All posts filed under: Articles

Dostoevsky’s Literary Burden of Representing Saints

Perhaps no one in the history of modern literature was as conscious as Dostoevsky regarding the literary burden taken on when it came to presenting or representing an unassailably good person. Such a depiction was weighed down with representational disadvantages: it took talent but was not impossible to depict a great sinner who undergoes conversion or is capable of such; it took a unique talent, someone of Dostoevsky’s psychological acuity, to lay bare the psyche of the person alienated from others, self, and God and free-falling into incoherence. But how to depict a truly good man, indeed, a man who is nothing short of a saint, someone who has died to self and made himself available to others, was a task for which Dostoevsky was unsure that his or indeed anyone’s literary gifts were a match. Hagiography is a genre of long-standing, but no modern writer confuses it with literature, which requires characters that are not only believable in the modern world, but show the capacity to negotiate and transcend it. But just such a …

The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology

Screams and applause and “Hail to the Chief” greeted President Obama as he walked onstage to deliver the 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, the weekend during which I formally received my doctorate in Catholic moral theology. On the other side of campus, protestors were rallying against the President’s legislative record on prenatal children—consistently the worst of any successful presidential candidate in history. I was present at the main commencement, because unlike the protestors I approved of Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president and confer on him an honorary doctorate. Obama was not the first president so honored with a record fundamentally at odds with Catholic moral teaching, and for me the opportunity to open a dialogue on abortion was simply too important. Still, given the scale of abortion’s injustice, I understood the protestors’ concerns. And I was distraught to see how, thanks in part to polarizing media coverage, U.S. Catholic culture was being riven by the debate. I went from Notre Dame to Fordham, where, as a young idealistic assistant professor, I was …

Zen and the Rich Young Man

Much of everyday life is a dialogue with our desires. These include, most basically, positive desires—what I like, what I find interesting or funny, what is relaxing or entertaining, what I eat, read, think, say, do, love, even—and negative desires—what I dislike, what I fear, what I disagree with, what I am discouraged by, what is uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, painful, hateful, even. I will attempt to now trace a recent attempt of mine to confront this scrolling social-media-feed of personal desires and distractions head on, and what it illuminated for me concerning the spiritual life. The main protagonist, however, will be Zen Buddhism, and my brief glimpse of it while in a week-long residency at the Zen Center of New York City (ZCNYC): Fire Lotus Temple. Specifically, I hope to show how this all too brief immersion as a Catholic in Buddhist life not only deepened my appreciation for the spiritual richness (or paradoxically, spiritual poverty) of Zen Buddhism, but also how this encounter opened up Scripture to me in important ways, and refocused some of …

Why Is Christian Citizenship a Paradox?

The French Catholic press Ad Solem in early 2015 published my book on political philosophy entitled There Is No Power But of God (Tout pouvoir vient de Dieu), which outlined a much more expansive program of research on the relationship between theology and politics that I am working on at present. In general terms, this book was framed as a reflection upon the formulation of Saint Paul in Romans 13:1. It put the common political interpretation of this passage to the test of a historical, philosophical, and theological reception, whose most prominent landmarks are to be found in the Fathers of the Church, especially in Saint Justin, Tertullian, and Saint Augustine. The major aim of this book consisted in demonstrating that this formulation does not expound a Christian political doctrine, but rather a way of conceiving Christian citizenship in light of the requirements of the universal common good. Beyond the historical insight of this book, its readers are sure to grasp its contemporary relevance at a time when so much violence is seeking religious justification. However, …

The Catholic Resistance to Corporatized College

In 1986, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay with the long title, “How Christian Universities Contribute to the Corruption of Youth: Church and University in a Confused Age,”[1] reminiscent of the accusation against Socrates, but ultimately siding with the Athens of our day. This came to mind as I was recently teaching Marx’s Manifesto and reflected upon our academic penchant for turning Marx outward rather than towards our own sacred cows, so to speak. What should we find were we to turn his critique against the realm of higher education as many of us experience it today? We need not be Marxists of the orthodox persuasion, of course, but at least use him as a jumping off point. Some thin description of the college experience is necessary first. Somewhere in the United States, let us say Idaho, a young person receives to great joy their college acceptance letter and, close on its heels, a letter regarding either discounts to tuition or loans which will sum to a rather large number by the end of their college …

Discipleship Isn’t as Exciting as Youth Ministry Makes It Seem

At first glance, ministry to young people in the United States is flourishing. In high school youth ministry, American Catholics attend national programs including the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC), the Steubenville and Lifeteen conferences, and mission trips. Young adult ministry, although underfunded, is active in many American dioceses. Over the course of a year, young adults can attend frequent theologies on tap, go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or walk the Camino, attend weekly Mass with one’s peers, and go to World Youth Day. To a disinterested observer, the path toward renewing youth and young adult ministry is nothing more radical than investing even more in such programming. The success of such ministry, at the same time, carries the seeds of its own destruction. Ministry to young people in the United States relies almost entirely on the transformative power of events. The individual is personally moved through an encounter with a colossal number of young people actively practicing faith such as at NCYC; a walk on the Camino, which produces a religious …

Benedict XVI Beyond the Liturgy Wars

Long before he assumed the Petrine Office, Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the important role occupied by music in the life of the Church. His love of music began with a childhood he himself described as “Mozartian.” Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a musical family; his father sang tenor and played the zither, and his mother frequently sang Marian hymns, often while washing dishes. Joseph himself studied piano beginning around the age of ten and counted Beethoven, Bach, and especially Mozart among his favorite composers. Although he later left the formal study of music to his older brother Georg, Joseph never lost his enthusiasm for the beauty of music, nor his reverence for its power to open a person up to an encounter with the divine. His writings speak eloquently of the connection between music and theology and the implications of this connection for the liturgical life of the Church. For many in parish music ministry today, the “style” question remains a hot-button issue: Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, hymnody, and praise and worship are not simply …

Contributions Towards a Structural Analysis of the Catholic Abuse Crisis

Child abuse is always a horrendous crime. Nevertheless, Catholics sometimes think the abuse scandal mostly does harm to the Church, because some Catholics use the scandal to further their own agendas such as the lifting of obligatory celibacy for priests. Everything changes when you come to know a victim of child sexual abuse personally, especially if they are a friend of yours or someone you have known for many years. Abuse becomes a visible problem when it is given a face. When that happens both sadness and outrage follow. The ultimate aim of questions raised about coping with the abuse, and the new perspectives that answers to them raise, must be oriented towards a hoped for healing of the survivors and their families. As more details about clerical child abuse become known there are two possible approaches for a responsible coping with what has happened. The first approach is reflection upon the reasons why this massive abuse by clerics in the Catholic Church happened (1). There are various causes for the abuse: individual causes (1.1) …

Reading the News as a Spiritual Exercise

We know there is a problem with the way we disseminate, consume, and respond to the news. We also generally share some sense of where the problem lies. It has something to do with a complex interaction of factors like the structure of digital media, the industries that support those technologies, and our cultural, economic, and political climate. Somehow those factors both foster and are fostered by trends such as narrowing echo chambers, a fractured accountability to diverse publics, comments that fail to respect and engage others, decreasing attention spans, and the exhaustion and despair that fester before the parade of emergencies that counts our days and disciplines our emotions like a liturgical calendar. Something is wrong with how we pursue the truth together in a digital society. Reasonable suggestions for how to address this problem generally come in two flavors. The first approach emphasizes the structure of our news technologies and the corporations that develop and profit from them. We must fix Google, Facebook, and Twitter through legislation and consumer pressure. The second approach …