Sunday, December 26, 2010

10-12-26: Feast of the Holy Family

Feast of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-7,12-14 / Psalm 128 / Colossians 3:12-21 / Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
One of the central icons that figure in the culture wars between secular and religious sensibilities of our time is the Christmas Crèche featuring Mary and Joseph gazing in love and wonder at the new-born Jesus. This image of the Holy Family has become an issue for some and a crusade for others; oddly, not so much because it’s deemed holy (a meaningless designation for atheists), but because it seeks to portray a family.

Sadly, it’s the very same image of family, and what family means, that has become a source of conflict among Catholics as well. Perhaps the pope’s recent reasonable remarks concerning intention and the moral use of condoms can serve, by analogy, to move the more morally intransigent among us when the issue of new human reproductive technologies arises; especially what to do with frozen human embryos is raised.

On the one hand, the church insists that human embryos should be treated as human beings: we should treat unborn human life as we treat already-born human beings, with the same dignity and respect, affording them the same legal protections. On the other hand, some moral theologians maintain that all procreation of human beings must take place in the “natural” way, through sexual intercourse between husband and wife. But note: the church does not insist that families be formed in this way. In fact, the church lauds families formed in “unnatural” ways, especially through adoption, where the adopted person is not related genetically to either parent.

Thus, in the view of these moral theologians, the implantation of human embryos by medical procedure rather than through sexual intercourse is immoral whether the gestational mother is genetically related to the embryo or not. And so, for those seemingly obsessed by the necessity of sexual intercourse, they find themselves in a theological catch-22, a conundrum that borders on the absurd. While vigorously defending human life against wanton destruction, they cannot morally sanction a couple to claim their genetic offspring or, if the couple has abandoned their embryos, for another couple to adopt those embryos by the woman becoming the gestational mother through medical procedure. For these intransigent moral theologians frozen embryos are consigned to an unborn fate until they slowly deteriorate over an extended period of time, or are quickly terminated by removing them from their frozen exile.

It seems reasonable then, as a matter of the exercise of common sense, to ask, that in the face of inevitable destruction, why it can be laudable to adopt these embryos if they were already born but immoral to do so while they are still in their embryonic state. The essentially un-catholic tendency towards fundamentalism concludes it better to leave all those potential human lives to waste away rather than give them a chance at life. It’s the same tendency that concludes it better not to permit indirect abortion on an unviable fetus, losing both child and mother, than to cause scandal to the faithful: someone incorrectly concluding that the church would permit abortion without being able to distinguish between direct (prohibited) and indirect abortion (permissible).

These days families are formed in many ways – not just the “natural” way. If families can be made in varied ways, not only morally sound but expressly laudable ways, why are some obsessed with insisting that, despite the advance of reproductive technologies, there can be only one morally permissible way to make a human being?

The Holy Family is holy not only because it is comprised of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; but it is holy because of the way in which it came to be formed - in the most unnatural way imaginable.

10-12-19: 4th Sunday of Advent (A)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14 / Psalm 24 / Romans 1:1-7 / Matthew 1:18-24
Freud theorized that dreams are the fruit of our unconscious as we work through some conflict experienced with others, ourselves or, as the non-Freudians among us might suggest, even God. How many an inventor has claimed to have stumbled upon the insight that gave birth to his invention after waking from a dream. How many have found the solution to a problem only after a good night’s sleep. In today’s gospel Joseph’s dream led him to embrace a destiny that at first must have seemed fruitless, a dead end, an emasculating humiliation – protecting a would-be wife who’s carrying someone else’s baby. Yet, remarkably, he foregoes the divorce and marries. The honeymoon must not have been very pleasant.

[According to the then Jewish custom, once a couple was engaged, a divorce was required to break the betrothal though the couple would not yet have been living together].

In popular Catholic piety Joseph is often presented as a mild-mannered, milquetoast wimp, devoted to Mary as if she were already an apparition. So docile is Joseph’s stance toward Mary in this kind of hagiography, you could almost picture him bobbing his head up and down like a hungry chicken each time she called Jesus by name. And while some would argue that the gospel account of Jesus’ origins amounts to the same pious whitewashing of some hard realities (an apt definition of hagiography), there is evidence of refreshing honesty as well – as the admission in today’s gospel of Joseph’s initial desire to wash his hands of the whole mess.

