Saturday, March 19, 2016

USC Videos: The Role of Catholic Tradition

So, if you read this blog you probably know who Dave Armstrong is. He has been doing popular Catholic apologetics for years. He runs a blog on Patheos and used to have another website, which I believe is now defunct or redirects to the Patheos site.

I have had several run-ins with Dave over the years and we have butted heads on the issue of Catholic Traditionalism. I have kind of argued with Dave in my comboxes, published articles rebutting things he said that I disagreed with, and bantered with him on Facebook over the years. Other traditionalists have had similar encounters with him - often leading to someone getting banned from Dave's Facebook page.

I have to be honest, I would get so riled up reading Dave's comments on "radical traditionalism" that I unfollowed him on Facebook - not because I dislike Dave personally, but because I was wasting so much time reading his long threads and arguing back and forth. This was last summer I believe.

Well, you might not know it, but Dave and I live only an hour away from each other. He and I have many mutual friends. Dave, to his credit, seems to have not been happy with the way some of his interactions with traditionalists had gone and reached out to me last Fall to kind of build some bridges. Dave has monthly gatherings at his home where he invites speakers to address a variety of topics relevant to the faith. He reached out to me and asked if I would come to his home to speak to his friends about "authentic traditionalism." I agreed. The result was this video.

There were about fifteen people there, including Dr. Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, and Dr. Phil Blosser, Professor of Philosophy at Sacred Heart and blogmaster of the excellent blog Musings of a Pertinacious Papist, which has generously linked to this blog over the years.

A few notes - I know people will object to my comments early on that some people can be "too nit-picky" about liturgy and that this can be a fault. Some people think you can never be too particular about liturgy. I'm sorry, I disagree. When your priest, despite huge opposition, begins to offer the Latin Mass and you complain about his pronunciation; when you tap somebody on the shoulder before Mass and tell them that the genuflected on the wrong knee; when a volunteer amateur choir director puts in arduous hours preparing the chants for Sunday and you complain about the quality of the polyphony - I'm sorry, you are being too nit-picky.

One interesting thing was that both Dave and I wanted to make sure the presentation of the argument for tradition was positive - that is, it was not centered on the problems with Vatican II or exclusively on abuses or papal scandal or things like that. It was to be centered on the positive value of tradition considered in itself, not in relation to all the terrible things happening right now.

I also mention at the end that I am interested in promoting a traditionalism that is not bound up with the fate of the SSPX. For those who read this blog this should be nothing new. I pray for the SSPX to be reconciled fully with the Church. But I do not think traditionalism stands or falls with the SSPX.

Special thanks to Dave for extending the invitation to me. I had a chance to have dinner with Dave and his family before the talk and - as is the case with most humans - he is much more likable in person than as a name in a combox. We still have our disagreements, of course, but that doesn't mean we have to personally dislike each other.

Anyhow, if you're interested, take a look. And subscribe to our Youtube channel.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Woman Caught in Adultery

In today's Gospel, we heard the story from the Gospel of John of the woman caught in adultery. Of course it is the source of the famous anecdote, "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone" (cf. John 8:7).

This is one of the best known sayings of Jesus, but I also believe that this story as a whole is one of the least understood. What was Jesus really saying when He said, "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone"?

The story if often made into a moral about not judging. The assumption is that the Pharisees were being harshly judgmental in publicly accusing the woman of adultery. In their insistence that she suffer the penalty of death they are calling for a strict application of justice without any mercy. When Jesus says, "Let he among who is without sin cast the first stone", our Lord is reminding the Pharisees that everybody is a sinner and we are all in need of God's mercy. The people holding the stones, reflecting on their own sinfulness, suddenly realize they are in no position to pass judgment on the sins of another and go away. Then Jesus mercifully forgives the woman and sends her on her way.

The central assumption of this common interpretation is that, when confronted with Jesus' comment, the Pharisees realized that they were all sinners and that they had no moral standing to insist on the punishment of another sinner. How can they insist on the punishments prescribed by the law when they themselves are also guilty of breaking the law?

This is probably the most common manner of reading this story, and while it has a certain beauty to it, I am convinced that this is not most textually accurate way of reading this story. Here's why:

First, the Pharisees were not being out of line by accusing the woman of adultery. It was not as if this was some unfounded rumor and the Pharisees were jumping to a hasty conclusion. The text says she was caught in the very act (v. 3-4); the Pharisees were neither being judgmental nor hasty in their conclusion.

Second, recall that the Pharisees were not actually insisting that the woman suffer the death penalty. The Pharisees merely noted (rightly) that the Law of Moses called for the death penalty and asked Jesus "what do you say?" (v. 5) They were not insisting that Jesus stone the woman; they were asking for His opinion.

Why were they asking? The Scriptures tell us it was so that they might find some matter in which they could accuse Him (v. 6). Accuse Him of what? To whom? When the Pharisees set traps for our Lord, they did so in such a manner that no matter what answer He gave He would stand condemned, as in the famous example of the Temple tax ("Don't you pay taxes to Caesar?"). Their questions are set up for Him to be inescapable dilemmas.

