A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Gaudium et Luctus

The "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" is universally known by its first words in Latin: "Gaudium et Spes." But the Constitution immediately goes on to add two other nouns: "luctus et angor" -- "grief and anxiety."Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, devoted his column to the "Joy and Grief" many are experiencing in this Christmas season. He writes, I think, wisely and compassionately. Here is part of his reflection:

Instead of setting out a philosophy to interpret the human drama, God joined it. He became God with us a God with a face. In the process, he both shared and dignified ordinary human life, with all its delight, boredom and suffering. The Christmas story revels in this blasphemous elevation of the ordinary a birth in second-rate accommodations under a cloud of illegitimacy.The story is also shadowed by sorrow. In one of the odder moments of the narrative, a random stranger at the Jerusalem Temple predicts a mothers grief. A sword, Simeon tells Mary, shall pierce through your own soul also. As it did. As it has for many mothers and fathers who have followed.The point of Christmas is not a sentimental optimism about the human condition or even a teaching about the will of God. It is an assertion that God came to our rescue, and holds our hand, and becomes, at the worst moments, our brokenhearted brother. It is preposterous, unless it is true. And then it would be everything.

The rest is here.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I believe that in an earlier draft, the Pastoral Constitution began with the words "Luctus et angor," with "gaudium et spes" following immediately. Is there any life that does not know both experiences? I've always liked what Handel did with the prophet's "acquainted with grief." "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tried as we are, yet without sinning' (Hb 4:15)."

I think that many of us found the Eucharist to be an especially strong experience of "brotherly solidarity" (as Gaudium et Spes termed it) this Christmas. Ross Douthat wrote movingly about the intersection of Christmas with Newtown as well. He cited Ivan Karamazov's refusal of any final harmony as too high a price to pay for the tears of tortured children:"Its telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his characters speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov is supplied by other characters examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of Gods goodness. In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish Gods goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence. In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isnt just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable the shadow of violence, agony and death. In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now."

This is some astonishing editorial writing. I'd think a lot of parish masses yesterday would have been elevated by simply reading Gerson's paragraphs quoted above at homily time.

I've been impressed by the number of op-ed columns with religious themes in the secular press since Sandy Hook. Even the NYT has had a couple, Maybe the secular world is starting to open its mind a bit.

What Jim said. I wonder if Moslems, Jews or atheists reading that would react negatively to such a sign of the dominant Christian culture as having a homily-like opinion piece in the mainstream newspaper. It makes me uneasy but I can't point to what's wrong with it, if anything. People are always free not to buy the Washington Post, and it does not receive public subsidies, so, why not?

Claire: I'd be interested in knowing what it is that makes you "uneasy" and why it does so. Does in have something to do with different understandings of the place of religion in the public sphere as between France and the U.S.?

In spite of the conditional mode in the last sentence, the article implicitly addresses itself to a Christian readership, yet it appears, not in a Christian publication but in a mainstream newspaper, so its readership consists of Americans of all religious stripes. Reading the Washington Post just means that you're probably a US citizen, but here you're assumed to be Christian as well. Does that mean that non-Christian US citizens are not welcome? Doesn't it subtly put pressure on people to conform to the dominant religion? If I were Moslem and reading that, wouldn't I feel marginalized? If Christianity is taken for granted in such a way, doesn't it open the door to a future lessening of the separation of church and state? I have no evidence that any of those questions can be answered in the affirmative, but the possibility nags me. Yet, in the few comments I looked at on the Washington Post website, a few atheists mocked the article, its author, and religious faith in general, but I didn't see anyone raise my objections, so they must not be on people's minds. So, yes, it's probably a difference between France and the US.

Claire:If a Muslim wanted to write an op-ed piece on the social significance of Ramadan, I presume it would be as welcome in the Washington Post as this one by a Christian. As a reader, I would decide, as I do for columnists expounding on "secular" issues, whether I want to continue reading it or not. This issue has nothing to do with the separation of church and state, unless this is thought to mean excluding religion from any public sphere, even one whose freedom is guaranteed, such as a major newspaper. This would mean that religious thoughts are the only ones that may not be expressed in its op-ed columns: which I would take to mean a thorough-going repudiation of the First Amendment, in all its provisions, and the implication would be that it is only religions that do not enjoy freedom of speech. A newspaper is not an organ of the "state" as distinct from the "church"; both church and newspaper have public rights vis-a-vis the state. I was once told that it would be forbidden, considered as a violation of lacit, for someone to set up a stand in a public park from which, as in Hyde Park, London, to make public profession of a religious faith. Is this true? Does Le Monde have op-ed columns? Would a religious figure be permitted to write for it?

I agree that this has nothing to do with the separation of church and state, but it's the mindset. Taking for granted that the reader is Christian does create a mindset that might, it seems to me, lessen that separation, by making people think: "what could possibly be wrong with doing [x], since pretty much every one is Christian anyway?"Yes, Le Monde has op-eds, and Le Figaro regularly has articles about the Catholic church, but I cannot imagine there ever being in there anything resembling the article quoted above. I don't think they would invite a single religious figure to write for it. I could imagine Le Figaro inviting a Christian religious figure to contribute, but then it would also invited some figures from some other religions to also contribute their perspective. Because they're not religious newspapers, they would not want to appear biased towards one religion. But I don't really mind that article. I understand that this in the US, people like being preached at by their president and would probably not mind it if their plumber started telling them about the symbolism of water in Christianity before fixing their burst pipes.

Also, I never said anything about making it illegal (and repudiating the first amendment), only that it made me uneasy. The lack of acknowledgement of those among the readership who are not Christian does not seem like a good idea to me, but I understand that it's a cultural disconnect on my part.

Claire: I wasn't so much talking about illegality as about a cultural prejudice that might consider giving an op-ed column to a religious argument as endangering the separation of church and state. That i would consider confusion because it would assimilate a newspaper's op-ed columns to an organ or instrument of the "state". If the state must be neutral, or ecumenically open, in its favors, there is nothing that says that a newspaper has to be. But I agree that the differences are largely cultural and historical--the history of Church-State relations in France is very different from that in the USA and so is the constitutional resolution of tensions between them: contrast the First Amendment to the Law of Separation.

If a Muslim wanted to write an op-ed piece on the social significance of Ramadan, I presume it would be as welcome in the Washington Post as this one by a Christian.I am afraid that it would not be well received (assuming its tone is similar to this piece), that many people would write to the newspaper to complain, and that the Washington Post might decide to not publish such a piece to avoid the backlash of public opinion. But I'd be happy if you're right. Are you aware of such a piece having been published in the past?

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment