Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Holiness in consecrated life: what role do the vows play?

I've been working on a project related to Vita Consecrata in view of the upcoming year for consecrated life. It's been a while since I had read this document, and re-reading it has been very enriching. It's an incredibly beautiful document.
It also got me thinking about the discussion that went on a few months ago in relation to the article by Br Justin Hannegan on the religious life. I had offered some critical observations on it. John Paul's document has helped me see some things more clearly.

One thing I disagree with in Br Justin's article was that he seemed to present the vows in a way that made them merely a means to holiness. Presenting them as the most difficult way to live, he said they are the best means to holiness. This led him to the odd conclusion that everyone should desire to be in the religious life!

In this approach, the vows are only a means to some generic kind of holiness. But John Paul presents the vows quite differently. In no. 18 of Vita Consecrata, he has a remarkable statement that made a big light bulb go off in my head. I think it's the theological core of the document and of our whole understanding of religious life. The pope said that Jesus' "way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit."

Wow, that's theological dynamite, because it puts us squarely in front of the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus lived in chastity, poverty, and obedience precisely as the Son, in his filial relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. So the vows are not just some means to a generic holiness, but to a particular configuration with Christ precisely as he is chaste, poor, and obedient. And that puts us in relation to the Trinity in a unique way. In other words, the vows are not just a means but the essence of the holiness that those in consecrated life are called to because they make us configured to Christ--not just in general, but precisely in that way.

In the next paragraph of the document, John Paul goes on to speak of Mary as the model because of her total gift of self. Love is involved in that. We live chaste, poor, and obedient because of a total gift of self inspired by love, following Mary's example.

There's a lot to think about here, and I need to deepen it. Doing so would also help to understand better why the consecrated life is a different vocation from the lay life and  from the ordained ministry. John Paul says that consecrated life is essential to the Church, integral to its very nature. It is not just lay life lived at some more intense degree. It is something different. I think understanding this better would help to avoid the vexed arguments about what sort of life is "better." That's not really the point. They are different and reflect different facets of the whole mystery of Christ. All are called to holiness, as Vatican II stressed, but in their own unique way. Lay life is marked by the secular nature of that vocation, "ensuring that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere" (no. 32), and the ordained have their particular ministry. The unique contribution of the consecrated life is that it is a particular way of "showing forth the Church's holiness" because it "mirrors Christ's own way of life" as he was chaste, poor, and obedient (no. 32).

The vows are indispensable for doing that. So to see them merely as a means to some generic kind of holiness is very inadequate. That's the main point I wish to make.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Translation errors in papal documents: Vita Consecrata

When Pope Francis' Joy of the Gospel came out, there was some discussion about parts of it being badly translated. But this is not a new problem. I don't know who does translations at the Vatican, but some of the English translations have had mistakes and this has been going on for some time.

Take Vita Consecrata for example. It is a document on the consecrated life put out by Pope John Paul in 1996. In no. 26 he speaks of the eschatological sign value of this life, and says it is such "above all by means of the vow of virginity, which tradition has always understood as an anticipation of the world to come."

The reference to the "vow of virginity" puzzled me, since we don't make a vow of virginity but a vow of chastity. There's a difference. So I looked up the official Latin, which has virginalis electio. This means the "choice of virginity." Electio does not mean vow (which would be votum in Latin) but it means "choice or selection" (reflected in our English word "election.")

The other languages on the Vatican website use the phrase "choice of virginity", not "vow":
le choix de la virginité (French),
la scelta verginale (Italian),
and opción por la virginidad (Spanish).

This ties in better with the way John Paul spoke in TOB about those who are called to this vocation. He said that they do so “in view of the particular value which is connected with this choice and which one must discover and welcome as one’s own vocation” (TOB 73.3).

But why does the Vatican not give more care to the English translation of papal documents? Vita Consecrata was an important document, a post-synodal document and a major statement on the subject in quite some time. Perhaps this particular error doesn't change anything doctrinal in the document, but still it is misleading and inaccurate. The pope is not speaking of the vows in that section. He is speaking in a wider sense, of the choice of a way of life. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

St Thomas sometimes had a bad day at the office

When writing, St Thomas would usually dictate to his secretaries. It's an established fact that he could dictate to two or even three secretaries at the same time. He had an amazing capacity for such work.

But I think he too probably had his bad days at the office. Recently I came across something in the Summa that I found humorous.

In answering the question "Can angels work miracles?" Thomas says no, they cannot, because such power belongs only to God.
In responding to the objection that St Gregory said some angelic spirits can work wonders, Thomas replies that they could be said to work miracles only in the sense that either God works miracles at their request, or because they act in a ministerial role with respect to the miracles that occur. Then he gives the example that I find humorous: "for example, collecting the dust (of the dead) at the General Resurrecction or doing something of that sort."

For me it conjured up a funny picture of angels going around with little baskets collecting dust and trying to reassemble it into bodies. I don't know how the general resurrection will work, but however God does it through his power, I don't think it would mean physically putting dust back together. So maybe Thomas just had a hard time coming up with a good example, especially if he was dictating to more than one secretary, which explains his further comment, "or doing something of that sort."

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What would Aquinas say?

There have been some media reports that Cardinal Kasper downplayed the assessment by Cardinal Muller about the LCWR. Kasper said, "St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived under a shadow for years. So she is in good company!" Kasper said of Johnson." [the theologian criticized by Cardinal Muller.]

Two points for clarification:

1. Aquinas was never condemned by his bishop while he was alive. Kasper is probably referring to the condemnation of 1277, which was issued by Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris. Thomas had died 3 years earlier, in March 1274.
The story of this condemnation is rather involved, but the bottom line is that it doesn't mention Thomas by name, some of his teachings are likely included, and the bishop got some things wrong. St Albert the Great went to Paris at the time to defend Thomas from his detractors. Fr Torrell has a detailed discussion of this in his book on St. Thomas, (pp. 298-303). During his life, Thomas was certainly involved in disputes at the university, but his teaching was entirely orthodox.

2. On his deathbed Thomas said, “I have written and taught much about this very holy Body [ie. the Eucharist] and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.”

Thomas was a saint because he was humble. I don't see any statements like this coming from today's dissenting theologians. Until that happens, I don't see how they could really be compared to each other.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Cardinal Muller and the LCWR

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith posted the remarks of Cardinal Muller at a meeting with the LCWR. It's a remarkably clear statement that gets to the real heart of the issue: doctrinal matters. Teachings such as the Incarnation and the role of Christ are fundamental to the Catholic faith. It's incomprehensible to me why anyone who doesn't believe those teachings would even want to remain in the religious life. What's the point, if not Christ?
Here is an excerpt of Muller's statement:


Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.. . .


I do not think I overstate the point when I say that the futuristic ideas advanced by the proponents of Conscious Evolution are not actually new. The Gnostic tradition is filled with similar affirmations and we have seen again and again in the history of the Church the tragic results of partaking of this bitter fruit. Conscious Evolution does not offer anything which will nourish religious life as a privileged and prophetic witness rooted in Christ revealing divine love to a wounded world. It does not present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ. The Gospel does! Selfless service to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus Christ does!

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