How Does a Christian Respond to the Coronavirus?

I’ve never succumbed to communal panic about crises. The closest I came was my senior year of high school, when some dude who’d “never been wrong” in predicting an earthquake predicted the biggest one ever on the New Madrid Fault, and it happened to line up with the day I was out of town auditioning for all-state band. I think my response was to pack a blanket in the car.

So it felt very… wrong… somehow, yesterday, to go to the grocery store a day early and spend more than twice what I normally spend on a week’s worth of groceries to freeze–vegetables, snack packs with nuts & cheese, milk & pizza makings. It felt like abandoning a long-held principle.

But if things do follow recent patterns, we could find ourselves quarantined in our home for two weeks, and if that happens, well, I have six people to feed. Extra groceries seems like a reasonable precaution.

Here’s what I’m realizing this week: in the coronavirus era, more than ever, living the faith intentionally requires humility and self-checking one’s biases.

I, for instance, have been very resistant to the limitations on worship that have come down. But I remind myself that devotion to purity of worship is a golden calf just as deadly as idols of political philosophy or money. There are immuno-compromised people to consider, and their dignity is more important than the externals of worship.

We all have some hangup to get over. Some people are so certain that “on the tongue” is the only proper way to receive the Eucharist, they are unwilling to bend in the interest of public health. Others insist we shouldn’t ban the Cup or stop the sign of peace because obviously God will protect us.

For all of us, the coronavirus outbreak is a wakeup call. For years, we’ve been warned that something like this was inevitable, but we all shrugged it off.

And now that it’s here, we’re reaping the fruit of our collective failure to listen and compromise. While Americans up and down the political food chain have been busy screaming at each other about a handful of hot button issues, a bunch of critical things have been ignored. We’re not prepared for a health crisis like the one China and Italy have been facing. This morning, a family member sent the text of an article from the Economist (a British magazine which is rated “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a rare distinction), which stated that “In 2010 the CDC budget was $12.7 billion in current dollars; today it is $8 billion.”

Meanwhile, the talk in some quarters is more tax cuts. Tax cuts *might* stimulate some minor economic movement (although with everything closed/canceled, what are we going to spend it on?), but the nation is already deeply in debt. You can’t keep cutting government’s funding and expect it to be able to carry out its proper function–i.e. the protection of the population.

Our basic vocation as Christians is to care for each other. Sometimes that’s on an individual basis, person to person. But if we want to be a “Christian” nation, then we should view that as a collective, societal vocation. To accomplish that is going to require taxes. Taxes are not evil; the pandemic illustrates that some functions simply *cannot* be carried out on an individual basis. They *require*, by definition, centralized intervention. We can’t hold any philosophy, whether it’s Communion under both species, Communion on the tongue, or low taxes, so tightly that we give up the thing that’s most important–the Christian call to care for each other.

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.

The danger of getting trapped by conflict

Background image by by John Hain from Pixabay

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 Word of Hope for the Church, in a time of division

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Bad news is everywhere these days, and often it seems like the Church is characterized by division rather than the unity implied by our name.

We bicker over whether the Eucharist is medicine for the flawed or a reward given to those who deserve it.

We bicker over kneeling versus standing.

We bicker over whether it’s better to receive on the tongue or in the hand.

When the Pope challenges us to see the world’s issues as interconnected and inseparable, quoting the last several popes, certain extreme factions within the Church (who have a secular political agenda) launch a campaign against him that has caused confusion among many faithful people who are just trying to follow Jesus in their daily lives. (You should read that article, by the way. All of it.)

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.

Photo by Iarlaith McNamara on Pexels.com

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.

The Holy Spirit

Background image by Ashish Thakur on Unsplash

I am often guilty of trying to control everything, to take charge and fix what I see needs fixing on the strength of my own convictions and abilities. Since I’ve been quite opinionated the last two days on matters of liturgical music, I put this out as a reminder to all of us who feel passionately about liturgy–myself above all–that God is in charge, not me. That if I try to lean on my own understanding, I’m going to make things worse, not better.

Come, Holy Spirit. Sweep us along with you, and get us where You meant us to be all along.

(This post is part of a three-part series on the liturgy wars.)

Unity vs. Uniformity

Background image by ArtsyBee, via Pixabay

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about unity (as distinct from uniformity) and diversity. Bear with me, or better yet just go read it yourself, because it may seem strange that I’m zeroing in on liturgy.

Evangelii Gaudium says the message of the Gospel has been “closely associated with” some cultures, but that doesn’t mean the culture is essential to the message (117). “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.” (118)

127-8 talk about how for most of us, opportunities for evangelization come one on one in personal settings, and suggests how that might look–but then 129 warns against being slavish to a particular formulation. This opens up a discussion of the many and varied charisms within the Church, which brings us to this quote and the one I will share tomorrow.

So it’s not specifically about liturgy, but the liturgy wars demonstrate clearly the confusion between unity and uniformity–specifically as regards music. That final sentence: “This is not helpful for the Church’s mission,” is what ties it all back to evangelization. Liturgy is the source of our strength to go out and accomplish the Church’s mission of bringing people to Christ and unfolding the Kingdom on Earth, but if the summit of our faith is corrupted by bickering over guitar vs. organ and whether drums are actually part of the culture and whether pop styles are intrinsically inappropriate for liturgy–etc., etc.–if we’re pouring all our emotional energy into fighting over these issues, how are we supposed to evangelize anyone? More to the point, why would anyone want to join that Church?

In other words: “Not helpful for the Church’s mission.”

(This post is part of a three-part series on the liturgy wars.)