Pious Fantasy and the Liberty of the Believer

I wrote this long ago and offer it again today on the Feast of Holy Innocents;

Once upon a time, on the Internet, someone from an Eastern Orthodox background posted a little note concerning the Feast of the Holy Innocents. According to this post there is apparently an old Orthodox tradition that the number of those slain by Herod was 14,000–a rather steep number for a tiny village like Bethlehem.

Someone else then wrote in and asked where the figure of 14,000 came from. In reply, the Orthodox poster said the figure derives from an apocryphal book called the Protoevangelium of James.

At this point, a somewhat less sympathetic poster chimed into the discussion and commented (concerning the 14,000 figure) that “This is just another pious fantasy propagated by the Church.” By this he meant it is one more example of myths and legends pressed down on believers like so many other false Catholic and Orthodox traditions which add to the pure word of God in Scripture.

Now I found this complaint odd since the Protoevangelium of James is one of the many early works of Christian imagination which the Church specifically excluded from the pure word of God in Scripture precisely because it was not reflective of apostolic tradition. If the Church is nefariously trying to pollute the Scripture, excluding false writings from its canon is a very peculiar way to go about it. This was made even odder by the fact that, at other times and by other writers I have seen the exact opposite charge leveled against the Church: namely, that the exclusion of this and other fanciful bits of writing was done by an evil authoritarian Church bent on imposing its dogmatic spin on the canon and fearful of the free human imagination at play in the realm of the spiritual.

Any stigma, it seems, will do to beat a dogma.

But that still leaves us with a question. Namely, if one of these critics is wrong, is the other one right? Is the Church lax and lazy, stupidly drinking in any fable? Or is she stiff and squinting, ruthlessly crushing the slightest variation from her teachings?

Perhaps the way to begin is to point out that both these charges are rather cartoonish. They exaggerate some real quality of the Church to grotesque proportions and so lose sight both of the opposite quality and of the large middle ground of sanity which the Church, in fact, occupies. In short, they are unbalanced.

For unlike both these cartoons, the Church does not perceive quite the same black and white dichotomy between her authority and the liberty of the believer. For all her insistence on doctrinal accuracy concerning matters of faith and morals, she does not and never has frowned on the luxuriant growth of local customs, imaginative pieties and even legends as long as they do not crowd in upon the essence of her gospel. That is because she does not frown on essential human things, of which the human gift and art of storytelling is a shining jewel.

This would explain why, on the one hand, the Protoevangelium was barred from the canon, yet without the Church therefore feeling obliged to annihilate every trace of the yarn from the Christian imagination as somehow inherently evil. Rather, (as is the way with splendid stories containing no real disastrous evil to them) elements of the tale (like the 14,000 tally) entered into local custom and legend to dress out the essence of the gospel as we have it from Scripture. With the Church’s blessing.

To some of my Protestant brothers and sisters, it seems somehow like playing with fire to allow these elements of the fabulous or fictional to creep into popular piety. Yet here in the West, Christians of every stripe sing “We Three Kings” every Christmas and give the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar to the Magi (who number three only in legend). We find our souls nourished by Christmas trees, Advent candles and such sweet stories as “The Other Wise Man” or the Little Drummer Boy. And we find such legendry does no harm to the facts of the gospel. Rather, it is simply an example of the Christian’s perfectly human liberty to tell a good tale, coin a custom and dress out genuine history and theology in the homely cloth of our own woven imaginations.

Likewise then, neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians mistake such frippery as the 14,000 figure for the essential teaching of the gospel. Rather, they know that the Church draws a distinction between Tradition and traditions. Tradition (Big T) includes such unalterable items as the canon of Scripture (Scripture, after all, does not say what books constitute the canon so it falls to Tradition to say so), the Trinity, the Resurrection, the hypostatic union, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception and other items of de fide, non-negotiable, dogmatic content.

But small “t” traditions are myriad and arise, not necessarily from the apostolic teaching which the bishops preserve, but from the heart and minds of a thousand cultures and tongues. Thus, it is quite inaccurate to talk of the hierarchical Church’s “propagation of pious fantasy.” For these embroideries on the gospel were not pressed down on the faithful by some Pope or bishop but grew as naturally as Christmas trees and mistletoe from the rich and fertile soil of ordinary Latin, English, Polish, African, American, Indian, Filipino and French cultures (to name a few). The Church then is simply celebrating the liberty of individual believers and local communities to honor, with the first fruits of their art, culture and craftsmanship, the beauty of the gospel with everything from local legends to charming dances to fun foods. It was not a cleric, but some anonymous ancient storyteller (probably a grandmama) sitting around a fire on a winter night who (with sweeping gesture and wide eyes) exaggerated the number of the Bethlehem babes to 14,000 to an audience of open-mouthed children. And she did so, with a typically childlike ancient mind, to make a spiritual point: “How wicked was bad King Herod? Why, he killed 14,000! Twice the number of those who did not bow the knee to Baal in the days of Elijah! That is how wicked the devil is! (And how wicked we may be if we do not listen to Jesus. So be good, dear children!) But still the Child Jesus triumphed and took those little babies to heaven with him when he returned there. And he will do the same for all of us who live and die for him as those babes did.” This, though poorly researched history and worse demographics, is great storytelling and good homespun theology. And the Church, ever the friend of the simple and homespun, blesses it.

