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How Do We Know It’s the True Church? | Catholic Answers.

How Do We Know It’s the True Church?

Twelve Things to Look For

My conversion to the Catholic faith began in the world of Protestant fundamentalism. After being brought up in an independent Bible church, I attended the fundamentalist Bob Jones University. While there I became an Anglican; later, I went to England to become an Anglican priest.

My pilgrimage of faith came to a crisis in the early 1990s as the Anglican Church struggled over the question of the ordination of women. By instinct I was against the innovation, but I wanted to be positive and affirm new ideas rather than reject them just because they were new. I decided to put my prejudices to one side and listen as openly as possible to both sides of the debate.

As I listened I realized that from a human point of view, both the people in favor of women’s ordination and those against it had some good arguments. Both sides argued from Scripture, tradition, and reason. Both sides argued from practicality, compassion and justice. Both sides honestly considered their arguments to be persuasive. Furthermore, both sides were composed of prayerful, church-going, sincere Christians who genuinely believed the Holy Spirit was directing them. How could both be right?

From a human point of view, both arguments could be sustained. This led me to a real consideration of the question of authority in the Church. I realized that the divisions over women’s ordination in the Anglican Church were no different, in essence, than every other debate that has divided the thousands of Protestant denominations.

Some groups split over women’s ordination; others split over whether women should wear hats to church. Some split over doctrinal issues; others split over moral issues. Whatever the issue and whatever the split, the basic problem is one of authority. If Christians have a sincere disagreement, who decides?

Wobbly Three-Legged Stool

Evangelical Protestants say the Bible decides, but this begs the question when the two warring parties agree that the Bible is the final authority. They eventually split because they can’t agree about what the Bible actually teaches. I had moved away from the Protestant understanding that Scripture is the only authority, and as an Anglican, believed that authority rested in Scripture, tradition, and reason.

Anglicans call this the “three-legged stool.” By turning to Scripture, tradition, and human reason they hope to have a secure teaching authority. I came to realize, however, that this solution also begs the question. Just as we have to ask the Protestant who believes in sola scriptura, “Whose interpretation of Scripture?,” we have to ask the Anglican, “Whose reason and whose tradition?” In the debate over women’s ordination (and now in the debate over homosexuality), both sides appeal to human reason, Scripture and tradition, and they come up with wildly different conclusions.

In the end, the Anglican appeal to a three-legged stool relies on individual interpretation, just as the Protestant appeals to sola scriptura. The three-legged stool turns out to be a theological pogo stick.

A Son of Benedict Speaks

About this time I had a conversation with the Abbot of Quarr Abbey (a Catholic Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight). He listened to my situation with compassion and interest. I explained that I did not want to deny women’s ordination. I wanted to affirm all things that were good, and I could see some good arguments in favor of women’s ordination. He admired this desire to affirm all things but he said something that set me thinking further:

Sometimes we have to deny some lesser good in order to affirm the greater good. I think you have to deny women’s ordination in order to affirm the apostolic ministry. If the apostolic authority says no to women’s ordination, then to affirm the greater good of apostolic authority you will have to deny the lesser good of women’s ordination. Because if we deny the greater good, then eventually we will lose the lesser good as well.

He hit the nail on the head. His words led me to explore the basis for authority in the Catholic Church. I already had read and pretty much accepted the Scriptural support for the Petrine ministry in the Church. I also had come to understand and value the four-fold marks of the True Church—that it is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” As I studied and pondered the matter further, however, I saw twelve other traits of the church’s authority.

These twelve traits—in six paired sets—helped me to understand how comprehensive and complete the Catholic claims of authority are. I came to realize that other churches and ecclesial bodies might claim some of the traits, but only the Catholic Church demonstrated all twelve fully.

It Is Rooted in History . . .

What are the twelve traits of authority, and how do they work? We have to ask what a group of Christians who were deliberating a difficult matter would need to make their decision.

First of all, it seems clear that their decision would have to be made from a historical perspective. It was not good enough to decide complex moral, social, or doctrinal issues based on popularity polls or yesterday’s newspaper. To decide difficult questions, a valid authority has to be historical.

By this I mean not only does it has to have an understanding of history, but itself must be rooted in history. In addition, the authority has to show a real continuity with the historical experience of Christianity. The churches that have existed for four or five hundred years can demonstrate this to a degree, but only the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Church has a living link with history that goes back to Roman times—and then, through Judaism, back to the beginning of human history.

