Sunday, December 29, 2019

Loving Our Parents...Makes Atonement for Our Sins?

A few years back I wrote a post on our need to make "reparation" or "atonement" for the sins we commit after baptism. I shared that, although Christ's sacrifice makes atonement for the eternal debt of our sins, God our Father expects his adopted children to make amends for the temporal debt of their sins, which includes the damage we do to others as well as to our own souls. We do so, however, not under our own power, but by Christ's grace. Today, on the Feast of the Holy Family, our first reading contained some powerful statements on this subject. I'll quote from the NASB translation:
Whoever honors his father atones for sins.
and preserves himself from them....
Even if [your father's] mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
 a house raised in justice to you.
(Sirach 3:3, 12-15)
It makes perfect sense. Every sin is a rejection of God's Fatherhood over us. We reject His loving, all-wise will to do our own thing. It's sin. This disfigures our soul, which is supposed to be taking on the image of His only begotten, Jesus. When we honor our parents, the earthly image of God put here by Him to guide us, we are in effect honoring God's Fatherhood over us and thus taking steps to undo the effects of our disobedience in our souls. In this way, we not only repair, or "atone," for sins; but we also "preserve" ourselves, take steps to protect ourselves, from falling into sin in the future. This honor we show to our parents is the triumph of Christ's grace within us, a manifestation of His obedience to Mary and Joseph out of obedience to the will of the Father! By Christ's power within us, we are overcoming sin and taking on the image of the Master.

The author of Sirach knew that the Lord sometimes calls us to atone for sin in this way while working against strong resistance. It can be somewhat easy to honor our parents in the normal circumstances of life, but we really have to overcome ourselves when we are called to care for a parent who fights our efforts, such as one suffering from dementia. This is when we really overcome the disfigurement sin has wrought in our souls via the grace-filled exertion it takes to remain firmly patient and kind in serving a parent. It cannot be done without Christ's grace, without Him loving our aging parents through us. We are called to become images of His own sacrificial love. Spiritually-speaking, this is about as lofty as it gets. Humanly-speaking, however, it feels horrible. It is an act of the will, made in union with Christ, the Ever-Faithful Son. [Believe me, I'm speaking to myself in this post.] The positive effects upon our souls are very real though — that is God's promise.

Addendum: If your Old Testament is missing the Book of Sirach, then this post is for you.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Riffing on the Star of Bethlehem

In my last post I mentioned attending a wonderful lecture by Philip Blaxton on Cardinal Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy. I was reminded of it again when I thought of the Star of Bethlehem. Cardinal Ratzinger had spoken of something changing within the cosmos with the birth of Christ - by taking on a human nature, God had wed himself to His creation, and it was thus forever changed. The Star of Bethlehem was a sign of this change, drawing the first Gentiles to their Jewish Savior.

Now there are many different theories as to what the Star of Bethlehem. While it is certainly possible that the Magi were drawn to Judea by a supernatural light, the majority of theories involve a celestial event - from a comet, to a supernova, to a conjunction of planets. Let's assume for a moment that one of those natural theories is correct - what an awe-inspiring example of God's almighty providence!

If the "star" was a natural event such as a supernova or conjunction of planets that coincided with the birth of Christ, then it was set in motion with the Big Bang. The universe was set in motion in such a way that this "star" would be visible in the Middle East at the exact time that God would make his entry into creation. What an amazing reminder that, despite man's capacity to sin and his attempts to unravel the divine plan, none of this occurs outside of God's loving providence. Before man's Fall, God already knew His Remedy! Man has his freedom, but God also retains His - and His freedom is exercised from eternity! The angels captured it perfectly, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14)

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Ten Commandments & The Image of God

Rembrandt, Moses Smashing the Tablest of the Law (1659)
Earlier today I attended a marvelous presentation and discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy. The presenter, Philip Blaxton, drew out so many points, and the thoughts of all of the other participants were so insightful. One of the ideas that stood out for me was the way that our worship and ethics are intertwined. It reminded me of speaking (many moons ago) with young people about the Trinity and of how the moral life we live as Christians is nothing less than a living out of our creation in the image of God - and I would add, in a special way, the image of God the Son.

God has revealed Himself as a Trinity of Persons: A Father Who knows pours Himself out completely in His Son, the Son Who pours Himself out completely to the Father in a return of Love, the Holy Spirit. And humanity is made in this image: We receive all we are from God and give ourselves back to him by pouring ourselves out in obedient love. The Ten Commandments are a no-nonsense statement of what it means to live in God's image:

Why don't we covet our neighbor’s spouse or our neighbor’s goods? Because God does not selfishly crave but generously gives.
Why don't we bear false witness? Because God isn't falsehood, He is Truth itself.
Why don't we steal? Because God isn't about taking but giving.
Why don't we commit adultery? Because God IS faithful love.
Why can't we kill? Because God is not about taking life, He is about giving it.
Why must we honor our father and mother? Because they shared in God's act of creating us. Because we image the Son in glorifying the Father Who eternally begets Him.
Why must we keep holy the Sabbath? Because God created time as a gift to us; and we in turn make a gift of time to Him.
Why must we not take the Lord's name in vain? Because God does nothing in vain. All of His acts are purposeful and good.

And why must we have no other gods but Him? Because there are no other gods but Him. All others are fakes. He is the one true God in Whose image man and woman are made; and there is no true happiness apart from union with Him, living out our creation in His image.

This is the Decalogue given to Israel, Greek for "ten" (deca) "words" (logue)." In time, God showed us how all ten are contained within the one Word (Logos), the Word who became flesh. Christ Jesus is the "image of the invisible God," Who "fully reveals man to himself," Who brings man to the "full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence" (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 4, 11).

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Penance and the Anointing of the Sick" by Bernhard Poschmann

The anointing of the sick is undoubtedly the sacrament with the least number of books devoted to it. As I sat down to craft my own chapter on the subject, I came across a number of references to Poschmann's monumental historical study of the sacrament, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (1951). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Wipf and Stock reprinted it just ten months ago!

Poschmann does, indeed, give a far-reaching historical survey of the sacrament's celebration and its theology as explained by notable theologians such as Bonaventure and Aquinas; but this only accounts for 24 of the book's 257 pages. The first 209 pages are devoted to the sacrament of penance (with another 22 devoted to indulgences).

