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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Jesus Meant

Still reading Garry Wills' book, What Jesus Meant. Here's some more from it .....


It is the simple contention of this book that what Jesus meant is clearly laid out in the gospels. He did not found a church or advocate a politics -- though one can worship him in many gatherings or polities. But neither of those structures is what he meant by "the reign of heaven." Heaven's reign is himself, the avenue of access to the Father. He partly opened that access on earth, but the process will be complete only in the Father's bosom when history ends. One enters the heavenly reign by sharing Jesus' own intimacy with the Father. He is the Vine, to which the branches must be attached to draw life from him. By becoming members of his mystical body, one honors the Father and passes the key test for a disciple -- treating the poor, the thirsty, the hungry, the naked as if they were Jesus.

How can we tell who among us is securely affixed to the Vine? We cannot. He told us as much. He says that heaven's reign on earth is like wheat growing with weeds in it, separated only at harvest time, when the wheat will be gathered into God's barn (Mt 13.24-30) ..... The meaning is clear. All earthly societies have currently unidentifiable elements of heaven's reign in them, but none of them -- no state, no church, no voluntary organization -- can be equated with heaven's reign. Claims to a "faith-based politics" or to a perfect church substitute a false religion for heaven's reign -- which is a form of idolatry.

Jesus' followers have the obligation that rests on all men and women to seek justice based on the dignity of every human being. That is the goal of politics, of "the things that belong to Caesar." But heaven's reign makes deeper and broader demands, the demands not only of justice but of love ...... "A new instruction I have given you: Love one another. As I have loved you, you must also love one another. All will know that you are my followers by this sign alone, that you have love for one another (Jn 13. 34-35).


For those like me ...

who can find it hard to slog through the holidays because they don't fit the traditional mold, here's Jay Smooth :) .......

Monday, December 28, 2009

John Courtney Murray SJ

Listening to that mp3 file (near the bottom of this page) of John Courtney Murray SJ, one of the American Jesuits at Vatican II, made me want to write a little more about him. The Wikipedia page on him is very informative and delves into a subject that is still quite relavent (example: the recent US Catholic Bishops impact on the health care reform bill) .... the separation of church and state.

I first read of Fr. Murray in a 2008 US Catholic article, Catholic dissent -- When wrong turns out to be right. Here's the part of the article that deals with him .....


To cite a far more recent example of responsible dissent, consider the church's reversal of its time-honored stance on freedom of religion-a reversal that occurred over a 15-year period in the 1950s and 1960s. For the greater part of Christian history, it was accepted as absolute doctrine that civil governments had an obligation to officially recognize the church and support it.

Pope Pius IX made the point in no uncertain terms in 1846 in his encyclical Quanta cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors: "The state must recognize [the Catholic Church] as supreme and submit to its influence. . . . The power of the state must be at its disposal and all who do not conform to its requirements must be compelled or punished. . . . Freedom of conscience and cult is madness." Catholics were told that they need not openly oppose a government that did not so recognize the church (as in the United States); rather, they should tolerate the existing situation until such time as Catholics formed a majority of the voting population.

Beginning in 1950 Father John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit theologian, argued that the old tradition must yield. In a series of articles in Theological Studies magazine and in public appearances, he contended that the state should not be the tool of the church and has no business carrying out the church's will. Rather, he said, the civil government's single yet profound obligation is to insure the freedom of all its citizens, especially their religious freedom.

"Every man has a right to religious freedom," he wrote, a right that is based on the dignity of the human person and is therefore to be formally recognized . . . and protected by constitutional law. . . . So great is this dignity that not even God can take it away." Murray claimed the old doctrine as enunciated by Pius IX was not an absolute, static thing but a teaching that had been developing over the past 100 years-a development which Murray saw in the writings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII.

The reaction was vehement and instantaneous. The two most influential U.S. Catholic theologians of the day, Fathers Joseph Fenton and Francis Connell, called Murray's argument "destructive, scandalous, and heretical" and engaged in lengthy, published refutations, especially in the American Ecclesiastical Review. Wrote Fenton, "The state is obligated to worship God according to the one religion [God] has established. This is so obviously a part of Catholic doctrine that no theologian has any excuse to call it into question."

Murray did not back down. He continued to develop his dissenting interpretation and respond to his critics' objections. His articles were sent to Rome where they became the subject of considerable concern. In a much-quoted speech in 1952, Cardinal Alberto Ottaviani, the head of the Congregation of the Holy Office, declared (without mentioning Murray by name) that the teaching of Pius IX was as valid now as it ever was, that the state must recognize the church, and that freedom of conscience is an illusion.

Murray was clearly shaken by this clear message to cease and desist. The following year he suffered a heart attack, but after recovery he continued to develop his theory.

By 1954 the Vatican's patience had been exhausted. A Roman censor forbade the publication of an article that Murray had written and considered crucial to his case. Murray's Jesuit superior ordered him to cease writing on the subject. When Murray inquired what he could write about, the superior said he might consider poetry.

During the next four, difficult years Murray did not wear the gag lightly. According to his biographer Donald Pilotte, he attempted to have the banned article published anonymously. But the attempt was unsuccessful, as were several other efforts to keep the debate alive. So for a time he wrote on related but less sensitive matters.

In 1958, when a new pope, John XXIII, was elected, Murray emerged from the closet. He pulled together the thrust of his arguments into a popular book titled We Hold These Truths, whose publication just happened to coincide with the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Public worries in the United States about what Kennedy, a Catholic, might do in office were greatly dispelled by Murray's well-argued contention that religious freedom and separation of church and state were not mere tactics of toleration but valid expressions of a developed Catholic doctrine.

Murray and his book made the cover of Time magazine, and the Kennedy campaign relied on him for counsel concerning touchy church-state issues. Some historians contend that it was not Mayor Richard J. Daley's delivery of the Chicago vote that got Kennedy elected but John Courtney Murray.

Still, top Catholic theologians and Roman officials regarded him as a dangerous dissident. When plans were underway for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Murray was expressly "disinvited" to join the commission of experts, headed by Ottaviani and including Fenton, that was preparing a statement on human freedom. Although he was experiencing chronic heart problems, Murray would not accept the snub. He wrote to the American bishops on the commission, urging them to fight against any rubber stamp of the outmoded Pius IX doctrine. He was, in fact, so persistent that the U.S. bishops finally asked him to assist the commission in Rome.

Armed with all his scholarship, he publicly debated the issues with Fenton and Ottaviani and became a major drafter of the council's Declaration on Human Freedom. In its final form, approved in a vote by the world's bishops, 2,308 to 80, in 1965, the declaration said, "This synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, or any human power . . . This synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and reason itself." The words reflect Murray's thinking and may very well have been written by him.

