Friday, September 28, 2012

Promiscuous Communion?

Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Two weeks ago, our nation celebrated Malaysia Day, a day which symbolises the ideals of national integration, harmony and unity between ethnicities and cultures.  As a commitment to these same ideals, Christians from various Protestant denominations, hailing from both mainline and Evangelical streams, gathered at a nearby stadium in Shah Alam to offer prayers in common for the country. Catholics, both clergy and laity, join the ranks to make the event truly ecumenical, at least by appearance.

But for some, the joy and excitement of this visible celebration of Christian unity was marred by a written advisory issued by Archbishop Murphy Pakiam to the Catholics of this archdiocese, cautioning and reminding them of the Catholic Church’s position with regards to inter-communion. Catholics were reminded that it was ‘illicit’ for them to receive such communion with other Christians because of differences in sacramental and ecclesial theology. The Archbishop was merely reiterating the Catholic Church's teaching and canonical law (Canon 844#1). For some, the action of the Archbishop was viewed as another foot-in-the-mouth blooper, one which showed a lack of hospitality and charity. In fact, it sparked off an open letter of protest and criticism against the Archbishop.  

Was the Archbishop or his critics right? Today’s readings may help us out of this conundrum. A simple layman’s cursory reading could lead to this conclusion: that no person, or institution can have a monopoly over the distribution of God’s graces. The readings seem to suggest a broader rather than narrower approach in accepting the ministry of others who do not share a visible communion with us. In other words, the readings imply that there is a place for churches and Christians with different preferences, spirituality, experience, emphases and even theology, so long as we can all unite under the banner of Jesus Christ. This presents a popular picture of Jesus as someone broad-minded, non- judgmental, unconditionally inclusive, whose constant refrain is “All are Welcome”, one who would have no issues with inter-communion. In the words of the anonymous Catholic who wrote the protest letter against the advisory of the Archbishop, “I don't think in all fairness Jesus himself would have said this "Only Catholics can receive Holy Communion … all others are forbidden...” 

The issue of communion is actually secondary. The real issue is ecclesiological – how do we understand ‘Church’? Was Jesus actually advocating a ‘Love Boat’ kind of church ‘without borders’, a church that would admit all kinds of beliefs, even contradictory ones, as long as one carried the name ‘Christian’? If this was the case, then the Church’s condemnation of ‘heresy’ in defence of the faith was misplaced, if not pointless. Excommunication, which is the denial of communion to those who break communion with the Church’s belief, laws and sacraments, would be unnecessary and even irrelevant. A more careful and nuanced reading of scripture would reveal a very different conclusion. The second half of the gospel clarifies that Charity must be at the service of Truth and that communion must be predicated on both Charity and Truth. The metaphor of self-mutilation seems severe but it challenges Christian communities to excommunicate members (seen as cutting off body parts which are a danger to the rest) who may be a cause of scandal for the whole community. In other words, communion implies communion of belief and practice, and most certainly worship.

I’ve spoken extensively on relativism in the past two weeks. It refers to the belief that all statements are mere opinions, which are neither absolutely true nor absolutely false. Applied to the situation of the Eucharist, if Catholics maintain that Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the communion species after consecration and if Methodists merely believe in a symbolic presence, then both are correct as far as opinions are concerned. Simple logic will inform you that one statement excludes the other, you can’t have both!  Indifferentism, on the other hand, holds the position that there are no substantial differences between one view and the other. In other words, when applied to churches and denominations, would imply that there is no difference between one and the other. This begs the question, why the divisions? Was the Protestant Reformation necessary if there is no difference between Catholicism and Protestantism? The liberals may answer by arguing that the differences are man-made and immaterial. ‘We need to just focus on the essentials.’ But in the pursuit of a common denominator, it would be a wonder if there is anything left over which can be called essential when one has gotten rid of all the differences.

Like all heresies, indifferentism and relativism are distortions and exaggerations of the Truth. In the name of Eucharistic hospitality, one forgoes the need to make distinctions between fact and fiction, truth and lies, essential and non-essential, sin and virtue. When we choose to forget our differences, it is ultimately a decision to abandon the Truth. Lies or avoiding the Truth can make us amicable bed-partners, but it would not be a true marriage of minds and hearts, it would just be co-habitation, a promiscuous kind of union. There can be no true Love, if love is not rooted in the Truth. These egalitarian heresies ultimately transform our faith into an amorphous puddle of mush, darken our minds, impoverish our souls, and blind our eyes to reality. Difference is not the cause of conflict but the failure to recognise differences is. Chaos, it has been said, is the lack of all distinction. As a popular slogan emblazoned on the front of T-shirts of promiscuous teens boldly propose: “NO LIMITS!”

Ultimately, the issue of communion hinges upon our Catholic understanding of Church. Thus Eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full Ecclesial communion and its visible expression. The Catholic Church sees itself as one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, founded by Christ himself. This is not a triumphalistic expression of hubris. It is based on our understanding of the mission and plan of God and of Jesus Christ. Christ intended ONE church and it would be utter foolishness to presume that he would also have wanted division for division sake. For Catholics, communion is not just an act of worship but also an ecclesiological act. Our reception of communion is ontological – we receive communion because we are in communion. Full communion involves completeness of "those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments and pastoral governance – traditionally known as Creed, Cult and CodeFor Catholics to participate in such communion without establishing these bonds would be self-deception and hypocritical. It trivialises the very act of receiving communion and reduces it to a purely symbolic and instrumental ritual. For example, someone who notoriously lives in serious sin would be excluded because his moral life is not in communion with the laws of God and the Church. Receiving communion would be a lie!

I would think that it would be most appropriate to close off this homily with an excerpt taken from an interview given by a good friend of mine, Revd Deacon Sherman Kuek, whom many of you know was a former Protestant theologian before his conversion to Catholicism.

“… it is necessary to recognise that dialogue can be fruitful only when it is at the service of truth — not opinions or personal dispositions on specific issues — but truth. Unity is indeed important to the Catholic Church, and it remains her priority. However, it is a unity in the service of truth that she seeks, not unity for the sake of itself. For this reason, the Catholic Church does not — she cannot — sacrifice truth at the altar of unity…

This does not mean that the Church would exclude any other groups of Christians who have different ideas of truth. The position of the Catholic Church is always inclusive, but being inclusive does not mean being pluralistic. The principle of inclusion enables the Church to make space for others and to recognise the good in others without having to compromise our self-understanding... Unity based on a whitewashing of differences, according to Pope Benedict, is a facade and only stalls fruitful dialogue … Pretending that there are no differences and relating to one another as a “fully united body” by resting on the lowest common denominator of the faith is to pander to false and promiscuous union.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dying for One's Convictions

Twenty Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year B

On the 16th of April this year, Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, celebrated his 85th birthday and the seventh anniversary of his pontificate. Having weathered and survived the storm in the aftermath of his Regensburg address which angered millions of Muslims, a worldwide media onslaught on the Church’s ‘war crimes’ in the area of clergy child sexual abuse, ongoing criticisms of his defence of the Church’s moral teachings concerning life issues and marriage, continued opposition from within the Church on his views and initiatives in liturgy, the damaging Vatican-leaks that portrayed the Church as a badly-run and corrupt ridden organisation, and despite rumours that he may retire soon due to old age and health, the Pope still remains strong and resilient, although unable to conceal signs of physical frailty.

To his critics, the Pope is regarded as a capricious dictator, a Grand Inquisitor who clamps down on theological freedom, the German Rottweiler who heads a backward-looking, misogynistic organisation that continues to stunt social progress by her stands against homosexual relationships and the use of condoms to thwart the spread of AIDS, while self-righteously trying to cover up its own mistakes, including the crimes of paedophiliac clerical offenders. All these accusations and criticisms may come as a surprise to many of us. How could this man, the spiritual and temporal leader of a billion Catholics throughout the world earn such hate and derision? How could a religious man who stands for peace, a source of inspiration for millions, also court controversy? How do we explain this ambivalence?

