Category Archives: Thoughts for Theologians

I hold a first class Honours Degree in Theology, so I guess that makes me a Theologian. One part of Christian Theology is Anthropology – the study of human beings. Some humans are Aspies! The way Aspies think may also shed light on the different ways we can do moral theology (ethics).

The Logic of Lewis

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on theology – the science of God (pages 130-100).

A map or photo is not as exciting as the experience of the real thing, but the map gives the “big picture” that makes sense of the local experience. In the same way, any experience of the presence of God will be more authentic for us than any work of theology, but experience alone gives a “vague religion” which is all thrills and no work.

If we took Jesus’ advice on how to treat one another, would the world be a better place? Yes, but the human race has never been very good at embracing the teachings of its moralists. If Jesus is the very best moralist, that only makes it even less likely that his lofty values will be attained than any other teacher’s!

There is more to Christianity than simply making this world a better place (though that matters too). Full Christianity goes beyond this “populist” Christianity be claiming that we become sons of God by attaching ourselves to Christ – our sonship is not automatic.

Here AspiePriest is relieved to see that Lewis follows the logic of Scripture which says we are adopted as sons of God through baptism, and therefore those not baptised are not God’s children – though still made in the image of God. In my experience most churchgoers will claim that all human beings are, by virtue of their humanity, children of God.

Man has biological life but is called to spiritual life – these are of such different orders that it is misleading to use the same word “life” for both. Lewis uses Bios for physical life and Zoe for spiritual life. We are like statues promised we will one day actually come to life!

How can God be more than a person without being “impersonal”? A human trying to understand God is like an inhabitant of Flatland trying to contemplate a cube when all that can be seen is a square passing through that two-dimensional world; the evidence suggests God is three persons and one nature, though we cannot comprehend the whole of God from our limited experience. God is Love – which means God cannot be a solo identity. But that’s not the same as making “feelings of love” into a god!

A group of people working together might be said to have the “group spirit”. In the same way, that which is common to Father and Son is the Holy Spirit, which can get into us and work through us – giving us the good infection of Zoe, which we are called to spread.

If you want to study an animal, watch it without frightening it. If you want to study another human person, enter conversation as equals. But if you want to study God, you must allow God to reveal Himself to you; and this He can do only insofar as your soul is pure. The best tool for seeing God is the Christian community as a whole.

 

God is outside time, and does not experience its passage. So we need not fret about God having to listen to millions of people praying “at once” and Christ was not sustaining the universe “at the same time” as spending 33 years on Earth; rather, he who inhabited timeless eternity was also present in the constraints of human time.

Christ (his spirit, as opposed to the physical body of Jesus) was begotten by the Father at the beginning of time. Imagine book B resting on book A. Now imagine this had always been the case. But B’s position can’t be understood without A’s. This is how we can imagine the son being begotten by the Father eternally.

From God’s timeless perspective, all human beings are connected. All are therefore affected when one of them is God incarnate. But each individual must appropriate the Zoe on offer by an act of will.

 

Why did God not simply beget many sons? Our “adoption” would not have been a painful process were it not for the Fall. And if more than one Son were begotten, what would make them distinct?

Our connectedness does not deny our individual distinctiveness. To emphasise either to the exclusion of the other would be a serious error; as in so many things, the truth lies in the via media.

This post has been largely a summary of Lewis’s writing. AspiePriest is pleased that Lewis’s thinking corresponds with his own in all of these matters. The question of whether there can be more than one distinct Son is rather like the questions in particle physics about how many distinct kinds of particle can exist…

 

A Modest Proposal

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on Christian sexual morality and marriage (pages 84-100).

Lewis distinguishes chastity from modesty, and explains how modesty depends on a social convention about what is deemed ‘acceptable’ – a Pacific island woman can display considerably more bare flesh than a Victorian lady! But each culture has its standards, and when these are known, deliberate breaking of them is a means of communicating sexual desire and exciting lust. Lewis also notes that when subcultures with different standards co-exist (consider two generations in the same society), there is a temptation to accuse the more conservative subculture of being prudes or puritans.

