Wednesday, March 05, 2014

On Observing Fasts and Seasons

Each year as Catholics around the world begin the discipline of Lent by fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday, many non-Catholic Christians question the legitimacy of this as a permissible Christian practice, either outwardly or privately.  Citing a few verses from St. Paul., the claim is made that we ought not to participate in such a practice.  Here we will briefly address this concern.

Two passages in particular which are raised in objection to the practice of Lent, of fasting, and of abstaining from meat.  The first is from Colossians 2:16:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.
 The second is similar, from Galatians 4:8 - 11:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.
We see here two primary points of contention.  First, St. Paul would seem to be rejecting the notion that Christians ought to observe (in the Greek, literally, "celebrate") seasons or special days.  Second, he says we should not be concerned about eating in a particular way.  For good measure, we could add in 1 Timothy 4:3, which rejects the teachings of "liars" who "require abstinence from meats."  What are we to make of this?

First, we can eliminate the concern that St. Paul really is rejecting the notion of observing particular days or seasons fairly easily by noting that Jesus Himself and the early Church observed them.  Most notably, he observed the Passover - indeed He turned it into a uniquely Christian celebration, commanding that we "do this in memory" of Him.  He also observed Hanukkah (see John 10:22 - 29).  Once He had ascended into Heaven, the early Church also kept account of particular days.  We see them meeting together for Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, and in Acts 20:6 - 7 we see that the disciples met on the Lord's Day (Sunday) to "break bread" - that is, to fulfill Christ's Passover command to "do this in memory of me."

The question of abstaining from meat and fasting is even clearer.  Jesus Himself teaches that His followers "will fast" (emphasis mine) in Matthew 9:15.  He famously gives instructions about not appearing disheveled "when you fast," indicating that it is not a question of if they should fast, but only of when and how.  He tells us that some demons can only be driven out by fasting (Mark 9:29).  The apostles themselves fasted on and around Pentecost - a "day" and season" - in Acts chapter 2.

As for abstinence, the New Testament authors provide instructions to abstain from meat for one reason or another in several places.  The apostles issue a command to "abstain from meat offered to idols" in Acts 15:29.  St. Paul offers counsel about circumstances in which it is good "not to eat meat" in Romans 14:21.

Of course, the commands about abstinence from meat are not universal, but are related only to particular circumstances, and this is in fact a key point in helping us to understand precisely what St. Paul means in the original passages in question.  Clearly, it is acceptable that the apostles prohibit meat in certain circumstances, but it is never done as a universal rule.  Moreover, there are no circumstances or qualifications attributed to those who St. Paul condemns in our citations above.  What we might suspect here is a case wherein St. Paul's condemnation is of those who would prohibit the eating of meat as a universal rule.

In fact, there were two particular groups in the early Church who did just this.  The Judaizers insisted that Christians must, in addition to following Jesus and His teachings, keep to every ceremonial law of the Jews, from circumcision to the prohibition against certain foods.  This is understandable, given how important these practices were to the Jewish identity.  The Lord even had to perform a miracle to finally convince St. Peter that it was acceptable to eat those foods that had previously been forbidden (see Acts 10).  St. Paul spills a fair amount of ink in his epistles arguing against this early heresy, and the passages quoted above are examples of this.  The other group in question is the gnostics, who believed that Jesus came to lead us to the purely spiritual and free us from all matter, which was taught to be evil.  They therefore prohibited eating meat, getting married, and other such practices which they deemed to be too closely connected with matter and perpetuating it.  St. John also argues against the gnostics in his epistles.

Fasting, abstaining from meat, and keeping particular days of celebration or reflection are entirely within the realm of sound Christian practice.  Each of these was either expressly commanded by Jesus or the apostles, or was taught to us by the example of the early Church.  This should be no surprise.  Our human nature demands time of celebration and times of reflection.  We work best as people who sometimes indulge, and other times deny ourselves.  It's how we work, and the One who created us knows this well.  He, through His Church, has given us the call to live in this way because He knows it is good for us.  Thus, we observe Lent and we celebrate Easter.  We set Sundays aside to give extra time to God.  We pray particularly at night, before bed, and in the morning, before our days.  We do these and countless other practices which help to keep us, in our human nature, walking with Christ.  He made us this way, and if anything, we can be thankful that He has given us disciplines and practices which tie our humanity so closely to Him.

God bless!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't Give Up Facebook For Lent

For the past few years, I've spent the week or so before Ash Wednesday waging a battle against the rushing tide of Lenten Facebook sacrificing.  This is, of course, because for the past few years this particular sacrifice has become more and more popular.  In years past, I've primarily argued that people should carefully consider whether or not giving up Facebook would really benefit them or if its simply the "easy" or "trendy" decision, much as giving up chocolate or sweets so often is. 

However, this year I am going to come out and assert what I have felt more and more each year that this has gone on: giving up Facebook for Lent is more than simply too easy, it would actually a bad thing for many people - perhaps even for most of those who would be spiritually dedicated enough to consider doing it.  It may even be Satan appearing as an angel of light.

