Category: Bible and Theology

There has been much discussion, commentary, and debate on Pope Benedict’s much anticipated encyclical on the economy Caritas in Veritate (remarkable for a statement that has not yet been released).  At the PowerBlog, we will keep you informed on what is being said about the encyclical and, when it is released, we look forward to providing great coverage.

Two of the most recent commentaries came from John Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter and Michael Novak in First Things.  In Allen’s preview of the new encyclical he states:

In effect, what Benedict laid out last night likely amounts to the theological and spiritual substructure of the encyclical, minus the specific economic prescriptions.

The core of what Benedict said, during an ecumenical vespers service at the grand basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, is that building a better world requires forming better people.  Structural reform thus presuppose personal moral and spiritual renewal, including a life devoted to prayer and the sacraments.

Allen further hints at the theme of the encyclical with his statement:

The idea that a better world must be built on better people is likely to be a core theme in Caritas in Veritale, and the pope dealt with it at length yesterday.

“Paul tells us [that] the world cannot be renewed without new human beings,” Benedict said. “Only if there are new human beings will there be a new world, a renewed and better world.”

There is much speculation that the new encyclical will be in favor of free markets and Novak responds to the criticism from those on the left:

For moralists, it is essential to see how often (not always) government itself sins grievously against the common good, out of a lust for power and domination over others.  Furthermore, government often (not always) generates foolish and destructive regulations, and often dispenses justice that winks rather than justice that is blind.  Government is more frequently the agent of injuring the common good than the ordinary lawful actions of free citizens.  During the twentieth century, governments too often destroyed the common good of their citizens for years to come.

I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.

Here’s an example. Last week I asked, “Whither justice?” and noted some of Luther’s words on the subject. Here’s Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, virtually echoing Luther:

What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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Just how zealous for justice ought Christians be? I admit that I’m always just a bit put off when folks describe the prime mission of Christians as pursuing justice in the world. Let’s not forget that the foundational Christian reality is forgiving love on the basis of the divine justice manifested on the cross.

Or as Luther puts it in his commentary on Romans (emphasis added),

This is the reason (if I may speak of myself) why even hearing the word “justice” nauseates me to the point that if someone robbed me, he would not bring me such grief. And yet the word is always sounding in the mouths of the lawyers. There is no race of men upon the earth who are more ignorant about this matter than the lawyers and the good-intentioners and the intellectuals. For I in myself and with many others have had the experience that when we were righteous, God laughed at us in our righteousness. And yet I have heard men who dared to say: “I know that I have righteousness, but God does not notice it.” That is true, but it is a righteousness only in one particular; but for this God cares nothing. Therefore the only complete righteousness is humility, which subjects everyone to everyone else and thus gives everything to everyone, as Christ says to John: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Thus in Dan. 3 Azariah confesses that he and his friends are at one and the same time suffering justly and yet are afflicted with evil, namely, at the hands of the wicked king. For even though he who acts does so unjustly, yet he does not do so to the person who suffers; for that person suffers justly. For by what legal right does the devil possess men? Or by what legal right does an evil hangman hang a thief? Certainly not in his own right, but by that of the judge. Thus men who glory in their own righteousness are unwilling to listen to the supreme Judge, but only to their own judgment, and because in respect to their victim they are innocent, they think that they really are innocent in every way.

Therefore since before God no one is righteous, absolutely no injustice can be done to a person by any other creature, even though he may have justice on his side. Thus all cause for contention is taken away from men. Therefore, to whomsoever an injury is done or an evil comes in return for his good actions, let him turn away his eyes from this evil and remember how great his own evil is in other respects, and then he will see how good the will of God is even in this evil which has come upon him; for this is what it means to be renewed in one’s mind and to be changed into another state of mind and to be wise in the things of God. Thus it is definite that Peter would not have glorified God if he had girded himself and gone where he wanted to go, even though he would not have walked a wicked path, but the highest road of righteousness. But after this road of his own righteousness was prohibited and he went where he did not want to go but where another wanted, then he glorified God. So also we cannot glorify God unless we do what we do not wish, even in the case of our own works of righteousness, indeed, particularly in the case of our own righteousness, our own counsels, or our own strength. And thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be His disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that the ethical norm in social ethics is “justice.” But out of sheer humility let’s not be too zealous for justice, at least not without consciously, intentionally, and systematically connecting it to divine love.

First Things revisits Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s reflections on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its role in American religious and political life, past, present, and future.

It was originally published in 2005, but deserves renewed scrutiny because Dolan was recently installed as the leader the Archdiocese of New York, widely perceived as the preeminent American see.

And his observations happen to be relevant to the Notre Dame controversy (see Michael Miller’s post below); and to the ongoing question of interpreting Catholic social teaching in the context of American politics (see Fr. Sirico’s post below.)

Said Dolan:

Bishops seem to sense that a return to the John Carroll-John England style of leadership might be in order. Above all, these patriarchs were concerned with building the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishops today increasingly ask whether it is now necessary to rebuild the Church in America, through reform and renewal. They wonder if we need to start internally, concentrating first on pastoral issues such as widespread catechetical illiteracy, the collapse of marriage and family life, the restoration of a “culture of life,” genuine liturgical reform, a return to the sacrament of penance, a national commitment to obey the third commandment, and the promotion of authentic renewal in the lives of our priests and religious…

As a graduate of Notre Dame I have been asked many times what I think of Notre Dame inviting President Barack Obama to speak at commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Many have ably commented on this, including Fr. Sirico here at Acton, Dr. Donald Condit, and over 50 bishops. I think the ND Response video piece sums it up well. But I received a video appeal from Notre Dame the other day asking for money which prompted me to comment. (See my reply to the appeal below)

I think Fr. Jenkins made a serious mistake of judgment in inviting President Obama to the graduation. The controversy over President Obama coming to Notre Dame is not an argument about the value of open debate at a university; it is not about President Obama. It is about a Catholic institution honoring a public figure whose positions directly contradict those of the Catholic Church on the key non-negotiable issues of life.

