Oct 25

Authorities aren’t squarely facing the truth.

In all fairness, they may not know better, but they should. Tod Worner is a physician and writer whose blog posts cover mostly the life of the mind in literature and philosophy, the arts and culture, faith and reason. He’s been a guest on my radio show because of his intellectual gifts and skills, and engaging conversations that bring utterly refreshing clarity and charity (my catchphrase) to issues of the day, enhancing public discourse, or at least trying to contribute to that effort.

So on Saturday, this post appeared with that dreadful, ubiquitous photo of the Ebola strand set on a purple background and splashed all over big media, especially television news where they set it as the enlarged backdrop for the latest update and/or discussion panel on the virus and its spread and latest announced patient who tested positive for it. Coverage swings from the over the top alarming to the overly confident reassuring, and people are worried and afraid and want the truth.

Worner gets as close as anyone talking about it to what we can know at this point, and not know, and how to face that. This is a good post, an important one.

We crowded into a small room at my internal medicine clinic and looked at each other. Some decisions had to be made. Soon. We were charged to answer one fundamental question: What would we do if a patient suspected of having Ebola were to walk in our clinic door? As simple as it may seem, this is an incredibly complex question. It requires considering the well-being of the patient, the risk to other patients exposed to him (or her, but I will use him for simplification) in our waiting room, and the risks to medical and ancillary staff who are attending to him. We must concern ourselves with the risk of over-reaction as well as that of under-reaction. We need to consider the imperfect state of our understanding of the mode and ease of transmission. And we must recognize that risk and response changes daily with an ever-evolving national and international epidemic. Confronted with this question in that small room, to a person, there was sincere concern about the patient, earnest concern about personal safety and a clear sense that there is a lot of uncertainty about this virus and the epidemic that is unfolding day by day.  And yet, that has not been the message from the government leaders or the Centers for Disease Control. If anything, there has been an abundance of assurance.

Tod nails it here. Read the post if you can open that link. He cites exactly what authorities have said, voices in medicine and government (who don’t happen to be authorities on medicine, but presumably speak after consultation with them).

Then says this:

Now here’s the thing. I don’t want to give the impression that the existence, transmission and wicked deadliness of the Ebola virus is the fault of the President or his appointees. That would simply be unfair and ridiculous. Throughout history we have seen the ravaging effects of infections such as swine flu, polio, measles, rubella, small pox, HIV and syphilis irrespective of the governing leadership. Yet with stumbling feet we have found our way to vaccinations, HAART therapy and antibiotics that can prevent or manage these illnesses.

And while there are innumerable better decisions that could have been made in reaction to this crisis, it is what has been forgotten that is most damning. Sir William Osler, pioneering American physician and thinker, once claimed,

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”

Or in my words, medicine, like all endeavors touched by human hands, is rife with uncertainty and imperfection. Knowing this and admitting this is okay. The longer I have practiced medicine, the more I have come to appreciate why Hippocrates said what he said.

“First, do no harm.”

Because one of our greatest risks is to downplay uncertainty and believe in our own (or our system’s) perfection. Once we are overconfident in our understanding and our abilities – once we are not tempered by our inherent fallibility in practice and understanding – that is when we do the most damage. We become mindlessly dogmatic. That is when we become “frequently wrong, never in doubt.”

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” Which means we cannot be exact. We play odds. We hope, but aren’t completely sure.

So, with perfect cadence and interconnection, he cites a lecture given by Michael Osterholm, the former Minnesota State Epidemiologist and current Director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy of the University of Minnesota. And puts a link on that post, urging readers to listen to the actual lecture.

In it, Osterholm admits that after researching over 900 articles and studies on Ebola (and related viral hemorrhagic fevers), he feels he know even less about this Ebola outbreak than before. Why is this particular outbreak so deadly and persistent? Are we confident that it has no associated airborne transmission? Why do some people have fevers and others don’t? Why do some with high degrees of exposure remain healthy while some with personal protective equipment or minimal exposure get sick? Is it wise to presume all health care facilities can manage this illness?

If a bright epidemiologist who has engaged in a respectable amount of research on Ebola finds himself grappling with uncertainty regarding these fundamental questions, how much more does it generate further questions? For example, why, though imperfect, would a temporary travel ban from festering hot zones not be helpful? How do we know our criteria for illness is accurate (or even adequate) when it relies on fevers which numerous infected individuals simply do not have? Are we certain there is no respiratory (droplet or airborne) element to Ebola’s transmission? How much more draconian should we be regarding enforcement of quarantine when even physicians flagrantly disregard it?

By asking these questions, we are attempting to better understand this illness and improve our response to it. I mean, honestly, we know there are things we simply don’t know (known unknowns) and things we can’t even anticipate (unknown unknowns or catastrophic “black swan events”). Essentially, there is uncertainty. We also know that we can be flawed in our practice. There is imperfection. And while we seek to minimize uncertainty and imperfection, it will always be with us. To deny this is to fool no one. And to admit this is not to create willy-nilly, chicken little pandemonium. Perhaps, by treating people like adults, leveling with them, and openly seeking a constructive solution, confidence will be engendered and a certain (albeit nervous) peace will be maintained. It is arrogant, officious and disrespectful to do otherwise.

His conclusion was how his medical team wrapped up this session of brainstorming and collaboration, by establishing a well informed plan. And suggesting that government, at the very least, do the same.

This may be going on in hospitals and clinics across the country, and in organizations – government and otherwise – tasked with the public health. But we don’t know, and only have public pronouncements to go on. Let’s hope and pray such calm, professional and seriously reasoned preparedness as happened in Worner’s clinic is going on everywhere else.

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Oct 20

What most media didn’t cover, or cover well.

In the second week of the Synod on the Family that just wrapped up at the Vatican on Saturday, bishops and cardinals participating in this major two week event broke into their language groups and held daily meetings on the topics they considered most urgent, and addressed those that emerged in the notorious document days before. The press narrowed those down to ‘the Church’s stance on gays’, and ‘divorced and remarried Catholics’ and communion,while the working groups discussed so many more problems people are struggling with globally, and issued summaries revealing the depth and breadth of  those discussions. Keeping them off the record frustrated not a few of the participants.

Cardinal George Pell gave voice to those frustrations.

According to a report by Marco Tosatti in La Stampa (and translated on Fr. Z’s Blog), Cardinal Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod, announced that the reports of the small working groups would not be made available to the public. Tosatti reported that this announcement was met with opposition from Cardinal Pell, and then “an avalanche from many others along the same line, underscored by thunderous applause.” Robert Royal, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, writes that Cardinal Pell “slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘You must stop manipulating this Synod.’”

Thanks to this reaction in the General Synod, which has been reported as a “revolt,” summaries of the small working groups’ interventions were posted by the Vatican press office. The English summaries reveal broad and deep dissatisfaction with the interim draft and plans to add substantial new text affirming the constant teaching of the Church “on the truth of human life and sexuality as revealed by Christ,” along with other “major amendments” and other small ones which, “nevertheless … have significant meaning attached to them” (Circulus Anglicus “A”).

