Monday, January 26, 2015

Do Not Conform Yourself to This Age—Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Jonah 3:1–5, 10; 1 Cor. 7:29–31; Mark 1:14–20
Do not conform yourselves to this age.
This statement from Paul from the letter to the Romans was not in our readings this week, but it is a perfect synopsis of the teaching we take from the reading. Set aside the things of this world, because it is impermanent and because God's will for our future is more important—of dire importance for us.
It is easy to let the cares of life overwhelm us and take center stage. And our culture has a tendency to reinforce those pressures, to seek what is easy and comfortable.
When that house in that great location comes on the market, it can be easy to capitulate and tell yourself that you need the extra space and the additional garage.
But it goes beyond our material wants. It affects the way we view commitment. Our word is only good as  long as we get what we want, so we forsake our commitments and covenants as easily as changing our socks. Marriage becomes a matter of satisfying personal fulfillment rather than a foundation of civilization. But our age tells us that it's all about us. It's about my happiness, my self-fulfillment, my soul mate—not about my commitment and consent in front of God.
Do not conform yourselves to this age.
This week was the 42 anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, a decision that has resulted in the deaths of 50 million unborn in the US. 1.2 billion have been aborted worldwide in the last 50 years. Let that figure settle in: 1.2 billion worldwide. That equals the current total Catholic population in the world. But that is the pattern of our age. Pregnancy is considered inconvenient. It is no longer considered a blessing in our culture unless you intend to have children for your own self-fulfillment. That is the pattern of our age—to seek our own will.
In all of the noise that goes on in our brains about what we want rather than need, it's easy to drown out the voice of God calling us to something better.
Well, sometimes God gives us those in-your-face reminders. Jonah was one of those reminders. He walked across Nineveh and told the Ninevites what to expect in 40 days. The Ninevites were pagans, just going about doing their worldly pagan things, but here comes this Israelite Prophet proclaiming doom from a god they didn't even know. And the people of Nineveh did something few in our modern world would today: they took Jonah at his word. They accepted that he was a prophet. Why? Probably because he was telling them something they did not want to hear but that spoke to their consciences. And they responded. They called a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes—a traditional sign of penance. Part of the passage is missing here that I find rather amusing. Even the cattle and the donkeys wore sackcloth and fasted. Now, please don't take that as an invitation to bring your pets to the Ash Wednesday service, but you have to admit it's quite a statement about Nineveh's penitential spirit.
Why were they moved? Because God made His will known to them, and they heard Him. They were willing to recognize their failure, and they repented.
In first Corinthians, Paul essentially orders the people to turn 180 degrees—to do exactly the opposite of what they've been doing. If they weep, act as if not weeping. If they rejoice, act as if not rejoicing. It seems like a rather bizarre command. But his point is that the people of Corinth have not changed. They have not been converted. They are still living as Pagans even though they have been baptized and are part of the Church. He is telling them that the time is short. Your faith requires a commitment. Do not go on living as you have. Turn around and shape up because the Lord is coming. The world in its present form is passing away. We must always remember that what happens here is impermanent. Do not conform yourselves to this age, because all of this will pass away.
Last week's reading reveals to us that James, John, Andrew and Peter are followers of Jesus. This reading today shows a unique call given to them to become "fishers of men."
This Gospel reading really is the motivation for why we need to stop conforming ourselves to this age. James, John, Andrew, and Peter have already come to know Jesus, and now Jesus comes to demand something of them. In Mark, all we see is this command given to a bunch of fishermen: come and I will make you "fishers of men." This is a great play on words in English.
What Mark is trying to convey in his gospel is the immediacy of Christ's call to us. He doesn't just call and say, "Hey, drop by for a chat once a week or so" or "Call me when you're in town." He calls us to leave everything behind and follow Him—to let go of our obligation, our ambitions, our material wants and to follow Him. He has a mission for us, and we have to be ready to embrace it. Right now.
No finishing the work day. No waiting until after you've paid off the mortgage. No waiting until the kids are finished with college. Right now.
And that is a challenging message for us. We are so often driven, not by what God wants for us, but by what our culture says is really important: material wealth, professional success, fame.
Paul is telling us to set all of that aside, and Mark shows us why. Because if we are too attached to the things of this world, if we cling to our material success, if we are driven by the feelings we have in a particular moment rather than by what God wills for us, we will miss our call. We will miss Jesus' invitation.
We will miss our mission and lose our salvation.
So do not conform yourselves to this age when it tells you that you need that new Mercedes.
Do not conform yourselves to this age when it tells you that marriage is a temporary commitment that you can toss aside when it becomes burdensome.
Do not conform yourselves to this age when it tells you that an unborn life is an inconvenience and that sex is really just about your personal satisfaction.

Conform yourself instead to the will of Christ. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all you truly need will be given to you.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of the Lord—Cycle B

Isaiah 55:1–11; 1 John 5:1–9; Mark 1:7–11
Have you ever had the experience of having someone you greatly admire coming up to you and telling you how much they admire you? Someone whose opinion and judgment you hold in great esteem, who has just told you how much they think of and esteem you? That's a rather unsettling experience in some ways. I've had that happen a few times, and a number of thoughts sometimes run through my head.
The first and foremost thought is that if they really knew me, they wouldn't think so highly of me. This is an easy trap to fall into, since I know all of my deepest secrets and know just how unworthy I am of esteem (at least, from my perspective). I think all of us are prone to this kind of thinking just a bit. My second thought is about that individual, about how I esteem them and how astounding it is that they think the same of me. Sometimes I start to wonder whether their judgment is all I thought it was.
I imagine John the Baptist felt something similar when Jesus came to him to be baptized. In this gospel account, he has just finished telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that he is unworthy to loosen the sandal of the one who follows. In the very next scene, he's actually baptizing that very person he was sent to announce. In fact, in Matthew's account, John says to Jesus, "I should be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?" John was astounded that this one who was so much greater would stoop to let himself be baptized by someone like John.
Yet that is the essence of God's plan. He sent His son here not simply to make it all better, but to live among us and to suffer with us all of the things that we brought on ourselves. That is the amazing thing about the incarnation—not that God saved us, but how He chose to do it. And He does it through physical means. He uses our weak human form to reach into the world and effect grace. We often lose sight of that—that grace comes to us through material things. We wouldn't know God except for our encounter with material things. We wouldn't know the fullness of revelation, Jesus Christ Himself, unless He came to us as man. That is the beauty and the mystery of the incarnation.
All of our sacraments require material things—some proper matter used to effect the grace of the sacrament. A sacrament is a visible and material sign, instituted by Christ, that effects invisible grace (repeat). That is the basic definition of a sacrament. And sacraments have four elements: matter, form, proper ministers, and proper recipients.
In baptism, the necessary matter is water. You cannot have a valid baptism without water. You cannot baptize in beer or grape soda. We must use water.
Now, water might seem to be an arbitrary choice, but it's such a basic requirement for life and such a common image for purification that it truly is the most obvious option. God even gave us reminders throughout the Old Testament to reaffirm the necessity of water for our purification or rebirth, even if we don't recognize it immediately.
·       In Genesis 1, the breath of God moves across the water to sanctify it, and God’s Word—His Son—brings about all creation from the water and it is good.
·       Later in Genesis, Noah and his family pass through the deluge through a water barrier in an ark and into a world that is cleansed of evil. So we have another crossing of a water barrier.
·       In Exodus, Moses is placed in the Nile in a miniature ark made of reeds. The word in Exodus (tevat) is actually the same word as the word for ark in the story of Noah. Moses eventually leads the People of Israel out of slavery across the Red Sea—a water barrier.
·       In Deuteronomy, Joshua leads the people with the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan river—a water barrier—to the promised land.
In the first event, all creation begins with the sanctification of the water and separation from it. In each of the subsequent events, crossing a water barrier signifies a rebirth, a new creation.
Those were our Old Testament reminders that God had a plan, and those baptismal events in the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, just as everything in scripture ultimately points to Jesus. We recollect these events in our baptismal rite to recall that this model has always been part of God's plan.
You might have noticed that many of these baptismal images included two common signs: water and the ark. We also celebrated the most important ark of all on Thursday last week—Mary, the Mother of God, that God Bearer or Theotokos, ark of the New Covenant.
And then Jesus Himself comes. Now, His baptism isn’t really like ours. He has no need of sanctification through baptism. He's following the tradition of the Jews who would regularly immerse themselves as part of their purification rites. Some Early Church Fathers also taught that in Jesus' baptism, the waters are sanctified for the Sacrament of Baptism (again in the presence of the Holy Trinity as in Genesis 1). His baptism is a sign to us: a sign of His obedience under the Jewish Law, but it is also a sign to signal the way—a sign that simply says, “Follow me.”
Follow Him to what exactly?
Mark’s story has a hint. Immediately after Jesus is baptized, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, or into the desert. Recall that both Moses and Joshua move from the desert across a water barrier, and toward or into the Promised Land. There is a sense of movement with the stories of Moses and Joshua of the people being led from oppression into freedom. The movement in the baptism story of Jesus is exactly the opposite. He enters the water barrier and is baptized, and then he goes out into the desert for 40 days. It represents his willingness to come here and take on the very evils that we suffer because of man's original disobedience. He crosses the water barrier to join us, and we cross the water barrier in baptism to join Him in return.
St. Paul tells us that we are baptized into Christ’s death. We join Him in His death so that we can be reborn into new life. So every baptism represents a dying to self and rebirth to new life in Christ.
Baptism begins our life in Christ and joins us to his body, the Church. It cleanses us of sin: both original and personal. And most of all, it makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. We do it because Christ did it before us. In baptism, we follow him so that we can fulfill all righteousness, through God’s grace.
It’s fitting for baptism to be God’s instrument for our sanctification. He has given us these signs in scripture, for certain, but He also planted a reminder of redemption in our very being. Our entrance into this world, through pregnancy and child birth is through a water barrier. Every image we have of rebirth is modeled after our first birth.
We as Catholics are people of the Incarnation—of the embodiment of God. Our experience of God is in the world around us, so baptism takes this form to remind us of our rebirth as God’s children. When we are baptized, God looks down on us and says, “This is my beloved son—my beloved daughter—with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus came down to share our lot, to live with us and experience life with us—and ultimately to give us an example. By following him in baptism, we share His divine life, and that was the reason for revelation and for His incarnation. God loves us and does not give up on us regardless of how far we stray. He came here to lead us back, and all we have to do is follow.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why Waterboarding is Torture

UPDATE: Welcome to those of you who have been conveyed here by various Facebook and blog conversations. Thanks for giving my humble blog your attention. I welcome you to leave comments, but I request that you do so in Christian charity. I am not interested in being a host to character assassination, slander, accusations of heresy, or even snide or condescending commentary. It's my house and my dinner table, and I invite you to come, eat and drink, but not to abuse your fellow guests. Grace and peace be with you all.
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I'm sure that some who are coming here are already not happy with me. Please understand that I am offering this post not as a way to slap anyone down as a "heretic," declare myself to be a superior Catholic (as if), or to take sides in some of the spats that are currently raging on Facebook or elsewhere. My role as a deacon and as a theologian (if I can claim that title with only an MA in theology and a desire to pursue a terminal degree) is to present the teachings of the Church in a way that is accessible, and one way of being accessible is by being charitable. So please take my post in the spirit in which it is offered—as a desire for your edification and aid.

As a deacon, I am charged to present the Church's official teaching, not my own opinion, and that is was I endeavor to do.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I appreciate Jimmy Akin's careful analysis of the issue of torture and waterboarding. I also mention that I disagreed with his definition of torture as "disproportionate violence." While this is useful for his argument, it does not match the operational definition used by the Church in Its doctrine on torture.

However, while I have qualms with the particulars of Jimmy's argument, my biggest concern is that it engages in a line of reasoning that does not follow the mind of the Church as expressed in its own documents, and that is what should concern the average lay Catholic—the mind of the Church as expressed in its official documents. In addition to scripture (which must also must be read following the mind of the Church as its authentic interpreter), the primary reference on matters of faith and morals Catholic laity should be the Catechism. While it is not exhaustive and it in itself is not an infallible statement of doctrine, it relies heavily on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture in its formulation, including the dogmatic and irreformable doctrines of the faith.

To determine the status of waterboarding, we should then be looking at these documents first to establish the basis on which the Church makes moral judgments. Apart from the claims of some Catholic moral theologians,* the Church teaches that there are three elements or sources of morality: the object, the intention, and the circumstances. These elements are outlined in  the Catechism of the Catholic Church 17501761, and in more condensed form in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 367–369.

The object is the act in and of itself. The intention is the "movement of the will toward the end (the first goal of the action). The circumstances (which include consequences) are secondary elements of an act that can increase or decrease the moral goodness or evil of an act or increase or diminish responsibility. Intention and circumstances cannot change the nature of the object, so if the object is evil in itself, intention and circumstance do not change that fact.

The specific prohibition against torture is in CCC paragraph 2297: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (condensed formula in the Compendium 477).

So the operational definition of torture, according to the Church, is "use of physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." It is morally wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." In other words, it treats a person as a thing and not as a person.

There is no notion of proportionality inherent or implicit in this definition. There is no degree of physical or moral violence involved. At very least, waterboarding falls under the category of moral violence, as it terrifies the subject into believing that they are drowning (which, in fact, is true). To deny that waterboarding is not physically violent is to undermine the very definition of violence. It requires physical force to carry out the activity (restraint and suppression of the subject's ability of defense). And the purpose of the act is stated clearly to distinguish violence that might be used in licit ways (for example, physical violence used to remove a diseased organ).

So by the Church's simple definition of torture in the Catechism (the Church's official statement of Catholic doctrine, albeit incomplete), waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong because it treats persons as things rather than people. It treats them with utter disregard for their human dignity.

St. John Paul II outlined clearly in Veritatis Splendor 80 that torture constitutes in intrinsically evil act, which  "on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances" are "incapable of being ordered to God."

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated in an address to the Twelfth World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, stated that the prohibition against torture "cannot be contravened under any circumstances." In this statement, he was quoting directly from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church section 404, which itself quotes an address by St. John Paul II to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There are other questions that people ask concerning self defense and warfare that, while legitimate questions, simply don't negate the clear teaching concerning torture. These questions, too, are addressed in the Catechism in the very same section as the definition of torture above. (See 2263–2267 on legitimate defense and 2307–2317, with particular emphasis on 2313.)

Now I responded in my previous post to the objection that the doctrine on torture is not infallible, and thus is a matter of prudential judgment. That does not allow us to dismiss a teaching—only to determine how it will be applied. I don't see many ways to apply a teaching that states that "the prohibition on torture cannot be contravened" aside from simply not engaging in torture or proposing its use. Looking for another way to define an activity to carve it out from under the umbrella of torture is certainly not applying a teaching but finding a way to ignore it. For an explanation of why some moral teachings are not infallibly defined, see this blog post from 2010.

A lot of people have been quoting from an essay by Fr. Brian Harrison to claim Catholic support for torture under limited circumstances. The essay did in fact present such an argument. However, he has since retracted that position. Below is his statement concerning his former position as to the legitimate discussion of the question by moral theologians,§ which he requested to be posted by Mark Shea.
However, having now become aware that Pope Benedict himself has personally reiterated this particular statement of the Compendium, I wish to state that I accept the Holy Father’s judgement on this matter, and so would not defend any proposal, under any circumstances, to use torture for any purpose whatsoever – not even to gain potentially life-saving information from known terrorists.
He adds
Indeed, I do not normally read this (or any other) blog, mainly because I think disputes in the blogosphere tend to generate more heat than light – especially since they so often involve intemperate, unsubstantiated, anonymous – and therefore cowardly – attacks on persons and reputations.
Now, some people fault Fr. Harrison for even considering this question. I don't because that is a moral theologian's job. Even if his conclusions are incorrect, he has to engage the questions until there is a clear statement that the matter is settled. In this case, he did exactly that. Once he saw that the Holy Father had already spoken on a subject, he withdrew his proposal.

Updated: Dave Armstrong has pointed out in the comments that Fr. Harrison has not actually retracted his position. See the comments for his explanation.

That is what it means to think with the mind of the Church. When we find ourselves out of line with the Church's thinking, we reform our thoughts. I have had to do it many times since I returned to the faith, and I'm always under reform. That is, in essence, what it means to be Catholic—to be ever in a state of conversion more and more toward the heart of Christ. 


Updated:

Here are some USCCB resources concerning torture. Specific mention is mad of waterboarding in chapter 2 of the linked PDF, where the issue of the "definition of torture" is used as a tactic to justify an act that is in fact torture.

http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/torture/torture-is-a-moral-issue.cfm

In terms of the rather deceptive descriptions about how waterboarding is often presented, the document states, "And some commentators consider even the term 'waterboarding' euphemistic—a term that they say does not fully call to mind the reality of a simulated drowning.

If you describe simulated drowning as dunking, sipping, splashes of water in the face, or anything that minimizes what is actually done, then you are mischaracterizing the actual practice. Here's how the CIA described it:

In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth… During those 20 to 40 seconds, water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches. After this period, the cloth is lifted, and the individual is allowed to breathe unimpeded for three or four full breaths… The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout… You have… informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application.
So that's hardly "dunking" or sipping or just splashing water in someone's face. It is controlled drowning. The physical effects are hypoxia, elevated heart rate and blood pressure and can cause a "fear-induced heart problem." Subjects often vomit, which can result in inhalation and asphyxiation.

Here's a list of resources concerning the use torture:

http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/torture/index.cfm


If you would like to see the opinions of SERE trainers and professional interrogators on the use of torture, please see the following:




http://science.howstuffworks.com/water-boarding1.htm


Concerning the difference between how SERE training employed waterboarding and how it was used in real life, there's this:

The IG Report noted that in some cases the waterboard was used with far greater frequency than initially indicated, see IG Report at 5, 44, 45,103, 104 and also that it was used in a different manner. See id. at 37 (”The waterboard technique was different from the technique described in the DOJ opinion and used in the SERE training. The difference was in the manner in which the detainee’s breathing was obstructed. At the SERE school and in the DoJ opinion, the subject’s airflow is disrupted by by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passages; the Interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner. By contrast, the Agency interrogator… applies large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose. One of the psychologists/interrogators acknowledged that the Agency’s use of the technique is different than that used by in SERE training because it is ‘for real’ and is ‘more poignant and convincing’.”) The Inspector General further reported that "OMS contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant. [c]onsequently, according to OMS, there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.” Id. at 21 n.26.

Here are some first-hand descriptions of how it feels:

http://waterboarding.org/firsthand

And as it turns out, the DOD had been trying to eliminate use of waterboarding because it induces "learned helplessness."


For a history of Waterboarding:


A competing theory among some Catholic moral theologians is Proportionalism, which considers whether a particular act will result in greater good consequences or whether some proportionate reason is present for justifying an act. They essentially undermine if not dismiss the existence of intrinsic moral evil and moral absolutes. The position is soundly condemned in Veritatis Splendor 76. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI has also spoken against this moral theory.

§ Note that he positions this as a legitimate discussion among moral theologians—not as a public debate among faithful Catholics concerning what the Church teaches officially.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why Prudential Judgment Isn't an Excuse to Ignore Papal Teachings That Are Not Infallible

The arguments on both sides concerning torture and waterboarding have become tone deaf, with few exceptions. I appreciate Jimmy Akin's careful analysis of the question and definition of torture, even if I don't agree with it. But I am also not in favor of bashing people on either side as either "heretics" because they are requesting more clarity on the definition of torture or as weak-kneed and deluded because they have a line that they believe cannot and should never be crossed (or contravened as Pope Benedict put it).

The problem I want to address primarily is the argument that it's acceptable to dismiss papal statements out of hand simply because they are not infallible pronouncements. This is not correct. We do not have the right to dismiss fallible teachings by our bishops or the pope out of hand. We have the right to determine how we will apply a teaching, but no right to ignore the teaching. That's where "prudential judgment" comes into play. We have to prudently apply the boundaries that the Church has given to us.

The belief that it is acceptable to dismiss fallible teachings comes from a common misconception about competence and makes no distinction between the moral theologians and philosophers (and certainly others) who are competent to question these matters and the lay persons who so frequently use the classification "prudential judgment" as an excuse to dismiss papal teaching and argue (or simply agitate) for the opposite position. The teachings of the Church do not give us that option. That goes for those who argue for laxity on pelvic matters as well as those who interpret the teachings on violence and torture with few restraints.

Lumen Gentium outlines the relationships among the members of the Church, as well as the obligations of each. Section 25 of that document states the following:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.
To paraphrase slightly, when bishops teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff on matters of faith and morals, "the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent."

And this does not means solely in the area of infallible doctrine. In fact, the rest of the passage states
This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will
Again, to paraphrase, even when the pope does not speak ex cathedra, we are expected to adhere to the teaching with religious assent.

This matter is clarified in a document published in 1990 by Cardinal Ratzinger under the auspices of the CDF entitled , the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. In this document, Cdnl. Ratzinger notes those teachings that are not infallibly defined and the Holy Spirit's role in guiding such decisions.
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles [bishops] teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a "definitive" pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching. 
The sticking point, and this is where people get confused about "prudential judgment," is this statement in section 23 of this same document:
When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23)
What does this mean? It means that we accept that the Church actually teaches what has been stated and we submit to it. Prudential judgment does not come into play in terms of the teaching itself, but into the application of it. Now, that does mean that there's some room for discussion of such teachings, but keep in mind that the audience of this document is theologians (and we can expect Catholic moral philosophers as well). For the remedy in this instance, we have to turn to section 24. It begins, "The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule." We are, by default, to accept the judgment of the Church. Remember that this is a directive, not to lay people who have no particular competence to adjudicate these matters, but to theologians whose job it is to adjudicate such matters. 

So right off the bat, most lay people are not to be making these decisions without formation and direction from the Church. A lay person whose who competence is not Catholic moral theology or philosophy is to be guided by the authoritative teaching of the  Church—not by individual theological or philosophical opinions by one or two individuals who may be competent in their own right to entertain such questions.

A single Catholic theologian or philosopher does not speak for the Church. The bishops in communion with the pope speak together for the Church. It's their lead we are to follow. If they change a reformable teaching, it's in their power to do so. A theologian's opinion is not to be our sole guide on a matter.

The document does outline procedures for addressing errors and oversights in reformable Magisterial teaching. Here's what it says in the third paragraph of that section:
But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.
So even in the area of reformable judgment, theologians have to use caution. Again, there's no mention of how lay people should behave concerning matters of prudential judgment. Of course, it makes sense that they have to make practical judgments in some areas, but the norm is to accept what the Church teaches.

Finally, the document turns to those mattes where a theologian, in conscience, cannot accept a position of the Church. Section 27 adds:
If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments. 
So the theologian's jobs is to bring the objections to the attention of the Church and not to agitate publicly for a contrary position. They pose the question to the Church, and the dialog continues among the competent authorities. 

In each case, the obligation for lay persons who are not competent in such areas is to accept the teaching of the Church. It's fine to have questions, to ask for clarification, and to seek greater understanding. That is, in fact, also an obligation. However, if theologians are not granted permission to agitate in public, then by implication, neither are lay persons who lack standing to make such arguments.

So seek clarification, ask questions, and dig deeper. However, if your response is, "Well, that's just the pope's reformable opinion," then you're going down the wrong path. You might still have reservations, but your obligation is "submission of will and intellect."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Holy Family

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:22-40

            Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—the model family for Christian families. Admittedly, they're a tough act to follow. None of us were immaculately conceived or conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. However, they are the ideal not because their origination, but because of their example of obedience and holiness.
            Our readings center on relationships in the family and the centrality of family in the formation of character. Sirach confirms the authority of father and mother but particularly emphasizes the father's role as the source of authority in the family, as role modeled on our Heavenly Father. Sirach is one of the seven books in the Catholic bible that are not included in the Hebrew Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament, which is a shame because it's a tremendous source of wisdom.
            St. Paul's letter to the Colossians highlights the need to act with compassion, kindness, and patience with everyone in our faith community, but he sets particular emphasis on the relationships within the family. Many people don't care for the language of submission that Paul uses here, but no one is getting off easy: wives should submit to husbands; husbands should love their wives and hold no bitterness; children should obey parents; husbands should act without provocation toward children.  If we did act this way in our families, how different would our actions be toward those who are not in our families? We're often the worst to the people with whom we're closest. So Paul's emphasis here on family is not by accident. The family is foundational for the proper raising of children to live in society.
            Paul uses the language of self-sacrifice. He tells us to set aside our preferences and to do what is best spiritually for others. And his message is not a very popular one either—to set aside the self and to do for others first. Yet to live and thrive in community requires us to hold some things greater than our own personal desires and well being.
            In Luke's gospel, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, an event that we commemorate in the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. Jews were obligated to present first-born sons at the temple and to offer sacrifice. We know that this family is poor because of the sacrifice itself—two turtledoves or young pigeons. A wealthy family would be expected to sacrifice a lamb and a dove. We get a glimpse in this gospel of what it meant to be a Jewish family. They followed the prescribed feasts and fulfilled their obligations NOT because it was easy or because it helped them financially but because they believed that they owed it to God their creator—their Father—and they believed that it demonstrated their love for Him. It was one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that Jews fulfilled not solely out of obligation but also out of love. Jesus castigated the Pharisees for stacking obligations on top of the commandments, but he never condemned the simple performance of these acts of love.
            I want to focus on one person in this narrative, the foster father of Jesus, Joseph. Joseph utters not a single word in either infancy account in Luke or Matthew, but we can gather that he is a righteous man who does what is best for his family. When the angel tells him to set aside his fear and wed Mary, he does it without hesitation. When the angel instructs him to flee to Egypt with his family, he does it. Joseph is a man of action rather than words. He demonstrates his fidelity by what he does, not by making dramatic speeches. That should be a lesson for all of us fathers. Our actions do far more to shape the character of our children than our words.
            The family is the brick from which the foundation of civilization in built. The Church calls the family, in paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the primary place of faith formation for children— the primary place of faith formation for children. It is the oven in which the bricks of civilization are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith. I don't know why anyone should be surprised by that last bit—that the family is foundational for faith formation. And our culture is hell-bent on undermining it. Pope St. Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae that family life would be profoundly affected if sex and procreation were divorced from each other, and he was roundly condemned both by western society but also by many of the theologians of the time. Yet his predictions have all proven true. And far too many of us let our children be raised in this cultural village.
            It may take a village to raise a child, but some villages are more sound than others.
            Sadly many of us still act as if faith formation is only the responsibility of the official Church: that we personally don't need to actively teach the faith to our children, that we don't personally need to follow the doctrines of the faith and model devotional life, and that we don't personally need to follow the very basic requirements of the Church—the precepts of the Catholic faith.
            So as we Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers—who still happen miraculously to be in these pews—as we attend mass and watch our children walk out the door, we should be asking ourselves, have we created a domestic church in our homes? Do we act like we believe what the Church teaches? Do we try to teach it to our children?
            I know this is difficult in our society, where every attempt to reign in personal choice is castigated as "oppressive" and "intolerant." But we have got to be more courageous about our faith. Just look at what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, where Christian traditions far older than ours are being purged by radical militants. Are they privatizing or hiding their faith? Not all. They are standing for the faith in which they—and we—profess to believe. The difference is that they are ready to die for it... and are already dying for it.
            If we do not create a domestic church at home, our children will go out into a faithless culture and suck up what is there. Unless we found them on a belief in objective Christian truth, they will by default fall into a belief in relative truth—which is, in the end, a belief in nothing.
            Do we truly believe what we espouse here? Do we believe in the transformation that happens here on our altar—that our God comes to feed us with Himself? Have we created that domestic church in our homes? Have we created a place for God in the hearts of our children?


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Welcome!

I noticed a very sudden jump in my blog traffic, which I suspect is related to the broadcast  on Salt and Light and EWTN yesterday. Thanks for checking out the blog. Mostly, these days, I post my homilies. However, I do intend to finish up my conversion story. If you're interested in a preview, check out this post from the day of my ordination. It will give you a hint of where I've been.

Blessings to you all!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Humility—Third Sunday of Advent—Cycle C

Isaiah 61: 1–2a, 10–11; Resp. Luke 1:48–54; 1 Thess. 5:16–24; John 1:6–8, 19–28
            This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today's Mass from Philippians 4. "Rejoice in the Lord always." And also from the second reading today, which begins, "Semper gaudete." Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us. So we light a rose colored candle and wear rose colored vestments to celebrate and rejoice in the coming dawn. Some of our ministers will rejoice a bit less if you tease them about wearing pink today, so for the record, I will remind you that we are wearing rose colored garments.
            We have some common themes this week relating to joy and anticipation, but also to a virtue that many of us don't appreciate enough: humility. The readings for this week are also fantastic examples of how the old testament prefigures the new, and the new points back to and interprets the old. Isaiah is the best exemplar of this tendency, as so much of what we read in Isaiah points forward to Christ. The first line of today's first reading comes from the mouth of Isaiah, "The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me." Isaiah announces freedom for those who are captive, glad tidings to those who are poor, and healing for the brokenhearted. The word for anointed in Isaiah is Mashiah, from which we get the word, Messiah. Isaiah is not speaking, intentionally, of the Messiah, but he prefigures the coming Messiah, as many others in salvation history prefigured Christ.
            In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads this same passage in His home synagogue to announce the beginning of His mission. Luke actually quotes the Greek version of this text, which uses the Greek word for anointed, e' kristen', which is where we get the word Kristos or Christ. So Jesus announces His arrival using the words of Isaiah.
            Now Isaiah wasn't particularly popular among his fellow Jews, as no prophet is welcomed in his home. And Jesus likewise isn't received very well by his neighbors, who know him as the son of the carpenter and of Mary. There's even something of a scandal in how that birth came about. But the words of Jesus and Isaiah are not empty boasting. Each is simply acknowledging their gifts and their role in God's plan of salvation.
            The Magnificat, our responsorial Psalm today, comes from the infancy narrative in Luke. Mary rejoices that God has noticed her even in her humble state and that God lifts up those who are lowly. The Magnificat is another of those canticles with reverberations in the Old Testament, and it presents a series of contrasts between the humble and the arrogant.
            These readings share a common theme of humility. Now, I'm not talking about the kind of groveling humility where one is humiliated, but the true virtue of humility, which is to see oneself as one truly is. Isaiah recognizes the great honor God has done to him by anointing him as prophet. He knows he has done nothing to deserve it other than to be willing to do God's will. He is wrapped in garments of salvation and a robe of justice. He knows that all he has is from God and to use for God. That is true humility.
            Finally, we come to John the Baptist, and here we see the contrast between the humble and the arrogant. A delegation comes from the temple in Jerusalem: priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees who come to question this man in the desert. Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? Can you just picture the haughtiness of these delegates? Who are you to be out here baptizing people? Are you a prophet? Are you Elijah? Who are you?
            And John also quotes Isaiah: "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord' .... Among you stands one whom you do not know... the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." He is the precursor, called by Jesus as "the greatest of all men," but he knows one thing for certain. He is nothing—NOTHING compared to the God who is to come.
            That is humility—to know that we are just servants and not truly worthy to serve.
            Now, humility gets short shrift in our culture, and that's largely because it is so frequently exhibited in false humility: denial of our true gifts, ungraciously refusing others who compliment us, or pretending to be modest when we're really not. But we should seek to cultivate true humility. It's not an easy thing to develop, and sometimes it comes when we least expect it and in ways that often do seem humiliating.
            I remember when I was in diaconal formation, I was talking to the wife of one of my deacon mentors, and I mentioned that I had been praying for a deeper sense of humility. She responded to me, "Are you out of your mind? Oh, you can bet God will make it happen."
            And she was right. I don't think anything helps us to find out just how flawed we are as humans as when we seek a vocation.
            But humility is truly necessary for the spiritual life. We need to know that we are utterly dependent on God. We have these penitential seasons like Advent and Lent to remind us how much we need God's presence. And we will only truly recognize our dependence when we see ourselves as we truly are. When we come to this Eucharist each week, do we recognize that dependence? Do we recognize how extraordinary it is that God presents Himself to us as our daily sustenance?
            Do we see our dependence in Him in this act of communion?
            John's message in the gospel is for us today in this time of preparation. Make straight the way of the Lord. How do we do this? We can begin by examining our consciences and seeing where we fall short. We can get the clutter out of our lives: set aside all of the distraction, let go of all of the material wants, and loose ourselves from those things that don't matter. You cannot open your heart to God if your heart is set on the cares of this world.

            Make straight the way of the Lord. Give Him a straight passageway into your heart. He can get there anyway, but you can show Him how ready you are by clearing all the junk, the distractions, and the attachments out of the way, and by opening your arms and heart to say, I am ready for you, Lord.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Body, the Temple: Dedication of the Lateran Basilica


Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9, 12; 1 Cor. 3:9c–11. 16–17; John2:13–22
            Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the building that Constantine gave to the Roman Church and which has served as the Cathedral Church of Rome since that time. It might seem a bit odd to be celebrating a building, but our faith has always valued sacred space, just as our Jewish elder brothers did. Our readings today shed some light about why this might be the case.
            In the passage from Ezekiel, we hear that the waters flow out of the temple into the Arabah. The Arabah is what we these days call the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and one of the saltiest bodies of water as well. Because of its salinity, not much can live it. Yet Ezekiel says that water will flow from the temple toward the Arabah and make it fresh and that the water gives life wherever it flows. So this temple is a font of living water. Compare that to Jesus' words in John 4 about living water welling up within us. Keep that verse in mind. The temple is both a source of purification and a source of life. These two qualities are linked. Often purification is necessary for life to take root.
            In the Gospel reading, Jesus gets righteously angry with the sellers in the temple. There's an internet meme that makes its way around Facebook these days. It says, "When someone asks you 'What would Jesus do?', remember that throwing tables and chasing people around with a whip is not out of the question."
            Canon Frasier just the other week explained that Jesus was responding to the fact that the vendors in the temple were selling their wares in the Court of the Gentiles, essentially denying the gentiles access to a place in the temple where they could worship. This was an injustice to the gentiles—denying them the grace of being permitted into the Lord's temple.
            We have those who today would inadvertently do the same to people who are less fortunate. One of the charges often leveled at the Church is that it possesses too much wealth. The remedy, it's claimed, is to sell all the art, architecture, and real estate of the Church  and distribute the proceeds to the poor. What people who adhere to this thinking fail to understand is that the beauty and riches of the Church belong to all—rich and poor alike. Where else can a homeless Catholic go to pray in this kind of beauty? Where can a poor man go to stand and worship his God in a place that aspires to heavenly glory? If the Church did such a thing, it would spiritually deprive the poor, who have the least materially. Wouldn't that be an injustice like the one posed by the vendors in the temple? This is what results from considering material wealth before spiritual. Latching on the former eventually leads us to the loss of the latter.
            Finally, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians associates the temple in Jerusalem to the human person. The body, he writes, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and anyone who destroys this temple will answer to God. So looking back at the first reading and the Gospel, we can assert a number of things about this temple, the body. First, it is a source that should purify and give life to other things. What flows from this temple, from my mouth and yours, should be a source of life and a source of purification to others. Jesus confirms this truth in Matthew 15 when he says that it is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.
            It is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.
            Second, allowing material concerns to enter and take root in a place of holiness is unjust. That went for the temple in Jerusalem; it went for the Church during the time when some abused indulgences; and it goes for our times now when we allow the concerns of the world to push aside the concerns we should have for our spiritual well being and the well being of our loved ones. If we're more concerned about making soccer practice than observing a Holy Day of obligation, then our priorities are in the wrong place.
            As St. Paul says, the body is a temple, and as the two other readings note, temples have a particular sacred purpose. We have a moral tradition in the Church called Natural Law, and it is the basis for much of the moral reasoning that the Church proposes for your guidance. Note that I said "proposes" rather than "commands." That is because the Church can only propose what should be done. We have to choose what we will do. I don't see any cardinals or bishops following anyone around and preventing us from skipping Mass or from doing anything else we choose to do, so I think I can rest my case on that point.
            This notion of Natural Law says that we should use our bodies as they were designed, that we should look to our natural purpose to know how to act. When we fail to consider the natural purpose of our bodies, we suffer natural consequences. For example, we have an appetite that prompts us to eat when we need sustenance. The purpose of the appetite is to help us seek the nutrients our bodies need to survive and thrive. If we eat more than we need, we suffer natural consequences—weight gain, intestinal discomfort, or diabetes. If we ignore the appetite, we suffer natural consequences—weight loss, brittle bones, anemia, or other maladies. If we choose to indulge in things that satisfy our sense of taste but provide little sustenance or even contain things that are detrimental to our health, we suffer natural consequences—gout, alcoholism, and other chronic illnesses. The evidence is so obvious, but we humans are adept at looking past it.
            Our culture is in denial about Natural Law, but its effects are so painfully obvious. It is also safe to say that when we ignore Natural Law, we suffer both physical and spiritual consequences.
            In 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, a much maligned but stunningly prophetic encyclical. In it, he outlined the natural consequences of separating sex from marriage and procreation. Let me go back to the language of Natural Law and point out that the sexual appetite has clear purpose: it is intended for emotional bonding and for producing children. It is obvious to everyone that sex has a biologically natural and intended result—children, which are a tremendous blessing. Sex also has the result of emotional bonding, which is naturally present to encourage couples to stay together to address the natural and good effects of their actions.
            These two purposes cannot be separated from each other without natural negative consequences But that is what happened in that era 50 years ago—sex was separated from its natural purpose, and what we have seen in the last 50 years is the natural consequence: devaluation of marriage and children, the treatment of people as objects, the debasement of sex, and the deterioration of the family, and more recently, the redefinition of marriage from its natural and almost universally accepted character. Most of these natural consequences were predicted in detail by Pope Paul's encyclical, and every prediction has come to fruition. In fact we've gone beyond what he predicted.

            Our bodies are our temples, and we will suffer if we don't treat them as such. We suffer the more when we allow the temple to be crowded by worldly concerns and forget the purpose for which the temple exists. But most of all, others will suffer because we are not sources of life. We are called to evangelization—to spread the good news of Christ. Remember the purpose of your body the temple: to be a spring that purifies and brings life to the dryness in the souls of others.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

True Mercy: All Souls Day

Wisdom 3:1–9; Romans 5:5–11; John 6:37–40

            I remember when I was about 10 years old, my family was out camping. My father had gone down to the river to do some fly fishing. At some point when he was casting, he managed to put the hook of the fly through his finger, and so he came back without any fish and with a fly embedded in his pinky.
            Now the fly was in his right hand, so there was not a lot he could do, so he handed me a pair of pliers with a wire cutter and instructed me to cut the barb off of the hook. I made some half-hearted attempts, and those, of course, hurt worse than if I just bucked up and cut the darn thing. Finally, I got up the spine to remove the barb, and he was able to remove the hook.
            When I look back on that event, what I see clearly now is that decisively dealing with a situation might cause some pain but is sometimes the only way that we can also deal with that situation with mercy. A lot of medical interventions hurt a lot more than the conditions they address, but they alleviate the problem in the end. So sometimes mercy comes with some necessary pain and discomfort.
            Today we are celebrating All Souls Day—the day that the Church sets aside for us to remember and pray for those who have died. Yesterday we celebrated those who have died and have lived such lives of holiness that the Church is certain of their attainment of Heaven. But those are a very small percentage of us. For the rest of us, we might have some final preparation before we enter into God's presence. For that reason, we pray for the souls of those who have left this world and are in the process of final preparation that we call Purgatory. Today is our special day for remembering and praying for our loved ones and others who may be in Purgatory. This is one of the seven corporal works of mercy that we as Catholics are called to perform.
            The perpetual teaching of the Church has always indicated that this process involves some suffering, if only because the process of healing is often uncomfortable or even painful. So it is sometimes an unpopular teaching, particularly outside of the Catholic faith. This is a shame, because this extension of God's mercy is looked at, instead, as a sign of His wrath and portrays God as being more interested in punishment than salvation.
            Even in the Church, it has become commonplace for us to speak of the departed as if they are immediately in the presence of God when they die. It's a lot easier to console our friends and loved ones by saying that the departed is in a better place, or is certainly "singing with the angels." But it is like the kind of mercy that I would have dispensed to my father if I had told him not to worry about that hook in his finger. It does not attend to the injury but distracts from it. In fact, it's not true mercy because mercy must always begin with and be rooted in truth. Mercy sometimes requires us to recognize and communicate the truths of our faith, and one of the truths of our faith—a dogma of our faith—is that those who are destined for Heaven but are not yet in a state of perfection, need to undergo the process of purification. And they need our prayers during that time. They need our intercession here so that they can be purified and can attain God's presence. We are not being merciful if we fail to intercede for them. We are not being merciful if we don't acknowledge that most of us... are not yet saints and will need all the help we can get.
            Now, Purgatory has gotten a bad reputation here in the American Catholic Church, and I think that it comes from our largely Protestant American history. We question why a merciful God would require this punitive process if Jesus' death canceled our debt of sin. But we have to balance that truth with the fact that nothing imperfect can enter into God's presence.
            Nothing imperfect can enter the presence of God. That is right out of Revelation 21. I certainly go to confession regularly, and I believe that I have been forgiven, but I am far from perfect. I suspect many of us are in the same boat. Being Catholic and being Christian means a lifetime of conversion daily, of changing more and more into that person who reflects perfectly the image of God. And that process occurs both now and in the afterlife, if we are not yet ready. We may very well limp into the afterlife with our baggage, our scars, and our woundedness... truly contrite but also still in need of cleansing.
            What would be God's merciful to response to us in our woundedness and imperfection? It would be to heal us, and that is precisely why God extends His mercy to us in Purgatory.
            Our readings today underscore one important truth. God will not let anyone go who truly wishes to be with Him. God's mercy and love extends to all, if only they recognize it and accept it. Isaiah writes that the souls of the just are in the hands of God, but that they may be chastised and proved as gold in a furnace, an image Paul also uses in 1 Corinthians. In our reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul points out that God went to all this trouble for us even while we were still sinners. A good man might find the courage to die for a just person, but even while we were sinners—while we were enemies of God—we were reconciled through the death of His Son.
            In our gospel reading, Jesus says, "I will not reject anyone who comes to me." Jesus has already done the heavy lifting. How much further would he need to go to prove that he will do everything He can to reconcile us to the Father? He did that (pointing at the crucifix) quite literally for Heaven's sake and for ours. Jesus came to heal us, and He gives us every opportunity before and after death to make that happen. Purgatory is just one more sign of His love for us, and it is also one more reason for us to pray for each other, both here and in the life to come. We pray for those in Purgatory, and they, in turn, will pray for us. That is how the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints are supposed to cooperate.
            In the coming month, we can put our faith into practice in a remarkable way—by remembering our deceased loved ones in prayer and doing our part to help them in Purgatory. Here are a few ways we can accomplish this.
            We have a book up here on the altar for the entire month of November, where you can list your deceased relatives and friends. Please put their names in the book. As a parish, we will remember them in prayer. You also can remember them daily in your prayers and offer prayers for all souls in Purgatory, especially those most in need of God's mercy.
            Next, you can take advantage of any indulgences that are available for the remission of temporal punishment. Despite the bad reputation indulgences got during the Reformation, they are another sign of God's mercy that he gives to the Church. By performing certain acts, the Church dispenses grace that aids us by releasing us from temporal penalties. We can offer our actions for the remission of penalties to souls in Purgatory. That has always been the point of indulgences—to seek assistance for someone else.
            Finally, consider requesting a Mass for your loved ones. We offer prayer requests for the deceased at most masses. You can contact the parish office to make such requests.

            We are all part of the Body of Christ in this world and the next. Let us pray for the souls making their final journey into God's presence, and they will pray for us.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

First-World Problems: Twenty Eighth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 6:5–10a; Ps. 23:1–6; Phil. 4"12–14, 19–20; Matt. 22:1–14

            How many of you have heard of the term "first-world problem?" It's the kind of problem that people in many other cultures couldn't even dream of having: like having more of your favorite TV shows running simultaneously than you can record on TIVO, or being bored because your smart phone has a lousy signal and you can't post a picture of your dinner on Instagram. These are problems that are not really problems. They're really signs of our own sense of privilege: we have to live pretty luxurious lives to encounter these minor irritants.
            My number one first-world problem is my yard. I detest yard work. I don't think I realized just how much I hated it until we bought our current house, and I had to rehabilitate a lot that had been neglected for some time. So now I dutifully put in time on it every week just to keep up with the weeds and to put it into some semblance of order. I rarely find any satisfaction in it.
            But I have to own a yard to have the burden of yard work. I have to own a house to have a yard. I have to be employed to pay the mortgage. I have to possess skills to be employed. I have to possess talents to become skilled. And somewhere along the line, I had to depend on someone else to make it possible for me to learn and grow in a secure environment. I didn't give any of that to myself. Sure, I played my part, but so much of it was just given to me because of the cultural context into which I was born.
            I don't always appreciate that privilege, and I must confess that it stems from a lack of gratitude and humility. That doesn't mean that I habitually turn up my nose at the great gifts I am given, or that I don't thank people when they do kind things for me. I try my best to recognize when people treat me with kindness, but I often forget the obvious—that everything I have is a gift.
            I think that's the message from today's readings: everything is a gift. This theme runs through all of our readings and the Psalm today. God provides us with everything we need. We often have a hard time recognizing this, but it's true practically, theologically, and spiritually.
            In the first reading, Isaiah foresees a time when the people of Israel will once again receive the favor of the Lord. Remember that the Israelites were constantly lapsing into indulgence once the pressure from the surrounding enemy nations was gone. The Lord blessed them with peace and abundance, but instead of recognizing these gifts, they took them for granted and eventually, abused the gifts—turned up their nose at them. Remember in the desert when the tribes of Israel turned up their noses at the manna from Heaven? You'd think they'd have learned after they finally entered the promised land, after God gave them a good king in David, or after Solomon built the temple. None of these good things happened because Israel deserved them. Nonetheless, God made it so. They later lost those gifts and were exiled to Babylon, but Isaiah promises in this passage that God will restore everything when they turn back to him.
            The gospel presents an allegory of Israel's unfaithfulness in the parable of the wedding feast. The king throws a feast for his son, and all whom he invites, just like the People of Israel, turn their backs on him and find excuses not to attend. Their gratitude to their king, their protector, doesn't extend far enough to attend a party with him. So he invites everyone else: that means, all those people you wouldn't expect to find at a fancy shindig—the outcasts, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the Gentiles. No one deserves the king's invitation to the banquet, yet there it is. He invites everyone.
            But the message is twofold. God gives these gifts to us, but we can lose them. We can misuse and misappropriate them. We can abuse them until they are no longer of any worth. The people of Israel wanted to be like the pagan nations around them, so they turned their backs on God's gifts and adopted pagan ways. We sometimes act that way as well. We can show our ingratitude by acting without respect or reverence for everything God has done for us.
            At the wedding feast, one man attends without a wedding garment. Now how are we to understand this? Is the king truly so picky that he expects outcasts to show up in formal dinner wear? I don't think that's the point here. But there are expectations about how we should respond when we accept a gift or an honor. The man knew he was being invited to a wedding, and certainly he knew what would be expected at such an event. Yet he presented himself in an inappropriate manner. He took the invitation for granted.
            When we take our own gifts for granted, we forget their appropriate use. God has to remind us. Sometimes he does that by depriving us of those gifts or by allowing us to deprive ourselves of them. I remember back before I was ordained, and I had just completed my master's thesis and a graduate degree in theology. One of the first things I did was this: I went outside, and I cleared the weeds from the flower beds in front of our house. I actually had the time to spend on yard work without worrying about writing my thesis or taking a test. I detest yard work, but here I was joyfully weeding the yard. I was actually happy about it—excited even! I said to my wife, Gina, "I get to do yard work!"
            That time of intense focus and study had deprived me of the free time I needed to enjoy the gift of a home. In a way, I was able to see more clearly that this time-consuming chore was part of the gift to me. In the first reading, Isaiah says, "he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations." God will remove from us that which prevents us from seeing the abundance around us. St. Paul seemed to have grasped this as well, as he explains in Galatians, "In any circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need."
            He recognized that both having and needing are gifts of a different fashion. Now how can hunger be a gift? Well, hunger in its own right or in isolation is no gift, but hunger that is met with the charity of others is a gift—both to the one who receives and the one who gives. Paul was content with deprivation, but he truly appreciated his dependence on God and on others. His dependence was a gift to the Galatians because they could then act with mercy. His own spiritual abundance was a gift that he could share with others. It's a gift to have what we need, but it's also a gift to be in need and feel the joy of receiving. God lifted the veil from Paul's eyes so that he could see God's hand in all of it. It's all a gift.
            We must not lose sight of this truth. Everything is a gift to us. What we have, we were given, even if we don't always see that reality. But everything we possess is given to us in stewardship—to manage, not just to horde. We have to put these gifts to their proper use. So what do we do with those gifts? Are we using these gifts as God intended or simply as we please?
            Do we use our gifts of skill to glorify God or to glorify ourselves?
            Do we use the gift of our possessions to satisfy only our needs and wants or to help others satisfy theirs?
            Our Church has a doctrine called the universal destination of material goods. What does this mean? Well, it means that God gave us everything, and any possessions we have are His first. So they are meant to satisfy not just our needs but also the needs of others. If I have what my family needs and more, and my neighbor is starving, those goods I have in abundance by right should be shared with a neighbor who does not have enough. This is a challenging teaching for many of us, but it's because we live with a veiled understanding of our own self sufficiency. None of us gets where we are on our own, and everything we have comes to us through God's generosity.

            It's all a gift, and so we need to remember Our Father, the giver of all good gifts, and respond accordingly.