Fasting, Abstinence, and Liberation

JMJ

WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT? Don’t tell me – you’re not supposed to tell folks. But what was it? Do you think of it as a struggle or a punishment to do so? Are you making a sacrifice for God? Or are you doing something to make up for your sins? What is fasting about? If you follow through on “just the rules” there is both fasting and abstinence: we’re supposed to eat less, and not eat certain things. And then something else (TV? Chocolate?) sort of creeps in because we know we can substitute something else for the food thing. So, if I give up my phone for a couple of hours a day, then I can keep eating hamburgers, right?

Why do we fast?

In the east and the west, Christians used to have a more strict fast: generally, all animal products were removed from the diet (there were some exceptions for Sundays and feast days). Additionally, the amount of food was limited: one meal a day, only eaten late in the day. The timing was relative to the liturgical practice: you only take communion after fasting. So Mass or (in the east) the Divine Liturgy were postponed until very late in the day. In the west you said Mass in the afternoon. In the East, communion came with Vespers. You ate only after communion.

Why? What’s wrong with meat or cheese or even wine? Nothing at all. Why do we do it then? Can’t we replace giving up wine (how much do we drink anyway?) with no chocolate? And who fasts until 3 in the afternoon? Pshaw. That’s all just showing off. Works don’t make us more holy. God loves us as we are. Those last two sentences are totally true. They are not modern. All of the Church Fathers – including those who wrote the rules about fasting and abstinence – would agree that rules don’t make us holy and God loves us fully even if we eat hamburgers on Good Friday. So what’s this about?

Look at the rules:
– Don’t eat until late in the day.
– Don’t eat more than once.
– Don’t eat animal products.
– Don’t drink alcohol.

Who would those rules affect? Farmers? Peasants? Homeless? Not really at all. Many if not all of these folks were lucky to eat – usually bread and maybe veggies – after working all day. These rules would affect the rich. In fact, these rules would force the rich from your local officials all the way up to the emperor (if he were pious) to live – at least a little – as if they were poor. When coupled with the traditional command to give alms during Lent, this all begins to make sense. Lent is a spiritual practice of solidarity with the poorest in our Christian family. It’s not enough to be in solidarity as such – this is not about political action per se – but it is exactly a political act in itself. It is acting in a way contrary to the world: my riches mean nothing to me. I give them up, even if only for a time, to live in solidarity with the poor. If you realize that the most ancient Christian traditions did not only fast/abstain in Lent, but several periods throughout the year as well as every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, suddenly it’s nearly 50% of the time was some form of Lent, some form of solidarity with the poor.

What made me realize this was a comment about feasting. The rules about fasting only cut out feasting foods. The issue, for us moderns, is that we feast all the time. We have meat all the time. We have fats and adult beverages whenever we want. We have no idea what it means to feast because we don’t have fasting days anymore and – more importantly – we don’t have normal days where it’s mostly a fast. Feasts are not special because every meal is a sumptuous feast from our bagel and coffee to our late-night snack of ice cream. Even our standing in front of the fridge in a daze eating leftovers out of Tupperware with our fingers is feasting.

This is why it’s important not to imagine giving up TV or sweets is the same thing.

Fasting and abstaining are intended to make us uncomfortable, are intended to be hard, not because of our sins but because of our comfort, because of our ease.

The patristic teaching on these practices included the counsel to take what you do not spend on your feasting foods and hand it directly to the poor. What a concept! Fasting leads directly to charity. Abstinence leads to liberation.

Pray
Give up costly things
Give your money to the poor
Pray.

This is not only a problem in the West, even the Orthodox have forgotten the “fasting” part of the equation. A priest commented to me “We too are supposed to only eat one meal a day, but we ignore that part…” They pretty much eat all they want, just vegan. So you can have all the soy ice cream you like. And, as one layman joked, “Who cares if you can’t eat steak. Lobster is fine.” (Shellfish is poor people food…)

If you think, though, that this is about the rules as such, or that fasting is some Mediaeval (and mistaken) idea about paying God back for our sins, then, of course you would get rid of this. You might even quote scripture:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

But these are not conflicting: these are the same thing. You can’t share your bread if you eat it…

A blessed Lent!