It’s all here. Much of it is really quite beautiful. Like the English language round ‘B’, moderated by South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier. That group included five members from Africa, seven from Asia, and one each from Oceania, the United States and Europe. They felt strongly, they said, that the ‘relatio‘ (interim document reported all over the world’s media the week before) “ended up placing too much emphasis on the problems facing the family and did not stress the need to sufficiently provide an enthusiastic message which would encourage and inspire hope for Christian families who despite many challenges and even failures, strive every day to live out faithfully and joyfully their mission and vocation with the Church and society.”

The task of the extraordinary Synod was to draw up a picture of the family and of the challenges facing the pastoral activity of the Church in today’s complex and diverse world. Inevitably this meant that it would focus on problems and on some of he principal challenges of particular concern in the Church today.

However, the report of the Synod should go beyond a mere focus on the problems and the pathology of marriage and the family…Many in the group felt that a young person reading the Relatio [interim report] would if anything become even less enthusiastic about undertaking the challenging vocation of Christian matrimony. The Synod report and the message should direct itself towards young people, to help them understand and be attracted by the Christian vision of marriage and the family, in a world in which they are exposed to many contradictory visions…

The Church needs a radical renewal of its style of ministry to families. Marriage is a lifelong task [and] accompaniment [is] not limited to preparation for the wedding…

It’s important to not that the moderator for this session was one of two late additions Pope Francis made to the group that would draw up the final document for this Synod.

The “editorial committee” charged with writing the final report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family due today, was recently increased by two, when Pope Francis named Cardinal Wilfrid Napier (Durban, South Africa) and Archbishop Denis Hart (Melbourne, Australia) to the committee.

The choices of the two new committee members are interesting. Cardinal Napier, described as a traditionalist, had been outspoken in objecting to what he saw as African concerns being ignored by some at the Synod.

(As noted here and here.)

Archbishop Hart succeeded Cardinal Pell as the Cardinal Archbishop of Melbourne. The Cardinal has been viewed by many as leading the loyal opposition against attempts to modify or dilute settled teachings.

Confusion still exists over how the arguably most contentious section made its way into the interim report: the three paragraphs in a section still entitled “Welcoming Homosexual Persons” in the official Italian interim report. Father [Federico] Lombardi [Director of the Vatican Press Office] told reporters that the emphasis given to this topic in the Interim Report surprised him as “he recalled only one speech out of about 265 about gays during the debate” of the Synod’s first week.

This reflects the concern Pope Francis has expressed from the beginning of his pontificate for the “peripheries” of human existence, the far reaches of the world and the real life experiences of people living on the margins. It also very well may reveal his sensitivity to Cardinal Kasper’s remarks about the African contingent’s views on marriage as necessarily excluded or dismissed because of differing perceptions of relationships. The two additions were good picks.

In the English language groups, the summary labeled circular “C”, moderated by U.S. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was another exemplary summation of teaching and pastoral concern for the intricacies, difficulties, truth and beauty of marriage.

Marriage is a gift of God to man, a blessing Given by him for the well-being of His creatures, made in His image. From the beginning God ordained that it is not good for man to live alone and so he created a helpmate for him, one equal to him, that they may live in complementarity. This gift, this mystery of attraction and love between man and woman, was from earliest times recognized as coming from God. In the New Testament, the relationship between man and woman is deepened…and explained fully as mirroring the relationship between Christ and his Body, the Church.

All the working group summaries are worth reading over, especially given how misrepresented the Synod was in global media.

Pope Francis concluded the event with what is no doubt one of his finest, most important addresses delivered to date.

I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.”

And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

- The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

- The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

- The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…

Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.

Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the “supreme law,” the “good of souls” (cf. Can. 1752). And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.

Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

And, as I have dared to tell you , [as] I told you from the beginning of the Synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquillity, and with interior peace, so that the Synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.

We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.

His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God’s People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, or, as the Council puts it, ‘to see to it… that each member of the faithful shall be led in the Holy Spirit to the full development of his own vocation in accordance with Gospel preaching, and to sincere and active charity’ and to exercise that liberty with which Christ has set us free (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6)… and it is through us,” Pope Benedict continues, “that the Lord reaches souls, instructs, guards and guides them. St Augustine, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St John, says: ‘let it therefore be a commitment of love to feed the flock of the Lord’ (cf. 123, 5); this is the supreme rule of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, like that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, given to all, attentive to those close to us and solicitous for those who are distant (cf. St Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15), gentle towards the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope (cf. ibid., Epistle, 95, 1).”

So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).

Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

It’s going to be a very interesting, busy, and for some, an uncomfortable year of taking that message to heart, and to their home dioceses, adjusting to the reality that the Holy Father – as Pope Francis as done all along – is very keen on comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. No one can claim his favor rests on them, unless they seek and strive to serve the purposes he laid out in this speech and has emphasized since he became pope. They reconvene ‘with and under Peter’ – Francis as his successor – in a year. And the final word on how best the Church can obey and conform to the will of God, will come from him.

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Oct 17

Now we have a tangled web.

So much has happened so fast at the Synod, it’s difficult to put it together in one narrative. Especially since there are several different strands getting rapidly entangled in this two week event about to wrap up. The Saturday final document will be revealing. For now, some updates.

The mention in the last post of a translation issue, which seems like ages ago in such a rapidly changing Synod, referred to language in the Relatio, or interim report. Like the much debated paragraph #50:

50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing [...] them [...] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The phrase “valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine” threw many people for a loop. Whatever took place in the privacy of those assembly rooms to hash out discussions of what was supposed to be a broad sweeping focus on the many trials people face in modern culture, it quickly turned into a focus on the issues of divorced and remarried Catholics and communion, and on the Church’s stance on sexual orientation.

After an interview with the prominently positioned Cardinal Kasper appeared in Zenit.org in which he dismissed the input of African bishops at the Synod (noted in the last post), there was such a strong backlash to his views, that Kasper denied he had said such things, nor ever would speak that way. Which was baffling, given that the interview was posted by Edward Pentin, a veteran Vatican journalist known and respected for his longtime outstanding coverage of Church matters and intricacies. I’ve known Edward for many years, had him on my radio show as a regular guest, and trusted his reporting unfailingly.

So even though Zenit took the interview offline, Edward Pentin published this response on his site, together with the audio of the interview.

The emergence of the strong and clear voices of the African bishops has been an important element of this Synod, and Pope Francis recognized that late into the second week but in time to name one, and another striking voice, to the committee drafting the final Synod document.

Fr. Lombardi reported that “the Pope decided to act” by adding two new members to the writing committee that will synthesize the reports from the small circles of language-based discussions meeting this week. There have been loud grumbles about the makeup of the original group appointed by Pope Francis for its lack of geographic range. The two new appointments are Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa and Abp. Denis J. Hart of Melbourne.

Here’s another account of it all.

Numerous Vatican Synod Fathers have voiced grave concerns both within and without the Synod hall over the last few days that the Synod mid-term report has indeed endangered assurance of doctrinal security, and with potentially grave consequences.

Most recently, Australian Cardinal George Pell said: “In seeking to be merciful, some want to open up Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, civil unions, homosexuality in a radically liberalising direction, whose fruits we see in other Christian traditions.” He urged, “the task now is to reassure good practising Catholics that doctrinal changes are not possible; to urge people to take a deep breath, pause and to work to prevent deeper divisions and radicalising of factions.”