He lived only 18 months after that vote, succumbing in 1967 to another heart attack at the age of 62, but his legacy is profound. His friend, Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt, noted on the occasion of his death, "Unborn millions will never know how much their freedom is tied to this man whose pen was a powerful protest, a dramatic march against injustice and inequality, whose research sparked and terminated in the ringing affirmation of an ecumenical council: The right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the church, not in society or state, not even in objective truth, but in the dignity of the human person."

That John Courtney Murray was a dissident is undeniable. That his prolonged dissent was vindicated by the church at its highest level is equally undeniable.


You can read more about him and some of his work at Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ: A compilation of writings by and about Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ.

Romans 10:9 ...

by The Mountain Goats ....

Wake up sixty minutes after my head hits the pillow, I can't live like this
And in the shower I am a sailor standing ready waiting for the shift list
Everything looks burned up, I'm too scared to look around
Don't feel like going on, but come on, make a joyful sound

If you will believe in you heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day

Try to think of ways to fix myself but everything ends in a cul-de-sac
The beast broke from the barn while we were sleeping, face it, face it. he's not coming back
Don't see what the point is in even trying to fight
Look for the bigger picture when i close my eyes real tight

If you will believe in you heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day

Look for the sign of Daniel
Consider the clues
Wait as long as i have to for good news

Wake and rise and face the day and try to stop the day from staring back at me
Busy hours for joyful hearts and later maybe head out to the pharmacy
Won't take the medication but it's good to have around
A kind and loving God won't let my small ship run aground

If you will believe in you heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Edward Schillebeeckx RIP

America magazine's blog has a post about Edward Schillebeeckx who died a few days ago. Here's the intro from his Wikipedia page ...

Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx (12 November 1914 in Antwerp, Belgium – 23 December 2009 in Nijmegen, Netherlands) was a Belgian Roman Catholic theologian. He lived for almost fifty years in Nijmegen, teaching theology at the Catholic University until his retirement. After that he continued writing. Well in his nineties he still wanted to finish a major book about the Sacraments. He died from natural causes. He was a member of the Dominican Order. His books on theology have been translated into many languages, and his contributions to the Second Vatican Council made him known throughout the world.

I wish I could say I knew more about him. There are only a few brief comments on him in John O'Malley's book, What Happened at Vatican II, and most of what I've found at The Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation is in Dutch or not available online, but I did come across this page which has links (some dead) to a few of his his sermons and articles, plus some articles about him by others.

While looking him up, though, I visited the Centre for the Study of the Second Vatican Council which has some interesting files in its archives, including some mp3 files from Vatican II. Sadly, hardly any of them are in English, but if you understand Spanish you can listen to a couple of talks by Pedro Arrupe, of if German, one by the now pope, and there are a couple by Schillebeeckx (in French and Dutch). I'm about to listen to one by John Courtney Murray SJ on religious liberty :)

Into the valley of Death

- The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava by William Simpson (1855), illustrating the Light Brigade's charge into the "Valley of Death" from the Russian perspective - Wikipedia

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm reading Blood and Ice by Robert Masello. Part of the story takes place in the past and one of the characters from that past is a member of the 17th Lancers of the British army, famous for its participation in the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.

The novel I'm reading describes the charge, which was instigated by misunderstood orders. The British cavalry was cut to pieces in a Russian artillery crossfire. Here's just a bit from Wikipedia ....

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disastrous charge of British cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. It is best remembered as the subject of a famous poem entitled The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose lines have made the charge a symbol of warfare at both its most courageous and its most tragic.

I'm not sure what it is that so grabs our imagination in these kinds of military actions (famous last stands too). I recognize the courage displayed, but peace-nik that I am, I think everything gets romanticized to distract us from the often senseless carnage of war.

Here's a trailer for one of the movies about it, The Charge of the Light Brigade, made in 1968, directed by Tony Richardson, and starring Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Hemming as Captain Louis Edward Nolan .....

And here's the poem ....

The Charge of the Light Brigade

- Alfred Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hans Urs von Balthasar Christmas sermon

Here are parts 1 and 2 of a YouTube reading (by AnalogiaEntis) of a Christmas sermon by Hans Urs von Balthasar entitled Setting Out into the Dark with God: A Christmas Meditation on the Incarnation, for a Troubled World, taken from You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year. You can also read the sermon here.

Christmas in other places

Here are some Christmas bits from some of the photo blogs I visit ....

- a group of Nisse from Stavanger Daily Photo

- Prince Albert II takes part in the traditional 'Bain de Noël' on Larvotto beach, from Monte Carlo Daily Photo

- a Thrush in the snow from St Margaret's at Cliffe Photo Diary

- a Christmas ornament from Venice Daily Photo

And some music from Paris Daily Photo ....

Merry Christmas

- Angels Worshipping (left side) by Benozzo Gozzoli

Merry Christmas, everyone :)

I was looking at nativity scenes today and here are a few I liked best (click to enlarge them) ....

- by Petrus Christus, c. 1465. I like the miniature angels in this one, especially their wings, but I don't like this style of everybody standing back from the baby Jesus as if he was radioactive :)

- by Fra Diamonte, 1465-70. See the lizard?

- by Bernardino Luini, 1520-25. This one seems so warm and it's one of the few where Joseph doesn't look old enough to be Mary's grandpa

- Concert of Angels and Nativity by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1515. Here's a bit about the painting from The Web Gallery of Art ...

"This panel, also known as "Concert of Angels and Mary in Glory", is the central panel of the second view of the Isenheim Altarpiece. In the iconography relating to Mary, the concert of angels can accompany the Glorification as well as the Nativity.

The musician angels are crowded into the Gothic chapel which fills the left half of the painting. In fact only three of them have instruments in their hands, and only one of them stands out, a blond-haired angel dressed in pale violet robe kneeling and playing the viola da gamba. His exalted expression and his beautiful instrument, however, fill the entire picture with music. The peculiar position of his hand, the way he holds the bow at the wrong end, is certainly not in accordance with contemporary practice; it is merely a compositional solution employed by the master. Behind him we can see one of his mates playing the viola da braccio, and on the left, behind the column, another bird-like, feather-covered angel who also plays the viola da gamba. Grünewald no longer makes the distinction between the nine orders of angels, but refers to their former hierarchy by depicting them as different.

A long-haired female figure, wearing a crown and surrounded by a halo, appears in the doorway of the chapel. She is perhaps a female saint or, according to more recent interpretations, Mary herself before giving birth. The crystal jug on the steps symbolizes her, and the tub and towel refer to the bath to be given the newborn.

Mary, lovingly embracing her child, occupies the right half of the painting. She is flooded with heavenly light originating from God the Father, in which angels flutter around. In the rear on the right we can see the two angels bearing the news to the shepherds. The garden in which Mary sits is a walled-in "hortus conclusus" (enclosed garden) with closed gates. The plants - the rose and the Tree of the Knowledge, the fig tree - also symbolizes Mary.

