Sursum Corda
"an insightful Catholic Blog that eschews extremism in any direction."
--Commonweal Magazine
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Saturday, November 30, 2002
PREPARE: This is the reflection on the Sunday readings that I will be delivering out at the jail tomorrow. Thought some of you might enjoy it. But if you want the real deal, you can always check out Fr. Shawn O’Neal’s homily over at Nota Bene:

Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
1Cor 1:3-9
Mk 13:33-37

Sometimes I wonder why the Church year begins with Advent. Why not just begin with Christmas? Why do we have to wait around for four weeks?

Part of the answer is that Advent is about waiting. It’s about waiting for Christmas, certainly. But it’s also about waiting for the return of our Lord, for the coming of the Kingdom.

Sometimes, we look around at some of the terrible things going on in the world—wars, famine, disease. Or maybe we’re facing a personal crisis—an illness, the loss of a job, falling off the wagon, getting arrested. We ask “Why is this happening?” We want someone to come in and put things back together, someone who can make it right. We want a fresh start, a new beginning.

That’s what Isaiah is talking about today in our first reading:

Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
Like Isaiah, we want that fresh start. We want the Kingdom. But as we know from reading the papers and watching television, we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. So we wait.

The problem with waiting is that we can get inpatient. We can start to lose interest. We can get very focused on the present moment and what our needs are right now. We need to listen to Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel today:

“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus uses the story of the gatekeeper to emphasize that His return will take people by surprise. He exhorts us to be like that gatekeeper, a man who must be prepared at all times for the Master’s return. He wants us to be watchful, to be on guard, to be prepared. Like it could happen any minute.

But that’s not easy. The longer we have to wait, the harder it is not to lose our edge, hard not to lose that sense of expectation. It’s easy to get so focused with the cares of this world that we lose sight of the next. How do we learn how to wait?

I think that you men have lessons to teach the rest of us about waiting. Because if there is anything that a man learns in this place, it’s how to wait. You count the days until you can walk again as a free man. You sleep, you eat, you play cards, watch the tube, work in the shop. You pass the time as best you can. But you are always waiting. You are in jail, but you are not of the jail. You know that someday, you’ll be going home.

That’s the attitude we all need to have. In the world, but not of the world.

Now there are guys up in Vacaville who’ve been down for a long time—five, ten, twenty years. When you’re down for that long, it’s very easy to conform yourself to the institution, to its values, its way of doing things. That can make it very hard when it’s time to return to the community.

I think this is a pretty good illustration of the problem we face as Christians. It’s all too easy to conform ourselves to the world, to its values, its way of doing things. But all that will do is make it harder for us when it’s time to go home.

So what do we do? St. Paul tells us today to trust in the Lord.

“He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul says that God will keep us firm to the end. God is in control. If he wants us to keep waiting, there must be a reason behind it. Maybe it’s because we’re not ready yet. Maybe we’ve got a little more work to do.

Here at this facility, there are things people do to get ready for life on the outside. Guys work in the carpentry shop, they get their GED, they try to prepare for economic life on the outside.

As Christians, we also need to be preparing for another kind of life than the life we are living right now. We need Advent because we’re not yet ready for Christmas. We’re not yet ready to go home.

So the Lord, in his love for us, has given us some more time to get ready, to prepare. We don’t know how long it will be, but it’s not going to be forever. We need to get ready as soon as we can. We need to be like that watchman, ready for the Master’s return.

So as we go through this week and through this season of Advent, let’s ask ourselves:

Am I ready to go home?

And what do I need to do to get ready?

posted by Peter Nixon 8:30 PM
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Friday, November 29, 2002
COMMUNION OF SAINTS: Fr. Ron Rolheiser has some comforting words this week about the "communion of saints," and what the existence of such a communion suggests for our ability to finish our unfinished business with the dead:

Many of us have had persons close to us die with whom we had unfinished business, a hurt that was never reconciled, an injustice that was never rectified, a bitterness that never softened. Death has now separated us and the unfinished business remains precisely unfinished and we are left saying: "If only there was another chance!"

