Deacon-structing: The Law of Love

Photo Credit: CNS

A reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A. The readings are  Exodus 22:20-26, Psalm 18, Thessalonians 1:5c-10 and Matthew 22:34-40.

Which is the greatest commandment of the Law? This was a real question at the time of Jesus. People would gather around the water cooler at work and talk about which commandment was the most important. It’s like today, everyone talking about whether we need more security at the Parliament or people talking about which diet is better or what we need to do to be happy. That was a question that a journalist once asked Pope Francis: What is the secret to happiness; the secret to having joy in your life.

The scholar of the law in today’s Gospel reading is not just trying to trick Jesus – he’s actually asking him a real, valid question that people had at the time – like the journalist asking Pope Francis what’s the secret to being joyful.

Let me give you a little background. Today, in post-Temple Judaism, which we call rabbinic Judaism (maybe some of my Jewish readers can correct me if I get this wrong) – we commonly accept that there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. This does not include the 10 commandments. We’re talking about all the other commandments contained in all the 5 books of Moses. These are called the Mitzvot (mitzvah means law; mitzvot is plural). Many of these laws have to do with priestly service. The Levites were the priests and they had very specific laws as to how to do their job and how to offer sacrifice and serve at the Temple. These are the levitical laws and most of them are in the Book of Leviticus. There are also laws about food; what to eat, what not to eat and how to eat (like not to eat worms found in fruit, Lev 11:41 or not to eat the limb removed from a living beast, Deut. 12:23, or not to slaughter an animal and its young on the same day, Lev 22:28).

There are laws about offering sacrifice and about ritual purity and impurity (what makes one pure or impure); laws about marriage (like marrying a widow of a brother who has died childless, Deut 22:5), about clothing (like a man shall not wear women’s clothing or a woman not wearing men’s clothing, Deut. 22:5); about agriculture and how to breed your animals (like not to sow grain or herbs in a vineyard, Deut 22:9 and not to cross-breed cattle of different species, Lev. 19:19); about idolatry (like not to tattoo the body, Lev 19:28, or plant a tree for worship, Deut 14:1). There are also criminal laws and laws about judicial procedure and punishment; laws about property (like never to settle in the land of Egypt, Deut 17:16). There are laws about employment and how to treat your slaves; laws about how to conduct business; laws about how to treat the stranger and the foreigners (like  in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus), how to treat the poor and unfortunate; laws about prayer and blessings; laws about signs and symbols (like every male offspring must be circumcised, Lev 12:3) and of course, laws about God. A good Jew knew about all these laws. Pharisees were strict with all these laws and a scholar of the law, was, well, an expert in all this Law.

So when this scholar asks Jesus the question, he may have been trying to trick Jesus, but he’s asking a very real question that people had at the time. And Jesus responds well. He responds with a prayer that every Jewish person at the time knew and very Jewish person today knows very well, the “Shema”: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-6). This is the prayer that every Jewish person prays first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I imagine the scholar and the people accepting the answer and beginning to walk away and then Jesus saying, “wait, I’m not done. There’s another part. This is the greatest and first commandment, but there is a second, which is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” These were two separate commandments, one from Deuteronomy 6 and the other from Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Again, every Jew would be familiar with that scripture passage, but no one would have thought to put the two together. Love God and love neighbour. Jesus says they’re the two greatest commandments.

And that makes perfect sense. We cannot pretend to love God if we do not love our neighbour. And all those who love their neighbour, are loving God. The Vatican II Document, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium -#16) says that those who through no fault of their own have not come to know God, but strive to live a good life, can achieve salvation. I think that means that those who love neighbour, can find eternal life, even if they do not know or think they do not know God, because in truly loving our neighbour, we love God.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that it is a commandment. We do not love because we are commanded to love. I do not love my wife or my family because the law says I have to love them – I love them… well… because I love them. God is love. God has loved us first. He loves us into creation and we, in turn, love him as a response to his everlasting, perfect, total love. If today you feel you have not experienced the perfect love of God, ask him, as you receive the Eucharist, to open your heart to receive His love. Ask Him to let you feel His love. He gives himself totally in love in the Eucharist. Open your heart to receive him love. Respond to His love the way the beloved responds to the love of the lover.

Our love our neighbour, is also a response to God’s love. Our love of neighbour flows out of the loving response to the love of the Father. That is why the Mass is not just about coming here to receive God’s love and keep it to myself. At the end of Mass we are sent on a mission: Ite, missa est. Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. Take this love you have received and go love your neighbour and make disciples of all nations.

And do you notice that there is actually a third commandment that is implicit in those two? Love God; love neighbour and love yourself: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It implies that we must love ourselves. Again, it makes sense. You cannot love God or neighbour if you do not love yourself and if you love God, then you will automatically love neighbour and self.

A few years ago I went through a phase where I had all these buttons. I collected them and had them attached to my backpack. I must still have them somewhere. Someone gave me one that had the letters J O Y. It spells “joy”. But it stands for “Jesus”, “Others” and “Yourself”. It is a reminder of how these three loves have to be ordered. First we love Jesus, we love God. Then we love others. That’s important – that’s the love of the cross: the vertical love of God and the horizontal love of neighbour. But if those two are in place, then automatically there is the third one of loving yourself: Jesus, Others, Yourself. It spells JOY.

In the time of Jesus they wanted to know what was the greatest commandment. Today we want to know what brings us Joy. It’s the same answer.

