Modern Indulgences

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Saturday,  February 28, 2015

When reading about Reformation Europe, there is also that recourse to the practice of paid indulgences within the Church. The main point of this recourse is to discuss the issue with the notion of buying one’s way into heaven. While, as many apologists no doubt have said, the notion of buying one’s way into heaven is a overly reductionist explanation. Indulgences exist prior to the economical method of the Reformation era. But there is a fundamental question related to economically buying one’s way into a good ethical standing. The importance of such a question is evident when one looks at the socio-economical ethics that seems common in our business models today.

The practice of paid indulgences arose in the 15th-16th as the result of changing European society. Leonard Hoff’s insightful text The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa describes this change as the severing of the old medieval communitas <more specifically, the liturgical common space>. One contributor to this was the growing economic conditions within Christendom that lead to the development of a distinct merchant class. Within the Divine Economy <the many ways by which God draws his people to salvation>, the paid indulgences became a common occurrence to suit those within this merchant class. Indulgence practices would very over what was viewed to be the most appropriate method to the individual. Usually, what this would lead to would be fiscal payment by the rich, and physical labor (e.g. pilgrimages) for the poor.

"A Question to a Mintmaker" by Jeorg Breu Elder

“A Question to a Mintmaker” by Jeorg Breu Elder

From my experience, the furor over this between the Reformation era Catholics and modern day commentators differ. Nobility generally complained about what the money was being used for <with harsh critiques of the Papal States for using them to help with its prestige>. Among the peasants, the class distinction between them and the rich <merchants, priests, nobility> inspired more hostility as presented in texts such as Peasant’s Fire: The Drummer of Niklashausen by Richard Wunderli. Even within Luther’s Catholic early writings, the hostility was more drawn towards malpractice that always followed the paid method, not the indulgences themselves. The modern critique, on a more normative level, revolves around the notion of buying one’s way to heaven. While certainly influenced by the faith v works dichotomy of the Reformation, the view, at least among the secular, can be said to revolve around buying one’s ethical status. The question is, with current trends, have the moderns lost the validity of this critique?

Within the current economical mindset, consumption is rewarded by buying into charity with every purchase. For instance, when buying fast food, one is commonly asked to contribute money to St. Jude’s Hospital. Starbucks promotes assisting the countries they export from; Chick-fil-A found itself benefiting financially from the American culture war. The ethical and economic spheres are grounded together within our culture. While certainly one will say, “Well of course ethics and the economy are grounded together. An ethical economy is a healthy economy.” True. The point I wish to present is the relationship between one’s ethical status and the medium by which it is accomplished. To refer back to the Chick-fil-A example, the conservative Christian perceives his consumption as a means of holding back the domineering Liberal threat. The act of consumption has become the medium by which the Right is supporting its views of traditional marriage. What is derived from this is an ethical status derived from consumption not sacrifice. The money paid for fast food is not sacrificial, it is consumptive.

As a final note, there should be a brief reference to another critique which simply is the emphasis on heaven in indulgences. Perhaps, from a more atheistic perspective, paying for some fictional status in the afterlife is what makes indulgences unethical. Fair enough, but the notion of heaven is no purged from the atheistic model; it is rendered material or at least immanent. I do not believe the rise in volunteer work, ethical capitalist alternatives, and environmental care are the result of some self-masturbatory need to feel good. There is this sense of contributing to a better world. This is not a transcendent heaven, yes, but it is a better future than what it currently present. Regardless of the atheistic or the ethical critiques, upon looking at our society, we are throwing our money towards an ethics. We are indeed making a system of paying for the sins of our own system.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. Sooner or later he will work on his course material, but there are blog posts to write! 

Crusading One’s Way Into the Ground

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Wednesday,  February 11, 2015

Generally, when one hears a statement that is pedestrian, the best course of action is to regard it for what it is: a pedestrian statement. Obama’s remark really should just be passed a long and forgotten; but, this current political sphere has decided to elevate it to an absurd level. What has been unleashed is a sleuth of media releases concerning the “true history” of the Crusades. This post will not be counted amongst the Crusader apologists. What is presented to you, the esteemed reader, is a former-apologist’s recantations of his former charge. When I converted to Catholicism, there was this spirit of needing to solidify the ground by which I chose to stand. Years later, views have changed and information was re-analyzed. As such, this is a very brief counter to the ideological views that both the promoters and detractors learn by.

