Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome

In an interesting move, R.R. Reno of First Things explained that the site has decided to stop hosting Maureen Mullarkey's blog:
Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style. Her postings about Pope Francis indicate she’s very angry about this papacy, which she seems to view as (alternately) fascism and socialism disguised as Catholicism. This morning she put up a post that opens with the accusation that the Vatican is conspiring with the Obama administration to destroy the foundations of freedom and hobble the developed world. I've had my staff take it down. [...]
I’ve criticized Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si. However, Maureen’s commentary on Francis goes well beyond measured criticism. She consistently treats him as an ideological propagandist, accusing him of reducing the faith to secular political categories. This is her way of reducing him to the political terms she favors. And those terms are the ones used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil. I don't want First Things to play that game.
I am impressed by this decision.  I became even more impressed when I read the blog post in question, which is now being hosted at another site which apparently has no problem with its intemperate language or barely-veiled insinuations that this particular Holy Father is a secret political agitator (whether Marxist of Fascist remains in question) out to destroy the Church. Here's a brief sample of it:
The road show is over. The spectacle flamed up and subsided, a Roman candle of demonic sanctimony. Think of it as pre-game warm-up for the main event: the global climate summit in Paris, November 30 to December 11. The Vatican is partnering with the Obama administration, at the U.N. and later in Paris, in magnifying state control over a free society and tightening the screws on the developed world. This, in the name of saving the planet from the production and growth of those very means by which the poor can raise themselves out of poverty. [...]
I cannot not help but wonder if this week-long showcase of misdirected sermonizing, and often ambiguous pieties, signaled the de-Christianization of the Catholic Church. Were we witnessing the descent of Catholicism into one more “ism,” an ideology using language onto which an audience could project its own meaning? After Cuba, the non-stop showboating, pageantry, and preachments in the wrong places took on the look of a Faustian bargain between the Vatican and cynical brokers of worldly prestige—an exchange of truth (including that of the gradual but ongoing diminishment of poverty) for power.
I can't recommend reading the rest of it; it's not just nonsense, but pernicious nonsense.  It is invective without substance.  It is a quintessential example of finding a button (Pope Francis' concern for the disproportionate harms done to the poor by the global economy, for instance) and sewing a whole vest of shadowy conspiracies to destroy the Church from within, shackle the Free in chains of government control instead of letting them loose to Build Businesses and Save the World through Commerce, and stop the spread of American Exceptionalism (the only thing that will truly help the world's poor) throughout the globe around that button.

I don't know how anyone could read Laudato Si, watch the pope this past week and (especially) read what he actually said in his homilies and speeches and still come to the conclusion that he's some sort of stealth ninja operative of various anti-Catholic and anti-captialist powers hellbent on destroying the Church and (more importantly) America's Manifest Destiny to spread global multinational corporate values (complete with their unsafe factories and slave-wage jobs) all over the world as the true saviors of humankind.

It seems so strange to connect this Machiavellian figure of power with the affable and kindly pope who just visited our nation that I can only conclude that this is the manifestation of a new political disease.  We can call it "Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome," perhaps.

UPDATE: The remarkable Scott Eric Alt coined the term "Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome" back in 2013 and has used it regularly since.  I appreciate his pointing that out and apologize for my ignorance of the phrase!  

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mothers and little gestures of familial love

If you missed any of the things Pope Francis said while he was here in America, you're in luck!  You can catch up.  :)

Here are the full texts of all of the Holy Father's remarks.

I encourage you to take the time to read as many of them as you can; sadly, even among our fellow Catholics there are those who are twisting and distorting what the Holy Father said or complaining about what he allegedly didn't say in order to undermine our trust in his leadership of the Church.  And there are so many gems in these homilies and speeches and talks--just consider this, for example, from Sunday's homily:
Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,” says Jesus (cf. Mk 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
How lovely is that?  I think of it as being especially encouraging to mothers at home, especially mothers with young children.  I remember those years well, and I remember how often it felt like each day was spent doing so many of those "little things," and having those things seemingly go unnoticed.  No, moms at home don't need applause every day, but I think it is undeniably true that a culture that turns us all into consumers and places a dollar sign value on work is increasingly hostile to the idea that a woman who works without pay, without notice, without attention or recognition to raise her children and turn her home, as best she can, into a place full of little gestures of welcome and love for her husband and children and extended family and neighbors and community is actually doing anything of value.  Better she should get a "real job," say some elements in our culture.  Better she should pay other people to look after her children, so she can provide economic value not only to the structure of her family but to society as well.  What good is she doing staying at home?

