The Church is a community made of clergy, laity, and members of religious orders and congregations. In the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (“Light of Nations”), the Church is defined horizontally. It is simply the community of the faithful, of the baptised, who can be anyone. Its members merely play different parts and are called to fulfil various roles to continue the work of Jesus Christ on this planet we share. It has always been like this since the beginning with the apostles, the followers of Christ. How about the pope? Many people were called this name in early Christianity, but later this title began to be used to refer only to the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. Rome played a primary role in the early Church, associated as it was with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. The primacy of the pope has been clarified over the centuries, but it has been described as primus inter pares (first among equals), which denies that the pope is a ruler. The Orthodox recognise that the Church of Rome was seen as “presiding in love” as Ignatius of Antioch has put it in the first century. The office of the pope (and not this or that human being who occupies its chair and who may not be exemplary as Christians, as we all know) is a sign of the unity of the Church.



Authority has to do with an ability—the ability to be carefully listened to, the ability to produce a discourse that is persuasive. Real authority is therefore not enforced, but recognised. Catholics acknowledge that authority has to be transmitted and exercised through human organisation in succession, otherwise the original essence, the truth, would be lost. The transmission of this authority is what we call tradition.

Tradition is handed on and regenerated from generation to generation — bishops, Church Councils, and the women and men considered Doctors of the Church are not the sole responsible for this, but also people who have been ordained or have taken religious vows as well as every layperson. It includes Scripture, whose New Testament was written within the Church, whose canon was decided within her as well, but also other writings, doctrines, forms of devotion and liturgy, stories and images. Tradition therefore has to do fundamentally with memory. The most important role of the Church is to preserve memory. Her authority is rooted in the past of our present, in the ground that we stand on, in that which allows us to realise who we are as believers. There is beauty and splendour in this.

This tradition and memory is the tradition and memory of a community. In contrast with other churches and denominations, the Catholic Church is not a gathering of people who answer to a personal call. It is a community that you join or are born into. Each one of her members is unique and different, which makes for a diverse group that is bound together by the experience of the Divine in Christ.

800 Franciscan Years


The Franciscan Order includes men and women who profess to observe the Rule of Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226). Francis founded three orders: the Friars Minor, the Poor Ladies or Clares, and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, generally referred to as the First, Second, and Third Orders of St. Francis. The Friars Minor or Grey Friars is the best known group. They take a vow of poverty, so that all their time and energy can be expended on religious work in service to a community, rather than through cloistered asceticism like monks.

The Friars Minor were created in 1209, when St. Francis obtained from Pope Innocent III an unwritten approbation of the simple rule he had written to guide his first companions. This rule has not come down to us in its original form. It was subsequently rewritten by the saint and solemnly confirmed by Pope Honorius III in 1223: “To observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own, and in chastity.”

Francis is also the alleged author of one of the most beautiful Christian prayers. The earliest record of the prayer dates from 1912 in La Clochette, a small devotional French publication. The prayer was first attributed to him in 1927 by Les Chevaliers du Prince de la Paix (The Knights of the Prince of Peace), a Protestant group. The prayer is now well established within the Catholic Church. Here is the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


Words from Kierkegaard


(1) Out of love, God becomes man. He says: “See, here is what it is to be a human being.”

(2) This fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked. The latter is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith.

(3) Well, if sin is ignorance, then sin does not really exist, for sin is precisely consciousness; if sin is ignorance of what is right, and one then does what is wrong because one does not know what is right, then no sin has occurred.

(4) Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.

(5) When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.

(6) Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

(7) To say that love is a feeling or anything of the kind is an unchristian conception of love. That is the aesthetic definition and therefore fits the erotic and everything of that nature. But to the Christian, love is the works of love. Christ’s love was not an inner feeling, a full heart and what not, it was the work of love which was his life.

(8) Above all do not forget your duty to love yourself.

(9) God is a highest conception, not to be explained in terms of other things, but explainable only by exploring more and more profoundly the conception itself.