. . . and Adaptable

The historical link is essential, but on its own is not sufficient. Historical authority has to be balanced with the ability to be up to date. An authority that is only historical becomes ossified. It never changes. An authority that cannot be up to date is not only rooted in history, it is bound by history. A valid authority structure needs to be flexible and adaptable. Christians face complex modern moral and doctrinal dilemmas. A valid authority system draws on the wisdom of the past to rule properly on the questions of the present.

It Is Objective . . .

A third quality of a valid authority system is that it needs to be objective. By this I mean it needs to be independent of any one person’s or group’s agenda, ideology, philosophy or self-interest. A valid authority transcends all political, economic, and cultural pressures. The objective quality of this authority system also allows it to make decisions that are unpopular or that go against the spirit of the times and majority opinion.

An objective authority is based on certain universal basic assumptions, immutable principles, and observable and undeniable premises. From these objective criteria the valid authority system builds its teaching.

. . . and Flexible

For the authority to be valid, however, it cannot rely on abstract principles and objective criteria alone. The valid authority is suitably subjective in applying objective principles. In other words, it understands that the complexities of real life and the pastoral exigencies of helping real people demand a flexible, practical, and down-to-earth application. The Catholic authority system does just that. Throughout the Code of Canon Law, for example, we are reminded that the law is there to serve the people of God in their quest for salvation.

Individual Christians, or particular Christian groups, often fall into one side of this pair or the other. The rigorists or legalists want everything to be objective and “black and white” all the time, while the liberals or sentimentalists want every decision to be relative, open-ended, and flexible according to the pastoral needs. Only the Catholic system can hold the two in tension, because only the Catholic system has an infallible authority which can keep the two sides balanced.

It Is Universal . . .

An authority that can speak to all situations can only do so if it comes from a universal source. This source of authority needs to be universal not only geographically, but also chronologically. In other words, it transcends national agendas and limitations, but it also transcends the cultural trends and intellectual fashions of any particular time. Every church or ecclesial structure other than the Catholic Church is limited, either by its historical foundations or by its cultural and national identity.

For example, the Eastern Orthodox find it very hard to transcend their national identity, while the churches of the Reformed tradition struggle to transcend the particular cultural issues that surround their foundation. The national, cultural, and chronological identities of other ecclesial bodies limit their ability to speak with a universal voice. When they do move away from their foundations they usually find themselves at sea amidst the fashions and trends of the present day. They also find that they lose their distinctive identities when they drift from their foundations. A universal authority system, on the other hand, transcends both chronological and geographical limitations.

. . . and Local

However, this universal authority needs to be applied in a particular and local way. An authority that is only universal remains vague, abstract, and disincarnate. For a universal authority system to be valid, it also must be expressed locally. Catholicism speaks with a universal voice, but it is also as local as St. Patrick’s Church and Fr. Magee on the corner of Chestnut Street. Not only does the universal Church have a local outlet, but that outlet has a certain autonomy which allows it to be flexible in its application of the universal authority. Catholicism travels well, and because of the universal authority structure, it can allow far more varieties of enculturation at the local level than churches which are more bound by the time and place of their foundations.

It Is Intellectually Challenging . . .

The fourth pair of characteristics that demonstrate the validity of the Catholic authority system include its intellectual satisfaction and its accessibility. If an authority system is to speak to the complexities of the human situation, then it must be able to hold its own with the philosophical and intellectual experts in every field of human endeavor. What other ecclesial system can marshal experts from every area of human expertise to speak authoritatively in matters of faith and morals? Time and again, the Catholic Church has been able to speak with authority about the spiritual dimension of economics, ethics, politics, diplomacy, the arts, and philosophy.

This authority must not only be able to hold its own with the intellectual experts in all fields, but it must be intellectually satisfying and coherent within itself. A unified and complete intellectual system must be able to explain the world as it is. Furthermore, this intellectual system must continually develop and be re-expressed—always interpreting ageless truth in a way that is accessible for the age in which it lives. This intellectual system must be an integral and vital part of the religion, while also being large enough to self-criticize. Only the Catholic faith has such an all-encompassing, impressive system of teaching.

