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Posted by on Oct 3, 2021

In God’s Image and Equal

In God’s Image and Equal

The readings from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted. They deal with the relationship between men and women, as well as the question of marriage and divorce. Little, unimportant topics, to be sure…

Let’s take a look at them in their context and see what they are really saying to us.

The first reading is from the second chapter of Genesis. It’s from the second creation story, which addresses different questions than does the first. In the first creation story, everything comes into being in response to God’s word of command, with humans being formed by God in God’s own image – male and female they were created from the start. They represent the culmination of creation, after which God rests.

The order and manner of creation differs in the second story. In the second story, God made the earth and the heavens, but there was no grass nor were there shrubs, because there had been no rain and there were no humans to till the soil. In this story, God takes the clay mud that is found beside a stream welling up out of the earth. From this mud, God forms a man. The Hebrew words include a bit of a pun. “Man” is adam and “mud” is adama. Into this individual, God breathes some of God’s own breath of life and the adam becomes a living person.

After creating the Adam, God planted a garden in a fertile plain (eden) and placed the Adam there. Plants, trees, and all sorts of wonderful things grew in the garden and the Adam was free to eat of them. The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil also grew in the heart of the garden, and of them it was forbidden to eat.

The Lord God realized that the Adam would be lonesome without a companion, so other creatures were created. This is where our reading today picks up (Gen 2:18-24). Many animals were created, and all were given names by the Adam. But none of them was a suitable companion to him. He remained unique and lonely.

So the Lord made him sleep deeply. While he slept, the Lord took a rib from his side and formed it into another person, this one female. It is absolutely significant that the woman was formed from the side of the adam. If she had been formed from his head, it would mean she was superior to him. If from his feet, she would be inferior to him. But from his side, she was his equal.

When Adam awoke, the Lord brought the new being to him. Adam rejoiced because at last, here was a being that would be his equal and partner. He gave her a name too, again a pun. She would be known as Ishsha (woman) because she had been taken from Ishah (her man or her husband). We know her as Eve. Together they would become one unit, one body, and form new families of humans.

Psalm 128 reminds us of the great gift of husbands and wives living together in peace and raising their families. This is a great blessing bestowed on those who walk in the ways of the Lord. The text includes the notion of fear of the Lord. That doesn’t mean fear in the sense of being afraid of the Lord or of being punished for angering the Lord. Fear in this sense is more a question of the awe that comes from something too wonderful to comprehend or take for granted.

During the time of Jesus, there was a controversy in the Jewish community over whether divorce was lawful. Mosaic law allowed a man to divorce his wife, but the grounds for divorce varied, depending on which group of scholars was looking at the question. A member of one of these groups, a Pharisee, asked Jesus his opinion on the topic (Mk 10:2-16). By this time in history, women had very few rights. A man could divorce his wife. A woman had no such option. If she were divorced by her husband, she was returned to her family in disgrace and most likely would never again be married. Her status in society was completely ruined. Who would take a “used woman” for a wife? Without a man, a woman had no social standing and no rights.

Jesus goes back to before Moses for his response. He reminds his listeners that God created humans as men and women and intended them to become one unit, one body. No other human being should come between them.

In saying this, Jesus sort of side-stepped the issue raised by the Pharisee in public. However, his disciples were not satisfied and questioned him later in private. With them, he was much more direct. Divorcing a spouse and marrying another means committing adultery against that spouse. Very importantly here, Jesus places women on an equal footing with the men on this question. He assumes that a woman might also divorce her husband. The caveat is that if she remarries, she too is committing adultery against her former husband!

This is a hard thing. It’s very important today to remember that a wedding ceremony does not necessarily mean a couple are actually married in the deeper sense of becoming a creative, blessing, unit. That’s why the Church is so careful about marriages and the process for entering into a sacramental union. In a true marriage, there is a recognition that God is present in the relationship and the couple minister the presence of God to each other. Shot-gun marriages are not sacramental. Marriage just because a woman is pregnant is often not free enough to qualify. Marriage because a bride-price or dowry has been exchanged already, if one or the other partner is unwilling to enter the union, would not qualify. A marriage in which there is violence or a partner under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not qualify. When these circumstances can be identified, it is ruled that there was no marriage in the first place and the individuals are both free to marry at a later time.

Our understanding of marriage has grown and deepened through the centuries, but many challenges still arise for any couple who commit to living together as a unit, with a bond created by God. Fortunately, we have a much better understanding of human psychology today and a willingness to look deeper at the underpinnings of relationships among men and women of good will.

The Gospel reading continues with a new topic as well – children. People brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. The grown-ups thought that was not OK. Children were to be seen and not heard. They had no real rights and should not be bothering the master. But Jesus thought differently. Jesus welcomed the children and reproached those who tried to keep them away. Children are the model for all who want to enter the Kingdom of God. All must approach God with the openness and joy of a child.

In fact, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 2:9-11), all who are brought to glory through the leadership of Jesus are children of the Father. Jesus, “lower than the angels” for a brief time, became perfect through suffering, and brought humans with him back to the Father. Jesus calls all of us brothers and sisters.

Created in God’s image and equal, what is our response? How do we react to one another? Whose love do we respect and support? How do we reach out to those whose lives and ways of understanding are different than ours? Are we open to hear of the ways God’s love shines in the lives of non-binary people? Do we respect people of other cultures whose traditions differ from ours? How do we model loving relationships among our peers and with our children and grandchildren?

In October we are reminded to Respect Life. Life in its many stages and forms. Life before and after birth. From womb to tomb. May we accept the challenges of supporting women, children, immigrants, refugees, old people and young people, binary people and non-binary people, and all those in-between.

We are created in God’s image and we are all equal in God’s sight.

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B this year) begin with an event in the life of Amos the prophet (Am 7:12-15). A priest from the temple in Bethel named Amaziah essentially tells him, “Get lost!”

This might at first glance seem like a clash between the roles of priest and prophet. Anthropologists have noted these clashes in many societies. The priest’s role is to uphold the religious system and offer the necessary sacrifices to the local deity. The prophet’s role is to stand outside the gates and call for changes in the status quo when things get too unbearable for the poor and others outside the favored classes. Once the changes have been made in a society, the priestly class re-establishes a new status quo and all moves forward peacefully again.

To a certain extent this is what we see happening here. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The Promised Land has divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom is known as Israel. The southern is Judah. Bethel is in the northern kingdom which has been quite successful in expanding into lands we now know as Syria and Iraq. The nobles are doing very well personally. The religious leaders are also profiting from the elaborate religious ceremonies, including sacrifices to local gods of the conquered areas. The religious establishment is favoring the ruling class rather than reminding them to care for the poor as well, and that favor is being returned.

