Monday, July 30, 2012

Voting: A Matter of Conscience

Serious people feel overwhelmed going into the 2012 election. Seeing many choices or none, some seek a rationale to stay home on Election Day, but to give in to such discouragement is political despair.

Fortunately, conscience can guide us, even when we don’t know it. The voice of conscience can include a feeling of disconnect – a this-doesn’t-feel-right sensation, and a sense of puzzlement – and the sense that this-doesn’t-gel-with-what-I’ve-been-taught. People of conscience weigh key moral issues. They study and struggle with the questions at hand. They engage in a lifetime effort to develop the fine-tuned moral sensitivity needed to understand deeply Church teaching on critical issues.

Issues that directly affect innocent human lives, such as abortion and euthanasia, are primary and demand serious consideration. Since 1973, there have been an estimated 53 million abortions in the U.S. Two states, Washington and Oregon, have legalized physician-assisted suicide for persons with terminal illnesses, called “death with dignity.” Concern for other life issues, such as the death penalty, is vital. Today the Church questions if execution can even be used in modern society since we now have secure ways to keep people from harming others. Since 1973, there have been 138 documented cases of innocent people eventually freed from death row. After a ten-year hiatus the death penalty was reinstituted in our country in 1976. Has this contributed to the responsibility, restoration and rehabilitation needed in our criminal justice system?

Millions of undocumented persons demand our compassion. An estimated 11.1 million have made the U.S. their home, raising families and contributing to the economy. Some came here as children; this is the only land they know. There is an immigration problem and justice demands a humane solution to it, one that respects the responsibilities and rights of all.

There is a move to redefine marriage. The marriage of a man and a woman is the foundation of the family and the basic cell of society, yet various proposals seek to erode and ultimately redefine the perennial meaning of marriage in the law. The contribution marriage makes to the common good is essential, and protection of marriage is another matter of justice.

The growing disparity between rich and poor means most of the world’s resources are in the hands of a small percentage of its people. More than 50 percent of the world’s assets are owned by the richest two percent of adults … the bottom half of the world population own only one percent of the wealth. In our nation 46 million people live below the poverty line, established at $23,113 for a family of four. Approximately 25 million people are unemployed or underemployed – a real unemployment rate of 15.6 percent.

The Constitution heralds religious liberty in the First Amendment, yet in recent years religious groups have had to fight for this right. Some opponents dismiss religious freedom as inconsequential. We’ve seen legal efforts to deny the church the right to participate in government programs unless it cedes its religious principles. We’ve seen government officials dismiss those who defend marriage as between one man and one woman as “bigots.” We’ve seen the state try to define who can be a minister in a church. We see that people are persecuted for their faith around the world, losing their homes, even their lives, for lack of religious freedom.

State-sponsored violence through war and other aggression results in thousands of deaths and millions of disrupted lives. The Church’s long-held just war teaching suggests war is permissible only if the damage inflicted by the aggressor is lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to the aggression have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there are serious prospects of the war’s success; and the use of arms does not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

Other issues are at stake in the coming election but the above issues deserve particular concern. Can they be discussed civilly? Can individuals look at them from several sides and consider what resonates with their conscience? These are matters for study and prayer before anyone enters the voting booth.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Faith, Science and a Grownup's God

As Americans celebrated Independence Day, the world's scientists celebrated the discovery of the elusive Higgs-bosun, a sub-atomic particle first theorized half a century ago that would help explain why some particles gain mass. Popular culture has nicknamed the Higgs "the God particle."

In a July 9 Newsweek article, a physicist says this nickname for the Higgs is particularly unfortunate because, he argues, its discovery might actually help eliminate the need for God: " validates an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics and brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe," he writes, concluding: "The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God."

While believers would understandably take issue with this assertion, perhaps one of the better qualified to tackle it is Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a.k.a. the Vatican astronomer.

Like the author of the Newsweek piece, Brother Consolmagno sees the importance of the discovery of the Higgs particle. He explains in an interview with Catholic News Service that "It indicates that reality is deeper and more rich and strange than our everyday life." While he doesn't directly rebut the assertion that the Higgs particle makes God obsolete, he does criticize the thinking behind it, saying it's bad religion to employ a "God of the gaps," i.e. to explain the missing parts of scientific discovery by saying that's where divine intervention occurred.

Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., head of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat on Doctrine, cites another  issue: "While the Higgs particle may help us in understanding the relationship between mass and matter, it does not explain why the Higgs particle itself exists." He notes that nothing in the nature of the universe, from a tree or a person to the cosmos themselves, demands that things exist. "There must be a being whose very nature demands that it exists and, because of this, is able to bring other beings into existence," he says. "That being is God."

To better understand these points about faith, science and the nature of existence, it's helpful to look at another infamous faith/science flash point: evolution. Like the discovery of the Higgs particle, evolution involved scientific discovery seemingly stepping into territory reserved for God in the Genesis creation accounts. And as the ensuing culture wars have played out from the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s down to the various Intelligent Design-themed skirmishes on school boards, one suspiciously absent player has been the Catholic Church.

From the 1950 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, to the 1996 address by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the position of the Catholic Church has ranged from openness to acceptance, seeing no clash between science and theology on the question of evolution. In fact, when the Pontifical Council for Culture held a symposium on Darwin in 2008, it invited leading scholars in biology and theology, but pointedly didn't include either biologists with aggressively secular views of their field or proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design.

One could argue that the Church learned the lessons of the Galileo dust-up of 400 years ago and started recognizing that science and faith seek to answer different sets of questions about human existence and ultimate reality. In making this important distinction between empirical fact and revealed truth, the Church moved to a deeper understanding of a God who is ever in control and works implicitly through the natural phenomena of creation, as opposed to clumsily and cartoonishly shoehorning Himself over them.

(Similar to science and religion, last year this blog tackled the topic of how faith perspectives fits into public policy debates.)

In both the origins of the universe and the species, the Catholic Church affirms the important work of science and, implicitly, calls on everyone, Catholic or not, to a more mature understanding of who God is and how God works. It's easy for physicists (and just about anyone, for that matter) to write off religion as somewhere between outdated and laughable when its adherents insist on presenting God, in the words of singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, "like a genie who does magic like Houdini or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus."

With this perception, there is nothing surprising about a lopsided commentary that couples an advanced grasp of science with an elementary grasp of God. It should challenge believers to approach their faith in such a way that, the next time something as tiny as a subatomic particle has universe-defining implications, no one will be able to say, in  the the words of the Anglican scholar J.B. Phillips: "Your God is too small."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nuevo significado a enviar texto en Misa

El cierre de la Quincena por la Libertad el 4 de Julio en la Basílica del Santuario Nacional de la Inmaculada Concepción en Washington, atrajo a una multitud, a pesar del día feriado, el extremo calor y el estado de emergencia en el Distrito de Columbia debido apagones masivos por tormentas, lo que sorprendió a organizadores.

Sospeché que la situación se encaminaba en esa dirección cuando llegue 40 minutos antes y no pude encontrar espacios para estacionar legalmente en el campus de la Universidad Católica de América, donde la basílica esta situada.

En la iglesia, la multitud era poco común, tan densa que la procesión de obispos y sacerdotes al principiar y terminar la misa no podía seguir su ruta acostumbrada a un costado y por el centro, sino que tuvo que ser guiada en el exterior a pesar del sofocante calor.  Eso fue genial para las personas que no lograron ingresar a la basílica y se encontraban en el graderío.

El Santuario tiene capacidad para 3,500 personas y unas 5,000 lograron situarse en el interior con espacio solo para estar de pie.  La congregación de personas excedió fácilmente a la multitud que asistió cuando el Papa Benedicto XVI la visitó en el 2008, porque el Servicio Secreto encargado de su seguridad no permitió lo que ocurrió el 4 de Julio: pasillos bloqueados con gente sentados por todas partes, hasta en el piso.

El entusiasmo fue grande y la multitud irrumpió en aplausos varias veces durante la Misa esa tarde.  La gente respondió con aplausos durante la bienvenida del Cardenal de Washington Donald Wuerl y la homilía del Arzobispo de Philadelphia Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. Ovaciones ocurren ocasionalmente durante las misas, pero esta fue fuera de lo común.

“Inusual” fue como se caracterizó la misa completa, especialmente cuando el Arzobispo William Lori de Baltimore, quien concelebró la misa, exhortó a la congregación a sacar sus teléfonos celulares y enviar la palabra “libertad” o “freedom” al 377377, como parte de la campaña de mensajes de textos por la libertad religiosa, y en un par de minutos unas 2,500 personas se unieron al esfuerzo.  (Quienes deseen actualizaciones sobre la libertad religiosa aún pueden enviar la palabra “libertad” o “freedom” por mensaje de texto al 377377.

New Meaning to the Mass Text

(Spanish version)

The July 4 closing of the Fortnight for Freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington drew a standing-room-only crowd, a fact that stunned organizers given the holiday, intense heat and state of emergency situation around the District of Columbia due to power outages.

I suspected we were headed into an overflow situation at the Mass when I arrived 40 minutes early and could find only illegal parking on The Catholic University of America campus, where the shrine is located.

In the church, the crowd was unusual, so dense that the procession of bishops and priests to and from the Mass could not take its usual route up the side aisle and down the middle but had to be led outside into the sweltering heat. That turned out to be nice for the people who were on the steps and couldn’t even get into the basilica.

The shrine church holds an estimated 3,500 people and about 5,000 made it inside. The congregation far exceeded the crowd when Pope Benedict XVI visited there in 2008, because the U.S. Secret Service charged with his safety wouldn’t tolerate the scene on July 4: blocked aisles with people sitting everywhere, including on the floor.

Spirit was high and the crowd burst into applause several times during the afternoon Mass. People clapped several times during Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s welcome and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap’s homily. Such applause happens occasionally at Mass, but this much clapping was unusual.

“Unusual” characterized the entire Mass, especially when Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who concelebrated the Mass, called on the congregation to open their cellphones and text the word “freedom” or “libertad” to 377377. It was part of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty text campaign, and in two minutes about 2,500 people suddenly joined the effort. Those who texted signed up to receive text messages about the campaign, which still continues. Archbishop Lori admitted that asking people to turn on their phones at Mass was a first for him – and likely a first for everyone in the congregation. (People who want updates on religious liberty can still text “freedom” or libertad” to 377377.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Religious Freedom Campaign – It’s Only Just Begun

The bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom (, June 21-July 4, is over, but the concern for religious liberty has only begun to be heard. The two-week launch got people listening and praying. Now where do those who want to stand up for religious freedom go?

The answer is everywhere because religious freedom is a worldwide concern. Read the newspapers and you see massacres in churches in Nigeria and Iraq. Look to neighboring Cuba and you see how religious freedom has been severely restricted under the Castro regime.

Look in the United States, where freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, and you see a sophisticated type of assault.  It is unbloody, but far-reaching.  Ironically, the assaults are not from some guerilla group or despot, but from the government. Foreign nations that look to the U.S. to protect their religious freedom have to shudder.

The assaults vary, but what they have in common is preventing religious bodies from operating according to their moral standards. For example, through the new Affordable Care Act most employers, including many religious ones, are compelled to provide free-of-charge to employees and their families contraception, female sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, even when they violate church teachings. Government in a miserly gesture says it will grant an exception to entities it defines as religious enough to merit protection of their religious liberty. That means the parish church is religious enough but not the church’s hospitals, schools, colleges, soup kitchens and other social services. You may think the latter obviously are religious works but the government says they are not if you serve needy people other than your co-religionists.  Catholicism calls Catholics to help those in need.

Hard to live out the free exercise of your religion with this HHS mandate, the first of its kind in U.S. history. To add insult to injury, for centuries these church services have very effectively helped people who otherwise would have had to rely on government for such care. In fact, one out of six people in the U.S. who need hospital care get it at a Catholic hospital.

Catholic foster care and adoption services were forced to close in major metropolitan areas when Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois drove local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services. They did it by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit. While the Catholic Church holds that a marriage is between a man and a woman and that children are best raised in a mother-father family unit, the government says if you hold that religious view, you have to give up a longstanding church ministry through which orphaned or otherwise needy children have been helped.

It’s not just Catholics who are afflicted.  New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public school property on weekends for worship services, even though nonreligious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses. Is prayer more threatening than hoops? A few days ago a federal court finally ended this discriminatory policy, though appeals may continue.

In its entire history, The University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.  Does it threaten the public well-being to require a Christian organization to be led by a Christian?

A New Jersey judge recently found that a Methodist ministry violated state law when the ministry declined to allow two women to hold a “civil union” ceremony on its private property. Also recently, a civil rights complaint was filed against the Catholic Church in Hawaii by those wanting to use a chapel to hold a same-sex “marriage” ceremony. Is the country better for such in-your-face rejection of a church’s teaching?

The religious freedom campaign has an uphill battle before it, but it is hard to imagine our nation won’t be better for it. Not to mention those nations where people subjected to bloody religious battles barely have a prayer now.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Gospel and Social Media

Two caveats for evangelizers, that is, those who spread the Gospel today: 1. Use social media and 2. Follow its rules. It’s a new day in church work: the computer has replaced the pen, 15 minutes seems like eternity, and if you don’t get your message out fast, the audience disappears.

Here are some rules for social media evangelization:

1.  Translate church teaching. If you pour out documents or list a series of them online, you’re not spreading the Gospel, you’re simply creating an electronic file box. A document drop might help someone with his dissertation but it won't help us follow the command to go forth and teach all nations. Teachers have to translate church teaching into popular speech. The evangelizer is a translator.

2.  Avoid church speak. Some phrases create barriers to communications. “Intrinsically evil,” for example, may earn an A on a theology paper but can merit an F in human discourse. Which drives home the message: “Abortion is wrong because it snuffs out innocent life” or “abortion is intrinsically evil”? One tells you what really happened. A second example of church speak is the word “presbyterate,” which emphasizes the distance between priests and people. There's more warmth in speaking about "our priests." “Presbyterate” sounds pejorative, as in “Listen, you presbyterate!"

3.  Use images, as Jesus did. God’s love is a freebie; you can’t earn it, you just have to accept it. Which sentence conveys that? “God’s love is infinite and you have inherent value” or “You're more important than the sparrows who only have to exist for God to feed them”? The image gives you something to hold on to, even if you don’t like worms.

4.  Understand that social media is social. It's like going to a party. You can’t sit in a corner and not converse. If you want to make a statement to which no one can reply, buy a billboard. Social media is electronic conversation. To engage in it you need to be willing to listen to others and converse with them.

5.  Social media sometimes calls for a suit of armor. Its anonymity lets incivility into the living room. Wearing emotional armor, you can handle disagreement, not take it personally, and learn from it. Social media is not for the thin-skinned.

6.  Use the delete button if comments cross the line of decency, but, hopefully, not often. Sometimes for your own sake you just have to say “So long.” You don’t need to be imprisoned on a social media site. But don’t walk away too quickly.

7.  Spread Catholicism’s fun parts. Talk about saints, like St. Nicholas, who came up with bags of gold for a woman's dowry, or St. Teresa of Avila who, when exasperated by life’s trials, advised God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!” Talk about good sermons you’ve heard, favorite hymns. Catholicism is warm, filled with stories, meaningful devotions, and other down-to-earth ways to convey the faith. It is not heady. Reaching into the heavens for language can make it hell for listeners.

8.  Remember rules are changing. I felt strange the first time I sent a condolence message via the Internet. Then I realized that my friend had announced her father’s death in an e-mail message. I could either wait until I had time to find the proper stationery and mail the note, or I could respond in her time of need. The Internet makes simple human gestures easier.

9.  Remember web messages live forever. The warning to not write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front of the newspaper is more pertinent now. A picture of you hoisting a beer seems like a good idea until you find someone’s researching you online for a responsible position.

10.  Keep it short. The days of the 75-word sentence ended with Cardinal Newman. Phrases such as “Jesus wept,” and “Mary was silent” speak volumes, and usually less is more.