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Delivered From All Stain

By David Mills

“Yeah, right” is the way the more irenic of my Evangelical friends react to the Immaculate Conception, the feast day of which (a holy day of obligation) we celebrate on Wednesday. A few will go so far as to say something like “Whatever floats your boat,” while others react with something like horror or disgust. Very few, in my experience, have a very good idea of the dogma to which they’re reacting.

“It says that Mary doesn’t need to be saved,” Evangelical friends with doctorates in theology from elite universities have told me, which is, you know, and I do hate to say this, kind of dumb. I can easily understand their believing the dogma made up out of thin air, but even then they should realize that what is made up is a statement about the way Jesus saved his own mother.

So it may be useful here to explain the teaching in first week of “Mary 101” form. At least everyone will know where they stand. I thought of this when reading some of the bitter and cutting responses to David Hart’s lovely reflection on holiness, “The Abbot and Aunt Susie,” and feeling like saying, in the tones of a mother whose children are trapped inside on a rainy day, “Why can’t you just play nice?”

The word “Immaculate” doesn’t simply mean “perfectly clean, ” as we tend to think from its use in real estate ads, but “unstained.” The doctrine emphasizes Mary’s freedom from moral corruption”not, and this is the crucial point , what she is in herself but what she is by the grace of God. Issued by Pope Pius IX in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854, the definition declares that

the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

She is, he wrote, “far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity.” Because God did this for her”because God did it”Mary, “ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity.”

Even very sympathetic Protestants think of it as a kind of devotional optional extra. But Pius thought it a very important doctrine to get right. Anyone who rejects it (he seems to be thinking only of Catholics here) is “condemned by his own judgment.” The dissenter should know “that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church.”

The pope explained it in terms of the fittingness that the Son of God should have such a mother, the Church’s liturgical practice in celebrating the Feast of the Conception of Mary, and the teaching and practice of previous popes, which he reviews at some length. He notes the agreement of religious orders, eminent theologians, and bishops, the “intimation” of the Council of Trent, and the testimony of “of venerable antiquity, of both the Eastern and the Western Church.” He then summarizes the biblical arguments offered by “the Fathers and writers of the Church” and their “explicit affirmation” of the doctrine.

Pius’s argument, such as it is, does not satisfy Protestants, who ask, and quite rightly given their beliefs, “Just where is this in Scripture?” It looks to them as if the Catholic Church is rationalizing a doctrine that had grown too big to fail. They can understand how the Catholic might get from Jesus’ statements at the Last Supper to a belief in Transubstantiation, but not how he can get from apparently no evidence whatsoever to the Immaculate Conception. That doesn’t look like a stretch but an invention.

Yet, in Ineffabilis Deus itself, Pius said that the Church “never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything.” The Church, he would insist, is a witness, not an inventor, a reporter, not a novelist. And he is not wrong in saying so, though the reason gets at a deeper difference between the traditions than their beliefs about the Virgin Mary.

Dogmas like the Immaculate Conception are “truth[s] revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse,” as Pope Pius XII said in 1950 in Munificentissimus Deus, which declared Mary’s Assumption into Heaven a dogma. In the words of the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, the “divine deposit” includes “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God as founding Scripture or Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”

The Church not only guards this deposit but knows what it contains. The better question to ask, the Catholic would say, is not “Is this in Scripture?” but “Is this in the Divine deposit of truth given to the Church?” As the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum put it: “sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” They work “all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit.”

All the dogma does, Pius might have said, is put into a shorter and more precise form the understanding of Mary that had been percolating in and shaping the Church’s thinking since the beginning of her life. We can look for a parallel at the development of the way the Church understands Jesus.

The heretics of the early third century (those we see in retrospect as heretics) could make plausible arguments, using Scripture, but the bishops gathered at the first Council of Nicaea saw what was the real teaching of Scripture, even though they had to invent a term not found in the Bible, homoousios, to define it exactly. They had not only the words of Scripture but their real meaning. There is no more to object to in the developed understanding of the Immaculate Conception being declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 than there is to object to in the developed understanding of the nature of Christ being declared in 325 by the Council of Nicaea.

This helps to explain why the Catholic can be, to the Protestant, so bewilderingly unconcerned with pointing to chapter and verse to defend the dogma. The Catholic answer to the objection that the doctrine is not found in Scripture is that some things the Church teaches can only be found in the Bible by looking backward from what the Church knows in other ways.

The belief in Mary’s sinlessness can be seen to be assumed in Gabriel’s “Hail Mary, full of grace.” If she was full of grace, she could not be sinful. There would not be any room for sin, grace having, so to speak, filled up the space. It can also be seen to be required by the story of “the woman” whose son would crush the serpent’s head in Genesis 3:15. If she, taken to mean Mary, suffered even for a moment from the inherited stain of sin, she would not have had that “perpetual enmity” with the serpent of which the passage speaks.

That is a hit-and-run summary, but I hope it explains what the dogma says and how Catholics believe what is to their Evangelical brethren hopelessly unbiblical and therefore un-believable. We believe in man’s need for grace as firmly as you. We do not exempt even the Mother of God from that need.

One final word. A possible ecumenical appeal of the dogma is that it teaches us something about human freedom. Mary had a choice whether or not to be the mother of the Savior. But Immaculately Conceived and free from sin, she freely chose to do God’s will. That the choice was inevitable, given her character, does not mean it was not free. Her “Be it done to me according to your word” was a perfectly free act, and yet a perfectly predictable one. Mary was doing what she wanted to do.

Mary the Immaculate One shows us what we ought to be and what we shall be: creatures who in perfect freedom choose God, and find the choice not binding but liberating. As Benedict XVI has said, God wants to be worshiped by creatures who are free. In Mary, the Catholic Church declares, he has shown us such a creature, as an example and a promise of what we may be like, when we, like her, have been delivered from all stain of sin.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Delivered From All Stain” appeared on the “On the Square” section of First Things’ website on December 6, 2010.

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Close Your Mind

Close Your Mind

Critical Christians in an Uncritical Age

by David Mills

G. K. Chesterton once said of his friend H. G. Wells: “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” (Though we think of him mainly as a science fiction writer, Wells was a great leader of the progressive movements of his day. He was, sexuality aside, the Gore Vidal of the early twentieth century.)

To be open-minded — now usually called “entering the dialogue” — is not necessarily a virtue. The virtue of open-mindedness depends on how far you open your mind and how long you keep it open, and whether you close it when you ought to.

An open hatch on top of a submarine lets in needed light and air — until the submarine dives. An open door in a country house is one thing, an open door in a prison is another. A man may open-mindedly weigh the merits of monarchy, but he may not, without branding himself a moral imbecile, open-mindedly weigh the merits of Hitler’s policies for the Jews.

Thus there is less to be said for open-mindedness than is usually said by modern mainline Christians. It is not at all virtuous to keep your mind continually open, because you are not using your mind as it is meant to be used. You are in fact taking very poor care of it. The mind continually propped open will only collect dust and cigarette butts.

Closed on Something

The mind that is being used will often be closed. If it is working well, it will be closed more often than not. It will have closed on something solid, and be chewing it over. That is what minds do.

This is certainly what the Christian mind does. Christian doctrine and morality are realities. Even the most technical and abstract language points us to realities we can to some extent comprehend and think about. We are not simply presented with a set of random and unreliable data from which we are to figure out as best we can what it all means. God has shown us what is really there.

If this is true, we cannot be open-minded in the usual sense when someone proposes that the reality does not in fact exist. That is something like being open-minded about the existence of a truck bearing down upon you as you cross the street, because someone on the sidewalk tells you, for whatever reasons, that he does not see it.

That people around you don’t see what you see, and therefore call for “open-mindedness,” is not a relevant concern until you know whether you can trust their vision. One cannot trust the man whose sexual life is disordered when he says that Scripture can be read in new and more permissive ways. This is to be open-minded about the existence of a truck bearing down upon you as you cross the street, because a blind man on the sidewalk tells you he does not see it.

