Catholics and abortion: Single-issue voting? (Part III)

January 31, 2011

Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial.  I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable.  I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult.  Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide.  Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.

I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument.  When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts.  So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.

There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Conversion of Romano Guardini

January 29, 2011


Since the intellectually fashionable tend nowadays to declare themselves “spiritual” but not “religious,” I’m always on the lookout for experiences that bring the two elements together.  To this purpose, I finally tracked Fr. Romano Guardini’s (1885-1968) famous account of his own conversion.  Besides being edifying, it arguably represents one of the most important ecclesial events of the 20th Century.  As a priest and theologian, Guardini deeply influenced thinkers as diverse as Josef Pieper, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger.  I might add that the latter, in the Nature and Mission of Theology, describes Guardini’s motive for converting to the Church as the spiritual core his own ecclesiology.  There Ratzinger attributed to Guardini (at least in part) his own conviction that the “Church is the sole guarantee that the obedience we owe to the Truth is concrete.”

The following passage is set in Guardini’s university days (1905), during a vacation in Staltach, which our author describes as “a little village on Starnberger See.”  There he shared an attic apartment with his childhood friend, Karl Neundörfer.  By this point, exposure to Kantian Idealism had shattered the simple faith of Guardini’s youth.  But …

Then came a turning point.  What had drawn me away from faith had not been real reasons against it, but the fact that the reasons for it no longer spoke to me.  Faith as a conscious act had grown ever weaker and had finally died out.  Read the rest of this entry »

Explaining weird stuff in the Bible: The She-Bear incident

January 27, 2011

Having taught High School Scripture for a few years, I know that students are particularly eager to read strange stories.  Since there is no shortage of strange stories in the Old Testament, I happily acquiesce to their interests.  After all, when I was a kid, these stories are precisely what led me to read the Bible.  I looked all over for these stories and reveled in my knowledge of obscure Bible passages.  However, aside from the fun they offer, they also create problems.  My intention is to write on how to interpret some of these difficult passages, since they often provide interpretive trouble for the faithful.

One of my favorites is the famous she-bear incident of 2 Kings 2:23-24:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. “Go up, baldhead,” they shouted, “go up, baldhead!” 24 The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces.

Now, as fun as this passage is, what do we do with it?  I raise this question because I have often (and again recently) heard this passage defended in this way:  Read the rest of this entry »

Homily at Jesuit Mass for Life on Jan. 24, 2011

January 25, 2011


This was preached on January 24 (in a slightly modified form), the morning of the March for Life, to a congregation of Jesuit high school and university students at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, DC.  For the details of the Mass, sponsored by the US Jesuit Conference, the Ignatian Pro-Life Network, and the Apostleship of Prayer, see the Mass for Life Program 2011.  The Gospel text was Matthew 5:1-12a, the Beatitudes.

There’s an important and easily-overlooked detail in today’s Gospel passage, one that suggests why we’re here at the March and why we’re here at this Mass.  It’s the intended audience of Jesus’ preaching.  When Jesus sees the “crowds” approaching, he doesn’t begin teaching them directly.  Instead, Jesus walks up a mountain, He lets His disciples approach Him, and He proceeds to teach them.  The them seem to be the disciples.  Initially, there’s no indication that the “crowds” follow Jesus up the mountain.  Plus, y’all have been to enough stadiums and auditoriums to know that, if your priority is really to be heard by the greatest number, you don’t climb to the top of a mountain and shout down at people.  You stay on the valley floor and arrange your audience up and down the side of the hill.

Why?  Read the rest of this entry »

Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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Homily on Unity: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 22, 2011

Today we hear the following from Paul: I urge you brothers and sisters in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

And from the president of these United States of America we heard this: The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it did not—but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. We may not be able to stop all of the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.

And from Matthew we hear that Jesus went around Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Read the rest of this entry »

Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Some Jesuit-themed books

January 11, 2011

Over the Christmas break I had time to do a little Jesuit-themed reading.

The more scholarly of the two books I read is Trent Pomplun’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010).  It chronicles the life and travels of Ippolito Desideri, an eighteenth century Jesuit missionary to Tibet.  Born in Pistoia, Tuscany, Desideri entered the Society of Jesus in 1700 and realized his dreams of becoming a missionary in a region almost completely unknown to Europeans.  His detailed accounts of Tibetan religion, culture, and politics have led some to consider him the father of “Tibetan studies.”

