The Apostolate

Philip & James

How can we understand the meaning of our lives? The life of a Christian makes sense as an apostolate: The Son of God has consecrated us and sent us to help build His kingdom.

Christ has consecrated some Christians to propose His Holy Name to people Who have never heard of Him, or barely. And the Lord has consecrated others to live relatively quiet lives, in a small circle, building up the kingdom by daily prayer and acts of kindness.

We have two heavenly patrons of missionary work: St. Francis Xavier, who went to India and Japan to preach the gospel, and St. Therese, who lived a short, hidden life in a convent. Both St. Francis and St. Therese made sense out of the lives in the same way: They had been consecrated by God for the apostolate, to serve the building of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no starting point for understanding reality other than Jesus Christ Himself. And He gives us an apostolate, which makes getting out of bed every day worthwhile.

Focusing on the idea of my life as an apostolate can help me resolve all kinds of questions, with relatively little difficulty. To start with: Do all ‘religions’ offer equally good paths to God? As far as I know, absolutely not. There’s only one Christ, one Savior, one Incarnate Word.

st_therese_of_lisieuxBut: Should I try to convince people about Him using any methods other than those that He used? Namely, to choose to suffer rather than inflict suffering; to understand and empathize before speaking; to love all, and hope the best for all, and believe in the Father’s love for all. Of course I should use no other methods in my apostolate–only Christ’s methods. We apostles march gently beside the Prince of Peace, Who rode a little donkey, not a war stallion.

Does it matter what Christian “denomination” you are? As far as I know, it matters a very great deal. Did Jesus Christ Himself found the Thomas Road Baptist Church?

The Roman Catholic Church does not claim to be perfect in every respect. Far from it. She spent the twentieth century meditating very deeply about Herself, about who She is exactly, about what She possesses–and what She doesn’t possess.

One thing the Catholic Church does not possess is: A ready answer to every question or problem. She does not possess a divine mandate to govern everything about how we live our pilgrim lives.

Our Mother the Church, governed by St. Peter’s successor in office, possesses: 1. The faith of the apostles, expressed in our creeds. 2. The seven sacraments instituted by Christ Himself. 3. The rules God  has given us to help us sort out right and wrong. 4. The prayers that we need to worship God and communicate with Him as He Himself has ordered us to do, for our own good.

Every Christian ought to have all these good things at his/her disposal. But how could anyone take good advantage of any of these rich endowments, unless someone—some apostle—offers them in a kind and sympathetic way? The Church’s divine gifts only bring about their good effects when people embrace them freely and sincerely.

Let’s march on, fellow apostles, beside the Lord! He makes our lives worth living, when we spend them for the good of those around us.

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To Change the Church

Holy Father had his name day yesterday (se llama Jorge). Mine comes tomorrow. So, to celebrate, I present my review of Ross Douthat’s new book…

Ross Douthat To Change the Church

Douthat sees a profound conflict in the Catholic Church. On one side, “conservatives,” who believe that the gospels give us the words of Christ the Lord, including, What God has joined together, let no man put asunder… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. On the other side, “liberals,” who think that the Church must change with modern times in order to survive.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic conservatives and liberals struggled for… hmm…struggled for what, exactly? control?… The struggle continued for a decade under Pope Paul VI. Then the “conservative” post-Vatican-II popes, John Paul II and Benedict, reigned for over three decades, supposedly stabilizing everything by giving Vatican II a traditionalist interpretation. But the struggle never really abated; the liberal side did not exit holy Mother Church, as many expected. Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 led to a surprising re-eruption of the year 1968.

Douthat marshals many illuminating details of Church history in order to lay out this narrative–details which I myself have lived through in my own little life. My fellow seventies’ child lays out so many accurate observations, and interprets them so well, in fact, that I could easily let myself follow him to his doleful conclusion.

Namely, that either 1) Catholicism as we know it is on the way out, or 2) the Church will trudge on, as a house deeply divided, until schism erupts, or 3) by some miracle, God will soon give us a Pope Pius XIII. Then we will give up on trying to win-over our contemporaries and simply retrench. Thoroughly retrench.

But I can’t follow Douthat the whole way to his conclusion, for all his mesmerizing eloquence. For one thing, Douthat falls into one of the traps dug by the EWTN commentators who endlessly fuss about Pope Francis’ supposed misdeeds.

Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount a conversation between Christ and some contemporary Jews. Lord Jesus said that divorce became legal for the ancient People of God “because of your hardness of heart. In the beginning God made them male and female, and the two become one flesh in marriage.”

As Douthat rightly points out, “only a professional theologian” could miss the meaning here. Christians cannot divorce. But, by the same token, this conversation of Christ’s evidently does not stand on its own. The Lord refers to the original creation, to Adam and Eve, and to the act of marriage. The act of marriage–vows and consummation–lies at the center of the contemporary ecclesiastical controversy, not chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, or chapter ten of St. Mark’s.