You have, these days, the delicate responsibility to say to many advocates of dialogue that their vision cannot be trusted enough for you to talk seriously with them, as if they could see. Because they have blinded themselves, you cannot talk with them in any but a pastoral or an evangelistic way. You may talk to them about their getting glasses, but until they get the glasses (and most will not) you cannot talk to them about a painting they cannot see or a map they cannot read. You cannot argue with them about the merits of the painter or the best way to get home.

Typically, the dialogist will respond to a statement he does not like with: “Well, that’s your opinion.” This is true, if it means “an idea you hold, on which reasonable people with some knowledge of the subject may disagree,” but not true if it means, as it usually does, “an idea for holding which you can make no more than personal claims.” That Bach was a better composer than Beethoven is an opinion; that killing children is wrong is not.

Two Reasons

People believe in this nearly endless open-mindedness for two reasons, I think. First, the modern world, and the liberal Christian with it, assumes that because a few hundred years ago some Christians burned other Christians over small (though not necessarily unimportant) differences in theology, we should not say with complete confidence “On the third day he rose again” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

To avoid religious conflict, we are allowed only to say that the Nicene Creed is true for me, but not that it is true for you, much less that it is true for Muslims and Jews and Buddhists. That this means making statements about the cosmos as if they were only one’s best guess or what one felt at the moment to be true does not bother the liberal Christian.

You cannot make a universal claim like “for us men and our salvation he came down from Heaven” and then say that it is only true for Christians. And in fact, except for some rather muddled people, the dialogist does not contradict himself when he makes these claims, because he does not believe the first to be true. He believes, though he may not admit it because the costs of honesty would be too high, that the Christian claims are just inherited metaphors for universal experiences, which should only be used among Christians and not asserted to others, lest the assertion start a fight.

The obvious response to the dialogist’s belief that truth is too dangerous to assert even if you think you know it, is that Truth exists even if people misuse it. You don’t call off the family’s Christmas feast because Uncle George will drink too much and fall down in the front yard, and Cousin Filbert will eat too much and throw up on the carpet, and Cousin Wilhelmina will set the Christmas tree alight. You simply take precautions. You recognize the temptations you might face — intolerance, say, or fanaticism — and resist them.

A milder sort of liberal will admit that Christians have some unique insight into the truth of things, but insist that we do not see it very well and should not be too sure about it. If we assert the final truth of any biblical teaching, he will argue that the Church has continually revised its teachings in response to new knowledge and to meet new problems.

The obvious response to this is to agree that we see as in a glass darkly, but to note that we do still see. If our knowledge is partial, it is still accurate; one can still build a bookshelf or an internal combustion engine though scientists have still not discovered a unified field theory, or create a vaccine though scientists still do not know how to create life. The question is not what we do not know, but what we do.

Politically Useful

That is the first reason “open-mindedness” appeals: that because certainty is dangerous, we should not be certain even when we are. The second is that it is politically very useful.

I think, though one can never really know, that this opportunism is mostly unconscious. The earnestly open-minded are often fundamentally political creatures who choose among principles according to their usefulness in reaching the goal of the moment, as suggested by the fact that their faith in open-mindedness changes with their political prospects and ideological commitments.

We see this in the secular world, when the people who urge the “just say no” and “zero tolerance” crusades against drug use argue that children will have sex no matter what you say and therefore all we can do is make it safer for them by providing condoms and safe-sex techniques. You will arouse as much wrath by proposing a campaign for chastity as you would by proposing a campaign to teach safe drug use.

We see this in the religious world as well. In the mainline churches, that women ought to be ordained (a controversy the liberals have won) is a matter of an eternal, implacable, unchanging justice, but that sodomy may or may not be permissible (a controversy they have not yet won) is a matter for exploration and dialogue. We must be open-minded about the second, declare these apostles of open-mindedness, who then snap their minds tight shut about the first.

As I have written before, this capacity to switch first principles at need and to switch back again a few seconds later is a key to understanding liberalism, secular and religious. It gives liberals a great advantage in public debate and political processes, when they face people hampered by a commitment to reason. The man without moorings can always run rings around the man who is tied down.

The man who tries to reason from a common ground — that children can say no to sex as they can say no to drugs, for example — finds himself suddenly alone on that ground and being abused from another ground entirely. Should he move to the new ground and try again to reason with his opponent, he will find himself being abused from the first. He cannot win the argument, or usually even get a hearing, because his opponent will never stay put.

More Uses

The strategy of switching first principles has two emotional uses, I think. The first is the advantage of being able to speak on any subject with conviction nearing self-satisfaction, because you are always defending some obvious principle against the infidels. No matter what you want, even if what you want in one area of life contradicts what you want in another, you are always speaking for the right and good and true.

The second is the advantage of being able to switch as desired from idealism to realism, and from crusading to “facing facts.” Both can intoxicate, because both imply your superior morality and wisdom.

In all this there is an irony, not often noticed, given how much the open-minded fear those who sometimes close their minds. The self-consciously open-minded are more likely to persecute others than those of us who think we know the truth, which is to say, know with certainty the things that are certain.

We know the truth because someone (Someone, to be precise) has healed our blindness and said, “Look.” We do not know why others have not been healed, but we are willing to give them time as we ourselves were given time. The man who sings “Amazing Grace” and means it is not likely to persecute those still suffering the blindness he once suffered. (If he has the cure of souls, he may have to discipline them, for their own good and the good of others, but that is a different matter.)

Not believing in revelation or grace (in any but the most metaphorical of senses), the self-consciously open-minded must assume that whatever they do believe must be equally visible to everyone else. Those who do not see it must be willfully and self-servingly blind—homophobes and misogynists and fanatics to whom tolerance cannot be given. And thus the self-declared open-minded often respond to others with a closed mind and a closed fist.

Inconsistently Pluralistic

For some of our dialogists, of course, “dialogue” is a politically prudent synonym for relativism, and most of them combine relativism or “pluralism” in theology with an absolutist passion for their causes and the ideologies that justify them. Their own claims to openness are unjustified, but they nevertheless do not hesitate to divide the sheep of dialogue from the goats of dogmatism.

Thus, for example, a few years ago a liberal Episcopal friar preached an ordination sermon in which he mourned the “discordant voices” who “call for dividing the pure from the fallen, the right from the wrong, the saved from the lost.” They give the “word of judgment rather than the word of forgiveness” and “the word of wrath rather than the word of grace.” But “thanks be to God,” he said, some — people like him — “are of the seeking sort, the gathering sort, the uniting sort.”

He had no problem separating the sheep from the goats, even though dividing sheep from goats is the act he was attacking. The goats are discordant, divisive, judgmental, unforgiving, and wrathful. They do not seek, gather, or unite. They are, to use his own words, the impure, the wrong, and the lost.

The last presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church similarly warned of those “backing themselves into tighter and tighter circles of self-justification and self-righteousness, attempting to write their prejudices into canon law, pursuing legalisms at the expense of compassion, understanding, and mercy.” They “want very much to settle our differences and to settle them with a vengeance. There seems, for instance, to be a resurgence of a biblicism which thinks that a simple, unequivocal ‘the Bible says . . .’ will settle our differences.”

These people — left unnamed but easily identified — do not know how complex and ambiguous the world is. But they are not only naïve or ignorant, they are also self-justifying, self-righteous, prejudiced, legalistic, uncompassionate, unmerciful, vengeful, biblicist, and simple-minded. As a friend put it, such people are treated as “brain dead Catholics or Shiite Evangelicals.”

Recently, a leading Episcopal biblical scholar declared that “Some of us, I fear, rather like the prospect of schism.” William Countryman, whose book,Dirt, Greed and Sex,made the peculiar argument that because the Lord told St. Peter that he had made all things clean, Christians could commit sodomy, went on to say that the desire for schism “indulges the propensity we share with all biblical peoples to (if I may borrow a biblical phrase) ‘go whoring after idols.’”

“We make up our mind,” he continued, “exactly what value is important enough to count for more than the true God’s will that ‘they all may be one.’ And we then devote all our energies to serving that one ideal.” It was more difficult and more faithful “to seek the virtues of faith, hope, love, and humility on which the true unity of the church is founded.”

His subjects—again unnamed but easily identified despite the misleading “we”—care more for their idols than for the theological virtues. They lack humility and choose their own way over God’s explicit instructions.

