Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

God Doesn’t Accept Me

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

One of the things we hear over and over again is how the Church needs to be more welcoming of those who are in irregular situations — immigrants, single parent and blended families, divorced people, and homosexual people. That is absolutely correct. The Gospel is for everyone, the call to unity with Jesus is universal, and the Church is the ark of salvation for all humanity.

The problem comes when the call to be welcoming becomes a demand for acceptance.

Here’s the problem. God doesn’t accept me,  at least not as I am — a sinner. He wants me to change.  He wants me to reject my sins, to turn to him in repentance, and to live my life differently, according to his will and not by my disordered appetites.

The Christian life is not about acceptance, it’s all about conversion.  This is a fundamental truth of our faith. The very first call of Jesus himself was to repentance (Mk 1:15). His way was prepared by the great John the Baptist, whose entire mission was a call to repentence. He was preceded by the prophets, whose message was always to turn away from sin and return to God in contrition.

We are reminded of this when we ask for forgiveness at Mass, when we say the Our Father (“forgive us our trespasses…”) and the Hail Mary (“pray for us sinners…”).  We get the most vivid reminder on Ash Wednesday, when we are told to “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  Perhaps we have lost sight of this.  Perhaps we’ve been too busy singing bland empty stuff like “All Are Welcome” that we’ve forgotten the essential message of great hymns like the Attende Domine.

This was called to my mind by a propaganda video I recently saw, put out by a supposedly Catholic parish, trumpeting their ministry to homosexual persons.  It was very glossy, super professional, and totally misguided and dangerous.  The video was all about acceptance, and nothing about conversion.  In fact, sin and repentance were never even mentioned, and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality was openly rejected in word and practice.  The entire video was, in essence, a permission slip for people to continue in their sins.

If we welcome people without calling them to conversion, then we are misleading them and doing them no favors.  We are putting their souls, and our own, at risk.  God does not want me to be comfortable in my sins.  He wants me to reject my sins, seek forgiveness, and never look back.  Of course, we have to be gentle and kind, merciful and compassionate, and above all, patient.  Sin is an addiction for most of us — it certainly is for me — and it takes time for us to go through detox and rehab.  But God’s grace will help us go through this process, and to live clean and sober.  In fact, it’s impossible for us to experience real conversion through our own strength.  We can only do this through the grace of God, experienced through the ministry of other recovering sinners and dispensed through the Sacraments.

The Christian life is not easy.  It is difficult to lead a life of holiness and be saints.  But we’ll never get close to that goal if we’re looking for mere acceptance.  We have to acknowledge and renounce our sins, and turn to God for healing.

Please, God, don’t accept me.  Change me.

Farewell to a Churchman

Monday, March 16th, 2015

It is with great personal sadness that I write of the death of Edward Cardinal Egan.  He was a fine bishop, a man who loved the Church, and he was very kind to me personally.  I will remember him fondly, and I will miss him.

Cardinal Egan governed the Archdiocese during some of our most difficult hours.  The combination of 9/11 and the sex abuse crisis were a terrible trial for our City and our Archdiocese.  The dramatic social changes that were taking place in New York were also a serious challenge — the continued erosion of respect for human life and marriage, and the growing threats to religious liberty.  Internally, the Archdiocese had to struggle — as we always do — with limited resources.

Cardinal Egan proved that he was up to the challenge.  I worked very closely with him on pro-life issues and as Director of our Safe Environment Office, our effort to respond to the sex abuse crisis and to ensure the safety of children who were entrusted to our care.  You could not have asked for a more committed, dedicated bishop.  The Cardinal was keenly, directly, and urgently attentive to our child protection efforts.  We were all learning from past mistakes, trying to heal wounds, dealing with the chaos of a decentralized institution, and striving to make things better for the present and future.  With his backing, and in large part thanks to him, we made great strides.

I could tell dozens of stories about my interactions with the Cardinal.  He was a tough overseer.  He scrutinized everything, suggested improvements, and held people accountable.  I can testify that when you had disappointed him, you would have a conversation that was difficult to forget.  But he was also decisive and forward-thinking, and kept his goals in sight at all times.  When you gave your best effort, you knew very clearly that he appreciated it.  He served the Church whole-heartedly, and he recognized and honored others who did the same.

