Redefining Marriage Is Nothing New

FamilyStudiesThe “question” of marriage is nothing new. That marriage is now a divisive and controversial issue is also centuries old. Many people, particularly those on the left, seem to believe that their current fervor in support of gay “marriage” reveals their unique understanding of a thoroughly modern truth. They hold rallies and marches and pat themselves on the back for their forward-thinking, post-modern insights. They imagine (because that’s what they do) that no one has ever been as smart as they are because they want “marriage” to be different. The real truth is that people have been trying to mess with marriage since at least 1530. What do you think Henry VIII wanted from all those divorces and beheadings?  He had a new vision of what he wanted marriage to be. He didn’t like that the Church taught that marriage was (and is) a covenant between one man and one woman, sworn before the Lord’s altar and lasting for a lifetime. He didn’t like that he couldn’t change the definition of marriage to suit his political and lustful ambitions. And so, being king, he killed the one man who stood publicly to oppose him and to defend God’s law: St. Thomas More. Thomas had been Henry’s lifelong friend and advisor. But Henry had him imprisoned for not going along with his marriage idea and eventually he had Thomas executed. St. Thomas famously said,”I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” See, when you stand in the way of redefining marriage, you can lose everything. Except your immortal soul.

Now skip ahead 458 years to 1968. During that hot Roman summer, Pope Paul VI had been reading and reviewing a report from a commission his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, had created to review the Church’s teachings on artificial birth control. The Pill was being widely introduced as a safe and easy form of no-fuss birth control. It offered sex without consequences, if by “consequences” you mean a baby. The world was busy separating sex from love, sex from marriage, sex from procreation and everything from the province of God’s vision for us. The Pontifical Commission was composed of priests, bishops, cardinals, theologians, physicians and (gasp!) women. Most of the members concluded that the Church needed to “modernize” her teachings on birth control. But the Pope chose to uphold the Church’s teachings: that marriage is more than the union of a man and a woman. Marriage is the union of loving couple with a loving God and the man and woman cooperate with Him in the creation of new life. “Marriage does not allow for arbitrary human decisions which may limit divine providence.”  When we mess with marriage, we try to limit God’s plan for our lives.

Henry VIII made his arbitrary human decisions about marriage. Pope Paul VI reaffirmed that artificial birth control limits God’s creative right within a marriage. Whenever we mess with what God has created and the Church has upheld, we diminish the greatness of creation. We put God in a box. Sex without consequences reduces each partner to “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of [their] own desires; finally, abuse of power by public authorities, and a false sense of autonomy” (Humanae Vitae). Wow. Read that quote again. More than 40 years ago our Pope foresaw that we were on the road that would lead to the government getting involved in our most private moments and beliefs. Like the findings of the Supreme Court. Like the consequences of Obamacare which requires Catholics to pay for abortions. Like the IRS overseeing and managing your health care. Sex outside of Holy Matrimony and sex without openness to new life gives us a false sense of autonomy. We begin to believe it really is all about us and our genitals. We don’t see sex as a gift from God which was made to glorify Him and to mirror the love of the Holy Trinity. We believe babies are clumps of cells and have no intrinsic life to be born. We no longer believe that God has a place in defining what’s right and what’s wrong. We’re adrift like a ship without a rudder. We’ve lost our way.

So today’s battle over the meaning and purpose of marriage is an old one. If you oppose what the king wants, you’re liable to be persecuted or even killed. At the very least you’ll be accused of being a hateful homophobe, a backward-thinker, a right-wing reactionary. The Church continues to uphold the teachings on life and marriage given to her by Jesus Christ. Last week, in writing for the minority opinion on the SCOTUS decision on marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia said: “In the majority’s telling this story is black and white: hate your neighbor or come along with us.”  Well, some of us won’t be coming along with the majority. We’ll be standing with our Pope and our bishops. We’ll be praying for our country and asking St. Thomas More to pray for America, too. And we’ll be voting.

