Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Church's Hypocrites

The Church will have hypocrites for as long as it is earthly. Hypocrisy flows from the damaged and fallen nature of humankind, and so the only ultimate cure lies in the healing of that broken nature, something that only occurs with finality at the End.

Whilst the Church will always have hypocrites, this does not mean that hypocrites are a good to be treasured qua hypocrites. We all seem to recognize this at least at some level - even those bent on some brand of moral relativism see hypocrisy as immoral. Perhaps this is because hypocrisy is a sin against one of the more treasured of values these days, that of authenticity, of "being yourself." In Jesus' parlance, a hypocrite is someone who acts in such a way publicly that is not reflective of the way they are in reality. Those we now call actors were the hypocrites: they act on stage in the guise of some other person, not acting as themselves. In today's usage, a similar idea is conserved, but the dichotomy is usually presented as between what a person says and what a person does - and normally, there is some clause about being deceptive about it, which I will largely omit discussion of until the end.

Since Jesus' polemics where often against the Pharisees, and since this group is the one Jesus accuses memorably of being hypocrites (cf. Mt. 23), it is the Pharisees we think of most prominently as being hypocrites. And since our Anglophone cultural baggage derives much from the time of the Reformation, our view of the Pharisees is that they were a mean Judean sect, bent on being nasty to everyone and telling them how wonderful they themselves were, they were religious leaders who pestered everyone with their yoke of legalism and works-righteousness. In particular, they completely denied grace as a free gift and were completely unmerciful to anyone.

It seems commonplace, to accuse Church leaders of being hypocrites, or faithful Catholics of being hypocritical, by analogy with the Pharisees: totally mean to everyone, always trying to control the way to heaven by telling people what they can and cannot do, and never being merciful and kind to people (unlike that Jesus chap, the clause is sometimes added). This accusation comes from both the secular world and other groups of Catholics, and to a lesser degree from others.

Now, whether the analogy between the Pharisees as they were in history and particular Catholics nowadays holds is an interesting question. The socio-cultural context of the writing of the New Testament means that an objective view of the Pharisees in not sought - like often happens between religious kin, Christians are quick to differentiate themselves from the Pharisees in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages. Certain myths do exist, however: for instance, the Pharisees were not religious leaders. Whilst it is common to hear talk of Jesus challenging religious authorities - something he did do, at least to some extent - his discussions and polemics with the Pharisees are not instances of this. The Pharisees were a lay group, a particular sect of Judean-Israelite religion, they were not religious leaders. They did not deny grace, did not preach works-righteousness, and I suspect they were mostly very intent on being kind and merciful (even though they probably also had a thoroughly in-group morality). The dis-analogies and myths that we think of when we hear the term Pharisee are numerous. But this is not my point, regardless.

The idea that the only way to be hypocritical is to be like our caricature of the Pharisees should be challenged, for whilst I freely acknowledge that there are many hypocritical Catholics among the faithful, I suspect that the Church's hypocrites that are hiding in plain sight are not the faithful Catholics, but the so-called "dissident" and "nominal" ones.

To be a hypocrite (in modern speech), it was said before, is for there to be a gulf between one's words and actions. If I tell people that it is always important to wash their hands before eating, but do not do so myself, I am being hypocritical. I put to the reader that when the faithful Catholic confesses, as is the true doctrine of the Church, that they are sinful in need of redemption, wrongdoers in need of forgiveness, and yet that not only they do wrong, but also others, and sometimes the wrongdoings of others are different to those which he or she commits, though all wrongdoings are immoral - they are not being profoundly hypocritical. It is true, when faithful Catholic encounters the mercy of God in the confessional, they are acknowledging hypocrisy, admitting that they have done differently to what they professed to be right. And yet, the nominal and dissident Catholics, whilst they also have this hypocrisy that arises from wrongdoing (or worse, hypocrisy arising from claiming that they commit no wrongdoing), they have a hypocrisy far more insidious, one that is not momentary in the occasion of sin, but endures further.

