Formation of Conscience, Step Two: “Be an Adult”

Vatican PopeOne thought has remained with me from the first reading of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia: this is an ADULT document.  It is written by a mature adult man who is comfortable in his own relationship with God and with other people, able to see things both as they are and as they could be.  Through the lens of his own life’s experience he recognizes his own weaknesses and failures and owns his own need for God’s forgiveness and the help of others to get through any given day.  This mature adult man has written a document that presumes his readership is similarly disposed.  He writes directly, explicitly, and knowledgeably about the human condition, the role of the Church, and the relationship of the two.  It is, in short, a text written by an adult for other adults.  As Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago observed in his press conference on the release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis is calling us all to “an adult spirituality.”

What does an “adult spirituality” look like?  I ask this in connection with these short reflections on the formation of conscience, because I think it lies at the heart of the matter.

simple balanced cropped-500x500First, I think an adult spirituality is balanced, reasonable and well-integrated.  An adult point of view, it seems to me, is found when a person has learned — usually through hard experience — to steer a course between extremes.  Consider one simple example.  Some people seem naturally disposed to see everything through a negative lens: nothing can ever be done right, some people can just never say anything that is not immediately criticized, and no one can really be trusted.  I suppose if one crept along this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the home of cynicism.  On the other hand, some people are just as disposed to see everything in a positive light: they see the good in what others do and say, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Following this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the land of rose-colored glasses.  However, the wisdom of maturity would generally find, along  with Aristotle, the “golden mean”or, as the ancient Latin has it, “In medio stat virtus“: virtue stands in the middle.  Applying this to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia: consider some of the online responses one finds everywhere: some people were determined to condemn it even before it was promulgated while others were similarly inclined to “canonize” it, also without reading it.  A balanced, reasonable, and well-integrated adult would, of course, read the document and form conclusions both positive and negative.  Amoris Laetitia is not Holy Writ; neither is it from Satan.

respect-honesty-ethics-integrity-street-sign-photo-846x634Second, an adult spirituality is honest with one’s self and with others, especially about one’s own limitations.  When confronting challenges, an adult comes to know that there are limits to his or her abilities: intellectual, affective, and physical.  They come to accept that we all need assistance in a variety of ways.  In recognizing their own limitations, the mature adult tends to be more understanding of the limitations of others.  This is a key theme of Amoris Laetitia.  All are weak in various ways and we acknowledge and work within that weakness; we do not demand that a person first become strong before we work with them.  God’s grace and mercy is necessary for all and, as the Holy Father stresses, “true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” (AL 296)  A person does not have to “prove” or “earn” our mercy any more than we have deserved God’s mercy in our own lives.  Mature adults understand that.

keep-calm-because-stuff-happensThird, an adult spirituality acknowledges the contingencies of life.  In the sections of Amoris Laetitia which address the specifics of marriage and family life, the Holy Father shows a remarkable understanding of  how hard most people struggle with the uncertainties of life: holding a job that can support one’s family, dealing with fatigue and failure, the pressures of being a single parent and on and on.  Most people come to understand that the vast majority of folks are simply trying to do the absolute best they can despite whatever challenges they face.  Others may come to different decisions than we might, but there is a presumption based on experience that most people are trying to do their best.  However, here we find some tension again between those who have a more positive perspective on human nature and those who are more negative, and would never presume that other people would do their best!  Pope Francis recognizes this difference of perspective when he writes,

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.  But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

christ dachau

Christ at Dachau

Fourth, an adult spirituality finds God’s presence in all aspects of life.  Experience teaches a person of faith that God is active and present even when a person feels alone, abandoned, or powerless.  There is a sense of tranquility that comes to a person, even in the midst of suffering, which communicates God’s “accompaniment” (to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite expressions) on that journey.  Just as God never abandons us, we are not to abandon others in their own need.  The Holy Father spends considerable time in AL reminding us that not only should those who are divorced or in irregular unions are not to feel themselves cut off completely from the church, nor are we to adopt practices and attitudes which convey or support such a feeling of isolation and excommunication.  Simply put, God never abandons us, and we cannot abandon others.