This altarpiece inspired Paul Hindemith, one of the most significant German composers of the 20th century, to create his opera and symphony entitled "Mathis the Painter". "

- Angels Worshipping (right side), by Benozzo Gozzoli

Simone Demystifies Mercy

by Stephanie Strickland


Helping someone, not to be obliged to think
about them anymore, or for the pleasure
of feeling how far


from them, how far from that, you
are: ordinary
charity is a form of cruelty.


To feel,
the soul must divide: one point in it
impassible, proof against


contagion; all the rest polluted
to an extreme—
by the swollen heart


breaking. Mercy is
strained, nailed between two poles.
It is easier


for us to feel pity,
mixed with horror
& repulsion.

Simone Weil, 1909-1943

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Francesco di Giorgio Martini

Saw this today. Nice dragon :) ....

- Nativity (in an Antiphonary), c. 1460, Illumination, Museo del Duomo, Chiusi

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hanacpachap cussicuinin

I think I posted this before but then deleted it (?) so ....

Today I came across a YouTube of Ex Cathedra Baroque Ensemble performing Hanacpachap cussicuinin from Moon, Sun & All Things: Baroque Music from Latin America – 2. I first heard the song on one of the mp3s at Pray-As-You-Go and I liked it so much I bought the CD, copied it, then sold the CD back. Then my computer died, taking all my music with it, so I lost the song. Nice to find it again.

The song is said to be one of the first polyphonic pieces of music composed and published in the new world. It's sung in the Quechuan language of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas in Peru. The composer of the song is unknown, but it was first published in the early 1600s. Here below is the song in its original language, with an English translation ...

Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Huaran cacta muchascaiqui
Yupairurupucoc mallqui
Runacunap suyacuinin
Callpan nacpa quemi cuinin

Uyarihuai muchascaita
Diospa rampan Diospa maman
Yurac tocto hamancaiman
Yupascalla, collpascaita
Huahuarquiman suyuscaita

O tree bearing thrice-blessed fruit,
Heaven’s joy! a thousand times
shall we praise you.
O hope of humankind,
helper of the weak.
hear our prayer!

Attend to our pleas,
O column of ivory, Mother of God!
Beautiful iris, yellow and white,
receive this song we offer you;
come to our assistance,
show us the Fruit of your womb!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shake Hands with the Devil

- Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda, 1994

This week's movie rental was the documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire. I actually got it by mistake, thinking I was renting the fictionalization of the story this film tells. Still, it was grimly interesting. Here's what Wikipedia has ....

Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (2004) is a documentary film about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda .... inspired by the book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003), by now-retired Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire ....

Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis by the hands of the Hutus .... Canadian Armed Forces General Romeo Dallaire was put in charge of a United Nations peacekeeping force during this 1994 genocide. His proposal called for 5,000 soldiers to permit orderly elections and the return of the refugees. The soldiers were never supplied and the killing began. The documentary tells the story of the now-retired Lieutenant-General Dallaire, and shows his return to Rwanda after ten years. It features interviews with Stephen Lewis and BBC reporter Mark Doyle, among others.

- on his trip back to Rwanda, ten years later

You can read more about the UN Peacekeepers and Roméo Dallaire at this Wikipedia page - Rwandan Genocide.

I tried to find a trailer, but I think this is actually the beginning of the movie .....

Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy

Today I looked up the book Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy by Susan Zuccotti, and read a review of it from the Christian Century by Victoria Barnett. Here's part of it ....


[...] The recent interest in Pius XII reflects a growing public interest in the Holocaust and, among scholars, a closer examination of the dynamics of institutional complicity. The Vatican is not the only institution to come under scrutiny; Protestant churches, international NGOs such as the Red Cross, banks, art museums and international corporations such as Ford and IBM have been called to account for their behavior. A closer examination of the role of anti-Semitism inevitably raises questions about traditional Christian teachings about Judaism and the churches' role through the centuries in sanctioning and, all too often, instigating measures against the Jews ..... a devastating pattern of compromise, prejudice, self-interest, silence, passivity and even criminal behavior. Most Catholic and Protestant leaders failed to protest against either the initial persecution of Jews or, finally, the mass murders and the death camps; their priority was to preserve their institutions and to avoid confrontations with the Nazis. It is particularly terrible to read some of the theological statements of the era: the apologias for Nazism, the carefully crafted protests that avoided any explicit mention of the victims, and the sermons that interpreted Nazi policies as instruments of God's historical will .....

We do know that the situation facing the Catholic Church throughout Nazi-occupied Europe was complex. Catholics were involved in acts both of rescue and of murder. In Poland, they were persecuted brutally--almost 20 percent of Polish priests died at the hands of the Nazis. In other places, church leaders made an uneasy peace with Nazi authorities. In Croatia, Catholics, including priests, joined the perpetrators in the massacres of Orthodox Serbs. Depending on their own circumstances, Catholic leaders throughout Europe urged the Vatican to speak out, to remain silent or to negotiate. Our main problem is how to interpret the pope's public silence and restraint and how to balance historical research with responsible analysis ......

Susan Zuccotti, known for her work on Italy and the Holocaust, has written a detailed description of the pope's response to Nazism and the Vatican's reaction to the events unfolding in Italy. It's a solid, often damning work of historical research that gives much new detail about the persecution and rescue of Jews in that country.

The dramatic heart of Zuccotti's book--the deportations of over 1,000 Jews from Rome in October 1943--exemplifies the historian's dilemma I described above. It is clear that the Vatican knew of the deportation plan and that it could have warned Roman Jewish leaders but did not do so (they were warned by Albrecht von Kessel, a diplomat and member of the German resistance, but did not believe him). The day after the deportations, the Vatican issued a public statement expressing gratitude for the German military's respectful and civil treatment of the Holy See, with no mention of the horrors that had just occurred.

On the other hand, most of the 4,000-5,000 Jews who escaped this roundup did so by hiding in convents and monasteries. Many of the rescuers were priests and members of religious orders. The degree to which such rescue was supported, sanctioned and even ordered by officials is unclear, but Zuccotti concludes that Catholic rescue of Jews in Italy took place despite the pope, not because of him. She bases this conclusion largely upon his silence at other key times. Vatican statements criticizing Nazi policies were so painstakingly and cautiously worded that they can be interpreted in all kinds of ways (although many observers at the time, including the Nazis, viewed them as direct attacks). Once genocide had begun, the pope made only two very general statements on behalf of those suffering, despite pleas from some Catholic leaders and Western diplomats such as Myron Taylor, Roosevelt's emissary to the Vatican, for a more explicit protest.

Yet it is speculation to conclude that the Vatican had nothing to do with the rescue of Jews in Italy. Zuccotti correctly observes that the Vatican had extensive knowledge of the persecution of the Jews and the genocide, once it began. But if Pius XII had such detailed knowledge of these atrocities, it's difficult to believe he didn't know that Jews were being hidden in convents and monasteries. Knowledge that this was happening would, I think, have meant sanctioning it. In fact, the pattern of rescue in Italy reflects a general pattern among Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. Rescuers were predominately individuals; church leaders consistently exercised what they saw as pragmatic caution and refrained from public protest ....

