LIFE: With John Allen's column, there is generally too much quality material to digest, and that is the case this week as well. But given my interest in medicine and bioethics, the following tidbit caught my eye:
If ever one needed evidence that the Catholic church still has some political weight to throw around, it came Dec. 10 with a vote of the Italian parliament on artificial reproduction. In what the Italians call a trasversale result, meaning one that crossed party lines, Catholic parliamentarians of both left and right approved Europe’s most restrictive law. It prohibits “heterogeneous” reproduction, meaning that only stable heterosexual couples will be able to use artificial insemination, relying solely on their own genetic materials. Only three embryos can be created at a time, and they must all be implanted in the woman. No embryo can be frozen or otherwise preserved or destroyed. Research or experimentation on embryos for any purpose other than the health of that embryo is prohibited.
In Europe, one finds often support across the political spectrum for legislation to regulate the use of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering. Interesting.
LIFE OR DEATH:The Atlantic Monthly has a great interview with Scott Turow on the subject of the death penalty. Turow is a lawyer, a former federal prosecutor, a novelist, and has recently written a new non-fiction work on the death penalty.
What could heal this hidden sexual turmoil that caused me to hurt and condemn others? How might I stop viewing sexuality as a power game? How might I become simple and loving toward every single human being, regardless of gender or erotic sub-currents?
Augustine discovered through years of frustrating failure that we cannot run the show when it comes to our sexual natures. Doing battle with ourselves, putting our trust in personal strength or willpower, is ultimately a lost cause. Worse, we can fall into unconscious self-hatred, as I did, when we attempt to rule or dominate some God-given aspect of our natures. "Peace, then," Augustine says, "will be perfect in us when, our nature clinging inseparably to its Creator, nothing of ourselves fights against us."
I thought about my friends at the hermitage, all of who have taken a lifelong vow of celibacy, and I wondered how they had calmed and redirected the tremendous force of eros, for (with varying degrees of success) they have. This is one of the most striking differences between life on the mountain and life "in the world."
I very much liked the chapter, but it raised a question in me that also occured to me after reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk. Both women are oblates of Benedictine monasteries, and both speak positively about the value of celibacy. Both also use celibacy as a means of reflecting on their own sexual and romantic histories.
There is much that is positive in this, but I can't help but notice that the husbands of both women seem to vanish in the process. You have to read the chapter carefully to realize that Huston is still married. I have to wonder what the reaction would be if a married man had written about wrestling with his own sexual fire while making only passing reference to his wife. Something to think about.
FLU HITS HARD:Federal officials announced Thursday that the flu has hit hard in 24 states, nearly twice as many as last week, and said more than 100,000 doses of the flu vaccine would be rushed across the country to combat vaccine shortages. Anecdotal reports suggest that this influenza season has been worse for children. In some parts of the country, entire schools have shut down because so many children are sick.
Well I am certainly not going to quarrel with the position that doctrine should play an important role in the life of the Church. Faith is not merely a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart. It is an attitude of fundamental openness and trust in something, and the Church believes that it is able to say what that something is. Not because we have discovered it through our own efforts, but because it has been revealed to us.
One sometimes hears the suggestion that Jesus did not care about such things and that he just wanted us to love one another. Even if one accepts such a poorly supported proposition as true, it still raises the question of how are we to know how to love one another? The evangelical counsels are hardly a self-evident ethical system, and one might even see them as destructive of the social order, as many of Christianity’s pagan critics argued. Unless Jesus is who the Church professes him to be, it is hard to see a rational justification for following him.
So by all means, let us speak a word or two in defense of doctrine. But to suggest that the lack of orthodox belief among large numbers of Catholics somehow invalidates our communion is problematic from both a historical and theological perspective.
First of all, it seems likely that very large numbers of Catholics throughout the centuries have held unorthodox views, often without realizing it. One might say that the Church held Europe, but in the same way the United States held large portions of Vietnam: what was held during the day was often lost at night. Pagan and Christian religious practices co-existed for centuries (and still do in many rural areas in the Third World) and it seems likely that many Catholics in the medieval period held views about Mary, the Saints, and Jesus himself that were at odds with official Church teaching.
The Church has historically held that what makes you a Catholic is the sacrament of baptism. The baptized person is indelibly marked. Such a person may not be a very good Catholic (are any of us?) and she may persist in error to such an extent that the Church formally denies her the sacraments (excommunication), but her baptism is not thereby overturned.
My own suspicion is that contemporary Catholics in the United States have an understanding of their faith that compares reasonably well with Catholics throughout the centuries. It is easy to look back on the relatively high degree of internal cohesion exhibited by the U.S. Church in the early to mid-20th century and assume that this was the historical norm for the Church generally. I don’t think an honest assessment of the historical record can sustain such a position.
What does the Immaculate Conception have to do with any of us? Our Church has celebrated this event long before it was pronounced in 1854 to be dogmatic – a fundamental belief of Christian faith. But what does the manner of the conception of Mary have to do with any of us? In the big scheme of faith, does it really matter what state Mary was in when her life began at conception? What does her sinless state have to do with our lives? After all, we live in a state of sin during much of our lifetime and when we’re not in sin, we’re tempted to live in that state. We have been drawn to the baptismal font as a result of the original sin of humanity. We are called to ask for and to receive forgiveness for the times when we go against God. Therefore, what does the sinless beginning of someone who lived long before us have to do with the struggles we endure during this complicated age?
This solemn belief we keep and celebrate comes as a result of grace. All the good we have, all the good we are, and all the good we experience comes from grace. Mary was conceived as she was through a powerful manifestation of the grace of God. As we have heard in the Gospel reading, Mary agreed to give birth to the most miraculous manifestation of the grace of God, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Both her conception and the conception of Jesus occurred as they did because God the Father and God the Son wanted it to be that way from the beginning. We believe that these events and states have happened as they have happened so that we can always remember how God loves His people. It is not enough to recall that Mary is the Immaculate Conception; we are called to remember that God conceived her as an example of His grace. We do not know how He did it, but we believe that He did it because He loves us. The proof of this love came forth when Mary gave birth to Jesus. She allowed grace to work within her for the benefit of herself and all people.
Also, we should never forget that Immaculate Mary could have chosen at any moment of her human life to forsake her immaculate state. She had the same human will that we have. She faced temptation. Yet she sought God’s grace more than she sought fleeting wants. Eve sought knowledge; Mary sought wisdom. The latter of the two will always provide greater joy and comfort.
None of our lives began in the way Mary’s life began. No future life will begin in the way Mary’s life began. Yet we share a common calling and a common destiny with her with her; we are called to live in the fullness of grace. In whatever way God wants us to be full of His grace, I hope we remain in grace. Although we might not be full of grace from the beginning of our lives as Mary was, we have the opportunity to be full of grace now. In the mysterious way God has planned things, we have the opportunity to live a life free from sin. In the mysterious way God has planned things, we have the opportunity to tell God and His angels that we have chosen to accept whatever God wants us to be or to do. We can do this as a result of the grace that leads to believe that in God all things are possible.
What does the Immaculate Conception have to do with us? Gabriel said it: “Nothing will be impossible for God.” I hope that we always remain open to the endless possibilities that God invites us to embrace and enjoy.
Fr. Shawn O'Neal is Pastoral Administrator of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC. The two parishes share a web site which you can access by clicking here.
PASTOR EVELINE:Amy Welborn's link to a Commonweal article about a Dutch parish administered by a woman has prompted a postfest of extreme proportions (111 and still counting). But it is worth reading in its entirety, especially the excellent posts by regular Sursum Corda reader Neil Dhingra. I hope that Neil is getting some well-deserved rest at this point....
I’ve always sort of struggled with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Reading descriptions of its development is sort of like reading a very complicated legal brief. Lots of talk about the “imputed merits of Christ,” the theology of Duns Scotus, and all that. Most of the time, I enjoy that sort of thing. But not today.
Today I’m thinking about mothers. One of the reasons that Mary is so important is that, in some sense, she is the guarantor of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus had a mother, just like all of us. Much of what Jesus became as a human being, he became because of his mother.
