Fra Josemaria M. Barbin on The Temptation of the Istari


The following essay has been writing for this blog by one of our seminarians, Fra Josemaria M. Barbin.  I agree with it in its entirely.

Some say that J. R. R. Tolkien is a black-and-white thinker who just pits the force of good against that of evil. However, his characters prove how Tolkien’s writing does not fall readily into such simple categories. The Istari (also known as wizards), for instance, reveal that in Middle-earth things are no so black-and-white. Tolkien’s wizards illustrate how one may do evil even with the best of intentions, when one is seduced by the temptation to use an evil means to a good end.

The art of living is not always simple. The circumstances of life do not make it all that easy to live up to noble standards. To do so is a true art, because in moral life, just as in art, one eventually has to formulate a solution where none has existed before. Indeed, this line between good and evil at times can be highly ambiguous, and it is often very difficult to make clear moral choices in complex situations. Our counsels are not always certain.

This is where the temptation of the Istari comes in. The syncretistic meshing of good and evil is precisely the art of cold-hearted wizardry. It is shrewd, cunning, deliberate, foresighted and worst of all: it happens frequently in the real world. The cold-hearted wizard plays not only with fire, but with souls.

In the temptation of the Istari, Tolkien explores the sometime murkiness of the dichotomy between good and evil choices, particularly with regard to the means employed in reaching a specific end. He points out time and again: “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy” (Letter 81). By this he articulates the traditional theological maxim: bonum ex integra causa malum ex quocumque defectu, “An action is good when good in every respect; it is wrong when wrong in any respect,” according to which “a morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together” (CCC. 1755). Tinkering with the Ring is always risky business—even, and perhaps especially, for wizards.

All That Glitters is not Gold

In Letter 156, Tolkien writes that the task of the wizards in Middle-earth was principally to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them.” Moreover, he also notes how “these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will” (Letter 181).

At this point in the same letter, Tolkien describes the nature of the “temptation of the Wizards”:

The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not” (emphasis mine).

The wizards were exceedingly wise. They possessed knowledge of the first principles in a supreme degree. However, when it came to particular knowledge concerning ways and means, they had no natural pre-knowledge or expertise. For the ways and means to moderation are infinitely varied according to the affairs, circumstances, and especially where “other wills are concerned” (Letter 156), as Tolkien specifies. Like us, the wizards had to learn this through experience. Tolkien explained that the wizards had no more, if no less “certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian.”

Since prudence, strictly understood, is concerned not with universal principles or the end, but with individual cases and particular means to be employed, it follows that the temptation of the Istari mainly consisted in a tragic flaw in the use of prudence. They knew what to do but not necessarily how to do it.

The Prudence of the Cold-Hearted Wizards 

It is extremely significant how Tolkien depicts the way Saruman tries to persuade Gandalf to join him in his evil scheme:

“We can bide our time, we can keep out thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our design, only in our means” (Book II, chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”; emphasis mine).

Saruman assures Gandalf that the “high and ultimate purpose” will remain unaltered; only the means employed will have to change. But the end does not justify the means. Tolkien once wrote that wizards “could in various ways become self-seeking” (Letter 212). Here Saruman is so deeply inured in his egotistic plot that he can no longer conceive of any choice other than one of expediency. His wisdom remained deep, but his pride outgrew it. And as Chesterton says, “Pride is a poison so very poisonous that it not only poisons the virtues; it even poisons the other vices.” Pride tainted the correct use of prudence, blinding Saruman even to the possibility of choices that do not involve pragmatism, power or self-interest. In the end, he subordinates the end to the means.

Sheer cold-hearted wizardry exchanges the highest ideals for narrow interests. The constant temptation of the Istari, “to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power” (Letters, 156), implies the secret employment of evil means with the view to coerce others, and, thus, gain some type of advantage. It is the execution of an astute plan by words calculated to deceive or circumvent the rights of another person. All this is done in the name and under the guise of the true, good and beautiful. “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The “prudence” of the cold-hearted wizards is utterly wicked, for it is cold calculation that masquerades as the virtue of prudence.

