Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Teaching of Bishops

Every four years there comes to the faithful several letters from our bishops collectively and bishops speaking to their respective flocks. The document from the USCCB this year, entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, is a well-written and comprehensive teaching on the political responsibility of Catholics, though the document's biggest flaw is that it has the distinct feel of committee-speak in which several threads of thought are weaved together in one document by way of a few transitional words.

This year's letter contra the comprehensive approach of Faithful Citizenship is by Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton. Bishop Martino's approach is more traditionally hierarchical and, most unfortunately, provides language for those who wish to flat out dismiss all other issues that are clearly apart of the protection and promotion of human dignity (among those that the bishop names are education, health care, immigration and economic security) in favor of a myopic fixation on overturning Roe v. Wade.

This morning, I had the chance to read another letter from Bishop J. Terry Steib, S.V.D. of Memphis. Please read the whole letter, but I would like to point out a few sentences that I found particularly fruitful for reflection:
A number of Catholics have been asking their bishops to endorse candidates. In the past two weeks, I have received letters from well-meaning people telling me for whom I should vote and how I should inform parishioners regarding the candidates for whom they should or should not cast their ballot. However well-intended the writers are, it is not my duty nor is it my role to tell the members of the community of faith in the Diocese of Memphis how to vote.

My ministry is to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ as announced in Scripture and articulated by the Church so that our people can make good and wise decisions in their lives. My ministry is to make certain that all Catholics in the Diocese of Memphis cast their vote using a well-informed conscience as a guide....

I am in agreement with this statement which was issued last November. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, said, "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must nor remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice."

According to our Holy Father, we disciples of Jesus cannot remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice; this means that we must be part of the game. However, politics is not just a game; it is instead a part of the commonwealth of our lives. Just as we cannot avoid drinking water in order to live, so also, as faithful Christians we cannot avoid being involved in the political process and remain good Christians. But if we are to be involved in the political process by voting, then we must have formed our consciences well....

As we form our conscience, we must be aware of the need for prudence. Prudence is not easy to define, but according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prudence helps us to "discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it."

So, when we are presented with candidates whose views do not reflect the full teachings of the Church, what are we to do? The spiritual writer, Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, has written in his book Secularity and the Gospel: "In an age of increasing violence, fundamentalism, and the myth that God wishes to cleanse the planet of its sin and immorality by force, perhaps the first witness we must give to our world is a witness to God's non-violence, a witness to the God revealed by Jesus Christ who opposes violence of all kinds, from war, to revenge, to capital punishment, to abortion, to euthanasia, to the attempt to use force to bring about justice and God's will in any way."
Mason Slidell

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fiction, the Bible and Thoughts on Inerrancy

I thought today I would make a few comments on the Bible, springboarding off of the current Synod and an interview with Cardinal George. As the issue of inerrancy of Scripture has become something of an undercurrent theme of the synod that will hopefully eventually rise to the surface, this gives me a chance to vent some thoughts on the topic.

It's not an easy topic. Whoever says so is just stupid.

What does it mean for Scripture to be inerrant? That is the great battle. It depends on whether one accepts a minimalistic, maximalistic, or middle of the road position on the issue. But before even these become issues, it certainly does not mean certain things.

It does not mean that on the literalistic level, Scripture is always without error. It does mean that on the literal level Scripture always teaches truth. Let me explain. When I teach my 9th graders about the books of Tobit, Judith, and Jonah, I will teach them to read them literally. By that I will mean that they should read them on the literal level as they would read a Flannery O'Connor short story, a work of fiction. Since that is what they are. They are inspired works of fiction, inspired short stories that convey a message which God, through the human author, wanted them to convey. To read them in any other literalistic way -- presuming them to be journalistic history, for example -- would be a gross mistreatment of the text and of its literal meaning.

People seem to have trouble getting this.

When I read the genealogies in Genesis and say that they all don't match, they borrow names to fill in spaces, they skip people, and therefore say that Genesis is not historically true, I have again missed the mark. The purpose of genealogies in Genesis is to give the book narrative structure. They were probably included in the text by Priestly school redactors after the return from the Exile. Genealogies serve a special theological purpose for the authors: they reveal that God's plans continue despite human sin, and that God is capable of working through fallible human agents. Their purpose is thus primarily theological, not historical. It doesn't take a very careful reading of Genesis to notice the function they perform.

Or you just have to read it like an adult, and not like a kid.

