Freedom, Masks, and Vaccines

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This summer, a good friend and I started a small faith group with our middle- and upper-elementary school kids. We’re using an old morality textbook to get them thinking about their faith in relation to the real world.

Any discussion of morality begins with freedom, and the words of the Catechism on that topic have been rumbling around in my brain ever since we encountered them:

1731: Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. … Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God.

I bold faced that latter part because we tend to focus on the first part and forget that the second is what gives meaning to it. Freedom isn’t meant to be “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s meant to be “I am capable of and free to choose GOOD.”

In other words, if I am addicted to alcohol, or opioids, or video games, or social media, or conspiracy theories, or political disinformation—if I am consumed by fear of socialists, or fear of death—then I am not actually free at all, because those things, rather than my free will, will direct my choices and words and beliefs. The same is true if I am a prisoner of my desires (food, sex, whatever).

Being free is not supposed to be about “you can’t make me.” We’re not toddlers. Freedom is SUPPOSED to be about the ability to choose good (i.e., God).

So much bandwidth is being thrown around these days on the subject of freedom. Of course I’m thinking about vaccines and masking. Some people have genuine obstacles to vaccinating and masking, some more profound, some less so.

But mostly, people are objecting on the basis of “freedom.” I even heard someone on the radio shouting “It’s my body, it’s my choice!” at school board members. An odd, odd juxtaposition, since the demographic of people objecting to vaccines & masks are almost entirely on the pro-life side of the political spectrum, and no prolife person has ever accepted that argument!

I don’t understand pro-life people protesting masks. The entire objection seems, to me, to rest upon the first part of the definition of freedom while ignoring the reason freedom is important at all—the ability to choose the good of all. “You can’t make me! It’s my body! This is a violation of my liberty!” These are worldy arguments, based on one’s self-interest. Where is God in those protests? Nowhere I can see. All I see is, “I don’t want to, so I shouldn’t have to.” If this is what liberty and freedom have come to mean in America, God help us all.

Of course, we likely wouldn’t need to mask anymore if people had just gotten vaccinated in the first place. But lots of people who oppose masking also oppose vaccines, and are using the same arguments, while adding objections based on poor information. mRNA as a vaccine technique did use embryonic stem cells to test whether it was even a viable idea. But that’s it. Working on a COVID vaccine there’s been zero connection to abortion.

Moreover, I read a BBC report in 2019—pre-pandemic, just to emphasize that this is a long-standing question—that talked about a whole host of scientific and medical advances we take for granted that were developed using morally bankrupt techniques. Why are all those okay, and this one is so offensive that we’re willing to let hundreds of thousands of people die over it?

More to the point, the Church has spoken and it’s been consistent from the words and example of our Pope and bishops. Only fringe elements are in conflict.

So I don’t understand the vehement objection among a sizable chunk of people who call themselves prolife. Clearly, people are dying of COVID. Our health care workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. These things cannot be argued away.

Vaccines are GOOD. Masks are GOOD. How can one use faith as a reason to use their “freedom” not to mask and vaccinate?

Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

The Meaning of Mercy

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A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared the year of mercy, I spent some significant time pondering this on my personal blog. I’ve fallen off the radar here of late because, as we all either know or need to learn, “balance” means sometimes one thing has to give to make room for another, but eventually it will swing back. My writing life is buried right now under fiction work, with a book releasing in the next few weeks, and I simply haven’t had time to come over here.

So I went back to my personal blog to harvest a few more posts to fill in the gap, and the mercy posts really struck a chord. So here you go.


I once attended a workshop on writing liturgical texts in which the presenter challenged us to take out all the church-y words and see if anything of substance remained.

“Mercy” is one of those words. A throwaway word, overused into gibberish. At least, it has been for me. So when I heard about an extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, I went, “Mercy? Why mercy? What does that even mean?”

It was that last question that turned out to be the most important. The problem of this simple, hackneyed word has been gnawing at me until I’ve realized that prising apart its significance for me—both as a recipient and as a giver—is meant to shape the coming year.

I have always viewed mercy as synonymous with forgiveness. The mind, hearing “mercy,” goes straight to sin and unworthiness: I’m a pathetic, undeserving wretch whose sins have been forgiven despite my general loser-li-ness. (I can coin words late at night with the best of them.)

The idea of confronting our own brokenness is really important, especially in these days of “what’s right for you may not be right for me.” Built into our identity as modern men and women is a deeply-held resistance to admitting that we treat ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world with careless disregard for our/their/its innate dignity. Mercy speaks to the humility of admitting we do crappy things sometimes. It speaks to the recognition that we deserve just consequences for our actions and instead we’re blessed—in fact, showered—no, deluged—with goodness. Goodness we usually fail to recognize, because we’re too busy asking for more, more, more.

