Friday, 26 September 2014

Sad developments in Paraguay

An ugly case has come to light in Paraguay: The Bishop of Ciudad del Este, Mgr. Rogelio Livieres Plano, has been dismissed as Bishop by Pope Francis and the diocese put under administration.

It is sad because Mgr. Livieres Plano was in fact a highly successful and orthodox Bishop: according to some reports, his diocese had about 240 seminarians, more than the rest of the country's dioceses combined, and his tenure had sparked a revival of the Faith in the diocese. He was also very supportive of the traditional liturgy and critical of Liberation Theology and Pansexualist ideology.

But the good Bishop was apparently also an appalling judge of character. His dismissal is connected with his employment, and promotion to Vicar General (i.e. second-in-command of the diocese) of one Fr. Carlos Urrotigioity, an Argentinian priest with a track record of creating serious trouble.

Rorate Caeli have an in-depth analysis which is rather lengthy and contains some diversions so I will summarise the main points below. Additional information is available here (note that while this article refers to Fr. Urrotigoity as a 'pedophile', I have not seen anything that indicates that he is suspected of molesting minors, only inappropriatly touching young seminarians under his care).
  • Fr. Urrotigoity started his priestly career in the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (FSSPX), but was dismissed after a short while because he exhibited questionable character traits (having a guru-like influence on other priests and seminarians) and was suspected of homosexual behaviour.
  • The priest instead was incardinated (employed) in the diocese of Scranton. When the superior of the FSSPX, Mgr. Bernard Fellay, found evidence of indecent behaviour towards a young seminarian while he was in the FSSPX, he wrote the Bishop of Scranton a letter disclosing all and strongly recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Fr. Urrotigoity. 
  • Nothing happened, however, until the advent of a new Bishop of Scranton, who seems to have taken the charges seriously and dismissed Fr. Urrotigoity from the diocese. It is not clear if new accusations emerged at this time.
  • However, no procedures were undertaken to reduce Fr, Urrotigoity to the lay state, and thus he was allowed to be incardinated in Ciudad del Este, where apparently he won the trust of Mgr. Livieres Plano and was promoted to Vicar General.
  • When this came to the knowledge of the Bishop of Scranton, he informed the Vatican and the ecclesiastical authorities in Paraguay. When the leader of the Church in Paraguay, the Archbishop of Asunción, learnt of the allegations, he demanded that Urrotigoity be dismissed from his position. But Mgr. Livieres Plano refused and embarked on a rampant counter-offensive, publicly accusing the Archbishop of being a homosexual and all his other brother Bishops in Paraguay of being heterodox.
  • The Vatican announced a visitation of the diocese (a fact-finding mission), and at its recommendation eventually both Fr. Urrotigoity and the Bishop were dismissed.
It is a sad end for what appears to have been a fruitful episcopal reign, but given the Bishop's horrendous dispositions it was probably inevitable. Not only did he hire a priest suspected of inappropriate behaviour towards young men - that could have been forgiven had he agreed earlier on to comply with the recommendations to dismiss him, but he verbally abused his brother Bishops in the public forum and thus created serious rifts in the entire Church in Paraguay. I suspect it was the latter consideration which led to his dismissal rather than anything else, though one can also speculate that the visitation concluded that the Bishop's erratic behaviour was due to a malign influence from Fr. Urrotigoity that made him unfit to be Bishop.

What now of the Bishop, and of Ciudad del Este diocese? I hope all will accept the decision of the Pope; the last thing Paraguay needs is that a group of priests and laypeople led by Fr. Urrotigoity, or even Mgr. Livieres Plano himself, break away in schism in protest. Of course, Rome will also have to be responsible in choosing a new Bishop who will find acceptance among the apparently Conservative/Traditionalist-leaning clergy and laity of the diocese and who can build bridges between all factions in the Paraguayan Church.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Can we worhsip God wrong? An Orthodox Christian explains

Robert Arakaki, an Orthodox Christian, has written an insightful essay here with an Orthodox assessment of 'contemporary' Protestant worship - pop music with catchy tunes, young preachers in jeans delivering hip powerpoint-assisted sermons etc. Needless to say, the article is very critical of contemporary worship styles, showing how far away they have strayed from the style of worship practiced by the early Church and by the Jews, and demonstrating that Orthodox worship instead is solidly rooted in Scripture.

