conversion

Conversion of Saint PaulOne of the great feast days of the month of January is the Conversion of Saint Paul. So, for this month, I hope to highlight some Christian thinkers — both ancient and contemporary — who have written about conversion as a phenomenon and as a way of life.

For today, here’s a definition of conversion from the late Father Thomas Dubay, SM:

To a goodly number of people the idea of moral conversion is heavily negative, even threatening. It suggests giving up fun things, making sacrifices, cutting down and cutting out, getting rid of numerous selfishnesses. This reaction is understandable, but it is only the smaller aspect of a larger and liberating truth.

An accurate synonym for conversion, as we are using the word here, would be transformation. Put simply, conversion is a basic and marked improvement on the willing level of the human person. Even more pointedly, it is a fundamental change in our willed activities from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. Anyone who is fully alive will find this a stimulating set of ideas. We can put the matter in still another way. Conversion is a change from vice to virtue: from deceit and lying to honesty and truth… gluttony to temperance… vanity to humility… lust to love… avarice to generosity… rage to patience… laziness to zeal… ugliness to beauty.

Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer, “Getting a Feel”

the value of trials

Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of DiscernmentSin obscures. So does selfishness. The cross purifies. All of us ordinary mortals are wounded, immersed in our own darkness. A healthy self-denial sensibly practiced and rightly motivated slowly lifts one out of his egoism, laziness, hedonistic inclinations. We are fitted to receive the clean light of the Spirit.

The saints invariably possessed a remarkable wisdom. Even the most simple of them were gifted with a penetration into reality and into the God of all reality that books and studies cannot produce. This penetrating gaze into the real was made possible by their prior purification. This must be at least part of the meaning of that mysterious saying of St. John of the Cross: “The purest suffering produces the purest understanding.” In another place the saint amplifies this idea when he remarks that “the purest suffering brings with it the purest and most intimate knowing, and consequently the purest and highest joy, because it is a knowing from further within.” One who lives the paschal mystery, life through death, lives more and more deeply and thus will see more and more penetratingly. Authenticity is begotten on the cross.

Suffering reduces us to our own ashes; it strips away egoism and makes love possible. A Scripture commentator can remark that “to be a ‘tried’ Christian or to experience the Spirit is one and the same. Trial disposes to a greater gift of the Spirit, for He now achieves by trial His work of liberation. Thus freed, the tried Christian knows how to discern, verify, ‘try’ everything.”

If adaptation to the modern world has actually meant settling for a more comfortable life, a rejection of the hard road and the narrow gate, it is no renewal at all. If updating in a religious congregation has consisted largely of mitigations, we have a clear sign of resistance to the Spirit of the living God. If the renewal of moral theology consistently means more pleasure and less sacrifice, it is no updating at all. It is a surrender to the world.

from Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., “Moral Behavior: Cross-Asceticism”

Catholics in political life, and the virtue of hope

RNS-CHARLES-CHAPUT-012717Here are a few bracing excerpts from a talk Archbishop Charles Chaput delivered in Toronto back in 2009. The whole presentation is worth a read.

The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean – separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world” and to “make disciples of all nations.” That kind of radical separation steals the moral content of a society. It’s the equivalent of telling a married man that he can’t act married in public. Of course, he can certainly do that, but he won’t stay married for long.

Partly because I’m a bishop and partly because I’m older and a little bit wiser, I don’t belong to any political party. As a young priest I worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. Later I volunteered with the 1976 and 1980 campaigns for Jimmy Carter. So if I have any partisan roots, they’re in the Democratic Party. But as I say in the book, one of the lessons we need to learn from the last 50 years is that a “preferred” Catholic political party usually doesn’t exist. The sooner Catholics feel at home in any political party, the sooner that party takes them for granted and then ignores their concerns. Party loyalty for the sake of habit, or family tradition, or ethnic or class interest is a form of tribalism. It’s a lethal kind of moral laziness. Issues matter. Character matters. Acting on principle matters. But party loyalty for the sake of party loyalty is a dead end….

One of the words we heard endlessly in the last U.S. election was “hope.” I think “hope” is the only word in the English language more badly misused than “love.” It’s our go-to anxiety word — as in, “I sure hope I don’t say anything stupid tonight.” But for Christians, hope is a virtue, not an emotional crutch or a political slogan. Virtus, the Latin root of virtue, means strength or courage. Real hope is unsentimental. It has nothing to do with the cheesy optimism of election campaigns. Hope assumes and demands a spine in believers. And that’s why – at least for a Christian — hope sustains us when the real answer to the problems or hard choices in life is “no, we can’t,” instead of “yes, we can”….

[Georges] Bernanos once wrote that the optimism of the modern world, including its “politics of hope,” is like whistling past a graveyard. It’s a cheap substitute for real hope and “a sly form of selfishness, a method of isolating [ourselves] from the unhappiness of others” by thinking progressive thoughts. Real hope “must be won. [We] can only attain hope through truth, at the cost of great effort and long patience . . . Hope is a virtue, virtus, strength; an heroic determination of the soul. [And] the highest form of hope is despair overcome.”

Anyone who hasn’t noticed the despair in the world should probably go back to sleep. The word “hope” on a campaign poster may give us a little thrill of righteousness, but the world will still be a wreck when the drug wears off. We can only attain hope through truth. And what that means is this: From the moment Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” the most important political statement anyone can make is “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

the virtue of hope

SpeSalviLately I’ve been thinking about hope: in particular, hope as a theological virtue. Given all of the sexual, financial and theological scandal in the Church in recent months, and all of the political scandal in the culture, many of the temptations I face today are temptations against hope. The recent popularity of the movie Joker, for example, impressed me as a troubling bellwether of a climate of despair. And in the Church, even in quarters in which the virtue of faith seems evident, often a corresponding hope is not manifest. Sins against charity are usually easy to spot, but sins against hope tend to be more subtle. The days are dark, and the temptations to let the light of hope be extinguished are legion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope (and defects of hope) as follows:

2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment.

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:

By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

In order to explore the topic of hope more deeply, in the coming weeks I’ll be returning to meditate on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), which was released on November 30, 2007.

In 2008, I hosted three evenings of discussion of Spe Salvi. All three discussions were audio recorded and edited (roughly!) and are available as audio podcasts:

  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 1-12: Introduction; Faith is Hope; The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church; Eternal life – what is it?
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 13-31: Is Christian hope individualistic?; The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age; The true shape of Christian hope
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 32-50: “Settings” for learning and practising hope: Prayer as a school of hope; Action and suffering as settings for learning hope; Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope; Mary, Star of Hope

false alternatives

Trojan Horse in the City of God by Dietrich von HildebrandGiven the theological puberty crisis we are currently living through in the Church, I highly recommend the following book for study and meditation:  Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Trojan Horse in the City of God, written in 1967, but as relevant today as then. Below is the first chapter of the book:

WHEN  ONE READS  the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium)  of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council.

False interpretations of the Second Vatican Council

But when one turns to so many contemporary writings – some by very famous theologians, some by minor ones, some by laymen offering us their dilettante theological concoctions – one  can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

On the one side, we find the true spirit of Christ, the authentic voice of the Church; we find texts that both in form and content breathe a glorious supernatural atmosphere. On the other side, we find a depressing secularization, a complete loss of the sensus supernaturalis, a morass of confusion.

The distortion of the authentic nature of the Council produced by this epidemic of theological dilettantism expresses itself chiefly in the false alternatives between which we are all commanded to choose: either to accept the secularization of Christianity or to deny the authority of the Council.

The true meanings of conservative and progressive

These drastic alternatives are frequently labeled the progressive and conservative responses. These terms, facilely applied to many natural realms, can be extremely misleading when applied to the Church. It is of the very nature of Catholic Christian faith to adhere to an unchanging divine revelation, to acknowledge that there is something in the Church that is above the ups and downs of cultures and the rhythm of history. Divine revelation and the Mystical Body of Christ differ completely from all natural entities. To be conservative, to be a traditionalist, is in this case an essential element of the response due to the unique phenomenon of the Church. Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith. The idea of a “progressive Catholic” in this sense is an oxymoron, a contradictio in adjecto. Unfortunately, there are many today who no longer understand this contradiction and proudly proclaim themselves to be “progressive Catholics.”

Conservative and progressive are false alternatives

With the labels conservative and progressive they are in fact requiring the faithful to choose between opposition to any renewal, opposition even to the elimination of things that  have crept into the Church because of human frailty (e.g., legalism, abstractionism, external pressure in questions of conscience, grave abuses of authority in monasteries) and a change, a “progress” in the Catholic faith which can only mean its abandonment.

These are false alternatives. For there is a third choice, which welcomes the official decisions of the Vatican Council but at the same time emphatically rejects the secularizing interpretations given them by many so-called progressive theologians and laymen.

True renewal calls us to transformation in Christ

This third choice is based on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of His Holy Church. It takes it for granted that there is no room for change in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church. It admits no possibility of change except that development of which Cardinal Newman speaks: the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it.

This attitude holds that the Christian morality of holiness, the morality revealed in the Sacred Humanity of Christ and His commandments and exemplified in all the saints, remains forever the same. It holds that being transformed in Christ, becoming a new creature in Him, is the goal of our existence. In the words of St. Paul, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thess. 4:3)

This position maintains that there is a radical difference between the kingdom of Christ and the saeculum (world); it takes into account the struggle between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Satan through all the centuries past and to come, until the end of the world. It believes that Christ’s words are as valid today as in any former time: “Had you been of the world, the world would love its own; but as you are not of the world, as I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:19).

This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification. It rejoices in any renewal that enlarges the establishment of all things in Christ – the instaurare omnia in Christo – and that brings the light of Christ to added domains of life. This is in fact a specific encouragement to Catholics to confront all things with the Spirit and Truth of Christ – in season and out of season – regardless of the spirit of the present age or any past age. Such a renewal follows the admonition of St. Paul: “Test all things; hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). It appreciates reverently those great gifts of previous Christian centuries which reflect the sacred atmosphere of the Church (for example, Gregorian Chant and the admirable hymns of the Latin Liturgy).

The Catholic position maintains that these gifts should never cease to play a great role in our Liturgy and that they have today as in the past a great apostolic mission. It believes that the Confessions of St. Augustine, the writings of St. Francis of Assisi, and the mystical works of St. Teresa of Avila contain a vital message for all periods in history. It represents an attitude of deep filial devotion to the Holy Father and reverent love for the Church in all its aspects, the true sentire cum ecclesia.

It should be clear that this third response to the contemporary crisis in the Church is not timidly compromising, but consistent and forthright. It is not retrospective, nor does it anticipate a mere earthly future, but it is focused on eternity. It is thus able to live fully in the present, because real presence is fully experienced only when we succeed in freeing ourselves from the tension of past and future, only when we are no longer imprisoned in a frantic propulsion toward the next moment. In the light of eternity every moment in life – whether of an individual or a community – receives its full significance. We can do justice to the present age, therefore, only by regarding it in the light of man’s eternal destiny – in the light of Christ.

The response that we have been describing involves grave concern and apprehension over the present invasion of the life of the Church by secularism. It considers the present crisis the most serious one in the entire history of the Church. Yet it is full of hope that the Church will triumph, because our Lord Himself has said: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).