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.)

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Last night, I cuddled up with my youngest to do First Communion homework. In the Dynamic Catholic sacramental prep book, there’s a page of cartoon character saints, and I started telling him the stories—what we know and what are legends about them. One of the saints was John Paul II.

I had to leap up and go get this:

When I was five years old, my parents packed me, my big sister, my little sister, and both my grandmothers into an RV and drove to Iowa to attend the Pope’s Mass.

Here’s what I remember: it was a really, really, really long walk to the bathrooms. And they were porta potties.

Yup, that’s all I remember.

But I’ve always treasured this book. I love pulling it out to show the kids the snapshots my mom glued into the front cover, and the letter I got when, evidently, I wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II afterward. (I don’t remember that, either.)

I don’t think about that Mass very often, because we were far, far away and I was short and I probably saw none of it. But in the years since, I made a really good friend who lives in Des Moines, and the first time I visited, I recognized their diocesan symbol as the one from the cover of my book. I got unreasonably excited.

And last night, when for the first time I actually started reading the book (rather than just the handwritten note on the inside cover), I realized I now know something about the place where the Mass was held. We haven’t made it to Des Moines’ Living History Farm yet, but I know right where it is from past trips.

I was also startled to read the words “rural life” in the invitation sent to the Pope. (“Possibly one of the most young and enthusiastic groups of representatives in the Church in America today is our own rural life people.”)

I only encountered Catholic Rural Life five years ago, when it was spoken well of in conversations with NFP contacts living in Ohio. I learned that this organization espouses a beautiful and very Catholic view of the relationship between us and the earth. Unfortunately, no one in my highly agricultural state has started a chapter. Being a farm kid myself, this makes me sad.

It’s striking to me, as an adult reading this book about an event I have only the haziest memory of, how strongly the vision of Catholic Rural Life was woven into that Mass. Repurposing wood from a corn crib to make the altar, building an “asymmetrical” platform for the altar so as to work with the contour of the land, and so on.

I suppose the reason I’m sharing these thoughts today is that it was really affirming to see that John Paul II, the darling of traditional Catholics, tied himself so closely in this event to a movement that prioritized stewardship of the earth. The false dichotomy between “traditional” or “conservative” Catholicism and care of the earth is a source of great grief to me; I can’t fathom why people deny climate change and resist the Church’s consistent teaching about societal responsibility to ensure environmental stewardship. But it’s especially baffling in the rural community, who would (one would think) be more in tune with the land. Yet it seems like rural areas are the center of resistance to climate action.

It was lovely to see that at least in the pope’s Iowa visit, there was no false dichotomy between “traditional” Catholicism and stewardship of the earth.

A world in peril

Context is important…Gaudium et Spes was published in 1965, during the cold war, and no doubt the bishops who wrote it, as well as Pope Paul VI, were thinking about the threat of nuclear war. But it’s interesting how much these words resonate today, isn’t it?

What Do Faith, Infertility, and Environmental Stewardship Have To Do With Each Other?

My passion for environmental stewardship was born because of infertility.

For three years, we tried to start our family and couldn’t. It was excruciating. I started metformin to treat PCO; I had surgery for endometriosis. But in the end, what allowed us to conceive was a water filter.

Yes—a water filter.

The water where we live contains alachlor, diazinon, and atrazine—herbicides and insecticides used in lawn care and agriculture. These three chemicals also suppress male fertility. We don’t drink much soda; water is our staple. We installed a PUR water filter, and four or five months later—time enough for the change to impact the male reproductive system—we were expecting.

Were there other ways we could have overcome our infertility? IVF? Most likely. But even if it weren’t against what we believed as Catholics, IVF isn’t the answer to infertility caused by lawn and agricultural chemicals in the water supply. The fix is not to have those chemicals in the water supply in the first place.

My husband and I are big believers in NFP, because we have experienced firsthand what the use of chemicals by human beings can do to the natural environment. To us, Church teaching on birth control simply makes sense. Working in conjunction with the way God made us is a best practice for living. It puts us more in harmony with God’s creation. With how God made us. Self-knowledge, better marital communication—all these are real benefits, but the basic truth is that planning our family through NFP allows us to live as God made us, without harming ourselves or the world around us.

For me, it’s no leap to generalize the lesson to a million other questions of environmental stewardship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Ecosystems work because all the pieces are in place. God designed them to work in a particular way. If one species goes extinct, it upsets the balance; the ripples go out from there. I was mocked a few months ago by a supporter of the border wall for sharing a link outlining the negative impact on migrating species. It was a reminder that we have an unfortunate tendency as human beings to compartmentalize rather than recognize how all things exert a push and pull on each other.

Here’s my favorite example of this ripple effect:

Just one species, long absent because humans had tried to eliminate them, made all that difference.

How can anyone cling to the belief that human beings couldn’t possibly be causing climate change?

We often try to separate issues into “these issues are faith issues, and the rest are not.” It simplifies life, for sure—makes it easier to process a complex world. But it’s not accurate.

What I find so beautiful about Laudato Si’ is that it makes the connections. In fact, if we live in a world created by God in a certain way–with intention, in other words–then all issues are faith issues.

Power and Responsibility

As a mom of boys and accordingly well-steeped in superhero lore, I read these words and they automatically translate to those of Uncle Ben, in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Responsibility to discern, to self-reflect, to make sure my actions beliefs –and when they don’t (as is true far more often than I’d like), to confess and vow to do better.

And again: although this is in the context of stewardship of the earth that keeps us alive, it applies across the spectrum of a lived faith.

Care of creation is up to us

When we (and by “we” I mean American culture–media, social media, etc.) talk about climate change, environmental stewardship, etc., we focus pretty much exclusively on policy: the Paris climate accord, rollbacks of protection initiatives, opening up preserves for drilling, etc. I remember when Trump first decided to pull us out of the Paris Climate Accord, I posted my “ways to be a good steward of the environment,” suggesting that if all of us examined our lives, we could still make a big difference ourselves. Someone I know poo-poohed the idea that we as individual people could have an impact.

But this clip from Laudato Si’ points out an uncomfortable truth: that it’s human nature (especially when profit is involved) to look for loopholes, to figure out how to be the exception so as not to have to do what is difficult, costly, or uncomfortable. Law, in other words, isn’t going to fix the problem of poor stewardship of the earth by itself. We as individuals have to step up and do our part.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean big, earth-shattering things. My family is saving for solar, but in the meantime, a big part of how we form our kids is a focus on reducing waste and initial consumption. Things as simple as those stupid party bags full of useless, disposable junk that you tend to get at birthday parties. Why? Every bit of that is going to end up in the landfill sooner rather than later.

Things like (and those who know me will say “oh here she goes again”) turning off the car when you’re waiting on kids, sitting in the grocery store parking lot, or checking your phone. There’s almost always an option–sitting under a shady tree when it’s hot; going inside when it’s cold. The vast majority of the time, the only reason to leave the car running is one’s own comfort/convenience. Comfort/convenience is one of the most insidious, invisible idols of modern life.

The increasing number and severity of natural disasters hasn’t yet touched *most* of the First World (though even here, we’ve had fires and superstorms and hurricanes). Acting like our daily choices are divorced from the greater good of the earth and those who shelter on this tiny oasis of blue in a vast universe is not a mark of true discipleship. Being a Christian means examining our daily choices–in other words, our habits–and being more intentional about them.

Good from evil

The news about the Amazon has had me very troubled lately; perhaps that’s why Laudato Si’ has been on my mind again lately. I went back to see what quotes I hadn’t used, and this seemed so universal, not just in relation to stewardship of the earth, it practically leaped off the screen.