Aquila (non) captat muscas

A sense of propriety – personal, cultural, institutional – is among the dearest casualties of our age, which is one of industrial individualism and highly managed hydroponic rootlessness. Nowhere has the sense of propriety been more conspicuous by its absence, than in the recent contretemps occasioned by the release to the public of a letter by the distinguished theologian, Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap, and exacerbated by the inept response of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Images: details from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegories of Good and Bad Government”

Fr. Weinandy’s stature as a public thinker in the Church makes him qualified to register concerns regarding the conduct of the Church’s pastors, including the hierarchical leadership of the Church generally and extending even to the Holy Father in particular. His institutional position, however, is one that arguably ought to have given him more pause than it evidently did, for he not only wrote a very strongly worded letter to Pope Francis, critical of the Holy Father’s conduct in office and record of leadership, but saw fit to bring that letter before the broad public.

Here, both crystalline clarity and scientific precision are in order: there is nothing strictly objectionable in either the substance or the tone of Fr. Weinandy’s letter; nor was his decision to publish it beyond the pale of reason. Nevertheless, the stuff of his letter was hard, and the terms in which he couched his criticism strident to the point of truculence, if not intemperance. One of his stature may write such a letter, though one in his position publishes it at peril thereof.

Said simply: one does not publish what can fairly be described as strong (and trenchant) criticism of the boss, and expect to get away with it. Certainly, there was more than a soupçon of impudence in the letter (recall the recipe Bolt gave his Thomas More); publishing it was rather the opposite of discreet.

In fairness to Fr. Weinandy, there is no evidence to suggest he did expect to leave the episode with his place either as a consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine (from which he resigned upon request within hours of his letter’s appearance) or as a member of the International Theological Commission (which he still holds at press time), intact.

A consultant is in essence a counsellor, and if a counsellor cannot support the actions of his principal, or has lost confidence in his principal’s ability to lead, the proper course of action is for him to resign his position. Then, he may clamor like a champion, if he has the spittle for it (Bolt’s More again). So, one may surmise that Fr. Weinandy’s decision to publish his hitherto private missive was, in effect, his submission of his letter of resignation. That the Holy Father has not as yet accepted it, is perhaps telling, but that is another matter, for another essay.

Though one may question both the prudence and the institutional propriety of his modus procedendi, Fr. Weinandy has done no wrong, and has a right to his reputation as a faithful Churchman.

In regard to Fr. Weinandy’s reputation, the conduct of the USCCB has not been above reproach, for, the two statements (here and here) issued within minutes of one another in address of Fr. Weinandy’s conduct amount to a treatment of him that is unwarranted and untoward in their effect, if not in their intention.

Rather than state nothing, and let the matter run its course, the Bishops first issued a public announcement of Fr. Weinandy’s resignation, and then, under the signature of the President of the Conference, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, another statement, this one “on the nature of dialogue within the Church today”.

The announcement was an unusual step. Consultants come and go, and frankly, do very little. Even if the Bishops had seen fit to dismiss Fr. Weinandy, the circumstances were such, that no candid observer could have doubted the cause, or questioned the reason for his dismissal. The statement from Cardinal DiNardo, rather than clarify the reasons for the requirement of Fr. Weinandy’s resignation – and there is no question a reasonable leader might have made such a requirement under the circumstances – entered rather upon a broad and general discussion of “the nature of dialogue within the Church,” taking Fr. Weinandy’s departure as the occasion for the discussion.

Once again, crystalline clarity and scientific precision are in order, for Cardinal DiNardo’s reflection is not only unexceptionable, but praiseworthy when taken on its own and without regard for the circumstances in which he offered it. He did not, however, simply offer a reflection: he explicitly cited, as the occasion for it, what was – whatever else it should have been and however appropriate the Bishops’ institutional response to it was – an exercise of precisely that frank and free spirit in counsel – that parrhesia – which Pope Francis has time and again protested it is his desire that Christians in every state of life in the Church exhibit, even and especially to him.

