Jennifer Manning

Jennifer Manning

Jennifer Manning is a Catholic schoolteacher in Massachusetts and a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

Articles by Jennifer Manning

Pope Francis has done it again

Oct 1, 2015 / 00:00 am

Pope Francis has done it again.  He has reminded us what it means to be an elected official, a leader, a responsible citizen of the world.  I had the privilege of watching Pope Francis’ address to Congress with my 11th grade students. The focus of 11th grade Religion in our school is Morality and Ethics, and Pope Francis offered a master class in morality in his address.  Below are some of my class’s favorite moments.  “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” Pope Francis used the word “dignity” twelve times in his remarks; human dignity is a hallmark both of Pope Francis’ papacy and of Catholic morality.  This great dignity does not come at a price, it is not earned.  It is ours simply because God has created us in his image and likeness. Because of this inherent dignity, each and every human life, at every age and every stage, must be respected and loved—regardless of the circumstances. The centrality of human dignity is what prompts so many to defend the unborn, the elderly, the inmates on death row, the immigrants, the young.  The universality of human dignity transcends any and all political labels that we try to use because dignity is a Divine invention, not a political one.  “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthew 7:12).” Is it a coincidence that every major world religion has the Golden Rule as the foundation of its moral code?  Pope Francis reminds us, again, of the universality of the principle, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  Speaking about the refugee crisis, he urges, “We must not be taken aback by their [the refugees’] numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”   It is far too easy to be indifferent to the suffering that surrounds us daily, let alone the suffering that is worlds away.  Pope Francis calls us, as Christ does, to see the suffering around us and to respond, to be “promoters of a culture of encounter,” as he told the US Bishops yesterday.  We all want to be loved and to be treated with compassion.  Pope Francis urges us, “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” If we want to be shown mercy, we must show mercy ourselves.  “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.” In other words, if we want this nation to be great, we need to earn it. This is a decision that we each must make every day.  Will we defend liberty: religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and individual freedom, as Pope Francis calls us to?  Will we strive for justice for the oppressed, mercy for the convicted?  Will we be a people of many faiths, but of one mission, to serve the common good?  All too often we allow our politics to divide us, our pride to swallow any common ground that we might hold.  Yet if we uphold the dignity of human life as paramount, we can’t help but be people of goodwill. The common good will flourish, we will flourish, because we have at our core the respect and value for God’s creation, and therefore, for God himself.  So why did Pope Francis need to fly halfway around the world to tell us this? Because we’ve misunderstood human dignity.  We’ve made the fundamental error of bestowing dignity on some, but not on all.  We allow the powerful to choose who is worthy of dignity and who is not.  Our culture does not uphold the dignity of immigrants, refugees, unborn babies, homeless men and women, criminals, and countless other groups of people.  The very rights of these people get tied up in politics.  Pope Francis has reminded us that we each have an inviolable dignity given to us by the Creator, not by any earthly authority.  And he’s reminded our elected officials that they have a responsibility “to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Hopefully everyone was listening.  

Pope Francis shines a light on mercy

Sep 6, 2015 / 00:00 am

Pope Francis has called for an extraordinary Jubilee Year—typically, Jubilees are held every 25 years (the most recent was in 2000) but Pope Francis called this one a bit early and for good reason—what the world needs now is mercy, sweet mercy. Pope Francis has made headlines for declaring that during this Jubilee year (which begins on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8), all priests will be granted the necessary faculties to absolve women who have had abortions.  Bishops, in fact, are the only priests who can forgive all sins in the confessional; Christ granted the apostles the ability to forgive sins (John 20:23), and bishops, as the successors of the apostles themselves, may grant priests the ability to forgive sins in order to better serve the needs of the faithful (if you think Confession lines are long now, imagine what they would look like if you could only confess to a bishop).   What Pope Francis did was what Pope Francis does best—he took over 2000 years of Church tradition and he made it accessible. He reminded us what Christ would do.  Pope Francis, ever seeking to meet people where they are so that he may lead them to Christ, is using this Jubilee Year of Mercy to reaffirm that all among us are worthy of mercy and forgiveness.  We just need to seek it. This reaffirmation of mercy and grace comes at a most poignant time. We’ve witnessed recently the horrors that come with our culture of convenience—video after video of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting and selling of baby body parts.  People on all sides of the abortion debate are disturbed by the content of these videos and the complete disregard for humanity that they belie.  Often, when atrocities like these surface, we are moved to seek vengeance and retribution.  We vehemently condemn anyone and everyone who is involved in the process.  When abortionist Kermit Gosnell was found guilty of countless murders of born-alive babies, many were calling for the death penalty.  But is that the way of Christ?  Would Christ have answered death with death?  Would Christ have let any sin go unforgiven if a person had expressed true contrition? I’ve written recently that in the midst of our horror at these atrocities we need to remember and pray for women who have had abortions; we need to be beacons of mercy and love.  Pope Francis wrote in his letter, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.  I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.” This is Christ in John 8; he meets the woman caught in adultery, does not condemn her, but tells her, “Go forth and sin no more.”  He meets a sinner with love and mercy—not condemnation. So must we, since we are all sinners. The Jubilee Year of Mercy kicks off on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  On that day we celebrate that Mary was conceived in a state of grace, without original sin.  In her sinless perfection, Mary was able to bear Christ into the world.  Free of the selfishness, egoism, and pride that is the hallmark of human nature, Mary had room for Christ and His will. And so it is with us.  We desperately need the gift of mercy and forgiveness, to wipe out the guilt and pride that is crowding out God’s love in our lives.  There is great power in redemption.  On March 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. His prayer ended, “Let there be revealed, once more, in the history of the world the infinite saving power of the Redemption: the power of merciful love!  May it put a stop to evil! May it transform consciences! May your Immaculate Heart reveal for all the light of hope!” Amen.

