“Truth. What is truth?”truth

While there are plenty of speculative interpretations attached to Pilate’s remarks, we can’t really know what the Roman governor’s intentions were as he responded to Jesus’ declaration that that those listening to His (Jesus’) words belonged to the Truth.

As Jesus’ trial continues, Pilate turns from Jesus, suggests to the crowd that Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, but succumbs to the demands of the mob; Pilate discards his initial judgement, and sends Jesus to crucifixion.

What is truth, indeed.

We now find ourselves in what is being called the ‘Post-Truth World’, a term first coined by author Ralph Keyes in 2004 as he described the growing trend that discounted the value of facts in favor of exaggeration, misdirection, and outright lying in human discourse.

In a political setting, this post-truth era is distinguished by campaigns where arguments are driven solely by emotion and talking points are disconnected from policy and fact.

Outside of politics, sales staff promise what can’t be delivered, college students pad resumes with unearned academic credits, reporters misrepresent messages by cherry-picking phrases, and on and on…

Why do people do this? Because there is often more to gain by ignoring truth than there is to lose through honesty.

But the fact that truth-stretching, ‘truthiness’, and outright lying is practiced by so many of us doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that to many of us, real truth simply doesn’t matter.

So what is truth?

‘Truth’ is something more than facts. While facts are observable events and measurements, ‘truth’  is what happens when we add interpretations and reasoning based on our personal experiences. Facts can describe the ‘what’ and perhaps ‘how’ behind the things we observe. Truth involves personal beliefs and our judgement behind the ‘why’. As Catholic Christians, we believe that there does exist a common, objective truth, the Truth as revealed through the Old and New Testament and displayed in practice through Jesus’ life.

The Church teaches that the Truth works hand-in-hand with a well-formed conscience that guides our interactions with those around us.

What confronts us in this post-truth world, where what we call truth exhibits a complete disconnect between belief and reality,  is the same danger the Church warns when it teaches that real truths are not subjective – not every expression can be accepted as ‘true’ simply because someone declares it so.

 

Does Worldly Truth Matter?

Why should I be concerned as a Catholic citizen if friends, co-workers, and leaders continue further down a road in which what is said and written becomes nothing more than opinion-fueled fiction?  Do we get a free pass by proclaiming allegiance to the Truth while accepting that our expressions of day-to-day worldly truth can preclude honesty?

Truth, in all its forms, does matter for at least two reasons.

First – God is big on truth.

Yes, God is slow to anger; but there are some things that really tick Him off. And if Proverbs 6 has any avenue to the behaviors that earn His wrath, we are in a heap of trouble (especially after this past year). It isn’t a stretch to see that in a ‘post-truth’ world, where messages are driven mostly by self-serving emotion, we put ourselves at risk of violating at least a few of the seven major abominations – those things that God detests (self-serving ‘truth-less’ oriented abominations italicized):

  • Acting with pride
  • Lying
  • Taking innocent life
  • A heart with wicked intent
  • Mischievous behavior
  • Being easily swayed towards evil
  • Sowing discord

Second – if no ‘common denominators’ of truth exists between communities, that is, if every subgroup of society makes up its own truth, how can there be any hope of communities working together for common goals? If there are no absolute ‘truths’ shared among all people, how can anyone agree on solving problems, assuming they could even agree on identifying the problems that need solving?

 

Knowing ‘Truth’ isn’t Enough

Pilate’s behavior is telling. Whether or not he was being rhetorical by asking ‘what is truth?’, he hints at not being able to at least recognize, if not hold fast to the truth as presented in Jesus’ words. As a result, even though he may have sensed an unpopular truth of innocence,  Pilate hesitates, and in the end, accepts the ‘truth’ of guilt that was proclaimed by a screaming mob. Therein lies the key – knowing the truth is one thing, letting the truth guide one’s actions is another.

We observe artifacts of the physical world and consume facts. Our sense of truth adds our interpretation of conditions to which a well-formed conscience responds. That conscience rewards or disturbs depending on our action (or inaction). We may see a homeless person on the street – Truth pulls us to take action to help solve a problem. We observe media that degrades the gift of human sexuality – Truth calls us to change the channel or discard the website. We observe behavior-fueled by anger and violence. Truth calls us seek out the causes of misunderstanding.

When we ignore the Truth before us, or worse, drive our actions by made-up truths, we deny our conscience a clear view of the world in which we live. Our conscience, which John Henry Newman called the ‘voice of God’, becomes muted, muffled by other voices concerned with something other than the moral good. Without that sense of real truth, our conscience loses its dignity, its real value. And with no well-formed conscience, our actions fall prey to the day-to-day whims of self-interest.

 

What is the Catholic Christian’s response to this post-truth environment?

As we move forward in this hyper-connected world, a world where anonymity allows us to be way too free with our thoughts and words, it is good that we build a structure of acceptability that guides our interactions with others as we search for the worldly truths that help us solve worldly problems. Let’s call it a plan to use the Truth to help us better grasp the truths of other peoples’ lives.

Using Proverbs as a model, our search for truth must built on honesty – we can’t just make things up. The search for truth has no wicked intent. We look for truth with humility (we do not know everything), and aren’t skewing our interpretations to sow mischief and discord. Disagree with others, sure. But such disagreements have value only when we see the constructive importance in helping others understand a perspective to which which they (or we) may not have been exposed — and only when we show respect for all ‘others’ God has placed on this earth.

These guidelines must direct our interpretation of observable facts, provide a litmus test of how we scrutinize the words of others, and set the tone for how we form our own expressions through any form of media.

And finally, even when we apply all the good faith (pardon the pun) effort to properly interpret what is going on around us, we are called to act in accordance with what our well-formed conscience calls us to do. Having a strong sense of the Truth, knowing right from wrong, means little if, in the end, we allow our actions to be guided by self-interest and the groupthink of mobs.

That’s what Pilate did.


References:

Post Truth in politics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-truth_politics

Cardinal Ratzinger on Conscience and Truth: http://www.cin.org/avatar/ratzcons.html

International Catholic University on Conscience and Truth: http://icucourses.com/pages/013-03b-conscience-and-truth

Proverbs 6: 16-19

 

iStockIt’s almost that time of year again, that time when some Catholics grit their teeth as they consider surrendering their deeply held beliefs as they are moved to cooperate with evil.

Yes, it will soon be time to vote.

Whether we are talking about the American presidential race, congressional or local elections, or local proposition ballots, we frequently make decisions that may be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of a practice, policy, or law that, in some way, embodies evil.

We think we’re good at finding evil. Some of us are even better at condemning each other’s engagement with organizations that don’t dedicate their activities to the Truth. And while today’s hot topics apply mostly to our current political process, the question of ‘cooperation with evil’ is becoming more prescient in a world in which we find ourselves increasingly connected to more organizations and cultures that may not share our values.

Whether we apply the label of ‘evil’ to the Democratic or Republican party (take your pick for any number of reasons), the Affordable Health Care Act (no need to re-visit that topic), the Boy Scouts (allowing gay scout leaders), Girl Scouts, (statements of trans-gender inclusivity), Catholic Relief Services (sharing resources with organizations providing contraceptive services), ALS Foundation (Ice Bucket Challenge / embryonic stem cell research), or any number of other offenders, we can find numerous reasons to deny support or engagement with almost anyone who isn’t us.

As Catholics, we have thorough and highly detailed explanations of what cooperating with evil means, starting from Article 4 of the Catechism’s section ‘The Morality of Human Acts’, through a painfully detailed 9,000 word tome at EWTN.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to first define ‘evil’ before we associate it with the actions of others.

That, in itself could be a topic for a lengthy discussion, but for now, I’ll stick with St. Thomas Aquinas’ abridged definition —- evil is the absence of good.

That was easy.

How Wrong is Wrong?

With evil defined, we turn our attention to Church teachings that attach a degree of ‘wrongness’ by evaluating the moral significance of the cooperation, the degree to which an ‘evil’ action is facilitated by the cooperation, and the availability of alternatives to cooperative action.

Some actions are clearly off limits – those which involve direct support or cooperation with someone to perform actions that are evil (absence of good). Giving a person a gun to commit a crime is the most obvious example; sending money to the Ku Klux Klan would be another. No good comes from either of these choices.

But for many of us, the challenge comes in understanding what to do when we find ourselves in that big grey area explored by Church teaching: the act of cooperating with organizations whose offending actions are not the linchpin of their primary missions, and cooperating with an organization on an important mission when the harm done by inaction outweighs the negative consequences of engagement. (Of course, this is somewhat of a simplification, but the 9,000 word website is referenced below for those interested in research for extra credit.)

This world of grey surrounds us – and when it comes to supporting organizations, respecting our commitments as employees, and meeting our civic responsibilities to vote, the complexities of trying to measure the evil of our involvement almost make us want to disengage with everyone, go home, close the door and turn off the internet.

Except, that is not what we are called to do.

The second theme of Catholic social teaching states that people have a right and a duty to participate in society through relationships within our family and societal institutions, seeking together the common good and well-being of all.

The Church has its share of mystics, those holy persons who found God’s connection through isolation and prayer. But most of us know the Church through those who engaged the world through evangelization, the arts, and service. I don’t think we were put here to pull away from others, but to engage, to learn of the perspectives of others, to give witness to what drives us as people of faith, and to cooperate to do good.

Where to draw the line?

While there are some organizations and projects that are clearly, unambiguously out of bounds in terms of cooperation (organizations supporting euthanasia come to mind), in many cases, we will better serve our mission (and our neighbors) by full engagement, joyfully cooperating with any and all whose primary goal is to do good.

But cooperation with others towards some greater good does not require us to stand silent and support activities that run contrary to what we believe to be morally sound.

No one will know to what degree the respect life movement played in the ALS’ current policy of shifting work away from embryonic stem cell research – but opposition to the destruction of embryos was justified – and the foundation’s practice of allowing contributors to prohibit the use of their funds for embryonic stem cell use is a sign that organizations of good will can find ways to cooperate.

On the other hand, unless the primary mission of the Boy Scouts is to turn all young men gay, and the primary goal of the Girl Scouts is to encourage all girls to change gender (which would be really bad for membership), the decisions to give scouting organizations the boot appear less as a stand against evil, and more like a banishment of those who choose to serve those we call sinners. I’m not sure that’s in any of the gospels.