1. The Amorphic Mass of Mohammedans

Appeals to the great Muslim Other’s conquering hordes is a trend appearing on my Facebook feed as of late. The basic summary of this position is that the Crusades were launched against this coordinated Islamic horde that had conquered a lot of East Christian territory. This view is usually always accompanied by the map of the Umayyad Caliphate because “Look at all that conquest!”


One point needs to be very clear: the Umayyad Caliphate was very short lived. The Islamic unity did not withstand the schism between the Sunni and Shiites which divided this caliphate. This is not what the Crusaders were fighting. The Crusader, specifically during the First Crusade, were primarily fighting the Sunni Seljuk Turks and the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia. The Egyptian Caliphate at the time was Shiite <although this would change under Saladin who politically converted Egypt to Sunni>. The stories of pilgrims being slaughtered on their way to Jerusalem are true, but it must be remembered that this itself was not even coordinated. The Seljuk fought under the decentralized authority of military leaders who primarily gained wealth from plunder. The Levant, while still having Arabic leaders, was primarily a frontier of Turkish warbands. If anything, the Muslim leaders had very little control over what was happening and they too also suffered economically from this. The Crusaders were primarily fighting these warbands which would become progressively more centralized under Kilij Arslan against the Crusaders <who, for the record, was busy fighting other Turks before fighting the Crusaders>.

2. But the Crusades were ethical due to Just War theory!


The Fall of Constantinople

Another defense centers primarily on the Church’s stance concerning Just War and what is needed for a just cause. The problem I have with relying heavily on the causa bellum argument is that the just war theory pertains to one thing: the initiation of a war. Just War theorists, in my honest opinion, continue to run into an issue that an initially just cause equates to an overarching value judgment of a war despite the incidence that occur within the war. In short: good cause means good war despite bad occurrences. This might have further underpinnings, especially among Catholic scholars, with the claim that effects are never greater than their cause. The initial issues that I have with this position is that it relies on the broadest denominator of judgment in order to discern value. Within the pursuit of knowledge and clarity, refinements are necessary in order to properly assess information. When studying the Crusades, there are instances of heroism but also instances of depravity. The Gesta Francorum presents pious figures such as Raymond de Toulouse, and horrendous acts such as the cannibalism of dead Islamic soldiers <which, to be fair, horrified the Crusaders as well>. The Fourth Crusade with the sack of Constantinople also appears as giant black mark on the Crusader record. Specifically with regards to Constantinople, the claim that good causes remain sound despite bad effects can be challenged. Just War theory acts as if the causes and effects of a particular situation are isolated enough to be adequately valued. Rather, the causes of wars themselves find themselves as effects of causes that led to them. The further split between East and West, the collapse of the Shiite Caliphates, the rise of the Sunnis, the recurring infighting in Christendom, et al emerge as effects that act as causes that lead to much greater events in history than that which triggered the Crusades. And what triggered the Crusades? According to Pope Urban II, the violence done to pilgrims and Eastern Christians by the Turks <who were not even affiliated with the Umayyid Caliphate…>.

3. For the Wealth!

To conclude this, a brief mention must be made about the secular responses to the Crusades. The general opinion of secular scholars is the Crusades were immersed within economic causes. The issue I have had with the economic interpretation is that it does not adequately match up to the data. Christendom, after the First Crusade especially, was generally plunged into economic ruin as debts would be made and the debtor would inexplicably die overseas. The time after a particular Crusade were generally violent pursuits to re-solidify an economy broken by war debts. Financially theories, in my opinion, are more applicable to the Reconquista of Spain as the Spanish territories were more valuable than the Levant. This is also true for the Albigensian Crusade which occurred in Toulouse, a crucial trade route between the Spanish and French kingdoms. If anything can be ascertained by the invalidity of a pure economic theory <in addition to the bellicose views of the apologists>, the Crusades covers a grey area of conflicting motives. The apologist may find shelter in the moral haziness, but the grey still does not shine with the light of grace.

