a motif which appears frequently in popular legends.”

Her life, however, is less interesting than her afterlife. After her shrine was built, Gheel soon became the site of many miraculous cures of the mentally disturbed. The town gradually became a major pilgrimage site for the mentally ill, leading the Sisters of St. Augustine to create the Infirmary of St. Elizabeth to tend to their needs. Indeed, the people of Gheel became renowned for their gentle care of the mentally ill, often taking them into their own homes. Seven hundred years ago, this process of moving patients from a hospital to a private home and then back into their own communities was a revolutionary way of treating mental illness that wouldn’t gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

For those who call upon the intercession of St. Dymphna, patron saint of those with nervous disorders, the miracles are all the proof they need.

Read the whole thing.