All posts filed under: Articles

The Catholicity of Catholicism: Salvation Cannot Occur in Isolation

One of the most striking aspects of Pope Francis’s ministry is his constant insistence that “the Church must step outside herself,” and foster a “culture of encounter” with others.[1] The essential insight of this mission is the recognition that others “all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God.”[2] Pope Francis’s theological focus on dialogue and encounter presents a hermeneutic for interpreting and realizing the vision of the Church set out by the Second Vatican Council. In this regard, he is indebted to the theologians who preceded and shaped the Council, especially those who emphasized a return to the early Christian sources, a movement known as Ressourcement. Although he rarely utilizes direct quotations, Pope Francis’s words reflect the language and ethos of the ressourcement theologians. In particular, several key concepts and themes from the work of Henri de Lubac, a fellow Jesuit and explicitly recognized as a significant influence by Pope Francis, consistently reoccur in the pope’s theology.[3] According to de Lubac, humanity’s vocation is essentially communal. …

Whence Comes the Arresting Sorrow of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa?

At Jasna Góra There is David’s Ladder which Angels ascend and descend Holy envoys, reconciling man, With God.[1] Watching my three daughters during the Christmas season is not exactly a tranquil experience. What begins with an honest and innocent desire to play and re-tell the Christmas story using Playmobil or Fontanini nativity figurines ends up in a squabble over who gets to hold the kitschy statue of Mary and play with her (detachable!) veil, resulting in looks of self-satisfaction in the one who in the end possesses Mary, and tragic resentment on the part of those who are stuck with a dinky shepherd instead. Like my girls, I have been fascinated by this woman since my childhood. She has beckoned and drawn me, and waited for me, wherever it is that she has led me. When I encountered her in her home on Jasna Gora in Częstochowa at the age of nine, I knew she was my queen, my mother, my protectress, my patroness, and my advocate. But I did not know why. I found myself …

Žižek Has a Lot to Say About Christ, but Should the Church Listen?

Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has a lot to say about Jesus Christ, which might not appear terribly out of place in the present journal, especially during a month devoted to discussing the ecclesial imagination. It is his other qualifiers, however, that mark him an unlikely candidate. Žižek is perhaps one of the world’s most important leftist intellectuals, an ardent Marxist, resolute materialist, committed atheist, and, paradoxically, a “faithful Christian,” though Žižek himself will provide the terms for being the latter. My present intentions in writing about Žižek and his thinking about Jesus are pure, I hope, aiming only to pose the question whether or not Žižek deserves to blip the Catholic radar. Even the most casual of armchair theologians will be rightly wary enough of intellectual trends that announce themselves on the theological scene—“Finally, a new kind of Christianity!”—only to recede back into the ether, often leaving the less than faint impression that a good deal of time had been wasted and attention misdirected. The popularity of Slavoj Žižek in both academic …

The Saint for a Troubled Church

With so many issues troubling the Church and world at large, it can often be a difficult to get a grasp on these problems and identify practical solutions. But there is a Saint who faced similar challenges in his own time who can help us realize the grace and peace that God has given us. Saint Bonaventure joined the Franciscan order and was an academic by training, but he was also a great preacher and confessor. Recognized as a man of wisdom and talent, at the age of 36, he was elevated to the post of Minister General of the Order, a position he held for nearly 17 years, before being named Cardinal. One of the Doctors of the Church, Bonaventure is an remarkable spiritual master and theologian, but also a fantastic administrator and leader, who can help us chart a path that both clings to the Gospel ideals of Jesus, but also recognizes the importance of moving in the direction of the current times of the world. He is a great exemplar for us …

Epiphany: It’s Foolish to Pretend It’s Easy to Remember the Poor

As so often happens when I look Christ in the eye, at first I didn’t realize it. In fact, I was rather disgruntled. My twelve year-old brother had enrolled our family in the local Salvation Army Christmas Assistance Program, wherein we would bring gifts to a family on the other side of town. Although it is a lovely program and I was glad to see my brother take initiative, serious doubts vexed me. What difference does it make if we meet this family once; wouldn’t it be better if we established a long term relationship with them? Wasn’t it offensive that we were condescending from our comfortable economic position to gawk at their poverty; wouldn’t it be better if we accompanied them in their poverty by voluntarily sharing in it? Finally, weren’t we aiding and abetting the commercialization of Christmas, teaching this family our own exhausting materialism; wouldn’t it be better if we gave spiritual gifts rather than material ones? When we arrived in South Omaha to deliver the gifts, I brought my questions and …