Roving bands of prophets move throughout the land, speaking in the style of oracles – using puzzling language and leaving people to figure out what the oracle means. These prophets earn their living as they move from place to place from people who want to know what the future will bring – much like “fortune tellers” today.

Amos is from Judah. He is a shepherd and “dresser of sycamores.” He is not a member of any band of prophets. He is a respectable man who earns a good living from his work. But God called him, instructing him to go to Israel (the northern kingdom) and call the rulers and people there back to the covenant. When Amos obeys, his message is not welcomed and Amaziah tells him to go home!

This might have been the end of the story, but Amos does not back down. He explains his professional background as nothing remotely resembling a prophet and makes it abundantly clear that he has been called by God to deliver the message. The very next sentence he speaks is: “Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The Book of Amos was the first prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It became something of a template for the prophets and prophetic books that followed, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The primary offense of the Kingdom of Israel? Failure to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, the conquered, and foreigners.

Psalm 85 puts it very clearly: kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth, while justice looks down from heaven. Justice, the right order of things, is based on kindness to each other. Only when the conditions of justice are met can there be peace and salvation.

The letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14) begins with a reminder of God’s blessings for those called to the community of believers. All things are summed up in Christ, according to God’s plan from before the world was created. We are chosen to be the adopted children of God, through his son, Jesus.

Finally, we see Jesus (Mk 6:7-13) sending out his twelve closest followers two by two to heal the sick and drive out “unclean spirits.” They are not to take anything but a pair of sandals with them on the journey. Their mission is not to the rich. Those who judge the importance of the messenger by appearances only would never give these messengers the time of day! But to those who welcome them and their message of repentance (turning back to God), healing of the sick and deliverance from demons is possible.

Remember, in those days what we know as mental illness was attributed to possession by evil spirits. This is not to say that such spirits don’t exist. They can cause a lot of trouble for any who listen to them. However, healing of the hurts, anger, frustration, and divisions that plague human relationships and can make mental illnesses worse is truly a form of driving out unclean spirits/demons too. When minds and hearts are healed, it can lead to obviously changed lives.

Kindness and truth, justice and peace – all are signs of the kingdom. May they characterize our lives in this coming week and into the years to come.

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Posted by on Oct 14, 2018

Mercy in the Life of St. Oscar Romero

Mercy in the Life of St. Oscar Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero came from modest circumstances in a village in El Salvador. His family did have somewhat greater financial circumstances than most others, but they were still poor. He attended a school in the village which only went to the third grade and then was tutored at home. During those years he worked as a carpenter with his father who had taught him the trade. After he decided he wanted to be a priest, he went to the seminary from age thirteen on. At one point he left the seminary for three months when his mother became ill. While he was home, Oscar worked in a gold mine with his brothers.

After he was ordained, Fr. Oscar Romero worked in a village parish for 20 years. Eventually his superiors saw his talent with administration and his high level of pastoral care. Ordination to bishop followed and he was the Secretary-General for the Catholic Episcopal Secretariat of Central America. By the time he was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador, he had had broad exposure to the repressive policies and actions of a number of national governments against the poor. But he remained traditional and conservative.

As Archbishop, Oscar was aware of the poverty and terrorizing of the poor by the military in his country. He was also aware that a number of the priests under him were organizing protests, teaching organizational skills to their parishioners, and some were advocating violence. For a number of years he advocated the unity and interior conversion of all as a way to remedy the injustices and bring forth mercy. Archbishop Romero was well loved by many families of the ruling class. He tried not to “rock the boat.” He was worried that would bring on more repression.

After a close priest friend, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated, Archbishop Romero stepped forward much more strongly. His homilies and weekly radio broadcasts then emphatically identified the marginalization and injustices and even ordered the perpetrators to put down their arms and refuse to take orders from their superiors. Romero visited and ate with both the rich and the poor. He baptized the babies of both social classes, often in the same groups, which infuriated the elite. He had very little support, including from church officials.

He was a loving and very pious man. He wrote in his diary that he examined his conscience every day and strove constantly to be a son of the Church. This was very difficult because many of the church hierarchy were of the wealthy class in power. They knew there was injustice and torture, but the official policy was tolerance. Active mercy was the last thing on their minds.

Archbishop Romero was suspected of being an extremist or at least of backing them. He was no such thing. In fact, he ordered the extremists, priests and laity, not to confront the governmental violence with violence. He further did not subscribe to the Latin American versions of Marxism, although he was accused of this. His entire focus was on the suffering of the poor and the peril of the souls of the perpetrators. On March 24, 1980, after attending a day of recollection for priests, Romero celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. As he raised the consecrated Host, he was shot.

This was an unlikely man, called to something which was foreign to his background, personality, and his superiors. Romero did not go looking for controversy or seek to be famous. Rather, in his diary he wrote of his desire to follow Jesus and for holiness. He saw Jesus particularly in the faces of those suffering. His willingness to be available to God opened his heart to mercy.

Today he is recognized as St. Oscar Romero.

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Posted by on Oct 7, 2016

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

pope-francis-celebrity-backgrounds-28521Like many of you, I received a chain email from a friend about the moral imperative to support pro-life candidates. The email was basically an endorsement of Donald Trump including the statement that no Catholic could in good conscience support Hillary Clinton.

Dear Friend,

There is a good article in the National Catholic Register (a more conservative Catholic publication) about Trump’s pro-life position.

Pope Francis reaffirmed his opposition to abortion in his address before a joint session of Congress while he also re-affirmed immigration, poverty, and gun violence as pro-life issues. These views were also echoed by American archbishops and bishops.

How Pope Francis shakes up what it means to be 'pro-life'

While the Secretary Clinton’s policy is definitely pro-choice (in favor or legalized abortion), Mr Trump’s policies are opposed to Catholic teaching on immigration, income inequality, torture, refugees, and ending the death penalty.

This brings us to our usual election dilemma in which the Democratic Party is generally aligned with then Church’s teaching on social justice issues and the Republican Party is aligned with Church teaching on birth control, abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia.

Pope Francis has come out publicly against building a wall between the US and Mexico which is one of Mr. Trump’s signature initiatives.

Voting for pro-choice candidate is morally possible according to Pope Benedict.

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”  (emphasis added)

With regard to reducing and eliminating abortion which should be a major priority for Christians we know that re-criminalizing it forces it underground and leads to the deaths of many young poor women. We also know that increasing education and economic subsidies for women makes it easier to choose life for the unborn. Many pro-life politicians also oppose paid maternity leave and longer term welfare for mothers. The Bill Clinton welfare reform in the 90’s gained bi-partisan support since it was aimed at “welfare mothers.” This decrease in aid tends to push women toward abortion.