G.K. Chesteron explained how true love always makes a lifetime vow, in “In Defense of Rash Vows,” published in The Defendant.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

The Holy Bible doesn’t prescribe the text of marriage vows, because it doesn’t have to. What the Lord said about divorce in the conversation recorded in Mt 19 and Mk 10 gets proved at practically every wedding. A lifetime commitment, sex, and forming a family with all its attendant duties and privileges–at a wedding, these are not distinct realities. They are one reality: marriage.

And, in this case, the sacramental grace does not come through the ministry of an ordained priest. A man and woman do this; a man and a woman minister the sacrament of marriage to each other. They make their life together an image of God’s love for mankind, an image of Jesus the Bridegroom’s faithful love for His Church, by taking vows and having sex.

marriage_sacramentWhat Jesus said in Mark 10 bears witness to, and confirms, the underlying reality of what marriage is. But marriage itself, which a man and a woman do (as God’s ministers): that’s the thing that lies at the heart of the controversy that occupies good Mr. Douthat.

I would say that both sides of the controversy miss what to me is this all-important distinction: the difference between a. ecclesiastical authority imposing itself or refraining from doing so, and b. the vows taken by lay people who marry. In other words, both sides want to put the pope and the clergy in a role which we do not in fact possess. That leads to unfocused and unhelpful rhetoric.

As I have tried to explain here before: According to the rhetoric, the controversy has to do with people being “barred from Holy Communion” vs. “admitted to Holy Communion.” But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers do not bar people from Holy Communion. It simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never denied Holy Communion to any adult who approached the altar looking like he or she knew what she was doing, and wasn’t chewing gum. Everyone in the church is always “admitted” to Holy Communion. The decision lies with the individual: Should I approach the altar to receive, or not?

So the whole controversy gets out of focus from the outset, when people start talking about denying/admitting to Holy Communion. The real disputed point is this: What should a parish priest (or anyone else, for that matter) say to someone who asks for guidance about whether or not to go to Holy Communion? This is something that actually does happen on a regular basis.

I, for one, almost always respond to such requests for guidance with some questions of my own, to gather facts and try to clarify the matter. Like:

Well, did you make marriage vows to someone else? Including a vow of sexual fidelity until death? Is that person still alive?

So, let’s concede that we have a genuine controversy regarding what priests outght to say to people. Douthat plumbs the depths of this controversy with both penetrating insight and stunning blindness.

I. Douthat’s Insights

The Pope and his ”Twitter apologists” won’t answer questions. Not just the semi-famous “dubia.” But simple, honest questions that Catholics can and should expect their priests to help them answer, by providing authoritative criteria for judgment.

Let’s take two examples. The first comes from Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence.” (I have not seen the movie, nor could I ever manage to get through the joyless novel. But Douthat helpfully outlines the plot.)

The main character faces a crushing choice. The local Japanese shogun will stop at nothing to stamp out Christianity. He tortures fellow Christians in front of the hero. “All you have to do is put your foot on this image of Christ, and deny Him. That way, you can save the lives of your friends.”

amoris-laetitia-coverThe hero’s priest mentor also tries to convince him to step on the image of Jesus. “These people’s Buddhism has the same ethical teaching as our Christianity. This is a dispute over supernatural things that the Japanese will never understand. Your stepping on the image won’t cost anyone anything.”

Fr. James Martin, SJ, the leading American Pope-Francis apologist, wrote about this. Douthat recounts what the Jesuit had to say. According to Father Martin, “Silence’s” hero faced “an almost impossible choice,” a discernment “in a complicated situation where there are no clear answers.”

Exhibit A of Jesuit sophistry. Who can fault Douthat for pinning it to the mat? Father Martin’s refusal to confront the moral facts: colossally obtuse. The “moral dilemma” here is actually not hard. How about this:

“Sir,” the hero says to the shogun, “I am not torturing and killing anyone. You are. Stop it. You send them to heaven by martyring them, but you do irreparable harm to yourself. For your own sake, stop this cruel nonsense.”

Then the hero adds, “Now, you think that I am going to step on the image of the one hope for heaven that we have, and deny Him? Deny the God-man, for Whose Holy Name countless of my smarter and more subtle-minded ancestors in the faith have gone to their deaths singing? If you think there’s any chance I will do that, forget it. May He have mercy on us all.”

Yes, it would require supernatural strength. (The sacrament of Confirmation promises precisely such grace.) But, at the same time, it would be the only moral option available. A difficult act, heroic martyrdom–but not a difficult decision, as far as right and wrong go. Apostasy is a sin that no situation can ever justify.

