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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.

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Thoughts on the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation

Depending on your point of view, the report released today on the state of religious life in the United States is either a confusing disappointment or pleasant surprise. After all, the years of the Visitation are peppered with ugly accusations against the women religious and disconcerting defiance against ecclesial authority. Surely the majority of media-informed spectators expected a public flogging. This report certainly appears to be a commuting of sentence, leading to both head-scratching and champagne-popping. Main stream media certainly looks to be celebrating the new tone of the report.

After reading the actual report, I heartily applaud the strong commendation of the zeal the women religious have for their institutions and the hard work they do to serve the poor and uneducated. Credit is given where it is due, and the report does not hesitate to be generous in this regard. The fact that the final report on the Apostolic Visitation embraces a more positive tone should not be seen as a bad thing, nor should it be seen as an about-face from the concerns publicly raised throughout the visitation process. The report states clearly, at the outset, that “in addition to this general report…individual reports will be sent to those Institutes which hosted an onsite visitation and to those Institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern.” In the spirit of Matthew 18: 15-17, problem areas in specific institutions will be addressed only to those with the problem areas.  Frankly, for the public to know who is doing what wrong is tantamount to gossip, and therefore harmful and unproductive. There is no reason to expect, then, any other kind of report than the one we’ve been given.

Does this report scrub existing issues found by the visitation process? Absolutely not. Early in the text, it is said of the Apostolic Visitation that “the entire process sought…a sincere and transparent depiction of their lived reality.” The term lived reality implies a purposeful comparison between what is and what should be. Though phrased charitably, the report reveals a serious concern about the public and private exhibition of “deep intimacy” with Christ in the lives of religious institutions. In seeking to understand the decline in vocations, “vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize theses aspects of religious life.” With regards to the sacraments, the institutes have been found, in general, to have written guidelines for receiving the sacraments and “sound spiritual practices,” yet members are being asked to “evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer” to encourage a “deep intimacy” with Christ. These statements do not indicate a harmony between what the religious life currently is and what it should be as originally conceived of.

The vocal and well-reported desire of women religious to be taken more seriously by bishops is briefly addressed toward the end of the report. It’s significant that this section leads with the many women religious that see themselves as valued by the Church and simply want to “collaborate in maintaining and strengthening bonds of ecclesial communion,” whereas “some spoke of their perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise.” Obviously not all women religious see eye to eye on how they are valued by the ecclesial authority. Hopefully, with Pope Francis’ suggestion to update Mutuae Relationes, outlining with greater precision the collaborative relationship between bishops and women religious, will help the women religious be more of one mind on this issue.

The report’s conclusion on women religious being taken more seriously by bishops is brief and biting. “We will continue to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life’.” Notice the phrase “competent women religious” and let it sink in. It is significant because it gets to the heart of the visitation. The report rightly praises the good works of the many women religious in the United States, but competency in good works is not the point of religious life. It’s not the point of any life, in fact. Anyone can be competent at things. We are all called to be competent in Christian intimacy. Without a deep and abiding intimacy with Christ, good works are pale. We are not called to be pale, but the brightest of lights in Christ. This report wisely reminds us all of this in its balanced tone between praise and fraternal correction. May we all “welcome this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust” in our ecclesial leaders, in our women religious, and in each other.

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Church, Culture, and the Dignity of the Sexes

During the Thanksgiving holiday I was asked, in a nutshell, if I felt constricted as a woman by the Catholic faith (and more specifically the Vatican). It was a lovely discussion. Since then, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of articles that discuss gender identity, feminism, and how much the Church loves to subjugate the ladies. Maybe it’s my subconscious still mulling over that Thanksgiving conversation, but I can’t get away from the topic. There’s an interesting gem on SkepticInc that says the Church uses the same argument against the marriage equality movement as the woman suffrage movement of the early 20th century. Basically, both movements will negatively impact society and harm children by taking something far out of it’s natural context. Just today I found this delight from the Huffington Post on my Flipboard news selection. The gist, from the compilation of quotes, is that anything feminine that is healthy is labeled “mother” and fertile; it’s unhealthy opposite is cranky and unproductive. Therefore, the automatic conclusion is that women must be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen to be happy and productive. This conclusion is spoon-fed by one quoted question: “Do you see a bit of misogyny in the background (of your references to women mainly as mothers and wives rather than leaders)?”

