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Holiness Rather Than Peace

The Devil likes to make us stupid, particularly those of us who think we’re smart. He’s had a  very good run for quite a while in the secular world. But he’s also done pretty well lately even in the Church. At present, his strongest game is to mesmerize us with simple oppositions: progressives/backwardists, tradition/development, synodality/rigidity, truth/mercy. Once that sort of thing gets up a head of steam, many people don’t think about anything. They just join one party – or another.

The usual Catholic response is to say we’re a “both/and” faith. And that’s good – for a start. But it doesn’t resolve an ever more urgent question: What do we mean by progress? Or tradition? Or mercy? Above all, by Truth? We need people to dig – and dig deeply – into such questions, people with learning and discipline, wisdom and consistency. Of which there are few, in any generation. Which is why we often need to resort to earlier, brilliant predecessors.

It’s telling that in our present moment of confusion, the name of St. John Henry Newman is often cropping up, not only – naturally – among those who believe in his criticisms of liberalism in religion. But he’s being invoked even among those who believe – much less plausibly – that “paradigm shifts” are somehow in a direct line of descent from Newman’s brilliant exposition of “development of doctrine.”

All that remains to be sorted. And fast. The present writer is willing to bet that we’ll hear Newman’s name repeated, and also taken in vain, often between now and next October’s concluding session of the Synod on Synodality. The bishops of England and Wales, and our own American bishops, have in recent weeks petitioned Rome to name Newman a Doctor of the Church. So, like much else these days, even the great Newman is about to become a bone of contention.

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Caravaggio in Rome

Mostly unrelated to the Synod on Synodality, my wife Sydny and I went to Rome in the last week of October. Upon arrival, we did have lunch with one journalist covering the synod: Robert Royal. You may have heard of him. We were exhausted because of jet lag, and Bob was weary of the synodal process. Walking around Rome, which Syd and I would do a lot of, is not nearly as tiring as “walking together” in a synod. Or covering it. But Rome does offer many compensations.

We began our second day in Rome with a tour of the Galleria Borghese, which houses a remarkable collection of paintings and sculptures in the Villa Borghese, 17th-century home of one of Italy’s great families. (Camillo Borghese of Siena had become Pope Paul V in 1605.)

Today, the Villa and the surrounding gardens are among Rome’s major attractions. The house was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of the aforementioned Paul V. As “Cardinal Nephew” (an official post at the time), Scipione engaged in what today would surely be illegal benefices that allowed him to build the villa and procure the art that fills it. (Scipione is buried in one of Rome’s most remarkable churches, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – or St. Mary Major.)

The Borghese Gallery features most prominently the work of two great artists: Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

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The Remedy for Our Confusions

Catholicism is a religion of Faith and Reason – and has a rich, centuries-long tradition of deep thought about God and man. But the Catholic “thing” is also a religion of mysteries – not superstitious mumbo-jumbo as some critics believe, but mysteries in the sense that human reason has limits obvious to reason itself. We don’t know – and cannot know – via ordinary human reasoning, where the world and we ourselves come from, or where we are going. For guidance in living with those and other mysteries, reason at its best recognizes that we need Revelation, a revelation from the One who does know. And we have a reasonable Faith, therefore, in what He has delivered.

In an unsettled time like ours – a time when great confusions are rife even within the Church – it’s more urgent than usual to maintain that Faith. Amidst confusions and worse, skeptics point to the many evils in the world as evidence that our belief in a loving Creator is mere wishful thinking. Why, for instance, would such a Being create human beings who – as we see over and over in history and no less in our own “enlightened” age – are quite capable of industrial-scale murder (including the holocaust of tens of millions of innocents in the womb), war, torture, rape, slavery, oppression, and the thousands of other acts that constitute what St. Augustine called the mysterium inquitatis – the mystery of evil.

One traditional answer is that God took the risk of creating free human beings in the knowledge that He would do something even greater in redeeming us, after we’d fallen. If you want to read a brilliant example of how all that signifies something of unsuspected gloriousness, it’s worth spending some time with the first pages of Tolkien’s Silmarillion (free online here), in which God sings the world into existence along with the angels. And then, like a musical prodigy, incorporates the discordant notes introduced by the Devil into a breathtakingly beautiful symphony.

