Archive for March 2007

An Orthodox Argument against the Catholic Church Considered

March 29, 2007

The argument is not an important one in the grand scheme of things, but I see it thrown around so much that I think it’s time somebody said something about it.  The argument goes like this:  Orthodox churches have better liturgy, and a good community life.  All people who attend Orthodox liturgies are faithful to the Traditions of their Church, and all of them practice ascesis on a regular basis.  Catholics, on the other hand, have a mixed bag of liturgies, a mix community life, and have catechetical problems while simultaneously having few church-goers practice ascesis with a proper degree of severity.  Orthodoxy seems like it has less problems than the Catholic Church, and while the number of people who go to Liturgies is small, the people who go are very faithful.  Catholicism cannot make that claim, and it’s liturgical, doctrinal, and ascetic life are a mess. 

At first, it seems like a pretty powerful argument:  Orthodoxy seems to be a better saint producing machine than Catholicism.  Still others claim that it shows that the Catholic Church is slowly going down the toilet, whereas the Orthodox Church, free from doctrinal dissent, is held up as a model of Truth in all its splendor.  And yet, the picture is not so rosy as it first seems. 

First, for the smaller points regarding ascesis.  In America, the Orthodox have the advantage of being able to complain more: large communions of people tend to be less tight-knit than smaller groups.  It’s just a brute sociological fact that smaller communities are closer communities.  There is a good reason why the early Church was able to be so successful in having such a large percentage of her members live a full, Christian life. In addition, the faults of larger groups are much more readily apparent to the public eye than private ones. If the Orthodox in America had massive, fish frys (which sometimes seem to defeat the purpose of meatless Fridays of penance) or other practices which seem to miss the point of Lent, I wouldn’t know about them because I don’t see many Orthodox parishes. Consequently, all of the Orthodox in America can get on their soapbox and complain about how terrible their larger group of cousins behave.   

And yet, is the Orthodox Church any better in Russia, where the number of Orthodox practictioners is much greater?  Is the Orthodox Church making a large number of saints out of the 80% of the population that calls themselves Orthodox?  Certainly not: the masses of people who claim to be Orthodox in heavily Orthodox areas are just as lazy and lukewarm in their faith as lukewarm Catholics in America. Greater emphasis on ascesis among the Orthodox?  In some ways, yes; in others, no. Whenever a church is heavily based on converts entering into already small communions like the Orthodox communion is in the United States, of course the ascetic practices of its members are going to be greater.  On the other hand, no matter what the Orthodox may stress, a large chunk of any large population will ignore the requests of priests to perform self-sacrifices, or fail to push themselves as hard as they should. And there just aren’t enough priests around to be looking over everyone’s shoulders to gently nudge his people to take their penances further, or study the lives of the saints more frequently, etc.  There will be more on this in the following paragraphs.

Next, the complaint is that America is having doctrinal problems.  Let’s go back to Russia for a minute.  Last time I looked at the statistics, 2% of the population goes to church every Sunday, and 2% of the population practices ascesis (I generously interpret those stats to mean that 100% of that 2% are faithful, practicing Orthodox).  And yet, 80% of the people in Russia call themselves Orthodox.  In America, we have the same percentage of nominal Catholics and practicing Catholics, but more people going to Mass every week:  30% of our people go to Mass every week, and, while I don’t have numbers on who practices ascesis, 5-10% of Catholics oppose birth control (which seems like a pretty decent indicator of who is faithful and obedient to the Church and who is not).  So really, both sides are producing the same number of faithful Christians (percentage wise), which is outstanding giving the respective anti-Christian societies that Russia and America have.  But if both Churches have such a small percentage of their flock that actually heed and obey the teachings of their Churches, why is it such a bad thing for Catholics to also have so many of those lukewarm sheep coming to Mass every Sunday?  At least we have 30% of the population going to Mass on Sundays.  

Many people in the pews are uneducated in regards to the faith, granted; but as I think I’ve indicated–and I have no doubt further research would confirm–the Orthodox have just as many people who claim to be Orthodox, and yet are uneducated and lukewarm.  Why does no one accuse them of having doctrinal problems?  Don’t they have the same percentage of lukewarm adherents?  The only difference between the Catholic unfaithful and the Orthodox unfaithful is that a large chunk of Catholic unfaithful go to Mass every Sunday.  So…why is that such a bad thing?  If a small Orthodox parish suddenly has 300 lukewarm, sinful, fallen sheep come to their parish every Sunday for Mass, would they not be happy at this chance to evangelize?  Would the Orthodox prefer them not to come to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday because these lost sheep did not yet practice the Orthodox praxis to the fullest of their abilities? 

Unfortunately, educated Catholic laymen and priests are not doing enough to educate their lost sheep, a situation which must be rectified; however, we have that golden opportunity to get people involved, an opportunity which the Orthodox in both Russia and America do not have.  The very fact that we have a bunch of near-pagan butts in the pews means we have a harvest of near-pagans ready to be harvested by Jesus.  In my large home parish of 2500 families, I’ve seen many-a lukewarm Catholic come back to a fuller faith because they were invited to do so and were taught how to practice the faith.  The very fact that they are present at Mass gives faithful, holy men and women a chance to show them the love of Christ.