Is it easy to find misogynist opinions in Church history? Absolutely. Does the Church encourage and teach misogyny? Absolutely not. The Church understands the sexes anthropologically, that is, as a way of being that transcends time and culture. The wording that is often used–mother, fertile, subordinate, what have you–sounds awkward and archaic to our modern ears, but they are used with a specific purpose and a specific context in mind. Not many people, especially those in the media, take the time to understand what the sexes mean in larger context of Christian revelation. To be sure, it wasn’t until Vatican II that the Church Herself began to address the subject of the sexes without a certain amount of pubescent awkwardness. But this awkwardness should not be confused with doctrinal discrimination against the dignity of women outside of a narrow identity. That kind of discrimination properly belongs to cultural mores. The Church’s mission is to translate timeless Truth to every time and culture. Many times the distinction between what the Church teaches and what culture teaches gets blurry. Take St. Paul, for instance. That good soul is the perfect storm of Church and culture. He spoke of women’s dignity in a narrow context, but he does not say that women lack dignity in any other context.

For the sake of brevity, let’s agree that the Church, the Graeco-Roman empire, and the emerging nations of Christendom all share the perspective that women are important in the domestic sphere and the propagation of the species (and, by extension, the faith, wealth, and status of the patrimonial line). While sometimes coasting along with cultural norms, the Church deviates significantly from culture on many occasions, right from the beginning. First, Jesus flat-out rejects all forms of discrimination in Galatians 3:28. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. Yes, this is Paul preaching, but it is exactly what Jesus practiced. Neither Samaritans, nor Gentiles, nor women received less from Jesus than the Chosen Ones of Israel.

Women especially had a powerful role in the New Testament. All of them, no matter what their circumstances, are held up as examples of how to do things right. None of the women are materially, socially, or physically powerful, but by lifting them up as examples of goodness, Jesus is telling us all to follow them. The New Testament women lead us to Christ, even though they are culturally “inferior” to men. Rather than interpreting this to mean women can only lead others to Christ through domestic servitude and babies, the early Church took the unprecedented step of liberating women from the cultural constraints surrounding marriage. The Church made it possible, and acceptable, for women to marry whom they wish (rather than be matched with a socio-economic peer). Even more, the Church removed the stigma of unwed women. The rise of the religious life became equal to, if not greater than, the state of marriage for women. Make no mistake, this shift was seen as freedom for women. Women were persons worthy to offer their entire selves to Christ and serve Him unreservedly, if that was their desire. Eventually devotion to the religious life became a culturally chić thing to do for women, a prestige symbol for wealthy families. This trend embroiled the religious orders in worldly drama more often than was welcomed.

It is a sad fact that for the large majority of sainted women who lived while Christianity ruled the Empire, money paid for the freedom to express a richer understanding of feminine dignity. Money opened doors, but women like Elizabeth of Hungary, Irene the Athenian, and Catherine of Siena proved on their own merits that the fairer sex could hold their own outside of the domestic sphere as well as in it. Fast-forwarding to modern times, women like Elizabeth of Hungary and Irene the Athenian are common. Elizabeth is represented by women like Gail J. McGovern, who is the CEO of the Red Cross, and no one represents Irene the Athenian better than Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

The comparisons are not adequate, however, because these modern women are products of a series of cultural shifts that specifically addressed gender inequality. After the 17th century science began dissecting everything it could to understand the functionality of organisms. Organisms became mechanisms. Applied to humans, gender became a mechanism that culture could use to reinforce old biases. You know, the ones like women are more fragile and emotional because they have a smaller frame, their brains don’t process logic, or they bleed more than anything else in nature without dying. Here is an amusing example of the practical application of science-based gender studies (warning: some graphic content) that was wildly popular around the turn of the 20th century. The Church, bruised by the Reformation and discarded by the Enlightenment, took no part in the industrialization of the human person. In fact, it is just a few decades before the 20th century when the Church began producing writings that specifically address social inequality.

