Humanae Vitae and the Words of Christ in Scripture

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For He fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is not a destructive drug among them…”  (From this month’s first liturgical reading, Wisdom 1:13-14).  Hmm….

Today marks the 50th year anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI, 1968, about which the U.S. Catholic Bishops state that it “provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.”  That it does, including reaffirmation of the Church’s constant and arguably infallible teaching (according to the Ordinary Magisterium, the conditions for infallibility of which are presented in Lumen Gentium 25) concerning its condemnation of abortion, sterilization, and contraception.  In addition, Humanae Vitae foretells that, if the Church’s teaching on contraception is ignored, then we, society, would see the following.  First, widespread contraceptive use will “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”  Second, men will lose respect for women and treat them selfishly.  Third, widespread contraceptive use will be a dangerous weapon among those public authorities who are unconcerned with moral vision and obligation.  Fourth, increased use of contraception will lead people to think that they have unlimited dominion over their bodies.

Of course, with the exception of couples who reaped the benefits of fidelity to the teachings of Christ’s Church on sexuality (of which Pope Paul VI also spoke), the world—including many in the Church—dismissed the wisdom of Humanae Vitae and plunged more deeply into the darkness of corruption and sin.

“What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-4).

So what does the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, have to say about contraception and abortion in Scripture?  Surprisingly to many, and strikingly, some very strong words. Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (110) assert that to discover in Scripture the sacred author’s intention, “the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture,” among other things.  Perhaps in error in ascertaining these conditions, a common mistranslation in the Bible occurs in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:20 and the Book of Revelation 9:21, 18:23, 21:8, and 22:15, in which the word pharmakeia or its cognate is most often rendered sorcery, witchcraft, magic spell, or magic arts.

Pennyroyal

In the ancient Greco-Roman world—not unlike the Ancient Near East—practicing magic was prevalent.  It involved the use of evil spells, curse tablets, contraceptive and abortive potions (specifically, often herbal drinks, pastes) and, less often, generally deadly poisons (all called pharmakeia), amulets, and love potions.  The contraceptive and abortive potions were numerous and highly demanded; examples were silphium and acacia to contracept, and pennyroyal tea to abort.  Written documentation of contraception and abortion go back to nearly 2,000 B.C.  In Scripture, one example of a sterilized, contraceptive act apart from pharmakeia is in Genesis 38:6-11.

In antiquity, pharmakeia was the Greek word for these potions, and their users typically distinguished between contraceptive and abortive blends, although they both were categorized as pharmakeia.  These were commonly and more effectively used methods to contracept and abort, and so were representative of contraception and abortion in Scripture.  Church Fathers and early ecclesial documents, such as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also refer to and condemn these anti-fertility practices.

In Scripture, to refer to this as generic magic or sorcery misses the specificity for which pharmakeia was intended.  In the Old Testament, contraception and abortion also were practiced in this way.  In the reading from Wisdom above, the Greek words for “destructive drug” are pharmakon olethru.  This may refer to both deadly poison and abortive potion, since its immediate context refers to the integrity of creation and generation of life, over and against death.  Exodus 22:17, because of its feminine identification and overall context, and Malachi 3:5, because of its context, also are likely references to contraception and abortion, or at least to sorcerous activity (keshef in Hebrew) that includes them.

The immediate context of the above references to Galatians and Revelation was condemnation of common sins that centered around sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry.  Idolatry was frequently associated with temple prostitution and its consequences.  So, in Galatians, Saint Paul condemns acts of sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, pharmakeia, and several more.  The context here, and in the following, does not favor pharmakeia meaning the much less frequented administering of deadly poison to members of the general population, and this overtly homicidal meaning would be particularly redundant on those lists that include murder.  Pharmakeia may have been that broadly intended—referring to contraceptive and abortive potions and occasional administration of poison—but probably meant the former restrictively.  An exception is Revelation 18:23, in which pharmakeia seems to refer specifically and metaphorically to deadly poison.

So, the translation probably should read as follows in Revelation.  Rev 9:21 lists murders, contraceptive and abortive potions (pharmakeion), sexual immorality, and thefts.  In Rev 21:8 and 22:15, the risen Jesus Himself condemns certain representative sins.  Rev 21:8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the sexually immoral, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the idolators, and all practicing falsehood—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning Sulphur.  This is the second death.”  Rev 22:15: After pronouncing eternal blessing on the righteous (see 22:11 and 22:14), Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, declares, “Outside are the dogs, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolators, and all who love and practice falsehood.”

Why would Christ condemn contraceptive and abortive potions?  Simply, I think He does so because marriage is a profound, intimate union (Genesis 2:24), procreation is a divine blessing and mandate of this union (Genesis 1:28) for those who are able, children are a gift (e.g., Psalm 127:3), and children in the womb are acknowledged as really alive and sacred (e.g., Psalm 139:13-15, Jeremiah 1:15, Luke:1:39-45).  To deliberately sterilize sex, or worse—murder an unborn child—is a serious offense against God and the human person.  I think Humanae Vitae is just beautifully and boldly echoing the divine and exalted plan for married love and the transmission of human life.

