Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Attempted Murder of Morality

I believe one of the more disturbing aspects of this year's US Presidential election cycle is I am  seeing the most bizarre definition of morality I have ever seen.  Perhaps it is the inevitable conclusion of the error of situation ethics.  Right and wrong are being less judged by the nature of the act and much more by the person who acts.  The nefarious nature of an act or the goodness of an act are more being determined by the most ugly possible criteria: who does it.  If morality is now determined by actor and not act, then morality as a practical measure is dead.

Certainly US politics is giving us the most distilled version of this breakdown.  The heinousness of an action is now to be determined by political affiliation.  It is born out of a willingness to push ahead thoroughly deficient candidates because our side must win.  The willingness to surrender core moral values to further the promise of the pursuit of other moral values drives this way of thinking.   "I know my candidate is an amoral or immoral  individual here, here, and here...but I will overlook this because he/she promised to do this, this , and this.  Furthermore I will defend the candidate and attack those who point out these failings as traitors to the 'cause' I am for."  Point out the deficiencies of Trump and now you're for loading the Supreme Court with satanists who will further the advance of immorality, point out the deficiencies of Clinton and you are for women and children suffering, you hate minorities, and you want people to die on the streets for want of insurance.  The ad hominum attacks pile up like mounds of fetid garbage  worthy of Gehenna.  Don't even talk about voting third party (not exactly a parade of the moral either) and you get attacked as a traitor and blamed for the downfall of the republic.  When morality gets compromised, the compromiser needs to become more shrill in their accusations.  Where morality fails, conspiracy theorists dwell.

It isn't limited to politics.  That it is in politics in our country means it had to exist in the people first.  In our type of government we essentially elect a reflection of our collective values.  The political process exposes this and forces us to confront it.  If I am the type of person that excuses my own behavior yet condemns the same exact behavior in another, then I am the microcosm of what politics is in the macrocosm. Can we be surprised that in a society where we bolster self-esteem to the point where we see an exercise in humility that is honest self-reflection as the enemy, that our body politic and society as whole ends up here?  If I make excuses for my own sin, will I not make excuses for my friends and allies who also sin?  This, my friends, is the road to a sociopath nation.  A nation that gives license to sociopath behavior will elect sociopaths to lead it.

Within the Catholic Church in the West we have seen a complete breakdown in the Sacrament of Confession.  Many churches, if they offer any confession times at all, offer them at a constrictive schedule.  Most priests do that because no one comes anyway.  It can be a chicken/egg argument to be sure, but it representative of the problem.  When preaching and teaching were reduces to 'be nice; and hell was dismissed as a bogeyman to scare people into line, it was like lacing a stick of dynamite. Be good replaced be holy.  Morality was bludgeoned with 'do what your conscience tells you' without fulfilling the duty of  forming the conscience with truth.  This, of course, was never the official teaching of the Church, but how is was lived on the ground.  That. my friends, is how the Catholic Church went from the Body of Christ in this country to a social work agency.  I am not saying social work is bad, but reducing the Church to social work is like reducing  God to a sugar daddy (funny how those things go hand in hand).  That is why people bristle when moral issues, sin (especially the idea of mortal sin) and confession are brought up.  It is why people are fine with your bringing up someone else's sin as long as you don't preach about their pet sin.

However, look at the fruits of this tree.  This nation is angry.  This nation is getting angrier.  We become super sensitive to having our faults exposed while we become super angry at the sins of others we want exposed. That concepts of the super sensitive like 'microagression' and 'safe space' rule us is witness to the madness. It is the madness brought on by dwelling in the extremes.  If we wish to pull back from the brink of anarchy, it will come with a re-grasping of morality and truth.  In the Catholic Church, the two are intertwined.

We might attempt to murder morality, but we can't kill it.  True morality is a matter of God's love, of living selflessly.  The road to redemption, as individuals and a society, will come from coming face to face with the challenge presented by true morality.  True morality moves us beyond seeing a person as an end.  True morality finds the objectification of  a person as reprehensible regardless of who does it.  True morality shows us that an act is good or bad based on the act and not the as to whether or not the person is part  of' my side'.  For example: sexual assault is sexual assault regardless of the party affiliation of the person who does the assault.  Murder is murder regardless of the race of the person murdered or the race of the murderer.  Yes, sometimes the person does matter.  Our expectations of a child are not the same as our expectations of an adult.  Our expectations of a person suffering from a disease, mental disorder, and even an addiction are not the same as those who have full faculties. 

That said, we must stop with defending indefensible behavior because it furthers another end.  The more we do this, the lower the standards go until there are no standards left.  If we expect to do this within society, it starts with each individual.  We must stop trying to explain away our sins and squash shame and guilt so as to give free reign to those sins.  Shame and guilt are little more than warning lights letting us know something needs to be addressed.  It is one of the beauties of Confession, it gives us a place to deal with these issues and use God's grace to start again.

Wrong does not become right by public vote.  A majority of citizens might vote for genocide, slavery, brutality and such.  It only makes these things legal...not moral.  Legal and moral do not mean the same thing.  If we want want what is legal to drift further and further away from being moral, then by all means keep up excusing behavior.  If we want what is legal to be what is also moral, then the excuses  must end.  That is the start.  Justice cannot be found independent of truth.  I suggest if enough people start with the conversion of the man or woman in the mirror, we might well be able to turn the country or society around.  I know,  like myself, the majority of people are weary of what we see.  We are weary of the hypocrisy.  Okay.  If the surest road to hypocrisy is to excuse our own immorality, then why don't we start there...stop making excuses with ourselves and others.  Demand better of yourself and you'll find you'll want better of our leaders as well.  I realize we don't elect angels, but we don't have to settle for demons either. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Faith and Politics

Jesus told us to 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's'.  Fewer quotes have been more manipulated so as to live into two distinct worlds.  It becomes almost a default  position to buy the ' I personally believe X but publicly support Y'  argument when distinguishing private belief from public stances.  It is weasel-speak. If not that, then it is an acceptable form of schizophrenia. A very dangerous form, mind you.  It is not just politicians that do this, but voters who do this as well.  It is as if it is acceptable to make a deal with the devil publicly while using faith to disown the deal privately.

The fact is that we bring our actual beliefs into everything we say and do.  We do have a civic duty to support the good of the states and nations in which we live.  Support the good.  Is supporting the good in contradiction to the tenets of our faith?  What do we say about our faith if we view this as true?

For decades we have accepted the fallacious argument that to keep the peace we must sacrifice beliefs in order to be fair.  In doing so we cede more ground to those who are hostile to our faith.  We ceded the ground on God in the public square, we ceded the ground on life issues, we ceded the ground on human sexuality, we ceded the ground on a multitude of issues to the point where we will justify and even be belligerent about supporting severely deficient moral characters to be our leaders.  Yes, I understand that we elect human beings.  However, that is becoming yet another excuse to hide behind  the surrender of our values.

I, for one, am not willing to surrender my Catholic faith and values when I enter the voting booth or any other any venue.  It has become  like wandering in a desert.  Because it is an act of free will, my vote is a moral act which I will be held accountable before God.  For too long, when voting, it seems like I have to balance which values I will abandon to further other values.  When did this become acceptable?!  How did we cede so much ground that this is the choice we have to make?

Hence, we are left with being  perpetually between Scylla and Charibdes.  Poor choices and devilish compromises pile upon one another until there are no moral choices left to make.  Choosing between the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil!   Taking back the ground lost will require our not 'accepting our fate' election in and election out.  Our faith must matter or it is not worth having!  Our faith and its tenets can never be reduced to political expediency.   Either we believe human life is sacred or we don't.  Either we believe that our duty to our fellow man, regardless of his socioeconomic state, is sacred or we don't. Either we believe that the dignity and integrity of each human person is to observed or we don't.  That we have gotten to the place we are now, a very dangerous place, is a direct result of the poor choices we have made up to this point.  Do we double down on these choices or finally stand up, politics be damned, and reverse course?

