Archive for the ‘Catholic Teaching’ Category

Hard Cases, Small Steps

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

The political world has been abuzz lately over comments made by a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri.  When asked about whether pro-lifers would accept a ban on abortion that permitted an exception for rape or incest, the candidate made some ill-conceived remarks that seemed to minimize the horror of rape.  This incident has now been used by the forces of the Culture of Death (including their allies in the media) to flog pro-lifers as being radical or anti-woman.

Some clarification and explanation is in order.

The unquestioned goal of the pro-life movement is a conversion of the hearts of individuals, and thus of our culture, so that every innocent life is protected from conception until natural death.  This protection will involve changes in the law so that the practice — and even the concept — of abortion would be completely eradicated from our land.  Given our presumption that every human life has inestimable value, and that innocent life cannot be taken, we work towards the ultimate goal of enacting laws to prohibit abortion with no exceptions.  One vehicle for this would be a Human Life Amendment.

In short, we aim to build a Culture of Life, in which all lives are valued.  To get a glimpse of this goal, and how we can get there, I suggest that people read the great statement by the United States Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life.

Unfortunately, our culture is not yet ready to accept the changes in attitude and in law that we are seeking.  While there have been shifts in public opinion over the years in favor of the pro-life position, there are still a large number of individuals who either approve of abortion, or who are willing to tolerate it for a perceived “greater good”.  We must redouble our efforts to reach out to our brothers and sisters who believe this, to convert their hearts.

One way that we seek to achieve this conversion of heart is by taking  incremental steps towards our ultimate goal — in short, building a Culture of Life, brick by brick.  This is why we support measures that limit and restrict abortion in various ways, such as parental notification laws, bans on late-term abortions, and such.  By supporting these initiatives, we are not accepting the morality of abortion — we are seeking to mitigate the damage, and to use these bills as a vehicle to educate people about abortion, as a way of calling them to conversion.  This approach to legislation was specifically approved by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (see paragraph 73).

This is where the “rape exception” comes into play.  Pro-lifers hold steadfastly to the fundamental truth that a baby conceived in a rape is an innocent human being whose life may never be directly terminated.  We see rape as a horrific act, an inexcusable violation of the dignity of a woman, a depraved crime that should be severely punished by law.  We believe that a woman victimized by rape must receive our support as she strives for healing.  But we do not accept that the path to healing passes through the abortion clinic.  We firmly believe that one cannot heal a victim of violence, by taking the life of another innocent person.

Unfortunately, many people disagree with us — people who either consider themselves pro-life, or who are willing to support some of our goals.  These people are potential allies as we try to pass common-sense laws to restrict abortion.  We wish to build alliances and coalitions with these potential supporters, not alienate them.  So, many pro-lifers in the political and policy arena are willing to tolerate a “rape exception” to a ban on abortion.   That is not to say that we consider such an exception as a final goal — but we take what we can get, when we can get it, and press on from there, always moving forwards.

There’s an old adage that “hard cases make bad law”.  They also make unsatisfactory compromises, and disappointment.  But they sometimes can produce small steps towards our ultimate goal.

 

“Liberal Christianity” and the Real Church

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

In my last post, I considered a question of Catholic identity, stemming from a story about the Diocese of Arlington, and their request that all catechists make a profession of faith.

A second item in the press has also raised the question of Catholic identity.  In the New York Times, Ross Douthat, one of the most perceptive observers of modern religious trends, wrote on the question “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”.   The focus is on the Episcopal Church, but the piece (and his recent book, “Bad Religion”) is also a challenge to us as Catholics to consider the identity of our own Church.

“Liberal Christianity” is a notoriously protean entity, but it can be found in every Christian community, including the Church.  It has variously been known under the term “modernism”, or “revisionism”.  It is often conflated with political liberalism, but the two are not always or necessarily connected or identical.  Theological liberalism’s characteristics include:

  • A rejection of Church teaching authority either in whole or in part;  this is frequently seen  in assertions or implications that there are other sources of authority that are entitled to equal or greater weight than the Magisterium on matters of faith and morals (e.g.,  the writings of academic theologians, the alleged consensus of the people, the beliefs of other religions, etc.);
  • Promoting the idea that Revelation is subject to continual revision based on the purported lessons of modern science or philosophy; we see this most often in calls for the Church to “update outmoded teachings” or to “get with the times”;
  • A dislike or open disregard for certain aspects of Church law, particularly those that require doctrinal fidelity for individuals or institutions (e.g., Pope John Paul’s decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the fidelity of theologians and universities) or the liturgical rubrics;
  • Proposing the revision of moral doctrine based on the common behavior of people (i.e., their sins), the results of opinion polls, or developments in contemporary philosophy or psychology;  this is particularly focused on sexual matters (e.g., contraception or homosexual acts), and is very popular in Catholic academia (as was seen in the recent  Notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that a book by a prominent theologian was incompatible with the teaching of the Church);
  • Negative attitudes towards traditional devotions and liturgy; this can be seen in some of the opposition to the new translation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and in the contempt and hostility of some towards the Extraordinary Form;
  • A distorted notion of the absolute autonomy of individual conscience, without recognizing that conscience must always be formed by the teachings of the Church and subject to the commands of God;
  • A sense of the post-Conciliar Church characterized by what Pope Benedict has called “a hermeneutic of rupture” from tradition; we all know this as the amorphous “Spirit of Vatican II”, which has led to all sorts of innovations and abuses that have no basis in the actual teachings of the Council or the traditional teachings or practices of the Church.
  • Those of us raised in the 1960’s and 1970’s are very familiar with this brand of “liberal Catholicism”.  We have all been immersed in it, and have seen its failure, which led Cardinal George to call it “an exhausted project… [that] no longer gives life”.  There are many, many flaws in liberal Christianity, and Cardinal George does an excellent job of dissecting the corpse.

    Douthat’s piece in the Times focuses our attention particularly on the failure of liberal Christianity — and liberal Catholicism in particular — to properly understand the nature and purpose of the Church.  In that view, the Church is merely another sociological phenomenon, no different from any other worldly entity, the purpose of which is limited to worldly matters — to empower people (women, minorities, etc.), redress historical grievances, effect political change, and so on.

    This fails to understand the nature of the Church.  She is the Body of Christ, His Bride, and is, in a deep existential sense, inseparable from Him.  Although made up of flawed and imperfect humans, we can never speak of the Church without speaking of Christ Himself. She is human, indeed, but She is also divine.  As both a human and divine entity, the Church respects both the human and divine aspects of every person.

    So, the purpose of the Church is also not limited to human affairs.  Her ultimate purpose is to bring people into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ — an encounter with a real person — so that people can come to know the Father through the Spirit, and thus attain eternal life.   While the  earthly activities of the Church are valuable and must be pursued out of obedience to the will of God, they all take a distant second place to that fundamental task of bringing people to God.

    Liberal Christianity doesn’t think of the Church that way, and never speaks of Her that way. That is why, as Cardinal George pointed out, it “no longer gives life”.  Indeed, that is why liberal Christianity is diminishing in numbers and influence, because their interests (politics, sexual innovation, environmentalism, etc.) do not appeal to the basic desire of people to know and love God.  As evidenced by its obsession with separating sexuality from fertility, liberal Christianity is sterile, and we all know where sterility leads.

    The real Church, which passionately loves Her devoted Bridegroom, longs to bring everyone to know Him as well.  She is focused on the final goal — life forever in the eternal exchange of love that is God’s own life.

    Our real Church is rich and fecund, and will always bear fruit.

     

    A Question of Identity

    Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

    A recent news item has led me to reflect on a question that I think is crucial for all Catholics, indeed all Christians, at this time — the question of who we are.

    The “news” story (actually a commentary in the form of a news article) appeared in the Washington Post.  It describes the decision of the Arlington Diocese to require all their catechists to make a profession of faith, and the decision by a handful of catechists to resign rather than comply.

    The Profession of Faith is the same one prescribed by the Holy See for teachers in seminaries, pastors, and the heads of religious institutions, and is quite unremarkable.  It essentially asks if a person accepts the Apostles’ Creed and authoritative Church teaching –in other words, if a  person accepts what the Church has proposed for belief.

    To a person of common sense, the request by the Arlington Diocese is unexceptional:  if you are teaching the Catholic faith to children, we would like to make sure that you actually believe and accept the Catholic faith.  It’s like when a person assumes a public office — they have to swear to uphold the constitution and laws, and faithfully execute their office.  Or, think of it as a consumer protection pledge, like a “God Housekeeping Stamp of Approval”.

    To the author of the WaPo piece, and to the dissenting catechists, it is a shocking thing.  Pretty much anyone who has read religion articles in the press could write the story, since it hits all the media tropes — mean and authoritarian hidebound male bishops, courageous free-thinking women following their conscience, references to partisan politics and the health care law, and the Nazi’s even make a cameo appearance.   Naturally, it’s not as if the former catechists are Monophysites or anything too theological for the ordinary reporter to explain.   Their dissent  stems from all the usual trendy pelvic and gender issues, which the press loves to report about.  It’s pretty shoddy journalism.

    This story is striking to me because it involves deeper questions, which are not just being asked by the Arlington Diocese to their catechists, but which are in fact being asked of all of us:  What do I believe?  What does it mean for me to be a Catholic?

    For many people, both now and throughout history, being a Catholic has little to do with actual beliefs.  It is instead a cultural identity, or an ethnic characteristic, or a social custom.

