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A Dignity Still to be Determined

Reading the Declaration on Human Dignity (“Infinite Dignity”), issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) yesterday, reminds me of an old teacher-student story. A student submits an assigned essay, and the teacher returns it with the comment, “What you’ve written here is both good and new. Unfortunately, what’s good in it is not new, and what’s new is not. . .” But let’s break off the story there. And following the Christian rule of charity in all things, say of the Declaration, what’s new in it is . . . yet to be determined.

Because in roughly the first half of its sixty-six paragraphs, the document seeks to situate itself in line with recent popes and classical Catholic teaching. It cites Paul VI, JPII, Benedict, Francis (about half the citations, of course). And in a footnote even reaches back to Leo XIII, Piuses XI & XII, and the Vatican II documents Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes. At the press conference introducing the Declaration, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, head of the DDF, made a point of opening with the observation that the very title of the text came from a 1980 speech St. John Paul gave to a handicapped group in Osnabrück, Germany. Indeed, said the Cardinal, it’s not by chance that the document is even officially dated April 2, the 19thanniversary of JPII’s death.

All of this cannot help but make the alert reader think that the drafters – and those who approved the final text – wanted to frontload ample exculpatory evidence against any objections that might follow.

And inevitably, objections will. Because in several respects this apotheosis of human dignity raises more questions than it settles. (“Infinite” human dignity in JPII’s hands was one thing; now, it may mean something very different.)

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‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio

There are seven men: a fleeing follower of Jesus, assumed by art experts to be St. John; the Incarnate God; His betrayer; three soldiers (one identifiable only by the gleam of his helmet); and, next to the left of that soldier, a man holding up a lantern, the light of which illuminates the scene. This last figure is significant because it’s a self-portrait of the artist.

That Caravaggio put himself in the painting surely tells us something about him, although not much. So, we’re left to speculate.

Perhaps he’s touting his role as a soldier in the battle against the Protestant Reformation. It doesn’t tell us that he saw himself precisely as the artistic leader of the Counter-Reformation (Controriforma or Contrareformatio), not least because that term is a 19th-century coinage. Therefore, two centuries in the future.

But in commissioning work from him, his patrons – clerical and otherwise (all or nearly all Catholic) – likely did speak to Caravaggio of the need to forcefully assert Catholicism against the sullen iconoclasm of Luther, Calvin, et alii, and the Northern European artists who were their followers.

And for Caravaggio, there was always the refutation of the rigidity and formalism of much Renaissance and post-Renaissance art of his Catholic predecessors. And I’m talking about the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the rest.

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The Time of the Gentiles

In the events just commemorated over the Easter Triduum, Jesus “conquered sin and death,” told us that He has “overcome the world,” and opened the way to eternal life. Yet a serious question arises, not only for unbelievers but for Christians: Has there been some mistake? Our world and individual lives seem – to an average eye – as troubled as ever. Many have suffered and died, justly and unjustly, in the 2,000 years since the Resurrection. We’re tempted to say with Jeremiah, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.” (8:20)

But no mistake, of course. It’s just that, as with much about God, there’s a gap between our expectations and His acts.

Some early Christians expected Jesus’ early return and – like us – an end to all the human misery since the unfortunate events in the Garden of Eden. But as Pope Benedict XVI noticed in his magisterial Jesus of Nazareth, Luke’s Gospel projects a different future: “They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (21:24)

This “time of the Gentiles” is our time, during which the Gospel has to be preached to all nations. That’s the fulfillment that the end of Matthew’s Gospel famously records as coming from Jesus Himself. One reason missionaries went out to every part of the globe (until recently) and even inspired a figure like Columbus (cynics notwithstanding) was the belief that Christ could not come again until all nations had heard the Good News.

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Synodal News and a Papal Saga

long time ago, on a planet far away, serious Catholics looked forward to each new document from the Vatican or the pope. They expected enrichment of traditional morals or theology, or enlightenment about some world situation. These days there’s usually justified trepidation – not only over reckless remarks about Ukraine raising the white flag or how Israel should/should not respond to terror. There’s anticipation of division, confusion, and dismay. A number of such texts have recently appeared – or are about to – that seem likely to continue that well-established streak.

