Monday, August 21, 2006

Some preliminary notes of caution

Before proceeding, let us sound a few notes of caution and make some more general observations.

Often, our view of philosophy/theology will influence our view of science. Unless we believe the world to be explainable, why would we set out to try and explain it? The Christian doctrine of God's rational, ordered creation provides a necessary world view for the initial development of science. See, for example, the book 'Theology and Modern Physics' by Peter Hodgson. However, we must be much more careful when letting science influence our philosophy and theology. It is harder to infer philosophical beliefs from scientific results, now least because scientific theories are constantly being revised. Especially, we must avoid 'God of the gaps'-type arguments. What science cannot explain today may be a trivial result of some new theory tomorrow.

Another pitfall when reflecting on science is that of materialism. Science necessarily deals with relations between material things which are testable by experiment and in this sense is necessarily materialistic. Because this is the case, we must not be overcome by materialism and be tempted claim we can explain *everything* in purely material terms, as some atheists would. Again, as already mentioned, the application of science to spiritual knowledge is difficult. We will tackle the problem of materialism head-on in later posts.

Finally, let us remember that Sacred Scripture is the infallible word of God. See an earlier post and references therein for some Church teaching on scripture. The Bible does not seek to inform us of the details of any scientific theory though. "... from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15).

In the 17th century, Galileo had a disagreement with the Italian Inquisition over the Copernican model of the solar system. The assertion that the Earth moved was deemed unscriptural (see the linked article) and further went against the prevailing Aristotelian philosophical climate at the time. Later, when Kepler showed beyond reasonable doubt that the Copernican system was indeed correct a new exegesis of the controversial scripture passages was required. This is an example where new scientific results do indeed require us to rethink our interpretation of parts of the Bible, without affecting established truths of the Faith.

Let us bear such things in mind as we now proceed to raise some questions, posed by modern science, relating to our Catholic faith.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Human Evolution

JPII spoke of "the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis" (Message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 22 October 1996). This is a very interesting address by the last pope.

Before even attempting to reflect further on the theological/philosophical implications evolution may (or may not) have though, let us review briefly what science is currently telling us. This is a difficult task -- one cannot *prove* a great deal and many opinions are strongly contested and change frequently. Further, human evolution is a massive area of scientific research. Let us restrict the present discourse then to a few general points.

Biologically, humans are primates (a classification which includes lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans). Primates may share a common ancestor with bats, more than 65 million years ago. Modern humans belong to the species Homo sapiens. Human evolution studies earlier species of the genus Homo as well as other related species.

There is not a scientific consesus as to which species of Homo are ancestors of humans and which are 'cousins', split away from our ancestral line. These cousins were evolutionary dead ends and are now extinct. These species are differentiated by their anatomy/physiology and ability to use tools, language &c.

Homo habilis (ca. 2.5-1.8 million years ago (MYA)) is generally considered the first of the homo genus to appear. Homo habilis probably made tools of stone and perhaps animal bone for scavenging rather than defence or hunting.

Homo erectus (ca. 1.8 MYA-70,000 years ago) was the first human ancestor to walk fully upright. Homo erectus used more sophisticated tools, may have had a 'hunter-gatherer society' but could not produce sounds comparable to modern speech.

Homo heidelbergensis (Heidelberg Man) lived from about 800,000 to about 300,000 years ago. It has been contented that Homo heidelbergensis may have buried their dead but this is strongly contested. It seems they did not produce any art or other sophisticated artifacts.

H. neanderthalensis lived from about 250,000 to as recent as 30,000 years ago and there is debate as to whether humans are descended from such Neanderthals or merely related. They may have been capable of some kind of speech, social interaction and used stone tools. They are hypothesised to have controlled fire and to have buried their dead with grave goods though the evidence is rare and controversial. Some scientists contend they buried their dead non-ritually without grave goods or offerings. A recently discovered bear femur with holes bored into it is considered by some to be a Neanderthal flute. Again, this is very controversial.

H. sapiens has lived from about 200,000 years ago to the present. Between 400,000 years ago and around 250,000 years ago, the trend in cranial expansion and the elaboration of stone tool technologies developed, providing evidence for a transition from H. erectus to H. sapiens. Evidence suggests there was a migration of H. erectus out of Africa, then a further speciation of H. sapiens from H. erectus in Africa (there is little evidence that this speciation occurred elsewhere). Then a subsequent migration within and out of Africa eventually replaced the earlier dispersed H. erectus. This migration and origin theory is usually referred to as the single-origin theory. However, the current evidence does not preclude multiregional speciation, either.

Interestingly, individual human's DNA is more alike than in most other species.

Until about 50,000 years ago, development of stone tools was slow. Then modern humans began to develop much more rapidly. They began to bury their dead, develop clothing made of hides, sophisticated hunting techniques and cave art.

"Whether this was an acceleration from standstill, or a trend that had in fact already started earlier, is debated: many innovations of the past 50,000 years are known to have occasional precursors in the Middle Stone Age. Among innovations of the Acheulian and the Middle Stone Age are the use of fire (500,000 BP), building shelters (400,000 BP), production of stone blades or knives (280,000 BP), grinding stones (280,000 BP), long distance barter trade (140,000 BP), fishing gear (110,000 BP), mining (100,000 BP), and beads (75,000 BP). However, these mostly remain incidents and do not become common until after 50,000 BP."

Modern humans demonstrate a variety of behaviours not observed in any other animals. Currently, scientists estimate that humans branched off from their common ancestor with chimpanzees about 5-7 MYA.

References

Wikipedia on Human Evolution, see also links therein.

What does the Catechism tell us about man's original state?

The Catechism tells us that as long as man remained in the state of original justice in which he was created, he would not have to suffer or die (cf. Gen 2:17, Gen 3:16-19). Man is not only created 'good' but he shares in the divine life and exists in a state of holiness and justice. He is in harmony with himself, with others and with all creation -- 'original justice'.

God offered man mastery over the world; above all, this was *mastery of self*. Man was ordered in his whole being and free from concupiscence (Concupiscence from the Catholic Encyclopaedia).

The glory of this state is only surpassed by the glory of the new creation in Christ and it is lost by the sin of Adam and Eve.

Man in Paradise, CCC 374 ff.

Reflections on Vocation

Bear in mind at least two things. First, the Church considers celibacy
to be in a sense a higher calling. For as Christ says "When the dead
rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be
like the angels in heaven" (Matt 12:25). So the celibate state is
closer to our state in heaven (I think, criticism welcome as I'm not
sure where I got that interpretation from. Probably look at the canons
of the Council of Trent as celibacy was discussed there and
SACERDOTALIS CAELIBATUS an encyclical of Paul VI goes into great
detail on priestly celibacy).

Second, the grace of marriage is definitely considered a supernatural
vocation. The Lord has a plan for each of us and has put us here for a
purpose. For a majority the vocation to marry and raise children is a
definite part of this plan. Perhaps, as is often the case, we need to
step back a little. The idea of a 'vocation' as a single mission or
sole purpose given to us is surely too simplistic.

Our fundamental vocation, that of all the baptised is "to know, love
and serve God" (Fr Matrin Connor LC). Seeking always to fulfill that
vocation and growing in devotion and holiness, we come to know more
intimately the will of God in our lives. In doing so, it will become
increasingly clear to us what "path of life" the Lord asks us to
follow (be it marriage or otherwise). By seeking God in everyday life,
in every aspect of our existence, by doing what we have to do next
with love and trusting always in Grace we cannot go wrong! It will
become clear to us, from our circumstances, our temprament, the
opinions of our friends and the Church what is the "shape of our love"
(Fr Stephen Wang).

The charism of marriage requires us to love one woman (and then our
family) in a particular, especial way. The charism of celibacy rather
requires us to relate well to all men and women, to love them *all* in
an especial way. This difference is surely the shape of our love and
seeking to use our gifts and talents for the glory of Christ and do
His will we "discern our vocation". This is never done in isolation;
at every stage we seek the guidance of the Lord in prayer and are
helped by the Holy Spirit who we implore to lead us. Further, in
spiritual direction the voice of Christ present in his Church helps us
find our proper situation in life. That's called discernment!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Some words of Reassurance

"Above all trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability -- and that it may take a very long time.