For, as the Church herself has always staunchly maintained, the believer retains such artistic liberties as long as the Church retains the right to distinguish revelation from legend. In so honoring the imagination, the Church honored our humanity. But she did not thereby make the local legend of 14,000 slain a de fide teaching any more than she demanded we all confess the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar as revealed dogma. That is the essence of the balance she struck.

Yet lest we become enamored of all this artistic frivol as merely quaint and charming, we must also remember that the occasion which Holy Innocents (and most feast days) celebrate is at once very dark and yet lit up with rays of a hope so bright as to be either true or insane. For by honoring such a feast, the Church has chosen to honor the babes (whatever their number) as martyrs for Christ. The feast, following so close on the heels of a Birth, is the commemoration of death–the first of millions of deaths on behalf of that Child, who was himself born for no other purpose than to die for us–and rise again. In sharing in his death, the innocents of Bethlehem are holy because, all unwitting themselves, they were granted the enormous grace of participating in his death for others, and especially for him. They became, by God’s strange grace, the “blessed” who are persecuted for His sake (Matthew 5:11-12).

And lest we forget, this has practical implications for us today since we live in an age which is, tragically, characterized by a slaughter of innocents unimaginable to either Herod or to the ancient yarnspinner who once beguiled her listeners with tales of that royal monster. For our age has rejected the sort of creative freedom celebrated in the feasts and honored by the Church. Instead, our culture of death has chosen the destructive “freedom” which today kills one and a half million American innocents by abortion each year. Yet greater than these crimes, greater than the callousness of a culture that could not only permit it but (in some sectors) strive to force everyone to subsidize it, greater than all this is the grace of God whose love can extend to the most helpless and forgotten innocent and, as with those little ones long ago, bring these defenseless ones to reign with his Son forever in heaven. As God himself has said, so he will do. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15)

Let us celebrate then, this Feast of the Holy Innocents which holds such promise for the seemingly hopeless butchery of so many. For the Christ who calls the little children to him is able to bring life out of all our insanity. It is this redeeming grace which has inspired so many storytellers, so many poets, so many artists and so many songs. Let it inspire us to praise God in imaginative and joyful ways. And let it also move us to stand against the Herods of our day. For in the Day when all stories–true or fable, pious fantasy or sober history–are consummated, the Child for whom these little ones died will say to all who fought to save them “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”


36 Responses

  1. “For, as the Church herself has always staunchly maintained, the believer retains such artistic liberties as long as the Church retains the right to distinguish revelation from legend.”
    The article above is a good defence of the reasonableness of the Catholic church, but it’s this bit which, as a non-Catholic, I have a trouble with. I simply don’t understand how it is the Catholic church thinks it decides what “liberties” the believer does or does not “retain”, or what the last phrase of the above even means. The Catholic church has the “right” to decide what its doctrine is and this may (or may not) persuade me, or anyone else, that what they say is true. I can understand trusting someone’s judgment in a matter because they have the knowledge and expertise I don’t, but if someone tells me a thing is white when I can plainly see it is black, I neither need any “liberty” granted to believe what I see, nor can I see that saying they have the “right” to decide it is white means anything. Even if I am wrong, I can’t see anything other than I in fact see, and agreeing it is white because I am supposed to agree it is white doesn’t mean I actually see it as white and to my mind would just be hypocrisy.
    IDK, maybe I just don’t have the same notion of authority as most / some people, but there is something here which is incomprehensible to me.

    1. @ Ian

      This is probably going to sound flippant, and there is a difference between metaphysical truth and football, but isn’t it like FIFA? You play football in a FIFA rules-based team, which means you don’t make the rules, but you have some freedom in determining the exact length and width of the field. However, you can’t just grab the ball with your hand and run to the other side’s goal.

      As a non-member, why should this even worry you? You can go play American football, Rugby, Baseball, go for a jog or just lie on the couch and watch cartoons. While doing any of these things, you’re also free to think FIFA and its rules are great, they’re awful, anything in between or just not care at all.