If you met me and got to know me for a while, and then met my mother, you would immediately see some of the traits that she passed down to me. I suspect that those who got to know Jesus, and then met Mary, had the same experience. Maybe it was her smile, maybe certain turns of phrase. Maybe Jesus inherited his fiery passion, his fearlessness from her. She must have been a formidable woman!
One of the ongoing temptations in Christianity has been to deny, sometimes without even meaning to, the humanity of Christ. A lot of us are still carrying around a mental image of a fleshy “costume” animated by an all-knowing, all-seeing deity. The idea that Jesus could have been shaped in some fundamental way by his human environment sometimes seems threatening. But that is precisely why the Incarnation is so stunning.
It doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to me that if God was going to become incarnate in human flesh, that he would do a little advance planning. And perhaps one of the things He might be most concerned about is the woman who would bear Him, who would shape Him and guide him to adulthood, a poor peasant girl from the Judean countryside. How would she ever have the strength to bear the burden that would be laid upon her?
The answer? He gave it to her.
Oh, I’m sure this is very poor theology and someone far more learned than I could poke numerous holes in it. But in some sense, I think this is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is all about: a son’s love for His mother.
What we have heard today can be explained in very simple terms. God wants us to share in His glory. God wants everyone to be saved. God wants all people to want to come to Heaven. God wants all people to share His joy now and forever. However, salvation requires necessary steps. Also, salvation is not automatic.
I wish that salvation could be automatic for all people. I wish that all people could be swept into Heaven. I wish that God would place some type of lid on the hole that leads to Hell so that no person whom He has created can go there. But if salvation came in such a manner, we would not value it as much as we do. Heaven would not be a goal; Heaven would be an expectation. There would be no incentive to change our lives. There would be no reason to examine our lives to see whether we need to repent over anything. We must choose to be with God.
Salvation comes only when we accept the calling that God has given to each of us. Catholics do not believe that salvation occurs one time during our lives. We are thankful for moments when the grace of God manifests itself in ways that make these moments unforgettable, but we do not believe that we are saved once. We do not believe we are always saved after we first accept God’s call. To put this in traditional terms, we receive sanctifying grace when we are baptized. We receive this grace throughout our lives. We receive it in one of two ways, either in habitual grace, that is, the permanent disposition to live and act in unity with God, or in actual graces, the moments of divine intervention that appear above and beyond the normal grace that flows.
I hope that our readings today act as actual grace for all of us. All disciples, even the ones most deserving of being recognized as saints, run the risk of operating on cruise control. The command at the end of the Gospel reading serves as a warning sign for all of us. When we see warning signs, we act according to them. We know that Advent is a time for preparing the way of the Lord, but actual grace helps us to place greater immediacy on preparation. This is not the time to rest. This is the time to examine how we need to be better disciples. Also, this is the time when we need to see how we have failed in being good disciples. If we have failed, then I hope that the grace that led us to this recognition leads us to repentance, confession, and forgiveness. Anyone who believes in automatic salvation lives in a world of fantasy that is guaranteed to turn into an eternal nightmare.
The last line of the Gospel states how all flesh will see the salvation of God. We are not called merely to see salvation; we are called to be saved. The rich man who gave no food to Lazarus saw salvation at work. He saw the glory of Heaven. But he saw it from a distance. He saw it as a spectator. He saw it as a spectator because he chose to live his life as if he was spiritually on cruise control. When he ran out of gas, he cried, but by the time he cried, he had passed all the gas stations to the point where he could not return to one of them.
Perhaps you have seen churches post a message, “God allows for U-turns.” These signs present a true message. Make the U-turn now not because I have told you to do so, but because what we believe to be actual grace at work is telling you to make the turn. At this moment, the devil is going to attempt to block you from making that turn, but do not pay attention to the devil. Things are not as OK as they may seem. I am not saying that anyone here is worthless in the eyes of God, but this is not the time to be proud of our own accomplishments. This is the time to seek to be glorified in God.
Saint John Chrysostom preached about Hell being strewn with the skulls of priests. Hell could very well be strewn with the skulls of anyone who lived their life as if on cruise control. Hell is very real, but just because it is real, it does not mean God wants us to go there. God is calling us through these readings to examine the path we are on now and choose anew the path we want to take.
Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator of Saint Joseph's Parish in Bryson City, NC.