The Young Pope

I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope recently. Matthew Schmitz writes beautifully in First Things on the 10-episode show, explaining that it “depicts a Church that no longer seeks the favor of the world—and is all the more fabulous for it.” Tyler Blanksi also has a great reflection on the show:

Today, Church teachings about sexuality are perceived to be retrograde. Yet the opening scene (which turns out to be only a dream) illustrates just how absurd it would be to hear the vicar of Christ say something like, “We have forgotten to masturbate, to use contraceptives, to get abortions, to celebrate gay marriages, to allow priests to love each other and even to get married, to divorce, to be happy.” Whether or not it was Sorrentino’s intention, just hearing a pope say what everyone thinks they want him to say seems to expose just how wrong it would be for him to say it.

The juxtaposition of opposites—the unexpected love for those in Catholic power combined with outrage when they commit grievous sins, the surprising delight in liturgical beauty mixed with horror at the extravagance, the way you can’t pin a single person down as either a sinner or a saint—combine in such a way that leaves us wondering, What is the Catholic Church, really?

Let me present some personal context for why I liked this show:

We’re living in a world where top Jesuits are flirting with turning Catholicism protestant in the most fundamental ways—changing the meaning of Christ’s words to fit their particular social agenda on the idea of the Eucharist as a cure-all for sin and reconsidering the covenant of marriage. No doubt there are other sympathizers, but the Jesuits are the worst in this and have shredded what trust I’ve had in them due to recent comments by Arturo Sosa Abascal, their Superior General. In short, there are some who are promoting the idea that, in the name of “accompaniment,” the totems of individual conscience and discernment can be used as a means to alter the church’s doctrine. Since “doctrine” simply describes the practice of the bishops in preserving Christ’s teachings, what Jesuits like Abascal are advocating appears to my lay mind to be heresy.

In the series, Jude Law plays Pope Pius XIII. He declares in his first homily to the cardinals: “I have no idea what to do with the friendship of the whole wide world. What I want is absolute love and total devotion to God.”

They’re a call from a man who, even as pope, we see struggle with belief and unbelief, and who is as conflicted about God and his ability to do what is expected of him as anyone. Over the course of the show, we see him mature and we see the ways in which his rigidity is transformed into a healthy balance of mercy and justice.

This is what a pope exists to do: be the vicar of the Christ we know.

Catholic social teachings

In the latest Legatus magazine Andreas Widmer writes:

What makes business leadership Catholic?

…knowing and implementing the Church’s social teaching. Many business leaders are surprised to learn that the Church’s rich social teaching didn’t start with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891); it goes back to Sts. Thomas and Augustine, the Church Fathers and the apostles. It goes back to the radical charity that Jesus himself described in John 13:35: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.”

As scholars have studied, meditated upon and lived Christ’s social teachings through the centuries, they’ve synthesized them into nine basic classic principles:

  1. Human dignity: Men and women are made in God’s image and destined for eternal life.
  2. Justice: This cardinal moral virtue consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and to neighbor.
  3. Social justice: Groups and individuals must receive what is rightly owed them.
  4. Common good: All the conditions in society must allow individuals and groups to reach their fullest human potential, both in this life and the next.
  5. Solidarity: This is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.
  6. Subsidiarity: Social functions should occur at the lowest possible level so that individuals and groups have a true sense of purpose.
  7. Universal destination of goods: God gave the good things of the earth to the entire human race, not just a select few.
  8. Charity: Charity disposes us to love God above all creatures for Himself, and to love ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of God.
  9. Preferential option for the poor: Charity requires us to place the needs of the poor before our own.

Worth referencing from time to time…


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.