Click HERE for the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year C, given at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish on Sunday, July 17th, 2016, at the 10am Mass.
In the face of yet another story of police brutality, in the face of a chilling story in Dallas of brutality against the police; in the face of an attack on a night club in Orlando that styles itself as a haven for gays (to use their label, not mine); and in the face of what seems to be a rising tide of civil unrest these days, there is understandably a great deal of concern about the state of society.
As usual in our current culture, whose ruling elites and media have intentionally abandoned key elements of the Christian lexicon and worldview, when these sorts of things happen we are quick to resort to modern or secular explanations for bad behaviors.
The classic Christian answer to why ostensibly innocent people are brutally mistreated by people in authority has to do with sin and evil, which is made manifest by individual persons, who willingly choose to commit acts that violate human dignity and are contrary to the goodness of ourselves and our Creator.
More plainly: people choose to commit sins. They do so for a variety of reasons, but the objective reality of evil is the same.
The Christian answer to sin has always been grace. Grace is given in a variety of forms, not the least of which is the moral law that is written on all of our hearts. More profoundly and radically, grace comes from friendship with Christ in a manner that is personal, unique, unrepeatable, and transformative.
If one abandons those understandings of sin and grace, then new causes and cures for social ills and destructive acts have to be invented, or if nothing else over emphasized to compensate for the loss of what should be an authentic understanding of the world and of humanity.
What Racial Politics Obscures
The present set of events in our nation surrounding police killings, violence against the police, the prevalence of the rush to capture it all on film in order to humiliate and embarrass others, suicide attacks, etc, etc, are all very sad. Soul searching is indeed in order.
But, while we are busy soul searching, it would be important to recognize that a lot of our own secular cultural rhetoric is fanning the flames of these problems.
Right now we are speaking almost exclusively in labels and categories. “Blacks,” “whites,” “the police,” etc. This is how the entire cultural and media reaction is being shaped and framed. This is a race relations issue we are told, again and again.
The more we are told its all about race, the more our thinking and rhetoric becomes more and more about race. And the more that happens, the less and less we think in terms of individual persons. And the less we think in terms of individual persons, the more quickly and easily we demonize, and do violence against other people because we have put them in a category.
Conversely, the more we begin to assign ourselves into categories that have been given, or are seeking, a kind of protective legal or social status, the more easily we act out in ways that are immoral precisely because we feel that we are entitled to act that way in virtue of our category.
To be honest, it seems likely that some blacks have intentionally pushed the boundaries with police precisely because they have been made to believe that their category (being black) entitles them to do so in the face of what is perceived to be an oppressive category (the police).
Similarly, it also seems likely that some police have used their necessary power and authority inappropriately against weaker and poorer members of society because they have felt entitled by their status, or category, to do so. It is not uncommon for people in professions of authority to do so.
But, rather than addressing this reality in the language of “person,” “individual,” “action,” “sin,” “conversion,” and “grace,” we instead retreat into the language of “group,” “category,” “profession” and the like. We do so because it is easier to demonize groups than it is to take a difficult look at persons and at responsibility.
If this is all about race, then on some level, the individuals in the categories (police, whites, blacks) do not have to bear responsibility any more. Group-think takes over in a very convenient avoidance of the need for personal change. The race rhetoric is an escape on the most fundamental of levels, even if on the surface it does factor into the problem at hand.
Category and Identity Politics Has Taken Over
Something of the same can be said about our ongoing cultural debate about same sex attraction, bathrooms, marriage, and gender identity. The root cause of the explosion over this issue is in many ways the result of our modern lust for categorization. Everyone needs to be in a group so that they can gain some type of protective status. And if you are not in a group, then extreme pressure is exerted to identity as a member of one.
“Gay” is a group term. So is “transexual” or “transgendered.” And if one does not like that category, we are forced to keep inventing newer and better subsets of it.
Once in a group, a certain freedom from any personal responsibility for actions takes over because the group identity becomes more important than the person’s. A person is lost in the group identity and ceases to truly be themselves. They also cannot be rescued or changed because the group status means more than a personal identity and a will.
