The Blessing of Incompetent Theologians

Darwin Catholic has a long response to Melinda Selmys’s also-long concerns about the moral theology behind the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Ferret out the details if you like, I’m not headed into long explanations of he-said-they-said where the documents behind Humanae Vitae are concerned.  Read the final product, it’s readable common sense that covers all you really need to know.

Here’s what I do want to say, though, about the opinions of theologians: Theologians are sometimes wrong.

The charism of infalliability is extremely limited.  Basically it keeps the pope from royally screwing up when it especially matters most, and that’s about it.*

I like to think my theology is sound.  I know for a fact that I fail spectacularly at many other tasks that ought to be wildly simple.  I could really do with a secretary, a housekeeper, and a more vigorous conscience, thanks.  That others have faults therefore comes as no surprise.  So when you encounter something that seems like dubious reasoning even though it comes from someone who ought to know better . . . maybe it is, in fact, bad reasoning.

It is entirely consistent with history, doctrine, and a charitable disposition to consider the possibility an otherwise reputable theologian might, on some or many points, be haplessly incompetent.

It happens.  Don’t stake your salvation on the smartness of mankind.

File:Hy soect de byle.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia.

 

*Yes, infallibility also applies to the bishops teaching in union with the pope . . . which just brings us back to the important bit, which is that the Holy Spirit protects the pope from the very most disastrous errors.

Funniest Parish Rumor Ever

This morning after Bible study one of the ladies asks me, “What are your degrees in?”

It’s a good question, and one I occasionally have to clarify.   I studied economics and I have a degree in economics are two different things; in my case the former is true but not the latter.  Every now and then an author blurb goes to print without my clearing it, and I cringe at the odd inaccuracies.

So I answered, “I have a BA in international studies, with a not-quite-a-minor in economics.  My master’s degree is in business administration, with the bulk of my coursework in accounting with a little bit of finance.”  Again, I don’t have an accounting degree, though I did graduate with enough upper-level courses to work professionally in accounting.  But I’m not a CPA, which people ask me whenever they hear I studied accounting.

“Oh,” the lady at Bible study says.  “So do you have a PhD in theology?”

Pardon me?  “No.”

“Oh.  Someone said you had a PhD in theology.”

No.  No no no.  “Nope.  Business.  Master’s degree in business, no PhD in anything.”

“Sometimes Father Whippersnapper seems to defer to you during Bible study.”

“That’s because he has a graduate degree in theology, which I do not, but I am more experienced with arguments among non-academics bickering on the internet.”

***

As parish grapevine experiences go, it was more amusing than horrifying, so it worked out.

–> I got to share a little bit of mine and my husband’s conversion stories (answer to the follow-up question of “How come you seem to know so much?”), and I conceded I do write a bit of Catholic non-fiction

More better: I got a few minutes of living vicariously through one of the other Bible study ladies, who overheard the conversation and shared with me about her experience in internal audit and fraud detection, which is one of the coolest things accountants get to do and I’d be totally looking into that if I were looking for an accounting job.

It was a good day.  And to my credit, I read just far enough into Love and Responsibility to know, as any good Junior Moral Theologian who happens to be married should know, the answers to these sex questions over at the Aggie Catholic blog,* which topics I alluded to in the rough cut of my most recent NCRegister post, now up: “What Do Priests Know About Marriage?”  My very smart editor removed the explicit references (which the Aggie post answers succinctly, so you’re set if you have those questions) to keep it PG rated.

*I do not write for the Aggie Catholic blog.  I have been to Texas three times, though, so it’s practically the same, for parish rumor-mill purposes.

File:Young Nun at Prayer by Sergei Gribkov 1852.jpg

Artwork: Young Nun at Prayer by Sergei Gribkov.  I’m not a nun either, in case anyone is asking.

PS: Parents, this is a grown-up blog.  I teach children in regular life, but on the internet I cover adult topics.

When You Can’t Shut Up About Evangelization & Discipleship

It turns out I have a lot to say on certain topics.

The start of my index of posts on Evangelization and Discipleship is now up here on this blog. I put it together because I happen to need to be reminded of things I kinda know but always forget.

The index is still in progress. I started by going through my posts at NewEvangelizers.com, then went through everything in the “Evangelization” category at my Patheos blog.  There’ll be more later, but for now we’ve got plenty.  The topmost section contains the basics, and I think I’ve managed to find all the posts I definitely wanted for the 101 pile.

Head’s up for the unaware: I can be a bit pointed.  The especially acerbic bits are down at the bottom of the page in a clearly-marked category of their own.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  

Samaritan womans meets Jesus at the Well, by Annibate Carracci

Artwork: Annibale Carracci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ushers of Divine Mercy

Saturday afternoon found me in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and in need of a trip to the confessional.  (No, I’m not scrupulous.  Just wretched.)   Holy Cross Catholic Church is about the size of a large convenience store, done in the style of 1970’s Neo-Traditional with a vigorous nod to Appalachian folk art.  Like the town itself, it is everything lovely and nuts and comfortable and joyful about American popular culture, Southern style.

For all that the parish embodies Americana, Holy Cross has something I’ve almost never seen in any of the many parishes I’ve visited: A greeter at the door during the hour for Confessions.

It makes sense of course.  If you know you’re likely to have visitors, it’s logical that you’d want to be ready for them.  I showed up, and the usher, with name tag and friendly welcome suited to his post, pointed out where the confessional was and where the line was forming and generally made sure I was all set.

Pigeon Forge is a small town in a rural county, and on any given Saturday the bulk of the Catholics on the ground are probably not parishioners.  I don’t think people usually come to Pigeon Forge for the purpose of confessing, though if you wanted to make the trip for that purpose, I can vouch for the place in that regard.  I do know that a lot of people come to Pigeon Forge for other reasons, and every single one of those visitors is a dreadful sinner just like the rest of us.  A few of them perhaps want to give the soul a good sprucing up after a visit to the Nike Clearance Store (or whatever else it is people do in town — evidence is I did that).

I suspect the parish has a particular charism for the Sacrament of Penance and for Divine Mercy.  In addition to the artwork in the nave and sanctuary, on the Lighthouse Media display rack in the lobby, there were exactly two talks on CD available for you to take home: Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession” and a Spanish-language version of Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession.”  Somebody wants you to be good and forgiven.

CD cover art courtesy of Lighthouse Talks / Augustine Institute.

FYI if you dislike face-to-face confession, be assured that as you step into the combination classroom / office / confessional / room-with-a-view, there’s a solid screen with a kneeler so you have the option of confessing anonymously if you so desire.  If you’ve ever sat in line at the parish, you know why I’m making that assurance. Don’t panic when you see people sitting in the window. You have other options.

Lent Day 43: Not Doing It

Wednesdays are traditionally the glorious mysteries.  I finally got back to praying the Rosary today after a gaping hiatus caused by a succession illness (it is a physical act, and thus requires one or another physical abilities), chaos, and inertia.

What was on my mind as I prayed was my inability to accomplish certain tasks before me, and thus my reliance on God to take care of them.  This is a good problem, because relying on me is not the wisest course, and in any case the tasks are God’s.

Here is a miracle, to give you an idea of the scope of the whole thing: I made a craft.  Not just any craft; one that required both bright colors and straight lines.  Also, I had to do it with supplies that I didn’t have spares of, which meant everything had to be done exactly right the first time.  No sane person assigns me a job like this.  Just never.

So anyway, I get around to the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Do you know what our Lady did during that mystery?

Nothing.

Just laid there.  Didn’t lift a finger.

God did it.

This seems to be the way it works.  Want me to conceive the Messiah? I can’t do that Lord, but however you want to handle this go ahead.  Out of wine?  Son, could you take care of this please?  So you’re saying the plan is that you’re going to die on that cross–? I’m just gonna stand here, and you figure out what the system is.

It’s not that Mary does nothing.  It’s that she does only the part she can do, and lets God worry about the rest.

 

***

Request: If you have a charism for bringing empty jars to the attention of our Lord, please consider joining the newly-formed Catholic Evangelization and Discipleship Intercessory Prayer Team group on Facebook.  It’s a closed group, but any member can add new members.  If you are in the work of discipleship or evangelization and would like people to pray for your mission, please join and post your requests.  (Also: Introduce yourself and I’ll add you to the pinned post of who’s who at the top.) Thank you!

 

File:Albert Cornelis - Assumption of the Virgin - ES BRHM BPV 009 12.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

Why Big Parishes are a Bad Sign

In the past few weeks I’ve gotten to visit two of the Diocese of Charleston’s newest parish church buildings.   St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg and St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken are both well worth a look.  (Our Lady of the Rosary is still on my sightseeing wish-list; meanwhile, for something fun, go see the stained glass at St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach — there is more information about those windows available at the church when you visit.  If you’re off the beaten path, Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood is charming and bright — the photos don’t do it justice.)

We are fortunate to live in a diocese where good design is flourishing.  I don’t for a moment wish to naysay any of the hard work and sacrifice that went into creating these beautiful new buildings.   On the contrary — I am grateful beyond expressing.

But let’s not delude ourselves: The very existence of some (not all) of this new construction should be an elegant, delightful, but shocking warning sign.

The Myth of the Flourishing Parish

Let’s look at St. Mary’s as a case study.  The original St. Clare’s chapel, now devoted to perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, was succeeded by the first St. Mary’s Help of Christians parish church early last century.  You can read an insightful history of Catholicism in the region — dating back to the 16th century — here.  The historic St. Mary’s parish church is still in use.  It wasn’t replaced because it was no longer habitable.  It was replaced because there were too many parishioners to fit into the building.

This sounds like a good problem, right?  It is, in a way.

It would be more accurate, however, to say: There were too many parishioners for the number of priests.

The Catholic population in Aiken, SC, as with the rest of the diocese, has grown significantly due to retirees moving south (we get your empty church parts to refurbish our buildings), professionals moving here from other parts of the United States, immigrants arriving from around the world, a certain number of conversions, and of course old-fashioned human reproduction.  Some of this represents spiritual growth; some of it is just other parts of the world sending us their Catholics.

But regardless of the cause, an unavoidable fact is now set in stone, brick, and concrete: We are not producing priestly vocations in adequate numbers.

A Faith Not Even Worth Living For

The Diocese of Charleston has a good vocations program going.  There’s always room for taking any initiative to the next level, but over the past twenty years the diocese has gotten conmendably serious and hard-working about reaching out to would-be seminarians.  We do have vocations flowing.  We have some superb new priests, and more on the way.  Fr. Jeffrey Kirby didn’t receive the state’s highest civilian honor for nothing.

Still, the arithmetic doesn’t lie.  Some parishes are on fire with the faith.  Some Catholics — in every parish — are wildly in love with Jesus and have the fruit to prove it.  But mostly we have to make larger buildings because we have pewsitters who love the pews, but who wouldn’t want to get carried away with any craziness.  Catholicism is legit here these days.  Church-going is civilized.  If you’re nicely married, it’s a wholesome place to raise the kids.

We feel good about our faith and we do good works, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really give your life over for.  We pat ourselves on the back if we get the teens to Adoration for ten minutes.  We’re wildly excited if a young couple gets married in the Church — the idea that most young adults would remain Catholic after high school is a rich fantasy.  Some statistics, via Brandon Vogt:

  • 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23 (Pew)
  • 50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today (i.e., half of the babies you’ve seen baptized in the last 30 years, half of the kids you’ve seen confirmed, half of the Catholic young people you’ve seen get married)
  • Only 7% of Millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today (weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important)
  • 90% of American “nones” who left religion did so before age 29 (PRRI)
  • 62% leave before 18
  • 28% leave from 18-29

If you’re not even Catholic, you are highly unlikely to become a Catholic priest.

Old Warning Signs

For as long as I’ve been talking to catechists and faith formation leaders, the refrain has been the same: “The kids in religious ed don’t even go to Mass.”  Some do, of course (mine, and quite a few others I know), but a surprising number of children are dropped off for CCD but never taken to Mass.  The situation is so dire that some parishes have resorted to requiring children preparing for sacraments to provide hard evidence they attend Sunday Mass, such as getting a bulletin signed.

Here’s another example by way of a personal story. My daughter’s would-be confirmation sponsor is an ardent young Catholic well known by many in the local Catholic community. As we put together paperwork, however, we discovered that due to an oversight when the family purchased a new home, they are not presently registered at the parish they attend most.  We’ll get it all straightened out one way or another, don’t be scandalized because there is no scandal.

But the underlying situation is this: It is now the rule that the way we “prove” someone is a “practicing Catholic” is via a set of papers and financial transactions.  Get registered, turn in collection envelopes, and you qualify for a “Catholic in Good Standing” letter.  The idea that one could simply be a faithful Catholic known in one’s community is utterly foreign to the present practice.

What if you trusted people when they said the godparents or sponsor were good Catholics?  We have come to fully expect people would outright lie as a matter of course.

Thus we live with a different set of lies.  We as a Church are so alienated from any sense of real community that we depend on bureaucratic proxies that supposedly indicate a practice of the faith, but everyone knows that they don’t.  Everyone knows that teenagers go through confirmation to make their parents happy, and then drop out at first opportunity.  Everyone knows that the confirmation class is composed of kids who last attended Mass at their First Communion.  Everyone knows that when we teach the Catholic faith assiduously, the kids whisper to themselves, right there in class, which parts they think are bunk.

The parts they think are bunk are almost invariably the parts their parents likewise think are bunk.  The Catholic Church is the stronghold of people who know how to shut up, smile, and get along.

Repeating Ourselves to Death

Any student of Church history can attest that things have always been shockingly bad.  The behavior of Catholics is the incontroveritble evidence that God must be holding this institution together, because it sure isn’t us.  That is not, however, an excuse to keep on behaving badly.

I write this today because I’m concerned that our beautiful new buildings will lull us into continued complacency.  We will persuade ourselves that what we’ve been doing is working.

It isn’t.

The buildings themselves cry it out.  We shouldn’t have mega-parishes.  We should have enough priests that when the parish overflows, we’re ready to form a second parish nearby.

The lack of priests isn’t some mystical aberration.  God isn’t suddenly pleased with the idea of men exhausted from administering multiple parishes and saying half a dozen masses in a weekend and having to rely on collection envelopes to know who comes to Mass because they couldn’t possibly meet all the parishioners they are supposed to be pastoring.  Nonsense.

We have no priests because we are very good at getting along and forming lovely clubs, but we are terrible at being Catholic.

If we don’t change this, St. Mary’s beautiful new building in Aiken will enjoy a brief sojourn as a Catholic Church, and then go the way of Sacred Heart across the river, no longer a church, now just a lovely but Godforsaken building.

File:Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia (8342846689).jpg

Artwork: Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library (Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia) [CC BY 2.0, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Prayer and Coloring: At Play in God’s Creation

Cover Art courtesy of Franciscan Media. Click through to go to the ordering page.

I accepted a review copy of At Play in God’s Creation because I wanted a coloring book.  That’s my real reason.  I’m going to talk about some controversial topics, but here’s a two-sentence review for those who are short on time:

  1. I love this book.
  2. Sr. Patricia would also love this book.

When Sr. Patricia and I are having a meeting of the minds? That tells you we’re in some heady waters indeed.

What’s in this book?

At Play in God’s Creation is an adult coloring book with a prayerful twist to it.  Amid the pictures, there are quotes from mystics and prayer-questions.  I’ve scanned a few portions of pages of my work-to-date so you can get a feel for what kinds of quotes and pictures we’ve got, see below.  There are a couple pages of suggestions for how to pray-while-you-color at the opening of the book.

Is it namby-pamby wishy-washy 1970’s nonsense?

Ha.  That’s the question of the day.  Here’s a nice short article from Catholic Stand, “Christian Mysticism and Its Counterfeit,” that lays out the problem.

My reading of the text of the coloring book is that it stays within the bounds of Catholic thought.  There are references to “finding your center,” which can be dicey, and there are plenty of Gather-hymnal word choices and grammatical devices.  So the book is operating at the hairy edge of the narrow road, yes — but I don’t think the author goes over the cliff.  If you are reading the text with a well-catechized Catholic lens, and you’ve waded through authors like Bl. Julian of Norwich and come to shore edified, it works.

Likewise, if you were drawn to the book because you do color but you don’t pray and don’t know a thing about prayer and this is your first baby step into some kind of spiritual life, I think it could be a comfortable starting point rather than a hindrance to more formal and informed Catholic prayer as you moved forward.

Also, the author of the text reminds you not to pass judgement on the thoughts that enter your mind as you’re prayerfully coloring, so when you get to this page and think to yourself, “One of these flowers is a ninja throwing star!” that’s okay.  No judging, guys.

ninja-star-flower

Is Coloring Praying?

Coloring could be helpful just because it is good for a busy person to quiet down and do something calm and relaxing for a change.

I think this is a bit like the old joke about smoking-while-you-pray vs. praying-while-you-smoke.  I advise you not to smoke, but I can attest from my proto-hipster days that actually, yes, a moonlit night, silence, and a decent cigar make for good spontaneous prayer, if you’re so inclined.  But that sort of prayer is not the same thing as praying the Rosary or the Divine Office or the Mass for serious.  It’s not the same thing as actually carrying out Ignatian Exercises with your whole heart and mind focused on prayer.  It’s a good thing, and you should try it frequently — not smoking, but spontaneous prayer as you are engaged in quiet activity — but you’re cheating yourself if you never go deeper.

Still, we aren’t tube worms.  We don’t live in the depths all the time.  When we’re trolling the shallow waters of ordinary activity, we don’t therefore stuff our souls in the closet. It is in fact good, wholesome prayerful activity to take a little R&R by coloring a Celtic knot while letting your mind range over a St. John of the Cross quote, and your life, and how the two intersect.

"Where there is no love, put love -- and then you will find love."

Why Does Jen Like the Book?

Here’s a page I work on when I’m sitting in the car waiting for a teenager to come out after volleyball practice:

labrynth

Come on guys, color my hopes?  My hope is that said child will notice I’ve shown up before I have to reach for the bridge-of-the-support and phone her to let her know someone’s waiting, thanks.   Not every single phrase and picture in this book is a perfect match for me personally; I trust that there is someone out there who needs and will benefit from a cute version of the Four Creatures of the Apocalypse, and that we two must share an artist.

But hey, here’s an impending bloody-shipwreck . . .

ship

. . . and on the facing page when you make it to fair land, there’s a not-friendly dragon reared up ready to scorch you.

dragon

I like this book because I get the ordinary benefits of coloring (relaxation, art-for-non-artists, etc.) combined with a keen sensitivity to the reality of spiritual struggle.  Not every single prayer-prompt in the text is my cup of tea, but most of them have their moments when they are spot-on.

Verdict: If this is the kind of book you would like, you will like it.

***

Related:  I got this lovely Christmas card from someone at Ave Maria press, featuring artwork from Daniel Mitsui’s adult coloring book The Mysteries of the Rosary.  That might better suit the taste of some of my readers.  (Hey, Ave! – I will totally review that coloring book if you mail it to me.)

Related to Related: But why am I on someone at Ave Maria’s mailing list?! Oh, that’s right, there’s this book! Today’s the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and if you want to know my fit-for-print thoughts on that topic, and a few others, get the book.

Funny Story: There was some brouhaha a little bit ago that I decline to link to, in which a group of ostensibly-Catholic women were recording themselves preaching on the Gospels, with the goal of proving that hey! Girls can read the Bible and talk about it too!  Put a cassock on it!

And I was like, No duh. CatholicMom.com does have some male voices on the Gospel Reflection Team roster, but the group is definitely mom-heavy, as we’d expect.

But you know what’s really super cool, and has nothing to do with boys and girls and everything to do with the grace of God?  Showing up at Mass and your pastor preaches a sermon, and you’re like, “Yeah.  That’s way better than anything I would have said.”  Coloring book or no coloring book, pray for your priests.

Can a Good Man Sin?

I do not know Fr. Frank Pavone, but I have friends who hold him in high regard.  There can be no questioning the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of ending abortion.  I agree with the sentiment that we who are pro-life are not vocal enough in our opposition to the massive slaughter taking place in our country.  While it is evident that I disagree with Fr. Pavone concerning certain tactics, I am not one to confuse squeamishness with righteousness.

Zeal can at times cloud our judgement.  I am an expert in rash behavior, and the decision to place a deceased infant on his chapel’s altar was, I firmly hope, an act of miscalculated passion.

It was certainly a sin.

Have you been to confession lately?  Fr. Pavone is human, and like you, he is capable of sinning.  Like you, he is capable of acting in willful disregard of the law of God.  He’s also, like you, capable of acting in culpable ignorance.  We who view from the outside cannot know the state of Fr. Pavone’s soul; we can, however, inform our consciences to the point that we can perceive when an objectively sinful act has been committed.

Now it is likely that in his tactics Fr. Pavone sinned against the virtues of prudence and temperance; certainly his bishops have found it so. For the remainder of this essay I’m setting that aside, already dealt with extensively elsewhere.  We are going to look only at the sin against the cardinal virtue of justice.  Did Fr. Pavone give God His due?

What is the Purpose of the Altar?

In our spiritual lives we often invoke the image of the sacred altar.  We speak of uniting our sufferings with Christ on the Cross, and Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  When we offer up a Mass for a given intention, we might say that we placed that intention on the altar.  You’ll often notice when you attend Mass that the priest will have a card right there on the altar reminding him of the intention for that Mass.

Thus we can understand how someone — anyone — might have the natural instinct to place some significant object on the altar in an act of devotion and offering.

To avoid sin, however, requires obedience to supernatural instincts.

The altar of the Mass is the place where heaven meets earth.  We who enter a Catholic church are entering the Holy of Holies.  We are people who, at the moment of the Consecration, see God and live. We are so used to this sacred privilege that we forget how unspeakably privileged we are.  The daily duty of caring for the parish church can create an over-familiarity with sacred things, to the point that we  start to forget they are honest-to-God sacred.

Our Strength is in the Lord

Time and again in the Old Testament, we see the Lord do valorous deeds for the people of Israel.  That miraculous action didn’t end with the Incarnation: We can cite miracle after miracle in the long history of the saints down to our present day.  These miracles are not mere emotional adjustments.  God acts in the physical and social world, at times miraculously delivering physical healing, political victory, and military protection.

These miracles happen not on our schedule but on God’s.  They also follow a pattern, and it’s a pattern that illuminates the nature of Fr. Pavone’s error.  Step 1: We turn to God for His miraculous provision.  We acknowledge our complete dependence on God’s saving hand, and abandon ourselves entirely to His divine will.  Our help is the Lord who made heaven and earthStep 2: God intervenes for the good of His people when and how He pleases.

In so doing, we often experience the Lord’s sacred paradox.  We put our trust in the Lord, not in chariots and horses — only to turn around and see the Lord using chariots and horses to deliver us.  The order of the operation is the hinge on which the whole of salvation rests.

In the beginning there was God, and then He made heaven and earth.  The sacred altar belongs to that First thing.  It is a holy place set aside for the Presence of God in the shockingly same way God Is, outside of all time and space.

Righting the Sacred Order

God wills the protection of all innocent lives.  He wills an end to abortion.  It is the desire of God that men would freely act to end this atrocity.  It cannot but be the desire of God to come to our assistance in the work of protecting and defending the most vulnerable among us.  These facts are incontrovertible.

But there is another incontrovertible fact: The altar is reserved to divine worship and nothing else.

We must charitably assume that Fr. Pavone’s recent actions were motivated by a sincere desire to serve God.  All the same, he committed an act of sacrilege.  We can defend him with mercy, for who among us is not also a wretched sinner, but we can’t defend his action with approval.  To do so would require contortions along the lines of proposing that first God made heaven and earth, and then the next day He Is.

No no no.  It must always be the other way around.  It is unable to be otherwise.

The objective gravity of Fr. Pavone’s sin was in putting a second thing first.  He failed to remember the supreme sacredness of the altar.

You have probably done that once or twice, if only in thought if not in word or deed.  You may have heard about, if not witnessed yourself, reprehensible violations along these lines committed by clergy and others who ought to know better.  We humans are woefully fallible.

Mercy and Reparation

Fortunately, there are remedies.  Begin by forming your conscience as to the sacredness of the altar of the Sacrifice of the Mass.  If you do not live in a parish where the sacred altar is treated with due reverence, make a pilgrimage to a place where it is.  Lex orandi lex credendi.

Then proceed with prayer and fasting for the reparation of every rent in the sacred relationship between God and man.  Contemplate our Lord’s mercy on us sinners.  One of the missions of Priests for Life is bringing healing to those who, knowingly or unknowingly, committed a grave offense against God and man in the act of abortion.  As it is for abortion, so it is for every sin: No one who desires to repent is beyond the reach of the Lord’s infinite mercy.

Related Links:

Top Ten Ways Jack Chick Will Spend His Purgatory

There are lots of people who know exactly what Purgatory is like, but few of them are available for comment.  A review of the literature, however, points to some likely ways that Jack T. Chick could be spending his hours of purification.

Top Ten Ways Jack Chick Will Spend His Purgatory

  1. Helping St. Anthony look for things.
  2. Putting finishing touches on portraits of the Blessed Mother.
  3. Listening to Saints Peter and Paul reminisce about everything that’s ever happened at the Vatican, for real.
  4. Meeting all the Jesuits.
  5. Praying along with the prayer requests mentioned on Catholic Answers Live.
  6. Assisting St. Rita in all the desperate pleas for help with last-minute Halloween costumes.
  7. Working with the purgatory-residing authors of anemic bread-wine-sharing-dinner-table songs to rewrite their lyrics into hymns suited to Eucharistic Adoration.
  8. Writing If I can’t keep my pagan gods’ names straight, I will visit the local library to fact-check 1,000 times on the blackboard.  In hieroglyphics.
  9. Preparing a big Thank You Jimmy Akin! sign to hang at the gates of Heaven.
  10. Passing out the plenary indulgences to the suffering souls who’ve just been released.

Remember, kids, for the love of all that is Jesuit: You can spring Jack Chick at any time. May he rest in peace.

***

As I shared in part 2 of my conversion story at New Evangelizers, I owe Jack Chick eternal gratitude:

Having to answer these egregious attacks on the Church was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I didn’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I just like the liturgy,” or “This seems to be where God wants me for now.”  I had to turn on my brain and find out: Is this faith true?  Can I know beyond a reasonable doubt that this is for real?  Because it’s lovely to have bright glowing memories of a spiritual experience, but what about when the shine wears off?  What about when all the scandals that have rocked the Church take their turn at my place for a change?  Will I still believe when things aren’t so easy anymore?

I still have my annotated copy of Are Roman Catholics Christian? full of penciled-in Bible verses refuting the assorted misinformation.  (Quick answer: Why yes, we are.  Thanks for asking.)

I can’t seem to find a proper review, but here’s my Goodreads blurb on Jimmy Akin’s excellent book The Nightmare World of Jack Chick:

Great book. As always with Jimmy Akin, it’s thoroughly researched, and calmly and charitably expressed. In addition, the book is a fun topic, not technical and it’s a quick read. Great choice for teens just getting going with apologetics. My son loved it!

You want this book.  Looks like it’s out of print right now, but you can read a version at Catholic Answers.

The Nightmare World of Jack Chick

Cover art courtesy of Catholic Answers and Goodreads.