So in conclusion:  I think it is a bad argument to say that the Orthodox are producing better quality individuals than the Catholic Church.  I also think that it is unfair to accuse Catholics of having doctrinal, ascesis, etc problems.  As far as I can tell, the Orthodox in Russia have just as big of a doctrinal and ascetic problem as we do:  it just so happens that a large chunk of our fallen away Catholics go to Mass every Sunday.  While this may create some liturgical problems (which have a) improved greatly the further away from VII we get, and b) fewer liturgical abuses now that the tumultuous past decades have subsided), I am at a loss as to why this somehow lends ammo to Orthodoxy’s cannons.  If the Orthodox want to boast because our sinners are more visible than their sinners because ours are at Mass every week, they may want to find a better hobby.


Padre Pio: Miracle Man

March 29, 2007

Last night, I watched Padre Pio:  Miracle Man in its 214-minute entirety.  It was probably one of the most well done movies I’ve seen in a long time (perhaps I’m biased because I like Padre Pio so much!).  The movie followed a lot of the life events that you would find in the standard Padre Pio biographies in print.

I was pleasantly surprised with the acting.  Sergio Castellitto, who plays Padre Pio, put together the man’s character in a way that was very believable.  For example, when I would read biographies on Padre Pio, I often wondered if the man had bipolar disorder:  one minute he was slapping someone or being very harsh in the confessional, and the next he seemed so gentle and caring about the poor.  I always had trouble getting a picture of a consistent personality for the great saint.  However, Castellitto ended my confusion by integrating those seemingly contradictory character traits into a consistent personality. 

The movie did something very interesting:  it minimized the importance of Padre Pio’s miracles.  Undoubtedly, several mentions were made to the miracles in the movie, and a few times the miracles happened on screen.  But there were no angels flying around, no visions of Mary, etc, and the miracles were not the main focus of the movie.  Only once was there a semi-dramatic build up to one of the miracles (where the little boy is brought back to life during Francesco’s childhood).  I was very grateful for this:  the focus of the movie was not on the miraculous aspects of the man’s life, but on his incredibly deep intimacy with God, his tenderness, his love for those around him.  To put it differently, I was pleased to see the producers say that the holiness of the man was more important than his miracles.

But even if the miraculous wasn’t highlighted, his encounters with the devil were.  Satan appeared several times on screen, tempting the minor friar the whole movie.  Since the devil was known to physically abuse Padre Pio, putting him in the movie was at the very least unavoidable.  Thankfully, his encounters with the devil weren’t just used as times to make the movie more lively; (which they did) rather, they served a purpose in setting forth one of the major themes of the movie, which is the fight against the creaping, faith-destroying rationalism so present in our modern times.  Presenting the devil as real is one way to do that.

I have been told by several people that I would be capable of living a number of vocations extraordinarily well; and yet, several people have told me point blank that I have nothing of what it takes to be a monk (nor do I usually have the desire to become one).  However, this movie was so powerful, and it did such a good job in portraying the poor friar’s sanctity that now even I want to be a monk…at least for the time being. 

If you have not seen the movie, take the time to do so.  If you appreciate it as much as I did, you will find yourself renewed in your Christian vocation and eager to grow closer to God.

St. Therese on the Christian Vocation

March 27, 2007
“I feel in me the vocation of the priest. With what love, O Jesus, I would take You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls! But alas! while desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood….
O Jesus, my Love, my vocation, at last I have found it … my vocation is Love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love.”

Exerpt from Story of the Soul.

Monkish Movies: “Into Great Silence”

March 26, 2007

 Into Great Silence

I can’t wait for the documentary, “Into Great Silence” to begin showing.  The producer approached the abbot of a Carthusian monastery in the 1980’s wanting to do a documentary on the monks.  The abbot was hesitant:  no outsider had ever been allowed inside the monastery before.  He told the producer that he would think about it.  Apparently, the abbot meant he would think about it for 20 years!

The producer was finally given permission to make the documentary with a few major stipulations.  First, the producer was not allowed to have a narrator interpret or comment upon what the monks were doing.  And secondly, no music–aside from the chanting of the monks–was allowed to be played in the background.  Even then, the producer could not take the chant and play it as background music when the monks weren’t actually singing.  Since the Carthusians practice perpetual silence, these stipulations seem like they would be big ones!

The documentary was released in Germany last year.  Surprisingly, it did very well at the box office.  It did so well that they are having limited showing times in the United States.  I believe it has already begun showing in certain areas. 

Check the link provided below to see if the documentary is coming to a theater near you.  However, you can’t delay:  someone told me that it was only going to be showing in DC for a week.  Other places may only be showing it for brief periods, too.  So go and see it while you have the chance!  For those that live in DC, the E Street Cinema will begin showing the documentary this Friday.

