By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who Is the Realist?

One of my favorite friends and conversation partners is the "village atheist" where I live. He is an eminently decent and pleasant man. One of his main concerns is not to live under the allegedly false illusion of religious belief. I try to point out that, in the Christian tradition, nothing is more concretely and grittily realistic than the truth that to give is to live. He will answer that he can follow that truth without leaning on any sort of theological belief. Like many pleasant atheists, he is the product of a Christian culture and background which formed him very early in life. Like many others with such backgrounds, my intuition is that his Christian background and upbringing still play a large role in shaping his present commitment to decency and unselfishness. In this regard, I never tire of repeating the remark of another non-believer, the famous political economist John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that Western non-believers are reaping the benefits of older generations of believers, implying that, possibly, some day that moral endowment and capital, if not replenished, will simply stop yielding further benefits at some point in the future. Some feel that we are already at that point in some places.

I thoroughly agree with realism. I can see easily the unhistorical beliefs of other religions based on legends, which however inspiring, beautiful, insightful, romantic, and worthy of respect, are simply highly unlikely to have ever happened in the real world; such legends are either asserted blindly as groupthink without a shred of evidence in their favor or are clearly and flatly untrue. I mourn those, especially the young, who invest their lives in such unrealism and narrow their intellectual and theological horizons. But, what can I say to the village atheist, about my own religious tradition? Why am I different from the historically unrealistic believers of other religions?

The tomb was empty. His followers were not looking for a risen crucified man, but they saw him. That is the best historical explanation for what happened after the brutal execution of the itinerant Jewish teacher/prophet known to us as Jesus. After the death of Jesus, Christianity did not spread by the sword, as happened with Islam in its early years of expansion across the Middle East and North Africa. St. Paul did not lead armed contingents. In contrast, Christianity grew and flourished under brutal persecution as a minority religion, until the Roman Empire--after centuries--finally gave in to reality. I am not aware of any historical explanation--other than the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus-- for that completely unexpected, astounding burst of fervor and expansion after the miserable and shameful execution of the disciples' Galilean teacher as a common criminal. That is my historical realism.

For more on this theme of historical realism, see this lecture by Anglican theologian, and now Anglican Bishop, N.T. Wright given at the Gregorian University in Rome at this link. Below is an excerpt close to the end of the lecture:

Historical investigation, I propose, brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw. I do not think that history can force us to draw any particular further deductions beyond these two phenomena; the conclusion the disciples drew is there for the taking, but it is open to us, as it was to them, to remain cautious. Thomas waited a week before believing what he had been told. On Matthew’s mountain, some had their doubts.

However, the elegance and simplicity of explaining the two outstanding phenomena, the empty tomb and the visions, by means of one another, ought to be obvious. Were it not for the astounding, and world-view-challenging, claim that is thereby made, I think everyone would long since have concluded that this was the correct historical result. If some other account explained the rise of Christianity as naturally, completely and satisfyingly as does the early Christians’ belief, while leaving normal worldviews intact, it would be accepted without demur.

That, I believe, is the result of the investigation I have conducted. There are many other things to say about Jesus’ resurrection. But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him. The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

Of course, there are several reasons why people may not want, and often refuse, to believe this. But the historian must weigh, as well, the alternative accounts they themselves offer. And, to date, none of them have anything like the explanatory power of the simple, but utterly challenging, Christian one. The historian’s task is not to force people to believe. It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and to make clear, too, that from that point on the historian alone cannot help. When you’re dealing with worldviews, every community and every person must make their choices in the dark, even if there is a persistent rumour of light around the next corner.

Source link (emphasis added).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Prayer Blog: Highly Recommended

Recently, I had two speakers from the Ann Arbor area speak to an adult religious education class I co-teach in the Detroit area. They spoke on prayer, specifically Ignatian prayer (as in St. Ignatius Loyola) in which the imagination is engaged in praying over scenes from Scripture, especially from the Gospels. The presentation was very well received. The two speakers run a blog which is now featuring a daily Lenten retreat at this link: .

The prayer blog also has resources on Ignatian prayer. The blog is aimed at both Catholic and non-Catholic Christians; and, of course, non-Christians from any tradition (or none) are welcome to learn about "the more" that God has available for them. Enjoy.

Friday, February 19, 2010


[Emphasis added]

VATICAN CITY, 19 FEB 2010 (VIS) - During his meeting yesterday with parish priests of the diocese of Rome, Benedict XVI commented on certain verses from the Letter to the Hebrews.

Beginning with the Old Testament view of the Messiah, and comparing it to what Christ actually represented in the history of salvation, the Pope noted how "Christ is the true King, the Son of God. But He is also the true priest, and thus all worship, all the reality of sacrifices, ... and of the true sacrifice, finds its key and its fulfilment in Christ".

Thus, he explained, does the priest "emerges in all his pureness and his profound truth". And he went on: "A priest, in order truly to be a mediator between God and man, must be a man, and the Son of God became man precisely in order to become a priest, in order to accomplish the mission of a priest. ... This is the mission of the priest: ... to be a mediator, a bridge that unites and thus brings man to God, to His redemption, to His true light, to His true life".

If the priest is a "bridge" bringing humankind into communion with the divinity, his soul must draw nourishment from constant daily prayer and from the Eucharist, said the Pope.

"Only God", he went on, "can enter my life and take me by the hand. ... Ever and anew we must return to the Sacrament, return to this gift in which God gives me what I could never give. ... A priest must truly be a man of God, he must know God up close", and he achieves this "in communion with Christ. We must live this communion".

Benedict went on to point out that the life choice priests to make requires them to develop their feelings and affections in accordance with God's will. This conversion is anything but simple if we consider the misleading self-indulgence that lies in the modern mentality, he said.

"Thus do people say: 'He lied, he is human. He robbed, he is human'. But this is not the true human being. Human means being generous, human means being good, human means being a person of justice. ... And so, to leave behind, with Christ's help, this cloud over our nature ... is a life process which must begin with education to the priesthood then continue throughout our life".

A priest, who is above all other things a completely-fulfilled man, has a heart dedicated to "compassion". Sin is not a sign of "solidarity" with human weakness; rather, such solidarity is evident in the strength to share the burden of sin in order to redeem and purify it, showing the same capacity for emotion which Jesus showed during His life, and which enabled him to carry His cry of compassion "unto the ears of God".

"We priests cannot withdraw into exile", said the Pope. "We are immersed in the passion of this world and must, with the help of Christ and in communion with Christ, seek to transform it and lead it towards God".

Finally, on the subject of obedience, the Pope said: "It is an unpopular word in our time, when obedience seems like a form of alienation, an attitude of servility. ... Yet on the contrary, ... the word 'obedience' and the word 'freedom' are inseparable, ... because the will of God is not a tyrannical will; ... rather, it is the place where we find our true identity".

Blogger Comment:

I highlighted the Pope's words above because I think he points out a fallacy very much present in a very common way of speaking about our falls from grace, our bad or evil actions. I recently heard a person react to news of someone's apparent fall from grace (note that I say "apparent" because ultimately only God knows what really happened in this particular case) by noting that the person was merely "human." Certainly, we use the word "human" in the sense of being weak and vulnerable and given to falling again and again.

Yet, that is a very minimalistic, fatalistic use of the term "human" that can lull us into excusing the inexcusable: we are, at the end of the day, especially as believers in Jesus, called to a higher view of the human. At the heart of being human, for Christians and for many others (even some atheists), is giving up the egotistical. Too much that masquerades as "human weakness" which we often view with self-serving pity is really the working out of the ego, of pride, of arrogance, of narcissism, of sociopathic tendencies, of utter indifference to the serious effects of one's actions on others now and in the future. So, in this fuller sense of the term "human," the person who recklessly, like a bull in a china shop, presses forward to enact his or her egostistical wishes of the moment is not being human at all if at the heart of what is authentically human is the rejection of selfishness. That is why in Catholic moral discourse we speak of acts performed in a "human" way. For example, the sexual act performed in a "human" way does not mean rape. The act of rape is not a truly "human" act in this high sense of the human, although rape is certainly an act that testifies to the demons of our very weak and morally vulnerable human state.