"And so I think with you. Your ideas mature gradually -- let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don't try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your good will) will make you tomorrow.

"Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete."

-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ

Words often of some relevance, especially to those of us who worry a lot about discernment. I came across them through Fr Matthew Power SJ who came to talk at Fisher House one evening in 2005--2006.

The Jesuits in Britain

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Churches in Austria

Last week I was on holiday with my family in Austria. My Dad isn't Catholic and the rest of my family aren't as enthusiastic about the Faith as I am. Austria is still quite a Catholic country (in some ways) and we visited several churches, all beautifully decorated in the most fantastic Baroque and Rococo styles.

Of course this means they are full of tourists treating them as museums, among them my family and especially my Dad for whom they have no spiritual significance (that I know of!).

I (being me) made a point, whenever we went into a church, of spending at least a little while in front of the tabernacle in prayer. To my mind, Christ's real presence is the Blessed Sacrament is by far the most important thing in any of those churches no matter how they're decorated. It upset me to see people wandering around completely ignoring Jesus.

Hence my assertion one evening that Christ was the most important thing we'd come across (perhaps tactless, but I was a little upset) almost started an argument but I wasn't quite prepared and the moment passed uncomfortably.

So, getting to the point after that lengthy story: first, what is the most important thing in Austrian churches? The art is all amazing, but considered outside of the context of Christ and his Church and Sacraments isn't it a little hollow? It isn't 'concrete art' but rather a prayer, elevating the heart and mind to God.

Second, what do we do when our world view differs so strongly from members of our family? I tell you solemnly, explaining the Gospel to strangers isn't half as hard as it is trying to live it at home.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

St. Francis de Sales on Humility

Recently I've been reading "Introduction to the Devout Life" (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) by St. Francis de Sales.

I thought his comments on humility were interesting:

"... true humility does not affect to be humble, and is not given to make a display in lowly words. It seeks not only to conceal other virtues, but above all it seeks and desires to conceal itself..." (Part III, Chapter 5)

I need to remind myself often it's no good just pretending to be humble. A companion of St. Josemaría Escrivá who lived with him later in life observed that he did seem like a humble man at all.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Things I intend to write

"Lumen Gentium" -- thoughts

"Lads' Mags" -- something deeply wrong with our culture???

"St Francis de Sales on Humility" -- genius

Recently I looked up blasphemy in the Catechism

You can barely turn on the TV, walk down the street or have a conversation without someone taking the Lord's name in vain. It is explicity forbidden by the Decalogue and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) informs us it is a grave sin. If we were to encounter thieves, adulterers and murderers so frequently, everyone would be outraged and we would quickly act to stop such behaviour. Yet blasphemy seems in our time to be perfectly acceptable.

Rightly, we use trivial nouns for everyday objects in a casual and fitting way. We talk quite freely of cats and cars, bees and bats. Other names though are afforded great respect. Think, how do we use the name of a loved one? Would you ever speak of a child, parent or sibling using their name casually, without regard to their person? Rather, would you not take the utmost care over what you say about them and in what context you use their name? Everyone's name is sacred and demands respect and dignity (CCC 2158); intuitively people do show this respect to their family and friends.

How much more then must we cherish the Divine Name? "Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. "The Lord's name is holy." For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it." (CCC 2143)

God has loved us into being and "has blessed us in Christ, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places... according to the richness of His Grace" (Eph 1:3 ff.). We must show the utmost respect for His Divine Name and exhort everyone, both the faithful and those outside the Church, to do the same.

Here ends the sermon...

References:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2142 ff.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A letter I sent to the Guardian

References:

The article which irritated me, so I wrote this letter

Deus Caritas Est, enyclical letter of Benedict XVI "On Christian Love"

Dear Editor,

Michèle Roberts, in her piece entitled "Equal in the eyes of God?" (G2, Friday 14th April 2006), grossly misrepresents Catholic teaching, especially conerning sexuality. I do not know what experience Ms Roberts has of the Church (she mentions a convent education); perhaps her experiences have not been good. Still, one must not confuse what some Catholics may have said or their dualistic tendencies (perhaps her teachers at school) with the genuine teaching of the Church.

