Thursday, August 27, 2015

Over Population

What is a Christian response to over population?

According to general census data we are currently hovering at 7 billion people; a population that could comfortably fit in the land mass of Alaska. The general trend is that developing countries are expanding in population and wealthy countries are decreasing in population. As the Western, Northern Hemisphere, societies continue to fall short of “replacement levels” one wonders if these cultures will just melt away. On the other hand, as populations continue to grow in the Southern Hemisphere; there are fears of wars over limited resources and immigration problems.

How real and immediate are these fears? It sort of depends on who you talk to. Is it really about distribution of resources or have we really reached a global limit of resources? Are our resources really that limited or is it more a question of how we are managing them?  If everyone could fit in “Alaska” then truly that must mean that we have vast tracks of land that are available for agriculture and resources?

I am sure some really smart people have done the math on both sides of this question; and it would be really interesting to look at the data. However, here are somethings that we can all agree on. The resources of the Earth are finite and only so many people can be sustained on its surface. Whether we calculate that it can sustain 10’s of billions of people or only a few billion more, there is still a limit.

But even deeper, the question arises; do we need to stretch the outer limit of this bubble? Do we really need to keep populating the earth until we all live in small, high-tech modulars, sustained on algae biscuits like the Borg? Is that really the height of human flourishing? Yeah, we could stream line the production processes of the world to a dictatorial, clockwork bureaucracy so that we can keep everyone alive; but is that what we want to do?

In Pope Francis’ recent letter Lauda Si he touches on the need to be mindful of the environment and populations density. He also mentioned that Catholics do not have to “breed like rabbits” and that we should practice responsible parenting. All of this raises a whole list of questions. Is it responsible for us to have children? Children are good, and having a large family is a beautiful thing, but maybe it is really a bad thing? Shouldn’t we, when discerning our actions, consider the needs of our neighbor and the world? If we have children, how many should we have?

I would argue the answer is yes to all these points; which may not be very helpful if we are looking for a straight forward answer.

In the past there has always been a simple solution to overpopulation; War, Famine, pestilence; death and violence. When your population got too big you just invaded the other and killed off the inhabitants. It was a rather efficient system.

However, now we’re civilized, we have contraception and infanticide. Instead of violence we have medicine; which in reality is just one big stopgap measure for the real work of human maturing; both as individuals and as a society. Like the invention of nuclear weapons, it uses technology to keep the peace but without addressing the issues.  Eventually these selfish tendencies manifest in other ways.  As Hollywood keeps predicting, humanity may, once again, use war and violence to solve the population crises.

There is however a different way; a way that Christianity has been preaching for a long time. It is the way of discernment and virtue.

This different way of living one’s life was expressed by Paul in the 7th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. In it he talks at length about some principles of discerning marriage and the single life. While the context of the discussion is the felt immediacy of Christ’s second coming; the principles he enumerates are universal. First of all, he calls on us to be attentive to the “times” the circumstances, in which one lives. He then calls on us to consider our own strengths and qualities when discerning whether one should be married or not. In other words, our vocation should be discerned through the eyes of both our desires and qualities and the needs of the world. As Paul continues to speak in this passage he walks a thin line between adjuring the Christians not to seek marriage for the sake of the Gospel but not saying that marriage is bad. In the end, what he wants them to do is to be discerning individuals who have their hands on the pulse of the Church and the world and out of that awareness make a decision.

Therefore, a cornerstone of the Christian revolution is that getting married and having children should not be a default position. That one’s success in life is not based on fecundity. This was revolutionary, in a special way for women, in the ancient world. In a way, Christianity was the beginning of feminism.  Chastity and celibacy was no longer a failure to launch but a vocation that all Christians should consider. The needs of the world are great, come and give your life so that others can live. “Come follow me, and I will make you fisher of men.”

Is this possible? In the 1940’s 12 million American citizens, mostly men, left their homes, their wives and girlfriends, and embraced a life of obedience and simplicity for the sake of the common good. They put aside many of their dreams and ambitions for the sake of the urgent needs of the world. This event was World War II, and, as we know, many did not come back. The call to live poverty, chastity, and obedience for the common good is something that has been asked of others even in the greater society.