Exactly. Effort must be made to prevent deeper divisions of the factions within the Church, which Pope Francis has repeatedly called on to be the ‘field hospital’ for the world’s wounded.

That CWR report notes this:

Perhaps this morning’s addition of Cdl. Napier of South Africa to the writing committee is coincidental. Some, however, speculate that it was engineered by prelates who believe that the perspective of the non-Western bishops is a critical contribution to the synod deliberations. The challenge to remain Catholic makes the heroic witness of the Africans all the more significant—they have not been persecuted by social pressure to conform, rather they have maintained their faith in the face of violence, beheadings, and burned villages; their bishops, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, have “mopped up the blood of their people”.

Cardinal Dolan also reports that during the synod he has been inspired by the African bishops. “We in the west” are tempted to dilute the teachings, to worry about our popularity. However, said Cdl. Dolan, the Africans know they are not called to be popular but “to propose the truth”. The American cardinal declared the African testimonies as “prophetic.”

On radio Thursday,  I had a roundtable on the Synod, parsing the reports and news stories and documents so far released for whatever we could learn and clarify for others. Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow repeatedly emphasized this: The language of doctrine is clear and settled. The Synod is working on the language of encounter.

Fr. Robert Barron, Founder of Word On Fire media ministry, published this commentary the other day, to calm concerns while we wait for documents to come out of this Synod that will continue to be considered for the next year until the next synod is held.

What has just appeared is not even close to a definitive, formal teaching of the Catholic Church. It is a report on what has been discussed so far in a synod of some two hundred bishops from around the world. It conveys, to be sure, a certain consensus around major themes, trends that have been evident in the conversations, dominant emphases in the debates, etc., but it decidedly does not represent “the teaching” of the Pope or the bishops.

One of the great mysteries enshrined in the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is that Christ speaks through the rather messy and unpredictable process of ecclesiastical argument. The Holy Spirit guides the process of course, but he doesn’t undermine or circumvent it. It is precisely in the long, laborious sifting of ideas across time and through disciplined conversation that the truth that God wants to communicate gradually emerges. If you want evidence of this, simply look at the accounts of the deliberations of the major councils of the Church, beginning with the so-called Council of Jerusalem in the first century right through to the Second Vatican Council of the twentieth century. In every such gathering, argument was front and center, and consensus evolved only after lengthy and often acrimonious debate among the interested parties.

In the immediate term, we’ll see whether some consensus evolves in Saturday’s final document. Final, that is, for now.

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Oct 15

No. There’s no change whatsoever in the Catholic Church’s teaching and doctrine on marriage and sexuality, contrary to what you may be hearing.

The Synod on the Family is wrapping up its second and final week for now, making news by the day and even by the hour it seems. Some of it is generated by ravenous media bereft of information and even opportunities for the feeding frenzy of press briefings other than what individual bishops will give them after the sessions.

Just when I was cheering on Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama speaking boldly to the West about trying to export ideas about marriage, family, human life that are foreign to African’s ideas, for trying to make Africans accept the West’s ideas and adopt them in Africa in spite of their direct conflict with what Africans’ believe and stand for in defense of human life and dignity, Germany’s outspoken Cardinal Kasper speaks out again, on the record with Zenit.org, about how “impossible” it is to reason with people of such beliefs.

The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

(However, it sounds like he just did.)

ZENIT: But are African participants listened to in this regard?

Cardinal Kasper: No, the majority of them [who hold these views won’t speak about them].

ZENIT: They’re not listened to?

Cardinal Kasper: In Africa of course [their views are listened to], where it’s a taboo.

See? An admission that the African contingent is simply rendered irrelevant, not listened to, except among themselves, on their own continent. How dismissive.

ZENIT: What has changed for you, regarding the methodology of this synod?

Cardinal Kasper: I think in the end there must be a general line in the Church, general crite

ria, but then the questions of Africa we cannot solve. There must be space also for the local bishops’ conferences to solve their problems but I’d say with Africa it’s impossible [for us to solve]. But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.

That’s interesting, given that Archbishop Kaigama said he same thing days earlier.

We get international organizations, countries, and groups which like to entice us to deviate from our cultural practices, traditions, and even our religious beliefs. And this is because of their belief that their views should be our views. Their opinions and their concept of life should be ours…

We have been offered the wrong things, and we are expected to accept simply because they think we are poor. And we are saying poverty is not about money. One can be poor in spirituality, poor in ideas, poor in education, and in many other ways.

So we are not poor in that sense. We may be poor materially but we are not poor in every sense. So we say no to what we think is wrong. And time has gone when we would just follow without question. Now, we question. We evaluate. We decide. We ask questions. This is what we do in Africa now.

Catholic scholar and Vatican expert George Weigel was my guest on radio Wednesday, and said “These northern European bishops seem not to have understood that conceding to the zeitgeist, conceding to the sexual revolution, which they have been trying to do since Humanae Vitae, is one of the reasons why their churches are empty. There is no future for dumbed-down Catholicism in this culturally challenging moment. The notion that the way you deal with this cultural tsunami that is sweeping across the western world is to bend before it, is foolishness of the first order. And that is what the African bishops are saying to the Europeans: ‘Don’t you impose your Western decadence on us,’ and good for them for saying it.

Weigel referred to Kasper’s interview as trying to silence the Africans by telling them ‘shut up, we’re not listening to you.’ Which he called “astonishingly arrogant,” and “which I hope he gets called to task for severely, publicly.” He called the expressions scandalous, and added that he’s “frankly glad it’s out in the open.” But he strongly asserted that Cardinal Kasper’s brother bishops and cardinals need to respond to those remarks. “This was an act of cultural snobbery.”

Weigel had just published a good piece in National Review trying to calm nerves over what is and isn’t happening in Rome at this Synod.

For the better part of a half century, the New York Times, and similarly situated purveyors of news and opinion, have eagerly awaited the Great Catholic Cave-In: that blessed moment when, at long last, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, would concede that the sexual revolution had gotten it right all along and would adjust its teaching and practice to suit. A Times “breaking story” on October 13, under the headline “Vatican Signals More Tolerance Toward Gays and Remarriage,” might have struck the unwary or uninformed (or those equally committed to the Times agenda in these matters) as a signal that Der Tag, the Day, had finally arrived.

Thus Elisabetta Povoledo wrote that “an important meeting at the Vatican used remarkably conciliatory language on Monday toward gay and divorced Catholics, signaling a possible easing of the church’s rigid attitudes on homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.” It would be hard to cram more misinformation into one sentence.

Weigel proceeds to dismantle the false reporting in the piece, and all other false ideas of Catholic teaching not up for amendment in this synod.

The 2014 synod is an agenda-setting exercise that was intended by Pope Francis to help prepare the work of the 2015 Synod on the Family. The pope knows full well that marriage and the family are in crisis throughout the world. In his own remarks before the synod, he said that he hoped the synod would lift up the beauty of Christian marriage and Christian family life in a world too dominated by what he’s often called a “throwaway culture,” the throwaways all too frequently including spouses and children…

The synod fathers are wrestling with difficult questions. How does the Catholic Church best approach, in a pastoral and charitable way, those who are living in what the Church has no option but to consider, objectively speaking, irregular situations? How does a Church of sinners — which is what all of us Catholics are — call people in those situations to the conversion to which all Christians are constantly called? How can it bring people to see the truth of their situation, and how can it best help them deal with that? These are not simple matters; matters of the heart rarely are.