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The Greatest Catholic Event Since Vatican II?

So. We’ve been told that the Synod on Synodality is not about theology. Or doctrine. Not about “the media’s” favorite issues: LGBT, women’s ordination, married priests. Nor is it intended to subvert or replace the hierarchical nature of the Church or to democratize the decision-making process. The Synod on Synodality is – at least this year – about discerning“what synodality is.”

Meanwhile, in recent days, a theologian invited to speak to the whole Synod announced that, “When we reach the consensus that the Church is constitutively synodal, we will have to rethink the whole Church, all the institutions, the whole life of the Church in a synodal sense.” A participating bishop openly affirmed that it will be necessary to depart from Apostolic Tradition. And they’re far from being the only ones making such radical claims.

But we’ll all have a chance to do a bit of discerning ourselves later this week, after the publication of what’s being called a “brief” final report, and also a “Letter to the People of God.” Maybe then we’ll know whether synodality now dwells firmly among us, or awaits further synodalizing. The Holy Spirit has, so far, not tipped his hand.

There’s an old theological approach to understanding God called the via remotionis (“way of removal”). You take away all the things that the Biblical God is not – matter, form, time, place, change, which is to say all the attributes that pertain to material beings and not to their Source, the Supreme Being – so that contours of what He is become somewhat clearer. The human mind cannot know God until He reveals Himself to those blessed with the Beatific Vision, but at least the via remotionis removes misconceptions.

Sadly, the same does not seem true of the via synodalitatis.

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There’s Got to Be a Better Way

So. We’ve been told that the Synod on Synodality is not about theology. Or doctrine. Not about “the media’s” favorite issues: LGBT, women’s ordination, married priests. Nor is it intended to subvert or replace the hierarchical nature of the Church or to democratize the decision-making process. The Synod on Synodality is – at least this year – about discerning“what synodality is.”

Meanwhile, in recent days, a theologian invited to speak to the whole Synod announced that, “When we reach the consensus that the Church is constitutively synodal, we will have to rethink the whole Church, all the institutions, the whole life of the Church in a synodal sense.” A participating bishop openly affirmed that it will be necessary to depart from Apostolic Tradition. And they’re far from being the only ones making such radical claims.

But we’ll all have a chance to do a bit of discerning ourselves later this week, after the publication of what’s being called a “brief” final report, and also a “Letter to the People of God.” Maybe then we’ll know whether synodality now dwells firmly among us, or awaits further synodalizing. The Holy Spirit has, so far, not tipped his hand.

There’s an old theological approach to understanding God called the via remotionis (“way of removal”). You take away all the things that the Biblical God is not – matter, form, time, place, change, which is to say all the attributes that pertain to material beings and not to their Source, the Supreme Being – so that contours of what He is become somewhat clearer. The human mind cannot know God until He reveals Himself to those blessed with the Beatific Vision, but at least the via remotionis removes misconceptions.

For the rest of the column, click here . . .

A United Nations of Exorcism: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’

Pretty sure I don’t have to offer a summary of the 1973 film The Exorcist, which you probably saw and, even if you didn’t, could probably write as good a synopsis of it as I could. But let me remind you that the poor possessed girl from the late William Friedkin’s blockbuster film (based upon the late William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel) was named Regan, played by Linda Blair.

David Gordon Green, the director of a new iteration of the series, The Exorcist: Believer, has said Miss Blair declined to play a significant role in the new film, although she served as a “technical advisor.” As NBC Insider gushed:

you’d be hard-pressed to find a better person who truly understands what it’s like to be an innocent teenage girl spewing unimaginable profanities, taunts, and even torrents of pea soup [vomiting] at concerned parents, priests, and medical professionals.

Not the first time I’ve thought the Peacock Network was becoming a bit pea-cockeyed.

This time, however, the projectile vomiting more resembles black bean soup.

For the rest of the column, click here . . .

