Episode 4: The God of our Imagination

Hello friends, and welcome to this latest edition of Thinking with the Church. This week, we are speaking with a Jesuit priest and theologian who teaches fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Prof. Nicolas Steeves SJ, who is most recently the author of Grâce à l’imagination: intégrer l’imagination en théologie fondamentale – a profoundly challenging and refreshing exploration of the role of imagination in the work of theology, and more broadly, in intellectual and social life.

As often happens with Prof. Steeves, our conversation took several unexpected turns. So, we have agreed in principle that we need to sit down again before too long to put bows on several of the strings we pulled and did not tie. That’s alright, though: you’ll discover that our talk quickly acquired a logic of its own, to which we were happy to give ourselves.

One might wonder what a political philosopher and a fundamental theologian have to say to one another, and the short answer is: too much for one episode of this podcast!

A more fulsome reply might be to say, with the Harvard philosopher and film critic, Stanley Cavell, that:

[Philosophy is] a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape; such things, for example, as whether we can know the world as it is in itself, or whether others really know the nature of one’s own experiences, or whether good and bad are relative, or whether we might now be dreaming that we are awake, or whether modern tyrannies and weapons and spaces and speeds and art are continuous with the past of the human race or discontinuous, and hence whether the learning of the human race is not irrelevant to the problems it has brought before itself. – Cavell, Themes Out of School,  9

Those are the sorts of things about which we are all bound to think – they are thoughts we cannot help have cross our mind, and sometimes they become the things of which we speak: over coffee, after dinner, late at night – sometimes we sink our teeth into them, and sometimes we mention them and pass them by – though I wonder sometimes whether I have anything original to say about them – whether there is anything to say that hasn’t already been said, and better, by someone else some other time.

Cavell asks elsewhere whether there can be any speaking at all – about anything – that is not quoting, since language itself is something given to us: something there before us and behind us.

If there is not, then all speech will be basically quotation, so it will be useless to quote, insofar as there is no original to be quoted. The metaphysical implications of this line of questioning are manifold. One need only think of St. Thomas, who found the newness of the world to be a question undecidable by reason, alone (Cf. ST I Q.46 a.2). If God’s saying, “Let there be light!” etc., is God’s giving sound to His breath and speaking the being of the world, then the whole world is a divine quotation, and the human capacity for language is on this reading an ability to speak of the divine, and a lack of attention to this fact of language, when understood as this ability, could make all speech blasphemy – from which God save us.

But we were talking about imagination – and mine seems to be running amok.

Cavell mentioned “fantasy” – which is another word for “imagination” after all – one etymologically linked to “fancy” which is itself also an older though still recognizable way of saying imagination – as in the expression, “fancy that?” or “How does that tickle your fancy?”

Those expressions are still reasonably current ways of asking, in essence, “What happens – how do you feel -when you imagine the thing proposed?”

At the end of Episode 3, featuring Fr. Brian Reedy SJ, I noted that imagination is useful to the thinker only when the structure of knowledge is assumed to be essentially open and unlimited – and now I’ll say that, when we do suppose that the structure of knowledge is essentially open and unlimited, we discover ourselves in a world that is infinitely knowable – which is to say a world of endless discovery, endless adventure, and endless danger – which is the only world in which – as far as I can tell – an infinitely good and loving God will fit.

Here is where we pick up the thread of our conversation with Prof. Steeves: at the point of recovery – recovery of the role of imagination in the project of theology.


That was Part 1 of a conversation with Fr. Nicolas Steeves SJ, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. We covered a good deal of ground in Part 1, though we do need to return to flesh out our discussion of Ignatian spirituality, and to try to discover the nexus of moral and cognitive imagination.

I also want to come back to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech: together with King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it was the focus of an extended meditation on America that served as an interlude between the third and fourth chapters of my own – still fairly recent, at least in academic terms – book, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

That, however, is – as we said – a topic for another conversation.

*********** Show Notes ***********

For brief biographical details on Fr. William Lynch, SJ, click here, and for a quick, sympathetic presentation of his thought, see here.

Jean-Francois Lyotard was a socialist, and then post-Marxist post-modern philosopher who wrote literary psychology and social criticism.

Walter Brueggemann is a prominent scholar of the Old Testament and theologian, whose work has focused on recovering literary sensibility within the Protestant tradition(s) of biblical exegesis and theology.

The verse from the Book of Proverbs to which Prof. Steeves refers in his discussion of Brueggemann is Proverbs 15:17, of which Bruegemmann makes use, offering an extended meditative treatment, in a 1988 Sermon, “What you Eat Is what you Get”, which may be found in his Collected Sermons.

