Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Zephaniah and God's Judgment

I had to search through my Bible a bit to find the book of Zephaniah. He’s not one of the prophets that I can say I know much about, and the book of his prophecy is only three chapters long. Wanting to justify my unfamiliarity, I did a quick search of the Lectionary, expecting to find that today was the only day that his book is referenced. I was wrong. I found entries not only for Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Advent, but also December 21, the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Cycle C), the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A), and the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on May 31. I have no excuse.

Zephaniah’s prophecies, we are told at the beginning of the book, were delivered during the reign of King Josiah, the last good king of Judah. Josiah’s great-grandfather, Hezekiah, was king of Judah during the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was faithful to the Lord, but grew proud. Hezekiah’s son and Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, was wicked. He repented and was forgiven, but it was Manasseh’s reign that sealed the doom of Judah (2 Kings 21:10-15). Josiah turned back to God and instituted reforms throughout Judah, but God had already decided Judah’s fate, and Zephaniah’s prophecy seems to bear this out.

What piqued my curiosity was that, although Judah’s fate was decided during Manasseh’s reign, God’s hand was stayed during the reign of Josiah. It took two generations before God’s judgment was made manifest, first through Neco of Egypt and then through Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. That would be like America today suffering for the sins of the Johnson or Nixon administrations.

Lest you think the comparison is far-fetched, consider that we’ve been living for 39 years with a legal framework that makes abortion-on-demand a constitutional right. Marriage is under attack and the traditional two parent family is becoming the exception rather than the norm. Vague spiritualities are displacing doctrinal Christianity. Nevertheless, there are signs of light. They have stayed the hand of God all these years, and they are not going to vanish quietly into the night.

I cannot help but wonder, in my darker moments, whether the fate of our land has already been decided. America has had its moments as a shining city on a hill, conceived in liberty and blessed by the Almighty, but then so did Judah and Israel. It’s a nice country we’ve got here; it would be terrible if something bad were to happen to it.

I don’t mean to suggest that God is extorting us. What I mean to suggest it that the fate of our country is in our hands. We are in a continuing state of crisis, and the only thing that will stay the hand of God’s judgment is our fidelity. God promised Abraham that Sodom would be spared if only ten righteous men could be found there. Sodom was destroyed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Confirmation

It’s been over a week now since my oldest child was confirmed. Our retired archbishop came up from Cincinnati to celebrate the rite. For the last several years, ever since the last auxiliary bishop fell ill, our parish’s sophomores have been confirmed by the local dean, which makes it a bit awkward for those catechists who have taught that the ordinary minister is a bishop.

It just so happens that the maiden name of the archbishop’s mother was the same as my surname. However, in one of those ironies that is all too common in this neck of the woods, he is more closely related (through his mother) to my wife than to me. Before my wife and I could be married, I had to trace back the family tree to establish that I was fifth cousins with my future mother-in-law.

Although alternate readings that emphasize the effects of the sacrament are approved for use during the Confirmation liturgy, the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent were used. The gospel was not entirely inappropriate for the occasion, including as it did this line from Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

The archbishop delivered one of his canned Confirmation homilies, in which he examines the candidates by asking questions, but provides the answers himself in a catechetical style. The archbishop has a subdued delivery. It’s not a monotone, but five minutes after he’s spoken, you have a hard time recalling what it was that he said. I would be surprised if any of the confirmandi was inspired by his words to take up sword and shield (metaphorically speaking) as a soldier of Christ.

I suspect that, for my sixteen year old son, the memory of the day has already begun to fade, just as my memory of my own Confirmation is foggy at best. Nevertheless, he is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He has been claimed, and he allowed himself to be. That is something that I have no intention of letting him forget.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Surprised by Faith

It's easy to think of Him as more than human, especially if you already subscribe to a high Christology. In one class that I took, another student admitted to thinking of Him as a kind of superman. First, of course, there are the miracles. Then there are the confrontations with the Pharisees, in which He seems to know what their thinking, like a comic book hero with telepathic powers. Padre Pio was said to have been able to read souls, and it's not unreasonable to assume that any spiritual gifts possessed by human saints would also be present, par excellence, in the incarnate Word.

It is also possible, however, that he came by this knowledge in a human way, through observation and deduction. Maybe Jesus "knew" what the Pharisees were thinking in the same way that a really good Republican strategist "knows" what a Democrat partisan thinks.

We are confronted by this human limitation, present in the human nature of Christ, in Matthew 8:10. In the middle of the account of the encounter between Jesus and the centurion is the statement that Jesus "marveled" (RSV), "was amazed" (NAB), or "was astonished" (NIV). The centurion's statement of faith was, apparently, not what Jesus expected.

The Church selected this gospel passage for us to hear on the first Monday of Advent, the day after we heard Isaiah proclaim that all nations would stream toward the mountain of the Lord's house. In the centurion, a gentile official of an occupying power, Jesus found a faith that was lacking in the tribes of Israel. Perhaps this was a sign to Him that the age of the Old Covenant was drawing to a close, and the time had come to initiate the New Covenant.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Facebook Temptations

Is Facebook a force for evil or a force for good? Am I being too much of a squish if I say yes to both? Joe Carter at First Thoughts provides both sides in commenting on a New Jersey pastor’s decision to ban Facebook for married leaders of his congregation. The pastor claims that over the last six months, 20 couples at his congregation have experienced marital problems due to the social networking website.

I’ve been on Facebook for two years now, and I’ve very much enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances. It is certainly true that some users do not seem to recognize any boundaries between what should be private and what should be public. Most status updates are innocuous enough, but there are also those that run the gamut from heartbreaking to sad to offensive to tantalizing. Some of my old friends live a life style that I, as a middle-aged husband and father of seven couldn’t and shouldn’t share.

Clearly, there are options for dealing with temptations on Facebook. We can ignore the posts. We can pray for the poster. We can block a person’s updates from appearing on our feed. We can delete the person from our list of friends. Yes, we can also go all the way to deleting our own Facebook account and decline to participate.

Christians, however, are not called to separate themselves from society. We are to act as a leaven. In terms of Facebook, that means that we should sail the waters but navigate within safe boundaries. It is similar to other media through which temptations enter our lives: cable and broadcast television, popular music, glossy magazines, the world wide web, etc. Where Facebook is different is that the flow of content runs both ways.

Others might see the stability, virtue, and dare I say, joy that is present in the life of a practicing Christian, even (especially?) when undergoing adversity and be led to question their own misconceptions. If the biggest barrier to conversion is the scandal of Christians behaving badly, then perhaps the best counter to that is the example of Christian’s living well. In many cases, the only exposure that the worldly are going to get to an authentically lived Christian life is through our status updates. If we all quit Facebook, then they won’t even get that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bring Them Here . . .

Did you catch that second-to-last verse from today’s gospel (Luke 19:11-28)? We’ve often heard different versions of this parable, but Luke’s version doesn’t appear to be read at any Sunday mass, even in Cycle C, which draws mainly from the gospel of Luke. If I were a betting man, I would be willing to wager that most Catholics have never heard this gospel passage. Jesus is telling this parable because some of his followers think that he is going to Jerusalem to establish his kingdom. It is as if he is saying, through the parable, “No, not now. I have to go away for a while first.”

In the parable, what happens to those who rejected the authority of the king while he was gone? “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27). Lest a reader think that the harshness of this passage is an isolated case, I note that the agreement with the Book of Revelation’s letter to the church at Sardis (read at mass yesterday) is chilling: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life…” (Rev 3:4-5). None of us should be willing to risk having our name blotted out from the book of life.

Oh, yes, the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and generous in forgiveness. But he is also just. Love of God is paramount, but a little fear (the proportionate awe that keeps our pride in check) is a good and necessary thing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Today, Zacchaeus

Most of us, I think, are familiar with the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a popular tale for sharing with children because of the imagery. Zacchaeus was the curious, but short, tax collector who climbed a tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus spotted him and, much to the scandal of the Pharisees (for tax collectors were considered by the Pharisees to be great sinners) invited himself to dine at Zacchaeus’s house.

What struck me on reading this passage today was the urgency of Our Lord’s response. “Zacchaeus, come down IMMEDIATELY. I MUST stay at your house TODAY.” (Luke 19:5, emphasis added) Zacchaeus had received an extraordinary grace that led him to climb the sycamore tree. He had responded to that grace, but it was a brief moment that wouldn’t last. Jesus recognized that he was looking at a soul on the cusp of conversion. We have phrases in English that fit the moment: “strike while the iron is hot” and “make hay while the sun is shining.” In other words, seize the opportunity of the moment before it passes.