. . . and Accessible to the Uneducated

Nonetheless, while the authority system must be intellectually top notch, the religious system must also be accessible to peasants and the illiterate. A religious system that is only intellectual or appeals merely to the literate can speak only for the intellectuals and literate.

Some denominations appeal to the simple and unlearned, but have trouble keeping the top minds. Others appeal to the educated elite, but lose the masses. Catholicism, on the other hand, is a religion of the greatest minds of history and the religion of ignorant peasants. It is a religion that is complex enough for St. Thomas Aquinas and simple enough for St. Joseph Cupertino. It has room at the manger for both the magi and the shepherds.

It Is Visible . . .

As a Protestant I was taught that the Church was invisible. That is, it consisted of all people everywhere who believed in Jesus, and that the true members of the Church were known to God alone. This is true, but there is more to it than that. Invisibility and visibility make up the fifth paired set of characteristics that mark the truly authoritative church.

The Church is made up of all people everywhere who trust in Christ. However, this characteristic alone is not satisfactory because human beings locked in the visible plane of reality also demand that the Church be visible. Even those who believe only in the invisible church belong to a particular church which they attend every Sunday. Those who believe only in the invisible church must conclude that the church they go to doesn’t really matter.

. . . and Invisible

The Catholic system of authority recognizes both the invisible dimension of the Church and the visible. The Church is greater than what we can observe, but the church we observe is also greater than we think. The invisible Church subsists in the Catholic Church, and while you may not be able to identify the extent of the invisible Church, you can with certainty point to the Catholic Church and say, “There is the Body of Christ.”

A few small Protestant denominations claim that their visible church is the true church, but their claims are ludicrous because they have none of the other twelve traits of true authority. Because it has all these traits, only the Catholic Church can claim to be the living, historical embodiment of the Body of Christ on earth.

It is Both Human and Divine

Finally, for the church to speak with authority it must be both human and divine. An authority that speaks only with a divine voice lacks the authenticity that comes with human experience. So Islam and Mormonism, which are both based on a book supposedly dictated by angels, are unsatisfactory because their authority is supernaturally imposed on the human condition.

On the other hand, a religion that is purely a construct of the human condition is merely a system of good works, religious techniques, or good ideas. Christian Science or Unitarianism, for example, is developed from human understandings and natural goodness. As such, both lack a supernatural voice of authority.

The Judeo-Christian story, however, is both human and divine. The voice of authority is always expressed through human experience and human history. Divine inspiration in the Judeo-Christian tradition is God’s word spoken through human words. This incarnated form of authority finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who hands on his totally incarnated authority to Peter and his successors.

Built upon the Rock

Some Churches may exercise some of the twelve traits, but only the Catholic Church is able to field all twelve as a foundation for decision-making. When the Catholic Church pronounces on any difficult question, the response is historical, but up to date. It is based on objective principles but applies to specific needs. The Church’s authority transcends space and time, but it is relevant to a particular place and time. The response will be intellectually profound, but expressed in a way that is simple enough for anyone to apply. Finally, it will express truths that are embedded in the human experience, but spring from divine inspiration.

This authority works infallibly through the active ministry of the whole Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that it is Christ who is infallible, and he grants a measure of his infallibility to his body, the Church. That infallibility is worked out through these twelve traits, but it is expressed most majestically and fully through Christ’s minister of infallibility: one person—the Rock on which the Church is built, Peter and his successors.

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Edith Piaf and Thérèse of Lisieux

by Fr. J. Linus Ryan, O. Carm.,

National Co-Ordinator, St. Thérèse Relics Visit 2001.

“I thirst for LOVE, fulfil my hope.”  [Thérèse PN 31, 6]

In 1999, a book associated the two Christian names Edith and Thérèse with the sub-title ‘The Saint and the Sinner.’

Today the film ‘La Vie en Rose’ (recently released in France under the title of ‘La Môme’—young girl) and showing in Ireland since June 22, 2007, continues to bring them together.  Is this a legend?  No, it is the truth.  In fact, the very first picture on screen shows a desperately ill Edith Piaf on stage in a state of collapse earnestly invoking St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Facts:

How has life brought them together?  Born in 1913, Edith, abandoned by her mother, was entrusted by her father to her grandmother Louise Gassion.  At the age of 7/8 Edith had an inflammation of the cornea (keratin) which for three years had been making her gradually blind.  Louise, her grandmother, was a cook in a brothel in Bernay in the province of Eure (not far from Lisieux) and the child was looked after by the women who lived there.  They were devastated by her handicap until somebody related a miracle (altro…)

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Keep calm….


