Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pope Francis Shows His Cards

I. The Crises in the Synod

Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah,
one of the leading opponents of Cardinal Kasper's proposals
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which began on October 5, ended yesterday. The Synod was, to put it mildly, a bumpy ride. A group of bishops, lead by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, vocally pushed for some revolutionary changes to the Church's teachings on marriage, divorce, and homosexuality. These “doctrinal backflips” (to use Australian Cardinal Pell's phrase) were quickly, and rightly, opposed by the other bishops.

When those seeking to change the Church's teachings failed in open debate, they shifted to different tactics. When the African bishops stood up for the Church's teachings, Kasper pushed for their views to be discarded, suggesting that they “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

The other approach was to simply play to the press, instead. In the relatio post disceptationem (which are essentially the “minutes” of the Synod, summarizing the discussion up to that point), they included misleading and inaccurate language that suggested that the bishops wanted the Church to change her position on these issues. This relatio was then released to the press before the bishops had a chance to read it. This, quite predictably, turned into a media firestorm about all the doctrinal changes just around the corner! Turns out, the bishops didn't actually hold to these positions, and they quickly denounced the relatio.

The pope, meanwhile, stayed silent throughout. Cardinal Kasper used this silence to claim the pope's tacit support, and without the pope speaking up to contradict this assessment, many Catholics (on both sides) assumed that Pope Francis was in Kasper's revolutionary camp. This led to heterodox rejoicing and orthodox despair.

Of course, there was always an alternative explanation: that the pope wasn't speaking because he was listening. During the Synod, in response to a commenter who claimed the pope's silence signified his approval of a heretical agenda, I suggested:
It seems to me that Pope Francis is surveying the available options, trying to figure out what in the world we can do for the messy pastoral situations that we find ourselves in with millions of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. His role even during the Synod itself, has been primarily one of quietly listening to the bishops speaking. If he were trying to push some sort of heretical agenda, I would expect him to take a more dominant role (at least behind closed doors at the Synod itself).
After all, the purpose of synods is to give the bishops a chance to assist the Holy Father in an advisory capacity:
Can. 342 The synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.

Can. 343 The function of the synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has given it deliberative power in certain cases; in this event, it rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the synod.
In other words, Pope Francis sat quietly while he let the Synod do its job: the bishops offered their counsel (both good and ill) for the problems facing the Church.

II. Peter Speaks Through Francis

But this still left the question open: what did the pope think of all this? At the close of the Synod, Pope Francis finally ended his silence, quickly dispelling all that premature jubilation and despair. The pope, it turns out, is Catholic.

After the perfunctory thank yous, Francis described how the Synod had been a journey, full of consolations, but “also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.” He then listed five particular “temptations” to be avoided:
Félix Joseph Barrias, The Temptation of Christ by the Devil (1860)
- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals. 
- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” 
- The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46). 
- The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God. 
- The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things… 
Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.

In other words, we must reject two extremes. One approach would be to simply recite the Catechism answer in a merciless and detached way, that risks reducing the faith to something merely academic, truth without charity. The other extreme is to reject the truth in favor of what people want to hear on these “hard teachings” (cf. John 6:60), which Pope Francis calls a deceptive mercy (ahem). It tries to have charity without truth, but ends up with neither.

This second extreme is the Kasper camp, and Francis is presenting his positions as temptations that the Church must avoid. That's not quite the papal support Kasper was claiming. But Francis doesn't just tell us what to reject. He also reminds us what to affirm, including “the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).

Having clarified his views on the hot-button issues facing the Synod, Francis then outlines his vision of the Church and of the papacy. In my view, his description of the Church is one of the highlights of his papacy to date:
And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. 
This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem
The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.
It's with that vision of the Church that we can see why we should reject the two extremes earlier: the view that sort of pushes the broken sinner out the way, and the view that condones and confirms the broken sinner in his sinning. Both of those positions are betrayals of the Church's true call.

When Christ encounters the adulterous woman, He saves her from being stoned, and tells her (John 8:11), “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” The perennial temptation is to cut off half of that radical message: either to condemn the woman, or to stay silent, instead of loving her and calling her to sin no more.

And what's the Holy Father's own role in all this?
Lorenzo Lotto, Christ and the Adulteress (1528)
So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them. 
His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God's People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, [....]
So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).
You can read the whole thing here. If only all Christians had such an understanding of the Church, and of the pope's place in it. It's a beautiful call to evangelization: to not only welcome the sinner, but to go and seek out the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).

Post-Script: Tu es Petrus

I can't resist adding a post-script, of sorts. This morning, at the beatification of Blessed Paul VI, Pope Francis passed right in front of me, and I got the chance to shout out Tu es Petrus (you are Peter, the words Jesus spoke to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:18 in establishing the Church). It's a phrase used often in the history of the Church, both to remind us of the Apostolic succession running from St. Peter to Pope Francis through the end of time, and to remind the pope of his calling and mission:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did the Papacy Exist While John Was Alive?

For my money, one of the strongest arguments against the papacy (or at least one of the most interesting) is that the Catholic view requires us to hold that the first few popes after Peter had authority over St. John the Evangelist, even though these popes weren't Apostles, and John was.

So how do we answer that? I think that the easiest way is to look to history. In particular, what did the Church look like while Clement was in charge of the Apostle John was still living? We can actually answer this question to a certain extent, because we have the writings of both Clement and John. The answer may surprise you. To explore this, I propose asking three questions: (I) when did St. Clement write to the Corinthians?; (II) when did the Apostle John die?; and (III) why does this matter?

I. When Did St. Clement Write to the Corinthians?

Pope St. Clement (Clement of Rome), Author of 1 Clement
Answer: c. 95-96 A.D.