      Am I missing something, Ian? If so, I’d really like to know.

      1. That’s actually a great analogy, because you can then draw some other analogies, like the fact that some corrupt officials, referees and players makes football seem like a corrupt sport to those who don’t enjoy it while those who do bemoan the fact that it had become so popular that it draws a lot of money which then attracts the wrong sort of people who are only in it for the money and power. And they can still love the game.

        Then, when it comes to rules, anyone can try to subjectively decide if they are good or bad, and suggest they may be changed because some don’t make sense, and some changes, sometimes even huge changes (like VAR) are made. But the basic rules still remain the same.

        And yes, the analogy stops here because the sport is ultimately beholden to people and to money. None of the rules are set in stop and somebody may decide that even the most basic rules can be changed to make the sport more attractive to spectators. And yes, this will probably result in a schism 😉

      2. Except the church isn’t a hobby club and we are talking not talking about rules or conduct but asserting a truth, and the “rule” is a requirement to believe something true which you actually don’t. I believe a thing because I have thought about it and reached a conclusion: I can’t understand how I can believe other than what I in fact believe because someone tells me I oughtn’t.

      3. @ Ian

        Could you perhaps point out where the Catholic Church says you need believe things you don’t believe in? Could you also point out which methods of coercion they have at their disposal to force a non-believing citizen into compliance?

    2. Because it is the task of the Church to make sure that the core truths of the Faith are handed down from one generation to the next. “He who listens to you listens to me and and he who listens to me listens to him who sent me” is the essence of the mandate given to the apostolic Church by Christ. The Church really only has one job: to pass on an develop the Tradition given her by Christ. Distinguishing that Tradition from tales and legends is the only way to do that.

      1. I understand how the church believes and teaches a thing because the church believes it right – that’s fair enough. What I don’t understand is by what mechanism you *require* someone to believe a thing or, if I don’t in fact believe it, how I could do anything to comply with it.

      2. Your blog’s resident atheists seem unable to go beyond ”I don’t like what you and your Church say, and you continuing to say it violates my freedom” of late :p

      3. @ arteveLde

        You’re smarter than that. How mich money did Nienstedt spend for a video to go to how many homes in Minnesota? How much money did the nights ofColumbus spend? Bill O Donahue makes a nice living from his “Catholic League.” shall we talk about the father of Prop. 8?

      4. @ Ben

        I don’t know these people, but I’m sure at least some of them are corrupt and/or sexual predators, right? What does that have to do with militant fringe atheists being utter bores, piping the same false note over and over again?

      5. @ mark

        I’m old enough to remember when Catholics were referred to as the red Whore of Babylon. I’m Old enough to remember when there was no Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious belief, directed primarily at Jews, and Irish and Italian Catholics . i’m old enough to remember when people were afraid to elect JFK because they were concerned he would get his marching orders from the pope. AND SAID SO. I’m old enough to remember when anti-Catholic rhetoric was rampant among the talibornagain, was pretty strong,

        Maybe, someday you’ll wake up and understand that the “best Catholics of all time” as you refer to them, are gunning for you as well as for me. Maybe someday you’ll wake up and understand that secularists like me are looking out for religionists like you as well. Maybe someday you’ll wake up and understand that secularists like me want to take nothing from you, and yet, we’re sick and tired that the reverse isn’t true.

        maybe. someday.

        But obviously, not today.

      6. I get it. I’ve heard you harp on this every single day. The Church has no redeeming qualities and you must say it over and over and over and over and over. Duly noted. Coming through loud and clear. Message received.

      7. @ ArteveLde,

        One of them sure appears to be a sexual predator, but it’s not something that I brought up. I was merely pointing out hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to send a DVD to sent every where in the state. how many starving children Could that right to life Christian have saved for the price of that video? Nothing more precious than those innocent, innocent and precious precious little babies, especially when an apparent closet case is trying to deflect attention from his own sins.

        One of them is a DIVORCED, super-duper-catholic, anti abortion crusading, anti gay, reviling and slandering political grifter/leader of a CATHOLIC organization that I’m pretty sure consists of a mimeograph machine in his basement, which if I recall the figures correctly, received over a million in compensation out of the 3 million that he takes in every year. how many starving children could he feed with that? I know. the finances and the grifting are, per mark, BORING.

        Bishop Sally has announced that no way, jose, is he gonna get vaccinated. from the NCR a few weeks ago…” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has revealed he is not vaccinated against the coronavirus and suggested — incorrectly — that the inoculations the federal government approved to prevent COVID-19 “are not really vaccines.”