Quite simply, they claim to be something they are not. The litany of exceptions that flow from the phrase "I am Catholic, but..." amount to a resounding "I profess to be Catholic, yet deny it in my being." This is the essence of hypocrisy. It need not be vocalized so clearly, either: there are those who claim to be faithful and true Catholics, yet testify otherwise by their lives: "I have not been to Mass in a couple of years, but I am still a true Catholic," some might say. Perhaps they are very kind people, but let us not be held in jest: the one who claims to be Catholic yet denies that this involves gathering in communion with the rest of the Church for Mass denied in their lives that they are in fact Catholic.[1]

Or they might profess to be Catholic and deny it by their other words: "I am a true Catholic and am pro-abortion." Perhaps this person genuinely thinks they hold coherent beliefs, but in actual fact, they do not. A vegan who eats pork is either not a vegan or does not actually eat pork: the two cannot be held simultaneously. For exactly the same reason, a Catholic pro-abortionist is an oxymoron.

Now, there is some subtlety introduced when a person says "I am a progressive Catholic." Here, the terms admit reconciliation. Far too often, however, what the sentence really means is "I am a hypocrite, I claim to be Catholic when I am not." Progressive Catholicism, for most who claim to be its adherents, is the same as the Catholic buttery above - by adding Progressive as a qualifier, what is implied is that litany of exceptions to actual Catholicism, this time with some good marketing. After all, who is opposed to progress? Certainly not Catholics. But when some modern cultural fad is declared to be progress, such as the recognition of the right to kill one's child, Catholics do not reject it and hence reject progress, it is rejected for being regress. 

I could label myself "A Catholic for Change for the Better" - and if I started calling myself that, who could be opposed? But what would really be hiding, or at least obscuring, is my vision of what the Better is. I might think it would be better if all male, 19 year old students were stoned. I could say that the institution of this would be progress over the dreadful state of affairs where most of the people in that group are not stoned. Though this example is hyperbolic, the point should be clear: it is not the qualifying label that really matters, the label is chosen for PR, what matters is whether the qualifier actually negates the noun, whether claiming to be "progressive" actually constitutes a denial of being Catholic. If it does, then it is hypocrisy.

It is added by some that there are a diversity of views within the Catholic Church. This is absolutely true, there are a diverse set of views - theology would be over if there were not! One such plurality is over some soteriological questions, such as Molinism and Thomism in how to combine free will and predestination. Whilst both views cannot be correct, the Church contains people advocating both (a split which has traditionally been Jesuit-Dominican respectively). What those people tend to mean is that the Church contains views contrary to its teachings, and this is not the case. One can claim to hold to some dissident or heretical view only by deceiving either oneself or those around one, claiming to be something one is not, or in short, hypocrisy.

Let me return briefly to the clause I ignored that is often added to the definition of hypocrisy, ie, that the hypocrite not only acts contrary to their profession of belief, but also that their action is concealed, that there is deceit involved that amounts to a position of moral superiority being wrongly attributed to the hypocrite. If that qualifier is added, then the case of sin-is-hypocrisy mentioned at the beginning is not hypocrisy. However, the nominal and dissident "Catholics" still fall into the bounds of the definition, since they claim to be Catholic only deceitfully.

Perhaps the preceding has seemed overly harsh. I do not think so, I think it is important to flag hypocrisy and deceit in the Church - how can the Church reform if it does not identify the negative elements? Or perhaps it has seemed instead overly arrogant, as if I could say what is and is not Catholic. It has been my intention to keep the examples of ways in which one's Catholicism is denied to the minimum to avoid creating criteria for in-and-out, for precisely that reason. However, it is not arrogant to point out that, in actual fact, the word "Catholic" really means something. It is a word with content. As such, some combinations of the word with other terms produce logical contradictions, just like "vegan meat-eater" or, to use the canonical example, "married bachelor." Such an entity does not exist, and when someone points out that when a married man to claims to be a bachelor he is in fact mistaken or lying, it is not arrogant, it is simply applying the meaning of the words correctly.

Whilst I doubtless hope in vain, it is my hope that hypocrisy will begin not only be identified among those who do wrong, but also among those who claim the identity "Catholic" that they act contrary to.