    But that surely is not enough.  To be a Catholic means to hold certain beliefs in common with our brethren throughout the world, and throughout time.  It means to affirm the same faith that was preserved for us by the great saints, many of whom sacrificed their lives so that I might know that faith. It means to hand on to others, what was handed on to us.

    But on an even deeper level, it means to come to know the truth about somebody, about a person who loves me more than life itself, and who has given all of himself so that I may know and love him.  You can’t really love someone unless you know them, deeply and intimately.

    I know nothing of God — Father, Son, or Spirit — except what has been taught to me by the Church, and given to me by Her by Word, Sacrament, and Work.  I could never love God — the real God, not the flawed one I would rather create in my own image — if I had not received the truth about Him from the Church.

    That is why professions of faith are so significant to us as Catholics, and why we should be proud to affirm the truths of our faith, as taught to us by our Church, and to proclaim those truths to our world.

    A Timely Reminder About Christians in the World

    Friday, May 11th, 2012

    One of the wonderful ways in which Providence acts is through the liturgy.  So often, the readings offered to us by the Church for public worship are exactly what we need to hear at a particular moment in our lives.  These are not coincidences — they are a way in which God reveals His truth and his will to us.

    And just so, on Wednesday.  That was the day that the President announced his “evolution” on the redefinition of marriage, a development that bodes ill for the religious liberty of Christians in this nation.  On that day, the Divine Office presented this excerpt from the Letter to Diognetus (a work of Christian apologetics that dates from the second century) as part of the Office of Readings:

    Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

    And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

    Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

    To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

    Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

    Thank you, Lord, for your timely reminder that we are citizens of Your heavenly kingdom, passing through this valley of tears, and that we should comport ourselves accordingly.

    The Message Could Not Be Clearer

    Friday, January 20th, 2012

    The juxtaposition of events couldn’t have been more stark.  Nor could the message be any clearer — the current Administration has a deep-seated, inveterate hostility to religious freedom.

    The first event happened just last week, in its most important religious liberty decision in decades, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the autonomy of churches to act according to their beliefs, without government intrusion.   The case was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and I’ve written about it before.  Essentially, the case involved the ability of churches and other religious organizations to choose their own leaders, according to their religious beliefs.

    It’s important to note that, in deciding the case, the Supreme Court specifically rejected the Administration’s argument that churches have no special protection in the choice of their leaders, and should be given no more deference in such decisions than any other association — like a bowling league.  This, despite the fact that the First Amendment grants clear, specific protection to the freedom of religion.

    That was a bold example of the radicalism of this Administration, and their disdain for religious freedom.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court can actually read the Constitution, and understands what it means — and handed down the clearly correct ruling.

    The second event happened today.  The Administration announced that it was going to issue final regulations that would require religious organizations to provide full health insurance coverage for sterilization, abortifacient drugs, and contraceptives.  A very narrow exemption was granted, but it is so tiny in its coverage that few, if any, organizations will qualify.  I’ve written about this regulation before as well.

    Religious organizations of all denominations had denounced this plan, and had called for a broader exemption, in order to respect the conscience rights of those who object to being forced to pay for morally offensive drugs and procedures.  Yet the Administration disdained their request, and made no changes in the proposal.

    Again, you could not ask for a clearer example of the hostility of this Administration towards religious freedom.  The secularist, anti-life ideology of our rulers will not compromise, and will force all others to conform.

    Sometimes, things are seen most clearly from a distance.  Yesterday, Pope Benedict received some of the bishops of the United States at one of their periodic “ad limina” meetings.  In his remarks to the bishops, the Holy Father made some pointed observations about the threats to religious liberty:

    it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

    Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.

    The Holy Father is right.  We as lay Catholics need to take action to defend our freedom, and the freedom of our Church.

    Remember, elections matter.

     

     

    War and Consequentialism

    Friday, January 13th, 2012

    As the presidential race heats up, the rhetoric also heats up.  And the language being used on the issue of war and national defense is becoming very warm indeed.

    And very, very morally troubling.

    Just yesterday, a scientist who is allegedly working on the Iranian nuclear program was killed when his got into his car and was blown up by an explosive that was attached to it by unknown parties.  It was the latest incident in an ongoing covert war being conducted against the Iranian regime and their suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons.

    In response, one of the candidates for the Presidency of the United States said this:

    any nuclear scientist, particularly any foreign nuclear scientist, who’s cooperating with the Iranians in developing a nuclear weapon program would be considered an enemy combatant…  this is the most serious threat to the security and stability of the world that we have today, and we should be using all types of methodologies to stop that, including taking out people

    Now, I’m certainly no pacifist.  I strongly support the ability of a national government to defend itself and its citizens against unjust aggression.  And I have no doubt that the current regime in Iran is oppressive to its own people and dangerous to its neighbors, particularly Israel.