Special Edition: A Meditation on Mortality

Hello friends, and welcome to this special edition of Thinking with the Church. We did not drop an episode last week, because my EP and I were traveling on some unexpected and basically unpleasant business, so this week we are bringing out two episodes: this special edition, and the regularly-scheduled Episode 4, which will follow this edition shortly.

This special edition is essentially an extended philosophical meditation on death.

My mother, Maudie Altieri, passed away two Sundays ago, on January 22nd, 2017, and my wife’s grandmother, Caterina Pezzi, followed my mother out of time and into eternity two days later.

Both women received the Sacraments of Holy Mother Church, and died surrounded by family. The prayers of countless friends have been, and continue to be a buoy and a consolation to us all, especially the Masses offered for the intentions of our dear departed ones.

That we have been in such great need of buoying and consolation, even in the face of what can only be described as the happiest of circumstances in which any Christian – indeed any person – could pass from this life, is testimony to the violence of death itself: the all-powerful Creator and Lord of all there is has made us to live, and yet we die. Not even the sure promise of resurrection and the confidence that faith in Christ’s victory over death will bring us to life everlasting can alter by one iota the terrible and unnatural character of the separation of the soul from the body.

Our Blessed Lady carried the Beatific Vision in her womb: her unspeakably intimate knowledge of God’s inexorable design for victory over death itself, so far from shielding her from grief, so multiplied her pain as to make her Mother of Sorrows, for she knew at what price that victory is bought.

Our Lord was the Beatific Vision unto Himself in His Human and Divine Natures hypostatically joined: yet He wept real tears at the death of His dear friend, Lazarus, though He was presently to raise His friend from the dead: and Our Blessed Lord sweat blood at the thought of His own death when it was imminent, and though He knew it would be death to sin, begged His Father to take the cup of His lot from Him.

Some of you might object that this turn of mine to Sacred Scripture and the data of our Holy Faith therein contained should constitute a prescinding from philosophy: not so, for the events are a dramatization – in the word’s etymological sense – of the quintessentially human experience of our own condition; they reveal us to ourselves, and they reveal to us the real danger we are in, of losing friendship with the source and author of our being, and the promise of a hope that does not disappoint, which is in God’s power to give us if we will receive it.

I know the women, whose passing occasions these considerations, lived and died in just that hope, and though they were sorry to leave us, that they were more glad to go to Him.

This knowledge consoles, but it does not comfort.

In this time of bereavement, my thoughts continue to return to St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, whose Confessions have played – and continue to play – a foundational role in my whole understanding of the faith we confess and the world in which we are called to live and confess it.

Great are you, O Lord, and immensely praiseworthy: great is your virtue, and of your wisdom there is no reckoning. And mankind wants to praise you, as a portion of your creation, even mankind carrying around with himself his mortality, going about with the testimony of his sin and with the evidence that you resist the proud: even so, man desires to praise you, as he is part of your creation. You excite him, that he might delight to praise you, for you made us unto yourself and our heart is restless, until it should rest in you.

Magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde: magna virtus tua, et sapientiae tuae non est numerus. Et laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae, et homo circumferens mortalitem suam, circumferens testimonium peccati sui et testimonium, quia superbis resistis: et tamen laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae. Tu excitas, ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te. – Augustine, Confessions I.i.

We carry our mortality about with us.

Everywhere we go, the evidence of our sin is with us, and the price of it: Martin Heidegger describes this state as one of being-toward-death, though ever since I first studied Heidegger – under the influence and tutelage of the Augustinian scholar and philosopher, Archbishop Craig John-Neumann de Paulo – I have found Heidegger’s insistence on death as essentially non-relational to be utterly at odds with a candid application of Heidegger’s own Dasein analitik – an analytic my mentor, de Paulo, proved in his doctoral dissertation to be a “secularization” of Augustine’s own existential analytic.

Our desire for life everlasting is what, in the state of our confusion due to the Fall, drives us to sin. It is also, and at the same time, that desire, which impels us to conversion:

Because of a perverse will was eager longing (libido) made; and eager longing indulged became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (for which reason I call it a chain), did a hard bondage hold me enthralled. But that new will which had begun to develop in me, freely to worship You, and to want to enjoy You, O God, the only sure enjoyment, was yet unable to overcome my former willfulness, made strong by long indulgence. Thus, did my two wills, the one old and the other new, the one carnal, the other spiritual, contend within me; and by their discord they dissipated my soul.

Quippe voluntate perversa facta est libido, et dum servitur libidini, facta est consuetudo, et dum consuetudini non resistur, facta est necessitas. Quibus quasi ansulis sibimet innexis unde catenam appellavi tenebat me obstrictum dura servitus. Voluntas autem nova, quae mihi esse coeperat, ut te gratis colere fruique te vellem, Deus, sola certa iucunditas, nondum erat idonea ad superandam priorem vetustate roberatam. Ita duae voluntates meae, una vetus, alia nova, illa carnalis, illa spiritalis, confilgebant inter se, atque discordando dissipabant animam meam. – Augustine, Confessions VIII.v.