Cultural gender discrimination, backed by “science,” directly resulted in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900’s. Economic equality under US law followed not long after. World War II launched women into the workforce, and the Sexual Revolution ostensibly removed patriarchal domination of women’s sexuality. All of these are good. Women have the right to speak up for themselves and own property. Women certainly have the right to their own body. These advancements in the cultural understanding of gender equality, while good in and of themselves, are specific responses to a deficient understanding of only one aspect of womanhood. Advancement in women’s rights, frankly, has centered around lady-parts. A woman’s biological ability to produce other humans is seen as the shakle that confines feminine freedom. Men used it as an excuse to keep women “in their place,” and women saw it as a constricting identity. To some extent, women were right. Because of the ability to reproduce, women were being denied the chance to earn fair wages, advance in a career, and have equality under the law.

It seems to me that this is why there is so much malcontent towards terminology that seems to rattle the old shakles. From a cultural perspective, feminism is the drive to ensure that gender is never again used as a tool for oppression. Women can, and are, rejecting old stereotypes and redefining what it means to be a woman. The problem is that this cultural process is still oppressive, because gender is still the definitive mechanism for humanity. Traits are designated with a sex, male or female, to organize human function. Nurturing? Classically feminine. Powerful? Classically masculine. Emotional? Definitely feminine. We are in the cultural process of removing stigmas of sexes with gender-opposite traits–yes, men can be amazing nurturers! Women can run businesses well! These traits have never been dependent on gender, however. At least not in the cosmic sense of things. And that is why culture will always be oppressive in its attempts to balance the sexes. For culture, gender balance means moving in tandem. All eyes forward, steps in sync with one another.

The cosmic sense of things is knowing the purpose of your mechanisms. What is the endgame of the sexes? Why does gender matter? This is what the Church considers. As I mentioned earlier, everyone’s endgame is to enter the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. That door does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It only discriminates against those who try to enter around the door rather than through it. Since gender is not a determining factor in salvation, why does the Church continue to profess the feminine genius in culturally oppressive terms and sound like bleating old goats? Well, the answer is simple: the Church does not stereotype “feminine” traits like compassion and meekness or relegate womanhood to the confines of biological motherhood. In contrast to cultural mores, the Church only expects physical traits to be gender-specific.

In Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), a progressive sense of feminine dignity is laid out, followed by strong praise of the traditional roles of women as mothers and teachers. Rather than being misogynistic, encouraging women to embrace roles as mothers and teachers is a tacit acknowledgement of certain mechanisms that exist in women, in a special way, that aids in the biological ability to bear and raise children. Men are not excluded from having these mechanisms, but they are generally stronger in women. Scientific research tends to support this, though the issue remains open to debate. This is but one aspect of the overarching theology of sex in the cosmic scheme. The sexes, as the Church understands it, are not meant to balance each other, walking side by side into the sunset. They are made to tango, circling and supporting each other as if they were one body. Technically known as complementarity, this theology understands two kinds of dignity that are proper to men and women: the shared dignity of a united existence, reflecting the Trinity, and the unique dignity of each sex that is revealed by the proximity of one to the other.

In other words, complementarity says three things. One, all human share a pool of traits that are distinct to human dignity, or what it means to be human. Two, men and women use the same traits, but not always in the same way. Three, the “male” way and “female” way of exhibiting the same traits are a necessary good that reveals what it fully means to be human. It’s not an insult to say that men and women naturally do things differently. It’s quite the opposite, and for at least one good and simple reason. Let’s pretend that all men think the best way to settle an argument is by a gunfight. If there is no other option offered to settle an argument, eventually the pool of people to argue with is going to be very small. This is a gross exaggeration, but you get the idea.

This is why, at that Thanksgiving discussion, I did not hesitate to defend the Church against institutional misogyny. The Church doesn’t encourage me to be a size 0 with D cups. The Church doesn’t care if I show off pasty legs in the summer. The Church doesn’t shame me for not having the right house, or car, or purse, or kids that eat all their vegetables (any vegetables?). The Church doesn’t judge me based on whether I breast-or bottle-fed my babies, homeschooled, or voted Republican. Or Democrat. The Church doesn’t respect me less if I’m a maid or a CEO. But culture does. Culture praises and condemns me on the basis of its whims. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is true misogyny.