My idea of supporting the state, or rendering unto Caesar, does not include allowing it to sink into utter madness. If it does sink into utter madness, a possibility that looks inevitable anymore, it will do so without my support or complicity.  What am I  supporting?  A call to spiritual arms!  An end to compromise!  Even if I am standing on my own, then so be it.  Before all things, I am a child of God.  It is that definition and that alone that informs who I am and how I vote. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

God Doesn't Need My Money

I would imagine if you were to ask the average person in this country whether or not churches were rich, there would be a thunderous yes.  After all, we see magnificent church buildings, see some pastors who live in mansions, drive expensive cars, and connect wealth to God's will.  Most unchurched people might well believe that every pastor, priest, and reverend are variations of people like Joel Osteen.  I wold imagine many are off put by such a garish display and cynically respond to giving with "God doesn't need my money." 

However, for most outside of the health and wealth evangelicals, such a grandiose lifestyle is not the rule. Truth be told, there will literally be hell to pay for those who fleece their flocks.  While the grand churches are indeed beautiful, what is forgotten is the immense amount of other things done by churches in this country.  Forgotten are the schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics,orphanages, soup kitchens, food pantries, relief services, and such that are the only ones around in the poorest areas of the world and in the richest as well.

As a Catholic priest, I am going to speak to my experience. For those who do not know me, I am a pastor of a church with about 425 families is a rural area of Missouri.  In almost twenty years of priesthood, I have been stationed in 8 parishes in 6 assignments.  5 of those parishes had parochial schools.  I grew up in the lower middle class to being in poverty.  I have never been assigned to parish flush with money.  Every parish I have served and almost  every parish I know of, including protestant  churches, struggle financially.  The parishioners of my churches were and are major contributors to local help agencies. My current parish give direct help to those in need.  I have been insistent about this.

Why?  Because of the nature of the tithe.  The tithe, or thanksgiving offering/sacrifice of the Old Testament had a specific purpose.  In the Old Testament, the Levites and priests were to be of 24/7 service to God and the people.  They were not to own businesses or other ventures that would take them away from this service. Also, the Old Testament placed a premium on assistance to the poor and needy.  The tithe was the offering for the first fruits of one's labor.  that tithe was to be used by the priests and Levites for their support, for the upkeep of the temple, and to be distributed to those in need as well.  The tithe was an act of thanksgiving by the person; an acknowledgement of God's blessings already present in their lives.

In the Catholic Church, the tithe serves the same  purpose.  Priests, for example, are not allowed to own businesses or ventures that trump their pastoral duties to God and to His people. They are to immerse themselves in ministry.  Furthermore, Canon Law (Canon 282) states that clergy are to live simply.  This does not mean impoverished, it means simply.  Hence part of the thanksgiving offering goes to him and others who work for the parish (teachers, principals, maintenance and janitorial, secretaries, bookkeepers, and so on), none of whom make what their confreres make in the private sector. Part of the tithe goes to making sure that utilities are paid, insurance is paid,  benefits are paid, and to upkeep the buildings.    Numerous collections are also taken up to help the diocese do its work, to send to missionary work across the globe, to help local help agencies, and to bolster particular programs and outreach within the parish.

Globally, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world.  It has been from the beginning.  The concept of institutions we take for granted now: hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, and a myriad of institutions to help those in need grew out of the ministry of the Church.  The Catholic Church is still the largest health care provider and educator on the planet.  Yes, we have grand buildings, but we also do more to help the sick, the poor, and the needy.

It is an unfortunate truth that some churchmen have misused funds and have grown wealthy on the tithe.  It is worth noting that this has been repeatedly condemned by the Church from the times of St Augustine  (read his letter on Pastors), St Gregory the Great (Pastoral Care) and down through the line to our current Pope Francis.  It is and always has been scandalous for a priest or bishop to fleece the flock.  Truth is, though, it is rare.  Most clergy try to be responsible with what is given and make many quiet sacrifices when budgets get tight.  Like a good dad, they simply and quietly do without so that those placed in their care get what they need.

All this said, it is important to remember that the Church is not primarily a social work organization nor is it a business or bank.  There is nothing wrong with these entities.  But that is not the primary reason for the Church's existence.  Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon reminded his flock in a pastoral letter this year that the primary purpose of the Church was the salvation of souls.  Sure, teaching, health care, assistance to the poor are the activities of an an institution dedicated to the salvation of souls.  However, the kerygma is to preach the Good News so as to draw people into the Body of Christ.  Truth be told, how effective we are at that is facilitated or restrained by the tithe.