Before his revelatory dream Joseph sees only two possible solutions to the problem: to divorce quietly or to divorce publicly. This initial dilemma might not portray Joseph as especially virtuous but it does make him a thoroughly believable historical figure, as he offers a typically male response which echoes through the ages in every man’s heart: what’s the easiest way out?

Men, these days, are often chided for their lack of responsibility, their penchant to embrace a dead-beat status as dads, or anything else. Suggested solutions range from military induction (“the Marines’ll make a man of him”) to more formal religious-type vows (the Promise Keepers’ movement). But perhaps Joseph’s story offers the best insight: men need to dream. Discipline, asceticism, self-denial, guilt - all may curb the male impulse for a while, but only inspiration respects that impulse as God-given and will ultimately be able to transform its raw power into a powerful creativity.

While, from theology’s point of view, it’s Mary’s consent, or “fiat,” on which hung the salvation of the world, the practical reality is that Joseph’s dream made all the difference. His choice to marry Mary and give the child the protection of legitimacy cannot be underestimated when we consider the possible outcomes if he hadn’t.

Remember: Joseph became the father he was intended to be, not because he was virtuous or pious or even responsible, but because he listened to his dream and had the…well, you know…to follow that dream. Turns out, Joseph was a real mensch.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-12-12: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-6,10 / Psalm 146 / James 5:7-10 / Matthew 11:2-11
Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part II

When Jesus hears that John the Baptist’s been arrested for his disruptive protest against the king’s marriage, he praises the Baptist as the greatest of prophets. But might we not read into this nuanced scene a bit of Jesus, not as zealous “Baptist,” but as consummate politician? Note: Jesus does not take up John’s protest; Jesus seems little concerned with the king’s marital arrangement; he lets that political quagmire go – he has other fish to fry. By lauding John without endorsing his message, Jesus gains the admiration of the Baptist’s disciples and many decide to follow him rather than continue the Baptist’s cause. It’s been my contention in these reflections that the pope’s recent remarks, vis-à-vis the use of condoms in certain situations, can serve as a corrective paradigm, resisting the increasing tendency on the part of some leading Catholics to adopt a more Baptist-type fundamentalism regarding contemporary moral issues. Life is often messy. The Church, in her two thousand years of experience, has become well acquainted with life’s ambiguities and has developed a nuanced way of dealing with thorny moral issues. The Church understands that in seeking to do the right thing, it’s not simply a question of what we do, but why we do it, and realizing that the circumstances in which we act are often themselves mitigating factors in judging the morality of our actions.

A few months back Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued a statement declaring that Mercy Sister, Margaret McBride, incurred automatic excommunication when she gave her consent, as head of a hospital ethics committee, to permit the abortion of an unviable fetus in order to save the life of the baby’s mother. Prescinding from the intriguing ethical question of how the bishop was privy to the confidential information that the abortion had taken place, what could have been the purpose of the bishop’s pronouncement? He said he wanted to avoid scandalizing the faithful by making evident the teaching of the church (as if we didn’t already know) that direct abortion is always immoral, always inherently evil. Yet, if there had not been an abortion, both mother and baby would have certainly died. Even the most conservative of moral theologians has suggested that in the case where a fetus is unviable and the mother would die if she attempted to carry the pregnancy to term, there might be ample reason to judge the abortion permissible. In fact, since this story first came to light, there has been significant medical testimony that, because of the mother’s particular medical condition, the abortion was indeed indirect and therefore permissible. The point, however, is not to argue medical particulars but to question the bishop’s wisdom in publicizing what he did. Remember: the excommunication, if there was one, would have been automatically incurred – and thus not dependent on the bishop exercising his judgment or his authority. I can’t help but think that, in a less extremist atmosphere, if a bishop was pressured into making a statement regarding this case he would have first expressed his sympathy to the parents for the loss of their unborn (though unviable) child, pronounced the abortion indirect (unfortunate, but justified) and encouraged the mom to rest assured she did all she could have done, but now it was time to go home and be a mother to her other children. Did Bishop Olmsted really think his pronouncement would win a slew of converts or make any of us feel more secure in our faith if no abortion had been performed, and both baby and mother had died, leaving those other young children motherless - all to avoid scandalizing the faithful? That slippery slope toward fundamentalism just got steeper – even if the terrain in Phoenix seems, at first, to be pretty flat.

