Carl’s Cuts: On Schmemann’s Lent, Billy Graham’s death, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Wrinkle”, and Cardinal Cupich’s column

Confessions, observations, and animadversions on this, that, and the other.

• I’d really like to publish a “Carl’s Cuts” every week. But first I’ll need to get one published every six months. It’s enough to make me a bit cynical about my abilities and efforts. In fact, I was going to give up cynicism for Lent, but then thought, “Why bother?” Chesterton, as is so often the case, brings some measured wisdom to the matter:

• During Lent I re-read parts of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St Vladimir’s, 1974). One of my favorite passages includes this (which I’ve copied-and-pasted from the St. Vladimir’s Seminary blog):

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…”

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. But what is that joy about? Why can we sing, as we do during the Paschal liturgy: “today are all things filled with light, heaven and earth and the places under the earth”? In what sense do we celebrate, as we claim we do, “the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell, the beginning of a new and everlasting life…”? To all these questions, the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we “were buried with Christ…unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us… He made us partakers of His Resurrection. This is why at the end of the Paschal Matins we say: “Christ is risen and life reigneth! Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave!”

Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us?… We simply forget all this – so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations – and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again – petty, dark and ultimately meaningless – a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the mist of our “enjoying life” it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins,” yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity…

Indeed, we live as if He never came. Words to contemplate during Lent!

• More than a few readers have noticed, in recent weeks, some problems with the CWR website and, currently, with IgnatiusInsight.com. The folks in our IT department have penned a note explaining the basics of what has been going on:

Over the last few months CWR has experienced intermittent swarms of internet bots and crawlers looking for vulnerabilities and ways to take down or take control of the site. With some adjustments we were able to carry on, but a few weeks ago a new wave of attacks hit and overwhelmed the site, leading to a big slowdown and even outages, and to our firewall blocking entire countries in an attempt to save the site—a real problem for our international readership. So, we’ve moved to a new, more powerful and more secure server setup. This should return us to normal operation, but if you find yourself unable to comment on or view certain articles, please reach out to us at webhelp@catholicworldreport.com and we will get it resolved.

Ignatius Insight is currently being moved to a new server, and we hope to have it back up and running this week, if all goes well. My apologies for the inconvenience.

• There have been a flood of articles and posts about Billy Graham, and I don’t have too much to add. I did talk with Drew Mariani for a while about Graham and his influence on me when I was a young Fundamentalist/Evangelical. Years ago, I wrote a piece about Graham (a fleshed out version of this 2005 Insight Scoop post) that was not, as far as I know, ever published. Here are a couple snippets:

I was raised in a Fundamentalist home in western Montana. As a child, watching a Billy Graham crusade on our little black-and-white television was a special event; we would often meet with other families to listen to the famous evangelist preach to a large group of people in a city far away from our little town.

I’ve sometimes said, only half in jest, that for many years my understanding of Church history consisted of Jesus/Apostles/Bible in the first century and then Billy Graham/our church/Bible in the twentieth century, with a substantial if rather vague gap in between. Sure, we thought Graham went too easy on Catholics and other so-called “Christians”, but he preached the Gospel with vigorous clarity and that was good enough for us. While I was a student at Briercrest Bible College in the late 1980s, Franklin Graham spoke at one of our chapel services. While bearing a striking physical resemblance to his father, he didn’t have the same magnetic charm and polished oratory. A few years later, shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon, I finally attended my first and only Billy Graham crusade. I then realized how strongly television shaped my perception of the event—it seemed very familiar, but also strangely distant, perhaps due to the location of my seat.

In many ways, I think I learned more from Graham the Author than Graham the Evangelist. It’s not that Graham is a great theologian or a brilliant writer, but many of his books were solid, helpful guides to topics that interested, especially in my early teens. The Graham book that I recall most clearly is The Holy Spirit (1978) — a straightforward and rather systematic popular guide to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The topic was especially engrossing to me since I didn’t hear much about the Holy Spirit in our very anti-charismatic group. As Fundamentalists we were all about Jesus — the Holy Spirit was mostly for the Pentacostals. Graham helped me to appreciate the Third Person of the Trinity and gave me a sense of how the Holy Spirit related to the Father and the Son and to me as a Christian.

There is much to admire about Graham. Obviously, in his prime he was a riveting and dynamic orator. His great strength was that he knew who he was—an evangelist—and what he did best—evangelize. For the most part, he has avoided complex theological problems and thorny denominational issues and simply preached the Gospel. If C.S. Lewis is known for “mere Christianity”, Graham might be known for a sort of “mere Evangelicalism”—proclaiming an unadorned, to-the-heart message of man’s sin, God’s mercy, Christ’s death and Resurrection, and God’s invitation for man to accept the free gift of salvation.

Yet this strength was also a weakness. Although Graham transcended many denominational lines, it was at the expense of any sort of substantial ecclesiology, or clear and meaningful understanding of the Church. Graham undoubtedly has introduced many people to Jesus Christ. But I think they met a Jesus who did not have a Church—or at least a concrete, visible Church—as though they met the captain of the world’s greatest ship, but didn’t see or weren’t told much at all about the ship. This matter of ecclesiology stands out to me because it is at the heart of why I (and so many other Fundamentalist, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants) became Catholic: I didn’t want a vague Church, or a local church without any real connection to something bigger and older, or a denomination without authority, tradition, and weight behind it.

This anemic ecclesiology, by the way, is hardly unique to Graham; it is also evident in the writings of arguably the most popular Christian apologist of the past century: C.S. Lewis. May God grant Billy Graham eternal peace.

• Speaking of both Graham and my afore-mentioned battle with cynicism, it doesn’t help when I see articles titled “How a Humble Evangelist Changed Christianity As We Know It”, and subtitled: “Churches were divided. Leadership was concentrated in the denominations. Believers eschewed cultural influence. Liberal modernism was on the move. Then God made Billy Graham.” It highlights my point about ecclesiology—last time I looked, Protestantism in the U.S. is still very much divided, perhaps more so than at any time; liberal modernism, even generally speaking, hasn’t slowed down at all; and believers are finding it more and more difficult to have a significant impact on the culture at large.

• Disney’s cinematic version of Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time has been getting poor reviews (CWR will be posting a review soon, and it will also be less than adulatory), something I figured would happen after seeing the extended, in-theater trailer last December. It simply looked and felt wrong, coming off as rather stilted and lifeless. All the more reason to skip the film and read (or re-read) the book. I read it when I was eleven, a big chunk of it while sitting in the back of a Ford Bronco during a Montana snowstorm. Years later, I read L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, which has a deep affinity with Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, as both books emphasize the incarnational nature of art. Yesterday I ended up reading a 1979 Christianity Today interview with L’Engle, and was again deeply impressed with her wit, depth, and wisdom. I recommend the entire piece, but here are a couple of highlights:

Would you say that art is religious?

Whether artists are aware of it or not, art is always incarnational. True art is Christian. Sometimes I know that my work at its best keeps me from straying, keeps my faith intact. Someone once asked me if the fact that I was a Christian affected the way I work. I said no, but the way I work affects my Christianity.

Are you a universalist?

No. I am a particular incarnationalist. I believe that we can understand cosmic questions only through particulars. I can understand God only through one specific particular, the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the ultimate particular, which gives me my understanding of the Creator and of the beauty of life. I believe that God loved us so much that he came to us as a human being, as one of us, to show us his love. …

You were writing. What were you reading?

I tried to read German theologians. I thought, if I have to believe the way they believe, I cannot be a Christian. I found them depressing, though their soporific sentences did help my insomnia. Then I discovered higher math—physics, which is easier than lower math. But higher math asks questions that don’t have simple answers. Reading Einstein and Eddington, for example, opened up a world where I could conceive of a loving God who really could note the fall of every sparrow and count the hairs on every head.