I suppose, to be fair, that if pressed he would claim that his criticism also applied to people of his own party, the moral innovators. But perhaps only if pressed, he not being recorded to have made the same arguments for unity when three years ago the Episcopal Church required everyone to accept the ordination of women. (That innovation was not an idol preferred to unity but a mandate of justice, a distinction made on no apparent criterion other than the innovators’ power and will to enforce their view.)

In any case, here again the sheep are clearly separated from the goats. The latter are not only schismatics, but idolaters.

I doubt many liberals realize the conflict between their attacks on the orthodox for having principles and their own equally decided assertion of their own principles. For most, I suspect, the movement is by now unconscious, though I would not, were I them, assume it to be innocent.

Untrue Caricatures

The goats, you will have noticed, are those who have closed their minds on something solid. Here, I think, the liberals have made one serious mistake, in not seeing that one may have closed one’s mind because one first had it truly open.

A popular psychological tool called the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory describes how people relate to the world. It includes four scales between contrasting ways in which people prefer to act. On one scale, some people are “judging” and others “perceiving.” Judging people like to decide and act as soon as possible. Perceiving people like to keep getting more information.

Js, as they are called, put everything in its place. Ps leave everything open. Js have neat desks and like rules and do everything ahead of time. Ps have messy desks, dislike rules, and do everything at the last moment. Js love to make their world neat and orderly, Ps do not try. Js see the need for action, Ps see the other side of the question.

If the friar, Bishop Browning, and Prof. Countryman are right, orthodox believers must be “judging” and liberals “perceiving.” The orthodox give simple answers, liberals accept the complexity and ambiguity of life. The first are shackled by inherited prejudices and rules, the second open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Orthodox believers are dogmatic and exclusive, liberals open and inclusive. The first believe in proclamation, the second in dialogue.

I have been told by experts that I am, in the Meyers-Briggs jargon, “a hard P.” (I have never taken the test, as a matter of principle, having a dislike of what a friend calls “voodoo for intellectuals.” But people insist on telling you what you are, and the one time I brought home a description of my supposed type, my wife started laughing and said, “They’ve got your number.” She, a “J,” did not entirely mean that as a compliment.)

I would much rather learn more about something than make a decision. My desk is messy, I dislike rules, and I do nearly everything at the last minute. I do not mind if everything isn’t neat, I am instinctively uncomfortable with dogmatism, I am perfectly comfortable with ambiguity, and I see the other side (or sides, often enough) of the question. I am by nature liberal.

Yet I also believe that Scripture answers many questions very clearly, I trust the guidance of the church’s Tradition even when it is obscure, I say the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers, and I think much of religious liberalism not only wrong but foolish. And I am an orthodox Christian, not in spite of being a “hard P,” but because I am one.

A Complex World

I agree with the former presiding bishop that the world is complex. The questions and problems we face are often difficult and ambiguous and the answers inevitably painful. We are blinded by our own sins and failings and the limitations of our time and culture. The answers to many questions are not simple or obvious. I feel this deeply, I suspect rather more deeply than he does.

And that is why I turn to Scripture and Tradition. I have looked at the world as open-mindedly as I could, and found good reason to shut my mind on certain truths, not least the trustworthiness of Scripture and Tradition, as justifying closing the mind to their competitors.

I turn to Scripture because I believe, on good evidence, that God has spoken there. To dismiss what he has said with slogans like “complexity” and “ambiguity” and warnings about “biblicism” and tales of people using the Bible to hurt their enemies, shows that you simply aren’t listening. As Ronald Knox once wrote, “It is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent when the simplicity really lies in the facts.”

It is not very bright to stand pondering the ambiguities of human communication when someone yells “fire” and dashes for the door, especially if you can see the smoke. It is not wise to doubt your wife’s “I love you” because you know enough psychology to wonder how pure and disinterested it really is. Sometimes people do mean what they say.

I turn to Tradition because only in the great stream of believers going back to the apostles do we find the insights and discoveries, the accumulated wisdom, the experiments successful and unsuccessful, that can balance and correct our own weaknesses and most grievous faults. If the world is ambiguous and complex, a wise man, or even a simply prudent one, will get all the help he can.

It is not very bright to trust to your own devices and ignore the grizzled old guide when wandering at night through an alligator-infested swamp. It is foolish, when learning any craft, from writing to wood carving, to ignore the craftsman’s advice and try to learn it by yourself.

In the end, the stereotype best describes not the orthodox but those who use it. As Bishop Browning and his comrades use them, “complexity” and “ambiguity” are really very, very simple ideas, ideas that take no account of the real ambiguity of human knowledge. They are magic words they use to banish any troublesome claim that an idea they dislike may be true.

Religious liberals cannot understand that Christianity is complex because it is both simple and complex. Even its ambiguity is ambiguous. We see in a mirror darkly, as St. Paul said, but we doseein a mirror darkly. Sometimes we see better than others.

Sometimes we are certain, sometimes we are not. Sometimes we see better than other Christians—though rarely, if ever, better than the consensus of the Christians who came before us. Sometimes we see very well, sometimes almost not at all, but in both cases we know how well we see and how firmly we can insist on the accuracy of our vision.

The orthodox Christian is not someone who sees only one side of the question. He is someone who sees whatever sides there are. Sometimes there are two sides to a question, sometimes several, but sometimes only one.

Christianity’s Complexities

The liberal has tried to solve the problems of our limited vision and avoid the dangers of intolerance through relativism and pluralism, but as his own rhetoric and actions show, he cannot do so with any success, because men must always believe something to be true, and must speak for and act upon these truths even though others object and protest. What is denied as conscious principle quickly reappears as unconscious ideology.

The willfully open mind is, as we have seen, often the most tightly shut. The sophisticate is often as sure that he has the truth as any fundamentalist, and more eager to impose his truth on others than most fundamentalists ever think of being.

The liberal cannot help being alternately too relativist and too intolerant, because he cannot see the truth and know what truth demands of those who have been allowed to see it, both in clarity and in kindness. The orthodox believer sees the truth and sees the dangers, and avoids the dangers by the practice of charity. That is the only way he can see the truth with confidence and love those who do not see it. In living the life of charity, he can close his mind and open his arms.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Close Your Mind” appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone.

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The Greater Blessings

The Greater Blessings

By David Mills

The other day I was already thinking about gratitude when I started reading about old students and friends suffering from the continuing — the continuous — degeneration of the Episcopal church. Some of them faced losing their jobs, or had already lost them, but most of them suffered simply from seeing the communion they had so loved become something completely different, and having no real hope of its recovery. There is an answer to their sufferings, but it is an answer only some of them can, or maybe will, hear.

This brought me, a convert from the same body, to reflect again on all the blessings of being a Catholic, and the fact that the blessings always turn out to be greater than you expect and, in fact, often turn out to be greater than you want.

The convert sometimes finds that he’s not completely comfortable with how Catholic the Catholic life actually is. He may come to the Church with all the slobbering, tail-wagging enthusiasm of a hungry beagle hearing table scraps hit his supper dish, but he can suddenly turn into an overfed cat when he finds out what’s in that supper dish.

He’s a little like the man used to meals in those expensive French restaurants with tiny servings, where everyone talks in hushed voices at tables spaced well apart. Tired of always being hungry after dinner, especially after paying all that money, and of eating with one companion, he thinks he wants a good old-fashioned feast and goes off to a restaurant that promises him a good solid meal.

The waiter seats a gang of people at his table, who talk loudly and laugh uproariously and keep slapping him on the back, and then puts down in front of him a huge steak and a pile of fries and a salad that could feed hundreds of rabbits and an enormous glass of wine, while he watches with alarm as the dessert cart rumbles by and men who have finished their meals start lighting cigars.

He thought he wanted a feast, but sitting in the middle of a real feast, he’s not so sure. He had been thinking of something less sumptuous and more decorous. He feels he wanted a feast and got a bacchanal.

In the same way, the convert happily says the Hail Mary and starts learning the rosary, but he may balk a little at praying to all the other saints. (I’ve seen this firsthand.) Or he may happily pray to the major saints, especially the ones who died a long time ago, but finds himself uncomfortable praying to some of the obscure saints, or the sentimental ones, or the ones who lived recently. St. Polycarp and St. Theresa of Avila, yes; St. Therese of Lisieux and Bl. John XXIII, no.

