Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, January 23, 2004
A SPECIAL EVIL: The NYT magazine has a cover story this week about sex trafficking. It's a stunning and terrifying piece. Finding words to express my reaction is difficult. Just read it.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:28 PM
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NUMBERS: Some discussion this week in the blogosphere about the Zogby poll about American Catholics covered in this CNS story. Zogby found significant generational differences--larger than one finds in others countries--on responses to certain questions, such as how central faith is to one's life. Large majorities are in favor of greater lay participation in church decision-making. One striking finding was that only 29 percent of Catholics 18-29 affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

NCR's Joe Feuerherd (who has recently started a John Allen-like column from Washington, DC) raves about how good a pollster Zogby is. But when I lived in DC, Zogby had something of a spotty reputation among the polling community. This article from the Post explains why.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:25 PM
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A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE? Last night was the first time I played poker since late October. The planning meetings for the retreat conflicted with the game, so the game had to go for awhile. I’ve been playing with a small group of men for about three years. Despite the long layoff, I played well and walked away a winner. A good way to start the year!

Poker is, of course, gambling and gambling can certainly be a vice. But there are some significant distinctions between poker and other forms of gambling. With casino gambling, it is mathematically certain that if you play long enough you will lose all your money. This does not seem to me to be a rational way to spend your time. With poker, by contrast, persons playing in a group with roughly equal skills can expect to come out even over the long run.

In addition to being enjoyable, poker has also been a mental and spiritual discipline for me. The skills needed to master the game of poker are also the skills of self-mastery. For example, poker rewards “virtuous” play in the sense that if you do the right thing consistently, you will come out a winner in the long run. You can, of course, make the wrong decision and still win a hand because you got lucky. But if you consistently make bad decisions, you will end up a long-term loser.

Emotional mastery is a key part of playing the game well. Inexperienced players often go “on tilt” after a bad beat, playing recklessly in an effort to recover what they have just lost. The ability to step back from a defeat, to assess it objectively, and to learn its lessons is a spiritual discipline. It helps us discern patterns in our lives, patterns that we may need to change.

Awareness of others is also a skill that poker develops. Again, the inexperienced player tends to focus on his own cards. He may be excited when he is dealt three cards to a flush, but ignore the fact that many cards of the same suit show up on the board. He may ignore a pattern of betting that suggests that his powerful hand will end up second-best. Of all the vices that poker punishes, it punishes inattentiveness most seriously.

But what about bluffing? Isn’t that just a form of lying? Not at all, or at least no more than any other game where some or all of the cards are hidden. The challenge in bluffing is identifying strength in weakness. Your hand may be objectively weak, but your “up cards” or your pattern of betting may give you a chance to represent it as strong. Learning to bluff well means learning to look beneath the surface appearance of things to discern possibilities others might miss. It is an exercise of the sacramental imagination.

The line between daring and foolhardiness can, of course, be a tough one to draw. Poker helps you develop the skill. I tend to be a risk-adverse person, and poker has helped me gain the courage to take risks when the possible return makes them justifiable. The act of faith is, to some extent, a very large bet. We can never have complete information, but by being attentive to what is around us we can discern a pattern that makes such a bet a reasonable course of action. I think I’ll just move my stack to the center of the table now…

posted by Peter Nixon 10:29 AM
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PRAYERS FOR RETROUVAILLE: Fr. Jeff is asking for prayers for the couples who will be making Retrouvaille retreats in 16 locations in the United States and Canada this weekend. Retrouvaille is a ministry to couples in troubled marriages.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:33 AM
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Thursday, January 22, 2004
WINDS OF CHANGE? I said yesterday that I didn’t have anything more profound to offer on the topic of abortion than what I wrote last year. But I do have an observation and I’m curious whether anyone agrees. From my perspective as more of an observer than an active participant, it seems to me that the experience of women is much more central to the pro-life argument than it was a decade or two ago. That may seem an odd thing to say, given that women have always made up the majority of pro-life activists. But I think the movement is able to speak to a broader group of women (and men) than it did in the past.

One reason for this is the growing prominence of organizations like
Silent No More (and, of course, bloggers like Emily over at After Abortion). There seems to be a greater willingness among women who regret their abortions to come forward and speak of their own experiences. They have been able to make the point very effectively that abortion is often not a choice that one makes and walks away from. They’ve also talked about how they often felt coerced into having abortions by boyfriends, parents and others.

A second reason is the growth in the number of organizations providing support for women with crisis pregnancies and post-abortion counseling and healing. Again, this has always been part of what the pro-life movement has done. But it seems to be getting more attention now, with more of these centers able to provide ultrasound screenings, etc. This work provides a powerful counter-argument to those who argue that the pro-life movement only cares for the fetus and not the woman who carries her.

There also seems to be a subtle cultural shift among those who describe themselves as pro-life. If you look at Kristen Luker’s 1984 book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, there was a sense that one’s position on abortion was often tied to a broader set of cultural commitments, including a commitment to traditional gender roles (e.g. male breadwinner, stay-at-home moms, etc.). I think that link has weakened significantly. Feminists for Life has been organizing on college campuses among women who accept many of the gains of the women’s movement, but reject the violence of abortion. They even have a chapter at UC Berkeley of all places.

Longtime pro-life activists will probably argue that this work has always been going on and no one noticed it. That may be true, but in building a social movement perception is often reality. In Cynthia Gorney’s book Articles of Faith, she recounts the belief of many pro-life activists in the 1970s that “the pictures” (i.e. pictures of the developing fetus) would help change hearts about abortion. That belief is still there (e.g. the growing use of ultrasound pictures), but there seems to be much more attention these days to talking about—and trying to address—the social circumstances that lead women to choose abortion, and to supporting women who have chosen abortion. Also, the person making this case is less likely to be the local pastor and more likely to be a woman who has either had an abortion, or been in a position to choose one. I think all these trends put the pro-life movement in a much stronger position to make its case.

Anyone else sense that these trends are occurring? Or am I completely off base here?

posted by Peter Nixon 12:44 PM
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Wednesday, January 21, 2004
THIRTY ONE YEARS: Tomorrow is the 31st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Last year, I spent a week blogging about various aspects of the abortion debate. I'm not sure I have anything more profound to add this year, so I'll just let you read it if you haven't yet. If you want to start at the beginning, click here and scroll upward to find the posts from later in the week.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:59 PM
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WHICH JESUS? Fr. Andrew Greeley cautions against the various ways in which we try to domesticate Jesus, from the academic speculations of the Jesus Seminar, to the conspiratorial ravings of the DaVinci Code set, and even to apologists for ecclesiastical authority itself:

None of it works because once you domesticate Jesus he isn't there any more. The domestic Jesus may be an interesting fellow, a good friend, a loyal companion, a helpful business associate, a guarantor of the justice of your wars. But one thing he is certainly not: the Jesus of the New Testament. Once Jesus comforts your agenda, he's not Jesus anymore.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:50 PM
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ECONOMIC SIN? Interesting discussion going on among a few Catholic bloggers (Fr. Jim has all the links) about the decision of the Swedish corporation Electrolux to relocate a factory to Mexico. A number of bloggers have condemned the decision as "economic sin," a judgment with which Fr. Jim disagrees quite strongly.

I tend to be highly skeptical of the assertions of the "free market will solve all ills" crowd. That said, I'm not convinced by some of the arguments I am hearing against the closing. Are they suggesting, for example, that it would never be legitimate to relocate or close a business that was profitable? Is it never legitimate for an employer to seek relocation as a means of reducing labor costs? I would be hard pressed to answer "yes" to these questions. While more than an economic contract, the relationship between an employer and his employees is not akin to sacramental marriage.

Part of the problem is that the pro-globalization crowd is, in its own way, just as ideological as the anti-globalization crowd and the argument tends to degenerate into rival shouting matches. It's clear that the benefits of NAFTA to Mexico, Canada, and the United States have been relatively modest and there have been significant winners (Mexican manufacturing) and significant losers (Mexican agriculture). Traditional economic theory assumes that this is okay because the overall economic pie will be larger and the winners can compensate the losers. Alas, this often fails to to happen. Lots of Americans were better off when steel prices fell in the 1980s during a wrenching economic adjustment, but the steelworkers themselves (particularly those over 40) didn't regain their footing.

I tend to be more concerned about the political infrastructure in the countries that make the things I buy than I am about the economic infrastructure. I feel much more comfortable buying goods made in Costa Rica, for example, than I do goods made in China, because Costa Rica is a functioning democracy with a free trade union movement. Costa Rica may have low wages, but workers have the ability there to organize--both in the workplace and politically--to demand change. That's not the case in China, and I am highly skeptical of the argument that democracy merely unfolds as the necessary result of capitalist economic development.

I have no objection to including non-economic issues in trade agreements, such as environment and labor protections. Anyone who thinks these agreements are merely about reducing tarrifs hasn't read them. You don't need a volume the size of the telephone book to reduce tarrifs. Trade agreements are about setting the "rules of the game," and you can certainly see how labor issues could be part of the rules. At the same time, I worry about such provisions being used as another way to deny third-world countries the ability to export goods (the way we still throw up so many barriers in agriculture). Unless third-world countries can export, there really is no way for them to develop (the anti-globalization crowd needs to stop romanticizing subsistence agriculture). My own view is that we should allow free trade with countries whose political structures are open enough to allow a meaningful democratic deliberation about how to deal the costs and benefits of trade.

These are complicated issues, but they are certainly issues that we, as Christians, need to seriously engage. We are a people who believe in a God of justice. But figuring out what that justice entails is not always an easy task.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:24 AM
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WAR OF IDEAS: Tom Friedman has been running a series of columns about winning the "war of ideas" in the Arab-Muslim world. The first two are now only available in the NYT pay archives, but the latter two are still available for free. All are worth reading. Here is Friedman on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the failings of the Bush Administration's approach to it:

Israel should withdraw from the territories, not because it is weak, but because it must remain strong; not because Israel is wrong, but because Zionism is a just cause that the occupation is undermining; not because the Arabs would warmly embrace a smaller Israel, but because a smaller Israel, in internationally recognized boundaries, will be much more defensible; not because it will eliminate Islamic or European anti-Semitism, but because it will reduce it by reducing the daily friction; not because it would mean giving into an American whim, but because nothing would strengthen America's influence in the Muslim world, help win the war of ideas and therefore better protect Israel than this.

The Bush team rightly speaks of bringing justice to Iraq. It rightly denounces Palestinian suicide madness. But it says nothing about the injustice of the Israeli land grab in the West Bank. The Bush team destroyed the Iraqi regime in three weeks and has not persuaded Israel to give up one settlement in three years. To think America can practice that sort of hypocrisy and win the war of ideas in the Arab-Muslim world is a truly dangerous fantasy.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:35 AM
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Tuesday, January 20, 2004
TELFORD IS BACK: Telford Work is back with a new blog post. He talks about Brad Kallenberg's book Live to Tell: Evangelism in a Postmodern Age, which I just ordered on the strength of his recommendation.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:31 PM
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METHODIST CORNER: I'm adding a little Methodist corner to my blogroll. Scandal of Particularity is a blog by a Methodist theology student. She and I share a fondness for Stanley Hauerwas and she has some great posts (click here) on why we need to take theology seriously. Correction is a blog by a man in formation to be a Methodist minister, a man who only seven years ago considered himself an atheist. His story--and the stories he writes about others--are inspiring.

I'll admit to having a soft spot for the Methodists. The Catholic-Methodist ecumenical dialogues aren't burdened by a history of anathemas (Methodism split from the Anglican communion). I also have a bit of family history here. My grandfather's uncle--Lorenzo Dow Nixon--was a well-known Methodist circuit preacher from Virginia in the years leading up to the Civil War. Alas, he was also one of the people responsible for leading the Virginia Methodists out of the larger Methodist community over the issue of slavery. Similar movements in other states ultimately led to the creation of the Southern Methodist Church.

Here's the other reason I like these blogs: they're not angry. Or at least not all the time. They seem more concerned with bringing the light of Christ to a world in need of it than in enlisting as infantry in the culture wars. May their tribe increase...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:22 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is 62:1-5
Ps 96:1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10
1 Cor 12:4-11
Jn 2:1-11

Anyone who has known me for years knows I love to flip the FM radio dial to obscure college stations that play rather obscure garage rock. I love the energy these bands have, but then, I wish some of these bands would channel their energy into writing more enjoyable songs. One of these bands has left a tremendous imprint on my life. This particular band might wish I would say that their songs inspired me to be a creative person, but I like the band only because of the name. Almost all of their songs should be thrown in a lead box to be welded shut. I simply like their name: Masters of the Obvious. Truly, that band name sums up our lives. Throughout our lives, when we believe that we are gaining new, creative insight on how things work on earth and in Heaven, we are simply becoming a Master of the Obvious. Of course, it is better to be a Master of the Obvious than be terminally oblivious.

I offer my sincerest thanks to my family, my friends, my teachers, and authors who have revealed to me what I thought later should have been more obvious to me from the beginning. In the case of our Gospel reading, I never consider some obvious facets within the reading until someone helped me to do something more than gloss over them. My first example involves the way most Bibles present the beginning of this reading, rather than how the Lectionary (both old and new translations) and the Rite of Marriage book present it: “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee….” What else happened on a third day? My second involves Jesus calling his mother “Woman”. (Kids, I’ll tell you from experience – never call your mom “Woman” even if you say to her that you are simply saying what Jesus said.) Jesus called his mother “Woman” one other time, and He followed it with “behold your son”. My third example involves Jesus saying his hour had not yet come. Later within the Gospel of John, Jesus told Andrew and Philip the hour had come for the Son of man to be glorified – after he was welcomed at the gates of Jerusalem by people who waved palm branches.

When teachers revealed these facets of the Gospel of John to me, I felt like kicking myself for being a tremendous Master of the Obvious. Yet I thank them for both consoling me and encouraging me to help present these things to other people because, in the words near the end of the Gospel of John, “these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life in his name.”

Here is another special facet of the Gospel I ran past until a teacher revealed it to me: according to the Gospel text, Jesus produced up to 180 gallons of wine through this particular sign. That is a significant amount of wine – dare it be said, too much. Think about Judas who, later in the Gospel of John, got mad at Jesus because he believed good perfume worth much money was wasted; perhaps he wanted to say the same thing about the significant amount of wasted wine. However, no matter what Judas thought, it is a sign of the overabundant love Jesus wanted to share constantly with his people. And his hour had not even come yet. Many early Christians saw this image as an obvious sign of overabundant love. Also, these same people would have seen an obvious shift. A necessary purification ritual was eliminated and replaced with wine. Of course, after we read about the Last Supper, we cannot look at wine ever again simply as a drink.

All disciples of Jesus must seek to reveal the power of the Master so that His majesty is obvious to all people. As Saint Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, all people have been given some type of talent. No matter what the talent might be or what the degree of talent might be, we are commanded to assist in reuniting the world with God. The people of Corinth got stuck on the fact that not everyone had the same talents – as if one or two particular talents were better than the others. The union of their talents for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel should have been the community’s obvious route, but, as one professor I had said frequently to many students, “Christians have a remarkable dexterity for missing the point.”

If God reveals something to you, then do not dwell on how special you must be in order to have received the revelation. Share what you have received as soon as possible. Make the presence of God obvious for the world to see. The Kingdom comes through His will being done on earth. Help bring forth the Kingdom. Help bring forth the overflowing grace of God.

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.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:21 PM
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SURSUM CORDA: John Allen's Word from Rome has some coverage of the new English translation of the Order of the Mass. It is expected that the new translation will be closer to the Latin (e.g. in the creed, Credo will be translated as "I believe" rather than "we believe"). It looks like the translation of Sursum Corda may be changed from "Lift up your hearts" to "Let our hearts be lifted high," which is a little closer to the Latin.

Personally I don't have a problem with most of them proposed changes (assuming they survive the editing process). But the current translations aren't exactly keeping me up nights. Some of the more dynamic translations in the existing Order, such as translating "et cum spiritu tu" as "and also with you" seem a little odd. But I suspect you would have to look long and hard to find a parishioner who could explain the difference in meaning. I would also note that while it is true that "credo" means "I believe" rather than "we believe," the creed in its original Greek begins "We believe." Which is why, of course, I am part of that tiny reactionary minority agitating for a return to the Greek mass...hey, where's our indult....

posted by Peter Nixon 12:34 PM
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Monday, January 19, 2004
FIRED UP: The retreat ended yesterday and today we drove to Petaluma and Sacramento to pick up our kids. We’re completely exhausted, but also exhilarated. The Bonfire weekend, which is rooted in the Cursillo tradition, is often a very powerful experience for the candidates and it is such a gift to be able to walk this part of their faith journey with them.

There were so many great moments during the retreat. One good indicator of how things were going was when I tried to get the tables to head down to lunch on Sunday afternoon and none of them wanted to leave—even the men’s tables! It must have taken 15 minutes to get them all down there.

I also want to extend thanks once again to the folks who posted prayers in the comments section. These were read aloud at one point during the retreat and the man from the kitchen team who was reading actually broke down as he read the names of people who did not even know any of the candidates, but who were taking the time to pray for them.

But perhaps the moment that is uppermost in my mind right now is something that involved our retreat team. There was a woman on our kitchen team named Paula who has MS and now needs to use a wheeled walker to get around. A former nurse, she has a wry sense of humor about her condition. When we first called her about working in the kitchen, she said “Well, I’m only half a person, so if you can find another half, I’d be happy to work.” We arranged to get her transportation to and from the team meetings.

The retreat ends on Sunday with the candidates and team attending the 6pm Sunday mass with the rest of the community. When time came for communion, two of the men on the kitchen team stood on each side of Paula and lifted her with their arms, allowing her to stand and walk—after a fashion—to receive communion.

So much was contained in this simple gesture. On one level, it was a powerful sign of the kind of community we are called to be, a community that values persons not for what they do, but for what they are: persons created in the image and likeness of God. In the community of those who follow Jesus Christ, there is no such thing as “half a person.”

But on another level, it was a gesture not so much of charity as of solidarity. Because, in another sense, we are all half a person. Diminished by sin, we are far from being the fullness of what we are called to be. We cannot find that fullness--nor are we meant to find it--alone. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Pr 27:17) Like repairing a shattered vase, it is the way our sharp edges come together that makes something beautiful for God.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:41 PM
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