Homophobia & Homo Sapiens

Despite all the talk about the Holy Spirit at the Synod on Synodality, an objective observer would have to say that the tongues of fire that produced John’s Gospel, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and Revelations seem to be at a loss for words as the event grinds on.

The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, though not a Catholic, observed a century ago:

“The Holy Spirit is an intellectual fountain,” and did the Bishops believe, that Holy Spirit would show itself in decoration and architecture, in daily manners and written style. What devout man can read the Pastorals of our Hierarchy without horror at a style rancid, coarse, and vague, like that of the daily papers?

And Yeats never saw the “modules” of an Instrumentum laboris or listened to cloudy reflections about mission, communion, and participation.

The Catholic Church has the longest and richest cultural tradition in the world. Which must make the angels weep to see the threadbare, self-important, pseudo-sociological, pseudo-psychological, mind-numbing ecclesial language in which the current synod is being conducted.

For the rest of the column, click here . . .

Confusion Worse Confounded

If you wanted two words to describe the Synod on Synodality, the event that begins today in Rome, it would have to be deep confusion. Unless you wanted to add a third, deliberate. Because it’s been clear from a series of concrete measures that what’s been said is not what’s going to happen. And what’s going to happen has not been said. Yet there’s a method, of a sort, to this madness.

To begin with, the very format of this Synod is already a kind of deliberate confusion – and for a reason.

On the one hand, we have been told by the very highest synodal authorities – from the pope on down – that synodality is a recovery of an ancient dimension of the Church that was preserved in the East but had been lost in the West. This is to assume, as really cannot be assumed, that this is a truthful statement of intention. Because. . .

On the other hand, we have the words of the exarch (leader) of the Greek Catholic Church– part of that very Eastern tradition (though in communion with Rome) – warning:

if the West understands synodality as a place or as a moment where everyone, laity and clergy, act together in order to arrive at some ecclesiastical, doctrinal, canonical, disciplinary decision, whatever it may be, it becomes clear that such synodality does not exist in the East.

Historically, this is correct beyond question.

For the rest of the column, click here . . .

Destinies Entwined: A Review of ‘Mother Teresa & Me’

We know who Mother Teresa is, but who is the “Me” of the title? She is Kavita, a fictional young woman whose story is interwoven with Mother Teresa’s in director Kamal Musale’s new film, Mother Teresa & Me.

Kavita (played by Banita Sandhu) is a 20-something accomplished violinist living in contemporary London, but – musical ability aside – her life is a mess. Her Indian parents, unaware that Kavita is pregnant, are seeking to make an arranged marriage between her and a young man from a Brahmin family. In frustration, Kavita flees to Kolkata (once, Calcutta) to be with the woman, Deepali (Deepti Naval) who had been her nanny.

And why wouldn’t she flee? It’s bad enough that she’s between a rock and a hard place with her parents, but her guitar-playing “boyfriend” is a slug. He wants no part of becoming a father.

The film actually begins with a scene of Mother Teresa, in the habit of the Missionaries of Charity, accusing God of having abandoned her, then in flashback to Teresa as a black-habited nun of the Sisters of Loreto, crawling on the streets of Calcutta during the so-called Week of the Long Knives in 1946 – nationwide riots and murderous violence between Muslims and Hindus. Teresa is searching for food for the girls at the Loretto convent school where she is a teacher. A Muslim man threatens her with a scimitar but is shot by a Hindu man, who, in turn, is chased away by British police.

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Beauty Will Save the World

At least the above has been suggested by some very great Christians – Dostoyevsky (or at least his Prince Myshkin in The Idiot), Solzhenitsyn, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (in various ways) countless others. As Christians, they knew, of course, that God has saved the world, in the strong sense. And only He could. So what could they possibly mean?

Well, it may have much to do with some particularities of modern times. In his Nobel Prize address, Solzhenitsyn raised that specific question on the basis of the “three transcendentals”:

[P]erhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

That’s a very hopeful way to look at things today. We know that Truth and Goodness are as confused now as they have ever been. And that while the slow process of reason recovers them both, some way around the impasse has to be found in the meantime. And yet, beauty (small “b”) is also often deceptive and seems more likely to wreck the world, absent faith and reason.

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