(10) But precisely this is the misfortune, and has been the misfortune, in Christendom that Christ is neither the one nor the other — neither the one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return in glory, but rather one about whom we have learned to know something in an inadmissible way from history — that he was somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach.

Simone Weil’s Sayings


Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic, was born in Paris in 1909 and passed away in Ashford, Kent, England, in 1943, and was a complex, fascinating woman. She came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptised, but she considered herself a Christian — a non-committed Catholic, to be more precise. She was a pacifist, but fought in the Spanish Civil War. She was an intellectual, but was known for her anti-intellectualism. She came from a bourgeois family, but worked on a French assembly line for a year. She loved life, but yearned for her death.

In the spring of 1937, she experienced a religious ecstasy in the same church where St. Francis of Assisi had prayed, which led her to pray for the first time in her life. She had another, even more powerful revelation a year later and from that moment on her writings became more mystical. During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille and received spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. Around this time she met Gustave Thibon, the French Catholic writer who later edited her work. Weil was also deeply interested in other religious traditions — for instance, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Here are some of her resonant sayings:

A doctrine serves no purpose in itself, but it is indispensable to have one if only to avoid being deceived by false doctrines.

A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless.

All sins are attempts to fill voids.

An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.

Charity. To love human beings in so far as they are nothing. That is to love them as God does.

Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.

Equality is the public recognition, effectively expressed in institutions and manners, of the principle that an equal degree of attention is due to the needs of all human beings.

Every perfect life is a parable invented by God.

Every time that I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy.

Evil, when we are in its power, is not felt as evil, but as a necessity, even a duty.

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.

Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace.

Humility is attentive patience.

In the Church, considered as a social organism, the mysteries inevitably degenerate into beliefs.

It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.

It is only the impossible that is possible for God. He has given over the possible to the mechanics of matter and the autonomy of his creatures.

Life does not need to mutilate itself in order to be pure.

One cannot imagine St. Francis of Assisi talking about rights.

Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.

The contemporary form of true greatness lies in a civilization founded on the spirituality of work.

The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.

The most important part of teaching is to teach what it is to know.

The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

To set up as a standard of public morality a notion which can neither be defined nor conceived is to open the door to every kind of tyranny.

To want friendship is a great fault. Friendship ought to be a gratuitous joy, like the joys afforded by art or life.

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.

We can only know one thing about God — that he is what we are not. Our wretchedness alone is an image of this. The more we contemplate it, the more we contemplate him.

Whatever debases the intelligence degrades the entire human being.

When once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder.

Jed Bartlet’s Dialogues


Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was the President of the United States in the television drama The West Wing (1999-2006). Bartlet is a devout Catholic due to the influence of his mother. He was accepted to Harvard and Yale Universities, but instead chose to go to the University of Notre Dame, the most renowned American Catholic university, since he was thinking of becoming a priest. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in American Studies and a minor in Theology. He received a Masters and PhD in economics from the London School of Economics, as well as an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Dartmouth College, where he was a tenured professor prior to entering politics.

These two dialogues from the series demonstrate how he thinks and feels.

In “The Midterms” (2.03), Jed confronts a talk show hostess about her views on homosexuality. She likes to quote a verse from the Old Testament (Lev 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). And he asks her if she abides by other directives of the Old Testament. What is striking is that he feels compelled to do this, to tell the truth, to show her mistaken position to herself.

In “Two Cathedrals” (2.22), Jed launches into a tirade against God after the service in memory of Mrs. Landingham, his faithful secretary. He walks in the cathedral, cursing God in Latin. It does not seem like a dialogue, but by shouting at God, he is acknowledging the presence of God. What does he say?

Gratias tibi ago, domine. (“Thank you, Lord.”)

Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? (“Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?”)

Cruciatus in crucem! (“To hell with your punishments!” — literally, “Put/send punishments onto a cross”.)

Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. (“I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.”)

Cruciatus in crucem — eas in crucem. (“To hell with your punishments! And to hell with you!” — literally, “May you go to a cross”.)

