It’s Hard To Be A Catholic

It’s hard to be Catholic these days.

Faithful Catholics have no home in public discourse, because we’re presented with false absolutes: rhetoric that demonizes or “other”-izes half of God’s children, or a world view that leaves no room for a person who doesn’t support abortion. Too many of us act as if one or the other of those is an acceptable choice. It isn’t. Not for a follower of Jesus Christ.

And of course, there’s the sex abuse scandal. The Church has taken a beating from the secular world on that–with good reason. Yet even now, we as laity aren’t really dealing with it. To do so would force us to grapple with a really hard truth: that the Catholic Church’s strength–the apostolic structure that shields it from being swayed by the vagaries of public opinion–is also, in this case, its weakness.

Because, let’s face it: we are a passive laity. We’ve been trained that way: “The Church is not a democracy.” Well, of course not, but when did that come to mean the laity are supposed to lie down and abdicate our baptismal calling as priest, prophet, and king? Too many of us see ourselves as lesser vassals of the hierarchy. Somewhere in our Catholic psyche is a deeply-ingrained belief that it’s neither our right nor our responsibility to speak to them on matters of Church governance. And that, among other things, is how we got the abuse crisis.

So what’s the way forward? If we try to claim any authority, we’re in danger of being called “dissenters.” Nobody wants to get slapped with that label, so we cede the field of spiritual battle. We settle for bickering over sexual orientation, guns, immigration, and organ vs. guitar.

I sound jaded, don’t I? This is not at all the tone I intended for Intentional Catholic. I love my Church. But I’m feeling worn down lately. The institutional Church is in defense mode, terrified of doing the wrong thing—so terrified, it’s failing, at least on a large scale, to call out abuses of power and violations of justice and God-given human dignity, lest we lose any more people who might be offended by having their consciences stung.

Well, that fear is justified, too. Surely your parishes look like mine. Fifteen years ago, our biggest Mass had people standing around the back every Sunday. Now, the only time pew space is at a premium is Christmas and Easter.

But for every person who’s thrown up his hands and left the Church in disgust, there’s another clinging by his fingernails at the edge, tottering. Desperate for grounding, strengthening, spiritual fortification. And every time some zealous Catholic (ordained or lay) launches into legalistic hair-splitting–which of course they never recognize as hair-splitting–the fine thread tethering that wavering soul to the Church trembles. Stretches. Weakens.

We’ve got to make room for people’s questions, for their doubts. We’ve got to accept that we have to have open conversations that are going to be unpleasant. Faith grows when it is stretched, which always means stress and discomfort. But God is big enough to handle it, and–even now–so is the Church.

We have to let people be broken and imperfect. We have to accept the messiness of having a Church full of broken, imperfect people. We have to recognize that unity does not mean uniformity, and if we ignore the issues that are rocking people’s faith, if we talk obliquely about them while getting into knock-down, drag-out fights over liturgy, we’re in great danger of losing all those who are clinging desperately to their faith by a thread. Who see us bickering over minutiae while they’re crying out for survival.

This is spiritual warfare if I’ve ever seen it. And we’ve got to stop giving the Devil ammunition.

When I See The Stars…

I took this picture using a shoe as a tripod for my DSLR last Sunday night

Looking at the stars is one of my favorite things to do, but it’s often nearly impossible to find a spot to go where I can actually see stars and feel comfortable because I actually have permission to be there. The bed and breakfast where my husband and I stayed for our “anniversary-moon” is one of those rare spots. I stayed up late most nights sitting on the grass or standing beside the horse paddock at the ranch simply drinking in the glory of the night sky.

I identified constellations I’ve never known before, because they lie too close to the horizon, and at home they’re lost in the city wash. I got to watch the Milky Way emerge incrementally from the darkness. The last night I saw 5 meteors and 10 satellites.

Most of us rarely (if ever) get to marvel at the vastness of the universe in this visceral way. We spend our nights inside, and even when we do go outside, the sky is washed out.

We could all say, “Sure, I know the stars are there.” But we don’t know it, not the way we know the movement of the sun from east to west: where the shadows fall, what time of day we have to close the blinds because the summer heat will overcome the a/c, or what time to open them in winter to take advantage of natural warmth and light.

Sometimes we pause to drink in sunset, but most of us give up soon after. What took the place of this glow, when it faded, was the Big Dipper. But you to devote another hour to waiting for it to happen.

In the same way, the reality of God and responding to/living out his call are things we know to be there, but they often get lost in the washout of the brighter, more attention-getting concerns of daily life. We don’t have time to think about things like what does human dignity mean, beyond the obvious question of abortion: in terms of racial tension, questions of immigration and gun violence and honesty in the things we choose to read and share online.

Things like God’s presence in all the places in the world, and the way our tendency toward hyperbole leads us to outright heresy without even realizing it.

Or how often we go to war over minutiae of worship while relegating to the sidelines the fundamental call of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick of body and mind, and basically work to see the Kingdom made manifest on Earth. Good liturgy is important, but not as an end in itself. The liturgy is strength for the work of doing God’s will in the real world. When we get stuck in a war with each other over questions of style, we’ve missed the point.

The devil has many ways to get to us, and unfortunately it’s often by working on our religious sensibilities. Or simply our busy-ness.

I’m devoting the time and energy to this ministry because I’ve spent the last several years trying to quit bouncing along the surface of my faith on autopilot and dig down to something deeper. It’s been spiritually challenging, but also extremely rewarding and energizing for me to recognize the profusion of ways in which my belief in God touches the most trivial minutiae of daily life. I’m not perfect by a long shot, but what I’ve discovered is that I’m better able to teach my children a faith that–I hope, at least–will have the real-world grounding to stick for a lifetime.

Yay God!

(Note: as I noted late last week, I am celebrating my 20th anniversary this week with a trip with my husband. As you can imagine, a work-at-home mother of 4 trying to pull off an anniversary trip means a LOT of logistical planning, so this week I’m sharing, with minor edits, a post originally published on my personal blog in 2009. To understand it, you need to know that my daughter Julianna has Down syndrome. At the time this was written, she was a toddler. This is one of my all-time favorite spiritual lessons learned from my children.)

It happened for the first time over the Fourth of July weekend. We were staying with my in-laws, and Julianna’s cousins sat on the floor with her and played “Pat-a-Cake.” They showed her the motions and chanted the little ditty in unison, and about the time they reached “put it in the oven for…” Julianna would erupt in a long, loud yell and clap her hands, showing every one of her teeth. The girls did the rhyme over and over, and Julianna never let them down. Every single time, she overlapped the last line with a shout of joy. (I can’t call it a squeal, because that word connotes something much higher-pitched, and Julianna’s is a dusky alto voice.)

In the last six weeks, that fresh, unsophisticated reaction has become one of our favorite things about life with our daughter. It makes us laugh, but not for the reason you think. Yes, it’s funny and cute, but there’s a pure, unadulterated joy in that reaction that never fails to evoke a sympathetic resonance in our own souls. All children find joy in simple things, but it’s more pronounced in Julianna, because of the unevenness of her development. Her body’s skill level is, oh, let’s call it fourteen months; her speech is even farther behind than that—but her emotional level, her understanding, is much closer to her true age of 2 ½. So the things she reacts to are far ahead of her ability to express.

We had pizza one night, and she yelled and clapped to show how excited she was.  My husband caught on quickly. He began to encourage her, saying, “Yay for the pizza!” Julianna learned her cue so well that her daddy progressed to “Yay for the ice cream!”

She’s unbearably cute about it. She grins so hard, her eyes squint; she yells, claps her hands, and looks around to make sure everybody is taking as much pleasure in the moment as they ought to be.

One morning last week, as I was out running and soaking in the wonder of a beautiful sunrise, I found myself smiling and saying, “Yay, God!” And it hit me: this is the meaning of praise. The psalms are full of “praise God!” Somewhere along the line I remember learning that prayer should be first praise, then thanks, and only after that petition. I have always been confused by the difference between praise and thanks. Aren’t they one and the same? What words do you use to praise God? Eventually I came to the conclusion that “praise” is one of those “effective” words—a word that has no meaning except its own utterance—a word that accomplishes its meaning simply by the act of being spoken, like “I baptize you” or “I forgive you.”

But Julianna has taught me a deeper truth: that praise is not about words at all. It’s about opening yourself up to the moment, delighting in what you experience, and allowing the knowledge of the One Who made it possible to intensify the joy.

Worship, Youth, and Hypocrisy

(Note: I am celebrating my 20th anniversary this week with a trip with my husband. As you can imagine, a work-at-home mother of 4 trying to pull off an anniversary trip means a LOT of logistical planning, so this week I’m sharing, unedited, a post originally published on my personal blog. The time references may not be contemporary, but the issues are definitely still with us.)