My job as a pastor is to be sure that the tithe is used for the purpose for which it is given.  As per our teachings, we do help the poor of our parish and local area through a fund we set up that gives direct but limited assistance.   The rest goes to the upkeep of our facilities, the pay and benefits of our staff, utilities and insurance,  and other items needed to carry out what we do as a parish.  I can assure you, there is nothing left once these things are done.  I am well aware as a pastor that I will have to stand before God someday and give an accounting of what was done with the thanksgiving offering.  I also will have to stand before God, as will everyone else, to give an accounting for the thanksgiving offering I made.

In closing, consider the following: thanksgiving builds relationship.  This is especially true with God.  He doesn't ask that the thanksgiving offering be burned up like the sin offerings.  No that offering is given back to benefit His people.  In Catholicism, we believe that in exchange for our thanksgiving (Eucharist comes from the Greek for thanksgiving) which is a sign of our desire to be in relationship with Him, we are given the Flesh and Blood of Christ our Lord.  God will not be outdone in generosity.  None of us would want a relationship with a leech; no one wants a relationship with someone who continually takes without gratitude.  My dad used to reprimand us as kids when we would be thankless.  He would ask why we should be given more when we were not thankful for what we had already.

The tithe isn't merely about paying the bills, it is about acknowledging God's blessings and sharing those blessings so that the work of His Church might thrive and that those in need find help. Thanksgiving is a part of a healthy relationship.  Let it be a part of your relationship with your God, your parish, and your society.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Down the Rabbit Hole

It is getting bizarre out there. It is getting to the point that I fully expect to see the Mad Hatter and his retinue sitting at my dining room table.  Not that the world hasn't had a streak of maddeningly macabre to it before, but not in such bulk as now.  It is the reign of the subjective. We now live in the tyranny or emotions and feelings.  An age has arisen that actively suppresses virtues in favor of  a buffet of contradicting subjective fiats.

Take our politics: Each side demands our outrage at the reprehensible words and actions of the other side while demanding we look away from their own reprehensible words and actions which mirror each other.  The criteria for my sought after outrage?  Not so much as what was done but who did it! I suppose something being venal isn't about the act itself as it is the person who does it.  Makes sense, no?  Well, no, it doesn't make sense.  Candidate A demeans women and Candidate B, who also demeans women (just different women that candidate A)  demands we castigate Candidate A. While this goes on, we are to ignore the horrible things done by the candidate we support.  It gives me headache just writing this.

Truth is that a venal act is a venal act regardless of who does it.  Sin doesn't become more sinful because someone I don't like or support is doing it.  I know...logic.  Who has time for that?  However, if we just dabbled ever so lightly in the world of logic we would see the whole thing for what it is: a garish and immoral Mardi Gras float, filled with characters from a Dickens' novel.  Or a Lewis Carroll novel were I to stay within the original example.

We are told that we cannot believe our eyes when it comes to gender.  We are given a whole host of new pronouns to use so as to accommodate someone's self defined gender...which is not readily detectable to even a doctor giving a physical.  Somehow I am to guess at which set of pronouns to use based on an ability to read minds.  Sure that's possible!  Oh let the taking offense begin!  Why not?  In a world of subjective truth, being offended is the default response.  Your job is to placate me.  Everybody's job is to placate me.  My job is to be placated.  Yeah, that will lead to a healthy society...the Cheshire Cat told me so.  This leads to a world full of the Queen of Hearts screaming 'off with their head!' The deafening roar drowns out any and all signs of sanity.

The very same activities lauded on TV (sex and violence) are condemned when the wrong person does it. Actors who are anti-gun don't mind shooting dozens of people in their movies. Then again these are same people who warn us of global warming (or climate change or whatever the blazes they call it now)  and will leave one of their many mansions, hop on private jets, and to go to conferences to let us know how seriously we need to take it.  I guess there is no Skype in Wonderland.  The same people upset with the vulgar talk of someone they don't like are the same people scooping up vulgar entertainment like 50 shades of Grey.  The same people who don't think I have any business in their bedroom are the same people who want to hand me the bill for what happens there and what happens as a result of there.  There is no such thing as responsibility or accountability in this place either.

