Homily: Praying for Our Nation After the Fall of Roe

Please listen to the audio recording of the homily for the special Mass for Our Nation offered on Monday evening, June 27th, 2022, in the wake of the landmark Dobbs vs. Jackson decision.

Father Nathan Reesman, Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend, Wisconsin. June 27th, 2022

We pray in thanksgiving, we pray for America as we fiercely debate this important topic, and we pray for the conversion of all our hearts so that we may righty grasp the dignity of the person.

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Dobbs vs. Jackson vs. Fallen Man

Since the earliest days of human history it has been the case that the arrival of a new child is one of the defining realities of life.  For women the matter has always been far more impactful, but men are also of course heavily affected by the question of children. Children change everything. Unique to the species of man is the ability to ask this question about our own offspring:  do I want them, or not?  This has been the question that every person and every culture faces at the deepest of levels. 

The Scriptures are filled with stories that speak about the great gift and desirability of new children.  To read the Bible is to encounter a viewpoint that welcomes new life, seeing it as a sign of God’s blessing and of his promise of a new tomorrow.  Moreover, infertility is clearly presented in the Scriptures as the painful reality that it is, often being cast as a struggle of faith with the undercurrent of Divine punishment in this fallen world. For Biblical people, new children mean everything, and they guarantee tomorrow.  

Perhaps this language is so consistently strong in the Scriptures not only because it is the truth about our biology and God’s plan, but also because in our same fallen world there is a strong temptation to view new children as inconvenient and unwelcome.  The Biblical writings are offered as a necessary counterweight to the personal and cultural anxiety generated over the disruption of a child.  For much of human history children were desirable only for their ability to do labor, with the qualifier that until they could be an economic help, they first presented the practical problem of a new mouth to feed.  If one already had too many mouths to feed for one’s personal circumstances, then it was a great source of worry to have another one around.  Moreover, until the arrival of recent medical capabilities, a new child frequently meant a serious danger of death to the mother, which was its own legitimate source of fear.  These days it is rarely a question of life and death, but pregnancies can and do still bring difficult challenges to a mother’s health.  In so many ways, it is a great act of surrender to welcome a child. 

Fallen humanity desires scenarios wherein men and women can enjoy the pleasures of intimacy while also ensuring no children will come of it to alter one’s life.  In the individualistic short-sightedness of our sinful nature, we forget that children are worth the sacrifice for the good of what must continue on in humanity. We put a halt to their arrival because doing so allows us to go on living without having our lives altered. 

Our fallen capacity to not desire our own offspring is what led to the practice of abortion ages ago, and what led to legalized abortion in America, and around the world.  God gives us the gift of Divine Revelation to correct our fallen tendencies.  The Scriptures are clear that life in the womb is a gift, and also that the sacrifices that come from welcoming it are their own source of new life.  Any culture or society that legitimizes abortion with the force of law, as Roe vs. Wade did once upon a time, is one that is gravely opposed to God’s plan for the flourishing of humanity.  Laws can indeed be unethical and wrong.  Legal protections for abortion fall neatly under that heading.  

For all of these reasons, Dobbs vs. Jackson is a tremendous gift and victory.  It is no accident in the designs of God that it was issued on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day that praises God’s unswerving concern for the smallest in our midst, and his mercy for all of us who have realized we have made wrong choices.  

However, the mere flipping of the Constitutional switch in this reversal does little to change the underlying currents in the human heart about the question of how desirable children are, or are not. The Christian cause for life requires combatting all lifestyle choices that view children as a threat to happiness.  It requires unswerving community support for pregnant mothers. It requires rethinking our consumer mindsets, and our prevailing systems of employment.  These are systemic changes that involve every member of society, not just women.  They require the conversion of all hearts to the fullest truth of the Gospel.  

Even with this great legal victory, we still have much work to do in a cultural and economic climate that views children as choices rather than as gifts to be welcomed.  In the grace and power of God, in His Most Sacred Heart, may we all work as Christians for the day when children are not a burden in our eyes, but a blessing for tomorrow, and when motherhood is supported as one of the most precious roles in our world. 

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Of Pride and Pentecost

The long Easter Season comes to a close as we celebrate on June 5th the Solemn Feast of Pentecost.  As is the case with so many of our liturgical feasts, Pentecost is a celebration with layers and layers of history and meaning.  One strong theological thread running through its celebration is the Church’s joy at the reversal of the tragedy of the Tower of Babel that is accomplished at Pentecost.  These two Biblical events are directly related to each other, and as one understands the connection, one marvels at the power of God exercised on behalf of humanity, grasping more deeply the implication of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The story of the construction of a great tower reaching to the heavens is part of what is often called “pre-history” by Scripture scholars.  It is the final story of the early portion of the Book of Genesis that deals with events at the earliest days of the human family that are shrouded in symbolism and mystery.  God reacts to the prideful attempt of humanity to construct a pathway of salvation without any divine help by introducing “babel” into the human family so that we would henceforth always be divided by language barriers.  From then on, the pathway to authentic unity in the human family would be outside of the abilities of man to construct on his own.  Only God’s direct intervention with his presence and grace would be able to foster a new type of unity for humanity. This unity originates in the truth of divine revelation that binds all nations and cultures together as believers from every time and tongue assent to its meaning. 

