Do something

This insight was a really monumental shift for me in my faith. I knew the truth of it, at least as it related to particular issues of importance, of course. But it was a big deal to realize that whatever ignites my righteous anger, makes me squirm, or breaks my heart in the news–those things are, in fact, a call to action from God, speaking through my conscience.

I recognize them now, though I’m far from perfect about the “doing something” part. Writing “The Beatitudes” reminded me of that every time I sat down to work on it.

Unity, Dissent, Division

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

The subject of unity has been on my mind a lot lately.

A well-formed, 100% orthodox Catholic friend shared an editorial addressing the danger of the organized dissidence against Pope Francis. It’s from NCR, which conservative Catholics often don’t trust, so I didn’t share. But I’ve been troubled for a long time by this as well as other signs of division in the Church. How can I make a difference? How can I foster unity in the Church–and, for that matter, in the world?

Wrestling with those questions brings me back to this:

Dang it.

This is hard to swallow. I mean, I know I am flawed and weak. The rush to judgment I excoriate others for is my greatest sin, too. But I’m trying so hard to think around the issues that divide us. To form myself, educate myself, and discern whether the good in one side outweighs the good in the other. And to share whatever good there is with others. My hope is that taking a measured approach can help bridge the gaps between us. Am I really powerless?

I was contemplating this question with great angst when my laptop unexpectedly switched documents. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that (unfortunately); being an old computer with a first-generation touch screen, it does random things like that pretty regularly. What was remarkable was the document it flipped over to—a nugget carved off another post that wandered too far from its original topic:

For years, I’ve wanted to pull my hair out as our society—both within the Church and outside it—makes a run for the all-or-nothing extremes. If one dares challenge trickle down economic theory, one must, by definition, be against capitalism. If one says “America should be better than this,” one must, by definition, hate America.

Of course, it happens the other direction, too. Words like “racist” are getting thrown around pretty freely these days. Now, I’m a big believer that white privilege and unexamined bias are real problems. I see them manifest in myself daily, and the struggle to conquer them is part of my spiritual journey. But it also seems perfectly self-evident that well-intentioned people suffering from white privilege and unexamined bias are not going to be convinced to confront said privilege by being called racists for it. How we talk about things matters.


I had to stop and chuckle at the Holy Spirit’s timing. It was like a little Divine nudge saying, “Yeah, unity is my problem–but I have a job for you, don’t worry.”

As for the division in the Church: I’ve now read two of Pope Francis’ documents in full, and I am baffled by the voices raised so loudly against him. Everything I see is so clearly, authentically Catholic. He’s called out people for getting too focused on a sliver of the Kingdom to the exclusion of the rest; he’s called out legalism and extremism; he’s called out the misidentification of things of the world as things of God. But there’s nothing threatening to the faith in any of that. So my best (most charitable) guess is that people get defensive when challenged to grow beyond the comfortable and familiar.

There’s a lot of demonizing going on within the Church, and it’s got to stop. There’s got to be room in the Church both for people who are passionately committed to annihilating abortion and people who believe we can’t sacrifice every other Gospel command in pursuit of that worthy goal.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the negative chatter about Pope Francis is a reaction to him being outspoken on social justice rather than abortion. I have to keep reminding myself of this:

Both in our Church and in the larger world, our habit is to do exactly the opposite—and to cling so tightly to our assumptions that we end up not even seeing there could be another interpretation.

When we do that, the Devil is the only winner. When we do that, we’re giving the Church and the world to Satan.

Book Recommendation: When Helping Hurts

How about a chance of pace for a Monday morning? I have a book recommendation to share:

When Helping Hurts:
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.

The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.

Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.

“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”

The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:

“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

(p. 92)

When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.

I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.

Trickle-Down Economics: Who’s right, and what does it mean for Christians?

I have to be honest: it’s terrifying to share this excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium. The idea of free market and trickle-down economics is foundational to the world view of so many Americans who hold the Christian faith, it’s often viewed as fundamental to being a Christian. Heck, I grew up that way. I know how defensive a reaction this quote is likely to provoke in many faithful Catholic readers.

So I guess we have to start by acknowledging that we can’t examine this question solely from the perspective of faith, because there is a very concrete, practical reality underlying it. The fundamental practical question we have to answer before we can address the faith component is this: does trickle-down economics work? Does it actually bring prosperity (and, far more important, greater human dignity) to all? Because if so, more power to it. But this weigh-in from the Church indicates otherwise.

According to this analysis, faith in trickle-down economics as a boon to all is on pretty shaky ground, with the financial benefits extremely lopsided–over 25 years and two trickle-down tax cuts, 6% growth for the bottom fifth versus 80% growth for the top fifth; the economic growth credited to those tax cuts uncertain because of other strong influences at work at the same time.

(To hearken back to the topic of honesty and fact checking in social media: The site hosting that analysis is one of the very few sources given the rating “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a site I visit routinely when I’m not familiar with the source I’m reading.)

Back to the topic at hand. If Pope Francis is right, then what does this mean for us as Christians?

I’ve spent an hour trying to formulate an answer to that question that doesn’t trip political land mines. Maybe the answer is that we all, regardless of where we stand politically, need to pray for the grace and wisdom to be able to self-reflect more honestly. We’ve always embraced it when our leadership has called out the failures and injustices in the Communist systems. And with good reason. But we’ve often turned a blind eye when the popes and bishops have called out the same offenses within capitalism. It’s easy to assume we know God’s will and not even recognize when what we’re actually worshiping is our own.

How to Discern?

We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.

When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.

How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?

I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.

Clinging to security

Background image by KasunChamara, on Pixabay

People are starving, not just for food, but for being treated with dignity and for acknowledgment of their wounds. Earlier in #49, Pope Francis talks about preferring a Church bruised and hurting from being out there with people to one that is “unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” That description seems uncomfortably apt.

He also names a fear that I think drives a lot of religious people: the fear of “going astray,” which I interpret as the fear that if we go out into a sinful world, we’ll be corrupted by it. (We put our kids in bubbles for this reason, too.)

It occurs to me that if our faith is so weak it can’t survive the challenge of being around temptation, then the solution isn’t to hide from temptation, but to do some good work strengthening our faith.

I freely admit that I am no model for going out into the world and getting my feet dirty. In my case, it’s a result of an introvert’s paralyzing dread of interacting with strangers. But it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days, and feeling called to address in that intersection of my own faith and the real world I inhabit.

To Love Is…

Since the Church considers this quote important enough to be underscored in the Catechism, I thought it deserved a graphic of its own, even if I did already write a whole post on the topic. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

It’s not about what we say

Background Image by Soorelis from Pixabay

It seems like everyone these days is focused on “what do we say to the ‘none’s?” and “How do we talk about Jesus?”

I can’t help feeling that those are the wrong questions. Pope Francis’ contention in Evangelii Gaudium is that when we’re filled with the Gospel, it’ll overflow from us automatically.

These days, I’m becoming more and more convinced that simply living the Gospel authentically, holistically, and with joy is the simple, yet difficult part of evangelization that we have to master first. For better or for worse, the world sees an image of God in us–in our words, in our actions, and in the way we approach everyday situations and hot button issues. If the image we present is beautiful and inviting, we don’t have to say anything at all. If it’s off-putting, nothing we say will make any difference anyway.

How We Talk About Abortion, Part 2

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

In my post yesterday, I talked about the need to speak with love and listen to those who stand on the opposite side of the abortion issue. I also suggested we should be doing much more than pursuing a legal end to abortion.

Today I’d like to explore that second part in more depth. Because recently, I’ve heard prolifers say that they shouldn’t be criticized for focusing solely on the legality of abortion.

In many ways, that’s a great video, and I encourage everyone to watch it, in part because it shows that there’s much more commonality between pro-life and pro-choice than we think.

But at the same time, I think it’s incredibly shortsighted to focus so narrowly on legality. I would argue that what she describes is not, in fact, pro-life; it is what the pro-life movement is always criticized for being: anti-abortion.

It’s not enough to be anti-abortion, or even anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-stem cell research, anti-euthanasia. If we want to be pro-life, we should be FOR things. We should be actively, publicly advocating for conditions and institutions that support the ability to choose life.

This means recognizing, admitting, and working to replace societal norms and attitudes that enable the divide between rich and poor, between socioeconomic classes. It means advocating for family-friendly policies surrounding working conditions. It means advocating for a health care system that offers equal access. It means working to equalize educational quality. Because all of those things are pressures that lead to abortion.

We need to recognize that the vast majority of these problems, the ones that cause women to feel they have to gnaw their legs off, as the article said, are too big to be dealt with by individual charitable giving. No matter how personally generous we are, we will barely make a dent in the injustices present in the world.

(Did we naturally desegregate through grassroots efforts to change hearts? Did we end slavery that way? No. Not even close.)

That doesn’t means we shouldn’t give charitably—we should.

But we also have to recognize the need for centralized, i.e. governmental, intervention—yes, even if it means expanding programs and higher taxes. Yes, there are potential pitfalls and complex problems to work out to make it happen in a moral way. Yes, it would be simpler if we could leave the government out of it. But a) we already accept the need to have the government involved—we’re working to change the federal law, aren’t we? And b), small government is not actually anywhere on Jesus’ list of characteristics of the Kingdom of God.

Finally, I want to reiterate the primary point of yesterday’s post: we have to STOP using the “abortion is murder” language. It inflames the discussion, and besides, we’re talking out of both sides of our mouths. We talk about compassion for women in crisis situations, and then we turn around and call them murderers? Really?

Those words hit the other side of this issue—and women in crisis—as fire and brimstone judgment. It’s no wonder the other side throws up impenetrable defenses. We call them baby killers, for Heaven’s sake! When we use language like that, we are the ones closing off discussion and putting barriers in the way of conversion.

That is not how God deals with us. He invites us, he brings us along slowly, he speaks to us where we are and gets us, eventually, to where he knows we need to be.

We’ll never do this perfectly, but that should be our goal.

How We Talk About Abortion

I doubt anyone reading this would argue with me when I say abortion is the central, pivotal issue at the heart of the divide in America today. In recent weeks, with different states passing various abortion bans as test strikes against a new Supreme Court, the magma that simmers uneasily beneath all our toxic discourse has erupted.

Current discussions are excruciating for someone like me, who believes we as Christians have too long taken a facile approach to this issue: A child is a child, a life is a life, end of discussion. Any protest issued by the pro-choice movement does not require answer, because it can’t possibly outweigh that central, fundamental tenet.

Well, a life is a life; it’s true. It’s not that the core belief is wrong. But I heard a quote recently. I haven’t been able to verify it, but it resonates as true to what we as Catholics believe about God:

When God sees sin, he sees wounds.

(For what it’s worth, I heard it attributed to Julian of Norwich.)

What I hear, in the hysteria of those who are pro-choice, is pain.

The pain of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. The pain of discrimination. A thousand pinprick wounds (and plenty of traumatic ones, too). The pain of deep wounds not healed. People who encounter a hardline “life is sacred, and there’s no more to talk about” stance—a stance which fails to address their pain—will experience a further ripping of wounds they might not even recognize they have. Wounds they have no idea how to heal, because the God that could heal them has been too often represented by people who don’t acknowledge their pain, and in some cases are the cause of it. Which means they dig down and become even more entrenched and unable to hear.

We are not changing hearts when we focus our efforts in this way. And if we want to create a culture of life, we have to change hearts.

So how do we change hearts? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’ve realized that not one of the moments of conversion in my life ever happened because I was scolded, hammered with a truth I wasn’t ready to receive, or told my concerns were irrelevant. It always happened slowly, organically, through insights that grew from truths I already recognized.

If we want to change hearts, we have to learn to speak in such a way that the people who need to hear the message are actually able to receive it.

If we who believe in the sanctity of life can only answer the sincere, heartfelt anguish of people who are pro-choice with a “mic drop” argument that means nothing to them (no matter how true it is), then we are tone deaf. We are noisy gongs, clanging. We are without love.

So the next question is: what pain, what concerns, of the pro-choice movement are we ignoring, to the detriment of our goal of creating a culture of life?

My spiritual director once said that the intersection of faith and politics is a mess, because it’s like a bowl of spaghetti. Tug on one thread/issue and you dislodge dozens of others. Abortion simmers beneath everything else because it’s connected to almost everything.

An author in the National Review recently wrote that something she wrote years ago has been quoted both pro-choice and pro-life writers: “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

This resonates with both sides because it’s true. Women really don’t go around looking for excuses to kill their children. They seek abortion because they truly feel they have no other choice.

Now why would that be?

It can be because they’re in abusive relationships, and they simply feel they’re not capable of bearing one more burden. Or because they are in poverty, and can’t bear one more burden. And yes, a child is a burden. A joyful burden, we hope, but a burden nonetheless. We all complain about parenthood too much to pretend otherwise.

It can be because health care (before and after ACA) is astronomically expensive and handled by private companies in a callous and punitive manner, in which profit counts more than the good of the customer.

It can be because mothers know the system is stacked against them. If they don’t have a support network, how can they care for a child and also work?

It can be because schools in poor areas are a pale shadow of what more affluent families (i.e., us) demand as a given. Or because discrimination still exists, in ways we can’t fathom, because we won’t accept the word of those who experience it, preferring to think they’re overreacting.

The upshot is that women seeking abortion feel—with reason—that they are simply birthing a child into a desperate life of discrimination and struggle and pain.

And again, we know any life is better than no life. But is that facile response going to cut it when we face God? I can’t help thinking God’s going to say, “Thank you for working so hard to protect the unborn ‘least of these,’ but what did you do for all those OTHER ‘least of these’?”

The upshot is: it’s not that we’re wrong to say the baby’s right to life outweighs all other concerns. Of course it does.

But that doesn’t erase the need to address all those other concerns. And my entire life, the prolife movement has been singlemindedly focused on the legal question of abortion, while actively working against attempts to address these other issues at the level of society.

I have more to say about this, but this post is too long already, so I’ll close for today and pick up again tomorrow.

Note: Part 2 is here, and is significantly shorter!