How objective is respect? Is it really “more reverent” to receive Holy Communion on the tongue than in the hand? Or is reverence an attitude of heart, which God alone discerns while others judge outward appearances?

Lewis opines that accidental infringements of modesty through ignorance or carelessness is “bad manners”.

Ah! Here we are in the fraught territory, especially incomprehensible to the autistic mind, of non-verbal communication in the context of a shared understanding of certain cultural values. To judge whether something is “modest” is akin to judging with something is “fashionable”, and can only be done properly by a human being who knows how to read the fast-moving currents of changing opinion, and knows what a certain way of dressing is meant to signal between two people who understand the same code.

In last Saturday’s Divine Office (Week 6 of Ordinary Time), Pope Pius XII commented that “a modest wife is a boon twice over”. Previously, when this annual reading came around, I interpreted the modest wife as being “the woman who covers up”. But in the light of what I’ve just written, it might be more fitting to understand the modest woman as the one who “does not flirt, but uses the right social conventions to signal that she is faithfully committed to her husband.” The text goes on to say:

Her looks and words enter into the souls of her family, softening them, touching them, raising them up from the tumult of emotion… The wife is like the sun shining in the family by… the appropriateness of her dress and bearing, adorned by her open and honest way of life. Subtle signs of feeling, shades of expression, silences and unmalicious smiles, little nods of approval … If only you could know the full depth of the feelings of love and gratitude that such a perfect wife and mother inspires in her husband and children!

Ah! If only! But I’m an Aspie, so I can’t know that from my own lived experience. I’ll just have to take it on trust.

It seems, then, that there are two dimensions of chaste dress. One is ‘modesty properly so-called’, the intentional use of well-understood social conventions to advertise one’s availability or unavailability for a marital relationship in a social context. The other dimension concerns the acts of charity involved in dressing in such a way as to not provoke undue levels of involuntary sexual arousal in other people. This can never be done perfectly, because some people will have fetishes about parts of the body normally on display, and even separation of the sexes cannot guard against arousal from same-sex attraction.

Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis and Pope Pius XII inspired me to search for perspectives on “modesty” online. The Catechism has something to say, and many sites quote the much-misattributed “Vatican Guidelines” (see also my PS):

…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.

If you visit Rome, you’ll see many signs outside churches indicating that visitors should not have bare arms or legs – I presume because those 1928 Guidelines are still in force. That is creating its own subculture, “Please show respect on our terms, not yours.” Perhaps it’s not a subculture for native Romans – I wouldn’t know, I’m not a Roman. But in the Eternal City thronged by tourists and pilgrims from around the world, there will be many more visitors who don’t share the same subculture of modesty than those who do. Is this a positive or negative thing? Does it say “Please adopt our subculture to acknowledge that this church is a set-apart place?” Or for those less discerning of what is going on, does it say: “This is a Christian site. It is run for prudes, by prudes”?

I won’t summarise the rest of Lewis’s two chapters here; it is a good broad summary of Christian teaching on chastity and marriage, with no paricular angle I wish to comment on. I will merely offer you two short observations which Lewis makes:

(1) Society has normalised casual sex and deemed it ‘healthy’. But our sexual instinct is no different in kind from those other instincts which we are called to check – no-one suggests we should give free rein to our other base instincts.

(2) We need not be deterred by the loftiness of the goal of perfect chastity. God may start by giving us the grace to rise after each fall, rather than the perfect gift. Nevertheless, the fact something is difficult doesn’t disqualify it from being a required moral goal.

