From its birthplace in the Middle East, Christianity spread with amazing speed over the well-trodden roads of the Roman Empire. First seen as a breakaway sect of the Jewish faith, Christianity suffered great persecution for three centuries. However, through the blood of martyrs and the steadfast witness of Christians who lived their faith, the Church grew in strength and numbers. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, ending the brutal persecutions of Christians. Ten years later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, from her humble beginnings, the Church conquered the Roman Empire itself. And, not by chance, but by divine design, Rome herself became the center of the Church’s unity. Ten years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter had arrived in Rome. As the one whom Christ had chosen to shepherd the Church, he made the capital of the Roman Empire the seat of his apostolic authority. At the time of his death as a martyr under Nero, his office as the chief shepherd of the Church did not cease. The Church understood the primacy which Jesus bestowed on Peter as a necessary gift in every age in order to preserve the unity of all believers. From Peter’s immediate successor, St. Linus, to his 266th successor, Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome has exercised this apostolic ministry over the entire Church. Faithful to his Petrine office of presiding over the Church in unity, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in an historic first, met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. On Friday, February 12, 2016, as the two religious leaders embraced each other, the Pope, with his refreshing candor, greeted the Patriarch saying, “Finally!” Then, he added, “We are brothers.” The three-hour long conversation between the Patriarch and the Pope was meticulously choreographed. Two years of preparation led to this historic meeting at Havana's José Martí International Airport. The place itself has no historical memories of the millennium-long separation between the two Churches, no scars of their theological skirmishes or the bloody battles between them. Its carefully chosen neutrality allowed both religious leaders to address the place of Christianity in the present world situation without touching upon the theological doctrine of the primacy of Peter, the issue that continues to divide both Churches. In this brief meeting of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and the Pope of Rome, there is reason to find great hope for the future of Christianity. Their 30 point joint statement acknowledges a common concern on the hot-button issues of our secularized world. It expresses alarm at the increase of “restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them...” Their statement further laments “the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth...[and] certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, [seeking] to relegate [Christians] to the margins of public life.” The Pope and the Patriarch did not hesitate to raise their voices in defense of the poor, the refugees and the immigrants. True to the gospel, they called for all to respect the dignity of every human person as the basis of bringing about the common good. They strongly reaffirmed our common teaching on marriage. They expressed “regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.” At a time, when political leaders and anti-life activists urge their governments to continue the killing of the unborn, the elderly and the terminally ill, these two courageous religious leaders upheld the inalienable right to life. They affirmed that “the blood of the unborn cries out to God (cf. Gen 4:10).” They called on young Christians to live their faith boldly and publicly, not conforming to the world, but joyfully passing on the faith that they have received from their parents and forbears. In their conversation, both religious leaders were united in calling for the end of the persecution of Christians in the very part of the world where the faith itself was born. They challenged world leaders to stop the Islamic State’s massacre of Christians in Iraq and Syria as well as in North Africa. Both Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge the need to work together to save Christianity. Here is the ultimate lens through which to read this significant historical meeting of East and West: the urgent need to save Christianity. We live in an age when the faith is brutally persecuted in some regions and increasingly marginalized in other regions, including America. We cannot ignore the differences that divide us. We cannot deny the failures and sins that have separated us. Nonetheless, we need to recognize the present threat to the very existence of Christianity. As Christians, we need to work together in giving witness to the Gospel, offering Christ to the world as its hope and salvation. As a smiling Patriarch Kirill said to Pope Francis, “Now things are much easier.” Ever since the Great Schism of 1054 that split the one Church founded by Christ in two, dividing East and West, geography, language, politics, national pride, ethnic identity and different theological expressions of the one faith have kept Catholics and Orthodox apart. The meeting of Francis and Kirill is not the first attempt to heal that division. In 1964, Pope Paul VI met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras. As a result of that meeting, the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople lifted the excommunications that had separated their churches. This mutual action paved the way toward restoring communion between Rome and the patriarchates of Orthodoxy. The meeting of Francis and Kirill in Havana took another bold step along that path. Their historic meeting ended. They went their separate ways. But they had taken a step toward unity by acknowledging our common faith and by recognizing the need to save the Church that Christ himself founded from being marginalized in a highly secularized world. As he took the first step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Francis and Kirill, by their meeting in Havana, took one small step for the unity of East and West, but one giant leap for Christianity!
In 1506, at the age of 23, Raphael produced a beautiful self-portrait now found in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo da Vinci also gave us a picture of himself in his 1512 Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. Likewise, Michelangelo left us his portrait by placing his own face on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment. And then there is Van Gogh. He painted thirty-seven self-portraits between 1886 and 1889. Ever since the Renaissance, artists have been depicting themselves in their own works. Self-portraits are about status. They spring from the desire to remain important and famous in future generations. With the advent of better mirrors in the Renaissance, it became easier for an artist to leave us his own image. As Dr. Terri Apter, psychology lecturer at Cambridge University has remarked, “People who had access to self-representations were keen to make use of them. In this way, people could control the image projected, and, of course, the fact that the image was on display marked the importance and status of the person represented.” It is not by chance that self-portraits developed during the Renaissance. The revived interest in classical Greece and Rome gave birth to a humanism that placed great emphasis on the individual. Promoting the uniqueness of each person paved the way for artists to ply their art to produce portraits of famous people as well as themselves. Likewise, it is not by chance that, today, the art of self-portraits has exploded into “the culture of selfies.” This is an age of undiminished individualism. In America, the turmoil of the 1960s broke down respect for political institutions and authority. It made people less idealistic about improving society and more concerned with their own lives and happiness. Tom Wolfe had his finger on the pulse of this changing culture. In the August 23, 1976 cover story of New York magazine, he baptized the 1970s as the “me generation.” The individual had taken center stage. More than a generation later, individualism still reigns supreme. The lack of political consensus, the social upheaval of wars and immigration and the ever-present threat of terrorism have done little to move society away from its individualistic self-reference. For many, self-fulfillment takes precedence over social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in such an individual-centered culture, the “selfie” is becoming ever more popular. From Pope Francis to President Obama, everyone is taking selfies. There are more photos taken every three minutes than in the entire 19th century! People pop up to snap a selfie at any occasion: social, political, personal and religious, even at funerals. No moment is too sacred; none, too serious. What matters most is capturing one’s own presence with someone famous or at some important event for others to see. It would be all too easy simply to say that selfies are the sure sign of a narcissistic generation. Me, me, me! Too easy and not too accurate. For sure, there are individuals who are so self-important that they need to record their every moment in selfies and on Twitter. But, deep down, there is something else that leads individuals to share their lives with others through selfies. God created us in his own image and likeness. God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a divine communion of life and love. Made in God’s image, we are made to live not as isolated individuals but as persons related to one another. We are made to be with others. Selfies project, in some fashion, this deep-seated orientation that draws us to each other. Paradoxically, however, selfies cannot bring us the communion for which we are made. When we center on ourselves, we turn inward and away from others. But, it is only in pointing our lives toward God and in opening ourselves in love to others that we mirror the God in whose image we are made and thus find fulfillment. Selfies taken with famous people further reveal our desire to be seen as important. These photos point to our craving for recognition, for fame, for being considered special. But a casual association with someone of prestige or power never guarantees us the specialness that we desire. Our real worth is found at a much deeper level. Already, in Christ, we have been given an importance and worth that goes beyond the flashing lights of paparazzi or the snap of a smartphone. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God himself has come among us. Jesus is the very image of God in our midst (cf. Col 1:15). No need for selfies to associate ourselves with the great. The Greatest has placed the perfect image of himself, of his goodness and grace, not next to us, but deep within us. In Christ, we have immortal value. Once we realize that, in taking our human nature, God has given us a share in his divine glory, we suddenly discover, in faith, our true self-worth.
During the height of her political prowess, ancient Rome boasted of her influence throughout the world. Romans had planted their culture in Athens, Corinth, Jerusalem and Alexandria. They had extended their rule to North Africa to Hadrian's Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. Great roads, theaters, public baths, gymnasia and the military muscle of the Roman Empire fostered a sense of security and prosperity. But, there was one thing notably missing from the heart of the Roman Empire. There was no compassion. In this, Romans were not unlike the Greeks from whom they had learned so much. The Greek philosopher Plato had stated that “a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die” (Republic 3.406d-410a). The Romans subscribed to the same philosophy of life. The Roman playwright Plautus stated, “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for misery” (Trinummus 2.338-2.339). At the height of her power, the luster of Rome’s glory was dimmed by her harsh indifference toward the suffering and needy. Amid Rome’s unsanitary, disease infested hovels, the sick could find no public institution to care for them. Often sick slaves were abandoned on Tiber Island and left to die. Fathers would regularly abandon their children born with birth defects and leave them in the open to die. The leaders of ancient Rome did not extol compassion. Since mercy means giving to someone what they do not earn, pagans saw it as contrary to justice. Pliny the Younger certainly was one of the most generous Romans of his day. He paid for public feasts, decorated public baths, built a library and provided scholarships for education. Nonetheless, he questioned the very existence of charities that gave to the poor. Having pity on the indigent and showing mercy to the needy was a weakness, not a virtue. And, then Christianity came upon the scene! In the first century, St. Ignatius of Antioch urged St. Polycarp of Smyrna to provide for the widows of his church. Christians never forgot the example of the Apostles (cf. Acts 6:1-6). The very fact that the Twelve chose seven deacons to care for the widows and the poor shows that Christian charity was no mean endeavor, even at the beginning of the Church. Already by the third century, the Church of Rome was caring for more than 1,500 widows. Such compassion was not uncommon. Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish people had been practicing charity to the needy. Leviticus 23:22 orders landowners to allow the poor and the stranger to glean from their fields in order to eat. This benevolent provision breathes compassion for the poor and mercy for the needy. In calling upon Israel to show compassion, the law of Leviticus reminds her that the Lord is their God. In other words, Israel is to show mercy to those in need because God himself is merciful to Israel. Christian charity, however, differs from common Jewish practices. In the Old Testament, there are the beginnings of the notion of a charity that knows no bounds. Although charity was normally understood in terms of one’s family or religion, the touching story of Ruth and the humorous tale of Jonah witness a charity that reaches beyond narrow limits. Charity, as practiced by Christians, was unique in the ancient world. It was a mercy to all. Race, religion, culture, social status and family background: none of these excluded anyone in need from charity. Compassion is at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. Rightly did it become the hallmark of the Christian community. Christians were merciful to all because they realized that, in sending us his Son to redeem us by his death and resurrection, God has shown us his mercy and set the pattern for us to follow. In fact, the very birth of Christ is seen as an expression of God’s mercy. Six months before the birth of Jesus, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, heralds Jesus’ birth, exclaiming, “Because of the tender mercy of our God, the daybreak from on high will visit us” (Lk 1:78). Christ, the dayspring, bursts upon a world groping in the shadows of sin and ignorance. He is God’s mercy for each of us who are poor, needy sinners unable to save ourselves. Mary, also, sees in the birth of her son the very mercy of God coming to save his people (cf. Lk 1:49. 54). When Jesus is born, shepherds and wise men, the simple and the learned, the poor and the wealthy, are summoned to the manger. No one is excluded from love. At the manger, all who accept the Christ Child experience God’s mercy. They are saved from their sins. They are given the gift of eternal life that they could not earn or merit on their own. So graced by God in Jesus, they are moved to be merciful, as God is, showing compassion and charity to all. Bethlehem is truly the school of Divine Mercy.
