The book is about an elderly amusement park maintenance work named Eddie who dies while trying to save the life of a little girl during an accident in the park. Eddie meets five people in heaven who help explain the meaning of his life. Like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, Eddie believes his life to have been a failure, the dreams of his youth unfulfilled. You know from the very beginning, of course, that he's going to be proved wrong.
I read this on the train to and from work over a couple of days (it's short). Part of the punch was looking around the train and wondering how many other Eddies there were there, men who felt that they had to swallow their dreams. You see it sometimes in the eyes, a tiredness that is deeper than the usual after-work fatigue.
The other thing that hit me was one line that, while certainly an exaggeration, also rang true: "All parents damage their children, because the pristine glass of childhood reflects the hands that hold it. Some parents smudge, others crack, and others shatter their children entirely." Again, this certainly stretches the truth, but it does not stretch it beyond recognition. Sometimes I fear my children inheriting my own brokenness. My son is so much like I was at his age. I can see the trials that lie ahead and want to save him from them, even though I know that that would not necessarily be the best thing for him.
GENERATION GAP:Fr. Andrew Greeley looks at differences between older and younger priests in the Atlantic Monthly (thanks to Amy Welborn for the link). Greeley quantifies what many believe to be true: that younger priests are, on average, more conservative than older priests, a reversal of the traditional idea of a generation gap.
I wonder, though, whether too much can be made of these distinctions. Is it completely surprising that young priests--particularly these days--come out of seminary full of piss and vinegar, strongly dedicated to their vocation and to the teachings of the Church? How else would they have gotten through seminary in the first place? And is it completely surprising that older priests, after years in the pastoral trenches, have found the world a little more complicated than it seemed to them in seminary? A few decades of hearing confessions and the pressures of being "ontologically" different will do that to you.
The tension between the heroic commitment to discipleship characteristic of youth and the wisdom and appreciation of human weakness that comes with age can be a productive tension. We need both.
So here's a question: is it a strength or a weakness that Catholic Christianity includes a larger percentage of unbelievers? It might sound odd to say so, but I think it's a strength. It suggests that the tradition exerts an emotional pull on Catholics--to the extent that they still identify themselves as such--even if they have ceased to believe. Why is this good? Well, for one, because they may not remain unbelievers for the rest of their lives. They may have left but at a subconscious level they are aware that God pursues them still. I can say from personal experience that one does get exhausted from running after awhile and being caught starts to sound like a better alternative...
The implementation of the Bishop's decree raises a lot of practical questions. Will a list of officials to be denied communion be developed? If so, what are the criteria to be included? Does the person have to have a 100 percent voting record with NRTL? Is 80 percent sufficient? What if the legislator thought the pro-life legislation was poorly written and in conflict with existing interpretations of state or federal constitutions? Would he or she still be under obligation to vote for it or be denied communion? Would the legislator, wrestling with a bill in a midnight conference committee, have to call the Bishop to see if some proposed language passed muster?
And once on the list, how do you get off? It appears some kind of public statement is required, but the decree doesn't specify its content. What if a public official is willing to make a public statement about the moral evil of abortion, but still has grave doubts about the enforcability of proposed legislation? What if you are for late-term restrictions but don't think early restrictions are workable? What if you are for parental consent, but want a judicial bypass in cases where there is a risk of physical abuse and the pro-life lobby disagrees because it thinks you can drive a truck through that loophole? What if you have a long list of reasons to oppose a judicial nominee even though he or she is pro-life?
All of this is to suggest that there are reasons other than cowardice that the vast majority of bishops have stopped somewhat short of the kind of decree that Burke has issued. And I won't even get into what's likely to happen if the Bishop tries to discipline a popular parish priest who decides to give communion to someone on the "do not offer" list...
VERY AMERICAN: Steven Waldman, editor in BeliefNet, writes in the Washington Post about the current media frenzy over the religious beliefs of the candidates for President. Dean, for example, has been criticized for switching from Catholicism (where he was baptized) to Episcopalianism and more recently to Congregationalism. His wife and children are Jewish. Clark is a Catholic who attends a Presbyterian Church. But these two candidates are hardly out of the mainstream on this, writes Waldman:
If Dean and Clark are therefore spiritually promiscuous, they have excellent company. Twenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship.
For 20 years now, sociologists have documented how Americans have become "consumers" of spirituality. Changing faiths or churches could mean someone is flighty, but more often it means that they take their spiritual journey seriously enough to reassess it constantly. This is what baby boomers do. They shop. And serious shoppers are often quite intense. Someone who carefully weighs the differences between Starbucks and Green Mountain and Seattle's Best may be obsessive, but you can't say he doesn't appreciate a good cup of joe.
Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mind-set of theologians. Thus, Dean and Clark were maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons. Dean, it's often been noted, switched churches because of a dispute over building a bike path. Clark left the Catholic Church in anger over the anti-military rhetoric of a priest. Such trivial matters!
But again, this isn't unusual behavior. Americans often choose houses of worship, and denominations, based on a combination of both the doctrinal and the practical and emotional. Which church has the best choir? Which is closest to home? Whose preacher is the least boring? Where do my friends go? How does the service make me feel? "It's quite typical," says sociologist Wade Clark Roof, author of "Spiritual Marketplace." "People want to feel good about their institutional religious connections. If they don't, they switch or simply drop out." So becoming annoyed that a church isn't community-minded enough, or is insufficiently respectful of you and your peers, seems fairly reasonable.
I'm much less convinced than Waldman that the "consumer" approach to religion and spirituality is a positive thing. But there is no question that Dean and Clark are, on this issue at least, solidly in the American mainstream.
TIGHTENING UP: Archbishop Raymond Burke has formally notified Catholic lawmakers in the La Crosse Diocese that they cannot receive Communion if they continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia. Burke's policy is stronger than those adopted by many other bishops, who, while willing to urge politicians not to receive communion, have not instructed priests to deny them communion if they present themsleves for it.
McQuaid: Let's take an issue. Abortion. Are there any limits on it in your mind?
Clark: I don't think you should get the law involved in abortion—
McQuaid: At all?
McQuaid: At all?
Clark: It's between a woman, her doctor, her friends and her family.
McQuaid: Late term abortion? No limits?
McQuaid: Anything up to delivery?
Clark: Nope, nope.
McQuaid: Anything up to the head coming out of the womb?
Clark: I say that it's up to the woman and her doctor, her conscience, and law — not the law. You don't put the law in there...
What's painfully clear from this exchange is that Clark probably hasn't spent more than 30 seconds actually thinking about abortion. Some consultant has told him to not to show any area of weakness on this issue that his opponents could pounce on and that is exactly what he is doing. He doesn't even seem to realize that his comments probably put him somewhere to the left of NARAL and NOW.
Putting aside the morality of the position (and I'm not saying we should put it aside), it's hard to see this as good politics. If anything, the public has become more ambivalent about abortion over the last few years, not less. Is this really a good way to reach out to the large number of voters who are uncomfortable with both the economic libertarianism of the Republicans and the cultural libertarianism of the Democrats? If nothing else, it shows that the abortion rights lobby has developed a complete stranglehold over the Democratic nominating process. It's time for a Sister Souljah moment...
SECOND THOUGHTS? Slate has a dialogue this week between liberals who supported the Iraq war. Some are reconsidering their past support, some are not. The dialogue will include: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Fareed Zakaria. Also see this Atlantic essay by Ken Pollack on why we didn't find WMDs in Iraq (link via Eve Tushnet).
LIVERPOOL: The Tablet has an interesting essay by Peter Stanford on the city of Liverpool which at one time was home to some of the worst Catholic-Protestant sectarianism in England. Stanford notes the deep social and economic roots, including the frustration of the Protestant working class of the city about large scale Irish immigration in the wake of the Great Famine.
But Stanford also notes that a reduction in sectarian tensions also has something to do with the general trend of secularization in Britian, where many are apt to take the claims of their faith less seriously (if they take them seriously at all):
So there is then, more or less, a happy ending to celebrate in the Year of Faith in One City. And an education in why the causes of religious hatred are more complicated than religion itself. Yet while no one would any more mourn the old sectarianism, some in Liverpool do feel that something has been lost. In line with wider trends, church attendance and formal belief have declined.
A strong religious identity and commitment, even within a denomination, is a positive thing, if it does not fall into militancy and sectarianism. Yet how do you tackle a history of hatred in a city without seeing religion itself tried, found guilty and dismissed as irrelevant and harmful? That is the circle that Derek Worlock – for me and many more an inspired and too often under-rated Church leader – and David Sheppard were trying to square. Their struggle, which goes on under their less visible successors, is also a struggle for the rest of us. Liverpool’s history is one we would all do well to understand.
Those who fulminate about the decline of Christianity in Europe would do well to remember that many Europeans have not always seen us at our best. For those who have grown up with this kind of sectarian conflict, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a different expression of the Christian faith. We should not shrink from reminding Europe of the fullness of its history, but we must do so with an adequate consciousness of how our own sinfulness has made the Gospel less credible. May God have mercy on us.
Jesus had no need to repent for anything; therefore, the baptism He received was not for the sake of conversion. Jesus was free from sin; therefore, the baptism He received was not for the removal of sin. So why on earth did Jesus choose to be baptized? We are the ones who need to have sin removed from our lives – not him.
We can understand Jesus’s possible motive by meditating on the words Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians: “…being in the form of God, He did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being.” The Letter to the Hebrews reinforces these words while adding that Jesus was tested in all the ways that humanity is tested, apart from sin.
The baptism Jesus received could have been done with the same intent as it was received by the Essenes, a group of devoted Jews who lived during the time when Jesus walked the earth. They sought to receive baptisms on holy days as public signs that they wished to live lives of purity and proclamation. Jesus used this sign of public witness to show that the fire that had always burned inside him was going to be from that day forward a fire that would bestow upon the world the light of new and greater understanding. It was not enough to have revealed that God the Father was pleased with His Son. As a result of this baptism, Jesus sought openly to bring all people to greater unity with the Father so that all people could hear more clearly the message the Father had been saying to them for years: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
We do not need to be repeatedly baptized, but I am glad that we reach for the holy water as often as we do as a reminder of the grace we have already received. Get a big handful of water today; after all, God did not give us a little dab of grace – His grace is constantly overflowing. At the same time, we should pour overflowing amounts of grace on everyone we meet. Jesus waited for the right moment to begin doing it, and when He began, He could not be stopped – even death on a cross could not stop Him from bestowing grace. This is our time to follow His lead again. Bestow grace freely. Do not wait for someone else to do it. Be the one who proclaims the message that God is pleased with the children who seek to remain in His grace.
Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.