If nothing else, the history of the post-Holocaust era testifies eloquently to our helplessness in this regard. We may all wish that Pius XII had spoken out forcefully against the genocide and rallied Europe's Catholics behind him; but we simply don't know whether that would have stopped the Nazis. Several U.S. and European Protestant leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, did issue impassioned condemnations of the genocide and called for lifting the immigration restrictions against Jewish refugees. Yet they were unable to rally much support, either from members of their churches or from their governments.

Ultimately, we don't know whether Pius XII believed that he was actually doing the best he could to help the victims of Nazism. The pope's defenders often bypass the central moral reality of this history, which is that millions of innocent people were left to the mercy of their persecutors, and that all too often the churches were silent. His critics tend to ignore the historical options and realities that he faced, and the perceptions of many at the time. All would be better served if scholars could have access to the Vatican archives.

I suspect that what we would find there would be similar to what has emerged from Protestant archives here and in Europe: a complex and incomplete picture of courage and cowardice, of good intentions and indifference, of failure and of small, poignant successes. Archival material is important especially because it gives us insight into how people actually thought. It makes historical figures come to life. By giving us people's actual words, unfiltered by hindsight, archival material reveals how the world looked to them. Among other things, it gives researchers a strong sense of humility.

But though the Vatican's closed records would be invaluable for helping us to understand what happened under Nazism, they would not resolve the daunting question that remains: How can an institution like the church respond effectively to something like the Holocaust? Rethinking theology and eradicating prejudice are part, but not all, of the answer. As all three of these books remind us, the relationship between faith and political power shapes the church's witness in the world, its alliances and its legacy for Christians and non-Christians alike.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blood and Ice

Latest book from the library is Blood and Ice by Robert Masello. Here's the blurb from Publishers Weekly ....

In the prologue to this exceptional supernatural thriller from Masello (Bestiary), two lovers—Lt. Sinclair Copley of the 17th Lancers and Eleanor Ames, a nurse from Florence Nightingale's Harley Street hospital in London—fall into ice-strewn seas from a British sloop foundering near Antarctica in 1856. In the present, Seattle writer Michael Wilde, who's recovering from a personal tragedy, can't resist the opportunity to go to Antarctica to write a magazine article about the Point Adélie research station. Past and present stories alternate until Michael makes an amazing discovery in a submerged block of ice off the Antarctic coast—two frozen bodies, bound in chains. After Sinclair and Eleanor revive, Masello slowly and subtly reveals how they came to transcend death. The thrills and, most decidedly, the chills mount to a believable, sad and hopeful ending.

I'm just getting into the book, but so far it's good. I have the audio CD version and the reader is someone I like - Phil Gigante, who read some of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon novels. The undead and Antarctica ... who could ask for more? :)

Here's a short video of the book ....

Blood and Ice Trailer from Bantam Dell on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How not to be a saint

I've seen in the news that Pius XII is a bit closer to sainthood. I feel obliged to say that I don't think Pius XII should be made a saint, due to his response (or lack thereof) to the Holocaust.

The opinions of his supporters, though, can be summed up in this bit from B16 ....

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday backed the beatification of World War II Pope Pius XII, saying he spared no effort in "the defence of the persecuted, with no distinction of religion, ethnicity, nationality or political affiliation." Pope Benedict said his predecessor operated during a "complex historical moment" and "often acted in secret and in silence" but spared no effort in "the defence of the persecuted, with no distinction of religion, ethnicity, nationality or political affiliation", The Age reports. "In light of the real situations of this complex historical moment, he sensed this was the only way to avoid the worst and save the greatest possible number of Jews," Pope Benedict said at a Mass to mark the 50th anniversay of Pius XII' death.

I disagree with Benedict. There are indeed differing opinions on how Pius handled the Holocaust - one thing I think is disturbing, however, is that documentation from the Vatican on what happened during Pius' time as pope just never seems to come available. An example is that of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission ....

The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission was a body appointed by the Holy See's Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in 1999. With three Jewish and three Catholic scholars, the group evaluated the 11 volumes of the Vatican's wartime documents devoted to Pope Pius XII .... In October 2000, the group issued a preliminary report with 47 questions on the Vatican's response to the Holocaust .... after failing to gain access to the Vatican archives after 1923, the group disbanded amid controversy. Unsatisfied with the findings, Dr. Michael Marrus, one of the three Jewish members of the Commission, said the commission "ran up against a brick wall.... It would have been really helpful to have had support from the Holy See on this issue." ....

We may never know all there is to know about Pius and the Holocaust, but one thing we do know - he did not speak out publicly, did not condemn, did not take an official stance in the face of a terrible evil. I think he was wrong in that. Here below is most of an interesting article which brings up this issue .......


"Not Enough" vs. "Plenty": Which did Pius XII do?
Judaism, Fall, 200, by Berel Lang

[...] I would cite here specifically two examples of Pius XII's refusal to act--"refusal" rather than "failure" since the inaction was surely the result of conscious decisions. The first example goes unmentioned by Zuccotti [Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy] and Rychlak [Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews From the Nazis] in their discussions; both authors refer to the second example, but each finds a different turn in it than the one I suggest. Even in a world where moral ambiguity is granted an unavoidable place, both these acts of omission seem straightforwardly wrong; this is the case even when the acts are defended, as they typically are and have been, by strong prudential or instrumental arguments.

The first of these omissions is the fact that not once in the twelve years of Nazi rule or in the six years of World War II did the Pope use the instrument or even the threat of excommunication against leaders of the Nazi regime or against their subordinates or against their accomplices inside and outside Germany; this was the case although many of these perpetrators and the populace at large who took their cues from them were raised as Catholics and maintained their identities as Catholics at the same time that they were participating in or abetting the Nazi "project." The possibility of excommunication was an instrument directly in the Pope's control; he did not require an army to issue or enforce it, he did not have to capture the people who would be affected by the decision; he could have acted by words alone. And indeed, only a few years after World War II ended (1 July 1949), he did exactly this in a blanket condemnation of Communism and of those of its adherents who mistakenly believed that their polit ical allegiance was compatible with a commitment to Catholicism; those adherents, he warned, would have to make a choice: Either/Or. Yet during the years leading up to and then of the "Final Solution" he refused to take any such action with respect to the Nazis themselves or to their accomplices even in heavily Catholic countries like Poland, France, Hungary, or Italy itself

Any explanation must remain speculative as to why Pius XII, who from the time of his Munich years as papal nuncio beginning in 1917 was a fierce and open enemy of Bolshevism, would wait until the post-War period before ordering the excommunication of "Catholic" Communist adherents. One point in particular seems clear in this connection: that by the time he issued that condemnation, there was no "present" need or indeed possibility of fulminating against those who assumed a compatibility between Nazism and Catholicism. Could that fact have influenced the delay in reaching that decision? Speculation yields at most probabilities, but it is more than only a matter of speculation that Pius XII viewed Nazism as a "lesser evil" than Bolshevism; once that distinction is recognized in his thinking, it becomes an unavoidable, if not always decisive, element in understanding or explaining any of his actions (or inactions) that bear on the Nazi regime.

