Pope Francis’s TED talk

Pope Francis has talked of the “God of surprises,” and just as often turns out to be a pope of surprises. That’s true of his surprise (pre-filmed) TED appearance in Vancouver last night.

I’ve been following along with the TED conference through Snapchat from a few people I follow, so already felt somewhat connected to the talks there. I hope Pope Francis’s participation sets a standard for things like this, and that someday a younger pope might surprise an audience like this in person.

Lefebvre on human dignity

Where has the idea of “human dignity” come from? What is its intellectual genealogy? 

In evolutionary history, we understand all the ways in which a creature takes on slightly different form over time as the genetic structures adapt and change in an attempt to fit their circumstances. The same is true in exploring the genealogy of philosophical and theological history. What this means is that a simple phrase like “human dignity” carries within it the “genetic” memory of debate and discourse as men and women attempt to reach the essential truth about mankind that it attempts to speak to. What makes us distinct? Where is our dignity located? Why is it worth conserving? What does it ask of us?

David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. capture some of the history of the debate over human dignity in their book Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. An interesting excerpt:

The opposition between Murray [freedom, rights] and Lefebvre [truth, duty] appears to be, and in a crucial sense is, fundamental. … Regarding the operative dignity of man, Lefebvre says that it “is the result of the exercise of his faculties, essentially intelligence and will.” (20). “To the perfection of nature is added to man a supplementary perfection which will depend on his actions” (20). Man’s operative dignity, thus, “will consist in adhering in his actions to truth and goodness” (2). It follows for the Archbishop that “if man fails to be good or, if he adheres to error or evil, he loses his dignity” (20). In a word, for Lefebvre the dignity of the human person, in the operative sense, “does not consist in liberty apart from truth … Liberty is good and true to the extent to which it is ruled by truth”(22).

Lefebvre’s problem with the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, in sum, is that it roots the right to religious freedom not in this operative dignity of man, which consists in “the actual adherence of the person to the truth,” but rather in the ontological dignity of man, which “refers only to his free will” made in the image of God (33). In the view of the Declaration, “any man, regardless of his subjective dispositions (truth or error, good or bad faith), is inviolable in the actions by which he operates his ‘relation’ to God” (31). But, according to Lefebvre, this is false: “when man cleaves to error or moral evil, he loses his operative dignity, which therefore cannot be the basis for anything at all” (33).

Thus, regarding the logic of Lefebvre’s and Murray’s positions with respect to each other: on the one hand, Lefebvre recognizes that there is in man a “transcendental relation to God” and a “divine call” that founds man’s duty and dignity, and hence his right to search for the truth. But this relation and call have been profoundly affected by sin, to the extent that man’s original natural orientation to truth and God are now conceived as only “potential,” not yet in any proper sense actual or effective. Hence the operative dignity of man, the dignity that truly qualifies him as a subject of the right to religious freedom, is for Lefebvre tied to the exercise of his faculties of freedom and intelligence in the actual realization of truth and goodness in relation to God. Murray, on the other hand, locates human dignity, for purposes relevant to man’s being recognized as a subject of the right to religious freedom, in man’s exigence for exercising initiative, abstracted from man’s relation to the transcendent order of truth.


Happy Easter. I have long struggled with Easter, I think largely because I’ve struggled with springtime as a time of in-betweens that has often felt uncomfortable. In recent years I’ve become more at peace with this time of year. And I’ve fallen more in love with Eastertime, the central time of the Christian calendar when Christ reformed death from a nothing into a something by bringing down the great and thorny bramble wall and forging in its place a narrow path.

It’s that path that provides the basis for our hope of resurrection, which is a new and transfigured life. I’ve included here my favorite depiction of the resurrection, Sir Stanley Spencer’s 1920s masterpiece that hangs in London’s Tate Museum that shows so well the alarming nature of Christ’s promise.

Bishop Barron has a great reflection on Easter that’s worth watching in its fullness:

I’ve also been receiving Bishop Barron’s Lent reflections, and while each has been rewarding it is Easter’s that I’ve found the most arresting and worth sharing. It speaks to the Easter Gospel, John 20:1-9:

Friends, our Easter Gospel contains St. John’s magnificent account of the resurrection. It was, says John, early in the morning on the first day of the week. It was still dark—just the way it was at the beginning of time before God said, “Let there be light.” But a light was about to shine, and a new creation was about to appear.

The stone had been rolled away. That stone, blocking entrance to the tomb of Jesus, stands for the finality of death. When someone that we love dies, it is as though a great stone is rolled across them, permanently blocking our access to them. And this is why we weep at death—not just in grief but in a kind of existential frustration.

But for Jesus, the stone had been rolled away. Undoubtedly, the first disciples must have thought a grave robber had been at work. But the wonderful Johannine irony is that the greatest of grave robbers had indeed been at work. The prophet Ezekiel says this, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”

What was dreamed about, what endured as a hope against hope, has become a reality. God has opened the grave of his Son, and the bonds of death have been shattered forever.

Christ is truly risen.

Good Friday and shamanism

Rod Dreher shares a really remarkable encounter he had with a young man in an airport recently:

On the bus north from the Denver Airport, I sat next to a clean-cut young white guy, maybe in his early 30s, who was well dressed, in a business casual way. Turns out he was a trained shaman transitioning to a real estate career. “Six months ago, I had hair down to my waist,” he said. It turned out that his Indian spiritual master told him to leave the reservation and return to the world, and take up a normal career. “That is your path,” he quoted the old man saying.