PS Many websites conflate the ‘Vatican guidelines’ with other documents touching on modesty published by the Congregation for the Council (AAS 1930, v.22 pp.26-28) and a letter referred to in that AAS text from the Congregation for Religious (NOT itself published in AAS but Italian source cited and translated into English on a forum). Different websites give different claims for the “two inches” guidelines but the one who seems to have done most source research indicates the detailed instructions on modesty of dress for women were issued on September 24, 1928 by Basilio Cardinal Pompilj, the Cardinal responsible for the running of the Diocese of Rome on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

How to Pray?

How should I pray?

The disciples didn’t know how to pray – they asked Jesus to teach them, and were given the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism acknowledges that we still don’t know how to pray, and St Augustine wrote a Letter to Proba on that subject, too.

I’ve blogged previously about what my prayer life is like. Some people clearly experience prayer as a conversation with God – even if God isn’t saying very much. In general, my prayer life is a one-sided transmission, interspersed by the very rare “oh, where did that thought come from?” which I have learned to recognise as a nudge from God.

Many people live inside noisy heads plagued with doubts about their goodness and acceptability to God. I’m sure they find it helpful to make regular “acts of faith” or declarations of who they are in Christ in order to combat this destructive noise.

But I’m not those people. This is about MY personal relationship with God, so it must be coloured by the way I connect with God.

At the same time, it must be led by the Lord so rooted in general and personal revelation.

In general, because I live out of my head without emotional distractions, I don’t need to make repeated acts of faith and “overcoming” doubts. But I do recognise that spiritual warfare is like hand-washing, a hygiene routine needed daily. Even if I could live perfectly, the acts of others would still open new spiritual wounds allowing evil spirits fresh permission to influence my life and my projects.

I have my own daily needs. There are people and projects I ought to pray for because they are under my responsibility. And of course, many people specifically ask me to pray for them.

There are many books suggesting ways to pray. American Linda Schubert’s Miracle Hour format is very popular, and English mystic Elizabeth Wang has some very simple and comforting advice on “How to pray.”

How, then, should I pray?

The Lord’s Prayer is the Lord’s teaching on how to pray so should shape all my prayer, at least as a framework. What’s below is simply a template, to remind myself of the different things I could and should do when I enter into a time of prayer. If it helps you, feel free to use it too.

  • WORSHIP – enter God’s presence and Honour Him
    • Declare truth – e.g. Creed
    • Sing
    • Tongues
  • God’s WILL – “What do you want me to do today?”
    • Renew my surrender to Jesus as Lord
    • Chat to God about what’s on my mind
    • Grace for today’s projects – ask Gifts of the Holy Spirit
    • Time to listen – read Scripture, Meditation
  • My NEEDS
    • Call on Holy Spirit
  • The NEEDS of others (be SPECIFIC)
    • Family
    • Close friends
    • Godchildren
    • Assignments
    • Prayer requests
  • REPENT of my sins
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • FORGIVE others and break spiritual bonds
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • PROTECTION
    • Offer up sufferings
    • Holy Michael / Guardian Angel
  • WORSHIP
    • Thanksgiving
  • ENTRUSTMENT TO MARY
  • SAINTS of the day

The Slumbering Spirit

Rarely, I come across a book which makes my spirit sing. The author has looked into the Bible and found meanings in Scripture which make sense on paper, and have a deep ring of truth about them, but are not obvious to me before I read them.  One such book is Healing the Wounded Spirit by John and Paula Sandford.

One chapter in this book (and expanded in Waking the Slumbering Spirit) talks about what they call the “slumbering spirit”. The idea is that our innermost souls, made in God’s image, are meant to love and to be loved. When they fail to receive affection in childhood, they fall asleep and become emotionally unresponsive. The soul also begins resenting parents for failing to communicate that love.

When I first read about this, I took it to my confessor. Although I had no conscious awareness of resentment regarding my parents, who were caring but undemonstrative, I repented by faith of any unfelt anger in my soul. When I left confession that day I felt like a great weight had been lifted, and that I had a spring in my step – the only time I have ever felt this after confession.