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The Harbinger of Heaven and Hell

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand we prepare for the coming of a baby, innocent and vulnerable. On the other hand, evidenced by the Advent readings, we prepare for an unknown date when the God-Man ends the world in spectacular fashion. For some, this end will be ugly. For others, those who have prepared themselves and are at peace (2 Pt 3: 8-14) will rest in the Lord’s embrace. Innocent, adorable babies and eternal peace are wonderful things to think about and celebrate. To be sure, these are the climax to the Advent season. But there is a very long and very wide hike to this climax, one that is blatantly uncomfortable and messy. We are warned this week to prepare ourselves for the day of God, as it says in 2 Peter, because when God comes again the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.  In a nutshell, things are going to get very dark, and we need to be the light of God that punches through the black.

The anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor is today, and it strikes me that the morning of December 7, 1941 must have felt very much like the day of God. Eyewitness accounts certainly paint the picture of a slice of Hell: fire, smoke, the sounds of wrenching metal and screaming voices, the sights and smells of death. For the vast majority of those living in Pearl Harbor this attack came suddenly, like a thief. Their world burned that morning, and for the survivors the world still burns 73 years later.

The world often burns, in ways both large and small. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the devastation in the Middle East are all monumental hells. Human trafficking, abortion, poverty, and drug dependence leave an immeasurable swath of destruction. Bad marriages and bad jobs burn. Illness burns. Rejection burns. These are the contexts of our story, the story that is supposed to end so happily. Strange, isn’t it?

It shouldn’t be. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are set during the times when Hebrews were slaves, broken and burning in their own private hell. Mary, heavily pregnant, traveled many miles on a donkey only to have the ignominious honor of giving birth in an out dwelling to a child that would be hunted, vilified, and crucified. Mark’s Gospel occurs at the same time that the Hebrews witness the destruction of the Temple, and with it the heart of their faith. All of these stories are dark in context, but center on a message of light and hope. In a sense it is the encouragement to look through the gaping maw of Hell and see Heaven.

This is what we do with tragedies like Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is remembered as much for the heroic acts of the servicemen and women during those few burning hours as the enormous loss of life.  We don’t wallow in the destruction. We mourn, as we should, but we don’t mourn in vain. That is the gist of our strange Advent season. We are preparing for a birth that has already happened and an end that is yet to come, but we are called to prepare by looking at our own lives and choosing to either peer into Hell or look through it to Heaven.

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Thanksgiving, Catholic Edition

We are a week away from Thanksgiving, ladies and gentlemen! I, for one, am really looking forward to stuffing my face in the company of family. And watching football. And sleeping through Black Friday. What are you looking forward to?

Gratitude lists abound right now, and I’m about to add to the pile. That being said, my list is about the small things that I’m grateful for as a Catholic. Most of these things I never thought about before my conversion, mostly because I didn’t realize they existed. So, here we go!

1. Seeing my baby do the same wild happy dance for the Sign of the Cross that he does when Mickey Mouse Clubhouse comes on. And listening to our kids say their “Thank you, Jesus” each night. Equal parts heart-warming and hilarious.

2. The “Christmas” season that now extends from Advent to the Epiphany. That’s almost six extra weeks to celebrate! Bonus: my olive-wood Nativity set. I wish I could leave it up all year.

3. Gregorian Chant.

4. Have a problem? There’s a saint for that!

5. church architecture and stained glass. The parish I’m currently attending is a traditional structure, and I gawk like I’m at the Museum of Art every single time I walk though the door.

6. School uniforms. We have four children, one of whom is a girl. Uniforms won’t save me from the 15 year roll-out of puberty that I have coming, but it will definitely help.

7. Feast days. The Catholic calendar practically demands that you party for three-quarters of the year!

8. Reading material. I’m just now discovering C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, and there is enough material on Church history alone to keep me occupied until I die.

9. Latin Jokes.

10. No matter where I go in the world, I have a home.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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De mortuis nil nisi bonum

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Don’t speak ill of the dead.

Why are we supposed to extend this courtesy? If the deceased was significantly more sinner than saint, why not be honest about it? Well, for one, it’s a form of injustice. The dead can’t defend themselves. Neither do they have the chance to explain themselves or make amends. Speaking ill becomes castigation for its own sake. This leads us right to another reason we de mortise nil nice bonum. Titus 3: 1-7, which is today’s first reading.

Titus is encouraged to remind his flock that they are to slander no one, to be peaceable, considerate, exercising all graciousness toward everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deluded, slaves to various desires and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful ourselves and hating one another. We all were dead in sin at one point. Rather than castigate us, Christ gave us grace. Grace, so we could defend ourselves through the Cross. This is what we call mercy.