There’s a slew of other moral issues that come to mind as worthy of discussion: frozen embryos, euthanasia, assisted suicide and advanced directives, not to mention Cardinal Burke and pro-choice politicians - but space for these reflections has run out. Let me know if you’d like me to continue...

10-12-05: 2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12

Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part I

John the Baptist is the subject of today’s Advent gospel. We see him crazed, screaming and yelling, prophesying gloom and doom, calling for repentance on a national scale. Why? Because he’s upset the king married his sister-in-law! For John, this is emblematic of the moral decay into which his society has fallen – or, at least, it’s the first step on that slippery slope that (we’re often told) leads us into a moral morass. John is not simply being a conservative voice for a return to family values; he’s become the poster boy for religious fundamentalism. For the fundamentalist, as for the Baptist, morality is all black and white, either/or, yes or no. And, although the Church holds the Baptist in great esteem, it is important to recognize that we, like the first disciples, are called to follow Jesus - not John. Jesus was no John the Baptist; nor did he preach the extremism that the Baptist embraced.

Some ardent Catholic conservatives, seeking a modern-day Baptist to save us from that proverbial moral morass, are no longer looking to Pope Benedict to fill the vacancy. After the media blitz regarding the pope’s recently published remarks about condoms to a Swiss journalist, some would have us believe that the remarks make little difference in the church’s stand regarding the prohibition of condoms. But not so – at least not in ways we may at first think.

First, the pope is not changing the church’s teaching regarding the immorality of artificial contraception. But he is not pulling a John the Baptist either, raging (as some would want him to) against the immorality of all condom use. The pope is, in fact, being ardently conservative; calling for a return to basic principles of Catholic morality. He’s simply asking us to recall that morality is more than just what we do; it also depends on why we do something; and it likewise involves an evaluation of the circumstances surrounding our actions.

With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, circumstances and intention may indeed be mitigating factors in the moral use of condoms. In the case of a married couple, for example, where one partner is HIV infected and the other is not, the use of condoms may be contemplated – not to contracept – but to prevent deadly infection. This classic Catholic moral principle of double-effect was long argued by certain African bishops but vehemently condemned by others – not out of principle - but from fear that it would place us on that slippery slope which would lead us into genuinely immoral acts. The pope’s recent suggestion may finally allow us to reasonably dialogue about such situations. The slippery slope the pope has perhaps helped us avoid is not the one that leads to a moral morass but, rather, the one that leads to a dangerous fundamentalism.

The pope’s off-the-cuff remarks (if they were that) may be but a small safeguard against the rush to ski that slippery slope towards uncritical dogmatism as recent events in the United States seem to indicate. I’m thinking of the speech Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville just delivered to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (which then elected him vice president). In his speech the archbishop made an extraordinary comparison. In a classic example of that slippery-slope mentality, the archbishop compared legislation allowing same-sex marriage with the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Now, whether you’re for or against gay marriage, does anyone really believe, in their heart of hearts, that permitting two men or two women to call themselves married is the equivalent of abortion? The slope the archbishop fears we’re slipping down is not the one leading so much to a permissive chaos, but rather the one leading into religious fundamentalism which, if history be any reliable judge, will end up doing more damage to the Catholic Faith than condom-use, gay marriage or marrying your sister-in-law.

…to be continued

10-11-28: 1st Sunday of Advent (A)

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5 / Psalm 122 / Romans 13:11-14 / Matthew 24:37-44
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, Jesus comes along in today’s gospel and tells you that the end will come when you’re not paying attention and take you by surprise. That’s the essence of worry, isn’t it? Caught unprepared when you’ve devoted all your waking moments trying to be exactly that – prepared. Forgetting to cross that “t” or dot that elusive “i” and, lo and behold, snagged. Getting that audit notice from the IRS when you did your best to file those taxes correctly. Having taught your kids all those wholesome values just to see them experiment with risky behaviors and not-so-wholesome lifestyles. What a thoroughly upbeat way to start Advent. Who’s the bright optimist in the Vatican’s liturgy office who decided this was just the right reading to prepare you for the joys of Christmas? Maybe he’s read one too many Tim LaHaye novels about the Rapture and the end-of-the-world horrors in store for the godless. Or perhaps he’s convinced that the ancient Mayan calendar portends the end of everything in December 2012.