There are a lot of parallels between Aspie traits and the Sandfords’ description of the slumbering spirit. I wonder if they are in fact describing from a spiritual point of view what a psychologist would call high-functioning autism?

They also talk a lot in their books about Performance Orientation, and how so many Christians are crippled by believing they need to earn God’s love. Personally, I don’t draw my identity from success – but it is one of this things that makes me happy. Alas, it is rare that the daily work of a priest includes talking with a person whose faith has recently deepened, who has received a sense of God’s blessing, or wants to make a genuine commitment to my parish. Success in ministry is a rare currency indeed!

The best thing that ever happens? Hearing the confession of someone who – probably through no good deed of mine – comes to confession after 20, 30, or 40 years away from the life of the Church. I only hear such a confession every couple of years, but I need to jump for joy, literally, as soon as I am out of the confessional!

Didn’t you get the Memo?

One of the most frustrating things in my life as a priest is taking part as a visitor in large Masses without a Master of Ceremonies. If an MC tells us where to process, bow and genuflect then the whole ceremony can be carried out with dignity. Without an MC it depends on priests having a shared knowledge of the liturgical rules and a respect for the dignity of the liturgy.

Few priests seem to realise than in the revised Roman Missal, in the absence of a deacon, a concelebrating priest should speak the invitation to the sign of peace and the dismissal. Of course, when I am the second and only other priest present with a principal celebrant, I never initiate this, because I can almost guarantee you he won’t expect it. (I have only once since 2011 had a presiding priest point at the relevant texts and expect me to say them!)

If I am the principal, without the assistance of a deacon, then in theory I am supposed to elevate the chalice myself. But to the concelebrant standing next to me, this will seem a rude and selfish gesture unless he has read the new rules and knows he is not meant to assist with the chalice at that moment.

For a principled Aspie, this is a terrible dilemma. I have made a promise to celebrate the liturgy according to the rules (liturgical law is an extension of canon law). But if I follow them I will sow discord. At least in this case there is a principle, which the Church has thoughtfully put in writing (GIRM 95 and 96), that you go with what makes for a harmonious display of unity even when that’s against the letter of the law. The rules apply more directly to being a member of the congregation (so if the majority stand when they should kneel, you should too, rather than implicitly rebuking your fellow worshippers by kneeling anyway).

As for processions, it’s rare that a group of more than a handful of priests will intuit the same ideas about where they should bow and genuflect on a given sanctuary. Hence the need for an MC.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, we are given the story of Jephthah. In a fit of joy, he makes a rash promise that he will sacrifice to God the first living creatures he spies on his estate when he returns home. But when he is within sight of home his only daughter runs out to greet him – “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!”

Jephthah faces an impossible choice – sacrifice his daughter or break a solemn vow to God. He decides to be a man of his word, though he allows his daughter some months to ‘bewail her virginity’ before sacrificing her. Here the Bible is clearly warning against rash vows rather than endorsing human sacrifices, but there is also a cautionary tale against forcing believers into vows which could backfire. The New Testament generally advises against the making of oaths (see e.g. James and Matthew).

At least there is some wriggle room in the liturgy to preserve harmony rather than the letter of the law, but I do dream of a day when all the priests at Mass have read the same Memo so we know what to do. The Book of Revelation describes Heaven as a liturgy – perhaps that’s so we priests can finally have a chance to get it right!

Objectively Disordered?

Sometime after I received my diagnosis, a thought struck me. It is official Catholic teaching that a person experiencing homosexual tendencies is ‘objectively disordered‘. Should the same label be applied to a person on the autistic spectrum?

Why does this arcane topic concern me? It’s because of the church’s principle that an objectively disordered person should not seek ordination unless they have overcome the disorder. In 2005, the Vatican issued a document about the ordination of homosexuals which was not a total bar, but required the aspirant to honestly no longer ‘present deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ to qualify. This leaves an ambiguity. The document explicitly identifies the case where the tendencies were a phase which a person has grown beyond after adolescence, but leaves open the unspoken case where the deep-seated tendencies are still present but the aspirant has gained sufficient self-mastery to ensure that these tendencies are no longer ‘presented’.

