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.