Being Catholic in a Messy World

This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”

I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!

(Thanks to GIA Publications, my music publisher, for making this available.)

“Brotherhood”

Background image: Wiki Commons

I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.

The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.

Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.

The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.

And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.

We shall see if I am correct.

What Can I Do?

It’s always dangerous to read too deeply into the day’s Scriptures an overt connection to the modern world, but yesterday it was hard not to do so. I hoped for good judgment from my people, and look! What I got was violence. I hoped for just behavior, but listen to the outcry against people who are supposed to be a beacon of hope!

I’ve been quiet recently, because it’s busy, and because sometimes I feel like a wagging finger, and there’s only so much finger-wagging a person can do before people tune you out.

So I struggle with what to write. I’m overdue for a #seethegood, but that feels like a cop-out when what is on my heart is something quite different.

My bishop sent an election letter, which I shared on Facebook. (For those who might read only here, here it is.) It was a good letter, nuanced in a time when most discourse consists of bilateral apocalyptic predictions. But what really stood out to me was this:

“What I see happening in our nation, unfortunately, is a strident, rancorous discord that tears not only at the fabric of our society but also at the communion of the Church.  And this disharmony endangers the salvation of souls.”

Bishop Shawn McKnight

Within my own circle, there are a growing number of people who have left the Church or struggle to remain in it because of how we act, because of the singleminded focus to the exclusion of things Jesus told us explicitly were our call.

I lie awake at night praying about this. Pray as if it all depends on God; act as if it all depends on you, the truism says. I’m praying. But action? What can I do, besides write finger-wagging posts on social media? I feel helpless.

How will be judged?

My husband and I watched the movie “Harriet” this week, and–aside from the mind-blowing music, instrumental and vocal–what struck me most was how convinced the whites of slave times were that there was “nothing to see here, move on.” I find the same attitude in a lot of talk going on around me these days, and as I wrestle with whether the arguments about violence versus peace, the way white Christians seem to be seeking excuses to disregard the movement, I wonder how history–and more importantly, God–will judge us. Are any of the things being said against BLM valid, in the long run? Or are they just excuses?

I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of Shannon Evans. As a faithful Catholic in the broadest sense of the word and the adoptive mother of a Black child, she has a lot to say to us about race. Here’s the screen shot I grabbed last night off Instagram. Click it and it will go to her column.

https://www.jesuits.org/stories/everyday-ignatian-finding-god-in-others-when-racial-injustice-feels-too-painful-to-bear/

Revisiting Race

In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.

Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.

It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.

The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.

Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.

I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.

Educating for Peace

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how public schools are indoctrinating in socialism. For that reason, this quote really struck me this morning. It comes in a section of Gaudium et Spes that is focused on peace and war. Paul VI says that those who are in charge of military will have to “give a somber reckoning of their deeds of war.” He talks about how “extravagant sums” are spent on military and on developing new weapons while the miseries that cause war remain unaddressed. He talks about how peace requires working for justice. And he calls for an international public authority with actual, universal authority to settle disputes.

That’s the context of this quote. We are called by our Church–by a saint of our Church, in a document approved by an ecumenical council of the Church–to form our children in these sentiments.

There’s a disheartened, jaded part of me that suspects many in our Church would call this “socialism,” despite the fact that it’s the teaching of our Church. And it’s interesting to me that this exhortation comes from the papacy of St. Paul VI, known and revered for Humanae Vitae. It illustrates that the Catholic faith stands independent of political ideals.

Jesus and Justice

We’ve all heard the Gospel passage a million times: Jesus, talking about the importance and permanence of marriage.

My whole life, I have focused on the obvious teaching here: that marriage is forever, and divorce = bad.

But there’s a lot to unpack in the unspoken questions of justice that lie behind this teaching. Women didn’t get to file for divorce in ancient Israel. Only men. And when women got cast aside, they didn’t have many options–and no good ones at all.

So this teaching protects women, who were among the most powerless in society in his time. This says a lot about the sanctity of marriage, of course–but it also says a lot about what Jesus thought about the pursuit of justice in the temporal world.

Because really, that’s what the disciples were all bent out of shape about in the later part of this Gospel passage, when they protested to Jesus: the limits on their power. They’re just baffled by Jesus saying this. “If we can’t divorce a wife whenever we want,” they say, “then it’s be better not to get married at all!” Jesus just cut the legs out from under their absolute power in relationship. Of course they found it threatening.

To those who think we shouldn’t worry about working toward justice in the real world–who think none of that matters because we should only focus on the world beyond–this Gospel passage is a rebuke. Justice DOES matter.

Sometimes It’s Not Talking About Us. And Sometimes It Is.

“Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless;
incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)

Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”

This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.

Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology, white theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you”, the “you” is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

Erna Kim Hackett, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”

Wedge Issues, Tone Policing, and the Christian call

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.

It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”

How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”

I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”

But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?

It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.

So I did.

I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?

But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.

There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.

*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.

I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—

When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.

Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.

The social quality of personal property

I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.

And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”

In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.

The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.