Sunday, February 6, 2011

11-02-06: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7-10 / Psalm 112 / 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 / Matthew 5:13-16
When George W. Bush was running for president the first time, his bona fides as an evangelical Christian made the news when he declared Jesus his “favorite philosopher.” W was really just following suit in a long line of Christians who found in Jesus exactly what they wanted to find, from philosopher to revolutionary to proto-hippie. Reading today’s gospel about the properties of salt and light we might be tempted in the same vane to add chemist and physicist to Jesus’ resume. Problem is, if we take the parable about salt literally, Jesus would have failed the chemistry final.

Do we detract from Jesus’ importance, his uniqueness, or even his divinity, if we admit he was no scientist? Is it disrespectful, or downright blasphemous, to declare the Bible not a science textbook? Some evangelicals would have you believe so. Convinced in the literal truth of Genesis for example, they suggest God placed the fossils in the rocks so as to create the impression (and not the evidence) for evolution.

Science and religion are often viewed through dualist eyes: one true, the other false. For fundamentalists who base their faith on the literal word of scripture, that has long been the case. Everything, including scientific conclusions, must coincide with the Bible in a literal fashion or be rejected. We, as Catholics, are warned against making that dualist error. Science and religion do not represent opposing truths but are simply two differing ways to express what is discovered or revealed to be true. The late Stephen Jay Gould, admitted atheist that he was, often debated with Biblical literalists. Apart from his conclusions concerning evolution he made a valuable contribution to the debate by suggesting that science and religion represent two separate “magisteria” or “teaching authorities” concerning human experience and discovery. In this he echoed (probably unknowingly) the recently beatified Cardinal Newman who said much the same thing in his Idea of a University. “Theology is one branch of knowledge, and Secular Sciences are other branches,” Newman wrote. “Theology should not interfere with the real freedom of any secular science.”

Newman found no difficulty in accepting the basic premises of his contemporary, Charles Darwin, concerning humanity’s physical origins. Newman, in fact, made a remarkable statement quite relevant to the discussion of evolution today: “I do not see,” Newman wrote, “that the accidental evolution of organic beings is inconsistent with divine design – It is accidental to us, not to God.” In other words, God not only reveals himself through the Bible but through nature as well. The tools we use to interpret each of these revelations are different; we do not serve the truth by switching tools, so to speak, in expressing a theological truth by scientific categories, or a scientific truth by theology.

The intersection of these two magisteria or ways of knowing is never more apparent than in the sphere of health care. Just last week Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, signed an agreement with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, affirming the authority of the local bishop to interpret the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The necessity of such an agreement comes, no doubt, in the wake of the extraordinary action taken by Bishop Olmstead rendering St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix no longer “catholic.” The question then becomes: for fear of misinterpreting the directives, must a hospital submit every case to the local bishop for his judgment. This, of course, is virtually impossible in cases requiring emergency action. Will the hospital then “err” on the side of caution in the increasing ambiguous areas of healthcare where the best interest of the patient can be argued from both sides of the debate. The unfortunate sound bite of “preserving a culture of life” now borders on a fundamentalism worthy of an evangelical, implying that physical life should be viewed as an absolute value.

This increasing inclination to insure Catholic institutions are not perceived to be influenced by the so-called “culture of death” – even when they are not – will lead before long to treat physical life as an absolute value that must be preserved at all costs. It won’t be long before some bishop, albeit with good intention, will venture from his theological domain into the ambiguous and complicated world of medical science and suggest that there is never a reason to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a patient; or that palliative care may no longer be provided because it “may” be advancing death by a moment or two. A bishop’s legitimate jurisdiction may give him the right to rule on medical procedures performed in Catholic institutions – but it does not and cannot make him into a physician.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

11-01-30: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13 / Psalm 146 / 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 / Matthew 5:1-12
Humility is a paramount virtue in Christianity, exemplified in today’s reading from Paul, who tells us God uses the weak, the low-born, the despised and the foolish to teach us how to live and to love – to teach us how to be happy. Humility, you might say, is what separates the nobodys of this world from the somebodys. There’s a paradox though: you don’t know who’s a nobody until he becomes a somebody.

Then there’s the further complication regarding humility: the more you try to be humble, the less likely you are to succeed. I remember once being assigned with a priest, a good sincere man who wanted to live a simple austere life – his way of practicing humility. The day he moved into the rectory, much to his chagrin, he found a full size bed in his room. He immediately told the pastor that he really couldn’t have a full size bed; a single twin bed would be more appropriate for him. So, in order to help the priest feel more humble and poor, the pastor had to buy a brand new single bed and pay for the removal of the very good and little-used full size bed. The priest was not a hypocrite, just someone who perhaps tried too hard to be humble. It seems that we best practice humility by embracing what is made immediately present to us rather than creating our own litmus tests.

One of the most attractive aspects of the recently released film, The King’s Speech, was the unexpected example of just that on the part of someone you would least expect to be humble - the King of England. When Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 “for the woman he loved,” his younger brother, Albert, was next in line to the throne. This upheaval in the line of succession couldn’t have happened at a worse moment in history as Hitler’s Nazi Party was solidifying power and moving the world ever closer to war. In Hitler, Germany had a remarkable orator, someone who could rouse a nation to such an extent that people would follow him to the precipice and then jump. Meanwhile as Albert, the Duke of York, was about to succeed to the British throne as George VI, a nation looked for inspiration from him and discovered instead a nervous stammerer, a man who couldn’t utter a full sentence in public without severely stuttering, causing those who were listening to him uncomfortable embarrassment and causing himself deep shame. The film examines how Albert dealt with this very personal humiliation. It is a sublime example of what it means to be humble.

“Humility is truth,” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in her Story of a Soul, and it is in our deeply personal flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings that each of us is given the choice to face humiliation or run away from it. The practice of humility is not something you can learn from a book or get an advanced degree in – it is a lived experience which reveals to each the measure of his worth. How do you know if you’re on the right track? That may not be so easy. But you’ll know if you made a wrong turn along the way when you end up displaying humility’s opposite - pride. Pride, not in the sense of feeling good for another’s accomplishments or even your own, but pride as a response to hurt and humiliation.

Jazz artist, Nina Simone, seemed to have gotten it just right in the lyrics of a little known piece she sang - You’ve Got To Learn. You’ve got to learn, although it’s very hard, the way of pocketing your pride/ sometimes face humiliation while you are burning up inside. You’ve got to learn to leave the table / when love’s no longer being served. To show everybody that you’re able / to leave without saying a word. But why would you want to? The Gospel of the Beatitudes, that most revolutionary of documents, gives us a hint: Blessedness, real happiness, sublime joy, comes only when we learn to face our personal humiliations. And each of us has them, from the broken-hearted young lover to the king who stammers. The key to happiness, the gospel promises, lies in the recognition, the self-awareness, that in some very personal way we are each low-born, despised, weak and foolish. We are all nobodys whom God calls to become somebodys through the difficult but high-calling of the practice of humility.