Things St. John Paul II Didn’t Say …

Judging from my social feeds, the message isn’t getting across.

John Paul II in Papua, Indonesia in January,1995.


I like this from Jonathan Sullivan:


My new logo?


A warning sign for readers of panicky blogs:



What my social feeds are like today:

Relax. Pray. Have a drink. Read some Pope Benedict or maybe a little St. Thomas Aquinas. Engage with truth and charity. All else is noise.

Fisking the Synod “Relatio”

1570457_ArticoloI’m going to do my first read-through of “Relatio post disceptationem” by Card. Péter Erdő, which is being described as an “earthquake” at the synod, and add comments as they occur to me. This is just me shooting from the hip without reflection, and should be taken as a first reaction rather than a considered response.

By the way, it’s not an “earthquake.” That’s overstating things. It’s a summary of the discussion as it stands midway through the synod. Most of it is fine*. Out of 58 paragraphs, about four are awful. In the end, I think the focus is where it should be: on finding better ways of leading people to the fullness of truth.

And please note: this is an “unofficial translation!” Things may change.

5. … It is necessary to be aware of the growing danger represented by an exasperated individualism that distorts family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute.

This is a nod to Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism,” and singles out the moral relativism in which everyone defines good and evil by his own conscience without any sense of transcendent values and order.

6. The most difficult test for families in our time is often solitude, which destroys and gives rise to a general sensation of impotence in relation to the socio-economic situation that often ends up crushing them. This is due to growing precariousness in the workplace that is often experienced as a nightmare, or due to heavy taxation that certainly does not encourage young people to marriage.

He’s calling out heavy taxation and the caprices of the marketplace as a burden on the family. Good. There’s a direct connection between money and the destruction of the family.

Paragraphs 7 and 8 identify the clear problems faced by the church around the world, and not just in the West where divorce and gay marriage is sucking up all the oxygen of the debate. These include polygamy, trial marriages, arranged and forced marriages, cohabitation, mixed marriages in minority-Catholic countries, family violence, war, terrorism, organized crime, and migration. All of these elements pull at the fabric of the family in different ways, and require a response from the Church.

9. Faced with the social framework outlined above, a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life. In the same way, it is possible to encounter a widespread desire for family accompanied by the search for oneself.

The phrasing is squishy, but I understand what he’s trying to get across: we do need to understand ourselves and our emotional life if we are to truly understand our needs and desires before God. The next section clarifies things a little:

10. Today’s world appears to promote limitless affectivity, seeking to explore all its aspects, including the most complex. Indeed, the question of emotional fragility is very current: a narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity do not always help greater maturity to be reached.

In other words, our limitless naval-gazing does not make us more mature, but less mature, and leads us into the narcissism that destroys relationships or creates unhealthy ones. We’re not going to find the answers within, but we keep looking there anyway.

11. In this context the Church is aware of the need to offer a meaningful word of hope. It is necessary to set out from the conviction that man comes from God and that, therefore, a reflection able to reframe the great questions on the meaning of human existence, may find fertile ground in humanity’s most profound expectations. The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to the search that distinguishes human existence even in a time marked by individualism and hedonism. It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

And here we go. I can’t fault the points here, but the dog whistle “mercy” has become such a bone of contention that people seem to be talking past each other when they use it.

Does the speaker mean mercy as, well … mercy? Or does he mean it as “compromise”?

Mercy isn’t compromise, and in faith and charity we should probably assume that when someone says “mercy” he means “mercy.” Instead, many are reading “mercy” and translating it into “heresy.” This is assuming bad faith, which we should not do, and which has been the fruit of so much poisonous invective entering the synod.

To me, paragraph 11 is saying that people are yearning for the truth, but to guide them to it more effectively, we may need to try a different approach. I see nothing in there that compromises any dogma or doctrine. The condemnation of “individualism and hedonism” certainly doesn’t seem like a retreat from our values.

13. From the moment that the order of creation is determined by orientation towards Christ, it becomes necessary to distinguish without separating the various levels through which God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity. Through the law of gradualness (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), typical of divine pedagogy, this means interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption.

14. Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross.

Well that’s just a hash. I’m not sure whether he’s coming or going in those two paragraphs, although the line about divine condescension comes close to making a decent point. He seems to be talking about the way God guided Israel through history to salvation in stages, and that this proves a “law of gradualness.” Of course, that guidance reached fulfillment in Christ, so we’re not still being prepared for any new revelation, but rather conditioned to live the final revelation more fully.

He’s deploying the phrase “law of gradualness” as if it’s an actual law, rather than merely a rhetorical flourish by St. John Paul II. Gradualism is the idea that we work towards perfect in stages and the church needs to help us with that, and there’s nothing wrong with this approach.

Calling it “typical of divine pedagogy” is flawed, and the meaning of “interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption” is a mystery to me. What does he mean by novelty? How does it relate to creation and redemption? I don’t care for this section at all: it’s badly worded and confusing, and raises more questions than it answers.

Erdo gets back on track with paragraphs 15 and 16, where he talks about how the “spousal covenant, inaugurated in creation and revealed in the history of God and Israel, reaches its fullest expression with Christ in the Church.” Good stuff here.

20. Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

Paragraphs 17 to 23 attempt to shift the tone of discussion of irregular marriage, and how to deal with it. I don’t disagree with its contents, although I have to wonder what the practice of its application would mean. The idea is to help the positive grow into something that will align people more fully with the Church, finding the seeds of Christ in every man and woman and family, and helping them reconfigure the person and the family towards Christ. The language is pretty decent here, affirming that fullness of the truth is found only in the Church, but that elements of the truth may be found anywhere, and we should work towards using the elements to help souls.

21. The Gospel of the family, while it shines in the witness of many families who live coherently their fidelity to the sacrament, with their mature fruits of authentic daily sanctity must also nurture those seeds that are yet to mature, and must care for those trees that have dried up and wish not to be neglected.

I really can’t fault this at all. I just wonder what it means as a practical application of Church teaching on the streets and in the pews. At what point does nurturing become complicity?

25. …The Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4,15), in fidelity to the merciful kenosi of Christ. The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.

Excellent. Well said.

I’m not going to quote paragraphs 24 to 35 because they run through a number of points that set the ground for the debate and are worth reading. In short, it addresses the need for to evangelize more fully at all levels of the church, both lay and ecclesiastic. It’s the most Vatican IIish section, urging us to ground ourselves in the truth of our teachings and then go out and engage the world. We need to form couples more fully for marriage, and be there for them–both lay people and priests–during the early years of a marriage and the challenges faced throughout.

At paragraph 36 we turn back to irregular marital states with language that may bother some: Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation

Naturally, these states are problematic, as the subsequent paragraph affirms:

36. A new sensitivity in today’s pastoral consists in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and, having pointed out our differences, of cohabitation. It is necessary that in the ecclesial proposal, while clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal.

Again, we return to the theme: maintain and teach the ideal, but work with what we’ve got. And, once again, I cannot fault the intent, but wonder about what it means here on the ground. Can we nurture the good while maintaining the truth?

That’s not something that can be done by synods and councils and bishops. That’s the work of priests: the front line soldiers and medics on this battlefield of modern culture. And while we have many, many good priests, I know others whom I would not trust to make that distinction effectively.

39. All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy. With a view to this, the attractive testimony of authentic Christian families is important, as subjects for the evangelization of the family.

There are going to be a lot of people who only take away the “shocking” aspects of this document, so paragraph 39 is there to, once again, remind people that we are not compromising truth, but trying to find new ways to guide people to that truth.

Paragraphs 40 to 49 tackles the thorny issue of divorce and remarriage, and how these people are to be treated. The suggestions include “abandonment of the need for the double conforming sentence; the possibility of establishing an administrative means under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop; a summary process to be used in cases of clear nullity.”

Unlike others, I don’t see these suggestions as striking at the very foundation of the church. It seems, to me (a layperson and catechist with training in theology and church history, rather than a canon lawyer), like a revision of the process, not a compromise of Truth.

