Sunday, December 1, 2013

Should each territory have only one bishop?

Perhaps relevant to Pope Francis' recent comments on decentralization is a discussion on the ancient ideal of monepiscopacy, which is the notion that each territory - eparchy or diocese - should have only one bishop. Pope Francis writes, "It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'"[1] Could a sound decentralization ever include a retraction of monepiscopacy as an ideal?

Icon of Saints Peter & Paul by Athanasios Clark, 
Though monepiscopacy is ancient and widespread,[2] it is neither apostolic nor essential to faith. Even Rome looks (or ought to look) to its dual apostolic foundation of Peter and Paul. As Michael Holmes points out, "the office of monarchial bishop..., does not appear to have existed in Rome [before the second century]. Leadership seems to have been entrusted to a group of presbyters or bishops.”[3] 

Monepiscopacy has not been the reality for a long time in East or West. But should it be the ideal? Perhaps sharing one bishop helps neighbors realize their unity in Christ. Contrariwise, perhaps separate bishops can provoke rivalry and opposition.

Insisting upon monepiscopacy, however, is insensitive to current realities, where numerous Churches coexist in relative harmony, each equal in dignity. Having one’s own bishop helps protect the full expression of a particular Church’s traditions, which were threatened, for example, in the historical case of American Eastern Catholics who were once subject to Roman bishops.

[1] Evangelii Gaudium, 16.

[2] Ignatius, for example, promoted monepiscopacy to ensure unity. Early Christian Fathers. Ed. Cyril Richardson. Vol 1. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953. 126.

[3] "Presbyter" and "bishop" were sometimes used as interchangeably at this time. Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007, 34.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bishop Soter Ortynsky

Unfortunately, Bishop Soter Ortynsky was a Ukrainian nationalist. Consequently, he was much opposed by the Rusyn clergy in the United States after he became the first Eastern Catholic bishop in the United States in 1907. 
Despite his Ukrainian nationalism, Ortynsky fought for the Church. He manfully ignored offensive and inappropriate aspects of Ea Semper, such as its prohibition of infant chrismation and married priesthood.[1] If the Rusyn clergy knew then what we now know about the conflicts and schisms that would result over the latter issue, then they may have lessened their ethnic and political opposition to Ortynsky. Had Ortynsky not died so young (at the age of 50), he may have been able to maintain important Eastern traditions and to work for Slavic Byzantine Catholic unity. As it happened, he was replaced by two bishops - one for the Ukrainians and another for the Rusyns. In my opinion, this division along ethnic lines has not, in the long run, served well either the Rusyn or the Ukrainian Churches .

[1] Ea Semper Articles 10, 12, 14. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From Evangelism to Ethnic Enclaves: Early Eastern Christian Immigration to America

The Russian Orthodox missionaries worked among the Alaskan Natives, converting many thousands to the true faith by their sincere efforts to inculturate the gospel. They came to Alaska with evangelical intent. Even Fr. Juvenaly’s great detractor, Nicholas Rezanov, acknowledges this: “the monk Juvenaly went there immediately to propagate the faith.”

Unfortunately, later Eastern Christian immigrants did not always maintain this evangelical impulse to present the faith in terms comprehensible to other cultures. A difference of intention motivated subsequent immigrant communities of Eastern Christians. They came not to evangelize but primarily to escape economic hardships. Their priests also came with no particular intention to evangelize, but rather to serve their own people while they temporarily sojourned in a foreign land, already peopled with others of Western European descent. The Eastern Churches in America, perhaps also unjustly suffering from feelings of cultural inferiority, began to isolate themselves ethnically. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Against Contemporary Iconoclasm

            I think one of the most important defenses of icons in the current culture is the psychological. The creation of images as memorials for absent departed loved ones is a nearly universal human custom. For example, even among many who object to the Catholic and Orthodox use of images in worship, there is often widespread use of photography. I have explained it this way to Protestant objections before. When asked why my church is filled with images of Jesus, his mother, and the saints, I have responded with the question, “Do you have a picture of your mother?” The answer is usually yes. Our culture unquestionably accepts images for this purpose, which is really a way of showing love and respect for those dear to our hearts. As Christians, Jesus, his mother, and the saints should be as dear to our hearts as any members of our family should be, so icons are a fitting way to remember and venerate them. It is a natural human response to look lovingly upon the image that reminds us of the one we love. This is a part of the human nature, just as is the capacity to be represented by an image.

            Furthermore, it is essential to remember that we are not purely spirit, but also body and that God created our bodies and means for us to worship him in and with our bodies as well as with our spirits. There is no better way to worship Christ with our eyes, which he blessed, than to venerate icons – unless it is to see Christ in our neighbors who are also true icons of God.

            In offering this veneration to icons, it is important to distinguish between veneration and worship. We worship God alone. We worship him through the icon, but we do not worship the icon. The icon is an aid in our worship of God and worthy of its own veneration for this reason – for the reason that it points us to God. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Historical Theological Defense of Icons

Though questions of politics and the locus of Church authority – that is, whether or not the emperor ought to have a deciding voice on doctrinal matters – weigh heavily in the historical dispute over icons, the doctrinal questions themselves are worthy of careful consideration. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that, though it is intuitive to ascribe iconoclastic tendencies among Christians to external Jewish and Muslim influences, iconoclasm historically found as much support from within the Greek Christian tradition as from without it. Nonetheless, the Jewish origin of Christianity and the consequent Christian acceptance of Jewish scriptures certainly gave the iconoclasts the opportunity to point to the all-important prohibition of images found in the Decalogue as a proof-text. Christianity had inherited from Judaism an abhorrence of idolatry – which was shared by iconoclasts and iconodules alike. Earlier iconoclasts particularly focused on their claim that the veneration of icons was idolatrous.

Iconoclasts appealed to the authority of scripture and the early church fathers, which railed always and everywhere against the worship of idols. They neglected, however, to account for the images God commanded for use in worship (for example, the golden cherubim over the ark) in the very same books – especially Exodus – that condemned idolatry. This tension between right and wrong use of images exists already in the Old Testament along with the implicit acknowledgement that not all use of images is idolatrous.

Iconoclasts appealed to a particular understanding of the nature of images. Constantine Kopronymos went so far as to call an image homoousios with its subject. Icons, therefore, he considered false images, because a true image of Christ would be God himself, just as Christ, the image of the Father, is one in essence with the Father and is God. In a sense, Constantine V is not against worshipping images, but against worshiping icons, which are not, in his view, true images. Only Christ (and Christ in the Eucharist) is a true image. This is a failure to appreciate what an icon actually is and is not. An icon, as John of Damascus would later assert, is more like a mirror reflection of the one it portrays. It is an imitation. A painting of Christ is an image of Christ, who is an image of the Father. There is more than one sense of image. An icon is like an image of an image. It is not Christ himself, but his reflection. It is obvious that paint on a board is not one in essence with the Father! Iconodules were not suggesting otherwise. They worship God and God alone – God who has become man – man, who by his very nature can be imaged with paint on a board.

Later iconoclasts focused more on the Christological implications of iconography.  They claimed that because Jesus Christ is one person with both a divine and human nature, it is impossible to make an image of him. The divine nature cannot be circumscribed. Divinity is invisible by nature. It could only be, therefore, that an icon portrays only the human nature. This much is true, but the iconoclasts went on to assert that making such an image separates the two natures of Christ. Such an assertion fails to recognize fully the reality of the incarnation. It is, as John of Damascus said, a type of Docetism. Christ was visible to the eyes of his disciples both before and after his resurrection. This visibility, characteristic of human nature, also lends itself naturally to circumscribability. If the iconoclasts were right in thinking that portraying Christ’s image separated his humanity from his divinity, then Christ himself would have made this separation every time he appeared to his disciples in visible flesh. No. Rather, as a person both fully God and fully man, he is fully circumscribable in his human nature. This is the reality of the incarnation – a reality so profound that iconoclasts had difficulty fully accepting it. To deny that an image may be made of Christ is to deny that he is fully man. To deny that this image is worthy of veneration is to deny that his humanity is one with God. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Would it be possible to have an ideal American Rite melding features of the Byzantine tradition and American culture?

Though skeptical of all things American, I do think it evangelically important to inculturate the Gospel, which should include, for example, the use of vernaculars. Inculturation is particularly and notoriously difficult in America, which lacks any one culture. America is a place of many coexisting – but only limitedly interacting – cultures. It is also a place of rampant individualism, which is utterly contrary to the Gospel. It would certainly be possible to meld features of Byzantine tradition and American culture – which has happened historically to a small degree – but there would be nothing “ideal” about an “American Rite.” 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Is a united American Eastern Church a realistic possibility?

When first immigrating to the United States, Eastern Christians usually intended to return to their homelands and thus considered themselves as in diaspora. Despite new circumstances, the mother Churches often continue operating from this conception. Though continuing as minorities, Eastern Churches in this country now have generations of history, American cultural characteristics, and numbers enough to regard them as a particular Church. Really, it doesn't makes sense for one location to have five or more Eastern bishops representing various jurisdictions. This redundancy weakens the ability of the Eastern Churches to evangelize, to catechize, and to do all that the Church must do in the world. 

This jurisdictional unity could only happen if the Churches would seek it and would self-identify first as Eastern Christians rather than as this or that ethnic group. Until Eastern Christians in the United States stop referring to themselves primarily as Russians or Ukrainians or Rusyns or Greeks or Arabs or this or that ethnicity rather than primarily as Christians, they will poorly reflect the one Church they truly are. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

5) A Contemporary Pastoral Approach to Usury

Usury and Profiteering
by Albrect Dürer
Whereas in former eras it may have been usual for confessors to hear anxiety about any small interest taken on a loan, in the present era they are not likely to hear any concern over it at all. If usury of any kind is a sin, it is news to most of the faithful. Consciences  are often ill formed on the subject - or not formed at all. Many Catholics have swallowed completely the assumption of capitalist economies that the endless pursuit of gain is worthwhile and permissible. Money and possessions – once widely regarded by Christians as dangers to the well-being of the soul, temptations to avarice, and as obstacles to relationship with God (cf. Matt 6:24; Luke 16:9-13) – many now regard instead as signs of God’s blessing. This is an interesting cultural and theological change. It may be time for pastors to address this issue, so dear to the consciences of the early Christians, with those entrusted to their care.

The changes that the social teaching on usury has undergone compound the problem of teaching effectively on proper lending practices. The one constant has been concern for the welfare of the poor. The primary reason that some kinds of low-interest loans are permissible is because, in the current economic system, these can actually help the poor directly, rather than hindering or enslaving them. Other high-interest loans practiced in this economy remain usurious – even sinful in their oppression of the poor – and pastors should again condemn these practices forcefully. Radically, loans should exist primarily for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. The Church must constantly seek economic justice and condemn economic injustice on behalf of the poor. In the present economic situation, that may no longer mean a unilateral condemnation of all kinds of interest taking, but it must still mean condemning usurious interest.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

4) An Eastern Christian Perspective on Usury

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Metropolitan Hierotheos
(Vlachos) of Nafpaktos
Contemporary Eastern Christian commentators on usury are few. One important Eastern Christian thinker on this subject, however, is Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios, who is probably most famous for his book Orthodox Psychotherapy. In his essay, “Interest, Usury, Capitalism,” Vlachos provides a nuanced perspective on usury that is substantially in harmony with the contemporary Catholic understandings of the subject discussed in the last post. Concerned to demonstrate continuity with the Hellenic fathers on this subject, he condemns usury in the strongest possible language. However, he also provides an understanding of usury that does not include every instance of interest taking. He acknowledges some exceptions.

