11 November 2008

Slavery, Bootlegging, and Abortion ... A Winning Combination

The article of the day on the First Things site, written by a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, resonates with my own thoughts from a few days back on what lies ahead for pro-lifers in the coming years. (Need I say it's a lot more lucid and practical. And there's no laborious rehashing of Tolstoy.) It's well worth your time. A short excerpt:

In a notable pre-election speech in St. Louis, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee spoke about three legal innovations which he had witnessed in his adult lifetime: limitations on smoking, requirement of access to public places for the handicapped, and requirement of seat belts for drivers and passengers of automobiles. In each case, Huckabee pointed out, people were first persuaded that the proposed change was beneficial. Then, laws were enacted to mandate the change.

Pro-lifers need to heed this lesson. For too long we have been demanding the passage of laws which, though happily supported by a growing number of our fellow citizens, still fall short of the acceptance needed to make them effective. Considering our president-elect is, as Princeton professor Robert P. George demonstrated brilliantly in his October 14 article for Public Discourse, not merely pro-choice but militantly pro-abortion, we need to shift the battle from the legal front and concentrate on changing hearts and minds.

Preach it, padre. Looks like we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way: one soul at a time. It's a good thing it's what Christians do best.

09 November 2008

On the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

For our homiletics class, I prepared and delivered this homily to my seminarian brothers this past week. I've touched it up a bit here and there but it's substantially the same as it was delivered. Being that the Feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome doesn't exactly speak to a whole lot of people, I tried to work in the significance of this event for the history of the Church.

As to how it was received: my professor said that the greatest thing about my reflection on this gospel passage was that I'd written a paper on it. He then said the worst thing about it was that I'd written a paper on it. What can I say ...


Jesus' words in today’s Gospel were used to charge Jesus at his trial. They are dangerous words. To the Jews of the time, they could be explained away as the ranting of a deluded maniac at best; at worst, they were treason and blasphemy deserving the penalty of death.

This, of course, is a very different sort of understanding than the usual one. We usually hear it described as the exercise of righteous anger. Jesus, they say, was correcting the sinful use of the sacred precincts of the temple for transacting business, and the Jews were just steamed because he called them out on their failure to reverence the sacred.

Well, not exactly. Since this event took place near Passover, there were literally tens of thousands of pilgrims coming to the Temple to participate in this feast, and there was simply no way each of them could bring their own lamb or kid to sacrifice all the way from home. It would have made an already chaotic situation unbearably messy. So, in order to fulfill their religious obligation, they had to purchase animals on site. And they had to pay the Temple tax, but they couldn’t use coins with the image of Caesar—so they needed to change their money into a currency that could be used for sacred purposes. There was a suitable place ready-made to provide for these needs already—the huge plaza known as the Temple Mount, recently completed under the patronage of Herod (the “46 years” it took to build the “Temple” actually refer to this architectural modification to the Temple building itself).

So what was Jesus getting at if this wasn’t about shoveling manure next to the Temple?

Contrary to what we often hear, this incident should not be referred to as the “Cleansing of the Temple” but the “Abrogation (or Rejection) of the Temple.” The words that accompany Jesus’ actions explain why this is. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What the Jews do not understand, but which the later Resurrection fully clarifies, is that Jesus is speaking “of the temple of his body.” In effect, John is saying that Jesus puts his own person on par with the Temple; indeed, he’s going even further than that: he himself makes the Temple obsolete. He is now the definitive dwelling place of God among men. Jesus’ Resurrection passes judgment on the Temple and its rituals. It declares that HE is the full revelation of the Father’s love to the world, NOT the Temple.

You can understand why the earlier Gospel writers didn’t put this claim on the lips of Jesus himself, but phrased it as a charge by his accusers during his trial. It didn’t exactly contribute to Jewish-Christian relations! Only John attributes them to Jesus himself—after a healthy distance between Jews and Christians had come about some decades after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

We read in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that the elders and the scribes brought charges against St. Stephen for “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God,” and for constantly “saying things against this holy place [i.e. the Temple] and the law [i.e. the Torah].” For they had heard him claim that “this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”

These ideas weren’t incidental to the Gospel; they were on the lips of our savior and the first martyr within hours of their deaths. They were of such importance that they clearly found their way into the Church’s proclamation almost immediately.

So those early Jewish converts to Christianity knew the radical decision it took to follow Jesus. Everything had made sense until this Jesus guy had come along. Within a few decades of the Resurrection, Christians and Jews no longer worshipped together. Family members were set against each other by their decision to resist or join this new way of faith. Jews were worshipping side by side with Gentiles. Everything was new. Faithful Jews despised them; the Jewish authorities persecuted, imprisoned, and killed them, thinking they were rendering service to God. Converts from Judaism to Christianity were no longer covered under the legal allowance for religions older than Rome, because Christianity was considered a new religion—and so the Romans could legally persecute them as well. And for all practical purposes it was like they had broken with the thousand years of tradition that stretched from Moses to Judas Maccabeus. These Jewish convents must have asked themselves again and again, “what in God’s name are we doing?

