Sunday, February 18, 2018

How can you remain a catholic? part 4

Letter to Moses “Mo” Derniste continued: “Why I remain a Catholic” 
I am a Catholic because the pope is infallible. “What?” I hear you say. “Have you read any history? There have been some truly whackadoodle popes. What about Pope Boniface VIII (1235 – 1303)? He really believed he was in charge of EVERTHING and EVERYBODY.  For instance, he got into a fight with the powerful Colonna family, and trashed several of the towns they ran including Palestrina where 6,000 citizens were killed.  Then there’s Benedict IX (1012 – 1065, maybe). He was made pope when he was a teenager and was tossed out of office twice, because he was so dissolute and then abdicated because he was not sure he could stay pope and wanted to marry his cousin anyway. He sold the papal throne to his uncle. He got tired of being married and wanted to be pope for a third time. He was finally deposed by Emperor Henry III of Germany. His father, a Roman politician, had gotten him elected. He had no qualifications and led a dissolute life of rape, adultery, and murder. St. Peter Damian said that Benedict was “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.”  “His life as a pope,” wrote Pope Victor III, “was so vile, so foul, and so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” There is a possibility that he repented and died as a monk. Let’s hope.
Everybody’s favorite bad pope is a Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503), father of the murderous Cesare -and Lucretia, the poison-pouring tramp (who actually may not have been as bad as everybody says.)  The whole Borgia crew currently has a couple of miniseries going. The Borgias are very popular in syndication.
Rodrigo’s uncle was Pope Calixtus III who whisked this very capable and crafty nephew through the ranks of bishop and cardinal, naming him vice-chancellor of the Papal States. This made him so rich that he was able to buy the papacy by bribing the electing cardinals. He had at least seven different children by several women. Rodrigo was refreshingly honest in so far as he recognized his children as his children. He also gave them lavish bequests at church expense. He made his son Cesare a cardinal at one point, but Cesare eventually quit the job and went back to what he was good at; killing and soldiering. Giovanni de Medici said “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.”  I could go on for quite a while. There are a lot more horrible popes. Read Mike Aquilina’s book, “Good Pope Bad Pope.”  
All this said, I am a Catholic because the pope is infallible. “What?” Again, I can hear you mutter. “I wouldn’t be part of that institution for a minute!” Hold on a minute, there have been 266 popes and only ten truly horrible ones. There have also been a lot of anti-popes. These are guys who thought they were pope but weren’t. The list includes some very powerful men and some true loons who put on a white beanie and declare, “I’m the pope. Jesus told me so.” There’s about five or ten of them around right now! I am not saying I am Catholic because most of the popes have been decent. I am a Catholic because the popes have proved to be infallible. None of them have succeeded in changing the universal teaching of the faith to suite their own peculiarities.
My point is this. There have been some very bad popes elected. We have been blessed in modern times with good and holy men, so it may come as a surprise to you that there have been some very bad men who have parked their papal dignity on the throne of St. Peter. That is one of the reasons I am a Catholic. The faith has not been derailed by the some of the worst men in history. The faith handed down to us from the apostles Peter and Paul remains intact. It has been assailed by countless theologians, politicians and self-serving clerics and yet it remains. Back to papal infallibility which, as history proves, is a real thing. What then is papal infallibility? Here is the text book definition from the First Vatican Council.
“We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.”
What most people don’t understand is that the doctrine of papal infallibility serves to limit papal power. For instance, in a document called the “Dictaus Papae”, Pope Gregory VII, or one of his minions in 1075, insisted “That all princes shall kiss the feet of only the pope.” This means that the pope has complete political power. The doctrine of papal infallibility means that the pope is infallible only in matters of faith and morals. He is not politically infallible. He cannot dictate political policy to anyone nor infallibly endorse one political system over another.  The doctrine of papal infallibility is a reaction and a refutation to the error of Ultramontanism.
Ultramontanism which means “beyond the mountains” the Alps to be precise. The pope lives beyond the Alps, down there in sunny Italy.  Ultramontanism places strong emphasis on the prerogatives and powers of the pope. From the 17th century on, Ultramontanism became closely associated with the Jesuits, who take a vow of personal loyalty to the pope. They were excellent teachers and were tutors in the royal courts in Europe.  They were famous for their political influence promoting papal interests in European politics. They held the pope to be superior to governments and kings, even in temporal questions. In other words, if the pope says it will rain tomorrow, it will rain tomorrow. This means that papal infallibility does not extend to political theory or weather forecasting.  The popes may comment on such things, but they are not part of the deposit of Catholic faith.
Another limitation, the pope is infallible only when speaking Ex Cathedra. This is very important.  In times past a rabbi had a chair on which he sat when teaching. We see in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down to teach his sermon on the mount. The pope when he “sits” in the Chair of Peter, that is he speaks as the spiritual descendant of Peter, will not be allowed by the Holy Spirit to fall into error. He still cannot predict the weather. That would be to “sit” in the chair of the 10 O’clock weather report. Different chair. The pope cannot change revealed truth. He cannot add to revealed truth. He can and must reemphasize and bring forward in current language what the Lord and the Church have always taught. His infallibility is a catholic infallibility. It is part of an unbroken chain of truth that reaches back to Christ. 
Infallibility does not give anyone the ability to contradict Christ and the consistent two-thousand-year-old deposit of faith. Take the case of Pope Liberius (310 – 366) He got into a tussle with the Christian Roman emperor Constantius who favored Arianism the doctrine that Jesus wasn’t really divine and there wasn’t really a Holy Trinity. Constantius arrested Liberius and after a couple years of exile, Liberius seems to have written a couple of letters to Constantius that waffled on Arianism, thus winning his freedom and returning to Rome. These letters may or may not have been written by Liberius, but they certainly weren’t Ex Cathedra, and the faith in one God in three persons and the divine person of Jesus, fully human and fully divine in nature have been taught since before the Scriptures were written and continue to be taught.  It is a universal that is “catholic” teaching believed by the whole Church for its entire history. To radically depart from the catholic nature of a teaching, that is its consistent teaching throughout history, is to cease to be Catholic. In a certain sense Jesus gave his teaching chair to Peter and Peter gave it to his successors, the bishops of Rome.  When a pope like Liberius or Alexander sits in his own chair he is simply not speaking infallibly.
Despite all the corruption and the theological controversy of times past, the faith is still the faith and the little red lamp still burns before the tabernacle. And I am still a Catholic.
Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How can you remain a catholic? part 3

Letter to Mo Derniste continued: “Why I remain a Catholic”
I remain a Catholic because of relics, statues and religious images. We Catholics get a lot of grief because of statues etc. The Bible forbids graven images doesn't it?  Not exactly. It forbids the making of idols — that is the images of gods. Admittedly Catholics allow the representation of Christ and the Trinity because God chose to show his own divine image in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As for the rest of our imagery, it is the saints that we picture. No true Catholic believes that a saint is a god or goddess. We may honor the Blessed Mother and the saints, but we certainly don't worship them.
It is interesting to me that those same people who criticize our religious art often are themselves guilty of idolatry. They make over the image of God in their own likeness. Perhaps you've heard someone say that, "I could never worship a god who....” (fill in the blanks; allows the holocaust, or doesn't permit artificial birth control; or abortion, or divorce and remarriage, etc.) We have religious art, but those who invent their own religion and create a god who blesses their favorite sins are the true idolaters.
We Catholics live in a world populated by saints. Relics, religious art and sacred architecture remind us constantly that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We live in a communion of saints. Perhaps you have heard of the treasury of the merits of the saints, perhaps not. I think of it like this. On a ship you have water tight compartments. They are sealed when the ship is in danger of sinking. That's how I think of the saints. The Church constantly hits obstacles, but the lives of the saints, their writings, their works and their prayers are sealed and unshakeable. They sustain the Church in difficult times. We are a communion of two thousand years and more. Our imagery and our relics remind us that the present difficulties are only a small part of the story.
In a certain sense, there are three testaments: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints. This third Testament teaches us how to live in the world and in the Kingdom of God at the same time. Modern people constantly want to reinvent the truth to suite our present situation. They forget that we are part of something that has been and that will be. The narcissism of the present age demands that truth conform itself to our needs, forgetting that we stand on the shoulders of the saints and we are responsible to generations yet unborn. There is an old saying, "He who is married to the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower."  The communion of the saints surrounds and sustains us in these tangible reminders, the images, the relics and their lives and writings. 
We are part of something eternal. The faith is not our plaything. It has been handed on to us from the first saints and martyrs all the way down to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul the Great and the great host of current martyrs. I will do my best to hand it on to those who come after me.

Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How can you remain Catholic? part 2

Letter to Moses “Mo” Derniste
continued: “Why I remain a Catholic”
 Why am I a Catholic? I am a Catholic because God made the world in seven days. I can hear you saying, “Is this loon a medievalist who also believes in a flat earth?” No, friend, I believe the world is round, or actually it bulges at the equator making it a bit pear-shaped as are many of its inhabitants. It is technically an oblate spheroid. So all you round earthers are actually WRONG. (This according to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
“Well,” I can hear you retort, “Isn’t the universe actually 14 billion years old? Wasn’t that proven by those young scientists on that sitcom on the TV? How can you believe that the world was made in seven days?”
Let me tell you the story of the five blind men who went to see an elephant. A circus came to town and five friends who were totally blind went to see the elephant. Upon arriving, one of them walked smack dab into the side of the elephant and exclaimed, “Why, an elephant is like a great rough wall!” Another, grabbing the trunk of the elephant, said, “Nonsense! An elephant is like a firehose.” The third embracing the leg of the mighty beast said, You are both wrong! An elephant is like the trunk of a tree.” Another, grabbing the ear of this patient creature said, “No, clearly an elephant is like the leaf of a large tropical plant.” The fifth, at that end of the elephant incapable of facial expression opined that the elephant was like a rope. You, standing at a distance and seeing the whole, know that an elephant is like nothing so much as an elephant!
So it is with heaven. We see elements and theories and parts and all rightly so, but God, looking at His universe, sees the number SEVEN. The number seven is the most important part of the story. In Hebrew the number seven is “shevah”. It is spelled exactly the same way as the word “seven”. In effect you don’t swear that something is true. In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, you “seven” that something is true.  God is the same yesterday today and tomorrow, and for Him, “…one day is like a thousand years.” (2 Peter 3:8) He sees the universe as a thing of seven days. This means that creation itself is His oath of faithfulness and love. I believe that creation itself is all about covenants. We sinners are all about contracts.
A contract is a temporary relationship between people. I will give you this money or that thing in exchange for goods and services rendered by you. When the business is over we will say goodbye. I give to you that you may give to me. 
A covenant is quite different, though it has contractual elements within it. A covenant says that I give you myself that you may give me yourself. Since the self has been forsworn, I cannot take it back or give it elsewhere. An example: Physical intimacy is the subject of both marriage and other relationships. Marriage is highly esteemed because it is a covenant. Those other intimate physical relationships are contractual and are not highly esteemed. Politicians in particular don’t want to be caught in these kinds of relationships. Marriage is permanent. To make it temporary is to make it, well you know what they call temporary intimacy.
Our civilization is built on covenants. Judaism and Christianity believe that Heaven has made a covenant with us, though the third monotheistic religion does not believe this. They hold that the god they worship would never stoop to make covenants with mere creatures, and so they do not hold covenants in the same esteem that Judaeo-Christian civilization does. Catholicism is built on covenants. The very word sacrament is a Latin word that means oath to the death.
Every time we go to Communion we are swearing most solemnly to live for Christ and, if need be, to die for Christ and His Bride the Church. The mother of St. Louis of France famously said to her son on the day of his First Communion that she would rather he die than ever commit a mortal sin. When we bring our children for Baptism or Confirmation or Holy Eucharist, we are actually swearing to the same thing. It isn’t just a rite of passage followed by a swell party. In Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony we pledge to remain in a certain relationship until death do us part. It is impossible to get unbaptized, unconfirmed, unmarried or unordained. Even the sacrament of Penance demands a firm resolve never to sin again, God’s grace prevailing. Even in the Anointing of the sick we unconditionally place ourselves in God’s hands.
So it is that we Catholics regulate our lives by these seven covenants, an oath of oaths, a seven of sevens, understanding that Heaven wants to belongs to us and wants us to belong to Heaven. I am a Catholic because the Catholic Church is that original covenant Church, despite the fact that people are currently trying to redefine the most basic covenant of marriage and family. I don’t think they will prevail, because God Almighty is all about covenants, not about one night stands.
Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, January 21, 2018

In these enlightened times, how can you remain Catholic?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
In these progressive and enlightened times, how is that you can remain a Catholic? If you insist on being a Christian, there are lot of other more contemporary forms of Christianity. Catholicism with its mystifying rituals and its current chaos just doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore.
Moses “Mo” Derniste

