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In Depth Analysis

Extended commentary and thoughtful Catholic essays on complex topics.

Religious unity, evangelization and the salvation crisis

Having examined the fundamental difference between the quest for religious unity and evangelization, it seems sensible to ask what, in the modern period, has caused evangelization (with its supernatural end) to so often be subordinated to religious unity (with its natural end). If we can...

Church Fathers: Origen's Works

Origen’s prodigious literary output was encouraged by his wealthy friends, in particular one Ambrose whom he had converted from Valentinianism. Out of his own pocket, this benefactor stationed in Origen’s lecture room “more than seven shorthand-writers, who relieved each other at...

Church Fathers: Origen's Life and Legacy

At last we come to Origen, surely the most titanic intellectual figure of the first three centuries of Christianity after St. Paul. In the breadth of his writings and in the depth of his influence, he is equaled by few among the Church Fathers. He brought the catechetical school of Alexandria to...

Under-the-radar signs of progress in Vatican reforms

Have you noticed that as Christmas approaches, you spend less time reading news headlines? There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, you have other things on your mind; you’re busy with your last-minute preparations for the great feast. Second, the people who usually make the...

Old Earl's Christmas

I had known Earl for as long as I can remember, though he was my senior by thirty-seven years. He was a hard-working, reliable man, an excellent provider for his family, always responsible and deeply trustworthy. Born in 1911, he had already lived through the Great Depression and two world wars...

On the 'conversion' of Jews: The new Vatican statement

Our initial news story on the recent document issued by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was somewhat misleading (see New Vatican document: Catholics should not seek to convert Jews). The term “convert” in this context is usually used to describe the...

A case study in the development of doctrine

The trouble with master narratives of history is the air of inevitability they lend to events that could have gone very differently. Historians are the ones who construct narratives, yet it is also their job to disrupt them, or at least to go beyond them so that rather than taking the past for...

Sing of Mary, 3: Living the Rosary

The Rosary is a mainstay of Catholic devotion, typically regarded as the most powerful form of prayer after the Mass. Most of us carry a Rosary with us in purse or pocket, and certainly many who read these words have already made it a part of their daily prayers. When in distress, Catholics cling...

The other side of the Francis effect: Hypersensitivity and hysteria?

David Bentley Hart has expressed his perplexity over the “anxiety, disappointment, or hostility” Pope Francis inspires “in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent.” Hart is the typically profound and often entertaining writer of “The Back Page” essay...

Francis on Communion: The Pope's deeper questions, and ours

In responding to the Lutheran woman who asked how she could receive Communion with her Catholic husband (see my earlier analysis), Pope Francis raised a profound question. It is a question which could easily stimulate further development in the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist...

The Pope on Christian Humanism: To understand, we need concrete applications.

In a major address to the Italian bishops on Tuesday, Pope Francis outlined his vision of the Church in terms of “Christian humanism”. We now have a translation of the entire text, though the quotations in this commentary are from the substantial excerpts provided by Vatican...

Catholicism and Evolution: not so compatible after all?

Recall your frustration when the media reported Pope Francis’s remarks in favor of evolution as though they represented a total reversal of the Church’s teaching on the subject. Sheer annoyance with the media is enough to explain why educated Catholics responded by emphasizing that...

Church Fathers: Clement of Alexandria, Part II

In the previous article I gave an overview of the life and works of Clement of Alexandria, the head of the catechetical school of that city. He set out a new speculative path in theology, one which used philosophy both for preparatory study and as a tool for developing new insights. Now I will...

Church Fathers: Clement of Alexandria, Part I

Clement was the first great writer of the catechetical school of Alexandria, a city which under his influence became the intellectual center of Christianity. It was he who first made philosophy the handmaid of theology. Quasten calls him the “pioneer of Christian scholarship” and...

Trusting our shepherds: A healthy Church requires true bishops, not branch managers

I have noticed again, in discussions of Pope Francis’ reform of the annulment process, that some people fear the empowerment of bishops. Their instinct is that it is much better for Rome to take care of contentious issues (such as marriage annulments) for the entire Church. I make no...

Church Fathers: The Third Century and the School of Alexandria

The situation of Christianity in its third century was quite different from the second. The old paganism was in decline, not just because of the spread of Christian faith but because of other shifts in Greco-Roman culture. A number of new cults appeared as a result of encounters with Eastern...

The confusion, complexities and dangers of marriage annulments: A call to order

It’s a sad thing, a broken marriage. I am referring literally to a broken or severed marriage. Of course, all relationships can be broken or severed, and there is sadness in each case. But marriage is the most intimate and fruitful union of a man and a woman, the nexus of the family, a...

Henri de Lubac's fascinating notes on Vatican II

Here I explore the notes made by the French theologian Henri de Lubac as he prepared for and participated in the Second Vatican Council. I will gradually add revealing excerpts and comments from successive stages of de Lubac’s involvement. Each stage will be linked below. They will be...

Church Fathers: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Part II

The previous article introduced the figure of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “father of Catholic theology,” and gave an overview of his surviving texts, most notably the five-volume work known as Against Heresies. We examined the grounding principle of his theology: the rule of faith,...

Church Fathers: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Part I

As we have seen, the problem of heresy became an increasingly pressing issue for Christians towards the end of the second century. Popes and bishops excommunicated the inventors and adherents of heresies and wrote pastoral letters warning the faithful. Among these protectors of the flock were the...

