Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Giving the pope the benefit of the doubt

First off: I'm still here! I didn't intentionally give up blogging for Lent. I've just been sick and sort of missed the first two weeks of Lent this year.

Now that I'm on the mend, though, I wanted to comment on some recent events, such as that time when a pope made an off-the-cuff comment that seemed to apply that he was in favor of something that the Church strongly opposes, and the Catholic blogosphere rushed to his defense and cleared up the controversy...oh, my mistake. That wasn't recent; that was when an off-the-cuff quote from Pope Benedict XVI got taken out of context by the media who spun it as the pope's approval of condom use in some circumstances, when it was, of course, (as Fr. Z said in the link above) nothing of the sort.

Funnily enough, nobody called it "popesplaining" or whatever the term of the day is back then; it was obvious that Pope Benedict XVI had been taken out of context and misunderstood, and the Catholic blogosphere didn't go nuts trying to prove that, no, really, BXVI was trying to approve of condoms in a sneaky or stealthy way because he was really a modernist or something. Instead, as I recall, the whole incident was taken as yet more proof that the media really does not get anything about religion right, and is always breathlessly reporting "news" which turns out to be nothing of the sort, especially when it comes to traditional faiths that still hold the line against the approved and trendy modern forms of sin.

When I read the transcript of Pope Francis' recent plane interview I noticed a few things right away. First, despite the news articles, the reporter never said the word "contraception." Instead, the reporter asked whether the Church would condone avoiding pregnancies as a "lesser evil" than abortion. One can almost sense a kind of frustration in the pope's answer as he explains, as popes have been deliberately and carefully explaining for decades now, that abortion can't ever be put into a "lesser evil" sort of construct in the first place--for what could be more evil than depriving an innocent human being of his or her life? What I see when I read that answer is a pope doing his best--for the umpteen millionth time--to make it absolutely, positively, abundantly clear that abortion isn't some sort of "Catholic sin," like eating meat on purpose on a Lenten Friday or failing to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation without a valid reason to miss it. Rather, abortion is a crime against humanity that can never be condoned regardless of the circumstances.

True, His Holiness goes on to say that avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. I wish he had taken the opportunity to speak about how the means used are what is important, and to remind those worried about Zika or anything else that the Church permits NFP or other natural methods of spacing births to married couples; I also wish that he'd left the sort of off-topic example of what nuns might or might not theoretically have been permitted in cases where rape was a grave risk alone--but I think that was more of a "theoretical moral theology misfire" than any deliberate or intentional message, especially when you consider that Pope Francis, like every other recent pope, has made it quite clear that the Church's teachings against contraception are here to stay.

The thing is that it is not hard at all to put the pope's answer in the most charitable light possible, just like most of us did with Benedict XVI when the media was screaming in all caps the totally improbable news that "Pope gives Church's blessing to condoms for gay sex workers!!" and similarly ludicrous spins on what he actually did say. The question then becomes: why are so many Catholics apparently so willing to see every off-the-cuff remark of Pope Francis' as proof positive that he's a secret stealth modernist heretic anti-Pope out to undermine the True Church and usher in the New World Order, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse?

There are several answers to this, ranging from our American fondness for conspiracy theories to the scars inflicted during forty years of unremitting liturgical war (and as much as I appreciate good liturgy, we have reached the point where yelling, "But they started it!" is no longer an effective strategy) that have left us unwilling to trust anyone who sort of reminds us of Father Nicefellow who was nice to everybody except people who wanted to pray the rosary in public or actually liked statues, and that sort of thing (though I hasten to point out that Pope Francis has a deep devotion to the rosary himself, and I wouldn't think he minds statues particularly either--he just sort of talks like Father Nicefellow on occasion).  And all of that is part of it.

But I think there's something else at work here, and it shows up when Pope Francis says other things, such as this:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to taking a pro-immigrant stance, Pope Francis' words here are really mild. He says that someone who is only interested in building walls and not bridges isn't acting like a Christian. But from that mild statement I have heard Catholics and other Christians insisting that the pope opposes border security and wants America to allow every illegal immigrant who can make it across our borders to move in and take our hard-earned stuff and import terrorists and take away our jobs and our Social Security and our money and our things that we've earned all by ourselves by our hard work and we shouldn't have to hand our money and goods over to lazy no-good immigrants or homeless people or welfare recipients or...