        “We think of a vaccine as a shot that gives you immunity to a disease for life or at least for a very long time. And these actually don’t give any immunity at all. They give protection,” Cordileone told The San Francisco Chronicle Dec. 1.

        Cordileone, an archconservative prelate who is no stranger to controversy for his outspokenness on culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, also told the newspaper that his “immune system is strong,” and that his personal physician had told him “it’s probably not necessary for me to be vaccinated.”

        But sure, let’s concentrate on how much I bore you and Mark for pointing out the predator, the grifter, and the big time right to life Qhristian who doesn’t give a small gloddammit about people he may infect, any more than he did last year when that Big CAtholic Wedding in San Francisco went off without a hitch. 7 cases of illness, including the bride and groom, and I believe, one death?

        yup. i’m the problem. And worse, I’M BORING. Calling out hypocrisy and venality is boring, I’m sure, especially when someone is on a holy high horse and doesn’t see a problem with the view.

      8. @ mark

        Of course, that is nothing I did say, now is it? I was specifically talking about discrimination against Catholics and the need for a secular state to protect YOU. You are so conditioned to thinking that everything I say as an attack on the church that I could say the sky is blue, and you’d be saying, why are you attacking the church.

        OK. You win. I think I’ll withdraw from this conversation and leave you guys alone to have a nice little self congratulatory handshake among yourselves. I’m starting to see a lot of resemblances to Dave Armstrong. I can see Why A lot of non-Catholic voices no longer show up here very often any more,.I think we can agree that not thinking of a white bear is definitely the way to go.

      9. @Ben: Your point that the world contains multiple problems is a real slam-dunk argument against fixing any of them (courtesy of https://xkcd.com/2368/)

        The topic is completely different, yet you segue into your preferred territory, even though it’s not the topic at hand. I think there’s a term for that. It’s called a straw man argument. You might be familiary with it.

        You’re insufferable like that aunt that will ask: “So, when are *you two* getting married”. And not only at a wedding reception, but everywhere. At a family dinner, during a graduation ceremony or even during a wake.

      10. @ yahoo

        Well, again, nothing I did say or would say. For Example, I am a great believer in gun laws — any gun laws. I’d love to see some. I’m a great believer in dealing with the drug problem by decriminalizing drugs. We have started that finally. I was advocating for that 40 years ago when I was in law-enforcement. I am a great believer in actually doing something to solve the abuse problem in your church, but then, I’d like to see the abuse problem in every church resolved. That’s more than you can say for a lot of the church hierarchy, isn’t it? How many priests have been defrocked or excommunicated, now?

        I’m a great believer in trying to solve problems. But ya all got that vision of that mean atheist who is disturbing your narrative and being irrelevant to the topic at hand. And worse, harping on the same things. I don’t think so, but hey! I do understand about not disturbing the narrative. Sort of like Martin Luther when he started complaining, but without either the to sure, the portfolio, or the sparkle. No need to quote Luther. He is surprisingly relevant 500 years later. But sure. I’m The problem.

        If a tree falls in the forest, and ya all are not there to hear it, is Ben still wrong?

        Tell ya all what. Though I read Mark just about every day, i don’t comment all that often any more. And there is a real reason for it. The same reason why a number of commenters who used to be here regularly have left, or largely disappeared. So, I think I will be joining them. And Fortress Catholica will just have to get along without us, all the while assuring yourselves about white bears, and the enemies at the gate, or more importantly, those within the gates.

        I learned a lot by being here the last for five years, and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. There are some very intelligent people here, forcing me to examine my thoughts. And there are some very kind and compassionate people here as well.

        It’s appropriate to end with Broadway, with a one comma and one word change in the next to last line.

        So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night
        I hate to go and leave this pretty sight
        So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu
        Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu
        So long, farewell, au revoir, auf wiedersehen
        I’d like to stay and taste my first champagne
        So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

        I leave, so heave a sigh, and say goodbye — Goodbye!
        I’m glad to go, I cannot tell a lie.

      11. > Well, again, nothing I did say or would say. For Example, I am a great believer in gun laws — any gun laws. I’d love to see some. I’m a great believer in dealing with the drug problem by decriminalizing drugs.

        Sort of like dealing with the homicide problem by decriminalizing homicide. Just pointing out that stating it like that instantly invalidates your argument if you don’t add qualifiers. The problem with drugs is that, sure, you could decriminalize all of them, that would instantly cause much of organized crime to falter, but then again, it would lead to criminals running the operation because they control all supply (that would now become legal) and would have vested interest in regulating the industry to their own benefit.

        And it wouldn’t solve any problem, it would exacerbate it. In case of heroin, people die of overdose. A few die because it’s hard to obtain, they’re forced to commit crime to obtain it, but most don’t die because of inability to get it. And legalizing hard drugs would lead to vastly more addictions.