Pope Francis’ autobiography LIFE: My Story Through History was published officially on March 19 (more on that below).  Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández has announced that an encyclical will be issued in early April on “social questions,” which looks to be primarily a restatement of main themes of the Francis papacy on things like migration and climate, but also to placate the Cardinal’s critics by treating issues of concern to traditional Catholics such as abortion, surrogacy, gender ideology, etc.  At this juncture, however, we can be fairly certain that it will pitch things in ways that, inevitably, will invite further troubles.

Of immediate interest, there were two recent announcements as the Synod on Synodality lumbers to its conclusion in October. Or at least that was the original plan. Because now we learn that ten “theological issues” have been removed from deliberation in the October session because there isn’t sufficient time to study them adequately.

What, then, has the worldwide global synod on Synodality been doing for the past five-and-a-half years? Synodality suddenly popped up in the final report of the 2018 Synod on Youth, though it hadn’t been discussed during that meeting.

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History, Sacred and Not

Today is “Dante Day,” according to someone, somewhere. (It’s also – who knows how? – National Napping Day, National Immune System Day, and a dozen other such profane observances now jostling the liturgical calendar.) It’s good to honor the greatest Catholic poet, of course, arguably the greatest poet period. We’ve done our part at TCT: You can click here for our online courses on Dante’s Divine Comedy. But today is also the Fourth Monday of Lent, the minor feasts of St. Aengus and St. Constantine  (co-incidentally, the first night of Ramadan), which are of far different and infinitely greater import.

As “everything solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, human beings instinctively reach for something stable amid the flux – especially in times like these, when time itself seems to have sped up, and on a bad road. Remembering and seeking to live in continuity with the past is not “backwardism” or “rigidity.” It’s the sane human recognition that we come from somewhere. And are going somewhere.

Unlike most religious and philosophical systems, Christianity, like Judaism before it, recognizes that God works in history, which is to say, time and space – that time and space are, therefore, fundamentally sacred, not secular. A stumbling block to many because it means that a tiny Middle Eastern tribe – contrary to reasonable expectations – was the temporal vehicle for God’s revelations to the world. An absurdity to ancient pagans. And to pagans now.

Despite the historical record – that the Church, God’s faithful people, converted the mighty Roman Empire and spread around the entire globe – the reality of sacred history looks nonsensical to many who regard themselves as rational and enlightened. But how else do we explain the spread of the Faith by humble figures – fishermen, tax collectors, tent-makers – which Aquinas suggested may be the greatest of miracles?

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Weltanschauungen: Reflections on ‘Freud’s Last Session’

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. – Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Freud’s Last Session, a recent film directed by Matthew Brown, is based upon the play by Mark St. Germain who wrote the film’s screenplay with Mr. Brown. Both film and play had their genesis in a book by Armand Nicholi: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Dr. Nicholi, a psychiatrist, had for years taught a popular course at Harvard on just that subject, engaging students in the conflict between the secular and the religious, contrasting two powerful human emotions, despair and hope.

As the movie begins, we see images of antisemitism, and of Jews and other religious figures, including Jesus – from the Shroud of Turin. We enter the den in Freud’s London house, which is filled with artifacts, including effigies of ancient deities, almost a museum, one might say, of totems and taboos.

Freud (played by Anthony Hopkins) has invited Lewis (Matthew Goode) to his London home to discuss religious belief, something Freud rejects as childish fantasy. Of course, the encounter devolves into a therapy session with the twist that each man takes a crack at finding chinks in the other’s psycho-philosophical armor.

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Candid Catholicism

Many people in many nations these days say they “don’t recognize” their country anymore.  Between radical changes in sexual morals and social behavior, the inability to state the obvious like “what is a woman,” claims of racism and “hate” over everyday social frictions, massive unregulated immigration, and wholesale dismissals of the past as irretrievably evil, it’s no wonder. But it is a wonder that similar complaints – not exactly the same, but closely related – also arise often enough now about disorienting changes in the Church.

Part of the problem is that media – even Catholic media – have to fill limitless digital spaces, often by emphasizing controversies that they hope will attract clicks. Another part, however, is the radical rupture, sometimes even within the Church, with age-old human truths and goods, driven by technological developments, but also by abandonment of traditional anchors in tested truths of faith and reason, in the name of human liberation.