Throughout history the Church has held out the vocation of embracing poverty, chastity and obedience in order to attend to spiritual and material good of the greater human community. In light of the freedom of the Gospel message marriage becomes a vocation, a manner of giving one’s life, not a necessary means of dealing with loneliness. Furthermore, part of the work of the Church has always been to supply a frame work of community life and support for those who take on the single vocation. 
So, am I proposing that a great portion of the world embrace celibacy and, there you have it, world population solved?  They just all go and become priest, monks, and nuns and we balance everything out.

Let’s not over simplify the paths of Christian discernment.

First of all, consecrating your whole life to God and the needs of the world doesn’t need to be limited to priesthood and religious life. The Peace core, foreign missions, social services, doctors who can serve low income people, even serving in the military are all a myriad of ways in which a single individual, who has great freedom for generous service, could give their life for others.

Second, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. Generously giving the first years of ones adult life in service to others and to God is a completely legitimate way to live the Christian life. There is no requirement to be married at 20 or 22. Giving yourself generously to service and programs of education and formation is an excellent way to discern ones vocation, grow in virtue, and perhaps meet someone who has the same aspiration for virtue as you do. Already, in modern societies, people are waiting until they are older to get married, and thus, naturally having fewer children. What is being rejected is foregoing marriage so that you can sleep around, indulge in the selfish pleasures of being a bachelor, and avoiding commitment.

Third, we need to stop thinking of the single life as a failure. On the other hand, I think it should be a natural thing for all Christians to consider it as a possibility for themselves.  It is a legitimate vocation that the world needs. These are people who have no dependents who have the freedom and availability to do great things for others.

In this vision marriage and having children should never spring up from desperation. Our happiness should not depend on when or if we can marry. When an individual has this freedom of heart they are able to demand a high standard for their future spouse. Having accepted the possibility of living a generous life for others; a Christian entering into marriage has the maturity to embrace the cross of the married life. This attitude also enables the couple to embrace both the possibility of being infertile (and thus the possibility of opening their house to the orphaned) and to the possibility of being blessed with great fecundity (because embracing marriage and sex means they have embraced the risks of having children and all that it entails).  

How might we summarize this third way; this Christian response to the pressures of population growth? First, Christians embracing the priesthood, religious life, and single life should be a common phenomenon that we should celebrate. Those who embrace the single life with the intent of generous self-giving need the support of a community; which is what the Church was meant to be. Second, there is nothing wrong with dedicating the first years of your adult life to ministry, formation, and education. Spend a few years in the missions, live a few years in a religious community, join the peace core or the armed forces; allow yourself to be formed so that if you enter marriage you will have a firm foundation. Third, your happiness should never be dependent on marriage and children. These are modes of self-giving not desperate requirements. The greater our freedom of heart the more likely we will discern well. Fourth, marriage should be open to life. If we choose to have only three by nature; we should seriously consider the possibility of opening our doors to adoption, according to our means. Marriage should never be a place where we rest, where we stop the work of discernment through artificial barriers; where we simply silence the invitation to greater generosity.

In the end, Christians were already addressing the fundamental issues of overpopulation before it even became a fad. Using overpopulation as a validation for artificial contraceptives is to give up on inviting others to the work of discernment and virtue. It is dehumanizing. On the contrary, the Christian world view sees over population as a positive thing. It means that we can go beyond surviving as a species and attend to the work charity and the spiritual goods with greater freedom.   


Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Wedding Dress and the Transfiguration

Thanks to my vocation I attend more weddings than most people. They are always joyous occasions. 

Recently though, I have been thinking about the connection between the Wedding ceremony and death. 

Yes, that’s right, death.

Father, you’re so morbid.

Stay with me here while I unpack this.

There is the dying to self, the total commitment that will last until “death do us part.” The binding covenant that will at times be like the nails of the cross binding us to the cross by which we are transformed into Christ. There is the leaving of the old life and coming into a new way of relating.

However, my reflection is mainly about the nature of the wedding ceremony itself.

In the wedding ceremony, the bride puts on her white garment. This is her Baptismal garment which her parents often received in her name. On the day of her baptism the minister gave her parents a white garment and said, “See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity, may you bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” (The Rite of Baptism for Children)

So, she puts on her baptismal garment, and in doing so she is putting on Christ. In Baptism we were washed in the Blood of the Lamb and our dignity restored. Therefore, when the bride enters the church and the people stand they stand out of reverence to Christ whom the bride has put on. “Through him, and with him, and in him, all Glory and honor is yours.” (The Roman Missal)

Then the Bride enters the Church. This is the moment of death; that is, the doors represent the gates of heaven. She is entering into the Heavenly Kingdom; she is leaving behind her old life. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Galations 2:20
She walks up the aisle to meet her Lord, her beloved, her anointed one, the Christ. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and laid down his life for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) She lays down her life for the one who lays down his life for her.

And so she walks into the Kingdom where the whole communion of saints are waiting to receive her; where the angels and saints stand in waiting as brides maids and grooms men. Thus, she enters into the eternal nuptial “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her Husband.” Revelations 21:2

This is the meaning of the wedding ceremony. In fact, not only is it the meaning of the wedding ceremony; but all the Liturgy is meant to speak of this entrance into eternal life; of the life of heaven. It is meant to take us away from the mundane things of this world and help us reflect on life with God.

However, this is where we connect with the story of the Transfiguration. In that story, Christ’s dignity is revealed through a white garment “whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them,”(Mark 9:3) and the apostles want to remain in the light of this glory; but it is only a passing revelation to prepare them for the cross to come. The only way to come into the heavenly Kingdom, into God’s presence, is through death, the cross, dying to self “for no one can see my face and live.” Exodus 33:20

The liturgy, the wedding, is like the Transfiguration. The ceremony helps us to see ourselves as God sees us, with all the dignity that Christ restored in us. “Bring out the finest robes and put them on him.” (Luke 15:22)But, when we leave this ceremony the vision passes, we are left with its memory, and we start to live in the world “as though not living in the world.” (I Corinthians 7:31) The wedding ceremony and the honey moon passes. The bride puts aside her white garment which she will not wear again until she wears it anew “in the heavenly Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29)

They must go through the cross in order to

enter into the resurrection, the real nuptial that the wedding ceremony only prefigured.

What does this mean for one preparing for marriage?

First of all, the covenant of marriage is built upon your covenant with the Church that was made at Baptism, affirmed in Confirmation, and renewed each time you receive Communion and Reconciliation. Marriage is a covenant between the spouses and the Church. If the relationship between the couple and the Church is not solid; then the covenant will be built on weak supports. If they are not living their Baptismal commitments, then this white garment will be an empty show.

With this in mind, the couple preparing for marriage should intensify their relationship with Christ and his Church. They should intensify their use of the sacraments, their commitment to prayer. They should pray together, become active members in the Church; increase their works of charity and self-denial.

Here are some concrete examples of how a couple might put this into practice.

-         -  Attend a spiritual retreat before marriage. Not just the retreat require by the marriage preparation program; but a time apart for silent prayer and direction.

-          - Intensify your use of the sacrament of reconciliation: monthly, bi-monthly, even perhaps weekly.  Attending this sacrament the day before your wedding (at that wedding rehearsal) would be a beautiful way to prepare for the big day. You can also encourage your bridal party to do the same.

-          - Attend daily Mass during your engagement.

-         -  Pray a novena before the big day.

-         -  Take on a faith formation program.

-          - Increase your charitable giving.

-          - Dedicate yourself a regular scheduled Holy Hour with you and your fiancĂ©.

All of these are great ways to prayerfully prepare for your wedding day; to make it a real spiritual discernment.

As for that white dress; what if on that happy day the bride took that dress in hand and kissed it, as we kiss the cross on Good Friday, as the priest kissed his vestments before he put them on, and with her maiden companions renewed her baptismal promises, signing herself with holy water. Then her dress would be a prayer; something that, through the years, would remind  her of Christ and her heavenly home.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sin, Same Sex Attraction, and The Homosexual Relationship.

What is sin?

Sin means, “To miss the mark.” It is the English word used to translate the Greek word “amartia” which was often used in archery. It means immature, less than, incomplete, not what it should have been.

Therefore, sin refers to a whole host of things we do not normally ascribe to it. For example, blindness is a sin, the inability to walk is a sin, being delusional is a sin, being abnormally short is a sin, etc. . . In short, any sadness, anything that “should be,” or “ought to be” is a sin.

Yes, I just called blindness a sin. It is a deficiency, something valuable is lacking. I have just validated their loss and their sadness; that sight is worth safe guarding, maintaining. To not call it a sin would be dismissive, the same as saying “it doesn’t matter."

This illustrates where many people go wrong when they talk about sin. There is an important difference between sin and being guilty of sin; between recognizing that something is not as it should be and assigning guilt for that deficiency. To be blind is a sin, but a blind person is not a sinner unless they intentionally showed complete contempt for the gift of sight and poked out their eyes (a very rare situation). In terms of guilt; sometimes no one is guilty, often times guilt is shared by multiple parties, sometimes guilt is mitigated by extenuating factors; but in the end there is something of value that was lost and we need to honor it.