Deacon-structing: Mission

homeless man

Photo credit: A homeless man reads while sitting on a street corner in Washington in 2007. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

If you’re in the Church, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore our missionary call. This is all Pope Francis talked about during his first year of papacy: go out to the peripheries; get out of the sacristies; go and make disciples of all nations. In a way, the ground was prepared by Pope Benedict with the Year of Faith and with the Synod on the New Evangelization.

Most of us know about the universal call to holiness. That message was preached over and over again during the papacy of St. John Paul II. But did you know that there is another universal call? We all have a universal call to mission

What does that mean? First of all we have to put our missionary call in its rightful place: Our Church doesn’t have a mission; the Mission has a Church! Jesus Christ left us a Mission, out of that Mission rose the Church.

And the Mission is very clear: Go and make disciples of all nations. In his book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon says that if you study the original Greek, the great commission from Matthew 28:18-20 hinges on the verb “make,” Jesus tells us to ‘go, make, baptise and teach,” but none of those make sense outside of the context of “make disciples.” That, according to Fr. Mallon, is our Mission: make disciples. That is why we go, and who we baptize and teach.

Fr. Mallon also says, as the title of the book reflects, that we need to move away from a maintenance mode in our parishes, to a missional mode. Anyone who works in an organization that has a clear mission, or that relies on promotion understands this concept. What drives our work is our mission. This is why organizations have mission statements. We have to be missional in our approach to everything we do. And this “missionality” is not just for “missionaries”, or priests and deacons or for those in the religious life. It’s for everyone. If you are baptised, you have a universal call to holiness, yes, but also to Mission. I guess that is what St. Ignatius meant when he said that we are responsible for our own holiness and also for the holiness of others.

So, how do we do that? First I would propose a change in attitude. People who truly believe in something (saving whales, providing universal healthcare, vegetarianism or even promoting one superior race of humans, abolishing slavery – pick your belief of choice) are successful only to the degree that they make that mission their life. But if you truly believe in something you are not thinking about making that thing your mission; you live it. So the first thing we have to do is really believe in the message of Jesus Christ. But more than that; we have to have an encounter with Jesus Christ, because Christianity is not just a belief-system; it is a relationship. When you fall in love with someone, you want to tell the world. One of the reasons why the Church is not “telling the world” is that we have not fallen in love.

Once we’ve fallen in love, once we’ve come to accept and believe everything Jesus has commanded, this will drive our lives. (And volumes have been written about how we “fall in love”. It begins with an attraction. Then we want to know the beloved; we learn as much as we can about the beloved; we spend time with the beloved….

Maybe that’s where you are. Maybe you have had an encounter with Jesus Christ. Maybe you have fallen in love but you’ve bought into the idea that faith is personal and private; that it’s ok to believe it but we shouldn’t share it or “push” it on others. Maybe that attitude is comforted by the idea that we are to “preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.” Let me correct you: Faith is personal but it is not private. We are meant to share it and it is meant to motivate every aspect of our lives. And, how are we to go, make, baptise and teach if we don’t use words? Actions are good, but we must use words. (I’ve written about this already in a previous post.

If that is where you are then all I would suggest is a slight shift in thinking. Begin to live intentionally. Begin to live our Mission.

Here’s what I propose. Most of us are comfortable with occasionally giving money to someone on the street. How about we find a way to let them know that we are doing what we are doing because of Jesus Christ. I agree this is may be difficult or even make you feel awkward. A simple “God bless you” after you drop the coin in the person’s cup may be the place to start.

If you are a deacon or priest (or a religious sister or brother), how about you make a point of going out in your community wearing your clerics (and your habits) and be present. Go to the coffee shop, go grocery shopping. That in itself is a witness and we don’t need a plan of evangelization in order to do that. (A note to Deacons – I am not proposing that you wear your clerics when you go out to dinner with your wife. Make it intentional. Put on your clerics and go to the coffee shop with the strict purpose of evangelising by being present in your clerics, not just for the sake of wearing clerics or pretending you are a priest.)

Did you know also that this Sunday, October 19 is World Mission Sunday? It’s a day set aside for Catholics worldwide to recommit ourselves to the Church’s missionary activity through prayer and sacrifice. It’s always celebrated on the second last Sunday in October. St. John Paul II said that World Mission Sunday is “an important day in the life of the Church because it teaches how to give: as an offering made to God, in the Eucharistic celebration and for all the missions of the world” (Redemptoris Missio 81).

This year for World Mission Sunday we are focusing on the words from Matthew 16:18 “I will build my Church”.

(Read the Pope’s message for World Mission Sunday 2014. )

Depending on where you are, there may be special intentions at Mass, a special prayer or even the homily, dedicated to this theme.

There may also be a special collection in your parish for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. This money gets distributed among the missions and missionaries of the entire world. But more importantly, on this day, we are asked to pray for missions and missionaries and we are asked to spend an hour in adoration for missions around the world. How about, when we pray for missions and missionaries, we also pray that our lives become more missional?

And tell me how it goes. What do you suggest? How will you make disciples today?

 

Deacon-structing: Natural Law Part 3

Newly married couples kneel as Pope Francis celebrates marriage rite for 20 couples during Mass at Vatican

So far in part 1  and part 2, we looked at how natural law is usually defined and how some of these definitions cause confusion. I also offered a definition that has always worked well for me. It helps to repeat it: Natural law is the law that says that all things work best or yield the best results when used according to their nature.

