In Data We Trust: Covid and the Limits of Control

Every respective era makes collective societal decisions about which voices do and do not hold sway over people’s behavior. A quick glance at the long sweep of history reveals that as we tire of one voice of authority, we go in search of another. Our contemporary society is no different, and indeed it may be the case that we may be on the verge of yet another collective shift in our allegiance to whose voice we follow, with the arrival of, and response to Covid as the game-changer.

Who Is In Control? Shifting Voices of Public Authority

Early in human history adherents of pagan religions built their daily routines around sacrifices made to a wide array of gods in order to obtain what was needed. It was pagan priests and priestesses who were the perceived manipulators of the forces of nature in order to bring fertility, healthy crops, cures from headaches, victory over an opponent, an end to digestive problems, and the obtaining of wealth, just to name a few important ends of daily life.   While today we term paganism a “religion,” that designation masks its true nature. It was fundamentally all about exercising control over the forces of the world. Paganism and its clergy were the leading societal influencers of their day because of the promise of control that they offered.

Later in time paganism would be gradually supplanted by Divine Revelation. The people of Israel received God’s revelation first, and then after them in the fullness of Christ’s teachings the Christian Church would carry God’s message to the ends of the earth. This brought liberation from the daily fear of the forces of nature and the endless cycle of manipulation of the natural world associated with paganism as it became understood that God alone governs creation. God continually revealed that he is mighty, loving, and that he has a plan for humanity and the world.  Therefore, HE is in control, freeing us of the seduction, and the burden, of having to control all that acted upon us. A Christian believer is most fundamentally sustained by the hope of the resurrection that breaks the controlling power of death itself.

No thinking of this sort was possible to a world that worshiped nature because nature’s forces were cruel, and the pagan gods were capricious.  Christian revelation fully explained human nature, the working of the world, and the right ordering of society.  Thus, for long stretches of history, it was Christian revelation, continually guarded and articulated anew by its clergy, that held wide-spread sway over people’s behavior.

Eventually a discipline of science was able to emerge from the cradle of Christianity as its own distinct authority, along with expanded ideas of civil government as its own distinct authority.  Each of these voices of authority could come into existence because humanity knew that God had ultimate authority, allowing us the freedom to study the natural world rather than worship it, and to govern ourselves after the pattern of a divine law giver who was just, rather than arbitrary.  Rightly understood, these sources of authority brought a degree of liberation from the earthly sufferings of the body and of the pains of social unrest.

In later eras, the authority of the Church and Christian truth began to be only partially accepted, or even dismissed outrightly, by large segments of society. Western government became either anti-Christian, or Christian in concept only, and in various sectors of the world it replaced the authority of the Church.  During the same segment of history, the authoritative voice of science grew in its power to convince, doing so more and more in a manner that for many people was in ideological opposition to principles of Divine Revelation.  As science grew more ideological apart from its Christian roots, it became increasingly a means for control. The same can be said for government.

In the late 20th Century, after a series of blows to institutional credibility over Vietnam, Watergate, and increasingly divided political factions, our collective trust in the voice of consent-based democratic government has been badly shaken in some sectors of society.  Increasingly government is showing the limits of its ability to unite the human family and of its credibility.  The authority of the Church was also further weakened in the same era as a result of the tragic sins of its clergy, and also by decades of internal debates over questions of disciplines and teachings in the wake of Vatican II, leading to widespread lukewarm observance on the part of the laity.  The gradual collapse of widespread trust in these voices of authority opened the door for a new set of influences to take their place.

King Data and the Scientific-Media Establishment

What is it that holds sway over us all these days since the Church and Government have now become so ineffective in shaping broad-based public opinion?   It could be termed the scientific-media establishment.  Even the most suspicious among us are very slow to question whatever science and medicine say.   “Data” floods the world on a daily basis, and it is now the unquestioned purveyor of authority and truth.  The new clergy are doctors and scientists, and their evangelists are the mainstream press, along with the ever-shifting networks of social media.  It is data that now governs our daily routines more than anything else, and rarely do we ever question if that is a good thing, or if there is any such thing as data that is detached from an ideological agenda.  In a world where data is divine, we do not step back to analyze the easy connection between “data” and “control.”

Data Driven Morality As A Mechanism of Control

Humans are instinctively, by God’s design, moral, philosophical, and political creatures.  Where there is not a moral system to govern us, or when it does not come from Revelation, we create one.  This is the reason why, these days, all of the data that is continually dumped upon us by the media, cannot help but give rise to camps, divisions, and political / moral positions that force people to be either for or against whatever data-driven ideological agenda we are making our way through in the given moment.

In this way, ideological science merged with prevailing politics generates new public moral norms that hold sway over the society and become very powerful.   In such a climate, what emerges are forces of social scandal that paint as immoral anyone who does not conform to the new prevailing moral norms that are rooted in data.

Once upon a time, in a heavily Christian world, it was the neighbors who enforced the Christian moral norms about, for example, divorce and cohabitation before marriage.  People lived in shame of the neighbors learning about them living with a person to whom they were not married. Much the same was true for modesty of dress in public. The norm enforced itself much of the time merely through peer pressure.

Today, the new moral norms driven by data, the media, and newly-generated, government backed ideologies, enforce a whole different set of shames and rewards.  We care very little at the moment about anyone getting a divorce, or people walking around in public half-clothed.  However, we are very upset if people do not wear a face mask.  If someone is not wearing one, they are hauled for swift condemnation before the public tribunal of science and data by the angry, obedient neighbors.  The same can be said about public peer pressure to display rainbow flags, to join in a protest rally, and, until Covid, not to use disposable waste materials, just to name a few examples.  As the last example of the sudden eclipse of the Green Movement in the now plastic, pre-packaged, non car-pool, non public transportation world of Covid shows, these data driven public moral norms can shift and change at a dizzying pace.

It is true that wrapped up in all of the new public norms are the left-over shreds of what Christianity brought to the world: care for the vulnerable, attention to the sick, etc.  Our new societal norms are not all bad, making them seductive for Christians. However, when detached from over-arching and ultimately unifying principles of Revelation that outline the complete picture of the human person, of creation, and of God’s divine plan for society, all of the data-based norms run the risk of becoming highly dangerous.  On their own they are not capable of fostering unity.  On the contrary, they further fan the flames of social division as they quickly turn into mechanisms of control.

Returning to the Pagan Allure of Control

We have come full circle back to paganism because we have detached the pursuit of personal and public health from the ultimate divine promise of life after death, salvation, and the Second Coming.   If earthly health is our new ultimate good, in the absence of an eternal life, then it is a small step from worshiping health to worshiping nature again as the source and summit of the cure for all of our problems.  It is the Covid virus that we fear now more than God.  It is the promise of a vaccine, rather than the promise of heaven, that drives all of our public choices.

Like the paganism of old, what is most seductive about blind obedience to data linked to scientific observations is the allure of control.  We begin to believe that we can control everything, and every natural force that acts upon us, if only we study it enough, and manipulate our surroundings sufficiently.  We develop an exaggerated sense of our own power and influence over the pains and forces of life, growing very upset when our attempts to control them fail.  We think less and less of the consequences of controlling, by force or penalty, the behaviors of individual persons if we can justify the control in the name of some perceived greater good, such as health.  Before long we have ceased to live life out of fear, and we have ceased to be human, opting instead for isolation, fragmentation, frustration, and anxiety.

The Revolt Against King Data?

Ultimately, as history shows, the absolute authority of the science and media establishment will also crumble as people begin to realize the limits of its competence, and its inability to provide us with the ultimate meaning to life.  Science is based solely on our senses, and our senses are extremely faulty sources of information, as anyone who (for example) wears eye glasses knows so well.  That is why science is continually changing its mind and its teachings, while the media races to report the latest, daily mind-change as though it was a new utterance from some divine oracle, worshiping at the altar of data.

That works well enough when the changes impact people’s lives merely around the margins.  I remember learning in science class as a child the great, certain, and unchangeable truth that Pluto was the ninth planet of our sacred solar system.  Then one day I was told there are only eight planets.  Pluto was demoted and the text books were quickly re-written.  One day it was pronounced by the medical, science, media establishment that eggs were one of the worst things we could eat.  After a brief passage of time the same magisterial entities explained that eggs were now great, even though eggs themselves had not actually changed.  Once upon a very recent time, due to the wonders of science, we invented and widely used an amazing material called asbestos that was offered as a solution to so many problems related to public building safety.  We were also very proud of the public health benefits offered by the widespread use of DDT as a pesticide.  Then one day, all that turned out to be bad.  We were so eager to create genetically modified crops to stop world hunger. Now we are realizing that perhaps this is the origin of so many of our food allergies.   On I could go with the sins of science, which are erased daily by a media with constant amnesia for what it reported only yesterday.

The population is forgiving, for awhile, of those types of mistakes.  Perhaps the arrival of Covid, and all of our attempts to control it, will bring about a new questioning of our widespread trust in the science and media establishment. Right now the entire global population is being subjected to a daily whiplash of shifting behavioral norms and expectations, resulting in the collapse of an entire global economy.  It is all driven by data (that is largely untested), as well as the allure of control.  We have convinced vast sectors of the global population that it is human behavior, based on new moral norms about masks, distancing, and the like, that will control a force of nature, namely, a virus.  This places enormous pressure on individuals to believe that their failure to comply with the latest data driven moral public norm (masks, self-quarantining) is going to directly result in someone else’s death.  The hubris, and the cruelty of this type of propaganda, is staggering and it is de-humanizing.  Eventually, the population will rise up against it as they see it for what it is.  It is control disguised as charity.

The Need for the Christian Voice Remains

We have faced wide-spread outbreaks of deadly diseases before in human history, and we have indeed relied upon the helpful expertise of medical science to tame them for the preservation of human life.  However, this is the first time in centuries that we are doing so in the absence of a well-established widespread Christian worldview that checks the runaway control mentality of ideological science.  A Christian culture does seek to preserve life, but we do so knowing the limits of our control, knowing that a provident God guides all events, and knowing that earthly health is a temporary, limited good.  People die all the time, and the only real liberator from the fear and control that surrounds this fact is the Christian hope of salvation and resurrection.  In the absence of that, we are back to pagan control, widespread anxiety, and public manipulation.

Right now it is important for believing Christians to continue to place our hope in God and his promise of salvation as the essential bearer of perspective about all the forces that are colliding around us.  Health is a good, data can be useful, science rightly viewed can point us to the divine, and government under God’s laws is of great value.   If Covid does begin to usher in a needed check on the runaway powers of ideological science, media, and political quests for control it is because God has allowed this pandemic all for the purification of what, in the right perspective, are otherwise good things.  Even with the damaged credibility of the Church these days, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Church remains the bearer of God’s revelation which was given to the world to purify and to save in every generation.  We need to present his teachings, anew and with vigor, to a world that right now lacks perspective, and seriously needs to hear them.

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Covid Red and Covid Blue: Observations From A Local Catholic Pastor

The world continues to tip-toe its way forward into the new reality of life with Covid.  In recent weeks in Washington County, Wisconsin we have observed various local businesses, especially restaurants, re-establishing some type of pattern of regular operations as things have slowly loosened up in our area.  Even with so many regular events that have cancelled, such as county fairs, people are still finding ways to gather and interact.  Local athletics activities are slowly returning with some adjustments to the usual routines.  Parks are full of people.  Ice cream shops are busy.  Healthy human interaction is slowly returning.

I have found it interesting to observe not only the gradual loosening of restrictions (for example a local fast food restaurant moving from not allowing customers to get their own drinks when the dining area first re-opened, to dropping that restriction a couple weeks later), but also the lack of uniformity about it all.   Some businesses and entities are still hyper-restrictive.  Other local places are operating right now pretty much like this spring never happened.  There are clearly a wide-range of operative policies right now about face masks, distancing, capacities, and sanitizing from business to business.  For some offices, most people are still working from home.  In other places, everyone is back.  Everyone seems to be respecting everyone else’s personal comfort level about it all, at least up to a point.

The sentiments of mutual respect seem to reach boundaries or limits increasingly along the usual “red” vs “blue” lines of our politics.  The more Libertarian-minded members of the population (call them “red”) tend to bristle at any attempt at managed restrictions to life, regardless of the reasons behind them. Conversely, the more “State-Sympathetic” members of the population (call them “blue”) find abiding by all the restrictions to be some measurement of good citizenship for the common good, and treat them like a merit badge.  That being said, fears of germs have certainly caused some “red” “blue” realignments with typically “red” minded people suddenly becoming much more “blue” on this one issue if they have decided their health is in danger.    I suppose this is just how America approaches everything, including viruses.

In the light of all this, one should not find it surprising that the Church is caught in the same dynamics of a piece-mealed and inconsistent set of approaches to Covid, varying area by area, parish by parish, and Catholic by Catholic.  Yes, we do all try to be on the same page as an Archdiocese, but the reality is that it is just not the same everywhere now that the unifying initial terror of the outbreak has worn off, and human nature has again taken over.

I have been fascinated to note the range of reactions among Catholics to it all, similar to the red-blue re-aligning of the culture over the whole situation.  One might think that there would be no “high-risk” members of the population in our churches at all right now out of fear of getting sick, leaving only the “young and healthy” to trickle in to our pews.  This is not the case, though.  Noticeably absent to my observation have been many of the young who, in theory, should have no problem coming to gatherings these days.  One cannot help but observe that many of the young have no issues appearing in large, public protest rallies right now in our cities.  We have been blessed with many young families at Mass, and younger people to be sure, however, the most dedicated of those coming now are clearly in the “high-risk” demographic who are older.

I will speak generically, which I realize is dangerous, but I suspect the reason for this is because they were raised in an era of history and of the Church that has allowed them to place all of this in a different perspective.  Sacraments are what get us to heaven, as we teach, and the fact is people get sick and die (as any older person is keenly aware), therefore they would rather get sick than be deprived of Sacraments which they know to be eternally more important.

I will not make a ruling on whether or not that mindset is objectively correct or not, other than to say that as a priest, I have great sympathy for it.   As time passes, the Church is going to have to wrestle through the difficult theological question of what “health” means in our therapeutic era, when placed against the looming backdrop of “eternity.”  This is not a simple question to answer.  Right now, the Catholic faithful, “red” and “blue” alike, are answering the question according to their own conscience and comfort level, which works for awhile.  At some point, this becomes a question of doctrinal articulation in the era of pandemics.  We are not there yet. For now, we will continue to tip-toe our way forward, figuring it out as we go.

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Civil Rights and Wrongs: America in the Wake of Bostock

The recent United States Supreme Court decision Bostock vs. Clayton County is yet another occasion for pause and reflection about the direction of our country.  Landing in the public square in the midst of a renewed national push for greater sensitivity to injustices committed because of race, this court decision that protects actively gay or openly transgender persons from employment discrimination seems a logical next step in our steady march towards a truly fair society.  However, one must look carefully beneath the standard cultural narrative to understand the differences as well as the similarities between the Black Lives Matter protests, and the Court ruling on gays and transgender persons.

A Matter of Civil Rights?

In both the contemporary societal discourse over racial justice as well as the discourse on questions surrounding gender and same sex attraction, the matter is quickly framed in terms of discrimination and dignity.  Each is viewed as a civil rights question.  The grounding principle that appears to demand that racial equality issues as well as sexual identity equality issues be viewed through the critical lens of legal fairness is the assertion that each identity is not chosen by the individual in question.

To put it simply:  if one is born this way, one cannot be denied opportunities based on that particular attribute.  If one is going to lobby for greater racial equality since one cannot control into which race one is biologically born, then one must also lobby for greater protection for persons who cannot control if they are born gay, or as some other gender than our classic categories of male and female, so the argument goes.  Presented in this manner, any reasonable person who is opposed to discrimination, as the Catholic Church indeed teaches one must be, has no choice but to support legal protections for racial minorities and sexual identity/gender minorities all in the same activist vein.

Besides, it is hard-hearted to ignore the cries of people who have suffered throughout history because of things they cannot control.  Our current post-Christian world has inherited from its recent Christian past a very keen, and appropriate, sensitivity to victims who have suffered at the hands of those who abuse power or status.  Racial minorities have suffered historically without question, and any societal or legal attempt to bring that to an end is laudable.  People who have been identified as gay, or who have exhibited tendencies of gender fluidity have also received cruel treatment historically.  The Catholic Church rightly condemns the cruel and undignified treatment of men and women with same sex attraction, or gender identity questions. People are people, and therefore they have dignity regardless of categories.

All of the above constitutes the driving cultural philosophy that is fueling the latest protests on race, as well as the cultural sentiment that birthed the June 15th Supreme Court decision on broadening anti-discrimination protection to include the area of sexual identity.  Taken on its own merits it is very logical, and it makes sense that many sincere Christians have not questioned this logic.

Biology Does Not Automatically Lead to A Lifestyle

However, a sincere Christian must also reckon with the unwavering voice of Divine Revelation which says that God has made us male and female.  Furthermore, the Scriptures and Church teaching repeatedly affirm the essential human capacity for making choices, allowing also for the same capacity to know that not all choices are good choices.  The definition of what is “good” in our choices is laid out openly in the Scriptures, and is clarified in Church teaching, and is validated in human nature.

“Choices,” both good ones and bad ones as defined by the measuring line of Christian teaching, when taken together can constitute a “lifestyle.”  “Lifestyles” can either be good or bad, or more often a mix of both.  What gives rise to the choices that in turn give rise to lifestyles is, by modern reckoning, a complex mix of both “nature” and “nurture.”  At the heart of this is the question of human free will and the ability to chart one’s pathway forward in life.  Are we truly free, or not?  Or are we bound by our biology so exclusively, that our biology leads inevitably to a “lifestyle?”

The often-ignored Catholic teaching on the distinction between a same sex inclination as opposed to a gay lifestyle is extremely important.  A same sex inclination, which is outside of one’s control, does not automatically lead to an actively gay lifestyle which is composed of a myriad of choices that are within one’s control.  To say that they are not is to say that gay people are not free people and are instead merely the sum total of their desires.

If one is born an alcoholic, or at least as a person who is by nature drawn to alcohol, is it inevitable that he or she become and remain an alcoholic?  The believing Christian says “no.” A practicing member of Alcoholics Anonymous says “no.”  That answer is rooted in the conviction that lifestyles are not inevitable because human freedom, even if clouded at times by inclinations and tendencies, is still, truly, free.   This must be so because if it were not, we would have no basis for personal responsibility in our society whatsoever.

Consider the matter of racism. If I am not truly free, and if I am born in a social environment that pre-disposes me to a lifestyle that is systemically racist, then it is impossible to expect me to ever be anything other than a racist.  Our civil rights movement relies on the presumption of control over choices and lifestyles, so that, as time passes, the so-called Confederate South can be dismantled to give way to a new order of equality, and a new lifestyle of justice.

Lifestyles Are Subject To Moral Evaluation and To Proper Discrimination

Herein lies what at least in theory should be the very important distinction between race as a civil rights question and sexual identity as a civil rights question.  Race ought not be a lifestyle or a choice. Taken at face value it is simply biology and therefore to discriminate based upon it and nothing else is a grave injustice.  “Gay,” on the other hand, is a lifestyle that is a result of choices.  It may have its origins in an inclination that is beyond one’s control, but inclinations do not automatically lead to choices anymore than being born in the South inevitably leads one to become a racist.  Not all people who drink too much alcohol remain in that lifestyle.  They make choices because they are free to adjust those choices to better ends.

If a gay lifestyle is a result of choices, it is also subject to objective moral evaluation based on established principles of what is “good,” or “bad,” or these days, “healthy” vs “unhealthy.” Once one has crossed into the realm of objective moral evaluation, one may, indeed one must, make employment decisions that properly discriminate between what is, and is not, acceptable behavior for employees based on institutional core values.  If free choices that constitute an actively gay lifestyle willingly violate the core values of an institution, especially one that is explicitly Christian, then the person in question must be fired, in just the same way that one must fire an overt racist or a dysfunctional alcoholic.

To push the issue further:  is “black” a biological category, or is it a “lifestyle?”  Of the two, if there is a distinction, what precisely is it that is being lobbied for in the important current conversation about dignity?  If it is biological only, the discussion should be simple: we do not ever, ever want to discriminate against black people.  If it is a matter of lifestyle, then there is room for blacks and whites to ask legitimate and objective questions about all that is “good” or “bad” about the “choices” that constitute the “lifestyle,” and what elements of it should and should not be protected in racial discrimination laws.  The exact same thing can be said about “white” biology and “lifestyle,” and any other category we wish to land on.

Is “gender” a matter of lifestyle or of biology? This is a complex question to be sure. To the extent that a set of behaviors by a person of one sex are discordant with, or are in denial of, their biological sexual reality, one also has to evaluate those same behaviors against objective moral criteria.  More easily grasped in our era would be an evaluation of the same behaviors based on what is “healthy” vs what is “unhealthy.”  Objective and classical Christian anthropology categorizes much of the behaviors surrounding gender discordance as unhealthy, demanding a compassionate therapeutic response that carefully distinguishes the dignified person from their sometimes undignified choices.  To suggest that an objectively unhealthy lifestyle should enjoy automatic legal protection without any acknowledgment of the essential distinctions between the person and their actions that require objective moral analysis does a grave injustice to their dignity as persons. It is tantamount to saying that they are beyond help.  The fact is that the nature of gender discordance is such that it should not be lumped in the same grouping with same sex attraction or questions of race.  Any attempt to do so by automatically equating it to another “lifestyle” or category of person is in reality an affront to human dignity.

Replacing One Form of Discrimination With Another One

The Supreme Court in its mistaken ruling has now elevated a lifestyle to the status of something that is immutable and not chosen.  The Court has said a person with same sex attraction has no choice but to act out on those desires.  In other words, they are not free.   In the case of persons with gender discordance, it has determined that no objective categories of healthy vs unhealthy can ever apply to them.

This might pass for something benign if it were not for the fact that the gay lifestyle as it is so often exhibited and practiced is directly opposed to the traditional Christian teachings on marriage and the family. Much the same can be said of gender discordant behaviors.  The Court has now elevated one lifestyle above another, meaning it has not created equality at all, rather it has simply created a reverse discrimination.

The new victim, the new oppressed group, are now traditional Christians.  The Court has decided that it is the Christians who must now “choose” to abandon an apparently backward “lifestyle” that is rooted in an irrational tendency to read and believe old books and a widely-discredited clergy. The Court has decided that Christians are free to change and abandon our old ways, and that other groups in society are not free to change their behavior at all. Not only is this illogical and contradictory, but it is also major assault on religious practice that ought to be protected by the First Amendment.

Worse than that, it is yet another example of intentionally rejecting, on our most fundamental legal layer of society, the Christian foundations upon which we once rested as a nation.  We have replaced the comprehensive and consistent ethos and anthropology of Divine Revelation with our own arbitrary patchwork of contradictory notions of personhood, power, freedom, and authority. It is the Court that has saddled us with increasingly contradictory notions of the meaning of personal freedom. It is the Court, and nothing else, that has decided it is the sole measuring line of what is “good” and what is “bad” when it comes to “lifestyles” and “choices.”

A Christian knows that only God sits in that role, not the Court, nor any other merely human institution.  Therefore, we must choose to actively disregard the flawed aspects of not only this latest Court decision, but also any other social movement that fails to adequately and consistently deal with the pressing distinction of “persons” vs “lifestyles.”  Our pressing national questions of race, personhood, identity, family, equality, and religion will only be adequately dealt with by our full embrace of all Christian principles, not a rejection of them.

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Conversion Beneath the Surface of Racism

Our long and hard spring of 2020 has become even harder, as we now face not only the anxieties and threats associated with Covid-19, but also rekindled public rage over the sad reality of racial divisions in our nation.

As Catholics we are blessed to have access to the fullness of God’s revelation about the truths of human dignity and of what is required in a just society.  This makes us keenly aware in our depths of the multiple layers of sadness and disorder in our current social situation.

Racism is a Serious Social Ill Among Many Serious Social Ills

Easy to identify is the surface layer of disgust and unease over the death of a man at the hands of a police officer when it seems there is no justifiable cause.  It violates every sense of trust we are taught to have in authority that by its nature is ordered to the protection of the defenseless and vulnerable.

Near the top of the layers of revulsion is also the tragic fact that it was a black man who was killed by a white man.  This opens up anew the unhealed wounds of racial division that have been with us since the beginning of our nation’s history.  It raises anew the questions of the disadvantaged social and living situations in our country of the black community, and of systemic discrimination that persists on every level of society.

The layers of unease go deeper.  What sort of environment or public cultural framework produces persons that would ever think it justifiable to take another person’s life in the manner that this police officer did?  Conversely, what type of social framework produces a mindset that leads persons to glamorize the taunting and baiting of law enforcement officials in riot gear?  There is deep fear in the hearts of many persons of color in our country of being subject to abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement officials.  There is also daily fear on the part of law enforcement officials of being attacked, compounded by the severe stress and worry of making any misstep at all given the high-stakes nature of their profession.

The pervasive and mutual attitudes of fear and mistrust are a toxin in our communities. The palpable level of anger, frustration, despondency, and despair is rising all around us with every passing year.  The toxicity extends far beyond the realm of law enforcement vs citizens. It is a social toxin that produces evils such as school shootings, inflammatory political discourse, and greater disregard for human respect and decency.

Even deeper is the layer of sadness over the realization that increasingly in America, we do not speak a common moral language, we do not share a common set of ideals, and we labor under the burden of numerous contradictions about power, personal dignity, rights, and freedom.  Under such conditions that lack a common framework that defines our day to day reality, it becomes starkly apparent that real unity and community is not possible.  This is the sorrowful realization that occurs to us as we watch images of buildings being looted and burned in acts of thuggery that have no justification whatsoever, much like the killing of George Floyd also had no justification whatsoever.

The word that enters one’s mind at times like this is: anarchy.  What sort of America will I encounter tomorrow? What is to be the America of my children or grandchildren? It cannot be one that looks like it looks now.  This we know with sinking sadness deep, deep inside of us.

The Desecration of All That Is Sacred

There have been numerous calls by religious leaders to expunge racisim from our midst, and that is accurate enough.  However, the real problems we are dealing with here go far deeper than that. This is only secondarily about race; it is a question of fundamental human respect and identity, and about the necessity of a common moral framework for society that cannot have its origins in mere human devices.

We are witnessing the desecration of the sacred: of the sanctity of human life regardless of race, of the sanctity of institutional order, of the sanctity of personal rights to property, freedom, and even to worship.  The same common toxic cultural cesspool that bred a hateful killing of George Floyd has also bred a culture of vengeance, riots, vandalism, family decline, attacks on the unborn, suppression of religion, and the overall glamorization of violence, of destruction, and even of evil itself for its own sake.  It is a culture that has decided it no longer has any use for God, at least not a god that is attached to “institutional” religious identities.

Conversion, Prayer, and Penance Are Our Authentic Remedies to Our Ills 

Therefore, we all know what is needed.  On the surface it will be laws.  But, on the deeper more important layers of reality it will be personal conversion that leads to broader cultural renewal.  All of that will only be the fruit of personal prayer and penance.  Only God can bring it about, as we seek his face in the faces of those around us, regardless of race or status.  Any attempt to do it without divine grace will only lead to further misery.

We can and should pray for an end to racism.  More than that, we should simply pray period. Pray for conversion of ourselves and those around us.  Pray that God will overlook our fundamental lack of respect for him, his teachings, and for each other.  Pray for a better tomorrow for our children and grandchildren.

Even with our public health restrictions, many of our churches remain open for personal, private prayer.  Before anyone else takes to the streets, we should first stop in a church to pray about how and why we are taking to the streets.  Only God can change hearts, and we must ask him to do so before we try and do so by our own limited means.

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Our Very Authentic 2020 Easter

Below is my bulletin column for Easter Sunday, 2020: 

A Blessed and Joyous Easter to all of you! We are of course all very accustomed to typical Easter routines and rituals that are painfully and strangely absent this year.  There is sadness in this fact that one cannot help but acknowledge, even on what could be called the birthday of joy itself.  How does one make sense of it all?

Perhaps it is helpful to return to the first Easter and consider it in the light of our current situation. The only gatherings we are aware of through the Scriptures that took place on the Sunday following the crucifixion consisted of two or three women in the morning, and about 10 or so disciples in the evening.  Therefore those gatherings were, by and large, “shelter at home” compliant.

They gathered in an atmosphere of collective and total bewilderment over what had become the most heart breaking and unsettling opening to Passover that they had ever experienced. Their teacher, Jesus, was dead.  He had been taken from them, and many of them had not been able to make any proper good bye, or understand how it was all going to turn out until it was done. Their hearts were heavy.

By this point, one could say it was too early for them to have the Eucharist or the Sacraments in the way that they would very quickly take root in the heart of the early Christian community experience.  An assembly on Sunday, around the breaking of the bread and the proclamation of the Word, and with elders to instruct them was not on their minds that first Easter. These things were just on the horizon, just outside of their possession.  One might say they knew them in concept, but not yet in reality.

So, with heavy hearts, and without sacramental rituals, or large gatherings, or customs, etc, what did they have on that first Easter Sunday?  The Gospels do provide a clear and instructive answer.  As that Sunday unfolded, from the dawn until the evening hour, they did know without a doubt that Jesus had risen.  The reality of the Resurrection was planted deep into their hearts and minds by their encounters that day with Jesus himself.  To a group whose world had been shattered, especially by death, they came to know that He is Risen.

Yes, that encounter in its authentic and full manner is given to us in the Eucharist and in the Word proclaimed, which this year are lacking.  However, we do know, without question, because we have been taught it, that Jesus is Risen.   He is Risen even to a world that appears shattered.  Because He is Risen, there is a path forward, beyond this shattered world.

Maybe Easter this year will be, in its way, remarkably similar to the first one.  Maybe, therefore, it will be just as powerful.  He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.

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Palm Sunday: De-throning Corona

 

Here, a few days in advance, is my parish bulletin column for Palm Sunday. Start scouting out now the best branches in your yard in preparation for our great feast. 

Dear Friends at Saint Mary’s Immaculate Conception Parish and Saint Frances Cabrini Parish:  Praised be Jesus Christ!

Today is Palm Sunday, even though we are not in church to celebrate it.  Today, perhaps more than any other day so far of our virus-induced purgatory, the irony of this whole situation seems especially thick.

Palm Sunday is the day when Christ is acclaimed as King by the crowds accompanying him to Jerusalem, who are going up to the holy city for Passover.  It is the day when we celebrate in ritual what the pilgrimage group would have spontaneously done as they crested the Mount of Olives, to descend down the slope heading into Jerusalem: they ran to the palms and olive trees along the roadside, broke off branches, and waved them before Jesus.  It is a gesture for someone who reigns, and whose very presence alters the existence of those around him.  It is a gesture for kings.  For those who wear crowns.  In the case of the Lord, the only crown he would ultimately wear, as this Holy Week will again show, is one of thorns and suffering.  Yet, in his loving acceptance of it, and of that crown, he will triumph.

You may know, that our word for “crown” comes from the Latin word for crown which is: “Corona.”  The origins of the common word for our current viral scourge are rooted in similar etymology.