In the course of the article the author also takes a couple of (unwarranted) shots at Catholic liturgy, but virtually all his points about Orthodox liturgy are applicable to Western Catholic liturgy as well (bear in mind that there are also Catholic Churches that use the exact same rites as the Orthodox). So I thought I would provide the most relevant excerpts below. Main points are highlighted by myself.

Mr. Arakaki starts by explaining the origin of Old Testament worship:


First we need to ask: Is there a guiding principle for right worship? St. Stephen, the first martyr, gave a sermon about the history of the Jewish nation. In this sermon he notes that Old Testament worship was “according to the pattern.”
Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. (Acts 7:44 NIV, italics added).

The phrase is a reference to Exodus 24:15-18 when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights up there. On Mt. Sinai Moses was in the direct presence of God receiving instructions about how to order the life of the new Jewish nation. Thus, the guiding principle for Old Testament worship was not creative improvisation nor adapting to contemporary culture but imitation of the heavenly prototype.

Next, he shows that Orthodox (and Catholic) worship is rooted in the Old Testament:


Worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple. Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area. This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:30-37,27:9-19; I Kings 6:14-36; II Chronicles 3 and 4). The layout of Orthodox churches may seem strange to those who attend contemporary services, but it is patterned after the Old Testament Temple.

Orthodox worship is also patterned after the worship in heaven. At the start of the second half of the Divine Liturgy the church sings:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
This is a participation of the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. For the Orthodox Church this point of the Divine Liturgy is not so much an imitation as a participation in the heavenly worship.

Another way Orthodox worship is patterned after the heavenly worship is the use of incense. Incense was very much a part of the heavenly worship. In his vision of God, Isaiah describes how as the angels sang: “Holy, Holy, Holy” the doors shook and the temple in heaven was filled with incense (Isaiah 6:4). The Apostle John in Revelation describes how the angels in heaven held bowls full of incense and how the heavenly Temple was filled with incense smoke (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 15:8).

Then he goes on to demonstrate that the Old Testament prophecies foretell of Orthodox/Catholic worship:


Orthodox worship is more than an imitation of Old Testament worship. It is also a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. The Old Testament prophets besides describing the coming Messiah also described worship in the Messianic Age. Within the book of Malachi is a very interesting prophecy:
My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord. (Malachi 1:11)

What is striking about Malachi’s prophecy is the reference to incense. Where before incense was offered in the Jerusalem Temple, in the Messianic Age incense would be offered by the non-Jews... Thus, whenever an Orthodox priest swings the censer and the sweet fragrance fills the church one experiences a direct fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Protestants may complain about how strange incense is, but they should realize that the use of incense was an integral part of Old Testament worship and is one of the key markers of authentic biblical worship in the Messianic Age.

Malachi’s prophecy about “pure offerings” is a reference to the Eucharist. The Jewish rabbis taught that when the Messiah comes all sacrifices would be abolished with the exception of one, the Todah or Thanksgiving sacrifice. This was fulfilled in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that is, the last supper Christ had with his followers when he gave thanks over the bread and the wine (Luke 22:17-20). The word eucharist comes from the Greek word evcharisto “to give thanks.” Jesus’ statement about the cup of the new covenant meant that he was about to inaugurate the Messianic Age.


For the Apostle Paul the Eucharist was just as important as the Gospel message. As he went about planting churches across the Roman Empire, Paul taught them the Good News of Jesus Christ and how to celebrate the Eucharist. This can be seen in Paul’s formal phrasing: “For I received from the Lord what I also pass on to you….” in I Corinthians 11:23 for the Eucharist and in I Corinthians 15:3 for the Good News (Gospel). Paul’s phrase: “What I received from the Lord….” parallels that in Exodus 25:9: “exactly like the pattern I will show you.” The infrequent celebration of the Eucharist in Evangelical and Pentecostal worship shows how far they have moved from historic Christian worship.


Mr. Arakaki also points out that the common view of Protestants that Old Testament worship has been abolished by the New Covenant and Christians are to worship God in a completely different way is contrary to the Gospel:

The Evangelical approach to worship seems to be based on the assumption that Jesus abolished the Old Testament. Because of this Evangelicals ignore the Old Testament teaching on Tabernacle worship and focus on the New Testament for instruction on how to worship God. The paucity of New Testament passages on worship has been taken as grounds for an anything goes approach to worship. But, this assumption is wrong. Jesus made it clear he did not come to abolish the old covenant but rather to fulfill it:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).
An examination of the gospels shows Jesus’ adherence to the Old Testament pattern of worship. Jesus was in the habit of attending the synagogue services (Mark 1:21;Mark 3:1; Mark 6:2). Likewise, he observed the great Jewish festivals at the Temple: Passover (Luke 2:41), Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-13), and Passover (Matthew 26:18; Mark 14:14; Luke 22:7-11). Like Jews throughout history, Jesus considered the Passover meal the highlight of the year. Jesus told his followers: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15)


Likewise, we find Jesus’ apostles continuing the Old Testament pattern of worship. Following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the first Christians met at the Temple courts (Acts 2:36). The Temple court was a focal point for the early Christians (Acts 5:20). The apostles preached the Good News in hope that the Jews would accept Jesus as the Messiah. Just as significant we find them relying on the ritual prayers used by Jews. This can be seen in the fact that a literal translation of Greek in Acts 2:42 would be “the prayers.” We find that Paul, like Jesus, attended the synagogue (Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 19:8). Even when Paul had become a Christian he continued to make it his habit to attend the synagogue services...


Where Evangelicals assume a sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, the Orthodox Church sees a strong continuity between the two. The Evangelicals’ assumption of a sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments has led them to ignore the Old Testament teachings on worship... As the Jewish Messiah Jesus Christ took the Jewish forms of worship and filled them with new content and meanings. Orthodox worship took the Jewish synagogue and Temple worship and made them Christocentric.

He goes on to question both the origins and the fruits of contemporary worship:


The classic shape of Christian worship consists of two parts: the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of Holy Communion. This was the way all Christians worshiped until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s... The Protestant teaching “the Bible alone” resulted in the sermon becoming the center of worship. Priests were replaced by Bible expositors, and the altar was replaced by the podium. This marked a decisive break from the historic form of Christian worship.

But the break from historic worship did not end there. In the early 1800s a more emotional and expressive form of worship became popular on the American frontier. Then, in the early 1900s Pentecostalism emerged with its emphasis on the baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other charismatic manifestations. Where mainstream Protestantism stressed sober singing and the rational reading of the Bible, Pentecostalism stressed ecstatic worship and experiencing the Holy Spirit...

Just as influential on Protestant worship was pop music popularized by music groups like the Beatles. The pop culture of the 1960s shaped in profound ways the values and outlooks of the baby boomer generation. A cultural gap widened between the more traditional church services that relied on organs or pianos and had traditional hymns, and the more contemporary church services that used guitars and sang simpler and catchier praise songs. Many churches were split as a result [of] “worship wars” — hymns and organs versus praise bands and praise songs.

The third influential movement was the church growth movement. Though less visible to the public eye, it influenced the way many pastors understood and ran the church. The church growth movement brought market analysis and business techniques to the way the church was run. With the introduction of the concept of the seeker friendly church, church worship moved away from edification of the faithful to evangelizing outsiders. Numerical growth was seen as proof of God’s blessing. This is exemplified by mega churches packed with thousands of enthusiastic worshipers. However, despite its good intentions the church growth movement introduced several serious distortions. Worship of God often became spiritual entertainment. The sermon shifted from an exposition of Scripture to selecting Bible verses to support teachings on how to live a fulfilling life. In seeking to tailor the Christian message to non-Christians many pastors have dumbed down their message with the result that many of their members know very little of the core doctrines. Just as troubling is the fact that many churches have become spiritual machines that rely more [on] organizational techniques, high tech electronics, and social psychology than the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In short, Protestant Christianity has undergone a major uprooting as a result of the influence of Pentecostalism, contemporary Christian worship, and the church growth movement.

Finally, he wraps up his analysis by pointing out that Scripture speaks of the necessity of worshipping God in a manner acceptable to and prescribed by Him:

A non-Orthodox might ask: What difference does it make to God how we worship? The better question would be: What does the Bible teach about worship? Does the Bible teach it makes a difference how we worship God? The answer is God does care about the worship we offer Him. We read in I Peter 2:5:
…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (NIV, emphasis added).
This concern for proper worship goes all the way back to Leviticus 22:29:
When you sacrifice a thank offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf (see also Leviticus 19:5) (NIV, emphasis added).
If we are instructed to offer “acceptable” sacrifices, this implies we can offer improper worship that will be rejected by God.


If salvation is about a right relationship with God then worship plays an important part in having a right relationship with God. Before the Fall Adam and Eve enjoyed unbroken communion with God; after the Fall they became alienated from God and mankind has suffered as a result. God has been at work throughout human history working to bring us back into fellowship with him. This work of restoration reached its climax with the coming of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). The author of Hebrews stresses that Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the New Covenant (5:7-10; 9:9-14) and as a result of His death on the cross we are able to enter into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19-25) and take our place in the heavenly worship (Hebrews 12:22-24). In Revelation 7 is a description of the great ingathering of the Jews and the Gentiles in worship at the throne of God.

Our ultimate destiny is not to be Bible experts but to have communion with God... The heavenly worship described in Revelation is not in some far off future but can be experienced in the Sunday liturgy in an Orthodox church. In Revelation 22:3 we read:

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face and His name shall be on their foreheads (NKJV).
The Greek word “serve” can also be translated “worship.” As we stand in worship facing the altar we behold the throne of God; this is because the altar, like the Ark of the Covenant, is where God’s presence dwells. The phrase we shall see God “face to face” finds its fulfillment when we face the altar looking at the icon of Christ the Pantocrator (the All Ruling One). The icon is more than a religious picture, it is also a window into heaven. Lastly, “His name shall be on their foreheads” is fulfilled in the Orthodox sacrament of chrismation where the priest anoints the foreheads of converts with sacred oil forming the sign of the cross. Every Orthodox Christian has this spiritual seal on their forehead as a sign of their belonging to Christ.

Thus, it is not Orthodox worship that is so strange and different but contemporary worship. Orthodox worship only seems to be strange because it is not of this world. It is part of the worship of the eternal kingdom.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics IV: Basic Questions 3 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 4 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The rest of the series can be found here.

Yet another post in my series on Pinckaers' book, with yet more basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence:

5. Love: Pinckaers notes that, following the New Testament, "all Christian ethicists recognize the prime place of love in Christian morality". St. Augustine redefined the four classical cardinal virtues as different movements of charity. St. Thomas taught that the act of loving something for its own sake was the first movement of the human will and that it was perfected by the virtue of charity through the grace of the Holy Spirit. According to him, without charity no other virtue, faith included, is truly alive.

However, Catholic ethicists of recent centuries have, Pinckaers asserts, turned the issue of love somewhat on its head by placing it within the context of obligation: What charitable acts are required of us? "Practical primacy is given to obedience to the law... obedience to legal obligations is now seen as the true form of the virtues". The issue is this: do we love out of obedience or obey out of love?

This approach has created two distinct strains in modern thought, Pinckaers argues: on the one hand, ethicists are suspicious of love and passion because of its close connotations with sex. On the other, there is a widespread movement both in the world at large and within the Church for spontaneous and care-free love, without due concern for integrity and truth. The absolute necessity of sacrifice for authentic love, so obvious in Scripture, is completely forgotten, as witnessed by the ever-growing number of broken homes. Furthermore, some modern thinkers have developed a thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature, where all human action is placed within the context of the fight for survival and class struggle. To answer this, Pinckaers says, is not enough to introduce a merely sentimental love. A love is needed that dares to confront violence, and knows how to uproot it... This calls for a genuine rediscovery of charity and friendship, our weapons for the combat.
6. Truth: According to Pinckaers, the moralism of recent centuries has tended to confine the issue of truth within the context of the obligation to believe certain truths of the Christian faith. But the scope of the word truth is much wider than that. In Scripture, truth is often associated with love and with upright living and knowledge of that which is true is not something that is gained through purely intellectual activity, but rather from experience, flowering in love.

We might apply here the classical definition of truth - "the mind's grasp of the thing" - but with a new interpretation. The "thing" is not now something material we think about but a personal reality - God or neighbor... "Mind" is not now abstract reason but intelligence united to will, love and desire, informing and directing them.
This kind of intelligence is active, because it leads to action in truth. In this sense we can talk about doing the truth. Truth is beneficial; through upright love it creates a profound harmony between our various faculties and between persons.
Pinckaers concludes that "love of "the fulness of truth," as St. John puts it, or the search for wisdom" is essential in Christian ethics. "We might define the ethicist's task as a search for "the fulness of truth," so that it may throw light on all human actions."

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics III: Basic Questions 2 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 3 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The rest of the series can be found here.

(Originally posted 26 April 2009)

Continuing my analysis of Pinckaers' book (earlier entries here), some further basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence:

3. Life's meaning and goal. Pinckaers quotes the pioneering Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, as saying "The psychic life of man is determined by his goal." St. Thomas taught that happiness is our ultimate end, but later moralists dismissed this idea of Man's ultimate end as "too speculative" in favour of "the study of individual actions in relation to law, the study of cases of conscience". But this misses the point that finality is essential to human existence.
Since the question of life's goal or ultimate end is so important, we might define Christian ethics as the science that teaches us the meaning of life. It shows the supreme end toward which all our actions should be directed, the end that gives them meaning, value, and wholeness. Within this perspective, the work of the ethicist and the priest will be to help every Christian, indeed all whose lives they touch, to respond personally to the question of the real meaning of life. Their task will be to point out the highest good in the light of the Gospel and to show how all lesser goods can lead to it.
4. Suffering. Pinckaers observes that "the manuals of moral theology have little to say about suffering", choosing instead to refer this matter to treatises on asceticism. But as he points out further, both Scripture and human experience shows the centrality of suffering in human existence. The life of Christ and His disciples is steeped in suffering. The theme is prominent in the Psalms and in Job. Even on a relatively mundane level, suffering leads Man to appreciate good. According to Pinckaers, the failure of ethicists to deal with this concept is another result of the over-emphasis on obligations: "once the idea of obligation becomes dominant and determines the scope of morality, the consideration of suffering becomes marginal, since it is not a matter of obligation," and continues, "On the other hand, if the idea of happiness is the initial consideration in moral theology, the place of suffering will be obvious, for it is precisely the reverse of happiness. Suffering will then be an element of moral theology from the start." The concept of suffering is prominent in St. Thomas, too, and closely tied up with the virtue of courage, Christian martyrdom, and the Passion of Christ.

Pinckaers believes that the separation of ethics and suffering is the product of a rationalistic mindset, according to which reason and will occupy the paramount position in the moral life of the individual, while love and suffering are secondary concepts. On an even lower level is to be found the (largely irrational) sentiments, which must be dominated by reason. But, says Pinckaers,
In setting up this dichotomy between reason and appetite, rationalism misunderstands the existence of what might be termed spiritual sensibility... [which] is associated with direct perception - a kind of instinct or connatural knowledge - and with the unique movement of selfless love which is the love of friendship... And delightedly [St. Thomas] called the gifts of the Holy Spirit "instincts of the Holy Spirit" in both intellect and will.
Instead, Pinckaers, here as always, calls for a more integrative approach which can also effectively take in the question of death which is so prominent in our society.

I can't determine whether his assertion that the separation of ethics and asceticism is due to rationalism is correct, or whether this separation necessarily implies that one is superior to the other. It might seem reasonable to separate the two for investigative purposes. But the integrative approach called for by Pinckaers certainly seems to promise a more rounded view of human existence and the role of ethics in it.

Monday, 27 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics II: Basic questions 1 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 2 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The first part can be found here.

(Originally posted 12 March 2009)

I started working through Servis Pinckaers OP's work The Sources of Christian Ethics here. Moving on from placing the issue in its historical context, Pinckaers posits some basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence.

1. What is a person obliged to do and not do - what Kant called the moral imperative? This was touched upon in the previous post. Pinckaers points out that Catholic moral teaching of the last six centuries has tended to assign an unjustifiably large importance to the role of moral obligations. For instance, ethicists have discussed how often we are obliged to pray, or perform works of charity. Some, especially Protestants, will infer that this is silly since we are required to do so incessantly. This is a bit beside the point, for such discussions took place in the context of determining when people were obliged to go to Confession - if a person had not performed a charitable act for two months, should that be considered a grave sin which needed to be confessed? This is a valid question for a Catholic. However, there is a danger, Pinckaers argues, of equating morality simply with the science of obligations and duties. This is a reduced view of morality, since - as the Saints demonstrate - what drives Christian life is the interior workings of the Spirit, which, while ensuring the honouring of obligations and duties, also calls Man to go beyond them.

2. The role of happiness. Some more modern moralists are perplexed that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great master of theology, has very little to say about obligations. But, Pinckaers argues, this is because he frames his teaching on morality in a somewhat different way than later generations of moralists. St Thomas, in fact, bases his whole moral teaching on the question of happiness, beatitude. This is not something novel. Both the Pagan Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church viewed the question of happiness as the primary principle in dealing with morality. When St. Augustine is asked what we should ask of God, he replies, "Ora beatam vitam" - "Ask for the happy life." Right living, it was unanimously believed, would lead naturally to a state of happiness. Friendship is another important theme, especially among the Greek Fathers. St. Thomas defined charity as friendship with God. Pinckaers notes:
This theme has completely disappeared from modern books on morality. The reason is obvious: friendship, being essentially free, could hardly be considered an obligation. Friendship can create obligations, but the inverse is not true. As a result, friendship has been excluded from the field of morality as an indifferent sentiment...
As Pinckaers points out, the approach of the Fathers and St. Thomas is profoundly scriptural, much more so than that of later moralists. The wisdom litterature, the Beatitudes in Matthew's Gospel, St. Paul all speak of morality in the context of the search for happiness. Later moralists seldom quote Scripture apart from the Decalogue.

Now, I and many others would infer that all this talk about happiness is very good, but is there not a risk of perverting the quest for genuine happiness - which is found only in the beholding of the glory of God - into a self-seeking hedonism? Pinckaers acknowledges this concern, but, he argues,
The quality of our desire for happiness depends on the love that inspires it and on our concept of the human person. If the love is selfish, and still more if the human person is seen as a being with needs craving satisfaction, then the desire for happiness is bound to be self-centered... If, on the other hand, a person is capable of true, unselfish love for God and neighbour... then the desire for happiness can lead that person to be open to God and neighbour and become generous.
According to Pinckaers, obligations and happiness are not antithetical to one another. A proper moral theory of beatitude should well be able to accord obligations and the Commandments their proper place within it. Going on, he says,
This would be to place Christian ethics in a very different context. It would be seen as the science of happiness and of the ways that lead thereto... In Scripture, God always approaches us with promises of happiness before speaking of precepts. Inspired by the desire for happiness, the movements of the human heart and all its actions, even on the level of emotion, can work together to foster moral growth...
I completely agree with Pinckaers that this must be the starting points of Christian ethics. After all, the Beatitudes were the starting point of Christ's moral teaching. This in no way reduces the radical demands of the Gospel, but rather places them in their proper context. As I see it, what many perceive as "traditional" Catholic moral teaching, i.e. that of the last six centuries, for all the truth it contains has shown to be vulnerable in that it stresses law for law's own sake, thereby separating it from the concerns and challenges of the individual. This has probably been a factor in the large-scale defections from the Church in recent decades. In contrast, by positing law as the answer to Man's legitimate search for happiness, its relevance in the life of each individual shines forth clearly, and we realize that our innate longing for happiness is fulfilled by adhering to the revealed truth about God, our ultimate end.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics I: Introduction (Pinckaers 1995)

In the coming days I will revisit a series of posts I wrote some time ago on the Swiss Catholic theologian Servis Pinckaers' important work The Sources of Christian Ethics. At that time I provided a summary and some reflections on the introduction, in which he explains the scope of the work and asks some basic questions to start off his investigation. I now offer these posts again for reflection and discussion, and hopefully I will soon delve further into the book:

(Originally published 28 February 2009)

This is the first of a probably long series of posts where I will relate my thoughts on works on ethics which I am reading. In this day and age, it is hard to distinguish good, orthodox Christian books on ethics from dissenting ones. There is such confusion as to what constitutes genuine Christian thought, which is why everyone studying this type of subject should consult theologians whom one knows to be solidly orthodox and whom one trusts.

Incidentally, I got Servis Pinckaers OP's book The Sources of Christian Ethics as a present from my mother, who is not Catholic. But I had confirmed by a Priest whom I trust that it was an excellent work. Pinckaers is a member of the Order of Preachers, the Dominican Friars, who have a long tradition of scholarly excellence. Sadly, many of them have lately veered off into speculative non-Christian theology, but Pinckaers places himself squarely in the ancient tradition along with the greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas (also an OP).

Pinckaers' main point, with which I heartily agree, is made clear from the very start: any genuinely Christian view of ethics and morality must be based in the sources of the Christian faith - namely, Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. This seems self-evident, but, as he shows, the sources have been largely neglected, not only during the past century, but in fact since the late Middle Ages.

