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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Two Ways for a Religion to Expand Rapidly

Age of the CaliphsImage via Wikipedia
In talking with people (something which, by the way, I greatly enjoy), I am sometimes amazed how many (even very educated, otherwise thoughtful people) fail to grapple with basic and undeniable historical facts that enable one to draw practical distinctions between one thing or another. For example, I see a habit of secular people often lumping together Christianity and Islam as more or less fungible and interchangeable expressions of a benighted religiosity for which they have no time.

Yet, there are major, fundamental differences that even a basic knowledge of history brings to our attention. There are at least two ways for a religion to expand with rapid and astonishing speed. The two ways are not created equal. The first way is to lead armies of conquest that transform societies so that those who want full rights and advancement eventually need to convert to a particular religion. That is the undisputed way for the rapid and astonishing early expansion of Islam in many nations that were originally and for centuries Christian, such as Egypt and Syria. (Egypt's population is still about 10% Christian.)

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in AthensImage via Wikipedia
A second way for a religion to expand with astonishing speed is the Christian way of the first three centuries after the death of Jesus. From 30 or 33 A.D. when Jesus was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to 313 A.D., Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire and persecuted intermittently, at times more ferociously than at other times. At all times, Christianity was the outsider that appealed first to the outcasts, such as slaves, and to women, who were also not at the top of the power structure in Roman lands. Christianity for about 300 years spread primarily by good, old-fashioned persuasion, persuasion marked by miraculous events, by powerful preaching, and later by persuasive, more philosophical defenses of the Christian alternative to paganism. Christianity did not spread by the sword for three centuries after the death of Christ.

Yes, the rapid expansion of both Islam and Christianity is very astonishing as historical fact. Yet, what is more astonishing is that the Christian version of rapid expansion over three centuries did not occur at the point of a sword, as the aftermath of military conquest. That fact is a major difference that deserves more notice from those who indiscriminately and unthinkingly lump very different religions together. The undeniable historical facts require major distinctions. Even secularists should be literate in religious history in order to make sense of events today.

Monday, February 21, 2011

By the Numbers

[Emphasis added] 

VATICAN CITY, 19 FEB 2011 (VIS) - This morning, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone S.D.B. and Archbishop Fernando Filoni, substitute for General Affairs, presented the Holy Father with the 2011 edition of the "Annuario Pontificio" or pontifical yearbook. Also present were the officials responsible for compiling and printing the volume.

  A note concerning the presentation highlights some of the facts contained in the new edition. In 2010, the Pope erected ten new episcopal sees, one apostolic exarchate and one apostolic vicariate. One diocese was elevated to the rank of metropolitan see, two prelatures to the rank of diocese, and two apostolic prefectures and one apostolic administration to the rank of apostolic vicariates.

  The number of Catholics in the world increased from around 1,166 million in 2008 to 1,181 million in 2009, an increase of fifteen million faithful which corresponds to a growth of 1.3 percent.

  The distribution of Catholics between the continents is notably different from that of the general population. Between 2008 and 2009 the Americas maintained their proportion of the global population fixed at 13.6 percent; by contrast, over that two-year period Catholics there reached 49.4 percent of the Catholic population of the world. Over the same period, Asia's Catholic population increased from 10.6 percent to 10.7 percent of the world total, considerably lower than the 60.7 percent of the global population living in that continent. Europe's share of the world population is three percentage points lower than that of the Americas, but its share of world Catholics is nearly half that of the Americas, at 24 percent. For States in both Africa and Oceania, their share of the world population differs little from their share of the world Catholic population (respectively, 15.2 percent and 0.8 percent).

  The note also indicates that the number of bishops grew between 2008 and 2009 from 5,002 to 5,065. As for priests, both regular and diocesan, their numbers have increased over the last ten years from 405,178 in 2000 to 410,593 in 2009, although their distribution differs considerably from continent to continent. Numbers of diocesan clergy are falling in Europe and increasing in all the other continents, while numbers of religious clergy are in general decline, with the exception of Asia and Africa.

  Numbers of permanent deacons have increased by 2.5 percent, from 37,203 in 2008 to 38,155 in 2009. Their presence grew more rapidly in Oceania (19 percent) and in Asia (16 percent), while in Europe and America the increase was of 2.3 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.

  Among the pastoral workers who assist bishops and priests in their activities, female religious remain the largest group, although their numbers fell from 739,067 in 2008 to 729,371 in 2009. The crisis continues despite the fact that numbers have increased in Africa and Asia.

  The number of candidates to the priesthood grew by 0.82 percent, from 117,024 in 2008 to 117,978 in 2009. Here too the different continents show a different evolution, for while in Africa and Asia numbers grew by 2.39 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, in Europe and America they fell by 1.64 percent and 0.17 percent.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Honor Blind

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia 1496-...Image via Wikipedia
It is fitting in the immediate aftermath of what is, hopefully, a sustainable victory for democracy and freedom in Egypt to speak about honor. For, from reports I have read, it seems that honor and dignity are precisely what the Egyptian demonstrators were demanding from a regime whose inept bureaucracy viewed them with disdain and indifference until it was too late.

I am reminded of the ancient Roman legend of how the last king of Rome was overthrown and replaced by the Roman Republic. The Republic supposedly arose in reaction to a grievous offense to honor-- when the son of the king raped Lucretia, one of the virtuous and chaste matrons of Rome (see the Botticelli image above). Offending honor can have significant historical consequences.

All human beings have an innate desire for honor and dignity, yet many are "honor blind" in the sense that they cannot perceive how they offend the honor and dignity of others. You can see it on the level of nations, as we just saw in Egypt. You see it at the level of social and religious groups where division arises when leaders refuse to loosen their grip on power and, instead of serving others, decide that others exist to serve their delusions of grandeur. You see it in personal relations where some individuals cannot comprehend or do not wish to comprehend how they have offended the honor and dignity of others. As a result, these honor blind individuals do not even attempt to mitigate the dishonor they impose on others.

It is a great irony: everyone wants honor and dignity, yet many deny it routinely to others and refuse to make amends. In the U.S., we are fortunate to live in a society that respects the human rights of most (unless you happen to be living in a womb). Yet, in many of our personal relationships, honor blindness is present. We need to recover the significance of honor, our own and that of others, and think how our actions will affect the honor and dignity of others. Think how often people engage in actions that have grave effects on others without once taking into account the damage to the honor of others. Then, they remain clueless as to why things do not work out as they wish. We can paraphrase the Bible: if you wish to reap honor, then sow decent respect, with foresight, for the honor and dignity of others.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More Muslim Persecution of Christians: Jailed Christian, Burned Churches, Destruction in Indonesia

Here is the Wall Street Journal online link.

I saw, not too long ago, on a liberal college campus, a sign calling for discussion about alleged "Islamophobia." Well, I think there is much more abundant evidence of "Christophobia"--concrete evidence of killings, bombings, imprisonment, rape, slavery, burning and destruction of churches in several Muslim countries. The discussion groups better keep up with current events.

Take a look at the photos of the damage.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Trinity 101

The Shield of the Trinity is a diagram of the ...Image via Wikipedia
I recall the difficulties of a white Briton, with whom I used to speak often and who had become Muslim, with trying to grasp the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I find that some here in the U.S. who are still, at least nominally, Christian have a similar problem.

Then, recently I heard a news report from the U.K. speaking about how some young black Britons have abandoned the Christianity of their parents for Islam due, in apparently some measure, to a failure to adequately come to grips with the Trinity. One Christian leader from the U.K., interviewed on the broadcast, pointed to the lack of suitable education in the Christian faith as abetting this situation.

You can write thousands of pages on the Trinity and its doctrinal development. Certainly, I could very well dedicate myself to tracing that history through hours of research and then try to share the fruits of my research with others in the hope of addressing this need. Yet, I would rather focus on what I call "Trinity 101," a simple, short, and direct presentation of the Trinity for others to consider. As is the authentic Christian way, I seek only to propose, not to impose.

"Trinity 101" begins with this often overlooked, fundamental datum of Christian revelation: God is love. Love requires a beloved. Love is not a solitary affair. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, the love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. One God who is love is intrinsically relationship. Relationship needs more than one person. Those persons are revealed as three in the Gospels, especially at that moment when the Father calls his Son the beloved and when the Holy Spirit descends on the Son on the day in which Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. Each of the above statements can spark thousands of pages of comment and exploration, and they have. Yet, the heart of the argument is quite simple and elegant.

The question, at the end of the day, is this: Is your God love? The Christian proposal makes "God is love" a central and decisive doctrine, a doctrine which, through revelation and reasonable reflection, gives us the Trinity. Compared to the Trinity, a non-Trinitarian monotheism leaves a lot unexplained.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ronald Reagan Birth Centennial Today

Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Illinois.Image via Wikipedia
In the Washington Post, the authorized Reagan biographer Edmund Morris (also a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt), takes aim at five myths about Reagan. Here is an especially interesting and fascinating excerpt:

4. He was only a campaign Christian.

On the contrary, Reagan was a "practical Christian," that being the name of a mainly Midwestern, social-work-oriented movement when he was growing up. At 11, young Dutch had an epiphany, prompted by the sight of his alcoholic father lying dead drunk on the front porch of the family house in Dixon, Ill. In a moving passage of autobiography, Reagan wrote: "Seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified - as indeed he was - his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed, I could feel no resentment against him." It was the season of Lent, and his mother, a devotee of the Disciples of Christ, put a comforting novel in his hand: "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright. Dutch read it and told her, "I want to declare my faith and be baptized." He was, by total immersion, on June 21, 1922.

I read a speckled copy of that book in the Library of Congress. Almost creepily, it tells the story of a handsome Midwestern boy who makes good for the sins of his father by becoming a practical Christian and a spellbinding orator. He develops a penchant for brown suits and welfare reform, marries a wide-eyed girl (who listens adoringly to his speeches) and wins election to public office in Washington.

Shy about his faith as an adult, Reagan was capable of conventional pieties like all American politicians. He attended few church services as president. But on occasion, before critical meetings, you would see him draw aside and mumble prayers.

Wow. I had read previously about his mother, a Bible-believing evangelical Protestant very active in her local Disciples of Christ church. I recall reading that some thought she had the charism of healing. If you visit Dixon, Illinois, as I did once on a car trip through northern Illinois several years ago, you can see one of the Reagan childhood homes (not owned but rented), the small town library down the street where, as I recall, he spent a lot of time, and the local Disciples of Christ church which he and his mother attended (see link for information and images of these local sites). (Reagan's alcoholic father was of Catholic background, but Ronald was apparently never baptized as Catholic. As noted in the excerpt above, Ronald was baptized at an older age, 11, as is customary in many evangelical, Baptist-derived traditions.)

The power of faith, providence, and destiny is fascinating. Think of this story and imagine the possibilities of passing on to a young person a good book and opening for them the door of faith and achievement. The possibilities are literally mind-boggling. I also recommend visiting Dixon, Illinois, to see the best America offers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Let My People Go

A Negro church in a corn [i.e. cotton] field, ...Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr
Recently, I described my way of approaching the Synoptic Gospels in a coherent framework, namely, to view them as fulfilling the Exodus (or New Exodus) theme of the Hebrew Bible, with Jesus as the definitive New Moses, greater than the old Moses, definitively ushering in the rule of God (see Related articles below).

The thought came to me that an old Negro spiritual can contain more insight into the panorama of salvation history dramatized in the pageantry of the canonical books of the Bible than many a learned tome full of arcane quotations in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or German. How ironic and how fitting that an expression of faith by slaves can be a very good and often superior summa of the Bible. I think the Man of the Gospels would have liked that reversal.

When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
Source link.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Candlemas Mexican Style--in N.Y.C.

The Presentation of Jesus at the TempleImage via Wikipedia
Here is the link to a delightful article about Mexican-Americans preparing to celebrate Candlemas in New York City. The merging of Catholicism with Mexican culture is profound--something missing from American culture. That is a fact for Catholics to recall when the immigrant-bashing rhetoric gets excessive. I, for one, am grateful for immigrants such as these.

(Simply ask yourself: how often do you read about a Mexican immigrant trying to plant a bomb or engage in a terrorist act? Not often, if at all. Rather, the vast majority comes to the U.S. to landscape our lawns, to pick the crops that keep the produce section well-stocked in our grocery stores, to wash our windows, to change our bedpans, and to do many other necessary things that others deem below their dignity. Politically active pro-lifers, especially, better make sure that they do not alienate such immigrants who hold an important key to political power in presidential contests in the near future.)

Teresa de Jesús


[Blogger note: Here is another reason to learn Spanish--to read the Interior Castle in the original language, something which, based on my own personal reading experience, makes a big difference in capturing the vital flavor of the text.]

VATICAN CITY, 2 FEB 2011 (VIS) - During his general audience, held this morning in the Paul VI Hall, the Pope spoke about St. Teresa of Avila, who lived from 1515 to 1582.

Teresa de Ahumada was born in the Spanish city of Avila, said Benedict XVI. Although as an adolescent she read works of profane literature which led her towards a life in the world, she later turned to spiritual works which "taught her meditation and prayer. At the age of twenty she entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation, also in Avila".

St. Teresa saw her struggle against her own physical ailments as "a struggle against her weakness and resistance before the call of God. ... In Lent 1554, at the age of thirty-nine, Teresa reached the pinnacle of her fight against her own debilities".

"In parallel with the maturation of her interior life, the saint also began to give concrete form to her idea of reforming the Carmelite order. In 1562, with the support of Bishop Alvaro de Mendoza of Avila, she founded the first reformed Carmelite convent. ... Over the following years she continued to found new Carmelite convents, reaching a total of seventeen. Her meeting with St. John of the Cross proved fundamental and with him, in 1568, she founded the first convent of Discalced Carmelites, at Duruelo near Avila". Teresa died in 1582. She was beatified by Paul V in 1614 and canonised in 1622 by Gregory XV. In 1970 Servant of God Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.

The Holy Father noted how "Teresa of Avila had no academic education, however she always gave great weight to the teaching of theologians, men of letters and spiritual masters". Her major works include an autobiography in which she presents her soul to St. John of Avila, and the "Way of Perfection" intended as a spiritual guide for her own nuns. However, "St. Teresa's most famous mystical work is the 'Interior Castle'", said the Pope, in which "she codifies the possible development of Christian life towards perfection. ... To her activity as founder of the Reformed Carmelites, Teresa dedicated another work, the 'Book of Foundations'".

Referring then to the spirituality of Teresa, the Holy Father made particular mention of her interest in "the evangelical virtues as the foundation of all Christian and human life". He also noted how she laid great emphasis on "profound harmony with the great biblical figures" and on "listening to the Word of God. ... The saint also highlights the importance of prayer", he said, "she teaches readers of her works to pray, and she herself prays with them".

"Another question very dear to this saint was the centrality of Christ's humanity. ... This lay at the basis of the importance she attributed to meditation on the Passion, and to the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in the Church, for the life of all believers and as the heart of the liturgy. St. Teresa's love for the Church was unconditional", said the Pope, identifying another essential part of her doctrine in "perfection as the aspiration and final goal of all Christian life".

The Holy Father concluded by saying that "St. Teresa of Avila is an authentic teacher of Christian life for the faithful in all times. In our society, often lacking in spiritual values, St. Teresa teaches us to be tireless witnesses of God, of His presence and His work. ... May the example of this profoundly contemplative and industrious saint, encourage us to dedicate adequate time to daily prayer, to openness to God in order to discover His friendship and so to discover true life. ... Time spent in prayer is not lost; it is a time in which we open the way to life, learning to love God and His Church ardently, and to show real charity towards our neighbours".