By giving such context to his reflection, and citing such a context as its occasion, Cardinal DiNardo – however unintentionally – added a measure of confusion to the mix, insofar as the citation of Fr. Weinandy’s publication of his letter as occasion for a broad and general reflection on the nature of dialogue within the Church today gives the reader of that reflection reason to understand that Cardinal DiNardo – and in him the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which he is President – believes Fr. Weinandy’s actions – at least in publishing the letter -to have been at least wanting, when measured against the exacting standards of charity, honesty, and bona fides, which he articulated in his reflection with what any fair-minded reader will readily admit was admirable faculty.

Now, in the shadow of the doubt cast not only on the official propriety of Fr. Weinandy’s engagement, but effectively on his standing to criticize the Holy Father tout court, Fr. Weinandy is accused – in America Magazine, a rightly renowned publication, by none other than the journal’s Editor-at-Large, Fr. James Martin, SJ, of dissent – a frankly risible charge – and subjected to a sanctimonious lecture from his predecessor at the head of the USCCB’s doctrine office, Msgr. John J. Strynkowski, whose sufficient tone and facile nicety with the facts of the case and of the recent history that are its contours and occasion would make a soap opera script-writer blush. Other direct attacks on Fr. Weinandy’s character and person have appeared, in other publications.

If the Bishops’ intention was not to license such behavior, it has apparently emboldened men willing to engage in it.


Stumbling toward a solution: Amoris in light of the moral law and pastoral practice

That the post-Synodal Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, has produced significant controversy, is not itself too controversial a statement. However lamentable the conduct of the controversy in some of its particulars, that the document should be have been controversial was inevitable.

The remarks to follow are scrupulously intended as general reflections offered in the hope that they might serve to inform the broader public conversation in the Church and in society, especially as the conduct of certain difficult and thorny issues surrounding the Exhortation is concerned.

Basically there are two camps in the controversy: one filled with people concerned to safeguard the Church’s tether to the natural moral law and to preserve the teaching the Church has received from her Divine Founder in all its effects; another peopled with faithful anxious to see that the supreme law – the salvation of souls – is truly and ultimately the one we serve and obey.

Both parties are right as far as they see matters, and each bears a measure of responsibility for the failures of its members to respect the vision and the good will of those in the other.

I do not pretend to have or to offer the solution to the controversy.

Nevertheless, I do have friends in both camps: people I respect and admire; and while I have always been able to see the reason in each, I have been slow to find my way to a vector of approach that would allow me to express what good there is in both the one and the other.

I think I may have stumbled on the way to thread the scandalous needle.

V0038875 A man sits threading a needle to mend his ragged clothes. Li
Lithograph by T. Maguire, 1855 via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Wellcome Images

Since the first of the two recent synod assemblies on the family was announced – though really for several years and even perhaps more than a decade before that – I have been thinking about how we understand the mechanics of scandal in contemporary society.

Scandal, therefore – along with the related questions of “firm intent” as it relates to the circumstances and vicissitudes of contemporary life and the tension between the twin moral duties to follow conscience and to form it according to the moral law as authoritatively interpreted by the Church – are together the object of the considerations to follow.

The Notion of Scandal

The English word, scandal, comes from a Greek word meaning “stumbling block” or trap or snare. The Church in her Catechism defines scandal as:

“[A]n attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil, (2284)” and explains that they are guilty of scandal, “who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to ‘social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.’ (2286)” Paragraph 2285 of the Catechism tells us:

Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’ Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.

All this to say that scandal is serious business: even when someone seems unnecessarily or without sufficient reason to decry some attitude, or behavior, or state of affairs, as scandalous, we owe a certain respect to their earnestness – and ought not dismiss or make light of the concern, even if we are compelled by our own understanding of things to disagree with and even argue strongly against the judgment of our interlocutor.

At its most basic level, scandal is saying “evil” to good, or – what is usually less grave (but still very bad) and probably more common – saying “good” to evil, and so with a view either to excusing or encouraging bad behavior: usually positively, but sometimes negatively, by which I mean to say that sometimes the one doing the scandalizing will tell someone something like, “That’s not a sin,” or, “Go ahead and do that thing, it is good for you,” – positive – and other times, “You don’t need to do that thing (e.g. pay your taxes),” – negative – so that one discourages one’s interlocutor from doing something he really ought to do.