It is the Holy Spirit fully unleashed in the human family on Pentecost that brings the unity that humanity craves.  On the day of Pentecost the multitude of the nations gathered in Jerusalem heard the truth spoken by the Apostles each in their own language.  In the Church, where the divine truths are preached and handed on, all cultures and races find their common bond and their unity even to this present day.  The shattering that took place at Babel is now mended, at least to the extent that humanity chooses to adhere to the specific contours of the Gospel message.  To adhere to the truth of revelation in the grace of the Holy Spirit requires a rejection of the pride of Babel, and an embrace of the humble posture of the Blessed Mother whose presence in the Upper Room at Pentecost ensures that God’s coming Spirit will find a truly receptive heart.  

This dynamic tension between the pride of Babel and the sweet humility of Pentecost that fosters authentic human community continues all the way to the present day, and it plays itself out anew in every generation.  For example, among the gravest threats to the authentic unity of the human family facing us today is the fragmentation created by group identity politics in the West. We are hyper-obsessed with categories, terms, races, and “groups.”  The Month of June has been hijacked now in the woke, pseudo-religion of American culture as the month of “pride,” which reinforces all of original themes of Babel.  The cultural lexicon surrounding “pride month” relies upon the distortion of language, and it offers a false promise of unity under the mislabeled headings of “tolerance” and “diversity,” which in actual practice are not about authentic tolerance, and cannot deliver authentic diversity that by definition requires a common truth.  A focus on identity that relies upon group categorization only leads to further division, and to the multiplication of more and more groups.  It relies upon a rejection of the divine revelation that illuminates authentic human nature.  It seeks to construct a new version of the human family that does not need God and even overtly rejects Him.  The group identity politics that underlie pride month do not offer a future of harmony for the human family, but instead the opposite. Pride only brings division.

The remedy to it all is of course Pentecost and the healing power of the Holy Spirit.  However, this Spirit of Truth must be accepted with humble hearts that are willing to acknowledge its full depth and breadth.  The Spirit will not come where he is not welcome, and he cannot fill hearts that are full of pride.  Therefore, on Pentecost the entire Church proclaims anew “Come, Holy Spirit!” To voice this invitation is to open one’s heart, to reject pride, to reject the illusion of a cultural construction of Babel, and to assent to the truth of Divine Revelation about God’s plan for humanity.  As we pursue this disposition of humility, the Holy Spirit will lead us in the authentic pathway of the unity of the human family.   We cannot create it on our own, and by God’s grace and generosity, we do not have to.  That is the power and the invitation of Pentecost. 

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After Roe vs. Wade

If indeed it is the case that Supreme Court officially reverses its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that created a constitutional right to abortion, as the recent leak of its draft opinion would suggest, it would be a dramatic and historic moment for our nation.  Rarely does the Court reverse its decisions.  Rarely are its decisions so wrapped up in this many layers of cultural and emotional conflict.  Even if the pathway to the reversal of Roe has been steadily coming into focus for awhile now in our nation, nonetheless this is a bombshell that will realign major pieces of the American public square. 

On one level, the coming decision (assuming it holds) is a major victory for the pro-life movement and for human rights in general.  For decades we have prayed, fasted, marched, lobbied, voted, and dreamed of the reversal of Roe.  We have rightly argued that Roe was an egregious example of judicial activism, of convoluted reasoning, and a gross violation of the correct understanding of the human person on every possible level.  Its reversal would be a vindication of so much of what we have fought for.  

That said, the reversal of Roe is going to represent the end of the pro-life movement as we have known it, and its “replacement” as a movement is going to be far messier, more complicated, and will take quite some time to sort out.   Since 1973, the various well-springs of pro-life sentiment in our country have all been able to target one, common, foe: Roe and the constitutional “right” to abortion.  With that common foe now gone the risk of the fragmentation of the pro-life cause becomes more significant. Reversing Roe does not settle the abortion question in this country.  Now the issue moves, as it should, back into the legislative realm creating what for the near-term is a state-by-state battlefield scenario about the legality of abortion.  The absence of Roe will likely to call into question what since the early years of the Reagan Administration has been an essentially nation-wide alignment of the Republican Party with the pro-life (read anti-Roe) movement.  The two major political parties have been heading toward a re-definition for awhile and this decision is only going to accelerate the process. 

Naturally it also follows that the question of which political party, or which candidate for office, is the more acceptable choice for a Catholic is also going to grow more complex.  The goal of overturning Roe was always the easy go-to for drawing Catholic political allegiances in the direction of what might have otherwise proven to be questionable candidates or platforms from the Catholic perspective.  With Roe gone, other extremely important issues should rise to the top of the list of Catholic concerns that as of now have eluded a strong alignment in the existing political parties.  

For example, the recent invention of a “transgender” category of the human person and the major cultural upheaval that is now occurring around this situation is a serious concern of similar magnitude to the abortion question.  So is the issue of the legal equivocation of same-sex relationships with heterosexual relationships and marriage.  With Roe gone, the likelihood of the splintering of the existing Republican platforms surrounding these and other topics is higher. Opposition to Roe was the uneasy glue that held a variety of factions on the “right” together, and together with the Catholic position besides.  With Roe overturned, will the religious and the nominally religious factions of the Republican Party remain united in opposition to legal protections of same sex marriage and against the legal imposition of gender ideology? Only time will tell.

By no means am I lamenting the hoped-for upcoming reversal.  It needs to happen and it is a great victory.  However, I would suggest that it needs to happen because our nation now has to get pushed to the next level of major cultural arguments over the question of what is a “person”- period.  These questions have dogged us since the beginning of our history when we, tragically, created a nation built on slavery between races.  Incidentally (or not), that same question of slavery and race represents the other major instance of a Supreme Court reversal in our history, with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that brought about the end of legal, racial segregation (“separate but equal”) that the Court had first created with Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1986.  