As you can appreciate, this definition is not relative, but absolute. If you want the best tomatoes, you have to use the tomato plant according to its nature. If you don’t, you may still have pretty good tomatoes, but there will be no guarantee that the plant will yield the best results. The only way to guarantee that the plant will work best or yield the best results is to use it according to its nature. The key word here is the word “guarantee”.

Natural law applies to everything even morality. If you put any question you may have about morality to the “natural law” test I believe that you understand all Catholic moral teaching.

Since the current synod of bishops is about marriage and family, let’s look at how natural law can apply to our sexuality.

Sex works best or yields the best results when used according to its nature (or if you will, according to its design).

So, how do we know the nature or design of sex? We look at the circumstances under which it is guaranteed to work best or yields the best results.

We could spend the next three days figuring this out, by exploring each and every sexual scenario to see which would yield the best results. But this work has already been done by St. Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, so I am going to save you the time and trouble. (I’m sorry, but if you want to do the work, ask the right questions and be honest with your answers, you’ll come up with the same results.)

The sexual act is guaranteed to work best and yield the best results when it takes place in the context of a relationship that is free, faithful, fruitful and total. This type of relationship is called marriage. Marriage is the union within which the sexual act is guaranteed to be free, faithful, fruitful and total. That, we can say, is also the nature of marriage. It is under those circumstances (when marriage is free and faithful and fruitful and total) that it is guaranteed to work best and yield the best results. This means that when marriage (and therefore the sexual act) is not free, faithful, fruitful and total, it may work – it may even be good – but it is not guaranteed to work best and yield the best results.

So, forced or coerced marriages (not free), or marriages that take place under duress (as in during a pregnancy) are not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results.

Marriages where the couple does not commit to an exclusive relationship, as long as they both shall live (not faithful) are not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results.

Marriages that are not fruitful – and this does not only mean they have to be fertile – but that the love has to bear fruit; it must lead to good things, always, because love always makes us better and leads to good things – are not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results. As to the fullest expression of the fruitfulness of the sexual act in marriage, which is that it is pro-creative, it doesn’t mean that couples have to be fertile. It means that in its nature, the sexual act has to be fertile. So an infertile couple is still participating in a sexual act according to its nature. A sexual act that in its nature is not fertile is not using the sexual act according to its nature.

Lastly, a marriage where the couple does not commit to loving each other totally, does not commit to total giving, is most certainly not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results. This is why we refer to marriage as a covenant and not merely a union or arrangement. This is why marriage is not just “two people who love each other, living together.” A marriage has to be free, faithful, fruitful and total. That means that the couple has to love each other freely, faithfully, fruitfully and totally. It means that the sexual act has to be free, faithful, fruitful and total. It means that the couple has to give themselves to each other freely, faithfully, fruitfully and totally.

If the couple cannot (or refuses to) give of themselves to each other totally, then it’s not a marriage. It may be love, but it is not a marriage, because in its nature, marriage is total. That is the only way that it is guaranteed to work best or yield the best results. That is why the Church teaches that any use of the sexual act, outside of the context of marriage is immoral.

The reverse is also true: When sex is not used according to its nature or design, it is not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results. I don’t need to explain all the problems that people have because of our sexuality not being used according to its design (as described above).

The difficulty that we have with this is that most marriages are good or just ok. Some marriages are very good, but are they working best or yielding the best results? Can I love my wife freely, faithfully, fruitfully and totally all the time? Can I give myself totally – my whole being, my emotions, my fears, my sexuality, my body, my intellect, my fertility, my baggage, my dreams – to her all the time? Can she receive me totally and in turn give of herself totally to me? Probably not, but we sure can try. That’s what makes a marriage. That’s what we strive for. That’s what we commit to every morning when we wake up and we live our marriage vows on a daily basis. This should be a standard for how we live all our lives. We don’t settle for the least common denominator; we strive for God’s design in every aspect of our lives!

Once we figure out through the natural law test, what the nature of marriage and sexuality is, we can strive to live it. Don’t you want to live your marriage the way God designed marriage to be? That is certainly guaranteed to work best and yield the best results!

I truly believe that if we ask the right questions and we are honest with the answers, we can put anything to the “natural law” test and understand all Catholic moral teaching.

If I was at the synod and was asked to make a presentation about natural law, this is what I would say. What would you say? Let me know your thoughts on this.

 

Deacon-structing: Natural Law – Part 2

tomato
Last week
 I explained that I was surprised to see how much confusion there is surrounding the topic of natural law. If the Church needs to use the natural law argument in order to explain morality and especially sexual morality, we need to find a better way to explain it. Here’s my contribution:

If you type “natural law” into your Internet search engine, this is what you’ll get:

nat•u•ral law (noun)

  1. a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.
  2. an observable law relating to natural phenomena.

This is actually not a bad definition. Natural law refers to a law that is absolute, it is unchanging. It does not change based on cultural, social or experiential differences: What’s true for you is true for everyone.

Last time I mentioned that it was St. Thomas Aquinas who came up with the doctrine or notion of natural law. He based this idea on the notion that first there is an “eternal law”.

In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas begins by defining law. Laws are the rules by which a ruler rules. Aquinas assumes the notion that rulers rule for the good of the governed. If God is the ruler of the world, the idea by which God governs the world, for the well-being of the world, is called “eternal law.”

This is where the definition that we looked at last week from Prof. Hittinger of the University of St. Thomas, Houston comes into play: According to Aquinas, natural law is the participation of rational creatures in eternal law. Question is whether that “eternal law” imprinted in the hearts of rational creatures. Has God imprinted his eternal law in the nature, essence or design of his creatures? If so, that imprint of God’s eternal law in his creatures is natural law.

