Within the next year we are about to see a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the Catholic Church on the subject of morality. Pope Francis convoked an extraordinary synod of the world’s bishops last fall, in preparation for the regular Synod of Bishops on October 4-25, 2015. The official subject matter is evangelization and the family, but as you may recall from the first meeting, some significant pastoral and moral issues received a great deal of attention, namely the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, and the widespread use of artificial birth control. As I interpreted the results, a number of bishops from Western Europe, notably Germany, argued that under current Church teaching and practice a large number of Catholic families are at odds with the Church. Some bishops have called for a change in the Church’s teachings on artificial birth control and the indissoluble bond of a sacramental marriage. While the bishops of the United States did not go this far, there is considerable popular sentiment here for serious reexamination of the status quo.
I have to state upfront that for me it would be critical that we keep our eye on the original pastoral goal established by the pope, the health of the family unit and its spiritual revitalization as key to the rebirth of evangelical renewal in the church. Put another way, this is the first time there has ever been a Synod whose expressed target is the one most of you anguish over constantly—the minors in your faith formation programs whose families we never see at Sunday Mass. I had a most informative discussion recently with my own diocese’s director of faith formation who explained that there appears to be a consensus developing between bishops and professional catechists around family based faith formation, in whatever forms that would take. When we consider that the late Christiane Brusselmans and other liturgical/catechetical pioneers were already producing books and pastoral guides for family based faith initiation as early as 1970, it is remarkable that it has taken nearly half a century for such insight to “trickle upward.” So, regardless of what you read in the New York Times or the Huffington Post, the thrust of this Synod is faith and the family.
That said, you are public people in the Church and you want to be well-informed to communicate effectively with your fellow parishioners who regard you as “insiders,” so to speak. Most will ask about the high visibility issues. So how do you respond? Rule number one for catechists is integrity: as a commissioned catechist, you cannot speak against the Apostolic Tradition. You cannot publicly deride or disparage teachings with which you have difficulty yourself.
Along this line, I do not expect to see change in either teaching. Francis himself has recently reaffirmed Paul VI’s 1968 teaching on artificial birth control, and the teaching on marital indissolubility dates back to the Gospel (though with some New Testament shading in Matthew and Paul). Something to consider: the call for change in the teachings is not universal; it is coming from the “industrialized West” and thus does not carry the sensus fidelium or “sense of all the faithful.” Change in the moral core would devastate the Church in Asia and Africa whose people depend upon the moral power of the Church in the face of real persecution and hostile culture.
All the same, moral teaching is addressed to fallible believers. What I suspect may happen (and this is my opinion only) is that bishops may address pastoral care for those who in good faith have significant practical difficulty with moral teachings regarding the family. Pope Francis hinted as much in his “rabbits” remark last week. Both St Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Church combine moral teaching with spiritual virtue; there are holy people among us who are called to the married state but whose first spouses were sociopaths who successfully torpedoed the annulment attempt out of spite. There are holy couples who by reason of health have found periodic abstinence unworkable and yet live a sacrament whose matter is doctrinally defined as unitive conjugal expression.
As a foot note, let me recommend an excellent discussion of Catholic moral fidelity, “Following Faithfully” from the February 2, 2015 issue of America Magazine. If nothing else, the article gives a fine overview of the role of conscience in moral decision making.
There is a mental health symptom common to a number of disorders called “rumination,” or the tendency to repeatedly worry about real and projected problems to the point of exhaustion. Patients have often expressed to me the wish that they could “turn their brains off,” so to speak, so that they can relax, sleep, or enjoy the better things of life.
I suspect that many of us have more than just a trace of ruminating minds. I do. I also suspect that when people speak of distractions in prayer, public or private, this is what they are talking about. During my first or second year as an on-the-go priest at a busy college, I decided to make a guided retreat at the Cenacle Retreat House in Rochester, N.Y. I arrived at lunch time, and after lunch I reported to the religious sister who would be my private guru for the week. I immediately asked her what I should be doing that afternoon. She laughed and said, “Go to bed and get some sleep. You look exhausted.”
When you think of it, prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading produce nothing of material value. Put another way, prayer is “wasting time with God.” (Thank you to the Benedictine blogger who provided that nugget of wisdom.) In fact, a sociologist might say that both playing and praying have a lot in common—both involve losing touch with space and time. Have you ever become so engrossed in a movie that when it is over the time of day and the location of your car are totally foreign to you? In this case you have “lost yourself” in art (play), which Aristotle in his Poetics argues is necessary for the health of the emotions. (Aristotle termed this “catharsis.”)
True personal religious experience, then, has elements of passivity and escape. Passivity defines our relationship with God, the first cause and ultimate judge of all that is. Escape is the distancing from self importance, pride, a false sense of control. So, to even begin prayerful time, disengagement is necessary, which is probably why the good sister recommended I let go of my Type A approach to ministry and during my prolonged nap let God take care of business.