I'm not trying to stir up the mommy wars here; I know that many moms who do work outside the home are also trying as best as they can to provide those little gestures of love.  That's not my point today, though; my point today is that our consumeristic and material culture values the moms who work outside the home and doesn't really know what to say to the ones who don't.  Not long ago I saw a lament from a young mother who was talking about the pressure she faces, not from her husband but from others, to do something other than look after her children.  If she could earn a few dollars as a writer or artist or photographer or by selling crafts or babysitting other people's children or cleaning other people's houses, so she said, then people in her community would respect her, but when she says she's "just a mom" she gets all sorts of flack and negativity.  And I think this is a problem for all moms--because when the only work of ours that is valued is the work that produces some money (however tiny the amount) and not the work of raising our children, this is really a slight against motherhood in general, against the vocation of being a wife and a mother.  It would be akin to saying to one's parish priest, "Well, yes, I know you're a priest, but surely you work outside the parish to make some money, right?"  

The family, as Pope Francis said many times last week, is in a time of crisis and danger.  One of the dangers I see is that people have forgotten what a family is, what it is for.  It is not primarily a resource-sharing operation.  It is not an efficiency model or a strategy to maximize income or take advantage of tax breaks.  It is, instead, a model of loving service, of a love that is incarnated by service first of husband and wife to each other, and then literally incarnated into their children who are, at first, in total and absolute need of their parents' services, but who will grow to serve each other and their parents in love as well.  In this model of the family the mother who is able to stay at home with her children, especially in their earliest years, is giving them a tremendous gift of immense value--the gift of herself.  And she gives this gift every day, in those thousand acts of little service that Pope Francis referenced in his homily.  She should not have to face pressure from our consumerist culture to go out and get a "real" job.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Helping the poor

There are, among some vocal Catholics, a distressing number of people who really don't like Pope Francis' emphasis on the poor.

I read something recently that really struck me, though: this pope is good at challenging all of us, not just those of us who think we're okay because we follow Church teachings on the big issues, oppose abortion and gay "marriage," and so on.

When Pope Francis speaks against abortion, for instance, some of us feel good about ourselves: why, we're pro-life!  We're on the right side!

But then when he speaks about abolishing the death penalty, or helping young people find work, or addressing the needs of the poor for food and shelter, or welcoming the immigrant--suddenly, some are not so comfortable.

Let's face it: except for the front-line workers who volunteer daily in crisis pregnancy centers or who pray outside abortion clinics on a daily or weekly basis (and I admire them with great gratitude), most of us can oppose abortion without having to do much.  We're against it.  We may, on occasion, send ten or twenty dollars to a pro-life ministry group.  Some of us were, for a while, suckered into thinking that "pro-life activism" meant giving time and money to wealthy politicians, but we were naive about that (alas, some still are).  It is easy to be a pro-life Christian in America.

It is less easy to be really concerned for the poor in a way that cuts into our own comfort level.  It is less easy to realize that our complaints about the material goods, most of them luxuries, we somehow think we are entitled to but don't have are a contributing factor in the poverty of our neighbors.  It is less easy to admit that we sometimes spend more on silly things like Christmas decorations or glitzy accessories (my own personal fault) than we do on relieving real suffering in our communities.  It is less easy to acknowledge that we've acquired some of the worst attitudes of materialism, attitudes like, "You should always buy the best (car, cell phone, computer) you can afford," or "It makes sense to spend a bit more to get good quality things that will last."

Pope Francis is asking us to do better than that.  And a priest I know is doing a really good job of living up to that challenge:
"He's again talked about the need to serve the poor," said the Rev. Bryan Jerabek, pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church. "That's been a great inspiration."
Holy Rosary church was founded in 1889, celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and has been known for decades as a focal point of Catholic outreach to the poor in Birmingham.
On Sept. 20, Bishop Robert J. Baker dedicated the new St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center at Holy Rosary Church.
"It was a happy coincidence that we had our dedication the week the pope was coming to America," Jerabek said. "I think we answered his call." [...]
Now run by the diocese, the opening of the learning center signals a commitment to continue serving the needy, Jerabek said.
"We recognized there was a need for literacy program to help the students in the area improve their reading," Jerabek said. "We had 3rd and 4th graders who had trouble reading."
The new learning center is in an updated office building. "It's a remodeled building with two rooms and bathroom, where children can do homework and receive tutoring assistance," Jerabek said.
This is a simple and practical way to help poor children.  To find out more about the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center, you can go here.

I know that Catholics in America are capable of great generosity toward the poor.  I also know that all of us--and I am certainly no exception--have a tendency to become complacent.  Surely, we think, we're doing enough!  But are we?  That is a question we can only answer as individuals, and on a daily basis.  Perhaps what we did yesterday or last week or last year is impossible today, because the demands of our vocations to our families or our current financial status are not the same as they were then.  But on the other hand, perhaps our closets are overflowing with barely-worn clothing and shoes, our kitchens are overcrowded with gadgets and appliances, and instead of being content we are dissatisfied because someone else has a nicer house and better furniture. That is, at its heart, a spiritual problem, but it is one that has practical ramifications when it comes to our commitment to help the poor.

