Monthly Archives: June 2015

We’re having the wrong discussion about marriage as a sacrament

I posted this before the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s still what I think.

Why?

Why do we fall into this trap time and again?

Our message about marriage as a Church should be about how it uniquely prefigures what God is like. If you want to fully experience what God’s love feels like, wholly give yourself to someone who wholly gives themselves back to you and commit together to make each other holier by perfecting each other in love. Heaven, we should be saying, isn’t bright lights and soft harp music. It’s being eternally in the throes of ecstasy that can only be faintly approximated by a couple that is fully and completely in love with each other, not only in the initial crush phase of a romantic relationship, but in the daily pinch-yourself of being married to your best friend, best advocate, and ultimate lover. We don’t know what God is like, but that’s as close as we can come.

That’s why marriage is a sacrament. That’s why John Paul II spent a long stretch of his pontificate lecturing every week about the transformative nature of married love.

Instead, we get sucked into the culture wars. When we should be paying witness to the centrality of love in the gospel that acknowledges a God who loves you so much that nothing you can do can alter His love for you for better or worse, we instead get caught up in drawing distinctions about which types of broken, imperfect, human relationships God smiles or frowns on. And the point of sacramental marriage gets buried.

If you want my opinion, we should be doing much, much more to sing the praises of truly sacramental marriage. Which, I think, like sainthood, can probably only be fully discerned after the fact, though sometimes when you are in its presence, you have a gut level awareness.

If you want my opinion, we should do a lot more to prepare young people for marriage in a way that sparks them to strive for loving greatness instead of settling for good enough.

And if you want my opinion, we should underscore for everyone who has already messed up, in the eyes of the world, that this kind of holy relationship – with God, with another – is absolutely still available. And we should trumpet the stories of those who have fallen down but gotten back up, those who failed in the past but are reflecting that all-in love anew, with the same partner or in a new relationship. And we should acknowledge that, though societal and religious rules prescribe optimal conditions, God is a God of surprises, and the history of our faith shows a God who picks the unlikely, a God who breaks the rules we put on him. Shame on us if we allow someone to think that, if the world or even the Church thinks less of their love, they are broken, less than, disordered. Because leaving people thinking that God turns His back on the broken is 180 degrees from the reality that the faithful know in their hearts.

In today’s Gospel, the religious authorities ask Jesus to render a judgment about a situation that is, to say the least, less than perfect. And he doesn’t fall for it; he sticks to his message. Focus on loving God and loving your neighbor. 

And we should do the same. The next time someone asks a Church leader to weigh in on whether gay marriage should be legal, I pray that he speak instead to the truth that marriage can be so much more than what we are fighting over – a civil arrangement for joint economic, legal, and social benefit. It can transform your life and bring you into God’s presence on a daily basis. Don’t settle for legal marriage. Strive to be sacred.

Let’s work as a church to inspire every marriage to reach for that goal rather than fighting over which ones are legal and which ones aren’t and leave the civil wrangling to someone else.

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Love wins. Exclusion doesn’t.

My friend Mario, who has a rare zeal for God, shared with loving concern with his Catholic Facebook friends who had shown support for the recent SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality a story from the blog “Courageous Priest”, a post about the archbishop of Detroit implying, and a theologian at a Detroit seminary stating, that those Catholics who promote gay marriage should not try to take Communion because they may be denied it by their priest. The theologian who stated this had previously made the same point about politicians who support pro-abortion policies.

Let me start by conceding the obvious: both abortion and gay marriage are against the teaching of the Church. Both are part of Catholic social doctrine, a very comprehensive set of principles about how Catholics can best live their faith that has been laid out in papal encyclicals, vatican decrees, and statements by national conferences of bishops. The pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato si, which I had planned to write about before all this came up and still plan to get to eventually, adds a good bit about ecology and the environment to this same body of doctrine, which evolves to reflect the issues of the day.

What may be fuzzier for people on all sides is that this doctrine is not dogma; that is, it is not a truth so essential to the faith that you cannot call yourself a Catholic and still deny it. The Trinity is a dogma. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma. If you don’t believe those things to be true, you aren’t really a Catholic. But you can believe all those things and prayerfully disagree with Catholic social thought, I have learned*. And you would still be Catholic. Some would disagree with me on that, although teaching documents of the Church have said otherwise.

Let me give you four reasons why threatening to withhold communion for those who disagree on non-dogmatic doctrine is not only bad practice but bad theology.