The key word here is ‘disordered’, which implies a concept of natural order. This leads us to two underlying questions: what would we mean by a ‘normal’ human being, and therefore what do we mean by a ‘human being’? As a scientific question, this is a special case of the very large question of ‘what is a species’.

To forestall comments, I acknowledge and accept that theologically, human beings are ontologically different from mere animals. But this does not invalidate the biological approach, which can only analyse and recognise the continuum between the human species and other species.

As we now understand genetics, the basic unit of living creatures is the gene, a string of chemicals (using an alphabet of just four molecules, coded A, C, G and T) which instructs a living cell to make something or do something. A particular combination of genes (a genotype) results in a particular kind of creature (a phenotype). When a phenotype can exist and thrive successfully in its environment, the genotype (which always suffers random errors when reproduction takes place) tends to stay stable. Unsuccessful tweaks die out quickly from the gene pool. Sometimes, a random change produces a new phenotype which, even if only subtly different from the old pattern, is slightly more successful in the same environment, and thus evolution occurs.

A ‘species’ is how we refer to a stable pattern of genotype and phenotype. Within this, we will find plenty of in-species variation. So among the various apes and primates, the stable pattern of ‘no tail, big brain, walks upright, not very hairy’ characterises the human species. Traits like the colour of hair, skin or eyes are in-species variations.

If we measure a lot of individual adult humans, we will find natural variation in properties such as height, foot size and athletic ability. On each of these measures we can define what an ‘average’ human being is like; there will be outliers with extremely large or small values far from the average.

Less commonly, we will find variations not merely of degree but of pattern. A person might be born with an extra finger, only one kidney, or the plumbing of the heart reversed. These differences might be due to a genetic error, or a glitch in the way the body laid down its template while forming as a foetus.

Because the Bible speaks of God forming creatures in their ‘kinds’ (and the very word ‘creature’ implies ‘something created’) there is a long heritage of thinking of a ‘kind’ or ‘species’ as something fixed for all time. But in the light of modern genetics, we can only describe a species as a currently-stable pattern of genotype and phenotype – there is no sense that the pattern ‘ought’ to be a certain way. Now the term ‘disorder’ literally implies failing to live up to the pattern which ‘ought’ to be there (philosophical disorder) but can also colloquially mean ‘something that impairs body function’ (practical disorder).

A reversed heart is clearly a practical disorder, and will prove fatal without surgery.

A missing kidney is only revealed as a practical disorder if the function of the remaining organ begins to fail.

If it moves smoothly together with the other fingers, it’s not clear if having an extra finger is a ‘practical disorder’; it may indeed provide extra ability at tasks such as playing the piano! Its presence may cause a social handicap if the individual is identified socially and penalised for being ‘different’. Whether we consider it a philosophical disorder depends on whether having five digits on each hand is intrinsic or incidental to human nature…

What, then, about homosexual tendencies or autistic traits? Are these variations within the ‘normal range’ of human variation?

In the past it may have been naively thought that all persons were either clearly heterosexual or clearly homosexual in orientation. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are different degrees of orientation. Autistic traits also exist on a spectrum. The average human (in the mathematical sense, for which you can use mean, median or mode) is neither homosexual nor autistic. But there will be humans whose orientation is mostly or entirely of same-sex attraction, and as a shorthand label, we call these people ‘homosexual’; similarly there are degrees of autism which makes it sensible to use labels such as  ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and ‘low-functioning autism’.

Are people with strongly homosexual tendencies objectively disordered? They are also objectively far-from-average. But here theology intervenes. There is a strong narrative running through the Old and New Testaments that God’s plan is for men to marry women and for such couples to be fruitful. This indicates a divinely-instituted order within which men and women are either to refrain from sexual intimacy, or marry an opposite-sex partner. So a person of homosexual tendencies is ‘philosophically disordered’ with respect to the divinely revealed plan. Whether or not this is a ‘practical disorder’ depends largely on the prevailing attitudes of society.