I recently attended a talk by a friend of mine who ended his session with some anecdotal wisdom from the Pope. My friend described the Pope as someone who is both deeply loved and also widely hated, by both those within and outside the Church. And the reason for this is because he is a man of convictions. “One will go unnoticed if one didn’t have convictions or failed to reveal them.” According to a German thinker, Heinrich Heine, “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns have only opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.” No greatness can come from mere opinions. It takes strong convictions backed with the willingness to die for your beliefs to bring about serious change. In other words, you need to be dead serious before you are taken seriously.

What does it mean to have convictions? When you are a person of conviction, you believe that what you know is the truth and you are grounded in that truth. You stand by the truth whether it appears to the rest of the world as foolish or archaic, and regardless if it is not politically correct or not part of some fad.  You believe that the truth is True and that it is not determined by a popular vote, or by its convenience. Today, relativism teaches that there is no absolute truth, only personal subjective versions. But the Truth cannot be bent or moulded to fit personal situations or the times. The Truth is timeless. When you are truly grounded in the Truth, you believe from your core and you are prepared to defend it. At times you may be criticised as hopelessly out of date and out of touch. Yet you are prepared to forgo popularity in order to defend the Truth. The Pope has made his final stance in defence of the Truth.

In other words, to be a man of convictions means, to borrow biblical-theological language, to become a “sign of contradiction,” the rise and fall of many. To be a man of convictions is to embrace the contradiction posed by the cross, once seen as an instrument of torture and death, and now the instrument of our salvation. To be a man of convictions means to embrace the destiny of Christ and to live the challenge of the gospel paradox, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Christians continue to make this same sign present through the centuries as they unite themselves with Christ.

If one were able to see beyond the ad-hominem ‘below the belt’ attacks and vilifications against the Pope, one would then realise that much of these criticisms reveal something far more insidious on the part of the hate-mongers and critics rather than about the object of their calumny and revulsion. The attacks on the Pope are for the most part attacks on the Catholic Church and the Truth which it has sworn to defend because the Pope is the visible icon of the Church. The reason for the Pope’s unpopularity with many of his critics is not because he lacks moral character or because he stubbornly refuses to move with the times. On the contrary, the Pope, and for that matter, Holy Mother Church, are criticised because they refuse to bend to the demands of public pressure to compromise the Truth in favour of a watered-down, appeasing Christianity. In other words, the Pope is a source of controversy, not because of his sins but because of the sinfulness of his critics. The enemies of the Pope and of the Church seem to be singing the same tune we had just heard in the first reading: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.”

 Pope Benedict’s person and message are one. By his very presence he offers the world deluded by sin a path out of the bunker and into the light of truth. Pope Benedict makes written and spoken contributions on almost a daily basis about matters as diverse as the condition of modernity, the meaning of eternity, the conundrum of reason, and the quality of beauty, and yet many are only enabled to hear what he says when this threatens their reinforced positions. It is not the Pope who is stubborn and blind. It is the reverse.

Today, the Pope continues to be model of inspiration for all of us. Through his perseverance and fidelity to the Truth of the gospel, he has become the man of derision, the subject of ridicule and hate, the embodiment of the scandal and contradiction of the cross.  Often, wrongly accused of being a hardliner traditionalist and conservative, Peter Seewald, the famous German journalist and papal biographer who interviewed our Holy Father, described, the man as “ahead of his time.” Seewald tells us that the Pope is actually trying to steer the Church along the “Catholic centre,” not an Anglican kind of via media which is willing to compromise truth in favour of expediency, but a balanced course that leans neither to the extremisms of the left or the right. “With Ratzinger, everything is about the centre, but not in the sense of being average,” he continued. “It’s a positive middle line which, on closer inspection, is not the easiest of exercises, but the hardest,” he said. “Everyone can fall into either extremes, lurching to the left or to the right, but to take a straight path along a balanced centre — that is the school of a master.”

