Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sex, Marriage, and Consensual Relationships

“Sex either build’s up or tears down marriage and the family.” This statement of my ethics professor really put a lot of things into perspective as I navigated the foundations for sexual morality. Many times in my ministry I have been approached by this question concerning premarital sex. “Why is it wrong?” “We love each other, so why can’t I express my love through sexual intimacy?” Understanding this perennial teaching is difficult to express when so many of the fundamentals have been called into question in our society. It can often be like explaining the nature of color to a blind man.

So, let’s start with some basics. The following are two sets of words that express the same action.

1.     rape, voyeurism, porn, breeding, impregnating
2.     Conjugal Love, sexual intimacy, consummation, conceiving life, intercourse

 In terms of biology and mechanics, these actions are the same. On the level of meaning and morality they are completely different. One set of words expresses a dehumanization, a violation of the sacred, and the other set of words expresses something wholesome and life giving.  

Now, most in our secular society would agree with that statement; that there is a difference between sexual assault and sexual intimacy. They might say something like, “as long as there is consent” and there is truth to that statement. It must be a consensual relationship. However, there are degrees of consent. The consent to give away a million dollars is not the same type of consent as giving permission to receive a hug. So the epicenter of the debate is not whether sex has a human or moral quality about it or whether or not consent (covenant) is required but the nature and gravity of that consent.

Christian sexual ethics has always held that this consent must be a mutual, exclusive, and a lifelong commitment ratified by the community; a covenantal relationship we call marriage. It affirms that the same type of consensual agreement that you might have with a masseuse is not morally sufficient for the sexual act. To engage in sexual intimacy for anything less that the marital covenant is to devalue it, to treat it in a flippant manner.

There are several reasons for this.

The first, most straight forward reason is wrapped up in the most primordial and profound of covenants; the indissoluble covenant that is forged at conception between mother and child. “Woman, behold your child, Child, behold your mother.” From the moment of conception this child is her child and this woman is the child’s mother, with all the moral responsibilities that come with that. In conceiving a child the mother places her health, her future, and her very life on the line. Therefore, the marriage covenant mirrors that natural covenantal relationship of parent and child. Because it mirrors the relationship between parent and child, the commitment between sexual partners should be of the same gravity /involvement. This is reflected in the Genesis statement that “He leaves his mother and Father and clings to his wife.” The love between man and woman is meant to be of the same level as the relationship between parent and child.    Therefore, in marriage the woman turns to her man and requires of him an unconditional covenant, witnessed by the community, binding him to her and vice versa. The community is present because bringing forth the next generation is the most basic focus of the human communities’ striving. The protection of the mother and child, the integrity of the family, is central to all social efforts.

In light of this; open, extramarital sexual activity are only really possible within a contraceptive culture; which is basically an artificial culture. It is not how it was supposed to be. It is a culture buoyed by dependencies and presents a sexuality that can be simply used as a passing pleasure. Sex marketed as a temporary arrangement has a hard time turning around and demanding unconditional commitment.

Some have argued that some sexual encounters can simply be casual, while others can be permanent; that it all depends on what you agree upon. Just as long as you are careful and communicate well. Once again, morality is about meaning and value. If you place sex on the same level as a back rub how can it be an expression of the unconditional love of marriage. If it is something that I do not give away lightly, that I treat seriously, then the action is affirmed as an act of self-donation.

It is also related to the nature of love and the fulfillment of the human person. Love, in its highest expression, is faithful, sacrificial, and unconditional. As John Paul II stated, the purpose of human striving is to make of ourselves a gift to the other. That is what we work towards throughout our lives. In our homes we teach our children to direct their basic impulses so that they can be presentable in society and be of service to the ones they love. We potty train them, teach them how to dress, teach them how to be polite, to work hard, and to be generous. All of these things are contrary to their basic urges, all of them take time and discipline; and it is exactly in that striving and sacrifice that we become gift. The same is true of the virtue of chastity. Chastity, modesty, and covenant are the “wrappings,” the boundaries, which sets sexuality aside as the gift of self. Chastity is a statement that I will not indulge in sexual relationship unless it is good for my partner, my family, and the institution of marriage

The formative, preparatory nature of chastity in relation to lifelong commitment to marriage is also an important point. I often tell couples preparing for marriage that the two best preparations for marriage are the living of chastity and praying together. A couple who has rooted itself in an intimacy that is deeper than sexual intimacy and who have developed the maturity to sit together in the vulnerability of prayer and silence will be better disposed to persevere through many other demands in their married life. Included in this is the fact that at various times in married life chastity is demanded of couples; business trips, military deployments, health issues, impotence, psychological issues. Sometimes these demands place on the couple a lifelong commitment to chastity and thus call the couple to live their marriage covenant in a heroic manner. These situations become a profound expressions of true love and illustrate that chastity can be a more profound expression of love that sexual intimacy, that sex only becomes an expression of love in light of a willingness to live the virtue of chastity. This living of chastity before marriage also allows other forms of intimacy to mature between the couple; a space to go deeper and develop other ways of expressing love. By postponing the psychological bonds that are created through sex they are able to discern their path with greater clarity.

