At the end of the day, Truth is

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Amid the euphoria of a city rescued from police siege, and in stark contrast to the fundamentally human neighborliness that appears in a crisis situation when citizens band together for the common good, we read this comment from a relative of the alleged Boston marathon bombers:

“He was a great person,” the woman said of her dead brother.  “I thought I knew him.  I never would have expected that from him.  He is a kind and loving man.  The cops took his life away just the same way he took others’ lives away, if that’s even true.  At the end of the day, no one knows the truth.”

Really?  A great person – whose terroristic acts instigated a manhunt that shut down a major city and captivated the world’s attention?  A kind man – who shamelessly killed four people, including a young boy, and wounded hundreds of others and then tried simply to walk away?  A loving man – who spent the final hours of his freedom alone in a boat and cowering under a tarp for fear of being found?  Have our standards of greatness, kindness, and love really sunk so low?

Anyone with even minimal faculties of reasoning would likely not agree.  But there’s the real rub.  Notwithstanding the adage that “blood is thicker than water” – which might obviate a sister’s expectations about her brothers – the claim that “no one knows the truth” bears further reflection as a symptom of the failure of education.

Without dismissing the real tragedy in Boston (and elsewhere) whenever innocent blood is shed, the loss of truth also portends a tragedy, this time on a cultural level.  As long as nihilism – the belief that we cannot really know anything for sure – characterizes our daily existence, we will continue to think only for ourselves.  But the more certainty is in vain, the less meaning and purpose we will find in our lives, individually and collectively.  Seinfeld – a still popular television series that exalted “nothing” – may be funny, but its underlying principle can be downright dangerous.

That danger comes from denying something fundamental about human nature.  As Blessed John Paul II once wrote:

“It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth. This search looks not only to the attainment of truths which are partial, empirical or scientific; nor is it only in individual acts of decision-making that people seek the true good. Their search looks towards an ulterior truth which would explain the meaning of life. And it is therefore a search which can reach its end only in reaching the absolute. Thanks to the inherent capacities of thought, man is able to encounter and recognize a truth of this kind. Such a truth—vital and necessary as it is for life—is attained not only by way of reason but also through trusting acquiescence to other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself. There is no doubt that the capacity to entrust oneself and one’s life to another person and the decision to do so are among the most significant and expressive human acts.” (Fides et Ratio, #33)

In other words, if it is the nature of the human being to seek the truth, then the only way we can live without fear or anxiety is to know.  But if we cannot know anything for sure, we will never be able to live life to its fullest.  Ultimate questions about meaning and purpose require an ultimate answer, and ultimate answers are necessarily unchanging (eternal).

The nature of human beings as seekers of truth leads then to a consideration of “God” in our lives.  But even without the theological end-point of this journey, reality demands truth.  Otherwise, we live in a world of fantasy; at the end of the day, the claim that there is no truth and/or that it cannot be known is nothing more than a grand delusion.

In Boston, university students, and the city as a whole, will now resume their daily activities, no doubt still affected by the events of the past week.  Many of those students, like others, will soon be graduated from institutions of “higher” education.  But will they enter the world knowing any truth?  Will they be able to distinguish what greatness and kindness and love really are?  If they do not, as some evidently don’t, the failure is ours as educators … and that will be a cultural tragedy beyond arrest.

More hopeful is the vitally necessary lesson to be learned from the vast majority of people in Boston:  that the love of neighbor evident in times of tragedy can make the world a better place were it to become a daily routine of entrusting ourselves to those who can provide truth in pursuit of a common good.

by Fr. Thomas Dailey, OSFS

photo:  RGJ.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Marriage: The “American” Question

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These days the U.S. Supreme Court – and seemingly the whole country – is hearing/making arguments as to the definition of marriage.  Strictly speaking, the Court is considering the constitutionality of a California law (Prop 8) and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  In this arena, it’s a question of law, one that comes along with other legal questions like “standing” and “representation.”  The outcome appears uncertain, though the prevailing vote will almost certainly be narrow either way.

Elsewhere, the debate is entirely political.  National polls, shifting tides of opinion, and swing voters changing sides all seem to suggest a resolution in favor of same-sex marriage as a matter of non-discrimination and equal rights.

But the question, ultimately, is neither legal nor political.  The real issue before us is not about equality, nor is it about tradition.  And sociology remains rather unreliable as the means to an answer.

No, the real answer is to be found by digging deeper – further down in that “ground” that provides the foundation of things and the basic nutrient for human flourishing.  For the question below the controversial surface concerns a radical divergence of views about reality – “radical” in as much as it goes to the very roots of what it means to be human and to live in this world.  In this much, it is a philosophical question, but one that discloses a particularly American perspective.

The question, put simply, is this:  does my free choice make something to be what it is, or do I choose something because that’s the way it is (already)?  Stated in terms of this debate:  does a couple make marriage, or does marriage make a couple? At its roots, the real issue at stake here is freedom (choice) – or at least the understanding of how freedom works in terms of what it means to be a human person.

Owing to the American political legacy of John Locke, our American tradition speaks of “liberty” (freedom) but does so in a deliberately non-defined way (hence, the need for a supreme adjudication).  Locke considered all words to be merely labels, affixed to things only as a means of exercising personal power; no terminology is inextricably linked to reality such as it is.  In his nominalistic view, everything is whatever we say it is, including the human person, who constitutes him/herself and determines the meaning of his/her existence by the free choices that he/she makes.  Thus does Locke liberate freedom from nature (reality) and from history (society).  Darwin, Freud, and Marx do likewise in terms of science, psychology, and economics.

From these philosophies emerge both popular nihilism (nothing really is) and moral relativism (good/bad depend on who’s defining it).  What emerges is a picture of human beings as “autonomous chimps” – as Peter Augustine Lawler depicts them in Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What Difference That Means for Our Future – who distinguish themselves from nature, from history, and from others by the choices they make.  The unfortunate, though consistent, result is an autonomy without any guidance or direction from reality.  To quote Lawler:  “The being who can understand Being, the human being, seems to be an inexplicable or chance occurrence in a cosmos that has no particular need for and is seemingly distorted by his existence.”

Sadly, this is the philosophical view university students generally hold, however consciously or not.  Liberated as they have become – from nature, from history, and even from God – they think that choice is paramount, that whatever I choose must be good for me, that I am (and we are) free to decide what life in this world means for personal existence (to paraphrase another American court decision).  Tragically, this sense of freedom is often the basis of their hopefulness.  But, as Roger Scruton perceptively notes in a recent New York Times opinion, “when truth threatens hope it is truth we usually sacrifice, often along with those who search for it.”

What today’s students – and a majority of citizens – struggle to understand is that every choice we make, we make because we think what we are choosing is good or true.  That it already is good or true (or at least appears to be) is the very reason why we choose it; the alternative choice, in other words, presents itself as not (or not as) good or true.  If this mechanism of deciding were not the case – if, in fact, our choosing makes whatever we choose to be good or true – then we really are not choosing between alternatives because anything we want “becomes” good or right or true simply by virtue of my having chosen it for myself.

This is the American quandary we are in:  does “liberty” have a necessary (and limiting) connection to reality, or is its function changeable to make reality suit the aims and desires of individual autonomy?  Or, to put it in terms of the question now before the Court:  is marriage whatever two people define it to be by their “free” choice?  Or is marriage what it is, and the two people who choose for it “enter into” it?  Does any couple of people make marriage what it is? (If so, why is this limited to two people?)  Or does “marriage” comprehensively make the two people capable of it (people who are what they are physically as well as emotionally) into a couple?

Let’s hope the Supreme Court justices who must answer the question know not only politics and law, but also philosophy.   If they don’t, education will also come to be sacrificed along with nature and history, for the next generation will learn to see the world not for what it is but only for whatever they want it to be.

by Fr. Thomas Dailey, OSFS

photo: Religion News Service

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Posted in Catholic Education, Culture, Freedom

The Consumerist University

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It has become rather obvious that we Americans have one, final sacred cow which serves to unite us.  That cow’s name is freedom, but “freedom” of a unique and novel nature.  When Plato and Aristotle began to develop their notions of freedom in the face of the fatalism of the Greek religion (where the gods moved human players around like pawns on a chess board), they emphasized the fact that human beings were different from animals on account of two things: reason and freedom.  While animals were enslaved by their instincts (“animal impulses”), human beings could stand back from a given set of urges and judge them in the light of a standard known as the Good.  For instance, I may be hungry and see a child with a sandwich.  I may have an animalistic inclination to take it.  But reason might kick in and say, “Wait just a minute, that’s not your sandwich, it’s his.”  In short, freedom, for Plato and Aristotle, could be defined as the natural human orientation towards the Good (and both of them were very aware of the fact that human beings rarely achieve this kind of freedom).

During the Enlightenment, this classical notion of freedom (which was also dominant during the Christian Middle Ages) gave way to a new view of freedom as “freedom from” constraints or outside influences.  The Enlightenment was constantly clamoring for reason’s “emancipation” from the superstitions of faith, just as we Americans wanted our emancipation from the British aristocracy.  There is something noble about being emancipated from various sorts of slavery.  However, it is one-sided.  To go back to the ancients, it’s not enough to be emancipated from something; we need also to be emancipated for something.  Freedom requires a target and presupposes natural limits.

Because the Enlightenment failed to recognize the one-sided nature of its notion of freedom, it simply got worse.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century a movement known as Existentialism came along and began celebrating freedom for freedom’s sake.  It was now as if the simple act of choosing were a good thing.  In an interesting foreign film from a while back, a good, family man proves his freedom to himself by kidnapping and killing an innocent girl; he simply wanted to see if he could act against his nature.  Freedom in this view is an arbitrary oasis in an otherwise indifferent and determined world.

In the moral debates that have been raging in this country since the late 60’s, this empty notion of freedom is always used as a trump card.  One moral position is considered superior to another simply because it gives people more choices.  We are no longer interested in whether or not those choices are good or bad; we’re not even allowed to raise such questions.  Think about the shifting attitudes towards things like abortion, pornography, gay marriage, physician-assisted suicide and the like.  In each case the freedom trump card is played and the issue is settled: more choice for more individuals.

To this point I may sound a lot like a “conservative.”  The problem comes, however, when I point out that this empty notion of freedom is the exact one that fuels our capitalistic economy.  We Americans don’t just want absolute moral freedom; we want absolute economic freedom.  Any restrictions on such freedoms are called “socialist” by the Rush Limbaughs of the world.  We think our grocery stores are the best, not because they offer the best food but because they offer the most choices.  Never mind the fact that 80% of food found in the middle aisles makes us fat and unhealthy.  Choice is a good in itself and radically outweighs the question of health.  And what would happen to the market if we actually placed sanctions on companies that made bad food?

If the patient reader is still with me, he may be asking himself what any of this has to do with Universities?  Well, anyone following the state of higher education in this country will see a pattern which has a great deal to do with this empty notion of freedom.  One advantage that the older aristocracies had over modern democracies is that they provided a haven for excellence.  Book learning and the arts flourished in aristocracies.  Thomas Jefferson was a product of this older sort of culture and he read, according to one account, twelve hours a day.  I wonder how many hours today’s leaders spend?

At any rate, democracies endeavor to spread the wealth by making education available to all.  As such, educational institutions in the United States serve an important function in preventing the democratization and consumerization of everything.  What, for instance, would happen to great philosophy or great art if it had to pass the test of the market?  What would have happened to Plato’s Dialogues if he had had to appeal to the tastes of the average American?  The university’s role in a democratic-capitalist regime is to make sure that this doesn’t happen.  We don’t ask students if they want to read Plato; we make them read Plato, with the hopes that their tastes will develop and they’ll someday want to read Plato.

But the days of the real university are gone.  Universities are no longer safe havens of excellence in a world of consumerist choice; they have now become part of the market.  As such, they, like our groceries stores and pornographers, have to give the people (in this case 18-22 year olds) what they want.  And what 18-22 year olds want are “killer” facilities, degrees assuring them high paying jobs, and a lot of choice in the curriculum.  Plato they could do without.

And just as we now, in America, pay through the nose for immediately gratifying but ultimately unhealthy food, we also pay through the nose for titillating and trendy, but increasingly substance-less education.  This is the price we pay for worshipping choice.  It’s the price we pay for always giving people what they want.  It’s the price we pay for no longer caring about (or believing in) the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

by Dr. Rodney Howsare

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Posted in Freedom, Higher Education, Society, Uncategorized, University

“Heart to Heart” Forgiveness

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This morning, Pope Francis conducted the first of a series of recurring events for him – the Sunday “Angelus.”  It’s not monumental, in terms of events.  It’s not authoritative, in terms of teaching.  In some respects, it is no more than a sighting and a greeting, an opportunity for pilgrims and residents to see the pope, who appears at the window of his studio, and to hear him say a few words.

But this Angelus was different, and not only because of the thousands of people who filled St. Peter’s Square on a chilly day.  For this appearance showed, to Rome and the world, a different kind of pope.

Despite the life-changing transformation to himself, in virtue of his election as the successor of Peter, this pope seems completely at ease with his people.  It’s evident in his smile, his wave, and the simple way he began by wishing them all a “good day.”  It’s noticeable in the conversational tone with which he speaks, more that of a gentle grandfather or wise elder than the Church’s supreme authority.  Perhaps most of all, it comes to the fore whenever he veers from the text prepared for him (a practice that will no doubt challenge those who have to publish his speeches).  Whenever he does that, we hear him speak cor ad cor – “heart to heart” – and that is what the people relish.  They hear him as one who speaks to them and with them, not at them, and this bodes quite well for his future as the Church’s universal shepherd.

In other words, he acts as the Vicar of Christ, the very Jesus who successively reveals himself in the Gospel story about the woman caught in adultery on which the pope commented this Sunday.  In that memorable tale from the Gospel of John (8:1-11), Jesus came as a teacher.  He sat as one with authority (like a judge).  But, when questioned about the law regarding the punishment for adultery, he doodled on the ground as would any distraught peasant concerned for the fate of another person.  When pressed for an answer, he responded as a sage, extricating himself from the legal dilemma with the famous line “let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”  Finally, after more doodling, he spoke as God in saying to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

What this story reveals, and what this pope shows ‘n tells, is that our primary experience as human beings is one of relationship.  Sadly, here on earth our relationships are all too often corrupted by human conniving, as seen in the Gospel narrative by the fact that the woman was “caught in the act” in adultery and by the claim that the scribes and Pharisees sought to “trap” Jesus with this fact.

But Jesus’ response shows clearly that, when it comes to our relationship with God, mercy triumphs over judgment.  Or, as Pope Francis puts it, God never tires of forgiving, even though we tire of asking for forgiveness.  In the Gospel Jesus demonstrated this to the people in the temple area; so today Pope Francis pleaded with the people in St. Peter’s Square to realize the uniqueness of our encounter with this merciful God – where asking for God’s forgiveness is needed not because God’s mercy is in question but because standing before the Lord in humility enables an experience of that divine-human encounter by which reconciliation is assured.

God never tires of forgiving!  There’s the message that the heart of God speaks to the heart of man.  And when that forgiveness is heard and heeded, the world becomes a better place. Hopefully, the world that now hears the words of Pope Francis will take them to heart whenever he speaks.

by Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS

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Posted in Faith, Pope, The Church

“Using Words” to Preach to the City and the World

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With not so-hushed anticipation, the thousands and thousands of onlookers crowding the square and the street leading to St. Peter’s Basilica waited in the rain to see and hear the new Pope Francis.  The great joy of the announcement of his election, and the novelty of a non-European and a Jesuit and one who took the name “Francis” added to the drama and the excitement.

It’s clear now that the name Francis refers to the saint from Assisi – perhaps disappointing to the Jesuits who heard in that a reference to their saintly confrere named Xavier, yet inspiring in its tangential connection to our patron saint, De Sales (who was named for Francis of Assisi) – that name does suggest something about the new papacy.  Recalling the life of the pauper saint from Italy, we envision the new pope as a man of humility and poverty and simplicity, a man concerned with social justice, with rebuilding the church, and with preaching the Gospel, which, when necessary, entails using words (as St. Francis famously quipped).

Pope Francis’ first words from that storied balcony made clear all of that – and more.  Words of prayer and blessing were not, as some may have surmised, simply a substitute for not knowing what else to say on such a sudden appearance.  Nor were the formularies the words of merely traditional rites.

Prayer is the language of Francis – the saint and the new pontiff.  This, it seems, will be central to Pope Francis’ leadership of the Church on what he called its “journey” of charity, of fraternity, of trust.  That is as it should be, for the Church is not merely a social or political or cultural institution.  It is, first and foremost, a spiritual reality, for which its operating language is and must be liturgical.  That he prayed with the people of his new diocese and that he asked them to pray for him, is not only appropriate, but telling.

Other words included in his first “Urbi et Orbi” address (“to the city and the world”), perhaps less noteworthy but no less telling, offered an indication of this new pope’s point of view on what lies ahead.  To those who read in this conclave an internal-external division of focus between “operational management” of the Curia and “evangelical outreach” to the Church, Pope Francis made clear the priority when he noted that his vicar “will assist me … for the fruitful evangelization of this beautiful city.”   Preaching the Gospel is the pope’s primary job, and in doing so he will undoubtedly use many more words.  Managing the minions who now work under his authority (a large-scale change of scenery from life in Argentina, about which he will need time to become acclimated) requires that they understand that all else is secondary and is to be at the service of that preaching.  Let that be what is “new” about evangelization for them … and for all of us who work in and for the Church.