Nobody thinks that illegal immigration is the same thing as legal immigration, and nobody I know of thinks we have to have completely open borders with no laws whatsoever--not even the Church, who in asking for greater compassion for those already here is not demanding a repeal of all laws governing lawful immigration. But there's a troubling attitude behind much of the outrage against Pope Francis' words regarding a border wall, an attitude that is part pride, part greed and part fear--and the main aspect of the fear is that illegal immigrants are all out to take away our material goods, coupled with a prideful belief that we earned those goods totally by the sweat of our brows and not, perhaps, because we were born into a prosperous nation at a time in history when it was possible to earn a decent living and "get ahead," so to speak, none of which is really our own doing at all.

A sad thing, to me, is that this attitude of pride and greed and fear often comes from some of the same Catholics who fully accept the Church's teaching against contraception and who would never dream of using artificial birth control. They can't seem to see that the same combination of pride mixed with greed and fear is often responsible for other Catholics rejecting Church teaching against birth control and using it. For those Catholic couples, the unplanned child is like the illegal immigrant: a hostile stranger who is coming among them to take away not only their material goods but also that prideful belief that we have full control over our own earthly lives. Fear of that stranger/child causes contracepting Catholics to put up their own walls, built of latex or chemicals; and fear of that child can even lead to abortion when despite the wall of "protection" the child is discovered living in the womb.

Catholics can, and should, debate the best ways to go forward when it comes to illegal immigration (and bearing in mind that some people are injured or killed just trying to get here, which is something we ought not to take lightly). But we ought to go forward in light of Christian principles, and to remember that the Lord we follow said that we ought to love our neighbor (and He didn't restrict that love based on geography). If our objection to illegal immigrants is based on a prideful sense that we have earned everything we have plus a greed to keep all of our blessings for ourselves and a fear that the immigrant will join the widow and the orphan and the poor and the homeless as people we ought to be concerned about and be willing to help even with our material blessings, then we aren't, as the pope said, being Christian about them at all.

I honestly think that at least part of the reason so many don't want to give Pope Francis the same benefit of the doubt that many did automatically give to Pope Benedict XVI is because it would be a lot easier on us if we could believe that Pope Francis was a modernist or a heretic or an anti-Pope or some such thing--because if he were any of those, we could ignore him when he reminds us that it's not Catholic to see our brothers and sisters as leeches or bloodsuckers or threats to our (material) security just because they happen to be in need, or in this country illegally, or out of work, or living on the street. We Americans are awfully inclined to forget that God alone gives us what we have, and that seeing ourselves as the authors of our own destinies and the absolute rulers of our own tiny material kingdoms is a form of idolatry, of a kind that the pope's namesake especially rejected when St. Francis threw off his material goods for the sake of the true kingdom.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

About that Doritos commercial...

Yes, I'm late talking about this one. But it didn't seem appropriate to be writing about chips on Ash Wednesday, and I have a feeling this may get a bit snarky...

So, you all know by now about that Doritos (tm) commercial, the one showing an about-to-be born baby in utero being all fascinated by the snack his dad is holding. The ad was one of a few finalists in Doritos' annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which ordinary people, fans of the product, submit ad ideas and then get a chance to make the actual commercial. (This year's grand prize winner was actually the "Doritos Dogs" commercial, not the "Ultrasound" one.)

The ultrasound commercial ended up being at the center of controversy. On the one hand, the reality-challenged folks at NARAL decried the commercial for "humanizing" the "fetus" (who is in fact a real human and who is presently a nine-month-old boy named Freddy); on the other, pro-life Americans decided that for the moment Doritos (tm) are the official chip of the pro-life movement, at least until the corporate giant does something that angers us again.

Teapots and tempests, certainly, but here's the shocking part: I actually liked that ad.

The cool kids at Aleteia and on Facebook and elsewhere can snicker into their sleeves at my naiveté, if they want. But it was sort of nice to see an ad where a human fetus is not only not a disposable blob of tissue, but is actually a person, capable of needs and desires. Sure, it's exaggeration--the humorous kind, also called hyperbole--to imagine an unborn child wanting a mass-produced snack item. But having had the experience myself of holding a sweet little baby only five months older than that unborn child in the ad on my lap at a party, and having said five-month-old suddenly dive-bomb a mini-eclair I was holding, and then perform the acrobatic feat of consuming as much of it as possible before I could remove it while simultaneously shooting me a dirty look that said, plain as day, "You've been hiding the Good Stuff!"--well, it's not all that far off the mark.

What's even nicer is that enough people in America voted for this fan-produced (note: not cynical corporate giant-produced) commercial for it to end up one of the three finalists in the contest. NARAL and their ilk would like to believe that most of America shares their shuddering horror at the mere thought of an unborn child in utero, but clearly that's not the case. Quite a lot of us actually like human children, even the unborn ones, and are ready to chuckle at a humorous ad like this one without worrying that someone, somewhere, might humanize a fetus and then next thing you know she might decide against offing her unborn offspring via abortion (horrors!).