 

Fifth, an adult spirituality deals with the real, not the hypothetical.  Hypothetical situations abound, but we generally have to deal with one situation at a time, resolve it as best we can, and move on to the next.  While a certain amount of hypothesizing happens with all of us as we try to plan for the future, but in general, we take one very real circumstance on at a time.  I keep thinking of St. John XXIII’s famous passage in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims to the thousands of assembled bishops:

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        In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.  In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

In much of the criticism of Pope Francis and this Exhortation, one detects the same voice of the “prophets of gloom” which St. John XXIII mentions.  I think Pope Francis would agree wholeheartedly with his sainted predecessor that it is still God who is in charge and still “leading us to a new order of human relations” which goes far beyond our poor human attempt to understand fully.  Like those earlier critics of the Council, much hand wringing is taking place about “what ifs”: “What if” a pastor just looks for a loophole to let divorced and remarried people back to Communion?  “What if” a person doesn’t form their conscience as rigorously as they should?  “What if” people abuse this teaching and simply ignore the longstanding teaching of the church?  “What if,” indeed.  Realistically, will such things happen?  Of course they will, and no mature adult would deny that possibility.  On the other hand, shouldn’t we adopt a position that we will deal with those situations as they occur, if they occur, and when they occur?  In the meantime, as John did with the Council, let’s move forward. “Siempre Adelante!” as Pope Francis challenged us during his homily in Washington, DC.

So, in forming our consciences, we do so as mature adults, striving as best we can and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will for our lives.

 

 

Formation of Conscience, Step One: “Mind Your Own Business!”

Italy Greece Pope Refugees

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis never ceases to challenge us across a spectrum of issues.  How we treat the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, even nature itself are all matters of grave moral concern.  He reminds us that we best confront these issues through our encounters with one person at a time, by being the hands of God’s own mercy.

Pope Francis bases his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) on several fundamental principles, which I hope to examine in future blog posts.  Here, however, we consider briefly perhaps the most fundamental: the matter of the individual moral conscience. The expectation of the Church, well expressed by the Holy Father, is that we confront life’s challenges in a morally responsible and mature way.  More about that in a moment, but first, what do we teach about the conscience?

76_2731812The core of the Church’s teaching on conscience is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (GS), 16:

In the depths of conscience, a person detects a law which he does not give to himself, but which he must obey. Always summoning the person to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For the person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.

VaticanIIOne thing many observers forget, however, is that we are bound to follow our conscience, even if that means we are responsible for errors we make!  GS 16 continues:

The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

So, in summary: we must make every attempt to properly form our consciences, but we are bound to follow our conscience even if later that judgment is found to be in error.  Saying that something is “in accordance with my conscience” does not mean that it is necessarily accurate or correct or infallible.  It means that we take adult responsibility both for the formation of conscience and our actions taken in response to it.

With this as context (read more about the moral conscience  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), we return to Amoris Laetitia.  In AL 37, the pope writes:

Pray-for-one-AnotherWe have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

So we arrive at the first point I want to make about the conscience.  The conscience is subjective: it belongs to each, individual, human subject.  While other persons: family, friends, pastors, bishops, deacons, religious, catechists, scientists and teachers may assist me in the formation of my conscience, ultimately, as Vatican II teaches, I am alone with God in my conscience.  Someone else’s conscience cannot serve as — or replace — my own conscience.

Therefore, my first reflection on the formation of conscience is simple: “Mind your (my) own business”!  Consider the following scenario:

SCENARIO:

At Mass, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  John and Jane Doe, longtime parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Anytown, USA, join the communion procession, approach Deacon James Jones and receive Communion.

REACTION #1:

Mrs. Smith approaches Deacon Jones after Mass.  “I’m scandalized, Deacon, that you gave Communion to those two!  You know as well as I do that they’re divorced and re-married outside the Church!  How dare you violate the Church’s law?”

REACTION #2:

After Mrs. Smith storms off, Dr. Baker heads over to the deacon. “What the hell is going on, Deacon?  Those two people haven’t received Communion in years.  Yes, I know they’re very active here, but they used to respect our church’s laws.  Now, this?  You know they’re divorced and all, Deacon, and you gave them Communion anyway!  The bishop’s going to hear about this.”

xelr0ija02tp7fwysm351br5fol_largeThe weekend after AL was presented to the world, a friend presented me just that scenario.  “What would happen if a divorced and remarried couple, who had refrained from receiving communion for many years, began receiving communion again?  That would be a terrible scandal, and the pope says we are to avoid scandal!”  What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion?  This process of conscience formation, which as the pope reminds us, is not done with a view to sidestepping the law.  However, it is done with due consideration of unique aspects of their own past experiences and current responsibilities for their children and so on.  And, they each reach a decision point in conscience.  And, “according to it [each of them] will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”

BOTTOM LINE: If a person winds up receiving Holy Communion unworthily, the responsibility for doing so rests with that individual, and no one else.  We do not force our own conscience on someone else.  “We are called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

So, consider a third possible reaction:

REACTION #3:

Mr. and Mrs. Williams approach the Deacon after Mass, beaming with joy.  “It was so wonderful to see Jane and John receiving Communion this morning!”