Death drives us from our true selves: its experience is incommunicable; its immanence drives us to delight in – and to make, or try to make – the world the “smiling place” it is:

Let every one of us, brothers and sisters, look deeply into himself, let him weigh himself, let him prove himself in all of his deeds, in his good works, which he had done with charity, not expecting temporal retribution, but the promise of God alone, the face of God. Indeed, nothing that God promises is anything worth, without God Himself. God would not wholly satisfy me, unless He should promise me God Himself. What is the whole earth? What is the whole sea? What is the whole sky? What are all the stars? What is the sun? What is the moon? What is the host of angels? I thisrts for the Creator of all these: I starve for Him, I thirst for Him, to Him I say: “In You is the font of life.” Then He says to me: “I am that bread, which came down from heaven.” Let my pilgrimage hunger and thirst, that it might be satiated by my presence [before Him]. The world smiles with many things: beautiful, strong, various; more beautiful is the One who made them; more powerful and brighter is the One, who made them; more suave is the One, who made them. I shall be satiated when your glory is made manifest. Faith, therefore, which works by love, if it is in you, then already do you pertain to the predestined, the called, the justified: let it therefore grow in you. Faith therefore, which works by love, cannot be without hope. When, however, we shall arrive, will there yet be faith? Shall it be said to us: “Believe!” – but it were useless, for we shall see Him, we shall contemplate Him. Most beloved, we are sons and daughters of God, and what we shall be then has not yet appeared. For so long as it shall not have appeared, there shall be faith. We are sons and daughters of God: predestined, called, justified; we are sons and daughters of God, and what we shall be has not yet appeared. Faith is therefore the manner [of our being] until what we shall be should appear. We know that we shall be like unto Him. Shall it be [so] because we shall [then] believe? No. Why therefore? Because then we shall see Him as He is.

Unusquisque ergo, fratres mei, inspiciat se intus, appendat se, probet se in omnibus factis suis, bonis operibus suis, quae faciat cum caritate, non exspectans retributionem temporalem, sed promissum Dei, faciem Dei. Non enim quidquid tibi Deus promittit, valet aliquid praeter ipsum Deum. Omnino me non satiaret Deus, nisi promitteret mihi se ipsum Deum. Quid est tota terra? Quid est totum mare? Quid est totum caelum? Quid sunt omnia sidera? Quid sol? Quid luna? Quid exercitus angelorum? Omnium istorum Creatorem sitio: ipsum esurio, ipsum sitio, ipsi dico: Quoniam apud te est fons vitae. Qui mihi dicit: Ego sum panis qui de caelo descendi. Esuriat et sitiat peregrinatio mea, ut satietur praesentia mea. Arridet mundus multis rebus, pulchris, fortibus, variis: pulchrior est ille qui fecit, fortior et clarior ille qui fecit, suavior ille est qui fecit. Satiabor, cum manifestabitur gloria tua. Fides ergo quae per dilectionem operatur si est in vobis, iam pertinetis ad praedestinatos, vocatos, iustificatos: ergo crescat in vobis. Fides enim quae per dilectionem operatur, sine spe esse non potest. Cum autem venerimus, iam erit ibi fides? Dicetur nobis: Crede? Non utique. Videbimus eum, contemplabimur eum. Dilectissimi, filii Dei sumus, et nondum apparuit quod erimus. Quia nondum apparuit, ideo fides. Filii Dei sumus, praedestinati, vocati, iustificati; filii Dei sumus, et nondum apparuit quod erimus. Modo ergo fides, antequam appareat quod erimus. Scimus quod cum apparuerit, similes ei erimus. Numquid quia credimus? Non. Quare ergo? Quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est. Augustine – Sermon 158,7

Death is the ultimate expression of our alienation from ourselves and from our fellows: nevertheless, in Baptism, not even death can any longer separate us from the source of our being; and being united to their source, our selves are not destroyed in dying.

Even so, in death we are not ourselves: we may not be disembodied without being destroyed – and so what death reveals to us is that we shall not be so sundered in ourselves forever – though for so long as we are, we are somehow still waiting for ourselves – our true selves – though one great step closer to them than we are now. “Verily I say unto thee this day: thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Each of us – if we are counted among the living – will be not only restored, but changed utterly and in an instant: though we may enjoy the Beatific Vision even before the Resurrection, even so, the full restoration of the human family to perfect friendship with God must await the Second Coming and the establishment of the celestial Jerusalem. Herein lies the social dimension of death: the passing of each human life out of this world diminishes the whole human race, and each of its members; though we feel more keenly the passing of those members, who were closest to us, the passing of each and every one wounds and weakens our community.

