Friday, May 25, 2018

Diploma See

Having graduated from Purdue University many years ago, a recent newspaper article about the 2018 Commencement Address by Purdue President Mitch Daniels caught my eye.  Commencement speeches often focus on worldly problems the graduates will conquer.  While acknowledging the fact that today’s graduates are academically prepared to meet the challenges they face, President Daniels talked about the moral and ethical challenges that await them.  He put it bluntly.

When we can genetically engineer perfect children, should we? When wealthy adults can radically enhance their own mental abilities and life spans well beyond those less fortunate, should we let them? When robots, and a dwindling fraction of technologically gifted workers, are producing the majority of all the value and wealth in society, what will become of those who appear unnecessary? Will they be treated with respect, or as helpless dependents? If the latter, will the productive minority decide, as some have begun to speculate, that the others no longer deserve an equal say in the society’s decisions?”

Some of these questions are already being answered today, and the answer is frightening.  Last year, a US Fertility Clinic supposedly engineered a baby boy using the DNA of three different people.  A British court refused to let the parents of a brain-damaged boy take him out of the country for further treatment, and instead cut off life support allowing the child to die. This is what happens when human beings decide to play God. 

Daniels went on to caution graduates to resist the unintentionally tendency to segregate from their less blessed, less well educated fellow citizens.  He notes that our nation has seemingly divided into tribes, made up of people with very different views of true and false, right and wrong.  They seem deeply alienated from each other and deeply distrustful, and this distrust has eroded confidence in our public institutions.  Again, quoting from his speech:

“There are plenty of culprits here, starting with too many who have misused positions of authority. The so-called social media – I have come to think of it as “antisocial media” – enables and encourages hostility from the insulated enclave of a smartphone or a laptop.  People say things to and about each other that they would never say face to face, or maybe even think, if they knew each other personally.”

Here, he hits on one of the major causes of the polarization plaguing our nation today.  I am appalled at some of the statements internet trolls post online.  Such disrespect would never take place in a face-to-face conversation.  If the political viciousness weren’t enough, cyber bullying may be one of the major factors contributing to the violent acts we see taking place in our streets and schools.  This tribal mentality is particularly dangerous when the tribe gangs up on a weaker individual.  The helpless victim may see no relief other than self-destruction or violent retribution.  Daniel’s term “anti-social media” describes it well. 

I find it refreshing that the president of a secular institution of higher learning would speak on moral and ethical responsibility in a commencement address.  The graduates, and indeed all of us, would do well to ponder his concerns.  Despite our diverse views, we should always treat everyone with respect.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Quest Begins

Last week, our two local parishes held a dinner meeting to kickoff implementation of the goals set by our First Diocesan Synod.  Over the next three years, the priest, lay staff, and our parishioners will focus efforts on three pastoral priorities.  The number one priority will be evangelization, welcoming Catholics home.  Our evangelization committee will establish outreach programs to meet with non-practicing Catholics in our parishes to provide opportunities for church participation discussions.

This will not be an easy task.  Last month, I wrote about previous efforts that have fallen short.  At the very least, we have learned what approaches are least effective. This new effort will take a more direct approach with an emphasis on person-to-person contact.  We will be also using modern media to get people thinking about their faith journey.

One concern brought to our committee involves how any reverts will be impacted by our parish environment.   As in any church setting, personalities affect the spiritual temperament.  It is no secret that our current pastor’s affinity for lengthy, somewhat condescending homilies has turned some people away.  Parishioners perceive his tough love approach as angry and berating, rather than loving and nourishing.  As a result, we have lost many parishioners to other area parishes. 

In this particular evangelization effort, we are more concerned with people who are no longer practicing at all, but our efforts could backfire if those coming back to Mass for the first time in a long while are turned off by the experience.  Those of us attune to the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Sacrifice can overlook lousy homilies, but others who have been away will need time to redevelop the appreciation. 

The challenge is to convey the joy we experience in this wondrous gift during a brief encounter with someone who may indifferent or even antagonistic.   It is often said that all we can do is plant the seeds and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.  But, as our facilitator pointed out at the meeting, we are also the fertilizer.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Evangelization Realization

Our parish recently participated in a diocesan synod.  One of our main goals arising from the process is evangelization.  The desire to bring our separated brethren back to the Church is nothing new to us.  For the past several years, I was among a small group of parishioners making such an effort.  We met once a week, kicking around ideas and devising various plans.