[1] Some extreme cases could be given where somebody really is a faithful Catholic and has not been to Mass - perhaps they are imprisoned, perhaps there is absolutely no-where Mass is offered, etc. However, this is not a particularly large group, and certainly not the subject of my point here.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic

For a blogpost titled for what I am, it might be odd to start with what I am not. I am not an ethicist. The only reason I know anything about ethics is that ethics deals with how one ought to act, and I, like everyone else, have to act in some way or another. I would like to think that I have as much ethical expertise as business professionals have mathematical expertise: not that much, but enough to do their jobs. Some sort of ethical knowledge is necessary for humans, which are generally moral agents, and therefore I must be acquainted with ethical precepts to do “my job.” But I am not an ethicist.

I have often said that utilitarianism is the only potential candidate for a secular theory of ethics, a position I have held for many years, even when I was an atheist, even when I was willing to act in
Henry Sidgwick, often held
to be the greatest utilitarian.
accordance with my utilitarian values. Utilitarianism is, I think, the first and only truly empiricist theory of ethics, and I would defend it thus: I perceive self-evidently that pleasure is better than pain, indeed, that pleasure is good (hence pleasurable) and pain is bad. I infer that pleasure is better than pain for all sentient beings. I draw the conclusion, then, that what is right is that there be more pleasure and less pain, and finally, that an action is right when it maximises pleasure and minimises pain.

This reasoning solves what I will refer to as the “value problem” (how to jump from a set of empirical data to a value) by empiricist means: I know pleasure is valuable because I experience pleasure as good. It has a positive phenomenal quality. I should note that pleasure is being used in a pseudo-technical sense, because I do not necessarily mean simple pleasures (like eating a good piece of chocolate) but holistic pleasure (which might include reading a good book, or beating a personal best in the pool, or discovering some new fact about the universe). The reverse is true for justifying that pain is bad. This seems to be a solution to the value problem, and if one supposes that other beings are also capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then I think an objective moral duty follows: ceteris paribus, one must increase pleasure and decrease pain.1

When I became a Christian, and more importantly, when I became (of all stripes of Christian) a Catholic, I had to re-evaluate my position. Nonetheless, the argument that I have proposed for utilitarianism does not become unsound (supposing it was sound in the first place) simply because of the large set of other justified beliefs I now had.2 None of these other beliefs negate the truth of the empirical premise (that pleasure has positive phenomenal qualities, and pain has bad) or the assumption that other sentient creatures are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Still, the Church believes in moral rights and wrongs that do not make sense on a utilitarian framework – in most of those cases, the Church is closer to our natural moral intuitions than utilitarian theory is. How was I to make sense of this?

Since I am not an ethicist, and because utilitarian theory and Christian ethics accord on plenty of points, it took me a while to even bother to try and solve this problem. I told everyone that I was a virtue ethicist, although I half meant that I held to the virtue of maximising the good, which is a very utilitarian way of thinking about virtue ethics.

The solution I propose to harmonise both positions seems to me to be remarkably simple, and maybe somebody came up with it before me, even though I did not take it consciously from anywhere else. Because I study mathematics, and because utilitarianism lends itself naturally to discussions of moral calculus, this solution might sound overly mathematical and complicated, but the principle is very simple: experience shows that pleasure is an intrinsic good. What being a Catholic adds is consideration of other intrinsic goods. Being Catholic does not so much negate the previous solution to the value problem that utilitarianism offers, it expands it, and in many cases, it may well overshadow the value given to pleasure.

Take the almost canonical example to illustrate the non-intuitive aspects of utilitarianism, the fat man on the bridge who could be pushed over to stop a train and save the lives of a group of five people working on the train rail tracks: utilitarian theory says that pushing over this “innocent” bystander is the morally obligatory act – not only justifiable, but morally obligatory. It is a simple calculation, ignoring for a moment variables such as capacity of happiness of each person: killing one saves five. Easy as that. I would have nodded my head at this morally non-intuitive result, all the more happy to be accepting the logical conclusion of an argument without reference to how I feel about it.