But if that’s all there is to the word “mercy,” then what’s up with those “corporal and spiritual works”? How do they fit into all this? What do they have to do with undeserved forgiveness?

I’m not the only person wrestling with this question. I’ve been reading anything I come across on the blogosphere, and this single quote is the one that caught me:

“Mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another.”

I thought, Yes! That’s it! I understand that!

Image by Kasun Chamara from Pixabay

It’s far easier to pass judgment on the guy on the street corner begging for money. To say, “He doesn’t really need it, he’s trying to take advantage of people’s gullibility.” But mercy says, “Okay, I will enter into his chaos by contemplating the decades of days and hours and influences I can’t possibly know, the countless steps that brought him to this particular intersection on this particular day, and pry my brain open to admit that I simply cannot know whether he is or is not truly in need, and as such I am compelled, by virtue of his dignity as a human being, to give him the benefit of the doubt…and help him.”

Mercy.

It’s far easier to cling to the distance separating us from the chaos in the Middle East–to say, “We can’t possibly ensure that Those People are not terrorists; therefore it is only prudent to keep Them all out and send our riches Over There so Someone Else can take care of Them.” But surely I’m not the only one whose conscience whispers, If not us, who? Where is there a place of refuge for so many? Mercy responds to worldly prudence with a call to dismantle the geographical wall we’ve been hiding behind for two centuries and enter into the chaos that the rest of the world already knows so well.

Mercy.

I’m finding that mercy, far from being meaningless, is an enormous, life-altering word. Terrifying, too, because it shoves me out of my safe, familiar, comfortable world full of safe, familiar, comfortable platitudes. To live mercy is to enter into the chaos of families shattered by abuse. To enter into the existence of stomach-turning poverty that, if viewed head-on, would force me–even chintzy, never-spend-a-dime-if-you-can-make-do-with-a-penny me–to confront my own excesses and make changes I don’t want to make.

Mercy, I am beginning to realize, is a shortcut to a darned uncomfortable conscience.

The First Step

This is part of the conclusion of Pope Francis’ reflections on the Good Samaritan. I find that it’s easy for these parables and teachings to become trite by repetition. It’s not a fault of the story, it’s a fault of human nature: we start tuning out b/c hey, we already know this story. I did a presentation on this parable a year or two ago, and reflecting on it anew really changed my relationship with it. This reflection does the same thing–renews and adds insight to something I’ve known for a long time.

Pope Francis spent this reflection pointing out that this parable is about individuals, but it’s also about groups of people. That it applies in person-to-person situations close to home, but also in communities and nations and the world. And there’s no neutral in this story: at each level, you’re either a victim, a passerby, or a person who undertakes the uncomfortable work of engaging. Most of us end up being passers-by, but we don’t want to admit it, and so we come up with all kinds of excuses. Hence, the bickering over policy that has caused the Church to divide along “abortion” and “everything else.” I see this as a call to recognize that those entrenched philosophies are themselves the problem. A sin.

I’m not sure how to change myself. I still want to point everything I read at others. That’s my sin. And so I begin simply by admitting it. Change my heart, O God.

This quote is me

I’ve been wrestling painfully lately with what it means to love people with whom there seems to be so little common ground. People who believe and do and say things I find so horribly contrary to my faith and world view. A friend told me that Fratelli Tutti‘s third chapter addresses that.

But first I had to read chapter two–a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Of all the quotes that jumped out at me in that section (there were many!), I picked this one to share, because this is the truth that has twinged my own conscience in recent years. I drifted very comfortably in a black-and-white view of the world for years, until it impacted me directly when I was given the gift of a child with a developmental disability. This quote was me. And my spiritual journey now is deeply formed by wondering if, in fact, this quote still is me, and I just don’t know it.

The more I interact with Pope Francis’ writings, the more in awe I am, the more grateful that the Spirit gave us this man to lead us during this particular moment in history. And once again, I beg everyone: READ THIS ENCYCLICAL.

“How Liberalism Fails the Church,” from the late Cardinal George

I realized several hours too late that the post I referred to in Wednesday’s reflection was never published at all, because I opted to honor MLK Jr. Day instead.

Oops.

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So I’ll share it today instead. The one I want to share today is from the late Cardinal George. https://catholicoutlook.org/how-liberalism-fails-the-church-the-cardinal-explains/

Essentially, Cardinal George’s point is: “We shouldn’t be calling ourselves liberal or conservative Catholics, we just need to be Catholic, period.”

Like Mark Shea’s offering, this is lengthy but very worthwhile. It’s interesting to me that in this, Cardinal George is not talking about political liberalism, but theological liberalism. There’s nothing in it that critiques left-leaning Catholics’ positions on immigration, efforts to alleviate inequality or poverty, the need for universal health care, etc. There’s a good reason for that: those left-leaning positions are word-for-word from Catholic teaching.

All in all, I found this a really, really good call to examine what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world.