God and an undivided life

Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper had a beautiful exchange on God and suffering. Anderson Cooper quotes Stephen Colbert (riffing off J.R.R. Tolkien), asking “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Do you really believe that, Cooper asks? Colbert responds…

Stephen Beale writes on Colbert and others willing to make their Christianity a part of their public life:

The saints, he explained, are God’s X-Men. He schooled Philip Zimbardo when the renowned psychologist suggested God was the source of evil and defended the divinity of Jesus against liberal theologian Bart Ehrman. He even had the gumption to invite noted anti-Catholic comedian Bill Maherback into the Church.

No, he’s not the newest Catholic apologist to hit the evangelization circuit, but one of America’s late-night television stars — Stephen Colbert, who left The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to serve as the new host for The Late Show on CBS last fall, becoming the vanguard of a new generation of entertainers who are putting their faith front and center in their comedy.

In fact, the new late-night comedy lineup on television is dominated by Catholics, including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien — though not all are as vocal about their relationship with their faith. More in the Colbert-style is comedian Jim Gaffigan, who integrates his Catholic faith into his stand-up routine and new sitcom on TV Land, The Jim Gaffigan Show.

What these things speak to is the importance of living a whole, integrated, and undivided life. That seems to me to be what Stephen Colbert is doing in his own way—recognizing that America’s freedom of religion is ultimately the freedom to live as a person of faith in public.

Passionately loving the world

I was speaking with a Napa Institute friend from Los Angeles, and we started talking about St. Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, but conversation picked up as if it had just ended earlier in the day. We talked about our lives for a while, he asked about Washington, where he lived when he was younger. After a while he recommended I read Josemaria Escriva’s 1967 homily, “Passionately Loving The World,” which I’m excerpting here:

We are celebrating the holy Eucharist, the sacramental sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord, that mystery of faith which binds together all the mysteries of Christianity. We are celebrating, therefore, the most sacred and transcendent act which we, men and women, with God’s grace can carry out in this life: receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord is, in a certain sense, like loosening our ties with earth and time, so as to be already with God in heaven, where Christ himself will wipe the tears from our eyes and where there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor cries of distress, because the old world will have passed away.

This profound and consoling truth, which theologians usually call the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist, could, however, be misunderstood. Indeed, this has happened whenever people have tried to present the Christian way of life as something exclusively spiritual – or better, spiritualistic something reserved for pure, extraordinary people who remain aloof from the contemptible things of this world, or at most tolerate them as something that the spirit just has to live alongside, while we are on this earth.

When people take this approach, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian way of life. And being a Christian means going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, getting into an ecclesiastical mentality, in a special kind of world, considered the ante-chamber to heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate course. In this case, Christian teaching and the life of grace would pass by, brushing very lightly against the turbulent advance of human history but never coming into proper contact with it.

On this October morning, as we prepare to enter upon the memorial of our Lord’s Pasch, we flatly reject this deformed vision of Christianity. Reflect for a moment on the setting of our Eucharist, of our Act of Thanksgiving. We find ourselves in a unique temple; we might say that the nave is the University campus; the altarpiece, the University library; over there, the machinery for constructing new buildings; above us, the sky of Navarre…

Surely this confirms in your minds, in a tangible and unforgettable way, the fact that everyday life is the true setting for your lives as Christians. Your daily encounter with Christ takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind.

This I have been teaching all the time, using words from holy Scripture: the world is not evil, because it comes from the hands of God, because it is his creation, because Yahweh looked upon it and saw that it was good. It is we ourselves, men and women, who make it evil and ugly with our sins and unfaithfulness. Don’t doubt it, my children: any attempt to escape from the noble reality of daily life is, for you men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God.

On the contrary, you must realise now, more clearly than ever, that God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, secular and civil activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.

… the Christian vocation consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day.

… It is obvious that, in this field as in all others, you would not be able to carry out this programme of sanctifying your everyday life if you did not enjoy all the freedom which proceeds from your dignity as men and women created in the image of God, and which the Church freely recognizes. Personal freedom is essential for the Christian life. But do not forget, my sons, that I always speak of a responsible freedom.

St. Josemaria Escriva’s mandate to sanctify the ordinary intersects with the challenge of what Pope Benedict XVI has described as “the tiring pilgrimage of everyday existence”.

Right causes of happiness and sadness

Fr. George Rutler, of the Church of Saint Michael in New York, writes in his weekly column:

A remarkable quality usually taken for granted, is that humans can laugh and cry unlike other creatures. “Risibility,” the ability to laugh or smile, is a defining trait of humanity. The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.

All sane, moral behavior has the pursuit of happiness as the goal of life. Sadness is the recognition of what impedes that goal. As long as we are in a broken world, happiness will be elusive to a degree, and at best will be “felicitas,” which means real but impermanent happiness.