The refusal to deny to Nazis and their collaborators the sanctuary of the Church by way of excommunication becomes still more notable in light of Pius XII's awareness (at the time) of Nazi responsibility not only for Jewish victims in the death camps but for murder, in and out of the camps, committed against Catholics-including among the latter, priests of the Church in a number estimated now to have been in the thousands, most of these in Poland but extending to other countries, including Germany, as well. If the act of excommunication was not mandated in this setting, it is difficult to imagine what circumstances could ever command its application.

Against this charge, the standard argument from prudence--that if the Pope had availed himself of this means (more than just speaking out) , he would have made things worse than they were- seems at once mistaken and irrelevant. Mistaken, because however the Nazi hierarchy might have intensified its racist campaign as a consequence of such action (how, one asks, could that have been made "worse" than it was?) or turned more openly against the Vatican itself, the contrary effect on the passive acceptance by hundreds of millions of European Catholics would almost certainly have been substantial. No doubt Hitler himself; though born to a Catholic household, would have been undeterred by excommunication--but this does not mean that his being excommunicated would have made no difference to those still professing Catholics who were Hitler's followers and collaborators. The argument from prudence on this point is also, it seems-even if, contrary to the fact, one granted its force-irrelevant, and only in part because prudential arguments are as such always to some extent morally irrelevant. If individuals can be called on (by the Church, among others) to sacrifice practical interests in the name of principles or ideals, would it be too much to propose the same expectation for the Church itself?

A second instance of the moral refusal of an obligation provides the title for Susan Zuccotti's book-what Pius XII refused to do at the time of the roundup of Jews in Rome on October 16, 1943. One point here remains inexplicable, quite apart from any judgment of the act itself: the failure of the Vatican, which almost certainly knew of the impending roundup before it happened, to convey a warning to the Rome Jewish community-a warning that would have allowed them to go into hiding. It is difficult even to imagine a plausible explanation for this omission; the hypothesis that fear of being held accountable for such warning prevented it would itself condemn as much as it explains. A still more notable breach in moral terms, however, is the fact that once the roundup took place--"under the very windows of the Pope" in the words of Ernst von Weizsacker, the German Ambassador to the Holy See-and with the trains waiting to deport more than a thousand Roman Jews (the "Pope's Jews") to Auschwitz, not a single public word of protest was uttered then or subsequently by the Pope himself.

Soon after the event, then, Weizsacker could, accurately and in good conscience, report back to Berlin that the Pope "has not allowed himself to be carried away making any demonstrative statements against deportation of the Jews... he has done all he could... not to prejudice relationships with the German government." (3) Once again, the argument from prudence surfaces here among the Pope's defenders, principally, the threat uttered by Hitler to occupy Vatican City and to take the Pope prisoner: Would not this have been sufficient reason for a muted response, for resorting to "silent diplomacy" rather than open opposition? Putting aside the substantial question of just how active the alleged "silent diplomacy" in fact was, we may well in this context ask an alternate question: Is there no moment imaginable when the Vatican and the Pope himself should be willing to place themselves, even their lives, at risk? One dare not speak for anyone else or perhaps even for oneself of an obligation to choose martyrdom. B ut there was no reason for anyone to believe that the Nazis had in mind literal martyrdom for Pius XII-and why should something less than that (or even for that matter, in reference to the spiritual leader of the Church, that?) stand itself as a sufficient reason for silence and acquiescence? One would have thought that, so far as concerns the Church, the question had been long answered of whether man had been made for the laws or the laws for man.

Let me, in summary, propose an analogy--something like a parable--for the disagreement between "not enough" and "plenty" as these measurements are applied to Pius XII's role in the Holocaust: Imagine that a person who is morally conscientious, after much grappling and reflection, arrives at a policy about giving charity. He or she contributes a good deal, more than a tithe; he or she also spends considerable amount of time working for good causes. And then, having decided on the various amounts and means of giving, the person decides, quite reasonably, that those contributions taken together are the maximum possible, given all the other responsibilities and obligations to family and self that the person has. In other words, a limit has been reached--a generous and more than reasonable one, but still a limit: this much and no more. Then one morning, that person opens the front door to pick up the morning paper-and finds a stray young child sitting on the steps: ragged, emaciated, weak with hunger, obviously wi th no resources. Here the person has a choice between two courses of action: to apply the reasoned conclusions conscientiously arrived at about the limits of charity and time--and so to pick up the paper and shut the door. Or to bring the child inside, overturning a policy so thoughtfully arrived at and thus risking the consequences. Which, you-the reader-are asked to judge, is the right thing to do?

BEREL LANG is Professor of Humanities at Trinity College (Hartford). He is the author, among other books, of Heidegger's Silence (1996) and Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (1990). His article, "Translating the Holocaust: For Whom Does One Write?," appeared in the Summer 1999 issue.


Friday, December 18, 2009

O Adonai

- Moses before the burning bush - Marc Chagall

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Here's the antiphon for December 18th sung by the Dominican student brothers in Oxford .....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Moon and the Sun and the Jesuits

My latest book from the library is by Vonda McIntyre - The Moon and the Sun - which won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1997. Ursula K. Le Guin said of it .... The finest alternate history ever, lighthearted and wise — a gorgeous visit to the court of the Sun King, a marvelous fireworks illumination of human history, human nature, and the nature of the people who live in the sea — a luminous, radiant novel.

Here's the short review at Amazon ...

In this rich and engrossing tale, Vonda N. McIntyre proves once again that her plotting and mastery of language are among the best in the business. The Moon and the Sun, which won the 1997 Nebula Award for best novel of the year, is the story of Marie-Josèphe, a young lady in the court of Louis XIV. When her brother Yves returns from a naturalist voyage with two sea monsters (one live, one dead), Marie-Josèphe is caught up in a battle of wills involving the fate of the living creature. The king intends to test whether the sea monster holds the secrets of immortality, but Marie-Josèphe knows the creature to be an intelligent, lonely being who yearns only to be set free. In a monumental test of the limits of patience and love, Marie-Josèphe defies the will of the king, her brother, and the pope in defense of what she knows is right, at any cost. McIntyre's atmospheric prose envelops the reader in a fully realized world--sights, smells, and sounds are described in great detail. The author completely represents the Sun King's court at Versailles--her research for the book must have been quite extensive. The blend of history, science, and fantasy makes for a book you will want to gulp down.

I'm just at the beginning of the book so far, but it's pretty good. I find this time of history in France interesting after reading The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask and one of the more interesting things about the novel was the mention of the Jesuits - the main character and her Jesuit brother have come to Paris from the island of Martinique, in the Caribbean.

In real life, just a little later than when the novel's story takes place, the Jesuits of a mission plantation based in Martinique were sued in a Paris court, leading to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. A ship carrying cargo from the Jesuit plantation was sunk by the British and the plantation went bankrupt, unable to pay its creditors. The creditors took the Society to court in Paris and won, but the Jesuits appealed the verdict, and that's when everything went terribly south ......


Suppression of the Society of Jesus - Wikipedia

[...] The Fathers, on the advice of their lawyers, appealed to the Parlement of Paris. This turned out to be an imprudent step. For not only did the Parlement support the lower court, May 8, 1761, but having once gotten the case into its hands, the Jesuits' enemies in that assembly determined to strike a blow at the Order.

Enemies of every sort combined. The Jansenists were numerous among the enemies of the orthodox party. The Sorbonne joined the Gallicans, the Philosophes, and the Encyclopédistes. Louis XV was weak; his wife and children were in favor of the Jesuits; his able first minister, the Duc de Choiseul, played into the hands of the Parlement, and the royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour, to whom the Jesuits had refused absolution, for she was living in sin with the King of France, was a determined opponent. The determination of the Parlement of Paris in time bore down all opposition.

The attack on the Jesuits was opened by the Jansenist sympathizer, the Abbé Chauvelin, April 17, 1762, who denounced the Constitution of the Jesuits, which was publicly examined and exposed in a hostile press. The Parlement issued its Extraits des assertions assembled from passages from Jesuit theologians and canonists, in which they were alleged to teach every sort of immorality and error. On August 6, 1762, the final arrêt was issued condemning the Society to extinction, but the king's intervention brought eight months' delay and meantime a compromise was suggested by the Court. If the French Jesuits would separate from the order, under a French vicar, with French customs, as with the Gallican church, the Crown would still protect them. In spite of the dangers of refusal the Jesuits would not consent. On April 1, 1763 the colleges were closed, and by a further arrêt of March 9, 1764, the Jesuits were required to renounce their vows under pain of banishment. At the end of November 1764, the king signed an edict dissolving the Society throughout his dominions, for they were still protected by some provincial parlements, as in Franche-Comté, Alsace, and Artois. But in the draft of the edict, he canceled numerous clauses that implied that the Society was guilty, and writing to Choiseul, he concluded "If I adopt the advice of others for the peace of my realm, you must make the changes I propose, or I will do nothing. I say no more, lest I should say too much."


I was interested to read in John O'Malley's book, The First Jesuits, that even in the time of Ignatius, the Jesuits were not really welcomed in France. Here's a little of what he writes ......


Besides local skirmishes with other Catholics over issues like frequent Communion or the opening and closing of schools, the Jesuits were involved in conflicts of wider import. Few were more shocking to the members of the Society or deemed by them potentially more dangerous than the active opposition they encountered in Paris in 1554 ..... Ignatius had sent a colony of young Jesuits to study at the University of Paris in the spring of 1540 ..... For the first decade of their presence in the capital, the Jesuits suffered a number of vicissitudes in that disturbed political and religious atmosphere but were able to pursue their studies and carry on a modest ministry .....

To take possession of real property ... the Jesuits needed official admission as a body into the kingdom, the droit de naturalisation. It was over this issue that the storm broke against them ..... When Bishop du Bellay took a public stand against the Society, the Parlement and the Faculty followed suit. On 1 December 1554, the theologians published their condemnations, which to a large extent repeated the objections raised by du Bellay -- the name of the Society was arrogant; the Jesuits interpreted the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in an inadmissible way; they had cast off all the usages of religious life; their privileges infringed on the pastoral rights of bishops, pastors of parishes, universities and other religious orders; and similar objections. The document concluded: "This Society appears to be a danger to the Faith, a disturber of the peace of the church, destructive of monastic life, and destined to cause havoc rather than edification." .....

In a letter from Rome about a month later, in late January 1555, Ignatius reduced the arguments against the Society to two -- its name and the number of its privileges from the Holy See. But political, professional, and religious rivalries had won the condemnation its support and brought into the open many Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and others who upon its promulgation cried that Jesuits should be beaten out of France with sticks and clubs. Placards against them appeared on churches, and other buildings all over Paris, and Jesuits were denounced from the pulpit ...



If you're interested, you can read an excerpt from The Moon and the Sun at Vonda McIntyre's site here.

Al Gore and Adrienne Rich

I saw in this story that Al Gore has a climate change poem i his recent book. I'm not sure if I like it, but it reminds me of this bit of another poem by Adrienne Rich ....

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Here's Al Gore's poem ....

One thin September soon
A floating continent disappears
In midnight sun
Vapors rise as
Fever settles on an acid sea
Neptune's bones dissolve
Snow glides from the mountain
Ice fathers floods for a season
A hard rain comes quickly
Then dirt is parched
Kindling is placed in the forest
For the lightning's celebration
Unknown creatures
Take their leave, unmourned
Horsemen ready their stirrups
Passion seeks heroes and friends
The bell of the city
On the hill is rung
The shepherd cries
The hour of choosing has arrived
Here are your tools

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Alejandro Garcia-Rivera and others on Jon Sobrino's Christology

- Jon Sobrino offers a mass at the El Carmen Church in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, 2007

Saw this story in the Tablet - Liberation theology ‘is still a danger’ ......

Pope Benedict XVI has said that a Marxist-driven liberation theology is continuing to cause great harm to the Church in Brazil 25 years after he first tried to crack down on its proliferation. “Its consequences, more or less visible, in the form of rebellion, division, dissent, offence [and] anarchy, are still being felt,” the Pope said last Saturday to the heads of some 28 dioceses in southern Brazil, including the metropolitan sees of Porto Alegre and Florianopolis. He told the bishops, who were in Rome for their five-yearly ad limina visit, that liberation theology was “creating great suffering and a serious loss of vital force in [their] diocesan communities”. In 1984, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and issued an instruction, Libertatis Nuntius, which strongly condemned a number of elements in liberation theology ....

I disagree with the pope and I like liberation theology, so when I later came across a 2007 article in America magazine with a number of theologians on the Christology of liberation theologian Jon Sobrino SJ, I thought I'd post just the start of the article. Here it is below .......


What are theologians saying about Christology?

