Saturday, November 22, 2014

Who Made These Baptismal Gowns!?

Personal Pet peeves; beware, over exaggerated rant about to follow (but hopefully it will lead to something constructive)

So, you are a company that makes and sells Baptismal gowns for infants; gowns designated for this one special event, this one specific rite. It won’t be used ever again, it is custom designed for that event.  Now, would it not be right to presume that the person who designs Baptismal garments has a working knowledge of the Baptismal Rite, that they have read the rite and seen it celebrated? You would think that they would know about the various anointings  and prayers? Remember, this vestment is intentionally designed for this one purpose.

So why would you design a gown like this:
 or this
 or this

If you know that the baby will be anointed on the chest?

Why would design a gown for Baptism that forces a priest to do something like this:

Every time I do a Baptism the parents and I end up trying to undo knots and buttons just so that we can pull the front the vestment down just so that I can barely dab the chest with the oil of Catechumens. Last time the baby had a one's underneath which made it literally impossible.   

Sometime I wonder if I even got any oil on the infant at all.

Adapting  a phrase from Mc Dundie; “That’s not an anointing, THIS is an anointing!”

Here we see in this image an anointing of the baby in the Eastern Rite Church. In the Eastern Rite they strip the Baby down, the priest holds the him/her, and oil is placed in the God Mother’s hands so that she can cover their entire body with the oil of Catechumens. THE ENTIRE BODY! Not a faint smear that leaves everyone wondering why the priest was touching the baby’s chest.

This however, leads me to a related pet peeve; the minimalist approach of some priests, faithful, and the Roman rite in general with regard to the symbols of the sacraments. I mean, the way that some priests use the oils of anointing makes one think that we are in olive oil shortage, or that we are so impoverished that we can’t afford olive oil. I mean, shouldn't anointing look more like this:

And it’s not only with regard to oil but also to water. In Baptism we barely get them wet and no one does immersions any more. When we come into the Church we remind ourselves of our Baptism by "dabbing" ourselves with water. I wonder if it would not be more significant with we did something like this:

WAKE UP! you're a Christian!Aren't we supposed to be reminding ourselves of our Baptism; that profound promise we made to God to radically turn away from sin and strive for virtue? I think sometimes we're just a little too reserved with regard to these things.

No wonder the latest theme I keep hearing from the faithful is “we just want a simple ceremony.” Just a simple Baptism, wedding, funeral, ect. . . Have we forgotten how to celebrate? Have we forgotten how to waste time with God and with others? Always in a hurry, always trying to get in and out.

To be fair, there is always a need to be balanced; to remember that the “size of the symbol” does not affect the efficacy of the sacrament; that God’s grace is present whether it is a dab of oil or three gallons of olive oil. However, it should be proportionate to our means and resources. A minimalist approach to the sacraments can also be an expression of our minimalist approach to God, where we have raised the priority of efficiency over the value of being lavish in our response God. The length of the celebration should not be overly burdensome which means it needs to be thought out and the people of God forewarned and instructed concerning the meaning of the symbols. Inconvenience, however, should never be the overriding determination.   

And please; whoever is buying, selling, and making those Baptismal garments; please go back to the drawing board.

End of rant.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

There Are No Private Sacraments!

There Are No Private Sacraments

It has become a cultural phenomenon in the reception of the Sacraments to make them a private, personal event. This perspective on the sacraments is especially visible in the reception of Baptisms, Matrimony, and Funerals. As a Church we hardly ever gather for these central and pivotal events of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some people go several years without witnessing the Rite of Baptism or Anointing of the Sick; which leads to awkward lack of familiarity when they do attend. These events are personal acts of covenant between God, the individual, and the community and so often the community is only present by delegation (i.e. the priest).  While this “minimum” is sufficient for the efficacy of the sacrament, it is hardly ideal; it is definitely not what was intended.

To be fair, the creation of this minimalist culture is not the fault of any one party. In the past Baptisms were simply not allowed as part of the Sunday liturgy, the practice of concelebration was not permitted and so priests celebrated their own “private” Masses, while anointing of the sick was reserved for death bed situations and so were done in the privacy of the home or hospital. People went to daily Masses, but were hardly ever encouraged to attend Baptisms, funerals, or weddings. While smaller, village communities might all show up for such events; our larger, metropolitan communities tend to make very little effort. Thus, they have tended to be merely family events, not events for the Parish community.

This is especially evident in a growing tendency of couples to ask for permission for a wedding at their home, the ball room, or some outdoor location like the beach. Without a proper understanding of the nature of the sacraments, and only knowing what they have experienced in the secular world, they are quite startled when their request is denied by the Church. Why will the Church not allow me to have a wedding on the beach? Why will the Church not allow me to have “my wedding” outside of the physical church?

Place matters; where we celebrate something is a sacred part of expressing the significance of an event. The presidential inauguration ceremony is done at the capitol building, not at the local McDonald's; the Thanksgiving meal is ideally celebrated at the home and not at a local restaurant; and the Texas Fighting Aggies play on Kyle field, and not the marching field. Where an event is held is just as significant a statement about the meaning of the event as persons, clothing, words, reactions, and documents.

The most ideal place for all the sacraments is in the church surrounded by the community. This is what the Church documents, in so many ways have been expressing to us. No one asks the Bishop to come to their home to administer Confirmation (unless they are dying) or asks the priest to come over to their home to celebrate the Sunday Mass because it would be a more intimate setting for them. Ordinations do not occur in small chapels but somewhere that facilitate the attendance of many participants. Yes there are exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions are always for a just cause (emergency Baptism, Communion to the home bound, administering sacraments to the dying in the hospital, etc. . . .).  In the same way weddings are ideally done in the church, before the community, as a public event and only by exception should the vows be exchanged in a different location. This, however, should not be some rule that the bureaucratic Church imposes on couples, but the fullest expression of the Marriage covenant and something the couple would want for their wedding day.

This topic however, includes far more that simply where weddings are celebrated. As I stated above, all the sacraments are enhanced when done in a sacred space. Here are some concrete examples of what communal celebration of the sacraments might look like:

  • The participation in weddings and funerals should have precedence over daily Mass. This might mean that:
    • The parish could announce when funerals and weddings are occurring and encourage parishioners to attend.
    • Weddings and funerals could be celebrated during times when the community can join; even during daily Mass times. I would even be in favor of the occasional wedding at a Sunday Mass. 
    • That it be presented as an act of charity, support, and ministry.
  • That the Church be the preferred place for confession; but more importantly, that all those preparing for confession should see themselves as praying for each other and the one in the confessional.
  • Upcoming Baptisms should be announced and people should be invited to attend.
  • Baptisms during Mass should also be something done from time to time.
  • The rite of the Anointing of the Sick should be done, when possible, in a Church, with a community present, even during Mass.

Are there not ways that we can reimagine the way that we celebrate the liturgy; reconnecting the sacramental signs with persons, places, and community? It is true that the sacraments act, give grace, independent of their context; but the context and expression by which they are given is also important because the externals express our readiness to receive and honors what is sacred. How can we all work towards facilitating a celebration of the sacraments as events that involves all the people of God?  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Transsexuality, Bisexuality; Androgynousness and Feminism

Transsexuality, bisexuality; androgynousness and feminism

As a priest you get all sorts of requests; often put on the spot by some interesting questions. However, when you are walking to your office the last thing you expect is for a young woman to approach you and ask to talk to you about gender identity; about her interest in surgical sex change procedures. When a soul finds the courage come out of her comfort zone and talk to you about such a sensitive subject you had better have time for them, and I was more than happy to listen to her and address her questions. Our interaction was polite, she was very respectful and very honest in her questions, and I sought to clarify some misunderstanding that she had. In the end I am not sure that I dissuaded her from her course of action, but I know that she left with greater clarity. For my part the encounter set my mind on a whole series of reflections, a seeking for a better way to address some of the challenging issues in our society.
Why do we care, what are we trying to protect? Are these simply oppressive rule for the sake of power, dominance; a type of pharisaic manipulation? Are we just locked in the past, brutally pinning people to their beds of pain, impeding them from “being themselves?” I knew that these notions were false; but I felt I needed to get to the core of it all, and the question that kept coming back to me, “What value are we trying to protect?”

When we talk about morality we are always talking about value, the dignity of something. When we say “do not kill” we are protecting the value and intrinsic dignity of human life; when we are say, “do not steal” we are protecting the value of personal property. When talking about morality we always have to ask ourselves, “What are we protecting?” or otherwise laws simply become rules for their own sake, disconnected from their purpose.  So, as the Church keeps finding itself at odds with societies latest fads; and its laws appearing to be merely “rules for the sake of rules,” one has to ask itself, what is this value are we trying to protect?

As I kept asking myself that question I a single word, a single ideal stepped forward; gender, what is the value of gender?

Reductionist approaches to reality are always at the root of all disordered activity. For example, materialism reduces everything to matter in motion which, in the end, gives us no reason to treat a human being any different than kicking a rock. Evolutionists reduced human beings to animals which led to eugenics; other philosophies have reduced the value of human being to their level of productivity, like some forms of capitalism and communism. Circumstantialism reduces the truth from a value in itself to something based on results. Here the list could go on; relativism, isolationism, ect. . . all of these distort human nature in some way or another by emphasizing one element or another.

Now gender; our masculinity and femininity, our bisexual nature, has a value; it is a good of its own right. It is something that is intrinsic to who I am; it is not something that I can take on or off. It is not something that I decide, just as I do not decide that I am human or who my parents will be. To make war on our gender, on the value of gender, or the other gender is to make war on ourselves. However, reductionist views on gender seek to make it something that is external to ourselves, something that is imposed on us by society, even a prison that limits us. Motherhood and fatherhood are stripped of their intrinsic value and reduced to a series of tasks to be performed; tasks that can be interchanged at will, even replaced by other institutions, the other gender, or even by science and technology. There is no intrinsic link between feminism and masculinity and motherhood or Fatherhood; children can be raised by anyone or anything without the loss of anything valuable.

This reductionist approach to gender suddenly connects a whole series of modern issues:             

Contraceptives, Abortion (the devaluing of the uniquely feminine quality of bringing forth life; the making of females to be like males)

The crisis of masculine identity

The devaluing of Modesty (modesty is just a social construct, we do not need to pay respect to the differences between the genders and the way they relate)

The issue of Male only priesthood (the reduction of the priesthood to a series of tasks to be performed and not a sacramental manifestation of Christ’s presence.)

Same sex marriage (because there is nothing unique in the relationship between man and woman)

Same sex adoption (because motherhood and fatherhood has no special importance)

In vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers (the reduction of masculinity, femininity, and reproduction to sexual organs that can be manipulated to achieve any end that is desired)

Ultimately, surgical gender modification

In the end, a whole host of social issues stem from this one discussion; “How do we safe guard the inherent value of gender?” Innately we know this to be true, no matter how much we may deny it. We know that only women can be mothers, that only men can be fathers, that only the union of the two genders can bring forth life. We know that, no matter how many surgeries a woman cannot become a man and a man cannot become a woman; that this reality is etched into their very chromosomes. We cannot deny this reality; there is not simply “humanness” to which our gender is somehow artificially plastered on; something we can take on and off as we please. We are male and female, and being one or the other, with all the implication involved with that reality, should not make us any less human than the other.

This ultimately brings us to feminism and its unique manifestation in modern times. To be clear, this is not an anti-feminism rant. Women had, and still have, social justice issues that need to be addressed. We still see arbitrary education restrictions in many parts of the world, lack of paid maternal leave, the sex slave trade and pornography industry, and the list goes on. All of these things and many more, are important causes that feminism advocates for and against. As with many movements, though, some branches of feminism began to no longer preach feminism but a very subtle type of androgynous view of humanity. Not only were the limitations put on their gender by society a burden to them, but even the limits inherent to their nature were impediments. This is ultimately where certain elements of feminist philosophy connected with the transgender movements. Our bisexual nature was an artificial limit, even at times oppressive. The human person’s fullest expression was in living in the freedom of being asexual.

Asserting the rights of woman as fellow human beings; as fellow companions and not as second class citizens, has been one of the corner stones of this movement. At times the ultimate expression of this vision has been translated into “whatever men can do woman can do” which ultimately makes masculinity the standard of human dignity. The real question should be “what is the fullest expression of womanhood?”  Feminism is about respecting and celebrating what is unique to being a woman while challenging and discerning about what has artificially limited them. The irony of that statement is the fact that the feminine cannot be understood without understanding what is unique to masculinity and vice versa. Masculinity, that foe of feminism, is its only path to self-understanding. The differences between the sexes is not something to be feared, the limitations to each are not to be removed, but something to be embraced as a source of identity.

Ultimately the only way that woman can be truly liberated, treated humanely, is for men to be men, in the true sense of that term. In that sense the feminist movement morphs into a bisexual movement because defining who a woman is necessitates defining who a man is and vice versa. They are complementary realities, they fulfill each other, explain each other. In this light feminism is opposed both to misogyny and androgyny.        


Friday, August 29, 2014

Antisocial Catholics

Antisocial Catholics

The other day I celebrated a wedding for my Brother. It was a modest, yet beautiful celebration. Before the celebration got started I went up to the Altar and started putting things in order. In usual, Catholic tradition fashion, I worked in silence, not initiating any conversations with those coming in the pews. Having finished my work I genuflected and went back to the preparation area in the back of the church. A few minutes later my Grandmother, a non-Catholic, comes to the back of the church a little upset and gently admonishes me for not greeting her and generally feeling a little ignored by her grandson. I listened to her, gave her a hug, and told her that I was a little preoccupied by the details of the wedding, and reassured her that it wasn’t anything personal. She left reassured and the uncomfortable incident passed, but I started thinking about this clash of expectations and why the silence of Catholic Churches is often perceived as “unwelcoming.”

Our Protestant brothers seem to be really good at welcoming. While one protestant Church is not the same as another, and I do not have a whole lot of experience hanging around protestant Churches, I think it is general safe to say that they treat their Churches like meeting halls, places of community. They come in, they say hi to each other, talk about how their week has been, and generally have greater social interaction in the Church space. When those who are of a protestant persuasion come to a Catholic Church they can be put off, even offended, by our silence in this sacred space.

However, this clash of expectations is not merely a Protestant vs Catholic phenomenon. Even within the Catholic Church there are some who preach that the Church is a place of “Community,” the “Ekklesia” the place of gathering. We need to be getting out of our pews and bonding, getting to know each other. They resist the cold, formalism of the Roman Liturgy. This view of the Church as a “meeting place” often runs up against the tradition of the Church as a “sacred space” to which due reverence is owed; this reverence which is shown by silence.
These two perspectives, the source of endless debate, are not at odds with each other. While silence can be a way of avoidance, so can social interaction. Silence is not opposed to community but, in its healthy form, it is a sign of a mature community. A true friend is one with whom you can sit in silence with and not need to say anything.

This was my own personal experience living in a religious, monastic style, community. As you and your brothers practiced the discipline of silence in the house there was an ever greater bond of fraternity. No felt pressure to come up with conversation, a greater freedom to reflect and pray, and times of conversation had greater meaning. Our mutual fidelity to times and places of silence was the greatest gift we could give to each other.
However, silence as an expression of community, of intimacy, is the fruit of a mature community, a community that has already entered into a relationship with each other; that has already entered into a sort of commitment with each other. This is ultimately where some of the disparity shows itself.
In the early Church the event of Baptism and Confirmation was a necessary prerequisite for being part of the Divine Liturgy. They referred to the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s Supper as the “Mystery” and unless you had made a “covenant” with God and the community through the rites of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist) you could not attend the Mass. Thus the celebration of the Christian liturgy was never meant to be the place of “getting to know each other,” it is not designed to be a means of evangelization This was the celebration of a community that had come to know each other, committed to grow in holiness with each other, and thus, when they came together for liturgy they entered into silence with each other.

The Liturgy was also an organized place of prayer. Anyone who has gone to a football game knows the power of group participation and uniformity in action. The witness value of a group of people acting in unison has the capacity to build up the whole. It also is a tremendous act of humility, self-denial, and cooperation.
In light of this are two main points that I want to make.

First; properly speaking community building, evangelization, and outreach belong outside of the Sacred Liturgy. In the recent years, out of necessity, and imitating protestant models, we’ve been monkey rigging our Liturgies to be more “Welcoming” with words of welcome before Mass, special announcements, welcoming new parishioners, etc. . . . In a sense, we’ve been trying to make the liturgy do what it was never designed to do which tends to make both the work of welcoming and the work of liturgy to be ineffective.  This is not to condemn these actions, we have to do what we have to do, but it is important to understand the whole before you meddle with the parts. The Sacred Liturgy is an advanced form of prayer, the fruit of a committed Christian community. It presumes that you are initiated and have been properly catechized into the mysteries of the Faith. It does not explain itself and it makes no excuses for the demands it places on individuals. It’s designed for a community that has moved beyond the warm and fussies and is ready to get down to business.

Second; this work of welcoming, outreach, socialization needs to happen, it is an essential part of the Church’s life. It is not a decoration. The act of “hanging out” before and after Mass is an essential part of a healthy Christian life. Parties, meals, gathering, ministries, working together in some form of social outreach or evangelization are part of the preparation for and fruit of the Liturgy. If our only interaction with the Church is Mass on Sunday then we are failing to live our faith life and we are failing our fellow Christians. If we have not immersed ourselves into Christian living, suffered and worked alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will never understand what the Mass is about.

In the past the Church has done rather well with building community and evangelization. In our modern times, with greater mobility and general individualism, community and family have suffered. Without the frame work of a Christian community the individual Christian cannot hope to persevere in the Faith. The Christian will always be called to live in a way contrary to the world and the world will never give them any support with regard to fidelity. However, if we keep treating the Mass as the primary means of integrating individuals into the community we are placing on that frame work a burden it was never meant to carry.   

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Suicide is Selfish; but that’s not the Whole Story

Suicide is Selfish; but that’s not the Whole Story

Another tabloid driven topic; I feel a little gullible for following the pack, but sometimes these sorts of events help open up interest in a very important topic. Robin Williams, may you rest in peace and may the angels take you into paradise.

Through my quick perusal of the latest opinion pieces written on this topic I have run into two extremes. One side wants to blame suicide on depression (which is a safe way to go) and a minority group wants to emphasize its immoral nature (which often seems heartless and judgmental – the ultimate modern crime-). Both are often misguided.
Caution; please follow this discussion to its conclusion.  

Suicide is selfish; it is the ultimate rejection of the entire human community, a statement that nothing in all of creation has value any more. It is not a solution that anyone should advocate for; it is always a loss, a sadness. It shackles those who are left with grief, self-reproach, and guilt. It is objectively evil, disordered, contrary to human nature, contrary to all of humanity.

That is its objective morality; it is not a path to human fulfillment, it does not raise up the human family, it is something that we should work to prevent. It is not something we celebrate; it should not be one more option on our list of things to do (like ritual suicide). Our worth should never be determined by some finite threshold which, once we have crossed, gives us permission to end it all.

Suicide is an objective moral evil of the gravest nature.

But this is not the end of the story.

Every moral action has two parts; the objective and the subjective.
The objective is the law; expressing the fullness of human nature. It states that these actions lead to the greatest expressions of human maturity, virtue, and these other actions do not. Do not kill, love your neighbor, do not violate the marriage covenant, etc . . . It is the external forum.

The subjective is the realm of the conscience, the place where the individual makes a moral decision. It is the place of guilt and personal responsibility. It answers the question, “is this person guilty of the crime condemned by the objective moral law?” It also asks the question, “to what degree was a person free to act?”

In our lives we are surrounded by coercion of various degrees. We cannot escape some level of manipulation. Some manipulation, such as alcohol, can so impair us as to eliminate our freedom. While a drunk driver may be guilty of getting drunk, he is not guilty of murdering the person he hit on the road. Others, such as force of habit, can impair our freedom and mitigate our guilt. In the case of suicide the impairing influence is often clinical depression.

Now several things need to be noted here.

First, many people, in an attempt to deal with the scandal of suicide, state that this person had no choice in the matter. Depression so overwhelmed them that they had no freedom to act in a conscientious way. In this they may be right, and I am sure that the psychologists can give me a whole series of studies and facts all of which help us understand what is going on. But we must be careful to realize that taking away a person’s freedom is dehumanizing as well. To reduce us to merely a puppet of chemical impulses, while comforting in its ability to handle the evil; is degrading and makes us into mere animals following urges. It is also very presumptuous of science to state that they have concluded, without a doubt, that a person with clinical depression has no human freedom. To this, I ask, “With what scientific device were you able to read a person’s freedom in a particular moment?”

In terms of judging the internal forum, the subjective nature of a moral action, there is only one judge that can truly determine a person’s guilt or innocence; the eternal Father. Even the individual himself may not fully know his guilt. Nobody can judge the conscience except God alone. When a human court makes a judgment it is making a best estimation for the sake of protecting the common good; it should never presume to make a judgment of the person’s true guilt. Even the Church cannot declare that they know someone is guilty of a grave sin or not. This would be the sin of presumption.

So, what shall we say about this tragic reality of depression related suicide.  First, their judgment is in the hands of God and there is no one that can presume that they know what that verdict will be. Whatever happens in that mystery of God’s presence will be fair, just, and loving. Second, we have no reason to doubt what science tells us about clinical depression, and thus there is good cause to believe that the individual’s freedom was impaired and their guilt substantially mitigated. To what degree God only knows.

For myself, I often like to think of people who died through suicide as soldiers who lost the battle, casualties on the field. These are individuals who have been fighting the enemy that we are all familiar with on some level; loneliness, self-hate, depression. In a moment of weakness they found themselves in a corner and fought the enemy but for various reasons they were overwhelmed, and while there were a number of things that they “could have done” they, for some reason, made the decision that took their life. Even if a soldier should flee the battle, be insubordinate, or succumb to fear; if he dies on the field of battle you bury him with honors and leave the judgment to God. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Active Participation; “Who is ministering to Whom?” a homily

Active Participation; “Who is ministering to Whom?” a homily

The other day I went to the dentist; something I do every 5000 years to assuage my fears that my teeth are not falling out of my head. My infrequency is also because I have always had good teeth, in spite of the fact that I don’t do anything special to keep them that way, and also because of the fact that I keep moving every 2 years. This time, though, I finally made it to the dentist chair and I was struck by a series of similarities between the work of the Dentist and my own ministry. First, there was the confession; in the form of a long medical survey. It even had really personal, behavior questions like “do you bite your nails.” Then there was the all-important question, “when was your last Dentist appointment?” (Just like in Confession!). I grimaced inside and prepared myself for the rebuke as I replied “4 years, maybe.” However, the Dentist was very pastoral, no earful of reprimands, he just said, “Don’t worry, we've seen worse,” and then he proceeded to sign me up for a 6 month reminder program (definitely similar to what I would have done in my parish; signed them up into the system). Then he took all sorts of pictures and x-rays of my teeth before sitting down with me to explain all that was happening with them. He did a great job of bringing it down to my level; but every once in a while he would start using language that would go straight over my head, which immediately reminded me of what I sometimes do in homilies. At the end of the dentist appointment I felt that had received the service that I had come for, that I had been ministered to, and I gathered my things and walked out the door.

Done, finished, one more thing marked off my list, off to my next destination. It was then that it hit me. While this work of the dentist was similar to my own ministry in some respects; it was different in a very profound way. As I reflected on this I suddenly realized that, in so many ways, we as a Church keep using the “dentist” model for ministry and our life in the Church. This all led me to one fundamental question, “Who is ministering to whom?”

I think most people, when they come into the church for Mass associate ministry with the encouragement, prayers, and sacramental signs that they are being given to them by the priest. Coupled with the priest’s ministry is the choir, the lectures, ushers, etc. . . They are receiving ministry from all these people and they hope to come out of the Church renewed and if they didn't get what they came for they are disappointed. This way of thinking is not only limited to the laity, but I would venture to say that it is a systematic attitude that even priests fall into. The laity is here to be ministered to, so let’s minister to them. In all of this there is a paralyzing passivity that stifles the spiritual life.

Does the lay person realize that he/she is ministering to the priest? Do priest realize that they are being ministered to by the laity? Do the people in the pews realize that they are ministering to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and vice versa? Do we realize that there is not one person in the Church who’s activity or inactivity is not helping or hindering the flourishing of the entire celebration, the entire life of the Church?

Perhaps a hypothetical would help to put what I am saying into greater focus. If there were no priests in the state of Texas and our churches were torn down (for whatever reason), would the lay faithful still gather on Sunday? Would they find some open field and come together for prayer, worship? Would they still catechize their children, either in their homes or as a group? Would they come together and encourage each other in the living of the faith, in their growth in virtue? Would they follow the example of the early Japanese Christian community who, for decades, gathered together for prayer and catechesis, encouraging each other in living the Christian life; or would that be it? No more priests to hound us, so no more gathering together, no more need for prayer.
Putting aside, for now, the discussion about the great significance of the ministerial priesthood (which I am in no way arguing against), have we not, with all the other ministries, programs, and outreaches,  sometimes built a crutch that the laity can use to abrogate their work?

A few days ago a few of us were hanging around the office talking about how we were going to help our Parish grow, how we were going to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and religious life, how we were going to pass on to our children a real enthusiasm for the faith. There were many great ideals; this program, that program, this speaker, that speaker. One individual was very animated by the possibilities of having a Catholic school. All was very nice, and there is nothing wrong with ministries and programs, and we need those sorts of resources. However, I think we are in need of something more basic.

H This brings us to a great error concerning ministry and what it’s supposed to look like. When we think of ministries we think of people doing active things; the altar servers, the Eucharistic ministers, the ushers, the choir, etc. . . All of these things are legitimate ways of doing ministry; but I think we have to get down to something more fundamental, that it’s far simpler than we imagined. So I came up with this short list, which is in no way meant to be exhaustive, of concrete ways in which to exercise this ministry; to move from a passive participant to an active minister in the liturgy.

First on my short list:

Come Early, Stay late.
It’s that simple. When I was at the Catholic Student Center at A&M University it was always inspiring to see half the community stay and pray after Mass. This action, above all, manifested the faith of the community and attracted many others to the Church. Every year this Church receives 30, 40, or 50 individuals into the Catholic Church, a testament to the power of this sign of witness.  

But showing up ahead of time and staying even after Mass has ended isn't something we do just for the community; but it is a matter of life and death for our spiritual life. The last 5 minutes after Communion will either make or break our personal spiritual life. As soon as the restlessness starts building in our hearts to run out the door is exactly the moment when our Lord wants to take us to another level.


Fidelity to Sunday Mass.
Related to number one; if every Catholic showed up at Sunday Mass with fidelity it would change the world.


Adult Faith Formation.
If we want our children to be inspired by the faith we cherish we have to show them that we are receiving formation just like they are. If we are taking our faith formation seriously they will take their formation seriously as well.

And my personal favorite:

No more sticks in the mud, especially you men! Nothing is more demoralizing, than a bunch of Catholic men, with their arms folded, and not a note coming out of their mouths, just starring at the wall. On the other hand nothing is more up lifting, removes the burden of our neighbor, than a church that is vibrant with Song.
In the Church we should sing as we sing in the shower (although not in a way that is annoying). We should sing as people facing death.

A 1964 movie called Zulu chronicled the true story of a British out post in South Africa that held out against a Zulu army in 1879. Outnumbered, the regiment of 150 held out over 2 days against the onslaught of 4000 warriors. In the movie, the last assault is preceded by this chant of the Zulu psyching themselves up and trying to demoralize the British troops. The camera pans out to the British troops; frightened, disheartened, exhausted. At this moment one of the sergeants breaks out in song. Soon the whole brigade is singing and the mood changes immediately. Their fear is lifted, they are encouraged, renewed, and the obstacles to the spirit are removed.
Or we could take the example of the Carmelite sisters of Compiegne who were executed for their faith during the French Revolution. As they approached the guillotine they chanted the Veni Creator Spiritus until the last one fell silent in death.

How many of those in the pews are surrounded by enemies; guilt, doubt, depression, fear, temptations, addictions. Nothing is better than a singing community to drive away the enemy. And yes, it is a psychological effect, but the spirit and the body are not separate realities, they are two dimensions of the same person and one effects the other.
If a community wants to change itself it needs to start singing!

Other ideals:

Sit in the Front.
That old Catholic tradition, sitting in the back. Why break tradition? Well it’s not a universal tradition for starts. When I was went to an African American Catholic Parish in Central Texas (Washington on the Brazos) everyone sat in the front. I thought I had come to the wrong place; and it was so up lifting.

I know; I also like to come into the quiet Church, sit in the back, create space from everyone else, and pray in private way, and if that is helpful for you then continue to do so as a preparation. But moving up to the front as the time for Mass approaches has a number of benefits.