He also includes a quote from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock: “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Later, in a vision, the gone Mrs. Landingham tells him that if he is not going to run again because he thinks he has no chance or because it will be too hard, and not out of conviction, their friendship (that is, her trust) will be at risk. Imagine that.

The Bible, Poetry and Truth


Last weekend I went to the National Theatre with my beautiful and sweet wife to see William Shakeapeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. It always gives me an immense pleasure to go see a play with her, not only because of the moments that we share, but also because she knows a lot more about theatre than I do. She looks at it, not simply as entertainment, but as art — something that matters, something with a communal value; the same way I look at film. During the performance she told me that Shakespeare was a feminist.

Some scholars argue that Shakespeare was Catholic. When he was born, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement had already separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Catholic faith became illegal. A lot of people became recusants, refusing to attend the services of the now official church. It is said that Shakespeare, who came from a Catholic family, was one of those who quietly refused to submit to the new denomination. That means that if he was Catholic he could not have been outspoken about it. Nevertheless, he was surely a Christian. We see it in his commitment to equality and social justice — Christian values that the theologian Desiderius Erasmus universalized as humanist values.

While I was attending the play, it struck me that the illumination we get from Shakespeare’s work (and from the best art) is similar to the one we get from the Bible. Scriptures should be read poetically, even if some of its books are historically accurate. Reading the Bible scientifically (like dishonest atheists and bible literalists do) is reading it simplistically. This collection of books has to be appreciated for its poetry and for the meaning it reveals, not directly conveys. Anselmo Borges, a Portuguese priest who teaches philosophy at the University of Coimbra, puts it like this:

After all, the Bible writes about the history of men, at their best and at their worst, in the search of the absolute. It is necessary to understand that it is a religious and not a scientific book and that only in its whole it claims the truth. [...] Only in this light are they [the Scriptures] true. In all that can be found of less human or even inhuman, it is revealed what God is not and what Man should not be.

Lídia Jorge said in an insightful way: “The Bible is the longest collective poem created by Humanity until now. In it are mirrored the various battles that men have engendered in their quest for absolute love.”[1]

Shakespeare is not a substitute for the Bible. (The comparison is senseless.) But his works can get us closer to God — the idea that the natural world and the produced world (art works in particular) yield information about God is important in Christianity. Pay attention to the way Timothy Radcliffe uses King Lear to explain that exposing who and what we are leads to serene delight instead of agitated approval:

Delight is not the same as approval. The Father does not approve of the Son, nor the Son of the Father. The Trinity is not a mutual admiration society. Approval implies patronage, and to obtain it we may be tempted to put on masks and pretend to be the sort of person of whom your patron would approve. In King Lear Goneril and Regan seek their father’s approval so that they may obtain power. Cordelia obstinately refuses to say what her father wants, only what she thinks. Ultimately, he comes to delight in her.[2]

Scriptures puts us in touch with God, with the truth about our hearts and about what surrounds us — but not directly. It is not true, it is truthful — truthful to human experience. Slowly and tentatively grasping this truth is part of our long journey as Christians. Jesus’s words on the value of his words in John 8:32 can therefore be applied to the whole Bible: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”.


[1] Anselmo Borges, “A ‘Bíblia’: 73 Livros”, Diário de Notícias, 18 Oct. 2008 (my translation), http://
, pars. 14-15.

[2] Timothy Radcliffe, OP, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005), 61.

The Catholic Kama Sutra


The Kama Sutra is an ancient Sanskrit treatise on the art of love and sexual technique — kāma “love” + sūtra “thread”. Now fr. Ksawery Knotz, a Polish Franciscan, has written a similar book “for married couples who love God”. The volume is simply called Sex. Father Knotz writes that

Every act — a type of caress, a sexual position — with the goal of arousal is permitted and pleases God. During sexual intercourse, married couples can show their love in every way, can offer one another the most sought-after caresses. They can employ manual and oral stimulation.

and that

Some people, when they hear about the holiness of married sex, immediately imagine that such sex has to be deprived of joy, frivolous play, fantasy and attractive positions. They think it has to be sad like a traditional church hymn. Calling sex a celebration of the marriage sacrament raises its dignity in an exceptional way. Such a statement shocks people who learned to look at sexuality in a bad way. It is difficult for them to understand that God is also interested in their happy sex life, and in this way gives them his gift.

What does a celibate priest know about the subject? It is a valid question. His experience comes from collecting and absorbing the experience of others and pondering on it. He says that he talks with a lot of couples and that he listens to them with attention, so these problems just sit in his mind. “I would like for them to be happier with their sex life, and for them to understand the church’s teachings so there won’t be unnecessary tension or a sense of guilt”, he adds. He is confident: he has been running a website offering sexual advice to the devout for the past year. According to him, the correct Catholic sexual position is “saucy, surprising and fantasy packed”.

Caritas in Veritate


The new papal encyclical had already been the subject of debate and speculation before its official publication. Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is a social letter. It reflects on globalisation and it seems to be a response to the current economic crisis. Some Catholic capitalists felt the need to reply on the defensive to this missive that focuses on the true meaning of Christian charity:

In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis. (par. 4)

The text restates (recalls?) the commitment to social justice that must be at the heart of Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI’s stress on the common good goes against the capitalist ideal of self-interest. He writes, “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.” (par. 34). Solidarity, the recognition of a common ground, the process of mutual support, must go hand in hand with progress: “The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.” (par. 18). Benedict emphasises the need to protect the rights of workers, the necessity for greater public contributions, and urges that our interest should be the protection of basic human needs.

As Davey Henreckson summarises, “every economic decision is ultimately a moral decision”. Henreckson later adds that

Benedict draws out both our responsibility to consider the natural (ecological) world, and the deeper human relationships across national and economic boundaries. We do not live in a zero-sum world. And the way to restore these charitable relationships with nature and our fellow men begins with a realization of the public nature of faith. Christians as citizens are uniquely motivated to work toward justice, since they have a transcendent allegiance to the world. Public life is a life of faith.

Ultimately, Caritas in Veritate argues against the conception of markets and technology as independent, as having a remote life of their own, away from human value. That such things are idolised, it is a sign of how some of us have replaced freedom, the freedom of being and its responsibilities, with a false autonomy.

While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. God reveals man to himself; reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it [...]. (par. 75)

The Colbert Report


In an interview with Time Out magazine, Stephen Colbert reports on how he squares his Catholic faith with comedy:

I love my Church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ.

A Perplexing Attitude


Why do so many Christians behave so unchristianly when abortion and homosexuality are involved? They act out of self-righteousness and hate, instead of compassion and love. I sometimes wonder if they have read the Gospels or if they know the teachings of Jesus. He did not say a word about these topics and walked amongst the oppressed, the outcast, and the sufferers — those who most needed his empathy.

Moral Freedom


I have been reading What Is the Point of Being a Christian? by Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar who taught theology at the University of Oxford. (I already wrote about his latest book.) I could quote the whole volume, given that I keep finding lapidary passages. I advise you to buy it. Now.

Here are two insightful paragraphs on moral freedom and Christianity (that also confirm the Dominican love of food and drink):

A few years ago, when I was visiting the Dominicans in the Czech Republic, I spent the night in a small town called Snojmo near the Austrian border. There was the usual meeting with the Dominican Family. There were lots of young families with their noisy offspring, and we feasted on delicious sausages and drank slivovitz. Then we had an open discussion, and the first question was from a young woman who asked how she could transmit the Church’s moral teaching to her children, who seemed to be just as resistant as children in Western Europe. I did not know how to answer the question and so I passed it to my companion for that trip, a moral theologian called Wojcieh Giertych, professor at the Angelicum University in Rome.

He went to the blackboard and drew a small square in a corner. “In that square are the commandments. Is that what morality is about?” And everyone cried “Of course.” “No,” he said “God is not much interested in commandments.” Then he drew a square which covered all the rest of the board and said, “That is freedom. That is what interests God. Your task is to teach your children to be free. That is the teaching of the Gospels, and of St. Thomas Aquinas.”[1]


[1] Timothy Radcliffe OP, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005), 29-30.