Or he may happily pray to all the saints, but doesn’t like to pray to anyone who’s not officially recognized as a saint, even if he’s a great and godly man. Or, finally and most commonly, he can’t even think about praying to someone he knew, like his grandmother, who loved the Church but tended to disapprove of nearly everything else; or the godly old man who taught his RCIA class but suffered from gas and bad breath; or old Father Luigi, who smoked like a chimney and did not suffer fools gladly.

It’s all too much. To be able to talk to the Mother of God, or to St. Joseph, or to the great martyrs of the early Church, or a favorite medieval theologian — that’s great. It’s simple and straightforward. You’re a private saluting the generals. The Episcopalian has already some idea of the spiritual hierarchy and, finding the connection between himself and those at the top so much more intimate than he imagined, is thrilled.

But then it begins to get complicated, with the multiplication of people with whom you have a real connection. And worse, this group includes people you’ve known well. It can include people you’ve seen in embarrassing situations or whose sins you’ve witnessed. You’re a private saluting . . . other privates. At least it feels that way.

That, in my experience, is where the convert tends to balk. It just doesn’t feel right. Even after eight years as a Catholic, when someone I know says, “I was praying to X,” naming someone we’d both known, I still want to respond, “What, are you nuts? X?”

The convert believes in the Communion of Saints, but then finds that it’s a lot bigger than he thought and isn’t arranged the way he expected. It includes too many people, and a lot of them aren’t really the kind of people he thinks of when he thinks of saints — especially the kind of saints he wants to pray to.

He knows the teaching. He just didn’t expect the teaching to be played out so thoroughly. He had understood it through the truncated vision of things he brought with him and finds to his surprise (and, often, discomfort) that the Church’s vision is much broader and deeper. It’s a lot more Catholic than he ever dreamed.

That is something to be thankful for, at least for those of us who came to the Church from outside. God gives us not only infinitely more than we deserve, but vastly more than we think we want, and in giving us more He expands our desires. The Communion of Saints is a great blessing when it includes Our Lady and the great saints, but it is an even greater blessing — though a blessing that may take some getting used to — when it includes people like our friend X.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on June 22, 2009.


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Sharing the Real Mary

Sharing the Real Mary

By David Mills

Many of our Protestant friends appreciate Mary in a way their ancestors didn’t. This is a good thing. Some of them even like her a lot, and in a way that their ancestors would denounce. This is an even better thing. But there are limits, which too many Catholics just can’t see.

By “Protestant” I’m thinking particularly of our Evangelical friends who are, in doctrinal seriousness and many other ways, close to us. For centuries they simply ignored Mary, even at Christmas. The only time they thought of her in any substantial way was when they were denouncing Catholic teaching, which they thought idolatrous, unbiblical, superstitious, and a rejection of the Lord Himself in favor of His mother.

She was for them, as an Evangelical pastor once said to me, just “the delivery system” needed to bring Jesus into the world. The Incarnation required a human mother; God picked Mary; she agreed, and in nine months Jesus was born. Since He had to have a mother, who it was didn’t really matter. Having this child didn’t change her in any way. Once Jesus was old enough to take of Himself, her small part in our salvation was over.

An Episcopal minister told me that Mary was well down the list of “great Christians.” Asked for an example, he said she was well behind a 19th-century British missionary to Canada named Hudson Taylor. If you wanted an example of faithfulness, he said, look to Taylor before you look to Mary.

After all, he said, she didn’t really do anything. She just had a baby.

But things are changing. One can guess at the reasons: The culture so promotes women that a heavily masculine tradition will prudently look to its sources for famous women to feature. Mary is the obvious first choice, though some Evangelicals have wanted “stronger” women as their examples of biblical women to follow, because they think of Mary as passive and her calling too typically feminine. After all, she didn’t really do anything. She just had a baby.

But this new and growing affection for Jesus’ mother is also the result of their piety finally free to play itself out, now that many of the prejudices and commitments of the past have lost some of their power. They love their Lord and begin feeling a natural affection for His mother, and often begin to look more closely at who she is in the Gospels. They begin to reflect on what her assent to the angel’s news means, and on what the prayer we call the Magnificat says about her; some even begin to look at the Old Testament for ways she may have been anticipated there.

The Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George, a leader in that world, has admitted, “We have been afraid to praise and esteem Mary for her full worth.” This he wants to change, and offers several substantial suggestions for doing so, stressing aspects of Mary and her work that Evangelicals have not talked about much but that follow from their theological commitments.

Writing in the major Evangelical magazine Christianity Today a couple of years ago, he said that an “Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.”

So far, so good. Or maybe I should say, only so far, so good. Because the Protestant attitude shifts quickly from such talk of Mary to considering her as the Catholic knows her. They feel themselves drawn to Jesus’ mother until they meet her in all her glory, as the Mother of the Church and the Queen of Heaven, immaculately conceived, perpetually virgin, assumed into Heaven. Then, as the saying goes, not so much.

Even the irenic George, at the end of his article, can only go so far as to commend this prayer: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.” A good prayer, but not a Marian prayer. He would refuse on pain of death to say the “Hail Mary.”

This difference matters, and matters a lot more than we might want to think. In my experience, Catholics who love their Protestant friends often exaggerate their points of agreement. They hear polite statements of interest or a curiosity about Catholic teaching and read into them a change in conviction that really isn’t there. They take an article like George’s as evidence that our Evangelical friends almost accept the Catholic teaching, missing how little, if anything at all, they’ve actually conceded.

In a recent Catholic News Service story, for example, a mariologist was quoted as saying, with all the good will in the world, that “some Catholic doctrines about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception — the belief that she was conceived without sin — remain controversial among Protestants.” He seems to think that some believe it and others don’t, but that as a group they’re moving our way.

But the belief is not controversial among them at all: Those who understand the matter almost unanimously reject it out of hand. You would have to search long and hard to find any Protestant who believes it. (Outside, that is, of a few high-church Lutherans and Episcopalians, but they’re far from the mainstream of their traditions.)

Just try talking about Mary’s sinlessness to an Evangelical friend. He may simply say politely that he doesn’t believe in it, but he may react as if you’d casually urged him to sacrifice his children to Baal. He will tell you that you’ve denied the Lord, replaced Him with Mary, rejected the biblical teaching, and the like. He thinks the Catholic belief a serious heresy. A fact that is crucial to our friendship with Mary is, to most of our Evangelical friends, an abomination.

The desire to find our friends closer to us than before is an admirable impulse, but it prevents the clarity needed for a truly effective exchange. We must be careful not to take a sign of Evangelical openness to Catholic teaching as a conversion — to treat a friendly wave in our direction as a proposal of marriage.

Marian doctrine and devotion is not a matter, like some others, where the Catholic teaching is an extension or expansion of something believing Protestants hold already. The Communion of Saints, and by extension prayer to the saints for their help, is one of these, at least at the basic level. The Protestant believes in asking others for their prayers, and he knows mutual prayer to be a sign of the Church at work. The Catholic teaching only expands the number of fellow believers whose prayers he can request, by claiming that God has given us access to them. He probably still rejects it — and quite firmly — but it fits what he already believes about the relation of one Christian to his brothers.

Marian doctrine and piety are not like this. They rest on several beliefs radically different from those our Evangelical friends hold, not least the ability of the Church to discern through her Tradition truths that Scripture does not teach explicitly in the way the Evangelical requires. Nothing in Protestant piety could lead them to belief in Mary as the Queen of Heaven, and much tells them that she can’t possibly be anything of the sort. That kind of belief requires a conversion, in the sense of turning around and walking in the opposite direction, in a way the acceptance of many other Catholic teachings and practices doesn’t.

But this is something that many Catholics just don’t get. Priests and laity ask me about this, as a convert who’s written a book on Mary. They confidently give me what they think are winning arguments that are, in fact, hopelessly in-house, deeply Catholic arguments that would leave the inquiring Protestant cold, and in some cases quite offended. The Marian realities are so clear to them that they just can’t see how others can’t see them as clearly as they do. This keeps them from speaking effectively about Mary.