Right now, the virus called Corona is king. It has altered all of our existence around itself with unparalleled power. It has even dethroned public worship on this Palm Sunday.

So, I think that today a fitting way for us to begin Holy Week, since we cannot walk in procession in church as we normally would, is to stage our own, ritual protest against the Corona virus.   Like the crowds that welcomed the real King, Jesus, to Jerusalem, it is important for us to welcome Christ as the real King over suffering, death, and despair.

I encourage today any family who wishes to do so, to go out into your yards, to cut or break off a pine branch, or any branch that belongs to your own property, and march in procession in the grass, proclaiming as loud as you may wish:  “Hosanna to the Son of David!”   This virus is only king temporarily.  Christ wears the true corona.  He is our eternal king.   Today we acclaim him so, with all of our hearts, in any ritual that we can offer.

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Safe From All Distress: Christian Perspective on the Coronavirus Threat

Tribulations come to each era in a variety of shapes and forms, generating their own corresponding cultural anxiety and distress.  The outbreak and reach of the Coronavirus has indeed become a source of severe global worry, to the point where its perceived threats to bodily health are now becoming matched, if not surpassed, by its threats to global economics.  The various responses to its outbreak by nations around the world has led to situations of serious social strain on local populations who deal with the isolation and fear associated with quarantines and the severe disruption of daily routines.  At present, these realities do not appear to be dissipating.

What is the Christian perspective on our current social tribulation, and the threats to health, life, and routine that we are now enduring?  Multiple points can be brought to bear for our reflection, from varying angles.

The Christian Answer to Suffering and Death In General

At the outset it should be said that sound Christian theology does not claim that mass outbreaks of dangerous diseases and health scares are some form of divine punishment on the human race.  God did not send the Coronavirus because he is mad at the world, even if it might be true that the world can be a very dysfunctional and sinful place.

That said, sound Christian theology has always made the careful distinction and claim that while God does not cause these types of things, he does in fact allow them to occur as an element of a natural, free world containing its own forces and threats.  It is a world that, while still good, has been distorted since the dawn of time by the Fall of Man.  God permits outbreaks of diseases, even if he does not necessarily cause them.

This explanatory truth of what God permits in our dangerous world also has a Christian response that is broad, deep, and multifaceted.  For one, we know that the Gospels are full of examples of Christ intervening in the fallen world to bring healing.  We know of miraculous cures through the prayers of the Saints, in the Sacraments, and at holy sites.  God does maintain power over sickness, and even to today we can hope in his power of deliverance from our ills.

While we are told by the Lord that we should ask for cures, and that we should pray for deliverance, we also know that those prayers are not always answered. God understands better than we do that sometimes our salvation requires us to undergo suffering.  We know that suffering teaches lessons and has the potential to deepen faith.

We know that the proper response in the face of suffering is to tend to the sick, to take care of each other, and to utilize medical knowledge appropriately to bring assistance.  We know that all of these responses, especially medicine, are necessarily limited by the unavoidable reality of death that must come for all of us.

We know that the core of the Gospel and of the Christian life is the promise that we will escape permanent death if we hold tightly to the outstretched hand of the Lord Jesus.  Which means that while we work diligently in this life to preserve health and human flourishing in ways that are in accord with human dignity, we ultimately do not fear earthly death because Christ has risen.  His sacraments offer mercy and authentic power to bring us through the necessary pathway of earthly death, leading us ultimately into eternal life.

We know that as suffering and death approach us, in any way shape or form, including economic loss, that a gaze upon the crucifix reminds us that we do not suffer alone. God has entered into the suffering of his people and of his world so that our sufferings, and our death, is not empty of meaning.  In those realities, we may find and know the Lord, and in that knowledge, we are offered deeper eternal life that is not destroyed in earthly death.

The Christian Perspective On the Current Coronavirus Threat 

With all that in mind, what are some practical, contemporary Christian responses to the Coronavirus fallout?

This Suffering Will be Instructive

As time passes, there will be much prayerful unpacking about why God has allowed this particular cycle of events associated with this outbreak to occur.  Buried in this experience is a wealth of realities to ponder about how much we seek to control, about all the confidence we have placed in all of our economic and scientific systems that have proven to be so vulnerable, and about our highly interconnected society.  We have also become very confident in our ability to cheat and escape death, which, for all of its obvious benefits, has the unfortunate side effect of weakening faith and our awareness of our need for God.

A clear lesson from all this needs to be the reminder that humans are not invincible, nor can we outmaneuver nature for long.  The fallen forces of nature in which we live, for all of their beauty, remain a threat that is only adequately addressed by the Christian doctrine of redemption.  Man cannot save himself.

We Should Pray Publicly and Privately For Help

To that end, when serious social threats of any variety have emerged in prior eras, Christians have quickly resorted to prayer.  Turning to prayer is not done in place of needed medical, economic, and scientific interventions that human talents can offer.  Rather, it is done because in all humility we recognize the limits of our powers, and because God has instructed us to call upon him when we are afraid or are in trouble.

It would be very refreshing to hear the leaders of nations around the world, and the established authorities in our medical and economic sectors, inviting everyone to call upon the power of God to calm our anxieties and to bring us the healing that we reasonably seek.

As private citizens, we are free to pray whenever we like.  We have a great tradition, especially in the face of health dangers, of invoking the intercession of the Saints to come to our aid.  We should do that now as much as possible, publicly, privately, as families, and as communities.

The Wisdom of Taking One Day at a Time and Remaining Calm

The Scriptures and the writings of the Saints repeatedly assert that the most appropriate outlook for a believer who trusts in God’s providence is to live as much as possible in the present moment, rather than worrying about tomorrow.  This is especially important in times of anxiety.  Granted, prudent planning in the face of challenges has its necessary place.  However, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, and we must take life day-by-day.  We are wise to accept this fact with peaceful trust in our Father who loves us and promised to provide for our needs.

Living day to day, on whatever economic or health blessings we happen to have only that day, is how humans have lived for most of our history.  It has only been the modern world that has brought us both the luxury, and the curse, of such apparent control over “tomorrow.”  Such control, while indeed helping to save lives, also breeds deep anxiety that rapidly spirals out of control when we sense that we have lost control.  A Christian trusts in God’s power, and remains calm.

We Hang Crucifixes and Wear Saint Medals for Good Reasons

A Christian also has great faith in the nearness of Christ in times of suffering.  It is good to keep crucifixes around and visible, it is good to keep images or medals of Saints visible.  Such things remind us of God’s promise to deliver us from all suffering either in this life, temporarily, but most definitively once we have died and pass as a result of his mercy into the next life.

We Can Practice Spiritual Communion

In places where it has already become the case that people are not allowed to gather in churches or in crowds to pray, such that access to sacraments is not possible for a brief or extended time, then we know that we can make a sincere Act of Contrition for our sins.  We know that we can find other ways to prayerfully assist each other across time and space in the Communion we enjoy in Christ.  We can pray with the Scriptures and the readings for Mass even when we are alone.  We can look forward to the day when we can again gather properly at our altars to thank God for his blessings, and emerge from these times of deprivation with renewed gratitude for the gift of the sacraments that we take for granted in times of comfort.

The Command to Take Care of Those In Need Remains Unchanged

If we are aware of others around us who are sick, we are still commanded by the Lord to care for them and to love them so that they do not feel that they are alone, or are an outcast.  If we find ourselves hurting financially or going without because of any type of economic strain, we have a long history of sharing our resources with each other, and we are still commanded to take care of anyone who is going without, knowing that God rewards us for doing so.

The Lord Tells Us We Have No Reason to Fear

If we find ourselves experiencing rising anxiety or fear, then we have only to remember what is said frequently in the Scriptures: Be not afraid.  May we hear the Lord say to us again: “Take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

This current threat is an important opportunity for us all to make the prayer of the Mass our own personal daily prayer:  “may we be safe from all distress.”   The Lord is near us in life and in death, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad times.  He is the great and master teacher who allows challenges so that we can deepen our faith both as persons and even as an entire people under his care.