Mercy is our defense. As much mercy Christ showed us, we must show others the same. When we don’t, when we are not peaceable or gracious, we turn our back on the Cross, and our own gift of grace and mercy. Nine of the ten lepers healed by Jesus in today’s Gospel were not saved because they took Jesus’ mercy but walked away without looking back. The Cross is our salvation, but we risk death when we put it in our rearview. This is the message under the message Titus is encouraged to share.

Even though the dead have their just judgement already, it still matters that we de mortuis nil nice bonum. Mercy is not limited to the living, and the Church recognizes this by Her doctrine on purgatory and encouraging the faithful to pray for the dead. It’s not a coincidence that praying for the dead is called a spiritual work of mercy.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum is also relevant for the living. If we don’t believe that mercy extends to the dead, then it’s possible to limit mercy for the living. If you spend more than 30 seconds reading comments on anything put on the internet, you know that this possibility has moved far into ugly reality. The value of a person is predicated on their ideologies, and mercy is the reward for homogeny. ISIS takes this to the extreme, but it is just as present in politics and social issues (“Mommy Wars”, anyone?).

People can be awful. They have been, and will continue to be until the end of time. There are times when an honest account of our faults, and the faults of others, need to be made. But if all we have is this honest accounting, we are condemned to death. Our life is ransomed by the mercy of the Cross. When people are awful in our sight, remember the Cross, and be merciful.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

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The Veneration of Saints is About Humility, not Humiliation

Catholic stereotypes, at least the ones I’m familiar with, focus on the negative. Guilt. Sin. Damnation. Exclusion. Superiority. To my surprise, Catholic saints somehow became harbingers of these negative messages. At least, that’s how they are viewed by many more people that I expected. No, let me be clear. I never expected the saints to be viewed in such a manner. But they are, because of a misunderstanding of what it means to venerate these holy people.

I remember a phase one of my younger sisters went through many years ago. I don’t remember the trigger, but one day we come to hear that she was embracing a life of austerity in imitation of the saints. I believe there were particular saints she had in mind, but I don’t remember. She took to wearing a home-made habit, read the lives of the saints, and was ruthless in the rejection of all that she deemed un-saintly. Not only in herself, but in everyone around her. For the sake of a clear example, let’s say that the saint she focused on the most was St. Theresa the Little Flower. During this phase my sister tried desperately to become The Little Flower. She was rejecting who she was as a person and trying to turn into someone else.

For whatever reason, some Catholics and many non-Catholics have the idea that the saints are placed on a pedestal to mock our sinfulness, our weak nature, our mediocrity. They are the ones who got it right, and if we want to get it right we have to write our own Summa or embrace glorious martyrdom. Go big, or go to Hell. I have no idea where this came from, but this is the farthest thing from what the saints, and our practice of venerating them, is about.

Saints are saints for one reason. They embraced God’s will for their life. Simple as that. Some people are called by God to do big things, and God provides the tools for them to accomplish their earthly mission. Not everyone is called to do something splashy. One of my favorite saints is Adelaide of Burgundy. She is a saint because she was a faithful and loving wife and mother, and used her vast wealth to help the poor and build monasteries. That’s it. What she had, she used for God.

Sainthood is about humility. Saints humble themselves, acknowledging that who they are and what they have to offer rightly goes to God first. Saints serve God, not themselves. This is why we venerate them. They are faithful to God above themselves, and because of it produce beautiful fruit.

The saints are meant to inspire us to fulfill the potential God placed in us.  We are all given a mission, and our bodies and souls are equipped from the moment of conception to fulfill our unique mission in life. It’s not easy, but it wasn’t easy for the heavy-hitters either. Augustine struggled for decades. Aquinas was called an “ox” in his youth. Jerome was a curmudgeon. Theresa of Avila had “strong leadership qualities”. Many of the saints had debilitating illnesses. We look to these holy people to help us see how our strengths and our weaknesses can be used for God. And then we pray to these same people to support us from heaven. Pray to Jesus for us, St. Monica, that we may be patient with our children. Pray to Jesus for us, St. Francis deSales, that we may accept people where they are on life’s journey. With the saints, through veneration and prayer, we become humble. Through humility we can see God’s will, hear His voice, and become saints ourselves.