Tolkien correctly suggests that right motives are not enough: they must be coupled with right means. He also explains how the Ring is a great temptation for anyone because it is so easy to assert that one’s intention is to use it for good. Those who operate in this manner, undoubtedly spurred on by the influence of the Ring, do not take into account the corrupting power of the very evil that is being employed in the service of a “just cause.”

An act can be said to be entirely good only when all its elements—its object, circumstances, purpose and means employed—are in conformity with the standards of morality. True prudence then is wise not only in deliberation, but in decision and in direction as well. It carefully considers the correct methods to be employed for virtuous choice, and draws right conclusions about the means to be chosen for virtuous conduct. It ponders on what to do, and how to properly do it. At times, this might require a good dose of wholesome wizardry.

The Voice of Cold-Hearted Wizards

In chapter ten of The Two Towers, Saruman makes his first real appearance. Here he is characterized chiefly by his voice. Like many contemporary politicians, his main power is in his ability to deceitfully persuade. Tom Shippey calls him “the most contemporary figure of Middle-earth,” precisely because he personifies sly politicians, whose main concern is for themselves and whose real intentions are cloaked in sweet, but deceptive language. Indeed, Saruman’s voice had the power to beguile and to persuade in unperceivable ways. The sound of his voice alone

was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will (Book III, chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”; emphasis mine).

As they approached the tower of Orthanc, Gandalf reminded Pippin that “Saruman has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice!” Here, Tolkien, a man who passionately loved language, was not unaware of its power and sought to warn against the snares of sophistry. An explicit effort of mind and will are needed to escape its peril.

Sophists taught the skill to argue for any position, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. This was done through false but appealing arguments, quibbling, the confusion or entrapment of opponents, emotional appeal and slander, the shouting down of opponents, and the use of other rhetoric, such as the sound bite slogans used by pundits in the media today. In all this, getting at the truth was surely not part of the Sophists’ agenda. It was in fact, irrelevant to their intentions. They were not interested in the truth, but in the execution of their plan at the expense of the freedom of others. This is a clear mark of cold-hearted wizardry.

“You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable,” Gandalf would later tell him. This applies to the ancient Sophists as well as to the cold-hearted wizards of today.

The moral framework of the modern world becomes even more complicated when we consider the means that technology presently offers. The modern Machine is a bull-horn for the shrill and cold voice of Saruman. It is not difficult to find “Sharkeys” surfing the Internet, who disguise their cause in fair words and present facts selectively to fit their agenda. Packaged in ear-tickling verbiage, cold-hearted wizards of the virtual world attempt to persuade others to actions inconsistent with sound moral principles.

The tools of technology are themselves morally indifferent, but in the hands of the acting person they assume the moral quality of a means to an end. The tools of modern communication, not only facilitate the immediate and constant connectivity of persons around the globe, as well as a newfound information democracy, but also the lowering of the standards of journalistic integrity and of personal responsibility. We do not have more transparency as a result but less, and while the quantity of information has increased exponentially, the quality has not, nor has our ability to discern the difference been aided by the growth in technology. Tolkien was quite deliberate in equating the power to quicken a desired result through magic with the potential evil of the modern Machine.

So the wizards of the virtual world get a free pass. The free market of ideas is held to be more important than accountability. In the end, this facilitates the methods of propagandists: deliberate misrepresentation, half-truths, selective reporting, etc. All this diminishes the legitimate freedom of others. The relative protection the computer monitor provides ought not to be a pretext for minimizing accountability. Man is always personally responsible for his acts, whether off or online.

Just as wizards were prone to “err and stray” as Tolkien emphasized, as Catholics we are also vulnerable to the seductive appeal of the Ring. It is possible for us to begin with a good intention, but then to act according to the logic of the Machine. We can taint a decent motive of choice and action by not attending to the order which supernatural prudence requires.

It should be evident, then, how the voice of truth can be drowned out by subtly deceptive language. One cannot build an ivory tower out of the rubble of Isengard. Universal truth is easily sacrificed on the altar of narrow agendas, even if only in the sense that one comes to reject the universal truth that the end does not justify the means. “Proprium virtus moralis est facere electionem rectam” (S. Th., I-II, q. 65, a. 1).  St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the proper act of virtue consists in right choice, because true virtue does not stop at a good intention, but executes this good intention through morally right choices, namely, with choices that realize the initial virtuous intention. We have to know what to do and how to do it in the right way.

Gandalf as Ring-Lord: A Would-be “Benevolent” Dictator

When Frodo offered him the Ring, Gandalf rejected it and in the process defined clearly the temptation of the Istari:

No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” […] “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good” (Book I, chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”; emphasis mine).

Perhaps the most profound examination of the ambiguous treatment of good and evil in Tolkien could be found in Letter 246 where he hypothesizes what would have happened if Gandalf was to become Ring-Lord:

Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron. He would have remained ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” (emphasis mine).

The same letter ends with this extremely interesting note:

[The draft ends here. In the margin Tolkien wrote: “Thus while Sauron multiplied [illegible word] evil, he left ‘good’ clearly distinguishable from it. Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil”] (emphasis mine).

Gandalf’s temptation would have been much more subtle. It is unlikely that he would have been an iconoclast, scandalizing others by flaunting his hypocrisy in public. Nonetheless, he would have been a self-righteous hypocrite as Tolkien points out; for he would have claimed that his knowledge of the universal principles (which would have remained great as Tolkien specifies) allowed him to manipulate things subtly so as to modify their structure without really changing them essentially. This would have been the subtlest form of the prudence of cold-hearted wizards.

Gandalf would have certainly given his subjects what they needed and not exactly what they wanted. But no matter how benevolent his dictatorship it might have seemed to be, it would have stripped his subjects of the necessary interior condition of liberty to adhere to the good. Gandalf would have overstepped his competence as a moral force, which, based on freedom and responsibility, is meant to guide the energies of all towards the common good.

This is not to say that legitimate authority is without the power to coerce within the limits of law (divine, ecclesial and human), but that the nobility of the end does not bring a proportionate increase the power to coerce. Nor the “benevolence” of the authority, or the evil of the times authorize a power to violate basic human freedom. Gandalf was eminently good, his cause was supremely noble, and he confronted the greatest evil. He still would not touch the Ring.

Had it been otherwise, he would have “benevolently” imposed the good in a subtly despotic manner. In this way, the climate of genuine freedom would have been contaminated by the stench of the Machine. It would have been a very subtle form of coercion of the will inspired by the logic of the Ring. It would have been sheer wizardry—sheer cold-hearted wizardry.

No wonder Tolkien says that Gandalf would have been far worse than Sauron. Gandalf, the Ring-Lord, would have so integrated good with evil means (subtle coercion of the will in the name of good), that the distinction between good and evil have become confused. It would have become a case of beauty in the beast, in which the good became detestable. This is the art of sheer cold-hearted wizardry at its worst.

In reality, it is only by authentic freedom that man can turn himself towards what is good. Man’s dignity requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses of the passions nor by the mere constraint of cold-hearted wizards.

Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward towards his goal by freely choosing what is good, and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suites to his end (Gaudium et Spes, 17).

In fact, when uninhibited by disordered passions, human nature, elevated by grace enables us to judge correctly about the universal principles of right and wrong. So also, when judgement is to be made about a particular line of action, as a man is, so he judges. The licentious man judges for pleasure, the cowardly man for neglect of duty, the cold-hearted wizard for apparent good. Thus emerges the necessity to cultivate true virtue. The end does not justify the means (CCC. 1753). Or as Tolkien would say, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy” (Letters, 81). No good can come from the Ring. Even in the hands of a benevolent master.

All that glitters is not gold. And all that is gold does not glitter.

As Catholics we are “mortals hemmed in a hostile world” as Tolkien would say. Our Lord exhorts us to be as innocent doves and as wise as serpents (Mt. 10, 16), not as calculating as cold-hearted wizards. Evangelical “wizardry” teaches us the logic of the Cross, not that of power and domination. The Cross of Christ does not glitter: it saves. Our Lady’s mediation of divine grace does not glitter: it sanctifies. The untarnished keys of Peter do not glitter: they illumine. The wisdom of the Gospel, “source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (Dei Verbum, 7), has been a stumbling block not only to Jews and foolishness not only to Gentiles– but it been also a stumbling block and foolishness to the cold-hearted wizards of today.