Jesus seized the opportunity to step through the opening and pull Zacchaeus out of himself, and Zacchaeus responded with an act of great generosity and renunciation of sin. “TODAY salvation has come to this house,” Jesus declared (Luke 19:9, emphasis added). We can imagine the joy of the occasion.

As Christian disciples, we must strive to be prompt in responding to the gentle prods of the Holy Spirit. Zacchaeus was open to the good news on that day in a way that he would not have been later in the week. Collecting his contact information and promising to follow up in a few days would have delivered the hammer strike after the iron had cooled and was less malleable. Annanias had to respond promptly to complete Paul’s conversion. Ambrose had to be there to complete Augustine’s conversion.

We have to respond TODAY, both for ourselves and for others. Zacchaeus was saved on the day that he opened the door of his soul because Jesus came through that door on the same day. We are both Zacchaeus and bearers of Christ’s love. Our response is required TODAY. Tomorrow might be too late.

{Disclaimer: My own response record is pathetic. That doesn’t discredit what I’ve written above. It just means that I need to open myself up more than I have in the past.}

Monday, November 15, 2010

Malachi 3/4

Late last week, I decided to look ahead to the Sunday readings. I was using my NIV pocket bible at the time, and I couldn’t find Malachi 3:19-20. After verse 18, chapter 4 started. “Darn Protestant bible,” I thought to myself (being the arrogant Catholic that I am. “I didn’t know that they cut out part of Malachi, too.”

So I pulled out my Ignatius Bible (RSV-CE), and it, too, went from Mal 3:18 to Mal 4:1. OK, I can’t blame the Protestants for excising parts of Malachi. This time, though, there was one of those tiny little footnotes informing me that the verses of chapter 4 were part of chapter 3 in the Hebrew. I was getting confused, so I checked my Catholic Youth Bible (NRSV), which had in the past given me details on such mysteries as Chapter C of Esther. No luck. All that I got was the same tiny little footnote as was in my RSV.

I mentioned this on Saturday morning at our men’s fellowship meeting, and a friend checked his bible (NAB), and sure enough, it had the verses at the end of chapter 3. I didn’t think at the time to ask whether his bible had a tiny little footnote.

Here’s the big cause for my massive confusion: I was always led to believe that the chapters and verses were added by St. Jerome when he compiled the Latin Vulgate. Were the verses of Malachi numbered in the original? If so, then why don’t all of the translations that are based (to the extent possible) on the original languages follow the Hebrew numbering?

In the grand scheme of things, the numbering of the verses in one of the books of the minor prophets is a trivial thing. Whether they’re in chapter 3 or chapter 4 has no effect on the meaning of the words, it just makes them harder to find. However, it leads to one more head-scratching moment, of which I already have way too many.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Running Ahead

Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:16) that Paul could be hard to understand. I don’t know why he didn’t say the same thing about John. In 2 John 9, we read, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

Obviously, there is a development of doctrine that takes place over time. It took over four hundred years for the Church to hammer out the doctrines related o the Holy Trinity and the dual nature (human and divine) of Jesus Christ. We believe that this development is guided by the Holy Spirit.

What I want to be able to say is this: that the development of doctrine does not introduce new elements in to the deposit of faith, but rather clarifies the doctrine to exclude incorrect (i.e., heretical) interpretations. Belief in the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary can be traced back to the apostolic age; belief didn’t suddenly begin when the dogmas were defined in the 19th and 20th centuries. Doctrine might be developed by using schools of philosophy to explain theological truths in new ways, such as when St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian metaphysics to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation).

Christ himself promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth. Over time, we have discovered that this works in a negative rather than a positive way. The Spirit does not inspire the Church to proclaim the truth; rather the Spirit prevents the Church from teaching error. This charism of infallibility is focused in the person of the Supreme Pontiff and those bishops who teach in union with him.

Again, as long as we follow the Pope, we should be on pretty safe ground.

As you can probably guess, I tend to look askance at anything that claims to have a new teaching. There are people very dear to me who are involved with a group promoting ideas that are new and supposedly better than anything that has been taught in the 2000 years of Christianity. When asked about this newness, the claim is made that it’s all right there in the scripture (isn’t every heresy?). Amazingly, it took a special revelation for this teaching to be discovered. The Holy See is reviewing it, they claim, and will approve it any day now.

Right. Until that day (I won’t be holding my breath), I think I’ll stick with what I can trust.

Among or Within?

I’d like to make one more comment on Luke 17:21, and that’s related to translational ambiguity. I usually use the Revised Standard Version, but I also reference a pocket-sized New International Version. One translation has Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is “among” them (with a tiny little footnote that says “or within”), while the other translation has the text reading “within”, while a footnote provides the alternate “among.”

I doubt that the alternate choice of words is due to ambiguity in the meaning of the ancient Greek. More likely, I think, is that multiple texts of antiquity have been discovered, and come use on Greek word, while others us a different Greek word, and we simply don’t know which is original. There’s also the possibility that the original gospel was not in Greek at all, but rather Aramaic. (This possibility is endorsed by a very small minority of scripture scholars, based on work done in back-translating the Greek into Aramaic and discovering some interesting word-plays in the resulting text.) No knowing the languages involved, I don’t even know how close the Greek words might be to one another or how likely a transcription or translation error from the Aramaic might be.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) argues that “the kingdom of God” should be interpreted as referring to the person of Christ, based partly on the “among” translation of Luke 17:21. Other commentators have argued that “the kingdom of God” is internal to the individual believer – an assertion that would be supported by the “within” translation of Luke 17:21.

It’s one little word, but the type a spirituality that a person follows could be flavored by the word choices used in the Bible that person reads. Unfortunately, we apparently don’t have any way to know what Jesus actually said to the Pharisees. Where the heck is that Q fragment when you need it? I think that I’m on pretty safe ground if I use the same translation as the Pope.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Signs of the Kingdom

The similarities and contrasts between today’s gospel (Luke 17:20-25) and Sunday’s gospel (Luke 21:5-19) is interesting. Today, we read of Jesus telling his disciples, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation” and “the Son of Man in his day will be like lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” On Sunday, we will hear him tell his disciples what signs to watch for: wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines, and pestilence; fearful events and great signs from heaven.

Do these statements all refer to the same thing? Are we moderns to see these as applying to a past event, our current circumstances, or some time in the future? All three could be true.

The first, about the kingdom defying observation, seems apt in two senses. For approximately thirty years, the Son of God lived among us without appearing extraordinary. Surely, he would have been known as being unusually virtuous, but purely in a human sense. It wasn’t until after his baptism that he began his public ministry, performing miracles in testament to his authority. But he is also present in the Eucharist in a way that defies observation. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (as translated), “What the senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith’s consent.”

What of the lightning in the sky? Lightning flashes briefly, illuminating the darkness and providing a brief moment of stark contrast. Certainly this could apply to the second coming, but it seems to me that it would be equally applicable to the three shocking days of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. Those three days were like a lightning strike in the history of the world.

As for the wars, earthquakes, and famines, doesn’t the text imply that these are signs of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? I have heard apologists argue from historical records that these things did indeed precede the destruction of the temple.

Interpreting these sayings as referring to the hidden life of Jesus, or the Eucharist, or the Paschal Mystery, or the Siege of Jerusalem does not rule out other interpretations. They could be interpreted as references to the second coming of Christ at the end of time. We cannot know the date, and looking for it won’t hasten it or make it immanent. When it happens, we’ll know it. It will not be a secret; rather, He will come in glory. Reading the signs of the times can be a risky business. Paul, without contradicting Christ, wrote to the Thessalonians that the second coming would occur at a time of peace and complacency.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Leo the Great

Today is the memorial of Pope St. Leo the Great. Not only is he recognized as one of the great popes, he is also one of the Doctors of the Church. Leo was bishop of Rome from 440 to 461, and he is responsible for defining the papacy as we've come to know it. Not only did Leo provide much of the theological basis for papal authority, he exercised that authority in governing the Church, resolving disputes between contentious bishops, and establishing the principle that the Church is separate from the state.

Leo famously rode out to meet Atilla the Hun, convincing him not to sack and pillage Rome. He was not so successful with the Vandals, who did enter Rome, but pillaged in a more gentle manner than was their typical mode.

Leo forcefully combatted Christological heresies, such as Nestorianism (that Christ was two persons, one human and the other divine) and Monophysetism (that Christ had only a divine nature and not a human one). He called the Council of Chalcedon to affirm that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures, fully God and fully man. Leo also did all that he could to make life miserable for the non-Christian Manicheans.

It is because of Pope St. Leo the Great that we see the bishop of Rome today as the successor of Peter, the vicar of Christ and the human head of the Church on earth.

Pope St. Leo the Great, pray for us!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Spiritual Life is Like a . . . Pimple?

Here's one that I'd never heard before. Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR was a guest on last week's Life on the Rock. About 23 minutes into the show, Doug asks him about overcoming difficulties in the spiritual life, and Fr. Stan proceeds to say that it's like getting a pimple on your nose. Really? The inner life is like a zit?

Grudges and Mustard Seeds

I like to think that I’m not the grudge-holding type. That’s not to say that I don’t observe a person’s behavior and make future decisions accordingly. For example, I once asked a certain friend for help moving a heavy appliance. I will never ask for his help again, even though he remains a friend. That’s not the same thing as holding a grudge.

Judging from the reaction of the apostles in today’s gospel (Luke 17:1-6), grudges were not so easy to let fo of in the Mid-East culture of 200 years ago. For all I know, the problem might persist to this day.

Jesus says something in today’s gospel that shocks the apostles. He tells them first that temptations to sin are sure to come; then that the one through whom the temptation comes is doomed; finally, that they must forgive any sins committed against them. The first two seem reasonable, but the third causes the apostles to beg for more faith.

As I sit here thinking through the meaning of this passage, three possibilities come to mind. First, the temptation and woe verses could be tied to the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), which they immediately follow. The problem here is that it’s hard to tie the source of temptation to any figure in the Lazarus tale. Second the temptation and woe verses could be a stand-alone aside. Such an interjection, however, would seem to interrupt the flow of Luke’s narrative. I have no doubt that some scholars who subscribe to the theory of Markan Priority and the existence of the mysterious Q document probably see this as the most likely explanation.

A third option, however, is that Jesus is drawing a connection between the temptation and its source to the one offended by the sin. In that case, did my brother sin against me because I tempted him to, or is his sin against me a temptation to me to sin in retribution? Is the forgiveness that I extend to my brother for my benefit or his? Is this one of those cases where the answer is not either/or, but both/and?

When the apostles object that their faith is insufficient, Jesus responds that they only need a little: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Was it a statement of encouragement or frustration? Letting go of the grudge was more than the apostles could imagine.

Even if I can extend forgiveness to others more readily than the apostles , that gives me no cause to look down upon the them. I have my own obstacles that keep me from fully embracing the holiness that is the human vocation. In my imagination, I can picture Him telling me sadly, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,…”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Planning for the Future

I have a daughter with Down syndrome who is integrated into the first grade at our local school. The intellectual impairment that comes with Down syndrome can range over a fairly wide spectrum. I would estimate that Erin’s intellectual ability fall in the upper middle of this spectrum – I believe that she’s a little more capable than most children her age with Down syndrome, but she’s still considerably less capable than her typical peers, and she has a stubborn streak that causes occasional difficulty.

My dear wife has great hopes for the amount of independence that Erin will eventually achieve. I, on the other hand, have resigned myself to the expectation that Erin will always be dependent upon us to a significant degree. Naturally, I wonder what will happen as we, and Erin, grow older, especially if a time comes when we are unable to provide Erin with the assistance that she needs. Two recent stories related to this concern caught my attention.

First was a segment that aired October 8 on NPR’s All Things Considered. The report told the story of how Al Etmanski, the father of a daughter with Down syndrome, helped to create, and is now the president of, the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). PLAN’s mission is to “help families secure the future for their relative with a disability and to provide peace of mind.” The organization works to help parents plan for both the social and financial future needs of their special needs children.

The second story was featured in the October 20 issue of the Arlington Catholic Herald. Gabriel Homes is a private nonprofit organization with seven homes in the Arlington, Virginia area. Their mission is to promote “independence through residential placement, training, and community integration for adults with mental retardation.” The biggest problem for Gabriel Homes is that their waiting list is twice as large as their capacity, and they typically have only one opening per year.

PLAN is in Canada and Gabriel Homes is in Virginia. With Erin in only the first grade, I haven’t seriously looked at what might or might not be available here in west central Ohio.

Two Cents on Midterm Election Recriminations

In the wake of the midterm elections, there is some renewed discussion out there regarding the Buckley Rule and the perceived weakness of the Republican Senate candidates in Delaware and Nevada. I wish to contribute my two cents.

Penny one: the Buckley Rule. William F. Buckley famously remarked that his vote in a particular election would go to the most conservative viable candidate. I happen to think this rule should be applied to the actual vote at hand – a primary vote should not be projected forward to the general election. I refuse to cast a primary vote based on a candidate’s “electability” as proclaimed by mainstream media pundits. Isn’t that how the Democrats ended up with John Kerry as their presidential nominee in 2004?

Penny two: voting for weak candidates. Sometimes, a vote is cast not because of enthusiasm for Candidate A, but out of revulsion for Candidate B. If I lived in Delaware, I would not have wanted to vote for Christine O’Donnell, but she would have nonetheless been the recipient of my votes against Mike Castle in the primary election and Chris Coons in the general election. If she was unable to expand her support much beyond her opponents’ negatives, the question that really ought to be asked is why no better representative of conservative ideals stepped forward to challenge Castle for the Republican nomination. She at least had the courage to enter the arena.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Misplaced Prayers

Catholic News Agency (CNA) has a story posted today about a bishop in the Philippines who is attempting to correct misplaced, superstitious Marian devotion.

At first glance, they seem to have great faith – praying fervently, invoking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and watching for signs of God’s will. But these apparent signs of piety have a different meaning for some Filipinos. They’re trying to pray their way to a winning lottery ticket.

On reading the story, I was reminded once again of the assertion by St. John of the Cross that even something as good as prayer can be an occasion of sin if done for the wrong reasons. The circumstances surrounding an action can turn something that is almost always good into something that is not good.

There were two other things that caught me attention in this story, though. First was the way my confused brain kept combining “Grand Lotto” into “Grotto.” It’s quite remarkable, given the Marian context of the story. Second was the web ad that appeared next to the story in my browser. The ad was for a site called “Filipino Cupid” – a Filipino dating service – and featured pictures of Asian women in skimpy swimwear. Hardly an ad appropriate for a Catholic news site!

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints Collection

Before All Saints Day passes us by, I want to note something with some humor (and just a tint of cynicism). Because November 1st falls on a Monday this year, All Saints Day is not a day of obligation in the United States. Ditto if it falls on a Saturday, and if it falls on a Sunday, it just replaces the ordinary Sunday, which is already a day of obligation. Also, since Monday is our pastor's day off, there was no mass at our parish today, just the usual morning communion service presided over by a deacon. However, there was still a contribution envelope for All Saints Day to put in the collection basket that wasn't passed at the mass the wasn't celebrated.

I'm sure that it's just coincidence, but just yesterday, we received the report from our parish finance committee on collections and expenditures by our parish over the fiscal year just ended. Maybe they can increase donations by printing more envelopes for holy days that aren't celebrated.

In Praise of Podcasts

Have I ever shared with you my enthusiasm for podcasts? I love ‘em! I get the opportunity to listen to programs from C-SPAN that, if I tried to watch on TV, would surely drive my wife and kids from the room, if not prompting a full-scale mutiny to take control of the remote. It is by podcast that I listen to some of my favorite EWTN programs, and they are delivered right onto my computer for me. I am grateful for that, and it occurs to me that I really should send them a donation.

Football Faith

On EWTN’s The Journey Home last week, Marcus Grodi and his guest, Doug Lessels, talked a bit about football. I never played football – I ran cross country in high school – so I naturally relate more to the metaphors that St. Paul uses in his epistles. Football, unlike running, is more of a team sport. The quarterback might be the star, but if his linemen aren’t blocking, he’s going to get sacked. The wide receivers has to run his route in order to be where the quarterback is going to throw the ball, and even if he doesn’t get passed to, he still forces the other team to cover him.

We are all part of the team that is the Church. Paul said that the hand, the foot, the ear, and the eye were all part of the same body, codependent upon one another. St. Therese recognized that in God’s garden, both roses and little white flowers are necessary, and if she was to be a little white flower, her aspiration was to be the best little flower she could be. We all have our gifts; we all have our role to play, and we all have a responsibility to and dependence upon our teammates.

We are not without our coaches and cheerleaders. On All Saints Day especially, we are reminded of those who have taken the field before us and gained entrance to the glorious Hall of Fame. The letter to the Hebrew tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

So yes, football fits. Baseball fits. Running fits. Sports competition mirrors the spiritual life, and whatever your sport might be, there are important lessons that you can learn from it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Libertine Libertarian

Every now and then, some conservative prognosticator gets it in his head to compile a list of something with conservative themes. It could be rock songs, movies, books, fictional characters – you name it, somebody has, or soon will, come up with a list. This fascination with lists is not limited to conservatives. Catholics, especially our friends at L’Osservatore Romano, have contracted the bug as well.