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Conversion: The Scariest Happy Ending in the World |Blogs | NCRegister.com.

The storm calms, and Truman stands in silent awe as he takes stock of what he’s seeing: It’s all true. Every one of his suspicions was right.

He looks over and sees a door in the wall, marked EXIT.

The way Truman feels in that moment is the way I felt when I made the decision to convert, and undoubtedly how many other potential converts feel as well. It’s difficult enough to get to the point that you figure out that you’re in a dome and find the door — and then, as you stand in front of it, you realize that your problems are just beginning. As the story draws to a close in The Truman Show, it is clear that Truman will now face a whole host of daunting challenges; the screenwriters don’t insult the audience by pretending that walking out of a false life and into reality would be an easy step to make. And yet it is a happy ending, despite the hardships to come. I don’t think a single person in the audience thought that it was depressing that Truman finally found that door — and wouldn’t have even if there had been hints that something terrible would happen to him on the other side — because life lived without the truth is no life at all.


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1.Corinzi Cor1 1,23
23 noi predichiamo Cristo crocifisso, scandalo per i Giudei, stoltezza per i pagani;

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I Was Wrong About Marriage

Posted on May 7th, 2010

Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s David Wiegel (a quite nice and inquisitive guy, by the way) apologized for tweeting that people who defend traditional marriage “anti-gay marriage bigots.”  In an extended post, Wiegel explained why he said what he said:

But why was I willing to be so disrespectful to one group of activists? Unlike with most activists, I don’t really see the direct impact on their lives, or on the lives of the people who agree with them, of the cause they oppose. Antitax protesters are threatened by higher taxes. Anti-health-care-bill protesters fear their coverage will get worse. Anti-meat-eating protesters believe animals are being murdered and the environment is being made worse . . . But who’s threatened by legal same-sex marriage? Whose life is made worse?

When I read those words, they reminded me of a strikingly similar sentiment from a January, 2004 op-ed, written shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts:

Unfortunately, the conservative argument against gay marriage often reeks of hypocrisy. Our society stopped viewing marriage as a sacred (God-ordained) institution long ago. Since the invention of no-fault divorce laws, divorce rates have skyrocketed. Now, almost half of all marriages end in divorce.

Even in the conservative Christian community, divorce is rampant. As the only lawyer in my church . . . I frequently receive telephone calls from fellow church members requesting assistance on child custody matters, property division and other divorce-related questions.

I have fielded so many questions about divorce that I am sometimes surprised when I encounter middle-aged congregants who have not been previously married. The gay community could not treat their marriage vows any worse than many Christians treat their own.

For those who believe gay marriage is morally wrong for Biblical or other religious reasons, this decision changes nothing. Churches can still speak out against sexual immorality and can still choose not to perform gay weddings. The gay couple down the street in no way makes our own straight marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.

Now, why would I remember an op-ed from 2004, when I sometimes can’t even remember blog posts I read five minutes ago?  Because I wrote it.  For some time after the Massachusetts decision, I supported legalizing same-sex marriage — or, to be more precise, I did not oppose its legalization.

Why?  I can basically sum it up in one sentence.  I have a strong libertarian streak and was completely fed up with the cavalier way in which the Christian community treated its own marriage vows. .

But I was wrong.  No, I wasn’t wrong that Christians have their own marriage problem.  That much is obvious.  I was wrong in believing that there was essentially “no harm, no foul” legally or culturally in recognizing “gay marriage.”  I was wrong to believe that the proper response to the damage to done to the institution of marriage was to essentially throw our hands up and allow even further damage.  And I was definitely wrong to believe that legalizing same-sex marriage — as a practical matter — is a libertarian decision in the real world.

With so many college students jumping on the same-sex marriage bandwagon, often for the very reasons I did, it might be helpful to explain why I was wrong, and why I came to understand that marriage must be defended.

First, it’s important to note that I initially approached the marriage question from a fundamentally incorrect starting position — implicitly adopting the argument that marriage exists for the benefit of adults, for their fulfillment and enjoyment.  This is a fundamentally selfish view of marriage (I’m getting married to fulfill me).  Instead, marriage is the fundamental building block of the family, the cultural cornerstone of a society, and it exists primarily for the benefit not of adults but of children.