Our Lady Is Always Near

May we run always and often to the Blessed Mother, who through the ages has shown such tender care for the sick and the distressed, and ask her to keep us firmly under her protection and mantle.  Through her prayers and power we may we all know firmly, that the greatest good that we have, even more than the goods of health and material blessing, is the grace of eternal salvation.  That is the ultimate lesson to be learned as we pass through this whole experience: that God alone suffices.

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A Lament For Election 2020

We find ourselves just under one year away from the official 2020 Election Day in America.  Contemplating it from this vantage point, in the light of what seems to be in front of us, one searches for a reason to be hopeful.  A statement of Saint John Paul II comes to mind from an address he gave in 2003 to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, addressing the unfortunate reality of war:  “War is always a defeat for humanity!”   The question before us seems again to be: will the next election, especially for the United States Presidency, be a defeat for humanity?

 Of Wars and Elections

Consider briefly the basis of this comparison.  Does the Church acknowledge that war is sometimes necessary in our fallen world?  Yes of course. Is it always accurate to say, with the late Pope, that war always bruises and scars the face of humanity, even when justified?  Yes.  Wars present real dilemmas to nations, leaders, soldiers, citizens about the difficult ethical questions of whether or not, and how, to wage them.  It seems no matter which direction one leans, humanity is going to suffer for waging war; it also seems clear there is sometimes no avoiding it.

Are elections necessary? Yes, based on our current mode of governance in the West.  Are they inevitably bruising defeats for humanity in their manner of being conducted?  In a fallen world, even the most Christian election scenario is still going to leave a taint and do its share of damage.  Do elections present real dilemmas of hard choices for nations, leaders, and citizens? In a fallen world, yes.

That being said, elections do not have to be defeats for humanity in the same way that war is.  There ought to be enough of a broad-based, Christian-inspired cultural consensus on the meaning of personhood, on the nature of a just society, and on the proper role of government that an election isn’t an occasion for a civil war.  Similarly, there ought to be a large, critical mass of citizens who are well-schooled in civility, ethics, the art of governance, and the practice of right judgement so that an election is not a brawl.  Similarly, there ought to be at least a handful of qualified leaders to choose from who are good examples of integrity, as well as compromise, so that elections do not inevitably result in the selection of dysfunctional leaders.  Indeed it is true that the creation of such a favorable atmosphere takes genuine dedication, labor, and sacrifice on the part of a whole nation that rests firmly on the principles of Divine Revelation.  While not easy, such a setting is not out of the realm of the possible, even in a fallen world.

The Unavoidable Dilemma of Defeat

Election 2020 finds us miles and miles away from the essential ingredients listed above that are required to avoid a defeat for humanity.  Our electoral moment is not unlike staring an inevitable war in the face, realizing we have no choice but to fight in it, facing impossible choices along the way, and knowing when it is all over, we are all just going to lose.

When it comes to the Democratic Party platform and its current main front runners for presidential office, it is impossible to ignore their increasingly strident stance against traditional Christian values and worldview.  One is aware that, barring a miracle, should a Democrat become president, it will bring systematic and organized hostility to the Christian community in America.  The message of the Gospel, with its specific implications for how we are to properly understand the nature of men, women, gender, marriage, children, and families, along with its mandate to publicly shape the fabric of society in accord with these truths, is directly at odds with the stated agendas of the modern Democratic Party in America.  These are truths that are at the very core of what it means to be a human and to live in society.  A Democratic victory in 2020 leaves humanity defeated, if they put into practice the message on which they are campaigning.

When it comes to the Republican Party, certain elements of the party platform are, on the surface, less overtly hostile to the same principles of human life noted above. However, the agenda of the party as it is often articulated does not offer a systematic defense of the above principles either.  There are powerful segments of the Republican establishment that appear to subject what should be non-negotiable principles of life and human dignity to the more powerful forces of simple economics.

The above would be true whether President Trump is again the Republican nominee, or if he is not.  As of today, odds are that he will be the nominee.  In which case, his re-election will also be a defeat for humanity, based simply on the objective standards of good and decent behavior.  It is impossible to deny that his manner of expressing himself, and his style of public example (legal questions aside) are a disgrace, especially for the leader of our nation.   As a nation we need to be able to freely admit this is an objective fact.  His ongoing occupation of the Oval Office, simply in virtue of his disposition, barring a miracle, is a defeat for civil social discourse.

So, we are facing yet another election year when the choices we have in front of us are not really choices at all.  What a defeat for humanity indeed.

Such defeats lead to the uncomfortable realities of Christians becoming very strident defenders of one side or another, which tends to happen when one’s defense is knowingly weak, and when one has no real options, leading to a decline of civility and reason all around.  It’s not unlike a war zone.

Engaging the Election 2020 Dilemma with Grace: Some Points

What does one do?  Perhaps one sits out the election entirely, like a conscientious objector sits out a war.  If that is where one’s conscience sincerely leads them, it is understandable.  However, such a stance has its own problematic implications and effects, and such a person has to wrestle with the fact that everyone else is getting his or her hands dirty. Totally “clean” living from the taint of the culture, even corrupt ones, is something of a luxury in a fallen world such as ours.

Assuming an inevitable engagement with the American two party system as it currently exists, some principles and behaviors are critical on the part of men and women of faith.

Everyone needs to begin by acknowledging that no good Christian can defend either of the two major party choices in this election without some type of qualifier or lament. Just like no one should be excited about wars, even the necessary ones, no one should be overjoyed at their vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.  The note of lament is important as a way to tone-down the frequently rough rhetoric in our discourse, it is intellectually honest about the objective problems with each side, and it is a spiritual opening to receive God’s grace that needs to move us, personally and collectively, to a better cultural reality than the one we currently have.

Secondly, it is very important to be very well informed of accurate Catholic teaching on the major questions of our cultural moment.  I will grant that it is not easy to know which voices in the Church to trust on these matters.  Nonetheless, our traditional teachings, most especially on the areas of personhood, are consistently clear throughout the ages which makes them easily identifiable.

Additionally, it is important to be passionate advocates for specific issues and ideas, rather than for parties and platforms.  A faithful Christian and Catholic is likely going to find themselves very passionate about positions, or policies advocated by each major party.  Such a parceled approach leads to more critical and nuanced thinking about complex issues, and it allows one to have to weigh more effectively the moral dilemma posed by two unappealing options, as one weighs the issues carefully.

Cultural Transformation Is The Goal.  Prayer is the First Step

Being passionate about issues as they are informed by the light of Divine Revelation eventually alters the public discourse away from the status quo two party scenario that drives so much of the debate today.  What must replace this are re-shaped parties, re-shaped platforms, and re-shaped candidates who are more accurate reflections of the full breadth of the Gospel.

At the core, if our elections are to be something better than repeated defeats for humanity, then each of us needs to seriously commit ourselves to praying for our nation, for our parties, for our candidates, and for a conversion of heart.  We all need to give ourselves the freedom to think outside the broken boxes of the current electoral reality, going in search of new alignments around issues that will produce authentically Christian options for governance. We need to share with others around us a re-imagined vision of what our political landscape can look like so that, more and more, it becomes concrete reality rather than a mere mental theory.

Elections do not have to be defeats for humanity.  Yet, without all the serious personal and cultural conversion that is required by the Gospel, our elections will only bring defeats, rather than victories.

Off to war we go in 2020, and it will be brutal.  God is eager to teach us lessons from our defeats, and if we do learn from them, in accord with his grace, then there is always hope for 2024.

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Dead Funerals

It is a challenging task to explain to people, Christians and non-Christians alike, the reasons why our contemporary views and practices surrounding death are often unsatisfying. Everyone reacts to the fact of mortality, that is clear.  However, while it is evident that everyone reacts to the reality of mortality, it is less clear if the most common reactions these days are very helpful, for the living or for the dead.