Four years ago, we used an old parish roster to compose a list of former parishioners who were no longer attending Mass to the best of our knowledge.  Sixty-six personalized invitations were sent out inviting them to an informal pizza party, along with contact information for anyone who would like to talk privately.  Only one person came that evening.  We had a very nice discussion with him, but he never fully embraced a return to the Church.  Cancer claimed his life last year. 

For the past few years, we offered tours of our beautiful church during a local festival weekend.  Setting up a booth on the sidewalk, we encountered a number of families, offering them rosaries, pamphlets, audio CDs, and guided tours.  Most of them were out-of-town visitors, so we may not be aware of any impact we had on their lives. 

Last year, we organized what we called a Friendship Chili Supper.  We asked every one of our parishioners to bring a friend.  We had a great turnout, and about half of those in attendance were not Catholic.  After dinner, we presented a few lighthearted exercises to promote friendship.  Prayer cards and short questionnaires were on each table for anyone wishing information about our faith.  We also had a table full of free books, and other Catholic publications.  Despite some wonderful conversations, we saw no measurable results.

Our most recent effort took place on December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, with an Italian beef supper, and visit from the historical St. Nick himself.  The event was well publicized in the local media.  Again, we had a good turnout.  The presentation on St. Nicholas was well received, but any evangelization that may have taken place went unnoticed.

It is often said that we just plant the seeds and the Holy Spirit does the work.  That may be true, but it has become obvious that our efforts are falling short.  As our renewed evangelization effort takes root, the entire parish will need to become more involved.  While our previous efforts may have been icebreakers, we need to engage people in a more personal encounter.  Doing so productively will require introspection on our own spiritual condition.  We cannot share what we do not have.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Am I getting warmer?

With sub-zero wind chills and mounds of snow all around us, it is not uncommon to hear someone sing praises to global warming.  Obviously, occasional cold temperatures do not necessarily mean the warming of the atmosphere is a left-wing farce.  Climate change happens.  It always has.  Up for debate is the role man plays in the cycle.

Environmentalists have lobbied the government to impose increasingly strict limitations on emissions.  Industry spends billions of dollars adding pollution controls to clean and monitor what they release to the atmosphere.  While we certainly have a responsibility to protect our environment, I believe many of the fear mongers overestimate the power man has over God’s creation.

I grew up in a small town in the 1950’s where four intersecting railroads were just beginning to transition from coal-burning steam locomotives to diesel.  Many of the homes had coal furnaces.  There were no precipitators or pollution controls of any kind.  Black smoke belched from smokestacks and chimneys.  Those who did not burn coal usually heated with fuel oil or kerosene.  We had no natural gas available to us.  The air was dirtier, but we didn’t seem to notice.  Smoke was just smoke.  Is it possible the earth is warming because we have cleaned the air too much?  Did the dust in the atmosphere reflect the suns radiation, keeping the earth cooler?

Scientists blame global warming on carbon dioxide emissions now.  If we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, and if plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, why do carbon dioxide levels increase, and oxygen levels remain constant?  As far as I know, our atmosphere pretty much remains about 20.9 percent oxygen.  And, if carbon dioxide is heavier than air, what is it doing floating around in the atmosphere?  Why doesn’t it sink to the ground?  I am sure some environmentalist will give me an answer.  (Sorry if I am starting to sound like Andy Rooney.)

Most every time an environmental protection story appears on the television news, it is accompanied by video of a smokestack spewing a white plume into the air.  Oh my, look at all that stuff polluting the air that we breathe!  What they do not explain is this.  The white plume is water vapor, a by-product of government-mandated scrubbers cleaning the effluent before it leaves the stack.   Look at the following example.

Here are four smokestacks.  All four are in operation emitting product from coal-fired boilers.  The difference is that two of them have scrubbers removing sulfur dioxide from the effluent.  Two of them do not. 

First question:  Which smokestacks have the scrubbers?  Most people might say the two on the right look cleaner, but if you answered the two on the left, you would be correct.  The process is called flue gas desulfurization where emissions pass through a lime slurry that neutralizes the acidity before it is released into the air.  The effluent picks up moisture in the process and what you see coming from the stack is simply water vapor.  At the time this photo was taken, the two stacks on the right did not yet have scrubbers installed. 