Most people, according to many national polls are not happy with either candidate. However, if we are going to safeguard the unborn we need to have policies that support women, child welfare, and the family. While abortion is a tremendous evil, making it illegal will not stop it. We need to change the social incentives which push women toward abortion and create a social safety net that supports mothers and families.

By taking the broader approach that Pope Francis is recommending we can build a political consensus to support and grow a pro-life culture in the United States. The Church’s primary social teaching is the respect for human dignity and self-determination. This comes out of the fundamental Gospel challenge of charity for all. As reflective and prayerful Catholics we should focus on the theological virtues of faith,hope, and love in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds in this political season.

Peace and blessings,

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Posted by on May 6, 2016

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

An Eye for an Eye … A Whole World Blind?

Milkau_Oberer_Teil_der_Stele_mit_dem_Text_von_Hammurapis_Gesetzescode_369-2“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an important advance in human relations at the time of Babylonian ruler Hammurabi around 1754 BCE. In earlier ages, particularly in small tribal societies with large extended families, the norm was that family honor demanded extreme reaction/retaliation for wrongs committed against any member of the family. Of course, some members were more highly valued, so retaliation for wrongs against them was more extreme, but even for those with lower status, some sort of response was necessary. Otherwise the next offense might be more extreme. No family could affort to appear weak. This approach is still all too common among tribal peoples today. Honor killings have not disappeared from the face of the earth.

However, as larger groups of people/families began to live in towns and cities, feuds between families, with ever escalating degrees of violence, wrecked havoc on social order and stability. Something had to be done. The Code of Hammurabi, like the codes of other ancient rulers, served as a guide for dealing with conflict and setting levels of responsibility or punishment for offenses.

Legal Codes Limit Revenge

Under the terms of the Code of Hamurabi, wrongs could not be avenged with actions more extreme than the original offense, though what was considered extreme varied by social class, with offenses against the poor or slaves meriting smaller degrees of punishment. Nevertheless, limiting the scope of acceptable response/retaliation was absolutely necessary for human social progress.

Mount Sinai by El GrecoThe Mosaic Law, which undergirds much of Western Civilization, incorporated many of the features of the Code of Hammurabi. In contrast with the codes of monarchies, such as that of Hammurabi, Hebrew law was seen to come from God and included care of widows, orphans, and outsiders (“strangers”) in its scope. The concept of mercy and inclusion of forgiveness of debt were also part of the Mosaic Law.

All of this comes to mind as headlines scream that government forces have bombed a civilian hospital in rebel-held territory one week and the next week another civilian hospital in government-held territory is bombed by rebel forces. Terrorists kill theater-goers. Bombs explode near airports and in subways. Politicians speak of excluding all members of a world religion or all people from certain countries from entry to their more privileged country. Refugees are turned away from country after country. And women and girls who have been victimized by warring men are shunned by their families or killed for bringing dishonor on their families.

Where will it all end? When will it all end? How can it all end?

Jesus was not joking when He told those who came out to hear Him teach that they were to love their enemies, pray for those who persecuted them, and treat others the way they themselves wanted to be treated. (Mt  5:1-7:29 and Lk 6:27-38) They were to be compassionate as the Father is compassionate. These words were meant for us too. They challenge us today. Are they just for individuals or are they for communities and nations?

Forgive and Forget?

We sometimes hear the phrase, forgive and forget. It is so commonly heard that it’s become a platitude, a phrase that is somehow expected but without anticipation that it can actually happen. I suggest that it would be better to say “forgive but don’t forget.” Don’t forget the pain, the shame, the humiliation, the embarassment. But do forgive it and resolve not to pass it on. Take necessary steps to protect the vulnerable from harm. Be reasonably careful yourself, but forgive. Don’t carry the weight of hatred or of seeking vengence through the days following an injury or injustice. That only hurts the one who carries it. Passing on the pain doesn’t take away pain either. Passing it on just gives pain new energy, draining the energy of the one who harbors and holds on to it.

I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems. I don’t know whether we’ll ever see a time when wars will stop. I know that religious conflicts are among the hardest to end, in part because of their confusion with a desire for power and control that masquerades as a search for orthodoxy or conformity in religious belief and practice.

Nevertheless, I do believe that each of us is called to do what we can to stop the bloodshed, both literally and figuratively. We must forgive. We must find ways to hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions. We must learn how to teach our children to love rather than fear or hate those who differ from us and our ways. We must welcome people from other lands. We must resolve to share the goods of the earth, even if that means we must live more simply ourselves. We must go beyond “an eye for an eye,” because as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” None of us is perfect. No country is entirely innocent on the world stage. But it’s time for all of us to grow up and stop passing on the pain. Time to forgive and remember and resolve, “Never again.”

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Posted by on Nov 28, 2015

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

Synod on the Family: A Brief Summary

KampalaFamily-255x275 Wiki_PublicDomain_The Synod on the Family in October 2015 had as its focus “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.” Meeting in Rome for a second time in as many years, and following consultation with members of the Church around the world, Bishops came together to consider the challenges facing families and make recommendations for ways to help couples and families live out their vocations.

The final report to the Pope of the Synod on the Family calls for all Catholics to reach out to couples and families and to attempt to understand and help with their needs and struggles. The church’s teaching on the importance and lifelong nature of marriage between a man and a woman has not changed. However, when people are divorced and remarried or living together without being married, the Catholic community should not reject or abandon them or their children. Catholics who are divorced and remarried outside the Church are not supposed to receive communion. However, the Synod has said that people in this situation should work closely with their pastors to examine their conscience and their relationship with God. In other words, priests and all Catholics should look on these situations from a pastoral standpoint. How do we walk with them? How do we encourage them?

The Synod recommended that divorced and remarried Catholics should be included in the life of the Church as much as possible, even as lectors, catechists, and godparents. Homosexuals should also be welcomed and treated with equal respect and dignity. Pope Francis encouraged the synod to take this approach which focused more on the person’s own conscience as opposed to focusing exclusively on Church law. What is often hard for us to understand is how it is that someone can be doing something that is objectively wrong,like living together without being married, and yet there may be internal reasons of conscience that keep them in this situation. For example, the couple involved may have come from homes in which there was violence or great unhappiness and the thought of marriage for them means repeating what they suffered as children. Sometimes they see marriage as “only a piece of paper.” Yet these couples often show a great deal of commitment and unconditional love for each other and create a happy home.

Some critics are upset that the synod did not condemn people who are not following the rules, arguing that if you are not harsh with them you are approving the wrong things that they are doing. The pastoral approach recommended by the Pope and long tradition of the Church upholds the ideal of how we should live while helping people to see what God is doing in their lives and where He is leading them.

Two reports provide some highlights:




English translation of the final report: Synod 15 – Final Report of the Synod of Bishops to the Holy Father Francis – 24.10.2015

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Posted by on Jan 21, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self


January 19, 2105 is the Martin Luther King holiday in the United States. The first reading of the day in the lectionary is Hebrews 5: 1-10. Christ’s adherence to the will of the Father has led Him on a path of suffering, death and glorification. Dr, King took this path of God’s will to which we are all called.

“In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” – Hebrews 5: 5-10

The Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr is not a feast of the Roman calendar, but it is a national holiday to celebrate a civil rights leader and a Baptist minister who advocated non-violence. Today is a tribute to all who work for human and civil rights for African-Americans and all people. Many of us are of an age to remember the Reverend King. The three television networks brought us live coverage in black and white of the marches, the sit-ins, and the fire hoses and police dogs that were part of the black struggle against white oppression. There was the famous “I have a dream speech” at the Lincoln Memorial. The haunting last speech before Dr. King was gunned down, “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” in which he saw the promised land of freedom, “I may not get there with you but I have seen it.”

Like all of us, Dr. King was an imperfect human being. Like all of us he was a sinner, but his redemption, like ours, is based in obedience to Christ, the source of eternal salvation for all. We know that precisely because Jesus is the Son of God, His will is perfectly aligned with that of the Father. Since Jesus was truly divine and truly human, his obedience came at a human cost. “In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, AND HE WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

In his work of announcing the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, Jesus did not shy away from doing the will of his Father. But he knew where his call was leading. It became more and more obvious that if he stayed true to the person he was — the Divine Word become human — that His hands that had been raised in blessing and healing would be nailed to the cross. With loud cries and tears he asks the Father to take this cup away, but he is true to his calling and the will of the Father. “Let not my will be done but yours.” It is through this obedience that Jesus goes to his excruciating death on the cross and to the glory of the resurrection. He WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

For Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, all Christian saints and martyrs, and ourselves, this call to obedience is not only a question of observing certain commandments but a deeper call to be the person God created us to be, to be at one with God, to hear at one with God, to accept God’s truth about our mission in life to advance the kingdom of heaven.

There were many black leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dr. King didn’t need to have such a high profile in the movement. Yet it was something that Dr. King was drawn into despite all of the obvious risks to himself and his family. He was born and raised in Atlanta in a strictly segregated society. Dr. King knew what happened to black people who broke the rules. He certainly could have taken an easier type of ministry, but he heard the Word of God, the Will of the Father for his life and his death.

Most of us think that we are not called to such types of work. We are certain that God’s will for us involves something less “glamorous,” nothing so heroic as what Jesus and the saints like Mother Teresa and Dr. King did. But I wonder. All of us have that little voice within us to do something special, something only we can do, but we know that it will cost us. Dr. King used his gift of oratory, of speaking and preaching, to give voice to the prayers and aspirations of the millions enslaved and oppressed using the language, song, and rhythm that the Spirit had given them in their bondage and oppression.

Many of us see fewer years ahead of us than the ones that have fled so swiftly. The babies we held are now grown adults with their own babies. What are we called to do to announce the Kingdom of Heaven and to make it a reality? What can we do to end poverty, hunger, oppression, and violence? How do we draw closer to God and each other in prayer? How do we move toward reconciliation and forgiveness?

We can only do it if we take the time to be quiet and to listen — to pay attention to that little voice that comes to us or the massive cry that comes to us in outrage at the atrocities of the world visited upon the young, the poor, the defenseless. There is a price to be paid, and eternal life to be gained.


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Posted by on Jan 20, 2015

Why Do Children Suffer? Pope Francis Speaks to Filipino Youth

Why Do Children Suffer? Pope Francis Speaks to Filipino Youth


The video and the text are largely in Spanish, though a simultaneous translation into English is included. This is a summary of a small part of the Pope’s extemporaneous speech.

During a presentation to young people in the Philippines, the Holy Father set aside his prepared text to answer a question that had been raised by a 12 year old girl who had been rescued from the street. Tearfully weeping, Glyzelle Palomar, recounted the miseries of her life in a few words and asked, “Many children are abandoned by their own parents, many are victims of many terrible things such as drugs and prostitution. Why does God permit these things even though the children are not at fault.Why do so few people come forward to help?” In this video we can view the scene and the Pope’s compassionate embrace of the child.

What response is possible to the perennial problem of evil? Pope Francis did not try to evade the question with platitudes. He took the question head-on, educating about 30,000 of the faithful and challenging them. First, he noted the shortage of women among those making presentations and he emphasized the importance of the point of view of women. The Pope said that women pose questions which men could never stop trying to understand, that is, never grasp.

We can understand something, added the Holy Father, “when the heart reaches the place in which it can ask the questions and cry. Only through tears do we arrive at a true compassion which can transform the world.” Pope Francis described a common, worldly type of compassion as one in which we just take a coin out of our pocket. He added that if Christ had shown this type of compassion, he would simply have spent a little time with a few people and gone back to the Father. Jesus could comprehend our lives, the Pope said, when He was able to cry and did cry.

He notes, “In today’s world, there is a lack of crying. Although the marginalized, the poor, and the outcasts cry, those of us who do not lack anything essential do not cry. Only those eyes that have been cleansed by tears are able to so see things as they are.”

The Pope challenged the faithful. “Let us not forget (this young woman’s) testimony. She asked the great question ‘why do children suffer?’ crying. And the great answer all of us can give is to learn how to cry.”


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Posted by on Dec 17, 2014

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

El Santo Papa Francisco Ayuda Relaciones Entre EEUU y Cuba


President Obama and Pope Francis - public domain

El Presidente Obama y el Santo Padre Francisco











En el día de su cumpleaños, el Santo Padre Francisco recibío un regalo especial. Los presidentes de Cuba y los Estados Unidos anunciaron un acuerdo de reestablecer relaciones diplomáticas después de una ruptura de más de 55 años. El acuerdo fue animado y conducido en mayor parte por la Santa Sede. Durante su audiencia con el President Obama en el Vaticano en Marzo el Papa Francisco presentó su iniciativa. Durante el verano, el Santo Padre escribiá formalmente a los presidentes Obama y Castro. Después de una recepción favorable, el Vaticano organizó pláticas secretas para facilitar el desarollo del acuerdo.

El Vaticano se había opuesto el embargo de los Estados Unidos que prohibe el comercio con Cuba por más de 55 años. Los Papas El Santo Juan Pablo II y Benedicto hicieron declaraciones durante sus visitas a Cuba en contra del embargo por razon del sufrimiento del pueblo debajo esas restricciones. El Santo Papa comprende bien la situación y es amigo del arzobispo de La Havana. Además, el Secretario del Estado de la Santa Sede, el Monseñor Parolin ha servido como embajador ó Nuncio Papal a Cuba y su aliado más cercano, Venezuela.

Según el Presidente Obama, la política de desestablecer el gobierno comunista en Cuba por aislar al país insular no ha servido por 55 años y es tiempo para abrir relaciones diplomáticas. El presidente dijo que los visitantes a Cuba serían los embajadores mejores de los valores norteamericanos de democracia y libertad.

El profesor de ciencias políticas en la Universidad de Notre Dame, Michael Desch, dijo que la apertura de Cuba al oeste ofrece más posibilidad de cambiar el sistema comunista.
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Posted by on Dec 17, 2014

Pope Francis Helps US Cuba Relations

Pope Francis Helps US Cuba Relations

Pope Francis received a special birthday present today with separate announcements by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to re-establish diplomatic relations and soften aspects of United States and Cuban policy toward each other. President Obama thanked the Pope in his remarks announcing the change in US policy. Pope Francis first raised the issue in March when President Obama visited the Pope. The Vatican facilitated subsequent meetings in Canada and brokered the final agreement.

Improved relations with Cuba have been high on the agenda of previous popes including St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Vatican policy has opposed the United States trade embargo due to the hardships it causes for everyday people in Cuba. During their visits to Cuba both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict called for an end to the Cuban embargo. Pope Francis knows the Cuban situation well and is close friends with the Archbishop of Havana. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin has served as the Papal ambassador or nuncio to Cuba and Venezuela which is Cuba’s closest ally.

University of Notre Dame professor of political science, Michael Desch, called this a “long overdue step.” Professor Desch said that normalizing relations with Cuba will not strengthen the Castro regime. He called that logic flawed saying, “The more they are exposed to American culture, politics, and our economy, the weaker the hold of the Castroites on power.”

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Posted by on Sep 5, 2014

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis


What of kind of church does Pope Francis envision? Jorge Bergoglio, in his initial public statements and even in the choice of his Papal name, Francis, has made it clear that the church needs to be a servant of the poor and the herald of the gospel. These terms come from Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and are based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965). While most of us tend to see the church as an institution and perhaps as a sacrament, Pope Francis is highlighting the notion of the church as a community, a school of disciples, which is the servant of the poor in its role as herald of the gospel.

This emphasis began before Vatican II but it became especially pronounced after the council in a movement called liberation theology. For St. John Paul II, this approach was more reminiscent of Marxism than the gospel, so he took certain steps to curtail it. Pope Benedict XVI, his successor, took a more measured view and focused on aspects of this theology that started from a pastoral and community viewpoint as opposed to a political one. At an important conference to promote this view in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI chose Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires to formulate this renewed expression of a church for the poor.

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times, Paul Vallely, Director of The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly publication based in London, outlines the history of Liberation theology and the Pope’s restoration and enhancement of it. The pope welcomed Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican earlier this year. Fr. Gutierrez began the movement with his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation. Pope Francis has also removed the block placed by St. John Paul II to the canonization process of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who because of his opposition to political repression was shot while saying Mass. An even more telling sign is the Pope’s treatment of Nicaragua’s former foreign minister, Fr. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman. Fr. D’Escoto had been suspended from the priesthood by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis has lifted the suspension.

A pope who lives in a guest house and stands in the cafeteria line with his own tray has taken hold of the attention and imagination of the Catholic and non-Catholic world alike by being a voice for the voiceless. Pope Francis is leading us to be a different kind of church, one that is closer to the gospel, less secure, less majestic, ready to serve the suffering Christ in the destitute of the world.

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Posted by on Nov 30, 2012

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Follower of Christ the King


Dorothy Day, 1934

Dorothy Day, cofounder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement, died 32 years ago, on November 29, 1980. Like many other activists who have struggled for social justice and worked among the poorest, most forgotten members of society, she is more respected by mainstream Americans, religious leaders, and commentators now than she was during all but the last decade of her life. In life she had the annoying habit of pointing out the discrepancies between our Gospel calling to serve the Lord in those around us, especially in the poor and most vulnerable, and our national focus on the value of making money and enjoying a middle class or higher lifestyle. She opposed war and participated in demonstrations against all wars, including World War II. She supported Cesar Chavez and the labor union movement. She was not unwilling to go to jail and did so on multiple occasions. She lived and died in a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in New York, providing services including food, clothing, shelter, and a cup of good coffee to the poor and homeless. With other activists, she also participated in non-violent direct actions aimed at changing the social structures that lead to poverty and homelessness.

Movies have been made and books written about this woman whose work led to the establishment of the Catholic Worker. Church leaders today speak of her with respect and support her cause for sainthood. Men and women around the world join together in soup kitchens, hospitality houses, and communal farms to carry on the work she began.

This year, Dorothy Day’s feast falls outside of Advent. Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King. The convergence of  our celebration of a King who was crucified, died, and rose from the dead with our celebration of the life of a woman whose life was focused on serving that King in the poorest of the poor is one that does not happen often. Yet it seems fitting that this connection should be noticed. Serving the poor and disenfranchised is hard, dirty, smelly, frustrating work. Most people who live on the street are not there by choice, yet some prefer to remain on the streets rather than deal with the requirements of the various shelters or programs in their communities. Some have mental illnesses that are untreated. Some battle post-traumatic stress. Some have lost their homes as a result of loss of employment or long-term illnesses. Families and single people live on the streets. Children and old men and women live on the streets. It’s cold, lonely and dangerous there and all too often, the rest of us pass by without noticing them or if we do see them, we somehow assume it’s their own fault and feel no compulsion to try to help.

Those who enter pastoral ministry, social workers, and others who regularly deal with the homeless and disabled quickly learn that it is not glamorous or easy to provide support and care for this population, particularly with scant resources and personnel. Yet as Dorothy noted, “The mystery of the poor is that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do to Him.” This doesn’t mean she was never frustrated or angry with God. Anyone who regularly deals with impossibly difficult individuals, bureaucracies, social structures, and disdainful or fundamentally unaware fellow church members or citizens will experience times of total anger and frustration. Faithfulness to the call to serve Jesus in this way requires continuing anyway — telling God what a mess it all is, maybe telling God how angry one is feeling, complaining about how hard it is to keep going or to deal with the physical realities of life on the street or in poor neighborhoods, and then going out and continuing the work. This is the connection with Christ the King: faithful following of the call to service of the poor and vulnerable and to change those social institutions that keep so many people trapped in poverty.

