When Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) earlier this month, he tweeted that it was an honor - and not only for him, but for “every Latino Catholic in the country.” He’s right about that. We Latino Catholics feel it a great honor and a point of pride that a fellow Hispanic should take the lead. Not just because he is Latino, but because he’s a man with a sterling character and gentle manner, a man well known both for his sympathetic attitude toward the plight of immigrants and his traditional approach to social issues. This is a powerful and attractive combination to our growing Hispanic Catholic Church. Gomez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico and a naturalized U.S. citizen, presides over the Los Angeles diocese, the largest and one of the most diverse dioceses in the country. Its parishes encompass more than thirty ethnicities, celebrating masses in languages from Igbo to Hungarian to Tagalog. The catholicity, that is, the universality--of the Catholic Church is a palpable thing in L.A., not simply a doctrinal concept. It’s the result of a constant and varied immigration. As leader of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez will head an American Catholic Church that is about 58% non-Hispanic white and 34% Latino - a church in which most members under 30 are Hispanic. A significant number of the 2.7 million Hispanics that attend mass in Spanish are undocumented, and an even greater number probably know or love someone whose presence here is precarious. Gomez brings a history of heartfelt public support for the undocumented workers that America relies on to farm our crops, tidy our lawns, man our factories, and look after our children. He has been an especially vocal advocate of “dreamers.” “In a special way, I pray for #Dreamers, the day before #Scotus hears oral arguments on the legality of DACA,” he tweeted just after his election. Archbishop Gomez is the author of the excellent “Immigration and the Next America.” The 2013 book neatly lays out his assessment of our current situation and his vision for a better future. He chronicles the historical background of a nation founded by Puritans searching for freedom but also (and even earlier) colonized by Spanish missionary migrants in a successful quest to evangelize the native population. He assesses a present-day America that lacks moral consensus and is crazed with consumerism, a nation confused about everything from the meaning of sexuality to the value (if any) of human life. He sees a country in which the ties of traditional American values and civic virtues that once bound us to one another are frayed, a country whose uneasy citizenry worries about what the “Next America” will look like. Gomez does not downplay the importance of legal norms and the very real toll that the chaos and lawlessness of illegal immigration takes, especially along our southern border. He argues, however, that fear and uncertainty may tempt us to “abandon our commitment to liberty and justice for all, in favor of an insular, racial definition of who can be a true American.” American Catholics, members of an immigrant Church in a country with a long history of anti-Catholic bias have a special responsibility in today’s debates over immigration reform. We bring to the table not only the memory of our ancestor’s experience of discrimination and the Church’s energetic response to the material and spiritual needs of successive waves of migrants, but also its rich tradition of teaching on human dignity and social justice. Catholics are especially suited to envision the face of the “Next America” in a way faithful to the Christian obligation of benevolence to strangers. U.S. Hispanics have a lot to be happy about in Archbishop Gomez’s election. He is a man with a tender heart for the vulnerable people in our midst who can also articulate a way forward on immigration that is attractive and optimistic - one based on the highest ideals that are our shared inheritance in this diverse country. He is also a man who bridges the liberal/conservative divide by quietly affirming the traditional mores and values that Hispanics are bent on preserving. But then, I venture to say that his election gives all American Catholics reason to be happy too.
A Chinese scientist, Jiankui He, last month announced the birth of twin babies whose genes he claims to have modified while they were embryos. On that day, the world woke up to the realization that the age of GMO humans is upon us, with all its troubling ethical implications and complications. The truth is, the science is complicated but the ethics are simple. While committed to pressing ahead on this kind of research, the scientific community has denounced Dr. He and declared itself horrified by his recklessness in crossing what has been, up to now, a bioethical bright line. Laypeople are also concerned, and wondering how human dignity and human rights are to be kept at the center of mankind’s new ability to permanently alter the human genome in the laboratory. Guidelines must be formulated and laid down in law, and all of us need to be prepared to voice our opinion and demand adherence to the highest principles as this unfolds. Catholics, thankfully, can turn to the Church for a deeply reasoned approach to the bioethics of human genetic manipulation, one whose “fundamental principle expresses a great “yes” to human life.” Around the time that the CRISPR gene-editing technique used by Dr. He appeared on the scientific horizon, the Vatican released Dignitas personae in 2008. This document evaluates, in detail, the ethics of genetic modification, and explains how a technique developed in hopes of relieving human suffering can be used morally. And also how it needs to be prevented from turning into a tool for scientists with a eugenic perspective. It’s important to understand that genetic engineering is aimed at curing genetically-based diseases, and that there are two types of engineering: somatic and germ line. Somatic cell gene therapy seeks to eliminate a genetic defect on cells that are not reproductive, for instance the cells of the pancreas in a person with diabetes. The change would only affect the person treated, not their offspring. Germ line therapy involves changing the DNA of reproductive cells, meaning the changes will be passed down from generation to generation. Somatic therapy is morally licit, but germ line therapy (used by Dr. He to create twin girls) is not. First, the effect of gene modification in embryos--both on the subject themselves and their descendants--are completely unknown at this time. For instance, one dream of scientists is to find a way to edit out the gene that causes sickle cell from embryos. But this a gene that is thought to have evolved as a protection against malaria. Removing it may leave the subject, and his or her descendants, more susceptible to infections or blood disorders. There is simply no way of knowing. This coupled with the fact that all embryo modifications are done without the subjects’ consent (and the consent of future generations) make germ cell editing a grave abuse of human rights. From Dignitas personae: “..in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny.” Second, although genetic engineering is touted as a way to eliminate disease, it is also proposed for enhancement purposes. Dr. He, for instance, does not claim to have cured the girls of a disease, but believes he made them resistant to HIV--an enhancement. This application clears the way for a market-based form of eugenics aimed at improving the gene pool. Our modern culture is already too comfortable with eugenics as it is practiced through ultrasound prenatal diagnosis. Today, fetuses found to be “defective” are routinely aborted. Using genetic modification, wealthy parents would have the ability to “enhance” their children with favorable traits. Again from Dignitas personae: “..such manipulation would…lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities.” The vision of a world divided into biologically superior and biologically average humans is a chilling one. But it’s no more chilling than a world in which man claims all-encompassing dominion over human life, choosing and deleting, enhancing and rejecting on the way to “perfection”. This is a mad kind of hubris. It refuses to accept human life in its finite nature and rejects an attitude of respect for all people. Thirdly, genetic modification of germ lines can be done only by creating multiple embryos in a laboratory and discarding most of them. The idea of creating multiple human beings in order to genetically edit them, hoping for one or two successes and subsequently destroying the failures is amazing in its cruelty. Even those who may be used to the idea of in vitro fertilization as a therapy for infertility are shocked by the process whereby a couple would request the creation of embryo sons and daughters in order to give life to the “best” edited version. Whether done for infertility or genetic enhancement, this is a grave assault on human dignity. Sounds complicated, and it is. But it’s the science that’s complicated, not the ethics. And although it’s a new and brave world we find ourselves in, we do have, thanks to the Church, a principled way forward on gene therapy. We also have the right, and duty, to demand from lawmakers and scientists that something as significant and morally delicate as the manipulation of the human genome be done using standards that have human dignity and human rights at their very core.
As a Catholic mother of five young people, I have been watching the Youth Synod with great interest and praying for its success. My husband and I have experienced just how difficult it is to transmit a joyful and living faith to our offspring in the midst of a hostile culture. A Catholic Church that is capable of listening to and understanding today’s youth is critical. But that is not enough. Even more critical is a Church that is able to credibly and attractively propose to them a way of life that allows them to both spiritually and humanly flourish. Two of the “interventions,” or written statements from a synod father about what he’d like considered in the synod, have struck me as particularly wise and en pointe when it comes to the ways the Church must become an evangelical force among the young: Archbishop Charles Chaput’s, which focuses on credibility and Bishop Robert Barron’s, which focuses on attractiveness. Archbishop Chaput connects credibility to confidence: “If we lack the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially the young, then the Church is just another purveyor of ethical pieties the world doesn’t need.” Reading over the Instrumentum Laboris (the working document) myself, I also felt that this is exactly where the Synod could shipwreck. Sociologically sensitive attitudes of “meeting youth where they are” seem to propose accommodation when what is needed is what has always been needed: a radiant faith in the radical hope of the Gospel. While the current cultural moment is in many ways unique in the annals of history (never has the world known the internet, or modern globalization), men of every age have resisted the call to holiness and perfection. They have always, and will always, find it scandalous and ridiculous by worldly standards, which are shaped around power, wealth, and pleasure. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are powerful antidotes to the emptiness, loneliness and dysfunction that characterizes too many young and adult lives. Our faith proposes that the human spirit is capable of great and sublime things—like perfect, self-abnegating love, and that our noblest aspirations are achievable. Archbishop Chaput points out that elders of the faith community have lost trust in the power of the beliefs they are tasked with passing on. He said that too often Church leaders have “abdicated that responsibility out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness in forming young people…” This has been my experience in parish schools and during homilies and catechesis over the years. Truths which are crucial for human flourishing are passed on to the young deformed and in a shame-faced way. It is no wonder that as adults they abandon the Church in droves. Human sexuality is of course an especially touchy subject and there are some in the Synod who would have us capitulate to secular attitudes. Chaput reminds us that what the Church teaches on this subject “is not a stumbling block. It is the only real path to joy and wholeness.” As a mother who has shepherded my three oldest children into adulthood, I know firsthand that the Synod fathers must get this right. Catholic teaching on sex is a mercy and a roadmap to a noble life where everyone is treated according to their dignity as children of God. What modern culture offers, in the name of freedom, is nothing but pain and confusion. Bishop Barron focused his intervention on how beauty must be the matrix of the evangelization of youth. Young people are especially attracted to the beautiful. They are not jaded and cynical like older people often are, but have fresh hearts that can be surprised and enchanted by the beauty of a song, a sculpture or a poem. The Catholic Church has always known the power of beauty, and over its 2000-year history has probably been mankind’s greatest producer and purveyor. Its architecture has enabled the souls of the faithful to fly upwards and its paintings have filled hearts with a deep certainty of the transcendent. Bishop Barron reminds us that “the most compelling beauty is that of the saints.” I have certainly found this to be true and over the years, each of my children have been thrilled and deeply attracted by the loveliness of one particular saint or another. I pray that the Synod fathers will carefully address these two wise interventions on credibility and the sure attraction of beauty. The earthly happiness of young people (and their eternal joy) depends upon them learning the eternal truths that belong to the Church and only she can communicate.
The ever-popular Pope Francis received a rock-star welcome in the United States recently, doing what he usually does: challenging entrenched opinions and blithely crossing political lines which seemed impassable. It was in Philadelphia, where his focus was the needs and pastoral care of the family, where he was at his most charming and endearing. In his musically accented Spanish, he went happily off-script during one of his speeches, clearly energized by the enthusiasm of the thousands of exuberant faithful. A large percentage of them were Latino, which was obvious from their delighted appreciation of his colloquial, gentle jokes about the normal difficulties that beset all of us: “Y no vamos a hablar de la suegra!”(and let’s not speak about mothers-in-law!) His topic, the centrality of the family to human development and to society, was obviously close to his heart. This topic is also the theme of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops convening in Rome this month. The bishops are discussing the situation in which the family finds itself today, seeking to find concrete ways to support and protect her. It is clear to anyone paying the slightest attention that the family is battered and demoralized. Added to the age old difficulties that bedevil families—the material and spiritual poverties that divide brother from sister and wife from husband—are the cultural forces that downplay her importance and seek to rewrite her identity. The very concept of the family has become vague and amorphous. It’s not surprising that these days it takes a special courage, a special faith, to leap into the commitment and hard work of marriage and family. Young people are putting it off for later and later, and sometimes permanently, afraid of the sacrifice and permanence it entails, no longer believing it’s worth it or even possible. The Christian message counters that all the beauty and bounty of creation was given as a gift to the first family, that God himself came to earth to live in one. It is a testimony that “it is worthwhile to live as a family, that a society grows strong, grows in goodness, grows in beauty and truly grows if it is built on the foundation of the family.” We know all of this, of course, even from a perfectly secular perspective. There is no future for any country if young people can’t find the audacity to fall in love and form strong permanent unions in which children are welcome and then brought up safely. The classic scenario, and the Christian ideal, is mother and father, united for life, each equipped by nature to work beautifully together to give the fruit of their love the best possible start, the best possible direction and formation. We know how different are the outcomes for children when the family is broken. But it’s not just children that suffer. The whole social fabric is frayed when the family is in disarray. That is because the family is a “factory of hope” where members learn to put the good of the others first. Instead of individuality and egotism, it promotes self-sacrifice and commitment, the ability to live for others. These are virtues that fit men and women for success in all spheres of life, whether work, school, or even citizenship in a democracy. Poverty, crime, loneliness, and the excesses of radical individuality can, to a large extent, be blamed on the contemporary crisis of the family. The pastoral challenges for the Synod fathers are huge. The family must be attended to, in whatever state it’s found, accompanied and fortified. Church teachings that exalt the beauty and centrality of the family must be communicated confidently and clearly, with generosity and compassion. It is compassionate to offer a confused culture a sure way to lasting happiness that, along with other teachings like the dignity of the human person, promote the common good and safeguard the most vulnerable among us. Encouraging families to keep persevering against the cultural currents will be key. In Philadelphia the Pope encouraged the faithful to do this by reminding us that God knocks at the doors of our hearts, and that there’s one kind he likes best— “To knock on the doors of families and find families that are united, to find families that love each other, to find the families that bring up their children and educate them and help them to keep going forward and that create a society of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.” What a lovely encouragement for all of us, whether we have a family, or hope to form one one day. It’s encouraging to hear from him, in his infectious simplicity, that it is the most important project possible, and the fountain of endless joy and satisfaction. Even, as he says, when the “plates are flying!”