Thursday, September 27, 2007

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be Catholic and why I am Catholic (beyond the fact that my parents baptized me into the Catholic faith!). These thoughts have come up for a couple of reasons. First, being in my mid-thirties, I am noticing that more and more of my friends are either looking for another church or just not going to church at all anymore. Most of these are people that were once part of our young adult group at my Catholic church when we were all in our late twenties. They are also all people I like and respect. Their reasons are varied and not unreasonable: dissatisfaction with the community itself, which unfortunately is proving to be not very kid-friendly as they are all having kids, dissatisfaction with a certain priest, a bad experience at a certain parish, etc. Then there are also issues with the greater church: the abuse scandal, the position on women or birth control or homosexuality, the issue of not allowing the use of condoms in HIV situations, the lack of involvement of the laity in the decision making process, etc. I understand their reasons, and honestly, I also struggle with some of the same issues in the Church, so why do I stay? What is it that keeps me from walking away, finding another church or another way to worship God?

Honestly, I don't know that I can even put it into words. Being Catholic is just part of who I am, not simply because I was raised that way, but because it is part of the core of my being and identity. Which brings me to the second occasion that caused me to reflect on this question, a conversation with colleagues about Catholic identity and what it means to be Catholic. For me, being Catholic is not about simply accepting everything the Catholic Church teaches and says, though it does involve staying in dialogue with the Church on all it teaches and says, struggling to understand why it takes the positions it does and what values it is trying to protect. For me (and really for Catholic ecclesiology) the Church is also bigger than the hierarchy. It is not simply what "the Church" thinks versus what I think, because I am part of the Church (recognizing of course that the hierarchy is the teaching office of the Church, and so my opinion does not hold as much institutional weight as that of the bishops). The Church is not some entity over and against me, I am part of it and it is part of me. So yes, I believe that you can be Catholic, be a FAITHFUL Catholic, and disagree with the Church. That is part of why I am Catholic, because I love the principle of "unity in diversity" that is a bedrock principle of how the Catholic Church understands what it means to be Church. I believe that one of the great gifts of Catholicism is its ability to hold together people of very diverse viewpoints.

On a deeper theological level, for me being Catholic is about believing in the goodness and love of God our Creator, and thus the goodness of humanity and all creation. This core theological precept is what grounds the sacramental mentality of Catholicism, the idea that all of created reality has the ability to mediate God because it has been created by God. Our sacraments are based on a relationship with God that is tangible, a God who has chosen to enter into our finiteness so that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the presence of God in bread and wine, in oil and water, in candles and incense, in song and symbol. I am Catholic because I experience that presence of God each Sunday in the community, the Word, and the Eucharist. Sure I experience God when I kayak down the Root River amid the breathtaking wonder of the autumn leaves, but that is not enough for me. I need the ritual, the beauty of the words and gestures, the reminder of who I am and the union that I experience in the Eucharist.

I am Catholic because I believe that God loves all people, has graced all people, and is present to and in all people through the Spirit; and so I believe that the goodness of humankind will ultimately triumph. I am Catholic because on my worst days and on the days when things seem to be so wrong in the world, I can look at a crucifix and see an image of the God that loves us despite all of our sinfulness and brokenness, a God in whom the victory over sin, evil, and death has ultimately already been won by a love that is bigger than our worst failings and with us in our darkest moments. That is why I am Catholic. That is why I stay. In the words of the grandmother of one of my professors, "You cannot leave your heart."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Amos chides the people in this Sunday's reading for selling "even the refuse of the wheat." But what does that mean? Social justice is beautifully inscribed into the very heart of the Hebrew covenant law. They had their very own "welfare" system, decreed by God. The law states:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of your grain. Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien. I, the LORD, am your God. (Lev. 19:9-10; see also Lev. 23:22)
And again:
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf there, you shall not go back and get it; let it be for the alien, the orphan or the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the alien, the orphan and the widow. When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time; let what remains be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. For remember that you were once slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to observe this rule. (Dt. 24:19-22)
There is a great example of this in the Book of Ruth, the story of a widow who is living in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law. Ruth goes to the fields to glean ears of grain after the harvesters have gone through, and the field she enters happens to belong to Boaz. Boaz tells her not to glean in anyone else's field, but to stay with his female servants following the harvesters. He tells her he has instructed his men not to harm her, and she may drink from the water they provide. (The story eventually ends with the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, who are the parents of Jesse and the grandparents of King David.) The Hebrew law included what we would call today distributive justice - an allocation, and at times reallocation, of material goods to meet the needs of all (see the sections on the jubilee and Sabbath laws in Lev. 25 and Dt. 15!)

