Ash Wednesday, Lent, “black pope”, discernment, doctrine, Jansenism, fake news

Another spellbinding, timeless, classic, transcendent, and modestly hyperbolic, over-the-top, down-the-middle, near-the-fringe edition of “Carl’s Cuts”

• Is it bad form to confess that I haven’t been to an Ash Wednesday service since 2003? Not to worry: my pastor knows all about it. And he hasn’t been to one since probably the 1970s.

Update (March 2nd): I was probably too cute or worse with the above point. To clarify: our family has attended an Eastern Catholic parish since 2000, and Ash Wednesday is not part of the Byzantine calendar. I don’t have any issues with Ash Wednesday; quite the contrary. In the Byzantine tradition, the start of the Great Fast is marked by Meatfare Sunday (on Feb. 19th this year) and then Cheesefare Sunday (Feb 26th). The Great Fast then begins the next day, this past Monday.

• When it comes to Ash Wednesday, I often think of two things: the great poem by T. S. Eliot (my favorite poem by my favorite poet) and the horrible line—”We rise again from ashes/to create ourselves anew”—from the cringe-inducing hymn sung at far too many parishes on this day. No, we do not create ourselves anew. No. Stop. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Cor 5:17-18). From God, through Christ, who gave us all that we have. Lord have mercy. It’s been over twenty years since I first heard that … thing, and I’m still fuming.

• On a more positive note, one of the best books about Lent was written some forty years ago by the Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who described the season in this way:

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.

• Speaking of fuming, how about these recent remarks from the new “black pope” (that is, the head of the Society of Jesus), Fr. Arturo Sosa, in a February 18th interview, translated by Sandro Magister’s crew:

A: The Church has always reiterated the priority of personal conscience.

Q: So if conscience, after discernment, tells me that I can receive communion even if the norm does not provide for it…

A: The Church has developed over the centuries, it is not a piece of reinforced concrete. It was born, it has learned, it has changed. This is why the ecumenical councils are held, to try to bring developments of doctrine into focus. Doctrine is a word that I don’t like very much, it brings with it the image of the hardness of stone. Instead the human reality is much more nuanced, it is never black or white, it is in continual development.

Q: I seem to understand that for you there is a priority for the practice of the discernment of doctrine.

A: Yes, but doctrine is part of discernment. True discernment cannot dispense with doctrine.

Q: But it can reach conclusions different from doctrine.

A: That is so, because doctrine does not replace discernment, nor does it the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, over at The Catholic Herald, introduces some basic facts into the, um, discernment process:

Well, we have been discerning, and we have been doing so for centuries. One is left wondering whether Fr Sosa’s call for continuing discernment is, in fact, a call to keep at it until we come up with a different answer?

Fr Sosa says that there were no tape recorders in those days. This is presumably an attempt at humour. But if the implication is that we cannot be sure that these words were actually said by Jesus, that implication is utterly false. The consensus of the Church has long been that this passage represents the ipsissima verba of Our Lord.

Put simply, in my estimation Fr. Sosa has shown himself to be a man of the Sixties. Perhaps the 1960s; perhaps the 1860s (that’s a semi-obscure reference to the rise of liberal German Protestantism). Regardless, his remarks don’t mingle well with a Catholic understanding of the Gospels. For example, here is Dei Verbum:

It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.

The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed (3) after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. (2) The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.(4) For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4). [DV, 18-19]

Note the mention of the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth”. At best, Fr. Sosa’s remarks are confused or confusing. At worst? Hmmm. The Catechism, drawing in Dei Verbum, says this about the relationship between Tradition, the Holy Spirit, doctrine, and more: “This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes'” (CCC, 78). And there is also this: “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 81).

• I recently interviewed Abp. Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia about his new and excellent book Strangers in a Strange Land, and earlier today I spoke with Teresa Tomeo about the interview and the book.

• Speaking of doctrine and related matters, it’s interesting that a certain author over at National Catholic Reporter has discovered the necessity and importance of doctrine. Go figure. Some of us have been saying this from the time they became Catholic. For example, I wrote the following many, many years ago:

An often missed fact is that all people hold to dogmas beliefs which guide their thinking and actions. G.K. Chesterton observed that “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. Trees have no dogmas.” The person who boldly proclaims “Humanity needs freedom from dogma” is like a scientist confidently asserting that “People can live without oxygen.” The issue is not whether dogma is good or bad, but whether a particular dogma (whether called such or not) is true or false. While people need oxygen to live, they can die if their air supply is poisoned.

“Dogma is boring and impersonal” is a common complaint today. Many Christians remark, or at least think “I don’t want to hear a bunch of theology. I just want to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” They might as well tell the doctor “I don’t want to know anything about my heartrate, blood pressure and cholesterol level I just want to be healthy.” There is no opposition between Jesus and theology. Theology is the study of God, aimed at understanding more clearly the truth about him. When dogma comes across as dry and dull, it is usually due to either poor teaching or lousy listening, but it is not a fault of the dogma, as Sayers liked to point out. Besides, many Christians have attended church for years without hearing much real dogma. They have instead heard insipid messages about “being good” and declaring that “all we need is love” without any clear definitions of goodness or love, nor what they have to do with God, Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation. Some Catholics, it appears, are like pious Unitarians who would be shocked and puzzled by Christ’s demand to “take up your cross and follow me.” The solution, Sayers claims, is to present Christ boldly and clearly

Again: all men have dogmas. All men hold to doctrines. Even if they refuse to admit so.

