Chris Stefanick in Philadelphia

I hadn’t heard of Chris Stefanick’s EWTN program “Real Life Catholic” until I saw the episode below with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in Philadelphia. It’s a great episode for understanding +Chaput’s distinctive pastoral spirit as much as it is for encountering “real life” Catholics and some of Philadelphia’s culture.

Chris Stefanick’s in the City of Brotherly Love to talk about freedom of religion with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, serve a mean cheesesteak at The Original Pat’s King of Steaks, hear the amazing story of Father Chung Nguyen, and hang out with two young Vietnamese Catholics who are living their Catholic faith to the max.

Bill Buckley on skeptics

William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 2005 contribution to NPR’s “This I Believe” is one of my favorites: “How Is It Possible To Believe In A God?” It’s a good example of fides et ratio—faith and reason working together to point toward truth:

I’ve always liked the exchange featuring the excited young Darwinian at the end of the 19th century. He said grandly to the elderly scholar, “How is it possible to believe in God?” The imperishable answer was, “I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop.”

That rhetorical bullet has everything — wit and profundity. It has more than once reminded me that skepticism about life and nature is most often expressed by those who take it for granted that belief is an indulgence of the superstitious — indeed their opiate, to quote a historical cosmologist most profoundly dead. Granted, that to look up at the stars comes close to compelling disbelief — how can such a chance arrangement be other than an elaboration — near infinite — of natural impulses? Yes, on the other hand, who is to say that the arrangement of the stars is more easily traceable to nature, than to nature’s molder? What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?

The skeptics get away with fixing the odds against the believer, mostly by pointing to phenomena which are only explainable—you see?—by the belief that there was a cause for them, always deducible. But how can one deduce the cause of Hamlet? Or of St. Matthew’s Passion? What is the cause of inspiration?

This I believe: that it is intellectually easier to credit a divine intelligence than to submit dumbly to felicitous congeries about nature. …

Since at least Einstein, we’ve hoped for a unified field theory—a “theory of everything”—to unite disparate fields of research that might explain all of this. We want to reconcile fields like quantum theory with classical physics to explain all natural phenomena.

How can Buckley’s faith and reason work together on behalf of God in our world? We know that the universe is intelligible, so why shouldn’t the God of faith also be the God of creative intelligence, the creator through which all we know holds together?

Another way to put it: a unified field theory for Why Reality Functions may one day be discovered, and a unified field theory for the underlying question Why Reality Exists To Function is what we call God and what we understand in Christ and his revealed love.

(You’ve got to listen to Buckley’s voice to really experience this, by the way.)

Freedom without relationships

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently wrote in advance of next month’s Napa Institute. He quotes two great thinkers, and I’m sharing those quotes and a bit of Chaput’s thoughts:

[Charles] Péguy once said that “Freedom is a system based on courage.” We’re never truly free until we have the courage to accept the idea that truth might actually exist outside and above ourselves; and then have the courage to seek it and live it.

Freedom isn’t license. A large menu of equally bad or meaningless choices is not freedom. Freedom is the ability to see what is right and the character to choose it. That’s why freedom requires courage. Freedom and truth always have a cost. They always place obligations on our behavior. And those obligations always remind us of our relationship with others – with other people, and also with God. The freest person is the person who can see the world and himself honestly in the light of truth, without fear or excuses or alibis. Honesty is hard. But honesty is the beginning of humility, and humility is the beginning of sanity.

“Freedom isn’t license. Freedom requires courage, because it always has a cost in terms of our obligations to others,” to paraphrase. This passage reminded me of an old understanding of the knights and chivalry of the Middle Ages, which was that if you looked over the entire society, it was the knights who were most free despite their service and obligations. They were the most free specifically because they were the ones who chose to live a life of service, whereas a peasant or a local lord was stuck in the sense of being born into something and serving only those inherited and basic and unending duties. The important thing to notice was that even though the knights lived a much freer life, they weren’t abstractly emancipated from their countries or neighbors in the modern way that we have become free and independent individuals of the sort that Yuval Noah Harari describes. What good is freedom without relationships?

[Henri] Bergson once wrote that “The motive power of democracy is love.” For democracy to work, it needs to be powered by something more than the sum of everybody’s opinions and appetites. The kind of “love” that Bergson meant is sacrificial. It’s much more than a warm feeling or a habit of kind thoughts. It demands that we judge our own and other people’s behavior by a hard standard of justice.

Democracy requires the kind of love that places the common good above personal comfort or individual appetite. And the “common good” is never just a matter of people’s material needs. The common good is always about what best serves the well-being of the whole person and the whole of society. In other words, it always has a spiritual foundation in the truth about human dignity. Without that spiritual foundation, society – to borrow a thought from St. Augustine – is just an organized gang of thieves.

We tend to think of “human dignity” as the state where our will is satisfied that our personal good is fulfilled. This is self-referential thinking that leads nowhere. Peter Lawler’s writing on the notion of human dignity having emerged from the older idea of human beings possessing a “noble” character is a place worth starting if you’re interested in reading and thinking more on this.