Professor Poschmann was an esteemed German theologian, active from 1910 - 1954. I am not a novice to reading theological tomes, but this one was especially dense and could only be taken in small doses. (The last three books I reviewed were all read after I had already started this one.) Most of the Latin texts quoted in the work were not translated into English, so that was a strike against this monolingual reader.

Poschmann's work research into the sacrament of reconciliation is so wide that I honestly need a great deal more study of the source documents to be able to offer an evaluation of Poschmann's work. As I flip back through it, I see a number of question marks that I placed in the margins. I was able to come to a few conclusions:
The history of the celebration of reconciliation is more involved than the majority of readers realize.
While the effectiveness of reconciliation was never in dispute, there were different theological theories as to how the sacrament functioned.
The Council of Trent illuminated the Church's faith by offering definitive clarification regarding various elements of reconciliation.
The same can be said for the anointing of the sick.

Poschmann advances a few theories of his own regarding advances in the Church's understanding of these two sacraments and the related element of indulgences. I do not believe that these have been embraced by the Church. Professor Poschmann was a towering scholar, and his Penance and the Anointing of the Sick is the work of a lifetime, a wonderful example of historical theology. It inspires me to go back to the Catechism and re-familiarize myself with what the Church does - and does not - teach, definitively, regarding the sacraments of healing.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Jimmy Akin's "The Bible Is A Catholic Book"

Over the past five years I've come to a conclusion: If Jimmy Akin took the time to write it, then it is worth reading. His new release, The Bible Is A Catholic Book, is another terrific example why.

When Akin addresses a topic, no matter how well you have seen it covered in the past, he can be trusted to come at it from a slightly different angle, with data you have yet to unearth. In this book, instead of diving straight into the composition history of the biblical texts and the development of the canon, Akin takes us back to the beginning - actually, before the beginning - to the Second Person of the Trinity, the definitive Word of God, of Whom "all of God's other words are shadows" (p.13).

God has communicated with man since the time of his creation, tens of thousands of years ago. Only in the past five thousands years, however, since the development of writing, has it been possible for revelation to take written form. For the vast majority of man's time on earth, he has been a completely oral creature. Information, God's revelation included, came down in oral tradition, in a controlled, accurate way via tradents - authorized bearers of tradition - via techniques such as chiasm, meter, melody, and rhyme.

When Akin does begin discussing the composition of the OT and NT texts, his work is top-notch. Two quick points that jumped out at me:

  • The OT speaks of authentic prophetic works - those of Ahijah the Shilonite and Iddo the Seer - that Providence, subsequently, did not allow to come down to us (2 Chronicles 9:29).
  • It is false to say that God was silent for the 400 years prior to the birth of Christ.

Akin addresses a number of points that have demanded my attention over the past few years:

  • Different groups within first century Judaism - the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Jews in the Diaspora - had their own set of books that they recognized as inspired.
  • The oft-repeated datum that the OT canon was settled at the Council of Judaism is a scholarly myth.
  • Christianity received the deuterocanonical texts - exactly as it did 
  • the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures - from its earliest Jewish members; and it did so centuries before Rabbinic Judaism definitively rejected them.
  • One cannot speak of a unified biblical canon in Judaism until at least AD 200.
  • The abysmal literacy rates in the first century made the vast, vast majority of believers dependent upon the oral proclamation of Scripture in the synagogue and Eucharist.
  • If God had intended for the Church to operate on the principle of sola scriptura; then Christ would have sat down to pen a book or, at the very least, seen to it that the printing press was available in the apostolic age.

I love the way Akin expresses this final point:
It's easy to see why the idea of sola scriptura became popular when it did and among the people that it did. The Reformers were at least moderately well off and had new printed Bibles, and now the invention of the printing press had made the idea of everyone having his own Bible at least conceivable. 
     But for all prior Christian history, sola scriptura was simply an impossibility. This has doctrinal implications because God doesn't ask the impossible. Since sola scriptura had never been possible, it had never been God's plan. If it had been, God would have started the Christian age after the invention of the printing press, just as he began giving the Jewish scriptures only after the invention of writing (p.150).
The man has a way with words. His discussion of how texts were composed in the first century is illuminating. I never knew at what great personal expense Paul must have produced his epistles: Even among the literate, it was common to hire a professional scribe. There was also the cost of materials, pre-publication drafts, as well as the common practice of the author retaining a copy of the work. Romans alone, with its excessive length in first century terms, would have cost Paul more than $2000 at today's rates! I was also completely taken aback to learn that in Paul's First Epistle to Timothy (5:18) he may quote from Luke's Gospel (10:7) as  "scripture." (We already know that, around this same time, Peter referred to Paul's letters as such.)

The Bible Is A Catholic Book is chock-full of novel insights and solid scholarship. The portion on the Church's efforts to preserve and translate Scripture throughout the middle ages dispels a host of anti-Catholic myths. You're going to have to check that out for yourself, though; the family is calling me!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Author Interview: Jesse Romero

It is hard to miss the buzz in Catholic quarters surrounding well-known evangelist Jesse Romero’s new book, The Devil in the City of Angels: My Encounters with the Diabolical (TAN Books, 2019). What caught my attention in Romero’s story was how he first encountered demonic spirits not in his work as a Catholic evangelist but earlier, in his career as a Los Angeles deputy sheriff. He witnessed supernatural manifestations that police academies never dream of addressing with their cadets; but these encounters helped propel him deeper into his Catholic faith. As Jesse’s faith matured and he began sharing the gospel, his path crossed a number of others – baptized Christians – whose involvement in the occult opened them to demonic oppression and possession. Romero accumulated a wealth of knowledge regarding spiritual warfare, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions for readers.

Shane Kapler: With Scripture and the Catechism being so clear on Christians not having anything to do with seances, astrology, psychics, etc., why do you think so many Christians still dabble in the occult? And as a follow-up, what are the occult practices in which they most frequently engage?

Jesse Romero: Baptized Christians are hungering for the mystical and other worldly, we were hard wired that way.  Many people are simply 'curious', just like Eve, that’s what got her in trouble, wanting to discover the unknown. Many people are drawn to the occult because they are low information Americans who have a malformed, uninformed, misinformed conscience and the allure of the occult is all around: psychics, tarot card readers, fortune tellers, healers online and also renting a storefront in your neighborhood. You also have the pop culture (music, movies) that promotes that occult as well as the best-selling 'Harry Potter books.'  Tempting people to dabble in the occult is one of the ordinary activities of demons.