• Speaking of theology, the constant tossing about of the term “Jansenism” has made it necessary to revisit the actual meaning of the word. Jessica M. Murdoch, associate professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villanova University, does just that in this excellent essay for First Things, concluding:

We are, indeed, plagued by a new sort of Jansenism, one rooted in presumption rather than despair. The “old” Jansenism arose from both anthropological and theological despair—the Catholic absorption of total depravity, and the loss of hope in the possibility of salvation. Ironically, those who criticize the four cardinals—and anyone who believes that Amoris Laetitia is in need of clarification—often fall into a new form of Jansenism. This “new” Jansenism is marked by a similar pessimism with respect to human nature—total depravity under a new name, whether “weakness” or “woundedness” or “greyness.” And like what preceded it, the new Jansenism articulates a loss of hope in the power of grace to regenerate the soul. The difference is that the new Jansenism tends towards presumption. Whereas the Jansenism of old despaired that anyone could really be loved by God, be good enough to receive Holy Communion, or be saved, its newer version has so little faith in the power of God to change hearts that it presumes God does not care for something so insignificant as the human heart. No, God is too busy to care about my paltry sins. None are loved personally as they are, but rather all are loved in a great, amorphous mass of humanity that could not but be saved. One need not be in a state of grace to receive Holy Eucharist, because the state of grace is not a real possibility for most people.

At first blush, the new Jansenism sounds encouraging—none are guilty, all are saved! In truth, however, a pessimism that would canonize all is only a shade less pessimistic than one that would condemn all to hell. As St. Thomas notes, both despair and presumption are sins against hope.

• The editors Commonweal recently suggested, in a roundabout way, that Catholicism’s fate hinges on a democratic model:

What the brouhaha over Bannon and Burke fails to recognize is that the fate of Catholicism, as Francis himself constantly reminds us, is not being decided in Rome or Washington, but in thousands of parishes and Catholic ministries across this country and the world. It is there that both Catholics drawn to Francis and those disquieted by him will either find a way to forge real communion or not. This is a difficult but not unprecedented challenge. Cardinal Burke and his followers believe the church has the answers to nearly every moral dilemma, and that doubt of any sort is tantamount to heresy. Pope Francis, it is clear, very much wants to make room for doubters, or at least seekers, when it comes to questions such as Communion for the divorced and remarried. Our first task, as the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor sees it, is to “hold together in one sacramental union modes of living the faith which have at present no affinity for each other, and even are tempted roundly to condemn each other.” As Taylor suggests, holding that sacramental union together is now every Catholic’s responsibility.

I think highly of Taylor in many ways—although he is certainly “progressive” in his push for women priests—but why is “our first task” as Catholics being defined here by Dr. Taylor and not, say, the Church? Isn’t the first task of every Catholic to follow Christ, who has bequeathed the deposit of faith (as I discuss in more detail here) to his Mystical Body? What is “more space” in this context? I know that clarity and being “black-and-white” aren’t in vogue right now, but some things really fairly clear, no matter how complicated, unique, involved, and otherwise unprecedented our lives might be (or seem to be) in the grand scheme of human history.

• On a different note, here is a rather intriguing article that argues there’s much more involved in “fake news” than just ideology:

Trump adviser Steve Bannon calls the media the opposition party, but that’s misleading. Everyone knows that the press typically tilts left, and no one is surprised, for instance, that The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican candidate since 1956. But that’s not what we’re seeing now—rather, the media has become an instrument in a campaign of political warfare. What was once an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere became something more like state-owned media used to advance the ruling party’s agenda and bully the opposition into silence. Russia’s RT network, the emir of Qatar’s Al Jazeera network—indeed, all of the Arab press—and media typically furnished by Third World regimes became the American press’ new paradigm; not journalism, but information operation.

How did this happen? It’s not about a few journalists, many of whom still do honor to the profession, or a few papers or networks. It’s a structural issue. Much of it is because of the wounds the media inflicted on itself, but it was also partly due to something like a natural catastrophe that no one could have predicted, or controlled.

I’m not sure I’m on board with everything in the article, but I think the author makes a very important point about the rapid changes broad on by the internet, and how we are still, in many ways, trying to figure out how to navigate the waters of mass media after such drastic shifts and abrupt reformations.

• More from Fr. Schmemann:

When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, “the Feast of Feasts.” It is the preparation for the “fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation.” We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. […] On Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to joyfully affirm: “Death is no more!” Oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage — a “passover,” a “Pascha” — into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory.

More excerpts here.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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