You know how everybody always thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket? And then someone always brings up that quote from some guy in ancient Greece (Rome?) about how the younger generation is without moral strength and the world is guaranteed to fall apart in our lifetime?
That’s what comes to mind when I read Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). In 2019, we are pretty much all appalled at the state of the world, even if we can’t agree on which factors are most appalling and what has to happen to fix it. We think we’re experiencing something unprecedented. But as I read Gaudium et Spes I see that we’re still facing the same issues they were facing fifty years ago.
This is one of the Vatican II documents–the actual documents put forth by the council. That’s why I picked it to explore next–because it’s part of the foundation of what we experience as Catholics in the 21st century. Plus, it was promulgated by St. Paul VI, who was canonized just a year ago, so it’s seems appropriate.
Every four years, we confront another choice about what moral evils we will ignore in order to oppose others. We—the bishops, the clergy, the Catholic media and the Catholic faithful—continue to fail to convince any significant political figure to defend both the innocent unborn and our brothers and sisters at the border. The two parties fail to uphold Catholic teaching in different ways. Democrats almost universally support access to abortion, but are at least persuadable on a range of other critical issues the church focuses on. Many Republicans are pro-life, but are significantly opposed to Catholic priorities on a number of other issues, such as immigration, climate change and care for the poor.
Take time to read the comments as well (but be sure to click on “all comments” first), because there is some thoughtful (and respectful!) dialogue there. One of the things that flagged my attention was the assertion that there were far, far more abortions in 1930 than there are now. I had never heard such a claim, and so, being committed to good information, I went down some rabbit holes trying to confirm or deny it.
I couldn’t find any right-leaning sites that addressed the question at all–which makes sense, as, if true, it would undermine the position that outlawing abortion would save the lives of unborn babies. All this to explain why I am linking to an article from the Guttmacher Institute, which Media Bias/Fact Check rates as left-center bias, which addresses the issue of the number of abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. I don’t know about you, but I certainly assumed that abortion was quite uncommon before the sexual revolution. It appears that is not the case at all. Please do take the time to read both these articles, from America and from Guttmacher, as I think they both include thoughts that challenge all Catholics, wherever we stand on the question of whether abortion should be the only issue that matters in elections. (And if someone knows a moderately right-leaning–as opposed to a clickbait inflammatory–site that addresses the question, please share with me, and I’ll edit the post to include that as well. Life Site, Breitbart, etc. need not apply. Use Media Bias/Fact Check to see where a source falls; it’s the gold standard in online fact checking.)
Here’s an interesting one. There’s a section in Evangelii Gaudium focused on the need to offer to others the same religious freedoms we expect for ourselves–particularly in regards to Islam. But the pope puts this cautionary stamp on it, too. This will resonate with many who lean right politically. It’s worth some real soul-searching on both sides of the question of religious freedom as to what that really means, and what the cost is, and to whom. Because religious freedom has to include both sides of the coin: freedom *from* religion and freedom *to* practice one’s beliefs. It’s inevitable that those two freedoms will come into conflict at various points. So we have to take great care in discerning how to respect one side without suppressing the other.
Many of us who are religious view our own concerns higher than the concerns of those without faith. But if we want to convert the “nones,” we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to force something down their throat that pushes them away. We need to live in such a way that others say, “Hey, what do you have that I don’t? I want some of that. How do I get it?” We witness by implicit invitation, in other words–but we also have to recognize that others are not obligated to respond to that invitation. That’s how God approaches all of us, and if we want to image Him in the world, we have to do the same.
So–that being the case, how *do* we ensure that the rights of religious people are respected, without trampling the rights of those who choose not to espouse faith?
I have no answers, only–as always–underscoring that hot-button questions like prayer at public events and services for weddings are less straightforward than we, the faithful, would like them to be.
Most ideas work in theory (i.e., in a perfect world). The question is, how do they interact when they bump into reality?
Take the idea of small government and low taxes: we should all be responsible for our own lives and fix our own problems. It makes perfect sense. In theory.
But here’s an example that shows things aren’t so straightforward when ideas butt up against reality.
For years, my daughter required extremely expensive orthotics to try to correct the “pronation” of her feet resulting from low muscle tone and loose ligaments. This is very common for people with Down syndrome. And when I say expensive, I mean $2000-$5000 per pair. Now, we never had to pay that bill, for two reasons: 1) we have great public insurance through my husband’s work, and 2) the county where we live has a dedicated tax to fund benefits for people with disabilities. Between those two realities, we were covered. Yay for us.
But what about the vast majority of people who have neither of those advantages? They just have to figure out how to pay $2-5000 for a pair of shoes, because individuals, unlike doctors’ offices and hospitals, aren’t allowed to negotiate lower rates with insurers.
It’s a heavy burden, and it’s only one example among many, where disability is concerned. Therapies are expensive, too. OT, PT, Speech. Heart surgery. Gastrointestinal surgery. The need for adult supervision long past the age it would normally be necessary.
You can see how easy it would be to receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and be overwhelmed by the financial burden of raising this child. How easily these realities–which simply ARE; you can’t argue them away because they’re inconvenient–can be used to justify terminating a pregnancy. The burden is real.
This was one of the first realities that made it clear to me that the idea of small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility is not necessarily conducive to a culture of life. Sometimes, in fact, it will push us the opposite direction. This example shows how a centralized, universal health care system could, in fact, support a culture of life.
Countless Church documents over the years have stressed that government is meant to be a force for good. That it has a real role in making God’s justice manifest on earth. For generations, popes have been saying this.
But the modern counter-argument is that individuals and private charity can meet this need without requiring government intervention. So let’s take a look at how that idea plays out in reality.
First: outside of the families directly impacted, who even knows this need exists? (Did you?) How is the knowledge of that need going to reach the individuals and charities who might be able to meet said need?
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone does learn of the need, and creates an organization to meet it. The likelihood that they’re going to create a big charity with a wide reach is extremely low; the need is too specific. So at best, they’ll probably set up a charity that deals with their particular region. Yay for the kids in that region, but what about those in the next region over?
Best case scenario, someone else hears about it and sets up an organization there, too. Which means now we have two organizations, with two different leadership, doing the same job, competing for the same pot of charitable money. And meanwhile, the people three regions over still aren’t getting any help at all.
On the other hand, if this need were acknowledged and met through a publicly-funded entity–whether that’s something like the system in place in my county, or through a “Medicare for all” kind of national system–then we are actually being MORE efficient, because we have one administration, one funding stream, and one source.
Plus, we as a society are standing up and saying–with our pocketbooks–why yes, in fact, children with disabilities DO have value, they DO a right to be here, and to live fully.
It’s human nature to want to simplify the world, but the Gospel call has to be lived out in a messy reality. If we want to make any headway at all, we’re going to have to recognize that our ideas have to be “worked out,” as Pope Francis says, in the context of an immutable reality. That means being willing to listen to and learn from those impacted by any given issue, and to compromise with those who have different ideas on how to address the same problems.
Shortly after noon on a Holy Thursday, I was in my van, ferrying four fifth graders from the parochial school to the Food Bank to spend a couple of hours sorting bulk grocery items into family-sized bags. A great field trip to start off the Triduum celebration, especially for someone who’d been trying to spend Lent focused on “mercy.”
Although, to be wholly truthful? My
in-flight entertainment consisted of death threats and body humor. So I
couldn’t quite get that “I’m doing something holy” vibe going.
Which, come to think of it, isn’t all bad.
The thing about good deeds—and probably the reason certain Christian denominations are so suspicious of considering “works” a vital component of salvation—is that when you do good things, you tend to get really, really self-aware about it. You get this warm glow of self-congratulatory satisfaction, as if you can actually feel your halo expanding.
Well, anyway, I do.
And that’s problematic for growth in
holiness. It seems to me that the people who are truly merciful are the
ones who would say, “What, this? This is no big deal. It’s just what I
To give a different example: I get up
every day and I exercise and I write and I cook meals…a lot of meals. I
don’t need affirmation or congratulations, I don’t get all goosebump-y
with pride about it, it’s just what I do. It’s who I am; what else would
There are people who are like that with good deeds. It genuinely doesn’t occur to them that someone might compliment, praise, or affirm them for the mercy they show to others. They run the Giving Tree at Christmas, they buy a sandwich for the guy on the corner, they talk to emotionally needy/annoying people without betraying the least hint of impatience. They offer words of wisdom without any of the ego that raises others’ defenses. They don’t speak ill of anyone. Ever. At all. (Can you sense my awe?)
they seem unconscious that any one of these individual attributes is
amazing, and bringing all of them together is downright heroic.
In case I am being at all unclear, I am not one of those people.
My experience of Holy Thursday at the Food
Bank was, if not self-congratulatory, at least a little giddy at the
fact that I was, y’know, separating miniature chocolate chip cookies into bags for two hours.
In the company of fifth grade boys, no less. It felt good to be
involved. But still, I couldn’t help thinking, “chocolate chip cookies? I
mean, does anybody really need these? This isn’t big enough!
It isn’t grand enough! I should be down there in the trenches, washing
the face of Jesus, not sitting (well, all right, standing) safely in the
volunteer room of the Food Bank, with zero chance of having to interact
with a real live person in need.”
And then I thought, “But this is a whole lot easier.”
Clearly, the distance between me and the Mercy Hero I described above is vast.
But I think the key is practice. Like
anything else that begins with great concentration and difficulty and
painful self-awareness (learning Spanish from an audio course comes to
mind), the more a thing is practiced, the more automatic it becomes. I’m
sure the first time I blew in a flute I was feeling very self-aware.
But now, thirty-odd years and two degrees later, it’s closer than second
nature. I choose to place my hope in this little truism I picked up I
don’t know where and with which I now drive flute students absolutely
mad: practice makes permanent. Not perfect. Permanent.
Whether we are talking about the justification for raising or lowering taxes, the question of Dreamers and refugees, whether “voting prolife” must mean voting Republican or whether it can or should incorporate a larger view of the total life issues, or arguing over musical styles in worship, one thing is pretty much universally true: conflict gets ugly because we focus on issues instead of people.
Am I talking about the dignity of the person on the opposing side of the debate? Yes, but also the dignity of the people who are impacted by whatever issue we’re talking about. It’s much easier to look at issues as black and white, with no room for discussion or working together, when they are looked at in the abstract, rather than considering the real life people involved. When you start thinking about the dignity and well-being of refugees and Dreamers as beloved children of God, and of the Biblical call to be “our brothers’ keeper,” it becomes a lot less defensible to chant “build a wall” and tell Dreamers to go to the “back of the line.”
When we consider the dignity of the people involved, we have to look for solutions that take into account everyone, not just our own well-being. If we want to be a Christian nation, this is what we must do. It’s unsatisfying. Every one of us would be happier if the world laid itself out neatly in exactly the way we think it should. But we have to recognize that the world is flawed, and we’re not God. We can’t see the whole picture, and the only way we get anywhere close to seeing the big picture is by looking through the eyes of everyone else and figuring out how to set up the world to meet their needs as well as our own.
This is a lesson we learn as children: walk a mile in another’s shoes, see the situation through their eyes. Why do we stop thinking it matters when we reach adulthood?
I certainly see the truth of this in my own life and in those of my loved ones. I can think of quite a few people I know and care about who fit both these descriptors… as for me, I resemble the second more than the first.
When I opened my copy of Evangelii Gaudium on Friday to find the day’s sharable, these words leaped off the screen. Almost immediately, two more quotes on the same topic followed, and I realized I needed to wait and post them in a row, as a series. That’s what we’ll be doing this week.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’d encourage you to take the time to ponder these words. How else can we describe what has happened in our country and in our Church in the past twenty years, besides loss of perspective and shrinking horizons resulting from being trapped in conflict?
All of us who have wanted to pull our hair out over the proliferation of conspiracy sites and “fake news”–to say nothing of the subsequent perversions of the concept (it’s not “fake news” just because you don’t like it)–surely find resonance in the idea that getting trapped in conflict leads to a sense of reality falling apart. By which I mean: when people are so committed to always being right, and the other side wrong, that they choose to ignore any and all realities that might force them to self-reflect, then yes, reality itself starts coming apart. We can’t find common ground, because we’re not even operating in the same reality.
I’m thinking of America’s political reality in the above reflections, but it largely transfers into the conflicts within the Church as well. Much food for thought here.
A brief and very relevant thought from St. Teresa of Avila for All Saints Day. Because whenever we pray–really pray–we get closer to the mind of God, which sensitizes us to the ways we still fall short, and how much we need to change.
And of course, there’s the ongoing stain of the sex abuse scandal.
Given all this, it was pretty demoralizing when that Pew research survey came out a few months ago. The one suggesting that Catholics don’t even really understand the one thing that, above all others, defines us: the Eucharist.
Today I want to offer two points as words of hope. First, this article. Words matter, and the way the Pew questions were written, many of us would hesitate, caught between our faith and the way certain words are used in the modern secular world. I mentioned this at choir practice shortly after the survey came out, when people were expressing their dismay about the survey, and a recent convert, who had to navigate those waters on the way into the Church, nodded vigorously in agreement. The authors of this analysis suggest a more hopeful picture, and their argument resonates with me.
Which brings me to the second point: part of the reason for that resonance is an experience I had when I was working as a full-time liturgy director. I was jaded even then about the view and understanding of the Eucharist among the average Catholic Mass-goer. Convinced that most people really didn’t “get” it.
Then one day, when we had a no-show, I substituted as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister.
It was an amazing experience. One after another, people raised their eyes and their hands. The looks on their faces remain with me to this day: raw, naked, vulnerable, longing, hopeful, reverent, transfigured. Those people knew they were receiving Jesus. Knew it at a visceral level that tells a truth far deeper than any survey can illuminate. By the end of Communion, I was nearly in tears.
So when the division in the Church seem ready to rip us apart at the seams—when despair tries to get a hold on my heart—I choose to hope. To believe that what I was taught as a child remains true now: the Spirit is in control, that we are led at this point in time by the person the Spirit knows we need, and that nothing can destroy the Church. Not even us.