Cardinal George had a couple interesting things to say on this topic. He briefly summarizes the dispute:

One way of solving it came out of the Second Vatican Council. It wasn’t Cardinal Bea’s way of solving it, but that of some commentators. [Note: Cardinal Augustin Bea was a German Biblical scholar and influential figure at Vatican II. Bea, who died in 1968, also headed the Vatican’s office for Christian unity.] It holds that what God intended for our salvation is what’s inerrant. It didn’t say that the rest wasn’t inspired, but nonetheless scripture’s inerrancy is more or less limited to what God intended to teach for our salvation. The other school is a little bit broader, and I think it’s more where we’re at now. It says no, inerrancy applies also to what the human author intended to teach, under God’s inspiration. However, what the human author did not intend to teach, but rather brought in to his writings because it was part of the zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time, is not necessarily factually inerrant. So there are all kinds of places where you can split it, but you’ve got to determine what those places are and how you should go at it. In that sense, a document might be helpful.

So, there are two things going on when historical facts are not "true" in Scripture. First, are we judging them by a post-Enlightenment understanding of truth, or by an ancient Hebrew understanding of truth? They are not univocal in meaning. Second, what was part of the ancient author's zeitgeist, the human element of scripture, that may strike us as odd or inaccurate, but is not central to his claim concerning God and the world? And how far can we stretch this second notion? That is a very important and complex question that I hope the synod touches on. How much of the zeitgeist can you be rid of if you don't like it?

The interview then goes in an interesting direction following a question about John Paul II:
But the temptation of nationalism isn’t just fueled by European nostalgia for the ancien regime, a sentiment that’s now largely passé, is it? Isn’t there a streak of nationalism in American Catholicism too, which has to do partly with geography, a congregationalist ethos, and a strong sense of American patriotism?

You also find it in Latin America, in Asia … you have the same temptation to nationalism around the world. They haven’t conceived of the church nationally the same way they did in some European nations, but it’s always there. Whom do you adore, the people or God? What’s more important, the nation or the church?

In reality, it’s more ‘sectarian’ to be American or French than it is to be Catholic …

Of course that’s true, but …

Don’t say ‘of course.’ A lot of people don’t think that’s true at all, including in our own country. Take a look at the way they use the word ‘sectarian.’

Who’s ‘they’?

In the public conversation in the United States. If you say something’s ‘sectarian,’ people automatically think you mean it’s religious. They never assume that it means ‘nationalist.’

I wonder if there’s something uniquely insular, to use that word, about the United States, and therefore about Catholicism in the United States, that cuts a bit deeper than some other places. After all, we’re the world’s exporter of culture. We produce the books and movies and TV shows and music that everyone else consumes, but it doesn’t come as naturally to us to import culture.

What you’re saying is that the insularity of the United States affects Catholics in the United States, who become insular because they’re Americans.

Do you think that’s true?


What do we do about it?

(Laughs). That’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t believe that I do. The answer to that question would be how we should shape our ministry.
Though seemingly off topic, this analysis of current American Catholicism touches closely on another aspect of Biblical interpretation, namely, the need for interpreting Scripture in our times. Since the Bible must be interpreted, as Dei Verbum claims, "in the same Spirit in which it was written," then there is a need for reading the Bible in our times in the Church as the Spirit guides its reading and interpretation. No interpretation is only historical and literal. It is always also a contemporary interpretation according to a contemporary spirit. It will be better interpreted if that spirit is the Spirit, who dwells and acts in the Church. For that reason, interpretation must be carried out within the whole Church.

A great principle, but difficult. This does not mean interpreting Scripture according to my "sectarian" nationalistic Catholicism, but with the whole Church. Truly a challenge.

Those are my thoughts for now. Have a great meal at the table of the Word and Body.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

No Room in Denver for Kmiec?

Archbishop Charles Chaput says Catholic legal scholar Douglas Kmiec "couldn't be more mistaken" in comparing his own moral reasoning regarding the 2008 presidential election to that of the archbishop.

Archbishop Chaput said this tonight at a dinner sponsored by ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women). The talk, which he said reflects his own opinion as a private citizen, is titled "Little Murders."
The prelate spoke at length of Douglas Kmiec’s book "Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama," in which the Pepperdine law professor argues why Catholics should cast their vote in November's presidential election for Senator Barack Obama.

Kmiec publicly endorsed the Democratic candidate earlier this year, stating in an article for Slate that Obama is a "natural" for Catholic voters.

Archbishop Chaput noted that his own book, "Render Unto Caesar," was heavily cited by Kmiec in his defense of Obama: "In fact, he suggests that his reasoning and mine are 'not far distant on the moral inquiry necessary in the election of 2008.'"

"Unfortunately, he either misunderstands or misuses my words, and he couldn’t be more mistaken," said the archbishop.
Any comments from those who may have read both Kmiec's book and Chaput's? Sounds like a good discussion to me. Sadly, I've read neither. Chaput's comments can be found at greater length here. They are without a doubt strong, and he sees no wiggling room for the Catholic likes of Kmiec. He concludes:
"I think that people who claim that the abortion struggle is 'lost' as a matter of law, or that supporting an outspoken defender of legal abortion is somehow 'pro-life,' are not just wrong; they’re betraying the witness of every person who continues the work of defending the unborn child.

"And I hope they know how to explain that, because someday they’ll be required to."

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shift To The Left

If the current trends hold up, the United States will have the most progressive President since the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In addition, there will be a Democratic supermajority in Congress with the possibility of a Senate with 60 Democrats, meaning that the only effective tool of opposition for the minority party, the filibuster, will not be available to Senate Republicans.

As a person who grew up in the era of Reagan conservatism and Clinton centrism, I have no lived knowledge of a robust and empowered progressive politics. At this point, it remains difficult for me to articulate what this means. How will a hard shift left manifest itself? This will be a fascinating experience of watching and living the re-molding of national politics that happens every 30 years or so.

Many political scientists make the claim that America is, at its core, a center-right country. We are a people prone to incremental change and hostile to revolutionary tendencies. We value tradition, stability and comfort. We ascribe to a national religion of patriotism and hold out our government and culture as having a good and decent influence on the rest of the world. We are highly practical and prefer solutions to ideology. If this analysis of our political core is true, what will the consequences of moving further left be?

Mason Slidell

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Debate

I thought this was pretty surprising last night. Seeing that many people on the fence about McCain on abortion tend to favor him anyway because he will give us that one more judge that we need on the Supreme Court, this was not very reassuring:
Schieffer: All right. Let's stop there and go to another question. And this one goes to Sen. McCain. Sen. McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Sen. Obama, you believe it shouldn't.

Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Sen. McCain?

McCain: I would never and have never in all the years I've been there imposed a litmus test on any nominee to the court. That's not appropriate to do.

Schieffer: But you don't want Roe V. Wade to be overturned?

McCain: I thought it was a bad decision. I think there were a lot of decisions that were bad. I think that decisions should rest in the hands of the states. I'm a federalist. And I believe strongly that we should have nominees to the United States Supreme Court based on their qualifications rather than any litmus test.

Now, let me say that there was a time a few years ago when the United States Senate was about to blow up. Republicans wanted to have just a majority vote to confirm a judge and the Democrats were blocking in an unprecedented fashion.

We got together seven Republicans, seven Democrats. You were offered a chance to join. You chose not to because you were afraid of the appointment of, quote, "conservative judges."

I voted for Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg. Not because I agreed with their ideology, but because I thought they were qualified and that elections have consequences when presidents are nominated. This is a very important issue we're talking about.

Sen. Obama voted against Justice Alito and Justice Roberts on the grounds that they didn't meet his ideological standards. That's not the way we should judge these nominees. Elections have consequences. They should be judged on their qualifications. And so that's what I will do.

I will find the best people in the world -- in the United States of America who have a history of strict adherence to the Constitution. And not legislating from the bench.

Schieffer: But even if it was someone -- even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

McCain: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.
Any thoughts?

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Monday, October 13, 2008

More on the Synod

Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga's concluding comments at the Synod on the Word of God:
Globalization has its positive aspects, especially when talking about information. We are informed of what is happening in the public lives of our countries, often with scandals of every sort. However, we deplore the fact that many protagonists of this social and political scenario have passed through our centers of formation (catechesis, youth groups, schools and universities). We should ask ourselves: what was the role of teaching the Word of God in them? Did we help them encounter the God of the Word? Why, when inserted in public life, whichever scenario they are involved in, are the Gospel values not the orientation of their lives?

In a strong Christian formation, the encounter with the God of the Word is necessary, which changes, modifies the behavior to the point of transforming them into Christian behavior. Therefore it is necessary to re-elaborate the way in which we teach Biblical faith for the life of Christians. A life that must be manifested in all its aspects, and that must embrace the totality of actions, and not only their life within our temples.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


John Allen reports on the Synod of the Word of God some interesting things surrounding the topic of "inerrancy:"
So far, the Synod of Bishops on the Bible has not featured particularly intense doctrinal debate. Most of the leading themes appear basically pastoral in nature – how to foster better preaching, for example, or more widespread prayer with scripture, especially the use of Lectio Divina.