For example, he writes, “In certain cases like acquiring a house, one can say that loans are beneficial.” Housing is a legitimate need and if a loan provides for this need without harming anyone, then it is worthwhile. He continues, “In these cases, a fair society can be of help to those in need – without of course causing damage to those who aren't.” Should the lender violate that principle by charging usurious rates of interest, the loan would be impermissible. If the rates are not usurious, however, and “if this is put into effect in a legal and fair manner, then it can function along the principle of brotherly love.” Even balanced and measured benefits for the banks are legitimate, he writes, so long as they do not impede the freedom of the borrower.

A second exception he brings up is the use of savings accounts. He writes,
According to contemporary reality, the hoarding of money in Banks is considered a necessity and interest is something fair and legitimate. No one can deny such a logical possibility, especially for householders.
However, people can use something as seemingly innocuous as a savings account immorally, Vlachos maintains. What principally matters is the intention. If the account exists to provide for need, then it is a good. If, however, it exists to provide for the passions, then it is an evil. Vlachos writes,
The crucial matter is that when bank savings are seen in the context of the passion of acquisition and avarice, and more so when charity and philanthropy are withheld and Man’s hopes now hinge on money and his faith in God’s Providence is cast out, then this cannot be justified by ecclesiastic morality.
As noted above, Vlachos condemns usury with the strongest possible language: “We must stigmatize and cauterize usurers who exploit the anguish of their fellow-man and who remain unemotional in the presence of their misfortune.” Vlachos does not understand usury to be avoided simply by mutual agreement or mutual benefit. Rather, taking interest may only be justified as a means of providing for legitimate needs – not as a way of providing for unnecessary pleasures or comforts. For, in the service of these ends, it deprives one of opportunities for charity and philanthropy. He writes, “When lending is linked to hedonism, easy living, bliss, the quest for wealth etc., then it cannot be acceptable.” There is a tendency, particularly in American society with its highly inflated luxurious standards of living, to regard pleasures as needs and comforts as requirements. Condemning this capitalist attitude, Vlachos writes, “We should not increase our “needs.” We should not strive to live opulently; that way, we will not be forced to borrow money, because that is the way we will lose our freedom.”

As a means of avoiding the subjugation consequent to the multiplication of perceived “needs,” Vlachos recommends two things. Firstly, he recommends frugality and “the ascetic lifestyle, which also involves avoiding luxury and bliss.” Secondly, he recommends generosity and a reasonable detachment from our possessions. He writes, “Those who have money should practice philanthropy and provide interest-free loans to those who are in need of money for coping with the hardships of their life.” Therefore, while lending with interest is at times morally permissible, this does not absolve the wealthy from the moral obligation to lend without interest in ways that will benefit the poor, which Jesus commands (Luke 6:35). 

As with the Catholic understanding, Vlachos sees need or poverty as the barometer of determining whether an instance of lending with interest is usurious. If a particular loan results in providing for genuine needs all around and avoids the stain of avarice then it may indeed be justifiable. A principle for the rich to keep in mind when they lend to the poor is to offer the loan not for their own profit or gain primarily, but for the good of the poor to whom they lend. Should the wealthy loan with subjugating interest – as still happens today – it remains a moral crime.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

3) Usury in the Catholic Social Documents

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 John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS), states that “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer” and that “the Church does not propose economic… systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted.”[1] This proviso keeps the Church in the discussion on usury. While it is true that the economic situations of contemporary life are scarcely comparable to those of Christian antiquity, and that thus it is improper to follow unilaterally the economic and social prescriptions of antiquity in the present context, it is also true that the Church’s concern for human dignity and her concern for the welfare of the poor remains. Consequently, while some interest rates on loans may now be permissible, usurious interest rates are not. The meaning of "usury" now requires nuance. 

            In his landmark 1891 encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum (RN), Pope Leo XIII demonstrates an awareness of the constant teaching of the Church in condemnation of usury. He writes that “rapacious usury” has increased the evil of “misery and wretchedness, [which] press so heavily at this moment on the large majority of the very poor.”[2] Such usury, he writes, “although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different form but with the same guilt, still practiced by avaricious and grasping men.”[2] Leo XIII acknowledges that the Church has repeatedly condemned usury and he repeats that condemnation for the same reasons. However, he introduces a descriptor perhaps previously unnecessary – “rapacious.” To condemn “rapacious usury” is perhaps to indicate that there may be usury that is not “rapacious.” Perhaps, given new economic conditions, there could be interest rates on loans that are not motivated by greed or excess.

            Leo XIII gives a clearer idea later on in the encyclical about what he might mean by rapacious usury: “The rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workman’s earnings… by usurious dealing.”[3] In this paragraph, he lays down the principle that makes usury evil. He writes, “To make one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.”[3] He makes clear that rich employers must refrain from “usurious dealing” against their poor workers “because the poor man is weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should be sacred in proportion to their scantiness.”[3] Usury, then, is an evil because it deprives the poor of even the little they have earned – thus keeping them poor and beholden to their creditors. The poor must be given aid and opportunity to overcome their poverty, not loans designed to keep them bereft even of the little they could otherwise accumulate. The Church always opposed usury due to its tendency to oppress the poor.