Second question:  Which of the stacks will you likely see on a television news report about environmental concerns?  Probably not the ones on the right without scrubbers because what they release into the air is practically invisible.  I believe the general public, and the lawmakers that represent them, have become more vigilant about air quality from seeing what they perceive to be pollutants that are actually harmless by-products of mandated pollution controls.

While we have a moral obligation to respect our environment, let us not forget that God gave us these resources to use.  Because God creates through wisdom, his creation is ordered.  God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. (CCC299)  Our secular society believes it is the only one in charge, a very naïve approach.  Yes, we need to keep our environment clean, as we would our own personal hygiene, but do not let it become an unrealistic obsession to the point where we forget who is really in control. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Upon this Rock!

When I was a teenager in the 1960’s, we listened to all the latest music on our little transistor radios.  I can remember my cousin Greg, sitting innocently at his desk in the 5th grade, appearing to study with his hand covering the earphone and wire running down the sleeve of his shirt.  My favorites were Roy Orbison, Four Seasons, Beach Boys, Dion, and many of the girl groups, Shirelles, Ronettes, Crystals, and more. 

Then the Beatles came along and changed everything!  I was never fortunate to attend one of their concerts, but we all watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show.  The shrieks of young girls in the audience pretty much drowned out the music.  My parents just shook their heads.  To them, it was just a lot of noise.  I loved it, and I still do.

These days, my wife and I take frequent trips to visit our grandchildren some nine hours away.  To pass the time on the long tedious drive, we still listen to some of the same music we grew up with.   While we like the same songs, our disagreement tends to revolve around the level of volume those songs should be played.  I like to hear the music, not to the point of blasting the eardrums, but sufficient to hear the instruments over the road noise.  My wife can be satisfied with just enough volume to tell it’s playing, and maybe identify the song.   We compromise and I crank up my hearing aids. 

Having listened to the Beatles repertoire for more than fifty years now, I thought there was nothing much more to appreciate, but recently I stumbled across several you tube videos of musicians analyzing the Beatles’ instrumentation.  Some of my favorites are by Mike Pachelli who posted instructional videos on the genius of each one of the Beatle’s guitar techniques. 

I am not a musician, so anyone capable of playing an instrument is fascinating to me, but I gained a new appreciation for the Beatles’ music after viewing Pachelli’s analyses.  When he played individually what each guitarist was playing on recordings, I became aware of sounds I had never noticed before, and they were complex, yet simple and beautiful.  Pachelli, a really excellent guitarist himself, marvels at how these young men from Liverpool created these innovative techniques at a very young age.  It must be a God-given talent.  The next time I listen to this music, I will be looking for all the subtle riffs, chord changes, and the stuff to which Pachelli marvels, even though I don’t have enough music theory to always understand what he is talking about! 

And this brings me to what I believe is analogous to the way many of us Catholics view the Mass.  We can attend Mass hundreds, even thousands of times, without ever appreciating all of the elements.  Sometimes it takes another person with greater insight to break it down into its component parts for us.  For example, Dr. Scott Hahn, whose enthusiasm and theological understanding goes way beyond the average Catholic, essentially does the same thing for Catholics that Mike Pachelli does for Beatle fans.  By explaining the intricate structure of our liturgy, we learn to appreciate what we experience with new clarity and excitement.  By hearing someone explain the Mass in historical detail, we can suddenly go from weariness to WOW!

Complacency and indifference can make the Mass seem repetitive, even boring.  The problem is getting folks to dig deeper rather than accept a cursory approach.  It will not happen without some personal initiative.  Too many of us never make the effort.  To do so can be life changing, and it is not difficult.  It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to watch a video on you tube.  A person does not need to enroll in a weekly study, although one may be inspired to do so later.  Take a little time and broaden your liturgical horizons.  Imagine experiencing Mass in an exciting way you never did before!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Can we still have a Conscientious Objector?

The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop versus the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  At issue is whether a baker can refuse services to a same-sex couple to avoid violating his religious beliefs.  Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop, told a same-sex couple that he would not make the wedding cake they were requesting.  Lower courts had sided with the couple which caused Phillips to quit making wedding cakes altogether rather than violate his religious convictions. 

I caught a short audio recording of the oral arguments on the Internet that compelled me to search for the entire transcript.  The line of questioning by some of the justices was somewhat disturbing to me.  Somehow I would have expected them to be more insightful.  To illustrate, allow me to relate an ongoing debate that took place in our small town.

Several years ago, our town council passed an animal ordinance that pretty much eliminated harboring any domesticated animals except dogs and cats, and they had to be licensed and contained.  The ordinance passed at the recommendation of one particular board member without much public debate at the time.   This past year, a family whose daughters were in 4H, kept a few chickens in their backyard pen, barely visible to any of the neighbors.  One particular neighbor who happened to be instrumental in the passing of the original ordinance raised a fuss to have the chickens removed.  Most everyone else in town came to the defense of the girls and their chickens.  A petition with the signatures of more than 300 area residents urged the town council to revise the ordinance, which they eventually did after several months where the chicken debate dominated council meetings.

During the seemingly endless chicken discussions, the few who were opposed came up with some ridiculous scenarios on what could happen if someone in town were allowed to have a few chickens.  One heard of a person who died from some obscure disease supposedly passed by a chicken.  Another envisioned the horrible sanitary conditions that would exist if everyone on her street had chickens.  And what about all the clucking?  The point being that certain people who are stubbornly attached to a personal agenda will create unreasonable arguments to stonewall any opposition.

The questioning by some of the justices appeared to indicate they were looking for an excuse to rule according to their personal belief rather than what the law required.  Justice Sotomeyer brought up racial discrimination or discrimination against the disabled.  She mentioned “the gay couple who was left on the side of the highway on a rainy night, people who have been denied medical treatment or whose children have been denied medical treatment because the doctor didn't believe in same-sex parenthood, et cetera.”

Justice Kennedy was concerned about the dignity of same-sex couples, that the denial of services could be an “affront to the gay community.”  Justice Kagan paints this as a possible exemption from anti-discrimination laws, wondering if it would also apply to jewelers, makeup artists, or hairstylists.  Where do they draw the line?  There seemed a reluctance to acknowledge the reality that lines need to exist.

I have a question for the justices.  What about a baker being asked to create a cake celebrating an incestuous relationship, or a KKK party, or a Planned Parenthood Clinic’s 10,000th abortion?  Shouldn’t a baker have the right to say the message conflicts with my moral code of conduct and I cannot in good conscience provide this service?

The question of where to draw the line would be clearer if the court understood the religious implications of cooperating or being complicit in the actions of another.  Our personal conduct has an impact on the conduct of others.  We lead by our own example.  When our bad behavior leads another to bad behavior, we bear some responsibility for the other person’s bad behavior.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it the sin of scandal.  Morality deteriorates in our society when sordid behaviors become tolerated because normally respected people are seen doing them.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing.
2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.  Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to "social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible." This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values. 

In the case of a businessman who holds certain behaviors to be immoral, and who also may hold a position of influence in his faith community, he commits the sin of scandal when his apparent approval by cooperation causes others to compromise their own moral conscience based on his complicity.  Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, Jack Phillips cannot contribute to the celebration of an action he knows is immoral in violation of his own conscience.  The denial of service is not done out of hatred, but rather love and concern for the spiritual well-being of the faithful, and in this particular case, the two men involved. 

If we are to have true religious freedom protected under the law, the real question in this case would be deciding whether attempting to mate two males could reasonably be considered problematic from a religious viewpoint.  In my mind, the answer is obvious.  Of course it can, and it is.  Laws should never force someone to commit sinful behavior.  One who refuses military service on religious grounds is a conscientious objector.  What baker Jack Phillips is doing is essentially the same thing.  

Now, a federal judge has ruled that the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority has the right to ban religious-themed Christmas advertisements.  The Transit Authority rejected an ad sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington promoting its annual “Find the Perfect Gift” program that displayed shepherds and sheep following a star.

So, this is where we find ourselves at the present time.  A baker cannot refuse to serve someone who asks him to do something that offends his religious beliefs, but a transit authority can refuse to serve an advertiser that expresses a religious theme.  Seems like we are on the verge of making any type of religious expression illegal, at least in the eyes of certain judges.