You can look through my previous year's article for the reasoning more in depth, but the main point was that it's an easy sacrifice to make, but its only truly meaningful for some.  The person who truly, literally can't stay away from Facebook for more than 5 minutes might really get something out of it, but the more common person who logs in a few times a day and/or spends most of his "Facebook time" reading articles that he found linked on the site is not only failing to get the same impact, there's a good chance that in giving up Facebook he failed to make some other sacrifice or commitment which would have been more meaningful to him. He's also missing out on all of the good that the social network provides (like those articles).

And good there is!  What do I get out of my daily time on Facebook?  I get inspired but the posts of other spiritual friends to live my faith more fully.  I get challenged by them to stick more closely to Christ than I would otherwise.  I get to see the joy of the Lord in their lives as they do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, or raise children.  I get to learn practical tips from them about how to best do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, and raise children.  I get an embarrassment of riches in dozens of wonderful articles to choose from to deepen my knowledge of the world and, in particular, my faith and spirituality.  

I get to see when friends are asking for prayers.  I get to see when friends need prayers, even when they don't actually go ahead and ask for them.  

I get all of this, and so much more.  Oh, and I get to provide all of this for my friends so that they will have it, too - even those I rarely get to actually see in life.

However, this is not why I would call this particular sacrifice a bad thing, at least not in and of itself.  I call it bad because it's a retreat.  This is ironic, because for many who give Facebook up its intended to be a retreat: a retreat like one spends in a weekend or a week at the monastery to get away from the world and closer to Christ.  Far from this, I'd suggest that giving up Facebook would be, for most, a retreat in the worst sense of the word.  It's a retreat from making Christ a part of our everyday lives in the way we're called to.  

Would anyone, a thousand years ago, have considered avoiding the village square during Lent?  Surely not.  It's there, in the presence of those people the Lord has put into our lives, that our faith is meant to be most on display.  10 years ago, Facebook was a small niche of the internet for a select few college students to goof around.  Today, its a universal forum for business, socialization, fellowship, event planning, outreach, and virtually everything else we do as human beings.  It's the one place where, in our busy world, everyone meets in some way on daily basis.  

It's the village square of our day.  It's a part of everyday life, and we are called at all times, and especially during Lent, to make Christ a part of that everyday life - not to quit parts of our lives because we can't get ourselves to bring Christ into them.  We're called to engage people with the gospel - not stay away from people because we can't get ourselves to engage them.  

If you truly need to get away from Facebook for your spiritual betterment, then by all means, do it.  If you can't help but waste 5 hours a day refreshing your newsfeed, playing Farmville (do people even do that anymore?), getting nothing useful done and ignoring your prayer life, then by all means make the sacrifice.  It would probably be good for you.

But if you're not addicted in this way, and if Facebook is for you, like most, a part of an otherwise healthy everyday life, then don't give up Facebook for Lent - no, work on properly ordering Facebook for Lent!  Do you use it to bring Christ to others?  Do you ever click on any of those spiritual articles that go up?  Do you stop and pray for friends you see having a rough day?  If so, keep at it.  If not, start doing so.  Don't just take my word for it.  Listen to the pope!

In his January 22nd radio address on World Communication Day, Pope Francis spoke about the internet and social media. He cautioned against some of its pitfalls (which are well known to anyone who cares enough to read this post), and then said:

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement.
As I have frequently observed, if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those “streets” are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively. The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone. We are called to show that the Church is the home of all. Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church? Communication is a means of expressing the missionary vocation of the entire Church; today the social networks are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ. In the area of communications too, we need a Church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts. 

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website 

I will be quite blunt: Christ calls us to be in the world, to bring Him to it, and to make Him a part - indeed, the center! - of the everyday.  In 2014, Facebook is an incredible outlet to the world, and is certainly a part of the everyday.  Facebook does not need more Christians retreating from it, leaving it a more worldly place for some month and a half each year.  It needs more Christians being Christians for every day of the year.  Instead of making Christ a little bit more absent from the newsfeeds of your friends and family (something the Father or Lies would surely rejoice in), make Him more present this Lent, with the aim that He be more present after that first Alleluia rings out, too.

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Commercializing Christmas

Every year about the beginning of November, or in some cases even before Halloween, Christmas decorations, music, and other fare begin appearing in malls, stores, ads, and even the radio and television.  Ever year about this same time, these same appearances are decried as too early and manifestations of the sad and widespread commercialization of Christmas.  As that time of year comes upon us once more, I think it worth it to think critically about the entire phenomenon of commercializing Christmas.  What is it?  Where lies that line, the crossing of which constitutes a commercialization of Christmas?  How soon is too soon to bring out the holly and the jolly?