Dorothy Day is on her way to officially recognized sainthood. Nevertheless, we would all do well to remember her thoughts about what might result in such an eventuality, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Photograph from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

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Posted by on Nov 5, 2012

Conscience-Based Voting: A Challenge for Catholic Voters

As American Catholics go to the polls to vote for President in 2012, many are experiencing confusion regarding whether they can in good conscience vote for a candidate or party with a platform that allows Americans of whatever religion or no religion to choose abortion, contraception, sterilization and gay marriage. Don’t they as faithful Catholics have to vote for the candidate and party whose policies agree with the moral teaching of the Church and deny these choices to all Americans? By the same token, the Church has take a strong position in support of health care for all, cradle to grave social services, and the right to organize unions. Does this mean that Catholics cannot vote for either party? Does it mean that Catholics cannot hold public office?

A Clarification from the Holy Office

In 2004, Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Church’s guardian of moral teaching as head of the Holy Office, offered guidance on this dilemma, underlining the principles involved for the Catholic voter. This guidance was issued in the context of whether and when Communion might be denied to Catholic politicians due to their actions in the arena of policy formulation and governing in a secular society.

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” he said. (emphasis added)

John Thavis, of Catholic News Service, in his report on Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement went on to explain:

“In other words, if a Catholic thinks a candidate’s positions on other issues outweigh the difference on abortion, a vote for that candidate would not be considered sinful.”

This position assumes that the individual Catholic’s conscience is in agreement with these Church sanctioned policies. A Catholic may decide that abortion is evil and wrong, that it is murder, but he or she may be reluctant to re-criminalize it for all Americans since it would lead to illegal and dangerous back street abortions. A Catholic might see such an anti-abortion law, refusal to pay for birth control, or rejection of gay civil marriage as a violation of the conscience of others that undermines basic freedoms in a secular republic. According to Catholic teaching, individual Catholics have the final responsibility for forming their conscience and making decisions. While Catholics are supposed to pay heed to the teaching and tradition of the Church, conscience is also the product of a prayerful reflection on all relevant domains of knowledge. To violate one’s conscience is a very serious sin.

And what of the Catholic politician who personally rejects abortion but refuses to vote to re-criminalize the practice? Does voting in a manner contrary to Church positions on these contentious issues automatically result in excommunication or other Church sanction? Are politicians required to vote in opposition to the positions of their constituents when those positions are not supported by Church teaching?

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, he recommended a series of steps that might be followed by bishops in dealing with Catholic politicians. These include a process of pastoral guidance and correction. Denial of Communion, while certainly an option, was not presented as an essential step in the process, though it is included as an option in the case of “obstinate persistence” on the part of the politician. Comparison was made to Church rules allowing denial of Communion to divorced persons who remarry without receiving an annulment of their prior marriage and obstinately persist in receiving Communion. Nevertheless, some canon law experts have suggested that the situation of the politician may be much more complex than that of the divorced and remarried Catholic, so an automatic judgment that a case of “objective situation of sin” exists cannot be as easily made. The final decision of the American bishops on this question noted that a “prudential judgment” would be required in dealing with each case due to the complexity of the question.

Why a “prudential judgment” rather than an absolute, automatic condemnation? Because politicians are also required to form their own conscience and act in accordance with its dictates. The politician who personally opposes abortion, yet finds the risks to social order entailed by the re-opening of an entire field of criminal activity that exploits frightened girls and women too great to endorse re-criminalization of abortion, may in good conscience find that he or she must vote against such measures. Such an individual might be granted the same exemption as that received by the above-mentioned voter due to the “proportionate reasons” behind his or her decision.

Election 2012

The campaign of 2012 has seen a number of  ordained clerics, including bishops, stepping dangerously near, if not across the border between their role as teachers of the faith and their personal role as voting members of American society. This is unfortunate. It can confuse, frighten, and anger the faithful in a manner contrary to the teachings of our faith and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, including Dignitatis Humanae, which notes that coercion is never to be used as a means of bringing people to faith or influencing their decisions. Comments suggesting that the faithful who having struggled with the issues and come to a decision in good conscience that does not agree with that of their local bishop should abstain from receiving Communion are a form of coercion.

Canon Law experts take the position that the burden of deciding whether one can receive the sacraments is fundamentally a personal decision. If one is guilty of serious sin, then clearly one should not receive the sacrament. Yet who decides the state of my soul?

Both major parties have offered tickets in which the Vice Presidential candidate is a practicing Catholic. Yet the positions of the two candidates are not in agreement on significant issues of public policy, including reproductive rights, civil marriage rules, protection of the most vulnerable among us, the rights of workers, our place as a nation among others in the world, and protection of our common world’s environment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has criticized the policies of the Democratic party on reproductive and homosexual issues. The Bishops have also criticized the economic and social justice policies of the Republican Party, as embodied in the proposed national budget developed by Vice Presidential candidate, Representative Paul Ryan, and endorsed by his Presidential running mate, Governor Mitt Romney.

Some argue that a hierarchy of “goods” exists that demands selection of leaders based on the relative position of the “good” in that hierarchy. Others argue that “single issue” choices fail to take into account a multitude of other considerations that play a much larger role in achieving the “common good” towards which we are to work.

Perhaps a case should also be made for pastoral guidance and correction for those politicians who fail to support the other pro-life issues we face – those, for instance, who would cut funding for programs such as WIC that provide nutrition support for pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. The right to life does not begin with conception and end with birth. As Cardinal Bernardin noted, life is a seamless garment: from womb to tomb. How we best support life through all of its stages is not always clear. That’s why we need to have Catholic politicians who are not afraid to face the complexity of these issues, struggle with the messiness of life, and, taking into account the teachings of their faith and their own experience of God’s love, make decisions to support or oppose measures that support life for their constituents and their fellow citizens – both those who share their faith and those who do not. Threats to refuse them the Bread of Life because their efforts to support life are not narrow enough threaten the freedom of all Catholics to enter the conversation, work to bring justice for all, and influence the development of the laws by which we govern ourselves. That would truly be a great tragedy – to close our ears to the whispers of the Holy Spirit in the signs of our times.

The Role of Ordained Clerics — To Teach and Clarify Church Teachings

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (Catholic Church Law) prohibits ordained clerics (deacons, priests, bishops, including cardinals) from publicly indicating in any way their personal preference in candidates. They are also forbidden to tell members of the faithful how to vote. They are, however, allowed to provide guidance regarding Church teachings and moral issues at stake.

In the light of this responsibility, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement first published in 2007, has laid out a series of guidelines for American Catholics: The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A summary of the document has been made available for distribution in parishes across the country. The document speaks of our duty to form our consciences carefully, to search for what is truly good in each situation and choose the best means to achieve it. Seven areas of Catholic teaching are included for consideration in the choice of elected officials.

