Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Lepers Among Us—Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Lev. 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Cor. 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45

We live in an era in which our fears are constantly pricked by the mainstream media, in which we must constantly be on guard for all those little catastrophes that were accepted as the lot of humans in history. Whether it's a measles outbreak at Disneyland or whooping cough at the whooping crane preserve, the media makes sure that we are constantly at the peak of anxiety about every potential threat to our well being, regardless of how remote. A bad case of eczema in our neighbor could send anyone of us into a paranoid paroxysm of pugilistic pugnacity.
My alliteration aside, our current tendency to anxiety mirrors with some fidelity the fears of ancient Israel. In our first reading from Leviticus, the law concerning the treatment of those with leprosy is stark and cold. Those who have any indication of uncleanliness must be set apart and must identify themselves as unclean. Now, it's important to note that leprosy was not a clearly defined condition. Bad acne, baldness, eczema, or skin cancer might all be categorized under that label in ancient times because they had no means by which to distinguish such ailments from a deadly contagion.
And it was a horrifying categorization! The people who were outcast were likely to be condemned to live with those who were seriously ill! Imagine if you had seasonal allergies or a head cold and you were forced to live as exiles among people with bubonic plague. That was the plight of anyone with a noticeable blemish under the old dispensation.
Now the intent of the Law was merciful. They wanted to contain contagion and to corral corruption. But it came at the cost of isolation. The people who most needed to be healed were made to wait until healing was no longer necessary. So the Law was merciful in theory, but in harsh practice. Instead of carefully investigating the nature of the illness these people suffered, the Jewish priests of that time simply declared such people unclean, and they were outcast until they could present themselves to be otherwise. They were separated and alone.
I don't think it takes much of a stretch for us to look at the outcast among us and see the same dilemma. We have, most notably, the homeless. But we also have the chronically ill, the disabled. As difficult as it is in our eyes to reach out to them, they are the easy cases. We know we are commanded—not requested, but commanded by Christ—to visit the sick and imprisoned. I have to admit that in my Christian life, I have not put this into practice as I should, not for any lack of opportunity but for a lack of conscious effort. And for that I had better make up for lost time, or I will have to answer why I did not visit Christ when he was sick or imprisoned.
Notice in our gospel reading that Jesus sets aside the ritual law. The ritual law was erected to put a fence around the Jews, to protect them from ritual impurity and moral error, but it did nothing to reconcile Jews with each other. In fact, the way that different sects in the 1st century interpreted the law—and there were many of them, from the Pharisees, to the Sadducees, to the Essenes and others—they separated themselves from the Gentiles and the Hebrew am haaretz or people of the land—the other Jews who were not considered righteous. They erected walls between themselves and anyone who thought or lived differently from them. The story of the good Samaritan exemplifies this separation and isolation, when the priest and Levite cross the road to avoid the man who appears to be dead in fear of becoming ritually impure. So the desire for purity overrides the recognition of a clear need for compassion.
That thought should give us all pause. Don't we often avoid the sick? Don't we also often avoid people of differing religious or political opinions as if their beliefs might somehow taint us or make us unclean? Don't some of us in the Church do the same to our separated brethren in other denominations or even to Catholics who have a different understanding of the faith?
The gospel, though, shows a very different approach by Jesus.
We might not have a Heaven on Earth, but we can choose to be heavenly on Earth. St. Paul tells us how in 1 Corinthians—by being imitators of Christ—by looking at others with a compassion that will not let us hold back from someone who is hurting.
Jesus did just that. In numerous places in the gospels, we see the clause, "And Jesus looked on him with compassion" or "looked on her" or "looked on them." The God-man who healed the blind could do so because He was not blind to their need. The God-man who cast out demons from the possessed could do so because He did not deny their possession. The God-man forgave the tax collectors and prostitutes because He could see their inner poverty and alienation. It takes nothing of us to be compassionate for the people who suffer like we do—with our smart phone bills, our expensive mortgages, and our aging parents. But it takes something more for us to look on the sufferings of another wholly different than ours, perhaps even repugnant to us—the addict, the ex-con, the former prostitute—it takes something more for us to look on their suffering with compassion...
and yet more still to do something about it.
So what do we do about the lepers in our midst? The first step is in recognizing that all of us are touched by it. All of us, spiritually, are lepers in one way or another. We might sense a very great "ick" factor in approaching the homeless, but God has all the more standing to find us "icky." Yet He touched people's tongues, put His fingers in people's ears, and smeared mud made from His spittle on people's eyes. And most of all, He died in a horrible way on that cross for us. If anyone had an excuse, it was Him, and He chose to help us nonetheless.
The second step is to slough off our complacency and look for those who need us. The homeless are easy. We all know where they stay, and we see them on the street corners. Be cognizant of them. Don't pretend that they don't exist. Once you recognize the homeless, think of the other marginalized and neglected and where they live: hospitals, retirement homes, the county jail. Recognize that they are alone and pray for them.
The third step is to respond in some fashion. It does not have to be dramatic. When you pull up to someone on a corner holding a sign, introduce yourself and ask for their name. They are then no longer just a nobody to whom you toss a couple of dollars. You will be acknowledging them as a human being. You might carry some granola bars, pairs of socks, or even small copies of the New Testament with you in your car to hand out. You might volunteer in our prison ministry, or with our Eucharistic outreach to the homebound, or in our other outreach programs. You might advocate for victims of trafficking. You might volunteer at a shelter. And you might be changed in ways you can't imagine right now.
Our faith is not bound by the foundation of this cathedral. In fact, we explicitly send you out after every Mass with a command: Go and proclaim the gospel to the world; Go and glorify the Lord with your Life.

So do it. Go and proclaim the gospel. Proclaim it with your lips, but most importantly with the way you live your life.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Informing Your Conscience Appropriately

I posted an explanation of why waterboarding constitutes torture several weeks ago here. Unfortunately, the controversy continues to rage, and I suspect that some official body (maybe the USCCB) will eventually have to speak up in a more definitive way. However, I want to suggest first that people consider what has already been said. Here is a passage from the Catechism concerning the use of torture, which I excerpted in my last post.

UPDATE: I think there is still some confusion on how we are to respond to fallible teachings and what prudential judgment actually entails. Please refer to my post on that subject here.

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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.

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Now the Catechism and Magisterium in general do not give long lists of practices that are morally evil. They do on occasion, but they simply cannot address every immoral act in detail. Humanity's capacity for evil is sadly far too creative, despite the touted banality of evil. They rely on others (catechists, priests, deacons, moral theologians, and other teachers) to teach and form us through methodologies that help us learn to think with the Church. In this case, the Church has given us two pieces of information that should be forming our consciences about this subject: the definition of torture, and the reason for its prohibition.

The definition of torture is "physical or moral violence" used "to extract confessions," etc. The reason it is wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."
  • So does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
These are the two questions we should be asking ourselves. We should not have to search for specific mention of the action in a list of forbidden actions because we are given the criteria for discernment right here.

So if we apply this to waterboarding, what are our answers?

It is clear that waterboarding uses physical or moral violence to extract a confession. Violence is defined simply as "rough or injurious use of physical force, action, or treatment." If you don't think that waterboarding is "rough use of physical force," then you have not exposed yourself to a realistic description of waterboarding. It is not just splashing water in someone's face, or dunking their head very briefly under water. It requires physical restraint (force), it involves a simulation of drowning that lasts (in each instance) long enough to induce terror in the subject (moral violence), and it results in quick capitulation. Even the hardest people break under it within about 14 seconds. That is why most SERE programs stopped using even though they used it in very controlled circumstances.** Imagine, then, it being used by someone who really wants something from you and most likely doesn't think well of you.

So it is clearly rough physical treatment or force. You can't perform the technique without the use of force.

So the next question is, does it treat the subject with respect for the person and for human dignity? Is it respectful to compel someone by force to say what they know? Is it treating them with human dignity? Is it dignified to by forced to beg for mercy, to vomit and choke, to say anything no matter how preposterous just to make someone stop performing an action on you because you are in fear for your life? Is it dignified to be intentionally reduced to a crying, shivering wreck? Because that's what happens with waterboarding in a real situation (not in training or movies).

People who have been through training in controlled environments should known full well that their instructors are not going to kill them. But people under true interrogation by enemies have no such guarantees. In some cases, the odds may very well be against such a guarantee.You cannot slightly waterboard someone and expect to get results. To work, it must be done in excess. That is why it works (inasmuch as it causes people to confess).

I don't see how anyone with a properly formed conscience can say that such an action is in accord with human dignity. 

So that treats the object or action of the matter, and that should be enough to clearly establish that waterboarding is torture according to the two criteria provided by the Catechism. 

But many people have brought up the matter of consequence. So let's talk about that. First, consequence never changes an immoral act into a good act. An intrinsically immoral act is is always immoral regardless of whether it produces results. To claim that torture can be morally good given circumstances is to engage in consequentialist reasoning at worst or proportionalist reasoning at best.

Another good explanation of proportionalism is here on the website of my alma mater. But let me outline the two primary points
Proportionalists argue this [some act] could be a morally good choice (and therefore a good act) if:
a) some greater good is achievable by this act (i.e. brings about greater good consequences); or,
b) some truly proportionate reason is present to justify this choice (after weighing various positive and negative values).
As the article states, this theory goes against the clear teaching set down in the Catechism (1756), Veritatis Splendor (47, 78, and 80), and Gaudium et Spes (n. 27). So proportionalism as a methodology for moral formation does not accord with the official teaching of the Church expressed over the last 50 years. Both Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II have condemned it. So to use that methodology to justify actions is not morally in accord with the current teaching of the Church.

Second, the results of waterboarding are dubious. Torture in general frequently results in misleading and false information jumbled together with elements of the truth, for the very simple reason that people will say anything under extreme duress. So in a ticking time-bomb scenario, when an interrogator has to verify facts quickly, is the use of waterboarding likely to result in accurate information that will allow them to immediately address an emergency? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing not. It will result in a grab bag of details that will have to be separately verified. Many professional interrogators dislike and dismiss the use of torture for this very reason. They get better information if they treat prisoners with respect and compassion.

We have a doctrine about the use of force in national defense called the Just War theory. One of the conditions for Just War is that the action will have the likelihood of succeeding. A doomed or doubtful effort disqualifies such action as just as it may cause more harm than good. By this criterion, the use of waterboarding should also be considered unjust in that the results are dubious.

So to summarize, the two criteria given in the Catechism to use to determine the moral liciety of a technique in interrogation are:
  • Does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
The results do not enter into the question, but even if you do consider them, waterboarding doesn't pass muster.

Finally, I would like to charitably say that we should not be guided by individual voices who might argue persuasively and convincingly in support of this practice. We should be guided by the Church's official teaching. Catholic philosophers and theologians might need to debate these matters to get clarity, but the Church is the authority here. As one theologian friend of mine said, we're getting a glimpse of the sausage factory that is the method of theological dialogue. It is unpalatable to most of us who are not used to it. So if you aren't a theologian or moral philosopher, it is not the best place for you to form your mind on the subject. Trust the guidance of the Church instead, even if you find it uncomfortable.

Grace and peace to all of you.

* A confession is not necessarily a matter of personal guilt, mind you, but simply confessing knowledge of something. 

** The DOD actually came out against this practice when it was discovered that the SERE training facility was still using this technique a few years back. See the notes in my last blog post.

A Thought Experiment on Waterboarding

I posed a similar question to the one I am about to pose here, but I haven't yet seen anyone take up this question. So I am going to submit a scenario that is not only plausible but has probably occurred many times.

Several people have noted that the precedent of waterboarding being used with government approval will eventually result in its use civil matters. I don't think that is a stretch by any means. If you look at the paramilitary tactics currently deployed by police organizations throughout the United States, I think you would be naive to think otherwise.

Imagine that your child is away at college and lives in the dorms. His or her roommate makes a bad decision one night and tries to purchase some marijuana. During the deal, something goes badly awry, and several people are killed. The roommate is only guilty of the attempt to purchase and is otherwise in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the police come and arrest the roommate several days later on suspicion of murder, they also detain your son or daughter for questioning as someone who is implicated as possibly having information on the crime.

So the question is, should the police have the authority to subject your child to waterboarding in this circumstance? If not, why not?


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.