All posts filed under: Essays

The Practice of Catholicism and Modern Identity

We are products of our zeitgeist more than we sometimes understand or admit. The Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends time and place, but Catholics themselves are not immune from the influences of the period in which they are born. Simply by virtue of living in the contemporary age, modern Catholics are presented with a set of peculiar difficulties that either explicitly or implicitly affect the practice of their faith. One of the greatest challenges pressing believers today is what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”[1] A prevalent part of our worldview is certainly the idea that no objective moral truths exist or that all moral truths are historically conditioned. But relativism is not the only trial modernity presents and further difficulties arise in the response to the relativist mindset. This essay is an attempt to understand one such challenge: a type of intellectualism that I find common among Catholics who come or return to the faith after a period of searching. That is, for many persons who come to the Church to escape the modern …

There Is No Salvation Through the University

The 173rd commencement exercises will take place at the University of Notre Dame this weekend. Like most University commencements, there will be a good deal of self-congratulatory statements about the remarkable promise demonstrated by the class of 2018. Likewise, there will be generic exhortations to the newly minted students to “change the world,” to respond to the “unique challenges of this generation.” Yet not everything about these commencement exercises is quite so formulaic. At the conclusion of graduation on Sunday morning at Notre Dame Stadium, students will sing the Alma Mater once more (this time facing their parents and friends). The personification of the University as “nurturing mother,” as the place that brought the students into wisdom, is shared across colleges and universities. Students at Harvard College sing out in praise of “Fair Harvard!” The Bulldogs of Yale pledges themselves in song to God, country, and Yale. At the University of Tennessee, students clad in orange and white sing a wistful hymn commemorating the search for wisdom begun “on a hallowed hill in Tennessee.” Notre Dame’s Alma Mater is …

Catholic Education and the Market’s Technocratic Paradigm

  I was recently in Scotland for a meeting of the Association of Catholic Institutes of Education (ACISE). As an organization, ACISE focuses on the interrelationship between religion and education primarily within European society. As a body, it exists to respond to the so-called “technocratic paradigm” that seems to have attached itself to educational institutions throughout the world. Such a technocratic paradigm reduces the act of education to learning outcomes and goals provided by the state, forgetting to form students in the dispositions of wonder, hope, critical inquiry, and a religious humanism that has marked the Western educational patrimony for generations. As an American interloper in the conversation, I experienced a bit of cultural disorientation. The American system of education has so radically separated religion and the state that it was nearly inconceivable for me to imagine a world in which the state determined the religious curriculum of the school. Yet, throughout Europe, as secularization continues particularly among the social elite, there is a sense that religious education is under attack by the state itself. …

Holy Saturday: Christianity Is Not a Solution to the Problem of Suffering

Difficulties: First, images that make sense poetically have to be coordinated within a narrative flow; this is something I attempt to do for my poem when I comment on it below. Second, what exactly constitutes healing in the Christian sense is made impossibly complex in light of a Crucified Savior who keeps His wounds after the Resurrection. Holy Saturday Oh beat slow, heart of creation – First light! First love! Revelation! First flesh found in Incarnation, Beat the blood to our salvation! Find so within the vein of God tireless tracks to faith untrod ‘til riven, wrecked, rent kavod of unstrung sinews, strums overawed. Clotted, untinctured, tear-sealed tomb, thrice holy still unholy wound. Once empty chamber – sin consume! Once-pierced heart – rise, beat, assume! Leave not me here, alone and free, a bloodless heart that beats for thee! Heart held in blood eternally – find Heart yet held in Trinity! These lyrics are about the longing for salvation. They are voiced by someone who has faith that the man from Galilee is not lost …

The Very Human Fears of the Saints

“Am I to stay here alone?” This question, posed by Servant of God Lucia Santos to the Blessed Mother during a 1917 Fatima apparition, introduced a raw, intimate urgency to their dialogue. Having just been informed that her two cousins and fellow seers, Jacinta and Francisco, would soon succumb to illness and pass into communion with God, Lucia learns of her own mission to remain on earth, continuing a hidden life of prayer and evangelization. Her immediate, reactionary question reveals a fundamental human, and particularly Christian, insecurity.[1] Created for communion with God and with one another, the fear of abandonment—of being left to face our existential realities alone—lingers in the recesses of the human heart, surfacing during times of insecurity, transition, and uncertainty. It is tempting, at times, to convince ourselves that saints like Lucia were somehow exempt from these human insecurities. Perhaps the saints were granted a sort of supernatural clarity to dispel crippling doubts and inhibitions, or a keen sense of spiritual sight that allowed them to identify and respond to human need, …

Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

It is no surprise that the children of the Church are growing up and growing out of Church. What is surprising is that they are not returning. Worse still, they are not bringing their children. A priest once told me that he was not worried about kids going to college and starting their careers out of the Church, because eventually they too would have kids and that that is when they would return. That way of thinking about Church attendance and growth just won’t do anymore. The problem is not just that the Church is hemorrhaging in attendance[1]; rather, the underlying problem, the reason why church association is hemorrhaging is that the American church has consistently communicated to the younger generations that their formation, membership, and involvement is worth less than that of their parents, who by the way have the money. I am routinely surprised by how often we suppose that children are too uneducated, too unsophisticated to understand the depth of faith. Having grown up in a fairly anti-intellectual tradition, I came to …

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Next Wednesday commences the Church’s annual celebration of Lent. The feasting of Carnival season will give way to fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. The goal of this season is not merely to discipline ourselves for the festive celebration of Easter, as if “the best Lent ever” will give way to the “most excellent Easter.” Instead, during the season of Lent, we must come face-to-face with a fact about the human condition: Something is wrong with us. And perhaps more importantly, we can’t fix it. Christ’s temptation in the desert in both Matthew and Luke diagnoses our malaise. The Reformed philosopher, social scientist, and theologian Jacque Ellul provides an interpretation of this moment in Christ’s life, one that sees in these three temptations “the sum of the temptations that man can encounter.”[1] Jesus is first tempted to turn stones into bread, by the supposition that material needs are the most important dimension of human life. Christ’s responds to the Devil’s tempting by teaching that the divine word of obediential love is what is ultimately determinative of the …

Yes, Advent Is a Time of Asceticism

We all know that Advent means arrival and preparation. I would invite you to meditate with me about the prerequisites of the term and implications we hardly ever acknowledge. On November 8, the Church remembered Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308), one of the greatest thinkers she has ever produced. One of his key ideas was that God’s perfect intellect is mirrored in the limitless openness and receptivity of the human mind. For the Franciscan, such receptiveness was a sign of human dignity: humans receive those truths they cannot achieve by their own powers. This sounds complicated but leads to some simple conclusions: all true knowledge comes from an encounter and arises from the receptivity of our mind and heart (intellectus passibilis). If we apply Scotus’s insight to Advent, we might realize that our receptivity to the Incarnate Word is impeded by something in our lives and that perhaps we do not desire a real encounter with the real God but rather one with our self-constructed god. The root for this seems to lie at the …

Where Do Theology and Cognitive Psychology Intersect?

Both college educators and students are rushing to connect psychological, educational, and neuroscientific findings to learning outcomes. Students study psychological research such as C. Dweck’s academic growth mindset in order to develop their learning trajectories. Professors are immersed in a burgeoning market of academic pedagogy models that stress retention of information in addition to conventional assessment. Three influential examples include: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and Small Teaching.[1] These are indeed exciting developments. On the one hand, institutions of higher learning are challenging students as learners to cultivate integrative and appropriative methods for their own academic development and retention. On the other hand, faculty are ever lauded not only for the precise presentation of content, but also for fostering the critical and integrative skills that bridge collegiate learning into life and work. Concerning both, however, as any faculty or student will admit, these goals are much harder to actualize than to theorize. As researchers in the psychology and theology of memory, we wish to suggest how …

Whose Liturgy? What Sacrifice?

James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project has concluded with his volume on political theology, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. In the three volumes, Smith makes an argument about the formative nature of Christian liturgical prayer. From the beginning of the project, Smith founds his liturgical theology of culture in an Augustinian anthropology: we are what we love. While secular culture has done an adept job at forming us in rites that shape our desires and imaginations (including shopping malls), Reformed Christianity has focused primarily on developing a worldview through an intellectual formation carried out in the Christian college or university. Smith argues that Christian education must turn away from an exclusive focus on the formation of the intellect to an approach grounded in liturgical practice. If we are what we love, then we need to cultivate those practices that shape the human imagination to love God and neighbor well. The first volume of the cultural liturgies project (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation) established the anthropological basis of the argument, focusing on the manner …