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Seth MacFarlane, well known atheist and cartoonist, is the executive producer of the remake of “Cosmos,” which recently made its national debut. The first episode featured, along with the science, an animated feature dealing with the sixteenth century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by Church officials. A brooding statue of Bruno stands today in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on the very spot where the unfortunate friar was put to death. In MacFarlane’s cartoon, Bruno is portrayed as a hero of modern science, and church officials are, without exception, depicted as wild-eyed fanatics and unthinking dogmatists. As I watched this piece, all I could think was...here we go again. Avatars of the modern ideology feel obligated to tell their great foundation myth over and over, and central to that narrative is that both the physical sciences and liberal political arrangements emerged only after a long twilight struggle against the reactionary forces of religion, especially the Catholic religion. Like the effigies brought out to be burned on Guy Fawkes Day, the bugbear of intolerant and violent Catholicism has to be exposed to ridicule on a regular basis.
Posted: 3/18/2014 5:07:54 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


The first reading for Mass on the first Sunday of Lent this year, taken from Genesis 3, deals with the creation of human beings and their subsequent fall from friendship with God. Like a baseball coach who compels even his veterans to re-learn the basics of the game every spring, the Church invites us, during the spring training of Lent, to re-visit the spiritual fundamentals. And they are on no clearer display than in this great archetypal story.

We hear that “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” The God of the Bible never despises matter, for he created it, and everything that he made is good. Our bodies are indeed made from the earth, from the lowly stuff of atoms, molecules, and minerals. It is of singular importance to realize that sin is not a function of matter, not the consequence of our embodied nature. God exults in our physicality, and so should we. But we are more than mere matter, for God blew into us a life akin to his own and ordered to him: minds that seek absolute truth, and wills that desire goodness itself, and souls that will not rest until they come into the presence of the fullness of beauty. The tragedy of the secularist ideology is that it denies this properly spiritual dimension of human existence, reducing everything in us to matter alone and construing the deepest aspirations of the heart as psychological quirks or wish-fulfilling delusions. Thomas Aquinas said that the human being is a sort of microcosm, for he contains within himself both the physical and the spiritual. To know and honor both dimensions of our humanity is the path of joyful integration; to overstress one or the other is, concomitantly, a principle source of mischief.
Posted: 3/3/2014 2:36:50 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


A classic characterization of Jesus is that he is priest, prophet, and king. As priest, he sanctifies, that is to say, he reestablishes the lost link between divinity and humanity; as prophet, he speaks and embodies the divine truth; and as king, he leads us on the right path, giving guidance to the human project. You might say that, as priest, he is the life; as prophet, he is the truth; and as king he is the way.

Not only is this munus triplex (triple office) a rich way to characterize the Lord; it is also a very good way to designate who the baptized are supposed to be. According to Catholic theology, baptism is much more than merely a symbolic sign of belonging to the church. It is the means by which a person is incorporated into Christ, becoming a member of his mystical body. Baptism, accordingly, makes the baptized an alter Christus, another Christ. This is precisely why, for example, every candidate for baptism is anointed with oil, just as, in the Old Testament, priests, prophets, and kings were anointed upon assumption of their offices.

So what does this look like in practice? How does it show itself in the lives of ordinary believers? Let us look at priesthood first. A priest fosters holiness, precisely in the measure that he or she serves as a bridge between God and human beings. In ancient Roman times, the priest was described as a pontifex, bridge-builder, and this remains a valid designation in the Christian context. The reconciliation of divinity and humanity produces in human beings a wholeness or integration, a coming together of the often warring elements within the self. The same dynamic obtains on a grander scale as well: when cities, societies, cultures rediscover a link to God, they find an inner peace. And therefore baptized priests are meant, first, to embody the harmony that God wants between himself and those made in his image and likeness. They affect this through their own intense devotion to prayer, the sacraments, and the Mass. In their cultivation of a real friendship with the living Christ, they act out their priestly identity and purpose. Then, they are sent out into families, communities, places of work, the political and cultural arenas, etc. in order to carry the integration they have found like a holy contagion. If baptized priests stop praying, stop going to Mass, stop frequenting the sacraments, they will become, in short order, like salt that has lost its savor.
Posted: 2/14/2014 12:14:56 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


Last week two outrageously anti-Catholic outbursts took place in the public forum. The first was an article in the US News and World Report by syndicated columnist Jamie Stiehm. Ms. Stiehm argued that the Supreme Court was dangerously packed with Catholics, who have, she averred, a terribly difficult time separating church from state and who just can’t refrain from imposing their views on others. Her meditations were prompted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s daring to depart from feminist orthodoxy and to grant some legal breathing space to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were objecting to the provisions of the HHS mandate. As even a moment’s thoughtful consideration would reveal, this decision hadn’t a thing to do with the intrusion of the “church” into the state, in fact just the contrary. Moreover, the appeal of American citizens (who happen to be Catholic nuns) and the decision of a justice of the Supreme Court in no way constitute an “imposition” on anyone. The very irrationality of Stiehm’s argument is precisely what has led many to conclude that her intervention was prompted by a visceral anti-Catholicism which stubbornly persists in our society.

The second eruption of anti-Catholicism was even more startling. In the course of a radio interview, Gov. Andrew Cuomo blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or opposed to gay marriage is “not welcome” in his state of New York. Mind you, the governor did not simply say that such people are wrong-headed or misguided; he didn’t say that they should be opposed politically or that good arguments against their position should be mounted; he said they should be actively excluded from civil society! As many commentators have already pointed out, Governor Cuomo was thereby excluding roughly half of the citizens of the United States and, presumably, his own father Mario Cuomo, who once famously declared that he was personally opposed to abortion. Again, the very hysterical quality of this statement suggests that an irrational prejudice gave rise to it.
Posted: 1/20/2014 12:12:39 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


One of the commonest observations made by opponents of religion is that we don’t need God in order to have a coherent and integral morality. Atheists and agnostics are extremely sensitive to the charge that the rejection of God will conduce automatically to moral chaos. Consequently, they argue that a robust sense of ethics can be grounded in the consensus of the human community over time or in the intuitions and sensibilities of decent people, etc.

What I would like to do is lay out, in very brief compass, the Catholic understanding of the relationship between morality and the existence of God and to show, thereby, why it is indispensably important for a society that wishes to maintain its moral integrity to maintain, at the same time, a vibrant belief in God.

Why do we do the things that we do? What motivates us ethically? Right now, I am typing words on my keyboard. Why am I doing that? Well, I want to finish my weekly column. Why do I want to do that? I want to communicate the truth as I see it to an audience who might benefit from it. Why would I want that? Well, I’m convinced that the truth is good in itself. Do you see what we’ve uncovered by this simple exercise? By searching out the motivation for the act of typing words, we have come to a basic or fundamental good, a value that is worthwhile for its own sake. My acts of typing, writing, and communicating are subordinate, finally, to the intrinsic value of the truth. Take another example. Just before composing that last sentence, I took a swig of water from a plastic bottle on my desk. Why did I do that? Well, I was thirsty and wanted to slake my thirst. But why did I want to do that? Hydrating my system is healthy. Why is health important? Because it sustains my life. Why is life worth pursuing? Well, because life is good in itself. Once more, this analysis of desire has revealed a basic or irreducible good. Catholic moral philosophy recognizes, besides truth and life, other basic values, including friendship, justice, and beauty, and it sees them as the structuring elements of the moral life.
Posted: 1/8/2014 12:09:18 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


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