When I was going through school, the devil was presented to us as a myth, a literary device, a symbolic manner of signaling the presence of evil in the world. I will admit to internalizing this view and largely losing my sense of the devil as a real spiritual person. What shook my agnosticism in regard to the evil one was the clerical sex abuse scandal of the nineties and the early aughts. I say this because that awful crisis just seemed too thought-through, too well-coordinated, to be simply the result of chance or wicked human choice. The devil is characterized as “the enemy of the human race” and particularly the enemy of the church. I challenge anyone to come up with a more devastatingly effective strategy for attacking the mystical body of Christ than the abuse of children and young people by priests. This sin had countless direct victims of course, but it also crippled the church financially, undercut vocations, caused people to lose confidence in Christianity, dramatically compromised attempts at evangelization, etc., etc. It was a diabolical masterpiece.
Several weeks ago, I had the great good pleasure of presiding at the wedding of my niece, Bryna. She has been, all her life, a lovely girl, full of joy and good cheer — and eager to give herself in service to others. Her husband, Nelson, is also a fine person, and he took the courageous step of becoming a Catholic in anticipation of his wedding. So it was a joy to join my whole family in celebrating the coming-together of this splendid couple.
In my capacity as regional bishop of the Santa Barbara pastoral region, which covers two counties north of Los Angeles, I am obliged to spend a good deal of time in the car. To make the long trips a bit easier, I have gotten back into the habit of listening to audio books. Just recently, I followed, with rapt attention, a book that I had read many years ago but which I had, I confess, largely forgotten: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The inspiration for this theological fantasy is the medieval idea of the refrigerium, the refreshment or vacation from Hell granted to some of the souls abiding there. So Lewis’ narrator leaves the dreary streets of the underworld and, with a coterie of other ghosts, journeys by flying bus to a lovely land that he comes to realize is the forecourt of Heaven. In that enchanted place, the ghosts meet a number of denizens from the heavenly world, who attempt to lure the poor souls out of their misery.
A recent issue of Time features a fascinating and deeply troubling article on the prevalence of pornography in our culture. The focus of the piece is on the generation of young men now coming of age, the first generation who grew up with unlimited access to hardcore pornography on the Internet. The statistics on this score are absolutely startling. Most young men commence their pornography use at the age of 11; there are approximately 107 million monthly visitors to adult websites in this country; 12 million hours a day are spent watching porn globally on the adult-video site Pornhub; 40 percent of boys in Great Britain say that they regularly consume pornography — and on and on.
I'm sure by now you've heard about the absurd reaction of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) to the lighthearted Super Bowl commercial produced to advertise Doritos. In the 30-second clip, a pregnant mother, undergoing an ultrasound, is annoyed by her husband who is absent-mindedly munching Doritos while their baby's image is displayed on the screen. But as the father moves the corn chip, the baby in the womb moves with it; and when the mother throws the bag across the room, the child reacts so keenly and purposively that he decides this is the moment to be born.
Just after I was named auxiliary bishop, Archbishop Gomez, my new boss, told me to get the Waze app for my iPhone. He explained that it was a splendid way to navigate the often impossible LA traffic. I followed his instructions and have indeed used the app on practically a daily basis since my arrival on the West Coast. Waze not only gives directions, but it also provides very accurate information regarding time to your destination, obstacles on the road, the presence of police, etc. Most importantly, it routes you around traffic jams, which positively abound in the "city of Angels."
The canonization of St. Junípero Serra in Washington, D.C. — the first ever to take place on American soil — has generated, as I'm sure you know, a good deal of controversy. For his defenders, Padre Serra was an intrepid evangelist and a model of Gospel living, while for his detractors, he was a shameless advocate of an oppressive colonial system that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Indians. Even many who typically back Pope Francis see this canonization as a rare faux pas for the Argentine Pontiff. What should we make of all this?
Two recent news items put me in mind of St. Irenaeus and the battle he waged, 19 centuries ago, against the Gnostic heresy. The first was the emergence of Bruce Jenner as a "woman" named Caitlyn, and the second was a "shadow council" that took place in Rome and apparently called for the victory of a theology of love over John Paul II's theology of the body.
Cardinal Francis George, who died April 17 at the age of 78, was obviously a man of enormous accomplishment and influence. He was a Cardinal of the Roman Church, a past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the archbishop of one of the largest and most complicated archdioceses in the world, and the intellectual leader of the American Church. A number of American bishops have told me that when Cardinal George spoke at the Bishops' meetings, the entire room would fall silent and everyone would listen.
The cross was, basically, state-sponsored terrorism, and it did indeed terrify people. The great Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once described a crucifixion but only through a convoluted circumlocution, for he couldn't bring himself to characterize it directly. After putting down the great slave uprising of Spartacus, the Roman government lined the Appian Way with hundreds of crosses so as to dissuade any other would-be revolutionaries.
Many atheists and agnostics today insistently argue that it is altogether possible for non-believers in God to be morally upright. They resent the implication that the denial of God will lead inevitably to complete ethical relativism or nihilism. And they are quick to point out examples of non-religious people who are models of kindness, compassion, justice, etc. In point of fact, a recent article has proposed that non-believers are actually, on average, more morally praiseworthy than religious people. In this context, I recall Christopher Hitchens remark that, all things considered, he would be more frightened of a group of people coming from a religious meeting than a group coming from a rock concert or home from a night on the town. God knows (pun intended) that during the last 20 years we've seen plenty of evidence from around the world of the godly behaving very badly indeed.
Daniel Dennett, one of the "four horsemen" of contemporary atheism, proposed in 2003 that those who espouse a naturalist, atheist worldview should call themselves "the brights," thereby distinguishing themselves rather clearly from the dim benighted masses who hold on to supernaturalist convictions. In the wake of Dennett's suggestion, many atheists have brought forward what they take to be ample evidence that the smartest people in our society do indeed subscribe to anti-theist views. By "smartest" they usually mean practitioners of the physical sciences, and thus they point to surveys that indicate only small percentages of scientists subscribe to religious belief.
The great British physicist Stephen Hawking has emerged in recent years as a poster boy for atheism, and his heroic struggles against the ravages of Lou Gehrig's disease have made him something of a secular saint. The new bio-pic A Theory of Everything does indeed engage in a fair amount of Hawking-hagiography, but it is also, curiously, a God-haunted movie.
One of the classical demonstrations of God's existence is the so-called argument from desire. It can be stated in a very succinct manner as follows. Every innate or natural desire corresponds to some objective state of affairs that fulfills it. Now we all have an innate or natural desire for ultimate fulfillment, ultimate joy, which nothing in this world can possibly satisfy. Therefore there must exist objectively a supernatural condition that grounds perfect fulfillment and happiness, which people generally refer to as "God."
The controversies surrounding the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family have often put me in mind of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century. Newman wrote eloquently on an extraordinary range of topics, including university education, the play between faith and reason, the nature of papal authority, and the subtle manner in which we come to assent in matters of religion. But the arguments around the Synod compel us to look at Newman's work regarding the evolution of doctrine.
The midterm report on the deliberations of the Synod on the Family has appeared and there is a fair amount of hysteria all around. John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter who should know better, has declared this statement "an earthquake, the big one that hit after months of smaller tremors." Certain commentators on the right have been wringing their hands and bewailing a deep betrayal of the church's teaching. One even opined that this report is the "silliest document ever issued by the Catholic Church," and some have said that the interim document flaunts the teaching of St. John Paul II. Meanwhile the New York Times confidently announced that the church has moved from "condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy."