The Limits of Choice: Personal Freedom and the Common Good

I was speaking recently with a fellow Catholic who is against mandates concerning vaccinations or masks during this time of COVID-19. The language was interesting. “It’s all about my personal freedom. As Catholics, we have free will and as Americans we have individual rights. I should be able to make my own decisions without anyone else (especially the government) taking that freedom away. It’s my body; it’s my choice.”

It may be hard to believe, but I was speechless. The person I was speaking with is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-choice. He is part of a group that wants to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice regarding abortion. But the very pro-choice position he abhors when discussing abortion is now the exact same argument he is using to justify his anti-vax, anti-mask mandate stance. So, he is anti-choice in one case, pro-choice in another.

How is this in any way coherent? It isn’t.

People who are anti-abortion make the case that “my body, my choice” is an insufficient claim for two reasons. First, they hold that there is more than one body involved: the unborn child as well as the mother. Second, even the claim of “my body, my choice” — disregarding for the moment the presence of the unborn child — is simply not true or absolute. Our experience tells us this readily. We accept without question and without distress that there are certain things that we may not do to our bodies; there are limits to the choices we can make. For example, if we saw a person about to harm themselves in some way, we would do whatever we could to stop them. Some personal choices are even subject to society’s laws: a person may “choose” to murder another person, but no one would say that this would be moral or legal. We readily accept limits on personal freedom. It is not an absolute right. Think of all the other restrictions we accept on our personal freedom: obtaining a driver’s license, for example, or the travel restrictions we endure to ensure the safety of all. Just because our personal freedom suggests we do something (or not do something), thinking adults realize that personal freedom is not an absolute.

How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the abortion debate? How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the vaccination debate?

Do I have a right to refuse to take the vaccine? The answer is not an absolute yes or no, but maybe. Does society have a right to regulate my behavior despite my personal freedom? “My body, my choice” is again insufficient. My personal freedom extends only as far as the personal freedom of others. At some point, the moral choice is to surrender a measure of personal freedom for the common good of all. Consider how we veterans are often greeted: “Thank you for your service!” It is acknowledged that, as a class of people, military personnel put their own personal freedom aside to a degree in order to benefit their comrades and the country. Taking the vaccination, even under a mandate, is less about one’s personal good than it is about the good of others. For people of faith, we need only look to St. Paul, who reminded the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).

The bottom line is that “my body, my choice” is an inadequate and flawed argument no matter who makes it.

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around by the equal rights of others.”

Thomas Jefferson

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis: Living, Loving and Leading through the Trump Presidency

GOP 2016-Why So Many

Act I is over.  Remember Act I?  All those presidential candidates sniping and name-calling and down-shouting.  I confess at first I found it rather entertaining, but before too long it became depressing yet mesmerizing, rather like watching a snake  charmer seducing a crowd.  Act I culminated in the national political conventions where the unbelievable happened.  The man most people voted the least likely to succeed in politics walked away with the Republican nomination and the woman with one of the most substantive public service resumes ever earned became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party for the office of President.  Those political conventions were the opening scene of Act II.

theaterNow, Act II is over.  The general campaign was brutal, bloody, bizarre, virulent, draining and depressing as two vastly different visions of our nation emerged.  Let’s face it: today as I write these words, no one is completely satisfied with the process or even the outcome. The wounds and the scars are deep.  But now Act II is also completed, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president-elect of the United States of America.  We’re now in the intermission of the transition, and that will end on 20 January 2017 when Mr. Trump places his hand on a Bible and swears the Oath of Office and he becomes President Trump.  At that moment, the curtain will rise on Act III.

trumpThe question for all of us is quite simple: What do we do now?  We are not an audience at a play.  We are not observers, but participants in our public life.  There is a term which became common during the Second Vatican Council: we are “co-responsible” for our lives and the life of our republic.  So where does that lead us today, the first day following the election?  The people who supported and voted for Donald Trump are ecstatic and triumphant; those who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton are reeling and depressed.  Those who supported third party candidates or who chose not to vote for any candidate are, well, I honestly don’t know how they feel.  But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that one feeling is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: almost everyone is feeling cut off and disenfranchised.  That was the stated position of those who supported Mr. Trump; it is also the position of those who supported Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton.  What should we be doing as we prepare for Act III?

scyllaHomer’s Odysseus, navigating his way home after the Trojan War, encounters the twin hazards of the Scylla and Charybdis: steer too close to the “rocks” of the Scylla and six sailors will be taken; steer too close the whirlpool Charybdis and the whole ship and crew will be lost.  It’s the classic conundrum much like our own expression of being “between a rock and a hard place.”  In today’s America, then, do we just proceed as we have over the last year and a half, and keep speaking of the Scylla of “winners” and the Charybdis of “losers”?  Is there a way, perhaps of navigating between these two hazards and overcoming some of the polarities of our national life?  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Donald Trump.  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton (and for other candidates).  Caricatures on both sides will not help us move forward.

What I’m proposing below is something that we who are people of faith might do within our various churches and communities to move forward in a positive way, to seek the light and not to descend into darkness.  How might we be, in the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, “a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God”?

I offer four things to consider.  These are clearly suggestive and not exhaustive, but these will help suggest others.

  • We must be active agents of peace and reconciliation. No matter who had won the election, it’s been clear for some time that half of our people are going to feel left out, disappointed, angry and marginalized by the outcome.  We must find a way to take the high ground and model between each other and toward our sisters and brothers who have supported “the other side” the Christian love that is to characterize us all.  How we relate to each other, even privately, can have either a positive or negative effect as we go forward.  For those of us who serve as public ministers of the Gospel, we must guard are tongues and our behaviors – not only for the sake of others but for our own as well.
  • We must move beyond categories of “winners” and “losers”. If we permit this kind distinction to permeate our communities, we enable the very gridlock that has characterized so much of our public discourse for so many years.  I am reminded of the senior Republican leader who, after the first election of President Obama, declared that the agenda of his party would be to make sure nothing of the new President’s agenda was successful.  However, this is certainly not unique to one party; both parties share in this kind of attitude, and their public assertions have affected many in our communities, churches and parishes.  It seems to me that we must find ways to stress those things that bind us together rather than divide us.  As Catholics who share in the sacramental life of the Church, and especially as we gather around the sacrificial altar of the Eucharist in communion, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we are all God’s children saved by Christ’s saving action and filled with the Spirit of reconciliation and mission.
  • We can offer opportunities for listening and dialogue, with a view toward reconciliation. If it seems appropriate within your parish and community, perhaps we might offer guided listening sessions in which people might share their own pain and concerns.  It will be important that someone skilled in facilitating such sessions be involved so that they do not simply increase the tension.  The purpose is not to exacerbate the problems, or to argue the various issues all over again!  Rather, this would be an attempt to map out how we can all move forward.
  • Finally, how might we all become even more involved in the local political scene? For those of us who are clergy, we are restricted by canon and civil law in the ways we can do so, although deacons in the Catholic Church — with the prior permission of our bishops — can be active to a degree that priests and bishops cannot.  As we have seen in previous columns, our deacons might even serve in public office as long as they get prior written permission from their diocesan bishop. But even more important, how might we continue to encourage even greater participation in the public life of the community?  We all have a responsibility to do something and not just complain about things.

We all need to take a deep breath and  — as we sailors like to say — “take an even strain” on the lines.  If we take the high ground and stay energized and motivated to work for the common good of all, we can indeed move forward.  We can — we MUST — see this new Act as an renewed opportunity to help transform, even if on a small and local scale, public discourse and the political landscape in which the common good of all can be served. I will bring this essay to a close with the words we all learned by heart in elementary school.  May we now live them in a mature and profound way as we move forward.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.



The Pope’s Challenge: Where would YOU stop? UPDATED

The internet is abuzz with the images of Pope Francis making an impromptu visit to a refugee camp while he was en route to visit a local parish,  St. Michael the Archangel in Pietralata.  Watch the video here.  Here’s another copy of the video, without the English getting in the way.  UPDATE: See that priest leading the Pope into the camp?  More about him later.

That’s the basic scenario, and that’s the challenge the Pope’s action places before us, especially those ordained to serve.

Here’s the parish the Pope was heading for when he took his pastoral detour.  260px-Chiesa_san_michele_arcangelo_a_pietralata

Imagine the excitement of the parishioners: the Pope is coming!  Here’s the picture they had on their website.


The pastor of St. Michael’s is Monsignor Aristide Sana, who was ordained on 18 March 1965 in St. John XXIII’s home diocese of Bergamo.  Now a priest of the Diocese of Rome, he’s been the pastor of this parish since 1998.  From what I can find, there are three other priests assigned, but I didn’t notice any deacons.

I keep imagining a conversation between Pope Francis and Monsignor Sana: “So, I just stopped at the refugee camp on the way here.  Nice people!  What are you guys doing to help?”  Actually, I can only imagine the Pope’s question; we can leave the response to our own consciences.

UPDATE: Here’s a new video clip from the Pope’s visit to St. Michael the Archangel.  He is teaching a religious education class to the kids; they all (including the Pope) seem very excited!  Also, if you look closely, the priest near the Holy Father looks like the same man who was with the Pope at the refugee camp.  I wonder if that is Monsignor Sana, the pastor of the parish?

If the pope was coming to visit OUR parishes, where would he choose to stop while en route? Imagine the pope asking those kind of questions of US!  What are the “refugee camps” right in our own back yards?  Where are the “margins” within our own communities?  And, knowing that, where are WE?

Returning to the Blog: As Life Goes On

Every so often I receive an e-mail that will say “So-and-so is now following your blog,” and I will feel guilty for not doing more on the blog.  Despite every good intention to do so, other things far more important than my essays in the blogosphere — family, work, and ministry — quickly take precedence.  Still, here I am, tapping away, and hoping that I can return to blogging with some regularity.

Mom and Dad 1948

Mom and Dad Wedding Breakfast 1948

A major event in the life of our family happened just before Christmas.  On 21 December, our beloved mother, Kathleen Powers Ditewig, passed into eternal life at the age of 90.  Her instructions to us were simple and direct: she wanted “no fuss” and no big visitation, wake, or funeral.  She had made all her own arrangements and we respected them.  My two sisters and I decided, however, that nothing in our promises to her prevented us from planning a big family gathering at some point in the future at which we would celebrate her life in proper style!  So, Mom, get ready for that!  You knew we’d be doing it all along.  Life here without you is a sadder place for us, but faith leads to the realization that you and Dad are together again, freed from earthly care.  Love you and miss you both!

To so many of you readers who sent along expressions of prayer and condolences, our deepest appreciation.

Since then, of course, we’ve been dealing with multiple projects and ministries within the Diocese as well as the beginning of a new academic term and assorted health issues.  But, praise God, eternal and temporal life goes on!  So, “watch this space,” as the construction signs always command, for upcoming essays.

Some Wonderful Resolutions for the New (Internet) Year

The great God-googler, Mike Hayes over at, has put together a wonderful list of New Year’s Resolutions based on the teaching and example of Pope Francis.  Do yourself a treat, if you haven’t already, and go read the whole list here.  So, I hope that Mike won’t mind if I do a riff from his list, with particular emphasis on how we Catholics “live” on the internet these days.  The National Catholic Reporter, for example, as well as many bloggers and others, have decided to disable comments on their websites because the language used in responses crosses the line of courteous, let alone CHRISTIAN, discourse.  With a profound nod to Mike, therefore, I’d like to reflect on his seven resolutions as they might apply to internet courtesy.  My friend and brother deacon, Greg Kandra, did something similar during Advent with an Internet Examination of Conscience; read it here.

But first, a bit of fun.  As I have made clear here and elsewhere, I have a profound admiration for Pope St. John XXIII.  Mike posted a picture of Pope Francis as part of his blog post; is it just me, or is there not a remarkable similarity between Francis and John (in more ways than one)?

Pope Francis or John XXIII pope-john-xxiii-during-ecumenical-council

Here’s Mike’s list of resolutions, based on the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelium gaudium:

Resolution #1: Be Joyful

Joy, as I pointed out in an earlier reflection on the Exhortation, is “the infallible sign of God’s presence” (to quote Teilhard).  If we truly believe the Truth of the Gospel, we should be filled with Joy and gratitude at the very core of our being!  There should be no such thing as a “sourpuss” Christian.  I resolve to reflect such joy in this blog.  I also hope that in the words used and responses to other posts will always be characterized by that joy.  I ask that visitors to this site try to do the same.

Resolution #2: Share Your Joy

The Pope is so right: We must not only BE joyful; we should all share that joy.  We should be the kind of Christian who says, “I’m good; the rest of you are on you are on your own!”  That’s one of the goals of this blog.  I am proud of our great Tradition, and I become quite frustrated at attempts to restrict the Tradition to one or another theo-political point of view!  I resolve to do my best to present the joy of the Gospel from the point of view of the whole of Scripture and Tradition.  This will be guaranteed to arouse the ire of extremists on either side of the spectrum, but so be it.  More about this later in the list.

Resolution #3: Exclude No One and Restore Dignity

The Pope has always stressed, as have his immediate predecessors, that God excludes no one from his love, and the salvation is open to all who come to God.  Perhaps it’s simply our flawed human nature that leads us to want to choose sides, one over and against another.  “We’re right and good; you’re wrong and bad.”  Another way to think about this is the tendency to have an “us versus them” attitude.  Some websites and blogs — even Catholic ones, even Catholic ones hosted by clergy! — seem to thrive on exclusionary language, mocking others who may disagree about things.  I resolve not to do such things here and invite people who may feel I have crossed such a line to draw my attention to it so I can correct it.

ThinkResolution #4: Diet From Devouring

While the Pope’s emphasis in this regard is largely economic, I think there’s a clear application to cyberspace as well.  A famous Catholic priest-author was once said to have “never had an unpublished thought”!  There’s simply no need to respond to every little thing (or big thing, for that matter).  I resolve to post only on things that are of particular interest or concern.  On the other hand, if folks would like to raise certain topics or suggest lines of inquiry, just let me know!  The questions would be “do I want to post on this?” and “Do I need to post on that?”

Resolution #5: Serve, Don’t Rule

OK, as one of my own teachers once opined, “The job of a professor is to profess!”  However, all such opining here is, I resolve, designed to serve the common good.  Ii hope that this blog can be a service for others, not a platform for bloviating.

Resolution #6: Practice Non-Violent Communication

Words matter; they can heal, they can hurt, they can destroy.  I resolve to attempt a level of discourse that reflects healing, peace and harmony.  Again, should readers find the language here offensive, please let me know.

Resolution #7: Combat the Tendency Toward Extremes

Extremism is almost always problematic.  As the old adage has it, “virtus in media stat”: Virtue stands in the middle.  As before, I resolve to avoid extremes and promote balance in all things.  There are so many sites in which extremes are promoted in language and attitude; I hope NOT to be one of them.  It seems to me that culturally we have lost civility and balance in discourse.  When we disagree with someone, there is a tendency to demonize them.  I hope that here we can disagree with courtesy and respect.

Thanks, Mike!

Monsignors and Serving the People of God UPDATED


A Ceremony “Robing” New Monsignori

Big “insider baseball” church news was the decision of Pope Francis to eliminate all but the lowest “rank” of Monsignor, and then to restrict even that form to diocesan priests over 65.  There have been all kinds of interesting reactions to this news!  One one side of the spectrum are those who find the move refreshing and a good first step at eliminating a sense of medieval-ism and careerism within the clergy; on the other, heads are exploding over this smack to the side of the clerical heads of those who found becoming a monsignor an affirmation of their personal and ecclesial worth.  One priest-blogger criticized that this decision was not made by the Pope in any kind of consultative manner and that perhaps it would be best for such matters to be dealt with on a local (diocesan) level.  Sorry, Father, it couldn’t work that way: “Being a monsignor” was always a PAPAL prerogative; it was his “gift”, although bishops would nominate men for the honor.  As the maxim has it, “he who gives, takes away.”  Furthermore, the pope DID consult on this decision.  He put a months-long moratorium on making any new monsignors, and I think it’s safe to assume he discussed this with his special group of Cardinal-advisors at their recent meeting.  This shouldn’t have surprised anyone at all!

For those new to this kind of thing, what are we talking about here?

First, Christ didn’t name “monsignors” (monsignori if you want to sound like Father Z).  This was a creation by church leadership as the “course of honors” (cursus honorum) developed through the post-Constantinian marriage of church and state which lasted until the American Revolution.  Just as secular honorifics and structures were created, they were paralleled in church honorifics and structures.  The word itself simply means “my lord”, and in some countries, it is actually a title used for a bishop.  It has absolutely NO connection to the sacrament of Holy Orders, although it is restricted to men who are in the Order of Presbyters.  As a deacon, of course, I never had any hopes of ever being a Monsignor anyway!  But people should understand that if their pastor went from being called “Father” to “Monsignor”, it didn’t mean that he had any more “sacred power” than a simple priest.  It was purely an honorific, usually given to two broad categories of priests: those who were younger and being signaled as those who might someday become bishops, and on those older men whom the bishop wanted to thank for a ministry well served.  As one priest-friend put it when he became a Monsignor, “I asked the bishop why he had done this.  He told me he wanted to thank me.  I asked him, ‘Why not just take me to dinner?’ I can’t even spell ‘Monsignor’!”  Later, my friend was named a bishop.  After his episcopal ordination, he e-mailed me that “at least I can spell ‘bishop.'”

Second, a bit of contemporary perspective.  As I’ve written about before, I’ve been around church and ministry for my whole life, and was in the seminary myself for high school and college (1963-1971).  Even before that time, the majority of the priests I knew in my diocese detested the idea of becoming a Monsignor.  On the one hand, we had a great Monsignor in our parish, and we all loved him.  He was Monsignor Patrick O’Connor Culleton, ordained in Dublin in 1901, came to our Diocese in Illinois early on, and became pastor at our parish in 1920; he remained pastor there until his death in the late 1950’s.  He was the pastor when a young newly-ordained priest named Fulton Sheen came to the parish for his first assignment.  Sheen always said that the Monsignor was the holiest priest he’d ever known.  But the younger priests — most of them anyway — wanted nothing to do with this kind of honorific, claiming that it was a relic of a time gone by that had no relevance whatsoever in the Church serving in the modern world.  It made no difference at all when one was marching for civil rights, or visiting people in an inner city slum.  In short, monsignori were seen as belonging to a different era in the life of the church.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council agreed.  They were dead set against retaining structures and processes that no longer served any practical, pastoral use in the life of the church, and they directed the Holy Father to streamline things.  Pope Paul VI took this task on, and in 1972, the whole sacrament of Holy Orders was restructured, eliminating in the Latin Church the Rite of First Tonsure, the four minor orders and the major order of the Subdiaconate.  The diaconate was now to be exercised permanently and could be opened to both celibate and married men.  The same pope also reduced the number of “classes” or “ranks” of monsignori.  No one really knows just how many classes there were!  Some sources tally fifteen different classes of monsignor, others have twelve or thirteen.  Popeprotonotarios_zpsc9e4a1b2 Paul reduced them to three only.  Now, Pope Francis has reduced this list to one, and then only for diocesan priests over the age of 65.

What difference will this make?

1) On a practical level, absolutely none.  A priest is a priest is a priest.  That’s always been the case, sacramentally.  This doesn’t change that.  The best news is that priests don’t have to go out and buy all the fancy rig that was associated with being a monsignor.

2) For those men who actually wanted to be monsignori (and, at least in my humble experience, that’s been thankfully a very small number!), it will mean that they can now refocus their efforts on being the best priests they can be without waiting for a title or new clothes.  In honor of their non-selection as monsignori, perhaps these men could join their deacons and lay folks in paying an extra visit to a homeless shelter or in lobbying for a change in unjust laws or for immigration reform.  I’m not saying that these men are not doing good things already; but if they’re not going to have to worry about being a monsignor, they’ll be free to focus on other things.  Like getting the smell of the sheep on their clothes.

Cassock_purpled_zpsc36574403) There IS a negative side to this.  Our good priests DO deserve some kind of recognition and support for their ministry; all people who serve do!  We do need to support our priests and acknowledge their service and commitment.  Some bishops, out of a lack of any other ideas, thought that at least by getting the pope to name a priest a monsignor, this could be a small way of doing that.  But here’s a chance for some grass-roots creativity and initiative!  Being a monsignor was no way to recognize anyone, and in some men it just created more difficulties that it was worth.  What CAN we do, in a positive way, to acknowledge someone’s service?  No one who serves AS CHRIST SERVED needs or wants recognition.  The only human recognition Christ got was to be nailed to a cross, after all.  Still, as human beings, it’s nice to know when something we’ve done has been effective.  What can we do, what can YOU do, to show appreciation to ALL who serve in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church?


As I continue to follow the various blog responses to this issue, I was struck by something.  It seems to me, anecdotally and not based on any scientific analysis, that most of the folks OBJECTING to the loss of new monsignors are people who are converts to Catholicism.  By and large, so-called “cradle Catholics” like myself are all in favor of it; those who have come later to the Church seem to be suffering the loss.  File in the “interesting, for what it’s worth” categories.

Happy New Year!