And then, there are the elections.

Needless to say, there are no perfect angels on the ballot this year. Both major political parties have many of their supporters seem to be swearing allegiance to ideologies rather than following any apparent moral compass. Depending on one’s life experience, we all lean towards one party or another – acknowledging only the potential good that could come from the election of the candidate we support. For each Catholic voting for one candidate, there is another Catholic voter outraged at the failure of the other’s judgement.

It seems as though any choice is the wrong choice.

*******

I recently attended a presentation by Jeff Kemp, former NFL quarterback who delivers his message on proper Christian manhood using his experiences in professional football as a source of metaphors and examples that relate to guys like me.

During a question and answer session, he was asked about the current political process (his dad, Jack Kemp, ran for president in the 1980’s).

This was red meat for an audience at an evangelical church in the American south. But Jeff did not take the bait, and instead, called each of us to serve, rather than hide.

Paraphrasing, he asked all of us to remember that above all, we are to keep focus on serving God’s kingdom. But part of that service is to pray for those running for office and to pray for the person who wins. He added that for those of us moved to political action, we are to join the political party of our choice, and work to be the very best Democrat or Republican that God asks us to be. (He didn’t mention the Greens or Libertarians – but I think that was an honest omission.)

Always seek to do good.

In the end, except for some obvious instances when evil needs to be exposed, I think we spend too much time worrying about cooperating with evil. That is not to say that evil is not a problem, but that we will have less time to worry about how ‘evil’ our fellow Catholics (or others are) if we ourselves follow the Church’s prime directive — always seek to do good.

If Thomas Aquinas is right, the more time we spend in caring for others, practicing good stewardship of our gifts, in giving witness to God’s power to heal every wound, the more time spent in doing good, the less room for evil in our own personal lives.

We simply cannot help the broken parts of our world by setting our lives apart from it. Our Catholic distinction comes from our values, not from any need for isolation. We may not agree with everyone in our community, our political party, our country, or our world, and we may be tempted to think of associating with others as a pact with the devil. But that is a dark view – and we don’t do dark views.

Our mission is to engage, to listen to the needs and concerns of others, to evangelize through word and deed, and to remember that evil is not something that can be avoided, but is a void to be filled with God’s presence that we carry to the world.

 


References::

Catholic Social Teaching: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm

Summa Theologica at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1049.htm

Paper on cooperating with Evil at http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/COOPRTN.htm

National Catholic Bioethics Center on Cooperating with Evil: www.ncbcenter.org/index.php/download_file/force/185/159/

ALS and Stem cell research: http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/the_ice_bucket_challenges_stem_cell_controversy/

The Girl Scouts and St. Louis Diocese: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/us/girl-scout-cookies-st-louis-catholics.html?_r=0

The Boy Scouts and North Dakota Diocese: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/catholic-diocese-north-dakota-severs-all-ties-boy-scouts-over-gay

Jeff Kemp ‘Facing the Blitz’ : http://www.facingtheblitz.com/

 

 

StickFiguresOne of of the practices at our parish during the great Easter Vigil is to have those in attendance walk past the font, dip our fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on the person next in line.

People mostly carry out this ritual by signing their loved ones or close friends. But this time, while my wife and I dutifully stood in line, the queue dissolved a bit into a crowd of random members of the faithful, separating this loving couple’s duo. I admit some apprehension at the thought of having to touch the forehead of a complete stranger behind me. I didn’t even bother to glance behind me to see what was in store as I drew nearer the font, and I was a bit amused as a looked ahead to see my wife’s reaction when she turned to see someone 6 inches taller than me waiting for her blessing.

My turn came, and I also was greeted by someone who looked nothing like me who placed the sign of the cross on my forehead, and as I returned the gesture to the person behind me, a question wafted through the air (along with the incense) – ‘Just what was I afraid of? WHO was I afraid of?’

Fear dominates us these days – fear of losing our jobs, fear of not being able to provide for our families, fear of being killed by some wacko terrorist. This fear spawns a more subtle though insidious emotion – suspicion. It is not enough that we fear the unseen, we now suspect those we can see of ill intent, especially those whose background doesn’t line up with ours.

The gestures during the Liturgy of the Mass should be the small step we need to take to keep fear, especially fear of those who we don’t know, at bay. But even our Americanized Catholicism has to work a bit harder to make certain that faith triumphs over the culture that seems too enamored with independence and isolation.

I remember the days in the early  70’s during the reform of the structure of the Mass. Change was hard, especially for the older pastors. I distinctly remember the monsignor carefully instructing the faithful about how his parish was going to implement the sign of peace.

Upon prompting from the celebrant, persons on the right side of the church were to turn to those on the left, and say “Peace be with you”; those on the left side would then turn to those on the right and reply, “and with your spirit”. (It’s a good thing he wasn’t celebrating the liturgy in a worship space in the round — the exercise would probably have ended up being an early version of the wave as the greeting would continually circle about the church.) I think that lasted for a year or so before people actually started shaking hands, a little stiffly, grudgingly, perhaps, but still a gesture that forced us to look at something besides our worship guides.

What is it about us that moves us to resist touching another human? Is it possible that our love-affair with our personal space helps make fear and suspicion so easy for us?

And what do with our gestures of touch during the celebration of the Mass and other sacred events have to do with how we behave in our politically charged environment?

Much, I think.

*************

Our liturgical practices are spawned by the message of the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice. That message and example of sacrifice demands that we break down barriers with those suspected of being unclean, of bad behavior, of incorrect values. The same inspiration that moves us to make contact with others in our church MUST inform our behavior in American civil society, especially now, before we discover that our fear-motivated behaviors have taken us to a dark place from which there is no easy return.

Fears have always been with us. What is so dangerous today is our penchant to blame our fear on somebody else – somebody different, someone who may not look or act exactly like we do, someone who resembles an evil-doer. And for some of us, resemblance is good enough justification for mistrust and suspicion.

This suspicion and mistrust has become a rallying point for those who want to lead our civil government (should ‘mistrust’ and ‘civil’ be in the same sentence?). We have seen leaders who thrive on fear through much of history. Such episodes began very badly for those considered outsiders, and ended tragically for everyone else concerned.

Is it possible that the same same hesitancy to make contact with those around us, the same tendency to stay within ourselves to the point of avoiding eye contact with those we don’t know, the same proliferation of technologies that conflate smart-phone delivered bubble-text with meaningful dialogue,  are behaviors that provide fertile ground for suspicion and fear of those who we don’t allow into our emotional space?

*******

And yet, it is easy for us to suspend our much needed sense of isolation when it comes down to the relationships that are truly important to us.

When we hear the news of family members encountering serious illness or tragedy, the first thing we are pushed to do is the find them and embrace them, holding onto them, hoping in some way to move their pain onto our own burden.

Is it even possible to think of a parent who can’t hug a son or daughter as they get married, celebrate the joy of parenthood, welcome their return upon military deployments, or welcome their triumph over health challenges?

But while I am not an expert on Scripture, I do not recall any of Jesus’ examples that call us to connect only with those who we know and like.

As I visit my 94 year old dad at his care facility run by the Brothers of Mercy, I am moved when I see some of the elderly residents become disoriented or afraid, and witness the brief miracle that happens when a staff member simply reaches out to gently pat their hand. Just that simple gesture of touch seems to do wonders for those confronting the fear of circumstances beyond their control.

During a recent visit to my dad and a couple of ladies (the average age being somewhere north of 88) at his dinner table, we had a lively chat that included a fair number of good-natured jokes poked at each other. As I stood up to leave, one of the ladies looked up and asked, “Can I have a hug?” I don’t know what moved me more, the need she had for a brief moment of human-ness, or the privilege I felt in having a practical stranger ask me for the gift of a gentle embrace.

***********

It is a crazy world out there. Our technologies, while providing tools that allow us to briefly overcome limitations of distance, often make it too easy to remain ‘virtually’ connected while physically distant. Our politics too often call us to suspect, blame, and fear them, the outsider, the person who is different.

And yet our Church, our liturgies, our gestures, call us to connect with each other, reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, we are all called to move from isolation to connection with everyone God has placed in this garden we call Earth.

So what should we remember, the next time we are to hold hands during the Lord’s prayer, exchange the sign of peace, or sign the cross on another?

  • We probably won’t die from the gesture. Yes, such acts should be suspended during cold and flu season and those contagious are excused from outreach. But, generally speaking, most people survive the ordeal.
  • Reverse the perspective. Think of how we would want to be seen through the eyes of the stranger standing next to us. For God’s sake (really, for God’s sake), smile at the opportunity to break down a barrier for just those few seconds.
  • Move the experience of church into the multi-cultural, multi-religious, noisy, messy, community setting that we have been blessed with. We can muster the strength to connect with those who share our religious tradition, but we are also called to connect with those who aren’t like us.

We believe our faith and commitment to the Gospel drives behavior that gives encouraging, hopeful witness in world of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities, a witness that is especially important during times of great change and turmoil.

What does the sign of peace, grasping hands during the Lord’s prayer, and signing the cross on the forehead of a stranger, have to do with our response to terrorism, economic uncertainty, and cultural change?

Nothing, if the only hands we grasp are of those who remind us of us.

 

mansionAndCalfDepending on who you listen to, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si is about everything from tree hugging to the evils of capitalism to expressions of concern for all the poor throughout the world. A harsh view of the encyclical would lead one to presume that he is a socialist and a luddite, calling for a return to full employment at the expense of technological innovation while suggesting that those without employable skills be given equal say in how our economies and societies should be run.

In my opinion, his letter is about something that goes much deeper – this is a writing that calls us to clearly examine what we value, indeed, what and who we worship, and why.

In a nutshell, Pope Francis criticizes hyper individualism, unrestricted capitalism, and the elevation of consumerism as the engine that drives our economy and society.

To Americans whose constitution focuses on individual rights, whose economic engine is the envy of the world, and whose commercial strength relies on people buying stuff, those are fighting words.

But to Catholic Christians driven by the gospel, these are ideas worth fighting for.

Before my conservative friends (I think I have a couple) click ‘close’ on their browser button, please consider that there are no ‘anti-American’ themes in this letter.