        You should know from history that decriminalizing alcohol (ending prohibition) didn’t solve alcoholism and didn’t destroy organized crime.

        > We have started that finally. I was advocating for that 40 years ago when I was in law-enforcement. I am a great believer in actually doing something to solve the abuse problem in your church, but then, I’d like to see the abuse problem in every church resolved. That’s more than you can say for a lot of the church hierarchy, isn’t it? How many priests have been defrocked or excommunicated, now?

        Jesus didn’t kick out apostle Judas for being a traitor, he didn’t kick out Peter for denying Jesus, he didn’t kick out other apostles for fleeing in terror, he didn’t kick out John for his pride. Why should the Church start kicking out priests, let alone excommunicating Catholics for sins?

        I have no problem with putting priests in jail if they break the law. I have no problem with dioceses paying out damages to victims that they failed to protect. But expecting the Church to mete out punishment that was never prescribed is simply delusional.

        It wouldn’t even help. I mean if a priest is so deeply in sin that he doesn’t have a problem committing an entire catalog of sins in between one Mass and another without even thinking of going to confess, you seriously think a risk of excommunication or defrocking would stand in his way? Priests have committed sins (just not crimes) publicly for which they been suspended or even defrocked and it usually failed to stop them from continuing to act publicly. Either outside of diocese, or even outside of the Church, claiming they are the victim and they are the ones who are in the right, not the Church.

        And the Church especially doesn’t need help from the outside. She can ask for an opinion from an outside source, but she will certainly ignore unsolicited advice like this.

        > I’m a great believer in trying to solve problems. But ya all got that vision of that mean atheist who is disturbing your narrative and being irrelevant to the topic at hand. And worse, harping on the same things. I don’t think so, but hey! I do understand about not disturbing the narrative. Sort of like Martin Luther when he started complaining, but without either the to sure, the portfolio, or the sparkle. No need to quote Luther. He is surprisingly relevant 500 years later. But sure. I’m The problem.

        The Church held a Council of Trent that accounted for Luther. It then took four centuries to start the ecumenical movement, but like always, the Church doesn’t move fast.

        Luther never intended to leave the Church. Much of what he aimed for was twisted by his contemporary Ulrich von Hutten for personal purposes of a founding myth for a German nation.

        It took less than a century after Luther’s theses, for two major doctrinal reforms based on personal convictions (Calvinist reformation and Arminian remonstrance) and Protestants started fighting each other on and for those doctrines with more fervor than they fought Catholics. So you’ll excuse me for not considering Protestants entirely serious.

        This is one thing I fail to understand. People want the Church to change within the span of a lifetime, or even one generation. _It_ _does_ _not_ _happen_. Never. One thing that the Church never failed to do is wait with changes in accordance with Christ’s advice: don’t put new wine in old wineskins.

        One reason for this is that people find it hard to accept new things, especially if they have been taught as being of utmost importance.

        Another reason is that changes should never affect the status quo. This applies to priestly celibacy. Priests vowed to remain celibate for life and even if this rule is changed, it will not apply to those who are already ordained.

        This also applies to marriage vows. Even if divorce was instituted, it wouldn’t mean those already married would be free to just divorce because it’s not something between them and God, there’s the spouse who expects the other to hold to the promise.

        This was Henry VIII’s folly. Even if he had good doctrinal reasons for instituting divorce (he didn’t), the changes should never apply to him.

    3. @ Iain, I’m probably going to get yelled at, but…

      Could it be, Iain, that what it is that is incomprehensible to you is what I have written about many times on these pages?
      It’s one thing to make a set of rules for people who want to be members of a particular club. Tolstoy, I think, wrote a story about the rules for joining a particular boys club: you had to stand in the corner for an hour and NOT think of a white bear. It’s an interesting rule, one that could generate centuries of debate about what that might mean, why you would have such a rule, how you would know if it were being followed, and so on. Perhaps even the deeper meaning of “white bear”.

      It’s quite another thing to insist that the boys club with this particular rule was the very best boys club of all. It would be a step even further along the road to insist that all other boys clubs are fake boys clubs filled with sincere, but misguided boys if they didn’t have that rule. Sort of like the Lost Boys in Neverland— no hope for finding a mother, or peace, or safety from Pirates..

      It would be more steps, even further away, to insist that every boys club in the world should have this rule, because isn’t the particular club of paragraph one the very best boys club in the world, the one that all boys should want to join to have the very best possible experience of being a boy.

