Reflection: Humanae Vitae at 50

The official Vatican newspaper’s headline with the encyclical. Picture from https://onepeterfive.com/contraception-marriage-culture-death/ 

 

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Humanae vitae.   On July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI signed this monumental encyclical, easily one of the most controversial papal document of all time, and certainly the most controversial piece of Paul VI’s magisterium.  In it, Paul VI defends the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.  It isn’t merely a “no” to artificial birth control; Paul VI offers a beautiful examination of human love, and how artificial birth control disrupts one of the fundamental aspects of marital, sexual love.

 

I’ve spent much of this past month researching and writing a series of articles on the encyclical for Catholic Exchange.

 

The first article examines the historical context of the encyclical, namely the controversy over artificial contraception that arose in the early 20th century, as well as how Pope St. John Paul II took the teaching of the encyclical and presented it anew during his pontificate.

 

The second article looks at the key questions Paul VI sought to address in the encyclical.  The article gives a good summary (in my opinion) of the essential teaching of the encyclical.  If you want the main points of what Paul VI taught, check that out.

 

The last article, out today, looks at the famous “predictions” of Paul VI in Humanae vitae.  What he said would happen if we ignored the Church’s teaching on life and sexuality came to pass.  However, there are signs of hope.

 

To those who have read the encyclical, I encourage you to read it again.  I’ve read it several times at this point, and I get something out of it every time I reread it.

 

To those who have not yet read it, I say: READ IT!  There’s the Official Vatican Translation or Dr. Janet Smith’s translation, both of which are online.  Either way, read it slowly, carefully.  Make notes.  Print it out and highlight or comment.  Read it with the scriptures open.  Whether you agree or disagree that artificial contraception is immoral and should not be practiced, you will get something out of this encyclical.

 

Our society is sick, both inside and outside the Church.  Humanae vitae may have the antidote to our contemporary poison.  Authentic human love will transform our lives.  Stronger families will lead to a stronger society.  Aligning our will to God’s cannot steer us astray.

 

My hope is that, on this fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, we may finally begin following its teaching.

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Question: Was the Resurrection of Jesus based on stories from Near Eastern mythologies?

The Easter Season may have passed, but “we are an Easter people.”  The Church calls us to make “Alleluia” our song and live out the Paschal mysteries everyday of our lives.

 

In that vein, let us examine an important Eastery point of discussion from Marcy:

“The story of the death and resurrection of the Sumerian goddess Inanna closely mirrors the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet predates his appearance by more than 3000 years. Discuss.”

 

This is a great point, leading to a fascinating discussion about a story which many people, Christian and non-Christian, have never even heard of.  Marcy has her finger on the pulse of an important debate in Christology, ongoing since the first Christmas. How can we believe the extraordinary Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is actually God incarnate?  

 

Non-Christians maintained in the first centuries of the Christian Era (as they do today) that Jesus was merely a man.  We see this throughout the Gospels. It was because the Jewish officials saw Jesus as merely a man that they had him crucified; a man, after all, should not claim to be God.  Ancient Roman historians, such as Tacitus, referred to Jesus of Nazareth as a man, a real historical figure, but not as a god (though other writers, like Pliny the Younger, note that Christians were worshiping Christ as God in Pliny’s day, before AD 112).  

 

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment, when thinkers held Reason up as an antidote to religious Faith.  Critics of Christianity began to propose that the story of Jesus was merely a rehashing of other ancient mythologies adopted by the earliest Christians.  Depending on which aspect of Christ’s biography these critics sought to explain or “correct,” Our Lord would be lumped together with mythical heroes born of young maidens, or magical healing gods, or, as in this blogpost, dying and rising gods (we see a similar version of this thought in writers like Joseph Campbell).  

 

The idea of a widespread “dying-and-rising god” myth, of which Christ was just one iteration, came from The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (first published in 1890).  Frazer pointed to several examples of gods that “died and rose from the dead,” including Osiris (Egyptian), Dumuzid/Tammuz (Sumerian), and Adonis (Greek).  Unfortunately for Frazer’s posterity, as more archaeological discoveries occurred throughout the twentieth century, more historical evidence mounted that Frazer was incorrect about every “dying and rising god” in his study.  In their respective myths, these gods either never really died, or they never really rose from the dead.

 

So in that light, let’s look at the story of Inanna (Ishtar in Assyrian mythology) and see if her story closely resembles that of the Resurrection.

Who is Inanna?

Inanna (Ishtar) with a servant, 3rd Century Ad.  By Jadd Haidar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61102115

 

The Sumerians were the first civilization to develop the art of writing.  They lived in Ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and had a complicated polytheistic mythology through which they worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Inanna was a Sumerian fertility goddess, and as such has more than her fair share of sexually explicit stories in Sumerian mythology (she’s the Sumerian equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus).  Men and women appealed to her to solve impotency problems and to win spouses; prostitutes made her their patroness, as they played an important role in fertility cults in the ancient world.  She was also a goddess who loved war, and was said to “feast” on battles (sex and violence meet again). She was associated with the planet Venus, with its appearance in the morning and the evening.  Archaeological evidence indicates that worship of Inanna began around 4000-3000 BC, and that her cult grew to prominence during the reign of Sargon the Great (around 2300 BC).

