Archive Edition: A Thanksgiving Day Prayer

Re-posted by popular demand from November of 2015:  “A Thanksgiving Day Prayer.”

Happy Thanksgiving 2019! 

O God, as we gather around this table, we are grateful.

We thank you for this turkey that sacrificed its life for our meal.
It’s an organic Turkey, God, raised by you, only on the grass of the field. We thank you that it is preservative and hormone free.

We pray for our neighbors. They have a name-brand Turkey, and we do not know how that bird tastes. Such unclean and tortured meat will never pass our lips. May you have mercy on our neighbors, O God.

We thank you for the gift of football.
O Lord, you know that before long, the dinner conversation will grow tedious. But, in thy great mercy, you have granted us this large, flat-screen television, and on it we will watch, as you know, the Detroit Lions. And by the light of its massive screen, we will be blessed with the gift of substance-free conversation until you grant us the nightfall.

O God, we thank you for the variety of menu requests and dietary restrictions you blessed us with in the preparation of this feast today. We are so grateful that you sent us relatives and in-laws who cannot eat gluten, and who are enjoying low carb, or low fat, or low sodium diets. We thank you for the hummus we made them LAST Thanksgiving, so that THIS YEAR, in thy Divine Providence, you prompted them to bring their own food with them. You are indeed, the Almighty.

O Lord, we thank you for our family. Even for the people that my children married- against my will, O God. But, at least they got married. Grant us all patience, this day, O God, you who create blended families of Vikings and Packers fans, of Lutherans and Catholics, of Republicans and Democrats, of iPhone and Samsung users- you who just delight, O God, in stirring the pot. O God, our family demonstrates that you have a grand, grand sense of humor. You who are the God of bickering.

O God, last of all, we thank you for our faith. In the end, that’s what matters most, isn’t it? Through it all we trust you, through it all we learn to love each other, through it all we even learn to enjoy each other, and therefore, O God, by some miracle of the first order, we decide we will do this again NEXT year.

Because indeed, O God, in the end, we are grateful.

O God, grant us all, a blessed Thanksgiving. Amen

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A Lament For Election 2020

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

 Of Wars and Elections

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

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

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

The Unavoidable Dilemma of Defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging the Election 2020 Dilemma with Grace: Some Points

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Transformation Is The Goal.  Prayer is the First Step

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

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

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

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

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Dead Funerals

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

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

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

Death in the Context of a Monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Is No Longer About the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

The Need to Bury Dead Rituals and Bad Theology

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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In Search of Halloween Joy

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

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

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

“Fun” is King

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

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

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

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

Moving From “Fun” to “Joy.”

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

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

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

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

A Lack of Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Green and Christian

‘The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to men.” Psalm 115:16

Is Greta Thunberg crazy? A prophet? Both?

Even some members of the German press raised an eyebrow at her dramatic address at the recent United Nations Climate Summit in New York. If they, the leaders of the climate protection charge in Europe were taken aback, then there should be no arguing about the fact that young Ms. Thunberg over-reached in that most visible of world pulpits. Over-reach and over-emote she certainly did.

That said, it would be foolish to dismiss her too quickly. Like it or not, she has become the face of the latest mass social change movement to ripple its way through the cultural and political fabric of the Western world, that of climate activism.

It is a social cause and force that is not going away anytime soon. Certainly the volume of media stories on the topic of climate change, and the rhetoric for action to protect the earth has continued to grow in the American cultural and political scene. The level of conversation in America about climate activism pales in comparison to the place the same topic holds in the public square of Europe, most especially in Central and Northern Europe.

Largely unnoticed in America until very recently, the “Fridays for Future” rallies for the protection of the environment, in which thousands of young children skip school classes on Fridays to advocate for climate change legislation, have become a major public fixture in Europe. The Green parties have made major gains in recent European elections, pushing all the established centrist European parties on the Continent to up their public rhetoric on climate protection. The interest in climate activism is growing among the young who, like each new generation, hunger for some cause to promote. Climate activism has arrived on the scene as a major captivator of minds and hearts across a wide demographic spectrum.

Whose Turf is Greener?

What does a Christian make of all this? Like so many things these days, it is confusing, which underscores the need for some critical ecclesial analysis of this latest social activist cause.

Noteworthy is the case of another recent person in the press who did not grab nearly the media attention of Ms. Thunberg but whose story nonetheless brings the crux of the dilemma of an adequate Christian response into clearer focus.

Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau, Germany drew some public fire for openly marching in the recent Fridays for Future Climate Strike march in Passau with the youth and other activists of the city. He expressed his admiration for the cause of protecting the environment and the passion of the youth. For his public support, Bishop Oster received sharp criticism from the local leftist political leadership for showing the Church’s face in an arena in which they said it does not belong. The implication being: “this is a secular, government matter in which you and the Church have no voice.”