Today, the Master of masters, Jesus himself, outlines the path by which we must all take. Christians cannot be ambivalent when it comes to the cross. They must choose. They cannot be but persons of convictions. Their lives must ultimately lead to the contradiction of the cross. Conflict is inevitable for those who stand for Truth against the forces that lie. They will receive derision, hatred, condemnation from those who are blinded to the Truth but they will also be a source of inspiration to those who are prepared to see and listen to the voice of reason. To this world their announcement of the Truth of Gospel must be courageous, clear, consistent, constant and quite often a sign of contradiction. Christians are not deluded by some romanticised attachment to the past, neither are they stubbornly stuck to a position which is out of touch with the world. Christians are rooted in reality, the reality of cross. This is the lot of Christians, we can do no other, we can be no other. St Mary Benedicta of the Cross, or better known by her pre-baptismal Jewish name ‘Edith Stein,’ once taught on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonour than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the Cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ's cross after him. Therefore, the Saviour today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.”

Sometimes, the fear and pain of conflict and persecution becomes unbearable and we are tempted once again to choose the false peace of compromise over Christ. But our hope comes in knowing that where things seem impossible for men, all things are possible for God. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies. During the homily delivered on his birthday this year, our 85 year old Pontiff said these words: “I find myself on the last stretch of my journey in life, and I don’t know what is awaiting me. I know, however, that the light of God exists, that he is risen, that his light is stronger than any darkness and that God’s goodness is stronger than any evil in this world, and this helps me go forward with certainty.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Truth or Dare

Feast of St John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor

By Revd Permanent Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek OFS

Being a former Protestant, I'm acutely aware that the year 2017 will be, for our separated brethren, a year of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I was wondering if I should, perhaps, join them in this celebration as an act of solidarity. But Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has decided that the Church will not participate in this celebration. He says a commemoration is fine, but not a celebration. His given reasons: "We cannot celebrate a sin."

In the past few days, we have spoken of many types of sins... societal sin, historical sin, political sin, even ecclesial sin. But there is one sin we seem to have left out: the sin against truth; sin against the cross.

The first reading today speaks not only of the importance of truth, but also of understanding the very subtle nuances that distinguish truth from deception. This is very crucial, as any delusional hermeneutic of truth can potentially cause defenders of truth to be construed as evil villains, while dissenters of truth can be mistaken as persecuted underdogs in a world governed by subjective hermeneutics and the tyrany of relativism.

Was St John Chrysostom a hero or a villain? Anti-institutional liberators might take pride in the fact that this saint smuggled valuable ornaments out of his palace in Constantinople to be sold off for the sake of the poor. But this very same patriarch loved his Church and would have defended the sanctity of this institution to his death, especially against assaults on divinely revealed truth. This makes him a man of the establishment. Hero or villain?

Is the Church our enemy? How can this be? She is our Mother, in whom we find refuge "when the waters have risen and the severe storms are upon us" (to use Chrysostom's words). She is the Bride of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit who guarantees that the truth which she communicates in all ages and in all places is the one faith, the Good News of Jesus and not the bad news of Man. How then could the Church be our enemy?

The gospel reading obliges us to identify who our real enemies are. It reminds us that human beings are not our enemies, and we should not hate them. We should love them and pray for them. The real enemies of today are ideologies, found without and within the Church that threaten to tear the fabric of its two-thousand year kerygma and replace it with the dictatorship of relativism.

What is most disturbing about the current onslaughts on truth is not so much that the black and white have been made grey, but rather, that the black has become white and the white becomes black. Heroes are actually villains, and villains are but misunderstood heroes. I remember a German Lutheran Professor from Tubingen University once confronting me with this question, "What is tuth? Is there even such a thing anymore?" I think even Luther would have flipped in his grave had he heard this rhetorical question from his Lutheran descendant.

