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On Rabbits and Responsibility

Note: This post originated on radinfinitum. I’m sharing it here because future posts will revisit parts of this one, and I want y’all to have the background. 

Rabbits. Out of an entire lengthy interview that covers some incredibly heavy subjects, all people could talk about this week were rabbits. I think Mr. Cuddles aptly expresses my feelings on the Papal news blitz this week:

crazy rabbit

Mr. Cuddles and I want to direct your attention to the more relevant “R” word used in this notorious portion of the Holy Father’s interview: “responsible.” Pope Francis spoke of the irresponsibility of a woman who was having her eighth child after having seven cesarean sections. The Holy Father was not calling the number of children irresponsible, but how she seemingly disregarded prudence under the guise of “trusting in God.” In cases like these, “trusting God” is really just Pilot-esque hand-washing; life is going to happen, especially when we just sit there and let it.

The flip side of this responsibility–of this prudence–is responsible justice. Having large families and “being open to life” may seem an odd thing to be labeled as responsible justice, but think of it in terms of the second of the Great Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself. This essential teaching of Jesus tells us four compelling things about how we’re meant to live. One, everyone deserves love. Two, each of us is responsible for giving love to others. Three, we are responsible for accepting the love that others give us. Four, the two cannot be separated. When we give love and accept love it is an act of justice. The “responsible” part just means that we are making a conscious effort to act justly towards everyone. So “being open to life” is much more than just having lots of kids. It means being open to giving all people the love they deserve,

When you put these two together–responsible prudence and responsible justice–you can see Pope Francis’ mindfulness of human dignity in whole. Love your neighbor as yourself can’t become love your neighbor more than yourself or love your neighbor less than yourself without somebody getting the shaft.

And that, in my opinion, is the Holy Father’s point, a message that was dwarfed this week by rabbits. In case you aren’t able to read the whole interview, let me catch you up to speed. Pope Francis said:

One of the things that is lost when there is too much wealth or when values are misunderstood or we have become accustomed to injustice, to this culture of waste, is the capacity to cry…We Christians must ask for the grace to cry. Especially wealthy Christians. To cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.

When I say it is important that women be held in higher consideration in the Church, it’s not just to give them a function as the secretary of a dicastery — though this would be fine. No, it’s so that they may tell us tell us how they experience, and view reality. Because women view things from a different richness, a larger one.

But don’t forget that we too need to be beggars – from them. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

Today, paper and what’s left over isn’t all that’s thrown away. We throw away people.

I don’t know what to say after that last one. It’s a brutal, brutal truth.

On a final note, Pope Francis threw out a book recommendation that will help frame his thinking behind “ideological colonization.” Written in 1903 by Robert Hugh Benson, it’s called “Lord of the World”. From his preface I think Mr. Benson will be quite entertaining:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

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What I Wish Everyone Knew About Catholicism

Do you love everything about the Catholic Church? No? Then this is for you. Yes? This is still for you.

I’m not writing this to convert non-Catholics or make all Catholics theologians. All I want, all I really want, is for everyone to know a few basic things about Catholicism. If you hate the Church, I hope this will help you hate it less. If the Church scares you, I hope this helps alleviate your fears. If you love your faith, but have a hard time telling others why, I hope this helps you start that conversation.

1. The Church does not invent Her teachings.

A common misunderstanding about Catholicism is that ecumenical councils make Church doctrine. Encyclicals and Bulls as well. The Nicaean Councils are often portrayed as the beginning of the Church’s teachings on Jesus’ divinity and Trinitarian theology. Vatican I instituted papal infallibility. Humanae Vitae started the ban on artificial contraception. In fact, councils are the terminus for doctrinal development. Encyclicals and bulls are maybe halfway markers at best. Councils and papal writings only come after a deviation from the universal custom is introduced, spreads, and causes confusion among the faithful.