In a rather clever social experiment, Coby Persin turned the spotlight on human behavior and motivation. He taped 50 $1 bills to his suit; and, on a bright November day this year, he walked around Manhattan for an hour and a half. With his hands, he held up a sign that said, “Take What You Need.” Some people just passed him by, but not everybody. A well-dressed businessman stopped and took some money. When questioned if he needed it, he responded that he was taking it because it was free. A woman sporting a Louis Vuitton purse grabbed $18 for herself. When questioned if she needed it, she said, “I have a nail appointment.” Clearly neither had the need to take the money. But, they did anyway. Desiring what is needed to satisfy the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, safety and education is both a necessary and healthy attitude. But, many people desire and buy things that they really do not need. They buy on impulse, not keeping in mind their genuine needs but acting on impulse just to satiate their desire for more. This constant craving to acquire more goods beyond one’s needs is the social disease of consumerism. Consumerism knows no class distinctions. Some affluent individuals ostentatiously flaunt their wealth. They buy the most expensive watches, frequently go to the best restaurants, and constantly upgrade their homes and furniture to show others how much they are worth. Even those with little wealth do the same on a lesser scale. They buy the newest large TV screens and the latest cell phones. In almost every case, the brand name matters more than the bargain or quality of the items purchased. Why is such consumerism so prevalent today? Our culture conditions us to measure our personal worth in terms of our material possessions. The more we have, the more we are worth as a person. A high style of living, so some think, guarantees us social standing. Thus, many are obsessed with the desire to have more and more of the best. They can never have too much money in the process. Thus, it is no surprise that Americans spend more time shopping than socializing. The inordinate desire to acquire more and more of things that we do not need but want has a name. It is “greed.” And, where greed is king, society cannot survive. Just think of ancient Rome. The historian Edward Gibbon dates the Fall of Rome to Sept. 4, 476 A.D. when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus. Other historians date it to the year 410 A.D. when Alaric and the Visigoths breached the walls of Rome. Still others speak of Constantine’s defeat over Maxentius in 312 at the Milvian Bridge as the end of ancient Rome. But, the truth lies elsewhere. It was not one event that brought Rome down. It was not the cry “Barbari ad portas” (barbarians at the gates) that signaled Rome’s collapse. Rather, it was the gradual moral breakdown within the very walls of ancient Rome. Once prosperity had lulled its citizens into thinking that their safety was secured, they foolishly gave in to their selfish instincts and become more and more greedy. In the first century A.D, the Roman satirical poet Juvenal already noticed the greed. He spoke of how Rome’s politicians satisfied the greed of the masses to rise to power. He coined the expression “bread and circuses” to capture their ploy. Doling out food to fill the belly and entertainment to distract the mind allowed the politicians to rule as they wished. In the meantime, many neglected their civic responsibilities. The greed of many dulled their consciences to wider moral concerns and led to Rome’s demise. Could not the same end come to our society? The world of advertising preaches the gospel of consumerism. Its evangelists are the young, attractive product-peddling models that grace our TV screens and billboards convincing us to buy what we do not need. Their sweet sounding voices surround us, seducing us to overvalue things. They excite our craving to have more and more and allure us to give in to greed. There is an emptiness within us that cannot be filled by things. There is a deep longing to be accepted that cannot be satisfied by accumulating and acquiring more and more possessions. Yielding to greed only makes us want more. Since we are made for God, only God can fill our emptiness. True contentment is not found in the palace of a king but in the manger that migrant parents borrowed for their newborn son. In Bethlehem, Jesus himself becomes “our daily bread” that fills us with joy. Welcoming him into our hearts and sharing him with others enriches us beyond the paltry pleasures of this passing world and brings peace and prosperity to our land. Christmas, not consumerism, is the answer to our deepest longings.
Last year, the Extraordinary Synod on the Family took place in Rome from Oct. 5 to19. The participants boldly examined family life in the light of today’s culture. They did not shy away from topics such as the breakdown in marriages, multiple marriages, polygamy, divorce, inter-religious marriages, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, domestic violence as well as the effects of war and immigration on the family. The heated debates, news leaks and media reports stirred vigorous discussion both inside and outside the synod halls. A sense of heightened expectation and anxiety now await the final outcome of those deliberations. Just six days after his return to the Vatican from his nine- day apostolic journey to Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis convoked the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The bishops are meeting from the 4th to the 25th of October. They are revisiting the proposals that emerged from last year’s extraordinary synod. As the turbulent winds of modern secularism batter the bark of Peter, honest debate among bishops should never lead to simply accepting cultural trends. Divine Revelation is always the source for responding pastorally to the challenges of any age so that the faithful live out the universal call to holiness. Just before the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI first introduced the Synod of Bishops as a permanent feature of Church structure. The word “synod” comes from the Greek and means “assembly” or “gathering.” Every synod is a means for the pope to consult with his brother bishops on matters of Church life. If the bishops gathered in synod consider matters that directly concern the entire Church, such as the New Evangelization or the Eucharist, their meeting is called a general synod. Since 1967, there have been 13 ordinary general synods. If the bishops examine situations in particular areas, such as Europe, or America, their assembly is called a special synod. There have been 10 special synods. Since 1969, there have also been three extraordinary general synods to discuss particular topics, such as the Word of God in the life of the Church. While the 279 bishops from more than 120 nations meet in Rome looking for ways for the Church to foster family life, the media have their ears attuned to their discussions. Many are already asking whether or not the Church is changing her teaching on marriage. They are waiting to see how the Church will adjust her pastoral practices to a culture that rejects the indissolubility of marriage and accepts artificial birth control and same-sex marriages. If the reporting of last year’s synod is any indication, this year’s synod promises to be a feeding frenzy for those who are hungry for stories about passionate debates, conflicts, intrigues and controversies. Pope Francis has said that the media covered the 2014 Synod “somewhat in the style of sports or political chronicles.” One side winning. The other losing. Progressives pitted against conservatives. But this view of the synod misunderstands both its purpose and authority. The Synod of Bishops is advisory to the pope. It does not decide doctrine, issue decrees or legislate practice (Code of Canon Law, 343). In and of itself, it has no binding authority on the faithful. Rather, upon completion of its work, the synod makes recommendations to the pope. He may issue an apostolic exhortation for the whole Church or choose another means to communicate his teaching as pope on the matters discussed. Ever since the 2014 synod, there has been some confusion about certain aspects of Church teaching on cohabitation, marriage, divorce and same-sex unions. Some are even suggesting the reception of the Eucharist by those who have entered a second marriage civilly while still bound by a previous sacramental marriage. Many of the faithful are experiencing some uneasiness with the very discussion of these issues. As a result, nearly 800,000 individuals from 178 countries, including 202 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, have sent a letter petitioning the pope to make clear what the Church has consistently taught. Last year, Ignatius Press published a book that five cardinals wrote defending the Church’s teaching. This year, another book written by 11 cardinals. All this to keep the synod on track with Church teaching. But, what if the synod chooses to depart from Church teaching? What if the synod proposes practices not consistent with the doctrine of the Church? Could this possibly happen? In the past, there have been synods, such as the 5th century Robber Synod of Ephesus and the 18th century Synod of Pistoia, which proposed unorthodox teaching. In the end, the faith of the Church prevailed. If a synod does not uphold the faith, the Pope and the whole Church have the duty to correct it. Synods are not infallible. When the Pope takes up the recommendations of the synod, he himself is also bound to safeguard the deposit of faith. He bases his teaching on Divine Revelation as given us in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. He offers his teaching to help the members of the Church understand and better appreciate the truths given us by Christ. Not every utterance of a pope is infallible. The Pope is infallible only when he teaches ex cathedra on faith and morals. And, he does so after widespread and long consultation. Furthermore, he must solemnly declare that he is teaching infallibly and binding the whole Church to his teaching. This has happened only twice. Once, to define the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. A second time, to define the Church’s belief in the Assumption of Mary. The charism of infallibility guarantees that the Church hands on the deposit of faith without error from generation to generation. Together with the bishops, the Pope receives the deposit of faith that he hands on. In July 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, in an impromptu address to priests in Aosta, Italy, said that: "The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations…” Papal infallibility does not extend to the theological opinions held by a particular pope or to his preference for certain pastoral accommodations. Popes are mortal men and remain so even as they hold an office of divine origin. Popes are men of their times. They are subject to the currents of their day. At times, popes revise their personal teachings. For example, in the 14th century, Pope John XXII, proposed that the just who die must wait until the end of time before they enjoy the Beatific Vision. This was contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church. After much prodding by cardinals and theologians, he finally withdrew this personal opinion. As the synod now taking place in Rome grapples with contemporary culture in light of Divine Revelation, it cannot separate doctrine from pastoral practice. Pastoral solutions to present difficult situations must flow from the truth of Divine Revelation. The Pope and the bishops are subject to the Word of God that has been entrusted to the Church. And, the Church herself is servant, not master, of the Word of God. At the opening of last year’s synod on the family, Pope Francis reminded the bishops that “Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas…They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.” In opening this year’s synod that continues the discussion on the family, the Holy Father once again reminded us of “God’s dream…fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” He emphasized that “The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions.” He said, “The truth …protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centeredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds.” As the bishops meet with the Pope in synod, we join in prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In following Pope’s Francis’ direction, may this synod dispel any confusion that clouds the clarity of God’s plan for humankind. For, as Pope Francis has said, “the family… has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.”
Sweeping Reform! Dramatic change! Cumbersome, complicated procedure gone! Clearing away rules dating from 1741! Fast-track annulments in forty-five days! No charge, no fault annulments! These are some of the ways that the media has characterized and sensationalized the new rules that Pope Francis issued September 8, 2015 for granting annulments in the Catholic Church. When the news of the Pope’s reform rules broke, a rush of commentators flooded the airwaves and journalists went to press. Amid all the excitement, a casual observer could easily be led to think that the Church has, with the stroke of the papal pen, introduced divorce into the Catholic Church. But, marriage is so profound a reality that it cannot be summarily done away with, as headlines seem to suggest. Every marriage is more than just a legal contract. It is a covenant. In 1983, the revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law appropriated the Second Vatican Council’s scriptural view of marriage as a covenant. For the marriage covenant of Catholics to be valid, there must be freedom from certain impediments. For example, there cannot be too close a blood relationship between the spouses; the marriage must take place before the properly delegated minister and two witnesses; and, both parties must make a free act of the will providing valid consent to the rights and obligations of marriage. If it is determined after careful examination that one or another of the necessary conditions for a valid marriage was not present at the time of the marriage, the Church grants a decree of nullity, sometimes referred to as an annulment. The Church does not annul a marriage. It merely recognizes that a valid marriage has not taken place. Pope Francis has issued two motu proprios dealing with the granting of decrees of nullity for marriage. A motu proprio means that the Pope has issued these documents “on his own initiative.” In Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus for the Latin Church and Mitis et Misericor for the Oriental Churches, the Pope has revised the rules and procedures for determining whether or not a marriage is a valid marriage. For instance, he eliminated an automatic review of any decree of nullity issued by one diocesan tribunal by a second tribunal in another diocese. He made other changes, such as the number of judges to a tribunal, so that the work of examining marriages can be done more expeditiously, thus reducing the amount of time it takes for an annulment to be granted. Moved by his pastoral compassion, the Holy Father has responded to the concrete challenges faced by the Church worldwide. The new canonical procedures will help the Church’s outreach to those who need healing at a difficult time of their lives. Many times, however, there is a delay in granting an annulment because witnesses involved in the examination of the marriage, for many different reasons, do not readily respond. The experience of married life is varied and complicated. If the truth be told, there are good marriages and not so good marriages. There are marriages where one spouse does not give as generously as the other. At times, there may be cause for separation for the good of the children or the good of one of the spouses. However, when it comes to annulments, the Church looks to the primary question of whether or not a valid marriage ever took place. Human failure and sin within a marriage are a different issue. In promulgating the new procedures, Pope Francis has emphasized that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage remains intact. This teaching comes from Christ himself. Questioned on divorce by the Pharisees, Jesus responded, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19: 4-6). Jesus did not say that every marriage is perfect. But, he did say that God instituted marriage as the indissoluble one-flesh union of man and woman. By updating the Church’s judicial procedures, Pope Francis has responded to some of the difficulties that many couples face when seeking resolution of their marital status in the Church. He did not, however, change the divinely established reality of marriage. As Pope St. John Paul II clearly said, “A ratified and consummated sacramental marriage can never be dissolved, not even by the power of the Roman Pontiff” (Address to the Roman Rota, January 21, 2000). An overemphasis on the new simplified and quicker procedures to obtain an annulment for an invalid marriage, unfortunately, seems to be casting a very dark shadow over the value of the indissolubility of the conjugal bond. Our secular, individualistic culture idolizes personal freedom and happiness. The autonomous power of self-affirmation, often exercised against others, has pushed aside the noble virtues of sacrifice and generosity so essential to any marriage. Insisting on the near impossibility of couples to make a lifelong commitment to each other mocks the marital fidelity of so many husbands and wives who work hard to keep their marriages alive. Pope Francis has said that lifelong commitment is needed today since “the image of the family -- as God wills it, made up of one man and one woman in view of the good of the spouses and also of the generation and education of children--is being deformed through powerful contrary projects supported by ideological colonizations” (Address to the Équipes Notre Dame September 10, 2015). Those who affirm that most marriages are invalid because individuals no longer have the proper faith or understanding merely demonstrate their own pessimistic view of human nature and God’s grace. No marriage is perfect, simply because no spouse is perfect this side of heaven. But, this is no reason for spouses to despair, when they face difficulties. God calls certain individuals to love and cherish each other for their entire lives in marriage and, if it be his will for them, to bring children into the world. He will never deny them his grace to do his will. Husbands and wives, despite their human imperfections, can grow in their love for each other when they find in Christ the foundation and strength of their love (cf. Eph 5: 25). God wills the indissolubility of their marriage covenant to be “a sign of the absolutely faithful love that God has for man and that the Lord Jesus has for the Church” (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, n. 20). Those who enter a sacramental marriage have from God a special vocation for the good of the entire world. When we do all that we can to support and help them live the calling that God gives them, society itself is lifted up and ennobled.
In the fifth century before Christ, the Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the tragedy entitled Antigone. The protagonist, Antigone, is one of theater’s most powerful women. Antigone faces a conflict that is profound and poignant. The newly crowned King of Thebes has forbidden a proper burial for her brother. Does she obey him or does she show the proper respect for her brother? Antigone places conscience above human law. She refuses to obey a man-made law. Instead, she insists on obeying the law of the gods. Not even the threat of death deters her. In the figures of Antigone and the king, Sophocles has immortalized the conflict between personal freedom and state control. In the character of Antigone, he has given us one of the oldest depictions of civil disobedience. In the course of history, many courageous individuals have defied unjust state laws. They have chosen civil disobedience as a way to remain faithful to their conscience. Gandhi in India, the playwright Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s anti-apartheid, to name a few. Not to mention the early Christians who chose to die rather than to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar. God before the state! Most recently, a county clerk in Kentucky has made the headlines for her civil disobedience. Kim Davis openly defied the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision redefining marriage. Immediately following the court’s decision this June, as county clerk, she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. The response to her civil disobedience has been swift, dramatic and somewhat confusing. On September 3, 2015, District Court Judge David Bunning ordered Ms. Davis to jail. He said that her good-faith belief is simply not a viable defense for disobedience to the law. She had to obey. He ordered her to issue the marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In the words of Judge Bunning, “The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.” But, recent events in our country seem to contradict the opinion of this judge. In Colorado, state officials openly defied federal laws banning illegal drugs. They were never dragged into court. President Obama defied our immigration laws, our welfare reform laws and even his own Obamacare. He has not been dragged into court for his disobedience to the law. In 2004, gay marriage was banned under California state law. Nonetheless, Gavin Newsom used his power as the mayor of San Francisco against the law. He made government clerks issue gay marriage licenses. Newsom justified his civil disobedience with an appeal to his own beliefs about right and wrong. These came first. This is the very same argument that Kim Davis has made for disobeying the law redefining marriage. Yet, in her case, she must pay the price for following her conscience. Is there a double standard at work in our secular society? At a time, when gay marriages were not legal, a mayor clearly defied the law with his civil disobedience. He does not go to jail Now, when gay marriages are legal, a clerk who defies the law goes to jail. On what basis can conscience be invoked by those who favor same-sex marriages, but not by those who oppose them? Kim Davis does not have to stay in jail. She could comply with the law or give up her job. But, in either of these two scenarios, she would be, in effect, giving in to what she judges wrong. Davis is not the only one in America who conscientiously objects to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision. In fact, four of the court’s judges were against it. Do those citizens whose conscience and religious beliefs do not allow them to redefine marriage lose their freedom to object? Must they be pursued by the courts and jailed? During the civil rights movement in this country, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked this question, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” He said, “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). There are many who, sincerely and honestly, on the basis of their understanding of natural law and God’s law, judge erroneous the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision. They may well be in favor of giving every citizen equal rights under the law, but opposed to redefining marriage to accomplish this. What price will they be made to pay for being faithful to their conscience?
On July 1, 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer shot Cecil, the African lion, a popular attraction in Zimbabwe. The killing of Cecil immediately sparked international rage. Politicians and celebrities raised their voices protesting this crime against animal life. Our government’s Fish and Wildlife Service not only expressed deep concern for the killing of Cecil, but also launched an investigation to see if any laws were broken. One Zimbabwe official has called for Palmer’s extradition to Zimbabwe to make him accountable for the death of the lion. On July 13, 2015, the Center for Medical Progress began releasing videos of the abortion techniques used by Planned Parenthood to kill children in the womb, dismember them and sell their body parts. Dr. Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood detailed a “menu” of aborted baby hearts, lungs and livers that can be made available for sale. Another doctor reported that abortion providers know how to use a “less crunchy” method of killing the unborn child. “Crunchiness” is the crude term to reference the skull-crushing and dismemberment by knife and suction of the unborn child! “Less crunchy” is longer and more painful for the living unborn child. However, it is more profitable for the abortion providers! How different the outrage over the death of one lion from the reaction of some to the horrific revelations of the brutal killing of our unborn children! On July 21, 2015, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced plans to review the videos released by pro-life activists. She expressed her concern about their attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood’s procedures. She wants to see if they broke any law in filming the interviews for the video. “Broke any law”? One wonders where sanity has gone. Babies being dismembered and their body parts sold! Is this horror not enough to make a rational person cry out in protest? And California’s Attorney General wants to discredit those who make such barbarism known. The Center for Medical Progress has stated that it followed all applicable laws in the course of their investigative journalism on Planned Parenthood. And the pro-life group stands on its constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Nonetheless, on July 31, 2015, U.S. District Judge William Orrick issued a temporary restraining order blocking the pro-life group from releasing any more videos. It is more important, it seems, to guarantee and protect abortion providers’ right to privacy than the lives of the children they are ruthlessly destroying. When will decent people cry “Enough!”? Planned Parenthood is America’s premier abortion provider. In a single year, it aborts more than 333,000 babies. At least 40 percent of its billion-plus dollar annual budget comes from American taxpayers. In fact, to keep this profitable business in the black, taxpayers fund it to the cost of $1.26 million each day. On July 20, 2015, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said that the President does not believe there is evidence of Planned Parenthood acting unethically and he would not support legislation to defund them. How limp a response! Fortunately, not all Americans are closing their eyes to the horrors committed against our unborn children. After 20 weeks, there is no doubt that the unborn child feels pain. Twelve states have already passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. This law stops the brutal and painful killing of unborn children. It is compassionate legislation protecting babies five months in the womb from brutal abortions. On Jan. 6, 2015, Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee reintroduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 36) into Congress. The House had successfully passed the legislation last year, but it was stopped in the Senate. This legislation is a step in the right direction. But, it does not go far enough! Nonetheless, in January, the Obama administration said in a press release: “The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 36, which would unacceptably restrict women’s health and reproductive rights and is an assault on a woman’s right to choose.” An assault on a woman’s right to choose? And not an assault on an innocent, vulnerable life in the womb that we should protect and cherish? President Obama has also threatened to veto the bill, if it passes. Such an attitude is consistent with his previous statements. In 2013, he lauded Planned Parenthood. He said that he wanted God to bless them. All of this comes under the rubric of their providing for women’s health. The health and life of the unborn child matters little. That our country has come to this point should be a wake-up call. On Nov. 15, 2014, Pope Francis said to doctors gathered in the Vatican that “We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment… (we’re) playing with life.” The Pope did not hesitate to call abortion sinful. Nor should we! When God is no longer present in the public square and when individuals live as if there were no God, the very concept of sin vanishes. So does God’s authority to tell us what is right and wrong, what is good for us or what is harmful to us. The result of the removal of God from the public life of our nation has become all too painfully apparent in the videos exposing our country’s legally protected practice of killing its unborn, even painfully and barbarically without a qualm of conscience. Nonetheless, God is always present to each of us. He is present to us from the very first moment of life in our mother’s womb. As Psalm 139 so beautifully says, “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made” (v 13-14). The more we are present to God in our lives, the more our hearts will be moved with compassion and love for our children yet to be born. And, the more we will raise our voices against the killing of the unborn. They are, indeed, more valuable and precious than any well-loved animal. It is time to answer the cry of the unborn for mercy!
Editor's note: This post has been adapted from Bishop Arthus Serratelli's June 26 pastoral letter to the Diocese of Paterson. The recent Supreme Court decision “Obergefell et al. v. Hodges” has now redefined the legal definition of marriage in our country. Responding to the cultural trends of the last sixty years, the judges have made a decision that will affect not only those individuals who decide to enter same-sex unions, but every citizen and institution within the nation. This decision rejects the understanding of marriage that has been held across the millennia by people of every race and religion. The consequences of this decision will have long-range effects in politics, economics, education, and, in no small way, religious freedom. The adverse consequences of this decision will become more and more evident in the days and months ahead in terms of our Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, charitable institutions and churches. As your bishop, I take serious my responsibility to safeguard and pass on to you the teachings of Jesus that have been handed down to us by the apostles in the deposit of faith. Therefore, I ask you to always keep in mind, as faithful Catholics, the following truths of faith. First, as believers, we abstain from judging the consciences of those who choose to live in lifestyles contrary to the teaching of Jesus. Only God sees the heart and judges rightly each human person. As a consequence, we speak charitably and compassionately of all people, even those who disagree with us on fundamental truths of the natural law. Second, precisely because we are people of reason and faith, we hold that there is objective truth about the human person and the world. Objective truth is founded on God’s design for creation and independent of the political and cultural trends of any age. Third, without a doubt, the objective truth about family, as intended by God, is a most fundamental, objective truth for the good of all society. From the very first pages of Genesis, we learn that God created us in his own image and likeness, male and female, he created us (cf. Gn 1:27). In the beauty of God’s creative design, marriage is based on the complementarity of man and woman. As Pope Francis has said, “the removal of difference, in fact, creates a problem, not a solution.” Courts and constitutions may change the legal definition of marriage. But, they cannot alter God’s loving plan inscribed within the natural law. As Catholics, therefore, we are committed to the teaching of Sacred Scripture faithfully handed down to us by the Church that marriage is, by God’s design, a union between a man and a woman, open to life, in a lifelong commitment of fidelity and mutual love. That is God’s gift of marriage that we cherish and seek to protect. Fourth, the laws of a nation are good or bad only insofar as they are in accord with God’s plan for his creation. Human laws are fallible and change. In 1857, the Supreme Court of this nation upheld slavery. Clearly, a bad decision condoning an evil. Because a court tells us something is good does not make it good. We, as believers, are ultimately responsible to a higher authority. While accompanying others with patience and love, even members of our own families, who do not accept the Church’s teaching on marriage, as believers, we cannot cease to support and promote God’s sacred plan for marriage. Please keep in mind that, by our own fidelity to what is good in God’s eyes and by the witness of our lives, we are of invaluable benefit for all of society. In the days ahead as we face many challenges to our faith and, perhaps, even persecution, I pray that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rm 15: 13).
Even before the June 18, 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si’), the media delighted in reporting voices both approving and disapproving of his speaking on the subject. No doubt the debate will continue. But, this is a good thing. In his 184-page letter, the Holy Father addressed his words to “every person on this planet,” hoping to stir up discussion on an issue that touches every living creature and the world itself. Any person with common sense realizes that we face threats to the environment from industrial and chemical pollution, water shortage, fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides and the destruction of the rainforests. Our misuse of technology harms the environment and others, as well. And, our consumer-centered manner of living, coupled with our throw-away culture, depletes our natural resources and deprives others of their rightful share in God’s gifts, especially the poor. In choosing to speak out forcibly on the hot button issue of the environment, the Pope stands well within the Church’s tradition. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, named “the green pope,” did not shy away from this subject. In his first encyclical, Pope John Paul II warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption” (Redemptor hominis, n. 15). Pope Benedict XVI, likewise, spoke on the environment. He taught that “the book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 51). We are called to be good stewards of creation. This is Catholic teaching. Reading through the particulars of Pope Francis’ encyclical, individuals will invariably find challenges to their way of thinking about climate change, the free market, the privatization of water, carbon tax-credits, the role of government and the international community to regulate the use of the world’s resources, the value of technology and the effects of the digital media. For some, there may even be a vigorous opposition to the Pope’s use of scientific research and conclusions. None of this detracts from the essential and necessary place that this new encyclical will have within the world community. The Pope calls for individuals and businesses to exercise moral restraint in their consumption of the world’s goods. Many may not like this, but it is a needed admonition. Self-centered activity does not respect the earth’s resources as a common gift to be shared, regardless of their socio-economic status. In his encyclical, Pope Francis widens our perspective beyond ourselves. He asks us the pressing question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (n. 160). Wisely, he states that the way we answer that question has everything to do with our own human dignity and the ultimate purpose of our earthy sojourn. The Pope writes in accessible prose. With characteristic bluntness, the Pope remarks, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (n. 21). With great clarity, he rebukes the cultural trends that contradict the design of the Creator for the human body and connects this with ecology. He says, “The acceptance of our bodies as God's gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (n. 155). At times, the Pope’s words are poetic. He states that “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (n. 84). He exclaims with awe, “How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles” (n. 65). While both the accessible prose and the mystical poetry of the Pope help communicate his message, it is his deep moral-theological insight that gives this encyclical its enduring value. He offers to the entire world ecology contextualized within a holistic concept of the human person. Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis writes, that “creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves’ ” (n. 13). He reminds us of the fundamental truth that “Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (n. 12). Pope Francis strongly rebukes the philosophical schizophrenia, common to our age, that divorces ecology and anthropology. All creation is God’s gift and, most especially, human beings. God has placed us as his stewards and guardians of creation. We are not its masters. We cannot be its ruthless exploiters. The Pope rightly insists that “there can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself” (n. 118). Every creature has a purpose. Not one is superfluous. Each has a specific value in God’s eyes and should be protected and cherished. Thus, the Pope criticizes those “ecological movements [that] defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, [and, then] fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (n. 136). He insists that every human being is of inalienable worth and this transcends his or her stage of development. A needed corrective to a world that discards human life with abandon! He warns that “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 97). How wisely does the Holy Father frame the right to life in language that is so acceptable to those who clamor to protect the environment, as if it were the only issue. He points out the inconsistency of their logic. He writes, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (n. 120). With his encyclical Laudato Si,’ Pope Francis has courageously entered into the highly charged discussion of climate change and the environment. But, he has done much more. He has initiated a new moment in the dialogue between faith and reason. In the time of Jesus, the Court of the Gentiles was the vast open space on the Temple mount in Jerusalem where all those who did not share Israel’s faith could discuss religious matters. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the dialogue between believers and non-believers, agnostics and atheists, as the modern-day ‘Court of the Gentiles.’ By sharing his masterful insights on ecology and its fundamental relationship with anthropology in his encyclical, Pope Francis has stepped outside of the internal Church issues that must occupy the successor of Peter. He has firmly placed his foot in “the Court of the Gentiles.” Open to dialogue, he offers the world “the seamless garment of creation,” a truth that can unite us as one human family.