Now We Must Dismantle the Tree

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes— Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic. So begins the somewhat bleak conclusion of W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being. Written in 1944, in the thick of what surely must have been difficult series Christmases for war-torn Europe and its American ally, Auden’s Christmas oratorio concludes the story of Christ’s birth with a final statement on the dissatisfaction of the Christmas season. Auden treats on our own failure to live into the vision of love witnessed at the feast, on our desire to distract ourselves from the present moment with tribulation or joy. But, here we are, after the Christmas season ends, with ordinary time, a upsetting juxtaposition with the rich liveliness of the season of the feast. Auden’s portrait of the harsh contrast between the Christmas season and “the time being,” conflicts sharply with most American Christians’ (author included) preferred pictures of the Christmas season, wrapped in the glow of comfort …

97 Aphorisms and Apothegms Inspired by Reading John Henry Newman

Pascal is right in much of what says about grace, right in some of what he says about sin, and entirely wrong with regard to what he says about their relationship. The “average man” elevated by self-pronounced realists is a lemming, not only a symptom of the failure to thrive but even to begin. Whether we want it or not a human being is the tensile string between saint and sinner. The “average man” is a modern construct. He arises in an age of capital, when one man wishes to exploit another and feel good about it. The best way of complimenting Adam Smith is to ignore what he says about money, and listen to what he says about the affections. The “average man” is a fiction that institutes the power of number. The mediocre many can be adduced against the few who are excellent.  Lacking in the modern view of the “average man” is the sense of scale. Historical Christianity certainly recognized mediocrity and gave it cover. What distinguishes it from modern or liberal …

The Church Life Journal “Carols of Christmas” Spotify Playlist

For my money, there is no better time for music than Christmastime. Whether sung by a choir of off-key, adorable preschoolers, or performed by a group of professionals, the carols of Christmas constitute some of the most beautiful, most profound music that has ever been written, all for the sake of helping us celebrate the moment when God definitively stepped in to human history with the birth of Jesus, the Only-Begotten Son, the Word-made-flesh. And so, as with our Advent playlist, once again I’ve turned to Spotify to assemble a playlist for the Christmas season. Even more so here than with the Advent playlist, I quickly discovered that it is impossible to include everything. The first version of this playlist was almost 6 hours long. It could have been longer. But after a great deal of thought and an even greater deal of exploring new-to-me recordings, I’ve whittled it down to a scant 47 songs, or 2 hours and 32 minutes worth of music. Again, as with the Advent list, this is a sampling which I …

Am I the Mother of Christ?

A famous reading in the Advent Liturgy of the Hours from Isaac of Stella, Cistercian abbot and contemporary of Bernard of Clairvaux, makes the claim that, among other things, the Christian believer can, like Mary, be a mother of Christ. Beyond the breviary, this has actually become a kind of spiritual commonplace. Every believer can conceive Christ through his or her faith, in a way analogous to Mary. Speaking for myself, I have never known what to make of this comparison. It seems to rest on the double meaning of the word “conceive:” one can conceive in one’s mind, and one can conceive in the womb. But, methinks, these are really, really different realities despite the double entendre. For that reason, perhaps, the comparison has always seemed inert to me, leaving me utterly unmoved. What actually does move me is the wondrous virginal conception of the Word of God in the womb of Mary, the great Mother of God, something so much more stupendous and altogether more marvelous than the metaphorical version of my conception …

Further Reflections on Capital Punishment (and on Edward Feser)

According to Edward Feser, I seem “to think that the moral demands of the Gospel apply in exactly the same way to both the private sphere and the public sphere.” And this, he goes on to say, “is not only not the Catholic position, it is not even the Eastern Orthodox position. It is merely David Bentley Hart’s personal theological position, and he simply asserts it without argument.” Ah. Except that I don’t, and never have (though neither would I necessarily reject the proposition, since it seems a claim more dangerous to deny than to affirm; I would need to know precisely what “in exactly the same way” means in Feser’s mind.) I can see the cause of the confusion, however. The issue is capital punishment, and Feser’s angry expostulation comes near the end of his rancorous reply to two extremely bad reviews—one by me, one by Paul Griffiths—of the “Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment” that he and Joseph Bessette recently published under the title By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. Now, in fact, nowhere in …