We are all guilty of scandal more often than we’d like to think, though we oughtn’t get too “hung up” on it.

The plain fact is: we run the risk of scandal every time we conduct any kind of transaction with any other human being. If we were to dwell too much or too closely on the duty to avoid scandal – I mean to the exclusion of all our other duties – we would never leave the house.

When a Christian comes to believe that he might be guilty of scandal, he ought quickly to explain the matter to a priest – ideally in confession – and there he ought to receive guidance, and resolve to be more careful next time, and receive absolution, and get on with his life.

At this point, the discussion shades perceptibly into the first of two major thorny patches in considering scandal and how to deal with it: recognizing it for what it is, and is not.

“Go ahead, have another – no one’s driving and no one’s working tomorrow!” may be scandalous: if, for example, the people to whom one says the thing really do have work to do the next day, so that one’s remark is encouraging sloth; or perhaps one or more of one’s companions are the sort given to overindulgence, so the encouragement to an otherwise unexceptionable extra tipple is really in fact a confirmation of a dangerous and unhealthy habit.

Perhaps the suggestion was not offered directly to the overindulgent companion, though, but only within earshot of him: or perhaps the fellow hearing the invitation was already – unbeknownst to the one making it – rather more severely impaired than he let on?

The point is that, even when the principles are clear and the object straightforward, circumstances and ends can conspire to make any situation difficult to parse.

This is all the more true of those cases, in which the stakes are high and the circumstances broadly social: say, when Christians are in irregular marriages and are desirous of resolving their situations but – for whatever reason – unable to do so, and yet desirous of returning to the Sacraments.

Scandal and the Law

The first question is: what is keeping such couples from the Sacraments in the first place?

The short answer is: the law – divine, natural, and human positive law – and though the controversy surrounding Amoris involves all three, it is specifically focused on canon law.

There are two canons in the Code of Canon Law, either of which – and sometimes both of which – would seem to keep people in irregular marriages at least from the Sacrament of Holy Communion: c.915 and c.916.

First, the full text of the two canons:

Can.  915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

Can.  916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

This looks fairly straightforward: entering into a putative marriage after a civil divorce and without obtaining an ecclesiastical decree of nullity is gravely sinful – no one in his right mind disputes that; it is also a public act, marriage being by its nature a public institution, so entering into such an irregular union is a manifest act that is gravely sinful; refusing to disown the act and disavow any and all sinful behavior associated with it is therefore perseverance in manifest grave sin; perseverance in manifest grave sin is precisely what disqualifies one from admission to Holy Communion.

So, Pastors who know of the circumstances of people in irregular marriages cannot but refuse them admission to Holy Communion, on pain of dereliction of their duty under law – and the reason for the law is that to admit such persons to Holy Communion would be – in the strict, technical sense of the term – scandalous.

As for c.916: it simply beggars credulity to imagine that even the most poorly-formed Catholic should be so ignorant of the Church’s perennial teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, as to be not conscious of having committed a grave sin in contracting a civil union without first obtaining a decree of nullity from the Church; a person with such knowledge cannot therefore present himself for Holy Communion without violating the law.

Unpleasant as it is, the argument is seamless: non fa una piega, as we say in Italian – there’s really nothing to it, or for it – or is there?

I would like to suggest that there may be a way to untie this Gordian Knot: a way that preserves the integrity of the law and respects the reason for it, without falling either into sentimentalism or radical subjectivism.

Bear with me.

It is a settled principle of law and social commerce that people who present themselves as man and wife are to be presumed married. When it is generally known that a putatively married couple are in fact living in what the Church considers an irregular union – think of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn – the scandal of the thing is ineluctable. Nevertheless, in a great many cases – I would hazard to say the vast majority of cases – the details of couples’ personal lives are not so well known: and citizens of civil and ecclesiastical society have a duty to think all the good they can of their neighbors; so that, when there is a doubt, we are to give our neighbors the benefit of it.

