Archive for September, 2010


Sloth Management

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

In yesterday’s post I discussed how the vice of sloth is by no means limited to the “couch potato,” but is a widespread problem in our busy, workaholic world. Now I would like to offer a three-point plan for conquering the vice of sloth and replacing it with virtues that will move us in the right direction. [more]

(1) Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.

I recently had the occasion to reread Pope John Paul II’s magnificent 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini, on keeping the Lord’s Day holy. It’s hard to single out “favorites” from among John Paul’s voluminous writings, but surely this meditation on the Lord’s Day will benefit Christians “with ears to hear” for many generations to come. 

I heartily recommend this apostolic letter as spiritual reading. Perhaps we can even give up an hour or so of sports (gasp) this Sunday to soak in some of the Holy Father’s insights as to what Sunday is all about in the first place.

One passage of Dies Domini really struck me: “[The Sabbath is] rooted in the depths of God’s plan. This is why, unlike many other precepts, it is not set within the context of strictly cultic stipulations but within the Decalogue, the ‘ten words’ which represents the very pillars of the moral life inscribed on the human heart” (no. 13).

Sunday Mass is not simply another requirement imposed on us by a Church that’s obsessed with “rules.” Rather, the obligation to remember to keep the day holy is prefigured and rooted in the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, which in turn is rooted in the very act of creation. And by creation I mean both God’s creation of the world, from which He took His rest on the seventh day, and God’s creation of us. This call to worship, to rest from servile labor, to take stock of all that God has given us, is inscribed in who we are, and we are acting against our own good when we fail to remember to keep Sunday holy. As Our Lord noted, the Sabbath is made for man, and not the other way around.

On top of all that, we are commanded to “remember” to keep the day holy, which implies that we might tend to “forget.”

When it comes to tithing our money, assuming that we even make an effort to support the Church financially, we look for the minimum we can get by with. Nobody ever says, “Is it okay to give more than 10 percent?” let alone tries to imitate the widow in the Gospel (Lk. 21:1-4). Instead, we tend to give a mere pittance of what we’re able to give–certainly not enough to affect our overall spending habits. God asks for our first fruits and we give Him our spare change.

In a similar sense, God asks us to tithe our time, to give Him one day per week. Yet, we’ve reduced the Lord’s Day to Sunday Mass, and even then we squawk if it lasts more than 45 minutes. We can’t get out of Church fast enough once we’ve “done our time.”

But as long as we view the Sunday obligation minimally and as a burden, we’re missing the point. While Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our Christian life for the week, the entire Lord’s Day should be set aside for God and family–in other words, for leisure and for freedom from servile labor. Surely there must be some flexibility in application, especially given our diverse, secular culture, but I daresay just as we can probably do a better job of tithing our money, we can do a better job of remembering to observe the Lord’s Day.

(2) Take stock of our schedule.

Time is one of our most valued commodities, and we should spend it in a way that reflects our values and priorities. Getting the Lord’s Day right is the first and most important step, but we still have six other days to order correctly. Faith, family, work, and other pursuits are like ingredients that need to be added at the right time and in the right measure to make a tasty dish. If we don’t take the time to read and follow the recipe, the ingredients won’t come together in the way we’d like.

That’s why it’s so important for individuals, couples, families, and communities to take the time to identify their priorities and commitments and schedule their days and weeks accordingly. For those of us who tend to be lazy “under-achievers,” a schedule will keep us on task to make sure we meet our obligations. For those of us who tend toward workaholism and to be driven by the tyranny of the urgent, a schedule will make sure that we make time for prayer, reading to the kids, or other priorities that might get shoved aside if we’re not vigilant.

(3) Cultivate virtue.

If we’re not actively engaged in cultivating virtue, then our lives will start looking like my lawn. There are some patches of grass, but each day there are also more weeds. Overcoming vice and developing virtue go together, just as it’s not enough to pull weeds without also planting and fertilizing the new grass.

When it comes to sloth, the corresponding virtues are justice, charity, and magnanimity. Sloth is about fulfilling our obligations to God and neighbor, which brings into play the various manifestations of justice. However, the motivation for fulfilling these obligations should be supernatural charity, which moves us out of our small, self-serving world so that we might live for others.

When the spiritual laxity of sloth overtakes us, we are like a football team that has lost its momentum. We are set back on our spiritual heels and feel ill-prepared to do what is necessary to turn the tide. From this perspective, we can see how the “end game” of sloth is despair, as eventually the negative momentum snowballs, and we lose the will to compete. Magnanimity, however, literally means being “great-souled”; it is the virtue that gives us the confidence that we can do all things in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13), that we can truly run so as to win (1 Cor. 9:24).

Each time we act against our disinclination to pray, as well as work into our day habits of prayer (e.g., saying a Hail Mary when we’re stopped in traffic) and sacrifice, we are replacing sloth with virtues that will help us become saints. And it all starts with getting up off the couch and onto our knees.

The foregoing originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of This Rock magazine, published by Catholic Answers.

The Sin of Sloth: What the Couch Potato and the Workaholic Have in Common

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

When many of us think of sloth, we probably conjure up images of an ugly South American animal that eats shoots and actually hangs around. Or maybe we think of unshaven Joe Six-pack lying on the sofa all weekend, not lifting a finger except to open another cold one.

The latter is a fairly apt image of the vice of sloth or its synonyms such as boredom, acedia, and laziness. Boredom refers to a certain emptiness of soul or lack of passion; acedia refers to the sadness that comes from our unwillingness to tackle the difficulties involved in attaining something good; laziness more generally refers to the torpor and idleness of one who is not inclined to exert himself.

Sloth encompasses all these ideas and more. In his Pocket Catholic Dictionary, the late Jesuit Fr. John Hardon defined sloth as “sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. The good work may be a corporal task, such as walking; or a mental exercise, such as writing; or a spiritual duty, such as prayer.”

One might have the impression that sloth is not a typically American sin. The virtues of diligence and industriousness are deeply ingrained in our nation’s Protestant work ethic. Our youth learn early on that the way to get ahead—at least for those who don’t win the lottery—is by working hard. The early bird catches the worm. Early to bed, early to rise. In a competitive, dog-eat-dog business world, everyone is looking for an “edge,” and that typically comes from outworking the competition.

And even apart from an employment context, when we want to communicate that our lives have been normal and healthy, we report that we’ve been “keeping busy.” [more]

Surely the Church has always championed the intrinsic goodness of human work, through which we become “co-creators” with God and exercise legitimate stewardship over creation. In his 1981 encyclical letter on human work (Laborem Exercens), Pope John Paul II writes: “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (no. 9).

Mightier than the Minotaur

Yet sloth is a sin against God, and not against the time clock or productivity. The fact is that it’s possible to work too much, in a way that’s not in keeping with our dignity and ultimate good. The essence of sloth is a failure to fulfill one’s basic duties. Surely one such duty is the human vocation to work. Yet another such duty is the enjoyment of leisure, to take time for worship. The gentleman lying on the sofa may be a more popular image of sloth, but the workaholic, who’s on the job 24-7 and in the process neglects God and family, is the more typical manifestation of sloth in our culture.

Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way:
“In the United States the difficulties are not a Minotaur or dragon—not imprisonment, hard labor, death, government harassment, and censorship—but cupidity, boredom, sloppiness, indifference. Not the acts of a mighty, all-pervading, repressive government, but the failure of a listless public to make use of the freedom that is its birthright” (quoted in William J. Bennett, “Redeeming Our Time,” Imprimis, November 1995).
Work and leisure are both products of human freedom, and both are intimately tied to our ultimate good. Most of us understand and periodically struggle with the natural aversion to work, but why do we find it so difficult to enjoy leisure? Why do we consign ourselves to a joyless workaholism instead of striking a healthy balance in our lives? There are many reasons for this strange phenomenon, but I’d like to point out a few contributing factors that reflect the spiritual malaise of our time.

First, Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical on the Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), identified “the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man” (no. 21). He noted that “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (no. 21). The Holy Father was speaking to us: We in the west have largely lost the sense of God, leading to a loss of our own sense of purpose or mission. This has inexorably led to the societal emptiness and lack of passion that Solzhenitsyn saw so clearly decades ago. A striking correlation exists between the rise of secular atheism and boredom, as the reduction of human existence to the merely material divests it of its intended richness and meaning. This can only lead to the worldly sadness that leads to despair and ultimately death (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The most typical way of dealing with this tragedy is by not dealing with it, so as a society we tend to flock to entertainments. Certainly, these things are not bad in themselves, but excessive recourse to them reveals a flight from the depths of the human condition to the comfort of shallow pastimes. These pursuits are rightly called diversions, because they divert us from facing a life from which the living God has been excluded. For some, these diversions may be sports, television, or the Internet, among other possibilities. For others, work becomes a diversion, an escape. When it does, it ceases to be a manifestation of virtue and instead feeds the vice of sloth.

In addition, modern man tends to define himself by what he does and what he has. Yet, leisure isn’t about producing and owning, but about being—in other words, resting in God’s presence. We often fail to recognize the immense God-given dignity and value we have simply by being who we are, which is prior to anything we might accomplish in life. In Augustinian terms, without allowing for leisure, our hearts are forever restless, and our sense of worth gets tied to what we’re able to produce. This utilitarian mindset not only drives us to overwork, but it also negatively affects how we value others. That’s one reason why our society has such a difficult time valuing the elderly and the infirm in our midst.

Further, as the pursuit of success, acclaim, or riches becomes the source of our personal worth, these human goods in essence take the place of God in our lives. Few of us probably set out to become idolaters, but that’s what we’ve become if our choices and work habits are ordered toward serving mammon, not God (Mt. 6:24; CCC 2113).

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of This Rock magazine, published by Catholic Answers. Tomorrow I will post “part two,” of this article, in which I offer a three-part plan for battling and overcoming the sin of sloth.

Caught Up in the Moment

Friday, September 24th, 2010

While getting some exercise I often get my “sports fix” by watching ESPN”s Sports Center. As I do, sometimes I wonder about how “unreal” it is. I”m not talking here about sports” inflated significance in our culture. After all, in the shopping mall of life, sports is the toy store, or maybe Aunt Annie”s Pretzels–surely not the end-all we make it out to be.

Rather, what I”m getting at is that while I”m watching Sports Center, there is no sporting event going on at all. Rather, we keep moving back and forth from the past (statistics, rankings, scores of previous games, etc.) to the future (upcoming games, fantasy drafts, predictions, etc.). Sure, those things have a place, but it’2012-04-24 18:34:17′s interesting how caught up we can get in the past (What was their record last year?) and future (Will the Chiefs really win the AFC West?), almost to the exclusion of the present.

The same is true in all areas of life. How often do we dwell on past glory or setbacks, or on future worries that may never materialize?  All the while, life happens in real time. And what is real time? It”s the present moment.  And because it”s the only time that”s completely real, it”s where we encounter God, where we receive actual grace, and where we respond in Christ-like fashion to others.  

A litte story from my young adult years will illustrate this point: [more]

I spent a couple wonderful years with a religious community in the 1980s as I was discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood and religious life. One day, they brought in a well-known retreat master to give the two dozen or so seminarians a day of recollection.

The first words of the priest to begin the day of recollection really startled me. He bluntly said, “None of you are called to the priesthood.” I looked around the room at all the postulants and said to myself, “Boy, Father Tom (the community”s vocation director) sures knows how to pick ”em!”

The priest then explained that our vocation is “now,” that we must respond wholeheartedly to the Lord right here, right now by being holy seminarians. In five or six years, God willing, the bishop will lay hands on some of us, and then–and only then–would we truly be called to the priesthood.

As it turned out, I wasn”t one of the men called to become a priest. Yet, this important lesson has always stayed with me as a lay Catholic.