To understand all this is not easy; to know what to do harder still. But now comes a very useful tool from TCT contributor, Francis X. Maier. True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church, which will be officially published tomorrow, is both a passionate statement of faith and love of the Church and a careful inquiry into what a cross-section of American bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people are thinking and doing at a very difficult moment for the Church and the world. (Several anonymously, to get maximum candor.)

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Memo to Tucho

Eminenza: Recently, you announced that you’re preparing yet another “very important document,” this time on “human dignity.” It will also address trends in contemporary society – “not only social issues but also a strong criticism of moral questions such as sex-change surgery, surrogacy, and gender ideology.” Which should allow “most people who are concerned” about your work “to be put at ease.”

Though I haven’t been formally invited to do so, please allow me a few words, in the speaking/listening Spirit of Synodality. We’re all part of a synodal Church now, aren’t we? (Though synodality seems to have been – temporarily? – suspended for the surprise “paradigm shift in theology” of Ad theologiam promovendam and “development of non-liturgical blessings” in Fiducia supplicans.)

For starters, don’t think that, in a major document about “human dignity,” you can simply rattle off dozens of pages about what every Catholic – indeed, what anyone brought up even in the fading Judaeo-Christian ethos of the West – believes about the value and sacredness of human beings. And that then you can invoke the Christian principle of  “welcoming the stranger” to sneak in heterodoxy (about LGBTs) or to erode what remains of Christian societies by advocating for essentially limitless illegal immigration.

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Untimely Reflections on ‘Hate’

It’s never easy to bring unwelcome truths into the public realm. And it’s become increasingly difficult, for obvious reasons, since the advent of the Internet – to say nothing of the deep divisions we face at the start of this crazed election year. Or equally deep divisions in the Church. So, what light and steadiness can we possibly find at a moment like this in our untimely, ancient Catholic Faith?

To start, I’d suggest resisting something truly toxic that’s been little noticed: letting public and private polarization – even over matters as transitory as mere policy differences – turn into “hate.” We just observed Martin Luther King Day and there are many things about that pivotal American worth recalling in our time, perhaps nothing more urgent, however, than his warning: “Don’t let them get you to hate them.”

Crucial spiritual advice. A lot of people, whom you might expect would admire Dr. King, claim to find “hate” everywhere: “hate speech,” “preaching hate,” “hating women,” “hating blacks,” “hating LGBT.” These are clever rhetorical tropes intended to hide their own thinly disguised “hatred” towards: Christianity, pro-lifers, opponents of LGBT ideology, or of “anti-racist” racism, and much more.

Still, we have to be constantly alert to the temptation to embrace “hatred” ourselves, even as we seek to counteract evil and promote goodness and truth.  The term hatred, as it’s commonly used these days, banishes the other into the outer darkness as damnably evil. King knew that even when you’re facing monstrous evils, such hatreds might themselves become mortal sins. That it’s possible to turn yourself into the very kind of people you “hate” unless you stand careful watch over your own soul.

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Empire of Hope: A Review of ‘Cabrini’

In 1850, a small and sickly girl, the youngest of thirteen children, was born two months prematurely to a farm family in the Italian region of Lombardy. Francesca Cabrini would suffer from poor health her entire life.

When in her teens she decided to give her life to Christ, she was rejected by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who considered her too weak to endure convent life. But she persisted and became a nun in 1877, taking the name by which we know her now: Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Years before, while visiting her uncle, Fr. Don Luigi Oldini, she placed violets into paper boats, dropped them into a stream, and imagined they carried her and other missionaries to China, where the great St. Francis Xavier had journeyed 300 years before.

When she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1880, she told Pope Leo XIII of her wish to travel with her small group of Sisters to Asia to bring the Lord’s love to the suffering poor there. But the pope had a better idea and sent her to the United States.

Pope Leo expressed skepticism even of that journey and its challenges, given her weakness (a worry compounded when people met her by the fact that she was barely 5 feet tall), but she told him, “We can serve our weakness, or we can serve our purpose. We can’t do both.”

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