This distinction between defect and guilt is referred to as objective and subjective sin. Objective sin refers to the actual defect. Subjective sin refers to guilt and responsibility. They are two very different questions.

Therefore, to state that something is “unnatural” or “sinful” should never be taken as an assignment of guilt. No one can make a definitive statement on the guilt of a person, not even the person who has committed the act. That is between them and their conscience. I can, however, make a statement about whether or not this or that activity is characteristic of total human flourishing.

For our discussion, it is important to note that a defect is a defect even if it can’t be fixed. Just because certain forms of blindness can’t be cured does not mean that sight is of no importance. Sight is a thing of great value, we try to avoid losing it and help those who have lost it to regain it. Just because we can’t always fix it doesn’t mean it’s not important. 

It is also important to affirm that one’s humanity is not lost because there is a deficiency, a disorder; even if someone is guilty of that sin.They should always be treated with dignity and respect. 

In this category of “missing the mark” we can also talk about different behaviors and relationships that are disordered. For example, a grown man who thinks he is a dog or that he is 5 years old has a disordered self-awareness. A person who relates to everyone around them with suspicion and fear has a disordered relationship with others and so does a slave master relationship.  A mother who treats her son as a girl has a disordered relationship as well as a husband and spouse in an abusive relationship.

Note that these relationships are disordered even if they are consenting. It is not right for one person to treat another person as a piece of property, even if it is consensual  (such as in a case of Stockholm syndrome). The solution to that particular situation may involve a certain gradualism; but we should not promote it as an alternative life style or a different type of normal. We should be working to bring that relationship up to a mature level and help to deter those types of relationships from forming.

All of these relationships involve distorting the truth about the other. Instead of a human being you are a piece of property, instead of a boy you are a girl, instead of a fellow coworker and spouse you are my subordinate, and so on. . .

It is only by this understanding of sin can we talk about the sinfulness of same sex attraction and homosexual relationships.

The first thing to say is that to have same sex attraction itself does not imply any guilt. There should be no shame or prejudice against those who have this inclination. They are no more a sinner than someone who is inclined to over eating, or any other disordered desire we possess. Objectively it is a sin (like blindness), but we are not guilty of anything until we freely indulge in it. This is the important distinction between the Homosexual act and same sex attraction. We have all sorts of immature inclination that we wrestle with in our lives; but we are only guilty if we indulge in them. On the other hand, those who have formed their inclinations are those we call virtuous.

The Homosexual act is a sin for several reasons.

First, it is a relationship that, while often consensual, distorts the truth about the other. A man who is treating another man as a woman or a woman who is treating another woman as a man is encouraging each other in a mutual self-deception. They are encouraging each other in their falsehood. A mature and loving relationship recognizes the distortion and refrains from the activity. They recognize that their perception of reality is distorted, and recognizing this distortion, they avoid encouraging and normalizing it.  

 Men and women are complimentary, their relationship is unique. Men and women only understand themselves in reference to the other. The relationship between a man and a man can never be the same as the relationship between a man and woman and trying to make it the same is not wholesome.  

On the same note, the homosexual relationship is also sinful because it undermines the marital covenant by proposing itself as a valid alternative. Like adulterous relationships or cohabitating relationships; the homosexual relationship relativizes the marital covenant. It simulates marriage, acting like a married couple but without respecting its defining principles, namely, the unique nature of man and wife.  In doing so it divorces procreation and family from marriage and undermines the value of motherhood and fatherhood in the life of children.    

All of this brings us to the high calling of the marriage vocation; a calling that transforms both those who are in marriage and those who are outside of marriage, but only in so far as we do not short cut its parameters and keep to its defining principles. 

It is true, this most likely demands that a person with same sex attraction live chastity in the vocation of a single person, which, for some, seems inhuman. While challenging, This is not a requirement that is particular to them. Many married couples, because of various disorders, show their love to each other through the living of chastity. Single people are called to live chastity. This is not an extra ordinary imposition; we do not need sex to survive and prosper. We need intimacy; we need to love and to share with others, but sex is not a requirement. It even, sometimes, gets in the way of true love and intimacy.