The Creature Named Catholic Internet

I have expressed my concerns about Catholic Internet culture many times before. Mostly it appears to be a problem with some bloggers, who seem to transform into a fiend returned from the dead as soon as they sit down in front of a computer. But I am of the opinion that the problem runs much deeper than just some mutant bloggers.

Now, I don’t want to generalize. I am probably just from the wrong side of the blogosphere, and aware of my own shortcomings, but where I come from this is a widespread problem. So if this does not gel with your experience just forget everything I am about to say and don’t bother to finish reading. But if, on the other hand, any of this makes any sense to you, then read to the end and assess. Continue reading

Guest Post from Kevin O’Brien on Don Quixote

My friend Kevin O’Brien over at Waiting for Godot to Leave, has kindly given me permission to cross-post his excellent essay “Approaching what is Real: Don Quixote, God, and the Rest of Us.”  I have covered the here the differences between true and ephemeral chivalry before.  But it is extraordinarily important and I very much appreciate Kevin’s perspective.  Reality is our friend as much as it hurts us to admit it.

For they had bartered the reality of God for what is unreal, and had offered divine honors and religious service to created things, rather than to the Creator–He who is for ever blessed. Amen. (Rom. 1:25)

As we drive around the country performing murder mystery dinner theater shows, my actress Maria Romine and I listen to audio books.  We’ve lately been listening to Don Quixote, the unabridged version, read very well by George Guidall.

It’s a 40 hour long production, and we’re only about five hours into it.  But we’re listening to parts that I’ve never read (my printed version is abridged).

We’ve come to the “pastoral interlude” where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are spending time with some shepherds.  We are beginning to learn that Don Quixote is not the only madman who’s a bit too idealistic for his own good.  While Don Quixote has been inspired to become a knight errant, a group of well-fed suburban yuppies have been inspired to become shepherds and live out a kind of pastoral romance while not at the shopping mall.

In this interlude, we hear Don Quixote wax eloquently on the “golden age”, a mythical era of chivalry that sounds as if it is set in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  Then we hear one of the yuppies who’s living as a shepherd wax eloquently on his “lady”, the disdainful woman he’s pursuing, whose scorning of him leads literally to his death.  We also hear from the pursued lady herself, and while Don Quixote bravely rushes to her defense, her own idealism – a kind of haughty virginity, a sort of smug isolationism – is as strained as the rather contrived love of the yuppie shepherds who dote on her.  Their romance is not quite love and her celibacy is not quite purity.

And that’s the way we often are, even when we’re at our best.  The reason this novel is brilliant is that it examines the complexities of idealism and cynicism.  Don Quixote, the yuppies, their lady – all are really quite mad in a way, and yet all are following ideals – ideals that they can’t quite seem to make work in the real world.  (Kind of like all of us!)  And somehow everyone around them gets sucked in to the yarns they’re spinning – and yet this is not entirely a bad thing.

What does this have to do with the Faith?

I write a lot on about Unreality.  This is my word for our proclivity to live a lie, a comfortable and apparently controllable lie, rather than living the truth.  We know what it means to “get real” with someone; getting “unreal” is just the opposite.  Unreality is marked by things that are contrived, artificial, and somehow dishonest or untrue.  Examples are Oregon Catholic Press music at Mass, bad art and architecture in the churches, the extremely artificial and contrived weirdness of “Christian Courtship“, the false camaraderie of certain groups, cheesy literature and drama (such as Hallmark movies and certain self-consciously Christian films) – and also so much of what we see in the secular culture, especially our favorite fantasy that sex and gender are whatever we choose to make of them, our insane insistence that sex has no correspondence with nature or with reality – and our illusion that meaning has no correspondence with life, that meaning is imposed on life, not discovered in life, etc.

This is all dreadful stuff.  And in a way, Unreality is simply a word for sin.  Indeed, the Laws of Morality and Faith that God has revealed to us are simply the roadmap to Reality (and Heaven) and the Commandments are the “Do Not Enter” signs to prevent us from taking the road to Unreality (and Hell).