The Bishop Oster story is instructive for different reasons. For one, the sentiments of that local official sum up much of what is wrong with the Green movement in its current manifestation. Also, one might argue that Bishop Oster is on the right track for what is needed by way of response from the Church, although his example is only a small first step.

The Green Counter-Religion

A purely secular Green movement, or even a mildly Christian version that is awash in neo-pantheistic thinking, is a flawed ideology. Ironically, it is not difficult to identify the manner in which it also has all the trappings of its own religion.

Consider the parallels (which others have pointed out long ago) between Christianity and the ideology of climate activism in its secular manifestations. At the heart of it is what every modern social activist movement requires for its success, namely, a victim. Impactful political, social movements in recent times have come to the rescue of the vulnerable victims of racial minorities, of unborn children, of people who are attracted to the same sex, of people who are unsure of how to live their gender just to name a few. In the Christian West, as Rene Girard so astutely noted, the ongoing need to come to the defense of some publicly identifiable victim in a social system is deeply ingrained.

In the case of the climate activist movement, the latest victim for public concern and heart-felt sympathy is the earth itself, with a variety of victim subsets being especially fragile species and environmental zones. Only secondarily, contrary to the Green rhetoric, is humanity itself the real victim of concern that is driving the activist forces. This is because, again following Girard, systems also require scapegoats which in the current cultural discourse of climate activism is modern humanity itself.

With the identification of a victim comes the necessary moral codes of conduct, the “Commandments” about what is required of persons and societies in order to protect the victim. From this comes the growing litany of personal, social, or corporate wrongs, or sins, that are harming the victim of the environment. From that follows the shaming of any entity that does not adhere to the emerging commandments of environmental protection.

There are creeds in this religion. They are formulated by the high priests and clergy of secular green activism, namely, the scientific community. The scientists are the holders of the knowledge that makes clear the pathway to perdition, and they are the ones who can offer any new scientific remedies that alone can bring salvation.

There are sacramental events, or rituals, in the Green religion, for example recycling. There are indulgences, most specifically the selling and purchasing of “Carbon Offsets” by those who can afford to buy their way into emission neutrality. There is also the apocalyptic vision of the end of our known existence with rising seas, falling skies, and a whole host of predictions of serious environmental imbalances.

Which all also leads to language of the earth as “mother,” essentially as a pagan deity, and with its deification comes the need to offer up sacrifices to protect and satisfy her. The most benign of those sacrificial offerings is the elimination of wasteful systems and ways of living, for example doing away with air conditioning, or with air travel. The most serious sacrificial offerings are the elimination of humans themselves by proposing, for example, that we abort children in impoverished parts of the world in order to save the planet.

Understanding the secular Green movement as a religion, or perhaps a counter-religion, offers important insights into its persuasive power, its appeal to emotion, and its ability to change hearts for good or for ill. It also explains how it is easy for adherents of the secular Green activist movement to view themselves as an alternative power center to traditional institutions such as governments, or more interestingly to the Church.

An authentic Christian response to the rising, secular climate activist movement must begin by honestly assessing the movement for exactly what it is: a competitive religion that is in some key ways incompatible with the Christian faith.

The Green Movement Is Not Without Merits and Requires Engagement

That being said, our response cannot stop only at the point of merely identifying a competitor. Doing so misses the truth at the heart of the climate activist movement, namely, that it is possible and important for humanity to act as more careful stewards of creation. Indeed every heresy or false religion has truth buried inside of it, and this new counter-religion is no different. Some of the concrete behavioral change practices that Green activism promotes are responsible and appropriate.

Choosing to view the secular Green activist movement merely as a competitor also keeps the Church on the margins of what will be a major and important social movement of the current era. We cannot allow that to happen for a variety of reasons.

Christ Is The Authentic Redeemer of Man and of the Entire Created Order

For one, and here Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis deserve some credit, the proper care of God’s creation is an important moral issue in an authentic Christian ethos. The primary reason for this has very little to do with secular science, but rather it is a matter of the recovery of, or maintenance of, a proper understanding of the human place in God’s created order as the link between the rest of the created cosmos and God himself. Indeed, God has given the earth to men as the Scriptures indicate, but it is given to us to be utilized in the context of radical communion with God.

Proper Biblical theology, proper Christology, and proper Christian anthropology situate redeemed man at the heart of the divine work of the redemption of creation. At the heart of THAT redemptive work is the Incarnation of Christ, the proclamation of the ethic of discipleship, the death of Christ on the Cross, and His Resurrection.

To put it succinctly, divine revelation teaches that man cannot understand himself, or properly heal his relationship to the rest of creation, without the placement of Christ directly at the center of the entire picture. Only in Christ does man fully understand his divine vocation as link, and steward, over the rest of creation. Only in Christ’s Good Friday sacrifice and Easter Sunday Resurrection can man live out this divine vocation. From this follows the essential role of the Sacraments, in which earthly matter (creation) is elevated in grace for the right recovery of our proper role vis a vis creation, and also for our sanctification to live this vocation.

Furthermore, only in the ethos of the Cross, and Good Friday, does man discover the means to live simply and sacrifically in order to truly use creation wisely and without needless waste. Only in the Resurrection does man fully realize the broad vision of the life to come that liberates us from the narrow vision of a life that is sustainable only by this, temporary planet. Only in the fullness of Biblical revelation does man understand that creation is not identical with the Creator. Only in the fullness of revelation does man understand that human life cannot be sacrificed or killed off in order to satisfy the needs of the resources for humanity as a whole. Only in grace is it possible for man to see that we will be the lynchpin, or the crowning of the created order rightly cared for, rather than the obstacle to its existence.

A More Authentic Christian Response Is Necessary

Sadly enough, it is rare to encounter a well-integrated Christian response to secular Green ideology that both recognizes the merits of the need to care for the earth, while at the same time presenting the necessary solution that comes to us in divine revelation. The secular Green movement, with Ms. Thunberg and all the rest, have landed upon a correct and important cause. However, without Christ, the Sacraments, and revelation, their cause will be forever denied the necessary means for its fulfillment or solution. What is worse, their cause will devolve into a dangerous, anti-human force for evil.

Which brings us back to Bishop Oster. One could say that an important step in the process of evangelizing the secular world on both the merits, as well as the limitations, of their thinking on climate activism is to at least get behind the passion of the cause. The cause for more careful stewardship of the earth’s resources is a good, holy, and noble one, regardless of the continually shifting conclusions of secular science. The Church’s voice needs to be at the table in this ongoing and growing conversation if we are to have any hope of trying to salvage what is good in it, and to change what is flawed or even evil. This will be especially important if we are to allow the youth an arena to find an appropriately Christian expression, or outlet, for their well-placed passion for this cause. For these reasons, I am glad that Bishop Oster marched with the youth.

That said, it is also true that the pastors of the Church, from the very top down, need to sharpen our theological responses and official statements on this topic because most of us do not sound much different than the secularists and pantheists who find all of their salvation in more legislative initiatives and apocalyptic fear-mongering. Our message at the core must be one of grace, of the tradition, of fasting, of prayer, of the ethos of the Saints, of the person of Christ, and of the correct understanding of the person. Without those things, we are just furthering the problem and failing at our prophetic vocation to flood the world with God’s true voice, the only voice that can save.

Our endorsement or advocacy for more specific policy initiatives must be a secondary fruit of our primary reflection upon and articulation of the authentic human vocation. WHAT does it mean exactly to say that God has given the earth to men? The Christian tradition holds all the tools to adequately answer this question in every era, including our own.

It would be interesting for the bishops to publicly announce that our already established norms of Fridays as days of penance, which is still true for all of the year not merely in Lent, can be offered for the conversion of hearts to better care for creation. The only authentic “Fridays for Future” are those that center on the sacrifice of Good Friday. Without that, we are all lost, and no behavior will change at the core. The Church must join in these sentiments now and seize the narrative with authentic thinking before it is too late.

Perhaps this is a naive hope. The secular forces are indeed very ingrained, and maybe some bishops showing up in some Friday marches here and there are not going to accomplish much in the face of the secular machinery that is already such a juggernaut on this, and so many other topics.

That said, what do we have to lose? Especially since, at the core of it, this issue of authentic care of creation has always been our message in the first place, as the Book of Genesis makes very clear. We may as well claim our rightful place as the God-given stewards of the one message there is that can authentically restore the balance of human flourishing and the flourishing of all of God’s creation.

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The Signs of the Times: What is Next for the Church in the West

“The Church always has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”  Gaudium et Spes, 4.

For several decades now, this quotation from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, has been used often to frame or justify countless developments in the life of the Church.  In some cases it has been applied as a basis for relaxing a moral teaching or practice. In other cases the “signs of the times” were said to call for an embrace of new modes teaching or of praying.  In all cases of application, the very reality of cultural change itself was awarded an authoritative, even dogmatic status, sometimes over and above dogma or tradition itself.

I think it is safe to say that any changes argued from the basis of “the signs of the times” have been both good and bad for the Church and also good and bad for “the times.” To make matters more complicated, determining which changes are good as opposed to bad might only be possible after the passage of enough “times.”  As time passes, some things do become clearer.  Hence the need to always pay close attention, per Gaudium et Spes4, to “the signs of the times,” and then to adjust our pastoral strategies or articulations accordingly, hopefully without doing so in a way that overpowers tradition.

I am blessed to begin very soon a short study sabbatical from July through early October of 2019.  In addition to the wisdom of sabbaticals from a strictly spiritual dimension (see below), they offer an opportunity to study certain topics in more intentional detail than one can often devote in the ordinary routines of life.  In the case of my upcoming sabbatical, it could be said that I am using it as an opportunity to do what the Second Vatican Council calls for in Gaudium et Spes4:  to scrutinize the signs of our times in light of the Gospel, and to discern what a response to these signs should be on the part of the Church.

 Some Signs of Our Times

What might some of these signs be that I hope to explore? I will outline a handful of them here.

Shifting Institutional Allegiances: Mobility Reigns

The changing nature of institutions is one key sign of our times that requires serious pastoral analysis. More and more of the world’s population enjoys the freedom of mobility, which means that human institutions, or cultural artifacts, will continue to grow more fluid.  People on the move do not want to hang on to houses, appliances, books, yards, cemetery plots, and mail boxes these days.  Mobile people thrive on disposable entities, including disposable relationships with persons.  Institutions and cultural networks are being radically reshaped as a result with classical ones on the decline, and new ones on the rise.

A cost-effective and ready agent of fluid institutional dynamics is digital life.  For example, Google is currently among the strongest institutions on the planet, belonging to the new institutional category of digital media. Digital media institutions are the digital brick and digital mortar structures of the modern era that leave no footprint, are infinitely fluid, readily accessible, overwhelmingly popular, and (as of the moment) widely trusted.  They are the new heart of our social framework.

Compare the new fluid, digital institutions to earlier static institutions such as civil governments, private corporations, and of course the Church.  The government, on any level of organization, no longer enjoys that kind of institutional popularity or trust.  Corporations that are too rigid in their footprints and operations are rapidly losing popularity, being forced to survive through the modern art of acquisition, which allows for greater consumer options.

What of the Church? On one level the answer is obvious: in these times, she is rapidly losing institutional ground.  The Church’s structures are bound in most cases to buildings, to unbending concepts, to weekly gatherings in-person, to stable local communities, and to a form of worship that can never, ever be digital. There is no such thing as a digital sacrament.

Therefore, some argue, the Church is bound to disappear.  In some localities that were once strongly Catholic, she is already all but gone, leaving only her empty museum-like buildings behind.  Parishes in many sectors fight to hang on to a stable population that supplies enough money and labor to keep everything running.

Can the Catholic Church survive in a highly-mobile, post-institutional, disposable, digital Western society?   This is a key question facing us in our present times.

The Institutional Church Is Not Dead Yet

We do have some strong things going for us in the light of the above, even if it may not seem obvious at first glance.  For one, for the sectors of the global population that are highly mobile, Catholicism does offer a uniquely world-wide experience of an almost franchise-like quality, allowing the most mobile of believers to be at home in any Catholic church anywhere in the world.  This leaves us uniquely positioned to thrive in a highly mobile society that, for all of its apparent thirst for variety, actually has a low tolerance for the unknown.

Noteworthy as well is the often overlooked fact that vast sectors of the world’s population are not highly mobile, and do not have the luxury of dabbling in the rootless lifestyles of the free-floating West.  For a lot of the world whose economic standard of living is comparatively low, they will be born, will live, and will die all within the same geographic locality. They will be tied to family structures and to occupations that do not facilitate major changes of venue.  For these large sectors of the world, the Church is an attractive home precisely because she is of, and for, the marginalized. Membership in the Church does not require much in the material realm. The price of admission is faith, which itself costs no money.   The Church offers a stable network of organization for communities and populations who might not otherwise have the time or resources to create their own networks. In this way she is poised to remain a steady force, or a heartbeat of major areas of the human family.

In Search of Human Rootedness: The Church Holds the Answer

Also of major significance is the truth that a highly-mobile, digital, disposable, post-institutional world is fundamentally dehumanizing.  People are not made to live without roots, purpose, the transcendent, the good, the beautiful, or the tangible.  We crave all of these things by our very nature, and our current cultural leanings do demonstrate this fact.

For example, I am convinced that one important driver of the rising Green Movement is a fundamental hunger for the untouched character of creation.  Creation as a whole has an observable pattern, purpose, beauty, and tangible quality to it that transcends the relatively brief life-spans of a mere man or a woman.  It is easy to see why the ancients thought of the natural world as divine and above us. People are drawn to the untouched natural world in much the same way that they are drawn to a beautiful church building.

Similarly these days, it is trendy in the West to showcase old things.  Uncovered fieldstone walls, re-purposed industrial buildings, old kitchen appliances from the pre-plastic era: anything that speaks of a prior era of stability holds particular sway over us right now.  If it is tangible, earthy, and has endured the passage of years, it is attractive.  Could all this be indicative of a hunger for stability on the part of a largely rootless generation?

The Catholic Church, along with the Orthodox Churches of the East, is the ideal vehicle for a rootless West to find roots, drawn in by the ancient, the enduring, the beautiful, and the transcendent.  What’s more, in the case of right worship, our desires for these things are properly channeled through liturgy and ritual into the open heart of the Savior who alone can satisfy all of our longings.  We can stockpile re-purposed bricks and old barn doors all that we want, but none of those things can fill our souls.  Even creation itself, for all of its beauty, is limited for it remains merely creation.  Without viewing the Divine Creator clearly through His creation, as distinct from it, creation quickly becomes a cruel force that kills as swiftly as it births, breeding pagan fear and accompanying acts of appeasement on the part of humanity.

Only the Church can save the disposable West, whether the West admits it or not.

In the light of these signs of the times, the Church must continually decide which parts of our mobile modern culture she is going to embrace, and which parts she will stand against.  It does not strike me as wise to fully embrace whatever is cheap, disposable, virtual, and trendy merely to appease a highly mobile population that does not realize that they are seeking fulfillment in empty pursuits.

Falling Birthrates

Another sign of the times that requires scrutiny and attention by the Church is the demographic implosion of the West.  The most recent data on the birth rates in the United States indicate that the average woman will have 1.73 children in her lifetime, which is well below the needed replacement rate to maintain a population.

What has made this biologically possible is the explosion of contraception and sterilization across the world in the past 50 years.  The Catholic Church continues to teach that artificial contraception and sterilization are intrinsically sinful and wrong in our official documents.  However, most pastors do not discuss the teaching, and most people find the teaching laughable.  Multiply the abandonment of the teaching across an entire society, and the result is the aging, graying, childless West that is careening toward extinction.

Widespread Social Pressures Encourage The Suppression of Fertility

What makes the low birthrate desirable is another question, and probably the most important question, that we need to face as a culture and as a Church.  Even though we can exercise such massive control over our fertility, it does not mean that we should do so.  However, we will continue to do so unless a compelling case, and a favorable climate for higher birthrates is provided. The Church has not adequately come to terms with this point.

Part of the reason is because so much of our language around the topic has focused on the ethics of the sexual act itself, and on a very narrowly drawn perspective that centers only on the man and the woman.  A key problem is that the forces and pressures that make it desirable to have a low birthrate are culture-wide and are systemic, going well beyond the man and woman considered in isolation.  The reasons to desire low birthrates center on economics, college debt load, low-wages, a pervasive consumer mentality, wildly inflated expectations of fulfillment, the glamorization of youth and mobility, the functionalist view of vocation, the flight from sacrifice, fear of loss, and the loss of the transcendent just to name a few.

Those cultural pressures are so strong, that even the small segment of faithful Catholic married couples who believe in the accuracy of the Church’s ethical teachings against artificial contraception, and who fell in love with Saint John Paul II’s vision of the Theology of the Body, often tend to treat Natural Family Planning like licit contraception, fighting very hard to keep their family sizes small using natural means.

The cult of good health is another major social pressure.  How does the Church respond to the questions raised over the peril that pregnancy can sometimes pose to a mother’s life?  In many instances the decision against fertility is made because the medical professionals have informed the inquiring husband and wife that another pregnancy will be deadly.  In earlier times, the mothers would simply have died bringing new life into the world. This did not seem all that unusual in a prior era when death was all around us, and when we simply accepted that life was made up of death.  Salvation, sin, heaven, and hell all took on a very tangible quality to such mortality-minded people.

Not so today.  The Church is in serious need of a theological response to the questions of life and death, both literal and metaphorical, that surround childbirth and parenting. We need to make a compelling case for marriage and for parenting, with that charge being led by the voices and witness of married couples themselves. Additionally, the broader civil society is obligated to foster economic and legal conditions that ease the pressures that are currently driving down the birthrate. Without these driving agents, the trend is not going to reverse itself.

Authentically Green: Nature Always Wins in the End

It is quite likely, as is often the case with social systems, that change will be forced upon us before we are able to change of our own volition.  It is chillingly instructive to note that steep demographic declines, as well as demographic surges, drove the rise and fall of Europe from Roman times all the way until the present. Demographics drive everything.  At the rate we are going in the West, the current societal infrastructure we have will very quickly be impossible to maintain with the population we have.  When that begins to happen, just as was the case in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, large segments of cities, towns, and national infrastructures will simply disintegrate into ghost towns.  In some of the moral rural areas of America, this is already beginning to happen.  It is also already true that multiple sectors of employers cannot find enough workers to fill their needed positions.  The amazingly low unemployment rate might be attributable to a strong economy.  More likely it is a function of a demographic crunch that is only going to worsen.

To a Western culture that fell in love with stunningly accurate fertility control in our era, God will allow it to decline on the terms of its own choosing, until the point that whatever remains of the collective culture finally surrenders control. At that point we will re-embrace the truth that nature has known all along: humans were meant to have children.

On the way to that point of self-realization, we will pass through the present cultural flirtation with artificial creation of life, with the normalization of same-sex relationships, and with the notion that gender is a construct.  All of those alternative meanings of the human person are dead-ends made temporarily possible only by a society that has cut itself off from the forces of nature.

This is deeply contradictory on our part.  Pope Benedict XVI noted in his 2008 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, that a contemporary society so outwardly obsessed with green living, and the careful protection of the natural world, should not at the same time be departing so radically from nature in the critical realm of human sexuality and fertility.  At the center of authentic environmental ecology must be an authentic “human ecology.”

The Church needs to articulate an authentic “green theology” that recognizes all that is accurate in the secular Green Movement, while at the same time addressing its most dangerous flaw, namely that it is fundamentally anti-human, and thereby also anti-Christian.  Disappointingly, even the lengthy papal encyclicalLaudato Sidid not speak to this fundamental point.  The contemporary Green Movement can only ensure a future for humanity if it is fundamentally and completely grounded in Christ, who is the redeemer of man, and who calls the human family to an authentic pathway of sacrificial renewal.  Failing this essential transition, the secular Green Movement is poised to become one of the most destructive anti-human ideologies of this century.

The Global State vs. the Local Community

Another sign of the times is the eroding of the political center in the post-War West that had held firm for several decades.  Many writers and commentators have already noted this point.

It seems as though wide sectors of the population are losing faith in the liberal democratic institutions that once promised deliverance from the bloody religious and ethnic wars of Old Europe and the Colonial Era.  This shift originates in questions of economics, of the common man losing ground, and of the gradual disintegration of societal standards of decent behavior, to name only a few factors that are at play.

The Church appears slow at this point to acknowledge what might be called the legitimate roots of the populist questioning that are bubbling up all around the world.  Too quickly do our Church leaders plant their banner on the side of the disintegrating Western bureaucratic apparatuses, processes, and structures as the cracks in the old Western liberal social contract grow wider and wider.  In their calls for the defense of the old institutions, they seem to be ignoring the reasons for their decline.

What is the reason for the emerging and widening cracks?  I suspect much of it has to do with the fact that, whether the secular elites (or Church leaders) like to admit it or not, the whole Western social democratic order was built on Christian foundations, and it likewise presumed a wide-spread adherence to basic virtues and Christian principles that are essential for the maintenance of civilized life.  Those Christian principles are being abandoned.  In fact, the very governing entities that once grew out of those Christian principles are now directly attacking these same principles.  This is tantamount to a tree that is hacking at its own roots with an axe, and is unable to understand why it is toppling.

All politics is local, as it is commonly said, and something of the same is true of religion and culture. The average person in the world who has to make a living, support a family, and live in safety, really does not want a world-wide, non-religious state.  The globalized economic and political culture we have been striving to glorify in so many elite sectors breeds anxiety for much of the world.  It is the elites and the young, childless people who get to be in love with a mobile, global bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, everyone else is tossed about on the continually changing seas of social currents as all local institutions, religious and civic, disappear.

An authentically Christian West is one that allows for a thriving, local, Christian culture.  It provides a common framework, in Christian teachings, for the integration of other cultural joiners who enter (or leave) a community.  In this way local culture and customs ground identity, and they offer a pathway to a future that inspires hope for the common person.  As a network of such local entities is stitched together, then broader, multinational entities can also thrive in ways that are appropriate and stabilizing.  The broad entities must rest on firm, common foundations, most especially those of Natural Law and revealed truth.  Where all of that is lacking, broader social unification projects will fail, and local institutions will eventually push back as we are currently witnessing in populist currents all over the world.

The Christian West in Mid-Life Crisis

A sign of our times is that the Church is not able to offer a compelling answer to a post-Christian West that has decided its Christian roots are not worth saving, or, worse, has decided that its Christian past is the source of all of its current woes.

There is a deep self-loathing in the post-Christian West about all the ways that we (apparently) wreaked so much havoc on everything from the earth itself, to native populations, and even to each other, all while purporting to be devout followers of Jesus Christ.  What did Christians do, and what did Christianity bring us? Oppression, war, and ruin, so the common thinking goes.  Clearly Christianity is not the answer, so we believe, and therefore we are casting about desperately for some new, alternative foundation for modern society.

We are not going to find one.  The undeniable fact is that all of the best elements of Christian thought and practice built the West.  At the same time, it is true that all of the sinful elements of fallen man are what caused the prior hurts and battles in our past, that still plague us to this day. To analogize the West to a person, the sins of “Adolescent West” have now left scars on the “Middle-aged, mid-life identity crisis West.”  What are we to do?

The Church must find a way to talk to the West in the same way we pastorally talk to anyone else going through a mid-life identity crisis wherein one must come to terms with one’s past and roots.  A good counselor offers assistance in sorting out the good from the bad so that the person in crisis does not make the common mistake of throwing out all the past, all of the good, just because of some of the bad.   This is how authentic spiritual and personal growth takes place.  The Church must employ the same strategy in talking to a West that is loathing the mistakes of its Christian past.

The good news is that all of the necessary tools for such a conversation and articulation exist in the Christian tradition.  The crisis of the current West, and of the contemporary Church, is a spiritual crisis of selective memory.  The solution does not call for an abandonment of our principles, but rather for a re-embrace of them in the maturity of experience, and in the power of the Holy Spirit that ultimately leads those who wander to move deeper into the Father’s house.

Pluralism and Islam

Related to the above is the fact that the contemporary Church has not been able to come to terms with what has become the primacy of pluralism in the West.  This, more than anything else, has led to a deep crisis of faith and identity that is shaking the Catholic Church from the smallest local parish all the way to the Vatican itself.

Is Christ the way, the truth, and the life?  Or, is he simply ONE such way, truth, and life?  Are all religions equal?  Is God’s ancient revelation just that: ancient? Or is it the abiding truth that must challenge every generation?

Is it accurate to say that members of Islam do indeed worship the same God as the Christians do? Or, would it be more helpful to admit that there truly are serious differences among the two faiths that raise very difficult questions for the ongoing future of the entire human family?  Is it the case that the average American really has no idea what it is like to live in a majority Muslim country, and vise versa, and if so, what does that fact mean for the manner in which dialogue among differing nations, and religions, must be conducted?  The future of the Church, and of the West, as well as the East, and the Middle East, and the South, all depend upon finding satisfying answers to these questions.

This cursory identification of only a few of the pressing issues of our day is a necessary first step in the Church’s task of scrutinizing the signs of the times, granting them their appropriate didactic authority.  None of them can be ignored if we are to effectively share in the mission of the Redeemer for the salvation of souls.

The Sabbatical Itinerary

In order to delve a little more deeply into these and other topics, during my upcoming sabbatical I will be spending time in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, and Palestine. In those areas I will be visiting monasteries that are centers of cultural significance, liturgical beauty and renewal, and careful theological scholarship.  In these same territories I will be visiting with local Christian families about their joys and struggles to live the faith.  My hope is to learn from them all about their hoped-for contribution to the preservation of the Church in our era, as they raise families and live their respective vows.

Those same countries and locations are currently areas of major cultural intersections between the East and the West, and between Islam and Christianity.  They are places where faithful Christian families face daily struggles to live the faith as a minority of the population.  They are places of populist political questioning in the face of shifting, liberal democratic structures.  They are places of natural beauty as well as centers of the rising Green Movement.  They are places of major demographic change.  In short, there is much fodder for study and observation.

 The Spiritual Gift of a Sabbatical

All of the above is very weighty.  I will certainly spend some time pondering it all, and perhaps I will return with some helpful answers that can contribute to what will be a decades long conversation about all of these topics.

However, on the most fundamental level, a sabbatical is an opportunity to personally reconnect with the Lord who hungers and thirsts so deeply for our undivided attention.

Priests must do this once in awhile.  In my years of priesthood thus far, I have found the analogies between priesthood and biological parenting to be helpful guides as I have navigated a variety of pastoral challenges.  Fatherhood is fatherhood, pure and simple, and priests are fathers.  The parallels of both fatherhoods have been in my mind when many well-meaning, busy moms and dads have lately asked me: “when do I get to take my sabbatical!”

The analogy between both vocations does limp.  The Church in her wisdom recommends that priests take sabbaticals now and again for similar reasons that the Church requires priests to make annual retreats.  Priests have daily contact with the raw power of the Divine at work in the world in a way that no one else does.  This is nothing that we earn, it is rather something that God simply does because he wants to.   Just as people who frequently work in the proximity of, for example, high voltage electricity can run the risk of getting too casual about its power, so too it is for priests and the power of God.  We get so caught up in our routines that we tend to forget who our Master is, and we get sloppy about the Divine.  As a spate of recent headlines have shown, when that happens, the results are deadly.