 

Mark Koehne teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs,

In the Image of God

Created in the image of God, human beings are called to eliminate borders and build bridges of understanding while building up the reign of God. Often times we really cannot understand the struggles of others until you walk in their shoe, until you take off your comfortable Uggs and realize that the person that you are thinking of may not even have shoes to begin with. What a privilege it is to wear shoes and to wear so many!

We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological  differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.  Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of  the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI  taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.” The Gospel calls us to be  peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.

USCCB on Solidarity

It is in embarking on journeys that we are able to understand the Catholic principle of solidarity, to me this is one of the most complex teachings since it calls us to a deeper level of sacrifice.

I challenge myself to one international mission a year. This year there is a possibility to take some students and families to Haiti, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.  In these journeys, we can access social justice and charity and see through the lens of church our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, especially those in need.

Last year, we journeyed to Jamaica. I could see through the eyes of my students that they struggled with this concept. The fears, anxieties and struggles were clear. Both groups were able to carry each other and embrace in holiness.

While with the economically struggling people, our new friends in Christ, it was often times hard to really and truly connect based on our differences. Once we were able to breakthrough there were some neat Holy Spirit connections made especially during worship.

Upon returning our hearts were broken for days as we thought rationally that we may never be able to see these amazing new friends again.

As the days go by and we are back in our comfortable shoes and places we might have forgotten the burning of our hearts and may not be affected as much by the heart-breaking poverty.

Solidarity is echoed throughout scripture; we are given a biblical understanding of our responsibility towards the body of Christ and the suffering and joy which one can feel when we experience true solidarity with others. Let’s examine our international relations: our understanding of globalization and borders in conjunction with the human experience.

If one member of Christ’s body suffers, all suffer.  If one member is honored, all rejoice.
1 Corinthians 12:12-26

 

Sherine Green teaches History of Black Catholics in the Church and World Religions for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Consent is Not Enough: Harvey Weinstein, Sex, and Human Flourishing

In a breathtakingly rapid turn of events, Harvey Weinstein has gone from being a lionized kingmaker to persona non grata, as woman after woman has come forward with remarkably similar stories of his sexual predations. The common themes are a bathrobe, an erection, and a private room.

The coverage has focused on the sensational details, but we who are following the newsfeed are in danger, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, of having the experience but missing the meaning. The legal concern has been, as it must be, whether the women consented, and Weinstein’s own public statements have zeroed in on this point. While not denying the many liaisons, his spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister said, “Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual.” His team then deftly shifts the goalposts on this front, moving from an assertion of consent to the inevitable he-said-she-said battle that they hope this assertion will provoke: “Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events.”

The sheer weight of evidence might steamroll this tactic, but the move itself highlights the problematic nature of the contemporary refuge in consent as the seal of approval for sexual relationships. Consent may be the basic minimum needed for legality, but should we really reduce the good of a relationship to its barebones legal status? Surely we can have a richer understanding of love and relationships than that.

The Default of the Yes

The problem is that, without a sense of a true good in relationships, we don’t know to what we should consent. We are left with an arbitrary act of the will; it is an empty form with no content. The fixation on consent obfuscates larger problems: don’t we have to start to ask what people are consenting to, for the term to have any meaning? And are there cultural conditions necessary for a woman to be able to give consent?

We swim in a culture marked by what Helen Alvaré has called “sexualityism”—the conviction, springing from the sexual revolution, that any sex with anybody is probably a good thing. In this construct, non-procreative sexual expression is a simple necessity intrinsically tied to human fulfillment and personal identity (according to none other than the Supreme Court). This idea was also analyzed and criticized, in a somewhat different way, by Michel Foucault. A culture of sexualityism is not neutral; in it, the good of sexual expression as an end in itself cannot be intellectually challenged. All that is left is the will: do you choose it, or not? Consent carries the day.

If something is a basic human good, it is unreasonable to refuse it. One might consent not to sleep for obscure reasons of one’s own, but the burden of proof would be on the non-sleeper to defend her decision. I call this “the default of the yes”: it is reasonable to choose a good thing, and so it is expected that one will choose it. Thus has the seemingly freedom-friendly principle of the innate goodness of sexual expression become a weapon to attack the persons and institutions who do not agree. The apparent enshrinement of consent actually attacks the very foundations of consent itself: sexualityism puts a thumb on the seemingly impartial scales of choice. As women have observed about the “choice” for abortion, so too here: what begins as a right often turns into a duty.

This is what we see when we peer into Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room. More than one woman stated that Weinstein did not understand the word “no.” It’s probably more accurate to say he did not find the word relevant.

Lucia Stoller Evans, a college student and aspiring actress, told the New Yorkerthat Weinstein arranged a meeting and then forced her to perform oral sex on him. “I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t. I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” She added, “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”

What clearly emerges from the scenes in Harvey Weinstein’s room is that he did not feel defensive. It is the women who feel the onus put on them. Here we see how the burden of the “default of the yes” complicates the matter of consent. Is it consent to dress provocatively? Or to say no, but to give in? Or to keep saying no, but stop short of physical violence? How much refusal outweighs the default of the yes?