She suggests that Catholics believe the spirit to be superior to the body, and that bodies are somehow suspect, "to be reviled". This sort of dualism is completely un-Catholic. It is more Gnostic or Manichean, two sects which have always been considered heretical. In Catholic teaching, humans are special precisely because they have been given both a soul and a body. If she believes women are "whores" because they have children as a result of having sex, that may be her opinion -- it has nothing to do with Catholicism. Indeed, human sexuality is thought of as God's gift to us.

Ms Roberts claims to want to "reintegrate the body", but in orthodox Catholic teaching there is no division in the first place. However, the modern-day view that it's OK to have sex with whomever you want (provided they're a consenting adult), whenever you want, represents a real and dangerous dualism. Human physical relationships are thus separated from emotional relationships -- sex is relegated to the merely biological or functional, a commodity. This dualism, which may seem harmless, is always ultimately damaging because it ultimately reduces the human body to an object. A human being, spirit and body, becomes then just a body, something to be used selfishly. And whenever humans are objectified they become degraded, their intrinsic dignity is violated.

To Catholics, true love must be synonymous with true self-gift, the opposite of this selfishness. A married couple who "have sex" to deepen their relationship and for procreation is hence the only acceptable context for sexual relations. Then sex is self-gift, to your partner and to the new life you are open to creating.

I suppose some people may not be that interested in what I have to say, especially coming from a single, male lay-person. I assure you though that my Catholic female friends, single or married, would agree with me, for what it's worth. So often, people dismiss Catholicism out of misunderstanding or ignorance. People will believe anything bad they read about the Church and never investigate further to see whether it's actually true. This seems unfortunate and even intellectually unsound. I've tried to clear up just a few points in Ms Roberts' article which I felt were guilty of this.

Yours faithfully,
Chris Hack

The Letter to the Romans

Reflections on Catholicism, Sacred Scripture and the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.

Please vet for doctrinal error.

Chris

[References:

The New American Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Dei Verbum

Providentissimus Deus

Faith and works (EWTN)

Reward and Merit (Catholic Answers)

Prayerful study of the Word of God found in Sacred Scripture is helpful to our Christian life; indeed it is essential. "Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ" (St. Jerome, c. 340-420 AD, the first man to make a decent translation of the Bible into Latin, the vernacular language of Western Europe at the time). The Church in Her wisdom helps us by reading scripture aloud everyday at Mass and providing us with preachers (at least on Sundays and feast days) to help us deepen our understanding. Further, "Dei Verbum" (the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) urges all the Christian faithful to go themselves to the sacred text and to prayerfully meditate on it and study it by devout reading ("Dei Verbum", section 25).

The Church has from the earliest time upheld the Bible as the Word of God and that nothing may contradict what we find written therein. A concrete definition of this was given by Pope Leo XIII in 1893:

"For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost: and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true." (Pope Leo XIII, encyclical letter "Providentissimus Deus").

Indeed, here lies a great area of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals. While many middle-of-the-road Protestants take an overly symbolic or critical view of the Bible and seek to diminish its truth, importance and eternally valid teaching, the Church unceasingly seeks to uphold it.

So, having established the importance of scripture to Catholicism, what did I make of Romans? I was certainly amazed and challenged by it! We are left in no doubt as to what Paul believed and the depth and complexity of his theology is astounding -- I've barely scratched the surface.

Perhaps the most difficult part for me was Paul's discussion of a kind of predestination -- why is it some people are Christian and some aren't? This question (cf. Rom 9:19-26 and elsewhere) is of perennial importance and is deeply mysterious, something Paul acknowledges. We must respond by acknowledging God to be God, acknowledging Christ's Kingship of the universe and trust that everything is part of His providential plan!