A quick glace around our nation right now reveals that even though the Court in 1954 reversed its previously wrong decision about race, this many years later we have yet to become a bastion of racial harmony.  Quite the opposite.  That work of promoting harmony among races is never done because it is fundamentally about the conversion of the heart to rightly grasp the true meaning of personhood and identity.  Similarly, being “pro-life” is far bigger than being opposed to abortion, and its cause is never done because it, too, is about promoting and protecting the correct understanding of personhood and identity.  

A truly robust cultural argument about the immoral nature of abortion, rooted in a properly holistic view of personhood according to the divine plan of God, would incorporate an array of intertwined realities about which we are all legally misguided in the West. Besides the practice of abortion, the widespread use of artificial contraception and sterilization, the free-reign of the pornography industry, the mainstreaming of actively gay lifestyles, and the fluidity of gender identity are all gravely problematic distortions of personhood. As such all of them ought to be the subject of prohibitive legislation in a society that desires to use the force of law to shape behavior for the protection of human dignity. All of these are behavioral realities that violate basic human reason and natural law prior to being violations of religious doctrine, meaning they are not at base religious issues. Catholicism offers the sharpest focus on the manner in which these things are all immoral due to the gift of divine revelation, and the sacramental life of the Church offers the pathway to live appropriately, but one does not have to be Catholic or religious to grasp what is a distortion of personhood. The “pro-life” outlook as a political, legislative, and religious agenda must be broadened to include all of these behavioral distortions in our culture today.

The understandable but at times inordinately narrow focus on Roe vs. Wade and abortion as the defining issue of the pro-life cause served in some respects to constrain a broader conversation about all the mistaken ideas and behaviors that lead to an abortive culture. The presence of Roe itself was also a constraint since it limited the public political exchange about the issues in question to a very narrow legal or legislative focus. An authentic culture of life will emerge only out of a far larger debate about all that promotes as well as undermines human dignity and personhood in our fallen world.

Roe is about to be gone, praise God.  With it safely out of the way, the deeper, broader, tougher questions about the meaning of the human person can advance to the next level of argument.  The argument is going to be a fierce one.   The Church will again be at center-stage.  Buckle up. 

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Waukesha in the Valley of Tears

The recent attack at the Waukesha Christmas parade is tragic and unsettling, raising all sorts of questions in our hearts about why these things happen, and also if something like this could have been prevented.  These are natural human reactions and questions that always emerge in the face of shock and sorrow.   What might be said about it all from a Christian perspective to help us mentally process the situation?

A Christian can and should feel a righteous sense of anger in the face of such blatant injustice.  The attack was a horrible thing and any sensible person feels this in one’s bones.  The natural reaction that wells up from deep within us of a cry to the heavens on behalf of the killed, wounded, and impacted is normal, moral, and Biblical.  The Psalms are full of similar language and sentiments in the face of what is broken about life.  

However, the reaction of anger has limits.  For the Christian, this sentiment of disgust has to give way to the need for forgiveness, and it also finds its outlet in acts of charity towards all who are suffering over the situation.  The Christian response to suffering has always been one of love and compassion. We even go so far as to say that part of why God permits suffering in the world of any sort, from the tiniest pain to the worst of tragedies, is so that it can unleash love in the hearts of the human family. It exists in order to deepen our thirst to reach out and give comfort.  Certainly the outpouring of prayers, donations, and solidarity surrounding the Waukesha attack makes clear what is best about our human nature, and is an example of free will that is used for the good rather than for bad.  It is a demonstration of the Christian understanding that God’s power and his grace alive in human hearts is stronger than evil.  We are all free to choose, and we can, and do, choose what is good.  

Our anger also tends to find its outlet or expression in the conviction that we must prevent things like this from happening again, and we tend to look for some person, agency, or entity to blame.  Here we must proceed with nuance and caution.  The age-old human drive and desire to eradicate whatever causes pain is sensible and it has its necessary place in the world. It is what leads us to maintain systems of law, a criminal justice code, and the dispensation of just punishments for responsible parties.  

No doubt appropriate blame and punishment will be laid at the feet of the man who did this, and justice demands that he face consequences that are appropriate and measured in a humane manner. All of this is classically Christian.  As is the drive and desire to create better systems, safer situations, and more protective means to safeguard innocent persons. This human drive to fix whatever causes pain due to some recognizable deficiency is why we have things like clean drinking water, medicines, and airbags to name only a few life-saving modern realities for which we give thanks. 

However, a Christian also always understands that the world is fallen and that we will never be able to eradicate pain, suffering, and death.  Our drive to fix it all and prevent pain has limits that an increasingly secular world has forgotten.  A Christian knows that ultimately there is only so much one can do without destroying the essential warp and weave of human choice and freedom.  Pain will always be with us, as will tragedy, which is why Christians have always referred to this beautiful life as a “valley of tears.”  This is not heaven and it will never be.  

Therefore, we approach tragedies of this sort with an important sense of perspective, which in turn leads us to rest on faith, hope, and charity originating in God as our ultimate means of salvation and security.  To put it another way, tragedies like this keep our very proud and self-assured society on our knees which is something that should not be taken lightly.  God weeps for the tragedy of Waukesha, and he also actively works to mend it in ways that are quite simply beyond all of our powers.  Therefore, in tragedy, we turn to him. 

It is also true that Christianity’s deepest answer to suffering and tragedy is the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Christ himself. Jesus Christ is fully God and also fully man meaning that God is not a mere bystander to human suffering. He enters into it completely, even undergoing death, so that the human family would not go through it alone. Suffering offers us a pathway of union with God because God himself suffers in His Son. In the face of tragedies like Waukesha there are essentially no real words to say. Instead there is only the grace of companionship in pain. From the Cross, the Lord offers voiceless companionship to all of us who are heart-broken over something so sad. From the Cross he offers his outstretched hands.  