Around the edges, however, one doctrinal can of worms has been at least partially pried open, focusing on the extent to which the Bible is “inerrant,” meaning free from error.

During a Vatican briefing this morning, reporters were told that some speakers had raised the issue of inerrancy during the last hour of yesterday’s session, as part of the time set aside for free discussion. A cardinal taking part in the synod confirmed to NCR this afternoon that there had been “some grumbling, especially from the more traditional Bible scholars” about the treatment of inerrancy in the Instrumentum Laboris, or working paper, for the synod.

By way of background, the inerrancy of scripture was a bone of contention during and after debates at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) over the document Dei Verbum, which dealt with divine revelation. In summary, there are two schools of thought: “restricted inerrancy,” which holds that only a limited range of statements in the Bible are free from error (usually those concerned with salvation), and “unrestricted inerrancy,” which asserts that all of scripture is inspired and therefore true (although in the sense of truth which the Bible itself intends.)

The dangers in extreme forms of both positions are reasonably obvious. If one concedes that only some parts of the Bible are inspired, then the door seems open to bowdlerization (a temptation both ancient and new, as examples ranging from Marcion’s edited gospel to Thomas Jefferson’s miracle-free New Testament amply illustrate). Claiming that the whole Bible is free from error, on the other hand, seems to end in fundamentalism – insisting that the world really was created in six days, or glossing over obvious problems in geography and dating. (The Gospel of Mark, for example, has Jesus taking a highly improbable route from Jericho to Jerusalem; one synod member today joked that it’s as if someone were said to have gone from Louisville to Nashville by way of Seattle.)

As is often the case with documents crafted by committee, the final formula in Dei Verbum did not directly settle this dispute. The crucial passage, in paragraph 11, reads: “…we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.”

Ever since, debate has swirled over what exactly that means. Some exegetes saw in the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” a warrant for restricted inerrancy, though that interpretation was rejected by German Cardinal Augustin Bea, who was involved in the drafting of Dei Verbum. In his 1967 book The Word of God and Mankind, Bea wrote that the language of Dei Verbum “explains God’s purpose in causing the scriptures to be written, and not the nature of the truth enshrined therein.”

All of which brings us back to the Instrumentum Laboris, which, in paragraph 15(c) of its English translation, sums up paragraph 11 of Dei Verbum as follows: “With regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to ‘that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.’”

That’s a slightly different twist than appears in the Latin version, which is regarded as definitive. It reads: Quamvis omnes Sacrae Scripturae partes divinitus inspiratae sint, tamen eius inerrantia pertinet tantummodo ad “veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit". In English, that’s roughly: “Although all parts of Sacred Scripture are divinely inspired, nevertheless its inerrancy pertains just to ‘that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see consigned to the sacred writings.’”

In other words, there’s no “might” in the Latin about whether all of scripture is inspired.

That point is maintained in the other languages. In Italian, for example, point 15(c) of the Instrumentum Laboris reads: Quantunque la Sacra Scrittura sia ispirata in tutte le sue parti la sua inerranza si riferisce solo … In English, that works out to: “Although Sacred Scripture is inspired in all its parts, its inerrancy refers only to …”

The nuance in the English translation brought protest prior to the synod among some Bible experts and in the conservative Catholic blogosphere, with critics charging that the Instrumentum Laboris, or at least its English version, was endorsing restricted inerrancy by linguistic sleight of hand – in effect, altering the meaning of Dei Verbum on the fly.

To put the point a bit whimsically, the critics have charged that the English translation of the language on inerrancy is, well, rather errant. Yesterday’s discussion indicates that this debate has made its way to the synod floor.

For the record, it should be noted that advocates of “unrestricted inerrancy” are usually prepared to concede that at times, some Bible passages cannot be said to be “free from error” in the literal, face-value sense. Often, they’ll invoke an example from contemporary speech such as, “It’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” There’s a sense in which that may be perfectly true, even if attempts to actually cook eggs on sidewalks would be futile. By extension, they would argue, one should approach scripture with the assumption that every passage is true, even if one has to consider what kind of truth is involved in any given case.

