The Roman statesman Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) gave us the pithy Latin proverb rem tene verba sequentur, “grasp the thing and the words will follow.” The lesson is this: once you sufficiently grasp the concept you wish to speak about (the thing), the words will flow with greater ease. This word res (from which we get rem in the quote) means more than just “thing.” The little monosyllable is pregnant with a whole host of concepts. From it we get ad rem, meaning “to the point”; res sacramenti meaning “the grace of the sacrament”; res publica, which gives us the word republic (“the public thing”). We even get the words “real” and “reality” from it.
Hilaire Belloc often used the word “thing” with that same Latin flare, a little oddity that makes for some powerful writing. He wrote about “the Catholic thing,” which means something like “the phenomenon of catholicity,” but in starker, more economically Roman prose.
What does any of this have to do with Christmas?
Dialogue, True and False
I shall quickly get ad rem. It is all about “dialogue” and “relevance” as they relate to our little infant God and His great work on earth: The Catholic Thing.
Too much breath and ink are wasted on fruitless dialogue in the effort to give Catholicism “relevance” to modern man. The fact of the matter is that the Catholic encounter with the world and with other religions was always one of two opposing sides. It was essentially antagonistic. But it was never purposeless. Today it is usually not antagonistic, but it is often purposeless. As for “relevance,” sinful men of all ages have had some difficulty with the notion that God would be born of a Jewish Virgin, executed by a Roman governor’s death sentence, come back to life three days later, and change the world by the preaching of twelve fishermen. When told that these things not only happened, but have direct bearing on daily life, ethics, and how everyone will spend eternity, some people reacted violently, giving the Church many martyrs.
It takes grace to see the relevance of that Baby and His Thing. It never made sense without grace, and it never will.
Herod seeks to murder the same Babe the Magi whom travel over sea and land to adore. Shepherds respond to the angelic call, but there’s no room in the inn. This is just as it would be later in Jesus’ public life, when “the Jews” (in St. John’s words) reject Him while the “Israelites without guile” accept Him. In his childlike simplicity, St. John boils it down to two factions: the children of light and the children of darkness. The former receive and freely respond to grace, the latter turn away from it.
This is not to say that dialogue has no place. The present pope is, thankfully, bringing dialogue into a more meaningful arena — read Spe Salvi and behold the errors of modernity gently refuted by the Roman Pontiff. In a refreshing dose of papal apologetics, the Catholic Doctrine on grace and good works is defended against Luther, and the truth of Purgatory is advanced against a common objection of the Eastern Orthodox.
If dialogue simply means speaking to the adherents of other religions (or of no religion) in order to bring them to the truth of our religion, it is a good thing. With those who have good will, the dialogue can even be very pleasant. However, let’s not forget certain divinely revealed truths that are ad rem:
“He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God” (John 1:11-12).
“For, seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs: and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:21-24).
And lastly, having “disputed” with Jews, Stoics, and Epicureans, St. Paul had these spirited words for the Athenians: “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. . . . What therefore you worship without knowing it, that I preach to you. . . . And God indeed. . . . now declareth unto men, that all should everywhere do penance” (Acts 17: 22 – 23, 30).
The saints of subsequent Christian ages engaged in similar “dialogue.” When St. Augustine discussed religion with the pagans, heretics, and schismatics of his day, he aggressively dismantled their arguments, although he was very friendly to them in person. All the Fathers used reason — even as refined and articulated by pagan philosophers — as a foundation for their argumentation, without allowing the dogmatic foundations of the faith to be undermined by whatever was dangerous in the philosophical systems they employed. They were “reasonable”; yet they plainly argued against the errors of their opponents, be they Jews, pagans, or Christian heretics.
There is a prevalent idea today in putatively orthodox Catholic circles, as well as those professedly liberal, that modern philosophical thought (Kant, Whitehead, Hume, etc.) can serve as a “handmaid” to theology just as the Greek thought of Plato and Aristotle served the Fathers and medieval scholastics. This notion is simply wrong. We can apply to it that basic axiom of computer programming: garbage in, garbage out. Put theology on a Kantian foundation and you get Rahner and his “anonymous Christian” heresy. Put theology on a Marxist foundation and you get Boff, the apostle of “liberation theology.” Wed it to modern historicism and literary criticism and you get Raymond Brown, a Catholic priest and Scripture scholar who outright denied the historicity of the Infancy narratives in St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels.
The Question of Purpose
I once asked a bishop and a priest who were very active in ecumenical dialogue what the purpose of ecumenism was. “Unity” was their answer. I asked if this meant unity in the traditional sense — in the one, true, Church via the conversion of non-Catholics. Both adamantly answered in the negative. When I asked them to explain the unity they were striving to achieve, neither could identify it, but the priest said we would know it when it happened. I pointed out that, by strict definition, they had essentially purposeless ecclesiastical careers, as they were working for a completely undefined end.
What is the alternative? Dialogue the old fashioned way: Present the Faith zealously, with conviction, and with excitement by “the foolishness of our preaching,” and “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). To this must be united an intense interior life of prayer and sacramental union with the Trinity through Christ’s Sacred Humanity, so that with our whole self, body and soul, we adore the same Truth we profess with our lips. This is to be like the great Dominicans of old whose primary motto, Veritas (Truth), was explained by their second motto: Laudare, Benedicere, Predicare (“To Praise, to Bless, to Preach”). Yet a third motto unites the two: Contemplata aliis tradere (loosely: “to hand on to others the fruit of our contemplation”).
Does this mean that we are not rational in our presentation? No! With the great apostles of all ages, we must use reason enlightened by faith, “being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh [us] a reason of that hope which is in [us]” (1 Pet. 3:15). Far from embracing Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd,” we profess our Faith so that the world will see that reason and faith do not contradict each other, since both have God as their first cause and last end.
Marian apostles who will profess and defend the Faith are sorely needed. Rather than merely bemoaning the sad state of affairs in the afflicted Mystical Body, these apostolic workers must present the remedy: dialogue based on truth, dialogue (with “the world,” with “science,” and with other religions) carried out by those who have “grasped” and adored the Catholic Thing — who wholeheartedly believe and profess all the dogmas of the Faith, including the supernatural nature of the Church — and whose “words follow” from that. Knowing that grace is necessary to profess the Faith, they will never rely only on their own arguments. Like St. Paul, they are palpably aware that “neither he that planteth is any thing, nor he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (I Cor. 3:7). Being totally consecrated to Mary, they know that all these graces come through her Immaculate Heart.
By her maternal intercession, such apostles have grasped The Catholic Thing — a Thing and a Who at the same time. Having adored It, they will preach It, so that the good-willed might, like the Magi, find Him with Mary His Mother, and finding Him, fall down and adore Him.
News Note: The observations here about ecumenism are timely in light of Cardinal Kasper’s recent statements regarding the mass conversion of conservative Anglicans. (See Cardinal pours cold water on union with rebel (TAC) Anglican group.) Cardinal Kasper was actually upset about the conversion of so many Anglicans. He said on Monday: “We are on good terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury and as much as we can we are helping him to keep the Anglican community together.” When asked whether he felt encouraged by the Traditional Anglican Communion’s (TAC) request, the cardinal replied: “It’s not our policy to bring that many Anglicans to Rome and I am not sure there are so many as you are speaking about.” Our policy? What church is he the head of? This appears to be a provocation. Pope Benedict wants union, but Kasper does not. Now, his public statements may force the Pope’s hand.
See also, “the limited-access ramp,” Diogenes’ spot-on and devastating critique of Cardinal Kasper’s poltroon pseudo-religious diplomacy. Here is a cardinal dissenting from the wishes of the Pope — and of Christ, who wants all to be one in His Church. This is proof positive that, to progressivists like His Eminence, ecumenism is not about Christian unity in the Mystical Body of Christ, but something else. Whatever that something else is, it is not Catholic.