A crucial part of the lesson is to seek eternal life right now. This can be quite challenging given the pace of our daily lives. Not only that, we also tend to think of eternity exclusively as the sequel to this life. In other words, we live our thirty or sixty or ninety years on this earth, and then when we die eternal life begins.

However, eternal life is a present reality. Sure, in this life “eternity” (literally a dimension outside of time) and temporality coexist, while only after we die will we experience eternal life in its fullness without the admixture of time. But make no mistake–there are seeds of eternity in us now. If there weren”t, we”d have no basis for believing that we will continue to experience life–the eternal, “abundant” life (Jn. 10:10)–after we die.

Scripture frequently presents eternal life as a present reality. For example, in John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, to know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.” He doesn”t say, “This will be eternal life….”

The present moment is the junction between time and eternity. The past and the future are not without significance, but they are exclusively temporal realities and thus lack the dynamism of “right here, right now.” God”s grace, which plants and nourishes in us the seeds of eternal life, is encountered in the present moment as we strive to live in God”s presence and accept His sovereignty in our lives.

Scripture does present us the case of St. Dismas, the good thief who converted at the very end of his life so that “this day” he was with the Lord in paradise. However, we can”t presume that when we come to the end of our life that we”ll have the time and proper disposition to accept our Lord”s invitation. That”s a future thing. God speaks to us right here, right now.

We do well, then, to heed the Psalmist”s words, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:2).

Or, as a retreat master once told a bunch of fledgling seminarians, “Vocation is now.”

Padre Pio, Canon Law, and Herod the Tetrarch

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

A few items that may be of interest:

(1) Since today is the feast of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (aka Padre Pio), I thought I would share the remarkable story of Wanda Poltawska (a family friend of the man who would become Pope John Paul II), who was miraculously cured of terminal brain cancer through the intercession of none other than Padre Pio. Back in 1999 we published in Lay Witness magazine a first-person account by Dr. Poltawska of her healing, but tragically the computer files for that issue were lost. However, a few years ago the Catholic Digest published a good account of the incident, which may be accessed here. Enjoy!

(2) I highly recommend the canon law blog of Ed Peters. In his most recent post, he provides some interesting commentary on an address by Bishop Robert Vasa (for my money, one of the finest shepherds we have in the United States) on the role of diocesan bishops vis a vis the national episcopal conference (in our case, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB). He also gives the latest on the “Catholic” Health Association, a topic that is all-too-familiar to Catholic Hour readers. [more]

(3) Today”s Gospel enda with the line, “And he kept trying to see him.” The “him” is Jesus. The “he” is, of all people, Herod the Tetrarch. Herod certainly is not a good man–he notes in passing in this Gospel that he already has killed John the Baptist–but nonetheless even he wants to see Christ.

Way back in 200 A.D. St. Irenaeus said that “the life of man is the vision of God.”  We are made for what is called the beatific vision, in which we will see God face to face. Our Lord said that those who are pure of heart will see God.

Our Lord tells His apostles how blessed they are to see what they see. They were blessed to spend three years on earth with the God-man. The Old Testament prophets and holy men longed to see what they see, but weren”t given that blessing.

While we don”t see Jesus as He walked on earth, and we don”t yet enjoy the beatific vision in heaven which no eye on earth has seen (1 Cor. 2:9), we do have the vision of the Christian faith, which invests every aspect of our lives with supernatural purpose and meaning. And we do “see” Our Lord, who is truly present in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine. We see Him at Mass, and we see Him whenever we spend time praying before Him outside of Mass.

Let us seek the Lord”s face in all that we do today, and let us savor time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

What”s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Social Justice?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Have you seen those Old Spice commercials in which the guy taking the shower is “two things”–part man and part animal? Well, I think the same can be said about social justice. It’s two things, and one of the things is, well, beastly.

On the one hand, social justice is an integral part of Church teaching. It is based on the rights that flow from and safeguard human dignity, and it inclines us to work with others to help make social institutions better serve the common good.

In the section on Christian morality entitled “The Human Community,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes an entire section (nos. 1928-48) specifically to the topic of “social justice.” Similarly, the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which gives a magnificent overview of the wider topic of the Church’s social doctrine, nonetheless draws heavily on the concept of social justice. It provides, for example:

“The Church”s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political, and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions” (no. 210; original emphasis, footnotes omitted).

The Church”s social doctrine is rooted in Scripture and especially draws upon the Church”s social encyclicals of the past hundred or so years, beginning with Pope Leo XIII”s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

But social justice is two things. It’s also a code word used by the political left to push a liberal social agenda coupled with a collectivist economic agenda that walks and talks like socialism. In other words, to appeal to Catholics, especially those who might tilt to the left religiously and politically anyway, some political operatives use Catholic jargon like “social justice” or “common good” or “preferential option for the poor” to manipulate public opinion. But what they mean and what the Church means are, well, two different things.

This is unlike the homosexual activists’ commandeering of the word “gay” a couple decades ago. For the most part, gay is hardly ever used as an adjective meaning “happy” or “lively” or “merry” any more, and even when it is, it’s not confused with the new usage of “gay.” So “gay” has become more like “bark,” which can be either the sound a dog makes or part of a tree. From the context, one can readily figure out what the speaker means.

When it comes to “social justice,” though, ambiguity is the name of the game. The political left understands that compassionate-sounding Catholic language can be used to generate support among Catholics. Yet the political activists are not using the terms in the same way, and most Catholics are too ignorant of the Church’s social doctrine to say boo about it.

So, while ”social justice” is two things (Church teaching and liberal code word), the two things are blended just enough to cause considerable—and largely calculated—confusion. And this ambiguity is also found among some Church leaders in the field of social concerns, who can seem at least as committed to partisan Democratic politics as they are to the Church’s actual social doctrine. Some would go so far as to consider support for President Obama”s radical social agenda as a “proportionate reason” for not supporting a pro-life, pro-family candidate. That’s why many orthodox Catholic leaders, not to mention conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, would like to do away with “social justice” altogether.

How did we get to this point?   

We are living during a crisis of faith. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which reflects the thought and input of the man who would eventually become Pope John Paul II, notes the unprecedented acceptance of systematic atheism and secularism in today’s world. Many people are looking for solutions “right here, right now,” without reference to the divine or to our supernatural end.

Such secularist and materialistic models have in some places corrupted the Church’s social outreach. When this happens, social justice degenerates into myopic political activism. The authentic quest for human development then becomes co-opted by agendas that are completely opposed to Church teaching and the good of the human person, most notably the pro-abortion forces and the “gay rights” movement.

Accordingly, we frequently encounter “peace and justice” Catholics who outright dissent from Church teaching on abortion and other “conservative issues,” or who relativize such teachings to an intolerable degree. Our rejection of such distortions of Church teaching can, unfortunately, lead us to swing the pendulum in the other direction–to our not paying sufficient attention to the social doctrine of the Church.

I can’t say I have all the answers to this problem. I do think that any attempt to sweep “social justice” under the rug would be akin to Martin Luther’s trying to remove the Letter of James. It wouldn”t work. Even more, social justice is a thoroughly Catholic principle that we shouldn’2012-04-24 18:34:20′t be ashamed of and certainly can”t abolish from the Catholic lexicon. For faithful Catholics, social justice is a “home game,” and we should proactively promote what the Church really teaches on the subject. 

So, I think a good place to begin would be for Catholics to start learning, teaching, and eventually applying the authentic social teaching of the Church. A great place to start would be by picking up a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, or by reading it online. The Compendium has many sections, including ones on human dignity, family, work, peace, economics, and politics, all examined in light of official Church teaching, through the lens of God”s love for mankind and the Church”s mission to the world.

Of course, the application of principles in this area can be difficult and even contentious:

–How do just war principles apply to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

–How does the principle of subsidiarity relate to President Obama’s healthcare legislation?