Said quite simply and shortly: we may avoid scandal simply by minding our own business and by being charitable in our considerations of our neighbors’ circumstances – as we hope they should be toward us and our own.

Even when irregularity is generally known, however, there may yet be room for charity to work its work: there does not seem to be anything keeping anyone from assuming that issues affecting a couple’s circumstances have been resolved, or that they are endeavoring to live together in continence – that is to say, abstaining from the marital act.

The arrival of new children would tend to defeat the latter assumption, but then there is always human frailty – the weakness of the flesh – for which we are by Our Lord enjoined in no uncertain terms to have great solicitude.

Here, we come to the second question: to which Sacraments are persons in irregular marital situations to be admitted, and in what order?

In the ordinary scheme of things, people living as man and wife, who are not man and wife, would need to avail themselves first of the Sacrament of Penance, before presenting themselves for, and being admitted to, Holy Communion.

Until very recently, the Church required people in irregular marital situations to separate, and where possible, to attempt reconciliation with their “original” spouses. At least since the time of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio, however, the Church has recognized that such a step could be so extremely difficult and burdensome, and/or so dangerous to the health and security of the broader household (however irregularly constituted), as to be impracticable or at least inopportune.

Persons in irregular unions may not, however, be dispensed from the requirement to live continently, that is, to abstain from sexual relations, until such time as they are able to bring their domestic circumstances into conformity with the Church’s law.

So, once a person in an irregular marital situation repents of his decision to enter thereinto, and determines that he must nevertheless remain therein – because he cannot in conscience abandon his putative spouse or their issue to the vicissitudes of fortune, or because he is unable to support himself otherwise, or for whatever other sufficiently grave reason – he must receive absolution for his sins, including, but not limited to: faithlessness toward his first and favored spouse; scandalously entering into an irregular union; willing cooperation in other adultery (or at least fornication); exposing his children to an unwholesome domesticity; having contempt for the law of God and His Holy Church.

He must, moreover, resolve to abstain from sexual relations with his putative spouse.

What, however, if he foresees that this shall be impossible, either because it would risk shattering even the semblance of domestic order he has achieved, or because he considers himself unequal to the burden of continence, or both?

Here, we come to the crux of the matter.

Firm Intent

Holy Church requires that penitents, in order validly to receive absolution, must firmly intend to sin no more. The question is, therefore: how ought Holy Mother Church to measure firm intent?

I readily admit I do not have an answer to that question.

I do know, however, that porn addicts, compulsive masturbators, nymphomaniacs, homosexuals, fetishists, and others with a whole host of frankly far more disgusting perversions readily avail themselves of the Confessional, and there receive absolution, often – quite rightly – with a word of encouragement, an invitation to come back as often as necessary, and a promise that the Church will not abandon them, not ever, not for any reason.

Whatever the answer to the question of what constitutes firm intent for persons in irregular marriages, I think it more than reasonable to assume that it ought not be a standard more stringent than that required of perverts, some of whom are daily penitents and daily communicants.

Since the Church clearly recognizes in both teaching and practice that a penitent may indeed firmly intend not to sin, even knowing that he is very likely to fall into sin again, then it is not unreasonable to expect penitents in irregular conjugal circumstances to intend firmly not to sin, and to know that they will – in all likelihood and for a whole host of reasons no less complicated than those, which animate other sinners – sin again.

Residual Perplexities

His scriptis, I must confess I do not understand Pope Francis’ post-Synodal Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, the document that has been and continues to be the occasion – if not the source – of so much controversy.

I promise that my purpose in confessing this perplexity is not to engage in polemic.

I am Jesuit-educated, with a Jesuit ethos and the closest thing to an Ignatian spirituality that a simple Catholic layman can have. I sometimes say that I “speak” Jesuit. The election of Francis thrilled me. I was an early supporter and a continue to be a defender of his pastoral approach, which I find to be powerfully challenging and in the main effective.

Still, I do not understand Amoris laetitia.