FOR REFLECTION

  1. How do we assist others in the formation of conscience?  Do we get to a point where we “let go” and let them arrive at their own decision in conscience?
  2. When we see someone acting in a particular way, do we presume that they are acting in good faith, or bad faith?  Notice in the first two reactions above: the presumption was being made that John and Jane were acting “in bad faith” and flaunting their “irregular” situation.  In reaction #3, however, the presumption was that they were acting “in good faith.”
  3. At what point do I have simply have to mind my own business concerning others?

Consider St. Paul’s advice to the Romans (14:1-14)(emphasis added):

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

 

 

There is no “Christianity”: Thoughts on Extremism and Christianity

Got your attention?  Now let me explain.

Lenten purpleThe headlines surrounding a recently-released study scream:  “Increasing number of Americans consider Christianity ‘to be extremist'” followed by the quote: “The perception that the Christian faith is extreme,” says Barna Group, “is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians.”  [Read the full article here.]  I am in the process of examining the study, so I will have more to say about it once I’ve finished.  However, there is one thing that I believe must be said at the outset: there is no “Christianity”.

Here’s what I mean.  Tragically, there is no singular, undivided, undifferentiated body of disciples known as Christianity.  There are almost as many forms of “Christianity” as there are Christians, so to speak of “Christianity” as a single corporate entity is simply inadequate.  Consider only a few examples.

We have long had distinctions between expressions of Christianity, East and West.  Such variety existed long before the formal break in 1054 AD.  On the positive side, Christianity has consistently acknowledged and accepted the simple fact that unity in faith does not necessarily equate to uniformity in practice.  The “one faith” can be expressed in a wide variety of ways!  Even today, the Catholic Church exists as a communion of some 27 ritual churches, of which the Latin (or Roman) Church is but one.  So, within Catholic Christianity can be found these diverse communities of faith all in communion with each other, even though they have different sacramental theologies and even different canon law.  So far, so good then: it is possible that “Christianity” lived in such a diverse way can be seen as a united faith.

Cuba Pope Patriarch (1) (2)On the negative side, however, since 1054, some of these Eastern churches (not all of them) broke with Rome and became what is referred to now as the Orthodox Churches.  While theology formed a part of the rationale between the split (consider the filioque debate, for example), the larger issues revolved around the authority of the See of Rome.  Only over the last 100 years or so have we seen some real progress in restoring full communion.  Then, of course, in the 16th Century we find Latin Christianity fracturing even more through the theological and ecclesial reforms demanded by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others.  Within the framework of evolving philosophical, theological, political and social trends, these disagreements quickly moved out of the university setting and into the streets, creating the chasms between Christians we still experience today, despite Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, “that they all may be one, Father, as you and I are one.”

So, today, what IS “Christianity”?  Before one can make a claim about Christianity (such as the claim in the article that “Christianity is extremist”) it seems to me you must clearly define some terms, beginning with the question, “Which Christianity are you talking about?”  While all Christians can agree (possibly) on the nature and role of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah of God,  and that all Christians see themselves as followers of this Christ, after that things get murky quickly.

world viewConsider a basic world view.  How do Christians view the world?  Some groups of Christians have a very positive view of God’s creation, frequently citing the words of Genesis in which God proclaims creation to be “good.”  Creation is, therefore, in this view, good by nature — with evil entering into the picture only later through the deliberate, free will choices of human beings.  Other groups of Christians have an opposite view of the world, seeing creation as inherently flawed.  Martin Luther, for example, frequently wrote things such as, “our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so.”