Now to the second example of a question which the “new paradigm” of pastoring doesn’t answer. This doesn’t spring directly from Douthat’s pages, like the “Silence” example. But it is the question upon which the entire controversy turns. Douthat regrettably never quite manages to lay it squarely on the table, but everything that he writes circles around it. It is the question which Pope Francis and his allies so studiously refuse to answer.

When should a person have sex?

Again, not a difficult question, when it comes to figuring out right and wrong. (It may be  difficult to act in accord with the right answer, but that doesn’t change the answer.)

When should a person have sex? When you’re trying to have a baby with your spouse.

Like I said, not a hard one. To borrow Douthat’s trenchant insight, and apply it here: It would take a professional theologian to get that one wrong. Sex is for making babies: Human Anatomy 101.

But let me address the reasonable, well-founded objection you, dear reader, might make. Father, can’t I have sex–even when I’m not trying to have a child with my spouse–just for the sake of love?

To answer that one, I think we have to say this:

If marriage means something like finding a “soul-mate”–that is, a companion with whom I will truly share my entire life; with whom I will become the person God made me to be; without whom, when everything is said and done, I will never understand myself as a person, since my self will become part of a marriage and a family– In other words, if marriage is what God originally gave Adam and Eve, and which a man and a woman establish by taking vows at the altar and making love in private, to start a family– If that is what we’re talking about here, and it is: Then no one can doubt that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No one gets two chances at it. It is a beautiful mystery of God, having to do with getting people to heaven.

So: people involved in such a holy communion with each other–they don’t exactly have the freedom to make their own rules, but: who could say they should refrain from love-making simply because they know that conception at this moment likely will not occur? Not me. Couples having sex for the sake of love during infertile periods is no sin.

john paul ii loggia be not afraidNor would I tell a widower and a widow beyond child-bearing age not to marry. Though I would say: Pray in solitude awhile first, calling to mind that death and judgment draw nigh.

Anyway: Douthat hits the nail on the head when he calls the bluff of the “discernment’ rhetoric on the controversy’s liberal side. Their presumption is: Man must have sex. But that presumption is false. To have sex is a choice. Every individual soul must wisely make that choice–with a partner likewise making a wise, informed choice–or not. And we must make such choices according to sound criteria of judgment. Where do we start, in formulating criteria for such a judgment? The Nicene Creed. Life on earth is short; Christ gives us heaven; the Church guides us with the truth; etc.

All this is Christianity 101. Priests who won’t help their people make wise choices about having sex? Those priests suck. They suck as priests, at least. Douthat skewers that nonsense with aplomb. But…

II. Douthat’s Blind Spots

To Change the Church misses some extremely important facts of recent history. Douthat sees everything through the lens of political tribalism, so he does not understand the enduring significance of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate. Douthat calls JPII a “conservative.” He’s not alone in calling the saint that, of course. But calling Pope St. John Paul II “conservative” is like calling Michelangelo “talented.”

Seeing everything through the lens of politics, Douthat looks only for “the center” which can hold a political group together. St. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived and died for the Truth–which is what holds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together.

Douthat imagines that the “damage” done by Pope Francis has already undone the work of Pope St. John Paul II. The least convincing part of To Change the Church involves Douthat trying to explain why so few people seem to recognize this deep structural damage. It’s all happening silently because Christianity has lost its political and cultural power, Douthat argues. Therefore, only a few ardent Twitter users really know how big a problem we Catholics have on our hands.

But a reasonable appraisal of the current state of the Church would recognize: The influence of Pope St. John Paul II endures. Pope Francis himself cites JPII’s Catechism not infrequently. The Novus Ordo of the Holy Mass, which grew to “adulthood,” so to speak, under JPII–it gets prayed by validly ordained priests and their people all over the world, with sincere devotion and spiritual profit for countless souls, continually. In other words the Church continues to live Her life, largely unaware of the current “controversy”–and not the worse off, for not knowing about it.

Ok, yes: JPII had a way of not answering questions, too, when he didn’t want to. He did not answer the question of whether Latin-rite priests might be able to marry. He made it more of a question than it was before, in fact, by authorizing the ordination of quite a few married men–men who entered the Catholic Church in the middle of a career as Protestant clergymen. I remember serving Cardinal Hickey at the ordination of a married Methodist-minister-convert while I was a seminarian in the late 1990’s. I wondered to myself, Why don’t any of our spiritual fathers talk to us celibate seminarians about how to deal with this–watching a married man get ordained in front of our eyes? No one ever had that talk with us.

But, that said, the consummate priest of the 20th century did turn his prodigious mind to numerous crucial questions, like: Are there some things that we simply cannot do? Why is abortion wrong? How do we know the Holy Spirit? Is capitalism Christian? Why do we evangelize? How can all Christians re-unite in one Church? How should priests understand themselves? And bishops? And women? And college professors/intellectuals? Was Freud right? If so, how?

I still cannot forgive Pope Benedict for abdicating. But 2013 did not leave us in a re-booted 1968. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla inherited a papacy struggling to find its center of gravity again. That giant of a man proceeded to spend all his energies finding it. He gave the clergy and the whole Church their center of gravity back. Namely Jesus Christ. That center holds and will hold.

Douthat opines that Vatican II did not resolve the central modernism-vs.-tradition question of “religious freedom.” Again, let’s take a supposedly “difficult” moral case to try and get to the heart of the matter.

In 1858 papal gendarmes took Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents. The boy was Catholic, having been baptized by the maid when he was in danger of death. The Mortaras had hired this maid in violation of Papal-State law, which forbad Jews to hire Catholic household servants. The law stood on the books not out of bigotry toward Jews, but precisely to avoid such situations.

At that time, Pope Pius IX ruled not only the Church, but also a large part of Italy. So he had not only Cardinals and monsignori at his command, but also police officers with weapons. When the Pope learned that young Edgardo Mortara was Catholic, he insisted that the boy’s parents offer their child a Catholic education. When the parents refused, the Pope sent the police.

Pius IX
Blessed Pio Nono

Now, Edgardo grew up happy and became a priest. He loved Pope Pius and insisted that the man was a saint.

But: be all that as it may, the question is, Should the Pope have sent armed men to take the boy away from his parents?

Moderns howl, “of course not!” On the other hand, conservatives say, “Well, it’s complicated. He was baptized, after all, and we have a supernatural understanding of the effects of baptism.”

In fact, however, it is not complicated. Yes, we of course have a supernatural understanding of the effects of Holy Baptism. Edgardo was a Catholic, with a right to a Catholic education. All true. But do we Catholics with a supernatural understanding of things claim that the Pope has a right to employ armed men to remove a child from his parents? We most assuredly do not.

Pio Nono had gendarmes not as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, but as the head of the Papal States. The pope wrongly held such a temporal office. Religous freedom does not mean that Catholicism isn’t always true, for everyone. It is. What religious freedom means is: The Church of Jesus Christ does not employ force to win souls for Christ. Because force cannot win souls for Him. Or, to put it better: No force can win a soul for Christ, other than the all-conquering power of His Truth.

Pius IX rightly insisted that Edgardo had a right to a Christian education. But the pope wrongly sent armed men to vindicate Edgardo’s Christian right. That doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to make.

The rhetoric of “modern vs. traditional” clouds minds. It doesn’t really help anyone resolve his or her moral problems. We Christians hold fast to the Sacred Tradition, and we deal with the times we live in, as they are. I wouldn’t call our times “modern.” I would call them pagan. The useless modern vs. traditional-Catholic distinction is a trap into which Pope Francis’ liberal advocates, his conservative enemies, and Ross Douthat all fall.

Pope John Paul II refused to fall into that trap. He lived his twentieth-century life ready to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but always as a loyal son of Pope St. Pius X. Pius X settled the Modernism controversy well over a century ago, with the encyclical Pascendi. (I summarized the encyclical here.)

JPII left us a Church very much alive and well, and equipped to march into the future with confidence. We will all die before the resources he left us run out. Pope Francis and his friends may decline to answer questions about sexual morality, and God will judge them. But we can still find the answers we need easily enough. They are all there, in beautiful black and white, in JPII’s Catechism.

Fifth-Commandment Way of Life

To give God His glory, flowers bloom, birds chirp, dolphins frolic in the surf, and elephants spray water from their trunks. We give God His glory by… obeying the Ten Commandments. [Spanish]

We could spend all day and all night meditating on which of the Ten Commandments requires the most careful attention. The First sums them all up: ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but Me.’ We owe Almighty God everything. Without Him we are nothing, quite literally nothing. The only “lifestyle” that makes any real sense: giving everything back to the good Lord, Who gave it all to us in the first place.

paniniThe First Commandment, therefore, takes priority. But can’t we say that the Fifth Commandment shares in the profundity and absolute seriousness of the First?

Why shall we not kill? After all, people have killed each other since the beginning. Of the first two brothers ever born, the one killed the other. We find ourselves enormously disturbed by one school shooting after another, and rightly so. But meanwhile in Syria, death and destruction have rained from the sky for seven years.

Back in the twentieth century, we human beings fancied ourselves “advanced” and “evolved.” But we have killed each other more during the last 104 years than we ever did in all the countless centuries of human history before that. Every day the abortionists of the world bring an end to at least 125,000 human lives. We could easily conclude that killing each other is a normal human thing.