I am always wary of theologians who imply that the pre-Vatican II Church went 'off course', as if it had completely misunderstood the message of the Gospel. Such a notion is of course intolerable for a Catholic. Yet Pinckaers is not the first I have seen raise the point that the late Middle Ages saw some unhelpful shifts happen in Catholic theology, and it seems there is something to it. If we look at the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and further back of St. Augustine and most of the Fathers, they are adamant that the participation of the human intellect with Divine Reason, the source of all existence, is a necessary element of Christian faith. Life as a Christian is "Life in the Holy Spirit", is communion with God. Though we are fallen and sinful human beings, God's grace gives us the ability to overcome sin and become ever more like Him.

But from the late Middle Ages until modern times, moral theologians focused increasingly on the duties and obligations required of the Christian. Pinckaers points out that the need for Priests to determine (especially vis-à-vis Confessions) which actions were sinful and which sins were mortal and which venial (for an understanding of this distinction, read here) led to the drawing up of manuals classifying sins according to their nature, and listing moral obligations imperative upon Christians. These were intended for the formation of Priests, but Priests were influenced by them in their preaching, which perhaps at times led to an unhealthy focus on the letter of the Law rather than its Spirit in the life of the Church in general.

I contend here: duties and obligations are indeed important, something which our age has largely forgotten. Ills like divorce and abortion arise from a lack of sense of duty and a supreme focus on one's personal well-being. It is also important to know what is sinful and what not. But it is true that a genuine sense of duty and of love for others cannot arise from a purely juridical view of ethics which easily degenerates into legalism. It must be born from the encounter with the Divine, the infusion of God's grace into our lives.

Of course, moral theologians of the past centuries would have largely agreed. But Pinckaers' issue with them is that they wanted to treat moral theology as a science separate from the rest of theology, essentially leaving it in the hands of jurists who would work out what was sinful and not according to more or less arcane casuistic principles. This concept of morality focuses very much on the Moral Law, starting from the Ten Commandments as an expression of the Natural Moral Law (the Law inherent to all Mankind) and adding various prescriptions of the New Covenant, as well as some particular laws of the Church (such as the ancient obligations of fasting and attending Mass on Sundays). One can be forgiven for seeing in this the works-centred Christianity which Luther rebelled against (although it has nothing to do with 'justification through works'). It certainly is, Pinckaers says, a system which is more concerned with sin than with virtue.

Instead, or rather to complete this truncated view of ethics, Pinckaers offers a view of ethics as
the branch of theology that studies human acts so as to direct them to a loving vision of God seen as our true, complete happiness and our final end. This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, in the light of revelation and reason.
According to Pinckaers, theology has suffered from being divided into ethics, dogmatics, and various other disciplines. It must rather be integrated and seen as a whole. Also, ethics must focus more on both the external and internal, individual and communitarian realm, rather than merely on cases of individual conscience, such as the casuists did. All this is to direct us to God, our final end, but it must include the dimension of love, without which ethics is sterile. Also, it must include the dimension of happiness; not understood in a sentimental way, but as the natural aim of our actions. Grace builds on nature. It is perfectly natural for us to want to attain happiness, even if we have a distorted view of what happiness constitutes. By God's grace, our natural impulses are given the proper direction and become vehicles of grace.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Blogging again

As my lovely wife decided to take up blogging, I thought I might have a go at it again after a four-year hiatus. I think I need somewhere to pen thoughts that are deeper than a facebook update can bear.

Just to recapitulate what I want to do with this blog:
  • Share thoughts on various issues I grapple with, such as: Christian faith and morality, medical ethics, unborn rights, family, fatherhood, the place of religion in society, politics, traditionalism, art...
  • Try to uncover the meaning of human life and the mystery of the human person, with the help of Catholic Christian teaching and the great philosophers and theologians, Christian as well as non-Christian.
  • Promote a vision of human life as a pursuit of truth, of beauty and of happiness - not understood as pleasure but as a state in which life is suffused with meaning and beauty, even in the face of struggles and adversity, a happiness that can only be fulfilled by fellowship with the Creator.
Looking back at some of my previous posts I can see that I have since matured somewhat in my way of thinking and reacting. Some of what I wrote then was perhaps rather unreflected and harsh, but I hope to do better in the future and that all I write will be edifying for all who happen to pass by.