The difference being a Catholic changes is not to devalue pleasure (or utility, or happiness, etc.) but to value human life. Perhaps it might be objected “but that was the problem, one life for the sake of five”, except that sort of calculation only works for finite values on human life. Suppose human life were to be valued infinitely. Then the moral calculus makes no sense, the set of allowable transfinite calculations does not include operations like subtraction to yield a useful quantity for moral calculus.3

Were this a proper article, I would be obliged to discuss and work out how theoretical calculations could be computed in light of these difficulties. However, my purpose is more conservative: to explain both my utilitarianism, duly modified to incorporate newly found truths, with an ethical system that seems opposed to it. Unless unassailable difficulties arise which I cannot foresee, I will remain comfortable in this position as an orthodox Catholic who accepts the basic utilitarian argument.

1 I am aware that pleasure and pain are related, but not mere opposites, and so the moral calculus may need some more thought and refinement, that is, decreasing pain and increasing pleasure may, in some rare cases, pull in different directions, and in such cases the principle is inconclusive. I am also aware that situations where some pain leads to greater pleasure are not entirely clear on this basic principle. Ask me, if you want to know about my solutions to these problems.

2 One thing that did change is that, as beings who will have an eternal future, the moral calculation would have to include the afterlife. But that is readily understood in terms of utilitarian theory, and it still leaves (indeed, probably exasperates) the question of why some things were wrong in an of themselves.

3 If I were talking about a ratio, then I might be able to do the calculation, using l'Hôpital's rule, which some high school students and all first year mathematicians learn about. But that would complicate the otherwise simple point.

Friday, 27 December 2013

How to Write a Popular Article about Pope Francis: Five Top Tips

With the media's saturation with material on Pope Francis, this novel Pope has captured the attention of people who seemed to have written off the Catholic Church. He is Time's Person of the Year, The Advocate (LGBT paper) Person of the Year, the news is full of his one-liners. But with so much stuff being written about him, how does one hope to make a successful article? Here are the five top tips:

1. The most important point to make is how dramatically different the nice Pope Francis is from that dreadful Benedict XVI. Do not even consider mentioning any similarities, be they in tone or the identical teaching of the two Pontiffs – make sure you contrast heavily the conservative Benedict with the emancipated Francis.

2. Similarly, talk about how much of a break this is from everything the Church has taught in the past: make it clear that Catholics are now pro-choice, and no longer believe any exclusivist nonsense like Jesus’ old-fashioned statement that “nobody comes to the Father except through me.” Make it doubly clear that anything the Church has ever taught or done is likely to be changed at upcoming synods and in future Pope Francis encyclicals.

3. Put in some good quotes that seem to suggest that Francis is indeed changing everything, but make sure all the context is removed, lest it sound like he is just saying something the Church has been saying for the past few decades under this Pope’s predecessor’s. Extra points for phrases like “rejection of dogma.”

4. Dedicate a paragraph to how concerned those nasty moralistic “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics are about this “liberal” Pope. If you can make out that the usual targets, like Cardinals Arinze, Pell or Burke are anything but chuffed at this new Pontiff, even better.

5. If nothing else, highlight how the Church is no longer concerned about the totality of the human person, which would include humanity as a sexual creature, but only the fashionable theme of care for the poor. Omit completely the strange talk of evangelism and missionary discipleship, and even more importantly, do not tie this in to anything like judgement or Hell, because that is uncool.


So there it is, the most important tips to making a successful article about someone who seems so great you might even call him Catholic. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Catholic Feels

How does it feel to be a Catholic? Certainly different.

It is difficult to count all the ways it differs from being both an atheist and a Protestant, because many things are different, either in shade or in nature. Since I can contrast Protestantism with Catholicism better, that is the comparison I will make.

The transition was weird. I have had all sorts of people say I am no longer Christian. I have betrayed the glorious Reformation. I went over to the Mary-worshippers and ritualizers, the works-righteousness bunch, the ‘church’ that had tried to hide the Bible from everyone, and to good measure, because if they had not, someone would have read the epistle to the Romans or Galatians, and we would not be in such a mess. That was what I was meant to feel.