And note here how, without talking about morality or doctrine, L’Engle explains perfectly the relationship between the two:

Explain more fully your idea of freedom.

Freedom comes on the other side of work. If I want to play a Bach fugue, I must practice scales. If I hope for any transcendent experience in prayer, I have to have just done my ordinary, everyday prayers, which is the same thing as practicing my scales. I have to write every day. Freedom and discipline, rather than being antithetical, are complementary. Permissiveness, either from others toward you or toward yourself, ends up being restricting and crippling. If you choose to be a writer and a mother, you have to be incredibly disciplined. Otherwise you won’t manage. Discipline does not imprison you.

The question about being a universalist is quite interesting, as I’ve seen more than a few articles and blog posts describe L’Engle as a universalist. Even Luci Shaw, who was perhaps L’Engle’s closest literary collaborator, according to this recent Washington Post article:

L’Engle was not afraid to push buttons, said Luci Shaw, a poet, co-author, editor and a friend of L’Engle’s for more than three decades. She said L’Engle was a universalist, believing that all humankind will be invited into heaven, and she loved gay people at a time when many Christians were suspicious of them.

“Many conservative churches draw a circle, and certain people can’t enter the circle because they haven’t been baptized or committed themselves to Christ,” Shaw said. “Jesus drew a circle that was much bigger, and it included everybody. She had a broad sense that we’re all in this together, that God’s love is the power that runs the world.”

If being a “universalist” means “believing that all humankind will be invited into heaven”, I’ll have to conclude the Catholic Church is universalist. After all, the Catechism, citing Vatican II and Scripture, says, ”

All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God’s will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one. . . . The character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit. (CCC 831; see 836)

As the Catechism notes, this is because the Church is universal: “Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race…” But universalism, or apocatastasis, is a different matter. To pick up on Shaw’s statement, the circle of redemption drawn by Jesus includes everyone, but the reality of hell is real because the reality of free will is also real:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (CCC, 1036)

• One quote from L’Engle’s Walking on Water, which captures the grace and depth of her best writing:

If Jesus of Nazareth was God become truly man for us, as I believe he was, then we should be able to walk on water, to heal the sick, even to accept the Father’s answer to our prayers when it is not the answer that we hope for, when it is no. Jesus begged in anguish that he be spared the bitter cup and then humbly added, “but not as I will, Father; as you will.”

In art, either as creators or as participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.

• Now, from the fairly sublime to the mostly ridiculous: Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago has penned a column titled “What makes Pope Francis tick?” (No, not “ticked”—although I think a clear connection often exists between the two.) There is plenty to remark upon, which is remarkable considering how slight of substance is the column. (Phil Lawler makes some observations here.) I will just note a couple of points. First, this:

It is because of [Pope Francis’] firm faith that Christ is alive and active in the church that he is insisting on a new pastoral approach for the church and its ministers. Ministry begins with encounter, continues with accompanying and leads to integration more fully into the life of the church, because that is precisely the way of Jesus.

Since Christ is indeed alive and active in the Church, why He has not instituted this “new pastoral approach” until now? And what, exactly, is this “new pastoral approach,” since we are constantly being told that everything Pope Francis is doing is in continuity with Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI? (Bear in mind, however, that Cardinal Cupich has demonstrated a knack for ignoring or skewing key texts.)

Next:

For instance, like Pope Francis, [Benedict XVI] advocated for “the law of gradualness” when it comes to judgment in particular cases. He wrote that there is a need to recognize “the distinction between objective disorder and subjective guilt, which depends greatly on intentions, motivations and concrete circumstances. … In this line the law of gradualness has been rightly developed. … As judge, Christ is not a cold legalist.”