Death ought to provoke a truly meaningful and uniquely human response, one that conveys the awareness of the frailty and wonder of our human existence, and also one that acknowledges the grandeur of God. A meaningful response that encapsulates the mystery of the human with the divine allows death to be dealt with properly, allowing for its integration into the fabric of life.

However, more often than not in our contemporary culture the reactions to death, the rituals that accompany it, are less than truly meaningful on the deepest levels that our nature requires. They leave an empty hole in our souls that we are eager to dismiss, and that we often do not acknowledge.  As time passes, this tendency dehumanizes the living, the dead, and the culture.

Death in the Context of a Monastery

A helpful way to illustrate the often inadequate reactions we offer is to contrast them with another perspective, or set of reactions, rooted in a more classically Catholic worldview of the mystery of God and man.

Consider the example of traditional monastic communities.  One manner of tending to mortality has to do with the basic and intentional layout of a monastery itself, especially on a Medieval plan.  The long abbey chapel is often the northern edge of the monastic footprint, and to the south of it is the main entry to the dormitories of the men or women, accessed by a short stairway leading to the church.  Directly opposite that stairway, across the chapel and on the outside of the northern wall of the church, is frequently found the cemetery.   This structural layout ensures that daily, when it is still dark, the community members make their way to the church to pray the Vigil Office, and they descend (as if into a tomb) into the church.  They descend while also staring at the location where, at the end of their lives, they will be buried. In the community Mass that follows the chanting of the morning offices, the monastics celebrate the resurrection that is the source of their joy and hope. It is a daily brush with death and resurrection, both their own and that of those who have gone before, given authentic meaning in the Paschal Mystery.

Some religious houses incorporate a chapel of the dead.  In it might be found statues of skeletons carrying on their heads a tall candle symbolizing that the resurrection has triumphed over mortality.  In such a chapel, either a temporarily erected one or a permanent space, each recently-deceased member of the house pauses for a couple days on the way to the abbey church for the main funeral Mass, while the living brothers or sisters each take turns praying the psalms on each side of the casket.

In many houses there is a daily procession to or from the main meal, wherein the men or women walk reciting all of Psalm 51, offered for the forgiveness of sins of the dead. There is often a daily reading of the necrology, during which all listen while someone reads off the list of the members of the house who, over the last several centuries, died on that date.  After that another psalm is prayed for mercy on their souls.  The general prayers for the dead are also offered each day as part of the meal prayers.

It is common to reserve one Mass each month offered in black or violet vestments, for all the deceased, especially the members of the specific religious order.  Masses are frequently offered for the repose of the soul of some recently deceased member, or more impressively perhaps, for the souls of major monastery benefactors who are remembered annually, most of whom died hundreds of years ago.  It is as if they died only yesterday in the collective liturgical mind of these communities.

This portrait of the monastic view of mortality and its accompanying ritual reactions to it, demonstrates well the classic mindset that those who have died need the assistance of the living, and that in Christ the dead are very close to us. It is a duty and a privilege to extend care to the dead after their earthly life has ended. The bridge of care that is extended from the living to the dead is only made possible by the linking of the living and the dead that is accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Only a thoroughly Christian worldview allows for this conviction. It is also critical that one always keeps before his or her eyes their own mortality, so that the opportunities for virtuous living in this life will not be wasted.  This life is short, it is a gift, and it is given so that one may know, love, and serve God- period.

Death Is No Longer About the Dead

The monastic viewpoint and its corresponding practices are impressive for what they convey about proper, loving care for the deceased.  At the same time, by way of contrast to much of the contemporary outlook on death, they highlight the shifting nature of grief and changing views on death that have led up to our own day.

The author Charles Taylor summarizes the differences between Medieval views of death as opposed to those of today in this way:  centuries ago, the chief anguish over the deceased had to do with the fear that their soul would not be saved, whereas today the chief anguish is over the fact that the living will not see them anymore alive.  The Catholic liturgical tradition, most especially maintained in monasteries and via the customs noted above, operates out of the older understanding or viewpoint as the chief driver of the rituals.  Previously, our main duty to the dead was to pray for their souls, and our chief concern upon their passing was whether they will be rescued from damnation.  Something of a secondary concern, though certainly valid, was the consolation of the living on this earth who have to say “good bye.“

In popular culture, and even in most Catholic circles these days, these ideas or priorities have become inverted.  Most people simply assume that when someone dies they are automatically with God, in heaven, or wherever.  The deep concern is no longer about the deceased.  “They are in a better place now, “  or “They are not suffering anymore,“ we often say.   Rarely does anyone pause to ask or wonder how those things are known with such certainty.  This fact is what is commonly assumed without qualification.

With such a large and unproven assumption now directing our reactions to someone’s death, the focus of the mourning, and the source of any pain, becomes exclusively about everyone left behind: the grief of the living.  We quickly focus on how much we will miss the deceased, how sad it is that they are not here, what will we do now.  Or, more and more these days, we focus on how we can hang on tightly to them, and to their memory, and even to their existence so that we do not have to part from them.  Increasingly there exists the desire not to bury the remains of the dead, but rather the need to keep them in our home, near our bed, in our garden, or even around our neck in a locket.  Each survivor wants to get a piece of the deceased so that we can possess them and keep the dead for ourselves, like an exclusive possession.

In such a climate funeral Masses, if they happen at all, become almost totally about the living and not about benefiting the dead.  We cease to offer prayers for the dead because, in an abrupt way, once they are dead we do not worry about them anymore.  Instead, our chief focus is on ourselves and how we are feeling about it all.  Without a deeply held desire to commend them to the care of the living God, who is the only bridge between the living and the dead, we are left to have recourse only to our memories of them. A funeral becomes a means to “celebrate their life,” which can now exist only in the past.  Our frame of reference to soothe our pain depends directly upon how mindful we are of the deceased, rather than on our knowledge of God.  There is no means available to us to resolve our grief, or integrate it into God’s pattern of salvation, when the link between the living and the dead is so horizontal.

The Need to Bury Dead Rituals and Bad Theology

Any mode of thinking, or ritual, that is so deeply self-referential is lonely, sad, and unfulfilling.  In this way, most contemporary funerals and funeral practices are dead.  Yes, there is of course a needed degree of comfort in a community gathered and in mutual support, but without a firm hope in the God who saves, and without a strong awareness of one’s own role to go on caring for those who have died, any comforts of a funeral ritual are short-lived. They cannot adequately speak to the nature of God, of man, of life, or of death.

Much healthier and also much more charitable is the classic Catholic viewpoint of the dead that focuses our concern not so much on ourselves, though that does have its place, but more importantly on THEM.  It is an outwardly-directed sentiment, a more loving sentiment, a less self-focused sentiment.  It is authentically communal, appropriately transcendent, more theologically accurate, liturgically beautiful, and in all those ways it is simply better for us.  It is better for the dead as well.

Such a shift in current practice rests upon a wide-scale revisiting of the assumption that everyone who dies automatically goes to heaven.  This requires a much longer conversation about current theological gaps that exist across the systematic spectrum of Catholic life. For present purposes, it is at least important for us the living and the mourning to step back and objectively analyze our experiences surrounding mortality and grief.  We should ask if we are missing something critical that those in prior eras understood more clearly.  It is true that the entire world is not a monastery, however the monastic practices described above are illustrative of a more theologically accurate outlook on life and on death that wider parish life and contemporary culture can seek to emulate in whatever ritualistic ways seem sensible.  Doing so would benefit everyone, both the living and the dead.

 

 

 

 

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In Search of Halloween Joy

I have pleasant memories of Halloween in the Upper Midwest of America growing up, most especially because I have a fondness for all things “Autumn.”  A little dress-up here and there in the crisp weather, some decent candy bars from the neighbors- I would say my memories of it could be called “subtle” in the best sense, and harmless.