Turns out this guy had spent many years in South America, studying in various shamanic traditions. He knows a lot about ethnobotany. I could have talked to him all day. The conversation was deeply fascinating. At one point I lad my cards on the table, and told him I was an Orthodox Christian, and though I very much disagree with his metaphysical and spiritual take on the world, I do agree with him about the profound mystery of our existence. I tell you, this neopagan was in some ways talking like an Athonite monk.

“You cannot put God, or reality, in a box,” he said. “You just can’t. So many people figure if you can’t prove it, or can’t conceive of it, it doesn’t exist. I don’t even argue with those people. It’s fine with me if they think this way. I know that’s not true, because I have experienced so many things.” …

What that young man and I have in common is the conviction that the material world is not all there is. That living is an encounter with mystery. That most people, for whatever reason, cultivate deadness to that mystery, and to grace. Why? I didn’t ask him for his opinion, but my sense is that it frightens them.

Dreher quotes C.S. Lewis:

The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors—whether as themselves Christians they welcomed it, or like Gibbon deplored it as humanistic unbelievers—a unique, irresistible, irreversible event. But we’ve seen the opposite process. Of course, the unchristening of Europe in our time is not quite complete. Neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say, that while as all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, for us it falls into three, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. I’m not here considering either the christening or the un-christening at all from a theological point of view. I’m thinking of them simply as cultural changes. And when I do that, it seems to me that the un-christening is an even more radical change than the christening. Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with the post-Christian. The gap between those who worshipped different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who don’t.…

I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism. What lurks behind such prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows simple reversal, that Europe can come out of Christianity by the same doors she went in, and find herself back where she was. That isn’t the sort of thing that happens. A post-Christian man is not a pagan. You might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past…

Good Friday is a day we celebrate because a man who was God died to liberate us from meaninglessness, died to free us from the darkness and bring us into the light. We seem to be living through an historical interlude, where the memory of our Christian past is giving way to something new. I suspect that newness will turn out to be a new Christianity, rather than a truly post-Christian time.

St. Matthew’s Passion

From NPR’s A Visitor’s Guide to the St. Matthew’s Passion: “I think the St. Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of music in the western repertory,” Bostridge says. “And to start one’s journey toward understanding that piece is a very important point in anybody’s life.”

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion for a single purpose—to present the biblical passion story, in music, at Good Friday vesper services.

Bach’s Passion continues to move audiences more than 280 years after it was first heard in St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany. Standing as one of the pillars of Western sacred music, it is at once monumental and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.

Bach’s Passion retells the dramatic and compelling story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Bach divided the music into two parts. Highlights of part one include the last supper and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In part two, the music turns darker and softer—signalling the inevitability of the story—as it depicts the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Passion ends with the darkly textured chorus, “In tears of grief.” Bach could leave his parishioners in a sorrowful mood, knowing that they’d be celebrating Christ’s resurrection in just a few days.

Christian marriage

Archbishop Chaput’s Chrism mass homily from a few years ago is worth revisiting this Easter season. In it, he delivers remarks to his brother priests, but his message echoes in my mind as I think about the marriage of many good friends in recent years.

“When a man and a woman fall in love,” says Archbishop Chaput, “a kind of electricity runs not just between them but also in the air around them. The story of every true encounter with God is the same. Scripture is a romance. It’s a story of God’s love for humanity. When we give our hearts entirely to seeking God … we begin to discover and experience the same kind of electricity.” He later continues:

“I saw in the lives of those Jewish students the incredible durability of God’s promises and God’s word. … their covenant with God is alive, and permanent. God’s word is the organizing principle of their identity. It’s the foundation and glue of their relationship with one another — with their past and with their future. And the more faithful they are to God’s word, the more certain they can be of their survival.”

“We need to do everything we can to purify ourselves of vanity, and fear, and fatigue, and resentment. And to make ourselves worthy of that responsibility. Our own souls … will depend on the fire which should burn in our hearts. A fire of love for Jesus Christ, for the Church as our Mother, and for the people God places in our care. … God’s word never weakens. His promise never disappears.”

Christian marriage, summed up:

God as the organizing principle of their identity.

As the foundation and glue of their relationship across time.

As a fire burning in the heart.



I spent yesterday at EWTN, Mother Angelica‘s “global Catholic network,” near Birmingham. I visited EWTN almost exactly a decade ago on a road trip, but this was the first time I had a real reason for being there. We celebrated 7am daily mass with Archbishop Chaput in memory of Terri Schiavo, which was broadcast a few times later in the day. The homily is available below:

Afterwards Archbishop Chaput, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ, and Bobby Schindler, who I work with at the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, sat down for an hour-long conversation that will air later this year. It was a good, wide-ranging conversation about the best way to honor the dignity of our brothers and sisters throughout their lives.

I was supposed to fly out of Atlanta last night, but my Delta flight ended up being swept up amidst hundreds of cancellations and delays; some of the people at the airport have been there for days waiting for a flight. After Ubering into downtown Atlanta I stayed the night at the Inn at Peachtrees and am now at the airport ready to fly out on American, since my rescheduled Delta flight wouldn’t have left until early Sunday morning.

This was a good and worthwhile trip. We’ve got to do more to speak coherently and comprehensively about human dignity from the beginning to the end of life, as well as throughout life especially for medically vulnerable, disabled, elderly, and other persons who are victims of indifference.