I hate worry but I suspect I’m no different than most: I’ve become addicted to it. I’m not sure I’d get anything done if I didn’t worry I wouldn’t get it done. Worry is all pervasive, it seems. Even the moderately conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, is not immune. Last week’s column predicted economic and national catastrophe on a gargantuan scale with no hope for escape. And predictions by the presidential commission studying how to scale down the enormous national deficit are scarier than prophecies about worldwide earthquakes and asteroids crashing into the planet. It all goes to show you don’t have to be religious to have a monopoly on worry – we’re all affected. If the everlasting torment of hell doesn’t scare you, the prospect of losing your retirement savings certainly will.

Worry, though, seems to affect some more than others. If I remember right, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James attributes a lot of religious conviction – how we express belief - to personality type. Whether you are more optimistic or pessimistic by nature makes a big difference about how you perceive things and how you act on them. This theory seemed to be proven true last week with the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (a surprise, it seems, since he hadn’t been the sitting vice-president). And Archbishop Dolan is optimistic if he’s anything: a jovial, engaging, friendly, bigger-than-life type who exudes confidence. So it might not seem so surprising when in his acceptance speech he said something to the effect that, all in all, things are going very well. You might pause just there and think, let’s see: sex abuse scandal, closing of churches and schools (39 in his archdiocese alone), bankrupt dioceses around the country, the pope threatened with arrest in certain countries – things going very well – either the Archbishop is delusional, or his optimism gene is working overtime. But that assessment comes from someone more at home on the pessimism-side of the coin – personality dictates after all. At least the archbishop doesn’t seem to be worrying too much; he’s not exhibiting anxiety-override. Or maybe he’s just on drugs.

Then again, perhaps what’s needed is a certain resignation, a humble acceptance of sorts. In the face of problems that are so overwhelming maybe there comes a point when you just have to let go and let God, as they say. That’s easier said than done, though, because it’s really all about control and giving it up. Worry can fool you into thinking you still do have some control. But giving up control – completely - is something we all must do eventually. Perhaps danger and impending catastrophe, and all those small but significant losses along the way, help us practice - little by little - for that ultimate letting go and letting God. Most of us, after all, have been preparing since we were kids, whether we realized it or not: playing Hide-and-Seek and the kid who has been hiding his eyes and counting to ten finally finishes and shouts out: “ready or not, here I come.” Some hiding places seem more secure than others but, truth be told, we all really want to be found. Depending on your personality-type, though, some later than sooner.

10-11-21: Solemnity of Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King
Samuel 5:1-3 / Psalm 122 / Colossians 1:12-20 / Luke 23:35-43
With today’s Feast of Christ the King the liturgical calendar comes to an end and the new church year begins next week on the first Sunday of Advent. The end of a year, by whatever calendar, sparks a bit of nostalgia, and a little dread, as some of us become more aware of our own mortality. The church uses this as a timely reminder that, one day, this world will end as well. Evangelicals have taken to this idea of a fast approaching end-of-the-world over the past century with more than a little enthusiasm. Jehovah Witnesses, for example, are noted to have declared (on more than one occasion) the date the end would come, only to have to reevaluate when they woke up the day after. Recently, the evangelical group that runs Family Radio has declared the end of the world will occur on May 21st – next year!

It is unnerving to hear that the end will come so soon and, according to Family Radio, that it will not be an easy end. There’ll be a lot of terrifying horror, decaying corpses and, of course, gnashing of teeth - more promise of hell than heaven. This type of Christianity, this kind of religion, I personally despise and find untenable. It does make you wonder though. If I don’t believe Family Radio’s claim, or others of similar ilk, am I ultimately not believing the Bible itself and, by extension, not believing in an afterlife at all?

It is probably THE most vexing problem in Christianity, this end-of-the-world business. Jesus seemed to have predicted an immanent end; and St. Paul was quite clear the end would come before his generation had died out. But as St. Paul approached his own end, he must have realized the end wasn’t going to occur, at least not the way he had expected. Did he bank everything on that part of his faith, one wonders; or was he able to let it go? We just don’t know.

Through the millennia there have been many who, like St. Paul, preached an imminent end. They were, without exception, very enthusiastic in their preaching. But all wrong. None right. When they had to answer their critics the day after the day the end was supposed to have happened, they inevitably chalked it up to human error, a matter of arithmetic not faith. We somehow believed right, they seemed to suggest, but figured wrong.

