Fr. John Hunwicke writes on papal infallibility. I’ll try to summarize his essential points, but am including what I think is an important excerpt, too.

The pope’s infallibility is essentially “negative” in its nature. A responsibility of the Holy Father is to avoid cloaking his pronouncements in the garb of the Holy Spirit and in so doing make himself a dictator. Instead, the Church institutionally should perceive when any particular generation’s innovations require a response on the question of their compatibility with Christ. This isn’t being merely reactionary; it’s being responsive.

The Holy Father is not a spokesman on behalf of a “God of surprises,” but a protector of the received knowledge of humanity’s destiny with its creator. So if the pope must speak in his infallible capacity, it must nearly always be simply to say, “This is not what we have received.”

When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative. We see this in two of the most important exercises of the papal magisterium in the years since Vatican II—indeed, since the Council of Trent: Humanae vitae (1968) and Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).

Humanae Vitae was not the first major magisterial intervention on contraception. That had taken place a generation before, in Casti connubii (1930), when the See of St. Peter judged that a reply was needed to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference. In other words, Rome spoke against an innovation. And there can be no doubt that it was an innovation, throughout the Christian world, to suggest that contraception was anything other than immoral. Previous Lambeth Conferences had taught this; and when the 1930 Conference changed its teaching, one of the great theological luminaries of the Church of England, Charles Gore, Bishop first of Worcester, then of Birmingham, finally of Oxford, attacked it publicly. His paper excoriating the 1930 Conference was far more damning and outraged than any document I have seen on this subject from a Catholic source. As far as Byzantine Orthodoxy is concerned, as late as 1963 a popular book by a popular hierarch of English origin concluded its section on marriage with the unadorned statement, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” (Later editions of the book did not maintain this position.)

In the 1960s, the discovery of pharmaceutical means of preventing conception without modifying the sexual act itself provided an opportunity for some Catholic writers to argue that the old prohibitions no longer applied. With historical hindsight it is easy to see that sexual ethics were the major problem of that decade—the point at which the zeitgeist most directly challenged the Church.

Blessed Paul VI, un po’ Amletico, as his predecessor described him, saw the crucial importance of the doctrinal questions involved here, and the responsibility that lay upon him as Successor of St. Peter to give a decisive and authoritative ruling. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was given to him so that he might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the teaching handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith. He did not summon synods in which he invited selected bishops to express with Parrhesia whatever views they had. He did not repeatedly suggest that the Holy Spirit might be abroad advocating a change in the established teaching. He did not float an ambiguously worded document in order to create an atmosphere in which those bishops who regarded themselves as closest to the pope’s mind could feel that they had been given sufficient authority to abandon the Tradition. Instead, Paul VI stated: “Therefore, having attentively sifted the documentation laid before Us, after mature reflection and assiduous prayers, We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.” And his reply was a decisive negative. It failed to claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

A similar pattern can be seen when John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994. This document appeared at a stage in the sexual revolution that already seems as old-fashioned as grandmother’s lace. The veteran English feminist Germaine Greer had not yet been no-platformed by the student guardians of the dogmas of gender diversity because she had declared a “trans” candidate for a fellowship in her women’s college to be “not a woman.” Prepubescent children were not yet being encouraged to consider whether they might wish to change genders. But the proliferating absurdities of the next three decades are surely implicit in the question the pope set out to answer. That question was quite simply whether women, interchangeably with men, could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And, in a brief magisterial intervention, John Paul II declared that the Church was unable (nullam facultatem habere) to ordain women.

In each of these cases, the proponents of innovation downplayed the significance of the changes they sponsored…


Christian citizenship

Dale M. Coulter on gifts and debts:

The original sin was in moving too fast from the language of gift to the language of right, and missing entirely the language of debt. Bernard claims that ignorance makes beasts of humans, because they begin “to use gifts as if they belonged to one by natural right.” The ignorance in question is not simply a lack of awareness of the creator, but a fundamental failure to know oneself as a creature. And so, Bernard asks that each person know two facts: what you are, and that you are not that by your own hand. With the acknowledgement of these two facets of human existence come the moral obligations that should shape human freedom. In short, humans owe their existence to something beyond themselves, and they should live in light of that debt. Before claiming their rights, individuals need to acknowledge their debts and order the discharge of those debts accordingly, as first to God and then to neighbor.

Anselm of Canterbury would build his understanding of the atonement on these premises. The gift of human nature entails the obligation to pursue justice as the vehicle by which humans fulfill their debt to God and realize their potential. They fulfill the appetite for happiness through the pursuit of justice. When humans turn this debt into a “natural right,” they turn away from the origin of the gifts of nature and forfeit justice in the process. Anselm’s use of the language of debt in relation to sin is part of an overarching moral framework in which humans come into this world with gifts and a purpose that entail obligations. All obligations to other humans, including political communities, stem from the recognition of the more fundamental debt one owes to God for capacities one possesses.

This is the medieval underpinning to Kennedy’s words of 1961 [—ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country]. It is also the Christian basis for citizenship in any nation, and for the particular gratitude Christians should have for living out their earthly existence in the United States. Too many people today have skipped over debts and gone straight to rights.

