Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holy Family

Children of Men was one of those movies for me that did not hang together plot wise but has some extremely powerful scenes. The most powerful one for me comes at the end of the movie, when Clive Owen, the new mother, and her baby move through a ceasefire that is in total silence. The whole way through the movie I thought I saw a lot of Holy Family imagery, but in this scene in particular I felt it was strong. Joseph guides Mary, the woman who should not have conceived, who is carrying the child, here looked upon as the savior of the human race. I have not read J.D. Powers novel, so I do not know if she intended this imagery. It is palpable in this scene, however, as the hideous sound of machine guns that has been going now for quite a while non stop suddenly stops. People stretch out their hands to touch this child, not unlike the women who touches Christ's cloak. They are almost in worship, all alike, as if a monstrance with the blessed sacrament is moving through their midst. One woman can be heard saying "bendito eres." Soldiers kneel and cross themselves as when the Eucharist passes. And Clive Owen, the Joseph figure, not husband, but protector of this women and her child, moves with them. Let me know what you think; I think in honor of the Holy Family, this is a beautiful scene. If you would like to skip a lot of the lead up, you can just start at 6:24 and watch the last three minutes or so.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jews, Muslims, and a Crisis of Love

Mark Shea does a nice job at rejecting hotheaded comments about Muslims that have been swirling in his com box around two articles he has recently written. I'm abstracting some particularly good points. This seems to be a constant problem these days. If Islam - as Benedict said at Regensburg - is facing a crisis of faith and reason, so in response to this crisis, Christianity is facing a crisis of love. Apparently, the "other," in this case the Muslim, has become unlovable after September 11 and now Mumbai.

If non-Trinitarian monotheists called Muslims don't worship God, then neither do non-Trinitarians called Jews. If we try to claim that we should never allow Muslims to pray on Church property because they are not Christian, then Pope Pius XII should never have allowed Jews to celebrate their rites when he was hiding them in the Vatican and in other church properties. No hijab for Muslim kids, but strict adherence to Catholic dress codes? Very well then, no yarmulkes for Jewish kids at Catholic schools. No five minutes set aside for Muslims to say their prayers? Great! Then no time off allowed for High Holy Days for Jewish kids.

But for close to 2,000 years, Jews were largely regarded by the ordinary Catholic as the sinister internal enemies of Christian civilization -- just like Muslims are now seen. Instead of automatically linking all Muslims to the crime of Mumbai, the medieval Catholic mind tended to link all Jews to the crime of the Crucifixion and to numerous episodes of persecution of Christians. And so, Christians periodically forbade their rites as subversive of the Christian civil order, or decided that if they did not convert, it could only be because they basically agreed with the murderers of Jesus that He got what He deserved.

Remember: for most of the Church's history, though Muslims were seen as heretics, Jews were seen as even greater heretics. They were regarded as the first and most impenitent rebels against the revelation of Christ, who were far more gravely guilty of their rebellion than any Muslim could ever be. After all, said the medieval Christian, Christ came to them, they rejected him, and they have gone on rejecting him down to this very day. Indeed, (the logic continues) they aren't our elder brothers all (something Vatican II-resistant Catholics continue to maintain). No, said medievals, they are the original heretics. They are "those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9). The Church is the real "Israel of God," as St. Paul calls it. So the Fathers considered the Church, grafted onto Old Testament Israel, as the main trunk of revelation and the real continuation of the revelation.

We rightly recoil in horror from this. But for long centuries, Christians took this picture of our relationship with Jews as axiomatic. In comparison, they regarded the poor benighted Mohammedan as a second-class heretic: Since he began as a pagan Arab who had never had the advantages of the Jew, his fall was not seen as anything like so terrible as theirs.

And even in the Middle Ages, Jews were not all quietly suffering degradation without protest. Many made their contempt for Christians and their faith quite clear to their Christian neighbors. And their Christian neighbors responded in exactly the way that many Christians respond today. Only instead of saying, "If you've seen one Mohammedan you seen 'em all," medievals tended to say "If you've seen one Christ-killer, you've seen 'em all."