Since all beings in creation act according to their nature, it can be deduced that all beings act according to natural law, i.e. the law that God wrote in their beings (their design), and this law is a participation in God’s law, which exists for their well-being. It’s easy to understand if we’re speaking about tomatoes or chipmunks; they can’t act except according to their nature. But rational beings? Can we human beings act against our nature?

This is where the problems begin because human beings have freewill. (Can we say that it is in our nature to have free will?) In fact, a better definition is that natural law is “human beings’ participation in eternal law, through reason and will.” That means that we humans have to use our reason and will in accordance with the eternal law.

Are you confused yet? If it sounds like you’re back in grade 12 philosophy class while the teacher drones on, I do apologise. It does get complicated.

But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how Dr. Janet Smith explains natural law (or my adaptation of her definition) and how I’ve been explaining it for years:

Natural law is the law that says that all things work best or yield the best results when used according to their nature.

Think of that tomato plant. If you want it to work best or yield the best tomatoes, you have to use it according to its nature. You don’t stick in the closet and forget about it. That is not the nature of the plant. The nature of the tomato plant is that it needs water and sun. There may even be different species of tomatoes that have slightly different natures; some grow better in the sun, others in shadier areas… I don’t know (gardeners, please help), but you get my point. How do we know the nature of the specific tomato plant? We look at how it works best or yields the best results.

And it doesn’t just apply to “natural” things or thing “in nature”. Take my car for example. My car works best or yields the best results when I use it according to its nature or design. If I put honey in the gas tank, it’s not going to give me very good results. The design of the car is that we have to put gas in the gas tank. Furthermore, if I do all the things that I’m supposed to do, according to the design of the car; change the oil every 5000kms, rotate the tires, etc. (who does all those things?) it is guaranteed to work best and/or yield the best results.

That doesn’t mean that if I don’t use the car or the tomato plant exactly according to their nature, it’s going to be a disaster. If my car is not yielding the best results but at least it gets me from point A to point B, who cares? I operated my last car for 5 years with a leaky master cylinder by bleeding the clutch every six months. Not the car’s nature, but good enough for me – and saved me $2000. (What human beings do when something is not working best or yielding the best results is that, instead of trying to find out the nature of the thing, we just make do, or try to change the thing’s nature. More on that next week.)

It’s easy to understand this when speaking of tomatoes and cars, but what about when it comes to human beings? How do we know the nature of human beings?

Same way we know the nature of a tomato plant: we see how a human being works best or yields the best results. I guess, we’ve figured this out by trial and error. We know now that smoking is bad for you; that it’s good to drink eight glasses of water a day; that we need to sleep 7.5 hours a night; that aerobic exercise is good… Once we can determine how the human person works best or yields the best results, we’ll know human nature. The human person is guaranteed to work best or yield the best results when used according to its nature.

The reverse is also true: When we use something or behave in a way that goes against natural law, things don’t work best or yield the best results (or they are not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results). So, if I listen to music that’s too loud, and therefore am not using my ears in the way they were designed to be used, I may damage my ears. Or if I smoke, therefore using my lungs in a way that goes against their nature, they will not work best. As I said earlier about my car, if I do one thing or another that goes against my nature, according to what God designed for me, it may not be the end of the world, but it will harm me. It may harm my ears or my lungs, or it may harm my spirit. It may also harm my relationship with God, because that is also written into our hearts as part of our nature.

And this applies to everything and especially when it comes to Catholic moral teaching. If you want the guarantee that something will work best or yield the best results according to God’s design, then you must use it according to its nature.

It’s actually not that complicated. If you have a question as to why the Church says that something is immoral or sin, put it through the natural law test. I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out.

Next week, let’s look at some concrete examples as to how this can apply to sexual morality.

Deacon-structing: Natural Law- Part 1

Synod

I was struck this past June when I read the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document for the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place from Oct 5-19, 2014. The Synod, or meeting of Bishops, will focus on “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation” which is why everyone refers to it as the “Synod on the Family”. About 100 participants, including the presidents of all Episcopal Conferences, will attend the extraordinary synod.

There actually will be two Synods: After the “extraordinary” or “preparatory” one this year, there will be an “Ordinary” General Assembly October 4-25, 2015. The goal of this year’s Synod is to set the agenda for the big synod of 2015. The theme for next year’s synod is “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the family”. This second synod, will also include experts and above all else, families.

The working document the synods was put together by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops and, for the first time, came as a result of a questionnaire that was released in Nov 2013, as part of the preparatory document, which included 38 questions on various topics ranging from the Church’s teachings on family, natural law, and pastoral care to difficult marital situations, unions of persons of the same sex and irregular marriages. The intent of the questionnaire was to get grassroots feedback on these issues and although delivered to local bishops, religious congregations and Catholic groups, many bishops, as in the diocese of Austin decided to post the questions online in order to receive feedback from their faithful.

The result is the above-mentioned Instrumentum Laboris, a fairly complete document that is divided in three parts:

  1. Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World
  2. Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges and
  3. An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.

This document will provide a guide for the conversations that will be taking place during the synod this October.

What struck me was in the first section, chapter 3: The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law. I was amazed by what I read, constructed presumably based on the feedback received from the questionnaire. The section begins:

“Speaking of the acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family necessarily involves the subject of the natural law, which is often quoted in the Church’s magisterial documents and poses difficulties today.” (20)

The next paragraph reads:

“In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all.” (21)

In paragraph 22 I read,

“The responses and observations also show that the adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to be followed “simply according to one’s nature.”

And

“…the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific.” (22)

Further down:

“If some responses refer to a lack of proper understanding of the natural law, several Episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia, mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered “natural,” as well as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children — and, in some cases, unable to bear sons. In other words, from an emerging point of view, drawn from a widely diffused culture, the natural law is no longer to be considered as applicable to everyone, since people mistakenly come to the conclusion that a unique system of reference does not exist.” (25)

The document continues:

“The demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. This is also a result of a certain criticism of the natural law, even by a number of theologians. “(26) and “Other complaints against the natural law come from the poorest areas and those least influenced by western thought — especially some African states — which cite the phenomena of machismo, polygamy, marriages between teens and preteens, and divorce in cases of sterility or a lack of a male heir, as well as incest and other aberrant practices.” (27)

It was a surprise to me that when speaking about natural law, there is so much confusion. When the idea of natural law was explained to me, it was very clear and I understood it as a very practical, concrete concept. But maybe I’m in the minority. Before I continue, let me ask you: What do you think natural law is? Are you also confused by what the Church means by Natural Law?

The last paragraph of this section offers some suggestions. It is titled: “A Call for a Renewal in Terms of Language”

It reads:

“The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.” (30)

This paragraph also surprised me. I would not propose that the language is renewed, but merely that we learn to explain the term better (maybe that’s the same thing). And the idea of placing more emphasis on the Word of God is very sensible, but not exclusive to natural law. The way natural law was explained to me, it aligns perfectly with what is found in Scriptures.

Last July I attended a series of lectures in Toronto, Faith in the Public Square. While none of the topics had to do with family or sexual morality specifically, I was amazed that the first two speakers, Dale Ahlquist and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia mentioned natural law. But each defined it in a fairly different way.

Dale Ahlquist said that natural law was common sense. Archbishop Chaput said that it’s in your heart. I have difficulty with both those explanations.

I heard this having just read the Synod’s working document. I had also just interviewed Philosophy Professor, John Hittinger at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, for our documentary series, Creation. In my conversation with Prof. Hittinger the topic of natural law came up. He said that according to St. Thomas Aquinas (who came up with the term “natural law”) “natural law is precisely the participation of rational creatures in eternal law.”

Prof Hittinger continued by saying that “Thomas contrasted humans with other animals whom he said, “Obey eternal law by an impressed instinct or law, by which they behave according to this pattern for the good, but they don’t stop and reflect on the good. Human beings have conscience. We must stop and ask, “Is this good? Or will it catch up with us if we do evil?” This is why the two definitions I mentioned above, I think, fall short. We have conscience. We think about these things. We rationalize. So the perception of what’s “in my heart” can be very different than what’s in your heart or what’s common sense for me may be very different from what’s common sense for you or for someone living in a polygamous relationship in Africa.

No wonder people don’t understand natural law and have a difficulty making sense of it.

But natural law is commonly used to explain morality. Can we explain morality without using the natural law argument? I think we must.

I’d like to propose a different way of looking at natural law. I learned this from Prof. Janet Smith in her famous talk “Contraception: Why Not”.

I use this explanation of natural law every time I do a marriage prep class on sexuality. I use it every time I need to explain sexual morality of Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage and relationships. I have also used it to explain any moral teaching of the Church. No one has ever told me that it’s not clear. In fact, every time, everyone nods as if this was the most basic obvious thing in the world.

Join me next week as we look at a real practical way to explain natural law.

On a separate note, a Day of Prayer for the Synod was held today Sunday September 28 in the Salus Populi Romanii Chapel in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Perhaps you can say a little prayer today and every day from Oct 5-19th for the success of this Synod.

holyfamily

Prayer to the Holy Family

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer!

Amen.

Deacon-structing: The Cross- Part 3

EOC3

Last Sunday was the Feast of the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For the last two Sundays on the S+L Blog, we’ve been looking at why we exalt the cross, an instrument of death. We saw that Jesus died to destroy death forever, so we don’t have to be under the power of death anymore. Sin leads to death. But also disobedience. It was Adam and Eve’s disobedience that led to death.

Now listen to something St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, which was the second reading last Sunday: “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8). It was because of Adam’s disobedience that sin entered into the world. St. Paul also says that, in the same way that Adam’s disobedience made us sinners, Jesus’ obedience makes us righteous (Rom 5:19).

So I’m thinking that maybe this whole salvation thing doesn’t have to do so much with suffering as it has to do with obedience. How many times does Jesus talk about doing his Father’s will? “I have come not to do my will,” (Jn 6:38) or “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me,” (Jn 4:34) and “I do as the Father has commanded me.” (Jn 14:31) And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he struggles with God’s will (Mt 26:39-42; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42; Jn 18:11), but he was obedient (Heb 5:8-9). And because of his obedience God highly exalted him (Phil 2:9).

And we, too, exalt him.

I wonder if that, in a way, is what last Sunday’s first reading — the story about Moses and the bronze serpent — was about (Num 21:4-9). If you think about it, God could have healed all those people with anything. Why ask Moses to make a serpent and lift it up on a pole and then ask all the people to look at it? Maybe it has something to do with obedience. Here’s God saying, “Do what I am asking you to do, even if it’s the most ridiculous thing.”