Catholic Imagination


In De vierde man (The Fourth Man, 1983), directed by Paul Verhoeven, a puzzled questioner asks Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé) how he can still be Catholic in the face of modern science. Gerard, a gay and alcoholic Catholic poet, shouts that “Being Catholic means having imagination!”

Imagination is a powerful force linked with creativity and vision. It allows us to picture something to ourselves, making sense of the world, reinventing it. Catholics have a long history of intellectual, and therefore creative, engagement with ideas and images that are not tied up with what is present to the senses. Perhaps we can turn the question on its head and ask how can you be a scientist without imagination. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), the Belgian Catholic priest and professor of physics and astronomy at the Catholic University of Leuven who developed the theory of the origin of the Universe (known as the Big Bang theory), did not lack this faculty.

The Core Statements


The Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages. Light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and became man. He was also crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And He rose again on the third day, according to the scriptures. And He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory, to judge the living and the dead, and of His kingdom there will be no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets. In one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I profess one baptism for the remission of sins. I expect the resurrection of the dead; and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed:

(1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
(2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
(3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
(4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
(5) He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
(6) He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
(7) He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
(8) I believe in the Holy Spirit,
(9) the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
(10) the forgiveness of sins,
(11) the resurrection of the body,
(12) and the life everlasting.

Stating them is a manner of standing in the world, a way of thinking about our condition as human beings. Stating therefore is not simply saying. It implies interpretation and reflection on our part.

The Christian Divide


Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in the foreword to Timothy Radcliffe’s wonderful Why Go to Church?:

It is a great delight to be able to introduce the work of one of the most lively and creative preachers of the gospel in the Roman Catholic Church today; and I hope that these pages will remind us that, whatever tensions and unfinished business still lie between the historic churches, the basic commitment is one and the same.[1]

This is a good sign. It is an acknowledgement of a common ground, a realisation that what divides us is less than what unites us. It is a good sign, but we, Christians, have to be more vigourous in our contribution. Dialogue and convergence can only be achieved through our daily effort. A long road lies in front of us, but we must walk along it and come together again.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Foreword”, in Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist (New York: Continuum, 2008), x.

Against Pity


Davey Henreckson has a great post on why Christians should avoid pity:

The liberal must “save” the poor from poverty. The conservative must keep the poor from indolence. Both pity the poor as something less desirable. Neither attempts to challenge the basic idea that the poor are ultimately disprivileged.

[...] True Christian charity, therefore, is something more than our common definition of pity. White guilt is pity. Condescension is pity. Even inaction might be pity, for some conservatives. And what pity obscures is the paradoxical realization that the poor are, by certain biblical definition, worthy of higher honor. They own something we do not. And the means by which we might participate in that honor with them is charity.

I would have used the word “disenfranchised” instead of “disprivileged”, but ultimately, Henreckson is arguing that empathy — specific Christian empathy — should replace pity. I agree.

Power and Obedience


As a body that looks powerful and acts powerfully, the Catholic Church seems to want your obedience. But it does not seem to demand it. (Unlike the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God that asks “authoritatively” for money in exchange for miracles and blessings.)

We owe obedience to God alone — which is really an obedience to our deepest, truest self. The Church carries on the work of Jesus Christ, whom we call the Son of God, because he has shown this to us.

Perhaps that is why, years ago, when I was younger, I had a distorted image of the Church. I saw it reverently at a distance. Now, I am no longer outside and I am part of the Church, that is, part of a community not an institution. The power of this diverse community comes from what binds their members together. This does not entail that such a community is powerful. In fact, following Jesus, it should reject such an influence and be solely at the service of humanity and the salvation it aspires to.

Art and the Church


“It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it”, wrote Flannery O’Connor in 1955. She had no illusions: the Church is a flawed and imperfect organisation — a human organisation, in short. O’Connor was a splendid Catholic writer, deservedly celebrated today, who did not shy away from the darkness of the world yet understood the generosity that must command the work of an artist. That is why she added, “but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it”.

O’Connor had a lucid perspective on art as reflecting faith and therefore aiming at honesty. As I think through my own ideas about art and its purpose, “The Church and the Fiction Writer” remains a key text. Her perspective is inclusive and therefore universal — truly catholic. Her reflections are certainly useful to non-Catholics, confirming the common grounds between sincere Christians that she has revealed through her writing. In her view, a work of art is singular, concentrating on the particular in which we can see a reflection of the world. Art is an answer to our needs, not an exploitation of them. It leads to understanding and enlightenment, not to indoctrination or didacticism: here is where its significance lies. Art lays the truth bare, connecting the sensuality of things to our spiritual existence — a value denied by pious advocates of “clean art”, who separate body and soul, nature and grace, just like pornographers do.

Here is the article:

The question of what effect the Church has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us. One has to think not only of gifts that have ended in art or near it, but of gifts gone astray and of those never developed. In 1955, the editors of Four Quarters, a quarterly magazine published by the faculty of LaSalle College in Philadelphia, printed a symposium on the subject of the dearth of Catholic writers among the graduates of Catholic colleges, and in subsequent issues published letters from writers and critics, Catholic and non-Catholic, in response to the symposium. These ranged from the statement of Mr. Philip Wylie that “A Catholic, if he is devout, i.e., sold on the authority of his Church, is also brain-washed, whether he realizes it or not” (and consequently does not have the freedom necessary to be a first rate creative writer) to the often-repeated explanation that the Catholic in this country suffers from a parochial aesthetic and a cultural insularity. A few held the situation no worse among Catholics than among other groups, creative minds always being hard to find; a few held the times responsible.

The faculty of a college must consider this as an educational problem; the writer who is a Catholic will consider it a personal one. Whether he is a graduate of a Catholic college or not, if he takes the Church for what she takes herself to be, he must decide what she demands of him and if and how his freedom is restricted by her. The material and method of fiction being what they are, the problem may seem greater for the fiction writer than for any other.

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it. Msgr. Romano Guardini has written that the roots of the eye are in the heart. In any case, for the Catholic they stretch far and away into those depths of mystery which the modern world is divided about — part of it trying to eliminate mystery while another part tries to rediscover it in disciplines less personally demanding than religion. What Mr. Wylie contends is that the Catholic writer, because he believes in certain defined mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight; and this contention, in effect, is not very different from that made by Catholics who declare that whatever the Catholic writer can see, there are certain things that he should not see, straight or otherwise. These are the Catholics who are victims of the parochial aesthetic and the cultural insularity, and it is interesting to find them sharing, even for a split second, the intellectual bed of Mr. Wylie.

It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of the Faith, or at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural. He may be. No one certainly can be sure of his low motives except as they suggest themselves in his finished work, but when the finished work suggests that pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered, whatever purposes the writer started out with have already been defeated. What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer leans, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.

Henry James said that the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of “felt life” that was in it. The Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its honor, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge, not narrow, his field of vision. To the modern mind, as represented by Mr. Wylie, this is warped vision which "bears little or no relation to the truth as it is known today." The Catholic who does not write for a limited circle of fellow Catholics will in all probability consider that, since this is his vision, he is writing for a hostile audience, and he will be more concerned to have his work stand on its own reet and be complete and self-sufficient and impregnable in its own right. When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.

The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that lie in the material itself, and these will generally be more rigorous than any that religion could impose. Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.

If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.

Many well-grounded complaints have been made about religious literature on the score that it tends to minimize the importance and dignity of life here and now in favor of life in the next world or in favor of the miraculous manifestations of grace. When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility directly looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.

By now, anyone who has had the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: “Purify the source.” And, along with it, he has become aware that while he is attempting to do that, he has to keep on writing. He becomes aware too of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure, but from which come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church, but of a false conception of her demands.

The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the Church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone's consumption, and if in some instance the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the Church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.