This is the web in which Weinstein’s victims find themselves entangled, at the very moment when they need all their wits about them. “The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” Asia Argento said. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.” The horror of the assault is compounded by the postmortem self-accusation, which reveals that the default of the yes shifts the moral responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.

Putting the Burden on Women and Children

One case of a woman who entered Weinstein’s room and at least figuratively “kicked him in the balls” is instructive. French actress Emma de Caunes followed Weinstein up to his hotel room to get a book he said would be the basis of a movie in which she might appear. After disappearing into the bathroom, he emerged naked and erect and told her to lie down, as so many other women had. “I was very petrified,” she told the New Yorker. “But I didn’t want to show him that I was petrified, because I could feel that the more I was freaking out, the more he was excited.” She added, “It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.” De Caunes said she was leaving. “We haven’t done anything!” she remembered him saying. “It’s like being in a Walt Disney movie!” “I looked at him,” she related, “and I said—it took all my courage, but I said, ‘I’ve always hated Walt Disney movies.’ And then I left. I slammed the door.”

Why did she successfully escape? Certainly, Weinstein misjudged his power by choosing a woman who was not beholden to him for a job; de Caunes, in her thirties, was established as an actress in France and did not need his patronage. Perhaps because of her independence, she exhibited considerable self-possession and a quick wit that enabled her to put her finger on the psychological dynamics operating in Weinstein’s room. By keeping her head and walking out, she did not let herself get to the vulnerable place where she had to defend her no.

We can rejoice that she was so clear-headed in a situation in which women were reduced to pure “fight-or-flight.” But surely it should not be only the strong-minded and smart who are not victimized. As actress/screenwriter Brit Marling put it, “consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it”—or to refuse it. What about the weak and foolish? My daughters will be warned about the danger of networking with male colleagues in hotel bedrooms, and any female on a college campus should learn to avoid the toxic combination of alcohol and naïveté. That said, should their safety be only dependent on their ability to keep their wits about them in exceptionally stressful situations? The burden that the default of the yes places on them is unjust.

This reality raises the obvious, but often ignored, truth that sexualityism’s assumptions place the most burden on women and children. While men are certainly sexually harassed and assaulted, the relative disadvantage—both physical and often cultural—of women in rebuffing men is real and has been exacerbated by the default of the yes. Historically, while institutions such as slavery have normalized extramarital sexual activity, the weight of the culture provided support for most women to say no. As Mark Regnerus has put it, sex was “expensive”—set at the price of marriage, generally. Now sex is cheap, and women are the losers. More: as many of the tragic stories coming out testify, children are the losers too. If the ones who escape unscathed are the savvy and empowered, children by definition are not safe.

The Truth about Sex

What can we learn from this? First, a moral discourse dependent only on consent is insufficient. The web of confusion and guilt that the victims describe—did I refuse enough?—is inevitable if moral action is reduced to X-raying the action of the will. But consent is not an isolated action, distinct from the judgments of the mind concerning what is being chosen. If a grammar of moral good and evil is allowed, then the moral action is not held up by the flimsy support of the will but also buttressed by the intellect: what is truth about sex? This allows for moral responsibility to be shifted from the consent of the victim to the actual choice that the perpetrator made. That is, it enables us to judge that what Harvey Weinstein is accused of is wrong not only because the victimsdid not consent but also and more importantly because of what he chose. In this way, a richer moral vocabulary protects the vulnerable.

Once this richer vocabulary is allowed, the hegemony of the default of yes can be challenged. Not only perpetrators but also sexualityism should be put on trial. Is sexual expression really such an overriding good? If so, what do we make of the women’s unanimous experience of humiliation and anguish in Weinstein’s room? Sexualityism can make no sense of  the reality that sexual crimes reliably cause a trauma that, say, larceny does not.

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I ammy body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value. To use the language of Pope John Paul II, when a person is reduced to being merely an object for another’s desire, then the experience violates the core of one’s sense of self.

Sexualityism attempts to demystify sexual relationships by making them a simple matter of scratching a perennial itch. It’s the hook-up myth: partners should be able to have sex and not care in the morning, as though what they did the night before was no more intimate than eating from the same buffet line—we are just meeting a need, you know? By ignoring the personal values at stake, sexualityism presents a false picture of sex that empties it of vulnerability. But that was emphatically not the experience of the women in Weinstein’s room, who unanimously related the vulnerability they felt, as if their very persons were endangered.

If sex makes one vulnerable to another person, then it must be more than the single-minded pursuit of pleasure, that idol of sexualityism, for surely pleasure can be jointly pursued without any vulnerability. The gulf between Weinstein and the women in his room is marked on this point: none of the latter use the word “pleasure” to talk about the dynamics in that room, whereas one suspects he would use it freely.

Pleasure is something you get out of a situation; it is something you take. The experience of the women indicates that sex should rather be something you freely give, precisely because it deeply implicates the person. John Paul II would have known how to make sense of their experience, because he recognized that, ultimately, sex cannot consist merely of the pursuit of pleasure but is the intimate self-gift of one to another. Sex reliably expresses this personal self-gift, which is why it is such a violation when something that should only be a free gift is stolen by force.