Faith and reason > passions

When the film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia debuted in 2005, Joe Sobran wrote:

Belief is something you have or don’t have; but faith is an act of will and fortitude, which is why we speak of “keeping” or “breaking” faith.

A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the water when he actually gets into it. The problem isn’t the child’s “beliefs” about the water; it’s his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.

When our faith fails, it isn’t usually because of any rational doubt. Reason isn’t opposed to faith; it’s opposed to the passions (the word is cognate with passive; we’re truly active only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesn’t occur in the intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this…

When we talk about things like “culture” or “refinement” or “manners” we’re talking at least to some degree about restraining our animalistic passions or inclinations. When laziness overcomes us—when the leather of the couch is warm, and our eyes heavy—we’d much rather not go out. Our reason is overcome, even as it tries to tell us to keep our appointment, or to arrive on time, or whatever. Same with avoiding a workout, and any other dozen instances where a sort of lie (“This other thing would be better for you…”) replaces a truer purpose.

Ben Casnocha introduced me years ago to the idea of a “resilience quotient,” basically meaning fortitude. C.S. Lewis, as Sobran explains it, is arguing similarly about faith in Christ as a means to withstand the vicissitudes of our baser instincts.

An evangelizing voice

Only 15-17 percent of self-identified American Catholics attend Mass.

In other words, more than 80 percent of Catholics have functionally no communal faith experience. And that lack of practical experience of Christianity means that the vast majority of American Catholics possess very little understanding of Christian teaching, let alone frequently encounter Christ in scripture.

What makes most Catholics identify as Catholics? Probably our cultural sense of Christianity and a nostalgic feeling for the faith of our childhood.

There are two other “80%” numbers that relate to the situation of American Catholicism: 80% of Catholic youth leave the faith by age 23, and 80% of U.S. Catholics like Pope Francis.

What do these numbers suggest? I think it suggests an indifference to Christianity. It suggests that a huge number of Christians have never experienced authentic Christian community, or encountered Christ in a tangible way in their lives.

Where might we go from here? I think the most important takeaway is that too much of Catholic thinking on “social media” (aka the internet) is focused on preaching to the choir. While we certainly need to feed the hungry who are with us, we should be thinking and speaking with an evangelizing voice in general—with particular sensitivity to the overwhelming majority who aren’t familiar with the faith in a deep way.

This means speaking clearly, speaking sacramentally, speaking with a warm heart, and speaking with receptivity to those who don’t understand the language of Christ.

Speaking with an evangelizing voice might require that we abandon old ways of doing things.


Athanasius the resilient

Anyone who has achieved something significant knows the feeling of having set himself against the world to do it. Athanasius was one of those people in Christian history, and really world history. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes about Athanasius and why he’s worth paying attention to for his faith, his sheer resiliency, and his incredible grit:

Whether history judges the record of Christian discipleship in our own country a success or a failure finally depends on us—clergy, religious, and laypeople—and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. We American Christians have far more freedom to live and preach our faith than do Christians in nearly any other nation. And God will hold us accountable for how we use it.

We live in a confused time, with deep anxieties even within the Church. But we’ve been here before. The Nicene Creed emerged largely from one of the most hotly contested gatherings in the life of the Church: the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was a meeting marked by fierce conflict between leaders of orthodox Christian belief and leaders of the Arian heresy—a heresy that appealed to many of the learned, comfortable, and powerful.

The Council of Nicaea could have failed. It, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t, because of one man—a young deacon and scholar (and later bishop) named Athanasius. Earlier this week, on May 2, Western Christians celebrated the feast of this man, whom we now remember as one of the greatest bishop-saints in history. His episcopal see was the city of Alexandria in modern Egypt. And his life is a lesson for all of us in the years ahead.

Athanasius fought for the true Christian faith at Nicaea and throughout his career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery, and even murder. He was exiled five times, for a total of seventeen years, and survived multiple assassination attempts. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Christian faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”

He had courage. He had the truth. He fought hard for it. He never gave up. And in the end, the truth won. The faith we take for granted today, we largely owe to him.

When the Mass is draining

The Mass is ended. The closing procession makes its way down the aisle at a pace slower than a funeral march. The priest is lost in his hymnal, following along a little farther back. You make your way out of the pew and down the aisle and out onto the steps of the church to a sweltering, muggy summer evening just in time to see what seem like shards of light slicing across the scene. Thank God.

What is this strange reality so many of us Catholics are stuck with where leaving the Mass becomes something truly like a gift; where the Mass was celebrated so limply that in fact it wasn’t celebrated really at all. Where leaving a climate conditioned church for a sweaty summer night with birds chirping and sun setting and fountains gurgling makes you wonder what you were doing inside in the first place?

What is this strange feeling we’re left with when not simply the homily but the entire liturgy feels like a diminishing rather than replenishing action?

We 20 percent of Catholics who continue to come face what seems like indifferent pastoral leaders more often than courtesy lets us too often acknowledge.

Why do limp, testosterone-sapped, formulaic, franchise-style churches die?

The question contains its own answer.