Faithful Catholics are free to disagree about a host – in fact, the overwhelming majority – of political and economic issues, but some moral issues, like the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life, are not up for debate and never have been. See Cardinal Ratzinger’s Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles especially paragraph #3

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Jenkins, has tried to justify the invitation on many levels, but the attempts have been exercises in sophistry. If you have any doubts on this score see Fr. Raymond De’Souza’s fine piece on the matter.

Despite the outcry against Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins and his staff seem oblivious and continue business as usual. Just last week I received an e-mail from the Notre Dame development office with a video asking for money. The style was postmodern and adolescent, and the content of the appeal focused predominantly on race and environment–important concerns but tone deaf in the context of the current controversy.

Below is my (edited) response to the development appeal and my views on Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president. (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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joker It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.

If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:

Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.

After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:

For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.

This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).

In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.

This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”

lazarus1Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11: 25, 26

The text comes from the account of Lazarus being raised to life by Christ after already being dead for four days. The question “Do you believe this?” was posed to the sister of Lazarus, Martha. There have been people who have shunned their faith, and shunned Christ because of a great tragic event in their life. Perhaps somebody intimately close to them has died. Maybe we even know somebody who has left the Church because they suffered a great loss.

While reading God’s Word it is important to take note of the point being made. Do we ourselves believe? In this passage Jesus is quick to be clear that our own resurrection and eternal fellowship with Him is related to our own confession and faith.

Concerning the account of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11, it is assuring that the dead listen to Christ. They hear his words and they are raised to life. In the passage Martha says that she knows that Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus counters “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ is the author of the resurrection power. As the writer of the Gospel has already testified, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). For Christ, isn’t it as easy to raise Lazarus now as it would be at a later resurrection?

Earlier in this passage Martha says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha has great faith even though she did not have a full understanding yet. A full comprehension notes that Jesus, the very one speaking to Martha at that moment, is the resurrection and author of all through eternity. Jesus shows his power and authority over death with his raising of Lazarus.

Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.

The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.

rebellion In the new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, James Mann wants you to meet Reagan as the rebel who parted ways from cold war hawks in his own administration and foreign policy “realists” who were loyal to containment. It could be argued that Reagan was the atypical conservative dove in Mann’s view.The author does provide a relatively fresh thesis on Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, which reinforces his rejection of what he calls “both left wing and right wing extremes.” Mann believes conservatives who champion Reagan as the president who had a well formulated economic and military plan to execute the end of the Soviet Union, and left wing critics who saw Reagan as lucky, overly simplistic and vapid, were both wrong.

When it comes to Soviet diplomacy, Mann’s account is highly praiseworthy of Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schultz. He sees the end of the Cold War as a result of both of men’s instincts and creativity in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev, rather than the heavy arms build up, resistance to détente, and “saber-rattling” of Reagan’s first term. Critics of Reagan from the right, “failed to see the dynamics that were propelling change [in the Soviet Union]. Reagan would come to grasp the situation better and more quickly than they did,” says Mann. (more…)

It’s not quite gotten to the point of robbing Peter to pay Paul, at least not yet, but following the spate of foreclosures on residential and commercial properties, you can expect another rash of foreclosures on church buildings across the country. There are a number of factors that will contribute to this phenomenon. In no particular order:

  • In many churches the same people who overbought McMansions run the church’s finances. They wanted to be as comfortable at church as they are (or were) at home, and so they led the church into overbuying.
  • The general economic decline will lessen the ability and/or willingness of members to give.
  • Decreased tax deductions will disincentivize giving by the heavy-hitters who carry the major financial water in nearly every congregation.
  • Zoning boards and municipalities that have been frustrated for years will leap at the chance to convert tax-free church buildings into potential sources of tax revenue.

In general, many churches have become a bit too comfortable in this world and a bit too eager to worship in temples rather than tabernacles, if you catch my drift. This economic downturn will expose the priorities of these congregations and their members. The onerous mortgages for multi-million dollar expansions will tap the resources and the generosity of many congregations, preventing them from funding missionaries, Christian day-schools, charitable work, and ministry programs. You will hear cries about religious freedom and persecution, especially related to the last point listed above, but in many ways these churches will simply be reaping what they have sown.

The good news? “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 20, 2009
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I caught last week’s premiere episode of NBC’s Kings. I was curious to see how the biblical parallels between the Old Testament and the contemporary Saul and David story would play out. I also find anything with Ian McShane in it hard to miss, after appreciating his masterful performances in HBO’s Deadwood.

Ian McShane as a modern-day Saul.

Ian McShane as a modern-day Saul.

After the first episode I’m intrigued enough to continue watching, in part to see how the show addresses the question of monarchy. Awhile back I proposed that we understood the government in Old Testament Israel as a kind of constitutional monarchy, given the ability of the prophets to call the king to account on the basis of Torah.

Aquinas has some relevant ruminations, and in preparation for this week’s episode on Sunday night it’d be worth scanning the section from his Summa Theologica that touches the question, “Whether the Old Law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?” (Aquinas thinks so.)

Thomas writes in part that God

prescribed how the king after his appointment should behave, in regard to himself; namely, that he should not accumulate chariots and horses, nor wives, nor immense wealth: because through craving for such things princes become tyrants and forsake justice. He also appointed the manner in which they were to conduct themselves towards God: namely, that they should continually read and ponder on God’s Law, and should ever fear and obey God. Moreover, He decided how they should behave towards their subjects: namely, that they should not proudly despise them, or ill-treat them, and that they should not depart from the paths of justice.