This is not for a want of trying: my original inclination to read it as an attempt to encourage confessors to greater elasticity in judging the condition of firm purpose of amendment to have been met by penitents in irregular situations, was originally encouraged by Card. Schönborn in an interview with Vatican Radio on the day of the document’s release, and then apparently foreclosed by the same Card. Schönborn shortly thereafter in other remarks to other people, and by the Holy Father’s own private letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires, which seemed to go beyond matters of pastoral prudence and into the re-interpretation and implementation of both doctrine and law, on the basis of the Synod Assemblies and the post-Synodal Exhortation.

This state of things is all the more confusing – and not a little consternating – since it is beyond my ken to see how a consultative body – the Synod of Bishops – is supposed definitively to have addressed doctrinal issues at all, let alone ones arising from the document issued summarily and without the body’s approval or oversight, after the body concluded its deliberations and dissolved its assembly.

I do not understand how a post-Synodal Exhortation can – properly speaking – teach anything. It is neither a teaching document nor a governing instrument of any kind.
I struggle to accept that the Successor to Peter would introduce so significant a development of doctrine and so upsetting a change in pastoral practice and sacramental discipline, by means of implication, let alone by way of implication to be drawn from a footnote – and I doubtless take a measure of consolation from our Holy Father’s insistence that he is doing no such thing.

I do not understand, then, either how an Apostolic Exhortation can teach anything, or how a private letter can clarify the “teaching” contained in the aforesaid not-strictly-a-teaching-document.

Austen Ivereigh recently wrote an interesting and engaging piece on the controversy. His well-written and carefully crafted piece thus captures the core of his case: “The synod kept the law – how could it not? It’s the law of Jesus – but defended a latitude in its application, recognizing, as did Jesus, that the law is necessary but insufficient, and has to be applied in such a way that respects the particularity of each person’s story.”
Here is what Jesus had to say about the matter:

And it hath been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting for the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery. (Mt. 5:31-32)

Not satisfied, the disciples return to the argument. Our Lord tells them:

Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.

Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. They say to him: Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away? He saith to them: Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery. (Mt 19:4-9)”

St. Mark is at once more succinct and detailed:

[T]he Pharisees coming to him asked him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. But he answering, saith to them: What did Moses command you? Who said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce, and to put her away. To whom Jesus answering, said: Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you that precept.

But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house again his disciples asked him concerning the same thing.

And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.(Mk. 10:2-11)

The Pharisees: Pope Francis is wont to accuse those, who would use the law to bind and trap, of being Pharisees – and rightly so – and as our beloved Holy Father leads us and the whole Church through this difficult and often contentious process of discernment regarding, among other things: marriage, the family, and the proper discipline of Holy Communion, we do well to heed his warning about the dangers of falling into a Pharisaical spirit in our thought and conduct, as we discern together the right course through the troubled waters of our time.

Who are the Pharisees? If we are honest, we will see that we all are, sometimes and to some extent. We are all called to open our heart to the Gospel and to allow Christ’s grace to work in us.

In the Gospels, however, the Pharisees are always the ones defending the Mosaic Law with respect to divorce, and the people – including the disciples – are scandalized by the clarity and sternness (not to say “rigidity”) of Our Lord’s own teaching.

Nevertheless, we are told of one Pharisee, who opened his heart to the transformative power of the Gospel: St. Paul (cf. Acts 23:6).

For all his obtuse and sometimes seemingly contradictory writings (St. Peter said so, not I. V. 2 Peter 3:16), Paul was utterly unambiguous on two points: the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11) and the danger of receiving our Blessed Lord unworthily (cf. 1 Cor 11:29).

“Discerning in the Gray of Life”

The shades of grey prevail in life. – Pope Francis to Polish Jesuits, July 27th, 2016

At sunrise, everything is luminous, but not clear. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it

If we are honest with ourselves, we will readily admit that we do not often want to do the right thing:  rather, we want to do something, and we want that something to be right, and so we take refuge beneath, or behind, the thick grey veil that covers an existence marked by something else – something we used to call, “sin”.