Kapler: You write a great deal about spiritual warfare. What type of spiritual warfare is reserved only for exorcists, and what type is the work of the laity? Is there a line that the laity does not have the spiritual authority to cross?

Romero: Priest have the authority to engage in healing, deliverance and exorcism. There are two types, a minor and a solemn exorcism. Any priest can engage in minor exorcism, a solemn exorcism requires the permission of their bishop. Lay people can help priest in healing, deliverance and exorcism as support and intercessors. A priest has universal authority to heal and liberate a person from the diabolical, while a lay person has authority over those under his authority. A husband and father has authority to pray healing and deliverance prayers over his wife and children. Lay people can pray healing and deliverance prayers for themselves. The ones that I have been praying every day for over ten years are the prayers.

Kapler: In the gospels, Jesus exorcised demons with a simple command. We see Paul appearing to do the same with a spirit of clairvoyance in Acts 16. Would you share your thoughts as to why exorcisms today are a much more protracted process? Why does the rite of exorcism often need to be repeated a number of times for a person to finally gain freedom?

Romero: Several reasons, first, more people are living in mortal sin, there are less baptisms, less couples marrying in the Church, so that means there are less people praying in the Church Militant. Exorcist have told me that this effects their prayer sessions. Also, most energumens (possessed) people continue to live in mortal sin, therefore the demon may get driven out through the session but they come right back because the person lacks sanctifying grace in their soul which keeps them out. Many peoples’ lives are so disordered; they do not have properly formed consciences based on the Word of God and their wills are weak as a result of habitual sin. Therefore, they lack the courage and fortitude to follow the exorcist protocol to live in a state of grace. Ninety percent of the deliverance is done by the spiritually afflicted person; ten percent of it is done by the priest. Exorcism is not magic; it’s hard work which requires the spiritually afflicted person, by an act of the will, to fully cooperate in pursuing a life of holiness.

Kapler: In your book you share your own experience in deliverance ministry, how to arm ourselves against the devil's activity in our lives, as well as ending the book with prayers you have found very effective in countering the demonic. If someone finishes your book and wants to receive further, solid formation in this area, where would you send them or what written resources do you recommend?

Mr. Romero: The three books on Catholic spiritual warfare that I would recommend are:
1. Deliverance Prayers for the Laity by Fr Chad Ripperger
2. Manual for Spiritual Warfare by Paul Thigpen
3.  Lord Prepare My Hands for Battle by Jesse Romero 

Kapler: Thank you so much, Jesse.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Eucharist, Mary, and Redemptive Suffering

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24).  
It is a mysterious but incredible reality:  the suffering God allows into our lives, when accepted and lived with trust in his Love, become an actual participation in the sufferings of the Crucified, allowing us to be formed more truly his image – the very goal of our Faith.  And, as Paul said above, because we are "members of one another" (Rom.12:5; Eph.4:25), this grace is of benefit not just to us, but to the entire Body.  This teaching, far from casting aspersions on the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice, proclaims its superabundance.  We believe that his sacrifice redeems us so profoundly that it transforms us from mere creatures of God into sons and daughters.  It transforms us into cells of Jesus’ Mystical Body, inserting us into the Life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the only Son. This reality is there in the theology of Paul, and unpacked for us in the teaching of the saints and doctors.  What I had never recognized before was how it was contained in Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist.

 "This is My Body …. This is My Blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."  This Body and Blood — Jesus received them from his mother Mary.  He clothed himself with her flesh, her blood, and offered Himself to the Father "in" them.  That is the mystery of redemptive suffering that the Lord wants to continue in you and me — to clothe himself with our very persons and lift our sufferings up into his own, making them part of his eternal offering to the Father (Heb.9:14).  As with Mary, he requires our consent to bring about this supernatural reality, "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

We see Mary, fully engaged in this Mystery, there at the foot of her Son’s Cross.  Which of us parents haven’t imagined looking up and seeing our own children hanging there in the sun — their bodies ripped, blood flowing down their limbs, suffocating under their own weight.  It is the most monstrous suffering imaginable, but God allowed it into the life of his beloved Mary.  Her Son was dying to redeem the world, and her heart was pierced right along with His (Jn.19:34; Lk.2:35). Jesus was suffering there before her eyes, in the flesh he took from her; but through the chords of grace he was suffering in and through her person, gazing up at him, as well.  Through it all, the Holy Spirit maintained Mary in her fiat, "let it be to me according to your word;" and Scripture tells us that he made her suffering fruitful for the Mystical Body, "[Mary,] a sword will pierce your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Lk.2:35).  The mystery of redemptive suffering spoken of by Paul in Colossians 1:24 is graphically manifested by Mary at the Cross.

I don’t see any romance in pain, and I don’t desire it; but part of reality is recognizing that God allows me to pass through it.  It is not an end in itself, but a potentially powerful means: "For Jesus’ sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil.3:8-11).  So I need to call out for the grace to unite my sufferings to those of Jesus, to allow him to lift me up toward his Father, "This is My Body…This is My Blood."  I need to pray each day for the grace to persevere through suffering; Jesus told us the stakes are high, "Because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Mt.24:12-13).
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Through, With, and In Him.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls – what Christian isn’t curious to know more? Who were the Essenes, the Jewish monks responsible for producing them? My New Testament instructor back at Duchesne High School was adamant that John the Baptist was one of their number and that Jesus and the Holy Family were lay members of the larger Essene movement. He noted some interesting parallels, but I was uneasy with his conclusions. At age fifteen, however, I had no idea how to go about critically evaluating and responding to his claims. 

As the years passed and my study of the faith deepened, I saw the scrolls referenced in various books and understood how they could assist Christians. For example, the Protestant Reformers set St. Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 that we are “justified by faith apart from works of law” in juxtaposition to the Church’s historic belief that final justification was a result of faith and good works – works that resulted from obeying the moral law. When the Church read Paul’s statement about being justified apart from “works of the law,” it understood him to mean “apart from works of the [ceremonial] law,” i.e. circumcision, dietary restrictions, animal sacrifice, etc. Well, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, exegetes and theologians finally had an historical witness to what “works of the law” meant in first century Judaism: In agreement with the Church, the scrolls use the phrase in reference to ceremonial matters. The scrolls’ impartial testimony is wonderful news for all Christians committed to ecumenism. I saw this to also be true in regard to Catholicism and Protestantism’s different Old Testament canons, but I’ve already gone into detail about that elsewhere.