After he retired, I had several experiences with the Cardinal that really give a measure of the man he was.  Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to him and asked him to celebrate Mass for our Inaugural Men’s Conference.  He immediately and enthusiastically agreed, and he began thinking of themes for his homily so that he could make the event memorable for the men.  He was particularly keen to preach about the courage to do what’s right, in the face of opposition.  He was also happy that we were going to have the Eucharist and Confession at the center of our day.  That says a lot to me.  Even after such a distinguished career, he was always a priest, always interested in bringing the graces of the Sacraments to the People of God, and always eager to serve in whatever way he could, and always there to encourage us to follow the Gospel.

The other occasion was even more important to me.  My mother passed away a few years ago.  The day before the funeral, I was informed by my pastor that Cardinal Egan was going to come and preside at my mom’s funeral.  I was thunderstruck.  I would never have dreamed of asking him to do that, but he came forward of his own initiative.  His presence at the funeral was a great honor, and it was personally comforting to me.  He also gave a powerful and beautiful reflection at the end of Mass.  I am still deeply moved in thinking of it.  That also says a lot to me.  He was a kind man, who cared about people and who wanted to bring them the comfort of Christ in times of sorrow.

When I heard about the Cardinal’s passing into eternal life, I was in Washington for meetings at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.  I was really torn about what to do — should I skip the meeting and come home for the funeral?  In the end, I decided to stay at the meeting, put my own interests aside, and do my duty to the Church.  I felt peace with that decision, and I think that the Cardinal’s intercession had a lot to do with that.  He was always a Churchman, a man who served his beloved Church and who put duty to Her above all personal considerations.  That’s one of the most important lessons I learned from him.

Requiem aeternam, Cardinal Egan.  You were a good priest, a good bishop, and a good man.

My Lenten Mission

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Ash Wednesday has come and gone.  And I have to admit that I am not very good at Lent.

I never miss an Ash Wednesday Mass, and I have no problem walking around with ashes on my forehead.  I readily answer questions about why my head is dirty, and I even posted an #AshTag selfie on Facebook.  But I am far too often like the seeds that fall amid the thorns, and the “cares of the world” overtake me and “choke the word” so that it bears little fruit (see Matthew 13:1-23).  My intentions are good, but my persistence is weak, and I let the busyness of my life distract me from the path to greater holiness.

So I would very much like to grow spiritually through the spiritual and penitential practices of Lent.  Last year, I tried something new, and I found that it bore fruit.  So I’m going to try it again this year.  During Lent, I’m going to dedicate myself to intercessory prayer, praying for other people who are in need, particularly if they have nobody else to pray for them.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis had this to say:

One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession…. The great men and women of God were great intercessors. Intercession is like a “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people. (281-83)

So I’ve asked people to send me names of people whom they would like me to pray for, and I’m keeping a list on my phone.  Every day, when I say my morning prayers, I go through the list and pray by name for each of the people and for their needs.

Now, I don’t think that I have any kind of special pull with the Lord, or that my prayers jump to the front of the line, or that I think I deserve any special credit for this.  Intercessory prayer has been a practice among God’s people stretching all the way back to Abraham.  It’s part of every Mass, and we do it every time we ask our Father to “give us today our daily bread” and Mary to “pray for us sinners”.

But I have a sense that this is what God wants me to focus on this Lent.  I’ve been feeling a desire in my heart to pray for others, and I’ve always trusted those feelings as promptings by the Spirit or subtle nudging by my Guardian Angel.

And so, that’s my Lenten mission — to pray for others.  If anyone out there has a prayer intention, feel free to email it to me at emechmann@archny.org.  And perhaps you could say a prayer for me, too.

The Politics of Principle

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last six years.  This post was written in memory of Jack Swan, a great warrior of faith and politics, who entered eternal life on February 2, 1998.  God sent Jack into my life to teach me these lessons about politics, and I’m just a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant.  As time goes by, I see more and more a need for us to recapture the politics of principle.  Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lessons right.)

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently perceived as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

Engagement and Resistance

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Reflecting on my pessimistic take on the Supreme Court’s decision to make a final ruling on the marriage redefinition cases, I had an interesting email exchange with my friend and colleague Alexis Carra. She wrote to me:

Inevitably, the government/legislature/court will no longer recognize true religious liberty, amongst other things. This is an unfortunate consequence of a metaphysical and anthropological revolution/decline that has swept society; a phenomenon in which people no longer have a proper understand of human nature, reality, and our relationship to God.