Perhaps, because of the accumulated testimony to such horror, Hollywood’s long-overdue moral reckoning has indeed come. Let us hope so. At the very least, let us not lose the opportunity to expose not only the brutal acts but also the ideology behind them.

Angela Franks teaches theology at Saint Jospeh’s College Online.

This essay originally appeared at Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good and is reprinted with permission.

Rights, duties, and freedom

Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene, takes place in post-war Vienna where Harry Lime is operating a criminal scheme involving tainted medicine. Lime kills sick people for money.

Money. We all need it, some of us have enough of it, and many don’t. Franklin Roosevelt wanted America to recognize that, beyond the basics enumerated in the Bill of Rights, human beings also have the right to a decent home, security in old age and sickness, and the right to health care and an education. In other words, one’s civil rights need to be augmented by economic rights. Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by Father John Ryan, whose tireless efforts for working men and women stands today as an important milestone in the American Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI recognized his contribution by making him a domestic prelate (a sort of honorary bishop).

But where there are rights, there must also be duties. Your right is my obligation to respect and, according to my situation, provide for that right, and vice versa. My taxes, for example, help pay for Medicaid. Politicians devoted to the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand disagree and want to reduce the scope of rights, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, simply to freedom from force and fraud. As for economic security, you’re on your own.

The Christian social justice tradition, however, holds that without a minimum of financial resources, one is inevitably the victim of force. Those who view social justice merely as the freedom of the individual from constraints, with no duty to support the common good, are not that different from Harry Lime, who cheated sick patients out of wholesome medicine to enrich himself. Harry Lime took the direct and illegal route to riches by diluting medicine; today, it is more common to find corporate plunder occurring through legal channels (see, for example, the BBC report, “Pharmaceutical industry gets high on fat profits”.

We are still trying to figure out how society can fairly distribute its wealth so that everyone’s freedom will be enhanced. Movie producers put up an investment so that the artists and laborers can be paid for the work they do. Alexander Korda was the producer for The Third Man and the great showman Orson Welles played the villain Harry Lime. The tension between the artists and laborers who make the film, and the producers who supply the funds is, of course, legendary. Producers want their investment to make money for them while the artists want the financial freedom to create. On the set of Reed’s film, this tension evoked a bon mot from Welles, who told Korda, “I wish the Pope had made you a Cardinal.” “Why is that?” Korda asked. “Because then we would only have to kiss your ring,” Welles answered.

There is a sense in which every human being is a creative artist, intended by God to make something of himself or herself, according to the gifts and circumstances of life. Everyone, therefore, needs the financial basics to achieve the creation that is one’s authentic self, free not only from force and fraud, but from poverty, homelessness and preventable illness. Our kiss should be that of genuinely free men and women.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Dorothy, Peter, and the Man at the Back of the Church

Growing up in the “Coal Regions” of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a special experience – especially for a Catholic family. My small town had so many Catholic churches, it seemed like there was one on every corner. Growing up Eastern Catholic was easy, too, because all of my friends knew “who we were,” and could visit one of the three Byzantine Catholic Churches in town. I appreciate that aspect of my hometown more now, living in the heavily German/PA Dutch region of Central Pennsylvania. There are Catholics here, and the local diocese is thriving. But it’s still so different from the coal town of my childhood. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have a Catholic Church (with an Adoration Chapel) close to my home. A quick visit with Jesus, or partaking in daily Mass are blessings easily taken for granted. Any opportunity to be in the Lord’s House, and experience His real, Eucharistic presence, should inspire both gratitude and humility. Note the emphasis on humility, as it’ll be important in a moment.

I’m really good at judging books by their covers. No, I’m not talking about an ability to size up a Barnes and Noble display and produce reviews worthy of the New York Times. That would be a noteworthy talent! What I mean is that I am quick to judge others, based on impressions formed without having a conversation, let alone getting to know them. It’s not that I do this all the time – but more often than I’d care to acknowledge. With some honest self-reflection perhaps others might also admit of this “talent” for reaching quick conclusions based on appearance alone. Business gurus tell us the first impression means everything. The Gospel tells us our personal impressions don’t tell the whole story, since angels – and God Himself – sometimes come in strange disguises (cf. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25:35-45). I was challenged by this lesson at Mass one Fall morning.

In the chapel of the church where I often go for daily Mass, a group of “regulars” fill the pews. Though it isn’t my parish church, I’ve been incorporated into this group of retirees, stay at home moms, and others whose schedules are as flexible as mine. There is a man who often sits in the last pew of the small chapel. In appearance, he’s kind of scruffy and unkempt. He mostly keeps to himself, sharing in the Sign of Peace, but otherwise sitting silently through the Mass. He looks – for lack of a more polite term – like “a bum.” I notice that people generally avoid sitting near him, if they can help it. One or two women seem to look out for him, smiling warmly, exchanging a few words, and even chauffeuring him to the store. But for the most part, people keep their distance, unsure of sitting near someone who is so…unlike the rest of us.