Except: God.

“O God of our fathers, Lord of mercy, in wisdom You formed man” (Wisdom 9:1). He made us “male and female, in His own image and likeness.” He declared through the prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and I consecrated you.” Lord Jesus said: “I came that they may have life.”

The question of the Internet Age is: Is nothing sacred? And the answer is: Yes, human life is sacred. All human life partakes in the holiness of the Incarnate Christ. In Christ, God has united Himself with the human race.

pancakes syrupAfter all, who makes a person? You and I can make pancakes. Or a panini. But who has what it takes to make a person? A unique, unrepeatable, unpredictable, creative, smiling, moody, open-ended person. Google, Inc.? No.

This is what we are saying, we pro-life Catholics. The cynics who rule the planet endlessly babble about how the Catholic Church has a medieval hang-up about abortion and sexual morality. And that we’re overly soft on refugees and death-row inmates. And that we have a fetish for keeping sick and handicapped people alive, who really would be better off dead.

But actually we’re a hundred times more reasonable and clear-headed about all this than Carl Sagan was about galaxies, on his most-lucid days. We have no hang-ups or fetishes or silly soft-spots. We just make it our business to try and recognize the fact: You and me and every other human being—all of us who have these mysterious depths in us: a heart and mind that can know the truth and love our neighbor—we are sacred. Our existence pertains to the holiness of God. We are fruits of His magnificent handiwork.

Therefore: It’s not okay to snuff this out. It’s not okay to crush and destroy this. To kill another human being, by choice—that’s a sacrilege. Even in those cases when a good and just person kills in self-defense—we nonetheless mourn and grieve. Because human life is, of itself, a wonderfully open-ended thing. Human life has only one true “end.” Not death. God.

thou shalt not killThat is why thou shalt not kill—the sacredness of human life. Therefore, the light of faith in the triune God is also the light of peace and tranquility among men. The sacredness of God, and the sacredness of human life, and the sacredness of love for my fellow man—we perceive all this sacredness by the light of Christian faith. Whenever this light of faith does not shine in a human mind, horrible crimes can happen–meaningless violence against the sacred life of a human being. Ultimately, the problem is ignorance. Ignorance of the glory of God, shining forth in a unique human being.

In other words: How could someone do it? How could someone walk into a school, or a church, or a mall, or a concert, and just start shooting? How could someone drop bombs on civilians? Or abort a baby? Or cheer at an execution? Or gun down a rival? How could anyone act with such malice? How? Because darkness fills the mind, where the light of faith should shine.

We mourn and lament that darkness. We don’t answer malice with malice; we don’t pray for revenge. We pray for light, for redemption.

What do things like school shootings mean for us? They mean that we must bear witness. We ourselves must shine the light of faith. That light allows human eyes to see the beautiful divine horizon which shines on a human face. The interior light that makes the Fifth Commandment not just a rule to follow, but a whole way of life.

Ecclesia docens, Ecclesia discens

st paul preaching to the bereans
Mosaic of St. Paul Preaching

The Church teaching, the Church learning.

I had a few moments to read the transcripts of two lectures–one by a Cardinal, the other by a prominent theologian. Both deserve a reading.

The Cardinal argues that Pope Francis has brought about a “revolutionary” change. God reveals Himself in family life. The teaching Church must learn from today’s families. Doctrine and rules don’t always apply. Ministry = accompaniment.

The theologian insists that Pope Francis has endangered the unity of the Church by teaching ambiguously. And this also endangers the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

The four marks. Not St. Mark, Mark Wahlberg, Mark Cuban, and Mark White. One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The celebration of Holy Mass expresses the marks of the Church: united with the local bishop and the Pope, with the Apostles of old, with all the other local churches throughout the Catholic world, professing our faith in the Christ, Who unites Himself with us in the Most Holy Sacrament.

It’s hierarchical–not for the sake of anyone lording it over anyone. Hierarchical in order to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Church is hierarchical in order to be Herself.

In the authors’ introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne laments how his becoming an official of Uncle Sam nearly cost him his independence of mind, his imagination, his interior life. But I can’t say the same about becoming an official of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At the center of Her life we find the endless mystery, the source of all interiority: divine Beauty, Creativity, boundless Freedom.

The theologian, Father Weinandy, thinks we have a crisis because some priests and bishops say, “The Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.” Or: They just say nothing whatsoever about how to have sex without committing sins.

Cardinal Cupich thinks contemporary family life can teach us new things about God. Maybe he should read a few John Updike novels before getting too excited.

God became man, and He became a humble man. He submitted Himself to the authority of Pontius Pilate. The Church of Christ always proposes; She never imposes. What wins souls? Kindness, gentleness.