What is worse, the more we think in terms of categories and groups, the more quickly we fracture what should be an established, stabilizing, and over-arching group or category namely: “American.” The modern world has found it helpful to think in terms of nationalism and states to foster common bonds and identity, but all of that is in jeopardy now because we have chosen to elevate every other possible sub group (hispanic, black, gay, transgendered, etc) by suppressing what was once the larger, deeper category of common American identity.
It is no accident that the social unrest surrounding identity and group politics has grown to acute levels under the Obama Administration. The reason is not so much because he is black (which is a category) but more because as a person, he has made the free choice to make identity politics, of a variety of groups, one of the center pieces of his agenda, including being elected on that basis. The more he, and the elites around him, choose to respond to these issues by speaking more and more about categories, the worse the problem is going to become.
Speaking in categories forms camps. Camps form riots. Camps form group-think mentalities that lead members of groups to push the boundaries of decency and act out in ways that are irresponsible and dangerous. The smoke screen of all of this obscures the person by person reality of the fact that some police officers, as individuals, are corrupt. This as opposed to “the police” are corrupt. And, some blacks, as individuals, are violent and rude. This as opposed to “blacks” are… insert trait. And, some whites, as individuals, have dangerous superiority complexes. On and on we can go, but, only if we consider persons before we consider categories, and not the reverse.
The Authentic Christian Response
Personhood as a concept is suffering in every cultural sector these days. The debate about abortion turns around this point. It is sad to realize that the real enemies of “Black Lives” are not the police, but the abortion industry in the inner cities. The debates about gender, marriage, and sexual ethics are also all about personhood. As is the current debate about race.
The authentic Christian response to all of this is not to think in categories but in terms of persons. For example, we do not prefer the term “gay” because that is a category. Instead we speak in terms of persons who have same sex attraction.
True, even the Christians have sometimes undergone a painful journey of purification over our occasional retreats into categorization, but ultimately what has always rescued us is the central Christian claim that God treats each of us as unique and unrepeatable people.
When we think in terms of persons we also think in terms of sin and grace. Good decisions and bad decisions. Law and consequences. Conversion of hearts from sinful patterns of thinking or living. All of these realities are effective means of change.
A secular culture will continue to speak in categories because it has no choice but to do so. That is why Christianity, along with personhood rightly understood, is in direct opposition to state sanctioned secularism as it is currently being practiced and legislated in this country.
A regime of the type that we are now living under in America has no solution to these problems because it is not capable of addressing them at their most fundamental level. Which means it is only going to get worse before it gets better.
In the meantime, it would be very wise of the Christian community in this country to intentionally step around the secular vocabulary that is currently so popular (“race,” “tolerance,” etc), and quickly return to our classic understandings of personhood and actions so that we can offer the culture the truth of perspective that it desperately needs right now. Only in that way can we save the culture from itself, and the save the rest of us along with it.
Click HERE for the audio file of Father Reesman’s presentation “Unpacking Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia,” given at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish on Thursday evening, June 23rd, 2016.
The presentation offers a brief chapter by chapter sketch of the topics covered in the Holy Father’s document, several quotations from the document, and also an outline of the argument and conclusions contained in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, the chapter that deals most directly with the question of sacramental participation for Catholics who are living outside of valid sacramental marriages. The presentation also offers some critical commentary on the document.
Including the question and answer period at the end, the presentation is just under 2 hours in length.
The tragic events in Orlando and its unfolding aftermath of the past couple of days have opened up a new window into the dysfunctionality of our present cultural moment. There are a variety of disturbing things about all of this that require calm and prayerful reflection if we are to learn anything of value in order to advance as people and as a nation.
Before dwelling on the disturbing it is important to point out what is uplifting and hopeful. The fact that there has been such a widespread outpouring of shock, pain, and sympathy in response to the attack on human life demonstrates that our culture has not become totally desensitized to sin and evil.
Bishop Noonan of Orlando said it well: the heart of the city has been pierced, like Our Lady’s heart is pierced, and like Jesus’ heart is pierced. Indeed, they weep now for their children.
