Jake Tawney

Anna Karenina

We all have books that imprint a lasting memory on us, not simply for the entertainment value, but rather for the way in which they communicate the truth of the human person.  I just spent the better part of two hours and three cups of coffee with a good friend who described manner of influence that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted had upon him.  It seems to me that the profundity of such texts is carried by their characters rather than their plot lines.  True, the development of the characters is always serviced by the plot; but equally true is the direction of such service.  In fact, this is more than likely the primary means by which many modern novels go astray: the characters are at the service of the plot rather than the other way around.  Much of modern writing reads like a movie script rather than a work of literature.

For me, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an exemplar in character development and as such presents an unparalleled disclosure of the human condition and the effects of both sin and virtue in the life of man.  I read the book five years ago, and I can still quote the opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  There are two ways to read this.  The first is that “happy” is uniform, and in some sense boring, whereas sin is interesting, unique even.  Disfunction is worth writing about, because we, as readers, find it intriguing.  I don’t think this is Tolstoy’s final word on these words, at least in terms of the novel seen as a whole, but I do think he intends the reader to understand something along these lines at the start of the novel.

The story follows four individuals arranged as couple.  The first, for whom the novel is named, is Anna.  When she comes on the scene, she is nothing short of captivating: beautiful and mysterious in every way.  Anna is married, albeit unhappily.  As the story progresses, she falls into an illicit affair with the young Count Vronsky, who pursues her with both intensity and persistence.  The third is a young woman named Kitty.  At the start of the novel, Kitty is simple, even a bit superficial.  In short, I found her utterly uninteresting.  By the end of the story, Kitty is married to a man named Levin.  While their path towards this marriage was complicated, and each did their fair share of soul searching, they are to be the couple who stands apart in virtue from that of Anna and Vronsky, whose sin takes center stage throughout much of the book.

The curious thing is not the evolution of Kitty and Levin, nor the devolution of Anna and Vronsky.  Rather, the curious thing is the interest in which the reader has for each couple.  While Anna begins the story as mysterious and captivating, by the end of her plot line, her path of self-destruction comes to fulfillment, and at her final moment in which she throws herself in front of a train, she has lost all identity due to her sin.  The effect of sin and vice on the human person is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gollum, for whom the ring (symbolizing evil) has replaced his own sense of self, even to the point where he speaks of himself in the plural.  Something of this sort is present in the New Testament encounters with demons, who also speak in the plural: “We are legion.”  In contrast, Kitty and Levin become much more complex and intriguing by the end.  Their fulfillment in virtue makes them interesting.  The message is clear: vice leads to self-destruction and lack of identity, and virtue leads to self fulfillment.

As I reflected back on the book, I felt, as a reader, towards each character exactly how one should feel in light of Tolstoy’s theme.  At the outset, I was captivated by the Anna and Vronksy plot and bored by that of Kitty and Levin.  I almost found myself (especially in light of the book’s overall length) nearly skimming past the chapters devoted to Kitty.  She was superficial and boring, and I had little patience for her.  Yet by the end, the tables had turned.  I was so tired of the sinful affair and the pathetic nothing of which Anna had become, that I was almost relieved when she finalized her own destruction.  For right or wrong, “It is about time,” was my reaction.  I was much more interested in seeing what would become of Kitty and Levin.

Towards the end of the book, I prematurely felt that I “got it.”  I thought I understood what Tolstoy was trying to do.  Yet, in spite of my Catholic upbringing, I failed to predict the true climax of the book.  It ins’t simply that virtue leads to happiness.  The perfection of the human person is not found only in natural virtue.

Levin, devoted fully to Kitty, senses the same, that something missing.

“When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair, but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before…  He felt something new in his soul and delightedly probed this new thing, not yet knowing what it was.  ‘To live not for one’s own needs but for God.’  For what God?  For God.  And could anything more meaningless be said than what he said?”

Up until this point, Levin is an atheist; he struggles with Kitty’s religion.  Yet he searches, looking for proof, for that “miracle” that will convince the heart.

“‘I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language – we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good.’”

He is reasoning that man has an inherent sense of both purpose and morality, and the the two are connected.  Why should a sense of “the good” pervade all of human history?  This is the miracle for which he has searched.

 “‘I looked for miracles, I was sorry that I’d never seen a miracle that would convince me.  And here it is, the only possible miracle, ever existing, surrounding my on all sides, and I never noticed it!  Can this be faith?’ he wondered, afraid to believe his happiness.  ‘My God, thank you!’ he said, choking back the rising sobs and with both hands wiping away the tears that filled his eyes.”

Even in his natural state of happiness, the result of virtuous decisions, Levin was not complete.  The human condition finds its perfection in conversion, and it is thus with which the novel ends.  (I have picked and assembled pieces of Levin’s vast monologue -  will leave it to the readers to go through the rest of it.  It is a brilliant philosophical argument in its own right.)

The novel is a perfect exhibition of the three states in which the human can find himself: vice, natural virtue, and supernatural perfection.  Granted, we are never, this side of heaven, purely in one state, but the three states are real nonetheless.  The message of Tolstoy couldn’t be more obsious: vice destroys, virtue perfects, but there is something else even beyond natural perfection, and that can only be brought about by self-abandonment, conversion, and grace.  That being said, the message of grace is utterly Orthodox/Catholic: grace perfects nature – it does not destroy it.

When we understand this, we return full circle with a renewed understanding to the opening words: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It is not that sin is more interesting than virtue, for by the end of the book the reader is much more drawn into the plot of Kitty and Levin and has decidedly left the sinful affair in its own demise.  However, it remains true that there is only one path to happiness, authentic happiness that is: conversion.  Yet sin is as varied as the sinner.  Variety, however, does not make for interest anymore than simplicity makes for boredom.  God, after all, is perfectly simple, as is he one.

This brings me to the question of why, after five years, I found myself motivated to write about Anna Karenina.  The other day, when perusing upcoming films, I came across a trailer for a new adaption of Tolstoy’s novel, staring Keira Knightley as Anna.  Initially I was excited, but after watching the trailer, something seemed lacking.

First, the entire trailer focusses on the Anna and Vronsky affair.  There seems to be little mention of Kitty and Levin, though they are among the cast list and appear very briefly in the trailer.  Granted, the film, as well as the book, it titled after this character, so the focus on Anna is at the very least understandable.  It is, in fact, something about which I have often wondered.  With the destruction of Anna some fifty pages from the end, the climax of both the book and Tolstoy’s message is found not in her, but rather in Levin and Kitty, who share quite a bit in word count with the Anna/Vronksy sections.  Yet titling the book something other than Anna Karenina seems to detract from the story itself.  It is almost as it Tolstoy wanted to strike up an interest in Anna even before the first page.

What is more distressing about the trailer is that the affair itself is romanticized, something that is the result of a “true love” but finds its difficulties in the unfortunate situation in which the heroine (though in the book that she is not) finds herself.  Think even of the words Anna speaks at the start of the trailer: “I was eighteen when I got married, but it was not love.”  Love, being something about which  one “cannot ask why?” is a passive and mysterious emotion rather than an act about which one has authentic freedom.  The problem is that this is utterly inconsistent with the book itself.  The affair, while initially intriguing, becomes tiresome and shallow.  It is wrong, and the reader knows it is wrong, and the destructive path to which it leads is not only inevitable, but also just.  I have a sneaky suspicion, in a day and age that readily dismisses the permanence of marriage, the film will present Anna and Vronksy with more sympathy than they deserve, missing the first point of the novel.  Her husband will be an antagonist, as will her family in trying to keep her tragically locked in an unhappy marriage.  On this note, the main antagonist will be the Church (in this case the Russian Orthodox Church), which seeks to do the same through her antiquated rules and prudish definitions of marraige.  In this regard, the film will directly depart from Tolstoy.  Consider the following monologue from the conversion of Levin:

 “‘Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.  The Church?  The Church! … But can I believe in everything the Church confesses?’  He began purposely to recall all the teachings of the Church that had always seemed to him the most strange and full of temptation … And it now seemed to him that there was not a single belief of the Church that violated the main thing – faith in God, in the good as the sole purpose of man.  In place of the Church’s beliefs there could be put the belief in serving the good instead of one’s needs.”

I doubt they will change the end of Anna – it is far to famous a scene to alter or delete.  Yet the tragic end will be more of a horrific shock than a predictable result of her sinful actions.  The tragedy will be that Anna was not allowed to love freely the one whom she so deeply desired rather than the natural self-destruction that results from vice.

I will be completely surprised if the film brings out the second, and more important lesson of Tolstoy, that natural virtue finds it perfection in conversion.  The religious themes will be stripped from the story – Hollywood has little patience for Christianity.  The last fifty pages of Anna Karenina will be seen much as the Scourging of the Shire was seen by the filmmakers of Lord of the Rings: an unnecessary appendix.  And like Lord of the Rings, in choosing to eliminate the ending, the filmmakers of Anna Karenina will have completely misunderstood a major theme woven into the fabric of the story.

Perhaps it is premature for me to render such criticism.  I certainly hope I am wrong – the lessons in Anna Karenina are indispensable for a culture that has all but abandoned the notion of vice and virtue, so I will be among the first to rejoice if the film recognizes and communicates this.  Thus, in fairness, I will withhold final judgement until the film comes out, yet the tenor of trailer leaves me in doubt.

A Not-So-Fictitious Dialog about the First Gay President

I found myself in a Facebook conversation recently with a guy I don’t even know; a “friend” or a “friend: if you will. It got to the point where I invested enough time that I thought, hey, this could be a post.

I should point out that I have altered the conversation in two significant ways. First, I have eliminated all references to anything personally identifiable, which in some cases caused me to reword some sentences significantly – the content, however, remains unchanged. Second, I have actually combine the responses of several people under the general pseudonym of “Respondent.”

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Respondent [Original Post]: I think that it’s great to hear President Obama speak up for the rights of all people to get married. This has been quite an important week, politically speaking!

Jake: Just as I am typing this, I fear that I may be deleted and/or misunderstood. I will try very hard to proceed charitably in the same spirit of dialog for which President Obama has so often called.

My problem with this President and events like the recent news conference is that he seems to not fully understand his own position(s). Rather, I should say, if he understands them, then he doesn’t full communicate them.

For instance, he has on multiple occasions said that marriage should not be a federal issue (in his rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act) – that it is, under the Constitution, marriage should be an issue left to the States. Yet in the same breath, he, as a representative of the federal government, makes a statement on proposing the legality of same-sex marriage. It seems to me, and I am happy to be corrected on this, that the President wants to make things federal issues when it fits with his political agenda (health care, for instance, or the national legalization of same-sex marriages), but then play the state’s rights card when it doesn’t (like the enforcement of the federal Defense of Marriage Act). The Democrats are not alone in this – don’t get me wrong – the Republicans do there fair share of selectivity/inconsistency.

The inconsistency of this President continues in his deliberate promotion of himself as a Christian. Now, I am not here to judge who is and isn’t a Christian – thankfully that is left to the infinite mercy and justice of God. However, we are called, as Christians, to point out where and when those who claim the name of Christ stray from His Gospel. We can debate, hopefully with great tact and respect, whether or not homosexuality is sinful, and certainly there are many world religions with differing views on this issue … but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that Christianity does not condemn the behavior. Both Old and New Testament, as well as the oldest writings of Church Fathers are crystal clear on this. Again, though, let me clarify my position lest I be misunderstood. My beef with the President is not solely with his new-found evolution on same-sex marriage, nor is it solely with his self-identification as a Christian. My problem is that he maintains both simultaneously. An honest reading of the Bible, the foundational text for Christianity, simply doesn’t allow for this. I would respectfully ask the President to chose one or the other, and then let the intellectual debate begin. As long as he tries to hold both in tandem, no honest discussion can occur.

My third issue, to add more to the pending firestorm against me, is a very practical concern with the federal government getting involved with marriage. My practical concern is related to the recent HHS debacle. If the Federal government can start mandating health insurance coverage, then the door is wide open for the violation of religious freedom, as evidenced by the recent attempt to force religious employers to purchase medical options that violate their religious conscience. In a similar way, then, if the federal government gets invalid with allowing (nationally) same-sex marriage, then the next step will become to tell specific faiths that they cannot discriminate in their marriage ceremonies and practices. This is the kind of thing that happens when the Federal government starts overstepping its constitutional bounds and wades into issue that are to be left to the States.

Finally, I would point out that for those who are opposed to the President’s position, this is not, and never has been, and issue of equality. At least it is not any more an issue of equality than is the reality that a male cannot give birth. Rather, it is a matter of the objective nature of a particular reality. A man cannot give birth, not because he is in some way less human than a woman, but because it is not in the nature of what it is to be male. The position of those who defend marriage between one man and one woman is much more along those lines than it is along the lines of civil rights, equality, and the like. Marriage has a particular nature to it, and it is the position of those who disagree with the President that it is against the nature of marriage to have it contracted between two men or two women. In other words, it is not that people believe two men (or two women) SHOULD NOT get married; the position is that two men (or two women) CANNOT be married. They can say the words, exchange the rings, but no valid marriage is confected. Obviously there are those that disagree, but the debate needs to happen on this level, the objective nature of marriage and sexuality, rather than on the level of ambiguous and undefined “equality.” Authentic equality, much like authentic freedom, is built upon objective nature.

I think that is quite enough for now. I hope, as I tried to do, that it was charitable. Alas, the difficulty with the typed word is that it never fully communicates nuance, emotion, and a whole host of other things.

Respondent: Hi, Jake, I’ll simply say that the President hasn’t tried to get Congress to introduce legislation about marriage (plenty of other things on his plate at present, I suppose?). He was just expressing his opinion after Biden expressed his own opinion. I think it is good that they have been cautiously thinking about their stance on marriage and listening to the public about it. Many surveys I’ve seen show that the majority of young people in our country support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, perhaps because we grew up with these issues as a daily topic of conversation, I don’t know. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I’m glad that Obama and Biden continue to discuss and to listen before trying to get Congress to introduce legislation about it. Even Cheney endorsed the rights of gays and lesbians to marry (not just civil unions), and it’s probably because Cheney has experienced what his daughter lives with in her walk through life. Even a very conservative guy like Cheney can understand it because the Cheney family has lived through the experience of what a lesbian faces on her path in life. Until we live through an experience, it is hard to really understand it.

I salute the President and Vice President on this. As far as Christianity being crystal clear on homosexuality, the Old and New Testament are crystal clear on many things that even the most conservative of Christians choose to ignore.

Regardless, since we are a secular nation rather than a Christian one, Christian teachings are irrelevant when it comes to civil law. This is not an attack on Christianity, just a statement about how our government functions. Christian teachings are no more relevant to the functioning of our government than are Muslim teachings, Buddhist teachings, or the teachings of any other religion. And as long as we have marriage between two people as part of our civil laws, equality is very much the issue.

I just don’t like to “throw the first stone”. In other words, none of us is perfect, and I don’t know why people like to criticize the way other people live their lives. I’m imperfect, and I would rather try to improve myself, rather than spending time criticizing others. We are only on this earth for a short time, and I’m in favor of helping each other and building each other up.

Jake: I am impressed by the quality of of some of these comments. While I thrive on these discussions, when I write my thoughts down, it does not always come off as positive. I only hope people understand that this is a fault of my inability to communicate, and not what is in my heart. (Another discussion for another time might be how suitable the medium of Facebook is for having these kinds of conversations: a long discussion over a bottle of fine Scotch might be a more conducive environment.) At any rate, I will try, as best I can, to respond to a few items. The risk in these sort of thing is that too many issues are raised that can possibly be dealt with in a reasonable amount of space – but I will try nonetheless.

First, you raise a very good point about the President having not introduced federal legislation about same-sex marriage. Of course, for any sitting President, there are issues they support for which they have not introduced legislation (limits on time, energy, political capital, etc., will influence this), so the “lack of” does not mean he wouldn’t support such legislation. His comments indicate that he would; however, I am well aware that I am speculating – so your point is well taken.

First, let’s deal with the issue of what the Bible says and what it doesn’t say, and how much of what it says has been “overturned” either in other places in the Bible itself or by the various periods in Christian history. The best way to look at this is to note that Christianity claims, and has always claimed, the inerrancy of Scripture only in matters of faith and morals. In matters of science, it most certainly does not. In matter of prescribed worship – this is obviously something that can be changed organically throughout history. But in matters of doctrine and morals, I am not aware of where Christianity has changed its proverbial tune. It has been consistent throughout the centuries. (Now, of course, we will run into the side issue of the various branches of Christianity and their interpretation of Scripture – an issue that most certainly needs more space – but at least in their insistence that Scripture is inerrant in faith and morals, Christians have consistency.) At this point, I would turn those Christian supporter of same-sex marriage to the strong New Testament admonitions of St. Paul, a repeated phenomenon, against such an idea.)

Second, I would point out that, while we are not a nation with an official religion (deliberately so), neither are we entirely secular. The God of Christianity is invoked in the founding documents. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with you that the “laws” particular to Christianity are no more important for our governance than the laws particular to Islam. This is an excellent point, and duly noted. However, the argument I offered (that this is not primarily about “equality”) was not premised on Christian doctrine. It was premised on a philosophy in which we understand that the objective nature of things (either things of matter or things of ideas, in this case marriage) is prior to equality itself. True equality, like true freedom, must be built upon the objective nature of the things themselves. I stand by the example of a male being unable to give birth. Let’s compare this with the right to vote. Being able to cast a rational vote in not something that is inherent to maleness or femaleness (or the color of one’s skin), but rather something that is inherent to (adult) HUMANNESS. Thus, equality built upon this principle would suggest that it is immoral for a government to prohibit a female or an African American from voting. (I would point out at this time the invocation of a morality that supersedes government constructed laws; something is not moral simply because it is written into current law, nor is it moral because it is voted on by the majority of citizens.) Note here that the ability to cast a rational vote is not something inherent to being a child, which is why it is no way a violation of equality when we prohibit a five-year-old from voting. On the other hand, the ability to give birth is something inherent to femaleness, not to humanness. So, in a similar way, it is not a violation of equality to suggest that men do not have the “right” to give birth. (In fact, “right” here is not the correct word – it is too ambiguous.) It would, however, be a severe violation of equality and a moral abomination to suggest that a particular race of women did not have the right to give birth.

The question, then, is where does marriage fit into this scheme? Is the objective nature of marriage limited to one man and one woman, or is its nature broader than that? I understand quite well that many people disagree on the answer to this question. But the only thing I was suggesting in the original post was that the question of marriage law(s) BEGIN with this question rather than an undefined and ambiguous notion of equality. What is the very nature of marriage, and how does one defend this nature? This is where we must begin, and note that neither this paragraph nor the preceding one has mentioned Christianity (oops … until now!). Those who wish to defend marriage as that which is confined to one man and one woman do not do so based solely on Christian (or Muslim, or etc.) principles, but rather on principles of natural law – in a similar way to why we defend the inherent immorality of being able to arbitrarily kill someone or steal from someone.

Finally, I appreciate your comment about not throwing the first stone. We should not cast stones at individuals. I would, however caution against the confusion of throwing stones at individuals (of which I am sure that I am guilty form time to time), and the pointing out of erroneous positions. When I, or others, criticize same-sex marriage, it is no more throwing stones than the original charge of discrimination or implied violation of equality. To suggest that the criticism of gay marriage is a violation of equality and an act of discrimination is a point that one has the right to make, and in no way do I take it as throwing stones. On the other hand, then, when I suggest that a marriage between two people of the same sex is a violation of the nature of marriage itself, it is also not an act of stone throwing.

I would leave readers with this: a concise statement of my position. We should distinguish here between my political position and my moral position. It should be clear by now that my moral position is that the very nature of marriage includes one man and one woman, so marriage between two people of the same sex is not possible. Vows can be exchanged, but a valid marriage is not confected. It is no more a reality than me self-proclaiming that I am still 18 years old. I can say the words, but it doesn’t change reality.

However, my political position is much simpler, and I am curious what others here think about this. The government should have nothing to do with marriage. Why would they bother defining it in the first place? Why would they bother getting into the documents/certification? Nothing good can come of this except a conflict between Church and State. The government should stay out of it altogether and leave it up to private institutions (religious or otherwise). This solves the problem altogether, and then politicians (Democrat or Republican) would have no business making this part of their campaign.

[Note to my American Catholic readers: I am sure there are those who will take issue with me on this. You can see my libertarian bent coming through.]

Respondent: In law, marriage is a commitment between two people that has implications of rights of all kinds, financial implications, etc. There is, in law, no expectation of reproduction. So that “natural law” you refer to is not really of concern in the eyes of the civil union.

I think it would be preferable if the government had never called the civil union a “marriage” because it confuses the religious and the civil sides. If the civil union had always been called just that, and “marriage” left to religious institutions, we wouldn’t have nearly such an issue. But that’s not the way history developed and I can’t imagine we’d have any success going to that now.

So, in light of the fact that marriage has a civil definition, it should not – must not – be up to the government or anyone else to decide which consenting adults can join in such a fashion.

Jake: These are excellent points. Supposing we could reinvent the whole thing, I am wondering if you agree that the government should have never been involved with whole business to begin with? It seems like your argument is, “this is how things have developed, and so …” But what if we could go back? Would it not be better to have the government out of the business altogether?

Further, there is a slight problem with “in the law, there is no exception for reproduction.” You are correct, of course, and this I don’t dispute, but this suggests that the “answer” to the question at hand has in large part to do with what is in current law? Surely we can’t use that as a litmus test, otherwise if the legislature passes an act that in fact does put reproduction as part of the definition, then you would have to join my side (in conclusion, but not argument) by saying, “Well, this is what the law says now.” The question here, I think, is not what the law says, but what it SHOULD say, and laws are in fact based on the natural law, otherwise they have no weight.

Further, if the definition of marriage is expanded past one man and one woman, I would ask where it stops. It must, after all, stop somewhere. If the definition cannot discriminate based on gender, can it discrimination based on number (can three people enter into a union); can it discriminate based on age; can it discriminate based on a definition of “person” (while not identical, in the eyes of the law, a cooperation is a sort of legal “person”, so should an individual be able to marry a cooperation, as absurd as that sounds)? It all gets very sticky, because at some point if the government is to be involved in the institution of marriage, then it must issue some sort of definition.

The larger issue here is the foundation of civil law. If we are not to base it on the natural law, then on what DO we base it? Is it founded on majority vote? Surely that can’t be, or we would have to defend past laws that most of us would consider highly immoral – we would have to defend them with, “Well, that was the sentiment in the country at the time.” And besides, I don’t think people in practice actuality believe this, otherwise we would never enter into these conversations – we would stop the argument simply by quoting current law. The mere fact that people see State laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as unjust and discriminatory laws means that they are using some sort of natural morality as a basis for judgement.

Respondent: What is your definition of natural law? Examples of homosexual pairing are found in species throughout the animal kingdom. Does that make it natural?

If our government gets out of the marriage business altogether, great. I would be happy with that. Let consenting adults do as they will.

Jake: The definition of natural law is that which is in the “nature” of whatever is under discussion. It is broader than the “natural world” (which I take to mean the world of matter) – and this seems to be how you are using the term. Every being by virtue of its existence is equipped with a nature by which it exists. Various beings can act either within or outside of that nature. An overly simplistic example would be a chair serving as a paper weight. It is not in the nature of a chair to act as a paper weight, and while it is possible for it to do so, the object in questing at that moment is acting more as a paper weight than a chair – it is acting outside its nature. My opinion of the matter is that even homosexual pairings that exist in the natural world are not consistent with the nature of sexual union. I know this is confusing, and the confusion has much to do with modern science and its reduction of the four causes to one (the material), so that “nature” is reduced to “that which is in the natural world.” We thus, as you wisely hinted at, must first define our terms.

Humans are different from much of the created universe in that we can actively choose, through an authentically free will, to act in a way consistent with our nature as human persons (or as male and female, if that be the case). While homosexual relations in the broader animal kingdom are, in my view, not consistent with the nature of the animal and its sexual union, the animal in question cannot be culpable for such action for lack of their free will. We, on the other hand, can. We can actively choose to act in accordance with our nature.

Regarding your second statement – I do believe we actually agree!

Respondent: I just think “natural law” is more nuanced and subtle that you seem to.

Jake: It absolutely is nuanced. There is no doubt about it. But this does not mean that it doesn’t exist and that we are not bound to both discover and respect it.

Respondent: So the idea that marriage must be between a man and a woman seems to me to be based on a simplistic view of natural law.

Jake: To the best of your knowledge, what is the nature of marriage?

Respondent: Two people in a loving, committed relationship, agreeing to spend their lives together.

Jake: Now that you have offered a description of the nature of marriage, I would ask you to defend it. (And while we’re at it, we should clarify a couple terms: do you really mean “two” or could it be more? “Committed” means what? How much of their lives are they agreeing to spend together?)

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At this point, the conversation dropped off. It has been a few days, and “Respondent” has not responded. I was trying to drive in the end that people will offer their own definition of marriage, but be completely unable to defend where that definition comes from, which leaves it at the ambiguous level of personal opinion. The Christian concept of the nature of marriage is based on numerous things, from biology to theology. While there are those who will disagree with the concept and the argument, we can at least stand firm in being the only ones who seem to be offering an argument at all that rises above the level of opinion.

This is why I tried so hard to keep the conversation on the “lower” level of nature. In the end, the “other side” must offer their own concept of how they understand the nature of marriage, and, more importantly, they must defend it.

UPDATE:  It seems that my interlocutor has finally responded, and it seems that the conversation has come to an end.  Here are the final two posts.

Respondent:  Frankly, I’m losing interest in this thread. But I’d say that whatever we offer/allow for heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.

Jake:  I understand your loss of interest.  This drives at one of my side points about Facebook and it not being very conducive to these sorts of discussions.  The energy it takes is ten-fold what would be necessary in a face-to-face conversation.  On your own time, I would challenge you to think deeply about the following:  Your final conclusion seems to skirt the issue of the nature of marriage and fall back on an undefined notion of equality. ” Whatever we offer/allow to heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.”  The problem with this is that it simply CANNOT be.  Examples of such impossibility include the ability to conceive a child through the process of intercourse.  This is “allowed” for a heterosexual couple, but not for a homosexual couple,. This is not for lack of equality but rather for lack of biology. This, then, only begs the original question about marriage and its nature. Is it, by nature, a reality that can only exist between a man and woman, or is its nature broader than that?  This is why I have worked so hard to get people to (1) identify what they think the nature of marriage is, and (2) defend it on some grounds other than, “This is my opinion.”

Georgetown: Final Examinations for the Bishops

 

There is no doubt that the Church in America is being tried and tested.  Not that she hasn’t been through this before, and not that it is a test isolated to the American prelates – but let not this diminish the current reality in which we find ourselves.  Make no mistake: the American Church is at a crossing point, or rather at the point of the Cross.  If the events of the last four years are not evidence enough, the sufficient proof lies in the unprecedented, stalwart response by our Episcopacy to at least two events: the invitation of President Obama to speak at Notre Dame’s general commencement ceremony, and the recent attack on religious liberty by the Department of Health and Human Services led by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Yet those opposed to the Church (in many cases from within the Church herself) will not relent so easily; it would be naive to think otherwise.  The attacks of the last couple years have not been the first, and they most certainly will not be the last.  While Christian hope teaches us that the battle has been won … while we know ahead of time the outcome of the great cosmic struggle between good and evil … we also know that it will be a battle until the end.  And each of us, as a Catholic faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, must decide what part he will play in the inevitable victory.  So too must each Bishop.  He must listen to the call of our Lord present in his consecration as the successor of the Apostles, and he must stand firm in his role to defend and protect the Church from the onslaught of prejudice, injustice, and violence against the human person.  When we stand before the Lord at the end of it all, we will not be judged on the final outcome of the war – that victory belongs to Christ and His Cross – but we will be judged on what part we played, or failed to play, as individuals to bring about the triumph of the Cross.
“The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”  How often have we as Catholics read these words from our Lord?  How often have we rested in the comfort of a promise that speaks to the Church’s indefectibility?  And rightly so, for contained in these words is the assurance that the Church will prevail until the end.  Yet lest we reduce these words to merely a defensive strategy, consider that the Lord did not say, “The gates of the Church shall withstand the attacks of Hell.”  The “gates” of which he speaks are not those that protect the Church from the advance of Hell’s army.  No, the gates in this passage are the gates of Hell, and Christ’s promise is that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church.  These words are words of spiritual warfare, for in them we find more than the Church’s charge to defend herself against evil – we find too a clarion call for the Church to attack the gates of Hell.
The Church finds herself in a time of trial, and the Bishops are to be commended for there defense against evil.  Yet it seems that we are forever being reactive.  Of course, this will always be the case to one degree or another – for the advance of evil will not cease.  Yet perhaps it is time to go on the offensive so we can see the reality of Christ’s promise to Peter, a promise that foretells the crumbling of Hell’s gates.  Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade, to refer to evil by its proper name, and to stop waiting for events that will eventually require a response.
This is all contextual, of course, for on Friday morning we read that Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, has invited the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to be a commencement speaks at their Public Policy Institute.  (For the sake of clarity, this is not the university’s general commencement.)  Is this better or worse than the Notre Dame scandal from a few years ago in which President Obama was invited to speak at the general commencement?  I leave that to those who want to attempt a more formal analysis of the two situations.  For my own part, there are at least three reasons why this event at Georgetown stands out even from Obama’s infamous “common ground” speech in which he promised to work with the Catholic Church.
First, this event comes after the Notre Dame speech.  For the first time in a recent memory, the United States Episcopacy spoke out vigorously against a University that would invite a speaker who is in public and direct conflict with the teachings of the Church and the message of Jesus Christ.  The impressive thing about the response was its form, not as a generic letter from the USCCB, but as individual letters from over 80 bishops.  The message was clear: those opposed to basic teachings on life and liberty should not be invited to spread their message at a Catholic institution.  Moreover, they should not be bestowed degrees of honor.  In light of this, there is no other way to interpret Georgetown’s invitation to Ms. Sebelius: this is a deliberate statement that the administration at this Catholic university cares not what the American episcopacy thinks or teaches.  They have no intention of listening to their Church, but rather will continue to act as they see fit.  In other words, they are attempting to usurp the bishops and make themselves a separate magisterium.
Second, Secretary Sebelius’ invitation comes in the context of the HHS debacle.  If the response to Obama’s presence at Notre Dame was impressive, consider that 191 bishops representing 100% of dioceses in the United States issued a personal statement agains the HHS mandate.  To make it worse, the invitation was extended to the individual who is largely responsible for the mandate.  Once more, there is no other interpretation: the Georgetown administration is in direct conflict with the entire American episcopacy, saying to them that the staunch rejection of the HHS mandate matters not.  They are an independent university, and they will invite who they will.
Third, Sebelius is Catholic.  While President Obama’s lack of membership in our Church does not give him license to violate the basic principles of natural law in his private opinions or public policies, the Catholicism of the Secretary of Health and Human Services does seem to add a bit more weight to the scandal.  This is an individual that has persisted in grave, public, and manifest sin by supporting policies in contrary to her own Church, and for this reason she has been instructed not to present herself for communion in both her home diocese of Kansas City and the diocese of Washington D.C.  While she has not been formally excommunicated, what does it say that a Catholic institution would invite to speak an individual who has consciously separated herself from full communion with the Catholic Church?  If Kathleen Sebelius is guilty of scandal, how much more is the administration at Georgetown?
I began with a call to battle, a call to not wait until situations such at these present themselves, but rather to attack them at their root.  Instead of defending the gates of Church against the advance of evil, perhaps the Church should beginning realizing her mission to advance on the gates of Hell.  An positive example of this in recent news is the instruction from the Vatican regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  In writing about this document, I mentioned how impressed I was with its specific nature.  In particular was the directive that “LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed, Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate [Archbishop Sartain].”
Here’s a suggestion: in light of recent failures on the part of Catholic universities to exercise prudence in selecting candidates for large public speeches and the bestowal of honorary degrees, perhaps the American hierarchy should insist that any university wishing to consider themselves Catholic will have their list of speakers subject to the approval of the local Ordinary.  Perhaps they should take this upon themselves before the Vatican requires it, before “local Ordinary” is replaced by “the Delegate.”  Then again, maybe a Vatican response would be more effective.

A Habit (or lack-thereof) of Disobedience

By now, most of the Catholic blogging world has heard of Archbishop Peter Sartain’s appointment by the Vatican.  Whispers succinctly delivers the news:

Citing “serious doctrinal problems” found over the course of a four-year study of the umbrella-group representing the majority of the US’ communities of nuns, the Holy See has announced a thoroughgoing shake-up of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), naming Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its delegate to conduct an overhaul of the group.

“Serious doctrinal problems.”  This is either the understatement of the century or … actually, it is the understatement of the century … there is no other way to put it.  The “Doctrinal Assessment” comes to us from the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei at which our dear Holy Father spent much of his pre-papal days.  It is worth reading in its entirety.  Among the highlights are little gems like this:

On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some Religious.

Or this:

The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious Congregations in other parts of the world.

Lest we think the critique void of specifics:

Addresses given during LCWR annual Assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors. The Cardinal offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink’s address about some Religious “moving beyond the Church” or even beyond Jesus. This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR, which should provide resources for member Congregations to foster an ecclesial vision of religious life, thus helping to correct an erroneous vision of the Catholic faith as an important exercise of charity. Some might see in Sr. Brink’s analysis a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But Pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help.

And then there is this:

The Cardinal spoke of this issue in reference to letters the CDF received from “Leadership Teams” of various Congregations, among them LCWR Officers, protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons, e.g. letters about New Ways Ministry’s conferences. The terms of the letters suggest that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. It is a serious matter when these Leadership Teams are not providing effective leadership and example to their communities, but place themselves outside the Church’s teaching.

Then one of my favorites:

The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

And this:

The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.

But one of the best paragraphs comes by way of conclusion:

This action by the Holy Father should be understood in virtue of the mandate given by the Lord to Simon Peter as the rock on which He founded his Church (cf. Luke 22:32): “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned to me, you must strengthen the faith of your brothers and sisters.” This Scripture passage has long been applied to the role of the Successors of Peter as Head of the Apostolic College of Bishops; it also applies to the role of the Pope as Chief Shepherd and Pastor of the Universal Church. Not least among the flock to whom the Pope’s pastoral concern is directed are women Religious of apostolic life, who through the past several centuries have been so instrumental in building up the faith and life of the Holy Church of God, and witnessing to God’s love for humanity in so many charitable and apostolic works.

Toward the end of the document are very specific directive given to “the Delegate” (Archbishop Sartain).  The “greatest hits” are:

The mandate of the Delegate is to include the following … 2) To review LCWR plans and programs, including General Assemblies and publications, to ensure that the scope of the LCWR’s mission is fulfilled in accord with Church teachings and discipline. In particular: Systems Thinking Handbook will be withdrawn from circulation pending revision, LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed, Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate. … 4) To review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and texts. For example: The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours will have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.

I don’t wish to tie this directly to the HHS debacle; it is, after all, a much wider issue.  However, one can’t help but wonder if the hierarchy, in light of HHS and events such as the Notre Dame scandal from several years back, is finally getting serious about making sure that those who profess to be “Catholic” are actually acting Catholic in public.  Where better to start than with priests and religious?  For my own part, I greet this effort with a resounding, “Amen.”
Roma locuta est, causa finita est.  There was a time when this phrase was respected and venerated by those within the Church, and I deeply believe that it can and will be once more.
I ran across the Washington Post’s web coverage of the Vatican announcement, aptly titled “Vatican: U.S. Catholic sisters, nuns making serious theological errors.”  It too is worth your time reading, but for vastly different reasons than the Vatican statement itself.  It contains excerpt such as this:

[Sr. Simone] Campbell sees the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy as a part of a post-Vatican II democratic evolution within the church, but worries that the male leaders fail to recognize the “witness of women religious.”

Such a claim that the male leaders fail to recognize the witness of women religious is not only irresponsible, it is also ignorant.  Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken widely about this important witness … but only when it is actually a witness to the faith, and never when it is contrary to the faith.  Yet the phrase that caught my eye was, “the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy.”  The mis-categorization of “female clergy” by the Post is ironically a strong argument in favor of the Vatican’s charge of “serious doctrinal problems.”
Sr. Campell continues,

It’s painfully obvious that the leadership of the church is not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue.

This is a misunderstanding of the the term “educated.”  “Instructed” (albeit improperly) Sr. Campell may be, but certainly not “educated,” at least not in the Catholic faith.  Even a dictionary recognizes that being educated means having been entrusted with intellectual, moral, and social instruction within the field in question.  The problem with the LCWR leadership is that they are distinctly not educated in the Catholic faith, nor are they educated in the authentic and beautiful witness that constitutes Catholic consecrated life, as evidenced by the numerous examples cited in the Vatican document.  They may be educated in something other than Catholicism, but they most certainly are lacking in education, not to mentioned formation, within their own faith tradition.
Sr. Campbell, however, enlightens the Post on the real motivation behind the called-for reform:

“I think we scare them,” Sr. Simone Campbell … said of the church’s male hierarchy.

Actually, for quite some time, I have thought this very same thing, except in reverse.  Why is there so much animosity towards orthodoxy in the last several years?  Orthodoxy is nothing new.  There have been those who have championed for quite some time the very same thoughts contained in the recent Vatican statement.  The reason there is an uproar now is because people are beginning to sense that the tide is turning.  It is the very same reason why people are suddenly outspoken by the extraordinary form of the Mass.  While its presence in the Church has never ceased, even following the Second Vatican Council, people have recently begun to sense that things are changing.  They look at the seminarians coming out of seminary … they listen to the things coming out of the Holy See … they watch the appointments made by the Holy Father … and they know that the tide is turning towards Catholicism (to shamelessly steal from Dave Hartline) … and this terrifies them.
By way of a humorous conclusion, the most amusing part of the Washington Post article was the pictures they chose.  Under the title of “Vatican: U.S. Catholic sisters, nuns making serious theological errors,” we find this picture:

And this one:

Now I don’t want to judge a situation purely by a picture, so feel free to correct me here … but … I hardly think the delightful sisters in the these photos are those being called out by the recent Vatican instruction.  In the first picture we have a group of young, energetic, and full-habited sisters, and at the risk of overgeneralization, the young orders of which I am familiar are orthodox to the very core of their existence!  The second picture depicts a sister receiving communion on the tongue while kneeling … call me crazy, but I don’t think she preparing to deliver a lecture on women’s ordination and homosexuality.  (The tour of examples becomes even more amusing when one flips through the embedded slide show to find images of Mother Theresa, Katherine Drexel, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and a whole array of full-habited sisters.)
So why didn’t the Post choose pictures of Sr. Campbell, or even more familiar names like Sr. Carol Keehan, or Sr. Joan Chittister?  The answer is simple: the reading audience would not recognize them as the “U.S. Catholic sisters” to which the Post title refers.  Forgive the pun, but even those in the secular world are in the habit of recognizing sisters by their … well, you get the idea.

Quasimodo Sunday

 

In the new Roman Missal, the name of the Second Sunday of Easter has been recast as “Sunday of Divine Mercy,” promulgated by the now Blessed Pope John Paul II.  A great feast it is indeed, yet “Sunday of Divine Mercy” is not the first name to have replaced the generic “Second Sunday of Easter.”  Before John Paul II promulgated Divine Mercy, the Second Sunday of Easter was known as “Quasimodo Sunday.”
Why?  Quite simply: for the same reason that Gaudete Sunday and Latarae Sunday are called so during their respective seasons of Advent and Lent.  Gaudete (Rejoice!) is the first word of the Introit (Opening) Chant for the third Sunday of Lent:  Gaudete in Domino semper (Rejoice in the Lord always).  We find a similar occurrence in the Introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent: Laetare Ierusalem (Rejoice, O Jerusalem).  In the days when these Introits were sung (or in the rare parish where they are still sung today), the very first word of the Mass heard by the faithful would have been a resounding “Gaudete” (or in the case of Lent, “Laetare”), and the “name” of the day would be immediately obvious.
These chants are part of what the Church calls the “Proper” texts of the day.  They are written specifically for each celebration of the year, much like the Collects and other prayers of the day.  It is a shame that these texts have been ignored by virtually every parish for the last several decades, replaced with generic hymns that have little or no resemblance to the designed chant.  Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL, stated in a speech last year:

Maybe the greatest challenge that lies before us is the invitation once again to sing the Mass rather than merely to sing at Mass. This echoes the injunctions of the Council Fathers in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and reflects our deeply held instinct that the majority of the texts contained in the Missal can and in many cases should be sung. This means not only the congregational acclamations of the Order of Mass, but also the orations, the chants in response to the readings, the Eucharistic prayer and the antiphons which accompany the Entrance, the Offertory, and the Communion processions. These proper texts are usually replaced by hymns or songs that have little relationship to the texts proposed by the Missal or the Graduale Romanum and as such a whole element of the liturgy of the day is lost or consigned to oblivion. For the most part, they exist only as spoken texts. We are much the poorer for this, as these texts (which are often either Scriptural or a gloss on the Biblical text) represent the Church’s own reading and meditation on the Scriptures. As chants, they are a sort of musical lectio divina pointing us towards the riches expressed in that day’s liturgy.

For this reason, I believe that it is seriously deficient to consider that planning music for the liturgy ever begins with a blank sheet: there are texts given for every Mass in the Missal and these texts are intended for singing.

With that brief digression behind us, let’s returns to the to the topic at hand: Quasimodo Sunday.  The name of the day comes form the first words of the Mass, the Introit Chant:  
Quasimodo geniti infantes, alleluia: rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupiscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Lest people think these chants a lost reality to the “old rite,” a form of the text appears in the Novus Ordo as well for the Second Sunday of Easter (Sunday of Divine Mercy):
Quasi modo géniti infántes, rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, ut in eo crescátis in salútem, allelúia.
In its new English translation, it appears in the current Roman Missal :
Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia.
The word quasimodo is a compound of two Latin words (split in the Missale Romanum), quasi and modo, meaning “almost” and “the standard of measure.”  Thus, the combination means “almost the standard of measure,” which in the new translation is reduced to “like.”
The quotation takes its cue from 1 Peter 2:2, which in the RSV reads, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”  (Incidentally, the Latin in the Vulgate reads, “Sicut modo geniti infantes, rationale sine dolo lac concupiscite, ut in eo crescatis in salutem.”)
It is fitting for this time of year, as we have come to the joyous realization that our salvation has been won, but through an act of pure grace, not as something that we deserve.  We drink of this grace with the only posture fitting of a gift: that of humble and docile reception.  The imagery of a child’s dependent reception is reminiscent of Archbishop Schneider’s observation in his book/essay Dominus Est:
[T]he attitude of a child is the truest and most profound attitude of a Christian before his Savior, who nourishes him with his Body and Blood … The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child (see Luke 18:17), can find its illustration in that very beautiful and impressive manner of receiving the Eucharistic Bread directly into one’s mouth and on one’s knees. This ritual manifests in an opportune and felicitous way the interior attitude of a child who allows himself to be fed, united to the gesture of the centurion’s humility and to the gesture of ‘wonder and adoration’ (Schneider, 29).
Given the promulgation of the “Sunday of Divine Mercy,” the image of childlike reception becomes even more prominent.  Mercy can only be shown to him who is childlike enough to receive it.
However, when one hears the term quasimodo, I would imagine the first thing to come to mind is not the Second Sunday of Easter, but rather the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1831 novel by Vitor Hugo (or some later film variant).  The name Quasimodo is given to the abandoned and deformed baby found by Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, on the steps of the Cathedral.  Frollo bestows the name of the child because of the day on which he was found: the Second Sunday of Easter, none other than Quasimodo Sunday.
While a good literary reference is always appreciated, perhaps it is time to rescue the name quasimodo and restore to it its original liturgical significance: Quasimodo Sunday, Sunday of Divine Mercy.
To contribute but a small part to this effort, I give to you two versions of the Introit for today, the first using a male vocalization, and the second using a female one.

Dominus Est!

We occasionally hold a reading group at our home in which someone brings a selection, and we read aloud.  This past Thursday, we read through a short book (and essay, really) that I obtained back in 2009.  It prompted me to dig up the review I wrote.  Enjoy!

 ************************************************************

“It is true that if it is possible to receive on the tongue, one can also receive on the hand, both being bodily organs of equal dignity…. Yet, whatever the reasons put forth to sustain this practice, we cannot ignore what happens at the practical level when this method is used. This practice contributes to a gradual, growing weakening of the attitude of reverence toward the Scared Eucharistic Species. The earlier practice, on the other hand, better safeguards the sense of reverence. Instead, an alarming lack of recollection and an overall spirit of carelessness have entered into liturgical celebrations.”

The above words were written by the Most Reverend Malcom Ranjith, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in the Preface of a timely and concise book called Dominus Est!- It is the Lord! by the Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider. Archbishop Ranjith concludes his Preface, “I think it is now time to evaluate carefully the practice of Communion-in-the-hand and, if necessary, to abandon what was actually never called for in the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium nor by the Council Fathers but was, in fact, “accepted” after it was introduced as an abuse in some countries.”

This brief 33 page work by Bishop Schneider comes at a time when many in the Church are discussing postures during the Holy Mass. In fact, the publisher of the book muses that one cannot help but wonder whether the text itself had a role to play in the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to return to the traditional mode of distributing Communion at his Masses, on the tongue to kneeling communicants.

In order to answer this question of the correct posture for reception of the Most Holy Eucharist, we must divide the inquiry itself into two more refined questions. The first is, what is the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharistic Species? The second is, what are the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament? As noted in the previous post the fundamental principle of sacramentality is that the sacrament effects what it signifies. Therefore, not only must the postures with which we approach the Eucharist as well as our mode of reception conform to the dignity of the Sacrament itself, but also that same posture and mode of reception will affect the attitudes we form in regards to the Eucharist. In other words, our actions are not only indicative of our person, but also our person is formed by our actions.

Regarding the first question, the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharist Species, Bishop Schneider takes the reader through a vast array of evidence from the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the Early Church, the Magisterium, the Liturgical Rites themselves, Holy Scripture, and finally the Eastern Churches and even the Protestant Communities. The tradition of the Church is unanimous in the insistence that the only proper response to an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ is to fall down on one’s knees.

It is interesting to note that the liturgical norms of the Church require a separate act of reverence and adoration if one receives standing, typically a bow. However, if one receives kneeling, no such gesture is required since kneeling is already a gesture of reverence and adoration. It is true that in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, when a dignitary enters the room, the people give their sign of respect by standing up. However, Jesus Christ is no mere dignitary. The fact that we stand for important persons necessitates that we have a separate, even more dignifying response to the God of the universe.

Regarding reception on the tongue, we begin with the principle that “the attitude of a child is the truest and most profound attitude of a Christian before his Savior, who nourishes him with his Body and Blood” (Schneider, 29). We can then see that,

“The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child (see Luke 18:17), can find its illustration in that very beautiful and impressive manner of receiving the Eucharistic Bread directly into one’s mouth and on one’s knees. This ritual manifests in an opportune and felicitous way the interior attitude of a child who allows himself to be fed, united to the gesture of the centurion’s humility and to the gesture of ‘wonder and adoration’” (Schneider, 29).

While issues regarding the proper posture of the individual due to the sacredness of the Sacrament, the very practical implication should not go overlooked. That is, it is in receiving on the tongue that we can best minimize the risks of losing even the tiniest particle of the Sacred Host. Quoting St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Bishop Schneider exhorts us to “take care to lose no part of It [the Body of the Lord]. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold-dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be so much the poorer? How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?” (34). (St. Cyril lived in the fourth century.)

Regarding the second question, the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament, it is time, roughly 30 or 40 years after the practice of communion standing and in-the-hand became widespread, to ask ourselves the inevitable question. Did the experiment work? Have we seen greater Eucharistic reverence, or have we seen an increase in lackadaisical attitudes? Has attendance at Mass gone up or down? Are people better able to explain and internalize the Real Presence in the Eucharist? An honest evaluation of the state of Eucharistic Piety in our time is bound to be dismal and disappointing.

What, then, are we to do? Must we have a long, drawn out process of educating the laity before we can return to the posture and mode of reception that has been far more prevalent in the history of our Church? Perhaps Romano Guardini was ahead of his time in 1965 when he prophetically wrote, “The man of today is not capable of a liturgical act. For this action, it is not enough to have instruction or education; no, initiation is needed, which at root is nothing but the performance of the act” (quoted in Schneider, 47). This is a much more eloquent way of saying that orthopraxy will bring about orthodoxy. Right actions will educate and enliven doctrine. It should be pointed out that the Holy Father, in his return to distributing communion on the tongue while kneeling, seems to have subscribe to the advice of Guardini. He simply made the return, and the people have responded.

While the mode of reception is at the center of Biship Schneider’s book Dominus Est, the book is an inspiring exposition of how to best reverence the miracle of the Eucharistic Lord.

The Human Face of Suffering

About a week ago, I wrote on a article that I read from Slate.com. Having never really been to this site, I have now found myself with the same sort of reaction one has to a horrible car accident … I just have to look. On the bright side, I think that any conservative blogger could find a lifetime of material on which to comment in but a few short days of perusing Slate’s archives.

Yesterday, there appeared a very emotional piece by a mother of a child with Tay-Sachs. My heart and prayers go out to this woman – I can’t even begin to imagine the daily struggles and emotional roller-coasters that she goes through. Yet there is something terribly unsettling with her story. Her opening paragraphs read:

This week my son turned blue, and for 30 terrifying seconds, stopped breathing. Called an “apnea seizure,” this is one stage in the progression of Tay-Sachs, the genetic disease Ronan was born with and will die of, but not before he suffers from these and other kinds of seizures and is finally plunged into a completely vegetative state. Nearly two years old, he is already blind, paralyzed, and increasingly nonresponsive. I expect his death to happen this year, and this week’s seizure only highlighted the fact that it could happen at any moment—while I’m at work, at the hair salon, at the grocery store. I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death. This is one set of absolute truths.

Here’s another: If I had known Ronan had Tay-Sachs (I met with two genetic counselors and had every standard prenatal test available to me, including the one for Tay-Sachs, which did not detect my rare mutation, and therefore I waived the test at my CVS procedure), I would have found out what the disease meant for my then unborn child; I would have talked to parents who are raising (and burying) children with this disease, and then I would have had an abortion. Without question and without regret, although this would have been a different kind of loss to mourn and would by no means have been a cavalier or uncomplicated, heartless decision. I’m so grateful that Ronan is my child. I also wish he’d never been born; no person should suffer in this way—daily seizures, blindness, lack of movement, inability to swallow, a devastated brain—with no hope for a cure. Both of these statements are categorically true; neither one is mutually exclusive.

I want to try very hard to not be callous in my comment, but rather pastoral in the best sense of the word. As I stated from the beginning, this woman’s story is clearly one of great suffering.

That being said, what is the proverbial “missing piece” from this philosophy? I can think of three such pieces that are worth considering.

 

1. Suffering is Redemptive

There is something drastically “new” about the Christian take on suffering. If we define suffering as that gap between desire and reality (or between what we want and what we have), the ancient east and the modern west have opposite takes on how to close the gap. The ancient east suggests solving the problem by eliminating desires. According to Peter Kreeft:

We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g., life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.

 

The modern west takes an opposite approach: we attempt to eliminate suffering by bringing what we have up to the level of what we want. This is true in both modern medicine and modern economics.

Although both work in opposite directions, the goal is the same: to eliminate suffering.

Christianity, through the Paschal mystery, takes a radically new approach: it redeems suffering and thus allows us to see it as a value in and of itself. As Christians, we are called to embrace suffering for the redemption of ourselves and of the world. I am reminded of the scene from Passion of the Christ where the Lord has hold of his cross and the soldiers ridicule him saying, “Look, he embraces his cross!”

 

2. God is the Author of Life – and the Soul is Eternal

It seems to me that this is an essential tenant of the Christian faith. The very first thing we learn about our nature from the Book of Genesis is that we are created. In other words, we are not our own, and nor are we each other’s. God is the author of life, and only God can decide when “it is time” (for lack of a better phrase). None of us ever wants to see an innocent child suffer to the degree that this mother has had to endure, yet even in these difficult cases, it is not our decision to make. Let us not forget, however, that the human soul is immortal. It has an existence well beyond the confines of time. Further, we know for certain that a baptized child not yet of the age of reason will be welcomed into Heaven – so whatever this child suffers here on earth, it will pale in comparison to the joy he will experience when standing for eternity face to face with the Living God.

There is actually something very laudable with the mother’s desire that “no person should suffer in this way.” While we embrace our own suffering, we also should work to a certain extent to minimize the suffering in others. Yet the line is crossed when first things fail to be kept first. The “first thing” in this case is the notion that God is the only one who takes the blessed soul from their suffering and welcomes them into eternal life.

 

3. God’s Ways are not Our Ways

This is so impossible to fully understand, and every one of us is guilty of crying out for justice, mercy, or some seemingly illogical combination of the two when faced with the hardest moments of our time here on earth. Few of us will experience moments as challenging as this mother’s trials, and virtually none of us will have to undergo the pain experienced by her son. Yet as hard as it is to grasp, the truth haunts us in the quiet of our hearts: as finite beings we are incapable of seeing the “whole picture.” We do not yet know everything that God has planned for both the world and for a particular individual. Only when it is all said and done, and we are granted the opportunity to “understand the whole” will we be able to find true solace in the events of this world.

What is curious about this point is that it is either a source of great consolation or bitter confusion. One either sees in the mystery of a plan not-yet-fulfilled a God who is a great architect that ever so slowly reveals His design, or one sees a tyrannical dictator who hides the truth from his subjects. It all comes down to the fundamental lens through which one sees the drama of life.

Regardless, my heart goes out to this woman. In fact, I can agree with her on not just one, but both of her points, properly understood. As such, I agree that they are no mutually exclusive. I believe with everything I am that she is telling the truth when she says, “I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death.” I also believe that she deeply wishes her poor innocent son would not have to endure the suffering that he has already had to go through let alone that which is to come. Moreover, I too wish that I had it in my power to save him from any more suffering in his life. In fact, I even agree that his “life” would be better if he were already in the presence of God. Nevertheless, I cannot agree that taking a life of which we are not free to take, making a choice that we are not free to make, is a viable option towards such an end. The end can never justify the means.

I have already decided to dedicate a part of my Lenten spiritual reading and preparation to both this mother and her very blessed child, and I encourage others to do the same. Through all the suffering, it is clear that his mother as an authentic love for him, and that is something that many of our “healthy” children lack so desperately.

The Inconsistency of the Left and Required Virginia Ultrasounds

Okay, to be fair, I think this goes both way in American politics.  I’ve always said that everyone is a fiscal conservative until it is “their cause” that gets defunded, and everyone is a fiscal liberal until it is “their tax rate” that gets increased.

Nevertheless, some things ooze such inconsistency that it is almost laughable.  As many are aware, the Virginia state legislature recent passed a bill that requires a woman to have an ultrasound before they may have an abortion.  As you can imagine, the pro-abortion constituency is out in full force over such a perceived “injustice.”  Now, call me crazy, but it seems that such a requirement should at least implicitly be considered under “informed consent.”  And besides, if those on the pro-abortion side are so sure that the fetus growing inside the womb is really just a mass of tissue, then there should be nothing to worry about, right?  Let us not be fooled here – the objection to the ultrasound has nothing to do with the requirement itself – it has much more to do with the fear that this just may actually convince more women that the baby growing inside them actually is a life.

At any rate, an article appeared on Slate.com by Dahlia Lithwick last Thursday that would have had me falling off the couch in hysterics had it not been meant to be actually taken seriously.  It was a great example of how the line between laughter and tears is often fine indeed when reading liberal commentaries.

The first laughable/cry-able moment came when the author implied … no wait, she flat out said it … that such a requirement constitutes an act of rape:

[This] means most women will be forced to have a transvaginal procedure … the law provides that women seeking an abortion in Virginia will be forcibly penetrated for no medical reason. I am not the first person to note that under any other set of facts, that would constitute rape under state law.

Okay, now let’s first note that no-one is forcing any woman to have such an ultra sound; the law merely provides such an action as a pre-requisite for the abortion procedure.  Any woman could alway opt not to have the abortion, and consequently be spare the “violation” of the ultrasound.  The logic here is intellectually dishonest at best, and manipulative at worst.  Under the same logic, we could object to any medical pre-requisite.  Besides, and I am happy to be correct on this, in the event that the individual decides to proceed with the abortion, is not penetration inevitable?  In fact, one could argue that the ultrasound is not a separate procedure but rather the first step in the abortion.

The argument continued,

Evidently the right of conscience for doctors who oppose abortion are a matter of grave national concern. The ethical and professional obligations of physicians who would merely like to perform their jobs without physically violating their own patients are, however, immaterial.

So here we have it … the left refuses to admit that the recent HHS mandate is a violation of conscience for individual business owners and religious organizations, they often even want to eliminate a Catholic hospital’s right to refuse abortion services based on conscientious objections, but now all of a sudden conscience should be a part of the conversation.

Lithwick goes on,

Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument about the obscene government overreach that is the individual mandate in President Obama’s health care law. Yet physical intrusion by government into the [body] of a pregnant woman is so urgently needed that the woman herself should be forced to pay for the privilege.

Another inconsistency: the Virginia law is a clear overreach of government by requiring an individual to pay to a procedure to which they conscientiously object, yet the ability of the Catholic Church to opt out of paying for practices that they find morally incompatible with its faith is just plain silly.  Am I understanding this right?

Finally,

You can shame and violate women, while couching it in the language of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s gift that keeps on giving—his opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart. That opinion upheld Congress’ partial-birth abortion ban on the grounds that (although there was no real evidence to support this assumption) some women who have abortions will suffer “severe depression” and “regrets” if they aren’t made to understand the implications of what they have done.

And at the end of the article,

Abortion is still legal in America. Physically invading a woman’s body against her will still isn’t. Let’s not casually pass laws that upend both principles in the name of helping women make better choices.

So, as is commonly stated, nationally legalized abortion is the “law of the land,” so while it is okay for you to personally object to the practice, please don’t try to push that belief on others.  However, even thought the same Court has made the ability of the States to prevent partial-birth abortion the “law of the land” … well, in that case they were just plain wrong.

So which is it, my dear leftist friends?  Is conscientious objection important or isn’t it?  Should individuals be required to pay for procedures they find objectionable or shouldn’t they?  Does the “law of the land” matter or doesn’t it?  It seems to me that the answer depends greatly on the ideology at hand, which in this case is the perceived “right” to abortion on demand.  In other words, we must accept a priori the right to abortion, and then we use any and all arguments available to defend that decision, even if it means speaking out of both side of the mouth at times.

Now, in fairness, it could be asked whether the political right is being just as inconsistent in all three arguments.  Whether this is true or not I leave up to political commentators.  For my own part, I submit that the Catholic position has no such inconsistencies, and here is why.  First, we don’t ground our positions in the law of the land or conscience seen as an unfettered freedom to relieve one’s self from any and all acts.  Rather, we ground our positions in natural law and conscience seen as the freedom to pursue truth and goodness.  Forcing a doctor to perform an abortion is a clear violation of his or her right to act in a way consistent with a belief system.  The act itself is the violation – the Catholic finds the act objectively immoral.  It is not that a Catholic doctor wants to perform abortions in some cases and not in others, it is that he or she never wants to perform them. In requiring an ultrasound for a woman seeking abortions, what act is being found objectively immoral?  Correct me if I am wrong, but an ultrasound, whether external or internal, is a perfectly acceptable medical procedure by both the left and the right.

Second, from a Catholic position, the natural law it the governing principle, not the “law of the land.”  Natural law, inscribed on everyone’s heart, deeply suggests that the taking of a life is intrinsically immoral.  Science has shown over and over again that the “mass of tissue” in the womb of a mother is a life.  Even rudimentary philosophy says that it is a human life.  But returning to the matter of conscience, if we understand that freedom of conscience does not give an individual the right to abstain from any and all acts (for instance, it does not give and individual the ability to refrain from stopping a violent crime taking place before him), then we can see that freedom of conscience does have limits.  The question for the left is: in what do you ground the limits of freedom of conscience?  For Catholics, the answer is clear: natural law.  Therefore, it is a violation of conscience to require the taking of this life.  Yet in supporting the required ultrasound, rather than seeing it as violating conscience, we understand in the greater context of the right to life.

Third, if freedom of conscience is at the service of pursuing truth, then how does giving the doctor and patient more information violate this process?  In other words, if a doctor has the “right” to eliminate the ultrasound from this procedure, the same logic could be used to dismiss all informed consent laws form the books.

Finally, it is always amusing to hear the left decry government regulation in cases such as this.  Somehow the government not only has the right, but the duty, to regulate Wall Street and the Health Care industry in a way that destroys any rational notion of subsidiarity and was never envisioned by the founding fathers, yet when it comes to a required ultrasound before an abortion … well, clearly that is a government overreach.

Religious Liberty: A Council Ahead of Its Time?

So much of the discussion in the public square of late concerns religious liberty.  Not to obscure the other issues involved in the recent HHS rule and its subsequent “accommodation”, for assuredly there is also the issues of natural law, the right to life, and others.  However, it is curious that the issue on the front line for Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been religious liberty.  I say “curious” not to express disapproval; quite the opposite, for I myself think this is the crux of the issue.  I say “curious” because it has caused me to reflect on the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, particularly those of the Second Vatican Council.

In discussions with various groups that are not in full communion with the Church (okay, let’s not beat around the bush – we mean SSPX here), no issue has caused more angst than that of religious liberty and Vatican II (except perhaps the validity of the Novus Ordo).  Now, there is a certain amount of irony to this, because the “conservative” apologists are now clinging (rightfully) to religious liberty in order to combat the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration, but the “really conservative conservative Catholics” (e.g., SSPX) find themselves in a bit of a pickle.  For it is this teaching of Vatican II that they have rejected publicly.  (See my footnote below for an apology and explanation of my meaningless labels.*)  Yet we have seen in the last month just what happens when religious liberty is not protected.

With that, let’s have a look at what Vatican II said.  The document in question is Dignitatis humanae (“The Dignity of the Human Person”), and paragraph 1 begins,

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society … On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it … Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.

It seems to me that the USSCB could use this paragraph as it mantra for the battle against the HHS mandate.  But let’s continue … from the next paragraph:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.  This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Now this is where SSPX starts to get nervous.  They would claim that no-one has the “right” to adhere to falsehood, and the Second Vatican Council implies otherwise.  As for the first part of the claim, I agree.  I made the point in a previous post that nobody has the “right” to contraception, not just from a constitutional standpoint but also from the perspective of natural law.  However, with regards to “what Vatican II really said,” I read over this section at least three times, as well as the rest of Dignitatis humanae, and I simply cannot see how it implies that people have the right to adhere to falsehood, theological or otherwise.  It does say that religious freedom is essential for man’s search for truth, and that political coercion flies in the face of this necessary freedom, and that “the right to this immunity [from coercion] continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded.”  Yet nowhere do I see that people have the “right” to adhere to falsehood.

At any rate, I meant not for this post to become an occasion for dialog about the SSPX-Vatican disagreements.  I meant only to point out that the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” may turn out to be a very useful document for those of the conservative political persuasion in the current climate, and that there is a certain amount of irony, because it was one of the documents of the Council that was most hailed by the “progressives” in the Church.

Certainly the declaration was written within the context of 1965, the year in which Paul VI promulgated it: a time when the world was still very concerned about the oppressive regimes of Communism and Nazism.  Yet I can’t help but think that (surprise, surprise) the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing, for we may well find in our own era the need for Dignitatis humanae.  The battle currently is in the medical field: the fundamental right to religious liberty being trumped by a fabricated “right” to obtain contraception and abortion services free of charge.  However, the battle lying just around the corner will inevitably involve the issue of homosexuality – here we will see a parallel conflict, but it will be the fundamental right to freedom of speech, either in religious or secular circles, being trumped by a fabricated “right” to live one’s life without criticism.  Consider all that is in front of us together with that which is to come, it warrants asking: was Vatican II a council ahead of its time?

 

*  I am at loss for labels here (as if this weren’t obvious in my use of “really conservative conservative Catholics.”  I inherently reject using the word “traditionalist” because all Catholic should be traditionalist – our faith is a faith of tradition, built on an original deposit that unfolds slowly overtime.  Yet “conservative” is a political term more than a religious term.  At the same time, politics and religious, while distinguished in concept, are not entirely separate.  (There is a reason why politically conservative people also tend to prefer more “traditional” liturgies.)  I hope that the point is not lost here … it seems obvious to me that the SSPC is a sort of “ultra conservative” group, clinging to a tradition that does not allow for any sort of unfolding, organic or otherwise, but rather is frozen in time (arbitrarily chosen as the middle of the 1900’s).  Then again, I write with a certain amount of trust that I am among friends who will understand the irony which I attempt to disclose, that, despite a lack of appropriate labels, the most “conservative” Catholics (so “conservative” that they have left the Church), are now in need of the one of the very doctrines they reject from Vatican II (the teaching on religious liberty) in order to be “conservative” in our current political battle.

Food, Guns, and Contraception: A Random Followup to Some Random Thoughts on the HHS Rule

Instead of responding to comment on my previous post in the proper place, I decided to do a followup of sorts to clarify two issues and to expand on a few of the initial thoughts and their reactions.  As a starting point, I want to consider the following comment left by “Mary”:

What about an employer forcing their religious beliefs onto their employees? My daughter is a nurse and works at a catholic [sic] hospital. She is not Catholic and feels birth control should be a woman’s decision. The woman has the right to decide when she wants to start a family. She was surprised when she found out that birth control was not part of the insurance program. She has been buying it on her own, and it is not cheap. What about those who can not afford to purchase birth control? Viagra is covered under the insurance program, and that is health care? Don’t think so. I’m not surprised that the article and comments here are all by men. It is not your body and you should not make the decision for women who want to use birth control.

It seems to me that this misses the point I was initially trying to make, and I take responsibility for any lack of clarity in my presentation.  To make up for this, I want to consider Mary’s argument from two perspectives.  Both perspectives will consider Mary’s assertion that women have the right to use birth control.  First, I will temporarily grant Mary this assertion and re-present the argument that it still does not make it right to force Catholic hospitals, Catholic-owned businesses, or Catholic-run insurance companies to cover contraception.  Second, I will challenge Mary’s assertion by arguing that women don’t in fact have the “right” to oral contraceptives.

1.  What if Mary is Right?

What if we temporality lend credence to Mary’s statement that women have the right to use birth control?  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will direct you back to my initial analogy of gun ownership.  I firmly believe in the right to bear arms, but this in no way means that I believe the government should purchase a gun for me, still less does it mean that the government to force my employer to purchase a gun for me.  There is a difference between the right to posses and use something and the “right” to have it at no cost to ourselves.  This distinction has been lost in the national conversation.  Even if Mary is correct that women have the right to use oral contraceptives, it still leaves me wondering why the cost for this should come out of the employer’s pocket or the pocket’s of the insurance companies.

Allow me to illustrate this point with another analogy.  I think all of us can agree that the human person has the fundamental right to eat food.  Should our employers then be required to provide us with our weekly groceries?  Should they be required to give us vouchers with which we can obtain meals?  Correct me if I am wrong here, but I thought the point of employment was to provide labors with a fair and honest wage, and the wage earners then get to decide how to spend those wages.  Think here for a minute how you would feel if instead of providing you with a paycheck, your employer gave you vouchers for very specific kinds of food.  Is this not a restriction of freedom rather than its expansion?

Actually, when you see the contraceptive coverage in this light, I think you will come to see that having the employer/insurance company forced to cover it is actually the more inequitable scenario.  Allow me to explain.  First, understand that contraception itself is not “free.”  It is a product, and as such it has a cost associated with its production.  If an employer is forced into providing this coverage for all employees, the cost of the plan will be effected somehow.  I will leave it up to the actuaries to weigh in on how this cost works out, but the fact remains that the cost needs covered in some form or another.  Contrary to popular belief at the moment, money cannot be arbitrarily created out of thin air.  (This is a more complicated way of putting the age-old adage, “Nothing in life is free.”)  Now, once the employer has this cost added to the plan, his budget must take that into account somehow, which will translate eventually into wages in some form or another.

Why is this inequitable?  Because it effectively means that all employees will suffer the economic effects of some people choosing to use contraceptives.  Of course, I am not naive enough to think this is a dollar-for-dollar transaction.  Rather, the costs will be spread out through actuarial means.  Nevertheless, would not a more “fair” system be to not cover contraceptives, to pass on the savings in the form of wages and salaries, and to allow those women that choose to use oral contraceptives under Mary’s claimed “right” to do so?

This is precisely what happens with both food and guns.  The employer pays the employee, and the employee then decides what to spend his or her wages on: food, guns, or oral contraceptives.  I would think that the advocates of “choice” would prefer this system anyway, for in taking money in the form of wages and then making an active choice how to spend the money, is that not a more powerful statement than having an employer (by means of government coercion) tell you how you have to spend your wages?  Said differently, the problem with Mary’s “right to contraception” plan is that is actually takes away the right not to purchase contraception – it results in less choice, not more.  If the insurance plans are forced to cover it, all employees are forced to purchase it, although some will choose to leave their supply at the pharmacy counter.  In effect, Mary’s argument actually reduces choice and freedom.

Two other points are worth considering here.  First, Mary claims that contraception is expensive, and that is why insurance companies should provide it “for free.”  The problem with this is the illusion of “free.”  It is basic economics here, something that seems to be absent from the Obama administration’s manner of administrating.  As I pointed out above, the production of contraceptives costs money, and to think that this cost will not be passed on eventually to the employees is naive at best.  The insurance companies are not going to take this “bottom line” hit – their very bright actuaries will work to makes sure that the cost is covered in the premiums charged.  The employer won’t take the “bottom line” hit either.  They employee likes to think of wages and benefits in two separate categories, but to the employer they are both part of a compensation package, and they both cost money.  Whatever is added to the cost of medical insurance will necessarily be made up for in salaries.  Of course, it won’t be right away, but it will be reflected in future salary negotiations.  Anyone who has been a part of contract negotiations knows that it is never simply about salaries and wages.  The “bottom line” will eventually be covered by all employees.  Thus, Mary’s daughter will end up paying for the contraception anyway through lower-than-would-be salaries.  When insurance plans cover something like contraception, it does not “save” the employee money, it simply forces them to spend some of their money in a particular way.

An analogy here is a local collect some years back that “gave” all entering Freshman an iPod.  On the surface, it seems like a “free and generous” gift.  However, the university is mindful of its finances, which means that the cost of this iPod is somehow or other figured into the cost of tuition.  Seen in this light, it is not a “free gift,” but rather forcing all entering Freshman to purchase an iPod.

Returning to the forced purchase of contraception, even from a women’s dignity perspective, I would think that most would find this reprehensible.  It is as if the government is saying, “We don’t trust that you will spend some of your money on contraception, so we are going to force you to spend it just to be sure.”  Once more, apply this to something like food.  It would be like your employer, under government coercion, withholding part of your wages and instead giving you food vouchers for specific items that the government deems “essential” to “healthy eating.”  (Actually, the more I think about it, the more fitting this analogy is.)  Wouldn’t it be better to have the money passed on in the form of wages to allow the individual the right to choose how to spend it?  Once you understand that you will be paying for the contraception in some form or another, does not the whole thing sound rather insulting?  In fact, I do something similar with my kids allowance: I give them a certain sum of money, and then I mandate that they put a portion of it in the Church basket on Sunday.  Why?  Because without the mandate, they won’t do it.  Why?  Because they are children.  When it comes to the forced purchase of contraception, the government is treating women as if they are children: they don’t trust that you will purchase contraception on your own, so they are going to make you purchase it.  (This is what they are doing with the health care mandate itself, by the way.)

The other more obvious problem is that this also forces women who chose not to use contraception to carry plans that cover it, thereby essentially purchasing it themselves (one the cost of the plan is passed to the employee in the form of not-as-high-as-they-would-be wages).  In this way, then, the whole issue is not about the right to obtain contraception, it is about the right not to purchase contraception.

Further, Mary brings up the idea of Viagra coverage.  There is an obvious difference, pointed out by one commenter, in that Viagra is correcting a bodily system that isn’t functioning as it should (and is thus much closer to actual “health care”), whereas birth control is doing nothing of the sort.  However, I will say that in this case I agree with Mary.  I also think that the government should not force insurance companies to cover Viagra, but that the employer should simply pay salaries and wages to its employees  and allow them to choose how to spend their money.  The difference here is that, to my knowledge, the government is not doing this in the case of Viagra.  In fact, it may help to clarify the outcry over the contraceptive mandate to imagine the vitriol reactions that would surface if the HHS mandate required the coverage of Viagra.

2.  But in the End, Mary is not Right.

All of the previous argument is null and void however, if Mary is not correct in her assertion that women have the natural “right” to use oral contraceptives.  In order to address this, we must first re-think the whole notion of “freedom” and “rights.”  The problem with our pluralistic society is that everything is couched in terms of “rights,” and further that this terms is never fully defined.  Even so, a discussion bases solely on rights, defined or undefined, could never actually be consistent, because “rights,” understood in simple unqualified terms, will necessarily lead to situations of “competing rights.”  In this case, we end up arguing over which has precedence: the “right” to religious liberty or the “right” to use oral contraceptives.  When we find ourselves at the inevitable impasse of unqualified and competing rights, the only thing left to decide a “winner” is pure power.  Whichever “party” finds itself in control will force its priority on the populus, and this is exactly what we see happening with the Obama administration.

The difficulty here is that freedom is not the random ability to choose between contraries.  Rather, it is the ability to choose the good.  Servais Pinkaers gives a great illustration of this in his book Sources of Christian Ethics by giving the example of a well-trained piano player.  An individual who has no respect for the “rules” of music and the instrument is “free” to bang randomly on the keys (a “freedom of indifference”), but a trained pianist who has been taught the “laws” and “nature” of the piano is able to create music, a freedom that is much more authentic (a “freedom for excellence”).

The moral life is not much different than the musical arts.  We are created with a purpose, a sort of definition of what it means to be “fully human”, what the Greeks called a telos.  We are “free” insofar as we act in a manner consistent with what it means to be human.  In a dilapidated view of freedom, we are of course able to act arbitrarily.  But such a view is not authentic freedomAuthentic freedom is found when we act according to our design, according to the natural law inscribed on our hearts.

Understanding the natural law is the only way to avoid the inevitable conflict of arbitrary and competing rights.  The only “right” we have is the right to act according to our design, to act in a way that is authentically human.  Religious liberty falls generally under this one “right” because we know that we need to freely pursue and accept God.  One can never be coerced into faith (even if the “faith” into which they are coerced is objectively “true”).

The question then is, does an individual have the “right” to use artificial contraception?  Does the use of contraception allow an individual to be more “fully human.”  From a Catholic perspective, the answer is clearly, “No.”  Now, it is not my intent here to defend the Church’s teaching on contraception – numerous arguments far better than what I could produce have been written about this already.  My point here is much simpler: we cannot approach this argument purely from some abstract and ill-defined notion of “freedom” and “rights”, but rather must conceive (pun fully intended) of “rights” and “freedom” under their proper telos of natural law.

I will give only one attempt at an argument against the “right” to oral contraceptives.  I mean this not as the only, and maybe not even as the best, but I do think is it the most important one to publicize: oral contraceptives are abortifacient.  It is in the very design of the pill that on the off chance (the measure of which is hotly debated) that fertilization occurs, the lining of the uterus is renders unstable so as to prevent implantation.  In this case, a newly created human person is destroyed – a life is ended.  Now, the fundamental “right”, if we are to speak in these terms, is the right to life.  Understanding the notion of “freedom for excellence,” the path towards fulfillment as a human person, or the ability to choose the good … none of this is possible without the possibility of living in the first place.  (Another “silver lining” to this tragic situation in which we find ourselves is the mere mentioning of this fact on national television by those members of the Episcopacy (un)fortunate enough to land an interview.  It is about time the terrible truth about abortifacients in oral contraceptives gets more press.)

This is not the best argument against the “right” to use oral contraceptives, because it is conceivable (there is nothing worse than the same pun twice in one article) that someday the pharmaceutical companies will develop an effective oral contraceptive that is not abortifacient.  Even then, seen in the light of Catholic teaching, there will still not be a “right” to use such medication to prevent pregnancy, the prevention of which drives a wedge in the very definition of marriage which by its nature is both unitive and procreative.  In doing so, contraception thereby does not allow a couple to strive towards their fulfillment as human persons in their marital vocation.  (For marriage, after all, is a vocation, and hence a “path to fulfillment.”)  Nevertheless, it the abortifacient argument is an effective argument here and now, because oral contraceptives here and now are abortifacient.

Random Thoughts on the HHS Rule

So much has been written about the HHS rule and its “compromise” that I hardly think I have much to add to the conversation.  Nevertheless, there are a few points that I think have been missing form the debate, even in Catholic circles.  Allow me to take a brief moment to give a relatively disconnected trio of issues that just may help to spark some more conversation.

1. Religious Liberty is an Individual Freedom.

It seems to me that the focus of the national Catholic conversation has been on the Obama administration’s violation of the freedom of religion by forcing Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide employees with contraceptives and sterilizations, a practice that is in clear contradiction to the teachings of our faith.  While this is certainly deplorable and the most overt violation of the First Amendment, what has been relatively missing from the dialog is that religious liberty is not merely a liberty granted to religious organizations.  First and foremost, religious liberty is an individual liberty.  Each and every citizen of our nation is guaranteed under the Constitution the freedom to practice one’s religion both publicly and privately and to not be coerced into violating our consciences by acting in a way contradictory to the tenants of one’s faith.

Thus, the HHS rule is not simply a violation against specifically religious organizations.  It is also a violation of the religious liberty of the individual business owner, Catholic or otherwise.  As a Catholic, the owner of a private business cannot, under the Constitution, be compelled by the government to pay for “medical” services that violate his or her faith, including contraceptives and sterilizations.  This applies not only to those companies that have a religious mission, such as EWTN or the Knights of Columbus, but also to the owner of a chain of restaurants, a manufacturing form, or an publishing company.  Further, it also applies to the faithful Catholic owner of a medical insurance company.  Forcing the insurance company to provide coverage for these services despite religious beliefs, is a clear violation of the protection guaranteed under the First Amendment.

My fear is simple.  If the conversation focusses exclusively on those organizations for which Bishops have direct involvement, we may very well see further “compromise” between the Obama administration and the USCCB, but tens of thousands of other Catholic business owners will be lost in the shuffle.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that even if the HHS does a complete 180 on the current issue, i.e. incorporating Catholic hospitals and universities in the exemption clause without the bogus compromise that forces the insurance companies to cover the costs and services … even then, the fight is not over.  Because even then there will be thousands of businesses who are not included in the exemption clause because business activities have no specifically religious purpose.  Yet these owners too have the right to practice their religion, and hence should not and cannot be compelled to act in a way contrary to their faith.

That being said, there is admittedly a certain advantage in focussing on overtly Catholic organizations like hospitals and universities.  First, they are the most obvious cases of government intrusion in the religious sphere.  Second, they have high profile leaders, i.e. the episcopacy, that will be forced to take a stand.  Yet still, we should not for a minute think that the battle ends with these organizations.  Each and every one of us is entitled to religious liberty as an American citizen, and forcing a Catholic (or other religious) business owners to pay for plans that include contraception and sterilization is very much a violation of this liberty.  The problem is compounded, of course, if the business is a medical insurance company.

2.  There is a Silver Lining.

The felix culpa effect never ceases to amaze me.  God can bring good out of the most heinous evils, the case and point being the crucifixion.  The silver lining to the current HHS tragedy is the unified effort of the Catholic Episcopacy.  While the thought that the Obama administration feels that it can abuse its power in this manner terrifies me, the response by the Bishops has given me great cause for joy.  When the Bishop’s letter was read from the pulpit two weeks ago, the congregation applauded.  It is a powerful moment for the Church.

Our Church, after all, thrives on persecution.  It is precisely in the midst of being “kept down” that we can rise up against tyranny.  Such is the lesson of the Cross.  There is a quote from 2010 that has been circulating recently, in which Cardinal George of Chicago says, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”  Whether or not the Cardinal is prophetic remains to be seen, but such an “exaggeration” may not be so exaggerated after all.

In light of this, I would encourage those whose Bishop was one of the hundreds that wrote a letter and had it read to send a note of gratitude.  Yes, it was a coordinated effort, but it was the coordination that made it so powerful and effective.  While Friday’s “compromise” is manipulative and nothing really close to a compromise, it seems clear that even this minimal response would not have happened had it not been for the organized outcry.

3.  ”Health Care” is Being Redefined.

My final point has been mentioned by several others, but it warrants reiteration.  There is a not-so-subtle redefinition of “health care” in this whole debate.  There is a certain amount of irony that under the president’s health care bill and the accompanying HHS ruling, I will not be able to receive Tylenol or toothpaste for free, but women will be able to receive birth control and abortifacients for free.  Tylenol is a drug that actually tries to cure something that is “wrong” with the body, and toothpaste is authentically “preventative” in terms of dental health problems.  Yet birth control and abortifacients have little to do with the health of the body.  In fact, they are often used for reproductive systems that are otherwise heathy.  They are designed to take a perfectly healthy and well-functioning bodily system and stop it from functioning how it should.  Since when did fertility and pregnancy become a disease?  Since when is birth control more “preventative” than toothpaste and abortifacients more of a “cure” than Tylenol.

Whether we agree or disagree on the morality of birth control is not the relevant question here, nor is whether or not we agree or disagree on the “right” of a woman to take these drugs.  The Catholic Church has always been clear on this, but it seems to me that there is something else at issue here.  Even for those who condone the consumption of these drug, it is a rather large leap to insist that someone else pays for it.

Let me give an analogy.  I believe firmly in the right to bear arms.  However, I do not believe the the government should provide a gun to every citizen who wants one.  Moreover, I don’t believe that my business owner should be forced to provide each of its employees with a gun.  Yet this is precisely what is happening with the HHS rule.  Even if an individual thinks they should have the right to use oral contraceptives, how does that translate to insisting that the government forcing employers and insurance companies to pay for it?  The only answer is to misclassify the contraceptives as “health care.”

I have two clarifications before I sign off, mostly to ensure that I am not misunderstood.  First, I understand quite clearly that oral contraceptives are occasionally prescribed for reasons not having to do with birth control.  This is emphatically not what I am talking about, and such an issue requires a separate conversation.  For my own part, I am of the firm belief that non-contraceptive methods such as NaPro technology have had far more positive results at a cost that is a fraction of many of the contraceptive techniques in dealing with serious medical issues.  Yet again, this is another topic for another time, and is not my intent here.  However, the media has successfully and unfortunately recast the debate in this light, causing a decent amount of public confusion over the issue.  (In a way it reminds me of a person who believes in abortion on demand up until the cutting of the umbilical cord who insists of focussing the debate on the “hard” cases of rape and incest.  In the HHS debate we have people who believe that the government can force employers to cover contraceptive for every purpose but insist of focussing just on those cases where they are not being prescribed for contraceptive purposes.  It is both misleading and disingenuous.)

Second, I am in no way claiming that an individual does have the right to use contraceptives (for reasons of birth control), less so abortifacients.  For my own part, given the objective immorality of such acts, such a “right” would be in direct contradiction of the natural law in which we were created.  My point was only that even if one believes in the right to birth control, it still doesn’t mean that employers or insurance companies should be forced to provide it anymore than they should be forced to provide their employees with firearms.

The main point is simple: birth control is not health care because fertility is not a disease.

The Triple Meaning of Epiphany

The Visit of the Magi

The Feast of Epiphany is preceded in importance by only three other feasts during the liturgical year. (As a good exercise, see if you can name the three feasts in order of their liturgical importance.) The connection between Epiphany and Christmas is not only in the fact that it is twelve days after the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, but also in its modern emphasis on the visitation of the Magi to the Christ Child. Historically, however, the connection is stronger still. Laurence Paul Hemming, when describing the history and theological significance of Epiphany in his book Worship as Revelation, reminds us that the feast of Christ’s birth was originally celebrated on January 6th rather than the current date of December 25th. “[F]ollowing the arguments of Sextus Julius Africanus … the actual birth of Christ was redated to December 25th …. So important was the date of the feast of the 6th January, however, that the established feast of that date remained, in both the East and the West.”


The Wedding at Cana

Once the feast was redated, what was the purpose of reserving January 6th as a day of particular reverence? It might seem at first that the date of January 6th was kept for purely historical or nostalgic reasons. On the contrary, Hemming indicates that the Feast of Epiphany originally had a triple significance: The Nativity (together with the visitation of the Magi), the Baptism of the Lord, and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Thus, even with the transference of the Nativity to December 25th, there were two remaining significations of the feast of Epiphany: the Baptism of Jesus and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Interestingly enough, “[t]he least of the significations of the feast (so much so, that it gets no mention in the liturgies of the East) is the appearance of the wise men of Magi from the East, the so-called ‘three kings.’”

The connection between these three significations is evident in many elements of the liturgy, but perhaps the antiphon for the Benedictus on Epiphany shows this most clearly: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.”
The Baptism of the Lord

The connection the Nativity shares with the Baptism of the Lord is more profound when we recall that the sacrament of Baptism is a celebration of heavenly birth. While Christmas Day is the celebration of the Incarnation, the earthly birth of Jesus, the Baptism of the Lord (as seen by Origin) is a celebration of the heavenly birth of the Savior, not in a temporal sense of course (because the Second Person of the Trinity is an eternal procession from the Father), but in an eschatological sense. There is, then, a connection between the Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the hypostatic union. The Christmas-Epiphany pair celebrates the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Liturgically, we hear this celebration of the hypostatic union and its importance in our own lives in the Opening Prayers from Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord.*

From Christmas – Mass of the Day: 

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

From Epiphany: 

 

O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
From the Baptism of the Lord:

 

Almighty ever-living God,
who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you.
The last example is reminiscent of the silent prayer the priest offers when pouring a drop of water into the chalice filled with wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” With the wine representative of divinity and the water representative of humanity, the connection between the wine and water of Cana and Christ’s hypostatic union is made explicit.  (For a more detailed explanation of the signs involved at the Wedding at Cana, see a this commentary on the thought of Fr. Robert Barron.)
It should now be clear that “[t]he central importance of the Feast of the Epiphany is that liturgically we are brought to see the connections between the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (Hemming). In a certain sense, this feast recalls for us the entire Paschal Mystery. It is for this reason that in Rome (and in many other church’s throughout the world) it is on this day, the Feast of Epiphany, that the Deacon, after chanting the Gospel solemnly proclaims in sacred chant the dates of the next Ash Wednesday, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and the following First Sunday of Advent.
The Feast of Epiphany, then, calls us to contemplate our own creation and its orientation to our new creation in Christ Jesus. While we may at first be drawn to thoughts of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the true gift of Epiphany is Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation. Therefore, the three gifts offered by the Magi should only be representations of our own gift of self to the Lord. As proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes (24), “[M]an, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
The universal call to holiness means that the mystery of Christ must become the center of our own existence. As with all things liturgical, the event of Epiphany effects what it signifies. While signifying our own divinization, the liturgy also brings about that divinization. Truly, through our Eucharistic participation in his incarnation-death-resurrection, we do “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” However, like all sacramental effects, we must dispose ourselves towards the reception of the grace offered. Our attitude towards our Creator must first and foremost be that of openness to the gift, an attitude that recognizes the transcendent reality beyond us, that sees with the eyes of faith that we are actors in the great drama being played out in the cosmos. Let us pray for this disposition so that Jesus Christ might become an Epiphany in our own lives.

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