Similarly, Princeton Professor Robert George published this commentary in The Public Discourse with the challenging question ‘Has the Catholic Church Changed its Teaching on Sex and Marriage?’

When you went to bed this past Sunday evening, the Catholic Church taught the following:

Marriage is indissoluble.

Catholics who attempt marriage following a divorce—without a declaration that their first bond wasn’t after all a valid marriage—enter a (presumptively) adulterous relationship. So long as they maintain a sexual relationship with their new partner, they cannot judge themselves to be in a state of grace and therefore cannot worthily receive Holy Communion.

To return to the sacrament, the partners must repent—which requires ending the new sexual relationship—and be absolved.

Marriage is the conjugal union of sexually complementary spouses—husband and wife.

Non-marital sexual acts, including all same-sex sexual acts, are seriously sinful.

Same-sex sexual desires are intrinsically disordered: that is, not ordered to the good of conjugal union. Experiencing such desires or inclinations is not sinful, but acting on them is.

The next day, Prof. George wrote, you would find that the Catholic Church teaches exactly the same.

“Hang on there, professor. Haven’t you heard? On Monday the Catholic Church changed its teachings on marriage and sexuality. There has been an ‘earthquake,’ a ‘seismic shift.’ Things will never be the same. The Church now welcomes remarried people to communion, has dropped its objections to homosexual conduct, and denies that homosexual desires are ‘intrinsically disordered.’ Or it’s about to do all of that. Francis is a new kind of Pope, and it’s a new day. He has brought Catholicism into line with the teachings of the Episcopal Church USA, the Unitarian Universalists, and the New York Times editorial board.”

If you are indeed thinking something like that, it’s because you’ve heard about something called a relatio post disceptationem, a document released on Monday as an interim report on discussions occurring at a Vatican synod of bishops (called an “extraordinary” synod because it is preparatory to a larger synod—an “ordinary” synod—that will occur next year) on contemporary challenges to the family.

The relatio, then, is raw material for this week’s discussion, which will prepare for next year’s discussion, which may provide fodder for a document by the Pope.

So it’s conducive to something preparatory to something (possibly) advisory.

It has no teaching authority whatsoever.

What’s more, it proposed no changes—none—in the doctrine or moral teaching of the Church.

Why did some people think it did? More on that next time. (Short answer for now: translation.)

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Oct 13

What we’re hearing and reading is coming largely from the synod of the media.

Well before the official 2014 Vatican Synod on the Family began in Rome over the weekend of October 5th, it began in news stories, blog posts, Facebook comments and Twitter posts with rampant speculation based on advance publications and comments by some cardinals about the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce, re-marriage and communion, and homosexual relationships.

On the eve of the actual event, Rocco Palmo aptly noted the hoopla and reminded everyone to settle down.

Lest anyone got confused amid the spectacles in the gathering’s run-up, most of what’s transpired until now doesn’t mean terribly much – dueling Europeans and North Americans do not a Synod make… nor, for that matter, a universal church, either.

At the Mass opening it all, after reflections on the Gospel about cultivating the vineyard, Francis said this:

We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the vineyard of the Lord. The Synodal assemblies don’t serve to discuss beautiful or original ideas, or to see who’s the most intelligent one… They serve to care for and maintain better the Lord’s vineyard, to cooperate in his dream, in his project of love for his people. In this case, the Lord asks us to take on ourselves the care of the family, which from its origins is an integral part of his design of love for humanity. (emphasis added)

We are all sinners, eh?, and for us too there can be the temptation of “seizing upon” the vineyard, born of the greed that’s never lacking in us humans. The dream of God always clashes with the hypocrisy of some among his servants. We can “frustrate” the dream of God if we don’t let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the wisdom that is apart from science, to work generously with true freedom and humble creativity.

Brothers of the Synod, to care for and guard well the vineyard, we need for our hearts and minds to be guarded in Christ Jesus, from whom comes “peace from God which is beyond all understanding”…

However, frustrations have abounded at times in the first week, and factions have claimed the Holy Spirit is either working anew in this Synod or missing from it, which is a reiteration of old arguments from Vatican II.

Even after Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI dedicated their entire pontificates to finally realizing the teachings of that council, after decades of those same old arguments. With Benedict still living on the grounds within the walls of the Vatican, sometimes enjoying the visits of Francis who comes to confer with him, one wonders what he’s thinking of these proceedings.

To come up to speed, here are some of the best updates at the start of the second and final week for now of this extraordinary event.

This post explains things rather clearly, especially the nature of the closed sessions which shut out all media access, leading to the abundance of speculation.

Pope Francis gave a very clear indication of the method the synod should follow: bishops should speak frankly. Without any reverential fear. Even without being afraid of not coinciding with the Pope’s own opinion. The synodal fathers, instead, have opted for confidentiality. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod, warned them, «You can speak with whomever you want, but your texts are the synod’s property.» One bishop underlined that «we also had to commit to keep the discussion confidential. We can speak about the topics we have addressed during the assembly, and also give our impressions, but we cannot give out the names of the people who have spoken.»

This is the reason why very little is known about the discussions in the synod. Reading the media, it seems the synod is a sort of referendum on Catholic divorce, or at least on the access to Communion for divorced remarried. The temptation to divide in categories (progressives against conservatives) is quite strong. Left in the about discussions in the synod, the media looks for contrasts that, it seems, bear no correspondence to what is actually taking place in the Synodal Hall.

What is reportedly happening in the synodal hall sometimes even includes boring discussions.

Judging from media reports about eruptions over doctrine and pastoral practice, they’re not reporting on the real Synod.

In the background, one can read the eternal debate about a Church that must spread a message and the way the Church presents this message to the world…

Until now, the media has somewhat led the discussion on the family. The absence of any texts on the interventions of the synodal fathers, the impossibility of knowing who said what, undermines rather than stimulates the discussions. It is then easy for the media to take the lead of the conversation…

The point that the crisis of the family represents the crisis of Catholicism….This same crisis that Pope Francis rightly identified as a central issue…

The risk is that of making of the synod more than what it is, by describing it in political terms which are alien to it; presenting it as a struggle that in fact is lost in nuances; or by expecting changes to the doctrine.

These are false expectations. The synod is a consultative body, not a deliberative one. It does not decide on doctrine.

And that’s a key point missed in the secular media. This two week session is a closed door exchange, a listening session, and nothing will be changed in the process.

That’s a dramatic counter-narrative to the Monday headlines found everywhere that an ‘earthquake’ was happening in Rome at the Synod. Not so, reports my friend Kathryn Jean Lopez, accurately.

Commenting on some of the headlines covering the synod on the family and the working summary document that was released and discussed today, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan emphasized that doctrine isn’t being changed in Rome right now.

