All posts filed under: Articles

A Quasi-Defense of Gallicanism

Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s article on the recent (mis)use of the term “ultramontane” as an insult rightly pointed out certain pitfalls afflicting the contemporary Catholic conversation about papal authority and our duties towards it. Some recent rhetoric indeed risks “moving the goalposts” in unhealthy ways. Both the “traditional” and the “progressive” have been guilty of this, especially during the papacies of Bendict XVI and Francis, respectively. I cringed during the papacy of Benedict XVI when I heard a Ratzinger devotee gleefully advance the thesis that, in light of the expanded permission to celebrate the Latin Mass in Summorum Pontificum (2007), from now on all good Catholics ought to anticipate the mens (will) of the Holy Father by attending both forms (not follow his teaching, but anticipate his mens!). Now in the age of Francis the shoe (though not, apparently, the red slipper) is on the other foot, and Francis-cheerers gloat about brow-beating their opponents over everying from climate change, to Amoris laetitia, to the death penalty amendation/development. Some of these folks are open about their schadenfreude at …

The Orthodox Schism Under Western Eyes

A schism is underway between two major Orthodox Churches, one with significance for Catholicism. And yet, in Catholic media the phenomenon—called by many the biggest split in modern Orthodoxy history—has gone conspicuously unnoticed. A single Catholic News Agency article from October 14th summarizes the problem tellingly and laconically: The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, claiming his recognition of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine departed from Orthodox Christian norms . . . . . . Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority. There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in 1054. Something is afoot that should capture the Catholic imagination. It has something to do with unity, authority, and Apostolic Christianity. Its precise meaning, however, remains elusive not …

Kneeling Theology: Believing in Order to See Scripture

At the very center of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, both as pope and as a private theologian, is an awareness of the absolute necessity of the conversion of one’s whole self to Christ within the wider communal life of the Church. According to Lieven Boeve, conversion is for Ratzinger “the most fundamental structure of the Christian faith . . . In almost all of his writings from the 1960’s to the 1980’s this theme surfaces over and over again.”[1] It is an essential element of the Christian state of life, because at the heart of Christianity stands the person of Jesus Christ, the Christian’s recognition that he is not Christ, and the incessant clarion call that one must become more and more subsumed into Christ’s very life and person. And, if one hears and accepts the call to conversion and commits the whole of one’s self to God time and again, then by the grace of God one acquires a certain holiness of life. Faith, conversion, and holiness, then, all go hand-in-hand with one …

Joseph Ratzinger Is Not a Platonist

The sacramental theology of Joseph Ratzinger is categorized by the Belgian systematic theologian Lieven Boeve as a pre-modern “neo-Platonic Augustinian vision of the world.”[1] According to Boeve, Ratzinger remains dependent on a metaphysics characterized by a distinction between the visible and the invisible. In Boeve’s narrative, Ratzinger is uncritically attached to an eternal grounding that is outside of the rite itself, a transcendence that brackets materiality and the particularity of existence in the world. The way forward in sacramental theology for Boeve is a postmodern dialectic of interruption between transcendence and immanence: “The sacramentality of life, clarified and celebrated in the sacraments, is no longer considered as participation in a divine being . . . but as being involved in the tension arising from the irruption of the divine Other into our human narratives, to which the Christian narrative testifies from of old.”[2] The sacramental structure of Christian existence is not entrance into some eternal world outside of time but an interruption of divine Otherness into the present. For Boeve, as he argues elsewhere, this …

After Galileo: Modern Science Has Deep Parallels with Theology

Galileo is probably best known for his work The Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, the book that triggered his ill-fated encounter with the Inquisition. However, when it comes to Galileo’s role in shaping our understanding of the modern scientific enterprise, it is his 1623 work The Assayer that has had a much larger impact. In one of the most quoted lines in the book, Galileo sums up his view of science, a view that has come to dominate our understanding of science ever since: Philosophy is written in this grand book the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth. Galileo saw, clearer than most, the uncanny ability of …

A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism

The term “ultramontanism” has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent Catholic conversations as a pejorative used by both traditional and progressive Catholics. In so doing, both sides align themselves with doctrinal heterodoxy. Brian Flanagan has recently published a brief study of the term in the National Catholic Reporter, noting the return of the term in “First Things, The New York Times, and the Catholic blogosphere and Twitter.”  Like those involved with the term in Catholic journalism and social media, Flanagan too misunderstands the Church’s teaching on ultramontanism. The extension of the term has shifted in recent years. During the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, it was used against traditionally-minded Catholics (those who lauded Pope Benedict’s words, actions, and even shoes) by those who would self-identify as progressive. Today, traditionally-minded Catholics use the term against the progressive or liberal members of the Church who treat interviews with Pope Francis as infallible. In short, a perceived shift between the academic-conservative papacy of Benedict and the pastoral-collegial papacy of Francis has effected a shift regarding who …

The Stare of Medusa and the Return Gaze of Christ

It is just one of Nietzsche’s many bon mots that if one stares at evil long enough it looks back. As is usual with Nietzsche there is an implied boast. We divide into the strong and the weak depending on whether we can or are willing to endure this look or looking back. Nietzsche leaves us in no doubt as to which camp he belongs in, even if with all the bravado about amor fati we sometimes get the impression in reading him that he is expecting as much our pity as our admiration. Still, the aphorism is powerful, and it is powerful not only because it is scintillating in its expression, but because it is experientially apt. Over the centuries, as they looked at and into the world, victims as well as victimizers have experienced the force of that look or counter-look that announced that all hope should be abandoned and that our abused flesh empty itself of everything that makes it human and all will to be human. With regard to victims we …

The Contemporary Question of Images and Early Christian Art

“Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions,”[1] notes Cardinal Ratzinger, in the chapter “The Question of Images” of his three-volume work The Spirit of the Liturgy. There he examines the contemporary crisis of art through a detailed history of the image and the icon. He invites us to remember the purpose of Christian art, and of art in general, by looking back at the liturgical and mystical power of early Christian visual exegesis. Our earliest dated examples of Christian art are from the third century, and they are mostly found in funerary contexts, particularly in the frescoes in the Roman catacombs. These images: Simply take up and develop the canon of images already established by the synagogue, while giving it a new modality of presence. The individual events are now ordered toward the Christian sacraments and to Christ himself. Noah’s ark and the crossing of the Red Sea now point to Baptism. The sacrifice of Isaac and …

Robots Without Families: On Identity and Organic Continuity

When Pascal constructed his calculating machine in 1642, it did not matter that the thing looked like a jewelry box. The “Pascaline” was not meant to simulate human appearance but to perform a function previously possible only for the human mind. In contrast, it matters very much to some present-day robot-makers and users in rather different commercial spheres, such as markets for artificial friends or lovers, that their creations can simulate the look and feel of a human being well enough to satisfy a customer—for a few moments at least. Engineers are working to make robots sufficiently lifelike to make a person forget about their willing suspension of disbelief, or to have diminished qualms about interacting with a machine as if it were a human. Here I would like to provide some taxonomic distinctions to clarify our discussion. The difference between Pascal’s invention and the goal of these robot-makers reflects the difference between what I would call computational artificial intelligence vs. complete artificial intelligence. The Pascaline, and computers in general, could rightly be called a …

Does Darwinian Evolution Naturally Petrify the Image of God?

Hello, human being, hummus from the soil. You are lowly, yet magnificent. You have been pulled up from the earth and breathed into life by YHWH. You are made in his image. Your wiry limbs and curious eyes somehow make visible the hidden things of God. Come, name the other creatures, those body-beings who are like you, but also not like you. You are the Namer; they are the Named. You come out of Eden, where there is a four-branched river that waters the land, and also several trees. Human being, you come from Eden, yet you do not come from Eden. You come from Africa, from your mitochondrial mother. You are homo sapiens, of the genus homo. You are a bipedal hominid, a big-brained ape, with perhaps a trace of Neanderthal DNA. You are made by God, in the image of God, and you have also been made by nature, through the engine of change, over the span of two thousand millennia. How can this be? * The principle of unassailable human dignity is …