The encyclical includes no proclamations of a superior economic system that exists elsewhere in the world, nor are there suggestions that we return to a life of caves and spears to bring back a sense of environmental balance. Laudato Si breaks no new ground. The letter only cautions against the impact that unrestrained trends, be they social, technological, or economic, have on the natural environment and on our global social fabric.

So what does this call for a new environmental sensitivity mean to average American whose livelihood and comfortable lifestyle are rooted in the success of our free enterprise system?

Does recycling my plastic bottles really help that guy standing in the Philippines watching the sea levels rise? Does buying a bag of coffee with a green leaf on it have any impact on the economic security to a Nicaraguan farmer? Does my green recycling bucket show my respect for the gospel?

Too big to handle.

It is difficult for a reader of Laudato Si to assemble an action plan that can be of value to solving the world’s environmental and economic woes – these global issues are too far removed from our daily lives for believer/citizens to connect the dots between behavior and discernable results on a global scale.

As one who wants to do the right thing, I had to break down my response to the encyclical by considering actions in my community and in my home that, in some small way, respond positively to the call to ‘praise creation’. The writer’s response is framed by focusing on where we live, what we buy, and how to change.

 

Where we live.

If there is one thing that all middle class Americans cherish, it is our real estate. To many of us, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is marked with a lawn free of crabgrass and driveway full of entertainment systems disguised as automobiles.

My parents’ generation may have grown up in families of 3-7 siblings living in apartment ‘flats’ in urban settings, but the median living space for new built homes stands at nearly 2,500 square feet in a country where the average household size is 2.54 persons (giving each of us 1,000 square feet to live in).

As our post-WWII nation developed, technologies and economy gave us the affordable automobile, air conditioning and improved transportation infrastructure, we found ourselves replacing our crowded residences with suburban properties, connected to our workplaces with roadways and substituting local markets with strip-malls. We no longer needed well designed parks and parkways that inspired us with tree-lined vistas, as our homes became our own combo-farmland-parkland that provided a sense of security and respite.

By most accounts, this transition is part of our definition of progress.

But at what point did our innate need for quiet and green-space turn into such a demand for McMansions? How far away from people do we need to be? How much space do we really need? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sidewalk? Wouldn’t it be better if there were somewhere we could walk to?

In fairness, almost all families make their residential decisions based on the perceived value to one’s family — when looking for a residence, we look for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and a perceived stability, if not appreciation, of monetary value in our properties. But where is the ‘break-even’ point? Doesn’t someone have a spreadsheet that properly reflects the balance between need for open spaces, woodland, farmland, and the sprawl of faux palaces where no dwellers are to be seen? Are we building communities to connect, or estates to isolate?

 

What we buy.

Our American economic system is largely based on consumerism, an ideology that encourages the acquisition and consumption of goods in ever increasing amounts. This has led to remarkable advancements in manufacturing technology, shipping and transportation, and has fostered improved communication among global markets.

Yet the runaway nature of consumerism (always more, always cheaper), along with improvements in technology, can have a devastating effect on the sources of raw materials used to feed its engine.

One case in point – we may be tempted to think that the impact on the global rainforest ecosystem is primarily due to demand for wood products. But rainforests are just as likely to be destroyed by farmers converting forests into grazing areas to supply inexpensive beef, mining companies to extract  minerals, or energy companies to extract and build transportation infrastructure for oil and natural gas. This global demand for inexpensive wood, beef, minerals, and energy result in the loss of 80,000 acres of rainforest each day.

In the US, we have more cars on the road than licensed drivers. Each ounce of processed beef requires the use of 6,000 gallons of water. Worldwide expenditures on cosmetics is $18 billion while $19 billion is spent to alleviate malnutrition.

And we don’t even know what to do with this stuff once when we’re done with it.

Most of what we don’t use is still burned, put in the ground, or just dumped into the ocean – we are even to the point where the Pacific Ocean is home to several huge ‘garbage patches’ where small bits of plastic resist decomposition, turning the water column into a long-lasting peppery soup.

 

Are we sure this matters to God?

There is nothing obvious in the Beatitudes or the Ten Commandments that mention zoning, recycling, or shopping patterns. But as Catholic Christians, we do have the benefit of a tradition of teachers who have given witness to a deep-seated respect for our world.

Those who think that Francis is some kind of trend-setter with his call for environmental responsibility will be disappointed to realize that as far as that topic is concerned, he stands at the end of the line.

Laudato Si make reference to St. Francis, the 12th century saint whose love for nature testified to his “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

In his 1991 letter celebrating the 100th anniversary of the original encyclical on capital and labor (Rerum Novarum), John Paul II wrote,

“….worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way…..At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error*, which unfortunately is widespread in our day.”

And back in 1961, John XXIII wrote in his letter ‘Mother and Teacher’:

“Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life — and to bring nature into their service — ’Fill the earth, and subdue it.’ These two commandments are complementary…..Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature.”

We even have St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, who stands as patron for the environment

And then, there is the issue of the golden calf.

While Moses was busy chatting with God about what was really important for people, the folks at the bottom of the mountain decided that it was more convenient to praise something they built. They made something pretty and something that had perceived value. This admiration turned into worship. Sure, Moses was still on the mountain talking to God, but folks thought it more important to focus on what could be seen, touched, and admired rather than a faith in something significantly less earthly.

We all know how that turned out.

In an earlier apostolic exhortation (letter to ‘us guys’) – Francis asks aloud if we have repeated the same mistake today:

“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

He repeats the theme in Laudato Si where he points out that we need to pay close attention to who and in what we place our faith:

“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation”.

 

Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

It would be very easy for this writer to cast stones at those who live in pleasant neighborhoods and who like nice things, arguing that no matter what they own, it is too nice, too much, and impacts our world too much.

But I am one of those persons — I love living where I do in a suburban neighborhood. It does have walkable streets, some open spaces, and houses close enough that I can see my neighbors without need of the Hubble telescope. I am also close enough to my workplace that I can commute by bicycle for much of the year. I like to think that the community of choice is almost green enough to win the grudging approval of any ‘greenie’.

Like many others, I have been blessed to be a ‘consumer’, a person who has the ability to provide for my family things that go beyond the necessities of my life. And like most others, I have to wonder aloud where my lifestyle makes the ugly transition from value to pleasure.

 

The Response of a Believer/Citizen

I think the proper response of a Catholic Christian combines reflection on one’s values with action which, even in a small way, reflects our humble steps to a more balanced future.

As I wrote earlier, it is difficult to determine if the choices we make are part of a well-intentioned decision to provide for our family, to make investments in a quality lifestyle, or if they are part of a never ending habit of purchases. In some way, I think our choices of lifestyle should enhance our connections with family members, neighbors, others in our community, or strengthens our appreciation of the natural gifts we have been given – either in terms of personal skills and abilities, or in the universal gifts of the garden in which we find ourselves

On a deeper level, we need to reflect on the motiviation of our purchasing choices and restore what Francis calls a sense of ‘sobriety and humility’.

In this context, Francis’ reference to sobriety reflects to the ability to make practical, level-headed choices without the artificial influence caused when our senses hide the appreciation of the joys given to us in the here and now with the need to pursue an endless search for the things we don’t  have. This clearer perspective is coupled with humility, an understanding that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.”

As Francis write so simply: “Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.”

After reflecting on the motivation behind our lifestyle choices, each one of us finds ourselves in a position to act and take steps to build a more verdant future suitable for our next generation’s inheritance.

For those of us with economic influence…

Some of us have had the fortune and blessing to rise to positions of responsibility and leadership in our business settings. Those of us who lead can look to precedents and examples shown by other companies that take an inter-generational view of their roles in the marketplace (let’s not go into the motivations of ‘green’ policies). All is not lost when some producers work more closely with local populations to map out more environmentally aware production processes, or work to improve the use of recycled products. Business and political leaders who call themselves Catholic are called to remember not only today’s balance sheet, but to consider the effect of their decisions on future generations of us planet dwellers.

For those of us in the consumer marketplace…

No matter where we live or what we buy, I think it is fair to say we can use use a little less. It is not going to do any great harm if we cut back on the water levels we pour on our lawns, reduce ever so slightly the amount of chemicals we pour on the ground, or read the labels that accurately describe the point of origin for those fancy wood floors we may want to install.

Recycling does matter. Today, we recycle nearly one-third of the solid  trash we generate. Use of recycled products significantly reduces the amount energy required to produce a good that includes recycled materials. Recycling also places less stress on disposal sites and reduces the rate of pollutant flow from landfills.

There are also opportunities for each of use to follow our individual vocation or interest in service to God’s gift of creation.

After our commitments to family, faith, and employer, most of us have some other special interest that fills our calendar. It would take little effort on our part to push such interests towards some initiative that answers Laudato Si’s call.

Are there not possibilities for the gardeners among us to add a little more color to our asphalt and cement spaces, or to lend a hand in urban farm-plots? Can no one with an interest in community design become a more vocal part of local zoning processes? Why can’t those of us who enjoy the outdoors take a more active role in the design and maintenance of our outdoor spaces?  No matter what our interest, our faith calls us to build on that vocation in service to the next generation.

 

Grateful for Great Gifts

Laudato Si was not about criticizing capitalism or democracy or free markets. It did call into question the belief that a global system designed to meet consumer desires is all that we need to provide individuals with a sense of true happiness, and society with a cure for the ills of poverty and environmental destruction.

The encyclical calls for a balance that includes the weights of responsibility to future generations, and humility in accepting that we sometimes confuse stewardship with exploitation.

Sometimes, as Americans, we believe that the economic system we helped build is God’s gift to the world.

We have it backwards.

Our world is God’s gift to us. We’d best not squander it.


 

*Anthropological error refers to the tendency for Man to consider himself the center of creation, rather than God’s partner as caretaker of natural resources.


 

References:

https://www.census.gov/construction/chars/highlights.html

http://www.statista.com/statistics/183648/average-size-of-households-in-the-us/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMansion

http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html

http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater.html

http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/ecological-problem-linked-to-an-anthropological-error

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism

http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/how-big-great-pacific-garbage-patch-science-vs-myth.html

http://online.wsj.com/ad/article/execdigest-biodiversity

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0111_040112_consumerism_2.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2013/11/26/pope-francis-has-a-few-thoughts-about-the-global-economy-we-added-these-13-charts/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talks-daily-destruction/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2012/07/27/how-much-money-do-you-need-to-be-happy-2/

http://www.manhattan-institute.org/energymyths/myth5.htm

 

MegaphoneIreland, of all places, was recently the first country to hold a public referendum in which the public approved the legalization of gay marriage.