So far, nothing in Inanna’s story connects to that of Christ’s Resurrection.  She seems no different than other mythological fertility goddesses. Now let us examine the story to which Marcy refers, that of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her “death,” and her “resurrection.”  Although there are two variations of this story, we’ll focus on the older and more detailed Sumerian version of The Descent of Inanna (called here Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World), which dates to between 1900 and 1600 BC.  

Here is THE story itself, the Akkadian version, on a clay tablet at the British Museum.  By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23281061

 

Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld

 

Inanna decides to travel into the Underworld to tell the queen of the Underworld, her sister Erec-ki-gala, that Erec-ki-gala’s mortal husband had died.  Inanna dresses herself attractively with symbols of her power and instructs her minister, Nincubura, what to do if she, Inanna, does not return from the Underworld in three days: appeal to the other gods, for Inanna would be dead and in need of resurrection.  

 

Inanna arrives alone at the gate to the Underworld and demands entrance.  Her sister allows her to enter, but sets a trap. As a result, Inanna is stripped of the symbols of her authority and judged by the Anunnaki, the seven judges of the Underworld.  

 

They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.

 

Thus her “death.”  Interesting that Inanna’s corpse is hung on a hook, and Christ is hung on a cross.  But there is more:

 

Three days pass, and Nincubura travels to the various gods, pleading for their help in saving Inanna.  The response of most is identical [to that of Inanna’s father?]:

 

My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. Inanna craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?

 

Only the god Enki is moved by Nincubura’s plea.  He creates and sends the gala-tura and the kur-jara (two “sexless” figures, as the Wikipedia article on all of this says) to get the corpse of Inanna from Erec-ki-gala.  They arrive at Erec-ki-gala’s throne, and receive the corpse as a gift. After the gala-tura and the kur-jara sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with life-giving water and a life-giving plant, Inanna revives and begins to rise from the Underworld to the realm of the gods.  The Anunnaki freak out, so to speak, because no one “has ascended unscathed from the underworld.”  

 

So Inanna, accompanied by the Anunnaki, travel to several people close to Inanna to select a substitute for her.  She does not allow any of them to be the substitute, however, for they show true devotion and sorrow at her “death.”  Eventually, they find Inanna’s husband Dumuzid, who is not mourning his wife (he’s dressed rather nicely and relaxing under a tree, with some versions of the story depicting him being waited on by slave girls).  So Inanna gives him to the Anunnaki as her substitute. Off he goes to the Underworld so she can survive. She cuts a deal with Erec-ki-gala so that she and her husband can see each other for half of the year.

 

Inanna and her husband.  Clearly they love each other deeply.   Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691709

 

Thus the story of Inanna and her resurrection.

 

Inanna vs. Christ

 

Those familiar with Christ’s Resurrection accounts from the four canonical Gospels can already see there are some surface similarities between Inanna’s myth and the story of Christ.  Both figures were hung in their death: Inanna on the hook, Christ on the cross. Both figures were dead for “three days,” or at least returned to life on the third day. But the differences run deeper than the similarities.  Here are a few of them.

 

  • Inanna is a goddess, one among a pantheon of gods and goddesses, who seeks her own selfish wants and needs.  She was forced against her will to become a corpse as a punishment for offending her sister through her pride.  
    • Christianity is monotheistic, and the Son of God is both man and still completely God (see our recent reflections on the Nicene Creed).  His Incarnation occurred not as a punishment but as a willing sacrifice for what WE did (and continue) to do wrong.  In becoming incarnate the Son “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), not losing anything of His divinity, but in an act of supreme love and humility, Christ took upon Himself our humanity.  The Incarnation was an act of humility, the opposite of the pride displayed by Inanna.

 

  • Despite the fact that Inanna becomes a corpse, there is no indication in the story that she first becomes human.  She remains merely divine, not human, so one wonders if her “death” is even really death, in the sense that we think of death.  
    • Christ died like we die.  Even skeptics who deny Christ’s divinity argue that he did, indeed, die via crucifixion.  Likewise, the consistent teaching of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth really died a human death on the cross.  Without a real death, there can be no real resurrection. But as God, Jesus could not die; hence the need for Him to be both man and God.  

 

  • Inanna returns to life thanks to the efforts of her minister and the god Enki, who uses his own creations to bring about Inanna’s resurrection.  
    • Christian theology teaches that Christ rose from the dead not because God took pity on Him but because Christ HIMSELF is God, and therefore rose through His own power.  He did not rely on or need creation to bring about His resurrection. And there is no pantheon of other gods to restore Christ to life.

 

  • Inanna escapes the Underworld by using her husband as a replacement.  
    • One of the crucial aspects of Christ’s Paschal Mystery (His suffering, death, Resurrection, and Ascension) is that He underwent the fullest extent of human suffering (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc), died, returned to life, and went to Heaven body and soul (never to die again) all with full consent of His will.  No one takes His place; rather, he takes our place, taking upon Himself the guilt for our sins, even though He was innocent of any sin.

 

Clonmacnois Scripture Cross Jesus in the Tomb County Offaly Ireland

Christ being prepared for burial, from the High Cross at Clonmacnois in Ireland,

 

The story of Inanna is one of many pagan myths that share some similarities to the Resurrection of Christ.  While at first the idea that Christians merely borrowed pagan ideas to flesh out the story of Jesus seems appealing (to the critic) or troubling (to the believer), examining the literary evidence shows that the pagan stories are very different from the Christian one.  The key difference between these myths (stories) of paganism and the story of Christianity is, as C. S. Lewis noted, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  To Lewis, “myth” does not mean something untrue, but something beyond mere reality.  Myth gets at the deeper truths beyond the facts, reaching realities the sciences cannot.  Most myths are not historically true, of course; they tell a story to educate and entertain.  Unlike the myths of paganism, Christianity myth, as Lewis notes, is one of historical reality.  

 

The Incarnation is a story which is simultaneously historically and spiritually true.  It teaches us truths greater than the greatest pagan myths, namely that God loves us so much that “He came down from Heaven.”  Perhaps one could say the pagan myths borrowed from Christianity, not in time, since the pagan stories usually came first in time, but in truth. Christianity, after all, teaches that Truth came and dwelt among us.  

 

It is a natural to see death as an evil and to desire life eternal.  The “dying-and-rising god” motif taps into that desire to conquer death.  Perhaps it is an inner remembrance of Eden, when we lived without fear of dying and walked with our God.  Under slavery to death, our salvation came not by some manipulative deity’s guile but by the sacrifice of the God who made us, and loves us, at our hands.  All of the “dying-and-rising god” myths, each grasping in shadows at this ultimate truth, find their answer on the cross, on the day that death was conquered not by a goddess who sends her husband to die in her place, but by Christ who laid down his life so His Bride, the Church, could live.
The stories of Inanna and other pagan mythological figures are shrouded in mystery.  No one believed figures like Inanna or Adonis were originally real, historical men and women.  They were gods outside of this mortal world. Christianity is different; ours is a religion deeply drawn from historical truths.  The Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus took place in a particular historical place at a particular historical time, and the records come from eyewitness accounts of the historical events, namely the four canonical Gospels.  

 

Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, c. 400.

 

Permit a quick equivocal example of what skeptics do in stating that Christians merely applied pagan myths to the life of Christ:  Mahatma Gandhi achieved great success in bringing about social change through peaceful, non-violent protests. The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the same.  Could we just say that followers of King merely took stories of Gandhi and, with the best intentions, applied them to their civil rights leader? Of course not, because there is a historical record of the words and actions of King written by those who lived with him, those who heard him speak, and those who saw him do his peaceful, non-violent deeds.  For his part, King was clear about Gandhi’s influence on his own protests.  If King was not so upfront, contemporaries of him could have easily remarked that his protests were merely the protest of Gandhi adapted to an American civil rights situation, instead of an India vs. British civil rights situation.  

 

Skeptics millenia from now might incorrectly claim King did not exist, or that his teachings and actions were exaggerated to mimic those of Gandhi, cashing in on the success of the Indian.  This sounds ridiculous today, but that is a similar objection to the story of Christ in light of pagan myths. Just as we should honor the memory of both King and Gandhi, so we should likewise honor Christ, who through His Resurrection demonstrated the most profound truth of history, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

 

It is truly Good News, a better tale than even the most beautiful pagan dreams.  

 

 

For Further Reading (beyond the in-text links)

 

Olson, Carl E.  Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?: Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ignatius Press, 2016).  

 

Pitre, Brant.  The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016).

 

Broussard, Karlo.  “Why Jesus’ Resurrection Is Not Borrowed from Pagan Myths”

 

Mark, Joshua J.  “Inanna’s Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice.”  Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 23, 2011.

 

Heffron, Yaǧmur.  “Inana/Ištar (goddess),” Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016

 

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Question: Incorporating Native American Culture in the Catholic Church?

[UPDATED]

 

HAPPY EASTER!  Check out what was in the blogpost basket.  

 

 

Jenne asks: “I would like to know more about how to “baptize” some of the different Native American spiritualities. The Church has been incorporating pagan ideas for thousands of years and I’d really like to see that happen with some of the Native American principles, especially their emphasis on stewardship of the earth/resources. How would we best go about that without watering down Catholicism or moving towards some kind of pantheism?”

 

Shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha at Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Laprairie, Quebec.

The Church does have a long history of incorporating the cultures of a converted people into the Christian life.  Pope St. Gregory the Great, for example, urged St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was evangelizing England at the time, to refrain from tearing down the pagan shrines to the various gods.  Instead, Pope Gregory suggested using the temples as churches, clearing out the idols, of course, but keeping the location and even the building, as it was more comfortable for the new converts.  Likewise, we see throughout the Church a variety of cultural traditions that have sprung up from local, pre-Christian customs that were baptized, so to speak. And, of course, we have intellectual contributions like the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato in our Christian intellectual tradition.

 

As far as Native American culture is concerned, I agree that the Church can and should incorporate what is naturally good in Native American spiritualities while not embracing what is detrimental to the Faith.  In fact, such cultural appropriation has been practiced since the earliest missionaries came to the Americas. Think, for example, of St. Jean de Brebeuf, who served the Hurons in New France (Canada). Instead of merely trying to teach French to the Hurons, St. Jean learned their language.  It was EXTREMELY difficult, and he spent years learning how to speak it, eventually creating a written language for the natives, with which he translated a catechism and composed a Huron/French dictionary. He even used the language to write the “Huron Carol” for Christmas time.

 

There are also examples of using different prayers for Masses and feasts among Native American Catholic communities (translated into the Native American languages) that might merit classifying these liturgies not merely as translations of the Latin Roman Rite into Native American languages, but perhaps even the development of new, diverse forms of the Roman Rite.  

