A Lenten Reflection on Catholics and Politics

politics-religionIt’s Lent: a time for purification and enlightenment, according to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Most of us grew up thinking of Lent in terms of what we were going to “give up.”  Speaking only for myself, I sometimes wish I could give up following what passes these days for American political “discourse.”  But as Pope Francis said recently, quoting Aristotle, a human being is by nature a “political animal.”  We cannot and should not avoid the political process; in fact, we have a moral obligation to participate to the best of our abilities!  As Catholics, then, how might we participate in ways consistent with Christian discipleship?  For those of us who also serve as Catholic clergy, what are our own obligations and limitations with regard to political life?

360_wtwain_0714American political life has always been, to say the least, exciting, interesting, and inherently disputatious: there’s nothing new about that.  Consider just a few historic, pointed quotes from Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Will Rogers (1879-1935):

Here’s Mark Twain, writing about politics in the 19th Century:

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Will RogersAnd here’s Will Rogers with some observations about American politics during the 1920’s an 1930’s:

There is only one redeeming thing about this whole election. It will be over at sundown, and let everybody pray that it’s not a tie, for we couldn’t go through with this thing again.

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.

America has the best politicians money can buy.

The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.

A president just can’t make much showing against congress. They lay awake nights, thinking up things to be against the president on.

There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.

Politics is a great character builder. You have to take a referendum to see what your convictions are for that day.

Today, however, I think most people would readily admit that what passes for political “discourse” has deteriorated to a level that does not warrant the term, since “discourse” is supposed to be “a communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation; earnest and intelligent exchange” or “a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing. . . .”

Aymond 1Gregory M. Aymond, the Archbishop of New Orleans, has written an excellent column, “What has happened to civility in politics?” (read the whole piece here) in which he observes, 

What has happened to politics, from my perspective, is candidates in campaigns no longer run on merit, their qualifications or their ability to lead, but run on the weaknesses of the other person. The name-calling and insulting comments that candidates exchange, in my mind, create an evil spirit among us.

Archbishop Aymond outlines four principles for evaluating a political candidate:

  1. Human Life: This principle covers the spectrum from conception to natural death, with the Archbishop listing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, caring for the poor, issues regarding biotechnology, issues of war and the promotion of peace “in our country and beyond.”
  2.  Family Life: This principle obviously includes marriage, and “a candidate must be willing to do all he or she can to help a person form a family that gives respect to family and children.”  This principle also involves wages, since one’s income affects how one can support a family with respect.
  3. Social Justice: Here the concerns listed by the Archbishop include: welfare policy, religious freedom, Social Security, affordable health care, and sharing housing and the resources of the earth with the poor.  He also includes the reform of the criminal justice system, and the issue of immigration (“welcoming the stranger). Not only must the immigrant be treated with dignity, the Archbishop correctly observes that “the Catholic Church teaches that people, under certain circumstances, have a right to leave their country and find a new life.” Other social justice issues involve respect for the environment and using the environment in a way that promotes respect for humanity.
  4. Global Solidarity:  Finally, the Archbishop asks, “what is the candidate willing to do to foster solidarity, for the elimination of global poverty, for religious liberty and human rights? We must ask how the person will work with the United Nations and international bodies.

Archbishop Aymond is a realist who recognizes that “it is likely that no candidate will measure up to all four completely.”  What is the Catholic citizen to do?  He answers:

We have to decide which of them would best move our country forward in a way that reflects those qualities.  We as Catholics must have our voice heard: We are tired of the lack of civility that exists in campaigns and we are calling for change.

Aristotle-Bust-640x424So, as much as we might be tempted to “give up politics” for Lent this year, as human beings (and therefore “political animals” as the Pope cites Aristotle) we cannot; as Christians we must not.  In fact, I think we can add to the Aristotelian reference and find this moral obligation highlighted even more.  In his Politics, the fourth century BC philosopher writes:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it. . . . he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And. . . the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

As difficult as it can be, therefore, we have a moral obligation to participate in the political process.  We cannot say that we are “above” it or that we are presented with no other moral option than to withdraw.  The greater good — the common good — demands that we do the best we can on behalf of others as well as ourselves, as expressed in the greatest Commandment given by Christ: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

pope-congress04.w529.h352A word about clergy and politics.  I have written about this previously, but I want to recap three points here.