If we wish to consider things thoroughly, the first question we need to ask is whether or not its even acceptable for stores to have Christmas decorations at all.  Now there are at least 2 different perspectives from which to approach this question: the Christian, and the secular, each with its own criteria. As the Christian perspective is the one I am interested in, and because those unhappy with the commercialization of Christmas are most likely to approach things with a Christmas perspective as well, it is from this perspective which we will approach the question.  Moreover, it would not be incorrect to say that those coming from a secular perspective and unhappy with early or proliferous Christmastide fare are generally not so much concerned with the commercialization of Christmas as they are with being exposed to it more than they would prefer.

In any case, with a resounding no we can insist that there is nothing wrong with stores having Christmas decorations, music, and other tidings.  In fact from the Christian perspective it is a good thing that they do.  Christ ought to have a presence in every aspect of society, and so it is laudable that stores visibly celebrate Christmas during the Christmas season.  Indeed, when businesses do not display a certain Christmas spirit, for example by wishing people "Happy Holidays", they are rightly chided.  Christ’s reign ought extend over businesses as much as over the rest of the world.  This is the Christianization of commerce: businesses honoring Christ and His teachings, and celebrating Him.

Now, here we need to make an important distinction, for there are at two ways that a business can celebrate Christmas.  The first is in accordance with its authentic spirit.  That is, businesses can honor the season according to the bounds that are intrinsic to the season.  This involves many things, including making a renewed commitment to practicing justice in our lives, remembering the birth of the Lord, and celebrating that birth during the period of time assigned for it.  When a store or other business does these things, then it is participating in the Christianization of commerce, and that is a good thing.  Doing good for employees, offering customers discounts in the spirit of giving, and erecting visible symbols in honor of Christ’s Incarnation would mark such a Christianization of commerce.

On the other hand, a business may choose to celebrate the season in a way not in accord with its authentic spirit.  A business which uses the occasion of the Christmas season as an opportunity to participate in unjust practices, to exploit their customers, or which takes advantage of its employees would not be in accord with the authentic Christmas spirit.  Rather, businesses which, instead of honoring the Christmas season distort it to meet their own ends fall into that common moral foible of treating God’s creation as objects to be used rather than subjects to be honored. 

One common example of this would be putting up a Christmas tree in early November rather than respecting the timing defined by the season itself.  Rather than making way for Christ to bring His presence into commerce - that is, Christianizing commerce - this would an act  of distortion, an effort reshape Christ for the sake of commerce - that is, a commercializing of Christ (and so of course Christmas).  As a general rule, we are called to shape our lives and our actions around Christ and a love for His creatures, not to shape Christ and His creatures around us.  This is the essential difference between love and sin.

What then would it look like for a business to truly respect the spirit of Christmas?  Much of what already occurs, in fact.  Businesses could decorate and play Christmas music to honor the birth of Christ and to provide a festive and joyful atmosphere for those shoppers who were celebrating it. Prices could be cut and sales offered in the spirit of giving. Stores might stay open later to help shoppers who wished to buy gifts to give in this same spirit.  If businesses did indeed make extra money by virtue of these actions, no harm would be done.  Indeed, such businesses as may reap higher revenues by attracting those wishing to honor Christ would do so rightly.

In fact, I would argue that these things could even be done earlier than the Christmas season.  If someone wishes to decorate a home for the Christmas season, it may be helpful to be able to purchase decorations early. People may want to shop earlier rather than having to deal with all of the congested stores which would result from so many people shopping for gifts at once in December, and so offering sales for these earlier customers could even be an example of Christianizing commerce - of letting the generous and self-giving spirit of Christ influence how commerce is practiced. 

The problem is that these are, in most cases, not the intentions that businesses have.  They decorate early, offer sales, play music, and so forth simply to make more money.  Far from offering sales in November or erecting Christmas trees the moment the spider webs come down in an effort to aid people, they do so with the intentions of stretching Christmas as far as they possibly can, forming it into something which is beneficial for them. Thus, while there may be nothing materially wrong with businesses thinking of Christmas in some way at least somewhat early, there is something formally wrong with it, for their intentions are those of commercializing Christmas, rather than of allowing Christ to enter commerce. 

The ideal store, one seeking to participate in a Christianization of commerce, might offer sales in November, looking to help people as they prepare for Christmas, while holding off on the tinsel and holly until the middle of December.  The typical store puts up enormous trees and blasts jinglefied versions of classic hymns on All Saints day, while taking them down before offering sales the first week of January so as to clear their excess inventory and drain consumers of whatever gift cards and crisp bills they may have come into over the actual Christmas celebration.

All that having been said, I would like to add one small caveat in defense of businesses.  When it isn't music, or decorations, or anything else so formally a Christmas celebration as this, try not to be too hard on them.  There are some things that stores really just need to do early, like putting out stock.  Yes, as early as the first week of November.  There is only so much warehouse space in any store, with the sales floor serving as the primary location for merchandise.  There are also only so many deliveries possible.  These deliveries must carry not only the Christmas, or Easter, or Summer, or whatever other special items the store needs, but also all of the regular daily or weekly stuff - which can be an enormous load itself.  For certain seasons, the amount of stuff that needs to be sent along is so large that it may even take two months to ship it all, and from day one that all has to start making its way out to the floor because it simply won't fit elsewhere.  This is why you start to see back to school products out in the middle of June!  