Most importantly what one does in the face of things like Waukesha is pray.  We pray for those impacted, for eachother, and for our world.  We do so knowing that all of those prayers are impactful, necessary, and are heard by our loving Father.   May God bring comfort, peace, justice, and salvation to us all.  

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Some Points for Consideration Regarding Covid19 Vaccine Mandates

In the light of the rapidly escalating pressures and requirements placed on individuals to receive the Covid19 vaccine in order to carry out essential tasks of community life, especially to maintain employment, these points for consideration are offered.   It should be noted at the outset that this is a complex ethical issue that straddles the long-standing tension of the need to promote overall public good along with the need to protect the rights of individual conscience.  As such it defies simple answers or resolutions.   

Further complicating the situation are the specific circumstances surrounding Covid19 and the measures that have been used in response to it. These circumstances make this a question less about religious beliefs regarding vaccines in general and more about acknowledging attitudes of suspicion that are not easily or quickly dispelled as each individual takes time to come to terms with what this means for their life circumstances.  As a matter of personal conscience it is most fundamentally a human rights issue, and only by extension is it a religious issue in light of Christian revelation that shows forth the truth of human nature. 

These points are in two sections.  The first is an offering and summary of some recent Church statements on the topic, including a form letter of religious exemption that is written for use in the State of Colorado. The second is a commentary that attempts to show the limits of these same teachings due to the particular circumstances of Covid19. 

Recent Catholic Statements of Note

The following brief statements from the Holy See and of some Catholic bishops are helpful and are worthy of a careful read.

Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-Covid19 Vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 2020.  The text may be accessed at this link: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20201221_nota-vaccini-anticovid_en.html

Answers to Key Ethical Questions About Covid-19 Vaccines, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 2021.

A Letter from the Bishops of Colorado on Covid19 Vaccine Mandates, Colorado Catholic Conference, August 6, 2021.  The text may be accessed at this link: https://denvercatholic.org/a-letter-from-the-bishops-of-colorado-on-covid-19-vaccine-mandates/

The Colorado Catholic Conference also made a letter template available for Catholics in their dioceses.  It is made available in this piece because it offers a clear articulation of grounds for religious exemption based on Catholic teachings.  It may be found here: https://cocatholicconference.org/template-for-religious-exemption-from-covid-19-vaccines/

Among other key points that may be distilled from these statements are the fact that the Catholic Church is not doctrinally opposed to vaccines provided that they are produced in a manner that is morally acceptable.  At the same time, while we recognize the critically important public health benefit to the overall common good that comes from large scale use of vaccines, the Catholic Church does not teach that people are morally obligated to be vaccinated.  Forcing or pressuring individuals to be vaccinated against their personal objections raises legitimate questions about the protection of one’s conscience.  At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect that members of a society take important health precautions to protect the safety of others, provided that those same precautions are known not to cause harm.

In short, from a Catholic perspective, there is room for reasonable people to be personally in favor of, and also personally opposed to, the taking of vaccines to promote personal or public health.  

The Connection to Abortion

It is also worth noting that these same documents address the question of the connection of the use of aborted fetal tissue to produce some or all of the Covid19 Vaccines.  Long-standing tenets of Catholic moral theology show that the connection between those originally intrinsically evil acts of abortion and the present-day act of taking one of the major lines of Covid19 Vaccines that may have come from those same acts places a very remote level of blame on a vaccine recipient.  

It would be tantamount to saying that no individual may ever purchase a product made in China because the entire Chinese industrial and economic production system relies on a nation-wide policy of forced abortions of its citizens.   An individual may choose to avoid a Covid19 vaccine out of a desire to avoid even the remotest connection to abortion, and similarly one may choose to never buy Chinese manufactured goods for the same reason, but doing so lands one in a moral category of choice or burden that goes beyond what we deem essential for maintaining a clean conscience due to the other overriding considerations of personal and public safety if no other options are available. 

It is tragic and lamentable that any proposed medical remedy has even the remotest connection to an abortion, nonetheless the major Covid19 vaccines are allowed for a Catholic to use due to an unfortunate lack of available and effective alternatives.  

The Specific Difficulties of the Covid19 Vaccine Situation: A Commentary 

Much of the above is helpful if one is speaking about the moral liceity of vaccines in general when it comes to Catholic teaching.  However, in the current situation of vaccinations as a response to Covid19, other factors are at work that are impacting the question of whether or not an individual, Catholic or non, should be pressured into taking the vaccine.  

Covid19 Responses To-Date Have Not Inspired Confidence

One major difficulty is the rapid speed at which the development of the Covid19 vaccine has moved, along with the rapid speed of the decisions to impose its use on the global population as a remedy for this virus.  An individual has good reason to be weary of being injected with any substance that has not undergone rigorous, long-term medical trials and tests.  For some people these risks are viewed with minimal concern, which is their choice.  However, for others, there are a host of reasonable questions that swirl around this new vaccine, and all the decision making about it, that lead them to prefer the risk of contracting Covid itself over the risk of ingesting a substance they view as a long-term threat to their health.   

The ever-shifting recommendations about distance, sanitizing, masks, vaccines, and other proposed remedies for Covid19 have done little to instill confidence in the authorities that are advancing these measures.   As has the arguable lack of established, solid data on nearly every aspect of the outbreak of Covid19.  There is no question that every aspect of how Covid19 has been dealt with has become politicized on both sides of the situation.  All of this leads to an understandable sense of hesitancy on the part of some about the nature of the vaccine itself, its effectiveness, and its necessity. 