  1. Clergy and Social Media: Clergy of all faiths are prominent in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking and teaching at every conceivable level, and even venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook.  It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy. It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others, but our casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.
  2. Catholic Clergy and Canon Law:  Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”  However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.”  While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross. Much more about this can be said and I will review all of this in more detail in a later posting.
  3. Unique Political Position for Catholic [Permanent] Deacons:  As we just saw, permanent deacons may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics (including transitional deacons) under the law. However, permanent deacons are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is such a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony?  Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop. Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign. 

aymond_mass1

In concluding this Lenten reflection on Catholics and political life, I return to Archbishop Aymond’s fine column one last time.  His own frustration is almost palpable as he ponders what the Church is supposed to do in the face of the contemporary political situation:

First of all, the church’s responsibility is to do what I am doing – speaking out and saying this is not what we want politics to be. It’s not of God. Where is our negativity bringing us? The second thing we should look at – helping people form their consciences so when they go to the voting machine, they know the basic qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

So, for Lent this year, let’s give up the vitriol, the name-calling, the demonizing of those who disagree with us.  In fact, let’s go the other direction and increase and deepen our involvement in the political process as our state of life demands.  In this season of purification and enlightenment, we must keep both of these elements in mind: to purify ourselves of that which demeans humanity and God’s creation, and to seek out and be enlightened by God so as to build up rather than to tear down.

Lenten Jerusalem Cross

Relationships: Marriage, Theology and Law

KasperThere has been much angst recently about an interview given by retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a distinguished theologian who has emerged as Pope Francis’ go-to theologian and éminence grise.  He gave an opening address at the recent consistory of cardinals (read more about it here) , and was even the first theologian the pope referenced after his election a year ago.

So, what’s the buzz about this latest interview?  Why all the agita?

The interview was given on 10 March, based on Kasper’s speech to the Consistory of Cardinals entitled “The Gospel of the Family.”  You can read the CNS interview here.   Speaking on the subject of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the German theologian called for “a middle ground that does not destroy or abandon doctrine, but offers a renewed interpretation of church teaching in order to help those whose marriages have failed.”

“I propose a path that goes beyond strictness and leniency,” he said, an such an approach “isn’t against morality, it isn’t against doctrine, but rather, (is meant) to support a realistic application of doctrine to the current situation of the great majority of people and to contribute to people’s happiness.”

Kasper 3 The Cardinal referenced the research that had been done to ascertain the relationship between church teaching on marriage and the actual experience of Catholics around the world.  He observed that the results clearly show that “there is a difficulty, an abyss” between church teaching and the actual situation of many people.  “The church has to bridge this abyss,” he said, not by surrendering our teaching, but by explaining it in new ways “in order to help people and at the same time remain faithful to the Gospel.”

“It’s not about something new as much as a renewal of church practice, which is always necessary and possible,” he said.

The backlash in some quarters against the cardinal’s suggestions has been as passionate as those who have taken comfort in his words.  Some have misinterpreted (deliberately so, perhaps, since his words seem completely clear and nuanced) his remarks as calling for a change in church teaching, and this is certainly not what he is suggesting.  He is echoing Pope St. John XXIII who reminded the bishops of the world at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that religious truth is one thing; the way that truth is expressed is quite another.  Let’s see if we can pull some of this together.

1) Matrimony is a sacrament of the Church, and considered as such by Catholics, Orthodox and some other Christian traditions.  This means that marriage is a sacred state in which people encounter Christ is a specially graced way with each other and the ecclesial community.  It is an sacrament “at the service of communion” in which salvation is worked out in communion with another.

2) Christ talked about marriage, and based on this teaching, his disciples quickly accepted the notion of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, a complete gift of a man and a woman for the whole of life.

3) The Church’s sacramental understanding of matrimony, however, has been reflected in a wide variety of cultural and legal systems. I readily admit that I am not any kind of a lawyer, and I will not attempt to render any kind of legal judgment, and I’m eager for qualified, competent legal expertise to continue this conversation!  My point here is simple: legal procedures within the church are built upon theological and sacramental foundations, and they can take various forms.

matrimony4) The Church has also accepted, over the centuries, that not all marriages look alike.  For example, older couples often marry, long past the time when they might have their own biological children, but even knowing this, the church welcomes and sacramentalizes their union, giving a broad and generous understanding of the procreative nature of that marriage.  In other cases, couples are simply unable to have children, and yet that does not cast doubt on the validity of their marriage.  Also the Church accepts that some marriages fail, and there have been different ways of dealing with this reality.  Why?  Because different legal systems, different cultural expressions, have resulted in a variety of approaches and processes.  Put another way: our current system of diocesan marriage tribunals, levels of courts (“first instance,” “second instance” and so on), court officials (“defender of the bond”, “procurator advocate”, etc.) is only the most recent way of structuring part of our response to those who have divorced and now wish to be free to marry again.

In short, while the teaching of the Church on marriage has not significantly changed, the external procedures on dealing with the pastoral issues involved have changed and evolved in the past and could so again.  Claims that somehow Cardinal Kasper’s theology is “flawed” or that he is “dangerous” in his attempt to recast Catholic theology of marriage and family are completely misplaced, and misunderstand and distort what he is saying.  The teaching is one thing; how that teaching is expressed and lived can and sometimes must change.

Those whose marriages fail must deal with many issues, none of them pleasant.  It is a time when, more than ever, the presence, support, pastoral care and love of pastoral ministers and parishioners is needed.  And, should love again flower in their lives and the hope of a new life, there should be a way to minister to that reality as well.  Typically, since the emergence of canon law as a field of study in the 12th Century, the Church has frequently sought the assistance of external tribunals to discern the sacramental state of a marriage.  (I’d be curious to hear how extensive this was, however, in the lives of most Christians; it would seem that this would have been something more available to the nobility perhaps, but not to the poor).  A rather complex process of tribunal procedure has developed over the centuries, involving different levels of courts, appellate procedures, and so on.  It is a formal, visible exercise of the external forum.

And then there is the internal forum: the forum at the level of individual conscience.  Appeals can be made to this forum when external situations are lacking: a lack of documentation, for example, or other reasons.  Clearly the use of the “internal forum solution” is avoided except in extreme cases.

But how about something like this?  Why wouldn’t something like this work?

Imagine a Catholic parishioner who is divorced.  She was divorced years before when she and her former husband were very young and the marriage failed for a variety of reasons, including physical and emotional violence on the part of her former husband.  Now, years later, she has met another man and they have fallen in love.  They would love to marry in the church and form a new family.  She approaches her parish deacon who interviews her about her former marriage and her current situation.  The deacon and the pastor review the case, following diocesan norms, and the pastor determines that the first marriage was null and refers the case to the diocesan tribunal for review and concurrence.  The diocesan Judicial Vicar reviews the acts of the case as submitted by the pastor and affirms the declaration of nullity and so informs the pastor and the young woman; she is free to marry.

That’s it.  The court of “first instance” would be at the level of the parish, following norms and procedures provided by the diocesan bishop as the Chief Judge of the diocese.  The court of “second instance” would be the review by the Judicial Vicar on behalf of the diocesan bishop.

Kasper 2No change of teaching, but simply a greater acceptance of the rights and obligations of the individuals under conscience, who then work with their local pastoral ministers to determine their freedom and readiness for marriage.  This approach could also work for people who have divorced and already re-married civilly.  The matters could be handled between parishioner and parish pastoral leaders.  Given what the church already teaches about the role of conscience in the life of the faithful, this approach offers, in my opinion, considerable respect for that teaching on the primacy of conscience as well as an exercise of legitimate subsidiarity in the processes involved.

Why couldn’t we start there?

As Cardinal Kasper says, “The doctrine of the church is not an ideology in the clouds, but God wants to be present, close to his people.”

Amen.

When Catholic Blogs aren’t, well, Catholic: UPDATE

Francis ad orientem

Pope Francis “ad orientem”

File this in the “something to think about” category.

When Pope Francis recently announced his picks for the red hat, he did so during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel in which he faced the East: ad orientem.  The headline of a popular putatively Catholic blog read, “For the record: Francis Turns Toward God — 2”.  The reason for the number “2” is that it was the second time the Pope had celebrated ad orientem, and the blog had similarly reported that first celebration as “Francis turns toward God.”  On another blog, a priest-commenter reported that ad orientem actually meant “toward Christ”!  In both cases, the whole context was that this was a significant theological development on the part of the Pope, a pope who apparently was signalling his doctrinal or liturgical orthodoxy by choosing to celebrate ad orientem. Who could possibly object to such reverence?  Obviously, to be a good Catholic, we must celebrate this way, right?  Who wouldn’t want to “turn toward God” or to “face Christ”?  Real Catholics are the ones who face the East (ad orientem) because that’s where God is, right?

Unfortunately for folks who might be taken in by that line of reasoning, this is NOT what the Catholic Church actually teaches.

467_Ad_Orientem_preview

Ad Orientem

versus populum 2

Versus Populum

Catholic teaching and practice, from the very beginning, reflected great diversity and practice on all of this.  In some ancient churches, there was an East-West orientation, and the priest and people would together face the East, where the sun would rise, analogous to God spreading light upon a darkened world.  However, there is also significant architectural evidence that this was not a universal practice, with the architecture of other churches facilitating a versus populum (toward the people) orientation.  Eventually, the ad orientem orientation became prevalent, but the option to celebrate versus populum remained a permissible option.  The point here is that traditional Catholic theology never made the claim that God was only accessible via one orientation or another.  Traditional understanding was that priest and people were together in praying to God during the Eucharist.  This was true whether facing East or facing the people.  The concerns of some Catholic conservatives today seem to rest on the idea that facing the people somehow makes the Mass a kind of “performance” by the priest, and that versus populum  is one small step from a Broadway production focused on people and not on God.

Let’s review.

1) Traditional Catholic theology emphasizes that God is everywhere.

2) The Church prefers, in accordance with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, that the Mass be celebrated versus populum whenever possible, but ad orientem is certainly permitted, especially if the architecture of the sanctuary makes that preferable.  Vatican II also teaches that “the full, conscious and active participation” of all the faithful at Mass is to be the number one priority when considering liturgical reform (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy).

deacon proclaiming Gospel

Christ present in many ways during Mass: the Proclamation of the Word, for example.

3) This same document, which as a Constitution of a general council of the Church is among the highest magisterial teaching documents of the Church, also addresses how Christ is present in the Mass:

To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical
celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the
same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”,
but especially under the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that
when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it
is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly,
when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in
my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) .

Back to these blog headlines and comments.  First, the language of the headline permits the inference by those who wish to make it, that the Pope — until now — has been oriented AWAY from God, but has now seen the error of his ways; I’m sure the writer would vehemently deny such a claim, but the language permits such an inference, whatever the original intent of the writer.  Second, the language suggests that God exists in a certain direction and not in another (specifically, versus populum).  The state of the Pope’s personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this blog, certainly!  However, the second suggestion flies directly in the face of actual Catholic teaching.  It is a shame that people might be misled — whether deliberately or not — to think that this represents Catholic teaching.

To recap: the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church permits, and always has, Masses celebrated both ad orientem and versus populum, although contemporary liturgical law favors versus populum.  The entire Catholic Church believes, as expressed by the world’s bishops and confirmed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, that Christ is present at Mass in the people assembled, in the proclamation of the Word of God, in the person of the ordained ministers, especially the priest, and in a special way under the forms of bread and wine.

We owe it to each other to try to be as accurate about these things as we can.  Our Catholic Tradition is simply too rich and pastoral practice too diverse to try to box it into categories that reduce the very Catholicity we seek!

UPDATE:  A reader e-mailed me with a question about the tabernacle, suggesting that this might be why the priest would face ad orientem: because that was the direction of the tabernacle containing the reserved Sacred Species consecrated during previous Masses.  However, this is not the reason for ad orientem.  Examining the ancient churches of Christianity, one finds that tabernacles were located in a rather wide array of places: sometimes on the altar itself, sometimes in separate locations altogether: the priest never adjusted his orientation because of the location of the tabernacle.  They didn’t then; they shouldn’t now.  That’s never been part of the liturgical theology of the Church.

versus populum