    But there is no way that one can justify the rhetoric I just quoted.  Leave aside for a moment the question of legality under American and international law — which would involve answering the question, “when did we declare war on Iran?”

    Killing this scientist was utterly inconsistent with the principles of the divine and natural law. It is clearly not morally permissible to kill another human being because one believes that he may be working on a scientific program that may, at some point, pose a threat to our nation.

    Pope John Paul, in his great encyclical, the Gospel of Life, said this very plainly:

    “The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity” (57)

    Assuming we can trust in the accuracy of our intelligence community (a dubious proposition, in any event) and consider this scientist not to be “innocent”, a preemptive use of deadly force is still unjustified.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, in the context of the death penalty:

    “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (CCC 2267)

    Killing a man because his work may prove a threat to the United States at some undefined point in the future is consequentialism at its most blatant — doing evil so that good may come of it.

    Christians must be better than that.

    “You Can’t Be a Catholic…”

    Sunday, September 4th, 2011

    You very often hear that “you can’t be a Catholic and [fill in the blank]”.  The [blank] is then filled in with whatever the person finds reprehensible, and what they consider to be grounds for ejecting somebody from the Church.  The most common ones I hear are “you can’t be Catholic and be pro-choice”, or “you can’t be Catholic and support ‘gay marriage'”.

    That can be a very tempting sentiment to express.  Catholics must always adhere to the teaching of the Church — God forbid that I ever say or do anything against that teaching.  There’s also something very distressing about people who proclaim themselves to be “good Catholics” or “devout Catholics”, yet take public positions or perform public acts that are inimical to that teaching.  It misleads people, and it places souls at risk.

    Now, I am no canon lawyer (I am a lawyer and some people want to shoot me out of a cannon, but that doesn’t count).  But as I understand it, the general principle in Canon Law is that once you’re baptized a Catholic you’re always a Catholic, unless you formally defect — make a formal statement to your pastor that you are leaving the Church. That’s very rarely done. It’s actually very difficult to stop being a Catholic. Merely committing a sin is not enough.

    That makes perfect sense.  The Catholic Church isn’t a country club, where you lose your membership if you violate the rules or fail to pay your dues.  It’s the Body of Christ, and we are incorporated into that Body by virtue of our Baptism — we are indelibly changed by the grace of that sacrament.  It has become a question of who I am, and not just what I believe or do.

    The key question then is not whether one ceases to be a Catholic, but to what extent a person is in communion with the Catholic Church, and thus with Christ Himself.

    Full communion with the Church can be impaired by many things, such as heresy (rejection of a truth divinely revealed), schism (no longer attending Mass, but instead joining a religious group that is not in communion with the Holy See), etc. Failing to live a life in keeping with the teaching of the Church will also impair one’s communion (e.g., openly cohabiting with a non-spouse).  Individual acts can also breach communion (like any mortal sin). In most of these cases, full communion is restored by sacramental Confession.

    The USCCB described this once as “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues…he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church.”

    Penalties like excommunication are imposed by the Canon Law in some particularly serious cases (e.g., heresy, schism, abortion, etc.).  But they do not eject someone from the Catholic Church. Instead, they are public declarations that a person has breached communion with the Church in a significant way (e.g., those who participate in the purported “ordination” of women as priests). In these cases, full communion has to be restored, often by some other public act.  The goal of these penalties is not to kick people out, but to call them to return.

    So, for example, the poor deluded people who participate in mock “ordinations” of women have breached communion with the Church by their actions. Under Canon Law they have incurred an automatic excommunication. In no way are they Catholic priests. But they are still Catholics.  Likewise with those who ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy See, or politicians who support intrinsically evil laws (such as those recognizing abortion rights, or re-defining marriage).  They haven’t stopped being Catholic, but they have gravely wounded their communion with Christ and His Church.

    Why does this technical distinction matter so much?  Because it’s much easier to dismiss people as being beyond the pale, than to grieve for their sin and to work to reconcile with them and repair the damage.  Anyone who has trouble in their family knows how tempting it is to wish that the difficult person were gone from the house, and how much harder it is for them to stay and work things out.

    Reconciliation and healing are hard.  Just ask the father of the Prodigal Son.  Just ask Jesus.

    A Reminder of Moral Principles

    Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

    I thought it might be helpful to provide a reminder to our public officials, particularly the Catholics, of the relevant moral principles regarding the legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a 2002 document entitled “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life”, said:

    4.  …[T]he family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such.

    In 2003, in the document “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said this:

    5.  … In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

    10. If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians. Faced with legislative proposals in favor of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are to take account of the following ethical indications.

    When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.