1) So in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the public sphere, especially when our court system will inevitably be against us? Is it time to change methods? If so, what should our new method(s) be?

(2) Similarly, in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the private sphere? How should we engage our children, our friends, and our communities, especially when they are often hostile towards our message?

I replied, in part:

I wish I had answers to your questions. I have believed for many years that the time is rapidly approaching when Catholics may no longer be able to give their consent to the Constitutional morass that our judicial oligarchy has now imposed on us. This is a regime where truth and morality are denied and are instead branded as invidious bigotry, while laws that violate fundamental human rights are foisted upon us and we are compelled to cooperate with them. The Supreme Court’s decision on the marriage case may put us in a position where we can no longer recognize the legitimacy of the current regime.

Alexis’ response gets right to the heart of the matter, and adds some important distinctions:

It’s going to be even harder to live as authentic Catholics within the American system or as you say, “the current regime.” We will be forced to cooperate with evil under duress or become martyrs.

However, I actually do have some hope. I think the distinction must be made between “engaging with the public system” and “utilizing the public system.” I think — for most cases – we will be unable to utilize the system in order to uphold our religious liberties, etc. Yet this does not mean that we completely retreat from the system. Instead, we must continue to engage with the system; we must become the gadfly to the system (thinking of Socrates here). And this is a very important role that cannot be underestimated.

I still think there is something to be said for public engagement. I think the gay marriage debate has been largely a disastrous failure, but the same cannot be said for abortion. I think progress has made been made particularly because many young people rightly perceive abortion as the murdering of innocent life.

Overall, I think we are called to live as counter-cultural witnesses in an active sense; most of us are not called to completely separate ourselves from society.

I think that she is precisely correct. I too am pessimistic but not hopeless. There are many who advocate for disengagement from society, similar to the Amish. I refuse to do so. Engagement is clearly the proper course, but as a form of resistance to the dictatorship of relativism — where we continually proclaim the truth with love, and steadfastly refuse to conform to the lies. My model for this is Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

Nothing can erase the human desire for, and recognition of, the truth. Even under all the lies, the vast majority of people will try to live in truth. We are always called by our faith to be witnesses to the truth, even when that truth may be a “sign of contradiction”.

Pessimism about Marriage and the Supreme Court

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

The Supreme Court has now agreed to decide one of the marriage redefinition cases. The oral argument will be held at the end of April, and a decision will come down at the end of June.

In my opinion, this is not good news. The conventional wisdom is that the Court takes cases in order to reverse lower courts, and the statistics bear that out (in revious terms, they’ve reversed about 75% of the cases they take). So it’s very significant that the Court took the case from the Sixth Circuit — the only Circuit Court to have upheld real marriage.

We also have to bear in mind that in the Windsor case, the majority of the Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, on the theory that it violated Equal Protection because the law was enacted specifically with “animus” towards homosexuals. In the case the Court just accepted, each of the state laws involved (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee) would be vulnerable to that same argument, since they adopted constitutional amendments specifically to rule out the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

So I think there’s every reason to anticipate that the Court will rule the wrong way. It’s clear that there is a solid 4-vote bloc that will vote to recognize same-sex “marriage” (Sotomayor, Kagen, Breyer, and Ginsberg), and a 4-vote bloc that will likely vote against it (Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and probably Roberts). Given Justice Kennedy’s past record on homosexual rights cases — he has always voted in favor of them and has written some terrible majority opinions centered on the issue of alleged “animus” (see the Lawrence, Romer, and Windsor cases) — it seems virtually certain that he will follow his own reasoning in his Windsor majority opinion, and rule that the secret messages, written in invisible ink but that he manages to discern in the Constitution, somehow require the recognition of same-sex “marriage”.

In other words, the Court will likely decide that the Equal Protection Clause requires that we must abandon logic, and say that inherently different things are actually the same.  Welcome to the Humpty-Dumpty world of justice, where words mean whatever the people in power wish them to mean.

I am innately pessimistic about Court rulings, but I just can’t see any path to a good outcome here. Not only will a marriage re-definition ruling flout the will of the people as expressed in the democratic process, it will contradict the fundamental truths about marriage contained in the natural law and in the nature of the human person. It will also increase pressure on religious people to conform, and will test our ability to live in keeping with our faith in an increasingly hostile nation.

