Category Archives: Politics

Book Review: Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro

Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.

Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.

We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).

However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.

The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years.  He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.

Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.

The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas.  Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.

The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.

I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.

The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896).  That chapter is full of drama and humanity.

Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here).  In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.

Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.

It’s My Body

quote-i-do-not-believe-that-we-have-a-right-to-tell-other-people-women-that-they-can-t-control-joe-biden-113-90-00One of the most common allegations made against pro-lifers, specifically anti-abortion advocates, is that it is an example of a bunch of old white men trying to tell women what they can or can’t do with their bodies. This allegation calls up all the righteous indignation of feminism, autonomy, and moral outrage against those old white men that seem to be responsible for all of the evils in the world.

Of course this allegation is more of a stereotype than an argument. For one thing, it ignores all members of the prolife movement who are:

  1. Young
  2. Non-white
  3. Female

Which is a good portion of the prolife movement, actually.

kqpbolic
If it were, it would be a lot easier not to take this guy seriously.

Secondly, no reasonable person would dream of discounting someone else’s position simply because of age, race or gender. Imagine the outrage if, during a debate, a respondent dismissed his opponent’s remarks by saying, “You are young, black and female. You have nothing worth saying.” The world would explode, and rightly so. By the same token, “You are old, white and male” is not an adequate response to an argument.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the statement hinges upon a misrepresentation of the anti-abortion argument. The anti-abortion argument, as I understand it, rests upon the nature of the fetus. It maintains that because the fetus is a separate organism, its own body, it has a right to life.

The distinction is critical. If it were an issue of telling women what they can or can’t do with their bodies there are tons of other candidates. We could be seeking to outlaw contraception, body piercing, tattoos or plastic surgery. We could extend this to both genders and outlaw alcoholism, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, unsafe sexual practices etc. All of the above are either arguably or demonstrably unhealthy to varying degrees. They are not illegal, however. They are not illegal because of the principle of autonomy. We in our culture do not believe in legislating what people can do with their own bodies. (Of course we developed from a culture that did believe in doing that, hence the laws against suicide, etc.)

However, let’s take a look at the case of smoking. We do not outlaw smoking because we believe in the individual’s right to autonomy, to do what he likes with his body, even when it is patently and unequivocally bad for him. However, we do outlaw secondhand smoke in many areas, under the (rather specious) argument that secondhand smoke exposure harms other people.

The distinction, again, is important. You have a right to do whatever tomfool things you want to your own body, but you do not have the right to do things that will harm other bodies.

pregnancy-week-10-fingernails_4x3
Human Fetus at 10 weeks gestation.

The abortion question is in the same boat as smoking. You may do as you like with your body under most circumstances. However, in the case of pregnancy, the context changes and there are now two bodies under consideration. The anti-abortion argument is that no one, not even the doctor or the mother, has the right to destroy another body, i.e. the body of the fetus.

This is why the abortion debate, as with all pressing debates in the public arena, cannot be reduced to catchphrases and memes. This discussion cannot be furthered in 140 characters or less without drastically oversimplifying and misunderstanding the other’s position.

Safe Spaces and Special Little Snowflakes

Is this what you mean by safe space?
Is this what you mean by safe space?

There is a lot of talk these days in the post-election fracas about “safe spaces.” Most of the talk I have heard comes from conservative sources and some is decidedly mocking, but you don’t have to look very hard to find a quite serious and sober definition and defense of the safe space concept. (I suppose I should disclose that I do not agree with the goals of campus pride, I am merely saying that they have a well-defined concept of what safe space is and what it is for.)

 

 

It is exclusively on the conservative side that I have heard the term “special little snowflake” and variations thereof. It is usually an expression of disdain for young people, (millennials and younger) who as a group (if any group so heterogeneous can even be called group) tend to emphasize more liberal and progressive values such as empathy, tolerance, plurality, inclusion, fair treatment of racial and sexual minorities, and the intrinsic value of all (or at least most) humans. This inclusiveness does have its limitations, as in the case of the unborn, and the overall left-leaning skew in academia decried and perhaps exaggerated by Nicholas Kristof.

snowflakeIn this post I want to throw out my thoughts on these two ideas, for what they are worth. I do not expect to change the culture, but I do hope to provide at least some clarity of thought and charity of heart.

First of all, with the term “snowflake,” I am not sure why this is such an insult. I can definitely understand being put out when a young person with a sense of entitlement joins the platoon (or team, class, office, etc.) and seems to think that they ought to be treated with kid gloves simply for being who they are. I don’t know that it is necessarily a generational thing, as I have known plenty of old-timers in the army who seemed quite pleased to assume that they ought to be treated with respect bordering on adulation simply for having been around as long as they had, or based on things that they had once done, or simply because of their rank. Coming from the Special Forces, I can completely understand the feeling that respect is something that needs to be earned every day. Just because you made it through (basic training/college/trade school/the Q course/etc.) doesn’t mean you are automatically entitled to anything. You have earned the right to keep trying, learning and improving every day of your life.

I understand that mindset, but I don’t condone it without a very strong caveat, that it is not a Catholic attitude. It is based on a utilitarian attitude in which a person’s value is based on what he or she adds to the team/organization/society. It is not a wrong attitude, it is just not a complete one.

Contrast that with the liberal attitude that insists that every person is intrinsically valuable simply by virtue of existing and being human, regardless of what mistakes they may have made or what a drain they may be on society. They can’t help that, it’s the system, or their genetics, or white privilege, or the patriarchy. It is not their fault. Everyone deserves respect, a living, healthcare etc. just because they are human. Again, this is not a wrong mindset, it just isn’t a complete one.

divineMercy
He has called you by name. That is why you exist and have worth. You cannot earn it, you can only try to be worthy of it.

Contrast that with this quote from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

The human person, must always be understood in his unrepeatable and inviolable uniqueness. In fact, man exists above all as a subjective entity, as a center of consciousness and freedom, whose unique life experiences, comparable to those of no one else, underlie the inadmissibility of any attempt to reduce his status by forcing him into preconceived categories or power systems, whether ideological or otherwise. This entails above all the requirement… of simple respect on the part of others, especially political and social institutions and their leaders with regard to every man and woman on the earth.” (Compendium 131)

The Church has always held that the value of every human person is intrinsic to their identity as a child of God. It does not come from their skills or their knowledge or looks or muscle or any other quality about them. It is an inherent aspect of being personally willed by God from all eternity. From this point of view the liberal philosophy gets closer to the truth than the utilitarian view.

In fact, the insistence on “earning respect” gets it exactly backwards. We do not become worthy of respect because of our achievements, we strive to achieve because we are inherently worthy to do so. To continue the above quote:

“[E]ven more, this means that the primary commitment of each person towards others, and particularly of these same institutions, must be for the promotion and integral development of the person.” Compendium 131.

Earning your place, contributing to society, living up to your full potential, these are all values, but they are not foundational values. Their value is based solely upon our pre-existing identity as children of God, and without that identity no amount of achievement or development could replace it.

It is in reference to the value of reaching our full potential that I think about the concept of a safe space. Roughly speaking the liberal view might be stated as, “Come in here, all are welcome. You will not be subject to violence, physical or emotional, because of your identity. Here we are all safe.”* The conservative view might, equally roughly, be described as, “Grow up! Get over yourself, toughen up. Grow some balls! Nobody cares about your feelings, you big babies.”

I approach the question of safe space from the Catholic understanding of human worth. I do not support safe space, as I am discussing it above, not because I don’t believe that humans deserve respect, but because I believe they deserve growth. The problem with living in a safe space is that there is no growth. Just like the people who go to the gym and spend an hour casually turning the peddles on a stationary bike while watching a movie, or chatting, or reading a book, without ever breaking a sweat, will never reach their true physical potential, so the people who insist upon living in a circle of people who do not and cannot disagree with them will never grow mentally. They will never grow.

On the other hand, this does not mean there is no place for safety, respect and for sharing your beliefs with people who agree. Contrary to popular meathead belief, you do not actually make gains at the gym. You grow best in the rest time between workouts, and even while you are asleep. That growth is conditioned by the time spent in training, but a lifetime of training without rest doesn’t make you stronger. It grinds you down and breaks you.

So I encourage those who want a “safe space” to consider what they want it for. Is it so that you can be comfortable? There is no growth in comfort. You must be stretched and challenged if you wish to grow, and that can best be done by those who disagree with you.

 

 

*Of course the “anything goes in here, no judgment” mentality can only operate if there is one unwritten, but inviolable and strictly enforced rule: i.e. no judgment or intolerance. The one point of view that cannot be respected is any point of view that disagrees with some other person’s.

Original Sin: The Real Humanism

I have been in Physician Assistant school for a few months now, and so far have not failed out or caused a catastrophic loss of rapport with the academic establishment. That second point is actually a bit surprising considering that I experienced a mild case of culture shock when I overheard a classmate calling himself a “liberal.”

Yes, that’s right. He called himself a liberal, voluntarily; even casually, with not the least bit of pretention or defensiveness. It was as if he considered “liberal” a good thing to be and took it for granted that everyone else felt that way as well.

It was the casualness of the statement and the matter-of-course agreement of everyone around me that made me pause and think, “Whoah! I am not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” Having spent my entire life up to my ears in the conservative milieu, it was a bit of a surprise to hear liberalism so taken for granted. Even those committed liberals who talk about their liberalism in such circles usually do so with the chip-on-the-shoulder, defensive attitude common to all out-numbered and beleaguered minorities. In this new circle the situation was reversed and it was the self-described liberals talking about conservatives with mild, condescending pity, just like I had always heard conservatives talk about liberals.

It was rather like being in Thailand and inviting a Thai colleague to join us for pizza, only to watch his face glaze over with a look of polite disinterest, and to realize that he thought of pizza the way we think about steamed rice and sum tam. Of course we know on some level that it might be “soul food” to people who grew up on it, but deep down we kind of assume that it was probably because they never knew anything better. Wonder of wonders, they think the same about us.

I didn’t take it personally of course. If I had to describe myself politically I would probably call myself a socially liberal-minded moral conservative of the disenfranchised and slightly cynical variety. These days it seems to me that a lot of young Catholics I grew up with, particularly those who have mixed with the world but not lost their faith, are going the same route, with varying degrees of cynicism.

Anyway, that experience of culture shock is a valuable one because it shows me an unconscious assumption which I would actively have denied on a conscious level. (Again, this is not a surprise to me. I am nothing like “fully smoothed out and blue” yet).

Show me an “ism,” any “ism” you name, and I guarantee there is a crowd of people who oppose that ism fully, vocally, passionately with every fiber of their being. The irony of our current political situation is in large part that we tend to define ourselves at least as much in terms of what we oppose as what we stand for.

Resting on what we oppose rather than on what we support leads to “at least” syndrome, the habit of saying, “Well at least I’m not…” So much of the public discourse over the course of the last few elections has been conducted on the level of “Oh, yeah? Well, at least my head doesn’t look like a butt.”

When we say that it gives us permission to ignore our own shortcomings, or at least to give them a pass as something we are “working on.” It also gives rise to the humanist lie, which is that we can save the world. If the other side is just the worst, and their ideas are all wrong, then how could they hold those ideas without being stupid, ignorant or evil? And if they are stupid, ignorant or evil, then it seems likely that all our problems are their fault. And if all our problems are their fault, then if we outsmart/beat/get-rid-of them we will solve al our problems.

This is the humanist lie, that there is a human solution to human problems. It is endemic in our binary, polarized discussions of nearly everything. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate we sit on, we must always be conscious of this tendency towards thinking that there is a final solution to human problems. There is not. There never has been. Throughout the long history of human suffering, no government or other organization has ever been successful in eliminating it. The best we have ever been able to do is to relieve some of it. Most of the time we are doing well if we do not increase it.

If we realize this we can be freed from the urgency of feeling like we must solve problems, and be more comfortable with the idea of simply ameliorating them. We can be more comfortable with admitting that all social problems are more complex than a single point of view can encompass, and by corollary we can give those we disagree with the benefit of the doubt. We can at least entertain the possibility that perhaps the other person is not stupid, ignorant or evil. Perhaps the reason that they disagree with us is that they see the opposite side of the same problem we are concerned with. Perhaps, then, we might even seek union and cooperation instead of a competition.

This is all my long-winded way of saying, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.”

Life After an Election

“Put not your trust in princes,” we are warned (Psalm 146:3). During the last eight years, excepting possibly during the midterm elections, most faithful Catholics have heeded this warning. Let us not forsake it based solely on the fact that the lesser evil won this round of elections.

pinestrawThe US elections are over, though I would say that the fallout from them has only just begun to settle. The election fatigue set in long ago for some of us, perhaps even before the primaries were ended. We were given a choice between a cad (or at least a man who plays one on TV) and a crook (albeit one who never quite seems to be indicted), and have elected the former.[1] If he may be said to be the lesser of two evils, then we must remember that the lesser evil is still an evil.

We Christians—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, “conservative” Christians of all stripes—collectively elected Donald J. Trump to be the next president.[2] We now have the duty to do what we can to facilitate the implementation of his good policies and to mitigate his bad ones.

However, I see that neither I nor (presumably) my readership are in particular positions of power or influence: we can’t have much in the way of direct effect on any of this. We might finally dare to believe that federal government’s culture-shaping and moral-corrupting edicts will cease or at least relent for a time, that we may be at the very least left alone. Whether we will, in fact, have a respite from the outgoing administration’s attempts at social engineering is speculation at this point. The media is temporarily cowed, but it is not thoroughly repentant; and social media will probably persist in its propaganda campaigns, thereby further polarizing the nation. Indeed, I suspect that both will return to their natural states with a vengeance long before the presidential inauguration (witness, for one, the many bitter recriminations broadcast by both in the immediate wake of election night).

man-matures-problems-politicsWe must remember that all politics are local, which is I suppose a sort of outline of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We cannot determine the actions of this or any other president—but we can determine our own, at least in part. In another election-related column, Mr. Ryan Kraeger offered a few ideas about how we ourselves can work to make the world a better place, to some extent regardless of the outcome of the elections [3]:

I think politics, especially National politics, is really a distractor for a lot of people. We get all wrapped around the axle and bent out of shape over these huge things that really don’t concern us. Worse, the fact of getting engrossed in them distracts us from the good we should be doing.

The government does not adequately take care of the poor in America. So? How does that prevent me from taking care of them?

The president has not solved homelessness and poverty. Does that prevent me from donating to my local homeless shelter, or volunteering my time, talent and treasure?

Abortion is legal in America. This is a tragedy, but it is not the greatest tragedy. The root of that tragedy is selfishness. It is selfishness that makes it so that babies are unwanted, that mothers feel like they have no other option, and that some so-called doctors do not care about human life. I can do foster care, or adopt, or sponsor an unwed mother, or engage in conversation with my fellow medical care providers. The government does not and cannot prevent me from doing so.

The president has not provided free healthcare for everyone. So? Why can’t I provide free healthcare, or reduced cost healthcare for patients who can’t afford it (once I get my PA certification, that is?)

The president has not stopped pollution, or saved the planet. So what? How does that prevent me from living simply, reducing my own trash and exercising stewardship of the environment?

Of course, the outcome of the elections may decide whether our virtuous actions are punishable by law. Elections do have consequences, and so for example we have spent time, energy, and even political and social capital battling over whether Catholics should be forced to pay for others’ contraceptives or abortions, and whether or not our young daughters should have to share the public locker room or bathroom with adult men. In both cases, we are fighting the good fight, but again, I can’t help but think: what a waste. To pick one more example which is keeping more in line with Mr. Kraeger’s suggestions—it becomes difficult to choose to feed the poor when doing so is punishable by law on account of not having taken the proper bureaucratic steps in obtaining a food handler’s license, a license to operate a food truck, and the right to peddle wares (even for free) on any public street corner. These are not fights we should even have to be considering; they should be non-issues, but our government has decided to make them issues. Nor can we back down here.

cs-lewis-error-in-pairsNevertheless, making the world—or our own country—better all begins with making our own small corner of the world better, perhaps only our own household. If Hillary Clinton is the epitome of what is wrong with our politics, and Donald Trump is the summation of what is wrong with our culture, we have to remember that neither is formed in a vacuum. Our society is put together from the building blocks of our own families, and these we can and do have some influence upon.

We can look at president-elect Donald Trump’s words and behavior in public and be aghast at his lack of modesty or decorum. Do we stop to ask whether we comport ourselves with modesty or decorum at all times in public? This goes for how we speak, how we act, even how we dress.[3] We may be rightly aghast at the possibility that our president elect is a racist or a bigot—I think that these charges are overblown to some extent, and that the media certainly has done its best to paint him in the worst light possible, but not all of the charges can be easily dismissed as merely more media manipulation.[4] It is certainly easier to be outraged at this prospect than to examine our own behavior in public and online: are we kind to others, do we give them the benefit of the doubt (every so often, let alone always)? Do we allow for the possibility that a disagreement may be honest and purely motivated [5], or do we assume that there is some malice afoot, that it is rooted in racism or bigotry or even simple selfishness?

We should remember above all that our political and cultural and even religious adversaries are still human, too. They should be treated with some level of respect and dignity, and above all with charity. Anything less and we are undermining whatever short-term progress we may make.

—-Footnotes—

[1] There are in addition some also-rans, some of whom may even have been better choices… but none of them were going to actually win this election. Still, a vote for the third party/write-ins is not a wasted vote: had they received a more substantial share of the popular vote, it might even have signaled dissatisfaction with the two major candidates.

[2] I say this recognizing that not all of the members of any of these voted. Full disclosure: while I suspect that Trump is the lesser evil, and that much of his TV persona is a large act, I still wrote in my vote.

[3] Though this latter point is not something with which I can generally fault Mr. Trump, or any other prominent politician. At worst, we can complain about how lavishly they dress in buying very expensive clothing, or getting expensive haircuts, etc. For my part, I have never complained about this because even buying expensive clothes is helping to keep someone somewhere employed.

[4] The Left in general and the media in particular are always quick to blame any disagreement on either a mental defect or some form of bigotry (or both). Hence, the narrative is that Trump won because of stupid, poor, angry white men. I didn’t know there were so many more stupid poor angry white men than all other demographics in America. Apparently neither did Mr. Trump’s electorate.

[5] Confession: I sometimes have to work on this too. Admonishment: so, dear reader, do you.

Election Year: A Time for Mercy

In an election year where there has been so much division, I think we all recognize that there is a widespread experience of disillusionment and disappointment. Not in decades have voters been so dissatisfied with the two leading presidential candidates before them. You have likely shared in more than one conversation that has left you feeling confused, unsure, and frankly, sick to your stomach at the possibilities that lay before our country. Particularly if you are Catholic, attempting to give primacy to your conscience in voting has likely been difficult and even crippling.

elections-ahead-sign-600x400Perhaps you are like me, and have tried to avoid thinking about the work of politics. When my children ask about the candidates, I try not to say much. I’ve attempted to laugh through it with Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon. I’ve ordered my favorite takeout in an attempt to keep my spirits up while watching one of the debates, hoping to hear something that will ease my conscience and clear my heart to choose. It’s no surprise that I haven’t received much consolation in these things.

Perhaps it is fitting that we come to the election at the end of this extraordinary Year of Mercy. This has been a truly messy election process, so much so that many of us may want to simply withdraw and ignore what is happening in our country and our world. However, it is really a time to enter into the mercy of God. This is not a mercy that takes us out of the world and sweeps us away from the complications of human life, but it is a mercy that enters ever more deeply into our humanity. The mercy of God is seen in Jesus’ willingness to enter into our mess. In the Incarnation, God refuses to turn from the difficulty, the frustration, the tedium of human life. He empties Himself and takes on humanity, with all of its joys and burdens. He lets us know that no matter what difficulties we may have, He walks with us. Even when that walk is difficult and we cannot see the finish, we still know that suffering, evil, and death will not win.

With that in mind, I encourage all Christians to stand in hope. In the midst of this election year, which has been anything but inspiring, hold fast to the hope given to us in Jesus Christ. Do not walk in endless gloom and despair, throwing your hands up in frustration and walking away sad. Do not fall into the lie of futility and despair, because to do so is, in a sense, to deny the goodness of the Incarnation. If God did not hold Himself back from the reality of humanity, neither can or should we. Pray. Study. Discuss. Work. Walk through this seeming mess as Jesus walked to Golgotha—with perseverance and hope.

I still can’t care

I am writing this on election night before the official call has come in. Last I heard the presidential race was too close to call. People are freaking out about it all over the internet. Me?

Meh.

mehWhoever gets elected tonight will be someone I didn’t vote for, and he or she will still be elected in the morning when I arrive at public transit.

For a long time I just didn’t plan on voting. I filled out my ballot and mailed it at the last minute simply because I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I really ought to make the gesture. It’s not as if I was abstaining from voting out of principle. I simply couldn’t be bothered to waste time and energy on something so clearly pointless as voting in a presidential election while I had pathology papers to write, basic clinical skills to practice, technical skills to research, objectives to memorize. If my younger brother hadn’t commented earlier that morning that he only voted because he wanted to do what was right, I probably would have used my lunch break more constructively.

Anyway, I voted. I voted third party for Maturen and Munoz of the American Solidarity Party (ha! sounds like Vegas a stage act).

And now back to real life. I still find it hard to care about the outcome of this election, or any politics, really. I don’t think that is a good thing. As a Catholic I should have a strong concern to promote the common good by all means available, and politics certainly is (or should be) concerned with the common good. I just can’t care about it, because it is too remote.

I mean, seriously, I cannot think of a single time in my life when a political figure has influenced a decision I have had to make. People ask, “But don’t you care about who your commander-in-chief is?” To which I can only reply, “I’ve worked for idiots before this.”

I just have a lifelong habit of not allowing myself to care about things that I cannot affect in some way. In this way I think politics, especially National politics, is really a distractor for a lot of people. We get all wrapped around the axle and bent out of shape over these huge things that really don’t concern us. Worse, the fact of getting engrossed in them distracts us from the good we should be doing.

The government does not adequately take care of the poor in America. So? How does that prevent me from taking care of them?

The president has not solved homelessness and poverty. Does that prevent me from donating to my local homeless shelter, or volunteering my time, talent and treasure?

Abortion is legal in America. This is a tragedy, but it is not the greatest tragedy. The root of that tragedy is selfishness. It is selfishness that makes it so that babies are unwanted, that mothers feel like they have no other option, and that some so-called doctors do not care about human life. I can do foster care, or adopt, or sponsor an unwed mother, or engage in conversation with my fellow medical care providers. The government does not and cannot prevent me from doing so.

The president has not provided free healthcare for everyone. So? Why can’t I provide free healthcare, or reduced cost healthcare for patients who can’t afford it (once I get my PA certification, that is?)

The president has not stopped pollution, or saved the planet. So what? How does that prevent me from living simply, reducing my own trash and exercising stewardship of the environment?

Part of it, of course, is that I am cynical and jaded. Part of it, however, is the fact that I have a worm’s-eye view of it. I do not trust the top down approach. It has its place, but it is essentially foreign to the Christian way of life, at least as I understand it. The real focus of the Christian life is the relationship of the soul to God and to neighbor, and government has no effect on that.

Seeking to regulate behavior from the top down, or even to create opportunities is the hope of the world, has been the hope of the world since governments were first formed. It has failed to provide lasting peace either between or within nations. It has largely failed to provide for human well-being, prevent crime, or make humans happy or holy.

The Christian approach has always been the opposite. Our strength has always been in the small and intimate, from the bottom up. Our secret weapons have always been the saints. The hidden soul doing little things with great love in its own sphere is the real force that turns the world. My quest to become such a soul is not at all affected by the question of who sits in the oval office. My chief concern with who fills that office is that I know who to pray for by name.

Does the government affect us? Yes, it most certainly does. It affects our livelihood, our freedoms, our opportunities, our families, our infrastructure, our economy, our science and medicine and technology and virtually every other sphere of our life. How can I be indifferent to that?

Well, simply, those are not my responsibility, and ultimately they are not so very important after all. My responsibility is to do the best I can with what I have been given, and I have so little influence on the government that I consider it a given rather than a responsibility. As a friend of mine said, “No matter who gets elected, you will still be the same husband/father/friend and son of God you were before.” The important thing is the Love of Christ, which, as St. Paul informs us, “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword” cannot separate us from.thomas-more-tribulation

As St. Thomas More (allegedly) said, “The times are never so bad but that good men can live in them.”

Ironically, he said that right before running afoul of the king and getting his head cut off.

 

Logging Off and Kneeling Down

911PrayerThis election cycle has been extremely rough. Having only lived through a handful of presidential elections, I cannot attest to those that occurred before my time, but this election? It seems uglier, darker, and more contentious than in years past.

Personally, I have been keeping up with politics just enough to know that I am extremely frustrated and saddened by the whole mess.

In all my years of voting, I have never once cried about it. I am extraordinarily grateful to live in a country and a time in history where I am allowed – and encouraged – to vote. But I admit I cried when I took up my mail-in ballot earlier this month. I cried for our nation. I cried for my children. I cried because I am just so exhausted by the moral wasteland that is current American politics.

Once I stopped crying, I ate two cookies, even though I wanted to eat 10 cookies, because old habits (emotional eating) die hard.

With sugar from the chocolate chip cookies still surging through my veins, I wiped the tears from my eyes and the crumbs from my mouth and I decided to do the only genuinely constructive thing I felt I could do: I decided to pray.

Recently, our local Catholic radio station ran a small audio clip from EWTN Foundress and truth-telling rock star Mother Angelica. Her words couldn’t have been more timely had she recorded them several days rather than several years ago. The gist of her message was this: when people turn away from God, they get the kinds of leaders they deserve; they end up having to choose between a leader who is bad, and another who is presumably slightly less bad than the other. The only thing we, as people of faith, should and can do, according to Mother Angelica, is pray.

Lest we forget, prayer has the power to change things. The Bible is chock full of people calling upon the LORD to help, heal, and save them. God, in His mercy, is able to make all things new, even if we ourselves are not.

But – how would I pray? There were so many things I wanted to say to God – to beg of Him, to cry out, to request.

The Catholic Conspiracy decided to close up shop the day before Election Day as a form of prayer and penance for the elections. That decision got my wheels turning.

As a writer and speaker and generally tied-to-the-internet person, I thought that, rather than dialoguing or arguing or fretting or hypothesizing any further, I could better-serve the good of my country by focusing my energy where it likely should have been focused all along: on prayer and fasting.

I decided to stay completely away from Facebook and Messenger and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat altogether for the sake of our country the day before Election Day and Election Day itself. Any time I thought about checking a social media platform, or posting something, or liking something, or doing anything remotely social media-like, I would take the opportunity to pray instead. Rather than scrolling through FB and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat several times a day, I just wouldn’t. I wouldn’t check, interact, or even log on.

Depending on where I am and what I’m doing at the time, my prayer may be long or short. Here are some ideas:

Another way to pray is to read, study, and speak Scripture aloud, including today’s readings for Mass or a relatable Scripture like 2 Chronicles 7:14, which states:

“ … if then my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and heal their land.” (NAB)

Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing. I would argue that, for me, this social media fast has been enough to cause me to pray a heck of a lot more during the day than I normally do. Not quite unceasingly, but it’s been darn close. It’s sort of stupid how often I think about social media, to be honest.

Anyway, I am not giving up hope on our politicians, our democracy, or our country, and I hope you won’t either. We should never, ever, ever underestimate the power of prayer and its ability to accomplish the will of God. We must be like the widow with the unjust judge – we must keep asking until we receive a judgement in our favor. We must continue to ask, seek, and knock on behalf of our country. We must continue to ask God to have mercy on us, our families, and our nation.

I truly believe that it is only when we humble ourselves before God and fervently seek His face that we will truly be One Nation, Under God – stronger than ever because we’re on our knees.

The Near Occasion of Sin and Restroom Debates

0615GenderNeutralDebates over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and Target’s policy of allowing men and women to use a restroom that doesn’t match their biological sex, but comports instead with their gender identity, have flooded social media lately.  Often, if Catholics get into the debate at all, there is a tendency to be heavy handed and dismissive of the entire issue.  I don’t want to pretend that the just and moral thing to do is completely pretend like there are no transgender people in the world, or to call them hurtful names.  But I also don’t think it’s the right move to sit silently on the sidelines.  

Instead, I want to address the issue from a slightly different perspective than I’ve seen others do.  That is, how can the Catholic idea of the near occasion of sin bring light to the debate?

One of the arguments I’ve seen many people make is that anyone who believes that restrooms ought to be reserved for biological males and biological females must be either ignorant of the plight of those who struggle with their gender identity, or just plain mean-spirited.  Some have even claimed that the creation or designation of single-use facilities as a compromise, or other similar solutions to the issue, is fundamentally an act of discrimination aimed at causing harm to transgender individuals.

At the outset, let me be clear about a couple of issues: I recognize that those who struggle with gender or body dysmorphia have to be given dignified treatment, and they must be given, above all, compassion and mercy.  They should not become a political football to be wrested from one group to another in a race to win an argument.  

Further, I do not have even the slightest belief that transgender people are inherently sexually perverted individuals who pose a great threat to public safety.  I want to be clear that it is precisely my contention that the real issue, as far as safety goes, comes from people who are not truly wrestling with their gender identity, but who may abuse the new legal rulings.  

Now, let’s recall the concept of the near occasion of sin.  In confession, Catholics traditionally promise during their act of contrition that they will avoid not just sin in the future, but even the near occasion of sin.  This means while we recognize that sinful acts are the real enemy, we can do a lot of good for ourselves by avoiding circumstances or situations in which we are more likely to sin.  In other words, our concern for sin ought to extend beyond the moment of committing an offense against God.  We should put up our defenses sooner.  Thus if you have a tendency to drive dangerously fast, leaving earlier would be  good plan.  If you’re an alcoholic, certainly you should refrain from drinking, but you also ought not to hang out in bars or have alcohol in your home if you live alone.   

Now, what is the connection between the gendered division of restrooms and the near occasion of sin?  Many people have expressed concerns about safety for women and children in restrooms.  The most frequent argument is that men who do not truly identify as women will use the new legal coverage to enter women’s restrooms in order to assault vulnerable women.  

Consider, for a moment, that there already are sexual assaults and other violations of privacy in restrooms due to sexual predators of various sorts.  Given this fact, I think it’s right to believe that a legal protection for a biological male to be in the women’s restroom may be just enough of a confidence booster to lead some male sexual predators to wander into a space that they perhaps may have otherwise stayed away from due to concerns about being caught.

What’s most difficult about the legal argument is that it refers to gender identity as being the decisive factor.  While I do acknowledge the reality of people who struggle with their gender identity, trying to base a wide-ranging public law on gender identity is very tricky because there aren’t clear objective criteria for verifying whether someone really has a gender identity issue, or whether they’re merely trying to gain access to an area (restroom, sports team, locker room, etc.) that they would otherwise be prohibited from.

The concept, then, of the near occasion of sin, provides a helpful lens to analyze this issue.  If, as is well-known, restrooms are already the site of mostly males assaulting females, and if sexual predators find comfort in the law allowing them to be present in a restroom previously reserved for women, there’s good reason to suspect that it may push a few more over the edge.  And while the number of women suffering sexual assaults is already too high, ought not we have some concern for the prospect that it could be even higher?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any law will ever prevent anyone from breaking it.  But we don’t thereby forget about making laws.  Instead we still insist on the need for laws for public safety, and try to enforce them as best as we can.  I’m inclined to agree that the push to make explicit laws about the use of restrooms may be unnecessary.  As Ryan T. Anderson has argued, society generally got by with a live and let live policy in this area.  However, the time for localized solutions or live and let live is now being pressed out of the conversation.  Political activism is causing a new fight in this area.

I’m not sure there’s a clear way forward in this argument, but in any event, we ought all to pray for justice, and also for safety.

The Culture War

In browsing through the latest headlines—and skimming the articles underneath them—I get the impression that the culture wars are anything but cooling down. Despite reports to the contrary, the culture wars are not dead. If anything, they appear to be boiling over, to the extent that some factions want every aspect of life to be devoted to (or consumed by) these conflicts [1].

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Front page of Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1992

These things tend to ebb and flow, and today’s clashes may take on some resemblance to those from a generation, a century, or a millennium ago. “Black Lives Matter” is not necessarily more widespread or disruptive than the race riots of the past. The “bathroom battles” are just the latest skirmish in a series of seemingly unchecked advances by the New Gnostics as they attempt to sing the body irrelevant [2]; and several of the previous “advances” were the precipitate of older fights concerning the nature of sex and marriage. And the various legal fights over the rights of conscience are themselves the result of the insistence that todays “culture war losers” should not only surrender but make reparations for past struggles.

The culture wars are are not anything new, or new to the last century or so, at any rate. Rather, they are just the latest face of an age-old conflict for the soul of civilization, and indeed for the much more important prizes of the souls of the people who make up society. In past centuries, this conflict played out more as a conflict between Church and state, or faith and reason, or between orthodoxy and heresy [3]. Indeed, there is a sense in which the current culture war is a conflict between Church and popular culture [4].

st-nick-punches-arius
Heresy!

This “latest” conflict, the culture wars, is the obvious face of the age-old conflict, this time tailored for a generation (or a society) which has largely lost its religious literacy. To see that this is so, you need only contrast our culture war with, for example, the fight in early Christendom over the Arian heresy. The everyman of Alexandria was very interested in these matters of doctrine, so much so that St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the times that

Men of yesterday and the day before, mere mechanics, off-hand dogmatists in theology, servants, too, and slaves that have been flogged, runaways from servile work, are solemn with us, and philosophize about things incomprehensible. Ask about pence, and the tradesman will discuss the generate and ingenerate; inquire the price of bread, and he will say, “Greater is the Father, and the Son is subject”; say that a bath would suit you, and he defines, “the Son is out of nothing.”

Today, one asks the price of cake and is told that marriage is between one man and one woman; but then the baker is promptly sued in court or fined by a “human rights” commission, and his (or her) business is destroyed. Or ask the price of coffee, and the barista implies in response that faithful Christians are bigots, and then bravely faces the applause [5].

C.S. Lewis warned his Christian readers against becoming more interested in arguing about God than in learning about Him and learning to love Him. Here is certainly some wisdom here for the Christian apologist—namely, that what is right is more important than who is right. But it can also be applied more broadly to the culture wars—since the “broader” culture wars are really just another aspect of the eternal struggle between the Church and the world. It is worth stepping back and asking, are the culture wars rally about the culture—or are they more about the war?

This is a question which people on all sides or in all factions of the culture wars should be asking themselves. The progressives of all stripes should remember that revolutions have a nasty tendency of eating their own. Any culture in which all people must at any arbitrary or unexpected time bend their knees to a cruel and capricious zeitgeist is a veritable dystopia. As Chesterton warned in The Thing, not knowing why we have a certain tradition or why we do things a certain way is not a sufficient reason for change:

FenceesAlong Road Photo by marius sebastian _ Unsplash
Why is that fence there?

[Consider a fence or gate erected across a road] The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Conservatives should keep in mind the principles outlined by Russell Kirk. This includes the principle that “the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” As Kirk noted,

The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

kirk old virtues
Bonus Kirk.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.

Prudence, prescription, and preservation of the permanent things are all important—they are the chief virtues of a conservative—but not all old ways of doing things are necessarily better for being older.

Charles-the-Hammer
Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, at the Battle of Tours

Christians of good faith in particular should remember that our mission is to evangelize. While many people will strive to make themselves our enemies, we ultimately have one true enemy [6], however many his minions. Indeed, many of the devils would-be accomplices are more akin to his hostages than his allies (see Mark 3:22-27). If one side of the culture war seems to be fought with the final aim of persecuting Christians, and if many people seem sympathetic to this view, our response ought not to be punish to paynim. Our purpose is to evangelize, to share the joy of the gospel, and proselytism will follow from this. Yes, we must take a stand in the culture wars, but if we work to bring about the conversion of the culture, then the war will take care of itself.

 

Footnotes
[1] Some entire factions, and some people in every faction or “side” seem to want the culture-wars to be all-consuming, “scorched earth” affairs.

[2] And the Black Lives Matters and the New Gnostics have even met to declare that the biological race of one’s body is irrelevant, except when it isn’t.

[3] A note here: there need not be any conflict between these things, save only that orthodoxy and heresy are necessarily in contradiction of each other. Of course, there need not be an all-consuming culture war, either, but yet here it comes.

[4] Though the lines here have been more blurred than in previous iterations, to the extent tat many people who consider themselves to be well outside of the Church stand more-or-less on her “side” in the culture wars, and several people who apparently consider themselves to be “devout Catholics” seem to ask what the Church teaches only so that they can do the opposite.

[5] To be fair, faithful Christians faced everything from death to exile to fines and jail time and torture during the Arian crisis.

[6] On the other hand, that one enemy leads legions of lesser demons. And thought of differently, we have one true enemy who has two important collaborators, because the things which bring us to sin are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Considerations on the Question of Politics for (American) Catholics

Several months ago, I started writing a post about how difficult it is to be Catholic during the peak seasons of political campaigns.  Here’s how I started it:

While I’ve admittedly not been paying a great deal of attention to the political ruminations of the GOP, I have noticed the absolutely overwhelming press attention that Donald Trump has been getting lately.  I missed the debate a few weeks ago (this was the first debate of the entire campaign), and I’ve tried not to read too much into any one candidate at this point.  On the other side of the political aisle, everybody’s pointing toward Hillary Clinton as the default candidate and so, that should settle the question, right?  Not so fast!  There’s a growing community of folks rallying behind Bernie Sanders, painting him as the anti-political candidate who will bring sanity to the Democratic party.  They’re even giving us handy graphs to show us the differences, and clearly, Sanders is the way of the future.

I never did finish that post, but I think I can say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Six months ago I never imagined we’d still be talking about Trump.  But I also wasn’t so sure about whether Sanders was going to hang around.

In any event, one thing is clear: when it comes to politics, the press seems to focus on buzzwords, sound bites, glitz, and glam much more than any nuanced discussion or sober analysis.

No matter what your political affiliation or leanings, trying to determine the best person to become President is a very complicated decision, and the way the media covers the process makes it even more difficult.  However, as a Catholic, the process becomes even more convoluted.  Why?  Come, let us reason together.

Catholics are in a particularly difficult spot when it comes to politics because we are decidedly members of a faith which calls us to a both/and, not either/or approach.  For instance, when our tradition reflects on the developments of the modern world, we’re not given the choice of faith or reason, theology or science.  We’re called to embrace both, which is very hard sometimes!  It also gets messy.  So then in politics, it should be no surprise that we have a challenging call: embrace the largest vision of the common good that we possibly can.

So what kind of difficulties does this lead to?  For one, it automatically means we can’t just tie ourselves down to a particular party.  We have to evaluate candidates in a much more considered fashion.  What are their ideals, what is their platform, and what do they have to say about the most important issues?  Further, we are called to pay attention to the web of connections among the various items.

These are the questions and considerations that face us, and I for one am often conflicted about how easy and simple most people in general, and also most Catholics, make things seem overly simple.  It’s easy to say “Well, Democrats officially favor abortion, so we have to vote for Republicans.”  It’s true that abortion rights factor in as a major part of their party’s views.  But it’s not so simple to just decide that one, as a Catholic, has  to vote Republican.

I say it’s not so simple as voting Republican because a major reason for automatically going toward the Republican side is that the Democratic view is decidedly not pro-life. That’s good reasoning, as far as it goes.  But it ignores the complication of other life issues like the death penalty, war, immigration, etc.

Of course, we also can’t pretend that all Republicans are pro-death penalty, love war, or have medieval ideas about immigration policy.  There’s always third party options, right?  Sure!  But none of them are likely to meet all of the goals of the Catholic view on the world.  And, in a certain sense, it might be silly to expect any politician to truly run on 100% Catholic ideals.  If they did so, while it might be super easy to vote for them, it’s almost a surefire fact that they’d never be successful in getting elected, or working within the political establishment to accomplish anything advancing the common good.

Now, with all of this said, many are led to the idea that the best option is to just forget about the whole thing. The most popular vision of this is the “Benedict option” named for St. Benedict who, seeing the writing on the wall of the Roman Empire, decided to withdraw from that society and found a monastery to pursue the fullness of the Catholic faith.  This was a heroic act of virtue in the middle ages and is, obviously, much more difficult to really pursue today.

Yet many Catholics have made notable attempts, and perhaps some modest success, in forming their own communities and removing themselves from the world as much as possible.  They home school, cultivate jobs which allow them to work from home, grow their own food, attend daily Mass, etc.  Let me be clear here: this is a tremendous good, and there is nothing wrong with it.  Without a doubt, many are called to that type of life, and great blessings for the world can flow from that.

Still, there are also clear teachings within the Catholic tradition that we are not required to leave the world behind.  In fact, Vatican II was painfully clear about the way Catholics are called precisely to engage with the world, in order to be salt and leaven:

“They [the laity] live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven…Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” (Lumen Gentium #31)

From my perspective, it seems that the key for Catholics, lies not in the actual political season itself.  Sure, we need to voice our opinions about the major issues, and we need to make clear what our faith demands.  But more than that, we need to be having conversations of consequence, making the truth beautiful, and showing what it looks like to live the life of the Gospel.  When we do that, and I mean when we all do that, the political arguments will be much easier.  We can only effectively transform a culture by being witnesses, not by winning debates.  And there’s no way to expect Catholics to vote with a well-formed conscience if the only time we’re trying to form consciences is in the few months leading up to an election.  That’s a full-time job.