Sunday, 14 November 2010

"Preach at all times, and if you must, use words."

How many times have you heard this said? It seems to be a favourite among Catholics, not least because of its association with that most beloved of saints, Francis of Assisi. As 'Franciscan' as it may be in spirit, particularly when we see St. Francis' dedication to the poor (preaching through deeds) as part of the same evangelisation effort as his friend St. Dominic's dedication to preaching, this phrase does present us with some problems.

Setting aside the great difficulty of actually attributing this quote to St. Francis, and the fact that St. Francis was himself a gifted preacher, it embodies an attitude to talking about our faith from which the laity in England suffer a great deal. I wonder whether it is a particularly English problem ('stiff upper lip' and all that), which prevents us from talking openly about the things which are important to us. It is certainly a modern problem, because society-at-large is uncomfortable with the idea of objective truth. When Catholic Christians talk about their faith and their religion, what else are we doing but asserting that there is a Truth and sharing it (Him)?

Ergo, Catholic's can safely hide behind this Franciscan apocrypha and say, "Ah well, St. Francis said you should only use words if you need to." I know that's not what the quote says, but how else are we to read that "and if you must"? Surely, it can only be taken to mean that using words is a last resort, something to be begrudgingly wheeled out when all else has failed? In practice, it's far easier to say nothing, even in the direst circumstances, and save yourself the rejection and ridicule.

The Catholic Church, however, takes a markedly different view. All the baptised share in Christ's three offices of priest, prophet, and king. It is as baptised prophets that we are to evangelise the world. How? The General Catechism says:

905 Lay people also fulfil their prophetic mission by evangelization , 'that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life'.

The paragraph then says that this double evangelisation by word and deed is 'peculiarly effective' through the laity because it is carried out in the ordinary comings and goings of daily life. People are going to hear our joy and see our holiness not just at church, but at home, work, gym, pub, on the street, and so on.

So far, so standard. But here's where it gets interesting. There is a quote immediately after this from Vatican II's document on the role of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, which reads:

"This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers...or to the faithful." [abbreviation in the Catechism].

Do you see what's so unusual about this? We have already had a passage telling us to evangelise through word and "testimony of life". Why, then, did the bishops who compiled the CCC feel it necessary to go back and underline that it is the duty of the laity, as 'true apostles', to be "on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word"?

In all honesty, I have no idea, but clearly they were following the same thinking of the Council Fathers who wrote Apostolicam 30 years before. In it, the Bishops of the world exhort us, the People of God, to "be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church" [AA 6§3] each according to our own ability and learning. Clearly, they saw that if true faith in Christ was to flourish and not be overcome by the "very serious errors" of our era, then the laity, now better educated than at any point in Church history, should play a pivotal role.

This thinking regarding the essential role of the laity could well have been influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman, sometimes called 'the Father of Vatican II', who 90 years before the Council wrote, "I want a laity...who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it." [Present Position of Catholics in England, pg 390]

Bl. John Henry, Vatican II, and the Catechism all agree - we, the laity, have a special role, a 'peculiarly effective' role in bringing people into contact with Jesus, and it is especially important that we do this by explaining, reasoning out, and defending the Faith verbally. In other words, by preaching.

Yet all three sources are united in one other aspect. They all presuppose that Catholics are already living the Christian life, and making the Gospel present in the world by the way they live. Earlier in Present Position, Newman comically points to the effect 'testimony of life' will have: "...the Manchester people will say, 'Oh, certainly, Popery is horrible, and must be kept down. Still, let us give the devil his due, they are a remarkably excellent body of men here, and we will take care no one does them any harm.'" [Present Position, pg 387]

Likewise, Apostolicam reminds us to "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." [Mt 5:16]

So it seems to me that the quote which began this post isn't entirely wrong, but it is missing a huge part of the picture. The fuller way of preaching the Gospel proposed by Newman and Vatican II is to ensure, first of all, that we live holy lives, and continue to do that which the laity has always done i.e. bring a Christian way of being and behaving into everyday activities, and other people's lives.

Then, we must tell people why we do what we do; that it isn't a matter of personal preference, but principles held in common by a worldwide society called the Catholic Church. Let us not be afraid to announce Jesus Christ in conversation, because as He said in today's Gospel, "I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay." [Lk 21:15]

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

"Would you say the Old and New Testaments are two stories, or one? I don't want to upset anyone."

It's been long observed that there are no new heresies. Like weeds, they just keep growing back, and while it may look like a different plant, it's the same one as before, with the same roots. See this great breakdown of quite a few old bad ideas.

