Catholic Exchange: Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Advent

This Sunday the Church begins her new liturgical year with the season of Advent. In the hustle and bustle of the secular Christmas season, it is an often-overlooked season. It is a time when the Church calls us as our Mother to enter into the silence and hope of waiting. Many of us live in cultures of instant gratification, so Advent is rich in spiritual truths. Christmas trees, elves, lights, and holiday decorations seem to show up in stores earlier and earlier. The day after Halloween gave way to Christmas. Here in the U.S., the cultural preparations for Christmas in previous years typically start the day after Thanksgiving, but now Thanksgiving seems to be absorbed into the frenzy of Christmas. It can be difficult during this busy time of year to enter into Advent, but a well observed Advent will deepen our joy at Christmas.

Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Homily at First Vespers of Advent, November 28, 2009

The season of Advent coincides with the darkest and busiest time of year. This is appropriate as it reminds us of the world after the Fall, which groaned in anticipation of the coming Savior. We are blessed to live in the world in light of the Paschal Mystery, but the Church calls us to meditate upon the centuries of waiting for the coming of the Savior. The darkness of this time of year reminds us of the darkness of sin and death. The People of God waited centuries to be redeemed and for the renewal of the world, often they fell into sin and temptation, further demonstrating the need for salvation.

We too are waiting. We are waiting for the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. As we wait we run the risk of giving into false idols and worldly goods even after our Baptism. The very same temptations that faced God’s People throughout salvation history are temptations we battle through our Fallen nature. The Paschal Mystery has renewed the earth and we are now propelling forward towards the end of time and the new Heaven and new earth, but for now we must battle sin and constantly turn to God for assistance. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also in waiting in alertness for the Second Coming of Our Lord. Advent is a time to look at ourselves and ask if we are truly prepared in heart and mind for the Incarnation. If Christ came again in glory today, would I be ready? Am I a saint?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: A Brief Introduction to the Catholic Position on Evolution

There is a great misperception in the culture that Catholicism is anti-science. Many college students confront this error when they encounter reductionism, rationalism, and materialism through their professors. These students do not know how to respond–and far too often–dismiss Catholicism outright because they don’t realize answers to their questions exist within the Church’s 2000-year history. One of greatest causes of confusion is the topic of evolution.

The reason for this confusion is two-fold. First, many Catholics do not realize the Church’s position on evolution and may not even look for answers before accepting the materialist position. Second, the abandonment of philosophy as the joining discipline between science and theology has destroyed much of the dialogue that has taken place between these two fields over the centuries. An example is the bridge created throughSt. Thomas Aquinas’ first-cause argument. The first-cause argument grounds scientific inquiry in the first-cause, who is God. Without this argument, science quickly devolves into materialism, and ceases to look out beyond itself.

The divorce from philosophy creates an environment where both theology and the natural sciences overstep their bounds. This is most evidenced by the rationalist-materialist declaration that there is no God, while the biblical literalist tells us the world is only 6000 years old, even though God-given reason tells us otherwise, on both accounts. Answers to the complexities of life are reduced to either a material level or turned into a faith-based system devoid of reason. The Catholic approach is not an either/or, it is a both/and system. We say yes to scientific discovery, yes to Aquinas and Aristotle, and yes to the Book of Genesis. That’s far more yeses than we are given from either the scientism camp or the creationism camp. I only have the space to provide a brief overview of the Church’s view of evolution, but I will return to the philosophy problem at a later date.

Today I will briefly outline the Church’s historical position on evolution through a series of documents and talks given by Popes in the last 66 years. First, it is important to understand that the Church makes no official pronouncements on matters of science. That is not within her authority. She promulgates teachings of faith as given to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. She cannot overstep her boundaries and make judgments on matters of science. The only time she formally responds to scientific matters is when theological or spiritual issues are involved. Popes and theologians discuss scientific discoveries, but the Church has no official position on any scientific theory. Which leads us to the Church’s first discussion of evolution.

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Hope is Born of Prayer and Purification

There is a reason hope is a supernatural virtue along with charity and faith.We live in a Fallen and broken world. Every single one of us will be hurt, suffer, and face death. There are dark days for each one of us in which hope keeps us on the path and points us to our eschatological home. It doesn’t even take dark days to struggle in hope. We each live our vocations day-in-and-day-out, much of it in perceived monotony. In fact, monotony can seem to rob us of hope more than darkness and suffering at certain times in our lives. We are given vocations in order to sanctify and purify us, and that includes in daily living whether it comes with joy, suffering, or routine. In order to persevere on the path to sainthood, it is essential for us to learn hope. Hope is born of prayer and a much needed purification process. We must all learn to let go of those things which limit the great destiny for which we were made.