–How does the Church’s teaching on the fundamental dignity of the human person inform the debate on immigration reform?

The list is endless. We might not ever end up agreeing on all these issues, but if we approach them using the same rock-solid Catholics principles, then—and only then—the Church as such can have a meaningful, united voice in the public square. 

Lastly, the “big picture,” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have seen and brilliantly proclaimed on behalf of the Church, transcends the artificial separation of the “pro-life” and “peace and justice” camps that we often find in the Church in America. The contemporary loss of the sense of God has led to a culture of death that is fundamentally violent and unjust. The remedy is found when we turn our gaze upon Christ, the Lord of Life and Prince of Peace.

Social Justice 24-7

Monday, September 20th, 2010

As practicing Catholics we understand the centrality of the Mass as the source and summit of the Christian life. We know the strength that comes from the Eucharist, so we eagerly receive Our Lord every Sunday and perhaps even daily. We also know we are called to “live the Mass,” that our participation in the sacrifice of the Mass should affect everything we do.

In fact, we receive the “bread from heaven” precisely to lead lives worthy of our calling as children of God and heirs of heaven. Mass simply can’t be compartmentalized or separated from the rest of our lives.

Similarly, the Church has repeatedly emphasized in recent years that ecumenism, or the pursuit of Christian unity, is not simply a compartment or appendix of the Christian life–some sort of “extra”–but rather an integral part of her identity and mission.

I think this principle also holds true with social justice issues. It’s great when Catholics dedicate some time to help the poor or visit the sick or minister to the imprisoned. But that’s not enough. Our compassion cannot be compartmentalized either, but rather must inform the way we live even when we’re not at the soup kitchen, the hospital, or the jail.

Fr. Groeschel is right on the mark when he says that something is amiss if our Eucharistic adoration doesn’t commit us to the poor. Just as we must not be “cafeteria Catholics” in picking and choosing which Church teachings we’re going to intellectually accept, we also must not be cafeteria Catholics in picking and choosing which teachings we’re going to allow to transform us.

Underdog”s Church

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I was different from many of my law school classmates in the early 1980s. I had no desire to become rich, nor was I interested in the power and prestige that accompanies a successful law practice. Rather, in my own naïve way, I wanted to help people. Issues such as poverty, injustice, racism, and nuclear arms were what motivated me. I even volunteered one summer with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office.

In retrospect, I truly believe that the Lord blessed my sincere desire to defend the “underdog” and used this as the means to draw me back to Himself and His Church.

After graduating from law school, I was still searching for a way to channel my desire to help other people. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with secular approaches to societal ills, but I was still ambivalent, at best, about the Church.

Then one Sunday I went to Mass and heard a sermon on the Church’s social teaching [more]by a deacon who also happened to be a lawyer. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Church had something to say about these issues. Even more, I then realized that the Church not only took my questions seriously, but also offered satisfying answers–answers rooted in the Truth.

For myself and many others who were raised after Vatican II, the burning issue was not liturgical abuse or some intramural Church dispute. My questions were much more basic: Where is God in my life? What does He have to say, if anything, to the contemporary world? When I was engaged on that level by the deacon, I profoundly realized that I was yearning for the Peace of Jerusalem, not the peace of this world, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform every aspect of our world. Although my understanding has deepened over the years, the fundamental lessons I learned then have remained with me.

I learned was that I was approaching issues from the wrong direction. I tended to think abstractly (e.g., poverty or criminal justice) or collectively (e.g., poor people or criminal defendants). I needed to learn that just as Christ dealt with me as an irreplaceable person, I needed to approach social issues with the mindset that each member of the human family is an irreplaceable person with God-given dignity. There’s something to be said for the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”–if it’s understood in the sense that authentic human development must be interpersonal. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was one of the greatest social reformers of our time, but her brand of reform was accomplished one person, one precious soul, at a time.