Maybe, when we are tempted to fatalistically excuse certain behaviors or lifestyles because "they are just human," we should rather focus on this question: are the actions truly human actions in the high sense of being human? If the actions are not such truly human actions in the high sense of not being egotistical, then we can still be and ought to be appropriately merciful and compassionate; but with a mercy and compassion that does not debase the word "human" or lull us into justifying the unjustifiable.

The linguistic confusion in misusing the term "human" may be more a matter of mixing the objects that we are referring to in our discourse (the "referents"). To refer to a person as "human" is a way to communicate or recognize the reality that a person is weak. But to refer to the actions of such a weak person as "human" means that the action is consistent with our moral vision of what human beings are called to be: selfless. Too often, we mix the two "referents": we say that a person is weak by saying that he or she is only "human" and, at the same time, mean to say or imply that a person's harmful actions are therefore excusable. In some cases, we slide into this inaccurate mixing of referents too easily as a way to justify our own past "inhuman" actions. It is very convenient. A better way is to recognize human weakness without implying that harmful, egotistical acts are also "human." They are not.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Precious Ashes


[Emphasis added]

VATICAN CITY, 17 FEB 2010 (VIS) - "Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the Lenten path that lasts forty days and which leads us to the joy of the Lord's Easter", the Pope said at the beginning of his catechesis during today's general audience, celebrated in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

Recalling the formula, "Convert and Believe in the Gospel", the Holy Father affirmed that "conversion means changing the direction of the path of our lives. (...) It is going against the current when the "current" is a superficial, incoherent, and illusory way of life that often drag us down, making us slaves of evil or prisoners of moral mediocrity. Nevertheless, through conversion we tend to the highest measure of Christian life, we trust in the living and personal Gospel who is Jesus Christ. He is the final goal and the profound path of conversion, the path that we are all called to travel in our lives, allowing ourselves to be illuminated with his light and sustained by his strength, which moves our steps".

"'Convert and believe in the Gospel' is not just the beginning of the Christian life, but the accompaniment of all our steps, renewing and penetrating all aspects of our lives. Each day is a moment of favour and grace, (...) even when there is no lack of difficulties, weariness, and missteps, when we are tempted to abandon the path that follows Christ and retreat into ourselves and our selfishness without paying attention to the need to keep ourselves open to the love of God in Christ in order to live the very logic of justice and love".

Benedict XVI emphasized that "faced with the innate fear of our end, and most of all in the context of a culture that tends in many ways to censure reality and the human experience of death, the Lenten liturgy reminds us of, on the one hand, death, inviting us to reality and wisdom, but on the other hand encourages us especially to grasp and live the unexpected newness that the Christian faith reveals in the reality of death itself".

"The human being", he continued, "is dust and to dust it will return, but it is dust that is precious in God's eyes because He created humanity, destining us to immortality. (...) Jesus the Lord also wanted to freely share in human frailty with each person, above all through his death on the cross. But it was precisely this death, full of his love for the Father and for humanity, that was the way of glorious resurrection, the means by which Christ became the source of grace given to all who believe in Him and participate in the same divine life".

The Pope highlighted that the distribution of ashes "is an invitation to spend the time during Lent as a more aware and more intense immersion in the paschal mystery of Christ, in his death and resurrection, through participation in the Eucharist and a life of charity that is born of the Eucharist and which finds its fulfilment in it. "With the distribution of ashes", he concluded, "we renew our commitment to follow Jesus, letting ourselves be transformed by his paschal mystery so that we may conquer evil and do good, so that we can let our 'old selves', tied to sin, die and let the 'new person' be born, transformed by the grace of God".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Follow Up


[Bold emphasis added]

VATICAN CITY, 16 FEB 2010 (VIS) - Given below is the communique released this morning after the Holy Father's meeting of yesterday and today with the Bishops of the Irish Bishops' Conference.

"On 15 and 16 February 2010, the Holy Father met the Irish Bishops and senior members of the Roman Curia to discuss the serious situation which has emerged in the Church in Ireland. Together they examined the failure of Irish Church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing with cases involving the sexual abuse of young people by some Irish clergy and religious. All those present recognized that this grave crisis has led to a breakdown in trust in the Church's leadership and has damaged her witness to the Gospel and its moral teaching."

