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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

 

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Earlier this Spring, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, took the opportunity of a sermon at Mass to liken President Obama’s policies as a “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda” that violates the First Amendment and proves the president’s “intent on following a similar path” as Nazi Germany’s Adolph Hitler and Soviet-era dictator Joseph Stalin.

During the 2004 presidential elections, ads by moveon.org also likened the sitting president (at that time George W. Bush) to Adolph Hitler for his foreign policy.

Haymarket Riot

Haymarket Riot (Public Domain).

This has got to stop.

I don’t think any survivor of the Holocaust would see Hitler’s familiar face in Barak Obama or George W. Bush. To imply that a president we (meaning most Americans) elected is of the same moral fabric as men who slaughtered tens of millions of people, conducted mass genocide in the name of political power, and pushed civilization to the brink of extinction insults not only the premise of democratic judgment, but the honor and memories of all those whose lives were needlessly sacrificed.

It is time to stop the madness of hyperbole as we negotiate the uncomfortable friction points where religious conscience meets secular governance. The uncontrolled, irresponsible rhetoric that dominates today’s discourse betrays the joyful message of the Gospel and does little to solve the problems we face.

As Catholics who are required to believe, act, and (I would argue) think as we pray Christ would have us behave — we must know that attaching the antichrist label to any who disagrees with Catholic teaching encourages the faithful to discount the value of all God’s creations (including the creations who have yet to discover the Truth).

“Hear the other side”, said St. Augustine. “Be completely humble and patient, bearing with one another in love” said St. Paul. I don’t think either would be invited as a ‘talking head’ on MSNBC or Fox News – and both would struggle mightily to use UPPER CASE LETTERS TO SCREAM at others on Facebook.

Conflict is part of being human. In the US, we have frequently struggled as we play with the constitution’s words to justify confrontations with our neighbors. And anyone who thinks a religious community is free from strife should brush up on Paul’s writings to the Phillipians where he basically urges a couple of the church’s early leaders, Euodia and Syntyche (yes, women) to get along better.

But while the issue of conflict has always been with us, the power of technology to disseminate ideas (good and bad) so quickly has given all persons a phrase or two in the public conversations of any topic. With such widespread empowerment comes the temptation to do things to have one’s message stand out –  to exaggerate, to play loose with the facts, and to proclaim messages designed not to inform, but to draw attention by playing on human fear and mistrust of others.

Even if you agree with Bishop Jenky’s broad-brushed strokes that paint the White House Nazi-red, one must consider the words of John Duffy, English professor at Notre Dame who was roundly criticized for his argument that the Bishop’s words went too far:

“Our politics, I am trying to say, are crippled by an impoverished public language. And this impoverishment of language makes us a tribal people, each side in its territory, firing rhetorical rocket shells at one another. The blasts are emotionally satisfying, but the wars go on. … The Bishop’s language was a powerful blast but did nothing to end ongoing conflicts.”

We all know that the issues we are dealing with as a faith community are real and have serious implications for the future of both our Church and nation. But one of the unspoken contracts we accept as Americans is that if we want to live in a society where we can worship and believe as we wish, we also accept the responsibility to figure out how to live along-side those who worship and believe differently.

One might reflect on the words of Dr. Mark Roberts, Senior Advisor and Theologian in Residence at Foundations for Laity Renewal in San Antonio (don’t bother reading this if you don’t think Presbyterians count) –

“…in times of conflict we must stand solidly upon Scripture because God’s ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the world’s ways. When we’re in the midst of some church battle, we’re tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat our opponents. We spin like we’re in the middle of a dirty political campaign. We rally the troops. We get out the vote. We defend ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges, and so forth and so on. It will feel natural to us to use the world’s ways to win church battles, and, as we do, the world around us will cheer. But rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). “

There is no easy way through the conflicts that people of conscience must deal with. But name-calling and finger-pointing are the tools of children.

As Catholic Christians we are called to act as we see the Truth; we should never turn away from our message and our beliefs. But our message will never be received by those who we consider as little more than objects of derision.

If the Church’s history is of any value here, then we should explore the tactics of the apostles who experienced the challenge of introducing the Good News to a world accustomed to a much different sense of morality and beliefs. Those real founders led by example and by a message of joy and hope. There is little evidence that the apostles won the day by by belittling and passing judgment.

*********

Coda….

I am writing this as we approach Memorial Day – when we stop to remember the sacrifices made by men and women who, from Lexington to Fallujah, gave the “last full measure” to their country’s service.

So, for one brief moment, let’s play a game of pretend.

Let’s pretend we are Catholics and Americans. And for one moment, all those brave men and women who died for our precious rights of freedom of speech, separation of church and state, etc… get to watch what we are doing here and now –  in our modern media that emphasize talking (but no listening), and new forms of expression covering everything from Facebook tirades to insulting ‘twits’.

Let’s pretend we can look into the eyes of each family member who lost someone in battle, sacrificing countless futures, raising families that would forever be incomplete, and children whose parents survive only in the form of memories and photos; let’s pretend we we get the opportunity to show them what their sacrifices were for.

Let’s pretend we Catholics, after we are finished verbally assaulting those who disagree with us, and after we’re done pretending that today’s disagreements are on-par with the Auschwitz death camp and the Kolyma Gulag, we look into the eyes of those who have gone before us, those who really know the meaning of life and death struggles, and we tell them…

“Thank you for making our behavior possible.”

We can be better than who we are.


References and supporting sites:

http://fratres.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/video-podcastfull-text-of-bishop-jenkys-homily-comparing-obama-to-hitler-and-stalin-4-14-12/

http://www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/4435_52.htm

http://www.ndsmcobserver.com/viewpoint/why-i-signed-the-letter-1.2863970#.T8LTD2zFR_k

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/gods-guidance-for-christians-in-conflict/