Instead of a bilbiography, a very short recommended reading list:

Warriors of God by James Reston

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. He wishes people would take a deep breath and calm down before sending the painful controversy train onward….maybe chill with yoga and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

The Journey of the Magi

Advent is coming and is almost here. It is a season of ‘yet and not yet.’ Christ has come to us and Christ is not yet arrived; we have gone to him and we have not yet gone to him. It is a season of dual anticipation, for what is coming soon (the season of Christmas) and for what is at an unknown distance (the coming of Christ).

I have been strongly impacted the last few months by the Advent image of the journey of the Magi. The story is incredibly familiar to us, but also incredibly short. Much of what must have gone on is left unsaid. It is an element of this silence that has captured my imagination.

Totally not kings.

We three Kings

One of the few facts we know is that there were more than one Magi. Traditionally it is said that there were three, not only because of the three gifts but also because the world was divided into three parts. Thus one Magi was Asian, one African, one European. One can only assume that after such a journey (and probably before) they were friends. It is this friendship that inspires me. They traveled together through undoubted hardship, presented powerfully by T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” The goal of this journey was nothing short of God himself.

This is our task as Christians, to follow the star to Christ wherever he is. But contrary to contemporary opinion, this is a journey to be taken together, as a community and in particular as friends. Here friendship finds it’s highest form, aiding each other to pursue the greatest good. We are all coming from the east, through uncertainty, to know Christ. And we too shall be overjoyed by each guiding light leading us to him.

I leave you with Eliot’s poem. It does not emphasize the side of friendship but it captures the challenge and struggle of this journey we all undertake. I recommend listening to Eliot himself read it.

The Journey Of The Magi

Of orient are . . .

Of orient are . . .


‘A cold coming we had

of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.


Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Justin Burgard is getting prepared. Advent is coming.

The Problem With the Friend Zone

This is a continuation (after a fashion) of this post.

The Friend Zone is more or less universally a negative place. The individual pursuing romance is frustrated by the fact that the relationship is stuck at the level of friends. To be Friend-Zoned is to lose out.

Yet this is certainly strange on two levels. The first level has been pointed out often before me: being a friend is not a bad thing. The idea that somehow your relationship is ruined because you can’t have romance/sex with the other is highly demeaning to the majority of the relationships one is in. Our inability to value friendship is damaging.

Recently I was talking with a friend about why I thought dating is problematic today (not the concept but the practice): “we have forgotten how to be friends” as a culture. This is fairly obvious. It does not mean that nobody is a friend or there are no friends; rather people generally presume romantic entanglements on any couple of people. Two people can hardly have dinner together without there being a presumption of romance (a recent article presumed that since Jennifer Lawrence had something nice to say about someone they might well be “Hollywood’s next a-list couple”). Others have commented on this better than I.

The second level is the one I feel has been neglected, or at least poorly presented: being a friend is the only sure foundation for a marriage. We see this in the idea of “marrying your best friend” but when it comes to practice this rarely means anything more than “marrying the person you spend the most time with.” It tends toward an impoverished definition of friendship.

Our romance-saturated storytelling reminds us over and over again that the best foundation for a lasting marriage is head-over-heals in-love-ness. Once we find that incredible emotion that is indescribable we know we’ve found “the one” and our romance concerns are over.

Any survey of marriage survival rates will disprove you of this notion, at least until you next fall in love.



When I consider the attributes I am looking for in a future spouse the first one is friendship. I have no interest in hoping my random sentimentality (to use Pope St. John Paul II’s term) will result in a good (much less successful) match. Rather, friendship—in the serious, Aristotelian sense (likewise espoused by C.S. Lewis)—is a system for success which is a natural platform to grow sentimentality and romance.

The hardest part about this idea is that it is so simple it feels almost ‘wrong.’ It can be summed up as “friendship is better for marriage than romance” which tends to sound like I’m saying I don’t like romance (a charge I have been forced to answer on several occasions). It is not that I dislike romance/sentimentality, but rather that I find friendship so much more powerful. I want to marry my best friend because there is no one else I would rather spend the rest of my life with.