I recognize no commonality of spirit between the hysteria and frequent contempt for Nostra Aetate, Vatican II, Muslims and Jews that I'm seeing in a lot of the combox commentariat and the generous, thoughtful, and fruitful work being done by Pope Benedict XVI in his dialogue with Muslim leaders. It would well behoove Catholics who are serious about the Church's engagement with Muslims of good will to imitate him, rather than to simply issue sweeping denials that there is any such thing as a Muslim of good will or to heap scorn on Nostra Aetate. The pope is there to teach us. Let's learn from him.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Liberation Theologies and the Society of Jesus

Fr. Adolfo Nicolas in a recent interview called Liberation Theology "a courageous and creative response to an unbearable situation of injustice in Latin America. As with any theology, it needs years to mature. It’s a shame that it has not been given a vote of confidence and that soon its wings will be cut before it learns to fly. It needs more time.” Before cries of heresy start flying -- what am I saying, they are already flying -- we should remember what Ratzinger wrote as head of the CDF concerning Liberation Theology, both the good and the bad:
This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the "preferential option for the poor." It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice. It is, on the contrary, dictated by the certitude that the serious ideological deviations which it points out tends inevitably to betray the cause of the poor. More than ever, it is important that numerous Christians, whose faith is clear and who are committed to live the Christian life in its fullness, become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom, and human dignity because of their love for their disinherited, oppressed, and persecuted brothers and sisters. More than ever, the Church intends to condemn abuses, injustices, and attacks against freedom, wherever they occur and whoever commits them. She intends to struggle, by her own means, for the defense and advancement of the rights of mankind, especially of the poor.
He begins with warning along with praise. I think many miss that point, and also miss the fact that the "preferential option for the poor" actually comes from Vatican II. I have heard so many tell me that this is a form of Liberation Theology that is unacceptable, yet another tribute to the ignorance about Liberation Theology that flies around. The Church does have an option for the poor, and it is out of this option that Fr. Nicolas speaks about the power of Liberation Theology.

The CDF also later mentions:

The different theologies of liberation are situated between the preferential option for the poor, forcefully reaffirmed without ambiguity after Medellin at the Conference of Puebla on the one hand, and the temptation to reduce the Gospel to an earthly gospel on the other.

We noted above that an authentic theology of liberation will be one which is rooted in the Word of God, correctly interpreted.

But from a descriptive standpoint, it helps to speak of theologies of liberation, since the expression embraces a number of theological positions, or even sometimes ideological ones, which are not simply different but more often incompatible with one another.
Thus, when Fr. Nicolas speaks of the power that Liberation Theology can still have, he affirms that there are many forms of it, sharing different ideological foundations and different understandings of the world. Not all embrace class warfare. Not all are Marxist. Not all think money is evil, nor do all think the hierarchy of the Church is the devil. Not all share a Hegelian vision of the world, nor do they all reject Original Sin as a reality. Many simply point to the reality of structural sin and the ways in which Christ comes to free the poor from these structural hindrances that dominate so many third world nations. Often by making that point, the local Church is also indicted for its conciliation toward the rich and wealthy. This was precisely the problem that Romero dealt in El Salvador. The rich practically owned the Church, while all the while the Church hierarchy claimed to be focusing on its "spiritual" mission.

Therefore, developing a faithful theology of liberation continues to be an important mission of the Society, and it needs to be done by those with a good theological background and also by those who live lives close to the reality of the poor. Father Thomas took his theology straight from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. His vision of the world revolved around the Meditation on the Two Standards at the beginning of the Second Week, in which we are told that in the spiritual world, Satan sends out his servants everywhere, "not omitting any provinces, places, states, nor any persons in particular." Precisely. Satan sends his demons not just to persons but also to states, places, corporations, the Senate, the House, everywhere. Hence, liberation begins with prayer followed by concrete actions toward particular structures of sin. This was Ignatius' theology of liberation.

The danger I have found with most liberation theologies is the philosophy of history they embrace, usually complete with an imminent eschaton. It is therefore of the essence that a healthy eschatology remain an central part of any espoused theology of liberation. The Book of Revelation is an excellent example of this. While maintaining a view that all will only be fully healed in the end, it is also a scathing critique of the Roman Empire as a political system, a structure of sin that had to be brought down, not just in the end, but in the now. But now I've gone on too long, so go out and help the poor.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Stable Hay Mysticism

We start Advent with some deeply disturbing news bombarding us from around the world, assuring us that all is not right. There is too much to report; these are the ones that jump out at me:

1. Wal-Mart employee trampled to death on Long Island as the store was opening. The man, 6 foot 5 inches, 270 lbs, was unable to stand up to the mob of 2000 people who broke down the door at 5am to begin their Christmas shopping. People were reported to be notably irritated when told they had to leave Wal-Mart because someone had died. After all, they hadn't trampled the poor guy!