Socrates on Misology

March 26, 2007

“Socrates:  There is a certain experience we must be careful to avoid.

Phaedo:  What is that?

S:  That we should not become misologues, as people become misanthropes.  There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.  Misology and misanthropy arise in the same way.  Misanthropy comes when a man without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound, and trustworthy; then, a short time afterwards he finds him to be wicked and unreliable, and this happens in another case; when one has frequently had that experience, especially with those whom one believed to be one’s closest friends, then, in the end, after many such blows, one comes to hate all men and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all.  Have you not seen this happen?

P: I surely have.

S:  This is a shameful state of affairs, and obviously due to an attempt to have human relations without any skill in human affairs, for such skill would lead one to believe, what is in fact true, that the very good and the very wicked are both quite rare, and that most men are between those extremes….The similarity lies in this:  It is as when one who lacks skill in arguments puts his trust in an argument as being true, then shortly afterwards believes it to be false–as sometimes it is and sometimes it is not–and so with another argument and then another.  You know how those in particular who spend their time studying contradiction in the end believe themselves to have become very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument, but that all that exists simply fluctuates up and down as if it were in the Euipus and does not remain in the same place for any time at all.

P:  What you say is certainly true.

S:  It would be pitiable, Phaedo, when there is a true and reliable argument and one that can be understood, if a man who has dealt with such arguments as appear at one time true, at another time untrue, shoud not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift the blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasoned discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality.

P:  Yes, by Zeus, that would be pitiable indeed.

S:  This then is the first thing we should guard against.  We should not allow into our minds the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it; much rather we should believe that it is we who are not yet sound and that we must take courage and be eager to attain soundness, you and the others for the sake of your whole life still to come, and I for the sake of death itself.”

The Phaedo, 89c-91b

What is Philosophy?

March 25, 2007

How is a philosopher supposed to answer this question when asked by the non-practitioner?

My brother is in Washington DC this weekend on a business trip, and he is staying at my seminary.  I took him out to dinner last night with a bunch of my philosophy friends.  In good humor, he mocked us.  Being a computer science major, he just doesn’t understand what philosophy is, or why anyone would want to be a philosopher.  My brother’s reaction is common, but why is that so?

Any dictionary entry will give a concise definition of what philosophy is. defines ‘philosophy’ as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”  Furthermore, any dictionary entry can give a definition for what other disciplines are.  Therefore, the problem can’t be that people can’t get an understanding of philosophy at that basic level.

I also don’t think people have trouble grasping what philosophy is because they don’t understand what philosophers do all day when they go to work.  If that were the case, then all technical disciplines should be mocked as well.  I know that my dad is an engineer, and I know that engineering is the application of the hard sciences; however, I have no idea what he does all day.  If he tried to explain it to me, I wouldn’t understand him because the discipline is too technical.  But philosophy is the same way.  So I don’t think people can fairly criticize philosophers because they don’t understand what philosophers do all day.

I think most Americans criticize philosophers because they confuse “value” with “usefulness”.  Americans are pragmatic people, and they want results.  The practitioners of the hard sciences–even the ones who are academics like philosophers–are never teased, IMO, because these sciences produce all sorts of cool widgets.  Even if the non-practitioner does not understand what the scientist does all day, he can see that he is doing something valuable because the results are tangible.

Philosophers are deemed worthless by many because their profession does not produce tangible results.  But in defense of philosophy, and following Josef Pieper, the realm of the common good is not reducible to the realm of the common need.  While all of a society’s needs fall under the umbrella of “the common good,” they do not exhaust the common good.  I think most people would agree that love is valuable, but once love is used for pragmatic ends, it is no longer love.  In fact, love often demands that we sacrifice our own good for the sake of others.  Literature, art, music, and many other things do not fall under the realm of the common need, either; and yet, all of these things have value, and none of these things are aimed at making society run more efficiently.

Presumably, the truth has value.  In short, if philosophy seeks the truth, then it is valuable insofar as its final cause is valuable.  If someone argues that philosophy cannot acheive certain results, I would just ask them if they know of a more “scientific” way of answering life’s ultimate questions e.g. why am I here?, what is the meaning of life?, how should I live my life?  Paraphrasing St. Thomas, the smallest bit of knowledge of the highest things is more valuable than much knowledge of lower things.

Russell and Copleston Square Off

March 22, 2007

Here’s the transcript of the famous Copleston-Russell Debate on the existence of God:

I remember reading this transcript two years ago and thinking that Copleston lost very badly.  Now I have enough philosophy under my belt to understand what both men were saying.  I still think Copleston lost the debate on religious experience, but I think he won the first section pretty clearly.  Russell’s positivism just does not seem as potent as it probably did in the 50’s.  I was also shocked to read how much of a relativist Russell was in that final section. 

However, I don’t want to ruin the debate for the rest of you.  Enjoy!