But the notion that the world will come to an end is no longer solely a matter for religious believers. Scientists, atheists, agnostics all believe that the universe will one day end; and they present a far more horrible end than even Family Radio. It’s just a matter of time, they say. Time is, perhaps, the root of the dilemma. When Einstein discovered relativity, he remarked that past, present, future are all illusory: Time itself being an illusion, a human construct.

Time, then, is a relative matter. [Then is a very strange word itself. In English, then can refer both to the past and the future]. In today’s gospel of the crucifixion the Good Thief used his last moments to offer a word of consolation to a stranger; and Jesus, in turn, promised him Paradise. The way the gospel phrases the promise is interesting to note. Remember the Greek in which the gospel was written didn’t employ punctuation – that was added (arbitrarily) with translations into the modern vernacular. Thus, in English orthography, you can read the promise either of two ways. First possibility: “Jesus replied to him: ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” But if we move just one of those commas ever so slightly, we read Jesus saying: “Amen, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Moving that arbitrary comma throws the immediacy of the promise of Paradise completely out of whack, suggesting perhaps that God’s eternity does not translate well into our time-bound existence; and that attempts to discern the date and time of Armageddon is a foolish diversion. The essence of Christian faith is not fear but love; and love – then - not fear, is then the present evidence of Paradise -- here and now, then and then.

10-11-14: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19-20 / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 / Luke 21:5-19
I wonder if there’s a direct correlation between people who buy lottery tickets, religiously, and those who take seriously predictions about the imminent end of the world. Both seem to bank heavily on very unlikely and improbable outcomes. You could say both have a lot of faith; but is it the kind of faith you would want to have?

Take the group who interpret the virtually undecipherable Mayan calendar as predicting the end of the world to occur on 12.12.12 - or was it 12.21.12? (I better get that right less I lose a week one way or the other). The recent end-of-the-world horror flick, 2012, did a lot to boost their bona fides. But certain evangelical Christians won’t be one-upped by a bunch of neo-pagan proto-Columbian indigenous Mexicans. The evangelical group that runs Family Radio has now made public the results of their long study of cryptic biblical references to the world’s end and have determined, without doubt, that 5.21.11 will be the day when the earth will be destroyed and the Rapture will take place. Of course, if asked to chose, I’d have to admit I’d skip the Rapture and go with the Mayans - nineteen months being nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not but the Irish have a saint, dating from the 11th century, famous for his prediction about the end of the world. He shares the same-sounding name as the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, from whom we get our first reading this Sunday. The Irish Malachy, not unlike Nostradamus, wrote cryptically about the end of the world and when it would come. What’s clear from his prophecy (and there’s not much very clear) is that the last pope will be named Peter, though it won’t be quite that straightforward. Some ardent Malachy fans now hold that the current Pope Benedict is the next-to-last pontiff to reign before the end. At the very least this should encourage more of us to pray for Pope Benedict’s continued good health – whatever we might think of his theology.

The Old Testament Malachi – a name meaning “messenger” – is classified by scholars as the last of the "minor prophets." To be a minor prophet is something to contend with, but to be the last of the minors might explain his attempt to gain some attention, painting a rather scary picture of how the end will come. But if we look more closely at the book of Malachi we might understand his concerns in a different light.

Malachi had probably been part of one of those Jewish families that suffered the loss of everything when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and all Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. He might well have been born in captivity. Thanks to the Persian conquest of Babylon, and the largesse of King Cyrus, the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland where, even after fifty years, the ruined city must have been a palpable reminder of the slaughter and destruction endured by a people who considered themselves God’s Chosen. With Persian help they rebuilt a Temple, though it was probably rather shabby compared to Solomon’s masterpiece. And their morals were sorely lacking. A lot of illicit inter-marriage was taking place, not to mention complete disregard for the Law. It is in this milieu that Malachi calls for a return to religious observance. The “end”, you see, had already taken place. As far as Malachi was concerned, people had a choice: either make the “end” continue, by living in degradation and immorality, or seek healing, build anew – get your act together. Far from threatening people with what might happen, Malachi reminded them of what they were meant to be.

Instilling apocalyptic fear (whether promoted by devotees of the Mayan calendar or biblically-proficient evangelical Christians), for all its talk about sin, punishment and damnation, just makes people less responsible for their actions not more so. It diverts our attention from the pressing problems and challenges of the here-and-now, as we allow ourselves to sink into anxiety and worry about a possible but improbable tomorrow. To put it into more contemporary terms: buy a lottery ticket if you want – but don’t quit your job just yet.