On his weekly radio show, Dolan was joined Fr. Jonathan Morris from the Archdiocese of New York and Nigeria’s Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama — who has some choice words for Western insistence that aid be contingent on adopting Western sexual mores. Kaigama stressed the fact that it is but a mere conversation and one that will be ongoing for a year. “We were just looking at it!,” he said. “A draft is a draft. It’s a draft; draft means you are still working on it.” somewhat perplexed by media reaction, and that it was even released “I wonder what that is going to achieve,” he said.

Kaigama has been such a needed, clarifying voice in this world body of church leaders, helping the West to think outside our borders.

The synod is not a referendum. We’re not here to vote on this, on that. It’s a discussion, a conversation about our faith. And it is a year-long conversation because we are having another synod in October next year. What we decide or talk about now is also going to be part of what we shall talk about in a year’s time. So there’s nothing definitive that is going to be issued from this synod in the sense that this is the law, this is the doctrine, we change all the doctrines, change everything. No, no, I don’t think that is the aim of this synod. It is about talking.”

And listening. And exchanging freely the ideas about how best to reach people in the modern world, wherever they are, on the peripheries or in the mainstream, with a message of love and mercy and justice. Kathryn Lopez seized the media language of ‘mercy and justice’ leading to an ‘earthquake’ of rupture in Church teaching on marriage and divorce and related issues, and deftly wove it into this.

The most unfortunate headline of the day so far about news out of Rome on a working document that has been released by the ongoing synod on the family in Rome might have been this one from NBC: “Vatican Synod Told Gays Have Gifts and Qualities.” Our very lives are gifts and did anyone really need to be told that any person has qualities?

More than qualities, they are made in the image and likeness of God: that is our common identity.

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”

That was from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

But there is an obvious difference in the language being used in the draft from the synod on the family that was released today. The working draft reflects the fact that it is 2014 and we have some real pastoral challenges and obstacles to evangelization. How do you overcome them? With a language, with gestures that are inviting people to Church teaching. With a language that acknowledges that same-sex marriage didn’t break marriage, decades of practical surrender to the sexual revolution did.

As with when Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?,” for the world to finally begin to hear that Catholic Church teaching is really truly rooted in love, is a tremendous opportunity. The misunderstandings that are legion will be clarified if people have real-life and cultural exposure to Catholics living loving witness to the Gospel, living according to Church teaching and finding joy in it.

This will be a very interesting week, as the synod continues these sessions and wraps up. Plenty more to come.

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Oct 08

“One can be poor in spirituality, poor in ideas, poor in education, and in many other ways.”

Gems of wisdom.

Who is speaking with such bold clarity, and to whom? Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, to a Vatican press briefing during a break in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

What he said is compelling.

We are confronted with some issues, and sometimes [they are] quite perplexing. We recently had a big conference on pro-life issues, and in that conference, we came out very clearly to ascertain the fact that life is sacred, marriage is scared, and the family has dignity.

We get international organizations, countries, and groups which like to entice us to deviate from our cultural practices, traditions, and even our religious beliefs. And this is because of their belief that their views should be our views. Their opinions and their concept of life should be ours.

We say, “No we have come of age.” Most countries in Africa are independent for 50, 60, 100 years. We should be allowed to think for ourselves. We should be able to define: What is marriage? What makes the family? When does life begin? We should have answers to those [questions].

We are wooed by economic things. We are told, “If you limit your population, we’re going to give you so much.” And we tell them, “Who tells you that our population is overgrown?” In the first place, children die — infant mortality — we die in inter-tribal wars, and diseases of all kinds. And yet, you come with money to say, “Decrease your population; we will give you economic help.”

Now you come to tell us about reproductive rights, and you give us condoms and artificial contraceptives. Those are not the things we want. We want food, we want education, we want good roads, regular light, and so on. Good health care.

We have been offered the wrong things, and we are expected to accept simply because they think we are poor. And we are saying poverty is not about money. One can be poor in spirituality, poor in ideas, poor in education, and in many other ways.

So we are not poor in that sense. We may be poor materially but we are not poor in every sense. So we say no to what we think is wrong. And time has gone when we would just follow without question. Now, we question. We evaluate. We decide. We ask questions. This is what we do in Africa now.

Reading that, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Where are we hearing such strong voices of clarity and conviction these days?

This is an important voice and message, and we need to pay it respectful attention. Note what Vatican analyst George Weigel said in this piece ahead of the Synod.

The collapse of marriage culture throughout the world is indisputable. More and more marriages end in divorce, even as increasing numbers of couples simply ignore marriage, cohabit, and procreate. The effort to redefine “marriage” as what we know it isn’t, and to enforce that redefinition by coercive state power, is well-advanced in the West. The contraceptive mentality has seriously damaged the marriage culture, as have well-intentioned but ultimately flawed efforts to make divorce easier. The sexual free-fire zone of the West is a place where young people find it very hard to commit to a lifelong relationship that inevitably involves sacrificing one’s “autonomy.” And just as the Christian understanding of marriage is beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it is experienced as a liberating dimension of the Gospel, European theologians from dying local churches are trying to empty marriage of its covenantal character, reducing it to another form of contract.

The Christian understanding of marriage, which is the understanding of a sacramental covenant between man and woman is “beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it it experienced as”…what?…liberating. Imagine that.

It’s time the West becomes aware of and comes to terms with what we – through any number of proxies – have been exporting to Africa and other developing countries.

This Washington Post interview with Bill Gates is revealing.

Ezra Klein: Your letter talks a lot about the myth that aid will just lead to new problems through overpopulation. I was a bit surprised to read you focusing on it. Are fears around overpopulation an impediment in your day-to-day work?

BG: It’s a huge impediment in convincing rich-world donors that they should feel good about these health improvements. Our foundation focused in the 1990s on reproductive health. We weren’t nearly as big then. But we wanted to make contraception available because we thought population growth would make everything so difficult, whether it’s the environment or feeding kids or stability. It was only when we found out about this phenomenal connection between improved health and reduced population growth that we felt: Great, let’s just make the foundation as big as possible to go after these health problems. Because before then the commonsense thing was more kids would make these problems less tractable.

I don’t think people like to say out loud that we want to let these kids die because there are too many of them. But by choosing not to get into health in our early days I was a victim of the myth around overpopulation.

And here we are today:

An African archbishop attending the worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops frankly criticized Western attitudes toward his continent Wednesday, lambasting imposition of foreign cultures on African people.

Africans “have come of age,” said Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama. “We should be allowed to think for ourselves.”

“We are wooed by economic things,” said Kaigama, who heads Nigeria’s Jos archdiocese. “We are told if you limit your population, we’re going to give you so much. And we tell them, ‘Who tells you that our population is overgrown?’”

Good. Question.

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Oct 07

Maybe it’s the vortex of the perfect storm.

God knows, marriage and family, and therefore society, have been in crisis over these past years and that cultural breakdown has wrought great damage to individuals and societies. What are the factors behind it all? How do we get marriage right and serve the fundamental institution of the family on which a healthy and thriving culture is based? Competing views of both marriage and family have been going at it for decades, and that battle (I hate the pugilistic terminology these days, but it’s more a battle than a struggle) has escalated in the past few years faster and more furiously than before. The stakes are so high. For civilization.

So we arrive at a confluence of events this week.