 

You Can Come In Off the Ledge Now

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

In recent days, I’ve been approached by several friends who are very upset and even frightened about the state of the Church, and where things are going.  I’m a worrier by nature, so I can sympathize with them, but I can’t help but think that things are getting a little over-blown.  The Church is always in trouble, but I’m not seeing any icebergs in the immediate future.

Let me offer a few suggestions to my friends who are feeling such deep anxiety.

The first is to relax.  The best way to do that is to ignore everything being said by the mainstream media and the secular pundits (including most of the Catholic pundits). The news reports are obsessed with their favorite issues, and don’t understand anything that they’re talking about. As far as the pundits go, they’re all projecting their own agendas (and fears) onto the Holy Father and Church. Don’t read any of them. Just think of Mark 8:33.

I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, much of what passes for the Catholic blogosphere is only a little bit better, and some of it is much worse. If certain Catholic blogs and websites are causing you agita, then ignore them.  They have no more authority than anyone else with a keyboard and an internet connection (such as yours truly). Or, if you can’t resist yourself, ignore the comboxes. Many of the comboxes are toxic, and bad for our souls. (In this regard, I’m reminded of a famous warning). In any event, all the suspicion and arguing that’s going on in the Catholic blogosphere encourages a spirit of division into the Church. That’s neither useful, not good for the state of our souls.

The second is to relax.  Another good way to do that is to ignore Vatican politics. I have no idea why some bishops are promoted, and others are cast aside, which cardinal is in favor and which is in Siberia, and which party or conspiracy is ahead and which is losing. And you know what? Nobody else does, either. Fretting about all that stuff does nobody any good.  Think about — or even better, pray about — Psalm 131.

The third is to relax.  One of the best ways to do that is to pray more.  We should pray constantly for each other, and particularly for our Holy Father and our bishops.  Most people have no idea how hard the life of a bishop is.  I can’t even imagine how hard the Pope’s life is.  They really need our prayers.  Our pastors, parish priests and deacons, too, are hard pressed to give wounded people the pastoral assistance they need.  They could use some more prayers too.  Prayer helps them, but it also transforms us.  And I don’t know about you, but I could sure use some major transforming.

If those suggestions aren’t sufficient for you, can I make a few more? Are you worried about how the faith is being transmitted to the youth? I don’t blame you – and I bet your parish could use your help as a catechist. Are you concerned about the state of marriage, and what’s going to be done about the separated and divorced?  You should be, we all are too — so how about volunteering for some kind of marriage ministry?  Unsure about how the Church will give pastoral care to homosexual persons?  So are we all — could you maybe give some support to the Courage apostolate, which reaches out to homosexual persons and helps them live chaste lives?

There’s no doubt that we live in “interesting times”, as the old expression goes.  When things are unsettled, it’s always good to relax, and return to Christianity 101, to make sure that we’re solid on the basics — prayer, solid belief, sacraments, charity.  If our foundation is strong, then the whole structure will withstand whatever storms may assail it.

In these times, I think it’s also particularly important to pray to the Holy Spirit, who has been guiding the Church through thick and thin, and to Mother Mary who has been tirelessly protecting her Church.

My Catholic Voting Decision

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[Several years ago, in anticipation of Election Day, I posted on my personal opinion about how to approach making a voting decision.  I've revised and combined those earlier posts, because the stakes in the current election are so high -- it is vital that we maintain a pro-life majority in our state Senate.]

Once again, Election Day approaches.  At times like these, I am frequently asked how people can do the right thing as voters, as citizens, and as Catholics.  As I understand the teachings of our Church, there are several critical questions involved here. The first is the formation of my conscience.  Our bishops have said quite clearly that

“Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ‘feeling’ about what we should or should not do.” (Faithful Citizenship 17)

A good, Catholic conscience is obedient to the teachings of the Church, and open to hearing the voice of God.  It considers God’s will more important than any partisan interest that I may have.  It always directs me to do good and avoid evil, and in the case of voting,

“A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Participation of Catholics in Political Life 4)

Building on the proper formation of conscience, we can then turn to the issues and the candidates.  One thing is crystal clear at this point:  all the issues are not the same, and the defense of human life is the paramount issue for Catholics to consider. The teaching of our Church is clear:  we must vote pro-life.  As the United States Bishops have said,

