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Some words about Dr. King, Part 1

January 22, 2015

MONDAY WAS THE 86TH ANNIVERSARY of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so I thought I would share some thoughts about his life and legacy.

My first encounter with Dr. King’s reputation as a public figure was as a student at my predominantly black elementary school in Richmond, California. I was 6 years old in 1968, and watched a replacement for Pullman Elementary rising from an immense patch of dirt in a cordoned-off corner of the school yard. Dr. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 4 of that year, so when our shiny new school opened the next fall it was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in honor of King’s life and struggle.

Growing up in a black neighborhood gave me insight into Dr. King and his effect on the lives of black Americans that is unusual for a middle-class white kid. Many of my neighbors had come from the Jim Crow South. There were people in my neighborhood who had lost relatives to lynchings. They had come from a place where whites could, at any moment and for reasons that may or may not be intelligible, suddenly turn on and attack a black man. It was a place where a black man could be put to death for some real or imagined violation of the racial hierarchy, and where his killers would typically suffer no legal consequences.

Read more…

Considering the Ontological Argument

January 21, 2015

Like Bertrand Russell, I have always kind of felt that, while I can’t directly refute Anselm’s famous ontological argument for the existence of God, I am also not convinced by it.  It feels to me like I am being subtly manipulated with words.

Nevertheless, I find the God that the ontological argument leads to, i.e., one who is not any greater even with all of creation added to it, very appealing for much work in theology because it keeps God out of the system of “things.”

I would like to state this as a resolution to be discussed, because I’d like to know how others think and feel about this:

Resolved:  Anselm’s ontological argument is inadequate as proof of God’s existence, but helpful in understanding just what we mean by the word “God.”


Two Wrongs (or, why we don’t have to be Charlie to oppose violence)

January 19, 2015

In response to a question from a French journalist on the plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis said something that may sound shocking to those of us from liberal societies.  I’m using the word “liberal” here in a classical sense; that is, not merely in reference to the political left, but to the over-arching social ideal of personal choice and autonomy as being among the highest goods, based on an implicit definition of freedom as essentially the right to do or say as one pleases.

“In freedom of expression there are limits.”  That’s the potentially startling comment in soundbite form, if you will.  As always, context matters, although in this case it doesn’t necessarily make it less startling to either French or American ears.  The context was a question about possible tensions between religious freedom and freedom of expression, which the pope immediately heard – and unpacked – as a reference to recent deadly attack on the office of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo in revenge for its ridicule of the prophet Mohammed.  In response, Pope Francis first of all reiterated what he has said several times before: killing in the name of God is never justified.  And he went on to add that neither is insulting other people’s faith.

Somehow, because of a slightly odd but lighthearted illustration about hypothetically punching his friend and colleague next to him for insulting his mother, the response was read by some as justifying the attack.  Read more…

Quote from Pope Francis

January 18, 2015

Pope Francis, speaking at the University of Manila in response to a 12 year old girl describing her life on the street:

There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.

I pray for the daily grace of such tears.

Update:  further context for this remarkable quote is given by an article at Crux.

A question on divorce and excommunication

January 16, 2015

Updated 01/17/2015

I have a quick question on divorce and excommunication:  was it ever the case in the United States that Catholics who obtained a civil divorce were excommunicated?  I am not talking about barring from communion those who are divorced and then remarry outside the Church.  Rather, was the act of getting a civil divorce itself ever grounds for being barred from communion?

This seems to be a simple question, but I have wasted a large chunk of the afternoon trying to find an answer, to no avail.  Clearly, there is a deep seated perception that this was/is the case:  dozens of marriage tribunals and ministries to divorced Catholics in dioceses across the US have published emphatic statements that  being divorced does not mean you are excommunicated.  However, to complicate matters, at least one such site said Catholics “are no longer exommunicated” for getting a divorce, implying that at one time they were.   Moreover, it is fairly easy to find testimony from people talking about how they or their parents were driven out of their parish Church because of a divorce—if not formally excommunicated, then practically so.   But again, this may have been social shunning rather than actually being barred from the sacraments.

I found one note that said that the Council of Baltimore in the 1840s imposed this penalty, but then the bishops revoked it in the 1880s.  And I have seen several contradictory statements about some action by the USCCB (or the Pope at their behest) in 1977.