But: Did God reveal Himself by declaring, “I’m nice. Just you be nice now, too?”

No. The ecclesia docens began teaching, ruling, and sanctifying when the Lord commanded Her: Go, baptize all nations, teaching them to observe all the I have taught you.

Because the Apostles listened to that command, we ourselves do not wonder aimlessly, like orphans, through life. We have our sacred patrimony: the Church’s Liturgy, Her books, Her immeasurably rich wisdom. How do we acquire this wisdom? Mustn’t we ceaselessly pray, study, and meditate, with girded loins?

The people wandering the highways and byways of this world seek instruction from their priests. The “democratization” of the modern world hasn’t ended the priest business. Far from it. We priests must be more prepared to instruct and advise then ever. After all, what other sources of information do our people have–about how to live a good life with a tranquil conscience?

What kind of teaching and advice would we priests give if we didn’t listen to our people? Unhelpful teaching and bad advice. Everyone has to wake up every day as a card-carrying member of the ecclesia discens.

But what kind of teaching and advice would we give, if we didn’t base it all on the Gold Standard: The Catechism of the Catholic Church? Is that book not a reliable compendium of apostolic doctrine, normative and hugely enlightening?

If we blow off the Catechism (and all the sources that constitute it), our teaching and advice won’t be worth a damn. Kinda like the advice of priests who suggest, by word or by cowardly silence, that the Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.

 

 

 

Matthew 25

Caravaggio Seven Works of Mercy
Caravaggio, “The Seven Works of Mercy”

“Be kind to people who need help, for My sake.” A brief summary of the law by which God will judge us, according to the Holy Bible.

Not complicated. So what could get in the way? What could keep us from obeying this straightforward law?

Nothing at all—except Me, Myself, and I.

Nothing, except my defensiveness, pettiness, and mood-swings; my tired, hangry, impatient, self-centeredness. Me. my way. Because, if things aren’t done my way, the world collapses!

Nothing could get in the way of me doing simple, easy acts of kindness, except: My self-righteousness. My certainty that it pertains to my competence and vigilance as an Excellent Paragon to correct and improve all the bad people.

Nothing could get in the way, except: I resent the people in need because they remind me of the truth about myself, the truth that I don’t want to acknowledge. That I am a desperate basket-case of dependencies.

How dare you remind me, o person in need, that without the help of Almighty God, and the commonweal, and the people who raised me, and my patient friends and generous allies, and all my advantages in life that I never earned—how dare you remind me that without all this unmerited assistance, I would still be in the fetal position, whimpering?

The thing about God’s Law of Kind and Helpful Love is: He did it first.

We were nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. W were scrawny little trophies in Satan’s purse. Before that, we were non-beings. Literally, non-beings.

But God visited us in the prison of nothingness. He came to us while we were sick in the hospital of a meaningless life. He clothed us in our nakedness, fed us in our desperate hunger, and gave us cool, refreshing water to drink. We were disoriented strangers in this universe, but He said, “No, no, little ones. You are my children.”

Loving others and helping them is our chance to do like our heavenly Father has done with us. It’s easy, if we can just get our cumbersome, little selves out of the way.

Sed Contras for Both Sides in the Amoris Laetitia Debate

Side 1: Conscience must guide the mature Christian. God speaks to us there, with the voice of the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” If my conscience does not accuse me, God does not accuse me. If my conscience bids me do something, God bids me do it.

amoris-laetitia-coverA good shepherd of Christ’s flock empowers, encourages, and facilitates obedience to conscience. There lies the true path to Christian freedom, to intimate friendship with God.

BUT! We sinners spend a great deal of our lives doing things which quiet the voice of conscience. We can render it practically inaudible. Attaining the discipline and fortitude we need to hear God speaking in the inner sanctuary, and promptly obey–that entails a long, hard struggle. No one is born with that kind of discipline and fortitude.

A good pastor must help his sheep anticipate judgments which conscience will make after the rush of passion has passed, after our self-justifications have all exposed themselves, in the cool light of day, as shallow half-truths.

God has given us a moral law, which clearly and unmistakably prohibits sex outside of marriage. A shepherd who does not repeat and emphasize God’s clear law to someone who asks for guidance–someone who knows perfectly well that his or her mind suffers from the buffets of passion and self-imposed confusion: that’s no shepherd at all.

Side 2: A second marriage, without an annulment of the first, always involves adultery. Marriage binds for life. The vows express this, echoing the teaching of Christ. Christ’s teaching about life-long marriage touches on the very heart of the Christian mystery, the Eternal Law of love. We human beings fail to stay faithful, but the triune God does not. God’s holiness makes lifelong marital fidelity possible, fruitful, beautiful; He makes Holy Matrimony an image of heaven, of the wedding day of the Lamb.