The Social Pathogen of Suspicion 

Our era is now one of predominant suspicion toward institutions and people in authority, both in and out of the Church.  No person and no entity is above scrutiny any longer by a population that actively seeks to identify exceptions to norms as a means to undermine confidence in those same norms. 

It is tempting for institutions, employers, and authorities to seek to overcome the culture of suspicion by using their power to force individuals into behaviors with which they do not agree.  More helpful would be efforts by these same institutions to be aware of the reasons for people’s suspicions and to take greater measures that attempt to address them by providing facts and transparent information, and to engage in reasonable dialogue with those who disagree.  As time passes, if the vaccine continues to show itself to be an effective deterrent against Covid19, it will be easier to convince through argument, rather than through force, that being vaccinated is an intelligent choice.  Forcing reluctant people only furthers the social pathogen of suspicion rather than healing it.  

The Need For A Well-Articulated End Game

Additionally, the public authorities that have been responsible for orchestrating the communication about Covid19 as well as the proposed responses to it have not adequately articulated what the end-game is that we are all supposed to be striving to achieve.  Do we want Covid19 eradicated completely? Do we want sickness itself to be eliminated?  What measure of illness are we willing to live with?  What sort of hardships can we as persons and as a culture learn to bear?  These are complex questions that a purely secular viewpoint has difficulty answering and as such it erodes confidence in the authorities that are currently driving the discussion. 

To a Christian who understands that our fallen world will always be imperfect, that this is not heaven, that suffering has redemptive value in the Cross of Christ, and that a cure cannot be worse than the disease itself, much of the Covid19 reality that we are dealing with strikes us as fundamentally unrealistic.   Christians have always supported the gift of healing that medicine can offer, and we pray for cures, and we tend to the sick, but we always do so in the broader context and understanding of what is realistic in a fallen world in which we ourselves are not God.  

Therefore, there is need for balance in our approaches to remedies for diseases, or for social ills in general.  If there is not balance, then there arises the grave danger of the trampling of individual human rights by the hands of the powerful who, either for good or for bad intentions, seek to control far more than they should.   In our haste, in our state of panic, and in our often well-intentioned desire to save lives, it is unfortunately the case that there is much about our reactions to Covid19 that have not been carefully thought through.  In some ways our responses have already been shown to have done other types of harm, most especially in the realm of mental health. 

A “Religious Exemption” Is An Unhelpful Label

Appealing to “religion” as reason for an exemption from the vaccine unfortunately obscures the fact that at the most basic level the issues at stake in the conversation and decision are about human nature in general, as human rights issues, prior to being a matter of faith.  Appealing to a religious exemption for the Covid19 vaccine also might lead to the mistaken idea that observant Catholics are opposed to vaccinations in general by doctrinal necessity, which would be an inaccurate reading of our teachings.   

However, where our Catholic religion is of great assistance in this situation is that it articulates for us in terms of ethics and moral theology precisely what might be making us uneasy about vaccine requirements if left otherwise to our own vocabulary we cannot find the words to express it.  The Christian faith is fundamentally an articulation of the deepest truths of the human person.  As such the language of Christian ethics that applies to matters of conscience, proportionate reasoning, certitude, and our need for truth in the face of questionable circumstances is extremely helpful and is binding on all of humanity.   It must be understood that if a Catholic is seeking a religious exemption what they really mean is that they are seeking a human exemption that is owed to them by their created nature, not by their faith. 

To the extent that vaccines do indeed promote overall better public health, the desire to encourage wide-spread vaccinations is understandable.   In light of that one has sympathy for government, business, and employer policies that require vaccination for Covid19.  

However, in the light of the established Catholic doctrines that articulate what is true about all of humanity, not merely Catholics, that seek to honor the inviolable zone of personal conscience, and in the light of the questions about all matters related to Covid19 right now, serious questions of human dignity are at stake if there is undue pressure on anyone to receive this vaccine rather than allowing them to come to that decision on their own.

My Personal Decision to Be Vaccinated 

As an act of full disclosure, I wish to make it known that I am fully vaccinated with two doses of the Moderna Covid19 Vaccine that I received in April.  I came to the decision to be vaccinated in prayerful consideration of all of the above teachings, based on the personal circumstances of my life, based on the information about the virus and vaccine available at the time, and for what I concluded to be for the sake of overall public health.  No one forced me to be vaccinated, it was my free choice.  I continue to believe that I made the correct choice for myself and for others, and that my vaccination came about in a manner the Church desires: in a prayerful, uncoerced manner.  

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Holy Communion and the Catholic-in-Chief

At their recent June meeting, the Catholic Bishops of the United States voted to move ahead with the drafting of a teaching document focusing on the Eucharist in the life of the Church.  The timing of this is opportune for a host of reasons.  One would be that even before Covid, the Church in America (and in Europe) had been experiencing consistent declines in Mass attendance and also in catechetical understanding of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ.  Add to that what Covid did to Mass attendance, forcing what was already low to far, far lower levels, and one can easily see the need for a renewed teaching push about why the Eucharist matters. 

Additionally, as we move through Year B of the Sunday lectionary cycle, we are about to begin a multiweek-long walk through the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John which is a critically important Scriptural text about the Eucharist.  Following this upcoming batch of Gospel readings, the Church should be well-primed to embark upon a fuller Eucharistic revitalization later this year.  