Catholic identity on campus

Jason King shares some great insight on Catholic identity on campus. He describes three different types of Catholic culture:

On campuses characterized by students as very Catholic: Eighty percent of students identify as Catholic; three classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated every day of the week; few if any residence halls are co-ed; and strict limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as mostly Catholic: Seventy-five percent of students identify as Catholic; two classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated most days of the week; most residence halls are co-ed; and some limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as somewhat Catholic: Sixty-eight percent of students identify as Catholic; one class is required in theology; Mass is celebrated on Sundays; all residence halls are co-ed; and minimal limits are place on co-ed visitation.

What does any of this mean for the sort of outcomes that different Catholic institutions will tend to produce amongst their people?

On very Catholic campuses, less than 30 percent of students hook up. Given that very Catholic campuses have such low rates of hooking up, one would expect somewhat Catholic campuses to have the highest rates of hooking up. They do not. Less than half of the students on these campuses—45 percent—hook up. While this rate is higher than that on very Catholic campuses, it is lower than that on mostly Catholic campuses, where 55 percent of students hook up. Thus, mostly Catholic campuses have the most hooking up, very Catholic campuses have the least, and somewhat Catholic campuses are in the middle.

You’d think that there’s not much of a difference between “very” Catholic and “mostly” Catholic, but there is. These strange, apparently complicated results don’t strike me as strange at all. 

It’s like the difference between a “very” serious athlete and a “mostly” serious athlete. On the one hand, you can look at both and say, “Well, they’re both NFL players.” But the “very” serious athlete is always going to have the better chance of becoming a Hall of Famer. The “mostly” serious athlete, after all is said and done, is just as likely to end up as forgotten a player as the “somewhat” serious athletes who are conscious enough of their weaknesses that they consciously try to compete at a higher level.

If nothing else, it’s a lesson that there’s no downside to going all in. If you’re going to be Catholic, then be Catholic.

A day without yesterday

Commonweal published a great article on the history of the Big Bang theory a while back called ‘A Day Without Yesterday’: Georges Lemaitre & the Big BangI had a dozen years of Catholic schooling, and don’t ever remember learning about Georges Lemaitre.

And if I don’t remember learning about the origins of the Big Bang theory and its Catholic developer during my Catholic school years, I’d guess it probably wasn’t taught in the typical public school, either:

Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) [was] a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang. Lemaitre described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading out in a growing sphere from the center of the burst. He believed this burst of fireworks was the beginning of time, taking place on “a day without yesterday.”

After decades of struggle, other scientists came to accept the Big Bang as fact. But while most scientists — including the mathematician Stephen Hawking — predicted that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe and make the universe fall back toward its center, Lemaitre believed that the universe would keep expanding. He argued that the Big Bang was a unique event, while other scientists believed that the universe would shrink to the point of another Big Bang, and so on. The observations made in Berkeley supported Lemaitre’s contention that the Big Bang was in fact “a day without yesterday. …

In January 1933, both Lemaitre and Einstein traveled to California for a series of seminars. After the Belgian detailed his theory, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Duncan Aikman covered these seminars for the New York Times Magazine. An article about Lemaitre appeared on February 19, 1933, and featured a large photo of Einstein and Lemaitre standing side by side. The caption read, “They have a profound respect and admiration for each other.” …

It took a mathematician who also happened to be a Catholic priest to look at the evidence with an open mind and create a model that worked. Is there a paradox in this situation? Lemaitre did not think so. Duncan Aikman of the New York Times spotlighted Lemaitre’s view in 1933: “‘There is no conflict between religion and science,’ Lemaitre has been telling audiences over and over again in this country ….His view is interesting and important not because he is a Catholic priest, not because he is one of the leading mathematical physicists of our time, but because he is both.”

A fascinating article for understanding how one man’s ideas (initially derided by the scientific establishment) came not only to win the praise of luminaries like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but ultimately to transform our understanding of the universe. Like so much else with scientific discovery, I’d bet someday we’ll realize that this theory is terribly wrong in important ways.


Man before man

I was reading Ben Cosgrove’s reminiscence of the ~20,000 year old Lascaux cave paintings recently:

September 12, 1940. A warm afternoon in Dordogne, in southwestern France. Four boys and their dog, Robot, walk along a ridge covered with pine, oak and blackberry brambles. When Robot begins digging near a hole beside a downed tree, the boys tell each other that this might be the entrance to a legendary tunnel running beneath the Vézère River, leading to a lost treasure in the woods of Montignac. The youngsters begin to dig, widening the hole, removing rocks—until they’ve made an opening large enough for each to slip through, one by one. They slide down into the earth—and emerge into a dark chamber beneath the ground.

They have discovered not merely another place, but another time.

In the cool dark beneath the sunlit world above, the boys found themselves in “a Versailles of prehistory”—a vast series of caves, today collectively known as Lascaux, covered with wall paintings that, by some estimates, are close to 20,000 years old. In 1947, LIFE magazine’s Ralph Morse went to Lascaux, becoming the first professional photographer to document the breathtaking scenes. Now in his late-90s, Morse shared his memories of that time and place with, recalling what it was like to encounter the strikingly lifelike, gorgeous handiwork of a long-vanished people: the Cro-Magnon. …

“For permanence, the finest pigments of civilized Europe have never rivaled these crude materials.”