The initial reaction I actually had once I was in was that I was in some sort of cult. My dad calls it “la secta,” or “the sect” in English. Except it is a strange cult, because it is enormous in size and has a very long history. Nonetheless, we have really esoteric claims. We claim that a guy who had his hands laid on by another man, who in turn has been playing laying-on-of-hands tag all the way back to Jesus and the apostles, can now change what looks like an unleavened disc of bread into the flesh of a man who was born about 2,000 years ago, which we are all meant to eat. Ditto with the wine, except that is blood – but get this, it all looks the same. Sounds like the claim a cult would make.

Of course, there is nothing inherently ridiculous with that claim, other than it being less than common-sense. That’s OK, I study both physics and philosophy, which at any university seem to be the two faculties with the least common-sense beliefs around. Whenever one wishes to express something that sounds peculiar, yet nonetheless sound intellectual, one has the option of beginning sentences with “According to quantum mechanics…” and “You could argue philosophically that…” So weird is OK. The only thing that is a pressing concern is whether or not it is true – which I do.

The feeling of a cult did not last for very long – the Church is too big, too ancient, boasts too many intellectuals, to be dismissed as cultic nonsense. That gave way to a feeling of awe, that there are so many people, dead and alive, in this global communion. The size of the Church on the inside is staggering! It is like the TARDIS – overwhelmingly bigger inside.  Such brilliant people, too: from my hero St Francis of Assisi, to the brilliant St Augustine of Hippo, great scientists like Mendel and Le Maître, great philosophers like St Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes, great missionaries like St Francis Xavier, and I even felt in deeper communion with St Paul of Tarsus – which, of course, I was, and still am.

It is clear, I am now also in deeper communion with some of the most infamous Catholic sinners – we are all sinners, but the ones famous for their sin – like the chief inquisitor, the bad popes and the not-so-great people in the categories I just mentioned.

Worse, so many of the bad Catholics are not figures in the past, they are figures in the present. One of the things that is considered really uncool in an Evangelical Protestant-style church is nominalism, and there is stacks of them in the Catholic Church.  As I wrote in my post “The Road to Rome,” these people were a massive stumbling block. Or, probably far worse than the nominal ones, the unfaithful Catholics who reject everything it means to be Catholic – so much irreverence, ignorance, blatant disregard for Church teaching. If even Catholics did not believe this stuff, how was an outsider meant to? If someone from outside was not meant to believe this stuff, then why be Catholic at all?

The staggering beauty of being in communion with the greatest Christians that have walked the earth, contrasted with the “honeymoon over” reality that great saints are few and far between has now led to more mellow concoction: the Church does not just have the people radically transformed by the love of Christ, it has the ones that have “faith” because it is part of their family culture, or for some other reason that is similarly confusing to me. Put simply, it is full of a lot of people, and this is something that one has to live with.

I doubt it ever gets easier to live with it – read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), and quite soon one can see that one of the most pressing concerns that the Pope sees are Christians who are unchanged by the Gospel, in particular, who have “Lent without Easter,” who seem unchanged by the joy the Gospel brings. No, he says, the Gospel brings joy, and the Gospel brings the desire to spread to others the good news, or in other words, evangelization stems from the joy of being Christian.

Essentially, that is what Christianity is about: the urgent and breaking news, good news, that God has decisively acted in history, he has fulfilled the promises he had made to the particular nation of Israel, and in Jesus, God is reconciling the world to himself, redeeming it and transforming it by his love. Christ has died for us, therefore we have died also, and live in Christ, who God has raised from the dead. This message precludes apathy and nominalism, it excludes anything but that powerful phrase that recurs in the New Testament: Kyrios Christos! Christ is Lord! Nobody else is: not Caesar, though he dominates the known world, not Satan, though he is prince of this world with so much evil – no, Christ is Lord.

Hence, as always, I am practically scandalized by the “Sunday Catholics” or the so-called “CAPE Catholics” – only Catholic on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Either one believes the Gospel every day of the week, or none of them – there is no real middle ground.