When the list in question is conservative authors of science fiction, one almost always finds Robert Heinlein’s name on the list. Indeed, Heinlein appears to have a large number of fans on the right side of the political spectrum. I read quite a bit of Heinlein in my youth, and I think I know what I’m talking about when I say that Heinlein might have been a libertarian (and a libertine one at that!), but he was no conservative, as I understand the term.

Heinlein’s fiction is not friendly to religion and traditional morality. In Time Enough for Love, the protagonist travels back in time, where he seduces his own mother. In Job: A Comedy of Justice, the characters “marry” into a family with multiple husbands and wives involved in polyamorous bisexual relationships. Also in Job, we learn that the devil is a misunderstood swinger who’s much more fun that the uptight God. Meanwhile, Stranger in a Strange Land presents us with a Christ-like figure from Mars who preaches that “Thou art God” (as is the tree in the meadow, so don’t think too highly about yourself) and instructs his followers to cook him into a soup for dinner after he dies.

I was in my teens when I read most of my Heinlein. It’s a wonder that I turned out as I did (and maybe explains some of the flaws with which I still struggle). I don’t think that my parents had any idea what kind of amorality I was absorbing through my choice of literature. That’s why I try hard to monitor what my own kids are reading.

Heinlein’s stories are fun to read, and they do promote some virtues, such as self-reliance and civic responsibility, but they also promote a world-view that is incompatible with Christian morality. He should only be read by adults capable of recognizing and filtering out the bunk.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Capital Gains

There was some discussion over on The Corner yesterday between Ponnuru and Stuttaford regarding taxes, specifically, the capital gains tax. I find myself straddling the fence on the subject. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I buy a house for $100,000 and then sell it for $150,000. There are lots of folks who think that I’ve just pocketed fifty grand and need to share a portion of that windfall with Uncle Sam. This might be true, IF there hasn’t been any inflation AND I haven’t poured any money into the property.

In most cases, however, flipping a house involves spending money to prepare it. In my case, just holding onto an older house involves a constant flow of cash. If I own the above-mentioned house for ten years, and during that time I spend more than $50,000 on it (for re-modeling, upgrades, roofing, plumbing, landscaping, etc.), then it is hard for me to see how that difference between my purchase price and my selling price represents a net gain that the government needs to tax, especially if I can document every penny that I’ve spent on the property.

On the other hand, I’m all for phasing out the mortgage interest deduction. It provides a perverse incentive to buy more house than I need and to keep the value of that house financed rather than owned in equity.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Speed Mass

Wow! That was one of the quickest Sunday masses I’ve ever attended. The brevity of the rite was assisted by the terseness of the homily. Here it is, in it’s entirety: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One of them did.” I sat in my pew thinking, “That’s a promising start,” but the celebrant spun on his heel and returned to the sanctuary. Just like that, the Liturgy of the Word was over, and we were transitioning to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Special Days

I’ve fallen a little behind in following the Lectionary readings. While the Church completed reading St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and moved on to the letter to the Ephesians, I found myself stuck on Galatians 3:15-25. Up until that point,I thought that I was following Paul’s line of argument; but then he offered a clarifying example. Rather than make things clearer, it only confused me more, and I had to keep re-reading the passage. Let’s just say that I don’t find Paul’s reliance on singular versus plural nouns, especially when the noun is something as indefinite as “seed” or “offspring” (depending on the translation) to be convincing.

I finally moved on yesterday, only to stumble over Galatians 4:8-11.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

This October, like no October I ever remember, is being pushed upon us as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Everywhere I turn, I see pink! Every cause has it’s own awareness month, it seems. And, of course, we observe secularized seasons for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Even within the Church, we observe special months (May for Mary), seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter), years (the Year of St. Paul, the Year for Priests), and days (solemnities, feasts, and memorials). Would St. Paul have feared for us?

I know that Paul was writing in the context of the old Law, which was fulfilled in Christ. Christians aren’t under the Law and, therefore, aren’t required to observe the Law’s liturgical calendar. In some ways, however, we traded one liturgical calendar for another. We are no longer bound by the Mosaic Law, but we are bound by Canon Law. The difference is that we do not become righteous by observing the calendar and the law. Indeed, the righteous will be observant, but not slavishly observant.

What might cause Paul to fear is the sad fact that some might believe that merely by observing the calendar, they are doing all that is necessary. This occurs to varying degrees. There is the Catholic who only attends mass occasionally, but makes sure to go on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and thinks that’s good enough. There is the Catholic who attends mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, but only those days, and thinks that’s good enough. On the other extreme, there are Catholics who, based on promises by apparitions in private revelations, think that they are assured of salvation as long as they make it to mass on nine consecutive first Fridays or first Saturdays, or are wearing a brown scapular when they die.

Ultimately, that is not what saves us. We are saved by faith, but not faith alone. Our faith must be accompanied by love. When James says that faith without works is dead, he is not speaking about works of the Law; he is speaking about works of love. If we observe special days, months, seasons, and years because we love God, the Church, and the object of those observances, then we are doing a good thing, and no fear is necessary.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Linked: Newman and Rameses

Disparate things occasionally form tenuous links. George Weigel has a piece On the Square today in which he waxes over the recently beatified John Henry Newman. He quotes a prayer by Newman:

God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work for me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons….

The prayer continues, but that idea of being a link in a chain is striking. It is so easy to slip into a mode of thinking in which we exist in spiritual isolation to the extent that our sins and weaknesses are private. They are not, as Paul makes all too clear in his first letter to the Corinthians. A soul’s private sins affect the whole body.

The sudden recognition of interconnectedness is enough to make an individual vow, “I will not be the weak link!” That, in turns brings to mind the scene from the Dreamworks film Prince of Egypt, in which Rameses, rebuked by his father, vows that he will not be the weak link in the line of Egyptian kings. The vow hardens his heart and turns him into an autocratic dictator.

The analogy limps more than a bit. If we all form a single chain, then any one person would only need to ensure that he is not the weakest link – as long as another link fails first, the whole chain fails because of someone else – and we can all look around us and see folks that we believe are weaker links than we are. Nonetheless, it helps to be reminded that we are all joined together. Life is a team sport.

Newman was a historical figure of greatness. The Rameses of film was a fictional character based on a historical figure. It is a good thing for us to be determined not to fail in our obligations to God, but we must always remember that the obligation is manifested in love – both of God and of our fellow man created in God’s image.

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us, that we might each fulfill our mission with fidelity and love.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Number of Sts Simon and Jude

I like to read the Bible with the Church by following the Lectionary readings and trying to fill in the gaps when the readings skip chapters. Last week, for example, the Lectionary skipped its way through the book of Job in six days, five if you exclude Wednesday, when the readings for the Feast of the Archangels superceded those for the 26th Week of Ordinary Time. Once a month, I’ll chart the readings for the month, print the chart, and tuck it into my Bible for reference.

Two things struck me as I prepared my chart for October. The first is that, although we aren’t numerologically superstitious, I couldn’t help but notice that the Lectionary entry for the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude on October 28 is 666. That also happens to be Beggar’s Night (aka Trick or Treat) in our little village. All Saints Day (November 1) uses Lectionary entry 667, making 666 the last fixed entry before Halloween. I’m sure that it means nothing, but it’s still interesting to note.

The second striking thing is the entry for All Souls Day, November 2. There are three options for the first reading, three options for the responsorial psalm, 13 options for the second reading, and 12 options for the gospel. That’s 1,404 different possible combinations! I think that I’ll just default to whichever four are featured on the USCCB site for that day.

Note: I don’t have my own copy of the Lectionary. I use this site as a reference, with little recourse other than to trust in its accuracy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Redemption Road?

Toyota gave us the swagger wagon with their Sienna commercials, but just what is it that Honda’s trying to sell us in their latest Odyssey commercial? A heavy metal minivan with the path to Redemption Road pre-programmed into the GPS? Redemption from what? The horror of having to buy a gallon of milk? The only thing missing from this commercial is a tramp in fishnet stockings!

I think I’m supposed to be the target consumer for this product, but this marketing offends me. Is this how they think men in the minivan market need to be appealed to? The type of man likely to be swayed by this type of commercial is not going to be caught dead in a minivan, no matter how many fireworks are going off behind it.

Instead, I would have emphasized the cross-platform utility and elegance of the vehicle. Scene 1: transporting a baseball team in the morning. Scene 2: fold down the seats and transport lumber and tools for home projects in the afternoon. Scene 3: a tuxedo and evening gown affair with the wife, complete with valet parking. Leave the heavy metal fantasies to the childish childless.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

1994 Redux

Remember how, in 1994, a wave of conservative legislators were swept into office on the promise of the Contract With America? It’s hard to believe that was 16 years ago. That year coincided with my own spiritual and political awakening. As I came to recognize and embrace the truths of the Catholic faith, I also moved toward political principles that favored subsidiarity, family values, and economic opportunity. 1994 was an exciting year.

I cannot adequately describe the disappointment that I felt when, two years later, the Republicans nominated Bob Dole to be their presidential candidate. I was pleased with the platform written by the Republican delegates at their 1996 convention, but Dole distanced himself from the document, declining even to read it. I took it like a thumb in the eye, and decided that he wasn’t going to get my vote. I wasn’t about to punch the chad for Bill Clinton, so my protest vote that year went to Howard Phillips.

This year, 2010, looks like it will be as big a year for conservative Republicans as 1994 was, and we look forward to evicting President Obama from the White House in 2012. However, I worry that when it comes time to pick a candidate to run against the incumbent, the Republican Party, hot on the heels of a 1994 redux, will end up with a 1996 redux.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Going Easy

The end of my running season is approaching. I could run in a local non-tour 5K this Saturday, but I’m choosing not to. That leaves two races on my calendar. The big annual event in our little village is the Oktoberfest, and it has a 10K (6.2 miles) race associated with it. Lots of locals who don’t run at all the rest of the year will lace up their shoes to run in the Oktoberfest 10K. I join them because a) it’s kind of a big deal; b) a group of my fellow employees enters as a team (we took second place last year); and c) the race features weight divisions (I took first place in the over-220 lb division last year). Therefore, I have to run, if only to defend my fatso class title. That race is a week away. The other race is two weeks after the Oktoberfest, and is the final race in the Shelby County 5K Tour. I haven’t done as well in the tour this year – my times are slower, and I’m out of the running for first place in my age group, but I could still place second, and I have yet to win a door prize this year.

I’ve been averaging about 20-25 miles of training per week, since early April. For serious runners, that doesn’t sound like much, but I’m over forty years old now and over 220 pounds. These days, when I go out for a run, I feel it in my knees. I find myself trying to balance my need to train for the last two races against the need to maintain the integrity of my knees. Once we enter the off-season, I’m going to have to find a lower-impact form of exercise to engage in for a while.

The thought occurred to me this week: I don’t need to run those last two races. That’s certainly true. I’m not a professional athlete. Nothing requires that I maintain a minimum level of physical fitness. I could begin my off-season today. As usual, however, I immediately reminded myself of the spiritual analogy. Nothing requires me to do anything more than comply with the precepts of the Church: attend mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation; fast and abstain on prescribed days; confess mortal sins once a year; receive Communion once a year; and contribute financially to the support of the Church. Nothing requires me to pray Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer (lauds or vespers). After all, I’m not a priest, deacon, or vowed religious. I don’t have to pray the rosary, or make a holy hour, or read the Bible.

It’s not really good to think in terms of only what’s required, though, is it? There are folks who trudge off to the gym to “workout” with the least possible effort. You see them in the cardio room, putting in their allotted time on the stair climber, but supporting themselves the whole time on the rails, with their arms extended and their elbows locked. They do it out of a sense of duty, or to be able to say that they do it, but their heart isn’t really into it. That’s not how I want to exercise. That’s not how I want to pray, either.

I want my prayer to be motivated by love, even if the love has to be willed because the emotion is absent. As for my exercise, well, that’s as close as I get to penitential self-flagellation. It is a training of my self-discipline as much as anything else. “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave….” (1 Cor 9:26-27)


The video below was featured at Catholic Exchange and conveys a beautiful pro-life message. The video is part of a collection of videos at Too Many Aborted.com, a site that seeks to educate the public about the impact of abortion on the African-American community.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting the Headline Wrong

I checked the Dayton Daily News headline this morning, and was shocked to see this: “Local economy gets a boost from increased tax revenue collections.” That sounds completely backwards. Are we to believe that increased tax collection actually led to an improved economy? That’s not what the body of the story actually says. According to Dayton’s City Manager, “It’s hard to pinpoint why we are doing a little better on the income tax side, but I think it’s generally because the economy has gotten a little bit better.”

That makes a little more sense. Tax revenues are up because the economy has improved. The headline, however, completely reverses the cause and the effect. This should serve as a warning to any who get their news by scanning the DDN headlines.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On a Dry Plateau

How long does it go on?

All summer long, it seems, I’ve been running, and every 5K that I run finds me struggling to finish with about the same time (and that time being about a minute slower than last year). All of my effort seems to be just for maintenance, without any improvement. Shouldn’t I at least be losing weight? Nope. I’m stuck.

I experienced the same thing when I was lifting weights. You hit a plateau where all of the effort in the gym only goes to keep from losing the progress you’ve made. Your muscles aren’t getting any bigger, and the weight you’re moving just isn’t getting any heavier.

The same applies to my spiritual life. I have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours every morning and every evening (along with spontaneous prayers offered throughout the day), and yet nothing seems to change. I ditched the i-pod for a finger rosary when pounding out the miles, but there has still been no closer communion with God. Every confession seems to be a replay of the twenty previous confessions. There is no progress. I’m on a plateau.

But what happens if I stop running, stop lifting, or stop praying? I gain weight, lose aerobic capacity, get weak, and grow distant from God. There are things an athlete can do to break out of a rut. Runners can incorporate interval training, improve nutrition, or take supplements. It might not be as easy to overcome a period of spiritual dryness, as anyone who has read the correspondence of Mother Teresa is aware. In that case, all that we can do is trust in God’s providential love.

So I’m in a rut (or on a plateau), and it’s frustrating, but I don’t dare stop what I’ve been doing. (Actually, I do dare, occasionally, much to my detriment.) What I’m doing now might be the best I can manage, given the circumstances. Even so, I can make adjustments to my physical training or pious practices. The important thing is to hold on to what I’ve worked so hard to achieve (while at the same time remaining detached from the physical and acknowledging that the spiritual is more of a gratuitous gift) without despairing that this just might be as good as it gets.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fatherless Connection - Contraception and the Church

A recent blog post or column or whatever by Sandro Magister (and highlighted by Catholic News Agency) commented on a topic that was featured in Brian Gail’s novel Fatherless. In Fatherless, the characters of Joe Delgado and Fr. John Sweeney have to confront the failure of the Catholic Church to stand against the cultural forces pushing contraception on society.

What Magister notes (citing a book by a professor of demography at the University of Padua) is that the problem did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in the 1960’s, but goes much further back. Priests were advised, when hearing confessions, not to ask questions. There was no preaching on contraception, so many of the laity were unaware of the moral issues involved and therefore did not consider it something that needed to be confessed in the sacrament of penance. As a result, it’s use became widespread among the Catholic population, even though it was never accepted by the Church.

The distance between Church teaching and the use of contraceptives continues to be perceived by most of the population as neither a sin nor a rebellion.

Even afterward – and this brings us up to today – the condemnation of contraceptives would be the subject of papal documents, but already at the level of the bishops it would hardly appear in preaching. The clergy, for their part, would be almost completely silent on it. And would continue to be very understanding and indulgent in the confessional.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fatherless Connection - The Priority of Cable

In Brian Gail’s novel Fatherless, Michael Burns takes a job at an advertising firm responsible for marketing cable television. He eventually finds that the content of the cable channel programming leads to moral dilemmas, and he tries to argue for programming that is friendlier to family values.

In the course of his market research, Michael discovers that men are overwhelmingly behind families’ decisions to purchase cable service and women are responsible for the decision to cancel cable subscriptions. I thought of that the other day as I listened to a C-SPAN interview with financial analyst Meredith Whitney. During the course of the interview, the discussion turns to credit card lending and legal changes to the way the credit card issuers set rates. In the past, credit card companies would adjust rates for customers depending upon risk. If customers started missing payments, not just on their credit cards, but on other bills, they were viewed as greater risks, and their rates would be raised.

What I found interesting, in relation to the story told in Fatherless, was that what really set off warning bells at credit card companies was when a man started to miss payments on his cable bill. In other words, men apparently place a high priority on their access to cable programming. They will let other bills go unpaid before they give up their cable. By the time they start missing cable payments, they are in serious financial difficulties.

Something tells me that it isn’t EWTN that these men are clinging to.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Triumph of the Cross

As Christians, we believe that God, in his unity, has a trinitarian nature. We further believe that the second person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, having no less of the nature of God than God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, entered time and took on the nature of man.