2. The 101st Airborne Division is returning home as well as others, after having served at least 3 terms of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. Bases here at home are bracing for severe psychological disorders in at least 1 in 4 soldiers. I remember reading last year some startling reports on veteran suicide rates.

CBS did some studies on veteran suicides, submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense, asking for the numbers of suicides among all service members for the past 12 years. Between 1995 and 2007, there were almost 2,200 suicides. That’s 188 last year alone. But these numbers included only “active duty” soldiers. They then went to Department of Veterans Affairs where Dr. Ira Katz is head of mental health where they got little information. So asked all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records, for veterans and non-veterans, dating back to 1995. Forty-five states sent what turned out to be a mountain of information. Some surprising results. In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.

It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.)

One age group stood out. Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)

I was appalled to read this, and am worried as men come home to their homes for this Advent and Christmas season. Not only for themselves, but for the pain and difficulty they will no doubt place upon their families as they work through severe mental problems resulting from the "War on Terror."

3. Finally, the El Paso Times reports:
The violence in Juárez continued to rage with at least 10 homicides occurring Friday.
Among the slayings were a triple homicide in the morning, a man gunned down outside a pool hall in the afternoon and a killing at a funeral home in the evening. Shortly before 6 a.m., two unidentified women and a man were shot to death in a PT Cruiser on Rusia street, Chihuahua state police said. At 2:30 p.m., Rodolfo Humberto Martha Jimenez, 27, was shot 13 times in the parking lot of the Pocket's billiards on Avenida de las Torres, police said. There have been more than 1,300 homicides in the Juárez area so far this year, including nearly 30 since Monday.
My parents report that violence continues to rock the city of Juarez, making their ministry to the poor in Mexico these days a rather dangerous affair. The city has been militarized due to the violence between the major drug cartels battling it out now in the streets and street corners of the city.

These three small news blurbs amidst many worse horrors in the world -- for instance, in Mumbai and the Congo -- have been in my thoughts and prayers much as of late. Not just to cast a dismal pall over Advent, but to remind me and all of us of the power of prayer and sacrifice. How much do I actually fast and do acts of mortification? I have realized lately that without an intentional lifestyle of mortification, actual acts of mortification easily slip out of my daily habits. And I'm not talking about scourging yourself or other such severe acts.

I read recently in the latest Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker an article written by a friend of Dorothy Day. She had confronted him when he had admitted to her that he showered on a regular basis. She then seriously convicted him of Bourgeois middle-class living. We don't often think in those terms, but yes, sitting in front of a TV every night, drinking a beer, showering every morning, such self-indulgent forms of lifestyle are extremely rare in the world, shared by an elite few like many of us living in the United States.

The only problem with being bourgeois middle-class is precisely that so few actually are, never mind those who are of the wealthy class. Jesuits are often mistaken for middle-class businessmen. They dress the same, often act the same. A rather glaring indictment, this points to the casual softness that can creep into any form of Christian life, particularly Religious life, if great care is not taken to keep that insipid evil out. Bourgeois living, if I had to name one, is one of the great evils of Religious life in the United States, and indeed of many who call themselves Catholic, primarily because it is so antithetical to the Personalist message of the gospel, whose entire attention is directed to the least of the brothers who is poor and needy.

Mortification is a Personalist act, directed not against the Body, but against the Person. Many disparage it I think because they miss this important distinction. And Advent is the perfect time to emulate the mortification of the Second Person, who chose to be born in a stable. In this way, those of us who are still alive, healthy, mentally stable, free from the desperate despair of Wal-Mart consumerism or the horrors of war in Iraq can choose voluntarily to fast and mortify our bodies on behalf of our brothers and sisters who suffer from these ailments. If we do these things, we will too find ourselves on Christmas day inhabiting a spiritual stable along with the Second Person, rather than sitting comfortably in the easy chair of many "Christian" lives.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