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Observations on Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity on Its 50th Anniversary

Introduction to Christianity is modest in scope and intention, and conspicuously eschews the originality that has become the standard in appraising excellence in academic theology over the past decades. Yet despite these disadvantages, it has become a classic in David Tracy’s sense in that over a period of 50 years it has spoken in shifting intellectual environments to professors of theology, college students, mothers and fathers of college students, religious searchers, to Catholics in parishes who wish to better know their Christian faith and pass it on, and to Catholics who have lapsed either because of scandals in the Church or the perception that Christian faith is not relevant to their lives. The book has exercised enormous influence because of its deep rootedness in the Catholic tradition, the simplicity of its faith, the personal warmth that it exudes, and its marvelous clarity and economy of expression. Perhaps more than any other text Benedict wrote, this one best shows him as teacher. But teacher not only in the thoughtfulness and patience exhibited in the text that readers …

Confusing the Self-Emptying Love of the Cross with Political Power

Recently, First Things asked a group of “younger” Catholics to sign a letter related to the substantiated charges of sexual abuse against Theodore McCarrick. I signed this letter (despite my identity as a “former” young person who is moving toward forty), disgusted that the promise to protect the young made by the bishops in 2002 has been broken. Much of my young adult life has unfolded in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. In 2002, my former bishop, Anthony J. O’Connell resigned from the Diocese of Palm Beach, having admitted to molesting children in his charge at St. Thomas Aquinas Preparatory Seminary. As a member of the diocesan youth Council in Knoxville, if this bishop had not been moved to Palm Beach, FL, I would have spent the night at his house at what was once an innocently named event, “Bunking with the Bish.” In 2003, my undergraduate seminarian classmates were pulled into our common space so that we could hear about Fr. Sam Peters, CSC—popular rector of Sorin Hall at Notre Dame. Fr. …

The Specter of a Sweeping Rewrite of Catholic Sexual Teachings

Last week, Pope Francis approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. While the previous iteration already declared licit use of capital punishment to be “practically non-existent,” the new wording strengthens this stance, pronouncing the death penalty “inadmissible.” This change has prompted a flurry of speculation, from various media outlets, anticipating a sweeping rewrite of those Catholic teachings that most offend contemporary sensibilities—namely, Catholic sexual morality. Francis Debernardo, writing for The Advocate, cites the catechism revision as proof that the Vatican has “evolved,” and that any Church teaching can thus be altered following “decades of theological debate and discussion.” Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher begrudgingly agrees with Debernardo, calling the Pope’s Catechism edit a “big win” for LGBT Catholics who want to change Church teaching: “I wish [Debernardo] were wrong. I don’t think he is.” The revised section appeals to the principle of human dignity in its condemnation of capital punishment, and Debernardo argues that LBGT advocates can invoke this same principle to usher a new sexual …

Modern Biology’s Contribution to Our Understanding of Christ’s Sufferings

It is common to come across internet articles, television documentaries, or advertisements for books in the days and weeks preceding Easter detailing scientifically the nature and extent of the sufferings experienced by Christ during his Passion. From these you graduate from a notional apprehension of the sufferings of Christ understood abstractly and instead begin to grasp his Passion more realistically and painfully. For example, one might read of the tremendous suffering that Christ endured while his hands and feet were nailed to the Cross, which would have pierced a number of major nerves, sending waves of excruciating pain up and down his limbs. Each and every breath on the Cross would have become more and more difficult and agonizing, since to breathe while nailed to the Cross entailed using the nails in his wrists as leverage against which to lift his body to inhale and exhale. Or, to use another example, some scientists estimate that Christ would have lost anywhere from a quarter to a third of his blood supply by being scourged at the …