The person called to share the Catholic Faith has to know exactly what the other believes and — just as important, if not more importantly — how he feels about this belief. Think of a doctor trying to persuade a patient to try a new therapy, one that sounds worse than the disease it’s supposed to cure. If he speaks to the patient clinically, as one doctor to another, he won’t be able to convince the patient to try it, and may instead make him dig in his heels. For the patient’s own good, the doctor has to know how he thinks and feels. He must understand that the patient will first, and above all else, see the horrors of the treatment and has to be brought to see that the cost in pain and trouble is worth paying.

We want our Protestant friends to pay the cost, because the knowledge of the Blessed Mother can only change their lives for the better. But too optimistic a view of what they believe now will blind us to the severe challenge of sharing what we know about her with our Evangelical brethren, who are so close to us in so many ways, but so far from us in this.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Sharing the Real Mary” appeared on the Crisis website on October 16, 2009.

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This Old World’s Tawdry Voices

This Old World’s Tawdry Voices

By David Mills

“That means they’re anorexic,”said a young woman I know when asked why the great majority of the girls at her elite college had declared themselves vegetarians or vegans. I thought she was being sarcastic, but she wasn’t.

She was being witty. The ideological self-description has become a code word for an illness the girls didn’t want to admit, she said. Being a vegetarian or vegan justified eating very little, and explained why you didn’t go to the dining hall or got only a small salad when you did.

The girls at this college are all high achievers, driven, type-A personalities who have succeeded at almost everything they’ve tried in life, capable of long hours of intense work and assured, as much as anyone in this world can be, of future success. And yet an astonishing number hate their bodies and try to starve them into an image of perfection they know is ridiculous and unnatural, not to mention culturally determined and commercially driven.

It is, at first sight, baffling. Girls who profess a Marxist contempt for large corporations want to look like the girls in the ads those corporations use to sell their dresses, shoes, perfume, luggage, vodka, cars. They take for their personal ideal an image created by people whose ability to tell the truth about the world they flatly (and rightly) deny.

You hear of a girl you know, an active, intelligent Christian, obviously successful, apparently discerning, apparently confident, who thinks she’s fat and ugly when she is quite beautiful. I have heard the explanations for this, and they all make perfect sense. Still, I cannot understand how such an obviously insane and self-destructive ideal has taken such a hold on so many young women.

I have been reflecting on this as a father of two daughters. But I have also been reflecting on this simply as a father. The world lies to my children, and I cannot always keep them from hearing the lies of the world and believing some of them. I have but one voice, and the world has many. It not only preaches with attractive confidence but seduces with flattery and false promises. It has vast resources for bribery.

Worse, it makes the wicked, the cheap, the mediocre, and the tawdry all feel normal. Recently I went to Barnes & Noble to look at the books being written for teenagers for a talk I was giving at a local parish. It was a mixed lot, as you could guess. Some offered lessons one could endorse, but even in these the lesson was usually mixed with some form of immorality: The teenager learns a painful lesson in telling the truth, perhaps, but only because she is caught lying to a boy she has been sleeping with and loses him. That sleeping with the boy is itself a form of lying is a moral insight far beyond the author.

Other books told stories of silly children, almost always girls, living the anxious but oddly chipper life of the teenage libertine, concerned with the acquisition of boys and things and the status derived from both. Pitched at younger children, these seem to be the better selling.

In either case, the books’ heroes (if there are any, as admirable males are rare in these stories) and heroines do not live the kind of life a Christian father wants his children to emulate. They do nothing very heroic or sacrificial or self-abnegating. They respond to no higher call or self-transcendent principles. In the better stories, they get by; in the worse, they get boys, designer clothes, and a place in the inner circle.

Ever since our children were very young we have read to them from the great books, immersed them in the life of the Church, shared with them the pleasures of good music and good art and good conversation, and pointed them to the saints and other heroes. We have shielded them from the worldly influence of television (we don’t watch it at all) and trivial magazines. We have showed them how to enjoy the world’s productions (we do watch movies on DVD) while discerning what they teach.

And still we see the world in them all, as I can still see it in myself. They have heard some of those worldly voices and believed what they said, probably without knowing it. There’s only so much a parent can do to keep out the world; you can’t keep it completely out of your own mind, much less theirs.

But even I, with an Augustinian realism about the ubiquity of the world, did not see how powerful it was. I think now that I relied too much on arranging our life the way we did — not that we ought to have done less, but that we should have done more to make obvious the love that drove us to live such a life.

You cannot keep your children pure by force of will and the application of techniques. You must love God so that they learn to love Him too, giving them at once the power to resist the seductive, relentless old world and the desire (with God’s help) to keep themselves free from its stain till the day they die.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on September 25, 2008.

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Out of Division, a Greater Unity?

Out of Division, a Greater Unity?

By David Mills

Two weekends ago, almost four-fifths of the clergy and over three-fifths of the laity representing churches in the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the South American Anglican province called “the Southern Cone.” It was the second American diocese (out of 100 or so) to do so, with two more — the tiny diocese of Quincy, in western Illinois, and Fort Worth — expected to follow.

World Anglicanism is made up of 39 provinces, mostly in former English colonies, each completely independent, and in this country, individual Episcopal churches, and now these two dioceses, have simply given up allegiance to their province and joined a theologically sympathetic one. Hitherto, being an Anglican has been enough to paper over profound religious differences — the body having been founded on national identity and strategic generality and vagueness — but now, pushed mainly by the division over homosexuality, it isn’t.

According to the Episcopal journalist David Virtue, even after four decades of decline, 1,000 Episcopalians are still leaving the church every week, and the church is closing congregations all over the country. For almost all that time, such growth as the church experienced came from the conservative congregations, which are now either dispirited or gone. Fewer than 70 people attend an average Episcopal church every Sunday, and the average Episcopalian is 64 years old.

Why is this of interest to Catholics, beyond our interest in brothers and sisters who have tried to remain faithful to historic Christian moral teaching on homosexuality (though not on other matters, particularly contraception) in a body that denies it, and found they couldn’t? Of most practical importance, one fruit of the Episcopal communion’s disintegration has been a new interest in the Catholic Church — not primarily in Catholicism, but in a closer and livelier friendship with Catholics. These are the Episcopalians we are most likely to meet in local Bible studies or praying in front of abortion facilities.

My Evangelical Episcopal friends tended to assume that the Church is, at the parish level, mainly an ethnic community, and the religion there formal and ceremonial, as opposed to the real “heart religion” they see in their own churches. They either condemned or patronized converts to Catholicism. Ministers I know would complain about “the Roman system” and “Roman juridicism,” contrasted with Anglicanism’s sensitive pastoral flexibility, and so on.

When I was an Episcopalian, many clergy I knew didn’t seem to realize that the Catholic Church existed. I heard one talk about the churches in his town and leave out the Catholic church just two blocks away, though it had more active parishioners than his and all the other local churches put together. I and others have heard affluent Episcopalians say, when asked about the Catholic Church, something like, “Why would I go to church with my plumber?” (I always thought this was a joke, until I heard it from a man who was not trying to be funny.)

These ideas and feelings have not disappeared, by any means, but many of the conservative Episcopalians who ten or twenty years ago would not have included Catholics in their list of real Christians now speak of Catholics as fellow Christians, even brothers and sisters in Christ; read Catholic writers; treat official Church statements as having some kind of authority for them; seriously engage the distinctive Catholic doctrines; and even inquire about Catholic devotions. They speak kindly of converts. They admit there may be something to “the Roman system” after all.

The grounds for this new friendship are a little shaky, however. These same Episcopalians are, in my experience, unclear on what the Catholic Church teaches about herself, and expect a convergence that is not going to happen.

I have a friend, an Episcopal minister, who finds in every Catholic kindness to Anglicanism a sign that the Church is changing her teaching. Upon reading story about the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching at the international Mass at Lourdes celebrated by Walter Cardinal Kasper, he was pleased to find the cardinal celebrating an ecumenical Mass, assuming it had been a great rite of intercommunion. He was a little annoyed when I told him otherwise, and suggested that I was imposing my own rigid understanding of things upon the ever more open Catholic Church.