As the University of Exeter's David G. Horrell explains, “Although a precise and irrefutable dating of 1 Clement is impossible, there is widespread agreement that it was written in the last decade of the first century, perhaps around 95-96 CE.

On this issue, the modern scholarly consensus is in agreement with the testimony of the earliest Christians, who say that Clement was the third Bishop of Rome (or fourth, if you count St. Peter, who was both Apostle and bishop). Tertullian, writing around 200 A.D., describes how, unlike heretical sects, the Catholic Church has Apostolic Succession. In describing this succession, Tertullian notes that St. Clement was ordained by St. Peter, and was Bishop of Rome:
Let them exhibit the origins of their churches, let them unroll the list of their bishops, coming down from the beginning by succession in such a way that their first bishop had for his originator and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men; one, I mean, who continued with the apostles. For this is how the apostolic churches record their origins. The church of Smyrna, for example, reports that Polycarp was placed there by John, the church of Rome that Clement was ordained by Peter. In just the same way the other churches produced men who were appointed to the office of bishop by the apostles and so transmitted the apostolic seed to them.
Eusebius, the first Church historian, writes that “Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies [in Philippians 4:3], his co-laborer and fellow-soldier.

This also agrees with the text itself. Pope Clement refers to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul as examples of spiritual heroes from “our own generation”:
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.
Clement also begins the letter by explaining that its tardiness was due “to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves,” an apparent reference to the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian. Finally, he calls upon his readers to “remember” the sayings of Jesus, rather than quoting one of the Gospels, all of which supports a dating of c. 95-96.

II. When Did the Apostle John Die?

1Pontormo, St. John the Evangelist (1525)
Answer: Sometime after c. 96 A.D.

Christian Courier has a very good summary of why the Book of Revelation likely dates to c. 96 A.D., rather than 68-69 (the Preterist view). Meanwhile, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible explains that the Gospel of John isn't a second-century document, as was once claimed by the opponents of orthodox Christianity:
During the nineteenth century, scholars dated the Gospel [of John] to the last half of the second century because of its perceived Hellenistic influence. In the twentieth century, however, two factors combined to push the likely date of composition somewhat earlier. First, the John Rylands Library Papyrus (P52), a small fragment of a papyrus codex with a few verses from John 18, was discovered in 1935 and dated variously from 117-150 C.E., indicating a date of composition no later than the end of the first century, given the time needed for the text to spread to Egypt. Second, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1948 and their subsequent analysis provided additional evidence both for the complex diversity and thorough Hellenization of first-century Judaism and also for the Jewish background of Johannine motifs previously thought drawn from the gentile world, such as the light/dark duality so prominent in the prologue (1:4-5). A latest reasonable date for the Gospel's composition, then, is before 100 C.E.
The encyclopedia goes on to argue that while establishing an earliest possible date is more difficult, the general consensus is that John's Gospel dates to the 90s.

Once again, we find an emerging scholarly consensus on the dating of John's Gospel and Revelation that correspond with what we find testified to by the Church Fathers, who are clear that John wrote Revelation shortly after the Emperor Domitian's death, while John was in exile. St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes in Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.) that Revelation was written not long ago, “almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign.” 

St. Clement of Alexandria (155-215) [this isn't Pope Clement, by the way, but the second-century Bishop of Alexandria] agrees on the date, and notes that the Apostle John was still active as an Apostle during this time period:
For when, on the tyrant's [Domitian's] death, he [the Apostle John] returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.
So Pope Clement and the Apostle John are both writing in the immediate aftermath of the Domitian persecution. This gives us a very precise date to work with: September 18, 96, the date of the Emperor Domitian's assassination. As for the death of St. John, it obviously occurred later. The date 100 A.D. is the consensus (accepted even by those who don't accept the 96 A.D. dating for Revelation), which is in accord with the Patristic testimony that John wrote Revelation while he was an “old man.”

III. Why Does This Matter?

Map depicting St. Paul's third missionary journey, including to Corinto (Corinth)
The last two points are relatively non-controversial: it's generally accepted that 1 Clement was written about 96, and that the Apostle John died about 100. So what? Well, consider how 1 Clement begins. Pope Clement, speaking on behalf of the entire Roman Church, says:
The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied. 
Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury.
What does this mean?

It means that when there was schism within the Corinthian church, they appealed all the way to Rome for assistance and consultation, even though the Apostle John was alive at the time. We don't know exactly when the Corinthians wrote, but it was early enough that Clement is apologetic for his delayed response in 96 A.D.

Apart from the pope and the Apostles, no one is afforded this kind of respect and deference in the Apostolic age. And when Clement responds, he's not afraid to order the schismatics to return to the true Church:
Ye therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.
So you have the Roman church intervening in a local church dispute, and issuing orders. You've got the Bishop of Rome speaking on behalf of the whole church of Rome. And you've got all this going on while the Apostle John is still alive. A standard Protestant ecclesiology would suggest that this matter would have been handled entirely at the congregational level, or barring that, by appealing to the still-living Apostle.

IV. What was the Church's Reaction to 1 Clement?

The other Clement: St. Clement of Alexandria
How do the early Christians respond to this Roman intervention into the affairs of Corinth? Do they view this as a papist usurpation of John's Apostolic authority, or as a violation of the autonomy of the local church? Nope. On the contrary, the major dispute following Clement's letter is whether or not it should be considered Scripture.

St. Clement of Alexandria (the other Clement, mentioned earlier), after citing Scriptural passages on martyrdom, continues:
Moreover, in the Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Clement also, drawing a picture of the Gnostic, says: [...]
Even as late as St. Jerome's book De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), from the late fourth century, we hear that Clement's letter is still being read liturgically, as if it were Scripture:
He [Clement] wrote, on the part of the church of Rome, an especially valuable Letter to the church of the Corinthians, which in some places is publicly read, and which seems to me to agree in style with the epistle to the Hebrews which passes under the name of Paul but it differs from this same epistle, not only in many of its ideas, but also in respect of the order of words, and its likeness in either respect is not very great.
Of course, this is not to suggest that 1 Clement (or any other papal encyclical, after 2 Peter) is Scripture. Rather, it's to show that the early Church looks a whole lot more papal than you might expect.

This also puts John's own Gospel in a whole new light. John makes repeated reference to Petrine authority; for example, in the midst of his Resurrection account, John points out that he waited for Peter before entering the Tomb (John 20:4-5). In the next chapter, he talks about how, at Christ's command, Peter was able to singlehandedly haul in the net of fish (Jn. 21:11) that the other Apostles were incapable of hauling in (Jn. 21:6). Then he recounts Christ's commissioning of Peter as Shepherd  (Jn. 21:15-17). In each case, these are details that only John reports, and (assuming that the general consensus on the dating of his Gospel is correct) he is doing so decades after Peter's death. So why emphasize Petrine authority? Because John wasn't a rival to Clement or any of Peter's successors. Both men had roles to play in the Body of Christ, and John built up that Body, from the papacy on down.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Peril of False Mercy: Divorce, Remarriage, and Holy Communion

Sandro Botticelli, The Last Communion of St. Jerome (1495) (detail)
Imagine a kid who has a severe peanut allergy, but wants a peanut butter cookie. Peanut allergy is one of the worst of the food allergies, since it can be triggered by even trace amounts of peanuts (even 1/1000th of a peanut), and it can be deadly. But to a little kid, that risk might seem too abstract. All they know is that they want that cookie, and their dad is telling them that they can't have it. It seems unfair and mean, and they're likely hurt by it.

That's the image that came to me in considering this question of giving Communion to someone who is divorced and remarried. The Eucharist is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful gift that God has ever given us. For anyone to be unable to receive the Blessed Sacrament is an enormous tragedy, and it's wonderful that there are “remarried” people who ache for it, because the Eucharist is worth aching for. I wish more Catholics felt this, actually: that more of us pined for receiving the Eucharist on the days that we aren't at Mass, or can't receive at Mass for some reason.

So I can completely sympathize with why someone would want to receive Our Lord at Communion despite knowing that they're not eligible to present themselves. Now that almost everyone presents themselves for Communion, it's also embarrassing to be the only person left seated, particularly if you've got a pushy usher by your pew, trying to force you to get into line. Moreover, the difference between divorce and annulments strikes some people as too academic and abstract: they just see someone else they consider divorced-and-remarried in line for Communion, while they're told not to present themselves. Given all this, it's not hard to see why so many people think it's merciful to encourage them to go ahead and receive Communion anyways - or even, to try to get the Church to change her teaching in this regard.

But here's the thing. Encouraging those not in right relationship with God to receive Communion as if they are is a false mercy, just as it would be a false mercy to let your allergic kid eat a peanut butter cookie. To receive Communion unworthily risks your life as surely as eating a peanut butter cookie allergically. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
In other words, if you're receiving Communion while you're not in right relationship with Jesus, you're poisoning your own soul, a sort of spiritual suicide caused by committing mortal sin. And the person who is divorced and remarried is objectively not in right relationship with Jesus, because they're in a state of adultery (Mark 10:11-12 says this outright). In other words, even if your priest tells you it's okay to present yourself for Communion, just like it wouldn't be okay to steal a car if your priest tells you. In both case, there's a higher Law at place, one that none of us here below can change.

These are some strong words, but they're what the Gospel tells us. And stepping back, there's a certain logic to what Paul is saying about receiving the Eucharist unworthily. After all, the Eucharist is Holy Communion, Communion with Jesus Christ Himself. And communion always requires a certain intimacy and right relationship. If you don't have that, because you've chosen some sin or sinful attachment (like being in an adulterous relationship) over that relationship with Him, it's not right to behave like you do. We recognize this in other contexts as well, obviously: in the right context and right relationship, the sexual act is a beautiful God-given expression of love and communion; in the wrong context, it's rape, or adultery, or fornication, and it's horribly wrong.

So it's precisely because of the beauty and intimacy of this gift of Communion with Jesus Christ that we need to search our souls (all of us, not just those who are divorced and civilly “remarried”) to make sure that we're receiving Him worthily.

Fortunately, there's always, always, always a way out, this side of eternity. If you're not in the spiritual state you need to be, because of marital issues or any other reason, there's an easy cure. Repent, go to confession, gets washed clean in the Blood of Christ, and receive that outpouring of graces. Choose Christ at all costs, choose Christ over all earthly loves and pleasures, and do whatever it takes to be able to receive Him wholly and completely, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. When you do that, you'll know what true mercy feels like.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Celebrating Lepanto in the Age of ISIS

Paolo Veronese, The Battle of Lepanto (1572)
On Sunday, I stumbled upon a group of Venetian nationalists commemorating the Battle of Lepanto, which occurred 443 years ago today, October 7, 1571. I spoke to one of the men, who explained that they wanted to remind people of the battle (and of Venice's contributions to the victory), because the Italian government didn't emphasize it. That lack of emphasis is doubly so in the United States, where I doubt many people, including Christians, have even heard of the Battle of Lepanto. That's a shame, because it's quite possibly the reason that Western Civilization as we know it still exists, and the victory is due to Our Lady of the Rosary.

So why should you care about a 16th century naval battle? Here are five reasons:
  1. If the Catholic forces of the Holy League had failed back in 1571, Europe (and thus, the New World) might well have become part of the Ottoman Caliphate. So, if you're reading this in a historically-Christian / Western country, Lepanto is a major part of your history.

  2. The battle marked a turning point in the Caliphate's attempted domination of Europe: as a navy, the Ottoman Empire never recovered from Lepanto.