                 “What was true yesterday is also true today.”
                     —Pope Benedict XVI, May 12, 2008
                         Commenting on “Humanae Vitae”

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Love One Another

window 6Last week in this blog I wrote about suicide, specifically I recalled my grandfather’s suicide and its lingering effects on my family. I wasn’t prepared for the reaction that my words encouraged. I had struggled with publishing our family story because I didn’t want the legacy of my dad and grandfather to be changed in any way by my writing. But I shouldn’t have worried. Instead I’ve heard many stories of other families whose lives have been altered forever by suicide. Beginning in 2009, suicide surpassed car crashes as the number one cause of accidental death in the United States. Everyone knows someone who has died in a car accident so it follows that we all know someone who has taken their own life. Many of us have loved people who killed themselves. And all of us are left with questions.

Is suicide always a sin? The short Catholic answer us “no.” In order for an action to be a mortal sin, the person must 1) know the action is sinful, 2) deliberately and freely consent to the sin, and 3) the action must be gravely sinful. Most people in most circumstances would know that suicide is a grave sin. But there are reasons that can keep a person from being able to make a clear, informed, rational choice. We can imagine so many situations and life events which can conspire in a person’s soul and can affect their ability to think clearly and mindfully. Their thoughts and emotions may have been very impaired at the time of their death. You may have known they were in difficulty. Or maybe you didn’t. Maybe their suicide came as a complete shock—a moment of unbelievable, unknowable loss. We try and understand how they came to want to end their lives. We may never really know the answers to our questions. We wonder if somehow we missed the signals they might have been giving—of despair or hopelessness, or of the plans they were making to escape their pain.

Yes, we can always take better care of one another. If a friend or family member makes us wonder if they might be considering suicide, we should ask them. This is an act of love. Your care and concern might be the very thing they’ve most hungered for. There are resources in every community that can help someone who’s hurting and desperately sad. We’re connected to each other and the Lord binds us together in His holy communion. That binding isn’t just symbolic but is a true “oneness” that exists in Christ and His Church. It means that we bear with one another through all difficulties and we stand with one another in our pain. We pray for the hurting and the lonely in our midst. Loneliness may be at the heart of so many of our world’s hurting ones. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta thought so. She said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

Who do you know that is lonely?  The widow down the street. The young man living on his own. The retiree diagnosed with a return of his cancer. Our lives are knit together through Christ’s redemptive love and He commands us to love one another (John 13:34-35). This is not a theory or idea. This is how we love: by being Christ to our neighbor. It means taking the time to get to know the people in our lives. It means introducing ourselves to the new faces at Mass and taking an active part in the ministries in our parish that serve others. Stewardship is more than dropping an envelope in the offertory and getting up to lector every month or so. A steward cares for God’s creation and that means caring for the vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Ask the young man to your family table. Offer to drive the widow to Mass next Sunday. You may be the light they’ve been searching for. And pray, always pray. A Rosary for their intentions can open the floodgates of grace. And help is out there. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a network of more than 150 crisis centers around the country. Calling 1-800-273-8255 can get free, confidential and local help for anyone who’s suffering and depressed. Don’t miss the chance to be the love and the help someone needs when they need you the most. You’ll be sharing the love and the hope of Christ and His Church. And you just might save a life.

“They help each other and say to their companions, ‘Be strong!’                                                                                  —Isaiah 41:6

A Suicide In The Family

handsI’m a child of suicide. More accurately, I’m a grandchild of suicide. My dad’s father killed himself almost 20 years before I was born. His suicide changed my family. My father never spoke about it to my mother or to us kids. My mom had been close to her father-in-law but his suicide came as a shock to her as well. A quiet man by nature, my grandfather seemed to have given no indication of what he was going through or thinking about. One spring night he went into the bathroom and shot himself. My mom and dad and oldest brother were living next door at the time. My dad was just 29 years old. Years later, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my mom tried to explain it to me. But my dad would never talk about it. The few times I tried bringing it up with him, he’d change the subject or leave the room. After a while, I stopped asking. It was the silent, gaping wound of my family.

I remember looking at photos of my grandfather and trying to see in his eyes if they might hold any secrets. Did he look unhappy? No. Did he look crazy or depressed or out of control. Nope. He looked like my father. Maybe that was the most disturbing thing of all. If my grandfather had killed himself might my own dad someday make that same choice? Thankfully that didn’t happen and my dad lived well into his eighties enjoying his kids, grandkids and great-grandchildren. But I wonder if he’d been a different sort of husband and father if his life hadn’t been changed forever by his dad’s suicide.