This is the meaning – or part of it, at any rate – of Donne’s line in his 17th Meditation:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

There are lines at the end of Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, which have helped me get under or get through the matter, though in ways and for reasons that only now begin to become clear to me, however clear they seemed before:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

It is worthwhile to note that, in the technical parlance of the paranormal, haunting is done by mute ghosts. The waters – can they be other than the waters of Baptism? – are those by which the author of the lines is bound to the words: the waters haunt him, which is to say they offer mute witness to the weave of time and eternity in which he is – in which we are – now suspended, out of which the words reach and under which they are buried, even beneath the basement of time.

In any case, it was my mother who taught me to fish when I was a boy: to love being on the water and attuned to the rhythms in the riot of creation, in the pregnant quiet at the break of day.

Her passing transforms the persistence of her presence into an ineluctable awareness of her absence: vague talk of her spirit being with us simply will not do; nor will invocations of eternal memory, though there is nothing wrong with those per se; the point is that even Pagans could boast as much, and even more: “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze … I shall not wholly die, and the greater part of me shall escape Libitina. (Exegi monumentum aere perennius … Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam[.] – Horace, Ode 3.30 1, 6-7)”

Horace’s Ode is dripping with sarcasm. Our consolation is not nearly so cheap:

Praised be You, my Lord,
Through our Sister Bodily Death,
From whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
Find in Your most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
And give Him thanks
And serve Him with great humility.

When Our Lord comes again in judgment – and He is coming, and with Him a great and terrible wrath – His coming will break the world: it will shatter the universe and all that is in it, into pebbles.

It will not be His judgment, however, which blasts creation into dust; it will be His glory; as quiet and meek as was His first coming into the world, in a hovel, in a manger, in a hamlet, so great will be the glory of His second coming, that the world shall break at it.

Creation shall not have strength to withstand the coming into it of the Creator a second time, and all shall be undone:

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. –
Isaiah 40:4-5

Some of us – my hope and the hope of the Church for each and every one of us is that we be counted among these – shall find that we have been carrying this glory inside of us (unbeknownst to the world, and even unbeknownst to us), and so shall be caught up in it, suddenly ourselves for the very first time, even as all that is and all that ever has been shudders and is wasted in an instant.

Some of us are very blessed, indeed, for we have been fed on this Uncreated Glory in secret: body, blood, soul, divinity, hidden under the species of bread and wine, though real and substantial in their presence. He shall make all things new. We wait in joyful hope.

altieri002Maudie Turner Altieri 2/14/1947 – 1/22/2017
Requiescat in pace

Creative Tension: listening to TwtC

We’re only three episodes into this little adventure called Thinking with the Church, and already a few discernible traits are emerging: one is that listeners are coming back week after week – something for which we’re immensely grateful (and not a little relieved!); another is that word of what we’re doing is spreading, with almost twice as many of you listening to episode 3 as listened to episode 1 – so, please keep telling your friends and colleagues about us!

A comment/question we’ve received is: are episodes 2 and 3 meant to be heard as a pair?

The short answer is, “No,” but that answer is too short by half: it turns out that they work very well together (and the order in which one listens to them doesn’t really much matter, though we did speak with my guest on Ep. 3 before we spoke with our guest on Ep. 2): Ep. 2 is a conversation with Prof. Philip Larrey of the Pontifical Lateran University about how Catholics can think of the technological developments underway in the world, without fear or prejudice – in a manner becoming the best in our tradition of thinking; Ep. 3 is a conversation with Fr. Brian Reedy SJ about our tradition of thinking – how it informs in surprising ways the practice and ethos of science in our day, and how our cultural and civilizational project has departed from the philosophical and theological vision that undergirds – underwrites – the practice of science, creating the risk of losing the authentic ethos of the practice.

Here, anyway, are links to the episodes, for easy sharing (or you could just share this post):

Remember: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and/or subscribe to the RSS Feed through your favorite podcast manager!

All images from Wikimedia Commons

Episode 3: “A whisper from the universe”

This week on Thinking with the Church:  a conversation with a biologist who designed – together with his students at Cristo Rey Prep in Houston – one of the experiments sent to space on the Space-X 9 and conducted aboard the International Space Station, with a convert to Catholicism who came to the fullness of the faith through a conviction in the oneness of truth and the need to seek the truth intrepidly, with an officer in the United States Navy, and with a Jesuit priest currently doing doctoral work in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Our first round-table edition? Not yet. Fr. Brian Reedy SJ is our guest this week.

