Sunday, October 10, 2010

10-10-2010: 28th Sunday Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 5:14-17 / Psalm 98 /2 Timothy 2:8-13 / Luke 17:11-19
In today’s gospel of the ten lepers cured of their leprosy, Jesus seems a bit miffed by the fact that only one returned to say thanks – and he was a Samaritan to boot. Maybe it’s just the translation, but Jesus even sounds a bit dismissive of the grateful Samaritan, hoping in vain for thanks from his fellow Jews rather than the Samaritan. Gratitude, from those who are somehow different than us, can be a humbling corrective to our preconceived notions of how we think things ought to be.

The Church designates October as Respect Life Month in an attempt to turn our attention to the truth that life is a gift from God, to be treasured and protected. Over the past four decades Catholics have come to embrace that catchy sound bite that, you would think, clearly sums up the whole Catholic attitude: Respect life, the saying goes, from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. With the tremendous advances in medical science, and reproductive technologies in particular, the sound bite might remain catchy but, if we be honest, needs some serious challenging.

The challenge couldn’t be more well-timed than the announcement this past week that this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to Dr. Robert G. Edwards, the developer of the in vitro fertilization procedure for treating human infertility. Dr. Edwards’ first success was the birth of the first so-called test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Since Louise’s birth, four million more human beings have been born of the same method. The Vatican has decried the Nobel nomination because the Church has condemned the practice of the in vitro method from the start, claiming the method involves immoral practices: the conception of the individual outside the mother’s body, the practice of masturbation to retrieve sperm, the discarding of embryos not used or the freezing of embryos indefinitely. It is always a part of the Church’s mission to question the morality and ethics involved in scientific endeavors, especially those involving human life. But in this matter (as in many matters relating to sex), the Church misses the forest for the trees: her studied examination of the means employed in reproduction has made her seemingly oblivious to the end which those means have produced – a human life – to whom, the Church reminds us this month, we owe respect and, for whom, we owe gratitude to Almighty God.

When Louise Brown was born in 1978, although the Vatican had already issued its condemnation of the in vitro fertilization method, Pope John Paul I nonetheless welcomed the birth of the new baby, claiming she was absolutely not responsible for the way in which she was conceived. In other words, Louise Brown was wholly innocent of the immoral means by which she entered the world. It was nice of the pope to point that out, but it doesn’t alleviate the fundamental contradiction inherent in the church’s position concerning means and ends – in this case, in vitro fertilization and the birth of a human being. The inherent contradiction is akin to the church’s annulment process in regard to the children of an “attempted marriage.” The church can annul an attempted marriage, claiming that the marriage never existed, while simultaneously claiming that any children born of that attempted marriage are nonetheless legitimate in the eyes of the church. It’s nice to say so, of course, but that doesn’t make the inherent contradiction any less real.

The crux of the contradiction rests with those of us who benefit from what the church considers immoral. Does the Church expect Louise Brown to be anything but grateful for the gift of life she has received; a gift she would not have received save for the practice of in vitro fertilization. It’s the same for me: being born illegitimate meant my parents had intercourse outside marriage. The church would expect me to be grateful for the life I was given – which I am. But how can we limit gratitude just to the result and not to the way in which the result was obtained? In other words, Louise Brown and I cannot be other than grateful for the perceived immoral means by which we have entered the world.

The conclusion can be simply put: the end does, sometimes, indeed justify the means. How can anyone expect Louise Brown, or people like me, to look at the origins of our lives and say to ourselves: I wish they didn’t do that. Impossible. Not only do we not not wish it, we rejoice that it happened – just the way it did. We’re like the grateful Samaritan whose gratitude Jesus reluctantly accepts. But even Jesus, when faced with the facts, seems to have no choice. After all, he holds the world’s record when it comes to conception stories.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

10-03-2010: 27th Sunday Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4 / Psalm 95 / 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14 / Luke 17:5-10
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey of some 3,400 Americans asking questions about the Bible and world religions; only half answered the questions correctly. Catholics fared worse than most. Mormons and atheists were the most knowledgeable. Matter of fact the president of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, stated that one comes to atheism as a result of knowledge not from a lack of it. When asked how are atheists made? Mr. Silverman replied, just give them a Bible.

Reading today’s gospel parable from that very same Bible, one tends to see Mr. Silverman’s point. In the parable Jesus tells his disciples that, if they had faith, they could successfully command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Huh?

Is this the purpose of faith? Is it a test of power, equivalent to magic - and just as arbitrary? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to test such power by exercising it over malignant tumors or breaking the cycle of poverty?

Never having seen a mustard seed I’m assuming it must be really, really small. And since I’ve never been successful at transplanting mulberry trees by command alone – I can only conclude that my faith must be infinitesimal, if I indeed have any at all. Yet, since I don’t know anyone else who has succeeded in uprooting trees by verbal command, I might conclude that an awful lot of us are in the same boat.

Scholars tell us that the original parable, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, was altered by Luke – but no one is certain why. Matthew reads: ”If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to the mountain, Move, and it would move.” Maybe Luke felt that moving a mountain was a bit much and so lowered the bar, settling for the tree.

Then again, it is a matter of historical fact beyond dispute, that back in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine – who changed the course of history by favoring rather than persecuting Christianity - decided he wanted to build a basilica over the grave of St. Peter. After Peter was martyred, they buried him on Vatican Hill. The engineers pointed out to the emperor that it would be impossible to build the basilica on a hillside and they suggested he change his plans and build a few hundred yards away on flat terrain. But the emperor insisted that the altar of the basilica should stand exactly over Peter’s gravesite and so Constantine commanded his engineers to simply move the mountain – and they did. It was an extraordinary engineering accomplishment for the fourth century resulting in the basilica being built right where Constantine wanted it. That original basilica was destroyed by fire, but the present-day St. Peter’s Basilica stands in the very same place. The feat was accomplished - the mountain was moved - not by magical incantation but by a lot of hard work, making for the surprising possibility that real faith can be expressed in very tangible ways, measured by results rather than methods.

Approaching a challenge with the attitude that says “it can’t be done” will assure the outcome that it surely won’t be done. Approaching the same challenge with an attitude that says “it must be done” will conjure unexpected resources and abilities – sometimes quite inexplicable – that somehow assure that, indeed, it will be done.