That was roughly 30 years ago.  By comparison, today’s observances of Halloween in our culture I find to be less than subtle, I would say even disturbing.  From a purely objective standpoint, two focal points of necessary discomfort with contemporary Halloween can be safely illustrated.  Both of them might be best explained using some references to the thoughts of Charles Taylor in his very comprehensive book, A Secular Age.

Taylor’s project in this book is to trace the development throughout the centuries of a secular sphere of society that is distinct from institutional religion or piety.  He shows in his book that our very parceled thinking today about religious versus non-religious zones of culture would have been unthinkable until very recently in the long sweep of history.

“Fun” is King

One important factor that Taylor identifies in the emergence of our contemporary, divided outlook is the prevailing mindset about the importance of personal satisfaction or wellness.  He says that ours is the first culture in world history where the highest good is the maximum personal fulfillment in this life; there is nothing more important than this.  Prior to our era, the prevailing understanding held that only in the next life could one achieve maximum fulfillment, which meant that in this life we settled for the reality of lack, of want, and of the inevitably-unfulfilled.  One could say we settled for “less than great now” because we were sustained by the promise of “later,” whereas our current era is defined by the reversal of this: we want it all now, whereas later (whatever that is) is something like icing on the cake that we’ve already eaten.

What does this have to do with the objective problems of contemporary Halloween?  Taylor’s articulation of our cultural inversion of priorities is one way among many of laying bare the modern problem of excess.  Halloween has become in so many respects a grand display of sensory gluttony, fueled in large part by the prevailing Western attitude that this life is about fulfilling every emotional fantasy that we can dream up.

Contemporary Halloween is especially susceptible to the problem of excess.  At the core of its current observance, if one goes in search of its existential purpose as a holiday, is really just one word:  fun.  It is fun, nothing more.  There is no other religious, political, or higher meaning to anchor it in anything other than the pursuit of fun.

What is fun?  In our current usage, it equates to whatever brings us pleasure, and in a worldview that is centered only on the maximum of the now, fun and pleasure is always going to reign supreme if there is nothing to reign it in.  Contemporary Halloween is nothing more than celebration just for celebration’s sake, which gives rise to its stunning level of sensory overload in recent decades.

Moving From “Fun” to “Joy.”

“Fun” does not exactly exist in the Christian vocabulary in its current usage.  There is, perhaps, “community,” and there is of course “family,” and we have a long tradition of “festivals,” to be sure.  However, for the Christian all of those things were firmly tied to the deeper dogmas of the faith and to God-given patterns of human life: marriages, births, dedications of sacred spaces, etc. The pleasure and the fun of it all was not an enduring end in itself to be pursued to the limits of our credit card maximum balances.

The better word in the Christian tradition for what contemporary Halloween is chasing after, but cannot fully reach, is “joy.”  Many in our commercialized culture make the mistake of thinking that greater excess will bring greater joy.  More fright, more thrills, more enormous inflatable yard decorations, bigger bags of candy, longer and longer days of anticipation are all an attempt to catch joy and hang on to it tightly, savoring the emotional high that excess temporarily delivers.  When that gets boring, then the contemporary answer is to get an even more elaborate set of inflatable goblins in the front yard next year.  This is a chasing after the wind, to quote Qoheleth.

Joy cannot come, in our finite world, without temperance and moderation.  If there is one major difference between the Halloween of today and that of my childhood, it can easily be summarized as one of scale: today it is way, way over the top.  As a “holiday” that exists really only for the sake of celebration itself, totally unmoored from its earlier Catholic elements, in an age where we feel obliged to squeeze every drop of pleasure out of this life that we can, then it makes total sense that the subtle and relatively harmless Halloween of my childhood has mushroomed into a glorification of sensory gluttony.

To rescue it we need to tone it down.  A Christian family, trying desperately to raise decent children in our neo-pagan era, can do a great service by simply celebrating the day with sanity and moderation, in every possible aspect.  Moderation is a great antidote, and it can only come from hope, which is the deep-seated viewpoint oriented to the world to come.  Which is another way of saying that only the correct grasp of the purpose of this life, the next life, and the bridge of hope that unites them is strong enough to reign in contemporary Halloween. Without that, one’s credit card combined with the limitless supplies at the Halloween Store are going to destroy moderation every time.

A Lack of Vision

The second objective problem with contemporary Halloween besides its gross excess is perhaps more subtle.  Again, Charles Taylor is helpful.  In the same book, he articulates well that our modern era, in contrast to the Medieval world, is one that has stripped the mysterious from our everyday worldview.  It has happened so thoroughly, that a modern person really cannot begin to grasp what it was like to see the world through the eyes of someone in Medieval Europe.  For them, all of reality was mystical.  Persons, places, things, and even ideas were all animated by their own type of spiritual light and darkness, either for, or in opposition to the Trinity.  Problems and their solutions were entirely a function of turning the object in question over to the power of God who would in turn liberate it from the evil that possessed it.  Headaches, for example, were viewed as the result of a harassment of the forces of evil.  Today, by contrast, we simply take Advil.  The current practice, while effective, is at the same time boring and not at all spiritual.

In the earlier world view, God’s power was highly concentrated in things: relics, Sacraments, rites, shrines, the presence of the Saints, etc, etc.  Charles Taylor traces a development of the contemporary prevailing worldview in which, over time, God’s presence was gradually de-coupled from “things.”  For us today God is essentially “everywhere.”  God is also highly abstract, numinous, and as a result also not very pushy or demanding.  God, or the “spiritual,” has taken on the same attributes as background music, soothing us as we drift through our days.

Such a modern world that takes sacred “things” so lightly also has a way of trivializing evil. If God has now become vague and “everywhere,” then it makes little sense for images or scenes of witches, ghosts, and goblins to be anything other than mere vague play things.  Today many people intuitively believe that psychics, spells, Ouija boards, pentagrams, pagan symbols and ideas are really just empty entities that we can manipulate at will.  In a de-sacralized worldview, this is a logical conclusion. Some today do still believe in and embrace the evil forces at work in such entities,  which is of course its own dangerous reality.

A similar desacralized culture that lacks the vital tools of Christian revelation to navigate the realities of life, death, resurrection, and personhood in a dignified way is also going to fall prey to the glorification of gore, just for gore’s own entertaining, shock-value sake.  Contemporary Halloween is marked by a heavier and heavier glorification of gore.

The Proper Way to View Evil, the Proper Way to Celebrate Halloween

For the Christian, our appropriate fear of the Lord cultivates in us at the same time and appropriate abhorrence over any glorification, as well as any trivialization, of evil and of gore.  We do not dabble in things of darkness because we know that God is concrete, and God is real, and that his strongest desire for us is to free us from the powers of darkness.  We do not celebrate gore.

It is abhorrent for a faithful Christian to encounter the elements of modern Halloween that glamorize the demonic.  It is also deeply distressing to encounter elements that make light of it, NOT because they believe God is stronger (which is something akin to the earlier roots of Christian Halloween) but RATHER because they don’t believe there is such a thing as good versus evil in the first place.  It is disturbing to witness such widespread indifference to the Christian understanding of the spiritual universe.  Modern Halloween has elevated this indifference of our secular age to new heights.

What does a Christian do?  Perhaps one avoids the pagan and gory trappings of the holiday entirely. Or, maybe one works on the careful catechetical balance of the Medieval mindset:  God is real, God is powerful, God lives in His followers, and when one firmly believes in grace, then one can safely laugh in the face of the devil and death whose power has been crippled by the Savior.  In our decidedly non-Medieval world, that is very difficult message to communicate well.  If all one can pull off is simple avoidance, then maybe that is the safer route these days.

Simply put, Halloween is only rescued by households, communities, and societies that deeply believe in Christian revelation.  Doing so does not necessarily eliminate the holiday, as its Catholic history clearly shows, but it does put all the excess, and all the spiritual indifference, into its proper place, correcting all that is flawed.  In such a place of true faith, Halloween is appropriate.  With its celebration is authentic fun, community, and maybe even…. Joy.

 

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