Fr. Reedy is an open book: ask him anything, and he’ll tell you what he thinks, and why – which makes talking with him as challenging as scaling a sheer mountain face, and refreshing as a cool spring in the desert – but don’t take my word for it: click below to hear the episode (show notes are below the player, and will be updated throughout the week)

*************** Show Notes ****************

Cristo Rey Jesuit Prep and the SpaceX 9 slime mold experiment:

In the introduction, I mentioned the work of a group of students led in part by our guest this week, Fr. Brian Reedy SJ. The story of dedication, perseverance in the face of extreme adversity, and good ol’ fashioned pluck, is one to tell. You can find out more at the following links: Press Release from  the Cristo Rey Network announcing the successful launch following the first, failed launch in 2014; NASA mission pages detail of the students’ experiment; more about the Cristo Rey Jesuit school network

Euler’s Theorem:

Leonhard Euler was a Swiss mathematician and polymath, whose contributions to number theory, pure and applied mathematics, physics, and engineering continue not only to influence but in many ways to direct the course of scientific discovery and technological achievement today. His theorem, which Fr. Reedy mentions toward the end of the conversation, is – forgive this mathematical layman’s conceit – essentially a mathematical expression of hermeneusis: the ability to see the deep unity in diversity and the infinite variety within the oneness of the created order – the forest and the trees, if you will – a mathematical foundation for our ability to see the whole without eschewing the question, “Which is which?” – a kind of thinking that is philosophy as I care about it most deeply.

leonhard_eulerLeonhard Euler, portrait by Emanuel Handmann

Episode 2: “A Piece of Work”

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? – Hamlet, Act II scene ii

Transhumanism is the focus of this week’s edition:

When have we stopped supplying nature and begun to supplant it? If there is nothing wrong – in principle – with improving on nature, then where do we draw the line when it comes to our efforts to improve (on) it?

When we design technology capable of anticipating our needs – and our desires – what do we risk losing?

Most importantly: what resources can we find within the Catholic tradition of thinking, to help us find our way across the troubled landscape of technological (r)evolution, with all its challenges and opportunities?

These were the focuses of my conversation with Fr. Philip Larrey, a priest of the Rome diocese and Professor of Philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University, where he teaches logic and epistemology.

Talking with Prof. Larrey, by the way, is always great fun – but it is never easy: he knows the players, and the game, and the score – and he is fearless when it comes to engaging the ethical challenges of our technological age.

Be prepared to have him challenge you, as he challenges me every time we talk…

Read more in the show notes beneath the image – and don’t forget to subscribe to the show – we’re now available on iTunes!


Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*********************** Show Notes **************************

Prof. Philip Larrey is a priest of the Rome diocese and Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Understanding at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University. He is the author and editor of several books, including:

He is also the author of the forthcoming volume, Connected World: Talking About the Future With Those Who are Shaping it (Penguin, March 2017), to which our own Chris Altieri contributed a chapter.

Books mentioned during the course of the conversation:

The “Core Values” conference was held in November of 2016 at the Pontifical Lateran University, and involved leaders from the communications and information technology industries, academics, and intellectuals from a host of fields.

The thumb ailment is apparently called “texting thumb”: http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/08/13/texting-thumb-a-growing-health-condition/


Toward the end of the conversation, Prof. Larrey refers to a story he saw in the news recently about scientists, who claim to have discovered “the soul” and that “life after death really exists”: the Dec. 5, 2016 story in YourNnewsWire.com was based on a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton and published in the journal Resuscitation.


To contribute to the cause, go to Vocaris Media and find the donation button in the top-right corner – if you like what you hear, we hope you’ll give $1 / show – and remember that Vocaris Media’s podcast productions are listener-supported, so at the end of the day, it really IS up to you.

Next week on Thinking with the Church, we’ll talk to a biologist and teacher of biology who designed – together with his students at Cristo Rey Prep in Houston – one of the experiments sent to space on the Space-X 9 and conducted aboard the International Space Station.

We’ll talk with a convert to Catholicism who came to the fullness of the faith through a conviction in the oneness of truth and the need to seek the truth intrepidly – and we’ll also talk to a commissioned officer in the United States Navy and with a Jesuit priest currently doing doctoral work in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

A round-table?

Not hardly.

Fr. Brian Reedy, SJ, will be our guest next week.

Thanks to Executive Producer Ester Rita and to web guru Christopher Bauer Anderson of the web design company Life Site Ministries LLC – you can find them at:


Sean Beeson composed our theme – you can get ears on his brilliant musical stylings at


Episode 1: Rear vision

CRA: This is Vocaris Media, and you are listening to Thinking with the Church! I am your host, Chris Altieri, and I’ll be with you over the next hour of this official premiere episode of our podcast, laying the course for this first season, which will focus on the title theme: we’ll be asking, over the course of the first dozen episodes or so, “What does it mean to think with the Church?”

We’ll be aided along the way by officials of the Roman Curia, professors at Rome’s Pontifical universities, and the many “thought leaders” – as I’ve recently learned they’re called – from  every area of Catholic life, who make their way through Rome – and we’ll have more on just who they are as we schedule and conduct our conversations with them – so watch the blog-space with religion.

That’s at: thinkingwiththechurch.wordpress.com

Today, though, we’ll be exploring the medium of podcasting: what it is, where it came from, and how it can serve the mission of the Church – or serve us in our part of that mission, which is essentially to think publicly about the Faith, and about the world in which our Faith has been revealed.

In this inaugural episode, we’ll be helped by a few voices from beyond the grave: Professor Marshall McLuhan will be one of them; Professor Eric Voegelin will be another; one will be the voice of a saint, John Paul II.

Before them, however, we will hear from the Servant of God, Pope Pius XI, the founder of Vatican Radio, who, on March 12th, 1931, delivered the first radiophonic address by a reigning Pontiff: he addressed his remarks, in Latin, to “all nations” and “to every creature”:

Qui arcano Dei consilio succedimus in loco Principis Apostolorum, eorum nempe quorum doctrina et praedicatio iussu divino ad omnes gentes et ad omnem creaturam destinata est, et qui primi in loco ipso mira sane ope Marconiana uti frui possumus, ad omnia et ad omnes primo Nos convertimus atque, hic et infra Sacro Textu iuvante, dicimus: Audite caeli quae loquor, audiat terra verba oris mei. Audite haec omnes gentes, auribus percipite omnes qui habitatis orbem, simul in unum dives et pauper. Audite insulae et attendite populi de longe.

Since by the arcane counsel of God, we succeed [we have fallen into] in the place of the Prince of the Apostles, whose doctrine and preaching by God’s command is destined to all nations and to every creature (Mt, 28, 19; Mk. 16, 15), and being able for the first time to avail ourselves in this very place of the use of the marvelous Marconian work [invention], we turn in first place to all things and all people, telling them, here and below, helped by the text of Sacred Scripture: Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar. (Is. 49:1)

Thus began Vatican Radio’s more than 85 years of broadcast radio service: bringing the voice of the Holy Father into dialogue with the universal Church and with the world.

Now Vatican Radio – where I had the honor of serving as one of the members of the news team for a dozen years – is no more: it is absorbed into the Secretariat for Communications, charged with the reform of the media structures of the Holy See.

The future of the mission is very much in doubt: what role, if any, broadcasting will continue to have remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: we have seen the end of an era.

I’m still on the news desk at what used to be Vatican Radio, but this podcast, and the whole Vocaris Media venture, have nothing to do with that. Thinking with the Church is very much my own – I own it and I answer for it.

I grew up on Radio: listening to CBS, and 1010 WINS, and in my home town of Stamford, Ct., to 1400 WSTC (they carried Paul Harvey), and the classic rock station 95.9, and of course, Sports Radio 66, WFAN, which began life as WNBC and was home to the Imus in the Morning program, which was hilariously funny until it wasn’t.

And I need to say a word about A Prairie Home Companion and Garisson Keillor’s edifying, delightful homespun that was always crackling with incident, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and All Things Considered, and Ira Glass’s This American Life.

Those are all programmes that began on the radio and have found a way to inhabit the digital space that permeates reality in the early 21st century, without, however, losing their essentially radiophonic character and mission. I hope to do the same thing, in reverse.

Why radio?

I suppose I’ve always been awestruck by the cosmic power of radiophony: there are energy waves, within the power of man to manipulate, which communicate sound at the speed of light.

Radio waves carry the sound of human breath – the voice that is the one unmistakable sign of that intelligence, by which we know that man is made in the image and likeness of his Creator (who, giving sound to His breath, spoke the very being of the world): they carry the human voice, alone among all effects of creatures capable of naming the Creator, not only to the ends of the earth, but into the empyrean and even to the utmost bounds of God’s creation.

Radio waves are nearly as ancient as the creature, Time, itself.

They have reached us on earth from the basement of Time, and given us insight into the earliest nano-portions of nanoseconds of the life of the cosmos.

From here on earth, they stretch out, ever farther, ever farther, ever farther, and shall not cease to bear the sign and sound of thought until the breaking of the world.

This is not hyperbole, nor is it a poet’s fancy, but the mere prosaic statement of what is, what has been, and what shall be.

Who, possessed of such a gift of power, beauty, grace, would put it off?

But I digress – and I forget myself.