 

Many of the earliest missionaries met with hostile responses or martyrdom from several native tribes and confederations, but their sacrifice produced great fruit.  Think, for example, of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and her beautiful story. There are also several later, notable converts to Catholicism from various Native American tribes, including, perhaps most famously, Black Elk and Red Cloud of the Lakota Sioux.  However, converts from various native religions did have to abandon aspects of their native culture in the process of becoming Catholic; Black Elk in particular demonstrates this tension between the Native American pantheism and Catholic monotheism. Black Elk was a medicine man who became a catechist and worked with Jesuit missionaries to evangelize other members of his tribe.  Of course, I can’t talk about Black Elk without mentioning that his cause for canonization was opened last year.

Black Elk with daughter and second wife (c. 1910

What is so wrong with most Native American religions?  While most of the native religions have some sense of a Great Spirit, there is often a strong thread of pantheism.  Everything in nature is divine, not merely sharing in the existence of God, to use Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics. Pantheism does not allow for monotheism by definition.  There can’t be one god if everything is god.

 

Which leads to Jenne’s original question.  Where can we have overlap? If we seek proper cultural appropriation with Native Americans, we must incorporate the good aspects of their religious practices and beliefs.  What would that look like?

 

To an extent, visible forms of this cultural appropriation began soon after the close of the Second Vatican Council.  The liturgical changes following the Council, while disruptive in many parts of the Church, were helpful in evangelization efforts in the developing world and among Native Americans.  The result was the Catholic liturgy with Native American trappings.  One report describes the following:

 

At St. Augustine’s [Indian Mission in Winnebago, Nebraska] for example, [Director of the Mission Fr. Steve] Boes burns sacred cedar branches instead of incense, spreading the fragrance with an eagle feather instead [of] an ornamental censer.

“The Winnebago and Omaha people believe cedar purifies– it helps to take away sin,” Boes said. “That natural symbol fits perfectly with the penitential rite of the Catholic Church … we ask God to lift us up and to purify us.”

Such inclusion of Native culture follows the tradition of the Church, saving what is good in a society and directing that goodness to God.  

 

For most Catholic Native Americans (and there are a lot of them, making up about a quarter of all Native Americans), the idea of a conflict between their Catholic Faith and their cultural heritage is strange.  Many of their tribes teach there is one Creator God, rather than holding a pantheistic view of the world. They pray to God using rituals and prayers similar to those practiced before their conversion to Christianity.  

 

The Church teaches that we are custodians of the environment.  A similar thought runs through most Native American cultures. While they use the environment, it is not an abuse of nature, but rather with the intention of working with it.  You find in Native American, and many other cultures around the world, a sense of gratitude towards natural things for allowing people to use them. Following the call of Pope Francis for a more proper “human ecology,” we might see in this respect for nature a model for our own interactions with the natural world.  

 

The condition, as always, is to make sure we ultimately praise the Creator of the world, not the creatures that inhabit it.  All thanks we give to the world for working with us should have as its final end praise and glory to God.

 

Jenne (and anyone else interested), I encourage you to check out resources the Church has put out in recent decades about Native American spirituality.  One is a homily given by Pope St. John Paul II at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Ontario, Canada in 1984.  There was also a recent directive distributed by the USCCB.  

 

[Update: Recently, specific dioceses have published instructions for working with Native American Catholics within their borders, as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did the day after this post was originally published].  

 

For Further Reading (all by my friend Peter J. Smith)

“St. Kateri and the Four Holy Martyrs from Kahnawake”

“Hundreds of Martyrs Sow the Seeds of Faith in the United States”

“America’s first paths of holiness: Lives of indigenous saints and martyrs”

 

 

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Reflection: I Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ (part 3)

Happy Feast of St. Joseph!  St. Joseph is the MAN (meaning he is awesome AND his is my model of manhood).  I’ve written about how awesome St. Joseph is HERE and am also working on a series of reflections about him and how he is a model of manly virtues.  

 

Shot from The Nativity Story (dir. Catherine Hardwicke) showing my man St. Joseph being an awesome foster father to the Incarnate Lord.  

 

But this post, like my devotion to Joseph, isn’t really about Joseph.  Its about Jesus.  

 

Today, we continue our reflections on the Creed, and our reflections on our Lord Jesus Christ, by examining the historical importance of the Incarnation and the theological importance of the Hypostatic Union.

 

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven

One of the fundamental truths the Church teaches about Jesus is that Christ is truly God and truly Man.  He isn’t part god, part man, like Hercules or some other demigod from other world mythologies.  Rather, in the words of the Council of Chalcedon, Christ has two natures, Divine and human, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”  When the Incarnation happened, God took on a human nature without losing any of the Divine Nature.  It is what the Church calls the Hypostatic Union.  Practically speaking, this means that Jesus was fully God, and yet truly one of us, “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  All of the Christological heresies in the Church, from Gnosticism onward, took issue with some aspect of this fundamental teaching of the Gospels.  The Creed of Nicaea answers their heresies sometimes before they were even formulated.

 

Perhaps Christ was merely God, with an imaginary body.  So the Gnostics, specifically the Docetists, taught.  The New Testament allows no such confusion.

 

Perhaps He was like God, but not quite God, since it would not be fitting for God to join with His creation.  No, Arius, that’s not right either. 

 

Perhaps He was God and Man, with a real body, but with two persons: the Second Person of the Trinity and the human person Jesus, son of Mary.  No, Nestorius, that doesn’t work either; He wouldn’t be truly God. 