I suspect I will spend much of my life in veritable angst over my brothers and sisters “in the faith” that do not have the faith in reality. Let me be absolutely clear: there are many saints in the Church, hundreds of people I have met, and many millions that I have not, on that journey of faith, being sanctified daily – I am honoured to be in fellowship with many of them in this Archdiocese of Brisbane. This post is titled “Catholic Feels”, however, and the scandal caused by casual Catholics too often blocks the noise of the growing forest of holiness. Like I said, these are my feelings, not my thoughts. My feelings never get much airtime anyway.

As much as the communion-with-the-great-saints aspect is dulled by the communion-with-the-great-sinners side of matters, the Catholic tradition continues to overwhelm me. If one simply believes in sola Scriptura, then basically a good knowledge of the Bible is a good knowledge of Christian theology in its entirety. Not so in the Church – thousands of years of very intelligent, Spirit-led and Spirit-filled people, arguing over theological matters, many of which the Church had to use her apostolic authority to settle, either by the papal Magisterium or conciliar decree – everything is richer, deeper, far more profound than I could previously conceive of. One area of theology might be as far away from another as mathematical physics is to zoology in the natural sciences, and all areas of theology are untameable.[1]

Deeper theology I might have expected, but I never would have guessed I would love the liturgy. I had previously thought that even repeated prayers were basically ritualistic (a word which I used to mean that outward signs are done with no inward involvement), and hence talk of vestments, all those funny-sounding names, missals, incense, the sitting-standing-kneeling movements and the centrality of the Eucharist in the Mass was way off my radar.

Relatively early on, my discomfort with the different rites disappeared. I would now claim quite the opposite, that the Catholic (or Sacramental more generally) view of rituals is the only one that makes sense: it is not being ritualistic to place a high importance on Baptism if it is a Sacrament, or in other words, if it is regenerative, a means of grace. But it makes little sense to be baptized at all if one thinks it does nothing – other than the fact that Jesus connects making disciples with baptizing, and the Apostles in general place a high value on it. This latter perspective constitutes ritualism, because on the Catholic view a Sacrament involves an inward grace – but on a non-sacramental view of Baptism (or the same goes for Holy Communion), it really is only an outward sign.

All these problems with the liturgy that I had were feelings – the Church has had them since the beginning: many of the vestments come slightly later (but not all of them), the funny-sounding-names are only odd because they were not English, incense is almost undeniably apostolic in origin, and nobody who was not heretical for more prominent reasons ever denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The complaints I had with the liturgy, I think, come more from a postmodern culture than any incoherence with Christianity. Christianity has always been liturgical.

One final word: whilst it is true that I had moved a year or so before from atheist to theist and then to Protestant Christian, I can still quite clearly perceive the differences between the more common strands of atheism and the Church, since it is quite hard to miss if one is serious about being Catholic. There is a fluidity of beliefs and anti-authoritarianism that is built into Protestantism from its beginning – and some would say this is an advantage – so the easiest Christian target is obviously the Catholics.

As a Catholic in a very secular environment, then, how do I feel? A range of feelings occur to me: there is defensiveness at times, as interesting-yet-offensive points are brought to me and I find myself expected to defend the Church. Arrogant at times, as very ignorant and simple minded arguments are brought to me, and the fallacies or misinformation only produces a sense that I must be more intelligent than other people. Mostly, though, I am OK to just let it slide. It is no longer my fault if, once I attempt to calmly respond to queries, the same points are made against me without any thought. There are the nice secularists, of course, who are lovely to talk to. Again, though, this was about my feelings.

[1] This position is a caricature of the mainstream Protestant view, first because it is almost impossible to say anything too general about Protestants, and second because sola Scriptura has more nuance if you ask some people. Still, if anything sola Scriptura means that the only solid special revelation is numerically identical with the Bible (with perhaps some early conciliar creeds), and any development is what one called a “hermeneutical phenomenon”, something that people missed before but it was there all along. There’s a place for that, but it is not so clear to me that it accounts for all developments.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

University of Queensland J.H. Newman Catholic Society: a vision statement and manifesto

The Newman Catholic Society has been at the University of Queensland for longer than any other club or society. Like all societies, it has had highs and lows in terms of membership, and like most interesting groups on campus, it has not always existed without friction. The Newman Society is not alone, being one of Newman Centres and Clubs around the world in secular universities – although each one is autonomous.

The UQ Newman Society (here on simply “Newman”) is first and foremost a Catholic society, and indeed the only Catholic group at UQ. As we end the academic year and having elected the executive group for next year, it is a pertinent question to ask: what is Newman about, anyway?

I do not know what the answer from a historical perspective might be, so instead I propose to give my own vision. To be a Catholic group means to be a collective of individuals who have been transformed and are being transformed with an encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the incarnation of the Gospel of God. These individuals, through their incorporation into Christ in baptism, form part of the People of God and so become part of a much larger group: the Catholic Church. The term comes from the Greek katholike ekklesia, which literally means “universal assembly,” or “universal church”. This point about what it means to be Catholic also tells of what it means to have a Catholic society at UQ: Newman will not be alone, but part of something greater, that is, the universal Church. Nonetheless, part of the organizational brilliance of the Church is that she has a diversity within herself, and so Newman is not merely a sort of university congregation, but an organically distinct arm of the broader Church.

In practical terms, this means that Newman exists within the context of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, and so my vision for Newman is that she be in close communion with the person who oversees the archdiocese (that is, the [arch]bishop, from the Greek episkopos or “overseer” – Archbishop Mark Coleridge at present), and connected also with Catholic communities (in particular: parishes and their youth ministries, as well as Catholic groups at Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University and Australian Catholic University).

The role of the Newman Society is distinct from that of a mere university congregation, in that she is a bridge between the sheltered environment of schools, often Catholic schools, and the secular university environment of the University of Queensland. Its modus operandi, therefore, is shaped by its place in the mission of the Church.

Back to the encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – what does that mean, how does it relate to who we are, and what actions flow from this encounter? These are not only good questions, but it is important that every Catholic know the answer. To this end, part of the core of Newman is its catechetical drive, or in other words, its teaching role. Noting that the move to university means a shift from the more sheltered life at school, we seek to learn together and deepen in knowledge of our Christian faith in a context which can at times be very hostile to the unsuspecting Catholic at a secular university.

Equipped with the message of the Gospel, and part of the broader universal Church, we seek to carry out in our capacity the essence of the Church and live her primary mission, which is the commission given by the risen Christ to his followers: to proclaim Christ to the world and hence make disciples of all, baptizing them and teaching them how to be followers of Jesus (cf. Matthew 28). This proclamation of the incarnate Gospel is called evangelism and is motivated by love of God and neighbour. We aim to bring our joy in Christ risen to others, whilst at the same time being witnesses to the redemptive grace of Christ crucified.

Yet we know that missionary activity in the modern world takes on character different to earlier forms of evangelism. Our apostolic nature means something different to what it once was in the early days, where the apostles would arrive in a new city and announce the good news at a synagogue or place of gathering. Furthermore, we understand that not all are called to be witnesses to the Gospel in the same way: some may be excellent orators, and others may witness more quietly throughout their daily lives. In whatever way Jesus calls us, we say with St Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:16)

By the light of our faith we begin to see Jesus in in all people in need. Our dual commandments to love God and love our neighbour compel us to go out of our way to become the neighbours that others may need. This produces our profound concern with charity (simply an anglicised form of the Latin for love), which is a core component of what it means to be Catholic. For this reason, Newman aims to have active participation in various ministries to alleviate the evils of dehumanizing poverty in the archdiocese, as well as helping women seeking safe haven from domestic abuse and caring for people who carry the burden of mental health problems.

In summary, the UQ Newman Catholic Society sets as its aims:

-         To form a community of Catholics at the University of Queensland, and to situate this community within the broader context of the archdiocese of Brisbane and the universal Church.
-          From within this community, to deepen our knowledge of our faith by coming together to learn from the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church in a safe environment.
-          To partake of the apostolic nature of the Church in witnessing to the Gospel as our hope and joy at the University of Queensland, each in the manner in which they are called.
-          To serve any person who is in need of any kind, in particular taking as our own the Church’s preferential option for those in need, ministering to any material, spiritual, emotional or relational needs, all of which are important to the full flourishing of the human person.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Practicality of the Church as Mother

[i]When one is little, one sees one’s mother as practically omniscient. It is not out of experimentation that I trusted my mother when she said not to dip my hand in the boiling water, it was because I have always found her to be a reliable source of knowledge. When invariably I tested something my mother had told me, like that the steaming chocolate cake was far too hot to eat, without exception she turned out to be right. Moreover, my mother is a living repository of knowledge: even when my understanding of theoretical physics far surpasses hers, if I want to know what temperature to roast a chicken at, or the smell of cheap hotels in the Soviet Union, I would make haste to ask my mother.