Media headlines throughout the world have been trumpeting Ireland’s recent acceptance of same-sex “marriage” as the coming of age of Catholics in today’s world. There are 19 other countries that have previously accepted the proposition that equality for gays and lesbians means redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Among them are such traditionally Catholic countries as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal and Uruguay. But, Ireland, which is 85 percent Catholic, has the unique distinction of being the first country ever to overwhelmingly approve to redefine marriage by a popular vote.Within the last decade, the acceptance of same-sex unions has become widespread. There are some notable exceptions. Seventy-seven percent of black Protestants and 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants still stand strongly in favor of defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But, the mainline Protestant churches do not. Many churches, such as the Presbyterian, the Episcopal, the Evangelical Lutheran and the United Church of Christ already accept same-sex unions.Furthermore, recent polls indicate a rather high number of Catholics who either accept or tolerate same sex unions. According to a 2014 Pew research poll, 57 percent of American Catholics and an amazing 75 percent of Catholics age 18 to 29 support gay marriages. These numbers are significant. Ireland’s recent vote is merely indicative of the changing attitudes even among Catholics and especially among the young.When polls are taken of Catholics, these surveys include both practicing and non-practicing Catholics, both those who attend Church regularly and those who infrequently or never attend Mass. Nonetheless, the number of regular church-goers who support same-sex unions is only slightly less than those who are Catholic in name, but do not practice. Society has wholesale bought into the view that same-sex unions should be accepted as marriages. Even Catholics. Why?First of all, the advocates of gay marriages have cleverly framed their arguments in terms of equality and tolerance. And, no one wishes to be labeled unjust for denying others their rights. Did we not settle that issue by overturning slavery in this country? After all, everyone should be equal. And, who wants to be labeled a bigot by opposing someone else’s personal happiness?However, the insistence on the rights of two individuals to form a same-sex union and become a family patently ignores the rights of children to have a mother and a father. It is the same line of thinking that insists on the right of a woman to control her own body and thus allows her to end the life of her child, even days before birth. Any true discussion of rights must be wider than just an individual’s rights. The welfare of society as a whole is at stake.Second, the campaign to promote gay marriages has had such a quick acceptance, because society no longer accepts the view of a natural law. Once you deny that there is a Creator who designed the world with a purpose and an order (natural law), then you are free to remake even the institution of marriage that has been universally held as a union of man and woman for millennia. The recent movement towards transgenderism is part of this same denial.Third, among Catholics, there has been, unfortunately, a serious lacuna in teaching the faith. To be honest, we must confess our failure in the last two generations to pass on the faith in its fullness and with proper explanation. Humane Vitae was a watershed in the Church’s understanding of human sexuality. Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has provided a rich and profound understanding of this teaching. We are just beginning to hand on these teachings to the young.Fourth, the numbers of Catholics who attend Mass on a regular basis is less than 25 percent of all Catholics. Rarely do they hear from the pulpit an explanation of the Church’s teaching on marriage. Sound teaching on the beauty of human sexuality has practically disappeared from the Sunday homily. For whatever reason this has occurred, the effects are now being felt. In our current pre-marriage preparation, there is a greater emphasis on explaining not simply what the Church teaches, but why. But, is this coming too late?Fifth, the question of same-sex unions must be seen in the context of society’s acceptance of sex outside of marriage. Cohabitation, pre-marital sex and artificial contraception have played a major role in divorcing the intimate, sexual expression of love between a man and a woman from its divinely-given orientation to procreation. Human sexuality is no longer seen as intrinsically ordered to the family. Once again, one can only wonder how many Catholics today truly have been taught and understand the beauty of human sexuality as given to us in the Church’s teaching.Sixth, the reality of original sin and sin in general has been lost. No longer is there thought that the original plan of God for us has been disfigured by the sin of Adam and Eve. No longer is there acceptance of the fact that there are inclinations and disorders within each of us that go against what is in our best interest for life in this world and the next. No longer, for some, is there even the idea of sin in terms of sexual activity outside of marriage. God’s will, not polls, determines morality.Last of all, one must ask if believers today give any validity to Sacred Scripture and its clear teaching on the nature of marriage from the very first pages of Genesis. Is it right to pick and choose only those parts of divine revelation and the Church’s consistent teaching that are sanctioned by the views of the majority in our present age? Do polls and trends define what is right in God’s eyes?While we respect others and never engage in hate speech or bigotry against those whose views differ from ours, we cannot shrink from teaching and living our faith that comes from the Lord. And, perhaps we have! Ireland’s recent gay marriage vote is truly a wake-up call to know and understand what the Church teaches in the name of Jesus. No matter what society may choose to believe or accept, the Church and her faithful members can never dismiss nor change the teaching of Jesus on marriage. No matter what lifestyle others may adopt, we do not stop loving them. Neither do we stop offering them the truth that sets each of us and society itself free.
For the last 10 years, polls have indicated a steady increase in support of same-sex unions. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently reported a March-February 2015 poll showing that 59 percent of Americans now support same-sex “marriages.” This means that, within just the last decade, the number of Americans no longer inclined to limit the definition of marriage to a man and a woman has nearly doubled.In the same period of time, courts throughout the country have been handing down one judicial decision after another in favor of this popular trend for same-sex “marriages.” In the past two years alone, the courts have issued 65 rulings in favor of acknowledging same-sex unions as marriages. As a result, 72 percent of Americans now live in states where marriage has been redefined.It is no surprise, therefore, that the national campaign to redefine marriage has reached the highest court of the land. The spotlight is now on the nine judges of the Supreme Court. Which way will they vote? What far-reaching decision will they issue? On May 1, Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune predicted a unanimous victory for same-sex unions. Clearly many, judges, legislators and citizens no longer hold to the definition of marriage that has shaped civilization since the days of Adam and Eve.As Americans await a Supreme Court ruling on the definition of marriage, reporters routinely grill politicians running for the office of president about their views on same-sex marriage. Do they accept it? Would they attend a same-sex wedding? Many advocates of same-sex “marriages” are dragging into court those who refuse to provide services for such an occasion. Others are hurling charges of bigotry and hate speech against the defenders of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.All the while that the debate on marriage is raging in this country and in other countries as well, Pope Francis has been teaching consistently and courageously about marriage, the family and the gift of children. On many different occasions, he has spoken the truth about the beauty of God’s design of marriage for the human family. And, since Dec. 17, 2014, he has been conducting a catechesis on the family in his Wednesday audiences in the Vatican.The Holy Father has keen insight into the cultural shifts in modern society. On Jan.16, speaking to more than 1,000 families in Manila, the pope said “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.” Faithful to his teaching office, Pope Francis is trying to steer society away from false ideas about sexuality, marriage and the family.Touted by the mainstream media as “the pope of climate change” for his interest in ecology, the same media seem to bypass his strong will to deal with the crisis in “human ecology” caused by the efforts to redefine the family. In a Nov.17, 2014 colloquium held in the Vatican, the pope stated frankly, “In our day, marriage and the family are in crisis.” As we need to “address conditions that menace our natural environment…, [we, likewise, need to] recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well…It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology and advance it.”Fundamental to the pope’s teaching on marriage and family is the biblical understanding of the complementarity of man and woman. On the first pages of Genesis, God creates man and woman as the masterpiece of his creation. Man and woman are far superior to every living creature, because they are made in the image and likeness of God himself. This image of God is uniquely found in the union of man and woman (cf. Gn 1:27). Therefore, in the beauty of God’s creative design, marriage is based on the complementarity of man and woman. One man and one woman open to life in a lifelong commitment of fidelity and mutual love: that is God’s gift of marriage.Pope Francis’ great compassion toward every individual, regardless of sexual orientation, does not hinder him from speaking clearly and unequivocally about the very nature of marriage as God intends. He says that “the difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, but is for the sake of communion and generation, always in the image and likeness of God” (Pope Francis, General Audience, April 15). For the pope, “the removal of difference, in fact, creates a problem, not a solution” (ibid.).In the past, the Supreme Court has not always made the right decision. It upheld slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. It blessed “separate-but-equal” segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In the near future, if the Supreme Court decides not to redefine marriage as it has been understood for millennia, it will boldly reaffirm the plan that God has designed for the good of his creation. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court decides to include same-sex unions in the very concept of marriage, it will alter our society in a radical way by emptying marriage of its natural meaning. The consequences of this decision will have long-range effects in politics, economics, education, and, in no small way, religious freedom.Whatever way the Supreme Court ultimately acts, as faithful followers of Jesus, we are answerable to a higher court. As Pope Francis has pointed out, the family as designed by God, one man and one woman open to life, is not an ideological concept. It is not a “conservative” or a “progressive” notion, but an “anthropological fact” that transcends ideological labels (cf. Pope Francis, Colloquium on the Complementarity of Male and Female, Nov. 17, 2014). It is truth given by God. We reject it for our own harm. We live it for great benefit to all.
When Pope Leo III placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne on Christmas day in 800 A.D., the Holy Roman Empire emerged as the first attempt to recreate a vast political entity espousing the Christian gospel. From an empty grave outside the walls of Jerusalem to the thrones of the monarchs of Europe, the Christian faith spread its influence over society. Christianity began as a persecuted religion with its adherents hidden in their homes. It gradually became the dominant influence on Western civilization. (cf. Charles Scaliger, The Rise of Christendom, December 24, 2012)As more and more believers embraced the Christian faith, there developed, by the 10th century, a vast phenomenon called Christendom. Not bound by their national borders, people living in the West espoused a Christian world view. God was accepted as an essential factor in human history. The faith permeated culture.Europe’s skyline boasts an increased number of minarets and mosques filled with believers, even as church steeples are quickly becoming tourist attractions on empty churches. At least 50 percent of the citizens in both Germany and France are unchurched. And, in England, four times as many people attend services in mosques than cross the threshold of the Anglican Church. In America, 75 percent of the people call themselves Christians. But, despite the number of Christians in our country, the impact of the Christian faith on American culture is disappearing. In the West, cultural Christianity is dying.One very obvious example of the dwindling influence of the Christian faith is the rejection of the biblical understanding of marriage. Ten years ago, 60 percent of Americans accepted marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Today, 60 percent of Americans are willing to include same sex unions in the legal definition of marriage.Certainly, the very understanding of human sexuality is at stake in the entire marriage question. Is human sexuality a social construct that individuals can choose to accept or manipulate? Are we free to determine our own gender? Are we free to define marriage to fit the conventions of a particular age? How much freedom do we have to be creative? But, there is more.Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once remarked, “When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the Occasion of Christmas Greeting to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012). Thus, beneath the cultural re-definition of marriage, there lurks the more fundamental question of God’s role in creation. Pope Francis clearly understands this to be the real problem. On his recent visit to Naples, Italy, on March 21, he denounced “the ideological colonization” that rejects the design of the Creator for the family.The success of the campaign to empty marriage of its natural meaning and beauty certainly points to a lessening influence of the Christian faith on culture. So does the growing acceptance of physician-assisted suicides and euthanasia. God is less and less a factor in today’s culture. Many people no longer see the need for God. A blind faith in science as well as a comfortable standard of living can easily anesthetize the search for the transcendent.Modern science and technology have placed at our disposal an abundance of material blessings. Paradoxically, the more materialistic we become, the less spiritual and more apt we are to see ourselves as masters of our universe. The conviction that we are self-sufficient and capable of creating ourselves in our own image and likeness leaves little room for God. In such an environment, faith does not survive.Nonetheless, many individuals still identify themselves as Christian. Of these, one-third are only cultural Christians. They have been raised in a Christian home. Their family history is Christian. But, they themselves do not practice their faith. They rarely go to Church. They make no connection between the faith and the issues of the day. Cultural Christians are not equipped to stand up for the values of the faith in the public forum. Cultural Christians are too comfortable with the amoral tenets of a secularized society.Returning to the earliest days of the Church, we discover in Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost the key to awaken faith in others. Peter did not hesitate to challenge his listeners with the need for conversion. He announced that Jesus had been crucified because of our sins. He held out the offer of salvation to all who repent. Three thousand responded to Peter’s clear preaching and were baptized (cf. Acts 2:14-41).In our mission to turn cultural Christians into convicted Christians, we need to convince them that Christ saves them from their sins. We need to proclaim that God’s mercy is the answer to our human misery caused by sin. In a word, the language of the Church today must tirelessly repeat again and again the message of the apostles. For only those who know that they have been saved can work to save our world.
Benjamin Franklin holds the great distinction of being not only one of America’s founding fathers, but also one of her most cherished sons. He was statesman, writer, inventor and philosopher. In our age of increasing specialization, the breadth of his contributions staggers the mind. The Franklin stove, the lightning rod, swim fins, the glass armonica, the flexible catheter and bifocal glasses, to name a few.Franklin has also left behind a rich literary legacy. He wrote essays, books and newspaper articles. He penned letters and composed ballads. He wrote an illustrious autobiography. But, he is best known for Poor Richard’s Almanac.In 1732, Franklin published it for the first time. The pamphlet contained a calendar, seasonal weather forecasts, practical household hints, puzzles, poems and astronomical information. Poor Richard’s Almanac quickly became a best seller in the American colonies. No doubt the many witty aphorisms sprinkled throughout the pamphlet made it so popular. In many ways, Poor Richard’s Almanac was a repository of the wit and wisdom of Franklin himself. In fact, many of his wise sayings have become proverbial. “Well done is better than well said.” “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” “God helps them that help themselves.” Franklin’s wisdom sayings help us in our own search for living a good life. They are basically expressions of good common sense. They remain so timely, because “common sense is not so common” (Voltaire). Franklin understood the holistic connection between mind, body and spirit. His bits of advice aim to help others make that connection and have a happy life. In this regard, his sayings are close cousins to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.In the biblical books of Proverbs, Psalms, Sirach, Qoheleth, Wisdom, Job and the Song of Solomon, Wisdom (hokmah) includes both a practical and a speculative aspect. At times, it resembles in tone and purpose the advice of a Franklin, an Epicurus or a Marcus Aurelius. It passes on the accumulated knowledge of many generations on how to make the best of daily situations. At other times, biblical wisdom soars high above prosaic aphorisms to the poetic heights of lofty meditation on the very purpose of life and human suffering. In the Old Testament, the wise person is the one who knows how to ply his craft (cf. Ex 35:25-26), the one who can make right judgments (cf. 1 Kgs 3:1-15); and, the one whose moral behavior is upright (cf. Prv 24:29). Wisdom gradually comes to be identified with the law (cf. Sirach 24; 23-24) that shows God’s plan for our happiness. And, ultimately, it is personified to the point of identifying it with God himself (cf. Prv 8: 1-31; Wis 6: 12-21). In fact, the New Testament sees wisdom as the plan “mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2: 8). It identifies Jesus himself as the very Wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:24; Col 1: 15-18).The Wisdom books of the Old Testament give witness to our natural desire to know and understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Endowed with an intellect, we are naturally inquisitive. We are constantly asking questions and searching for understanding and wisdom. Already in the fourth century before Christ, Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses…” (Metaphysics Book I, Par I). Ultimately, all knowledge leads to God. Thomas Aquinas understood this. He taught that our natural desire for knowledge is a means to know God (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, III. 57 n 2334). Thus, we can truly know ourselves and our world when we see all in the light of God’s existence and his purpose for creation. Some people say that there are many ways to come to know God. But, there is only one way that God himself has given us. And that way is Christ. We cannot properly know God or ourselves or creation except in Christ.Moses spoke of God, but it is the Torah that he gave that leads to the knowledge and love of God. Buddha spoke of Enlightenment, but it is his Noble Path that guides the disciple to achieve it. Mohammed taught about complete submission to Allah, but it is the Koran that instructs the adherent to reach it. In each case, the teacher and the teaching are distinct. But, not with Jesus. “In him has been revealed in a new and more wonderful way the fundamental truth concerning creation” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 8). He is the “New Adam [who]…fully reveals man to himself…” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Thus, Jesus does more than teach us about the truth. He tells us, “I am the truth.” Jesus does not simply point out the way to God. No. He says, “I am the way.” He alone can say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14: 6). And the reason is this: Jesus is the very Wisdom of God Incarnate.
Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwestern France is the small town of Lourdes. Its population of 15,000 swells every tourist season to more than 5,000,000. Lourdes has more hotels per square kilometer than any other city in France except Paris. Ever since the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous on Feb. 11, 1858, there have been more than 200 million people who have come to pray at this shrine.The crippled and the blind, the healthy and the sick, the weak and the strong, the young and the old, children and parents, all have joined the procession of those who have been coming for the last 150 years to seek relief from suffering for themselves or their dear ones. More than 7,000 unexplained healings have been recorded at this famous sanctuary. The Church has recognized only 69 of these as miraculous. But, this, in no way, means that there have not been many, many more miraculous healings.The Marian sanctuary of Lourdes is a permanent witness in our day that God desires us to be whole in mind, body and spirit. Certainly, Jesus showed this to be true during his public ministry. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people… they brought to him all who were sick with various diseases and racked with pain, those who were possessed, lunatics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Mt 4: 23-24).In the gospels, there are only 31 cases recorded where Jesus healed an individual. Certainly, there were many other instances where Jesus healed people. As St. John tells us, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:24). Nonetheless, Jesus did not cure all the sick in his day. Nor did he eradicate all illness and disease. Sickness and death remained after Jesus as part of our life in this world. Even Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, eventually died and were buried.No one escapes the reality of suffering and death itself. Physical, emotional, spiritual and social sufferings taint the very fabric of human existence. From the moment we painfully enter this world to the moment we go home to God, our lives are marked by pain and suffering. Whether we ourselves suffer or we suffer with others, suffering, in one form or another, is our constant companion. Undoubtedly, the pain of suffering hurts us deeply when we stand by helplessly watching someone we love suffer. Inevitably, each of us must ask the question, “Why suffering?”In face of painful suffering, especially in someone who has been good all their life, the easy answer to the question of suffering is simply, “There is no God.” If God is all-loving and all just, how could he ever allow a good person to suffer pain? And, so the denial of the very existence of God becomes a way out of something that makes no sense. “It is well known that concerning this question [of suffering] there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God” (Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 9). But, disbelief in God only makes one’s life even more senseless. We become victims of chance with no purpose, no destiny, no hope. Not just creation itself but the lives of each one of us provide reasons to believe in God. The beauty of creation; the design and harmony of our world and even our very bodies point to a Creator who orders the world in wisdom. The goodness, compassion and, love of others, especially our parents, stir our hearts to believe in God who created us and sustains us with love. True, no reason can compel faith in God. But, equally true, reason can show that such faith is not irrational.God is God. That means He is infinitely wiser and infinitely more intelligent than anyone of us. Thus, our understanding of God will always be partial. How can we ever understanding pure goodness and love? If we were to be able to figure out, by our limited human reason, all that there is to know, then we would be God. There will always be things too great for us to comprehend. Even with faith and the gift of divine revelation, suffering remains one such reality.Again and again, we question God. Why suffering? Why the protracted illness? Why the lingering in pain at death’s door? But, God does not answer us with a rational explanation. He speaks no word to our mind. He speaks directly to our heart.His answer is personal. His response to the evil, to the suffering and to the pain, is his only-begotten Son. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4: 9). “And Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering…” (Eph 5: 2). The mystery of all human suffering is one with the mystery of the Cross.Jesus became a sharer in our suffering. He entered our pain. He took even our dark questions about suffering to himself as he hung on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mk 15: 34). Why should anyone suffer? Why should Jesus suffer? Jesus suffered and died. But, then, he rose from the dead, conquering evil and death itself. In the mysterious design of divine wisdom, “God…did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”(Rm 8:32). It is only in a deep, personal relationship with Christ, who suffered, died for us, rose from the dead and now is Lord of the living and the dead, that we can find some strength to face and accept suffering in our lives. In Christ, suffering, with all its pain and ugliness, has become the means of redemption. Hard to understand? Absolutely! But, perhaps, the reason is this: in suffering, love becomes perfected. This is why the mind alone will never comprehend suffering. It is a matter of the heart: the heart of God opened for us in Christ Crucified as the way to eternal life.
Oxford University Press has a long and distinguished history. From its humble birth in 1480 when it began to publish the Bible, it has grown to be the largest publishing house in the world. Since it publishes educational materials for use in more than 150 countries, its overseers are very much aware of the broad range of religious, social and cultural differences of those whom they service. In an effort to be sensitive to the belief and practice of Muslims, Oxford University Press has now banned the mention of pigs and pork in their educational books for children.Oxford University Press’s directive to avoid any possible offense to Muslims comes as a response to the January 7, 2015 attack on the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. This publication is stridently anti-religious. It satirizes Judaism and Catholicism as well as Islam. It mocks politics and culture as well. Catholics have rightly taken offense at Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent cartoons about the pope, the bishops and even the Most Holy Trinity. But Catholics have not resorted to violence to deal with the offensive material. However, when Charlie Hebdo published offensive cartoons about Mohammed, some Muslims did resort to violence, killing 10 employees, 2 French National Police officers and injuring 11 others.In an interview on the flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned the Paris violence. “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.” Religion can never condone or incite individuals to terrorism. The Pope said, “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”But the Holy Father did not stop there. To the consternation of some, he raised one of the controversial issues underlying the Paris attack. The limits on freedom of speech. Should every kind of speech be sanctioned in the name of freedom? This is not a simple question to answer.Some responded to the question of freedom of speech by demanding no limitation. This seems to be the attitude of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. After the violent attack on their offices, they published another controversial cartoon of Mohammed. This time, the founder of Islam appeared under the words “All Is Forgiven.” He was holding a sign that read “I am Charlie,” the very slogan used by those who responded to the January 7th bloody attack by affirming total freedom of speech. It was as if to say, we have the right to say what we want, when we want, no matter what! In response, more violence erupted in Jordan, India, Pakistan and Africa. More lives lost. More people hurt.Others responded to the question of freedom of speech by adopting an overabundance of caution. But, this position, taken by Oxford University Press, has come under stinging criticism. In England, Muslim Labor MP Khalid Mahmood called the caution of Oxford University Press “ludicrous.” Expunging material from educational works that could be potentially offensive to certain groups, if carried out with rigor, would ultimately sound the death knell for academic freedom. The Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut and the Islamic dietary laws of Halal forbid eating pork. Certain Christian churches, e.g., the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and parts of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, also abstain from pork. Nonetheless, pork remains a basic food in the diet of millions of people. If we accept that Oxford University is right in not mentioning pigs or pork in its educational material for fear of offending some people, where do we stop? There are many other issues much more controversial. Must these never be mentioned? Ever more basic than beliefs on the uncleanness of pigs are the claims of different faiths to be the true faith. Must these claims be passed over in silence for fear of offending? “How on earth are [we] supposed to tackle the larger questions of race, religion, love, poverty, sex, war, and politics? What chance do [we] have investigating belief systems and ideas? How might [we] go about debating subjects that really matter?” (Charles C. W. Cooke, “Oxford University Press: Authors Shouldn’t Talk about Pork In Case They Offend Others,” January14, 2015). Pope Francis provided a common sense answer to the question of freedom of speech. He affirmed that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. But, he wisely added that freedom of speech does not mean total liberty to say whatever I want to say. “There is a limit,” he said, “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” The Pope’s words have been criticized by pundits and politicians as imposing an undue restriction on freedom of speech. On the ears of those who dwell in the enlightened realms of rationalism, his words fell like the dictate of a medieval monarch. The modern secularists are totally wedded to the campaign for individual rights. Their obsession with tolerance of all views, all beliefs and all behaviors has clouded their vision to the wider reality of the common good and has desensitized their moral compass. Freedom is not license. Freedom is ordered to the common good. The right to freedom of speech guarantees us the ability to discuss ideas in dialogue with each other in the pursuit of truth. It does not give blanket moral approbation to all speech. Just because we can say or do something does not confer the right to say or do it. We are not free to harm others. Even with the freedom of speech, we are not allowed to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater to cause a stampede. We are not allowed to incite others to imminent violent action. Both justice and charity are the ultimate judges of what actions and words are moral. Not all religious satire is wrong. A healthy sense of humor can be very enlightening. Nonetheless, the satirical anti-religious cartoons of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo fail by both standards of justice and charity. Even more tragically do the actions of those who resort to violence and bloodshed to express their offense!
In 1993, Oregon’s present governor, John Kitzhaber - then a state senator and a doctor - worked hard to make health care available for the poor through a program that rationed benefits. His efforts, along with those of others, gave birth to the Oregon Health Plan. This was a major step in the reform of our national health care.Fifteen years after the plan was put into effect, in 2008, the state's health care rationing program informed cancer patients that the state’s health plan would no longer cover certain treatments that would extend their lives. The costs to the state outweighed any benefit to the individual. One woman wanted the chemotherapy prescribed by her oncologist for her lung cancer. Instead of providing the treatment to contain the cancer, she was offered physician-assisted suicide (cf. Sandy Szwarcat, “Considering the value of life... medical ethical issues at the beginning, middle and end of life,” September 6, 2008).In effect, Oregon’s health care program was removing the decision on how to care for this woman from the woman herself, her loved ones and her doctor. A third party was making a determination of medical treatment based on the expense to the state. This particular case represents the ever-widening control of our lives by the government. It also signals the changing attitudes to end-of-life issues.Medicine is a healing art. It is not a science designed to end life, but to care for life. Doctors have been taking the Hippocratic Oath since the fifth century B. C. They have been making the sacred promise to guard their patients’ lives by declaring, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.” But, the dangerous shift in values in our modern, secular society is emptying these words of their meaning.A robust campaign to make euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide the way to deal with the terminally ill has been gaining ground in our nation. Seventy percent of Americans are in favor of euthanasia, intentionally ending a person’s life to end their pain. Forty-six percent see no moral problem with physician-assisted suicide. At stake both in euthanasia (mercy-killing) and in physician-assisted suicide is the fundamental sanctity of human life and society’s commitment to love and care for those whom medicine cannot cure.Modern medicine has made many advances in curing certain diseases, if diagnosed in time, in managing terminally ill patients and in providing palliative care for those nearing death in pain. According to Catholic moral teaching, it is permissible to refuse certain treatments at the end of life if they do not help and, in fact, cause pain. However, it is never morally acceptable to end life because it has become a burden. Ending the life of the patient to end the pain is not the answer.Tragically, too many people in our society measure a person’s worth in terms of their productivity and usefulness. Life itself is valued when it is robust and healthy. But, when sickness comes and the person is no longer able to do anything, then it is, for some, the moment to end that life.Pope Francis has spoken out frequently against the evil of deliberately ending the lives of the sick, the disabled and the elderly. To consider these individual as a drain on the resources of society is a symptom of a “throw-away culture.” When we no longer have use for something, we discard it. And, now even people! Pope Francis denounces this attitude toward the suffering, the helpless and the weak as a “false sense of compassion.” He does not hesitate to call euthanasia and physician assisted suicide “a sin against God” (Cf. Pope Francis, Speech to the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors. Nov. 15, 2014).We are worth much more than what we can do. We have been loved into creation by God who calls us to life in this world and to eternal life in the next. As Pope Francis teaches, “In the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always ‘of quality.’ There is no human life that is more sacred than another - every human life is sacred - just as there is no human life qualitatively more significant than another…”(Ibid.).Where faith in God is lost, the intrinsic value of human life is diminished and, ultimately, rejected. When individuals no longer accept God as the Author and Lord of life, then, it becomes rational for them to end life at will. The lethal consequences of this attitude are already in evidence.In the 1970s, Dutch doctors were allowed to take the lives of patients to end their pain, if they followed certain guidelines. That was only the beginning. The grim significance of such an attitude has quickly become apparent. Dutch practice now includes ending the life of persons with disabilities, newborn infants who are handicapped and even healthy individuals who are depressed. Last year, the Dutch government introduced mobile death squads to go into the homes of the elderly to end their lives. Old age is now a reason to end someone’s life.Once the principle of mercy killing is accepted, more and more individuals become the victims of our “throw-away culture.” After a three-year study, the Royal Dutch Medical Association came to the conclusion that it should be permissible for doctors to euthanize healthy patients who are “suffering through living.” Who does not suffer sometime or other in life? Once admitted as good, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide become the death certificate of compassionate care for the weak and vulnerable. And, mercy killing soon becomes killing without mercy.
In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant in London, found himself too busy to sit down and write the customary Christmas greetings to his family and friends. So he asked the British painter John Callcott Horsley to design a card with an image and greeting to send instead. That first Christmas card has spawned an industry that produces more than 2 billion Christmas cards each year in America alone. Despite the secular greeting cards that now flood the market at Christmas, cards with a religious theme remain the most popular. And, of all the religious scenes, the Nativity remains the favorite. After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But, there is another reason for the popularity of the Nativity scene on Christmas cards. The image of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus touch the human spirit at its deepest level. The loving communion of the Holy Family represents the ideal, the prototype of every family. All of us come from a family. All of us long to belong to a family. Mother, father and child. That is how it all began in Eden. And, from the dawn of civilization, that is how it has always been -- until today.In every age, the very existence of the family has faced serious threats. Poverty. Addictions. Unemployment. Infidelity. Divorce. War. All of these eat away at the fabric of family life. But, more serious than any of these is the ideological propaganda that seeks to change the very definition of family itself.In our all too tolerant society, no one would dare deny the right of any individual to choose to form a relationship with another person. Individuals with an orientation that is heterosexual, homosexual or any variation thereof all have the right to form friendships that are personal and loving. But, in the name of equality, the political elites are imposing an agenda that radically undermines the traditional family.Certainly, not every family has a mother, a father and child(ren). Infertility. Death. Divorce. Premarital sex. Separation. These factors are real and they leave many a home without the ideal family. But it is quite another thing for society itself to equate what is with what should be, and, even worse, to undermine what is meant to be for the good of society.Every individual has a God-given dignity. An individual’s sexual orientation is not the sum and substance of who that person is. When asked if he approved of homosexuality, Pope Francis replied with his own question. He said, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person … In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.” The Pope’s words are certainly an encouragement and consolation to those families that struggle with coming to terms with a child who announces his or her own same-sex attraction. Every individual is to be loved and cherished. Nonetheless, the Pope’s words are not an endorsement of same-sex unions. When such unions are legitimized by law, they are no longer private arrangements without societal consequences. They are the imposition of a new, politically correct concept of family. Unfortunately, speaking in favor of traditional family life is deceitfully interpreted as bigotry and prejudice.Interesting enough, from France, come some of the loudest voices speaking in favor of the traditional family. From France, whose clarion call Vive la difference extols liberty and diversity, come the demonstrations against emptying the family of its basic meaning. Last year, when the French government rushed through the legalizing of gay marriage, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest. Why?With the political and ideological agenda to equate same-sex unions with traditional marriage, there is something deeper taking place than merely affirming the right of two people to love each other. If two men who love each other are civilly married, the law allows them to adopt. If two women who love each other are civilly married, they can make whatever arrangements they want to have a child. This is what the thousands of ordinary French people were protesting. The gay marriage law, in effect, makes mothers and fathers “optional” for children. Is this the way society should go?The Holy Father has clearly taught that children have the right to be raised by a mother and a father. When society no longer fosters the truth that children should come from a loving relationship between a man and a woman united in marriage, then, children are reduced to a possession, an object, something anyone can choose to get for himself or herself to enhance their life and fulfill their desires.Today’s society guarantees the de facto rights of adults to engage in sexual intimacy and to cohabitate at will and to choose to have a child or to abort the child. But, the rights of children are not guaranteed. Should we be surprised that the same society that denies the child the very right to be born does not espouse the right of a child to have a mother and father? On November 17, 2014, at the opening of the three-day interfaith colloquium entitled The Complementarity of Man and Woman, Pope Francis said, “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity.” He also warned against political agendas that would radically alter society. He said, “Family is an anthropological fact which cannot be qualified based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history.” The Nativity scenes on our Christmas cards, indeed, touch us at our deepest love. They remind us of God’s plan for the human family: a mother, a father and a child. The Christ child was a gift to Mary and Joseph and to the whole world. So is every other child! A child is not a right, but a gift to be received, cherished and loved by a mother and a father. To tar this truth with the deceptive branch of bigotry will ultimately destroy the roots of a healthy society.