These Episcopalians think of the Catholic Church as a body as capable of evolving as their own. This they combine with the traditional Anglican self-mythology: that, as a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, they have the best of both worlds, rise above all the tired old divisions, can draw the good things from everyone and reject the bad things, and can be a friend to all. They vaguely assume that the Catholic Church is not only capable of evolving, but is evolving into Anglicanism.

Asked by Christianity Today how “all these events among Anglicans fit into the bigger picture,” Bishop Duncan replied:

They need to be read in the context of this great reformation in the Christian West. . . . I see a new day dawning — and not just for us, but for all our Christian partners. We Anglicans, who don’t theologically always get it right, have done something ecclesiologically that might have helped the whole Christian church.

He is quite sincere in this belief, as peculiar as the idea that shuffling legal allegiances is ecclesiologically helpful appears to the Catholic. He thinks his diocese’s action part of an oft-predicted “realignment of Christendom,” in which conservatives in the various bodies move closer to each other and away from the liberals, to the point of forming new churches by combining their parts of the old ones, and someday a single new church.

Conservative Episcopalians like this theory, but it is a dream without much clear content that has (therefore) proved politically useful for a couple of decades or more. First it justified remaining an Episcopalian because things would naturally work themselves out anyway, if only people didn’t panic, and now it justifies leaving the Episcopal Church. It had the value of putting the Episcopal struggles in a wider context and giving the conservatives’ resistance a meaning beyond the small cramped room of the Episcopal Church, to prevent people from feeling they were wasting their time and money. And it headed off conversions, since no one would want to move from a body that is changing into another body that will wind up in the same place someday anyway.

How the Catholic Church fits in this alignment has never been made clear, and indeed several of the people who used to promote this idea have become Catholics, like the English writer William Oddie and me. My Episcopal friends who talk in this way all seem to assume that Rome will “come around” on various issues, like married priests and women priests and all those Marian doctrines, and especially contraception. They get annoyed when I say it won’t.

I am glad to see my old friends and colleagues move closer to the Catholic Church by shedding some of their prejudices and at least giving the Church the benefit of the doubt. While we will not see any kind of corporate reunion, because most of them remain firm Protestants, we will see more and more individual conversions. And we will have friends we did not have before. That may count for something in the future, as the Church remains the secularists’ favorite target.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on October 29, 2008.

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Fifteen Tips for Better Preaching

Fifteen Tips for Better Preaching

By David Mills 

In The Perils of Preaching,” I offered a lament for the general mediocrity of Catholic preaching (and was treated to a number of thoughtful responses, for which I’m grateful). What follows are my layman’s suggestions for Catholic preachers. Strictly speaking, they aren’t exactly a layman’s suggestions, in the sense of being given by someone who doesn’t know the subject. As an Episcopalian, I used to preach in the seminary chapel and in churches, so I know something of the challenges, which I do not underrate — especially for men who are as pressed for time and quiet as Catholic priests. Preaching well is a harder task than most laymen realize.

1) Stay in the pulpit. Not only because it is the Place for Preaching, a sign of the authority with which you speak, but because staying there may also help you remember that you are a servant of the Word and of the Church. Standing in the aisle with a microphone can tempt the humblest man to think he’s the star, and will tempt almost anyone to play to the crowd (Did they get the joke? Are they smiling? Do they look bored? How can I get them back?). Plus you can keep your manuscript or outline there.

2) Preach from a complete outline or a manuscript. A few people can offer complex, developed ideas from memory, but you are probably not one of them. The value of a sermon often lies in your sharing something one or two or three levels deeper than the obvious lesson, which needs to be explained with some care and precision. Very, very few men can do this off the top of their heads. You will need to practice speaking this way to do it well — if you write out the sermon, reread the manuscript till you’ve got it at least half memorized — but better to have substance read a little stiffly than piffle well-delivered. And having an outline or manuscript will keep you from running on.

3) Speak in a personal voice, using “I” and “you.” I mean the kind of voice you hear in G. K. Chesterton’s or C. S. Lewis’s writing, not the kind of self-display you get from a guest on Oprah. Your hearer should think you are trying to show him something you see, not trying to make you look at him. Though you are speaking as an authority, and ought to speak with authority, you are also a man speaking to friends. Most people speak more clearly when they’re talking to someone they know than when they are speaking to an abstraction called “the congregation” or “the 10-o’clock crowd.” And most people listen better when they’re being addressed by a friend rather than a lecturer.

Use “we” only when you are part of the group to which you’re referring. Some priests use “we” when they mean “you guys” or “some of you” or “those jerks.” This by itself makes a sermon abstract and sound insincere. Your listeners will know when you are not speaking honestly, when your “we” is just a cheap way of claiming an identity you don’t have or pretending you’re not criticizing someone else.

4) Speak from your own experience and your own knowledge. If you have a story from your own life that illustrates the lesson, tell it — but only if it works as a story. A good rule is not to tell a story about yourself you would not tell if it were about someone else, and don’t tell any story that does not have a direct relation to your theme.

5) Never use a cultural reference, especially a pop cultural reference, to look knowledgeable or hip or to “connect” with your people. It’s annoying, like a 50-year-old wearing his baseball cap backward. And you’ll probably get the reference wrong anyway, or you’ll use one your people have already heard half-a-dozen times. (I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard that opened with the same quote from Joseph Heller’s 1974 novel Something Happened, one of which I heard just last year.) Only use such references when you would use them in conversation and un-self-consciously.

6) Exposit the Scriptures. Tell the congregation something about the lessons they will not see on their own, especially about their background and context, the connections between the texts, and the way the great theologians have expounded them. This means reading the texts for themselves, not beginning with your ideas and finding some of them illustrated in the text — which is, I’m afraid, the dominant form of priestly exegesis and explains why some priests’ sermons begin to sound alike when you’ve heard more than ten or so. This will keep your listeners’ attention, because people like such information, if only in the way they like trivia questions.

More importantly, the close study of the day’s lessons should give you new insights and save you from repeating your favorite themes. Close study should include the reading of the great preachers’ sermons on the same passages. Immersion in the minds of others is the only way most of us can avoid saying something inane.

At the same time, don’t reduce the supernatural to a moral lesson, as if the history given in Scripture were Aesop’s Fables. The Resurrection is not primarily an illustration of the value of hope and perseverance. Do not try to explain what the story “means” until you’ve made clear that something amazing once happened. As Rev. Alvin Kimel wrote in response to “The Perils of Preaching”:

Somehow the Catholic priest must begin to understand the homily as akin to giving the Eucharist. It’s not just a matter of saying things about God or Jesus or morality . . . . Preaching is communication of Jesus Christ himself. It is a word, the Word, that enables us to live our lives in faith and hope. The preacher must not just speak about the gospel: he must do the gospel to his hearers. “The preaching of the Word of God,” Martin Luther said, “is the Word of God.”

This is what the Catholic preacher must begin to understand and practice. Too many sermons tell people to do good only — not even to be good, through the instruments the Church provides, but just to do good. We know we should do good, but, with St. Paul, we find ourselves not doing it. We need to be helped to see more clearly and to love more deeply the One in whose service we would do better than we are.

7) Do not inveigh against “Fundamentalism.” Even conservative priests do this from time to time. You probably don’t know what you’re talking about, and in any case the effect will be to tell the congregation that Catholics don’t believe Scripture says anything directly. Of all the groups to criticize by name, the Fundamentalists are about the last you should pick on. If you’re going to criticize someone who is a real danger to the Faith, criticize dissenting Catholics.

Also, don’t water down the meaning of the text to avoid being considered fundamentalist or right-wing or rigid or Biblicist, or whatever label is being applied to people who take the Scriptural teaching as seriously as the Church takes it. Priests do this all the time. When the lesson hits hard, you must hit your people with it. You are a doctor helping sick people, and the medicine they need will often make them feel even worse, like radiation and chemo for cancer. But when you hit them, explain the good news in the pain, the health that taking their medicine will bring them.

8) Always remind people that they are sinners and give them examples in which they can see themselves. It will not be news to them: Almost everyone knows he’s a sinner, even if he doesn’t like the term. Your people are not who they want to be. A sermon proclaims some part of the Good News, and you will waste your listeners’ time if you don’t deliver the bad news that makes the Good News good. Too many priests offer All Good News All the Time, which isn’t helpful or compelling. You do want to affirm your people, whose lives are often hard enough as it is, but you want to affirm them in Christ, which is rather different.

9) Make sure your points connect and form a single argument. Have a theme or thesis, and cut ruthlessly anything that doesn’t advance it. I don’t know how often I’ve heard a preacher build an argument, promising a moving or enlightening conclusion, and then switch to another subject entirely. (The odds of this happening rise if he’s preaching from the aisle.) It’s like listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and a few minutes into the last movement hearing the orchestra switch to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Even the Mozart fanatic will feel the letdown.

To put it a different way: Before you begin composing the sermon, decide on the single point you want the congregation to remember, then do everything you can to implant that point deep in their minds. Remember that the point will rarely make your listeners smack their foreheads and say, “Wow!” (the kind of effect we all hope for), but may only encourage or challenge them in a small, but nevertheless important, way. Don’t swing for the fences and risk striking out, but aim for the single that, added to a single the next week and those in the weeks after that, will over time score a lot more runs.

10) Do not use any favorite metaphor that you think profound. Words like “journey” and “pilgrimage,” and phrases like “living the song,” and anything else that makes you feel as if you’d just seen a basket of kittens. (Readers are encouraged to help fill out the list.) They will drive your thinking away from the realities you should be proclaiming into comforting and useless abstractions.

Since no one who uses such words recognizes them as clichés, you’d best avoid them and find a parishioner alert to such things to warn you when you start using one. Metaphors should be considered guilty until proven innocent. For that matter, you would do well to have a sharp-witted parishioner critique your sermons in advance.

11) Speak of “the Catholic Faith” and “the Catholic Church” and offer stories of the saints and insights from the writers of the past as often as you can do so naturally. You are not just teaching and exhorting your people, but encouraging their sense of belonging to a real thing, an historical community with a history, with heroes, sages, and officers, with duties, rewards, and privileges. It’s unnatural for a Catholic priest not to use the word “Catholic” a lot and speak often of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Someone who only heard the sermon should know without a doubt that it was given by a Catholic priest.

12) When appropriate, and it quite often is, preach dogmatically, with explicit references to Catholic teaching. I’m told that liturgical “experts” dislike this. Ignore them. Your people need all the help you can give them in understanding the thing to which they’ve committed themselves, and your sermon is probably the only instruction they will get all week. Help them to see how the Scriptures lead to the doctrines of the Faith and how the doctrines help us understand the Scriptures, and how the two together contribute to human happiness.

13) Once in a while, clarify the differences between what Catholics believe and what our Protestant brethren believe. Include an apologetic explanation for the Catholic belief. Your listeners may well hear Catholicism criticized by Protestants they know (I’ve been surprised at how gratuitously even learned Protestant friends will slap at the Church), and they need to be encouraged in their Faith and given help in responding. You will usually have to respond to some dim, if not doltish, anti-Catholic claim, but when possible, respond to Protestantism’s best representatives, so your people know what are the real differences.

14) Connect the truths you are drawing from the Scriptures to the Mass, the Church year, and the sacramental life. This lets you present the congregation with a tangible experience of the gospel you’ve just proclaimed. I have heard too many sermons that led naturally to the confessional as a comfort and a liberation, but ended instead with declarations of God’s general interest in us and the exhortation to just keep on trying. This doesn’t satisfy our need for action, nor does it tell us anything we couldn’t have gotten from the Episcopalian down the street. God gave us the Church and the sacraments for a reason.

15) Preach for transformation, even though the transformation will be incremental. Expect your parishioners to change. Point them to Jesus: to meeting Him, to knowing Him, to growing more and more like Him. Point them to the crucifix and to the tabernacle, and help them think more deeply about what they mean. What you show them of Jesus, the Jesus who died for them, will make everything hard you’ve said bearable. Don’t talk about “living in community” but about living in the Body of Christ.

Don’t talk about healing, but about Christ’s healing. Don’t talk about doing good works, but about Christian charity, which requires much more. Don’t talk about perseverance, but about Heaven, which expects less of us but promises much more.

To sum up: You are standing before your people as a mediator, and a mediator makes connections — connections with Christ above all, the Christ who came to us and will come again, but also with the Body of Christ, and with the Church’s Scriptures and her teaching; with her saints, theologians, devotional writers, with the departed, and with each other. You are speaking to people whose lives are disjointed, broken, and disconnected, and you want to remind them that they are part of a large and old and wise thing, a family, a body, a vine, stretching backward and forward through history and into eternity. You have the Good News in its fullness to give your people. That’s what we want and what we need, and what only you can give us just before we receive our Lord.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on March 12, 2009.

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The Perils of Preaching

The Perils of Preaching

By David Mills

Listening to sermons at Mass, one often thinks, like the professor in the Narnia Chronicles, “What do they teach in school?” Not that the sermons are necessarily all that bad, but they are rarely as good as they would be had the priest been better taught. It’s like listening to a fiddler who hits most of the notes but doesn’t know how to keep time — because, one suspects, he learned the fiddle from an accordion player.

When I was an Episcopalian, friends worried that I might become a Catholic always brought up the liturgy and the preaching. Even then this struck me as irrelevant, but they saw the two bodies as brands in competition, and so thought that I was about to spend the same amount of money for a bashed-up Saturn as I would for a perfectly maintained Mercedes. Why endure old Father O’Shea when you can sit at the feet of the Rev. Canon Horace Q. Swizzlestick III, D.D.?

But in my experience of almost eight years as a Catholic, I have rarely heard a genuinely bad sermon, and I have heard a few very good ones. Even some of the most ineptly composed and delivered sermons included some striking insight that redeemed the mess. Perhaps I’ve been blessed — or maybe my standards are low — but I haven’t found Catholic preaching to be the horror show I was led to expect, even by some Catholics. I hear horror stories, and I’m sure they’re true, but I cannot tell any.

That said, most sermons could be much better than they are. The content is either much better than the presentation or the presentation much better than the content (rare is the preacher who does well in both, but not so rare is the preacher who does badly in both); the treatment of Scripture is almost always inadequate; too little is said to connect the Scriptures with the Catholic Faith; and the insights are usually left unconnected to real life, or are connected abstractly and moralistically.

Some priests only deal with the text when they’re trying to explain it away. Many stick to certain all-purpose themes — “living in community” and “being Christ to the world” are two I’ve heard several times — that produce vague and generic conclusions, which tend to be the same conclusion you heard last week, and in the weeks before that. One rarely gets the feeling that the words of the Word matter. I have heard sermons that offered a deeper, more exacting analysis of a popular song than of the Scripture readings of the day.

Sitting in the pew, I often feel that the priest means well but simply doesn’t see any need actually to prepare his sermon. The false starts, the hesitations, the repetitions, the truisms, the lack of any specific reference to the lessons, the conclusion that just trails off — these all suggest that he spent at most fifteen minutes working on the ten to twelve minutes he would be speaking. That is more than a little insulting.

Though I don’t have any horror stories to tell, it’s the general mediocrity (in both the dictionary and popular senses of the word) of Catholic preaching that leaves me depressed. It could easily be much better. The basic skills of preaching are not that hard to teach, or to learn.

On the other hand, Protestant preaching is not necessarily that much better. Since the sermon is so central to their worship, these bodies choose their ordinands partly on their ability to preach and train them hard to do so, but still, this only takes them so far. If you listen to a randomly selected Southern Baptist minister and Catholic priest, the odds are about six to one that the first will be the better preacher, but this isn’t true across the Protestant board.

Ministers in the mainline churches often offer literary essays with a “spiritual” angle but no uniquely Christian content. You get high production values but no substance, like gourmet cotton candy.