First, it is a visible sign of participation. Often times, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, the reason we sit in the back is because we don’t want to commit ourselves all the way, we want to have distance in our involvement in the celebration of the Mass, in our connection with the community. We want to stand apart from everyone else because it is safer that way. On the other hand, standing in the front means we are not ashamed of who we are as Catholics, followers of Christ, and we are not ashamed of standing shoulder to shoulder with our companions in Christ.

Second, like the first, it is an act of humility, to be with the group, and thus an excellent way of growing in virtue and grace. It says good bye to the old ways of living ones faith life as a spectator.

Third, it creates space in the back. We all want the Church to grow and flourish, and we want those who are visiting the Church, or whose participation in the Church is inconsistent, to feel welcomed. What could be more inviting then to find the back row available for them to sit and not have to look around to the front? And what is a greater witness to them than to see all the people right up front, actively participating?

Park away from the front of the Church
We want to invite new members; we want to minister to the wayward. Allowing them to find easy access parking, especially on days like Ash Wednesday, is such an easy way to create that inviting space.

With that I’ll stop, because I could literally keep going (Tithing, automatic transfer, going to Confession with a contentious awareness of others, dressing modestly and respectfully, etc. . .) but this is a good short list to start with. They are simple things, and yet they have the power to transform us and the Christian community. We don’t need to be Bible thumpers on the corner or keep coming up with something new and exciting. We just need to live our Christian life with awareness that we are all ministering to each other through our simple, but effective, participation.

Thank you, therefore, for ministering to me.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Moral Legitimacy of Artificial means of Birth Control; a different approach

The Moral Legitimacy of Artificial means of Birth Control; a different approach

          The discussion around artificial birth control and their moral legitimacy has been so bogged down by crossed messages, demonization, and poor communication that it is difficult any more to have a decent, respectful conversation on the matter. In certain crowds, even mentioning that there might be something deficient in with the “pill” will win you jeers or down right anger, as if you had personally assaulted them. 

  Contributing to this is the fact that there is lack of clarity concerning why one would find a moral problem with this issue. Many polemics on the topic focus on the periphery, secondary effects of the devices i.e. their ineffectiveness, the danger they pose to family structure, the danger to health. While perhaps helpful in supporting the argument, these types of discussions often simply get reduced to a war of survey results and the latest studies, which are always easily dismissed by either party on the grounds that the method was “prejudicial.” The truth is that society can often function for a long time, even prosper, while cultivating in itself distorted understands of human nature (slavery, torture, genocide, public executions, gladiatorial shows, etc. . .), so trying to discuss the morality of ABC on the grounds of its effects on society will be a steep climb, on both sides of the issue.
Is it possible to cut through all of this and articulate the fundamental flaws inherent to the use of ABC? In terms of removing the defensiveness, the labeling; that is a larger discussion, a process that will require humility and dialogue from both sides. Having a clear and convincing articulation of why ABC is immoral, however, could only aid this process as well. In order to do that we need to step back and look at the big picture, to name the basic elements involved.
So, why is ABC used? Let’s face it, having children and raising them is exhausting on so many levels. Yes, there are rewards; smiling faces, pudgy cheeks, the reward of seeing them grow up; but when a woman brings forth life into the world she is putting everything on the line; her body, her future, career, and possibly her life and health. This is no small undertaking; children and the obligations that they impose on us, no matter how willingly undertaken, can bleed us dry. We like children, we love our mothers and fathers, but we don’t want to be bled dry, taken advantage of, having child rearing seemingly forced upon us. In the end it’s about regulating resources, putting control on the demands placed upon us. The situation is similar to the demands that might be placed on me here at the Church when someone comes to me asking for assistance or money. While it is encouraging and rewarding when I help someone in need, and I want to help someone in need, I do need a means to regulate this process in order to be a proper steward of the resources that I have been given.
From a wider perspective, regulating the demands of raising children isn’t limited to the question of when or if a couple is going to bring forth life; but it is an issue that is addressed throughout the process of raising children.    When do we say yes to our children, when do we say no, what time is “our time,” “what time is their time?” Not being selfish but not being imprudent. Seeing it from this perspective the question is not simply “birth control” but the bigger issue of managing the needs of the family responsibly.
Often in the discussion on ABC the fear is that those who are morally opposed to it are taking away from the couple, and in a very particular way, the woman, the ability to regulate those demands. It might be synonymous with denying a woman the right to feed her child when they are crying, or discipline a child when they are unruly; as if the woman is supposed to simply suffer with it. If ever such notions were ever put forward they would be patently misguided. Not only should a couple be allowed to regulate child birth, and all the demands of raising children, but they have a moral imperative to do so. They must prudently assess their resources, their capacity to care for children, while at the same time being brutally honest about the motives for having children or not having children. This is part of being a responsible parent.
So, in this regard, both proponents and opponents of ABC should be in agreement; we are working towards the same goal. No one should want couples to be overwhelmed by too many children; no one should want teenage pregnancies, no one should want woman to have pregnancy imposed on them. So, what is in dispute is not the end but the means for obtaining those ends.
Going back to the big picture we can easily see that there are legitimate and illegitimate means of dealing with the demands of raising children. Tying the children up and putting them in a closet is normally not a legitimate way of satisfying the need to have private, personal time. In that category we can include beating a child, neglecting a child, enslaving a child. All of these means will handle the “problem” but obviously we responsibly call CPS whenever we see such activity.
So, is ABC a morally legitimate way of dealing with the demands of raising children? Relating that question to the complete picture of managing the demands of raising children the question can be asked, “Would it be legitimate for us to use a drug to remove the healthy, normal demands of a child from the picture?” Obviously, in certain situations where there is a legitimate psychological problem, such as ADHD, we might use drugs to control behavior; but even then a good parent would try to move away from the drugs, to try and address the problem with natural methods, if possible. But let us say that the FDA approved a drug, with no side effects, that would make your child compliant, or simply put them out cold when you didn't want them around. I think we would have trouble with that approach; that there is something fundamentally flawed with that sort of “band aid” approach to the challenging situation. It would be a denial of the child to be a part of the family, to be a child. It would stifle communication and would cover up issues that need to be addressed. I think we can all agree that it would be healthier to talk with the child, reprove them for their action, and teach them how to behave better. As a similar example, a crying baby is not taken out of the master bed room and left in the living room to cry without supervision. We get up, make sure the child is Ok, and either satisfy the child’s wants or responsibly let the child cry itself to sleep. In a similar way, our sexual passion, our reproductive passion, is the child crying to get its own way, to come into being. We do not deal responsibly with crying babies by removing them from the picture so that we can enjoy each other’s company without being disturbed. On the contrary, we enter into discernment about whether or not to satisfy the demands of our passions or learn how to discipline them.
Perhaps it might also be helpful to see this in terms of  a “places where a child belongs.” A child belongs in a family, in the home. If a couple got married, bought a nice house, and then decided, “We’ll have children but they won’t live in our house,” there would be a serious disconnect there. It would be even more bizarre if the government came forward and said, “If you don’t want children in your house we will provide free housing for them in an orphanage since we know how hard it is for you to have children in your home.” In a similar way the sexual act is a space that should include the possibility of children, not intentionally excluded. It’s not simply a pleasant place to be enjoyed but it should be a place that is fulfilled when children come forth from it. ABC, like the example of the house, makes bringing children into the world an optional part of the sexual act, a decoration, even an inconvenience, and not something intimately connected to it.
But what about natural family planning (NFP), is it not an exclusion of children from the home? It can be; NFP, like many other legitimate activities, can be used in a selfish way. There are many “healthy ways” of raising children that can be abused, such as too many treats or prizes. The difference between NFP and Artificial forms of family planning is that it respects that nature of the sexual act. One might think of it as the difference between lying and saying nothing. Once again we have an example of different means, same ends. In NFP the procreative aspect of sex is not intentionally excluded but is acknowledge and either acted upon or not acted upon; just as you might responsibly affirm or deny the request of a son or daughter as opposed to denying them their proper place. In this way sex, family, procreation, and the relationship of couples are all kept inter related.