Are people with Asperger’s objectively disordered? They are objectively far-from-average, and therefore likely to be socially handicapped. Given the way human society works, this constitutes a practical disorder. Given the mix of typical autistic traits (honesty, integrity and social awkwardness) there are traits which point towards good philosophical order as well as those which point away, so, in my opinion, high functioning autism does not constitute philosophical disorder.

Pathways of Prayer

“If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.” (Benedict XVI)

How does being an Aspie shape the ways I do, or don’t, pray?

When I was a very new Catholic, I was keen on praying the Rosary. Why? Because it was an explicit request of Our Lady of Fatima that we should do so daily (and if Medjugorje was genuine, three times a day). I don’t think I was ever particularly good at meditating while saying the Hail Marys – I have a one-track mind and it doesn’t do well at sustaining meditations while saying Hail Marys in “inner speech” (though I am quite capable of daydreaming during Hail Marys).

Now, 30 years on, I pray the rosary more as a duty than as a pleasure, and always conscious that Blessed Paul VI wrote that the rosary without meditations is like a body without a soul. Usually I just do the set prayers and use the rosary structure to make a sacrifice of time to the Lord (God, I am going to pray for 20 minutes and to stop my mind wandering, I am going to make you an offering of 20 minutes of prayers said). Less often, I will set aside the Hail Marys and spend the period just meditating on the mysteries.

Lectio Divina doesn’t come easily, either. The first time I read a passage of Scripture, I will suck it dry of the different perspectives that can be seen by an educated theologian without recourse to a Commentary. After the first pass, there is rarely more to be gained. I can read in vain waiting for one line to jump out at me. And I dread the kind of a group exercise where participants are encouraged at a certain point to ‘speak out the line which spoke to you’ – what is the point of that? If each person gave a quick summary of what the line was saying to them, that would be enriching for me. But to know that a line means something to someone without knowing what it means – that’s an exercise in prolonging the agony, especially when I have no ‘anointed’ line to throw into the mix.

The Divine Office is mostly poetry, but not the sort that rhymes or scans. I suppose a Catholic with an active ‘feeling centre’ will make an emotional journey as they pray the Office, being drawn into the highs and lows of the psalmist . But for this Aspie, they are words to be said, words to be said every month on a repeating cycle. Most fresh meanings were sucked out of them many years ago and so, like the Rosary, saying these words becomes mostly a means of dedicating a chunk of time for the worship of God.

I enjoy saying Mass. Probably the technical performance aspects appeal most – am I making the best use of the variety of options in the Missal? Am I singing the parts that should be sung? Above all, there’s the satisfaction of doing the thing Jesus told us specifically to do. Even when travelling, I find myself strongly motivated to say Mass every day, even when other forms of prayer feel tedious.

My favourite way to pray (the Office, Rosary or informally) is in a small group of two or three, where the accountability stops you getting distracted but recitation by a single voice can add emotional weight to the words spoken, without resorting to the drone needed when multiple voices are saying a Psalm or a decade of Hail Marys. I also enjoy charismatic worship, both singing worship songs which rhyme and scan, and singing in tongues (a spiritual gift God granted me more than 20 years ago).

I am well aware that there is a common pattern of lifelong development faced by people who pray, going through dark nights of the senses and of the soul, where prayer brings no consolation. For me, since about the time I was ordained, prayer has felt like sharing a house with a Dad who works nights – I know he is around but we tend not to bump into each other, he just leaves me the occasional post-it to find on the fridge door!

I don’t want to be the kind of rigid priest who performs devotions out of duty and experiences only aridity. Yet in this state of darkness the options seem to be a choice between arid prayer and no prayer at all. I’ve written already about how I prize principles over consequences,  and for that reason I will be drawn to practice forms of prayer ‘required’ by ordination promises or private revelation. Yet if I were trying to go by consequences, I am hard pressed to find a form of prayer with positive consequences right now. I wonder how prayer works for other Aspies?

Aspie Becoming Catholic

I read my way in to the Catholic Church.

When I was in my pre-teens, I encountered Jesus through a moment of deep prayer. This set me on a journey of reading both the New Testament, and a bunch of literature about the different kinds of Christian Church.

The Catholic Faith had a coherent body of teaching. That appealed to my Aspie tidy-mindedness.

The Catholic Faith said that Jesus really meant what he said at the Last Supper – “This is My Body”. This appealed to my Aspie literalism.

The Catholic Faith held that the Virgin Mary had appeared at certain places in recent history. As an Aspie, I am quite willing to trust authoritative assertions even when they aren’t borne out by my lived experience of how the world around me usually works. (I haven’t seen an apparition – but I’ve never seen a black hole, either.)

The Catholic Faith included a charismatic renewal wing. The Bible says that speaking in tongues and other charismatic gifts will be manifested by believers. This appealed to my Aspie sense that what the Bible says should come to pass in the world around us.

Of course, I didn’t know I was an Aspie at the time I decided to become a Catholic. But with hindsight I can see that many things about the Catholic way of being Christian will appeal to Aspies – or at least to Aspies like me. I wonder if there are proportionally more of us in the Catholic Church than among Episcopalians or liberal Evangelicals? (For similar reasons, might disproportionately many Aspies become Muslims?)

Once I became a Catholic, I discovered (to my horror) that the majority of Catholics didn’t seem to be living out the values the textbooks said they should hold. Perhaps a typical human being would have allowed themselves to be reconfigured to conform to the behaviour of surrounding Catholics. Not me! I trust the official teaching of the Church way beyond the watered-down examples around me. After all, the Old Testament gives ample evidence that God’s first set of Chosen People were pretty poor at obeying the commandments they were covenanted into, and human nature hasn’t changed much.

However, there’s one important caveat. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warns us to put human reality before theoretical abstractions. I am not wrong to trust the Magisterium to define principles, but I must have regard to the lived experience of Catholics to show me realistic ways of putting those principles into practice.

From Catholic Charismatic Renewal, I have read many stories of people whose behaviour is so attractive that others have become Catholics because of them. No-one has told me personally that they have become a Catholic because of me. Does that mean I am so literally obedient that my way of being Catholic is offputting to others? It’s implicit in what Pope Francis is warning us about. Yet I put my trust in the words of St Catherine of Siena: Be what you are called to be and you will set the world on fire!

 

The Language of the Law

In my last post, I began to explore the tension between the absolute nature of English Law and the suggestive format of Latin Law. Canon Lawyers say the law of the church is exhortative. How does that work?

An Italian friend invited me to go and stay in Italy with her husband and her sister. The two sisters generally spoke English together for my sake (and the husband’s). It sounded like they were arguing most of the time, “You should never have done so-and-so” – but it seems that rather than having a series of major disagreements, this was the normal way in that culture to express mild differences of opinion.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, advised us to “Look for the use, not for the meaning“. As an Aspie, I find it hard to see beyond the literal meaning. Every professional field develops its own use of language, and jurisprudence includes case law teasing out the exact weight of what a law really means. But I do find it objectionable that a law might be drafted in words which are not literally intended. How, then can we know what it is supposed to mean? Scripture says: “Let your NO be NO and your YES be YES – anything else comes from the evil one.” And how can we understand God’s commands in the Bible, if they do not mean what they say? “Did God really say not to eat the fruit?” – that was the very first Temptation.