In the end, this is not an opposition to the romance in our culture. It is an opposition to how we go about finding that romance. It is much easier to turn your friendship into a romance than your romance into a friendship. And in the end, it is better to have one true friendship than a thousand romances.

Justin Burgard is finishing his MA in philosophy and eyeing one in theology.

August 3, 1964

A 22 year old Flannery O'Connor.

A 22 year old Flannery O’Connor.

Fifty years ago today, Flannery O’Connor died, after a 14 year battle with lupus. It is hard to say something about Ms. O’Connor that has not been said, so I will not say anything about her. Instead, I will speak about a friend of mine.

A few days ago this friend was diagnosed with lupus. She is slightly older than Flannery was when diagnosed; she also is a single mother. And, unless treatment is successful, she has 6 months to live.

The last year of her life resemble a Flannery O’Connor story: she was committed to a psychiatric hospital after staying awake for over a week. The first prognosis was sever bi-polar (with hallucinations). Multiple medicines were involved, her husband was addicted to prescription drugs, and she moved back in with her parents. She began to call friends to apologize for how she responded to what they may not have done in the past 10 years; many episodes were mild hallucinations. At first the drugs worked, then they stopped. There was a risk no cure would work. Then they determined the issue was with her myelin sheath and a whole new realm of solutions arose. Until the lupus prognosis. And we don’t know what will happen from here.

What can I say about all this? Not much. Prayer is the only answer and it is not the kind of answer we tend to like. Flannery O’Connor provided a glimpse into the mystery of life and death and the grotesque world it happens in. Her answer is the Catholic one, but it would take a lifetime (no matter how short) of experience to lay it out. So perhaps all I can say is pray and read some Flannery O’Connor.

Frozen Mentors

So, this post is a little late, but I work in a mall where a particular song plays six million times a day, and six year old girls, and high school students of both sexes sing along at the top of their lungs. You know what I’m talking about. I guess I’m slow. But I’m still thinking about it.

After a frenzy of giddy, hyperbolic approval from critics and viewers, articles digging a little deeper into Frozen started appearing in my news feed. They tended to be a bit reactionary in tone; hyperbole still reigned. Many of them had good points, under the exaggeration. The discussion went back and forth: BEST MOVIE EVER! vs. DECEPTIVELY PROGRESSIVE DRIVEL! It has been very interesting to watch our culture digest this latest offering from our family entertainment giant. I’d like to add my own little observation about what Frozen means to our culture, and especially to my generation.

I was born in the late eighties, and I remember going to see The Little Mermaid for the first time (and several times after that, and then getting my parents to buy a VCR just so I could have the VHS and watch it whenever I wanted). My early childhood was studded with Disney movies that make up something of a second golden age for the studio. They are classics; unparalleled until Pixar. Many of them are fairy tales.

Much has been written on what a fairy tale is and its purpose in the development of our imaginations and our moral sense. See Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and pretty much any of my other favorite authors. These tales are full of archetypes and metaphors that form the way we see the world.

Frozen breaks some of these conventions in very important ways. There is lots of talk about whether or not Frozen is a convention breaker, and whether or not that’s a good thing. But I want to point out one convention that was broken as representative of a pattern that is relevant to people who grew up with the more classic fairy tales of the early nineties.

Arial has Sebastian, the crab composer who is initially a loyal servant of her father, but eventually makes the choice to support and guide Arial, instead of serving her bigoted father.
The Beast has Belle to guide and help him become the person he was meant to be.
Simba has Rafiki. Even Aladdin has the Genie telling him to be himself.

A mentor is a very important archetype. They might walk with the protagonist every step of the way and have their own moral dilemmas and conflicts (like Sebastian). Their visible struggle is a good example to the protagonist and strengthens them for their own battles. Or they might say a few words at a crucial moment that change the course of the story (like Rafiki). They are often older and wiser and we are cued to trust their wisdom. When a character ignores them, we are anxious; when they follow a mentor’s advice, we are at peace.

Frozen has two sets of mentor characters: the parents of Elsa and Anna, and the trolls. It is clear that their parents love the two girls, and we are given all the right cues to trust the mystic wisdom of the trolls. They represent both the Sebastian and the Rafiki types. They both fail utterly. Elsa’s life is set on a path to destruction by the advice of the trolls, and she is psychologically damaged by her parents constant “help” in following the trolls advice.

