A Spirit of Saving Fear
I had the benefit of living with some very witty theologian/professors during my grad school years. One night a group of us were eating in a Washington restaurant, probably Emerson’s, “the students’ best friend,” because it offered a full $2.99 steak dinner on Tuesdays if you presented a coupon from the Catholic University student newspaper. One of my professors—a gifted ecclesiologist—pointed his fork at a piano player tinkling away on the keys, smiling and singing merrily, and heard by no one over the din of lively conversations in the dining room. “That,” my professor friend said, “is the present day Roman Catholic Church.” In my twenties at the time I just laughed at the remark, but in my late 60’s the observation doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
I see in my news feed a few moments ago that the Archdiocese of Washington lost its appeal to the DC Court of Appeals on the matter of the Health and Human Services mandate regarding the availability of contraceptive medical intervention under standard health insurance plans. This particular coverage kerfuffle has left a distaste in my mouth for several years now, for reasons including (1) my belief that Kathleen Sebelius and religious institutions could have easily negotiated this issue early in the Obama administration; (2) the impact of a Church court victory must be weighed against the hardship of the many who are not Catholic but who work for the Church; (3) the United States Bishops seem to want the courts to do what they themselves have failed to do, make a compelling interdisciplinary argument against artificial contraception; and (4) the teaching and enforcement of the ban on artificial contraception has depended almost totally upon the fiat of recent papacies, without any significant discussion with theologians and, more importantly, the laity, who bear the burden of the teaching.
But I have one overriding stress: catechetics of the young and the old that devotes voluminous amounts of its generally precious time to what, at the end of the day, are rather “pedestrian issues” to quote my old professor in the restaurant. And, I think this is what he was driving at that night in Emerson’s—that as the Church tinkles on the keyboard of intramural tunes, a bigger world looks for at the very least some kind of Gospel commentary on the truly evil.
Every American who reads more than a weekly People Magazine for news has rolled with one shock after another: the Boko Haram kidnapping of hundreds of girls for an unspeakable future, the deaths of thousands of refugees on the Mediterranean whose crime, it would seem, was being the wrong kind of Moslem; local tribal and regional genocides too numerous to tally; the scourge of ISIS which can only be called nihilistic, a ruthless campaign against peoples and history itself; the streams of children fleeing conditions in gang ridden Central America. (As I write, I note with great pride that my wife is presently out of the house garnering educational resources for these Central American refugees, with whom she works as a volunteer.)
We cannot inoculate ourselves within American borders from the world’s sin, for we have our own evils: the continuing tendency to call abortion a “woman’s right” rather than what it really is; civil violence in Ferguson, Baltimore and last weekend in Waco, Texas; bullying and harassment; hunger and enduring poverty that is widening the chasm between the “Two Americas;” the sex and slavery empires that entrap women and children, to name a few. These are evils of Biblical proportions, and not surprisingly the Psalms and Prophets are filled with episodic prayers of people amazed, overcome and fearful of evils past and present. Today’s second psalm (canticle) of Morning Prayer, from Jeremiah 14, brings home the human experience of evil:
Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. If I walk out into the field, look! Those slain by the sword; if I enter the city, look! Those consumed by hunger. Even the prophet and the priest forage in a land they know not. Have you cast Judah off completely? Is Zion loathsome to you? Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed? We wait for peace, to no avail; for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers; that we have sinned against you. For your name’s sake spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of your glory; remember your covenant with us, and break it not.
One of the basic deficiencies in Catholic preaching and catechetics is our domestication of evil—the preoccupation with pharmaceuticals and masturbation—as opposed to the egregious sin about us that is significantly disquieting and disconcerting—producing the fear, loathsomeness, powerlessness and inadequacy that arises in the face of earthshaking sin. Just speaking from my own life experiences, churches and the people who frequent them look to us for escape, not reality. There is little interest today for the style of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, to preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Consequently our faith formation programs produce graduates anesthetized to the “sin of the world” (as in “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…”) and who, in later years, remember Catholic formation as the career restaurant pianist playing merrily away while the restaurant burns.
With the Feast of Pentecost upon us, we may want to reflect that the God who visited his new Israel, his new Church, appeared as fire according to St. Luke. Such a dramatic and unexpected visitation by God should be some indication of our weakness in confronting evil and an absolute need for the divine to restore creation. People pray for comfort and consolation….how about praying for realistic fear of evil?
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