Romans also highlights some areas of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals. Paul is abundantly clear that, in the final analysis, the most important thing is what we "believe in our heart" (Rom 10:9), our interior conversion to Christ. This is the most important message of the Church -- it is a central reason why Christ established the Church, to "make disciples of all the nations" (Matt 28:19). At the same time, the necessity of living lives of the highest moral character is affirmed. In terms of moral teaching, the Catholic Church and Evangelicals uphold today what no Christian would have questioned historically. Many other denominations have been overcome by liberal permissiveness in the form of misguided compassion. Furthermore, the universality of Christianity is affirmed by Paul; Christ's death was for all. In an age of relativism, the Church unflinchingly holds up the uniqueness and universality of Christ. I think this is an idea we would agree on (sorry for lack of references in this paragraph).

And how are we to attain these lofty ideals? Only by Grace! We must acknowledge our complete and utter dependence on Grace. The Church affirms that no man can merit for himself the intial Grace of justification; between God and man there is an infinite inequality (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2007-2010). Human acts of attempted obedience to any Law can only condemn us because we can never live up to God on our own terms, we always fall short. Grace alone can save. This truly is a central message of orthodox Catholicism and chimes strongly with the message of Evangelicalism (again lack of references).

Of course, the Church understands it in the context of the rest of scripture and magisterial teaching, and so may place a slightly different emphasis even on these points of agreement. For Evangelicals and Catholics, these points may fit slightly differently into an overall theology. The commonality cannot be denied however and surely provides a good starting point for improved relations between Catholics and Evangelicals throughout the world and in Cambridge.

My studies have brought some questions concerning the interpretation of Romans in the Evangelical tradition. The two biggest questions I have concern Romans 2:5-11 and 6:3-14.

First, Paul (quoting Psalm 62) says 'God "will give to each person according to what he has done."' (Rom 2:6).

I know this topic is a bit of an old chestnut, but let me try and lay out clearly the Catholic teaching. Protestants often misunderstand the Catholic teaching on merit, thinking that Catholics believe that one must do good works to come to God and be saved. This is exactly the opposite of what the Church teaches.

Remember, according to Catholic teaching: "[N]one of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the Apostle [Paul] says, grace is no more grace" (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification 8, citing Rom. 11:6).

But, under the impetus of God’s grace, Christians do perform acts which are pleasing to God and which God has promised to reward (cf. Matt 25:31-46). In the sense of a reward given according to a promise made by God, our actions truly have merit in the sight of God then; yet this itself is a grace He alone gives! It is in this sense then that we may be said to be saved by faith and works -- faith is essential for our initial justification and our faith and deeds together merit for us the rewards of eternal life. And this all by the Grace of God, for salvation is truly by Grace alone and through Christ alone (cf. Eph 2:8, Acts 4:12). Furthermore, this view is upheld by the earliest Christian writers, and is explicitly attested to as early as AD 110 by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to Polycarp and by many writers from the 2nd century onwards.

(See for example http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/FAWORKS.htm for an apologetic explanation of this, based on scripture)

The second point I would raise concerns belief about the nature of baptism. I'm not sure what your views on baptism are, or even whether there is one single Evangelical standpoint on the issue. One often hears people refer to baptism as merely symbolic though, that it has no real effect but is an ordinance to be follwed. This is quite un-Catholic, for we believe that baptism is a true sacrament, it actually conveys the grace it symbolizes.

Romans 6:3-14 (I won't paste the text in here) hints at this far deeper, more mysterious meaning to baptism. Paul explicitly and directly links our baptism itself to our being joined in Christ's death and hence our baptism is our assurance salvation. (cf. 1 Pet 3:21).

Furthermore, Paul talks of baptism literally incorporating us in the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1267-1274), which ties in to what we find in Romans. To my mind, this is the only understanding of baptism which is truly consistent with scripture.

This has many implications for how we view the Church, as a community of believers who are literally Christ's body. No time to go into those now though. Our theology of ecclesiastical structure will be discussed another day I'm sure!

Today I'm reading "Humani Generis"

Today I'm reading "Humani Generis" the encyclical letter of Pius XII, promulgated on the 12th of August 1950. It's about evolutionism and theology and also condemns modernism in theology.

The most interesting parts are:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

And:

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is no no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Something to bear in mind!