  1. The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
  2. The Call to Family, Community and Participation
  3. The Rights and Responsibilities of Humans
  4. The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity with Other Humans
  7. Caring for God’s Creation

The bishops call us to focus on moral principles, including the defense of life, the needs of the weak, and the pursuit of the common good. These are all issues which must be considered in the formation of conscience. They are all issues we must consider as we go to the polls to choose the men and women who will represent us in dealing with the challenges we face as a nation and as members of a world-wide community of human beings.

As we cast our ballots, let us remember to pray for the men and women who have stepped forward to accept the challenge of leadership. May they be guided by the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of their heart to be compassionate and wise in their decisions and efforts to support life: from conception, through all its stages, to natural death.





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Posted by on Oct 9, 2012

Human Dignity: The Basis for the Right to Religious Freedom

“The right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the church or society or the state, but in the very dignity of the human person.”  John Courtney Murray, SJ

Recently some Catholic leaders have been objecting to certain American civil laws and regulations which they see as conflicting with Catholic teaching as a violation of religious freedom rather than as issues of conscience. Conflicts between religious teaching and civil law in the United States have historically been called issues of conscience. For example, Americans who were opposed to war in principle could opt for alternative service as conscientious objectors. Religious freedom was defined as the protection of individuals to worship as they chose. Confusing conscientious objection to state policies with the notion of religious freedom undermines the Church’s obligation to be a sign of contradiction as a witness to the Gospel. It also undermines the value of religious freedom by implying that civil law must incorporate religious teaching and impose it on all. A review of Dignitatis Humanae shows that the Church’s formal teaching authority does not support this misconception of religious freedom.

The dignity of the human person is upheld to the extent that individual conscience, development of new understandings of what it is to be a human being, protection of fundamental rights, and freedom to explore new possibilities are recognized and encouraged for all members of the society. Churches have an important role to play in influencing the conversation, but theirs is not the final word and coercion is not an option. As the Council Fathers noted in Dignitatis Humanae:

In the end, when He completed on the cross the work of redemption whereby He achieved salvation and true freedom for men, He brought His revelation to completion. For He bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. (DH #11)

Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person, not from the church or the state. It is not an issue of how many religious tenants of any given faith get written into civil law.  It is a question of the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and in this way move towards a more just society. Freedom of Religion is a right that belongs to every human being, springs from human dignity, and provides the space in which each person is freed to develop his or her conscience and then live justly in accord with its dictates.

Controversies Among Catholics

The relationship between church and state in regard to religious freedom has been the subject of much discussion in the United States in recent months, including what the appropriate role of the Church can be in the process of selection of the next Congress and presidential administration. We have seen bishops speaking out on such diverse issues as federal regulations regarding health care services that must be offered by employer-sponsored health plans, who is eligible to marry whom, how much of the social safety net in a just society can be dismantled to reduce the deficit, and whether wealthier individuals should pay more to maintain the safety net. We have seen “Nuns on the Bus” speaking against budgetary proposals, Cardinals and Bishops threatening excommunication of politicians who vote on issues based on their own conscience and/or on communications received from their constituents. There have been countless interviews and discussions on news media, social media, and comedy shows. Slogans are tossed around and reference made to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – “Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion,” for just one example. Recently, some bishops have even suggested that Catholics who do not agree with them should abstain from receiving Communion, despite Church teachings regarding the primacy of individual conscience.

The Pre-eminence of Conciliar Documents

All of these voices bring aspects of the challenges faced by a modern, multi-cultural, industrialized society to a level of visibility that was not always seen in the past. Nevertheless, these many voices do not speak for The Church in its most formal, authoritative, teaching role. Only the bishops of the world, from both the Eastern and Western Catholic churches, gathered in Council and representing the people of their dioceses, speak for The Church. Documents of the Councils are the most authoritative teachings of The Church, second only to the books of the Bible. Other teachings are important, including encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and pastoral teachings of national Bishops Councils, but they do not supersede works of the Councils. Pastoral letters of individual bishops, writings of theologians, and works from other members of the Church, are the teachings of individuals. At their best, they are rooted in Church teaching and tradition. At their worst, they are simply the opinions of their authors and may be in error, however well-intentioned.

John Courtney Murray, SJ and the First Amendment

John Courtney Murray, SJ, (1904-1967) an American Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, wrote a series of essays regarding the way in which pluralism and religious liberty could be compatible with Catholicism, not just in the United States but throughout the world. The ideas he was proposing were contrary to hundreds of years of tradition – a tradition in which the Church played the role of both civil government and religious institution. This dual role of the Church – governing in both civil and religious realms – began during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and continued well into the 18th century.  Murray, reflecting on the changes seen since the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States separated Church and State, suggested that this separation actually freed the Church to follow its religious mission and teachings regarding human dignity and freedom. For his ground-breaking efforts as a theologian, he was silenced by the Vatican for many years. However, by the time of Vatican II, as adviser to Cardinal Spellman, he drafted the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. This declaration, finalized and approved by the bishops of the Church in Council, was promulgated on December 7, 1965, the last great work of Vatican II. The Council that began its work with the reform of the liturgy ended its work with a new understanding of the source of religious freedom: human dignity itself.

Murray’s insights shed light on the role of religion in addressing questions of public policy today. If freedom of religion indeed comes not from the Church, or society, or the state and is in fact based in human dignity, then certain principles become evident.

    1. The decisions of the state regarding how its members will live with and treat each other are just that — decisions of the state. They are civil issues. When a state decides that members may not kill each other, it is a civil issue. Another state might decide that certain activities (such as infidelity or murder) might justify murder as punishment, including state sponsored murder (capital punishment). That is also a civil issue.
    2. Decisions of religious communities and organizations regarding how their members will live and treat each other are also just that — decisions of religious communities. They are the domain of religious authorities.
    3. Religious leaders and members of religious communities may offer their insights and make decisions in their lives as members of a civil society based on their religious beliefs and values, but those religious beliefs do not govern that society to the extent that they are in conflict with the agreed upon values, standards, and laws of the larger community.
    4. When civil laws provide protections for citizens that are not provided by religious laws, the civil ones generally prevail in a society such as the United States, where separation of church and state are the law. An example of this is seen in the current case in which a group of Amish men and women have been charged and found guilty in civil courts for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of other members of their faith whom they judged to be less faithful to the beliefs and practices of their faith. Their actions have been seen as assault and they were tried for “hate crimes,” in part because the assault was committed in the name of their religion against members of a religion.
    5. Situations in which civil laws prevail are generally limited to issues of protection of life and health, safety of children, and protection of all members of the society from abuse or assault at the hands of others. On most other issues, the separation of church and state allows religious communities to establish their own rules and to follow them.
    6. Some protections of individuals by civil society take precedence over religious practices; others do not. However, the morality of civil law or religious practice must be evaluated according to Church teaching by its effect on the freedom, dignity, and well-being of the human person. The following are some examples of these situations:
      • Communion under both species (bread and wine) is allowed for children, though children may not be served alcohol under most other circumstances.
      • Sexual or other abuse of children is never permitted and must be reported to civil authorities when there is reason to suspect that it may have occurred.
      • Churches may refuse to bless a proposed marital relationship that civil authorities allow. For example, previously validly married individuals whose prior marriage has not been annulled may not re-marry in the Catholic Church. Civil societies do not care whether the Church has annulled a prior marriage or not as long as a civil divorce has been granted to end the prior marriage. A marriage license will be granted if and only if the couple meets the requirements for marriage in that legal  jurisdiction. The question of homosexual marriage would fit under this same principle — issuance of a marriage license would allow civil marriage. Churches would not be required to grant their blessing to the union.
      • Civil society, in the United States, allows only one spouse at a time. This is sometimes called “serial monogamy.” Polygamy is not allowed, whether polygyny (more than one wife) or polyandry (more than one husband). Some religions allow polygamy, but the practice is forbidden by civil law. The practice of polygyny was one of the things that got Mormons in trouble in the early years of their church in the 19th century, for example.
      • So called “honor” killings are not allowed in Western societies, even though this type of murder is required by religious and cultural beliefs in many countries of the world. In some societies, murder of the victim is the norm in situations such as infidelity of a wife or the rape of a wife, daughter, or other female relative. Generally the woman is punished by death at the hands of her husband, father, brother, or other male relative.
      • The refusal of vaccinations or blood transfusions may be allowed, unless such refusal endangers the life of a child.