      But what happens when this boys club insists that EVERY club in the world, whether a boys club or not, should have this rule? Or they go even further, and decree that everybody in the world, whether they are a member of any club or not, must obey the rule of The White Bear of the original boys club, and all of their daddies in the government, former members of the original club, agree? Or even worse, all of the rules of the club. Or still worse, that everyone, even the not-boys, had to follow the all of the rules of the original club?

      Or worst of all, you had to follow the rules of the Original Boys Club whether you wanted to be a member of any club whatsoever, or not. These are the rules, and that, as they say, is that.

      Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I belong to a group of gay men who, at least in the Before Times, have been a sort of a club for decades, having dinner at each others homes, going to theater and concerts together, and so on. In those decades, there have been women as well, Women who are friends and whose company we enjoy, whose presence adds immeasurably to our club. This was a conundrum that we solved simply by declaring them HONORARY BOYS. But no one is forced to be an honorary boy, or to join our club.

      I’m probably going to get yelled at.

  2. I have two replies I’d like to make.
    First one:
    The number 14,000 is definitely exaggerated. In reality it may have been close to 14. And even that might be too much. Herod’s decree was very precise: boys up to 2 years of age in Bethlehem. Nobody was supposed to know. Even if Jews in occupied Palestine learned of this, they would probably think nothing of it. Just some folly of Herod’s whom they despised, but not worthy of a full scale rebellion.
    14,000 would probably include all Jewish boys in all of Palestine and would probably be worthy of a rebellion.

    Outside of the Bible, none of ancient historians mention the slaughter of innocents (you would expect at least Flavius Josephus to mention this, especially on such a scale), which confirms that the extent was very localized and that the number of killed was very low. Since the order was made out of personal vanity and clearly not meant to send a message, this does not contradict what was said in the Bible, it actually reinforces it. A widespread order to wipe out all boys below 2 years of age in Palestine would have been made very public and the Holy Family would not be able to make it to Egypt without being harassed.

  3. >>Instead, our culture of death has chosen the destructive “freedom” which today kills one and a half million American innocents by abortion each year.

    There is no “culture of death”. That framing itself is a right-wing plutocratic construct, mainly used to obfuscate the underlying reasons of why abortion is treated so casually in culture today.

    There exists a utilitarian culture, which treats human beings as things. When full grown human adults are treated as disposables by Mammon, no one should wonder why defenseless innocents are treated as things to be used when needed and destroyed when not needed.

    Mammon prefers that the evil of utilitarianism remain hidden, and some mindless meme like “culture of death” be the culprit. The rightwing powers in the world and their corporate allies don’t want anyone to question their utilitarian rule. The scape-goat of a “culture of death”, of “evil blood-thirsty murderers” keeps the focus elsewhere.

    Let the pro-life crowd start talking about the “culture of using human beings”, and then you’ll see how quickly their corporate/political funding/support dries up.

    1. I am the first to join you in saying that the “prolife” MAGA cult exemplifies the use of the unborn as human shields for their cruelty to all the forms of human life they want to exploit and kill. But that is hardly evidence that there is no culture of death.

      1. ALL women want to control their own reproduction, whether through preventive birth control or abortion. I say this simply because it is exactly what we see all over the world. The only places where women don’t seek abortion or birth control are those parts where women have no choice: the poorest parts of the world; and the Arab world.

        You can call that a “culture of death” if you want, but you are applying the term so broadly that it no longer means anything.

        – joel

  4. Point two:

    The problem with the Protoevangelium is a very late source but since much of early Mariology is congruent with it, it cannot just be brushed aside. However, discerning which stories are inspired and which aren’t is difficult, if not impossible, so my understanding is that the Church decided against trying to redact the Protoevangelium and turned to other more trustworthy sources and treated “James” as a compilation of fairy tales, legends and truths without treating it as a source for anything.

    What’s particularly troubling for myself personally is that it’s hard to imitate Mary if her entire early life was so full of miracles and coincidences (late child, entrusted to the Temple, mystical and wise beyond her years, weaved the Temple curtain).

    There are two key takeaways that put me at odds with the Protoevangelium. One is that since Mary’s life was so extraordinary, you can’t just imitate her, so there’s no point in trying. Two is that since Mary herself was so extraordinary, it’s not an indignity to venerate her.

    The first one appeals to laziness, the second one appeals to pride and vanity. It’s as if “James” was written to make the gospel more approachable to upper class patricians who found it attractive, but were troubled by some aspects and found some things hard to accept.
    Things like: Do you *really* have to give up all the riches and luxuries? Do you *really* have to welcome the poor? Are the least of these *really* like Jesus and are they *really* his most beloved? Then this turns to: Do you *really* have to turn your life over fully to the Lord? Is Mary *really* my mother, Mother of God, Mother of the Church? That little pleb girl?