BUT! The law of the Church provides a set of criteria according to which a judge may declare wedding vows to be non-binding. Diocesan tribunals issue declarations of nullity every day. Christ is always faithful to a marriage that was properly established in the beginning. But not every couple succeeds in properly establishing the bond, because of something lacking at the time. A declaration of nullity implies no moral judgment on anyone. But it does mean that wedding vows become non-binding.

No one has ever proposed that the operations of diocesan tribunals are infallible. Here’s what the Apostolic See has said:

The discipline of the Church, while it confirms the exclusive competence of ecclesiastical tribunals with respect to the examination of the validity of the marriage of Catholics, also offers new ways to demonstrate the nullity of a previous marriage, in order to exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience. (Letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, September 14, 1994)

 

“To exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience.” Therefore, some divergence is inevitable. Not everyone who should have an annulment does in fact have one.

By the same token, no one can judge his or her own annulment case. That’s a basic principle of law: You can’t render a just judgment on a case in which you have a personal interest.

Therefore, it seems to your unworthy servant that the question left before us by chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia actually is:

Can anyone legitimately appeal to a judge–other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar of the diocese–to apply the criteria by which we can conclude that a wedding vow does not bind?

In other words, can a parish priest effectively grant annulments? That would seem to be the ultimate meaning of the Holy Father’s suggestion that pastors can help couples in second marriages reach the point where they could receive the sacraments.

If the answer to this question is Yes, then we face a serious problem: It will no longer be possible to know for sure whether or not someone is married. Marital status is a matter of public record. But if a priest other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar (or his delegate) renders a declaration of nullity, that anonymous judge has no real means by which to publish his decision. We would no longer have accurate records regarding the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Things could change in the lives of the people involved–one of them might ultimately want to marry someone else–and we would have no way of knowing whether or not that is possible. A mess.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the question is No, then we continue to have the same problem that we have had: Literate, educated, and relatively well-to-do people can and do successfully use the annulment process. But uneducated, illiterate, poor people? Not so much. The effect: Education and affluence give people an advantage in receiving the sacraments. Not good.

May the good Lord help us! No one ever said any of this was going to be easy.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Othello and Iago by Solomon Alexander Hart
“Othello and Iago” by Solomon Alexander Hart

Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (I Samuel 18:19)

From the desk of Snowbound Father Mark… A summary of Question 36 of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, part II-II: De Invidia.

Goodness makes us rejoice. Evil makes us sorrow.

We naturally want honor, a good name, a good reputation–and the prosperity that tends to go with a good reputation. But when we focus too much on winning the esteem of others, we grow vain.

We observe that sometimes people enjoy prosperity and a good reputation because they deserve it. But sometimes the unjust and undeserving prosper, and that makes us indignant.

When we meditate on the truths of the Christian faith, we recognize that success and prosperity in this world is one thing–relatively short lived. On the other hand, success and prosperity in the pursuit of holiness and eternal life–that’s another thing. That’s worth pursuing with zeal, with jealousy. May we all jealously strive to get to heaven.

While we do, we’ll forget about vanity. And we’ll learn to accept the fact that this world deals out rewards and punishments in an amazingly unfair way.

Divine love rejoices when anyone prospers with the truly beautiful goods of eternal life–with virtue and genuine excellence. By the same token, divine love sorrows and feels pity whenever a neighbor suffers.

When, on the other hand, we lose sight of the real goal of all our striving, and seek only success and recognition in this world, then we live in a state of competition with our peers. We sorrow at the neighbor’s achievement and excellence–because I think his or her success somehow harms me, makes me look like a loser by comparison.

Now, even good people experience twinges of envy–these twinges are venial sins. But if I forget heaven, grow vain, and let the green-eyed monster take over my my mind, I will gossip; I will tear down; I will hate. And then I will heartlessly rejoice at the misfortune of the one who has excelled me.

The rule to measure ourselves by: The loving, merciful person does not envy anyone–except the saints in heaven, whom he hopes to join. But the envious person shows no mercy.

The Opposite of Sexual Harassment

This month we read St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation three times at Holy Mass. We read it on December 8; we read it today; we will read it again on Sunday.

You can’t meditate on the Annunciation too much, of course. We spend at least two decades of Hail Marys a week meditating on it, if we say the Rosary every day. And we try to recite the Angelus at least once a day, if not three times a day.

El Greco Annunciation

We’ll talk about this more on Sunday, when we will read this gospel passage yet again. But let’s focus for a moment on a highly topical aspect of the Annunciation, given all the recent news about men getting fired for being aggressive pigs.

Let’s remember that the Annunciation does not only involve the angel’s message. The angel brought an amazing message, but that’s not the whole thing. The Annunciation also involves: Mary consenting to the angel’s proposal.

