Archive for May 2007

The Flip Side of the Roman Collar

May 30, 2007

In my last post, I discussed how the Roman collar/being a priest or seminarian opens the door to some very interesting conversations.  However, there is another side to the coin.  Sometimes, people start telling us things that we would rather not hear, or we field the same questions so many times that some of us (i.e. me) think about carrying FAQ cards in my pocket to hand out to people.  Like all vocations, the priesthood has its ups and downs.  Whereas every once and a while a priest may hear a Confession so sincere that it marks an obvious sign of God’s grace, I’ve hear priests say hearing grade school Confessions (especially during Lent, when every Catholic school offers Confession) is like being pelted with popcorn.  You can only hear so many “I once hit my sister” Confessions before you begin to lose focus and/or sanity. 

The other day, I was working in my parish’s garden.  One of the gardeners whom I had never met came up to me and gave me a few instructions.  Within five minutes, she had expressed her strong dislike of my parish’s priests, told me how this parish had been going down hill since my last pastor left, and sternly told me not to “be like that.”  Such is the flip side of the coin.  I abhor gossip(which is distinguishable from blowing off steam, methinks) enough as it is, and I feel dirty just listening to people make such comments.

Every priest/seminarian has encountered such things, and every one has been annoyed by it.  I try to put a positive spin on these types of encounters.  Whereas talks about celibacy and Catholicism are mostly for the benefit of the other person, these annoying conversations are for the benefit of the priest, giving him a chance to exercise patience, restraint, and charity. The priest has to be very careful regarding what he says.  Everything he says gets spread around the parish like wildfire.  Not only that, but mean words from a priest tend to stick with a person for the rest of their lives.  While I can only recall a portion of the times that I have been chewed out by laymen, I can probably recall most if not all of the times I’ve been chewed out by priests.  The priest has a lot of power over souls.  He can do great good, but he can also do a lot of harm.  Hence, I say it’s better to be silent in those situations than to let one’s temper go, even if only a little.

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Roman Collars and Celibacy

May 28, 2007

The Roman collar is a very powerful thing.  Where ever priests go, they have an opportunity to strike up a conversation about there faith.  People say things to a collared priest that they never tell other people.  Within minutes of meeting a priest for the first time, it is possible for someone to have confessed a lifetime of sins, asked for personal advice, or even offer complaints and criticisms which led to his departure from the Church.  I’ve known the people in my extended family for over 21 years, and I don’t even know the first thing about most of their personal lives; I’ll bet the large majority of American families operate in the same manner.  But for whatever reason, people say things to priests that they would not say to other people, at least not as readily.   

 Being a seminarian shares some of that same aura, even if I don’t wear a collar.  Whenever I strike up a conversation with strangers, and they find out that I am a seminarian, they often open up to me in a way that they probably wouldn’t do otherwise.  For example, on my flight home three weeks ago, there was a cute little girl sitting in the seat in front of me.  She was standing up and looking at me before the flight began.  I started making faces at her, which the girl sitting next to me found entertaining.  She asked if I liked kids, and I said I liked them very much, and said that I sometimes wished I could raise children.  Later in the conversation, after she learned that I am a seminarian, she looked shocked:  apparently she never realized that Catholic priests and seminarians aren’t necessarily kid-haters.  We then had an interesting conversation about celibacy and the priesthood, and she said some things that were somewhat personal, things I doubt she would have said to another stranger in different circumstances than I. 

What is it about the priesthood that people find so fascinating, awful or powerful?  My spiritual director commented recently that the collar is so powerful because it (and the person wearing it) represents such a vast tradition.  This is certainly true for practicing Catholics.  I know when I see a collared man–especially in places far from home–I feel more at home. 

For others, the Roman collar is like a bullseye:  it represents the symbol of much of their grief, and they don’t mind smacking around that symbol a little bit. 

But here’s one that’s a bit more disputable:  I think the Roman collar would lose much of its power if mandatory priestly celibacy were given up, especially in America.  After telling people that I am a seminarian, non-Catholics are immediately entranced because I represent something so foreign to them.  A male who not only has not had sex, but one that will swear off sex for the rest of his life, is like seeing an exotic animal at the zoo for many people.  I sometimes field questions that they would never dare ask another individual. In fact, they are often embarrassed for asking me such personal questions, but they are so fascinated that they can’t not ask them.  I have had more conversations about priestly celibacy with both Catholics and non-Catholic strangers alike than I have had about any other single topic. 