As Pope Francis speaks of the poor, instead of harrumphing and wishing he'd talk more about abortion or gay "marriage," perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves if we're doing all we can (as individuals and given whatever current realities we face) to relieve the sufferings of poverty.  It is not enough to see Christ in the unborn if we can ignore him in the bad neighborhoods, in the faces of the homeless, in the child who is struggling to read because his parents can barely read themselves and have no time to help him, and in all the ways in which He is present to us in the little ones of the world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What the pope really said

I wasn't able to watch the pope's speech to Congress today, but I did read the text, and you can too: the whole speech is here.

You would think that most Catholics would be delighted both by Pope Francis' addressing Congress at all and by the specifics of this speech.  Alas, there are some who are not.  Some of my fellow Catholics are playing the game of, "But he said/but he didn't say..."

Here are some examples (with all papal quotes from this source and all emphases added):

But Pope Francis didn't say anything about abortion!
On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.
But he didn't say anything about the redefinition of marriage!
I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.
He spends all his time talking about illegal immigrants and the poor!
Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.
He is a political leftist!
All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.
He is a Marxist who doesn't care about the unborn!
We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, 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. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
The truth is, Pope Francis isn't the caricature that some on the secular right keep making him out to be.  Read the speech for yourselves, and ponder what it is he's actually saying; it's worth it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

He is here to preach the Gospel

The Holy Father has had a busy day today, speaking at the White House, celebrating the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra, and addressing the bishops of the United States as well.

His Holiness' address to the bishops is especially moving, to me.  Here is just a bit of it:
This kind of witness is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves. I encourage you, then, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges.
The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.
These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistent and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39). I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.
To this end, it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We see their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.
Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).
Do go and read the whole thing; it is well worth your time.

As Pope Francis continues to be the target of criticisms both from the left and the right, let us remember to pray for him and for his intentions.  He is, after all, not here to be a token of any political party or a trophy of any cause or ideology; he is here to preach the Gospel.  Let us receive that preaching with joy!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Newsflash: Pope Francis is not a liberal

This comes straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak:
As Pope Francis flew to the United States for the first time, the pontiff assured journalists on the flight that he is not a liberal. Asked to comment on the many media outlets who are asking if the Pope is liberal, the Pope seemed bemused and decisive.
“Some people might say some things sounded slightly more left-ish, but that would be a mistake of interpretation,” he said before landing in the U.S. late Tuesday afternoon for his historic trip . “If you want me to pray the creed, I’m willing to do it.”
He underscored the point: “It is I who follows the church … my doctrine on all this … on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church.”
It would also seem that His Holiness has a good sense of humor about those in the Church who want to see him as a Marxist or a communist or an anti-pope:
Pope Francis told the story that a Cardinal told him of a woman who asked him if it is true that the Bible speaks of an anti-Christ, even an anti-Pope, because she is sure Pope Francis is the anti-Pope because he does not wear red shoes. “I’m sure that I have not said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” Francis said.
I don't know about you, but I've been trying to watch bits and pieces of His Holiness' arrival in the US (made a bit difficult by my somewhat elderly computer which no longer likes to stream any video).  As I watched Pope Francis being driven away from the airport in a tiny Fiat, though, I had one question: does the pontiff read The Curt Jester?

:)

But back to the serious stuff: anybody who thinks Pope Francis is a liberal probably hasn't read too much of those parts of the Catechism that deal with the Church's social teachings, which are as ancient and venerable as all her other teachings.  She has always had a deep concern for the poor and the oppressed, and she echoes the same warnings you will find in Scripture about the accumulation of wealth, the defrauding of workers, the exploitation of the labor of the poor, the indifference toward the plight of the widow and orphan, and so on.

So: the pope is not a liberal.  The pope is, in fact, Catholic.  Stay tuned for more shocking revelations.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Brace yourselves; or, one does not simply avoid the papal spin doctors

Over the weekend, I started seeing some of those "Brace yourself!" Facebook memes involving Pope Francis' visit to the US.

There were the simpler, "Brace yourself: the pope is coming!" memes, and the more complicated, "Brace yourself: everyone is about to become an expert on Catholicism" memes, with many variations.

I decided to make a meme of my own:


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To be honest, I didn't think I was going to get to blog at all during Pope Francis' US visit.  I had been summoned for jury duty.  But I got the news today that I will not have to serve after all, and so I do get to blog.  :)

Let's start with His Holiness' off-the-cuff remarks to some young people in Cuba:
One word that struck a chord is "dream." A Latin American writer has said that people have two eyes: one of flesh and another of glass. With the eye of flesh, we see what is before us and with the eye of glass, we see what we dream of. It’s nice, no? In the objectivity of life, the capacity of dreaming has to enter in. A young person who is not capable of dreaming is cloistered in himself, he’s closed in on himself. Sure, a person sometimes dreams of things that are never going to happen. But dream them. Desire them. Seek the horizon. Open yourselves to great things.
I’m not sure if in Cuba they use this word, but in Argentina, we say, Don’t be wimpy. Open yourselves and dream. Dream that the world with you can be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you are going to help this world be different. Don’t forget. Dream. If you get carried away and dream too much and life cuts you off, don't worry. Dream and share your dreams. Speak about the great things that you want, because inasmuch as your capacity to dream is greater, when life leaves you only half way, you will have gone farther. So, first dream.
You said a phrase that I underlined and took note of: "that we might know how to welcome and accept the one who thinks differently than us." Truly, sometimes we are closed in. We shut ourselves in our little world: "This is either the way that I want it or we’re not doing it." And you went even further, "that we don’t close ourselves into the 'little convents' of ideologies or in the 'little convents' of religions. That we might grow in the face of individualism."
When a religion becomes a "little convent" it loses the best that it has, it loses its reality of adoring God, of believing in God. It’s a little convent of words, of prayers, of "I’m good and you’re bad,’ of moral regulations. I have my ideology, my way of thinking and you have yours; I close myself in this "little convent" of ideology.
Now, both the US mainstream media and certain elements of the Catholic blogosphere would probably read this as: "Pope admits dislike for convents, moral regulations."  I'm sure we're going to see a lot of that kind of silliness--because what Pope Francis is saying here is similar to things he has said elsewhere about creating little safe, closed-in echo chambers (note: no real convent I know of is actually a bit like such a thing) instead of going out into the world to be salt and light.  And none of that is controversial; at least, none of it is any more controversial than it was when Jesus said it.  Remember the parable of the talents?  Remember His words to the Pharisees who were scolding the apostles for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath? 

Still, people are going to be viewing the pope not through the eyes of flesh nor through the glass eyes of dreams, but (some of them) reflected in the funhouse mirrors of their own agendas.  There will be some who, no matter what he says, will see what they want to see, whether that is a new and permissive form of Catholicism where the only sin is believing that sin exists, or whether that is proof positive that this pontiff is somehow an illegitimate pope who can be ignored and reviled by the Catholics who Know the Truth (tm).


Brace yourselves.  One does not simply avoid the papal spin doctors.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Poverty and prison

I read with interest the other day this blog post of Rod Dreher's, in which he linked to this Washington Post piece about the trailer park family with whom church shooter Dylann Roof had "crashed" in the time period immediately prior to the shooting.  The profile of Roof's friends, particularly his friend Joey Meek, was interesting and sparked a compelling discussion about the problem of poverty in America.

Now Joey Meek has been arrested:

(CNN)Joey Meek, a friend of confessed Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, was arrested by the FBI on Thursday, a law enforcement official said.

It was not immediately clear what charges Meek faces. Authorities have been investigating Meek since the June shooting for allegedly knowing about the crime and not telling authorities, the official said.
In the days after the shooting, Meek spoke with reporters with CNN and other media outlets, recounting how Roof had drunkenly vowed one night "to do something crazy."
Meek said he hid Roof's gun that night, but put it back the next day.
"I didn't take him serious,' he said.

After hearing the description of the suspect in the Charleston church shooting, Meek told CNN he called the FBI the next morning, giving authorities detailed descriptions of what Roof was wearing and the license plate on his car.  (Links in original: E.M.)
Obviously, until the details of the arrest and the charges come out, no one can really speculate as to why Meek was arrested or whether any charges against him are justified.  But anyone who read the Washington Post piece linked above can imagine how devastating this arrest is to his mother and the rest of the family.

The problem of poverty is a tangled one to solve, but the reality that the poor are often more likely to have been arrested and to have served jail time is a factor in this problem.  No one recommends lawlessness, and no one thinks that crime should not be properly addressed in society.  But at the same time, statistics like these should be of concern to us all:
Since the 1963 Supreme Court decision, America's prison population has grown more than tenfold—from 217,000 inmates to 2.3 million—largely due to decades of the war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies. It's been nearly impossible for the public defense system to keep pace. In 1973, the National Advisory Council on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (NAC) issued a report recommending annual caseload maximums for public defenders. They are the only national recommendations of their kind but are considered imperfect. "Many of us don't consider them to be realistic if you expect quality representation," says John Gross of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). "These standards were established 30-plus years ago when, arguably, criminal cases were a lot less complex." And even so, these recommended caseload limits are consistently exceeded in public defenders' day-to-day practice. On average, a public defender would need about 3,035 work hours—a year and a half—to do a year's worth of work.
About 6,900 more public defenders would be needed to complete the current caseload. It's no wonder that many well-meaning defense lawyers are sucked into a "meet 'em and plead 'em" routine (PD parlance for meeting clients just a few minutes or hours before their hearings and then encouraging them to admit guilt just to get rid of the case). It's a large reason why 90 to 95 percent of their clients plead guilty, says Tanya Greene, an ACLU attorney and capital public defender. "You've got so many cases, limited resources, and there's no relief," she says. "You go to work, you get more cases. You have to triage."

The connection between cycles of poverty and prison are well known.  As followers of Christ we are not permitted to ignore either the poor or the imprisoned.  And that's before we even address the scandal of for-profit prisons, where companies make money on the misery of inmates, some of whom shouldn't even be in prison in the first place.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Do you shop early for Christmas?

There are still 100 days until Christmas, but according to recent reports, that hasn't stopped an estimated 32 million Americans from beginning their Christmas shopping:
The first study, conducted by CreditCards.com over Labor Day weekend, found that roughly one in seven, or 32 million Americans, have already begun buying for the holidays. The study also found that 2 percent of all consumers—accounting for about 4.6 million people—have already crossed everything off their list.
The second survey, issued by digital advertising technology firm Rubicon Project, found that an even more robust one-third of shoppers across the U.S., UK and Canada have already kicked off their holiday spending.
"We love to complain about stores putting up holiday displays earlier and earlier each year," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "But the truth is that millions of Americans start holiday shopping long before the first Christmas tree appears in a store."
Normally, I would complain about this: "Blah blah blah consumerism blah blah blah spirit of Christmas blah blah blah greedy retailers etc ad infinitum." But this year, it would be hypocritical, because this year, I have, in fact, already made a Christmas-related purchase.  I didn't go shopping on purpose to find it, and it's not anything big--but it's exactly the kind of thing I usually pick up at the last minute when the selection is next to gone and the prices have been increased/sales have ended to take advantage of procrastinators like me.  Since money keeps getting tighter, I figured I'd better buy things when they are in stock and on sale.

Still, I have to admit that there are potential downsides to "Christmas creep." No one wants to see Christmas trees or ornaments on sale right after Easter, for instance. And at least some retailers have to hope that the parents and grandparents who shopped early will end up shopping twice, either because the little tykes' lists change weekly, or because they forgot where they hid the gifts so the children wouldn't find them.

But then again--wouldn't it be nice if you could find certain things in the stores all year round? Slippers, for instance: it can be awfully hard to buy slippers any time other than during the "Christmas shopping season."  Children's bathrobes are another "seasonal" item that shouldn't be, but pity the poor kid who wants a bathrobe for her birthday in January; there might be one or two hanging forlornly on a clearance rack somewhere, but retailers act like nobody ever needs a bathrobe except sometime in December (for those Christmas morning photos, of course!).  Before there was Amazon, jewelry boxes were sort of like that, too, and even now it can be hard to find a jewelry box in an actual retail store other than during the Christmas season.  As for toys--well, more than once I thought I should buy toys for my daughter with the June birthday back when I was buying them for her sisters whose birthdays are in December and January, because once the Christmas toy season is over, you're reduced to a few ordinary dolls and games until the next Christmas season rolls around.

The truth is, I'm torn. I don't want it to be commercial Christmas all year in the stores, but I admit that it can be convenient to pick up a few things early on and not have much, or any, shopping to do in December.

What do you think?  Do you shop early for Christmas?  Why or why not?

Monday, September 14, 2015

The two-headed dragon

Last week beneath a post of Rod Dreher's discussing the transgender revolution, a commenter who uses the nickname "Rob G" wrote what I thought was a very insightful comment. Since he kindly gave me permission to quote him I'm going to share Rob G's comment here:
And this is precisely where the coherence of both the mainstream Right and mainstream Left breaks down. The former believes in the “sovereign Self” when it comes to economics, but not in terms of sexuality. The latter believes in precisely the opposite. The incoherence arises from both sides’ inability and/or refusal to see that the two are inseparable. They both think that their respective versions of sovereign Self-worship can be hermetically sealed from the other. It’s like each side, dealing with the same two-headed dragon, insists that the head that it prefers is benign, and that it’s the other head that’s the dangerous one. Meanwhile, of course, it’s the whole critter that’s deadly.
I think this is a brilliant observation and a pretty cool analogy, too.  It reminded me of the following sections of Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato Si:
116. Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.[94]
117. Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.[95]
118. This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”.[96] A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.
In other words, some of us, including some of us who are followers of Christ, look at Rob G's two-headed dragon and insist that because humanity is the pinnacle of creation, there is nothing at all wrong with some members of the human race destroying nature and making use of other people's labor at unjust wages in order to turn a profit while using the law to keep competitors away--and this is called the "free market."  In the meantime others of us, including others of us who are followers of Christ, see the dangers of the first head of the dragon, but insist that the other head is good: the one that sees human beings as a blight on the planet and promotes contraception, abortion, gay "marriage," transgenderism, and anything else that involves the breaking of the natural family and the promotion of the idea that sex is all about using another person for your own pleasure--and this is called "reproductive freedom."

As Rob G correctly identifies, both of these things are a particularly pernicious form of the worship of the Self.  Pope Francis, in the passages from Laudato Si quoted above, draws a connection between the "excessive anthropocentrism" which not only disregards nature, but the importance of human social bonds and the limits on the human person which are imposed by reality itself (for example, a person who is born male cannot simply decide to be a woman), and the tendency of human beings to carry this disrespect for nature and reality to the ultimate extreme of deciding that we are gods ourselves and no longer need God.  It is the same temptation Satan used against Eve in the garden: the temptation to believe that it was good, and right, and possible for Adam and Eve to become like gods themselves.

So often, though, we--and I speak particularly to my fellow Catholics here--get far too caught up in the idea that the dragon head we follow is sane, and right, and sensible, and that only the other one is dangerous.  That is why you can have Catholics who have worked all their lives to protect unborn human life, who have helped women in crisis pregnancy situations, and so on, posting really disgusting things about the Syrian refugee crisis on Facebook without, apparently, seeing any disconnect between their deep concern for unborn human life and their callous disregard for the lives and well-being of refugees and migrants.  At the same time, you can have the equally jarring spectacle of Catholics who work with the poor, who help immigrants, who promote literacy, who spend a great deal of time and money easing the sufferings of their brothers and sisters--and yet they defend Planned Parenthood and argue seriously that if the Church really cared about the poor, she would permit both contraception and abortion as good and helpful things.

We cannot follow both Christ and the dragon.  It doesn't matter which of the two heads we think is trustworthy or noble or good--it is still the dragon. If we don't leave its side, sooner or later it will devour us.  And the sad and tragic thing is that it will be the head that we trust that eats us alive.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Justice and mercy shall kiss

I haven't written about Pope Francis' two recent motu proprios which have altered some bits of canon law dealing with annulments. This is because I tend to think that lay Catholics shouldn't comment too much about things dealing with canon law unless they are lay canon lawyers, in which case it's fine.  I have not always thought that, but having had some experiences in trying to figure out what canon law really means about something I've learned it's best to leave it to the canonists.

And I respect that some canon lawyers of my acquaintance, both clergy and lay, have some reservations about how the pope's motu proprios will work out in real life.  But the beauty of changes to merely ecclesiastical laws is that those changes are not necessarily permanent.  One of the provisions changed by Pope Francis, for instance, dates only from some time in the 1980s. If the change doesn't work out as planned, either Pope Francis himself or a future pope (given that it may take a while to see how these changes work out on the ground) can fairly easily change them again.

From other lay commenters, though, I get the impression that these changes are seen as somehow earth-shaking or disruptive. I honestly don't think so myself. People seem to be forgetting that it is just as bad to keep couples trapped in marriages that are quite likely invalid as it is to risk declaring a valid marriage null.  Given the abysmal state of catechesis in recent years, society's present insanity regarding what marriage is and what it is for, and the horror stories of very bad marriage preparation in various dioceses throughout the United States (and very possibly in many other nations as well), we may have reached a point where it will become rather necessary for a couple seeking the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to give some positive evidence that they have at least the slightest clue what that sacrament is, why it is not only nothing like civil "marriage" but is becoming diametrically opposed to it, and why the Church requires it of her children as opposed to just letting them shack up or something (or, let us be honest, continue shacking up, as a scandalous number of young couples each year go straight from cohabitation to a Catholic wedding without even being required to separate for a time).

It is clear that we need to do a lot to improve the state of Catholic marriages. But I think we sometimes forget that annulments weren't invented sometime after Vatican II. People in the past had some difficulties too, and I'd like to share a story of some of those people.

About a century ago, a young woman, an Eastern Rite Catholic, arrived in America from Eastern Europe.  She was all of 16 years old, and she came to live with extended family members.  Her mother had died when she was 12, but her father had abandoned the family even before that.

Some time later, a marriage was arranged.  There was a Catholic wedding.  And on this young girl's wedding night, she fled from the house of her new husband in terror.  No one, it seems, had properly explained to this motherless girl what marriage was really all about.

Time passed.  She met a Catholic immigrant from Italy and they fell in love and married--outside the Church.  You see, they took it for granted that her first marriage was valid.  Of course it was, they thought.  Catholics married for life--everybody knew that, and you couldn't get away from it.

They raised their daughters Catholic, even sending them to Catholic schools.  The older daughter became a nun.  But her parents pretty much accepted that they were cut off from the faith both of their ancestors and their children, primarily because of that marriage.

Luckily someone eventually asked the right questions, and the woman's first marriage was annulled.  After spending much of their life apart from the Church and the sacraments this couple was able to reconcile and return.  But like so many people of their time, they didn't really understand that it was possible to have a Catholic wedding in a Catholic Church and still not be validly married (for what were, in this woman's case, excellent reasons pertaining to that consent which is at the heart of matrimony!).

These people were my husband's maternal grandparents. It might be tempting to think, "Oh, but surely that sort of thing doesn't happen today!"  I am not sure it doesn't.  There are remote dioceses where a priest is only available to marry people once every so many years (I met a mission priest who talked about this problem once)--who knows what level of understanding some of those couples may bring to matrimony?  Even here in America, I have heard of some well-meaning Catholic parents who have decided that the best way to raise their children while preserving their innocence is to teach them nothing at all regarding the "facts of life" until they are married.  Assuming any of their children actually do marry without having the slightest idea until after the vows are exchanged as to what it is they have just consented to, how can such a marriage be valid?  And that's before we even begin to talk about the "open and shut" cases involving defect of form and so on.

There is a temptation in all of these matters to see justice and mercy as being on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak.  They are not.  It is not merely merciful to make sure that invalid marriages can be annulled while preserving and strengthening valid ones, but it is just, as well.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How should I welcome the stranger?

There has been a lot of discussion on blogs I read (Catholic and other) about the current migrant/refugee crisis and what ought to be done about it all.

I think it's wise for us Catholics to start with the Catechism:
2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
And then we should also consider Pope Francis' recent words:
In St. Peter’s Square, the pope told a Sunday gathering that it was not enough to merely sympathize with those brought to Europe’s shores by convulsions of war and hardship.

“May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family,” the pope said, according to Vatican Radio. He added that the Vatican would take in two families.
“The Gospel calls us to be close to the smallest, and to those who have been abandoned,” the pontiff said.
Taken together, these things mean that Catholics really can't just turn our backs on this matter, or insist that the refugees be kept quasi-permanently in tent cities, or otherwise remain unmoved by their plight.  What exactly we can do will depend on many things, including the United States' political decisions regarding whether any more people from these stricken areas may enter our country.  Mindfulness in prayer and thoughtful donations to the appropriate charities who are helping these people should be among those things many of us can do.

Unfortunately I'm seeing a lot of highly negative comments and opinions by various observers, some of whom are Catholic, who seem to think some rather odd things.  Some seem to think, for instance, that it is perfectly acceptable for Catholics to refuse to help or to bar the way to any but Christian immigrants. Others would counsel a policy of refusal on the grounds that letting Syrians and others into Europe will destroy European culture.  Still others have veered into outright xenophobia or racism.

Neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor anyone else says that no one is allowed to make prudent choices regarding specific types of aid offered to specific groups of immigrants. But if I may borrow from Mark Shea's formulation during the endless torture debates, the question here for Catholics ought to be, "How should I welcome the stranger?" not "How can I tiptoe right up to the line of indifference or outright hostility to the stranger without actually crossing that line?"

Now, "How can I welcome the stranger?" is a question that may indeed be framed by legitimate practical considerations.  If, for instance, a specific Catholic parish in Europe, mindful of the pope's call but unable to act on it owing to local laws prohibiting the actual physical taking in of a refugee family, regretfully determines that they are unable to extend this particular form of help, but instead raises a collection to send to a parish somewhere else that is able to take in a family or two--that is fine.  If a group of lay Catholics in Germany decides that they wish to establish a humanitarian fund that will help Syrians who wish to do so to remain in or nearer to Syria instead of migrating, that, too, is fine (again, provided it is permissible by appropriate laws).  The focus on welcoming the stranger and helping the oppressed is not dimmed by trying to do so creatively and well.

But "How can I tiptoe right up to the line of indifference or outright hostility to the stranger without actually crossing that line?" is not a legitimate moral question.  It seeks to continue to think of the migrant or refugee as an object instead of a person--and an object, sadly, for derision or contempt or full-blown hatred.  Such are the attitudes of those who see in the faces of weary families only terrorists or Muslims or the Other; such are the words of those whose fear of these people would remain if only a thousand, or only five thousand, were coming.

Again and again in the Gospels Christ makes it clear: there are no Others.  There are no strangers.  There are only neighbors.  And how we treat our neighbors in situations like these reveals more about our faithful discipleship to Him than we may realize.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Standing against the State Religion

I've been trying to resume blogging since September 1.  Somehow it hasn't happened, and each day I think, "Surely I'll find some time to blog tomorrow."  And then I don't, and somehow it seems silly to start a post late in the day, and...well, those of you who struggle with this whole "writer" thing are already nodding, right?

Anyway, I really wanted to write things about Kim Davis last week, but I'm sort of glad now that I was too busy.  Because what I wanted to say was that I supported her.  No, I can't say that I would definitely have done the exact same thing in the exact same way, but I can say that it took courage for her to be willing to go to jail to fight for the rights of conscientious objectors to refuse to have anything to do with the government's imposition of a State Religion and its newest sacrament, gay "marriage."

The American State Religion has tried to impose its sacraments on us before.  In place of baptism, the State Religion offers the twin sacraments of contraception and abortion.  But while both have seeped into the fabric of our society in ways that impact us more than we'd like to think--as the recent Planned Parenthood "sting" videos pointed out all too horribly--it has been possible to object in a conscientious way to these things, at least for most of us.  True, without even realizing it we quietly surrendered a lot of ground to the devotees of Sex Without Consequences, to the prophets of prophylactics and the acolytes of abortion; for instance, I doubt that many sincere Christians would choose to work in certain branches of public health, where they might have to choose between keeping their jobs or dispensing anti-fertility drugs to adolescents.  But for most of us, this particular sacrament of the State Religion has not demanded either our allegiance or our livelihoods, our money, as it were, or our lives.

The Sacrament of Gay "Marriage" is different.  Tolerance, to quote Mark Shea, is not enough: we must all approve, or be forced to pretend to approve, or be silenced.  And so I supported Kim Davis, and I continue to do so.  But if I had written about her right away, I would have missed these great pieces by other supporters:

Kim Davis' Conscientious Decision (R.R. Reno, First Things)

Is Kim Davis a Hypocrite? (Edward Peters, In the Light of the Law)

Kim Davis is Right to Fight This Despotic and Shameful Law (Msgr. Charles Pope)

As of now, Kim Davis is no longer in jail.  I hope she remains free.

Now, some of my fellow Christians have been saying that this wasn't the way forward.  They think that this wasn't the hill to die on.  They say that she should merely have resigned, as other clerks have done.

I respect those who sincerely believe that, even though I think they are wrong.  Let's face it: the Obergefell decision is akin to Anthony Kennedy and the majority deciding it would be hilarious to defecate on the Constitution, shape the newly-soiled Constitution into the rough shape of a paper bag, place it on the doorsteps of county clerks and judges and legislatures all over America, set it on fire, and run away into the night, giggling hysterically and congratulating themselves on their juvenile cleverness.  For those who opened the door, there was no really good option: resigning, or simply vacating the premises, will not put out the fire, but stamping on the bag is going to get you pretty dirty, and it may not, in the long run, do much good anyway, as the putrid sparks fly.

Still, I think that acts of defiance like Mrs. Davis' are a good reminder to the high priests of the new State Religion that they're not going to have everything their own way.  And if we wait to engage in these kinds of acts of defiance until polygamous and incestuous marriages have become "the Law of the Land" as well as the absurd lie that is gay "marriage," it may well be too late to make any effective protests at all.

Frankly, I see only one end to all of this: the State should be forced to get out of the marriage business altogether.  Already, post-Obergefell, we are living with a particular absurdity: the absurdity that says that the State may certify and regulate the (quite likely) temporary sex and/or romantic pairings of adults, for no discernible reason or legitimate State interest at all.  Since marriage, by law, now has nothing whatsoever to do with children, the State's interest in it seems sort of shady and voyeuristic. What business is it of the State's how you feel about the person you live with and/or the person you regularly engage in acts of mutual self-pleasuring with--or even whether that is one person or two (or more)?  Why should a couple of men who make some sort of vague, nebulous promise (for such is civil "marriage" post-Obergefell) that certainly doesn't include fidelity or permanence or exclusivity (and cannot, by the nature of their relationship, include children who are the natural and biological result of that relationship) get tax breaks, while two heterosexual college roommates can't?

Ultimately those kinds of questions will have to be answered.  And along the way, there will be a lot more people like Kim Davis, who refuse to pour out libations to the silly State Religion and its determination to force approval of its sacraments.  May her tribe increase.