Recently I saw this man at the grocery store, wearing the same clothes I see him in every time he comes to Mass. He pushed his cart along, catching wondering looks from the few shoppers attentive to those around them. My grocery list fulfilled, I made for the checkout line and paid for my items. As I placed the last package in my cart and started for the door, I heard someone shout “Hey!” just behind me. It was him. The man said, “Don’t you go to the parish?” “I’m not a parishioner,” I replied, “but I try to get to daily Mass.” His face wore the smile of someone who’d run across a friend for the first time in awhile as he said, “I thought I recognized you. I see you at Mass. Will you be there Friday?” I said I hoped so, and he said, “Good. I like to see you there.” Smiling back at him, I said good bye and God bless, and went on my way.

The encounter in the grocery store really made an impression on me, and made me examine my tendency to not only make snap judgments about people, but to let those judgments take pride of place over love; to believe I know it all rather than taking the time to know a person. It also reminded me of a story I remembered reading about Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker Movement. You can read about Maurin here, and I recommend learning more about this saintly man. Peter Maurin was an… “eccentric.” He cared little for possessions or position, happily identifying with “the man on the street,” while endeavoring to emulate the saints. When he met Dorothy Day in 1932, she couldn’t have realized a movement would be born of their friendship; a movement inspired by the Gospel to regain a sense of community among people, in which the race “to have and to do” would be replaced by the desire “to give and to be with.” One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Maurin (and Day) would experience if they saw the shape 21st century consumerism has taken – not to mention the sight of so many people walking down the street, meeting for dinner, or riding the bus with heads down and fingers typing, tapping and swiping. Having seen the brutal assaults on humanity wrought during the Second World War, they may have been overwhelmed by the sophistication with which we now perpetrate crimes against human dignity: from terrorism and torture, and attacks on human life at its beginning and ending; to the more “subtle” discarding of those we find undesirable by “swiping left” – or avoiding them at Mass because they “look different.”

Peter Maurin was an authentic radical; not what we think of today as a violent extremist, or a political rabble-rouser. He believed that societal/cultural change for the good was only possible with a radical (at the root) shift in our thought and behavior. Only by getting back to the roots of the Gospel and Jesus’ example can we see God in each other, and thus be inspired to follow Jesus’ mandate to love each other with His own merciful love (cf. John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:43-48). Maurin believed that if there is to be a “revolution” that changes the world, it will be accomplished in the radical return to love of God and neighbor (community), performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy (action), and sharing Christ in and through the ordinary aspects of daily life. Maurin worked toward and prayed for such a revolution by developing relationships in which the love of Christ could be shared over a meal, in a “round table” discussion, or as he worked side-by-side with other men and women in manual labor. He shared Christ with anyone who would listen, and offered both spiritual and material comfort and aid for those whom others would not so kindly describe as “eccentric.”

Dorothy Day relates many stories about Peter and his radical plan for changing the world, but the one I remembered when I met the disheveled man from daily Mass at the grocery store continues to move and to challenge me. Peter was to give a talk for a women’s group and Dorothy herself saw to it that he made it on the train. When hours passed and he hadn’t arrived at his destination, one of the women called Dorothy, distressed that there was no sign of him at the station. Everyone who’d arrived on that train was gone, save for one man, “a bum” asleep on a bench. Immediately, Dorothy knew that was Peter. Peter Maurin, the Catholic thinker with the radical idea that we should live the Gospel boldly and faithfully, who was sought after for his intellect and ability to teach, and advocated for a return to the Christian ideals of community and hospitality. Peter Maurin was overlooked as “a bum,” insignificant, undesirable, and ignored because his appearance didn’t meet expectations. He might just as well have been the unkempt, quiet man sitting in the last row of the chapel in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Books have covers, but they don’t reveal the story inside. For that, we must take them in hand and open them to discover the story for ourselves. People are a lot like books in that way. We may think we have all we need to know about a person by looking at “the cover.” It’s only in humbly approaching another person with wonder, and with the patience to discover what’s inside, that our expectations are shattered, freeing us to share in their story. And that can have radical consequences for both of us.

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

~Peter Maurin

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Merton – On Nonviolence

The most basic principle of the ethic of nonviolence is that all life is sacred.  Such an ethic holds that each person is a son or daughter of God and that all have been created by God to live in peace and love and in harmony with nature.  The ethic of nonviolence, which is an ethic of love, roots itself in such values as care, cooperation, compassion, equality, and forgiveness.

Jesus, the incarnation of the nonviolent God, spent His life teaching and practicing nonviolence.  Jesus called His followers to embrace God’s nonviolent reign of peace by taking on others’ violence in a non-retaliatory way and accepting suffering in order to right wrongs.  Jesus taught: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to that person the other as well.  If a person takes you to law and would have your tunic, let that person have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38 – 41)  In a final act of nonviolence immediately before He died, Jesus cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

In the 1960s, by becoming a voice of protest against various forms of violence, Trappist monk and priest Thomas Merton continued Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the gospel of nonviolence.  Merton declared:

 [By] being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.  To adopt a life that is essentially … nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is itself a statement of one’s position. … It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of and protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny, which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world with it.[1]

In writing about nonviolence, Merton adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha, soul or love force that always attempts to overcome evil by good, anger by love, and untruth by truth.  Merton agreed with Gandhi that to live nonviolently is to root one’s life in the conviction that love is the deepest human power.