    None of that would be a problem if Jesus was born into local nobility and if he was at least a bit spoiled and maybe his ministry was his rebellious streak. Or if Mary was a very highly respected and accomplished woman. Making her a wise and mysterious mystic would make her palatable to the refined tastes of the Roman upper class.

    But none of that holds if you don’t put the Protoevangelium in the canon. You can’t fall back to it to explain away why Jesus, incarnate Son of God, the Christ, Messiah, promised to humanity in the beginning of time, decided to forgo all human custom and was born into relative poverty. You have to take this truth part and parcel, however difficult, unpalatable or even disgusting you may find it.

  5. @Mark Shea, @Artevelde:

    Does the Church make a distinction between outwardly affirming a doctrine and actually believing it? Or is this some kind of “fake it till you make it” deal? I guess the point @Iain Lovejoy was trying to make is that belief is not something we can switch on and off at the drop of a hat.

    1. FWIW, my own experience was this: I had been a Protestant, but grew to accept, one by one, various church teachings. I did this on the same grounds a Protestant uses: prayer, Bible study, read others, listen to people.

      This process, it seems to me, had I followed it to the point of believing each of the Church’s teaching on this, that, or the other thing, might have led me to become a Catholic; I think I would then, nevertheless, have been a sort of “Catholic Protestant.” I would have joined the Church because I had come to believe, in effect, that the Church agreed with me.

      It was in reading others – especially Newman, and Ronald Knox – that I came to realise that I was not understanding the Church’s claim. It was the Church’s claim that it had been created by Jesus, and that because he had graced it with the charism of truth, that if I followed the Church, I was following him. I had to discover, not whether I believed in the Trinity, or in the Bible, or in Mary’s immaculate conception – I had to discover whether I believed one thing – that the Church is God’s truth-telling thing.

      No, of course, this doesn’t mean that all the Church’s specific teachings I now say, “Hey, yes, of course, it’s obvious, I believe.” God knows that isn’t so. But I do believe, and am confident, that the Church is the truth-telling thing. Yes, I have reasons for this. That is another question. But it is that question – what is the Church – that is at the heart of things. When I was received into the Church, I said: “I believe and hold what the Church believes and teaches.”

      And about all those other problems, specific Church teachings? I believe them on the word of the Church. I may well not be able to tell you, in any particular case, why these things must be true.

      1. @JJ:
        So, if I’m understanding you correctly, the only thing you’re required to believe as a Catholic is the essential declaration regarding what the Catholic Church claims itself to be. All other Church teachings you may or may not believe, to varying degrees, but you trust the Church to know better, because of what you believe the Church is at its core.

        Am I reading you right?

    2. @ 3vil5triker

      Yes, the current Pope has even said there is no point in going to Church if you don’t believe in it. The Church does not seek a multitude of fake believers performing outward signs of piety. We want believers, not LARP people.

      That being said, a lot hinges on the status of the Church and the faith in a society. In a predominantly Christian society, peer pressure can lead to large numbers of ‘fake’ Christians, or merely ‘cultural’ Christians if you wish. This of course is a human phenomenon, and not limited to matters of faith. In my own country, being a Christian in public can be a social disadvantage, so this cultural Christianity has become exceedingly rare.

      That’s a basic answer to your question. It’s a lot more complicated than this of course. There is the matter of individual conscience, the matter of a Catholic’s path in growing his or her faith, monastic vows, the limits of what an ‘accredited’ theologian may say, etc. etc.

      1. @Artevelde

        Well, that would be a significant deviation from previous Church positions, when it prioritized its political power and cultural influence over the sincerity of its adherents; but its not difficult to see why subsequent Church leaders, who actually believe in the Church’s professed identity and mission, would see such endeavors as futile, and ultimately, self-defeating.

        I think that, aligned with the sentiment you expressed regarding belief, is what @Ian Lovejoy was getting at. You can tell people to try to engage with the Church’s teachings honestly, to outwardly affirm its doctrines and to obey the Church’s commands, but you can’t really tell people to believe something, you know? That’s not something we humans can switch on and off at the drop of a hat.

        In that regard, I honestly think that your Church is filled with such LARPers and ‘fake’ Christians. Honest unbelievers are more likely to leave the Church; however, dishonest unbelievers, especially those who see the Church as a vehicle for their own personal, financial and political goals, are more likely to remain and exploit its cultural and institutional reach to their advantage.

        It seems to me that many of these people, much like the Young Earth Creationist crowd, are perfectly content to actively contribute to Christianity’s decline, just as long as they get a steady stream of marks to whom to peddle their wares to. It will be interesting to see how these dynamics continue to shift as this well is being dried up, or poisoned to the point of making it outright toxic, and thus no longer worth the investment.