Fast forward two hundred and fifty years to the dedication of the church of St. John Lateran. Things couldn’t look more different. Christianity isn’t being persecuted and reviled because the emperor, Constantine, has become a Christian. Sixty years after that, Christianity would be the official religion of the entire empire. In just a few hundred years, this despised and persecuted religion had flooded the Roman Empire.

Imagine the joy of the Christian people on receiving the news that what had been withheld from them for so long was finally being granted. It was the granting of a wish soaked in the blood of the countless martyrs, known and unknown, throughout the hundreds of years of Christian existence. If they had been at a loss for words, they might have prayed with today’s Psalm:

The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord,
the astounding things he has wrought on earth.

For us, the basilica of St. John Lateran stands as a reminder of their joy. It’s easy to lose sight of this memory underneath the many layers of meaning this church has acquired in the 1700 years of its existence. We have to hold fast to its meaning for us as a monument to the faith and radical commitment of all those who staked everything on Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.

And what fueled this faith? What was the source of their commitment? It was what came to mind every time they asked that question, “what in God’s name are we doing?” It was the conviction that each disciple had to follow his crucified master. They knew that if they were to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the Temple of the Lord, they had to be chiseled, and shaped, and smoothed in order to be fitted into their appointed places within this Temple. They were living stones willing to undergo the process of transformation, as the Scriptures encouraged them:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

While for some this meant heroic acts of generous, self-sacrificing love, for the ordinary people of the time it simply meant having an extraordinary love for God and neighbor.

So it’s very appropriate that this feast day follows only a week after the celebration of All Saints. It is another reminder that we have inherited absolutely everything we need to be extraordinary in love. Are we making use of that inheritance, or do we behave like spoiled children who are ungrateful when every need has been provided for them?

The seminary should be what the Christian community could be. There are all sorts of men here that constantly inspire me with their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their conviction. Seek those men out. Befriend them. Try to be that kind of man for your brothers. Allow God to stretch your desire for his kingdom. Believe with every fiber of your being that the Holy Spirit is here, now, speaking to you in the Scriptures, giving you desires for faithfulness and glory, of which you had never dreamed? Are you willing to desire things that because of your weakness are so impossible that they become a manifestation of God’s power in the world?

There will come a time when our posterity will think upon us as we think upon our own fathers in the faith. What will the Christian people yet to come say about us? Will they remember our extraordinary love? Will they remember and rejoice over the revelation of God’s power that took place through our weakness? Will they be glad that we weren’t content to rest on our laurels and live off our savings? Will they recognize that we didn’t float with the current and allow the secular humanist agenda to compromise the Gospel? Will the Church flourish on account of our faithfulness?

We are standing on the shoulders of giants. And if we don’t love more than most, if we’re not even able to do the little things with great love, we have to ask ourselves:

What excuse do we have?

08 November 2008

A little backstory on this link: I first heard of Francis Beckwith on an evangelical blog. They were informing the evangelical community of his conversion to Catholicism. This caused quite a stir not only because he was a professor (of philosophy, I believe) at Baylor University in Waco, TX but the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Needless to say, his resignation in that post came soon after. I was much edified by the news and filed it away for future reference.

That occasion presented itself sooner than I'd expected. Beckwith showed up at the 2008 FOCUS National Conference in Dallas and delivered a breakout session on defending the unborn in the classroom to a capacity crowd. It was outstanding. I have a copy of the talk if you'd ever like to hear it. It was exciting to meet him and his wife, and I filed this encounter away for future reference.

Not long after, I discovered he has been doing some blogging of his own, along with several other people of whom I have no knowledge other than their very articulate and well-presented thoughts. The blog is aptly named What Is Wrong With the World (presumably after Chesterton's collection of essays of the same name), and I recommend you check it out in general. Especially when you check my blog and there's nothing worth reading.

Perusing this blog has lead me to some great insights by his fellow posters, especially a certain "Zippy Catholic." A recent post by this blogger sums up marvellously the task that lies ahead for our Church, so visibly divided over this election. He addresses Catholic supporters of Obama:
Now that we have a President elect, you see, there is no longer any justification for remote material cooperation in his wicked policies. Justified remote material cooperation with evil may have made it possible to choose him over McCain (though I think it did not), but now we have the absolute condition of a chosen President. If proportionate reason ever existed for remote material cooperation with his evil policies before the election, they no longer do now. Now your obligation is reversed, as I alluded to earlier. Now your obligation is to oppose his evil policies with all your heart, mind, and strength; all the more so because of your choice to vote for him.

Read the rest here.

06 November 2008

An Elementary Mistake

It is bewildering to me the faith that people have in political solutions to moral problems. A wise gal told me recently that as she's grown older, she's come to regard the political process as more of a thermometer than a thermostat. That is, the outcomes of elections have more to do with where people stand than where this country is headed. Though at times this thought produces in me the desire to throw up my hands in disgust and be done with politics, there is a kernel of truth there. The real work is done in the hearts of people and not on the campaign trail or at the convention.

I wrote my bachelor's thesis on War and Peace, and some of Tolstoy's ideas about the true causes of the movement of history strike me as relevant. Tolstoy is convinced that the conventional explanations for major events (the march of Napoleon's army into Moscow, in particular) completely ignore the true causes of those events. He insists that attributing the private acts of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, and heroism of tens of thousands of men to the wishes of one person (say, Napoleon) is preposterous, and such historians merely put in the hands of one man what they refuse to put in the hands of God.

Contrasted with this is the Russian general Kutuzov, who sleeps through meetings and has little to no military strategy in mind. His finger is on the pulse of what Tolstoy refers to as the spirit of the army. The ebb and flood of his men’s spirits are what he acts upon, not the limited tactical perspectives he and his staff are capable of observing. And it is this wisdom—this experiential tasting—that gives the Russian army the power to repel the advance of the vastly more powerful French.

It is this wisdom that leads Tolstoy to conclude that historical events are manifestations of the will and character of individuals and nothing else. He declares,

The battle of Austerlitz was the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French; all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.

Mutatis mutandis, would it be much of a stretch to substitute “the 2008 election” for Austerlitz? I think not. We’ve seen where the American people stand, and honestly, I’ve seen more “outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm” over The One than I have seen over anybody in the public square in a long time.

The question on most people I know and love is, “What does this mean for our hard-won advances in the pro-life movement?” Conscious that what I'm about to say may sound incredibly callous and ignorant, I think very little is going to change in the grand scheme (just as very little has changed over the last 30-odd years). Whether or not Obama makes good on his promises to liberalize abortion to unheard-of levels, it will affect the numbers of abortions by only a small percentage of an annual toll in in the seven-digit range. On the other hand, this or that pundit opines about the effect Obama’s economic and welfare policies will have on the factors most influential on women getting abortions. Quite frankly, I find these ideas ludicrous. The implication that having more money in the bank or a better job or more food stamps are what determine a woman’s choice to keep or kill her baby is an insult to women. How do you put a dollar sign on that choice? How much money is at stake here, exactly? Do these pundits believe that there are women who think “if only I had $1,000 more in income per year, I would keep this child!” And if they do, perhaps they imagine we could persuade them to accept less?

Of course, precisely the same is true of the legal solution. Making a law forbidding abortions will certainly save untold lives, but there’s one catch—changing the law requires elected officials who are convicted about this cause. Elected officials are, as we know, elected by citizens, each of whom is subject to their own proper “passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.” What leads us to believe that we can ever change a law without bringing about a conversion in the hearts of the citizenry?

Hence the "highblown" rhetoric for which the pro-life movement is often criticized. Yes, yes, to simply bandy words about doesn't help people in real situations who feel as if there really is no option but to get an abortion. The fact that in our country the moral is equivalent to the legal doesn't help; see Solzhenitsyn's 1978 address to the graduating class at Harvard. But what few people are aware of is the fact that the people with the moral rhetoric are usually also the ones getting their hands dirty out on the streets in the largely volunteer-run crisis pregnancy centers. It is highly unfortunate that this effort receives less publicity than it should; these people are too busy doing real work, instead of raising money to promote widespread recognition of their good deeds.

Recently, I've been in touch with a couple of these centers in Chicago and I am simply overwhelmed with the unseen efforts of huge numbers of volunteers. One of them, The Women’s Center of Chicago, has a budget of $1.5 million per year. That amount is what they fundraise through private donations from the citizens of this local area. If I had not gotten involved directly with praying at the nearby abortion clinic and raising money for them through our firewood sales here on campus, I would never have known about the place, or the innumerable hidden sacrifices and acts of heroic generosity that occur on a daily basis.

This is what the political landscape boils down to for me: people vote their convictions, and convictions are formed not by headlines or catchy slogans but the desire for happiness and justice. To seek political solutions to moral problems—which are ultimately spiritual problems—is foolishness.

I, for my part, am ready to spend my life in the service of the God who speaks to the heart of every human being on this planet, calling each into the fullness of their humanity. I believe God speaks uniquely through the Scriptures and nourishes us in the sacraments, and that these are directed most pointedly to forming the heart and mind. I am confident that my life can be spent in no better way than to help the people I encounter to be receptive to that invitation to conversion.

And I am confident that for me, the priesthood is the way in which God has willed from all eternity for me to fulfill this mission.