Pope Francis convened an Extraordinary Synod on the Family at the Vatican over the weekend, an unusual event in the life of the Catholic Church. It didn’t as much  launch as continue a multi-year concentration of energies and focus on problems and issues in modern culture that required something far bigger and more momentous than a symposium, or a written document, a declaration of sorts. Here’s why.

The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community. Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family in this context been more urgent and necessary.

(emphasis added)

Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it, to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children. The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.

Which precisely gets to the marriage redefinition movement that has very successfully built momentum with high profile support and endorsements from celebrities in Hollywood, media, sports, politics, academia, the arts, and the culture at large. The movement to redefine marriage in law has claimed marriage as a human right, a new rendering of an ancient institution, recognized by government up to the recent past as one the State has an interest in preserving and upholding as a union of one man and one woman.

So fast forward past years of litigation in the courts, to the decision by the High Court on Monday, as the Supreme Court opened its new session. It shocked just about everyone. Its effect is being celebrated by proponents as so sweeping, it “could signal the inevitability of the right of same-sex marriage nationwide”, as the New York Times reported it. The Christian Science Monitor called it a ‘Supreme Mystery.’

Why didn’t the US Supreme Court agree to hear any of the seven petitions urging the justices to settle the contentious debate over same-sex marriage?

Speculation abounds.

The justices offered no hint of an answer in Monday’s orders list. The document unceremoniously announced that petitions from each of the cases from five different states had been denied…

It is even more puzzling because the Supreme Court had several times earlier this year issued stays to block orders by lower courts that sought to immediately allow same-sex couples to marry in states where a ban was struck down. Why would the justices seek to preserve the status quo for several months only to apparently change their mind now?

Sometimes justices who believe the court should decide a particular case will file a dissent and explain to the public why the court should take up the case. Nothing like that was presented on Monday.

And therein lies a clue as to what happened in this decision. It’s just one idea, but an insightful one, by Ed Whelan.

For what it’s worth, here’s my theory explaining yesterday’s order denying review in the SSM cases:

One or more of the three conservative justices who might most be expected to object to denial—that is, Scalia, Thomas, or Alito—instead concluded that denial was the best course. Why? Because that justice (or those justices) became convinced that Kennedy was beyond persuasion and that he was a certain fifth vote to invent a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On that understanding, the least-worst option would be to deny review and thus (for the time being, at least) prevent the Supreme Court from placing its formal imprimatur on the developments below.

(Meaning those that came out of the lower courts, which they by necessity would have had to review and decide in the High Court.)

I think that this is the only theory that adequately explains why none of these three justices publicly registered a dissent. In particular, I don’t think that a competing theory—that the Chief Justice voted to deny but that Scalia, Thomas, and Alito all voted to grant—can explain the absence of a public dissent.

I don’t think that there’s any difficulty explaining why the four liberals would go along with the denial. Even if they’re equally confident of Kennedy, it’s much easier from their perspective to let the lower courts do the spadework and to intervene only if and when a court rules against a constitutional SSM right.

It makes sense. Whelan seems to offer the only – or best – plausible explanation for this stunning decision. There will be consequences, as we know already.

Which gets back to the Synod at the Vatican, dedicated to healing the world of hurt over ruptures in societies and civilization in this historic turning point. Vatican expert George Weigel (another EPPC scholar, like Whelan) posted a heartfelt request for a Synod of Affirmation. Weigel gets to the point, a couple of them in fact.

The collapse of marriage culture throughout the world is indisputable. More and more marriages end in divorce, even as increasing numbers of couples simply ignore marriage, cohabit, and procreate. The effort to redefine “marriage” as what we know it isn’t, and to enforce that redefinition by coercive state power, is well-advanced in the West. The contraceptive mentality has seriously damaged the marriage culture, as have well-intentioned but ultimately flawed efforts to make divorce easier. The sexual free-fire zone of the West is a place where young people find it very hard to commit to a lifelong relationship that inevitably involves sacrificing one’s “autonomy.” And just as the Christian understanding of marriage is beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it is experienced as a liberating dimension of the Gospel, European theologians from dying local churches are trying to empty marriage of its covenantal character, reducing it to another form of contract.

Rome, we have a problem.

Pope Francis understands the crisis of marriage culture in its multiple dimensions, just as he understands that the family, which begins in marriage, is a troubled institution in the post-modern world; that’s why he’s summoned two Synods on the topic of the family. And that’s why the Synod, fully aware of the gravity of the situation, should begin, continue, and end on a positive note, offering the world a pearl of great price: the Christian understanding and experience of marriage.

The Synod discussion, in other words, should take the crisis of marriage and the family as a given and then lift up Christian marriages, lived faithfully and fruitfully, as the answer to that crisis. The Synod should begin with what is good and true and beautiful about Christian marriage and Christian family life, and show, by living examples, how that truth, goodness, and beauty respond to the deepest longings of the human heart for solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love.

It’s quite obvious that the Church faces real pastoral challenges in dealing with broken marriages and their results. But to begin the discussion of marriage and the family in the twenty-first century there is to begin at the wrong end of things. For it is only within the truth-about-marriage, which was given to the Church by the Lord himself, that compassionate and truthful solutions to those pastoral problems can be found.

This is only the middle of week one of two weeks of this Extraordinary Synod on marriage and the family. And just two days after the Supreme Court decision not to decide the marriage questions. Stay tuned, these are interesting times.

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Sep 28

The world is in turmoil, the grip of darkness, and it seems things are spiraling out of control. What can we do?

Some people turn away, it’s all too much. We can’t turn away. This is an extraordinary, historically pivotal time. ‘A Necessary Look at Reality‘ is in order when the world is in such disorder, writes my friend Elizabeth Scalia, and she points to a New York Times’ piece ‘The Great Unraveling’ as the necessary reckoning with it.

This morning (September 15), the New York Times published an exquisitely-written dose of reality via Roger Cohen. If “only Nixon could go to China” then perhaps only a NYT columnist could spell this out and thus permit us to credibly acknowledge that things are as grim as we have all known, in our guts:

“It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

“It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

“It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.”

The Cohen piece, Scalia notes, is a must-read, loaded with observations and provocations, and “it beats at us like a drum. Or, really, like a gavel, calling us to order:”

It was a time of breakup. . .It was a time of weakness. . .It was a time of hatred. . .It was a time of fever…”

It is, finally, perhaps a time of dawning realization that the centers are not holding; old orders are in extremis; new orders are in capricious adolescence.

The troubles briefly enumerated in this sobering op-ed are only the most obvious issues. They are the pebble tossed into the pond, rippling outward in ever-widening circles — expanding to include a unique “time” of global crisis: governments failing at every level, everywhere; churches are divided, their freedoms challenged; citizens are distracted, dissatisfied and distrustful, their election mechanisms in doubt; schools are losing sight of the primary mission of education; families are deconstructed and the whole concept ripe for dissolution; respect for human dignity is doled out in qualified measures; there is a lack of privacy; a lack of time to think, to process and to incarnate; a lack of silence.

“It sounds terribly, terribly depressing, yes. Who wants to read that? Who wants to think about that?

Sadly, this is essential reading; this is essential thinking…

With this column, Mr. Cohen has done us the remarkable service of showing us the ugly landscape all around us; the one we have not wanted to pretend was neither so vast nor so damaged and fragile. Without taking it in, we cannot possibly begin to address the least-precarious bit of it.