"The meeting took place in a spirit of prayer and collegial fraternity, and its frank and open atmosphere provided guidance and support to the Bishops in their efforts to address the situation in their respective Dioceses."

"On the morning of 15 February, following a brief introduction by the Holy Father, each of the Irish Bishops offered his own observations and suggestions. The Bishops spoke frankly of the sense of pain and anger, betrayal, scandal, and shame expressed to them on numerous occasions by those who had been abused. There was a similar sense of outrage reflected by laity, priests and religious in this regard."

"The Bishops likewise described the support at present being provided by thousands of trained and dedicated lay volunteers at parish level to ensure the safety of children in all Church activities, and stressed that, while there is no doubt that errors of judgment and omissions stand at the heart of the crisis, significant measures have now been taken to ensure the safety of children and young people. They also emphasized their commitment to cooperation with the statutory authorities in Ireland - North and South - and with the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland to guarantee that the Church's standards, policies, and procedures represent best practice in this area."

"For his part, the Holy Father observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image. While realizing that the current painful situation will not be resolved quickly, he challenged the Bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage. He also expressed the hope that the present meeting would help to unify the Bishops and enable them to speak with one voice in identifying concrete steps aimed at bringing healing to those who had been abused, encouraging a renewal of faith in Christ and restoring the Church's spiritual and moral credibility."

"The Holy Father also pointed to the more general crisis of faith affecting the Church and he linked that to the lack of respect for the human person and how the weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors. He stressed the need for a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, and called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed."

"The Bishops had an opportunity to examine and discuss a draft of the Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father to the Catholics of Ireland. Taking into account the comments of the Irish Bishops, His Holiness will now complete his Letter, which will be issued during the coming season of Lent."

"The discussions concluded late Tuesday morning, 16 February 2010. As the Bishops return to their Dioceses, the Holy Father has asked that this Lent be set aside as a time for imploring an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in Ireland."

Blogger Comment:

The best priests for the future will be those men who have the courage to face very difficult problems squarely and openly, letting the chips fall where they may, however institutionally embarrassing in the short run. That means we need mature, shrewd, balanced, and logical people who are strong enough to defy the pressure to keep quiet and not rock the boat. If you are the type that is just too weak to ever discern when you absolutely must rock the boat, then, in my opinion, you are not the type that the Church needs as a future priest. We are not a corporate enterprise or cult that needs to protect its image or to preserve genial personal and professional relations at all costs, in a sort of conspiracy of silence. We are servants of the truth, first, foremost, and always. None of us in the Church is called to be the servant of a fortress mentality that refuses to admit clear error. The fanatic who embraces a fortress mentality is a complete alien to the Gospel of truth because the truth is our very reason for existing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Not Swept Under the Rug

For an update on the Vatican response to the Irish sex abuse debacle, see this blog link. The Pope will hold a "mini-summit" with Irish bishops; and there is even talk of new, more stringent legislation to stamp out these heinous and wicked abuses.

Update from Vatican Info. Service:


VATICAN CITY, 15 FEB 2010 (VIS) - During the course of the day the Holy Father is meeting with prelates of the Irish Episcopal Conference in the Bologna Hall of the Vatican Apostolic Palace. The meeting began this morning at 9.30 a.m. and is scheduled to conclude at 7 p.m.

St. Anthony of Padua and of Lisbon

Yes, many of us forget that this saint was born in Portugal (his birth name: Fernando Martins de Bulhões). He had the charism of miracles (see the old Catholic Encyclopedia links: here and here). Below are the Pope's remarks, with bold emphasis and parenthetical comments added by me:


VATICAN CITY, 10 FEB 2010 (VIS) - Benedict XVI dedicated his catechesis during this morning's general audience to St. Anthony of Padua, "one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church".

St. Anthony was born to a noble family in Lisbon around the year 1195. Following a period spent with the Augustinian Canons, he entered the Friars Minor in the hope of travelling to Morocco to work as a missionary. [A very Iberian preoccupation--although St. Francis of Assisi, Anthony's model, also had zeal for the conversion of Muslims.]