Editor’s Note: After the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a notification March 14 on some works of the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, S.J., the editors wondered how we might inform our readers about the questions at stake. We concluded that the most useful approach would be to set the issues in the context of contemporary Christology, explaining what major theologians, Scripture scholars and schools of theology are saying regarding the six questions about Jesus to which the congregation drew attention in its notification: method, divinity/humanity, incarnation, the kingdom of God, Jesus’ self-consciousness and soteriology (explanations of how Jesus achieved our salvation). We have asked six theologians to explain what the tradition and their colleagues are saying today about the church’s confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, Kevin Burke, Robert P. Imbelli, John R. Donahue, William Thompson-Uberuaga, Robert A. Krieg

Faith and the Poor

By Alejandro Garcia-Rivera

Recently I had the honor of listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware as he gave a talk on the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit. During the question-and-answer session, a young Roman Catholic seminarian asked him what he thought of the recent Vatican notification on the works of Jon Sobrino, S.J. Bishop Ware smiled, thought for a minute and quoted this famous passage from St. John Chrysostom:

Would you see his altar?... This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is…but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s body: but that is holy because it is itself Christ’s body…[which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the marketplaces, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime…. When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.
Homily 20 on 2 Corinthians

Wisely Bishop Ware refused to elaborate on the quotation and left us to ponder its meaning. Its relevance to the Sobrino notification, however, has become more and more evident as I have studied the text by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The notification questions first the methodological presuppositions of Sobrino’s Christology. Father Sobrino emphasizes the social setting defined by the “church of the poor”; the notification identifies the proper context as the “faith of the Church.”

The C.D.F. apparently thinks Sobrino is playing fast and loose with the nature of the church. By identifying the church with the poor instead of with the faith, the C.D.F. warns that Sobrino’s Christ is being wrenched from his ecclesial matrix. What is feared, I suppose, is a Christ who emerges out of a social setting instead of a communion of faith. Such a Christ could be subject to political and ideological currents that have little interest in faith. Indeed, Sobrino’s method of taking the social context as the ecclesial matrix from which Christ emerges may lead to an unabashed theological pluralism where the one Lord can become a Christ of a thousand faces, each depending on its own social setting.

Such a scenario might be one reason this notification was issued. Sobrino’s method opens up a postmodern Pandora’s box of theological speculation. To ask if Jon Sobrino’s Christ is too postmodern is to ask if the C.D.F.’s primary concern is the role that truth plays in theological reflections. The notification, referring to Donum Veritatis, suggests as much: “Thus the truth revealed by God himself in Jesus Christ, and transmitted by the Church, constitutes the ultimate normative principle of theology.” Trust in the normative power of truth claims is at odds with the postmodern zeitgeist, which questions not simply the truthfulness of statements but truth itself. Such faith and the deep value it holds can legitimately be offended by the skepticism over normative claims so prevalent today. Does the notification assert that Sobrino’s Christology falls prey to such skepticism? There is reason to think so, namely, the concern for “the manner in which the author treats the major Councils of the early Church.” The notification lifts out this particular quote from Sobrino’s Christ the Liberator: “While these texts are useful theologically, besides being normative, they are also limited and even dangerous, as is widely recognized today.” While recognizing the limited character of dogmatic formulation, the notification insists that “there is no foundation for calling these formulas dangerous, since they are authentic interpretations of Revelation.”

Here the wisdom from the Orthodox tradition and the relevance of Chrysostom’s text become evident. The Orthodox warn against making dogmatic claims with too much confidence. While truth is behind all such claims, the ecclesial setting for truth is not objectivity but love. Truth is not simply about objectivity but also solidarity. And this is one of the lessons I learned from Chrysostom’s text. The Christ the church worships at its altar is also the Christ found at the altar of the world’s poor. In this sense both Sobrino and the C.D.F. appear to speak truthfully and accurately. Christ’s ecclesial matrix is the church that worships in faith. It is also the church of the poor. This is the famous both-and that marks the church as Catholic.

Having a both-and Christology is not the same as postmodern skepticism. It is the very nature of a faith that proclaims that God is one and three, that Jesus is human and divine. There is something more dangerous to the faith than a Christ who can only be grasped through multiple views; it is a view of truth as either-or.

“Definitive” truth that is not loving can bring only despair to an already nihilistic world. Postmodernism thrives precisely because it sees the suffering of this world as having reached horrendous and senseless proportions. A church that is methodologically indifferent to senseless suffering is at odds with the methods of Jesus himself. Only a Jesus who belongs to a church that is not afraid to identify itself with the suffering of this world can have any rational claim on the world itself. In other words, the normative character of the truth of the church’s faith is protected, defended and nurtured by a praxis that will not regard as normative the senseless suffering of billions. The church has two altars. The C.D.F. points rightly to one; Sobrino points to the other ....


Discernment, religion, philosophy

I've been posting here the episodes of Harvard philosophy professor Michal Sandel's classes on Justice, so I was interested to see that there was an article at America magazine about the classes - What is Justice? Some Catholic Questions for Michael Sandel.

As I read the America article, I was reminded of the difference between philosophy and religion, at least as they are taught in college. Religion is not philosophy (see what Keith Ward says about medieval philosophy), though of course guys like Thomas Aquinas are considered philosophers and guys like Kant are religious. Both religion and philosophy dwell on some of the same subjects .... what's good or just, what's the nature of reality, what's life's purpose ..... but the way the answers to those questions are arrived at can be very different in religion and philosophy.

While his review was generally positive, the writer of the America article brought up the point that the students in Sandel's classes on Justice often seemed confused by the thought experiments he proposed, and wrote that seminary students in a similar class would not be confused because their thinking on the subjects treated would have already been shaped by Catholic teaching ....

With the seminary students (lay, religious and candidates for priesthood) whom I have the privilege to teach, it is not necessary to start from square one when treating justice. While I have the luxury of appealing to a common set of commitments in my classes (that is, to a gospel-based vision of social justice), conversations about justice in Sandel’s classes are destined to remain rather thin and vaguely unsatisfying. His students’ responses to the moral dilemmas he poses bear this out ..... Many of Sandel’s students get seriously tripped up by an inability to process the idea that the needs of others make a moral claim upon the privileged ..... People shaped by Catholic theology would be able to articulate objections to these and similar thought experiments ....

I think this idea, more than anything, is a good example of the difference between the teaching of philosophy and religion. Yes, Sandel's students are confused when confronted with thought experiments - that's because they are "thinking". The purpose of philosophy classes is to teach students to think critically, to consider all the possible theories and beliefs, to discern (I think in many ways the study of philosophy teaches one of the things that Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises teaches - how to discern decisions). Religion teaches the tenets of a faith community, it promotes belief, and weird as it sounds, sometimes i think religious institutions disrespect the idea of discernment, the idea that people are moral agents who, with the help of conscience, should make decisions, and that if trusted to think for themselves, can often make the right decisions without having been previously "shaped".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Other and the Same

Yesterday in a movie review I saw reference to a term I hadn't heard of before (why am I always the last to know?) ... the uncanny valley. I looked it up. What I found was so interesting in what it says about emotion, symbolic order, and maybe even about how religion treats abjected groups, not to mention its relation to CG characters in movies like Avatar.