In calling his brother Jesuits — and through them, all priest-confessors, and with them, all of us — to “discern in the grey,” and to teach other priests so to discern, as he did in remarks to Polish members of Ignatius’ Company during the course of an unscheduled private visit on July 30th, 2016, Pope Francis was calling for a frank recognition of this ineluctable fact.

A just reading of the Holy Father’s remarks will acknowledge that there is some ambiguity in them: is he calling on confessors to justify penitents’ twisted desires, or perhaps to excuse them on the grounds of impenetrable moral imbecility? Is he rather calling confessors to recognize the muddiness and murkiness of our affairs, and to help penitents achieve a measure of clarity in their vision of their deeds and of their souls?

A just construction of the Holy Father’s remarks, informed by charity, will not fail to account for the inchoate presence in them of three elements, which are hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality and basic Christian anthropology: that the Lord has made the world good and ordered our being to Himself; that the darkening of our intellect as a result of sin has made it more difficult than it ought to be for us to know the good, and still more difficult to pursue it wholeheartedly; that we are nevertheless moral agents, capable with God’s grace of more godliness than angels, and of more devilishness than demons without it.

“[I]n life,” Pope Francis told his Jesuit brothers, “not everything is black over white or white over black.” He went on to say, “The shades of gray prevail in life,” adding, “we must teach [seminarians in our charge] to discern in this grey area.”

To discern in this grey area is — whatever else it is — the task of Christian conscience. The Pope is reminding confessors of their duty to help souls. This means that confessors are to be mindful of their own sinfulness and limitations as they are about their work. It means that they are to resist the temptation to justify, and so to eschew such facile dismissals of real conscientious struggle as, “That isn’t a sin (anymore),” while keeping vigil against the apparently opposite though in reality identical impulse — albeit manifest negatively — toward condemnation.

The Christian life is one in which we are constantly playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death: the temptation to justify (“That’s not a sin anymore.”) and the temptation to condemn (“You’re back again? You can’t be really sorry.”) are equally rooted in the temptation to despair: as if we were beyond the power of grace, and so dependent on a re-casting of the moral stuff of creation in order to achieve salvation.

Note that the Holy Father’s remarks also work out of three assumptions about the Christian life: that it involves failure; that it requires repentance; that the work of grace, though often imperceptibly slow, is nevertheless inexorable when we cooperate with it.

Said shortly: he expects Christians to sin, and to avail themselves of the confessional when they do — and he expects the priests who hear their confessions to take our capacity for both sin and for repentance seriously.

HF hears confessions in Rio

Pope Francis hears the confession of a young penitent in Rio, July 2013

Addressing the Missionaries of Mercy commissioned in the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said, “We are his ministers; and we are always the first to be in need of being forgiven by him. Therefore, whatever sin may be confessed — or if the person dare not voice it, but makes it understood, it is sufficient — every missionary is called to remember his own existence as a sinner and to humbly act as a “channel” of God’s mercy.”

While the Holy Father’s express willingness to apply a liberal interpretation of the Church’s teaching in the Council of Trent with regard to the need for confession of each grave sin in number and kind as a condition of valid absolution may be a matter warranting some circumspection, it need not be a cause for scandal.

Indeed, taken with his later challenge to discern in the grey of life, we may understand him to be offering instruction at once to confessors and to penitents: confessors ought to be ready to absolve any and all matter they have understood to have been confessed; penitents ought not make it difficult for their priest-confessors to understand the matter for which they are requesting absolution.

Nevertheless, the confessional will be as messy a place as any other we encounter and inhabit in life — and “cleaning it up” will be as constant and unremitting a chore as keeping any other place we inhabit.

Finally, and at the risk of stating the obvious: messy as it must be, we must encounter God’s mercy in the confessional if we are to be serious Christians. Confession must be a part of life for us, full stop.

The best thing pastors can do to make confession a part of life for the faithful, is to make it a part of life for the faithful: to be there, in the box and waiting.