What I want to share with you today is a fantastic new resource I have discovered regarding the scrolls: Dr. John Bergsma’s Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity (Image, 2019). While I have gleaned important points about the scrolls in my reading on other subjects, Dr. Bergsma has written a work that simultaneously introduces readers to the to the scrolls and zeroes in on the first century Jewish context they provide for gaining greater clarity on the words and actions of Christ and the apostles. Once I started reading I didn’t want to stop; before I made it to the final chapter, my yellow highlighter had bit the dust. 

Doctor Bergsma provides such a wealth of information. I had never heard, for example, that the Essenes’ main compound at Qumran was constructed along the desert road the Messiah was expected to travel toward Jerusalem, with Qumran acting as a literal fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3 (“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”). I had also never read that the Essenes believed there were active prophets among them. Bergsma describes their messianic expectations: a priestly Messiah of Aaron and a royal Messiah of Israel. He also discusses a competing idea found in the scrolls – the return of the ancient king-priest Melchizedek with godlike powers to free Israel from sin and Satan. Doctor Bergsma makes a convincing case for John the Baptist’s involvement with the Qumran community at an early point in his life and for connections between the dualistic imagery prevalent in the scrolls and that found in the Gospel of John. There are chapters focusing upon baptism, the Eucharist, priesthood, celibacy, the indissolubility of marriage, and the structure of the Church. I may not agree with every individual conclusion – and Bergsma is upfront that many must remain provisional – but I gleaned insight after insight.
In my opinion, one of the strongest features of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the numerous quotations from the scrolls themselves, especially the Community Rule and the Damascus Document, which outlines the history, aims, and rules of the movement. The one that stays with me the most, though, come from a scrap discovered in Cave 4:
Great will he be called and he will be designated by his name. He will be called son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High…His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom.
One is immediately struck at the similarity to Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:31-33. The correct interpretation and meaning of the text is of course debated, but it is fascinating to say the least. In Luke’s Gospel we read of the private revelation given to the elderly Simeon regarding the Messiah’s nearness (2:25-27); might another private revelation have been given to a holy soul at Qumran? 

If you have always wanted to know more about the Dead Sea Scrolls but didn’t know where to begin, I think this is the perfect book to start with. Not only will you grow in knowledge of these important documents, you will also stoke the flames of love for your Catholic Faith.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Mary, Elizabeth, Infant Baptism & Immaculate Conception

If you were at Mass (or one of the many Protestant congregations that use the Church's cycle of readings) this Fourth Sunday of Advent, then you heard the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth. It is an amazingly rich story, but here I wish to highlight what it has to say to us about Mary's immaculate conception and the practice of infant baptism.

Look at Elizabeth's words to Mary: "At the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44). Let the implications of that verse sink in: The New Testament says that John the Baptist responded to grace at only six months of fetal development. John rejoiced, in utero, to be in the presence of Jesus (within the womb of Mary)! It is as the angel Gabriel had promised John's father, "He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb" (Luke 1:15).

You see, the Holy Spirit does not have to wait until a child reaches the "age of reason" to free him or her from original sin and impart supernatural life to the child's soul. This is the reason that Catholics, Orthodox, and the majority of Protestant Christians practice infant baptism. The fact that John was "filled with the Holy Spirit" and his soul able to react to Christ's presence shows us what God wants to do under the New Covenant. The only debate that you find in the early Church over infant baptism was whether, since baptism was the fulfillment of circumcision (Col. 2:11-12), infants had to wait until they were eight days old to receive it! The bishops - in perfect harmony with Luke's Gospel - said no, there was no reason to wait (Council of Carthage, 203 A.D.).

Now what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Mary's immaculate conception? Well, this Catholic dogma states that, in lieu of Jesus's redemptive death and infinite merits, Mary was preserved, at the moment of her conception, from contracting the stain of original sin. We Catholics believe that, in baptism, both adults and infants are set free from original sin and filled with the Holy Spirit. Today's gospel reading tells us that God did this for John even before birth. The dogma of Mary's immaculate conception is absolutely consistent with all that we've seen thus far, continuing it back to the moment of conception. One may have qualms with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but it clearly shouldn't be over God's ability to work redemption at the moment of conception!

That's how powerful our God is to save.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Enter the Octagon

Do you remember this theatrical masterpiece? I was six years-old when it came out and remember my next door neighbor bragging how his dad had taken him to see it. I refer to it now because my friend Kathi Strunk (the person crazy enough to suggest I start a blog) threw down the gauntlet: "When will Chuck Norris appear in one of your posts?" 

I admit; I was stymied. How could I bring Chuck to bear on my contemplation of the Faith? Sure, there's the spiritual warfare aspect - but that's so played. Some other aspect of Chuck's mystique was needed. So I asked the Holy Spirit, and as I continued to think about Chuck, the phrase "Enter The Octagon" and this old movie popped into my head.

I realized that Chuck responded, in a highly metaphorical way...involving Ninjas, to the same call as each of the baptized. What, I've lost you?

Well, when you were baptized, chances are that the baptismal font was shaped like an octagon. You will see exceptions but, throughout history, that has been the traditional shape. The reason goes back to a passage in the First Epistle of Peter: 

"God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you." (1 Peter 3:20-21)
Amazing - which of us attending a baptism ever stops to think about the significance of the font having eight sides - that it is a physical representation of the biblical word? Our Catholic Faith is filled with these kind of things, though.

If you want to know more about the way our sacramental liturgies bring Scripture to life, spend a few evenings in Jean Danielou's classic, The Bible and the Liturgy. Oh, and take a moment to reflect upon your own Baptism (when you "entered the octagon) by viewing this profound 1980, theatrical trailer. Just as the announcer says of Chuck, we too "find freedom only one way."

(Note: this trailer has no value other than the ultra-manly pics of Chuck Norris. It should not actually be used for mature theological reflection and is unsuitable for viewing by children.)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Book Review: "Love is a Radiant Light: The Life & Words of St Charbel"

Hanna Skandar's Love is a Radiant Light (Angelico Press, 2019) is a book to be savored. Saint Charbel Makhlouf (1828 - 1898) first came to my attention while working on the Tending the Temple devotional. A monk of the Labanese Maronite Order, an otherwordly character surrounded the humble man. After his entry into eternal life on Christmas Eve of 1898, supernatural phenomena started being reported around his tomb; and a flood of miracles issued from his intercession. 