I was saying – or I was trying to say – that this podcasting medium is nothing to shake a stick at.

It is not the same thing, but it is a beautiful thing – a good and worthy thing – and one I am happy to get to know.

Why audio, though? Don’t we live in a world of images?

Well, for one thing: faith comes by hearing, we are told – and God exercises His creative power – we are told – by His voice: He gives sound to His breath, and speaks the being of the world.

Our ability to say things to one another – to give our word and to keep it – is what makes us human: and our ability to have words with each other is at present much attenuated, and this means we are at risk of losing the ground on which we stake our claim to moral agency, tout court.

I noted in my doctoral dissertation that “to have words with somebody” means, in English usage, to quarrel with him. In such a situation of querulousness the conditions of discourse are precarious, for the slightest misunderstanding, any misstatement of a disagreement could lead to an interruption of the communicative flow.

This is a dangerous potential in, or power of human speech, and it has been a question for philosophy at least since the writing of the Euthyphro, wherein Socrates names his interlocutor, “friend,” and asks him what kind of disagreement causes hatred and anger — though this kind of case illustrates only one particular way in which words may fail, or one particular mode of our failing our words. This power is but one intimation of the infinite responsibility we have for our words, taken together with the endless ways in which our words, let us say our language, might fail to convey or to achieve our meaning, our purpose.

Words establish our relations to people, and place us, and do many other things, as well, though how well they do the things we want them to do is not always, perhaps never, in our power to tell.

If it helps, the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has described the issue as one of, “Word[ing] the world.” The expression is awkward, perhaps, though by no means is it arcane. It recalls our sense of the world’s being given by language, and so at the same time our giving words to the world, or a world to words. If we allow “Word” to translate the Greek logos, then to word the world is to make it, to make the world (intelligible). In an old story, God gives sound to His breath, and speaks the being of the world: He gives us the power of speech, through which we can participate in (the intelligibility of) creation. Either we keep faith with the power that is bequeathed us, or we do not. To lose faith in the power is to despair of (knowing) the world.When words fail, there can be parting, an end to friendship, say, or to marriage, which Milton calls a “meet and happy conversation” — an institution that is for him a symbol and metaphor of polity.

When words have failed, and parting is not an option, there is war.

And it you think that the loss of language is a trifling matter, listen to what the great German-born American political philosopher – in my opinion the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century – Eric Voegelin has to say about it – and about its recovery:

IN: “If anything is characteristic…”

OUT: “lostness in relation to it.”

Those pericopes were taken from the audio recordings of the sessions that became Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections: he was still trying to work his way through what had happened to his beloved Germany and Austria three decades and more after the allies declared victory, and he believed that similar processes were underway in western societies generally, even and especially in those that prided themselves on having “free institutions”.

But we won – didn’t we? We made a decision and we left that behind, right? Why continue to look in the rear-view mirror?

Don’t ask me, ask the great oracle of the media age, Marshall McLuhan:

IN: “I discovered…”

OUT: “past at all…”

That was from a Q&A session McLuhan did on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1977.

The rear-view mirror shows you what’s coming. Yup.

McLuhan died a Catholic, you know. I thought I’d toss that out there.

A while back, a friend asked me why I am Catholic – or why, after all, I am still Catholic?

I answered:

I am Catholic because the Catholic Church is true. The Catholic Church is the One Church founded by our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, as the vehicle by which humanity is redeemed from sin and death, and restored to friendship with God. The Church is the efficacious sign of that friendship. I am Catholic because I would be reconciled to God, and to all my fellows, and at peace with all and every one, and the Catholic Church promises this. For now, I see this through a glass, darkly, in a darkness the brightest spots of which are often but the dimmest glimmers of hope – though I am told this is a hope, which does not disappoint. Why am I Catholic? Let me answer with Peter: where else shall I go?

Words of eternal life: that’s everything, sure – but it is also all there is to go on. So, if you’re looking for easy answers, or idle platitudes, or pat solutions, this just isn’t going to be the place for you. We’re playing for keeps, here:

But I’ve said elsewhere, that I am not interested in intellectual agonism for its own sake, and that debate as blood sport is to be avoided – and I stand by that.

The point is that intellectual life in the service of the Church is dangerous business, in which we are constantly playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death – and there are no minor characters: each of us is protagonist, each of us is expendable and supremely consequential – and there are no breaks in the action.

The Editor-in-Chief of Crux, John Allen, recently published an analysis piece on Pope Francis’ remarks to Polish bishops, which the Holy Father offered in a private session with the prelates during the course of his visit to Poland for the 2016 edition of World Youth Day. In his piece, Allen seized upon what he described as a largely overlooked element of the program Pope Francis outlined to the hierarchical leadership of the Church in Poland: radical Christian discipleship.