Lascaux, and places like it that survive as tangible reminders of the truly epochal prehistorical history of mankind, can be daunting to think about. I sometimes think about the man or woman of 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 or 100,000 or more years ago. What the world (this same world) was like for them. What they understood their lives to be.

It’s in the light of their lives that I think of evolution. And I think of evolution as naturally squaring with Lascaux and and how places like it square with a God-shaped reality.

Lascaux and places like it speak to the possibility of a sort of folkloric memory of what was lost in the loss of relationship with God in a more grace-filled, Edenic state of being. This folkloric memory might have survived the loss of that grace-filled time and might have resulted in our very literal, animalistic devolution that has been changing (in our experience) over millions of years worth of time. It’s not at all improbable to me that the natural, literally animalistic consequence of our separation from God would nonetheless leave us with echoes of the natural law—of a faint memory of beauty and goodness and truth.

Doesn’t this idea, of man post-Eden becoming quite genuinely less, actually add more drama and verve to genesis than the Protestant’s literary literalism?

In this we can see how folkloric memory, literally the lore or stories of a people, would play a vital role in pre-recorded history in capturing the essential truth of a thing even if shorn of the specifics. That folkloric memory could eventually produce Genesis in a legitimate and divinely inspired way, with the only detail that what we remembered at the time as something like “days” in fact meant eons, literal ages of our animalistic period when beauty and life and a lingering consciousness in the hearts of man persisted, until the time had come for Christ to call us home.

This possibility makes much more sense to me than the idea that conscious flesh has developed of its own accord on a rock (or rocks) suspended within an impassable void which is itself a mystery whose essential nature is unknowable.


Saint John Paul II Shrine

In Washington today and tomorrow on a short work trip. Ducked out of a conference session earlier this afternoon to visit the Saint John Paul II Shrine, run by the Knights of Columbus that’s adjacent to Catholic University’s campus. 

I’ve visited this place before—but only the parking lot, and before he was recognized as a saint, and before it was a shrine. It was great to explore their permanent exhibit on John Paul’s life, from his childhood and the role of his parents (which isn’t often remarked upon) to the more well known aspects of his public life. The shrine’s chapel is particularly beautiful in its grand but intimate way.

At one point in the exhibit I was struck by the relationship that Cardinal Wojtyla and his fellow Polish cardinal had in dealing with the Soviets after World War II. It was noted first that the Soviets gave their necessary approval of Wojtyla as cardinal because they saw him as as simple a “poet,” basically harmless. This rather beautifully illustrates the problem with totalitarianism. That is essentially the problem of dominating the spirit.

Another point was that Wojtyla’s precedessor cardinal has successfully bargained with the Soviets to preserve “Catholic education, church property, and seminaries.” I remember walking the streets of Paris a few years ago, and remarking to my secular friend how amazing it was that here in France, an ostensibly democratic people had so wiped out (through its late 19th and early 20th century secularization laws) the ability for the French to be Christian by wiping out most of institutional Christianity. That rupture has created a serrated sort of curriculum that cuts and fragments by rendering theology as something fundamentally different from (or opposed to) philosophy, mathmatics, science, art, etc. 

The Soviets, too, sought to conquer by atomizing daily life and the experience of individual life, but it was strangely in communist Poland that the Church preserved itself more effectively than against the enlightened secularism that today is leading to things like scientism rather than science, and seems to be fueling the fires of a new nationalism in so many nations.

In any event, I think it’s turning out that Western secularism is as atomizing and corrosive as so much of what we fought in the last century, and we’ll need Christian voices to help recover and rebuild for whatever comes next.

We’re likely talking not in terms of decades or years, but rather in centuries.

Christ’s otherness

Joe Sobran wrote many years ago:

The Western world, including many of those who consider themselves Christians, has turned Christmas into a bland holiday of mere niceness. …

Some people think you can take Christ’s “teachings” and ignore his miracles as if they were fables. But this is to confuse the Sermon on the Mount with the Democratic Party platform.

The natural reaction to Christ is to reject him. He said so. In fact, when he was taken to the Temple as an infant, St. Simeon prophesied that he would be a center of contention. Later he predicted his own death and told his followers they must expect persecution too.

He expects rejection.

Chief among his teachings was his claim to be God’s son: “I and the Father are one.” “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”

His teachings are inseparable from his miracles; in fact, his teachings themselves are miraculous. Nobody had ever made such claims before, enraging pious Pharisees and baffling his pious disciples at the same time. After feeding thousands with the miraculous loaves and fishes, he announced that he himself was “the bread of life.” Unless you ate his flesh and drank his blood, he warned, you have no life in you.

This amazing teaching was too much. It cost him many of his disciples on the spot. He didn’t try to coax them back by explaining that he was only speaking figuratively, because he wasn’t.

He speaks literally.

Christians shouldn’t resent the natural resistance of those who refuse to celebrate his birth. In their way, those people are his witnesses too.

He’s strange.