From his education, we believe Pope Francis has the mind for this work.  From his social and political experience, we know that he has the courage for it.  His smiling and deferential interaction with the people of Rome suggests he has the charisma for it (though he does need to learn how to wave the Italian way!).  What we now will have to wait and see is whether he has the stamina for it.  Let us pray he does.

by Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS

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Posted in The Church

A Living Faith?

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

My take on the historic renunciation of the papacy by Pope Benedict XVI is that it reveals a consummate intellectual who sees the world and the papal office for what it really is, and a man of prayer who humbly acknowledges who he now is — precisely the coupling of faith and reason that characterized his ministry and that shapes his theological legacy.

In an earlier posting, my colleague, Dr. Larry Chapp, also reminds us not to overlook an aspect of the pope’s declaration that reflects a continuing theme in his papacy, namely, the “grave crisis” currently facing the Church.  Postulating that Benedict’s position is not “just some pious rambling about the need for faith” or “an empty devotional gesture,” he notes that Benedict “has been insistent that so many ‘issues’ in the Church today … are the product of a lack of faith among members of the Church.”  As usual, Dr. Chapp is onto something here.

To be blunt, the Christian faith appears to be dying!  Oh, it will never be extinguished.  But its liveliness, its vibrancy, its enlivening effect in people’s lives today is losing force due to a fundamental flaw in our religious understanding.  That flaw emerges more clearly from reading between the lines of the pope’s post-renunciation reflections on the Second Vatican Council as he saw it and lived it.

Speaking to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, the pope offers a first-hand analysis of the development of the Council, particularly in terms of the reform of the liturgy, the conceptualization of Church, the problem of Revelation, the socio-theological trilogy (religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and the Church in the modern world), and the hermeneutics of politics set forth by the “Council of the media.”  The current that runs through, or underneath, all of this is the Council’s collective search for intellectus.

For Benedict, that understanding is to be found in a “living” sense of faith, precisely what is at risk of loss today.  For him, faith is not primarily a set of doctrinal ideas, a coherent system of thought.  Nor is it a political ideology, at perpetual conflict with the ways of the world.  Nor is it the practice of ecclesiastical customs, no matter how popular such devotions may be.  Yes, faith is a matter of conviction, as in the profession of the Creed. Yes, it has socio-political implications, as we see in the current controversies about religious freedom.   And, yes, faith is well-expressed in both devotional practices and charitable deeds.

But for this pope, faith is to be, first and foremost, a living reality, an experience of encounter with a person, the very person about whom he has most recently written, Jesus of Nazareth.  To explain the difference, consider Paul’s lesson to the Romans (10:8-13) on this year’s First Sunday of Lent:  “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart … for if you … believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

“Nearness” is not an attribute of a concept or a custom; it characterizes a presence, in this case the divine presence of Jesus as Lord.  “Believing in your heart” is likewise an unusual turn of phrase, but it strikes the chord that Pope Benedict aims to make us hear.  The heart is the realm of feeling, not fact; it’s where a person is “touched” not “taught.”  And each of us knows, from varied personal experiences, that matters of the heart are what matter most.

When someone special, even beloved, is near to us – in body or in consciousness – that presence affects us.  It has an emotive power.  It makes an impact.  It enables us to see differently.  It excites or energizes us, often in ways that bear no intellectual explanation but are nevertheless very real to us.  THAT is the faith of which Benedict speaks, an encounter with the One who alone has the power to transform life and death into eternal joy.

That is the faith by which he understands the still needed reform of the liturgy to express as “its real purpose”, an encounter with the Risen One that “create(s) a world which is a response to God’s love.”  That is the faith by which Church is to be understood not as a collection of individual believers but as the body of the faithful that “requires my inclusion in the great ‘we’ of believers of all times and places.”  That is the faith by which Revelation is rightly appreciated as a continuing expression of Tradition, for “Only and ever in this communion of the living Church can one really understand, read the Scriptures as the Word of God, as the Word that guides us in life and in death.”

That is the faith that Pope Benedict seeks to renew in this Year of Faith (which, together with the synods on the Bible and on the New Evangelization, form a triad that distinguishes his papacy).  The Lenten season that we have now entered is, thus, not merely a time for self-examination in terms of the quality of our deeds and the confession of our faults.  Rather, to avert the current crisis of faith, we need instead to re-experience the living presence of the divine Word in our lives and in our world, a Word that challenges us toward conversion, to be sure, but a Word that remains so near to human persons in calling each of us to a living and loving relationship with the God in whom we believe.

by Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS

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Posted in Faith, The Church