What I treasure most about this book is how the bulk of it is made up of Charbel's homilies. He is a man of great brilliance who, like Christ, imparts wisdom in easily- accessible imagery. Originally published in France, William J. Melcher's translation captures the "poetic" beauty of Charbel's words. Reading his homilies, I felt simultaneously convicted of my sin and filled with joyful hope of what God longs to do in and through me. 
If a human being draws his love from God, he is naturally oriented toward others. If the love is from you, it returns to you. The human being whose love emanates from himself, loves himself through others, while thinking that he loves others (p.86).
There is one homily that, although written for Charbel's 19th century confrères, struck me as especially prophetic of our time:
Human beings have more knowledge than wisdom. Their theories have become in their minds like the fog on the mountains and in the valleys; they prevent them from seeing things as they are...Their buildings rise, their morality sinks. Their worldly goods increase, their value diminishes. Their speeches multiply, their prayer grows scarce. ...They have many paths, but they do not lead them to each other's houses. They have multiple means of communication, but they do not help them to communicate with each other. Their beds are spacious and comfortable, but their families are small, broken up, and exhausted. They know how to go faster without being able to wait. They are always running to make a living, forgetting to lead their lives....Human beings sow thorns which, while still tender and new, caress their feet; but once they have hardened they will tear the feet of future generations.You cut the wood, you pile the logs, you light the fire, you feed it so as to throw yourselves into it, and you wonder why you are burned by it! Humanity has gone astray, man is sick, and the world is catching fire. 
God is love; he is the goal and the guide of this lost humanity. Christ is the remedy of the sick man. The water of baptism in the Spirit is what extinguishes the fire raging in the world....Meet one another, look at one another, listen to one another, greet one another, console one another with sturdy, charitable words, go out from yourselves to visit one another, embrace one another in the love of Christ, work in the Lord's field without growing weary or bored (pp.74-75).
That is only a selection from one of his homilies - this book contains 17! This is the perfect book to take to Adoration and keep by your bedside. I find myself instinctively moving from the page to prayer; and it's a thrill to know that Charbel is praying with me. This isn't a book I can read just once though. These words cut to the heart. I will be bringing this to Adoration for quite awhile.

Love is a Radiant Light: The Life and Words of St. Charbel is a striking addition to Angelico Press's impressive list of titles.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: "Jesus the Priest"

When I see a book with back cover endorsements from N.T. Wright and Brant Pitre, I experience an almost reflexive need to acquire it. Jesus the Priest (Baker Academic, 2018) is the second of a proposed trilogy from Dr. Nicholas Perrin of Wheaton College. I must admit that I had yet to run across his first volume, Jesus the Temple, but would like to read it and his future Jesus the Sacrifice. Dr. Perrin has an incredible grasp of the primary and secondary literature and is a skilled writer. That said, I did not feel that he achieved his goal in this volume - showing, via the words and actions recorded in the gospels, that the historical Jesus primarily thought of Himself as the eschatological high priest. Dr. Perrin offers a great deal of speculation on the background behind specific words and actions of Jesus, but in my mind his arguments never rose above the level of speculation.

As a Christian, I obviously agree with Dr. Perrin that Jesus understood Himself to be the high priest of the new and eternal covenant. Unlike the good doctor, however, I find very little in the gospels - apart Jesus' statements that He would give his life in sacrifice - from which to illustrate my claim. (It is the Church's great Tradition, with pride of place given to the Epistle to the Hebrews, that communicates this truth to us.) Dr. Perrin has a very Catholic vision, proposing that Jesus meant to share His priesthood with His disciples and that the disciples suffering, united to Christ's, is given a redemptive value. He was speaking my language. I simply wasn't convinced by the evidence he offered that:

  • the traditional reading of the Our Father "has a debilitating weakness," and that "with each petition Jesus is [actually] alluding to a different aspect of a single eschatological reality, all centered around a newly consecrated priesthood and sacred space" (p.52).
  • Jesus' baptism was not so much his anointing as Messiah as it was a priestly anointing.
  • The beatitudes were offered by Jesus as a priestly blessing
  • The disciples eating of the grain on the Sabbath was Jesus recreating the priests' eating of the shewbread.
  • The Danielic Son of Man as a priestly figure

Even though I was not persuaded on these large points, I still found the book to be filled with exegetical gems:

  • Parallels between the Aqedah and Christ's transfiguration
  • Parallels between the Exodus and Gethsemane
  • "Perhaps it is our unconscious prioritization of certain formulations of atonement theology over and against the biblical data that has caused us to understate the communal nature of Jesus' suffering" (p.237).
  • The historicity of Mark's account of Jesus' trial before Caiaphas.

Such gems have me looking forward to reading Dr. Perrin's other works.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Exposing the Anti-Mary: Author Interview with Carrie Gress

In his first epistle, the Apostle John wrote, “as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1 Jn. 2:19). St. Paul wrote of a final antichrist, “the man of lawlessness…the son of perdition” who will arise prior to Christ’s return (2 Thess. 2:3).The spirit of antichrist has been sowing its seeds in the world from the first century until now. In her fascinating new book, The Anti-Mary Exposed (TAN Books, 2019), Dr. Carrie Gress takes aim at a specific aspect of this anti-Christian spirit, one that, since the 1960s, has distorted the vision of authentic femininity found in Christian Revelation and enfleshed in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dr. Gress marshals a mass of scholarship, presented in easily-accessible language, to detail the cultural shift brought about by a small group of elite American women. They convinced an entire generation of women that they could not be “equal” to men, could not lead “fulfilling” lives until the relationship between mother and child was disrupted. In 2019, we live with the deadly fruits of this revolution: sixty million abortions, skyrocketing divorce rates, an increase in female depression, anxiety, STDs, and substance abuse.  Gress also boldly proclaims the answer to the culture of death: Christ, Truth incarnate, and Mary, his mother and partner in redemption. It is an incredibly book, and I was honored to interview Dr. Gress:

Shane Kapler: Dr. Gress, you pull back the curtain on the ideological roots of the modern feminist movement as well as the personal lives of many of its leaders. As I was reading these revelations - Marxism, childhood abuse, diagnosed mental illness, substance abuse, the occult and pagan liturgy - I remember thinking, "I have friends that I want to share this information with, but they are never going to believe me." What did you, personally, find most shocking?