Reflections from Anthropology

Perhaps the most important insight to be drawn is the one from social cultural anthropology. There are many ways of handling things such as interpersonal relationships, relationships between and among families, the structure of the family, child-rearing, inheritance, property rights, sexual activity, dietary rules, purity codes, and one’s relationship with the transnatural (which we refer to as God or, more broadly, the supernatural). Human beings have been very creative through the centuries in their development of ways to get along with each other and the ways they deal with differences within their communities.

Does this mean that any legally allowable behavior is morally good? Clearly, that is not the case. The “honor” killings noted above, for example, are not behaviors that are morally acceptable even if they are legal in many countries because violence is inflicted on another human being when they are practiced. However, above and beyond such obvious examples, we need to note that exploitation of workers, denial of access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education, destruction of the environment in pursuit of private profits, and other such activities that have been and/or are still legal are not morally acceptable either. In such cases, religious leaders of all faiths have a role in identifying the immorality of legal activities and working, through their teaching ministry, advocacy, and service to those harmed by such activities, to bring the members of the society to the point of recognizing the injustice and moving to correct it. Within the Church, “womb to tomb” is the phrase used to describe the commitment to support human life in all of its stages as a gift from God.

In a secular society such as the United States, in which church and state are separated by the Constitution, the church may speak and lobby and explain its reasoning on issues. In fact, the Catholic Church should do so. However, the churches do not make the final decisions or the laws that will govern all members of the society. Civil authorities, in turn, do not interfere lightly in the internal affairs of churches. Nevertheless, where the civil rights or the health and well-being of members of the society are threatened or unduly restricted by religious teachings or rules, civil rules take precedence for the protection of “the common good.” This is also in accord with Dignitatis Humane, which states, “…the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare” and later continues, “Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may … join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.” (DH #3,#4)

Working Together for the Common Good – Grounded in Human Dignity

As a matter of tradition and law in the United States, religious and civil governments are strictly separated. As a matter of Canon Law (Catholic Church law), ordained clerics — deacons, priests, bishops — are prohibited from taking an active role in politics and/or telling people how to vote. The same human dignity that is the basis of religious liberty also challenges  individuals to wrestle with issues of public policy and, taking into account the teachings of the Church, form their own consciences, make decisions based on the conclusions they reach, and vote according to their convictions.

In multi-cultural societies, where many divergent sets of religious beliefs are held by their members, all are protected by the legal separation of civil and religious realms. No single set of beliefs and religious laws is imposed on anyone. Together they must work to develop a set of rules and regulations for the common good that protect all. Religious leaders have a role in the process: teaching and helping identify principles that need to be considered. However, no religious group may force its beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person. The separation of church and state – the structural form put in place to support freedom of religion – provides for the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and so to move towards a more just society. This freedom springs from human dignity, belongs to all, and opens the possibility for each person to develop his or her conscience in freedom. From that freedom, each one is called to live in a manner that builds up a more just society, promoting the well-being and full potential of each of its members – the common good.

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2012

Pope Francis’ Pro-Life Agenda – Beyond Clinton and Trump

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many

March 24 is the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1980. Archbishop Romero for most of his life was a pious, retiring, conservative priest and bishop. Nevertheless, he proved to be a man who could grow in response to the injustice of the social structure of his country, a structure that treated peasants and other poor people as less than human. When his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J. was assassinated shortly after Romero had become archbishop, he came to see more clearly the systemic nature of the oppression and to speak on behalf of the voiceless poor. As he said, “A Church that does not unite itself to the poor … is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Romero’s words and actions on behalf of the poor were not welcomed by many of his friends and colleagues, let alone by the rich and powerful of his nation. In the face of threats against his life, he declared, “If God accepts the sacrifice of  my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty. … A bishop will die, but the church of God — the people — will never die.” Ultimately, a day after his plea to the military, “I  beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression,” he was shot as he celebrated Mass.

A young Salvadoran agronomist was living with us at the time. She had been working in the countryside and had had the audacity to believe that peasants were human too. After one of her co-workers had been taken away by the death squads, her parents sent her to the United States, ostensibly to study English, but actually to save her life. When she heard the news of Archbishop Romero’s death, she was astounded and appalled. “If they would do that to the Archbishop, then none of us is safe!”

Blessedly, the civil war in El Salvador came to an end, and the death squads stopped spreading terror. Our friend was able to return home safely and resume her life. However, the oppression of the poor in countries around the world has not ended. The assassinations of Christians who work on behalf of the poor continue. Persecution of believers, not just in Islamic countries, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia continues. Real persecution. Not a difference of opinion about social policy and how to implement it. Persecution in which churches are bombed and people are killed. Those doing the “dirty work” are not only religious fanatics, they are representatives of business interests who would prefer not to have to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Some are drug traffickers who will brook no opposition to their trade. Others are members of religious groups, including Christians, who are convinced theirs is the only true faith — others have no right to their own beliefs or lives.

As Christians, we are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Witnesses such as Archbishop Romero speak to us from the past. Yet the violence continues today. Will we open our eyes and ears to notice it? What will we do to support those against whom it is directed?

For more information on persecution of religious believers in our times, please see this workshop by John Allen, Jr. at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (2012).

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