128756_imagnoConsider how inclusivist (“catholic”) or exclusivist various Christian groups can be.  One of my own saddest experiences in this regard occurred some years ago when I was still on active duty in the Navy.  A good friend was part of the Protestant chapel community on our base.  He was participating in the annual Holy Thursday reenactment of the Last Supper, put on by the Protestant chaplains.  I went over to help get the apostles into their beards and costumes and stuck around to watch it.  Shortly before leaving to go to the Catholic chapel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I watched the beginning of the communion service following the reenactment.  The senior Protestant chaplain stood and give directions to the assembly on how to come forward for communion.  Ministers of particular denominations would be on other side, and adherents of those denominations were to go to “their own” minister; a “general communion” was being offered down the main central aisle of the chapel, and those who were not in the other two churches could receive in the “general” line.  Naturally, of course, it struck me that I was about to head over to our own Mass, during which only Catholics could receive Communion.  It left me quite saddened to see — at the moment when you would think Christians could be MOST united — we were the most divided.

diversitySo, today, we have Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Non-Denominational Christians, along with other forms of Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and on and on and on.  Because of many reasons, such as the “world view” distinctions mentioned above, some of these Christians look for everything to be black and white, clearly distinguished.  Sin, for example, is sin.  Something is either sinful or it is not.  There is no gradation in sinfulness: telling a lie (regardless of situation or intent) is as grave as murder.  In this view, you are either with me totally and completely or you are against me totally and completely.  Other Christians seem to say that anything goes if it’s what you want.  You determine everything yourself about what you will choose to believe and so on.  Then there are Christians in the middle, who marry philosophy and theology, reason and faith.  Given this diversity then, we come to the question raised by the article: Are Christians extremists?

InterreligiousThat raises the need to define the other term of the argument: How do we define “extremist”?  In the list of statements included in the study, I found myself agreeing that some of them certainly reflected “extremism” as I understand it, while others do not.  However, ALL them made me think and to reflect, and that is always a good thing.

For example, statements such as “using religion to justify violence against others” and “refusing standard medical care for their children” or “refusing to serve someone because the other person’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs” certainly bespeak extremism in a negative sense.  Others, however, such as “demonstrating outside an organization they consider immoral” [would this include the civil rights marches of the 1960’s as well, I wonder?] or “attempting to convert others to their faith” [depending of course on the methods used!] do not.  Read the full study and see what YOU think.

So, is “Christianity” extremist?  What a terribly loaded question!  Depending on what a person thinks is “extremist”, coupled with the tragic differences among Christians ourselves, the only reasonable answer, it seems to me, lies in the middle:

“Some are, some aren’t.”

LENTEN REFLECTION: As a Lenten reflection, we can all ponder what forms extremism, especially religious extremism, can take.  Perhaps it is, like Benjamin Franklin used to say about treason, more easily discerned in others than in ourselves!  I offer this post not to start an argument over this particular study, or to offer some kind of societal critique.  I offer it simply as a point of departure for a Lenten reflection on how we live out in concrete terms the implications of our faith.

A Lenten Reflection on Catholics and Politics

politics-religionIt’s Lent: a time for purification and enlightenment, according to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Most of us grew up thinking of Lent in terms of what we were going to “give up.”  Speaking only for myself, I sometimes wish I could give up following what passes these days for American political “discourse.”  But as Pope Francis said recently, quoting Aristotle, a human being is by nature a “political animal.”  We cannot and should not avoid the political process; in fact, we have a moral obligation to participate to the best of our abilities!  As Catholics, then, how might we participate in ways consistent with Christian discipleship?  For those of us who also serve as Catholic clergy, what are our own obligations and limitations with regard to political life?

360_wtwain_0714American political life has always been, to say the least, exciting, interesting, and inherently disputatious: there’s nothing new about that.  Consider just a few historic, pointed quotes from Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Will Rogers (1879-1935):

Here’s Mark Twain, writing about politics in the 19th Century:

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Will RogersAnd here’s Will Rogers with some observations about American politics during the 1920’s an 1930’s:

There is only one redeeming thing about this whole election. It will be over at sundown, and let everybody pray that it’s not a tie, for we couldn’t go through with this thing again.

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.

America has the best politicians money can buy.

The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.

A president just can’t make much showing against congress. They lay awake nights, thinking up things to be against the president on.

There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.

Politics is a great character builder. You have to take a referendum to see what your convictions are for that day.

Today, however, I think most people would readily admit that what passes for political “discourse” has deteriorated to a level that does not warrant the term, since “discourse” is supposed to be “a communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation; earnest and intelligent exchange” or “a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing. . . .”

Aymond 1Gregory M. Aymond, the Archbishop of New Orleans, has written an excellent column, “What has happened to civility in politics?” (read the whole piece here) in which he observes, 

What has happened to politics, from my perspective, is candidates in campaigns no longer run on merit, their qualifications or their ability to lead, but run on the weaknesses of the other person. The name-calling and insulting comments that candidates exchange, in my mind, create an evil spirit among us.