Hence, the first goal of my sabbatical is to be deeply reminded of the One for whom I work, and whose power upholds my daily existence.  Only in the process of sitting in this truth can any of the other answers to all the weighty questions become clear.  This is true most especially because to remember our master is to remember that we are passionately loved by Him, even in our mistakes and failures.  God is a consuming fire, and God is love.

God loves the post-Christian West.  He loves his Church.  He will not abandon either of them because they are both cut of the fabric of humanity for which God gave up His life.  One cannot preach hope for tomorrow to a despairing West if one cannot first, as a priest and shepherd, rest in the arms of the one and true Savior. In His arms I do intend to rest, so that I can lead others to rest there as well.

Father Nathan will be on study sabbatical from July 1stthrough October 5th. During those months he will spending time in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel, in order to pray, read, learn, and listen.  During that time he will not be posting or publishing, and he will be reachable only through family and friends.  Know of his prayers while he is away; please pray also for him.

 

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Private School Vouchers: The Future or the End of Catholic Education?

The recent race for Governor in Wisconsin, as well as the ongoing financial pressures facing our Catholic schools across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, have meant that private school taxpayer vouchers continue to be a regular topic of conversation.  It is a very tempting and alluring prospect to think that all of our funding problems will be solved if we jump on the bandwagon of receiving thousands of dollars in tax payer money to support our schools.

This is a complex issue and one that I think requires a great deal more thought than we sometimes give to it.  As food for thought in what I am sure will be a discussion topic around here more and more in the near future, it is interesting to consider another Catholic ministry that has been caught in the cross-winds of cultural engagement in much the same way that Catholic Education has: Catholic Health Care.

The Church founded hospitals and clinics early on in our Nation’s history. We did so in the face of serious needs for medical care, and as a means to follow the command of Christ to take care of the sick and the suffering.  These hospitals typically did not charge patients, and they were staffed mainly by religious sisters (and some priests) who saw it as their vocation and worked, generally, for free. They were supported by generous donations of labor (vocations) and by financial donations that came in response to the begging of the sisters who ran the institution.  They delivered medical care in a manner that was intentionally Catholic, in accord with the ethics of the teachings of the Church.  The infrastructure that was built up in the height of the Catholic medical system was extensive and impressive.

These days, much of that infrastructure is gone.  In many (but not all) areas, Catholic Health care is now done in name only without there being anything truly distinct about the way it is delivered.  Few nuns staff the hospitals.  The Church is barely a presence.  Apart from the Catholic name on the side of the building, one would not otherwise know they are Catholic.

The reason they are still operating is not because of the Church or because of any real Catholic ministry or identity.  They are operating because millions of dollars of insurance and entitlement money flow into the buildings everyday.  Their funding mechanism essentially ensures that they will be open, and also that they will be non-distinct from any other medical facility.

A similar tale can be told about the larger Catholic colleges in our country. Most of them are no longer all that Catholic, despite the name on the logo.  They are funded less and less by Church generated resources and more and more by federally subsidized loan money.  They are essentially turning into state schools.

Long story short, it would be interesting to ask if in another 50 years our Archdiocesan Catholic schools, which in their origins were funded and staffed in the same way that Catholic hospitals were, will be equally non-distinct in their delivery of Catholic Education because they are surviving on millions of dollars of voucher money.  Yes, they will be open.  Yes, there may be a Catholic name on the outside. However, the delivery of education is not unlike the delivery of medicine.  When fueled by gobs of entitlement money it will grow more specialized, very expensive, and unavoidably state run.

Do we turn to vouchers to keep our schools open?  Or, do we start realizing that Catholic Education these days, to be truly Catholic and truly helpful, is going to have to look different than what everyone else is doing?  Are vouchers a crutch that is allowing us to avoid harder questions about Catholic identity and life? Are we entering into that program merely to maintain our structures without considering the long-term consequences?  Are there other creative structural and funding solutions that we can look to instead that will ensure our schools are indeed still supported by Catholic resources as much as possible?  How can we encourage the conversion of hearts, to generate stewardship and vocations, in order to support our ministries without a heavy reliance on public money?

I would be very interested to hear these questions discussed as the topic is debated in Wisconsin.  Much ink has been spilled on the legality of the voucher program, its relationship to public school health, and its mechanism of operation.  I have seen comparatively little discussion, from within the Church, on how good vouchers are for our own long-term health and identity, especially in light of what are becoming widespread failures of identity in other sectors of our apostolate, all propped up by outside funding.  I’d like to think that we can creatively figure out another way to do this from the heart of the Church and with real generosity as well as new creativity.

Let us pray for, and encourage, a robust and honest dialogue about these questions that impact our ministries in such important ways.  We will be stronger as a Church for giving them honest consideration.

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