            Forty years after Rerum Novarum, Pius XI demonstrates an understanding of the grave importance of lending practices and the effect they can have on the whole of society. In 1931, he writes in Quadragesimo Anno (QA),

"In our days…, immense power and despotic economic domination is concentrated in the hands of a few…. This power becomes particularly irresistible when exercised by those who, because they hold and control money, are able also to govern credit and determine its allotment,[4] for that reason supplying, so to speak, the life-blood to the entire economic body, and grasping, as it were, in their hands the very soul of the economy, so that no one dare breathe against their will."[5] 
Those who determine who may receive loans and at what interest rates, however ruinous, have far too much power over the poor. This is especially so given that those most likely to attain to such high positions may tend to be precisely those least likely to demonstrate compassion for others. “Unrestrained free competition… permits the survival of those only who are strongest. This often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience.”[6] If these “strongest” are the people to whom regulation of interest rates is given, those who are “weakest” – the poor – have much to fear. It is necessary to ensure that those with the needs of the poor foremost in mind are those who determine interest rates.

          With concern for the poor, Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical of 1961, Mater et Magistra (MM), continued the Church’s teaching on usury by repeatedly emphasizing the role of government in regulating credit, along with many other economic issues, with the ultimate goal of overcoming gross economic inequalities.

          Pope Paul VI, with his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (PP), may have been the first Church authority to every actually recommend loans as a means of helping the poor. Loans are one of many means of working toward “building a world where every man… can live a fully human life, freed from servitude.”[7] Just as it is clear that usury can be a means of causing servitude, so does Paul VI now recognize that loans with low interest can actually be an aid toward climbing out of a position of servitude. Speaking specifically about the benefits of wealthy nations lending money to developing countries, he writes, "Rates of interest and time for repayment of the loan could be so arranged as not to be too great a burden on either party, taking into account free gifts, interest-free or low-interest loans, and the time needed for liquidating the debts."[8] He recommends as means of aid firstly, “free gifts,” secondly, “interest-free… loans,” and only lastly, “low-interest loans.” The preference for absolute giving in charity remains. However, it is nonetheless remarkable for a pope to refer positively to low-interest loans when the fathers of the Church regarded interest of any kind as a grave sin.

           Usury – in the sense of high-interest loans – remains a problem to this day. The comparatively recent (1986) USCCB document of the, Economic Justice for All (EJA) found it necessary to observe injustices taking place due to high interest rates. For example, “persistent high interest rates that make it difficult to repay or refinance loans” for many farmers experiencing various economic problems in the 1980s.[9] These “otherwise viable family farms… are threatened with bankruptcy or foreclosure.”[10] The USCCB recommends a policy of “reduced rates of interest and programs of debt restructuring” to correct this injustice.[10] In other words, those in a position to do so should alleviate the suffering of those laboring under usurious interest rates.

            The USCCB also recognizes, however, the possibility of offering low-interest loans as a means of aiding the poor. Echoing Populorum Progression, Economic Justice for All specifically recommends that industrialized nations provide assistance to Third World nations in the form of “low-interest/long term loans.”[11] However, it first recommends not loans but “grants.” A gift remains the primary recommendation, though now bishops of the Church are comfortable recommending moderate interest rates as a means of assistance to the poor, whereas long ago any interest rate would have been considered theft. A principle for the rich to keep in mind when they lend to the poor is to offer the loan not for their own profit or gain primarily, but for the good of the poor to whom they lend.

[1] SRS 41; Catholic Social Thought: A Documentary Heritage (CST). Ed. David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2012. 455. emphasis mine. 
[2] RN 2; CST 15.
[3] RN 17; CST 21.
[4] The phrase, “determine its allotment,” is elsewhere translated, “rule the lending of money.”
[5] QA 105-106; CST 67.
[6]  QA 107; CST 67. 
[7]  PP 47; CST 264. 
[8]  PP 54; CST 266.
[9] EJA 223; CST 749. 
[10] EJA 242; CST 753.  
[11] EJA 265.

Monday, July 8, 2013

2) Biblical and Patristic Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching on Usury

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The early Christian uncompromising rejection of usury in all its forms had its earliest origin in the scriptures. To this day, “a primary source for Catholic social ethics is the social teaching of the Bible.”[1] In the Hebrew Bible, each part of the Tanakh – the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings – contain prohibitions against usury. From the Torah, Leviticus directly proscribes the practice: “You shall not lend him your money at interest” (25:37). Among the Prophets, the Lord said to the prophet Ezekiel: “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right... [he] does not lend at interest or take any increase” (18:5, 8). From the Writings, Psalm 15 celebrates the one “who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart” in part as one “who does not put out his money at interest” (15:2, 5). In the New Testament, Jesus maintained and even intensified this teaching. He taught,
And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35).
Jesus is saying that not only should people lend without taking interest, but they should also lend even to their enemies from whom they may not even receive back the principal. Jesus wants his followers to give freely to all who have need.

St. Clement of Alexandria
The early fathers of the Church take the teaching of Jesus and the scripture to heart. They seek to follow it literally and in all cases, though, of course, their constant condemnation of the practice of usury demonstrates that the practice went on in full force throughout the patristic period. Sometimes the fathers strongly appealed to the authority of scripture, as with Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), who wrote, “Let it suffice to remark that the Law prohibits a brother from taking usury.”[2] Yet, he also has more developed reasons for his disapproval of usury. He deems it “right not to take usury for money” because he recognizes that it is better “with open hands and heart to bestow on those who need.”[3] If one needs a loan, a gift would serve him still better, and serving others is what Christ means his followers to do. The command against usury, says Clement, is “marked by philanthropy” and concern for the poor.[4]  

Yet not even the notion of using interest for charity would persuade Commodianus (c. 250) that usury could be permissible. Concerning this, he writes,
You have lent on usury, taking twenty-four percent, yet now you wish to bestow charity that you may purge yourself, as being evil, with that which is evil. The Almighty absolutely rejects such works as these. You have given that which has been wrung from tears.”[5]
This passage is interesting. On the one hand, its rejection of usury is absolute. On the other, it describes usury with specificity: “twenty-four percent.” Could this mean that a more moderate interest rate would not be usurious? If so, this would place him against the general opinion of the fathers. “For the Greek Fathers, however…, any percentage above the amount loaned was usury, and usury was equally foul regardless of the percentage of interest.”[6] They regarded it as a kind of theft, always born of avarice. They thought of it as the sale of nothing, a fraud, an abuse. They did not consider the time and risk of the lender as having any value that the borrower could justifiably have to pay for. 

Just as petty theft is still theft and still a sin, so low-interest was still a sin even if its consequences were bearable by all concerned. Commodianus, however, decries usury precisely for its evil consequences. He says it is “wrung from tears.” For Commodianus, then, would an interest rate that did no harm and deprived no one of need be usurious? It seems that, primarily, usury is evil primarily for the harm that it does to the poor.

It is clear that the Old and New Testaments and, in continuity with these scriptures, the fathers of the early Church forbade usury absolutely as a social evil against the poor. In the context of discussing the special concern in the Hebrew prophetic books for the poor and those cut off from familial support structures, Curran, in Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present, writes, “Usury or interest-taking on loans was forbidden, at least in the community”[7] Usury, as discussed above, unjustly afflicted the poor.

This is Curran’s only comment on usury in this book, which, after all, deals not primarily with scripture or Christian antiquity, but with the present and the more recent past. Perhaps it is partly possible to gauge the perceived importance of this issue in contemporary Catholic social thought by looking at the lack of attention paid to it – except as a historical issue – by contemporary Catholic ethicists. Thomas Massaro actually lists interest taking on loans as one of the “economic questions about which the Church has chosen to remain silent.”[8] Specifically, Massaro states, “the Church has chosen to remain silent” on “the proper… interest rates on federal college loans.” Note that his question is not whether or not such interest rates are permissible at all. That seems to be a settled question in contemporary social ethics – but when was it settled and how? Is usury no longer an important issue of social justice?

[1] Charles E. Curran. Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press,   2002. 2.
[2] Clement of Alexandria. “The Stromata.”Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1885. 366.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Commodianus. “The Instructions of Commodianus.”Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 4. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1885. 216.
[6] Ihssen, Brenda. “‘That which has been wrung from tears’: Usury, the Greek Fathers, and Catholic Social Teaching.” Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics. Ed. Johan Leemans et al. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. 128
[7] Curran, 2.
[8] Massaro, Thomas. Living Justice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012. 124.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

1) Usury: Understandings of Just Lending

The Church’s constant condemnation of usury, which has its origins in the teaching of Jesus Christ, excellently exemplifies the nature of Catholic social teaching as contrasted with dogmatic teachings. In the interest of social justice, the Church must always respond to social realities. While the essence and energies of God are constant, human social and economic situations, which include the Church but also everyone else, are in constant flux. While the Church must constantly seek justice and condemn injustice, particularly and preferentially on behalf of the poor, the concrete shape and features of that justice necessarily change in response to new situations. While the Church constantly condemns usury, the definition of usury has necessarily undergone change. Concern for economic justice, however, is changeless.

Usury originally meant the loaning of money with any interest and the early Christian tradition originally regarded this as always a grave sin. Usury has taken many forms and many of these are extant realities. Nowadays, loans with interest are the very stuff of American economic life. Most Americans are in debt – often debt so enormous that, each month, they are able to pay off only the interest – and many accept this as a quotidian fact. The forms and quantities of loans, the types of creditors and debtors, and the rates of interest all vary widely in the present economic milieu – from credit cards to student loans, from mortgages to savings accounts. Usury affects everyone, but most of the upper and middle class in this society do not seem to mind. This is because it does not generally deprive them of the necessities or even the comforts of life. Unfortunately, “at the moment, millions across the globe suffer at the hands of others who would happily keep them in poverty through excessive and crushing interest rates.”[1] The term “usury” has come to mean, not just loaning with interest, but rather, loaning with exorbitant interest. Undeniably, some interest rates are usurious, as is clear from the ruinous and binding effect they have on the lives of many poor.
"Currently the worst manifestation of unjust lending in the United States is the ‘payday’ loan, which is specifically designed to keep people in debt; with interest rates up to 400 percent, these companies amass profits in the amount of approximately $4.2 billion annually, intentionally creating financially desperate circumstances for individuals and their families."[2]
Yet other kinds of interest, such as that gained in savings accounts, seem to do no one any harm. Nonetheless, according to scripture and the tradition of the early Church, any interest rate is usurious. Furthermore, not only were the lives and well-being of the poor at stake, so also was the salvation of the lenders because usury was considered a grievous sin. 


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Same-Sex Marriage Debate is about Sex

One thing everyone still seems to agree about on marriage: it is inherently sexual. Sex is not the only thing or even the most important thing, but if sex is not involved, then it isn't marriage. There is a great deal of talk about marriage as being an essentially loving relationship - "Everyone should have the right to marry the person he or she loves," say many same-sex marriage proponents - but no one is demanding the right to marry his mother or his brother, even though many people do love their parents and siblings. There are different kinds of love. One difference here is sex. There is a rampant confusion in our culture between sex and love. Sex should be loving, but it is not love itself and love is not always sexual. What gay marriage supporters mean is, “Everyone should have the right to marry the person he or she loves and wants to have sex with.” Couples who don't want to have sex with each other likely don't want to marry.

Sex is for making love, but it is also for making babies. Most human cultures have long understood the intrinsic connection of these two purposes and consequently have frequently opposed or even criminalized sexual acts that are inherently sterile, such as masturbation, the use of contraception, and homosexual acts. The cultural acceptance of all these behaviors is behind the recent growing acceptance of gay marriage. I read that when the last of the anti-sodomy laws were eradicated by the Supreme Court in 2003, Scalia predicted it would lead to the acceptance of same-sex marriage, along with a host of other ills. Really, it is just about consistency. I agree with them: if these acts are okay, then of course gay marriage should be legally recognized. Sexual ethics are the only real reason to oppose same-sex marriage. Opposing same-sex marriage while justifying other sexual immoralities within marriage is hypocritical.

U.S. sodomy laws by the year when they were repealed or struck down.
  Laws repealed or struck down before 1970.
  Laws repealed or struck down from 1970-1979.
  Laws repealed or struck down from 1980-1989.
  Laws repealed or struck down from 1990-1999.
  Laws repealed or struck down from 2000-2002.

If homosexual acts were still illegal, as they were in every state before 1970 and in some states until just ten years ago, then the suggestion of legally recognizing gay marriage would be absurd. The debate over gay marriage is not at its heart just about love, as its supporters wish to claim. It is also necessarily about sex, and homosexual acts should not be legal. Homosexual acts, along with other inherently sterile sex acts, should be legally punished as misdemeanors, not honored with legal privileges.

Edited 7/2/2013 1:45 PM:
 I changed the title and added the following :
"Sex is not the only thing or even the most important thing, but..."
"Sexual ethics are the only real reason to oppose same-sex marriage. Opposing same-sex marriage while justifying other sexual immoralities within marriage is hypocritical."

Edited 7/6/2013 10:15 AM:
I changed "The difference is sex" to "One difference is sex."

Friday, June 7, 2013

6) Conclusion - Saving Knowledge

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The spiritual knowledge made possible by faith is not a secret or hidden knowledge. It is γνῶσις, but it is not Gnostic. An ultimate purpose of knowledge is soteriological, and God pursues the salvation of everyone, not only that of an elite few. The Lord God does not desire the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live (cf. Ezek 33:11). To live is to become one with him who is life. To this end, we must come to know God by experience. “Salvation itself begins by a divine act providing direct knowledge of God” (Meyendorff 13). For our salvation, it is necessary for us to come to know the real union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is accessible only to those who have faith.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

5) Knowledge of God according to Gregory Palamas

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Philosophical challenges to the possibility of apodictically knowing God by direct experience continued into the 14th century (and today), notably in the arguments of Barlaam, who maintained that we can only know God dialectically from “revealed premises.”[24] To the assertion of “certain people” (by which he means Barlaam) that “God is knowable only through the mediation of His creatures,” Gregory Palamas replies that he is “in no way convinced.”[25] Palamas maintained continuity with the teaching of Maximus on the direct vision and knowledge of God as a divine gift.[26] God, present in us, gratuitously makes “direct vision of God” and “direct knowledge of God” possible for his faithful people, independent of rational human knowledge.[27] Palamas says nothing against rational knowledge and in fact values it highly, but he recognizes that God has “hidden… things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Matt 11:25). It is possible by God’s grace, which is abundantly present in our created and Christologically restored nature, for a person without rational knowledge and without knowledge of created beings nonetheless to know God spiritually and directly.

The unknowable God is made knowable to the saints by the transcending of their minds – “for the mind becomes supercelestial.”[28] That is, he who ascended into the heavens has spiritually taken with him all those who are united to him so that they may be “filled with all the immaterial knowledge of a higher light.”[29]  The human mind in Christ has ascended in glory, thus enabling human minds to contemplate that glory directly. Our capacity for ascending in and with Christ to contemplation and knowledge of God is inseparable from our salvation, which Christ accomplishes by uniting us to himself. Only in becoming one with God by grace can we truly know God.

Palamas writes, “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing.”[30] Palamas then later deepens the complexity of this expression: “In reality there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge.”[31] This is the “knowledge that is beyond wisdom” regarded by the irreverent as “foolishness.”[32] No paradox is sufficient to express the experience of the presence God, but both the positive reality of that experience and its absolute ineffability must each be maintained without neglect of the other.

We must not mistake apophatic expressions to be descriptive of the experience of God. They create an absence in the mind in which God’s presence is experienced and known, but that absence is not his presence. His presence is not describable in the terms of absence any more than it is describable in any other terms.

Palamas introduced the concept of God’s essence and energies into the discussion of the knowledge of God, seeking to maintain both the knowability of God by grace and the unknowability of God by nature. Referencing Palamas, Jaroslav Pelikan states the case well, “Since the ousia of God ‘is altogether incomprehensible …, would we have any other means of knowing God truly' if deifying grace and light were not God himself?”[33] In his essence, God is unknowable. In his energies, God makes himself known. We become one with God in his energies and thus can know him directly. This knowledge is accessible to all people of faith.

Palamas also states the relationship of faith to the knowledge of God. He writes, “Faith… alone can attain to the truth that lies above reason”[34] Spiritual knowledge of God, as opposed to the knowledge of reason, is accessible only to faith. Without faith, there is no knowledge of God. Furthermore, without faith, there can be no deification and rational knowledge utterly fails to replace faith in this regard.[35] As for Maximus, faith for Palamas does not simply refer to an assent of the intellect to revealed propositions. Rather, it is only a faith lived that enables the believer to come to knowledge of God. “True faith,” in fact, only “comes about by the fulfilling of the commandments” and it “bestow[s] knowledge… through that uncreated light which is the glory of God.”[36] If we love God and keep his commandments, he will give us the gift of true faith, which is a true spiritual knowledge of God and an essential aspect of our salvation by union with God.

[24] Meyendorff, 6.
[25] Palamas, 25.
[26] “Palamas always remains basically faithful to the thought of St. Maximus who, together with Ps. Dionysius, is the patristic author most frequently quoted in the Triads” (Meyendorff, 13).
[27] Meyendorff, 12, 13.
[28] Palamas, 33.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 32.
[31] Ibid., 36.
[32] Ibid.  
[33] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974. 269.; Gr. Pal. Against Akindynus. 3. 18.5 (Contos 215-16). 
[34] Palamas, 52.
[35] Ibid., 85.
[36] Ibid., 67.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

4) Knowledge of God according to Maximus the Confessor

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St. Maximus the Confessor 
The first sentence of the first century of Maximus the Confessor’s work, Chapters on Knowledge states that God is “incomprehensible” and “not discernable by any being on the basis of any natural representation.”[13] This begins a long apophatic listing of what God is not “insofar as it is possible for us to know” what he is not.[14] So then, Maximus understands knowledge of God to be possible.

How is it possible to know the unknowable God? Firstly, “no knowable object can compare in any way with [God].”[15] God is not like anything that exists. He is being and beyond being. Knowledge of created beings is demonstrable, but knowledge of God is both indemonstrable and “clearer than any demonstration.”[16] This knowledge is a divine gift.
God gives to those who are devout a proper faith and confession which are clearer than any demonstration. For faith is a true knowledge from undemonstrated principles, since it is the substance of realities which are beyond intelligence and reason.[17]
Maximus here identifies the divine source of the knowledge of God. Only God can make himself known, as he does in the person of his Son incarnate among us (cf. John 1:18). Faith is a freely given gift of God. Yet it is not a gift given to all, but only to those “who are devout.” This is the remarkable reality – to know God, we must live the faith devoutly, not merely profess it with our lips or assent to it with our rational minds. Having stepped out in faith and followed the Lord, he gives us no mere guesses, but certain assurance of his relational presence in our lives. Faith is the substance of reality, and it is not, as many suppose, whimsical and defiant belief.

MS 285 c. 1485
Armenian Patriarchate
Kaffa Monastery
In calling faith “the substance of realities,” Maximus clearly draws on Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance (ὑπόστασις) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). It is not a far cry from this passage in Hebrews to understanding faith as “a true knowledge.” The term “substance” attests to the truth and essential reality of what one hopes for and believes in faith and the term “evidence” attests to the justification of that hoped for and believed in truth. Faith, then, is the justification of true belief. “Faith is a true knowledge.” Yet, faith as true knowledge does represent a development of the doctrine of the knowledge of God. “In speaking of faith as true knowledge, Maximus is clearly correcting Evagrius, who saw the two as different realities.”[18] 

Apparently, it was difficult for Evagrius to accept, just as it is difficult for many contemporary thinkers to accept, the full implication of Hebrews’ teaching on faith. Perhaps this is because so many limitedly understand faith as mere belief or strong opinion. There is a problem in English with the term “I believe,” which commonly translates πιστεύω. “I believe” carries multiple senses. It can mean either “I have faith” or “I have an opinion.” This range of meaning is not so wide with the Greek term, πιστεύω. Пιστεύω comes from πίστις, which means “faith.” Пιστεύω is usually translated “I believe,” but more literally it means, “I have faith” and cannot really mean, “I have an opinion.” Yet, there are semantic problems with this term in Greek as well. Belief is an act of human will, while faith is a gift of God. Yet, we humans must cooperate with God in receiving this gift and he has given us the freedom to resist it absolutely.

Maximus identifies two hindrances to the attainment of “the knowledge of divine contemplation.” Firstly, those who fail to find knowledge despite searching for it with toil “fail because of a lack of faith.”[19] Faith is the primary means of knowledge. Secondly, they fail because they are “foolishly in rivalry with those who have knowledge.”[20] Humility and asceticism are prerequisites, along with faith, for the attainment of knowledge of God.

It is not enough simply to believe the truth about God – believers must also live the faith. Only faith truly lived is true knowledge. “The one who seeks knowledge for the sake of display” will not succeed.[21] One who would attain knowledge must first prepare “by practice, first on the body, then on the soul.”[22] Significantly, the external and ascetic bodily practice of the virtues (πρακτική) precedes that action in the soul. This is “an indispensible prerequisite of contemplation,” which is, “the perception or vision of the intellect (νοῦς) through which one attains spiritual knowledge (γνῶσις)."[23] To come to the knowledge of God, it is first necessary to act according to the way of faith. Remarkably, here is an epistemology not entirely caught up in the life of the mind, as if reason and rationality were the sole things worthy of consideration when it comes to such an abstract notion as knowledge. Believers in Christ must truly live out their faith in all humility and love if they are to know anything of God. Mere philosophizing will attain to no true knowledge of God, who we can only truly know by authentic direct experience.

[13] Maximus Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:1; 129.
[14] Ibid. 1:2; 129.
[15] Ibid. 1:8; 130.
[16] Ibid. 1:9; 130.
[17] Ibid. 1:9; 130.
[18] Berthold, George. “Notes.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 171.
[19] Maximus. 1:19; 132.
[20] Ibid. 1:19; 132. 
[21] Ibid. 1:20; 132.
[22] Ibid. 1:20; 132.
 [23] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. “Glossary.” The Philokalia. Vol. 2. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 381.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

3) There are Two Kinds of Knowledge

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1) There is the knowledge of reason (διάνοια), which logically “draw[s] conclusions or formulate[s] concepts deriving from data provided either by revelation or spiritual knowledge or by sense observation.”[5] This kind of knowledge is the most recognized as knowledge by much of the contemporary world, especially with the rise of materialistic empiricism that considers sense observation to be the only reliable source of knowable data. Though this is a false premise, we must not allow this to motivate us to discount rational knowledge. “Even though what [rational knowledge] says about God may not be entirely adequate, it says nothing which is opposed to God.”[6] The fathers do not discount rational knowledge, but they insist that there is also another, deeper, truer kind of knowledge.

2) There is also spiritual knowledge,[7] which is
the knowledge of the intellect (νοῦς) as distinct from that of the reason (διάνοια). As such, it is knowledge inspired by God, and so linked with contemplation (θεωρία) and immediate spiritual perception.[8]
Spiritual knowledge directly apprehends or perceives “the inner essences or principles of created beings” and ultimately even “divine truth itself.”[9] Only by direct experience of God can one come to know God spiritually.

+ Fr. John Meyendorff
Mental concepts are utterly inadequate to the task of knowing divine truth. Yet, as St. Gregory Palamas writes, “the human mind… transcends itself,” making knowledge of God accessible by direct experience.[10] Knowledge of divine truth is necessarily ineffable and one can only begin to express such knowledge apophatically. Yet, as John Meyendorff writes,
apophatic theology is much more than a simple dialectical device to ascertain the transcendence of God in terms of human logic. It also describes a state, beyond the conceptual process, where God reveals himself positively to the “spiritual senses,” without losing anything of His transcendence.[11] 
Because of the inadequacy of words to describe the experience of the presence of God, negated terms more closely approximate the truth of God, but even these terms must be negated, for God transcends even their contradiction. Negative theology must not convey an absence of God nor agnosticism toward God, but rather his transcendentally knowable transcendent presence. “The mystical presence of God experienced through [apophatic knowledge] transcends the possibility of being defined in words.”[12] 

[5] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. “Glossary.” The Philokalia. Vol. 2. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 386.
[6] Staniloae, 95. 
[7] This is how the editors of The Philokalia translate γνῶσις, which is knowledge itself. 
[8] Palmer et al., 387.
[9] Ibid., 386.
[10] Gregory Palamas. Gregory Palamas: The Triads. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1983. 32.
[11] John Meyendorff. “Introduction.” Gregory Palamas: The Triads. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1983. 15.
[12] Staniloae, 95. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

2) Classical Philosophical Foundations of Patristic Epistemology

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The opening of Theaetetus
1578 Stephanus edition
Volume 1, Page 142
Before we can delve into the patristic understanding of the knowledge of God, it is first necessary to examine the nature of knowledge itself. The influence of classical philosophy on the thinking of the fathers of the Church can scarcely be overstated and the classical understanding of knowledge is discernable in their writings. According to the most prominent classical definition, foundationally explored by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief.

To know something or someone, it is first necessary to believe in it, or him or her. If a man does not believe something, it is nonsense to say that he knows it. It is always possible to disbelieve any truth, thus disabling knowledge of that truth. Belief is an act of the will. Perceiving it to be true, one can believe or disbelieve any true or false proposition. However, just believing something certainly does not mean knowing it.

If a proposition is false, it is not possible to know it. It is not possible to know something unless it is not only a belief but also a truth. For example, if a light is shining in a cave, it is possible to know that there is light in the cave but it is not possible to know that there is not light in the cave. All this is so even if the light is indemonstrable to those outside the cave. Those outside the cave can know of the light only by faith in the true witness of others who have been in the cave. However, they cannot “know” that there is no light in the cave, even if they honestly believe there is no light on the account of false witnesses.

Yet even a true belief may not be knowledge, if it is not also justified and accounted for. It is possible to believe a truth and still not know it. I suspect most beliefs are like this, in fact. In Theaetetus, after first rejecting the notion of knowledge as perception and then the notion of knowledge as true belief alone, Theaetetus says to Socrates, “Someone… said that true belief with the addition of an account (λόγος) was knowledge” (Theaet. 201d). One cannot know a thing without knowing that one knows it. True belief must also be justified for it to be knowledge. Socrates at first agrees with this suggestion, but later criticizes its weaknesses. Nonetheless, this understanding of knowledge as justified true belief became the most important epistemology for more than a thousand years.

At any rate, the divinely personal meaning of λόγος for Christians could give this understanding of knowledge an entirely new dimension. Not only is it possible for true belief to be justified, it can only be ultimately justified by the λόγος who is God (John 1:1), especially when it comes to knowledge of God. Only the λόγος makes the Father known.
And the λόγος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14, 18). 
St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain
The only possible absolute guarantor of any true belief is God. True knowledge of God is only accessible by faith in him who is word (λόγος) and truth. God alone inspires true spiritual knowledge.

Such was certainly the understanding of many of the hesychastic fathers between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries, whose writings were compiled in the eighteenth-century into The Philokalia by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.[3] These fathers distinguish between two kinds of knowing. “According to patristic tradition, there is a rational or cataphatic knowledge of God, and an apophatic or ineffable knowledge.”[4]

[3] The editors (G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware) of the English language Faber and Faber edition of The Philokalia ably synthesized the hesychastic understanding of knowledge in their Glossary, drawing from the writings of many fathers including St. Maximus the Confessor (in volume two) and St. Gregory Palamas (in volume four). The fourth post in this series will consider Maximus and the fifth post will consider Palamas. 

[4] Dumitru Staniloae. The Experience of God. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994. 95.

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