  1. It is inconsistently applied and therefore unjust. In addition to threats on abortion and gay marriage supporters, Church law would also indicate that divorced and remarried couples, and indeed couples who use artificial contraception, are cohabitating or have had premarital sex, ought to confess those sins and change their behavior before receiving communion. I see few bishops stand on that point. Earlier this week, the pope implied to children in Turin that those who either manufacture weapons or invest in weapons manufacturers cannot really call themselves Christian, but I have heard no bishop state that gun manufacturers, traders, or people with stick in such companies be denied communion. Nor have I heard such threats toward those who support the death penalty (on which the Church has longstanding opposition and on which SCOTUS ruled today with very little notice by the Church), nor those who invest in polluting companies, those who don’t recycle, those who support supply-side economics, those who withhold their money from the poor…you get the picture. If the standard is that those who do or support things against Church teaching should not partake in Communion, the line to receive will be very short. And you may have trouble finding ministers to distribute it. But if the standard is going to be applied, it’s not just to pick and choose among those guilty of breaking the same weight of doctrine.
  2. It is ineffective. I looked up what a grave sin was, and what I noticed first was that it takes you away from charity, the divine gift of love for God, neighbor and creation. What struck me more than anything last week was that when Father James Martin, S.J., spoke up that we Catholics should respond to this decision by loving our gay brothers and sisters as our first, foremost, and only response, people I hold dear who had written off organized religion perked up, because they saw in Martin’s call what they had been told Jesus was all about. They had been told it, but the Church hadn’t delivered anything to prove it, until then. That’s evangelism – that’s communicating the good news that is God’s desire for us. That’s our one calling as believers. And focusing on pushing people out of Communion line is its antithesis. It sparks no love, not in the righteous, not in the sinner. Whichever that may be. Everything we do should be to promote love, to promote God.
  3. It misunderstands our role in God’s story. The Gospels end with a command to the disciples: Go preach the Good News to everyone. That Good News is that God loves us so much that the worst we can do to Him is completely incapable of putting a dent in that love. Throughout history there is a tension between the grace of that love and the Justice of law, and as I pray daily, read Scripture daily, and put myself in His presence through the sacraments I have at a painfully slow pace grown in realizing that God’s story is about taking the side of grace, again and again, especially with those who the world marginalizes. That’s our job. Get them, get everyone in the door of God’s love, and let their prayer, study and sacrament make them better people. When we focus on laying down laws, we not only push away those we should be pulling, but we take on as our role the purifying job that is not ours but God’s. To those who would argue that God’s holiness is underappreciated, that we should pay more attention to purifying ourselves and dressing our Sunday best before we dare approach Him, I say this: if that’s what God wanted, to only be touched by the pure and clean, He wouldn’t have been born in a barn. He wouldn’t have picked such flawed followers. He wouldn’t have come back for us again and again and again. When we take the attitude that we need to be right before we come to God, we are the child who locks herself in her room until the artwork is perfect for her father, thereby losing an afternoon without ever producing a satisfactory work for a father who would have been ecstatic with a scribble and a hug.
  4. It misunderstands the Eucharist. We Catholics differ from our Protestant and evangelical brothers and sisters in a few ways, but none more than our belief in the mystical presence of God in the sacraments and their power to transform us. We need to recapture the faith in those sacraments by recognizing that they work on us. To deny them to someone who isn’t perfect in our eyes is to tell someone they need to be well before they go to the doctor. If we see a fellow believer that we think is an error, communion isn’t the thing we withhold, it’s the thing we should urge them toward. And we should go with them, in case the log in our own eye is bigger than the splinter in theirs.

I believe in my heart that there are proponents of the “no-bread-for-you” approach who do that out of reverence for and recognition of how holy God is and how much He deserves. I believe that there are proponents of that approach convinced that tough love will work, that denying fellow believers access to grace will bring them around to the Church’s way of teaching. And they may be right. But prayerfully, my faith today tells me that God says what He has said from the beginning, said to Abram and Moses and Mary and John and said from the cross and in the upper room: Love wins.
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*Here’s an articulation of prayerful disagreement in Catholic social thought. I will look for one that isn’t in America since I know that carries little weight with those on the right. This document from the USCCB was very helpful to me in talking about the formation of conscience. Maybe that’s better.

Reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on marriage

Scrolling through Facebook last night, I felt compelled to share Father Jim Martin’s post on the Supreme Court decision in support of gay marriage because it captured what I had been thinking, not just about gay marriage but about the response Jesus would have his followers take toward anyone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise.

One friend responded with some happy surprise that a Catholic priest would take such a “Jesus-like” position. Another, who knows the Church better, pointed out that there is still work to do, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops took a very different approach, calling the Supreme Court decision a tragic error. Which is really disappointing, but probably not that surprising. Earlier this week, Vatican Radio interviewed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, which is preparing to host the pope as part of the World Meeting of Families in September. If you listen to Archbishop Chaput’s interview, you find the same mindset as Father Martin’s: focus on spreading the love of Jesus and let the other stuff work itself out.

The new bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, appointed like Chaput by Pope Francis, talks in his initial interview about the need for a church that “banishes judgmentalism.” While he doesn’t specifically address gay marriage, his point sure contrasts with the USCCB statement.

Rocco Palma, author of the blog Whispers in the Loggia, has as expected the most comprehensive coverage of statements by the bishops, jointly and individually. Beyond his initial post, which trends toward the USCCB approach, he pulls excerpts of newer statements on his Twitter feed, accessible from his site. There is some variety, and my guess is that there is an overall trend toward moderation and a greater emphasis of love for LGBT Catholics than there was a few years ago. But there is work to do on the “banish judgmentalism” front. 