Archbishop Aymond outlines four principles for evaluating a political candidate:

  1. Human Life: This principle covers the spectrum from conception to natural death, with the Archbishop listing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, caring for the poor, issues regarding biotechnology, issues of war and the promotion of peace “in our country and beyond.”
  2.  Family Life: This principle obviously includes marriage, and “a candidate must be willing to do all he or she can to help a person form a family that gives respect to family and children.”  This principle also involves wages, since one’s income affects how one can support a family with respect.
  3. Social Justice: Here the concerns listed by the Archbishop include: welfare policy, religious freedom, Social Security, affordable health care, and sharing housing and the resources of the earth with the poor.  He also includes the reform of the criminal justice system, and the issue of immigration (“welcoming the stranger). Not only must the immigrant be treated with dignity, the Archbishop correctly observes that “the Catholic Church teaches that people, under certain circumstances, have a right to leave their country and find a new life.” Other social justice issues involve respect for the environment and using the environment in a way that promotes respect for humanity.
  4. Global Solidarity:  Finally, the Archbishop asks, “what is the candidate willing to do to foster solidarity, for the elimination of global poverty, for religious liberty and human rights? We must ask how the person will work with the United Nations and international bodies.

Archbishop Aymond is a realist who recognizes that “it is likely that no candidate will measure up to all four completely.”  What is the Catholic citizen to do?  He answers:

We have to decide which of them would best move our country forward in a way that reflects those qualities.  We as Catholics must have our voice heard: We are tired of the lack of civility that exists in campaigns and we are calling for change.

Aristotle-Bust-640x424So, as much as we might be tempted to “give up politics” for Lent this year, as human beings (and therefore “political animals” as the Pope cites Aristotle) we cannot; as Christians we must not.  In fact, I think we can add to the Aristotelian reference and find this moral obligation highlighted even more.  In his Politics, the fourth century BC philosopher writes:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it. . . . he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And. . . the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

As difficult as it can be, therefore, we have a moral obligation to participate in the political process.  We cannot say that we are “above” it or that we are presented with no other moral option than to withdraw.  The greater good — the common good — demands that we do the best we can on behalf of others as well as ourselves, as expressed in the greatest Commandment given by Christ: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

pope-congress04.w529.h352A word about clergy and politics.  I have written about this previously, but I want to recap three points here.

  1. Clergy and Social Media: Clergy of all faiths are prominent in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking and teaching at every conceivable level, and even venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook.  It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy. It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others, but our casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.
  2. Catholic Clergy and Canon Law:  Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”  However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.”  While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross. Much more about this can be said and I will review all of this in more detail in a later posting.
  3. Unique Political Position for Catholic [Permanent] Deacons:  As we just saw, permanent deacons may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics (including transitional deacons) under the law. However, permanent deacons are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is such a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony?  Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop. Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign. 

aymond_mass1

In concluding this Lenten reflection on Catholics and political life, I return to Archbishop Aymond’s fine column one last time.  His own frustration is almost palpable as he ponders what the Church is supposed to do in the face of the contemporary political situation:

First of all, the church’s responsibility is to do what I am doing – speaking out and saying this is not what we want politics to be. It’s not of God. Where is our negativity bringing us? The second thing we should look at – helping people form their consciences so when they go to the voting machine, they know the basic qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

So, for Lent this year, let’s give up the vitriol, the name-calling, the demonizing of those who disagree with us.  In fact, let’s go the other direction and increase and deepen our involvement in the political process as our state of life demands.  In this season of purification and enlightenment, we must keep both of these elements in mind: to purify ourselves of that which demeans humanity and God’s creation, and to seek out and be enlightened by God so as to build up rather than to tear down.

Lenten Jerusalem Cross

Getting Christmas in a Real World

Questions“Christmas — who cares?”

“It’s for the kids; I’m too old for that nonsense.”

“Christians are all hypocrites anyway.”

“I used to be a Catholic; then I grew up.”

“It’s all about the money: the malls, the churches: all the same.”

xmas-homeless-jesus-12-24-12-copy“I just get so depressed at Christmas.  I’ve lost the innocence of youth and there’s no connection to family any more — and this just makes it all worse.”

“With all of the violence and craziness in the world, why the hell should I get involved with all this make-believe?