***

Image by Francesco 65, via Flickr

There’s a blog post making the rounds right now about the dismal record of churches, both mega- and traditional, to retain their youth into adulthood. The author and all the commenters have their pet theories about why this is–the age-old argument between “worship isn’t relevant” (i.e. it’s too traditional) and “the worship is too contemporary” (i.e. it’s too contemporary) seem to be the focus of discussion.

Although I’m a liturgist, and I have impassioned opinions on the question of musical style in worship, I actually don’t believe the style of worship has all that much to do with this question at all.

We are losing the youth–and everyone else who’s leaving organized religion–because they think it’s a bunch of B.S. A conspiracy made to pacify the ignorant and keep the masses in line. And why do they think this?

Because we call ourselves Christians, and we don’t act like Christ. We say we believe, but then refuse to act like believing changes everything. We talk big and then we talk trash about others. We act as if the aesthetics and the personal preferences are what it’s all about.

In simple language, we’re losing people because we’re hypocrites. Even, and sometimes especially, those of us who are the most involved in our churches.

In every Catholic discussion, Vatican II seems to be the lightning rod. Someone always says that whatever problem we were facing was caused by V2 because it didn’t exist before that, and if only we went back to the way things were fifty years ago, all our problems would go away. As if somehow people were intrinsically holier then, instead of simply doing what was culturally expected. Fifty years ago, people went to church whether or not they really wanted to, not because they were better Catholics, but because that’s what everyone did.

These days, church is not what everyone does, so people don’t do it. And that’s not a change caused by Vatican II. That happened in the context of a larger world. All matters of faith are lived in and influenced by the context of the larger world, and that is as it should be. We aren’t “of” the world, but we do live “in” it. We can’t possibly hope to leaven the world if we stand apart and wag our finger at it. You have to dive in.

I know that’s scary. Each of us has a vision for the way the world should be, and it’s pretty cut and dried. But the world isn’t black and white. It’s a complex, interwoven mess. You tug on one string and every other one is affected. There are no simple solutions to any of the issues we face.

The world is messy, and the more you get down in the muck, the more you realize your pat answers don’t–can’t–stand unassailable in the face of the real world. You find yourself forced to reconsider, to shift your dearly-held philosophies to make room for circumstances that don’t fit neatly into the box you’ve made.

Nobody likes having to do that. But if you just keep confirming yourself in your own rightness, it pretty soon becomes self-righteousness, and self-delusion. And then your faith, strong as you think it is, ends up ringing very false to others. They might not know why, but they’ll sense the underlying conflict.

And then they figure, if this is what faith is, I don’t want any part of it.

We can’t ever stop seeking deeper truth. And that search is exercise for the soul. Like physical exercise, it hurts, because it begins with breaking down the boundaries of the muscle in order to make room for expansion.

But at its basic level, that spiritual exercise begins because we go out and we do something with our faith. It’s in the doing that we experience the things that challenge our presumptions and assumptions. Don’t tell me all the reasons it can’t be done. Do something about it. You may not succeed, you may fall flat on your face, but do something.

This is what Pope Francis keeps saying over and over. Sure, worship is important, but worship is not the most important thing; worship is the spiritual food for doing the real work of Christianity. Do something.

If all of us who call ourselves Christians heeded his call, it would be a game changer.

Seek

My study group has begun a long-term exploration of St. Ignaius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I spent time last weekend praying over the passage that begins with Luke 12:22: the flowers in the field, the ravens. It’s all very familiar. At the end comes this verse.

In the context, Jesus has been listing off the basic bodily concerns of human life: what to eat, where to live, what to cover your body with. And he says, “Look, quit worrying. Everybody needs these things. God knows you need these things. He’ll take care of that. Seek the kingdom, and the rest of it will follow.”

First, it struck me that one could (wrongly) read a prosperity gospel into this passage. If you’re well-off, you might get complacent and think it’s because you’re following God and he’s given you all this other stuff as a reward, failing to recognize the complex familial, economic, and social factors that boost some of us and shove others among us down–influences that impact us whether we’re aware of them or not.

But then I started thinking about this word “seek.” My first instinct is to read “seek” as any attempt to get something—so if I get a job of any kind, I’m “seeking” money.

But as one of my study group partners pointed out, the ravens don’t sit in their nests and food falls from the sky into their mouths. They still have to go out and do the work. It’s not that we’re supposed to pretend the physical needs of our bodies don’t matter. That plays into the wrong-headed idea that all things of the body are inherently bad and dirty, when in fact, God gave us our bodies and everything about them as a gift to enjoy as well as to use for his glory.