In any case, let's all do the best that we can to bring Christ into at least our own commerce.  In doing so, perhaps we can do some small part in Christianizing the world.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yes, Marriage is for You

If you happen to have any Catholic friends on social media, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve come across a piece titled “Marriage Isn’t for You.”  There’s a lesser but still reasonable chance you may have also have seen a seminarian’s reply, although reply may not be the best word given that he doesn’t actually disagree with the original author. 

Both pieces aim to remind us of some fairly essential truths about marriage. The former is primarily concerned with marriage as a gift for the other.  Noting his own pre-wedding doubts about whether or not his wife-to-be would make him happy, the author presents his father’s counsel (emphasis in original):

marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.

The second piece agrees, but looks to take it a step further.  Marriage, it asserts, is about God:

True love is focused on God, and that sometimes means making people unhappy in order to draw them closer to God. Marriage is not about making your spouse smile or laugh every day. Marriage is not about being nice, it’s about loving your spouse as God loves them.  Marriage is not only about making your spouse happy, it’s about making them holy.

What should we think of these points?

The overarching message in both of these pieces is certainly a good one so far as it goes.  Marriage is most definitively not a selfish endeavor.  In fact, those entering into marriage seeking primarily their own happiness will not find it.  It is clear from the teaching of the Church and indeed the most fundamental understanding of Christian principles that in marriage one must be concerned with his spouse’s happiness before his own and, moreover, her holiness before even that. 

Does this mean that it is correct to say that marriage is either for the spouse, or even more simply that it is not for the self?  Let us consider without delay the critical point made by our first author’s father: beyond only one’s spouse, marriage is concerned with the good of the children which will spring from it.  In fact, the Church teaches that marriage is concerned primarily with the procreation of children (Casti Connubii 17, 59; Wojtyla 66).  Taking this route we would then be forced to change our phrasing so as to declare not that marriage is for the spouse, but for the other. 

Yet this very deliberation reveals a key point which heretofore has remained absent from both the referenced articles and our discussion: according to the teaching of the Church marriage has multiple ends.  That is to say, it is for a variety of purposes.  These purposes are generally enumerated two, and sometimes three in number[i]: the procreation and education of children, the mutual help or good of the spouses, and the remedy of concupiscence (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601; Wojtyla 66; see Casti Connubii 59).  The primary end is, of course, the procreation and education of children.  Secondarily, marriage is ordered toward the goods of the spouses, and in a variety of ways.  Husband and wife support one another psychologically and spiritually, they care for one another in times of sickness or frailty, they encourage one another to move generously towards Christ.  Finally, they provide a legitimate avenue for the expression of natural desires, though this must not be understood in a utilitarian sense. 

In his discussion of these ends and their relation, Wojtyla brings us to what seems to be the key point for the purposes of our discussion.  “These aims can,” he writes, “moreover, only be realized in practice as a single complex aim” (68).  Indeed, the Church tells us that identification of one end as primary does not diminish the other ends (Guadium et Spes 50).  As Wojtyla notes in the aforementioned place, it is when taken together that each of the ends of marriage make possible the achievement of one another.  He insists in a key passage that these aims of marriage flow together from love as a whole:

With this in mind, it seems equally clearly indicated that themutuum adiutorium mentioned in the teaching of the Church on the purposes of marriage as second in importance after procreation must not be interpreted – as it often is – to man ‘mutual love’.  Those who do this may mistakenly come to believe that procreation as the primary end is something distinct from ‘love’m as also is the teriary end, remedium concupiscentiae, whereas both procreation and remedium concupiscentiae as purposes of marriage must result from love as a virtue, and so fit in with the personalistic norm.   Mutuum adiutorium as a purpose of marriage is likewise only a result of love as a virtue.  There are no grounds for interpreting the phrase mutuum adiutorium  to mean ‘love’. For the Church, in arranging the objective purposes of love in a particular order, seeks to emphasize that procreation is objectively, ontologically, a more important purose than that man and woman should love together, complement each other and support each other (mutuum audiutorium), just as the second purpose is in turn more important than the appeasement of natural desire.  But there is no question of opposing love to procreation nor yet of suggesting that procreation takes precedence over love (68).

Marriage is, ultimately, “an institution which exists for the sake of love” (Wojtyla 233).  Ultimately, “authentic married love is caught up into Divine love” (Gaudium et Spes 48), and that is the point to all of this.  Marriage exists for love, and that love is ultimately the love of God.  When we look to the ends of marriage – to the, “what is it for?” – we must ultimately look to that love which God calls each of us to for our answer, for married love is no less  than a particular expression of that perfect, self-giving love.   Both of our authors rightly apply this principle in recognizing marriage as something which is for the other – one’s spouse and one’s children – and of course for God. 