Since hope is a supernatural virtue it is a gift from God. This means it must be fostered through Him and our relationship with Him. Hope is strengthened and deepened most readily through regular prayer. It is in prayer that God increases our capacity to be filled up by Him. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI turns to Saint Augustine as a guide in his encyclical, Spe Salvi:

Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul, and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 33

We battle sin, selfishness, and our own desires. God must empty us, so that we may be filled with hope in Him. We must relinquish the hold we have on the things of this world. We must unclench our fists so that we can be open to Him.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

What is Conscience?

In the United States it is a presidential election year, which means the word conscience will be thrown around in Catholic circles and in the culture. At times the use will be correct and other times it will be wrong as individuals fall victim to a desire for the subjective and an abandonment of objective truth. Conscience is an ontological reality for human beings, which means that conscience is part of our experience and nature. God has given us an intellect and a will. Our conscience gets information and processes it through the intellect and then decides on a course of action, which is the will. It’s important for us to understand precisely what conscience is and is not, our responsibilities in conscience, and our conscience as it relates to God and the Magisterium. I do not have time to give a thorough account, many books have been written on the subject and the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the topic, but I want to briefly explain this much maligned word and aspect of our nature.

The West has fallen prey to a “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls it. Conscience has become a catch-phrase and excuse for all sorts of behavior including intrinsic evil. It is up to the individual to set truth according to the clarion call of relativism. The problem, besides the obvious moral chaos that ensues, is that this subjectivism ignores the ontological reality of mankind. God made human beings for goodness and truth. Internally within the very depths of our being, we are ordered to love God, choose goodness, and live in truth. That truth is set by God as the Creator of the universe and of all human beings. He has placed that truth within us, even as we battle concupiscence.

In his book, Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed a series of essays on the state of the world. He devotes an entire section to the topic of conscience which has taken a prime of place in moral theology. He explains and clarifies what conscience means and what it does not because he sees a great danger of relativism even within the Church. He gives a stunning and beautiful portrayal of the two levels of conscience. He refers to them as: anamnesis and conscientia. Anamnesis is the ontological level of conscience, Benedict XVI writes:

Accordingly, the first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon “conscience” means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is constitutively in keeping with God, is not a knowledge of articulated concepts, a treasure store of retrievable contents. It is an inner space, a capacity for recognition, in such a way that the one addressed recognizes himself an echo of what is said to him. If he does not hide from his own self, he comes to the insight: this is the goal toward which my whole being tends, this is where I want to go.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 92.

Since we were made by and for God, there dwells deep within us the desire to live our lives in conformity to the good which is God. We are able to recognize what is from God and our own eschatological goal of Heaven. This of course can become blinded by sin, confusion, error, and our own will, but this interior reality is always present and the consequences are grave when we ignore this part of ourselves.

Conscientia is the act in response to a judgment in relation to the desire for good within us. According to St. Thomas Aquinas this act occurs in three stages: recognition (recognoscere), bearing witness (testificari), and judgment (iudicare). It is possible for an individual to not recognize a moral decision and to block their own will to the truth. The risks of doing this are great, as is evidenced by a history full of debauchery, violence, blood, and war. At times it is ignorance or disorder that leads a person to error and this can be corrected through a proper formation of their conscience and a realigning to God. A mistake in judgment is much easier to resolve than a person who has deadened themselves to their own ontological orientation to goodness.

What is the Church’s role in conscience?

Since human beings already have the natural capacity to do good within themselves, Jesus Christ the Logos, came to further clarify the truth which can be disordered within us by sin. As material and spiritual beings, we needed God to reach down on our level to fully teach us and guide us to Him. The danger of error is an ever present reality for mankind. We easily deceive ourselves and it is through Christ and His Church that we are given the clarity we need, so that we can always be pointed towards our eschatological end and our ontological desire for goodness. The conscience itself must find truth and dwell in goodness in order to retain its dignity. The Church guides us in the proper formation of our conscience. Truth is freedom.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Why I Temporarily Gave Up Politics

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Last summer I made the decision to finally pursue my Master’s degree in Theology. My VA benefits expire in September 2015 and I could get in just under the wire to pay for the whole program.  In making that decision, I decided that in order to succeed and get the best out of the program that I needed to enter it with as few preconceived notions as possible.  I had to accept that while I had a breadth of knowledge that was high for a catechist, that did not equate to a theologian.  My classes have been humbling. In fact, there is a vast difference between a catechist and a theologian.  What I also realized is that I needed to leave politics alone while I study. The reason being that I, just like so many others, had a tendency to put my political views before the Church.  This is a trend that is vast in all circles, it is not just a “liberal” and “conservative (both of which are constructs that have no place within the Church) problem. So whether within the Church or outside, I am on a hiatus from politics.