We know that murder is gravely sinful (Exodus 20:13). Our understanding of suicide is not so black and white, though. We know that there can be mitigating factors in the sinfulness of suicide. Mental illness, substance abuse, loneliness, financial hardship or serious illness can all call the willfulness of the action into question. The Catholic Church teaches that, even in suicide, we must always trust in the mercy of God. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone. God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2283). God’s love reaches out to those despairing of hope and embraces them in their pain.

And He embraces the survivors as well. The wives and sons, the sisters and daughters and friends who are left behind, trying to understand what’s happened. Suicide is never just between the person and the Lord. Like all our existence, we are connected in ways we can’t imagine. Suicide wounds families in dozens of ways, for generations. In some cases, survivors may be ashamed to talk with their pastor about a family member’s suicide. They may believe that suicide condemns a person to hell. Or that someone who has taken their own life will be denied a funeral Mass. These are not the teachings of the Catholic Church. If you’ve lost someone to suicide, talk to your pastor. He may also suggest that you speak with a spiritual director with experience in suicide survivors. Most importantly, cling to Christ. Nothing, not even suicide, can separate Him from His children. Trust in His divine mercy and pray for your loved one every day. Believe in His great love, even if you’re never able to understand why someone you loved chose to take their own life. Know that at the moment of their deepest despairing, Jesus was there with them. They didn’t die alone. They didn’t die outside of God’s love. Suicide leaves the survivors with questions that may never be answered in this life. Our faith is in Christ and He holds the answers for us. And we are called to forgive our lost loved one. We do this through embracing God’s great love and trusting always in Him for our peace. We know that God meets each one of us as we pass from this life, no matter the circumstance. He is Mercy.

                                                                “By His stripes we are healed.”
                                                                             —Isaiah 53:4-5

To Help People In Need

CRSThe images of a town devastated by a killer storm are almost too painful to watch. In the aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami, or a massive earthquake, we’re shocked and moved to take action and help out. We want destroyed homes to be rebuilt and schools to be repaired. We’re anxious to see families taken care of and healed as their lives are put back together. Most of us can’t personally help on-site, but we give our money so that others can stand in for us. There are lots of good charities out there that can use our money effectively and with good planning and compassion. One of the highest-rated of these charities is Catholic Relief Services or CRS.

During the height of World War II, the Catholic bishops of the United States wanted to help the people of Europe who had been devastated by the war and CRS was founded. It is the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the U.S. and this year is celebrating 70 years of service.  With over 5000 workers worldwide, CRS is poised to be among the first caregivers on site wherever and whenever a disaster happens. Over 130 million people in around 100 countries are helped each year by Catholic Relief Services. They are all assisted without regard to their faith, their politics, or their national boundaries. Because Christ has called us to love one another.

Sometimes we wonder about the financial practices of the charities we might want to support. CRS is accredited by the Better Business Bureau and is “top-rated” by Charity Watch, an organization that monitors charities.  Charity Navigator gives CRS “four stars.”  As a 501(c)3 organization, donations to CRS are tax-deductible. In 2010, Americans donated $918 million to CRS in support of their worldwide mission. Whenever a disaster happens, CRS’ goal is to be on the ground providing care as soon as possible. Housing and food as well as clean water and medical care are first priorities. But CRS doesn’t stop there. Civil conflicts can also disrupt people’s lives. Countries divided by war or rebellion are another kind of disaster. CRS offers long-term planning in agriculture which can help people become more self-sufficient. Community health programs, like providing mosquito netting, can prevent malaria. They help in education and in micro-finance initiatives. As important as disaster-relief is the long-term goal is lasting peace, which allows families to live in stability and dignity. CRS commits to stay in countries that need their help. They’ve been working in Haiti since 1954.

Catholics may be most-familiar with CRS because of their Operation Rice bowl program. Every year during Lent, CRS distributes cardboard rice bowls in parishes across our country. Since 1975 Operation Rice Bowl is an annual outreach to fund CRS’ food programs. During Lent we’re called to fast, to pray, and to give alms in preparation for Easter. Money we save from missed meals is collected in our rice bowls and used to feed the poorest of the poor. Seventy-five percent of the money raised (over $200 million since 1975) helps people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Twenty-five percent of the money feeds hungry people in our own neighborhoods. Parish education teams use the rice bowls in teaching kids about charitable giving. Families keep the bowls on their dinner tables as a reminder of the many blessings we enjoy.

Catholic Relief Services puts the words of Christ into action: “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink: I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 35-36). So if you’re feeling called to Christ’s mission to love and to serve, consider giving to Catholic Relief Services, a respected and established charity. Visit their website to learn more: www.crs.org.

                                  “We alleviate suffering; we help people in need.”
                                                    —Catholic Relief Services

So You Want To Become Catholic? Take Your Time.

clocksA friend of mine recently told me that at her small Evangelical church the ladies make baskets of homemade cookies each Sunday. These goodies are handed out to any visitor attending their church that day. In exchange, the ladies get the visitor’s name, address, and phone number and arrange a home visit with them the following week. Their cookie ministry is the opening salvo in an orchestrated outreach to welcome people into their church and invite them to become members.  My friend shared that she believes it is an important part of her Christian faith to actively welcome new members and to help interested individuals and families to join their church. As for membership, the person has only to publicly state their desire to join and they are accepted as members that same day. There’s not even a baptismal requirement since her church doesn’t teach that baptism is necessary for church membership.

Becoming Catholic is, to say the least, a bit of a different story. We have a process lasting between six or eight months during which persons desiring to become Catholic meet in a group setting for prayer, instruction, and guidance. This is called RCIA or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. It’s modeled on the practices of the very early Church and has been more widely-implemented in the last 20 years or so. Back when I joined the Church in 1977 the process was a bit more informal. Okay, it was a LOT more informal. As a college sophomore with a year of Catholic theology and philosophy under my belt, I met three times with my local pastor before receiving the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Holy Communion–all on the same day. There was no exhaustive instruction in Church history or dogma, no in- depth discussion of the Sacraments, no time for reflecting on what it meant to journey from my Southern Baptist roots to the Church of Rome. I swam the Tiber in record time and arrived in St. Peter’s Square hardly knowing what I’d done. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. And it was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me though. I certainly don’t fault the pastor (now deceased) who took me in. At the time, he was doing exactly what most every other Catholic pastor was doing. But my lack of preparation took me years to sort out. To begin with, I thought my becoming Catholic was a private matter between me and The Lord. My understanding of salvation and redemption remained very Protestant. I was confused about the Saints and about Mary. Purgatory had me flummoxed and confession scared me to death. What had drawn me to the Church was the Holy Eucharist and that’s what (Who) I clung to. But my early years as a Catholic were a kind of blur of questions and uncertainty. Thankfully, I was attending a solidly Catholic university surrounded by faithful professors and priests who formed my faith community. And I was able to study in Rome, which never hurts.

Looking back, it’s a wonder I remained Catholic through those early years of my infancy in the faith. For everyone who complains about how hard it is to become a Catholic let me just say: savor your journey through RCIA. Every parish doesn’t have a 5-star program, but allow yourself to be immersed in the process anyway. If you’re being called to the Catholic Church, it’s Christ who is calling you and He’ll be there with you every step along the way. You can enrich your experience by becoming a part of your parish’s faith community even before you’re a full member. Go to Mass every Sunday and make a holy hour of Adoration as often as you can. Read the Catechism and write down your questions. Read some of the Gospels every day and listen to what Jesus might be saying to you in them. Make friends with the parish secretary–she or he knows everyone in the parish and all the programs and ministries that might interest you. The priest’s schedule might be very busy but his secretary can be a great resource for you.

And remember that the journey to becoming Catholic isn’t just about you and God. Catholicism is a family of faith that includes your RCIA group and sponsors, your pastor and lay ministers, the parish and the larger diocese, the worldwide Catholic Church, plus the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. We’re all in this together. Be patient with us and with yourself. Remember that most RCIA programs begin in late summer or early fall and usually meet every week until Easter when you’ll receive the sacraments and come into full communion with the Church. Call your local parish and ask about their RCIA schedule. Your months of preparation will lay a fertile groundwork for a lifelong faith.

“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are one thing…”
                                                —-St. Joan of Arc