  3. The triumph of Christianity and Western civilization at Lepanto was accredited to the Virgin Mary. In fact, when Mary is referred to as “Our Lady of Victory,” the victory in question is Lepanto. That's how significant this battle was.

  4. Lepanto is the reason that today's feast day is Our Lady of the Rosary.

  5. The battle of Lepanto sheds light on the religious and political realities of today.
So what was the Battle of Lepanto?

On one side of the battle was the Ottoman Empire, which had been aggressively expanding for over two centuries by this time. They were at war with the Republic of Venice, but were also attacking other European ships, including those coming back from the New World. On the other side was a coalition of Christian nations called the Holy League. They were organized by Pope Pius V to defend Christian Europe against these Turkish would-be invaders. As T. C. F. Hopkins notes, the Holy League was remarkable in bringing together most of Europe, including nations who normally were at each other's throats:
The Victors of Lepanto (John of Austria, Marcantonio Colonna, and Sebastiano Venier)
The last crucial addition to the mix was an energetic - not to say fanatical - new pope, Pius V, who fired up religious fervor in support of the European powers, and in so doing gained - after sustained effort - the wholehearted support of Spain. Felipe II went so far as to order his Sicilian fleet, which until this point had been ordered to avoid assisting other Christian ships against Ottoman foes, to join in with other European forces in repelling the Turks. The foundation for the return of the Holy League was laid, embracing Spain and all the European Spanish territories, including Majorca, Minorca, the Two Sicilies (Naples, southern Italy, and the island itself). Franche-Comté in central-eastern France, the Piedmont to the southeast of France, Sardinia, most of what is now Belgium and the Netherlands; the eastern Hapsburg Empire based at Vienna in Austria and including German, Czech, and Hungarian territory. In addition to this formidable union were the Papal States in Italy; the Spanish client states of Genoa and Corscia, and the ports that were controlled by Genoa; and the Republic of Venice. [....]

This unlikely European group entered into a rickety alliance, goaded and pressured by the Pope, who sent out an urgent summons to Catholics everywhere to support this stand against the expansion of Islam. Catholic volunteers came from as far away as Britain and Scandanavia to support the efforts of the Holy League against the Muslim Turks, and for one of the few times in the post-medieval society of the sixteenth century, Europe managed to agree upon the necessity of addressing a common threat. [....]

As is obvious, the Hapsburgs were crucial to the struggles against the Ottoman Empire - the eastern and western Hapbsurg Empires [the Holy Roman Empire and Spain] controlled almost seventy percent of the wealth of Europe, and directly or indirectly ruled over the fortunes of two-thirds of its inhabitants, and had connections, through treaties and marriages with every royal House in Europe. In the long history of the House of Hapsburg, its influence was at its greatest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was never more crucial than at this juncture in European/Ottoman affairs.
Basically, all of the major European powers other than France and England were present. Even in those countries, some of the faithful in those countries joined up with the Holy League, while people all across Europe prayed for victory. Pope Pius V called upon all Christians to pray the Rosary for the success of the Holy League, and Rosaries were given to the sailors and soldiers aboard the Holy League's fleet. 

Ultimately, the spark that set off the fuse of war between the Turks and the Holy League was the bloody Turkish conquest of Cyprus:
The Ottoman capture of Cyprus - a longtime Venetian island in Greek waters, and a prize for Europeans and Turks alike - provided an impetus and a focus for European fury, for upon the fall of the fortress city of Famagusta, the Ottoman forces under Lala Mustapha, acting against the terms of surrender of the city, humiliated the revered Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, and abrogated the terms of the truce they had just concluded, sacking the city, plundering the houses and businesses there, and taking its inhabitant captive to sell as slaves to faithful Ottoman slave merchants.

The Ottoman victors then publicly flayed Bragadin alive and had his skin stuffed with straw, which Lala Mustapha sent back to Turkey to be further degraded in a number of public displays, a deliberately provocative act that Venice could not and would not tolerate, let alone ignore, as this was a direct challenge to the Venetian presence in the Greek Islands as had ever been issued.
The Holy League responded by sending a fleet to fight off the Turks, consisting of six galleasses and 206 galleys. This compared to an Ottoman force of 251 ships (206 galleys and 45 galliots). Seeing the three galleasses leading the fleet, the Ottomans mistook them for merchant ships and set out to attack them. That proved to be a fatal mistake. By the time the battle was over, the Ottoman fleet was virtually destroyed: the Holy League sank 50 of the Turkish ships, and captured another 137 (leaving the Ottomans with just 64 of their original ships). Besides crushing the Ottoman navy, this victory also meant that some 15,000 Christian slaves were freed.

H. Letter, Battle of Lepanto 1571
Although the Ottoman Navy would rebuild its fleet, many of its finest sailors were dead or captured. Both the Turkish menace on the high seas and the threat of an Ottoman coastal invasion were greatly diminished. Pope Pius V, of course, was jubilant, and responded by creating today's feast day, originally called Our Lady of Victory. The Holy League likewise credited their victory to Mary's intercession, both due to the many Rosaries prayed, and the presence of a holy image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (brought over from the New World) aboard one of the Genoan ships.

That's Lepanto in a nutshell. But I think it's important for how we think about Christian-Islamic history, particularly the Crusades, and how we ought to understand Islam.

Lepanto and Holy War

Members of WSM Independence (a Venetian nationalist movement)
celebrate the Battle of Lepanto.
The Battle of Lepanto was by no means the only time that Muslim forces (particularly the Umayyad and Ottoman Caliphates) attempted to conquer Europe for Islam. At various times, they conquered Spain and Portugal, southern Italy, Cyprus, Crete, parts of Eastern Europe, etc. Nor was it only Europe: Muhammad succeeded in unifying the Arabian peninsula by conquering the city of Mecca. For the next several centuries, there were frequent Muslim conquests of new lands: the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, Persia, parts of India, the Holy Land, North Africa, etc..

