Monday, June 2, 2008

Needed: New Approaches for Britain

Godspy has an interesting opinion piece by Austen Ivereigh up now about the “Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill” that recently passed the House of Commons.

Though the passage of this bill is certainly a setback for the pro-life movement in Britain, it should also serve as a call to a greater practical commitment to life in British society, particularly through the dedicated involvement of lay people willing to respect and affirm life through their own actions and initiatives. The policy statements of the bishops and the minority of committed pro-lifers in the Commons failed to stop the progress of this bill. Perhaps, now it is time for Christians in Britain (and indeed throughout Europe and America) to step back and return to basics, and seek to change the laws and culture “from the bottom up” like William Wilberforce did in the 18th and 19th centuries when he embarked upon another sort of campaign in defense of human life. There are some excellent opportunities here for lay people to work effectively in the public square on these issues, but we must first recognize that our commitment to life extends beyond the voting booth, policy statements, and Marches for Life.

More initiatives from the grassroots that seek to promote respect for life, especially through crisis pregnancy centers, care for babies with disabilities or terminal illnesses, the care of the poor and sick whose lives are considered “worthless” by the culture, and other efforts to dissuade women from abortion and convince the public of the immorality of abortion by boundlessly loving mothers and children will go a long way in turning the tide of popular opinion just as the human faces of slaves and the exemplary witness of committed Christians did nearly 200 years ago. Without a doubt, this bill is a huge defeat for the pro-life movement on the public policy front, but it opens up tremendous opportunities for new, innovative initiatives in Britain and should encourage those of us who live elsewhere to a renewed commitment to work on behalf of life.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Holy Father and US Politics

John Allen has an interesting little reflection on what Pope Benedict may say in the U.S. that could have an effect on the elections coming up in November. Will he say anything to indicate he favors one candidate over another, or one party over another?

Allen points out that if Pope Benedict XVI talks about the right to life, that that would favor John McCain, should he receive the Republican nomination, whereas if he speaks about ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq, that would favor whatever Democratic candidate emerges. Most likely, he'll discuss both. It's no secret that the Vatican sees both parties as significantly flawed, Mr. Allen points out.

He concludes his comments with what I hope more Catholics take to heart. That if we want our society to change, that change will be much more likely to happen if we Catholics begin living our faith and become leaven in our places of work, our schools, our parishes, and in our political parties.

In light of these considerations, I suspect the political subtext of Benedict’s April trip is unlikely to have much to do with the dynamics of the ’08 elections, since the Holy See, in tandem with many American Catholics, regards both parties as flawed. Instead, I suspect Benedict is likely to try an “end-run” around partisan politics, and talk instead about the formation of a Catholic culture in the United States capable of acting as a “leaven” within the existing formations, trying to transform them from the inside out.

That’s a more ambitious, and long-term, aim than sending signals about McCain, Obama or Hillary, but it’s likely to be Benedict’s message. What the pundits and spin-doctors do with it, of course, is another question.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation


It's great to see the power of the charisms, technology and personal relationships converge and form a new apostolate. Friend of the Siena Institute, Joanne Wakim, has launched a new nonprofit, Catholic Global Impact (CGI). CGI makes the six degrees of separation between the world's 1 billion Catholics an asset in being agents of God's transforming love. Check them out!

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Mugabe's Wrong


Catholic News Service reported on the response of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's response to a pastoral letter written by the nine bishops of Zimbabwe. The original story is linked to the title of this post. Mr. Mugabe's response reveals a narrow view of the place of faith in society.

"Mugabe, a Marist-educated Catholic, told the London-based New African magazine that he was not at Mass on Easter to hear the bishops' letter read.

'If I had gone to church and the priest had read that so-called pastoral letter, I would have stood up and said "nonsense,"'he said in an interview in the May edition of the magazine.

Mugabe, 83, said the letter is not 'something spiritual, it is not religious,' and the bishops 'have decided to turn political.'

'And once they turn political, we regard them as no longer being spiritual, and our relations with them would be conducted as if we are dealing with political entities, and this is quite a dangerous path they have chosen for themselves,' he said.

Aside from the not-so-veiled threats made against the bishops, there is a misunderstanding beneath Mugabe's words that is common here in the United States. The error is to believe that a person of faith, if they act according to their faith in the public forum, have moved beyond the area of faith. Sometimes it's said they've "politicized" their faith, other times, they are accused of acting politically, rather than spiritually, as Mr. Mugabe claims.

Pope Benedict has emphasized the Second Vatican Council's wider goal: to bring the faith out of the private sphere and renew it as the driving force of history. In the context of Mr. Mugabe's comments, it's important to consider a few quotes from the teaching of the Council and other magisterial documents.

First of all, according to the Council Fathers' teaching, the Zimbabwean bishops have a right to address, even critique President Mugabe's policies. "It is only right, however, that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, she should make use of all the means-but only those-which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good according to the diversity of the times and circumstances." Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 76

In fact, the bishops - and all Catholics within Zimbabwe - would be remiss if they did not speak out against a government that is disregarding basic human rights. "For Catholic moral doctrine, the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality – is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to inheritance of contemporary civilization...The right and duty of Catholics and all citizens to seek the truth with sincerity and to promote and defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person, is something quite different. The fact that some of these truths may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful 'autonomy' of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them" Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 6

The kind of disjuncture that President Mugabe would make between one's spiritual life and political life is precisely what the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity from the Council warns against.

"There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact...every activity, every situation, every precise responsibility – as, for example, skill and solidarity in work, love and dedication in the family and the education of children, service to society and public life and the promotion of truth in the area of culture – are the occasions ordained by providence for a ‘continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity’" (Apostolicam actuositatem, 4)

Yes, Mr. Mugabe's wrong to suggest that the bishops are no longer acting spiritually, but only politically. But how many Americans would agree with him?

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Catholics in Political Life

With the death of Fr. Robert Drinan, SJ, the Jesuit who served as a representative for the state of Massachusetts in the House from 1971-1981, the issue of Catholics, Catholic teaching, bishops and politics is surfacing. An article on the Church's influence on the state in Latin America (linked above) talks about the various relationships between secular leaders, bishops and lay Catholics throughout that region (including the fact that a minority of Catholics throughout the region identify themselves as "practicing!")

Recently there was a heated discussion on Amy Wellborn's blog about the U.S. bishops' statements on the war in Iraq and immigration, and with the 2008 race for the White House beginning already, it's only a matter of time before the Vatican's "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" becomes an issue. Here's a few choice quotes from that document, along with a couple of brief observations.

'The commitment of Christians in the world has found a variety of expressions in the course of the past 2000 years. One such expression has been Christian involvement in political life: Christians, as one Early Church writer stated, "play their full role as citizens"....

By fulfilling their civic duties, "guided by a Christian conscience", in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility.... The right and duty of Catholics and all citizens to seek the truth with sincerity and to promote and defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person, is something quite different....

By its interventions in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends – as is its proper function – to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. "There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture."'

When I arrived in Eugene, OR, as pastor of the Newman Center there, the state was in the middle of a contentious ballot measure that eventually opened the door to state-sanctioned euthanasia, or "death with dignity," depending upon your point of view. The local dioceses spent, I believe, about $1-2 million to defeat the measure, publishing various pamphlets that carefully outlined an opposition to the measure which did not mention suicide, but, instead, focused on the dignity of life and the effects of state-sponsored euthanasia in Europe, as well as possible unintended side effects that might pressure terminally ill patients to choose "death with dignity." Among these were fears that the elderly, especially, wouldn't want to be a "burden," or "eat up my children's inheritance," as well as the fear of experiencing physical pain.

The ballot measure passed, perhaps because in a largely unchurched state, the proponents of the measure claimed the Catholic Church was trying to force its doctrine upon everyone. In fact, what the bishops were attempting was to "instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good." All of us who are able to vote are "involved in political life," and have an obligation to study and understand as best as we are able, the Church's teaching. The presumption behind this isn't to re-establish Christendom, where there is no distinction between Church and State, but rather the idea that supporting the common good and promoting the legitimate rights of the individual (sometimes a difficult balancing act) will lead to peace, justice and equity that benefits us all.

I vaguely recall when Fr. Drinan was asked to not run for re-election after five terms in office. I remember Catholics being upset because they thought, "who wouldn't be a better, more honest, more Christian politician than a priest?" Others saw it as a slap against the political process as being "beneath" a cleric, or a meddling in our political system, or a reaction to some of his politics. I recall not understanding the decision myself.

I see it differently now, however. As a priest, my job is to serve the Church by helping the laity under my jurisdiction understand their gifts and calls, and to help them understand the Scriptures and Magisterial teachings so that they can apply these to the difficult situations we have to address in the secular realm. A priest running for office (including a retired bishop in Paraguay who is running for president there) is proposing to lead in the arena the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said is the proper jurisdiction of the laity. My apostolate as a priest (sanctifying, teaching and governing) is focused primarily within the Church – particularly with regard to helping the laity be better equipped to succeed at their apostolate (sanctifying, teaching, governing), which is directed towards the world. This can include helping the laity organize and coordinate their gifts, talents and skills in order to better address needs in the secular realm. In that sense I am involved indirectly in shaping secular society. Unfortunately, when we forget that the Church's primary mission is to the world, we get caught up in who is able to do what in the sanctuary and in the sacristy. If what happens there is seen as having primary importance, I have to take some responsibility for that as a priest. It means I have forgotten the primary call of the Church to "infuse the temporal order with Christian values," i.e., to evangelize individuals and transform the institutions and structures of society so that they reflect what is truly human.

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