There is nary a field not tainted by this subjective climate.  Even within churches we see people screaming that we need to preach against sin, unless, of course, we touch on their sin.  That is off limits and hurtful because, you know, we're like...judging them.  My neighbors sin is more sinful than my sin.  Yeah, that makes sense. Insanity reigns.

So where is sanity to be found?  Where is the exit from this nightmarish wonderland?  Truth.  Objective truth.  It is a sane place where the sin I need to correct is my own.  It is a place where actions and words need to be in tandem.  It is a place where narcissism is replaced with love.  Love is a virtue, a theological virtue at that.  Where truth is, virtue is.  Where virtue is, truth is.  Virtue raises us above the circus of subjectivity and sets us into a place that is steady and sure.  If we want out of wonderland, it will come from cultivating faith, hope, love, fortitude, wisdom, justice, and temperance.  These are the things authentic Christian faith calls us to grasp and live.  God gives us the grace to do these things.

I am personally weary of wonderland.  We all should be.  We need to put our love of being offended aside.  We have to admit that the world doesn't conform to my wishes.  Reality has no duty to readjust based on the whims of my (or anybody's) personal fiats.  Instead of entertaining ourselves with vice and getting drunk with our indignation of other people's vices, perhaps that time and energy would better spent pursuing virtue.  I do believe most will be pleasantly surprised at the peace and unity such a stable world view brings.   

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Book Review: The Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change it Again

Christianity is dangerous.  It is supposed to be.  The Gospel subverts worldly morals and wisdom. She stands up in the face of tyrants and libertines.  She disrupts the plots of the devil himself.  There is a reason that Satan attempts to tempt Jesus away from His mission.  There is a reason Satan feared what Jesus would bring into existence.  There is a reason he does battle with Jesus' followers.  In their book, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea. look at the reasons Christianity was persecuted in the early centuries.  They cite seven seismic shifts that Christianity brought to the known world and how those shifts were deemed so dangerous by civil authorities, that Jesus' apostles and their followers were regularly martyred.  They also detail how these seismic shifts could not be quelled by any earthly power.

We take for granted in our own day and age the holy partnership of marriage and the care parents are to have for children.  We take for granted the ideas that freedom of religion,  the dignity of the human person, and that our rights derive from God, not man. We see as a positive the duty we have to our fellow man, to their welfare, and that we must respect their dignity and integrity.  We do not view women and children as possessions to be disposed of at the whim of the husband.  These common place observations were radical and dangerous positions to hold in the Roman Empire.  What seem to be benign propositions in our history were seen an fundamentally corrosive to the foundations of society in the Roman Empire, and consequently to every despot since.

In their astounding perseverance, our early Christian forefathers' willingness to embrace this new way of life, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, even if it meant losing everything won the day.  The Gospel of Christ brought hope to the overwhelming number of peoples not fortunate enough to be born into the patrician classes of their day.  It spoke hope to those whose lives were a matter of convenience.  It raised the dignity of women and children.  It brought about an understanding that every human life was precious and to be respected and that societal constructs should reflect this truth.  Going through each of the seven ways Christianity upset the accepted order, the authors, show clearly the teachings, the consequences, and the victory each revolution brought.

This is, however, more than a history book.  The premise for writing about these revolutions is to stir up the Christian faithful to regain the truth and the fervor for the truth that the Gospel of Jesus Christ first brought.  In so many places in the industrialized world, society is going back to the barbarism that existed before the advent of Christianity.  Once again the practices that denigrated the family, marriage, human sexuality,   economic justice, and the practice of religion have gained social acceptance.  The west is re-paganizing.  This brave new world is every bit as hostile to the undiluted Gospel of Christ as was the Roman Empire of old.  The authors leave us with a clarion call to grasp again the same willingness to evangelize, be gloriously subversive, and to lose all for Christ.

Christianity has never been victorious when treated with mediocrity or complacency.  It has never succeeded when carried by the lukewarm or cowardly.  It has grown when approached with bravery, truth, and compassion for all.  It succeeds when we become a reflection of the Christ who gave us this Gospel. Let us not forget the revolution that was started by Jesus; a revolt against the most evil depravity the devil could concoct. This call to arms is timely, necessary, and a call to excellence!