I have learnt to trust my mother, because even when her answers seem perfectly counter-intuitive (indeed, never surprisingly in such cases) her responses to my questions are dependable. These experiences, at least, I share with the great G.K. Chesterton, who shares similar stories in the last chapter of Orthodoxy. After reviewing all sorts of odd doctrines the Church has and finding them to align, upon reflection, most markedly with reality, he draws the point that:

This… is my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.[1]

If you want to know what insights and facts he found that the Church had revealed to him and had turned out to be true against all odds, you ought to read the book – I have never met anyone who has lamented reading Orthodoxy. It is not my task at present to describe his points in summary, but instead to explain my own relationship to the Church as Mother.

I have learnt to trust Mother Church for precisely the same reason I trust my biological mother: both turn out to be right whenever they speak about their area of expertise. For this reason, I have learnt to trust the Church even when she appears to be in doctrinal error, because it always turns out that she is right and I am wrong.[2] Just like my own mother and the warnings about the cake being too hot to eat, I ignore the Church’s teaching more at my own peril than at hers. It certainly may seem that I am correct in opposing her, but indubitably there comes the time when I realize my error. Rhetorically brilliant counters to her teaching often overlook some crucial piece of data which, when considered, either produces repentance or increased bitterness. The former is appropriate; the latter is dangerous and unfortunately far more common.

Though I have much faith in the teachings of the Church, just like I can have confidence in my mother’s advice, the Church-as-Mother view has recently made me realize something far more interesting: from the fact that I am a child of the Church, and that the Church has other children, it follows that I have siblings – and one thing I have been taught by growing up with a brother is that such a conclusion is as inescapable as it can be unfortunate.

Much as I appreciate my brother most of the time, like any other human, he has faults. He sometimes snores. He wants to play this or that. He acts like he is six even though he is almost sixteen. He shouts across the whole house with no regard to the sleep of others. He is nonetheless my brother, and any plea to deny it would result simply in contradicting reality: I am stuck with him.

In the same way, I am stuck with other annoying Catholics. Were I to be Protestant, I could simply deny the familial bond to anyone outside my church, but if the Church is universal, that is, if the Church is Catholic, her children’s faults are my own family’s faults. Being almost-Catholic for a few months has taught me at the very least that I will not get along very well with a lot of my family – but unlike more fluid churches, in the Catholic Church that means I will have to put up with it. I cannot leave her, because at the end of it all, she is still my Mother.

What conclusion may I draw from this consideration? I must remember the inevitability and finality inherent in the word “brother” and “sister” – they are not terms that I can assign to some people but not to others at whim. Much like biological siblings, the other children of the Church are my own brothers and sisters. I am obliged to recognize this and so treat them accordingly. In fact, just like being true children of Abraham has less to do with the flesh and more to do with imitating his faith, my brothers and sisters in the Church are similarly more my siblings for being in Christ than they ever could be by having inhabited the same womb. This bond is what moves Jesus to say:

            “As you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

[1] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Dover Publications, New York, 2004, p. 150.

[2] Doctrinal and moral errors are very distinct – the Church is pure in her teaching, but she is certainly not without sin as a corporate People of God, in her members or in her more structured positions. Indeed, it is the essence of the doctrine of Original Sin that these two are distinct categories: if humans were not sinful, we would not by hypocritical either.

[i] Similar considerations to the ones in this blog post probably apply (in modified form) to God as Father. I have chosen to express it instead in terms of Mother, both to emphasize my relationship with the Magisterial teaching of the Church, in addition to making a more marked point about how even the peskiest member of the Church, even when that member is the priest, bishop or Pope, is not and cannot be grounds for leaving the Church.