 

Maybe, at the moment of the Incarnation, the power of God was SO POWERFUL, that the divine Nature subsumed Jesus’ human nature?  No, you Monophysites, then He wouldn’t be truly human.  You can’t be human without a human nature. 

 

What if Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t really God, but was so good, as a moral teacher, that God picked Him to be His Son at His baptism by John in the Jordan River?  No, Apollianarius, then he wouldn’t be God; he would be a mere hero from Greek and Roman mythology.

 

Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) 100% God and 100% Man.  That statement continues to baffle people today.  The pendulum has swung away from those who sought to paint Jesus as God and not really man to the point that you might be mocked today for considering Jesus truly God, that the miracles attributed to Him really happened, that He did, indeed, rise from the dead.  Modernism, “the synthesis of all heresies” according to Pope St. Pius X, tried desperately to keep the relevancy of the Gospels while gutting it of the spiritual dimensions found therein.  The result was a mixed bag of confusion and error, a perfect storm of bad history and messy heresy.

 

And the Church continues to confess, in season and out of season, that “He came down from heaven.”

 

Fine fine FINE.  He’s truly God and truly man.  But we didn’t really need Him as a redeemer, just as a model for right living. 

 

No, Pelagius, that doesn’t work either.

 

The line “For us men and for our salvation” answers the question, “Why did God become incarnate?”  Check out one of the most famous lines in all of Scripture:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17)

 

Our salvation is through Christ Jesus, through the grace of God for us.  It was this fundamental facet of our Faith that Pelagius denied.  Pelagius taught that it was our work, our effort, that won us our salvation.  In other words, we weren’t redeemed by Christ, but we instead seized our place in Heaven.  In fact, we didn’t need a redemption at all, because Adam’s sin (Original Sin) had no affect on us directly; rather, we followed his bad example and sinned.  Christ was not our redeemer; He was merely a good example to counteract Adam’s bad example.

 

Now Pelagius should have known better.  At least the earlier heretics like the Gnostics and Arius did not have the benefit of the Nicene Creed to help in their theological discussions.  Pelagius did, having come onto the theological scene a generation after Nicaea I.  St. Augustine dealt well with Pelagius’ arguments, earning Augustine the nickname “Doctor of Grace.”

 

So Christ, truly God and truly man, saved us from our sins.

 

What of our good works?  Are they as bad as Martin Luther taught in the 16th century, that the best human act is at least a venial sin?  Are they a waste of time, since our redemption has been won for us by the blood of Christ on the cross?

 

Often forgotten in this context, at least by those who reject the Church’s position on salvation, is St. Paul comment in his letter to the Colossians, that in his suffering he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God” (Colossians 1:24-25).  In other words, our actions unite with those of Christ for the whole Church.  What is “lacking” is our joining our joys and sufferings with those of Christ, through which we participate in Christ’s sacrifice.  This is particularly clear at the Mass, where the faithful are called upon to “lift up your hearts.”  The Roman Canon has the priest pray to God for those gathered at the liturgy,

Whose faith and devotion are known to you.
For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise
or they offer it for themselves
and all who are dear to them:
for the redemption of their souls,
in hope of health and well-being,
and paying their homage to you,
the eternal God, living and true.

 

At every Mass we, in our prayers, admit that we are not the source of our salvation, but that we play a role in it through our participation in the sacrifice of Christ.

 

Yet it isn’t to the sacrifice of the cross that the Creed turns at this moment.  Rather, it is the other side of Christ’s life, the Annunciation itself.  We will turn to this mystery in our next reflection.

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Quickie: Placuit Deo

The big news in the Catholic world today, March 1, 2018, is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a letter to bishops “On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.”  I haven’t read the letter yet (it’s pretty short, just over 4000 words), but the report from the National Catholic Register is that the document addresses modern revivals of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, the later of which we’ve examined in great detail, the former hopefully being a topic brought up in later episodes of our reflection on our One Lord Jesus Christ.

 

I hope to read the document and get around at some point to reflecting on it.

 

In Christ, our Salvation!

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Reflection: I Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ (part 2)

Let’s continue our reflections on the nature of Jesus Christ.  As before, quotes from the Nicene Creed are in bold.

 

“Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”

The word we translate as “consubstantial” was at the heart of the Arian crisis in the latter part of the fourth century.  “Consubstantial” is the English translation of homoousios in Greek.  The word is a dense one, indicating that the Persons in the Trinity are “of the same substance,” which philosophically means they are the same thing, that they share the same nature.  For the purposes of Arian crisis, homoousios means that the Father and the Son are, in fact, both entirely God.  They are the same “substance.”

 

You would think that such clear teaching from the Church would solve the problem of Arianism.  Yet, as with most heresies, just because a teaching is rejected does not mean that the teaching goes extinct.  More often than not, a heresy with little public support goes underground.  Usually, over time, such heresies die out.  However, may reemerge, having slightly adjusted their teachings to maintain the heresy but seem orthodox.

 

This is exactly what happened with Arianism.

 

Nobody wanted to be caught teaching pure Arianism.  Instead, what we now call semi-Arians began teaching Arianism lite.  They centered their twisting of Church teaching on the very word taught by the Council of Nicaea: homoousios.  Homoousios was too strong of a word, they held.  The Son couldn’t be the exact same substance of the Father.  So they proposed a different word, nearly identical in Greek: homoiousios.  The difference was one letter, but that one letter changed the entire meaning of the word.  Rather than speaking of the Father and the Son as the “same substance,” the semi-Arians taught that they were “of a similar substance.”  Close, but very different.  Something similar to another does not mean they are the same.

 

Many in the Church recognized this distinction, and they rejected the semi-Arian position.  However, in the intervening years since the Council, the semi-Arians had risen to ranks of influence in the Roman Empire, even into the court of Constantine (who was not yet baptized, and was receiving instruction in the Faith from semi-Arian catechists).  The result was a persecution of the Christians by the semi-Arians.  Bishops throughout the Church gave in to the heretics, some after severe torture.  The pope at the time, Pope Liberius, the first pope not recognized as a saint, was coerced into signing an ambiguous document which could be interpreted along the lines of Nicaea’s decrees, but could also be interpreted as a support of the semi-Arians.  Despite Liberius including a note saying he intended the statement to be interpreted according to the Church, the semi-Arians proceeded to use the statement as papal support for their position.

 

The whole matter finally ended not with another council, but with the rise of an ant-Christian Roman emperor.  Julian was baptized as a Christian in his youth, but because of the murderous actions of Constantine’s family after Constantine’s death, Julian vowed to reject Christianity and bring back paganism.  In an effort to expediate the demise of Christianity, he removed any official government protection for the semi-Arians.  Without that protection, the orthodox began preaching more vigorously to the semi-Arians, with orthodox bishops publicly speaking against the heresy.  Soon semi-Arianism was officially gone, thought it would crop up throughout Church history (some quasi-Christian groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, hold views similar to the Arians and semi-Arians).

 

That is why this line in the Nicene Creed is so important.  It is a reminder of not just the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation, but also the heroic strength of those who defended this truth.

 

 

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“Christ in Majesty” from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC

 

“Through him all things were made.”

 

This line from the Creed encapsulates the opening, rather bold, statement from the Gospel According to John, which begins, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:1-3).  Central to the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Creation is the providence of God.  We are not blindly made, started by some distant god who sets us on our merry, or miserable, way without guide or directions.  Rather, God carefully guides us to our destination.  That’s the ultimate meaning behind the book of Job, the answer to why God allows suffering.  Following the thought of Job, St. Paul echoes, regarding God, that “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

 

God made the world, and became incarnate as Jesus.  This flies in the face of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which I examined in some detail in a blog post long ago.  For our purposes, we’ll look at Gnosticism’s hatred of creation.  For the Gnostic, the physical world is evil, and it was made by an evil god, who trapped our poor spiritual souls in evil physical bodies.  Our spiritual salvation comes not at that creator god’s hand, but at the hands of the spiritual god, who taught us the secret of how to escape our evil physical bodies.  However, the Judeo-Christian view of creation encapsulated in the Creed is that the God who created is the source of our redemption.  By calling the Son the source of all of creation, we reaffirm that the Son is God, just as much as the Father is God.  

 

The Gnostics had an issue with the Incarnation.  How could a good god take on a physical body if bodies are evil?  This led to a version of Gnosticism called Docetism, which taught that Jesus’ body wasn’t a real body, more of a pretend one.  You see references to this in some of the Gnostic gospels, where the Apostles try to touch Jesus, and their hands pass through his body.  The Church’s response to these appears in the the center of the Creed, where we as Church affirm the great mystery of the Incarnation.  

 

And that will be the topic of our next reflection.  

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Reflection: I believe in One Lord Jesus Christ (part 1)

How many unfinished series did I start with this blog?  Sheesh!

 

This is the continuation of a series of reflections on the Creed, begun during the Year of Faith (which was begun by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and was concluded by Pope Francis in 2013).  Since we should always strive to grow closer to God, not just through years of Faith, I’ll pick up the reflections here.  This part of the series will look at what the Church teaches about Our Lord Jesus Christ.  As with previous parts of this reflection series, I will look at a section of the Creed each time.  If you want to read the previous reflections, you can find them here and here.

 

So then, let’s begin.

 

“I believe in One Lord Jesus Christ”

 

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JESUS!

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”  Too often that question is reserved for evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses or some Evangelical televangelist.  But it shouldn’t be.  It is a serious question that strikes at the deepest levels of our spiritual life.  Oftentimes, however, our beloved Protestant brothers in Faith seek too narrow of a relationship with Jesus.  Yes, you MUST accept Jesus as Lord and as Savior, for that is the first, not the last, step in a dynamic relationship with Him.  Catholics are called to a radical relationship, not just accepting Jesus (as if that was the only thing necessary for salvation) but living His will in the world.  To paraphrase a prayer attributed to St. Theresa of Avila, We are Christ to the world.  We are the hands and feet He uses to spread the Gospel.  This is the calling of EVERY Christian, no matter his or her denomination.  We cannot fulfill our mission without first accepting Jesus into our lives.  We cannot stop there; our act of Faith is not enough, for as the Epistle of St. James notes, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

The Creed uses the word “one” in reference to Jesus.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all.  This was the testimony at the proper time.”  There is only one Jesus, one moment where God entered into history (more on that later).  Jesus alone is Lord.  Not Caesar (Paul was writing in the Roman atmosphere) but Jesus, crucified for our sake.  We won’t get into the controversy over this verse and the veneration of saints.  I will merely say this: praying to saints is the same as asking someone to pray for you here on earth, only the saint is closer to God, being as the saint is in Heaven.