Then there’s this:

44. As regards matrimonial suits, the speeding-up of the procedure, requested by many, as well as the preparation of a sufficient number of operators, clerics and lay people, dedicating themselves to this, requires an increase in the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop, who in his diocese might charge a specially trained priest who would be able to offer the parties advice on the validity of their marriage.

Again, I don’t see the problem here.

Paragraphs 47 to 49 are the “Kasper solution,”:

47. As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.

This is another pile of hash. I can’t see it working at all, and the idea that it can be addressed on a “case-by-case basis” (by whom?)  “according to a law of gradualness” (LOLWHUT?) is a nonstarter.

I cannot see how we can square that circle of allowing a path to communion in the absence of a valid annulment. Sure, we can make the annulment procedure more simple and, I believe, we should find ways to fast-track certain cases of civil marriage and abandonment, but readmission to communion after remarriage following a prior, sacramentally valid marriage? I don’t see how a penitential path can offer that. It’s a bridge too far.

Paragraphs 50 to 52 are going to generate headlines as they address homosexual unions and “orientation.” These paragraphs are mostly gibberish and use problematic language. Yes, we need to better at ministering to people who identify as homosexual and finding ways to lead them to the truth in mercy, but this language just clouds a complex issue. It’s both too much and not enough. Fr. Longenecker identifies this as the sentimental claptrap it is.

I don’t want to cherry pick quotes, so read the whole section. In short, we get acknowledgement of homosexual identity without any of the usual caveats that it’s not so much an identity as an objective disorder, the seriously troubling  phrase “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation,” the weak language about gay “marriage,” and an overall sense of saying nothing and saying it badly. Awful stuff. And it’s all we’re going to hear about.

Paragraphs 53 to 55 reaffirm Humane vitae and merely suggest better ways of helping people get the message. No problems here.

And then it concludes.

This is a quick pass through the document without taking a lot of time to mull it over. Perhaps on further reflection I’ll moderate this view or that, but right now I see mostly non-controversial material about changes messaging and processes, a brief defense of the Kasper proposal, and a lot of weak tea about homosexuality. More of it is good than bad, and most of it, really, is just fine.

But, of course, we’re only going to hear about the bad parts, because that’s how we do things now.

Related: John Paul II on Gradualism

Elizabeth Scalia has a different perspective on paragraph 50. 

Simcha Fisher: No Earthquake Here

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Homosexuals Have Gifts to Offer?

*After a second read I downgraded my assessment from “very good” to “fine.” Too much that should have been said was not.

The Greatest Desk For Book Lovers Ever

And I’m not even kidding. Behold the book wheel, for people who like to multitask:



Erik Kwakkel’s indispensable Medieval Books blog has a great series on medieval desks, and describes the above contraption this way:

The image from 1588 shows the bookwheel invented by the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli, whose concept was based on medieval designs. The upside to the carousel is obvious: there was space for a lot of books. This practice is not unlike deciding to hook up a second monitor to your computer, except that the individual is actually watching twelve monitors at the same time – like a trader on Wall Street. I have sat behind one from the 17th century myself and it is truly a majestic feeling to spin the wheel. The click-click sound of the gears hidden inside the device is simply mesmerising.

Check out the whole post.

“Welcome to Hell” [Dark Country: Songs For October]

Series Intro:

October is a month of lengthening shadows and stirring shades, as the chill creeps in, all things green turn beautiful colors before dying, and the dark presses ever closer.

Country and traditional music captures darkness the way no other genre really does. Songs of loss, damnation, violence, madness, murder, suicide, and terrors of both this world and the next are all shot through with a rich vein of pathos and old time religion.

I have a playlist where I accumulate “dark country” songs. Sometimes they are outright supernatural stories such as “Eli Renfro” or “Beaches of Cheyenne,” while others are songs of despair or loss like “Hurt” and “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.”

Over the next month, I’m going to try to share one of these a day, starting with what I consider the most haunting song ever recorded, because everyone should be a little bit miserable in October.

Trace Adkins: “Welcome to Hell”

Satan welcomes Osama bin Laden to hell. Oh Trace, never change.

No sir, “There ain’t no virgins here.”