You know, in the S+L film about Brother André — God’s Doorkeeper — there’s a story about a little boy who’s dying. Brother André tells the mother to wash him in dishwater. Dishwater! How random is that? But she does, obediently, and her son is healed. Sometimes God asks us to do the most unexpected thing, so that when we get results we know that it was His doing and not ours. That’s what last week’s Psalm is about: “Do not forget the works of the Lord” (Ps 78:7). Don’t forget that it’s God who saves. Not you or me, or Moses, or the Pope or Brother André or anyone. And just as Moses had to lift that serpent up on a pole so that the Israelites could be saved, Jesus also was lifted up, so that we could be saved (Jn 3:14). Not because it meant suffering a horrible death, but because it meant obedience: doing the Father’s will, even if it meant death.

And guess what? We are called to imitate Jesus. Jesus said that If anyone wants to come after him, they must first deny themselves and take up their cross (Mk 8:34). That means, “Put me before your life and you will find your life” (Mk. 8:35). That’s what Adam and Eve didn’t do: they put themselves before God – and they lost their lives. Deny yourself all your personal needs and wants, accept your suffering and follow Christ, because that’s exactly what He did. This doesn’t mean that we have to go looking for suffering. But life comes with a certain amount of suffering and this suffering is necessary for life. That’s why “a grain of wheat has to die in order to bear fruit.”

We are called to be obedient, even though sometimes it might not make any sense. Accepting our cross may seems like pure craziness. St. Paul says its foolishness. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor 1:23-25). We have to accept it because that’s love. We are obedient to God, because of love. God loved us first: He became man. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, because of love. Jesus says, “There is no greater love than give your life for a friend.” (Jn 15:13) It’s that simple. That’s the bottom line: the cross is a symbol of love.

So why lift high the Cross? Because that cross is a symbol of love: undying, everlasting, faithful, free, total and fruitful love – the love that sends Jesus to the Cross so that our sins would be forgiven forever and death would be destroyed. Remember, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” (John 3:16). In Spanish, this verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he “handed over” his only Son…” God doesn’t just send his Son, he hands him over. Because of love. And that’s why we venerate the cross and why we are not to be ashamed of the cross. St. Paul says we should boast of the cross (Gal 6:14). That’s why the cross is victory! That’s why we lift it high and why we leap for joy!

But this feast doesn’t commemorate an event that happened 2000 years ago. Every Sunday and every day, in churches everywhere, Catholics will be gathering around the table of the Lord and celebrating the Mystery of the Cross, because the Mystery of the Cross is the same as the Mystery of the Eucharist. It’s the same sacrifice. And so, the forgiveness of sins, our perfection and our salvation is taking place all the time, with every Mass that is celebrated all around the world. That’s pretty cool.

So we celebrate the Cross for the same reason why we celebrate the Eucharist: because of love. That’s why we sing “Lift high the cross.” The next line is “the love of Christ proclaimed.” It’s all about love.

That’s why I love another song, one that was written for World Youth Day 2002 by Susan Hookong-Taylor and Ana DaCosta. It’s a song that really brings home this Mystery of the Cross. It’s a great song because it is truly a worship song. That’s what we should all have been doing yesterday, on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, as well as everyday: worshiping.

“Love, lifted on the Cross for me, my Lord, my God, my Salvation. Love, lifted high to set me free, my Lord, my God, my Salvation.”

This is the final installment of a three-part reflection on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Click here for Part 1 and for Part 2.  

Deacon-structing: The Cross- Part 2

CRUCIFIX SEEN ON GOOD FRIDAY AT NEW YORK CEMETERY

Today is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Last week on the blog, we looked at why we honour the Cross: Because it reminds us that Jesus died to save us.

And this is where I have a problem. Why do we need to be saved by Jesus’ death? I remember growing up learning that we are made clean, that we are redeemed by Christ’s blood, that Jesus’ death forgives all our sins. St. Peter says that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). But why? Why couldn’t God save us by just having one big party instead? Why death?

I’m sorry to say that we don’t have the full answer to that. It’s a Mystery. There are Mysteries to our faith — not mysteries that we have to solve, like a murder mystery — but capital “M” Mysteries because they are so awesome that there is no way to explain them. But that doesn’t mean that, “Oh, it’s a mystery and we’ll never figure it out, so let’s forget it.” No, we need to keep praying and trying to understand them. We need to dwell in their presence, because maybe we won’t understand them intellectually, but I can guarantee you that when we dwell in the presence of these Mysteries, they will transform us. And that’s what we’re trying to do here: to grow in the presence of this Mystery of the Cross.

Okay, so Jesus really died. That means that in His humanity, God Himself suffered, died and was buried. So, this God, who is life, who loves us so much — more than you can ever imagine being loved — came down from heaven, became a human being, took on all our imperfections, all our sinfulness, all our brokenness and nailed them to the Cross. Why? To destroy them forever.

In the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows, there’s an inscription over the grave of Harry’s parents that reads: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  J.K. Rowling didn’t come up with that one. St. Paul wrote it first, 2000 years ago, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:26). And that’s because death is the result of sin.

Back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had no sin, so they had no death. That’s why God told them that if they ate from the fruit of the tree, they would die (Gen 2:17). And that’s what happened, when they ate from the fruit, out of their disobedience, sin entered into the world. They didn’t die immediately, but they fell under the power of death. So that’s the consequence of sin: death (CCC 1008). So when we say that Jesus died to forgive our sins, we mean that he died to destroy death. We are saved because Jesus destroyed death.