The whole Old Testament is a history of generations of God’s chosen people failing to live up to the Law they were covenanted into. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room there for saying God wasn’t serious about avoiding the cult of Baal, paying tithes to the Jewish temple and seeking justice for the widow, orphan and honest trader. The Catholic interpretation of the New Testament holds that ‘This is My Body’ means just that in the context of the Eucharist. Yet God’s Word, like Christ, is fully human and fully divine. I cannot deny that there are human languages which thrive on exaggeration, as I have seen in Italian. To interpret that literally might be as alien to my Italian friend’s culture as to be non-literal would be to my own. When language itself carries such double meanings, have we any hope about pinning down what God wishes to communicate? And if so, can we express this in language which is itself unambiguous?

I once received an invitation to a wedding and said “I’ll come if I can”. I wasn’t going to know until a week before whether there would be room between other committment. In the event, I did go to the wedding. I didn’t let the couple know in advance because I couldn’t stay for the reception anyway, so there was no impact on catering. They were amazed that I had turned up. But I said “I’ll come if I can,” and in the event I could, so I came!  What should I have said?

And if “shall I come for coffee” means “let’s have sex”, how do I invite a person to spend an evening sharing a caffeinated beverage?

The Spirit of the Law

Last year, I visited a major pilgrim centre where a notice in the sacristy caught me eye. The text at the top was in Latin – an extract from the rules for Mass, stating that no priest may join a concelebration once the Mass had begun. It was repeated below in all the major European languages, including English. Yet ten minutes into the Mass, as the First Reading was being proclaimed, a side door opened and two vested priests walked into the sanctuary and took their seats.

If I were late for a concelebration, I would not dream of vesting and joining in – at least once the opening hymn has given way to the formal Sign of the Cross and Greeting. (I have once or twice scurried in during the hymn to tag on to a procession!) But as soon as the Sign of the Cross has been said, that’s it. I would, in such circumstances, take my place on the people’s pews.

I have often heard it said, especially by Canon Lawyers, that Latin Law is not like English Law. English Law is imperative. In England, cars wait at red lights even if all the roads are clear. Latin Law, by contrast, is exhortative. “It would be most fitting if you didn’t join a concelebration once it has begun, so please do your level best to get the the sanctuary in time.” Does that mean I am being too legalistic in excluding myself from doing what I have seen other priests do, when they slip into the sanctuary later than that?

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was no stickler for the letter of the law. When his disciples plucked corn on the sabbath day, he defended them. He did not carry out the sentence of stoning due to an adulteress. He was accused of not observing precepts about ritual washing. Yet in these cases we can see the spirit of the law which was being honoured. The Sabbath Laws are about creating a day for rest and worship where scheduled work is to be avoided, not creating a day when it is forbidden to help a person in need, or indeed to help oneself to the fruits of the land. The adulteress was left in no doubt that she was a sinner who had experienced an act of mercy. The ritual washings were cultural baggage which tradition had added to the Law given by God.

Is it so serious to slip onto a sanctuary during a First Reading? Perhaps it depends on the reason you are late. If you were unavoidably delayed by an act of mercy (you had to hear a confession) or circumstances beyond your control (a traffic jam where there wouldn’t normally be one) then it is probably within the spirit of the law to join a Mass you would reasonably have expected to be on time for. But it would always be fitting to refrain from doing so out of respect for obedience to the law and the dignity of the celebration. Perhaps it is less a matter of sin, and more a counsel of perfection – as scripture says in a rather different context (whether to marry or not!), the one who takes part does well, but the one who sits out does better.

AspiePriest’s Three Laws of Humanics: (cf. Asmimov’s Three Laws of Robotics)

  1. A human being shall obey every commandment given by God (as proposed in Scripture or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church), following the Spirit of the Law where this can be clearly grasped, but the Letter of the Law otherwise.
  2. A human being shall seek the well-being of all human beings (especially their neighbour, themself, their enemy), but never in such a way as to contradict the First Law.
  3. A human being shall seek personal happiness and fulfilment, as long as this does not contradict the First Law or Second Law.