If there is no objective truth that exists beyond the clutches of subjective hermeneutics, then let us humanise Jesus and fashion him according to our own desired image, and intellectually name this academic project "the search for the historical Jesus". To celebrate the culmination of human reason as the arbiter of truth, let us sit around Eucharistic altars in self-adulation while singing "Kumbaya".

What does the cross require of us? Eusebius, the historian of the Council of Nicea, records how the Council Fathers entered into the meeting with lost limbs and scars of torture. He called this a meeting of the "confessing Church", perhaps in words used in this retreat, the Church of the cross.

You are not always Right

Twenty Fourth Ordinary Sunday Year B

You may have heard of the enigmatic Mullah Nasruddin, the proverbial fool, mystic, and the main protagonist of many folk stories in the Middle East. This is a story of how the Mullah was appointed a judge in his own village. Two men both seeking justice brought their dispute before him. The Mullah separated the two men and interviewed each separately. After hearing the case of the first man, the Mullah told him in no uncertain terms, “You are right.” The man went home happy feeling vindicated. The second man then appeared before Nasruddin and presented his version. At the end of his presentation, the Mullah, moved by his argument, delivered his judgment and told him, “You are right.” The Mullah’s wife who was in the adjacent room listening in on the trial, burst out of the room immediately after the second man had left. She confronted the Mullah, “What kind of judge are you? How can the both of them be right?” The Mullah paused a moment in deep reflection and then told her, “My dear, you are also right!”

The word ‘heresy’ is usually reserved for church history books. It means erroneous or wrong teaching or beliefs. The word, however, is seldom heard in today’s world and even among religious circles; not because few read church history books but more so because the prevalent culture seems to be one of relativism. Relativism maintains that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. Relativism preaches a tolerance that accepts diametrically opposing views, because nothing is absolutely false, neither is there anything absolutely true. In such relativistic world there can be no heresy since there is nothing which can be absolutely false or wrong. In other words, everyone is right!

What makes ‘heresy’ prevalent and yet so hard to detect at the same time is that it is never a total denial of the Truth. If it was so, then most heresies would be apparent even to the untrained eye and fewer would be attracted or misled by them. But a heresy is not the total rejection of the Truth but a distortion of it, and sometimes a clever one at that. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth. It conceals a lie behind what is projected as the truth. The history of Christianity can be described as the history of the Church defending and safeguarding the Truth of revelation against heresies which distort it. The nature and person of Jesus Christ has been the subject matter of many of these heresies. The earliest heretical positions of Christ either denied his divinity or his humanity or postulated different combinations of these two natures. For example, Arius claimed that Jesus was a creature, a created being, though of a much loftier position than God’s other creations. In any event, Christ’s divinity is denied. Jehovah Witnesses are modern day Arians; they deny the divinity of Jesus but Jesus remains a central figure within their religion, a Saviour in fact. But the average person would not be able to understand the nuanced differences. That’s how heresies mislead.

This explains how a piece of modern fiction, a crime mystery novel in fact, could then be deemed the ‘factual’ basis of overturning and distorting two millennia old belief in the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Dan Brown, the author of the Da Vinci Code, was actually banking on the stupidity and religious illiteracy of the average reader, including Christians among his avid fans.  In that novel, Teabing, a fictional character presented as a world-renowned historian, states quite emphatically that “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” Thus, what Teabing and the rest of Dan Brown’s book proceed to reveal is that Jesus was not God. His divinity was man-made or Church-made. According to Teabing, this was the handiwork of politics, a scheming Emperor Constantine who wanted to subvert the Church by manipulating its doctrine. Little does the average reader know that Constantine remained a catechumen for the rest of his life and was finally baptised by an Arian priest, thus betraying his theological leanings. He preferred the side that denied Jesus’ divinity. Why would he then convene a Council to hold otherwise? Political suicide, I guess. But Dan Brown sells. Our lack of knowledge in our faith, our inability to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, leaves us ‘sitting ducks’ for these ridiculous propositions.