Also, and most contentiously, the election of Joe Biden as President, who offers frequent public references to his Catholic practices, has brought to the surface a series of explosive issues that have been simmering in the American Catholic stew for quite awhile, all of which ultimately converge on the proper understanding of the Eucharist.  This does make sense in light of our doctrinal description of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of our faith.  If there are any fault lines in lived Catholic teaching and practice, they will inevitably intersect in the Eucharist itself.  The question of whether or not President Biden should be presenting himself for Communion is one facet of a much broader set of issues, and the proposed document will seek to address all of this as wholistically as possible. 

Nothing written here should pre-empt the document that the American Bishops have now voted to begin drafting, so there will be no commentary in this short article about the right answers regarding President Biden’s sacramental practices.  However, at this point in the national conversation it is helpful to state that all the questions on the table right now about who and what the Eucharist is, and what it means to encounter it authentically, are supremely important.  It is a disservice to reduce the Bishops’ discussion and initiatives to the level of the merely political, as though a group of them are simply out to get the President just in time for the next American election cycle. 

At only one other time in American history has a man who identifies himself as Catholic occupied the White House.  A Catholic as a president puts the whole spectrum of American Catholic life in full view of the nation for commentary, assessment, and evaluation.  Issues that might normally be “of the family,” as in our own family arguments behind closed doors, have now become a public spectacle for all to see.  The American presidency is a role of such tremendous prominence that it is unavoidable that the manner in which President Biden chooses to practice and profess Catholicism is going to be viewed by many, in and out of the Church, as an example to either be imitated or to be rejected.  In the interests of accurately articulating and transmitting the Catholic Faith, it is imperative that the American bishops offer commentary on his situation.  

Doing so of course automatically becomes a commentary on everything else that intersects in the particulars of President Biden’s practices and positions.  Which forces a necessary revisiting by the bishops of the fundamentals of Eucharistic doctrine and participation that bind everyone, not only the President.  Which in turn forces the American Church to do what it must never cease doing anyway: examine itself for signs of health and vitality as well as signs of atrophy in need of renewal.  Authentic self-examination is never an easy thing as the heated debates surrounding this issue are already revealing. 

All of this has been a long time coming.  In so many respects this is not about President Biden at all.  It is about the constant question of the compatibility of Catholicism with American life.  Which is to say that we need the bishops to debate and to speak, and we also need to understand that we are never going to be beyond these questions in our American Catholic experience.  Like the Eucharist itself, the questions that swirl around its authentic reception will be with us until the end of the age.  To not take up these questions is to fail to take the gift, mystery, and demands of the Eucharist with the seriousness that it deserves as the source and summit of our faith. 

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Re-Ordering the Disorder of June

In Catholic circles, the Month of June is customarily devoted to honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  True, we do honor the Sacred Heart all throughout the year in lots of ways, for example on the First Fridays of Ordinary time.  Countless Catholic worship spaces and family homes have statues and shrines to the Sacred Heart which allows for frequent daily acts of homage.  The Sacred Heart is of such devotional importance as a tenet of our faith that even with all the other types of regular examples just offered, it still gets its own month on the devotional calendar.  Indeed it gets its own solemn feast day on the calendar, which occurs every June.  We will celebrate the solemnity this coming Friday.  June is indeed a privileged time to meditate upon this mystery.

It is providential that this is the case.  If one were to ask most people on the streets these days what June is all about they would probably say “pride month.”  We have by now perhaps gotten so used to hearing this title tossed about in the last decade or so that maybe it has begun to lose the necessary sting that it should have in our ears.  “Pride” is of course a vice and the deadliest of the capital sins.  In any truly Christian culture or world it would have been unthinkable to ever have a month dedicated, even if only by name, to pride itself.  On its face it is actually a very shocking and appalling thing to say: “pride month.”  Pride is not what we want to glorify without some heavy contextualizing.  

Contextualizing would be to explain what it is that we are proud of exactly.  And doing so these days necessitates an appeal to “the rainbow.”  Which is of course only a further source of bewilderment to believing Christians who, going back no more than about 20 years, would have first associations of “rainbow” with the Noah story from Genesis.  Yes, the rainbow was the sign that God gave to Noah and his decedents after the flood to remind them that even though humanity had engaged in gross sins of disobedience, most prominently those of sibling murder and the sexual perversion of the Nephilim (see Gen 6:1-4), that he would overlook our pride and never flood us again. The rainbow was a reminder of how God’s mercy overcame the disordered pride of humanity.  So, linking a rainbow and the vice of pride, as we currently do, seems all very confusing to anyone schooled in our consistent theological tradition.  

To return then to the Sacred Heart:  the heart of Jesus is a heart that is humble, and it is one of profound love. More specifically, it is a love that is firmly rooted in sacrificing one’s self, and fleeing from the glorification of the sensory, the emotional, the popular, and the convenient.  The way that we can ensure that we love authentically, that is according to what always flees from the sensory, the emotional, the popular, and the convenient is to love according to the moral law.  The consistent moral law of the Scriptures and the Church excludes the very sexual practices that are glorified in the secular observance of “pride month.”  Precisely because we seek to love authentically, we cannot accept or seek to “mainstream” what we know to be unacceptable practices or lifestyles.

It is indeed grossly prideful to allow ourselves to think that we are somehow now culturally smarter in our attitudes about these things than our cultural predecessors of prior eras. It is demeaning to them to suggest they were wrong to intuitively know what is fundamentally unnatural, as we busily go about today re-writing the laws of nature at a dizzying pace, while at the same time smugly claiming to be so “green” and “nature-oriented” in our time. If we are going to contextualize “pride month” then cultural hubris seems the best way to do so.