I am personally ticked off at both of them because if they hadn’t messed Elsa’s life up, she wouldn’t have had to sing that vapid song.

The trolls advice was bad. The parents were completely motivated by fear, and their arrogance blinded them to their perfect incompetence to help their children. They didn’t deal with their own fears, but transferred them to their elder daughter. This video made me feel much better about it. That was the mentor Elsa needed.

A further word about the trolls. They are jerks. The song where they completely ignore the agency of Anna, and all conventional wisdom on which they were supposed to be experts, destroys all the mystery that built up their claim, and cued us in to their status as mystic mentor characters. Kristoff says they taught him that you shouldn’t get engaged to someone you just met. And then they try to marry him to someone he just met without consent from either Anna or Kristoff. Clearly they have issues with the practical vs the theoretical. They are hypocrites and borderline evil. Their one redeeming character is that they weren’t completely lying about the cure to the curse being an act of true love. They merely led Anna to believe that true loves kiss is the only qualified candidate for that act. Good thing she tries something else (which is, in my opinion, the redeeming moment for the whole movie. It would have been terrible if true loves kiss was what broke the spell).

I think us millennials feel a little betrayed by our mentors. A lot of the advice we were given was bad (see this post from last week) and then we were blamed for following it. Our mentors seemed wise and loving, but they ended up being hypocrites, unwilling to solve their own problems so that they could help us properly. Now we have to figure out what to do with our lives in the mess that is left around us and inside us.

It turns out that Elsa and Anna have to figure out their lives for themselves. They end up knowing better then their mentors. So do lots of young protagonists in stories lately. Harry Potter easily has better moral judgement than Sirius Black, or even Dumbledore sometimes. Percy Jackson has to teach the gods how to be decent parents. This is undeniably a travesty in the story. It echos the voices of lots of people my age asking “Why weren’t we prepared to live in this world? Why were so many of the things we were taught about life lies? Why do we have to figure out so many things for ourselves, and teach them to our parents?”

Luckily for Anna, Elsa, and my generation, there is one mentor in this story who is true to his role. He follows the old tradition notable in Shakespeare: He is the fool. I am referring, of course, to Olaf the snowman. He is the comic character. I thought that I would be annoyed by him. He is cute, and kind of dumb, and quite charming, in a silly sort of way. But he saves the story. He has the definition of love that sets Anna and Elsa free. He is no hypocrite like the trolls. He lives that definition of love by melting to keep Anna warm while he gives her this crucial piece of advice that sets her life back on a safe course. The wisdom of the fool saves the story.

My generation needs to find Olaf. And those of us who have found him need to point him out to our friends. He is walking beside us. He is a fool that the world laughs at and hates (they find him annoying at best). He is carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns.

Karen Mannino can’t think of facts about herself that are both true and interesting. She needs to let it go.

To My Companion in Mystery

We have yet to pledge in certainty —

made certain by pledge and not by time —

yet the state we wish to gain does wait for us

unclaimed but not unimagined.

The world presumes it has unpacked it,

dismantled its secrecy and made it simple,

rules and guides to live it with ease,

but how could the cross be easy?

Our eyes are painted with stars

of eros and venus and romance;

if we blink fast enough we imagine

there is nothing else coming from our union.

When it comes I hope I can say

“I do not marry you because I love you;”

love you I shall, more and more,

but I marry you that you may see Christ.

The Bread of Life, true Bridegroom,

what we consume together even now,

unsure to each other, as close as ever,

one in Christ before we become one in flesh.

Before the altar, in the churches heart

we form a new cell of the church;

and promise not unspoiled eros

but to have and hold the house undivided.

Together we aspire to a noble task,

to oversee the foundation of life,

bound together in a life not our own,

to live, die, in freedom’s heart.

We have been washed in greatness

and fed with Life itself; we shall ask only

to be bound in passing this on,

water and blood and the Spirit.

I cannot see when or where we come

and cease to be two but are one,

yet clear is the call of Christ and bright

his promise to fill and fulfill

and lead us into the mystery

now and ever and forever.