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Pope’s old friend, Rabbi Skorka, confirms Francis’s “total commitment” to the Jews

Tuesday night at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Rabbi Abraham Skorka spoke informally about his old friend, whom he calls “Bergoglio.” Talking in English on the topics of theology, Jewish-Christian relations, and the themes of Pope Francis’s pontificate, the Argentine Jewish leader combined memorable anecdotes with substantive reflections.

The event, “Pope Francis and the Jews,” was a unique opportunity for the mixed audience—mostly Jews—to hear behind-the-scenes stories about Francis, while also watching Skorka engage questions from Dr. Celia Deutsch, a Sister of Our Lady of Sion and professor of religion at Barnard College.

Since they co-authored a book of dialogues together, On Heaven and Earth (2010), the close relationship between the respective leaders of Jews and Catholics in Argentina has been well known. But recent months have shown the friendship to be deeper and more casual than many had realized. “Since he became pope, our friendship has become stronger,” Skorka said last night.

A long portion of the conversation focused on theology. Deutsch introduced a question by drawing a distinction between how theology is practiced in “the Global North,” especially North America and Europe, and what she sees in Skorka and Francis from the Global South. Theology in the Global North is often written by university professors for university professors, she noted, but “you two do accessible theology.” Skorka accepted the compliment: “Bergoglio and I agree, theology is not just for professionals.” The “task of theology” is easy to explain, he continued. “How to build a connection with God, respecting your neighbor.”

Skorka connected Francis’s “accessible” theology to his overall personality. Bergoglio is a “very pragmatic person,” he said. Yes, he “studied a lot,” but “first and foremost, he wants to pragmatize theology.” He has a “simple way, with simple words,” but a “very deep message.”

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New stories on the homepage

Just posted to the homepage, two new stories. In this web-exclusive response to Germain Grisez, Dennis O’Brien writes on Francis and the character of Christian truth:

It is often commented that unlike many other great sages and spiritual leaders of humankind, Jesus never wrote a word; his impact was in live speech. The primacy of live speech, face-to-face communication, is a deep lesson about the nature of Christian truth and teaching. I believe that Pope Francis in the interview places the particular person speaking prior to instruction. The interview with Civilità Cattolica starts with “Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?” The answer: “I am a sinner—a sinner who has been forgiven by Christ.” For Francis, the voice that claims to teach the truths of Christianity is the voice of a forgiven sinner. Grisez might counter that this is all very well for Bergoglio, but not for one charged with the office of pope. The pope should speak in a “universal” voice, not as Ratzinger or Bergoglio. I think a universal voice fails to carry the full Christian message, and that is the radical shift that Pope Francis effects. Face-to-face is the site of Christian teaching.

Also posted: E. J. Dionne Jr. on where Obamacare is working, and where it isn’t.

States that created their own healthcare exchanges -- and especially those that did this while also expanding Medicaid coverage -- are providing health insurance to tens of thousands of happy customers, in so many cases for the first time.

Those seeking a model for how the law is supposed to operate should look to Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat in a red state, has embraced with evangelical fervor the cause of covering 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians. …

Beshear urges us to keep our eyes on the interests of those the law is intended to serve, our uninsured fellow citizens. "These 640,000 people are not some set of aliens,” he says. “They’re our friends and neighbors ... some of them are members of our families.” As for the troubled national website, Beshear offered this: “If I could give unsolicited advice to the critics, and maybe to the media, it’s: Take a deep breath.”

Wise counsel. But there can be no denying the system failure that is a profound embarrassment to the Obama administration and threatens to undermine all the good the law could do, since its enemies will use any excuse to discredit it.

New issue, new stories

Our Theology issue is now live on the website. You can find the full table of contents here; following are some highlights.

In “Why Study God,” John C. Cavadini writes on the role of theology at a Catholic university:

“By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism.” This passage from John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides a characterization of the distinctiveness of a Catholic university. It is, he says, a kind of “witness.” This term can sound somewhat strange in an academic context, and I draw attention to it, in part, for that reason. Witness is not a category that one finds applied to secular universities very often, if ever, though I imagine that even secular universities would count themselves as bearing witness in some way to values such as social justice, equality, and inclusiveness. According to Ex corde, however, the witness of a Catholic university is connected to the church’s work of evangelization, and that seems to up the ante. A Catholic university, though proceeding “from the heart of the church,” is still not the same as the church itself, and its witness can’t take exactly the same form as the witness of a parish or a diocese. So what would that witness be—“so vitally important,” as the pope says, “in cultures,” such as our own, “marked by secularism”? Of course, this witness may take many forms in various campus activities, but here I am looking for the “institutional” witness, the witness that must be encoded into the very thing that makes a university a university—namely, its intellectual life, its mode of intellectual inquiry. Here, we find a crucial connection to theology as a discipline.

Theology is the “study of God” (Theos-logos). That sounds weird and pretty subjective. After all, God seems rather reclusive, not normally offering the divine self as an object of study. How could God be studied? How could one ever control such study? How could one keep it from becoming hopelessly subjective and fanciful? The study of God (as opposed to the study of religion) might sound like the study of an illusion of our own making. Unless, of course, one believes that God has in fact presented the divine self to us. It is God’s self-presentation, God’s “revelation,” that is the subject of theological study. Theology begins from faith in God’s self-revelation and moves toward “understanding” what God has revealed. It is in that way the study of God—or, as St. Anselm famously put it, “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is the only discipline that has as its proper object God’s revelation.

In “Darwin’s Nagging Doubt,” John F. Haught looks at what Thomas Nagel could learn from theology:

Although he has no use for theology, Nagel’s attempt to make mind essential to our understanding of the universe would find support in two science-friendly theological thinkers. Before the middle of the last century the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was already calling for a “new physics” that makes the phenomenon of “thought” essential to our understanding of the cosmos. He lamented the fact that the materialists of his own day were unwilling to “see” that the emergence of the human mind in evolution is not a local, terrestrial anomaly but a key to what the cosmos as a whole is all about. Nagel could find additional support for his proposals in the work of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904–84). No one has more brilliantly linked mind to evolution and the cosmos while simultaneously giving us a good reason to trust our minds. Unfortunately, it is hard to find well-known contemporary philosophers of mind who are familiar with Lonergan’s work. That’s a pity. In  his magisterial Insight (1957) and elsewhere, Lonergan demonstrates that if our worldview is out of joint with what goes on in our minds—in every act of attending, understanding, knowing, and deciding—then we need to look for another worldview. He would agree with Nagel that materialism doesn’t work, not least because it logically subverts the trust required for our minds to work at all.

Also on the website today, Michael Peppard on whether it makes sense to call Pope Francis a liberal. “For that matter,” Peppard asks, “can any faithful Catholic—a word that means ‘universal’—be described as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’?" Read the whole story here.

Crime and Punishment

God help me, I’m still rooting for Walt.

I’m certainly not blind to the evil he has done: the killings he has committed or ordered, the way that lies--even the ones he tells himself--have come to define his life, the destruction his “product” has wreaked on the lives of thousands of people he has never met.  I understand why many viewers are taking, if not pleasure, then a certain degree of righteous satisfaction in the judgment being visited upon him.  What goes around comes around.  Ye reap as ye sow.

Yet from the beginning of the show, there was something in me that connected with Walt.  Not with his choices, to be sure, but with the existential situation that gave rise to those choices.

I’ve done enough men’s ministry to know that the age of 50--Walt’s age at the beginning of the show--is often a crisis point for many men.  By the time a man reaches that age (and I’m getting pretty close), the trajectory of his life is largely set.  From what once may have seemed an infinite array of options, the choices he has made at each stage of his life have progressively narrowed the next set of choices. 

It’s true that those choices allow you to live more intensively rather than extensively, to go deep rather than broad.  There may be less “freedom,” but life is generally richer for having made those choices.

But there are times--usually in the middle of the night when the devil does his best work--when the shadow side of those choices emerges from a dark place in your soul.  You can begin to feel as if you have lost control of your life, that you are merely reading a script that your younger self has written.   You look around and see friends and family members who are no smarter and no more hardworking than you, but who seemed to have grabbed the brass ring while your hand came up empty.  Even if you have advanced in your career, this is often the point at which you realize the number of musical chairs is diminishing and there may not be one left for you when the music stops.

Yes, there are stories of people who have radically reinvented themselves in mid-life.  But that never seems to be you, does it?  Marriage, children, an underwater mortgage, overdue bills that keep your credit rating on the ragged edge of disaster, they all seem like obstacles to the new life you crave and feel you deserve.

This is the point at which many men “break bad” in ways large and small.  While Walt’s cancer is the spark, it is this broader emotional context that provides the tinder.  But in the same way that most college students infatuated with Nietzsche don’t bludgeon the local pawnbroker with an axe, most men suffering from a mid-life crisis do not become lords of a multi-state methamphetamine empire.  Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Walter White is a fictional character whose story is made extreme to illuminate a psychological and spiritual narrative that speaks more universally.  Even the character’s name--Walter White--suggests some kind of everyman, a symbol of the downwardly mobile white middle class whose anger has done much to shape our current politics.

When I saw that I am rooting for Walt, I want to be clear what I mean.  I’m not rooting for him to triumph over his enemies in an orgy of redemptive violence, although I fear that may be where we are headed.  To steal a line said to Michael Corleone by Cardinal Luciani in The Godfather III, Walt’s sins are great.  It is right that he suffers.  His sins are great enough to be beyond any meaningful human forgiveness.

Am I suggesting then, that my desired end would be for Walt, like Raskolnikov, to embrace Jesus Christ?  If Walt were a real person, that would very much be my wish.  Fictionally, though, I’m not sure how Vince Gilligan could pull that off without it seeming false and sentimental.  Sentimentality in art does not advance the cause of Christ.

What I am hoping for is that Walt can encounter God’s forgiveness in a form he can accept, a form that will allow him to acknowledge the true depth of his depravity without despairing of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  It is the hope that Walt can, in some mysterious way, make the words of St. Paul his own: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8).

Discerning the Body

I was intrigued by the conversation that ensued in response to Paul Moses’ essay in the WSJ a few weeks ago in which he spoke of how his father’s death had become the occasion of a powerful experience of Christian community.  “I saw a theological term made real,” wrote Moses, “that God’s people make up the body of Christ.”

I’ve recently had an experience like the one Paul described. One of the reasons for my absence from these pages over the past few months is that my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. Since then we have been walking a difficult path that has included surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, with more treatment to follow. My wife’s care has been excellent, however, and we have every reason to hope for a full and complete recovery.

Like Paul, I have been overwhelmed by and deeply grateful for the support we have received from family, friends and our parish community. The phrase “I’ll pray for you” can all too easily become a commonplace. In this case, however, we truly feel that the prayers of others have become a palpable thing, holding us and healing us when our own strength--particularly mine--falters.

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Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Panel Discussion of Pope Francis (Fordham, Sept 9)

Perhaps of interest to Commonwealers in the New York area: Fordham University will be kicking off the new school year with a panel discussion of Pope Francis's pontificate. The panelists are three distinguished theologians (but they're letting me come too).

More importantly, we'll be welcoming Rachel Zoll, religion reporter for the AP, to keep us in line.

More information about "Six Months of Pope Francis" and RSVP online HERE.

Monday, September 9. 5:30 PM. Lincoln Center campus.

New issue is live

Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.

Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.

Five (More) Lessons from Francis

While all of the publicity has gone to Francis’ gentle and entirely helpful remarks about homosexuality in the clergy, which MSW nails in a few sentences today, a full read of John Allen’s excellent summary of his comments reveals some other gems worthy of note:

1. “John XXIII was the figure of a country priest who loves all of his faithful and knows how to take care of them. He was a great bishop, and also a great nuncio. When he was in Turkey, he was responsible for so many false baptisms in order to save Jews ... he was courageous.” Here we get a stunning reminder of what the pope might mean by “creating a mess” in the Church. I am guessing sacramental theologians do not have an account of the theology behind “false baptisms,” and that the use of the Church’s primary sacrament as a social screen to protect the lives of the vulnerable would make some nervous (to say the least). But here we see John XXIII’s saintliness displayed in his willingness to lie and to use the Church’s sacraments as tools of deception!

2. “I'll tell you something about the Charismatic Movement ... at the end of the '70s and in the '80s, I wasn't a big fan. I used to say they confused the holy liturgy with a school of samba. I was converted when I got to know them better and saw the good they do. In this moment of the life of the church, the movements are necessary.” Two insights packed into the same quote. First, notice the pope’s willingness to change his mind by becoming acquainted with practices that at first he sees as questionable. This is not a blithe acceptance of everything, but rather a humility that refuses to stop at initial impressions. Second, it suggests a liturgical flexibility that does not dismiss the importance of “reverence” and holiness and tradition, but rather refuses to make them ultimate. There are limits to liturgical flexibility (or else we would cease to be Catholic), but they have significant elasticity, and one should look at the fruits.

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New stories on the homepage

Two new stories on the Commonweal homepage today.

With “The First Encyclical of Francis?” William L. Portier wraps up our look at Lumen fidei (previous takes from Robin Darling Young here and Dennis O’Brien here). From Portier’s piece:

Much here is as familiarly engaging as Benedict’s talks at Wednesday audiences. Clearly Chapters 2 and 3 represent a big chunk of the first draft of the encyclical on faith that Benedict was working on when he resigned.  And yet there are traces of that inclusively compassionate voice we have come to know over the past months as that of Pope Francis. It appears in the last paragraphs of the introduction which speak of Pope Benedict in the third person. Along with a quote from Dominus Iesus, resonances of it can also be heard in the second chapter’s last two paragraphs. Here is an example: “The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman.” And another: “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk toward the fullness of love.”  If these are not the ipsissima verba of Francis, they surely represent his ipsissima intentio. 

Read the whole thing here

In “The Painful Paradoxes of Race,” E. J. Dionne Jr. writes of his interview with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and candidate for the state’s open Senate seat.

My interview with Booker didn’t start with the Zimmerman trial. Instead, the practically-minded mayor spoke enthusiastically about a program he had established in cooperation with the libertarian-conservative Manhattan Institute to help men released from prison become better fathers. “The right intervention,” he said, “can create radically different outcomes.”

Booker knows about crime. He described his experience of holding a young man who had just been shot, trying and failing to keep him from dying in his arms. He returned home disconsolate and washed off the young man’s blood.

His account, and Obama’s later words, put the lie to outrageous claims by right-wing talk jocks and provocateurs that those upset by the outcome in the Zimmerman trial are willfully ignoring the affliction of crime committed by African Americans against each other. On the contrary: African American leaders, particularly mayors such as Booker, were struggling to stem violence in their own communities long before it became a convenient topic for those trying to sweep aside the profound problems raised by the Martin case.

Read the whole thing here.

Silence Speaks (II)

Perhaps an even greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas (do I hear groans emanating from the Dominican House of Studies?) also lapsed into a rich and evocative silence towards the end of his creative life.

In the notes for his recent recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's The Art of Fugue, Andrew Rangell writes: "[Bach] unquestionably regarded it as a summa of his art." He further states:

The final movement, a huge unfinished fugue, has engendered enormous comment and speculation. Having the appearance of a triple fugue, it presents three themes in three sections, the last theme (B flat, A, C, B natural) spelling the name Bach in German nomenclature. There can be no doubt of the significance of this signature, in this piece, in this moment, in both the life of this piece and the life of the composer. Momentous as this entrance is, its exposition has been barely completed when, stunningly, the fugue "goes silent."

And somehow, the shock of this silence remains undiminished at every new hearing.

It is as though the great musician-theologian allowed his music and his person to fade into the fecund silence of eternity, fully embracing the prayer inscribed at the end of all his works: Soli Deo Gloria!

Silence Speaks

It is well-known that Thomas Aquinas ceased writing his Summa Theologiae before completing it. When asked why, a long tradition recounts that he told his secretary, Reginald of Piperno: "After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw."

When some of my own students have used that quote as an excuse for not engaging in the demanding labor of theology, I've retorted: you can only say it when you've completed 7/8ths of the Summa.

In his fine new book on Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait, Denys Turner writes at greater length and with greater insight:

Theology matters only because – and when – there is more to life than theology, and when that "more" shows its presence within the theology that is done. So Thomas fails to finish, thereby exhibiting the presence of this "more" in the most dramatic way possible – by leaving space for it. His final sentence is not an empty and disappointing failure to finish. It is an apotheosis. By his silence Thomas does not stop teaching theology. He does not stop doing theology. On the contrary, by his silence he teaches something about doing theology that he could not have taught by any other means.

Now on the homepage: Thoughts on 'Lumen fidei'

Head over to the homepage for new pieces from Robin Darling Young and Dennis O'Brien on the encyclical Lumen fidei.

From Robin's "Final Chapter, First Words":

Augustine, head and shoulders above other Latin Christian authors of the early centuries, was no pope – but his mind did shape the discussion of Christian theology in the West until scholastic theology displaced him (and made him attractive to the Reformers). So the new encyclical’s ritual swipes at Nietzsche as a symbol of antireligious rationalism should not distract from the core of Benedict’s project of Catholic renewal to rebuild Christian tradition in the face of secularism – a project particularly poignant in his native Europe, where churches are empty though mosques are filling.

For Benedict, the theological virtues, prompted and assisted by grace, are the key to such a renewal, within a community shaped by ordered worship. Lumen fidei’s four chapters remind its readers that faith has a history, beginning with Abraham; that believing is necessary for understanding, and creates the possibility for scientific reasoning; that faith is also a tradition, passed on through the sacraments and prayer; and that there will be a future city prepared for the faithful, and exemplified in the biblical accounts of Mary.

But if Lumen fidei is Benedict’s last chapter, its last word seems to be Francis’s: “Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world. How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper, or with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her poor.”

From Dennis's "Hard Thinking"

A text that in two paragraphs moves from Wittgenstein to William of St. Thierry is not for the faint of heart and idle of mind. The account of the faith that emerges is complex and paradoxical. Faith is a light by which we see (lumen fidei), faith is a form of hearing (fides ex auditu), faith is touch, “what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands.” Faith exists only because love opens to truth beyond simple perception. Faith is sacramental. Faith is not individual and subjective; it is necessarily objective and communal; it must be “ecclesial.” Finally, in an unusual and oft repeated phrase, “faith is a process of gazing.” (Assuming that the original was written in German, the word translated “gaze” is Sichtweise, a manner of seeing. Faith is seeing in the manner that Christ sees.)

One could read the encyclical as a pious compendium of exalted phrases about faith: faith is love, life, destiny, hope, and so on. Given its provenance from a learned and dedicated pope, it might reassure the reader that one can cite Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Celsus and still believe — even though one doesn’t understand what it means or how it all fits together. Lumen fidei is not such a pious exercise; it is a profound statement, but one whose foundations are only hinted at in the textual superstructure. It is a document that needs to be read communally, paragraph by paragraph, followed by extended discussion on meaning and implication.

Lumen Fidei and Taking the Right Stand

If you do not take a stand, you will not understand. Understanding requires standing. These are the culminating themes of the account of the concept of faith in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 Introduction to Christianity, in which faith is named as “taking up a position” and “to take one’s stand on something.” Ratzinger is trying to identify faith with a certain type of stance toward reality, rather than with any formulae, claiming that faith is the prerequisite of all real human understanding. Without faith, he suggests, all understanding eventually is reduced to “making” – that is, not to standing somewhere, but to remaking the world in one’s own image. (By “faith” here, I hasten to add that Ratzinger is speaking more broadly that about “the Faith” – he’s showing that understanding is really only possible if there is acknowledgment of meaning in the world that is PRIOR TO my own definitions, and to acknowledge such meaning is to trust, have faith.

Chapter 2 of Lumen Fidei quotes Isaiah 7:9, “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” the very verse on which Ratzinger bases his reflection in his 1968.

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What's the Point of It All?

It's been a tough week. Based on my facebook feed, I think if all my friends got togther, a bar brawl would break out. Meanwhile, I am subjected to truly appalling displays of Catholic "patriotism" like this one of Mary wrapped in an American flag. Amidst all the ongoing political debate, I am looking forward to the encyclical on faith to remind us of the point of it all, and am happy to be reading an advance copy of Gary Anderson’s new book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition.

A follow-up to his invaluable book on the evolution of the concept of sin in the biblical tradition, Anderson shows how Second Temple Judaism evolved a concept of a “treasury in heaven” that is the fruit of almsgiving, which is vividly adopted in the New Testament.

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Featured on the homepage

We've been running some good web-exclusive content on the homepage. Just posted: "Catholics Are Different," a special package highlighting the writing of Andrew M. Greeley in Commonweal, where over the course of six decades his work appeared. And, if you haven't already, check out Nicholas P. Cafardi's piece on the apparent unwillingness of some bishops to follow their own sexual-abuse reforms. Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. examines a potentially unbreachable gap between libertarian theory and libertarian practice.

Jesus' parables: Where do you read yourself in?

In preparation for a workshop at the New York Catholic Bible Summit, I have been exploring the ways in which Jesus' parables can be defamiliarized for seasoned Christians. The parables can lose some of their dramatic force through repetition over the years. How many times have you heard the Good Samaritan? When it comes up again in the lectionary next month, will your mind wander, since you know every word of the story by heart? How can we hear the parables anew?

One method for refreshing the parables is to experiment with where one "reads oneself in" to the story. Many of the parables speak to multiple audiences at the same time, as when the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) brings comfort to the poor, while also rousing the rich from complacency. Parables about sin and mercy, such as that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18), invite listeners to read themselves in to both characters at different moments in life. It's also among the most clever of the parables because once you imagine yourself as the tax collector ("I'm like the tax collector, a humble sinner, and definitely not like that pompous Pharisee"), then you automatically become more like the Pharisee. The oxymoronic pride in one's own humility springs the rhetorical trap of the story: most of us are both Pharisee and tax collector.

Even that most famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) can be revitalized through this exercise. Many readers read ourselves in as the Samaritan -- of course, the exhortation "Go and do likewise" commands us in this way. But many Christians around the world feel themselves to have more in common with the man in the ditch, as evidenced by research about biblical exegesis in poor communities. Indeed, the oldest extant artistic rendering of this parable (as far as I am aware) titles the parable, "Concerning the man who fell among thieves" (illumination 7 in the Rossano Gospels). Where we read ourselves in sometimes relates to the titles we give the stories (cf. the "prodigal son").

One of the best interpretations of the Good Samaritan develops by imagining oneself in to the characters of the priest and the Levite. Why didn't they stop? What was on their minds? Maybe they had perfectly good reasons -- the same kinds that we ourselves give when we pass by? I am referring to a middle section of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Mountaintop" speech (April 3, 1968). We all know the prophetic ending of that speech, but less known is the eloquent interpretation of this parable in the middle (audio starts about the 29:00 minute mark; text here). For King, this is a parable about two things: race and fear. But I don't want to steal King's thunder by summarizing his take, and it's worth a listen.

In our own society, then, where are our parables about race? What would Jesus tell today? Hard to say, but it's possible that he would have been making short viral videos. Yes, I'm serious. When I think of what medium affects me in the ways that Jesus' parables likely affected his audiences, I often think of the many excellent, short videos that circulate on the web. I'll leave you with one example, a kind of 21st-century parable about race. Granted, this one is not fiction, but a presentation of a social experiment. Nonetheless, it brings for me the same sense of discomfort and self-scrutiny that many of Jesus' parables also evoke.

Where do we read ourselves in to this story?


USCCB names new executive director of Committee on Doctrine.

Today the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that Peter Ryan, SJ, will succeed Thomas Wienandy, OFM Cap, as executive director of the Committee on Doctrine. From the press release: "Fr. Ryan has been director of spiritual formation and professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Gennon Seminary in St. Louis since January 2012. Prior to that he was professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland, 2001-2011, and assistant professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland, 1994-2001." He is a member of the Catholic Fellowship of Scholars, a theologically conservative group, and has served three times on its executive board. (Weinandy is also a member of the Fellowship, as well as the Catholic Theological Society of America.) Ryan's scholarly work has been published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly, and Theological Studies. (You can read his argument for adopting abandoned embryos here [.pdf]).

In 2011, Ryan co-authored a controversial article in Theological Studies designed to rebut a 2004 essay calling for a re-evaluation of the church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. The Vatican reportedly pressured the journal to publish Ryan's article unedited and without standard peer review. Its authors denied the latter claim, even though the article appeared with an editors note that read, "Except for minor stylistic changes, the article is published as it was received.” 

Plus ça change.

Care for others, care for creation... St. Francis redivivus!

The words kept recycling. Care for others ... care for creation ... care for others ... care for creation...The homily of Pope Francis at his installation Mass this morning stunned me first into disbelief, then into self-reflection, then into joy and hope. Even if he had not already told us which namesake he chose, today there would be no doubt. This opening homily was St. Francis redivivus!

Building off the image of St. Joseph as a "protector," through "unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand," Pope Francis elaborated the vocation of the protector:

The vocation of being a protector, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of Gods creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of Gods gifts!

It's not as if this message, which connects care for others, care for families, and the preferential option for the poor to the necessity of our care for the environment, has been absent from Catholic ethics. In fact, it was signaled already by Bl. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae and Centesimus Annus, and then Pope Benedict XVI treated this theme frequently in his writings, especially Caritas in Veritate and his Messages for the World Day of Peace.

Over the weekend on MSNBC, I myself expressed hope for a focus on this connection after hearing the comments at Pope Francis's first press conference.

But never has the theme taken center stage as it did today. Care for creation or the environment was mentioned at least ten times (by my count) in a relatively short homily. It even spurred the primary exhortation of the homily:

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of Gods plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!

In the spirit of Jesus and St. Paul, the Pope then resounded perhaps the most foundational paradox of Christian ethics: "authentic power is service." Only this stance will "open up a horizon of hope." 

(N.B. quotes come from the Vatican Radio transcript, and have not been checked against the audio/video feed)

Is the "Jesus's wife" papyrus a forgery? And other queries.

Thanks to all for the great comments and questions in the multiple threads below. I’ll take up a few of those and some I received in response to my Washington Post piece. But before that, I want to respond to something else.

Esteemed New Testament scholar Francis Watson appears to have built a coalition of naysayers: he argues that the new papyrus is a forgery. The Guardian picked up this story, and other esteemed commentators, such as Mark Goodacre and Andrew Sullivan have propagated this opinion through their wide-reaching blog platforms. I am fully aware of modern forgeries, and I am skeptical of new, sensational finds, as are all of you. It is of course possible that this fragment is a forgery of a modern pen on ancient papyrus. It’s possible that some portion of the ink will be analyzed to try to date it. Until that happens, though, here is a response to the naysayers.

1. All Francis Watson demonstrates is that this fragment shares some verbal similarity with sayings in the Gospel of Thomas—that’s it! There is no logical step that makes the text a modern forgery. All the words except one (shafe—”to swell”) are extremely common. Furthermore, we know that other collections of Jesus sayings were in circulation in antiquity. The Greek fragments in P.Oxy. 1, 654, and 655, which have significant overlap with the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas (but also differ in many details), are ancient examples of the genre. Are the naysayers prepared to call those Greek fragments modern forgeries? If not, why not? What’s the difference?

1b. Watson’s argument about the “line break” cannot bear the weight he places on it. Manuscripts written in scriptio continua break words up all the time, and the word in question is among the most common words there is: na-ei (“to me, for me”). Moreover, the preposition na is not even present but a proposed reconstruction of the previous line (albeit a reasonable one).

2. It’s hard to overstate how common the vocabulary of this fragment is (again except for shafe, to swell) in Coptic and in early Christian texts. Showing direct textual dependence of common words and phrases is almost impossible—in any language, at any time.

3. And yet there is one word that does not match its use in the Gospel of Thomas or its first entry in Coptic dictionaries, and it’s the crucial word under discussion: wife (hime). The most common version of this word is s-hime (with an aspirated h). Why would our alleged forger choose a less common version of the headline-grabbing word, and also diverge from the Gospel of Thomas at precisely this instance?

4. If a modern forgery, how does one produce the back (verso) of the papyrus? Perhaps this is easily done; I’m not an expert at forgery. But it can’t be avoided that the verso has ink traces that look quite authentically faded through abrasion over time.