         Isn’t this all apples and oranges though? Do we really want to equate contraceptives with child abuse? The very point of contraception is that there is no child present; no child to be abused in an un healthy situation. How can you compare a situation with a present child with one where no child is present? Getting caught up in whether or not ABC is the same as child abuse is missing the point of the discussion. It’s the similarities that we want to point to; direct likeness is a different discussion. What is true is that ABC is the active removal of children from the place where they belong; the use of drugs (or other devices) to avoid the hassle of discipline. The same wild and crazy passions that we find in children, which we must direct and be patient with, are directly related to the same crazy passions that brought them into the world. Dealing with those passions by removing responsibility is never healthy; it never leads to total human flourishing.
Mixed with all of this, however, is a certain modern notion that chastity is unnatural, that practicing abstinence is simply contrary to our nature. On the contrary, we simply have to take a preview of a handful of examples to see how unbalanced that perspective is. A few months ago I was told the story of a man who, because his wife had Alzheimer’s, was intending to get married to another woman because his wife was no fun. Obviously there is something very distorted in that selfish attitude. There are many couples who will never have marital relations again because of illness, disease, psychological problems. Let us also not forget couples who are separated because of incarceration or military deployment. From here the list could go on; chastity due to child bearing, business trips, ect. . . The truth of the matter is the loving demand for the living of chastity is required of people all the time, it is not something unnatural. In fact, one could say that it is the virtue of chastity that makes the sexual act a human act, a conscious and loving act that we choose, or do not choose, to enter into for the good of the spouse, the family, and the community. ABC creates the culture of sex without responsibility, an unbalanced dependency on sex for a healthy marital relationship. The nature of love and the marriage vows does not say “until you are can no longer give me good sex” but rather requires, “until death do us part,” which at some point is going to have to involve the living out of chastity. The periodic abstinence of NFP helps keep sex related to the whole picture and not simply the personal pleasure of the couple without relationship to the larger picture of family and society.