It is also important to emphasize that the homosexual act is no graver than any other violation of the marriage covenant. Adultery, cohabitation, pornography, divorce and remarriage are all disordered ways of living our sexuality. There should be no singling out of homosexual activity. This is especially true when it is obvious that we are dealing with an often ingrained tendency; a very challenging calling. To them we should give much patience as they grow in virtue through their failures and efforts.

It also doesn’t really matter if we can “fix it” or “cure it.”  Some psychologists, because they can’t cure it, have often declared it a normal way of living. Normalizing distorted behavior does not help anyone in the end. We should affirm their humanity, encourage them in their struggles, and meet them where they are at; but normalizing behavior is not a loving option. 

In the end, living virtuously is about elevating and maturing in our relationships; but this can only happen if we are relating in the truth. A homosexual relationship, like many other relationships, needs to mature; which means speaking the truth to each other through chastity. This is not in human or cruel, but is wholesome both for them and the institution of marriage.       

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Carthargo delenda est!

Carthargo delenda est!

Carthage must be destroyed! Said the Roman Senate at the end of the Punic Wars; and it is a phrase that came to mind as we keep seeing these horrific videos from Planned Parenthood.

Carthargo delenda est; we must end this. Peacefully, nonviolently, by every legal means at our disposal; but we must end this.

However, while this insanity must end: we must be consciously aware of what we are saying.

We are accusing every person who has had an abortion, advocated for abortion, or worked in the abortion industry of being complicit in a crime similar to this one that happen in Detroit:

This is what we are saying. Maybe the degree of intentionality and maliciousness is not there, maybe because the people involved where deceived or three levels removed; but this is what we are saying.

Let’s just stop and let that sink in.

We know these people. I know these people. They have sat in front me and wept because of the magnitude of it all. These are our mother and sister; our friends and relatives.

This is the magnitude of the situation for those who spent their lives fighting for this cause. This is the barrier that they have to transverse. How does anyone admit to themselves that sort of truth?

I have been watching Abby Johnson do amazing work for the pro-life cause. I have met her several times. She used to be one of the administrators of the Planned Parenthood facility where I would sometimes pray. The last thing that I would want is that she would be sent to prison. In fact I almost consider her a hero; yet her sin, in content, is no less than this mother in Detroit.

Funny, while I started off with abortion, what we are really talking about is justice and reconciliation. If a man was to kill a child we would demand the full extent of the law; that he would never see the sun light again. That he would be made to pay for what he has done! But then we come to know someone who has done the same, who has converted, and it all appears differently.

Are we about retribution or rehabilitation? What is the purpose of our judicial system, our wars? Are they places of reform or to exact punishment? Yes, we must separate those who are dangerous from the rest of the public; but are many of these people really dangerous? Do we forget that no one can pay for their sins?

Is there any one of us that can stand here without sin? Lately there has been a lot of talk about white privilege and how the past repression has enabled the white man to excel. Now, seemingly, we are going around tearing up monuments.

Is there not one among us standing whose privilege, whose very life, has not been obtained by some injustice in the past. Has not every one of our ancestors, on some level, pushed someone down to get ahead?

Are we not all guilty of this original sin? Is not every grace and virtue, triumph and success been obtained through sometimes horrendous injustice? 

How can we present ourselves before the judge? How can we present our achievements, our first fruits? With what Baptism can we be washed? How can we be reconciled?

But by the grace of God go I.

Are we people of reconciliation; is our system a system of reconciliation?

Planned Parenthood must be destroyed; come let us tear this down together.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Demystifying Science

In the resent news mechanical science has shown us another wonderful sight; the fulfillment of a great curiosity, the bright face of Pluto.

Truly a great marvel, and a great achievement; and I, like everyone else, have enjoyed the view.

However, every once in a while we need to step back and demystify the physical/empirical sciences. While we often look to them as great harbingers of objective truth, a good portion of it is all in the presentation.

Let’s face it; we all got excited over a very big rock (or very small, according to your perspective) circling around a great big fire ball. Empty, lifeless.

I, like many others, love watching all these Discovery channel presentations about the universe with all these high tech CGI animations and cool sound effects with the voice of Neil deGrasse or Steven Hawkings in the background. It’s all very entertaining; transporting you to another world. Every once in a while, though, you just have to step back and realize, “Nice presentation, but it’s all a bunch of lifeless objects floating around in the vast tracks of silent nothingness.” 

In a way, it's all sort of a new astrology, giving lifeless objects charismatic powers.