An Integralism of Liberation

Wherein we discuss Aquinas, Ignatius, freedom, a real integralism, and truth.

JMJ

YOU MAY REMEMBER The parable of the foolish (rich) man, which came up in the readings recently in the US:

And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?
– Luke 12:15-120 AV

Your host has been studying up on Liberation Theology. Certainly, this is because of other reading: having just spent a year reading the Catechism, Church History, Fundamental Theology, and Philosophy, one’s brain tends to get fired up and a summer program was needed. Additionally, several events in the US and in the Levant have caused one to be triggered. Also, in the middle of Covidness there was a debate in Catholic Social Media around the question, Can one be a socialist and a Catholic? The great range of responses to this (each insisting they were the one, right answer) precipitated research. Then, finally, a new job which daily puts one in touch with those who are most rejected in our own city has sent this writer searching. For intercessors on this journey, Blessed Stanley Rother, the Servant of God Dorothy Day, and the Orthodox Saint Maria of Paris all presented themselves. There have been numerous podcasts as well: The Liberation Theology Podcast, Tradistae, and The Josias to name a few. Please note that these come from all across the political spectrum. I’m trying to figure it out.

All Catholic social teaching begins with the doctrine that God intended all of creation for all people. It promptly moves to the idea that if you’re not sharing – if you hoard things up in barns like in the parable – you’re on the wrong path. And you’re going to die anyway. If we stand up and say “everything is amazing I’m going to build new barns…” then we’re in the wrong place. It seems entirely damning to say the value (or increased value) of this physical thing is more important than the justice due others. As we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, we may – at different times – find recourse to the laws of the land. Changing the systems (as needed) to fit our faith is Catholic Integralism – subjecting the state to the Church’s teaching on social and political matters. It matters not if that subjection is perceived as right, left, or centrist. Although often seen as a “right wing” op, Liberation Theology is also a species of Catholic Integralism, as the latter is properly understood. So how can we build a state around the ideas of liberation? How can we ensure the universal destination of goods and to what extent should the state be involved in that process?

We begin with the Church herself. On 6 August 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation. Sent out of the signature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, it’s a very clear rejection of some of the tools used by my sources. It carries the Church’s Magisterium’s full authority, so we are obligated to follow it as faithful Catholics. In that light, it is important to note that the first third of the document essentially affirms the orthodoxy of many (if not most) of the tenets of Liberation Theology citing Church councils, both ecumenical and regional, as well as previous magisterial documents. Peppered through the rest of the document are additional statements of strong support. The items rejected though, are the tools of Marxist and materialist analysis, and what the document rightly calls a “partisan conception of the truth.”

Here, from Chapter X:

1. The partisan conception of truth, which can be seen in the revolutionary ‘praxis’ of the class, corroborates this position. Theologians who do not share the theses of the “theology of liberation”, the hierarchy, and especially the Roman Magisterium are thus discredited in advance as belonging to the class of the oppressors. Their theology is a theology of class. Arguments and teachings thus do not have to be examined in themselves since they are only reflections of class interests. Thus, the instruction of others is decreed to be, in principle, false.
2. Here is where the global and all-embracing character of the theology of liberation appears. As a result, it must be criticized not just on the basis of this or that affirmation, but on the basis of its classist viewpoint, which it has adopted ‘a priori’, and which has come to function in it as a determining principle.

Your host believes this to be the core objection – even stronger than the rejection of Marxism, per se. The “partisan conception of truth” posits first (in the case of Latin America) that the poor are “good guys” and the rich are “bad guys”. Going further, it seems to say the rich can’t be saved as they are rich with an added implication that the poor are already holy exactly because they are poor. As the document notes, the arguments of the rich, as a class, are rejected because they are rich. Truth does not matter at all: rich people can’t speak the truth here.

