Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Dignity of Life

C16: The Dignity of Life

In RCIA for the past while we have been discussing the basis of living a moral life. This has included the teachings of the Church on social justice and we have seen that the most basic Church belief in this regard has been its belief in the dignity of human life. Before we look at the way that this applies to economic justice, stewardship of creation and social equality (the main points in C16) I would like to point out two recent news items that again illustrate the issues surrounding the dignity of life in contemporary society.
During the first week of January 2007 the New York Times reported that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists were recommending that all pregnant women, regardless of age, be routinely screened for abnormalities indicating Down’s syndrome in the developing fetus. Although the news report said nothing about tests indicating a Down’s syndrome baby leading to an abortion the people commenting on the story mostly said that it appears understood that such abortions would be the “normal” course of action. One writer did point out that the recommendation by the medical association was likely made in order to get such testing covered by private medical insurance plans. Another writer pointed out that doctors are under pressure to do such testing in order to protect themselves from malpractice lawsuits alleging “wrongful birth” in the event of an unanticipated Down’s syndrome baby.
The obvious issue about abortion in general aside many parents of Down’s syndrome children report their experience as being very positive. They (Down’s syndrome children) look different and have a certain level of special needs but they can lead happy and productive lives. On the other hand proponents of abortion seem to feel that these children would be better of if they had never been born. It seems that increasingly people see children as a burden that they are unwilling to bear.
A more complicated and equally troubling story is that of “Ashley” as told by CNN in January of this year. According to CNN:
“Ashley, 9, has a condition called static encephalopathy, which means an unchanging brain injury of unknown origin. She’s in a permanent infant-like state – can’t hold her head up, speak or roll over on her own. When Ashley was 6 years old, her parents and doctors agreed to have her uterus and breast buds removed so she’ll never reach puberty. She was given estrogen treatments and will never be more than 4 feet 5 inches and 75 pounds.”
Ashley’s parents apparently defend their actions on the basis of ultimate benefit for the child. Ashley will be more comfortable at a smaller size. Breasts would have made lying down difficult. It will be easier to include Ashley in future family functions if she is easily carried and transported. I’m not sure what my personal reaction would be if Ashley were part of my family and my heart goes out to these parents. Still, it seems to me that the parent’s reaction, despite their argument, is based on their convenience rather than on what Ashley might want (if she could speak). It must take a great deal of effort to care for such a child but it must be asked if Ashley’s human dignity demands a different course of treatment than the one followed by these parents.

update: An editorial in the New York Times for January 26, 2007 has this interesting (and scary to me) observation about this case: "We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don't attribute dignity to dogs or cats, even though they clearly operate at a more advanced level than human infants."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Politicians and Morality

Recently, Nancy Pelosi, a member of the Democratic party from San Francisco, was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This position makes her a very influential politician. During the course of her taking office she made much of her "Catholic" roots and described herself as a "devout" Catholic. As part of her celebration of taking office she attended mass at a Catholic university. What made some conservative Catholic observers angry was the fact that Nancy Pelosi has a public voting record regarding the issue of abortion that is almost perfectly opposed to that of the Catholic church. These Catholic observers seem to feel that it is the duty of the local bishop (in this case the archbishop of Washington) to publicly admonish Pelosi and perhaps to ban her from public participation in the Eucharist.
What's going on here? Some people argue that if the archbishop does not take action he only encourages everyday Catholics to also ignore Catholic moral teaching regarding abortion and other matters. Conservatives disparage what they call "cafeteria catholics." These are (in their view) Catholics who "pick and choose" what they will believe. The result, say the critics, is a group of Catholics whose faith does not mean much to them and consequently is easily ignored. These conservative Catholics would like to see the "cafeteria" catholics out of the church (whatever that means). They would like to seek a Catholic church that might be smaller in numbers but would also be a church that has clear beliefs and a moral code that is practiced by all. Such a church, the conservatives feel, would be a church that present an effective message of evangelization to the rest of the world.
What do I think? It seems to me that the issue is more complicated than the conservatives believe. The issue of abortion is very polarizing. The notion that a bishop could dictate to a catholic politician regarding any issue could be a problem. John F. Kennedy handled the allegation of Rome's control over him by essentially introducing the idea that his private religious life and beliefs were separate from his political duties. This has been expressed recently as, "I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don't feel I have the right to impose my personal views on others." I myself think that this notion that a politician can have a private moral stance at odds with their public voting record is just a way of avoiding the issue. Still, since we are dealing with the conscience of an individual we have to be careful about public condemnations of their positions. Perhaps the Archbishop has chosen to deal with Pelosi by speaking with her privately. We don't know. Perhaps the Archbishop feels that Pelosi (with her flaws regarding abortion) is still capable of doing good things regarding other issues on the minds of Catholics. We don't know.
Conservatives, on the issue of abortion, as on other issues, have an important prophetic role to play in the Church today. We always need to be reminded of the importance of faithfulness to the traditions of our Church. Conservatives also need to be careful. Sometimes the more extreme conservatives sound a bit like the pharisees in the gospel. Their condemnations of others who they consider less "pure" than themselves seem to lack the charity we associate with Jesus. When a prophet becomes a pharisee their importance to the faith of the Church diminishes considerably.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Charitable giving and wills