Cohabitating before marriage is also a statement against marriage; that the couple does not consider the community’s ratification of their union to be of much value. Since the nature of sex and marriage mean so little before marriage; what does that say about the respect a couple will have for the obligations of marriage after they exchange vows? From the very start they are already disparaged their vows.

Sex is a language, an expression of meaning. To be an expression of love it has to be expressed within a certain parameters, set apart, made a sacred gift. In the Christian tradition the sexual act is the sacred sign, the ratification of the covenant that they expressed in words. To take it outside of the parameters of chastity and covenant is to treat it irreverently; as you would defame any other sacred sign. Thus, sex outside of marriage is sacrilege, a grave disregard for marriage.

However, while the Christian tradition has always called the human community to elevate sexuality to be a truly human act, an expression of unconditional love, it has no illusions about the frailty of human tendencies. That is why it keeps offering the challenge while at the same time extending encouragement and mercy. It is less concerned about finding fault then in assisting in an ongoing growth in virtue. It should also be remembered that, while these violations, these acts of sacrilege, are not to be treated lightly; they are also not to be treated as the gravest of transgressions. These sins should not to be exaggerated, especially in light of our weakness to self-indulgence. All of humanity is a work in progress and in need of forgiveness.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Black-White and Gray All Over; Navigating Degrees

One of the challenges to maturity is learning how to navigate levels of gradation; degrees, hierarchy. This is both true on a larger social and philosophical level and on the level of individuals. For example, relativism states that everything is relative, subjective; while the dogmatist states that there is right and there is wrong and everything in between is muddying the issue. The mature individual realizes that both are absolute statements, both are true, but need to be applied properly; that the objective is always in a relationship with the subjective, and vice versa. The same can be applied to the distinction between the materialist/evolutionist who states that everything is matter in motion, simply taking on different shapes and the fundamentalist creationist who states that God must directly create and that scripture passages must be accepted verbatim or everything is lost. The mature soul recognizes that matter is not sufficient to explain the universe nor is a cooperation of Divine and the material a negation of the Spiritual. The list of examples could go on; Capitalist vs Communism, Monarchy vs Democracy, Isolationists vs Cooperation, identity vs relationship. Navigating degrees is an important part of maturity and dialogue.

Degrees require a hierarchy, a real sense of what is most important. Hierarchy is the foundation of all morality because in morality we are ordering values and goods. Everything is good, as Genesis tells us, but each thing in its proper place. Beginning with this first premise that everything (EVERYTHING!) is good then we realize that it is never all or nothing on any issue. Each side has a value, a good, that they wish to safe guard, protect from violation. The art is in negotiating a proper hierarchy where the various goods are properly recognized and protected without neglecting, violating, other goods and values that are important. When someone approaches me from a pro-choice position, a pro-abortion position, they are seeking the goods of personal freedom, personal health, etc. . . .  A pro-life advocate emphasizes the protection of life and family. Both are legitimate goods that need to be resolved, both parties need to be heard. Abortion does not do justice to life, but that does not invalidate the goods that the pro-choice movement is passionate about.  It is impossible for anyone to desire evil, because evil is not a thing. They only desire goods in an ordered or disordered way. That is why all our passions and desires lead back to God, who is the good in se (in self). “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St. Augustine).

Holding in tension the objective/ideal and the subjective reality of individuals is crucial. We always want to uphold the objective law while realizing that an individual culpability is often at varying levels. While negating human freedom through excuses is dehumanizing and removing a higher vision for them demoralizing; so is presuming knowledge of the conscience’s sanctuary and the crushing weight of the letter of the law. There must be a recognition that, while the .

In achieving this balance some individuals are too permissive. They negate the goal for keeping the status quo. Others are too critical. They see everything as life or death, they struggle with hierarchy. Sometimes these individuals scrupulous, struggle with mortal and venial sins, and see everything in black or white parameters. This is often the situation with people who have anger issues. Everything is a big deal, everything is either complete loss or complete triumph. Like wound up springs the smallest violation can set them off, often a result of being immersed in a very critical and demanding environment. Learning to “Seek first the Kingdom of God” is critical to every individual’s spiritual maturation.
This is why Catholic theology is always “both-and.” One God, three person; Human and divine; Divine will and Human freedom; Justice and mercy; Grace and human cooperation; Freedom and responsibility; the good of spouse and procreation: all of these themes reflect the one paradox that is at the heart of all that is sacred and true; the mystery of the cooperation between the one and the many, the universal and the particular, the creator and the created. It’s not a puzzle to be solved, it’s a reality to be reverence and experienced in all its beauty.  

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.