The grieving that comes with a tragedy such as this, as well as the tug at our hearts in solidarity with survivors and the wounded, is a concrete expression of the common brotherhood of humanity, and it has the capacity to open us to God’s grace and to the solidarity He desires for us all. Our legitimate response of mourning or sorrow in the face of evil is always a sign of hope and of friendship with the Lord.
Attacks On the Non-violent Are Never Justified
Indeed, there are a variety of things in this scene that should make us, together with God, weep.
The most obvious one is that human life has been attacked. What Omar Mateen did is an abomination to God, and it is an offense against reason and virtue. Making it even worse is the fact that it was carried out, from first reports, in the name of religion.
Sadly enough it does prove that religion that is not properly grounded in reason, natural law, or the truth of the human person can be deadly. It is not true religion at all because it does not authentically lead to communion with God.
ISIS, as it professes itself and as an expression of militant and violent Islam, is also an abomination to God. Right reason allows us to say this calmly and clearly to the entire Islamic world that is listening.
As such, it needs to be countered with any means necessary, and in accord with reason, to protect the innocent. This is a long-standing principle of Catholic Just War thinking.
But, if we are to be consistent about our analysis of the current events, other lamentable and disturbing components of the Orlando scene need to be pointed out.
The Correct Response to the Gay Culture
The very existence of a gay nightclub is lamentable. We should not be lulled into thinking that everything going on inside of that building was a normal, fine, and acceptable scene from quintessential Americana that was suddenly shattered.
The news coverage around all of this has totally stepped over the abnormality of the locality because that is the cultural moment we are living through. In fact, the coverage has sought to normalize the entire scene: “it was a fun evening of cross dressing, drag shows, and drinking,” read the major news articles. We ought to recoil at the incongruity inherent in that ostensibly innocent description.
Worse is the rapidly reached conclusion, trumpeted in the headlines, that this heinous act is a summons to greater protection and tolerance for the members of the gay community against any sort of denunciation.
That conclusion, while well-meaning at best, is too imprecise. True, there must never be physical violence carried out against anyone, gays included, who are behaving in an otherwise non-violent manner. That is what reason requires.
However, in no way can this event cause our culture to shrink from our obligation to lovingly and patiently point out that an openly gay lifestyle is also contrary to reason and human dignity, and that any attempt to normalize it is deceitful and an injustice to our brothers and sisters who experience same sex attraction and are owed the truth.
It is tragic that the gay community has to live in fear of violence. An ordered society must recognize this fact. At the same time, an ordered society, consistent with right reason and natural law, can never legally enshrine or socially protect acts of sodomy.
The fact that we have lost our sense of normalcy on this entire question is demonstrated less by the violent and abominable acts of an isolated terrorist, but more so by the airbrushing of the abnormalities in the gay community by vast sectors of the secular population and the ruling elites.
Combating Evil in All Its Forms
But, consistency is a tough mistress, to be sure. Because an ordered society that seeks to protect human dignity and is governed by right reason would also be disturbed not only by the presence of gay night clubs, but also of strip joints, prostitution, abortion clinics, the pornography industry, and any enterprise that undermines healthy marriages and family life. As we all know, the existence of all of these things is legion. The proper name for it is “evil.”
The Vacuous Political Response
Which brings us to another disturbing facet of this entire, sad, scene: the political reaction. In the absence of a legislative or judicial system that is grounded in natural or divine law, and whose momentary emotive foundations are so flimsy, the only reactions we are left with are arbitrary and political.
The Obama Administration, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, and most of the reigning political apparatus have jettisoned, a long time ago, any viable means of effectively dealing with problems of this sort. Mere mortals cannot combat evil of this type without reckoning with the hard realities of sin, grace, and the Commandments and natural law.
Contrary to popular discourse at the moment, it is the West’s embrace of secular thinking that creates a fertile ground for these types of horrendous events, and not the reverse.
As far as ISIS is concerned, abomination that it happens to be, it is correct to point out that as long as the large scale cultural decay that we are legally enshrining in our part of the world is allowed to continue unchecked in favor of contrived notions of secular neutrality, then we are in little position to claim the moral high ground in this war.
In short, there is plenty of abomination to go around these days.
Beyond Merely Sending Our Prayers
Is this a wake up call? Of course. But to what exactly? Who is asleep and who is doing the waking?