These two sentences alone are extremely hard to fathom. But consider that God not only assumed our nature, he did so in order to die, so that our nature might be redeemed. The instrument of our redemption was the cross. Every year, on the fourteenth of September (as well as on Good Friday), we remember in a special way the cross upon which the salvation of the world was accomplished through the sacrifice of God himself.

Who are we, that our creator should shower us with such incomprehensible love?

O glorious cross, your arms upheld the priceless ransom of captive mankind.
- Through you the world has been saved by the blood of the Lord.

Hail, O cross, consecrated by the body of Christ;
his members have made you wood more noble than precious pearls.
- Through you the world has been saved by the blood of the Lord

Fatherless Connection - Semantic Definitions

In the novel Fatherless, by Brian Gail, the character Joe Delgado is shocked to learn that oral contraceptives have an abortifacient effect. Most oral contraceptives work primarily by suppressing ovulation, but breakthrough ovulations still occur in approximately one of every six months. If the breakthrough ovulation results in a fertilized egg (i.e., conception), then the secondary effect kicks in. The hormones in the pill make the womb inhospitable to the newly conceived human life by preventing implantation.

Medical ethicists avoided the question of when life begins by positing that pregnancy begins with implantation. Therefore, the pill prevents pregnancy. The fact that the termination of a human life is the necessary result was (and is) completely sidestepped.

This aspect of the novel continues to be current news. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently approved the drug “ella.” Ella is described as “emergency contraception” that can be taken up to five days after sexual intercourse. Ella works not only to prevent implantation, but to cause the body to reject an already implanted embryo.

There is some additional semantic obfuscation going on here. By classifying the drug as a contraceptive, the FDA opens the door for the federal government to fund use of the drug through Medicaid, Title X, and international family planning programs. If the drug were properly classified as an abortifacient, then laws barring the federal government from funding abortion would apply.

Words mean things, and in this case, loosely defined or even misused labels can literally be a matter of life and death.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I am not generally inclined to burn books of any sort (although, when I was a lad, my friends and I thought it was great fun to burn our school notebooks after the last day of classes), especially those considered sacred by major world religions. However (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you?), nothing makes me want to do it quite as much as all the hyperventilating in response to the threat of an inconsequential fringe pastor in Florida to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Seeing effigies and American flags burned while crowds shout “Death to Christians” makes me want to push back in some way.

If we can’t burn their book in a quid pro quo fashion (don’t pretend that you didn’t know Bibles are routinely confiscated and destroyed in Muslim countries) or draw cartoons mocking their prophet, what does that leave us? Yes, I know about Luke 6: 27-38. I also know that it has to be read in continuity with the rest of scripture, including the Old Testament. It really doesn’t do any good to say, “My, how uncivilized!” or “That’s not really my cup of tea” or “Can’t we all just get along?” when even quoting a historical figure who was suggesting that Islam is prone to violence and opposed to reason, as Pope Benedict XVI did at his Regensburg lecture, is likely to cause violent, unreasoning mobs throughout the Muslim world.

How ‘bout if I draw a cartoon mocking Mohammed for freaking out about some no-name threatening to burn his book and then burn my crude cartoon? I don’t even need to do it, I can just announce that I’m thinking about planning to do it. As a Catholic, though, that approach might be a little too confrontational and in-your-face. We are supposed to be more affirming of what is good and true and just.

So let’s have a full-on celebration on October 7 of the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, raising our voices in prayerful thanksgiving for the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto. Would that be a sufficiently Catholic response, or is our own calendar now too confrontational?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Booming Business

On the drive in to work this morning, I caught a bit of the business news on NPR’s Morning Edition. The news was, I think, meant to be upbeat, about small businesses that were opening or expanding in defiance of the slow economy. Normally, I would cheer such news, but this report did nothing to lift my outlook.

It was the types of businesses profiled that dampened my cheer: a tanning salon, a wine bar, a cupcake store. Economic growth and prosperity is not going to happen on the basis of frivolities like these. The image that came to my mind was the scene from Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, wherein Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, feasts while his knights, led by his son Faramir, execute a doomed attack on Osgiliath.

We find ourselves engaged in a twilight struggle of civilizations, with our brave soldiers fighting and dying on foreign fields to secure a future worthy of our past and traditions. With our economy tottering weakly, we turn our attention to tans, wine, and cupcakes? Who the heck are we?

Monday, September 6, 2010

First Assessment for 2012

The 2008 presidential campaign started early and seemed to last forever. Part of that was probably due to the ineligibility of the incumbent to run for reelection and the disinterest of the incumbent Vice President in seeking a promotion. We currently find ourselves closing in on the 2010 mid-term elections, and there’s already considerable buzz about who will be battling for the Republican nomination in 2012. There’s even been some suggestion that President Obama could face a primary challenge for the Democratic nomination. I expect that the Battle of 2012 will start to heat up around January of 2011, if not sooner. Don’t the next two years sound like fun?

Unfortunately, I live in Ohio. We have a relatively late (May) primary, so by the time we get to vote, the candidates that I really liked have been eliminated. If I learned anything from the 2008 election results, it is this: Never judge a politician by what he or she says during a campaign. Rather, judge them by their votes on legislation and/or actions as an executive to measure their governing philosophy. It’s not what they say, but what they do that defines who they are.

My tentative support at this point is split between three governors: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Mitt Romney says all the right things, but I have trouble reconciling what he says with what he did as Governor of Massachusetts. The one thing that Romney clearly seems capable of is surrounding himself with competent people and coordinating their actions. If, after four years of Obama governance, the country needs to be rescued, Romney may very well be the best man for the job. I like Sarah Palin, but I have a hard time getting past the way she abandoned her post as Governor of Alaska. Mike Huckabee turned me off with the way he teamed up with John McCain against Romney in 2008, and I never quite felt comfortable with his positions on taxation, crime, and foreign policy. That leaves a pair of legislators on my early list: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Gingrich was the architect of the 1994 Republican Congress, but he quickly become a lightning rod of negatives, with every Democratic candidate in 1998 morphing pictures of their opponents into a picture of Gingrich. As for Santorum, he seems nice enough and says the right things, but he endorsed Arlen Specter over Pat Twomey, and I am loathe to turn the reins of government over to another Senator.

So there you have my very early assessment. We’ll see whether any of my top three is still around by the time that May 2012 rolls ‘round.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Language of the Missal

The new English translation of the Roman missal has been approved and is scheduled to enter use 15 months from now in Advent of 2011. Over at Headline Bistro, Cale Clarke highlights four places where the English text has been changed to more closely match the normative Latin text and notes that the new verbiage draws closer connections to important biblical passages.

But there are two basic reasons the new English translation will make the greatest thing on Earth even greater. First, the new translation conveys a better sense of what the official Latin text actually says. Second, the new translation highlights the biblical background of the Mass texts in profound ways.

This will be the biggest change to the mass that I’ve seen in my adult lifetime, even though the changes are fairly minor. It will be interesting to see how our parish implements the new translation. My guess is that it won’t be well.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Clear Conscience

I have, on a few occasions, found myself involved in discussions of Christian morality, and I often hear two assertions that frustrate me greatly. The first is that conscience is the ultimate moral authority. The ultimate moral authority is actually God. We are, however, bound to act in accord with our conscience, and no individual should be forced to act contrary to their conscience. However, one’s conscience has to be properly formed, and it is possible for an improperly formed conscience to demand an immoral act. Following an improperly formed conscience cannot make an immoral act moral.

The second assertion is similar: that if a person doesn’t know that an act is a sin, then that act isn’t sinful for that person. I certainly agree that knowledge is a prerequisite for mortal sin, but, as in the case of an improperly formed conscience, ignorance of the immorality or sinfulness of an act does not make the act moral.

I was reminded of this today when I read today’s non-Gospel reading from the Lectionary. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor 5:4, NIV translation) Paul, it seems, has made every human effort to comply with the will of God, and yet he acknowledges that he might have judged wrongly, and that his honest mistakes will not be without consequence when he is judged.

Ignorance is not bliss, because it is not an excuse. We should seek to form our consciences so that a clear conscience becomes a sign of innocence.

Fatherless Connection - Pushing the Pill

In the Joe Delgado story arc of Fatherless, author Brian Gail asserts that the government was complicit in promoting oral contraceptives as a means of population control, in spite of evidence that they might be harmful to the health of women. In the Michael Burns story arc, Gail notes the role played by marketing campaigns in creating demand for a cable television product that the public appeared to be rejecting. We all know how pervasive both the pill and the cable networks have become in our country.

The Phillippine Daily Inquirer reports that the government of the United States, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is actively promoting contraceptive use in other countries, and that they appear to be using the same kind of marketing ploys that the cable executives used in Fatherless.

In a 37-page report, titled “Family Planning Behavior Change Communication Strategy,” the NCHP said: “The strategy builds on the understanding that encouraging individuals or couples to use family planning is a process, involving distinct audiences that need different messages and approaches.”

“Information alone is not enough to bring about behavior change among any audience. Instead, the strategy is based on a multilevel, synchronized and holistic marketing approach to family planning.”

The same report said “the approach is unique in that it focuses on increasing modern contraceptive use through demand generation, or increasing knowledge and forming positive attitudes toward contraceptive use and birth spacing; social marketing, or repackaging or selling the concept of family planning as a lifestyle that contributes to better quality of life; and service marketing, or building capacity of family-planning service providers and promoting model providers.”

So it is a goal of our government to create demand for contraceptives in other countries around the world. Our government is actively seeking to export the hedonistic and libidinous aspects of our culture.

Tell me again how we in America are the good guys.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fatherless Connection - Cable Content

In one of the Fatherless story arcs, a Catholic husband and father, Michael Burns, takes a job as an executive with a New York advertising agency where he becomes responsible for promoting the fictional Home Show Network (HSN). The events of the novel cover a period from about 1985 t o1995, when cable television and premium cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax were aggressively expanding their market penetration.

What Michael recognized was that the product HSN was selling to American families contained increasing levels of sex and violence and that, while many households signed up to see the latest Hollywood blockbusters, they cancelled when they found the content either objectionable or not worth the cost. The cable channel executives, however, were convinced that the content of their programming was not the problem. If anything, they seemed determined to bet the future of their network on an increasing demand for even more salacious content.

I thought of that recently while listening to a Ricochet podcast in which contributor James Lileks shared how sick and tired he is “of freakin’ vampires. And not just vampire love and vampire fascination, but SEXY vampires.” What got his ire up was the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Rob Long, playing the straight man, goads Lileks, “Yeah, yeah. It’s a big thing, James. The kids all love the vampires. What’s wrong with YOU?” The subtle implication (with some sarcasm by Rob Long) being that if a person is troubled by the popular culture, the problem is not with the culture but with the person who just doesn’t get it.

Lileks continues his rant, “Kids are loving that – yeah. Well, it’s (the cover of Rolling Stone) got the main characters from True Blood, which is an HBO show, and, you know, people love the True Blood because it’s just got SEX wall-to-wall all over the place.” This is where the popular culture is. James continues, in a sarcastic aside, “It’s not porn if there’s an HBO logo at the end of it. HUMM, like all HBO shows end.” The normalization of the disordered that Brian Gail’s HSN executives were pushing in Fatherless appears to be very nearly accomplished. Lileks continues, “So they like it for that, and they like it ‘cause everybody’s good looking, and they kill each other in the middle of things, and isn’t that just erotic and dangerous and dark and gothic and romantic, and on the cover of Rolling Stone, they’re all spattered in blood. I mean, they’re just hosed down with blood, and I’m thinking, you know, it’s one thing to have that sort of quasi-romantic tingling of danger fascination that Bela Lugosi was able to bring to the role or subsequent vampires, but when you actually have a popular culture that suggests that we should find erotic the idea of being sprayed with arterial blood in the middle of sexual congress, I think something is askew.” Right. Our popular culture is just slightly askew.

The podcast crew then goes on to compare James Bond, as a popular icon of the past, to the current fascination with vampires. Lileks remains unhappy that today’s zeitgeist finds its expression in “the undead glorifying in all of this animalistic copulation”. I join him in his unhappiness.

Was it inevitable that we end up here, or, as is suggested in Fatherless, were we pushed, prodded, and pulled into this cultural morass by amoral programmers at the media conglomerates providing our “entertainment?” Of course there was, and is, resistance, but we now find ourselves surrounded by the stuff, and the constant barrage slowly erodes our ability to be shocked by that which should shock us. In many ways, our culture has lost, or is losing, the essential elements that made Western Civilization great, and I find myself torn between the desire to see it reformed, if necessary, through tribulation, and the desire to see it spared. I want my country to be a source of goodness; it isn’t always.

As individuals, maybe we can’t move the culture much. We do, however, exert no small influence over our own lives. We can and must resist the temptation to allow smut into our homes through the television and the internet. We can and must intercede and make atonement not just for our own failings, but for the sins of our neighbors. And we must pray that there are enough good folk left to stay the hand of God’s just wrath.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fatherless Connection - The Danger of Oral Contraceptives

One of the themes of Brian Gail’s novel, Fatherless, was the damage done by oral contraceptives to the health of the women who take them. In the novel, a pharmaceutical executive becomes aware of the link and worries about an eventual class-action lawsuit and even the potential for criminal investigations. For those who have paid attention, the side effects of oral contraceptives should be serious enough to cause any woman to resist taking the drugs, and yet the population at large seems either ignorant or remarkably apathetic about the dangers.

I was a little surprised last week, when a story on the health risks of contraceptives aired on, of all places, National Public Radio. The story, by NPR’s Richard Knox, focused primarily on problems associated with Yaz, an oral contraceptive produced by Bayer Healthcare.

First, Yaz was marketed as being more than just an oral contraceptive. Commercials for Yaz suggested that the drug, in addition to acting as a contraceptive, would also help to improve other symptoms like moodiness, fatigue, headaches, and acne. The marketing campaign worked – women (and teenage girls) specifically requested Yaz from their doctors. However, the marketing claims were misleading, and the FDA ordered Bayer to run a corrective commercial.

All oral contraceptives have accompanying health risks, but those risks are even greater with especially strong drugs like Yaz. One 16-year-old user, profiled by Mr. Knox, suffered a blood clot in her leg that resulted in a pulmonary embolism. After being misdiagnosed by one doctor, another doctor noted the patient’s blue leg and immediately diagnosed the blood clot and the connection to birth control pills. That, in and of itself, says something about the frequency of serious side effects to contraceptive drugs. Richard Knox notes, “The link between birth control pills and blood clots isn’t new. It’s been known for decades. Every year a few thousand women suffer clots because they’re on the pill. But it’s possible that Yaz and Yasmin, a similar pill, carry a higher risk of clotting.” The increase in risk has been estimated to be somewhere between 64 and 100 percent. In other words, if a given number of Yaz users resulted in 1000 blood clots, an equal number of users of the “safer” oral contraceptives would still result in 500 to 610 blood clots.

In Fatherless, Joe Delgado worried about a class action lawsuit. According to NPR’s Knox, there are now 2700 women suing Bayer over Yaz. Even so, Bayer is going to market with another new contraceptive, in spite of the potential health risks. They are, no doubt, confident that women will buy the new alternative. Contraceptives are big business – NPR reports that just last year, Bayer earned $800 million through sales of Yaz. I can’t help but wonder whether somebody at Bayer has already calculatied how many blood clot victims can be compensated before that kind of revenue ceases to generate a profit?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I recently read Fatherless, a novel written by Brian Gail and published by One More Soul. (Interestingly, the book doesn’t appear to be available for purchase from One More Soul.) I found the book to be a fairly easy and compelling read. I had no trouble completing the 500+ pages in about a week. I joined a few other men for a discussion of the book and the issues raised by it.

The story looks at the moral dilemmas facing three Catholic families who seek guidance from a young associate pastor. One case explores the way in which the pharmaceutical industry achieved cultural and governmental approval of oral contraceptives in spite of the serious medical risks to women. The second case follows the marketing of premium cable channels and the infiltration of smut as entertainment into the homes of unsuspecting families.

The third case is a little less clear. I suspect that Gail wanted to show that contraceptive use undermines marriage, but he also pulls in themes of clerical pedophilia, mental disorder, and demonic oppression without ever providing a satisfactory resolution. Thus, it becomes unclear what drives the actions of the third family’s father. Take away the extraordinary circumstances of his daughter’s behavior, and things might well have turned out differently. Of the three families in the novel, the plot for the third was the least satisfying for me as a reader.

The three plots are woven together into a fourth story line that follows the ministry of a priest who, at the beginning of the tale is just entering his second year after ordination. The over-arching theme of Gail’s novel might be the way in which the Catholic Church lost its moral voice in the ‘60s and ‘70s and only started to recover that voice under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. The bishops and dissenting theologians are particularly singled out for their sins of omission (for the bishops) and commission (for the theologians).

Overall, the book provides an important focus for discussion, even if it does fall short in some areas. I will certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the threat posed to the family by the prevailing American culture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Race Pace

Race pace. That’s what I used to call it those many years ago when I ran high school cross country, and ran it pretty well. My race pace was a long, relatively efficient stride that, as a high school senior, I could hold for the entirety of a 5K race.