Since this is no longer the case, this may be a minor point.  But I cannot help but feel that I need to understand the history and context of our treatment of those who have gotten divorced in order to better understand the pastoral reality we are facing today.  So please, help me out here, preferably with some solid references.

Coda:  part of the reason I got thinking about this was that Sandro Magister published an excerpt from an article by a Catholic biblical scholar, Guido Innocenzo Gargano, re-examining Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew’s Gospel.  The argument is too long to summarize, but I recommend that you read his translation here.  (He also provides a link to the full article, unfortunately in Italian.)

According to the article cited below (available behind a paywall at JSTOR) the divorced and civilly remarried were excommunicated in America between 1884 and 1977.  This penalty only applied in the United States:

In 1884, American bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, becoming increasingly alarmed at the rising American divorce rate, decreed that any American Catholic who remarried after a civil divorce was automatically excommunicated from the Church. The Decree read in part:

it clearly appears that a most serious guilt attaches to those who seek to dissolve their marriages by appeal to the civil authorities, or, what is worse, obtain a civil divorce and attempt a new marriage,in spite of the lawful bond which still exists in the sight of God and His Church.To punish these crimes,we decree that an automatic excommunication be automatically incurred by those who attempt a new marriage after divorce.
In 1886, papal approval was granted and this decree was instituted only in the United States; no where else did Catholics have such a severe penalty placed upon them for remarriage.

The author goes on to note that the decree was widely misunderstood by both laity and pastors as imposing excommunication on those who got a civil divorce, even if they did not remarry.  Further, the Church itself seemed to encourage the ostracizing of those who got a divorce. (See footnote 25; it is unclear to what extent this applied to those who only divorced as opposed to those who divorced and remarried.)

This historical information is to provide context for a sociological analysis of annulment rates in the US.  One interesting statistic emerged:  while America has a higher divorce rate for Catholics, it has a lower remarriage rate than other countries with substantial Catholic populations and liberal divorce laws.  Further, American Catholics who do remarry are much more likely to seek an annulment.  (See Table 2.) There are several possible interpretations of this statistic:  the most optimistic is that it suggests a deeper appreciation of the sacramental nature of marriage.  The author, on the other hand, posits that this is a legacy of the greater stigma associated with divorce and remarriage due to the excommunication decree.

Welcoming a New Blogger

January 13, 2015

Vox Nova is very pleased to announce that Jeannine Pitas will be joining us as a regular contributor.  She has given us several guest posts already.

She provides us with the following biographical information:

Jeannine M. Pitas is a teacher, writer and Spanish-English translator currently living in Toronto, where she recently completed a PhD at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. She is the author of the poetry chapbook “Our Lady of the Snow Angels” (published by Toronto-based Lyricalmyrical Press in 2012) and the translator of acclaimed Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio’s “The History of Violets” (published by Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010). She is very excited to write for Vox Nova.

Please join us in welcoming her to Vox Nova.

News on Archbishop Romero

January 9, 2015

Breaking news from the Catholic News Service:

A panel of theologians advising the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes voted unanimously to recognize the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr, according to the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.

The panel declared Jan. 8 that the archbishop had been killed “in hatred for the faith,” Avvenire reported Jan. 9.  The decision is a key step in the archbishop’s cause, following an extended debate over whether he was killed for political reasons or for his faith.

The next step in the process lies with the cardinals and bishops who sit on the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, who will vote on whether to advise the pope to issue a decree of beatification. A miracle is not needed for beatification of a martyr, though a miracle is ordinarily needed for his or her canonization as saint.


With regards to the highlighted text:  I have always wondered about this problem. If St. Thomas a Beckett was a martyr for the faith, then so too is Oscar Romero.   In both cases the murders were politically motivated precisely because these bishops dared to assert that the faith had real world consequences.  Romero’s “crime” seems to be that he sided with the Left in defense of the poor, and thereby tainted himself as a communist sympathizer.   I also wonder:  will the same voices that opposed his beatification during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—see for example, this book review from New Oxford Review— reiterate these arguments now, or will they let the matter slide?

Like holy men and women of God, Oscar Romero was a complicated person, but I am very glad, and the Church is blessed, to have him recognized as a martyr for Christ and his Church.


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