Dr. Gress: I did this research over two years, so I can imagine the experience of reading all of this over a couple of days. I think what was most shocking to me was our ignorance of the brokenness of second wave feminists. Women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem are held up for us as role models. Why don’t know about the depth of their brokenness and what it was they were responding to? The reality of who they were has been shielded from us. They considered themselves “Lost Girls.” Almost to a one, they had deep issues with their mothers. They all had major emotional trauma that they struggled with; and yet, these are the women who have led us to what we understand femininity to be in our culture. The fact that this hasn’t been scrutinized, talked about, and even rejected – that was what was most surprising to me.

Kapler: In your book, you point out how, when an ideology fails to deliver on its promises, and people begin to point out its faults, its adherents claim that we simply haven’t gone far enough. They place the blame on the fact that the ideology hasn’t been embraced by everyone. Do you think this it part of our rejection of God, that rather than turning back to him in him in humility and repentance, we keep soldiering further down this road?

Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
Dr. Gress: I think it is part and parcel of an ideology. We saw this very clearly among the Soviets, “Things will just start working once there is more Marxism,” or “once we are more egalitarian.” There is this push, and it becomes so strong that people are almost spellbound by it. One of the things I’ve come to see, and around feminism in particular, is a realization that women approach the world with a certain set of presuppositions: “I need to be more assertive. I need to assert my individuality. I need to compete with men.” What happens actually is that women begin taking on certain vices – rage, aggression – and it ends up making things worse. People don’t want to be around a woman who is really angry.

This pattern is striking to me; and I hear it among Catholic women, too. “When I’m dealing with men I try to be more assertive and not let them think they have the upper hand.” We’ve bought into the ideology enough that we think we need to compete with men. These are not the things that make people want to have deeper relationships with us. What has happened with feminism is that we have created this shell around ourselves, and people don’t want to engage because it’s not kind, it’s not compassionate, it’s not other-centered. All of these great virtues that women have; we’ve kind of been told, “Put those away. You don’t need those.” Women are embracing these broken pieces of feminism and womanhood that they are being offered, without realizing how it has this effect of cutting their feet out from underneath them.

Kapler: What is authentic feminism today? What ways are women being authentically discriminated against today?

Dr. Gress: That’s a difficult question to answer, because victimhood has become such a popular status to have in our culture. It’s hard to see what authentic injustice is and what is a manipulation of people. But I think that, if we can step aside from those realities, the biggest injustice is how women have been convinced that the only way they can get ahead is by making their children and families the enemy, making anything that gets in the way of their career the enemy. If we are going to talk about an actual injustice to women, it is that lie. That lie – that our children are obstacles to our success -- has permeated our culture without anyone pointing out how radical an idea it is, and how it had never been introduced into human culture before.  We have embraced slogans like “Shout Your Abortion” wholeheartedly, and treat it like it is some sort of native human right, because without abortion a woman cannot have her career and be successful.

Kapler: How do you see the Christian acceptance of contraception paving the way for today’s “brave new world”?

Dr. Gress: The biggest problem with contraception is the fact that it sterilizes women. It denies our motherhood, denies our fertility; and as a result, it ends up opening the doors for us to only be thinking about sex as something that is physical pleasure. It is something between consenting adults; and it doesn’t have anything to do with children anymore. This of course also led to the opening of the door to the acceptance of homosexuality. Charles Rice, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, used to talk in his classes about the way contraception was going to lead to the normalization of homosexuality; and everyone used to think he was ridiculous. And yet, we are seeing it in spades. It’s one of those things where any kind of deviancy can be enmeshed into the ethos, because people think, “How is their sex life different from ours? We’re just trying to get sexual gratification, and so are they. There’s nothing else to consider.” I think that, at root, contraception lies behind all of the gender confusion that we are currently dealing with. Of course, Pope Paul VI was right about all of these things, which he predicted would happen with the onset of contraception. Among them is the relationship between men and women and their unifying force as a couple. Divorce rates have certainly spiked because of it, and it has not led to the emotional closeness it was supposed to usher in. All of these things happened because we tinkered with God’s design at a biological level and really disrupted the family.

Kapler: Following Vatican II, there seemed to be a lessening of Mary’s role in the devotional lives of many Catholics. We, of course, also saw this among our Protestant brothers and sisters over the past five centuries. Do you think this great cultural shift could have occurred if Mary's place in the Christian life had not first been diminished?

Dr. Gress: No, this would never have happened if Our Lady had been held at the center of culture. I think you are absolutely right to talk about the Protestant break first, and I have seen Protestants write about this: Protestantism hasn’t carved out any place for women to be women. Obviously, religious orders were eradicated, as was Mary as a role model, so there wasn’t any place for women to understand their role. As a result, men were put on a pedestal; and women are responding to this. The traditional avenues women had to have this close relationship to Christ were walled off from them. That’s one of the biggest issues to begin with.

If we look at what the Catholic Church has actually said about women – not that every Catholic has responding rightly toward women – but in terms of the way the Church upheld femininity, much of that was developed because of who our Lady was. The Church is way ahead on this. We hear this ridiculous line that “Well-behaved women never make history.” That’s not true at all. Historically, if we think about different women who made history, they were saints. They understood that they had to connect their will with God’s will, and then through that they were able to do things they could never do – things they could only do through God. I am thinking of women like St. Helen, St. Lucy, St. Monica, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joan of Arc. All of these remarkable women had very different vocations. None of these women could be referred to as a doormat. This is what the Catholic Church has had going for it – this understanding of what happens with women when we become holy. Sadly, that was washed from our collective memory, as was Mary. So many women wanted to follow, culturally, what was happening with the trends of the culture: contraception, leaving home to build their own careers, and whatever else was happening culturally at the time. If so many women did not find it absurd to suggest Our Lady as a role model of womanhood, we would not be in this place where we are.

Kapler: Dr. Gress, thank you for your time. I know my readers have thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into TheAnti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Book Review: "The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter"

When I received Sophia Institute's email blast about this book on my daughter's 14th birthday, it seemed like more than coincidence. Over the past six months, I had been sensing a distance developing between the two of us. I understand that it is natural and good for children to begin expressing more independence; but I worry about the distorted vision our culture works so hard to perpetuate and whether I am doing enough - or even the right things - to prepare my daughter to face the world with the mind of Christ. 

Like all good reality checks, I found Alan Migliorato's The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter comforting in many respects and challenging in others. Migliorato is a straight shooter. I wasn't shocked by any of his advice; it is common-sense. (But that's in woefully short supply these days; and I found over 120 straight pages of it refreshing.) His tone is blunt, but offset with plenty of humor.

Chapters can be read in less than ten minutes, and each stands alone quite well. Migliorato's choice of topics is spot-on, too: 

1) Introducing your daughter to God via the sacramental life and prayer
2) Getting to know your daughter's friends and guiding her to be a good judge of character

3) Teaching her when and how to fight: physically, for justice, and spiritually

4) Dressing modestly

5) A father's need to practice active listening

6) Boyfriends

7) The importance of distraction-free family meals

8) Overcoming smartphone addiction and navigating social media
 As a father of three dauthers, Migliorato shares a great deal of wisdom, born of his successes as well as mistakes. I'll give you an example, which I thought was brilliant, from his chapter on modesty: While clothes shopping with his daughter, a high school freshman, she asked to buy a pair of short shorts. When he asked what type of reaction someone waring those shorts might receive, she explained how the shorts were "stylish" and that "if people looked at someone wearing clothes like this and treated her any differently, it was not the problem of the person wearing the clothes; it was the problem of the person looking at the girl wearing the clothes....[I]t should not matter what someone is wearing, only who they are inside." Migliorato's response is one every dad should commit to memory:
     I asked her how she would feel if I went into the dressing room and tried on a pair of those shorts. She stared at me for a second, not able to tell whether I was being serious. Fearing I was serious, she said, "Dad, please don't." I said, "Why not?" She said that people would stare at me and think I was a sicko or a pervert or something like that.     I said, "I'm confused. I thought you said it was not the problem of the person wearing the clothes, I thought you said it was the problem of the person wearing certain clothes who had the problem?" I added, "I know who I am on the inside, and that is all that should matter, right?"     She said, "Okay, let's go to another store. I get the point." Then she laughed at the image in her head of me wearing those tiny shorts.     We sat on the bench, in the middle of the mall, just outside of the store we were just in, and talked. I knew what she was trying to say; I just wanted her to know what she was actually saying. I have found that allowing my daughters to come to their own conclusion through self-realization is better than trying to tell them something. It's a sweet science that takes time to get right. (p.50-1)
And that's only one example from the chapter on modesty. Each chapter is filled with such real life examples, and each ends with bullet-point summaries and a specific challenge calling dads to begin work on that aspect of their parenting. (His chapter on the importance of eating meals together as a family, really called me out.) There are also overarching points that we need to constantly remind ourselves of: "Remember, building a relationship with your daughter is not a sprint; it's a marathon" (121); "Reach out to your daughter but don't expect her to be where you are mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. It will happen in time, so be patient. And of course, lead by example!" (122). God is a good Father, and He wants to make us good fathers. We must ask for the grace, and then get to work.  The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter is solid advice, from one God-fearing workman to another.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Who Does God Use?

“It takes no great military expert to predict the results of a war in which large numbers of the solders do not fight, do not even know there is a war on. The officers are essential, and obedience to them is essential. But an army in which only the officers fights is likely to have no spectacular success in any war, least of all that which the Church is fighting for the souls of men.” 
  – Frank Sheed, 2nd World Congress for the Lay Apostolate, 1957

My greatest joy has always been to speak, and more recently to write, about the Faith. I am not however, a professional theologian nor a philosopher — heck, I don’t even play one on TV. I don’t feel particularly dismayed by that though — my favorite religious works were written by a couple of fisherman, an accountant, and a physician. Whatever our educational and occupational backgrounds, if we will just slow down enough to “sit at Jesus’ feet” and listen to Him for awhile each day (speaking in Scripture, through His Church in the Catechism, during our Rosary meditations) then we’re bound to learn some incredible things, things we will be dying to share with others.

Almost a decade ago, I had the great pleasure of listening to Dr. Scott Hahn speak. The most vivid memory I have of that day was hearing him talk about when Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin, and quoting this verse: “Observing the self-assurance of Peter and John, and realizing that the speakers were uneducated men of no standing, they were amazed. Then they recognized these men as having been with Jesus ” (Acts 4:13). That is the key to being instruments of God. A shepherd boy from Bethlehem, an unassuming young woman in Nazareth, three poor Portugese children — it is those who place their hearts before God, very simply, that He uses to communicate with the world.

I praise God for priests who challenge their flocks, for RCIA and adult ed. programs, for youth ministers and programs like LifeTeen — but it just isn’t cutting it my friends. It’s you and I who have to be raised up and empowered to share the Truth if this cultural battle is to be won, if the deterioration that surrounds us is to be reversed. The Church in the West may still reveal itself as a sleeping giant. If it awakes, we could see a manifestation of Christ come to “full stature.” “It was He Who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, and form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

You know, I often get the impression that we are hesitant to share our enthusiasm for the Faith with youth. “Oh, kids can’t get into the Bible; it’s a completely different world.” “The Trinity? The hypostatic union or the intricacies of moral theology? That’s over kids’ heads!” Really? Are we talking about the same teens whose high schools offer chemistry, physics, and even calculus? The same kids who read and take tests over works of Shakespeare? To hear an eight year-old boy describe The Lord of the Rings ‘ Middle-Earth, or a fifteen year-old girl elaborate on the subculture of Twilight ’s vampires and werewolves, convinces me that they wouldn’t have a problem getting inside the customs of biblical times.

We must live who we are, share what we are excited about with our coworkers and friends. When someone asks if we are reading anything good, we can let them know, “I’ve been going to this study on the Gospel of Luke; I never realized how fascinating the Bible could be…” When someone asks you to pray for them, take a chance: “I will; but is it alright if I pray with you, right now, too?” And if they are willing, take their hands in yours and speak the simple, heartfelt words that enter your mind. Let your loved one experience the Spirit loving and praying for them through you. We don’t need to manufacture opportunities to share our Faith, if we’re just honest about who we are and what animates us, every conversation can become an open door for God to enter others’ lives. Reebok will have nothing on us (Isaiah 52:7)!

But it all comes back to spending time with Jesus — gazing upon Him in the Eucharist, in Scripture, in His Church. It is only by being fused to Him that we “uneducated men [and women] of no standing,” become powerhouses. Only by sitting at His feet will we be able to simultaneously tear down what is false, and establish the Kingdom in its place – “conducting ourselves with innocence, knowledge, and patience, in the Holy Spirit, in sincere love as men with the message of truth and the power of God; wielding the weapons of righteousness with right hand and left, whether honored or dishonored, spoken of well or ill” (2 Cor.6:6-8).