This is a strange sets of quotes, because some of them come from the CDF’s 1989 document titled “The moral norm of ‘Humanae Vitae’ and pastoral duty”, while the final quote—”As judge, Christ is not a cold legalist”—is found in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1996 book-length interview with Peter Sewald titled Salt of the Earth (Ignatius Press, 1997). Why they are strung together without any sort of citation is not clear.

Regardless, the quote from Salt of the Earth is curious for at least two reasons. First, the insinuation that reasonable critics and reputable inquirers think of Christ as a “cold legalist” or are themselves “cold legalists” is simply ridiculous. Secondly, Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark comes at the end of a lengthy section on the nature of the Gospel and the matter of Christ’s judgment. He says that the “sloganlike opposition” between “condemnation” and “affirmation” (that is, between emphasis on guilt versus emphasis on mercy) is “one that I have never thought highly of.” Why? Because, Ratzinger states,

For whoever reads the Gospel sees that Christ preached the good news but that precisely the message of judgment is part of it. There are quite dramatic words of judgment in the Gospel that really can make one shudder. We out not to stifle them. The Lord himself in the Gospel obviously sees no contradiction between the message of judgment and the good news. On the contrary. …But when I conceive of the good news only as self-affirmation, in the final analysis it is meaningless; there is an anesthetization going on somewhere. (p. 185; emphasis added)

As for the quotes from the CDF document, it seems that Cardinal Cupich is once again only providing a part of the full story. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, there are two points to be made here.

First, one’s subjective guilt can never, ever change the objective nature of a moral act. As the document states: “This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting.” Just as one’s conscience is not the ground of objective moral truth, one’s subjective state cannot somehow change the intrinsically immoral nature of, say, using artificial contraceptives, committing adultery, taking an innocent life, and so forth.

Secondly, the “law of gradualness” refers, as John Paul II stated in Familiaris Consortio, to “a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward” (FC, 9). Such a process never, in any way, downplays or neglects the objective truth about morality; it never states or suggests that different moral criteria exist for different people depending on their situation. Here is key quote from John Paul II:

Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will.” On the same lines, it is part of the Church’s pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm. (FC, 34)

And, it should go without saying, the same applies to the Church’s teaching about adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and so forth. But, sadly, it must be said. Repeatedly.

Now, back to Cupich’s column:

Pope Benedict also insisted that we view our Christian faith not as a set of laws or rules, a philosophy or ideology, but first of all as an encounter with the Risen Lord that transforms our lives. In a word, the core belief in the action and presence of the Risen Lord is the same for both popes. It is important to keep that in mind as we pray for the Holy Father as he begins his sixth year as Successor of Peter. Undoubtedly, his bold words and gestures, which give expression to his core conviction about the Risen Lord, have threatened some who find change difficult and would prefer things to remain the same, particularly if it means their influence and power are being challenged.

More of the same: again and again, we are told that nothing has changed and that big changes are taking place. We are told that Francis merely continues in the footsteps of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but that those who had no issues at all with how Francis’ two predecessors taught and acted are now having problems with Francis because something has, in fact, actually changed? It’s the proverbial cake-in-mouth and cake-in-hand. But Cardinal Cupich isn’t content to suggest that many of those who have expressed concerns about some of Francis’ words and actions are rigid, power hungry graspers—no, he claims they likely are faithful charlatans:

Initially I thought that these contrarian voices were motivated by fear of change, fear of development and growth. Certainly some are. But I also have come to wonder whether they fail to appreciate fully the truth that Christ is risen, alive and active in the life of the church and the world.

So, is it change or is it development? As even rigid, sallow theologians know, those terms are not entirely sympatico when it comes to matters of doctrine—and, surely, we are talking ultimately about matters of doctrina—that is, teaching—when it comes to marriage, divorce, re-marriage, and related matters.

And as someone who has been critical at times of Pope Francis’ and parts of Amoris Laetitia, and as someone who has written a book defending the truth of the Resurrection, and as someone who has co-edited a volume on soteriology (especially focused on the nature of grace and deification), I find this sort of rebuttal to be as lacking in substance as it is pseudo-psychological in approach.

