humanae vitae turns 52

hli-hv-fb-1024x538This past week marked the 52nd anniversary of the release of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, by the recently canonized Pope Saint Paul VI.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful, accessible and engaging read on the subject of contraception and natural family planning, you may want to pick up a copy of Patrick Coffin’s book entitled Sex au Naturel: What It Is and Why It’s Good for Your Marriage, or Christopher West’s recent book, Eclipse of the Body: How We Lost the Meaning of Sex, Gender, Marriage, & Family (And How to Reclaim It).

I heard Patrick speak on this topic when he was our guest catechist in the RCIA Hollywood program. You can listen to Patrick’s presentation here:


His book has received positive reviews from Kimberly Hahn, Cardinal George Pell, and others. There are also a couple of useful reader reviews on Amazon’s website. One reader writes:

Patrick Coffin’s book is a friendly and accessible introduction to the Church’s teachings on sexuality, especially contraception, and how living those teachings improves marriage. It is funny, down-to-earth, easy to read, comprehensive.

I highly recommend it for anyone who has questions or doubts about the Church’s teaching, or for anyone who has a friend or family member with questions or doubts. I thought I was well-versed in this material; but even I was able to gain from Coffin’s perspective and learned a few new facts as well as some new ways of presenting the information….

Above all Coffin presents all of these teachings with love and mercy and not with an attitude of bashing the infidels. The book is an invitation to a cordial discussion, one that says: “Hey, even if you disagree you might at least hear me out and understand why I hold the position I do.”

If you want a better understanding of the Church’s teaching, or want to help others understand it, this books sounds like a great resource.

See also my post from 2008 on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

letter to a suffering church

Letter-Cover-3Dstack-p-800Bishop Robert Barron has written a short and incisive letter in response to the sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the Catholic Church in recent decades.

The first letter of Archbishop Vigano, released a year ago (August 22, 2018), rocked the Church like an earthquake, with (then Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick as its epicenter. The aftershocks have reverberated daily, as scandal after scandal has been unveiled in dioceses around the globe.

The response by the institutional church over the past year has been—at best—lethargic. At worst, the response has been defensive, regressive, and surrounded by a culture of silence all the way up to the Pope:

“I read the statement this morning.  I read it and sincerely I must tell you, and all those who are interested: read it yourselves carefully and make your own judgment.  I will not say a single word on this.  I believe the memo speaks for itself, and you are capable enough as journalists to draw your own conclusions.  This is an act of trust: when some time has passed and you have drawn conclusions, perhaps I will speak.  But I ask that you use your professional maturity in doing this: it will do you good, really.”

Pope Francis, on the papal flight back to Rome from the World Meeting of Families, Sunday, 26 August 2018

It is within this context that Bishop Barron has written a Letter to a Suffering Church. It is divided into five short chapters:

Chapter One: The Devil’s Masterpiece

Chapter Two: Light from Scripture

Chapter Three: We Have Been Here Before

Chapter Four: Why Should We Stay?

Chapter Five: The Way Forward

I would love to see more pastoral letters from bishops written with such clarity, insight and economy of language.

I especially appreciated chapter two, as I found the discussion based on the Old Testament passages to be very apropos and insightful. And I was deeply moved and motivated by this passage in the last chapter, The Way Forward:

…Something new must come forth, something specifically fitted to our time and designed to respond to the particular corruption that currently besets us. Above all, we need saints, marked by holiness of course, but also by intelligence, an understanding of the culture, and the willingness to try something fresh. Somewhere in the Church right now is a new Benedict, a new Francis, a new Ignatius, a new Teresa of Kolkata, a new Dorothy Day. This is your time!

I hope every Catholic will take the time to read this book and review the related resources over at If possible, why not start a study group to discuss the book? While I recommend ordering the materials from the Word on Fire website, you can also purchase a Kindle version of the book for one dollar on Amazon.

Bishop Barron’s Prayer for a Suffering Church

Lord Jesus Christ, through your Incarnation you accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. Setting aside the glory of your divinity, you met us face to face in the vulnerability of our humanity.

Though without sin, you accepted sinners, offering forgiveness and placing yourself before even the most unworthy as a servant and a friend. You became small and weak in the estimation of the powerful, so that you might elevate to glory the small and weak of the world.

Your descent into our nature was not without risk, as it exposed you to the assaults of the darkest and most terrifying of humanity’s fallen desires—our cruelty and narrowness, our deceptions and our denials. All this culminated in the cross, where your divine love was met with the full fury of our malice, our violence, and our estrangement from your grace.

You offered yourself to us with innocence and receptivity, and this was met with the abuse of your body, humiliation and mockery, betrayal and isolation, torture and death. All this—even the dereliction of feeling abandoned by God—you accepted. You became a victim, so that all those victimized since the beginning of the world would know you as their advocate. You went into the darkness, so that all those compelled into the dark by human wickedness would discover in you a radiant light.

Grant we pray, O Lord, healing for all victims of sexual abuse. Purify your Church of corruption. Bring justice to those who have been wronged. Grant consolation to all who are afflicted. Cast your light to banish the shadows of deception. Manifest to all your advocacy of those who have been so cruelly hurt, and your judgment upon those who, having perpetrated such crimes, remain unrepentant. Compel those in your Church whom you have entrusted to safeguard the innocent and act on behalf of the victims to be vigilant and zealous in their duties. Restore faith to those from whom it has been stolen, and hope to those who have despaired.

Christ the Victim, we call out to you!

Strengthen your faithful to accept the mission placed before us, a mission of holiness and truth. Inspire us to become advocates of those who have been harmed. Grant us strength to fight for justice. Impart to us courage so that we might forthrightly face the challenges to come. Raise up saints from your Church, and grant us the grace to become the saints you desire us to be. This we ask of you, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.


The Mass Explained

The Mass Explained is without question the most elegant, content-rich, beautiful app for the iPad that I have come across. While this app is an investment, it’s a worthy one if you want to dive deeply into the riches of the Mass. I recently purchased it after reading Amy Welborn‘s post about it.

Charlotte was Both

The Mass Explained is unlike any other Catholic app available.

Written, programmed and developed by Dan Gonzalez over a period of two years, the app is a thorough, in-depth and really exceptionally beautiful resource.

Some of us complain – a lot – about the relatively lame quality of Catholic resources. The aesthetics of our resources often reflect a paradoxical marriage of frameworks and design that are about half a decade behind the times along with an almost resolute refusal to dig more deeply into the "mass explained"profound resources our tradition has produced over two millenia. Well, here’s an opportunity to benefit from a resource that doesn’t suffer from those limitations, and that, like the Catholicism series, should be a model for anyone seeking to produce engaging and substantive catechetical and evangelical materials. Yes, I’d put it at that level.

You are going to remark on the price. Let’s get that out of…

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riding the crest of hope

I was recently given an advance copy of a book coming out this month by David Hartline entitled The Catholic Tide Continues to Turn. The book chronicles many signs of hope in the Church over recent years, with a particular focus on developments from the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s election until the present. It’s a birds-eye view that ranges over a wide terrain: the growth of faithful colleges, the Church’s purification by way of the sexual abuse scandal, the Pope’s trips to the US and Britain, the growing number of converts, and more. The accumulation of evidences for hope in a single volume makes it a worthwhile read. In an age of widespread cynicism in the media — even in Catholic media, at times — it’s refreshing to read a book that accentuates the many good things God is accomplishing in the communion of the Church.

For all of its positivity, and its broad rather than deep analysis, this is a volume about hope, not simple optimism. A passage from the end of his chapter on men and women religious says it best: “None of this is to whitewash any obvious problems. To ignore certain data and highlight the above information is not to look at the Catholic world with rose-colored glasses. Rather, it is to accentuate the positive…. Today is a new day. It’s a day of hope, the sort of hope Our Lord Jesus Christ always encourages us to have, come what may. There are just so many good things happening for which to praise and thank him….” (81).

You can pick up a copy of the book over at Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

book review: Theology after Wittgenstein

TheologyAfterWittgensteinIn his book entitled Theology After Wittgenstein, Fergus Kerr, O.P., presents a compelling interpretation of the later writings of twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kerr portrays Wittgenstein as a man who challenged the very way in which the Western mind understands the human person and meaning.

The book begins by examining the Western habit of adopting a “mentalist-individualist” view of the self (20) – that is, the habit of understanding the self as an independent, self-reflective, non-corporal intelligence that enjoys immediate access to meaning. This view of the self dichotomizes body and soul as well as person and community. Theologically speaking, then, the mentalist-individualist self is a “worldless ego” (23), a radically ineffable source of meaning that adopts the status of deity.

Taking Descartes as his starting point, Kerr highlights the presence of the “mentalist-individualist’” perspective in the writings of a number of modern theologians (including Karl Rahner). According to Kerr, the desire to define the self in terms of cognition and isolation stems from the spiritual desire to achieve an absolute and objective notion of reality through the transcendence of all that is in the world.

Before proceeding to the second section of the book, Kerr spends a chapter providing a hermeneutic to be used in examining the later writings of Wittgenstein. Central to this hermeneutic is the definition of “forms of life”(Lebensformen) as the basic patterns of human interaction that fashion the basis for meaning in the world. For Wittgenstein, the self does not possess meaning, but experiences meaning through the “forms of life” – that is, through the context of interaction with a human community. Kerr calls this perspective the “non-metaphysical” view of the self (52).

The main body of the book interprets Wittgenstein’s own approach to the interrelationship of self, the world, and meaning. For Wittgenstein, one’s thoughts cannot be isolated from one’s context in the world. The way in which one thinks is determined by the whole complex of human interactions in space and time – that is, by the totality of the “forms of life” that make up human existence. This approach to reality challenges the mentalist-individualist definition of the self as an entity distinct from the body and the world of experience (98). Communication between human beings consists of sharing common “forms of life” or patterns of interaction through which meaning is intuitively understood. Wittgenstein is not adopting a behaviorist view that would deny human intelligence or rationality; he is simply asserting that intelligent behavior arises from interaction between persons. The fact that a person may act reasonably yet without reflection demonstrates that intelligence is not a function of an individual’s mental activity but has its basis instead in shared “forms of life.” Meaning is not found either in the world of ideas (the idealist perspective) or in sense data (the realist approach), but only in the interactive patterns of a human community.

In the final section of the book, Kerr asserts that the “hidden theological agenda” (147) of Wittgenstein is to make the reader realize that humans have no way of grasping what God is except through signs in the world – language, bodily gesture, etc. Beliefs are not simply ideas about God that are subsequently given visible expression; rather, experiences and activity give rise to belief. Kerr contends that the religious impulse within human beings, which is something “deep and sinister in us” (162), would be a good starting point for theology. He fleshes out this proposal in the last chapter of the book by offering specific theological applications of Wittgenstein’s ideas. In the field of morality, Wittgenstein’s perspective might allow for a greater appreciation of the connection between intention and action. Understanding the person in terms of potential for sharing in the “forms of life” (rather than in terms of consciousness) might lead to a more compelling sense of respect for the dignity of human life. New insights into the atonement of Christ could be explored by examining the phenomenon of the “scapegoat” in human communities. Moreover, the Wittgensteinian perspective might serve as a reminder of the natural, historical and finite quality of human existence and theological formulations. In summary, the philosophical thought of Wittgenstein may provide a needed challenge to the whole mentalist-individualist bias that informs the way theology is expressed.

The book intends to initiate students of theology into a way of understanding Wittgenstein that may provide a new framework for theological discourse. Kerr employs a contextual approach throughout the book; quotations from Wittgenstein’s own documents are placed alongside the writings of associates (particularly M. O’C. Drury), contemporaries (such as Bertrand Russell), and critics. On more than one occasion Kerr introduces an interpretation of Wittgenstein as a sort of foil for developing his own exposition. For example, Kai Nielsen’s concept of “Wittgensteinian fideism” provides Kerr with a point of entry into an alternative reading of the “forms of life.” Similarly, after mentioning Bernard Williams’ claim that Wittgenstein is an idealist, Kerr spends several pages demonstrating Wittgenstein’s dissatisfaction with the idealist paradigm of the world. The contextual information used in the book effectively orients the reader to the world of Wittgenstein.

The objectives of the book are simultaneously ambitious and humble; although Kerr intends to articulate a revolutionary paradigm for theological inquiry, he will settle for sparking interest in the writings of Wittgenstein: “Even if my thesis is wrong, in detail or completely, I have quoted so much from Wittgenstein himself that readers new to his work will surely be attracted to explore further, to reach their own conclusions” (viii). Moreover, the author of this book does not pretend to make sense of every phrase of Wittgenstein. Although Kerr clearly has a great appreciation for some of the insights of this Austrian philosopher, he is able to maintain a critical stance toward Wittgenstein’s writing as a corpus: “Wittgenstein had thoughts that were deep, together with others that seem tentative and even, to my mind, quite idiotic” (35). This critical distance, when coupled with the disclaimer about the thesis of the book, helps the reader to invest in Kerr’s project.

Although the book does not expressly speak of theology in relation to Wittgenstein until chapter seven, Kerr consistently leads the reader toward this theme through the use of theologically suggestive phrases such as “the craving for unmediated encounter” (73). For this reason, by the time the author presents a chapter with the audacious title of “Wittgenstein’s Theological Investigations,” the reader is prepared to apply Kerr’s theological hermeneutic to the few passages by Wittgenstein that explicitly speak about God.

I enjoyed the book, primarily because it challenged me to become more aware of my philosophical presuppositions. The book raised practical questions for me: Do I tend to think of myself more in terms of distinction from the world than participation in it? Do I
associate my ideas with self-contained cognitive processes rather than with human interactions? Are my ideas really as private as I sometimes imagine?  How sizable is thedistance between my experience and the experience of another person? Over the course of the Clinical Pastoral Education internship this past summer, I often heard (and, indeed, found myself repeating) the cliché that a person can never honestly say that one knows what someone else is experiencing. After reading Kerr’s book, I will be less smug about adopting the position that my thoughts and feelings are entirely incommensurable with those of others.

As much as I appreciated the book as a whole, I found the first chapter to be incredibly frustrating. As Kerr was accumulating his evidence of the mentalist-individualist perspective in the works of modem theologians, I felt as though I had unwittingly been pulled into some vicious theological debate to which I was unprepared to make intelligible response. It seemed to me as though a certain hermeneutic of suspicion was being applied to a series of texts with which I was completely unfamiliar. My overall impression after the first chapter was that Kerr had put the entire modern theological tradition on trial without an adequate defense. Only after Kerr introduced Wittgenstein’s religious point of view in the second chapter was I able to make an earnest effort to sympathize with Kerr’s thesis. Inmy opinion, as a matter of literary courtesy an author should explain the basis for a given hermeneutic before applying it to the work of a number of authors. Perhaps Kerr wants to engage the reader in the process of discovering the mentalist-individualist bias. This method of exposition would mirror well one of the central ideas in the book – namely, that thoughts and ideas arise only in the context of interaction (in this case, ‘interaction’ with various theological texts). However, I did not think I was being asked to enter a disinterested process of investigation but to adopt a certain critical attitude that had not been sufficiently explained to me in the preface.

For me, the book was definitely worth reading. Theology after Wittgenstein not only provided me with an engaging and coherent introduction to the work of Wittgenstein, but it also offered a welcome challenge to the way I am accustomed to think about the human person and meaning. I appreciated Kerr’s emphasis on the importance of knowing one’s philosophical commitments, as well as his moderate approach toward challenging the mentalist-individualist view. He has no illusions about overcoming the metaphysical way of thinking about the self: “Since [the idea of the detached ego] is far from being simply wrong, the critique that is required is more a matter of making different connections than one of wholesale rejection” (8). Kerr simply emphasizes the importance of attentiveness to the metaphysical view and to its dangers: “The only way to resist, or even recognize, the sway of the metaphysical way of thinking is to learn to watch our language about ourselves” (187). The very phrase Kerr uses to describe this vigilance – ‘watching our language about ourselves’ – suggests the metaphysical way of thinking about the self. Kerr has taught me this: Although I may not be able to overcome my philosophical commitments, I can be attentive to these commitments and thus avoid becoming a slave to their tyrannies.

Wednesday, October 11, 1995
Fr. Jerome M. Dittberner
DT 603