On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Elder brothers and elbows

Christ freely chose to pour out his lifeblood for the salvation of that frivolous young punk, mankind. Far from resenting us for receiving such a lavish, unearned outpouring of the Father’s mercy, Christ’s perfect love made Him rejoice to personify that mercy, even as he bled.

And yet. Christ is our brother. I don’t know what to make of that elbow nudge, that insistent reminder that he is right next to me.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Is Vatican II to blame for the sex abuse scandal?

The Catholic Herald UK reports

Mgr Peter Smith, former chancellor of Glasgow archdiocese, said the Church accepted conventional wisdom of the 1970s that it was “better to repair the [abuser], to fix them or to redeem them”, than punish them. In that era priests accused of abuse could be sent for therapy rather than face criminal charges.

The paper is reporting Mgr Smith’s words with the strong insinuation that Vatican II is to blame for the scandal. I’m not sure if that’s what he really meant, or if his comments might be taken out of context. But I have most certainly heard other Catholics say outright that we can pin the sex abuse scandal on the laxness, the sloppiness, and the psychological sentimentality of the 70’s and Vatican II’s implementation. Vatican II, at least the way it played out in many places, was all about letting go of mean old rules and regulations, and doing what felt good, they argue. Of course we had abusers.

But they are forgetting one thing: Almost 70% of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970. They weren’t formed in feel-good Vatican II seminaries. These were old school guys. They are the ones who were molesting kids, and their world was the world that allowed it to happen.

The sex abuse scandal has three components:

1. Priests abusing kids;
2. The Church knowing about it, and letting it continue; and
3. Various people either not believing kids or parents who reported abuse, or being too in awe of priests to do anything about it, or blaming the kids for the abuse.

This third one has absolutely zero to do with any touchy-feely spirit of Vatican II, and everything to do with what Vatican II set out to change in the Church, because it needed changing.

Priests did not suddenly begin to abuse kids in the early 70’s (although the reports of alleged abuse peaked then; which is not to say that there was necessarily more abuse, but only that more people reported it). Many of the victims who came forward to report childhood abuse, after the Boston Globe‘s work started to gather steam, were children in the 1950’s. At that time, it was unthinkable to criticize a priest, unthinkable to believe that Father could do wrong, unthinkable to go over a priest’s head. There simply wasn’t any precedent for doing such a thing, other than, like, Martin Luther.

Sex abuse by clergy wasn’t a problem of loosey-goosey, post-sexual-revolutionary perverts infiltrating an institution that had heretofore been utterly chaste and holy. This was a problem of a horrible marriage between two deadly trends in the Church and in the country as a whole: the nascent sexual perversions that pervaded 1950’s American culture, and the institutional perverted understanding of authority and respect.

Where do you suppose the sexual revolution came from? Out of nowhere? It never could have happened if things weren’t already rotten underground; and it was just as true in the Church as it was everywhere else in the country. It’s a lie that things were wholesome and pure in the 50’s. But that grotesque artifice of happy, shiny exteriors worked exceedingly well together with the “Father knows best,” mentality. If Doris Day had to smile and have perfect hair no matter what, good Catholic families had to be respectful and obedient to their pastor no matter what. There was no room for going off script, even when lives were at stake.

Children who were molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who knew their kids were being molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who reported abuse were not believed, because it was Father.
Kids were rightly afraid that no one would believe them. Parents were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Parishes were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Bishops were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. And so this horrible carapace of silence was formed to cover up and cover up and cover up, shift the blame, shift the responsibility, and never look at the person at the heart of the problem.

And yes, the errors of the 70’s perpetuated the problem. It is very true that in the 70’s, the 80’s, and beyond, the Church and the rest of the country believed that one could simply see a therapist, attend a few classes, and not be a real danger to kids anymore. That was horrible. But it was no worse than the attitude it replaced, which was that Such Things Never Happened, and if they did, we Simply Don’t Talk About Them.

Of course, dreadful to say, the abuse scandal almost certainly goes back further than the 1950’s — centuries further — but those victims aren’t alive to give their testimony. But at very least, we can put to rest the idea that this hideous stain on our history came about by means of the Vatican II-style “Church of Nice.”