In 2011 I was fortunate enough to come across a remarkable little book, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk from Australia. Don’t let the elongated title put you off. The term Lectio Divina applies to all sacred writing, notably the Scriptures and the long history of the Church’s writers. Of all the richness of spiritual advice in this relatively brief work, the lesson that has stayed with me the longest is the need to approach all sacred writing—whether it be the Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, venerable spiritual direction from the ages—with not just openness, but obedience. Let me explain.
One of my serious shortcomings over the years (perhaps a professional liability of preachers, teachers and writers) has been my tendency to “use” sacred texts. I approach religious texts with an eye toward how I can use them in my work. Now we all have to do this in our church capacities, but I was not making the distinction between feeding my own soul and gathering tidbits for book reviews.
Casey emphasizes the need for profound obedience in taking up any legitimate spiritual text. We are not to critique, contrast, evaluate, assess or debate a sacred author. Rather, we take a book into our hands (or a Kindle, I guess) as a religious novice sitting at the feet of a teacher wise in the ways of the Lord, and open our minds without reservation. And, we listen until the teaching is complete. In doing this, we lose ourselves in the treasury of the Church’s wisdom. The ruminations that trouble us will decrease when we put ourselves in a position to hear God’s Word and subsequent sacred commentaries. We will learn to pray by the wisdom of passivity before the holy men and women who have tasted God’s divine life.
The first step toward true prayer is giving up our imaginary reins of control and opening our ears to the wisdom of God All Powerful.
Next week marks the 42nd anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision, “Roe v. Wade,” a somewhat complex decision based upon the Fourteenth Amendment and its extension to women a right of privacy in the matter of seeking an abortion. There is very little I can add to the great amount of literature from the Catholic hierarchy and theologians on the subject; nor am I conversant with the large body of legal debate over this decision that continues to our present time.
Reports I have seen in the general media indicate that national sentiment has shifted statistically in recent years on the matter, with Americans expressing a slightly more cautious and reserved approach toward the issue of abortion per recent 2014 Gallup polling, but the new numbers are nothing to celebrate about in terms of Catholic teaching on the defense of life. It is notably, though, that attendance at the annual Washington March for Life has risen from 250,000 in 2010 to 650,000 in 2013 per Wikipedia.
I was 25 and completing my graduate theological studies in Washington when the ruling was announced. I was living in a conclave of religious communities, Catholic scholars, and Catholic universities at the time. I myself was actually doing research on the relationship of “women’s liberation” (as women’s issues were referred to then) and Catholic theological trends during that semester. My recollection is that there was an air of expectation on the outcome of the case, so that the prevailing mood on the grassy knolls of Catholic University was one of resignation as much as anything. Organized pro life ecclesiastical and political movements had not yet taken shape.
Over four decades later my own reflections on “Roe v. Wade” have taken shape in these somewhat eccentric and disorganized constructs.
First, 1973 was a time when America was highly attuned to freedom of speech actions of all sorts. Many of the resulting causes were quite noble and became part of our legal system. The Civil Rights movement comes immediately to mind, when crusaders routinely broke local segregation codes and laws at the service of a greater justice, ultimately encoded in federal law. Similarly, conscientious objection and opposition to the Viet Nam War opened discussion on the balance of free speech vs. national security.
Second, concurrent with the first point was an American concern for privacy at the time of Roe v. Wade. In 1973 America was learning in a daily televised drama about the federal abuses of the Nixon Administration, collectively known as “Watergate.” There was considerable talk at the time about “keeping the government out of my bedroom” which implied for many that the government had nothing to say about human sexual conduct involving mature adults.
Third, the actual text of the court’s ruling gives the reader a sense of what was not known in 1973 about reproductive health or the philosophical definition of a human life. For example, there is recognition that an unborn child has rights, but the court was uncertain as to when these rights applied to the fetus. While Catholic teaching on this point is clear, it was less so to the general public and the sitting judges at the time. Thus, terms such as “viability of the fetus” and “trimesters” are notable in the discussion. It is also clear that the thinking of the time envisioned “life of the mother vs. life of the child” scenarios which, given advances in prenatal medicine, are much more rare today.
Fourth, given the publicity of the case and many other factors, abortion and the “Roe v. Wade” decision became, unfortunately, the flagship issues in the political crusade for women’s rights in the United States. In American public parlance, the terms “women’s rights” and “abortion rights” are synonymous. This is very unfortunate, because from a Christian vantage point there is a lot of common ground between Church teaching on the family and improvement in the lot of women’s lives that currently has considerable political wind at its back. Just wages for women, health care, maternity leave, domestic violence, discrimination, the sex trade, to name a few, are moral issues where Catholics—by belief and practice—would comfortably and energetically stand with those outside of the Catholic communion to make common cause.
The stumbling block, of course, is abortion, and more specifically the belief held by many in American society that a woman’s life is not complete without this option, that all of the progress made to date on behalf of women would be for naught were the judiciary to protect the rights of the unborn. We can hope that new generations of political leaders may come to appreciate that the respect of unborn children is a bellwether of dignity for all citizens, men and women, and vets them favorable for public duty and service.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything