Pastors Should Feed the Sheep–Not Themselves

For a while now, reading about the heterodox opinions expressed by high ranking prelates in the German Church has rankled me.  Though, the state of Catholicism in Germany has often been problematic throughout history: St. Boniface needed to constantly reconvert Germans who had lapsed back into paganism; of all the particular churches prior to the Protestant Reformation, Germany offered more examples of corruption amidst the clergy; concerning Humanes Vitae (an encyclical stating orthodox teaching concerning married love, responsible parenting, and contraceptives), German bishops stated–before the ink was dry on that document–that people should just follow their consciences irrespective of Catholic teaching; and now, they have espoused new heretical teachings!  Well, what should we expect of priests who are so lax that the grand majority only goes to confession once a year–the bare minimum for a practicing Catholic?

St. Augustine

At least, I hope they still pray their Divine Office, which is an official program of prayer and spiritual reading priests have vowed to pray each day.  After I left seminary, I gave my volumes of the Divine Office to my brother, since I still had to psychologically divorce myself from the seminary.  (Besides, he seemed to enjoy praying it with me on occasion.)  Recently, my parents returned the volumes to me after visiting my brother, and I could not resist praying at least Morning Prayer and the Office of Readings.  Conspicuous in the Office of Readings is that selections from St. Augustine’s “Sermon on Pastors” makes up the second reading from last Sunday until next Friday–probably covering the whole sermon.  May the German priests take to heart St. Augustine’s admonition to feed the sheep rather than themselves!  What do I mean?  The German priests make themselves more popular to their fellow citizens through espousing secular ideas over doctrine.  The following have come from various high ranking German prelates: homosexuality should not be taught as a sin (I believe they wish to go much farther than saying only the acts, not the disposition, are sins), sex outside of marriage is fine, and divorced and remarried Catholics may receive the Eucharist.

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De Hilaritate

My dear readers, unfortunate gravity and perfectionism have seized and bound my pen of late.  The desire to write well has stymied me from writing at all.  As the Italian proverb has it, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  The only solution, since I cannot convince myself that I write well, lies in writing badly.  After all, Theodore Roosevelt advises that the best thing to do in any situation is the right thing, the next best is the wrong thing, and the worst is to do nothing at all.  This advice may actually be false in regard to politics, but in the realm of writing it bears certain truth.  And so, I have proposed to myself to write one post per diem–not necessarily on this blog–for a fortnight.

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The title of this post, “De Hilaritate,” is the closest I could translate “On Levity” into Latin.  If I had written “De Levitate” instead, the present article would be praising fickleness or changeableness, which deserve no praise at all.  When I speak of levity, I speak of that virtue related to cheerfulness and humility, which all the saints have and often reveal in the most dour of times–as when the martyr St. Lawrence, as he roasted alive over a grill, said: “I’m well done on this side.  Turn me over and eat!”  At the same time, the excess of gravity, rooted in pride and despair, is shared by all the citizens of hell.  This might strike many of you with surprise as many religious types, myself included, have a tendency to face life with a serious countenance, as seems reasonable considering an eternity of heaven or hell awaits us depending on how we have lived.  However, the devout always carry joy in them–the joy of being united to Christ, and extra seriousness at the beginning of conversion must give way to levity as our faith in God’s goodness and salvific will increase.

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The Low Down on Peter Kreeft’s Practical Theology

Having read through one hundred and twelve of the topics in Peter Kreeft’s Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, an accurate enough opinion of it has formed in my mind.  The book–as anything written on St. Thomas’s theology–is quite dense, so I abandoned my hope of reading through its 366 pages in a month.  I cannot help but admire how Kreeft either draws passages from the Summa Theologica easily applicable to everyday life or shows the relevance of more esoteric theology to living a good life.  The prose and philosophy are both clear and direct, as may be expected from a Thomist.  Besides St. Thomas, Kreeft quotes a wide variety of other Christian thinkers on these topics, especially C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.  He also seems most at home with the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

Kreeft's Prac-Theo

Though, in regard to Plato, Kreeft often harps on a fallacy in Platonic philosophy: the idea that sin is only caused by ignorance.  Plato believed that if ignorance were removed from a human being completely, he would not sin.  We even see this idea a little in medieval philosophy when St. Bonaventure writes that Christ was like us in everything “except sin and ignorance” (See St. Bonaventure’s Tree of Life).  However, Kreeft remarks that people sin despite knowing that it will make them miserable.  Ignorance of goodness is not the only cause of sin.  As Kreeft points out, we are all a little insane in cleaving to those things which cause us misery.  Eliminating ignorance by doing things like reading philosophy and theology only goes so far: we need grace and the practice of virtue.

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The Catena Aurea and the Importance of Authority in Biblical Interpretation

Having read five chapters of commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,  I would like to recommend St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea to my dear readers.  This work was perhaps the best present I received around Christmas, especially since Scripture somehow seems less enlightening of late.  (The fault lies with my own pride.)  The Catena Aurea parses passages of the Gospels with passages from the Church Fathers on the Gospels and doctrine.  The doctors St. Thomas Aquinas draws from most frequently are St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Remigius, and St. Leo the Great–my Confirmation patron.

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I mentioned that my perusing of Scripture has not been as penetrating as formerly, which reminds me of how the Bible has been called God’s “Closed Book” while nature is God’s “Open Book.”  This derives from the fact that the meaning of the Scriptures must be revealed by the Holy Spirit.  One might believe that they can gain a literal understanding of the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit; but how often does one hear things like “I stopped believing when I saw that Scripture passages contradicted themselves” or that someone takes a literalistic view of scriptures and does something that Scripture did not intend–such as when Origen castrated himself so that he might enter the kingdom maimed rather than tossed whole into everlasting flames.  The best thing that a Christian can do in order to perceive the true meaning of the Scriptures is to follow the pronouncements of established authority.

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The Christian faith, unlike philosophy, relies on authority.  The great difficulty of Protestantism is that it acknowledges an authoritative work–the Bible, but has no authoritative interpreters.  Once when I boasted to a Lutheran friend of mine that I should have no trouble passing myself off as a Lutheran by merely agreeing with Luther, he countered that I would be discovered right away: a good Lutheran holds points of contention with the founder, and my friend thought the very name “Lutheran” actually misleading.  But, even among Protestants, there are recognized authorities, even if they might be cast off should they conflict with one’s personal interpretation.

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Never thought you’d see a picture of Martin Luther on this site, did you?

Catholics have it easy: the Church councils, the pope speaking ex cathedra, and the bishops acting in concert and in communion with the Pope have infallible interpretative authority.  They are guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they cannot err.  In order of authority, the Doctors of the Church come after this.  These men strove to uphold the truth of Christian doctrine and remain loyal to the Church.  By adhering to authority, they tended to be on the side of the right, though they were occasionally wrong when the Church had not clarified doctrine completely or needed to confess ignorance on certain questions.  Most famously, St. Augustine was unsure whether original sin was placed on newly created souls by God, passed on by the souls of the parents, or derived from the taint of lust during conception.  Now, we know that the first view is correct, but this remained an unsettled question during the time of St. Augustine.  Next in authority come other saints, clergy, theologians, religious teachers, and lastly us ordinary lay people.

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That’s right.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me on the bottom of the totem pole as the least reliable interpreters of Scripture and doctrine.  For example, I imprecisely held that baptism removed original sin from the soul.  Rather, it removes original guilt from the soul, i.e. we still suffer from the effects of original sin (concupiscence), but are no longer denied entrance into heaven.  Of course, I knew that concupiscence existed, but I thought that this derived from the fact that we have physical bodies in an imperfect state.  Live and learn!  Unless we subscribe to an authority, especially the most perfect authority of the Church, we ought to always keep in mind that our understanding of Scripture and doctrine might be incorrect.  Humility is God’s favorite virtue, and we should quickly become proud should we believe in our own infallibility.

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People joke that Catholics do not read the Bible, but Catholics do read works written by people adept at Scripture and have a pastor interpret the readings of the Mass every Sunday.  This priest himself relies on the Office of Readings, other theological works, and a period of education and training typically lasting from 6 to 12 years.  (Priests called “lifers” go to high school seminary, college seminary, and then theological seminary.)  Even more than Newton, Christian teachers must stand on the shoulders of giants, especially the colossal figures of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

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Then again, there is a second kind of authority important for the ordinary Christian: the lives of the saints and servants of God.  By looking at how they applied Scripture and doctrine to their lives, we can apply the precepts of Scripture more accurately to our own.  The Golden Legends stands as my favorite collection of saints’ lives, but Butler’s Lives of the Saints probably has a wider following and contains fewer passages requiring one to take a grain of salt.  For more modern examples, the lives of Padre Pio, Mother Theresa, St. Guiseppe Moscati, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati are remarkably edifying.