      2. @ 3vil5triker

        The political power and influence of the Catholic Church has waxed and waned over the centuries, and has varied from region to region as well. Two remarks:

        1. Disregarding the sincerity of the believer: there is some truth in this, and I can probably name even a few Popes who weren’t shy of admitting that. The cynicism of power is pervasive. However, to my best knowledge, this has never been reflected in any doctrine that diminishes the importance of faith, or one that states that outward symbolism and stale conformism is the pinnacle of Catholic faith.

        2. Political power and cultural influence are not bad in themselves. I’m aware that many militant anti-Christians would like to see both reduced to zero, and I’m sure they have their reasons, but you’ll understand I cannot agree with that. Political power and cultural influence are tools, and for a Catholic these are tools we should not give up on or shy away from.

      3. @Artevelde:

        I was thinking about things like forced conversions. I don’t know if those qualify as “doctrinal”, but they did happen under the Church’s watch and approval. But as you implied, future generations had no compunctions with admitting that such compelled “faith”, is really no faith at all.

        When it comes to political power and cultural influence, I really have no issues with Catholics, as individuals or as a collective, wielding either one. What I do take issue with, is when the Church itself is the one directly wielding that political power and when its cultural influence is the result of the Church being elevated by the state.

        And the main reason for this is that the Church, unlike individual Catholics elected for office, is answerable to no one. You could say that they’re supposed to be answerable to God, but that’s hard to carry out in practice when they claim to speak for him. Even more so, when the consequences of any possible malfeasance are to be meted after death, if at all.

        To me, the litmus test is to think about what it would be like if the shoe where on the other foot. If you want exclusively Christian prayers at government met, would you be okay if they were wiccan prayers instead? Would you be okay with your Catholic child having to go along with Muslim morning prayers at school?

        As a rule of thumb, I’d say its better to avoid making rules that can come back and turn on you when you’re in the minority or out of power. And if someone’s religion cannot survive without being artificially propped up by the government, then maybe it wasn’t all that it claimed to be, you know?

        Alright, enough about that from me for now. Belated Merry Christmas, happy new year and I hope you enjoy the rest of the holidays! That goes to everybody else as well.

      4. @ 3vil5triker

        Merry Christmas to you as well.

        And yes, enough of that for now. Those things can wait, and I wish you (though it is perhaps a few hours too early to do so) a happy new year. All of you.

  6. @3vil5triker:

    No, of course not. The essential declaration of what the Church says it is is at the heart. All the beliefs have reasons – and I am required to believe them. If I am the sort of person who looks for reasons – and I am – the Church offers reasons; and they are reasons I certainly find convincing. Much of what people imagine the Church to teach it does not, in any way, teach. I think I recall that sometime during the – 16th Century? – a major debate took place regarding the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. The Church ultimately did not say “here is the answer.” The Church finally told the combatants to cool it.

    The Church invites me to use my intellect. It invites me to test its teachings – and assures me that I will find them well-founded. But so much of how we judge these things depends on the overall context we place them in. The truth-telling Church is that context.

  7. @3vil5triker:

    Just a thought: I came to the point of trusting the Church to be God’s mouthpiece. I trusted the Church, you see? My wife has, on occasion, told me of something happening to her – perhaps when she was visiting one of our children overseas – something which, out of the mouth of strangers, I might be … well doubtful. Did they really say that?? Did that really happen on the flight??

    But, you see, I have come to trust my wife. Context is everything. My conviction – which took me 10 agonising months to come to, in 1993-94 – that I can trust the Church, has never let me down. Church members have, on occasion, let me down – but, really, very infrequently. It is well known to the world that some Church officials have let us down, let the Church down, let the world down. I have never been disappointed in any Church official, but it may happen. But when it comes to teaching, the Church hasn’t let me down.

  8. @JJ:

    Isn’t that what I said? That you trusted the Church? Of course there are reasons for different beliefs: all beliefs do; that’s how beliefs work. But those reasons, going by what you yourself said earlier, may be insufficient, incomplete or not understood in their entirety. However, when that happens, your trust in the Church supersedes such doubts.

    Its akin to science in a way: its not about placing our trust in a particular finding or individual. We just trust that the process, if carried out correctly, will eventually find and correct any flaws and errors accrued along the way.

    Yes? No? Maybe?

    1. Well, except when you had this:

      All other Church teachings you may or may not believe, to varying degrees…

      I was only saying that, no, there are none that I ‘may not believe’; there are some that I don’t fully understand – heck, there are none that I do fully understand; but I believe them all. I “believe and hold” what the Church believes and teaches.

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