God does not send things like this to punish certain groups (the gays, for example), but He does permit evil to occur so that we can come to our senses and turn away from it. He offers mercy, and he dispenses justice. He gives right reason, the Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church. He sent his Son who continues to live and reign in our fallen, though grace-filled world.
Yet it seems that when these tragedies happen, apart from some public language about calls for prayers, which is a good start, that is as far as anyone is willing to go to acknowledge the indispensable presence of the Divine.
If we are going to be converted to living as God desires us to, then that is a package deal. ISIS has to go. And so do the gay nightclubs, to put it plainly, and a whole bunch of other culturally lamentable realities.
God does weep. He weeps over the whole confused scene of humanity that is vigorously striving to walk a pathway apart from His Son. Confusion reigns. And confusion is an abomination.
Still, there is hope. Prayers that are offered to God for the victims, their families, and for our nation are no doubt heard. God is not distant from all of this mess; He is continually at work in it, trying to call us all back to Himself, trying to bring an end to all the confusion.
That is why He is the way, the truth, and the life. To the extent that we acknowledge Him as such, we will be saved, personally and culturally. If we do not, we will perish. That is not so much divine punishment as it is the mechanics of reason and reality.
It would be most helpful right now if we all, from the top down, returned to those topics without deviating: reason, and reality. In that way we will all be led back to God and to the fullness of life that He desires for each and everyone of us.
Memorial Weekend is indeed upon us, and for us in Wisconsin, that means that “summer” has arrived, regardless of what the weather is actually like outside. This is the time when we try to fit a whole year’s worth of activities into about 9 weeks of calendar space.
The common experience in our State of trying to cram as much as we possibly can into the short summer months is a good lead in to a few reflections about the continually changing nature of parish life these days. And the changes in parish life are of course reflective of the changes happening around us in the culture in general.
Maximum Options, Maximum Mobility
Using our mentality about “summertime” in this State is a helpful way to tease out a deeper dynamic that most of us are caught up in all of the time. The dynamic could be described this way: we do not want to waste a minute, or miss out on any opportunity. This makes sense when it comes to summer: most of the time in Wisconsin we wake up and go to sleep when it’s dark out, much of the year we cannot walk around in shorts or swim outdoors, much of the year we cannot sit out on the porch next to a smoking grill listening to the Brewer’s game, much of the year we cannot work in the garden.
Therefore, as soon as Memorial Day Weekend arrives, and until Labor Day Weekend, the collective mentality is to soak up as many opportunities as we can, and enjoy the whole, wide menu of options of activities that are suddenly available to us that we cannot do much of the rest of the time.
Broaden this same dynamic to the cultural experience of America and of family life these days. It is true to say that many of us want to make sure that we do not miss out on any opportunity that comes our way, and so we are reluctant to commit to various things in case we get a better offer, last minute. Our ease of travel, our disposable incomes, and our technological devices have now made it very easy for all of us to be way, way over scheduled.
Or, paradoxically enough, for the same reasons we are also able to be way way under-scheduled, preferring instead to make our plans for the evening or the weekend at the last minute, choosing from the menu of options that are always available these days.
Related to this is the recent phenomenon of not wanting to miss any event of our kids or grand kids lives, no matter how fleeting it may happen to be, a mentality that compels us to constantly run after them to sporting games, recitals and the like so that we are just as “booked” as they are. After awhile, many grandparents just move houses to be closer to their grand kids, often out of a need to help their children take care of them because today EVERYONE has to work two jobs to afford to raise children and give them all that they apparently “need” (like trips to Disney World, for example).
Once upon a time it was the case that, in general, most of the events of life consisted simply of daily work and chores so there was not much to miss out on; and, families did not move away from each other like they do today, living instead (usually) in the same neighborhood or even the same house- kids, parents, grandparents all together. What we have today is a new problem.
To sum up: we have become a culture of people who do not stay put, and we treat most of life like Wisconsinites treat summer: something to pack as many events in to as possible, and to maximize all of our options, all of the time.
Stable Organizations Cannot Exist in Such a Climate
The implications of this tendency are enormous and they impact every facet of family life and our daily routines. One cause as well as consequence of it all is that the role of the individual has been greatly emphasized to the near extinction of the role of “the group.”