Dear “Mo”,
It is true that there are least twenty thousand various flavors of Christianity from which to choose. I actually was confronted in my youth in the Pentecostal Movement by those who demanded that I leave the Catholic Church lest I lose my salvation. I had to consider Catholicism seriously when most young men were trying to figure out which frat party to attend, though I did manage to combine both tasks. I prayed over it for months and that small voice inside, my conscience, I suppose, told me to stick with the Catholic Church. It has been, and continues to be, quite a wild ride. 
My experience of the Catholic Church over the past fifty years has been a little like a long plane ride that has hit some turbulence. One waits and waits for the captain to turn off the fasten seat belt sign, but the turbulence just gets worse. One knows that turbulence is not really a serious issue. Planes are designed to withstand turbulence, but at the same time, one swears that he will drive to his next destination. I must be crazy. I keep getting back on the plane and belting myself in. Why? It seems to be the best way to get to my destination, despite the turbulence. I suppose that I agree with an Anglican priest who entered the Catholic Church and was then ordained a Catholic priest. He was asked by a lifelong Catholic how he liked the Catholic Church. He said, to the shock of his questioner, “I don’t particularly like the Catholic Church. Had I wanted to be in a church I liked, I would have remained Anglican. I didn’t join the Catholic Church because I like it. I joined it because it’s true.”  I suppose I think it’s true and I even like it, that is when it’s not being re-invented by people who don’t like it. 
I remember my seminary days when my teachers regularly updated us on the latest in theology, pointing how unenlightened everyone had been until they arrived. They then would leave the priesthood. I remember in particular a radical priest professor who, with a friend of his, a nun, regaled us with a dramatic reading of the Song of Songs, something about goats and pomegranates. At the end of the semester, he and sister became missus and mister. They both continued working in the business of religion. I suppose it is small of me to resent the fact, but they seemed to so dislike the Church of two thousand years and were so anxious to reinvent it, that one thinks they would not have continued to earn their living from it. It seems parasitic.  I think I can sum up with the chorus of a song, “Sing a New Church”:
Let us bring the gifts that differ
and, in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new Church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.
Why bother to sing a new church into being. There are lots of really nice new churches. Since around 1525, people have been inventing really swell new churches. The mega-churches are currently popular, though I hear that they are getting a little bit old, and their popularity seems to be waning. So why do we need a new church that obliterates the old one? I suppose that we have to sing a new church into being, “one in faith and love and praise” because the old one apparently had no love or faith or praise. At least that is what the new church inventors must think. I guess I am not really in step with the spirit of the times. I am quietly humming to myself “Faith of our Fathers, livings still, I will be true to thee ‘til death.”  (Sorry for the word “Father”. Perhaps I should have said “parents”. Actually, someone with whom I served on a university faculty redeemed that song by adding a politically corrective verse, “Faith of our mothers oppressed and miserable”, or some such words.)
So here I am clinging to some outmoded medieval, gothic, dusty, irrelevant, homophobic, anti-woman faith, even whose leadership seems to think needs to be redecorated in Danish modern. Why?
Reason one: the “Our” in the Our Father. When I came home from college for my first summer break, I had been recently baptized in the spirit and was full of evangelical fervor. I announced to my parents that they, too, could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. They congratulated me on finally understanding what they had taught me all my life. The Christ with whom I had been brought up was intensely personal. I had really known Him all my life in one way or another. My family prayed together, read the bible together, went to Mass together. To see my parents pray was to see a man and woman communing with God. I was taught my whole life that God was somebody, not something, a person, not just an idea. It took me a very long time to realize that my new evangelical Pentecostal friends didn’t really mean a relationship with a person when they said, “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” they mean a private relationship with Jesus Christ as in the old song,
I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
The son of God discloses.
And he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known.
Simply put, He is “Our Father” not my father. Americans and their modern wannabees throughout the world love to think that they are individually infallible. Me and Jesus. Jesus never said, “me and you”. He said us. I have to go to Mass. I have to put up with my irritating co-religionists. They have to put up with irritating me. Other people are not optional. We are a family. He is Our Father. Jesus is our Savior. The Holy Spirit falls afresh on Us.” The family of God stretches back two thousand years and more. It cannot be re-invented. It does not belong exclusively to the revisionists of the twenty first century. It belongs to the ages and to the Lord. That is one reason I am a Catholic.
More next week.
Rev. Know-it-all
PS. The song “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by persecuted Catholics in England and there is a verse that no one sings anymore.
Faith of our Fathers! Mary's prayers
shall win our country back to thee:
and through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.
I hope those words also apply to the English colonies.