Author: Jana Bennett

Stepping Down from the Ivory Tower: Pange Lingua and the Triduum

As I was participating in tonight’s Holy Thursday mass, I remembered that Thomas Aquinas wrote one of the great hymns that we sing today – Pange Lingua. This patron saint of ours was a very intimidating person, in more ways than one, wasn’t he? Augustine is another one who wrote some amazing homilies, clearly tagged for non-ivory-tower audiences. It’s rather unfortunate, I think, that the City of God gets so much attention, because his homilies are packed full of rich metaphors and theological ideas. I have one sermon tacked on my office door that answers the question of why Jesus came to earth only to die: that bread may be hungry, and the fountain thirsty; that the light might sleep, and the way be weary from a journey; that the truth might be accused by false witnesses, and the judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge; that justice might be convicted by the unjust, and discipline be scourged with whips hung up on a tree; that strength might grow weak, eternal health be wounded, life die. One of the reactions I sometimes get when I say I’m a theologian is that we’re too cerebral and don’t participate in “faith on the ground” as much as we should. Maybe that’s because we don’t often write for “popular” audiences? I can’t say I know any...

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Subsidiarity and the Case of the Missing Lunch

I’m fond of telling my students that pretty much anything should be considered a “moral theology” question. (They don’t often believe me.) Consider the news headlines about the ban on homemade lunches. My knee jerk reaction was to think “How unfair! Parents ought to be able to decide what their kids eat.” Except that then I have second, and I believe better and more rational thoughts, for it turns out that the “homemade” lunches mentioned in the article consist in cheetos, sodas, and other processed foods. Should we care about this or is this truly a problem for the parents alone? On one hand, these foods are cheaper and more enjoyable for kids, making this a win-win situation for many parents. On the other hand, associations (though not causations, as researchers are careful to note) routinely show up in studies – links between nutrition and child obesity (and with it, the rise in obesity-related diseases), and nutrition and one’s ability to do well in school. So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not...

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Hate Speech, the Internet, and Edwardian Society

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Westboro Baptist Church members’ right to free speech, even at funerals, is by now old news. But I was interested in this piece at the BBC. Louis Theroux filmed a documentary of the group a few years ago but, strange in documentary-land, returned during the Supreme Court questioning to get an updated version. What he found were people who had left the church and he remarks: The family regard it as their duty to “rejoice in all of God’s judgements” – murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company). When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad. Though most of us would say that we are not “like that” and though I have never, ever met anyone from any political persuasion who liked what the Phelps do, their court case, their sadness should make us reflect on ourselves and our own use of language. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have been somewhat of a target of the Phelps’ vitriol. Back when...

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Torture, Accusations and Humanity

Next weekend, Duke University will host its conference on torture, which has a very specific goal in mind: identifying that “torture is always wrong, torture does not make ‘us’ safer, and we need concrete tactics to refuse the climate of fear and and compliance.”   The conference is broadly ecumenical and also interfaith, including Muslim voices too.  And, it has a variety of well-known people presenting who have long been involved in advocating against torture. I wish I could go and be a Catholic voice in this mix.  The magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church is that torture is always wrong, as well (see Compendium 404) because of the tradition’s strong belief in the integrity of the human person and the possibility of that person to turn toward good ways of living – even when that person is accused of murder or sexual abuse or other horrendous crimes.  Torture, as a way of breaking people mentally, physically and spiritually, cannot be a humane way of relating to other humans.  I find this actually comforting, for my own part: given the number of people who have been falsely found guilty (as confirmed by DNA tests) I’d rather know that if I were ever accused of something, at least from the point of view of the church, I still possess a fundamental human dignity. Culturally, however, it’s far more difficult.  Accusations have a way...

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