While the conference in Philadelphia in September is a global one, it will be worth tracking how this issue plays out there.

Turns of Phrase in Laudato Si, part 2

As I said in my last post, Laudato Si is too well-written to be left to analysts and reporters alone to read. Here are some more of my favorite quotes:

  • “we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful.” (69, quoting German bishops)
  • “The God who created the universe out of nothing can also intervene in this world and overcome every form of evil. Injustice is not invincible.” (74)
  • “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests in reality.” (75)
  • “Ever creature is…the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” (77)
  • “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.” (78)
  • “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art.” (80, quoting Thomas Aquinas)
  • “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. The vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful.” (82)
  • “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains, everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” (84)
  • “When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them.” (87)
  • “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.” (91)
  • “The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society.” (196)
  • “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own or consume.” (204)
  • “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” (217, quoting Benedict XVI)

And my favorite:

“the human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to love in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.” (240)

Turns of Phrase that caught my eye in Laudato Si, part 1

I will get to actual analysis of Pope Francis’ encyclical soon, but as I said about his earlier apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, this is a document well worth reading yourself. It is long, yes. It is in a format that is foreign to almost everyone and an acquired taste for most. But it is well written and as accessible as you can get in the confines of an encyclical format. So do read it. Here’s a link. You can order paper copies from the USCCB and access other resources, if you prefer. But don’t rely on the analysts to shape your thinking, including me.

To underscore the point, here are some of the phrases that I thought were well-turned:

  • “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” (2)
  • “Francis [St. Francis of Assisi] asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” (12)
  • “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (21) I heard one talk radio host laugh when an expert referenced this, assuming that it was hyperbole from the expert. It’s a direct quote. You could look it up.
  • “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” (25)
  • “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves….Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” (33)
  • “We seem to think we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” (34)
  • “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (42)
  • “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.” (47)
  • “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” (57)
  • “For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.” (58)
  • “This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (59)
  • “Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.” (61)

And that’s just in Chapter 1.

Laudato Si and livable communities

OK, so this post isn’t a central theme in Laudato Si, but it’s getting bumped to the top of my list to mention because it intersects with my work, which includes advocating for better communities for all ages to live in. While Pope Francis doesn’t deal specifically with aging in the encyclical (other than grouping the old with other vulnerable people on a few lists),* he talks at length in two different places about what makes a city livable, or not.

Early in the encyclical, Francis outlines the problems our neglect of the environment and each other have created, and starting in paragraph 43 he discusses the “Decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.” He has this to say about cities:

“[W]e are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.” (44, emphasis mine)

Also, “the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty.” (45) and he also lists “social dimensions” such as “employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity.” (46, emphasis mine)

Those bolded items relate to the World Health Organization’s Network of Age Friendly Communities, which analyzes eight domains of livability – transportation, housing, public spaces, civic engagement including employment, social engagement, diversity and inclusion, health systems and communication.

Later in Laudato si, Francis gets to a vision of what “better” looks like and in the section “Ecology of Daily Life” he returns to community design. Paragraph 148 includes a great distinction between community and physical space – that in really horrible settings a strong social community can still thrive, and in 149 he talks specifically about the importance of public spaces or the lack thereof: “The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony, open spaces or potential for integration, can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation…Nonetheless, I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people on these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome, the experience of a communitarian salvation often generates creative ideas for the improvement of a building or neighborhood.”

Even so, physical space matters: “Given the interrelationship between living space and human behavior, those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting….Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.” (150)

“There is also a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging…It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole…Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a ‘we’ which all of  us are working to create. For the same reason…it is helpful to set aside some places which can be preserved and protected from constant changes brought by human intervention.”(151)

He moves on from public spaces to housing: “Lack of housing is a grave problem…Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home.” (152)

Transportation, the third leg of the infrastructure troika of the age friendly domains, comes next. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use the,. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the system themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions dues to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.” (153) City planners, take note. That new urbanism you aren’t serving well may go on to be pope!

The other domains, especially civic engagement/employment (a central theme of more than a century of Catholic social thought), social participation, diversity and inclusion, health systems and communication all draw mentions, but these two nuggets are the most direct guidance toward livable communities in any encyclical I can remember.

*He speaks at length and often about the importance of valuing the aged in his addresses and homilies, so he gets a pass here.

Laudato si, from the ends of the earth

Southern Africa 

Latin America and Caribbean (2)

Philippines

Bolivia (2)

Germany (2)

Patagonia-Comahue in Argentina

US

Canada

Japan (Japan!)

Brazil

Dominica

Paraguay

New Zealand

Asia

Argentina

Portugal

Mexico

Australia

These are the countries whose episcopal conferences Francis cites in ‪#‎LaudatoSi‬. And this is news, at least among Catholics, as it shows a new level of collegiality.

This saves me a blog post. I checked a couple of the old encyclicals I read in graduate school, because I could have sworn there was an occasional reference to the USCCB or a European Bishops conference, but I couldn’t find one in either Centesimus Annus or Laborem Excercens.

Note our own Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg is quoted in this CNS story.