So, no, this was not some watershed moment in the pro-life movement--except that I can't really imagine a similar commercial being made by a fan and then actually making it to the finals in a contest like this one back twenty years ago, when people like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright had more than mere delusions of relevance. But it was, at least to me, a bit of good fun, and probably the first time in history that an adorable baby boy had his acting debut while still in utero. What's not to like about that?

Monday, February 8, 2016

The ten commandments of Lent for moms

Hard as it is to believe, Lent is nearly upon us. Ash Wednesday is the day after tomorrow.  For those of you who just put away the last of your Christmas decorations on Candlemas it may seem particularly weird when Lent comes so early.

I've seen a few "Lenten preparation" posts out there, and many of them are full of good resources, food for reflection, and so forth. They are also (many of them) written by Catholics who have actual qualifications to write such things: clergy, religious, scholars, catechists, theologians, apologists, canon lawyers, etc. Compared to those people I'm not qualified at all to write about Lent, and I admit honestly that even as a lifelong Catholic I am still trying to figure Lent out. If I live to be a hundred I may eventually get it, but for now I just do my best, which is all any of us can do anyway.

Despite my lack of overall qualifications I still wanted to write a Lenten post, because I think that many of the posts I read out there are for everybody and are sort of general, and I wanted to write a post that is more specifically for those people out there who share my vocation--that is, for moms. I think that having spent the last twenty Lents as a mom, I may have a couple of insights here or there that I didn't have back when I was a younger mom, so in a spirit of solidarity and encouragement I share the following "ten commandments of Lent" just for moms:

1. Thou shalt not feel guilty when you can't do Stations of the Cross (etc.) with a baby. One of the weird things about becoming a mom is that those early Lents just sort of fly by just like every other season with a baby: up during the night, up again absurdly early, spending your days on that endless merry-go-round of feeding and burping and changing and bathing and feeding and laundry and changing and speed-cleaning the important stuff when the baby actually naps for twenty whole minutes at once and so on. If you were the sort of person who used to do All the Lenten Things (or at least all of them that you could fit into your workday), it can seem really weird to have a Lent where you pretty much stay home doing Baby Stuff just like you did over Christmas and during Thanksgiving and, well, every day since the baby was born. But one of the things we learn during Lent is that God wants us to live our vocations, and if that means we're the one staying home with the baby, that's okay!

2. Thou shalt not fret about Ash Wednesday Mass. This has been a big one for me, especially the last few years as my older daughters have joined the "mandatory fasting brigade." I have always known that Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation, but I sort of treated it as if it were, up until the point where it became logistically impossible for us to get to Mass that day and actually feed all of the fasting people who were also at work and/or school during the day and could not eat their main meal at midday. I finally made peace with it all by remembering that on Ash Wednesday fasting is mandatory but Mass is not. Just like when my children were babies, though, I know that this time in my life is a season, not a permanency; there will come a time when Ash Wednesday Mass will be possible for me again, and I will probably appreciate it more the next time I can go.

3. Thou shalt not confuse Lent with a weight-loss program. I know this isn't universal to moms; you naturally skinny moms out there can skip this one. But I know I'm not alone in sometimes thinking, "Hey, Lent is coming! I can lose those unwanted pounds if I just plan my Lenten sacrifices craftily enough!" There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to tackle such things as gluttony or laziness during Lent--in fact, the Church encourages us to work on our faults. But seeing Lent primarily as a way to get in shape and lose a few pounds isn't quite right, and it usually backfires rather badly, too, at least in my experience.

4. Honor your husband's Lent. This one mostly applies to those of us who are married to Catholic men, though some who are married to serious Christians may also relate. It can be hard for a wife, though, to strike the right note of being supportive and encouraging about her husband's Lent plans on the one hand, and to avoid being critical or nagging on the other. Whether your husband is the kind of man who wants to sign up for all the Lenten things going on at the parish, or whether his idea of Lent is giving up one hour of TV sports-watching per week, it is not a wife's job to micromanage her husband's Lent, to treat him like a child, or to insist that he has to tailor his own Lenten plans to suit hers. I do think it's a great idea for married couples to plan some sort of Lenten activity together (and the "almsgiving" portion of Lent is particularly suited for joint planning, as most couples share finances). But there's a difference between planning some Lenten activities together, and thinking that it's your job to tell your husband what he should be doing for Lent.

5. Direct and encourage your children, but don't take over their Lent plans, either. Obviously some things that the family will be doing together will involve your children, such as a special evening prayer, an extra daily Mass, parish Stations of the Cross, etc. And equally obviously the youngest children among those old enough to observe Lent will need the most help coming up with a meaningful but age-appropriate Lenten sacrifice. But try to avoid the habit of running the whole family's Lent for them. I learned that when I backed off and let my children make suggestions, they came up with some really good ideas on their own, and were able to offer their own prayers and sacrifices in a more generous and loving spirit than I would have thought possible.

6. Thou Shalt Avoid Catholic Lenten Peer Pressure. This is especially hard to do in this Internet age, when you may have friends posting on Facebook about some thing or other they have done for Lent, and instead of thinking, "Hey, that's neat! Maybe we could try something like that next year?" you think, "What's wrong with my family that we're not doing All The Things like that, and how can I cram this New Thing into my already overdrawn and overwrought Lenten schedule so we can be just as stressed out and miserable as everybody else?"

7. Remember the purpose of Lent. Speaking of "stressed out and miserable," I know there are moms out there who, like my younger self, actually think that "stressed out and miserable" is how you are supposed to be during Lent. I'm not sure how this sort of thing gets started, but I know that for me it always seemed as though the whole purpose of Lent was to be as hungry, cranky, cold, irritable, joyless, depressed, unhappy and guilty-feeling as possible, so that when Easter came we would really appreciate that bleeping candy-basket (oh, and Easter Sunday Mass, of course). Newsflash: the purpose of Lent is to become closer to God, to love Him more, to follow Christ more closely, and to deepen the virtues, especially those of faith, hope, and charity. It is not to mutter curse words when you pass the candy aisle in the grocery store or to spend hours convincing yourself that a Pop-Tart (tm) isn't really dessert in the hopes that a bit of sugar will make you start actually liking your family again.

8. Follow the laws of the Church on fasting/abstinence with a cheerful and obedient spirit. Granted, I'm talking to those moms who aren't currently pregnant or nursing, or who don't have a medical reason they can't fast. But the fasting is only required for two days of the year, and those of us who can do it shouldn't stress too much over the details (and I say this as a veteran of fasting stress who still spends too much time worrying about it all, but I'm trying to improve). As far as the law of abstinence goes, though, I think pretty much everybody can avoid meat for one day out of seven, and I also want to speak to those who think that Friday meals must not only be meatless, but must also be sparse, tasteless, and as unpleasant as possible: that is not what the Church requires. It is okay to have cheese pizza on Lenten Fridays. It might violate the spirit of the fast to indulge on lobster every Friday, but even lobster isn't actually forbidden (unless, like me, you have a fish/shellfish allergy). If you personally want to go farther than what the Church requires out of devotion (not out of pride), then you should do so--but we moms (plus any stay-at-home dads out there), who have a whole family to feed, do have to consider the Church's requirement of meatless Friday meals in light of our obligation to feed our families.

9. Be realistic about Lenten prayer and spiritual reading. I always, always, always want to say more daily prayers and read more books than I possibly can in six weeks, and that's with young adult daughters and more time now than I ever used to have. My advice to moms of all ages/stages of life is simple: start small. Pick one thing you want to read and one prayer/devotion you want to add to your daily prayer schedule. If life cooperates, you can always add more, but you'll be at less risk of burnout (and the accompanying feelings of failure) if you don't start out Lent with a list of eighteen books and prayer plans that include the Liturgy of the Hours plus a daily twenty-decade rosary plus six specific novenas for friends and family.

10. Thou shalt--indeed, thou MUST--relax. We moms have this terrible tendency to think that the reason we must do All The Lenten Things is because it is our job to get our husbands and our children to Heaven as well as our wretched selves, and more than one of us has probably had terrible daydreams of being sentenced to ten million years in Purgatory because, owing to our failure to Do Lent Right, someone under our watch actually stumbled into sin and it's all our fault. If you are anywhere near that particular place, you should remember, again, that the purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God, and that He is the one who is in charge, not only of us, but of our husbands and children and extended families and neighbors and friends as well. We should do our best with Lent just as we should do our best with life, but if we think of God as this sort of vindictive Person who is just waiting to smite us because we didn't make the parish mission this year, then we're not doing very well with that Lenten purpose of getting closer to Him.

So: pray, don't worry, and have a good Lent!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Random thoughts about the Church and volunteers

The other day, I found myself thinking about the movie Lilies of the Field. Many people know the story of Homer Smith, a handyman and a Baptist who (greatly to his own surprise) finds himself building a chapel for a convent of East German nuns who have settled in Arizona.

I'm not entirely sure why I was thinking about that movie, except that it probably has something to do with some random thoughts I've had lately about the Church and volunteers.

Let me give a few examples, some that I heard about myself directly, and others that I only know about:
  1. A deacon stood up after Mass and announced that the church was looking for a skilled computer person to create and maintain the parish social media presence as well as take care of other computer-related tasks. Both a high level of knowledge and a commitment to a significant number of weekly hours was needed, but (the deacon paused) they wanted a volunteer...
  2. A message circulated from a local young adult ministry leader: someone with graphic design and art skills was needed to help with an important project. The group was looking for a volunteer...
  3. An announcement was made: the parish wanted someone with calligraphy skills to help with some lettering efforts (probably for sacramental certificates and things of that nature). The parish was looking for a volunteer...
  4. A school carefully spells out its policy: parents are required to volunteer a certain number of hours per enrolled student to help keep tuition costs low. They may be "billed" if they don't deliver the required number of hours of volunteer assistance...
These are just a few of the sorts of things I've seen that have made me think about this topic. I'm still thinking about it all, actually; this is one of those posts where I'm really just thinking out loud. I hope you'll bear with me.

To begin with, I know that there is a long and venerable history of volunteers, especially lay people, being active in their parishes and schools and other Catholic ministries. Despite what some of her detractors sometimes say, the Church is not made of money, and there are many times and situations where volunteers make all the difference. The Catholic laity are supposed to contribute to the support of the Church--it is one of the precepts of the Church, and despite a common misunderstanding that precept has never been solely about giving money. In many ages, the laity could only "help provide for the needs of the Church" by giving their time, their skills, and the work of their hands, whether in the form of food or of handmade material goods or whatever the case might be.

And the work that volunteers do for the Church is valuable and important, a true gift of the heart in many instances. Neither is there anything wrong with Church leaders, clergy or lay, asking for specific kinds of help. So nothing that follows should be construed as attacking the principle of volunteering.

Having said that, I think the reason I'm somewhat uncomfortable with some of these random examples is that they do seem to be pushing the envelope a bit in terms of what volunteering actually means. Asking someone to work the equivalent of a part-time or even full-time job, and a job that requires education, training, certification and so on, while emphasizing that there will be no pay whatsoever seems to be a bit much. Well-meaning people do sometimes respond generously to these kinds of appeals, only to learn that the person in charge (the pastor, the deacon, a lay leader, etc.) has every intention of treating them like an employee in terms of the kinds of demands made, the amount of work that is expected to be done, the unreasonable deadlines, and so on--except that unlike an employee they aren't being paid or compensated in any way. I have known people who have taken on a volunteer assignment like this in their home parish, who have then had to step down when the demands of the "voluntary job" started to take over their lives. Some volunteers who have been through this sort of thing meet with understanding and compassion from those in charge, but others are treated as though they were unsatisfactory and disloyal "employees" who "quit" when the going got tough, which can certainly create tension in a parish community.

Perhaps the reason I was thinking of Lilies of the Field was because in the movie there was a bit of conflict between two ideas: the idea that those who belong to God (like a convent of nuns, or a pastor of a parish) are a bit like the lilies in the scripture passage, whose needs are met by God Himself on the one hand, and the idea on the other hand that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Nobody thinks that the Church ought to pay those who volunteer for certain roles, such as usher or lector or acolyte; nobody who offers to help set up tables and make pancakes for a breakfast fundraiser expects to be paid. But I can't imagine a parish asking a professional chef to make a weekly voluntary commitment to cook and serve food for an ongoing fundraiser; I can't imagine a pastor putting out a call for a certified public accountant to handle the Church's finances on a purely voluntary basis (though perhaps it happens!); I can't imagine a parish finance committee asking a parishioner who owns a heating and air conditioning business to volunteer to install a new heating system. As for the parents who are told they will be billed for uncompleted "volunteer" hours--well, when something becomes mandatory, it's pretty hard to argue that it is still voluntary, isn't it?

I know that parishes these days are in difficult situations. Only one in five Catholics even bothers to attend Mass on Sundays anyway. Donations continue to dwindle. Pastors can be in a tough spot in many ways when it comes to paying for things, and volunteers may seem like the ideal solution.

But I keep thinking of the end of Lilies of the Field, when Homer Smith, having completed the nuns' chapel, hears them planning to have him build a school next...and so he slips quietly away, disappearing into the night.