As we enter another Christmas Season (and remember that for Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of a whole season of “Christmas”!), perhaps we should reflect a bit on why we even care about it.  “Christmas” as an event has just become, for so many people, a civic holiday, a commercial opportunity, and mere Seinfeldian “festivus”.  Let’s face it: for many people,  “Christmas” is simply something to be endured and survived.

Why do Christians care about Christmas?  What does it — what should it — mean?  Are Christians who celebrate Christmas simply naive children who won’t grow up?

immanuel1 (2)In my Advent reflection yesterday on the Hebrew expression “Emmanuel” (God-with-us) I stressed the intimacy of this relationship with God.  No matter how we may feel at any given moment, the God we have given our hearts to (which is actually the root meaning of “I believe”) is with us through it all — even when we can’t or don’t recognize it.  Think of a child in her room playing.  Does she realize that her father out in the kitchen is thinking about her, listening for sounds that may mean that she needs his help, pondering her future?  Does she realize that her mother at work in her office is also thinking about her, loving her, and making plans for her future?  The love of parents for children is constant and goes beyond simply those times when they are physically present to each other.

God is like that, too.  Sometimes we feel God’s presence around us, sometimes we don’t.  From our perspective it might seem like God has left us — but God hasn’t.  That’s the beauty of “Emmanuel” and the great insight of the Jewish people which we Christians have inherited: regardless of what I may think or feel at any given moment, “God is with us.”

Christmas celebrates that reality.  But there’s more to it than that.  God isn’t with us as some kind of superhero god with a deep voice and stirring sound track like a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic.  God “thinks big and acts small” and comes to the world as a weak and helpless baby.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God is in the manger.”  We’ll have more to say about that in a moment.  But for now, consider the mistake that many people make.  As we get older and set aside childish ways, some people assume that since God is in the manger as a baby, that this makes Christmas simply something for children.  How wrong they are!  The great scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, emphasized this point in his landmark study, “An Adult Christ at Christmas.”  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you do so: consider it a belated Christmas gift to yourself!

mary-joseph-jesus_thumb21The world into which Jesus was born was every bit as violent, abusive, and full of destructive intent as our own.  And yet, consider what Christians have maintained from the beginning.  God’s saving plan was not brought about through noble families, through the Jewish high priestly caste, or through the structures of the Roman empire.  It wasn’t engaged in Greek or Roman philosophies or religions.  Instead we find a young Jewish girl from an ordinary family, her slightly older betrothed (there is nothing in scripture that suggests that Joseph was an older man, so we might assume that he was in his late teens, not that much older than Mary), shepherds (who were largely considered outcasts in Jewish society), foreign astrologers avoiding the puppet Jewish king, and on and on.  What’s more, the savior of the world sent by God doesn’t show up on a white charger at the head of mighty army, but as a baby.

God enters the scene in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.  How will this “save” anyone?

God saves by so uniting himself with us (Emmanuel) that he takes on all of our struggles, joys, pains, and hopes.  The ancient hymn, quoted by that former and infamous persecutor of Christians, Saul-who-became-Paul, captures it well (Philippians 2: 5-11):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

What should all of this nice poetry mean to us?  Paul is explicit.  Writing from prison himself, he tells the Philippians: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  This self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and the path of the Christian, following Christ, is first to empty ourselves if we hope later to rise with him.  

THIS IS THE VERY HEART OF CHRISTIANITY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO CALL OURSELVES DISCIPLES OF JESUS THE CHRIST: TO EMPTY OURSELVES IN IMITATION OF CHRIST.  IF WE’RE NOT DOING THAT WE DARE NOT CALL OURSELVES “CHRISTIANS”!

Many people have written about this in a variety of contexts.  Here are just a few random examples.

Empty yourself: “Suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.”  John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #93.

Empty yourself: “The gift to us of God’s ever faithful love must be answered by an authentic life of charity which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts.  We too must give our gift fully; that is, we must divest ourselves of ourselves in that same kenosis of love.” Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 107.

Empty yourself: “Kenosis moves beyond simply giving up power.  It is an active emptying, not simply the acceptance of powerlessness.” William Ditewig, The Exercise of Governance by Deacons: A Theological and Canonical Study.

Empty yourself:  “It is precisely in the kenosis of Christ (and nowhere else) that the inner majesty of God’s love appears, of God who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8) and a ‘trinity.’  Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone.