Here’s Roger Cohen’s op-ed in full.

Then there’s the assortment of things I came across over the past week or so of news coverage, things I took note of for one reason or another, because there is indeed a great unraveling happening at a faster pace now, we got shocked as never before in ‘the civilized world’ and we’re confronting genocidal ferocity and barbarism ‘over there’ and accelerating social breakdown right here and people are getting very fearful and depressed.

Tod Worner, another respected friend, brings two things together at this point in one post that I believe is also a must-read.  Always facing the true, good and bad, I’m also always looking for the good and the beautiful. He put that together here. In covering a wide swath of news, commentary, social and political and theological analyses, and more, he finally came to say ‘Enough.’

The point is that I could become and did become rather fluent in the events of the day. Only it made me a bit cynical and depressed. Nowadays, everyone is a muckraker, everywhere there is injustice, and everyday requires the long climb up the hill to fight another fight. Now let me be clear, I am not arguing that there is no evil, hardship and injustice in the world. Sadly, there is plenty. Even further, I would not jettison all writing/reporting that informs and spurs us to improve the lot of humanity. But this is not all that humanity is. We were not designed to constantly look in the mirror…to rend our garments and spit at it. We are called to receive the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We are designed to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The devil is constantly reminding us, “You are a lousy, unworthy creation.” Whereas God is, instead, calling us, “Though imperfect, you are redeemable and called to achieve great things in my name.” Neither of these voices neglects our shortcomings, but one sees us through to greater ends. The other tempts us to wallow in the inky blackness of our sin.

I’ll come back to that remark about the devil.

Read Worner’s post, because it’s all so good, and he starts to point out some of the bad news we’ve been hearing so much about in recent weeks but adding the good news in related topics that never got attention. I love this quote he cites from newsman Bob Schieffer, a “moment of clarity” on “the virtue of courage.”

As I watched the documentary on PBS this week about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their cousin Teddy, I couldn’t help but think about what set them apart from today’s politicians. Yes, they were very smart but there are still a lot of smart people in Washington. Yes, they saw wrongs that needed to be corrected. But we still have those with good hearts, and yes they were good politicians but we still have a few good politicians around here. What set them apart to my mind was their courage. When they saw wrong, they not only tried to make it right, but they did so with no guarantee of success. What a glaring contrast to the Washington of today which spends most of its time doing nothing and the rest of its time devising schemes to avoid responsibility for anything. The latest example: when congress approved arming the Syrian rebels, they stuck the legislation in a bill that also provided money to keep the government from shutting down. That way, if arming the rebels turns out to be a debacle, members can say, ‘I was never for arming the rebels, I just voted to prevent a government shutdown.’ The Roosevelt documentary was 14 hours long spread over seven nights. A story about the courage of today’s Washington would take about 30 minutes-at most.”

And then the account of a friend’s father who passed on this month, and left a legacy evident in some of the comments left in his online obituary, respect and appreciation for his witness to a life well lived, and for others.

You see, these stories, these lives, are not the common currency of all the subscriptions I had (with the exception of the theological ones). And yet, these are the ones that matter. These are the stories that edify, that embolden, that grapple with suffering and loss, yet encourage me to keep going. Sure, at times they make me wistful and sad, but by the grace of God, they also make me smile. And keep moving forward. I have cancelled most of my subscriptions and watch less TV. Oh, mind you I still pay attention, shake my head and occasionally my fist. I will never stop caring. But I won’t be cynical. I won’t believe that we are irretrievable failures. I can’t believe we are beyond redemption.

That has become a theme that, thankfully, kept repeating all this past week in different ways and places, in articles and columns, radio show roundtable discussions and messages in church, both local and universal.

This article by my friend Kathryn Jean Lopez candidly and unapologetically says that ‘amid arguments, it can be easy to forget that God is love.’ Citing a documentary made by the group Courage, she writes:

“Look at the face of the other. . . . Discover that he has a soul, a history, and a life, that he is a person, and that God loves this person,” the film begins. It’s a quote, as it happens, from Pope Benedict.

Kathryn came from the East Coast (I never know if she’s in DC or NY) to Chicago to hold our regular roundtable with Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow in person, around an actual table, live in the Chicago studio. We did two shows, and in those two hours of in depth conversation, and extra time before and after, we tackled the issues of the day, the moment, and what we must do not just to be in the public square, but make a difference there.

We talked about the terminology of ‘battle’ in so much news and discourse, and Kathryn made a good point that while we hear about all these so-called ‘wars’ going on like the ‘culture war’ and the ‘war on women’, there are real wars happening out there with great humanitarian consequences. And Pope Francis has called on the Church to be the “field hospital” for the wounded. Fr. Grunow said “the real battle is spiritual, where dark powers inflict wounds on people” and we all noted how frequently Francis has brought that up, talking about the devil and evil in the world. “That didn’t get press attention,” Kathryn noted.

“The pope’s insights are very Ignatian,” Fr. Grunow explained, since he’s a Jesuit, “and part of that is asking ‘whose banner do you follow? Christ’s, or the devil’s? You have to make a decision.’ And Francis challenges people to see that choice clearly.”

They don’t. Kathryn shared the “odd situation” she found herself in several months ago “in a mall with a shooter, a poor kid who felt no one could reach him,” which she only found out by having a few moments to talk with him after he shot himself. “We’re having policy debates in this country all the time on all sorts of issues, and that’s important, but there’s a prior step,” she continued. “People are facing dire circumstances. They need to be addressed in their needs.”

I asked Fr. Grunow if an existential crisis is one of the most urgent problems the Church faces today, and he pointed out that the top crisis globally is of course the persecuted Church in danger of extinction in some areas of the birthplace of Christianity. But “the existential crisis is the perennial work of the Church to address in every age,” he added. “Everyone has a relationship with God, whether they realize it or not.” How to help doubters, skeptics, atheists and those who have lost hope realize that is a mission more than a task.

Pope Francis repeatedly calls Catholics, Christians and all people of goodwill to ‘go out to the existential peripheries’, to ’create a culture of encounter’, and meet people where they are. That means noticing someone across the globe, the street, the room or dinner table or office space from you. Which circles back to the question at top, what can we do?

Michael Cook pointed to one outstanding witness, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Who knew how to serve whoever he met by doing whatever he could, and well, to be the presence of faith, hope, charity, and joy.

“He knew how to be very human when treating people, in the work that he did, knowing that his work was also a springboard, an aid to approach God and to be with God,” Bishop Javier Echevarria Rodriguez, prelate of Opus Dei, told CNA in Rome Sept. 26.

“He helped us, he understood and encouraged us and at the same time he was greatly interested in all things that affected us. He didn’t feel distant from us or indifferent.”

Bishop Echevarria said del Portillo was “totally at the disposal of others.”

“He was a person who knew how to love, who knew how to serve and who knew how to be at hand.”

It’s what I learned years ago from a young priest as ‘the ministry of presence’, being in the moment. Which, providentially, came up in the homily on Sunday of a local parish pastor reflecting on the two sons in the parable of the Gospel, one who said he wouldn’t go work but wound up going, the other who said he would, but didn’t show up. He talked about decisions, regret, anxiety, love, forgiveness and the importance of the moment.