Why does that distinction matter so much?  Because we now know — after decades of social experimentation for the benefit of adults (from the disaster of no-fault divorce to the widespread acceptance of out-of-wedlock births often to avoid “stigmatizing” — that’s right — the adult), we now understand that we have made a horrific cultural error:

Children from two-parent families are better off emotionally, socially and economically, according to a review of marriage research released Tuesday in The Future of Children, a journal published jointly by the non-partisan Brookings Institution and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

. . .

“When we were saying it doesn’t matter in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, we didn’t have the experience of enough kids in a culture when families were breaking down. It was just our best guess,” says Diane Sollee, a former marriage and family therapist who organizes an annual conference for marriage therapy professionals.

We consented to no-fault divorce and increases in single parenting in part because there was “no proof” that it was bad for us.  But now, the proof is in, but it took a while to accumulate.  One does not necessarily discern cultural trends instantaneously:

Only in recent years has research shown the benefits of couples staying together; long-term studies on the children of divorce were not available earlier. But Census data show that single-parent families have increased while two-parent families have decreased.

Doesn’t it make sense for us to encourage and support those institutions that leave children “better off emotionally, socially, and economically” rather than institutions that leave children worse off?

I know the typical response to this: There may be proof that other alternatives to the two-parent, mother-father family harm children, but there’s no proof that same-sex parenting harms kids.  It’s a recent phenomenon, and the data just isn’t in.  Yet we know that the traditional family is good for kids.  We know that every other long-term family permutation has proven bad for kids.  How can we logically justify taking yet another risk with our cornerstone cultural institution?  So to answer David Wiegels’ question: who’s hurt when we depart from the traditional family structure?  The kids.

So, what should we do?  To me, the answer is relatively simple.  Hold the line on same-sex marriage, try to roll back the pernicious, adult-worshipping institution of no-fault divorce through innovations like covenant marriage, and — crucially — model the right behavior by denying self and serving others in your own life and marriage.

Yet it’s not “just” kids who are hurt when we change the definition of marriage.  Ironically enough (considering my initial libertarian impulses), same-sex marriage is leading to a campaign of repression and censorship against religious individuals and institutions.  Same-sex marriage is resulting in less liberty, not more.  The trend first emerged when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts attempted to force Catholic Charities to match adopted children with same-sex couples.  Catholic Charities had to decide between its religious convictions and compliance with state mandates.  It chose to follow Catholic teachings and stopped providing adoption services.  Since that time, we’ve seen college students punished for refusing to support same-sex parenting, graduate students thrown out of counseling programs for refusing to affirm homosexual sex, denials of tax exemptions for church land when the church refuses to host same-sex ceremonies, photographers punished for refusing to photograph same-sex commitment ceremonies, and social work licenses threatened merely because the social worker publicly supported a state marriage amendment.

And this litany doesn’t even begin to recount the avalanche of constitutional litigation surrounding the “sexual orientation” issue.  After all, if the Christian Legal Society loses CLS v. Martinez (argued last month before the Supreme Court), then Christian campus ministries in American public universities may be required to open voting membership and even leadership to individuals who engage in homosexual activity.  Such a ruling would have massive ramifications off-campus as well, potentially placing at risk the tax exemptions of every biblically orthodox church in America.

For a movement that says its about “love,” this campaign of repression (which has even included widespread threats of violence and personal retribution against marriage amendment supporters) often seems quite hateful and bigoted in its own right.

In 2004 I was both pessimistic and foolish.  I did not foresee the conservative community rallying in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision and marriage amendments sweeping the nation.  I viewed marriage through the prism of adult rights and adult enjoyment rather than through the (proper) prism of adult responsibilities and cultural foundations.  The citizens of each state have the right and responsibility to defend marriage and do what they can to halt a cultural decline that has elevated parents over children.  It is not “bigotry” to realize a fundamental truth: “What parents want and what’s good for kids isn’t always the same.”  It is not bigotry to oppose legal changes that are leading to a wave of censorship, intimidation, and even threats of violence against religious institutions and individuals.

David Wiegel wrote: “I can empathize with everyone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. In 20 years no one will admit they were part of that.”  But this assumes that the tides of history and opinion are irreversible, that the opinions of our youth are permanent.  They are not.  And I’m living proof.


ADF Senior Counsel – University Project

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