Well, there is another chance. One of our wonderful, albeit neglected, Christian doctrines is our belief in the communion of the saints. It's a doctrine that's enshrined in the creed itself and it asks us to believe that we are still in vital communication with those who have died. Moreover, it tells us that the communication we now have with them is free from many of the tensions that colored our relationship with them while they were still alive.

Hence, to believe in the communion of saints is to believe that we can still tend to unfinished business in our relationships, even after death. Simply put, we can still talk to those who have died and we can, even now, say the words of love, forgiveness, gratitude and regret that ideally we should have spoken earlier.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:04 PM
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Wednesday, November 27, 2002
HAPPY THANKSGIVING: One of the things I certainly have to be thankful for is all of the people who read Sursum Corda. I know that there are many demands on your time, and I am humbled that you choose to spend some of it here. Thank you, and I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving!

posted by Peter Nixon 4:47 PM
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SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF: At the end of the post I referenced below, Amy Welborn poses the following question:

So here’s the question – how can religious leaders and teachers walk the line, balancing the commitment to help the flock understand the totality of the faith commitment, yet avoid making statements on the minutiae of life that make them look at best silly and at worst, like frantic little totalitarians?
I wish I knew the answer to that one! If the Bishops keep their statements to the level of broad general principles, then you get to a point where very few people actually disagree. Who would argue that we shouldn't neglect the poor or protect the environment? The statements become almost useless.

But when we get into the policy details, it is quite easy for reasonable people acting in good faith to disagree about, for example, whether SUVs or welfare reform are, on balance, a good thing or a bad thing. Obviously, like the rest of us, the Bishops have to make the best decisions they can in the light of the information they have at their disposal.

Like Amy, I do believe the Bishops need to speak out on matters of urgent public concern. But I sometimes wonder about the resources that the Bishops put into public advocacy at a time when so many Catholics—particularly younger Catholics—lack a basic understanding of the essentials of their faith. That probably sounds like a cheap shot, and it isn’t meant to be.

If Catholics aren’t well formed in their faith, they probably aren’t going to be terribly interested in taking advice from the Bishops on policy issues. If they are well formed in their faith, one hopes that they would often come to similar conclusions without a lot of heavy-handed exhortation.

If the way that our community lives and shares its faith is working, then we will be a sign to the world even if the Bishops never utter a single word. And if it’s not working, all those statements aren’t going to make a lot of difference. We certainly can do both, but it’s the first task where we seem to be falling down on the job lately.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:28 PM
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CATCH 22: Now I know you really don't need my encouragement to go over and read Amy Welborn's site, but I feel I really must call your attention to some of her writing on what she is calling the "Who needs religious busybodies?" conversation (scroll down a couple of posts for my own contribution to this conversation). I really loved this gem:

You can’t slam Christian churches for not doing enough in regard to whatever human rights issue you pick – including the Holocaust – and then demand that churches today shut up and mind their own business and stop commenting on matters beyond their ken.

I think it’s that last point that irritates me the most. It simply makes no sense to judge Christians in the past guilty for silence or inaction on what might be called political matters and then hold churches’ present-day efforts to do just that up for ridicule, a ridicule based not on the content of the efforts, but on their mere expression.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:00 AM
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Tuesday, November 26, 2002
JANITORS AT YAHOO: I have blogged occasionally over the past few months about the campaign by the janitors who clean Yahoo's buildings to organize a union. The janitors are once again asking people to contact Yahoo to show their support for the union. Click here for more info.

Some readers have expressed the view that the union website is biased toward the union, which doesn't surprise me that much. I'm probably a little biased as well since I used to work at the union in question here. There are, of course, two sides to every labor-management dispute. I encourage you to contact Yahoo and get theirs. If you like, you can use the link above and simply delete the union's pre-printed message and add your own. The union will be happy to forward your message to the CEO regardless of its content.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:57 PM
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THE MARYLAND MORATORIUM: In May of 2002, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening declared a statewide halt to executions, pending the results of a study of racial bias in the system. Glendening also advised that executions cease until the governor, the Maryland General Assembly and the public had time to review the study’s findings and had taken appropriate action to address any systemic problems with the death penalty. This report is scheduled for release by the University of Maryland in mid-December.

However, Maryland Governor–elect Robert Ehrlich already vowed that he will lift the moratorium as soon as he takes office in January. The Moratorium Campaign is asking people to contact Governor Ehrlich and urge him to retain the moratorium until the results of the UMD report can be fully digested. If you agree and want to take action, or would like more information, you can click

posted by Peter Nixon 4:41 PM
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I WANT GOD TO GO AWAY: This morning I was talking to my four-year old son over breakfast about Thanksgiving and the importance of sharing what we have with others. Joseph, like most four-year-olds, is somewhat skeptical about sharing. In an effort to strengthen my argument, I invoked the Higher Authority of a recent Veggie Tales video, where Lyle the Friendly Viking tells his fellow Vikings that “God wants us to share!”

“I want God to go away,” said Joseph suddenly.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I don’t want to share,” he replied.

This exchange came back into my mind later in the morning when I read the following quote from
Glenn Reynolds that a number of Bloggers have posted on their sites:

And as for what preening churchmen think we ought to drive, well, my sentiments are unprintable. And I think it's pretty lame that people who would never in a million years let some preacher tell them who to sleep with somehow think it's cool when preachers start telling people not to drive SUVs.

Given the notorious inability -- and unwillingness -- of the religious racket to police its own members' behavior lately, I have zero interest in their opinions on the war, the environment, "social justice," evolution, or any of the subjects on which they desire to opine, and about which they typically know nothing.
Now there are certainly some things I can agree with in this statement. Jesus himself tells us to remove the plank in our own eye before we try to remove the sawdust in the eyes of others. I think it is reasonable, given recent events, for bishops, priests and other religious leaders to approach the moral exhortation of others with a certain degree of humility. One would hope, of course, that they would always do so. One would hope that the majority of us who do not hold positions of leadership would do so as well.

It is also true that there is often a certain hypocrisy that exists among “liberal” and “conservative” camps in the churches. Some of those who argue for compassion and sensitivity with regard to the Church’s sexual teaching often want Father to show no mercy to SUV drivers. On the other side, there is a certain species of conservative that likes to go on and on about the authority of the magisterium but who tends to plead “prudential judgment” whenever that magisterium issues something that conflicts with the current platform of the Republican Party.

But it’s hard not to sense that something deeper is at work in Glenn’s statement. I suspect that even if all religious leaders were paragons of human virtue and all people of faith were free of hypocrisy, Glenn would not be particularly partial to hearing from them. Glenn is a libertarian and clearly feels that he is an adult and doesn’t require any instructions—divinely authorized or otherwise—on how to live his life.

This is a popular view these days. There even appear to be a large number of Christians who hold it. No one really likes being told what to do. We may enjoy the communal aspect of worship and the good feeling we get from contributing a turkey to charity at Thanksgiving. But when it comes to taking a hard look at our lives and at the choices we make—including our consumption choices—I think that most of us are like my son. We’d like God to “go away” because what we hear from Him makes us uncomfortable.

One cannot read the scriptures, one cannot hear the Gospel preached, and not be made uncomfortable. The distance between the way we live our lives and what we are called to be is just too great. We are called to change our lives. We are called to acknowledge our sins, our need for repentance and conversion. For myself, I know that I need to hear that call echoed by my pastor, my bishop and all the bishops. Whatever their other failings, I would hope that they would not falter in this as well.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:30 PM
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Monday, November 25, 2002
LASTING, GRAVE AND CERTAIN: I have been reading over the recent statement from the Bishop on Iraq. While I am generally in sympathy with it, I am not sure the Bishops have fully grappled with the core issue facing the international community at this moment, i.e. whether it would be morally licit to use force to enforce the terms of the Security Council resolution demanding Iraq’s compliance with the terms of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire.

The Bishop’s statement is essentially a rewrite of a letter sent by Bishop Gregory to President Bush several weeks ago. At that time, the issue facing the Bishops was whether it would be legitimate for the United States to use force unilaterally to achieve a range of U.S. foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis Iraq. Bishop Gregory laid out both the jus ad bellum and jus in bellum elements of the Catholic just war teaching and concluded that, in the absence of Iraqi actions that threatened “lasting, grave and certain” damage to the United States, the unilateral use of force could not be justified. The phrase is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2309).

In the new statement, the Bishops restate the “lasting, grave and certain” test for a just cause. They then go on to say:

We are deeply concerned about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on just cause to include preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Consistent with the proscriptions contained in international law, a distinction should be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government’s existence.
If the question at hand was solely whether the United States should engage in a war to prevent Iraq from becoming a threat to its interests, then the Bishops’ point would be well taken. But that is no longer the only issue at stake. Now that the Security Council has reiterated its demand that Iraq comply with the terms of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire, the question is whether the use of force to enforce that demand would necessarily be unjust.

The Bishops statement appears to interpret the “lasting, grave, and certain” clause of Section 2309 of the Catechism so narrowly as to prevent the United Nations from using force to enforce international law. What is odd about this is that it denies to the United Nations enforcement powers that domestic police forces routinely enjoy.

Imagine two scenarios. I am a private citizen, and my neighbor, whom I know to be sympathetic to Al-Queda, appears to be stockpiling a large number of weapons. I call the police, but they are slow to respond and I am concerned my neighbor might be plotting a terrorist deed. I decide to take matters into my own hands, and using a hunting rifle, I take my neighbor prisoner until I can convince the police to take action.

Now in my second scenario, the police do respond. They obtain a warrant to search the house for illegal weapons, but my neighbor denies them entry. At this point, the police force their way in at gunpoint and arrest my neighbor.

My action in the first scenario would be illegal. But the actions of the police in the second scenario would be legal. This is true even though the police do not have certain knowledge that my neighbor is, in fact, going to do anything. They do not, to use the language of the Catechism, know whether he is about to engage in actions that are “lasting, grave and certain.”

The inspectors authorized by the United Nations Security Council now have the international equivalent of a search warrant. What should the international community do if Hussein refuses to let them into the house? What if, after making a show of compliance, Iraq begins to frustrate the efforts of the inspectors?

The statement implies, quite reasonably, that non-military means of pressuring Iraq be exhausted before resorting to military means. The statement would have been stronger on this point if it had grappled with the manifest failure of economic and political sanctions to effect any change the behavior of the Iraqi regime over the last decade.

But it is unclear from the statement whether the Bishops believe it would ever be just for the United Nations to authorize war against Iraq because it failed to cooperate with U.N. inspectors. How could such a failure to comply ever meet the test of causing damage that is “lasting, grave and certain?”

I think most of us share with the Bishops a desire for a world free from the scourge of war and all the death and suffering that war entails. But surely we’ve learned from several millennia of human history that the rule of law, rather than moral exhortation, is the best means of containing the human propensity toward violence. To interpret the just war teaching in a way that would give the United Nations less power to enforce international law than a neighborhood cop on the beat seems misguided.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:37 PM
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CHANGING VIEWS: The Buffalo News has an interesting article on changing attitudes toward abortion (thanks to Amy Welborn for the link). More than one-fifth of those surveyed say that they are less in favor of abortion today than they were 10 years ago, about twice the number who say they have become more pro-choice during the same period. But about two-thirds of the sample say their views have not changed.

One interesting finding is that people lean more against abortion on a personal level than on a political level. Only 38.7 percent of respondents locally said their feelings against abortion affect the way they vote. But two-thirds said that if someone close to them were considering an abortion, they would advise against it.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:33 AM
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