In other words, what happened at the Annunciation is like the polar-opposite of sexual harassment. A predatory man makes a sordid suggestion, and then he won’t take No for an answer. Meanwhile, the Archangel Gabriel made a sublimely pure and beautiful proposal, and then patiently waited for a Yes before he made another move.

mary-logo1Mary could have said No. She could have said: Wait a minute. Give up normal married life and the prospect of a large and prosperous family? Expose myself to unimaginable solitudes and sufferings? Jump off into the abyss of faith, just because you say God has a plan here? No, thanks. I’m not that kind of hero. Go annunciate to someone else.

Mary could have said all that, and who would have blamed her? But, instead, she said Yes. Just like Jesus gave Himself up completely to the will of the Father and went obediently to the cross, Mary gave herself over completely to the supernatural plan announced by the archangel, and she wound up at the foot of the cross.

Only the immaculate one could have managed such an all-encompassing Yes. Only Mary conceived without sin had a heart pure and unified enough to say that Yes. To say it once and for all, and never doubt, and never flinch from a single duty that her unique mission imposed upon her.

(That’s why we read this passage on December 8, by the way. Even though reading about the Annunciation on Immaculate Conception Day can cause some confusion regarding whose conception was immaculate, and Whose was virginal.)

Anyway, let’s just pray. O Mary most-pure, help win us the graces we need to imitate your sinless, selfless Yes.

Mass Obligation and the Two-Fer

This past Sunday in church, I told my people that everyone had to attend Mass twice this weekend (Sat-Mon). The diocese instructed us to this effect, as directed by the US Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship.

st gregory the great
Pope St. Gregory the Great celebrated Christmas Vigil Masses

One dear lady approached me at the church door after Mass to tell me that she would have to cancel a breakfast. She proclaimed her perfect willingness to do so, in order to fulfill her obligation to God.

She and I didn’t really have time to talk at length, so I don’t know exactly what her plans had been. I can only presume that she had intended to go to Mass on Sunday evening. That would mean going to Mass on Sunday. And it would mean going to Mass for Christmas. All at once. (I can’t imagine that she is the only one with such intentions.)

Now, as I said, I counseled the people according to the instructions given by the diocese. So you can’t call me disobedient. But I don’t agree with the instructions. I think the dear lady’s plans were fine.

The principle operating in the diocese’s instructions (informed by the teaching of the Divine Worship Committee) is this: You simply cannot fulfill two obligations to attend Mass by attending one Mass.

To which I would say, Why not?

Maybe it would be better if…

  1. Everybody wanted to go to Mass twice, or
  2. The ancient custom of the Vigil Mass of Christmas had not become a way of fulfilling the obligation to celebrate Christmas in church.

But: the law isn’t about what everybody should want to do. It’s about what everyone has to do, whether you want to do it or not.

And, for good or ill, the Vigil Mass of Christmas does, in our day and age, fulfill the obligation to celebrate Christmas in church. I don’t think the ancient originators of the Vigil Mass of Christmas would have understood it that way–but that’s not the issue, either.

The issue is: Can one Mass fulfill two obligations? Much greater authority than I possess lies behind the answer No. But the question does remain open (never solved definitively by the Apostolic See), so I offer my opinion.

The answer No seems to me to proceed from an unsafe presupposition. That presupposition is: The spiritual good which accrues to the faithful Catholic who attends Mass is something that the governing authority of the Church can quantify, at least to some extent. We can at least quantify that good of attending Mass so as to be able to say without doubt that two is definitely better than one. I would answer that: In the reality of the spiritual lives of our people, it’s just not that simple. I don’t think it makes sense to try to quantify the spiritual good accruing to the attendance of Mass.

Meanwhile, on the other hand: We have the simple fact that, this year, in most of the parishes in the United States, it will be possible to attend Mass on Sunday on Christmas Eve. No moral judgment about it; no quantifying of any spiritual good accruing to the attendance of Mass. Just a simple fact. It’s possible.

I think the more prudent pastoral approach would be to leave it at that.

Sacred Cosmopolitanism

Christ: the Light of the American Nation

[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]

Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…

The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…

When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.

“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.

Vatican II stallsChrist the light of the Church, the light of all nations.

Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.

What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.

By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.

These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.

Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.

Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.

king davidSo ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.

Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.

Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.

On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.

We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.

So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”

When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.

Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.

Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:

The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.

First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.

So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.

So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.

The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.

But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.

Mark TwainBut that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.

Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.

So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.

We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.

So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?

Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Frederick DouglassThe Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.

So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.

During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.

During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?

US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”

American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:

Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.

The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:

I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.

My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.

We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:

Mexcio in 1845

undocumented immigrant pop by state

Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.

Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.

Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.

Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.

I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.