Friday, August 27, 2010

The Death Penalty

Bishop-Finn-at-Anointing-Mass Recently Bishop Robert W. Finn (Kansas City – St. Joseph) wrote an article entitled, “Divine Mercy and the death penalty,” which will be published as resource for Respect Life Month in October, by US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Finn clarifies the Church’s position on this issue and urges Catholics to consider opposition to the death penalty as part of the pro-life agenda. I would highly recommend his article.

The death penalty is an issue which confuses some Catholics. Some assume that it is a matter of purely political opinion and not a theological matter. This is clearly not the case. In 1995, Pope John Paul II published a major encyclical letter, entitled The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). While Pope John Paul II acknowledges that capital punishment may have been justified in primitive societies to promote the common good and provide public safety, this is no longer the case. He points out the growing opposition to the death penalty and disputes the notion that the death penalty is a kind of "legitimate defense" on the part of society. He notes, “Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform” (EV 27) Pope John Paul II see the cases where the death penalty is necessary as “very rare, if not practically non-existent” in our modern world (EV 57). But isn’t this just the Pope’s personal opinion?

Here is where the confusion enters in. Some Catholics think that only those things which are infallibly taught by the Church need to be followed and everything else is mere opinion. This is clearly a distortion of Catholic belief. In union with the Holy Father, the Fathers of Second Vatican Council published the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In this document, they refer to the authority of the ordinary non-infallible teaching of the Pope. We normally refer to this as the “ordinary magisterium” as opposed to the extraordinary infallible magisterium. The Council Fathers note;

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission (religiosum obsequeium) of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)

The Catechism comments on this point quoting the above passage;

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" (religioso animi obsequio adhaerere debent ) [Lumen Gentium 25] which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. (CCC 892)

What Lumen Gentium called the “authentic” and “supreme” magisterium, the Catechism calls the “ordinary Magisterium.” In the case of Pope John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) we are dealing with a major papal Encyclical. An encyclical letter is the most formal and authoritative statement of a pope’s ordinary non-infallible magisterium and is precisely what the Council Fathers had in mind in the quote above (Lumen Gentium, 25).

Speaking of the assent or religious submission of mind that must be given to papal encyclicals the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) notes;

“It remains the common teaching of theologians today that this assent must be not merely a respectful silence, but a true internal, albeit conditional, assent of the intellect to the doctrines precisely as they have been proposed” (NCE V:332).

For a deeper understanding of the issue of magisterium and authority in the Church, I would recommend, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, (Sapientia Press, 2007).

On the Feast of St. Monica,


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Catholic Social Teaching on Democracy

Leo_XIII Beginning with the Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, The Principle of subsidiarity has been “among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church's social doctrine” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church  = CSDC 185). Subsidiarity requires that;


Societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”)--therefore support, promotion, development--with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place. (CSDC 186).

The Church acknowledges that it may sometimes be necessary for states to intervene in to supply certain functions. The justification for such intervention is of an exceptional nature and should not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary (CSDC 188)

The Compendium tells us that a clear implication of the principle of subsidiarity is the further principle of “participation” by which “the citizen, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs” (CSDC 189). Participation is considered one of the highest aspiration of the citizen and “one of the pillars of democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the democratic system” (CSDC 190). In fact every democracy must by definition be participative (CSDC 190, (Centesimus annus, 46). Participation is a common duty and responsibility, fulfilled consciously with a view to the common good. Participation can be achieved in a variety of social contexts, but is essential to democracy and jeopardized by totalitarian or dictatorial regimes, “where the fundamental right to participate in public life is denied at its origin, since it is considered a threat to the state itself. (CSDC 190).


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Democracy and ‘Civil Friendship’

StLouis Today is the Feast of St. Louis, King of France. Celebrating the life of a holy king might lead us to reflect on the modern notion of politics in light of Church teaching.  Pope John Paul II saw it as self-evident that democracy was better than Marxist totalitarian government and by extension other governments which “usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends.”  In a series of social encyclicals Pope John Paul II comments on the need to reform disordered governments in the world:


Other nations need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian forms of government by democratic and participatory ones. This is a process which we hope will spread and grow stronger. For the "health" of a political community - as expressed in the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs, in the rule of law and in respect for the promotion of human rights - is the necessary condition and sure guarantee of the development of "the whole individual and of all people." (Sollicitudo rei socialis 44)

This is a clear endorsement of democratic government and the responsible participation of its citizens.  Four years later, in 1991, Pope John Paul II adds;

The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends. (Centesimus annus, 46). 

He also acknowledges that “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” (CA, 46).

This is a clear advance in the development of the Church’s social doctrine.  We cannot say the Church is agnostic about the best form of government.  The Church clearly prefers government that upholds the values of electing and holding accountable those who govern and of the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs. Only in authentic democracy do we find these values.  At the same time he notes, “The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution” (CA, 47).  There are many different ways to implement democracy, but there are also solutions which do not reflect “authentic democracy.”