Adultery, for instance, is an example of an act that’s dripping with Unreality and that always, somehow, leaves a bit of Hell in its wake.  Love and sex between a man and a woman are designed in such a way that sacramental fidelity and self-sacrifice over the long haul bring untold contentment as well as new life.  Fidelity leads to Reality (and, in a way, to Heaven) because God has made Fidelity at the heart of what is Real.  Therefore cheating, though fun, will end up in shipwreck and misery (in other words, Hell) – for someone, at least, is bound to suffer the consequences of the Unreal – even if it’s the innocent children who are caught up in it all.  In other words, something like adultery is our way of denying the way things are actually made (Reality) and asserting our own fantasy against it (Unreality), and the pain we suffer (the Consequential) is simply the symptom that we’ve been doing things wrong, going the wrong way down a one-way street.  God’s “judgment” is simply the consequence of denying the Truth and Living a Lie.  Unreality is always, then, a form of sin; and sin is always an assertion of a kind of Unreality.

But, as the book Don Quixote shows us, we are made to spin yarns and to imagine great things that never were, like the golden age of chivalry.  If we were all “realists” or cynics, we would all be materialists and atheists, for it takes a kind of poetic vision to see the reality of God and of His Kingdom.  Our capacity for Unreality may be the misuse of our creative and imaginative function – but without that capacity, we would not be able to apprehend the image of God: not because God is Unreal (He is, on the contrary, the source of all that is most Real), but because our imaginative function is our spiritual “nose” as it were, our ability to sense that which is beyond the immediate.

Fiction is made to lead us to Fact.  But as fallen men, we often misuse our fictive function, for we’d rather become gods than serve one.

Indeed, we often misuse the three major gifts that God has given us that separate us from the beasts – Will, Reason and Imagination.  This trinity of gifts – Will, Reason and Imagination (by the term “Imagination” I mean to include what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”) – this trinity of gifts corresponds with the trinity of reality: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.  It is the business of our Will to conform what we do to what is Good; it is the business of our Reason to conform what we think and understand to what is True; and it is the business of our Imagination to conform what we dream and desire and make to what is Beautiful.  All three functions support each other, since the objects toward which they are designed are inextricably interconnected.  What is True is always Good, what is Good is always Beautiful, what is Beautiful is always an aspect of what is True, etc.  We are not ourselves designed to negate this design.  We are not made to use our Will to assert ourselves against the nature of morality, nor are we made to use our Reason to misunderstand the truth that surrounds us, nor are we made to use our imaginations to invent things to fulfill the desires of our hearts that are merely shortcuts or sops, things that give us passing pleasure but that are untrue, unreal.  God gives us these gifts – Free Will, Reason and Imagination – to be ordered to Him – for even though we may misuse them, without them we cannot truly serve Him.

So let me sum this up by speaking in a quixotic manner – and I think, perhaps, I am speaking for many of you.

Sometimes in pursuing my most ardent ideals, I find that I am merely tilting at windmills – or worse, I am hurting others by holding them to the impossible standards that I myself cherish, but that I myself fall shy of, too.  In addition, I waver between cynicism and idealism.  I am often tempted to see my steed as a broken down nag, my lady as the more or less compromised streetwalker that she is, my daily devotion to theater as the rather sordid performances in wineries for drunks and rednecks that these performances often are; or vice-versa, I see in my broken down nag the steed she really is; I see within the streetwalker a hidden lady of dignity and glory, and I see in my drunken audiences immortal souls being lifted up in laughter, being raised for a moment a slight bit closer to the One who made them.  And somehow all of this is true – the dreary reality on the surface and the stunning Reality behind and within it.

And so we pray

Dear God, may we always long for You as the hart longs for water (Ps. 42:1), seeing in You the source of the living water for which we truly thirst (John 4:10).  Do not let us fill ourselves with that which is unreal and which will not sustain us.  Show us our sins that we may repent of them and turn toward You.  Give us the grace “to turn from these unreal things, to worship the ever-living God” (Acts 14:15) – for thy Kingdom is always more real than the false and haughty man-made towers we build (Gen. 11:1-9).  Purify our Will to do what is Good, our Reason to see what is True, and our Imagination to desire what is Beautiful and holy.  And always remind us that the world we are tempted to love too much is also a bit less than fully real, that all of creation is but a “shadow of the things that are to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17).

The Spirit(s) of the Synod

That Pope Francis would have executed the synod in the manner in which he did was predictable from many things he has said over the course of his papacy, including Evangelii Gaudium, esp. 32-39. From what he says there, especially about the “conversion of the papacy,” it seems he is not adverse to critique, as long as there is ultimate unity with Peter and under Peter (cum Petro et sub Petro).

One ought to make a distinction between legitimate but respectful criticism from those who are genuinely concerned about the preservation of the deposit of faith, and the radicalizing tendencies of certain factions who will use anything to promote their own interests. One group uses Francis’ openness to sinners as an excuse to justify the unjustifiable, and the other is bent on using the synod to prove that everything since Vatican II was a mistake. Continue reading

Peace for the Afflicted

The Church never abandons her children, especially those who suffer.  Dawn Eden, through her book My Peace I Give Youcontinues to be an instrument of Christ for the healing of those who have suffered sexual abuse.

Anthony Esolen, a writer I greatly admire, has written an essay in defense of the innocence of children inspired by reading Dawn’s book.   And The Catholic Herald picked up on her work, occasioned by her recent speaking engagements in the UK.

Her she is speaking on the healing of memory, a subject, which I believe is terribly important:

Teaching from Lost Teaching Moments

Good for him. I would have no sense of judgment on him. God bless ya. I don’t think, look, the same Bible that tells us, that teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say, “Bravo.”

–Cardinal Timothy Dolan on Michael Sam’s coming out

I have received a number of frustrated and angry emails about this.  Though I think it should be fairly obvious that the Cardinal is not condoning homosexual behavior, His Eminence clearly fell into the trap set for him.

Without a doubt, no matter what any person with same sex attraction actually believes about his or her sexual orientation and the acts that might proceed from that attraction, letting other people know about it involves the risk of public embarrassment and rejection.  The answer that society at large presents us is that there is nothing wrong with either the attraction or the acts and that rather than be embarrassed by one’s homosexuality, gay people and the rest of us should celebrate it.  Unfortunately the Cardinal’s remarks only reinforce this idea, even if he is otherwise clear that same sex attraction is disordered and homosexual acts sinful. Continue reading

In the Eye of the Vortex

More evidence of the wedge being driven between the Benedictine and Franciscan pontificates can be seen in the recent disclaimer/clarification of Michael Voris in which he refuses to publically criticize Pope Francis.  In itself this is only a small example of the difficulty, but it is also another instance of a mounting problem manifesting itself at various levels: doctrinal, liturgical, pastoral.  Voris knows he is on the cutting edge of the problem.

You might legitimately ask why I think his refusal to publically criticize Pope Francis is a problem.  I don’t.  But Voris does find himself to be part of the wedge between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, and in my estimation he has not really got himself out of it.  Let me explain. Continue reading

Vatican Insider Interview with FI Spokesman

Unofficial translation of the Italian original follows:

Vatican City
In an order whose predominant attention is to the traditional liturgy. A decree of the Pope appoints an apostolic commissioner

Alessandro Speciale
Vatican City

The Congregation for Religious, with the approval of Pope Francis, decided last July 11 to appoint a commissioner to the Congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a religious order in which the spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi had, in recent years, been combined with a predominant attention given to the traditional liturgy.

The appointing of a commissioner, one reads in the decree of the vatican ‘ministry’ for religious orders, aims to “protect and promote the internal unity of religious institutes and their fraternal communion, their adequate formation in religious and consecrated life, the organization of apostolic activities “and” the proper management of temporal goods. ” Continue reading

Pope Francis on Ideology

The following remarks were made by Pope Francis yesterday to the leadership of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean concerning he Church in Latin America.  Take it for what it is.  Personally, I do not believe the critiques apply only to that part of the world.  Stay away from the fringes.

4. Some temptations against missionary discipleship

The decision for missionary discipleship will encounter temptation. It is important to know where the evil spirit is afoot in order to aid our discernment. It is not a matter of chasing after demons, but simply one of clear-sightedness and evangelical astuteness. I will mention only a few attitudes which are evidence of a Church which is “tempted”. It has to do with recognizing certain contemporary proposals which can parody the process of missionary discipleship and hold back, even bring to a halt, the process of Pastoral Conversion.