The Unsung Russian Forerunner of the Death Penalty’s Demise in Catholic Teaching

In Pope Francis’s amendment to the Catechism’s §2267, we see a sense of progressive development applied to the Church in the world. That we should only now fully realize “in the light of the Gospel” that the death penalty is inadmissible is likely to elicit concern from those wary of novelty. Pope Francis’s letter to the bishops concerning this change points out that this language should be no surprise, since similar things were said on the subject by Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, as well as by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2008 in its document The Bible and Morality: In the course of history and of the development of civilization, the Church too, meditating on the Scriptures, has refined her moral stance on the death penalty and on war, which is now becoming more and more absolute. Underlying this stance, which may seem radical, is the same anthropological basis, the fundamental dignity of the human person, created in the image of God (Bible and Morality: The Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct, …

Cultivating Benedictine Wonder

I awake in the middle of the night, as I do most nights here, with muscles complaining about the hundreds of hay bales I loaded into a barn the day before. It is half past 2AM. The Guest House at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is black and silent, but some 800 meters away in the chapel, an assembly of nuns is awake and keeping watch with the sanctuary lamp. It is the hour of Matins. By the time I rise at 8:00, the flowers have been watered, the cows milked, the sheep sent to pasture, the cat found and fed, the grapevines inspected, and the bread dough set out to rise. I gulp a cup of Folgers and hike up the hill to the Church of Jesu Fili Mariae for Mass. A bell rings, and from behind the wrought iron grille, the nuns process into the sanctuary, bowing to the altar and to one another before taking their places in the choir stalls. Mother Abbess intones the prayer: Deus, in adjutorium meum intende. The …

The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients

I f I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies—one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish …

Humanae Vitae in Light of the War Against Female Fertility

It is startling for those living in a society that so relies on contraception to learn that, for nearly two millennia, every Christian denomination prohibited the use of contraception, even within marriage. This common front first cracked in 1930 when, at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church made a limited exception for the use of contraceptives by husband and wife.[1] Within the half-century that followed, the pro-contraception view mutated from an anomalous exception into the dominant strain of conventional opinion. Accordingly, dissent from the Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception is common coin, even (or perhaps especially) among Catholic theologians. Stephen Pope, a Boston College theologian, told a television reporter, “I would say the encyclical [Humanae vitae, affirming the Church’s teaching on contraception] was one of the worst things that happened to the Catholic Church in the twentieth century.”[2] In fact, it is easier to find a theologian who dissents from this teaching than to find one who agrees. Such birth-control boosterism is especially predominant among theologians who matured in the hothouse of dissent in the 1960’s, …

Ora et Labora: Christians Don’t Need Leisure

We Christians, no less than other human creatures, are interested in ourselves. Deformed versions of this interest are narcissistic: under that rubric, we think of ourselves as if we were intrinsically valuable and important and good, and then we forget that whatever value, importance, and goodness we have has been given to us by the triune LORD whom we worship. That gift denies us anything of our own. Less deformed versions of our concern with ourselves begin and end with the thought that we are creatures, brought into being out of nothing by our LORD for purposes scarcely apparent to us. Thinking about ourselves in this way has the double good of requiring us to think about our LORD, and of deflating our pretensions. It is not easy to think like that, however; narcissism was not abolished by Jesus, even if its eventual overcoming is assured, and a good deal of Christian theological anthropology, professional-hectoring and popular-sentimental both, shows narcissism’s deleterious effects. We Christians remain disposed to concern about how the world seems to us …

The Benedictine Charism of Slow Evangelization

I had the opportunity to spend a week in June at Saint Anselm Abbey in Manchester, New Hampshire for the annual Junior Summer School for Benedictine monks who have made simple vows. Thirty juniors from various communities in the United States, from both the Swiss-American and American-Cassinese congregations, participated in liturgies, attended conferences, and ate meals in community. The week we spent together reminded us how our Benedictine way of life continues to be a model for the entire Church, even after sixteen centuries. One of the activities we participated in was a seminar on the upcoming Synod for Youth, Discernment, and Vocations taking place in Rome this October. Abbot Elias Lorenzo, O.S.B, the Abbot President of the American-Cassinese Congregation, led us juniors in a discussion about what we can do, both individually and within our communities, to evangelize young people in the 21st century. We divided into four small groups and answered prompts about the challenges facing the Church when evangelizing young people. Young people were defined as men and women, ages 18 to …