However he fell sick and returned to Italy where he dedicated himself to intense and effective apostolic labours. He died in Padua in 1231 and was canonised by Pope Gregory IX in 1232.

"Anthony", the Pope explained, "made a significant contribution to the development of Franciscan spirituality with his outstanding gifts of intelligence, balance, apostolic zeal and, especially, mystic fervour. ... He was also one of the first, if not the first, master of theology among the Friars Minor".

The saint wrote two cycles of sermons, one entitled "Sunday Sermons" the other "Sermons on the Saints", in which he presented "a true itinerary of Christian life. Such is the wealth of spiritual teachings contained in the 'Sermons' that in 1946 Venerable Pope Pius XII proclaimed Anthony a Doctor of the Church, giving him the title of 'Doctor Evangelicus' because all the freshness and beauty of the Gospel emerges in his writings", said the Holy Father.

Anthony of Padua, or of Lisbon as he is also known, defined prayer "as a relationship of love, which leads man to a dialogue with the Lord", and he described four "attitudes" which must characterise it: "trustingly opening our hearts to God, affectionately conversing with Him, presenting Him our needs, and giving Him praise and thanks. In this teaching of St. Anthony", the Pope explained, "we see one of the specific traits of Franciscan theology; ... that is, the central role of divine love which enters the sphere of the affections, of the will, of the heart, and which is the source of a spiritual knowledge that surpasses all other knowledge".

But the "Doctor Evangelicus" also knew the defects of human nature, such as "the tendency to fall into sin, and so he continually exhorted people to combat the inclination to avarice, pride and impurity. ...

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, in a context of expanding cities and flourishing trade, a growing number of people were insensitive to the needs of the poor. For this reason, Anthony frequently invited the faithful to turn their thoughts to true wealth, that of the heart" and to seek the friendship of those most in need.

"Is this not", the Pope asked, "also an important lesson for us today, as the financial crisis and serious economic imbalances impoverish many people, and create situations of distresss?" He then went on to comment on one another aspect of Franciscan theology, Christocentrism, which "invites us to contemplate the mysteries of the Lord's humanity", especially His Nativity and Crucifixion.

"The vision of the crucified Lord", said the Holy Father, inspired in Anthony "feelings of recognition towards God and of respect for the dignity of the human person". In that vision "everyone, believers and non-believers, may find a meaning that enriches life". This, he explained, "is the importance of the crucifixion in our culture and our humanity, which are born of the Christian faith, ... because God considers us so important as to be worthy of His suffering".

The Pope concluded his catechesis by calling on St. Anthony to intercede for the whole Church, and in particular for "those who dedicate their lives to preaching. Drawing inspiration from his example, may they unite sound and healthy doctrine, sincere and fervent piety, and incisive communication. In this Year for Priests, let us pray that priests and deacons eagerly carry out their ministry of announcing and contextualising the Word of God for the faithful, especially in liturgical homilies".

Friday, February 5, 2010

Avoiding the Idol of Social Approval

It is easy to spot the obvious idols. It is harder to spot a much more subtle idol: getting the approval that we want from others. For the sake of the approval of others, some have destroyed themselves in the process. We see it in the financial world, in the world of male-female relations, in the academic world, and certainly in the political world. It is trendy to speak of human beings as being "hard-wired" for this or that. Well, it is clear that all of us have a great thirst to be affirmed by others. It is a healthy and natural desire. But it can be dangerous.

The believer has an advantage over the non-believer: disapproval from others is never a "make or break" matter. For the believer, detachment is a great weapon because the source of our self-worth and self-respect does not come from other human beings but rather from the Creator alone--much as we say that our human rights are not bestowed by any government, but rather from God (or, for non-theists, by "nature"). Hence, all human evaluations are inherently relative and questionable. The only unquestionably reliable source of evaluation is our Creator, and no one else. The result of this world view is great freedom, peace, resourcefulness, and creativity in the face of obstacles. The believer should never be paralyzed by obstacles and resistance from sources, individual or collective, that lack the power to make any definitive judgment about any of us.