The response of the Vatican was loud and clear.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, referred to the vote as a ‘defeat for humanity’, a step which must be countered by the Church in efforts to ‘strengthen its commitment to evangelization’. I, for one, hope that means something other that shouting its teachings more often and more loudly until someone listens.

When it comes to a ‘defeat for humanity’, my mind turns more to thoughts of Hitler, Stalin,  Boko Haram, ISIS, and institutionalized slavery as historic episodes where humanity came close to defeat. Not so much thoughts of gay marriage.

Of course, what was so stunning in the vote (which wasn’t even close), is that in what had been a staunchly Catholic country, the public apparently doesn’t care what the Church teaches when it comes to marriage and human sexuality.

So how did we get to this point?

You cannot separate the Church’s position on homosexual marriage from the broader perspective of the nature of human sexuality and the place of marriage in God’s plan.

If we are to get past the hand-wringing and angry recriminations that do little good, we need to reflect on two issues as we consider how the words we use and the actions we take render a message easily ignored:

  1. A look at what is taught with regards to marriage and human sexuality
  2. How to enforce teachings in a modern, connected world

What is taught.

I admit, as a person who has occasionally challenged teachings and proclamations that sound a discordant note with something inside of me, I started to research this topic with the intention of uncovering what exactly it was in our catechism teachings with which I disagreed, tenants that could explain the dismissal of Church teachings on a national scale. (Not that I disagree with the teachings of contraception, but I have a friend…)

But despite my most cynical efforts, when it comes to the teachings about sexuality and marriage, I found that the core essence of what was being expressed was indeed consistent with a ‘truth’ that I could not deny:

The intimacy of sexual unions should never be considered casual; they embody a deeply personal sharing that are reserved for a man and wife. The sacrament of Matrimony marks the flow of grace to strengthen the union between husband and wife and their role as parents for the gift of children.

Who can disagree with that?

Regarding homosexuality, the Church calls those with such an inclination to chastity.

“What’s the problem with that?” wrote the heterosexual blogger.

There are two little words from the teachings however, that give me pause.

Paragraph 2370 from our catechism includes the definitive statement on the Church’s position on artificial contraception as initially described in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae:

“…every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.

Evil?

There certainly is a difference between the ‘marital act’ which is solely unitive in nature, and one which  includes the possibility for procreation. Married adults get that. Most, if not all married Catholic couples cherish and welcome those opportunities when intimacy and pleasure combines with the knowledge that new life is possible.

But when Church teachings argue that any instance when married Catholics use artificial contraception is an act that turns their intimacy into a something evil, then one begins to understand the meaning of overreach.

The teachings on marriage and procreation set the backdrop for today’s politically charged stage.

The Church’s opposition to gay marriage centers around the view of the family as the core unit of society, a family that originates with the love between a man and woman that brings forth new life. Relationships that are not open to procreation are something less than marriage, and society shouldn’t pretend that they aren’t.

I sometimes wonder how much better that message would be received if it weren’t for the catechism’s use of the word ‘disordered’ elsewhere in its teaching.

The catechism is pretty liberal with the term ‘disordered’, attaching it to everything from venial sins, unhealthy desire of a neighbor’s goods, the nature of warfare, masturbation, …and homosexual inclinations.

No spin by professional catechists and no impassioned statement contending a ‘love for the sinner while hating the sin’ can hide the common man’s interpretation that if you have homosexual inclinations, you are disordered.  There are no kind synonyms here. Attempts to disassociate inclinations from character fall short.

I do not understand the gay lifestyle. I firmly believe and accept that our sacrament of Matrimony is reserved for a man and woman. And I certainly accept the role of a married man and woman in raising the children they receive as gifts from God.

But there is something very wrong with language that, in effect, moves us to look askance at our gay brothers and sisters as ‘disordered’. At some time in our lives, we are all disordered as we act in ways that distance us from God. If ‘disordered’ must be used, apply it to the first person plural.

Given the Church’s reasoning behind the nature of marriage in which many heteros are engaged in ‘evil’ acts, and the perception that Catholics look at gays as persons who are disordered creations of God, is it a surprise that those outside the Church would question Her rationale in arguing that lifelong gay companions don’t deserve the legal protections afforded to married heteros?

And if you disagree.

The catechism is clear about the requirement that persons with homosexual inclinations cannot be the subject of discrimination.

It is quite different, however, if one publicly endorses activities in the civil setting that runs counter to Church teachings.

  • The Vatican refuses to accept the nomination of a French diplomat as ambassador to the Holy See because he is a gay Catholic
  • A music minister who had served his church for 8 years was dismissed after marrying his partner of 23 years
  • A manager of a Catholic parish’s food pantry was dismissed after coming out as gay
  • The Archdiocese of Miami has issued a warning to all employees that anyone opposing the Church’s position on gay marriage may be dismissed
  • A senior administrator for Catholic Relief Services resigned after person posted an un-official image of the administrator’s marriage to a partner of the same gender.

The Church bureaucracy has every right to expect its employees and representatives to uphold Catholic Christian teaching. It is legal and acceptable that our Church officials set standards that determine whether or not a person can be part of the club.

But if that is the case, why shouldn’t all public political activities be subject to review?  Shouldn’t Catholics who publicly support the Affordable Care Act be fired?  Should Catholics who voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty be promoted (assuming they haven’t previously been fired)?

Don’t any other teachings matter?  Isn’t belief in the Resurrection the key tenant of our teaching? How about the Trinity? Do employment applicants accept the responsibility to care for the poor? Are all heteros faithful to their spouses? Are married employees practicing artificial birth control? Should the next staff meeting ask employees for a show of hands about masturbation? (Stop giggling).

If adherence to Church teaching is a requirement, shouldn’t there be some kind of written test, and what is the passing grade for employment?

Church officials may argue that they are building an institution with persons whose beliefs support Church teaching, but in practice, such policies focus on the public behaviors that clash with teachings on sexuality and marriage. Name one person fired for questioning the doctrine of Purgatory.

Intended or not, the public practices of dismissing gay ambassadors and terminating administrators and educators who support civil gay marriage is part of the overall message the Church sends to the world, a message that says something like ‘we love them, but if they love someone, they’re fired.’

So what to do?

Teach the truth.

Earlier I mentioned that the core essence of Church teachings contain a wisdom and beauty that captures the kind of persons God calls us to be. But if the core truth of our Church teaching is a symphony, the things we do and words we use sometimes sound like a guy playing a kazoo. And like the musician who has no intention on changing the melody and its arrangement, attention turns more to the need to improve the skill of its delivery.

And there is opportunity here.

At a time when the Church’s apparent teaching authority is sorely suspect, there is an opportunity during the upcoming Synod of the Family to issue a re-statement of truths, a re-statement that will presumably be read, understood, and appreciated by the average reader.

I pray that someone, somewhere is drafting a new summary section that appears in the various sections of the catechism, a newly worded summary of what we know to be true of marriage and sex:

We know that the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony is granted to men and women as we pledge a new life of commitment to each other and to the family we pray we will be blessed with. We understand that the intimacy of sexual relations is a deeply personal gift to be exchanged between men and women who are committed to the permanence of this new life. Sexual relations outside this permanent commitment, and closed to the possibility of new life, are activities that are something less than what is possible between people of faith – and God never asks us to be less.

And if the Vatican editors really have a pressing need to use the words ‘evil’ and ‘disordered’, we could add a follow-up that puts those words where they need to be:

Any sexual activity conducted for self-gratification that disregards the spiritual, emotional, or physical interests of a partner, especially activities that violate persons who are physically or emotionally unable to understand or resist the nature of sexual relations, are evil activities that are intrinsically, gravely, disordered.

I don’t think there are any truths here that have been ‘changed’. In fact, one could argue that the second paragraph more forcefully and broadly condemns any act that takes advantage of a partner, including forms of sexual abuse between spouses as well as some of the more heinous acts against minors and the elderly.

What to do about civil gay marriage?

It is apparent that the handwriting is on the wall when it comes for Church’s need to separate civil marriage from our sacrament of Matrimony. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be pretty. But for those persons wanting a more fully developed sense of ‘identity’, the rite of Matrimony, as a service distinct from that of a civil ceremony, would remain everything Catholics have always said it should be. No compromises, no redefinitions,  just people praying for God’s grace to support a man and woman who pledge eternal faithfulness to each other and God’s plan.

In terms of ‘enforcement’ of Catholic identity through employment practices, the success of a Catholic institution has been, and always will be in its ability to carry out the mission of service. If institutional leaders believe that its employees must adhere to Church teachings, then be fair about it and require documented tests that cover all the essentials of our teachings in order evaluate how good a Catholic a person has to be in order to be employed.

And if one thinks that such a policy is an exercise of futility that focuses more on image rather than substance, then have the employees of Catholic institutions sign a piece of paper that includes the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. Then tell them get back to work in service to the Gospel.

This is about marriage and the family.

The Church is correct in the importance of family as a societal unit.

But the language used in some of Her teachings, and in the hyperbole used by some members of the clergy, fly in the face of the truth understood by all people that you do not build something up by tearing others down.

The US Catholic Church has invested significant financial resources in the support of civil campaigns to prevent legalization of same sex marriages. In Minnesota alone, the church directed $650,000 to a 2012 campaign in support of an amendment defining marriage as something between a man and woman. The amendment lost by a narrow margin.

Regardless of how much the Church has spent nationally, 37 of the 50 states in the US, representing nearly 70% of the population, have approved same sex marriage. Not that popularity makes right. But such a widespread trend paints a picture that calls for better work to be done.

And if the Church objectives are to strengthen the family, the objective measures of success should involve something that has to do with Catholic families.

More than one in four marriages involving Catholics end in divorce, accounting for 11 million individuals. While Catholics have a divorce rate lower than other Christian denominations, there is evidence that more needs to be done to minister and support single heads of households and to root out the main causes of divorce. Heterosexual marriages aren’t failing because gays are living with each other.

That means greater emphasis on the (counter-cultural) view that a person’s promises and commitments should actually mean something, approaching millenials to better articulate the role of cohabitation in reducing the likelihood of a successful marriage between young persons, improved spiritual development programs for adults that place God’s plan above financial aspirations, and broader, more visible programs to provide recovery services from substance abuse and intervention programs to help marriages in trouble.

We have been working to bring the light of truth to our world for 2,000 years (4,000 if you count our Jewish buddies). We are now rightfully being called to be part of a New Evangelization to apply ‘new ardor, new methods and new expressions’ of the Gospel; to do so we must honestly asses how effectively the truth is being proclaimed in word and deed.

Our commitment to God’s promise is deep, but our passions and the shortcomings of human language sometimes project a message that fails to capture what can only be experienced.

When our message fails, our commitment to its truth demands that we focus less on blaming the listener, and more on examining if what we say and what we do truly reflect what we mean.


References:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/26/vatican-ireland-gay-marriage-referendum-vote-defeat-for-humanity

http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201402/its-time-separate-church-and-state-marriages-28452

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html

http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/catholics-continue-to-have-lowest-divorce-rates-report-finds/

http://time.com/20386/how-shacking-up-before-marriage-affects-a-relationships-success/

http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/

 

 

I looked up aWhoAreWet the television when I heard Ron Reagan’s voice mention something about ‘not afraid of burning in hell’. There he was on the screen promoting his Freedom From Religion organization. For a guy risking an eternity of searing pain, he certainly looked sure enough of himself.

Not coincidentally, soon afterward I was watching one of those news specials about atheists, persons who left traditional religions to pursue a spiritual life without God. The show had caught my interest as it reminded me of my own struggles with faith.

There were two comments in particular that caught my attention. One person mentioned that it would be wrong to be too critical of faith, since faith and belief are so much part of a person’s identity.

A second point emphasized that most ex-believers-now-atheists had one thing in common – they didn’t want to continue to live a lie.

Identity. Not living a lie. Amen to that.

 

Who are we?

I had a very difficult time in finding that ‘adult’ perspective on what it meant to be a Catholic Christian. Perhaps that difficulty started for me in elementary school.

I’m not going to be one of those who piles on to the Baltimore Catechism – it was designed to help children memorize the important elements of our religion, and it got the job done for getting the basics down.

But as kid, I was always a bit curious, and never got answers to the questions I started asking in the 6th grade..  why would the eternal pain of hell be possible for someone who didn’t ask to be here in the first place? What happened to all the souls who came and went before Jesus?

The stock answer was that it’s a mystery, which I interpreted as ‘we have no idea’. (But at least in regards the the second question, according to catechism chapters 632-636, the pre-Jesus souls made out alright.)

Given the shaky foundation of my childhood faith, it is no wonder that I was challenged as an adult to truly understand and embrace Catholicism.

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I think I am a humanist.

When it comes to one’s choices for the authority that informs his or personal theology, I think a person falls somewhere along an axis anchored at two points.

At one end sit the ‘rule book’ followers. The community’s values are expressed by a single source document. That source could be the bible or an intermediate reference (the Catechism) that is explained or interpreted by an authority figure(s) such as the clergy and trained catechists.

There is a clean simplicity about such a flow. Followers need only know who to listen to on the holy day, and, trusting that the person at the pulpit has invested a great deal in theological study and spiritual development, follow the shepherd’s guidance. Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.

In an increasingly chaotic and confusing world, just trusting one person or institution to clearly spell out the rules of a holy life has a certain appeal to a public that already has way too much to think about.

At the other end of this axis you have the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ crowd. These folks profess a personal relationship with a higher power that doesn’t require — well, anything. No clergy, no sacred text, and no formalized process to identify the difference between right and wrong.

I admit that most of my early adulthood was spent closer to that latter crowd — to the point where I was so un-religious, I even doubted the presence of a higher power. My Catholic identity came close to something being in the past tense.

But after a while, I found that believing in nothing lacked a certain substance.

Trying to live the humanist life wasn’t all that bad – I was given a new perspective on the importance and yes, sacredness of all human experiences. The problem was that by formally accepting a Godless experience – I felt lonely.

Not only did I feel lonely, but that same curiosity that got me into trouble in elementary school also challenged the atheist’s perspective. Spiritually speaking, I felt that the atheist’s vision is that of a person standing on the shoreline of an island in ancient times. There are hints of something beyond the horizon as he sees things wash up on shore and birds approach from a distance. But he looks to the horizon, sees nothing, and concludes that there is nothing to look for. Why build boats if there is nothing to sail to?

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I thought I was a humanist.

It would be a good read if I could point to some magic moment that changed everything in the blink of an eye. But there was no such moment. The best metaphor I could use is one in which I decided that my Catholic faith would be my ‘ride’ to answer the important questions in front of me. Despite the vehicle being in need of maintenance, my Catholic background had been the basis of my upbringing and education. I figured that had to count for something.

And then there was St. Paul:

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

It was time for me to grow up and stop relying (and blaming) my poor spiritual vision on the materials and teaching pedagogy designed for elementary school kids.

That meant reading and learning first about scripture and how we interpret it, then exploring many of the other facets of our faith, from the founding philosophies that fueled its survival during the early centuries, to how the Church adopted to changes in the arts, culture, and science through the ages. (Granted, it isn’t always a happy story.) Most importantly, I took a stab at actually performing some Christian service to the poor, the disabled, and those who opportunity had left behind.

After a few years of re-visiting my faith, reflecting on what we do and why we do it, remembering how to pray, and trying as best I can to adopt the Catholic Christian view of life, I began to understand what ‘Catholic’ meant, and it was different from what we see hear screamed at us from the flat-screen and the blogosphere.

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I am Roman Catholic.

If you were to use the public media as your only source of information, you might believe that the only issues Catholics care about involve sex.

The public view of our Church is dominated by the media’s coverage of Catholic opposition to gay marriage and the insistence that Catholic institutions not participate in insurance plans that include birth control.  In this hyper-partisan, hyper-connected society, observers (Catholics included) may get the impression that these are the only positions and only issues that Catholics care about.

To get past this perspective, I had to pretend, for just a moment, that God has things under control when it comes to creating men and women and their individual sense of identity, and that religious freedom involves something other than asking people about their sexuality.

So moving beyond the 15 second media snippet pretending to capture the prototypical Catholic image, I considered the more timeless elements of our tradition, reflecting more on a 2,000 year old spiritual journey rather than what is appearing on CNN, EWTN,  or Fox News.

Here is my layman’s view of the key elements of Catholic identity:

  • It starts with what we call the Eucharist. Catholic teaching states that during the consecration part of our Mass,  just as Jesus said ‘this is my body, this is my blood’,  the hosts and wine become His presence. We set aside consecrated hosts (the Blessed Sacrament) reserved for the sick and displayed for private reflection and adoration. For devout Catholics, the Eucharist is something far more than a symbol, it reminds us that there is a physical presence of Christ, here, in this place and time.
  • The Mass is really important to us. If the Eucharist and wine are the body and blood of Christ, the Mass is where that bread and wine become the vehicle through which we now become Christ’s body.  That means we become His eyes, His ears, and His hands to do His work. Our Mass is the ritual through which we conduct the Last Supper wrapped with the prayers that express everything from what Jesus taught us, readings from scripture, and a profession of faith.
  • We tend to approach scripture allegorically –  Our belief is that God’s message sometimes lies beneath the words and transcends the cultural practices of a time. Our mission is to explore the spiritual experiences of our forefathers  and shine today’s light on God’s message to us.
  • We use sacraments to mark the really important benchmarks of our lives. The Church has seven sacraments that mark the grace imparted to us through the years. Each sacrament (Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Ordination, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick) is based on Jesus’ words and actions during His ministry. If something is going on that is really important in our lives, chances are good that it’s covered by a sacrament.
  • We take all life seriously – we embrace the advances of medical science that help improve the quality of life. But we are equally certain that life’s creation and termination are the domain of a higher authority.  In addition to concern for the soon-to-be-born, we care deeply about the social and physical welfare of children, adults, and the elderly. And many of us find a vocation in exercising concern for what makes all life possible –  the land, air, and water that we share with the generations to come.
  • Catholic Christians are called to service. We’ve all heard of ‘saved by grace, not by works’, but Catholic tradition adds a requirement that we must act out our faith. This goes back to the Council of Trent which, in a nod to James, began teaching that grace saves the righteous, but in order be be righteous, faith must be sustained by real action. I tire of the scriptural hissyfits that sometimes go on between Christian segments arguing the relative value of faith and acts. There is a common sense thinking that faith without action is little more than an unfulfilled promise.

So there it is. My sense of Catholic identity. I don’t expect it will please the extremely conservative members of our Church because it didn’t involve Latin. Extreme liberals will complain about it because they need to find something to complain about. But these points best capture what I consider my Catholic identity.

What we do with this identity is determined by our personal circumstances, the calling manifest by our interests and talents (some may refer to that as the Holy Spirit), and our receptiveness in responding to that calling.

Many Catholics take hold of the right-to-life movement, others minister to immigrant hopefuls as they cross the American southwest deserts. Others work to deliver healthcare to the poor, to repair broken childhoods, and still others struggle to find the proper balance between environmental and economic interests in impoverished rural areas.

Maybe that is why this prototypical identity is so elusive from the media’s perspective. The range of challenges and opportunities to serve is so great, the diversity of our experience so broad, that  we find any number of different ways to act out our faith in service. Unfortunately, as a result of this range of views, we sometimes we turn on ourselves, believing that one’s own vocation, interest, and Gospel interpretation is more important than another’s.

What can I say? We are a fallen people.

My belief in Christ’s physical presence among us, my commitment to celebrate the grace that touches us in all phases of our lives, my reflections on scripture, and the calling to act  in service to all God’s creation, these are the elements of what being Catholic means to me. It is an identity that I can own.

 

The truth shall set you free.

I appreciated the atheists’ rejection of living a lie. And there was truth in the comment that what we believe in, what we put our faith in, is a very large part of who we are, our identity.

I was too afraid to consider how close an anemic profession of faith was to a lie; but deep down, I knew that what I learned as a child wasn’t good enough. A good foundation won’t keep the rain off your head.

I needed to better understand the true nature of my faith, not by watching the news or even listening to the clergy, but, as inefficient as it may seem, finding my own circuitous route to a picture of what being Catholic really means.

To my atheist, agnostic, humanist friends, I know of your road, and I wish you well. It’s possible your work may open new perspectives that people of faith may appreciate. God works in mysterious ways.

I pray that all seekers continue their path to understanding why we have been put here, and that path leads to a conviction and identity that gives meaning to your life and those who will follow you.

But I also suggest this humble reminder.

Admit the truth when you hit a dead end, and don’t be afraid to back up if you need to.

______

REFERENCES:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/03/living/friendly-atheists-next-door/

http://www.kvue.com/story/news/state/2014/07/06/charities-help-immigrants-at-the-border/12277493/

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-eucharist/the-real-presence-of-jesus-christ-in-the-sacrament-of-the-eucharist-basic-questions-and-answers.cfm

http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/why-does-the-church-teach-that-works-can-obtain-salvation

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+2%3A24&version=NIV

http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm

 

Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

“The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. “ – Raymond Cardinal Burke

The quote above was from an interview conducted by Matthew Christoff of the New Emangelization project (read that word closely, I’m not making this up). His observation is part of a trend that encourages fewer girls to participate as altar servers in order to encourage more boys to participate, theoretically leading to growth in the number of boys who choose to become priests.

The feeling was recently echoed by Rev. Joseph Illo at the Star of the Sea church in San Francisco which recently stopped allowing girls to serve at the altar.

“The specifics of serving at the altar is a priestly function,” Illo said. “And the Catholic church does not ordain women.”

So while Pope Francis calls for a “more profound theology of women”, some senior church clerics and pastors have come to the conclusion that this deepened theology is best developed by having young girls watch what boys do.

It must be pointed out that wherever such statements are made, the speaker always adds the caveat that the position or decision has nothing to do with equality. Rather, according to Cardinal Burke, the policy is a much needed step to counter ‘the radical feminism which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s’, leaving men feel ‘marginalized’.

(Radical feminism is a term within the feminist movement during the 1960’s and 70’s that argued that many social structures based on patriarchy unfairly oppress women.)

Somehow, when I see the young ladies serving at the altar, I rarely look at them as leading a radical charge to marginalize my sense of self-worth. But apparently, I must be missing their diabolical intent. I must also be missing the signs of this movement’s success, as to me, at first glance, most popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons appear to be men.

The policy of female altar servers is a voluntary decision made at the parish level by pastors, providing the diocesan bishop has granted permission for such a choice. If the bishop says its OK, it is then up to the pastor to determine if young ladies are to be permitted as altar servers.

In the cases of Cardinal Burke’s opinion, and the policy in San Francisco, along with a number of cathedrals and parishes (Phoenix, Ann Arbor), as well as the entire diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, the idea is that female altar servers result in fewer boys who want to become priests.

Even though there is little hard data to support such a supposition, these church leaders feel that this belief is a hypothesis worth testing.

So long as we don’t need much (if any) data for a hypothesis, here’s mine:

Increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in pastoral roles would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

To start, I am not going to touch on the role of women as ordained priests. It is not because I do or do not agree with the suggestion, but because the exclusive role of men as priests is so deeply ingrained in the tradition of our church the issue is a non-starter with anyone whose opinion matters (and they would all be men).

St. Pope John Paul II used his 1994 Apostolic Letter Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men to summarize the reasons why women could never be priests:

“[because of]…the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

Although I would love to write something inflammatory on the subject (and anything written about this is bound to inflame somebody), I honestly don’t have the spiritual maturity to suggest an interpretation of God’s plan for His church when discussing who is or is not qualified to act on behalf of Jesus as a church leader.

But while I am unqualified to explore the dogma of male ordination to the priesthood, my role as a parishioner qualifies me to touch on the role of women in other services to the community.

It is time to allow women to become deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.

The history of deacons goes back to the earliest years of the Church. Male deacons primarily served at the pleasure of bishops in order to conduct most of the administrative functions of the diocese. At the beginning of Church history, there also existed women deaconesses who would tend to the needs of the women of the community — though in those days, that generally meant presiding over the baptism of women faithful — which at that time took place in the nude.

The ‘official’ rationale for opposing the admission of women to the diaconate centers on the mind-numbing exercise of interpreting the intentions of the 4th century Church. When the Council of Nicea was clarifying the role of deaconess, they were clear that these were persons who, unlike male deacons, were not ordained. Furthermore, as people started wearing clothes to baptisms, there was no longer a perceived need for women to minister to women. So, along with the increasing importance of male deacons, the role of female deaconesses gradually faded.

Today, opposition to deaconesses remains little changed from Nicea. The more conservative interpretation collectively encompasses the roles of deacon, priest and bishop as ‘ordained’ – or empowered by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And as pointed out earlier, only males can be ordained because, well,  Jesus was male and only males can act in the personhood of Christ. Deaconesses were never meant to be deacons, the argument continues, so why start now.

More liberal arguments contend that deacons cannot (among a number of priestly actions) conduct the sacramental duties associated with the Eucharist (consecrating bread) or administering the Sacarment of Penance — examples of actions that represent the personhood of Christ. Since deacons cannot act in personhood of Christ, they must be acting as Christ’s servant. Therefore, the male-personhood restriction to deacons should not apply. (I told you it was mind-numbing).

I’m going to simplify vocabulary here by calling for male and female deacons. Today, we do not assume that a lay deacon is a ‘priest in training’ and the 4th century Church’s dismissal of the spiritual needs of women was a trend that reflected little more than the social norms of Late Antiquity. (Someone find me a scriptural reference that women’s spiritual needs are to be ignored). Attempts to maintain separate deacon/deaconess roles reflect nothing more than an interest in retaining 4th century job descriptions and career paths.

Today, thanks to Vatican Council II’s restored emphasis on the role of deacons, if I, as a man, have a problem with my career, my marriage, or any other issue of personal importance, I can reach out to a handful of male deacons at my parish.

Would I reach out about problems involving my marriage or issues of a sexual nature to a woman deacon? Would I want to talk to a women about manhood issues? Not likely.

And that is the point. Women in our Church have few (if any) women of spiritual standing to talk to about problems that involve womanhood. Women don’t have the luxury of reaching out to a spiritual leader/mentor who really understands the female perspective of spousal abuse, post-partum depression,  breast cancer, family discord or any other facts of life that affect women in a unique way.

The absence of female deacons in our Church denies women equal access to adequate pastoral care. And in today’s world, that inequality of access is wrong.

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Young ladies and young men must have equal opportunity to act as altar servers.

The crux of the female altar server matter lies in the belief that eliminating young ladies as altar servers will result in more male vocations to the priesthood.

So, is there no other way to recruit men to the priesthood? No program of enhanced religious education, no after-school program of sports activities that can be combined to encourage consideration of religious vocations, no social events run by seminarians in the parish setting to introduce young people to religious life?

While young boys may find themselves uncomfortable around girls –  are there no scheduling options that can give young boys the space they need? Some dioceses that wish to encourage the Latin Mass often use that form as a setting to revisit the classical altar boy role without booting girls from the other masses.

Are these leaders serious in saying that only effective way to encourage priesthood is to post a sign that says ‘no girls allowed’ near the altar?

No one really knows how much of a factor altar serving is in encouraging vocations(*). There is only scant anecdotal data that points to pockets of increased priestly vocations at all-boy parishes, and even those instances can’t easily factor out the strength of a parish religious ed program, the vitality of the parochial schools, or the engagement of the diocesan recruiting team.

Some Church leaders do consider the possibility that a young lady serving at the altar may, as a result, be drawn to a vocation with the women’s religious orders. It’s not as though we don’t need more women religious to serve in our Catholic hospitals, schools, healthcare facilities or social service organizations. The Arlington archdiocese admitted as much, with Bishop Paul S. Loverde writing that altar serving provides “an experience which can facilitate a young woman’s discernment of the Lord’s call to religious life.”

By removing young women as altar servers, our Church says to our young ladies, “We know you want to serve our Lord and Church, and maybe this experience could encourage you to think of devoting your life in a religious vocation. But you are scaring the boys away and we need more men in the priesthood. So thank you, but please go back to the pews and sit next to mommy. We’ll think of something else for you to do. It’s nothing personal.”

Most arguments one reads about boys-only altar serving suggest that girls can be directed to other, less visible roles in the sacristy or steered to participate in other girls-only organizations in the parish.  Will these ‘alternate paths’ be full of the same spiritual experience as serving at the Lord’s table? Probably not.

This isn’t about equal rights. This is about providing all young people with equal opportunity to respond to a calling to serve.

Our young girls deserve equal opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit’s calling to experience the spiritual connection that comes with being an altar server. This opportunity may lead to interest in roles with religious communities or as lay leaders in the parish. To deny young girls such an opportunity because of their gender is wrong.

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So on what specific suppositions do I base a hypothesis that increased visibility of women in the church would enhance the role of priests and increase pastoral outreach?

We will start with the obvious —- more girls acting as altar servers will be exposed to the spirituality of our liturgy. This exposure may well fuel interest in pursuing vocations in any of the religious orders.

And I have already mentioned the value provided by female deacons in serving the women in our parish community — serving in a way that men just can’t because, well, because they are men.

And while our all male diaconate has held the privilege of proclaiming the gospel, what church foundations would be shaken to hear a woman’s gospel reflection?

Take the Gospel of the Annunciation. How long do women have to listen to a man explain the emotions of being an expectant mother?

A formal re-introduction of female deacons would also increase the pool of women candidates to act as parish administrators – a role that is already open to men and women at the discretion of the bishop. Numerous parishes already have parish administrators absorbing many of the critical operational roles in a parish where the priest/pastor is unable or incapable of serving.

In fact, there would appear a certain family-like symmetry in parishes where the spiritual pastor-priest works as an equal with a female parish administrator to advance the kingdom.

Finally, the good men who follow the priestly vocation would need less time in parish administration and more time to administer the sacraments and provide increased emphasis on the spiritual development of the flock. One would think that such an emphasis is the reason men became priests in the first place.

So yes, I hypothesize that increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in service would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

It’s a hypothesis worth testing.

 

(*) – The US Conference of Bishops has conducted surveys strongly suggesting correlation – some 80% of one class of ordinands having served as altar boys.