• Finally—wishing to end on a more positive note—those who appreciate great classical and jazz music should take a listen to Brad Mehldau’s new album After Bach (Nonesuch). Here is a piece titled “Rondo”:

About Carl E. Olson 1072 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 Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

12 Comments

  1. When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going (Fr Alexander Schmemann).

    Roads go ever on,
    Under cloud and under star.
    Yet feet that wandering have gone
    Turn at last to home afar.
    Roads go ever on,
    Over rock and under tree,
    By caves where never sun has shone,
    By streams that never find the sea;
    Over snow by winter sown,
    And through the merry flowers if June,
    Over grass and over stone,
    And under the mountains in the moon.
    Roads go ever on,
    Under cloud and under star.
    Yet feet that wandering have gone
    Turn at last to home afar (Tolkien).

    I know the fountain well which flows and runs, Though it be night.
    That everlasting fountain is a fountain hid,
    And where it is I know well, Though it be night.
    It’s source I know not, because it has none; Though I know that therein all things begin, Though it be night.
    I know that nothing can be in beauty like it, And that of it heaven and earth do drink, Though it be night (St John of the Cross The Living Flame of Love).

  2. “I was going to give up cynicism for Lent, but then thought, “Why bother?””

    🙂

    It reminds me of: “Which is worse, ignorance or indifference?” “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

  3. Excellent piece, and L’Engle impresses.

    But with her or Shaw on this I demur…

    “If being a ‘universalist’ means ‘believing that all humankind will be invited into heaven'”…

    Sorry, but I was Episcopalian for too long. Shaw’s words are doublespeak. And Catholics by now ought to know that hoping “all” are saved is one thing, playing coy with the question another, and one that hurts evangelism even if it helps bump up applause for good literature (Marilynne Robinson, for example). . People ARE now invited into Heaven. They won’t be in any meaningful future after-death tense. Heaven and Hell are real, and some decline the invite. I know it reignites the whole squabble, but especially with Francis’ odd equivocations on the subject (Mafiosos go the Hell, everyone else, to Heaven), it deserves reiterating. Raph Martin was right. Jesus spoke of Hell more than Paul or the OT. His words are impossible to explain away.

    As is Disney’s disappointing movie, LOL!

  4. Rondo is a musical form, not exactly a ‘title’. From a Britannica (online) definition: “Rondo, in music, an instrumental form characterized by the initial statement and subsequent restatement of a particular melody or section, the various statements of which are separated by contrasting material.”
    Many composers have written Rondos. Mozart’s ‘Turkish March’ is a rondo, as is Beethoven’s ‘Rage over a lost penny’,

    • Yes, as someone who has been listening to classical music since childhood, I know what it is. But it was the most simple way to present the song.

  5. As someone who is one of the flock of a shepherd who is a protégé of the silly Cardinal Cupich, I appreciate your trenchant analysis of his silliness.

  6. i have studied long and hard to learn and to think about what i have learned and i still believe i am in a category of people who have not learned it all and never will but i keep on reading and listening to learn more which is the reason that i read whatever some authors have to tell/teach us, me, especially mr olson. he is in another category and one reason why even the comments are telling and interesting, for the most part. i usually carefully comb CWR and CERC for his writing. steady on faithful servant, steady on.

  7. Thanks Carl.

    I suppose it’s safe to say that Cardinal Cupisch is one of the intellectually smallest Eminences Chicago has had for a while. He’s certainly no Cardinal George. Will our minor Eminence be remembered as an evangelist? Or as an author? Well I suppose he’s no Billy Graham then either …

  8. Also, troubled to hear of the determined and criminally devious attacks on the CWR site. I’ll be praying for the security of the site!

    I wonder if any unfaithful websites like America mag are being subjected to the same sort of attacks … something tells me probably not …

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