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.)

Being Intentionally Catholic on Social Media

I’ve been at this Intentional Catholic business officially for 18 months right now, but in reality for much longer. One does not come to such a pithy, focused phrase “just like that.” It develops over time.

One thing I’ve learned is that living the faith intentionally always, ALWAYS involves a lot wrestling. In fact, I would argue that a faith that is complacent, that thinks it has simple answers, is not intentional at all. The world is too messy for complacency. We are too small for the problems we face. When we think the answer is simple and obvious, it’s a good sign that we’re missing a LOT of context.

I’ve been wrestling hard with what being “intentionally Catholic” means when people are saying horrible things online. Self-righteous memes so badly stripped of context, they cross into falsehood; distortions; statements by Christians that do not reflect Christ.

Today I’d like to reflect on a handful of influences I’ve been wrestling lately, surrounding this conundrum.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#1: my husband saying, “You may need to stay off Facebook this fall.” I recognize the wisdom of this advice, but I struggle because my ministry is precisely to address the messiness of the issues where real life intersects with faith–issues we address via the political process. And also, Facebook is my professional networking avenue.

But as my husband constantly points out, no one ever changes their mind. So when is it worth wading in? When I do, how do I respond in a way that respects the human dignity of the person on the other end of the e-connection, when such egregious errors are on display?

#2: A friend of mine shared Bishop Barron’s podcast for yesterday’s readings with me, in which he tied together the call from Ezekiel–yes, in fact we ARE supposed to correct our fellow Christians–and the “how do we do that?” outlined in the Gospel. Bishop Barron focused narrowly on how to respond when one has been personally wounded. Truthfully, it felt insufficient. It’s not personal offenses that I feel so compelled to respond to on social media. It’s public statements by religious people who do not see the inherent conflict between their statements and the faith that is so precious to them. Jesus’ guidance, applied in this situation, seems… insufficient. Sure, I could message a person privately, but if that person is making public statements, he or she is leading others into error. Speaking to them privately seems–well, not to be repetitive, but “insufficient.”

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I’ve spent a lot of time praying: “Should I ignore this, Lord? Or speak?” I responded in passion a couple times and felt that I, too, wasn’t representing my faith authentically. Another time, I walked away and found a calm, sincere response bubbling up. I thought I recognized the voice of the Spirit in that, so I went back to share, only to be publicly (and passive-aggressively, i.e. in detail but not by name) excoriated. I came away feeling that I really have no idea what the heck God is asking me to do about all this.

Which brings me to Influence #3: a story told by Steve Angrisano in a breakout session on chant that I listened to this weekend. (While pulling crabgrass in my back yard, if you want to know.) He talked about a priest who had two best friends stand at opposite ends of the room. He surrounded one of them with other girls of similar age, and had them all call out a number between 1 and 100. No one in the room could pick out the number from the original girl–except her best friend, who had spent so much time listening to her friend, she knew the voice and could pick it out of the cacophony.

I am trying to spend enough time with God to do that, but I feel no confidence in my ability to pick out God’s voice right now.

Actually, that’s not true. I feel great confidence that I can see God’s will in the issues themselves. But in how and when to speak, I have no earthly idea.

I have no answers today. Only thoughts. Wrestling. Because that’s what it means to be intentionally Catholic.

Stay-at-home motherhood: is it really the only Godly route?

Disclaimer: I’m a big believer that faith is never easy, and if it is, it almost certainly means you’re not digging deep enough. If you think you have it all figured out, you’re probably more pharisee than seeker.

When I started Intentional Catholic, I knew I couldn’t just ignore the bits of the documents that are hard for me to swallow. So I admit it: this is one of them.

Certainly the most “traditional” among us believe very strongly that moms should be in the home, always and forever. But that second half of the quote, about not underrating legitimate social progress, seems to indicate that even the bishops had to wrestle with how rigidly to hold that principle.

Because if a woman’s rightful place is in the home as long as she has children, the reality is she will ONLY have a place in the home. The reality of the world is that one cannot have children, raise them in isolation from a professional career, and then blithely step into the workplace at age 45 or 50.

As crazy as my life is—as stretched-thin as I am by the various irons I have in the fire—I recognize how incredibly blessed I am that my gifts & passions lend themselves to working from home. But my situation is the exception, not the norm. God gives women gifts just as he gives men; surely He means for them all to be used? Surely they were all given for a purpose in the divine plan. Yes, mothers have something irreplaceable to give to their children, but does it necessarily follow that that gift can ONLY be expressed by staying home?

Also, the male-dominated professional world really suffers from the lack of the feminine gifts—peacemaking, teamwork, empathy come to mind; I’m sure there are others. Those, too, are gifts given by God for a purpose.

I know families in which the father is the one with the gift for homemaking, and it works beautifully. I also know families who move Heaven and Earth to work opposing schedules so they share the tasks of breadwinning and child care.

I’ve heard it said many times that stay-at-home-mom is a pretty new invention, one enjoyed only by the wealthy. I’m not able to confirm this quickly, but it tracks with knowledge of women working in clothing factories and washing houses in earlier times. If you think of moms at home pre-industrial revolution, they were growing vegetables and preserving, baking bread and sewing clothes for the family.

And if you are tempted to say, “Well, duh, that’s what you do when you stay home,” I’d remind you that at the same time the husbands were working fields and raising livestock, also at home. Home and work were the same thing for EVERYONE in the agricultural era.

And in the industrial age, how many of those wealthy at-home moms employed other women as wet nurse, nanny, and tutor? So they were home, but they still weren’t really raising their own kids. Plus, that picture reveals even more women working outside the home in an era we tend to idealize as the era of SAHMs.

So all in all, I think we have a tendency to oversimplify this whole picture of what a mother’s domestic role is, and what it means to safely preserve it. A mother does have a unique place in her children’s heart and in their upbringing. But it doesn’t follow that if she goes to work outside the house, that role is being discarded.

I have a family member who works full-time and points out that being a working mom does NOT mean work is more important. When kids are off school or sick, they frequently camp out in her office all day. When she can’t work it another way, she sacrifices work time. “I am always a mom first,” she says.

A lot of this reflection is not strictly faith-related, but many times general expressions of faith—i.e. “we are all given unique gifts by God for a specific purpose”—require us to get down in the weeds on practical things to see how that principle can or should be lived out in the real world.

Marriage & Family

There’s a sequence in Gaudium et Spes that addresses marriage and family, and is often quoted for its guidance on discerning family size. Children are the supreme good of marriage; marriage is ordained for children (though not solely so); educating the next generation; discernment of family size.

This is from the middle of that sequence, but it isn’t among the most well-known extracts. (Well anyway, they’re well-known to me from years in the natural family planning community. In any case, see #s 48 and the rest of 50 for that.) But I pick this bit because it’s a smaller, more-easily processed excerpt, and because I think it really crystallizes the big picture: we are cooperators with God when we bring children into the world, and we interpret that love through the way we raise our children. That’s big stuff!

Do Something

Listening to today’s daily reading caused me to perk up. What an image James uses to remind his community that simply talking about being a disciple isn’t really being a disciple! Farther down in the reading, he clarifies what he means by “doing something”: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. What struck me is the both/and of it–social justice AND personal piety. No false binaries here.

Scrupulousness

A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.

“Another Self”

“Another self.” It’s hard enough to view others this way in family life. Half of Godly parenting–maybe three-quarters of it–is trying to get kids, who are supremely selfish beings, to recognize the other as not only equal to themselves, but “another self.”

But take this beyond the confines of those we already love, and it’s downright superhuman.

-the three people you most dislike in the world, you should view as “another self.”

–the people who are a continual thorn in our sides are “another self.”

–the people living in the woods and holding signs at intersections, whether they’re drug addicts or lazy or criminals or whatever assumptions we might be tempted to make about them, are “another self.”

–the refugee, asylum seeker, and yes, even the genuine “illegal alien” is “another self.”

And as a Christian it is my *job* to enable all these “other selves” to live with dignity. This is a conciliar document saying this, not one priest or one bishop. This is the Church speaking as clearly as the Church can speak.

Now, we can argue about what is the best way to enable human dignity. That’s a totally valid argument.

But those aren’t the discussions we’re having.

Instead, almost all our arguments are focused on whether we *should* help people–whether they *deserve* it and whether “there’s money” to do it. But let’s be honest: in America, there’s plenty of money to do what needs to be done. The argument is between those who think it can’t be done piecemeal, and should therefore be done at the level of society, i.e. through higher taxes and governmental administration, and those who think government is intrinsically evil and taxes are to be avoided at all costs–that charity should be entirely a private matter, even if that means many people will get missed.

This is the fundamental logjam in America today, and the trouble is that people on both sides view their own position on that question as universally-accepted truth–a settled reality. And so instead of figuring out how to strike a balance between personal rights and societal responsibility, we end up bickering about who does and who doesn’t deserve help. We start labeling asylum seekers as criminals, and conservatives as racists, and it all falls to pieces.

Our opponents, too, are “another self.”

The following quote is too long to put in a graphic, but it’s well worth putting at the center of our minds in an election year:

…there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.

This social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day toward a more humane balance. An improvement in attitudes and abundant changes in society will have to take place if these objectives are to be gained.

Gaudium et Spes, #26

Positivity

At 8:25 on January first, I walked into Jazzercise and was pleasantly surprised to see which instructor was waiting on the stage. This woman is an unfailingly positive human being. The kind who is down-to-earth but never says anything negative about anyone. In other words, she’s not saccharine and fake, but genuinely sees good everywhere and in everyone.

This may not come as a shock to anyone who’s read my angsty posts, but just in case it’s unclear:

I don’t identify with this personality trait.

I admire it. I can list two other people off the top of my head who routinely blow my mind by their unfailing ability to see and comment only upon the good. But it’s not me.

I went into class that morning with two things: 1) a certainty that I already knew the word to guide my spiritual growth this year, and 2) an incredibly bad attitude about my family life. This latter reality was based upon a) the fact that I haven’t been sleeping well and b) discovering at 7:55 a.m. on New Year’s Day that my chromosomally-gifted daughter’s last act of 2019 was to put the unrinsed pasta bowls in the (wrong) cabinet instead of the dishwasher.

Over the course of the hour I spent bathing in the positivity radiating from the Jazzercise stage, I realized I was on the wrong track with my word of the year. As important as “charity” might be in my life, there’s another fundamental skill I need to develop before I can be successful in pursuing it. Specifically, the predisposition to see the good instead of the bad.

After Jazzercise, I went up to the instructor and said, “I just want you to know that I so admire your positivity.”

“Oh, you are so sweet!” she said. “How can I not be positive? There’s just so much to be positive about!

I spread my hands, because right there was the difference between positive people and, well, me.

In the past year I’ve come to recognize and accept that, in addition to people who see the good in everything, there also need to be people to call out evil and hypocrisy. This insight came, in fact, out of the mouth of another of those inspiringly positive women I mentioned earlier.

The trouble is, a person who is on fire to see God’s kingdom made manifest on earth tends to get really angsty about ev.er.y.thing. We tend to become unable to see anything other than calamity at every swipe of the screen.

I know that one year is not going to turn me into my New Years Jazzercise instructor. Let’s be frank. The rest of my life isn’t enough time to make me into that person.

And that’s not what I’m trying for. It’s not who God made me to be. God gave me the ability to put words together for a reason, and that means pricking consciences and asking myself and everyone around me to see where our attitudes and behaviors in the real world don’t live up to the faith we claim to believe. That’s my calling.

But I will be a happier and holier person if I can angle myself two or three or five degrees in the direction of focusing on the good. I will be better able to roll with the punches when the school district calls unnecessary snow days. When the parish changes the locks, causing me all kinds of headache and extra things to remember in planning choir practices, when I already can’t keep my life straight. When the strain of juggling kids’ concerns takes more emotional energy than I have to offer it.

And I’ll be a better example of Christian living if I can turn the energy I’ve spent focused inward, on negativity, instead into recognizing, and then affirming, the good around me.

So this is the shape of my spiritual goal for 2020: to see the good.

Sometimes atheism is our fault

Look! It’s another one of those “no duh” quotes that we all think applies to someone else.

This is a sentiment that conservatives aim at liberals, with the assumption that only people who haven’t studied the faith properly could possibly hold such nonsensical ideas about redistribution of wealth, about mercy and tolerance; could possibly fail to see that things are either right or wrong, and any attempt to say otherwise equals relativism. (I know this, because that was me not that many years ago.)

But it’s also a sentiment that liberals aim at conservatives, with a hair-pulling level of frustration that people can’t see that Jesus was all about justice, and that money as an idol is behind many of the ideas held up as “traditional values” by conservatives. (And yes, I have to admit, this better represents where I stand now.)

Yesterday, I was reading a passage from Philippians, in which Paul took for granted that Christians living the faith would be united in thought and idea about how to view the world.

I don’t even know to deal with that. I know the Christian community was probably never as uniform as some Scripture passages make it sound, that division is an inescapable part of fallen humanity.

But where we are now–I started to try to lay it out, but the causes are too complex. There’s Steve Bannon going after the Pope, and confusing political ends with Godly ones. There’s the mishandling of the abuse crisis, which hits liberal and conservative bishops & priests alike. There’s clericalism and an inability to see outside “the way it’s always been done,” even though the world has changed around it and that model no longer works (i.e., we don’t have a glut of priests to do all the jobs in a parish, so you actually have to hire people to do work). There’s a passive laity, still thinking that our primary job is to show up and be done to, even though the mega churches have taught us that churches flourish best when everyone is involved.

All of these are examples of ways in which we, as believers, contribute to the flourishing of atheism. And it doesn’t fall on one side of the political spectrum–or of the left-right divide in the Church.

When we are nasty on Facebook, when we share emotion-heavy, but fact-questionable memes;

when we buy into stereotypes that Trump supporters are all uneducated rednecks or that people demanding just wages and just racial treatment are essentially lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps;

when we fail to recognize the ways in which our own privilege shapes our prejudices;

when we fail to recognize that we have prejudices at all;

when we make assumptions or pass judgment or don’t fact-check (or fallacy-check) whatever inflammatory argument suits our purposes–

In all these moments, we, as Christians, are part of what causes people to doubt the existence of God altogether.

We need to own that…and do something about it.

Conscience

This is such a striking and beautiful statement, I want to let the document stand on its own today–a good reflection as we launch into this second week of Advent. Here is some of the context surrounding it.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. … Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God…

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

Gaudium et Spes, #16 (excerpts)