REFERENCES

http://www.catholicstand.com/cardinal-burke-on-female-altar-servers/

http://www.newemangelization.com/uncategorized/cardinal-raymond-leo-burke-on-the-catholic-man-crisis-and-what-to-do-about-it/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_altar_servers

http://www.ewtn.com/library/LITURGY/AROSEBY.TXT

http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/05/20/can-women-be-deacons/

http://www.arlingtondiocese.org/newsdetails.aspx?Pageid=422&id=3780

http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/09/can-catholic-church-ordain-female.html
http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/popes-remarks-on-women-in-the-church-call-for-deeper-theology-says-expert/

https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/ByIssue/Article/TabId/735/ArtMID/13636/ArticleID/15688/Study-offers-strategies-for-increasing-vocations.aspx

http://www.onepeterfive.com/altar-girls-altar-boys-and-the-priesthood-connecting-the-dots/

presenceSo, what did you give for Christmas?

It provides a bit more insight to the character of a person when prompted to describe the gifts given during this holiday season. (Unfortunately for this writer, the insight is far too disappointing – but I digress.)

The question is particularly interesting in the context of recipients who, from all appearances, have every material thing they need. A similar relationship exists with persons whose needs far exceed the resources or abilities of the gift giver. Both dynamics pose the same question, what do you give someone who has no need for the things you can afford to buy?

The question makes us squirm, especially if the recipient is someone we care for – a close friend in emotional distress, an elderly parent, or a young person struggling with some health issue. All these are examples of someone with needs that can’t be met with a quick trip to Target or a McDonald’s gift card.

For these situations, it is best to consider some form of post-Christmas gift exchange.

After the wrapping paper is disposed, the gift ribbons removed from Fido’s head, and the gift socks packed away (for the only time they will be a matched pair, in my case), it may be appropriate to give those who are important to us, those who need us, the gift of our time.

These are days where families are ‘hyper scheduled’ with school and athletic events crowd out any free space on our calendars. These family calendars also contend with a new business world in which decisions must always be made, tasks completed, and problems solved as workers find themselves wired to a 24×7 global workplace.

The situation is even more compounded by a dynamic, though sometimes chaotic economy that sometimes scatters families to all corners of the country, leaving some of us to rely on e-mail and Facebook ‘likes’ to keep in touch with those around us in what are becoming increasingly  ‘virtual’ families.

And in the middle of all this comes Christmas, a hybrid religious/secular day when we challenge ourselves to give gifts of meaning to those around us. All the while, we all fully understand that the only real gift that means anything is the gift of our time.

I remember my days as a child – we lived in a house that was close enough to the airport where my dad and I could watch the passenger jets approach and depart. My dad sometimes worked three jobs to pay the bills. But there still were the occasional summer evenings when we would just sit on our back patio, he with a beer and a cigar, me with a glass of Vernor’s ginger ale. We didn’t say much, kind of just sat there, enjoying the summer evening with each other, watching the jets come and go. Some nights we would walk out of our driveway and just stare at the stars, my dad would say something like ‘have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’ — I would elaborate at length, ‘Nope.’

Funny how I don’t remember many of the Christmas gifts I received from my parents, but the moments with my dad looking at the stars, and with my mom as she worked in the garden, were all moments of few words, but deep connections.

And as my wife and I have watched our parents age and pass to the Kingdom, we have had the fortune to experience (all too infrequently) the joy of simply sitting with them, sometimes chatting, sometimes just listening to music, musing about the challenges of parenting, of growing old, of facing the inevitability of transition.

We have any number of different forces tugging at our schedules – yet the gifts of time we have given those whose only real need is time to share, are gifts that we learn must be given with joy.

I do not dismiss our secular tradition of gift giving. There is a true joy that people encounter as they stress to find the perfect gift for loved ones – I would even suggest that parents’ gift giving is a self-centered exercise, for nothing gives joy to parents more than the sound of squealing children as they bulldoze their way through their presents. And there  is real magic that happens when we successfully find  that special gift to celebrate the connection that exists with those we love.

But our faith also calls us to remember those around us who have needs that go beyond things given.

For those who spend the rest of the year alone, in physical or emotional loneliness, struggling with serious issues, or just dealing with a life that seems to have lost its luster, there is always a need for Christmas.

It wouldn’t take much work for us to think of those who could use such a gift — friends with ill children, with threatened marriages, friends or relatives who grapple with substance abuse, persons who feel their mistakes in life make them unworthy of any year-round present.

Pope Francis recently said that  “our life is made of time and time is God’s gift”. I suggest we  share that gift by using our fancy calendar technology to schedule a ‘gift  appointment’, three months, six months, nine months from now with someone who doesn’t need anything.

These may be scheduled or spontaneous exchanges, so long as they take the form of a real, personal visit, a short walk, a cup of coffee, a quick beer (and/or ginger ale),  in any setting that provides for the sharing of a few moments, be they moments of lively chatter, bantering about bygone days, or spent quietly looking at the stars.

Such a gift can be presented in any number of ways — with a note enclosed with those socks we were going to give, a family calendar with appointment dates already marked out, an automated invite spewed by that fancy calendar service we use, or maybe a socially networked message that arranges a meeting to remind us that there really is nothing ‘virtual’ about meaningful social engagement.

And when the gift is redeemed, sometime weeks or months from now,  both the gift giver and receiver will be reminded that Christmas was never meant to be a day, but an eternal fulfillment of a promise that we will never be alone.

Merry Christmas to all.


References:

http://ncronline.org/blogs/francis-chronicles/pope-s-quotes-time-god-s-gift

 

“Tell me who ghandsAsHeartsets to live. And why?”

That pointed question was asked by National Catholic Reporter blogger Phyllis Zagano in a posting that railed against our slide towards a society where life is cheap and futures disposable. It is a question that needs to be asked loudly, and pointedly, as we sample the potentially toxic mix of technological advancement and self-empowerment.

While recent news about the church’s challenges have (rightfully) focused on the socially ‘hot’ topics involving gay rights, same-sex marriage, and reconciliation of remarried divorced Catholics,  issues at the intersection of Catholic morality, bio-ethics, and personal choice are beginning to loom large for our all in our church.

I write this a couple of weeks after the tragic story of Brittany Maynard, the 26 year old lady who chose the path of suicide to avoid what had promised to be a torturous end caused by incurable brain cancer. Her decision became the immediate hot topic discussed by supporters (those espousing  ‘Death with Dignity’), and critics.

Both the official Vatican response as well as the Pope’s direct words were blunt and to the point: there is no dignity in suicide.

(Before anyone casts words critical of Ms. Maynard’s choice, I suggest reading of what happens to persons with brain cancer. Even a cursory review of the literature will make the most ardent critic drop the stones that were to be cast and walk away in prayer.)

Such issues come down to probably those most emotionally charged word in the Christian’s vocabulary: choice.

In the secular world, we demand information and knowledge so we may make an informed choice. We have such expectations for the products and services we buy, the places we live and the leaders we elect.

We also make choices to purchase drugs and therapies that affect the way we look and the way we feel, always trying to look young enough and feel energetic enough to sidestep the natural processes that would choose otherwise.

But as these choices move into more serious domains, those areas that infringe on the natural processes of birth and death, we begin to stray into dangerous territory.

The problem is that we are used to having choices that make life better, easier, and more convenient for us. Life choices often involve the coming and going of others . Even when we think we are making choices that involve our rights, our actions set examples for those around us and affect those who follow. And we all see that when given information that disappoints – or worse – information that portends a future that we didn’t expect or want, we don’t always choose wisely.

Consider that when presented with diagnostic tests that reliably predict the occurrence of Down syndrome, 90% of these would-be parents choose to abort the fetus. Yet many parents who choose to raise  Down syndrome children insist their experience bears many of the same fruits shared by other parents.

And then there are choices we make to enhance the process of creation.

At its simplest core, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) seems like a promising technique that allows families to bear children which, due to health reasons, they could not conceive. But as genetic testing technologies improve, parents who need to use IVF will soon have the ability to choose the characteristics and traits of their offspring. A recent feature report on CNN touched on the process to create ‘perfect babies’ – in the promo the host made the common sense observation that when given the choice, why wouldn’t parents pick donor cells that demonstrated strong likelihood to result in strong, healthy good looking children.

Once such techniques for genetic modification are perfected for couples who used IVF because of the inability to conceive, how long before genetic modifications are made available to all parents?

With people poking at the cell’s DNA to encourage strength and intelligence, who will worry about stepping on the genes for kindness, artistic creativity, or even spiritual sensitivity? Would parents choose genes for a good sense of humor over the traits that may provide greater financial stability for the future generation? If we choose the good-looking child what happened to the brilliant musician who was offered to us? Do we have any idea of what we are doing?

Fast-forward to end-of-life issues.

The Brittany Maynard case is one of those relatively infrequent (though not rare) circumstances where a person is actually informed of how they will die, and in this case, informed of a process that rightly terrifies.

The Pope may warn against decisions based on a ‘false sense of compassion’, but I somehow don’t think there was anything false about the gut-wrenching emotions her family had to endure.

But from the perspective of our society, do we really want to accelerate, make more easy and convenient, the ability to end life when health fades?  What would remind us of the need to cure disease if termination becomes more cost-effective, more dignified?

If we become too quick to choose the end of life when we see fit, before aging or suffering robs us of the person we want to be,  who will remain to remind the rest of us of the need for compassion?

The church teaches that nothing should interfere with the natural process of creation and death – that is God’s work. There will be families that will struggle to have children, but the answer is not to develop processes that manufacture children to our liking.

End-of-life is to be left the the natural process that God has left with us. And while steps need to be taken to reduce pain and to comfort the sick, we simply cannot accept a societal view that the best way to deal with those who are suffering is to hide or dispose of them.

That said, our church MUST do a better job of educating the flock – not by telling what is right and wrong, but by explaining her teachings in contemporary terms that connect people to the confidence and comfort of Christ-centered decision making.

All families will soon be dealing with some moral decisions as they start families, raise children, and care for elderly parents. Some of these decisions will be very, very difficult with no paths to a happy ending. Those are times when they will need options, both in terms of support from church and in the availability of brick-and-mortar care facilities, so that a choice involving community, support, and love is always an available course of action.

And hopefully, if we find ourselves in circumstances that demand the unthinkable from us, we at least take the time and pray for the strength to do the right thing. And when some of us fall short of sainthood, I hope our church will remember its responsibility to project compassion, mercy and reconciliation.

