Saturday, October 13, 2012

Faith as a Virtue

Since we just started the year of faith, I'd like to consider how faith is a virtue. As a virtue, it helps us become holy. St. Thomas begins with faith when he writes about the virtues in the Summa Theologiae. His moral teaching is so positive because he centers it around virtue, not sin (though he certainly deals with sin as well).

Faith is the foundation of all the other virtues. It's given as a gift with baptism, and once we are baptized we can never lose it--unless we commit a sin directly against faith. Even if a person commits other serious (mortal) sins and loses the life of sanctifying grace, the virtue of faith remains (along with hope). However, without grace it's not a living faith. But we still need it, because it enables us to come back to God. If we lost faith with every sin, how could we ever repent?

It seems to me that people don't think about faith as a virtue. Today, it seems that even many Catholics regard faith as something we do. In other words, that it's up to us to decide whether or not we will believe, what we will believe, etc. Since we're living in an age of relativism, it's easy to lose our bearings. But faith keeps us moored in Christ. Faith is a gift of God and is based on God himself.

An enriched understanding of faith as a virtue can revitalize our faith. So I'm hoping to do some posts on what St. Thomas teaches about faith precisely as a virtue, and what that means in our everyday life.

Monday, October 01, 2012

St. Therese: "In the heart of the Church, I will be love"

In the reading for today's Office, St. Therese of Lisieux explains how she came to understand her vocation. She was reading St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians on the different gifts in the Church. Therese didn't see herself in any of the gifts Paul mentions (preacher, teacher, apostle, etc.). So she felt unsatisfied, but then she came to Paul's beautiful hymn on love (ch. 13). And in a sudden burst of light, she knew her vocation: "The Church has a heart...and in the heart of the Church I will be love."

The other day I came across something in St. Thomas that relates to this. In speaking of how the Trinity dwells in us through grace, he says "the Son is the Word, but not just any word, the Word breathing love."*  Thomas sometimes lets some poetry slip into his theology, and this is a beautiful example of it. Through grace, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwell in our souls, and the Son is "the Word breathing love."

St Therese may never have read that line from St. Thomas. But she lived it to the fullest degree--and that's why she's a Doctor of the Church. She allowed the Trinity to dwell more and more in her soul, to the point where she lived and breathed love. If we are in the state of grace, the Trinity dwells in us too. The Son lives in us, breathing forth the Holy Spirit, who is Love. As we go about our daily tasks, we too can live and breathe love to all the people around us, just like Therese did.

* (I, q. 43, a. 5, ad 2--Blackfriars translation).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mary, the Assumption, and TOB

It’s common to hear people say nowadays, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” The Assumption of Mary helps us realize why being spiritual isn’t enough. I’m religious because I’m not just a disembodied soul, but a human being, body and soul together. I don’t look for a salvation that leaves my body in the dust. My body is an essential part of who I am—and so it is for each human being.

The Assumption means that Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul. This teaching proclaims loud and clear that the human body is important. It matters, because matter matters. From the earliest ages, the Church has had to refute the idea that matter doesn’t matter. That strain of thought, whether in the form of Gnosticism, or Manicheism, or any other “ism,” seems to keep rising up to make us despise our bodies.

The theology of the body reminds us of the greatness of our bodies and the lofty destiny that we have. Mary has already been assumed bodily into heaven. We look forward to the day when we will rise again in our bodies, to enjoy eternal life forever with God and all the saints.

Mary, assumed into heaven, pray for us!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reality Check of Religious Life: NRVC study

A recent article in America magazine titled "Reality Check" has generated some interesting commentary about religious life in the US. The surprising number reported is that institutes who belong to the LCWR have roughly the same number of postulants, novices, and sisters in temporary vows as institutes who belong to the CSMWR (about 500 for each group, with the CSMWR having a slight edge--535 to 507). The authors believe that some statements made about religious life suggesting that LCWR institutes are dying are "patently false," quoting a statement from George Weigel to that effect. They caution against inaccurate generalizing from media reports on a few orders that seem to be growing quite a lot.