Empty yourself: “Satan fears the Trojan horse of an open human heart.” Johann Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit.

034077_29And so we return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This well-known German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and concentration camp martyr embodies the wedding of of the meaning of Christmas with the real world in which we live.  He devoted his life to study, to writing, to opposing injustice — especially the Nazi regime in Germany, ultimately giving the ultimate witness to Christ.  Christians like Bonhoeffer, whose best-known work is called The Cost of Discipleship, are not dreamy, wide-eyed innocents who do not connect with the world.  In fact, their witness shows us just the opposite.  The true Christian is one who — following Christ — engages the world in all of its joys, hopes, pains and suffering.  It is with Bonhoeffer, then, that we enter into Christmas 2015, with his wonderful reflection:

Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.

Bonhoeffer Kenosis Meme

MAY WE ALL “GET” CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR!  HOW WILL WE EMPTY OURSELVES FOR OTHERS?

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

“O Emmanuel”: God Who Walks With Us

“O Emmanuel”: O God-With-Us, our King and Giver of Law, the Longing of the Peoples and their Savior:
come to save us, Lord our God!

23 Dec O EmmanuelHere is the final antiphon, assigned to 23 December. While the original texts of most of the “O Antiphons” were in Latin, here’s one that’s even more ancient (although Latin appropriated it later!).  “Emmanuel” is a Hebrew word taken directly from the original text of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

When I left the seminary after college, the military draft was still in place, and I was due to be drafted.  Believing that I might have more control over matters if I simply enlisted before I could be drafted, I joined the Navy.  I was stunned and thrilled to find out that my first orders after boot camp were to go to Hebrew language school for a year; I was blessed to serve as a Hebrew linguist for the first couple of years in the Navy, largely on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.immanuel1 (2)

In language school, all of our instructors were native-born Israelis, known as sabra.  They quickly got us chatting away in modern Hebrew, and one of the topics they would ask involved answering the question, “What did you study in school?” (“Ma lamadita bevet sefer?”)   When I responded that I had studied Philosophy, they asked why.  I answered that I had been studying to become a priest.  From that moment on, every afternoon for at least one full hour, we began reading Biblical Hebrew.  What a great joy it was to be able to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language!  One particular text we read was the prophet Isaiah, including the verse given above.  “Im [“with”] + “anu” [“us”] + “El” [“God”]: God with us!  While word order is of differing significance in different languages, the fact that God is at the end of the phrase underscores the foundational importance of God to all that goes before.  We see the same thing in many Hebrew names: for example, Michael is “mi” [“who”] + “cha” [“like”] + “El” [“God”].  So, “Immanuel” becomes almost a cry of stunned realization: “With us, GOD!”

At the beginning of the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns his attention to the nature of the Church. “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.  She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (#111).  The relationship of the People with God always begins in God’s own initiative: “God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him” (#112).  So, the fact that we proclaim that God is with us flows from our realization that God has CHOSEN to be with us in every human condition and need.  We have not earned God’s presence, we have not somehow bargained God int it!  The covenant is always God’s initiative; as Love itself, God extends and provides for all creation.  “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.  God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age” (#113).

Francis-feet-drugs-poor-EPAThe implications of With-us-GOD are profound!  As we know, “possessing God” and then waiting for the rapture at the end of time are not Catholic concepts!  On the contrary, With-us-God “means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. . . .  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (#114).

As Advent comes to a close, most of us will be singing — almost as a matter of routine — “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.  Some maintain that the verses have been prayed in one way or another since the 8th Century, although the tune is from the 19th Century.  In one sense it is unfortunate that it has become ubiquitous and taken for granted.  The full verses of the hymn, however, are actually a summary of all of the O Antiphons which we have considered over the last week.  Here, for your convenience, are the verses of the hymn.  May they serve as a reminder of our final days of preparation for the coming of the Lord!

1 O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

2 O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain

3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain

5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain

6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain

7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain

ADVENT REFLECTION

One this final evening before the Vigil of Christmas, what is the practical, pastoral impact of the realization in our own lives that God has truly come to us and remains with us?  Am I, as an individual believer, and are we, as Church, a place where all people can find “mercy freely given”, universal welcome, love, forgiveness and encouragement?  Or, am I — are we — perceived as people of rules and judgments who tend to exclude rather than include?  This Christmas, as we celebrate the union and universal gift of God-for-all, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the liberating power of the joy of the Gospel!

4 Advent Candles