5. And now for an argument from ethos (“character”), as was done in ancient rhetoric: Do the naysayers personally know Roger Bagnall? It seems unlikely, the way in which they dismiss this veritable Dean of Papyrology’s autoptic evaluation of the fragment. Roger Bagnall is in a group of two or three people on earth whose papyrological opinions are universally respected. Roger Bagnall could not be less of a sensationalist. He is as serious, sober, and critical of a scholar as there is. He is one of a few papyrologists that other top papyrologists contact for help. And he reads papyri every day. Every day. (Thus endeth the encomium.)

For those reasons, I am skeptical of the naysayers. Personally, I don’t have much at stake in whether the papyrus is authentic or not. But nothing I’ve seen even suggests, much less demonstrates, that this is a modern forgery.

Now on to other varia that came up during the threads:

On the topic of all Jewish men were married: Of course, the vast majority of men were married. But that proves nothing about Jesus. First, he was a charismatic, itinerant, miracle-worker. Like John the Baptist, he wasn’t normal. Second, he wasn’t exactly known for his support of traditional family ties. In all the Synoptic Gospels, even the domesticated Luke, Jesus questions or straightforwardly denigrates family ties, all the while emphasizing the new spiritual family under his heavenly Father.

On papyri as just rubbish: One of the unique features of papyrology is that it allows us to see a cross-section of ancient society (even if it’s mostly of the societies of Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, and early Arab Egypt). Almost all other historical sources only preserve the history of upper classes and only of public life. Papyri, because most of them have been discovered in trash heaps, afford unique opportunities to see lower classes and also snippets of private life (shopping lists, classroom handwriting exercises, etc.). To denigrate a find just because it’s a scrap of papyrus is ignorant: the Oxyrhynchus papyri contain Homer, the Bible, letters of bishops and monks, alongside tax receipts, domestic lists, quotidian letters, and so on.

On the appearance of the fragment: The materials and hand are not very remarkable. It’s not a practiced hand, but so what? Neither was Paul’s (Gal 6:11). Handwriting was and is a techne. You might think today of typing. Some people are finger-poking typists. That doesn’t make them dumb or deviant, just as elegant, effortless, and rapid typing do not make one smart or mainstream.

On the rectangular shape: It appears to me, as I said already, that if authentically ancient, this fragment has been cut by a middle man in order to sell multiple parts for a higher price. As to the charge of why did he or she cut off after “my wife...” when certainly the rest could have garnered a higher price: The answer is that almost certainly the middle man didn’t know what the text said. Hardly anyone in the world, even antiquities dealers in the Middle East, knows Coptic. That being said, this whole event does make one wonder, if authentic, whether the rest of this papyrus will turn up and be sold for a very handsome sum.

On which Mary is mentioned: Unfortunately for historians, there are lots of Marys in general in antiquity and late antiquity. Tal Ilan did a prosopographic study that showed about half of all Jewish women in Palestine in the Second Temple period had some form of either the name Mariam or Salome. More recently, Stephen Shoemaker has argued that the Mary in question in the noncanonical literature does not necessarily refer to the Magdalene. The Gnostic “Mary,” he argues, was a composite figure that drew on the identities of both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. And we know from the canonical Gospels that Jesus was also close with the family from Bethany, which included a Mary of its own. So yes, lots of Marys, but the Magdalene has remained central due to her unique combination of claims on apostolic authority (perseverance in discipleship at the cross, witness to the empty tomb, and especially her private resurrection appearance and role as apostola apostolorum).

On the charge of sensationalism: In my first post, I defended Karen King’s roll-out of the scholarship. I still think the landing page on the Harvard Divinity School website was very well done, and her making available her article manuscript in advance of publication deserves special praise. I’m not sure I would have done that -- it was very gracious. That being said, I have two reasons for beginning to be critical: first, the title of the fragment seems to invite sensationalism. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” doesn’t describe the text accurately. I think back to the first papyrus of this kind, P.Oxy. 1, which was published in 1897 and titled simply Logia Iesou. That’s accurate: “Sayings of Jesus,” about which we don’t know much else. For this new fragment, how about “Sayings of Jesus about Family Relations.” Not as sensational, to be sure, but more accurate.

Second, I hadn’t known at first about the plan for a television special. It’s hard to maintain a scholarly sensibility about the discovery with a cable TV special. Again, on the whole, I am still very positively disposed toward how Karen King presented the discovery, with two minor quibbles, only one of which may have been in her control.