For Merton, nonviolence and contemplation are inherently related. Contemplative awareness of one’s unity with all that exists leads to the realization that one is called to practice nonviolent love for all one’s fellow humans and the rest of creation.  Merton reflects:  “Our deep awareness that we are truly at one with everything and everyone in the Hidden Ground of Love we call God demands of us that we live a nonviolent love.” [2]

As a practitioner of nonviolence, the contemplative person actively resists social evils such as racism, addiction to war, and nuclearism. In his writings on racism, Merton notes that in various periods of American history White Americans conceived of African Americans as subservient and subhuman, i.e., as non-persons.[3] According to Merton, over time the deep-seated sin of racial prejudice ate away at American society like a cancer.[4]  Merton stresses that in Christ there is no racial division; all are equal. For Merton, only by truly becoming brothers and sisters will African and White Americans eliminate racism in America.

As a staunch proponent of the abolition of war,  Merton insisted: “There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere.”[5] With this in mind, Merton advocated the development of a program of multi-national disarmament so that, instead of nations expending annual budgets of billions and billions of dollars to secure more and more armaments, it would become possible to enable the global population to have access to food, medicine, housing, and education needed to live decent human lives.

In the case of nuclear war, Merton maintained that conditions agreed upon for a just war do not apply.  Merton stated: “A war of total annihilation simply cannot be considered a ‘just war’, no matter how good the cause for which it is undertaken.“[6]  Merton believed that nuclear war would lead to the decimation of nations and the wholesale disappearance of culture.  It would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.[7]

For Thomas Merton, sowing seeds of nonviolence in our world is the moral imperative of our time. This entails treating each person with reverence and not allowing anger, hatred, or resentment to linger in one’s heart. Commitment to nonviolent living involves a person’s embracing love as the power that refuses to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence.  In doing so, as a follower of Jesus’ nonviolent way of being, one contributes to the development of a world freed of racism, war, and nuclearism so that sisters and brothers in the global community are enabled to join hands in abiding peace.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1]  Thomas Merton, “Preface” to the Japanese Edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppanasha, 1966.

[2] Quoted in William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: Prayer of Awareness  (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000) 67.

[3] See Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence  (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 16.

[4] See Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, Ed. William H. Shannon (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997) 175.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Catholic Worker, October 1961, 1.

[6] Thomas Merton, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, Ed. Patricia A. Burton (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004) 66.

[7] See Merton, Passion for Peace, 46.

On the Catholic Wisdom of “Both/ And…”

photo from Archdiocese of Washington Collection

Sometimes it is not one or the other but rather both/ and. I have been thinking and praying about this a lot over the last two weeks. I live on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and have witnessed some of the largest marches and demonstrations that I have seen in the last twenty years. I’ve also been reading a lot of signs that the marchers and protesters carried.  If you looked only at the signs, you would think we live in a world defined by competing principles and all of us are being called to take sides and battle it out until one side goes down in defeat.  This serves no one well.

Some of our most volatile issues of the day are not a battle of competing goods, but rather a battle that accepts no middle ground. We often lack the humility to recognize we might actually be talking about complementary principles and goods. For example, take the question of immigration. Most people would agree that a country has a right to secure its borders and most people agree that we have an enormous problem at present where many people’s homelands have become unlivable.  Most people would agree that people have a right to seek justice and peace, in a safe community. It seems the discussion we should be having is how we manage to control our borders and respond to the need for safe passage to safer communities for millions of refugees who are displaced from their homelands. Who is having that conversation? Well, the Catholic Church, for one!

Our faith is grounded in balancing in a life-giving creative way the tension of both/and. After all, we talk about how belief is rooted in faith and reason. We believe that justice should be wrapped in mercy.  We know that with sin, there is always the possibility of grace.  This ability to see the complementary goods has never been on bigger display than this past week.

The week began with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a strongly worded statement opposing President Trump’s executive order on Immigration. They write “We strongly disagree with the Executive Order’s halting refugee admissions. We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope.”

Here the Church draws on its principles of Catholic Social Teaching which holds both the right of people to migrate to “sustain their lives” and the right of  a country to “regulate its borders and control immigration” (Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples).

In the same week, many bishops and Catholic Pro-Life marchers welcomed the presence of Vice-President Pence who supports the work of the Pro-Life Movement. The Church both preaches against the sin of abortion and the right of every woman to have all the support she needs from the government and community to bring her child into the world. The Church will continue to advocate against abortion and, through ministries like Project Rachel, offer healing and hope to women and men touched by the experience of abortion.

These two issues in the span of a week, highlight what many people find so confounding about the advocacy of the Catholic Church on behalf of social issues. We seem to some to be “always changing sides.” And that is just it, we don’t take sides. We stand in the truth of the Gospel of Life. Rather than getting tied up in political platforms and ideologies, the Church looks to the Gospel and in the harmony of truth and reason seeks always and everywhere to protect the dignity of the human person through the exercise of mercy and justice.

Now, more than ever, our country needs the wisdom of a church that can navigate toward the common good by exercising both/and.  We need to identify the common good within the issues on which we are so quick to take sides– and work together toward a shared good.

What does a country look like that has a secure border and the ability to welcome people seeking peace, a job, a place for their children to thrive. What do support networks look like that would say we are a community who know women deserve better than having to choose an abortion and can provide for their care.  What does a country look like that can promote the dignity of the human person and the common good of the community? These are questions that the Church has thought about for centuries and has some wisdom to share.

Pope Francis believes that sharing that wisdom is part of our mission to the world today.  He writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries – even those where Christians are a minority – the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defense of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing! (65).

Today, we all have an opportunity to bring this good thing to bear in our conversations and in our advocacy. Let’s be one of those schools!

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Technocratic Model vs. An Integral and Integrated Vision

Chapter Three of Laudato Sí is entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis;” it could well be called “Original Sin, Reprise.” Once again, humans have participated with God in creating things with enormous potential for good, in this case all that falls under the term “modern technology,” then proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time distorting that potential goodness.  We have done it now to the point that we worship (there is hardly another word for it) “an undifferentiated and one-dimensional technocratic paradigm” [italics his], increasing the tendency of the scientific method as “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation” (L.S. 107) to the point that this paradigm devastatingly dominates the world economy. “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (L.S. 109).

As if that critique were not disturbing enough, the Holy Father goes on to strike at the very root of the distortion, “an inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology” that has resulted in an “anthropocentrism” of mastery over rather than stewardship of the rest of Creation (L.S. 115-6).  (Notice how deeply ingrained the distortion is: we tend to say “creation” when we mean “everything except us.” The paradigm of dominance is woven into our everyday language.) Pope Francis wisely highlights the interconnectedness of the reality, and hence of the distortion: we cannot heal our relationship with the rest of creation in isolation, nor heal our human relationships without addressing the former: healing, like violence, is of a package (L.S. 119).

The counterpart of the technocratic model in which we are living according to Pope Francis in Chapter 3 is the need for a humanism with an integral and integrated vision, as Pope Francis explains,

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. (LS, 141)

This integral and integrated vision of reality is urgently need right now because modernity img_0856based its great progress in the separation of the subject form the object. For Roberto Goizueta, theology professor at Boston College, modernity gave birth to “the autonomous agent of his or her own life” who does not just live in history but makes history. In this way “history is a product of the human activity or praxis.” The consequences of this view are reflected in our own language: “The modern subject ‘makes’ a living, ‘makes’ love, and strives to ‘make something’ of himself or herself.” This “making” of everything creates a separation of the subject from the object that Goizueta sees as a “precondition for the subject to control the object in order to manipulate it.”

The separation of the subject from the object implicit in the understanding of human activity as praxis has lead us to great advances in modernity. However, what caught Goizueta’s attention is the fact that “human beings can control and transform their natural and social environments, as well as their own lives,” which also carries with it the ideology of progress characteristic of modernity.

Thus, for Goizueta, modernity gave birth to the human subject as “maker” of history, as alienated from the object and able to “control” and “work on” his or her environment.

Human action–praxis, grounded in the separation of the subject from the object as modernity understood in Goizueta’s view has also “laid the foundation for the devastation of the environment”

This devastation of the environment which foundation was laid on by the separation of the object from the subject and that brought great progress, today is in need of an integral and  integrated  vison or what Pope Francis calls integral ecology, an approach to ecology that insist that environmental and social problems are interconnected, as Pope Francis explains,

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS, 139)

This integral and integrated approach to ecology described by Pope Francis implies an “economic ecology” which considers that   “the protection of the environment is in fact ‘an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.’” (L.S. 141). A “social ecology” that understand that” the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life.” Because as Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas Veritate says, “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment.” (51) Finally, this integral and integrated vision of ecology requires a “cultural ecology” that lead to accept that “Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment” (L.S. 143).

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Ministry to Latino Catholics Certificate Program and Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality forSaint Joseph’s College Online.

Ecumenism, One of the Fruits of Laudato Si’

This is the first of a three-part series celebrating the anniversary of Laudato Si’.

We just celebrated the first anniversary of Laudato Si’ and we are still reaping it fruits. This papal letter has positioned the environmental crisis directly within the social sphere, requiring a comprehensive response and commitment from all of us. Undoubtedly, I think the most recent result of this encyclical on caring for “our common house” is ecumenism.

Unitatis Redintegratio defines ecumenism as “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity.” (UR 4).

Clearly, one of the major concerns of our time is the environmental crisis. Pope Francis uses it as a springboard to promote the unity of Christians. He quotes Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew’s concern for “the need for each to repent of their own ways for damaging the planet “(LS 8) and the Patriarch’s view of the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems (LS 9).

The call of Pope Francis to ecumenism is also demonstrated in last year announcement on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord on August 6: “I wish to inform you that I have decided to set up also in the Catholic Church, the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” which, beginning this year, will be celebrated on the 1st of September, as the Orthodox Church has done for some time now.”

This time it is the Pope, the representative of the Catholic Church, who recognizes the value of this commemoration by the Orthodox Church and invites Roman Catholics to unite with them as fellow Christians to celebrate this Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation together.

The announcement of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and its first celebration in September, 2016, seems implied in Laudato Si’ and becomes clear when presenting the encyclical as valued by the representative of the Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon. The text for the institution of the World Day for Care of Creation by Pope Francis makes this point:

“Sharing with my beloved brother the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew his concerns for the future of creation (cf. Encyclical Letter. Laudato Si’, 7-9) and taking up the suggestion by his representative, the Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamum who took part in the presentation of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ on the care of our common home, I wish to inform you that I have decided to set up also in the Catholic Church, the ‘World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation’ which, beginning this year, will be celebrated on the 1st of September, as the Orthodox Church has done for some time now.”

This ecumenical observance that will be celebrated every September 1 invites us to pray with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. It will require a deep inner conversion, as Unitatais Redintegratio says:  “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. “(UR 7).

That change of heart spoken by the decree Unitatis Redintegratio also involves a constant review of the motivations fueling our passion for the care of creation and spirituality, as it is clearly expressed in 2016 Message for the World Day of Prayer for Creation: Show mercy to Our Common Home.

“The first step in this process is always an examination of conscience, which involves “gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works… It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.”

This examination of conscience that Pope Francis is asking us for will renew our connection with God’s creation, achieving a communion with all that surrounds us, to look for the solutions to this ecological crisis, as our Pope expressed in Laudato Si’:

“More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an ‘interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity.’ Admittedly, Christians have not always appropriated and developed the spiritual treasures bestowed by God upon the Church, where the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” (LS 216)

An ecumenical gesture of openness, to universally see the good in other churches is yet another gift that Laudato Si’ offers us, and calls us to witness this in our lives. In the words of our Holy Father: “This Day of Prayer for Creation Care will be a valuable opportunity to bear witness to our growing communion with our orthodox brothers.” It is precisely by this communion in prayer and reflection that we will take important steps to overcome common challenges more easily and be more credible and effective. In the words of our Holy Father, “We live in a time where all Christians are faced with identical and important challenges and we must give common replies to these in order to appear more credible and effective.”

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Ministry to Latino Catholics Certificate Program and Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen

A homily from 2nd Sunday of Easter. Divine Mercy. April 3, 2016.

This is the third homily I have given this year. My turn comes on the first Sunday of each month. Each time, this year, the theme has been mercy. So the focus today on Divine Mercy Sunday should not be on “doubting” Thomas! There is something more important than “doubting” going on here. How about “the not-yet seeing” Thomas? How about “the not yet believing” Thomas? Finally, how about the Thomas who “questions”? Only through questioning can we discover the awesome truth of how necessary it was that Jesus should have died an innocent man’s death on the cross. His innocent suffering and death reveal the quality of God’s mercy, the Divine Mercy. Thomas questioned and not only was it revealed to him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The fuller truth is that Jesus will carry the wounds of his crucifixion, the signs of his suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Suffering and death are swallowed up in victory. Death has no victory. But the suffering and death are never undone, only completed. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are “It is completed.” Forever and forever!

At the same time let us remember Jesus’ last words while dying on the Cross in the Gospel of Mark, the first line of Psalm 22, the Prayer of an Innocent Person. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Someone said, “Wait let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Of course, Elijah does not come down nor does God. God was silent. God used to be merciful but not now. Or was He? Or is He merciful?

BuchenwaldI am reminded of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel and his famous memoir, Night. If you have not yet read this book, please do read it. It is one of the great religious books of the twentieth century. I am passing around a picture taken on April 11th, 1945, one of the most famous photographic remembrances we have of the Holocaust. That day the American army liberated Buchenwald. Weisel is the last person in the middle bunk in the middle row. Weisel’s literary reference to “Night” comes from the same Psalm 22 that Jesus cried out as he died: “My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” God did not answer as six million Jews were incinerated. This has always startled Weisel, especially the death of the babies. They were all innocent.

He says: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murder my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

That “night” Jesus suffered and died an innocent man. That night the babies suffered and died innocent babies. We must ask questions. If there is going to be any final justice in the world that God created where so much innocent suffering takes place, then God’s silence must be suffered. There can be sense here only if God can suffer. But our theology and philosophy say that God cannot suffer. Impassibilis est Deus.  Yes, God cannot suffer. That is true. But there is more to God than God, especially when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Saint Bernard completes the phrase Impassibilis est Deus with, sed non incompassibilis. Pope Benedict translated this as: “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood.”

The seventh sign in the Gospel of John is the resurrection and the signs of Jesus’ suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. I have no answer for Elie Weisel’s questioning. He handles it with his Jewish resources. However, Thomas saw and believed, and now had a reason for hope. When we encounter the risen Christ and believe, we discover the only appropriate response to the Divine Mercy. That response is gratitude and hope. In the deaths of the innocents that cry out for justice, we discover a very strong argument why we need faith in the resurrection. But it works the other around. Faith in the resurrection, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, is the only way that those innocent babies will have justice. Jesus did not die in vain. The babies did not die in vain. Jesus’ wounds mark his risen body forever. The babies’ burn scars will mark their risen bodies forever.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” Amen.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.