 

The word “Christ” is the anglicized version of Christos, which in turn is a Greek version of Mashiach (Messiah).  All of these words mean the same thing: “Anointed One.”  Christ is THE Anointed One of God.  There were many Christs throughout the Old Testament.  Anyone anointed priest, prophet, or king among the Israelites was a Messiah, a Christ.  But Jesus is THE Christ, the ultimate Anointed One, for He has in His person the fullness of priest, prophet, and king.

 

“The Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

There is a crisis of Faith in the Church; there is always such a crisis, as there was in the earliest moments of the Church (did not Judas leave the Last Supper to betray Our Lord?).  We see a similar crisis in the earliest Christian centuries, when the Church faced persecution and death at the hands of the Roman Empire.  In 313 that all changed.  In that pivotal year, Emperor Constantine promulgated the Edict of Milan, which granted Christianity the status of an accepted religion in the Roman Empire.  No longer were Christians hunted down and killed simply for their Creed.  Now churches could be built, preaching could commence on a grand scale, and Christian thinkers could meditate on the great mysteries of the Faith.

 

But with time to think, Christian thinkers began to question fundamental aspects of the Church’s theology.  A theological revolution erupted in Alexandria, Egypt when a priest named Arius, having reflected on the Scriptures, began teaching that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was not God, that He was just a creature like everything else (the highest creature, of course, but still a creature).  Arius was clever, brilliant even, and had an overabundance of charisma.  Many followed his teaching, and enormous pressure piled upon the pope and bishops to accept his heresy.  Riots broke out in the streets of the empire as men and women of both theological camps sought to beat out the heretics (both sides saw the other as heretics) and establish themselves as the dominant theological voice in the Church.

 

People took their beliefs a little more seriously back then.

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Serious debating for serious men!

Cries for a solution reached the ears of Emperor Constantine, and he called for bishops from around the Roman Empire to meet in a lovely city called Nicaea.  Even the pope sent representatives.  The debates between the bishops got intense (the story is that St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, punched Arius after hearing the heretic defiantly argue his heresies at the council), and eventually, the orthodox side won by a landslide (only two bishops voted against the Church’s teaching that the Son was God).

 

That should have settled the matter, but men being what they are, an even greater Arian crisis erupted.  Heretics of political power captured and killed those who stood against them.  It looked as if the Church would crumble.  As St. Jerome would later write, “The world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian.”  But the Church prevailed and today, very few so-called Christians claim that Jesus was not God.

 

The First Council of Nicaea clarified the Church’s teaching about Jesus.  At Mass, we recite the Nicene Creed, which is the statement of belief composed at that council (with some additions about the Holy Spirit composed at the First Council of Constantinople in 381).  The wording of each statement in this creed was carefully selected, each emphasizing the truth of Jesus’ divinity.  Hence, in the Creed we repeat the words of the Council’s declarations.  We acclaim Christ as God.  All of those phrases (“God from God, Light from Light”) get at the fundamental teaching of Nicaea, that the Son is God, just as much God as the Father.  There is no big God and little God.  There’s just God.  Words like “begotten” and “Light from Light” indicate that the Son has the same Divine Nature as the Father, no more and no less.  They are equally God, “consubstantial” to use the word in the Creed.

 

What’s that?  You don’t know what “consubstantial” means?

 

Well, I guess we’ll have to address that in the next post in this series.

 

 

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What are you doing for Lent?

Lent is a season of penance and preparation for the glorious Resurrection of Jesus.  It begins with the distribution of ashes and ends (if we include the mini-season of the Easter Triduum) with the darkness before the light of Easter Vigil.  Catholics around the world traditionally give up something for Lent, be it dessert or television or something else we love.  Yet too many of us stop there, limiting our Lenten observance to simply removing something.  Is it any wonder that Lent has become a time of moaning and groaning, of more sadness than joy?

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Preach it, Grumpy Cat. 

We ignore the Gospel for Ash Wednesday.  Christ tells us,

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matthew 6:16-18).

 

Lent isn’t a time for doom and gloom.  Lent is a time of preparation as well as penance.  We fast, but only to the extent that it brings us closer to Christ.  If our fast isn’t done with that goal in mind, then it would be a reason for gloomy faces and depressed comments.

 

But even in Lent, we are an Easter people.

 

That’s why I’m a big supporter of doing something for Lent.  There are lots of ways to approach this.  You could add some prayers to your daily routine (I’ve added a rosary on the way to work in the morning), or some spiritual reading (I’m reading Rediscover Jesus by Matthew Kelley) to draw closer to Christ in this holy season. 

 

If you do fast from something, make it count, but don’t go too far (as one priest I know put it, don’t become a penance for someone else!).  For example, for years I would give up drinking anything but water during Lent.  I did this for several years, and without fail I would get sick (lack of vitamins maybe?).  It might be more of a fast to do a limited amount of something you love, rather than cutting it out cold turkey.  So, in my case, this year I realized I waste a lot of time on Facebook (plus it gets me depressed half the time).  In response, I’ve limited my Facebook time to 15 minutes at most each day, but ONLY after I’ve done my spiritual reading AND written at least a paragraph for an article or blogpost (like this one :D).  

 

Of course, as I said, different people have different spiritual habits and do different penances and preparations during Lent.  The key, no matter what you do, is us the time of spiritual cleansing to prepare a place for our risen Lord who, in His infinite love, died for us so that we could be with Him forever in Heaven.  

 

So smile during Lent, carry your penance with the taste of Easter joy, and hopefully you will find yourself closer to Jesus, He who walks with you along the journey and waits for you at the mouth of the empty tomb.  