 The article left me with the impression they intend to say there is a certain parity between the LCWR and CSMWR in terms of new members, and so they are equally hopeful for the future of religious life. But I must admit that seems counter-intuitive, and looking at the data raised some questions for me. (The data was drawn from a study by the NRVC/CARA.)

 1. The study had responses from about two thirds of religious institutes in the US, representing over 80% of all members. So what about the other 20% that didn't respond? Maybe there's some significant data that wasn't reported and could change the results.

 2. Of the institutes of women religious who did respond, two thirds (66%) belong to the LCWR; 14% belong to the CSMWR, and 1% belong to both; the rest are either monastic groups or new groups too small to belong to the conferences. Now that's a key statistic; the 14% in the CSMWR have as many vocations as the 66% who belong to the LCWR. That's a huge difference, and I think it's relevant to any conclusions drawn. Proportionally, the CSMWR group does have more new members. Some say that's not significant because they think it's more important to compare  LCWR and CSMWR groups as a whole. But I don't think so, because:

 a) The mere fact of belonging to the LCWR doesn't necessarily mean that an institute follows the philosophy about religious life that the LCWR conferences promote (for example, the last meeting's keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, promotes a rather strange mix of ideas that seem more New Age than Christian). Some institutes who belong to LCWR probably still do base their formation on Catholic theology and spirituality rooted in the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Maybe that's an overly optimistic assumption, but I hope not.

b) The number of vocations is not evenly distributed among all institutes; many have none, and fewer will have most of them. It would be important to know what type of formation is given in the institutes that are attracting new members.

 3. Median age -- the America article doesn't mention this, but it's 74 for the LCWR group, and 60 for the CSMWR (from NRVC study).

 4. Age of new members--(data here also from the NRVC website).
Percentage of new members who are over 40: 56% for LCWR, and 15% for CSMWR. So the LCWR institutes seem to be attracting older women.

5. Of institutes with new members, percentage that has at least 5 novices:  9% for LCWR, 43% for CSMWR.

 So if we want to assess religious life "by the numbers," the scene is complex. The America article hasn't convinced me that there is really not much difference between the future of the two groups. It does show, however, that there is a real decline in numbers in religious life overall. But what else can we expect when there has been such a falling off from Catholic belief and practice in general?

It's worth reading the "mythbusters" report from the NRVC, which indicates that while it isn't true that only conservative/traditional institutes are drawing new members, it is true that "Religious institutes that have a focused mission, who live in community, who have regular prayer and sacramental life, and who wear a habit show a higher proportion of newer members."

Monday, January 02, 2012

Goals and the virtue of prudence

Are you one of those people who set goals at the beginning of a new year? I like to do it too, and it can help to accomplish things. One obstacle to achieving goals is that they never get translated from paper to action. That's a common trap. I've done that too, setting goals only to never accomplish them! There is a virtue that can help--the virtue of prudence. This virtue has three parts: 1) deliberating well over an issue 2) making a good judgment about it With these first two steps, we haven't left the realm of theory. These are important and necessary steps. But if we don't go beyond them, the goals won't get done. They'll sit in a drawer until next year. We need the third step: 3) putting it into action; an executive command of the will. St. Thomas says that this third step is the heart of the virtue of prudence. It's not just a wish or a general intention; it's a concrete decision. It's an executive command. It's like the command a military officer gives the troops. The command is effective--it gets done. With prudence, though, we give the command to ourselves. This is the "push" that moves us from the realm of theory to the realm of action. You've done this--we all have at some time. Recall some thing you really wanted to get done. Perhaps you considered it for a while and nothing ever happened. But then some determination came over you, the resolution that yes, now is the time to do that thing. And you did it. That's the difference the virtue of prudence can make.