“This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection.” (Faithful Citizenship 31). “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (Faithful Citizenship 28)

This means that in evaluating a candidate, we must consider, first and foremost, their position on the defense of human life.  As the U.S. Bishops have said:

“As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” (Faithful Citizenship 42)

Our New York Bishops have said the same:

“The inalienable right to right of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.” (New York State Bishops, Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty)

Cardinal Egan once confronted us, in language as plain as possible,with the choice of conscience and discipleship that we face when going into the voting booth:

Look [at the pictures of unborn children] and decide with honesty and decency what the Lord expects of you and me as the horror of ‘legalized’ abortion continues to erode the honor of our nation. Look, and do not absolve yourself if you refuse to act.”

Cardinal Egan also once said,

Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.

This also means, of course, that we have to inform ourselves about where candidates stand on the issues.  We can’t just blunder around the voting booth with no information.  And given the abundance of data available on the internet, it really doesn’t take much effort to find out about the position of candidates.  Just visit their websites, and see where they stand on abortion, “reproductive rights”, “choice”, and, in the case of New York State candidates, the “Women’s Equality Act” (which contains a provision that would greatly expand abortion in our state).  An example of an informational voter guide, from a reliable outside organization, can be found here.

So, from my perspective, this boils down to a very simple test that I try to adhere to, as best I can: If you think that killing unborn children should be legal, then I won’t vote for you. You haven’t earned my vote.  In my opinion, you’re not qualified to hold public office.  I just won’t vote for someone who will promote or permit grave evil.  I don’t subscribe to the principle of the “lesser of two evils”.  All that means is I’m voting for evil, and it still produces evil in the end.  If there’s nobody in a race that fits my standards, I’ll leave the line blank or write in a name.

When I pick up my ballot on Tuesday, I will see a stark choice between candidates who are pro-abortion, and others who are pro-life.  In fact, several of the pro-abortion candidates (who were baptized as Catholics, sad to say) are not just mouthing the old “personally opposed but…” sham, but are instead ardent promoters and defenders of the legalized killing of unborn children, and they have strongly campaigned on the issue.  If they are elected, there is a grave danger that the evil abortion expansion plan hidden in the “Women’s Equality Act” will be pushed forward. I cannot see how I as a Catholic could vote for such persons.

So for me, the choice is easy — I will vote only for the pro-life candidates.

(Important Note: I am going to repeat what is said in the disclaimer on the side of this blog — the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, they do not in any way reflect an official position of the Archdiocese, nor should they be considered an endorsement of any candidate by the Archdiocese.)

Animals and Christian Discipleship

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

About ten years ago, I decided to give up eating meat.  I didn’t do it for ethical, aesthetics, or health reasons.  I liked meat, so it was a mild sacrifice, as a way of trying to grow spiritually and overcome a particular “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Cor 12:7).  I viewed it as akin to a life-long Lenten Friday abstinence practice.

As with many ascetical practices, I found that it really bore fruit in my life, and I’ve continued with the practice ever since.  I describe myself generally as a “non-meat-eater” or a “vegetarian”, although I still eat dairy and seafood (occasionally), so the technical term for my diet would be probably be “pesco-vegetarian”.

At the time, I really didn’t have any desire to become an ethical vegetarian.  But I’ve become more curious about the arguments surrounding that philosophy.  I read some of the writings of Peter Singer, the leading animal rights philosopher, and found them deeply disturbing.  Singer and his followers seem to me to be profoundly anti-human, even to the point of advocating grave moral evil, such as the idea that unborn, newborn and handicapped children have no right to life, since they lack certain qualities of consciousness, and thus can be killed by their parents.  As a Christian — and a human being — I find such positions to be abhorrent, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way.

So it was with great interest that I found a book by Prof. Charles Camosy, an authentically pro-life theologian at Fordham, entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.  The goal of the book is to examine how Christians should relate to animals, particularly on such issues as factory farming and the use of animals in research.  I had hoped that the book would present a convincing Christian view of the relationship between humans and animals in the plan of God. While there are many aspects of the book that I found to be excellent, I was disappointed in his basic argument.