In one sense – and indeed a very important sense, this is neither a complicated nor a nuanced call – it is not rocket surgery:

“What becomes clear listening to Francis speak to the Polish bishops,” writes Allen, “is that seen through his eyes, the aim isn’t giving in to secularization – it’s staging the battle on a different field, away from abstract debates towards hands-on pastoral proximity – what Francis likes to call vicinanza, ‘closeness’ – especially to people in greatest difficulty.” This element places Pope Francis squarely in the way of his two predecessors when it comes to his vision and understanding of the response the Church owes the world, to the ills and discontents of contemporary society. It amounts to a renewed call to precisely that radical Christian discipleship, which was the clarion of Pope St. John Paul II’s entire reign – we just heard him proclaim it to the faithful in Boston – that was in 1979, at the beginning of his pontificate – and the true keystone to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI’s lived witness to the Gospel (a witness that continues quietly today and shall continue, we hope, into eternity).

This should come as no surprise, and indeed sound quite plausible, to anyone who knows that the Holy Father’s favorite confrère, St. Peter Faber SJ (whom he canonized in 2013, as much as a birthday present to himself as to the whole Church), was a man who eschewed theological disputation in favor of lived witness and exhortation to personal moral reform.

Allen goes on to say, “Though [Francis] doesn’t quite put it like this, the idea seems to be that the right way to resist secularism and to win souls isn’t to prevail in intellectual arguments, but to ‘out-love’ the opponents of the faith and thereby draw people to the Church.”

This construction of the thing raises the question: what are we to do for the intellectual enemies of the faith? The answer to the question is to be found, in part, in St. Peter Faber, himself.

Faber was neither a rube, nor a shrinking violet, who preferred not to engage in intellectual agonism either because he lacked the wherewithal or the stomach for it. Quite the contrary: he was a powerful orator in an age that admired and expected erudition of its public speakers; he studied at the University of Paris; he had a prodigious memory. In short: St. Peter Faber SJ made a conscious, deliberate, and informed decision in favor of a specific mode of evangelization.

More to this, he did so in an environment and at a time in which Europe was not wanting for great intellects. Indeed, he counted some of them among his copains and confrères in the fledgling Society of Jesus. Simply put, he worked his work, they theirs – and it was all for the greater glory of God.

In other words, while Francis is calling Christians to pour resources into a specific front in the war for souls, I am not convinced he is suggesting we ought to abandon the intellectual front.

He is, however, reminding those of us who are engaged on the intellectual front, of the stakes in the game: we, too, are playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death; the souls of our interlocutors are at stake, and so are our own.

Francis, I think, is calling us all to a renewed sense of the “serious play” that has always characterized Christianity, and a recovery of the sense of adventure that is always characteristic of the Christian life well and truly lived.

One of the things at which Catholicism has excelled through the centuries is story-telling: the story we told was – is – true, and it is the story of each and every one of us; an epic adventure in which each of us is at war with the forces of hell – forces that are at once “inside” us, and in the world – invisible, preternatural, unspeakably powerful.

In this story, each of us is playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death in every moment, waking or sleeping: there are no minor characters and there are no breaks in the action; all of us, each second of each day, are in the fight.

That is a great story, and one in which “the rules” not only make sense, but themselves make the story make sense.

The rules we had (along with many of those we kept and still have) – rules the nature and purpose of which the ideological critics of Christianity impugned and continue with increasing vehemence to impugn as unbecoming a truly free and self-ruling humanity – were (are) in truth a field manual of sorts, based on lived and living wisdom from beyond the world, some of which we found recorded in our ancient books of right, history, and wisdom.

If we are honest with ourselves and with our interlocutors, we must admit that, in the decades before the II Vatican Council that Catholics either love or hate for its having changed and dispensed with so many of those old rules, we had – to a significant degree – lost the sense of adventure. The Council, however, can be read as an attempt to recover the sense of adventure that makes the rules make sense, and so gives us the necessary framework within which we can decide which rules we need at this stage in the game.

As long as we are being honest, we must acknowledge that powerful players in the post-Conciliar Church have abandoned the narrative entirely, believing – or treating, which is practically the same thing – the enterprise of narrative recovery as one not worth the effort.

The sense of adventure, of danger, of fun (as only children who have played dangerous games with eyes wide open to the danger of them can understand): that is what we all want.

As Christian – and especially as Catholic – intellectuals, we would do well to recover an awareness of the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has always inspired those living it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension.

Our tradition teaches us to think all the good we can of those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. It teaches us to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it.  Our tradition teaches us to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives: the salvation of souls.

For us, in other words, the Holy Father’s exhortation is not to abandon our enterprise, but to be our best selves as we are about it.