It’s always tempting, when we see gross behavior, to blame it on those who speak of mercy, of forgiveness, of healing. It’s tempting to think, “If we just clamped down and got tough, like we did back in the old days when everyone wore hats, then we’d have none of this nonsense!”

But the real lesson here isn’t that mercy is an error. The real lesson is that mercy and forgiveness can be abused just like innocence can be abused, and that evil is endlessly adaptable. It will grab hold of whatever weakness, foolishness, and wickedness is popular in any age, and it will put it in the service of sin.

Hell is overjoyed when we learn all the wrong lessons from suffering. Violation of innocents was horrible enough. Let’s not compound the outrage by trying to root true mercy, true forgiveness, and true compassion out of the heart of our Church.

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Photo by Milliped (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We have one job

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. She wanted—no, needed—everything to be perfect. She planned and prepped for days, chopping vegetables, rolling dough, scrubbing baseboards, and counting silverware. On the day of the feast, she was up with the sun, full of determination and manic good cheer.

As the day wore on, the good cheer waned and the manic levels rose. Pots boiled over and were turned down; ovens smoked and windows were opened. The clock ticked, and little by little, the meal started to come together. The guests would be there in a matter of hours. Could she pull off the perfect day? She really thought she could.

Then, suddenly: calamity. She ran out of butter! Real butter, creamy and fat, the fuel that makes the Thanksgiving engine run. She had to have some. She shrieked for her husband and sent him out to the store, with instructions to come back as quickly as he could with at least two pounds of butter.

Off he went. And he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back. She grew more and more frantic and considered her options. She could cook without butter. No, impossible. She could just explain things to the guests. Unthinkable. She could burn the house down and move to Guadalajara. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Just as she began to search for her passport, her husband’s car screeched into the driveway. He was home, home with the butter! Hallelujah, the day was saved!

With trembling fingers, she snatched open the bag . . . and then fell back, the words of thanks dying in her throat. She croaked. She gabbled. She gaped.

There on the table was a three-pound tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!

“Boy, the stores were crowded!” her husband said. ”I guess everyone was shopping for Thanksgiving. But I knew you would like this, because you just wanted two pounds of butter, and this is three!”

What the young woman replied, I cannot record here. But she did point out to her husband, possibly dozens of times, that, “It says right on the package that IT’S NOT BUTTER.”

Well, Thanksgiving happened anyway. The food was hot and bountiful, the guests were jovial, and if anyone noticed that the butter was not butter, no one mentioned it. It was a good Thanksgiving.

You may think I’m going to wrap this story up with a moral about how we ought to be thankful for the best efforts of our loved ones, and that what really matters in the end is family, peace, joy, harmony, and good intentions.

But, no. What I’m thinking is, “Seriously, it said, ‘IT’S NOT BUTTER’ right on the package. Right on there! And he brought it home anyway!”

Know who that reminds me of? Me. Not on Thanksgiving, but every week, every day. Every time I go to Mass, the last thing I hear is, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” God is telling us, “Look, you have one job. One job. Go and serve me.”

And I say, “Amen, Boss!” and off I go.

And then what do I do? I come back with a giant tub of “I Can’t Believe I’m Not Serving God!” And I jog back into his temple, all hopeful and proud with my ridiculous little package clutched under my arm, and I say, “See? Look what I found for you! Good, huh? Just what you asked for, right?”

It’s not what he asked for. It’s a substitute. It says right on the package that it’s not what he wants. And God opens the package, and he says…

“Close enough. Come on in, thou good enough, faithful enough servant. Come on in to the feast I have prepared for you. Sit down with your family in the home of your Father, and let us have a meal together.”

And that, my friends, is why we celebrate Thanksgiving. Not because we have it all together, not because things turned out perfectly, not because we never disappoint each other, or because we always please God. We celebrate Thanksgiving because God loves us even when we fail—especially when we fail.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love is everlasting.

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This essay was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all)

black-and-white-forest-trees-branches

A caller once asked radio host Dr. Laura for advice about an impossible situation. I forget the details — something about lots of children and lots of fathers, various addictions, various betrayals, and a family tree that was twisted and ingrown and diseased. Dr. Laura could not offer much hope to the caller, other than to point out that her story shows why it’s so important not to have kids out of wedlock.

“But–” the caller protested.  “What if I can get my boyfriend to go to therapy?” Dr. Laura laughed – cruelly, I thought.
“Therapy?” she said incredulously. “Therapy isn’t magic. It can’t fix everything. Honey, not everything can be fixed.”

I’ve since stopped listening to Dr. Laura. She has some good ideas, but she has a lot of bad ones, too, and she has very little concept of mercy. But boy, she was right about this thing: not everything can be fixed.

Oh, in the long run it can, of course. Despite the anguished mental contortions of Ivan Karamazov, the second coming of Christ will bring about a thorough reconciliation of all things, unimaginable to our limited consciences. But in this world, there are some situations which have become so twisted and ingrown and diseased that they cannot be fixed.

These situations are what we’re seeing as we work through various solutions to “irregular marital situations.” Darwin Catholic points out that some people are speaking as if there are only two ways of describing marriage: either adulterous, and therefore bad, or loving, and therefore good.  He says:

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

He uses the example of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who began their relationship in adultery — and yet they stayed together for decades, clearly loving and supporting and cherishing each other. Darwin says:

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who’s to say it wasn’t both?

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That’s one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

Very true. We want to see the world as black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, love vs. H8, so that it’s easy to choose sides — and once you make our stand, we can relax.

Well, we can’t relax. Every day is a struggle to discern the right thing to do in individual situations, which may have changed drastically since yesterday. But also,  every day is a struggle to discern how to treat people who are in a bad situation that they can’t get out of — that they can’t therapize away. How to be loving toward people who are in situations that can’t be fixed?

The other day, I suggested that the best we can do, in some unfixable marital situations, is to treat these couples as part of a larger family — to be welcoming of people living in sin if only for the sake of their children and all the other people their lives affect. This welcome doesn’t really help the couple involved, of course, unless their rightfully-married spouse dies, or unless they receive the grace to muster the heroic resolve to make their adulterous (albeit loving) relationship into a chaste one. One can make a spiritual act of communion and worship God no matter what, but remaining in a state of mortal sin is not a long term plan anyone should be comfortable with.

It would also be a wonderful thing to offer beefed-up  marriage preparation and support after marriage, so that fewer couples find themselves in invalid or impossibly difficult marriages.

I wish, though, that we could move past just repeating, “Not everything can be fixed.”  Okay, not everything can be fixed . . . but this is not a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation.

I’m so tired, like Darwin, of hearing from people who should know better that the world is black and white. It’s not.

Some Catholics would like to say, “Lower the boom! The Eucharist isn’t for people in mortal sin, and adultery is a mortal sin. Jesus doesn’t care about your stupid feeeeeelings, so hit the road, adulterers, and take your bastard kids with you, if you even bothered to have any, ptui.” And others would like to say, “We’re all sinners, and God is love, so why are we even bothering to talk about  – ptui – sin? Let’s be on the side of love. Here’s a Host for you, and a Host for you, and a Host for you . . . . ”

But that’s not how things really work. Not all couples living in marital sin are honest, virtuous, loving sorts who simply got dealt a bad spousal hand, and now the mean old Church just won’t let them have Jesus because of spite; but neither are all couples living in sin just squalid hedonists who followed their genitals into mortal sin and disastrous home lives. Not all couples in valid marriages are upright, devout cornerstones of society who are holding the Church together with the sheer awesomeness of their sacramental devotion; but neither are all couples in valid marriages are just lucky ducks who happened to stumble across a ready-made, shiny, happy, stable homelife.

Some of us worked hard and still lost; some of us got lucky and skated into something great. Most of us are some combination of lucky and unlucky, hard-working and stupid. What do we all have in common? We all need mercy — from God, and from each other.

Unfixable. Some situations are unfixable. We can work on prevention and we can work on damage control, but not everything can be fixed. But that doesn’t mean that we have a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation. We can’t say, “Not everything is fixable, so get away from me.” We should say, “Not everything is fixable. I’m so sorry. God have mercy on us all.”

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Go forth and get Me butter, says the Lord.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. She wanted—no, needed—everything to be perfect. She planned and prepped for days, chopping vegetables, rolling dough, scrubbing baseboards, and counting silverware. On the day of the feast, she was up with the sun, full of determination and manic good cheer.

As the day wore on, the good cheer waned and the manic levels rose. Pots boiled over and were turned down; ovens smoked and windows were opened. The clock ticked, and little by little, the meal started to come together. The guests would be there in a matter of hours. Could she pull off the perfect day? She really thought she could.

Then, suddenly: calamity. She ran out of butter! Real butter, creamy and fat, the fuel that makes the Thanksgiving engine run. She had to have some. She shrieked for her husband and sent him out to the store, with instructions to come back as quickly as he could with at least two pounds of butter.

Off he went. And he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back. She grew more and more frantic and considered her options. She could cook without butter. No, impossible. She could just explain things to the guests. Unthinkable. She could burn the house down and move to Guadalajara. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Just as she began to search for her passport, her husband’s car screeched into the driveway. He was home, home with the butter! Hallelujah, the day was saved!

With trembling fingers, she snatched open the bag . . . and then fell back, the words of thanks dying in her throat. She croaked. She gabbled. She gaped.

There on the table was a three-pound tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!

“Boy, the stores were crowded!” her husband said. ”I guess everyone was shopping for Thanksgiving. But I knew you would like this, because you just wanted two pounds of butter, and this is three!”

What the young woman replied, I cannot record here. But she did point out to her husband, possibly dozens of times, that, “It says right on the package that IT’S NOT BUTTER.”

Well, Thanksgiving happened anyway. The food was hot and bountiful, the guests were jovial, and if anyone noticed that the butter was not butter, no one mentioned it. It was a good Thanksgiving.

You may think I’m going to wrap this story up with a moral about how we ought to be thankful for the best efforts of our loved ones, and that what really matters in the end is family, peace, joy, harmony, and good intentions.

But, no. What I’m thinking is, “Seriously, it said, ‘IT’S NOT BUTTER’ right on the package. Right on there! And he brought it home anyway!”

Know who that reminds me of? Me. Not on Thanksgiving, but every week, every day. Every time I go to Mass, the last thing I hear is, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” God is telling us, “Look, you have one job. One job. Go and serve me.”

And I say, “Amen, Boss!” and off I go.

And then what do I do? I come back with a giant tub of “I Can’t Believe I’m Not Serving God!” And I jog back into his temple, all hopeful and proud with my ridiculous little package clutched under my arm, and I say, “See? Look what I found for you! Good, huh? Just what you asked for, right?”

It’s not what he asked for. It’s a substitute. It says right on the package that it’s not what he wants. And God opens the package, and he says…

“Close enough. Come on in, thou good enough, faithful enough servant. Come on in to the feast I have prepared for you. Sit down with your family in the home of your Father, and let us have a meal together.”

And that, my friends, is why we celebrate Thanksgiving. Not because we have it all together, not because things turned out perfectly, not because we never disappoint each other, or because we always please God. We celebrate Thanksgiving because God loves us even when we fail—especially when we fail.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love is everlasting.

***

[This article originally ran in Catholic Digest in 2013.]

At the Register: What does the Church teach about suicide?

The modern Church understands that depression and other psychological disturbances that might lead a person to suicide are true illnesses, which can significantly mitigate both a person’s understanding and free will.

Moreover, even if a person’s death seems quick, with no time to repent before the end, we have no way of knowing what happens between their soul and a merciful God, who wants to bring all of His children home to Himself.

Read the rest at the Register. 

At the Register: Satan Isn’t Fussy, But Neither Is Christ

We don’t have to be completely sincere or completely profound when we call on God.  He responds as if we already love Him, in order to help us love Him.