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I had always struggled with the creation story — wondering why God wouldn’t want us to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong – why couldn’t we have that knowledge and take the apple?

But after reflection, I now understand that fruit itself had no special power and imparted no new skill to our mom and dad. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a plain old apple.

The knowledge of doing wrong came simply from Adam and Eve’s choice – the decision to discard what they knew to be true while listening to someone whose intentions had nothing to do with their well being.  The choice to act in their own self-interest – to be like God without listening to His counsel – alone was enough to give them the knowledge of what was wrong. Comparatively, knowing what was wrong also enlightened our first parents of the ‘right’ choice that was discarded.  A choice made, an experience that teaches what is wrong and reminds us of what was right. Out of the garden and into the weeds we go.

It still goes on today – we make choices that are convenient for us, choices that make life easier, for us. When looking for guidance, we too often listen to the voices we want to hear, voices suggesting that our lives can be made better by making choices that are easy – choices with only pleasurable consequences.

But our lives were given to us for something more than our own self-gratification, and lives entrusted to us as parents and caregivers are gifts given by a Creator who doesn’t answer to us. These gifts carry the responsibilities of care, love, and respect.

The gifts of life we receive, in all their forms, aren’t gifts to be returned.


References:

National Catholic Bio-ethics Center http://www.ncbcenter.org/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3628894/

“Children of Choice – Freedom and the new Reproductive Technologies”, John Robertson, Princeton University Press

http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/the-chosen-ones-australias-shrinking-number-of-down-syndrome-kids/story-fnet08ui-1226598360762

http://www.livescience.com/44087-designer-babies-ethics.html

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/before-sin

http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/eutanasiaeuthanasiaeutanasia-medici-doctors-medico-37516/

http://ncronline.org/blogs/just-catholic/womans-right-choose

Image from Catholicapologetics.org

“The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them.” – Sensus Fidei In the Life of the Church.

In October this year, the bishops of the world will be traveling to Rome for the “Synod on Family”. The synod will be the first of two meetings called by Pope Francis to confront the pastoral challenges of today’s world.

Packed away in their luggage will be the results of a recent survey sent to Catholics to gage their sentiment regarding Church teaching on issues of family life.

The fact that some bishops even bothered to ask Catholics (about a third of the dioceses made the survey easily accessible on their websites) is laudable, but initial feedback from some bishops hint that the problem with adherence to church teaching lies primarily with effectiveness of teaching, rather than the content of the lesson.

Which brings up the question, does the laity have any options (besides silent disregard) to  respond to the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) when teachings run counter to some inner sense of right and wrong?

The blueprint of guidance for the relationship between the church’s teaching authority and the laity can be found in the Vatican publication –  ‘Sensus Fidei – In the Life of the Church’.

This publication, issued by the International Theological Commission, describes the basic instinct of faith shared by all in the church (sensus fidelium), and further explores that sense as experienced by individuals and shared throughout the community. It would be fair to say that if any publicly accessible document describes the roles of the church hierarchy and laity in sensing the truth of our faith, and implementing that sense in doctrine and action, Sensus Fidei is it.

Sensus Fidei (or SF as I will call it) is one of those writings that can be cherry-picked by anyone wishing to justify or criticize any of the church’s cast of characters (including the laity). Persons looking for references to criticize church leaders can find just as much fodder as those who argue that her people have all the common sense of a flock of lost sheep.

But taken in-toto, the writing strikes me as an encouraging and cogent (if not a bit tedious) explanation of how the sense of faith from the laity of the church is to be integrated into her teachings.

The writing includes topics covering the scriptural basis for the sense of truth in all followers of the gospel, the nature of the sense of faith as it evolved in church teaching and structure, how the sense of faith is discerned by individuals, and how this interaction is to be played out in what the church teaches to be true.

While certainly not a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of Sensus Fidei, I humbly attempt to highlight some of its points that are a relevant tonic for today’s culture war mentality.

In the beginning there was the beginning.

Even at the very start of the church, the process of deciding how the truth was to be taught in words and practice involved a balancing of the knowledge that all persons of faith have an instinct for what is right, with the pragmatic view that not all people are invested enough in the church to earn a role as decision maker.

Early church leaders well understood Jeremiah’s words which described the place that truth held in all the hearts of the faithful – as, the essay cites:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.”

SF further points out that Augustine asserted that Christ is ‘the interior Teacher’ who enables the laity as well as their pastors not only to receive the truth of revelation but also to approve and transmit it.

Nevertheless,  St. Paul warned that sometimes communities are ‘still of the flesh’, and need to mature a bit in order to perceive the real truth behind Christ’s example.

But although some Christian communities were ahead (or behind) the learning curve in understanding the nature of faith, there evolved a general understanding that all true followers of the gospel have an intimate understanding of the truth, and that “the general consent of Christians functions as a sure norm for determining the apostolic faith”.

 

That Darned Reformation

The 16th Century Reformation built much of its foundation on the nature of scripture as interpreted by the priesthood of the faithful. The importance of tradition and the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (primarily bishops) as primary teachers of the faith were – somewhat successfully –  challenged.

In response, Catholic theologians of the day argued that anything taught by the bishops was really the truth as experienced and accepted by all the faithful of the church.

But other church leaders began the process to justify the importance of the hierarchy’s teaching role by contending that the bishops were ‘actively infallible’, while the laity (students) were only ‘passively’ infallible. Other Catholic theologians started to more forcefully emphasize that pastors were incapable of erring in matters of doctrinal judgement, since their decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the rationale used by church leaders in response to the Reformation movement, its counter-arguments didn’t always win the day during the foment of 16th-17th centuries, and her policies and practices to hold things together (e.g. the Roman Inquisition of Galileo) didn’t work out all that well (my commentary).

 

Vatican II and the ‘Organic’ View

The role of the laity in active participation in the sense of the faith earned greater emphasis during the 20th century, particularly with the writings of the Second Vatican Council. The emphasis on the distinction of roles of teacher (hierarchy) and student (laity) gave way to a more organic view. As SF cites theologian  Yves Congar, “The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion.”

SF also points out that the Council’s writings described how the Apostolic Tradition makes progress in the church:

  • through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts,
  • from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience
  • and from the preaching of the bishops who have received … the sure charism of truth

 

So what does this all mean?

Once the reader gets past the lessons in history and theology, the real crux of the matter is approached. There is little doubt that we are all in this together.  Based on scripture and tradition, the truth is sensed by all members of the church (episcopate, clergy, and laity).

Today’s church leaders who will attend the Synod on the Family, and those of us who anticipate their work,   find ourselves somewhat mired in contentious topics that are more intimately experienced by the laity than the clergy, topics involving family life, marriage and divorce, gay rights, etc…

Before all of us stands the question –  how do we know that any perceived need for change is based on  true spiritual growth, and not the often fickle nature of public opinion?

This is a matter of the individual heart. Are we looking for God’s annotation that Jeremiah spoke of, or are we reacting as consumers in a secular marketplace, making a demand that provides something more akin to gratification than meaning?

Here SF does add some guidance – a list of criteria if you will, that gives an individual the light necessary to identify calls for change – or orthodoxy – based on a real sensus fidei.

All those  previous SF references to the church’s laity pre-suppose a community of active believers. You have to be a believer and a doer, someone engaged in her gospel mission, in order to be considered part of the team that helps set her direction.

If there is any part of SF that I recommend, it is Chapter 4, Section 1 – the ‘Dispositions needed for authentic participation’. It is pretty clear what the Vatican is asking for as the price to pay in order to be part of the discussion:

  • Be part of your church, attend liturgy and receive the sacraments.
  • Listen for God’s word
  • Be open to reason, be respectful
  • Understand that this magisterium thing is a joint responsibility to stay true to Jesus’ teaching
  • Stay humble and joyful
  • Stay focused on making our church better

Doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request to me.

 

Let’s Summarize

I started this writing with my favorite paragraph from Sensus Fidei. It is as accurate a simile as any that seems to capture what some, feel about what they see in our church. Sometimes I am not certain that all such discord is a matter of the truth that we all seek, but maybe more a matter of differing perspectives and experiences that result in unfortunate language and unneeded virtrol.

I think I am being true to the message of Sensus Fidei in the following points that provide all followers of all perspectives with a good set of ground rules for meaningful engagement:

  • Our church wants us to be involved in the discussion. “Everyone is free either to criticise or to support her[the church]. Indeed, she recognises that fair and constructive critique can help her to see problems more clearly and to find better solutions.”
  • We all have a sense of the truth of the gospel. Inside all of us, laity, clergy, ecclesiastical leadership, have been baptized in the faith and as such, have been visited by the Holy Spirit with a gift of an instinct for the teachings and beliefs that take us closer to the Truth.
  • There are real expectations of the laity — you have to be sitting inside before you get to throw stones at any glass houses. People who fully engage in ministries to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, those who know who Mark, John, Luke and Matthew are, persons who see and deal with the broken among us and who witnessed and sought to comfort the hearts of those who experience true suffering, those folks have as much a place in the magisterium as any bishop or cardinal. On the other hand, persons who want to contest a teaching simply because it is a church teaching need to go to some personal ‘time-out’ space to think about what they are doing. There may be validity to one’s question or challenge, but the fact of the matter is that unless you have really committed to Christian service, you don’t have enough skin in the game to take over and drive.
  • Public opinion is not always truth. Sensus Fidei rightly points out that the majority public opinion may have little in common with the truth of Christian faith. It correctly reminds us that there have been many instances in history where majority opinion supported views that were clearly contrary to the message of the gospel, and that in the beginning, it was the Christian message that was clearly a minority opinion on the world stage.
  • Teachings and policies that run counter to genuine personal spiritual experiences of the faithful are likely to be discarded. When the faithful who live with a sense of humility sense some off-notes in the lyrics from the pulpit, they are justified in some selective listening (and in asking to speak with the conductor).

Sensus Fidei isn’t a perfect document. But that is OK because I am not a perfect reader. But its wisdom is sound, and it makes the point that if we all want to be teachers, we also need to be students – open to the lessons as delivered in the witness of all the perspectives of those truly seeking the truth of the gospel.

 


 

Refernces:

http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/some-us-dioceses-report-results-questionnaire

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_20140610_sensus-fidei_en.html