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Book Review: "The Lord's Prayer" by TJ Burdick

Part of OSV's new Companion in Faith series, T.J. Burdick's The Lord's Prayer is a solid work of spirituality, helping readers pray the Our Father in a deeper way. As a young husband and father, as well as a high school educator and lay Dominican, Burdick has wonderful insights into the way spirituality informs every aspect of our lives. 

The Our Father issues from the heart of Christ; its depths have yet to be plumbed. Burdick sees the seven petitions of the Our Father as not simply the perfect prayer, but a means for prioritizing our lives:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Priority #1 - Honoring God and Neighbor

Thy kingdom come.
Priority #2 - Advancing God's Kingdom

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Priority #3 - Submitting to God's Will

Give us this day our daily bread...
Priority #4 - Balancing Your Life

...and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...
Priority #5 - Forgiveness

...and lead us not into temptation...
Priority #6 - Discipline

...but deliver us from evil.
Priority #7 - Fighting Sin and Evil

Burdick has crafted wonderful meditations on each of these points, deftly woven of everyday experience, Scripture, the Catechism, and the Summa Theologica.  It is theologically meaty but eminently readable. One of the things I really appreciated about the book was its size: 4" x 6" and 54 pages. It was easy for me to slip into my coat pocket and read during breaks in my work day. A book that causes me to be more attentive during prayer is an exquisite gift; The Lord's Prayer is certainly one of those books.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book Review: "Teaching with Authority" by Jimmy Akin

To say that we Catholics are living through confusing times will strike many as understatement. Over the past fifty years we have grown used to hearing the Church's faith, especially her moral teachings, disputed by her lay members; but today we encounter such statements from bishops conferences and cardinals. Pope Francis's habit of offering off-the-cuff remarks during homilies and interviews - remarks sometimes wanting in theological precision - have also led to confusion. Further, questions regarding his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, have gone unanswered for more than two years.  

The majority of serious Catholics are familiar with Vatican I's criteria for recognizing ex cathedra pronouncments; but what about the Council's further teaching that Catholics are bound to believe "all those things" taught through the Church's "ordinary and universal magisterium," since they, too, are proposed infallibly (De Filius, 3)? When is the pope exercising his "ordinary magisterium," and what level of authority is attached to it? Many of today's arguments are heightened by disputes regarding what level of authority must be accorded to various papal and ecclesial statements.

In Teaching with Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion and Understand What the Church Really Says, Jimmy Akin goes to great lengths to bring clarity to these murky waters. I have other books on this topic (H.G. Hughes' What Catholics are Free to Believe or Not, Sullivan's Creative Fidelity, and Gaillardetz's By What Authority?), but I did not find any to be as helpful as Akin's. At 400 pages, his book is double, if not triple, the size of other treatments. (This shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with his work at Catholic Answers.)

My overall impressions: I finished the book with the almost paradoxical sense that (1) Catholic faith and morals are exactly what I have always understood them to be; and (2) I need to devote a great deal of time and research to ascertain what exactly has been taught infallibly and what has not. Jimmy Akin is careful in coming to conclusions. As much as we, the faithful, may wish the Church's pronouncements on a given matter to be more definitive, Akin has the integrity to refuse to go beyond what has been definitively stated. 

Teaching with Authority is divided into four sections: (I) The Church as Teacher; (II) Where Church Teaching is Found; (III) Understanding Church Teaching; and (IV) How Doctrine Can Develop - and How It Can't. The first section lays the theological foundation for the Church's teaching magisterium, showing how Christ made it intrinsic to her very nature and the various ways it is expressed through the bishops' individual teaching ministries, bishops conferences, ecumenical councils, and the papacy. It is informative, and I came away with a better knowledge of the Roman Curia.The second section begins with Scripture and Tradition as sources of divine revelation, before turning to the various documents in which the Church offers instruction to the faithful. A few examples of the type of information you'll find:

  • The only time documents written by national bishops' conferences "constitute authentic magisterium" is when they are doctrinal in nature and either (a) unanimously approved by the full body of bishops, or (b) approved by 2/3 of the bishops and granted the recognitio of the Holy See.
  • At Vatican II, the "constitutions are the most authoritative documents, and the dogmatic constitutions - Dei Verbum (on revelation) and Lumen Gentium (on the Church) - are the most authoritative of all" (p.110-11).
  • The names and nature of papal documents have changed over time and are not always consistent.
  • Apostolic constitutions are considered the most authoritative papal documents (examples: Ineffablis Deus infallibly defining the Immaculate Conception and Muntificientissimus Deus, defining the Assumption of Mary).
  • Pope have used papal encyclicals to reaffirm infallible teachings but no propose new ones.
  • Curial documents, even those issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, must carry express papal approval to be considered acts of the Magisterium.
  • Simply because a teaching is included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), does not mean it is infallible. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted, the Catechism's teachings "receive no other weight than that which they already possess," meaning that one must look at earlier and later documents of the Magisterium to determine a teachings level of authority.

Akin's third and fourth sections, which constitute the majority of the book, were of greatest interest to me. Akin goes into great depth, exploring the skills needed to correctly interpret magisterial documents: checking the original Latin, a knowledge of technical vocabulary and what it meant in a given century versus today, the need to respect intentional ambiguity in Church teaching and not going further in drawing conclusions than an author intends, etc. They are much-needed reminders for the armchair theologian. He also unpacks the technical meanings of "heresy" and "schism," showing how they are frequently misused. theologian. 

Chapter 12, "The Spectrum of Authority,"and its analysis of Cardinals Ratinger and Bertone's CDF document, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, clarified the three levels of authority attached to Church teaching better than anything else I have read. Akin spells out what the Church means by "theological" (or "divine and catholic faith"), "firm and definitive assent," and "religious submission of the mind and will" and the distinctions between them.

Akin's Teaching with Authority is not an "easy" read. He is a gifted communicator, and he writes very clearly; but this is a complicated topic. For anyone, however, who wants to enter into this crucial area of study; I have not seen a more thorough or even-handed introduction to the topic. I call it an introduction, though, since I can't imagine a reader finishing the book without coming to the humbling realization that, however much he has already studied the Faith, a lifetime of work still lies before him.