Which is to say that if anyone who is a believing Christian these days finds anything troubling in the secular associations, or the unnatural acts of “pride month,” we should quickly find refuge and conversion in the Sacred Heart.  It is the antidote to what is out of order around us this time of the year.  His humble, merciful, and obedient heart is our example and pattern to follow.  His heart is filled with love even for those who, to their detriment, reject his teachings.  We are reminded in the prayers and readings of the Solemnity that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Life is always lighter in the depths of our hearts when we walk according to his designs, even if sacrifices come with doing so.  

May we love in humble obedience.  May he make our hearts humble and gentle like his own.    May we reject pride in all of its disordered manifestations, both in our own hearts, and in the cultural disorder around us.

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Between “Catholic Amish” and “Catholic Lite”

For the entire history of the Christian Church there has existed the struggle about how we are to live in the world without at the same time becoming corrupted by the world.  At many points along the way the Church did indeed become very worldly with damaging results. At the same time there have always been movements in Christianity that advocate a more pure, untainted, un-worldly faith.  These same movements tend towards a withdrawal from the world into self-created havens or zones of like-minded observant believers.  In these havens there is agreement about common daily practices that allow them to avoid the taint of the secular.  This is done, it is said, in the name of authentically preserving Christian life and revelation from hostile, worldly forces that bear within themselves sinful characteristics.  

Withdrawing From the World Is Not the Christian Vocation 

The most familiar example of such a movement or group to many of us in this part of the world would be the Mennonites, or as they are more commonly called, the Amish.  For them most types of contact with modern social structures and forces are sinful and are to be avoided. The Amish accomplish this act of avoidance by living together with other like-minded thinkers who adopt a commonly agreed to set of behaviors that keeps the sinful world out, keeps the purely observant believers in, and thereby carries an untainted Christian life (as they see it) forward in history.  In all of this they consider themselves to be saved and in many respects as the “elect.” 

Catholics have constantly had to fend off the temptation, in every era, to become like the Amish.  We all want to be pure and to avoid sin, and it is true we must take that very seriously.  It is true that in “the world” in every era there are always dangerous ideas, practices, interfaces, and contacts that run the risk of doing harm to the soul.  It is true that we must draw hard lines about what is right and wrong.  It is true that we are obligated to tell the world around us what is true and what is false, and that we are to be a witness to another way to live. 

That said, withdrawing into isolated Christian communes has never been a viable mechanism to accomplish all this.  Each time in history that the temptation arose to withdraw and become some pure, Amish-type entity, the Church has had to correct such movements and explain that we as believers are obligated to engage the world and to live in the mainstream.  The reason is because this is how we act as saving agents in the world. Out of heroic love for the world we choose to live in it, even though it may make us feel “safer” to withdraw and live among the “pure” ones.  

Not only is it forsaking our duty to save the world if we choose to withdraw from it, but doing so always leads to its own set of spiritual and practical problems.  Insular, separatist communes inevitably require their own sets of rules as well as their own type of charismatic personality leaders in order to sustain their required borders against the secular.  They gravitate toward certain clergy, or bishops, or loud voices as a center of stability.  Which inevitably leads to arguments and to, in most cases, a lack of sustainability.  It also becomes very difficult for such communities not to fall prey to the sins of pride and of control as they seek to mold a new generation against every possible outside threat they can think of, doing great harm to them in the process.  

Monasteries Are for Monks 

It is popular these days to read back into Medieval Europe some romantic solution to our current situation of cultural upheaval in what, back then, were the monasteries.  We are to make little islands of Christian civilization in an otherwise post-Christian, fallen world.  This is the so-called “Benedict Option” advanced by Rod Dreher and others like him.  His reading of that time period is too simplistic and is therefore inaccurate, meaning that his solution should not be thought of as the broad-based answer to secular opposition.  There is also no such thing as going backwards in history and this must be kept carefully in mind as we search the past for the answers to our contemporary dilemmas.  

Monasteries are not a valid historical counter-example to the trends described above for various reasons.  The Church’s long monastic and eremitic traditions, while intentionally fleeing “the world” through the observance of the evangelical counsels, still maintained intentional connections with the currents of the world around them. In most cases monasteries were the busy hub of their village or territory, fully engaging in the economic and political currents of the day. Men and women of consecrated life saw their sacrifices of withdrawal as a means to be mission-oriented for the good of the salvation of the larger world. The religious communities that maintained the healthiest balance of withdrawal and also engagement vis a vis the world are the ones that survived through time.   

More to the point, the generally accepted viewpoint within the Church of the monastic life is that it was, and remains, a unique calling of a small segment of the larger Christian community.   It is not meant to be the mainstream vocation of the lay, baptized faithful.  Once the laity, either as families or as single persons, attempt to become too monastic or too underground in their outlook and practices then corrections are in order.  

Being Comfortable in the World Is Not the Christian Vocation

Not only has there always been the need for the Church to guard against too strong a tendency towards the insular, there has also always been the need to guard against the tendency to blend in too comfortably with the world. At various points along the way in our long Christian history, there has arisen the need for substantial reform movements in order to return the Church to what fundamentally distinguishes us from the profane.  Worldly, secular attachments and ideas are always infesting the Church in the same way that weeds are constantly trying to take over a garden.  It is a necessary, and also a delicate process, to constantly be weeding out what does not belong.  

What Does It Mean to be “Catholic” Today?

Our current era of the Church is once again not much different than the prior ones when it comes to confronting these divergent and excessive tendencies with regards to “the world.”   As so much becomes secular around us, the divide is growing between what we might call different groups who compete for the same label of “Catholic.”  There are the “secular Catholics” who are simply the baptized, Christmas and Easter Catholics who have a Catholic label but exhibit few other markers of the faith.  On the other hand there are the “observant Catholics” who are regular church-goers, and who seek to adhere to the entirety of the Catholic life that the Church proposes and professes.  The secular Catholics are growing more secular as the culture grows more secular, and the observant ones are growing more isolated.  In such a scenario the temptation for the observant to withdraw from the culture and form pure, Amish-type communities grows stronger and stronger.  

Conversely, the temptation for the “secular Catholics” is to either leave the Church all together, or to actively lobby the Church to re-think her teachings and catch up with the times.  Such a mindset assumes that it is the Church that must learn from the secular world rather than the reverse. Historically, this type of mindset in its most unbalanced and unbridled form has taken the shape of heresies and schisms in Christianity, giving birth to more liberal communities that ultimately tend to blend in and disappear with the culture that consumes them through the passing years. 

I have great sympathy for the movement out of the world that I see happening more and more around me in the observant Catholic circles.  Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a little Catholic village where I never get my hands or my soul dirty by having to deal with all that is so pervasively corrupt in our modern economic and legislative structures? Wouldn’t it also be nice to just have a “pure” Church that does not have to deal with the nagging questions of the more secular minded people in our midst? Does one just simply wish them away?  

The Church has always said that an approach to this perpetual dilemma that is too one-sided is not the answer.  No, the difficult fact is that the secular Catholics need to be less secular, and the observant Catholics cannot avoid getting hands and selves dirty.  Reform is indeed needed these days to purge us of poisonous practices and ideas that circulate within large sectors of the Catholic population, but the reform cannot amount to withdrawal.  There is no leaving the world, however tempting it may be.  The Gospel is given to push us into the world and to save it by doing so.  Into the world we will continue to go.  At the same time we do indeed need to stand against the world.  The Gospel is given to the world to save it from itself and therefore as revelation and truth it must be protected from the onslaught of secular non-sense.  Therefore it is not an option to simply go along with the currents of the day without critical questioning.  

“Catholic” has always meant “universal,” as in: our teachings both apply to every human person and are also open to and accessible to every person, without any need of secrecy and also without any apologies for what we know is true to a world that often questions us.  “Catholic Amish” is not the way forward and neither is “Catholic Lite.”  “Catholic” remains the answer in every era.  

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Palm Sunday and Desiring the Donkey

I do not know many people who aspire to, or enjoy, riding on donkeys.  It’s possible that I may have ridden on one at some point in my life as a young child at some petting zoo or something.  Maybe you have ridden a mule down the Grand Canyon trail (I walked, but only part way).  On the whole, we have little use for them these days.  Horses are instead the animal of prized recreational choice.  They are fast, they are beautiful, they are sleek, they are strong.  These days they are also in many respects a status symbol since they are not really needed for labor as they were in the age before mechanized transportation.  The mule or donkey is in most respects, and by contrast, an animal of humiliation and amusement in our culture. In other parts of the world that are very poor, they are like the family tractor.

Jesus does not want to sit on a horse to enter into Jerusalem for the Passover.  In the ancient world the horse was an animal for warriors or soldiers.  An animal for the wealthy. An animal for those with grand earthly status.  It was the right of a king to take any horse that he encountered, regardless of who it belonged to, and sit upon it to claim it for his own use.  For all these reasons, Jesus does not want a horse for his welcome with palm and olive branches.  He is not that type of king, and he is not that type of person.  

No, Jesus wants a donkey.  The animal of the common person, and the animal of lowly means. An animal that is a simple beast of burden, and maybe even one of humiliation.  On the donkey he sits, and on the donkey he rides like a big sack of grain.  Were it not for all the waving branches, which was a gesture reserved for mighty conquerors, Palm Sunday would be a rather pathetic scene to witness: this simple Galilean grown man bouncing along atop a donkey.

When one understands with the eyes of faith just who this man is then the whole thing makes perfect sense.  Our God is indeed king, but He is king in a way that does not rely at all upon earthly sources of power and authority.  Therefore, he is content to live on this earth in the manner of the lowly, and in so doing shows his tremendous power.  What a thing it is to ponder how low the mighty God can make himself.  

The Church enters into Holy Week this year in much the same manner as the Lord entered into Jerusalem.  In the eyes of the world right now we appear not so much like a mighty, strong, popular, beautiful horse, but rather like the lowly, embarrassing, simple, beat up donkey.  We have shed so much of our earthly glory of late, being reduced now to the world’s mule.  Who pays us much attention?  Who is looking out for our rights?  Who is interested in anything we are saying? 

Yet, for those who see the Church through the eyes of faith for who she really is, a lot of this makes perfect sense.  Our power does not come from anything of this earth.  It comes from our union with the one who was content to be a common man, relying on the love of his Father for all that he needed. On one hand the Jerusalem establishment totally underestimated this man on the donkey.  At the same time, perhaps precisely because they could sense there was just something untouchable and other worldly about him, they considered him dangerous and deserving of death.  It is the same with the Church today and our opponents.  On one hand we are not much to look at these days.  On the other hand, the secular forces sense that we are a tremendous threat to their merely earthly authority which is why we are attacked with such vigor. 

Holy Week reminds us, among other things, that the Church should not be surprised if we find ourselves in the same position as our Lord.  It is the donkey that we must aspire to as well, and not the horse.  Of the two animals, it turns out it is the donkey that was and is far more powerful. 

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