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Reflection on Laudato Si by Pope Francis (Part VI)

Did you think I forgot about this series?  Yes? 

 

Well, I didn’t!

 

I mean, I kinda did, but I REALLY didn’t.

 

In light of recent comments by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” despite China’s consistently messy human rights record and it’s dishonor of having two of the top ten most polluted cities in the world within its borders, it seems like the right time to reopen your copy of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si (or read it online) and look at what the Holy Father has said about properly implementing the Church’s social teachings in light of a true human ecology.  

 

You can read parts I through V by following the links on Part V

 

Here’s Part VI.  

 

In Chapter Five of Laudato Si, Pope Francis addresses the environmental movement, in particular the international efforts and organizations which have sought to solve the modern ecological crisis.  While many people place the burden of fixing the environment on such organizations, Pope Francis seems to have his doubts and his disappointments with such groups, at least as they are currently organized.  Francis laments that “the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide” (164).  The issue isn’t that no countries are addressing the ecological crises that we face today; the problem is that each country is not working with all of the other countries to provide a lasting solution, not simply one tainted by political parties (166).  Civil groups have worked to help the planet and defend human rights, but they can only do so much when they do not have the cooperation of the world’s governments. 

 

The Holy Father does mention some progress in this vein, such as the work of the Basel Convention, which helps regulate the international movement and disposal of hazardous waste (168).  However, the big risk in any enviro-political discussion is the dignity of the poor and poorer countries.  Proposed solutions to ecological problems will cost a lot of money, and too often the bill is left at the feet of poorer people and countries (170).  A solution that helps the developed world might completely ignore the human needs of the developing world (172).  There is a need for a “true world political authority,” as Benedict XVI stated in Caritas in Veritate (see Laudato Si 175)

There is no one solution to every environmental issue, and there isn’t one solution to the same problem in different parts of the world, “because each country or region has its own problems and limitations” (Laudato Si 180).  The laws set in place in a country cannot change with the arrival of new political parties into office.  These laws must transcend the political divide, and politicians must see in them the long-term solutions to problems, rather than their own short-term political gains (181).  We see this issue especially in our own country, where a law passed by a government of one political party will be amended or removed as soon as the other party comes into office.  The laws helping the environment (or defending fundamental rights, like the right to life) must not fall into that category. 

 

The discussion over environmental laws should not stem from certain business propositions.  In other words, one should not wait until an economic factor arises to discuss the protection of the environment.  Instead, environmental discussions should play a part in all other discussions, including those dealing with human well-being and working conditions.  Repeatedly the Pope emphasizes the evils of consumerism and how such a lifestyle ruins our relationships with others and the world.  We can use new technologies without making our focus be how much we can get out of them.  We can use technology to help the world (see 184-187 for more on this). 

 

Paragraph 188 has a short, but important reminder from Pope Francis.  With all his discussion of scientific findings regarding the environment or the problems with modern political and economic systems, the Holy Father takes a moment to remind everyone that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”  Many writers falsely claimed that Pope Francis somehow added human-caused climate change to the teachings of the Church.  He did not, and reminds us of that here.  

 

Returning to political issues, Pope Francis notes that “Politics must not be subject to the economy,” meaning that one should not make all political decisions based on economic policies, such as saving banks or bailing out companies.  The Holy Father notes that many nations wasted a perfect opportunity to reevaluate their economic and political structures when responding to the economic crisis of 2007/2008.  Decisions should have been made in light of the common good and respect for all people; instead, many nations continued using the economic structures that did more harm than good in the past.  “The problem of the real economy is not confronted with vigour, yet it is the real economy which makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well, and enables small and medium businesses to develop and create employment” (189).  More funding and research should be put into working with our environment, such as sustainable use of natural resources and finding methods of production that do not harm the environment (191).  Likewise, economic growth should be examined in light of human dignity so that a location’s quality of life does not diminish in light of developments (194).   Economies shouldn’t be about maximizing profits, but rather about serving the citizens of a country. 

 

The key to all of this is subsidiarity (196).  Subsidiarity allows smaller groups in society to govern certain aspects of society, rather than having them all fall under the control of the government.  For example, disciplinary issues in a school should be dealt with by school personal.  If for some reason the issue reaches beyond the scope of the school, the local police get involved.  But the local police do not get involved if the matter can be dealt with at the smaller level.  This is a basic tenant of the Church’s social doctrine.  Pope Francis is evoking this teaching in regards to his discussion of politics and economics.  Too top heavy politics and economics do not leave room for the little guy, and often lead to the oppression of smaller units in society (we see this sort of discussion come up in the USA when politicians debate states’ rights issues).  When the various levels of a society work together, when politics, economics, and ethics unite, “we see how true it is
that ‘unity is greater than conflict'” (198, quoting Evangelii Gaudium, 228).  

 

Pope Francis concludes this chapter with a reflection on how Faith can play a role in all of this.  Against proponents of scientism, the Holy Father notes that science cannot explain “the whole of reality,” and that reasoning with science alone leaves “little room . . . for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things” (199).  If we lose sight of our purpose as human beings, of the greater good of society, of our place in God’s plan for creation, we will likewise lose our ability to protect our common home.  Above all, dialogue is needed between groups of believers and branches of science.  “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that ‘realities are greater than ideas'” (201, quoting Evangelii Gaudium, 231).  

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