- chart showing emotional response to human-like things, and the uncanny valley

Here's a little about the uncanny valley from Wikipedia .....

The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers ..... It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch's concept of "the uncanny" identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny". Jentsch's conception is famously elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay titled "The Uncanny" (Das Unheimliche"). A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as with the films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf.

Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley ...

- the Fantastic Mr. Fox

So why does something or someone seem ok if they are very different, and more ok if less different, and fine if they are just like us, yet evoke revulsion if they fall into the area of almost but not quite the same? Why is it that the more similar something or someone is to us, the more disturbing their dis-similarities become? Some say it's a kind of atavistic brain thing, an unconscious and unbidden recognition of two truths at the same time: that the object in question is one of us, and that there is something "wrong" with it. The response is the kind that tells you when someone is actually a corpse, or has a disease, or is a zombie :) It's the response that tells you that while the Fantastic Mr. Fox looks cute, the Bruce Willis android in Surrogates is creepy.

- the Bruce Willis android in Surrogates

Some people disagree about the existence or importance of the uncanny valley effect, and some say it can result from learned rather than evolved perceptions, based on culture or religion, etc. I agree and think that the downside of the uncanny valley effect is that it's mostly unconscious and unexamined, allowing it to whisper moral truths to us about "the other" that may actually have no basis in fact.

Here's an interesting video about the uncanny valley effect (with a brief cameo by Angelina Jolie :) .....

Monday, December 14, 2009


- Conversion on the Way to Damascus ... featured the saint's horse's haunches far more prominently than the saint himself, prompting this exchange between the artist and an exasperated official of Santa Maria del Popolo: "Why have you put a horse in the middle, and Saint Paul on the ground?" "Because!" "Is the horse God?" "No, but he stands in God's light!" - Wikipedia

Saw this today - DNA tests could solve mystery of Caravaggio's death (h/t to Shelley's Art History Blog). Here's the story from Reuters ....


The mystery surrounding the death of Baroque master Caravaggio may soon be resolved thanks to new DNA tests -- as long as the right body can be found.

What caused the death of the painter in 1610 and the whereabouts of his corpse have always been unclear.

But a team of Italian anthropologists believe that what is left of Caravaggio's body may be hidden among dozens of bodies buried in a crypt in Tuscany, thanks to recent historical clues.

The team -- armed with a CAT scan and kits for carbon dating -- plan to study the painter's exhumed remains to discover how he died.

"If we are lucky enough to find Caravaggio's skull, we will also be able to do a reconstruction of his face, just as we did in 2007 for Dante Alighieri," Silvano Vinceti, head of the National Committee for Cultural Heritage, told Reuters.

The only images of the artist available until now have been self-portraits.

Scholars have put forward many theories about Caravaggio's death. The most popular are that the painter was assassinated for religious reasons or collapsed with malaria on a deserted Tuscan beach.

However, in 2001 an Italian researcher claimed to have found the painter's death certificate, which allegedly proved that he died in hospital.

"This historical document shows Caravaggio did not die alone on the beach but after three days in hospital, which means the body must have been buried in the San Sebastiano cemetery," said Vinceti, referring to a Tuscan town near the city of Grosseto.

But in 1956, bodies buried at the tiny San Sebastiano graveyard were moved to a nearby town, Porto Ercole, and scholars hope that the remains of Caravaggio will be among them.

The team -- from the departments of Anthropology and Cultural Heritage Conservation at the universities of Ravenna and Bologna -- will have to examine the bones of between 30 and 40 people, selecting those that belong to young men who died at the beginning of the 17th century.

"We will check the DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of possible matches against that of the painter's male descendents," Professor Giorgio Gruppioni, who will head the team, told Reuters.

"Sadly Caravaggio died childless," said Gruppioni, "but his siblings had children whose relatives are still living in the northern Italian town that carries his name."

Caravaggio, who pioneered the Baroque painting technique of contrasting light and dark known as chiaroscuro, is famed for his wild life. Legend has it that he was on his way to Rome to seek pardon for killing a man in a brawl when he died.


- The Death of the Virgin .... was rejected by the Carmelites in 1606. Caravaggio's contemporary Giulio Mancini records that it was rejected because Caravaggio had used a well-known prostitute as his model for the Virgin; Giovanni Baglione, another contemporary, tells us it was due to Mary's bare legs —a matter of decorum in either case. Caravaggio scholar John Gash suggests that the problem for the Carmelites may have been theological rather than aesthetic, in that Caravaggio's version fails to assert the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, the idea that the Mother of God did not die in any ordinary sense but was assumed into Heaven. - Wikipedia

I admire Caravaggio's work - he may have been somewhat disreputable, but he seems to have been honest to a fault with his art, unafraid to follow his muse rather than propriety. To put the news story above in perspective, read the bit from Wikipedia on Caravaggio's Exile and death (1606–1610). Here's some of it .......

"Caravaggio led a tumultuous life. He was notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behavior was commonplace, and the transcripts of his police records and trial proceedings fill several pages. On 29 May 1606, he killed, possibly unintentionally, a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Previously his high-placed patrons had protected him from the consequences of his escapades, but this time they could do nothing. Caravaggio, outlawed, fled to Naples. There, outside the jurisdiction of the Roman authorities and protected by the Colonna family, the most famous painter in Rome became the most famous in Naples ......

Despite his success in Naples, after only a few months in the city Caravaggio left for Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, presumably hoping that the patronage of Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights, could help him secure a pardon for Tomassoni's death. De Wignacourt proved so impressed at having the famous artist as official painter to the Order that he inducted him as a knight ..... Yet by late August 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned ... the result of yet another brawl ... By December he had been expelled from the Order "as a foul and rotten member."

Before the expulsion Caravaggio had escaped to Sicily ..... After only nine months in Sicily Caravaggio returned to Naples. According to his earliest biographer he was being pursued by enemies while in Sicily and felt it safest to place himself under the protection of the Colonnas until he could secure his pardon from the pope (now Paul V) and return to Rome .....

In Naples an attempt was made on his life, by persons unknown. At first it was reported in Rome that the "famous artist" Caravaggio was dead, but then it was learned that he was alive, but seriously disfigured in the face ..... In the summer of 1610 he took a boat northwards to receive the pardon, which seemed imminent thanks to his powerful Roman friends. With him were three last paintings, gifts for Cardinal Scipione. What happened next is the subject of much confusion and conjecture. The bare facts are that on 28 July an anonymous avviso (private newsletter) from Rome to the ducal court of Urbino reported that Caravaggio was dead. Three days later another avviso said that he had died of fever. These were the earliest, brief accounts of his death, which later underwent much elaboration. No body was found ... "

- The Martyrdom of St. Ursula ... Saint Ursula is caught in a moment of highest action and drama, as the arrow fired by the king of the Huns strikes her in the breast - Wikipedia