In terms of where things go from here, it does not seem likely that anyone will insist upon revisiting the Instrumentum Laboris itself. It’s intended as a guide for discussion, and by the time the synod is over it will have become more or less a dead letter. In itself, it does not express authoritative teaching, still less its English translation.

On the other hand, the discussion over inerrancy suggests that careful treatment of that topic is likely in the synod’s final documents, whether in the propositions the bishops will submit to the pope, or in the apostolic constitution that Benedict XVI is eventually expected to issue.

If nothing else, there will likely be keen attention to how any language on inerrancy is phrased and translated, so that potentially consequential shifts in meaning aren’t slipped in through a back door.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Piece-meal Movement

I recently attended the Pax Christi annual peace mass.  I had been invited, and considering myself somehow loosely connected to the peace movement, I thought I would attend and renew my commitment to advocate for non-violence.  I found what I expected, which was primarily a very old crowd rather confused about their own identity as a movement.  I suppose the peace movement was at its strongest during the Vietnam war, and at that time it was successful in many ways.  Dorothy Day is a nice example of a Catholic member of the movement, as is Thomas Merton.  The current movement seems to have lost focus, at least among Catholics.  As has been the case with many "Catholic" peace demonstrations, they seem to be collages of ideas from just about every tradition.  And they seem a bit confused about their own relationship with the Church.  

This particularly struck me.  For example, the woman who read the First Reading from Micah was obviously very conscientious about not ever using the word "Lord" in reference to God, no doubt because it carries medieval feudal connotations.  Ok, so she was being sensitive to subjugated peoples of all kinds, and making a philosophical-semantic point of some kind.  What was funny was that she replaced "Lord" at every instance with "Yahweh," a name that Jews are not allowed to use out of reverence for God's name, and that Benedict has asked not be used in any English translation.  So she replaced one insensitivity with another one.  It struck me as a nice parable for the movement itself:  Fairly confused about its roots and how it could better relate itself to Catholic Social Thought.  It has strong roots there I believe.  But it has no attraction at this point as a movement for many young John Paul II Catholics, since it is not sure whether the 60's anti-Vietnam movement or Catholic Social Thought is a deeper river from which its roots can draw water.  I think the answer is obvious, and for those who want to remember the good elements of the 60's, I'm with them.  But the Peace Movement would do better to look to John XXIII and John Paul II and to root itself there rather than in the Beatles. When it doesn't do so, it frustrates me and many other young Catholics who don't want to be branded as "liberals" and "hippies" for rejecting the Iraq war on just war principles.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ  

Opening of the Synod of the Word of God

I just had to share this reflection from Benedict's opening of the Synod of the Word of God, which I hope to follow as closely as time permits. This is beautiful and relevant
Even more, the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our notion that matter, solid things, things we can touch, is the most solid, the most certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one’s life: sand and rock. He who builds on sand only builds on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will vanish. We can see this now with the fall of two large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. Who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is he who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is he who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life.
Yep, God's Word is firmer than banks.  And then he concludes:
Therefore, exegesis, the true reading of the Holy Scripture, is not only a literary phenomenon, not only reading a text. It is the movement of my existence. It is moving towards the Word of God in the human words. Only by conforming to the Mystery of God, to the Lord who is the Word, can we enter within the Word, can we truly find the Word of God in human words. Let us pray to the Lord that He may help us to look for the word, not only with our intellect but also with our entire existence.
I love the existential thrust of this statement. No simple historical-critical unpacking, as we know that Benedict has rejected when free-standing. Rather all the tools of HC along with the Christ-centered reading of the Fathers of the Church, and a subjective placing of oneself at the service of the Word, without which any accurate reading of scripture will be impossible. He tells us to do here what he did in his book on Jesus. I personally enjoy the style. 

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Lord's Ranch

I wanted to share a couple of videos with our readership. This first one was made by a volunteer at the Lord's Ranch over the past few years who used his digital camera to make videos that he then posted on Youtube. His name is Chris Pham. Since I was writing anonymously for a while, I made no mention of the Lord's Ranch or Fr. Richard Thomas, SJ, my primary reason for being a Jesuit. He was a profound influence on my life, and I hope to now share much more about him and his writings and work in the future. I am convinced, as are many, that he is on the way toward sainthood. The first video is a brief introduction to the Lord's Ranch and it's ministries. The second one is a video about my little sister Rebekah -- here called Madison -- who was saved from being aborted and then adopted by my family. It is a beautiful story and I want to share it with all of you. The video also offers some nice practical suggestions on how to successfully fight abortion. Please let me know what you thought of these videos and your comments and musings.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