As liberation theology moves outside of Latin America, a partisan idea of “poor” gets replaced by an even more partisan idea of “oppressed”. Anyone who self-classifies as “oppressed” becomes “good guys”. So, as the document points out, there are now divergent “theologies of liberation”, each one liberating a group of people from oppression at the expense of others who are classified as “oppressors” in a way they (the oppressors) cannot escape. Unlike poverty which can possibly be addressed by redistributive economies mere “oppression” needs to be defined in opposition to the “Oppressor”. The Oppressed may often have the same social position and power as the Oppressors. They may even be of the same economic class. For example: can a theology of liberation be applied to the “oppressed” middle-class women of American Suburbia? Are same-sex families which, statistically, tend to be of higher incomes and higher education (double income/no kids), have a theology of liberation, properly understood? Are they “poor” in the Church’s sense of a preferential option for the poor? In these cases, there seems to be a desire to “liberation” something without ever questioning if the liberation, itself, is moral. In fact, the question of “morality” is, for some, just more oppression, but that’s where we need to start.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Liberation theology is often seen as the province of Jesuits and every Jesuit is formed using the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius so we shall start there, with what is known as the First Principle and Foundation of the entire Ignatian tradition.

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.

A stroll around the net will reveal many ways in which this text has been paraphrased to mean any number of things in these post-Christian days, but at the root, it all begins here: Man is created to praise and serve God with the end goal of becoming a great saint. Anything that furthers that goal is to be embraced. Anything that hinders that goal is to be rejected. Here, then, is the first principle of liberation: the removal of all things in our life that prevent us from praising and serving God. Although many paraphrase Ignatius to say something to the contrary, it would be clear that sin cannot be tolerated here. Anything contrary to God’s revealed plan cannot be classified as “liberation theology”. Additionally, as we know, things contrary to God’s will become, in themselves, oppression – a way to avoid becoming a saint. Repeated sin becomes a mental habit of sin – an addiction. We are entrapped by our own actions.

(Thanks to Elle Ornido for pointing out this video.)

Many “theologies of liberation from oppression” start by saying “this thing we thought was a sin is not a sin” and add “language of sin is – itself – oppression.” These are not theologies, then, properly understood, since they begin with rejecting revealed truth. They are, then, ideologies. These ideologies rob the church of the language of salvation. In a religion based on “the world” truthful language describes reality. To use untrue language (“this is not a sin”) is to describe illusion, to lie. These ideologies only enslave us further to our sins. So, for example, sexual sin: there cannot be a theology of liberation that starts with the approval of disordered passions. To be truly liberating we must begin with Truth (that is, Jesus).

Conclusion: A Theology of Real Liberation

Let us return, then, to the Universal Destination of Goods and discuss what real liberation might mean.

Those who say the laws of the state must hinder us from sin are correct. But sin is not only a matter of sexual morality, divorce, and adult magazines and movies, etc. If our laws are not just, if they hinder the universal destination of goods, if they destroy the earth, they are equally immoral. They are equally damning to those who willingly participate in that system. Slavery, human trafficking, unjust housing policies, business practices that shift the pollution overseas, or the real cost of products onto the shoulders of underpaid labor are all equally damning. A political process that does not address all of these – and more – is not liberating. Further, unless the state liberates all peoples – the oppressed and the oppressor – it is not liberation at all. It’s not, therefore, integralism. It’s just another form of modern government. The laws which create usurious debt, which prevent just housing, which grant the rights of persons (divine icons) to fictitious entities like businesses and political organizations are all opposed to the Catholic Church’s anthropology and natural law. An integralist state must oppose these as firmly as it must oppose divorce, abortion, and other expressions of sexuality contrary to God’s law.

But first, the Church must make clear how all of these are liberation and how all of these negative are, themselves, real oppression as certainly as is economic oppression. The Church’s choice (and each Catholic’s in the Church) must be to become saints – to be saved. After that, each choice will be obvious for each person: a rich man may have different choices available than a poor child. A white person may have different options than a person of color. But there is no “preferential option for the [fill in the blank]”. There is only the preferential option for the poor. We must all become poor to enter the kingdom. But while there are systemic sins in our present structures, a real integralism must liberate both the “Jew and the Greek, the slave and the free, the male and female;” it must liberate all as “one in Christ Jesus” or it will not liberate anyone. We must tear down all our barns and ensure that the laws of the integralist state ensure the universal destination of all the goods (physical and spiritual) of God’s creation.

The Church must make clear that our first question is not a paraphased version of Ignatius, but rather his exact text, how can we set up for each person “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul?” Once we have done that – and only when we have done that – will we be on our way to salvation.