California S. B. 360

In the California legislature we currently have S.B. 360, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Hill, which would require priests to report to secular authorities what they might learn about certain crimes in the course of hearing confessions. This is reported in the National Catholic Reporter of May 17, 2019. The bill would apply to all clergy people, not only Catholic, and would apply to crimes other than child abuse. There was a case of murder for which the wrong man was tried, convicted, and punished, although a priest had heard the confession of the true murderer and did not report the facts. Church authorities are resisting the bill’s passage.

There are good arguments on both sides of the question. Moreover, it would not seem to be a problem only for priests. If a murder suspect is wrongly convicted, surely that is first a law enforcement error. Unfortunately, it has been known to happen where no church was involved.

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Kitsch and Repentance

I have what some would probably think is a snooty attitude about guitars in church. One would think all that need be said has been said. Still, I have never succeeded in getting across the real reason for my objection. It is not merely a matter of taste. I think it is a matter of ecclesiology; of conceptions about the church itself, some of which are actually harmful to people.

If my warnings have any basis in fact, it is this: folksy “praise” invites the people into a regressive mindset toward the faith, of a piece with the “family” language which one hears so often. Meanwhile, according to Matthew, Jesus has some pretty harsh things to say about family and how it runs afoul of faith. Think our gay and feminist friends, who should be among the first to agree, because family talk bllithely excludes people who have no aspirations to conventional family. Our agreed favorite hymn, number 140/141, contains language about seducing others into sin.

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Majesty Accessible

The grandeur of God is the measure of his mercy.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Some preachers speak comfortably from a raised pulpit; others address the congregation from the floor between the chancel and the pews. Parishioners probably differ in their preferences too. Is it better to hear the word from on high? or to have it brought to our level, remembering we are all humble recipients, not the source of the Word?

Now recall the episode in Numbers 4:29, when the people of Jhwh are cured of hideous disease by seeing a bronze serpent lifted up before them. John 3:14 makes explicit the connection between that event and Jesus Christ’s being lifted up on the cross. In both we have a powerful connection between God’s self-offering and visibility. Jesus could just as well have been killed by soldiers in a back room of Pilate’s palace, but the crowd demands to see him crucified.

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The Faith That Lies Beneath Faith

Recently my wife and I finished reading Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. In the last part, the protagonist Levin has a crisis of faith. He is driven to the philosophy of his day (the 1870s), looking for reasons to explain the natural life he sees around him, but it only makes him intellectually desperate. He has to order his servants to hide all the ropes around his place, and he avoids hunting with guns because he’s afraid he will kill himself. Tolstoy himself actually did this, according to his Confession.

There comes the day when one of Levin’s peasants describes a local  innkeeper who lives only for himself and his belly, whereas another of their neighbors lives for the soul: ‘He remembers God.’ At this, Levin becomes unaccountably excited. He discovers he has received a great blessing and reassurance. A few pages on, he says, ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I have just found out what I know.’

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Having Moral Principles

People make ethical decisions every day. Some of them we raise to the status of moral principles. The word “raise” in that sentence is a problem. Why is it a rise to move from action to principle?

We admire people for acting in accordance with principles when the going gets hard. Principles seem to float free of the taint of sin, but they actually don’t. They belong to people, with all the temptations people have. One temptation is to enforce my principles—with all lofty intentions—upon people who have their own dilemmas to deal with. Another is to cherish unduly the ideas we learned in our formative youth. Today we have neighbors who seem stuck in some previous decade, whose insights no longer serve us very well.

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Faith vs. Belief

Some of our unchurched friends think faith arises from an irrational will to believe. In truth, there is such a human tendency. It is the reason we have the law against idolatry, given by Jhwh at Sinai. The true God frustrates our will to believe by not showing himself, or showing only his backside moving away (Exodus 33:17–23). Any belief in the presence of this God is belief in him, not about him.

The difference between ‘in’ and ‘about’ is more than a rhetorical trick. It prevents us from domesticating God, grasping him to ourselves. The Phillips translation of the New Testament (1958) says “the kingdom of God is inside you,” a suffocating position for both man and God. Our beliefs about God are vain unless God has visited himself upon us first. Then we might have beliefs, and perhaps be able to speak of them; things we might never have thought were it not for our own private Jabbok.

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