One of the quite unintended concerns of now being in the "golden years" is that people who have been part of your life start dying. In my parents family this started about five years ago with the death of a younger brother from cancer. Since then both parents, an older brother, and a nephew have all passed away. After dealing with the grief we (those of us left in the family) have had to learn about the legal process of disposing of the assets of those who have died. I have even had to think about the idea that I too will die some day.
One of the things that I have learned from being an executor of a will is that the government is almost always going to be a beneficiary of the estate. We think that we have an estate worth X dollars and we naturally want our beneficiaries to have this money. But we forget about the governments share. Just think about it. Many people (including myself) have RRSPs set aside for our retirement. The thing is, you have not paid taxes on that money and the government is going to get its taxes eventually, even if that happens after your death. Many people also have stock and mutual fund portfolios or rental property. These to are subject to capital gains taxes (even if at a lower rate than the RRSPs). So, unless you hold only cash and only own the real estate you live in the government is going to be a beneficiary of your estate.
Now I would rather (even when I'm dead) send money anywhere other than to the government. This is why I am thinking that my personal will (no I have not made one yet) will include a significant gift to the charity or charities of my choice. Just like when you are alive this decreases the amount of tax you send to the government. I wish there was a simple way to know just how much should go to charity to minimize tax owing to the government. I been avoiding even thinking about wills and such (it seems so morbid) but it seems to me that including a charitable donation in the will is a sensible thing to do. Oh yeah, and I do some volunteer work for a couple of charities.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Journey (3)

My two previous posts have deal with the image of journeying. Here is another aspect of journeying and its impact on individual spiritual growth.
I have a tendency to want stability and predictability in my life (I think this is typical of a lot of people). I seek to make my life comfortable and when something disrupts this comfort my first reaction is to try to dismiss whatever is causing this disruption. People familiar with dependency issues (alcoholism and such) refer to this reaction as denial. In actual fact we all have this denial reaction in us. When something challenges the system of perceptions and meanings that I have built up in my life my first reaction is probably not to find new ways of thinking about my life, but rather to find ways to dismiss the cause of the disruption.
We see this tendency in scripture. In Genesis 22 God’s instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son. This would have been a deeply repulsive act for Abraham to do. Abraham’s willingness to do this makes him justified in the eyes of God and God promises many blessings to Abraham. Later on in Exodus Moses does not want to answer the call of God to return to Egypt. Moses finds a number of reasons why he cannot be the one to answer the call finally complaining that he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue”. (Exodus 4:10) Still later (Jonah 1:1) the reaction of the prophet Jonah on being commissioned to go preach in Nineveh is to set sail in the opposite direction. Likewise the reaction of the prophet Jeremiah to his call is that he is too young and cannot speak (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah’s reaction is understandable of course, given the tendency of the people of the time to murder their prophets.
Similar stories are found in the Gospels of course. The rich young man (Matthew 19:21,22) leaves when Jesus challenges him to sell what he has. In chapter 6 of John’s gospel we find the people leaving Jesus because of his difficult teaching. The invitation of Jesus to follow him is in the context of taking up his cross (Matthew 16:24).
What these stories tell me is that while I am on my journey trying to discern the path that I should take in following Jesus I am likely to be given directions that I would rather not hear. When this happens the easiest reaction for me is to disregard the direction and choose my own way. I tell myself that I am a mature Christian with good knowledge of my faith and I have the freedom to make my own choices. The danger is, of course that I stop doing the will of God and end up following my own path. I make God in my own image rather than following the real God.
It is because of this danger that the Church urges me to be docile. The first meaning of docile is easily taught. The secondary meaning is easily led. My first reaction to the notion of being docile was quite negative. But I can see the value of docility in the context of the tendency that I might have (as outlined above) to put too much reliance on my own knowledge and will in discerning God’s path for me. Being docile or being obedient to the teaching authority of the Church does not mean that I ignore my own conscience or intelligence. What it means is that even when the teaching of the Church is hard for me my first inclination should be to try and understand why the teaching in question is reasonable and logical. I have faith that the magisterium of the Church is essentially only trying to point out God’s will for me and is not some arbitrary or capricious force depriving me of something.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Journey (2)

Earlier I wrote about the image of journey in the context of salvation history and about some important implications of this image. Now it seems to me that an obvious implication of journeying that I (and I suspect others as well) often miss is simply the reality that a journey involves change and eventual progress. I think that there are two types of Catholics involved here. Some people of course are simply nominal Catholics. They identify themselves as Catholic on census forms and such but make no real effort to practice their faith. Other people occupy the pews on Sundays but their faith is static. Faith does not challenge them or change them over time. Neither of these two types of people are journeying. Some writers have commented on the difficulty people have in recognizing this reality.
In his book, Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, Fr. Thomas Dubay quotes St Bernard as observing that there are more people converted away from serious sin than there are good people converted from good to better followers of Christ. In other words, good people find it difficult to change and spiritual growth demands change. The Jesuit Fr. William O’Malley wrote in a high school religion text that inertia was in his view one of the two most basic sins. Another author, M. Scott Peck wrote that the reluctance of people to accept the harsh reality of change was a basic cause of much of the psychopathology that he encountered in his practice.
The Exodus story illustrates the truth of these comments. At the beginning of Exodus 16 the people have just been freed from slavery in Egypt when they begin to complain. They see nothing but threats ahead of them and long for the security of Egypt where they at least had enough to eat. I remember the first time I encountered this as a real – life truth. Some years back I was speaking to a close friend who had left an abusive marriage with her children. Doing this was difficult for her. She had been out of the workforce for some time and all she could see was a future with her and her four children on welfare. She told me that she was thinking of returning to her abusive husband. Now years later she has a good job, has raised a marvelous family and is a happy grandmother. Luckily for her she had the courage to continue on the journey. Other Exodus stories illustrate this reluctance to journey as well. They regularly complain about hunger and thirst and easily forget their covenant relationship with God.
What does this have to do with individual spiritual life? Fr Dubay in his book compares our outlook about spiritual growth to our outlook regarding health and diet. In both cases we know what we should be doing (we know what foods are good or bad) and we have at least a vague intention to do the right thing but we struggle to do so. I was impressed recently when the pastor of our parish was appointed to be the new archbishop of the diocese. In his first homily after the appointment he spoke of his feelings at first in terms of death. He felt like he was dying. He went on to give an explanation of life as a series of moments of dying to what was and being reborn to new realities and new possibilities. This is a good explanation of life as a journey. I think St. Augustine had this kind of journey in mind when he wrote:

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.

-St Augustine, Office of Readings, Saturday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Friday, January 5, 2007


This topic is found in the series Journey of Faith by Liguori Publications. This particular topic (C9) is most commonly called salvation history and refers first of all to the events and people of the Hebrew scriptures from the time of the Patriarchs up to the time of the return from Babylon and the events detailed in the book of Maccabees. Taken by itself salvation history can seem to be simply a quaint and often trivial recitation of events long past. However, when looked at in the context of a few of the themes of our faith we can see the importance of being acquainted with the central events of salvation history.
First of all, it is useful to see salvation history as a sort of journey. We use the theme of journey often. We speak of the faith journey of individuals and we refer to the RCIA as a journey of faith. In our faith lives we are called to journey from our initial encounter with God to greater and greater faithfulness to God until we reach our final destination (heaven). In the same way, salvation history describes the struggles of the people of Israel to live in faithful covenant with their God. The image of journey is even more explicit in the book of Exodus where the people literally journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. On this journey they go through the same struggles of trying to live in faithful covenant with their God who had done so much for them.
So, when I am on my own journey I am not alone. I walk in the footsteps of those many people in salvation history going all the way back to Abraham who made the same journey before me. I am also not alone since I journey with all of the people of God who are currently making the same journey. This has many implications. First of all, I can follow the trail left for me by my ancestors in the faith. I know the paths they chose and the dangers they encountered. This means that the traditions of my faith have the ability to guide me. Secondly, the importance of staying with the group seems clearer. During the journey I can sometimes wander off the path to explore (I have a certain amount of religious freedom). But there are danger points where I need to follow more closely with the group. These are areas where I might clearly separate myself from the group. (e.g. A Catholic denying the divinity of Christ would be departing from the beliefs of the Church in an important way.) Another danger comes when I take up beliefs that the group (the church) has clearly rejected in the past. This means that the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church has the ability to guide me. For me these are two obvious implications of thinking of my spiritual life as a journey.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Religious Education

Someone asked me a while back what advice I would give to someone just starting out as a religious education teacher (something I tried to do at the high school level for about 30 years and am still trying to do at the parish level. Anyway, I wrote:

Try to remember first of all that you are only one part of the catechetical enterprise of the Church. Remember also that being comfortable with your own faith and knowing the content of that faith is important. Who you are and what you believe is an important part of the message you will deliver. Also, It is important to remember that you represent the Church. As such you have a duty to faithfully transmit the authentic teachings of that Church. Finally,it probably does not seem like you have the time, but prayer and reflection are important things to do in your situation.

You could of course talk about things like lesson plans, materials, and essential skills but the quote nicely summarizes how I feel about being a catechist right now.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The perils of retirement

I have been retired for the past two and a half years. Before that I worked for thirty years as a teacher in a Catholic high school. I'm not sorry that I retired. At the time I needed to either retire or take a long break from that job. The problem is "where do we go from here?" It seems to me that the most common cultural assumption about people in my position is that we expect to spend our retirement as some kind of pre-geriatric hedonist. Sorry, that's not for me. The second most common assumption is that we will proceed to some job like Wal-Mart greeter or the fry person at the local burger joint. Again, that's not for me. I have found some volunteer jobs to be satisfying but the problem is that sometimes you have many requests for your help and other times no requests at all. Anyway, what I will try to do here is to find again the discipline of daily writing so that when the volunteer work is slack (like it is this week) I can find something useful to do.