Where I would suggest that they come short would be in falling into a sort of matrimonial reactionism which pushes back against the selfish spirit of the age at the expense of applying the full breadth of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the love of God.  While it is true that many today fall into the error of viewing marriage as something which primary end is their own happiness, it goes too far to say that the happiness or the good of the self is not an end of marriage.  All that God gives to us, and especially the spiritual goods of the Church such as the Sacraments, are intended for our good both collectively and individually.  Of course in marriage one seeks the salvation of his spouse, but he also seeks the salvation of himself.  Of course in marriage one seeks the glory of God, but that does not mean that he does not also seek the good for his spouse or for himself. 

The false dichotomy brings to mind Jesus’ admonition of the Pharisees when he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  Surely all things are for the glory of God, and yet God’s great will is for the good of all His creation.  John’s gospel even identifies Christ’s great moment of glory with His crucifixion, that great act of selflessness offered on behalf of his creation (see John 13:31, 17:1).  Jesus Himself had no difficulty in recognizing a multitude of ends or purposes to things, even where the Glory of God was concerned. 

Recall also Wojtyla’s view of the 3 ends of marriage.  While procreation is the primary aim, it does not diminish but works in concert and lifts up the others, which all together flow from and seek to perfect love.  The problem with statements like, “marriage is not for you but for your spouse” is that they diminish the interconnectedness of all of the aspects of matrimony and thereby render even the ones they seek to uphold powerless.  Consider another passage from Wojtyla (emphasis in original):

An inner need to determine the main direction of one’s development by love encounters an objective call from God.  This is the fundamental appeal of the New Testament, embodied in the commandment to love and in the saying ‘Be ye perfect’, a call to self perfection through love.  This summons is addressed to everyone.  It behooves every ‘man of good will’ to give it concrete meaning, in application to himself by deciding what is the main direction of his love.  ‘What is my vocation’ means ‘in what direction should my personality develop, considering what I have in me, what I have to offer, and what others – other people and God – expect of me?’ A believer who is unreservedly convinced of the truth and reality of the New Testament’s vision of human existence is also aware that his own spiritual reserves alone are inadequate to the development of his personality through love (257).
One’s vocation, if it is to marriage, is a fundamental calling to self-perfection by means of all that marriage is, offers, and asks for.  Recall that marriage is a Sacrament, and so by its very nature confers Sanctifying Grace, that unmerited infusion of Divine life without which one cannot know God (see Summa Theologica IV, 42, 3 for a discussion on this point).  Marriage is no less “for me” – should I be called to be married - than is baptism.  And, like baptism, marriage by its nature must, if lived authentically, work itself out in the very self-giving love for spouse, child, and God that the original articles were so rightly concerned with.

If one is going to be married, then one had better recognize all that marriage calls him to.  That includes selfless love of spouse.  It includes a selfless generosity and openness to children.  It includes responding joyfully to the graces conferred in the marital state so that he can become a better spouse and parent, and indeed a holy one.  Marriage is, as Wojtyla and the Church have said in too many places to cite, for the mutual love of the spouses.  It is not something which can be reduced to my attitude toward the other, but must encompass our love together as husband and wife, and our shared end, which is God.  Said Wojtyla, "The only escape from this otherwise inevitable egoism is by objective good... [which] is the foundation of love, and individual persons, who jointly choose a common good, in doing so subject themselves to it" (38).  To try to break this unifying love down to that of one individual goes against the very nature of marriage, even as first and most simply laid out as that by which a man and a woman become "one flesh" (Genessi 2:24; Mark 10:8).

This all having been said, a valid question may arise as to why this has been worth addressing.  It is true, after all, that the two articles with which we began this consideration show forth good, valid points which are in much need of a bit of attention in this present age.  Too often we do view marriage as not simply being for the self in some sense, but as being primarily for the self.  No doubt, these authors have helped many with their work.  At the same time, history demonstrates well that combating one error with a broad brush which may cover over a bit too much rarely benefits the cause in the end.  In this case in particular, a person who enters into marriage wholly concerned with the holiness and happiness of his spouse and children, but entirely negligent of the Sacrament's impact on his own, can easily be a detriment to both.  Because marriage is indeed so near a topic to so many people and one which will have an impact on the lives of many, and moreover because it is so important to get marriage right in an age where so many get it wrong, it seems important to try to shed some additional light on the subject and to refine a bit those broad strokes which our original authors used to such beneficial an effect.


Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. 1981. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993. Print.

[i] The distinction between the two delineations would seem to lie in whether one regards that end of remedium concupiscentiae to be distinct from or subsumed within the mutuum adiutorium

Friday, March 11, 2011

Do Earthquakes Like Japan's Suggest the End of the World?

Matthew's Gospel reads:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. (Matt. 24:3-8)
The common interpretation is that Jesus was giving us signs to look for as harbingers of the end of the world. I don’t think that this is correct.
For one, it would be very inconsistent with His firm, explicit instructions from the same discourse not to worry about or to look for when the end is coming. In fact, in this quoted passage, He actually seems to be cautioning His listeners that reading into these kinds of events can lead one astray.
However, another interpretation of His words exists which is consistent with these messages, namely, one could understand the passage such that Jesus is telling His disciples precisely that these kinds of events are not signs of the end. Remember, He is speaking here to a group of mainly Jews living in an age and with a theological outlook wherein every negative event was taken as a sign of God’s anger. These are the people who asked Jesus whose sin was responsible for a man’s blindness, and who assumed that the fall of the tower in Siloam was yet another punishment. Moreover, He knows that within a generation the terrible disasters of Nero and the destruction of the Temple were to come. It is this people to whom He’s trying to give His message not to see the end of the world behind every falling rock or crashing tower and so be led astray.
Thus, it seems probable to me that His message was, rather than that the terrible events He lists are signs of the end, that they are just simply everyday events which will happen time and time again as the years carry on. “Over the thousands of years until my return,” He says in a sense, “there will be many earthquakes, wars, and famines. These are normal. They don’t mean the end is near.”
And indeed history has been filled with wars, famines, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other such events, and there will be more in the future. I have seen claims there more occurring now than in the past. I don't have the data to evaluate that claim, but if it is true, so what? Geology and climatology are defined by long cycles of increased and decreased activity. If we are in a cycle of increased activity, all the more reason to pray and be vigilant that we may be ready when Christ calls us by name and demands of us an accounting – but no reason to read in these things that the end is near. I dare say Christ told us not to.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Should You Give Up Facebook for Lent?

With ash wednesday just a day away many are finalizing plans for their Lenten sacrifices. The past few years Facebook has become a popular object of these sacrifices. This can certainly be a good idea, Facebook so  often being a distraction from God and from the productive, meaningful, spiritual lives that He calls us to.

At the same time, Facebook is a very easy, convenient option for our Lenten sacrifice - perhaps too easy. To be sure, for many a break from Facebook would lead them closer to our Lord, not to mention all of the "real life" people that He's put into their lives. Yet for others, Facebook is an important means by which they come closer to God and maintain their spiritual lives.

Of course, the easy example of this is that person who does not have very many, if any, spiritual friends to see in his or her day to day life. Such people may in fact get all the Christian fellowship that they do via Facebook friends who may either live too far away or simply not have the opportunity to get together very frequently. Of course, a laudable Lenten effort in such a case might be to try to see one another more frequently. This is a great idea! Yet as Christians we can never let the perfect be the enemy of the good (indeed, the good is an incomplete or particular manifestation of the perfect), and so giving up Facebook with such an approach in mind must be considered prayerfully and carefully.

Yet not everybody who derives spiritual benefit from Facebook does so simply because of a lack of good Christian friends in the being around. How many times have you found a good article on a Facebook link? How many times has an inspiring quotation on Facebook set your spiritual life on the right path a given day? How many times has seeing posts from your spiritual friends prompted you to live life for God that day - when perhaps otherwise you may not have thought of Him? How many prayer requests have you made, and responded to, on Facebook?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to encourage you not to sacrifice Facebook if that is something which will genuinely benefit you spiritually. By all means, if that's the case then case do it! What I am trying to do is to encourage you to make a careful consideration of the spiritual positives and negatives that Facebook affects in your life and prayerfully discern weather it would be a legitimate Lenten sacrifice for you, or simply an option that is easy to sign on to.

It's just like the old giving up chocolate for Lent: everybody seems to make this sacrifice, but in reality it's really only meaningful to a some. I myself, for example, would really not benefit from giving up chocolate or candy for Lent, yet in trying to figure out what sacrifice I should make its just right there and seems like such a common thing to do.  That must mean it's a good thing to do, right?

As people of Christ, we're always very rightly concerned with not giving in to the trends of the world, but we also need to be concerned with guarding ourselves against theological or spiritual trends. Such trends may concern themselves with things which are objectively good, such as abstaining from meat or chocolate or some other thing, but as trends, they don't take in to account our particular souls and our particular spiritual needs. The place I'm at and the needs of my soul maybe very different from where you are at and what you need.  Indeed for some, it may be that giving up Facebook or chocolate or any particular thing may be an "easy out" compared to some other sacrifice which would be a genuinely challenging and enlivening effort to make. 

This is why the Church presents to us both the universal truths - the doctrines and dogmas - as well as the diverse array of different spiritualities as shown to us by the saints. It's why She gives us the Catechism while still encouraging us to get individual spiritual directors. The truth, of course, does not change and so can be presented in black and white in a Catechism. However, Grace builds upon nature, and each of our natures is going to be a little different.