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, when the Catholic Church wanted to spread her religion to a new land, she sent missionaries, while her Muslim counterparts sent armies. This left Christian Europe with two options: surrender, accept dhimmitude, and watch Christianity get snuffed out of Europe in the way that it was in the Holy Land and North Africa (each of which were once strongholds of Christianity), or fight a war of self-defense.

The battle of Lepanto must be understood in light of that history. So, too, must the Crusades. Most modern treatments paint the Crusaders as the bad guys, more-or-less randomly invading the Holy Land to violently spread Christianity. The popes who called the various Crusades also come in for particularly rough treatment, since it seems so incongruous for the head of Christianity to be starting a war. But in fact, these were primarily defensive wars, resisting Islamic expansion and oppression. The Christians of the Holy Land and of the Eastern Roman Empire were too weak to defend themselves, so the pope called on Western Christians to come to their aid.

In the case of the First Crusade, this was because the Seljuqs, a group of invading Turkish and Persian Sunnis, threatened the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Christian presence (and Christian holy sites) in the Holy Land. It was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos who appealed to Pope Urban II for help, which lead to Urban calling the First Crusade in 1095. 

This isn't to exonerate everything that happened during the Crusades, by the way. In addition to the holy motives, there were people motivated by greed, bloodlust, and other less-than-noble motives, and there were war crimes at the hands of Crusaders. While the pope could call a Crusade, it was much harder to keep it on a leash, as the Fourth Crusade makes clear (in which the Crusaders were actually excommunicated by the pope). But if you want to understand either the Battle of Lepanto or the Crusades, you need to understand their context.

Lepanto and Christian Unity

There's a reason that the Roman Emperor entreated the pope when he needed an army to defend Christendom, just as there's a reason that it was only Pope Pius V who was able to organize the Holy League that won at Lepanto. Only the pope possessed the sort of moral authority to issue a call to arms and have everyone respond.

Recall that before the pope's formation of the Holy League, the Spanish fleet wouldn't lift a finger to help other besieged Christian ships. Left to their own devices, the Christian states were too often bickering (and even going to war with one another) to come together for mutual defense. The pope alone possessed the authority and gravitas to move above much of this nationalism and self-interest. But even the pope's authority had its limits. In fighting off Muslim invaders, Christians were guilty of two nearly-fatal sins:

  1. Apathy: It was easy for Christians in Europe to ignore the plight of overrun Christians in the Holy Land and Africa, and it was easy for Western European Christians to ignore the plight of besieged Eastern Christians. But this was shortsighted as it was selfish. The Islamic expansion wasn't about conquering Arabia, or India, or Egypt. It's always been about trying to conquer the entire world. Letting the Christian nations around you get gobbled up before you act isn't just selfish, it's stupid. It's reminiscent of that famous Martin Niemöller poem.

    Fortunately, the pope, responsible for the spiritual welfare of all of Christianity, couldn't write off the oppression of these Christians as someone else's problem. And he still can't. Pope Francis has called out the daily Muslim persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq, which most Western Christians seem content to ignore.

  2. Heresy, Schism, and Disunity: North Africa was, for several centuries, one of the major strongholds of Christianity. So how did it get conquered by Muslim hordes, and so quickly? There are several factors, but one of them is this: Eastern Christianity, on the eve of the Islamic invasion, was largely heretical. This matters for two reasons. First, it made the various Christian groups (Monophysites, Nestorians, etc.) less likely to trust one another. Second, many of these groups were persecuted by the Eastern Roman Empire, which was Catholic. The conquering Muslims, in contrast, made no distinction between Catholics, Monophysites, Nestorians, or any other Christians: all of them were promised the same treatment as dhimmi (second-class citizens, basically). So many of these heretics actually sided with the Muslim invaders. This strategy was also self-defeating, as you can see from looking at (or for) Christians in the Holy Land and North Africa today.

Both of these issues came up at Lepanto. The French didn't opt in to the Holy League, both because of fears of civil war with the Protestant Huguenots at home, and because they had scandalously entered into an alliance with the Ottomans.

Meanwhile, none of the Protestant countries joined the Holy League. As I've mentioned before, many of the early Protestants actually  rooted for the Ottomans to win. Shortly before Lepanto, the leader of the Dutch Reformation, William of Orange, conspired with the Ottoman invaders to attack Spain, as the Dutch were rebelling from Spain at the time. They even made medallions (seen on the right) that said, Liever Turks dan Paaps (“Rather Turkish than Papist”) on one side, and En Despit de la Mes (“In Spite of the Mass”) on the other.

England also allied with the Turkish invaders, with Queen Elizabeth appealing to them on the grounds that both Protestants and Muslims detested Catholicism and its “idolatry.”

This ambiguous position on the Ottoman invaders dates back to Martin Luther himself, several decades earlier. In 1518, Luther denounced the Crusades, on the grounds that “to fight against the Turk is the same thing as resisting God, who visits our sin upon us with this rod.”As the Turks advanced towards Luther's Germany, he quickly clarified (or changed) his views:
From this article they may get it, who say that I prevent and dissuade from war against the Turk. I still confess freely that this article is mine and that I put it forth and defended it at the time; and if things in the world were in the same state now that they were in then, I would still have to put it forth and defend it. But it is not fair to forget how things then stood in the world, and what my grounds and reasons were, and still keep my words and apply them to another situation where those grounds and reasons do not exist. With this kind of art, who could not make the Gospel a pack of lies or pretend that it contradicted itself?
Luther's position was now that Catholicism and Islam were equally evil, and Protestants should “Treat the one like the other and no one is wronged; like sin should receive like punishment.” But since, unlike the pope, the Muslims were actually using murderous force, this meant that Protestants could fight back against them. Needless to say, a papal Crusade to fight against the Muslim invaders was unacceptable: it had to be done by the civil authority, instead. Such an approach, of course, was exactly the problem. With each country left to fend for itself, there was no united front, and the parts of the world that took this approach were quickly overrun by the Muslim hordes.

Lepanto and Islam

A map showing the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate from 622-750
Finally, it's timely as well to consider the Islamic half of the equation, since we see this sort of imperial Islam today. Although it is nowhere near as powerful as the Ottoman Caliphate, militant Islam once more threatens world peace and global stability. The Christians of the Holy Land and Middle East are on the verge of extinction in many places, leading the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans to issue an urgent warning to the West.

Many people are quick to point out that these radical Muslim jihadists don't represent Islam. I appreciate the sentiment, as I wouldn't want to be represented by self-proclaimed Christians like the Westboro Baptist Church, and I'm grateful that a great many Muslims aren't pro-jihad.

But at the same time, I can't help but feel that this is a bit of a red herring. It's hard to deny that the jihadists in question are acting on a religious impulse. As a non-Muslim, it's virtually irrelevant to me whether or not the jihadists are interpreting the Qu'ran in the way that their warlord founder intended. After all, I view all versions of Islam as fundamentally mistaken, which is why I'm not a Muslim.

But in any case, it seems clear that these jihadists are finding something in their religion that is motivating this. Because whether their interpretation of Islam is correct or incorrect, it's certainly not rare. About a quarter of Muslims worldwide report believing that suicide bombing is at least sometimes justified, while nearly two-third support the death penalty for those who leave Islam. Obviously, these numbers vary greatly by country (only 0.5% of Kazakhstani Muslims support killing converts, compared to 86% of Egyptian Muslims).

So this violent strain isn't exactly a fringe. But what Lepanto, and the broader Catholic-Muslim history shows, is that it's also not new (or at least, not entirely so: certainly, the emergence of the radical Wahabi sect and a lot of other factors influence the modern face of jihadist Islam). For my money, a more convincing argument is the one made by Hilaire Belloc, in which he depicted the struggle between Christianity and (violent) Islam as a perennial battle. What's notable is that he made this argument in The Great Heresies back in 1938, when Islam seemed defeated and most Muslims were colonial subjects of European powers. Read Belloc's argument, and decide for yourself how accurately he predicted the future:
Hilaire Belloc (1915)
Of every dozen Mohammedans [Muslims] in the world today, eleven are actually or virtually subjects of an Occidental [Western] power. It would seem, I repeat, as though the great duel was now decided.

But can we be certain it is so decided? I doubt it very much. It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.

Why this conviction should have arisen in the minds of certain observers and travellers, such as myself, I will now consider. It is indeed a vital question, "May not Islam arise again?"

In a sense the question is already answered because Islam has never departed. It still commands the fixed loyalty and unquestioning adhesion of all the millions between the Atlantic and the Indus and further afield throughout scattered communities of further Asia. But I ask the question in the sense "Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans - still nominally Christian - and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?" The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam. Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralysed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable.
As an aside, the reason Belloc is right and many of the modern secular commentators in the West are wrong is because Belloc understood religion. He was a devout Catholic, and knew religious devotion from the inside. In contrast, much of the secular commentary on religion tends to assume that (a) religion is just a pretext for our real reasons, or (b) all religions (or at least all "fundamentalist" religions, an apparently-meaningless qualifier) are equally violent and wicked.


What should you do with all of this information? For starters, it's a reminder of how much we owe to our Christian forebears. It's also a good reminder of the importance of Christian unity, and of taking care of the Body of Christ, even the wounded and weak portions in far-flung parts of the world.

It's also a reminder that, while violent Islam is one of the many threats facing the modern world, it's a foe that we've triumphed over before, through prayer, and especially the Rosary. Whether you ordinarily pray the Rosary or not, why not do so today, on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary? If you would like, perhaps you could offer it up for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, and for the conversion of our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Small Ball and the Little Way

Christian Colon scores the winning run and celebrates with the team.
I don't normally talk about baseball on this blog, but I couldn't help seeing a connection between the performance of my Kansas City Royals and the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is today. Bear with me for a moment, even if you know nothing about baseball and/or Catholic spirituality. Really: stay with me just for a few paragraphs, and see if it doesn't become clear.

Last night (early this morning, for those of us watching the game in Rome), the Royals beat the Oakland A's. This is the first time we've won a playoff game in 29 years. In fact, the last time we even made it to the playoffs was 1985, when I was seven months old (granted, we won the World Series that year, but we haven't even come close since then). But it's all the more remarkable for another reason: the Royals aren't exactly known for power hitting. As Rany Jazayerli of Grantland pointed out back in August:
They aren’t a Moneyball team, at least in the “get on base and hit home runs” sense. In fact, they’re last in the majors in walks and home runs. And it’s actually worse than that: The Royals’ walk rate (6.04 percent) is the lowest in the major leagues since the strike zone was redefined in 1969. They’re on pace for 99 homers, which would be the fewest by an AL team since 1994.
Since then, we only got worse on both fronts: our walk rate dropped to 6.03 percent, and we ended the season with only 95 home runs, the fewest of any AL team since 1992. So how does a team that doesn't make a lot of home runs end up in the playoffs? Jazayerli explained the Royals' strategy:
The Royals’ philosophy is decidedly retro, more suited for baseball in 1914 than 2014. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Play good defense. Somehow, finally, it’s working. When it comes to putting the ball in play, the Royals are, relative to the league, one of the most prolific teams in baseball history. Because while they’re last in the majors in walks, they’re also last in strikeouts: They’ve struck out more than 100 fewer times than every other team in baseball. 
Other stats tell the same story: for example, we ended the season behind only the Tigers in scoring singles. In other words, while we didn't make a lot of huge, splashy plays, we were consistent in doing the small things well.