I remember making my way one late afternoon through the center of Rome and past several Roman churches including St. John of the Florentines and St. Philip Neri’s chiesa nuova, until I came to the minor basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso (around which they built the Chancery). I entered just before Mass was scheduled to start. As the celebrant made his way into the sanctuary and began the rites, a priest made his way to a confessional, followed by a penitent. That man made his confession, and, seeing that there was a priest available, I quickly examined my conscience and knelt behind the grille to make my own when the time came. After me, another penitent — a woman who had stumbled, so it seemed, into the basilica — knelt behind the grille on the opposite side of the box and made her confession. Moral of the story: if you are a priest, and if you sit in a confessional, behind a grille (some folks prefer face-to-face confession, and that is fine, but both priests and penitents have a canonical right to anonymity), people will come and they will confess their sins. On the other hand, if no priest is there to hear confessions, then people cannot confess.

The lives of priests — especially parish priests — are all too often impossibly hectic, so the burden such presence must place on their time and energies is not one either they or we ought to take lightly.

Nevertheless, people who were hell-bound before confessing their sins, are heaven-bent after they confess them and receive absolution: priests can save people from hell, in ways that I and other lay people simply cannot – but it all begins with being there: theirs, and ours.

A reply to Phyllis Zagano

Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University published an opinion piece in the online pages of the National Catholic Reporter last week (dateline July 13, 2016), addressing what she perceives to be a “schism” open and joined, between “Pre-Vatican II” and “Post-Vatican II” Catholics.

I saw the piece on social media, but did not address it beyond calling it “nonsense” – the most charitable term I could discover – and moving on – much as I have in most of my life as a Catholic when it has come to matters liturgico-political. Truth be told, I do not much care which way priests face (ad orientem is objectively better), or which language they adopt, or which books they use (the prayers in the ’62 books are objectively better: theologically precise and usually beautiful); I simply want priests to say Mass reverently (say the BLACK and do the RED, rev’d and dear Fathers), and I want them to have beautiful spaces in which to say it.

If this makes me any sort of unreconstructed antediluvian and/or anti-Conciliar reactionary in Prof. Zagano’s eyes, well, I can live with that.

A pointed word from a very dear friend, whom I greatly admire and love devotedly, however, brought me back to Zagano’s piece, which, I now realize, calls for a more fulsome reply.

I admit that “nonsense” is polemical.

Nevertheless, I chose the term because the piece is, at best, nonsense: the author’s central contention is that there is a schism – the author’s word, on which she doubles down and to which she is committed – between a small coterie of disgruntled antiquarians and “the rest of us”.

This contention is quite simply wrong on its face, and risibly so:

The supporting idea she puts forward, according to which, “[O]lder church [sic] professionals [sic] who adjusted to vernacular liturgies and who incorporate mercy into their understandings of justice are retiring daily [and] are being replaced, where they are replaced, by people whose theological education is complemented by self-appointed Internet theo-bloggers whose opinions grow from the conviction that anything that happened since 1965 is anathema,” is wrong in so many ways that one is embarrassed when one looks for a point from which to begin an address of its inadequacies, errors, and outright stupidities.

Benedict XVI himself described the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI as:

[T]he ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite.


The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usage.

Just in case there were any concern about Benedict’s intentions:

These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.

Zagano’s piece is also tendentious (the kindest descriptor I could find to deploy), viz. its strong suggestion that mercy is something the “post-Vatican II Church” discovered and for the presence of which in Church life they alone are to be credited: any such suggestion is not only counter-factual: it is an act of historical vandalism committed against the memoria Dei preserved in the living Tradition and traditions of the Church, from Apostolic times down to the present.

The “slow and steady recovery of church [sic] life during the papacy of Francis,” which Zagano unproblematically and merely asserts (ostensibly to laud it), offers another egregious example of irresponsible and ill-informed opinion rooted in a pestiferous hermeneutic of discontinuity and opposition between Benedict XVI and Francis, which had hitherto remained in the subtext of her piece – a discontinuity which both bishops have consistently eschewed and even publicly and explicitly disavowed, as recently as their joint public appearance for the celebration of Benedict’s 65th Jubilee of priestly ordination at the end of June.

As for the much-maligned and even more greatly misunderstood “reform of the reform” of the liturgy, which seems somehow to be at the center of Zagano’s gripe: Pope Francis, upon appointing a new Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, explicitly enjoined the man he chose for the office, Robert Card. Sarah: “[T]o continue to implement the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council … and … to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI[.]”

So, let me inquire of Zagano: was the Pope being disingenuous, or was Cardinal Sarah putting words in Peter’s mouth? Which is it? It must be one or the other. If we assume that you have the requisite cognitio causae, and that you are not lacking in candor (horribile cogitatu) –  There is no third way.

January 2016

I’ve brought Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s intentions (specifically their request for miraculous healing) before Our Lord, through the Ven. Servant of God, Fr. Emil Kapuan, whose intercession I have sought in prayer. I understand the Smiths are Evangelicals, and I hope they are not scandalized by my decision: I am Catholic, and do not know how to do otherwise. In any case, I understand that I am only asking a righteous man – whose prayer Holy Writ tells us availeth much – to pray for them and for me and for all of us. I also prayed for them in a general way to Our Lady – though I promise I was very careful not to ask her to do anything except pray for us all in turn. In fact, the whole structure of the prayer I offered, it now strikes me, is a rehearsal of the testimony regarding Mary that we find in Scripture, followed by a prayer request: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Amen.

Kicking Cancer with the Smiths

DSC_0105 Christmas, 2015

I have been staring at a blank Word document for twenty minutes trying to find the words to say. I can’t bear where we’re at and the situation we are in. I can’t comprehend how we’ve gotten to this place. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that there is nothing left to do for Andrew except tell him how much I love him, hold his hand and be with him for very second we have left together. The doctors tell me death is imminent and that Andrew is going to die from this disease. There are no treatments, no clinical trials…there is nothing left to do. I struggle to grasp what they’ve told me and I spend my nights crying and moaning in pain as I think about losing the one I hold most dear and close to my heart- my husband. He is afraid of…

View original post 880 more words

Suicide, Tattoo’s and Baptism

Suicide, Tattoo’s and Baptism

Some things are uncanny. Others, no self-respecting author would pitch to an editor. Some things are true. Clare Short teaches us all something important here. Also, look up your baptismal date.

Listening in the Desert


The sad news of Robin Williams death this week brought back memories for me of 6th January 1998 – the day i tried to take my own life. It was the worst and the best day of my life.

As an 18 year old almost sick to death (literally) with depression i had been prescribed Paxil Seroxat which was later banned in 2003 for under 18’s because it was found to increase risk of suicide.

I was begging God for mercy. My parents had had Mass said for me even though i had not been to mass for the last 5 years. I had no idea what was going on but can only describe it as a body-spirit split in which i was experiencing the most utter desolation and despair to the point in which it actually physically felt like my soul was being burned alive. This went on non-stop for

View original post 397 more words

Epiphany: all flesh shall see the Glory of the Lord

When Our Lord comes again in judgment – and He is coming, and with Him a great and terrible wrath – His coming will break the world: it will shatter the universe and all that is in it, into pebbles.

It will not be His judgment, however, which blasts creation into dust; it will be His glory; as quiet and meek as was His first coming into the world, in a hovel, in a manger, in a hamlet, so great will be the glory of His second coming, that the world shall break at it.

Creation shall not have strength to withstand the coming into it of the Creator a second time, and all shall be undone.

Bellegambe's Last Judgment

Jean Bellegambe’s Last Judgment, 1523

This is no hyperbole, but mere fact, a plain and even prosaic statement of what the cognition of faith tells us must be.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. – Isaiah 40:4-5


Hans Memling’s Las Judgment, c. 1470

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Some of us – my hope and the hope of the Church for each and every one of us is that we be counted among these – shall find that we have been carrying this glory inside of us (unbeknownst to the world, and even unbeknownst to us), and so shall be caught up in it, suddenly ourselves for the very first time, even as all that is and all that ever has been shudders and is wasted in an instant.


Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Flesh, c. 1500

Some of us are very blessed, indeed, for we have been fed on this Uncreated Glory in secret: body, blood, soul, divinity, hidden under the species of bread and wine, though real and substantial in their presence. He shall make all things new. We wait in joyful hope.