I can’t think of a better illustration than that of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund betrays everyone -– he is disobedient –- and because of that he has to die. That’s the consequence. And the only way to save Edmund is that the one who established the consequences of disobedience would die in his place. And that’s what happens: Aslan takes Edmund’s place. Now, in the case of Jesus, not only does he take our place so that we don’t have to die, but he destroys death for ever — he defeats death. On the third day he is risen! (CCC 655). Now we can be reconciled and reunited with God, into life eternal, as Adam and Eve were in Eden.

This is the second installment of Pedro Guevara-Mann’s three-part reflection on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Click here for Part 1.

Deacon-structing: The Cross- Part 1

Crucifix dangling from long rosary is seen against logs in retreat lodge at Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska

“Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim…”

That’s a song we all know, but what does it mean? Why do we lift high the Cross? This coming Sunday is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, also called the Exaltation of the Cross. Did you know that we celebrate this feast?

Have you ever heard of St. Helena? She was the mother of Constantine. Recall that St. Constantine was the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the whole Roman Empire in the 4th century. According to legend, St. Helena goes to Jerusalem and finds the true Cross – the actual cross on which Jesus died. Constantine had a church built over the site of the crucifixion; that’s where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is today in the Old City of Jerusalem. The church was dedicated on September 13th in the year 335. The following day, September 14th, was decreed as the day when “all should celebrate the finding and exaltation of the Cross.”

The word “exaltation” comes from the Latin exaltatio, which means “to elevate” or “to lift high.” But this same word is sometimes translated as “triumph”, as in “leap for joy”, and that’s why there are two names for the feast. I find it remarkable because it means that there is something about tomorrow that has to do with lifting high, but also with leaping for joy.

But let’s go back to our initial question: why “leap for joy” about the Cross? Isn’t that a bit morbid? Yes, we honour the Cross because that’s a way of honouring Jesus. But if my dad was stabbed to death, would I honour him by wearing a knife around my neck? Probably not. But I do wear a cross around my neck. And in our house, in every room, there is a cross or crucifix hanging on the wall. And we make the sign of the cross – indeed, every prayer we say begins and ends with the sign of the cross. Our faith teaches that it’s good to have representations, because when we honour the image, we are honouring the person the image represents. We don’t worship the image. There’s a difference between true adoration (which we give only to God), and veneration or honouring (which we give to images). Similarly, if I honour my parents or others I respect, I am not worshiping them.

So we worship Jesus, but we venerate the Cross. That’s one of the things I love about the Good Friday liturgy: we line up and come up to the front, and there’s a large cross that we are invited to venerate. Some people bow, some people touch it, some people even kiss it. This is something that has always moved me. Why do I come up and kiss the wood of the cross? Well, because without the Cross, there would be no Church. Without the Cross, there would be no Christianity. Without the Cross, there would be no Resurrection. Without the cross, there is no freedom and no salvation.

It’s nice to talk about resurrection and all that happy stuff, but when Jesus said that a grain of wheat has to die in order to bear fruit (Jn 12:24), He wasn’t kidding. It’s true that out of death comes life and this is one of the key Mysteries of our faith: Jesus died so that we could live. Isn’t this what we profess every time we say the Nicene Creed? For us men and for our salvation, “He came down from heaven; He suffered, died and was buried.” He did this for our salvation. And that’s what Jesus is talking about when He says to Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Jesus came so the world might be saved. (Jn 3:17)

Come back next week to find out more about the Cross.

Deacon-structing: The devil 3

stmike

So far we’ve looked at what the Scriptures and tradition tell us about the “prince of darkness”. But is this whole “devil” thing something of the past?

I remember watching the film The Exorcist and thinking that the whole scenario didn’t seem real to me. I don’t think demons sit around behind a tree waiting for some poor little girl to go by so they can jump out to possess her. I think that people have to cooperate with evil. You have to be really far away from God for the devil to be able to attack you like that.

According to Matt Baglio, author of The Rite, possession is the result of a person moving far away from God. He says that over a period of time, if you move far enough away, you make it possible for demons to step in. It’s not hard to move away from God. We may think that we are “religious” but if in our actions and deep beliefs we refuse to give up control of any aspect of our lives to God or have a continue pattern of sin, no matter how small (and remember sin is merely saying no to God), we are, in effect moving away from God. We don’t have to specifically dedicate ourselves to evil or play with Ouija Boards to invite the devil in. However, adds Baglio, if you’ve already begun distancing yourself from God, then playing with the occult will make possession easier.

I remember the first time I baptized a child I noticed that one of the prayers during the Rite of Baptism is called “exorcism”. This of course, does not mean that we believe the child is possessed, but it does mean that we acknowledge that there is evil in the world. During that prayer, the Priest or Deacon commands any impure spirits who might be present to depart from the person to be baptised. Also, remember that Baptism removes our original sin (for more on Baptism read, What is Baptism? and in this prayer we ask that Original Sin be removed:

“Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her). We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

So obviously the Church believes in the existence of the devil as real. And if you still have doubts, I’m sure you’ve been around some time when you’ve had to make a “question-and-answer” style profession of Faith, (it happens during the rite of Baptism and during Confirmation – if you’ve been to an Easter Vigil you’ve done it). After we profess our Faith, the priest asks: “Do you reject Satan and all that is evil?” (And the correct answer is “I do” in case you’re wondering.)

Not only does the Church teach that Satan is real, but we believe in demonic possession. In fact, the Catholic Church is the only Christian denomination that prayers or rituals that have to do with expelling demons. I don’t know how common exorcisms are, but I’ve read that one in 5000 cases of reported demonic possession are actually cases of real possession.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an exorcism:

“When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms (Mk l:25f.) and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcising (Mk 3:15: 6:7, 13: 16:17). In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called ‘a major exorcism,’ can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the Bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. “Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter: treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1172).” (CCC 1673)

In 1998, The 1614 Catholic Rite of Exorcism was updated and now includes a stipulation that no exorcism is to be performed until all other avenues have been exhausted. We have to be careful that we’re not dealing with a mental illness or some other psychological problem. That means that doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists must be consulted first in order to eliminate all medical causes before an exorcism can be considered.

One of the first books I read that had anything to do with exorcisms was M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Peck was a psychiatrist who actually became a Christian after he could not medically nor scientifically explain some of his patient’s behaviours or symptoms. In fact Scott Peck diagnosed some of his patients with “demonic possession”. (Another good book by Scott Peck on this topic is Glimpses of the Devil.)

The Roman Ritual of Exorcism lists the criteria for determining whether someone is possessed and requires an exorcism: “Speaking many words in unknown languages or understanding them; revealing distant or hidden things; displaying strength beyond one’s condition, together with a vehement aversion to God, Our Lady, the saints, the cross and sacred images.”

The Church takes possession very seriously. Every Diocese has to have an official exorcist. However, in most cases this is either the bishop or the bishop can appoint a priest as the diocesan exorcist.

It’s easy to get caught up with the drama of possession or exorcisms; however, the real danger of evil is not demonic possession, but rather in being deceived. Remember, Satan is a liar and deceiver. Possession is too obvious. Satan wants to work undetected and is trying really hard to make people believe he is not real. That is probably one of his biggest triumphs. Remember he is a liar.

He also likes to confuse, like making you think that something is good, when in fact it isn’t. A good example of this is making you think that it’s OK not to go to Mass because you need to spend time with your family – and God is really a loving and merciful God who wants you to spend time with your family (which is true and a good thing) and He doesn’t really care if you go to Mass or not (which is not true) – when in fact, going to Mass is very important. (The devil is good a half-truths; things that sound true or are partly true but are not completely true, in order to confuse.)

In short, Satan always wants us to pick something good at the expense of what God has promised… which is always something better.

When thinking about evil we must remember the fact that Jesus’ death defeated Satan forever. “Why is he still around?” you may ask. Maybe we are living what the Book of Revelation says about Satan being allowed to deceive the nations for a little while (Rev 20:7-8). Scott Peck liked to say that the devil has been defeated; we’re just in the clean-up operation.

I don’t know if Satan is on the run. It doesn’t matter. As long as there is God; people can choose “not God”. As long as there is Goodness, Truth and Beauty, people can choose the opposite of those. There is light, but we can always choose the darkness. And sometimes we end up choosing the darkness without really knowing what we are doing.

All of us can choose God or choose the absence of God, which is evil.  But if we choose God, Satan has no real power over us. It is a battle, but in this battle, God is on our side.

That’s why Pope John Paul II asked us to add the Prayer to St. Michael to our daily prayers:

“St. Michael, Archangel defend us in battle.

Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,

and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Hosts,

by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all evil spirits

who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Deacon-structing: the devil 2

who is the devil2

 

Last week we looked at the figure of the devil and why the Church teaches that Lucifer was an archangel created by God, who rebelled.

There are many names for the devil. You may have heard Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub and Diabolos. He is also referred to as Belial, Prince of Darkness, Prince of demons, Angel of the Abyss, Father of lies, Accuser, Adversary, Evil One, Destroyer, Slanderer and Ancient serpent. Many of these titles come from Scriptures.

The word “satan” is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary” and “accuser”. Many religions describe the devil as an angel, demon or minor god. In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is an angel that tests man for various reasons. In the New Testament, Satan is portrayed as an evil, rebellious demon who is the enemy of God and mankind.

In Islam, Satan is known as “Iblis” or “Shaitan”, who was the chief of the angels until he disobeyed Allah by refusing to prostrate himself before Adam because he refused to accept Man as his superior.

If we read the Bible, we know that Satan is a “murderer from the beginning” and a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We also know that Satan is a tempter – he tempted Jesus in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13). But even though Satan can tempt, believers have the power to resist (1 Pet 5:8-9) and Christ was revealed to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). We also know that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). And Christ’s death destroyed the devil (Heb 2:14-15).

There are a few instances in the Gospels when Jesus drives away evil spirits, but the one I like the best is from Mark 1:21-27. Jesus goes to the synagogue and begins to teach. Then a man who is possessed cries out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God!”

Then Jesus responds, “Be quiet!” and, “Come out of him!” The evil spirit begins to shake the man violently and comes out of him with a shriek. The people are so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”

Another one from the Gospel of Mark is when Jesus’ disciples are unable to drive out an evil spirit from a boy who was possessed. So Jesus asks them to bring the boy and proceeds to expel the spirit. Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus how come they couldn’t drive the spirit out. Jesus says, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:14-29).

These two stories teach us that Jesus Christ has authority over evil spirits but that sometimes the only way to deal with evil is through prayer and fasting.

So it’s clear that people in the times of Jesus believed in evil spirits and Satan, but what about nowadays? Except for movies like the Exorcist (and some other really bad movies), most of us don’t have any real experiences with “the prince of darkness”. But all of us have real experiences with evil (just read the newspaper). Come back next week and find out what the Church teaches about dealing with evil today.