So I encourage you to consider just what you need this Lent, and in particular just what God is calling you to - not by trend, but by name - and then follow Him with generosity.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Did Thomas Aquinas teach that women were just defective men created solely for reproduction?

A question came to me recently from some friends who were reading Women, Sex, and the Churcha collection of essays treating various Catholic teachings on sex and marriage as they relate to women.  In one of the essays, a woman categorized as a "dissident theologian" is quoted, wherein she asserts that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Universal Doctor of the Church, taught that women A) are merely "defective" and "misbegotten" men who B) God only created so that there would be someone to carry babies during their 9 months of gestation.  The question, of course, is just what St. Thomas taught on this subject?

The first step in considering this question is to locate the reference to which this theologian is referring.  This does not prove difficult, the passage in question being located right where one would expect it to be in the first part of Aquinas' monumental Summa Theologica in his treatise on man.  Specifically, the issue comes up in article 1 of question 92 of the first part.  Here, Aquinas is answering the question of whether or not woman should have been created in the beginning at the same time as man.  He responds that yes, she should have been.  Let us look at the particular texts in question.  

The first comes from the article's first objection and it's response:

Objection 1. It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things. For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that "the female is a misbegotten male." But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.  

Reply to Objection 1. As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intentionas directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.

We do see the "defective and misbegotten" text in question here.  It is first introduced as a quote from Aristotle to support the idea that woman should not have been created.  Aristotle, the objection asserts, declared that woman is simply a misbegotten man, and so she should not have been created in the first place, since nothing that is defective ought to have been created in the beginning, when all was perfect.  In brief, Aquinas' reply is that woman is only misbegotten in her individual nature but not in her universal nature, and so it would have been fine for her to have been created at the beginning by virtue of her universal nature.

However, the soundness of Aquinas' reply is not at issue here.  Rather, it is the question of woman being "misbegotten."  Specifically, we now see, it is the issue of her being misbegotten in her individual nature.  What exactly does this mean?  Fortunately, St. Thomas provides an explanation of why a woman is said to be misbegotten.  The male seed, he says, produces a perfect male likeness, and therefore he reasons that the production of a woman entails some kind of defect.  Aquinas then bases the rest of his response on this fact.  This is important because the "fact" is in error: the male seed does not produce a perfect male likeness.  It can produce either a male or a female, because sperm can contain either an X chromosome - leading to a female child - or a Y chromosome - leading to a male.  Of course we know this now, but in Aquinas' day (and Aristotle's, for that matter) this was not understood.  

It helps to try to look at things from the perspective of people of Aquinas' day.  They knew a little bit about the biology of reproduction, but not very much.  The microscope had not even been invented, and the theory of chromosomes was still nearly 700 years away.  What these people did know was that children developed in women after men deposited their "seed" during intercourse.  Women were thus understood as being responsible for giving a child it's body (as it grew and developed, taking what material it needed from her own) while the role of males was to give the initial seed.  What this seed was, exactly, nobody really knew.  The philosophers considered that it was the form of the child - the "plan" that directed how the material from the mother should be organized.  Whereas a blueprint indicates how girders, wood, and so forth are to be arranged to create the intended building, the man's seed would indicate how the the woman's biological material was to be arranged to form a child.

In any case, one element of their reasoning was a fairly fundamental principle which we follow even today: you can't give what you don't have.  To us, it means that a person who wants to teach must first learn, that a person who wants to bring peace to friends must first gain personal peace, and other similar platitudes along with more basic things like the simple fact that I can't give you $100 when I only have $50 in my pocket.  To the people of Aquinas' time, it made sense that a male could only give maleness.  Therefore, a father's seed could only give the "blueprint" to make another male.  Think about it.  It has been obvious even since the first human beings that we get our "form" from our parents: we look like them!  It's easy to see, then, how people could reason that when a father gives his seed he is giving that "blueprint" that made him.  

What all of this means for the "biology" behind Aquinas' reasoning is that men didn't have the capability of giving the form of a woman in their seed.  Therefore, a woman would have to come about by some defect in the form that a mother did receive.  Further helping us see just how strongly an erroneous understanding of biology influenced Aquinas, he goes on to list what were at the time considered some possible causes of this defect, even including a 'moist wind!'  The individual nature of a woman, he therefore says, is misbegotten.  In other words, in and of herself (individually), a woman is not the result of the perfect transmission of a father's seed.  

Now, we could simply end matters here recognizing that working with a more accurate concept of reproductive biology, Aquinas would have had an entirely different answer.  Were we do to so, however, we would miss something very important about Aquinas' point.  To see exactly what, we need to follow his reasoning through even from his faulty foundation, for next he goes on to address how woman, in her general human nature, is not misbegotten.  Nature, he points out, requires both men and women.  In other words, humanity by its very nature is made up of men and women.  There must be both, or there would be neither - for nobody would ever be conceived.  Now this is from a purely natural standpoint, even apart from considering God's role in things.  It is only at the very end that Aquinas brings God into things, pointing out that God directs nature and so God of course determined that humanity would consist of men and women.  In no uncertain terms, he says that God always intended that there be women.  

Further, we can see from other places in his writings that St. Thomas did not consider women to be of lower value, worth, or dignity than men.  For example, he teaches that the highest act a creature can perform is the intellective contemplation of God (in layman's terms, a way of defining Heaven) which women can of course also participate in.  In his reply to objection 1 in the 4th article of question 93, he rejects the idea that the image of God is not found in women and teaches that both men and women possess and intellectual nature, which he says is the image of God.  Other examples could be cited.  

It is important then to consider just how St. Thomas understands women to be defective or misbegotten men.  He does not mean it as we might use the terms to describe a defective CD player, for example.  Should I go to the store and purchase a CD player with as a broken motor, it would be defective in and of itself insofar as it would not work.  Understood in this way, a defective male would be an impotent man, or a man who had some other problem, but a male who, like the CD player, did not "work."  On the other hand, consider the chocolate chip cookie.  As the story goes, Ruth Wakefield was one day baking chocolate cookies only to discover she did not have the proper ingredients.  Substituting semi-sweet chocolate chips, she unexpectedly created what is today the most popular cookie of them all.  The chocolate cookie, while having a value and worth all its own, was a defective or "misbegotten" chocolate cookie.

The key point this analogy seeks to illustrate is that the "defect" of the woman is not a defect in the sense of a valuelessness, a badness, a brokenness, or even necessarily an inferiority.  Rather, it is a difference from what was originally intended (by the seed): a defect from the male seed's expected ultimate end.  Ironically, we can see a parallel in the way prenatal development really does function: it is generally accepted that everybody begins as a female until the Y chromosome starts to trigger the proper physiological changes to produce a male, and so in a similar sense to Aquinas' ancient one, all men are in a sense "misbegotten" women.  God, of course, intends that souls He intends to be women be women and those He intends to be men be men, and this is an even more important point.  Aquinas' conception of the defect here is purely a material, biological one (and, of course, one based on faulty biology in the first place).  However, he firmly insists (over and over in the course of other questions, in fact) that God's intent is that women be conceived.  In St. Thomas' eyes, then, God does something akin to altering nature itself so as to bring women about.

The second issue - whether or not Aquinas taught that women were made only for the purposes of bearing children - is an easier one to tackle.  The theologian is referring to the main portion of Aquinas answer in the question we have been considering.  He writes:

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a "helper" to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in otherworks, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.

It is only necessary to note three brief points.  

First, Aquinas' primary meaning here is, again, natural and not supernatural.  Just as in discussing misbegotten and defectiveness he was thinking in terms of the natural order of things (that is, as regards how women come about according to nature rather than to God), here he is also speaking primarily about women's natural purpose.  He goes on to illustrate his point by considering the ways that plants and animals reproduce.  Some plants, he says, reproduce on their own without the need for others.  Plants, however, are not very high creatures and their sole purpose for existence is to make more plants, and so always have the entirety of their reproductive abilities contained within themselves.  Animals, however, have other purposes, and humans above all have that highest of purposes: contemplating God.  Given this, he says that man should be separated from reproduction so as that he only exists as a reproductive entity during certain times - namely, intercourse  In other words, it's important that human beings aren't in a constant state of reproduction (like some plants) so as to most befit creatures whose ultimate purpose is in the spiritual.  Given this,  mankind's reproductive function is split up amongst different people, and so, he says, nature demands that women exist to take on part of the reproductive function.  For this reason, when considering how woman is a helper for man, he ties it very particularly to reproduction. 

Second, in other places he explicitly states that women have purposes apart from reproduction.  For example, in the very next article he writes, "Thirdly, because, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. viii, 12), the human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty..."

Third, as has been pointed out already, St. Thomas teaches how God made humanity, in His image and likeness, as man and woman.  Women, he says, have the image of God in them just as do men, and they are able to practice that highest intellective contemplation of God just as are men.  This is a particularly important point, for it is discussed in his treatment of the end of man's origin.  In other words, he teaches these matters as part of a discussion about why God made man in the first place.  Thus, it is very clear that Aquinas considered women to have been created in the Image of God to receive His happiness just as were men.   

St. Thomas was not perfect - though he was close.  On some issues (perhaps most famously the Immaculate Conception) he came to erroneous conclusions because of limitations in the understanding of scientific issues in his day.  The case we have examined here is one such instance.  One ought always to turn to the official teaching of the Church when seeking certainty on a given matter, for it is that teaching which is Divinely guarded and protected from error by Lord.  However, when seeking to understand this teaching better, the reasons for this teaching, or its deeper working, St. Thomas is the first source to which to turn.  Not only did he write about virtually everything, but his is the official theology of the Church - the official "way of understanding" things, as set forth by the popes.  His Summa Theologica was even placed on the altar at the council of Trent alongside the Bible!  A valuable source indeed!