And the skeptical theology in which many of these ministers were trained does not let them say much that is actually interesting on the day’s lessons, since they think the lessons merely primitive expressions of someone else’s experience of the Divine, if not a mode of social control and oppression (St. Paul being Exhibit One). They don’t have to wrestle with the text in the way that creates the most interesting insights. Their sermons may appeal and soothe, but only because they have packaged the comforting clichés of the moment and made them sound religious or “spiritual.” More conservative preachers take the Scriptures more seriously, but even with them there are problems. Some of them tend to preach versions of the same sermon over and over, particularly if they are of an evangelistic bent.

And as good at exegesis as some of them are, they sometimes distort Scripture, because they read it outside of the Church. They discuss conversion as if it does not involve incorporation into the Body of Christ, for example. I have heard sermons on John 6 that went to great and confusing lengths to avoid admitting that it had anything to do with the Eucharist.

A disturbing number preach more like leftist or rightwing political talking heads than Christian pastors. Their sermons reflect an embarrassing cultural captivity, whether to liberal pieties about poverty, government, war, and the like, or to rightwing culture-war stereotypes. Though generally conservative, I have heard sermons that made me want to run from the church and buy a red flag and a picture of Trotsky.

Increasingly, Protestant ministers don’t even preach the sermons they can preach. One superb expository preacher I can recall dropped the exploration of Scripture for life-application sermons, complete with a handout in the bulletin with fill-in-the-blank statements for his congregation to fill in as he spoke.

This is the style favored by the megachurches. The sermons are not unbiblical, but they use Scripture for their own ends, and only to address the questions of their target demographic, rather than reading it as a Word from outside. They make Scripture relevant by turning it into an obscurely written self-help book.

Adequate preaching can be taught, and almost every man called to the priesthood can learn it.I get the impression from talking to priests I know that most seminaries don’t take instruction in preaching as seriously as they ought to, and that some tend to focus on the theory of communication rather than the practical matters of composition and delivery.

Many Catholic leaders seem to think that preaching well is a gift and that, alas, some seminarians and priests just don’t have it. Preaching well is a gift, but preaching adequately is a skill, and a skill that can be learned. Next time I will offer 15 layman’s suggestions for doing just that.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on February 23, 2009.

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Responding to the Annoying

Catholic Sense 17

Responding to the Annoying

By David Mills

Her friend kept picking at her about confession, a reader wrote me recently. This friend, who must have been very annoying, demanded to knowhow she could tell some man about her sins and why she thought that he could do anything about them.

I have had this same experience, and many of you probably have as well. People you know, sometimes close relatives or very good friends, seem personally offended by something that as a Catholic you do as a matter of course. They act as if you kept insulting their nose or spitting on their living room floor or making fun of their grandparents.

And very often, nothing you can say seems to make any difference. The kindest, clearest, most compelling explanation goes in one ear and out the other. Eventually you will hear the same remarks again, maybe in almost exactly the same words, with the same annoyance, astonishment, or insistence in their voices.

Confession is one of the main subjects of their annoyance, but not the only way. I have had friends equally insulted by my belief in the presence of Our Lord in the elements at Mass and my confidence in the authority of the Church’s Magisterium, and especially by my believing that the pope was not just a man like any other.

It’s a little weird. It’s as if they were harrassing you about the color of your socks or your preferences in peanut butter, or calling you up every few days to ask why you like old movies. Or maybe better, it’s as if they were constantly questioning the way you were raising your children, when your children seemed to be turning out well. You’re not sure why they care, and why they think it all right to — in fact necessary — to cross that line between friendly interest and interfering in someone else’s life.

You may be more patient or more charitable than I am (the reader who wrote me apparently was), but while I can manage a polite answer the first two or three times, I soon start being tempted to answer this kind of person with a sarcastic, “So why do you care, Jack?”

It’s no skin off their nose if I go into a small room late on a Saturday morning and tell a man authorized for this kind of work what I’ve done wrong and get his response. They wouldn’t say anything at all if I went to a counsellor every week and told him the same things. So why do they care so much that I go to a priest in the hope of becoming a better man? What’s it to them?

As I say, I am tempted to give the sarcastic response or something ruder. I just want them to shut up. (This being in itself good evidence for the need to visit that small room with the man behind the screen.)

But I think that asking your inquisitor “Why do you care?”, said with concern and not annoyance, is actually the right thing to say to someone who keeps pestering you about the way you practice your faith. It is a way of expressing your care for him and at the same time may be the best way to make him stop annoying you.

He may have a reason. It may not be a good reason, but you now have a chance to answer it, which should stop him stop bothering you and may even let you talk with him in a fruitful way. But he may not have a reason, and being forced to admit that may embarrass him into stopping harassing you.

Or he may have a reason he doesn’t recognize himself, and you will be doing him a kindness by making him reflect on why he reacts to your faith the way he does. Sometimes — and this I’ve seen myself — the idea of saying his sins aloud and with another person listening really frightens him. He doesn’t want to hear it said out loud, even by himself.

If he sees this, then you can begin to show him that in confession (or in any other Catholic practice to which he objects), the loving Father offers his children what they really need and what they really want. And you can turn a persecutor into a friend.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the March 26, 2010 issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic.

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Nature is Just So Natural

Catholic Sense 16

 Nature is Just So Natural

By David Mills

Our old dog eats deer poop. The neighborhood cats stalk, torture, and kill our chipmunks. The spider whose web I see in front of my window stings the butterfly caught in his web, wraps it with silk, and later comes back to eat it alive.

Your knee hurts. Your eyes begin to go. Cancer cells eat up the body of your closest friend. The earth shifts suddenly, and flattens part of a crowded island, and thousands and thousands die.

There’s nature for you. It is sometimes only disgusting, like the dietary habits of our aging mutt. It’s sometimes just annoying, like your aching knee and fuzzy vision. But it is also cold, brutal, merciless. Nature is entirely selfish and utterly amoral, indifferent to pain. It’s soaked in the blood of the innocent.

And yet some people say that we ought to abandon the old religions and worship nature. Writing on the website of a serious English magazine, someone calling himself (or herself) “Pagan Artist” wrote in a cheerful Mary Poppins kind of way: “What is wrong with worshipping God’s creation itself? The sun, the moon, the stars, the air, the trees, the rivers, the sea — we cannot live for a day without them.”

He then explained why this made him want to worship nature and not the god of any established religion: “For me, that makes them divine because they give us the ultimate gift of life. Organized religions on the other hand have given us nothing but death and destruction. Nature gives us life. Organized religions give us death. Which one should we hold divine and worship with reverence?”

Let us set aside the claim that “organized religions” have given the world lots of bad things and no good things. It’s just silly. Walk around any major city and note the number of hospitals with names like “Mercy Hospital” and “Our Lady of . . .” and “Beth Israel.” Where did the modern hospital come from but from the medical care dispensed freely by the monks of the Middle Ages?

Look at the new pagan case at its best. It claims that we ought to reverence nature because it gives us life, as Pagan Artist said. You can easily think of all sorts of wonderful things to be found in Nature. The Christian would say that the wonderful things we find are wonderful gifts given us by a loving God, but let that go for a second.

The first thing to be said about this modern nature worship is that it is most extraordinarily dim. Sure, we find in nature pretty sunsets, and cute little bunnies and kittens, and warm sunny breezy spring days, and the awe-inspiring mechanics of life on earth and the equally awe-inspiring movement of the stars and galaxies.

But we also find physical decay, cancer, earthquakes. Those cute kittens grow up to eat the cute bunnies. The weather that produces the beautiful spring days will also produce killing cold snaps and hurricanes that destroy everything in their path. The mechanics of life on earth produce death as much as life, and indeed depend on death to maintain the balance. What is to you a horrible death from cancer is for Nature simply a way of adjusting the population.

I don’t know why anyone would want to worship this, unless – like the real pagans – they want to try to make it like them and spare them its worst. That’s not worship as we understand it, but bribery, and desperate bribery at that. Some of the ancient pagan religions would do almost anything to bribe the nature gods, including sacrificing their own children.

That is how frightened of nature were the people who knew it best. Not for them the cheery “Nature gives us life” and the chipper question, “What is wrong with worshipping God’s creation itself?”

That’s the speech of someone who lives far removed from nature, in a modern city in a modern house with modern heat and modern plumbing, with modern medicine and everything else that protects us from nature as she really is.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in Pittsburgh Catholic on .

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