And that's exactly what happened last night. More than once, the A's looked they were going to destroy us, with a couple of really epic home-runs. But the Royals came out on top by making the most of small plays: getting on base, stealing bases, etc. They brought the runners home carefully and deliberately, rather than risking it all on swinging for the fences. In baseball parlance, this is called “small ball”: doing the small things right.

Six of us Royals fans here at the North American College in Rome decided to watch the wildcard game,
which lasted from 2-6 AM local time. Two of the guys made it all the way through: I slept from the 6th-12th inning..
And that's exactly what St. Thérèse of Lisieux calls for in her “little way.” Thérèse was a young cloistered French nun who longed to do something great for God: specifically, she grieved over the fact that she couldn't be one of the great martyrs of the Church. This changed when, in reading 1 Corinthians, Thérèse realized that the greatest vocation was to love.

In 1 Cor. 12:31, St. Paul has just finished speaking of the different spiritual gifts, when he says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That more excellent way, Paul explains in 1 Cor. 13, is love. Great acts done without love are spiritually worthless, while small acts done with great love are priceless.

Thérèse realized that this was a call for her (and indeed, for all of us) to do all things lovingly:
MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.
And these acts of love are not typically going to be great and heroic sacrifices. More often, they're going to be small, almost unnoticeable things: the sacrifices nobody else notices, the smile when you don't feel like smiling, and so on.

Here's how Thérèse described it, in a prayer to Jesus:
What this child asks for is Love. She knows only one thing: to love You, O Jesus. Astounding works are forbidden to her; she cannot preach the Gospel, shed her blood; but what does it matter since her brothers work in her stead, and she, a little child, stays very close to the throne of the King and Queen. She loves in her brothers' place while they do the fighting. 
But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love. Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.
Or, to put it in another way, we're not all called to hit grand slams, but all of us can play small ball. We can do the small sacrifices, offer up tiny acts of charity, and sanctify every moment of our lives, no matter how small.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pray to Saints? Why Not Go Directly to God?

I get some variation of the above question frequently from Protestants. This objection supposes that we have two options: go to the Saints, or go to God. From a Catholic perspective, this is a false choice. Of course we should go directly to God. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” From the Catholic perspective, the right question is therefore: do we go before the Throne of Grace alone, or in company with the Saints?

And it turns out, Scripture provides an easy answer to that question. The reason that Hebrews 4 gives for why we can approach the Throne of Grace with confidence is that we're not alone: we've got a great High Priest, Jesus Christ, mediating for us (Hebrews 4:14-15). And Jesus encourages us to pray together, rather than in isolation: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

In fact, even when you “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6), you don't cut yourself off from the Body of Christ. Right after calling us to lift up prayers in secret, Christ gives us this prayer to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The Lord's Prayer is not the “My Father,” but the “Our Father.” It's a radical recognition that we are members of the Body of Christ: that we pray on our own behalf, and on behalf of others, and that they pray on our behalf, as well. Asking the Saints to pray for us, and joining with them in prayers to the Lord is simply a continuation of this Scriptural teaching.

But, the objector might say, isn't it still a waste of time? After all, every moment that you spend asking for the prayers of the Saints is a moment that you could just be praying directly to God. Such an objection is frivolous and perhaps even evil. Consider three reasons:

  1. Such an objection would condemn St. Paul for asking for the prayers of others. St. Paul takes the time to write to the Ephesians to ask for their prayers (Eph. 6:18-20): “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” By the logic of our objectors, Paul should have spent that that praying directly to the Father. That's an absurd result, so we know the objection is wrong.
  2. Mathematically, the objection makes no sense. If you take a few moments to ask others for their prayers, and each of you spent the next five minutes entreating our Lord, that's more time spent in prayer to the Lord (ten minutes between the two of you) than if you were praying alone. And with the Saints in glory, they have eternity to lift up prayers on our behalf. So even if we accepted the utilitarian reasoning of this objection, it would still be wrong.
  3. This is “the Judas objection.” When Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus (John 12:3), it's Judas Iscariot who objects: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Scripture doesn't look kindly upon this objection, and for good reason. It pits one good (anointing the feet of Jesus) against another (giving to the poor). It's the devil's way of trying to divide the Kingdom of God against itself: whenever you someone do one good thing, the temptation is to say, “why didn't you instead do [some other good thing]?”

    Meanwhile, Judas doesn't raise have a problem stealing money (John 12:6). In pitting one good against another, he ignores the need to choose right from wrong. In other words, the right objection isn't, “why did you do this one good thing, instead of the other?” but “why do you waste your time on frivolous or evil things, rather than good things?” In other words, don't worry about how the time you spend invoking the prayers of the Saints could be spent praying directly to God. Worry about the way that the time you spend watching TV or complaining or gossiping or looking at pornography could have instead be spent praying to God.

P.S. I have a handwritten draft of this post that differs in some respects. So if you want a different take, check out the comments.
P.P.S. Or check out David Bates' blog. We'd both written posts on the topic this week without realizing that the other one had done so (he wrote his first, but I was first to publish... I think I'm the Edison to his Tesla in this situation).

Monday, September 22, 2014

What Should You Wear to Mass?

I'm on a silent retreat this week (this is being auto-posted), so it seemed like a good idea to post a nice, non-controversial post since I won't be around to respond to the comments for a few days. Instead, I wrote this one on wearing proper attire to Mass.

Let's start with Scripture, Matthew 22:1-14:
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Marriage of the Duke of Nemours
to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha at Saint Cloud (1840)
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So, just as you wouldn't go to a wedding or formal event without preparing yourselves, you shouldn't go to Mass without making the proper preparations. There are a couple major points to be made here:

1) The disposition of your soul matters most. 

Moritz Calisch, Young Italian Woman Praying (1850)
From the outset, the wedding garment is part of a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. The sort of preparations that Christ is talking about are spiritual. When you get to Mass, your soul should be ready to receive the graces that God wants to give you, and you shouldn't be presenting yourself at Communion without preparing yourself properly.

You wouldn't go to a wedding covered in filth, so don't receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with a soul covered in filth. Wash yourself off first, by going to Confession. This is a requirement for those who have commit a mortal sin (canon 916). Nor is this rule something that the Church made up, or has the power to change. Receiving Christ irreverently is blasphemous, because it profanes Christ. “Profane” literally means “unholy, not consecrated.” To profane something is to treat a holy thing like it's not holy. And profaning Christ is gravely sinful.

St. Paul lays out the stakes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
Nor is this just about preparing yourself for Mass. The Eucharistic Banquet is the Table of the Lord here below, but we're going to enjoy that Banquet in its fullest in eternity: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). That's the Banquet we most need to be ready for. Someday, we know not when, you and I are going to stand before God at the Last Judgment. Every single day of our life should be spent preparing for that.

2) Your clothes still matter.

Obviously, the way that we prepare for Mass involves much more than putting on appropriate clothes, but what we wear matters. Why? Because one of the ways that we should show respect is by dressing respectfully. Hopefully, you wouldn't dream of going to a job interview or your wedding wearing a t-shirt and shorts. If you did, it would seem either clueless or deliberately insulting, like you weren't taking the occasion seriously. Why dress that way to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then?

Who Are We Dressing For?

Fashion plate of men's golfing clothes, Sartorial Arts Journal (1901)
Unfortunately, much of the discussion only about how we dress for Mass focuses exclusively on whether young women are wearing clothing that's revealing. Certainly, that's one way to dress inappropriately for Mass. Young women shouldn't be wearing clothing that's immodest, or which shifts the focus from Our Lord to their bodies. We live in a culture saturated in sex, and especially for teenage boys and young men striving to live a holy life, this can involve a constant battle for purity, and a constant need for vigilance and custody of the eyes. We should be supporting them in this heroic struggle, rather than leading them into greater temptation.

But the problem is much bigger than that: often, the girls dressed like they're going to a nightclub are sitting with a dad who looks like he's going golfing, or a mom who looks like she's going jogging, or a brother who looks like he's next up at bat. You can have every inch of skin covered, and still be dressed inappropriately for Mass.

A major part of the underlying issue is this: are you dressed like Mass is the most important part of your day? Are you dressed like being pleasing to God is more important than impressing the people in the pews around you?  

I alluded to sports attire a moment ago, but I want to touch on that a bit more. Sometimes, people go to Mass on Sunday with their kids in jerseys, so that they can get them to the game right after Mass (even leaving right after receiving Communion). When they do this, they're saying something about Who and what matters most. The message you're sending to those around you and to your own kids is that Mass is just an obligation we check off the list before we get to the important stuff like the game. 

Think about it. If Mass were more important than the game, why wouldn't you be dressed for it? After all, if your day's to-do list consisted of an official state dinner to meet with the Queen of England, followed by a baseball game for your kid, you probably wouldn't show up to the dinner dressed for the game to save time. At Mass, you encounter the King of Kings.

That's why this is infinitely bigger than dressing to avoid scandalizing the distractible guy in the pew behind you. Even if you were literally the only person in the pews, you should still take the time to dress up, because you're meeting with Someone very important: Jesus Christ.

Embodied Cognition

It's easy to imagine that the clothes we wear are irrelevant, that they don't impact how we view ourselves or how we carry ourselves. Scientists are now discovering that this isn't true. There's a field of social psychology that studies “embodied cognition,” which is “the idea that aspects of your thoughts are shaped by your body.” You're both body and soul, and how you treat the one impacts the other. 

For example, Professor Adam D. Galinsky gave a test to three groups of students:
Some would wear a white coat, and were told it was a doctor's coat. Others wore an identical coat, but were told it was a painter's coat. And a third group merely looked at a white "doctor's" coat. The subject then took an attention test where they were asked to point out differences between two images and speedily write them down. Those who wore the "doctor's" coat performed significantly better than the other two groups.
In a similar test between students in lab coats and students in street clothes, “those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors on incongruent trials as those who wore regular clothes.” Galinsky concluded that, “clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.” Simply dressing smart made them act smarter. We should take that lesson to heart. Dressing holy isn't enough to become holy, but it's definitely a good start.

Some Important Nuance

Having said all of this, let me close with a few caveats: 
  1. I'm speaking here about Sunday Mass, because our Sunday should revolve around Mass, including in our clothing choices. Daily Mass is a different story, both because nobody is required to go to it, and because it's during the workweek. There's a good chance you're coming in before your shift or over your lunch hour or before or between classes, and it's more than fine to dress accordingly. Same goes for retreats or other special occasions. (Ironically, this week, I'm dressed more casually than I would normally like, due to the retreat).

  2. Sometimes it's just not possible to dress well for Mass. Maybe you're on vacation and forgot to pack church clothes, or maybe you just haven't had time to do laundry, or maybe you can't afford a decent wardrobe right now. These things happen. Fear not. God knows your soul, and it's better to show up at Mass dressed sloppily than not to show up.

  3. I'm writing this so that you can dress better, and so you can encourage your kids and friends to do the same. Don't take this as permission to sit in Mass judging people for not dressing well. Remember the first part of this post: our spiritual preparations for Mass are what's most important, so if you're approaching (or spending) Mass judging others, you've got bigger problems to worry about.
Bearing this nuance in mind, let this be a call for all of us to be more mindful about how we are physically and (especially) spiritually readying ourselves for Mass.