Archive for the ‘Church’ Category


Come Holy Spirit!

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

     This Sunday, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, when the fullness of the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they burst out of the upper room and began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This feast is one of the most important events in salvation history for two reasons.  First, Pentecost fully reveals the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.  The strong driving wind and the tongues of fire that fell upon the apostles are the visible signs of the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father and the Son poured forth transforming the apostles and empowering them to be the witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth thus fulfilling the words of Christ:  “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

     The coming of the Holy Spirit also institutes the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and all four of these marks of the Church are present at Pentecost.  When you carefully read the Pentecost account in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke makes it very clear that this is not just an individual experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit by the apostles and other disciples, but is in fact above all an ecclesial event.

     First, St. Luke makes it clear that all the nations of the ancient world are present in Jerusalem, and, in fact, if you had a map of the ancient world at the time, Luke mentions almost all of the major regions and cities that encompassed the entire world at this time.  And yet, each person by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is able to hear the Gospel of Christ preached in his own language.   What is happening here?  St. Luke is making strikingly clear that the same humanity that was scattered in the Book of Genesis at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) is now being intimately united in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  A humanity that was once scattered and divided in sin is now, by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, newly created as the Body of Christ, the Church.  Thus, we see that this gathering of the human family at Pentecost is the Church that is both one and Catholic, or universal.  In other words, the Holy Spirit brings about the Church that is intimately united in the Spirit and also knows no boundaries, for the Church is open to every person of every race, language and culture. 

    Secondly, we also see that this Church is holy, first and foremost because it is filled with the Holy Spirit.  We also see that those who are joined to the Church are joined to her by virtue of the Sacrament of Baptism through which they die to their old sinful selves and become a new creation in Christ.  The Holy Spirit sent by Christ not only inaugurates the presence and mission of the Church, but that same Spirit makes the Church holy.

     Thirdly, we also see in the Pentecost event that the Church is Apostolic in that it is Peter and the other eleven apostles that are charged with handing on the Deposit of Faith that has been entrusted to them by Christ.  This is the profound beauty of the Church, that Christ instituted the Church upon the Rock of Peter and the other apostles, and then filled them with a unique charism of the Holy Spirit to hand on, protect, and interpret the Deposit of Faith to each generation.  This handing on of the faith beginning at Pentecost and continuing to this present day in the successors of the apostles, the Pope and the Bishops, is guided, protected, and guaranteed by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

     Two years ago, I had the awesome privilege of visiting Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica where we celebrated Mass at the Altar of St. Peter.  Above the altar at the very front of St. Peter’s is the famous stained glass window of the Holy Spirit pouring down from heaven over the Chair of St. Peter.  This was one of the most moving experiences as I truly sensed the power of the Holy Spirit as he guides and protects the Church throughout the centuries.  It is this presence of the Holy Spirit first given at Pentecost that inaugurated the mission of the Church that has also protected and kept the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church alive and well as the instrument of salvation in the world for over 2,000 years. 

     As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, let us not only give thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, but for the great gift of the Catholic Church that is truly the “church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

New York, New York!

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

I was unable to attend this year”s fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). All the same, I”d like to offer a few thoughts on the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as the new president of that body.

(1) Image may not be everything, despite the Andre Agassi commercials of the 90s. But it is very important, and Church leadership at home and in the Vatican has been notoriously inept when it comes to public relations. With this election, however, the U.S. bishops got it right. They bypassed the successor-in-waiting (USCCB VP, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson) and chose arguably the best communicator among current bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. To borrow from the song, he is “making it there” in the most prominent U.S. see, so there is every reason to believe that this gregarious, eminently likable prelate will project the right public image for the USCCB.

(2) Commentator John Allen of the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter likens Archbishop Timothy Dolan to a high octane, populist American version of Pope Benedict. So far, so good. However, from there he asserts that his election is not so much the victory of a conservative over a liberal, but rather a victory of the kinder, gentler “affirmative orthodoxy” of Pope Benedict over the harder edge of conservative ideologues. Those looking for a “no spin zone” may want to look elsewhere!

The main problem with Allen”s assessment is the fact that Archbishop Dolan”s main opposition was Bishop Kicanas, who is unmistakably on the “left,” and who had the distinct advantage of being the current VP of the conference, which usually signals victory. Archbishop Dolan is clearly more “conservative” than Bishop Kicanas. Plus, “conservative” here generally relates to degree of the prelate”s being in step with the Pope and curia. Any and all “conservatives” would vote for Dolan over Kicanas, and they did, despite the (very) small “t” tradition of simply voting for the VP.

(3) The clerical sex abuse issue still trumps just about everything. The bishops clearly were concerned about voting for Bishop Kicanas in light of the troubling revelations regarding Fr. Daniel McCormick, a  sex abuser who was ordained under Bishop Kicanas” watch, despite indications that McCormick was engaging in homosexual activity while in seminary. The facts are still being sorted out, and perhaps the evidence will eventually show that Bishop Kicanas acted appropriately and in good faith. That’2012-04-24 18:33:15′s hardly a foregone conclusion, though, and in light of the Church”s already tarnished public image in that area (see pt. 1) the USCCB wisely went another route. Already activist groups like SNAP–hardly allies of the “conservatives”–are applauding the election of Archbishop Dolan.

(4) George Neumayr of Catholic World Report makes a strong case that the vote for Archbishop Dolan is in part a repudiation of the controversial “seamless garment” approach to life issues. As summarized at the CWN site, New York”s Cardinal John O”Connor pushed for a clear focus on the fight against abortion in the 1980s, while Chicago”s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin preferred the “seamless garment” approach, in which abortion was only one of a number of issues to be weighed in political discussions. For years the “seamless garment” approach has had the upper hand in USCCB discussions–reflecting the dominance enjoyed by the late Cardinal Bernardin and his allies. But now Bishop Kicanas, a Bernardin protégé, has been defeated by Cardinal O”Connor”s successor in New York.

(5) This isn”t like American politics, where the president gets to choose his VP. Still, the election of incoming VP Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville–a “centrist” who is now the odds-on choice to become Archbishop Dolan”s successor–deserves some comment. I”ve always liked Archbishop Kurtz, and I”m eternally grateful that he offered a Mass for my Mom in his cathedral the weekend she died.

What I like most about his election as VP, though, is that he is so forward-looking when it comes to the battle against same-sex marriage. We have to admit that we were asleep at the switch in the years immediately before Roe v. Wade dramatically shifted the landscape. Archbishop Kurtz has been a superb leader in building up Catholic marriage, and he is an able spokesman against contemporary attempts to redefine marriage.

We”ll see how all these points play out, but I think there are some solid grounds for optimism here.

Musings of an Accidental Conservative

Monday, October 18th, 2010

I have long disliked the label “conservative.” I mean, there”s nothing wrong with it per se, but I”m not a political ideologue. I am a Catholic who believes what the Church teaches, and for that reason alone I”m called a “conservative.”

After reading articles this morning on the voting patterns of Catholics and whether the Catholic faith and the “Tea Party” movement are a good mix, I figured the time was ripe to give my top ten list of reasons why “liberal” and “conservative” are not useful terms when it comes to Catholic beliefs. These are in no particular order: [more]

(1) Term Limits

“Conservative” and “liberal” are already entrenched as political terms with their own specific meaning. The terms are necessarily adversarial and divisive when used in the context of the Church, since they imply a struggle for supremacy between two more/less equally legitimate camps. With St. Paul we might ask, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). When we try to use two emotionally charged terms from one context and apply them in a completely different context, of course there will be misunderstanding exacerbated by strong emotional responses.

(2) Not in Catholic Lexicon

When we hear the terms “conservative” and “liberal” we think of political terms. They”re not also Catholic terms in a strict sense. I”ve been though all 2,865 paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church many times, and I don”t recall ever seeing those terms used. Instead, the Catholic Church has its own lexicon to describe one’2012-04-24 18:33:52′s relationship vis a vis the Church. Perhaps we should use them instead? The problem of course is that many consider themselves Americans first, and Christians or Catholics second, so they let American culture define the rules of engagement even within the Church.

(3) Radio, Radio (second Elvis Costello allusion this month, but who”s counting)

We tend to think of “liberal” and conservative” as two extremes on a continuum, sort of like a radio dial. The stations at the left side of the AM dial (in the 500s or 600s, say) would be “liberal” and the stations at the far right (1500s and 1600s) would be “conservative.” Both have a place on radio dial, though people might gravitate toward the numbers in the middle away from the two extremes, where most of the more popular stations tend to be located. Similarly, we often hear of Catholics who are 100% with the Church described as “conservative” or even “ultraconservative,” while those who dissent from the Church on hot button moral issues are called “moderate.” Maybe a Catholic who is truly a Catholic is considered a “conservative” politically, but all Catholics must be “conservative” when it comes to upholding Christian moral teaching in the public square.  What are we saying, that being “too Catholic” or “too religious” is one extreme, and being hostile to God, religion, and all public morals is the other extreme, such that the desirable middle ground is to be “sorta Catholic” or “mildly dissident”? Yet I”ve personally run into that sort of thinking many times in the Church. 

(4) Conversion

Nobody should go around calling people heretics or apostates. Yet we go way too far in the other direction. We”re not willing to speak hard truths with charity. We”re not willing to say that any position that”s conflicts with Catholic teaching on faith and morals is heresy. Instead, we call it “liberal,” which is then taken as a legitimate way of being in the Church. While most people don”t want to consider themselves heretics, many consider the “liberal” tag a badge of honor. My point here is that those who part ways with the Church should be called back into full communion. When we tolerate dissent and heresy rather than call to conversion, we are not truly loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.  

(5) Good Liberal vs. Bad Liberal

Of course part of the problem is that the terms themselves are vague and ambiguous, especially given the frequently blending of their political and ecclesial ramifications. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring the social legitimization of evils such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage is an abomination for Catholics. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring big government programs may be problematic for Catholics at times, such as when the principle of subsidiarity is violated, but it”s not quite as cut and dried (but close). And then there”s “liberalism” in the sense of the Church”s staunch defense of human dignity, which generally speaking is a very good thing (when the concept isn”t hijacked).  But in the Church, “liberal” typically equates with “dissident” or ”heterodox,” which is clearly not a good thing, yet is given cover because of its legitimacy in some political contexts. 

(6) Good Conservative vs. Bad Conservative

The Church has been entrusted the “deposit of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20), which she protects and “conserves.” She holds fast to Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15), and she”ll prevail against the ”powers of death” (cf. Mt. 16:18). So while the Church is a living organism that grows and adapts to new situations, there is no doubt a pervasive “conservative” dimension to her essential constitution. Since being a faithful, practicing, “normative” Catholic is also considered being “conservative” in a political sense, we must resist the temptation to “default” our way into uncritically accepting all aspects of political conservativism, even as we generally embrace the conservatives” approach to many issues, especially what are generally called “social issues.”

(7) This Ain”t a Democracy

It should go without saying that the Church is not a democracy. Yet the more we politicize the Church, the more weight we give to the assumption on the part of many that, in the words of the dissident “Voice of the Faithful” organization, we can “keep the faith, change the Church.” If we get enough people to show up at a town hall meeting or to sign some petition, would the Church to renounce the faith? Of course not!  So why use political terms that suggest with proper maneuvering we might be able to elect a new Pope or push through an agenda that”s fundamentally at odds with the Church? 

(8) Divine Element

Because of the political, democratic connotations of “liberal” and “conservative,” we tend to downplay the fact that Christianity is about following Christ. It”s His Church, and it”s one (and holy, Catholic, and apostolic). In politics, we”re trying to get others to side with us, or at least to vote for our candidate or issue. In the Church, it”s the other way around. It”s about God”s grace changing us, persuading us to follow Him more completely and unreservedly.

(9) Stop Thinking

Obviously in the political realm we sometimes have to speak on a macro level, and so blocs of people who tend to vote a particular way are labelled as such. Yet I think we should resist labelling and resist being labelled as much as possible in the Church. It”s an excuse to stop thinking, or even to write off somebody without really knowing them. When someone is identified as a “liberal” Catholic by a “conservative” Catholic, or vice versa, then we”re institutionalizing division and dissent within the Church, and wounding her witness to the world.

(10) Communion, not Class Struggle

The key term in understanding the Catholic Church is “communion,” as through God”s grace centuries of strife and division are overcome in the person of Christ, in whom we truly become brothers and sisters. In our largely secular society, many people consider themselves “Catholic” but really don”t fully identify with or participate in the life of the Church. Then there are others who stay in the Church to reform her in their own image. Rather than see in all this chaos some sort of class struggle between the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives,” we should perceive a call to foster both the visible and invisible bonds of unity within the Church (see Catechism, no. 815; there is also a wonderful discussion in Pope John Paul II”s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nos. 35 and following). 

In other words, we must be better Catholics and build better Catholics. Without the conviction of faith, then it”s only about tactics.      

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.

Church Teaching Is Not Negotiable!

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

In our legal system, if we don’t like a law, we push for new laws and elect new legislators who might listen to us. When it comes to interpreting and applying existing laws, we hire the most skilled attorneys we can afford, whose job is not to seek the truth but to present our side most effectively. Even if we lose at trial, we can still pursue our cause through various avenues of appeal, all the while using the media to put pressure on the government.

We have many “disciplines” in the Church which are “positive law,” meaning that they’re the product of human invention. While Church leaders in general make the best pastoral judgments they can, such disciplines may turn out to be good, bad, or somewhere in between, and they may be in effect for a week or for 100 years or more.

Church disciplines have been subject of “lobbying,” especially in our time, from altar girls and Communion on the hand to a wider, more readily available access to the extraordinary (Tridentine) form of the Roman rite. The laity have the right to be heard on such matters, though in the meantime the current discipline calls forth our obedience and filial respect for the Church.

However, when it comes to the deposit of faith–what the Church teaches in the area of faith and morals–American democratic concepts simply are out of place. No matter how many petitions are signed, no matter how fervently and repeatedly dissent is allowed to foment and lead people astray, what God has revealed through Christ as proclaimed by the Church is not up for grabs. [more]

Some dissenters express frustration that some “celibate old man” in Rome can say that I have to believe and act in a certain way. Clearly there is a misunderstanding of authority here. The Pope does have considerable juridical or legal power, but in matters of faith and morals his authority is that of guardian and mouthpiece, not scriptwriter or legislator.

For example, if someone has a problem with the Immaculate Conception, the problem is not with Pope Pius IX, but with the way God has chosen to come among us to save us. If someone has a problem with the Church’s teaching on contraception, the problem is not with Pope Paul VI, but with the way God has created the human person and human society.

If I were given a speeding ticket and appeared before a judge to contest it, what would happen if my defense proceeded as follows:

 ”But your honor, modern legal scholars say that traffic laws are repressive, archaic, and the product of a male-dominated, pre-modern era and do not speak to the contemporary citizen . . .”

Obviously the judge, depending on his or her temperament, would either laugh at me or cite me for contempt.

Let’s note that there are two distinct problems with my defense. First, the argument itself is defective. Most people would agree that some traffic laws are necessary to promote public safety.

The second issue is what possible authority does some “scholar” have to change the law? In deciding the case, the judge will have to ascertain the actual speed limit where I was driving, how fast I was going, and consequently whether I exceeded the speed limit. The scholar’s opinion regarding the speed limit is utterly irrelevant.

The same two problems exist today regarding some theologians. First, what they teach is contrary to the deposit of faith. (In plain English, they’re wrong!) Second, their opinions are accorded weight in some circles not only because they’re the product of “scholars” or “experts,” but also because they purportedly represent the “modern Catholic.”

As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith set forth some time ago in its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, theologians do play a critical role in the Church’s understanding and communication of the faith. What all of us, especially theologians, need to keep before us, however, is that we have a teaching that is not our own, but one that has been handed on to us. Our faith seeks understanding, but presupposes content.

Behind our laws, values, and culture is a blending, or melting pot, of our founding fathers’ ideals, diverse ethnic and religious cultures, pragmatic court decisions, legislative compromises, narrow agendas, and special interests that continue to evolve. And we must admit (as has become part of Barack Obama’s political mantra) that such evolution has an ever-increasing bias in favor of that which is new–in other words, change.

Behind the teaching of the Church, however, there is Jesus Christ, the Mediator and sum total of Revelation, who not only is with us always (Mt. 28:20), but who is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).