Ancient Greeks … spent time studying human dispositions. They were good psychologists. Their gods and goddesses were essentially symbols of human characteristics. There were many deities who represented varying attempts at happiness, although some of their philosophers, like the Cynics and Stoics, did not think there was much of a chance at felicity. There were, for instance: Bacchus – drinking; Hypnos – drugs; Hermes – sports; Dionysius – partying; Aphrodite – sex; Tyche – good luck; Hygieia – health; Thalia – comedy; Momus – silliness and gossip; and Nemesis – revenge on enemies.

Saint Paul was familiar with that ghostly pantheon and politely confronted their clients in Athens. He did not mock or insult them. But he did declare to them that he knew the one true God who is the source of all true joy and for which those idols were lame substitutes:

Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31)

Most of the philosophers were unmoved because they liked hearing themselves and none other. But one of them, Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris, and “a number of others” accepted Christ. Their stories are unrecorded, but as Christ never lied, we know that they inherited a happiness higher than felicitas, and that is beatitudo—the endless joy of God’s presence.

“The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.”

Leave this world a better man

Summer is here, and the mild early heat of the season is blanketing Washington today. Here are two vignettes from Roger Scruton’s “Gentle Regrets”:

On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers’ being closed for the summer holiday). …

He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more ‘relevant’ to the needs of today.

“What an absurd demand — to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.”

It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.

“We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.”

And the second:

And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, and one that Monsignor Gilbey, incidentally, had built onto the foundations of his life — the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul.

‘I found delight in the human race’

A few years ago my friend Ben Novak shared his playful theory of Christ’s sacrifice with me, and today’s scripture on the solemnity of the Trinity reminded me of Ben’s “layman’s theory” as to why God had to send his son to earth to become a man to die for us:

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Reading 1 Prv 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God:
“The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.”

Tacitus at Easter

We celebrated Easter Vigil last night at Saint Raymond of Penafort in Philadelphia:

To mark Easter I’m sharing John Burger’s piece on Tacitus, the Roman historian:

Tacitus is known for his chronicles of the Roman Empire, but he was also a high official in Rome’s imperial administration. Among the many stepping stones he had in his career, there is one that, in light of Christian history, suggests why he might have included a certain Jesus of Nazareth in his famous history, the Annals. …

… there were Christians living in Rome, and a historian like Tacitus, born 25 years after the crucifixion, would have wondered who these people were and why they believed the way they did.

Tacitus refers to the Christians of Rome in the context of the great Roman fire of A.D. 64. He says that to dispel rumors that Nero was to blame for the fire, he:

“…fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”

Everything is mysteriously entangled

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus writes:

By these three days all the world is called to attention. Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice – everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days.… Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told. In this killing that some call senseless we are brought to our senses. Here we find out who we most truly are because here is the One who is what we are called to be. The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.” Follow him there? We recoil. We close our ears. We hurry on to Easter. But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.

J.D. Flynn pointed out how strange and unlikely it is (even more so if we bracket the Christian belief in resurrection) that we remember the story of a Roman peasant. But it’s not so strange or unlikely if it’s true that everything “that is and ever was and ever will be … is mysteriously entangled…”

La Grande Arche v. Notre-Dame

Fifteen years ago, George Weigel thought about Notre-Dame:

At the far western end of the magnificent urban axis that runs from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is the Grand Arch of La Défense—one of the “great projects” of the late French president François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost forty stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and in 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.

On a hot, sunny afternoon—which is when I first saw it some seven years ago—La Grande Arche is, quite literally, dazzling. An elevator, definitely not recommended for anyone inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of Paris, past the Tuileries to the Louvre and on to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch’s three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For Mitterrand intended the Grand Arch as a human-rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook I consulted, La Grande Arche was nicknamed “Fraternity Arch”; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.

This prompted a question as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the greatest of the world’s cityscapes. Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy: the culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube, or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great gothic cathedrals of France?

Notre-Dame de Paris

President Emmanuel Macron asserts that Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and that an international campaign will be launched to do so. Despite France being a secular state that is, in so many ways, presently at odds with its Catholic heart, Notre Dame is owned by the French state and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Alexandra DeSanctis on the loss of Notre-Dame de Paris, burning during Holy Week:

Although they’re already saying it’ll be rebuilt someday — and it’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful place could be left forever in ruins — it can never be rebuilt to what it was just this morning. It’s nearly unbearable to think about how much has been lost. A cathedral that withstood the bloodshed of revolution and the ravages of two world wars, tumbling in clouds of dark smoke, seemingly impossible to stop.

This is a disaster for Paris and for France, for French history, and for French Catholics. It is a grave loss for the history of Western civilization, and for future generations who, like me, will never see the cathedral’s glorious rose windows or the grandeur of her magnificent spires.

But first and foremost, it is a tragedy for the Catholic Church, whose members are already suffering in so many places. To many Catholics, it feels as if the Church is on fire in a sense already. And now we are watching it blaze. Though Notre Dame de Paris is a testament to world history, to art, to architecture, and to centuries of civilization, above all she is — was — a place of inestimable beauty dedicated to God. The cathedral’s Gothic arches pointed heavenward not for their own sake…

And Haley Stewart approaches Notre-Dame’s burning through literature and promise:

As a Catholic, as a medievalist, as a lover of beauty and history, I am absolutely wrecked. 

I have always wanted to visit Europe to see the cathedrals. The reality that I will never see the architectural masterpiece of Notre Dame is devastating. Watching the church collapse piece by piece as smoke billows into the air feels like a punch in the gut. And at the beginning of Holy Week, no less. I am trembling with sadness over the loss as if it were my own home that I’m watching burning down.

What must it feel like to be watching the flames tear down Notre Dame on the scene? To be scrambling to contain the horrific damage? To try to save holy relics and sacred art from destruction? The fear and the chaos of safely removing the Crown of Thorns and remnants of the True Cross?

I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s set in medieval Norway and one night, a terrible lightning storm sets fire to the local church of St. Olav. The protagonist, Kristin and her family struggle to contain the flames, to save the structure. But it quickly becomes apparent that it cannot be saved. Brave souls, including Kristin’s fiance and her father, rush in to save holy objects and the priest Sira Eirik rescues the Host from the flames and relics of the church’s patron, St. Olav.

Kristin’s father, Lavrans, emerges with the Crucifix in his arms. As he watches the flames consume St. Olav’s “His arm lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ. It looked as if the Savior were bending his beautiful, sad face toward the man to console him.” …

As Pope St. John Paul II told us, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.” Let us hold onto that hope in our grief. While Notre-Dame de Paris may be a charred shell of stone by morning, we know that the gates of Hell will not prevail over the Church through which God pours out his grace on his people.

Rod Dreher recognizes Notre-Dame’s burning as metaphor and personal challenge:

There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.” …

What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon. …

What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.

It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course…

Papal Foundation and a major grant

Matthew O’Brien argues that former Cardinal Donald Wuerl misled the Papal Foundation’s board of directors in obtaining a major grant. He also suggests that the purpose of the extraordinary grant may have been to help then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick win leniency from the Vatican as his sex abuse investigation was taking place:

In 2017, Cardinal Donald Wuerl provided false and misleading information to the board of the Papal Foundation to secure a $25 million grant for the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI), a scandal-plagued hospital in Rome. 

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin requested this grant from the Papal Foundation in June 2017, on behalf of Pope Francis. When the Papal Foundation board met in December 2017 to discuss the grant, Wuerl made two false assertions which were recorded in the meeting minutes. First, he claimed that the Italian religious congregation that oversaw the IDI’s descent into insolvency through fraud and embezzlement (the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception) was no longer involved with the IDI. Second, he understated the amount of debt encumbering the IDI and its affiliates since the hospital group emerged from state-administered insolvency proceedings in April 2015. He painted a picture of a hospital that was experiencing momentary cash-flow problems, but was otherwise sound.

But the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception was not separated from the IDI. It retains indirect ownership today, in partnership with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, through the non-profit Fondazione Luigi Maria Monti and a limited liability subsidiary, Luigi Maria Monti, S.r.l. Together they own and operate the IDI and its affiliates. Moreover, IDI’s debt was far greater than Wuerl suggested: Though Wuerl mentioned that the IDI group owed $26 million in payables, he did not mention that it also owed $60 million in mortgage debt. Because Wuerl resisted lay board members’ requests to obtain financial statements from the IDI hospital, the Papal Foundation board had to rely upon Wuerl’s remarks about its ownership and financial situation when evaluating the $25 million grant request.

Wuerl’s actions are especially questionable in light of what he knew at the time about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s interest in securing the grant. The Holy See, Wuerl, and McCarrick—an ex-officio member of the Papal Foundation board—knew that McCarrick was at the time under investigation in New York for sexually abusing a minor, according to two sources with personal knowledge of the situation. Wuerl was aware that McCarrick stood to win leniency in his sex abuse case if the Papal Foundation secured $25 million for the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Wuerl’s actions roiled the Papal Foundation’s donors and lay board members. Several people involved with the Foundation spoke on background for this article and shared copies of Foundation meeting minutes and legal reviews. Shortly before Wuerl resigned from the chairmanship of the Foundation’s board at the end of 2018, he orchestrated a change in its bylaws that decreased the already limited influence of lay board members by shortening their terms of service. 

Today Wuerl remains a member of the Papal Foundation’s governing board of cardinals. As one of just two American members of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, Wuerl oversaw the recent appointment of his successor to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Gregory too serves alongside Wuerl on the Papal Foundation board.     

The sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church is not just about sex. Nor is it just about clericalism. It’s also about money. The controversy over the Papal Foundation’s $25 million grant reveals how sexual abuse, its cover-up, and money are intertwined.

The Papal Foundation was founded by Cardinal McCarrick. And the Papal Foundation’s typical grant amount is not $25,000,000, but rather $100,000.