Nowadays, I slip into the middle-aged version of that stride only on the last quarter mile or so of my training runs. It feels good, and the dream is that I somehow manage to convince myself that I can once again start a race with that pace and hold if for a full five kilometers (that’s 3.1 miles for those of you in Rio Linda). Running is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. I often find myself at the starting line asking whether I want to run or race. If I’m running, then I set the fastest pace that I’m confident will still enable me to cover the distance. If I were to race, then I would try to slip into the longer stride, hoping and praying that the greater efficiency will still allow me to make it to the finish line without collapsing from exhaustion. Racing entails risk, and I almost always opt for the safer strategy.

I wrote a bit last year about the intersection of running and spirituality. There are a lot of aspects of running that are analogous to the inner life of the soul. St. Paul counsels us to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) In light of my running experience, I’m not sure how I should apply the advice of the Apostle.

In any given race, there is going to be a group of runners half my age against whom I cannot possibly compete. If I were to try to run with them, I would be completely spent before the first mile was passed. If I limit the competition to just my age group, the prospects become much better, but they still depend on who shows up to run against me. I could “run to win” by running in only small races with weak fields, but the spiritual analogy to doing that would seem to suggest the opposite of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s analogy makes a little more sense if the award is not the award for any given race, but rather the “tour” award, in which there are a series of races where points are awarded and totaled at the end. The tour winner might not be the fastest runner, but rather the most consistent – the runner who showed up for every race, even though he knew he wouldn’t be receiving any glory for leading the pack across the finish line.

What, I wonder, would be the spiritual equivalent of my race pace, the sustainability of which I doubt every time I start a race? Likewise, what would be the equivalent of the fastest sustainable pace for which I invariably settle? Is there virtue in the recognition of my own limitations, or does it signal a fundamental lack of trust?

I read once (I forget where, so I can’t provide proper attribution) that there are two acceptable responses to the temptation to sin. The first is to throw yourself into fervent prayer and pious distractions. In running terms, this would probably be an all-out sprint. The second response is to recognize the temptation for what it is and wait it out. Temptations occur every day, and we need not be overly concerned about the temptation itself so long as we do not give in to it. In running terms, this would be a run-forever pace that might carry a runner in excess of ten miles (note that I don’t seem to possess a run-forever pace – regardless of how slowly I run, I max out at around 7-1/2 miles due to the repeated impacts on my knees; my forever pace is a walk). The race pace and the maximum sustainable pace for a 3-mile race are both significantly closer to a sprint than to a walk, especially when you consider that I’ve never been much of a sprinter.

I recently ran a race in which I tried the race pace approach. I made a conscious effort to stretch my stride and conserve energy. It turns out that race pace is not as fast as I thought it was. I had noticed this phenomenon before during my training runs. Sometimes, you feel like you’re plodding along, struggling through every step, only to discover at the end of your run that you made really good time. On other days, you feel like you’re running strong, but once you finish, you discover that your time is only mediocre.

Maybe the optimized race pace is a fantastic illusion. It ultimately boils down to knowing, through training, how fast you can run and being able to settle into the pace early in the race. It also means pushing yourself in training to improve that pace. Spiritually, Paul seems to be saying that, if we’re going to enter a race, we shouldn’t just jog through so that we finish having barely broken a sweat. Even if we know we aren’t going to win, we should put forth our best effort. Spiritually, that means that we can’t allow ourselves to become complacent and presume upon easy grace to carry us into the kingdom through the wide gate. Effort is a part of that equation, but certainly not the whole thing. Just as a runner needs to train if he expects to compete,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blood Muslim and Blood Innocent

There’s a lot of buzz out there currently about plans to build an Islamic center two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center – the twin towers that were brought down in a terrorist attack by Islamic jihadists on September 11, 2001. Most folks refer to the proposed center, to be built at the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Avenue, as the Ground Zero Mosque, or GZM for short. The Associated Press doesn’t like the GZM terminology and has directed its reporters to use other phrases to emphasize that the location is near, but not at, the site of towers. Like most of those on the political right, I think the proposal is legal but betrays, at best, a tone-deafness on the part of the group that wants to build the Islamic center to the sensitivities of those who suffered an emotional trauma on that day in 2001. Others have made persuasive arguments that the intentions (real or perceived) could be significantly less ecumenical than those that have been proclaimed. It’s not my intention here to add to that discussion.

What I do want to highlight are the recently revealed comments of the main GZM backer, Imam Feisal Rauf, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Rauf stated in 2005, “We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.” Many are interpreting this statement to mean that the Imam believes the United States is worse than Al Qaida. I only wish to point out that, if parsed, the statement is not surprising coming from a Muslim cleric, and probably true.

On the one hand, we have all Muslims killed by agents of the United States. We’re not just talking about innocent bystanders or devout practicing Muslims. It matters not that U.S. forces operate under constrictive rules of engagement that take extreme measures to avoid harming non-combatants. It matters not that weapons employed by the United States are precisely guided to minimize collateral damage. It matters not that the vast majority of the Muslim blood on the hands of the United States came from Muslims actively seeking to harm the United States.

On the Al Qaida side of the equation we have innocent non-Muslims. In the minds of at least some Muslims, the phrase is an oxymoron. To be a non-Muslim is to be an infidel, and no infidel is innocent; therefore, the entire population of innocent non-Muslims is precisely zero – it is a null set. It matters not that those in the World Trade Center that day were only going about their lives and their jobs. It matters not that Al Qaida kills Muslims who aren’t Muslim enough.

I have no doubt that Imam Rauf believes what he said. However, the terms of the equation are completely unreasonable and subject to bias. If this is the face of “moderate” Islam, how can we even conduct a conversation?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Little Faith

Today's Gospel (Mt 17:14-20) contains some of the most mis-applied words of Christ in the whole Bible, and begs for a canonical reading within the context of everything else that the Bible contains. In the passage, the disciples are unable to cast out a demon and ask our Lord why. "Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

I know a woman who has lupus. Other members of her Pentecostal community have told her that if she just had enough faith, she wouldn't be sick. I know a man with hemophilia. He was told by a Catholic "evangelist" that if he asked to be healed with sufficient faith, that he would be healed. She still has lupus, and he still has hemophilia. I don't think that necessarily says anything about their faith or lack thereof.

There are counterexamples within the Bible indicating that those who read the passage this way are misinterpreting the text. Consider St. Paul. He wrote to the Corinthians, "Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an Angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, be he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'" (2 Cor 7-9)

Job was full of faith, and he was blessed by God with family and possessions. But God stripped them away. He loses his property and his children, and his body is stricken with disease. Yet, Job remains faithful.

Jesus himself offers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the faithful Lazarus dies as a diseased beggar (Luke 16:19-29).

So, while today's gospel does indeed emphasize the need for and the power of faith, it should not be read in isolation from the rest of the Bible. God wants us to accomplish great things, and we must trust that he will not abandon us. As St. Paul says in Romans 8:31, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" But God often chooses to work through weakness. His ways are not our ways, and we can't always understand what He's up to. If what we ask for isn't part of his plan, we won't get what we ask for. On the other hand, if our will is attuned to his and we have faith, then nothing can stop us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lex Credendi

Ever since earlier this year, when Pope Benedict XVI smoothed the path for Anglicans unhappy with the trajectory of their denomination to return to full communion with Rome, there has a been a steady trickle of stories about impending conversions. The latest story involves 15 Anglican bishops who acknowledge that many Anglicans appear ready to make the jump. For all those who come back across the Tiber I say, welcome home. We’re happy to have you back. However, there are some things that you’ll need to check at the door.

What bothers me is the possibility that this is all due solely to proposals by the Church of England to ordain women as bishops. These people stuck with the Anglicans through acceptance of contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexual marriage, female priests, and openly homosexual priests and bishops, but female bishops are just too much for them? They didn’t have any problem rejecting papal authority or the invalidity of their ordinations or clerical celibacy before, but all that changes when a woman is named bishop?

Now, however, they can come home to Rome and still worship according to the Anglican rites and the Book of Common Prayer. Does that trump all of the doctrinal difficulties? There is a commonly cited Latin phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi, which is often translated as the law of prayer is the law of belief. For these converts, the orandi part is not changing. Is the credendi?

What I fear is that the new Catholics will have come for the wrong reasons. Rather than running to the bride of Christ, the will have been running away from some corrupted simulacrum of her. Rather than shedding their old, erroneous beliefs, they will try to bring them along. “Yes,” they will say, “I’m Catholic now, but I don’t really believe all of that medieval stuff.”

I sincerely hope that I’m wrong, and that we really do see an influx of souls entering into full communion, even if they do retain an attachment to the Book of Common Prayer.