While democracy is a general ideal, the particulars can be very problematic.  There are many who have grown very cynical about the particular democracies they live in. On might ask (purely for the sake of argument) would a society be better off with a good monarch or benevolent dictator rather than a bad democratic government?  To explore this question one might begin by asking, what makes a monarch/dictator “good” or “bad”?  It would seem to be the character or virtues of the leader.  In the same way we might ask, what makes a democracy “bad”?  It would seem to be not the fault of democracy as an institution, but of the bad character of its citizens.   The Compendium of Social Doctrine acknowledges that democracy requires virtue from its citizens to achieve its intended ends.  The Compendium notes,

The profound meaning of civil and political life does not arise immediately from the list of personal rights and duties. Life in society takes on all its significance when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity. The sphere of rights, in fact, is that of safeguarded interests, external respect, the protection of material goods and their distribution according to established rules. (CSDC 390)

St_Thomas_Aquinas The notion of civil friendship is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas.  It is not the external forms alone which give meaning to political life. The citizens are required to live the virtue of solidarity.  Is this possible?  Is total cynicism about governments justified?  The compendium acknowledges that;

Civil friendship understood in this way is the most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and equality. In large part, this principle has not been put into practice in the concrete circumstances of modern political society, above all because of the influence of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies. (CSDC 390).

While this ideal has not been fully practiced in our modern political societies this may be the result of “individualistic and collectivistic ideologies” which impair freedom and equality.  Ultimately this highlights the political problem as an interior one.  What the world of politics is lacking is not only external forms of government which promote justice but conversion of heart and catechesis in the common good.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us,

It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can assume various concrete forms. It should always have the common good in view and be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. It is the role of the laity "to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of peace and justice." (CCC 2442).

The real answer to the problem of politics is the universal call to holiness.  We need citizens who become contemplatives in the midst of the world.  Our life of political action must be animated by our interior conversion.  St. Louis, Pray for us!

On the Feast of St. Louis,


Monday, August 16, 2010

St. Teresa on Friendship

teresa_avila_gerard In the Second Mansions of Interior Castle, (p. 24) St. Teresa of Avila talks about God speaking to us through good conversations while a few pages later (IC, p. 27) she takes up the theme of “evil companionship”.

Friendship is a natural part of being human. In relation to our faith, friendships can be either negative or positive. Christian tradition has displayed some ambivalence regarding human friendships. Many of the most profound teachers in the ascetical tradition warn about the inherent dangers of certain kinds of friendships. St. Theresa of Avila (The Way of Perfection Chp 4), St John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul, I.4); St Francis de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 20-21) all warn about the spiritual dangers of friendships in which the supernatural element does not dominate. Our friendship can be a distraction, or false consolation which leads us away from God. In other cases the closeness of friendship can lead to infidelity and inappropriate physical intimacy.

st-augustine While these warnings are real they do not represent the whole picture. In St Augustine’s Confessions the theme of friendship is present throughout the work. Much of the beginning of Confessions concerns the failure of his earlier friendships. Although he observes that friendship can be an occasion of sin when pursued for the wrong ends, he does not focus purely on the negative. St Augustine notes, ‘Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls’ (2.5.10). St Augustine is able to delight in the natural aspects of friendship we all enjoy (Confessions, 4.8.3). St. Augustine’s notion of friendship is purified through his conversion (Confessions, 8). Friendship with Christ leads to the proper ordering of all human relationships.

Matthew Levering has pointed out that for St Augustine, “the ascent of the soul to friendship with the divine Trinity occurs through the friendship in and with Jesus Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit. This friendship takes effective shape in the community of believers, the church as the mystical Body of Christ united by her sacramental participation through the Holy Spirit in Christ’s saving work” (IJST,9.1,2007, p. 10).



Sunday, August 1, 2010

Interior Thoughts of Precedence

TeresaAvila St. Teresa writes In the Way of Perfection,  “Be very careful about your interior thoughts, especially if they have to do with precedence.”  We might wonder why concerns about who is first, or who works the hardest, or who is being treated better in our community would have an impact on contemplative prayer.  She asks, can God not grant consolations in prayer to those who are less detached than this?  St. Teresa acknowledges that God in his infinite wisdom can grant consolations to whomever He pleases.  These consolations will lead the soul to become detached and humble in any environment.  This detachment will be harder for those who dwell outside the cloistered religious life, but she acknowledges that this experience is for everyone.  This is an important thought.  The Church teaches that there is a universal call to holiness based on our Baptismal vocation.  This must also imply that there is a universal call to experience contemplative prayer.  The universal opportunity for these graces does not mean they are universally experienced, but the call to holiness remains for each of us. 

Even for those in a cloistered life the dangers of pride and attachment to worldly things remains.  These disordered desires lead to a lack of progress in the interior life.  She notes,

Though persons who do so may have spent years in prayer, or rather in meditation (for perfect prayer eventually destroys [all] these attachments), they will never make great progress or come to enjoy the real fruit of prayer.

It is very likely that a lack of progress in the interior life is a result of yielding to the temptations of pride and worldly attachments. St. Teresa writes; “God deliver us from people who wish to serve Him yet who are mindful of their own honor.”

St. Teresa’s teachings are the perfect backdrop for this Sunday’s readings.  Qoheleth writes; “Vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!” (Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23).  Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool highlights the short-sightedness of being focused on attachments to things in this life (Lk 12:13-21).  It has been pointed out that six times in the short discourse by the rich man he refers to himself.  It is not the possessions themselves, but his extremely self-centered attitude which is the problem.  We must let go of our own desires and turn our hearts to God.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time,


Learn more about St. Teresa this Fall in our upcoming Bishop Helmsing Institute course Writings of the Saints, which will be a book study of her work, The Interior Castle.