Groups assemble, disassemble, gather and disintegrate on a moment by moment basis because they are all built out of the options of the moment, and many groups exist now via the virtual or electronic world rather than existing in person, in a common physical space. We do not bend for any schedules, routines, or preferences other than our own anymore because frankly we do not need to.
In such a climate, service clubs or fraternal organizations (to name one example) cease to exist. They all rely upon a regular routine of in person meetings, which relies upon a group-wide commitment to a common schedule and location. Who does that anymore?
Parishes Cannot Exist in Such a Climate
In the face of all this, how do Catholic parishes function? Not very well. The parish structures that we have are built for a cultural fabric that does not exist anymore, by and large.
While much of the rest of our institutions are transitioning to electronic and individualized delivery systems for information and activities, parishes cannot do this very well. Some of that is because we cannot afford the expense of such a move. But, most of the difficulty is that our Catholic understanding of the world and of personhood does not allow us to go where the consumer culture is going.
At the core of parish life are Catholic worship and sacramental celebrations. In absolutely no way can those things ever move to the virtual realm; it is a theological and canonical impossibility. The Lord built a sacramental system that requires groups to assemble, in person, in one place. He did so because he knew we needed it.
That means that the defining element of our Catholic parish life will fall further and further behind the prevailing cultural curve. As that happens, we will either continue to lose members (especially the young and “the busy”), or, eventually as the culture becomes essentially insane, Catholicism will be rediscovered as a haven of humanity in an otherwise robotic, and mechanical, and virtual world.
In the meantime, programs like schools, CCD classes, service work, socials, festivals, etc, are going to suffer from the whiplash of everyone’s personal preferences that reign supreme. Just try getting ANYONE to volunteer IN ADVANCE to cook for a festival, offer child care, be a catechist, read or serve at Mass… it’s becoming impossible.
And Mass attendance will continue to swing wildly as well. It would be interesting to track, or poll, how often it happens that a given parish member, or a whole family, attends Mass at the same parish for several weekends in a row. In one month, across four or five weekends, most of the parish is not really here. There are always summer homes, graduations, business trips, first Communions of nephews, etc, etc to divert large sectors of the parish roster elsewhere.
What Will Become of Parish Life?
With that sort of fluid movement of people (in every age group- especially grandparents), what exactly is a parish anymore? It is a place where sacraments are offered, although oftentimes these days without a lot of other enhancements, in the absence of regular choir members, lectors, servers, or sacristans.
But beyond that, with only a handful of volunteers who commit to being around, it is difficult to say what else really constitutes parish life going forward. One day there will be an iPad app for most of it, but when that happens, the rupture between the parish’s active apostolates and its worship life (which can never be substituted for with an app) will be complete. That is like a person torn in half. Such a person, such an institution, does not survive.
A Call To Pray About What “Community” Means To Us
What is the answer? It is complicated, but at the heart of it will be the recovery of an authentically Catholic world view, that translates to the creation of a different pattern of daily life, that will inevitably put us at odds with the rest of the culture in a way that has likely not been true for centuries.
For now, it would be important for each of us in our parishes to contemplate just what parish commitment means to us and to our families. The parish is the primary place where we encounter what I would call “formal” Catholic reality, so that we can learn to discern how to encounter Christ out in the world, or, how to bring Him to the world in the places where we do not encounter Him. If our parish is not a priority for us, then our lived Catholicism will be radically incomplete, to the point where we will cease to be Catholic.
All of this will be at the heart of any ongoing conversations about parish cluster sharing, mergers, realigning, etc, etc. Those questions cannot be answered without an en masse personal soul searching about what it means to be a Catholic in today’s me-centered culture. Indeed, we have a lot of soul searching to do.
This is great fodder for prayer. The Lord always provides the answers and the next steps forward, provided that we are paying attention to Him. Let us make it our most important “summer” activity to make time for the Lord, and allow Him to lead us back to an authentic sense of community. Lord knows we need it.
Click HERE to listen to the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year C, given at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish on Sunday, May 22nd, 2016 at the 10am Mass.