I feel like I just threw cold water on everything. Death to discovery and wonder! Not exactly were I want that reflection to go. What I do want to point out is that Pluto (or any of these objects) has no mystical quality in itself. What is truly magical is the encounter between the object and the knower (Us!). 

What is the point of the whole of creation if it is not known? Is it not more about us than about Pluto?

The knower, conscious life. Recently there was a story of a certain Seth Farlane who is dedicating 100 million to discover intelligent life on another planet. It’s all good fun; that would be a really cool day when we discover this life from another planet. Hollywood has been giving us this dream, and this night mare, ever since “War of the Worlds.” However, we are all so eager to meet this new life from another planet, but not the guy from the other side of the border. We’re all hoping that this new life from another planet will give us this incredible technology that will “save us,” but we are in dread of the new life coming from the womb because of “over population.” Strange, new creatures already exist here on this planet’s surface but, like the story of Genesis, “he gave them all names but none of them proved to be a suitable partner.”

What does it matter if a man gained the whole universe but lost its very soul?

We far too easily surrender to the empirical sciences more authority than they actually have.

When a pen leaves my desk it falls to the ground. The standard response to “Why does a pen fall to the ground?” is the word “Gravity.” Seemingly, by this great word, Newton enlightened us all. Awe, yes, gravity! Gravity, however, is just a word to describe a phenomenon. Newton measured the phenomenon and the conditions necessary for it to happen, but he did not tell us why it happens. Material science can never tell us why things happen, but we often lose track of that. It comes up with strange mystical names like “Quarks,” “Radium,” “Plasma,” all to describe different bits of moving stuff. Material sciences can only describe and measure what is already; it can never tell us why.

While it is wonderful to behold science as it gives us new gadgets, light shows, and pain killers; science often has the effect of a blender on our experience of reality; reducing everything to ever increasingly smaller pits of stuff. This is because the nature of matter is to be divisible; always in search of another smaller particle to tell us “why?” Instead of simply admiring and knowing the beauty of the apple we stick it in the blender in order to “really” get to know it and we end up with mush.

“Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee.Augustine 

In the absolutism of science we have so often been so enamored by shiny things and big words that we have reduced the entire human experience to impulses, chemicals, and electrical wiring. What will it matter if we find life out there if the life down here is nothing more than a blob of tissue. While so engrossed in the stars above we have so easily forgotten the interior work of virtue, worship, and community. The stars up there are truly empty if the life down here means nothing. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Virtue & Communicating Well

There are many ways to talk about virtues. Classically they have been referred to as habits that dispose us toward goodness. Others have referred to them as the “Golden Mean” and still others, “The Golden Rule;” “Do unto others what you would do to yourself.”

Recently, though, I have been reflecting on how the virtuous life is the capacity to communicate well; to create dialogue.

Everything we do has meaning, communicates something. What I wear, say, do, or don’t do says something to the people around me. Every act of communication involves a relationship between the person speaking and the individuals to whom I am speaking. I may have something very important to say; but unless I show deference to the greater community they will never receive it; it will get lost in translation.

Take for example the virtue of modesty. What we wear communicates something. What it communicates is determined by the culture, but it always communicates something. By immodesty I use the powerful allure of sex to manipulate and by modesty I respect the vulnerability of others.

Another good example is bad language. Bad language is an immature way of expressing our emotions, thoughts, and feelings. It reflects the fact that we haven’t learned how to communicate our thoughts with respect to others.

By prudence I judge when and how to express myself; by humility I always express myself from a place of truth; in Charity give ourselves, express ourselves; by patience we have perseverance in expressing our message without

being distracted by frustration; and the list could go on.

The opposite of communicating in a virtuous way is manipulation. The temptation in our life is always to use manipulation: power, money, coercion, sex, violence, force, fear, etc. . . . to get what I want. The message is always; “this is what gets results; this is the only way to get what we need.” Necessities; always necessities; you are just a slave of impulses and needs, stop trying to be something more. The only truth is power and dependency.

Learning to communicate well is a very fine art; and even the best of us can wonder away from it. We often see this in adolescents who are still learning how to express themselves. They may tattoo their whole face, dress immodestly, use bad words, act out in strange ways. They want to “express themselves,” “be themselves,” “have no limits.” The immaturity in this is that, while they are making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention, they are not communicating their message very well. A man who shows up at a business interview with nose piercings and a mohawk has put barriers between himself and the greater community; he will probably make his employer uncomfortable. This is because in order to communicate well we have to be aware and show deference to how others will receive our actions, how it will be interpreted. Antisocial activity is based on a false notion that culture and community is the enemy of my individualism; that in order to “be myself,” I must be contrary to them. This puts us at war with ourselves and in perpetual frustration because there is never a space where there is an “us without them.”
Therefore, Christian life is about becoming a master of communicating well. Like mastering the art of walking, we are called to move beyond the unbalanced mobility of a toddler to the exceptional art of an acrobat on a tight rope. In our promise to “Reject sin,” “and all its empty promises,” Christians promise to strive always for the heights of virtue; never to be satisfied with just “getting by.”  

It is always a path of discernment. When to speak boldly, when to be quiet, when to act in defense, when to turn the other cheek? Even the best of Christians can error in this regard out of good intentions. Constantly we are called back to the Gospel and to an examination of conscience in our continual growth to be better channels of the message of God’s love.

In the art communicating well there are many things to keep in mind. Here are some to consider.

“Know yourself.” Know your fears, know your biases, know your habits. To be humble is to live in the truth; to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and about others. To acknowledge both our strengths and our weaknesses; to move away from fear of our true self. Humility is not about belittling ourselves or never raising our voice but about realizing that we do have a voice and that this voice still has value even if it is not heard. As we continue to grow in our self-knowledge we also notice that there are many motives for our actions; some that are lofty and some that are base. Humility helps us to accept this reality, reaffirming our desire to act out of sincere motives and ask forgiveness for our less than perfect motives.

Create space for the other. St. Francis is said to have gone out and preached to the birds; which has always been a striking example for me of what it takes to be a nonthreatening presence. Anyone who has ever tried to get a bird to eat out of their hand knows the degree of silence, gentleness, and patience that is required. The Christian needs a heightened capacity to empathize, listen, share, and reflect back to the other. It means they must grow in there comfort with rejection; their capacity to forgive, to welcome back, to respect the sanctuary of the conscience. It is a call to be experts at hospitality.

No one desires evil. It is impossible for anyone to desire evil. Evil is disorder, a disordering of goods, a break in the proper ordering of values. For example, a thief desires money (and with it security, prosperity, and the power that comes with it). These are very noble goods, things that I would want the thief to have; but the thief obtained these goods without regarding the value of human life when he killed the store clerk. In the same way; in any disagreement both sides are seeking to safe guard certain values, goods. A person who is pro-choice is seeking to safe guard the value of a woman’s autonomy, independence, freedom, well-being, etc. These are beautiful values, ones that I am bound in conscience not only to protect but also to be an advocate for. The problem is not in what is desired but the solution that is proposed; which do not properly respect the life of the unborn child. Seen in this way, a mature dialogue is about discoursing about the proper hierarchy of values and that none of the values can be discarded without everything tumbling down. Each side must ask each other, “What keeps you up at night?” “What are you passionate about?” “What are your fears, your worries?” “What are legitimate ways of safe guarding all of these beautiful realities?”

The Socratic method. Socrates, the ancient Greek Philosopher, spoke of himself as a “midwife,” that is, his purpose was to aid the inquirer in bringing forth a conclusion. He did this by asking questions of the other so that together they could “give birth” to the ideal. Socrates’ method is a hard art to master, requiring discipline and maturity among the participants. However, it can be another tool in creating a non-threatening space.

A spirit of self-denial and discipline; self-control. In order to have a mature dialogue both parties must cultivate basic human virtues such as order, discipline, good manners, generosity, honesty, education, detachment from material things, etc. . . Without these things everything turns into a power struggle.

The use of force. In our imperfect world the use of force in legitimate defense of something valuable is sometimes necessary, but its use marks a failure of the whole human community. That somehow along the way virtue failed. Here I am not only speaking about force of arms, but also the force of law, the force of discipline, anything that is simply given as an imposition. Too many times Christians have easily adopted the story of Jesus turning over the tax collectors tables as a call to “stand up for what is right;” but have easily forgotten the warning “Whoever uses the sword dies by the sword,” and the exhortation, “turn the other cheek.” Society needs just laws, children need discipline, we need coaches who will get in our face every once in while so that we can discover our true potential; but such things can become a crutch for authentic Christian witness. We can’t simply impose on people Christian virtue without an authentic witness of its beauty; we can’t simply rely on the force of law to do our work. Anything simply built on “because I said so” will not last.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Altar Girls and Similar Themes

When I was a kid I remember being so disturbed by the introduction of female altar servers that I vocally expressed my dissent to the program director with tears and a refusal to be an altar server if girls were allowed to serve. Yes, I was quite the 4th grade zealot; sincere in my fidelity but lacking in understanding. All I knew is that my parents had told me that female altar servers were against Church teaching and that was enough for me.