Especially in a country where almost no type of sex is taboo, the priest’s collar is something incredibily powerful.  If mandatory celibacy were abolished, I wonder if that same power would remain.  And that is one of the reasons why priestly celibacy should not be abolished.  From personal experience, ending the practice would destroy an invaluable means of entering quickly into deep level conversations with strangers, an opportunity for God to bestow His grace. 

Of course, this isn’t the be-all and end-all argument for mandatory celibacy, but it’s an argument that isn’t readily apparent to those who have never had the experience of fielding questions regarding celibacy on so many different occasions.  If we want to get rid of mandatory celibacy, we’d better be darned sure that that’s what we want.  Not only would there be no going back, but we may be destroyed the priests most useful tool for evangelization.   

Back Again

May 18, 2007

I got back from my (silent) retreat today.  The retreat was excellent.  I was surprised at how comfortable I was with the silence.   My first year on this retreat, I cracked on the last day; last year, I was so frustrated with how the year had gone that I wanted nothing more than for the retreat to be over so that I could go home and take a break.  This year, I comfortably kept silence for the entire retreat.  I’ll take that as an indicator of two things:  I’ve grown a lot this year, and this past year was a good one.  Of course, I didn’t need a retreat to tell me either of those things. 

My associate pastor gave the retreat.  He’s the same priest from my conversion story, which I have posted on my blog elsewhere.  He didn’t fail to disappoint.  The topic of the retreat was the Road to Emmaus, and he gave several great talks.  During my spare time, I read the work this blog was named after, St. John of the Cross’ Assent to Mount Carmel.  I finished over 2/3 of it before I realized it would do me no good to finish reading it at the moment.  He was discussing aspects of the spiritual life so far beyond where I am spiritually at the moment that I didn’t deem it beneficial to finish it.

I was able to pray for a good deal of the time.  When I wasn’t praying, I was concocting a possible argument against an Orthodox argument contra Catholicism, one of much more substantial weight than the ones that I’ve addressed thus far (I know that I could have spent my time doing better things, but no one’s perfect, especially me!).  I need to do a lot of fact checking before I even think about publishing it though.  When it comes to philosophy and theology, I tend to be so insecure with my ability that I don’t propose an argument unless I’m sure it’s a good one.  Seeing as the issue I want to argue against is a big one, I’m even more hesitant to publish.  I’ll just have to see how confident I am with this argument after a bit of research and a lot of fact-checking before I publish:  I want to make sure I’m not attacking a strawman. 

Retreat

May 14, 2007

I’m going on an end of the year retreat with the St. Louis college seminarians.  I will be gone until Friday, so there won’t be any new posts until then. 

Catechesis

May 9, 2007

I’m teaching 8th grade school of religion this summer.  It is a two week course, meeting four hours a day, five days a week.  I taught 8th grade last year, and the program was a disaster.  I was upset to learn that all five teachers taught all 50 of the kids in the same room.  My “that-is-not-a-good-idea” sense was tingling the entire time, and my suspicions were amply confirmed. 

Thankfully, that mistake will not be reproduced (entirely) this year.  I have my own classroom (help me, God) this year.  However, there was an interesting discussion last year after the program finished.  The teachers got together, and everyone freely admitted that the program was somewhat of a disaster.  I think at least one productive thing came out of that meeting.  We got into a long conversation over what the purpose of catechesis is.  Two of the teachers argued that the purpose of these classes is to tell the kids how Christ has worked in their lives, to give them a glimpse of what Christ has done for them.  I found myself in a polar opposite camp from them.  It’s not that a personal relationship with Jesus is something unimportant; indeed, it is what we are hoping these kids acquire.  However, I argued that there is no way to instill a love of Christ in 8th grade teens in two weeks.  These kids don’t know who they are or what they stand for.  The last thing they want is someone preaching at them.  And such a relationship takes time and energy; without a stable faith-life at home, I doubt that two weeks can do much to change a person.  It’s not impossible, just not likely. 