On September 21, 2014, 1,600 people gathered outside Oklahoma’s Civic Center Music Hall to protest the satanic ritual of a Black Mass that the city officials had permitted. Inside, forty-two people attended the blasphemy. A few months before, a similar event was cancelled at Harvard University in response to the great outcry from believers. Recent times have witnessed an increased fascination with the devil.Throughout the world, the decline in faith and the rise of interest in the occult have fomented a climate that favors the phenomenon of demonic possession. As more and more people abandon the practice of the faith, they satisfy their innate desire for the other-worldly with alternate forms of spirituality that open them to the influence of the evil spirits. As a result, requests for exorcisms have dramatically risen within the last decade. In May of this year, 200 delegates from around the world took part in the ninth annual conference on exorcism in Rome. Psychiatrists, priests, sociologists, religious and doctors approached the reality of evil from their own area of expertise. The reality of the devil belongs to the bedrock of Christian tradition. Even a casual reading of the New Testament brings the reader face to face with the devil. Within the gospel tradition, casting out the devil (exorcism) stands out as one of the miracles Jesus most frequently performed. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, exorcisms are the largest number of healings Jesus worked (cf. Mk 1:21-8; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; and 9:14-29). So integral to the ministry of Jesus were his exorcisms that, when the gospel writers wish simply to summarize his ministry, they include his exorcisms (cf. Mk 1:32-4, 39, 3:11; Lk 7:21 and 13:32). Even non-Christian exorcists found Jesus’ name effective to cast out the devil (cf. Mk 9:38-41; Acts 19:13-20). And, Jesus’ opponents, recognizing the fact of his exorcisms, tried to disparage him by saying that he was in league with Satan himself (cf. Mk 3:21). So grounded in history was the memory of Jesus’ casting out the devil that even the rabbis remembered it (cf. Sanhedrin, 43a ).Jesus shared his work with his disciples. “He summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Mt 10:1; cf. Mk 3:15). And they did. They went about “casting out many demons and … anointing with oil many sick people and healing them” (Mk 6:13). At Philippi, Paul himself cast out a demon from a slave girl (cf. Acts 16:16-18). Thus, from her very beginning, the Church continued Jesus’ mission of casting out the devil, of rescuing the world from the powers of darkness and ushering in the kingdom of God. And the Church continues this work in our day. Through the preaching of the Word, through the celebration of the sacraments and, on occasion, through the rite of exorcism, the Church makes real in our day the victory of Christ over the devil.Many welcome Pope Francis as the reformer bent on clearing the cobwebs of tradition that hinder people’s access to the mercy of God. They praise him for his efforts to bring the Church into step with our modern society. It is not surprising, therefore, that, when the Pope does not fit this profile, his remarks are passed over in silence by the media. Surely, such a thoroughly modern pontiff could not possibly believe in the devil as a reality. But, he does!Pope Francis has spoken of the devil in stronger terms and more frequently than any of his recent predecessors. He calls him “the tempter” and “the father of lies.” And, he does not hesitate to affirm his personal reality. He has said, “In this generation, like so many others, people have been led to believe that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil. But the devil exists and we must fight against him” (Oct. 30, 2014).One way of fighting the devil, is the Rite of Exorcism. In a vote of 179 “yes” to 5 “no,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 11, 2014, approved an English translation of the Rite of Exorcism that was published by the Holy See in 1999. The Church takes seriously the existence of the devil. Nonetheless, she insists that any request for an exorcism must be carefully evaluated by doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and competently trained priests. They are to discern whether the symptoms of possession are the result of a medical or psychological problem or are signs of the devil. They should always look for a natural cause before looking into a supernatural cause of the symptoms. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, an exorcism is a prayer of the Church, in the person of an exorcist, who asks “publicly and authoritatively” in Christ's name “that a person or object be protected against the power of the evil one and withdrawn from his dominion” (1673). Like any other prayer, it needs, at times, to be repeated. It is not magic. It is the Church imploring God to come to the aid of the person afflicted. As Pope Francis teaches, the devil is real. Evil is real. And, every individual needs to confront the power of evil and move away from the spiritual dominion of the devil. In extraordinary circumstances, the Church allows the Rite of Exorcism to be used to combat the devil. But, this does not exempt all the faithful from engaging each day in their own struggle and battle with evil. In the sacraments, the Church offers us a most effective means to share in Christ’s victory over the devil. In Baptism, the Church implores God to cast out the power of the devil from the individual about to be baptized and to usher that person into the kingdom of light. By Christ’s power in the Sacrament of Penance, the priest forgives sins and casts out the power of evil. And, most especially, in the Eucharist, worthily received, Christ himself becomes present, casting out evil, protecting us and strengthening us with grace in our struggle with evil. Exorcism is a sacramental. Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance are sacraments instituted by Christ. These are the ordinary means given to us to prevail in the battle against evil and thus, through Christ’s victory over Satan, come to share more fully in the life of God.Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson.
From 1988 until 1998, CBS aired the highly successful sitcom Murphy Brown. This cutting-edge comedy featured Candice Bergen as a tough-talking investigative journalist and news anchor. In 1992, the show’s main character decided to have a child out of wedlock. Then Vice President Dan Quayle remarked that “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Quale’s comments ignited a national controversy about the changing status of the American family. Two decades later, statistics reveal the unravelling of family life in America. The overemphasis on individual freedom and the right of every individual to make his or her own life choices has produced a situation in which the family itself has lost its role as the seedbed for mentally healthy, well-balanced and productive citizens. The cultural leaders who write our newspapers, edit our magazines, make our movies and teach in our educational institutions have played a major role in blurring the distinction between what is wholesome for society and what is not.Today, all of us know individuals who are divorced, cohabiting, in same-sex partnerships or choosing to bear children outside of marriage. In many instances, because we want to be compassionate and charitable to others, especially to members of our own families, we avoid engaging in conversation on these issues. It is just too awkward. Some will go so far as to say that these choices are matters of individual morality without any social impact. But, recent statistics show otherwise.According to a report of The Census Bureau (9/18/2014), our nation is facing the lowest marriage rate since 1920. Even including same sex unions that the state calls marriages does little to alter the general decline in marriage. Forty-two million adult Americans have never been married. In fact, for the first time since 1976, there are more unmarried American adults than married. That amounts to a demographic shift in our society.Divorce, cohabitation and a generally permissive attitude towards sexual activity outside of marriage have had a major impact on the American family. In the 1950s, more than 80 percent of children were part of a family where both biological parents were married to each other and living together. Yet, in less than thirty years, only half our children were growing up in an intact family. Today, one out of every four American children no longer has his or her biological father as part of the home. In the 1960s, four percent of our children were born out of wedlock. Today, the number is ten times as great.On the one hand, statistics indicate the sad fact that the children whose parents divorce or never marry tend to face greater struggles in life than children of families with a mother and father married to each other. And, children born out of wedlock are eighty-two percent more likely to end up in poverty. On the other hand, much research leads to the conclusion that marriage benefits not simply the spouses, but the children as well and, thus, is a blessing for society.Marriage is about commitment, fidelity, trust, communication and sacrifice for the good of another. It provides the atmosphere for children to develop a sense of personal worth and acceptance. Marriage as an institution cannot be equated with cohabitation. Cohabitating partners may love each other, but not enough to commit themselves to a permanent bond. Their relationship is more fragile than that of married couples.The Catholic Church, drawing from the Word of God, teaches that marriage is a permanent and exclusive union of a man and a woman who, in loving each other, are open to life. Her teaching has been the same since her very birth as a church. Marriage is a truth, a reality, a gift given by God to his people. It is not a human institution created by man. The Church’s consistent teaching over the centuries is one thing. The lived reality may be quite another, even among Catholics.Rapidly changing cultural attitudes, coupled with the lack of knowledge among some Catholics about the Church’s teaching, has contributed to Catholics finding themselves in situations not in line with Church teaching. In his desire to address this situation, Pope Francis convoked the present Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome from October 5-19, 2014.The synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (agenda) said that the synod would “thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.”As the bishops are meeting to discuss how to help the faithful live an authentic family life, there has been the growing expectation that the Church will change her teaching and her practice in relation to marriage. In the first instance, the Church is the guardian of the truths given her by Christ and understood with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No bishop, no pope, can depart from Divine Revelation as handed down to us in Scripture and interpreted by the magisterium. The Church’s teaching that a sacramental marriage is a permanent, unbreakable union between a man and a woman cannot be changed because it comes from God.In the second instance, the Church’s pastoral practices are meant to form individuals as true disciples of Jesus. They flow from the truths of the faith. They are not founded on cultural attitudes or shifting demographics. The Church must continue to show compassion towards those in irregular situations. But, mercy cannot be separated from truth. Otherwise, it becomes mere sentimentality.Diminishing or obscuring Jesus’ teaching on the beauty of marriage and simply adjusting the Church’s pastoral practices to current trends will not help the common good. At a time when culture no longer supports or encourages family life, as church, we need to strengthen and promote good family life. We need to support Catholics who struggle and, with great personal sacrifice, succeed in living as Jesus teaches. Ultimately, a healthy society depends on stable, loving and generous families. Posted with permission from The Beacon, official newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.