The one alluded to in the above question, which is based on the idea that the Old and New Testaments are radically different, 'two stories rather than one', is practically the oldest, and is called Marcionism, after the heresiarch Marcion. He first proposed, in the 2nd Century, that the Old Testament was inspired by a completely different god, who was violent and vindictive, from the Father of Our Lord who is the source of Love, and so was to be rejected as having nothing to do with Christ. What makes the question above even more startling is that it I was asked by someone who professes to be a Christian. To be fair, it didn't seem to be their opinion, but they didn't want to upset any 'higher-ups' in their church because they're applying for ministry jobs. I know...that's actually worse, that those in charge of this church could be upset at the idea of the second half of the Bible being somehow related to the first. So much for being 'Bible Christians' eh?

Now, it's unlikely that you'll hear this from a Christian, but it is a common objection from people like Christopher Hitchens, who called Marcion a 'Church Father' (wrong!) in a Channel 4 documentary on the Ten Commandments presented by Anne Widdicombe. What are we to say to this idea, that the God of the OT is cruel and unusual, and the God revealed in Christ is a completely different, much nicer, God?

First, and most important with a lot of heresies, is to point out that it is, in fact, centuries old. Marcionism is almost as old as Christianity itself. So ask, do they really think they're the first person to have 'noticed' that the OT is somewhat different from the NT? Do they also think that no Christians have taken a crack at trying to explain that difference in the last 1,900 years? I suppose we can only hope that their answer is "No."

This brings us to an important principle in apologetics and evangelisation - famously stated as "to study history is to become Catholic." Blessed Newman exhorted his audiences in 'The Present Position of Catholics in England' to "know so much of history that they can defend it." Just as the error is ancient, so is the answer. One of the great things about being Catholic is that you don't have re-invent the wheel when it comes to answering these questions; someone probably wrote a great answer over a thousand years ago.

Which brings us to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the early Fathers of the Church. He was from Asia, but became bishop of Lyons in France, and wrote one of the earliest works of Christian theology called Adversus Haereses, 'Against the Heresies'. He was writing in the middle of the 2nd Century, around the same time as Marcion was spreading his new ideas. Irenaeus deals with Marcionism in a very clear and logical way, espcecially in Book IV, Chapters 32 and 34 (don't worry, they're quite short. Such was Irenaeus' precision when dealing with falsehood!).

In Chapter 32, he relates that a priest who was a disciple of the Apostles, taught his students what the Apostles had taught him i.e. that both testaments (that is, covenants between God and man, and the documents which record them), are given for the good of mankind. The "first testament was not given without reason...[but] foreshadowed the images of those things which exist in the Church...and contained a prophecy of things to come." St. Irenaeus' source, as well as his teaching, is important. Bl. John Henry observed in his studies of the Church Fathers that they primarily relied on Sacred Tradition, the teaching handed on by the Apostles, to refute error, rather than passages of Sacred Scripture because the heretics themselves used Scripture as proof of their false ideas [see Newman's note 2 at the bottom of the page]. Logically, if it didn't come from the Apostles, it didn't come from Christ and the Holy Spirit, and was therefore made up.

Irenaeus does of course use passages of Scripture in defence of the Apostles' teaching. After all, if the point being advanced is the radical disticntion between OT and NT, 'old god' and 'new God', it would be important to demonstrate their unity from the texts in question. In Chapter 34, following on from his point in Ch. 32 regarding the prophecy of the OT, he rhetorically asks the Marcionites who the prophets were announcing if not Christ. If they were inspired by a completely different god as Marcion taught, they must have been anticipating the life of another person, who was a just king, who suffered, died and rose from the dead, while the same events also transpired in the life of Jesus! Clearly, this doesn't hold water. Not content with plain logic, he illustrates the case with quotes from the prophets, the Apostles' letters, and this coup-de-grace from the Lord Himself: "Think not that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets; I came not to destroy, but to fulfill," [Mt 5:17]. Again, if Jesus was the Son of a different God from that which gave the prophets their mission, why would He not come to destroy them and their cruel laws from their cruel God, rather being born a subject of that law?

Once more, we are led to an indispensable principle when trying to unpick any similar difficulties - "What Did Jesus Say?" or WDJS, for short. Alright, I made up the anagram, but the principle still applies. I suppose this is why you're not likely to hear this 'two separate stories' theory from a Christian, because they should know what Jesus thought and taught about this. Further to St. Irenaeus' example, this sprang to my mind from the end of St. Luke's Gospel: "Then he said to them: 'O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things, which the prophets have spoken. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and so enter into his glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things that were concerning him." [Lk 24:25-27, emphasis mine].

Seems pretty clear, right? Without doubt, there are things which are unpalatable or unsavory in the Old Testament to our modern tastes, just as there were to Marcion's tastes, but we risk making a mockery of Christ's mission of love (for He did not need to save us, or prepare us to be saved) if we reject the Old Testament out of hand. Let's encourage those who shy away from embracing the whole Truth, whether Christian or not, to see the object of all the Scriptures for who He really is-  the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, made flesh and dwelling among us.