To understand why, you would need to know a bit about my background.  I am a Navy Veteran and a former intern at The Heritage Foundation.  I have worked within government agencies from a very young age.  I seriously considered a career in politics, but realized that I don’t have the ability to bend my moral understanding. My experience at The Heritage Foundation was wonderful and eye-opening. I was a bit old for the internship at 27, but I tried to make the most of every opportunity from listening to Senate/House hearings, to visiting other think tanks, engaging in political discussions and conferences, as well as a monthly visit to Georgetown for the Tocqueville Forum. I met amazing thinkers, including some of the brightest in the Church. It just wasn’t for me.

After I left Heritage I fully returned to the Catholic Church after a few years of wandering.  I met my husband and I was finally Confirmed on my 29th birthday at the Easter Vigil Mass.  After my Confirmation, my life changed dramatically.  I began to shift from a polemic view of the world, to a spiritual understanding. I could see that while I respect what The Heritage Foundation does, they are wrong on quite a few matters.  That is when my political understanding began to evolve.

A real shift occurred when I began pro-life work. I worked in the pro-life movement in order to serve those women and babies who are damaged by abortion.  I tried to share the Church’s position within the Church, which was a major battle, an exhausting one.  I saw more and more how I had to shift away from the political and truly try to understand from a Catholic perspective.  I was running into too many people who focused on the political over the Church and it shined a glaring light into my own soul. I wanted not the Catholic of my mind, but the real Catholic.

So here I am, two semesters into my studies.  I have learned a lot, but more than anything, I now see just how little I know.  I see that even when this journey ends, even if that is with a doctorate, that I will still know very little.  That is why Catholic social media conversations make me chuckle and cause me concern.  The errors are rampant.  I have made so many.  We think we know, so we make comments in discussions, so sure of how right we are. Yes, we all need opinions.  I have plenty on the liturgy, for instance, but we need to differentiate our opinions from reality. The Church is a 2000 year old institution that gets her life from the Holy Spirit.  The Church is an eschatological guide and lived history.  When we limit her to the movements of our day, we are completely missing what the Church truly is and how she will last until Christ’s return.

What this means is that our ideas are small.  They are important to us and we should engage in discourse, but we all, myself included, need to do it with humility and charity.  We should meditate on why St. Thomas said his Summa and other works were “straw”.  That may seem startling, but the more I study of Christ and His Church, the more I get it.  We are so small when compared with the infinite love and goodness of the Blessed Trinity.

So I have stopped reading Catholic blogs focused on polemics.  Right now, I am open to the authentic Church.  I want to know her history, purpose, mission, sacraments, how she lives and breathes, her teachings, what the Magisterium really means, and on and on.  I don’t want to put the teachings of the Church in a box.  I want to stand in awe of her vast knowledge and inspiration given throughout the ages in her living history.  I want to be in that freedom and set free from my own preconceived notions and ideas.  I want to find those saints and kindred spirits who can teach me through their words.  It is an act of charity to bring the words of the past to life.  It is to let those people live again on this side of the veil and to share the graces they received from Our Lord.  I am not a Pope Francis Catholic, a Pope Benedict XVI Catholic, or a St. JPII Catholic.  I am a Catholic.  Yes, I bond more deeply with certain writings, but it does not limit my love for all of the leaders who have served Christ in His Church.  To have favorites is not to limit love, it is to be open to the person God has made me to be.

Not everyone is called to be a theologian or a philosopher.  It is something God calls specific people to do based on the gifts He has given them; however, we should all make a concerted effort to learn about and love the Church as she is, not who we make her to be. We should all make sure that we are putting Christ and His Church before our politics.  There is no place for Caesaropapism in the Catholic Church.  The state is, and always will be, subordinate to the Church, who shares the fullness of truth with the world.

So while people are fighting over politics, the noise becomes deafening for those within and outside of the Church.  It is not politics that make people march to their death on beaches or in stadiums.  That, by the way, is Pope Francis’ point.  He is not a heretic.  He is bringing the Church back to her central mission: spreading the Good News. He is pointing out that the first mission of the Church is to spread the Good News and then we can wage the culture war. It is the Good News that Jesus Christ has freed us from our sin and calls us to brotherhood/sisterhood and to share in his divine priesthood.  It is the resurrection and hope of the Beatific Vision that makes people lay down their lives for Christ. Let’s all keep this in mind as we share our faith with others.  They first must encounter the beauty of the risen Christ before they can abandon those sins that they hold onto so tightly.  In fact, the same goes for us who are baptized and who wage the battle against sin while infused with grace.

The next time we are engaged in a discussion in social media, let’s make sure we truly know what we are talking about, what we mean, and let’s make sure our focus is on the Risen Christ and not the fading politics of our day.  Politics are important in that they shape our country, but they are not even close to the most important thing in our lives.  Our political understanding comes from the proper forming of our consciences in light of the fullness of truth. And as shocking as it may be to some, the Church is no stranger to political battles within.  I think that a lot more people on all sides would find some peace if they first, trusted in Christ and second, read more Church history.  God bless.  I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.