The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work. This view probably owes as much to romanticism as to piety, but the writer will not be liable to entertain it unless it has been foisted on him by a sorry education or unless writing is not his vocation in the first place. That it is foisted on him by the general atmosphere of Catholic piety in this country is hard to deny, and even if this atmosphere cannot be held responsible for every talent killed along the way, it is at least general enough to give an air of credibility to Mr. Wylie's conception of what belief in Christian dogma does to the creative mind.

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add a dimension to the writer's observation which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge exists, but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist. A dimension taken away is one thing, a dimension added is another; and what the Catholic writer will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the natural events presented. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.

If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it (the restrictions of art are another matter), and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don't have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these, and the one he may at present least expect, will be the satisfied Catholic reader.

Two Ways to Live


Albert Einstein once said that there are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Cynics choose the first one. People who understand how and why the world persists, who recognise the connection of our human experience with the transcendent, embrace the vision that stems from the second.

Ethics According to Thomas Aquinas


Listen to philosopher Anthony Kenny giving an overview of Thomas Aquinas’ approach to ethics in another episode of Philosophy Bites.



I have been reading a book on quantum physics. Some people say that it is non-intuitive and defies common sense. I do not. I think quantum theory is the point at which physics became a kind of metaphysics.



Terry Eagleton, in “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, a review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion: “The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.”



According to Richard Dawkins and the new atheists there is a war going on between science and religion. Creationists and intelligent design (ID) proponents agree. Both erroneously define science against religion — or even more incorrectly, reason against belief.

As Rmj noted in a comment to one of his posts, it is ignorance of science that gives rise to ID, just as it is ignorance of theology and philosophy of religion that gives rise to the new brand of atheism. Rmj then concludes, “Funny how those two groups are joined at the hip, and yet fight so hard with each other. In fact, maybe that’s why...” These are wise remarks.

Biological evolution does not contradict the essentials of Christian belief — in fact, they do not even overlap. In a rigorous and devastating review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, Nancey Murphy posits that biology should not be turned into theology. She sees them as two different disciplines and domains.

The new atheists almost never talk about theology as a field of study, except to state that it is not really one and it should be set aside and not engaged with. On the other side, the scientific method is ignored. They have a lot in common in their lack of charity and openness towards other perspectives. Their debate is unfruitful. Reading an astute theologian is more enlightening:

Both the theological and the scientific critics of the belief that religion is an aspect of the human spirit define religion as man’s relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny. But it is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible. If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does not exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. And the question is justified whether such a thing does exist, and the answer is equally justified that it does not exist. It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word “God.” Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.[1]


[1] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 4-5.

Doubting in Church


My confident faith does not entail that doubts do not fill my thoughts and life. Belief is necessary for doubt.

I am a conflicted Catholic, who remained lapsed for years. The thought of God and of religious practice was on my mind while I was away. I missed going to a place of peace where I could reflect on everything that really matters — anything. This sacred place is church.

Some atheists and theists talk about the world and (the concept of) God with absolute certainties. The first reject any mystery. The second contradict it. Humanity has been tentatively attempting to reach an understanding of its existence and freedom. All we can do is honestly and humbly attempt such an understanding. The mystery that pervades every thing is not an unsolved problem or even a problem to be solved. It is one to be embraced, lived, and grasped like all the mysteries of life (such as love).

My knowledge has limits, but my curiosity seems limitless. I rely on sound reason, but also on deep intuition. Years ago, when I was younger, I thought that church was no place for a doubtful person, that I had to leave my doubts on the doorstep before coming in. I was wrong. The church is where I am able to really face my doubts. My intellect is a gift, not a burden. My doubts are sincere and therefore spiritually fertile.

Confident Faith, Thinking Mind


My strong belief in the mystery we call God as revealed by Jesus Christ is based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. However, it is not a groundless or irrational belief. No true belief is. Belief is not something I need. It is instead something that I have discovered and now profoundly desire to sustain, because it sustains me.

We should analyse this mystery, not erase it. Every spiritual life, and mine is no exception, is at the same time personal and communal — or else it loses its intimate meaning and resonance. I am tranquil, but mine is a tense tranquility. My faith demands that I keep thinking, questioning, and learning.