Desideri’s career involved harrowing sea voyages, bouts of snow-blindness in the Himalayas, and fleeing from invading Mongol armies.  Of his fourteen years outside of Italy, he spent six in Tibet and the rest of the time in transit—or trying to avoid superiors who might send him back home.

Desideri was a man of immense courage, intellect, and faith, but his mission was not ultimately successful.  He finished his career as a missionary embroiled in ecclesiastical litigation with the Capuchins over which religious order had rights to the Tibetan mission.  At times hotheaded and vain, Desideri launched an ill-considered lawsuit against the Capuchins, which ended his own missionary career and forced his return to Rome.  His account of Tibetan life was published only after his death at the age of forty-nine.

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Homily for the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, Year A

January 9, 2011


In Matthew’s Gospel, just before the passage we read today, John the Baptist compares his ministry to Christ’s in the following way: I baptize only with “water for repentance”, whereas the one “who is coming after me” will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11).  In the scene of the Baptism at the Jordan, Jesus seems to be following John’s script.  Yet we see to see only half of the prophecy fulfilled.  We see the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.  But where is the fire?

On the face of things, there is nothing “fiery” about today’s Gospel.  No visions of flames.  No inflammatory speeches.  But this is only on the face of things.  There are these words, which the Father addresses to Christ: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  And underneath these gentlest of words, there is fire.

I know that there’s fire in these words for one simple reason: we don’t like to get too close to them.

Let me explain what I mean. Read the rest of this entry »

Baptism of the Lord: A Homily

January 9, 2011

Delivered 9 Jan 2011 at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Isn’t Jesus always embarrassing to us. He hangs out with a rag-tag group of fishermen, he dines with noted public sinners, lets prostitutes wash his feet, gets himself hung on a cross in a public execution. All of these things were certainly embarrassing to the first followers of Jesus and the gospels they wrote were in one sense a way of dealing with all of these potentially embarrassing facts from the life of Jesus, the savior of the world. Today’s gospel comes out of this tradition of embarrassment and explanation. Jesus went to be baptized by John. John’s baptisms were for the forgiveness of sins, for repentance. But here was a prophet and a person, in Jesus, who according to John needed no such baptism. Read the rest of this entry »

Gifts of Gold

January 3, 2011

I’ve been thinking about presents.  After all, it’s Epiphany week, and in my house Epiphany always meant a visit from the Befana.

The Befana, for those who don’t know, is a legendary old woman who brings gifts to Italian (and Italian-American) children on the feast of the Epiphany, a sort of Signora Santa Claus.  According to legend, the Befana was a particularly fussy housekeeper who lived along the route taken by the three kings on their journey to worship the baby Jesus.  When the Magi stopped at the Befana’s house, they offered to let her tag along and visit the newborn Messiah, but she claimed to have too much housework to do and declined.  Only after the Magi had left town did the Befana regret her decision and hurry to catch up… but by then it was too late, and the wise men were out of sight.  Since that first Epiphany she has been leaving presents for the children of every home she visits in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the Christ child.

I’ve also been thinking about presents because of an exhibit I recently visited at Chicago’s Field Museum.  The exhibit was about gold.  Of all the commodities Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar came bringing, the only one which seems to have held up in market value is gold.  I’m afraid I wouldn’t know what to do if I found a box of myrrh under the tree, but gold would be nice, especially in today’s economy.

Gold, I learned at the Field Museum, has many unique properties.  It does not tarnish or rust.  It is found in small quantities throughout the world, on every habitable continent.  And, of course, it shines brilliantly.  There are other qualities too—gold is a great conductor of electricity and can be pounded into sheets mere microns thick—but these first three made me think about how appropriate it is that gold should show up time and again in religious rites.

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Feast of the Holy Innocents: A Homily

January 2, 2011

Delivered in St. Louis, Missouri at the Jesuit Formation Gathering 2010.

Christmas is the most complex season of the church year.

For the past few years at these formation gatherings, Paddy Hough has made us sing a song entitled the Seven Joys of Mary. It has an infuriatingly upbeat melody, several jolly Britishisms, and a list of seven purported joys that Mary experiences. Some of the joys are really stretching the concept of joy. One of them is Jesus being nailed to the Cross. Read the rest of this entry »