What the Catholic Church does (and does not) teach about same-sex marriage

Jun 26, 2015 / 00:00 am

If you are a Catholic, chances are you may be bombarded with questions at your local cookout this weekend, thanks to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage today.  In case you are a little rusty, here are a few talking points on what the Catholic Church does and does not teach regarding same-sex marriage. I base much of this on the amicus brief submitted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Obergefell vs. Hodges. If you find yourself at all struggling to understand or to explain the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage and want a more detailed read, I highly encourage you to read this thoughtful and respectfully written document, which you can find here.  The document seeks to shed light on why the Church believes that the definition of marriage should not be changed, and its authors draw on a variety of sources, not “just” religious conviction. First and foremost, "the legal definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman is not based on hatred, bigotry, or animus." (USCCB amicus brief, pg 16) The section on homosexuality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church opens with the admonition that “any sign of unjust discrimination” toward homosexual people is not to be tolerated. Indeed, we recall that Christ loved all people—especially those whom society scorned.  When, for example, Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned to death for her crime, he didn’t judge her, but instead told her to “go forth and sin no more” (John 8).  It follows, then, that we could not expect a faith founded on unconditional love of all—even one’s enemies—to preclude extending that love to people who are attracted to people of the same sex.   Despite the Gospel message, people are always surprised to know that the Church doesn’t “hate gay people,” because this is all too often the characterization that they see in the mainstream culture. The brief goes on to explain, then, that “declining to accord a sexual relationship between two men or two women the benefits of marriage is not a reflection of bias or animus of any kind. Rather, it is a common sense reflection of the fact that such relationships do not result in the birth of children, or establish households where a child will be raised by its birth mother and father.” (page 16) For Catholics, marriage is certainly about “intimate association” and “the hope of companionship,” as argued in the majority opinion of Obergefell vs. Hodges, but marriage is also linked intrinsically to the procreation and education of children. This, too, is a seemingly foreign concept for many of us today.  The “contraceptive culture” has left us believing that the main function of our reproductive systems is not, in fact, to reproduce, but is rather for the pursuit of pleasure or intimacy, or sometimes both.  The Catholic Church teaches (as enumerated in Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae) that sex within marriage has two purposes: the unitive and procreative.  If we eliminate one of these purposes—or both, as the hook-up culture tends to— we are left with a physical union of bodies, devoid of any transcendent meaning. Sex and babies are so separated in the modern mind that it is exceedingly challenging to describe why and how marriage is more than two people who love each other, but that it is a conjugal union that exists in part for the creation and education of new people. The USCCB amicus brief explains how this is relevant not only from a religious purview, but from that of the state: “as a matter of simple biology, only sexual relationships between men and women can lead to the birth of children by natural means. As these relationships alone may generate new life, the state has a distinct interest in reinforcing these relationships alone, particularly to assure responsible childbearing and the protection of children’s interests.” (6)  This is why, as Justice Kennedy had mentioned during the initial hearings, marriage has been viewed as a permanent union between a man and a woman for millennia. Finally, we must recall the main tenets of Christ’s message: human dignity, love, justice, and respect for life in all of its stages.  Is all of this teaching a farce?  Now that this issue has been decided by the Court rather than by the people themselves, it is more important now than ever to foster dialogue about this issue.  We need to be willing to discuss the uncomfortable, to try to explain where much of this teaching comes from, so that others know and understand that the Church’s position here is not based on hatred or discrimination.  If we do not take this opportunity, we lose the ability for an honest dialogue and faith-filled people will be dismissed as bigots rather than as people who are seeking to work out their faith “with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12) Contrary to popular belief, Catholics do believe that  #lovewins. We call it the Resurrection.

Living joy with Pope Francis: 3 lessons from The Gospel of Joy

Dec 10, 2013 / 00:00 am

Pope Francis is a master teacher for today’s world. He has a knack for summing up sagacious teachings in 140 characters or less, he organizes the main ideas of his homilies and teachings in groups of three to make them easy to follow and to remember, and he gets the attention of his “students” by living Christ’s message in an exceedingly radical way. Who better to look to, then, as a model for effectively teaching the Catholic faith?I’ve spent the last few days poring over Evangelii Gaudium and frankly I have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of this apostolic exhortation. As someone who teaches about the Church and the Gospels and morality for a living, I felt incredibly humbled and challenged by The Joy of the Gospel. I decided to take a page out of the Pope’s playbook and to try to summarize three key lessons about teaching that I gleaned from The Joy of the Gospel.Lesson #1: Be a joyful messenger“As for the moral component of catechesis, which promotes growth in fidelity to the Gospel way of life, it is helpful to stress again and again the attractiveness and the ideal of a life of wisdom, self-fulfillment, and enrichment. In the light of that positive message, our rejection of the evils which endanger that life can be better understood. Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168, emphasis added)As I read this paragraph, the phrase “joyful messenger” played repeatedly in my mind.  A messenger I am, on a good day, but a joyful one?  Am I a joyful messenger? Admittedly, mainstream culture makes it difficult to pitch the Catholic lifestyle as an “attractive” one. Don’t get me wrong, I love being Catholic, but the Catholic faith is so radically counter-cultural that at times even my own family members look at me like I’m crazy.  There are many days when I feel discouraged and run-down by the struggle for religious liberty, the seeming complacency with regard to respect for human life and human dignity, and stories of horrific poverty and war.  Some days I find myself explaining a particular teaching or doctrine almost reluctantly, apologetically.In spite of it all, how am I called to be a joyful messenger of the Gospel?  I can be a joyful messenger by acknowledging that the Gospel is challenging. Christ’s teachings call me beyond myself, beyond my own notions of good and evil, of right and wrong. I can acknowledge, with my students, that the Gospel is challenging and that we are all on a path to understanding.  I can remind them of Tom Hanks’s character in A League of their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”I don’t know that Catholic moral teaching is supposed to be hard. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be. But the reality is, living the Gospel can be an incredible challenge.  So often I wish that I could sugar coat the message, explain that there are exceptions to every rule. But most days I like that as a teacher of Catholic morality, I’m not in control of the message—I am responsible for the delivery.  Which brings me to Lesson #2:Lesson #2: The #1 Lesson is that Jesus Christ loves youLest I ever lose sight of what my job as a catechist is truly, Pope Francis is clear:“On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’…it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” (164, emphasis added)That, right there, is the lesson above all other lessons.Cardinal Timothy Dolan remarked recently, “If they fall in love with Jesus and the Church, then we can begin to do a lot of the conversion and the tough moral teaching.” The point is not that the moral teachings are not important—they are—it’s just that the primary message is necessarily Christ’s love for us. Is that not the beauty of Catholicism?  That “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)?  If we know and are assured of the fact that Christ loves us even in our sinfulness, we can begin to trust in his commandments, in his teachings, in his will for us.If my students leave my classroom and cannot quote the Catechism, but they are assured that Jesus loves them and is with them in every moment and in every struggle, then I have done my job.  The Holy Spirit will take it from there.Lesson #3: Live the joy of the Gospel167: “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.” (emphasis added)This reminds me of the adage “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.”Somehow, the job of a catechist is to convey that to follow Christ, to obey Christ’s teachings, will lead one to a profound joy, even in the midst of great difficulties. The only means to effectively do this is to live one’s own life in the joy of Christ.Pope Francis himself is a paragon of the joy that can come only from a radical love for Christ. Many are captivated by his antics—taking the very first papal “selfie” with a group of teens, posing with a newlywed couple wearing a clown nose to raise awareness for a charity, and casually continuing with his address while a young boy clung to his leg in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope has caught the world off guard with his joy and his authenticity. He guides the faithful to the truth that Christ is the true Master teacher.  It is imperative that we remember that living the Gospel with joy is more important than teaching the Gospel.