Amos, our prophet for this Sunday, is a shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah, but he is preaching in the city of Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel (c. 700s BC). Amos is appalled by the great prosperity of the city combined with a complete disregard for the poor. Furthermore, the people are not just falling down in their obligation to care for the poor, they are taking advantage of them and actively cheating them. Amos warns the people that God will destroy their winter house, their summer house, their ivory apartments. He paints a picture of the women of Bethel, the "cows of Bashan," as he calls them, lying on their "beds of ivory" eating choice food, listening to music, and drinking wine, while oppressing the weak and abusing the needy. (Bashan is a region of rich pasture land where the herds were well fattened - even in the 700s BC, calling the women "cows" was NOT a compliment!)

Amos tells the people that God detests their worship, that worship has no substance if the people are not upholding the covenant to care for the poor and needy among them. Amos tells them, thus says the LORD your God,

I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.

But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

By not acting with justice toward the poor and the needy, by not leaving anything of the harvest behind for the poor and selling "even the refuse of the wheat," the wealthy folks of Bethel are breaking their covenant with God. Amos tells them that if they keep on this way, their kingdom will be destroyed. Indeed the northern Kingdom falls to the Assyrians in 721 BC. When I read Amos I can't help but wonder, what would he say to us today?

(P.S. As a follow up to my last post, America Magazine had a great article on Mother Teresa this week!)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mother Teresa was on the cover of Time magazine a couple of weeks ago (I am always behind in reading my magazines!) with the headline, "The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: Newly published letters reveal a beloved Icon's 50 yr. crisis of faith." When I first heard of this "shocking" revelation that Mother Teresa had experienced doubt and darkness in her prayer life, my reaction was, "Well, of course she did!" How could anyone see the misery and human suffering that she did day in and day out and never have any questions or doubt about God? Having read the article now, I realize that her suffering the "dark night of the soul," as it is traditionally called in spirituality (from St. John of the Cross), was much darker and more profound than I first supposed. She had very mystical and intense experiences of Jesus when she was young that literally compelled her to start out on her mission, and then just as she was getting started, the visions and even the closeness she felt to Christ simply ceased.

I have several thoughts on this revelation, starting with the question of whether her personal letters and most private writings should have been published at all, when she specifically requested that they be destroyed upon her death. While I recognize that these writings will hopefully offer a lot of support and comfort to all of us as we struggle with the daily difficulties of staying faithful to God, I can't help but feel that our reading them is a violation of her privacy. She was writing to her confessors, her spiritual directors, and in her private journals. How many of us would want the world reading those sorts of letters? Even famous people should have a right and the freedom to be able to write their innermost thoughts and feelings without fearing that their writings will one day be fodder for conversation over coffee (or material for someone's blog!). I find it a bit ironic that while she requested that her personal writings be destroyed, she was "overruled by her Church," but Pope John Paul II (who was Pope at the time of her death) similarly asked that his personal writings be destroyed upon his death. His wishes were respected. Thus while one can argue that Mother Teresa was a public figure that most people figured would one day be a saint, the same thing could be said about John Paul II.

Nonetheless, Mother Teresa's writings have been preserved and now published, so I suppose it is a moot point now! Given that fact, the letters do tell a spectacular story of her faith journey. The article in Time speculates and interviews people about their opinions on why her visions stopped, why she suddenly experienced such suffering in her spiritual life. My personal reflections were very different from all of the opinions ventured there, while of course realizing that the bottom line is that in this life we will never know the answers to those questions. I thought about the fact that most of us never experience the kind of visions and union with Christ she experienced, and how it had been that mystical experience that compelled her to begin her work with the poor. It seems to me that once she began her work, the purpose of the visions was accomplished and so she no longer needed to have extraordinary visions. The force of her own strong personality and will were enough to keep her moving forward in her work once she had begun. The thing about visions is that they are extraordinary, not ordinary. Most people never experience them. When they are given, they are given for a reason. The article says that there was one time she had relief from her spiritual suffering. After Pius XII died, she asked by virtue of his intercession for a sign that God was pleased with the Society. She received the sign she asked for and her suffering disappeared, but only temporarily. She eventually had to find a way to come to terms with "the absence" of Christ in her life. I can only imagine, though, how excruciating it must be to lose that sense of presence once you have experienced it. The prayers, Scripture, sacraments, etc., that bring such joy to us must pale in comparison to the immediate vision and voice of Christ. The amazing thing to me about Mother Teresa is her perseverance - in prayer, in belief, and in the incredible work she was doing - in the face of her inner turmoil. I expect she would have continued her work, even if she had come to lose her faith, because I think she believed in what she was doing. She did not lose her faith though, but rather understood her own suffering as a part of her solidarity with Christ on the cross. Her "crisis of faith" reveals not a closet atheist (as Christopher Hitchins would have one believe), but the very definition of true faith - belief in the face of doubt - echoing those words from Mark I quoted a few weeks ago that we all need to say to God at times, "I do believe, help my unbelief!" (9:24)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Monday was labor day, and as is their tradition, the US bishops issued their Labor Day Statement, A Time to Remember; A Time to Recommit. The statement starts off by recalling the Church's longstanding tradition of supporting the worker and the dignity of work and by commending workers for the progress that has been made in working for decent wages, working conditions, and benefits such as vacation and healthcare. The statement also reminds us that there are still many who have none of these things, including 40 million people in our country without health care coverage. The statement draws on key principles of the Church's teaching to reflect upon on Labor Day:

    • The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
    • A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
    • All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security).
    • All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefit, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join union or other associations.
Mostly, however, the statement reflects on the issue of immigration reform as an issue about workers. No holds were barred in the assessment of our lack of progress on this issue as a nation:
This vital national immigration discussion polarized our people, paralyzed the Congress, and failed our nation. . . [S]ometimes anger trumped wisdom, myths overwhelmed facts, and slogans replaced solutions. After this debate, we are a society more divided, a people more confused, and a nation unable to move forward on one of the most serious and complicated issues we face as a nation.

The reaction of the bishops is simple: "We have to do better." The statement suggest four new starting points for the discussion to move forward: reality, civility, morality and consistency. Under reality, they list some "inescapable facts":
  • The immigration status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable. The ‘system’ is broken. We need far-reaching and comprehensive reform.
  • Immigrants come to our nation because they find work here that allows them to offer some hope and dignity to their families. The work they do is a contribution to our society.
  • There are some 12 million undocumented people among us, most of whom are workers. Our economy and communities depend on them. They bus our dishes, pick our vegetables, clean our offices and homes, and care for our children among other jobs. We cannot wish them away or simply send them away. For practical, economic, and moral reasons, we have to find ways to bring these people out of the shadows, to protect them from exploitation, and to regularize their status for their sake and ours.
  • Like the rest of society, immigrant populations include a small number of people who do damage to our communities and engage in dangerous behavior. These people, like others who harm our society, must be caught and punished, but their reprehensible acts cannot be used to demonize millions who contribute to our economy and society.
  • One-dimensional ‘solutions’ may be simple, but they are often illusions and can make things worse. There is no fence long enough or high enough that can wall out the human and economic forces that drive immigration.
  • Immigration reform cannot start or stop at our borders. U.S. policy must help overcome the pervasive poverty and deprivation, the violence and oppression that push people to leave their own lands. Policies on debt and development, foreign aid and global trade are essential elements of any effective immigration reform.
In terms of civility, the statement notes that both sides fell short in this debate. They take to task those who would use this issue politically "for partisan advantage, a ratings boost, or a fundraising tactic." They note that issues such as "legitimate concerns about protecting our borders, curbing the flow of unlawful immigration, the potential displacement of native workers, and the possibility of exploitation within guest worker programs . . . are not to be ignored exaggerated, dismissed, or used as political weapons."

The statement also addresses morality from the perspective that all people, regardless of where they were born, where they come from, or what documents they do or do not possess, have fundamental rights that must be protected. Our policy should be shaped by values such as the common good, family unity, and the protection of children. Finally the statement raises the issue of consistency, in that this issue must be addressed on a federal level. As a result of the failure to make any progress on immigration reform on a national level, many states and communities have begun to pass their own laws. The statement notes that "a patchwork of conflicting policies, punitive measures, and local disputes cannot fix a broken federal system, but they can further enflame the divisions that make real progress more difficult."

Many of us can be very grateful that we were born in this country, that we have had opportunities for education and advancement, and that we have decent jobs. It is important each year on Labor Day to be mindful of those who do not have all of the advantages we do and to pray for the wisdom to discern concrete ways in which we can use our advantages to help others. As the Bishops' statement reminds us, "after all, this is about what kind of people we are, what kind of country we are becoming."