He quoted Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on this profound awareness of something we tend to miss altogether.

“All unhappiness (when there is no immediate cause for sorrow) comes from excessive concentration on the past or from extreme preoccupation with the future. The major problems of psychiatry revolve around an analysis of the despair, pessimism, melancholy, and complexes that are the inheritances of what has been, or with the fears, anxieties, worries which are the imaginings of what will be…But God in His Mercy has given us two remedies for such an unhappiness: One is the sacrament of Penance…Nothing in human experience is as efficacious in curing the memory and imagination as confession…

“The second remedy for the ills that come to us from thinking about time is what might be called the sanctification of the moment – or the Now….The present moment includes some things over which we have control, but it also carries with it difficulties we cannot avoid..

We don’t or can’t always know why suffering happens, he continued, but God can draw good out of evil, and “the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be or us to understand its freight of pain.” To accept pain and suffering, with belief that God is in control, “is to have taken the most important step in the reformation of the world…the reformation of the self.”

G.K. Chesterton nailed it in his book ‘What’s Wrong With the World”, by concluding that his best response was “I am.” Our human nature recoils from the pain and misery and evil happening around us by crying out ‘Someone ought to do something!” True and understandable reaction.

But we should also ask ourselves ‘what am I doing?’

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Sep 01

It’s good news that people are asking.

Stalwarts who have been working with embattled and endangered communities all along are pleading for relief. Whether they’re clergy, other religious, or faith-based organizations, they’re spent and crying out for help.

One anguished priest wrote to Pope Francis, out of desperation. He got a response.

Pope Francis has telephoned an Iraqi priest who is ministering in a refugee camp, according to a Vatican Radio report.

“The situation of your sheep is miserable,” Father Behnam Benoka, until recently a seminary vice-rector near Mosul, said in his letter. “They die and they are hungry. Your little ones are scared and cannot do it anymore. We, priests, religious, are few and fear not being able to meet the physical and mental needs of your and our children.”

“Your Holiness, I’m afraid of losing your children, especially infants who every day struggle and weaken more,” he continued. “I’m afraid that death will snatch some away. Send us your blessing so that we may have the strength to go on, and maybe we can still resist.”

In response to the letter, the Pope called Father Benoka and “reiterated his full support and closeness to the persecuted Christians, promising that he will continue to do his best to bring relief to their suffering,” Vatican Radio reported.

The refugees and those caught up in the violence while trying to deliver aid are at the point of helping each other survive.

Christians and other religious minorities who have fled areas in Iraq that have fallen under Islamic State control are now helping one another to survive as refugees, an aid worker said.

“They themselves have been displaced and they’re going around caring for those who are in need, who are in situations like they are,” Todd Daniels, International Christian Concern regional manager for the Middle East, told CNA Aug. 27.

Last week, Daniels was in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than 1 million people have fled from their homes amid the invasion of the radical Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The militant group has taken control of numerous cities and ordered Christians and other religious minorities to convert, pay a tax known as a jizya, or be killed.

The fleeing Iraqis – including Christians and other religious minorities – have sought refuge in other areas, such as the northern city of Erbil.

Daniels said that while the situation is desperate, there is much hope in the way religious communities and refugees are working to improve life there.

“Probably one of the most striking impressions was just the activeness of the local churches,” he said. “From morning to night they’re out there providing aid, providing relief and actually, a lot of the man power, for the groups we were working with by people who themselves have been displaced.”…

Some refugees hope that international security forces will help create a safe haven for Christians and other religious minorities, while others are just trying to grasp the reality that they will most likely never return to their homes.

“There’s really a feeling of not knowing what to do,” Daniels said.

Though I cover this ongoing crisis just about every day on radio and in writing, bringing in experts and giving out information, it can’t be repeated often enough. Because some people are just beginning to learn, others just beginning to pay attention, and some who realize the reality is dire, the relief organizations are on the ground and delivering aid, and the need for support is urgent and critical. But they don’t quite catch where they can contribute to that effort.

I was caught off guard by a frustrated listener who said, frankly, that tuning in briefly at different times as he could, he caught some of the conversations but not the ways to help, and wanted that information to be repeated often, so people tuning in and out as time allowed would hear something that gave them access to the relief organizations doing the hard, firsthand work of sustaining people fleeing for their lives.

For everyone’s sake, here are some of the best.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a papal agency delivering humanitarian aid and pastoral support in many locations globally, most acutely in the Middle East right now. They’re lean on staff and support costs, so most of the contributed funds go straight to the people actually in greatest need.

Catholic Relief Services is another long established aid organization on the ground where needs are the greatest across the globe, especially in the Iraq crisis.

Aid to the Church in Need is similar, also under the guidance of the pope and with the mission of aiding persecuted Christians and other suffering minorities.

The Knights of Columbus launched a major fund to help Christians threatened with extinction in Iraq.

“The unprovoked and systematic persecution and violent elimination of Middle East Christians, as well as other minority groups, especially in Iraq, has created an enormous humanitarian crisis,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “Pope Francis has asked the world for prayers and support for those affected by this terrible persecution, and we are asking our members, and all people of good will, to pray for those persecuted and support efforts to assist them by donating to this fund.”

Anderson added: “It has shocked the conscience of the world that people are systematically being purged from the region where their families have lived for millennia – simply for their faith. It is imperative that we stand in solidarity with them in defense of the freedom of conscience, and provide them with whatever relief we can.”

To that end, the US Bishops Conference has asked all parishes across the country to take up a special collection over the next two weekends to support immediate humanitarian and pastoral needs in the Middle East. Some began this past weekend. The USCCB site provides complete information on this initiative, including all the ways people can send aid and relief.

I was struck by a couple of different expert guests on radio last week saying the same thing, separately, on different days, about what was being lost in the elimination of Christians from the earliest birthplaces of Christianity. Besides the obvious.

They each said Catholics and other Christians have traditionally provided the hospitals, shelters, schools, homes, orphanages and distribution centers for basic needs in the areas they’re now being driven from, possibly at a point of no return. What will happen when they’re gone?

As Kathryn Lopez asks,

How many times have we heard: “Never again”?…

How often have we quoted: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”? And yet: Do we do nothing? What do we actually say in the face of evil?

We say those words over again, that quote from philosopher Edmund Burke, among other things that make us feel good to be aware and engaged, and feel like we’re alerting others to something grave that must be met with greater good and truth that can vanquish evil. But after saying those things, we too often go on to the next thing in our busy lives and tend to it.

This is a pivotal point in history.

“The spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation,” wrote Whittaker Chambers, whom National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. described as “the most important American defector from Communism.” Chambers explained: “Crime, violence, infamy, are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy — not defeat or death.”

Is this a time of awakening?

At one point in his Witness, Chambers recounts how the daughter of a German Communist explained her father’s defection: He had been an unquestioning Communist, and then “one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”

Do we hear the screams? Do we join with the persecuted in the prayers they have led us in? Will we join their witness to the truth about the dignity of every man and woman, of whatever faith or no faith? Will we never again be silent as evil is happening?

That is as unthinkable as the crimes against humanity that are happening daily.

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