Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Am I a "Bad" Catholic?

Dear Leah, Facebook is really a poor venue to discuss matters of this importance, and these issues cannot be distilled down into bumper sticker slogans or a simple yes or no, so I will try to address what I think is the core issue you ask about: Do you have to believe, and obey, every teaching of the Catholic Church in order to be a “good” Catholic? Sorry if this is longer than you anticipated.

You have come to me in my role as your teacher. I believe my role is to lay out for you as clearly and as concisely as I can what the official Catholic Church teaching is. If I give my opinion I will note that. As a deacon, I offer my humble obedience to the Church, and I hope I can get out of the way and let the truth out. If I can make it easier for you to make decisions, great. But I can only propose, not impose, and I try not to make judgments. Hopefully you will read this with that in mind.

First of all, I think it has nothing to do with being good or bad. I would say that all of us fail to live up to the gospel all the time. I think the question should be, not are we good or bad but are we faithful Catholics? And what are the consequences of being faithful or unfaithful? It is far easier to determine and less judgmental to talk about being faithful than to question someone’s motives or character.

I think it gets down to two basic questions: 1) What is my belief in what the Church is and what is its role in my life and in the world and 2) Why do I want to live as part of the Church?

I believe there is one God, and that God is truth. Therefore, I can and should search for the truth where it can be found. I am also a disciple of Jesus, and he left His Church here on earth with a mission.  The mission of the Church is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ risen to the world. The gospel is not a set of guidelines. It is not a suggestion. It is a radical realignment of my beliefs and life to Jesus. And Jesus explicitly set up his Church to speak with his authority. When you hear the Church today you are hearing Jesus. “He who hears you, hears me.” (Lk 10:16)

Along with the truth goes responsibility and authority. St. John says that we are Jesus’ friends if we keep his commandments. Jesus explicitly gave the apostles his authority in his physical absence. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and remember, I am with you until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)

That word “therefore” is important. Jesus claims all authority and then gives that authority to his apostles. He says that he will be with the Church always, and so we have always believed and acted that the Church is Christ visible and working in the world throughout history and today. The Church, through its adherence to scripture, sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority, ie. the bishops in communion with the pope) have the authority of Jesus and so can speak the truth. This belief is not based on the whim of some people in Rome but upon Jesus’ statement, “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:18) “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium)…receives…the faith, once for all delivered to the saints…The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93)

We believe we are more than just a bunch of people who believe that we need to love one another. All major religions believe that. Christians follow the authority of Jesus and his Church. You can’t claim to be a Christian without being part of the Church. And the Church has always taught and believed that the ultimate sign of love of neighbor is to want our neighbor to get to heaven along with us. To that end we pray for, instruct, and sometimes admonish each other. A true friend will tell us whenever we are doing something that is not in our best interests.

However, the Church does not force anybody to be faithful. Every one of us needs to make our own choices. Jesus himself never forced anyone to follow him. Even when he received pushback on his teachings on divorce and the nature of his body and blood, he didn’t change his position in order to win people over. Instead, he asked, “Will you also leave me?”

The Church’s role is to try to save souls. We are all trying to get to heaven. When all is said and done, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? The Church is charged with telling the world Jesus’ commandments. That’s it. We will all either accept or reject them. The consequence of accepting and living those commandments is eternity with God. The consequence of rejecting them is eternity without God.

There is a lot of talk about following our consciences in these matters, and to an extent, that’s correct. Ultimately I am the only one responsible for my actions. But how do I inform my conscience? Through the media? Based upon my politics? Through the influence of others? Do I even do it consciously? To be faithful, I must inform my conscience according to the beliefs of the Church. Having an opinion and then accepting or rejecting a teaching on that subject based upon whether or not it agrees with my opinion has it backwards. I have not the authority to declare the Church wrong on issues of faith or morals. Jesus gave that authority to his Church. I only have the authority to accept or reject it.

The Church issues teachings and makes statements on many, many things, and each statement or teaching may have different levels of importance or authority. There is a “hierarchy of truths”. Some teachings are binding on all who wish to be faithful to Catholic beliefs and some are not. Whenever the Church says a teaching is binding on all Catholics, it states that clearly and up front. Things like protecting life from conception to natural death, the obligation to go to Mass every Sunday (and the rest of the commandments), the definition of marriage, the preferential option for the poor, etc. are some examples of these. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to determine which teachings I am called to follow if I am to live my faith as a Catholic.

The Church usually is very clear and specific on what it teaches on issues like abortion, marriage, etc. But most Catholics never read those teachings. Rather, they get their information on them from the media in short, headline-grabbing soundbites. If the teaching jives with my beliefs it’s good, if it doesn’t, it’s bad and I can ignore it. Or, if it’s from a pope or bishop I like, it’s good, but if it’s not, forget it. Sometimes we do theological and semantic gymnastics to force a clear teaching into our own belief system to justify ourselves.

Sincerity has nothing to do with it. There are lots of folks who sincerely believe things that are harmful to themselves and others. It takes time and effort sometimes to get to the truth. Just issuing a stubborn NO or a blind YES without really knowing what they’re rejecting or accepting shuts down the conversation and keeps us from forming our consciences in the Truth.

For myself, if I feel conflicted on issues where I feel my own beliefs or politics are out of sync with Church teaching, I start with prayer and ask for God’s wisdom. Then I go to the source and read what that teaching actually is. Usually I go to the Vatican website or the website for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I try to read with an open mind, knowing that there is 2000 years of really smart thinking behind it. Plus, there’s Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide His Church to consider. Then, I talk to people I trust in leadership in the Church, folks who have studied these things and can help me understand them.

In my experience, on the important stuff the Church has gotten it right. I trust the Church, even though sometimes its members have screwed up. Truth is not declared untrue just because I fail to live up to it or even believe it to be untrue, because truth is from God.

It’s comforting to me to know that even though I am oftentimes one of those screw-ups, there is a constant, consistent authority I can turn to in order to help me inform my conscience. That conscience helps me to navigate the myriad of spiritual, moral, and temporal issues confronting me in the world today. There is truth, and if I am faithful to the truth, as I believe it to be found in the body of Christ, I will ultimately go to heaven. And maybe we can help each other get there. That’s why I choose to be Catholic.

You asked specifically about the SCOTUS decision on marriage this week. If you haven’t already done so, you can to read exactly what the Church teaches on homosexual unions here: This was written by Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before he was Pope Benedict, and was approved by Pope Saint John Paul II and affirmed by Pope Francis. Here is the statement of the US Bishops on the Supreme Court ruling: The best place for most folks to go for exactly what the Church teaches is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which can be found online or at any bookstore.

I hope this helps. See you at Mass!


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Our Father

Father’s Day

Cycle B

Today is Father’s Day, and so I would like to talk about fathers. I don't usually preach on a secular holiday, but I think it is appropriate to do so today because we will hear God referred to as father many times in this Mass and in every Mass. We will also all pray the Our Father together. When we were baptized we heard that as disciples we would call God our father in the midst of the Church. And so today is about much more than honoring our own fathers. It is also about recognizing and celebrating the image of God as our father.

Why do we call God father? Doesn’t that limit God? Isn’t that sexist and exclusionary? The Episcopal Church just last week began a movement to begin calling God mother. Does it matter if we image God as male or female, mother or father? Actually, it does.

We call God father because that is how God has chosen to reveal himself to his people. As Christians, we trust Jesus and believe him to be who he says he is. Jesus himself called God father. Actually, he often called him not father but daddy. Abba. He said that no one knows the father but the son, and no one knows the son but the father, and anyone to whom the father chooses to reveal him.

So we believe Jesus knew what he was talking about. Jesus didn’t call God father because he was raised in a patriarchal society where women were inferior. Give Jesus more credit than that. Jesus busted out of his culture all the time. Jesus called God his father because he knows the nature of God better than anyone. He knew that the image of father most closely described the true attributes of the creator, and he knew his disciples would understand those attributes.

In Jesus’ day, the father was everything to a family. He was the provider and protector, the one who could continue the line of descendants to build up the family. He had all the rights and privileges and held total control over the lives and property of the family. He was actually like a king in his rights and responsibilities. And it was the role of the father that held the society together. The father was the center of the family and therefore was due great respect. So much so that there is even a commandment to honor your father and your mother. The Jews did not see this as an image of repression but as an image of strength, stability and love.

The insight Jesus gave us into the nature of God is of a strong, loving, compassionate, forgiving father. Isn’t that a good thing? If you think about it, isn’t that the nature of Jesus as well? Whenever he modeled those behaviors wasn’t he showing us what the father is like? He told Philip, “When you see me you see the father,” and “The Father and I are one.”

Jesus, even though he had no biological children, often acted as a father. We see Jesus imaging a father in today’s gospel. I love this image. Dad is sleeping on the couch after a long, hard day. The kids are causing chaos around him but he is oblivious to it all, until a fight breaks out and they run to Dad to act as referee. “Daddy, wake up, Johnny hit me. Tell him to stop!” And so Dad gets up, rebukes the chaos and it obeys him. Quiet ensues, Dad mutters something to the kids like, “Why can’t you guys get along?” and goes back to sleep. 

The disciples turned to Jesus in their fear and he set things right. A good father is like that. Fathers are supposed to be in control. From the time we were little, Dad has been the one who protects us. Dad rights the wrongs. Dad is a strong figure, someone who is loving yet firm. For me, Dad was the one who calmed the storm. Dad was the one person who I could count on to do what was right, to be that pillar of strength.

You don’t have to be a man to give a strong witness to the fatherhood of God. Many of you have assumed the roles of both father and mother in single parent households. It is important that you have a healthy image of what a father should be. Even if your own father has failed to live up to the ideal, you always have the perfect father in heaven. Even if you fail to live up to your mission as a child of God, you still have Jesus to emulate and follow.

By focusing on God as your father you can become a better son or daughter. By focusing on Jesus as the son you can become a better child of God and a better disciple. We ourselves serve more than just one role, don’t we? Whether we are male or female, sometimes we are called to live the attributes of a father, sometimes those of a mother, and sometimes we live as children. What’s wrong with that? If we know that about ourselves why do we get hung up on one single image of God, so that if that image is challenged in any way we feel threatened?

We have multiple images of ourselves, just like we should have multiple images of God. God is neither male nor female, yet God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity throughout the millennia primarily as Father. So, is it safe to say that being father is not necessarily male or female? God has not set himself up as an oppressive male authority figure. Some have given him that image. God wants us to relate to him in a healthy image that is extremely close to each one of us personally.

Studies show the deep influence a father has on a person’s life. Some of that influence is positive and some is negative, but there is no denying how important a father is in the development of each of us as children. We carry the effects of our fathers’ relationship with us throughout our entire lives.

Why should imaging God as Father take away from you as a woman or as a single man? What does it take away from you to see yourself with the attributes of God as father? How does it diminish you? Why can’t we let it add to us, rather than sticking ourselves in a box of labels?

I understand that for some people it is painful and difficult to image God as father because their relationship with their own father has been less than stellar. Not all fathers are pillars of the community. Not all fathers treat their families as they should. Some are violent and abusive. None of us live up to the image and example of our heavenly father. Being a father has been the most difficult role of my life, and one I’ve failed in more than succeeded. But that doesn’t mean I give up and choose to stop trying to be a good dad.

Just because we fail to live up to our role as father does not take away from that aspect of God. To diminish the image of God as father just because our own fathers, or we ourselves, fall far short can lead us to bitterness and despair. That would be like saying that Jesus was the perfect human being so that makes me less human. In fact, the opposite is true. Because something or someone is good does not make us less so. It’s not zero sum, you win, I lose. God gives us the image of the perfect father so that we can see our own value in that role.

Our image of God as father says less about God than it does about us and our relationship with God and with our families. Whenever Jesus spoke of the father he always spoke in terms of his and our relationship with the father. It was always about us. It was always, “My father” or “Your heavenly father.” We image God as father because that makes us children of God. It tells us what our roles are and how we are to relate to one another. We will never be our parents. In that relationship we will always be the children. We will never be God. We will always be his children, and so we should not try to be God. And yet we so often set ourselves up as God, don’t we?

It’s good that we have days set aside to recognize and celebrate our fathers and mothers. Not because they are perfect, but because they can be perfected, and because we are all called to live as father and mother, and we too can be perfected. We celebrate the traits and attributes that make them, and us, holy. Because isn’t that what fatherhood is all about? Holiness? Loving as God loves? Providing the strength and stability our families need, our society needs? Calming the storm when those around us are afraid? It is when we are holy that we are truly fathers, living the image of God to the world.




Sunday, March 15, 2015

Light and Darkness

4th Sunday of Lent
Cycle B

I think one of the main reasons people reject Christianity is because they think that we’re all about condemnation. That we sit up on our high horse and judge people’s behavior against some sort of unreasonable, out-of-date standard. A standard that we ourselves cannot even uphold. We don’t change with the world, we try to change the world, and that can be painful. Painful not because we have the power to condemn or force people to behave as we’d like them to, but because deep down most folks realize that they’re not living as they should, and they may need to change their thinking and their behavior.
It is the struggle of the ages, isn’t it? We read today the story of the Jewish people’s exile to Babylon and subsequent return to Jerusalem 70 years later. The people and their leaders had turned away from God and rejected Him. They practiced all sorts of immorality and didn’t think the God of their fathers was good enough or applicable for them anymore. They stopped listening to the prophets and the word of God. Sound familiar?

In the Old Testament God works his will through people, often through the actions of the leaders. The scripture writers interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as just punishment for the sins of the people. They were just getting what they deserved. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer was doing God’s will when he carried the Jews off into slavery, and the Emperor Cyrus was doing the same when he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. I don’t know if those kings actually saw it that way, but the Jews did, and that’s what counts.

There is a definite cause and effect relationship throughout the scriptures. If you do God’s will you will be rewarded; if you don’t you will be punished. God will show you mercy after you have paid for your sins. He will allow you to come back to him. That’s an incomplete and unsatisfying understanding. Jesus doesn’t see things that way, does he? Jesus is not about judgment, he’s all about mercy and forgiveness. Mercy before you have paid. He says so today in his conversation with Nicodemus.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned.

The way Jesus sees it, God is not the one who condemns; we condemn ourselves. God does not choose pain and separation for us, we choose it for ourselves. Jesus does not say there is no condemnation, only that it is not God who will condemn us. God is all about mercy, and He will do everything possible to call us back to Him and welcome us home into his presence. He will show us the way, even going so far as to send His only Son to us to show us the way, to be our light and guide.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish 
but might have eternal life.
Light and darkness are such strong images for us. We equate darkness with evil. We call Satan the Prince of Darkness, and we fear the dark. We feel uncomfortable in the dark. We fear the unknown, we fear what we cannot control. We’re afraid we’ll stumble and fall in the dark. Darkness is frightening for us only because we know the difference between light and darkness. We fear the darkness because that’s where bad things can happen. But sometimes we prefer the darkness because that’s where we can hide.

The light came into the world, 
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light, 
so that his works might not be exposed.

The ironic thing about Nicodemus is that he was attracted to Jesus, but he only wanted to meet him at night. He didn’t want his friends and neighbors to know that he was a disciple of Jesus, because he was a high ranking Pharisee. He should have known better. And so he wanted to hide it. Jesus didn’t mind. He met him where he was in his faith and came to him. It wasn’t about who Nicodemus was now. It was about who he could become. Jesus knew that eventually Nicodemus would come out into the light.
The saddest thing about living in the darkness is that we feel less about ourselves and alienate ourselves from God and his community. We can beat ourselves up so much that we actually stay away from God. How wretched you must feel to keep yourself from God. Have you ever not come to Mass because you felt unworthy? Or stayed away because you were not in the “right frame of mind” to receive the Eucharist; that you just didn’t think you could come to Mass with all those people there and try to pretend that everything was ok? Why just go through the motions?

Do you think that you shouldn’t come to Mass if you haven’t exactly been living a perfect Christian life lately? I mean, why add one more hypocrite to the mix? Do you think that you have to have it all together in order to worship the Lord? I’m not perfect, so I’ll stay away. Does Jesus really only call the righteous? If that were the case there’d be no one here. It’s sort of like saying that I’m starving, so I really shouldn’t come to the banquet. The very thing you think you should avoid is the thing you really need. Sometimes we blind ourselves to what we’re really doing here.

It’s ironic that the best way to become worthy of the Eucharist is to experience the Eucharist. None of us can ever make ourselves worthy of being here. Only God can make us worthy, just by willing it so. So we have a choice, to beat ourselves up for not being worthy or to accept the grace of God that allows us to see. To exclude ourselves from the banquet or to humbly accept the invitation.

You see, it’s not cause and effect. It’s all mercy. It’s not darkness. It’s light. No matter how long we have stumbled around in the dark, we can change and come into the light. As long as we sincerely seek the truth we will never remain in the darkness. It is our choice.

But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, 
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.