Church Fathers: Background on Heresies

We are reaching a point in the history of Christianity at which combatting heresy becomes a principal concern of ecclesiastical writers. We will soon be looking, for instance, at St. Irenaeus, whose status as the most important theologian of the second century is due largely to his massive work...

The Coup at the (Catholic) U

It was a remarkable thing even for the 1960s—the takeover of the Catholic University of America by its heterodox Department of Theology. I am referring, of course, to the wholesale defiance of episcopal oversight as soon as the bishops on the Board of Trustees tried to put a stop to the...

Church Fathers: The Other Greek Apologists

We know the names and some of the works of several other second century Greek Christian writers besides those covered in the preceding two installments. Though all of these explained and defended the Faith as did St. Justin Martyr, either they were writers of lesser power and reliability or their...

Church Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr, generally considered the most important of the Greek apologists, was born between 100 and 110, the son of a pagan Priscus in Flavia Neapolis, Palestine. Justin tells us in his own writings that as a young man, he dallied with a few different schools of philosophy, yet found...

Church Fathers: Introduction to the Greek Apologists

Parallel with the increasing influence of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism, the second century saw, along with sporadic State persecutions and anti-Christian riots, the publication of numerous works of anti-Christian literature. While Christianity would in subsequent centuries be...

Church Fathers: The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd (or Pastor) of Hermas, an important second-century Christian text, is categorized as an apocryphal apocalypse; it consists of a series of visions urging repentance and penance in preparation for the end times. It contains of three books containing five Visions, twelve...

O Canada! Assisted suicide, the Christian meaning of defeat, and King Alfred the Great

Last week’s news that the Canadian Supreme Court had struck down Canada’s law against assisted suicide is an object lesson. The justices have become the latest poster children for what is wrong with the world. I wish to consider just two of these serious wrongs, and to identify one...

On the failure of history—and historians—without Christ

When I was a brash young graduate student in the very early 1970s, Professor Lawrence Stone tried to teach me that the English Revolution and civil war were essentially caused by social and demographic factors, and that the previous emphasis on religious differences was essentially laughable. I...

Church Fathers: St. Polycarp and St. Papias

St. Polycarp, Apostolic Father The earliest extant detailed account of the arrest and martyrdom of a single individual is that of St. Polycarp (70-156), Bishop of Smyrna. According to St. Irenaeus, who had listened to Polycarp as a child, Polycarp himself had learned from the Apostle John...

Why believe in God? And why are some answers so unbearably thin?

I just spent a very enjoyable couple of hours reading a collection of essays from religious artists answering the question of why they believe in God. By religious “artists”, I mean religious persons who are involved in the arts—creative writing, the visual arts, and music. The...

Church Fathers: St. Ignatius of Antioch

Tradition has it that the church at Antioch was founded by St. Peter himself, who served as its bishop for seven years before moving on to found the church at Rome. (Robert Spencer writes that “Gregory III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, has joked that if...

Replacing problems with persons: Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic

Over the last three days I’ve read Eve Tushnet’s remarkable book, Gay and Catholic. Tushnet, who is now in her mid-30s, realized that she was “gay” in middle school, admitted it to herself at age thirteen, and told her parents shortly thereafter. But while in college she...

Church Fathers: St. Clement of Rome

Sometime towards the end of the first century A.D., two men made a journey from Rome to Corinth. Claudius Ephebus and Valerius Vito, a pair of freed slaves from the household of the deceased Emperor Claudius, carried a letter to the Christian community in Corinth from Bishop Clement of Rome...

Does the Kasper proposal undermine the New Covenant?

In yesterday’s City Gates piece, Using the figure of Pope Francis for evangelization, I alluded to aspects of Pope Francis’ approach which keep us off balance and raise questions in our minds. But I also wrote that “Catholic doctrine is deep in his bones”. As Francis...

The Mystery of Music, Part III

In the next world I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it. —Ralph Vaughan Williams Our experience of beauty and mystery is often most intense when dissimilar things are united; the supreme example of this is the Incarnation, in which...

The Mystery of Music, Part II

Speak, you who are older, for it is fitting that you should, but with accurate knowledge, and do not interrupt the music. —Sirach 32:3 The task Labat sets about in The Song That I Am (see The Mystery of Music, Part I) is to consider “music as a language communicating an...

From simple husband to ascetical priest

In my previous comments on asceticism (see Addressing the Root Cause of Clerical Homosexual Behavior and Pederasty), I proposed that each bishop live an ascetical life, and by his own example and directives, oversee the ascetical discipline of his priests. Ascesis, or the practice of...

On Not Settling for Less: The Cognitive Guide to Happiness

This essay explores the relationship between human experience, human knowing, and human happiness. It grew to some six thousand words, so I divided it into sections, with a table of contents and links to jump between contents and text. It should be easy to read at intervals, in...

The Problem with Catholic Social Teaching

Long-time readers will know of my respect for Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute. Not only do we have a number of his articles on social-economic-political issues in our library, but I favorably reviewed his book Tea Party Catholic last December (see Political principles...

Church Fathers: The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas

The Didache One of the most important sources from the age of the Apostolic Fathers is “The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations,” commonly referred to by its short name, the Didache (Greek for “teaching”). While the Didache was lost until the...

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