Feeling the weight of my own ignorance upon me, I shall probably decline from writing spiritual articles for a while.  However, I shall work on expanding my understanding through the clear vision of the Fathers and might write an article with stuff I steal borrow from them.  My the Holy Spirit enlighten the minds of us all!

Retractio Tabulae Proximae

Well, tabula is the closest Latin word I can think of for “post.”  Also, before anyone thinks I’m about to do something as horrible as take back all I said in praise of The Freeloader, let me note here that retractio means “reconsideration” rather than the English word it most nearly relates to: “retraction.”  St. Augustine, for example, was famous for writing multas retractiones, both during and especially near the end of his life.  That most humble of Church Fathers had a great desire for the exact truth as well as a thorough knowledge of human ignorance and errancy.  However, I wonder how many people read his retractiones, which must make his other writings that much more clear?

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What I need to reconsider is my error in not including an important figure in the development of The Freeloader.  If you guessed the writer, you’d be right.  Writers are the most ignored people in Hollywood, but is it not deplorable that a fellow writer should be guilty of the same fault?  For shame!  A most literate young woman by the name of  Clover SH is responsible for putting The Freeloader into cohesive form.  Sean Bishop actually asked me to place her name in the article, but it slipped my mind as I delved into the possibilities of the series.  Having read the treatment of the first episode and other documents, Mr. Bishop is most fortunate in having Clover SH on his team.  Good luck to the both of them!

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The Problem of Evil and Spiritual Envy

I just finished a short modern saga by Felix Dahn called The Saga of Halfred the Sigskald.  It concerns the tragic adventures of a fictional Norse skald, who accepts a challenge to win the hand of a princess by completing a set of challenges.  The action of the saga is very reminiscent of the Nibelungelied, a medieval tragic romance which I highly recommend all my dear readers to read.  Through overcoming all these challenges, Halfred weds the princess, who discovers that he undertook winning her hand for the fame of the conquest rather than out of love.  (When a woman sets up a series of contests to win her hand, might this not be expected?)  In great wroth, she curses Halfred at a feast, and her attempt to strike him leads to setting herself on fire and the slaughter of many of the guests in the ensuing confusion.  This begins a series of tragic events for Halfred which lead to him denying the existence of the gods.  On the whole, the story conveyed that tragic flavor which I love to see in traditional sagas.

Egil's Saga is an especially great read.

Egil’s Saga is an especially great read.

However, I feel that none of my dear readers will be interested in this saga, especially because so many more medieval sagas deserve to be read.  If you are, you may download it for free on Kindle, iBooks, or Project Gutenberg.   I found the work interesting for two reasons: how it dealt with the problem of evil and depiction of spiritual envy.  Feeling no need to avoid spoilers with such a work, here is the sequence of events which leads to Halfred denying the gods:

1.  Halfred is cursed by his wife and forced to slaughter his own kinsman.

2.  His pregnant wife is killed in the scuffle and their firstborn lost.

3.  Halfred finds happiness again with a new wife, but her beauty produces jealousy among his blood-brothers and the crew, leading to a slaughter.

4.  His new wife commits suicide.

5.  Halfred, going on a crusade against paganism, is unwittingly slain by his son, who, as it turns out, survived though his mother did not.

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If such events are possible–Halfred claims, then the gods cannot exist.  However, I would like to submit that perhaps Halfred’s madness at the end of the story makes him being killed by his son and thus finding peace more happy than if he had continued his crusade.  I particularly love how his son, then a shepherd, when asked whether he believed in the gods, responded that he believed in the one, triune God, and mortally wounded Halfred with his slingshot in a fashion reminiscent of King David.

At any rate, I have always found the mere existence of evil insufficient to deny the existence of God.  Look at these syllogisms:

1) If God were omnipotent, omniscent, and infinitely good, he would eliminate evil according to His omnipotence, i.e. completely.

2) There is evil.

Therefore, God does not exist.

But why should not the following syllogism be true?

1) There is good.

2) Without a good Creator, there could be no goodness.

Therefore, God exists.

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As a matter of fact, St. Augustine claims that the mere presence of evil actually shows God’s omnipotence; for, if God were not so omnipotent as to bring good out of evil, then He would never have allowed evil to exist in the first place.  So, I think that the problem of pain or evil is insufficient when arguing against God’s existence.  Rather, people who deny God’s existence on such grounds take to judging Providence because they think that He permitted evil where He should not have.  Perhaps, believers struggle with this question more than unbelievers, but the rewards for perseverance in faith, which in itself is an unfathomably immense grace, are to feel God’s love and goodness again and again.

Now to that most deplorable vice of spiritual envy.  I call it spiritual envy because people who struggle to lead a spiritual life, like the Italian monks in the abbey where Halfred’s son lives, are particularly subject to it.  One feels excessive grief or judgment against people who excessively indulge in the pleasures of life.  One might even rejoice more in hearing the downfall than conversion of sinners!  And yet, one calls oneself an upstanding Christian!  After Halfred’s son leaves the abbey, apostates, and perishes on the field of battle, the abbot actually rejoices in hearing of a vision of how this person has fallen into hell!  (In fairness to Dahn, he does give a positive portrayal of the Algo-Saxon monks and the prior Anglo-Saxon abbot, Aelfrik.  But this might just be due to the prejudices of the author, who seemed instrumental in the movement of German Nationalism prior to WWI.)  How contrary to the example of St. Benedict, who, upon hearing one of his disciples rejoicing in the death of St. Benedict’s clerical opponent, who had even attempted to murder the saint, rebuked his disciple and told him rather to pray for that person.

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The root of spiritual envy lies in a strange form of jealousy: this spiritual person, at the same time as he strives for higher goods and claims their superiority, envies the sinner’s enjoyment of material goods!  Rather than spiritual, this person ought rather to be called carnal!  Any yet, envy is an insidious cancer which most easily infects those who deem themselves immune.  The life of grace involves bitter trials.  Human beings, a combination of flesh and spirit, suffer from concupiscence, which renders physical joys more apparent than spiritual ones, for perception of which the grace of the Lord is necessary.

And yet, how deplorable is envy of all sorts?  How can Christians bring poor sinners into the fold if they see us, who are indeed sinners ourselves, contemning them and also jealous of the very things they enjoy?  Furthermore, how displeasing it is to our Divine Master, the Overflowing Fountain of Love Itself, to see envy in His followers?  But, by prayer for others and charity envy can be uprooted, and we learn the necessity of grace by overcoming these trials.

Created with The GIMPSo, the work provoked some very interesting thoughts, but I still can’t recommend it above other works.  I still imagine that it will be pleasing to some of my dear readers.

Fiction’s Raison D’Etre

Quite a long time has passed since anything has been posted, hasn’t it?  I can only excuse myself by saying that my attempts at writing a profound article on Elfen Lied have all failed thus far.  Some of you would likely reply to me that writing a profound article on Elfen Lied is like trying to write a profound article on Battle Vixens; that Elfen Lied made its name with gratuitous nudity and violence; and that it offers little besides that.  On the contrary, my article would reveal that the writer uses such things not simply in order to shock, but in order to highlight themes about the fallen nature of the world and humanity’s overwhelming desire for innocence.  Yet, despite the excellent material at my disposal, the article comes out flat.  Imagine me as a carpenter with all the materials necessary for a luxurious mansion, and yet, after all my hard work, a lean-to stands as the end result.  Then, a scruple keeps running through my mind: do I really want to convince anyone to watch it?  You see, even though the show contains many positive attributes, they truly do go too far with violence and nudity.  If this work were written as a novel, I should have no problem; but, the viewer must naturally see everything, and might find themselves tempted to lust or have their souls damaged in some other way.  Or is my scruple excessive?

Now to progress to the article proper: why do we bother reading or watching fiction?  Concerning books, a writer in the New York Times announced that fiction is dead.  Even though one still sees a sizable following, moderns do tend to prefer their newspapers and true accounts.  (I’m reminded of how Albert Camus said historians would describe the 20th century man: “He fornicated and read the newspapers.”)  We are much more greatly attracted to the exact truth than people of prior ages.  Where we use exact quotations, our ancestors of earlier historical epochs preferred indirect quotes and, if they used direct quotation, they used it to make passages more lively and were satisfied as long as they captured the general import of what the speaker wished to say.  Then, there’s also a religious bias against fiction that has existed since St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.  Why bother with fables and falsehoods when the Bible suffices?  In general, the modern man prefers his newspapers, books about current events, and history to a good novel or play–and even though fictional movies and TV shows are very popular, might not reality television and slice-of-life shows eventually win out?

So, what’s fiction’s major draw?  Entertainment?  I must say that the thought that one only watches such stories to be amused has bothered me of late.  Please note that the verb amuse derives from an Old French word meaning “to stare stupidly.”  If staring stupidly into a book or television screen sums up this activity, would it not be better to kill it in our lives and render it as dead as the writer from the New York Times claimed it to be?  History features plenty of entertaining personalities.  Travel narratives tell of many fascinating places around the world.  Would we not be better served reading these things for entertainment?  We should at least acquire the real benefit of enriching our minds about the world.

Aristotle and C. S. Lewis appear to give the most compelling reasons for us to continue this hobby.  Aristotle claims that fiction (yes, his Poetics concern tragedy, but the mythological tragedies he refers to are all fictional) stands superior to history because it teaches general truths, while history relates particular truths.  For example, a novelist will usually portray virtue as preferable to vice; on the other hand, history may relate the life of a ruthless individual who gained every material good before dying peacefully in his bed.  Certainly, the general truth of crime not paying is a better lesson to inculcate than the idea that backstabbing, lying, murder, adultery, and theft may offer a way to material happiness!  But, religion and philosophy also teach such truths, so this seems like an insufficient excuse to justify fiction’s existence–especially so since religions offer the combined knowledge of some of the most brilliant minds over the course of millenia.  The input of one flawed human being pales in contrast to that!

But, I do believe that C. S. Lewis gives us the best reason.  He states that we read in order to see the world using another mind.  In doing so, our own minds become larger.  Of course, one does prefer to read those who hold the same opinions one has, and it might be argued that certain authors may poison the minds of those reading them.  Although, the latter group tends to be formed of a small group of vicious men whom a well educated individual would have little trouble in perceiving–except in one case at any rate.  I mention the exception because most moderns have been subverted, and advocates of this poison have little trouble luring the majority of people into its net.  I am speaking of fornication.  If you don’t believe this can poison people, just watch the anime School Days.  It might offer a good perspective for those who have accepted the post-modern idea that fornication is not evil.

So, C. S. Lewis says that we ought to broaden our minds as much as possible by seeing it through other minds.  Each person is completely unique, and it is worthwhile to try to understand how they think.  Lewis went so far as to remark on how wonderful it would be if dogs could write so that we could see the world from their perspective as well!  Merely knowing someone’s philosophy does not suffice in giving us enough knowledge about him.  I might add that knowing only our own philosophy does not give us enough information to know ourselves either.  People are also a tangle of emotions, fears, idiosyncrasies, experiences, and God’s grace.  Only in fiction do we see how a man’s rational nature interacts with his intuitive/emotional nature.  One may know perfectly well that he should stand his ground combat and that flight is shameful; but, seeing one person after another mowed down, having bullets narrowly miss him, being deafened and shaken by the eruption of shells, and–worst of all!–watching someone else run for his life might have the accumulative effect of causing him to run.  An officer with understanding will think that this gentleman has a chance to recover and perform better in his next action.  One without this quality may have him shot.

Also, it’s easy to hate factions.  For example, one easily sees why a monarchical government is evil, and that anyone who supports it over a republic is a blithering idiot.  However, if we read books like Sir Walter Scott’s novels we might understand why a monarchy might appear attractive to someone, and we shall not only not hate such a person, but even take pains to bring such a person to our point of view rather than treating them as an idiot.  We might recommend some Alexandre Dumas to show how treacherous and bloodthirsty a monarchy can be.  And indeed, a novel might be more persuasive than a historical account.  For example, some people believe than Marxism can still work despite Communism killing about 94 million people in the 20th century.  Reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward might make them have second thoughts.  In summary, fiction is more useful than other modes of writing for helping us understand the psyche and allowing us to consider matters with emotion and intuition rather than just reason, which is why it refuses to die.  The entertainment we also receive is only a bonus.

So, does my reasoning miss the mark or did I get it about right?  I hope that you enjoyed this overlong article and that it makes up for my long hiatus!