1. Making the Gospel message an ideology. This is a temptation which has been present in the Church from the beginning: the attempt to interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel itself and apart from the Church. An example: Aparecida, at one particular moment, felt this temptation. It employed, and rightly so, the method of “see, judge and act” (cf. No. 19). The temptation, though, was to opt for a way of “seeing” which was completely “antiseptic”, detached and unengaged, which is impossible. The way we “see” is always affected by the way we direct our gaze. There is no such thing as an “antiseptic” hermeneutics. The question was, rather: How are we going to look at reality in order to see it? Aparecida replied: With the eyes of discipleship. This is the way Nos. 20-32 are to be understood. There are other ways of making the message an ideology, and at present proposals of this sort are appearing in Latin America and the Caribbean. I mention only a few:

a) Sociological reductionism. This is the most readily available means of making the message an ideology. At certain times it has proved extremely influential. It involves an interpretative claim based on a hermeneutics drawn from the social sciences. It extends to the most varied fields, from market liberalism to Marxist categorization.

b) Psychologizing. Here we have to do with an elitist hermeneutics which ultimately reduces the “encounter with Jesus Christ” and its development to a process of growing self- awareness. It is ordinarily to be found in spirituality courses, spiritual retreats, etc. It ends up being an immanent, self-centred approach. It has nothing to do with transcendence and consequently, with missionary spirit.

c) The Gnostic solution. Closely linked to the previous temptation, it is ordinarily found in elite groups offering a higher spirituality, generally disembodied, which ends up in a preoccupation with certain pastoral “quaestiones disputatae”. It was the first deviation in the early community and it reappears throughout the Church’s history in ever new and revised versions. Generally its adherents are known as “enlightened Catholics” (since they are in fact rooted in the culture of the Enlightenment).

d) The Pelagian solution. This basically appears as a form of restorationism. In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful. In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary “safety”. Basically it is static, although it is capable of inversion, in a process of regression. It seeks to “recover” the lost past.

2. Functionalism. Its effect on the Church is paralyzing. More than being interested in the road itself, it is concerned with fixing holes in the road. A functionalist approach has no room for mystery; it aims at efficiency. It reduces the reality of the Church to the structure of an NGO. What counts are quantifiable results and statistics. The Church ends up being run like any other business organization. It applies a sort of “theology of prosperity” to the organization of pastoral work.

3. Clericalism is also a temptation very present in Latin America. Curiously, in the majority of cases, it has to do with a sinful complicity: the priest clericalizes the lay person and the lay person kindly asks to be clericalized, because deep down it is easier. The phenomenon of clericalism explains, in great part, the lack of maturity and Christian freedom in a good part of the Latin American laity. Either they simply do not grow (the majority), or else they take refuge in forms of ideology like those we have just seen, or in partial and limited ways of belonging. Yet in our countries there does exist a form of freedom of the laity which finds expression in communal experiences: Catholic as community. Here one sees a greater autonomy, which on the whole is a healthy thing, basically expressed through popular piety. The chapter of the Aparecida document on popular piety describes this dimension in detail. The spread of bible study groups, of ecclesial basic communities and of Pastoral Councils is in fact helping to overcome clericalism and to increase lay responsibility.

We could continue by describing other temptations against missionary discipleship, but I consider these to be the most important and influential at present for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Queen of the May

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Bring Flowers of the Rarest” is an extra-liturgical May crowning hymn that seems to be a rather sentimental nod to the ambiguity of modern May “devotion,” and perhaps (or perhaps not) an assault upon it.  It is a preconciliar hymn that I have often heard characterized as “schmaltzy” and inappropriate for the liturgy, though I have heard it many times used in traditional circles for Holy Mass.

What interests me here is its relation to the pagan or neopagan celebrations associated with May Day, the spring festival.  The “Queen of the May” or “May Queen” is a personification of Spring which is ritualized in May Day celebrations by the selection of a young girl dressed in white and crowned with flowers who leads the May Day parade. British folklore has it that of old the ritual ended with the blood sacrifice of the May Queen. Continue reading