If that was the case, it does not make sense that they would be trying to urge our Lord to stone the woman. It has to be the case that whatever course our Lord takes - death or clemency - He somehow stands condemned. We understand that if Jesus opted for clemency, the Pharisees could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker, since the Law of Moses specifically commanded death for adulterers (Lev. 20). But how could Jesus stand condemned if He agreed with the application of the death penalty?

To answer this, we need to ask about whom the Pharisees were hoping to accuse Jesus to. If He refused to execute the woman, they could accuse Him to the people as a lawbreaker. But if He carried out the sentence?

It is evident that the only answer would be the Roman authorities. If Jesus insisted on executing the woman, the Pharisees would have grounds to make an accusation against Jesus to the Romans, for the Jews under Roman occupation were not allowed to put anyone to death (John 18:31). The right to execute a capital sentence resides with the sovereign alone. Forbidding the Jews from carrying out the death sentence was an expression of Roman sovereignty. Conversely, if Jesus were to command an execution, it would be tantamount to His denial of Roman sovereignty - a claim to exercise a power independent of Rome. Our Lord would stand condemned as a rebel against Roman power in Judea.

Thus, if Jesus refuses to execute the sentence prescribed by the Law, He is a lawbreaker and could lose credibility with the people. If He agrees to execute the sentence, He makes Himself a rebel against Rome. Either way, however He chooses, He stands condemned. It is an impossible dilemma.

Thus - and this is pivotal - when Jesus stands up and says, "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone", He is not so much making an appeal to the Pharisee's conscience to consider their own sinfulness; rather, He is throwing the dilemma back upon them. Here's how.

What is often forgotten in this story is that the Pharisees really did believe they were without sin. When Jesus says "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone", this phrase was not likely to phase the Pharisees the way we assume, because the Pharisees actually assumed they were sinless. They assumed their adherence to the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders rendered them righteous in the eyes of God. Jesus' statement cannot be construed as an appeal to their conscience. In their conscience, they believed they were sinless.

As further evidence of this, we must remember that the Law of Moses never stipulated that those who carry out the penalties of the law must themselves be sinless. Not once does the Old Testament ever infer such a principle; therefore, there is no justification for thinking the Pharisees were pricked at their own sinfulness. We have already noted that the Pharisees did not believe themselves to be sinners -  but even if they did acknowledge they had sinned, there is no reason to suppose this would have stopped them from carrying out the sentence, since the Law of Moses never said those who carried out the precepts of the Law needed to be sinless themselves.

This and the prior consideration lead us to see that it is not possible that Jesus' words were intended to prick the Pharisees' conscience about their own sinfulness. What did He intend, then?

By saying, "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone", Jesus is quite cleverly throwing the dilemma back upon the Pharisees. Those who are without sin are the best judges of what is the prudent course of action in a given situation; since the Pharisees claim to be such, let them render a judgment. This puts the Pharisees in the dilemma they intended to trap Jesus in. Now it is the Pharisees who must choose between being lawbreakers and rebels.

This is why Scripture specifically says that it was the old men among the crowd who dropped their stones and walked away first (v. 9). This is another indication that our Lord was not intending to prick their conscience about their own sinfulness. The elder, who were wiser, understood the bind our Lord had put the Pharisees in before the younger. They immediately knew they were beaten and went away. It took the younger ones awhile to figure out what had happened.

Thus, rather than seeing this story as our Lord appealing to the conscience of the Pharisees to recognize that we are all sinners, our Lord's actions actually presume that the Pharisees consider themselves sinless - this is why He is able to take the trap they laid for Him and turn it on them. It is not an appeal against judgmentalism and self-righteousness; rather, it is a clever game in Jesus uses the Pharisees' own assumed sinlessness to make them run afoul of Rome's law if they insist on carrying out the death penalty.

There remains only one question - the Scriptures clearly say that when the Pharisees approached Jesus, He was bent over and writing in the dust with His finger; this is mentioned twice (v. 6,8). But, tantalizingly enough, the Gospel does not say what He was writing. What was Jesus writing in the ground?

There is no way to know, but I would look to the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, chapter 17. There, the prophet says:
O Lord, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake thee shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water (Jer. 17:13)

The names of those enemies of the Lord who forsake Him shall be written in the earth. Was our Lord writing the names of His adversaries? In that same passage, a little further down, Jeremiah says:
Let those be put to shame who persecute me,
but let me not be put to shame;
let them be dismayed,
but let me not be dismayed;
bring upon them the day of evil;
destroy them with double destruction! (Jer. 17:18)

This is perfectly applicable to what the Pharisees were doing to Jesus in John 8. They intended to make our Lord dismayed, but the dismay they intended to bring upon Him was turned upon their own heads.