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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Transgenderism Has No Clothes

Transgenderism, especially the push to enshrine in civil law a protected status for people who consider themselves not to be a male or a female in the customary sense of those designations, has increasingly been filling our news these days. The topic is long, complex, and loaded with sensitivities. 

It is indeed important to speak with sensitivity about sensitive topics in the hope of fostering greater understanding in the hearts and minds of people who are wounded over these matters. However, in recent years the cultural departure from objective reality itself, and from a healthy view of human nature, has become dramatic when it comes to the topic of transgenderism. It has reached the point where even the slightest departure from its ideology is viewed as hateful.  In such a climate, one loses hope that speaking with tip-toed sensitivity on the subject is going to make any difference at all. 

Therefore, fruitless sensitivity aside, the current cultural moment would greatly benefit from some clearly articulated counter-points offered from what has now become the “classical” perspective on human nature.  It is the Church’s role as the guardian of the authentic understanding of human nature to speak clearly for the sake of the present generation and for the generations to come. 

“Male” or “Female” is How God Wants Us to View Ourselves

The Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are essential voices of divinely revealed truth about how we understand reality. They are very clear that humans are created male and female, and that maleness and femaleness are willed by God as good things.  For us as Catholics those are binding statements of faith and truth.  Unfortunately, the same statements are increasingly viewed as un-scientific in the light of all the subtle variations of biological markers that are evident when one looks hyper-closely at male and female physiology across an entire population.  This leads many to conclude that doctrinal statements about “male” and “female” will, before long, be viewed as something the Church was forced to retreat from in the same way we had to let go of the Medieval idea that the earth was the center of the universe.  

The subtle variations mentioned above are in the vast majority of cases just that: subtle. Which means that any claims to the effect that modern science has shown there really are not two sexes is more ideological than it is scientific.  Far more iron-clad across the whole population is the simple truth that, subtle variations aside, a woman is able to be a mother and carry life inside of her, and a man is able to be a father and conceive a child inside of a woman.  

If one understands that maleness and femaleness are most fundamentally about the creation of new life, then all of the subtle variations in biological markers are quickly reduced to something of minimal importance. We quickly arrive back at what the Bible has said all along: God made us male and female, and that we cannot switch our gender identities. With science being lost in an ideological fog on this point right now, it is the gift of Divine Revelation to put everything back in perspective for the good of the human race that would otherwise destroy itself in gender theory.

Men Are Men and Women Are Women. 

It is true that there is a very small segment of the human population that experiences genuine sexual identity discordance that originates in biology and psychology. This is a mental condition in which a person deeply questions his or her given sexual identity.  For those people, the remedies require care and compassion, rooted in a proper understanding of the situation.  A proper understanding holds to the normative character of the categories of male and female that all of us do fit in to, even if imperfectly at times.  For the ways in which we sometimes feel conflicted in our sexual identity, these are best explained through the ancient lenses of fallen man, sin, grace, the cross, and the resurrection with some good counseling thrown in to help.  Remedies that suggest we should attempt to change our biological sex are never, ever, compatible with God’s plan for us as people and will not leave us satisfied.  

Much of our world today lives totally cut off from the land, from agriculture, and from the raw forces of nature.  In such a world, it is easy to begin to think that gender is fluid and that we can manipulate it, or even that we can be overly conflicted about how we understand ourselves as a man or a woman.  Unfortunately, it can even become trendy or an attention seeking behavior to try and “go against the norm” by ruminating too deeply on the idea that we are really not what our bodily sexual identity shows that we are.  When that happens to us, the answer is not to suddenly decide we are a different gender and seek legal protection from any attempts to be told otherwise.  Instead, the answer is to take it as it is: part of the mental roller coaster of adolescent and adult life that we just weather as best we can without re-inventing reality, or worse without mutilating otherwise healthy bodily reproductive systems. 

Legalized Violence Against Human Dignity

To enshrine “transgender” as a distinct biological and legal category, on the same plane with “male” and “female,” actively erases the unique roles and gifts of men and women in the world. A man with inner conflicts about his sexual identity who decides he is female, and who attempts to bend his biology around his mental self-image even to great lengths, can never truly be thought of as a woman. Insisting that family, friends, neighbors, legislators, and employers label him as a woman is a flight from his true identity and a degradation of true femininity.  Viewing a man as a woman denies women their right to authentic self-expression, and their right to the safety and security of settings and circumstances that uniquely belong to women.  All the converse is equally true of a woman seeking to convince herself she is a man.  Rather than being left with a social situation in which we all acknowledge a “range” of gender possibilities, as the transgender movement would have everyone believe, what is actually left is generic humanity bereft of any deep and lasting identity or community.  

For the vast majority of the human population that intuitively grasps the objective fact of biological, God-willed masculinity and femininity, it does violence to us to force us to construct an alternative version of reality of sexual identity.  A woman who forces me to claim that she is a man attacks my dignity because she denies me my fundamental right to acknowledge what is objectively true.  It also denies anyone else the ability to offer meaningful help and assistance through expert counseling and therapy, thereby thwarting the God-given desire in all of us to offer authentic, compassionate healing to those in pain.  Embracing God’s plan of masculinity and femininity leads to true human communion in the bonds of objective truth. Denying God’s plan in the manner that transgender ideology does only leads to isolation in the shadow world of make-believe, and to the fracturing of the human family. 

Now Is the Time to Speak Clearly

The Church needs to speak boldly right now about this before it is too late, recognizing that we are never going to win a popularity contest on this issue.  We must understand the transgender movement for the grave misunderstanding of human nature that it is, and we must fight for our legal rights to point out reality to those who would deny it. We must do so as part of our God-given mission to protect people from ideas, forces, and practices that spell disaster for the human family.  This is a duty that all of us should take seriously and we should make our voices known to those who hold public office.  Any society that intentionally and legally denies the truth that we are created male and female has no future. 

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Our Sanitized, Lifeless World

One of the cultural markers of our era is a heightened interest in ecology and in the natural world. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from advocacy for public policy changes such as the Green New Deal, to an obsession with natural foods, and to the ever growing interest in outdoor recreational activities.

Ironically however, the modern world seems to prefer to love the natural world from a distance and only as long as we can control it, choosing to quickly retreat back in to our man-made controlled environments whenever nature becomes less than convenient. What’s more, we have grown so accustomed to our ability to alter what is natural, that we rarely consider anymore how doing so has altered our thinking, our ethics, and even our spirituality. As our modern world has grown more and more removed or insulated from regular contact with raw nature, it has altered our views on personhood, and on the reality of suffering.  

Not long ago, most of the people who lived in this country were either farmers, or, if they lived in cities they had probably grown up with direct exposure to the agrarian world.  Much of this began to shift with the 1950’s/60’s moves to the suburbs, and the succeeding generation (which would be my own) being raised more and more in a zone of low-exposure to the cycle of life and death that defines so much of the natural world.  As time has passed we have steadily built a reliable infrastructure, now including a whole virtual world which is fundamentally un-natural, that shelters most of us from the gritty reality of all that is hard about the created world.  In short, we have grown very accustomed to what I would term a “sanitized” existence, where all is well-controlled.   

In such a climate, we forget that things change, births are supposed to be un-planned, sickness is ultimately an unstoppable force, and that death is everywhere.  We also forget that in the natural world where there is so much sickness, death, and a lack of control, it is compensated for by a tremendous abundance of life and fertility.  Life is a truly tenacious force and in its own cycle it masters death, if it is not tampered with, or rendered infertile.   

For the Christian, the suffering, dying, and rising of the natural world that used to shape humanity without exception (until our recent un-natural era) finds it’s fullest expression in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  His entry into the natural cycle of dying and rising, and his gift to us of himself in the sacraments, allows us to move up to the next level of the cycle, so that our death leads to a rebirth in the life to come.  Christ is what moves us through suffering, through death, and in to new life.  

To a world that no longer lives close to nature, except these days through hyper-controlled and well-equipped camping and hunting (read “leisure”) activities that, if they don’t go well bring no harm, it is difficult to grasp the necessity of these points, of Christ’s death and life.  It is also very difficult to confront suffering when we are so used to controlling all of it, even thinking we can escape it.  

All of the above is part of why I love the changing of the seasons, especially the Fall.  All around us now the world is dying back, as it must do at this time every year.  It is delightful to see the plants and trees not resisting or arguing with this simple reality, except by doing what they have always done, which is getting ready for the seeds and growth of what will come next.  

Persons can only push back the boundaries of nature so far before we usher in a type of Hell for ourselves on this earth.  Maybe as we watch the leaves fall now, we would be wise to meditate upon this simple fact, and also on the gift of Christian revelation that shows us the true path of personhood, and opens up for us the only real pathway from death into new life. 

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On Respecting Human Life

As we cross into October, we again find ourselves observing Respect Life Sunday in this country. In this contentious election year, and in the context of another heated national conversation over the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice, the issues surrounding the sanctity of human life are “front and center.”

Much of the emphasis on Respect Life Sunday tends to land on the very important topic of abortion and all that goes with it. This is a bit unfortunate because, for as fundamental and critical as opposition to abortion is from a personal and public policy perspective, it can at times keep us from seeing the broader set of issues that go along with rightly understanding personhood and life.

Opposition to abortion is one logical component of a larger perspective that seeks to understand human nature according to the fullness of God’s design. As one understands the dignity and meaning of humanity as God created it, one realizes that respecting life means honoring and upholding a consistent set of ethical and behavioral principles that have a wide reach. Respecting life means respecting personhood, which is not merely about the beginning and ending of biological life, about life in the womb and life in a Hospice. It is about how one treats those who are vulnerable, and about how one seeks to uphold justice, equality, and the meeting of basic human needs for all members of society. These are questions of poverty, race, compensation for wages, our criminal justice system, and the financial protection of stable family life, just to name a few. In short, if one is imbued with a deep and sincere sense of wonder and awe over what a person is, as God has created us, then we do not treat people as disposable commodities. That is true in the womb, it is true in the factory, it is true in the hospital, it is true in the jail.

There is more, though. These days respecting life means respecting the boundaries of what we can and cannot tamper with in the realm of God’s plan for the human body and God’s plan for our human vocation. Respecting life means opposing artificial contraception, in vitro fertilization, same sex marriages and activities, any type of gay sub culture, swift divorce processes, transgender sexual reassignment surgeries, any theory of gender that denies we are made as male and female, and any attempt to manufacture/ create life outside of the womb. Respecting life means opposition to pornography, masturbation, fornication, and adultery. Respecting life also means respecting our fundamental right to worship and practice our faith publicly, and our right to give expression to our faith by creating public policies that regulate all of the above practices so that humanity can be fully and adequately protected.

All of this has to do with the correct understanding of the dignity and meaning of the human person. If the last few decades have taught us anything, it is that all of the above stands and falls logically as a whole. If a person or society begins to rationalize or justify a departure from God’s plan in even just one of the above concrete areas, it leads inevitably to the demise of the rest of them. We have rampant abortions in our era because we have justified a whole host of other behaviors and factors that lead to them, all of which undermine life and humanity. It is not enough to merely oppose abortion. One must oppose a whole host of behaviors that violate God’s vocation and plan for humanity if one is going to be truly pro-life.

All of this is why election years and supreme court picks can pose such challenges for us. Americans these days are a people of divergent and contradictory allegiances, and our two-party political apparatus is a reflection of this chaotic fact. It is not possible for a candidate or party that is in favor of abortion to respect human life. That is a fundamental contradiction. At the same time, even if a candidate or party publicly and rightly opposes legalized abortion, they must also be committed to opposing all of the other social forces that denigrate humanity and frequently give rise to abortions in the first place. That is a tall order these days.

Our fervent prayers for the respect for life are very important. Prayer does lead to the transformation of hearts which ultimately must lead to public policies that do protect the human person in its fullness. We will continue to pray, and we will continue to commit ourselves to the total creation of a comprehensive culture of life.

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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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