I found myself arguing that the purpose of catechesis is, er, catechesis.  It’s not possible to love a person if you know nothing about them.  Most of these kids are entirely ignorant of their faith.  It’s no wonder why.  My archbishop is on commitees that produce text books for these programs, and he says that the writers are well-intentioned, but have no real understanding of the content of the faith.  And it shows!  Last year’s book was awful.  It had “quotes to live by” or some other name in the margins, which would give a quote by someone famous on how to live a good life.  Being a Catholic book, one would think that the saints would be a good place to find quotes.  Rubbish!  Rosseau and Emerson were the orators of choice in that book.  When I questioned this, I was told that we want to show that the things that Christians value are universal values.  With that type of teaching philosophy, why can’t the kids become Buddhist and get the same universal values that Christianity teaches?  If the kids don’t know their faith, then they can’t love it, nor the person in which we have faith. 

I get uncomfortable whenever I hear homilies which state that our faith is in a person, not in doctrines.  It’s not that it isn’t true, or that some heady Catholics need to hear it.  However, these homilies are usually given to groups of people who are already ignorant of their faith.  These homilies ignore what has developed into a crisis in American Catholicism.  For if the catechesis is taught correctly, there is no opposition between doctrine and the transcendent truths pointed to by the doctrine.  I understand that the doctrines of the Church are only indicators of a higher reality.  But we also have a guarantee by the Church that they are good sign posts, so why don’t we use them? 

Most kids aren’t ready to make decisions to really accept or reject the Catholic faith.  It just so happens that when the time comes for them to do so as adults, they have no idea what the Church teaches, or what the Church is about.  I want to make sure that they have that information so that when the time comes, they know what they are accepting or rejecting.  I don’t think we can ask anything more of catechists.  Granted, ideally this would not have to be the case.  But pace Leibniz, we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?

Incommensurability and Religious Belief

May 7, 2007

EDIT:  This post is a bit rough, and I need to polish it up a little more.  I am using this post just as much to make an argument as I am to try to collect my thoughts on paper for the first time.  If I show myself ignorant of anything important regarding Orthodox theology, please tell me.  I speak only as a humble outsider looking in.

Roughly stated, ‘incommensurable’ means that two things cannot be compared with one another.  As a philosophical thesis, it is the belief that philosophical systems e.g. Platonism and Aristotelianism, cannot even speak to each other.  To give an example that a professor once gave me, let’s assume that there is an atheist and a Christian.  Both agree that murder is wrong; so far, so good:  it seems like there is some room to speak to each other about the immorality of murder.  Dig a little deeper:  why is murder wrong?  The further we dig, the more we see that the Christian thinks murder is wrong because people have inherent dignity due to their being created in the image and likeness of God.  Atheists, on the other hand, must come up with a different solution.  Men have no inherent dignity, but our morality is an invention to keep society running properly, etc. 

The incommensurability thesis points at examples like this and states that even though the atheist and Christian both understand that murder is wrong, they mean entirely different things by the proposition, ‘murder is wrong.’  No fact or statement is an uninterpretted fact or statement:  it is always filtered through the intellectual paradigm in which a person is operating.  In conjunction, no proposition is isolated from another proposition or belief in a system.  If an atheist suddenly thinks that people have inherent dignity, or that there is order in nature in the classic sense of the word, then the rest of his system must change to accomodate that change. 

Incommensurability theses are very popular nowadays, and as far as this amateur philosopher is concerned some sort of incommensurability thesis is true.  Of course, this raises a big problem:  if different philosophical traditions do not even mean the same things when they use certain words, how can they even communicate in a meaningful way with each other?  How can one philosophical system triumph over another?  Alisdair MacIntyre addresses these questions and more in his writings, in case anyone is interested.

This problem creates an interesting one for religious dialogue.  Even within the Catholic Church, there are several different philosophical systems existing side by side.  In what way can Catholics be said to share the same faith if they interpret that faith in different philosophical systems?  As big as this problem may seem at first glance, I have not seen it cause any problems yet.  I’ve seen Scotists and Thomists duke it out, in some cases over a course of several years, learning each other’s systems and testing the cogency of each other’s arguments, all the while admiring the value of their interlocutor’s position.  