As with many animal rights arguments, Prof. Camosy’s position seemed to rest on an assumption that there is “speciesism” in the way we treat animals.  That term refers to an unjustifiable and invidious belief that humans are not just different from, but innately superior to animals in God’s plan for creation.  But surely that is the proposition that he should be seeking to prove, not a self-evident principle on which he can base his entire argument.  I found this to be a very unconvincing form of circular reasoning — he begs the question that he should be trying to answer.

I also found his use of Sacred Scripture to be implausible.  There is no doubt that God created animals not just to be used by humanity, but as creatures who have the “breath of life” and are meant to be our companions (see Gen. 1).  Yet there also can be no question that God specifically permitted the use of animals in ritual sacrifice and for food (see generally Leviticus).  Prof. Camosy appears to reject this aspect of Divine Revelation, particularly by suggesting that the practice of ritual sacrifice was a carryover from pagan practices and was not the will of God.  That is just completely unconvincing, and it is inconsistent with the essential role of ritual sacrifice in understanding the mystery of Jesus as the Paschal Sacrifice.

However, I also have to add that I found that Prof. Camosy makes a very compelling argument about the need for Christians to reject the horrors of factory farming.  There is overwhelming evidence that modern methods of factory farming are unspeakably cruel to animals, and they are truly shocking to the conscience.  Prof. Camosy makes a persuasive case that factory farming stems from a moral deficit that is inherent in a consumerist mentality that virtually amounts to an idolatry of profit.  This represents, I think, one of the best argument against the moral legitimacy of eating meat, at least as it is produced by way of this particular structure of sin.

I wish that Prof. Camosy had not begun his argument with the rejection of human exceptionalism in the divine plan, and I wish that he had given proper emphasis to the principle that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  That is actually the best argument for the ethical and humane treatment of animals, and even for the adoption of a vegetarian diet.  If we are made in the image of God, then we must assume some aspect of His relationship with the creation that He loves, and to which he gave the breath of life.  God is the ultimate steward of His gift of creation, and we are thus called to love and serve nature and animals, and to act with self-giving love to them.

I don’t believe that this role as stewards of creation requires us to forego meat in our diet, but it certainly requires us to take seriously our attitude towards our animal friends, and how we treat them.  We are so accustomed to this in our homes.  So many people love their dogs and cats and birds, and intuitively see the breath of life in them, and treat them very well.  As Prof. Camosy points out, we need to extend that attitude of fraternity to the animals we cannot see, particularly those in factory farms and medical research facilities.  That may require a change in lifestyle — and even our diet — but that’s the case with every aspect of our Christian discipleship.

Encounter and Evangelization

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

In this time of rapidly shifting cultural values — usually not for the better — the Church and Catholics are struggling to find the right way to proclaim the Gospel and live according to our faith.  The public witness of the Church and Catholics is becoming increasingly difficult, as our government and secularized culture becomes more hostile to us.  Each new day seems to bring a new challenge, and everyday Catholics are confused, uncertain, and frequently upset.

I think that in times like these, it’s crucial to make sure that we remind ourselves of the fundamentals.

The entire purpose of the Church is not to decide who can attend what dinner, or who can be part of a parade. The mission of the Church is to bring people into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. That means we have to bring people to the real Jesus, and the model for this is the story with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

That meeting involved two things — compassion and conversion. Both are essential, and can never be separated. The woman was treated with compassion and mercy by Jesus, and thus was open to his call to conversion. If we fail to present both aspects of the encounter, we are lying to people and presenting a false Jesus — he’s not just about mercy, and he’s not only about conversion (and he’s never about condemnation). The real Jesus simultaneously says “I love you even when you’ve sinned”, and “come, follow me”.

I think our Holy Father and our own Archbishop have realized that there are significant impediments in our culture to hearing the Gospel message, and thus people are unwilling to come to meet Jesus.  In the minds of all too many people, we are not seen as merciful and compassionate, but judgmental and condemnatory.  In response, our leaders have decided that we have to emphasize the message of mercy, so that people will be more open to hearing the message of conversion. In his closing remarks to the young men and women who attended World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis said this:

Every one of you, each in his or her own way, was a means enabling thousands of young people to “prepare the way” to meet Jesus. And this is the most beautiful service we can give as missionary disciples. To prepare the way so that all people may know, meet and love the Lord.

This is the task of the New Evangelization, and of the Church.  We have to make sure that when people encounter us, they’re encountering Christ, and feel both his compassion and his call to conversion.  When they see his face in our face, we will be fulfilling our mission.