Every once in a while I will run into this same attitude toward female altar servers; an attitude I passionately shared, and realize where I was at and where I am now. How eagerly we defended that bulwark. While easily criticized as misogyny, a word that merely casts conservatives as haters; the real root for our passion was our fear concerning independent, undiscerned, change that was happening in the Church, especially in the post conciliar time. We weren't afraid of women but skeptical of change; which is always hard because it places in doubt identity. The work of distinguishing between what is essential and what is extraneous is hard work and we can easily either dismiss what is essential or over rate what is extraneous.

The Church has reaffirmed over and over again that the ordained man is a sacramental sign. The one who stands at table and breaks bread in the memory of Christ must be a man, as Christ was a man. It’s neither a hateful or hurtful statement. The presbyter takes the place of Christ in a unique way in the complete sacramental sign of the man offering bread and wine. The priesthood is therefore not a series of duties to be performed (like the protestant vision of a minister) but a sign in himself (just as motherhood cannot be reduced to a series of tasks to be performed). The Church can no more ordain women than it can use milk for baptism. Yes, it’s that important.

However, just because the masculinity of the minister is essential to the sacramental sign; it doesn't necessarily mean that all aspects that are traditionally assigned to the priest must only be fulfilled by a man. While the fundamental seven sacramental signs are continuous; the context of their celebration has not always been the same, as anyone who has studied liturgy would know.

This, however, should not be interpreted a liturgical relativism. Determining how to celebrate the liturgy is a discernment process, an integrated process. It means being in communion with the entire tradition of liturgy and the mind of the Church; not simply creating something carte blanche.

In this discernment process the Church has seen that the restriction concerning woman altar servers, lectors, and extraordinary ministers was not essential to the celebration. Woman ministers were present in the early liturgies and the Church (Deaconesses, Eucharistic Ministers, etc) and it is right to see these past impediments as cultural strictures.

As this process of change progresses I would be in favor of greater female presence in Church councils and parish leadership; a process that is already happening. Just because the priest is a sacramental sign does not mean that participation in the discernment and defense of the deposit of Faith is a strictly male prerogative. 

In terms of Altar Servers; I think it’s important to realize that they never were “Acolytes” according to the ranking of the minor orders. They are not a preparatory stage for Holy Orders. In reality they are more closely related to the designation of choir members since their primary duty is to respond to the priest. This is why they wear choir robes (Cassock and surplice). They are respondents, singers, assistants. They stood in the place of the community who either could not hear or understand the priest during the Pre-Vatican II liturgy.

Thus, I am a supporter of woman altar servers. I think the more we cling to what is nonessential the more we undermine our credibility when it comes to what is essential. I think that girl altar servers should be encouraged and supported. That being said; there are somethings that I would like to see in the altar server programs in general.

First, I think altar server programs should be demanding and truly formative. Nothing is more uninspiring for a child than a program with low expectations. The more we give them real responsibilities and the formation necessary to fulfill their tasks the more they will take ownership of their identity.

Second, I am generally not in favor of this move to avoid the hassle of child altar servers and replace them with adults. This is simply priests and liturgists being lazy. Altar servers are generally the cream of the crop in terms of the youth and thus there is a golden opportunity to do some in depth formation with children who are invested (an opportunity often underutilized).

Third, while I support female altar servers; I think that some single sex formation has advantages. I don’t know if all the formation needs to be separated, but it does seem advantageous if some of the formation and activities are directed toward one or the other gender. I think it is also good for us to incorporate more female leadership in the altar server program. I also am not opposed to women servers wearing different vestments from their male counterparts; either a different vestment altogether, or a different style of tailoring.

Finally, clergy and religious should be more involved in their formation. Invite the group to the rectory for dinner, go camping, participate in their formation, etc... Altar servers should visit houses of religious formation and be involved in works of ministry. They should be familiar with the life of priests and religious.

In conclusion, I can truly understand the passion with which some have opposed girl altar servers, and the reasons that they have given. In the end it simply not as counter traditional as we have often made it out to be. The Church has blessed it and I think the more we embrace it the more we will be able to give it a wholesome expression instead of treating it as a tolerated rebellion.