Misunderstandings concerning the nature, person and mission of Christ were not just confined to the age of the Church. It’s found in today’s gospel. Peter's confession is also the Church’s nascent confession on the nature and mission of Christ. First, Jesus checks the disciples for a "Gallup Poll" reading of the multitudes: "Who do the crowds say I am?" The answer derived from the crowds, that Jesus was just one of the prophets, isn’t the least surprising. Many people today, including Catholics, also have an elevated view of Jesus; they see him as a great teacher, a wise sage or a religious founder. But for them Jesus is hardly a unique religious figure. Many find it hard to acknowledge that he is truly God. The idea that Jesus is divine remains scandalous and even blasphemous. This is why Jesus' question and Peter's answer are so crucial. When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" he is trying to see if the disciples recognize his uniqueness. Prophets and sages have abounded through the centuries, but only one is called the Christ, God's anointed. But even Peter’s answer would fall short of the mark. Jesus will stretch this foundational understanding of Peter's into new and higher categories as his own ministry proceeds.

Christological heresies are not just a thing of the past. Apart from the obvious examples, like Mormonism, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Unification Church (Moonies), Deepak Chopra’s Third Jesus, there are still more subtle forms which have taken the form of liberal Christianity in today’s day and age. One of the greatest heresies that have infiltrated our Catholic ethos is the ideology of humanism. Secular humanism by itself is an ideology and a philosophy of life which views man as the supreme being of the universe. The basis of this ideology lies in the attitude of “supreme self-sufficiency”—a burning desire to “cut ourselves from the apron strings of God” as it were. It sees moral values as relative and changing and varying from person to person. The humanist doesn't need religion because he is confident that the heart of man is basically good. In spite of the obvious incompatibility of Christianity and humanism, humanism has been repackaged in recent times, sort of baptising  Karl Marx for Christian consumption. It has transformed Christianity from a religion of faith in a Saviour to an ideology of action that seeks to emulate a Moral Model, a Human Liberator. Once again, the divinity of Jesus is denied and he is relegated to a human reformer. It has changed man’s ultimate goal from salvation to mere human liberation. What makes humanism indistinguishable from Christianity for many is because both share many common practical values. But in truth, the humanistic concept of ‘good’ is on a collision course with Jesus’ view of ‘good.’

As far as humanism is concerned, there is no truth, there is no standpoint. It insists that there is no universally valid standard. The distinction between fact and fiction seems to have been abolished. It is an ideology that echoes the words of Mullah Nasruddin, “You are right. You are right. You are also right!” Everything is to some extent negotiable. Humanistic doctrines are based on what man is capable of doing rather than on eternal laws. Something is good as long as it is scientifically feasible. The humanist’s standard of goodness must be low enough for the average person, since its point of reference is man. This is why a humanist must make his own standard which he can change at whim; otherwise he will be unable to meet it.

Therefore, the heresy of humanism is by far the greatest threat to our Christian faith and in fact all religions in general, because it passes itself off as the new mainstream view, the new Orthodox religion. But a far greater danger besets us. It is our ignorance that blinds us and sets us up for delusion. So, what is the path that we must take to maneuver out of this predicament? I repeat once again, the answer lies in catecheses. If we do not know what correct teaching is, how could we differentiate it from the false?

Catecheses provides us with the knowledge of our faith that will move us beyond the shallowness of Mullah Nasruddin’s judgment that sees no difference between right and wrong. In fact, knowledge of our faith will help us recognise differences, to distinguish fact from fiction, good from bad, Truth from error; so that we may defend the former and reject the latter. Knowledge of our faith exposes the subtle lie of humanistic heresy. If humanism constantly lowers the standards of goodness, God's standard, on the other hand, demands perfection since the starting point is God, not man. Although humanism can make the world better in some respects its standards still are relative to the culture and time. But the Truth of Christ cannot just be relative to culture and time. The Truth of Christ must be true at all times and in all places because “Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:9)”. Although it has its appeal, humanism is ultimately a tragic philosophy to live by and a disastrous philosophy to die for. Fortunately for us Christians, the core of our existence lies elsewhere. We echo the words of St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:8) If you believe this, then you are right!

(Here’s another Nasruddin tale to match the first. One day, Nasruddin, at his wife’s insistence and after a long episode of badgering and hen-pecking, decided to buy a cow against his better judgment. He had been against this idea from the beginning because he felt that there was insufficient room in the stable to house both his favourite donkey and the cow. But Mrs Nasruddin got her way. True enough, when the cow was led into the stable, she occupied most of the space and the poor donkey was squeezed into a corner. That night, the Mullah prayed to Almighty God. He prayed that in the following morning, when he went to the stable, he would find the cow dead. Upon rising the following day, Nasruddin rushed to the stable to see if his prayer had been answered. But instead of the cow, he found his beloved donkey dead, crushed in the corner. The Mullah fell to his knees in grief and voiced this prayer, “Almighty God, I’m surprised that after all these years, you still can’t tell the difference between a cow and donkey.”
I hope that after this lengthy catecheses, you are not only able to tell the difference between a cow and a donkey but also between Karl Marx and Jesus Christ)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Recovering Our Sensus

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

You don’t have to be blind or deaf to be cut off from the world. Illiteracy is quite capable of bringing on the same results. In general terms, illiteracy is an inability to use language -- an inability to read, write, listen and speak. But taken in its wider sense, illiteracy can refer to any area or aspect of our lives where we experience ignorance. For example, it is no secret that Americans are notorious for their geographical illiteracy. Most Americans can’t find New York on their own map, what more ‘Malaysia.’ They may well think it’s part of the African continent, whilst pointing to a spot on the Australian continent.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on them and fail to recognise that we are equally guilty of another kind of illiteracy, perhaps, one that is far more severe. Today, many members of the Catholic Church suffer from ‘religious illiteracy’, or the scandal of religious ignorance. The deafness and blindness referred to in today’s reading speak less of a physical defect than of a spiritual one. The spiritually blind were prevented from seeing and recognising God’s works whereas the deaf were unable to hear and respond to His Word. When asked questions about the basic tenets of our faith, many Catholics would not be able to provide the correct answers. Few Catholics really know or understand their faith. The faith knowledge of many Catholics can best be described as abysmal.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI in recent times has repeatedly highlighted the phenomenon and danger of religious illiteracy in the Church. He describes this phenomenon by stating that many adult Catholics have not grown beyond their first catechism. They still remain perpetually stunted in the faith of their childhood.

If the condition of deafness and blindness is the result of a flaw or defect in one or more of our sensory organs, then religious illiteracy is being cut off from the sensus fidelium. What is ‘sensus fidelium’? The term literally means "sense of the faithful." It refers to unerring truth sensed or recognized by the entire body of the faithful-“from the Magisterium to the last of the laity”, according to St. Augustine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this as “the supernatural appreciation of faith (senses fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”  In other words, through the Holy Spirit of Truth, Christ our Lord has given the whole body of believers a supernatural and infallible instinct of orthodoxy. Now this is a doctrine that is frequently misinterpreted.

Foundational to understanding the sensus fidelium is to understand who do we mean by ‘the faithful.’ There are never differing or opposing voices among the faithful when it comes to the sensus fidelium. In other words, there can never be some, like the lay faithful, expressing one sense and the hierarchy another. If one does not share the same sensus fidei as that propounded by the Magisterium, the Teaching Authority of the Church who has been assigned to preserve and protect the integrity of Christ’s revelation and continue to communicate the same one faith to all generations and to all places, then he is not part of the sensus fidelium. The individual believer participates in the Church's sensus fidei only insofar as he is guided by and faithfully obedient to the Magisterium. It is an oxymoron to describe the ‘unfaithful’ as ‘faithful’. The Pope and the College of Bishops cannot be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole People of God.

Critics of the Magisterium’s authority to guide and to teach have often deliberately chosen to separate the ministry of the Pope and the Bishops from the other faithful and consequently accused the hierarchy of being ‘out of touch’ with the sensus fidelium, and by this they do not mean the traditional theological definition of the term but rather the felt sense of the popular masses, namely the laity. They see the sensus fidelium as some form of consensus-taking through the lived experiences of the common people. In other words, if the majority of people do not practice the Church’s ban on contraceptives, then the Church’s laws must be amended. Popular practice becomes the litmus test for doctrines.

This thinking is seriously flawed because the doctrines of the Church are based upon divinely revealed truths, not opinions or subjective feelings. The sense of faith cannot be determined statistically or sociologically. It is not 'public opinion', current tendencies, the latest fashion in theology. The opinion and vote of the majority is not infallible. See how the popular vote in pre-World War II Germany raised a monster like Hitler as their Fuhrer. This is what our Holy Father calls the politicisation of the “People of God”, a term that was used during Vatican II to describe the Church. He reminds us that the scriptural concept of People of God is hierarchical rather than just another socialist egalitarian polity. At the end of the day, it is these critics and those who choose dissent from the magisterium’s authority who are really out of touch with the sensus fidelium. At the end of the day, their blindness has deluded them into substituting the mystery of the divinely instituted Church with a human social construct.

Since, religious illiteracy is the result of a lack of knowledge in what the Church actually teaches and why, the solution is obvious. We must recover this knowledge of our faith through renewed catecheses. Pope Benedict reminds us that what the Church needs most urgently in our present times is catecheses. Our Holy Father tells us that these catecheses should not be presented merely as “a package of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality that reveals itself through its depth and beauty." He is convinced that "we will renew the church only if we renew people's knowledge of the faith".

Is mere knowledge of our catechism sufficient? When the Holy Scriptures talk about knowledge - especially knowledge between people - it means something much deeper than our how we use the verb in everyday language. This biblical ‘knowledge’ isn't limited to the external or superficial information that we can know about another person.  Instead, it refers to an intimate communion. To really ‘know’ someone would mean uniting ourselves with that person. Knowing Christ cannot be reduced to a simple acquaintance with what is found in the Gospels, or to some creedal formula or even to what the Church teaches.  Although these things are necessarily urgent especially in our age that is so marked by religious illiteracy, knowledge of our faith should ultimately lead us into an intimate communion with Christ. It is a communion which transforms us and lifts us up to the reality of being the children of God, a dignity we had already received at baptism.   

We are the deaf and the blind of whom Isaiah speaks. If sin has blinded us and caused us to turn a deaf ear to God, faith and obedience now opens the way for humanity’s emancipation from the powers of the tomb. Today, more than ever, all Catholics need to recover, heal and restore our place in the sensus fidelium. We need to hear the liberating and illuminating words of Jesus, ‘Ephphatha! Be opened!’ As our Holy Father had exhorted us, “we must do everything possible for catechetical renewal (and evangelization) in order for the faith to be known, God to be known, Christ to be known, the truth to be known, and for unity in the truth to grow.” Without an authentic sensus fidei, we will remain deaf to voice of Christ speaking through his Beloved Bride, the Church. Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The Truth of Christ will bridge the broadening gap between faith and the culture of unbelief, between the Gospel and everyday life, and between the proclamation of the Message and the indifference and practical atheism of many men and women of our time. In this way, faith will heal our spiritual blindness and deafness, the cause of the rift that cuts us off from the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, that supernatural instinct and intuition that binds us to orthodoxy. By faith, God gives us the ears to hear His Word, the heart to believe it, the eyes to see what is unseen, and the hope to grasp His promises. He gives it in word, and in bread and wine, and in water. So that we may once again with confidence and firm conviction exclaim now and forever, “"He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."