Of course we have to go get a job and take care of our homes and our families. The question is, where does that priority rank? What comes first? What is the overarching concern that structures my life? Is it getting the better job, the bigger house, the hot car, the position of influence? What is the single concern that comes to mind first whenever I have a decision to make?

Whatever that factor is, that’s what I’m seeking.

Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God should be that overarching concern, the thing that gives all other questions in my life structure.

It should inform my purchasing habits: what impact does this purchase have on creation? Are those who produced this shoe/shirt being treated justly?

It should inform my work: does this job enable or obstruct the manifestation of God’s kingdom?

It should inform my political decisions: what is the kingdom of God, and given a host of imperfect options and a very screwed-up world, which choice best personifies God’s will, rather than my own comfort?

It should inform my interactions with my children: how do I respond to this situation in order to form them in an understanding of their place in God’s plan?

That’s what it means to seek God’s kingdom. It doesn’t mean you quit going to work or view your physical needs as some sinful side show. It just means viewing all those worldly concerns through the lens of the kingdom.

What does my faith cost me?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Intentional Catholic has been on my mind a long time, but among the many things that gave me pause was the cost.

I don’t mean money. I’m thinking of the time it takes, for one thing. (I spend a lot of time on this.) I quit blogging several years ago because the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work anymore.

But more than that, I was dreading the emotional cost. Writing a blog like this is an exercise in balance. I don’t have all the answers and I’d darned well better not act like I do. Who would want to read that? It’s intrinsically egotistical to think little ol’ me has any spiritual insights to offer anyone at all. (I wrote about this on my personal blog a few years ago.)

More even than that, the emotional cost is the risk of breaking relationships. I knew there’s no way to talk about living the faith in the real world without addressing contentious issues. And in the past few years, I’ve experienced personally the cost of relationships damaged by incompatible world views. It’s steep. It hurts… a lot. I’ve lost a lot of sleep battling the anxiety caused by broken relationships and the fear of breaking more by standing up for the things God has taught me (also at great personal cost) in the past few years. Things many religious people don’t want to hear.

But I also knew the call was real, because I couldn’t escape it. It pursued me all the time, across Facebook, the news, and my personal interactions.

Then, this past January, someone I admire greatly asked a group of us to consider: “What has my witness to the faith cost me? And if the answer is ‘nothing,’ what does that tell me?”

Those two questions exploded in my head. It was a signpost from God–one of the clearest I’ve ever received. If I was serious about all this “living the faith intentionally” stuff, I had to take the leap.

Who am I to speak about the things I see God telling me about faith in the real world?

But who am I to withhold what God is calling me to share? I am his hands and feet and voice in the world, said Teresa of Avila.

I knew this project would hit nerves. The writings of the Church skewer us all at some point. They’re supposed to. They’re meant to call us out of the world. All of us cling tightly to worldly concerns in some facet of our lives, and all of us react the same way when those idols are challenged.

But I also feel confident I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because for the first time, I’m not losing (much) sleep over fear and anxiety. For the first time in all the years I’ve spent trying to identify my “target audience,” I know exactly who I’m supposed to reach: my fellow Catholics. For the first time, when I consider the question, “What has my witness to the faith cost me?” I can say I know what it is–and add that it isn’t as hard to bear as I thought it would be—because I rest in confidence that God has my back.

Spaghetti Bowls

Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay

My spiritual director once told me, “The intersection of faith and politics is a mess. It’s like a big bowl of spaghetti. You tug on one piece and all the rest of them move, too.”

Last week, I shared a quote from Evangelii Gaudium about economic policy. I knew it would make people defensive, but still, I was surprised by how many who have never commented on a post felt compelled to do so on this one. It really underscored how strong is our impulse to say, “Oh, no, Church, you just butt out of_____. That has nothing to do with you.”

For many who lean left politically, contraception is one of those issues. It’s so ubiquitous in the modern world; the very idea that the Church would have something to say about it raises hackles. And of course, let’s not forget that the colossal, even cataclysmic, failure of our Church on the subject of the sex abuse crisis makes it very hard for people to accept the authority of the Church on any matters of sex. We have to own that.

For those who lean right politically, this idea of economics is a struggle. Part of the reason it took so long for me to write that post was because it kept trying to wander so far afield. It threatened to stray too far from the faith component.

And yet… if we really believe God created all things and is in all things and over all things, then we have to consider all things in light of God’s will.

Unfortunately, we’re pretty inconsistent about when we think God has a role and when he (or the Church) should butt out. Take this question of money and economics. What was the rise of the TEA party except a group of people saying, “How we use money has a moral component”? Yet if someone (a pope, for instance) challenges the effects of a particular economic policy on the poor, those who embrace said policy tell him he has no authority on this subject.

In other words: “Butt out, God.”

We do have to wrestle with what the Godly use of money entails. As the opening prayer this weekend said, “Grant that we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast to those that endure.” We do have to wrestle with what it means to use money in a way that honors God. Jesus spoke very clearly on the impossibility of serving both God and mammon. The problem is that money is such a strong influence, it distorts our perception of our priorities.

This post has gone half a dozen different directions in the drafting: discernment; the idea of what it means to “seek” or “serve;” thoughts about two different great books that shed light on questions raised here; a reflection on my “right” to put these questions out into the universe at all—

Which bears out the image I opened with: all the earth’s issues are interconnected. You cannot address one without tugging on all the others. I had hoped to address several of those threads, but I’d have to write a book to do it, and I’m determined to keep Intentional Catholic posts short.

So I’ve split off all those other “strands of spaghetti” into posts of their own, and I just want to conclude today with an invitation to self-reflection.

What are the contemporary issues I don’t want God and His Church talking to me about? (We all have them.) Do I think I’m justified in that? If I had to explain myself to God on these issues, would my answers measure up?

(Incidentally, these kinds of self-reflections are the focus of the short book I wrote for OSV on the Beatitudes. End self-promotion.)

Trickle-Down Economics: Who’s right, and what does it mean for Christians?

I have to be honest: it’s terrifying to share this excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium. The idea of free market and trickle-down economics is foundational to the world view of so many Americans who hold the Christian faith, it’s often viewed as fundamental to being a Christian. Heck, I grew up that way. I know how defensive a reaction this quote is likely to provoke in many faithful Catholic readers.

So I guess we have to start by acknowledging that we can’t examine this question solely from the perspective of faith, because there is a very concrete, practical reality underlying it. The fundamental practical question we have to answer before we can address the faith component is this: does trickle-down economics work? Does it actually bring prosperity (and, far more important, greater human dignity) to all? Because if so, more power to it. But this weigh-in from the Church indicates otherwise.

According to this analysis, faith in trickle-down economics as a boon to all is on pretty shaky ground, with the financial benefits extremely lopsided–over 25 years and two trickle-down tax cuts, 6% growth for the bottom fifth versus 80% growth for the top fifth; the economic growth credited to those tax cuts uncertain because of other strong influences at work at the same time.

(To hearken back to the topic of honesty and fact checking in social media: The site hosting that analysis is one of the very few sources given the rating “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a site I visit routinely when I’m not familiar with the source I’m reading.)

Back to the topic at hand. If Pope Francis is right, then what does this mean for us as Christians?

I’ve spent an hour trying to formulate an answer to that question that doesn’t trip political land mines. Maybe the answer is that we all, regardless of where we stand politically, need to pray for the grace and wisdom to be able to self-reflect more honestly. We’ve always embraced it when our leadership has called out the failures and injustices in the Communist systems. And with good reason. But we’ve often turned a blind eye when the popes and bishops have called out the same offenses within capitalism. It’s easy to assume we know God’s will and not even recognize when what we’re actually worshiping is our own.

Starving

Background image by Tama66, via Pixabay

This is probably one of the best illustrations a girl could hope for in trying to explain what I mean when I talk about being “intentional” about the faith. We’ve all heard about food waste, but how often do we actually connect it to our Christian faith? Plus, it’s such a general, “out there” kind of concept. Places like this, that put it in concrete terms we can wrap our heads around, paint the issue in big, global terms, which means we don’t always connect it with our individual habits. For instance:

We don’t make our kids finish eating whatever they don’t want, because it might teach them an unhealthy relationship to food… but we don’t wrap it up and save it for the kid’s next meal, either; we throw it away.

Restaurant portions are gargantuan and sometimes we take home the leftovers, sometimes we don’t; it gets thrown away.

And all the while we’re enjoying the bounty of our own privileged existence, people are starving.

What if we were more intentional about how we eat and how we deal with food waste? (This link from the EPA gives some great tips.) What savings might we be able to achieve, and thus redirect toward providing food for those not as blessed as ourselves?

These are the piddly little habits we don’t always recognize as being connected to our faith. Being intentional means we have to stop think instead of doing what we’ve always done on autopilot.

I know. This means devoting time and mental energy none of us feel like we have. Believe me, I get it!

But having been on this journey for several years, I can promise this: Whatever you invest in living your faith intentionally–in these real, concrete, practical ways–will come back to you many times over.

How to Discern?

We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.

When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.

How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?

I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.