This misunderstanding comes, understandably, from the fact that not all Church doctrine is explicitly stated in Scripture. Catholicism is not a faith of literalism, however. There are many historical facts in Scripture, but Catholicism doesn’t presume that Jesus covered every single point of doctrine explicitly; just because it’s not named doesn’t mean its not waiting in the wings. Take infallibility for example. Catholicism offers specific Scriptural allusions to papal infallibility (Mt. 16:18; 28:18-20; Jn. 14, 15, 16; 1 Tim 3:14-15; Acts 15:28), but it’s not mentioned specifically. However, the early Church acted in a manner that shows papal infallibility existed in principle. Peter, and the bishops of Rome after him, acted as the deciding vote in all serious ecclesial matters. This was not forced on the other major sees like Alexandria and Constantinople–they willingly sought out Rome to end disputes authoritatively. It took almost three hundred years after Christ’s resurrection for the principle of papal primacy to be questioned. Not long before the divinity of Christ was brought into question, incidentally.

All of the “non-explicit” doctrines of the Church are considered theological conclusions: those that logically follow direct revelation. It is much like a flowering bulb. A bulb is a plain, simple thing, but contains much more than it seems. The flower that results at the end was always the intent of the bulb, despite the bulb not being beautiful, colorful, or waft a nice perfume. This is how the Church understands and approaches Her teachings: as a reality already in existence, if not fully sprouted at a particular time.

2. The Catholic Faith is a fundamentally positive one.

If you aren’t feeling guilty about something, you aren’t doing Catholicism right, right? At least that’s the stereotype that I remember from my Protestant childhood. The problem for me, however, was that when I looked into Catholicism I couldn’t find any real basis for the relentless association of the faith with guilt and negative reinforcement. For instance, did you know that of all the creation myths that exist only the one held by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is completely violence-free? And the fact of Jesus’ non-aggression against his detractors and executioners is a deliberate sign of consistency with this myth?

I think that a combination of the Old Testament being rule-heavy and how one is taught about the Incarnation has a great deal to do with Catholicism being perceived as largely guilt-inducing, negative, and condemning. There’s not much that can be done about the Old Testament being rule-heavy (and violent, to boot) other than put it into context. Not the context of its fulfillment in the New Testament, but in this fact: man is always the instigator of violence and negation in the Old Testament. God neither punishes nor judges a single soul without being severely provoked.

The Incarnation is a bit trickier. It’s possible to look at Jesus and dismiss His perfect human nature because, well, He’s God. Of course you would have a perfect human nature if you were united with God. But, ha ha, because Jesus took on human nature it automatically became united with God for all of us! That’s the point of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is proof that our fallen human natures can, in fact, be perfect too. This is why the Incarnation is central to Catholicism and the source we direct our hope to.

3. The Church is fundamentally pro-choice.

Don’t believe half of Catholic doctrine? That’s fine. Don’t think that its humanly possible (or even natural) to refrain from sex until marriage? Ok, then. That’s your choice, and its one that Catholicism insists you have the right to. Man’s free-will is an integral part of Catholicism, but its often overlooked because people are looking for the cultural version of free-will. Cultural pro-choice means being free to determine your own truth. I will believe what I feel is right, and respect your right to believe what you feel is true. This perspective is also why so many struggle with point number one above: truth has become subjective.

Catholicism doesn’t make truth. Catholicism doesn’t change truth. Catholicism only professes Truth, and stands at attention, waiting for your choice. Which brings me to my next point…

4. God does not condemn anyone to Hell.

God created man in his own image and likeness. Does it make sense that He would condemn a part of Himself? Jesus took on human nature so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to throw you out in the cold, does it? The entire point of salvation history is salvation. Hell, or eternal damnation, is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy…[Hell] is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to [God’s] love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever.”* Theologically speaking, this doctrine is a derivative from points 2 and 3.

The notion of God “condemning” anyone to Hell is a legacy of the early Protestant communities. The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith states, “but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” Calvin professed the doctrine of predestination, where God determines a person’s eternal state independently of the person’s actions. Southern Baptists speak often of God’s judgment on sinners.

Hell is a popular appropriation of hate groups and bigots. Homosexuals are going to Hell, Black/Asian/Latino people are going to Hell, Muslims are going to Hell, even Christians are relegated to Gehenna simply for being. The reality of Hell is quite terrifying, and is also easy to use as a disciplinary tool. But these are bastardizations of what Hell means, of what it is. We all know this instinctively, which is why Westboro Baptist Church has yet to catch on in civilized society.

* * * * * * * *

I could go on and on about various theological points that are important, if not critical, to Catholicism, but I think these four points set the right tone for anyone who approaches the Catholic faith for any reason. What do you think?

*Quoted from Pope St. John Paul II’s General Audience on July 28, 1999.

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Weekly Series: Friday Francis Roundup

Note: I am a new contributing member of the weblog radinfinitum. One of the things I’ll be doing over there is a weekly series called “Friday Francis Roundup” to give a fun recap of how the Holy Father is rockin’ the world. Even better, this site offers a buffet of culture commentary that will give you plenty to think about and enjoy. Please check it out! Now for my roundup…

Pop your personal bubble before you suffocate in it. That’s pretty much what the Holy Father is telling us in the New Year. In stark contrast to the Magi, who traveled far outside of their comfort zone, Pope Francis called out those who have hard hearts and fall into a narcissistic cycle of fear, pride, and vanity. This cycle, says the Holy Father, gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, but really locks a person inside himself. The Magi, by opening themselves to something far beyond their knowing, find God and themselves.

Like the Magi, Pope Francis holds up mothers as wonderful examples of traveling outside of themselves and being better for it. The Holy Father does not mince words about how he views a mother’s value:

“To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers, in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children, are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war,” the pontiff told pilgrims during his Jan. 7 general audience address.

Before anyone brings the snark about the Church valuing women only as far as they are actively breeding small nations, read what Pope Francis follows up with:

 “In this sense motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society,” he said.

And in case his words don’t quite sink in, the Holy Father’s decision to elect cardinals from the fringes of the world puts practice to his preaching. Cardinal-making stalwarts, like the United States, did not see any gains in the new election. Many of the new cardinals come from countries that never had a cardinal before, bursting the College bubble for the first time in a long while.

On a lighter note, the Holy Father raffled off personal possessions to raise money for the poor and rubbed elbows with Lara Croft.

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Teaching the Concept of Eternity to the Twitter Generation

My catechism lesson for this coming Sunday is an introduction to the Person of the Holy Spirit. This necessarily includes a discussion of the Blessed Trinity and how each Person relates within the whole. Which means big, clunky words. Begetting. Begotten. Procession. Spiration. My students are eleven and twelve, and I’m fairly certain that the extent of their Trinitarian knowledge is sparse: We call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they’re connected somehow. The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is one of the most mysterious and difficult to grasp fully. It is also the single most important doctrine for understanding anything about everything else. And I have 45 minutes, maximum, to lay a solid foundation for the rest of their Catholic lives. No pressure, though.

StressedKid300

I think the most difficult thing to understand about the relationships of the Blessed Trinity and the language used to describe it is that it’s grounded in the concept of eternity. It’s hard for sixth graders to think long term as a general rule, but our entire culture is inculcating a prepubescent fixation on the short-term. Communication technology that gives us instant access to the global community is great. Fast cars are great. Expedited shipping from Amazon is great. It’s all great, but it’s turning mankind into permanent twelve-year-olds. For the average pre-teen, reality is based on the sensual, not the intellectual. Truth comes from what you see, what you feel, what you know through touching. The intellectual reflection that follows sensory input is perfunctory, not because this state is fundamentally stupid but because there is not enough time given over to considering one thing fully before the senses are assaulted by some new stimulus.

up_doug “Squirrel?”

This rapid-fire way of development is universal to this age-range in a human life, but our addictions to Twitter, 24-hour news, and Candy Crush are symptomatic of the fact that somehow, in the crush of human progress, mankind started putting petal to metal before remembering to check if the brakes worked. I think, in this era of individualism and instant-gratification, we have become so conditioned to moving so rapidly that our concept of eternity, and metaphysics in general, can only reach as high as empiricism. And frankly, the tighter man limits the concept of eternity the harder it is to justify and maintain any moral system, let alone that which comprises two-thirds of Church teaching.

Arguments against marriage equality, the incompatibility of the ethical-political system of Libertarianism with Catholicism, opposing the death penalty and assisted suicide, and many other modern ethical issues we Catholics are obligated to defend all stem from the concept of eternity that is rooted in the Blessed Trinity. How, then, do we understand and convey the concept of eternity in the Blessed Trinity to the Twitter Generation? I think I’ll start with St. Augustine…

Give love. Get love. Never stop doing either.

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Parents Need to Start Looking at Kids Like Environmentalists Look at the Environment

Admittedly I am not a hardcore environmentalist. I recycle. I am mindful of what products have harmful chemicals in them and  things like that, but not because I’m passionate about environmental conservation. I know that man-made detritus harms and kills ocean animals, but when I see styrofoam cups on the beach I don’t automatically imagine a sea turtle slowly and painfully starving to death because our waste is lodged in its throat. Some people do, though. These people are tapped into the dignity of non-human life in a special way, and realize how valuable the natural world is to us–now and generations from now. Yes, some environmentalists take their cause too far. Some look like whack-jobs and make life difficult for those who approach the cause with reason and maturity. But what is interesting about the environmental movement of the last few decades is the fundamental message. Nature is not an object for immediate gratification, but a sustaining resource for future life. It’s the basic principle from Genesis: tend what you are given so that it will continue to give back to you. Catholics call this principle  “stewardship.”

Stewardship has three components, in particular order: gift, responsibility, reward. Stewards are given something that does not belong to them. This thing becomes the steward’s responsibility. While this thing is the steward’s responsibility, the steward shares the benefits that result from the thing. Stewardship has a concrete beginning, and a concrete end. As stewards of the Earth, we are supposed to remember that the natural world is first and foremost a gift to us. We are responsible for this gift, and can enjoy what it gives us in return, but it is not ours alone. We do not have ownership of the Earth. Ownership belongs to the creator of a thing, and what do we know is the principle doctrine of the faith? That God alone is Creator.

So in their own (sometimes weird) way, environmentalists reflect proper stewardship. While the Earth is important, there are created beings that take precedence. Us. Humans. We are the highest of created beings because we are made in the image and likeness of God. And this is confusing the hell out of us, because we are mistaking what is God’s for what is ours. Nowhere is this more obvious than with children.

Parents often make the mistake of thinking that their child is an extension of their selves. After all, a child comes out of a woman’s body and exhibits the physical, mental, and emotional traits of both parents. Children often seem to be mirrors of what is the best and worst of you and your partner. And there never seems to be any middle ground. It’s called Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome, and every parent watches their child(ren) go through it multiple times. Every. Freakin’. Day. It’s unsettling for the most self-confident of people to have the deepest, darkest parts of your personality exposed in such wild fashion; how much more so for those of us with self-esteem issues.

This is precisely the problem. Children are not extensions of our selves. They aren’t a piece of our body broken off and projected into the world. They are an entirely different person. Each child born has a unique soul specifically created for them by God. We don’t have the power to create souls, which is why we say that we cooperate in creation. We share the gift of creation, but we don’t own it. We are stewards of children, not owners. The four beautiful souls I gave birth to are mine insofar as God gave them to me to love and care for. It’s a vital distinction to remember.

The pressures of modern parenting are insane. There are so many different debates happening over every little detail involved in raising a child, but it boils down to this: parents who don’t produce children who are immediately reflective of civilized, cultured adults are failures. Both parent and child are robbed of dignity. The child has no identity apart from his parent(s), and the parent is no longer a person independent of her child. This is a gross disservice to personal dignity. It is tantamount to enslavement at the most fundamental level of society, because the pressure is on to mold one’s self and an entirely other person to an image that is not one’s own. In doing so, we all become caught up in a cycle of immediate gratification and condemnation. We become what we appear to be at any given moment. There’s no thought of what we could be, or should be. There’s no thought of where we came from, or what we came for. Our lives are but an instant on Earth, and so an instant is all we are giving ourselves to make an impression. It’s ownership in its bleakest glory.

Parents, we all should try to remember we are stewards to our kids. Like the environmentalists cherish nature for the unique and beautiful thing it is and will continue to be long after we are gone, imagine what the world would look like if we cherished our children the same way.