I also think that Catholics have a big advantage over other religions.  Although there are Catholic Aristotelians and Catholic Platonists, we are first bound to be Catholic.  If the Immaculate Conception does not fit into the Thomistic framework, he had better MAKE it fit into his framework.  Also, it has been my experience that Catholic Platonists have great respect for Catholic Aristotelians, etc, because they realize the value of the other systems, acknowledging those alternative philosophical approaches as holding weight in the Tradition of the Church.  The genuine spirit of the philosopher lives on in the Church, in which individuals can acknowledge that only the Church led by Christ has all the answers, and our feeble philosophical systems only brush the surface of the dogmas which point to the mysterious realities of the faith.  Philosophical debates within the Church are allowed to end in a healthy philosophical manner:  in aporia, with all sides acknowledging the limitations of their own systems in a common pursuit of Truth.  We acknowledge that Tradition is broader than our personal philosophy.  The Church thus holds up as great saints those men who have synthesized different philosophical traditions into a greater whole, such as St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Bl. Duns Scotus.  Catholics, while realizing intellectual differences, find our unity in Christ first, and we believe that the philosophical details will be hashed out in God’s time.  The philosophical is only accidental to the real paradigm that unites us:  unity in a common faith and belonging to the same body of Christ.

However, without mentioning names, there are some Orthodox (and Catholics, usually in the form of “Thomas-only” Catholics) on the internet who are not satisfied with this answer, for there still seems to be as many ways of interpreting Catholic and Orthodox dogmas as there are philosophical systems.  They see philosophical differences as threatening to Church unity, whereas I do not.  Here’s the problem:  in what way can Orthodox be said to share a common faith if no common philosophy unites them?

The answer is unsurprising:  they claim that there is only one philosophical system (although they do not call it a philosophical system, that’s what it is!) in Orthodoxy.  Those who do not share in this system i.e. Palamism, are not really Orthodox, for Palamism as a philosophical system was dogmatized at such and such a council.  Since these people believe in such a strong incommensurability thesis, they start to do silly things, such as trying to read Palamism back onto the Church Fathers, claiming that even the Latin Fathers were openly Palamists.  They want to claim that there is a substantial, overarching philosophical unity among the Fathers, that they not only shared the same faith, but the same philosophy: there can be no fundamental difference between the two.

Again, I want to take a moment to point out that not all Orthodox think this way, but only a few.  However, as fascinating as I find this revelation–which is to understand what exactly motivates these attempts to unite the Fathers unders a common philosophy–I ultimately don’t find it convincing.  If they expect to make a clean-and-pristine picture out of a very messy history of theological questioning and answers, then IMHO they are going to be largely disappointed.  What I find even more fascinating is the fact that this uncompromising incommensurability winds up making many faithful Orthodox (who are not Palamites) into heretics for denying the common philosophy faith.  I will be interested to see how long this pop-apologetic lasts, and how embarrased Orthodox 100 years from now will be at this unfortunate intellectual program.  Catholics still are quite embarassed about the Thomism-only years of the early 20th century; I hope the neo-Palamites don’t make the same mistake.   

Now, being the philosopher that I am, I realize that this is no reason to dismiss these Orthodox’s arguments a priori because I know what motivates their attempts.  However, the philosopher in me does laugh whenever he sees people trying to concoct overly-simplified answers to difficult questions.  Their arguments need to be addressed like any other thesis, by an evaluation by means of reason. 

Now those Orthodox (and conservative Catholics) who support a strong incommensurability thesis may challenge me to give an intellectual account of how Catholics and Orthodox of different philosophical persuations can claim to share a common faith.  My rudimentary answer is this:  the proof is in the pudding.  Our unity comes from Christ and Christ alone, not from a mere philosophical unity.  Maybe it’s just a miracle that Christ has been able to keep so many philosophical systems united in Himself.  Ironically enough, I see the incommensurability problem to be problematic only for those who over-intellectualize their faith, creating problems where no problems existed for two millenia.  Which is ironic, considering that those same Orthodox accuse Catholics of over-intellectualizing their faith.  But I digress.