Yet, I discovered I had to back the bus up even further. I cannot provide enduring assistance to others if I’m not continually being renewed in Christ myself (cf. Rom. 12:2). Life in Christ changes everything. I realized that I needed–with God’s grace–to eradicate sin from my life and strive, however imperfectly, for holiness. To love another person with Christ-like love, I had to become more like Christ.

That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of the saints.

Over the text couple days I will continue these reflections on the social teachings of the Church.

St. Bob on the Eucharist

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). “St. Bob” was a Jesuit priest who eventually became the Bishop of Capua. He was a brilliant theologian and defender of the faith, and he served in various Roman congregations in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant revolt and the Council of Trent. He has been named a doctor of the Church and is invoked as the patron saint of catechists and catechumens.

In honor of St. Bob, I thought I would provide an excerpt from a most remarkable teaching he gave on the Eucharist. I”m especially moved by the last paragraph. Enjoy! 

Take and eat: This is My Body. Weigh carefully, dear brethren, the force of those words. . . .

Suppose a prince promised one of you a hundred gold pieces, and in fulfillment of his word sent a beautiful sketch of the coins, I wonder what you would think of his liberality? And suppose that when you complained, the donor said, “Sir, your astonishment is out of place, as the painted coins you received may very properly be considered true crowns by the figure of speech called metonymy,” would not everybody feel that he was making fun of you and your picture?

Now Our Lord promised to give us His flesh for our food. The bread which I shall give you, He said, is My flesh for the life of the world. If you argue that the bread may be looked on as a figure of His flesh, you are arguing like the prince and making a mockery of God’s promises. A wonderful gift indeed that would be, in which Eternal Wisdom, Truth, Justice, and Goodness deceived us, its helpless pensioners, and turned our dearest hopes to derision.

That I may show you how just and righteous is the position we hold, let us suppose that the last day has come and that our doctrine of the Eucharist has turned out to be false and absurd. Our Lord now asks us reproachfully: “Why did you believe thus of My Sacrament? Why did you adore the host?” may we not safely answer him: “O Lord, if we were wrong in this, it was You who deceived us. We heard Your word, THIS IS MY BODY, and was it a crime for us to believe You? We were confirmed in our mistake by a multitude of signs and wonders which could have had You only for their author. Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did we but followed in the footsteps of all Your saints and holy ones . . .

The Catholic Church: A Nuclear Family

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Cyprian (and St. Cornelius, but we”ll talk about him another day). Born of pagan parents, St. Cyprian was a third-century Bishop of Carthage who eventually was exiled and then martyred during the persecution of Emperor Valerian.

Among other things, St. Cyprian is known for coining the maxim: “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother,” which is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 181.

It makes sense. St. Paul talks about the marriage between Christ and His Church in Ephesians 5. As Christians, we are the offspring of that marriage. We truly are children of God, and we”re also sons and daughters of the Church. The Church is a supernatural “nuclear family.”

In matters of faith, however, we see a lot of “single parenthood.” [more]There are some Catholics who have no problem with being part of a Church, but they resent and reject God”s fatherhood. This perennial tendency has been amplified in recent decades with the rise of radical feminism, such that commentators have bemoaned a feminization of the Church. When our faith is nurtured by the Church as a single mother, the discipline and even more the truth of the faith is obscured. We have a Church that preaches compassion, sensitivity, ”social justice” (in a perverted, impoverished sense), and tolerance, but not the meat and potatoes of “faith and morals.” It”s very much about the here and now. 

While those who cling exclusively to their spiritual mother tend toward heresy, those who cling to God without the Church tend toward schism. This largely is a Protestant dynamic, but we see it also among Catholics, especially those who “know the score” and are frustrated because of the Church”s all-too-evident failings and “warts.” So those who want God to be their “single parent” have more of an independent streak. They tend to be their own arbiter of what the Christian faith entails, and they don”t recognize our connectedness with one another through our mutual unity in Christ, the true vine (Jn. 15:1-11).

Obviously all this has repercussions when it comes to our culture’2012-04-24 18:34:29′s conceptions–or misconceptions–of what constitutes a family.

I don”t know about you, but I think St. Cyprian”s simple yet profound idea of having God as Father and Church as Mother is an interpretive key for understanding divisions within the Church as well as the Church”s perennial quest for greater unity among Christ”s disciples. It”s also a good examination of conscience for each one of us.

Communion for Abortion Advocates: Finding Common Ground

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

As the 2010 midterm elections heat up, we will once again encounter the controversy surrounding (a) who should or shouldn”t receive Communion, and (b) what candidates may a Catholic in good conscience support, given their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

Catholics have been told that it”s immoral to vote for a candidate because of their permissive views on abortion. If we want to vote for a pro-abortion despite their permissive views on abortion, we must have “proportionate reasons.” I”ve written on this in the past (see the posts linked to here), and there have been some very good explanations from Catholic bishops, including this pastoral letter by the Kansas City bishops.

I”ll take up the issue of “proportionate reasons” again at some point but, like the canon 915 issue, it”s unreasonable to expect the bishops to speak in a unified, meaningful way on those issues right now. While pro-life advocates need to keep “going there,” I think it”s also important to identify three things all bishops can and should stress right now with a unified voice, to help overcome rampant confusion on these issues. Here are the three items I propose: [more]

First, I think there needs to be a clear presentation on mortal sin as it relates to the reception of Communion. I realize that many people don’2012-04-24 18:34:32′t want to hear about it, and that a coherent presentation of the Gospel has to emphasize grace, not sin. Yet, both St. Paul and official Church teaching are clear that anyone who is aware of having committed a serious sin should refrain from receiving Communion until he or she has been reconciled with the Church through sacramental Confession. It”s all right there in Catechism, no. 1385, and all bishops should be able to sign off on that as a general principle.

Second, the fact that our lawmakers and judges say there is a right to abortion does not make it so. The fact that it is legal does not make it moral, nor does it give Catholics the right to wash their hands of the matter (a la Prof. Kmiec) as though we simply have to take this abomination as a “given” in our society. So, I think the second point would be to communicate to the faithful their obligation to oppose permissive abortion laws (and certainly not defend and champion them, like some of our Catholic lawmakers). On this point, we need more teaching on Pope John Paul II”s Evangelium Vitae, which leaves little doubt on the subject:

“Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that ”we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. ”They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: ”the midwives feared God” (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God-to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty-that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for ”the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).

“In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ”take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.”” (paragraph 73)

Third, bishops don”t agree on the application of canon 915, which calls for the withholding of Communion from notorious sinners. Some bishops have the intestinal fortitude of St. John Chrysostom, but others don”t. But many of those who won”t withhold Communion at least agree that the politician, judge, or celebrity who takes sides against the Church on key moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage shouldn”t receive Communion. They just don”t want to be in the position of withholding it. But that”s still an important point: Couldn”t the bishops collectively and forcefully say that those who advocate for “rights” such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc. should not receive Holy Communion until they”re reconciled with the Church? Then when people like VP Biden go up and receive Communion, the faithful know that this is something he really shouldn”t be doing. 

I offer these three points not to try to tilt an election in favor of a given political party or to criticize anyone, but so that Catholics can really know the score. We”re told that it”s a serious sin to support a pro-abortion Catholic politician, that we need to have some other “proportionate reason” for it to be morally acceptable. Pope John Paul II as quoted above couldn”t have been more clear. Yet then the Church seems to wink at the very politicians whom we”re not supposed to support under pain of sin. It”s not right.

But even more, it”s a matter of salvation–not just for those who may be led astray by all the mixed messages with the heavy overlay of media spin, but even more for the Catholic public officials themselves, whose manifestly unworthy reception of Holy Communion only compounds their sin and spiritual blindness (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

I don”t know what the bishops actually will do, but I don”t think strong statements by some bishops neutralized by the indecisive silence of the national body (coupled with the obfuscating “Faithful Citizenship” document) is the best recipe. I think their emphasizing catechetical points of agreement that even the “non-Chrysostom-like” bishops can stomach may be the right incremental step to take at this time.